True Colors

Newberys Read This Year: 2

Newberys Left for Goal: 13

Newberys Left for Total: 27

 

Book: The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

Apparently, I am not a middle-aged British man, either.

I don’t know if I would have to be in order to enjoy this book, but I have to admit I, a middle-aged American woman, was quite disappointed in it. I daresay the author would likely agree with the points I am about to make, but believing that he and I share similar opinions is not going to change how I feel about his book.

It started out well enough. Mr. Miller had created a List of Betterment—a list of books he fashioned out of a sense that he was approaching middle age and needed to do something worthwhile. That something turned out to be reading books he was ashamed that he had not read. The list originally consisted of 10 books, then expanded to 13, and eventually to 50. I liked Mr. Miller’s honesty about how he chose his books, and I liked his honesty in discussing them. As you might be able to tell, his honesty is one of the strongest features of his book. It is unfortunately that honesty that eventually made me eager to be done with it.

I’m not talking about the books he selected.  I was familiar only with 28 titles on his list, so it’s safe to say that my List of Betterment would differ significantly from his. I’m totally fine with that. Everyone has their own taste, their own idea of what makes a book great, and what makes a book something one should read. No, his honest list wasn’t my problem.

I’m not talking about his opinions of the books he selected. Out of the 28 titles with which I was familiar, I can’t say I’ve read many of them, so I don’t really know how often our opinions would be similar. I do know that he and I are poles apart on two books that are rather significant to me. He admired Jane Eyre, a book I despise. I not only loathe the work itself, I am also appalled at the fact that so many people (especially women) seem to love it. He did not admire Pride and Prejudice. I don’t think I need to say anything else about that. But I respect our dissimilar opinions on these two books. I am perfectly willing to agree to disagree. No, his honest opinions weren’t my problem.

I give Mr. Miller credit for being a very honest writer. In being so honest, he revealed much about himself. This is where I had the problem.

Since this is ultimately a memoir, Mr. Miller is the main character. I am a very character-driven reader. And eventually, I came to dislike Mr. Miller as a character. This is where I had the problem.

He certainly seemed nice enough at first. He’s British, with a British sense of humor. He loves both books and reading. He has worked in a bookstore and a publishing house. He is devoted to his wife and son. These are all good things and points in his favor. But as I read on, more of his personality, his true self, was revealed, not only in his book choices and his opinions, but in the way he expressed them. His character was also revealed when he related some stories from his youth or young adulthood, and when he shared his thoughts about a variety of subjects (all related to his working his way through the List of Betterment). And the further I got on, I more I kept having a rather disturbing thought: Dude, you’re a, well, let’s just say the word that kept coming to mind was a nickname for 3 British kings and one American president. It’s kind of hard to like someone like that, and even harder for me to like a book someone like that has written about himself.

I also want to say that I don’t believe that Mr. Miller was dishonest at the beginning of the book, because I liked him then and grew to dislike him. Rather, the more time I spent with him (in a literary sense) the more I got to know him better; the more I got to know his true self, good points as well as characteristics I don’t care for.

To be honest, if I were to say my abovementioned disturbing thought (complete with the word I chose to be euphemistic about) to Mr. Miller, he would likely not be offended. He would also likely agree with me. That might make me like him more, but it does not make me dislike him less.  I can appreciate the journey he took going through these 50 books, I can appreciate the challenge he took on to write about it, but I cannot appreciate him or this particular book. I suffer no Richards.

Amy the Done

Newberys Read This Year: 2

Newberys Left for Goal: 13

Newberys Left for Total: 27

 

Book: How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

Vikings. Dragons. Potty humor. What more could an 8-year-old boy want?

I am not an 8-year-old boy. Enough said.

OK, I will say one thing. I did think the illustrations of Toothless the small dragon were cute, but that’s it. There are other books in this series, but I am content to leave them unexplored, the occasional cute illustration notwithstanding. This dragon series? Done.

That was Then

Newberys Read This Year: 2

Newberys Left for Goal: 13

Newberys Left for Total: 27

 

Book: Rifles for Watie* by Harold Keith

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction (Newbery)

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

 

Review

Book: The Matchlock Gun* by Walter D. Edmonds

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction (Newbery)

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

So within a week of each other I finished two of my Newbery books. It seemed only fitting to discuss the two together. Especially since both are very typical of the times in which they were written.

The Matchlock Gun won the award in 1942. It is a brief and spare novel about a frontier family in upstate New York, living with the dread of an Indian attack (this is during the French and Indian War). The story focuses on 10-year-old Edward, man of the house while his father is off with the local militia scouting the Indian situation. Edward’s father takes his musket, leaving the heavy, antique, Spanish matchlock gun hanging over the fireplace. Sure enough, the Indians get closer and Edward and his mother must figure out how to use the gun against the inevitable attack. The gun is used successfully and when Edward’s father returns he is impressed with his son’s courage and ingenuity in saving the family home.

Except, the courage and ingenuity weren’t Edward’s. They actually belonged to his mother. She was the one who realized that her family was safer in their small log house, rather than in the large brick one belonging to her mother-in-law (the brick house, prominent and prosperous, was a more likely target than the slightly hidden, meagre wooden house). She was the one who removed the heavy gun from the wall, found the powder and bullets, added nails, and loaded it. She was the one who figured out how to prop it on a table with flatirons since it would be too heavy for Edward to hold. She was the one who aimed it out of the window. She was the one who came up with the code she would give to Edward when he was to fire the weapon. She was the one who made sure all Edward had to do was touch a candle to the priming to ignite the gun. She was the one who scouted out the situation and lured the Indians into the target area. She was the one who bluffed the existence of reinforcements. She was the one who made sure the Indians were in range before giving Edward the signal. She was the one who took a hatchet throw to her shoulder for her efforts. She was the one who was unconscious when her husband returns to be impressed with Edward’s efforts.

So Edward’s mother does all the work and Edward gets all the glory. Sexism was rampant in 1940s children’s literature, and in this book in particular. In addition, the characterization was rather feeble. This was a time when a primary goal of children’s literature was to instruct and moralize. Edward and his sister Trudy are model, obedient children. Trudy is slightly mischievous, but she is only four and likely seen as comic relief. The children behave as good children should, and they are rewarded by the story’s conclusion. Everyone is painted in broad strokes with little finesse. This was not a time when authors had significant respect for their child audiences and it shows.

Rifles for Watie took the prize in 1958. Again, this book is clearly instructive, but some progress is discernible. In this story, we have Jeff, living in Kansas and desperate to join the Union army. Secessionist, slave-owning bushwhackers from Missouri are a constant threat to the family farm, and Jeff is determined to fight to have them leave his family alone. At age 16 he becomes a Union private and sees both good and bad soldiers on both sides of the war. He meets a mixed-blood family (Cherokee and Caucasian) and becomes very attached to them, especially one of the daughters, even though they are patriotic rebels. Eventually he becomes a scout but gets stuck in his rebel persona for an extended time, causing him to question his belief system.

Sixteen years brought some changes in children’s literature, but not a whole lot. The author put more effort into characterization here, and the message isn’t delivered with the power of a club-wielding troll. However, this is clearly a message book, clearly a book that is meant to instruct with a story thrown in for good measure.

When Jeff meets the Washbourne family and begins to fall in love with Lucy, he learns about the plight of Cherokees (of all Native American tribes, actually) during the civil war. The exposition is thicker than the proverbial pea soup and not as satisfying to consume. I will give Mr. Keith some credit for trying for subtlety by adding Jeff’s conflict into the mix. When Jeff passes months with Stand Watie’s men (Watie is a Cherokee leader of a particular group of rebel soldiers) he learns to care about them and see the war from their (Cherokee) point of view, thus increasing his struggle. Mr. Keith is still clearly teaching here, but he takes a more hands-off approach this way. That’s not to stay he doesn’t have some additional  anvil-laden moments, such as when Jeff suffers greatly at the hands of some of his Union superiors and is treated with nothing but kindness by every Cherokee rebel he encounters. But this is looking at an archival document with contemporary eyes. So while I can note the book’s faults, I do try to realize that it was among the best of its era and that it is very much a product of that era. I do, however, have one complaint that has nothing to do when the book was written. The titular plot point about getting the rifles for Stand Watie doesn’t happen until 270 or so pages into a 332 page book. Watie is mentioned earlier, but Jeff doesn’t even encounter Watie’s men until about page 230. I did have a bit of a let’s-get-to-it-already feeling while reading most of the book.

As I read through these comments on these two older Newbery winners, some ideas pop into my head, about tracking author gender, protagonist gender, author message, etc. through the winner list. I think it would be interesting to see the trends in American children’s literature during the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m sure someone has already done this, but it will be way more fun for me to figure it out on my own. For now, I can cross two off my list of 15 and look forward to 13 more.

An Intimate Portrait

Newberys Read This Year: 1

Newberys Left for Goal: 14

Newberys Left for Total: 28

 

Book: Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

Before I get to the first review of the year, I want to share a school librarian moment. At various times I have considered working in public libraries, but doing so would likely mean giving up moments like the following. After school on Friday, I saw a former student come back to the school to help teach a Zumba class (to mostly kindergarten, first, and second grade girls—a rather hilarious sight well worth seeing, incidentally). She was talking to a current kindergartener whom she knew. I told the kindergartener that I knew the dance teacher since she was in first grade. That prompted little N to ask me, “Do you know this girl, her name was…something…and she used to go to this school?” To which I promptly replied, conspiratorially with eyes wide with excitement, “Yes, I do.”  Such moments are, indeed, priceless.

On to the review. A little over a year ago I read Susan Branch’s travel diary of her months-long trip to England. One of the places she enthused about was Sissinghurst, beloved home of Harold Nicholson and his wife Vita Sackville-West. She also recommended this book by their son which is a memoir (of sorts) about a particular time period in their marriage. Their marriage was unconventional, to say the least, and she thought this book was a fascinating read, no matter what your thoughts about their marriage might be.

Miss Branch was correct.

Before I read this book, I was aware of some of the details of the lives of the participants. Long before the advent of Downton Abbey, I was interested in early 20th century British society. This stemmed from my curiosity in the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (an interest I inherited from my Nana). Many of the friends and associates, on both sides of the issue, of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson had rather colorful lives in the 1920s and earlier. So I already knew about Miss Sackville-West’s relationship with Violet Trefusis.

This book contained two chapters which were Miss Sackville-West’s memoir concerning that relationship and three chapters of commentary by her son Nigel.

I find myself trying not to be judgmental, but it is difficult. One the one hand, Miss Sackville-West was bold and courageous to write down (in 1920) the etiology of her extremely torrid relationship with another woman. She was also incredibly prescient when she penned the following: “…I hold the conviction that as the centuries go on, and the sexes become more nearly merged on account of their increasing resemblances, I hold the conviction that such connections will to a very large extent cease to be regarded as merely unnatural, and will be understood far better…” She goes on to say the others will recognize that people like her exist. Considering the current legality of gay marriage and how much transgender issues are in vogue, Miss Sackville-West was a prophet in her own time.

So I can appreciate her intelligence and her intrepidity, but I’m not sure I can appreciate her herself. She writes that she is incapable of fidelity, and that’s not a trait I admire in someone (here’s where the judgmental part comes in). If she were alive today, and were free to live her life as she wanted, would she be capable of fidelity? I’m not sure. Her husband Harold was also unfaithful to her, having relationships with other men. But somehow there is a difference to me. Harold and Vita loved each other deeply, just not passionately. They both sought that outside the marriage and both were fine with it. However, none of Harold’s relationships ever came close to threatening the marriage. Vita’s obsession with Violet very nearly did just that.

Vita was all passion—passionate in her love and well as in her hate. There was never, seemingly, a middle ground. She loved Violet passionately and hated Denys, Violet’s husband, passionately. There was a period of several months where Vita and Violet were determined to elope together—but it was always an on/off type of thing. I got exhausted just reading it—I can’t imagine how exhausted all the players must have been while living it. I guess I don’t admire Vita as a person because I just wanted to say “Get on with it already—whatever course of action you choose. Just do it.” I realize the view of society at the time perhaps played a role in the ambivalence of the situation, but I grew weary of it.

There was nothing I cared for about Violet. She seemed selfish and manipulative from start to finish. And while we see Violet through Vita’s lens, after the affair is over, Vita still loves her. That makes me think it is unlikely that she shows Violet from a scorned lover’s perspective. I was just very glad when she finally exited the picture.

I did find myself liking Harold. And I did find myself admiring the bond between Harold and Vita. I also appreciated Nigel Nicolson’s writing style. Interspersing his commentary on the whole affair between the two sections of Vita’s memoir brought some peace into the chaos. It also brought some understanding into the behavior of the principles. It didn’t make me like Violet, but it did soften my judgments about Vita. And if Harold could understand and forgive her indiscretions, who am I to object? So this was a fascinating view into a situation I really can’t begin to understand, and I’m glad I read this book. Still, I don’t think I want to look that closely at anyone else’s relationship anytime too soon.