Monday, September 17, 2018

Elves, stars and Literary Criticism

The thing is that I ducked most literature classes in college, because I didn't feel the need for somebody to tell me what I ought to like and why my favorite novels weren't really about what they said they were about and so forth and so on. So I filled out the English requirements with Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and continued happily liking the books I liked without giving a great deal of thought about where they fitted in the great pantheon of English literature.

On the whole, I think it was a good decision. Not only did I learn that Chaucer wasn't pronounced anything like the way Miss Ruby in our high school thought, but it left the opportunity for bright bits of discovery sprinkled through my life as I read more and put things more in context. I'm sure that Fanny Burney's influence on Jane Austen, for instance, means more to me because I discovered it for myself rather than being told about it by an English professor.

But, of course, one never knows what discoveries lie ahead. And the past few weeks, during which I've been feeling too crummy to read anything but old favorite comfort books, provided me with the solution to a mystery I had not been consciously pondering. I refer to the literary origins of Madeline Basset, the soupy, drippy girl who wanders through Wodehouse's Jeeves novels under the illusion that Bertie Wooster is in love with her. Remember Madeline? No?

This is Madeline on one of the occasions of breaking her on-and-off engagement to Gussie Fink-Nottle: "One morning we had walked in the meadows and the grass was all covered with little wreaths of mist and I said Didn’t he sometimes feel that they were the elves’ bridal wreaths and he said that he had never heard such a silly idea in his life."

One's sympathies are all with Gussie.

Madeline is also liable to tell anybody who doesn't escape fast enough that "the stars are God’s daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born."

I can't say I ever really wondered where Wodehouse got the idea for Madeline, I just assumed she was part and parcel of the teeming creativity that gave us Ukridge and Psmith and Jeeves and Anatole and the Empress of Blandings. (One thing I noticed while lying down and re-reading Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves: there are no bland walk-on characters in a Wodehouse book. The man's creative energy was daunting.)

However, it chanced that as I continued feeling pale and wan, I downloaded the Anne of Green Gables novels onto Kindle so that I wouldn't have to make the tremendous effort of walking from the end of the house with the beds to the end of the house with the books. And that decision, in due course, led to my finishing the first book, crying over Matthew's death, and moving right on to Anne of Avonlea.

Which led to my remembering why I don't own that particular volume in dead-tree format. None of the subsequent novels is a patch on the original, of course, but I'm willing to re-read some of them every twenty years or so just to keep a little of the Green Gables flavor. But not this one!

It's that ghastly, drippy, soulful little Paul Irving. I can't abide the boy with all his sweet little whimsies. And so, last week I was gagging over a passage where the kid really cuts loose with "poetic" ideas:

"Do you know what I think about the new moon, teacher? I think it is a little golden boat full of dreams... And I think the violets are little snips of the sky that fell down when the angels cut out holes for the stars to shine through. And the buttercups are made out of old sunshine; and I think the sweet peas will be butterflies when they go to heaven."

And instead of walling the book (an expensive luxury when you're reading a Kindle) I sat up in bed and said, "Madeline Basset!"

I'm pretty sure Lucy M. Montgomery isn't considered Literature, and even P.G. Wodehouse is probably looked at askance by professors of Literature who ought to know better, so this particular connection may never have been made before. You're welcome. Look on it as my contribution to academic scholarship.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Is Google evil?

I've been trying to ignore all the fuss about whether various tech giants are trying to censor viewpoints they find unacceptable, muttering, "I don't use social media anyway," and "What can I do about it?" and "I'm not a lawyer."

But sometimes the situation forces itself upon me.

In the upcoming elections I'll have to choose between 'Beto' O'Rourke and Ted Cruz. I've been sort of lukewarmly pro-Cruz on the grounds that (a) I don't know a lot to his discredit and (b) I don't like an Irish guy (O'Rourke) who suddenly just happens to start going by the nickname 'Beto' when standing for election in a state with a large Hispanic population. However, one of the offspring is fervently pro-Beto and wants to shower us with his campaign literature. I defy anybody to figure out anything useful from campaign literature; it all reads like, "I'm for God and motherhood and my stinky opponent is against apple pie."

So I browsed around a bit, starting with, okay, the candidates' campaign websites and then following links and looking up statements to figure out what they were really saying.

In the course of this work-avoiding activity important research I came across an assertion that O'Rourke had called for impeaching President Trump. That caught my attention. It's not the kind of statement I take an opponent's word for, so I looked it up.

The search string "Beto O'Rourke impeachment" on Google got me exactly two hits. One was a link to a Politifact article, "Is Beto O'Rourke the only Senate candidate to call for Donald Trump's impeachment?" The article, as you might expect, parsed "to call for impeachment" extremely narrowly, then asserted that " nonpartisan observers said by email that while O’Rourke appeared to be the only Democratic Senate nominee to speak out for Trump’s impeachment, he was likely not the only Senate candidate to do so." On that basis they rated the claim False. Well, there's a reason I don't bother reading Politifact.

The other hit was... an article quoting the Politifact article.

Entering the same string on Bing got me page after page of hits, including such notorious right-wing sources as The Nation, The Dallas Morning News and The Hill (sarc /off) all of which quoted O'Rourke's words and interpreted them as a call for impeachment.


Calling for the impeachment of a sitting President without reference to any crime justifying that step does not endear O'Rourke to me, but it would be too casual to stop there, wouldn't it? If I'm still stuck on this blasted book tomorrow I keep researching I may find something equally annoying that Ted Cruz said.

But I'm switching my default search engine to Bing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Bookstores in the good old days

Amanda had a post on Mad Genius Club today complaining about the book-unfriendly layout of a new Barnes and Noble and speculating that the chain's troubles may be as simple as the fact that they're more interested in selling gifts, doodads, Nooks, coffee, and music than in books.

She may be right... but her complaint revived memories of some notoriously customer-unfriendly bookstores of the past that survived despite the habit of beating their customers over the head if they tried to find a book and redoubling the beatings if we actually tried to buy said book.

Time was when I never went to Paris for longer than one night without a good browse at Shakespeare & Company, even though buying anything meant navigating through a multi-stop checkout path which they kept trying to explain to me in TGV (Tres Grande Vitesse, like the trains) French. I read French sort of okay, though slowly. I can say stuff in French if I've been in France for a couple of days, so it starts coming back, and as long as it's nothing too complicated. I cannot understand a native speaker of French in full spate; they might as well be saying "Oh la la la la la la la!" (Which, I was charmed to discover, French sports announcers really do say when something exciting happens in the soccer game.)

Anyway... moving on to English bookstores... the Foyle's at Charing Cross Road was an obligatory London stop. I spent many happy hours browsing in obscure departments... and some less happy hours looking for specific books and trying to pay for my finds. To begin with, there was the three-line checkout system, which to the best of my memory plagued Shakespeare & Co., Waterstone's, Foyle's, and probably every other bookstore on that side of the Atlantic. Under this system you stand in line once to hand over your book and receive a slip of paper bearing the price. At the second window (which is probably at the other end of the store, if not on a different floor as well) you fork over the price tag and the requisite cash, and receive in return something like a cloakroom ticket. If you can find the line for handing over cloakroom tickets, and stand in it long enough, you will eventually receive your book. Probably neatly wrapped in brown paper which you will wound the sales staff's feelings by ripping off so that you can read the book. It never occurred to them you would want to do that!

Then there was the time I found a forgotten book of reproduction maps of Georgian London in a corner on the fourth floor. There was no price printed on the flyleaf and any price sticker had long since shriveled and fallen off. There was a bit of a scene at the first window in the payment sequence, with a clerk refusing to sell me the book because he couldn't figure out how much to charge, and me clutching the maps and saying between my teeth, "Make me an offer." Somehow, I have no idea how, I got out of there with that book and its companion volumes (Elizabethan and Regency London, IIRC); suggesting that the Foyle's of that day still had some vague philosophy about pleasing the customer, even if they weren't very good at implementing it.

But my most searing memory concerns the time I was up in London for the day from the Dorsetshire village where we were staying, having been commissioned by my husband to get him more naval fiction by an author whose name he had carefully written out for me. The book he liked so much had been in paperback, so I charged happily into the serried ranks of paperback novels...

... and discovered that Foyle's arranged their paperback fiction not alphabetically by author, like every other bookstore in the known world, but alphabetically by publisher. Why? Because it made life easier for the stock clerks who had to unpack boxes of incoming books. And no, they had no way of cross-referencing to find out who published a given author, at least not one they were willing to share with a stray American.

And yet all these businesses survived.

It's really hard to depress the desire of book addicts to buy books. Publishers and booksellers have been working really hard on this problem for a long time. I hope they're grateful to Amazon for relieving them of their burden.
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