Thursday, February 28, 2008

Poetry Friday

Poetry Roundup is at Writing and Ruminating this week.

This is one of the most erotic poems I know and sends a shiver down my spine every time I read it.
Duffy is one of the most famous modern British poets and was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1955. The poem is dedicated to Judith Radstone, whose 2001 obituary described her as a "radical bibliophile devoted to the worlds of poetry and protest". The poem came from a conversation the two had about the tradition of ladies' maids wearing their misstresses pearls in order to improve their lustre.

Warming Her Pearls
for Judith Radstone

by Carol Ann Duffy

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm then, until evening
when I'll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She's beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit's foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head...Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does...And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Butter Sculptures, Sexy Coral, and Ibsen

I don't normally write about goings on in my daily life, naturally assuming you would have no interest. However, today you will be subjected to a snapshot of my exciting life because it involves no gossip-obsessed preteens massacring the English language, and only my mother-in-law reads this any way. I must have done something deliciously good in a former life because today I got to be in the same room as four writers I adore. Two of the writers were headlining the 2008 Annual Hubb's Children's Literature Conference. The other two just happened to be there. I was standing in line to register and the person behind me was Joyce Sidman, author of many fabulous poetry books, including the Cybil award winner This is Just to Say. She was genuinely shocked that I recognized her. When I got in to the auditorium John Coy was there. He wrote one of my absolute favorite books, Two Old Potatoes and Me. First of all Jane Yolen gave a talk with her son, Adam Stemple, on collaborating. Despite the fact one of them lives in Minneapolis and the other in Scotland (sometimes), they have written several children's books together. Today they talked a lot about the process of writing Troll Bridge. They both had very different view points about how they arrived at the story of a boy-band being kidnapped by trolls in northern Minnesota. The story ended up being a mixture of Norwegian folklore and Minnesotan kitsch (see butter sculpture, which is only weird if you don't live in Minnesota or Iowa). This all had the feeling of deja-vu for me as I had spent three hours the previous evening watching Peer Gynt at the Guthrie (see troll, which is what you look like after sitting through three hours of Ibsen). The second author was Lisa Westberg Peters, author of one of my other favorite picture books, Our Family Tree. Today she talked about writing science poetry. She shared several of her poems from her collection of geological poems, Earthshake. During her talk, Peters put up an article about how coral reproduces during the full moon and challenged us to write a poem. Yolen, who is apparantly a workaholic, just whipped one up right there and then. I was in kidlit heaven (see bug, which is what you get when you google the image "kidlit heaven").

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Poetry Friday

I discovered Mary Oliver in the New Yorker. Why hadn't I heard of her? Her meticulous attention to the smallest things in nature spoke directly to me and, I don't know why, but she seemed "British" in this respect. She is for me an American Ted Hughes with the added advantage of being less obtuse. She is one of the few poets whose individual collections I have actually purchased. Right now, with the temperature at -11 with a -29 wind chill, I need to see roses and trumpet vines and the frantic beating of exotic wings.

Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine
by Mary Oliver

Who doesn’t love
roses, and who
doesn’t love the lilies
of the black ponds

floating like flocks
of tiny swans, and of course, the flaming
trumpet vine

where the hummingbird comes
like a small green angel, to soak
his dark tongue
in happiness -

and who doesn’t want
to live with the brisk
motor of his heart

like a Schubert
and his eyes
working and working like those days of rapture,
by Van Gogh in Arles?

Look! for most of the world
is waiting
or remembering -
most of the world is time

when we’re not here,
not born yet, or died
-a slow fire
under the earth with all
our dumb wild blind cousins
who also
can’t even remember anymore
their own happiness

-Look! and then we will be
like the pale cool
stones, that last almost

Monday, February 18, 2008

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean has won just about every award for children's books there is except the Newbery. She was also given the honor of being selected to write the official sequel to Peter Pan, Peter Pan in Scarlet. This year she was awarded the Printz for The White Darkness, a book I almost gave up on after four chapters. I am so glad I didn't. In fact, after chapter five, the book never left my hands. I finished it in one sitting (it helped to be bed ridden with a cold at the time).
This is the story of an extremely plucky fourteen year old girl, Sym. She has an obsession with Antartica encouraged by her "uncle" Victor, who has plied her with books and documentaries on the "The Ice" since she was a child. Sym is particularly mesmerized by the story of the doomed 1910 British expedition of Captain Scott. This is not necessarily so outlandish. It is a well known story to British school children. Personally, while feeling sorry for the men who all perished in the attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, I have little admiration for their sacrifice. What was supposed to be first and foremost a scientific expedition became a pride-fueled race to plant a British flag on the frozen wastes before a rival Norwegian could claim the honor. Scott was accompanied by a man named Captain Laurence "Titus" Oates, who is attributed with the famous line, "I'm going just going outside and may be sometime," as he exited to his death. Oates was heralded as a hero; he was very ill and was slowing down the party, so he committed suicide in order that his teammates could go on without him.
Sym has taken the heroic figure of Oates and combined him with the handsome figure of the actor who portrayed him to create an imaginary friend who fills the emptiness in her heart left by her father's messy death and her own social awkwardness. Oates fills the pages of McCaughrean's book, too and it is a tribute to her skill as a writer that he is as real to us as he is to Sym. In fact, he and Sym end up being the only real characters in a novel full of people who are not who they say.
Uncle Victor, for me, was a phony the minute he stepped in to the story and the clumsy bait and switch of the first two chapters was what nearly had me giving up. Victor gives an innocent enough invitation to a free weekend in Paris to Sym and her mother, but mother discovers her passport is missing just as the train doors close, and Victor and Sym leave without her. In Paris, however, Victor is not interested in any of the usual sights and suggests they travel on, "I thought somewhere a bit farther afield. A jaunt. Now that we're here. What say?" His jaunt turns out to be a trip to Antartica on a package tour for the thrill-seeking rich--only Victor is seeking something more than a thrill and Sym is part of his delusional and dangerous plan. After Victor drugs the entire tour group, blows up an aeroplane, and steals an all-terrain vehicle, Sym finds herself heading on to the Ross Ice Shelf, "Did you know: Some of the ice is half a mile thick? Except where it isn't". In the vehicle with them is a Norweigen filmmaker and his son. Except that they aren't.
What follows is a series of life-threatening and breathtaking adventures. Once Victor starts the engine and heads out in to the unknown, there is no way you can put this book down until the ride is over two hundred and twenty pages later. McCaughrean leads us in to the cold, blinding beauty of Antartica and we experience through Sym's mesmerized gaze, "the immensity of wrinkled whiteness stretching east to the edge of forever".
Just FYI: There are a couple of veiled references to sex in the book. Sym wonders what it would have been like to make love to Oates and Sym is worried about one of her friends who claims to have met a thirty-year old man on the internet.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston

I have had a hard time coming up with an opening line for this review. Usually these lines come to me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. However, despite the abundance of sleepless nights, no witty/poignant/shocking opening line has surfaced. I think that it is because this story is so rich and evokes so many reactions and questions that it is hard to settle on one angle. Set in small town Tennessee during the 1950s Jim Crow era*, this is the tale of a truly beautiful friendship between two boys of the same age but different skin colors. It’s a story that is part “Long Way from Chicago”, full of colorful stories of the goings on of the town's inhabitants, and part “To Kill a Mockingbird”, riddled with injustice, hate, and a painful loss of innocence.

Both boys, Malcolm who is black and David who is white, are idealistic and uncompromising in their love for one another. David in particular takes a long time to fully understand the unmaleable nature of the society he lives in and the mine field that he creates for himself and his best friend. David doesn’t hesitate to insist that Malcolm try out for the local all-white little league baseball team; it is a hard learning curve. "What's wrong?" David asks the crestfallen Malcolm. "Coach wouldn't let me try out. Told me, 'Git off this field, nigger.'" Malcolm had to learn early the realities that David can't accept, "Niggers don't get to do what white boys can," he said. "you knew that." "I didn't! Honest!" shouted David.

David's father barely tolerates his son playing with Malcolm but knows he cannot stop him; however, he instutes a "No-Nigger" rule and swares that he will kill Malcolm if he as much sets foot on their front porch, "He formed his words with such calm, I knew he'd planned this, cold as ice". When Malcolm is attacked by a group of men, David's father is among the crowd.

David's father can be cruel and calculating one minute and loving and understanding the next. You hate him, then think he’s charming all in the same paragraph. He is extremely complex and well written and then sometimes not quite believable. Needless to say, he’s based on a true person. The author, Tony Johnston, addresses the reader before the story begins:

Though some people may be offended by it, I do not apologize for the raw language used in this book. It is my father's language and reflects his way of thinking that has troubled me my whole life.
In a River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean wrote that he was "haunted by waters.' I am haunted by my father.

David's father will not have a person of color in his house but was raised by a black mammy, whom he adores. This is the one part of the story that I had a hard time with. Tinney, the mammy, arrives at David's front door and is brought in and even embraced by his father. I know that racism is never a simple thing. Blacks and whites grow up in the South together in small communitites and their relationships are often compex and puzzling, but the intense hatred for blacks the father expresses at other times is so venomous this one exception stands out. There are even veiled hints throughout the book that the father may actually be involved in the Klan.

This book would still be a good read, but a harder one, without the comic relief. The matriarch of the family, Gold Ma is no Grandma Dowdel; however, the scene where she insists on being carried in her bed to a wake is hilarious. There's also the mysterious Civil War arm that David and Malcolm hunt for and the wedding with The Great Toaster Shoot. In the end though, this novel is about choice. Choose to stay and accept the status quo or choose to leave in the hope that there is a better way. David, being white, has that choice. Malcolm does not.

I leave you with the dedication to the book which sums up the complexity of the issue:

For Daddy.
Some wounds never heal.*
Interesting aside: Tony Johnston is the author of many children's books including The Quilt Story, The Barn Owls, and The Worm Family.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Poetry Friday

I tried to find some information about the poet for this entry, but it seems that Naomi Lazard is a mystery. When googled, she turns up as a translator for Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a celebrated Pakistani Urdu poet. The first part encapsulates the frustration I feel when governement, states, or school districts suddenly decide they are going to get rid of what is working and try a new program.

In Answer to Your Query
by Naomi Lezard

We are sorry to inform you
the item you ordered
is no longer being produced.
It has not gone out of style
nor have people lost interest in it.
In fact, it has becomeone of our most desired products.
Its popularity is still growing.
Orders for it come in
at an ever increasing rate.
However, a top-level decision
has caused this product
to be discontinued forever.

Instead of the item you ordered
we are sending you something else.
It is not the same thing,
nor is it a reasonable facsimile.
It is what we have in stock,
the very best we can offer.

If you are not happy with this substitution
let us know as soon as possible.
As you can imagine
we already have quite an accumulation
of letters such as the one
you may or may not write.
To be totally fair
we respond to these complaints
as they come in.
Yours will be filed accordingly,
answered in its turn.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischmann

It has taken a long time for Fleischmann to write a Holocaust story--long enough for him to write more than sixty other books. I can understand his reluctance. I lived in Poland for almost a year a short train ride away from Auschwitz. I never visited. The train would stop there on the way to Krakow, and I would watch that notorious building glide slowly past the window as we neared the station. The ghosts of the Jewish dead are everywhere there. I felt the horror of it on my skin and in the air I breathed. I visited the Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Krakow where Schindler's List was filmed. I read Elie Wiesel with tears streaming down my cheeks. But to Auschwitz I could not go.
Fleischmann does not set his tale in the death camps or the crowded ghettos but in recently reopened entertainment halls found in the skeletal remains of post-war European cities. A second-rate ventriloquist finds himself possessed by a dybbuk, the spirit of a murdered Jewish child. The dybbuk makes the ventriloquist famous, becoming the voice of his wooden sidekick. As Europe tries to forget the war -"The war's history. Yesterday's newspapers" protests the ventriloquest - the dybbuk has unfinished business, "Not for me. I placed a want ad. Let me look at the audience". The dybbuk is using the ventriloquist's rise to fame as a vehicle to hunt down the SS officer who killed him.
Despite being a short book, The Entertainer is funny, tragic, and thought provoking. The dybbuk is a self-assured, witty, and intelligent boy who does not play the role of pathetic victim. He cries at night and calls the name of his murdered sister, but he hunts his prey with a shrewd and unrelenting determination. He is much stronger than the almost hapless Freddie he possesses.
Freddie learns more about the world and himself through his friendship with the dybbuk. He is "dimly aware" of the atrocities commited by the Nazis, but like many, Freddie cannot comprehend the extent "But so many?". He learns that the dead boy once saved his life but still cannot allow himself to be possessed by a Jew, "When I was growing up, I never saw a Jew. I thought they all wore horns and tails". When the dybbuk refuses to perform on Friday nights and Saturdays, people begin to think he is Jewish. His fiance is let down when he tells her he is not actually Jewish, "How disappointing! Polly exclaimed. Can you imagine me dragging a Jewish husband home to Alabama. Wow!". A Jew for her is an exotic being complete with charming accessories, "Don't you think we'll look heavenly under the canopy thing?". Freddie moves from being an uninformed anti-semitic to someone well versed in Jewish life. When he mets Polly's uncle, the well-known racist of the family, Freddie is surprised to find himself offended when the uncle refuses to shake hands.
Fleischmann was finally ready to write his story of the Holocaust when he discovered a way to incorporate the Jewish sense of humor through the dybbuk and thus a glimmer of hope. However, for me, it is Freddie's slow dawning of friendship, admiration and understanding for the dybbuk which allows Fleischmann to let in "the occasional shaft of sunlight" to yet another dark chapter of man's inhumanity to man.

A Resurrection of Magic Book 1: Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

One of my absolute favorite books of 2007. It was a finalist for the National Book Award but got beat by Sherman Alexie's equally-fantastic-in- another-way book. After I read it, I looked up Duey's other titles. She's known for the early chapter book series, The Unicorn's Secret (which I immediately went out and bought for some of my struggling 4th grade readers). I'm thinking this is a big step in another direction.
The story moves between two main characters, Sadima and Hahp, separated by generations but connected by their involvement with two wizards and the academy they create. This is no Harry Potter wanna be - trust me. Duey created a world in which apprentices master magic or die. Frightened and forgotten boys starve to death slowly in an underground maze, unable to conjur the food they need. Hahp has talent and manages to survive, but he must watch others consistently fail and grow thinner until they finally no longer appear for class. Sadima, generations earlier, becomes housekeeper to two young men who are attempting to bring back magic that was long ago outlawed and whose language exists only in the oral stories and songs of a few people. These two men, Somiss and Franklin, are the wizards who create the hellish academy where Hahp is trapped. The first is a sadistic fanatic who will stop at nothing to resurrect magic, the second is an idealist who thinks he can be the reason to his friend's extremism (think George Bush and Tony Blair). As the book progresses, and we realize that the apprentices really will be allowed to starve to death, it becomes clear that Franklin has failed in his mission to temper the cruelty of Somiss. In the earlier narrative, Sadima stays with the increasingly terrifying Somiss because of her growing love for Franklin. Both men are instructors at the academy Hahp attends but gentle Sadima is nowhere to be seen. The affection between Franklin and Sadima is the only warmth in a dark and disturbing narrative written with fierce restraint. In Sadima's final chapter she makes a chilling discovery that must surely destroy her faith in Franklin. Duey almost destroyed my sanity as I realized I would have to wait until she wrote the next book to see if I am right. I immediately insisted that some of my sixth graders read it so we could suffer together. We're still waiting.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Poetry Friday

This is one of my mother-in-law's favorite poems. She's a workaholic.

To be of use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museumsbut you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

I should have brushed up on my Greek mythology before plunging in to this, but even with a vague memory of my reading of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the trilogy, The Lightning Thief. A sixth grade student introduced me to these mythical adventures, and now they’ve gone the rounds of all the discerning fantasy fans in the class. My third grade daughter hasn’t put it down since she picked it up.
Percy Jackson is a sixth grade student who has moved from to school to school. A victim of Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia, trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes. He’s trying hard to make it work at his latest school when his math teacher turns in to a shriveled hag with claws and yellow fangs and tries to kill him. Now, there are probably a few of my students who would like to claim the same has happened to them-but that’s another story. Percy must go on his own odyssey in order to find out who he is and why half the monsters of Ancient Greece are trying to kill him. Percy is a likeable character, and I appreciate the message that Percy’s problems at school are the result of his demi-divinity. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true ! There is a strong female heroine in the story too, Annabeth, daughter of Athena and a good person to have on your side on a trip to the Underworld.
You learn a lot about Greek mythology when you read this. However, I would recommend keeping some kind of reference book handy (or this great website The Theoi Project) as Riordan seasons the story with more gods and monsters than my mother-in-law puts salt on her cereal, and trust me, she uses a lot of salt.
Other titles in the trilogy : Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth (5/08)
Interesting aside : Riordan has been hired to develop a new series by Scholastic that will be they hope will be the successor to Harry Potter.
Click here to go to Riordan's blog.

Epic by Conor Kostick

I stumbled across this book on an Amazon list and put it on a wish list. If you have children who love to play those live fantasy online games like World of Warcraft, or even kids who would like you to let them play (I've got one of those), this is a must. I am going to force my brother-in-law to read it. He's a guild leader, whatever that is, but it seems to involve staying up late at night and arguing about guild colors with people from Alaska. Who knew? Kostick was a designer for one of the first live fantasy role-playing games. Now you know who to blame for the fact your friends/child/relatives spend all their time in a world where riding around on jabberwockies and battling dark elves is as normal as going to the supermarket.
The premise is that the human race, having destroyed their own planet, now live on a new Earth in a medieval like existence. However, there is neither king nor aristocracy but a system of government which pits individuals against a central Committee in a fantasy computer game that determines everything called Epic. Violence is illegal and all conflicts and disagreements are resolved with virtual battles. In order to survive in the real world, players must do so in the game world. Citizens of New Earth spend most of their free time hooked up to the game trying to increase the worth of their player so that they can compete for better jobs and basic necessities in the real world. It sounds like a plan, but as is often the case with good plans, human greed and thirst for power eventually subvert the original intention of the system. The Committee becomes an inflexible group of cronies reviving a system of privilege and entitlement. Their players in the game amass so much wealth, weapons, strength and magic spells that they are unbeatable.
I know you're supposed to root for the destruction of Epic and see it for the true evil it is, but I am afraid I was rather sad to see it go. I was seduced by the fantastical world it offered and began to understand the allure of World of Warcraft. I mean, wash the dishes in real life or ride around wielding the Bastard Sword of the Moon scaring wood elves in a fantasy world. Hmmm...let me think.
Sequel: Saga (5/08)

Poetry Friday - Bloody Men

This has always been one of my favorite poems and describes, I believe, many a woman's experience. The simile has always stuck with me, and I admire its simplicity and lack of pretence.
"I don't set out to write humorous poems it's just sometimes my sense of humour gets into them - well quite often. As a reader I suppose I laugh when I recognise something - I think laughter often is when you recognise something is true but you'd never actually allowed yourself to think that or you'd never heard it put quite so well." Wendy Cope

Bloody Men!
Bloody men are like bloody buses
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.
You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You're trying to read the destinations,
You haven't much time to decide.
If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.