Sunday, 13 December 2009

Marie Antoinette and the Recession

Of late there has been a lot of copy generated about coping with the recession. Salon for example has been running a series of lifestyle articles called "Pinched; Tales from an Economic Downturn". New York Times financial reporter Edmund Andrews wrote about his own experience of getting in far over his head with a house he bought in a memoir called Busted. Even a magazine like Elle, which must be the antithesis of a publication concerned with living according to one’s means, has gotten into the act with a writer’s account of her “Year of Living Frugally”.

These articles draw me like a magnet, and once I’ve read them, I proceed to the reader comments, which are often just as good and interesting (if not much more so) than the article. It fascinates me to read about how people arrange their lives and make the most of their resources. I’m always hoping to get some ideas for how to manage my own time and money to better effect, and to vicariously learn about what will not work without the cost and trouble of trying it myself. And then, too, sometimes reading such material gives me a healthy reality check as to how fortunate I am compared to others. But at other times it’s just food for ridicule, when it's not grist for irritation.

These articles run the gamut of quality. The best of them are written by good, thoughtful and self-aware writers who have come to terms with their situations with courage and a matter-of-fact acceptance of reality, and without self-pity. They have an understanding of how their individual standard of living measures on a global scale. They know they may have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like or move in with the in-laws to get by, but they are thankful to have paid work or generous in-laws, not to mention a computer and spare time to use for writing the article, or for that matter, enough to eat and clean water to drink. One of my favourites was "Excuse Me While I Stick My Head in the Toilet", a Salon article written by Rebecca Golden, who works as a cleaning lady, and who takes pride in being physically able to do such work now that she no longer weighs 600 pounds as she once did. And it’s a pure pleasure and inspiration to read the articles written by people who delight in their own resourcefulness, who honestly enjoy the contriving and the organizing and ingenuity they employ to live within their means, who realize that such mindful, careful attention to household management can mean the same or even a better standard of living.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The Elle magazine article mentioned in my first paragraph is possibly the best example of the worst kind of recession-geared articles. The writer, Laura Hollinger, is a New Yorker with a six-figure income, and her idea of being frugal is relying on dinner invitations to make her Aspen and Vail vacations affordable, or foregoing certain luxuries like having her hair professionally blow-dried as often or buying a new cashmere sweater (when she already has four piles of cashmere sweaters) so she can afford certain other luxuries like a Cartier watch. This article was roundly and deservedly mocked on Jezebel. I completely agree with the Jezebel poster who wrote that the problem with the article is not how the writer spends her income since she has every right to do whatever she wants with her own money, but how the article is positioned. Laura Hollinger is in the top 1% of income earners in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s obnoxious for Hollinger and Elle to frame this article as an example of frugal living when by any objective measure it is nothing of the kind.

Another failed article in this vein was a Salon piece, "Can It!", by Sarah Karnasiewicz. Karnasiewicz made jam and concluded that, as delicious as the jam was, it wasn’t cost effective. Salon's readers lost no time in pointing out that Karnasiewicz's math hadn't accounted for the facts that one doesn’t normally make jam from organic strawberries purchased at an uptown market or buy brand new jam jars for just one use.

In my own reader comment, I said Karasiewicz reminded me of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. Many of these articles do have either this "playing poor" or a "crying poor" quality. So many of the writers just don’t have the honesty, knowledge, experience, and insight to do justice to the topics they address. Edmund Andrews wrote an entire book about his experience of buying a house he couldn’t afford and losing it without ever disclosing that his wife had declared bankruptcy twice — the second time during the time frame the book covered. Rebecca Golden's article about working as a cleaning lady would not have had the authenticity it does had the writer only worked as a cleaning lady for one day, or if she didn’t have to actually live on what she makes cleaning houses. And it’s so tiresome to read accounts written by the truly clueless and entitled who whine and blame all their problems on forces beyond their control: they can’t lose that extra 30 pounds because they can’t afford to join a gym; they can’t get married because they can’t afford a wedding with 200 guests; they bought a house they couldn’t afford because evil bankers gave them outsized loans; they’re “broken-hearted” not to have made more than an average of 40K a year from writing.

The reader reactions to such articles are a phenomenon in themselves. Nothing, it seems, raises the ire of readers faster than the complaints of a writer who has had better financial opportunities than them. And of course everyone has to air their own story of how they’ve managed on less. As one of the Jezebel commenters put it, these threads are so prone to become a “pissing contest”, with everyone producing evidence of thrifty they are or how few advantages they have, i.e., “I make my family’s undies out of worn-out sheets, and WE LIKE IT THAT WAY.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Another Jezebel reader claimed such threads reminded her of the Monty Python's The Four Yorkshiremen, and indeed there are parallels. So, giddy as I am over my recent purchase of a secondhand, brand-new condition $13 cashmere sweater at a Value Village, I’m going to try to refrain from trotting out my own thrifty cred in this review. I don’t want to get sidetracked into claiming that my family “dreamt of living in a corridor”.

What I do wish to say it that it’s just as important for us readers to maintain a healthy perspective as it is for the writers. I’m not going to condemn Elle for running Laura Hollinger’s article, or even wish serious financial reversals upon her. It’s a high-end fashion magazine after all. Elle, as with all media corporations, gets far more of its revenue from advertising than it does from subscribers, and Elle’s advertising clients are companies like Dior and Tiffany. We are never going to see articles about how to make three kinds of bean soup or max out our coupon savings in Elle because the women who buy Dior clothes and Tiffany jewellery aren’t interested in reading about those topics. (And who can blame them? I wouldn’t be either if I had that kind of income.) Even if the women who buy Elle can’t actually afford Dior and Tiffany products, Elle has to at least appear to be geared for women who live at that level if it wants to keep its advertising revenue.

And then too, even if it were feasible in business terms to run such articles, it wouldn’t be desirable. Why should every personal account about cutting back or getting more for less involve living at or below the poverty line? Do writers really have to be homeless or unable to pay for groceries or major surgery before they are allowed to muse about their efforts to live within their means? No one has unlimited funds; we all have budgets to stick to. Setting priorities and deciding what we can and can’t afford is a universal experience, and I think we’d all benefit from seeing money management as the subjective, context-specific experience it is rather than preening ourselves on our supposed moral superiority over others who have more and/or don’t manage as well.

It would be nice if such “high-end” money management lifestyle articles were of better quality than Laura Hollinger's and evidenced more insightful, nuanced, and creative thinking, since I can’t imagine anyone benefiting from the revelation that wearing clothes that are already in your well-stocked walk-in closet is cheaper than going shopping. But then that’s a criticism I could also make of many money-saving ideas in articles geared for people living at a lower standard; a lot of these ideas are so obvious and old hat to those of us with modest means. It all comes down to that old writing truism "write what you know", but to that I would add, "be self-aware about what you don't know". If you can live like Marie Antoinette, don’t assume that you know all about the working class experience or talk about how frugal you are or expect sympathy from anyone because you’ve had to start buying fewer ball gowns. For that matter, if you're middle class, don't think you know all about the working class or have hit rock bottom because you must shop at the dollar store or have had to take a minimum wage job for a few months. And if you are the socioeconomic modern-day equivalent of a shepherdess, it's good to realize you are just as much in need of a healthy perspective and generous, ungrudging spirit as someone with many times your income.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick


Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again after a re-read. I found it unsettling. I've found it just as difficult to review as it was to read.

When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. We follow Louise through her coming of age to maturity and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.

Life on the island of Rass is limited and spartan. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are sometimes lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and initially mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. In a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.

Louise is an intelligent, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.

Caroline was born frail while Louise was a strong and healthy baby, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asks where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members look blank. Then as the twins got older and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.

The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if those are the worst things Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs during the course of the novel. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise, and consequently can’t understand what Louise’s problem is. (Nor does Louise make a concerted effort to communicate her problem to Caroline, except in noisy bursts of rage that merely leave Caroline bemused.) And what Caroline could have done about it if she had understood? She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty. However, the fact that Caroline doesn't understand and can't resolve Louise's problem does not mean that Louise's issues are any less real or important.

Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are inevitably disparate. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around.

As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger and genius sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls for Parthe's sake, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school could be found to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth, and by her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. In early adulthood, Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, their parents W.E.N. and Fanny Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, her happiness was shadowed by the fact that Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and, when he couldn't get her, settled for marrying Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.

Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she does make. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this was not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, enjoys the work, and is proud of her skill and stamina and of her contribution to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, which I need to set aside for the purposes of writing this review.

Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity. In her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age, and that river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that, as Hiram Wallace is wise, kind, generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with the purplest of Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.

In the end Louise does get to create a life that she is contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors à la Parthe Nightingale.

I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chooses, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

It Isn't Easy Being Green, Especially When We're So Vain

Good books on style are one of my genre-specific literary addictions. I have a little collection of such books I've read and reread to the point of memorization. So, when I decided to treat myself to a couple of new books on the subject last week, it seemed like a good idea to select Green is the New Black: How to change the world with style, by Tamsin Blanchard.

Flipping through this book in Indigo revealed a number of ideas new to me, and I thought I could use some educating on this aspect of shopping. I'm not a particularly green-minded dresser, though thanks to the force of other motivating factors (i.e., my modest budget, a hatred of waste, and being very picky) I suppose I'm not the worst offender in this respect. Most of my clothes either come from thrift shops or are made by me, I own fewer clothes than many of the women I know, I don't buy many trendy items or poor quality clothing that won't be wearable for long, I mend and alter things whenever possible, and I give my cast-offs to family and friends and thrift shops. But upon beginning to read this book, I soon had my eyes opened to how much I have still to learn and how much I can improve my habits.

I definitely liked the tone of this book. Blanchard and all of her contributors freely admit that they have a good deal of ground to cover themselves in terms of becoming environmentally conscious and responsible. Blanchard confesses that she owns 41 dresses and that she has to force herself to hang her laundry outside on the clothesline on cold days. Model Lily Cole wrote a thoughtful foreword in which she admits the schism between her urging readers to buy less while she makes her living encouraging them to buy more. Cole also acknowledges that she doesn't do much to save the planet, but hopes that besides being more personally responsible by shopping less and recycling more, she can make a difference in her industry by asking questions and fostering discussion and awareness.

There's also free and full acknowledgment in Green is the New Black that truly ethical clothing production is a difficult and complex issue. There's no real way to be absolutely sure an item was made by workers receiving a living wage and that its materials were produced organically, and even if a garment meets those standards it was likely transported halfway around the world. And in this book there's recognition that necessary changes can stymied for lack of better alternatives. Stores are still using plastic bags because although plastic bags take 500 years to decompose in a landfill, paper bags take more than four times as much energy to produce. However, Blanchard isn't handing anyone a free pass to not try at all. Going shopping armed with bags made of jute, hemp or unbleached cotton will enable us to refuse plastic bags at the cash register. Buying less and more thoughtfully and making our concerns known to the fashion industry will cumulatively effect big changes.

Blanchard has wisely included different tips and ideas for mending and reincarnating clothes that will cater and appeal to all skill levels. She provides instructions for how to sew on a button. As a reasonably competent sewer I had to repress a knee-jerk snobbish reaction to this one — there really are people who think they can't do basic repair work to their clothes, and they need to be walked through it and shown that they can. Then, moving along the DIY scale of difficulty, there are instructions for how to cut your t-shirt down into a halter top, how to make a wrap skirt and a kitchen apron (preferably out of an old curtain or tablecloth, of course), how to make a shift dress from several old t-shirts, and how to make your own natural dyes from onion skins and tea bags.

I was surprised and humbled by how many new ideas I came across given that I already do a lot of secondhand shopping and needlework and dip my dingy whites in tea. Blanchard even mentions that it's possible to make new underwear out of one's old t-shirts (the pattern can be found here). Those undies look pretty damn cute, but when even Blanchard admits she's not going to try out the pattern, her idea of making dusters and cleaning cloths out of discarded t-shirts seem more practical for most people. However, when I checked out the underwear making instructions, I went on to do some more internet research about uses for old t-shirts, and got inspired to create a Metafilter post on the subject. There were so many, many uses for the t-shirt fabric that I couldn't even list them all in the post. I'd definitely like to try at least some of those t-shirt recycling ideas, but I will be passing on using Blanchard's instructions for making a pom-pom ankle bracelet, not being 12. And even though I am a fiendish knitter, I doubt I'll be acquiring a pet angora rabbit in order to use its wool.

At some moments during my reading Green is the New Black really did jab me in the conscience. I did some eye rolling when I read a suggestion pertaining to “purse libraries” — it seems it's possible to rent trendy, name brand purses and handbags, use them for a month, and then send them back in exchange for the next trendy bag. “[Y]ou can indulge your desire to have a bag like Gwen Stefani's one month and Liz Hurley's the next“, enthuses Blanchard. Are people really so unwilling to practice a little self-denial for the sake of the environment as that? But I can't claim that I never buy anything I don't really need. And I was not willing to accept Lily Cole's argument that holes and frayed edges are beautiful. I dismissed the idea promptly and scornfully, thinking that it's all very well to go about unkempt and Boho when one is young and beautiful, but the older and plainer one is, the worse it looks. At 35, and with my average looks, I will mend my clothes, but only if it can be done so that the mending is invisible. I'm not willing to wear clothing past the point of their becoming ratty, even around home. And that's not any less wasteful than renting handbags because Gwen Stefani is carrying them. In fact, it's probably more so.

With all that Green is the New Black had going for it, it isn't the book it could have been. Its prose is slipshod. It employs a lot of slang and many sentences are ungrammatical and poorly punctuated. The book is not very well organized. Blanchard covers clothes, then celebrity efforts to save the world, options for travelling, hobbies, and then bags, shoes and jewelery, which seems as though they should have followed the clothes. A chapter on “occasion wear” covers how to buy jeans and sunglasses. An idea for an organic polish for one's brown leather (use the inside of a banana skin, allow the leather to dry, then polish with a cloth) appears in the DIY style chapter rather than in the chapter about shoes. The result is something of a hodgepodge. Some cutting and pasting would have made this book a more coherent and more useful read. An index would also have been a good idea in a source book of practical ideas and information.

Then there is the too-frequent and too-careless celebrity name dropping. The chapter on “Can Celebrities Save the World?” might just as well been left out of the book entirely, and its useful bits of information reassigned to the appropriate chapters. This chapter's list of A-list celebs who care about the environment is more or less a joke. Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio has made a documentary on the environment and set up a foundation, so he's definitely earned a place on such a list. Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts both live in eco-friendly homes and have involved themselves personally in environmental causes, so yes, I can agree with their inclusion. However, Blanchard includes Maggie Gyllenhaal: “[an] anti-war protester, and all around cool gal, Maggie's quirky style has that thrown together look that might have come from thrift stores, just as easily as from Prada. She wears both with the same laid-back style.” Mischa Barton is also lauded for donating clothes to a temporary Traid fashion swap shop. Er, to be included on this list, oughtn't a celebrity have done something more for the environment than to wear clothes that look as though they MIGHT have come from thrift shops or to have made a one-time donation of cast-off clothing? A little more research might have resulted in some better candidates for the list. Blanchard also mentions that “Cameron Diaz is finishing off writing her how-to eco manual, The Green Book. The idea of Cameron Diaz writing a book gave me pause, so I did a quick internet search and discovered Diaz only wrote the foreword.

Not only are some of Blanchard's attempts to name specific celebrity role-models a stretch, I find it inherently problematic that we should be asked to admire and emulate Hollywood celebrities when many, if not most of them, with their regular air travel, extensive wardrobes and plural homes and cars, not only leave a much larger carbon footprint than the average person in Western society but do a lot to foster extravagance and conspicuous consumption by appearing in magazines such as In Style and playing movie characters with lavish lifestyles. And don't even get me started on those celebrities who launch their own product lines when they already make a multi-million dollar annual income.

I'm not so out of touch with reality in regards to the power of celebrity example nor so unfair to those A-listers who are sincere and informed about environmental issues as to suggest that Blanchard should have foregone positive mentions of celebrities in her book, but she should have set the bar for environmentally conscious behaviour higher. She does urge her readers not to try to emulate a celebrity's personal style and reminds them that even though Kylie Minogue's beachwear collection for H&M donates 10% towards WaterAid, buying a Kylie bikini will not give one a Kylie Minogue bottom, and she also criticizes celebrities for endorsing cheap lines of clothing that are made by sweated labour, but she should have taken this kind of critical deconstruction steps further.

The fact that the chapter ends with a list of tips of “How to Shine Like a Star” (meaning, how to dress like one, rather than how to further the good work by supporting the foundations some of them have set up) renders this chapter on celebrities even more absurd. The list underlines the fact that however much we may pretend to admire celebrities for their consciences, in the end we really just want to be as beautiful and well-dressed as they are. This list really should have been placed in another chapter so as not to undercut the celebrity chapter's intended message.

Green is the New Black is very much geared to the English consumer. The ethical issues discussed are generally universal to at least Western society, and the ideas and websites listed in the book are useful for people living elsewhere, but I will urge anyone who lives in other places not to order things from the U.K.-based companies listed in the book, but to find alternative suppliers nearby.

If you wish to learn about how to shop and dress more responsibly I am sure there must be more informative and better-written materials in print. But then the very fact there is so much information out there and so many options means that any book would be a starting point. Not only are we not all willing to acquire a angora rabbit for home sweater production, we're not all able to custom-build a eco-friendly home. We can't all do without a car or grow our own food. We don't all have access to the same goods and services. We have different needs. No book is going to provide anyone with a complete, foolproof formula for how to live green. Reading such books are a first step. The work of continuing to inform ourselves and adapting ourselves to a more responsible way of life will always lie before us.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Graphic Novel Before Its Time

Kate Seredy's 1938 Newbery winner The White Stag tells the mythic story of the Huns and their journey from their former barren lands in Asia where they were starving to what would become their homeland and modern-day Hungary. Beginning with the Huns' leader Nimrod's appeal for direction to his god Hadur during a time of hardship, it continues with the journey of the brothers Hunor and Magyar and their people, through the leadership of Hunar's son, Bendeguz, and culminates with the battles of Bendeguz's son Attila, who led his people to the conquest of their new land. The mystical White Stag appears at key moments and shows the Huns the way.

Seredy based The White Stag on Hungarian myths related to her by her father in her childhood, and I think she made the mistake Charles J. Finger made in writing his Tales From Silver Lands; she wrote down traditional oral myths that have been passed down through countless generations without fleshing them out enough to really adapt them to their new medium.

The prose of The White Stag is spare and lyrical, if uncertainly punctuated. (I saw a number of comma splices.) The White Stag is just 94 pages long, and covers three generations' worth of action. This will tell you how sparing it is of the kind of details that make it possible for a reader to enter into the world of the story. The story itself comes across as somewhat overwrought and faintly ridiculous — it's rather like a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic with its wooden characterizations and sometimes laughable dialogue. There are certainly echoes of the Bible in The White Stag: faith moving mountains, the search for the promised land, the evolving division of one people into conflicting tribes. The quest of the Huns and Magyars is much like the Old Testament journeys of the Israelites with Attila as Charlton Heston-style Moses, and unfortunately Attila's character is no more nuanced or believable than Heston's acting. I don't know how anyone can relate to characters who aren't recognizably human. Attila, who “learned not to cry when he was but a few days old”, is seemingly a sociopath with a conviction of his own destiny. Seredy also glosses over the battles as though they were successful rugby matches — another tribe of people slaughtered or enslaved and another victorious moment for the Huns!

Perhaps the problem is that no story could be worthy of the beautiful illustrations in this book. Seredy was certainly an extremely gifted and successful illustrator. She considered herself an illustrator first and foremost, saying that she “thought in pictures”, and she illustrated Newbery Medal winner Caddie Woodlanw, and her own Newbery Honor Books The Good Master and The Singing Tree, as well as Newbery honor books Winterbound by Margery Bianco, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, and Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray. The illustrations in The White Stag are therefore very fine (you can see some of them here if you're willing to brace yourself for a high-volume recording of the Hungarian national anthem). The drawings feature idealized, muscular, hairless bodies in an Olympic-athlete state of fitness, wearing classical tunics, cloaks and robes and spike-top helmets with birds' wings adorning the sides. They look, in short, like a precursor of comic-book heroes minus the spandex. Perhaps if Seredy had been born ninety years later, The White Stag would have been a very good graphic novel.

I can accept that not all fiction needs to be character-driven and that a novel can simply be a grand epic of adventure and conquest, but it's difficult to cheer on characters who are so stylized and so ruthless. And I kept wistfully imagining what Robin McKinley would have done with this material. McKinley understands that you can make your characters the stuff of legend and send them off to have thrilling adventures, but only after you have first made them come alive.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Eager Readers!

The Newbery winner for 2008, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village came into being because its author, Laura Amy Schlitz, who is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore, had a group of students who were studying the Middle Ages. The students were building model castles, growing herbs, and illuminating manuscripts, but to round out their educational experience Schlitz wanted to give them some material they could perform. And since she didn't think it possible to write a play for seventeen characters and give them all equal time, she wrote nineteen monologues and two dialogues, so that “for three minutes at least, every child could be a star”.

I wish Schlitz had worked at my grade school. I remember how it felt to be one of only two people in my sixth-grade play whose “roles” did not involve a single line of dialogue and whose part in the action consisted of walking onto and off of the stage twice. And, more importantly, the play, written by our sixth grade teacher, was execrable.

Schlitz may mention excrement (as well as fleas, lice and other historically accurate if unsavoury facts of daily life in medieval times) in her monologues, but other than this her work is not to be compared to that sixth-grade play. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies is an excellent piece of work. In each of Schlitz's twenty-one vignettes, a character from medieval times tells us a simple story about some facet of his or her existence, gives us the sense of what life was like in those times, and in the process lays bare the essence of his or her personality. By the end of a few pages we know what the characters love, fear and desire most, what their probable fates will be, and how they cope with the hardships of their lives. Interspersed with the monologues are footnotes, sidenotes, and occasional full-length background notes explaining aspects of life in medieval times.

The historical notes are not only informative, revealing the depth of Schlitz's historical research, but often very witty. One comments that the logic of the assignment of saints to a type of work is macabre: Saint Bartholomew, the patron saint of tanners, was skinned to death; and Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks, was roasted alive. Schlitz adds, tantalizingly, that “we won't even talk about what happened to Saint Erasmus — it's too disgusting.”

The illustrations in the book are woodcut-like pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd. According to the book's jacket flap, Byrd took “inspiration from an illuminated thirteenth-century manuscript”. I would have preferred something tapestry-inspired, but then sometimes in writing these Newbery reviews I really must remind myself that these books are intended for kids, not for me. Byrd's drawings are undeniably cute, expressive, and period-appropriate.

The vignettes are wonderfully varied, and yet so elemental to human experience, regardless of one's place on the timeline of our existence. The lord's nephew faces a boar, and his fear of it, while hunting. The blacksmith's daughter finds that her size, looks and social status don't determine whom she can love. A plow boy takes pride in carrying on with his father's backbreaking work and responsibilities. “Crookbacked” Constance, a pilgrim, speaks of her despair over her deformity and her hope that she will be healed on her journey. A miller's son tells us how he is hated by the other village boys because his father adulterates the flour with chalk, but in his bitterness resolves to be the same kind of miller himself. A knight's son dreams of being a knight, but knows he must be a monk because his father has been bankrupted by war. The lord's daughter knows those who slung mud at her would take and enjoy her privileges if they could get them; the one who slung the mud knows the lord's daughter will not get through life without pain and worry. Pask, the runaway, tells us of his hopes that he has escaped his peasant's life and can become a skilled tradesman (but a historical note tells us he will probably not be able to do so). Maud and Mariot, the glassblower's daughters, know that one of them must marry their father's apprentice, and in a dialogue each comes to a decision about whether she can. A tanner's apprentice knows he is despised for the stinking processes he uses to make leather, but also knows that same people who despise him would not be willing to do without their shoes and saddles. And so it goes.

Schlitz makes each character come alive by giving us points of connection. Few people who read this book will have shod a horse, but most will have known what it is like to feel the lighting bolt of sudden, strong attraction to someone we can never be with. Almost none of this book's readers will have blown glass; all will know what it's like to do something for the first time and get lacklustre results, to feel a sense of accomplishment in having made a beginning, and to be all the more ready to try again.

In a foreword, Schlitz writes of how, as a student, she found that history as it was taught in the classroom was “about dead men who had done dull things”. It was only by reading historical novels that she learned that history was about survival, and could be very dramatic and fascinating. It was this exciting, living view of history, the stories of real people and the lives that they led, that she wanted to impart to her students. So she has, marrying fact with imagination and producing characters that seem to breathe. Not to mention that the material seems wonderfully actable.

And look up the fate of Saint Erasmus if you dare.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Strange and Unusual Growth of Gardenias

I was overjoyed when I first learned that Faith Sullivan had written a sequel to The Cape Ann. It had been a long time coming. The Cape Ann was written in 1988, and Gardenias did not appear until 2005. When I bought it and brought it home I read it in a evening. But I was disgruntled when I closed the back cover on the last page and laid it down.

Gardenias starts off in such a satisfying way. It takes up just where The Cape Ann leaves off; with Lark Erhardt, Lark's mother Arlene, and Arlene's sister Betty riding a train bound to a new life San Diego. Arlene Erhardt has had all she can take of Lark's father's gambling, abusive ways, and Betty had been essentially abandoned by her husband Stan and was languishing in depression at her parents' home, so Arlene decided to pull up stakes and move the three of them from Harvester, Minnesota to San Diego, California.

The novel takes its name from the gardenia bush Arlene, Betty, and Lark plant in the poor soil outside their new home in the housing project erected for the workers in the munitions factories, and it's an apt symbol. Gardenias is on the whole a novel about being transplanted, about new beginnings and new ties to new surroundings, and about all the changing and growing entailed. San Diego during the years of the Second World War is a good setting for such a theme. All the people in the housing project where Lark lives are from somewhere else, having moved to San Diego in search of work, and usually also to get away from something undesirable. And Faith Sullivan has a few things to say about how new surroundings aren't necessarily any better on the whole than the old, and how the changes people undergo aren't always positive or welcome. All well and good. But some of the new outgrowth feels so forced and artificial.

One of the best things about The Cape Ann was the characterization of Arlene Erhardt. In The Cape Ann Lark describes Arlene as a “headlong person” with “instincts as sharp as darts”, and quotes her grandfather, who called her mother a “freethinker”. And at the beginning of Gardenias, Arlene is still the same indefatigable person, with the same admirable ingenuity and drive, and the same open-handed kindness coupled with a refusal to take garbage from anyone or let any conventions stand in her way. One can't help but root for her, and admire her. When Arlene buys furniture on credit and Lark protests, "Grandma says that charge is the road to perdition," Arlene retorts, "I don't want to hear what Grandma says. Grandma's not sleeping on the floor." When Betty comments that she's heard the WACs are "a pretty wild bunch", Arlene sweeps such a hum-drum assessment aside with, "That's what they always say when women want to do something interesting." She also invites Lou, the black man who delivers her and her furniture back to her place, in for a cup of tea. Sullivan doesn't point out how unconventional this behaviour would have been for an American white woman in 1943. But it works because of why Arlene does it. She is not doing it out a super-progressive (not to say anachronistic) sense of social justice, but because there were no black people in Harvester and she sees Lou as exotic, a part of her new world that she is so eager to experience.

But as the novel progresses Arlene falters and begins to disintegrate. Part of this is her husband's fault. Willie Erhardt, Lark's father and Arlene's husband, doesn't change a bit in this novel about growth. He's the same self-serving bully he always was, and has the same total lack of comprehension for or interest in anything Lark or Arlene think or feel. He remains in Harvester, only visiting and writing San Diego in order to harass his wife and daughter.

Arlene could have recovered from Willie's vindictive behaviour, but she's harbouring a secret love for another man, and as Sullivan would have us believe, this turns out to be her undoing, causing her to nearly destroy her relationships with her daughter and sister, to lose her sense of purpose, and to direct her nervous energy and her hunger for love into some dead-end channels. And I don't buy it. I don't believe Arlene, who is generally a shrewd judge of character, would have fallen in love with the man she has, nor that she would allow her unrequited and hopeless love for any man to ruin her life.

There are other facets of her behaviour that don't make sense. Arlene, a woman who set up her own modestly successful business in a small, Depression-era Minnesota town, just seems to accept being stymied professionally and settle for being an administrative assistant in the personnel office at the munitions plant in San Diego. At a time when the war-time economy was booming and employers were willing to hire anyone they could get, she complains she can't get promoted and makes no effort to develop her skills. And the woman who so carefully saved for her own house in Harvester has suddenly become a spend-thrift who cares only about having a nice-looking rental apartment.

Then there's Lark's growing alienation from her mother. Certainly it was unavoidable that Arlene, Betty and Lark's relationships with each other should change, and Sullivan generally navigates these changes with considerable expertise. (The changing dynamic between Arlene and Betty is especially well-handled, as Betty gathers strength and the formerly high-handed Arlene weakens.) In San Diego, Arlene is soley financially responsible for Lark and herself instead of being a housewife and her own boss as she was in Harvester, and that means she has less time for her daughter — and is less emotionally involved with her. And she stops listening to Lark, because she is already so burdened she can't bear to hear how much Lark misses her old life in Harvester. Lark is much less coddled than many children. At nine she is considered old enough to be left alone after school until Arlene and Betty get home from work and to take care of a number of household chores. In The Cape Ann, Lark's sharp, detailed observations of her mother help us to know Arlene. In Gardenias Lark's observations come from more and more of a distance until Arlene's behaviour is no more intelligible than that of a stranger's.

It's always necessary when critiquing a novel to distinguish between those elements of the book that are ineffective and those that one doesn't happen to care for. So it's very difficult for me to determine whether Arlene's tranformation is not believable or if I just hate it. I can't decide between the two possibilities, so I'll just say it's a shame that Lark's viewpoint is the only one we have of her world, since that means we can't help but share her disgust and bewilderment with Arlene's behaviour. Lark's growing detachment from her mother means that we lost touch with Arlene too — and perhaps that Sullivan did as well.

Another Minnesotaen-goes-Californian transformation that doesn't work is that of Betty's husband, Stan, probably because we didn't get to see it unfold. When Stan makes his reappearance in Betty's life, claiming that he's sorry for the way he treated her and professing that he's learned how to think and embraced socialism and charming everyone, well, it was hard not to roll my eyes. I suspect Betty may have been tempted to the the same.

But now I can begin enumerating the things I did like about Gardenias. Betty's transformation is not only utterly believable but satisfying. She does not become the bold and brave and hard-charging person Arlene was, nor does she embrace socialist ideology, but she acquires her own quiet, gentle and irresistible force of will, and even Willie Erhardt doesn't attempt to bully her.

Shirley Olson is another achievement. Shirley is a schoolmate of Lark's, and though they aren't friends and don't even like each other she attaches herself to Lark's family. We never learn much about Shirley's homelife other than it seems to be dreadful — a morass of filth, poverty, and abuse. Shirley's a survivor who will never pass up a chance to grab whatever's in her reach, so she establishes herself as an auxiliary family member in Lark's home, eating whatever she can find, soaking up the kind treatment she gest from Arlene and Betty, playing their piano, and battling Lark for the position of alpha child. Arlene and Betty may feel sorry for Shirley and therefore show her unstinting generosity and unconditional acceptance, but it's Lark who knows, and tells us, how unpleasant Shirley can be. And it is Shirley's presence in the novel that really show us how continued proximity and shared circumstances can build bonds between just about anyone, no matter how incompatible and antagnonistic they are to one another initially. Lark develops famillial relations with her neighbours as well, though fortunately none are so hard to love as Shirley.

And finally Sullivan's biggest accomplishments over the course of both The Cape Ann and Gardenias is her rendering of the genesis of a writer. Lark is a sensitive and observant child (and a narrator similar to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird with her adult-level powers of observation and description and child's sensibilities and behaviour). Lark builds a rich, involved fantasy life out of the elements of her life. The Cape Ann's title refers to the name of the architectural plan Lark and her mother wanted to use for the house they dreamed of building in Harvester. Lark was sure that if she could live in the Cape Ann she'd become the kind of person she wants to be: happy, elegant, talented and self-disciplined, able to twirl batons and stop biting her nails. She also invents stories about a woman she meets on a train and the writer of a letter she finds.

In the first few pages of Gardenias, Lark catches sight of a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman. She becomes infatuated with this woman in the way little girls sometimes are with attractive, older females, and is sure that the woman is a movie star. The woman is indeed a movie actress named Alicia Armand, and over the next few years Lark collects clippings of her idol, sees all her movies, and daydreams of being "discovered" by her. Alicia Armand becomes the first element of her new dream life. Soon to join Alicia and populate an imaginary cabin in the snowy Minnesota woods are the ghosts of Lark's friend Hilly and her Aunt Betty's baby daughter. This dream world of Lark's is her way to escape her own reality and to comfort and amuse herself, but it evolves and takes on its own life and purpose. Lark extracts what confuses and fascinates her from the flotsam and jetsam of life, fantasizes and muses about it, and then in Gardnenias begins to fashion a fictional collage from them, and to write stories in exercise books. These stories are rather odd at times, and have the kind of charming absurdities common to a child's imagination with its limited factual knowledge and worldview, but it's clear that Lark has the vocation and perhaps the talent to become a writer.

Lark, with her writerly ambitons, and with all her mother's resourcefulness and self-reliance and spirit, is such an interesting creation in herself that I am eager to read another novel about her. I can only hope that Sullivan won't make us wait another seventeen years for it.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Caddie Woodlawn and the Dangers of Unexamined Nostalgia

I've been meaning to write a review about the Newbery award-winner for 1936, Caddie Woodlawn, but for some reason I find myself with little to say about the book. My copy of Caddie has lain on my desk for a number of months now, and occasionally I would pick it up and try to begin writing, but never was able to get started.

I read and enjoyed this book as a child without, if I remember correctly, it ever becoming a favourite. I find it still readable, but somehow not satisfying. It seems like such a generic, superficial book somehow. Tomboyish girl gets into episodic adventures with her brothers, chafes against the restrictive social expectations put upon a girl in 1864, and gradually learns to embrace her own, more palatable definition of femininity. Along the way all the sturdiest of virtues are espoused: honesty, courage, kindness, initiative, loyalty, cheerfulness, industry, generosity, and of course the inevitable American boosterism that seems to have been de rigueur for at least the early Newbery books.

That the book should seem so two-dimensional is surprising and disappointing given that the book is based upon Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother's recollections of her Wisconsin pioneer childhood in the 1860s, with some additions and inventions. In the author's note at the beginning of the book, Ryrie Brink tells us the real Caddie was still alive at the time of its writing and provided details and verification, and further that her grandmother was pleased with the book and thought it portrayed her family members exactly as they were. I so hate to take a stance against the real Caddie's view of her childhood (what makes me think I know better than someone who was there?) but I just can't buy it. Were things ever this simple and straightforward for anyone at any time?

That's not to say this book is as irritatingly and absurdly idyllic as the 1939 Newbery medalist, Thimble Summer. The setting seems reasonably authentic. There are references to ample but monotonous food, limited reading materials, plain clothing, hard work, the dangers of prairie fires and rattlesnakes, and explanations of cultural differences, such as how birthdays weren't celebrated in the way that contemporary children would expect. But Ryrie Brink determinedly presents only a cheerful, tidy, picture of her grandmother's childhood, and seemingly has no interest in cracking the fond, nostalgic coating her grandmother's memories probably acquired over the years of her long life in order to see what lay beneath.

For instance, there's Caddie's effort to help some of her schoolmates, the Hankinson children. Mr. Hankinson, a white pioneer, had married an Indian woman due to the dearth of eligible white women in the early days of the area's settlement. Some years and three children later, Mr. Hankinson's shame of his wife grew to the point where he ordered her to depart from the area when the members of her native community did, leaving their three devastated little boys behind with him. Caddie feels she must help Sammie, Gus and Pete, and she takes them down to the general store, where she spends an entire, long-hoarded silver dollar on candy, tops, combs and handkerchiefs for the boys. It's a heartbreaking story, and a kind, generous gesture on Caddie's part, but there is simply no recognition that no amount of candy or trinkets can possibly compensate those three little boys for the loss of their loving mother. Caddie announces triumphantly that she has driven “that awful lonesome look out of their eyes”, and the Hankinson boys are simply never mentioned again, as though they are a problem neatly resolved and dismissed.

The portrayal of the native people and their relations with the settlers is an area Ryrie Brink chose to present in a flat and stereotypically racist way, relying on her grandmother's stories and the stock Indian renderings of her own day. The three Hankinson boys are described as “half-savage”. The native Americans in the book speak the pidgin English straight out of the early Westerns. Caddie's friend among the Indians (of course there's no identification of the specific tribe these native people belong to), “Indian John”, says to Caddie, “John he go 'way. John's people go 'way, John's dog no can walk. John go far, far. Him dog no can go far. You keep?”. I half-expected him to drop a “Kemo Sabe” somewhere in there. To be fair, the Irish characters in the book seem to begin most sentences by exclaiming, “Faith!” and are invariably the hired help. Ryrie Brink's characterizations may stem less from racist attitudes than from lazy, unthinking and unresearched writing.

There is a "massacre scare" in Caddie Woodlawn and any tensions between the white settlers and native people are explained away as being entirely the fault of some ignorant and fearful settlers. Of course there's no mention of the governmental mistreatment of the native people or the westward wave of settlers who commandeered the land and left the natives with no place to live. In Caddie's world, good, tolerant white people and gentle, peace-loving Indians can work the matter out between them. The situation is resolved by Caddie's courage, a handshake between Indian John and Mr. Woodlawn... and the native people's convenient decampment for an unspecified destination.

I'm in no way knowledgeable about native American culture or historical perspectives and so cannot really provide a proper analysis of the ways Caddie Woodlawn. Debbie Reese, of the web site American Indians in Children's Literature, has some interesting comments about the portrayal of the native Americans in the book. It seems she has been unable to substantiate the existence of any actual "scalp belts" among the American Indians, so the passages involving "Indian John's" giving his scalp belt into Caddie's keeping and the Woodlawn children's showing of it to the neighbourhood children would all have been invented by Ryrie Brink.

Then there's the handling of Mr. Woodlawn's account of his deprived English childhood. Caddie's father tells the children, "Whatever happens I want you to think of yourselves as young Americans, and I want you to be proud of that. It is difficult to tell you about England, because there all men are not free to pursue their own lives in their own ways. Some men live like princes, while other men must beg for the very crusts that keep them alive." I'm at a loss to understand how Mr. Woodlawn could possibly have thought men were any freer in America than in England, or how he could consider there were no comparable extremes in the standard of living among U.S. citizens, but its accepted as fact by the young Woodlawns and, apparently, by Ryrie Brink.

When I first found out that there was a sequel to Caddie Woodlawn entitled Magical Melons, I promptly borrowed it from the Toronto Public Library. But it was not what I would have considered a "sequel" — a book that followed Caddie through adolescence and possibly to young adulthood — but rather further episodes from the same period of Caddie's life. In a way, Ryrie Brink may never have got beyond being the credulous child listening to stories at her grandmother's knee. My guess is that she has not researched or explored her subject matter in any substantial or meaningful way, but instead accepted her grandmother's anecdotes at face value and contented herself with shaping the stories into fiction by adding material pulled from the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of the early twentieth century. And if this were the case, she could not allow Caddie to grow beyond the age of eleven either, because her work would never have the substance to satisfy older readers.

The (Indiana, U.S.) Allen County Public Library site has a listing of Newbery winners, which they have very sensibly ranked in order of how enjoyable they are to read. They ranked Caddie Woodlawn in fifty-ninth place (out of 87) and added the comment, "The 'adventures' of a pioneer girl that leaves modern-day readers wondering 'so?'"

Had I not felt compelled to expand my opinion of Caddie until it reached a word count that would qualify it to be considered a review, I might have said something similar and left it at that.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall, and a Novel, Short and Sweet

Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Newbery Medal winner for 1986, is set on a nineteenth-century prairie farm. Anna (who narrates the novel), her little brother Caleb, and their widowed father have advertised in the Eastern newspapers for a mail order stepmother and bride. They receive a letter of inquiry from a Sarah Wheatman, of Maine. Sarah has formerly kept house for her bachelor brother, who is a fisherman, but now that he is getting married Sarah feels she must make new living arrangements. The next spring Sarah arrives on Anna’s father’s farm to look over the situation and decide if she is willing to make her home with them. Anna, Caleb and their father are very taken with Sarah and hope that she will stay.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a little story – just 58 pages long - about the delicate business of building a family. It reminded me of nothing so much as a courtship, and really that is what courtship is – the forging a new family out of strangers. And the process will be familiar to anyone who has ever courted either a new family member or a romantic partner: the sensitive explorations of each other, the wondering and guessing as to what the other party is thinking and feeling, and as security and confidence in each other grows, the beginnings of an independence within the context of the new bonds.

So Anna’s little family pores over Sarah’s letters, awaits her coming eagerly, and examines her every expression and action for signs that she is happy with them and will agree to marry Anna’s and Caleb’s father and stay on their farm. The tension caused by Sarah's insistence on driving into town by herself for a day is palpable.

I found it more than a little odd that although Sarah is quite explicit about her own need for a new home and her capacity for hard work, there is no corresponding recognition of the sheer practical necessity of a housekeeper for Anna’s family, nor any mention of how they have been managing without one. Anna’s age is not mentioned, but in the cover illustration she appears to be only twelve or so. Caleb’s age isn’t mentioned either, but he is old enough to read Sarah’s letters without help. Their mother died the day after Caleb was born, and it would have been impossible for nineteenth-century farmer to manage the housekeeping and care of a newborn and a little girl plus his farmwork. In those days, doing the week's laundry alone was a full day’s backbreaking work. And even though Anna might be old enough during the timeframe of the novel to bake bread and make stew and wash the dishes, I doubt that she and her little brother and father could manage all the housework between them and still be able to attend school as she and Caleb do. MacLachlan makes no provision for any of these matters. There’s no mention of the housekeepers Anna’s father surely must have had to hire, or of any help from neighbours. Instead Anna’s family’s only concern is whether Sarah sings, and whether she will like them enough to stay. When Sarah does come she seems to spend most of her days picking flowers, sliding down the haystack, singing, and teaching the children to swim in the cow pond. What work she does do is outdoor work such as fixing the roof or helping in the barn, and when a neighbour tells her she must have a garden, she only mentions growing flowers. It’s all very idyllic, but I kept thinking the family was in for a shock when the honeymoon was over, or even when fall arrived and they have no preserving or sewing done for the winter.

MacLachlan does do very well at conveying to us the sheer novelty Sarah has for Anna's family. Anna and Caleb – and probably their father - have lived lives more limited than any present-day North American can really understand. They would know little of the larger world. The only people they would ever meet would be their neighbours who, culturally and economically speaking, were just like them. They probably had very few books and newspapers, and were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Caleb’s only knowledge of what having a mother would be like comes from Anna’s often-told stories of their mother. Any woman who travelled even a few hundred miles to live with them would seem exotic. And so Sarah, a plain and plainspoken woman from Maine, is something strange and wonderful, with her yellow sunbonnet, her ability to draw and swim, her new songs, her habit of drying flowers, and her regional idiom. But at the same time, that's love for you, as anyone who has ever watched a friend fall madly in love with someone completely unremarkable will recognize.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is really a novel about the beginnings of love, and love’s ability to glorify the ordinary and make one content with the losses a new life entails. Sarah misses the sea, and her brother, and the three aunts she left behind in Maine. A neighbour and fellow mail-order bride tells Sarah, “There are always things to miss. No matter where you are.” And, recognizing this, Sarah makes her decision of whether to stay or to go on the basis of what she loves, and will miss, the most.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Johnny Tremain and the Irresistible Drumbeat of War

The Newbery medallist for 1944, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, is a historical novel about a young apprentice silversmith and is set in a Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Forbes’ biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In had won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history, and well, way to make the most of your obviously thorough research, Ms. Forbes.

At 14, the orphaned Johnny Tremain is a self-assured and driven boy. Before his mother died, she managed to teach him to read and write, arrange for his apprenticeship with a Mr. Lapham, silversmith, and also give him a silver cup with the Lyte family crest, telling him that if he were ever in dire straits to go to the Lytes for help.

Mr. Lapham was once a fine craftsman, but is becoming too feeble and too interested in preparing to meet his Maker to really be in effective charge of his workshop. The other two apprentices besides Johnny don’t really have the ability for, or interest in, their work. Johnny, therefore, has all the insufferable cockiness of a kid who is economically invaluable and more able than everyone around him and knows it. Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law has proposed that Johnny will eventually marry one of her four daughters in order to keep the shop in the family, and Johnny has no objection to marrying the third daughter, Cilla, who is clever, companionable, and his own age. Thus provided with insurance, skills, the opportunity to do work he loves, and the prospect of a bride and the ownership of an established business, Johnny is in a fair way to do well in life.

Then comes a tragic accident, and Johnny, who can no longer hope to be a silversmith, has nothing left but his pride and drive, and little food for either them or himself. The Laphams consider him a useless burden, and when he appeals to the Lytes, they accuse him of being a thief. After a long period of near despair and casting about for some worthwhile work that he can do, he does find some work as messenger and delivery boy for a newspaper. He learns to ride on a very difficult horse. He finds a friend in the newspaper’s typesetter Rab Silsbee, whom he looks up to and loves like a brother in a way only possible for those who don’t have any actual brothers, but more importantly, he finds a cause – the American Revolution.

This book – and the fact that I just previously reread L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside - got me thinking about the depiction of war in fiction. Doris Lessing, in her CBC Massey lecture “When in the Future They Look Back on Us” (as printed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), wrote:

In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about the war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives…. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating… an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.

Neither Forbes nor Montgomery shut their eyes to the excitement war generates. The stirring drumbeat of war is strong in both books. In Rilla of Ingleside, the little Glen community is energized and mobilized by the war. The characters in Rilla would have described themselves as primarily motivated by patriotism and duty, but they repeatedly marvel at their transformation from a people only interested in the gossip of their village to armchair military strategists. They work tirelessly and enthusiastically to “save and serve” by knitting socks, cutting back on sugar, and fundraising, and as Germany and Austria sue for peace near the end of the novel, one character wonders “if things won’t seem a little flat and insipid when peace really comes”.

In Johnny Tremain we find descriptions like “[a]ll over Boston was a feeling of excitement”, of men looking radiant and elated at the prospect of a fight, and of cheering crowds at the Boston Tea Party. But Forbes’ concept of war is far more nuanced and complex than L.M. Montgomery’s.

L.M. Montgomery, despite being an intelligent and well-read woman, was no less susceptible to propaganda than many people much less so and was sincerely convinced that World War I was a holy war. Again and again her characters describe themselves as fighting for an “idea” and against evil, to keep Canada safe and free from invaders, for a new world. They honestly believed that the Germans bayoneted babies and that Kitchener was some sort of military genius. The one man in their village who is anti-war and pacifist is also generally ignorant and a comic valentine, and is much persecuted. So many of these beliefs were so ridiculous, and even laughable, and it’s very telling that Montgomery never tells us what this “idea” is. We now know that WWI, far from being a righteous war, was simply a case of one imperialistic country picking a fight with another imperialistic country, and then a number of other countries jumping quite heedlessly into the fray. The Germans never had any notion of invading Canada, and never bayoneted babies. The pig-headed and inept Kitchener, who sent out many regiments of cavalry against tanks and was probably answerable for more Allied deaths than any single German officer, should have been court-martialled, not revered. And as for the new world, well, if it were ever in the offing it’s been very slow to arrive.

Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain isn’t anti-war. I doubt Forbes could have even got away with such a strain in her novel given that she wrote and published it during World War II. But being the historian she was, and writing from a distance of over 150 years (Rilla of Ingleside was published in 1920), and probably being of a less romantic, idealistic cast of mind, Forbes achieved a least some of the balance and perspective Montgomery totally lacked.

Johnny is fired up by the speechmaking of revolutionary groups and believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is fighting for freedom, so that “a man can stand up”. It’s a seemingly inevitable part of the American creed to believe this in every struggle, to the point where in a movie such as Independence Day there’s a lot of rhetoric about American freedom and independence and the characters seem to be idiotically blind and deaf to the fact that real issue seems to be one of mere survival for the entire human race. Johnny believes that he must join in the Revolution so that a man may stand up. Of course the issue of freedom for the slaves in the United States is not addressed – it would have thrown a significant curve into the fine sounding talk of freedom. And in fairness to Forbes, it’s only realistic that she should depict the American Revolutionaries this way. I do question whether it was really necessary for the Americans to battle the British for independence given that Canada and Australia have become autonomous without bloodshed, but never mind. Not every novel needs to address every moral question. And then too, sometimes, as Doris Lessing points out, we do need to acknowledge the attraction and benefits of war has for us if we’re ever to learn how to avoid it more often.

So perhaps it’s enough that Johnny may find his redemption in and be a believer in the Revolution, but is not a true believer. He gets to know some of the British officers and can’t help admiring and respecting some of them, and he’s all too miserably aware of the fact that though he himself is only a generation removed from England, that most Revolutionary-era Americans and the British are one people ethnically, and that though individually the British soldiers will be kind and decent to him, collectively they are his sworn enemies. He hears a street fight outside the door of the print shop where he works, and though he doesn’t lift a finger to help, he is sickened by the sounds of a number of Whigs beating a Tory who bravely tried to prevent them from attaching a placard to his shop. He is heartsick at the sight of both British and American wounded. Forbes does point out that the American newspapers were allowed to print whatever they wanted until the outbreak of war and that the tea tax amounted to very little, and she is honest about the twisted morality and human costs of war.

Johnny Tremain is excellent both in terms of being an adventure novel and one which traces the development and coming of age of a young boy, and it acknowledges both the bad and good things that can come of war and crippling injuries and a best friend’s attentions to a girlfriend formerly taken for granted. And I have to concede that’s probably enough ground for one book to cover.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky and of Deplorable Words

Lucky Trimble, the main character of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky, is ten years old and one of the 43 occupants of Hard Pan, California. Lucky’s mother, Lucille, died when Lucky was eight. Lucky’s father, who never wanted a child and was never a part of Lucky’s life, calls upon his first wife, Brigitte Trimble, to come to the U.S. to take care of Lucky until she can be placed in foster care. Brigitte leaves France for what she initially assumed would be a short stay in California, and two years later is still living with Lucky in their trailer in Hard Pan. Lucky, with her passion for natural science, her dog HMS Beagle, her part-time job as cleaner-up of Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, is doing quite well in the custody of the loving and resourceful Brigitte. But Lucky has one great fear – that Brigitte will put her in an orphanage or foster care and return to France.

Self-sufficient Lucky, who carries a survival kit/backpack around with her at all times, can open a can of beans without a can opener, scare a snake out of a dryer, and remove a bug from her ear, and she sets out to solve this problem too. She eavesdrops on the 12-step meetings that take place in the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and puzzles over the concept of a Higher Power. All the people who testify in these meetings say they hit rock bottom, found their Higher Power and then got their lives all straightened out, so Lucky thinks if she could only figure out what her Higher Power is she could get control of her life too. Lucky never does figure out what her Higher Power is, but she devises a plan to make Brigitte realize that staying with Lucky is more important than going back to France, except that, with the added complications of a windstorm and the company of five-year-old Miles, her plan doesn’t work out quite as she expected.

The Higher Power of Lucky is, at 135 pages, a short book, but not a slight one. It’s definitely for younger readers without being exclusively so. It did leave me contemplating the likelihood of a first wife’s agreeing to drop everything, cross the Atlantic and take care of the motherless child of her ex-husband’s second marriage, but Patron has created characters that live their lives as they see fit without regard for any reviewer’s silly concepts of convention or reasonable behaviour. Brigitte is obviously an open, generous, and spontaneous sort of person. She no longer loves her ex-husband, but when she made an emergency trip to the U.S. (probably for the sake of a tragically bereaved little girl, possibly also in the spirit of adventure) and discovered she loved Lucky (and maybe California), her short visit became a new phase in her life. It does seem a sheer statistical improbability that there would be anonymous 12-step groups for alcoholics, overeaters, smokers AND gamblers in a community with a population of 43, but never mind – it’s possible if not likely that the members commute from other towns.

There’s hardly a false note in the characterization of the children – Lucky, Lincoln, and Miles. I especially loved the depiction of their various interests and obsessions. Lincoln is ambivalent about his mother’s conviction of his presidential destiny and is much more interested in being a contributing member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers and the knots he ties incessantly. He’s also concerned with adding some necessary punctuation to a “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” road sign (and as an editor, I can only applaud this particular intellectual pursuit). Miles, who lives with his grandmother and is not clear on the whereabouts or regard of his mother, hugs a filthy copy of Are You My Mother and goes from house to house asking for cookies and readings of his book. Lucky collects bugs and, having been taught something of natural selection in science class, theorizes that she’s been dowered with sand-coloured hair, skin and eyes because they’re adapted to her environment. She’s plainly possessed of a full share of scientific curiosity and, besides her search for a Higher Power, speculates on the difference between her and Brigitte’s feet, the uses of parsley, and the meaning of the word scrotum.

Which leads me to the controversy concerning this book.

In the early months of this year, when I had just begun work on my Newbery review project and was on the alert for the announcement of the 2007 Newbery winner, the very first thing I heard about The Higher Power of Lucky was that there was a uproar over the book’s use of the word “scrotum”. This New York Times article on the controversy reports that a handful of states have banned the book and a number of school librarians are refusing to order it because of this issue. Andrea Koch, the librarian at French Road Elementary School in Brighton, New York, said in an interview, “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson”. Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, New Jersey, said, “If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.”

I can understand a teacher or librarian not wanting to have to explain to a class of nine-year-olds what a “scrotum” is. And perhaps teachers and librarians can understand why I didn’t want to have to manually input over 500 apostrophes into a file that had been accidentally stripped of the same by a data processing program at the publishing house where I work. But in both cases, not wanting to undertake a task is not a justification for refusing to do it. Surely children should know the correct names for the various portions of the human anatomy, and if teachers and librarians – and parents – will go to such lengths to avoid doing so, this begs the question of who is doing so.

I suppose there is an argument to be made that the presence of the word in this book will cause a certain derailment of a class reading. And yes, there’s no real need to read this particular excellent book out loud to a class of nine-year-olds, because there are many other excellent books available for that purpose. But there’s no excuse for refusing to add this book to a school or public library. Libarians and teachers who cannot deal with the prospect of children approaching them singly to ask the meaning of the word scrotum might do well to reconsider their career paths (and incidentally, Lucky does finally get an adult’s matter-of-fact explanation at the end of the book, so a child who read this book would not have to approach a squeamish teacher or librarian). Parents who would try to have this book banned from the school might remind themselves that the word scrotum is also in the dictionary and that we’ve no plans to remove those from schools. We don't need to be so afraid of words in books as this.

Patron is also criticized in the article for “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far [she] could push the envelope, but [she] didn’t have the children in mind” by Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado. I disagree that Patron is being deliberately provocative or that she didn’t consider her audience.

Here’s the context for the deplorable word. Lucky first hears the word scrotum when Short Sammy, one of the people in the AA meeting, designates his rock bottom experience as the time his dog Roy got bitten in the scrotum by a rattlesnake and Short Sammy was too drunk to go to the dog’s aid. Throughout the story Lucky ponders the possible meaning of the word:

Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green the comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important, and Lucky was glad she was a girl and would never have such an aspect as a scrotum to her own body. Deep inside she thought she would be interested in seeing an actual scrotum. But at the same time – and this is where Lucky’s brain was very complicated – she definitely did not want to see one.

Patron claims to have put the word in partly for sheer love of word play, and partly because it’s simply a part of growing up, and both motives are good ones.

The very way the word is presented perfectly captures several important aspects of childhood experience. One such dimension to the childhood experience is the polarized force of sexual matters have for children – the simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Lucky intuits that a scrotum is something taboo, and both wants to know and doesn’t want to know more about it. Then too, Patron’s portrayal of this interest of Lucky’s, like Lucky’s other hobbies and intellectual pursuits, as well as those of Lincoln and Miles, is a terrific rendering of the way children pick up on things and become fascinated with them regardless of their intrinsic importance or whether those items are those adults would have chosen for them. Children, like adults, have to have room to create their own internal world and to follow their own interests, even if that means the adults around them don’t entirely approve of the child’s preoccupations.

And we adults also have to be adult enough to realize that children’s fiction – like any other fiction – is not written for the express purpose of making the reader’s friends, parents, or teachers comfortable.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Thimble Summer and the Winter of a Reviewer’s Discontent

Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.

I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).

Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.

Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.

Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.

Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.

I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.

I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

For the Love of Knitting and the Dislike of Reading About It

When I was at Winners last week I happened to spy a book on knitting in the bargain bin. I ran over to look at it, moth to flame-style, and it turned out not to be a book of patterns, as I had hoped, but a glossy, hardcover, quasi-coffeetable book (does that make it an endtable book?) called For the Love of Knitting: A Celebration of the Knitter’s Art, which featured articles on knitting written by the “names” of the knitting world, and a lot of pictures. Disappointed, I turned it over to look at the price, and found the sticker said $2. If the book had been $20 or even $10, I would have left it in the bin, but I felt it was worth $2 to get possession of all those lovely pictures of vintage knitting patterns and contemporary knitted art and I hoped there might be interesting bits of trivia buried somewhere in the articles. But I didn’t expect much from the articles themselves.

I’m an avid knitter and rarely leave the house without a knitting project tucked into my handbag. I’ve been knitting since I was eight. If I’d had my way, I’d have begun knitting at the age of six, but I had to waste two long years begging my mother to show me how to knit. (I was basically pure id as a child. Mum, knowing my high-strung, easily frustrated temperament, postponed the dreaded ordeal of teaching me for as long as she could stand my pestering her about it.) I’m an even more avid reader. But I don’t like reading about knitting.

As I read and perused For the Love of Knitting I wondered why. It’s probably at least partly for the same reason I don’t have the patience to watch cooking or decorating shows or have much interest in porn. Some things are meant to be done rather than passively watched or read about. So, though I am usually all about text, and I have a three-foot shelf full of knitting books and magazines, I don’t often read the articles therein.

I have realized lately that this is at least partly a mistake. For years I considered myself an expert knitter because I could make an item from a pattern rated at the expert level of difficulty without any trouble, write a pattern for a pictured sweater, and design my own items, usually by just making them up as I go along. But it’s since dawned on me that I’m not an expert knitter. I have much the same attitude towards the technical aspects of knitting as I do about computers – meaning I learn the bare minimum of how-to stuff that will enable to me to do what I specifically want to do. I only know one way to cast on and one way to cast off. Many knitting techniques are as Greek to me. I also have bad form (meaning I hold the needles and the yarn wrong), which slows me down considerably. And meanwhile, in both fields, there could be much faster and better ways of doing the things I already do, and so much more that I would like to do if I only knew it were possible. So I’ve resolved to correct this, though the prospect of having to overcome a 25-year-old muscle memory is less than welcome.

But my attitude towards the human interest sort of knit lit remains the same. Most of it is so boring and inane. For all the articles rhapsodizing about the joy of knitting or waxing philosophical about knitting or reminiscing about their childhood memories of knitting, and the jokey accounts of yarn stashes grown to mammoth proportions, I can summon no interest whatsoever. I even dislike patterns written in a chatty style. I suppose this is because I primarily read to learn, and there is nothing new anyone can tell me about the addictive rhythm of knitting or the tactile and visual pleasures of beautiful wool. I might like intelligent articles about the Zen or Dao of knitting if they were written by someone who actually knew something about Zen or Dao philosophies, but those sorts of articles are always written by someone who knows lots about knitting and only the merest scrapings of philosophy.

The jokey articles about knitting are some of the most painful, because they’re plainly intended to be funny and practically never are. I’ve read Yarn Harlot Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s two books Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, and At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, and the cutesy “OMG I am so obsessed with knitting that I have yarn stuffed into my piano and will spend two hours searching for a lost needle” shtick wears pretty thin after the first page or so. Yes, I recognize this is just my opinion. McPhee’s blog does seem to be very popular, and she’s so well-known to knitters that the staff at Toronto’s yarn store Romni Wool freely quote her at me. And I will say that it was McPhee’s books that brought me to my epiphany about not being the great knitter I thought I was, that it was pretty funny when a neurosurgeon told McPhee that she could never learn to knit because it was too hard, and that I find McPhee’s practice of knitting during the down times of her midwifery patients’ deliveries and then presenting mother and baby with the finished items unqualifiedly charming.

For the Love of Knitting’s editor Kari Cornell has shown a certain amount of taste in gathering materials for the book, because the essays and stories in For the Love of Knitting are among the less tiresome examples of the genre. The book does have a number of the ubiquitous nostalgic, rhapsodic, saccharine, and pseudo-comic material about learning to knit, the amibience at favourite yarn shops, the impossibly complex knitting projects that take over one’s life, and places to keep one’s hoard of yarn, but there were also some more interesting and original articles.

I liked the article about a woman who, during a scarf-knitting marathon for Christmas, devised a way of knitting while standing up on a crowded subway (feet wide apart and parallel, knees slightly bent, body facing 45 degree angle to the direction of the train). I tried it myself this past week, and it does work. I also liked Naomi Dagen Bloom’s account of how her husband took up spinning because I got learn something about a craft I know next to nothing about (and I did my best to crush any spinning temptations that arose in me). Perri Klass’s article about the sweaters she did and did not knit for her father was fairly well-written. I’ve read some of her articles in Vogue Knitting before and somehow they always stay with me. Also readable was knitting artists Teva Durham's and Pam Allen’s articles about knitting’s stepchild status in the art world, and Sigrid Arnott’s article about knitting as an anti-capitalist act, and Clinton W. Trowbridge’s piece about the history of male knitters, and the tribute to Elizabeth Zimmerman. And of course, the pictures in this book are the visual feast my quick flip through at Winners promised: the vintage postcards, magazine covers, knitting patterns, and Red Cross posters; the photos of knitted art (which include teacups and the coracle that actually floats); the still lifes of yarn and needles, and the paintings that depict knitting through the ages. (Though Cornell neglected to include one of my sentimental favourite knitting paintings, "Les Sabot" by Fran├žois Boucher. When I fist saw "Les Sabot" at the Art Gallery of Ontario seven or eight years ago, I informed the man I was seeing at the time that it was “our painting”.)

But though I managed to get through this knitting book with a modicum of enjoyment, I am still not convinced to join the readership of this softer side of knitting writing. I’m sure it’s only a personal preference. Knitting is an art, and I am the sort of person who wants only to enjoy making and looking at art, and to know how to create it, and to know something about its history, while the esoteric words, words, words criticism of it and the amateurish, gushing, navel-gazing prose the artistic community churns out interests me not at all.

I do have a passion for books of patterns, and I like to look at patterns and pictures online (especially those with a sense of humour, such as those at Knitty.com) but the only kinds of knitting blogs I visit are those which mock the bad patterns turned out by professional designers who presumably should know better. Every issue of Knit.1 and Vogue Knitting gives them fresh fodder. Knit.1 seems to be targeted at people who don't know how to knit and presumably are so carried away by the prospect of making anything that they'll actually use a cellphone cosy pattern. But dear Vogue Knitting, you are trying far too hard to reinvent the wheel and you are resorting to patterns that aren't attractive or even wearable. Moreover, knitted pants soon stretch out to the point of being unwearable. Relentless mocking shall be your portion until you understand these things.

You Knit What?? seems to have been the original of these pattern debunking sites, and I enjoyed it so much I created a Metafilter front page post about it. Then, after the people who created You Knit What?? stopped updating it, worthy imitators took up the cause. If you like this sort of thing, try visiting:

You Knit What, Part 2
The Needle and the Damage Done
What the Fugly

There’s also What Not To Crochet.

I confine my knitting reading to pictures and patterns, to technical information, to interesting historical trivia, and to the fun of those point-and-laugh websites featuring awful knitting patterns. And then I have more time to actually knit. Or to read some really satisfying novels and non-fiction. Which is the way it should be. Knitting and reading don't mix that well.