Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On The Subject of Higher Education

I started this post a week ago, and it got so unbelievably long that I wrote the other one about college just to cut this down. And then this week went crazy, and I'll have to tell you about my Reference homework sometime.

But the thrust of this post is this: things come in batches around here, and last week was no exception. In Harvard Square a couple of weeks ago, killing time before the Sarah Vowell reading, I picked up a book from a display in the Coop called My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. It was catchy and interesting--an anthropology professor enrolls as an undergraduate at her own large university, living in the dorms, taking a full course load, etc. The first chapter, as perused in the bookstore, was very catchy and memoir-ish, so I checked it out of the library.

The book ended up being much more pop-anthropology than memoir, and took fully five hours to read cover to cover. And, though I'm 10 years out of college, it didn't tell me much that I don't already know. (Though I suppose you could say I have maintained a little bit of an insider's perspective, having worked in the college textbook industry.) You would really think it would barely have registered on my radar, but somehow I ended up thinking about it a lot for a day or two after I finished it.

What was really compelling was not so much the observations about student culture, which were not really unexpected at all, even the ones that didn't reflect my college experience. What I found very interesting were the author's reactions to her observations. It's the things that surprised her that really stuck with me and were so interesting. The author's name, Rebekah Nathan, is a pseudonym, and she doesn't identify the university. It's unclear to me how old she is exactly, but I get the impression that she's in her late 40s or early 50s. She goes back to school "undercover" as a returning freshman--unlike other researchers who have studied student life, she does not reveal herself to be a professor, for the most part.

As someone from an academic setting, she's aware that a lot of people take classes they're not that interested in, do only the reading that is actually necessary to pass the test or not get humiliated in class, don't talk naturally to professors, etc. I was impressed by her developing comprehension of a lot of those things--that a busy, challenging schedule sometimes has to be padded with a class that is easy or fills a time slot, that there really is a huge amount of work to do and you can't always to do it all, or even understand why you should. She was surprised by the number of students whose paying jobs were part of the reason they didn't have as much time to study; my guess is that this is partly related to the fact that school is no longer a luxury for those who can afford it, but a necessity for those who need to stretch for it.

I think a lot of these things had to do with her real naivete, going in, about the nature of student priorities. In the book, she observed that students saw school in two main ways: a great life experience--living with your friends, meeting new people, partying and being on your own--and a means to the end of preparing yourself for the "real world"--qualifying for a better job, learning the ropes of whatever field you're going to be in, joining clubs and volunteering in ways that will build your resume. She was absolutely bowled over by the fact that almost none of them saw school as a place to explore ideas for their own sake, to learn for the sake of knowledge--as opposed to for the sake of knowledge that you'll need.

Obviously, as a professor, she's lived her life in academia; her undergrad experience segued into a ton of grad school. She studied for the love of learning; she prioritized the school's priorities, enough to make them her own, her life work. She chose to go to college when you did that for a specific reason, presumably, rather than because that was just what people do.

Anyway, this book just stuck with me. There is a whole section on international students, and how a lot of them felt like Americans weren't really interested in them, because they didn't ask personal questions (Nathan doesn't point out that, in my opinion, asking personal questions of an acquaintance is rude and prying--first you become friends, then you ask for life details). I got the impression that the friendliness of acquaintances and the true connection of friends are easily conflated by people who aren't comfortable with American culture. This really inspired me to strike up a conversation with one of my classmates who just moved here from Iraq to get his PhD in Library and Information Science. Turns out, I learned, that he's not just a librarian in Iraq, he's actually a LIS professor over there; and here, he's turned back into a student. We were talking about how different that is.

Everything comes full circle.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Redux Debut

So I wrote a hugely long post this morning that was really ridiculously long before I even got halfway done. It's about the confluence of college in my literary life right now. First, there is the issue of my being distracted from my true calling of reading all these books for you, dear surfer, by the siren song of "unfinished homework," and didn't we all think we'd left that behind with our 20s?

Second, there's the novel I'm reading called Long May She Reign, which is the fourth and most recent book in the young adult classic The President's Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White. Among the other appealing factors of the book, the main character, Meg, goes to college at my alma mater, and the amount of local flavor and detail is astounding. But it's also more troubling than I expected, because the book came out last year, and the author clearly has more recent knowledge of the campus than I. So if you live in Sage E (as does our protagonist), then you have to go down the hill to eat at Mission Park, because Baxter is no longer a dining hall. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's no longer even called Baxter. And it has a Great Hall. I heard about these things, but it's still a through-the-looking-glass moment when you read about it. She has classes in Griffin and Hopkins, and the lecture hall where her Intro Psych course is taught is clearly Bronfman (though there were no lab reports for the Intro Psych lecture). But she also gets a lot of coffee at Goodrich, which was an art building when I was there, but is now a student center. But they still eat at "the deli on Spring Street," though they don't mention the incredibly. slow. service, or the mix-in frozen yogurt machine.

Ah, those halcyon days. If I had lived on the Frosh Quad, or if she was majoring in psychology, it would probably be worse.

The third point on my college triangle for the day is a book I just finished called My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by the pseudonymous Rebekah Nathan. This is a pop-anthropology account of a professor's enrollment undercover as an undergrad, and what she found there. It was a light thing, maybe even a bit of fluff, but I kept thinking about it for several days after I finished the five hours it took to read it, so I wanted to talk about it.

And then the post started to ramble. So I broke the "college" post up into two, one of which you're reading right now. And tomorrow, I'll talk about what this professor learned and was shocked by when she lived in the dorms. The answers may surprise you. Tune in next time!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Quick Surrender

Sometimes I put something on my list because I wander by it in the bookstore and it's got a pretty cover, and maybe a catchy title. Then I read the back and it has the word "Amish" or maybe "Mormon." I have other trigger words, a lot of which come and go; "nun" has been around forever, and "witch" is often worth a second look, but there was a period of time where "transgender" would do it for me, and I understand that one of my favorite genres is actually called "steam punk."

Cage of Stars, by Jacqueline Mitchard, had "Mormon" and "murder," so I scribbled it down, and then saw it at the library and snagged it. And I started reading it last night, go about 40 pages in.

Yesterday morning, I read Stacey's Ex-Best Friend, Babysitter's Club #51 (this is not a digression; wait for it). It took me a total of about an hour to read, and most of that while I held the book in one hand and unloaded the dishwasher with the other. The narrator is 13, and the target readership is probably 11. And the writing style turned out to be very similar to Cage of Stars.

I've never read Mitchard before, so I don't know if it's her. And it's a little hard to tell how old the narrator is when she's telling the story; the events she's relating now take place when she was 12, but the main part of the story happened when she was 16, and she talks about being in a place "now" where she's happy, which means she's not 16 anymore. Which pretty much must mean she's some kind of an adult, whether 18 or 40. So there's really no reason for these long, repetitive paragraphs of rather dull description, these run-on sentences, these parenthetical "conversational" asides (when something's clever, she writes "Get it?").

So, I'm surrendering this book, with a light heart, to turn my attention to something that I'm enjoying more, or at least more invested in.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Speaking of Q&As...

I'm glad to have vindication in the comments section on how awful that Sarah Vowell/David Rackoff Q&A was. In honor of the occasion, I'd like to present my second worst Q&A experience. The author was Kay Redfield Jamison, who wrote the excellent book An Unquiet Mind, among others. I went with some friends to see her read from her latest book, Exuberance, which was about people whose lives are marked by their energy and fervor--people who are the opposite of depressed, and are full of a lust for life. Teddy Roosevelt is the first one who comes to mind. (Some of you out there might be familiar with my "Men of Appetite" theory, which I won't go into in too much detail.)

I was at this reading at the Boston Public Library with some friends (if anyone remembers who or was with me, please remind me). The talk was fine and the reading was lovely, and then the Q&A started. This was a while ago, so only two questions really stand out in my mind. The first was a man who was clearly mentally disabled in some way. He started speaking about a topic that didn't really relate to her subject at all (how music appeals to people and improves their mood) and spoke at length, somewhat unintelligably, and without asking a question. To be honest, this wasn't that bad--the guy was doing his best, even if he was clearly off topic. But he didn't stop. Jameson handled it very well, though--after about three or four minutes, she interrupted him politely and then spoke briefly about her topic, tying in what he had talked about--music and art and the exuberant temperament.

But the next question was my favorite, though I don't remember the question at all. I just remember the speaker, leaning forward and saying in a lecturer's projecting voice: "Well, as an artist and a clairvoyant, I feel...."

Again, it was a lovely talk. I don't remember the last ten minutes.

Off to class!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This One's Going Out to Lynne

What makes a good young adult novel?

I was saying that I think, in some ways and sometimes, YA is a more impressive craft than straight literary fiction; literary fiction can be weird and artsy and has all kinds of different ways it can be interesting (many of which I would label as straight-up boring). But YA has to be smart and usually funny (much harder than dramatic, which most lit fic is), or at least charming, in addition to hitting certain notes.

What are those notes? Well, first, as mentioned before, there's charming. Part of this is the YA attention span--people who read this stuff don't read it for an interesting, textured experience; they don't read to be challenged. Often enough a good challenge comes along, something happens that you didn't want and you have to follow the author somewhere you didn't want to go, but you can't trust a YA reader to read through something artsy, spacey, deep-but-boring. You need pacing. You need things to happen.

This is my whole quibble with literary fiction, actually--too often things don't happen. There are some good novels out there that you can tell the story of in three sentences, but in my opinion, there are way more bad ones. And of course, there are some awful books that meander all over the place (an acting program for transvestite prisoners, anyone?) and have way too much going on. But in general, I see that as ambition gone off the rails, while (I'm sorry but) I see a book in which nothing happens as an exercise in navel-gazing; look at the tiny, nuanced details of life as I observe them, close up and in minute detail. Aren't I perceptive?

Anyway, where are we? YA books need to be at least charming, if not funny, plotty, and usually stylish (depending on the age target; remember that your main character is about 1-3 years older than your target audience of readers). They are generally better at ensuring that their main characters go through significant changes, because youth is all about change, and a good one makes the change worth reading about. It doesn't necessarily have to be a bildungsroman, but there is a learning or growing experience going on in the book.

That's all I can articulate this close to bedtime. Do I get extra style points for using the word bildungsroman after 10pm?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My Mom's Bumper Sticker

"Support your local farmer, or watch the houses grow."

Barbara Kingsolver, not unsurprisingly, is an Earth Mother. And Animal Vegetable Miracle is a great read. While I am almost entirely as far as you can get from being a gardener without actually being forced by a bizarre illness to live in an antiseptic bubble, I love stories about the satisfaction of living with the land and nature--my inability to deal with dirt makes me the odd one out by miles in my family.

There's a thread of end-of-the-world anxiety in a book like this; America's relationship with food is so dysfunctional, and it's hard to imagine all the needed anti-corporate, structural changes to the nature of eating even having a small chance of happening. So I start to feel that shrill sense of despair when I really think about what I'm learning in this book, what I eat every day.

There's also an issue of absolutism here; the experiment in the book is of a family eating ONLY local food for a full year. They actually raise a lot of their own food, shop only at farmer's markets and from local farmers. They bake all their own bread, make almost everything from scratch. I'm pretty sure their only exception to the rule is olive oil.

To her credit, there is no level on which she expects you to grow your own food. She's pushing farmer's markets, seasonal eating of local foods, less or no processed foods. I don't think she is claiming her lifestyle is sustainable for just anyone. But there is a level on which she believes that this is not only her own ideal life, but everyone's. Even if, in a practical sense, you can't grown your own asparagus, you should long to.

As I was reading along, though, my big concern was the elitism involve in the amount of work this lifestyle entails. Her point that fresh local veggies are not actually (usually) prohibitively expensive is mostly true; farmer's market veggies are not more expensive than what you'd buy at the grocery store. It's true that the middle class can probably afford it, and that if the argument is between takeout and eating fresh, there's no cost contest.

But the time differential seems to be a big issue to me. Baking your own bread takes a lot of time. Most farmer's markets are only open during work hours. Cooking from serious scratch involves turning food into other kinds of food, and then using them to make meals. You bake bread, and then you grill vegetables, and then you press them into a sandwich. You make pasta from scratch, then cook it, and do the same with your sauce. If you want meatballs, you have to put a steak in the meat-grinder. Clearly there are plenty of frittatas and roasted chickens on the menu, but a lot of things that are simple for a lot of us are not simple anymore.

But the no time argument holds no water for her. "It's easy for any of us to claim no time for cooking; harder to look at what we're doing instead, and why every bit of it is presumed more worthy." And, "Some people really do work double shifts with overtime and pursue no recreational activities, ever....But most of us are lucky enough to do some things for fun, or for self-improvement or family entertainment." And there's an implication that spending hours every day cooking really should take the place of whatever those pastimes are.

I'm not going to defend my TV-watching. Instead, I'm going to end this with an example of why this book is so damned charming. When the baby turkeys arrived, "I filled a shallow water container and showed them how to drink, which they aren't born knowing how to do. They are born, in fact, knowing a good deal of the nothing a turkey brain will ever really grasp, but at this stage their witlessness is lovable....It's a good thing they don't stay this lovable forever."

Baby turkeys are apparently the cutest thing ever. I would never have known this without this book. It's pretty fabulous, and, more than a lot of books about what's wrong with the world, my panic is mostly overwhelmed by charm and beauty and hope.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Writing Out Loud

Last night, before coming home and discovering the travesty that is the BPL list save functionality (which they call your Book Bag, but only when they're telling you you've filled it up and can't fit any more books in it; are they trying to cheer me up with imagery? Anyway, I digress), Mike and I went to see Sarah Vowell and David Rackoff reading at the Sanders Theater in Harvard Square.

We went for the love of Sarah Vowell--you may have read some of rhapsodic descriptions of her historical essays, and how I love people who wade through all the dry parts of a field to deliver unto me the fun bits. She talked about that a little, during the Q&A (oh, the Q&A. More on that in a minute), about how she started writing history because so much history is written in a stilted, unnatural voice, and there's no reason for it to be. There's no reason these stories can't be told well, conversationally, normally.

And that's what she did--she read excerpts, whether from other things she's done or articles or her new book, I'm not sure, but she described the brash, bold explorer who led the expedition to map the Oregon Trail, and the gifted, bookish cartographer who went with him and mostly, in his journal, complained about the bugs, and the food, and the cold. It was interesting and hilarious and kind of touching, really. I love the way she thinks about these historical figures as people, and really imagines or even believes them back into existence.

David Rackoff is someone I'm less familiar with, but I've heard his pieces on This American Life, a couple of which I've really loved and a couple of which I found to be somewhat...umm, indulgent? precious? Anyway, he was, for me, not the reason to show up, but he really surprised me by being great. He reads very well, with a lot of inflection and humor--the man is very funny. While it's really past time, in my opinion, to be done with jokes about how George W. Bush really lost the election of '04 (you should either be agitating about this or letting it go; as humor, it's passé), it's long past time that someone pointed out that Rent is, maybe, not the greatest, truest depiction of vibrant youth and creativity that ever graced the stage. And did I mention, he was damned funny?

After two short readings from each of them, we were told that there would be a 15-minute question and answer period. Ah, the Q&A. This was, I believe, the single worst Q&A I've ever experienced; possibly the most uncomfortable I've been in a theater--and I've had front row seats for a nude scene in a space that seated 45 people. There was no structure; people were shouting out questions. But most of them weren't actually questions, they were invitations to joke around with the person shouting. I think, because you hear these people on the radio and you read their books and they're both so casual and conversational, you think that you can make them laugh and then you'll be friends. The woman in front of us just kept shouting "witty" comments (apropos of nothing she called Rackoff "pork chop," after the affectionate nickname for the Oregon Trail cartographer in Vowell's story). One guy shouted, "Grover Cleveland: compare and contrast," and I don't think he was kidding. The first question perhaps sums it all up: the woman began with a long explanation about how the two big white marble statues that stand on either side of the stage had been distracting her all night, and then asked the writers, "If you could choose any two people to have big white statues of flanking your stage, who would it be?"

Sarah Vowell answered, "Don Rickles and the Marquis de Lafayette," David Rackoff added, "I can't improve on that," and a wonderful evening came to a close for me. We'll pretend the last ten minutes never happened.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Late Night CRISIS

Oh god, oh god, I was getting all excited because me library list was about to crack 100 (excited and depressed but whatever), but the library system tells me it WON'T STORE MORE THAN 100 TITLES FOR ME. I have to remove items from the list before I can add more.

Hot freakin DAMN! I guess I have to commit all my list compilation to Goodreads. Because lord knows the list doesn't shrink.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Hearing Voices

I was on several stalled trains today. I was also in several libraries that denied me my copies of Austenland. I feel that fate has determined what was going to happen to me today--the voice of the gods was speaking, and I sat on the green line, and then on the orange line, obedient to their whims.

I did, almost accidentally, check out a few library books today. I got A Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver (who is, for the record, a woman). She wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was an amazing, disturbing, perfectly constructed novel, one of the most thoughtful and enjoyable books I've ever read that had almost zero truly sympathetic or likable characters, including the narrator. This new one, Post-Birthday has, I believe, a sort of Sliding Doors thing going on, with a pivotal moment and then two different possible futures stemming from that.

The other book I picked up was The Last Witchfinder, which appears to be an historical novel about a woman whose father executes women as witches in England in the 1600s, and who is determined to stop him. The only problem here is that I have it on a strict 14-day loan, no renewals, and, though it appears from the outside to be a normal size and shape, it weighs nine thousand pounds and is over 500 pages long. This is officially something I have "gotten myself into." It's my first check out from my new College Library, though, so I'm now officially engaging in the community.

Anyway, at the rate I'm going, I'll be reading almost nothing but The Evaluation and Measurement of Library Services for at least three days. I don't know how some of these people are doing this with a full time job on the side. Power to them, and luck.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

On Deck

I stayed up way too late last night to finish The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale. Good stuff. Can't wait for more!

Today, sadly, I'm going to be reading chapters 1, 4, and 11 of Reference and Information Services: An Introduction, Third Edition, by Bopp and Smith. So far, it does not succeed in evoking the image of a dewy young woman in a '50s style business suit in her pearls and chignon, clutching her clipboard and smiling her Marlo Thomas-That Girl smile up at her first library the way Evaluation does. Also, though the type isn't small, the density is intimidating. Still, I'm sure it'll be fine; it's only 60 pages or so.

After this, though, I need to decide what I'm going to read next for my own self. I appear to be on an unavoidable Young Adult Fantasy kick. So I'm choosing between more YA fantasy (The Rebel Angels, by Libba Bray (not to be confused with the Robertson Davies book of the same title, about Canadian academics studying Rabelais, which was also a very good book)), which I'm very excited to read; the YA non-fantasy Long May She Reign, by Ellen Emerson White, which I'm interested in theoretically but not really drawn to; and The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, which I'm really only even trying to read because I'm feeling guilty that I've only ever read Huck Finn--and even that guilt is just because Lynne's systematically devouring Twain's biography and biographical information.

Oh, but I've already started Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, which is really good. I'm not usually a huge fan of modern-day back-to-the-earth experiments--they seem snooty to me. And it's true that Kingsolver doesn't deal very thoroughly (yet) with people who don't have the land or time to do what she does with food (I won't say money; it's not as much about money). But she's a compelling writer and she really lives these things--the life came before the theory, if that makes sense, which I think I respect a lot more. I'll probably be devoting more time to this book when I've read a bit more.

Oh, and I went to storytime at the local library yesterday. The librarian is just finishing up the program I'm in and invited me to observe. It was crazy and chaotic and fun, and I have to say, I think it's the first time since I came anywhere near library school that I had a moment where I felt perfectly clear. Evaluation class is another universe from where I want to be, but storytime really made me think: this is what I want, and this is where I want to be. I want to do this, exactly this, all the time. It was really refreshing, and made a lot of this feel worth it.

But good grief, now I need a job!

Monday, February 04, 2008

All Hail

That post title is maybe the worst pun I've ever been guilty of, because this is a post about how awesome Shannon Hale is. Y'all are just lucky I didn't call it "All Hail Shannon Hale." You may already know this, but I disapprove of puns on a very deep level.

I've written about Shannon Hale before. I started with Princess Academy, which caught my eye while I was adding it to the catalog at the middle school library. As it happens, this was a Newbury Honor book, though it didn't win the medal. What caught my eye on the first page was the authentic texture of the story. The mountain girl in this story sleeps on a dirt floor with her sister and her goats, and her only regret is that she's not allowed to work in the quarry with the rest of her family. I can't explain how she did it--if I could, I like to think I'd be a famous writer--but she made this life seem both gritty and beautiful. The story went on to be full of layers, of people with different motivations, of people who are human instead of good or evil. And if the ending was a little happy, you will never hear me complain.

So I looked at what else she'd written, and decided I most wanted to read Book of a Thousand Days. It was her only other young adult fantasy that wasn't tied together as part of a group. And oh, it was just what I wanted it to be; I think I just went on about this one the other day, so I won't bore you. But it was sweet and thrilling. She does getting to know someone and falling in love with them in the simplest and most charming way--she relates those little, meaningless conversations that make your heart flitter with perfect accuracy.

And now I'm reading Goose Girl. After this, there is a book called Enna Burning and another called River Secrets; both are based in the same world, with characters common to all, though I don't think you'd call them sequels. Goose Girl was a big slow on the getting into, partly because the beginning is a bit dreamy, and partly because the main character, Ani, begins the story as (forgive me for the pejorative language) a bit of a milksop.

But now I'm right there with her again. Again what Hale is doing is the small patterns of day-to-day life, the small conversations where acquaintances become friends and humor becomes affection. The authors I look for are the ones who can do exactly what she does, and she does it so well. I'm thrilled that there's more left for me to read.

Then there's Austenland. I haven't read that one yet; instead of YA fantasy, it's chick lit--a modern British woman's experience at Jane Austen fantasy camp. I can't imagine that I won't enjoy it, and I've heard quite a few positive reviews. I'm excited to read it, though I have to admit, I can't believe it'll live up to what I've found in her other books. It's so exciting to me that these fabulous authors are still out there for me to discover. I so want to grow up to be Shannon Hale.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

And You Thought It Would Be Boring

I really expected school reading to cramp my blogging momentum--look at last week's pathetic post count. I've spent most of my reading hours today (in between napping and playing Wii target practice) on a book called Evalution, Second Edition, by Carol H. Weiss.

Have I hooked you yet? Let me tell you about the class--it's called Evaluation of Information Services, and it's about undertaking assessments of library and reference services to determine process outcomes and successful fulfillment of user needs. This is a core course of the library and information science curriculum.

Really, it's somewhat more useful than it sounds. It's about using scientific method and standard research methodology to figure out how well you're doing as a library. This seems like a useful thing to think about, since, unlike a business, you don't have profits or sales to use as a shorthand for whether you're doing your job well in a library. While I'm not sure that a course that emphasizes meticulously designed long term studies is the best way to get me thinking about how to tell if I'm a good librarian, I appreciate the intention.

But anyway, I don't suppose all this has endeared you to a review of this book I'm reading, has it? And to tell you the truth, it's mostly a dry-as-dust academic manual on, as the title indicates, evaluation. Meaning how to design and run an evaluation of a program, mostly government or charitable organizations like homeless shelters and Head Start. The book is full of material like: "Another factor that influences the nature of the evaluation performed and the uses to which it can be put is the location of evaluation within the organizational structure."

But I have to say, I'm really feeling like I'm getting to know Carol H. Weiss, through little snippets of language. The book was first written in 1972, and the current edition is a 1998 revision, so the book wasn't born yesterday. This shows up in a footnote where she explains that, for the sake of continuity and simplicity in the text, she's going to refer to all evaluators as "she" and everyone else--the program management, personnel, government oversight, etc.--as "he." She explains that another researcher does something similar with the opposite gender choices, but "I like it better this way."

And here's the line I just read, the line that makes me think that Carol H. Weiss, despite being a professional evaluator, whatever that is, might be someone I'd like to know: "A worst case scenario would be the program whose negative side effects are so serious that they overwhelm the good it does. An evaluation that failed to take note of them would be a creature from cloud-cuckoo-land."

I'm going to try to find a way to raise my hand and ask a question about cloud cuckoo land in class tomorrow. Let's see if my instructor did the reading.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Maisie, Maisie, Give Me Your Answer Do

I almost blogged about Maisie Dobbs last night, and went to bed feeling guilty over my lousy blogging schedule. But I'm so glad I didn't; last night, I was a little down on it, because the middle section--a flashback to the main character's early life and how she ended up being a 30-ish female detecting in 1929--kind of dragged. I needed some of the information, but as storytelling, it wasn't worth a third of the book.

But now I'm back in the "present day," and the plot is plummeting along, and I've leaped up from the couch at least twice shouting a warning to the characters. Mike thinks I'm nuts, but you can't argue that it's a good sign in a detective novel.

There are a couple of problems with the middle part, but it's mostly that you don't get much new information at all. The beginning of the book lets you know that Maisie was a war nurse, that she is the protege of a lady of means and an older gentleman detective, that she loved someone who met his end in the war. You could say these things are teased, but I really think they are indicated--you don't need much more. Then you get to the flashback, and you meet Maisie's father (which is pretty important), and learn how she started as the daughter of a barrowman, entered service (got a job as a maid, for those non Anglophiles out there), was discovered by the progressive lady of the house to be brilliant, and sent to college. Then she meets her gentleman, goes to be a nurse, etc. None of this, except her relationship with her father, adds much to what we learned earlier, and any of it could have been included in the first part of the book.

I also find it interesting, as a modern American, to read books about England of the past, because the class system is so important and so different from anything we could experience. Think about it: as an American, is there anything surprising about a smart serving girl earning her way to college? Would it even surprise you in 1920? Not really--there's a deep understanding here that starting out as a servant has less bearing on where you end up in life than how hard you work or what skills you have or what you want to do. But in England, in 1920, that was only just becoming the case.

I'm reminded of reading Emma with my book group, and talking about snobbery in Jane Austen, and how Austen indicates that Emma's friendship with her silly friend whose name I can't remember is inappropriate, or how in P&P Darcy needs to choose a wife of his breeding. The thing that's so hard to remember is that different classes really led totally different lives in those days--Darcy was not just looking for a life partner, but a business partner who would run the estate in such a way that it (and all the many people who depend on it for a living) would prosper. And to choose a woman who had no experience or not enough good sense to do that would be truly irresponsible.

God I loved English class.

Anyway, I'm seriously digressing. I'm totally loving Maisie Dobbs, and I'm excited to read the next in the series as well. In fact, I hope that, without the flashback, it's a cover-to-cover ripping good yarn.