Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

The first thing that I had to chose when I decided to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting, was which edition to pick. I tried reading the original edition online here, but I don't have an e-reader and I really like reading in bed.

After looking at Amanda's post on the different editions and the content that was removed, I settled on Bantam's Yearling 1988 paperback (shown here), which was the one my local library had on the shelf anyway. I like the fact that it has many of the original illustrations and it is upfront (well, in the afterword) about the editing and the reasons for doing it. I don't really like the cover, though. Pink? Are they trying to drive boys away from it? When I went Googling for this cover, though, I found that Bantam had changed the design and the cover, and the new blue-green one was much nicer.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the first part of the story. I think that I had read at least the beginning of this book as a child (I remembered Tommy Stubbins and Polynesia and Dab-Dab, though maybe this was from a different Doctor Dolittle story), but it didn't make enough of an impression on me that I ever re-read it, or asked for my own copy.

As an adult, I particularly liked the description of the Doctor's garden (in the chapter appropriately titled 'The Garden of Dreams'), probably because it really is my dream garden:
When breakfast was over the Doctor took me out to show me the garden. Well, if the house had been interesting, the garden was a hundred times more so. At first, you did not realize how big it was. When you were sure that you had seen it all, you would peer over a hedge or turn a corner or look up some steps, and there was a whole new part.

It had everything. There were wide lawns with carved stone seats, green with moss. Over the lawns hung weeping willows, and their feathery bough tips brushed the velvet grass when they swung with the wind. The old flagged paths had high clipped yew hedges on either side of them, so that they looked like the narrow streets of some old town; and through the hedges, doorways had been made; and over the doorways were shapes like vases and peacocks and a half-moons all trimmed out of the living trees. There was a lovely marble fishpond with golden carp and blue water lilies in it and big green frogs. A high brick wall alongside the kitchen garden was all covered with pink and yellow peaches ripening in the sun. There was a wonderful great oak, hollow in the trunk, big enough for four men to hide inside. Many summerhouses there were, too - some of wood and some of stone - and one of them was full of books to read (p. 44-45).
There's more, too - there is also an outdoor fireplace, couches (with wheels on them) to sleep upon on warm summer nights, rocks, ferns, and a treehouse, and loads of birds, and "stoats and tortoises and dormice" and "toads of different colors and sizes" (p 45).

So I was happily reading along, enjoying Lofting's aptitude for description, and the character of Dr. Dolittle, who is rather charming, and then Tommy and the Doctor (does anyone else think of Doctor Who with all these references to "the Doctor" and with everyone calling John Dolittle "Doctor" instead of Dr. D. or Dr. Dolittle?) and Bumpo and some animals set out on their journey to Spider Monkey Island.

I got increasingly uncomfortable at the way the Indians on Spider Monkey Island are portrayed. Long Arrow is a great naturalist, but his people - the Popsipetel - are so backwards they don't even know how to use fire, or cook their food. Now this is interesting, because this was a huge Victorian myth in the 19th century - that there were actually humans in far off "savage" places who had so little material culture that they didn't have fire (or clothes or tools) or cook their food.

There is absolutely no evidence that any people anywhere in the world did not use fire, by the way, as Richard Wrangham describes in a recent book (Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human), which proposes that the use of fire was as essential to human evolution as walking on two legs, hunting, or using tools. So having John Dolittle not only show the Indians "what town sewers were and how garbage should be collected each day and burned" (p. 271), and make a dam and purify their drinking water to prevent "many of the sicknesses that they had suffered from before" (p. 272), and teach them metallurgy, democracy, and "the proper care of babies, with a host of other subjects" (p. 273), but for him to give them something that essentially makes them human? Yeah, more than a little condescending. And this part of the book can't be as easily removed as the pictures of Bumpo and the descriptions of his wife.

The journey home in the great glass sea snail is wonderful and whimsical, and something I'm glad to have read. I just wish the Doctor had stuck to animals and never met the Popsipetels or the Bag-jagderags, or become King Jong Thinkalot.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Graveyard Book - 2009

This audiobook, written and performed by Neil Gaiman, was better than I expected. I didn't really care for Gaiman's American Gods, and I'm not much of a fan of horror or fantasy - The Graveyard Book has a little of the first and a lot of the second. But so many people were so happy about this book winning the Newbery that I decided to listen to the audiobook right away after purchasing it for our library's collection.

A toddler wanders away from his home after his parents and older sister are murdered, and into a nearby graveyard, where he is adopted and raised by the mostly-ghostly residents and renamed Nobody Owens, "Bod" for short. There are a number of similarities to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Indeed, in an interview with The New York Times published January 26, 2009, Gaiman stated that he used to take his son to ride his trike in a graveyard across the street from their yardless house:

“I remember thinking once how incredibly at home he looked there,” Gaiman said. “I thought you could write something a lot like The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard.”

Bod has a number of amusing adventures as he grows up (I especially liked his playmate at age 5, Scarlett Amber, whose parents think Bod is her imaginary friend), but the story eventually turns dark when he is 14 and the murderers of his family come back to do in Bod as well. This was actually the weakest part of the book for me, as Gaiman doesn't explain the backstory very well. It's never very clear why Bod's family is murdered and why he is still targeted, nor just who (or what) his two main protectors (Silas and Miss Lupescu) really are.

Still, I can see how this book would be really popular with children who are fans of Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the like. With its cast of eccentric characters, many with wonderfully old-fashioned names, it will probably make a great movie. And Gaiman did an outstanding job reading his book aloud. This book would work as a read-aloud for about fourth or fifth grade, and an easy read for middle-schoolers.

[cross-posted at Bookin' It]

Hello, Is Anybody Out There?

We have seventy bloggers signed up here, and we haven't heard from many of you for a long time. Have you given up reading the Newbery winners? Were you traumatized by Miss Hickory or did you get bogged down in The Story of Mankind?

There are a lot books here that only have one or two posts on them. We could really use some more perspectives.

You don't have to read every single book, folks. Or if you decide to read them all, you don't have to do it this summer. Come on, now's the perfect time to read Thimble Summer or A Year Down Yonder and tell us what you think.

New bloggers are always welcome, too. We can have up to a hundred different posters on this site, and we can always remove old posters that haven't posted in years (or ever).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I, Juan de Pareja

I think that the best parts of I, Juan de Pareja are embodied by the very first sentence of the book:
I, Juan de Pareja, was born into slavery early in the seventeenth century.
Juan's story is also that of his master, the painter Diego Velázquez, and a rambling exploration of art, Christianity, slavery, and Spain in the mid-1600's.

Although I like historical fiction, I'm afraid I was often bored by Juan de Pareja's narrative, and I frequently wondered just how probable the story was. Several other Newbery medalists have taken famous people and made stories out of their lives - sometimes basing their books on very little evidence or historical research. I think that the worst of these stories - Amos Fortune and Daniel Boone - are the least deserving of all the Newbery winners, and should be shelved in the fiction section (if the library bothers to keep them at all) instead in 921 with the other biographies in my local library.

Island of the Blue Dolphins
and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch are better stories (and both are also shelved in fiction, along with I, Juan de Pareja), but I still wonder about how much in these books is based on accurate history, or how much the author really got right when it comes to the characters and how they think. (I haven't read Invincible Louisa yet, so I don't know how the Newbery winning biography of Louisa May Alcott stacks up.)

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino actually notes that very little is known about de Pareja and Velázquez in her afterword, which I appreciated. But what about her portrayal of 17th century Spain, King Philip IV and his court, or the life of a Black slave there? Would Juan de Parejo really have worried that painting in secret was a sin? Was he really so happy as a humble, unpaid servant? I'm not an expert on the time and place, but the story just seems shallow somehow, especially when I compare it to other historical fiction (for adults, granted) like Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, for instance.

Also, the style of Borton de Trevino's writing grated on me sometimes, and I thought the sentiments expressed were often rather trite:
The months went by, and at first I thought every day of Miri. But Time is a great traitor who teaches us to accept loss. I was young, and young hearts cannot always be sad (p. 76).
I did enjoy the way that Borton de Trevino put things at other times. When she describes Juan de Pareja's first trip to Italy with Diego Velázquez, her description of food and shopping is rather interesting and fresh:
I often went into the inn kitchen to cook for Master because he was used to a diet of meat and bread, whereas the Italians ate paste dressed with various spicy sauces, and very little meat. And when Master felt well enough to go about looking at art works, visiting galleries and shops, and pricing and bargaining, I went with him, carrying his sketchbook, his clean handkerchief, and his money, which I wore in a sash bound tightly around my waist (p. 85).
I guess I just expected more, somehow. It certainly appears that lots of other people love this book, and especially like Borton de Trevino's (you can't really say they're Velázquez's!) thoughts about art and beauty. It wasn't enough for me, though I did enjoy Googling Velázquez's paintings (especially his portrait of Juan de Pareja) and paintings by Juan de Pareja himself.