Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Words, words, words

I love language and so I was grieved to find the following in today's New York TImes column by Maureen Dowd on Hilary Clinton and Sarah Paling: critics were wrong who said that Hilary Clinton "had been disappeared" by Obama and Sarah Palin is on the wrong track if she wants to become one of "women who want to progress this country." Granted, the second was a quote from Sarah Palin, but to repeat "want to progress" twice in the column, was to my mind not progress.

In the first instance, Dowd is countering critics who claimed that Hilary Clinton had been subsumed or overshadowed by Obama. So why not say that? Why say "had been disappeared," as if Hilary were the star of some bad spy flick? As for Palin, and wanting "to progress" the country, why not "progress it" by using proper English? To paraphrase a *slightly* well-known writer, the quality of good English is not strained. Why not discuss women who want "to make progress?"

I know, I know, to stay alive language has to change and evolve. Or does it? What was so bad about Elizabethan English?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Slowly but surely I am adding to this blog and today I added four links, which you will see down low on the right hand column. One is a link to a site that will give you more information about Donna Parker, one is a review I wrote of the 2007 Nancy Drew movie, and the other two are to two of my cyberfriends Jane Austen blogs. Any other ideas?

Friday, July 24, 2009


I have been thinking lately about why Emily Bronte set Wuthering Heights in the past: the novel begins about 75 years earlier than Emily's time period and ends about 40 years earlier. In other words, she wrote the novel in the mid 1840s and it spans the years from about 1770 to 1803. Translated to today, it would mean starting a book written now in the year 1935 and bringing it up to 1968.

In contrast, series books tend to be set in the present, whenever that present happened to be when they were composed. In Nancy Drew's case, the setting was meant to be timeless, and I remember that one book, written in 1940, had to have its locale changed from England to Mexico because of the outbreak of World War II. Donna Parkers have more of sense of time because Donna does get older in the books and changes and grows.

Carolyn Haywood's Betsy books are set in the present day of their composition (the 1930s and 40s), but apparently reflect Haywood's memories of her own childhood in the very early years of the 20th century.

Since most series literature is written by older people--people in middle age rather than the teen years or childhood--the books would arguably be conservative, grafting the memories and consciousness of a previous generation on to the present. To me, even Donna Parkers that were written in the early 1960s have more the flavor of the 1940s than the 1960s.

All that being said, no book can be timeless, and it's remarkable how much social history is packed into the pages of our favorite books. This is what gives them their texture and appeal, I believe. Often we remember the details more than the plots, which tend to blur. But what doesn't blur is Nancy Drew ordering cinnamon toast! Or Meg in "A Wrinkle Time" under the covers in her attic bedroom with the wind howling all around the house--and then drinking hot chocolate in the kitchen with Charles Wallace.

What details stick with you from your favorite books?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Waxing philosophical: TIme after time

“Time was moving so fast. She [Donna] had a mental picture of Time, like a kite that had broken loose from its string, sailing off into the sky above her. If only she could catch that bit of string and hang onto it, hold it still for a few minutes.” (Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step, 237)

Does Nancy Drew ever wax philosophical this way? I remember she has what border on attacks of nerves and boredom at the beginning of The Hidden Staircase, but does the timeless heroine ever stop for a moment of self-reflection on the passage of time?

What about in other girls' series lit? Or Jane Austen?

I'm struck that there's a part at the end of Little House in the Big Woods, when the young Laura, perhaps five or six, is tucked into her trundle bed in her log cabin in the 1870s with her father playing the fiddle in the next room, wanting to hold on to that moment in time forever.

Any other passages come to mind?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Emma and Donna

I've been thinking about similarities between Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse and Marcia Martin's Donna Parker. One first glance, the two characters don't seem to have much in common-except perhaps looks. Both are dark-haired and pretty.

Donna Parker is a 1950s teenager in Summerfield, N.J., oldest child in a family that includes her mother, father, herself and her younger brother Jimmy. Emma Woodhouse is a 21 year old from early 19th century England. Her mother died when she was very young, and she been raised by her doting hypochondriac father and equally doting governess, Miss Taylor. She has an older sister, who is married and lives in London. Emma is the first lady of her small village of Highbury.

The primary characteristic that jumps to mind about Emma is her snobbery. And indeed she is snobbish, but more profoundly, she misjudges people. The novel turns on the grand hinge that Emma always gets everything wrong. Her perceptions are comically--and potentially tragically--skewed. Yet hers are the main eyes through which we see the action of the novel. The other eyes are a sort of chorus that slides in and out Emma's consciousness and tends to reinforces her misjudgments--the almost equally blinkered set of commonplace attitudes, gossip, lies and half-baked opinions that Austen wickedly places out there as authority by blurring it with her own authorial voice. Beyond Emma and the chorus comes the input of people with agendas: Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, the Bates, Jane Fairfax. Seldom, if ever, is the reader on safe ground, if by safe we mean "these are the facts, ma'am."

In "Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step," Donna, like Emma, displays a marked tendency to judge and misjudge people. In this book, the last in the Donna Parker series. Donna heads off to high school, which we are initially led to believe is her "giant step". In high school, which starts in the tenth grade, she's flattered to be befriended by senior Janie Ingersoll. Janie is pretty and wealthy and dates the high school football star Rudy Hinckle. Donna, taken in by Janie's status, believes the older girl's story that her parents don't really care about her and oppose her relationship with Rudy only because he's poor. As it happens, we learn that Janie is somewhat spoiled and unpredictable, and that Rudy is objectionable not because he's poor, but because he's irredeemably lazy, spoiled and irresponsible.

At the end of the book, Donna has what we might term a series of epiphanies. She starts coming to terms with ambiguity or shades of gray. On the subject of responsibility—this book’s theme—Donna learns that people, including herself, can be a mix of responsible and irresponsible, and that she can make mistakes in judgment"

“’If you’re too involved in something, I guess you just don’t see the obvious things,’ Donna thought to herself." (276)
Donna "giant step," thus, is actually the discovery of her own limitations: “I guess it’s very hard to know all about anyone, even yourself.” (278) She adds, “it’s hard to get to know what people are really like.” (278) She asks her boyfriend Paul: “Do you think we see only what we want to see?” (278)

Emma does not ask herself such broadly philosophical questions, although, she more than Donna, arguably ought to, but she does reflect on her own misperceptions as the book ends, and resolves, to become "more rational, more acquainted with herself." This being Emma, we can only hope-- this 21 year old doesn't reflect on, as almost-15 year-old Donna does, "that we only see what we want to see"--for some growth of self-awareness. Personally, however, I have little hope that Emma will become more self aware.

What most interests me, however, is the way a book like "Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step" prepares us for reading a much more complex and nuanced novel like Emma. By being taken in, at a young age, by a flawed and limited point of view, we're unconsciously prepared as readers to encounter unreliable narrators in adult books. What do you think?

Friday, July 17, 2009


Welcome to the place where great women literary writers and their creations meet with girls' series books and their authors on level ground, neither one privileged over the other.

For starters, what do you think of my banner of portraits? Donna Parker, square dancing, and Nancy Drew, sleuthing, are such active, dynamic figures compared to the static portraits of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Yet, in Jane and Emily's distant eyes and intelligent faces, we can see that there's a good deal going on.

Perhaps I should have found images of Elizabeth Bennett and Catherine Earnshaw to complement Donna Parker and Nancy Drew. Or perhaps I should have juxtaposed pictures of Lizzy and Cathy with photos of Donna Parker's author "Marica Martin," (Marcia Lauter Obrasky Levin) and Nancy Drew's "Carolyn Keene," (most famously, Mildred Wirt Benson). But the images I chose are iconic and immediately recognizable. They also reflect the reality that a series' protagonist becomes its chief signifier.

I'm not going to (at least not yet) provide lists of books and plot summaries, as these can be found on other sites. I do want however, to jump "in media res" to what's been going on my life with these beloved gals on the banner. First, over the past two days I've had contact with both Marcia Levin's daughter and her husband (Marica, sadly, died a few years ago) in conjunction with an article I'm writing about dining out in Donna Parker. It's been an exciting sleuthing job for me to uncover the "real" restaurants described in the books, and a thrill to speak with and e-mail people related to Marcia Martin. As a child, I never would have dreamed I could get so close to such an exalted personage! To make it all even better, they were both gracious people and delighted to find an interest in the Donna Parker series.

Second, I'm reading a book about Emily Bronte by Katherine Frank called "A Chainless Soul: A life of Emily Bronte." It purports that Emily was anoxeric, a theory that's so far ... just a theory, but I am finding the book a lively and entertaining read all the same.

Anyway, this is a huge question and one that will dance under the whole blog as time goes on: what do these various figures, literary and real, have in common? What links Elizabeth Bennett and Nancy Drew or Jane Austen and Marcia Levin? How did all of these characters, real and created, help to form us?