October 2008


Cranford was so thoroughly charming I couldn’t stop reading it. It made me laugh, sigh and even get a little misty-eyed at times. The structure of the book–reminiscences by a woman who divides her time between Cranford and a neighboring town and is good friends with the main characters–is simple but elegant. Stories and flashbacks both detailed and simple bloom organically from the overall structure. As you read the book, you feel the rhythms of a small town and the people who live there–you learn about the characters and their interconnectedness just like anyone else new to the town would.

And the characters! Members of “The Last Generation,” they’re mostly the middle class unmarried women of the town, who cling to an identity of aristrocracy and elegance that they’ve only known as ideals, not realities. They assiduously avoid discussing their monetary woes and do their best to pretend, ignore or argue away the realities that their precarious financial situations bring. Chief among them in terms of the book are the Jenkyns sisters: acid-tongued, literature-loving (hee hee) Deborah and her younger, milder sister, Matilda (Matty).

Although the action of the book seems to focus on the smaller events of life, larger touches of tragedy invade the narrative quite frequently–from the death of strong-minded Deborah to Matty’s financial ruin, the outside world and its darker realities is never as far away from the borders of Cranford as the ladies would like to pretend.

Still, that’s where most of the humor comes: a delightful, ironic wit about these women and the way they’ve chosen to approach life. Like so many of my favorite authors, Gaskell (author of my beloved The Life Of Charlotte Bronte) has such affection for her characters that their foibles seem real and endearing. You admire them and sincerely want the best for them, even when they’re behaving badly.

Although there’s not a satisfying “ending” as such, the book manages to spin into something quite lovely, with a restoration of sorts being made to Miss Matty’s life that really got to me. The flashes we’re given of her private emotion and pain–especially in terms of her would-be romance with a gentleman from her youth–are handled nimbly and tenderly without revealing too much. Just as they’d have it, the ladies of Cranford in the end remain the masters of their emotional domains, only revealing as much of their inner lives as they want to. The fun for the reader is to match their efforts against the facts, and more than often, smile at the disparity.

Plus, there’s a cow in a flannel costume. 🙂

I loved this book!

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I like whimsy. Quite a bit, actually, but there comes a point where it’s too much.

Aimee Bender’s fiction contains quite a bit of whimsy/magical realism/etc. One of my favorite short stories by her involves a woman whose boyfriend de-volves into a sea turtle and she keeps him in a pan of salt water in the kitchen. An Invisible Sign Of My Own is rife with this kind of bizarre, twisted fairy tale logic. In fact, it starts with a bedtime story about a kingdom without death, and how one family deals with it when overpopulation becomes too much of an issue.

So much of this book is haunting and lyrical and powerful–Bender excels at the sparse details and brutal-in-their-simplicity sentences that can truly create magic on the page–but it falls apart about halfway through. The narrator does bizarre things that we accept as her reality: knocking on wood until her knuckles bleed, eating soap to stave off sexual feelings, buying a shiny new axe for her birthday.

The book’s world seems to support this as Mona gets a job as an elementary school math teacher for the creepiest group of students ever, led by eerie, aggressive little Lisa Venus. (Great names!) A sense of foreboding in numbers–they predict the age at which many characters will die–adds up (pun, pun) to an excellent atmosphere of tension, but halfway through the book everything changes. Suddenly the numbers don’t have a dark purpose and Mona starts to become less ethereal. Everything comes to a head with some misuse of the birthday axe in the classroom, a development that shatters the book’s logic. Mona suddenly becomes more rational and the chilling, mysterious fog that makes the book so delicious burns off.

If we’re supposed to have patience and understanding for her quirks so early in the book, why should we suddenly care when Mona’s strangeness causes a horrific accident? The ending of the book is a big letdown as well.

Still, Bender is a fantastic writer with an intriguingly dark imagination. Even when the book strains at places–a bad word choice or a plot/tone weakness–it’s still an affecting, weird read and I’m glad to say I couldn’t put it down, even in a Johnny Rocket’s at the mall.

When I was in elementary school, I remember wanting to read The Secret Garden for a book report. I had ordered it from one of those Weekly Reader order forms. I remember the teacher telling me that I was too young, and of course, my indignant side flared up and I was like, “I’ll show this bitch.”

She was right. I could barely get into the book at all, so I threw it aside and dove into something more my speed: The Babysitters Club where Dawn (the health-food-loving Californian transplant) discovered her new house was haunted!

When I picked up the book a few years later, I love, love, loved it. Still, I had never read A Little Princess, even though I had heard how great it was. When it was discussed on Jezebel, one of my favorite websites, in their fantastic Fine Lines section, I decided to give it a shot.

I LOVED IT.

It was charming and sweet and I actually sighed with delight at several places, all thanks to how wonderfully sympathetic and admirably Sara Crewe is drawn. Even though she’s definitely not perfect–as we find out in several asides that she has quite a temper and even has fantastized about killing the evil Miss Minchin–she radiates a goodness that makes the reader love her instead of wanting to see any sappy smile slapped off her face. (Usually what I think when it comes to “the good guys.”)

Plotwise, Burnett does a pretty smart trick of achieving wish fulfillment but earning it. Although Sara’s goodness is rewarded and she ends the book able to do whatever she wants, Burnett has structured the narrative to make this seem just and true instead of magically implausible.

Sara’s strength, endurance and intelligence would impress anyone, but the kind little actions she takes towards her friends (especially Melchisedec the rat…how do you even pronounce that name?) really warmed this cold, cold heart. Still, for a modern American reader, the issue of class sticks a little.

Should we really be happy that poor, uneducated and overworked Becky is elevated to lady’s maid? Sure, she gets fed and treated well, and she herself would probably never question her role in serving Sara, her better, but this American wanted to see Becky overthrow her class limitations and start a little revolution.

But that is probably why I am no princess, little or otherwise.