Hi all! Just wanted to put up a quick post to share that I recently wrote a book review for the New York Times! I was asked to review two British fantasy imports, The Song from Somewhere Else by AF Harrold and The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol. The two books were very different from one another, and it was a real challenge to find a way to tie them together with a single idea. Here’s how I opened the piece:
The landscape of fantasy storytelling is changing rapidly. “World-building,” once the exclusive domain of fantasy novelists, is now a term more closely associated with movie and video game franchises. Special effects now rival anything we could imagine while reading on our own. And so perhaps fantasy literature will be forced to do what every medium must when challenged by something new: adapt. Just as the still camera set painting on a path toward abstraction, fantasy literature seems poised to move away from virtuosic world-building toward more interior and language-based storytelling — the sorts of things books do best.
To hear what I thought of the two books, I invite you to click the link to read the entire review. It was incredibly fun and far more challenging than I anticipated. I hope to do it again some time!
This week I found myself briefly stranded without a book, and so I to re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The book was published in 2013 to largely negative reviews. Reviewers seemed to have tired of his charmingly counterintuitive self-help busines-speak. Many rightly criticized the book for feeling disjointed … what begins as a motivational talk about entrepreneurs overcoming dyslexia soon migrates to much heavier topics, including child leukemia, civil rights, religious war in Northern Ireland, child abduction/murder, and even the Holocaust. The overall response from readers seemed to be that Gladwell was getting too lofty: better to stick with what you know.
Reading the book in 2017, however, I had a different reaction: the weakness of David and Goliath isn’t the heavy stuff, it’s the fluff at the beginning. (I would include the title among the fluff.) In 2017, the second half of the book is chilling. Nearly every example has profound resonance with the current state of the world. And it seems to go a long way toward explaining why many of the conflicts we find ourselves in are simply unwinnable. It is also a more personal book; Gladwell experienced a sort of personal religious conversion while writing it. Reading it this week, I was struck by how much more human and vulnerable the stories were. The question that rang through the final chapters was, for me, clear: Would you be willing to suffer the way these people have suffered?
Unlike Gladwell’s previous books, David and Goliath is unable to offer up a glib “takaway” that readers can apply at their next board meeting. I suspect a message as bleak as this had no real place in the (comparatively) optimistic world of 2013. But in 2017 the book feels almost therapeutic. It recognizes that there’s no easy hack to fixing certain kinds of conflicts. Instead it offers a different kind of message: it asserts that suffering creates people able to truly risk themselves in order to do what is right. In a world full of so much wrong, we need people like that. Those are what history will call heroes.
I have a lot of readers ask my why I write about characters with missing or dead parents. My jokey answer is “because then no one can ground them.” But the real answer is much more complicated. It has to do with how extreme loss conditions a person–preparing them to endure extreme pain in the future. My characters suffer over the course of their stories, and to me it seems more cruel to put an unscarred and unprepared person into such dire circumstances.
I’m grateful for this book because the next time someone asks the “Why Orphans?” question, I will have a better answer.
UNRELATED: Those who like Gladwell might enjoy his very excellent podcast series, Revisionist History. I especially enjoyed his episodes about the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and his exploration of Generous Orthodoxy.
Many might disagree, but I would argue that this is perhaps one of the most important children’s books written in my lifetime. Here’s an excerpt in which I discuss how this book interacts with Peter Pan:
It has been observed that I am somewhat obsessive about JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. More than once, people have asked me what I think about Pan adaptations and sequels written by contemporary writers. My usual response is that I think those writers could better use their time creating their own characters to discuss similar themes. Spinelli has done just that. The fugitive shadow of Peter Pan skitters all throughout Hokey Pokey without ever once needing to be mentioned. To every person hoping to write an “updated” version of Oz, or Wonderland, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I would direct them to this book.
The best response to this post came from Tom Angleberger who objected that he didn’t actually think this was a book for kids (Betsy Bird wondered as much in her excellent review … which is what prompted me to pick up the book in the first place). It’s an interesting question, and one that I suspect I’ll be chewing on for a long time.
You can click here to read my full review … better yet, just read Spinelli’s book. Because it’s AWESOME.
Children’s literature maven Monica Edinger recently wrote a thoughtful response to a recent Slate piece on the “epidemic of niceness” that plagues the modern publishing industry.1 Both writers voice their frustration over the dearth of negative book reviews online.2 Here’s an excerpt from the original article:
“But if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.” Jacob Silverman, Slate
For me, reading is too often an experience of discovering that the emperor has no clothes. When that happens, I feel betrayed by my community (Somebody should have warned me!). And yet, when I read an openly negative book review, it turns me off. While I agree to the importance of quality criticism, quality criticism is no fun.3
There is, however, one safe place where negative reviews thrive: the celebrated book
While I bite my tongue about contemporary books I dislike, I am more than comfortable speaking out against boring old books. I am not alone here; the internet is awash in snarky takedowns of overrated classics. For more contemporary targets, one only need look at the upper echelons. For every hundred glowing reviews of Freedom, you can be sure there will be a BR Meyer review attacking it.
Sometimes these dissenting voices come off as prophets, other times they come off as attention-hungry trolls (Armond White, anyone?). I think there is a sense that a successful work can afford to be taken down a few notches. Perhaps this is true, but since when has that been the purpose of criticism?
In Edinger’s comments, she mentions that SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog stands out as a place where honest criticism is alive and well. I agree with her, and I think the blog gets away with that because of its conceit: any book mentioned there is already a contender for the Newbery. There is no such thing as a bad book on that blog, only varying levels of good.
I think the success of Heavy Medal speaks to a larger point. Perhaps the reason bad books do not get panned is because we subconsciously know they are undeserving of critical engagement? And perhaps this is the way it should be? What is the value of our greatest literary minds attacking Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that has no literary aspirations?
Let us save our very best criticism for our very best books — because those are the books whose flaws are worth discussing, and those are the authors who we want to see grow.
- if the name sounds familiar, I posted about her last year ↩
- This is a problem that goes beyond just books. Just a few weeks ago, there was the notorious fanboy uprising against the reviewers who dared criticize the latest Batman movie. ↩
- As Edinger points out, things get even more complicated with children’s literature because adults are not the primary/sole reader. Who wants to be the jerk who disparaged a child’s favorite book? ↩
I wanted to give a special “howdy” to any visitors from 100 Scope Notes; welcome to The Scop! Anyway, on with today’s post …
Between the two of us, Mary and I get a lot of free books. Most of mine are galleys and ARCs from meetings/conferences. Mary gets books sent to her from various academic publishers hoping she might incorporate their text into a syllabus1. The other day she came home with a copy of The Grimm Reader: the Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tatar. I stole it from her desk and read it last week.
Here’s the rundown:
The Forward: The forward was written by A.S. Byatt, who I guess knows something about children’s books2. Like most forwards, it’s less about hard facts and more about general reflection — which isn’t a bad thing. Some favorite quotes/observations:
“Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance — and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.”
“I inhabited stories with characters in a way I never inhabited true fairy tales … I fell in love with Sir Lancelot and held long conversations with Robin Hood … But I never loved or was loved in the context of a fairy tale. Dickens claimed that he wanted to marry Little Red Riding Hood, which to me is a category error. Either he had seen a pretty actress in a red hood in a pantomime, or his hugely animating imagination could even insulate itself into the closed box of finite gestures. Character feels wrong in folktales.”
“I am not sure how much good is done by moralizing about fairy tales. This can be unsubtle — telling children that virtue will be rewarded, when in fact it is mostly simply the fact of being the central character that ensures a favorable outcome.”
The Introduction: Tatar’s introduction is lengthy and enjoyable3. She makes some general observations about books and then does a brief rundown of her personal connection to a number of specific stories. Here are some thoughts that I really liked:
“Magic happens in nearly every one of these tales, but the real wonder is that no one ever feels that slightest shock. A girl meets a wolf in the woods and is not at all astonished when he engages in a conversation about her grandmother.”
“With the Bible and Shakespeare, the Grimms’ collection ranks among the best-selling books of the Western world. ‘In an old-fashioned household,’ Baron Munchausen reports, ‘Grimms’ fairy takes occupied a position midway between the cookbook and the hymnal.'”
“Those who expect to find role models for children in fairy tales will be deeply disappointed. Parents will look in vain for so-called family values in stories that show us a widower wooing his daughter, a woman lacing up and suffocating her stepdaughter, and her father turning over his daughter to a greedy king. But these stories all meet one important requirement for a good children’s book: they show the triumph of the small and meek over the tall and powerful.”
The Children’s Tales: Nothing much to report here. A translation of a number of Grimm tales — specifically ones that worked their way in the the Brother’s later collection, Children’s Stories and Household Tales. One thing I did like was Tatar’s wording of birds’ the rhyme in “Cinderella:”
“Roo coo coo, roo coo coo,
Blood is dripping from the shoe:
The foot’s too long and far too wide,
Go back and find the proper bride.”
The Adult Tales: This is where the book gets interesting. Tatar spends some time in her introduction talking about how after the Grimms’ first publication was a success, they set to making a version more suitable for children. In that spirit, Tatar includes some more adult stories that didn’t make the cut. After each one, she includes about a page of analysis. She points out how closely the story resembles earlier folktales and postulates why it might have not been considered acceptable to contemporary readers. Among the most shocking is the amazingly-racist “The Jew in the Brambles” which must be read to be believed.
Bonus Features: In back of the book are a few nice resources. First, a fascinating 10 page biography of Jacob and Wilhelm, which gave me a lot more information than any Wikipedia page ever could. Following that is the original preface (written by the Brothers) to the first edition of Children’s Stories and Household Tales. Lastly, there is a collection of favorite quotations about fairy tales that Tatar has amassed over the years. Below are my two favorites:
“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already. … But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards of death by water they influence the future. I suppose what is why books excited us so much. What do we ever get nowadays to equal the excitement and revelation in those first fourteen years?” – Graham Greene
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” – Mae West
What I Liked: There is no shortage of Brothers Grimm collections out there. A few too many people are still trying to shock readers with the revelation that “these ain’t your Uncle Walt’s fairy tales!” — a super-cool piece of trivia when I was nine years old … now, not so much. That said, I did learn some new things in Tatar’s collection, especially with regards to how the Grimms decided to edit and sanitize their own previous publication. That and the resources in section three of the book make it a welcome addition to our Fairy Tales Shelf.
What I Didn’t Like: As I mentioned earlier, Tatar follows each of the adult tales with a bit of editorial analysis. This is great for a reader like me who has trouble learning in a vacuum. I really, really, really wish she had been able to include this sort of information after the Children’s tales, which makes up the bulk of the collection. So, really, my only complaint is that I wanted more!
You can read a review of the book at The New Republic here.
Also, check out Maria Tatar’s blog, which is pretty swell.
- 1. It usually works out that Mary reads my free books and I read hers (something about the grass being greener, I’m sure.) ↩
- 2. On top of writing The Children’s Book, Byatt also penned an incendiary op-ed in the New York Times attacking Harry Potter … I can’t resist a contrarian! ↩
- 2. Mary has informed me that her name is pronounced “Tuh-tar” … and that she’s kind of a big deal ↩