Review Fridays: Poison Penmanship

Jessica Mitford was a well-known muckraking journalist, one of the famous (and sometimes infamous) Mitford sisters. Nicknamed Decca, Mitford was born in England and emigrated to the United States in 1939. She eventually settled on becoming a journalist, writing exposés of everything from the funeral industry to prisons, the Maine Chance spa to a man who hoodwinks lawyers out of money. In Poison Penmanship, she collects some of her best articles along with more information about how she came up with the article idea, researched the topic, and structured the writing.

Many of the articles were a success, but she does not hold back from discussing her failures. One of my favorites in the collection was the article she wrote about being a distinguished professor at a university in California. A condition of her employment was that she should sign a loyalty oath and be fingerprinted, both of which she objected to, and the latter she went to court to fight against. The students and her fellow faculty rallied around her, and she won her court case, but she found, in retrospect, that her fight had little impact. If anything, it only tightened the restrictions. As a result of her refusal and subsequent article, fingerprinting and signing the oath had to be completed before employment could begin. It was a case when her muckraking backfired and led to the opposite of what she intended.

The commentary accompanying the articles is illuminating for not only aspiring writers but for those who like to read newspapers and magazines with a critical eye. She is far from reticent about explaining her process, her dealings with officials, how when interviewing people she had a technique of going from easy questions to the more difficult, pointed ones. She includes a few articles that she structured in a similar way. One can compare and contrast them and think about how the way the articles were written helps her get her point across.

Another topic she chooses to tackle is why, sometimes, she did not to pursue a lead. She writes about how, when given the opportunity of travelling to Egypt, she was faced with a topic in which she was not quite interested, and held back from muckraking the archaeologists she met. Muckraking was not what the magazine was looking for, nor was Egyptology her forte, so, she wrote, she let the opportunity get away.

I think that the collection is not just about sinking one’s teeth into corruption; it is about learning to hold back a bit, just a bit, so that the readers, having the facts presented to them, can form their own opinions. Her articles do not display outright hostility. They are subtly barbed, skillfully restrained, and yet completely incriminating of the people and institutions on which she chooses to focus.

Jessica Mitford was a brilliant writer, fighting corruption of all sorts in her own inimitable style. I am looking forward to getting a copy of her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, to learn more about her. JK Rowling ranks her as a great personal influence, and it is apparent from Mitford’s muckraking articles alone why that is.

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Jane Austen books by season

I tend to view my favorite books as seasonal. When the leaves start falling, for example, it means that it is time for the Dashwood sisters to make an appearance in my reading schedule. Each year, I re-read Jane Austen, or at least skim my favorite parts, depending on the backlog of books on my reading list. Like most avid readers, I am always buying books or finding new ones I want to read while browsing the library. But I make time for Jane Austen. It does not seem like winter unless I am mourning Fanny Harville with Captain Benwick or quite like summer if Miss Woodhouse is not painting Miss Smith’s portrait with Mr. Elton lurking in the background.

I am not sure at what point in my re-reading I started to view these novels as being dependent on the season, but it is so ingrained in my mind now that I tend to follow the same schedule:

Autumn: Sense and Sensibility. At one point in the novel, Elinor wryly says to Marianne, “It is not every one who has your passion for dead leaves.” The novel is about change, but not butterfly from a cocoon change and perhaps the sisters are not always the better for it. It is the change of pain and hard-earned experiences. The Dashwood sisters experience all of the agonies of being in love without hope of reciprocation. There is a scene in the 1995 movie where Marianne walks alone through the blowing wind and overcast sky to gain a view of Willoughby’s home. That scene reminds me of autumn, the landscape is so reminiscent of it, and so are Marianne’s dashed hopes as she, for the last time, looks upon a place that is so well-known to the man she loved and that she can never hope to know herself.

Winter: Persuasion. In the first chapter of Persuasion, it is said of Elizabeth, the eldest Elliot daughter:

“Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; and thirteen springs shewn their blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks annual enjoyment of the great world.”

There is a great sense of loss inherent in the novel. Anne and Captain Wentworth have been separated for nearly a decade. Captain Benwick has turned to poetry to make up for the loss of his fiancee. Even the terrible Elizabeth earns some pity for her winters of revolving frost and still no name to list by hers in the book of all books, the Elliot family history. It is a beautiful, but melancholy, book, one appropriate for a winter’s evening. It is like sitting by the fireside with a cup of hot chocolate, watching the snow fall, feeling at times chilly, but mostly comfortable in the company of those beloved to you. (Alternatively: Mansfield Park and Lady Susan. Perhaps there is something about the extremes of the season that lead to multiple options.)

Spring: Pride and Prejudice. I feel like this is the easy one. Jane Austen herself described it as light, bright, and sparkling. Elizabeth Bennet has no fear for her future. Everything is blossoming and spring-like as she attends balls and fearlessly confronts powerful and rich men and women. She is afraid of no one. She is not afraid of being a spinster and refuses to marry simply for money where she does not love. There is still the pain of disappointed love for Jane, but there is also the reassurance that everything is going to be fine. This is a novel about promising beginnings, in fact begins with brilliant and funny dialogue about a new neighbor, and does not descend too far into sorrow to lose sight of the prospect of budding happiness.

Summer: Emma. Between strawberry picking and the Box Hill excursion, this novel is the perfect summer read. Emma tends to make difficulties for herself, either through cruel words or her inability to correctly read others. She believes that she is an expert in matchmaking, in understanding others, but, for most of the book, she does not make a single correct prediction. It is all played for comedy, however, and even when the heroine does not do the right thing, she tries to make up for it. Many of the crucial scenes take place out of doors, outside of the comfortable realm of tea in the drawing room, which I think lends itself to reading outside on a perfect summer day. Jane Austen said she created a heroine in Emma Woodhouse that no one besides herself would like very much. Despite the fact that I have little in common with her, I do quite like Emma and the book that she inhabits. (Alternatively, Northanger Abbey—”Oh, what a Henry!”—and Jane Austen’s juvenilia.)

The members of the Weasley family, ranked

  1. Ron: Hurrah for Won-Won! He is loyal and brave. He is also deeply insecure, feeling far inferior to his older brothers, all too aware that his mother wanted a daughter instead of another son, and believing that his parents love Harry more than him. His sometimes low self-esteem makes him very relatable, perhaps more than Harry and Hermione are, if we are being honest with ourselves. Ron is not overly ambitious, which in my view makes him a good match for the beyond brilliant Hermione. He would be a good father, a life partner who has a sense of humor. Ron is the best.
  2. Fred: I am still not over his fate in the last book, so I will keep this brief. Fred is the funnier and meaner half of the brilliant twin duo who founded a highly successful joke shop. Always providing perfect comic relief, any scene with Fred and George was funny and welcome. Rest in peace, Fred.
  3. Molly: I know a lot of readers would like JK Rowling to write a prequel telling the story of the Marauders, but, honestly, weren’t James and Sirius (and Peter, because he would go along with whatever they did) awful, terrible, bullying teenagers? I would much prefer Molly Weasley’s story. She lost both of her brothers during the first war against Voldemort and would do anything to protect her family. Her kindness to Harry in the first book and throughout the series shows her good nature, but she is tough enough to keep her seven children on the right path. Plus, she has one of the best scenes in the series with her take down of Bellatrix Lestrange.
  4. Arthur: How can a muggle not love a man whose greatest ambition is to learn how airplanes stay up in the sky? Arthur has an adorable love of muggle technology that sometimes extends into illegal territory (flying car, anyone?). He is the kindhearted counterpart to Molly, a man whose curiosity sometimes outstrips his rationality.
  5. George: This may seem like a strange decision, given that Fred is ranked two, and they are identical twins, but JK Rowling, over the course of the books, differentiated their personalities. Fred is funnier than his twin brother, but also crueler, and therefore, strangely, more interesting. George may have lost an ear, but his “holey” joke just shows how much blander and less funny he is than his twin.
  6. Ginny: In the early books, Ginny is quietly obsessed with Harry Potter, but then she develops a personality, and I am not so certain if I like her or not. She is meaner than Fred and possibly the most magically talented of all of her siblings. I think JK Rowling was so desperate for Harry to be a real part of the Weasley family that she decided, somewhere in the middle of the series, that she had to transform Ginny to make her worthy of the series’s hero. I know that she’s a Gryffindor and a Weasley, but still something about her personality does not ring true. Perhaps if the main characters all didn’t marry their school sweethearts, I would feel better about her. But, alas, that is a topic for another blog post.
  7. Charlie: Not really sure how to rank him since he appears so sparingly in the series. This is the brother who seems to purposely run away from his awesome family in order to spend time with dangerous, fire-breathing creatures, and does not seem to visit much? But he does kind of save Hagrid in the first book by having his very cool friends take Norbert away, so I guess that earns him some points.
  8. Bill: Like Charlie, he does not appear in the series much, although he has exciting adventures in Egypt and seems to be the most Indiana Jones-like of the brothers. I deduct points for making Fleur a Weasley as she never really recovers enough from her hoity-toity, part-Veela ways for me to really like her. Also, beyond giving Harry and company a place to stay after they escaped from Malfoy Manor, did he really give any advice of substance during that crucial time?
  9. Percy: Oh, Percy, where did Molly and Arthur go wrong with you? Was it the time Fred turned your favorite books into a swarm of bees? I feel certain it must have been something like that. Percy is the oil in the tranquil lake that is the Weasley family. He values career ambition over his family ties. Although he affirms his loyalty by the end, it is far too late, my dear Percy, to recover a good opinion of this Weasley brother. Far too late, indeed.

My five favorite fictional families of all time

  1. The Weasleys (Harry Potter): We all wish our families were more like the Weasleys. And maybe we’re the Percy of the crew, but we would never admit to it. As a whole, the Weasleys get along with each other well, which is a small miracle considering the sheer number of people co-existing in a tiny house. They deserve a blog post of their own, so for the sake of brevity I will simply pick a favorite and be done with it. It is hard to pick just one, but Ron is the best Weasley and I would defend him to the death.
  2. The Rostovs (War and Peace): Tolstoy once famously wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Drama and arguments might make for better reading, but the Rostovs begin the novel as one of the happiest families in all of literature. They have their share of money problems, mostly because they are generous to a fault and love to entertain their friends and sometimes gamble too much. The Count and Countess encourage their children’s happiness. Vera is proud and snobbish and the only one of her siblings not to really fit in with the group, Nikolai refuses to use family connections to get ahead, Natasha is bursting with life, and young Petya longs to be brave. Not all of the Rostovs get a happy ending, but over the course of the novel they grow and change in interesting ways, still a happy family, but a more complex family that has known real suffering and is stronger because of it.
  3. The Bennets (Pride and Prejudice): I adore all things Jane Austen, but my favorite of all of her fictional families is the Bennets. Mrs. Bennet is a bit pushy and Mr. Bennet spends too much time in his library disconnecting from his “silly” daughters, but somehow they did a great job of raising at least two of their five daughters. Although lacking the brother they so sorely need, the Bennet girls value love over money. Jane is at times too kind, Lizzy too judgmental, but they are completely supportive of each other. Lydia and Kitty are off in their own little world, leaving Mary to her piano and books, but as a family unit, they are nearly perfect.
  4. The Finches (To Kill a Mockingbird): I will not hear talk about the “sequel”, thank you very much. Scout is a young girl who fights against all things feminine while growing up in the South. But really my favorite character is her older brother Jem, who understood more about the trial and the background behind it than Scout did and dealt with it in a way that is impressive for a teenager. Their father, Atticus, struggles to raise them by himself after the death of their mother, and sometimes his sister helps for the sake of Jean Louise. The Finches are always there for each other when it matters most; even young Scout unwittingly saves Atticus from angry townsfolk in the scene outside of the jail. And Atticus will always be there waiting when Jem wakes up.
  5. The Marches (Little Women): Is there any young writer who does not secretly wish they were Jo March? Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are probably the most famous sisters in American literature. The four have quiet adventures in their small New England town. Their father is mostly absent, away fighting in the war, but Marmee is more than capable of taking care of the family single-handedly. My least favorite sister by a long margin is Amy, but the three others more than make up for their often horrible sister. I always wanted to be like Jo, but I am honestly more of a Beth, and as I grow older I am learning to appreciate that.

Review Fridays: The Art of Asking

I first heard of Amanda Palmer not through her music, for which she is most famous, but from her TED talk titled “The art of asking.” During the talk, she discusses her time as a living statue dubbed the eight-foot bride. She would stand silently on a crate in a white dress and, when people left money for her, she would give them a flower. She talked about how it was a deep moment of connection, how if they tried to leave without the flower, she would watch them leave, a sad expression on her face.

Later, she said, while she was in a band, she would ask for things and receive. Whether it was a couch to sleep on or food or money to fund her projects, she found that people were willing to give in return for what she offered them. She even let fans draw all over her to show how much she trusted them. In allowing herself to be vulnerable, she could make connections with people, could let them into her life and believe that, while she was putting her art out into the world, she would receive back what she had given.

What really resonated with me is the idea of trust. From a very young age, we are programmed to have an instant distrust of strangers. Media reports show the bad in the world on a daily basis, leading many of us to feel uncomfortable with this idea of trust, of vulnerability, of asking others for help. Opening up to other people and being emotionally honest is extremely difficult. I have a very hard time with this, and it helps to hear Amanda Palmer’s story, to find out that even professionally successful people still struggle with asking.

Palmer expands upon the idea in her latest book that, like her TED talk, is titled The Art of Asking. Although she prides herself on being shameless, on putting herself exactly as she is in her art, she writes about her continuing struggles with asking, even asking for something from her husband, writer Neil Gaiman. She is funny and honest and the life she has led thus far is interesting enough to carry the book alone. But, even without the personal anecdotes, she has hit upon an idea that many people can relate to, one that is important to discuss, but which we don’t for fear of seeming selfish or greedy. For some reason, many people believe that they have to do things on their own, but as Palmer writes:

“There’s really no honor in proving that you can carry the entire load on your own shoulders. And…it’s lonely.”

We should see others as fellow comrades rather than competitors. If someone helps you, it does not mean that you are weak. You are taking your place in the circle of helping—you help someone, someone helps you, and that person helps another, and so on.

She also writes about what it means to be an artist:

“There’s no ‘correct path’ to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to art school, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

And Palmer does exactly that with this book and the TED talk before it.

Review Fridays: A Little In Love

One of my favorite scenes in the book Les Misérables involves Eponine and Marius. Eponine has found the address of the beautiful girl, Cosette, whom Marius loves. Eponine reminds Marius that he promised her something in return for the address. Searching his pockets, he tries to give her all that he has in the world, five francs. Eponine lets the coin fall through her fingers and says, “I don’t want your money.” Although she is dressed in rags and hungry and without any money of her own, she does not want that. She longs for something else.

In A Little In Love, Susan Fletcher chooses to focus on this idea of Eponine’s character, the girl who lives in darkness but wishes for light, who wants affection from her distant mother, who longs for kindness when all she has ever been taught from her parents is cruelty. Eponine’s parents, the Thenardiers, run an inn and take in a child, Cosette, promising her mother to care for her. Instead, they use the money she sends for her daughter on themselves and treat Cosette like a servant. Soon, a mysterious man named Jean Valjean takes Cosette away, and Eponine and her family are forced to go on the run because of disastrous actions taken by her father.

Eventually, they end up in Paris, the city Eponine has dreamed about. She thinks that it will be filled with romance, beautiful women being courted by good gentlemen, but it is full of filth and meager dwellings. That doesn’t stop her from seeking out the lovely aspects of the city and taking solitary walks by the Seine, imagining herself with a man who loves her. She also wonders what happened to Cosette, whom she secretly sympathized with, and imagines her in Paris, finely dressed and happy. You see, Eponine is a dreamer above all, and it was this aspect of her personality that I found the most enchanting.

When the family moves into a tenement, she meets a neighbor named Marius for whom she develops an instant attraction. Usually, instant attraction bothers me in young adult novels, but I think that it fit here with Eponine’s dreamy personality. The first chapter of the book gives away where the plot is going, toward tragedy, but it manages to be optimistic in the time in between. Eponine’s optimism and belief in the good of the world were refreshing, sometimes naive, but always welcome.

While I did enjoy this book, Eponine’s character is at times frustratingly perfect. She is mean and steals only because she feels that it is what she has to do, because she is being submissive and wants her mother’s approval. Any flaws her character might have in the musical or book have been smoothed out. Despite this, I found A Little In Love to be a quick read and beautifully written. The author has a talent for an elegant turn of phrase. I would recommend this book to any Les Misérables fans, book or musical, who see a bit of themselves in that dreamer Eponine.

Review Fridays: The Story of the Lost Child

The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The books are often praised as being about friendship between women, and I myself have written a post about that here. However, I have started to wonder, after finishing this book, if the series is not more about social class and navigating an inherently corrupt world. It focuses on the influence of environment and violence upon a child growing up. Elena begins the books in poverty, in a bad neighborhood, and works hard throughout the series to rise in social position and recognition. Lila, on the other hand, stays in the neighborhood, receives no advanced education, and never, as far as Elena knows, travels outside of Naples.

The series begins with Elena and Lila’s friendship, when Lila throws Elena’s doll into a cellar and Elena throws Lila’s into the cellar as well in retaliation. The dolls are irretrievable, nowhere to be found. Their friendship progresses from adolescence to marriage and children through, in this novel, middle-age. In this fourth book, Elena and Lila are closer and also further away from each other than ever. Lila sometimes disparages Elena, the famous writer, and the way she raises her children. Elena is often bitter toward her friend. Upon returning to the neighborhood in the fourth book, Elena realizes that she doesn’t quite fit in there anymore. There is a distance between her and her childhood companions which she cannot break through.

Social class is a difficult thing to express in words. In America, we like to pretend it doesn’t exist and that we all, from the one percent down, are one homogeneous people in a land where it is possible to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. There comes a point near the end of The Story of the Lost Child where Elena, believing that Lila is at work writing something, thinks that Lila is uneducated, that Elena wants to take the work from Lila and rearrange it into the form that Lila, lacking in privilege, cannot. When she thinks about it more, she realizes how brilliant Lila is, that Lila created something that would make all of Elena’s books insignificant in comparison. But there was still that awful and condescending initial reaction, influenced by the world Elena now inhabits, that Lila was lacking in social status and would need help to fix her work, that Elena would need to elevate it in order to make it worth reading. In fact, the entire series is about Elena’s obsessive need to preserve Lila, to make her story permanent, when all Lila wants to do is disappear.

The reader must ask herself the question of who is telling the story and why and what biases they are inflicting on that story. Elena is telling us what Lila does, but we know Lila only through Elena’s words and perspective. So much of the story is Lila’s, but she never contributes her own voice. There is instead an indictment of what makes a work of literature readable, in the prevalence of a snobbish belief that only those with a certain level of education are worthy of making art, that only those with a so-called relatable story are worthy of being widely read. Elena wants her work to be read for generations and worries that, if her books are not important, then the only point of her entire life’s journey would be to climb to another social class. And in her quest for that fame she exploits Lila’s story when Lila does not want it to be told.

When Elena looks at her children, she sees in them the effortless privilege she never had. They were raised in better circumstances, with a well-known family name and all of the confidence that arises from that. Her children will never know what it is like to be ignored because of where they came from. It is interesting that Elena’s children, whom she perceives in this way, are not the lost child named in the title. The Story of the Lost Child implies that it is more Lila’s story than Elena’s, but we get surprisingly little of what Lila is thinking and doing in this book, mostly hypotheses about what Elena assumes Lila is suffering.

This is a series about women and friendship, of course, but it is also a story that attempts to dig into the structure of our societies and to tell the story of someone who is capable, because of her place in society, of disappearing. Lila is not recognizable the way Elena is. She is not famous. She is not educated. When she finally disappears, no one seems to remember her. Elena tries to tell the story of her brilliant friend in spite of Lila’s resistance, and it is because of this that we never really get Lila’s story. We simply get Elena’s interpretation of it. I loved this series. Please do yourselves a favor and read it, too.

NaNoWriMo

The time quickly approaches for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long exercise in the impossible. The premise is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month, November. As a ten time participant and winner, I know that it does not get any easier year after year. Each time, I wonder why I sign up, and each time, as I look at the finished product, I am happy that I tried and succeeded.

There are two basic approaches to writing a novel that quickly: pantsing and planning. Planning is self-explanatory. This type outlines, sketches out characters, and has a pretty good idea of where their novel is going once they start it. Pantsers, on the other hand, begin with just a glimmer of an idea. There are no lovingly crafted, chapter-by-chapter outlines. I fall into the latter group. I have been trying, this year, to plan, but trying to force myself into the planner mold has not worked.

Writing so many words in a short period of time invokes panic and a sense of stripping down to the essential. It eliminates any delays I usually allow myself as I try to find the perfect word or plot device. Procrastination, in this case, leads to being very behind and making something already difficult even more so.

Here are a few tips for anyone who might be thinking of participating in NaNoWriMo this year:

  1. Visit the forums. The community of writers who participate in NaNoWriMo is incredibly understanding and sympathetic, contributing to a message board unlike any other I have found online. There are a variety of very welcoming threads about any topic that interests you. If you have problems with characters or plotting, or if NaNoWriMo ate your soul, create a post and be prepared to receive an outpouring of support.
  2. Find writing buddies. This serves two purposes. If you don’t have any other friends who are writers, it’s nice not to feel alone. And writing buddies will keep you accountable to your daily word count. Nothing like peer pressure to get you working. There are writing lounges divided between age groups and genres to meet your fellow writers.
  3. Don’t turn it into a competition. It is easy to get lost in the forum and feel discouraged when you see that others have finished the entire month’s word count in one day. I have no idea how they do it, but some people do. Remember to stay on your own pace, your own goals, and don’t fret over your word count.
  4. Don’t procrastinate. First, you find an online quiz. And a video of cute kittens wearing hats. Then you start watching re-runs of the TV show you’ve seen hundreds of times. When writer’s block hits, it is easy to avoid your novel. But keep writing, even if it is nonsense, even if you are fairly sure that everything you are writing would get trashed in edits. The most important thing is to keep writing and not get sidetracked.
  5. Resist the urge to edit. It is tantalizing to think of what you’ve already written and how you’d like to change it. However, your internal editor will still be there in December if you decide to go forward with revisions. Look forward, not backward.