Friday, January 30, 2009

The Grey King

Sometime back when I was in grade school, I picked up my older brother's copies of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and got forever hooked on fantasy. This was right around the same time that Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence of books was published, but unfortunately (because I'm sure I would have have loved them then) I was oblivious, and only became aware of these books in the last few years.

My recent reading and appreciation of The Grey King was hampered by a couple of things. First of all, I have not read the other books in the series, and I'm guessing that you really need to have read Over Sea, Under Stone, and then The Dark Is Rising, and Greenwitch (the three books preceding The Grey King) to really get into Will Stanton's story.

Secondly, I just finished a couple of other fantasy books that were so very, very good that other fantasy just pales in comparison (Lois McMaster's The Sharing Knife: Horizon, and a re-read of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, in case you were wondering). Do you ever have this happen? That what you read influences your views so much on the very next book you pick up? Maybe I should have read some non-fiction next, or something else that really couldn't be compared.

Finally, I was stuck in bed recovering from a stomach bug when I read The Grey King. I will say Cooper's book helped me forget my surroundings for a while. But overall, I was a little disappointed. I didn't think that the fantastic parts of The Grey King meshed particularly well with the details of everyday life on a farm in Wales (at first, at least, I think it got better as the story went on), and I was confused about the relationships of the "Old Ones", the Dark, the Sleepers (pictured in the cover above), Merriman, and the Grey King.

The main character, Will Stanton, was an appealing character, and I liked his aunt's family and his friend Bran and Bran's dog Cafall very much, and the use of Celtic myth and history. But I don't have a strong urge to read the rest of The Dark Is Rising series - which I guess tells you something about my feelings about The Grey King. I don't have any problems with recommending it for young readers who enjoy fantasy, but for whatever reasons (and probably at least partially for the ones given above), it's not a keeper for me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Check Out Neil Gaiman's Blog Post

upon learning he won the Newbery Medal this morning: (Insert Amazed and Delighted Swearing Here). His labels on the post are pretty sweet, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's Like This, Cat

It's Like This, Cat is a the perfect title for this book. Because I think that what it does best is describe a time and a place - neighborhoods in New York City in the early 1960's. A lot of the Newbery winners do excel in capturing particular settings, come to think about it. Maybe I've come to expect that as a given, and that's why I didn't like this book more than I did, which was moderately.

It's interesting, too, because Neville gets the feel of it down (I think pretty well, though I don't know the setting myself) without mentioning current political events or too much of the pop culture of the time. It reminded me of Betsy Byars' Summer of the Swans in that way - except instead of a girl and her tennis shoes and backyards and Green Acres, Neville shows us a boy with his duck tail (which gets turned into a "butch" cut) and apartment buildings with stoops and cellars full of storage lockers, and record players with needles and Belafonte records. Young teenagers ride their bikes everywhere and explore the city by themselves, calling their parents (even if their parents are beatniks) at dinnertime if they're going to be late.

Apart from the setting, the story is a quiet coming-of-age story of a young teenaged boy (unnamed for a few chapters, but you finally learn he's called Dave) who befriends a number of different characters in his neighborhood. One of the more eccentric ones, whom the local kids call Crazy Kate the Cat Woman, gives Dave a young tomcat. Dave is a rather lonely kid - he has no siblings, and he fights with father - and his adventures with Cat lead him to some new perspectives on his family and new friends.

It was all very nice, and I enjoyed reading it, but it didn't really make the profound impression on me that I feel like a Newbery winner should make. Am I expecting too much? Do I really need more "issues" in a story? Is it weird that my main thought after finishing It's Like This, Cat is on the lack of drug use in the big city?

I did find the whole book, including illustrations, online at the University of Pennsylvania's digital library. Take a look at it and see what you think.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

There were some things I liked very much in The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and some things that I was very dubious about.

I liked the descriptions of the cat, Good Fortune, as well as all of the deftly portrayed animals that the unnamed Japanese artist thought about for his painting of the Buddha's death scene. Coatsworth uses simple yet poetic words in her short story (is this the shortest of the Newbery winners? I think it must be, except perhaps for one of the poetry collections - it's only 74 pages!):
So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid. Nothing happened for a moment. Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim. Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might stand who scarcely knew if she were welcome. Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit's, and that she did everything daintily (p. 10).

She is like new snow dotted with gold pieces and lacquer; she is like a white flower on which butterflies of two kinds have alighted...(p. 11).
I did wonder why the cat had such a short tail. Was this some genetic thing, like a Manx cat, or was it cropped or lost in an accident? Frustratingly, my library book had a sticker over the rear end of the cat shown on the cover, but it did appear that the pencil illustrations by Lynd Ward and Jael inside this 1990 edition showed a short-tailed cat. When I went to look at what I think was the original cover art, this is what I saw:

Every single copy of this cover image that I can find on the internet has the Newbery medal stuck on the cat's tail! Is it a tiny nub or what? I think if the cat had a normal tail it would extend out beyond the medal.

Now for the things I didn't like about this quiet little story that a lot of people find so charming and inspirational.

I really wondered about its authenticity (ooh, big literary word alert), and question how much of Coatsworth's portrayal of Japanese culture and Buddhism is accurate. I did some Googling and didn't turn up a legend about cats spurning the Buddha's blessing on the first couple pages of hits. Does anyone know if Coatsworth made this story up out of whole cloth, or is it really a Japanese legend? The fact that schools and homeschoolers alike use this book to fulfill a reading or social studies requirement on world cultures and/or religions makes this question rather important, I think.

In a similar vein, the Newbery Book Discussion Group at the Allen County Public Library ranked The Cat Who Went to Heaven 81st out of 87 winners, noting that it was:
Blessedly short. Some of us were bothered by seeming cultural insensitivity in the title, since the book is a story about an artist and the Buddha...So, shouldn't it be "The Cat Who Went to Nirvana"?
Finally, I absolutely hated the book's ending. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it, but if you want to read about the part that bothered me, highlight the following paragraph.

The cat dies because she's so happy? WTF? What kind of ending is that for a children's story? I don't demand "and they lived happily ever after" for all kid's books, but isn't it a little disturbing to suggest that "pure joy" will kill you?

Anyway, it was a mostly enjoyable story, but not one I'll probably ever re-read or recommend to anyone but hard-core cat lovers, who might enjoy the gentle creature that Coatsworth portrays as colorfully as the artist in the story.