Friday, January 22, 2016

For Money or Love?

I sit here tonight, putting off washing the dishes as I think about the book I just finished, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. In some ways, I have an awful lot in common with Joan, the protagonist of the book - I'd rather be reading or writing, but I'll get up here in a minute to clean the kitchen.

Joan is a 14-year-old girl who loves school and reading novels, but after her mother died, she's forced into the role of housekeeper for her father and three older brothers on a small farm. The work is unending, and it's hard, and Schlitz does a great job of showing us just what would have been involved for a woman keeping up a farm household in 1911. I felt overwhelming empathy for Joan when she narrowly escapes losing an eye after a cow kicked her, and yet the men of the household expect her to get supper together, even while her stitches are still fresh. At least they concede to eat a cold supper.

But it's not the work that's the worst part of her situation - what's worse is that she is struggling along in an environment in which no one ever expresses any love or concern for her or satisfaction with her work. In fact, Joan's father holds her responsible for her mother's death, and he's just completely intolerable. When he burns Joan's beloved novels to punish her for impertinence, Joan runs away from home to look for a position as a hired girl in the city (Baltimore, in this case).

Joan is lucky enough to get a position quickly with a well-to-do Jewish family, the Rosenbachs. In their household, she does the cleaning and helps the old woman who has been with the family forever with cooking. Joan thinks she's especially lucky because the Rosenbachs send out their laundry - no more washing clothes. And she's going to earn $6 per week!

It's not long before Joan realizes that, even without the laundry, there's still a huge amount of work, and a lot of it is heavy work, like rolling up the rugs and carrying them downstairs to hang over the line and beat them clean. That's the first truth I gleaned from the book; sure, the Rosenbachs had electricity and running water, but to paraphrase with a bad pun, housework, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Maybe she's no longer scrubbing the privy clean, but some other task is going to replace the one that was removed. As the Shabbos goy (Gentile worker who does tasks during the Sabbath), Joan seems to have as much work, if not more, with the Rosenbachs than she did at home.

One might argue that even if the workload is the same, Joan has a much better situation with the Rosenbachs than she had at home, for at least she's away from her hateful father. Throughout the story, though, there are numerous entries (the story is written as Joan's diary) that describe when Joan has been reminded of the social differences between herself and the Rosenbachs -- she is, after all, only the hired girl. Joan is not to associate with the Rosenbach's children (she does, of course). She is not to talk back or listen in on conversations or "meddle." Mrs. Rosenbach, especially, treats Joan with a certain degree of contempt; she is not unkind, unlike Joan's father, but she is superior, taking it as her right at one point to tell Joan she needs to work on her "deportment" so that she seems more like a hired girl.

That raises an interesting set of questions in my mind. Is it worthwhile to allow yourself to be demeaned, as long as you are getting money? I guess Joan is better off as a hired girl, because although Mrs. Rosenbach is as overbearing in some ways as Joan's father is, at least there is Mr. Rosenbach, who allows Joan free access to his library -- as long as she doesn't stay up past midnight so that she oversleeps in the mornings and is late to her work. 

The work/social differences are not the only theme, or even the most important theme, in the novel, but each of us reads a story within our own context, right? I don't know -- maybe I'm in a weird mood because this was the first week back at school, and it's kind of hard to go from days when I was my own boss back into having to keep someone else's schedule. Seems like the older I get, the harder it becomes to do that.....

Friday, January 15, 2016

Am I Too Picky?

Wednesday night, I finished my first book for this year - Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson. This was a book my daughter recommended to me. She really liked it. Me....not so much. It was all right, and at the end, the story picked up and was satisfying, but it certainly didn't catch me up and make me live in that fictional world. As I was doing my Goodreads rating and my Amazon review, it occurred to me that I may have become too picky in my evaluation of reading materials.

A quick synopsis of the plot - this is alternative history, and the premise is that the first American revolution failed, leaving the colonies under British rule. One twist is that there is a ruling class that has magical abilities. A group of non-magical "rebel mechanics" is using their brains to invent machines that can do the things the "magisters" use magic to do. The hope is the machines will make a second, successful revolution possible. Verity Newton finds herself straddling the two worlds; she works as a governess in a magical household, but she is recruited by the rebels as a spy.

The premise for the story is pretty decent (although I could do without the "magic" bit - why does everyone these days use magic as a plot element. Just makes things SOOOOO convenient - need something to happen? Oh, they have MAGIC!). I liked the characters all right, though I wasn't really enamored of anyone in the story; Verity's boss, Lord Henry, is the closest I came to being truly interested in a character. He's living a double life, and although we could figure that out really early in the story, it's satisfying enough when the big reveal comes as to why he's doing it.

So it's not necessarily the story being poorly-conceived that bugs me about this book. The thing that bothered me most about was that it seemed to me the author was punching all the buttons to make the book "popular" with its young adult audience. Let's see...we need a girl who's sort of an about a smart, bookish girl whose father doesn't really want her around? Gotta have some kind of paranormal element - ooooh, there's the magic! Check. Steampunk is really popular right now, and the rebels build machines, soooooooo--let's make sure everyone realizes this is a steampunk story by stopping the story momentarily to describe the rebels' clothing as eclectic (one of the key elements of steampunk culture). Let's see....we need a love triangle.....Hey, we'll make Verity be torn between the two social classes. We'll have Alec, the hot young rebel who is a brilliant mechanic and who is instantly attracted to Verity, and we'll have Lord Henry (of course), since he's this complex, mysterious character with an important secret. But of course, he's a "forbidden" love because he's her employer and her social superior.....Ooooooh, even better!! Betrayal by friends? Check. Girl needs a mysterious secret of her own that threatens her position in society....hmmmm......let's make Verity a half-breed--half magic, half non-magic. Girl saves the day? Check. Mean girl who puts down the main character every chance she gets? Check.

Even as I'm writing this, I feel that I'm being a little harsh. The book wasn't that bad, just sort of formulaic, and what's wrong with giving your audience what they want? I guess the thing that bothers me is the literary equivalent of worrying that my daughter is drinking too much sugary root beer and eating too much fast-food pizza. She's a voracious reader, but I have a hunch most of what she is reading is similar to Rebel Mechanics (especially since she thought this was so good she should recommend it to me). I can't at all get her to read young adult novels (like the ones by Ann Turnbull) that are substantive and involving and make you care about the characters and that don't rely on things like magic to build the plot.

Bleah! What a nagging old woman I sound like! "You young people are going to rot your (brain/teeth) if you don't stop (reading/drinking) all that (formula fiction/root beer)!"

But then.....I pick up something like the book I'm reading now (The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz), and within 16 pages, I am completely invested in this character and the problems of her life. Honestly, I nearly teared up this morning (see, that says something - I HAD to read some this morning to know what happened after I left off reading last night) when I read the part about Joan picking up and cuddling the doll her mother (who is now dead) made for her. My heart just aches for this poor young girl who is working like a slave in a household full of brothers who are not cruel (I guess), but are just uncaring.

Maybe I can convince my daughter to read it....she owes me one, right?

Friday, January 1, 2016

It Was an Interesting Year in Books (Reading Challenge 2105)

What was I doing at midnight, you ask? Popping a bottle of bubbly? Celebrating the end of the old year and welcoming the new with friends? Why, no...I was snuggled in bed, finishing the last few pages of The Shivering Sands by Victoria Holt to cap off my 2015 reading challenge!

I read a whopping 16 books this year, which I suppose I should be ashamed to admit, since it's such a low number. But it was a really interesting set of books, thanks to a couple of reading challenges I decided to take on this year. The first was a Monthly Motif challenge, which I sort of ending up dropping after a couple of months because I had become more interested in Book Riot's "Read Harder" challenge. The idea of the challenge was to
inspire you to pick up books that represent experiences and places and cultures that might be different from your own. We encourage you to push yourself, to take advantage of this challenge as a way to explore topics or formats or genres that you otherwise wouldn’t try.
I don't know if I was as aggressive in pushing myself as I ought to have been, but I did read some books I definitely would not have read if not for the reading challenge. It was an experience I enjoyed, so much so that I plan to search out the 2016 "Read Harder" challenge and see about incorporating it into my reading plans for this coming year.

In the spirit of that challenge, I'm going to add a new category to my normal list: The Book That Pushed Me. For this category, the book needs to be one that is either not of a genre I normally read, one that is about a culture significantly different from my own, or one that challenges my perspective on things in a significant way. There could be several that meet this criterion for this year, including Looking for Alaska by John Green, which I took as a rather eye-opening look into popular teen culture (if not a realistic portrait of teen culture, at least a portrait of teen culture that is really  popular with teens). Beloved by Toni Morrison challenged me to acknowledge the complete disruption of "normal" life that slavery forced on African-Americans, and Anpao by Jamake Highwater was an interesting compilation of Native American worldview myths. But the winner in this category for 2014 was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, not just because it was an introduction to African culture, language, and mindset, but also because it made me consider the interaction between "foreign" cultures and colonial/"missionary" cultures. (That's a blog post that never got written... :/ It wasn't a very good year for blogging.)

Best Discovery - Strangely enough, the book I most enjoyed this year was Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. That may be in part because it had information about keelboats and steamboats that related directly to the time period in my own novels (another blog post that didn't get written), but I also had forgotten how funny Mark Twain can be. (He also made some racial remarks that would have been fodder for internet censure in today's environment...) I enjoyed the mix between his journalistic descriptions, his social commentary, and his personal stories. The story about the death of his brother in a steamboat explosion was understated but still packed some hefty emotional punch.

Saddest Disappointment - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. One of my friends absolutely loves this book and has read it multiple times. This is a good example of how individual taste in books is. I couldn't see the appeal. I personally didn't like any of the four sisters enough to get emotionally invested in their story, and I thought Kingsolver dragged the story on way past where it needed to go. (I'm sorry I didn't like your favorite, Pat!)

Biggest Accomplishment - Although I didn't care for it (or maybe because of that...), I thought reading The Poisonwood Bible was my biggest reading accomplishment for the year. It was the longest book I read all year. I did have another big accomplishment during the year--I finished the first draft of my third novel - the whole manuscript was written in one year! If you knew the crazy number of things crammed in to my life, you would understand why I consider that my biggest accomplishment for 2015, ha ha ha!

Books I Thought Wouldn’t Be Much But Were Actually Good -  Honestly,I expected Life on the Mississippi to be dry, nineteenth-century writing that I needed to plow through to get background information for my novels. But I was wrong, really wrong. I actually laughed out loud several times. 

Favorite Historical Fiction - Because I was challenging myself to read outside my normal genre, I didn't read as much historical fiction as I normally do. This year, the only books I read that were strictly historical fiction were Nancy Dane's A Reasonable Doubt (about the Reconstruction period in the South) and The Poisonwood Bible, which comes out on top of another category, mainly because I didn't know anything at all about the history of Congo.

Biggest Reading Failure - One of the categories on the Read Harder challenge was to read a romance novel, so I thought I would make it interesting and read an Amish romance, since they are very popular and would be about another culture I'm not all that familiar with. I chose The Covenant by Beverly Lewis. Normally, I have a three-chapter rule; I make myself read three chapters before I decide not to read a book. Sad to say, I didn't make it that far in this book. During the prologue--the prologue--I decided I can't stand this book. Too much "telling," too many stereotypes. I put it away and moved on to something else, but then I decided maybe I wasn't being fair, so I tried again. This time I got through the first chapter and a half, but my reaction was the same. I can't stand this book. I may force myself to try one more time in the coming year, but ugh.

Favorite Classic - One thing I'm kind of proud of this year is that I read several books that could be considered "classics," such as Grimm's Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's hard to say, but I guess The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein was my favorite read this year from the books that could be considered "classic." (And now my husband can be happy because I've finally read one of his favorite books!)

Favorite Love Story - I did go on a self-serving detour this summer in which I read both of my own novels, and of course, they were my favorite love stories, but to avoid being self-serving now, I'll say The Shivering Sands by Victoria Holt was my favorite. I'll admit there were plenty of flaws in the story and that the love story wasn't really the main focus of the novel, but it was one of those love stories in which the couple is faced with all sorts of obstacles that you just know they will eventually overcome. I actually thought there was kind of an interesting layer to this novel that I might blog about sometime--I've seen several reviews that talk about Napier as being an "abusive" husband. I wonder, though, if the abuse is in the perspective we as the reader are given on his behavior. But those are musings for another time.

I'm happy to say I don't really have any nominees for the category of Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Only So-So. Although everything on my list probably will be on the Once is Enough (Books I will probably never read again) list, I was well-satisfied with everything I read this year. I do want to acknowledge the books I read that didn't fit any of the categories above, because they are all worthy of reading:

  • Mama's Song by Gayle Jennings
  • Elements of Deception by Mary Schaffer
  • Joyland by Stephen King (I can't believe I actually read a Stephen King book, albeit a very mild one!)
  • 100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

Now I'm off to research the 2016 "Read Harder" challenge. I think I know what the first book on this year's list will be, though--I need to do my first complete read-through of that first draft of my WIP. And my daughter has suggested a book to me, so I might try to read it this weekend before she has to take it back to the school library. Oh, so many books, so little time......