What I’m Reading Now (October 2017)

I’m reading Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth’s “The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales” now.

Jacob Grimm said of Schonwerth, “No one in Germany has gathered tales so thoughtfully and thoroughly and with such finesse.”

Here’s a great quotation from the introduction:

Advertisements

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies

Mimi the Librarian’s Recommended Reading List

In Georgia Briggs’ book Icon, twelve-year old Euphrosyne has been renamed Hillary by the anti-religious government in the new “Era of Tolerance.” Her family has been killed, on Pascha (Easter) night, and she goes to live with her grandparents. Her teachers, psychologist, and even her grandfather want her to forget her past life and embrace the new secular tolerance. Euphrosyne struggles to hold onto her faith and identity in a new America hostile to religion. The one bright spot in her life is Mimi the Public Librarian, who provides thoughtful books which encourage Euphrosyne.  Of course, it’s only a matter of time before these books are censored by the new government . . .

Mimi doesn’t work at the Library anymore, but I offer you her Booklist, supplemented by a few titles of my own:

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies (and surviving our own, too)

Mimi’s picks:

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak.     High school is hard enough without being outcast, too. Freshman Melinda Sordino carries a dark secret. It is only when she learns to speak her truth that she can find true healing.

 

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle In Time.   Meg Murray’s father has gone missing, and she and her brother Charles Wallace travel across space and time to find him. She battles the monstrous IT and saves her brother and father through the power of love. Chapters 9 and 12 are some of my favorite pages in all of literature.  (I sometimes use Meg’s technique from Chapter 9 to ward off intrusive thoughts.)

 

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia.       This beloved fantasy series is enjoyable on its own merits and is also well known for its Christian allegories. In Euphrosyne and Mimi’s world, it is outlawed. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” C. S. Lewis wrote: “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” He provides these brave child-heroes and child-heroines in his classic Narnia tales.

 

Lowry, Lois. The Giver.      In this society,  sameness is celebrated while pain and emotions are regulated out of existence.  Will Jonas be strong and brave enough to change things?

 

 

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars.     In Nazi-occupied Denmark, 10 year-old Annemarie helps hide her Jewish friend Ellen and learns about the courage required to resist evil.

 

 

Cynthia’s picks:

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints 4 Volumes; arranged chronologically by saints’ days.    The classic reference book on Eastern and Western pre- and post-schism saints. Offers a saint (often more than one) for every day of the year. I wish Mimi had shown Euphrosyne this book. The life of St. Hilary of Poitier, although not Euphrosyne’s patron or true namesake, might still have encouraged her.  St. Hilary is best known for fighting heresy and enduring exile for the Christian faith. Available in many medium-to-large public libraries.  A close second is the Catholic Encyclopedia, originally available in print, but now available online at http://newadvent.org/cathen/

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales.          I especially want to get my hands on The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm : the Complete First Edition translated & edited by Jack Zipes (2014) but really any edition will do. Stay away from sanitized, Disneyified versions.  C.S. Lewis wrote about the importance of fairy tales in order to teach children hope and justice: “let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.    In this dystopian future, a character commonly known as “the Savage” argues that beauty, poetry, and belief in God trump safety and mandated happiness.

 

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.              Now available online at http://shakespeare.mit.edu/  All the Savage from Brave New World had to read on his reservation was William Shakespeare, and that’s good enough for me. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotations is from the play The Winter’s Tale: “It is an heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t”

 

 

Go forth and read. Books, like Georgia Briggs’ Icon, have the power to inspire and transform. And give us courage to face our post-modern, dystopian lives.

Righteous Among the Nations: The Muslims of Paris

grand mosque paris

Over sixty years later, there is so little documentation. This important story needs to be told, especially in these days of European terrorism, Islamofascism, and Islamophobia.

“Jewish or Muslim,”–and so I’ve been told, also Christian–“the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures. Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers.”

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During The Holocaust relates the little-known and barely-documented story of how Alegerian diplomat Si Kaddour Benghabrit and his Muslim colleagues sheltered numerous Jews from the Nazis in Vichy Paris. Authors Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix draw heavily on the work of Derri Berkani, an Algerian-French filmmaker whose parents participated in the Kabyle Berber Resistance in France. His film “Une Resistance Oubliee: La  Mosquee” and other articles contribute to this important piece of lost history.

“Once warned, the people in hiding rushed into the secluded women’s section of the prayer room, where even Nazis and Vichy police dared not enter. [Si Benghabrit] delayed the search by demanding that the soldiers and police remove their boots. . . Taking off heavy military boots took time, giving everyone the opportunity to get out of sight.”

This book is beautifully illustrated, but do not be deceived: it is no true picture book. The long blocks of text are too complex both in terms of reading level and subject matter for an elementary-school reader.  Even I, who should know better! was at a lost where to place it until I remembered and chided myself for initially thinking that illustrated books are [only] for young children. This would work best in a multi-disciplinary lesson plan, perhaps for middle school, or for home-schoolers; for a venue with a knowledgeable, compassionate adult close at hand.

Details and statistics of how many rescued are scarce. In one registry from the Grand Mosque, over 400 unexpected children are listed, presumably Jews given a Muslim identity.  Over 1700 extra ration stubs were identified, another indicator of the number of people sheltered.

Glossary and extensive Bibliography.

A book everyone should read in these scary, troubling times of unrest.

Ruelle, Karen Gray and Deborah Durland DeSaix. The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust. N.Y.: Holiday House, 2009.

ruelle girl

Additional Resources:

Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands. [book & DVD] from pbs.org

Among the Righteous on YouTube

The Righteous Among The Nations  — Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Educators’ Guide from the Publisher

 

Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.

You’re Never Too Old To Run Away and Join the Circus

When I was 28 years old, an older friend remarked that by the time you reach 35, you start to accept that some of your dreams will go unfulfilled; she realized she would likely never become a Carnegie Hall concert pianist.  It’s the primary reason I started taking my writing seriously the year I turned the mystical groundbreaking age of 40. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed moaning “I wish I had written my novel.”

It’s unpleasant to the realize that as we age, our bodies start to fail, and certain activities become more difficult. I’d always said that I wanted to be one of those 60-year-olds who could run a marathon. One day I realized I would actually have to start training, and do more than talk. It’s not impossible. Only harder.

I’m not opposed to the literary device of an older narrator reflecting on his/her youth. Lately I’ve read quite a few novels in which an end-of-life protagonist tells a present-day story while a younger self in alternating chapters reveals the main plot thread, each narrative informing the other. John Boyne uses this technique to great effect in his 2013 The House of Special Purpose. The title takes its name from the final prison and assassination site of Czar Nicholas and his Royal family. Character Georgy was bodyguard to young heir Alexei, but how Georgy spends the final days of the Russian Revolution, and what he does or doesn’t do at the titular prison is the secret the novel unravels.  It’s crafted beautifully, but it’s pure historical fantasy, and readers seeking accuracy should look elsewhere. Despite its fluidity with the truth, it’s a well-written novel about a history-defying love that long remains with the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants had a less compelling narrative. Perhaps it’s because the Prologue reveals the “secret” before the story has even begun. A circus veterinarian and an animal-act showgirl fall in love with the remarkably sensitive and apparently stupid elephant. The tension driving this novel is not what happened but how such a drastic circus-tent murder came to be. Interspersed between the main plot relating Jacob’s flunking-out of veterinary college due to grief over his parents’ unexpected deaths and his subsequent hiring by the Benzini Brothers circus is the present-day narrative of ninety-year-old Jacob’s day-to-day existence in a nursing home.

The nursing home chapters are especially poignant, capturing the horror of an everyday existence with only invalids, incontinents, and screamers as neighbors.  (My mother-in-law recently spent three months in a short-term facility while she recovered from a broken ankle, and we can attest that such a facility is excruciating for one who still has their wits.) No wonder old Jacob prefers to dwell on his glamorous circus past.

Timothy Tegge, Tegge Circus Archives. Photo leading Chapter 18

Gruen’s details about life in a traveling circus are well-researched and fascinating, and heading each chapter are actual photographs of historical circuses. The developing romance between young Jacob and Marlena carries the plot along. Yet I was frustrated by the chapters set in the nursing home: angered by the way our society hides and forgets our elders and disturbed by this accurate fictional portrayal.

More: I was perturbed by the basic premise that once one reaches a certain age, all there is left to do is to wait to die. The “main plot,” the circus plot, was thrilling; the nursing home tale was as dull and mundane as the mushy peas served to the residents.

Until the ending: and the true surprise is not the fleshed-out expanse of the pre-indicated murder.

At the age of ninety-one—or is it ninety-three?—Jacob Jankowski runs away and joins the circus, proving it’s never too late to live a life that gives your great-great-grandchildren something to talk about.

 


For more information about the photos in Gruen’s book, see the article at Two Roads Books.

Every Heart a Doorway [Book Review]

             Seanan McGuire. Every Heart A Doorway. N.Y.: Tor, 2016.

            Entering another world by stepping through a portal is a common enough trope in fantasy literature, with origins as old as faerie itself. So too is the boarding school for precocious preternatural students, from Hogwarts and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children to the Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters and many, many more. The reader is in familiar territory accompanying Nancy Whitman on her first day to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children. Nancy, and all her classmates, have been sent to reacclimatize to the  so-called ‘real’ world after returning from a variety of distinct, unique, impossible lands. Nancy traveled to the Halls of the Dead. Nancy and nearly all of her classmates want nothing more than to get back to their otherworlds, a world they now call home.

It’s a slim book, ~169 pages, and I might be forgiven for wondering if my local library had mis-shelved it in general fiction when it belonged in Young Adult. Until page 40, when Nancy’s new roommate inquires if she likes a handsome classmate by abruptly asking, “Do you want to fuck him?”  The roommate also asks her opinions on masturbation. It’s not the topics themselves that preclude Y.A., but the tone and ease with which they are mentioned.  They are not the focus; there is no exploration of themes.  It’s startlingly matter-of-fact.

A murder mystery ensues. One after another, students are being murdered and dismembered— one for her eyes, one for her hands. As the new girl lately returned from the Halls of the Dead, Nancy is the likely suspect. The plot is slightly predictable and the point-of-view unexpectedly variable, but that doesn’t matter.  Suspension-of-disbelief transcends such novelcraft imperfections.  As with most portal fantasies and precocious schools, the quest for belonging is what unites character and reader.

A stellar, engrossing book appreciated all the more by this busy reader for its slender length.  A winner of numerous awards and honors including an ALA Alex Awards Winner (Adult Books for Young Adults); Goodreads Choice Awards; Library Journal Best Books of the Year; and both a Nebula Awards Nominee and a Hugo Award Nominee.

A series is planned. Book 2, Down Among The Sticks And Bones, is expected this June.

 

 

Bonus: Author website with amusing alternate biographies.

Read an excerpt, courtesy of publisher Macmillan.

The Snow Child: Thawing Frozen Hearts [Book Review]

Eowyn Ivy’s The Snow Child is one of those quiet books that resonate within you after you have closed the last chapter. This thoroughly American retelling of the Russian folktale “The Snow Maiden” is at its heart a story about families, grief, and reconnection.  Connection is what makes us human, even connection with a not-quite-feral snow child, a ghost-like orphan raising herself in the cold wilderness who arrives in Winter and leaves in Spring and comes and goes as she pleases. This is historical realistic fiction with a mythic twist, fully rooted in the real world of 1920’s Alaska.

The book opens grippingly with Mabel’s ambivalent suicide attempt, a walk across a frozen Alaskan river. She hopes to break through the ice, a tragic accident, unprovable as suicide. But the ice holds, and she returns home, still carrying her grief and a heart as frozen as the river.

She and her husband Jack left sophisticated Philadelphia to start over after miscarriage, and Alaska proves to be more of a challenge than they expected. When Jack is injured in a farm accident, they are forced to rely on their “closest” neighbors, Esther and George Benson. (“Closest” is a relative term in remote Alaska; the Bensons live quite a distance downriver.) Guarded politeness develops into real friendship. In adversity we are forced into accepting help. A deep bond forms.

Mabel learns friendship and trust again, and through Faina, their “snow child,” she learns to love. First by believing in, and then by accepting and parenting Faina with Jack, what was once a grief-damaged perfunctory marriage blossoms again.  In time, Faina shows herself to the Bensons, and Esther realizes the snow child is real and not the product of grief. The Snow Child evolves into a multi-generational tale.

Like all folktales, The Snow Child conveys a powerful truth: through connection we are healed; through connection we become human.

 

Read an Excerpt.

E.863-1980, Colour lithograph from a set of 50 by Ivan D. Suitin (or Suytin) entitled ‘Narodnuiya Kartinui’ [Russian Folk Pictures], mounted on card and published in Moscow, ca. 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Further Reading

Crescente, Joe. “Kostroma: The Home of Russia’s Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden.” RBTH (Russia Beyond the Headlines) December 11, 2014.

Hibbard, Ruth. “A Shifting Snow Maiden” [blog article]. Victoria and Albert Museum. December 19, 2015. Online.

Lang, Andrew. The Pink Fairy Book. “Snowflake.”  1889. Online.

Ransome, Arthur. Old Peter’s Russian Tales. “The Little Daughter of the Snow.”  1916. Online.