Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yeah, I'm One of Those.....

"Those" being people who read ahead in a book to see what's going to happen.  I'm not proud of my weakness, but sometimes I just can't stop myself.

Last night, for example. I'm nearly halfway through reading Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and everything that was happening in Griet's life was just so miserable, and I really was afraid she was going to make a bad choice that would leave her totally miserable forever.  Oh, how I wanted to peek to the last chapter, just to get the answer to one question.  I didn't do it, though.

This morning, however, was another story. When I was making up the bed, I saw the book on the nightstand and I just sat right down and opened to the last page. I found the answer I wanted. I'm satisfied.

I know, I know!  I just spoiled all the suspense the author wants me to suffer through as the story develops, which will make the final chapter more satisfying.  But in my own defense, I will say that I think I will enjoy the story more, now that I'm not having to worry about Griet.  I can put up with her misery (and that brat Cornelia!) because I know how things turn out.  I will finish the book; it's not like "I know the ending, so I'm quitting."

Still, I feel like such a cheater!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

How Far Am I Willing to Go, Digitally?

(Forgive me - this post is only loosely related to reading.)

My sister sent me an online article the other day about ebooks vs. "real" books, and the reading happened to coincide with a push on my part to do some spring housecleaning.  We debated the merits of the two types of books, and my conclusion was, "Ebooks don't sit on a shelf collecting dust. It's the story that really matters, anyway, not the form in which it is presented."

Fast forward a few days. Part of my spring cleaning was to eliminate the jumble of Lego instruction booklets my kids accumulated over the years, but I didn't want to just throw them away - grandkids might like to build the Millenium Falcon someday, ha ha. So I had the bright idea of scanning them and saving the entire collection to a CD. One neat plastic disc could replace an entire fat notebook with untidy papers poking out at its edges.  So that process is well underway.

As I was sitting at the computer slowly scanning the instructions to pdfs, my eyes fell on a pile of scrapbook pages of a family trip that had been taken out of their binder for some reason (I think they were sharing the binder with some pages that went to the county fair). I've always thought it would be a good idea to digitize those scrapbooks in case of a fire, or to have an extra copy so the kids won't have THAT to fight about once I'm gone.  I scanned several pages, and they turned out beautifully (as jpg files rather than pdf).  Then the idea went a little further; instead of having those pages be individual files on the CD, why not use Adobe's InDesign (which is one of the programs I'm supposed to be working on for my sabbatical) to recreate the scrapboook?  I liked the way it turned out (see below for an example).

That experience led to my turning a calculating eye on all the boxes of memorabilia I've collected throughout my life.  I'll admit it:  I'm a memory junkie, and I have programs from every community theatre production my husband and I did BK (before kids), and I have just about every drawing and finger painting the kids did from pre-school on and I have dozens of photographs.  There are literally boxes of those memories sitting in a closet collecting dust.  Why not digitize them and eliminate all those boxes?  My thought processes took me a step further; instead of physically producing a scrapbook page to scan into digital form, why not go digital all the way?  I've seen articles on digital scrapbooking, and I bet with the design software I've got on my laptop, I could do some pretty neat designs with the photo files directly from the camera.  No need to pay for photo processing fees.

But wait a minute.

I haven't used a Kindle or an iPad, but I'm a little wary of how well they would convey a scrapbook page.  Even on a computer screen, if you want to see the whole page, you have to set the view to like 50% of the original, and then it's impossible for my "gently-aging" eyes to tell any detail about the photos.  Plus, there's something neat about sitting on the couch with my daughter and flipping through the trip scrapbooks, remembering those good times.  Even if they do take up shelf space and collect dust, maybe they are worth it.

The play programs?  Maybe not.  The plethora of finger paintings? Let's admit it, once you've seen one finger painting by a three-year-old.....And some of those photos, while they are precious as memories, aren't really tied to anything significant.  Why couldn't they work as well in digital form as in physical form? 

I guess I need to evaluate items on a case-by-case basis. I'll probably go ahead and make physical scrapbooks of all our trips, but I'll also scan them to have the digital files.  After all, who knows what the future generations of e-readers will be capable of?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In Celebration of "Man Camping"

It's spring break week around these parts, and last night, my 14-year-old son invited a couple of friends over for what he called "man camping." That means the three of them took a tent to the creek bottoms that run through our field (less than a quarter-mile from the house) and spent the evening running around in the dark shooting at each other with soft-pellet air rifles.

My husband and I were betting these three boys wouldn't last the night in weather that hovered around 40 degrees, especially once the coyotes started yipping (they can sound like they are right on top of you, even if they are halfway across the field). We were wrong. After about 9:00 last night, we didn't see the boys again until 7:15 this morning when they came to the house for a "man breakfast" (cooked by a woman, of course - LOL). They were in high spirits. Apparently they had a great time. They even cooked their own supper over a campfire - hot dogs, hot chocolate mixed with instant coffee, and potatoes and onions fried in a cast-iron skillet. Supper was served about the time my husband went down to check on them for the last time, and he said the potato dish was hideous - the potatoes were barely cooked, and the whole dish was so heavy with pepper he couldn't taste anything else. But the guys were talking this morning about how great those potatoes and onions were. I guess independence is the best sauce.

I'm telling about the "man camping" because it came together in my mind with the book I just finished reading, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.  The protagonist of Anderson's book is 14-year-old Mattie Clark, who starts out with the self-centered, tunnel vision attitude of many a modern teen (maybe a little too close to modern teens, but more on that later).  Mattie lives in Philadelphia, which in 1793 was the capital of the new United States. The city is suffering through an unbearably hot, unbearably long summer.  But as summer drags on, a new threat emerges; people begin to fall ill with the dreaded yellow fever and to die, in staggering numbers.

I don't want to give spoilers here, so I'll just say Mattie's family -- and Mattie herself -- are touched by the fever.  Mattie faces some pretty tough circumstances, and at one point she is given a choice: she can go to the orphan home, where she may have to work hard but at least will have someone to take care of her, or she can go back home, where there are no guarantees of anything, including whether she will have another meal. (Ok, can't avoid a spoiler here - ARRGH) She chooses to go home, and the consequences of that choice force her to grow up. By the end of the book, Mattie is confident, competent, and comfortable in the role she's taken on.

What does this have to do with "man camping"? Stepping back. Sometimes we adults complain about how childish teenagers are, about how self-centered they are, about how they can't or won't do anything for themselves except recharge their iPods.  But maybe we are part of the problem.  How often do we step back and let our teens work things out on their own - even if they end up with inedible potatoes? Do we allow them the opportunities they need to find their own solutions, and to develop the confidence that comes with finding it?  Or do we hover over their shoulders, sharing our wisdom, until finally we see they are about to fail (by our standards) and step in to "save" the situation, leaving the teen feeling frustrated and like it's not worth trying?

I'm not advocating a completely laissez-faire approach to parenting teens - that would be dangerous in many ways! However, I think we have to recognize the opportunities that will give kids the chance to try their wings in an environment that is low-risk enough that they won't be hurt too much if things don't work out, but that they perceive as high-risk enough that they feel pretty good about getting through it.  For our family, "man camping" was a good opportunity. Hopefully, we can find other ways to help our kids make the transition Mattie made - without having to suffer through a dangerous plague!

A couple of notes: I said above that Mattie seemed awfully "modern" for the heroine of a historical novel. I'm not sure where I stand on that. I've not encountered other teen characters in historical novels who had the sort of disrespectful attitude and antagonism toward her mother that Mattie had at the beginning of the book, but....that doesn't mean teens in past ages didn't have those attitudes. Maybe it was the language, the way Anderson conveyed those attitudes, that seemed a little too modern.

Note #2: Blogger now offers the ability to include a link to Amazon to purchase the book. There's a possibility, I guess, that some reader of this blog might be so moved by my discussion of a book that they would be simply burning to buy the book, and I'll help make it easier for them.  You should know that I am not an Amazon Associate and will not receive any compensation if you do click on the link.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

But Who'll Do the Dishes?

I thought I was finished with Calpurnia Tate, but throughout this week something about it has been bugging me, and I decided maybe this is the best way to put those thoughts to rest.

One of the themes that runs through the book is Calpurnia's frustration with the gender role she's stuck in. She wants to follow her grandfather around and immerse herself in science, but her mother is always forcing her to do things that Calpurnia considers boring and annoying, like knitting or sewing or learning to make a pie. Calpurnia hatches the idea that what she would like to do when she grows up is go to the university, but her mother seems to have her heart set on having Calpurnia "come out" in society with all the social engagements and fancy dresses that go along with it. I can see that this book is going to be celebrated as one that encourages girls to break out of the traditional roles and look to fields that have historically been dominated by men (specifically science).

I don't have a problem with girls being encouraged to explore their interests and to aspire to work in fields that have traditionally been reserved for men. I do, however, take exception to the devaluing of so-called "women's work" or "feminine interests." For the record, Calpurnia Tate is not the first book to do this; I remember reading something (sorry, can't remember what it was) in the last year or so that did the same thing. But Calpurnia is the one that brought it back to mind, so my examples will come from this book. Calpurnia, the viewpoint character girls who read this book will identify with, consistently talks trash about feminine pursuits and seems to take a certain amount of pride in being bad at all of them. She says it takes her three hours to make a pie, and then she makes fun of what a bad pie it is. The same thing is true of her tatting. She gets third prize at the fair for what she knows is a poorly-made item. When I was reading that part, I thouht, "maybe she wasn't as bad at it as she thought...maybe she's going to find something she has in common with her mother that she's ok at doing." But no. The only reason Calpurnia got third place is because there were only three entries.

Hey, people, there's as much beauty in a tatted doily as there is in an orb spider's web. And there is as much honor in being able to produce that beautiful tatted doily as there is in being able to identify the spider that spun the web.

My problem with books that take the stand on gender issues that Calpurnia Tate takes is that they perpetuate the gender divide. Stuff that guys do is interesting; stuff that girls do is boring. What preteen girl who is reading Calpurnia Tate wants to lump herself in with those boring girls like Calpurnia's friend (gosh, I've already forgotten her name!) (seriously!)? The friend may win first-place in tatting, and she may have three of Calpurnia's brothers going loony for her, but she's not very interesting. AND she has sweat on her nose - gross.

By making "masculine" pursuits the only attractive ones and by devaluing "feminine" pursuits, I think books like Calpurnia Tate are guilty of doing just what they purport to fight against - restriction of personal choice. And let's face it - the reality of the world is that someone has to cook that pie. I remember at one point while I was reading Calpurnia Tate that I became very annoyed. Calpurnia was comparing the life her mother led with the life she herself wanted. She talked about how her mother was tied down with all kinds of household chores. "But," I thought, "what's she complaining about? Viola and SanJuanna (the maids) do all the hardest work." The cooking, the washing, the cleaning - Calpurnia's mother doesn't do that. Those "feminine" chores fall to women of a lower class - the quadroon and the Latina.

I don't care if you (male or female) are a scientist. You have to eat something. You have to clean your clothes. You have to wash your dishes. Unless you don't mind living in filth, you have to clean your bathroom at some point. The joke is, men get a girlfriend to do those things. I guess a woman, if she's well-paid enough, hires another woman (who will be paid considerably less). And before anyone pipes up and says a person can eat at McDonald's, I'm going to point out that when you eat at McDonald's, you are indirectly hiring that person to cook for you - at minimum wage.

So what's my gripe? I would like to see a story sometime about a girl who aspires to be a scientist, or a doctor, or a political figure who embraces rather than rejects the feminine gender roles. I'd like to see a story about a boy who learns to make a pie or a loaf of bread at the same time he's learning to hunt and fight. I don't think those roles are mutually exclusive. Our literature for young people shouldn't make it seem that they are.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Literary Equivalent of a Casserole

When I was a teen during the 70s, and Crock-pots were new, there was a casserole recipe for the slow cooker that was featured at just about every family get-together for a while. The casserole was called Panama Johnny Hash, and it featured a long list of tasty ingredients: browned ground beef, cheese, several "cream of" soups, noodles, onions, and probably some other things I've forgotten. Sounds pretty good, huh? The problem is, once all those good things were put together, Panama Johnny Hash was really sort of nondescript, with no one flavor that really stood out and gave the dish character.

As I drew near the end of Jacqueline Kelly's book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I came to think of it as the Panama Johnny Hash of the books I've read lately. The book, which is a 2010 Newberry Honor book, has a lot of good ingredients: a spunky heroine, an interesting setting (both in terms of time and place), some important themes (more on that later), some beautiful descriptive passages, some moments that really ring true with rural life. However, if I'm going to be honest, I have to say nothing about this book rose from the mix and stood out in my mind as THE distinctive ingredient. I was left feeling unsatisfied, and as is my manner, I want to try to figure out why.

I guess the thing that bothers me most is that I can't identify the overall message of the book. Maybe this is a false notion, but I feel that when a reader has invested the amount of time it takes to read a book (I'm talking a serious book, here, not one of those pulp novels meant for nothing but entertainment), he or she should be able to bring away some nugget of truth about life. I have a feeling Ms. Kelly wanted the "truth nuggest" for this book to be something about how limited the life choices for girls used to be (see? I can't even put into a sentence what that "something" is). Calpurnia is not interested in the traditional "girl" activities; she wants to be a scientist like her grandfather. Yet at the end of the book, we are left wondering just what Calpurnia is going to do. (Spoilers!) On Christmas Eve, her parents give her a book called The Science of Housewifery, and she is crushed.

"...there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl. My life sentence had been delivered by my parents. There was no pardon or parole. No aid from any corner. Not from Granddaddy, not from anybody....Great fatigue washed over me like a tidal wave, drowning my anger. I was too tired to fight anymore."

Later, on New Year's Eve, she makes a list of the things she wants to see in her life, but even as she reads them to the rest of the family, she felt "vaguely melancholy." The next morning, though, there's snow -- a very unusual sight in that part of Texas -- and Calpurnia runs out into it, and concludes

"My feet were turning into blocks of ice, and I realized I was exhausted...It was the first morning of the first day of the new century. Snow blanketed the ground. Anything was possible."

So....does that mean she's not too tired to fight anymore? Does that means she's going to keep fighting against the social roles that tighten around her like a corset? Probably. But I can't be sure. That one sentence - "Anything was possible" - is not enough, mixed in with the context of observing a coyote in the snow, and wondering about the finches, and having cold feet, and seeing her grandfather in the window. If that was meant to be THE message, it just blends in to everything else, like the melted cheese in Panama Johnny Hash.

There are other instances of the same kind of thing. The word "evolution" in the title leads me to believe Callie is going to undergo some kind of change and become something new and better. I don't really think that happens, unless it hinges on that "Anything was possible" sentence. The word also makes me think there is going to be some link to Darwin's theory of evolution. Sure, Calpurnia's grandfather teaches her about "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection." Sure, every chapter begins with a short epigraph from Darwin's Origin of the Species. But for most of those epigraphs, I didn't see a connection to the content of the chapter; it was more like the epigraph was put there to be Meaningful (if you know what I mean).

My biggest problem is that this book couldn't seem to decide what it wanted to be. Is it a book about a girl who chafes against the restrictions of late 19th-century life and wants to be a scientist? Sort of. But then there are several chapters that have nothing to do with that theme. Several chapters make me think the book wants to be one of those funny collections of stories about a quirky Southern family. Some parts make me think the book wants to be about growing up and realizing you won't be living in the same house forever and wanting to hold on to that. Some parts make me think the book wants to be about a girl who comes to have a close relationship with her grandfather. (Actually, that's the "flavor" that stands out most to me.) Any one of those themes is great, but having all of them in there together really makes it hard for one to predominate and give the book its character.

I read something last week that said everything in a book should support and underscore the theme. Anything that doesn't contribute in some way to conveying the message of the book should be left out. I think that's why I'm not satisfied with Kelly's book. There's so much, so many competing flavors, that I'm left feeling full, but without any real sense of what it was I ate.