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.