Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Persimmon cake and Jane Austen

Our persimmons are now "well-frosted"--or at least, somewhat frosted--and so I picked some. I've discovered they're best when they turn bright orange, almost the color of a cherry tomato, and are beginning to shrivel.

When I'd gathered enough, I whipped them into a pulp in the food processor and made a persimmon cake from a recipe I found on the Web.

I served it at the Quaker Writing group meeting this evening. It was the color and texture of an English plum pudding, a moist, dense cake. The "tasters" --aka the writing group--liked it. I was glad.

I was informed that you can frost persimmons by picking them and putting them in the freezer. Now why didn't I think of that? I was also told that November and December are more the months for persimmons, but we have had a cold snap recently.

In any case, the golden and orange persimmon globes are colorful and pretty in the tree. People in Barnesville with persimmon experience tell me I should try an actual persimmon pudding. Maybe I will.

This is all the more thrilling for me as I am reading a book now called Jane Austen and Food. After her father died, according to this book, Jane and her mother and her sister Cassandra lived in a "cottage" called Chawton, with a big garden surrounded by high walls. They grew pears and greengages and many other fruits (and vegetables) and made their own jams, jellies and preserves. So as I baked with persimmons, I liked thinking that Jane Austen would have done the same.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ambiguity in Nancy Drew

In Girl Sleuths, Bobby Ann Mason uses the following quote from The Mystery at Lilac Inn to illustrate Nancy's association with the color blue:
“The driver, a pretty girl of perhaps 16, attractive in a frock that either by accident or design, exactly matched the blue of her automobile, smiled whimsically.” (p.1, original version)

The use of blue was interesting but I was stunned by the phrase "either by accident or design." Either/or! From the very first page of this book, we're confronted with mystery, ambiguity, forks in the road. Which is it? Is it accident that Nancy's "frock" matches her car or is "design?" And what are we to make of this mysterious Mona Lisa smile, this whimsical smile, that apparently results from being hungry and reading a sign for chicken dinners?

When I first went looking for this quote, I mistakenly picked up The Password to Larkspur Lane. (Larkspurs, Lilacs ...) I was perplexed I couldn't find the quote I sought. What I did see was the following: "If this were 2,000 years ago ...." Not fact, but supposition, followed by plants "that waved their blue plumes as if saying: 'Choose me! Choose me!'" Three short paragraphs into the book and we read two "ifs:" we are in the world of supposition, possibility and, with the imagined cries of the flowers, choice.

Both openings point to depths and mysteries in Nancy herself that make her a more interesting character. Does Nancy plan her frocks to match her car? What about Nancy we don't know? Is she more calculating than we may believe, more in control of the aesthetics of her environment than she might let on? Or it mere chance that her dress matches her car? Is her "whimisical" smile because of hunger or a nod to the way she's put one over on us? The text leaves us hanging ... or more precisely, puts the burden on us to look for "clues" in the text to tease out our own conclusions.

In the Password to Larkspar Lane, we find Nancy and Hannah Gruen in a domestic, pedestrian and typically female endeavor: cutting flowers from a backyard garden for a flower show. Yet the text lifts it into another, more mysterious realm. Nancy is not just an everyday girl in the midwest. She connects herself to a larger story, a history that goes back 2,000 years to ancient Greece, a place that evokes wisdom and mystery. The text also subverts Nancy's feminine activity. She's the actor, the chooser, the "male" figure in this scene. She has the power over the passive flowers, who can only say "Choose me!" It's she who walks among the contestants in this beauty pageant, making decisions and taking action: "Snip!"

How is this similar to Jane Austen?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book about children's literature

I've been reading three books on children's literature--with a hat tip to Ellen Moody at WomenWritersoftheWorld for recommending them--Bobby Ann Mason's Girl Sleuth, Good Girl Messages by Deborah O'Keefe and Catching Them Young: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction by Bob Dixon.

In Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames, published in 1975, Mason first discusses the classism and sexism inherent in the Honeybunch series and Bobbesey Twin books, then moves on to analyze the mixed messages girls receive from series such as Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton. She points particularly to the classist assumptions in Nancy Drew: Nancy is a well-to-do, blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP girl who expects and receives privileges because of her class. This is obviously true to an extent, but Mason overstates the case and I would like, in a future blog or blogs to examine the intersection of class and sex in Nancy Drew. Do we unfairly tar young female characters who behave assertively and independently with the brush of "class privilege?" Do we use accusations of classist behavior to further oppress women who act boldly? Is Nancy Drew truly unconscious of her class privilege? Unamibivalent about it? Should women who happen belong to an elite class not use their power?

Mason also sees Nancy Drew as dependent on her father, both financially and as the person who "saves" her from danger. Again, I think the waters are much murkier. Of course, Nancy relies on her father's income. But is that all there is to it?

Mason also opened me the amazing ambiguities and possibilities in the Nancy Drew text that are out there in plain sight. She doesn't focus on this at all--or seem to notice it--but she chose a quote that made it all pop out for me. More on this later too ... and it's connection to Jane Austen.

I have a question: two of the three books I'm reading about children's literature were written in the 1970s (O'Keefe's book, however, was published in 2000). Is that because not much analysis has been written since then? Are there other books that standout that we should know about?