Monday, September 15, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Newbery Medal Winner The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

The Door in the Wall is copyrighted 1949 and won the Newbery Medal in 1950 (oh hey, I believe I'm sensing a pattern here.)

Goodreads synopsis: The bells clang above plague-ridden London as Robin lies helpless, cold, and hungry. The great house is empty, his father is fighting the Scots in the north, his mother is traveling with the Queen, and the servants have fled. He calls for help but only the stones hear his cries. Suddenly someone else is in the house, coming towards Robin. It is Brother Luke, a wandering friar, who takes Robin to St. Mark's Monastery, where he will be cared for until his father sends for him.

At last, a message comes--Robin is to meet his father at Castle Lindsay. The journey is dangerous, and the castle is located near the hostile Welsh border. Perched high in the hills, the castle appears invincible. But it is not. Under the cover of a thick fog the Welsh attack the castle. And Robin is the only one who can save it.

Insofar as I can put myself in the place of a child in the late 1940s or early 1950s, this seems like a solid choice for the award. It is certainly informative about medieval England, but not in a dry or didactic way, and it has quite overtly religious overtones, but that isn't terribly surprising for the time. Above all, though, it is a coming-of-age story with a good degree of adventure and excitement.

The character of Brother Luke, the monk who becomes Robin's guardian and friend, is lovely, and much of his advice would not go amiss when given to children even today: that busy hands make time pass more quickly; that when things look bad you should still be thankful for what you have; that you should get enough rest so "weariness shall not give thee excuse for discouragement" (i.e. you will not get frustrated whittling and fling a chisel at Brother Matthew's head); and that if you follow any wall far enough, you will find a door in it.

Robin himself is a well-drawn character as well, and follows a satisfying path from spoiled, petulant nobleman's son to confident, brave knight's apprentice. As you might expect, women in the book are largely relegated to cooking, weeping and sitting on thrones or hiding in inner rooms when castles are under attack.

Photo by cmh2315fl
Marguerite de Angeli - who wrote and also illustrated - sounds like a lovely woman. This is from her Newbery Award Acceptance Speech (I didn't even knew there were acceptance speeches - I'm really learning as I go here): "...I have always wanted to draw and to write. Even now, I can remember the way it felt to be walking home from school in the small Michigan town where I was born, arm in arm with a school girlfriend, only half listening to her chatter because I was dreaming of something else; wondering how I could put down in words the sheer joy in living which filled me to bursting, or how I could draw the moving shadows, the sunlight sifting through the leaves, the tree branches against the white house, or the stream of boys and girls themselves. How could I grasp that shining and elusive 'something' which was away and beyond, yet was within me, and fairly lifting me off the earth? How could I, all at once, do the many things I wanted to do? I wanted to sew grown-up clothes for my doll, I wanted to make hats, I wanted to learn what we used to call 'recitation,' and I wanted to sing. What to do first?"

From what I can see, she wrote upwards of twenty books, of which I have read.... this one. I'm thinking I might have to check out Yonie Wondernose, though.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Bookish Dilemmas

This was a weird summer for reading. Not that I stopped reading, or read stuff backwards, or, God forbid, finally read Trollope (I did actually stick the one Trollope novel I own on my bedside pile at one point. Then I picked it up and realized that it was the second in the series I meant to start with, and I had only bought it because it was pretty and on sale - then I did, in fact, put The Warden on my Kindle, when I found it in the Kindle store for ---- wait for it --- 0.00 dollars. But I still haven't started reading it). I just felt kind of scattered, read a lot of short stories and skipped from book to book, reading widely but not deeply. Which, now that I look back at some previous posts, seems to be how I generally read in the summer, so maybe I should stop being surprised.

I had three or four books that I had bought instead of borrowing from the library, chiefly because I meant to read them in the summer - outside, preferably. It didn't happen. This isn't a bad thing - I generally felt like enough exciting and amusing stuff was going on that I could wait until there was a lull in the activity, and if that didn't happen until the kids went back to school, well and good. Except every now and then, I look around at the piles of books in my bedroom and, instead of feeling the pleasure of anticipation, I just feel overwhelmed and anxious. At one point, I actually found myself wishing that I could just pick up each book, stick a finger on it and immediately download the contents into my brain, then move onto the next. Then I was horrified - how does that have anything to do with the joy of the reading experience? The point isn't supposed to be to take a book and just be done with it - it's a process of discovery, and time, and unfolding.

So I made myself sit down for a few days with one book, and stay with that one book until it was done. And it felt like a type of therapy, and it worked.

My other dilemma is that the third book in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy is out. This is the book that I loved and it seemed that everyone else hated, until I finally found a few people who felt the same as me. Oh hey, look, I asked the author a question on Goodreads and got what I thought was a really good answer.

Lev Grossman answered your question
I adored The Magicians, but the first five or six people I lent/recommended it to after reading it hated it - they found the main character unlikable, which has never been a deal-breaker for me, but apparently was for them. Was it actually your intention to create an unsympathetic protagonist and see how that worked, or do you think (like I kind of do) that my friends are just tripping?

Believe me I get that a lot. There's no better way to create a deep schism down the middle of any book group than to read The Magicians. But I can honestly say that I never thought about Quentin's likability or un-likability while I was writing it. I wanted him to feel psychologically real, that was all. 

The thing about Quentin is that he's depressed, and like a lot of people who struggle with depression (me included) he sometimes has trouble focusing on other people's feelings -- he's using up all his resources just trying to keep himself going, and it makes him oblivious to other people's needs. Which is annoying. So I don't really think your friends are tripping. Probably they're just looking for something from The Magicians that it wasn't designed to give.

Anyway, I loved the first book, had no idea it was destined to be a trilogy, saw the second book, read it and again liked it and thought it had no need of a follow-up - hey, I just realized that THIS is the kind of trilogy I like: the successive books are welcome, but not necessary. So now the third book is out, so I requested it from the library, and got it much sooner than I expected, but I kind of think I should return it and wait until I've reread the first and second, and then borrow it again or buy it, because the odds of me getting it from the library at the right time again are slim. 

So to sum up, I had such a great summer that I didn't have time to read a lot of demanding classic literature, and now I have my hands on a book that I really want to read. Poor me! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Newbery Medal Series: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver was published in 1993 and awarded the Newbery Medal in 1994. Synopsis from back cover: "Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the Community. When Jonas turns twelve, he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back."

Is there a difference between a dystopia and a false utopia? I feel like the distinction should be made. Also, because I fell down a rabbit hole on Goodreads last week when I read a scathing (and overly long) review of The Giver and then many of the two-hundred plus comments on it, I feel that I should say that I actually felt a large degree of sympathy for the Elders and creators of Jonas's community.  They weren't evil. They weren't trying to be harsh or despotic. They were trying to engineer the perfect community, and they thought they could do that with their assignments and precise language and incontrovertible rules. 

I read this once years ago and then again last February. I don't usually do plot summaries in book reviews, but since the synopsis here is quite brief, I should probably say a little more (bearing in mind that I've already forgotten stuff in the intervening six months): Jonas lives in a 'Community', isolated from others, where life is conducted by a strict set of rules and laws. Everyone is assigned a role according to their talents (not their desires) at the age of twelve. Children are borne by Birthmothers ("there's very little honor in that assignment", Jonas's mother says at one point), then removed and given to Nurturers, and then assigned to approved couples, one boy and one girl each. Babies ('newchildren' who don't grow as fast as they should or sleep through the night (or are otherwise Inadequate), and the elderly, as well as people who transgress against the Community's rules, are 'released' - this is a vague term until later in the book. 

As the book begins, Jonas is approaching the Ceremony of Twelve, where he'll be given his Assignment - assigned his role in the Community (Assignments include Birthmother, Laborer, Instructor, Engineer, Doctor, and many others). He spends some time trying to be precise in his language about exactly how he's feeling about this; he begins with the word frightened, amends it to eager, and finally sharpens it to apprehensive. Precision in language is a valued thing in the Community, which you have to kind of like (okay, I have to kind of like). 

Photo by Gidzy
Jonas is given the Assignment (it is termed a rare selection) of Receiver of Memory. This confers upon him unusual privileges such as the permission to ask questions of any citizen and receive answers (in others, this is prohibited by the rules governing rudeness), and the permission to lie. It also means he trains with the previous Receiver of Memory, who contains by some magical phenomenon (okay, now that I'm typing this it bugs me a little), "the memories of the whole world", and will begin to transmit these memories to Jonas.

So. There you have it. An attempt to create a utopian society by legislating out much of the messiness of human nature, and then (foolishly?) granting to an intelligent member of that society the power to begin questioning it, which leads to a bunch of dominoes falling. It's not the only time this story has been told, and perhaps it's not even the best telling, but I found it very effective. Eve read it a few weeks ago - she even put down An Abundance of Katherines to do so, which is saying something, since she's in the midst of a total John Green love-fest - and she said she really liked it too, although I meant to ask her for some specific thoughts on it before she went to school today and I forgot. 

I can see this book appealing to young readers - older young readers, many of whom definitely have a taste for dystopic fiction. It's also the kind of book where higher levels of understanding and insight can be gained on successive re-readings.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Newbery Medal Series: In Which I Get All Piglet About This But Will Probably End Up Eeyorish

Photo by JD Hancock
Okay, whatever happens here, I am just so hoppily happily excited right now. As much as I always did enjoy researching and writing papers for school, there is something so purely, giddily exhilarating about researching and writing just for the hell of it. Also, at times like this I am just so glad that I haven't ever managed to brand my blog - not that I think I really could have, but every now and then I just revel in the sheer goofy joy of being able to slap ridiculous, un-SEO-able titles on posts and write about whatever the hell I want, and have people like Lynn and Mary Lynn make kick-ass comments that make me feel like we could crowd-source a hell of a series on the Newbery Medal that could CHANGE THINGS FOREVER....

Photo by JD Hancock
Except not. Because Award Committees are notoriously stodgy and un-goofy, and I have a Masters in Comparative Literature but haven't really done much with it, and, oh yeah, the Newbery Medal is an American thing and we're Canadian. And I'll probably get four books in and lose steam. And no one ever listens to me anyway. Sigh.

Ah, screw it. I'm still having fun.

So. Lynn's comment: "Kay, I am just reading through the entire historical list of winners and special mentions, and I have to say a) I have read a LOT fewer of these than I thought; b) no one other than Laura Ingalls Wilder (who is like, a six time runner up) had name recognition for me before the 50s; and c) the judging committee seems to really prefer "important" books, rather than a simple damn good read (see: the whole of the 50s, which includes titles such as "Theodore Roosevelt, Fighting Patriot" and "Gandhi, Fighter Without a Sword" and "Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People". I'm sure they were keeping kids up at night dying to know how things turn out. SHEESH."

These are much the same thoughts that I had when I first took the quiz. I was quite surprised at how few of the books I had read, since it seemed to me that I vaguely remembered that gold stamp on the front of quite a few of my favourite books. I also had no idea how far back it went.

Mary Lynn's comment: "Aaaaanyway, I have to say I've always kinda wondered about the titles they choose for the Newbery award. I read voraciously as a kid, but I've only read three of the titles shown. One of the books, Jacob Have I Loved, I totally remember picking up on several bookstore shopping occasions, turning it over, reading the back, and then putting it back on the shelf again. Then I'd buy another Judy Bloom, Paula Danziger or Lois Duncan book.

I just find the books they choose to be so earnest and lacking in humour, which were not at all qualities I was looking for in books when I was a kid. Looking at the titles from more recent years, I think they are choosing more books that I would've been interested in...though actually, fewer of them are ones my daughter would be into. For instance, I loved When You Reach Me, but Hana read it when she was 9 and found the story too convoluted. But she'd read a Wrinkle in Time and enjoyed it.

I'll definitely run out and get her that Lincoln book! ;-) It looks AWESOME."

I had that EXACT SAME EXPERIENCE with Jacob Have I Loved. I remember clearly in elementary school, almost every library period I would take it out of the spinning powdered-wire book rack and read the back, and then put it back and borrow something else. It was actually one of the few I've read between taking the quiz and now, and it's quite good - for adult me. I think it actually might appeal to some young people, as far as issues of 'there's a favoured chid and I'm not it', but the main character is very prickly and almost revels in being unlikable, and I'm not sure how that would go over. It's really killing me that I can't time-machine myself back in order to make myself read them all at the intended age.

Many of the award decisions certainly seem to indicate that the committee zoomed in on the 'distinguished' part of the criteria and lost sight of the 'for children' part. This isn't a new criticism of awards, of course. There has always been this problem of 'popular' being sort of a dirty word. In the next post, I will talk about The Giver, where I kind of think they might have hit it right on both counts. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: In Which I Embark on a Quest Which I May or May Not Complete

A few weeks ago, I came across a Buzzfeed Quiz about Newbery Medal books with a tagline: Were you a well-read child? Naturally, this pissed me off a little (I just typed "got my knickers in a bit of a twist" and then erased it, for some reason. I wonder why that is. It's a perfectly serviceable expression, and yet I felt disinclined to use it. Curious) since there seems to be a bit of a fallacious assumption going on there: one could surely have been a well-read child (I was) without having necessarily read a great number of Newbery Medal-winning books (I hadn't, as it turns out). But doing the quiz (I can't resist quizzes where I get to check off books, even ones that irritate me - the quizzes, I mean, not the books) reminded me of a few books that I had always meant to read and had somehow never gotten around to, and introduced me to a few others that looked interesting and worth a look. So I decided then and there that I would read and blog about all the Newbery Medal Award winners.
Photo by University of Illinois Library

Then I remembered that I'm a touch lazy and somewhat disorganized and prone to procrastination.

So since then, I have read five or six Newbery Award books that I hadn't before, reread two, requested a whole bunch from the library, and written nothing at all.

I have, however, had an interesting discussion with a friend on Goodreads who goes by the name Killer Rabbit, about our opinion of the success of the committee in choosing winners.

The John Newbery Medal is "awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year." It is named for an eighteenth-century English bookseller and its stated purpose was: "To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field."

In the Terms and Definitions, I found this: 2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered. And this is where Killer Rabbit and I (DAMN I need a cooler name on Goodreads), and several other people I have seen commenting on Newbery books, agree that sometimes it seems that the Newbery Medal Award committee might have their heads somewhat up their collective ass, and that the committee would do much better to have some members who are actually children on it. 

So how do I evaluate the books? On whether I like them? On whether I think they are, in fact, distinguished contributions to children's literature? On whether I think I would have liked them when I was a child? SO MANY MORE things to think about while not blogging. Clearly I just need to plunge in. So I will. I will just write whatever semi-coherent thoughts I can muster up about whatever Newbery medal book is closest to hand and mind. 


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Camping - Food Edition (after which I will stop milking one measly camping trip for blog posts)

I was prepared to rough it in the bush food-wise - Collette told me "just forget trying to eat healthy - it's easiest if you just buy crap." I went to Loblaws and crowded my cart with club pack boxes of every processed snack available, and filled in the spaces with chips and cookies. I only bought meat that had enough nitrates in it to last three weeks without refrigeration. I bought CHEEZ FREAKING WHIZ.

I had not reckoned on my husband, "Hibachi Man". We had a Coleman stove, but I don't think he used it at all. He used a little Hibachi and the grate over the campfire. He also brought actual meat. He made hamburgers.

He made steak and potatoes. And lit candles. 

He made french toast and bacon. 

He warmed up cinnamon buns in a cast iron pan over the fire. 

Then there was the parade of giant hunks of meat, courtesy of Mark and Dan and Auspit.
This is pork.

This is beef. 

...wrapped in bacon. 

It was four days of torture and deprivation, obviously.

Since my husband spent much of his youth practically camping professionally, I left the set-up and procedures pretty much entirely to him - I just put stuff where he told me to. I probably should have paid some attention to the fact that he hasn't actually camped for twenty years or so, and double-checked with him that ALL of the food had been put in the van before we bedded down on the first night.

Instead, I woke up to strange sounds outside the tent. Since I have marked tendencies to over-imaginative hysteria and I DON'T CAMP, I naturally thought "AXE MURDERER", not "FORAGING WILDLIFE", and whacked Matt frantically so he could.... I dunno, get out of the tent and distract the psychopath while Eve and I ran away? Since he was in his compact sleeping bag and he's a little less, um, compact than in the past, he kind of flopped off his air mattress still IN the sleeping bag, opened the tent flap, yelled something, then wriggled out of the sleeping bag and got out of the tent. After a moment, I realized two things: 1) I didn't hear anything that sounded like an axe thunking into a person, and 2) I had to pee. I crawled out of the tent to see Matt standing a little ways away, trying to figure out how to wrestle our cooler lid out of the grip of two raccoons, who didn't look in the least inclined to give way. I looked down and said "did they take my shoe too?" and he said "no, I threw it at them". The raccoons eventually wandered away, Matt gave me my shoe back, and I went to the outhouse while he put ALL the food in the van.

A couple of nights later while we were at the drive-in, another family had their kitchen tent ransacked and plundered for a number of bread products, which made Matt feel better. After we got back from the movie, he lit a small fire for us after the kids went to bed. We were sitting there talking, and then he got up to adjust the firewood, so I clicked on the flashlight for him. Then I heard a rustling sound off to the left, in the wooded lot behind out campsite. I turned the flashlight beam to the left, and - okay, I didn't get a picture, so you have to imagine this one dark, and just the heads, stacked one on top of the other.







"Do you have any Grey Poupon?"
Photo by Auberon_
They stared at me for a second, then very subtly pulled their heads back behind the tree trunk. You could almost hear them whispering "I don't think she saw us."

We came home with part of the beef roast (score!), forty-two granola bars and a couple of good stories.