Hit It and Quit It

Do you guys watch The Big Bang Theory? Raj and the guys decide one “Anything Can Happy Thursday” that they’re going to go pick up women at a bar. They’re going to hit it and quit it. Except they’re Raj and the guys, so the end up back at the comic book store.

That’s kind of how I am with the past few books I’ve started. I just haven’t been able to commit.

First, I started The Old Tobacco Shop. It’s is (yet another!) 1922 Newberry Honor book. I got about 30% through it, and just quit. It’s kind of annoying, and the plot is kind of aimless (and not in the quirky-fun Alice in Wonderland kind of way). I’m going to give it another go for Big World, Young Feet, but I’m definitely not excited about it.

When The Old Tobacco Shop fizzled, I picked up Shane Jone’s Light Boxes, thinking maybe I just needed a break from books older than my grandmother. But even though this (annoyingly) postmodern novella is only 150 pages, I could only manage half of it. The story sounded interesting enough–a town in consumed by endless February, and they try to rally against the evil being causing endless winter (also named February) to rescue their stolen children and bring sunshine back. But I just can’t get past the distracting page breaks,  weird “artistic” interjections, and the fact that each character is narrated with exactly the same tone.

I don’t like not finishing books, and I’ll almost definitely pick up both of these to finish them, however begrudgingly. My dad and husband, on the other hand, don’t worry about finishing books if they’re not liking them. “If you’re not enjoying it,” my dad says, “why waste your time?”

What about you? Do you finish books no matter what? Or do you jump to something you’ll enjoy more?

In Which Magic Men Do Really Cool Things

I wanted to like The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles. I really, really did. It had everything a good story should have–adventuring men, strong women, cool monsters, surprise and suspense and even a little bit of moral didacticism. 

Or maybe, it almost had these things.

Padriac Colum’s The Golden Fleece is a retelling of the mythology surrounding Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, a task that would reclaim Jason’s father’s kindgom from a cowardly, illegitimate ruler. You remember that from high school, right? Because I didn’t. I remember very little from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which, I’m willing to bet, is most people’s experience with Greek mythology. The Golden Fleece isn’t as comprehensive as Mythology, or many other compendiums I’ve seen, and I really appreciate that about the book. Colum seems (to me, anyway, but like I said, I remember very little Greek mythology) to be taking several disparate mythologies and weaving them together in a cohesive narrative. Sure, the novel’s about Jason and his quest, but because he has all these other beefy dudes with him, we get to hear about their feats, and some of these beefy dudes love to tell stories, so we get to hear all about other quests and feats and failures, too. 

And there are a lot of cool stories here. Orpheus reclaims his love from Hades. Heracles (Hercules) does tons of well-toned badassery.  Atalanta beats man after man in a footrace, and is defeated only when someone cheats. And yes, Jason gets the fleece, but his dad dies before he can reclaim the throne, Jason gets exiled, he marries a woman who wasn’t Medea (who helped him win the fleece in the first place), but eventually gets to come back as king. What?

There’s a lot of that “and then-but then-and then again” happening. It’s easy to lose track of who is who and who is doing what. And though so much cool is happening in the narrative, it somehow manages to fall flat in too many places. So you may have a hero conquering a beast of unfathomable terror, but the writing is so passive, the tone so flat that you forget why you should care. At times, there are simply too many narratives. Perhaps that’s a result of my being a sloppy, inattentive reader, but there were several occasions in which I’d finish reading a story, only to remember that the story I’d just read wasn’t actually happening within the timeline of the Argonaut’s narrative.

And I wish I could have loved the characters more. I’m not sure if it was just a lack of character development, or a further result of a completely neutral tone, but I found it incredibly difficult to engage with these characters. And I wanted to, especially the women of this novel. They weren’t, by any means, flat characters or objects. Women definitely had a place in this story–they fought right alongside the men, and many of them earned their own stories-within-the-story. But ultimately, the characters fell as flat as the story did.

One thing I really liked about this book, and this is going to be really silly, were the illustrations. They were simple line drawings that somehow managed to echo both a vision of ancient Greece and the 1920s/art deco style. The simplicity of them allows you to fill in the details present in your own imagination. 

So in the end, as much as I hate to say it, I was aching to be done with this one. And after two books set entirely in the past, I’m quite looking forward to the present.

What’s your experience with Greco-Roman mythology? Who’s your favorite hero?

An Everlasting Story?

I did it. I finished The Story of Mankind. The first Newberry Medal winner. 

In many ways, The Story of Mankind embodies so many of the things the Newberry Medal has come to stand for: a celebration of where we’ve come from, a look to the future, the exploration of relationships between events and people, and perhaps most of all, the hope that we can learn something to make our world a better place.

The Story of Mankind certainly reaches for those things, and in many ways, delivers. As a history, Hendrick Willem van Loon’s book of course looks backwards, but at every turn, he works to make connections to the present and to the future. van Loon seems genuinely hopeful for America’s future, despite that the history he’s accounted is full of war, death, and despair. van Loon believes in heroes, adventure, discovery, and justice, and his celebration of these things echoes even the earliest of American literature.

Perhaps the most successful aspects of The Story of Mankind  is van Loon’s constant reminders to the reader that though they read a history, they live in the present. Granted, van Loon’s “present” for most of the book is at the lastest, 1921 (I read a later edition, but still, the author’s “present” didn’t extend much past WWII), but his goal seems to be to remind his readers to learn from their history rather than simply judge it. My favorite examples of this comes in his Napoleon chapter:

‘Here I am,’ he writes, ‘sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily with books, with one eye on my typewriter and the other on Licorice the cat, who has a great fondness of carbon paper, and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person. But should I happen to look out of the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the endless procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and should I hear the sound of the heavy drums and see the little man on his white horse in his old and much-worn green uniform, then I don’t know, but I am afraid that I would leave my books and the kitten and my home and everything else to follow him wherever he cared to lead.’ (van Loon 352)

van Loon also encourages his readers to recognize the mistakes we make in the present as simple reincarnations of mistakes made decades or centuries earlier. For example, in his chapter about the tendency of scientists to be scorned and their work feared, van Loon mentions the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which “Mr. Bryan is addressing a vast multitude on the ‘Menace of Darwinism,’ warning his hearers against the errors of the grate English naturalist” (van Loon 429). He explains the cause of the American Great Depression as because “few of the men who had waxed prosperous and influential in [the 1920s] ever found the time to read their history books. If they had they would have learned that those who wish to enjoy greater privilege must also assume greater responsbility. Otherwise the national apple-cart overturns” (van Loon 487).

But despite The Story of Mankind‘s many successes,  van Loon’s tome fails to satisfy wholly. It starts out as a history of the world, but even after only a quarter of the way through, it becomes only a history of Europe (and by extension, the United States). Smaller, non-European countries are only mentioned if they were a European colony. The Story of Mankind is largely a male history, and I think this might be as much a product of its time as it is anything else. The history’s length is also problematic. I’m a very fast reader, and The Story of Mankind took me nearly 8 weeks to finish. The chapter-length, language, and tone were quite approachable, but the text simply didn’t offer anything completely unique to keep me engaged. In many ways, The Story of Mankind is simply a well-written history text, showing its age and prejudices to its modern audience.

What old book have you read that still feels relevant? What new favorite of yours should stand the test of time?

Reading Lately

I scoured our going-out-of-business Borders last week, and got some great books to read when I’m not trying to plow through the last 200 pages of The Story of Mankind.

  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  • Milkweed, Jerry Spinelli
  • The Sign of the Beaver, Elizabeth George Speare (got this one for Big World, Young Feet!)
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin (I studied at the University of Mississippi–Tom Franklin teaches creative writing there. Never took a course from him, but this novel has gotten lots of praise)
  • The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia?, Edward Albee (LOVE this play. Dustin and I saw an amazing production of it on Valentine’s Day a few years ago, and yes, it was exactly as weird for Valentine’s Day as you think it would be).
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini
  • Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonigal

I finished Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story on a roadtrip a few days ago.

Coraline was…  engaging. It was definitely a wonderful book, and a truly imaginative story. I didn’t connect with it as much as I would like to, but I’m definitely glad I read it. It’s a little spooky, at times funny, and the characters certainly well written.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story was delightful. So uplifting and funny and memorable. I fell in love with Craig and his friends at 6 North. And it was such a relief, a joy, to read a happy story. I loved Vizzini’s ability not to overdramatize teen depression. Obviously, it’s a serious matter, but Vizzini didn’t try to hype up the emotions when it wasn’t appropriate. The story was powerful and hopeful, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

What have you been reading lately?

The Story of Mankind, So Far

First thoughts: this book is LONG.

I’ve read long books before, and 540 pages is shorter than Harry Potter. But somehow, Hendrick van Loon’s The Story of Mankind seems so much longer than 540 pages.

The book begins with the concept of infinity–an illustration not usually used in history texts, but I liked it.From there, the progression through The Story of Mankind is pretty standard. It takes readers from prehistory through contemporary events, in this case, through the development of the United Nations. It’s my understanding that the author periodically added chapters after its original publication; I’m reading the 1954 edition. 

 

The chapters are short, which I find so helpful in getting through a dense history. And the writing style is so, so great. Van Loon writes clearly, concisely, and in such a way that I finally understand the battles over Mesopotamia. Van Loon’s history strikes the balance between thorough and succinct, nuanced and digestible.

And there are pictures! Drawn by the author himself.

Illustrations help you imagine what things looked like. Maps and diagrams help you understand battles, movements, and geography when text might not be enough. I’ve read van Loon’s history up until the beginnings of the Renaissance so far, and I’m looking forward to finishing up the rest of his book. Favorite excerpt so far? “The history of man is the record of a hungry creature in search of food” (van Loon 22).

Would you read The Story of Mankind?

 

 

 

Visualizing

Stopped off at a Barnes and Noble today to get a birthday gift for my hubby, and just had to walk through the kid’s section. Doesn’t B&N have the best kid’s section? It was my favorite as a kid, and now, too.

They had a shelf dedicated to Newberry winners. I’m going to read these! So excited about this.

Oh, and doesn’t that recommended age sign crack you up? Clearly, I’m not one for following the rules.

And an update about The Story of Mankind: I’m about 40% through it. Man, this is a LONG book. A full “so-far” post is coming later today or tomorrow, so look out for it.

What was your favorite Newberry winner as a kid? I see Number the Stars up there, I loved that one.

 

“It was my first glimpse of the big world.” -HWvL

Source

Since 1922, the author of the best American children’s book of the year earns the Newberry Medal. A similar honor, the Caldecott Medal, is given to the illustrator of the best picture book, and has been awarded since 1938. Many of the Newberry and Caldecott winners live in our memories as our favorite childhood books. Many of them may be entirely new to us.

I want to read these books. All of them. Including the runners up.

I’ve been a bookworm since I began reading. And even as an adult, children’s books have remained my favorite books. And why not? Books written for children are magical. Beautiful. Devastating. Honest. Humble. Fun. And they teach us something (which is not always the same thing as educational).

The first winner of the Newberry Medal was Hendrick Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, an illustrated “history of the world” book. In that book’s forward, van Loon writes about climbing “to the top of the tower” of St. Laurenskerk church in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (xix). Climbing to the top, and taking in the city from that height “was [his] first glimpse of the big world” (van Loon xxi). And isn’t a good children’s book just that?  They take us to the top of something, and we understand better.

After his first visit to the tower, van Loon went back to the top of the tower at every opportunity. He writes that understanding history is like climbing that tower. “It is no easy task,” he wrote “to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done” (van Loon xxii).

It is not history I am trying to understand, though children’s books often teach us aspects of history that other books cannot. But I do not doubt that I will “get the benefit of the full view” by reading these medal-winning books. The world is big, but my feet are young, it can be done.

Read along with me, and “When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm” (van Loon xxii).