le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Golden Compass: film edition

I saw The Golden Compass. And.....

Well. As I alluded to - and will probably allude to for the rest of my life, since it was so awesome - I met Philip Pullman in late October. I asked him for his opinion of the film, and he very diplomatically replied thus: the casting and performances were great, and the look of the film was terrific.

I have to say: I concur with Mr Pullman on this one.

The look of the film was utterly dreamy. A gorgeous, steampunky, Victorianesque world - zeppelins, and an amazing carriage, and Lee Scoresby's balloons, and the clothing. Lyra's Oxford looks more or less the way I always imagined it - like my own experience of Oxford, which was roughly 12 jet-lagged hours in late summer, golden and dreamy and glowing and mysterious.

The casting, and the acting, is TO DIE FOR. Really, I don't think I could have done better if I'd been in charge. Sam Elliott is perhaps the best: he IS Lee Scoresby. and Kathy Bates voices the laconic Hester to perfection. Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra (and has been spoken extremely highly of by Mr Pullman himself) was great as Lyra. A little sneery, a lot bold, a little afraid, a lot wary - she's a great Lyra. I particularly love that she is not too refined, too clean, too pretty, too made up (as Emma Watson is, as Hermione). She LOOKS like she could be Lyra. My Lyra isn't quite so narrow of face, but Dakota Richards has knocked this one out of the ballpark.

And then Ms Kidman, Nicole herself, as everyone's most frightening villainess: Mrs Coulter. The CGI golden monkey is a true horror, really scary and creepy. Kidman has always been my perfect casting choice for this part, and she really is astonishingly Coulteresque. There was a bit more coldness and glamour, and not enough sweetness, but otherwise: lovely.
Daniel Craig as Asriel is an acceptable decision, but he gets way too much screen time. Likewise, Eva Green makes a lovely Serafina Pekkala, though I always pictured her as fair-haired, but felt a little too stagey at one or two moments. The gyptians were pretty great, though John Faa was less dignified, and Farder Coram less frail, than in the text.

Iorek Byrnison is another marvel of CGI work, but I cannot feel great about Ian McKellen voicing him. McKellen's a marvellous actor with a wonderful voice, but there's something a little too slushy for Iorek. Iorek's voice ought to be clean, deep, sharp, cutting. At times, McKellen sounds just a bit too slushily old for the part.

The actual story - well, I knew they'd take liberties, but frankly, I'm DEVASTATED by the conclusion. The permanence of the intercision is glossed over, and the interiors of Bolvangar made me think of Tim Burton's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory in a way that jarred rather unpleasantly. Characters are collapsed, or removed: Martin Lanselius, the consul at Trollesund, disappears, and the information he reveals is instead told by Scoresby and Serafina. I've always been very partial to that chapter of the book - the consul and the bear - but I can see why this needed doing. The Magisterium becomes much more of a presence, in a very unnecessary way, and we get a very dumb extended scene of Asriel being captured, in which he comes off as something much less than the strong, authoritative, proud man he really ought to be.

But the film is truly beautiful to look at. It can't help that NO film could ever capture the lyricism and emotional truth of the novel. How could any image say : "That was intercision, and this was a severed child"? How could any image convey the heartbreaking horror of Lyra's encounter of Tony Makarios in that fish-house? Or the complicated, bewildering themes of Iofur Raknisson's wish to be what he is not? (Iofur gets a name change, by the way - he becomes Ragnur or something, I suppose to avoid aural confusion with Iorek).

The golden compass itself is perhaps my LEAST favorite part. Lyra's ability to read the alethiometer comes slowly, gradually, with work - that chapter is titled "Frustration." It brings with it responsibility, weariness and awe, all of which the film dispenses with. Everyone continually refers to it as The Golden Compass, which is merely a descriptor in the text, not a name it's known by. And the gimmick of golden swirling d(D)ust as Lyra deciphers the alethiometer was appalling. Part of why the alethiometer works as a literary device is that it is mysterious; Lyra goes into a trance, and we NEVER know what she's seeing until she attempts to verbalize it. I've never imagined her readings to be a series of images, but something more....ephemeral. impressions, feelings, senses, not photographs.

The film's ending is a travesty. that is all i shall say about that. If new line decides to film the following two books, I should like to be Creative Consultant. I can't quite see how they'll dig themselves out of the ending satisfactorily, but - hey. who knows? in hollywood, anything is possible. I think a more sensitive director would have done a better job - someone more attuned to the glory of the book(s).

I do have to say, when Iorek and Iofur/Ragnur fight, and Iorek wins, the audience I watched with broke into applause and cheers.

I really will stick with the books on this one: they have an elegance, a beauty and a truth that no film could ever translate.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Golden Compass

I'm teaching THE GOLDEN COMPASS this week, in addition to this being the release week of the film adaptation - so lucky me! I get to re-read The Golden Compass.

I've just finished Part One (Oxford). I've read these books - oh, easily eight times or more - since first encountering them in late 2001. And reading now, with an eye toward teaching, I'm again simply caught up in the gloriousness of Pullman's prose. Every page is absolutely lyrical (as well as being Lyracal). Not a word misplaced, nothing extraneous, it all just pulls you along beautifully.

I love titles, it turns out. And the titling in this book gives me chills. Just reading BOLVANGAR in solid black type makes me shiver. "The Consul and the Bear." "Armor." "The Decanter of Tokay." Ooooh! it all just raises goosebumps for me, even after so many readings.

There's just such an emotional richness and depth to the novel; the way Farder Coram and Lyra react to the alethiometer's power - with fear, with awe, with wonder - is so true, and so real, you wonder how anyone could respond otherwise.

I'm very much looking forward to the film, because it looks to have a wonderful visual aesthetic - steampunky, victorian, beautiful. I'm nervous because every adaptation takes away something, as well as adds something. Nothing can replace the text, because for me so much of the pleasure of these books is in the language.

I've been reading Dickens - David Copperfield (a re-read), and Little Dorrit for the first time. I'm finding Little Dorrit utterly baffling thus far, but both books have that gorgeous richness of language and life that Dickens does so well. And it's a similar richness that I find in Pullman's books. It's so easy to fall into the story of it, but I never forget for a moment the beauty of the language, the way ideas, words, meanings are strung together so carefully, so delicately.

There is more that is true in His Dark Materials than in almost anything else I've ever read. Henry James, maybe, and maybe Dickens - both of those authors have so much that is true in their works. But the story, the plotting, of Pullman's novels just draws me in and in such an aching way. My book group students said that the books were "such a journey," and that phrase has always felt cliched to me; but in this instance, it's utterly true. The characters travel so far and so wide and so deeply inside themselves, and you - the reader - HAVE to go with them. so by the time you reach the final page of the final book, you're as exhausted as if you'd travelled to Svalbard, to Nova Zembla (the name thrills me to my core!), to Cittegazze, to Oxford, to the suburbs of the dead, to the abyss, and back again.

I had the unspeakable honor and privilege of meeting Philip Pullman this Halloween, an evening that will forever live in my memory as a dazzling, dreamlike occasion on which I behaved like a total fangrrl. I desperately wanted to be urbane and charming and witty and brilliant, but I was more like a gasping fish out of water. The Fact that Mr Pullman himself is wonderfully kind, gracious, generous and intelligent made me feel even more fish-gaspy.

But my dream of the past six years - to shake his hand and tell him how much I love these books - has been accomplished. Now I need to get to Oxford, so i can see those dreaming spires for myself in more detail.

It's funny: it isn't so much that His Dark Materials has helped me know about myself; I don't know that I'd say these books changed my life - though they have but in a way I'm not sure any other book ever has. The absolute, total beauty of these books is what it is - it's look I've stared at - for hours, in a bright, clean light - the most beautiful object in the world. You can't be unchanged by being in the presence of that kind of gorgeousness, but I don't know (yet) what the changes are. All I know is that I feel absolutely swept up, moved, shaken, thrilled when I read these books; I feel like my heart and eyes and mind are wide, wide open, and are seeing and experiencing things that cannot be described.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

it is better to die than to live

evidently, in the 19th century schoolboy story.

I just finished Oudendale by Ascott Hope, and it was another lovely downer in the same vein as The Hill and Eric.

all these damn kids are so happy and eager to die....it's truly creepy.

I know the religious ideology behind this, but how does it comport with christianity to be so eager to leave this world? i mean, shouldn't you desire to do the lord's work on earth until he calls you home? isn't it selfish to want to leave this world for a better one?


Read Karin Calvert's Children in the House, which is a historical overview of material culture in America from 1600-1900. it was mostly unenlightening, a presentation of historical information. mildly interesting.

Is it legit to refer to American home furnishings of the late 19th century as "Victorian"?

Victorian to me is British (and brit. colonial). In the States, very different things were happening: the civil war, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, etc.

Tonight is the first night of my class, and I am inexplicably nervous ( I just never get nervous before teaching). I've been so wrapped up in planning and preparing and thinking about this class that I haven't had much time for the Project.

as a "treat" to set the tone of the course, I'm going to show them Tim Burton's killer first short film, VINCENT. if you haven't seen it, you must! it's delightful, and narrated by Vincent Price himself.

It's about 7 minutes long, and it's a paean to weirdness in childhood. perfect for my class on the weird, grim, gothic, morbid, spooky and creepy!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Katawampus and Invisible Playmate

Today's books:

Katawampus, by Edward Abbot Parry (1895) and The Invisible Playmate by William Canton (1894).

Katawampus is yet another story of Bad Children who are sent to some fantasy realm to be cured of their badness (fitted for new tempers and good manners). There's a nice chapter on the Parliament of Toys, with the solid old classics as Conservatives, and cheap flashy new toys as Liberals. The tone of this one is pretty light-hearted - very Nesbit-ish, actually, which is not all that surprising since Parry is contemporaneous with Nesbit. Short and sweet, a generally pleasant read, over and done.

The Invisible Playmate: wtf?????

I don't know what to make of this one. I need to re-read, i think, because I feel a bit perplexed about the timeline. The story has a very Turn of the Screw, Jamesian quality to it, which makes it rather eerie. I knew something creepy was going to happen from the beginning - I don't know if it's the doubled narrators (our narrator, plus the letter-writing papa) or some other quality that tipped me off to that.

Quite truly, I don't know what to make of this book. I'd love for someone to simply explain it to me......I don't know Canton, never heard of this story until one of my professors suggested it. It has some Romantic overtones, and reminds me as well of Thomas De Quincey's essays on the deaths of his sister and of little Kate Wordsworth.....it also reminds me strongly of Barrie, and the narrator of The Little White Bird. I'll place The Invisible Playmate in the list of "men who dote on lost/dead/nonexistent children" for now, until I (or someone else) can make some sense of it for me.....

I've begun reading the introduction to Elaine Freedgood's The Ideas in Things (2006), and it's pretty exciting. Freedgood is, I think, proposing a model that is one I've already considered for my own work. More exciting is the newness of her project; her approach to things is, at least according to her, one that has not been undertaken in quite that way before. This makes me hopeful that I can adopt and adapt some of her methodology for my own project in children's lit.

I do wonder about the problem of so much "realist fantasy" in children's lit. Freedgood mentions the abundance of things in realist fiction of the Victorian era, and I think you get that same kind of abundance in children's fiction as well. But much of that is fantasy - often the home/away/home that presents "reality" in the home, and the fantastic in the away. But even the fantasy worlds are chock-full of THINGS. Freedgood is, evidently, attempting to look at the things not as metonyms or allegorical objects, but as things themselves.

I'll have to read more but what little I'm read so far is quite exciting.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Little by Little (spoilers)

Tonight's completed book is Rev Farrar's rather ghastly Eric; or, Little by Little. This one is published in 1858, and it's a school story of a very different vein: Eric Williams, our protagonist, "little by little" sinks into moral turpitude (drinking! smoking! swearing! stealing! leading little boys astray!). Eric starts off a cheery, honorable, bright boy but eventually, peer pressure and his desire to be popular leads him down the primrose path.

Three boys die in this book, Eric last of them. He's killed his mother with grief after he runs away from school (suspected of theft) and joins a ship full of even more morally depraved folks than himself, and he expires on the lawn, finally seeing that he has a Father in Heaven looking after him.

This book is just another in an evidently unending stream of books about children and teenagers dying.

One of the things I'm puzzling over is: what is this book, exactly? Is it a condemnation of the perils of the public schools? Eric is at Roslyn, which i think is a fictional school. There is no regulation amongst the boys, by the boys (which we see in Tom Brown and The Hill, and elsewhere); the whole school seems to be a den of iniquity (which begs the question: why would anyone send their child there? what's wrong with the masters and Head that they don't see these things happening, and don't intervene?)

The other, more intriguing puzzle, is that Eric is a kind of "india-orphan." He's sent from India at age 4, to live with an aunt, while his parents remain in India. Later, he's joined by his parents and younger brother for one year, at the end of which the parents both return to India. Is there a critique of absentee parents here? I can't help thinking that there is....the weird anti-colonial strand that runs through British children's texts seems to have a hold here, as well as in more obvious texts (The Secret Garden, Kipling). The Imperial enterprise has stolen this boy's parents from him (and ultimately, both Eric and his brother die), leaving the colonizing parents childless.

Hrm. I just recalled some professor's proclamation that: There is no future in Empire, but I cannot remember who said it, or in what context......possibly in discussing the sickly yellowish children of English Empire-builders???

I'm not overwhelmingly interested in the Empire as an area of study; it's interesting, and I like a lot of imperial-related texts, and the project of the Empire touches every aspect of British life, but it simply isn't central to my thinking and my interests. That said, Eric; or Little by Little, seems most useful in this context.

(I also have a vague memory of a Nesbit child character scorning to read the book when given it by an elderly aunt).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

australians and fairies

The Project staggers along. i feel like I am reading an insane amount - I think I'm averaging a book a day - in addition to preparing my fall syllabus, having a life and trying to do some renovating around the house.

Alas, I am not reading fast enough. I think it is physically impossible for me to NOT read a novel in its entirety, unless it's hideously bad (With Clive in India springs to mind). So i can't condense my fiction-reading; I'm already skimming perilously large chunks of, say, Tom Brown's Schooldays, and anything about cricket (the Sport That Baffles). I've been trying to get through the primary texts before hitting the critical stuff, but I'm going to have to fly into high gear with those soon.

I'm a little confused about the project papers: the first is a kind of lit review, I think, an overview of the field/texts read. How can I POSSIBLY write an overview when I haven't read everything yet?
This is a true mystery, and I shall have to discover the answer pretty damn quick if I want to keep my head above water.

Now: the BOOKS!

I'm struggling to finish Arthur Conan Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies. I've been plugging away at it, but I get so cringingly embarrassed for Mr Doyle that I have to put the book down. It's a peculiar text, for sure, and one wonders how Doyle was able to reason and rationalize fairies, while also being the author of the rather sharply and smartly constructed Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
The Coming of the Fairies is an attempt to prove the existence of fairies, based largely on Doyle's investigation (with a few psychic/theosophist acquaintances) of the Cottingley fairies (pictured here). The painstaking lengths Doyle & Co go to to find experts who will verify the purity of the photos is mortifying to read about. People around the country are swearing up and down that there is NO CONCEIVABLE WAY these photos could be faked. But of course, they are: the girls who perpetrated the fairy hoax admitted to it in some interviews in the 1980s. They constructed the fairies out of fabric, cardboard and other materials, and staged the photos. I give them credit for being rather good artists - those are lovely fairies.
But Doyle's credulity is truly embarrassing to encounter. He relies so heavily on extraordinarily flimsy testimony. When he begins to cite examples of "upstanding, honest citizens" who have seen, and talked with, fairies, I wanted to die. People who see and speak with fairies and gnomes are....well, not right in the head.
I only know a very little about the popularity of fairies through the Victorian era (and clearly, into the 20th century), but this is such a cringeworthy attempt to rationally demonstrate not just the possibility, but the true, verifiable existence of fairies. Doyle also leans on the Romantic view of childhood - the girls can see the fairies, and capture them on film, because they, the girls, are still children. Once the two are older, they are no longer able to see and document the fairies. The elder's reticence to speak about the fairies, once she's in her 20s, is telling, but Doyle ignores this entirely. Her monosyllabic answers to fairy-related questions are reported, but never really analysed; Doyle just blithely moves on to quoting the findings of some local psychic experts.
It's an embarrassing read, well and truly. But I LOVE the photo of the girl with the gnome. I think that gnome is hysterically funny.

Now, for Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner (with SPOILERS). Published in the 1890s, this is evidently one of the first and classic texts of Australian children's lit. Naturally, I'd never heard of it before beginning this project (I'm weirdly ignorant of anglophone children's lit outside of England/Scotland/America). Despite its being readily available, apparently, in every Australian bookshop, I had to request it via interlibrary loan from someplace on the other side of pennsylvania. I found this odd.

The book itself: um, wow. I spent the first 50 pages being horrified at Esther, the young (20-year-old) stepmum. Actually, I was really horrified by Captain Woolcot, really, for being so disengaged with his children, and for marrying such a young girl (when his eldest child is 16!). It seemed so.....Hugh Hefner. Then again, maybe in the 1890s the exigencies of life in Australia made that sort of marriage seem reasonable. I simply don't know my Australian history or culture well enough (though I do know about the thylacine and the weird and wonderful animals of Australia).

There were strong parallels for me in this book with Little Women: Judy made a lovely Jo, Meg made a great, um, Meg (the chapter in little women titled "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair" is essentially the blueprint for Meg Woolcot's escapades under the influence of Aldith. Even darling Nell had resonance for me with Amy.

I liked Turner's writing style; I like rowdy, rambunctious, large families in interesting locales in the late 19th century. I was really shocked by the book's conclusion; it felt weirdly out of place in such an otherwise cheerful - or rather buoyant - text. Judy's sacrifice pissed me off, too; she seemed so much the most interesting of the children. Meg's "flirtations" with Mr Gillet gave me mild heebie-jeebies, as well. But Judy's death was uncomfortable and scary, and I appreciated that (Unlike Janeway's and Stretton's children, who happily smile their way into death). It was dreadful to read Judy's words as she tells Meg that she doesn't want to die, that she's scared, that she'll be lonely.

Overall, I don't know quite what to make of this book. I rather enjoyed reading it, and I found the remove to Australia a very refreshing and exciting change from all the time I've spent at boys' public schools lately (Harrow, Rugby, gah!). The moralizing was minimal but then suddenly became heavyhanded, in the last few chapters - after the children and Esther have gone to the country, to Esther's parents' home.

Turner hints at a sequel text, and I'd be REALLY keen to read that; she leaves off so clearly ready to tell us more about her characters.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Maria Edgeworth says: GET TO WORK!

I'm reading The Parent's Assistant (1796) now, and while it isn't bad reading, exactly, it isn't good reading either.

The moral of the stories:


the class-ishness of it bothers me, of course; the way for affluent young ladies to help the poor folk is to hire them as servants. crikey. I guess that's good, and I know how class worked, but it still makes me uncomfortable. When Simple Susan is trying to scrape together 2 guineas, why don't the fine ladies just give her two damn guineas, instead of resorting to elaborate work schemes? Why buy her a dress when what she NEEDS and WANTS are the two guineas???

Cheerful industry in the face of grueling poverty and hunger has always struck me as....improbably. At least Hesba Stretton gave her cheerful, industrious poor folks some religion to rely on; Edgeworth's poor people evidently just like working themselves to the bone for next to nothing.

But this makes me wonder about Edgeworth's audience, who were more likely to be affluent young ladies than cheerful poverty-stricken kids. So is the lesson: be kind to poor people, some of them deserve your kindness?

Also, is it really charity if you're motivated to your good works by the thanks you receive? somehow, that part seems to be really central to these stories - scenes of cheerful industrial poor people bringing flowers and baked goods to the wealthy, to thank (most pathetically, I think) the wealthy for letting them, the poor people, work?

Should I quibble with anything that seeks to instill a spirit of charity and generosity in its audience?


Thursday, August 02, 2007

gorey details

I'm getting SO EXCITED about my fall class!

My tentative syllabus now features:

Janeway and Newbery
Andersen and Grimm's fairytales (possibly a Hoffmann fairytale)
Alice in Wonderland
"Amelia and the Dwarves," "Speaking Likenesses" "The New mother" (Ewing, Rossetti, Clifford)
Little Meg's Children - Hesba Stretton
At the Back of the North Wind
"Letting in the Jungle" - Kipling, from the Jungle Books (possibly coupled with Stretton?)
Wizard of Oz
Peter Pan
E. Nesbit Book***
Lion, the witch & the wardrobe
The Witches
Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban (?)
Edward Gorey (?)
The Golden Compass

critical texts??? - Freud on The Uncanny; Todorov on the uncanny and the fantastic (thus Hoffmann and the sandman).

*** On the subject of Nesbit!
I thought I was going to use The Story of the Amulet, but I'm not sure it's weird/grim/disturbing enough. I'd like to pair it with Stretton, because of their common concern with poverty/social justice, but I'm just not sure. I INSIST on including a nesbit text, however. I could go with some of her short stories (including The Aunt and Amabel, which sets up the Narnia book really well). I'm also debating The Magic City, which is by far my favorite Nesbit. The Pretenderette strikes me as a rather sinister character, and many of Philip's adventures inPolistarchia are rather spooky.

I'm thinking that, on my first day of class, I'll show Tim Burton's short film VINCENT, about the little boy who wants to be/thinks he is Vincent Price. It's the child playing at the gothic, and it's very much the antithesis of what most students think of as "childlike."


I can't wait to finish my syllabus. I am really excited about this class; I only hope my students are on board this time!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

tag i'm it - a personal deviation

since this is my "professional" and "academic" blog, I try to keep it pretty impersonal (i have other spaces to vent and rant and generally air my dirty laundry online).

HOWEVER: Marius, whose blog I quite love, tagged me, so I must respond!

Four jobs I have had or currently have in my life:
1. retail sales associate, Hallmark card shop
2. call center worker, Fisher-Price (temp job, very few calls to answer. very boring)
3. administrative assistant, Reading Is Fundamental
4. office assistant/work-study office monkey, New College office of housing and student affairs (best job ever!!!!)

Four countries I have been to:
1. Norway
2. Denmark
3. France
4. Ireland

Four places I’d rather be right now:
1. Paris
2. southwest Ireland
3. Copenhagen
4. Norway (all of it, any part of it)

Four foods I like to eat:
1. grilled cheese sandwiches
2. gnocchi (really good gnocchi, that is)
3, Haagen=dazs vanilla swiss almond ice cream
4. havarti and (good) gouda cheese

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Princess & Curdie

Just finished The Princess & Curdie. I'd read The Princess and the Goblins years ago, and several times since then, but never managed the sequel.

And my stars, was it ever WEIRD!

I don't think it'll be on my Weirdness Syllabus (Macdonald will be represented somehow, probably with At the Back of the North Wind), but what a strange and disturbing book.

It's all about Curdie, of course, and has the feel of allegory, but its peopled with such oddness - the pack of bizarre, deformed hybrid creatures, for instance. The detail of the punishments meted to the treasonous court. The battle scene.

Most weird - and unsettling - is the conclusion. Curdie and Irene married, then dead and gone -- and the kingdom destroyed by greed.

truly strange. i don't know what to make of the hybrid monsters. i REALLY don't know what to make of Curdie's gift of the "testing hands" - his ability to take the hand of a person, and feel that person's true nature (either true human, or some sort of animal - snake, vulture, ox, mule).

what a weird book. i'm sure there's more brilliance in it than i've yet figured out, but it's just so odd i don't quite know what to do with it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

bouncing ideas helps

I've been struggling for - well, most of the summer - to put together a KILLER syllabus for my fall childhood's books class. The summer edition went so well, and I want another fabulous, exciting class. I couldn't just duplicate the summer syllabus, for a number of reasons, not least my desire for a course that has greater historical breadth.

I had a few titles I was determined to use: The Golden Compass, Alice, Peter Pan, Story of the Amulet, a Roald Dahl title, some Janeway and Newbery, Christina Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses.

But what was my theme? what was the organizing principle of the course, other than a generic survey?

So i talked with my friend B last night. B is a fellow grad student, and probably the best grad student teacher amongst us (of all the grad students currently teaching, probably, and CERTAINLY the best in our year). She's a medievalist, and doesn't know children's lit in any special way.

I ran my ideas by her, and she said: "wow, these all sound really disturbing and weird."
and then "why not just do that? focus on the disturbing, the darker parts of children and childhood?"


and I will.

Death, grimness, poverty, the supernatural/spooky, disturbing, bizarre, the child imperiled - THAT will be my theme.
Rossetti fits perfectly, now. I can do Stretton, and Andersen's fairy stories (and a few of Grimms' or Jacobs' fairytales, probably). I'm contemplating excerpting from The Jungle Books - "Letting in the Jungle," which I found a very sinister and terrifying story (as well as being a representative of Kipling, as well as featuring the wild child, Mowgli).

I'm thinking of including Macdonald's At the Back of the North Wind, though it's been some years since I last read it; but Diamond dies, and that's creepy enough!

One of my decisions - to be made ASAP for book-ordering purposes - is WHICH Dahl to use? Initially, I planned to use Matilda, but after talking with B, I think The Witches makes a MUCH better choice.

What other texts would be good in this syllabus? I'm going to include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (supernatural + Aslan's death + Edmund's Badness), and I'd like to put in HP & the Prisoner of Azkaban (the dementors - need I say more? though Order of the Phoenix would be much more appropriate, I don't think any of the books after book 3 can work as stand-alones).

Suggestions welcome, please!!!! especially any from, say, 1890-1970. I have the contemporary overbooked as it is (it occurred to me that Snicket is IDEAL for this class!), and the Victorians are well represented, but anything before 1840, and after 1890, would be fantastic!!!

Saturday, July 21, 2007




I just finished THE BOOK. shockingly, it only took a little over five hours. i'm sure i missed a million things.

but i am a satisfied reader, mostly, except for the epiloguey part.

Chapter Thirty-Three was my undoing. I've always had my own set of opinions about Severus Snape, and this chapter confirmed many of them (in a much more detailed, elaborate way than I'd ever thought through). THE moment of the book that got me is on page 687, and here is the dialogue:

"After all this time?"

oh god. the tears.
the sobbing.

goodness snakes alive.

what a book!

there were some horrendous moments. Hedwig, dobby. some wonderful moments: Neville, Luna, Kreacher.

some of it, I think, is a bit of a cop-out. mostly, though, not so much. The epilogue seems like a sneaky foreclosing of possibilities, but I can live with that.

The Dursleys were not wrapped up sufficiently for me. But i can handle that, as well.

This book clipped right along. It was tremendous.

I am pleased.

and now, I need some sleep!

Friday, July 20, 2007

In fewer than four hours...

..... I will be holding in my hands Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I am tremendously excited. As long as nothing bad happens to Luna Lovegood, I am not terribly invested in who dies and what happens. I'm just RAGINGLY CURIOUS to see how all the various threads get resolved.

Ever since - book three? - I've been particularly curious about how the Dursleys' story concludes, as well as Malfoy's.

I WILL be writing about this book once I've read it - and I am planning on staying up all night to read (I think I wouldn't be able to sleep without finishing, anyway). I have a supply of snacks and caffeine, and I am READY!

The tag/title will indicate spoilage, but essentially, whatever I write about HP7 here WILL include spoilers, so readers beware!

Now it is time to dine and then get ready for book-acquisitioning! I'm going to a Barnes & Noble; I don't do the party stuff, but I plan to get there early and observe the goings-on, and wait for my book surrounded by undergrads, hysterical 12-year-olds and dorks like myself.

can't hardly wait!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nesbit, Sewall, Wiggin

I re-read The Story of the Amulet, and E. Nesbit is still so, SO good. I hate that I didn't know her books when i was a child....that book is just so smart and clever and funny, and I love the Psammead in all his sandy, cranky glory.

On to the new books!

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin.

What a nauseating load of bunk that book was! bleargh. it felt like Anne of Green Gables to me - in its talkative, artsy girl bringing sunshine and originality to a stuffy little town, but at least Wiggin has the decency not to flood us with too much moralizing. Rebecca got on my nerves, but the book was reasonably readable. I have to say I was creeped out by the way "Uncle Jerry" and "Mr Aladdin" admire Rebecca. Now, I am a devotee of James Kincaid, and Erotic Innocence changed my intellectual life. I am quite tough-skinned when it comes to pedophilia-related issues, but even *I* thought the way Mr Aladdin and Jerry go on and on about Rebecca's beauty and charm, when she's only 12 years old, was downright creepy.
other than that, nothing terribly surprising OR interesting to me about this book. American literature, especially for children, seems dreadfully pragmatic and puritanical. i find it unexciting.

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewall.
I'm ALREADY a total softie for animals. I'm a vegetarian, I don't buy/use leather, I try to shop cruelty free, I dote on three cats (one of whom is a foster), I recently rescued a terrifyingly large beetley thing from certain doom in my basement washtub-sink. I did NOT need to read about the horrors of the horse-using industries of the late 19th century.
I cringed my way through a lot of that book, because I HATE hearing about animals being hurt or killed.
I suppose I am glad it was written, if it affected the way people dealt with their horsies, but honestly, I don't ever want to read it again. Poor horses. The barn fire?! the death of poor Ginger? Shooting Rob Roy and Captain? it was horrifying!

I do have to wonder: is Black Beauty a children's book? If so: why?
The dustjacket notes compare it to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is not a children's text. Black Beauty is a political tract, really, and it strikes me that most purchasers and users of horses are adults. There are, in fact, very few children in the book. So WHY is this a classic of children's lit? is it more of the old children-and-animals alliance?

this is worth thinking about. i've been interested in the relationship between children and animals via children's books for years, because it seems - well, weird. and provocative. if i had world enough, and time, i would write a nice long essay on animals and children's lit. it would be very animals-rightsish, and probably PETA would publish it.

ah well!

HP7 tomorrow, so I shall have to set aside the project for a day or so.
tonight, I shall probably finished Frances Browne's Granny's Wonderful Chair!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

overheard/missing the boat

after seeing Order of the Phoenix, a friend and I went to dinner at max & erma's. in the booth across from us were two women who irritated me for a variety of reasons, both petty: one was wearing an engagement ring with a diamond roughly the size of my head, and kept flashing it around (she gestured a LOT with that hand). the other was a very skinny woman, but wearing an oversized shirt. an acquaintance came up and inquired, and the woman was all patting her (very flat) tummy and crowing about being pregnant. The oversize tunic was a maternity top. This woman on her worst days was probably a size 2. Maternity shirt not necessary. patting flat tummy not necessary either. but whatever.

their WORST offence:

they were also discussing the Harry Potter film. and started talking about Loony Lovegood. And they called her LOONY. as if that was her name.

Now, I am very partial to Luna; she's probably my favorite character (along with Lupin). It literally hurt me to hear these two dumb women calling her Loony; it's meant, in the books, to be unkind. Ginny and Harry constantly correct people for calling her Loony. It's not a nice name to call her.

It made me think: these women have totally missed the boat. they have no idea what it's like to BE the Luna Lovegood of your class, or your school. They don't get it at all.

and then I wondered: what else don't they get? and how many other viewers/readers are out there, missing the point all over the place?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

coral island, katzekopfs, hesba stretton, Nesbit!

i've been working away at the PhD Project Reading List (sort of; june got lost in the haze of teaching). but since summer session ended, and i am a Free Girl again, I have been trying to read steadily.

The Coral Island - RM Ballantyne. There seems to be this pattern of sneaking natural history/science lessons into books disguised as novels. I found this to be the case in both of my "island" books - Coral Island and Anne Parrish's adorably-illustrated The Floating Island. Not being particularly interested in snails and coral and small sea-creatures, I found most of the natural history quite dull. The Coral Island is weirdly unbelievable because of Our Heroes' ages (18,15,13) - but they don't speak or act like teenagers or young men. It's a pretty typical boys' adventure story - King Solomon's Mines MEETS Robinson Crusoe, I guess (having to rescue the light-skinned black girl and all). At ChLA in June, I'd heard a paper on coral insects, and the way they, and natural history, were used by British Missionary societies, so i had that in the back of my mind while reading. It was useful to have someone else's pre-digested ideas on hand for a book I'm not likely to do much with in the future. Of course, my queer-detectors went off when tall, manly Jack tenderly whispers to Ralph Rover, but beyond that - well, I'm glad I don't have to read it again.

The Hope of the Katzekopfs by "william churne" (the pseudonym of Rev Paget). So I read this one, and kind of went "wtf???" It's a fairly typical 19th century fairytale/moral tale - Lady Abracadabra whisks the nasty little Hope of the Katzekopfs, Prince jerkface, off to Fairyland to learn him a lesson. (think of Toad and Badger, saying "we don't want to teach them! we want to learn them!!!")
It had all the weirdness of the Victorian fairytale - I was thinking of the fairystories collected in Forbidden Journeys, (eds. Nina Auerbach and U.C Knoepflmacher). There's the grotesque, the Fairy, the moral, the transformation: nothing terribly new or surprising, though since Katzekopfs was written in 1844, perhaps I've got the wrong end of the stick, and Rev Paget was really doing something extraordinary and new. "Amelia & the Dwarves" is a better, weirder, story (in my opinion). What perplexes me most about Katzekopfs is the way it is so.....German-ish. But this isn't a terribly pressing (or productive) question, so I'll bracket it.


I was dreading reading anything called "Jessica's First Prayer." But I found it....freakishly compelling. I went on to read the three other novella/tracts in the collection with "Jessica," and enjoyed them all. I'm surprised by this, because they're all very Algerish stories: dirt-poor and helpless children with good qualities find benefactors who teach them about Jesus and God. Sometimes, the child dies. Sometimes, the child does not die. Either way, everyone's really excited about Jesus and God and lives happily ever after (but never as happily as those morbid children who ecstatically die, ready and willing to go chill with God and Jesus rather than live their earthly lives).
"Little Meg's Children," "Alone in London," and "Pilgrim Street" were the other three stories, and I have to say I enjoyed them all. Stretton's writing is solidly good, and there's something so wonderfully Victorian, almost Dickensian, about her characters and settings. I don't know much about Stretton, other than that she was a christian reformer, concerned - obviously! - with the poor, and with poor children. i sometimes wonder what would happen if we had decent writers cranking out tractlike stories like this now - about the poor and underprivileged - would anyone read them? would any child read them and be motivated? would any adult?

which is a decent segue into today's re-read, Five Children & It. Now, I love Nesbit and I've re-read nearly all her books repeatedly. I just zipped through The Magic City (possibly my favorite) again, and it's still damn fantastic.

Five children & It is not one of my favorite Nesbit stories, perhaps because the wishes-adventures are SO snarkily carried out. I LOVE The Story of the Amulet, however; which is the Stretton connection. Nesbit and Stretton have similar projects in terms of politics (Nesbit not from the Christian angle, though), in their concern for the poor. And I find it fascinating that they handle their political material SO differently - and equally successfully, I think. Stretton wants to move us through pathos and christian spirit (or maybe christian guilt?); Nesbit wants to move us through a kind of pragmatic rationality, and through a kind of ostranenie , the defamiliarization she can achieve through time-travel.

I'm thinking I might teach "Little Meg" and The Story of the Amulet this fall.....

what do you think?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

order of the phoenix - movie montage madness!

so i surprised myself by being very eager to see the film adaptation of Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix. surprised, because though I am just as addicted to the books as the next person, I've been vastly disappointed with the films. But I've become, in the last year or so, VERY attached to Phoenix (the book), and I really quite wanted to see how the director (David Yates, who has far as I can tell, hasn't done much of real note before) dealt with it.

Yates seems to have been an excellent choice - there were a lot of small visual details, and cinematographic decisions that I really, really liked. lots of weird, rapid zoom-in close-ups of fragmented body parts - an eye, a neck - that really gave the film a nice spooky tone without being over the top or horror-movie-ish.

Imelda Staunton does a KICK-ASS job as Dolores Umbridge. Her costumes were perfect; she nailed the smiley pinkish evil of Umbridge perfectly. her desire for power is brilliantly staged - one scene has her seated in a throne-like chair, overseeing an exam or lesson. the way she briefly caresses the arm of the throne is genius.

one other genius move: in the final scenes of the film, in the Ministry, we see an enormous portrait banner of Fudge - it's a touch right out of, say, 1984 or any other film about dictators. It's such a brief touch but so brilliantly frames the politics of the movie - i cheered when i saw it.

Also, and I feel hideously creepy saying this, but my friend (with whom I saw the film) said it first: Daniel Radcliffe is going to be one extremely handsome young man. and soon. (although the ringer t-shirt/corduroy hipster/intellectual look he sports in the final scene could go).

I still loathe Emma Watson as Hermione Granger; she's simply NOT hermione. The actor playing Ginny would make a much better Hermione; she has a less glamourous prettiness. The film keeps wanting to make Hermione a Leading Lady, but the stories just don't permit that, so every glowy scene with Watson seems forced. And - sorry, Emma - but she just doesn't look smart.

Helena Bonham Carter is PERFECT as Bellatrix, and stole every scene she's in. I wish she was in it more, somehow.

Evanna Lynch, a fangrrrl who was cast as my favorite character in the whole series, Luna Lovegood, was incredible. Totally dreamy, totally Luna. I wish she had more screen time.

NOW! Let's rip the film to shreds! Keep in mind that of the films in the HP series, this was by far the one I'm most pleased with.

An acquaintance very astutely observed on Monday that they'd need to make two films per book (especially after Azkaban) to really do the books justice. The amount of STUFF in the novels simply cannot be squeezed into a 2+ hour movie. Recognizing this limitation is essential, I think, to having any kind of objective reaction to the films.

The main criticism of this film: to cram everything into 2 hours - everything required to set up the next installment - Yates & co decided to produce a series of montages, rather than a solid block of narrative film. There's remarkably little dialogue. Things happen very, very quickly, and in montage - one of my favorite parts of the book, the St Mungo's chapters, are eliminated altogether. Within about four minutes, Harry has:
seen the snake attack Mr Weasley
been whisked off for Occlumency with Snape
gone on christmas holiday
Mr Weasley returns home cured

it happens rapidfire, montage style.
The DA sessions also run in montage, as do the series of Educational Decrees and Umbridge's inspections of the teachers.

We SEE a lot happen in a short space of time, but never really experience it. The film has virtually no interiority; there's a weak-ass attempt early on, when Harry writes a diarylike letter to Sirius, talking about how sad and alone he feels. Harry's estrangement and persecution by the Wizard community - the awkwardness at school, his sense of alienation from everyone, his anger (ALL CAPS HARRY, WHERE ARE YOU???) are almost completely absent in the film. They're gestured at - he snaps at Ron and Hermione a bit, but the real angst is just....gone.

In my humble opinion, they blew it with the Ministry - it's a hightech 21st century-looking black and glass underground city, not the peacock blue and jewel-toned ministry i imagined. it has the look of being built in a subway stop (and in fact the credits thank and cite Westminster tube stop as a location), and feels creepy in all the wrong ways.

The details of the Ministry - especially the Department of Mysteries - is absent. Harry finds his way into the hall of prophecy instantly; there is none of that spooky blue-black lighting, no Time Room. They don't stumble into the Death Chamber (with the Veil) until after retrieving the prophecy.

I think these absences matter. In teaching Azkaban this summer, (the novel), one of the things that seemed evident to me through our discussions is that the wealth of detail - the fullness and depth of the fantasy world Rowling creates - is perhaps THE major reason why so many people are so passionate about the books. It is a deeply, thoroughly realized Other World. There are spellcheck quills and magical socks. there are self-peeling potatoes and family-vehicle flying carpets (or were, before the ban on them). there are things we can't imagine: the beautiful, glittering belljar, with the hummingbird in its stream - the jar of TIME - in the department of Mysteries; the myriad ailments in St Mungo's ER; the very entrance to Purge & Dowse, Ltd (in Regent Street). The magical parallels of real-world life are what make the books so enthralling. we want to live in that world, and it's so vividly created that we almost believe it exists.

The films fail us in this respect. The richness of the fantasy world is lost, and instead we have this weirdly fakey juxtaposition of magical world and muggle - this is perhaps most cringeably noticeable when harry and the order fly on broomsticks to Grimmauld Place, in London - the "flying broomsticks" look so fake against their bluescreen backdrop of 2006 London. the Magic doesn't seem REAL, in the films, and so it disppoints.

The feel-good moments of emotion between Sirius and Harry, Dumbledore & Harry, and Harry, Ron and Hermione feel like crap, though. It's the problem virtually ALL children's texts suffer when they are transmediated for the big screen: we can't have gritty, subversive, grotesque or subtle emotions. The darkness of the film vanishes in this hopeful conclusion, with harry feeling good about what's worth fighting for. he's too heroic in the most cliched way possible, and too inspirational. Not much about Harry Potter, the character, is truly inspirational. But the film forces him into that position, and again: it grates and jars against the rest of the narrative. The novel does not end on an especially uplifting or hopeful note; the film tries to, and that's when it suffers most.

But i did love some of the staging and cinematography; the Weasley twins are marvellous, as always; Luna and Bellatrix and Umbridge are brilliant casting decisions.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

what a tangled web we weave

Today my class discussed Charlotte's Web. They are all such smart kids. I was intrigued by a few comments they made, though, especially one girl whose basic stance is:

this book is allegedly all about the cycle of life and death, and how dying is a natural part of life. except wilbur never dies; he becomes famous, and fame is a way to live forever. so really, the book values immortality more than it naturalizes death.

This student did not especially care for the book, I think. Or rather: she had issues with it.

it was interesting. this re-read of Charlotte's Web, for me, really focused on the wonderfully orderly structure of the book. it feels so organic - as it's meant to, i think. we move so easily from season to season, and White lingers over details of the natural world so beautifully - it's quite a symphony of words and structures, really.

i've never been a special fan of Charlotte's Web - i mean, it's a great book, I like it a lot, but it's never been one I hold especially close to my heart - but it's a beautiful piece of craft.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

winnie-the-pooh is a doll

I taught Winnie-the-Pooh today for the first time ever. I hit the jackpot with students for my summer teaching premiere; they are beyond fabulous. they even laugh at my dumb jokey comments!

I admit: I put Pooh on the syllabus because I thought it might be nice to dovetail at least ONE teaching text with my material culture/toys project.

Today, naturally, we didn't have time to get to everything, because we were churning over Ursula LeGuin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" for the first chunk of class.

But all my students reported a similar experience: reading Pooh, you forget that these are stuffed animals. toys. Pooh reports pain and discomfort in the first chapter (when he goes after the bees and their honey), but only a few pages later, Eeyore evidently painlessly submits to having his tail hammered back in place. This is a bit odd. Is it a failure of internal consistency? how do we understand the inhabitants of the Forest as toys, dolls, stuffed friends? does it MATTER that they are stuffed animals? Their toyness seems most important in the way it gives Christopher Robin total dominance over them.

Other Pooh notes:

  • Eeyore gets all the best lines. When read aloud, in a very sarcastic quasi-deadpan voice, Eeyore's lines were HYSTERICAL.
  • The eternal question - "IS PIGLET A GIRL?" - was raised by the group discussing gender in the text. (for what it's worth, Piglet is not a girl. He may, however, be a transpig. it's hard to tell).
  • Winnie-the-Pooh may be a fantasy text, but it is NOT an animal story
  • All the characters LOOK like stuffed animals in their illustrations, except Rabbit and Owl. Interestingly, Rabbit and Owl are the only two characters to not have their basis in real-life toys belonging to Christopher Robin (Billy Moon) Milne. Instead, Rabbit and Owl are entirely the creation of A.A. Milne.
  • This may account for their....grown-up-ishness.
  • "In Which Kanga and Roo Come to the Forest, and Piglet Has a Bath" is hands down the funniest chapter in the book.
  • Rabbit gets a great line in this chapter, which had me snortling throughout class: "Suppose I my family about with me in my pocket, how many pockets should I want? ... that's eighteen. Eighteen pockets in one suit! I haven't time" (88). (my italics).
  • I love the idea of not having time for eighteen pockets. I know EXACTLY what Rabbit means here.
  • Owl is a terrible speller, though his words are strangely impressive and long.

On Thursday, I teach The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, and I am flat-out terrified! I've never taught it before, and I'm not sure how I want to handle it. I have a call out to my friend the medievalist/religionist/general genius to see if he'd be willing to do a bit of guest lecturing. I want to think about: nature/natural world (I remember an interesting discussion about this book way back at Georgetown, where someone pointed out Edmund's resistance to the natural world as a marker of his "badness"); family; religion (obviously). I think gender is always good to think about, and perhaps in this text more than others, masculinity seems central.

but what else can I say?
I'm not a lewis expert! Once we get past Charlotte's Web I'll be sturdier on my teaching feet; all the other texts I've chosen are ones I've either really thought about extensively, or ones I've thought about even MORE extensively because I'm studied and/or written about them.

But the richness of today's Pooh discussion was an absolute joy. There was strong positive feeling for the book, and a real eagerness and willingness to dive right in and engage in critical conversation about the text.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


well, I have a large selection of books in varying states of read-ness, all at a standstill. the reason for this halt in reading action? NONE of these books are ringing my bell, if you see what I'm saying.

On this list we have:
Puck of Pook's Hill by my friend and yours, R. Kipling
Memoirs of a London Doll by Richard Horne
"A Very Ill-Tempered Family" by Juliana Ewing (in a collection of her stories)
"The Story of a Short Life" also by Juliana Ewing (in, I think, Jackanapes & other stories)
With Clive in India, by G.A. Henty
Floating Island by Anne Parrish

Truth be told, the London Doll and Floating Island are both all right. London Doll is more about London than the doll, which is pretty interesting. But right now, near the end of the book, nothing too captivating it happening. Floating Island I started today and I KIND of like it, but I'm getting tired of all the natural history lessons.

With Clive in India appears to be nothing but several hundred pages of small print of military history of the colonization of India. urgh.

Ewing's a good writer but her moralizing is tiresome. I don't know why children didn't rise up in some sort of pitchfork and garden-hook revolution against such preachy books.

Kipling....what can I say about you, Kipling? You're the source of my favorite joke, ever ("do you like kipling?" "I don't know, I've never kippled!" this joke never gets old to me).
I like Kipling. I like The Jungle Books and the Just-So Stories and Kim and the parts of Stalky that I've read. Puck of Pook's Hill has me somewhat baffled, though it's also pretty obvious what's going on (reinterpreting English history, reclaiming England for the English, teaching us all how to be good Englishmen).

I just wish these were all a little more - I don't know - compelling. I have most of my list of doll-and-toy-and-thing narratives to work through, and so far those have been much more interesting and enjoyable to read (ie, Floating Island!).

However, With Clive in India may kill me.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

oh my god The Daisy Chain

I have been ruining my eyesight over Charlotte Yonge's THE DAISY CHAIN for the last - not quite week. I started in earnest on Sunday, and just now (late thursday) finished. Oh my god - painful, painful reading.

Let's begin with the proliferation of Margarets. I understand why the name circulates, but it is BAD FORM to end up with five characters, several of them major characters, with the same name.

Then, we have Ethel and Norman, and Harry and Mary - I'm supposed to enjoy seeing these names? Yonge clearly lacked imagination because we also get a second Norman. crrrikey.

the prose reminds me of Oswald's attempts, in E. Nesbit's Bastable books, to write in flowery prose, of maidens and daisies and whatnot. it's not especially flowery, but something about it feel stilted and funny, like Oswald's take on it - this made me snicker. In my utter immaturity, and disgust at the book, I also enjoyed having a good snicker over the Mays' pet project, the village of Cocksmoor (heh heh - insert beavis & butthead laugh).

There is one nice bit about Tom and Mary - "it is a common saying that Tom and Mary made a mistake, that he is the girl and she the boy" (49). This bit of transgenderness crops up quite a lot - Tom ends up a very foppish Etonian, and Mary is a sweet but dullish roundfaced girl who dotes upon her seafaring brother (Harry). But throughout Mary yelps and plays and runs quite wild - very boylike - and Tom frets about the cut of his frock coats.

ugh. i deserve a real literary treat after this one - but what is next on the Reading List that fits the bill??? I wonder what i shall choose - stay tuned......

The cover of my edition refers to Yonge's "High Church Anglicanism" which is an understatement of the century. This book is manual to self-sacrificing religious zealotry, and it makes me ill. From the first pages when Ethel is not permitted to wear spectacles (because they'll weaken her eyes and are unbecoming), I hated this book. Ethel, extraordinarily poor-sighted, is then rebuked for squinting and holding texts and prints too near her face.

It's a book about erasing one's own needs and wants. Ethel makes the sacrifices so everyone else in her family can be happy. She swears never to let anyone or anything come between herself and her father (when she's like 18 years old - creepy, hi Freud!), and resigns herself, in conclusion, to a life of certain loneliness and solitude. She is happy to do this, though, because of her faith in god and afterlife.

in some ways, it's positively medieval - longing for, working towards and loving the thought of death, which will bring you to the glorious afterlife.

as a devout atheist, this was nauseating and depressing. it made me queasy and sad to think of dozens of girls renouncing their own happiness in sacrificing themselves for their families or husbands - with the weak claim that to do one's duty IS happiness.


my edition is 667 pages long, very, very small print. a tedious story, I'm glad it's over and I shudder to think of ever revisiting it. this book - its ideology - has made me very, very angry.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

shiver me timbers!

That Robert Louis Stevenson is something else! I read TREASURE ISLAND for the first time way, way back at the start of my children's lit studies (fall term, 1998! my second year of undergrad!), and felt kind of alienated by it. I felt like I was a girlie-girl reading a Boy Book.

Nine years later, I think it's a fantastic awesome book and I'm loving it! I have about a chapter or two to go to fully finish it, but what a book! How piratey! The dead man-compass on Spyglass Hill! the Jolly Roger! Tipping the Black Spot! It's great. And having just read both Peter Pan and Swallows & Amazons, it's nice to refresh my frame of reference. Has there ever been a more peculiarly wonderful creepy character than the Sea-Cook?

Kidnapped kind of baffled me. I really enjoyed reading it - Stevenson sure knows how to tell a story. And I was curious to follow the plot - I was caught up in David's plight. But I felt that something much more significant was going on in the book, politically, than I could really keep up with. My Scottish history is truly abysmal - I have a very vague notion of bonny prince charlie and some connection to the French, but that's about it.
I wonder about Stevenson's decision to set his book during this time period, and what it means for his own times. Some kind of Scottish nationalism, I imagine, though truly, I don't know. I was expecting a much more ship-bound book; this tour of the heather was a surprise, but a pleasant one. I liked the feel the book had of being fog-bound in odd corners of a uncertain land - never knowing if friends or enemies were in the next village over. The Scots "dialect" Stevenson writes for his characters flummoxed me at times; my edition had only a very, very few notes to help the ignorant american reader with the terms and spellings. Despite that, I found it a thoroughly captivating book, and that is actually quite a compliment.

I'm not sure what I'll read to follow up on the excitement of Stevenson. I have some poetry - Lear's nonsense, and Belloc's cautionary poems - but even though I know I'll like them, I have a hard time really sticking with poetry. one or two at a time is enough for me.

I need to read the Pooh books, though, for the syllabus I'm planning AND for my project, so maybe I'll hit them next.......

But Treasure Island for sure is in my list of Must Reads as well as Must Haves. I don't own a copy of it, and this must be rectified! When I decide I need to own a book I've read, that is how you know it's a good book.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tom Brown's Body lies a-mouldering in the grave...

FINALLY finished Tom Brown's Schooldays. ugh - what a waste of ink! My question now is: who actually READ that book? What was it's real appeal to child readers? I suppose the play and comraderie of school has its place in the child-reader's heart but the tone of the book is so preachy and nostalgic.

There's a strange moment more than halfway through, when Tom is "given" young Arthur to oversee and chum with. The narrator tells us how Tom feels maternal toward Arthur, and how he is teased by his friends, especially East (who sounds like a real asshole, if you ask me) for nursemaiding the delicate boy. It's a strange twist on a book that otherwise wants to concentrate on Real Boys (ones who crib and screw up lessons, ones who fight and excel at sports, especially that glorious game of cricket, ones who tease anyone who is different, ones who disobey their masters and only receive benevolent and mild reprimands for their sins). East and his chum dedicate a fair part of their lives to torturing the birds belonging to Martin, causing the death of at least one baby bird. This is all reported as good clean fun and innocent high spirits, but murdering vulnerable animals is pretty damn sick if you ask me.

I'm on to KIDNAPPED! now, and despite the bumps in the road with the Scottish "dialect" and expressions, it's not too shabby. I've got Treasure Island on deck as well - it's Boys' Books Week at my house, evidently. But that Robert Louis Stevenson does know how to tell a story, so I have high hopes for expeditious reading.

This is good because: I must finish The Subtle Knife for Thursday night's book group discussion, as well as read the first 100 pages or so of The Perks of Being a Wallflower for my class (as well as grade midterms).

and with that alarming reminder, back to the midterms!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Toby Tyler and the Boys' School Story

This weekend I read James Otis's Toby Tyler, or 10 Weeks with the Circus. I found it rather boring but it moved along reasonably quickly. My mother informs me that Disney made a live-action adaptation of this, which baffles me, since the original novel is pretty lame. I mean, the circus is a totally unglamourous place, Toby is an object of pity (an abject of pity!) as well as beaten every time he turns around. The most intriguing element of the novel to me is his friendship with the monkey, Mr Stubbs. There's a definite nod to evolution in the novel - something about recognizing Mr Stubbs as an ancestor. It's BAD evolution, or misunderstood at any rate, but it's still there, which I found interesting. Toby's relationship with Mr Stubbs is the most developed and intense relationship that he (Toby) has, despite the lame gesture at heterosexual coupling (with Ella/Mlle Jeannette, the little girl who performs as an equestrienne). The moralizing of the book was lame, naturally, and really sporadic. Toby's dialogue felt very unrealistic to me - it just felt stagey and fakey and weird. But the monkey was interesting, for sure.

I've finally gotten young Tom Brown to school, thank god, so that the Schooldays can commence. He's at Rugby, just finishing his first day, right now. I read - all right, skimmed - about six pages of small print, describing a foot-ball match in detail. UGH. I also feel like I'm reading another language - here's a sentence fragment I cannot comprehend:

they... "administer toco to the wretched fags nearest at hand; they may well be angry, for it is all Lombard Street to a china-orange that the School-house kick a goal with the ball touched in such a good place" (97).


there's more, too, of course. I'm snickering a little as I read, recalling the recently read (for the first time!) Diana Wynne Jones novel The Crown of Dalemark, and the scenes at Hildy's school which are laden with bafflingly incomprehensible school slang. The slang marks Mitt's distance from Hildy, but it also - now especially - seems like Jones's poke at the school culture.

anyway, the boys at Rugby are now drinking beer and singing good British songs ("British Grenadiers"!!) in the hall, so I had better go rejoin them.

I think this will be my new catchphrase: It's all Lombard Street to a china-orange!
(whatever that even means)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

what katy did

I finished Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did yesterday. It was readable - unlike a certain Tom Brown's Schooldays - but what a dreadful message! Girls: become crippled invalids and Angels of the House! Yay! what a thing to aspire to. Pain is a great teacher! wow! I wish *I* could hurt my spine and not be able to leave my room for four years, just so I can be the Heart of the House!


The most interesting thing to me about this book were Dorry - the effeminate little boy - and John, the butch little girl (Joanna). Coolidge actually write that it seems that Dorry was a girl put in boys' clothing, and Johnnie was a boy put in a dress. YAY for transkids! They grow out of it, alas. Also: Johnnie has a "doll" that is actually a small chair. It's named Pikery, and she nurses it and gives it medicine and dresses it.

I haven't a clue what to do with Pikery but I think it's awesome.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Project Revue!

As part of my PhD program, I have to do this Project. It is a big ole project, in place of comprehensive exams. I have set an impossible reading list for myself (301 titles altogether, fiction and critical).

This past week - my spring break - I made it through four novels. Brief review of the four:

King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard). Somehow, I'd never read this before, though I've read so much critical work on it and other empire texts that I might as well have. Definitely terrible! but interestingly homoerotic - so much time spent describing the massive mighty bodies of the Kukuanas and Sir Henry, not to mention the beautiful white legs of Captain Good. I had quite a hard time reading about the slaughter of animals - elephants and sable antelope. 10,000 "savages" get killed off, too, after the white folk stir up a coup. Glad I read it, glad it's done.

Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome). I had high hopes for this one, not sure why. I enjoyed reading it, but didn't love it - the sailing talk just bored me. And I don't know a halyard from a belaying pin, so I was lost for a lot of the techincal passages (and golly, there were a lot of them. Moby-Dick for the early 20th century child reader!). I DID appreciate the lack of sentimentality and nostalgia in the book; the kids are presented on their own terms, no condescension, no nostalgia. Highly unlikely I'll read the whole series of Swallows and Amazons books anytime soon - I can wait - but I wouldn't mind checking them out during some summer vacation. Made me want to go to camping near a lake.

The House of Arden (E. Nesbit). One of the few Nesbit texts I HAVEN'T read, this one was pretty good and strange and wondrous. I didn't love it as much as I loved the Psammead books, but it was still quite good. The names of the children - Edred and Elfrida - were sort of off-putting, but this was still classic Nesbit, and therefore better than most books written for anyone.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Orczy). I don't know why I put this on my reading list, except it seemed important. I wish someone had stopped me. DREADFUL! book!! Pro-aristocracy in a hideously snobby way, wildly anachronistic and historically off (how much duelling went on in 1790s England? I don't know, but swords don't come up much in Austen novels!). It was treacly and sentimental and i figured out very soon who the Pimpernel was. The characters were implausible - that Marguerite was intolerable! - and the anti-republican slurs remarkable. It was also just kind of a boring book.

Now I'm on to Tom Brown's Schooldays, and I wish old Thomas Hughes would quit babbling and get to the damn STORY already. Gad! I KNOW everything has gone to the dogs since he was a boy - let's move ON, already! But it is nice to have proof that everyone always thinks the younger generation are a bunch of good-for-nothings who have lost the true ways.

I'm also re-re-re-reading Peter Pan, which happily is on my reading list as well as being the book I'm teaching right now. Every line of that book is just loaded; it's hard to choose out what to focus on in class. Each re-read of Peter Pan makes me feel even more desperately sad for James Barrie. I wish I could give him a transhistorical hug.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


I just watched ET because I plan to show it to my class (I want to think about child-as-innocent, child-as-alien/alien-as-child). I cried.

My first viewing of ET was as a barely-three-year old, when it was released in the theatre. This was roughly a month or so after my grandfather passed away. From the moment ET falls ill all the way through the credits and beyond, I sat on my dad's lap and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It turned into dry heaving sobs. Everyone in the theatre was concerned about me. People stopped on their way out to make sure I was okay.

My mom thinks this film triggered emotions around my grandfather's death, and that was my way of dealing with his death.
She could be right.

All I know is NOW I have my grandfather's death firmly linked with ET. And so tonight as I screened the film I cried my fool eyes out.

This may be one of the best films about death I have ever seen.

How's that for a college class: Death!
proposed texts:
Big Fish (Tim Burton)
The Lovely Bones
The Amber Spyglass
"The Body" by Stephen King
Corpse Bride
(okay, almost anything from the Tim Burton oeuvre)
something by Edgar Allan Poe

wow, what a great class that would be.

boys in tights in tutus....

Friday night I went to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance of PETER PAN. Despite having written my master's thesis on Pan, along with a number of smaller papers - I have never seen any kind of live production of the story. So despite not feeling overly enthused about a Pan ballet, I went.
(The Benedum center where the ballet is performed is EXQUISITE, incidentally, and was almost the highlight of my night).

I was encouraged when I opened my program to see that the choreographer is Septime Webre, the man who brought me this year's Washington Ballet version of The Nutcracker (which I saw, and LOVED).

But the ballet was uncompelling, and I'm not sure this is Septime Webre's fault. What makes Barrie's play/novel interesting to me - and so interesting, moving, dark and funny - is NOT the plot; it's the stage directions, the narrator's asides. The ballet, of course, being wordless, strips out all of this oddness and leaves us with only the bare bones of the story which - to tell you the truth - is not too compelling.

The ballet opens on a tediously long scene in the Darlings' nursery, with unspectacular choreography for the whole family - including one clever/creepy bit in which Wendy and her mother mirror each other's steps around Mr Darling. Nana is played by a dancer in a dog costume. John needed a shave, and Michael looked creepy in large-sized sleeper pajamas.
Eventually, Tinkerbell, in the form of a spotlight, turns up and flits around to what sounds like a cellphone ring tone. I sighed. The music for this was swoopy and treacly and canned - no live orchestra - and made me want to vomit. Imagine a cross between a Disney soundtrack, a bad John Williams score with a little hoked-up Gershwinian freneticness thrown in, and you've almost got it.

Peter flies up into the window, hurrah for theatrical technology. A long strange sequence of Peter and his black sheer fabric shadow. Eventually, after much awkward and ill-disguised rigging (the dancers backed into the curtains at the nursery window to be hitched into their flying apparatus) the children fly off to neverland.

which is represented by a series of filmstrip-like rudimentary cartoons of a receding view of London.

sigh again.

Neverland. blah blah Lost Boys including three lost girls (which irked me badly). Wendy is shot and dangles to the stage, looking frighteningly like she's been hanged, and is twisting at the end of a rope, rather than simply falling from the sky.
Instead of causing Wendy to be shot, Tink (now a full-fledged ballerina) twinkles around preciously and revives her. Three cheers.

Various divertissement from Lost Kids and Pirates. Hook was quite dashing and made me think of Jack Sparrow. Hook, textually, has always been a bit of a dandy, a bit queer, to my mind - seeing the Sparrowesque treatment made me think perhaps Johnny Depp wasn't being quite so original in his vision of Jack Sparrow afterall.

The showstealer - the Crocodile - appears. A dancer in quite an awesome croc suit, the Crocodile slithers on stage to a vaguely disco beat (plus the ticking clock). eventually, he becomes bipedal and rocks out some great little hip-hop/disco dance steps. Everyone laughed and applauded uproariously.

The second showstealer - the Indian maids (dressed weirdly in red with what looked like waitress aprons) did a GORGEOUS piece with good music. Tiger Lily, performed by one of the principal dancers, was wonderful. I was pleased as well because, other than being marked in the program as "Indian maids" there was virtually NOTHING about their costume or dance that was "indian." This is good because the Indian sequence of Pan is often a big fat offensive mass of nasty stereotypes. But Tiger Lily's choreography was beautiful, beautiful - and also repeated a wonderful combination that Webre used in the "arabian" divertissement of his Nutcracker (which, incidentally, also used native americans instead of 'arabians').

Happily sighing over this bit of beauty - the score here was lovely as well - I was vastly disappointed with everything else except the crocodile. Peter puts on a fluffy tutu and veil and dances in drag with Hook to get Tiger Lily free. This was great because it got at some of the utter queerness and unfathomableness of Barrie's original, but it was also sort of overdetermined and creepy to see (I found the ballet's Peter quite disturbing to look at, regardless of costume).

Intermission. Many children in the audience rush to the lobby to have stuffed animals bought for them.

Resume ballet. Extraordinarily drawn out and uninteresting Pirate Dancing on the ship. Undercutting the earlier queerness of the first Pirate dance number, we now have Pirate Wenches boozing it up. boring.
the kids are kidnapped.
Michael is forced to walk the plank, and reappears moments later riding the back of the Crocodile, doing the john travolta "eyes" move from Pulp Fiction. the two boogie across stage, discoing off into the sunset.
Peter shows up in time to rescue wendy. flitting around. Fight sequence. Peter does a few flips in midair (thanks, harness!) which get a lot of applause. Hook is eventually vanquished. This is represented with the final awesome bit -

Hook and the Crocodile dance together. Not just any dance - they do a modified TANGO. it was great - really brilliant.

but it's time for the little Darlings to fly away home, so Peter sends them on their way. Now we get another tediously long and boring sequence in the Darling home. Peter sways back and forth outside the window, clearly unable to control his flying apparatus. he looks very peculiar and pendulumic as he ticks back and forth.
All the Darlings but Wendy exit, I'm not sure why, because Wendy only does a few lame steps before also vanishing offstage after clasping her hands to her bosom and gazing halfway toward the window (through which Peter Pendulum is ticking).

Show's over.

The Crocodile got the most applause. Tiger Lily got the second most. I gave her a standing ovation, because her dance was truly exquisite.

Lesson learned: the story of Peter Pan is not very interesting, and makes for poor ballet theatre.

The Pgh Ballet announced though, that next spring, they will have the North American premiere of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I will attend. I think Alice should translate significantly better to a wordless stage, provided the choreography and sets are done right.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

the first world war

An absence I have only recently (as in, the last 48 hours) started thinking about: WHERE or WHAT are the children's books about or written during the first world war??? I can think of, off the top of my head, quite a number of children's texts of the holocaust/second world war, but the first world war?????

Since I'm in the middle of putting together the bibliography for my PhD Project (material culture of childhood), I've been going through my Oxford Companion to Children's Lit, page by page, looking out significant texts. I've started keeping an eye out for books of the first world war, and I haven't really come up with much. Sir Hugh Walpole wrote a series of books (Jeremy is the first) in the late teens and early 20s (I checked Jeremy out of the library today - it was published in 1917), but other than that I'm coming up empty.

There's Barrie's novelization of Peter Pan in 1911; there's Milne's Pooh books in 1926. what came in between?

a quick, superficial google search of children's literature and world war one turned about very, very little; though I found one woman's blog that suggests she is working on a Lion & the Unicorn on children's lit & WWI. i should really get a subscription to lion & the unicorn....

anyway, i've gotten extremely curious about the first world war, and I have a number of histories out from the library. but i'm even MORE curious about this absence of children's texts - it needs looking into!

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I'm trawling through the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, trying to assemble a comprehensive bibliography for my PhD project, and I came across an entry that sums up the writer's work: "Her books are sentimental and poorly written."


what a way to be remembered.....