21 July, 2007

What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

This is the theme of CLR James's famous book about West Indian cricket, which is a strange and wonderful book. I don't know enough about cricket to appreciate it as much as I could, but I found it fascinating. It's partly a social history of cricket in the context of the colonies, and a discussion of the ways that cricket influenced the struggle for liberation in the West Indies, and partly a discussion of the aesthetics of cricket: James compares cricket to the Olympics of the Ancient Greeks, but also describes it as an art form, comparing it with formalised physical forms like ballet.

It's also partly a memoir of James's life: his upbringing is deeply connected with playing, watching and talking about cricket, to the extent that it is through cricket and the local racial politics associated with it that James's consciousness of the politics of the British Empire is really awoken. [43]

19 July, 2007

Harry Potter rant part 2

And following the Guardian's suggestion that Hermione is the sine qua non of female heroines in children's fiction, here's my off-the-top-of-my-head top ten female heroines who don't fit into what the Guardian perceives as the fictional female stereotype of being all books and no looks or their alternative stereotype of a clingy impediment.

1. Dido Twite in Joan Aiken's Willoughby Chase series of books. Dido is clever, engaging, and almost always more resourceful and brave than the men she meets. The books are superb and magical: a weird kind of alternative history in which the Stuart line still have the throne in 19th century Britain, and where wolves come through the Channel Tunnel.
2. Jo March in Little Women. The most famous proto-feminist heroine of all. She comes behind Dido only because I love Dido most of all. Spawned a million imitations - the most famous may be Joey Bettany in the Chalet School books.
3. Cassie in Roll of thunder, hear my cry and the sequels by Mildred D Taylor: brilliant evocations of pre-war Mississippi with an incredibly bright and strong black heroine. I wrote about these last year.
4. Pippi Longstocking in the books by Astrid Lingren.
5. Nancy in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books. Confident and impressive, she changes her name from Ruth to Nancy 'because Amazons are ruthless': compare with the bizarre (transgender?) depiction of George in Enid Blyton's Famous Five books.
6. Nicola Marlow in the school and family stories by Antonia Forest.
7. Alanna, the lady knight, in the books by Tamora Pierce. Brilliant feminist fantasy novels about young women trying to get on in a man's world.
8. Anastasia, the eponymous heroine of Lois Lowry's series of novels. (Anastasia's mum is pretty fab too.) Lowry writes terrific, real women and girls - read Find a stranger, say goodbye or Rabble Starkey for others.
9. Rusty in Michelle Magorian's Back Home, a sea-vacuee who returns from the US after the second world war to find that her mother is expecting the pallid, nervous eight-year-old she sent away. Magorian also writes great women in her wonderfully researched historical novels - other good books are A little love song and A spoonful of jam.
10. Rita Formica in Barbara Wersba's Fat: a love story and sequels. No one ever seems to have heard of these books, but they're the best of the quirky young adult literature popular in the 1970s - similar to the strange characters of Paul Zindel. Rita Formica is fat, and Wersba makes the character talk about the difficulties of being a fat woman with enormous humour and intelligence. These have stuck in my mind since I first read them at eleven.

I could mention a million other books: Katherine Paterson's Jacob have I loved, Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan with its child-priestess Tenar, or the Little house on the prairie books. I could talk about the classic fairy tales and how many of them have resourceful, brave female heroines. But what I mainly want to do is get annoyed at how the Guardian can write such an ignorant leader.

Harry Potter rant part 1

Nicholas Lezard takes issue here with JK Rowling's prose, in an article which I agree with entirely (despite having read all of the six books so far). I've been wondering whether the Potter books will last as children's books and I think they will - but in the same way that Enid Blyton's books have, rather than as the kind of children's classic that can be appreciated by all readers. Kids still read and love Enid Blyton, but there seems to be a definite cut-off point where one suddenly realises how empty her writing is; as an adult, I find them entirely unreadable.

The problem is not just with Rowling's prose, leaden though that undeniably is. There's a greater failing of imagination which means that although Rowling's stories work in theory, they're strangely lifeless in practice. The first three books, in which the story is limited to being a boarding school adventure with magic, work better than the later ones, in which Rowling's attempts to move the overarching story to the grand epic scale fall terribly flat. The focus of the stories moves to become a struggle between good and evil, but Rowling's skill at narrative isn't strong enough to make this gripping. We're also not given enough information about what the results of Voldemort's victory actually would be: compare this with Susan Cooper's excellent The dark is rising sequence, in which the implications of the Dark rising are explained, and we are told that the last great rising of the Dark was during the barbarian victories over roman civilisation.

I've enjoyed the Harry Potter books that I've read, in the superficial way that I enjoy trash, but I think that what children love about them is the plethora of delightful details, and the reassurance of seeing the same situations repeated again and again: the triumph of the children over the grown-ups, the way that breaking rules and disobeying authority figures comes right in the end as the disobedient kids save the day, even the orphan figure finding love and acceptance in a new world. Clichéd situations and glorious details - these are the standard techniques of trash fiction: think of Ian Fleming's absurd levels of detail about Bond's shaving products, or any of the 1980s shopping and fucking novels. But in JK Rowling's case it feels much too borrowed and stale to ever really come alive: she's not borrowing from the myth and religion of the past as Susan Cooper and CS Lewis did, she's borrowing from people who've borrowed from that.

I will probably read the seventh book, eventually, as I have a nerdy obsession with completeness. But whether my children will read or know these books is certainly doubtful.

09 July, 2007

In praise of skipping

I came across these compact editions recently in Waterstones and I find them incredibly depressing, as does John Mullan in the Guardian.

There's a lot of tutting around about dumbing down: Jenny Diski's post on her blog seems pretty typical of this - but I can sympathise to a certain extent with people who might be drawn to shortened editions of the classics. What I think is a real shame, though - I meant to write to the Guardian Review in response to Mullan's article but didn't get around to it - is that children are not taught at school that it's ok to skip parts of books.

There are plenty of books, from trashy junk to heavy classics, that I haven't read every word of - I'd actually be surprised if any prolific readers have read every word of every book - but it's possible to enjoy a book and get an enormous amount out of it while still skipping the parts that don't grab you. And I suspect that it's literature teaching which focuses with squinty-eyed concentration on covering the entire text which makes people feel that skipping is cheating. But a book is a permanent, solid thing: it will always be there for you. I loved Les Misérables, and bits of it stay with me incredibly vividly, but the lengthy recreations of the Battle of Waterloo didn't hold my attention. If I ever feel I want to read them in more detail, the book is there, on my shelf. If it's not on my shelf, it's in the library.

I wrote earlier in the year about Daniel Pennac and his rights of the reader - he writes very well on the way that the joy of reading is removed from literature lessons. I recommend his book to anyone who's thinking about reading and the joy of reading - he writes so clearly and with such humour.

What the 'compact editions' do is prevent the reader from choosing for him or herself which bits to read and which bits to skip, and it's this that I find depressing. Rather than reading a book which is specifically designated and marketed as 'easier' that the real thing, it's a shame that people aren't given the confidence in the first place to read what they truly want to read, while still feeling able to expand their horizons. I like very much Doris Lessing's advice to readers in the introduction to The golden notebook:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping them when they drag - and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought... Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty - and vice versa. Don't read a book out of its right time for you.

I don't always read like this, but it's splendid advice in principle, I think.

06 July, 2007

Two novels by I B Singer

I really enjoyed Isaac Bashevis Singer's The certificate: it was funny and touching and I thought it described the anxieties of poverty very well. Enemies: a love story is IB Singer's first book set in America, among Holocaust survivors, and I thought that was very good too. It's a strange story of a bigamist, in some ways almost farcical, but the shadow of the Holocaust hangs too heavily over all of the characters to let it be funny: all of them are consumed with paranoia and desperation. [42]

03 July, 2007

Two feminist books

My feminist group recently discussed Naomi Wolf's The beauty myth and Imelda Whelehan's Overloaded: popular culture and the future of feminism.

The beauty myth was a satisfying piece of polemic, but I had a lot of problems with it. It describes something which is central to my life and to the lives of the (mostly youngish, mostly middle class) women I know: the constant commercial pressure to be more beautiful, more soignée, better dressed, thinner, younger looking, and it describes it superbly: the chapter on eating disorders is very powerful, and Wolf's analysis of the plastic surgery industry is impressively prescient now that having one's boobs done has become almost mainstream. But the book falls down when Wolf attempts to stretch the pressure to be beautiful into the overarching structure oppressing women today.

She begins with a chapter on the workplace, which I think is her weakest: she refers to employment court cases in which women have had sackings and demotions upheld by courts who agreed that their personal appearance did not meet the accepted standards - but many of her cases are old (mid-seventies) and from notoriously sexist employers: the US airlines and Playboy. It's difficult to sympathise with a writer who claims that the need to have plastic surgery constitutes a dangerous working environment, especially when one considers the millions of women all round the world who undergo far more dangerous working environments - garment workers in 'invisible' sweatshops in the East End of London, for example.

While I agree with what she says, the main problem for me with this book was that it is not political enough, and that she tries to make one aspect of women's oppression, 'beauty', become the overriding oppressive structure, at least in the Western world. She refers several times to Betty Friedan's The feminine mystique, which I think is telling: it's another book which is less political than it could have been, but which also successfully and powerfully defined an oppressive cultural structure for millions of (mostly middle class) women in the 60s. The wider-ranging analysis of Susan Faludi's Backlash, published in the same year as The beauty myth (1991) seems more successful to me. [40]

The other book we read, Overloaded, was less impressive: it's a feminist analysis of various aspects of popular culture of the late nineties (the 'ladette' phenomenon, Loaded magazine and ironic sexism, the 'Girl Power' of the Spice Girls, and the ineffectual 'singletons' Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones). It's sadly dated, which is always a risk when analysing the most ephemeral level of pop culture, but it also misses its mark on more than one occasion. I've always read Bridget Jones, for example, as a (gentle) satire on the ineffectual Cosmo readers who believe calorie-counting and a positive mental outlook is what will eventually make them happy; Whelehan seems to take it all too seriously. Her discussion of the 'ladettes', too, is mainly confined to hand-wringing and complaints that these women don't understand what feminism is all about; it seems to me that any feminist look at women who are behaving 'like men' must take into account the fact that these women are being celebrated for behaving like men in a way that wasn't possible forty years ago: superficial phenomenon though this is, is does represent a widening of women's possible behaviours and is therefore a liberation, at least of of sorts. [41]