Monday, January 31, 2011

The Things a Brother Knows

I just finished Dana Reinhardt's The Things a Brother Knows, and it's one of those books that I'm just so happy it's in the world. Wow, that's an incredibly awkward sentence, but it's the truth. I have so many students with parents/siblings/cousins overseas, and The Things a Brother Knows is about the little brother of a soldier who comes home fucked up after three years in... probably Iraq, but unnamed. It was awesome--so much about the people, so little about "right" and "wrong." Highly recommended.

And did I mention, it's beautifully written? Reinhardt gets it so right. This is a novel about a boy and his brother the fucked-up soldier, but like all fabulous books, it's about a lot more:

"One of the things about walking I always appreciated is the way you don't have to look someone in the eye."

"I hold her against me. Her skin on my skin. Her chest pressed against mine. It's the single most amazing feeling in all of human history. Nothing has ever felt better, and I don't care if anything else happens, or if this is all there is, because I can't imagine anything feeling better than this feels right now."

"There are parts of the adults around you you're never meant to see."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

I think some version of this post will be in issue #2 of my zine, The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines. Ursula Nordstrom isn’t on my list of my hundred most influential authors. However, she was an editor working with so many writers on my list, including (but perhaps not limited to) Russell Hoban, Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Shel Silverstein, E.B. White, and Louise Fitzhugh. Many of the books that were so important to me as a kid, and continue to be so important to me, might not exist if it wasn’t for her.

Someone mentioned The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom on the amazing children's lit listserv I'm on, and the library doesn't own it, but it seemed worth buying, so I did. And I read it in a week, with fiction going at the same time! It was captivating, and it was a book I’ll be glad to own and refer to—I’ve found that it’s good to own poetry, essays, and volumes of letters, though I’ve decided that most general fiction and non-fiction can be gotten from the library. I tend not to buy a book for myself unless I’ve already read it and I’m sure I’ll read it again, plus usually I want to loan it out.

Nordstrom was the director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls (Harper Junior Books as of 1968) from 1940 to 1973, and she worked for Harper's in the Children's Books department from 1931 on, retiring in 1973 but continuing to work as a "senior editor" until 1980, and then retiring fully.

She discovered Maurice Sendak in 1950 when he was "a self-described 'twenty-two-and-a-half'-year-old, working in the window display department of F.A.O. Schwartz" (footnote, page 41)--their meeting was arranged by the store's children's book buyer, Frances Chrystie, a long-time friend of Nordstrom’s.

The first letter in the book is Nordstrom's note to Laura Ingalls Wilder when Nordstrom was still the assistant for the editor, just having finished her first jacket copy ever, for On the Banks of Plum Creek. Later in a letter to another writer, talking about why Harper reissued all the Little House books with illustrations by Garth Williams, she mentions that when they’d done an exhibition about the Little House books, she’d asked Mrs. Wilder to send “anything she thought would be of interest. She sent us Pa’s fiddle! I stood in the middle of the department holding Pa’s fiddle and hardly able to believe it!” Included in the book of letters are many exchanges with Garth Williams, including bits about arguments she had with people at Harper's over carbon pencils, offset printing vs. letterpress, and suchlike. It’s wonderful. Williams did the illustrations not only for the Little House books as I know them, but for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and many others. Apparently when he did the illustrations for the Little House books, he and his wife and their kids “made the long and careful trip through Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, all the Wilder country.”

Nordstrom also worked with Margaret Wise Brown on Goodnight, Moon and many other titles, and she started working with John Steptoe when he was still in high school, corresponding at times with his mother when he wouldn’t respond to her letters and phone calls. She published two young adult novels about the “black experience” by a Jesse C. Jackson in the 1940’s and 1950’s—Call Me Charley, published 1945, was “among the first novels for young readers to address the issue of racism in contemporary American society” (footnote). She also edited and published I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip., by John Donovan, which according to Leonard Marcus, the editor of the letters, “included the first reference, in a book for young adults, to the homosexual experience.” She published M.E. Kerr and many other controversial writers—I didn’t know, until I read this, just how controversial Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web and other books had been when first published. In a letter to George Woods, long-time children’s book review editor at the New York Times and as well as a children’s book writer published by Harper’s, Nordstrom talks about a review of Sounder published in the Times that questions the book’s appropriateness for children and raises questions about its treatment of violence and attitudes toward moral outrage (paraphrased from the editor’s summary of the review), and she says, “You have remarked that I have never complained to you about any review, or the lack of any review. And I don’t intend to start now. But oh is there any prettier sight in the world than the sight of someone sticking their neck OUT???” And this is why I say that these books that were so important to me as a child might not exist if not for her.

She got outraged by much hullabaloo over the naked boy in Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, responding to a letter from someone at an elementary school in this way:

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! . . . Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? . . . I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

A few months later, she issues a press release responding to censorship of In the Night Kitchen, specifically an item that appeared “without any editorial comment” in School Library Journal saying that a librarian in Louisiana had anticipated patrons’ discomfort with the naked little boy in the book and had “solved the problem by diapering the little boy with white tempura paint.” The writer of the news item goes on to suggest that “Other librarians may wish to do the same,” a suggestion which horrified Nordstrom—she makes an important distinction between a private individual who might do whatever he wants to a book he owns, but “it is an altogether different matter when a librarian disfigures a book purchased with public funds—thereby editing the work of the author—and then presents this distortion to the library’s patrons.”

Apparently Nordstrom also had a hand in the creation of Free to Be You and Me, the record of which was an essential part of my childhood; in a letter to Mary Rodgers, author of Freaky Friday and many other novels, she says, “The great Shel Silverstein told Marlo Thomas the great Marlo Thomas to look me up while she is in NY making a t.v. special" (sic).

Russell Hoban had initially envisioned Frances as a vole; Nordstrom wrote to him asking if Frances couldn't be something a little less mousy, and Garth Williams, who illustrated the first Frances book (the others were illustrated by Hoban's wife, Lillian) had the idea to make her a hedgehog.

Nordstrom herself had a “long-time companion,” Mary Griffith. Before reading this book, I had no idea that Margaret Wise Brown and Louise Fitzhugh were also lesbians. Maurice Sendak is gay, too, which is not mentioned in here but which I learned from a New Yorker profile of him. All of this is interesting--did Nordstrom help queer children’s lit? Which is to say, children’s literature would certainly not have been as cutting-edge without Ursula Nordstrom. How much did her sexuality shape/influence her worldview, and how much did it make her open to writers others might not have taken the time to nurture? Not that there were so many others, anyway, it seems—children’s lit developed into what it became in large part because of her contributions. I am sure she was not the only smart thoughtful editor interested in publishing, as she put it, “good books for bad children.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I just finished Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi--I'd read good things about it so put it on hold at the library, and it was high on my to-read list, but when it won the Printz award for 2011, I knew I wouldn't be able to renew it, so I read it next.

Okay, I might've anyway. It looked really good. Set in the future, taking place in what used to be the Gulf Coast of the U.S. but is now just the Gulf Coast, the main character is Nailer, a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. When asked how old he is, he says, "I don't know how old I am. But I made it onto light crew, and I made quota every day. That's what matters where I come from. Not your stupid age." Nailer works as a "ship breaker," stripping wire and other salvageable material from the oil tankers that are washed up on shore where he lives. He is surviving, barely, but he is surviving.

He has adventures. Stuff happens. It's a page turner and one of those books you want to read in every spare moment to find out how it will end.

One of the things I love most about it, though, one of the things that makes it more than a good story, is what Nailer learns (the conclusions he comes to?) about family over the course of the story. His father is a drug addict and a murderous asshole, but a wise half-man (part of a strong and quick race of slaves created by scientists from the genes of dogs, tigers, hyenas, and humans) tells him, "You are no more Richard Lopez [his father] than I am an obedient hound. Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe."

Nailer thinks later about family:
Family. It was just a word. ... But it was a symbol, too. And people thought they knew what it meant. People used it everywhere. ... It was one of those things everyone had an opinion about--that it was what you had when you didn't have anything else, that family was always there, that blood was thicker than water, whatever.

But when Nailer thought about it, most of those words and ideas just seemed like good excuses for people to behave badly and think they could get away with it. Family wasn't any more reliable than marriages or friendships or blood-sworn crew, and maybe less. His own father really would gut him if he ever got hold of him again; it didn't matter if they shared blood or not. ...
But Nailer was pretty sure that Sadna would fight for him tooth and nail, and maybe even give up her life to save him. Sadna cared. Pima cared.

The blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies.
Also, over the course of the novel, Nailer learns to read--this is important when he goes off into the world and finds another job, though at first it seems like a waste of time. Also, he is offended when others view his illiteracy as a weakness on his part. Then reading becomes something he just does without thinking about it, and at the moment when he realizes that: "Nailer was amused that he could actually make out the meanings now. He was going to drown, but hey, he could read." It's handled in such a delicate way--not preachy, just matter-of-fact. I feel like I should have more to say about that but I don't, right now.

This is a great book. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 10, 2011

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham Part 2

I finished Michael Cunningham's latest. I liked it more after finishing it, but I still wasn't blown away.

I do like that a "second-rate" artist represented by the art gallery owned by the main character is a Bard alum: "a kind and rather feckless young man named Bock Vincent, three years out of Bard, who lives with his much older girlfriend in Rhinebeck [although I don't think they'd live in Rhinebeck] and who is able, in a somewhat limited way, to talk about wrappings and bindings and their relationship to holiness..." Later it is said that "He was an oddball (even by Bard standards) when Peter met him.... Bard took a gamble on him. As did Peter."

But if the thing I like most is that my alma mater makes a random, somehow meaningful appearance and helps to define a secondary character who sort of represents the main character's disenchantment with his work? That doesn't say much for the book.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

I'm reading Michael Cunningham's latest because it was on the shelf at the library in the "Lucky Day! Hot titles. Available now" section so I figured why not. It's sort of irritating me, in an engaging way. I went looking up reviews and this, from the Washington Post review, is nicely put: "With its eroticized reflections on modern aesthetics and liberal guilt, it's like watching a bi-curious college professor annotate an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue." Cunningham's (or rather, his character's?) comments on art are interesting. What's also interesting is that I read the Washington Post and New York Times reviews and they are as different as if they were reviews of different novels, I think. I don't want to read more reviews, at least not until I finish the book. Then maybe I'll have more to say. But I might not. There's not much there. Like I said, it's engaging, but it's not something I have to think about a lot, not a book I'll be turning over in my head as I'm falling asleep. Probably not a book I will think of again in six months, five years, ten years, and be like, "Oh, that's like--" or "Oh, what was that novel where--"