10.29.2010

TPR Challenge #8 - James Thurber

Tomorrow is our annual Halloween Bash, so I have been swamped this week with such pressing matters as making costume contest prize ribbons and planning a spooky menu and rearranging the deck furniture to best accommodate the 50-some people expected to descend around 4 PM local time.  I did take the time last night, though, to read James Thurber's Many Moons (mostly as a step in the process of cleaning off my desk; I later found it was a week overdue.  Bollocks). 

It is a sweet picture book (recently re-illustrated by Marc Simont of Nate the Great fame) about a gravely ill Princess Lenore and her request for the moon.  Her father, the king, knows that his wise men can get whatever he asks, so he orders his Lord High Chamberlain and his wizard and his mathematician to get the moon for her, and each insists it cannot be done.  In classic fashion, the jester then enters the scene and recognizes immediately that it does not matter what the wise men think; it only matters what Lenore thinks.  So, with her guidance, he crafts a moon for her out of gold and strings it on a gold necklace.  She loves it and is instantly made well by the gift.  That evening, the king is frantic trying to find a way to hide the rising moon from his daughter.  He knows that if she sees it, she will realize the one she wears is fake and will fall ill again.  Once again, the wise men are consulted, but no one offers an acceptable solution.  And once again, the jester knows who to ask:  Lenore.  As it turns out, she has seen the moon and is not troubled.  She compares it to the flowers in the garden and other "renewable" resources.  She has "picked" a moon, and a new one has simply grown in its place. 

The writing is strong (you just gotta love a children's book that uses surfeit in the first sentence!), and I like the quiet message it sends about the wisdom of children and our all-too-easy ability to over-think simple truths.  I also like Simont's watercolors here.  They show a depth that is not as evident in his line drawings and that you often don't see in watercolors at all.  Dreamy and airy are often words applied to this medium, and a few pages could be described as such, but overall, the layers of color reveal a confident touch and add a great deal to the story.  Much as I love these illustrations, though, I was quite surprised to learn the original 1943 edition, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, won the Caldecott Medal.  It seems terribly odd that they would take a book that won the highest award for children's literature illustrations and re-illustrate it.  However, I like the new look, so I won't complain.  But I will keep my eyes open for an original copy.

James Thurber is a fitting follow-up to E. B. White as they were friends, coworkers at The New Yorker, and frequent collaborators.  His 1955 TPR interview offers several examples of his great wit and warmth.  He answers almost every question with an anecdote about a colleague, a friend, or some experience of his own.  Perhaps the most notable thing I learned of him (and perhaps I should have already known it) was his all but crippling vision deficiency.  What this revelation has caused me to understand is how different his definition of "writing" had to become.  He comments in the interview, "I still write occasionally - in the proper sense of the word - using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps twenty words to the page.  My usual method, though, is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind.  Then in the afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her.  I can do about two thousand words."  This is a mind-boggling feat: to have something so clearly lined out in your mind as to be able to simply dictate two thousand words at a time. It makes me feel that everything he created should be viewed as even more valuable just due to the sheer effort it required of him.

The Thurber I really wanted to read was The Wonderful O, but it was marked as "in storage" in our library.  I must find out about this secret storage place and see if they will allow me to try a little more Thurber. 

Oh, and as a means of recording literary happenings in my world, this blog would be remiss if it didn't at least mention that I drove 2 hours to hear Margaret Atwood speak on Wednesday.  What an amazing, hilarious, and intelligent being she appears to be.  Well worth the drive, the late night, and the fog on the mountain.  Now, I'm even more interested in getting my hands on Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

10.23.2010

While I'm At It - TPR Challenge #7: E. B. White

After getting all enraptured over Charlotte's Web the other day, I realized that E. B. White is on my TPR Challenge list, so I pulled out the interview and a collection I picked up for 75 cents: Poems and Sketches of E. B. White.  In skimming through and choosing a few to read, I found that most of his poetry doesn't offer me much.  There are a few I liked, but his "sketches" or brief essays/narrative sets are really something I approve of.  His humor is so quietly cutting, and the choice phrases seem so effortlessly but exactly placed to best shine.  In one piece ("The Rock Dove"), he answers a woman's swooning questions about New York City pigeons (not specifically addressed to him; they were published in Promenade) with a twinkling sobriety (he even drew pictures!) that lets you know he thinks this woman is simultaneously taking birds too damned seriously and not nearly seriously enough.  In "Calculating Machine," he ridicules a pocket calculating machine that measures one's writing in terms of "reading ease."  He thrashes the accompanying writing instruction pamphlets and concludes by quoting Thoreau and quipping:
Run that through your calculator!  It may come out Hard, it may come out Easy.  But it will come out whole, and it will last forever.
White is appreciative of a good final line.  He knows the importance of the last word.  In "Ghostwriting," where he expresses frustration with American University's new course in ghostwriting and the act of ghostwriting at all, he concludes
Lincoln probably had as much on his mind as the president of the motorcar company, but when an occasion arose, he got out a pencil and went to work alone.  His technique is as good today, despite electronics, as it was then.  Few men, however, have that kind of nerve today, or that kind of loneliness.  They're all too busy taking their ghost to lunch and filling him in.
Beautiful.  Simply beautiful.   I could go on as I have just spent a few more moments thumbing through and laughing at his "Two Letters, Both Open" where he writes to the ASPCA and the IRS in stunningly droll fashion.  And then an essay about the new checks his bank was requiring.   Oh, what a joy this little trip has been!

As for the interview, it too was a good thing.  (Can you read those words without hearing Martha Stewart's intonation?  I admit I struggle to do so.  Curse the omnipresence of that woman!)  I found it fascinating to learn that he was hardly a reader at all although he thought Rachel Carson's Silent Spring awfully impressive.  There is also his rather well-known words about writing for children:
Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time.  You have to write up, not down.  Children are demanding.  They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.  They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.
And then this commentary, which I was not previously familiar with and which speaks to so much more than just writers these days:
Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry.  There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger.  But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.  I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad.  I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.
I feel this pressure in so many arenas of life now - not just writing.  Especially in the world of public discourse (news channel roundtables, political debates, soundbites from analysts), we are driven by this animation of anger.  I can avoid most of it by just not watching T.V., but it is something that continues to plague some writers, journalists, and other purveyors of the written word, and I'm not sure they are doing themselves or their craft justice.   Observe here White making good on his promise:
I examined everything said yesterday in the council chambers of the mighty and could find not a single idea that was not trifling, not a noble word of any caliber, not one unhurried observation or natural thought.  The newspaper headline prophesying darkness is less moving than the pool of daylight that overflows upon it from the window, illuminating it.  The light of day - so hard at times to see, so convincing when seen.

10.21.2010

Death of a Spider - AND - a Giveaway!


Tonight, the girl, the boy, and I will finish Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.  (The girl and I read it 2 years ago, but we decided to reread it together, so the boy could experience it.)  But last night, it happened, as it happens every time that amazing book gets read.  The children, one tucked in each of the crooks of my arms, sat up in spontaneous glee at the moment when Wilbur roots Templeton from his sleep in the straw, sending him flying through the air before ordering him to climb up and retrieve Charlotte's egg sac.  Though they can force-laugh with the best of them (a classic technique of distraction or disobedience), these laughs were hearty and real.  Yet mere moments later, the boy was completely quiet (as the girl was her first time around), and the girl was sobbing.  Real, true, healthy tears.  It was not for show or because she thought it was expected.  She was crying because it is sad when Charlotte dies.  She was crying for those 514 baby spiders who would not have a mama to bring them up.  She was crying because when Charlotte dies, she is all alone.  And though I reminded her of the natural life cycle of animals, and how baby spiders don't need a mama like baby people do, and how Wilbur was going to take care of them, she still woke up at 4:30 in the morning and without coming to get me, continued to grieve for Charlotte.  I finally heard her, went to her, comforted her as best I could, but her pain was real.

On our class discussion board, a student posted about "In the Gloaming" that the ending gave him shivers.  I responded with a comment about how I loved the short story form for its ability to convince us so completely, and in such a short period of time, of whatever crafted world we have entered as to affect our emotional beings.  Regardless of length, though, that element is one of the reasons we love story so much.  We can be changed by it, we can be affected, we can grow to love and hate characters - mere figments of some author's imagination - and mourn them when they are gone.  Though I no longer sob when Charlotte dies, anticipating her death as I was reading it still caused a lump to grow in my throat.  But that was last night.  Tonight, Joy, Aranea, and Nellie will remind us of that life cycle, of that hope, of the happiness that accompanies sadness - in books as in life.

And now, for some happiness (perhaps?) of a different sort.  I did some fall cleaning of my shelves yesterday and uncovered some books I no longer wanted in my collection.  I am offering them to you, dear readers, with no sticky attempts to entangle you in my web.  All you have to do is comment below or email me if you'd like one of the books I have available.  

They are:
Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson
Dude, Where's My Country? by Michael Moore (sorry, no post; this one predates the blog)
French Lessons by Alice Kaplan

I apologize that I am only offering these books to readers in the U.S.  My budget won't allow for extra postage at this time.  For the rest of you, what books have most deeply affected your emotional being? 

10.19.2010

"In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark

Yesterday, my lit class discussed my favorite story of the collection we use: "In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark.  In this story, a man exactly my age has returned to his parents' home to die, presumably of AIDS.  First published in 1994 in The New Yorker, this story is a quiet, intimate companion to Susan Sontag's frantic and cacophonous "The Way We Live Now" (also published in The New Yorker, 1987), which we had just read the week before.  In the Sontag, the characters (and there are heaps of them) pass a dialogue around like a football, all circling one of the friends who has been diagnosed with AIDS.  This story, the Dark, also focuses on one man, but his voice and that of his mother are the only ones that matter.  In fact, many of my students (who admittedly don't read all that carefully) missed the subtle hints that indicated this was another AIDS story.  As cancer is a much bigger presence in their lives, many of them assumed he was dying of cancer.  But for those of us who grew up in the 80s, the reality of the AIDS crisis was something different, something foreign to these kids who have only ever known Magic Johnson to be healthily living HIV positive.  They don't know what a big deal it was, even for us small-town folks who had relatively little contact with the disease.

The other thing they don't know is how it feels to read this story as a mother.  I try to avoid the condescending "One day, you'll understand" kind of stuff because I remember how infuriating I found such comments as a youth.  However, it is something I am aware of - just how much they can't know about having a child and considering losing a child.  Close to the end, the mother (Janet) is talking to her husband about their loss.
"It's so wrong," she said angrily.  She hadn't felt angry until that moment; she had saved it up for him.  "A child shouldn't die before his parents.  A young man shouldn't spend his early thirties wasting away talking to his mother.  He should be out in the world.  He shouldn't be thinking about me, or what I care about, or my opinions.  He shouldn't have had to return my love to me - it was his to squander.  Now I have it all back and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it," she said.
This passage provides the expected response (a child shouldn't die before his parents) that reflects an understanding of the natural order of things.  But it goes beyond that expected answer into a truth I had never considered before I encountered this story.  A mother's job is often called thankless.  The work we do is often overlooked or disregarded, even by ourselves.  We invest so much in our children, and some of us become bitter at how little return we receive on that investment.  Thankfully, I am not often plagued by such a feeling, but I've never been able to put a finger on why.  I've always just said, "That's my job.  It's the most important work I do, and I don't expect to be thanked for just doing my job."  Now, I have a language to speak about it more fluently, a currency with which to complete this transaction.   I pour out what I can upon my children with the hope they will spend it wisely but with no expectation they will return what I gave.  It is theirs to squander.  What a beautiful gift we can give.  And what a tragedy to have that gift returned too soon.

Every semester, when we read this story, I swear that I should read more of Dark's work.  She is an author I know nothing more about beyond this amazing story.  So, I visited Amazon to find out more about her work and noted a few things I would like to get my hands on.  In the process, I found that HBO made a medium-length film version of this story starring Glenn Close and Robert Sean Leonard.  Reading the synopsis frustrates me and makes me feel it can't be as good as the story, but perhaps I will give it a try.  Anyone seen it?  Have an opinion?

10.14.2010

I Heart Newbery Medals



Several years ago, I taught at a parent cooperative (read: hippie) school where I was responsible for a class of 2nd-4th graders.  My second year, I took my class of then 3rd-5th graders to join up with the middle schoolers in the afternoon.  That year, I assigned a big project where each student had to read and respond to one Caldecott Medal winner and one Newbery Medal winner.  Though I had read many of these wonderful books over the years, I certainly had not exhausted the list, and of course, many of my students chose books I hadn't yet read.  So, I spent my spring reading their choices.  Though I did not love every one I encountered, I was consistently pleased with the quality and thoughtfulness of the selections.  These lists contain many wonderful, tremendous books, including some of my (and probably your) all-time favorites: Bridge to Terabithia, Dear Mr. Henshaw, Jacob Have I Loved, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and of course A Wrinkle in Time.  Raise your hand if you didn't love A Wrinkle in Time.  Now, run and hide because the rest of us are coming after you. 

A Wrinkle in Time is one of the most magical, transformative books of our time.  I earnestly believe that.  And if you've read anything else by L'Engle, you'll know that everything she touches positively shimmers.  I am a fan, to say the least.  So, imagine my delight when I learned that this year's Newbery Medal Winner, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, was centered loosely around and definitely inspired by L'Engle's classic work.  Here is an interview where she (sort of) explains the connection. 

So, last night, after finishing the Baldwin behemoth, I picked up When You Reach Me just to read the first chapter.  To get a taste, if you will.  Imagine my thrill to find myself still dressed and sitting in the relatively uncomfortable office chair some 50 pages later.  I finished this afternoon, and I am once again happily crowing about the Newbery committee and their impeccable taste.  This novel is suspenseful, creative, thoughtful, intelligent, and compelling.  I (the one who got The Sixth Sense almost immediately) couldn't explain it all until the very end.  Truth told, I had only the mildest inkling about most of the suspenseful elements.  I was so wrapped up in the whole story that only a tiny portion of my brain was concerning itself with "figuring it out."  It just didn't matter if I knew.  The story was taking me there, and I knew I could trust it.  So, where was this story taking me?  Well, I can't (or won't) tell you much.  The basic frame is that Miranda, a 6th grader in New York City, lives with her mom and goes to school.  One day, her best friend Sal gets hit in the face by a boy neither of them knows.  For reasons she can't understand, Sal stops being friends with Miranda after that day.  She then has to deal with making new friends, missing Sal, helping her mom prep for the $20,000 Pyramid, and the mysterious notes that someone is leaving for her.  Someone needs her help, but she doesn't know how to give it.  That's all I'm going to give you; you're just going to have to take my word for it.

Funny side note:  at some point last night, I flipped to the back and saw a publisher's synopsis.  I didn't read the top of the page, assuming it was a summary of this book's plot.  It refers to the book as "an intriguing look at how global warming is affecting the arctic regions, deftly woven into a coming-of-age story."  I was momentarily puzzled because in the 70 pages I had read to that point, there was nothing about global warming or the arctic.  I essentially shrugged and assumed we'd get to that.  Then, later it started really bugging me.  How in the heck could this be about global warming?  And then: did they put the wrong synopsis on the back of this book?  This went on for some time, but I was too engrossed in the story to read the back cover.  When I finally looked again, I had to laugh at myself.  Of course they did not put the wrong synopsis on this book; the top of the page says "Praise for First Light," which is apparently Stead's first novel.  Nice one there, super sleuth.  Kudos to your incredible powers of discernment.

Anyhow, this book was a remarkable breath of fresh air after the slogfest that was Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.  Beyond that, it was seriously solid literature.  Thanks again, Newbery.  What about you?  Have a favorite Newbery winner?

10.13.2010

TPR Challenge #6 - James Baldwin

I have only a vague recollection of bringing this book home from Barnes & Noble as part of a gift card spree.  It has sat on my TBR shelf probably because each time I picked it up, I had to remind myself of why I bought it.  The only real reason is my respect for James Baldwin.  Go Tell it on the Mountain was important to me some years ago, and I now teach "Sonny's Blues" with almost religious fervor.  When Baldwin is good, he's very, very good.  Unfortunately, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone did not inspire any similar ravings. 

The basic thrust of the book is Leo Proudhammer, a highly successful black actor (mostly stage, at least one movie credit), who has a major heart attack on stage.  He is only 39.  The rest of the story takes place in the form of flashbacks as he recuperates.  As a narrative device, the flashback doesn't bother me, but I do mind here the extraordinarily detached feeling we get about Leo in the present tense.  We rarely know what he's feeling during his recovery; we don't even understand how much time has passed during these recollections.  Even as we continue to receive revelations of the different arenas of his past, we know very little more about him than when we began.  We learn that he is bisexual, atheist, not terribly political, has had a long-standing, on-and-off relationship with white Barbara and a more recent relationship that might be love with Black Christopher.  But despite this information, Leo remains psychologically detached.  How can we read almost 500 pages of nothing but Leo's thoughts (first-person narrative here is an odd choice) and memories and not get any real sense of internal struggle or psychological development?  How can we know that he had sex with his older brother, Caleb, and not hear one utterance on that undoubtedly important event through the rest of the book?  It is completely unreasonable to think he would not occasionally question that part of his past.  It is completely unrealistic to think that once his brother becomes a preacher and has an hours-long talk with Leo, he might never even allude to an embarrassment, guilt, or shame over their shared experience.  It just doesn't work.  And though this event was the most disturbing to my sensibilities, there were many other instances where I felt an incident was related with no real contribution from Leo at all. 

The ending was another frustration.  The third, and final, section of the book is called "Black Christopher."  I kept finding it odd that we had spent so little time discussing his relationship with Christopher in this long section.  With about 50 pages left in the book, Christopher appears on the scene.  In that final 50 pages, he jive-talks, orders Chinese food, drives Leo around San Francisco, takes him to a club, and insists that they need guns.  Then, just as suddenly, Christopher (the supposed love of Leo's life) is absent again, and Leo is waiting in the wings ready to perform again.  Someone more astute than me might be able to justify such an abrupt ending and lack of character development, but such a justification did not occur to me.  It simply did not work.  I was just glad to have finished the book.

The The Paris Review interview took place in 1984, a mere three years before he died.  He was certainly a writer in repose at that point although he talked of the work he was still undertaking, and indeed he published 2 collections of essays and a novel between the interview and his death.  But his was an established voice; he no longer had to hawk his goods on street corners.  The interview, however, reveals him to still be angry, to still be fighting battles, to still be seeking some greater self-awareness. 

This searching quality is shown in the most teachable quote from the interview:
When you're writing, you're trying to find out something that you don't know.  The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don't want to know, what you don't want to find out.  But something forces you to anyway. (242)
It's interesting to view this quote through the lens of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.  It forces the question: what did Baldwin not want to find out?  What part of his tumultuous identity was he probing the most insistently?

The final exchange in the interview refers to Baldwin's reputation in some circles as a prophetic writer.  I'm not sure I've read enough Baldwin to see the prophecies, but one element of this interview confirms this view for me.  He says,
When I was a kid the world was white, for all intents and purposes, and now it is struggling to remain white - a very different thing.
Especially in this day of "return-to-our-roots" politics, Baldwin's statement must be hailed as prophetic.  And I, for one, am glad that very different struggle is finally taking place.

I am also glad to be finished with this work and ready to enjoy something new.  I plan to read Rebecca Stead's Newbery Medal Winner first and then to tackle David Grossman's beauty, which has been sitting tantalizingly on my desk for a week or more.  Here's to next books!