Monthly Archives: September 2013

Eleanor & Park

Mom,

We’ve been a bit less than enthusiastic about the year in YA literature, especially about the big name titles, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself disagreeing with your “underwhelmed” reaction to Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park.  By no means did I find this novel to be a perfect book, but, perhaps because you had lowered my expectations, I found it charming, thoroughly engrossing, and very emotionally satisfying.

You had a few criticisms, and I’ll see if I can answer those. First you said that you weren’t convinced by the 80’s setting.  I’d love to hear you elaborate on this further, because I found it very well-wrought. Though I’m about a decade younger than these characters, I’m close enough in age to remember very well the obsessions with mixtapes, MTV, specific fashions, and more, and it all seemed pitch-perfect to me.  I’m not sure exactly why the novel had to be set in the 80’s, but given that it was, I felt Rowell evoked that decade effortlessly.

As for your more involved critique, regarding the narration, first off, I should say that I listened to this as an audio book, so I can’t fully address your concern that you “didn’t think the voices were clearly different enough.” In the audio, they were narrated by separate narrators, so that was no problem. I can rebut your claim that: “It was kind of an odd structure, to have the two different points of view, but to have them both told in third-person narration.” I didn’t find that to be the case at all. For one thing, even though they were third person narrators, the sections were clearly limited to the perspective of the character named at the start of the section. And there was copious use of the particular character’s inner thoughts within the narration.  So I didn’t feel that the third person was a limitation at all.  As for the “awkwardness” of the back-and-forth between the narrators, this may just be a taste issue, but I quite liked the parts when Rowell would quickly ping-pong between Park and Eleanor to show what each were thinking about a given issue.

And in general, setting aside formal issues of narration or awkward transitions, I felt that the dual narration was crucial to the entire purpose of the novel, which was to create a dialectic between the viewpoints of a relatively privileged young man and a very much underprivileged young woman: showing how each could fundamentally misunderstand the cultural background of the other, even as they were in many ways very similar to each other. I found this dialectic subtly done and very impressive.  The novel would have been infinitely less rich had the reader only had access to one or the other viewpoint.

Mostly, though, I felt that the love story was remarkably well done: the tentativeness of each character, their doubts about both themselves and each other (especially Park’s concerns about whether dating Eleanor would make him less cool), and their very slow-motion progress all felt hard-won. And I practically wanted to stand up and cheer when I realized that Rowell wasn’t going to fall into any of the usual teen-romance cliched endings: crazy misunderstandings, one partner turns out to be a complete jerk, traumatic event like a pregnancy scare, etc. etc.

As I said, I didn’t find the book to be perfect. Despite the nice focus on class issues, it all seems just a bit light-weight. I was quite disappointed that basically everything from school (especially the poem the kids were supposed to memorize) was sort of dropped about half-way through. And most of the side characters were pretty lightly sketched. So I wouldn’t nominate this for a Printz. But I still found it to be a very satisfying read that I’d heartily recommend to a huge range of teens.

– Mark

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Grimm tales

Mark,

As you did, I found Far Far Away to be a very compelling read. In fact, it drew me in more than just about any book I’ve read this year. I liked the warmth and humor that permeated it, even when it turned truly, well, grim. I just opened the book at random, and found this:

“Yes, yes, all is well in Blixville,” said the baker, who seemed amused not just by the question but by all things, and why not? He was beloved in the town, and his shop was a pocket of warm benignity, as Jeremy could now see for himself. The glass-and-cherrywood cases were filled with a beautiful variety of breads and cakes, two small tables were brightened by vases of flowers, and the rich scents of baked dough, sugar, coffee, and chocolate made me yearn for my mortal sense of taste.” (p. 16)

Now, I admit that this paragraph is particularly poignant when you’ve read the whole book and know that the shop is far from a “pocket of warm benignity,” (and I just love that phrase!) but even so, there’s much to notice here: Ginger’s habit of asking “how are things in [Blixville, Conkville, Jeremyland, etc.]?; Jeremy’s (and Jacob’s)  immediate trust in Blix; Jacob’s position as omniscient but not omnipotent narrator–I thought it was a nice touch that he could smell, but not taste; and Blix’s self-satisfaction.

In many ways, the story is set up much like many of the tales themselves: beginning in the ordinary and everyday, and then moving into the evil and bizarre. Is it Bettelheim or someone else who talks about that fact that although the settings of the tales are “far far away” and exotic to us, they were normal to the original tellers of the tales: villages, cottages, woodcutters, bakers, etc.? Anyway, as you and Lauren mention in the comments, the whole  point of the opening is to build up to Sten Blix and his dungeon and how, to quote Michael Gruber again, Jeremy is “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.” So I don’t think your analysis of McNeal’s conception of a fairy tale (good protagonist/evil antagonist/happy ending) is entirely fair. I think he’s trying to do something a little more complicated here in the format of the story.

I do agree that the “Uncommon Knowledge” program was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen them use some of the less common Grimm tales, but, of course, there was no other way that McNeal was going to be able to have Jeremy fail, because Jacob would have known all the answers. And clearly, he had to have Jeremy fail in order to demonstrate his integrity–both for not using the answer that was being fed to him by the producers, and for realizing that even using Jacob’s knowledge was not quite fair play.

Actually, I think my biggest issue with the book is whether it is really a YA book. Even things like focusing on the more familiar Grimm tales says to me that McNeal was thinking of a younger audience. And the use of the Disney allusion was part of that–it was something they would know. Not that teens would necessarily know more about the Grimms and the original tales, but if the book were aimed at a more sophisticated audience, he might have done more hinting and less telling. Admittedly, the last third of the book was a bit intense, but I wouldn’t have any hesitation recommending it to an 11- or 12-year-old, especially one who was a fairy tale fan.

So, as you can see, although I liked the book enormously, I agree that it has flaws (I did give it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads!). But I can definitely see why the National Book Award people are considering it, and I think the Newbery Committee might look at it as well as the Printz Committee. I think the flaws are enough to keep it off either of the latter two lists, but who knows?

– Mom

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Far Far Away

Mom,

I’ve just seen on Goodreads that you gave four stars to Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away, which also made the National Book Award longlist, and is on Someday My Printz Will Come’s list of books to discuss this year.  I read it a week or two ago, so I suppose now it’s time to talk about it.  I have very conflicted feelings about this book, so I’ll try to get straight some of what I thought, but I’m very interested in your thoughts to try to clarify my own.

far far awayFirst, I’ll say that I found it incredibly compelling, from beginning to end. I was sucked into the characters of Jeremy and Ginger (less so Jacob – more on that in a minute) and was genuinely interested in all the various episodes.  The final section in the baker’s basement was frightening and amazingly well wrought, and I was generally pretty pleased with the resolution of Jacob’s “thing undone” to save Jeremy, Ginger, and Frank.

OK, my conflicts.

1) The use of Jacob Grimm. Probably my biggest probably with the book was McNeal’s strange handling of Jacob and the Grimm fairy tales in general. Most importantly, it seemed like an incredible waste of a potentially fabulous character. Why did the ghost need to be Jacob Grimm rather than some other figure from history or an imagined character? The two primary uses were in the quiz show and in Jeremy’s recounting of the fairy tales in the dungeon.

The quiz show, though, was a very thin reason for his presence (again, why couldn’t he be an expert on Abraham Lincoln, or someone). What’s more, the quiz show was incredibly poorly written. Of the five questions McNeal tells the readers, only one (the complex three part question that comprised the 6th questions on the show) was genuinely difficult. The rest were child’s play not just to Jacob, but to anyone with a basic (not “uncommon”) knowledge of the tales. The Rapunzel question in particular was offensively easy.  And of course, the final question, in which Jacob and Jeremy are stumped because they haven’t seen Disney, while being very clever in the context of the reader’s knowledge of those characters, could never, ever have been the real final question, precisely because it is so easy for everyone else.

As for the tales in the dungeon, I admit it was touching to have Jeremy recount them to Frank and Ginger, but it certainly didn’t seem particularly central to the novel that they be Grimm tales. Especially since (and this a larger point here) McNeal seemed to have a poor understanding of the Grimm tales. He constantly had Jacob making remarks about Wilhelm’s supposed beliefs about the tales that couldn’t possibly have been true–the one that stuck out for me was the idea that beauty=goodness, goodness=beauty. Even a cursory examination of two of the most famous tales, Cinderella and Snow White, should be enough to show anyone that beauty is very often evil in the tales.  (In the Grimm, as opposed to the Disney, Cinderella’s step sisters are beautiful). It seemed like McNeal was laboring under a conception of the Grimm tales as “fairy tales” the way we use that term in common discourse–like, “this isn’t a fairy tale”–a story with a truly good protagonist and truly evil antagonist, with magic and charm, and a mostly happy ending. Our recent discussion of Rumpelstiltskin is another great example of how that isn’t true.

2) The plot. I already said that I enjoyed each episode of the novel, but I still felt that the whole book had an oddly mis-shapen feel. The quiz show took a place of prominence in the middle of the novel, but didn’t really amount to much in the scheme of things. The abrupt shift to the horror of Sten Blix at the end came out of nowhere and didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book, despite being the novel’s strongest section. It would have greatly improved the novel to have severely curtailed the first 2/3 of the book, to maybe half the length, so that we got to the dungeon much quicker.

OK, your turn. Tell me why my criticisms miss the point of the book.

– Mark

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Responses

Mark,

This will be a compendium post, with thoughts on some of your recent posts.

First, Rumpelstiltskin. You make some good points. It is certainly true that both the king and the miller are the ones who really demonstrate the greed, not necessarily the miller’s daughter. But I’m not entirely convinced that she was the heroine you make her out to be, either. She was pretty passive in the entire affair, unlike many other Grimm heroines.

“The girl knew not how to help herself.” That’s what makes her unappealing, I think. Look at the Goose Girl, and Gretel, and the girl in the Six Swans, and so many others: they don’t accept their lot and sit there crying; they do something about their situation. The miller’s daughter could have figured out how to use the straw to make a rope and escape! Or made some other kind of deal with Rumpelstiltskin to get her out of there. And once she did make the bargain with him for her child, she promptly forgot about it. (I suspect that’s why Gruber refers to her as an “airhead.”)

It’s true that at this point, she finally gets some gumption. She tries to figure out names, and she sends out the messenger to look for more names. But again, she’s pretty passive about the whole thing. No Plan B? No attempt to have Rumpelstiltskin captured or followed? Not to mention the general passivity of just marrying the king and having the baby.

“Luck” I would agree with. “Pluck” not so much.

Next, regarding your series on What Should’ve Won. I think this is an interesting exercise for several reasons. The one thing that really stands out to me is the question of the books that stand the test of time–even of the relatively short time period that the Printz Award has been in existence. Certainly this is true of Speak, and equally, I think of Feed. I did think that Postcards from No Man’s Land was an excellent book, and as you mentioned, I was deeply impressed by America that year, but Feed, it seems to me, has already become a classic, which isn’t true of the others. In the comments, Beth mentioned its iconic cover art, and Emily said, “I think it’s the one that keeps on mattering.” They’re both right on.

Staying power is, in my opinion, one aspect of literary excellence, but it is probably the hardest one to judge in the moment. It’s certainly the thing we all talk about when second-guessing the award juries, whether it’s Printz, Newbery, or Oscar. (“Can you believe Secret of the Andes beat out Charlotte’s Web?” “Seriously? ‘How Green Was My Valley’ over ‘Citizen Kane’? ‘Forrest Gump’ over ‘Pulp Fiction’?”)

It’s also true that some books get dated sooner than others. In fact, Feed is an interesting case study, because SF does have a tendency to become overtaken by reality. I can’t help thinking of Feed every time I read about Google Glass or some new app that keeps track of your movements and suggests a different route or a new restaurant to try.

Anyway, I’m finding it quite fascinating to read these posts of yours, because they bring up books that I had forgotten, or that were underrated at the time. If I still worked in a library, I would probably do some circulation stats to find out how well some of these books are still doing.

Needless to say, I’m also feeling just a tad wary, since the next Printz year you’ll be tackling is the one I served on!

– Mom

 

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin

Mom,

A few weeks ago, you were talking about Liesl Shurtliff’s new novel Rump and you made some comments about “Rumpelstiltskin” that I wanted to comment on, but I had planned on reading Rump first to make my comments more relevant. Now, with my to-read pile getting precariously high, I find that I’m abandoning the idea of reading Rump, but I still want to address the fairy tale, so, since this is our blog and we can talk about whatever we want, here are some thoughts on not a new novel, but a very old story.

First, here’s what you had to say:

I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

And on a similar note, Michael Gruber, whose The Witch’s Boy you mentioned as among the recent adaptations of the tale, said this:

“Rumpelstiltskin” is the only major fairy tale in the canon that does not have a “good” protagonist, a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces. The king in the tale is a cruel miser, the miller is a venal con man, the miller’s daughter is an airhead and a liar, and the eponymous little man is the villain of the piece.

Obviously you and Gruber have picked up on something similar, so there must be something there, but I have to say that I find this interpretation exceedingly strange. Let’s look at the charges you and Gruber make against the Miller’s Daughter:

  • she’s a whiner
  • she’s lazy
  • she’s entitled
  • she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold
  • she’s an airhead
  • she’s a liar

A number of these are simply incorrect. The Miller’s Daughter is not “a liar” in any traditional sense. She never claims to be able to spin straw into gold–that’s her father.  And if Gruber had in mind that she goes back on her word to Rumpelstiltskin, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. I also see no evidence that she is “an airhead”, or “entitled.” If you see something I’m not, let me know.

I’m having trouble with her being “a whiner” as well.  Here’s the crucial piece, in the 1857 Grimm version:

When the girl was brought to him he led her into a room that was entirely filled with straw. Giving her a spinning wheel and a reel, he said, “Get to work now. Spin all night, and if by morning you have not spun this straw into gold, then you will have to die.” Then he himself locked the room, and she was there all alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat there, and for her life she did not know what to do. She had no idea how to spin straw into gold. She became more and more afraid, and finally began to cry.

Um – who wouldn’t cry in this situation? Or beg anyone who came along to help.

Which brings us to the next point.  I would argue that she does not “agree[] to give away her child for the sake of some gold”–she agrees to give away her child in exchange for her life.  It is true that on the third night the king omits the threat of death, but I would argue that the death threat is still implied. My evidence is in the original 1812 edition of Grimm–when Rumpelstiltskin makes his bargain, the narrator says “In her distress she made the promise”.  What is “her distress” if not fear for her life? Certainly, it is not her lust for gold or the king that causes her to make the deal.  If it makes a difference, the classic 1857 version is similar: “‘Who knows what will happen,’ thought the miller’s daughter, and not knowing what else to do, she promised the little man what he demanded.” I grant that “who knows what will happen” is a little glib, but “not knowing what else to do” is pretty clear that she is in desperate straits.

My main argument in this first half of the tale is that the situation for the Miller’s Daughter is impossible–she is passed off like a piece of property from one man (her father) to another (the king), and then threatened with death for something that she cannot possibly do.  So she makes a series of promises to Rumpelstiltskin to save her life.  I would say that qualifies as “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.”

Then we get to the second half of the tale, in which Rumpelstiltskin returns to collect his half of the deal.  Here, the Miller’s Daughter shows even more gumption. Gruber might think going back on her word makes her a liar, but I would say 1) her word was given under duress, and 2) being a liar is better than being a monster.  And again we see that she is not greedy or entitled in the least. Confronted with the idea of giving up her child, she is horrified and “beg[s] him to let her keep the child, offering him great riches in its place” (in the 1812 version), or even more poignantly in the 1857, “The queen took fright and offered the little man all the wealth of the kingdom if he would let her keep the child.” Finally, though she doesn’t do it herself, she certainly initiates the intense, kingdom-wide search for the man’s name, rather than meekly allowing him to take her child.

So, again, we have a character confronted with an impossible situation who convinces the antagonist to take pity on her, then uses that small advantage to win the day.

I know this is all very academic, but I find it worth going over precisely because the interpretation(s) of fairy tales are so important to so much contemporary literature. Frankly, as much as I love The Witch’s Boy, I find Gruber’s attitude towards the Miller’s Daughter (which shows up in the novel as well) to mar the story and give far too much sympathy to a character who is in fact preying on a helpless girl in a terrible situation. As I said, I very much doubt I’ll be getting to Rump any time soon, so I don’t know if this post has any relevance for that novel, but let me know what you think of my interpretation.

– Mark

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What Should’ve Won: Printz 2003

The Publishing Year: 2002

postcardsfromnomanslandThe WinnerPostcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

The Honor Books:

  • The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
  • My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr
  • Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Other Books to Consider:

  • {Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Feed by MT Anderson
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
  • Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black
  • Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929 by Karen Blumenthal
  • Overboard by Elizabeth Fama
  • Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science by John Fleischman
  • America by E.R. Frank
  • The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin
  • Shattering Glass by Gail Giles
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis by Peter Nelson
  • 19 varieties of gazelle : poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge
  • Hush by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris

What Should Have Won: Feed

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Is It a Bad Year for YA?

Mom,

You say, “I don’t think 2013 is really a particularly good year in YA,” and I have to say I’m inclined to agree with you. In fairness, I haven’t read anywhere near as much YA as I did last year, but there also haven’t been as many YA books that I’ve been excited to read.

The most obvious place to look for difference is in nonfiction. There are hardly any good contenders this year.  Titles with three or more starred reviews (all starred stats from the wonderful Jen J’s spreadsheet) include:

  • Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Bolden
  • Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone
  • Tapir Scientist by Sy Montgomery
  • Becoming Ben Franklin by Russell Freedman

And, um . . . that’s it. I lost count but there were something close to 20 NF titles with three or more stars last year. Meanwhile of the four we have, I’ve read two–Emancipation Proclamation and Courage Has No Color–and was thoroughly unimpressed by both.

The fiction side doesn’t yield to statistics as easily as the nonfiction, but it certainly feels pretty weak in comparison to last year. Many of the bigger titles of the year–MidwinterbloodMaggot MoonEleanor & Park, Teeth, Black Helicopters–have left one or both of us feeling pretty underwhelmed. I mean, I spent an inordinate amount of time last year arguing against Code Name Verity, a novel which I actually thought was brilliant, simply because there were too many books that surpassed it. This year, I’m trying to convince myself that A Corner of White is better than it actually is to round up more Printz-worthy titles.

And doing my What Should’ve Won series (2003 coming soon!) has certainly shown me that certain chronological years yield a stronger crop of books than others.  On the other hand, it is possible that we’re paying too much attention to the big buzzy titles and that there are great books beneath the surface.  After all, my favorite books of the year have gotten 2 stars (Yellowcake and Pieces) or one star (17 & Gone!). And of course one of last year’s best books (Monstrous Beauty) didn’t garner a single star.  So, maybe the key is to start looking at all those single- and non-starred books for wheat among the chaff.  The trouble, of course, is that that’s a lot harder than just reading the 20 or so books with the biggest buzz.

So, what should you read? If you haven’t already, you should definitely look at Gene Luen Yang’s graphic dyptych Boxers and Saints–unfortunately, they work best as a paired piece, so I don’t know if they can get any awards love, but they are definitely worth the read. I also quite enjoyed a silly little book called Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice by Catherine Lewis, which actually managed to get a couple of starred reviews.  And I just turned in a 5Q review to VOYA for a very strange Scandinavian import called Samurai Summer by Ake Edwardson.  Not to everyone’s tastes at all, but I found it quite rewarding.

Oh, and there’s a new Jonathan Stroud. Not Bartimaeus-level good, but very good nonetheless.

In any case, even if 2013 doesn’t live up to 2012, there’s still more than enough great stuff to read, and plenty we’ll both miss, so nothing to complain about.

– Mark

 

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