Friday, May 28, 2010

Nothing New under the Sun

It's funny how sometimes what's going on in the real world and what's going on in my fictional world have something to say to each other. That just happened with the latest book I read, The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli.

King is the story of Beniamino, a nine-year-old Jewish boy living in Italy with his mother and extended family. Beniamino is illegitimate, which simply adds to the problems his mother faces as a Jew in trying to find work. The story begins when she has made a desperate decision - she gets Beniamino passage as a stowaway on a cargo ship heading to America. The catch? He's going alone (although he doesn't know it).

 On the passage, Beniamino gets a new name, Dom, from the sailors. When he gets to Ellis Island, he manages to escape being taken to an orphanage - but the alternative is living on the streets alone, speaking no English. Fortunately, Dom is a clever boy, and through a combination of initiative and people skills, he forms a partnership with a couple of other street boys to start a business selling sandwiches. The business thrives and at the end, Dom realizes that although his mother may have been cruel by sending him off on his own, she at least tried to help him by sacrificing to buy him a pair of shoes that saved him several times by giving the impression that he was a "somebody."

This book made me interested in reading more about the immigrant experience. Dom lived on the streets, sleeping in a barrel (until it was taken away by trash collectors) and eating whatever he could get. Yet he had it much better than the boys who were slaves to the padrone system, whose parents had indentured them in exchange for the price of a ticket to America. The interesting thing about the story is that it apparently is based on the experiences of Napoli's grandfathers. Dom may have been a character in a novel, but how many real "Doms" came into this country?

I was reading this book while reaction to the new immigration law in Arizona was being covered in news reports, and I realized again "there's nothing new under the sun." Right now, this country is struggling with attitudes toward illegal Mexican immigrants. But this struggle is nothing new. In Dom's story, the Italians see themselves as oppressed by their Irish bosses - the Irish even get to sit upstairs in the Catholic church while the Italians sit in the basement. That's in 1892. But 50 years earlier, it was the Irish who were the "undesirables" as they came to the United States to escape the potato famine.  And in the story, even though the Italians may be near the bottom of the social ladder, they still manage to find someone - the Chinese - to look down on as socially inferior. It seems to me that immigration has always been a hot button issue in this country. I read somewhere once that immigration to the United States happened in waves; first were the English and Scots and Germans, then the Irish, then southern Europeans, then eastern Europeans, then Russians (forgive me if I have the order wrong, please). Now it's the Mexicans. Each group came in to inital hostility and some degree of persecution. But eventually those groups assimiliated into the nation's culture (or the nation's culture expanded to include the group's identity) and they then became part of the establishment that looked with hostility on the next wave. It makes me wonder if the same thing won't be true of Mexicans in another 25-50 years.

I seriously would like to find some more stories about immigrants, and unlike the immigrants themselves, I have no prejudice about the national origin of the characters.  Anybody have suggestions?

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Marketing Mystery (to me, anyway)

Well, once again, we were killing time between the end of school and an after-school function. (It sort of stinks living 20+ miles away from the kids' school.) So once again, we spent that time in the local Hastings store. (I guess living 20+ miles from the kids' school doesn't stink that badly.) I was perusing the middle-grade aisle while my daughter was ooing and ahhing over the stuffed tiger in the little kids' area. What I saw was typical stuff, the Newberry winners and honor books sharing shelf space with the many fantasy series and the books about horses and girls who go to schools with horses. And then I saw it.

Robinson Crusoe.

I picked it up, thinking it might be one of those "abridged classics" reworked for children (although it was pretty thick).  But no, it was the original work, in Defoe's antique English. I thought it seemed like an odd choice to have in the middle-grade aisle, but I know the placement was deliberate, because there were two copies. Oh, well, it's an adventure story, sort of like Treasure Island, which has long been read to and by children. So I guess the placement wasn't too strange.

I moved on down the aisle, and there I saw Wuthering Heights (again, two copies).

What is going on here???!!! Who in their right mind thinks enough kids my daughter's age (she's 11) are going to want to read classics like Robinson Crusoe and Wuthering Heights that it warrants shelving those books in the middle-grade area? Even if they made it through the language style (which I sincerely doubt, because I had serious trouble at times keeping my mind from wandering while I was a college student majoring in English), you can't tell me 11-year-olds have the maturity to understand Wuthering Heights. I could see placing these titles in the young adult section at the front of the store, but I'm just mystified by the thought that pre-teens are expected to choose those books.

Although, come to think of it, one of my friends told me last night that her son (also 11) is reading Moby Dick. She said he told her he chose it because it's "thick." The kid is a reading machine, and I know he will have no problems understanding the words in the book. But I just have to wonder if the symbolism and themes that make Moby Dick an American classic are going to fly right over his head and the book will be nothing but a long fish story.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Last night while watching the severe weather reports to see if anything was coming our way, I happened on this entry on Nathan Bransford's blog. Nathan posed the question, "If you could pick one fictional world/setting/time period to live in, which one would it be?"

I pondered for a while what my response would be, and as I ran through my mental list of things I've read, I was overwhelmed all over again with what a wonderful thing reading is.  Forget about the wonderful characters I've met through my reading -- my mental life has been greatly enriched by reading about places, real and imagined, and times past, present and future. I can't put an exhaustive list here, but how great is it to be able to drop in on post-WWII Germany (The Ark by Benary-Isbert), or the Musengezi River in Zimbabwe (A Girl Named Disaster by Farmer), or District 12 (The Hunger Games by Collins), or 17th-century London (I've been there several times with different guides), or Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century (my current trip - The King of Mulberry Street by Napoli), or, of course, Hogwarts Castle.  I can visit Johnson County (where I really live) during the American Civil War (Nancy Dane's books).

I left a comment on Nathan's blog saying I would like to visit pre-electrical times, but there's another benefit of reading: I can visit those pre-electrical times while sitting in an air-conditioned house drinking tea with ice cubes in it. I can go to 17th-century London without worrying about contracting black death, or to revolutionary Lexington without being shot at.

Of course, sometimes I wish Hogwarts was real and I could go learn how to do that "scourgify" command.....

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sometimes I Wonder If I'm Out of Touch with the Rest of the World.....

I finished reading Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta last night and was quite glad to be through with it, just to be honest. I was so tired of the "drama." I know it must be tough to have been abandoned by your mother. I know it's infuriating when everyone around you seems to know more about your history than you do, and no one's talking. But I thought if I saw one more line where Taylor said something to the effect of "I knew if I looked at it, a piece of me would die," I was going to go into a hysterical fit worthy of any high school drama queen.

Let me say first of all, that I'm separating the content of the message from the telling of the message. The story in and of itself was interesting (though it could have been told in about 250 pages instead of 419, imho). Who doesn't love a good mystery in which the pieces slowly come together? (although I'll admit I had the whole mystery figured out by a little past halfway through the book, and I swear this time I did not read ahead!)

I just find it really hard, though, to focus on the plot and themes when the main character was not someone I could empathize with.  I just didn't like Taylor. There, I said it.  I didn't like Jonah much, either. I didn't like Hannah much. I thought Raffy and Ben were sort of cliche' sidekick characters. Let me tell you, if there's going to be as much whining and drama as went on in this book, you've got to like somebody to be able to put up with it.  I got very annoyed at Harry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; but I already loved Harry, so I was able to bear up under his bout of self-pity and wait for him to come out of it.  I'll admit that once Taylor found out what she wanted to know, she became more bearable, and I might have even learned to like her somewhat. Of course, that was the end of the book. She was just so mean and self-centered early on that I was repelled by her character.

However......what do I know? This book was the 2009 recipient of the Michael Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.  Other bloggers describe it as "lyrical" (I thought the writing was flabby), and as "so beautiful and powerful that everything else pales in comparison," and as "intricately told and well written." I guess I just don't "get it."

Monday, May 10, 2010

"It Won't Sell" Dissected

A tidbit from the Rejectionist's blog that I thought was funny because it's probably so true:

The important thing to remember is that big publishing is owned by Satan, and what Satan cares about is money, and the prevailing sentiment in publishing is that short story collections/high fullutent literary fiction projects don't sell. (Is that even true? ... As with some other conversations we've been having about what "doesn't sell," often times "it won't sell" is shorthand in publishing for "we don't feel like trying very hard to market it/we have no idea but it seems scary/we would rather spend money giving a large advance to Lauren Conrad/people of color?!?!? WHAT!! THEY READ??!?!.")

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Word from the Target Audience

My husband's car had a flat this morning, so since I'm on sabbatical with nothing else to do (uh-huh), I got to  be the one who took it to be fixed.  The mechanic was really busy, which meant I ended up at school (I always go to the mechanic who's just down the hill from the university) with nothing to do but wait around. I went to the library and found Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. I had seen a glowing review on another site and thought it might be an interesting book to check out.

Well, it is interesting, and I'm probably going to read the whole thing since I made a pretty good start while waiting today, but what's with all these books that have some psychologically damaged, angry, rebellious teen who's been abandoned, abused, or otherwise let down by the adults in his/her life as the protagonist? I don't read a lot of "realistic" fiction, being so enamored with historical fiction, but it seems when I'm perusing the "new books for teens" emails that Amazon sends me, there is always at least one book with such a protagonist who's struggling with some major downer of an issue.

Is that what appeals to teens? I wonder.  My husband is a high school band director, so I get to observe teens interacting on a fairly regular basis (tonight, for example - their last concert of the year).  The kids in his band don't seem particularly angsty.  Of course, the kids who have the biggest life problems generally don't seem to join band (although there have been some rather sad family stories in his 20 years of teaching). But overall, these teens seem happy and full of humor and to enjoy what they are doing and being around each other, and while they don't want to hang out with adults, they seem to accept that we are people, too.

On the way home, I just had to ask.  So I turned to my son (my finger on the pulse of teen culture, ha ha) and asked him that question:  Does that kind of book appeal to teens?  His answer: he doesn't like them.  He said he'll read them if the rest of the book is "awesome" (didn't exactly define what that meant), but that he gets tired of that kind of character.  That led to a second question:  What kind of books do you like?  His answer: Rainbow 6 and Shogun.  After reminding him those are books written for adults, I asked what he liked about them.  He said he likes the "epicness" of them - the way the story develops over time.

Go figure. That flys in the face of other advice I've seen on blogs this week, that books for young adults should be no more than 80,000 words.  I wonder if it's time for young adult publishers to do some new market research?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Love at First Sight (or, You Had Me at "Dang It")

Within pages, I fell in love with the character of Jed Reston in Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It's sort of ironic, really, since a key theme of the book is how unreliable those "love at first sight" feelings are as the basis of a relationship. But as I was reading the chapter in which Jed is introduced into the story, I had this warm, happy, sort of giddy feeling - I just knew he was a character I would truly love.

That doesn't happen very often. That's not to say I don't love other characters, but usually it's more of a "come to love" type of reaction.  The character will be introduced and then as the story develops, I learn more about his/her personality and grow to be fond, or even (mildly) obsessed, with him/her. This time, though, it was sort of instanteous. How did Haddix manage it? By showing Jed in action. He's careless in his appearance and clumsy, but when that's balanced with his self-deprecating comments, it comes off as charming rather than oafish. His dialogue is a mix of the formal "speak" of the nobility (with which he is obviously uncomfortable) and his sincere, honest observations. His interaction with Ella foreshadows what we will later learn is his honorable character.  In none of this does Haddix give us a narrated description of Jed.  It's a textbook case of why showing works better than telling. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions about him -- and I bet 95 percent of the people who read the book have a reaction similiar to mine.  Well, maybe not the giddy part.

"About the faith--," Jed began.
I began giggling again and calmed myself only to start again. And again. I was a fountain of hilarity, shooting out bursts of laughter every time Jed tried to speak. At last he gave up and laughed too.

It's been a while since a chapter ending left me with a smile the way this one did.