Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review - "Spirit's Key"

There is an episode of the British science fiction show (and now worldwide phenomenon) “Doctor Who”, in which the character of the Doctor attempts to explain his current whereabouts by describing the universe as a bubble, with a tiny bubble sticking to the outside.  While the Doctor dismisses his  metaphor before he has even finished it, I feel this appropriately encapsulates the world of Edith Cohn’s Spirit’s Key.  It’s our world, but not quite.  Our world as it could be, under certain circumstances.  If I were being technical, I would call this style magical realism, but for the moment, I’m going to stick with the Doctor’s bubble-on-bubble universe.

Spirit Holden and her father live on Bald Island, a small, close-knit and superstitious community.  Spirit’s father has a gift, and can see into the future of someone whose key he is holding, but lately his visions have been shaky.  Spirit believes this will pass, but in fact, the gift of sight is in the process of transferring from her father to herself.  One day, while clutching his discarded dog tag, Spirit sees the ghost of her beloved “baldie” (a local, wild dog), Sky.  With Sky’s help, and the help of a few new friends, Spirit realizes her gift and fights to save the island from prejudice and misconception and take her place among the “greats” of her family.

I had a hard time getting into Spirit’s Key at first, I will admit.  I wasn’t sure of the world Spirit was inhabiting, and wasn’t sure of the rules.  But I kept with it, because Spirit herself was an interesting character, and in time the workings of Spirit’s universe became clear, and then seemingly all at once, the entire book fell into place.   The story rests on Spirit’s shoulders, but she is more than up to the task.  Spirit is resourceful and brave, not afraid to admit when she needs help, and has remarkable strength in her convictions.  Spirit’s Key is a call for preservation and for the need to reach out in kindness to all living things, be they strangers, strange or simply misunderstood.

Spirit’s Key by Edith Cohn
2014, Farrar Straus Giroux
Preview copy provided by publisher for review
On bookshelves September 9th

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review Double Feature - "Celie Valentine" and "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

Dealing with the decline in health and acuity in a loved one is a difficult thing to process, no matter what your age.  In an unforeseen coincidence, two books I recently read both dealt with this issue, one from the point of view of a young grandchild, The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over by Julie Sternberg, and one from the memories of an adult daughter, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.  One is lower middle grade diary fiction and the other is a graphic memoir intended for adults.  But these books are so similar, I couldn’t help but conflate them, especially given that the fates aligned to have me read them back to back.

In Friendship Over, young Celie Valentine pores her heart out into a journal given to her by her father so that she may “work through your feelings”.  Celie’s other gift was a punching bag, for the same reason.  And Celie has feelings to get out, boy howdy.  Her best friend in the whole world, Lula, has suddenly and inexplicably stopped talking to her, and has iced her out completely.   Celie is nestled in the anger portion of her grief over the loss of her friendship, and lets loose on her diary all her frustrations, in words and pictures.  To add to her tumult, things are tense in her home because her beloved Granny has been unreachable, and her health has become suspect.  Celie doesn’t understand why her parents are worried that Granny’s “mind is slipping”.  What does that even mean?

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, on the other hand, is Roz Chast’s chronicle of the last several years of her elderly parents lives.  In their nineties, though seemingly healthy and, especially in her mother’s case, sturdy, Chast's parents bristle when she broaches the topic of their plans.  Enter the titular comment.  As her parents’ health and mental awareness  declines, Chast goes from bi-weekly visits to deliver groceries to overnight trips to the ramshackle Brooklyn apartment her family had always called home.  When it becomes clear that her parents can no longer live on their own, Chast moves them closer to her home in Connecticut to an assisted living facility, therein referred to as “The Place”, and continues to make arrangements for them and care for them until the end.

Having read the two books back to back, the contrast between the two point of views, that of a young person, and an adult, on the concepts and realities of aging, were striking.  Sternberg’s Celie, first so adamant that her Granny is absolutely fine (why wouldn’t she be?), transitions into a fierce protectiveness and take charge attitude.   She suggests that her Granny come live with her family (even if it means giving up her bed and sleeping on a saggy air mattress) before the topic had even been broached by her parents.  Friendship Over is the first in a new series, so time will tell how much this storyline will play into the series as a whole, but I can only assume Granny will continue to be a big part of Celie’s life.

Roz Chast, however, is the adult in her situation, and as an only child, the sole person responsible for her parents care and welfare.  The issue?  Chast’s relationship with her parents is hardly one you would call warm and fuzzy, especially with her domineering, obstinate and belligerent mother.  So Chast has a different mindset than Celie, one that is concerned for her parents, but also concerned with the financial cost of their care, the ethical cost of prolonging their lives, and even the mammoth task of evacuating a 70+ year partnership out of an apartment.  The tale of Roz and her parents' apartment, from processing the years and years and years of stuff, separating the wheat from the chaff, giving up on finding wheat, finally leaving the whole mess for the landlord to sort/steal/throw out the window and the subsequent reevaluation of her own collection and accumulation of stuff is one of the most hilarious moments in her memoir.  Oh, right.  Did I mention Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is supposed to be funny?  It is, and dreadfully so.  I can’t count the number of times I laughed out loud, at something that is both utterly tragic and authentic, but dead funny at the same time. I would think that Roz Chast is sharing one of the most difficult passages of her life, in the hopes that readers can laugh where she could not, in accordance to the ultimate absurdity of human life in general.

Unless one dies young, dealing with the passing of a loved one is an inevitable part of life.  Thanks to Julie Sternberg and Roz Chast, we now have two wonderful new books to help us through.

The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over by Julie Sternberg, illustratred by Johanna Wright
2014, Boyds Mills Press
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
2014, Bloomsbury USA
Library copy

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Newbery Challenge - 1922 - "The Story of Mankind"

At the beginning of the year, I decided (because I wasn’t busy enough as it was) to undergo the Newbery challenge.  That is, I dared myself to read every single Newbery Medal winner, starting from the beginning.  This would include any and all volumes that I had previously read.  I knew this would be a large undertaking, and would likely take me quite a long time.  I did not anticipate, however, that the first book on the roster would take six and a half months to check off.
The very first John Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922 to The Story of Mankind, by Hendrick Willem van Loon.  Originally published in 1921, the tome of human history has been routinely updated throughout the years (the most recent edition was released in 2013).  The edition I read was updated in 1984.

After completing The Story of Mankind, I took a peek online to see what other readers were saying.  I was not in the least bit surprised to see decidedly mixed opinions, some of them very strong indeed.  The Story of Mankind was written before the age of political correctness, before the Civil Rights movement, before the women’s movement.  Written at the close of World War I, van Loon had only a glimpse at the twentieth century.  As such, van Loon’s style of writing, his choice of language, his selection of topics might to our ears sound backward, biased or just plain wrong.  But van Loon is performing something of a magic trick with his history, and I believe I fall on the side of appreciating his unique approach.

“Few things in human life are either entirely good or entirely bad.  Few things are either black or white.  It is the duty of the honest chronicler to give a true account of all the good and bad sides of every historical event.  It is very difficult to do this because we all have our personal likes and dislikes…Take my own case as an example.” – Hendrick Willem van Loon, The Story of Mankind

In this passage from van Loon’s history, located in a chapter on the Reformation, van Loon outlines the importance of objectivity in writing history and then promptly explains why this almost never, if ever, happens.  Many, I am sure, are familiar with the phrase, “History is written by the winners”.  This, obviously, is true.  This is partially due to an innate human tendency to associate winning with acceptance.  Van Loon would likely say this erroneous assumption is a result of hundreds of years of “Divine Right”, of monarchs, pharaohs and Popes whose power over the people is ordained by the will of a divine power.  Therefore, the opinions of the losers are rarely cherished.

Is this right or just?  Of course not.  And more and more in today’s modern world of global communication, this axiom is becoming less and less true.  The voices of “the little people” are getting louder by the minute (for good or ill).  But in van Loon’s time, in the early 20th century, history was written by educated white men, and the other side of the story was buried. 

What makes van Loon’s history different is not that he is something special, more enlightened and in tune with the voice of the downtrodden (though I believe he is), but that he is upfront about his prejudices.  He acknowledges that history, all history, is presented through a lens of one kind or another.  There is no such thing as an impartial history.  This is largely what I found so fascinating about van Loon’s book.  Yes, it is grossly Euro-centric, blind of females and indifferent (at best) on the topic of religion.  But this is van Loon’s point of view.  “I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history and may understand his point-of-view.”  You can’t get much clearer than that.

Van Loon wrote his history from the perspective of his own life and time, and therefore included only the things he thought to be immediately relevant to the world as he knew it.  After all, in a book called The Story of Mankind, if you want it under a thousand pages, there are going to have to be some cuts.  This is why there is very little information about the Far East in van Loon’s history.  In 1921, the West knew relatively little about Asia, which had been for so long hidden and closed off.  And for a man in 1921, it would be very easy to imagine that the goings on these distant lands would not have such a huge and irrevocable role to play on the world stage in the years to come.  It would be fascinating to consider how van Loon would have written his history if he were writing from 2014.  Many things, I imagine, would be different.

As for the absence of women in van Loon’s text (with the notable exception of Queen Elizabeth I, whom he affectionately refers to as “Old Queen Bess”), here is another open prejudice, of van Loon’s and of the time in which he wrote.  There is a wonderful character created by Alan Bennett in the play “The History Boys” named Mrs. Lintott.  While attempted to prepare her students to take exams in history, Mrs. Lintott makes this observation:
 “History’s not such a frolic for women as it is for men.  Why should it be?  They never get round the conference table.  In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers then gracefully retired.  History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men.  What is history?  History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Van Loon was writing from a time that was before Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Aung San Suu Kyi, women whose courage, passion, and leadership forced the world to pay attention and take note of their impact on the world.  From where van Loon sat, women in American had just earned the right to vote, and the women’s liberation movement was decades away.  While I hardly agree with his male-centric view of the world, I can hardly blame him either.

Finally, who exactly is van Loon’s intended audience?  For a modern reader, this book would easily be classified as one for adults.  In fact, in my library, both copies of the book are shelved with adult non-fiction.  However, the writing style, I think, lends itself quite handily to a younger reader.  Van Loon’s employment of the first person and direct address give even the most ancient history a sense of immediacy.  Furthermore, van Loon has a sly and sharp sense of humor, a perfect ploy to pull along a reluctant reader.  The length is forbidding (nearly six hundred pages as of 1984, approaching eight hundred as of the last update in 2013), but with plentiful illustrations and short chapters, the book is eminently readable.  

Writing timeless history is a difficult job, to say the least.  But with honesty, transparency and humor, I think van Loon has achieved just that.  The Newbery committee of 1922 certainly had forward-thinking caps on the day they voted for this winner.

Next: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle!