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Wednesday Worlds Colliding

What I've Finished Reading

“What the hell?” growled Swoozie. “Get up, you stupid bastard.”
“Humans can't live without their heads,” explained Calvin. It was easy to forget that.
“That's crap. I don't see why I have to be saddled with such a silly weakness just because humans don't have the imagination to realize that their limitations are not required for a video game character.”
“These games are marketed with a human audience in mind,” said Benny.
“It's discrimination.”

Chasing the Moon is a recent novel by A. Lee Martinez, about a world troubled by rifts in reality. There is a difficult population of eldrich god-beings who are trapped in a plane of existence that doesn't want or suit them, and their hapless human wardens who are making the best of it. It's light, funny and pretty impressively sure-footed (a necessary condition of being funny, for this kind of premise). The hero of the book is Diana, whose determination to live rationally in an irrational universe is surprisingly successful. I liked it a lot. It felt like the kind of thing Douglas Adams might have liked to read when he wanted to cheer himself up.

Psmith Journalist is a very strange book, with a premise that should be funnier than it is, but isn't as funny as it could be because. . . Wodehouse is a little uncertain of himself? Is that possible? This is a Wodehouse book in more or less the Wodehouse style, but it's a lot less self-assured than later books I have read -- definitely less self-assured than Leave it to Psmith. It's early-ish (1909?) and it shows. The premise: Psmith and Mike are in America for Mike's cricket tour, but Mike is always playing cricket and Psmith is easily bored. One day they meet the equally bored sub-editor of a sacchrine "family market" newspaper called Cosy Moments, and Psmith talks him into turning Cosy Moments into a muckraking sensation sheet while the editor is away on a doctor-ordered vacation.

Which is an excellent setup and produces the beautiful tagline "Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!" Then Psmith finds a tenement slum, is unconvincingly moved to anger and pity, and decides to use the paper to expose the owner, which leads to death threats (comical death threats) from several gangs -- and I don't know, I'm not sure that it works? New York can't possibly change Psmith; it can only become more Psmithian as it comes into focus around him, so the action all seems to take place within a bubble. This is perfectly all right when your characters are all natives of the bubble, like Bertie and the aunts getting into difficulties over antique coffee-creamers, but here, where the story attempts contact with The Real Problems of the Urban Poor the effect is weird, somewhere between parody and nothing at all. Also, I spent over a hundred pages thinking that the racism wasn't too bad, but then it got pretty bad.

It's interesting to see the Wodehouse formula applied to American stereotypes circa 1909, and the premise is excellent -- it would make a good movie, if the screenwriters were willing to work on the plot a little, so that the Great Cosy Moments Crusade has a wider range of effects than "hired toughs try to whack Psmith and Billy Windsor for 100 pages."

What I'm Reading Now

I'm supposed to be reading Brideshead Revisited, but the library book sale had Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, so I'm reading that instead. I didn't think I liked The Razor's Edge all that much, but it got under my skin, and the best thing to do when something gets under your skin is to. . .put a lot of related things under your skin in an attempt to understand them better? I don't know. So far Of Human Bondage is magically delicious, and reminds me a little of Emily of New Moon. There is a sensitive, reticent orphan boy who goes to live with his relatives in the vicarage, who have no idea how to deal with nine-year-olds or any children, and everything is funny-sad and terribly awkward. I might not always love it, but I love it right now.

I also started The Scarlet Pimpernel, because it was fifty cents at the library book sale and I'd never read it before. It managed to find and cross my highly elusive "too classist for me" line on the very first page, an impressive feat but not a very pleasant one. I'm going to read it all the way through as punishment for my sins.

What I'm Reading Next

Brideshead Revisited! Your turn is coming! Also, the bookstore where I work has just received a large donation of P. G. Wodehouse, including lots of books I haven't read, so this space may become a little Wodehouse-dense for a while.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 23rd, 2015 01:30 pm (UTC)
I can't remember whether I've read Psmith, Journalist or not, but I believe the first Psmith and Mike book was actually a school story, so it represents a very early Wodehouse work, moving away from the younger audience & yeah, is not Wodehouse as we know him from his later stuff.

so this space may become a little Wodehouse-dense for a while.

This sounds like a plan with no downsides?

Sep. 23rd, 2015 04:02 pm (UTC)
This sounds like a plan with no downsides?


Yes, the first Mike and Psmith book was a school story; that and this one and Psmith in the City were all written very close to one another. I haven't read those, so I don't know what they're like. They might be a little better if the integrity of the Wodehouse Bubble is preserved -- but Wodehouse is definitely still finding his feet in Psmith Journalist.
Sep. 23rd, 2015 05:07 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed Psmith, Journalist, but I found huge levels of fascination in the "British Stereotypes of America, circa 1900" and "Wodehouse attempts an ethnography of NYC for his audience" factors. I love that sort of weird cultural detritus, and the novelty of NYC being a place that anyone would need an introduction to was more than enough to carry me through the book.

I had the same reaction to The Scarlet Pimpernel! The classism was especially shocking because I'd had no expectation of it; from cultural osmosis, I had thought the book was just frothy fun with no real world connection.
Sep. 23rd, 2015 05:53 pm (UTC)
I mean, I knew The Scarlet Pimpernel was about a hypercompetent English aristocrat saving his French confrères from the guillotine, so I was expecting a certain amount of classism, but I was still totally unprepared for the spittle-flecked welcome I actually received. I say it crossed a line on the first page, but really it was the very first paragraph.

Psmith Journalist is definitely interesting on those levels! I enjoyed reading the book, just not as much as I would have if it were also a little funnier.
Sep. 23rd, 2015 07:31 pm (UTC)
Scarlet Pimpernel managed to remarkable feat of making me recoil from the classism so hard that I actually started to sympathize with the Reign of the Terror!
Sep. 27th, 2015 02:19 pm (UTC)
I KNOW. I' started listening to the guillotine song from the musical just to cheer myself up. :p

It gets less egregious after the first chapter or so, when other things turn up to crowd it out a little. I like Marguerite and her conflicted loyalites. But that first page! Come on.
Sep. 28th, 2015 04:01 pm (UTC)
It's true, it does calm down a lot once you get into the actual story, and there is a lot of fun stuff about the book. But that first page does leave an impression!
Sep. 25th, 2015 10:03 am (UTC)
I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel when I was around ten and re-read a nuumbr of times. I wonder what I would make of it now. :)
Sep. 27th, 2015 02:14 pm (UTC)
It's hard to say what I would have made of it at ten! My sister loved it at ten, but our tastes tended to diverge a lot. It has a (somewhat irritating to present eyes) Melodramatic Unspoken Love thing going on that I might have gone for at the time, and stupid aristocrats exclaiming things in drawing rooms are always(?) funny and, as I mentioned below, I've always been a fan of Underestimate Me At Your Peril, but there's a good chance I would have gotten bored before I reached the point where there starts to be a story, and gone off to read Jane Eyre for the millionth time instead. I was a pretty lazy re-reader at ten.
Sep. 27th, 2015 03:29 pm (UTC)
I think I need to re-read it and see what I think. Back then I had seen the movie with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, which promted me to read it. Read all the sequels too!
Sep. 27th, 2015 03:58 pm (UTC)
MERLE OBERON? I love Merle Oberon! Or at least I loved her in that terrible Wuthering Heights adaptation with what's his name. I should watch this movie, y/y? The Scarlet Pimpernel seems like it would work better with lots of Old Hollywood acting and intrusive violins and Merle Oberon's leonine glare. Is the movie any good?
Sep. 27th, 2015 04:03 pm (UTC)
That would be Laurence Olivier. :) I like Wuthering Heights as well, despite it's flaws. I had a girl crush on Merle Oberon my whole childhood.

Yes, I think The Scarlet Pimpernell is very good. It's of course very much early 30's, but Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon has a great chemistry and Raymond Massey as Chavulin is pretty great too. As an adult I get a bit annoyed with Oberon's ball gown which has absolutely noting at all with 18th century fashion to do- it's pure 30's, but apart from that the costumes are quite good.

You can find the whole movie on Youtube:

Sep. 27th, 2015 04:07 pm (UTC)
Aww, thanks! I'll report back when I have the chance to watch it all.

As an adult I get a bit annoyed with Oberon's ball gown which has absolutely noting at all with 18th century fashion to do- it's pure 30's

Hah! Well, we have been informed that Marguerite is a trend-setter who is always a step ahead of the fashion!
Sep. 27th, 2015 04:11 pm (UTC)
Hah! Well, we have been informed that Marguerite is a trend-setter who is always a step ahead of the fashion!

LOL, yes- she is very fashion forward indeed!
Sep. 26th, 2015 07:51 am (UTC)
Gosh, I read the first half of The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years ago & don't remember thinking there was anything untoward about it. I suppose it's pretty classist by definition, seeing as it's about a heroic aristocrat saving his poor fellow aristocrats from the wrath of the great unwashed, and written by an actual baroness, no less! But maybe I'm just used to reading 19th century novels where authorial voices tend to be rather snobby, so I've learned to ignore it.

I'll have to finish it sometime & see if I can spot the offensive passages. But there's so much casual racism & sexism in Victorian/Edwardian literature that I've learned to pick my battles when it comes to old books. :\
Sep. 27th, 2015 07:14 am (UTC)
Yes, it is very Victorian/Edwardian style. And great fun, once you accept that this is one battle not worth fighting. I first read it when I was about thirteen. I finished it in an evening. I've reread it since then and still enjoy it. Despite the classist attitudes of the era there is one attitude that she didn't have. Just take a look at early Agatha Christie and Buchan as such and there's so much casual anti-Semitism; I think in Christie's case it was typical of her class and it wasn't till she met a Nazi that she realised it was wrong. In one scene of Scarlet Pimpernel, Percy disguises himself as the cliched grovelling Jew in order to get rid of Chauvelin, because while he isn't anti-Semitic, he knows Chauvelin will be. For that matter, his cliched dandy act is just that: an act.

I've read a number of Wodehouse books, though not the Psmith ones. You can get some of the early ones free on Gutenberg. There's a delicious Arthurian short story in which the damsel comes to the court of King Arthur pretending to need a knight to help, in order to get a husband. ;-)
Sep. 27th, 2015 02:35 pm (UTC)
Percy disguises himself as the cliched grovelling Jew in order to get rid of Chauvelin, because while he isn't anti-Semitic, he knows Chauvelin will be

I haven't gotten there yet! I am mildly curious about whether it will be interesting, or make me cringe so hard that I pull a muscle, or maybe both! (my bet is on a little bit of both, but we'll see).

I haven't come across much of the casual anti-Semitism in Christie yet, but I've been reading her all out of order; I'm sure it's in there somewhere. I know Dorothy Sayers is pretty bad about it, and as far as I can tell, their Detection Club buddy G. K. Chesterton's anti-Semitism isn't even casual.

The Bertie Wooster books are my favorite (Bertie is the best first-person narrator), but there are a huge number of Wodehouse things I haven't read. Psmith was an early endeavor and not spectacularly successful, but the non-Bertie book I'm reading now (The Adventures of Sally) is pretty good.

There's a delicious Arthurian short story in which the damsel comes to the court of King Arthur pretending to need a knight to help, in order to get a husband. ;-)

Do you know the title of the story?
Sep. 27th, 2015 10:56 pm (UTC)
Will look up that story. It's in one of the Mike Ashley theme collections, not sure where it was first published.
Sorry, I didn't realise you hadn't finished. Forget it - there's plenty more to read before you get there.

I have read a few of Dorothy Sayers' books, but I recall in the first Lord Peter novel that he worked out whodunnit because the villain was an anti-Semite. I can't recall any other references.
Sep. 27th, 2015 11:34 pm (UTC)
I recall in the first Lord Peter novel that he worked out whodunnit because the villain was an anti-Semite. I can't recall any other references.

That's probably correct, but if I open up Whose Body? to check I will end up reading the whole thing and I don't have time for that. It mostly turns up in dialogue between characters and the occasional caricature, iirc.

Sorry, I didn't realise you hadn't finished

No worries! :D
Sep. 27th, 2015 02:06 pm (UTC)
Probably it's different for everyone. I feel like I've read enough from the 19th and early 20thc that I have at least some sense of when writers are being a bit worse/better than their contemporaries, and yes, which battles to pick. It's sill a little unpredictable what I'll be blasé about in a book and what will throw me out.

I think in this case it's largely an issue of POV; I'm happy to listen to characters being classist among themselves and thinking all kinds of thoughts, if I can pretend it's just them acting "in character." But when a narrator turns up on the first page to lecture me in highly offended tones on how the seething, animalistic French mob ought to feel more gratitude toward the ex-aristocracy for "making the glory of France," it gets us off to a bad start.

The book gets a little better once it acquires some characters and a plot; I love a good Underestimate Me At Your Peril story and I like Marguerite so far. I still find the narrative voice a little intrusive, but there's a lot less of it past the opening chapter, and more stupid!Percy saying "La!" a lot, so it evens out a bit.

(I don't know if the plot would need to be classist by definition. You don't need to be a Loyalist or believe in the natural superiority of the aristos in order to think it's unjust to condemn them to death. The Scarlet P. could even branch out into rescuing non-aristocratic victims of the Terror, if it occurred to Citizen Orczy to be concerned about that sort of thing) (maybe it will occur to her later; I don't know)

Iirc, Dickens also uses the guillotine as a horror/pity focal point in A Tale of Two Cities but is a little more even-handed in his sympathies -- though it's been a while since I read A Tale of Two Cities; maybe I should.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


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