Friday, July 25, 2014

A Fine Long Book and the Benefits of Short Books

I'm still working on my trip report. It's going to be long. Last proper blog, I reviewed books that were boring or about boring. This time, I blog great books, like The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The "shuttle" is a weaving metaphor. I'd forgotten entirely about that kind of shuttle until FHB described it clicking and clacking figuratively back and forth across the loom like a steamship or a telegraph wire between England and America, bringing saucy Americans and the staid British closer together as a recurring theme in a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, along with gardens, a crippled child, rags to riches, twists of fortune, and obvious villains. I loved it, and everything there is to love about FHB is stuck in this one, fairly long, story of two sisters; but, alas, poor Rosalie! Rosalie and Bettina Vanderpoel, heirs to the Vanderpoel fortune, are both beauties, but Rosalie inherited all the stupid; or, Bettina is smart as a whip, and even at the tender age of eight, when her nineteen-year-old sister is about to marry the dastardly Sir Nigel Anstruthers, Bettina can see past his accent to the dissipated creeper inside. But poor, stupid, pretty Rosalie is in love with a titled gentleman and goes off in a boat to Sir Nigel's dilapitated country estate, where he keeps her isolated and breaks her spirit and, it's implied, beats her, when he's not drinking and carousing on the continent for months at a time, living off Rosalie's allowance while she languishes and her babies die. By the time Bettina is old enough to visit Rosie on her own, no one in the Vanderpoel family has seen Rosalie for a decade or so. Mrs. Vanderpoel thinks Rosie is too busy having a jolly good time in Europe and has forgotten them. Mr. Vanderpoel has his doubts about Sir Nigel, but he's too busy being a steel baron and establishing Carnegie libraries and doing whatever the fictional rich do to investigate it properly. Bettina needs to see for herself how Rosie is and takes a steamer over, a trip of a week or so that FHB herself made many times. On the boat, there's a bit of an engine fail and Bettina and a red-haired second-class passenger of muscular build and well-groomed mustache turn out to be the only sensible people on the boat.

You'll notice that Rosie's Anglo-American marriage sounds a little Downton. FHB's biographess, Ann Thwaite, says "The Shuttle was very much a story of its time. In 1909, it was to be estimated that more than five hundred American women had married titled foreigners and some two hundred and twenty million dollars had gone with them to Europe." So this contemporary imagination of Edwardian issues can be something to entertain you while you're waiting to see if Lord Grantham makes out with Daisy. The figurative shuttle is the steamships and the telegraph, and the power of the telegraph here is staggering. When Bettina arrives at Sir Nigel's country estate and finds Rosalie a prematurely aged grey lump of a woman with her crippled son at her side, trembling and weeping because she'd thought her family had forgotten her, Bettina says, "It's noon. We could go to the telegraph office in the village post office and telegraph father and have an answer and tickets to New York by three," that's reality. It's not Snapchat, but the telegraph enabled instantaneous communication. New York and rural Britain were a wire away. No waiting for a mailboat sailboat.

Rosalie is too damaged to countenance a return to New York and, if she ran, sexist English law might lose her custody of her crippled son Ughtred. Sir Nigel struck Rosalie while she was pregnant, and Ughtred came out a hunchback. FHB never explains why the boy's name is Ughtred, but naming a child "Ughtred" is like kicking that fetus in the shoulder all over again. Sir Nigel's estate is entailed, otherwise Sir Nigel would have traded it for booze, so everyone realizes that if they can wait out Sir Nigel's death, Ughtred will inherit the manor and so it's worth sticking around there and preventing Sir Nigel from selling the last remaining candlestick. Fortunately, Sir Nigel left some months ago and didn't mention when he'd be back, so Bettina is free to repair her sister and repair the manor house as well, and improve the village by hiring the underemployed denizens in the building project. Bettina manages the remodel admirably, having unlimited funds and the business savvy of the first Reuben Vanderpoel. She also bumps into the red-haired man from the boat, who turns out to be another penniless noble, and they get acquainted over the sickbed of a slangy American typewriter salesman who's suffered a bicycle accident. Bettina and the red-haired Lord Mount Dunstan are both vehemently opposed to international marriages, Bettina because of her sister, and Lord Mount Dunstan because he's probably read about Consuelo Vanderbilt in the papers, so, of course, the only obstacle to their immediate and overwhelming attraction is themselves.

When Sir Nigel stumbles out of his carriage at the manor and finds the gates repaired and the gardens tidy, he pretends to be pleased while developing a creepy attraction to his young sister-in-law, who looks like a more striking version of who Rosalie was before he ruined her. Bettina is trapped between a rock and a hard place: she can't leave Rosalie to Sir Nigel's abuses, and she can't stay indefinitely because he's a crazy person. They all pretend to get along through the hops harvest, when Bettina needs to take a ride to work out some Lord Mount Dunstan issues. She rides farther than she should, wears out her horse, sprains her ankle, and Sir Nigel finds her waiting out the night in an abandoned cottage on the moor and threatens to rape her because she's inflamed his passions, and, just when you think Lord Mount Dunstan is about to ride up and rescue Bettina in the storm, she self-rescues. Go Bettina!

Frances Hodgson Burnett has outdone herself on this one, although it might not be what you'd call literary fiction, as literary fiction must be unpleasant and full of sad people and uncomfortable ideas. Nick Hornby reads quite a bit of it, unfortunately, in Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, yet another collection of Believer magazine columns on what he's been reading. He's in a literary fiction rut, Atonement, Housekeeping, things like that, and he questions why, on the eve of the death of the modern novel, there are so many literary novels about novelists. How can the public be expected to tolerate such self-involved navel-gazing, while the authors bemoan that Joe Lunchbox doesn't read their books. Then he reads All the King's Men and, to quote,

"The edition I read is the new 'restored' edition of this novel, containing a whole bunch of stuff– a hundred pages, apparently, –that were omitted from the version originally published. A hundred pages! Oh, dear God. Those of us still prepared to pick up a sixty-year-old Pullitzer Prize winner should be rewarded, not horribly and unfairly punished."

His publisher sends him a cute new edition of Candide, tipping in at ninety pages, and he reads it for its modest length contrasted to its classic rank. I like Nick Hornby's appreciation for books shorter than those termed as tomes, as I read through fiction for the less-than-middle grades, like Shelter Pet Squad: Jelly Bean by Cynthia Lord, who won a Newberry for that book with the goldfish on the cover. I grabbed a stack of ARCs from work to put in a Little Free Library and started reading SPS: JB while walking up the stairs and finished it while making supper. I wish I could read all books in slightly over an hour, but somehow I can only manage it with the ones that are written for second graders. SPS:Jelly Bean has plenty of pictures and delightful, big type, and is plausible. Suzannah can't have pets because she lives in an apartment building, so her mom signs her up for Shelter Pet Squad at the animal shelter. There are five kids in Shelter Pet Squad on Saturday, and no character development, so that must come later in the series. The main point is that, while Suzannah's dad is late picking her up, a family walks into the shelter, complete with sobbing little girl, and the parents surrender her guinea pig, because they're shit. Suzannah promises the girl that she will find Jelly Bean a home, but how? Children's lives are such a panopticon these days that darting away from the SPS organized activivty and into the small animal room seems transgressive, but Suzannah lets the other kids know how important rehoming Jelly Bean is to her, and a shelter employee helps them compose a letter to local teachers offering Jelly Bean as a classroom pet. I'm reticent about classroom pets myself (, but Cynthia Lord was a teacher before she was a guinea pig owner and teachers can be responsible pet owners too. Maybe I should have read a random Animal Ark or a Rainbow Fairies: Pet Fairies, as they're ubiquitous examples of the pet rescue series genre, but Shelter Pet Squad: Jelly Bean is a fine book by a woman who loves her cavie.

I was packing for a two-night camping trip last week and decided I didn't have to worry too much because I could survive two nights in the wilderness without pants: Don Fendler survived nine days in the wilderness pantsless. Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness is a graphic novel of the time twelve-year-old Don was lost on Mount Katahdin. He was hiking up an easy path with his dad and brothers and he and his friend wanted to run ahead. His dad told them to wait at the summit, but a storm broke and Don ran down the mountain to find his dad, lost the trail, circled repeatedly, panicked and went down the wrong way. It took him about a day to get his head together and remember his Boy Scout training, but he was considerably weakened by then and his shoes were torn up enough that he took them off and lost them. He took off his 1930s canvas dungarees because they were too stiff, and lost them in a stream, and survived alone another seven days until he found a couple's hunting lodge. Meanwhile, most of Maine was out looking for him. Stephen King blurbed Lost Trail, and he'll blurb anything as long as it's incredibly good.

1 comment:

  1. You should try the Rescue Princesses. They're about Princesses who rescue animals in trouble or something.