Minute Marginalia

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best reading from 2006

Most of my reading for 2006 was children's and YA lit, to stay abreast of the field, and most of it was recorded in a spiral notebook rather than online. I usually rate books on a 1-4 star system. The following are titles that received 4 stars.

Picture books:
Joyce Sidman, Song of the Water Boatmen and Other Pond Poems, il. Beckie Prange. (2006 Caldecott Honor)
David Wiesner, Flotsam.
Mini Grey, The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon

Children's/YA fiction:
Julius Lester, Day of Tears: A Novel in Voices (2006 Coretta Scott King Award)
Megan Whalen Turner, King of Attolia
Julie Hearn, The Minister's Daughter
Alan Armstrong, Whittington (2006 Newbery honor)
Nikki Grimes, Jazmin's Notebook

Juvenile non-fiction:
Elizabeth Partridge, This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie

Graphic novel
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Adult fiction
Naomi Novik, Her Majesty's Dragon

Adult non-fiction
Charles Fishman, The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Minister's Daughter

Jill at My Individual Take mentioned blogging about Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter (one of our book group's selections), motivating me to write my thoughts, too.

The book in brief: In 1645 England, a minister's daughter schemes to conceal the truth about her pregnancy by attributing it to witchcraft, implicating the village healer and her young granddaughter.

Notable plot or structural elements: The narrative employs two perspectives: the first is that of the minister's other daughter, manipulated by her pregnant sister and telling their part of the story almost 50 years later; the second is an omniscient narrator, primarily focused on the healing woman and her granddaughter Nell. The majority of the book is told from the latter point-of-view and thus frequently shows the consequences of the daughters' actions. The omniscient narrator also allows the introduction of the fantastic, another element that sets the book apart, for this is a Britain where piskies and fair folk really do roam the countryside and the human inhabitants either ignore, deny, or accommodate them.

Random thoughts (partly inspired by and probably incorporating ideas from the group's discussion): During the book discussion, someone questioned the rationale behind blending fantasy with history. Pondering that made me aware of how much of the book is about perception -- about how one's understanding of the world changes according to what one sees or does not see (deliberately or otherwise): in other words, the same attitudes the inhabitants exhibit toward the resident piskies.

The concept even extends to interpreting the book's title, The Minister's Daughter. Which daughter? Is it Grace, the perpetual deceiver, and is this then a tale of the ills wrought by those who lie for their own gain and about the falseness of appearance? Or is it Patience, the sister who slowly perceives the truth, and whose discovery of her own gullibility (and misperception) taints the rest of her life and poisons her feelings for her sibling? Even the British title, The Merrybegot, contains the same type of referential ambiguity: looked at one way, it's the story of Nell, a Merrybegot; shift the focus and it's about Grace's pregnancy, for her unborn child is also a Merrybegot. (Additionally, a crucial plot point rests on Patience's misunderstanding of a reference to a Merrybegot -- and Grace's recognition of same and use of the truth to aid her deception.)

Almost every major event involves perception, misunderstanding, and/or deception (and the characters most frequently guilty of the latter two are the minister and his daughters). It would be interesting to graph the major characters' actions in this light. Patience, as noted before, moves from generally mis-perceiving situations to understanding; in the other household, Nell's granny follows an opposite path, from clarity toward oblivion.

As mentioned, the novel employs a dual perspective, and it's the omniscient narrator who -- while pinning the book firmly to history through the introduction of real figures such as Matthew Hopkins and Charles II -- also suggests that with a little tweaking our perception of history might be able to incorporate a little enchantment, just a few piskies who might be there or might merely be a trick of the eye.

And, of course, locating the story in the 1640s extends the idea of the importance of perception to the world beyond the novel -- the witchhunts, where being viewed as a witch could mean life or death, and the struggle between competing politics and religious beliefs, again strife caused by differing perceptions about worship, divinity, and kings.

There's a telling moment early in the story where the church (now under the control of the new, rigidly Puritan minister) is described. The two paragraphs not only accentuate items concerned with seeing but also twice introduce the concept of changing perceptions through the use of religious trappings:

"Nearly everyone remembers when there was stained glass in the church window, all lit up on sunny days, like little bits of heaven. There was an altar, too, with a statue of the Virgin Mary, a tall candle always burning, and niches where folk could leave roses, or apples, or locks of hair from a sickly child in need of the Lady's blessing. None of those things are here anymore. They were papist trappings, according to the minister, and no great loss to anyone. There is a plain table now where the altar used to be and nothing at all in the windows except a rectangular view of the heavens themselves, be they cloudy, fair, or bucketing rain.

"No one knows what has happened to the beautiful statue of Mary. Some claim it was rescued, under cover of darkness, and is standing, still, in some private chapel or secret chamber. Others will tell you it was carted deep into the wood and thrown among brambles, where it lies, facedown, weeping bright blue tears. But those who understand the way of the world say it got smashed to smithereens with a mallet."

This, in turn, suggests further questions about religion -- is it based primarily on perception: on whether one sees the Virgin Mary, the bare altar, or the piskies as truth? Is it a matter of where one looks, what one looks for? The book evades deeper exploration of these issues; perhaps the closest it comes is in the positive depiction of wiccan precepts. Although some members of the group saw it as critical of the church or Christianity, others felt that it favored tolerance -- an openness to multiple perspectives.

(That seems an awkward place to end the commentary, but if I don't stop now, I'll never finish Possession by the end of December...)

Addenda Jill's just added her take on the book, with an interesting critique and several informative links.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Joining the Winter Classics Challenge

Since hearing about the Winter Classics Challenge from Jill of Individual Take was one of my main motivations for starting a blog, I'm definitely going to try it. My five titles are

1. The Odyssey - Homer
2. Mary Barton - Elizabeth Gaskell
3. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
4. Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
5. something by Trollope
5a. possible substitutions for some of the above:
Pickwick Papers - Dickens; 39 Steps - Buchan

For years, I've been telling myself I'd read The Odyssey to better understand its influence on so many subsequent narratives, but never could manage to sit down and get through it. I'm hoping that committing to the challenge will provide enough incentive to complete it (especially since the Fagles translation has received so much praise).

I've added Mary Barton after seeing it on Jill's list, and Oliver Twist because the eponymous heroine of Katherine Paterson's Lyddie loves it so. The Scarlet Pimpernel is there for something lighter, a filler; the Trollope title will remain open until I figure out which of the ones on the bookcase seems the best choice. The two alternatives are other works that I keep hearing about but have never tried.

Friday, December 15, 2006

From the Stacks #4

I still haven't tackled Allende or made it beyond the first chapter of Possession, but did manage two children's books that have been sitting on the shelves for more than a year...

Up from Jericho Tel

This must be one of E. L. Konigsburg's most unusual works, beginning with the premise: the ghost of Tallulah Bankhead recruits two children to discover what became of her favorite diamond necklace, stolen from her body the night she died. The children, loners united partly by their common residence in a trailer park, meet with Bankhead after being pulled below ground in a clearing they've christened Jericho Tel and which they've been using as a burial ground for dead wildlife. They are then sent forth -- invisible, but corporeal -- to various locales to investigate the friends who were with Tallulah the night of the theft.

Published in 1986, Jericho Tel is in some ways a forerunner of works like The View From Saturday (1996), with its use of two very dissimilar -- and distinctly individual -- children uniting for a common cause; it's also reminiscent of A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (1973) with the spirit of a powerful female trying to resolve the loose ends of her life. And, like Konigsburg's first Newbery winner (and second novel), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), it pairs an overly practical, mathematically inclined boy with a bossy girl who longs for more attention; both grow closer while hiding from adults and uncovering a secret about an object associated with a famous person.

There are some wonderfully quirky elements in the book, such as the weathergrams ("a poem of ten words or less that a person writes on a plain brown paper bag and hangs on a tree . . . . [It] is rubbed by the wind, faded by the sun, washed by the rain and becomes part of the world"), which the children use in lieu of gravestones in their burial ground. (This site has more on weathergrams, including a few examples.)

Like Konigsburg's other books, Jericho Tel privileges intelligence, individuality, and achievement, and occasionally flaunts conventions. Although the introduction of the fantasy element is somewhat jarring (as several reviewers noted), the tone of the book and innovative approach made it a delightful, enriching read.

Necessary Roughness

Like her Finding My Voice, Marie G. Lee's Necessary Roughness is set in a town in Minnesota that has only one Asian-American family -- that of the teen-aged protagonist. Although Chan Kim is not pleased when his family moves from LA, he gradually makes friends and begins to adjust to small-town life, especially after being recruited for the football team. As does the protagonist in Voice, Chan struggles against his family's rigid rules and high academic expectations, which often clash with his own desires and interfere with his ability to fit in socially, a situation complicated by the racism of some of his peers. And, again like Voice, he has a talented sister who excels academically and is (for the most part) better able to comply with their parents' wishes.

In the use of sports as bonding and the problem of too much roughness on the playing field (from which comes the title), Lee imitates Chris Crutcher's model, though not as successfully. Like Crutcher, she incorporates a few shocking events into the plot, but doesn't seem able to resolve them for maximum effect. It's a fast read, and certainly not a bad book, but not an outstanding one.