Thursday, February 12, 2009

The View from Saturday

I was predisposed to like The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg, because From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of my favorite childhood books, and remains a favorite today. And I like reading about smart misfits, having been one myself, especially in junior high school.

But the four kids' stories in The View from Saturday didn't really grab my interest. The kids' voices didn't seem quite right to me, and as soon as I got used to one character - bam, a new point of view appeared.

There were a few passages that made me laugh, or nod my head in agreement, like the ones below - but in general, I just couldn't seem to connect to the characters or their situations. They never seemed real to me - except when Nadia gets mad at everyone and stays home watching daytime tv and decides that everyone is either pathetic or disgusting - that I could see myself doing when I was 11 or 12 year old.

Here are a few passages that I liked, anyway:

There were times in school when a person had to do things fast, cheap and without character (pp. 9-10).
Such public displays of affection can be embarrassing to a prepubescent girl like me who is not accustomed to being in the company of two married people who like each other (p. 27).

I read a book a few years ago called Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds, by Michael Quinion (entitled Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths in the U.K.), which includes a rather lengthy discussion of the origins of the word posh. And as much as I liked the Grandpa's song in his flying "laboratory" in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:
"O the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain's table regal company
Pardon the dust of the upper crust - fetch us a cup of tea
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh... inner word nerd didn't really approve of Julian's use of this folk etymology to score points in an academic contest (see Quinion's essay on the origins of tip here). Then again, it wasn't as easy to fact-check stuff like this in the pre-Google era, and I certainly didn't know all of the "Fifteen Questions with Thirty-Six Answers" that Konigsburg adds to the end of the story.

Fact: Mrs. Konigsburg is pretty perceptive when it comes to describing people's reactions to physical disability and to subtle bullying amongst 6th graders.

Further Fact: The slightly mystical part of the story - Epiphany, The Souls, the choice of the teammates, Mr. Singh's statements to Mrs. Olinski, all the little synchronicities, and (most unreal of all) - the kids coming together and not fighting at all - didn't work so well for me.

And like Aunt Sara, the whole use of the noose as a team symbol bothered me - though its use as a racist threat wasn't as prevalent in the 90's as it is today (see an interesting article on "The History of the Noose"), it still made me uncomfortable. It didn't jibe well with what I saw as the other symbols in the story - the cups of tea, or the calligraphy and fountain pen, for instance. Then again, symbolism is not really my cup of tea.

I can't help agreeing that kindness is something that 6th graders and teachers really need. So even though many of the disparate pieces of The View from Saturday just didn't work for me (and why the title? I don't like it when the reason for the title isn't explicit in the book), I can see why many others - especially adults who like to speculate about the decline of Western civilization - like this book.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Dave McKean

Pages: 309
First Published: Sept. 30, 2008
Genre: children, fantasy
Award: Newbery Medal 2009
Rating: 4.5/5

First sentence:

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. "

Comments: After his family is killed a baby escapes by wandering out the open door and making his way to the graveyard. A married ghostly couple adopt him and name him Nobody Owens, Bod for short. Nobody then commences to grow up in the graveyard and can see and talk with all the ghosts of those buried there. In fact, he himself is not quite in the land of the living but somewhere between the life and death. He must stay here in the graveyard until he is old enough to look after himself on the outside as the man who killed his family is still looking for him and will continue until his job is completed.

I really enjoyed this book. Finally a 21st century Newbery winner I can rave about and recommend. The story and the characters are just wonderful. I really enjoyed the premise. It reminded me a bit, at first, of Terry Pratchett's Johnny and the Dead even though the plot's are completely different. Even though I don't believe in ghosts and my religion tells me differently what will happen in the afterlife, it still is so much fun to imagine a world of ghosts. To imagine graveyards are full of the people buried there talking to each other. The book is really well written, fun and exciting. I think this is the type of book that will appeal to pretty much anyone, even those who don't like fantasy as a rule. Finally a Newbery winner that *will* be enjoyed through the ages!

My only reason for not giving a full rating of 5 is that I really did not like the illustrations at all. They were dark, hard to see the details and I thought the faces were horrible. They definitely did not enhance the reading experience at all. From looking at covers at LibraryThing I see there is an edition with illustrations by Chris Riddell. Now that is someone whose art I appreciate and I'd love to have a look at those illustrations.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Graveyard Book

It's an unexpected pleasure, writing a review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. As I said back in December, it was my favorite book out of the ones I read on the Mock Newbery's short list, but I didn't really think it would win. I thought it was too funny, too macabre, just too different from previous winners. I couldn't be happier to have been proved wrong.

There were a lot of things that I loved in this book. The story of Nobody's childhood is wonderfully clever, but it is Gaiman's writing that really stole my heart. Combine his way with words with the British references (airing cupboards, kettles of tea, pupils instead of students, etc.), fascinating history, his humor, and the delightful illustrations by Dave McKean, and you have.....well, you have a winner.

A few examples of Gaiman's winning (and winsome) storytelling:
The child had fallen asleep in Mrs. Owens's arms. She rocked it gently, sang to it an old song, one her mother had sung to her when she was a baby herself, back in the days when men had first started to wear powdered wigs. The song went,

Sleep my little babby-oh
Sleep until you waken
When you're grown you'll see the world
If I'm not mistaken
Kiss a lover,
Dance a measure,
Find your name
and buried treasure...

And Mrs. Owens sang all that before she discovered that she had forgotten how the song ended. She had a feeling that the final line was something in the way "and some hairy bacon," but that might have been another song altogether, so she stopped and instead she sang him the one about the Man in the Moon who came down too soon, and after that she sang, in her warm country voice, a more recent song about a lad who put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and she had just started a long ballad about a young country gentleman whose girlfriend had, for no particular reason, poisoned him with a dish of spotted eels, when Silas came around the side of the chapel, carrying a cardboard box (p. 26).
Ah, I do love those weird old nursery rhymes. And powdered wigs! Hairy bacon! Not to mention the "dish of spotted eels". I can't really explain it, but Gaiman's descriptions just delight me. Even when he is talking about revolting European foods:
Miss Lupescu continued to bring Bod things she had cooked for him: dumplings swimming in lard; thick reddish-purple soup with a lump of sour cream in it; small, cold boiled potatoes; cold garlic-heavy sausages; hardboiled eggs in a grey unappetizing liquid (p. 71).
I've always loved old-fashioned names, and have kept a list of my favorites from the genealogy my grandmother drew in her spiky, shaky old lady handwriting (including Comfort Littlejohn, Mindwell Phelps, Squire Boone, Gad Noble, Sylvanus Crook, etc.). Gaiman clearly has a feel for historic names (and epitaphs) too, and has picked the best of both the graveyard and an English town for us. There's Mother Slaughter, Geo. and Dorcas Reeder, Thomes Pennyworth, Abanazer Bolger, Amabella, Portunia, and Roderick Persson, and a host of other memorable minor characters - not to mention the extraordinary Nobody Owens himself, who "could greet people politely over nine hundred years of changing manners" (p. 189).

I feel I should mention that I am not a fan of horror in general, and that reading about the first scary chapter of The Graveyard Book initially made me want to give the book a pass. And it was scary - every mother's worst nightmare, perhaps - although it was not particularly graphic. Parents might want to read the first couple of chapters (you can listen to Neil Gaiman reading it himself here), and think about their kids' particular sensitivities and fears before giving a child that is younger than say 10 or 11 years old a copy of this book.

I'm happy that my preconceptions about horror and scary stories didn't prevent me from reading The Graveyard Book, obviously, and I think that it's great that a lot of people who wouldn't think this book was right for them might give the book a chance now that it's won the Newbery.

I could go on, but I'm afraid I'm running out of words like delightful, wonderful, winsome, and the like. I will say that I first read The Graveyard Book last November, and enjoyed it just as much (if not more) upon re-reading it this week. And I still cried happy tears on the last few pages. This is one of those books that stand up to repeated re-readings - a classic, if you will. Which I guess makes it a pretty good choice for the Newbery Medal after all.

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux, being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering

Pages: 270
First Published: 2003
Genre: children, fantasy, fairy tale
Award: Newbery Medal (2004)
Rating: 3.5/5

First sentence:

This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse.

Comments: Written in a tradition fairy tale manner this is the story of four characters, two good and two evil (or shall we say mislead). They include a princess, a mouse, a serving girl and a rat. All good ingredients for a fairy tale. We learn the background lives of all four characters then we are told how they met up with each other and created this story which ultimately is about the mouse, being a knight in shining armour, and how he rescued the princess and helped the evil doers as well.

I know there are a million reviews of this book and many raves. It also won the Newbery in 2004. It is one of the better Newberys that have won in the 21st century but I wasn't that taken with it. Perhaps I am too grown up and cynical for this type of story but I found it very sickly sweet. Even though I am a great fan of fairy tales I found here that the good were too good and the evil were not all that evil, simply mislead. It is a very fast read so certainly worth the effort. I think girls in particular will enjoy the story but it's a bit too much "honey" for my tastes.