Monday, February 21, 2011

Bibliobits: If I Formed a Publishing Co., Dodie Smith's The New Moon with the Old, & Jo Walton's Among Others

Dodie Smith.  If I indulged the sudden impulse to become a publisher and reissue old books, I would reprint Dodie Smith's The New Moon with the Old

You all know Dodie Smith.  She is the world-famous author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I bought a copy of her adult novel, I Capture the Castle, for 25 cents at Good Will when I was 14 and subsequently carried it everywhere in a string bag which matched my fey green embroidered dress.

A few years ago I set out to collect all of Smith's novels.  (I wonder if I've paid them off yet. I recently cut up a credit card which was out of control.) The New Moon with the Old is my favorite.  On March 17, 2009, I blogged:  "This 1963 pop masterpiece has somehow fallen below the critical radar, but this witty, elegant novel is even more engaging than the classic, I Capture the Castle."

I am rereading The New Moon with the Old.  It is a fairy tale about work, a subject that fascinates me.  Smith, a playwright, has a somewhat artificial dramatic style that also appeals to me.  The novel begins with Jane Minton, the new secretary-housekeeper at Dome House, the country house of her charming London employer, Rupert Carrington.  A few days after she arrives, he flees the country guilty of financial misdeeds.   The novel is the story of what happens to Jane and the four Carrington children afterwards, when all must fend for themselves.  

Smith divides the novel into five books, "Jane," "Merry," "Drew," "Clare," and "Richard." Jane takes a job at a school to help support the household.  The two maids do the same:  they take a job at an inn to help out.  Oddly, the children, ages 14-24, find jobs in reverse chronological order.  Fourteen-year-old Merry, a talented actress, runs away and finds a job directing an aristocratic family's amateur theatricals.  Nineteen-year-old  Drew, an aspiring novelist writing a book about the Edwardians, becomes a companion to a 70-year-old woman who is slavishly trapped in an Edwardian life-style.  Clare, 21, who wants to be "a king's mistress" (the family joke and because of her reading of many Dumas novels), becomes a companion to an ex-king whose son falls in love with her.  As for Richard...

Well, I haven't gotten that far and I don't remember much about Richard.  He's the dull one. 

Anyway, one thing that strikes me this time is the isolation of Drew in his Edwardian "time machine."  His employer, Miss Whitecliff, whose life was directed by her ancient domineering mother until the matriarch died a few years ago, cannot make the simplest decisions, cannot even write a grocery list, and was slowly starving, along with her two dependent maids, until Drew came along, contacted her lawyer, and arranged modern life, bringing in food, newspapers, a wireless, central heating, and a refrigerator.

The village appears quaint and completely antique to him until he updates the house.  Then modernity abounds. Suddenly he realizes the house had misled him.  He is grateful to find himself back in the 20th century. He needs contact.

And, for Trivial Pursuit Night on The New Moon with the Old, you'll want to know that Clare's favorite Dumas book is Louise de la Vallicre.

Jo Walton's Among Others.  I bought this novel by chance at B&N because the premise reminded me of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, a literary novel about magic and literature.  According to a blurb by Suzy McKee Charnas, "This is a love letter, laced with sharp-edged anguish and triumph, from within the SF/F genres.  Among Others shows just how such books are not only entertaining stories but social lifelines."

Doesn't this sound like my kind of thing?  I love SF and fantasy.

The narrator, 15-year-old Morwenna Phelps, keeps a diary at boarding school, in which she records not only encounters with fairies, ghosts, and various odd students, but her impressions of the science fiction and fantasy novels she inhales.  Morwenna understands the gravitas of reading and writes very well about books.  In fact, she spends more time writing about books than people.  Dramatic events include getting a library card at the village library, befriending the school librarian, and joining a science fiction book club.  It is a bit Y.A.-ish in its weaker parts, though it is marketed in the adult SF section and mostly deserves this designation. Perhaps we can blame the failings on Twitterish editors:  great beginnings, award-winning writing, then floundering because no one reads beyond 140 characters.  I will finish, this, though, because Walton is clearly a superior writer and I love the premise for this novel. 

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