Europa: The Days of Ignorance isn’t a smart pick

Robert Briffault packed Europa with wise and witty sentences. Unfortunately, he neglected to include a plot in the novel.

What story there is concerns Julian Bern, a deep thinker.

Europa: The Days of Ignorance  by Robert Briffault

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935. 510 pages. 1935 bestseller #10. My grade: C-.

"Europa" cover shows woman riding bullJulian spends a lot of his time thinking deep thoughts about God, beauty, truth, social justice and sex.

Julian has a wide range of acquaintances who do not think as deeply as he, but who have far more extensive knowledge of sex in all its perversions.

In his late teens, Julian acquires a girl friend. Zena’s parents rush her into an arranged marriage with a Russian homosexual lest she be tainted by Julian’s middle class values.

A decade later, Julian and Zena link up again just as Europe plunges into World War I.

Most of the novel consists of party gossip about who is sleeping with whom, but the tittle-tattle lets Briffault get in some good lines. For example, Julian’s aunt complains to her brother,

Julian reads far too much, and I’m afraid it puts ideas into his head.

The theme of the novel appears to be that education prevents people from perceiving ideas.

Perhaps it does.

At any rate, my education prevents me from perceiving any value in this novel.

© 2015 by Linda Gorton Aragoni


Academic Debris Gives Up the Down Staircase Allure

Until Bel Kaufman published Up The Down Staircase, the teacher in popular fiction was either a joke or a beloved martyr to the teaching profession like Miss Bishop and Mr. Chips.

Sylvia Barrett is neither a martyr nor a joke. She’s young, pretty, hard-working, and willing to learn even from her students.

Mustard-yellow paint peeling in stairwell

Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

New York: Barker Publishing, 1965. 340 pages. 1965 bestseller #2. My grade: B

She is also totally unprepared for the students and the problems she finds at Calvin Coolidge High School.

Up the Down Staircase is not a particularly good novel; the 1967 film version makes the storyline stronger.

The novel compensates for its sketchy plot by a backpack’s worth of artifacts from the academic arena: notes, memos, bits of homework.

At first, Sylvia thinks the administrators are incompetent. She resents being treated as a clog in the system.

Gradually, however, she realizes that the administrators are doing their best in a bureaucracy over which they have no control.

Of course, this being fiction, we know Sylvia will be a wonderful teacher. The only suspense is whether she will survive long enough to decide she wants to stay on at CCHS.

When a student commits suicide at the school, that event makes the minimal impact on Sylvia’s life—which reveals she, too, has become part of the system.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Yellowslide by phreekdog.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: Wholesome, Not Subtle

Rebecca peers over fence on cover of Rebecca of Sunnybrook FarmRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a sunny novel, wholesome as granola, each chapter packed with the minimum daily requirement of aphorisms.

Aurelia Randall’s spinster sisters offer her oldest child a home.  Aurelia sends Rebecca, her second child, instead. The eldest child is more conscientious and thus less easily spared by her widowed mother.

Rebecca is a basically a good child, but she’s also an imaginative, impulsive chatterbox.

Aunt Miranda, who likes things tidy, finds Rebecca’s imaginative chatter and impulsive behavior a sore trial.

Aunt Jane finds Rebecca’s liveliness a welcome relief from her sister’s unvarying routine.

After a rather rocky start, Rebecca turns her attention on getting a good education so she can help her mother pay off the mortgage and give the younger children a better chance in life.

In 1904, adults would have regarded Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca as good reading for young people. Today I’m afraid it would be regarded either as a dull, moral tract or as bizarre, fantasy fiction. Either interpretation shows how society has changed since 1904.

Wiggin’s Rebecca isn’t on a par with Anne of Green Gables or The Yearling but the story has charm and a quiet tongue-in-cheek wit that makes it still worth reading today.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
By Kate Douglas Wiggin
Project Gutenberg ebook #498
1904 Bestseller #8
My grade: B-

The book cover is from the Thorndike large print edition of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, one of several versions of the novel available in print today.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Critique of Education in The Plastic Age Is Just Silly Putty

Girl lures college man to find alcohol.“When an American sets out to found a college, he hunts first for a hill.”  Thus Percy Marks begins a novel that attempts unsuccessfully to be an indictment of American higher education in the jazz age. Marks writes:

The college is made up of men who worship mediocrity; that is their ideal except in athletics.

In a nutshell, the plot of The Plastic Age is this: A wholesome, American farm boy named Hugh Carver goes to a college founded so men might “find the true light of God and the glory of Jesus in the halls of this most liberal college.”

Hugh loses the faith he entered college with, finds nothing to replace it, and graduates without enough education to even decide on a career.

Hugh does, however, learn to drink, smoke, gamble, and swear.

The novelist seems to equate the educational system represented by Sanford College with Prohibition era drinking and casual approach to sex. That’s a questionable equation.

But however he defines the problem, in order to skewer the system that produced it Marks must make readers care about its victims.

Percy Marks isn’t writer enough do that.

The novel never gets any better than its opening line.

The Plastic Age
by Percy Marks
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
1924 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg EBook #16532
My grade C+

Photo credit: The photo is from the screenplay of Marks’ novel.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Rector of Justin Presents Personality Puzzles

Dust jacket of The Rector of JustinRejected for service with the British Army because of heart murmur, Brian Aspinwall lands a job at Justin Martyr, an Episcopal boys’ boarding school outside Boston, in September, 1939. The school’s founder-headmaster is the Reverend Francis Prescott, D.D., the most influential secondary educator in New England.

Brian begins a journal which becomes a record of his own observations of Prescott and those shared with him by others. Brian writes of Prescott the public figure and Prescott the private man.

Being a quiet, shy person, Brian has difficulty adjusting to life among 450 boys and their male teachers, all of whom seem to Brian to be in thrall to “the god of football.”

Nevertheless, he becomes a good friend to Prescott’s dying wife, and, in return, is helped by Prescott to master the art of commanding students’ respect.

By giving Brian boundless opportunities to observe Prescott and his world up close, Louis Auchincloss makes Brian’s picture of Prescott potentially either highly reliable or highly distorted. What fact is recorded by Brian’s keen mind, which by his soft heart?

In the end, readers of The Rector of Justin have to sort out not only what kind of man Francis Prescott was, but also what kind of man Brian Aspinwall is.

The Rector of Justin
By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin, 1964
341 pages
1964 bestseller #6
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—and it still flourishing 50 years later

Tree Warm sunny day and blue sky.A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the years just before and during World War I. Francie has a loving family, a library card, and little else.

Francie’s Mother is a cleaning woman, her father a singing waiter with a fondness for the bottle. Both parents want a better life for their kids.

After Johnny dies, Katie is forced to let Francie and her brother, Neeley, quit school to work, though neither is old enough to get working papers. Against the odds, Francie manages to work and get her diploma.

When Katie marries a well-off widower, Francie and Neeley feel sorry for their baby sister because she won’t have the fun they had.

The story outline sounds rather sentimental, but there is nothing sentimental about Betty Smith’s presentation. The characters are authentic individuals. Even the coincidences in the plot are plausible.

The book has a episodic quality that takes a little getting used to. It made me feel I was reading someone’s journal rather than a piece of fiction. The writing is not that of a teenager, but Betty Smith makes you feel you’re watching a teenager growing up.

For an optimistic look at real life, you can’t beat  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Betty Smith
Harper & Brothers, 1943
443 pages
My Grade: Grade: A-

Photo Credit: Tree by wense91

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Main Street is all problem, no solution

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’ 1921 bestseller, is a scathing indictment of small town life circa 1920 as revealed through a fictitious Minnesota town.

After college, Carol Milford becomes a librarian. Library work suits her and Minneapolis offers culture and intellectual stimulation.

At a party she meets Dr. Will Kennicott. She likes him, though she finds his preoccupation with making money distasteful. She decides she loves him when he shows her photos of Gopher Prairie: it needs someone with her taste and refinement.

Gopher Prairie, however, does not feel the need to be improved by Doc Kennicott’s bride. Carol finds, “the people are savorless and proud of it.”

Carol is devoid of emotional intelligence and not nearly as intelligent in other ways as she believes herself to be. With little to occupy her time, Carol is frustrated and unhappy. She would have an affair but the available men are unsatisfactory.

Lewis is superb at excoriating dull people. The book’s fatal flaw is that he can provide no reason for the pervasive intellectual dulness. Without an identified cause, there’s no hope for a solution.

After a 425-page collection of nasty barbs, Lewis shuts down the novel with an unpredictable and implausible ending.

Main Street
By Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1920
1921 #1
451 pages
My grade B-

Take Chances Without Thinking

If you don’t look too closely, A. Hamilton Gibb’s 1930 bestseller, Chances, is a heart-warming tale of love between brothers.

Tom and Jack Ingleside are 15 and 13½ respectively when they are packed off to boarding school in France to crack their British insularity.  Until they are finished at Oxford and launched on their careers, the brothers share everything.

Then both boys fall for Molly Prescott, a Paris-educated artist they knew as children. Neither brother is aware of the other’s interest in her. After a squabble with Jack, Molly accepts Tom.

The brothers go off to war.

On leave from France, Jack and Molly reunite. When Tom learns his fiancee has left him for his brother, he refuses to even speak to Jack.

When the push comes, however, Tom proves blood is thicker than water.

Beneath the melodrama, the plot won’t hold up. It is incredible that two boys nearly as close as twins can both be madly in love and neither have an inkling of the other’s feelings.

Apparently the continental education didn’t achieve its aim. The boys developed good accents, but remained emotionally insulated when it comes to the most basic of human relationships.

by A. Hamilton Gibbs
Little, Brown,1930
285 pages
1930# 8
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni