Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style, Part II

Amazon.com: Betsy in Spite of Herself (Betsy-Tacy) (9780064401111): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books

Making my way through the Betsy-Tacy series has been quite frustrating so far. I really wanted to like these books more, since there are so many loyal fans, and a lot of fellow writers speak glowingly about the huge influence this series has had on their lives. And Mrs. Lovelace, while operating under the style of a bygone era (e.g., way too many adverbs, a lot of telling instead of showing), was clearly a good writer. Many of her passages are quite beautiful.

I also love slower-paced, character-driven stories with more of an episodic structure and series where coming of age IS the storyline, and of course I love almost anything historical. So why has it been so hard for me to click with most of these books?

Betsy in Spite of Herself: a Betsy-Tracy High School Story: Lovelace, Maud Hart: Amazon.com: Books

Because not only do these characters have unrealistically charmed lives, their few problems are so minor and fluffy. For all my issues with the Five Little Peppers series, at least they have real problems that aren’t easily, quickly resolved!

I had zero interest in parties, dating, or shallow social life in high school. The antics of the popular crowd seemed so boring and stupid. I also don’t come from a privileged bourgeois background like Betsy and her huge group of BFFs.

Amazon.com: Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (9780061794698): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

It’s September 1907, and Betsy is starting her sophomore year. She tells her journal she wants to reinvent herself and become a totally different, more exciting person. Didn’t we just go down that road in the previous book?

Betsy sets her sights on junior Phil Brandish, who has a red car. That automatically makes him more desirable and exciting than any of the other boys she knows. Betsy never lacks for male attention, but thinks all these guys only flock to her house for the food.

Despite only having FOUR classes (Latin, rhetoric [i.e., English], geometry, and modern history), Betsy once again neglects her studies. Parties, football games, and hanging out with “The Crowd” are just so much more fun than boring schoolwork!

Betsy in Spite of Herself: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780613100120: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy stays by her old friend Tib (real name Thelma) in Milwaukee during the last two weeks of the year, and has a grand time in this then-very German city. She loves the lavish Christmas celebrations which last an entire week, attending the theatre, eating wonderful new foods, learning some German, and getting to know Tib’s extended family.

On New Year’s Eve, Betsy and Tib stay up all night talking, and Betsy starts hatching her plan to reinvent herself in earnest. She makes a checklist of things to do differently on the train home.

One of those changes is adopting the ugly kreatyv spylyng Betsye, which I mentally pronounced Bets-YEE. Because, you know, letters mean something and aren’t just tossed into names willy-nilly to look cool.

Betsy Tacy Boxed Set 6 PB Maud Hart Lovelace Lois Lenski Heaven to Go Downtown 64401278 | eBay | Betsy, Maud, Hardcover

Betsy gets Phil to ask her to the Leap Year Dance by putting out the word that she had a dream about him (which never happened). To stay on the controlling Phil’s good side, Betsy passes up party invites, refuses to join the girls’ debate team or sing the silly Cat Duet she and her best friend Tacy have been singing for years, and almost declines to be one of the sophomore participants in the yearly essay contest. All so she can date a rich boy with a car.

As in the previous book, Betsy realises near the very end that she shouldn’t have pretended to be someone she’s not, all for the sake of popularity and male attention. This would feel less deus ex machina if she’d gradually built towards this instead of only coming to see the error of her ways when everything blows up in her face in a very public way.

I was also super creeped out by how Betsy’s sister Julia, a high school senior, dates two grown-ass men, one of them Betsy’s English teacher!

52 Betsy-Tacy Cover Art ideas | betsy, books, maud

I just can’t relate to someone who’s so boring and shallow, and lives such a charmed, idyllic life. Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d taken part in the cliché high school experience or grown up bourgeois.

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy, #5) by Maud Hart Lovelace

Because I mostly enjoyed Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the fourth book in this vintage coming-of-age series strongly based on the author’s own overly idyllic life, I thought I’d like the high school books even more. After all, as characters gradually get older, their adventures automatically become increasingly more interesting and mature.

Right?

Wrong!

Amazon.com: Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (9780061794698): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

First of all, this barely qualifies as a proper Betsy-Tacy book because Tacy is barely in it. She’s relegated to more of a secondary character most of the times she appears, since she’s not interested in the shallow, insipid goings-on of “The Crowd” (what a stupid, unoriginal name for a big group of friends). This book would’ve been so much more compelling if Tacy’s lack of interest in boys, social life, and partying had been developed as a foil to Betsy’s new obsessions.

There was such poor character development of “The Crowd,” I totally forgot Herbert and Larry are brothers until it was pointed out again near the end! All these new friends ran together. While I usually write with large ensemble casts myself, you can’t just throw them all at the reader in one fell swoop! You gradually introduce them a few at a time, even if they’re all present early on.

Vera Neville’s illustrations don’t help, since they make everyone look almost identical.

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy #5) by Maud Hart Lovelace | The Dog Gone Bookshop

This book feels like a reversion to the earliest books in the series in that it consists of a series of random episodes instead of one cohesive plot or story trajectory. Am I supposed to give a damn about the endless parties, get-togethers, and flirtations of these popular, upper-middle-class ninth graders? Or relate to Betsy for being instantly popular and sought after by multiple boys from Day One of high school?

Betsy is so obsessed with currying favor with “The Crowd,” she feels she can never turn down an invitation. At one point, she pretends her mother cautioned her against ice-skating due to cold weather, and when that ruse fails, she fakes a sprained ankle rather than tell her supposed friends she just doesn’t like skating.

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Despite attending what must be one of the easiest high schools ever, with only FOUR classes (Latin, composition, algebra, and ancient history), Betsy still manages to do poorly in everything but English for much of the year. Her final grades in Latin and algebra are Cs, and she somehow manages to greatly pull up her history grade near the very last minute to finish with a low A.

I was embarrassed for Betsy when she used a nonfiction essay about Puget Sound to write a freaking short story about herself, her friends, and her sister Julia taking a visit there. She read that “essay” before the entire school, and got a huge round of applause! If I were her English teacher, I’d have failed her for not following directions. I remember several assignments I got Cs on or was told to redo because I misunderstood the objective or made my own character up instead of using a real person.

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy, #5)

The boys were so freaking entitled and obnoxious, I failed to see why any of the girls liked them so much. E.g., they break into a house during an all-girl Halloween party, steal the ice-cream, and hold it hostage till the girls feel browbeaten into inviting them inside. Later, they force kisses on unsuspecting, non-consenting girls as they walk under a doorway with mistletoe, and even laugh about how Tacy’s coming next and will be really mad. It is NEVER okay to kiss someone without consent!

Betsy is nominated as one of the two ninth grade contestants for the annual essay contest, and has six weeks to research this year’s topic of the Philippines. But because she just can’t turn down a party invitation, she only visits the library a handful of times and predictably comes to the contest poorly-prepared.

Betsy Tacy Boxed Set 6 PB Maud Hart Lovelace Lois Lenski Heaven to Go Downtown 64401278 | eBay | Betsy, Maud, Hardcover

There’s a subplot about Betsy and her sister Julia wanting to join the Episcopal Church and freaking out about how their Baptist father will react. I wish that storyline had been featured in greater detail, since it’s a lot more compelling than Betsy’s stupid parties and boy-chasing.

Minor nitpick, but I was pulled out of the story every time the Ouija board’s planchette was called a “table.” That’s never been the word used for that object! (And if you’re wondering, scientific studies have shown the Ouija board works by the ideomotor effect, subconsciously moving the planchette to answers you want.)

Bottom line: Betsy is really shallow and boring in this book, and it feels kind of deus ex machina and unrealistic when she finally realises near the end that she shouldn’t have abandoned her writing and pretended to be someone she’s not for the sake of popularity and male attention.

And enough already with the constant parade of unnecessary adverbs!

Happy 50th birthday, BOTW!

Image used solely to illustrate subject for purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released 26 January 1970, BOTW was Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth and final studio album, and was almost the next-last album I listened to in this lifetime. I played it the night before my August 2003 car accident, and when I was finally able to sit in a chair by my record player again, that was the first LP I put on the turntable.

Ever since then, hearing any of the songs can set something off in my psyche and give me a feeling akin to body memories, with my throat getting tighter. It’s not a PTSD trigger, but it brings back memories of those almost being among the final songs I ever heard.

S&G’s last album, Bookends, was released in April 1968, and recording for BOTW commenced in November. However, a long delay arose in January 1969—the filming of Catch-22, in which Art plays Nately. (This is a dreadful, dreadful movie, taking way too many liberties with the classic novel!)

When the duo got back to business in the studio, they had to decline a number of invitations, including Woodstock. Crafting their new album was top priority. In the end, they selected eleven songs. Several other songs, among them “Feuilles-O,” “Groundhog,” and “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” were left in the vault.

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (#1 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and New Zealand; #2 in Australia, Ireland, and Spain; #3 in Germany; #4 in Austria and South Africa; #5 in Switzerland and The Netherlands; #7 in Norway; #23 in Belgium)

“El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” (written by Peruvian commposer Daniel Alomía Robles in 1913) (#1 in Belgium, Australia, Austria, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland; #6, #11, and #18 on different U.S. charts; #14 in New Zealand)

“Cecilia” (my third journal’s namesake song) (#1 in The Netherlands; #2 in Spain, Canada, and Germany; #3 in Belgium and Switzerland; #4, #31, and #1 on different U.S. charts; #6 in Australia and Austria; #9 in Belgium; #19 in Rhodesia)

“Keep the Customer Satisfied” (later covered by Gary Puckett as a solo artist)
“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (not a fan of the overly long fadeout!)

“The Boxer” (#1 and #3 on different Canadian charts; #2 in Austria and The Netherlands; #3 in South Africa; #4 and #7 on different U.S. charts; #5 in Sweden; #6 in the U.K.; #7 in Ireland; #8 in Australia; #9 in New Zealand and Norway; #10 in Spain; #13 in Zimbabwe; #19 in West Germany)

“Baby Driver”
“The Only Living Boy in New York”
“Why Don’t You Write Me”
“Bye Bye Love” (cover of The Everly Brothers’ original)
“Song for the Asking”
“Feuilles-O” (demo)*
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (demo take six)*

The album reached #1 in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Spain, and Norway. In Italy, it was #4.

While I truly enjoy this album, I don’t rank it in the same territory as PSR&T and Bookends. It’s a little too hit and miss. A truly classic album shouldn’t have so much filler!

Besides the four singles, my favorite tracks are “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Song for the Asking.”

I originally rated it 4.5 on my old Angelfire site, but now I’d honestly give it 4 stars.

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!