Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rufus and Rose

Yesterday I reread an Alger. I have a long history with Horatio Alger, which I'd hoped I'd documented on this blog so I could just link to it, but the very short summary is that my father collected the novels of Horatio Alger, Junior, so they were some of my first reading material and I spent many formative years going with my dad to used book stores and book sales looking for Alger titles. I've read all of Alger's novels multiple times, and when my father killed himself fifteen years ago (fifteen years in July!), I took over the collection.

So yesterday I reread Rufus and Rose, the further adventures of Rough and Ready after Rufus, the newsboy (previously known as Rough and Ready), prevents a Wall Street banker from being robbed after overhearing the plot in an oyster saloon, and is rewarded with a position in the banker's office.

It is about as thrilling as it sounds.

Rose is Rufus's little sister. "His mother had been dead for some time. His step-father, James Martin, was a drunkard, and he had been compelled to take away his little sister Rose from the miserable home in which he had kept her, and had undertaken to support her, as well as himself. He had been fortunate enough to obtain a home for her with Miss Manning, a poor seamstress, whom he paid for her services in taking care of Rose. His step-father, in order to thwart and torment him, had stolen the little girl away, and kept her in Brooklyn for a while, until Rufus got a clue to her whereabouts, and succeeded in getting her back."

Miss Manning gets a position as governess to two little girls who are the daughters of an invalid, and Rose spends much of Rufus and Rose playing happily with these girls in Washington Park--they live on Waverly Place: "Before the up-town movement commenced, it was a fashionable quarter, and even now, as may be inferred from the character of the houses, is a very nice and respectable street, particularly that part which fronts the square." Rufus and Rose was published in 1870, and rereading it, I think the most startling thing about this book is that when otherwise engaged (in finding out why Rufus didn't come home the previous night--it was because he'd been kidnapped by Mr. Martin, of course, but Miss Manning doesn't know that), Miss Manning sends the three little girls, all under ten years old, to play in the park BY THEMSELVES. Washington Square Park.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chaos Walking

I just finished the Chaos Walking series, at the suggestion of Rebecca Ryan, who said she'd liked them maybe more than Hunger Games. I started, and sent her a message saying that "I almost quit reading it but then I started again, but I am so bothered by the Junie B. Jones spelling." She told me it made sense later, but now I'm done with all three in the trilogy and I'm still bothered by it. I understand that Todd is barely literate, and I think that's a powerful thread through the story, but I don't understand why that means that "recognize" is spelled "reckernize," when Todd says it, in the sections narrated by him, whether in his speech or in the narration. But there was one part where something was spelled funny when Todd said it, then spelled correctly when said by another character--WHY? Plus why reckernize and formayshun and creacher but not slaughter or immediately or lighted?

This clearly irritated me to distraction. I think my experience of reading the series would have been different if this hadn't been a constant irritation slapping me out of the narrative.

Last week at adult young adult book club (you can come too! the third Thursday of every month at In Other Words--join the Facebook group for more info) we talked about The Hunger Games and Graceling, and while it's been a while since I read the Hunger Games trilogy, it was nice to have a refresher before reading Chaos Walking.

It's always strange to compare fantasy worlds/dystopias, and of course it's somewhat beside the point. But one thing I did appreciate about Chaos Walking was how much the series struggled with how settlers should be dealing with the native population. In that sense, you can't compare the series to Hunger Games, which are set in a post-apocalyptic North America. Chaos Walking takes place on a recently colonized planet known as New World. Chaos Walking approaches New World from an entirely different POV than the Hunger Games approach the insanity of Panem (the country in which the books are set), and the characters in each book have such different roles to play in the futures of their worlds.

Another thing I loved about Chaos Walking was how full of hope the books kept being, in spite of themselves. How determined to make a world work for the natives and the settlers.

I could say more, but instead I'm going to go write more random freewrites, using this prompt from Writer's Digest: "Use the words from your favorite song (or the song that is stuck in your head), mix them up and write a short short story using every word." So far, I've used "Moment 4 Life" by Nicki Minaj, "I'm a Lady" by Santogold, "Coat of Many Colors," by Dolly, and "The District Sleeps Tonight," by the Postal Service, with various results. But it's a fun exercise. Today: "Pokerface," by Lady Gaga, and/or "Jackson" by Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tillerman Novels, and Writing Race

I recently started rereading Cynthia Voigt's fabulous Tillerman novels. I had read the first few when I was a young adult myself (I'm still a young adult, at 34--perhaps I read them when I was a Young Adult): Homecoming, Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, and The Runner. I loved them, and I think I read them more than once, though not in order, perhaps. However, there were apparently other novels in this sequence, and I don't think I read any of those: Come a Stranger, Sons from Afar, and Seventeen Against the Dealer, published in 1986, 1987, and 1989, respectively. The earlier books were published 1981-1985.

It was interesting to me, reading these, how dated they feel. Very early 80's. But I just read Come a Stranger, and I think Come a Stranger feels dated in a different way--it's a book a white woman wrote in 1986 with a black girl as the heroine, and it is very much about race--not only about race by any means, but the fact that Mina is black and the implications of that in her life is something she becomes aware of over the course of the novel--in that way that we become aware of such things as we grow up and venture outside our small and most familiar circles. Over the course of the book, Mina goes from the end of fifth grade (eleven?) to the end of her sophomore year of high school (fifteen?), and she figures out a lot of stuff, as one tends to during those years.

Rereading it, I was thinking about how it really stopped being okay to "write outside one's race," a term a writer friend brought up, saying, "as it was spoken of, in accusing or defensive tones, in the 1980s." She mentioned that she's been listening to the audiobook of Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, which may suggest a change. I was thinking about that and I'm not sure if it does--Chains is a historical novel, while Come a Stranger is (was) contemporary.

I asked about this on the fabulous children's list listserv I'm on, and Nisi Shawl's Writing the Other was recommended to me. The library doesn't have it, but I put an anthology she edited on hold, and I've read a couple of her essays on the subject online: Transracial Writing for the Sincere, and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation. She's talking specifically about this in the context of science fiction, but it certainly has broader applications.

And then I remembered Justine Larbalestier's Liar, and the whole thing about the cover. Micah, in Liar, is biracial--but I was like, isn't Justine Larbalestier white? I found this, in which she discusses that. (Apparently this blog post/essay first appeared on Larbalestier's site, but I found it at racialicious, and I love racialicious, so there you have it. Here's her post about the Liar cover, also reprinted at racialicious.)

I'm thinking that Larbalestier addresses race from a different POV, being Australian, and that multiracial characters pose new questions for anyone concerned with people representing only their own race.

But I know it has historically been an issue in terms of white writers depicting characters of other races, and those portrayals constituting a representation of those populations within fiction (or movies, or television...), at the expense of books (or movies, or TV scripts) by authors of color. So that as an issue makes sense. But I loved so much about Come a Stranger, and it's sad to me that it will fade into oblivion partly just because most books eventually do, but also because it is a white woman's story about a black girl, written at a moment in our cultural history when that was more appropriate, but then passing through other moments in our cultural history when that was less appropriate.

I have so many more thoughts about this, but I'm not arranging them very well or very coherently, so I'll stop for now. I'll just say this:

Shawl closes her essay "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation" with a quote from Geoff Ryman: "I think that it's a good thing for the imagination to do to try to imagine someone else's life. I see no other way to be moral, apart from anything else. Otherwise you end up sympathising only with yourself...."


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Lonely Londoners

I just read The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon, because I'm slowly making the way through the books on EC Osondu's list that was in the Guardian, his "top 10 immigrants' tales." I was briefly at Syracuse with Osondu, and his recent collection, Voice of America, was awesome. I blogged about it here back in December.

So thank you, EC, for letting me know about this book. I don't know how I would've run across it otherwise, and I'm so glad I read it.

The Lonely Londoners is written all in what I guess you'd call patois--a vernacular English spoken by the West Indians in the book and used for the narration as well. In Kenneth Ramchand's introduction to the version I read, the Wegman Carribbean Writers edition published by Pearson Education Limited, Ramchand describes Selvon's language this way: "The language of The Lonely Londoners is not the language of one stratum in the society, not the language of the people meaning 'the folk' or the peasantry, but a careful fabrication, a modified dialect which contains and expresses the sensibility of a whole society." The book has a fabulous rhythm to it and I read maybe more for the language than for the plot. There is a loose plot, but the story revolves around the experiences and routines of a group of friends in London, somewhat centered on Moses Aloetta, but mostly using him as the common thread. You get a sense of how far from home these guys are, mostly probably permanently; how they feel about those homes they've left; how they feel about what their lives in London are, and what their lives might have the potential to become; and what their daily lives and their interactions with each other are like.

I'm not doing a very good job of summarizing this. It's the stories of a bunch of immigrants, woven together and overlapping hugely.

A couple passages I really liked:
Things does have a way of fixing themselves, whether you worry or not. If you hustle, it will happen, if you don't hustle, it will still happen. Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.
What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in face, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything--sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why it is, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of thing about this and that, why it is, that in the end, everyone cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?