Monday, January 26, 2009

What's It Worth to You?

It came today - the used copy of Judith of France that I found online and paid $40 for (not counting shipping and handling). It's unreal in a couple of ways. First, after literally years of searching, I can't believe I own a copy of this book that made such an impression on me as a teenager. Secondly, I can't believe I would actually pay $40 for it, no matter how badly I wanted it.

On second thought, though, I don't blame myself. Buying the book online through a used book outlet is the only way to get it. It's been out of print for years. I understand that libraries have to purge some books from their shelves to make room for new acquistions, and it's only natural that something published in 1948 (that doesn't have the saving grace of being a Newberry winner like Johnny Tremain) is going to be one of those chosen to go. There might be a library somewhere that still has a copy on the shelves, and I might be able to find it through interlibrary loan, but then I can only keep it for two weeks or so. When you like a book the way I like this one, you're going to want to read it multiple times, and having to go through the process of interlibrary loan every time is a pain. So, I guess the question I had to ask myself is, what was it worth to me to be able to take this book off my shelf whenever I want, to be able to share it with my daughter and give her a chance to fall in love with it too?

At least $40!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

I'm currently reading The Big Knives by Bruce Lancaster, and over the weekend, I was adding it to my "I'm Reading" list on Facebook. During the process, I found something I thought was amusing, and I thought I'd share it.

The copy of the book I'm reading is a hardcover that my son picked up at a "purging" sale at his school library. The cover looks like this:



However, the only image I could find while I was uploading this book to my Facebook page was this one:



I ask you, does that even look like the same book????! After laughing for a while, I asked myself what would lead to a pair of covers that are so different. My conclusion (which may or may not be complete hooey) is that somewhere along the line, someone decided to market the book to a different audience - women instead of men.

The first cover is, as I said, for the hardcover edition that was published in 1964. The second is from a paperback reissue (by a different publisher) in 1978. The first cover, I think, has masculine appeal - we have a group of men in buckskins, obviously engaged in some kind of frontier military action or hunting, since their guns are prominent in the picture. The second cover looks a lot like a romance novel cover (a tame one, since both the man and woman are fully clothed, ha ha, albeit in clothes that are NOT accurate for the historical period). I doubt a man browsing in a bookstore would pick up that book with a woman in a hot pink dress. I asked my husband if he would read it, and he gave me one of those looks, which I took as a "no." (LOL)

I'm guessing that somewhere along the way between 1964 and 1978, someone decided women would be a more lucrative market for this book than men. Although I'm not finished with the book yet, I don't see how on earth that decision was made. I think this is very much a book with a "male" orientation (not that I am saying there are books for men and different books for women - not at all!). Actually, the main character, Markham Cape, reminds me strongly of Alex Rider from the juvenile spy series my son liked so much a couple of years ago, or maybe even James Bond transplanted to the American frontier. There's something cool and detached about him, which I see as traits in a literary character that appeal more to men than to women. I know as a reader I like characters much better when I can identify with them (something that may or may not be influenced by the fact that I'm a woman).

Anyway, I'm really mystified by this woman on the cover. I'm nearly halfway through the book, and there hasn't yet been a woman in the story who has been anything more than a temporary flirtation for Mr. Cape. I bet if you put every line about a woman together, they wouldn't fill two pages. So now I expect a major plot turn of some kind...or is this a case of a cover that would "hook" the female reader and then deceive her???

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Virginia Woolf was on to something.....

You probably know the famous line from Virginia Woolf: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." In a break from my usual reading fare, I recently finished a non-fiction work called A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom. After following the history of wives from ancient Jewish and Greek civilizations to modern times, I think Virginia Woolf had it right, and I'm going to offer this paraphrase of her statement: "A woman must have money of her own and control of her own decisions before she can be truly productive."

As I was reading Yalom's book, I kept thinking of the other books I've read this year that featured women who were married, or who were trying to get married, and one in which the girl was trying to avoid getting married. With this post, I'd like to try to pull together some of those thoughts.

First, I'll talk about A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. To be honest with you, it wasn't really my kind of book - I'm not a fan of the "man (or girl) against nature" type of story in which a girl has to struggle alone to survive against every kind of natural phenomenon you can imagine (think Julie of the Wolves or Island of the Blue Dolphins. Award-winning, but just not my thing). This particular version of that story is set in Africa, with the girl (Nhamo) running away to escape a forced marriage to a cruel older man with two other wives. Nhamo's grandmother comes up with the escape plan and gives Nhamo some gold nuggets to wear in a little package around her neck. The gold nuggets then disappear from the story until the very end, when the people who have rescued Nhamo from the wilderness find them. The character who tells Nhamo about finding the gold is a woman who is a scientist, and she advises Nhamo to start a bank account with the gold. She tells Nhamo her grandmother gave the gold to help Nhamo avoid the fate of every other girl in the village. The grandmother's wish is that Nhamo will not marry young and become a virtual slave, but that she will have a chance to get education and develop her mind so she can have choices in life.

As I was reading that, I realized how important a gift her grandmother had given Nhamo; by giving her money, she made it possible for Nhamo to have some control over what happened to her, instead of having to relinquish control to a husband in exchange for him supplying the food and shelter she needed to live.

That leads me to think about Hannah Fowler by Janice Holt Giles. Hannah finds herself in the opposite position to Nhamo. Hannah's father has died, leaving her in the Kentucky wilderness with nothing more than a few household goods. While Hannah is a big, strong woman who is probably capable of staking out her own claim and being successful in raising crops, she gives in to the social pressure that tells her a woman shouldn't even try to do that. Faced with a string of potential suitors who recognize the value of a woman's help in taming the wilderness, Hannah bows to the pressure - but on her own terms. She searches out the man who helped her and her father in the wilderness and, in a break with social tradition, asks him to marry her. Fortunately for Hannah, she's made a good choice, and Tice Fowler turns out to be exactly the kind of companion, lover, partner that women are looking for in marriage.

Those two cases would seem to give credibility to my paraphrase of Woolf's axiom - at least for the lower classes. Ironically, though, the more money a woman (or her birth family) had, the less likely she was to have control over who she would marry, for most of human history. Yalom's book gives a number of examples of upper-class women who were part of a marriage that was more an economic or political arrangement than a love match. It wasn't until the 18th century that the concept of romantic love and a heart's desire became factors in allowing people to choose marriage partners.

I hope this post doesn't come off as cynical. I think most women, like Hannah Fowler, are willing or even glad to give up some of their self-determination to gain the benefits of marriage (myself included). But I also admire Nhamo's grandmother for providing the means to help put Nhamo in a position where she could choose to marry at some point in the future -- or not.