Saturday, December 30, 2006

 

Pippi Fishstocking

Tried The Electric Telepath by Jan Mark (Random House, 2005), part of a series or grouping of books for young people called Definitions, which includes I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I wonder what the motivation behind the series is. I couldn't get into Telepath at all (the main character is much excited by electricity, but hampered in his desire to study it by his membership in a repressive Christian sect), but I'd like to try another Jan Mark title in the series, Useful Idiots.

I enjoyed Pippi Longstocking, but she wasn't my favourite Lindgren character. Even when I was young, I thought her extreme tale-telling and anarchic behaviour a bit much, and her feats of strength cartoonish. (Lindgren herself preferred Emil over Pippi.) Gillian Johnson creates another such worldly innocent in Thora, who is ten (Pippi was sort of nine), has spent her life so far travelling the seas (with a mermaid mother instead of a sea-captain father) and now is obliged, in order to satisfy a cryptic prescription for surviving her miscegenation (in order to satisfy her father's desire that she experience normal life), to settle in a small village for a while, and live like a human. Like Pippi, Thora charms and holds the attention of the children she meets with her fearlessness (especially around adults) and her tales that, even when they sound untrue, show off her huge experience of the world. (And as with Pippi, that fearlessness is the flip side of a sometimes dangerous innocence about the perfidy that adults are capable of. ) Pippi was absolutely forthright about her fantastic strength, which she viewed as nothing more spectacular than, say, an extreme case of double-jointedness, or perhaps the ability to hold her breath for a long time. Thora is a bit more careful of hiding her true nature, wearing a bodysuit to cover her purple, scaly legs and feet, and arranging a ponytail over the blowhole in her head. (I'm not sure why a mermaid has one, equipped, as she is, with a nose. Does a whale have a nose and a blowhole? And how come Thora spouts water, when she's walking about in the air? Perhaps one should not ask.) The big difference between Thora and Pippi is that Thora has depth. Pippi hardly exists away from Tommy and Annika; when she is alone, we see her at a distance, as if standing outside in the dark, looking at her through a lighted window (as in fact we do, narratively, a few times). Thora has an inner life, plans for herself and for others, ideas—a voice. She writes to her new best friend at the end of the story, and it's a real letter. All this makes Thora her much less of a cartoon than Pippi, and makes me look forward to reading the sequel.

One last thing: we're told that Johnson "grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, and now lives in England and Tasmania". I'd say she's made the switch pretty thoroughly. Roald Dahl might have peopled this book, and the language is distinctly not North American. And one last last thing. Son said, "I'm suspicious of this 'half-mermaid' thing. Isn't a mermaid already half fish?" Indeed.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

 

The Value of Education

The Girl-Son by Anne E. Neuberger (Carolrhoda Books, 1995) tells the story of Induk Pahk, whose mother disguised her as a boy when she was seven so that she could attend the village school. At the turn of the last century, Korean girls were not allowed an education, but Induk's mother, a widow who had refused to live as the dependent of a male cousin when her husband died, was determined that her daughter would have the opportunity she herself did not. Induk achieved a college education for herself, then went on to found a technical high school for rural students as well as promoting education for girls. This was all during the two world wars, and the occupation of her homeland by the Japanese. The story is told in first person, and is based on Induk's own two books about her experiences. The book includes a sort of appendix about Chinese astrology, in which the reader can figure out his or her Chinese horoscope . The fact that Induk became a Christian in the course of her education, much of which was carried out in mission schools, isn't particularly highlighted. Hm.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

 

Visiting Friends

Friends are always welcome in our new home. When they come on Christmas Day, they are really great friends. (I recommend homemade pizza for Christmas dinner.) And when they come with books . . . well, I need to say no more. Children went quiet for about an hour after the welcoming, and then Daughter reappeared with the second Babysitters Club graphic novel in her hand, sighing, "That was a good book." I don't know if she read the other graphic novel Friend brought, Bone 1: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith (Scholastic, 2005). I did. It's more traditionally comic-booky (the monsters are very much so), but I liked it well enough. I can't help attributing some rude characteristics to the Bone cousins, which Friend can ask me about if she likes. The main Bone is like a cross between Pogo and . . . well, something, but I don't have enough comic strip experience to say what. The artist could not resist including some luscious female flesh. Bone, indeed.

I finally got my hands on Hitler's Daughter by Jackie French (HarperCollins, 1999), recommended to me months ago by a sister. This is a slim, simple book about a huge, complicated subject. It is the most excellent text I have ever seen to introduce the third generation since WWII to atrocities that haven't gone away since the conquest of Nazism. But to say that makes the book seem heavier than it is. The conceit is this: while waiting for the school bus, one child tells a few others a story, different from those she has told before. This one is more real, somehow—but how could it be? Hitler didn't really have a daughter, did he? One of the listeners, a boy whose voice is the narrating voice of the novel, can't stop thinking about the story. If his own parents were wrong, really really wrong, would he know? If he knew, would he have the courage to stand up against them?

BTW, the cover on the copy I read is much better than this one.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

 

Happy Holidays!

Holidays mean time to read! But Husband got tons of DVDs out of one of the library branches, too; and the day is so sunny and beautiful, we simply must get out and walk a length of the railway tracks. I know, there's a big campaign on to stop people doing this, but it's a no-train day and we'll be careful.

Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen (HarperCollins, 2004): ay, what a tragic tale—a teenage girl is the sole living witness to the pillage and destruction of a Mayan Indian village, and carries the guilt with her into the refugee camp where she finally connects with her one surviving sister. But it does give me a clearer idea of the very simple reality behind the complicated war politics of Central America: it's another case of clearing out the natives. Mikaelsen and Deborah Ellis have a lot in common, both taking on huge devastations and making them devastatingly simple through the voice of a young person.

The Vacation by Polly Horvath (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005). I have a new rating for a story's value: the Snack-O-Meter. If I find myself getting up to fetch a snack too often in the course of a read, then the story isn't holding me. This book scored a 3/30 on the Snack-O-Meter: 3 snack searches in 30 minutes. So I gave up. Too many "colourful characters" and not enough plot. The two aunties are tedious : they might as well be Marge Simpson's sisters.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

 

Back Again

The move to the big suburban city has been accomplished, not without weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. As a friend put it, houses like surprises, because they do not like being taken for granted. I have certainly gained a new and tender understanding of home heating and cooling....

All the books packed, and library borrowing unwise—in the last week at the old home I couldn't take it anymore and had to go out to the secondhand bookstore and buy some reading material. First I read The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff (Penguin, 2000). This was a novel built around the actual story of the first publicized sex-change operation, which happened earlier than you might expect—before WW II. The subject of the operation was a married man (turned woman) and the author was particularly interested in what kind of a marriage would support such a transition. He conveys a loving tightrope of not-saying-aloud that goes on between these two; the book is about them both, together and separately, so the Danish girl of the title could either be the girl-who-became or the wife of the man-who-was. The Danish girl husband and wife create between them is the vehicle of the wife's success as a painter, so the wife is deeply beholden to her. But it was the wife's painting her that first caused her existence.

Next, I read The Known World by Edward P. Jones (HarperCollins, 2003). A friend recommended this to me a year ago and so I pounced on it in the bookstore. Wow! A novel built up like an oil painting, layer upon layer, each one directed at revealing this or that shade of meaning or key detail: as rewarding as an Old Master, and as hard to read, sometimes. But I loved it. It was totally absorbing.

Then there was The Dutch Wife by Eric McCormack (Penguin Canada, 2002). Who could resist the title? This was a story also built in layers, but not like an oil painting, more like a story withing a story within a story. There's the narrator, behind whom stands the author; the narrator tells the stories others have told him, the main one being that of Thomas Vanderlinden, whose mother was the Dutch Wife of the title, Rachel Rowland. Rachel's story of the mysterious husband she was not married to is also told by Thomas, but there's another story within Rachel's, that of the non-husband. An interesting way to write a novel.

Incidentally, a "Dutch wife" is a rolled-up towel or other device tropical sleepers tuck between their thighs or knees to prevent heat rash developing while they sleep. The extension meaning is something that exists to be used, usually ignominiously. As a Dutch wife, I object. In fact, I find it remarkable that so many of the references to Dutchness in the English language are uncomplimentary. Dutch courage, Dutch treat, for example. Dutch uncle and Dutch auction aren't exactly complimentary, either.

While staying at a friend's between moving and staying, I had a quick peek through Outrageous Women of the Renaissance by Vicki Léon (John Wiley and Sons, 1999). A very entertaining and enlightening book, that included Kenau Hasselaar (1526–1588), a Dutch widow (not wife!) who armed and led her own troops during the resistance war against the Spaniards. The author claims that "kenau" is a Dutch term for any strong, feisty woman. I'll have to ask my mother about that.

Which brings me to my new home, in which I have FOUR libraries at my disposal. Untold riches! To our sorrow, being closer to the big, big city does not get us more TV channels with our rabbit ears; nor can we find anything to match the utter perfection of the video/DVD rental place we loved in the old town. However, this means more time for reading. Such as:

Whittington by Alan Armstrong (SD Schindler, ill.; Random House, 2005). How I love illustrated children's novels. This one is the stories a cat called Whittington tells about the famous Dick of the name, stories passed down by the cat's ancestors, who have descended from Dick's cat. The stories are told to an assortment of livestock and a couple of children (Charlotte's Web-wise) in a barn, over several months, during which the younger child also learns to read (he has been struggling). From the next book I'll talk about I learned that there is such a thing as "neoclassical children's literature," and in such a category (pardon the pun) I would definitely place Whittington. It is rich and takes its time, and the barn is an old-fashioned place. Though Reading Recovery is a newfangled notion.

I nearly didn't carry through with Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters by Lesley M.M. Blume (Knopf, 2006). I found the grand dame character with her wildly decorated apartment (a tree growing out of the floor??!!) and her madcap sister stories hard to swallow, and though I myself was a girl who hid behind a large vocabulary, Cornelia, with her classical superstar mother and French housekeeper, didn't appeal to me. (I got tired of the definitions, too.) Everything was so extreme. But it was interesting to learn that "bookish" American girls play according to American Girl (TM) scripts. Actual scripts. Good heavens! The mark of the beast appears on more and more foreheads.

I had to check out the brand-new branch I drive past on my way to and from work. There were things I need there for work. Really! Actually, they were mostly out so I had to have them sent to my local branch. But I got some books I've been looking for. I started with Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen (HarperCollins, 2001), another title by the author of Tree Girl, which was recommended to me by a sister. Bear is a treatise on Native Healing Circles, posing as a novel, but that's all right. The change of the (anti)hero from angry lying blamer to honest self-controlled young man is convincing.

We will now return to shelving the book collection. We bought a wall's worth of books for the new office (a delightful room, almost the nicest one in the house) and it is already obvious a wall's worth is not enough. Some books will have to go into storage. And I had such high hopes!


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