Sunday, August 31, 2008

49. The Red Leather Diary

by Lily Koppel

Subtitled “Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal,” this book should list as co-author the diary’s writer, Florence Wolfson Howitt, who is still alive and well at age 93. Florence received a “Mile Stones Five Year Diary” for her 14th birthday on August 11, 1929, and continued to write four lines faithfully every day through August 10, 1934, the day before she turned 19. It’s a fascinating look at the life of the gifted daughter of a Yiddish doctor and a couture dressmaker in New York City.

Lily Koppel was a young New York Times reporter when the diary was found in October 2003 in a dumpster outside her apartment building, saved by the doorman from numerous unclaimed trunks in the building’s storage area. With the help of a lawyer/private investigator, Koppel tracked down the owner now living in Connecticut and Florida. Koppel combines research on New York City in that period with interviews of Howitt and others, as well as excerpts from the diary. She weaves a fascinating true tale about a precocious young woman who starts college at age 15, wants to be a writer and artist, and falls in love with both men and women. The non-fiction book is heavily illustrated with photographs, mostly from Howitt’s albums.

I loved this book! I think it’s mostly because I had a similar five-year diary at a comparable age, although I could never confine myself to just four lines per day, and thus I wrote longer journal entries at infrequent intervals, eventually continuing my diary/journal in two spiral notebooks. (I admire Howitt for managing to be so succinct yet detailed in her brief entries.) Alas, I threw them all away before my marriage to my first husband in 1983, not wanting him to read what I’d written about previous loves. That of course included Breathless, the love of my life. I’d give anything to have those journals today (especially since Breathless is so good at remembering our past and I’m so bad), but they’re not likely to be recovered from a landfill.

My only gripe with the book is that Koppel uses excerpts from the diary without any dates. I would have liked to have known exactly when particular entries were made. Also, the back-cover blurb on the hardbound edition is misleading: it includes supposed entries from September 2 and October 12, 1934, which would have been beyond the five-year period the diary covered.

For more information on the book and the diary behind it, see http://www.redleatherdiary.com/.

48. Abundance

by Sena Jeter Naslund

This book is subtitled “A Novel of Marie Antoinette,” and is a fictionalized biography narrated by Marie, covering her arrival in France in 1770 at age 14 as the intended bride for the Dauphin through her execution in 1793.

The author says, “The story of Marie Antoinette has fascinated and frightened me since I was a child. To me, it was a reverse fairy tale…” She felt “the historical treatment of Marie Antoinette has been motivated, in part, by the tendency to demonize women…I wanted to explore the complexity of a woman who has been included in the historical picture but usually misrepresented.”

Naslund succeeds in making Marie Antoinette a multifaceted character rathr than the shallow, heartless woman usually depicted by history. Unfortunately, she takes 539 pages to do so, including a lot of detail about the abundance of splendor (flowers, music, opera, theater, gardens, chateaux) in Marie’s life. In contrast, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey (on which Naslund’s book is based) covers the same material plus Marie’s pre-France life plus a post-death epilogue in 458 pages – and it has color illustrations and extensive notes, sources, and an index in additional pages.

Both books treat Marie sympathetically, as the neglected youngest daughter and 15th child of powerful Austrian empress Maria Teresa, who was woefully unprepared to be Queen of France. Her initial popularity in France declined as it took over SEVEN years for her marriage to be consummated (neither the Dauphin nor the Dauphine really knew what they were doing) and 11+ for the birth of a son, and of course in those days these things were always blamed on the woman!

Constantly criticized in letters from her mother and mostly ignored by her husband, Marie took up extravagant habits such as gambling, buying numerous dresses, and elaborate hairstyles. Changes she tried to make in court life and her close friendships with women were misinterpreted.

Yet these books also show a Marie Antoinette who did show concern for the common people, ultimately becoming less extravagant and more generous, and she was a loving, caring mother and very brave at her death. Apparently it was easier to blame a female foreigner for the problems of the French monarchy and economic conditions that led to the French Revolution.

I found some of the secondary characters equally fascinating: Marie’s friends the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac, her friend (and possibly lover), the Swedish Count Axel Von Fersen, and the artist who painted Marie many times, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. I would be especially interested in a book (fiction or nonfiction) about the latter.

Abundance was an okay book, but I’m not sure I would have read it had it not been for my local book club. I would suggest reading Fraser’s biography instead.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

47. Shiloh

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor,
read by Peter MacNicol


This boy-and-his-dog story won the Newbery Medal in 1992. Eleven-year-old Marty Preston is followed to his rural West Virginia home by a mistreated beagle he later names Shiloh. He and his father return the dog to its owner, mean Judd Travers, but the dog runs away again and back to Marty, who hides him and tries to figure out what to do.

I think this book would be perfect for reading and discussing with a class at school (as young as grades 3 for a read-aloud, up to grade 6, with a reading level of 4.4) or with one’s own children, because of the moral dilemmas it contains. Should Marty do what is legally right or what is ethically right? Is a lie of omission as bad as a lie of commission? Is it ever OK to steal or blackmail someone? Is Judd’s mistreatment of his dogs any worse than the injury Shiloh suffers as Marty tries to protect him? Since the story is told in first person present tense, the reader hears Marty struggle with these very issues:

A lie don't seem a lie anymore when it's meant to save a dog, and right and wrong's all mixed up in my head. (70)
"Jesus,” I whisper…”which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?" (57)

There are other points to discuss as well. Marty has a .22 rifle and thinks it’s OK to shoot rabbits and deer, especially for food, as long as they’re in season. Why then is he so sensitive to cruelty to a dog? Marty’s bed is the living room couch, the family doesn’t have a telephone or a working washing machine, yet they do have a TV.

As always, professional reviews of Newbery books are interesting. Before Shiloh won the award, middle school teacher Kenneth E. Kowen noted in the September 1991 School Library Journal that “Marty's father is a postman--usually one of the better paying positions in rural areas--yet the family is extremely poor. There seems to be an inconsistency here. This title is not up to Naylor's usual high quality.” After the Newbery Award, Jane Langton wrote in the May 10, 1992 New York Times Book Review, “Surely there must have been a book more important than this agreeable but slight story." Teacher Anne Hegel Clough responded in a September 13, 1992 letter to the editor:

Shiloh is a story that allows children to examine such issues as truthfulness, accountability, resourcefulness, loyalty, love, and plain old hard work. Hardly “agreeable but slight,” it is a vehicle that may be used to start grappling with some of the most difficult decisions in life. My third-grade students thrived on discussing the protagonist’s dilemmas: we stopped frequently while I was reading aloud to predict, react, and, most rewardingly, to problem-solve and talk about ethics.

…Perhaps the character of Judd Travers is too stereotyped, perhaps Ms. Naylor could have excluded religious references, and certainly things in the book tend to work out a bit more conveniently than they would in real life. Nevertheless, we now have an acclaimed story that will gain wide readership, a story that is edifying, accessible, and inspiring to our children.

In an interview by Suzanna Henshon in the January 2007 Lion & the Unicorn, Naylor said of Shiloh, “It will probably always be one of my favorites, because it has a Mark Twain theme [she stated earlier in the same interview that ‘I was probably influenced most’ by him], the voice of my father, the moral convictions of my mother, it takes place in my husband's home state, and I love that [Preston] family to pieces.”

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book read by American actor Peter MacNicol. He does a marvelous job creating different voices for all the characters, all with a Southern drawl. Banjo, guitar, fiddle, and harmonica further add to the setting, though music played in midst of the reading is not helpful.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]

Sunday, August 10, 2008

46. Chasing Windmills

by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I enjoyed this book, read for an online book discussion, more than I thought I would. It’s the story of two young people: home-schooled, isolated, 17-year-old Sebastian, whose controlling father has told him his mother is dead, and 22-year-old Maria, who lives with her abusive boyfriend and has two children by him. Maria has lost her job, but goes out every night and rides the subway during the time she’s supposed to be at work, because she is afraid to tell her boyfriend. Sebastian rides the subway instead of sleeping, in an act of rebellion against his (sleeping-pill-aided) father. The two meet on one such subway ride.

I thought some of the supporting characters were the most interesting, particularly the women. Sebastian’s neighbor and (unknown to his father) friend Delilah is a bit of an enigma - it's clear she is the mother figure Sebastian needs, but we really don't learn much about her. It was convenient (maybe a little too much so) that she was planning to move back to California about the same time Sebastian was heading there.

Maria’s older sister Stella is a strong woman who was able to escape the pattern of abuse in their childhood home. Sebastian and Maria needed Delilah and Stella respectively to help them find their way out of their abusive relationships, someone to mirror back a different reality than the ones they lived in.

Celia, Sebastian’s mother (no, she is not dead) is fascinating and by far my favorite character in the book. Having been divorced in the past from a controlling, emotionally-abusive man who brainwashed our offspring, I could VERY much understand what she did and why. I hope she and Sebastian will be able to forge a good relationship. I would have liked to hear how Sebastian's father would have explained why he did what he did - but I think I already know.

There are many references in this book to “West Side Story.” Maria is named for one of the main characters, names her daughter for Natalie Wood (who played Maria in the movie), and both take place (at least part of the time for “Chasing Windmills”) in New York City. "West Side Story" is far more similar to "Romeo and Juliet," on which it's based - a boy and a girl from warring families/factions fall in love. I think Maria's infatuation with the movie and insistence on calling Sebastian "Tony" just further emphasized her immaturity, especially about real love.

Some people don’t think this book has a happy ending, but given Maria’s and Sebastian’s pasts and present situations, I think what happens is for the best. Suffice to say, the ending is different from both “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet.” This was an interesting book and while I would not necessarily recommend it, I didn’t find it terrible either.

45. The High King

by Lloyd Alexander;
read by James Langton


I vaguely remember reading this book and the four books preceding it in the Chronicles of Prydain series when I was a kid. This book was published when I was 11, so I would have been about the right age (the reading level of the book is about grade 6). However, it may feel familiar due more to the similarities to the Lord of the Rings series, which I read when the first movie in that series came out in 2001. Both series are coming-of-age/quest/rite-of-passage stories; both have wizards/enchantresses, dwarves and giants, a death lord, dragon-like birds, and a special sword.

Alexander stated in the author’s note of the first book of the series, The Book of Three, that The Chronicles of Prydain draw upon Welsh mythology, specifically the Mabinogion. During World War II, Alexander was stationed a while in Wales and was enchanted by its landscape, language, and legends.

The High King includes a journey and a number of battles, and some of the characters introduced earlier in the series die. At the end of the book, described by one reviewer as “perfectly heartbreaking and heartbreakingly perfect,” the main character, Taran, makes a difficult yet not totally surprising decision.

The lessons of the story are reflected in these two quotes, both from the last chapter:
“Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched.”

and
…[Taran] said, "Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a … farmer or a king — every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be (re-?) reading the others in the series. It’s not necessary to read the other books in the Chronicles before reading “The High King,” but I would recommend that a child do so as the story and its characters will be enhanced. I would suggest the books for both girls and (especially) boys in grades 3-6, although they could be done as read-alouds for younger children and will be appreciated by adults as well. I feel this book was well-deserving of the 1969 Newbery.

British-born actor James Langton did a fine job creating unique voices for the characters (although Princess Eilonwy sounded a bit strange), and he has narrated the audiobooks for all five of the Chronicles. Interesting trivia: The second book in the series, The Black Cauldron, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1966. Alexander wrote a prequel short story collection to the series called The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain in 1973.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]