Inconsistent Rebel with a Cause

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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

I inherited my interest in things related to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from my Nana. In reading about this famous pair I encountered other people (who were indeed characters!) of their acquaintance. Among them were the Mitford sisters. Combine their circle of friends with the fact that they are a group of six sisters and I didn’t stand a chance—I was bound to be hooked.

A few years ago I read a biography of all six sisters. I identified most with Nancy, the smart-mouthed writer, and Decca (real name Jessica) the greatest rebel. I’ve since read several of Nancy’s novels (The Pursuit of Love is by far the best) and earlier this year read this autobiography of Decca’s. I found Decca to be a capable writer, so I won’t spend any time on her skills. What was most remarkable to me was her actual life and some of the people in it, so I’ll focus on that.

Decca was the 5th of the 6 sisters (the girls also had a brother) born into the British aristocracy of the early 20th century. The family was both extraordinarily privileged as well as highly eccentric. The girls’ mother, Lady Redesdale, believed in educating her daughters (to some extent) but not allowing them to go to school. As a result, the girls grew up rather wild, supremely self-confident, and with varying degrees of rebellion against the prescribed, aristocratic lifestyle their parents embodied and embraced.

Combine this rebellion with too much unsupervised time and essentially enough money to do what you want and you can get some pretty out there results (passion for animals and hunting, secret languages, endless pranks). For three of the girls, as they became adolescents, this rebellion took the form of extreme dedication to various government systems. Two of the sisters, Diana and Unity, became zealous fascists (something I cannot even begin to understand). Decca, however, turned to communism. In part because of this strong belief in communism she was powerfully drawn to a somewhat distant cousin, Esmond Romilly, who eventually became her first husband.

Of all the rich, famous, poor, unsung, stilted, creative, or just plain wacky people Decca encountered in her life, Esmond was, understandably, the most important to her. Yet he was the one I liked the least. Through her lens of extreme affection and very early widowhood (Esmond was killed in WWII when he was only 23), Decca clearly sees Esmond as her hero. I saw him rather differently. He seemed so full of good ideals about fighting for what was best for the common good, yet several times in his life he was quite self-serving. He was not above breaking the law upon occasion when it suited him and then justifying it with very selfish reasons. He was rather ignorant, childish, and trusting with money, often looking for easy and somewhat shady ways of getting ahead, only to have the schemes rather blow up in his face. Decca seemed to find it all very endearing, while I just wanted to shake him.

Why did this man whom I’ve never met who died so much too young bother me so? I think because he ultimately struck me as a hypocrite. He talked a good game about communism, but he never really left his aristocratic roots. It’s not that I am a supporter of communism (for the record, I think it is a utopian way to live but that human nature prohibits it from being an effective government system), but I do think that if you are going to be an activist and a bit in-your-face about a cause (as both Esmond and Decca could be) then you need to support it with consistency. Inconsistency undermines credibility and ultimately undermines the cause. Here, it made Esmond and Decca seem like rich dilettantes with nothing better to do. I don’t think that is actually an accurate picture, but that is how they can come across.

I quite enjoyed reading about Decca’s childhood with her sisters. They were quite a mischievous bunch and their antics could be quite amusing (when they didn’t occasionally border on the cruel). I admired Decca’s independent spirit, particularly when she deliberately chose to defy her fascist sisters. I sympathized with her sorrows (her parents disapproved, of course, of her relationship with Esmond, not to mention the miscarriages and death of an infant she had to endure) and delighted in her joys (she and Esmond were very happy together in America and she eventually gave birth to their healthy daughter). I found much to like about Decca (perhaps not quite as much as JK Rowling, who idolized Decca to the point of naming her first daughter Jessica after Decca’s given name), but I also found myself so disappointed by the end because I so did not like Esmond. So mixed feelings make for a mixed review about an interesting person who was such a mix of her aristocratic background and her communist convictions. It’s all in the mix.

The Awful Truth

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: One Book.jpg

You might think that as a Lifetime member of JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America) I love all things Jane Austen. You would be wrong.

I certainly love all her works. I own all her novels—multiple copies of several of them. I have read many biographies and commentaries. Some I loved, some not so much. I have JA figurines, salt-and-pepper shakers, T-shirts, puzzles, games, and cards among other things (again, don’t question the crazy). I have seen and/or own several movie adaptations, again, loving some and not quite feeling the love for others (BTW, this spring’s Love and Friendship was phenomenal!). I have encountered several modern retellings of her works (Clueless, great; Bride and Prejudice, OK; the very loosely-based Bridget Jones’ Diary, hilarious). This retelling, however, of the best of Miss Austen’s works, was just plain awful.

Awful.

Did I mention that it was awful?

While reading this book I struggled with the reasons for my dislike. Did I abhor it so intensely because it did terrible things to my favorite book, or did I just think it was an awful book? Turns out, I despised it for both reasons.

At first, I didn’t like what Miss Sittenfeld did to the characters, particularly the Bennet sisters. Again, I am an extremely character-driven reader. One of the biggest reasons I love Pride and Prejudice so much is because I totally love Elizabeth. She’s intelligent, witty, intrepid, and spirited, but she is also very flawed, willing to acknowledge when she is wrong, and willing to change. I admire her because I want to be Elizabeth Bennet. Short of that impossibility, I’d love another impossibility and have her as a friend. She’s the type of person you like despite her flaws, such as being judgmental and holding a grudge.

I so did not want to be Miss Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennet. I found her gossipy, mean-spirited, rude, and extremely judgmental. Not to mention that her affair with a married man totally made me lose respect for her. Toward the end of the novel some of her better qualities came through, but not to the extent that I could overlook the so many things I dislike about her. I also didn’t like Miss Sittenfeld’s re-imagination of the other Bennet sisters. Her Jane was too wimpy, her Mary too prickly, and her Lydia and Kitty downright gross.

So initially, I didn’t like how Miss Sittenfeld made the characters almost unrecognizable from Miss Austen’s work. I certainly expected changes, but these were so extreme. Then I realized that it wasn’t just the fact that the characters changed so tremendously, it was the fact that the characters we ended up with were just so unlikeable. What I’m trying to say is that if I read this book without having ever read Pride and Prejudice I would still have thought it awful since the so many of the characters were so dreadful.

And it’s not just the characters who were so disagreeable. I also didn’t like how hard the author worked to write a contemporary novel. There were so many “trendy” topics covered in the story, such as a fiancé who turned out to be gay, pregnancy by artificial insemination, eating disorders, Cross-Fit, interracial romance, paleo diet, transgender characters, and reality television just to name some. None of these elements on their own are off-putting to me in a book (with the possible exception of the reality dating show), but all of them? It’s like Miss Sittenfeld thought, how many ways can I show that this is a 21st century novel? When you can see the effort the author puts into the craft it draws attention away from the actual story she is trying to tell. Maybe that was what Miss Sittenfeld was going for since the actual story is not hers. At any rate, I can honestly say that this objection has nothing to do with the Pride and Prejudice connection: again, I would hate the book for the extreme contemporizing even if I had never read the original. What is ironic, though, (and just like another book I commented on a few weeks ago, not in the good Jane Austen way) is that by throwing in so many en vogue issues, Miss Sittenfeld created a very dated retelling of what is actually a timeless classic.

I had other problems with the novel, but I have to admit, I’ve had it with this awful book.

Did I mention that this book was awful?

The Quiet Cause

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years* by Rachel Field

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

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Book: Strawberry Girl* by Lois Lenski

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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

In my rota of alternating protagonists, I read these two books when I was due for a female main character. I made a connection between the girls I read about, so it seemed fitting to discuss the two together.

Hitty was the winner in 1930. The eponymous title character is actually a doll. She is made of mountain-ash wood (extremely sturdy, brings luck, and has power against witchcraft and evil) for little Phoebe Preble in early 19th century Maine. Hitty seems prone for adventures. While in Maine, she gets left behind in a church, snatched by a crow, and hidden in a tree. But that is nothing to what she experiences later. Among other things, she survives a boat sinking, becomes an object of worship for island natives, shares a basket with a snake (the accompanying illustration was far too life-like for my snake phobia), gets stuffed away in an attic, becomes a wedding gown model, goes overboard a ferry, and eventually becomes a collector’s item in an antique shop. Along the way she has several owners, some who cherish her, some who are indifferent to her, and some who are mean-spirited.

Sixteen years later, Strawberry took the prize. In this story, Birdie Boyer and her family are newcomers to the Florida backwoods around the turn of the 20th century. Birdie’s family are kind, loving, and friendly, but they bring progressive ideas their more unenlightened neighbors deride, fear, and eventually violently resist. Good triumphs over all, however, and in time the Boyers become welcome citizens in the community.

Two very different stories, two very different characters, but they do share a common trait. Both Hitty and Birdie may appear to be in traditional female roles, but both show that there is more to them under the surface. Hitty has great respect for propriety and enjoys the traditional feminine pursuits of sewing, nurturing, and homemaking. However, as the title implies, we follow Hitty’s journey for one hundred years, and along that journey we see her adapt with the changing times. Hitty always stays true to herself, but I got the feeling that she did not have an anachronistic spirit. If we were able to follow her journey into the 1920s, it is likely that she would be scandalized at flapper attire, but she would also likely support their right to vote. She’s hardly a radical, but I do think she would be open to progressive views.

At first glance, Birdie is simply a loving child who enjoys being a part of her family, helping out with the family farm. Like Hitty, we see her in traditional female roles of cooking, gardening, and taking care of her siblings. But we also see a girl who loves going to school in a community that does not entirely embrace education for anyone, let alone females. When the Boyers are bullied by Birdie’s classmate’s family in general and the classmate in particular, several members of the family, Birdie very much included, both stand up and reach out to him. We see Birdie break the traditional role of female bystander and instead be an active participant in her family’s life story.

So the trait that Hitty and Birdie share is feminism. This is a word that has gotten a bad rap over the years. Generally, when people think of the terms feminism and feminist they think strident, bombastic, loud-mouthed, radical crusader who is inspiration for the term “feminazi”. So not true. Wikipedia says that the goal of feminism is “to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women that are equal to those of men.” There are so many different ways to express and work toward this goal. In their quiet ways, both Hitty and Birdie show young female readers that they can be who they want to be, regardless of what traditional society expects of them. Sometimes a cause needs a Gloria Steinem or a Betty Friedan out there fighting and leading. Sometimes it needs a Hitty or a Birdie, peacefully modeling. I’m just glad that the Newbery committee knows this just as well as I do.

Professional Courtesy

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: One Book.jpg

The celebrity culture we live in today is a pretty sorry thing, in my opinion. Sometimes it can be rather innocuous, such as populating cooking shows on my beloved Food Network and Cooking Channel with celebrities rather than professional cooks. Sometimes it can be rather terrifying, such as having a misogynist, racist, uninformed, egomaniacal celebrity bully as a major political party’s nominee for president (yes, my Republican friends, I’m taking a swipe at Donald Trump) rather than someone who understands the political process. Sometimes it’s merely frustrating, such as when celebrities without a gift for writing get published rather than people who actually know how to write.

This final example is, of course, what I’m talking about with this book. Chris Colfer may be able to sing beautifully, and maybe he did a great job on Glee (admittedly, I lost interest in the show after the first season), but he is not a writer. At least, he is not a skilled writer of children’s books.

His premise for this book is intriguing. Twins Alex and Connor have recently lost their father in a car accident, and as a result spend little time with their mother who must work double nursing shifts to make ends meet. Alex is a whiz at school, reveling in reading, especially her beloved fairy tales. Connor struggles in school, but more due to lack of interest rather than poor ability. After a disappointing birthday, Alex becomes intrigued with their gift from their grandmother, The Land of Stories, a book that is a collection of fairy tales. Much to their surprise, the kids literally fall into the book. They meet several fairy tale characters as they collect items for The Wishing Spell, the only way they can get back to their own world.

Interesting premise aside, the execution is rather abysmal. When I first began reading it, the word that kept coming to my mind was amateurish. You know, not bad, but just not polished. By the time I was done (and I was so thankful to be done with this book) I knew it was worse than that. It was just bad writing.

How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways.

First of all, there is the description. There is entirely too much of it. Not that there are long, flowery passages, but rather just about every thing and every action has a modifier. This is actually what made me think the work was amateurish. At first the over-description was annoying, then tedious, and finally just plain awful. Most people do not think and talk with so much attention to detail, so reading writing like that made me think that too much effort was put into the how of the writing than the actual storytelling.

Speaking of too much attention to detail brings me to my second point. There is also too much attention to time. What I mean by that is that it seems like just about every waking minute of the main characters’ time is accounted for. We as readers don’t really need to know every action the kids do, especially when the actions don’t advance the plot or character development. Edit, people! All that results is a book that is much too long, much too tedious (again!) and much too fussy.

And that fussiness brings me to my next point. Kids, in general, are not fussy. They’re messy, they’re disorganized, they’re off-kilter in many ways. Neither Connor not Alex are like that. How they speak and act do not resemble, well, any kids I know. The adults in the story are also just off-balance when it comes to the way that most grown-ups act, especially when dealing with kids. The thought I kept having was that the author either doesn’t really know kids, is not comfortable with them, does not really spend much time with them, or some combination of all of these. This may not be true of Mr. Colfer, but that is the way his writing comes off. Mr. Colfer chose a third-person unlimited point of view to tell his story. Usually, when an author does this the reader still gets the feeling that the “narrator” is a part of the story. Here, I felt that the narrator was detached. That is not the best way for an author to engage readers in his story, particularly child readers.

I suppose what Mr. Colfer does to engage his readers is to try to submerge them with exciting action. Except if that is what he was doing, using such a plethora of television/movie clichés might not be the best way of going about it. There are so many that I cannot recount them all, but the two that stand out most are the tree-trap and the underwater drama. You know, the tree trap. You’ve seen it hundreds of times when the good guys are walking through a forest, step on something, and trigger a huge net to sweep them up and leave them hanging from a tree. And the underwater drama—when two characters are trying to sneak somewhere by swimming, dive under some type of barrier, and one of them gets caught on it and is saved by the other just in the nick of time. These are images we’ve seen over and over and get another opportunity to experience them in Mr. Colfer’s book.

Side note—I mentioned that the clichés are from movies and television. Because of this, I felt like I was watching the story rather than reading it. Certainly when I read I visualize the story, but it doesn’t feel like I’m watching TV program. I consistently had that feeling when reading this book. I did not enjoy the juxtaposition of media.

The final point I want to make about my dislike of this book is its take on bullying. This has become sort of a hobbyhorse of mine, and I don’t mean to harp on it, but bullying is so prevalent in kid society, and when I see what is likely well-meaning writing that inadvertently adds to the problem I can’t seem to keep quiet. The Evil Queen, unsurprisingly, is a bully. After an intense conversation (a conversation in which she imprisons, tortures, and manipulates) our main characters feel sympathy for her. They realize that she had to deal with some horrible things in her past which caused her evilness. This was even foreshadowed in the prologue of the book. I get it. Bullies are often made. But in the real world, simply having sympathy for a bully doesn’t undo the pain and humiliation they cause. Ideally, showing sympathy and compassion for a bully will lead to the bully having remorse and deciding to change her ways. When writing for kids, you need to represent life like it is and realistically model what it can become. This has the potential for such power when dealing with bullying. But here, the bully shows no remorse. The fact that she physically cannot (she turned her heart into stone many years ago) does not matter to me. A huge takeaway from this book about bullying is: victims, feel sorry for your tormentors and bullies, we know it’s not your fault so it’s OK. However, it’s not OK. Whatever horrible things have happened to you does not excuse the choice you make to take it out on others. If it were OK, in our stories why don’t our good-guy characters who are bullied (who have horrible things happen to them) end up as bullies themselves? Right—because it’s not OK.

Okay. I’m getting off the hobbyhorse and getting out of this review. This is a terrible book. It’s amateurish, cliché-ridden, and has a horrible message. It only got published because the author is famous. The publishing profession does not have the courtesy to care more (or at least equally) about the quality of its products than the quantity its profits.

Rude.