Sunday, April 13, 2008

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty [Review]

Title: Now, Voyager

Author: Olive Higgins Prouty (Wikipedia entry) (Plus)

Copyright: 2004, The Feminist Press, New York (ISBN: 1558614761); originally published 1941

Length: 284 pages

Genre: Fiction

Summary: Charlotte Vale, a member of one of the first families of Boston and well-provided for by her mother, has suffered under the same mother's domineering control. She has never been allowed any personal autonomy. She is always dictated to by her family and, most emphatically, her mother. Suffering a nervous breakdown, she is unsympathetically bundled off to a rest home, Cascades, where the benevolent Dr. Jaquith teaches her how to begin to cope with and actually live her life. Having graduated from Cascades, she is granted a reprieve before returning home to her mother's rule through the casual kindness of a relative who yields up her reservation for a stateroom on a departing ocean liner. Charlotte can practice some of what she's learned from Jaquith in socializing with the other passengers. Now, Voyager opens with her initial introduction to JD Durrance, a business man who is also traveling to Europe. The two fall in love and the story of that love has been immortalized by Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in the leading roles. If you loved that film (Warner Brothers, 1942), you will not want to miss reading this novel. The screenplay treated the text with respect but as is so frequently true in such cases, the book adds some depth to the author's thinking that the screenwriter didn't think to include.

Extract: A blizzard was raging in New York, so she had read on the bulletin board before she left the ship. It was difficult to visualize sheets of fine snow driving obliquely against facades, while sitting on an open terrace in the sun gazing at calla lilies in bloom bordered by freesia. (Isn't that a great opening?)

Feedback: This was published as part of the Feminist Press' series, Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp. In an attempt to remain objective, I might reluctantly concede that this could be classified as melodramatic pulp but it does not (in my opinion) read like that. I read it, completely riveted. In part, because I knew the film, but also because the book has one literary allusion that never made it onto the screen, one that makes all the difference in understanding Prouty's intent.

There is a reference early in Chapter 3 to Sarah Crewe, Frances Hodgson Burnett's heroine in The Little Princess. There are subsequent references to Sarah throughout the text. As soon as my brain processed the name, the author's point was clear to me. Sarah survives the domination of Miss Minchin by holding on to her internal conviction of self-worth, carefully inculcated in her by a loving father. If a parent doesn't instill that in a child, the lack has long-term repercussions in an individual's life.

Charlotte Vale was never given that internal sense of value and the story of Now, Voyager is of her having to find her value and her gifts along the way. Ultimately, she sees that she has something to offer others, specifically JD's daughter, Tina. There is a similar moment in The Little Princess when Sarah, believing herself to be as far down in life as possible, manages to think beyond herself and, as hungry as she is, share food with a beggar girl who she recognizes as having even less than herself. None of this was included in the screenplay of Now, Voyager. (Except that every woman I know, having read The Little Princess in their girlhood, would have immediately understood the underlying parallel. The (male) screen writer, likely never having read Burnett's book, did not understand the significance of the reference and omitted it!) The difference between Sarah and Charlotte is the quality of the parenting received.

Go read this book. Olive Higgins Prouty, for many reasons, does not deserve the obscurity into which she has fallen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett [Review]

[Once Upon A Time II - fantasy novel]


Terry Pratchett (official site and Wikipedia entry. If you're in a fun mood, visit the Boffo Oracle. It has a certain relevance to the story.)

2006, Harper Tempest, an imprint of HarperCollins, 0-06-089031-2

323 pages

Fantasy/Young Adult

Tiffany Aching has quite enough to occupy her time. Working hard with the witch, Miss Treason, she really hasn't any spare time to give over to romance. But despite specific instructions from Miss Treason, Tiffany inadvertently inserts herself into the Dance That Never Ends between Winter and Summer. This misbehavior upsets the balance of the universe in a variety of ways (identical snowflakes, poorly placed icebergs, etc.). Now she has to extricate herself and protect those around her from the consequences of her unthinking act. She has help (of a sort) from the the tribe of Nac Mac Feegles, but, honestly, that kind of help can be more of a distraction. Tiffany has to grow into her role as a witch but her encounter with elementals is an education in everything from public relations to full-blown mythology. Wintersmith is a comic fantasy written for young adults and Pratchett makes his point to that audience without ever being pompous or didactic. Some of the jokes are best understood if one has a modicum of familiarity with myth and folklore, but the novel is light-hearted and straight-forward overall. Pratchett's writing style is very simple and easy to comprehend. The book is neither high fantasy nor high literature, but I could see where this might be one of those books very fondly recalled by adolescent readers years down the road.

Extract: What stopped this was the habit of visiting. Witches visited other witches all the time, sometimes travelng quite a long way for a cup of tea and a bun. Partly this was for gossip of course, because witches love gossip, especially if its more exciting than truthful. But mostly it was to keep an eye on one another.

Today Tiffany was visiting Granny Weatherwax, who was in the opinion of most witches (including Granny herself) the most powerful witch in the mountains. It was all very polite. No one said "Not gone bats then?" or "Certainly, not. I'm as sharp as a spoon." They didn't need to. They understood what it was all about, so they talked of other things. But when she was in a mood, Granny Weatherwax could be hard work. (page 108)

Feedback: This was a light and amusing read. I snickered at some points in the story and at other points, I would pause and admire the cleverness of the author in terms of delivery of a line or plot point. If asked, I would certainly recommend that this book be included in library collections serving youthful populations.

That said, I also feel compelled to note that I wasn't particularly engaged by this book. It was fun. It had a point without being didactic. There was a good deal of wisdom to it. But I was never fully carried away by the tale. I think the slight cartoon-ishness (not to mention the pseudo-Scottish dialect) of the Nac Mac Feegles and some of the characterization of the witches interfered with my enjoyment. I am well aware that there is a difference between comic fantasy and high fantasy. Both have their own ways of communicating life's truths. Maybe it is just my own personal idiosyncratic taste, but I always tend to prefer the high fantasy form for my reading. (Note: That last sentence may be code for "I'm having one of my pompous days".)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lloyds of London Will Be Loaded...

Apparently Tom Lehrer is 80 years old today. This is one of my favorites of his wickedly funny songs.

Found via Crooked Timber.

Monday, April 07, 2008

New Book from Ursula K. LeGuin

I read today in the Christian Science Monitor that Ursula LeGuin has a new book out. It's titled Lavinia, for the bride of Aeneas (Harcourt, ISBN 978-0151014248). It is her story, rather than the story of the traditional hero. It clearly would qualify for the Once Upon A Time Challenge, if you are looking for an entry in the category of mythology.

I may have to go out and buy this one immediately. I so admire LeGuin's work. In my opinion, she is never dull and her perception of human behaviors are generally on-point.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Another Fantastic Tale: Smith of Wootton Major

This literary fairy tale by J.R.R. Tolkien is a wonderful option if you're looking for a captivating short read. Originally published in 1967, the story is placed in a medieval village, the Wootton Major of the title. The village takes its baking very seriously and the Master Cook is a person of some importance in the village. Each year, there is a special Feast of Good Children, but every twenty four years, there is a particularly special festival that features a Great Cake to which only twenty-four children may be invited. The Master Cook's legacy is the Great Cake that he delivers at that special Twenty-Four feast. Most cooks are only in office for a single opportunity at creating such a Great Cake.

We meet in his childhood, Smith, as one of the lucky attendees of a Twenty-Four feast. In consuming his portion of that feast's Great Cake, he inadvertently swallows a star of Faery and the star marks him both physically and philosophically (or spiritually, if you prefer). Because of that star, he is drawn away from his ordinary existance now and again, in order to step into Faery and see its wonders. He sees marvelous sights, seas with elven mariners, and ultimately dances with the Queen of Faerie herself. Eventually, however, he comes to understand that he must pass the star on to another child.

I'm not particularly enamored of the New York Times review of Smith written back in 1968, but the reviewer did capture the emotion one feels at the close of the book, Wistful and wishful that we could hold on to that star that leads us into such a sense of wonder.