Saturday, October 09, 2010

Reading Contemporary Blockbusters and The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia

I decided a few months ago to read one contemporary novel a week.  This has its ups and downs.  If I state the truth–and if you blog,  you might as well write what you think–it’s good for my journal but might hurt somebody’s feelings.  Occasionally a writer does show up here and I’ve been very pleased to read her comments.  But on the other hand, what if I trash the book?
So far, no twitters saying, “Never go to this blog.”  
Since I prefer older books, which are often better-written (some people were better-educated back in the day), I have a difficult time adjusting to the simpler style and uneven structure of popular new books.  Take Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  I got my library copy today.  Everybody LOVES this book, so shouldn’t I be excited?  I enjoyedThe Corrections.  I threw up on one copy–literally, I was sick–and had to buy another copy.  Well, here’s what I think.  Freedom looks ordinary.  Okay, I’ve only read ten pages.  But he’s not Michael Cunningham or Peter Carey, for God’s sake.
I loved Franzen for saying 10 years ago on the radio that The Corrections wasn’t really meant to be an Oprah book.  I understand the kind of person who says what he thinks and then suddenly has a hundred powerful enemies (like Oprah).  But I can’t stand the marketing of Freedom.  Critics and writers were already calling this a classic before the damned thing was published.  And it’s an Oprah book.  That really doesn’t recommend it to me at this point
So I’m staring at this book and think I’ll wait a bit to read it.  
So the novel of the week is more obscure,  Mary Helen Stefaniak’s enjoyable novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia.  It is neither very good nor very bad.  I read part of it at Barnes & Noble, decided it wasn’t worth buying, then did a turn-around and decided I wanted to read her portrait of Miss Spivey, a one-room schoolhouse teacher in Georgia in 1938.  
It’s very difficult to believe in Miss Spivey.  She is radical, a free spirit ahead of her time, a WPA teacher who winds up in Threestep, Georgia. She reads The Thousand and One Nights to her students–she recently made a long trip to Baghdad– and structures her school year around the theme of Baghdad.  She plans a bazaar based on The Arabian Nights and gets the town involved with painting, building, and electricity.  But just before the bazaar she stages a kind of sit-in, bringing Negroes into her classroom, and almost loses her job.  The town decides they can’t do without her for the big Baghdad bazaar, as she has even tracked down some camels and brought them in for the show.  Miss Spivey is part Miss Jean Brodie and part Mary Poppins.
Stefaniak takes the easy way out:  instead of showing us Miss Spivey’s point of view, she presents her through the eyes of the narrator, 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff.  So you know where you are:  a perspicacious Southern child observes the teacher, not always understanding what she sees and hears, and it’s all very cute and sentimental.
I do enjoy this book, and if you like any of those book group-y kind of books, like Water for Elephants and The Lace Reader, you’ll enjoy this novel.  I haven’t finished it, and I’m thinking Miss Spivey is going to turn into a Miss Brodie:  there are plenty of hints.  But we shall see.

No comments: