Showing posts with label independence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label independence. Show all posts

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: ROAST BEEF, MEDIUM by Edna Ferber

Original Publication Date: 1913

Genre: fiction, adventure

Topics: women, feminist, single mother, independence

Review by : Patty @ A Tale of Three Cities

Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber is simply a great read:  the compelling adventures of an independent woman, out to earn the respect she deserves, single-handedly winning over her male colleagues, while raising  her son on her own.  Simple, little story?  Absolutely not - this is 1913...

While this book could well make the case for being a feminist one, I did not feel this:  there is still a fine line between emerging feminist thoughts and nostalgia for the traditional roles in society expressed by Emma McChesney, our heroine.  I would just say it's a novel way ahead of its time:  Her "adventures" could well have taken place in modern times, which made me wonder:  if these descriptions apply today and the problems are still in existence today, what was the situation back in 1913?  How could Emma, any Emma, survive, when even today women can still fail facing such challenges?

I liked that the book is split in chapters focusing on a type of adventure.  I believe it gets us to know all facets of Emma's life, from the purely professional to the purely personal and all in between.
Emma has been now working for 10 years as a salesperson (to be politically correct) at a firm selling petticoats.  She married young, divorced not too long afterwards and has been left on her own ever since to struggle for herself and her son, Jock.

We follow her as she makes her way across the country (in those days, there was no wireless communication, so everything was carried out on a person-to-person basis...).  Emma has done it all, seen it all - that's why she sticks with a roast beef, medium:  once you have witnessed all of life's ups and downs, you get to appreciate life's staples, the standard values that, though unexciting, will serve you very well and provide a much-needed cushion from the world's troubles.  

"it's all very well to trifle with the little side-dishes at first, but there comes a time when you've got to quit fooling with the minced chicken, and the imitation lamb chops of this world, and settle down to plain, everyday, roast beef, medium. That other stuff may tickle your palate for a while, but sooner or later it will turn on you, and ruin your moral digestion"

The simile is spot-on and I really appreciated the simplicity with which Ferber can make her point.  How many times have I declined the flavour of the month in whichever domain, because I know I can rely to the tried-and-tested values that will remain true for the future?

Emma has to deal with her male competitors, who do not expect her to last long (funny, given she outwits them all...).  She has a "mentor" in her boss, who is the first to see through her and realise the potential she has.  From then, everyone else is an obstacle Emma can surely tackle, over and over again:

"now, a man would -""But I'm not a man", interrupted Emma McChesney. "I'm only doing a man's work and earning a man's salary and demanding to be treated with as much consideration as you'd show a man"

And yes, we're still in 1913, however much this could be said in 2013 as well (the realisation that the novel is 100 years old just hit me - not much progress in this respect, eh?)

There is a favourable disposition vis-a-vis Emma.  However much she's shown to struggle through life's adventures, she always manages to save the day and her composure:  
Long practice had made her perfect in the art.
Her only weakness is her son, but this is a tough love - she's not scared to let him know what the truth is:

Your mother is a working woman, Jock.  You don't like that idea, do yo?  But you don't mind spending the money that the working woman provides you with, do you?

And, of course, among everything else, there is always a suspicion of a love interest... Be it her fellow salespersons who want to just have a good time during their visits to all these remote towns, to her new boss, who could have honest intentions (the ending is not revealed, so the jury's out on this!).  But, Ferber is very good at keeping our interest alive throughout the pages:  she know she has a lonely heroine and she knows we want her to find someone, and at every chance she gets, she just loves to play with this idea:

"Great, ain't it?" said a voice in the darkness. (Nay, reader.  A woman's voice)

Emma will rise up the corporate ladder and ensure the company's future by innovative products - a relatively believable ending, not too exciting but remarkable nevertheless.  This book was a very nice discovery, truly recommended for an insight into the makings of independent women...

Download Roast Beef, medium by Edna Ferber at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Girlebooks

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: EIGHT COUSINS by Louisa May Alcott

Original Publication Date: 1875

Genre: Young Adults

Topics: Growing up, Morals, Child-reading, Happiness, Health


Eight Cousins” is about Rose Campbell, a 13-year-old who shortly after becoming an orphan is put under the guardianship of  her Uncle Alec. He’s a doctor and temporarily away at sea, so until he returns Rose goes to live in “Aunt Hill”, the home of many aunts, great-aunts and seven male cousins. When we first meet her, Rose is treated by the Aunts as the frail and delicate creature every young woman of the should be, but when Uncle Alec comes back, he begins a long process towards a happier and healthier Rose, using very unorthodox methods (he was ready to burn her corset!).

I was already 30 pages in when I realized I’d already read “Eight Cousins”, many, many moons ago. I vividly remember two scenes in particular, but in my mind they became part of ”A Little Princess” (I confused my orphans…): the scene where Uncle Alec creates placebo pills from brown bread, and when he put together Rose’s room, full of exotic objects from his travels. Why these two in particular in a book full of other events? No idea.

The story is pure Alcott in it’s gentleness and focus on strong messages for young people, but it felt rather more outdated than “Little Women” and its sequels. In those more famous works, she seem to be writing for both adults and children, but this one comes across as more infantile. The moralizing and sentimentality in “Eight Cousins” (full of “little dears” that go to “little beds”, with ”little cups of broth”) become too much Tell and not enough Show. Here’s when the kinder of the Aunts tries to dissuade her sons from reading “popular stories”:
”A boot-black mustn’t use good grammar, and a newsboy must swear a little, or he wouldn't be natural,” explained Geordie, both boys ready to fight gallantly for their favourites. 
“But my sons are neither boot-blacks nor newsboys, and I object to hearing them use such words as ‘screamer,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘buster.’ In fact, I fail to see the advantage of writing books about such people unless it is done in a very different way. I cannot think they will help to refine the ragamuffins if they read them, and I’m sure they can do no good to the better class of boys, who through these books are introduced to police courts, counterfeiters’ dens, gambling houses, drinking saloons, and all sorts of low life.”
Still, Uncle Alec’s theories about what a young girl should eat, dress and be taught were radical for the time, and still refreshing now. He forbade corsets and tight belts, he recommended lots of fresh air and exercise, and defended that every girl should be educated on how to handle her financial affairs and (gasp) how her body works.
“Do you think that is a good sort of thing for her to be poking over? She is a nervous child, and I’m afraid it will be bad for her,” said Aunt Myra, watching Rose as she counted vertebrae, and waggled a hip-joint in its socket with an inquiring expression.
“An excellent study, for she enjoys it, and I mean to teach her how to manage her nerves so that they won’t be a curse to her, as many a woman’s become through ignorance or want of thought. To make a mystery or terror of these things is a mistake, and I mean Rose shall understand and respect her body so well that she won’t dare to trifle with it as most women do.”
 I've added “Rose in Bloom”, the sequel to “Eight Cousins”, to the wishlist. They are both available on Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young

The Misses Mallett - E.H. Young
Original Publication Date: 1922 (Under the title "The Bridge Dividing")

Genre: Fiction, Woman's History, Romance

Topics: Spinsterhood, Single Women, Love, Relationships

Review: I picked up The Misses Mallett (also published under the title The Bridge Dividing) on a whim. I came across the title on a list of "similar reads" while browsing through GoodReads and I could not believe my luck that here was a Virago Modern Classics title available in the public domain. On top of that, the plot promised to revolve around single women, a topic that I love to read about in early twentieth century fiction.

The Misses Mallett is about four single women who live together, all of them keeping to the idea that being single and an inability to commit is a family tradition. The four women consist of three sisters: Caroline, Sophia, and Rose, and the unfortunate child of the sisters' brother who left his wife and child in poverty. The child, Henrietta, moves in with the three sisters when her mother dies. She finds herself in a household that is very different from her previous surroundings; the sisters are reasonably well off and often spend time contemplating which dresses to wear on any of their social calls, while Henrietta is used to helping her landlady in order to keep her mother and herself in reasonable conditions. Henrietta struggles with a balance of the qualities she valued in her mother and her previous life, while she also learns to recognise the similarities to her father (who was known as a little bit of a rascal and had a number of affairs) during her stay with her aunts. 

The story focuses on Rose and Henrietta, while Caroline and Sophia remain more marginal figures. What we do learn is that Caroline likes to reminisce and talk about her past conquests and improprieties, which may not necessarily all be true. Sophia mostly lives in the shadow of Caroline, but every so often comes out to correct Caroline’s stories, especially when she feels they exaggerate her past lack of decorum, or the number of her conquest. Through these commentaries we learn that Sophia might be happy living in Caroline’s shadow in public, but that she privately knows that she received as much male attention as Caroline in her day.

Caroline functions as the matron of the family, and she is sure to remind her family of their upholding the family’s standard, which, rather comically, involves the rule that the Mallett women prosper in spinsterhood:

“The Malletts don't marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We've been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn't married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”

Exactly because these books seemed to subvert the social expectations regarding women and marriage, by having spinsterhood be proclaimed an ideal, while marriage was professed to consist of trouble, this book had me interested. Of course, through some of Caroline’s silliness, and the emerging storyline of the longing for love felt by most of the Malletts, society’s ideal is eventually upheld. Nevertheless, the slightly mocking tone made me settle down for an enjoyable read during the first quarter of The Misses Mallett.

I am sorry to say that these expectations did not pay off. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the main storyline soon starts to revolve around Henrietta and Rose. Both Malletts compete for the love of Francis Sales, who is married to an invalid woman who terrorises her husband and the Mallett girls because of suspected infidelity on their part. 

The thing is, while I could sympathise with Rose and Henrietta in their singleness, and while they were somewhat interesting in their contemplations on life separate from Francis Sales, it was their professed love for him, and their obsession with winning his affection, that got tiring very quickly. The only thing that seemed a likely explanation for the way Rose and Henrietta chased him, was that he was, in effect, unavailable. It appears to be the chase that made him desirable, not the person himself. And who could blame the girls for that, because if anyone seems undeserving of their love, it is Francis Sales. I grew tired of his self-pity and “woe is me” quite quickly, and I couldn’t really understand why the Mallett girls persevered in convincing themselves they loved him.

Contrasting Francis Sales with the single man Charles, it is rather obvious to the reader who Henrietta *should* choose. Of course, it takes Henrietta ages to acknowledge this. Charles is one of the more interesting characters in the book (next to Sophia, whom I would have loved to learn more about) in that he is both an astute observationist, but also a dreamy philosopher with a love for music, mixed with a dash of a heroic lover. He might have been a little bit too much of a Romantic for me, but he was certainly the more interesting male lead. The fact that it took Henrietta so long to recognise this made the book feel extra long in the end. I really wish I could have woken the girl up and directed her to him at some point in the narrative. Because, as much as I enjoy the Austenesque setup of a “Mr Wickham” and a “Mr Darcy” (though Francis and Charles really do not compare to these gentleman except for one being the “wrong” and the other being the “right” choice for the girl), somehow E.H. Young’s story did not have the same magic.

Luckily, Simon pointed out that The Misses Mallett is one of the least strong works by Emily Hilda Young that he has read. He recommends her later works William and Miss Mole instead. Unfortunately, these titles are not (yet?) available in the public domain. Her earlier novel Moor Fires is, but what I gather from Simon’s statement that The Misses Mallett is considered to be the novel that connects her mediocre rural novels to her later novels of much higher quality, I am not sure if I should bother to try her earlier books.

The Misses Mallett had some promising aspects and themes going, especially during the first quarter of the novel, but I feel it died down quickly in the rather long parts dedicated to Rose and Henrietta chasing the, in essence unlikeable, Mr. Sales.

The Misses Mallett can be found on The Project Gutenberg here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: THE TRAIL OF CONFLICT by Emilie Loring

the trail of conflict book cover
This is the most accurate cover I have ever seen. The characters really are that wooden.
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: Romance

Topics: masculinity, love, independence


Mr. Glamorgan has a dream: to make so much money he can buy his daughters upper-class husbands. To that end, he buys Peter CourtlandT's mortgage and then threatens to foreclose on him if his son, Stephen, doesn't marry Glamorgan's daughter, Geraldine. You can tell the CourtlandTs are fancy because they have a T at the end of their name that makes no linguistic sense. Anyway, Stephen and Jerry marry, but Stephen's not very happy about it, and they don't have *whispers* THE SEX. Then Stephen's Uncle Nick shows up--a hilarious grizzled old guy with a talent for saying the most awkward thing at any given moment and not giving the tiny twitch of a rat's ass. Nick decides that what this couple needs is to eschew all of Glamorgan's money and move out to Wyoming where Stephen can prove he's a man, man (you would have thought being a hero in WWI would have done it, but nope!). So they do. Things happen, they fall in love, blah blah.

I've read more than a few Emilie Loring novels; my mom has a whole stack of them that I would make my way through on summer vacations. The vast majority are not in the public domain (not as far as I know, anyway), and I can see why no one bothered to renew the copyright on The Trail of Conflict. It's not one of her best. The writing is extremely uneven--pretty good one minute, then a lot of tell-not-show the next; narrative inconsistencies (when the novel starts, it's implied the story takes place in England, then suddenly they're in the US); and the plot is way more complicated than it needs to be. That paragraph only describes the set-up for the entire novel; the vast majority of it takes place in Wyoming. And there's even more plot once they move.

But I wouldn't have minded any of this if I had been able to connect to either Jerry or Stephen. Instead, I spent most of the book wondering what the heck was going through their heads. There's too much plot and not enough characterization, and both the main characters just seem to do stuff with no insight into why they are doing it. Is Stephen ever attracted to Jerry? I don't know! I guess it doesn't matter, since they're married anyway. And what glimpses I did get of their train of thought didn't exactly endear me to them. For example, Jerry gets rid of all her money on the way to Wyoming, then is like, "How am I going to survive without money?" Sweetie, you're moving to the home of a millionaire rancher. You're not going to starve. And where are you going to go shopping in the middle of Wyoming, anyway? Stephen, meanwhile was a total dick and kept calling Jerry "little girl." Guys pro-tip: NEVER CALL A WOMAN THAT.

I wanted to like Trail of Conflict, I really did, but I just couldn't spend another moment with the main characters. Loring has plenty of other books that are worth reading (I really like Here Comes the Sun), but none of them are in the public domain. So there you have it.

Find The Trail of Conflict at Project Gutenberg