Sunday, May 30, 2010

Amelia Elizabeth Walden

I thought few people remember Walden’s teen novels these days so I was surprised and pleased when I read last fall on Kristin Cashore’s blog that she had been nominated for the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents’ (“ALAN”) inaugural Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. I read every one of Walden’s 40 books I could find in the 70s and enjoyed them, although admittedly some were very formulaic. They are quite dated now and at times seem sexist because while her message ostensibly is that young women can do anything, her male characters often belittle them and say that until they learn how to be womanly women they cannot truly be successful/know themselves/succeed, etc. Despite this, which annoyed me even as a teen, I liked her books a lot. She wrote several different genres: spy novels, sport themes (of these my favorite is My Sister Mike), drama theme (I enjoyed a trilogy about a young woman named Miranda, although the man she ends up with was one of the most condescending creatures ever, her director/producer), and a few general (Waverly, about a girl who leaves her beloved family ranch to attend the all women's college her deceased mother had loved so much). Her characters love the outdoors and, long before Title IX, enjoyed sports ranging from skiing, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, softball, swimming, field hockey, and scuba diving.

Walden was born in New York City in 1909, and attended Norwalk High School in Connecticut, where she later taught English and Drama. She also attended Danbury State College, Columbia University, and the American Academy for Dramatic Arts. Her first writing was for local theatre groups in Norwalk. She described herself as a “reluctant writer” in More Junior Authors (1963). She wrote that her writing was inspired by “1) the urgency of things within me that needed to be said; 2) the insistence of persons surrounding me who have told me I must write.” Her husband and friends encouraged her to write, and she wrote her first book as “a good story and was surprised upon finishing it to learn that I had written a book slanted toward the young adult market.” Her first book, Gateway, was published in 1946 and her last book, Heartbreak Tennis, in 1977. Some fall into the genre of Malt Shop books. I wondered whose idea it was to honor this author, and then read she had endowed the prize herself! Well, it’s like buying one’s own brass bowl – if you want something, sometimes you have to plan it yourself. Amelia wanted the annual $5,000 prize to go to a book that exemplified her own positive approach to life, requesting that submitted titles should:

•treat teen readers as capable and thoughtful young people
•offer hope and optimism, even when describing difficult circumstances
•have a credible and appropriate resolution
•portray characters involved in shaping their lives in a positive way, even as they struggle with the harsh realities of life

In 2009, the first winner was Steve Kluger for My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park (I remember selling his Last Days of Summer to B&N in 1998). I wish I could be on the Award Committee. Perhaps ALAN needs a lawyer and I could barter my services. . . In the meantime, I recently found a duplicate copy of My Sister Mike, which I will send to someone who would like to try this vintage yet trailblazing author. It's one of those Berkley Highland paperbacks with the plaid corners I like so much.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Devils at the White House

The Duke Blue Devils visited President Obama today to accept his congratulations on being NCAA champions and to show him how to fill out his bracket. . . I was glad to see the president enjoying himself as I am sure that is rare these days.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

When I saw the Classics Circuit was doing a tour of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I wanted to participate because I am a big fan of the genre. But what to choose? I have read all of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, and less prolifically of a few others. I decided it was time to try Margery Allingham, known for her detective, Albert Campion, one of those sleuths who hide their intelligence behind a deliberately foppish and dimwitted exterior. "Allingham regarded the mystery novel as a box with four sides - 'a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it.' Once inside the box, she felt secure: the genre gave her the discipline she felt she needed, while allowing her imagination full play to provide the 'Element of Satisfaction.' This she abundantly did from her first crime novel in 1928 to her last in 1968." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 77: British Mystery and Thriller Writers 1920-1939.

One reviewer wrote, "Miss Allingham's strength lies in her power of characterization, in her striking talent for painting the social background against which she shows her characters, in her skill in the use of words whereby she paints so vividly the scenes she describes." Guardian.

The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) is the first book to feature Campion (and I always insist on starting at the beginning of a series). The setting is classic: a house party in a mysterious house in a remote English town and a lighthearted game that unexpectedly turns into murder. However, I found the plot and characters somewhat disappointing. Campion, at least in this book, lacks the charm of other "silly ass" detectives (and in fact, it is someone else who solves the murder). Yet Mary Jean DeMarr in In the Beginning: First Novels in Mystery Series believes that Campion's development as a character in later books "offers mystery readers a unique opportunity to consider what makes a mystery/adventure hero and what characteristics must be carried over from one novel to others in order to create the continuity necessar for a successful series... What inherent qualities does he have in his first appearance in Black Dudley and Mystery Mile that led Allingham to make him the focus of nearly a score of novels and a number of short stories?"

I definitely need to buy DeMarr's book, and she has convinced me to read more Allingham. My copy of The Crime at Black Dudley came from the Lexington library, so I am sure the rest will be readily accessible.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Queen of Palmyra

I suspect that most readers’ first reaction to this book is to marvel at the contrast between the beautifully written, descriptive prose and the dark violence of the story within. Author Minrose Gwin depicts a small town in 1963 Mississippi that is full of secrets, and ten year old Florence Forrest, who spends time on both the white and black sides of town, is exposed to most of those secrets, although she is oblivious to many of them. Gwin’s vivid description of the relentless heat of a Mississippi summer almost helps explain the inertia that affects even the decent people in town: those who know about the violence that goes on after dark but ignore it because they don’t want to get involved. I felt every trickle of sweat and scratchy layer of clothing. When I heard about this book, I was interested for several reasons: first was that I had heard about but not read The Help, and wondered if it had inspired a subgenre of civil rights era fiction; second was that I had recently heard noted Justice Department attorney, John Doar, speak about some of the lesser known heroes of the civil rights movement, and I wondered how the characters in Millwood, Mississippi would compare; and finally, most of what I know about this era comes from reading nonfiction or juvenile fiction such as The Empty Schoolhouse or Patricia Crosses Town, so I was curious about an adult novel billed as “a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.” It did not disappoint.

Some of the secrets in Millwood are painfully obvious to an adult reader – that Florence’s father is a member of the Klan and that her mother drives around in the darkness warning local black communities on the nights of the raids; that her grandparents recognized Florence’s father was white trash from the beginning but feel they cannot interfere in a marriage, even to protect their daughter and granddaughter (and perhaps they do not realize how serious the danger is); and that something dreadful is going to happen, not just to Medgar Evers but to the innocent newcomer, Zenie’s niece, Eva Greene.

Eva tells a shopkeeper on the black side of town that change is coming: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but a change going to come. Look at Harmony, over in Leake County. They brought in Medgar Evars and the NAACP and the Justice Department people, and they’re finally starting to get registered.” I am proud that my father, Gordon A. Martin, Jr., was one of those Justice Department lawyers, working for Robert Kennedy and John Doar, assisting courageous men and women in Hattiesburg, Mississippi prepare testimony in pursuit of their right to vote. My father tells their story in Count Them One By One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote (coming next fall from the University Press of Mississippi), the story of the United States v. Theron Lynd, an important civil rights trial in Mississippi which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - which my father calls the greatest civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction. Like fictional Eva, these real and very brave witnesses risked their lives for a cause they believed in more than personal safety.

One of my greatest fears, as I read Queen of Palmyra late at night, was that no one would step up to protect Florence from her increasingly violent father, although I was unsure whether he would kill her or rape her. One of my favorite parts of the book was when a character I had dismissed as weak and willfully blind mustered her wits to protect Florence. In the novel’s greatest irony, it is Zenie, her grandmother’s maid, who realizes Florence is being physically abused by her father, although Zenie is unable to protect her own niece from that same individual and Florence's own family has ignored her struggles.

Is this a novel of hope or of shame? Is Eva Greene, the catalyst of the violent events of the summer, or would they have occurred anyway? I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it so I will leave these questions for the moment, and instead recommend the book highly for those interested in a novel that is painful yet irresistible. I think it is a perfect book group selection as there are so many issues to discuss.

This review is part of the TLC Book Tour. Thank you to HarperCollins (publisher of the beloved Betsy-Tacy books) for providing me with a copy of this book (although I wish it had come with a slice of Florence's mother's lemon cake with divinity icing!). I look forward to more from this author.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going to the Great Library in the Sky

Two obituaries caught my eye this morning as I read my Boston Globe on the way to work because both women's love of books was highlighted:

Joanna Griscom spent years volunteering at the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA (where my former author Cynthia Johnson is a librarian - I keep meaning to call her) among other activities. The library director was quoted in the article, describing Ms. Griscom as unsung hero for her work on the board of the library foundation.

Another obituary, for Candy Jenkins, a historical preservation professional and Smith alumna, stated that she was "[a] voracious reader. . . [she] had three library cards, for Belmont, a statewide network, and libraries on Cape Cod." Books "came in and out of [her home] in wheelbarrows."

It is comforting that the friends and family whose memories inspired these obituaries recognized how important books were to these women. I hope when it's my turn people can describe my books without mentioning messy piles on the floor (perhaps by then they will be shelved with beautiful Dewey Decimal precision).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Brontë Power

In case you haven't see this funny Youtube video on the Brontë Sisters. . . (my computer does not want to cooperate with the umlaut but will allow me to cut and paste it)

For information on the Brontës and related Society, there is a comprehensive website.
If you are not in a Gothic mood, I also recommend The Return of the Twelves, a novel about the wooden soldiers given to Branwell Brontë, which he and his sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne played with and wrote stories about the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Carriers of Civilization

Tonight I attended the 40th Anniversary celebration of David Godine Publishing, and David read a quote from historian Barbara Tuchman I really liked:

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill."

I have always been a big fan of Barbara Tuchman, who like me, majored in History and Literature at Radcliffe. Now I see she may have cribbed this quote from Henry David Thoreau, which is not proper historian behavior (although it is not unknown historian behavior)! Perhaps the quote was simply wrongly attributed to her.

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business." Thoreau
(1817 - 1862)

Seriously, is anyone going to say her Kindle is a carrier of civilization?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Winter Sea (book review)

Susanna Kearsley is such a gifted writer I cannot figure out why her books are not better known. I sometimes wonder if it is because she is Canadian and there has been no major publicity machine behind her (as Alex Beam noted in the Globe today, although there are talented Canadian authors their bookstore bestsellers are all US imports). Like Mary Stewart (although perhaps without her warm humor), Kearsley creates a vivid sense of place and as Stewart did in Touch Not the Cat, she moves effortlessly from present to past, telling each story so compellingly that the reader forgets there is any other. The Winter Sea is Kearsley’s best book since Mariana. The contemporary story is told in the first person by Carrie McClelland, a writer of historical fiction, trying to figure out how to approach her current topic, early 18th century Jacobite uprisings in Scotland and those behind the plots to restore the Old Pretender to his rightful throne. When Carrie visits her agent in Scotland, she accidentally (but we know there are no accidents in fiction!) finds her way to a ruined castle, Slains, and begins to experience vivid dreams that inspire her novel. Carrie’s visions or memories are of a distant ancestor, a quiet young woman, Sophia Paterson, an orphan who is taken into the household of the Mistress of Slains Castle, the Countess of Erroll, and becomes involved in the Scots’ plotting through the kind relatives who have given her a home. Sophia is recovering from family tragedy and remains somewhat emotionally detached from the intrigue until she falls in love with a man who has dedicated his life to the Jacobite cause. She is a fascinating character (more interesting, in fact, than her creator, Carrie).

Experiencing Sophia’s memories inspires Carrie’s best work, although she cannot explain her connection to her ancestor, why her visions are historically accurate, and why she suddenly knows more about Sophia than her genealogist father. Just like Sophia, Carrie becomes somewhat involved with two men. But Carrie’s romance seems secondary to her writing, and she won’t be satisfied until she knows how Sophia’s story ends – happily or not…

My library got me The Winter Sea (UK title Sophia) from Vancouver but I plan to order my own copy soon. I have enjoyed all of Kearsley’s books, including a recent suspense novel she wrote as Emma Cole, Every Secret Thing, and recommend them enthusiastically. Oh, this book made me want to visit Scotland!