Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Phantom Tollbooth Tech Week, Alice in Wonderland...and Lots of Other Nonsense!

So it's tech week for our household, that time each spring when my dear husband goes into "round the clock" mode as he shepherds a couple of dozen 4th-8th graders through the final week leading up to their play performance! This year it's The Phantom Tollbooth, and while we've missed...sort of...having Smaug the Dragon in our dining room (last year's play was The Hobbit) we've enjoyed helping to paint cardboard signs to mark Milo's journey to Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. D. built the tollbooth last weekend (it has to be something that can be assembled on stage) and we're all rooting for a great performance for the kids this coming weekend. And on Sunday we'll cap everything off with a celebration of D's birthday!

We've loved The Phantom Tollbooth for years, but having D. direct the play sent us back to the book. We've enjoyed the annotated version, though it was our old paperback copy we recently read from together. Re-reading Milo's journeys in odd and faraway lands got us thinking of other classic bits of literary nonsense. And it suddenly occurred to us that the sweet girl had never met Alice in Wonderland.

She'd encountered some of the poems from Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (she memorized "How Doth the Little Crocodile" a few years ago, and we've enjoyed Jabberwocky more than once) but she'd never made the entire journey through Wonderland. We picked up a beautiful reading copy at the library, with illustrations by Allison Jay, and have been enjoying the humor and word play. The sweet girl has been inspired by Jay's artwork and has done some of her own terrific Alice sketches. One of my favorites is her version of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, which she is kindly letting me share here!

In all honesty, I've never been a huge fan of Alice, though I came to a greater appreciation of it in a college Victorian Lit. class. This time through has definitely been my favorite read, partly because we're enjoying it as a family and partly because it's eye-opening to read it on the heels of Tollbooth and to think about the similarities and differences. While there's no doubt that Juster must have had Alice in the back of his mind somewhere when he created Milo, I truly love that for Milo, the real "wonderland" turns out not to be the lands he visits in the fantasy section of the story, but his own everyday world. Alice falls into Wonderland and returns to the "dull reality" of the real world; Milo learns lessons in the land of wisdom and returns home to find true wonder, to discover that "everything looked new -- and worth trying."

Monday, April 28, 2014

From Marmee's Library: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

My daughter loves Newbery award winning books. She has expressed an ambition to one day read all of the Newbery medal books from 1922 to the present! This means I frequently find myself lurking in the library corner that houses the Newbery winners. It’s not exactly a hardship. It’s also how I’ve discovered some new gems for our read-aloud times, including the 1996 Newbery winner The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.

Now almost twelve, my daughter is tearing through books on her own, but we still have two read-aloud times: bedtime and mid-to-late morning. The latter is a school-time read and I generally try to keep it tied to something she is studying in history, science, or art. Sometimes we read biographies, but good, solid historical fiction is a big part of our morning read-aloud diet, and The Midwife’s Apprentice definitely fits that bill.

Set in an English village in the early 14th century, The Midwife’s Apprentice tells the story of a homeless girl taken in by a local midwife. She is given room and board and begins to help with the midwife’s practice, though it takes her a long while to learn the skills and even longer for her to realize that she’s learned them.

As a reader, I appreciated the way I got to grow in awareness along with the girl. You’ll notice I’ve not shared her name, and that’s because it takes a while for her to grow into one. At the story’s beginning, she literally doesn’t know who she is, and thinks of herself as “Brat” because that’s what she’s mostly been called. “You, girl,” is how the midwife first addresses her when she finds her sleeping for warmth in a dung heap. Having found her in such a place, the midwife, a very sharp woman (who happens to be named Jane Sharp) begins to call her Beetle, as in dung beetle. It’s not much of a step up from Brat. Part of the goodness of the story is watching Beetle begin to identify herself with a new name, Alyce, and then begin to realize that she’s not only worth a real name, but can continue to live and work in ways that help her to live up to a good name.

As a writer, I appreciate that Cushman doesn’t make it too easy on Alyce. Sometimes my temptation is to create characters that I’d like to hang around with in real life. My temptation here would have been to provide Alyce with a compassionate, loving mentor who took her in, became the older sister or mother she’d never had, and purposefully passed on her skills. Cushman, wisely, gives her Jane Sharp instead, “a woman neither old nor young but in between. Neither fat nor thin but in between. An important-looking woman, with a sharp nose and a sharp glance and a wimple starched into sharp pleats.” She clearly enjoyed writing that line, as she uses it again, exactly, a handful of pages later, as if to emphasize that Alyce’s first impression of the woman was solid.

Jane is not a terribly happy woman, nor a particularly kind one. She views Alyce as cheap labor and sets her to fetch and carry, though some of the fetching turns out to be for herbs, which gives Alyce some of her first understanding of a midwife’s tasks. Still, almost everything Alyce learns, she learns the hard way, the long way around. She watches everything the midwife does, sometimes sneaking up to the window of a cottage where a woman is about to give birth (Jane doesn’t usually let her stay inside to help). This means she picks up on both the skills Jane possesses and her many superstitious habits. There were plenty of those surrounding child birth in the Middle Ages, some involving religious relics and others just secular eccentric practices. Cushman packs in interesting details about these and about daily life in a medieval English village, where few people could read and hardly anyone ever bathed.

As a teacher and parent, I appreciated the details that went into building up a picture of every day life in the Middles Ages. There’s a surprising realism to this story, from the dung heap where Alyce first sleeps to the soiled straw on which many of the village women give birth to the rough ways the villagers treat one another. Alyce is bullied by both Jane and a number of the village boys. Young readers will, I think, come away with an authentic sense of life in those days, not a sanitized or over-glamorous one. It worked well to read this book in conjunction with medieval history studies around the 13th-14th centuries. Because it touches on issues like midwifery, medicinal remedies, food, and cleanliness (or lack thereof), you can easily tie it into studies of every day life or important historical issues like famine and plague.

Teachers and parents should be aware that there are a few gritty details during birth scenes, though nothing overly technical. Likewise, there’s a scene where Alyce follows Jane to figure out what secret she’s keeping, only to discover her “hugging and kissing” the baker, who is married with thirteen children. This scene is played for its humor – Alyce is so startled she falls out of a tree! – and Jane and the baker’s infidelity doesn’t come into the story again. Likewise, there’s a scene where a young couple in the village is caught “cuddling”  in the haymow, and the boy has to gather up his “breeches” before he flees. Again this is played primarily for humor, as a series of pranks that Alyce plays on the gullible villagers who are too prone to look for and blame the devil for every bit of bad behavior that anyone is engaged in. Parts of that chapter might go a little over the heads of readers on the younger end of 9-12.

Despite the fact that this is a Newbery winning novel, I’ve not been wildly impressed by my admittedly cursory look at some of the literary guides and study helps available for free online. A good round-up of what’s available, in both paid and free resources, can be found here

My favorite character quality take-away from this novel is how Alyce grows into an awareness of the importance of perseverance. Although she faces many practical obstacles, the chief conflict is inside her. She learns many things: how to work hard, how to be kind to others, how to read (yes, in a neat twist in the final third of the book, she really does)! She also learns skills that enable her to deliver a baby in an emergency, also near the end of the story. This comes after her failure to help another woman deliver a baby and her running away from the village to a work in a nearby inn. Alyce’s greatest learning is that failure doesn’t have to be the end of something. She can learn from it and try again. Surprisingly, she learns this best from the difficult and not-so-encouraging Jane, who lets her know in no uncertain terms that she needs an apprentice who won’t give up when things get hard. Waiting to see if Alyce can find the inner strength to step into that role drives the novel’s satisfying conclusion.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

In Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. I first got to know it via my grandmother who re-read it often in the final years of her life. It was easy to see how much she loved the book.

Three years after her death, I first read it for a high school class. I felt sure I would love it too …and felt terribly disappointed when I didn’t. I suspect I just wasn’t ready for the story yet. That my initial response felt flat may have also been because of my deep desire to love it for my grandmother’s sake.

Eventually I fell into the story the way I had hoped to the first time. It happened in a college class. Multiple readings and a number of movie adaptations later have left me with a definite fondness for Jane Eyre, which is what recently led me to pick up Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

I confess I was intrigued at the idea of an “updated” Jane Eyre. Homages to Austen abound, but this is the first time I’ve read an attempt to update Bronte. (I assume other attempts are out there and I’m just behind the curve.) 

 Livesey decided to bring the story into the 20th century and set it in Scotland and Iceland, both fascinating choices. Gemma, this version’s Jane, is an orphan, born to a Scottish mother and Icelandic father. When her parents pass away in her early childhood, she is brought from Iceland to Scotland by her mother’s brother. She is warmly embraced by her beloved Uncle, who makes her a part of his family, but when he dies in an accident when Gemma is only ten, her Aunt and cousins begin to treat her like a distant acquaintance. Her older boy cousin bullies her and the girls closer to her age either tease her or ignore her. Her Aunt is truly cold. Her only allies are the family cook and a sad but likable school teacher who tries to encourage her in her studies.

Gemma is smart enough, even at ten, to realize that her next years will be miserable ones if she doesn’t try to find another home. She applies and is accepted as a “working girl” pupil at a boarding school called Claypoole. Claypoole gives Bronte’s original Lowood a run for its money in coldheartedness and neglect. It felt a little harder to believe that such a school could exist in the mid-20the century (given child labor laws and so forth) but then again, sin is sin in any age, and there will sadly always be people who take advantage of vulnerable populations such as poor children.

These early sections of the novel fare well as an update of Bronte’s classic. Gemma’s Dursley-ish relatives and her difficult years at Claypoole echo Jane’s early years and yet are invested with fresh details that make Gemma’s character come alive as Gemma, not just a pale echo of Jane. Her desire for friendship, fascination with bird-watching, and interest in her distant Icelandic past make the character real and sympathetic. Although any Bronte reader can guess the contours of what’s coming – the one true friend dying at school, Gemma leaving school to become a governess on a wealthy estate – it’s still interesting to see how those contours play out in a new setting and with a character who traverses them differently than Jane.

The novel fares less well once we arrive at Blackbird Hall, the update of Thornfield. The rich and sophisticated Hugh Sinclair is this novel’s re-imagined Mr. Rochester. Like Rochester, he gets relatively few scenes and we mostly come to know him through the main character’s eyes. Unlike Rochester, he never seems all that alluring or mysterious.

This may have to do with the fact that Livesey has stepped away from the gothic sensibilities in which Jane Eyre is drenched. That’s probably a smart and even necessary move, but it means that Sinclair’s past, though not without its secrets, feels a lot less murky. He’s more a genial middle-aged man who has made mistakes and would like a renewed shot at happiness with a younger woman whose innocent strength refreshes him than a grizzled, damaged old soul who has done some awful things and finds, in an unexpected soul mate, his one chance at redemption.

I kept waiting, truly curious, for the updated big “reveal” – knowing that Sinclair couldn’t possibly have a mad wife in the attic – the moment that would shock and dismay Gemma so much that she would be compelled to run off, alone and friendless, into the modern-day equivalent of the ruthless moors. The equivalent of those moors, the streets of a Scottish city where Gemma finds herself wandering without any cash (her purse having been stolen on a bus) turn out to be an effective setting for her to do some painful but necessary growing up. It’s in that city that she meets the re-imagined St. John and his sisters, with a scholarly postman named Archie standing in for St. John. I confess I liked Archie immensely and was frustrated by the plot point employed to get him offstage and move Gemma on to her search for birth relatives in Iceland.

But I wasn’t convinced that Mr. Sinclair’s revelations about his past were sufficiently shocking enough, or carried enough weight into the present, to compel Gemma to run off from his estate, and their imminent wedding, in the first place. Bronte gave us big plot points – outer events and moral dilemmas that cause Jane to run. I couldn’t shake the sense that this novel, by contrast, relies more on Gemma’s inner emotional promptings and psychological misgivings. Despite her attraction to Mr. Sinclair, something about the potential new life with him just doesn’t feel right to her. She intuits that she hasn’t seen enough of the world or learned enough about who she is, in and of herself, to make the decision to get married.

Funnily enough, it’s this subtle move that ends up feeling like the book’s biggest departure from its source material: to me, despite hardships and emotional privations, the faith-filled Jane Eyre always feels deeply sure of her own soul, just unsure of how best to live out her love in a very broken and imperfect situation. Marriage and caring for another flawed human being are doorways for Jane, doorways that never seem to threaten or diminish her sense of self, but only provide real ways to flourish. Gemma, though highly intelligent and sensitive, feels much more insecure about who she is, and – perhaps in the book’s nod to the more contemporary ethos – worries that marrying too quickly will somehow rob her of the chance to find out.

Though the ending didn’t quite work for me, I’m still glad that I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Livesey’s lovely prose and well-drawn characters drew and kept me in the story, and though I didn’t agree with all her story choices, I was intrigued by many of them. I appreciate any novel that makes me think about narrative choices this much. I also appreciate the strength of a re-imagined classic that refuses to cling so strongly to the original that its voice feels like a weak echo. That never happens here. Though Gemma and Jane might not understand each other entirely, I definitely have a sense that, if they could ever meet, they’d find plenty to talk about.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: William Shakespeare's Star Wars

Lately I’ve been enjoying a word I don’t often use or ponder: pastiche.

Isn’t that a great word? Try it out a time or two and let it roll around your tongue. It looks like it might be pistachio flavored, but in reality it’s rather pasty. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it comes to us from French and Italian, based on the late Latin pasta, meaning (no, not spaghetti) 'paste'.

This makes sense, because a pastiche is essentially a pasting together of styles. It is (to quote the dictionary again) “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period” or “an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces taken from various sources.” I like the notion of “a medley of pieces” – somehow when that combines with the notion of “paste,” I come up with a visual image of a mosaic.

The pastiche that has me thinking about all of this is William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope. This delightful book by Ian Doescher is a 169 page iambic pentameter riff on the original 1977 Star Wars film. Think of it as the Bard of Avon with a light saber in his hand, a rumble between imperial forces and William Shakespeare and George Lucas (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”), or a mosaic picture of Darth Vader made up of thousands of tiny words. Words that make up 3,076 lines, to be precise. The author counted them, and assures us in his afterword that this is about the average length of a Shakespearean play. 

When I stumbled onto this book on our library’s new book shelves, just the thought of it made me smile. Star Wars and Shakespeare seemed like a potentially happy marriage, and in Doescher’s hands it really becomes one.  His love of and familiarity with both worlds makes the dance a smooth delight, as though Luke, Leia, Han and our other beloved Star Wars characters have just been standing in the wings of the Globe theater, awaiting their cue.

It’s a wonderful read, from C-3PO’s opening line: “Now is the summer of our happiness/Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!” to the ominous prequel-setting ending: “There let our heroes rest free from attack,/Till darkness rise and Empire striketh back.” I think what made me happiest, as I sped through it, was the delightful way the old/new form brought freshness to content I’ve known by heart for years.

The Shakespearean cadences lend extra nobility to the already noble Rebel cause. Luke’s turning to the Rebel cause, in the wake of his Aunt and Uncle’s deaths, feels truly poignant. Han’s self-preserving, scoundrel self is particularly wonderful in Shakespearean mode. When Han appears to take the money and run, in the scene prior to the Alliance’s final attack run on the death star, I love Luke’s bitter play on words “Then take thou care now, Han, thou Solo act,/For certain ‘tis the part thou best dost play” which leads into an introspective soliloquy from Han (after Luke exits). “Without the inner compass of my soul,/How can I vainly hope to pilot life?” he asks, and adds “A smuggler’s heart doth keep calm time inside,/No matter sways a pirate’s peaceful pulse./But something stirs in me I ne’er have felt:/Is this a rebel’s heart I feel within?”

Obi-Wan gets the smallest makeover, but I think that’s probably because Alec Guinness delivered all his lines with Shakespearean gravitas to begin with. Darth Vader seems darker and more tragic. R2, whose beeps fall into iambic rhythm, gets asides (in English!) that help us understand his feisty droid soul. Leia gets a “sing hey and lack-a-day” lament song for Alderaan. In short, this is a brilliant bit of pastiche.

Creative Prompts and Exercises

  • Time for you own pastiching. (And yes, the Oxford dictionary says it can be used as a verb!) Try choosing content you know well – a story or a scene from a story – but writing it in a completely different form than the original. Borrow a well-known form or voice to do it. Here are some possibilities:

Borrow the Bard’s favorite poetic cadence, iambic pentameter (an iamb is an unstressed/stressed syllable pattern; just put five together for pentameter) to write a speech from the perspective of a favorite character. This could be a re-write of an already existing speech or a quiet soliloquy spoken at a time when the character doesn’t originally speak in the story (but you have a feeling you know what’s going on in their heart and mind).

Borrow Dr. Seuss’ simple sing-song cadence and love of nonsensical words and re-write a favorite scene from a novel, short story, or fairy-tale.

Borrow a classical fairy-tale form (read Grimm, Perrault, Andersen stories for inspiration) and re-tell a non fairy-tale, perhaps a contemporary, modern story, in that mode.

Choose any writer whose style you find distinctive and enjoyable to emulate and give this exercise a whirl. Hemingway’s short, jabbing sentences; Tolkien’s meandering yet purposeful world-building prose; Bronte’s gothic or weather-drenched atmosphere making; Lewis’ kind-uncle story-telling narrator voice in Narnia – choose one of these or another writing voice you know and love well, and try telling a completely different story through it. Feel free to borrow liberally from your source materials – familiar words, phrases, story moments, plot devices. They won’t mind. (At one point, Doescher has Luke hold up a stormtrooper’s helmet and exclaim “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,/Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life/From thee…”)

Doescher paired Star Wars and Shakespeare because, despite their vast differences, he saw similarities in them (especially in the way Star Wars utilized “archetypal characters and relationships”). You may want to make a similar choice – maybe a modern character you love has always seemed ready to walk into the pages of a Dickens novel – or you may want to try unusual pairings that don’t seem to have anything in common at first glance. Who knows? You might discover connections between them or new nuances in character. At the very least, you’ll have fun!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tax Day...and Mary Oliver's "Dog Songs"

The beautiful book find of yesterday: Mary Oliver's Dog Songs, just sitting there waiting for me on the new book shelves at our little library here in town. If it could have wagged its tail in friendly greeting, it would have.

I scooped it up happily and brought it home, but a very busy day (lots of work deadlines right now) meant that I didn't open it until late last night. It was past midnight, in fact, and I was bleary eyed from working but in need of winding down before sleep. I started at the beginning and smiled my way through several poems, but then flipped through at random, which is how I discovered "Percy Speaks While I Am Doing Taxes."

Knowing that in a few short hours I would be crawling out of the warm covers to do my local taxes before the deadline, I turned to the poem -- and laughed aloud. I love the picture Oliver paints of her patient dog waiting for her to finish this "essential" task so they can get on to the truly important business of taking a walk. I love that her own words feel like thoughts and the dog's speech gets the solidity of quotation marks.

Percy, I say, this has to be done. This is
essential. I'll be finished eventually.

"Keep me in your thoughts," he replies. "Just because
  I can't count to ten doesn't mean 
I don't remember yesterday, or anticipate today.
I'll give you ten more minutes," and he does. 
  Then shouts--who could resist--his
    favorite words: Let's go! 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Granola Bars. Really Good Ones.

Yes, granola bars. I don't often post recipes on my blog, but this one, originally posted at Smitten Kitchen (and which I've been meaning to try for a while) was a definite hit. For some reason, I was pretty sure that homemade granola bars would be hard to make and that I wouldn't make them well, and neither of those things turned out to be true.

These are in fact very yummy. I especially liked that I could throw together whatever I happened to have on hand to make the 2-3 cups of dry ingredients. One reason I wanted to make these now was that my sister recently sent us a little gift of dried fruit, and I thought it would be fun to use it to provide some variety in the bars. It worked beautifully. I cut up some of the dried apricots, pears, and even prunes (the sweet girl nixed the dates, as she doesn't like them much) and then threw in raisins we had on hand and also some dried cranberries and a few dried cherries. I added in some really good shredded coconut from Bob's Red Mill and we tossed in some good sesame seeds for good measure. Oh, and we had cashews on hand and I chopped those up and added them as well. Bob's Red Mill Oats were our base, and I pulsed some of them in the blender to make oat flour (which also worked great).

It suggests baking them for 20-30 minutes. I left them in closer to 30 minutes, not wanting to underbake, but I think 20 is probably a better idea. They may seem too soft at 20, but close to 30 (at least in my oven) made them a little too crunchy. Of course, even crunchy these are really, really good!

The sweet girl and I are already planning to try another batch with different combinations of things -- maybe peanut butter (which we didn't use this time around) and chocolate chips. Tonight's bars were only mildly sweet and the cranberries and sesame seeds gave them more of a tart/healthy feel than a decadent dessert one. Again, I like that this is a basic and very adaptable recipe.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Lenten Reading: Pondering St. Augustine

For part of my Lenten reading this year, I've been working my way through the devotional readings in Bread and Wine, published by Orbis Books. This is a richly diverse collection of readings from Christians of various traditions and across a number of years. It has a lot of my favorite writers in it (one of the reasons it caught my eye) but has also been introducing me to some writers I didn't know as well. It's also giving me lots of food for heart and mind from some of the classic writers of Christian devotion.

This was part of this morning's reading, from St. Augustine's Confessions:

"The Maker of man was made man, that the Ruler of the stars might suck at the breast; that the Bread might be hungered; the Fountain, thirst; the Light, sleep; the Way, be wearied by the journey; the Truth, be accused by false witnesses; the Judge of the living and dead, be judged by a mortal judge; the Chastener, be chastised with whips; the Vine, be crowned with thorns; the Foundation, be hung upon the tree; Strength, be made weak; Health, be wounded; life, die. To suffer these and suchlike things, undeserved things, that He might free the undeserving, for neither did He deserve any evil, who for our sakes endured so many evils, nor were we deserving of anything good, we who through Him received such good."

Amen and amen. I'm reminded afresh of how important the whole of Jesus' life is for us -- the incarnation, his earthly life, his passion, death and resurrection -- how the whole of that life catches us up and brings us into the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It also reminds me of another meditation by a much more recent Christian poet and ponderer, Michael Card. From his song "The Cross of Glory":

From the pages of the prophets
He stepped out into the world
And walked the earth in lowly majesty
For He had been creator
A creature now was He
Come to bear love's sacred mystery
He the Truth was called a liar
The only lover hated so
He was many times a martyr before He died
Forsaken by the Father
Despised by all the world
He alone was born to be the crucified
Upon the cross of Glory
His death was life to me
A sacrifice of love's most sacred mystery
And death rejoiced to hold Him
But soon He would be free
For love must always have the victory
Though no rhyme could ever tell it
And no words could ever say
And no chord is foul enough to sing the pain
Still we feel the burden
And suffer with your song
You love us so and yet you bid us sing

For love must always have the victory