Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Latest Out-of-School Reads

I can't help it. Once the school year starts, I feel this urge to pick up some required reading. It helps to belong to a book group or two (or three) and to have some deadlines. Gotta finish the book before class, ya know? I've read a few things lately, mostly unconnected to anything. Two of the four were for book groups, including my Swat Book Group. Here we go:

1) At some point in high school, I had an English teacher who identified me as a reader and a smartass as well. I hated Mr. Wilkins' class on Theater of the Absurd. We read Ionesco, Beckett, Genet. None of it made sense to me (duh) and, at the time, I was struggling to make sense of the world. I didn't find the plays funny or even interesting. Just frustrating. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but Mr. Wilkins set me up in an independent study of 18th century literature. I read Samuel Richardson (Clarissa and Pamela), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), and even the Marquis de Sade (Justine--I was quite surprised that my Quaker school's library actually even owned a copy of it). Well, that did the trick. There was something about the epistolary and the picaresque that piqued my interest. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for novels from that era, even taking a course in the rise of the novel in college that dealt with those and similar works.

So I wasn't too upset when my Swat Book Group decided to read Joseph Andrews by Fielding this summer. The novel is much less successful as a novel than Tom Jones. It doesn't feel as carefully planned out as that later novel, as if much of the writing and the action is accidental and even besides the point. In fact, my copy of the book also contains Fielding's great (though short) satire of Richardson, which he called Shamela. In it, Fielding lampoons Richardson's virtuous heroine who perpetually is staving off rape and seduction at every turn, as well as her ridiculous letters. Fielding's heroine knows what she's doing, trading sex for marriage, position, and money. In some ways, Joseph Andrews is more of the same. But instead of a female hero, Fielding turns things on their head by creating a male hero who faces the same moral depravity. Mrs. Booby wants him (in the worst way) and Joseph has to fend off her advances and those of other women, in order to remain pure and committed to his true love, Fanny. Best of all, Joseph is the brother of Richardson's Pamela, who makes an appearance in the novel towards the end.

But the real star of the novel (perhaps even to Fielding's surprise) is the highly moral Parson Abraham Adams, a poor country minister who has befriended Joseph from his younger days. Once Joseph and he are on the road (because heroes always have to travel to have adventures...think Don Quixote and many others), the novel turns to digression after digression and stories within stories. They're all delightful, of course, but don't move the plot forward. They're about humor, moral instruction, satire, social observation, and everything but character development or plot. That's not what Fielding's about. Is that his feeling or am I reading with 21st century eyes too much? Have all the novels that have been written since the 1750's trained me to read for plot and character in a particular way?

Maybe so. What I do know is that I wouldn't have picked Joseph Andrews up (or the next book) if it hadn't been something I was reading for this book group.

2) While I was reading Joseph Andrews and Shamela, I came across a mention of a book by Charlotte Lennox called The Female Quixote, written around the same time as Fielding's novel. The title intrigued me so I picked up a copy. What a delightful surprise! The premise of the novel is that the heroine, who has been closed off from society her whole life, has based her vision of the world on what she reads in "romantic novels". Just as Cervantes' Quixote or Twain's Tom Sawyer see knights and adventures and quests at every turn, Lennox's Arabella thinks all unfamiliar men have plots to rape or seduce her, that every phrase or conversation has hidden meanings for her to decode. The only history that exists for her is that which "happened" in the novels she reads. Instead of kings and queens and wars, she constantly refers to situations from her novels as guides for her behavior. Her "adventures" are in her head. Basically, she's psychotic and cannot tell the difference between reality and her reality. It was great good fun to read at the same time as Fielding.

3) Another recent read that I stumbled upon (I forget how...I can flit from thing to thing sometimes) is the 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I don't know what made me pick it up but I'm glad I did. It's a delightful stranger-in-a-strange-land type novel. The over-educated, smart and sassy Flora Poste, recently orphaned, descends upon inbred relatives she's never met before at Cold Comfort Farm. What a curious, strange bunch they are--think the Clampetts but in rural England, only stranger. In a world full of insanity, superstition, and tightly-clenched traditions, Flora brings reason, humor, and forthright good sense. She's so British in so many ways and could only be played by Maggie Smith (although someone told me recently that they did make a film of this--here, which I have not seen). Not a complicated novel, no hidden agenda, but enjoyable all the same.

4) Last, for the book group we have at work we selected Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers. An inelegant first novel in so many ways, it had the feeling of a work crafted by a marketing department. With simplistic language, carefully-crafted themes, and some clearly planted "hooks", Diffenbaugh seems to be aiming for the Oprah-esque circuit of talk shows to uncover the evils of the foster child system in the US. A worthy objective, I'm sure, but why write a novel? Especially when the supposed "hook" is the Victorian "language of flowers", used by lovers in the 1800's to wordlessly and safely communicate their feelings to others. Victoria (get it? huh?) is a former foster child, convinced of her unloveability and that she cannot love others. She is homeless but--what luck!--finds a job at a florist's where she creates the perfect bouquets for lovers and other assorted folks, gaining money, popularity, respect, and, yes, even love to boot. The more distance I have from this book, the more I dislike it. I think the thing that bugged me the most is that the novel has at least two different covers (even though it was released this year): one for young adults (with a picture of a pretty teenaged girl, hair dangling in her face on the cover, with quotes from "Marie Claire" and "Heat"), and one for--who?--young women? with quotes from "People" and "Us".

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