Saturday, December 17, 2022

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 2

Continuing our tale of the book lover who somehow lost her love for books, I was in a bit of despair after finishing Larry McMurty's travelogue Roads (which I gushed all over in Part 1 of this blog series). Maybe Roads was a one-time thing, I thought; maybe I'd go right back to the book blahs. So I grabbed one off my shelf more or less at random, an older copy of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career that I'd found at a Friends of the Library sale* in Medford, Oregon.

I remembered fondly but vaguely the 1979 film starring Judy Davis, which I saw in the 1980s during my very impressionable community-college days. But I hadn’t realized the origin behind this 1901 novel (the story of which you can read in the “new introduction” to the 1980 edition). This tale of a fiery girl growing up in the farmlands of Australia was written by a 16-year-old named Stella Franklin, who took her grandfather’s name, Miles, as a male pseudonym since it was tough going for female authors at the time. The book was picked up by a publisher when Franklin was in her early 20s, it sold well immediately, and then started to create problems for Franklin and her family when readers mistook it for an autobiography, thinking she’d basically trashed her relatives in some sort of tell-all. Stung by the notoriety—and maybe also by a male literary critic who theorized that the girl in the book, and by extension, Franklin herself, must be mentally ill—Franklin withdrew My Brilliant Career from publication and basically kept it in a drawer for the rest of her life. She went on to publish many more novels and became one of Australia’s preeminent writers. My Brilliant Career was finally published again after her death in 1954, and had another resurgence of popularity. It’s now regarded as an early feminist novel, and it’s unlike anything from that era that I’ve read before.

What I love about My Brilliant Career is the voice of the protagonist, Sybylla. She makes bad decisions, hurts the people around her, and is so disagreeable that even Judy Davis, who played her in the movie, said she didn’t like the character. But man, Sybylla—well, Miles Franklin—had a thing with words. There are passages in the novel where Sybylla waxes poetic for a full paragraph about the way a creek looks, or a sunset, or a chair in a shady spot where it’s 110 degrees in the shade. (It’s often 110 in the shade where she lives.) Those extravagant passages just knocked me out; I went back and read them over and over, they’re so beautiful. And she’s funny; I also laughed a lot. And she never does what you expect her to do; even when she’s screwing up royally, it’s because she’s taken another left turn to defy expectations. 

I’m sure there are scholarly dissertations about why this was a feminist manifesto, but what I saw, again and again, was a woman who had no interest in the constraints expected of her in that culture at that time—to marry well, of course, and to be dainty and quiet and behave herself so as not scare off the men. And to wait around for a man to determine what her life will be like. In a way, it was like seeing Larry McMurtry in Roads, audaciously writing about whatever the hell he wanted to write about; My Brilliant Career is about that kind of freedom of choice to follow your own path. But Sybylla doesn’t really have any outlet for those independent impulses, and the book doesn’t resolve nicely the way the movie does; she’s a woman stuck in her times who will probably always catch hell for her rebellion. At one point you begin to see that her mother and other female relatives may have had that spark at one time too; there are layers of subjugation and frustration running through most of the women in the book. But… again, it’s also funny. Very funny. I found it a delight from beginning to end, a world I was glad to settle back into—110 degrees and all—at the end of the day. Even when things are going horribly for Sybylla, there’s charm, absurdity, and a lot of unexpected warmth. 

In part 3, I’ll talk about a recent book in a totally different genre—Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy, by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano.

* Holy moly, people, if you're ever in Medford during one of those sales, get yourself over there. This was by far the biggest library sale I've ever seen, a huge meeting room filled with tables and boxes of books, spilling over into another room next door. Literally thousands of books, old and new, nicely divided into fiction, travel, history, classics, cookbooks. I picked up about five books (for like $10) on Saturday and liked it so much that I went back on Sunday because I'd heard some sale volunteers saying they had boxes stored away that they hadn't even opened yet. I found all sorts of new books the next day and got about five more.

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