Thursday, February 24, 2011

"I am no bird, and no net ensnares me"

Inspired by the book blog Jacket Knack, which boasts the clever tag line “Maybe you can judge a book by its cover”, I’ve been taking a closer look at those vintage and antique books which line my shelves. Combine this new fascination with my excitement over the upcoming movie rendition of Jane Eyre and you get this little post.

I believe this is one of the many books that I picked up for free at one of my many expeditions to the Crumpton auction when I lived in Maryland. I had seen this book’s cover before, no doubt in used book stores, so I was excited when I found a copy of it to take home with me (for free, nonetheless).

The book’s title and author appear only on the spine, the entire cover is dedicated to the image you see here, with not a word of text to interrupt it. It invites the reader to not just look at it, but to study it. The black and white line drawing perfectly communicates the dreary world of the orphanage. The gaunt faces of the girls combined with their simple clothing add to the misery of their reality.

But I think my favorite part of this image is that all the girls’ eyes appear to be closed, probably because they are downcast, capturing the girls’ acceptance of their situation. . .except one. The second girl on the right from the bottom has her eyes open, and you cannot help but be drawn in.

I do not remember how exacrtly I came to read this book for the first time- I don’t recall being required to read it in school, but somewhere along the line I did manage to make my way through it. I think the cover is one of the most suitable ones I’ve ever seen for Charlotte Bronte’s gothic masterpiece. Some of the other covers I’ve seen are bare boned (just the title and author with nary an illustration, or even a flourish), or abstract, or just have some type of painting on the cover bearing a 19th century woman. I think a book/author that has so much to say deserves a better cover than that; this story deserves a cover that will begin speaking before the first page has been turned.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Iconography of Nuns

As I mentioned in my previous post on priests, I have been fascinated by religious icons since I was a child.

I was introduced to priests earlier in my youth, but I did not come into contact with real, live nuns until I was in highschool. I attended an all-girls Catholic school that was founded by an order. Many of the Sisters were involved with the school on different levels, some of them being teachers there.

Until that time, my entire education on the mysterious world of nuns came from various movies, and it was through the images I saw projected on the silver screen that I began to form my feelings about these people encapsulated in black and white.

The first one was actually a Mother, not a Sister. Mother Superior in the 1966 film The Trouble with Angels, portrayed by Rosalind Russell, is undoubtedly my all-time favorite fictional nun. Her stern exterior is the epitome of an old-school educator, and she reminds me of some of the teachers I encountered in my beloved highschool (and not all of them were nuns, either). But of course, she always has the best interests of her students at heart, namely their education and moral development.

I must add that this film is one of my all-time favorites. It reminds me in many ways of my alma mater, Nazareth Academy, which unfortunately closed its doors last spring.

Another significant contribution to my perception of these prayerful people is Ingrid Bergman’s portrayal of Sister Mary Benedict in the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s.* Her soft accent and delicate facial features gave her an air of divinity, and her sensible demeanor made her seem the most accessible and approachable authority figure. My favorite scene is the one in which she instructs one of her students in boxing lessons, and gets socked in the nose. (Not because I like seeing nuns get beat up, just because the entire scene is so humorous.)

Another modern Mother is Maggie Smith’s Mother Superior in 1992’s ‘bad habit’ comedy Sister Act (pardon the pun, I couldn’t help myself). Whoopi Goldberg is at the comedic center of the story, but Smith gets a few clever quips of her own, like when she tells the other sisters to “try and blend in” in a casino. The Sister Act movies mark another important actress: the unmistakable Mary Wickes.

Mary Wickes’ wisecracking comedic style, not unlike that of Lucille Ball her neighbor and friend, brought her fame in the 1940’s, and she first joined Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels as Sister Clarissa before putting her habit on again as cranky Sister Mary Lazarus in the Sister Act movies.**

The last, but certainly not the least, nun I feel compelled to mention is the most contemporary. Sister Aloysius Beauvier, flawlessly realized by Meryl Streep in 2008’s Doubt gave me chills. Just her presence in a scene made me sit up straighter in my seat. She rules her school with an iron fist, making students scurry and scatter at the mere sight of her. She confiscates all contraband, and under her tutelage the novice nun, Sister James (wide-eyed Amy Adams) learns some tools of the trade, like how to make it seem to her students that she has eyes in the back of her head. This is the stuff legends are made of.

These images all contributed to my fascination with the cloistered community. Every time I learn something new about what it means to be a nun, my insides feel like that part in The Trouble with Angels when the girls sneak into the Sister’s living quarters. But I certainly don’t mean that my experience with real nuns is negative; on the contrary, the few that I’ve met in person have a very special place in my heart. My odd interest in them leads me to acquire funny novelty items bearing their likenesses, like wine charms, dolls and a little wind-up toy nun that holds a ruler and spits sparks. Even the items that poke fun are, to me, a tribute to them, and what they’ve come to represent.

*This movie was the first sequel to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.

** Wickes also portrayed the ballet instructor Madame Le Mond in my favorite episode of I Love Lucy (1952, “The Ballet”), and one of her last roles was playing the cantankerous Aunt March in the 1994 incarnation of Little Women.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I'm Back

Hello again-

I have no excuses for not keeping this blog updated other than moving, going back to grad school, searching for new job, finding new job, working at new job, etc (oh, what do ya know- I DO have some excuses up my sleeve!)

Anyways, given the program that I am enrolled in, Study of Children’s Literature, I often find myself brimming with thoughts, comments and observations about some of the books I encounter. I also remain a hopeless bibliophile in that I am constantly acquiring new (not actually new, but books I have not previously owned) ones. I am particularly interested in vintage and antique children’s books, and I feel very inspired by the book blogs Jacket Knack and Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves to pin down some of my thoughts on the vast array of books I own.

One that I recently picked up for a dollar at a flea market has especially affected me: Judy, Junior Nurse. The the story of a young girl who gets her entire school to volunteer with the American Junior Red Cross to make things to send overseas. It was published in 1951, so the Korean War was in its beginning, and was also still recovering (in some ways) from WWII, so the patriotic theme makes sense in the historical context.

What affected me is the way that the gender roles are so distinctly prescribed for boys and girls in this story. Obviously, post-war America had a much higher emphasis on heteronormativity than we do today. (It’s still here of course, but we’re much more sensitive to transgendered individuals and the LGBT movement.) So the portrayals of gender roles do not actually offend me, but they do make me chuckle a bit.

Judy accompanies her mother to a sewing circle. Her mother tells her that if she behaves herself while she is there, she will buy her a bracelet like the beautiful one she saw one of the other women wearing.

-the little girl is in a dress the entire time (we can’t have her sporting trousers, like a boy, now can we?)

-her mother does not have a job outside the house. Not uncommon in the post-war period, although both of my grandmothers worked while raising their families. (they were both nurses, by the way)

-she follows her mother in learning a domestic craft

-her reward, if she behaves herself and acts like a proper young lady, is a piece of jewelry.

WOW- that’s a lot of gender being prescribed for little Judy. It’s probably because I am still coming off the intense emotional academic experience of a graduate level Literary Theory class, followed by my final project for that class- a one and a half hour presentation on gender theory, but I seem to have a heightened awareness now of gender issues in children’s books, and the the children’s books from this time period are so easy to pick on. Don’t be seduced by those charming pastel and watercolor illustrations—they are trying to construct your gender!!!!!!!!

Fortunately, gender is performative. (I really, really hope that my Lit Theory professors, one from undergrad and one from grad school, come across this some day.)