The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

(David, your post is the next one down.)

I decided to treat myself to re-reading an old favorite over the holidays by one of the best sci-fi-fantasy writers for children in the world. And it was as delightful as before. Jones creates a world replete with groups of creatures, politically motivated wizards, and a multi-species family of children and griffins.

The premise is that someone from a non-magical world has found a portal to this magical world and is exploiting it for tourism. But it's not enough to tour a magical world. Mr. Chesney, head of these tours, demands that his customers be given a scripted set of typical fantasy story experiences, in which good triumphs over evil.

The best part is the way the women of the world band together to educate the tourists (called "pilgrims") in the exploitation of their world. So much is topsy turvy. The eventual person who shuts it all down in the head of the thieves guild, who is angry because Mr. Chesney is stealing magic from their world, and no one outside of the theives guild has a right to steal that magic.

This book is such a jumble of places, characters, and events, that it's hard to believe Jones keeps it all going. I can only sit in awe of writing this complex and humorous at the same time.

for David Parsons

Hi David! I hope you've had a great year. Here are a couple of books I read from the last year that you might enjoy, as someone who likes fantasy/sci fi:

Gregor the Overlander (and sequels) by Suzanne Collins
Singer of All Songs (and others in the Chanters of Tremaris series) by Kate Constable
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (Grimms fairy tale retelling)
The Vacation by Polly Horvath (not quite fantasy, but very surreal)

Those are just a few, and of course you can see other things I've been reading in this blog. I hope you enjoy your amazon gift certificate and have a wonderful new year!

best wishes,
your cousin Katie

Isaac Newton by Kathleen Krull

Krull's new Giants of Science series has debuted to rave reviews, and this bio of Newton makes it easy to see why. This is an outstanding biography of a strange, antisocial scientific genius from back when scientists were still called "natural philosophers."

It's interesting in light of so much contemporary self-help advice celebrating well-rounded lives to think of Newton, who probably contributed more to the creation of modern science than any other single person in the history of history. He was so far from being an enlightened being, tearing into his rivals ruthlessly and destroying their careers if they so much as criticized him. He hardly ate or slept while he was in his most productive phases. He certainly did not lead a balanced life.

Krull's narration is broken into highly digestible chapters, and she develops suspense and weaves topics together with the ease of a novelist. I think I would have hated this guy in real life, but his story is quirky and interesting, and certainly serves as a reminder that following one's bliss might look really weird to outsiders. Cranky and difficult as he was, Newton clearly pursued what he most cared about with unwavering focus--advancing science and tearing down the other guys.

Caddy Ever After by Hilary McKay

After Saffy's Angel, Indigo's Star, and Permanent Rose comes the book that I so hope will not be the last in the Casson series. This one switches points of view regularly, so that the "crowd of kids" effect in the earlier books is now compounded by a crowd-of-points-of-view effect. The only voice I found it a bit hard to follow was that of Indigo, who is so quiet that it is almost as if the narration is temporarily in the 3rd person. It could be an ending point for McKay, since Caddy leaves home in search of Michael....

Rose is, as usual, unforgettable. She is absolutely and unabashedly herself, in a way that those of us with any manners at all can only dream of being. Here are a few of the quotes I liked best from the book:

-- "'Valentine's cards are supposed to be speical,' said Saffron. 'You can hardly call them special if you send them off in dozens.'
'This is how I do special,' explained Rose."

-- 'Last year,' said Rose smugly, 'I got nineteen.'
'You got nineteen,' said Saffron, 'because your class made Valentine's Day cards fro art and all the boys sent the ones they made to you! Some of them sent two. That's the only reason you got nineteen.'
'It was still nineteen though,' said Rose. 'So.'"

(I laughed out loud, and then thought of my own habit of quantifying "love" as though a certain number of "good" or "bad" interactions in a week, or a number of stresses or gifts, as though it adds up to "love" or "not love." When that's not right at all. Love can be the final "So." No counting required)

--"So Sarah uses a wheelchair to get about. Actually, she uses a lot of wheelchairs because her family are rich adn her mother is always finding new models that are lighter, or easier to fold, or safter, or something or other. Adn the day they bring out a solar powered, micro-chipped-so-the-occupant-is-never-lost, weight free, totally invisible model that allows the owner unrestricted movement in every direction, which a special happiness function that is permanently switched on, that day, Sarah's mother will stop buying wheelchairs for Sarah."
(Oh the wish for safe keeping)

--"'Start giving anything away,' Tom says, 'and sure as you know it, sooner or later the weirdos will show up.'"
(I had an email from England yesterday, someone named Rory who has enjoyed my Silly Goose puppet. So welcome, weirdos, to the blog!)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I skimmed this after the first 40 pages. The book itself is such a visceral immersion in the disorientation of grief that I had to read it lightly. To have a woman's perspective on such an immediate and devastating loss as she experienced (her husband died while her recently-married daughter was in the hospital, in a coma) is a good thing. I admire the way Didion grapples with her own experience of aging, as the loss of her husband suddenly makes her realize that she has been seeing herself as the age she was when they met all these years, because that is how he saw her.

She documents her own reading about the medical science of grief as she is grieving, which makes this interesting reading for those of us in LIS. Any of us who are used to doing research when we need a lifeline can understand what Didion is doing as she seeks to sort the true reflections of her experience from the absurd, and reads to know when she will recover. At one point, she reads that loss is most devastating if the surviving person was "unusually dependent on" the one who died. Didion questions how this can be construed as pathological: "Unusual dependency (is that a way of saying 'marriage?'...."

The Color of Water by James McBride

McBride's memoir is both autobiographical and biographical--about his mother. The subtitle "A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother" gives some sense of the issues covered, although the identity territory he covers is even wider ranging. His parents were a mixed-race couple in the 40s, and his mother had been raised Jewish in Virginia.

McBride is deeply respectful of his mother, and yet clear about how her experiences have left her somewhat fragmented. On the up side, she sent all 12 of her children to college, and all are professionals. She was also widowed by 2 husbands, both of them African-American men, and when James left for college, she had only about $14 to give him.

The story is remarkable, and McBride tells it like the composer he is. He switches from his mother's voice to his own, seeming to skip around at times. This echoes the fragmentation of the information that his mother is willing to give him about her own past and her total break with her Jewish family (they sat shiva for her, meaning she was dead to them, when she married a black man).

It's not until the last few chapters that I felt I had a sense of his mother's personal. She seems alternately staunch and frantic, a pillar of strength and a monument to indecision. It's clear that she is a unique and amazing personality, never more so than when McBride reports that all 12 of the children and their spouses and their children come back to his sister's house in New Jersey every Christmas, and shows how the wishes of the entire clan hinge on his mother's diminutive presence.

Pages 217-218: All were clamoring to go to the movies. Then she says "I want to eat."
"The movie was instantly forgotten.
'Yeah! Let's eat!'
'I sure am hungry'
'Let's order out!'
From another room: 'I been waiting to eat all day...!'
Now that's what you call power."

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

A mystery puzzle book! I loved the Westing Game by Raskin, and I had heard great things already about this book from some of my students in LIS403, Children's Lit. So I read it in one night, which was a both a blessing and a curse. It was a quick and breezy read. I felt no need to translate the coded messages, because the content was given by the context of the surrounding text.

What struck me as odd was the interweaving of a mystery-genre story with supernatural, almost ESP elements. Generally, mysteries are about discovery, finding out that what appeared mysterious is in fact explainable. In this book, the appealling-misfit characters Petra and Calder each have amazing "communications" from either a painting (in Petra's case) or from the letters formed by a set of pentominoes (Calder). And these communications are never explained, although the rest of the pieces eventually fall into place.

All the empowering things about a mystery novel, such as being able to figure the puzzle out along with the protagonist, or learning to be skeptical of the evidence presented to you, are in my mind defused by the presence of the supernatural information that the characters "pick up" in the world around them.

So it seemed a little mechanical to me. Great premise (a Vermeer has been stolen, these kids have to solve the mystery on their own) and good suspense, but the actual execution seemed a little flat somehow, a little mechanical.

There are ways of situating the fantastic in children's fiction. The wardrobe, which divides the real world from Narnia, or any number of other passages or tools such as the Subtle Knife represent one way of positioning the world of the fantastic as nearby to the world of the real. Near enough to be tantalizing to the reader, but accessible only through one magical portal. Harry Potter has elements of this in Platform 9 and 3/4. Artemis Fowl takes a similar approach--the fairy world is hidden, but all around us if we're observant, and yet the heart of the LEPrecon and the fairy world is still separated, deep underground. Gregor the Overlander uses the same trope.

In Chasing Vermeer, the kids have magical visions that come from somewhere, but the somewhere is never explained. I find it jarring to juxtapose the idea of telepathic communication with a painting with the process of logically piecing the clues together to solve a mystery.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is a stunning memoir of growing up with parents who couldn't or wouldn't keep a household together. Walls' family was typically on the run from the law, whether a result of her father's money schemes or the potential intervention of state authorities in how the children were being raised. It was normal to her, and she conveys that normalcy by offering a reporter's objectivity on the subject of her life. Even when she records outrageously hurtful or selfish acts committed by her mother or father, she does so without comment, indulging neither anger nor self-pity. She was, really, an abused child, with abuses too numerous to count, from simple neglect to near-starvation (while her mother indulged her own sweet tooth, hiding candy bars) to sexual molestation (under the eye of her father, who took her along to bars to distract his marks while he bested them at poker).

The first line was enough to show me that I had to read this book:

"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster."

Even more compelling than her toughness is her honesty. Walls hid her past from those around her for 20 years, moving in affluent circles of New York society. Her parents, through their own choices and through being unwilling to accept her financial help, remained homeless in NYC. It would be a relief to finally speak the truth after all that time.

Text mining for the humanities?

What could we need to know about interpreting and understanding the meaning of a work of literature that could be facilitated by digital text mining? I went to part of a dissertation proposal defense today (Bei's). Someone on her committee pointed out that literary scholars use digital tools for pre-critical work, finding the books they wish to criticize. Humanities scholars would only benefit if these text mining strategies used for classification had some way of giving them access to surprising or new meanings.

But what if these tools were used for post-critical work, to see if a book's or a group of books' critical reception had some basis in the frequency of word occurrences in the text? So say, for instance, librarians in the late 19th century deemed some books "realistic" and "true to life" and other books "improbable" or "false." Would there be anything in a text analysis to back up this kind of distinction? Particularly if the two sets of books were both about orphans... (see the post comparing books by Yonge and Finley)

It seems to me that text mining might be useful for criticizing cultural distinctions made between different sorts of books, such as books designated high or low culture.

If these tools were accessible... Bei said they weren't practical yet. But I still wonder why they would be useful. It seems to me children's literature scholarship is the most likely venue, in part because we're always concerned with reading level (and so need to think about running comprehensibility analyses on texts) and because we're concerned with "good" or "bad" books for kids. We want to distinguish quality from non-quality, in order to select which books get handed to kids. Even more importantly for critical literary scholarship, we have to ask ourselves careful questions about what we mean by those distinctions, and whether our assessments change over the course of history.

the unbearable smugness of Elsie Dinsmore

Just finished reading Countess Kate by Charlotte Yonge, which is a complex portrayal of an orphaned girl who has been kicked around from place to place. She builds her entire sense of self on finding out that she is a countess, because she has so little else to go on in the home of overbearing Aunt Barbara who constantly tells her she's not good enough.

Then I start reading Elise Dinsmore by Martha Finley... we're still post-Civil War here, hence Elise is also an orphan deposited with a family who does not love her. But while Charlotte is confused, uncertain, and awkward thanks to having been kicked from family to family, Elsie is beautiful, self-righteous, constantly in an attractive state of near-weeping, and refers incessantly to the Bible.

Why is she like this? How does her character come to be? We don't know, and it's hard to care when Elsie does nothing but demonstrate over and over how much better a person she is than anyone else. She's a child who needs no external motivation for her actions. All is about God, and obedience. To modern ears, used to the context-immersion of the era after all scholarship made a linguistic turn, since we began to think of culture as a kind of soup we swim in that also floats into our skins, Elsie is particularly jarring.

Kate reacts to Aunt Barbara's disapproval in a realistic way: she gives up. She freaks out, she screams and cries, and she just basically regresses to early childhood. When given explanations for obedience, she does try. When handed instructions with love rather than the assumption that she will fail, she is very effective. She responds to love.

Elsie reacts to everyone's disapproval, including that of her own father who judges her harshly, by turning to God, or her understanding of God, for comfort. "God must want it to be so" she consoles herself, seeking no explanation for the things around her. Elsie is like a little martyr, accepting all and questioning none. Elise carries a profound love for her father, who restricts her and lavishes affection on other children in front of her. She rejects the offer of another home because she loves her father so much. Obviously, her "father" is a thinly veiled metaphor for "God," although he isn't always righteous.

The differences between these books are, from the standpoint of complaints over realism made by 19thc librarians, somewhat subtle. Librarians approved of Yonge's Kate, disapproved of Finley's Elsie. Both are orphans, both are in unloving homes for most of the books... but while Kate's character is explained by her own passionate personality and her immaturity, which keeps her self-control mostly dormant, Elsie's is not explained at all. In an era during which Darwin and Freud had turned all eyes on Childhood as the most important phase of human development, Elsie is a throwback to an earlier era of the Sunday School books. Instead of children, those books had little saints. Kate reflects the complexity expected of books for children, in that she is neither good nor bad but learns to be better over the course of the book. Yonge does point out Kate's flaws as they occur, in asides to the reader. But Kate is a realistic human child, while Elsie is a cardboard cut-out of a girl.

Yonge's Kate:
It's not very realistic that a countess-ship would suddenly pass to an orphan girl, but it is realistic that the parson and his family were the only ones who would take her in until the inheritance of the title, at which point her wealthier relatives were interested for the first time. Aunt Jane is kindly but very ill, and Aunt Barbara is stiff and forbidding, assuming from the start that Kate is damaged goods due to her upbringing so far. She only experiences real obedience when she begins to be exposed to real love, from her other aunt and uncle who come back from India to take care of her when their own son dies.

Finley's Elsie:
It's not realistic that a little girl would experience absolutely no effects from the pity or scorn of her peers, and instead understand implicitly how to translate the words of the Bible into righteous deeds. It's not realistic that she would be both good and beautiful.... unless she's essentially a folkloric figure, and not really realistic at all. Of course, Elise gets love from the cardboard-cutout of Mammy, her black caretaker, who loves her and encouarges her in her Bible reading. That's all we see of her, Elsie's devoted servant, not a woman in her own right.

The interesting contrasts are not the plot or the set-up (both are similar), but the implicit messages each book gives about what children are capable of being and who they should be. This also gives insight into what parents should be.

What if 19thc librarians objected to folkloric one-dimensional characters in their novels, but not in folklore itself? Folktales could be unreal, because they represented the concepts of other cultures. But fictional stories were held to a higher standard of realism, in that they had to reflect beliefs (still held today) about the malleability of childhood and the importance of loving families.

I'm still reading Elsie Dinsmore, although it's hard going....

Coffin and the True Books

--Boys of '76 by Charles Coffin (earliest UIUC catalog date is 1876, although it was clearly reprinted multiple times)

Rip-roaring start, right in the middle of action, getting ready to send a son off to war. And then an intervening letter gives details, and the whole things bogs way down by p. 5.

I wonder if inclusion of the letter was meant to make it seem real, the way contemporary nonfiction writers for children include photographs?

I need to read What Darwin Saw, if I'm able to find it. Finding older nonfiction may prove difficult, but it's what I need to do. Just found Chemical History of a Candle on Project Gutenberg... goodie.

Oliver Optic, Charlotte Yonge

--Outward Bound, or Young America Afloat

Just finished reading this in electronic form--thanks to Project Gutenberg for making the text available for free. The UIUC catalog says it was first published in 1867. This old book is the first one I've read entirely on screen, 300+ pages. I found that by narrowing the browser window my eyes could begin to actually move as fast as they do over print pages, and I was, after many chapters, able to get "lost in the book" on this Thanksgiving day. It was a pleasure to tap the space bar rather that turn pages.

I picked it out because of the title, thinking that it may lead me to greater understanding of the youth nature program by the same name. I'm sure this was the inspiration for those programs, since the gist of the story is that a principal decides to have a school on a ship, relying on the necessities of maritime life to provide needed discipline for unruly but rich boys.

I do see why 19th century librarians found it objectionable. Most of the story consists of following the bad-to-the-bone antics of one Bob Shuffles. His sudden teary-eyed reformation at the end is ludicrous, and reading about him plotting mutiny and nearly killing a shipmate is much more fun.

"Impossible, Implausible, Not Realistic!" So my dear 19th century public library colleagues shouted, and they were not wrong. And yet the book is entirely chock full of moral lessons, with Optic pointing out which boys are bad, which are good, and which are amenable to either kind of influence throughout.

An aside--it was near impossible to not hear David Bowie's song Young Americans in my head ever single time I read the subtitle or read the name of the ship in the book. This was chronologically jarring, as I am trying to immerse myself in 19th century juvenile literature at the moment, and I felt very 1970s every time it happened.

--Countess Kate by Charlotte Yonge

I'm still in the middle of this one, but so far I'm trying to figure out why this was considered "good" while Optic was "bad." It starts off with a very unrealistic premise: an orphan girl living with a poor but kind clergyman's family discovers that she is, after all, a Countess. Implausible!! And yet they liked Yonge, so perhaps things go very badly for her with her rich aunts. There has been heavy foreshadowing to this effect... we shall see...

Both of these books make Little Women by Alcott look very well written indeed by comparison.

To really compare with the Optic, I need to read a Rollo book by Abbott. To compare with Yonge, it should be Elsie Dinsmore by Finley. Piece by piece, I'll get there.

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and other memoirs

Went to the library to find memoirs of women with unusual families or academic careers. I browsed, rather than asking for help. I found two important books:

--Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman

This memoir of growing up in a Jewish hippie family in NYC is strikingly honest about a kid's eye view of everything from concrete playgrounds to racial inequities and adolescent rock star adoration. The first half is brilliant, and she should write children's books. She write the way children are, seeing one another as people. Just like Iona Opie describe in The People on the Playground, kids refer to one another as people... not little people, not kids.... they do not see themselves as incomplete but as whole, with their own whole dramas.

Gilman gets this. I'd read anything she writes. I laughed out loud enough times while reading the first few chapters that I decided not to take the book with me on the bus or to cafes.

--Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Schulman

This is a memoir of a woman who decides to move to the ramshackle cottage of the Maine coast where she has previously summered with her husband and now grown children. She experiences a spiritual awakening brought about by paying intimate attention to her environment, and in particular by learning how to live by eating the abundant species of marine and vegetative life around her. This part, the entire first section, was inspiring and vivid, and gave me yet another way to think about the concept of seeing abundance instead of deprivation. I believe this way of seeing is a matter of choice.

She lost me at the point where she returned to the city and got so caught up in her "new" way of being that she practically drove her feminist group to reject her new insights. It's hard to be graceful about changing, as I know from my own life. Sometimes we embrace something that feels so new that we don't want to be understood, as a means of keepign ourselves distinct. When she told one of her feminist friends that she (Schulman) understood the friend's mother better than the friend did, I was just grossed out. Goes to show you what getting too attached to the idea of having had a spiritual revelation can bring you.

--Sleeping with Cats by Marge Piercy
I admire Piercy and her work, but I put this wandering memoir down after two chapters. Maybe it will be better later.

I enjoyed the memoir, but in the end I wasn't sure if I liked the author. She seemed to create so much chaos around her in her search for calm and solitude.