Sunday, 29 July 2007

Johnny Tremain and the Irresistible Drumbeat of War

The Newbery medallist for 1944, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, is a historical novel about a young apprentice silversmith and is set in a Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Forbes’ biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In had won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history, and well, way to make the most of your obviously thorough research, Ms. Forbes.

At 14, the orphaned Johnny Tremain is a self-assured and driven boy. Before his mother died, she managed to teach him to read and write, arrange for his apprenticeship with a Mr. Lapham, silversmith, and also give him a silver cup with the Lyte family crest, telling him that if he were ever in dire straits to go to the Lytes for help.

Mr. Lapham was once a fine craftsman, but is becoming too feeble and too interested in preparing to meet his Maker to really be in effective charge of his workshop. The other two apprentices besides Johnny don’t really have the ability for, or interest in, their work. Johnny, therefore, has all the insufferable cockiness of a kid who is economically invaluable and more able than everyone around him and knows it. Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law has proposed that Johnny will eventually marry one of her four daughters in order to keep the shop in the family, and Johnny has no objection to marrying the third daughter, Cilla, who is clever, companionable, and his own age. Thus provided with insurance, skills, the opportunity to do work he loves, and the prospect of a bride and the ownership of an established business, Johnny is in a fair way to do well in life.

Then comes a tragic accident, and Johnny, who can no longer hope to be a silversmith, has nothing left but his pride and drive, and little food for either them or himself. The Laphams consider him a useless burden, and when he appeals to the Lytes, they accuse him of being a thief. After a long period of near despair and casting about for some worthwhile work that he can do, he does find some work as messenger and delivery boy for a newspaper. He learns to ride on a very difficult horse. He finds a friend in the newspaper’s typesetter Rab Silsbee, whom he looks up to and loves like a brother in a way only possible for those who don’t have any actual brothers, but more importantly, he finds a cause – the American Revolution.

This book – and the fact that I just previously reread L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside - got me thinking about the depiction of war in fiction. Doris Lessing, in her CBC Massey lecture “When in the Future They Look Back on Us” (as printed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), wrote:

In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about the war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives…. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating… an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.

Neither Forbes nor Montgomery shut their eyes to the excitement war generates. The stirring drumbeat of war is strong in both books. In Rilla of Ingleside, the little Glen community is energized and mobilized by the war. The characters in Rilla would have described themselves as primarily motivated by patriotism and duty, but they repeatedly marvel at their transformation from a people only interested in the gossip of their village to armchair military strategists. They work tirelessly and enthusiastically to “save and serve” by knitting socks, cutting back on sugar, and fundraising, and as Germany and Austria sue for peace near the end of the novel, one character wonders “if things won’t seem a little flat and insipid when peace really comes”.

In Johnny Tremain we find descriptions like “[a]ll over Boston was a feeling of excitement”, of men looking radiant and elated at the prospect of a fight, and of cheering crowds at the Boston Tea Party. But Forbes’ concept of war is far more nuanced and complex than L.M. Montgomery’s.

L.M. Montgomery, despite being an intelligent and well-read woman, was no less susceptible to propaganda than many people much less so and was sincerely convinced that World War I was a holy war. Again and again her characters describe themselves as fighting for an “idea” and against evil, to keep Canada safe and free from invaders, for a new world. They honestly believed that the Germans bayoneted babies and that Kitchener was some sort of military genius. The one man in their village who is anti-war and pacifist is also generally ignorant and a comic valentine, and is much persecuted. So many of these beliefs were so ridiculous, and even laughable, and it’s very telling that Montgomery never tells us what this “idea” is. We now know that WWI, far from being a righteous war, was simply a case of one imperialistic country picking a fight with another imperialistic country, and then a number of other countries jumping quite heedlessly into the fray. The Germans never had any notion of invading Canada, and never bayoneted babies. The pig-headed and inept Kitchener, who sent out many regiments of cavalry against tanks and was probably answerable for more Allied deaths than any single German officer, should have been court-martialled, not revered. And as for the new world, well, if it were ever in the offing it’s been very slow to arrive.

Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain isn’t anti-war. I doubt Forbes could have even got away with such a strain in her novel given that she wrote and published it during World War II. But being the historian she was, and writing from a distance of over 150 years (Rilla of Ingleside was published in 1920), and probably being of a less romantic, idealistic cast of mind, Forbes achieved a least some of the balance and perspective Montgomery totally lacked.

Johnny is fired up by the speechmaking of revolutionary groups and believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is fighting for freedom, so that “a man can stand up”. It’s a seemingly inevitable part of the American creed to believe this in every struggle, to the point where in a movie such as Independence Day there’s a lot of rhetoric about American freedom and independence and the characters seem to be idiotically blind and deaf to the fact that real issue seems to be one of mere survival for the entire human race. Johnny believes that he must join in the Revolution so that a man may stand up. Of course the issue of freedom for the slaves in the United States is not addressed – it would have thrown a significant curve into the fine sounding talk of freedom. And in fairness to Forbes, it’s only realistic that she should depict the American Revolutionaries this way. I do question whether it was really necessary for the Americans to battle the British for independence given that Canada and Australia have become autonomous without bloodshed, but never mind. Not every novel needs to address every moral question. And then too, sometimes, as Doris Lessing points out, we do need to acknowledge the attraction and benefits of war has for us if we’re ever to learn how to avoid it more often.

So perhaps it’s enough that Johnny may find his redemption in and be a believer in the Revolution, but is not a true believer. He gets to know some of the British officers and can’t help admiring and respecting some of them, and he’s all too miserably aware of the fact that though he himself is only a generation removed from England, that most Revolutionary-era Americans and the British are one people ethnically, and that though individually the British soldiers will be kind and decent to him, collectively they are his sworn enemies. He hears a street fight outside the door of the print shop where he works, and though he doesn’t lift a finger to help, he is sickened by the sounds of a number of Whigs beating a Tory who bravely tried to prevent them from attaching a placard to his shop. He is heartsick at the sight of both British and American wounded. Forbes does point out that the American newspapers were allowed to print whatever they wanted until the outbreak of war and that the tea tax amounted to very little, and she is honest about the twisted morality and human costs of war.

Johnny Tremain is excellent both in terms of being an adventure novel and one which traces the development and coming of age of a young boy, and it acknowledges both the bad and good things that can come of war and crippling injuries and a best friend’s attentions to a girlfriend formerly taken for granted. And I have to concede that’s probably enough ground for one book to cover.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky and of Deplorable Words

Lucky Trimble, the main character of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky, is ten years old and one of the 43 occupants of Hard Pan, California. Lucky’s mother, Lucille, died when Lucky was eight. Lucky’s father, who never wanted a child and was never a part of Lucky’s life, calls upon his first wife, Brigitte Trimble, to come to the U.S. to take care of Lucky until she can be placed in foster care. Brigitte leaves France for what she initially assumed would be a short stay in California, and two years later is still living with Lucky in their trailer in Hard Pan. Lucky, with her passion for natural science, her dog HMS Beagle, her part-time job as cleaner-up of Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, is doing quite well in the custody of the loving and resourceful Brigitte. But Lucky has one great fear – that Brigitte will put her in an orphanage or foster care and return to France.

Self-sufficient Lucky, who carries a survival kit/backpack around with her at all times, can open a can of beans without a can opener, scare a snake out of a dryer, and remove a bug from her ear, and she sets out to solve this problem too. She eavesdrops on the 12-step meetings that take place in the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and puzzles over the concept of a Higher Power. All the people who testify in these meetings say they hit rock bottom, found their Higher Power and then got their lives all straightened out, so Lucky thinks if she could only figure out what her Higher Power is she could get control of her life too. Lucky never does figure out what her Higher Power is, but she devises a plan to make Brigitte realize that staying with Lucky is more important than going back to France, except that, with the added complications of a windstorm and the company of five-year-old Miles, her plan doesn’t work out quite as she expected.

The Higher Power of Lucky is, at 135 pages, a short book, but not a slight one. It’s definitely for younger readers without being exclusively so. It did leave me contemplating the likelihood of a first wife’s agreeing to drop everything, cross the Atlantic and take care of the motherless child of her ex-husband’s second marriage, but Patron has created characters that live their lives as they see fit without regard for any reviewer’s silly concepts of convention or reasonable behaviour. Brigitte is obviously an open, generous, and spontaneous sort of person. She no longer loves her ex-husband, but when she made an emergency trip to the U.S. (probably for the sake of a tragically bereaved little girl, possibly also in the spirit of adventure) and discovered she loved Lucky (and maybe California), her short visit became a new phase in her life. It does seem a sheer statistical improbability that there would be anonymous 12-step groups for alcoholics, overeaters, smokers AND gamblers in a community with a population of 43, but never mind – it’s possible if not likely that the members commute from other towns.

There’s hardly a false note in the characterization of the children – Lucky, Lincoln, and Miles. I especially loved the depiction of their various interests and obsessions. Lincoln is ambivalent about his mother’s conviction of his presidential destiny and is much more interested in being a contributing member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers and the knots he ties incessantly. He’s also concerned with adding some necessary punctuation to a “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” road sign (and as an editor, I can only applaud this particular intellectual pursuit). Miles, who lives with his grandmother and is not clear on the whereabouts or regard of his mother, hugs a filthy copy of Are You My Mother and goes from house to house asking for cookies and readings of his book. Lucky collects bugs and, having been taught something of natural selection in science class, theorizes that she’s been dowered with sand-coloured hair, skin and eyes because they’re adapted to her environment. She’s plainly possessed of a full share of scientific curiosity and, besides her search for a Higher Power, speculates on the difference between her and Brigitte’s feet, the uses of parsley, and the meaning of the word scrotum.

Which leads me to the controversy concerning this book.

In the early months of this year, when I had just begun work on my Newbery review project and was on the alert for the announcement of the 2007 Newbery winner, the very first thing I heard about The Higher Power of Lucky was that there was a uproar over the book’s use of the word “scrotum”. This New York Times article on the controversy reports that a handful of states have banned the book and a number of school librarians are refusing to order it because of this issue. Andrea Koch, the librarian at French Road Elementary School in Brighton, New York, said in an interview, “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson”. Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, New Jersey, said, “If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.”

I can understand a teacher or librarian not wanting to have to explain to a class of nine-year-olds what a “scrotum” is. And perhaps teachers and librarians can understand why I didn’t want to have to manually input over 500 apostrophes into a file that had been accidentally stripped of the same by a data processing program at the publishing house where I work. But in both cases, not wanting to undertake a task is not a justification for refusing to do it. Surely children should know the correct names for the various portions of the human anatomy, and if teachers and librarians – and parents – will go to such lengths to avoid doing so, this begs the question of who is doing so.

I suppose there is an argument to be made that the presence of the word in this book will cause a certain derailment of a class reading. And yes, there’s no real need to read this particular excellent book out loud to a class of nine-year-olds, because there are many other excellent books available for that purpose. But there’s no excuse for refusing to add this book to a school or public library. Libarians and teachers who cannot deal with the prospect of children approaching them singly to ask the meaning of the word scrotum might do well to reconsider their career paths (and incidentally, Lucky does finally get an adult’s matter-of-fact explanation at the end of the book, so a child who read this book would not have to approach a squeamish teacher or librarian). Parents who would try to have this book banned from the school might remind themselves that the word scrotum is also in the dictionary and that we’ve no plans to remove those from schools. We don't need to be so afraid of words in books as this.

Patron is also criticized in the article for “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far [she] could push the envelope, but [she] didn’t have the children in mind” by Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado. I disagree that Patron is being deliberately provocative or that she didn’t consider her audience.

Here’s the context for the deplorable word. Lucky first hears the word scrotum when Short Sammy, one of the people in the AA meeting, designates his rock bottom experience as the time his dog Roy got bitten in the scrotum by a rattlesnake and Short Sammy was too drunk to go to the dog’s aid. Throughout the story Lucky ponders the possible meaning of the word:

Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green the comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important, and Lucky was glad she was a girl and would never have such an aspect as a scrotum to her own body. Deep inside she thought she would be interested in seeing an actual scrotum. But at the same time – and this is where Lucky’s brain was very complicated – she definitely did not want to see one.

Patron claims to have put the word in partly for sheer love of word play, and partly because it’s simply a part of growing up, and both motives are good ones.

The very way the word is presented perfectly captures several important aspects of childhood experience. One such dimension to the childhood experience is the polarized force of sexual matters have for children – the simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Lucky intuits that a scrotum is something taboo, and both wants to know and doesn’t want to know more about it. Then too, Patron’s portrayal of this interest of Lucky’s, like Lucky’s other hobbies and intellectual pursuits, as well as those of Lincoln and Miles, is a terrific rendering of the way children pick up on things and become fascinated with them regardless of their intrinsic importance or whether those items are those adults would have chosen for them. Children, like adults, have to have room to create their own internal world and to follow their own interests, even if that means the adults around them don’t entirely approve of the child’s preoccupations.

And we adults also have to be adult enough to realize that children’s fiction – like any other fiction – is not written for the express purpose of making the reader’s friends, parents, or teachers comfortable.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Thimble Summer and the Winter of a Reviewer’s Discontent

Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.

I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).

Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.

Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.

Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.

Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.

I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.

I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

For the Love of Knitting and the Dislike of Reading About It

When I was at Winners last week I happened to spy a book on knitting in the bargain bin. I ran over to look at it, moth to flame-style, and it turned out not to be a book of patterns, as I had hoped, but a glossy, hardcover, quasi-coffeetable book (does that make it an endtable book?) called For the Love of Knitting: A Celebration of the Knitter’s Art, which featured articles on knitting written by the “names” of the knitting world, and a lot of pictures. Disappointed, I turned it over to look at the price, and found the sticker said $2. If the book had been $20 or even $10, I would have left it in the bin, but I felt it was worth $2 to get possession of all those lovely pictures of vintage knitting patterns and contemporary knitted art and I hoped there might be interesting bits of trivia buried somewhere in the articles. But I didn’t expect much from the articles themselves.

I’m an avid knitter and rarely leave the house without a knitting project tucked into my handbag. I’ve been knitting since I was eight. If I’d had my way, I’d have begun knitting at the age of six, but I had to waste two long years begging my mother to show me how to knit. (I was basically pure id as a child. Mum, knowing my high-strung, easily frustrated temperament, postponed the dreaded ordeal of teaching me for as long as she could stand my pestering her about it.) I’m an even more avid reader. But I don’t like reading about knitting.

As I read and perused For the Love of Knitting I wondered why. It’s probably at least partly for the same reason I don’t have the patience to watch cooking or decorating shows or have much interest in porn. Some things are meant to be done rather than passively watched or read about. So, though I am usually all about text, and I have a three-foot shelf full of knitting books and magazines, I don’t often read the articles therein.

I have realized lately that this is at least partly a mistake. For years I considered myself an expert knitter because I could make an item from a pattern rated at the expert level of difficulty without any trouble, write a pattern for a pictured sweater, and design my own items, usually by just making them up as I go along. But it’s since dawned on me that I’m not an expert knitter. I have much the same attitude towards the technical aspects of knitting as I do about computers – meaning I learn the bare minimum of how-to stuff that will enable to me to do what I specifically want to do. I only know one way to cast on and one way to cast off. Many knitting techniques are as Greek to me. I also have bad form (meaning I hold the needles and the yarn wrong), which slows me down considerably. And meanwhile, in both fields, there could be much faster and better ways of doing the things I already do, and so much more that I would like to do if I only knew it were possible. So I’ve resolved to correct this, though the prospect of having to overcome a 25-year-old muscle memory is less than welcome.

But my attitude towards the human interest sort of knit lit remains the same. Most of it is so boring and inane. For all the articles rhapsodizing about the joy of knitting or waxing philosophical about knitting or reminiscing about their childhood memories of knitting, and the jokey accounts of yarn stashes grown to mammoth proportions, I can summon no interest whatsoever. I even dislike patterns written in a chatty style. I suppose this is because I primarily read to learn, and there is nothing new anyone can tell me about the addictive rhythm of knitting or the tactile and visual pleasures of beautiful wool. I might like intelligent articles about the Zen or Dao of knitting if they were written by someone who actually knew something about Zen or Dao philosophies, but those sorts of articles are always written by someone who knows lots about knitting and only the merest scrapings of philosophy.

The jokey articles about knitting are some of the most painful, because they’re plainly intended to be funny and practically never are. I’ve read Yarn Harlot Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s two books Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, and At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, and the cutesy “OMG I am so obsessed with knitting that I have yarn stuffed into my piano and will spend two hours searching for a lost needle” shtick wears pretty thin after the first page or so. Yes, I recognize this is just my opinion. McPhee’s blog does seem to be very popular, and she’s so well-known to knitters that the staff at Toronto’s yarn store Romni Wool freely quote her at me. And I will say that it was McPhee’s books that brought me to my epiphany about not being the great knitter I thought I was, that it was pretty funny when a neurosurgeon told McPhee that she could never learn to knit because it was too hard, and that I find McPhee’s practice of knitting during the down times of her midwifery patients’ deliveries and then presenting mother and baby with the finished items unqualifiedly charming.

For the Love of Knitting’s editor Kari Cornell has shown a certain amount of taste in gathering materials for the book, because the essays and stories in For the Love of Knitting are among the less tiresome examples of the genre. The book does have a number of the ubiquitous nostalgic, rhapsodic, saccharine, and pseudo-comic material about learning to knit, the amibience at favourite yarn shops, the impossibly complex knitting projects that take over one’s life, and places to keep one’s hoard of yarn, but there were also some more interesting and original articles.

I liked the article about a woman who, during a scarf-knitting marathon for Christmas, devised a way of knitting while standing up on a crowded subway (feet wide apart and parallel, knees slightly bent, body facing 45 degree angle to the direction of the train). I tried it myself this past week, and it does work. I also liked Naomi Dagen Bloom’s account of how her husband took up spinning because I got learn something about a craft I know next to nothing about (and I did my best to crush any spinning temptations that arose in me). Perri Klass’s article about the sweaters she did and did not knit for her father was fairly well-written. I’ve read some of her articles in Vogue Knitting before and somehow they always stay with me. Also readable was knitting artists Teva Durham's and Pam Allen’s articles about knitting’s stepchild status in the art world, and Sigrid Arnott’s article about knitting as an anti-capitalist act, and Clinton W. Trowbridge’s piece about the history of male knitters, and the tribute to Elizabeth Zimmerman. And of course, the pictures in this book are the visual feast my quick flip through at Winners promised: the vintage postcards, magazine covers, knitting patterns, and Red Cross posters; the photos of knitted art (which include teacups and the coracle that actually floats); the still lifes of yarn and needles, and the paintings that depict knitting through the ages. (Though Cornell neglected to include one of my sentimental favourite knitting paintings, "Les Sabot" by François Boucher. When I fist saw "Les Sabot" at the Art Gallery of Ontario seven or eight years ago, I informed the man I was seeing at the time that it was “our painting”.)

But though I managed to get through this knitting book with a modicum of enjoyment, I am still not convinced to join the readership of this softer side of knitting writing. I’m sure it’s only a personal preference. Knitting is an art, and I am the sort of person who wants only to enjoy making and looking at art, and to know how to create it, and to know something about its history, while the esoteric words, words, words criticism of it and the amateurish, gushing, navel-gazing prose the artistic community churns out interests me not at all.

I do have a passion for books of patterns, and I like to look at patterns and pictures online (especially those with a sense of humour, such as those at but the only kinds of knitting blogs I visit are those which mock the bad patterns turned out by professional designers who presumably should know better. Every issue of Knit.1 and Vogue Knitting gives them fresh fodder. Knit.1 seems to be targeted at people who don't know how to knit and presumably are so carried away by the prospect of making anything that they'll actually use a cellphone cosy pattern. But dear Vogue Knitting, you are trying far too hard to reinvent the wheel and you are resorting to patterns that aren't attractive or even wearable. Moreover, knitted pants soon stretch out to the point of being unwearable. Relentless mocking shall be your portion until you understand these things.

You Knit What?? seems to have been the original of these pattern debunking sites, and I enjoyed it so much I created a Metafilter front page post about it. Then, after the people who created You Knit What?? stopped updating it, worthy imitators took up the cause. If you like this sort of thing, try visiting:

You Knit What, Part 2
The Needle and the Damage Done
What the Fugly

There’s also What Not To Crochet.

I confine my knitting reading to pictures and patterns, to technical information, to interesting historical trivia, and to the fun of those point-and-laugh websites featuring awful knitting patterns. And then I have more time to actually knit. Or to read some really satisfying novels and non-fiction. Which is the way it should be. Knitting and reading don't mix that well.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

A Bridge Between Children and Adults

At one point after the movie My Girl came out, I heard a radio announcer quip that for him the movie was just so much more enjoyable after Macaulay Culkin’s character died. I don’t think anyone who reads Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terebithia, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978, will be inclined to say that of the death of a child character in the book. I’ve read Bridge to Terebithia twice, and the second reading was almost harder to bear because even pre-tragedy I felt such a sick dread of the passages that lay ahead. Paterson wrote the book after her son David's eight-year-old friend Lisa was struck and killed by lighting. David Paterson is now an adult and married with children of his own, but still finds Bridge to Terebithia difficult to read. I am not surprised. Bridge to Terebithia will never become one of the books I read and reread because it tears me up — and all my childhood friends are alive and kicking and posting to

The main character, Jess Aarons, is a ten-year-old farm boy who feels, and indeed really is, something of a thwarted misfit in his own life. He has a passion for drawing and painting and dislikes sports, which doesn’t exactly win him a lot of respect among the other boys at his rural school. There seems to be no art instruction whatsoever at his school (was this really ever the case in public schools during the seventies?) and the only teacher who doesn’t discourage him by telling him not to waste time or paper is the music teacher, with whom Jess is secretly in love.

At home Jess is the only boy of five children. One of best things about Bridge to Terebithia is the Aarons family dynamic. Jess’s four sisters are especially well drawn. We can completely understand and sympathize with Jess’s irritation with his sisters, and with how they make him feel marginalized in his own family, but at the same time see that they seem like perfectly ordinary girls with both good and bad qualities. Jess’s older sisters, the high-school-aged Ellie and Rhonda, fuss a lot about wanting clothes and makeup, shirk their share of the chores, and complain about Jess being smelly. Four-year-old Joyce Ann throws a lot of tantrums as a way of holding her own with her much older siblings. Jess likes six-year-old May Belle, who adores him and shows promise of developing into a good companion for him a few years down the road, but in the meantime he doesn’t always want her tagging around after him.

Jess’s mother and father are trying to raise too many children on too little money. Under the stress of this his mother becomes sharp and quick-tempered, and his father’s long work hours mean he is absent much of the time, and absent-minded when physically present. They’re too overworked to have much time or energy to cater to Jess’s non-physical needs, and on many days their efforts to communicate with him consist of their asking if he’s done the milking yet. Jess must draw in spare moments, and in his room, with the door shut, because his mother considers it a waste of time and his father doesn’t think it a suitably masculine activity for his only son.

In an effort to carve out a better place for himself in his world, Jess spends all the early morning hours of the summer between fourth and fifth grade in the cow pasture, training himself to run. He dreams of winning the lunchtime races at school and thinks if he can become the fastest runner he can win the liking and respect of the other kids and of his family. And then on the first day of school his new neighbour, Leslie Burke, shows up and wins all the races easily. But Jess soon gets over this disappointment because something better arrives on its heels.

Leslie Burke is another especially well-done element in this novel. Paterson has managed to create a little girl who is intelligent and imaginative without being precious. I don’t think Paterson did quite as well with Leslie’s parents. Judy and Bill Burke are successful and well-to-do writers who have moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in the country to “reassess their value structure”. Yes, they use those words. Their daughter calls them by their first names, and they have “a lot of hair”, stacks of records and books but no television set, speak French and talk a lot about world issues and drive a small, dusty yet expensive car. In thinking over Paterson’s characterization of the Burkes I thought the only thing missing was the yogurt, and then while paging through the book I came across the fact that Leslie had yogurt in her lunchbox for her first day at school. But then I’m reminded of someone I knew who used to criticize her sister for “being cliché” because her sister wore her hair long and parted in the middle, scorned makeup, sported tie-dyed clothing, ate health food, and visited a naturopath, as though owning a house in the suburbs, wearing sweaters with cats on them, and doing counted cross stitch projects were any more original, or as though anyone’s life is. By the same token Jess’ family, with their double negatives, double names and beaten-up pick up truck are just as cliché as the Burkes in superficial terms, but we see more of them and get to observe the inner workings of their family in a much more intimate way, and so they transcend the material features of their lives and seem much more real. We don’t see enough of the Burkes, and they seem too idealized, to come across as convincing.

But the same cannot be said of Leslie, though we don’t get to know her nearly as well as Jess. Leslie’s parents treat her more as a companion than as a child, and this combined with her own considerable natural aptitude has made her very advanced intellectually. She does brilliant schoolwork, and is a gifted athlete, and in general is the kind of child adults cherish. But we get to see how these very qualities make her an outcast at school, where the other children show the intolerance of difference that is usual in homogenous kid culture. The boys at school might have come to accept that a girl wants to run in their recess races, but they can’t adjust to the fact that she wins every race so easily that it takes all the suspense out of it. The girls don’t care for the fact that Leslie wears tank tops and cut-offs and looks like a boy. And the Burkes’ lack of a TV demolishes whatever social prospects Leslie might have had left.

Jess and Leslie become friends partly through proximity and self-preservation, but their friendship soon becomes more about their natural affinity. Leslie and Jess create a magical imaginary kingdom called Terebithia, and build a “castle stronghold” (which to adult eyes is a lean-to) in the woods, and stock it with water, nails and elastics, and crackers and dried fruit in case of siege. Together they are king and queen, rulers of Terebithia, and Jess discovers both the transforming and sustaining powers of friendship and imagination. Leslie, being quite a well-balanced girl, has no inclination to stay in Terebithia all the time, and draws Jess out by talking to him about current events, concocting and enacting a diabolically elegant plan of revenge for a mean seventh grade girl who steals May Belle’s Twinkies – and by later showing compassion for the seventh grader. Jess’s friendship with Leslie does so much for him he doesn’t care what anyone at school or home says about him hanging around with a girl. I find it more than a bit of a stretch that a 10-year-old farm boy would say that he can’t capture “the poetry of the trees” in his drawings, but at the same time it was just the kind of thing he could say to Leslie knowing that she would understand. And when tragedy strikes, Jess, with all his grief, finds his friendship with Leslie has given him what he needs to go on. The adults of his world prove that they are perfectly capable of being sensitive to his needs when roused from their own concerns, and Jess is able to respond to them, and to begin to see that May Belle needs his friendship as much as he ever needed Leslie’s.

I’ve read two of Katherine Paterson’s other novels: The Great Gilly Hopkins (which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1979), and Jacob Have I Loved (for which I have very mixed feelings, but which I’ll be reviewing sooner or later because it won the Newbery in 1981). Although all involve significant character growth, I wouldn’t call any of them coming-of-age novels. In all these three books Paterson’s characters grapple with very grim and rather grown-up issues. The problems they deal with and the emotions they feel are not those which they will laugh at in 20 years’ time. When Jess’s father says to his grieving son, “Hell, ain’t it?” he is relating to him not as father to child but as one human being to another, and his few words contain the recognition that such things keep happening to you and tearing you up all your life, and that they cannot be fixed, only endured. Paterson has made her books about universal human experience rather than about definitively childhood experience, and has laced her work with the kind of rock-bottom honesty that is the best ground on which to meet grief. And it is exactly these qualities that makes her novels both so difficult and so powerful to read.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

A Minstrel of the Thirteenth Century and an Author for All Time

Of all the Newbery-winning writers, I am definitely most knowledgeable about the author of 1943’s Adam of the Road, Elizabeth Janet Gray, or Elizabeth Gray Vining as she would later be known. I can’t claim to have read everything she wrote, as with some other authors, and despite my having taken it upon myself to enlarge the partial bibliography for Vining’s Wikipedia page substantially, I am not even sure I know about all her books.

I own just a dozen of Vining's books, all bought in thrift shops or from eBay (and still remember the shock of utter joy that hit me when I came across a copy of her 1972 novel The Taken Girl in the former Goodwill at Toronto’s Adelaide and Jarvis when I didn’t even know the book existed, or that Vining ever had changed her professional name). Besides the books that I own, I have borrowed a number of others from the library, among them The Quiet Pilgrimage, Vining’s characteristically unassuming autobiography. She fascinates me on a number of levels, not only for what she accomplished, but also for the remarkable person she was. And let me just say that there may be more talented writers on the Newbery list, but I’ll hazard a guess that there aren’t any other former tutors to the Crown Prince, now Emperor Akihito, of Japan.

Vining is an almost forgotten author these days, which seems a shame. Of all her (known to me) 24 books of fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children, only Adam of the Road is listed on, and even it is described as “temporarily unavailable”.

I’m not going to campaign to have all Vining's books reprinted, because as much as I’ve loved her work over the past 20 years since I first discovered it, some of them truly are dated and a few are not very good. But surely at least some of her children’s novels could find readers and buyers today. Besides Adam of the Road, I’d suggest as the best candidates for reprinting Meggy MacIntosh, set in the 1770s, in which a plain, witty orphaned Scottish girl runs away from her Edinburgh home and indifferent aunt and uncle and beautiful cousin to go to America in an effort to meet her heroine Flora MacDonald only to find the country on the eve of revolution; and also The Taken Girl, set in the 1830s, in which another orphaned girl finds a home with a Quaker family in Philadelphia, falls in love with the young and dashing John Greenleaf Whittier (though being a Quaker he is dashing in the quiestest and most restrained of ways), and begins to do her bit in the movement to end slavery.

Vining’s books would be named as Newbery Honor Books three times before she won the medal for Adam of the Road in 1943 — for the novels Meggy MacIntosh, in 1931 and Young Walter Scott, in 1936, and for the biography of William Penn Penn in 1939. With the possible exception of Meggy MacIntosh, the Newbery committee chose well in determining the medallist among those four books.

Adam of the Road is a historical novel, set in thirteenth-century England, and concerns 11-year-old Adam Quartermayne, son of Roger the Minstrel. It’s very much an adventure novel in which Adam, in his travels along the roads of England from Oxford to London and Winchester and then back again, becomes separated from his beloved spaniel Nick and his adored father Roger, and must make his way alone until he can find his father and his dog again.

One of the best currents in Adam of the Road is Adam’s strong sense of vocation. In those days people generally had to do whatever line of work their parents did. Adam naturally is being taught the craft of minstrelsy by his father, and is expected to perform along side Roger and help earn their food, clothing and shelter, but he also has both the talent and the ambition to become a good minstrel himself. Even in his hardest moments, even when he is alone, penniless, hungry, and walking along wintry English roads barefoot, the knowledge that he is a minstrel, that he has skills to develop and work to do, is the one thing that never deserts him. He composes songs to sustain himself when most discouraged, and so long as there are people around him, he will set about entertaining them.

Vining wrote a number of historical novels—of her fifteen novels (twelve for children, three for adults), at least nine are set in the long past—and so obviously did her homework in terms of meticulous research into whatever period she used. The settings in her historical novels are always wonderfully well done. Adam of the Road is fabulously evocative and packed with details. The characters in it quote the proverbs of Alfred, tie a bit of red worsted around their cows’ tails to keep the witches away, and enjoy their meals of fat partridge or pottage according to their means. The reader can smell and hear and taste thirteenth-century England. The dialogue is probably not so authentic, but I can definitely cut Vining some slack for that, as truly historical accurate dialogue would probably be almost incomprehensible to contemporary readers. She does infuse the dialogue with as much thirteenth-century idiom and as many figures of speech as she can. I’m no historian, but it seems to me her characterizations are very definitely twentieth century. Adam thinks and acts much like an 11-year-old boy of these days would if plopped down on a thirteenth century English road (barring the panic and culture shock engendered by the sudden time travel, of course). And this is true of all Vining’s historical children’s novels. Eighteenth century Meggy MacIntosh’s psychological makeup is very much akin to The Fair Adventure’s Page MacNeil or Sandy’s Sandy Callam, who were girls of the 1940’s.

I’m not sure this “modern-style” characterization is a flaw. I don’t think we can ever really enter into the psychology of another time, and even if Vining had been able to do so through exhaustive research and strenuous imaginative effort it doesn’t seem likely that she would be able to make a thirteenth-century facsimile mindset comprehensible to her readers. It’s also possible that Vining, in her children’s books, deliberately decided to forego creating historically accurate characterizations. Her John Donne, the main protaganist in Take Heed of Loving Me (which is, due to availability, the only one of her adult novels that I have read), seems much less contemporary. Either way, Vining, intentionally or not, settled for concentrating on making her juvenile characters true to human nature as she understood it, and as her insight into human nature was excellent, this was a happy compromise because it makes her books so readable for twentieth and twenty-first century children.

I said above that some of Vining’s work is too dated to reprint, but I do not mean by this that her thinking or values are dated. On the contrary, Vining had the true historian’s long view of human behaviour and events. Born in 1902, she wrote in her 1970 autobiography that she had no objection to the long hair of the young, because there was nothing sacred about short hair. Men, she commented, had only been wearing their hair short for a few hundred years. The Puritans had cut theirs short as an act of defiance and been sneered at by the establishment. By way of comparison with a more typical contemporary of Vining’s, my grandmother was born in 1905 and, though she had many excellent qualities, this kind of tolerance (and especially tolerance born of erudition) was not among them. I distinctly recall Grandma, circa 1988, tartly asking one of my brothers if we had lost the scissors at our house.

If I have a favourite among Vining’s books, it is The Fair Adventure, the story of an almost seventeen-year-old girl’s summer following her high school graduation. It may not be the best of Vining's books, but it’s the funniest and Page’s efforts to find her own equilibrium in the midst of a large, talkative, active family all too absorbed in their own concerns to pay much attention to their youngest member makes for a good light read. But, stripped of its 1940 cover (which features Page in a polka-dotted swiss dress with puffed sleeves and a large hairbow) and put into a cover with a more contemporary design, I think it would merely bemuse today’s readers as it’s neither fish nor fowl, neither historical novel nor a passably contemporary one. They’d wonder why Page has to ask her father for permission to get her hair permed and why, when she does not get the scholarship to the college she dreams of attending and her parents tell her they cannot afford to send her, Page does not get a summer job and apply for student loans.

It is only Vining’s contemporary novels that have dated in this way, while her historical novels are almost without exception ripe for reprint. And while her characterizations and dialogue might make a historical purist wince, anyone else who read her books would be too busy enjoying them to care.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

A Good Song Among Many

The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.

It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.

Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.

Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.

I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.

I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”

No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.

Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.

And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Tales as Beautiful As They Are Good, Though They Are Neither One

The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.

I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.

When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)

There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.

I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.

Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.

I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Real Fantasy

Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is one of the books on the Newbery list I have most dreaded reviewing. When it comes to qualities that make a book the hardest to review, this novel has all the bases covered. I have read and reread it so many times over the past 20 years that it’s difficult to dredge up any even quasi-objective thoughts or fresh impressions about it. I love it and pretty much everything else McKinley has written, and I’ve already covered one Robin McKinley book in an earlier review, so my reserve of non-groupie-like praise for her work has already been exhausted. However, I am in a reviewing mood today and this review has to be written sometime if I’m ever to get through the Newbery winners list, so here we go.

I first read The Hero and the Crown 20 years ago, at the age of 13. I never related to Aerin, never felt I was like her, never wanted to be her nor even to be friends with her (even supposing that she would, theoretically, have wanted to be friends with me), never imagined myself a part of her world as so often did with my favourite books. All I knew was that she and Damar sucked me in and roared and clashed and happened all around me.

The Hero and the Crown, to try to sum it up briefly and without spoilers as per the reviewer’s rule book, is about Aerin, the daughter of a king of a country that is half magical fantasyland and half medieval. Aerin a bit of a misfit, though I hate to use the word, because it might lead to my using “ragtag” and “lovable” and because it smacks of Disney movies involving bands of lovable, ragtag misfits and I don’t want Disney or anything it spawns even that close to anything McKinley ever wrote.

So I’d better say that Aerin is somewhat at odds with her environment because her mother was a commoner who was suspected of being a witch and because Aerin has the kind of crankily independent personality that would pretty much guarantee her being at odds with any environment, anywhere. The people of her land and most of the royal household look askance at her, and she looks askance back. Aerin grows up in a melee that never knows what to make of her, and so she has to take matters into her own hands and make something of herself – retraining a lamed war horse of her father’s and inventing a new way to ride, learning how to use a sword, discovering a formula for dragonfire-proof salve, exterminating dragons, becoming a saving presence for her cousin and heir to the throne Tor, and eventually mustering all these acquired skills in defense of her country and people at a time of great dangers.

McKinley is probably incapable of creating a princess that is anything like the popular storybook conception of one. For Aerin’s world McKinley even ditches the word princess in favour of her own original royal hierarchy and terms. Aerin and her cousins are all ranked as first and second sols and solas and there are some political manoeuvrings and attempted sola climbing. Aerin, by the way, was born with more than her fair share of her father’s political acumen, though mostly she can’t be bothered to use it. Galanna, Aerin’s cousin, is more of a fairy tale stock character (specifically in a nasty stepsister sort of way), but even she is has some intelligence and depth and her tussles with Aerin are satisfyingly evenly matched, bring out the worst in both of them, and usually end in some kind of draw. McKinley shows the same inventiveness when it comes to Aerin’s heroic actions. Aerin's achievements are never unproblematic, and never win her the unqualified adoration of her people as it might in a lesser book. Luthe, the mage whose help she seeks (a mage being a sort of wizard with advanced training), finds his magical practice a complicated and troublesome thing and is just as subject to mistakes and impulses as any else in the book.

The last review I wrote and another one I am working on now have left me pondering the role of fantasy in our lives, and the qualities which make it satisfying. It seems to me that the more richly detailed and nuanced a fantasy is the more absorbing it will be. A princess may be as beautiful as she is good, but that won’t make her interesting. A reader doesn’t know – or want to know – Princess Goodie Gum Drops the ways she does Aerin, with her badly darned stockings and her rueful take on life. The paradox of fantasy is that the more real it seems, the more completely one can escape into it. A good fantasy world must be as rich in detail and as multilayered as the real world we inhabit. McKinley understands this, and that is why The Hero and the Crown and all her other books are unfailingly a world in themselves.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Chewing on Chicklit

On a recent trip to Value Village I came across a copy of Jemima J: a novel about ugly ducklings and swans, by Jane Green. I distinctly remembered a discussion about the book on the old forums. Everyone was united in loathing. So I spent the few dollars to buy it, thinking happily that there would be a lot of scope for ridicule in it and I could have fun trashing it in a review.

And then I read it. It really wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I’m not saying it’s good, mind you, just that it’s not completely unreadable and its failings provided me with some food for thought. In review terms this is what’s known as damning with qualified negatives, as in “You know, Madonna didn’t totally suck in Evita.” Am I recommending you read this book? No, go watch Evita instead. What I really want to do here is muse about some of the issues with Jemima J, and with chicklit in general.

I’m not widely read in this genre, but I have read a sampling: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones duo as well as her earlier (promising if not quite there) Cause Celeb and later (terrible) Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination; the first several books in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret; Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance, and probably more that I have forgotten because they were forgettable. I suppose I could do a feminist critique of these books and complain about how they reinforce stereotypes and trivialize women’s issues and how no one writes this kind of stupid crap for a male audience and so forth, but I won’t. My main problem with this genre is that I expect it to be fun and involving and that it so seldom is.

Not that such books aren’t enjoyable in spots. Helen Fielding does have a remarkable talent for satire and in the first Bridget Jones book she sends up the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of office, family, friendship, and relationship politics in a way that had me in hysterics more than once. The first Shopaholic book was genuinely fun in a confectionary style, with its pitch perfect comic rendering of behaviour out of control, and the attendant denial, procrastination, magical thinking, and resolutions broken again and again. I couldn’t help liking that in Jemima J Jemima accomplishes exactly what she attempts, and as for Elegance, well… so I'll put up with a lot to read about clothes and style. Bite me.

But as much as I enjoyed the fun parts of these books, I can’t give these writers a free pass for their sloppy literary technique any more than I can condone the life of the party driving drunk. By all means write a fun, frothy book, but don’t get lazy and flout the rules for writing fiction, which are always in force, no matter the genre. The characters must be multi-dimensional, the factual content adequately researched, the conflicts compelling, the plot believable, the prose competent, and so forth.

And I’ll go beyond this standard list of literary requirements and make a special request of chick lit writers: Please, please, PLEASE don’t create any more stupid, vapid heroines who fuck up everything they touch. It’s not cute and it’s not funny and it’s the single biggest failing and irritant of this genre. The second Bridget Jones movie was generally considered not as good as the first, and I believe this to be due at least in part because the second book wasn’t as good as the first. Helen Fielding borrowed the plot of Bridget Jones' Diary from Pride and Prejudice; for Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason she seems to have flown solo, with the result that both she and Bridget ran amok. I know a lot of women who were almost offended by the second movie. Bridget is supposed to be an ordinary woman, perhaps even an Everywoman (at least for the single, thirty-something crowd), and ordinary women expect an Everywoman to be much like themselves: intelligent, generally competent, and capable of both letting things slide and cleaning up well. We do not at all like the implication that ordinary women don’t know how to do their jobs properly, make basic decisions without the aid of their friends, or dress up becomingly for a special occasion. I spent the entire reading thinking alternately, “Can’t you do anything right?” and "How stupid can you be?" And let’s not even get into the notion that a 5’6” woman who weighs 140 pounds is fat.

But at least the Bridget Jones sequel wasn’t as bad as the Shopaholic sequels. It’s the same gag over again. And over again. Oh, and here it is again. Becky shops, and keeps shopping. And gets in financial trouble again. And pisses off her boyfriend/fiancé/husband again. And learns how wrong this all is. Until the next instalment. Rinse, repeat. Kinsella seems to be suffering from her own form of compulsion and is now up to her fifth book, Shopaholic and Baby. I can only hope she manages to stop herself before she reaches Shopaholic and Great-Grandbaby, in which Becky acquires a raft of designer walkers and false teeth and a bankrupted Luke moves out of their home to go live with their granddaughter, who is a voluntary simplicity guru.

It’s really no fun to read a book when one spends one’s entire time tapping one’s fingers waiting for the heroine to Get It. The premise of Elegance was a good one, but its execution wasn’t. I loved that a reading of a vintage book of fashion advice inspired the heroine to change her life. This is how inspiration works. It can spring from many sources; the simplest thing can galvanize you simply because you are ready to act. But there was something so conscious and mechanical about Louise’s journey. The book’s chapters are so topical, like a self-help book. Louise proceeds too neatly and efficiently from Learning Not To Settle to Learning Not to Spend Time with Toxic People to Learning Not To Be Afraid of Change, and the lessons she learns are just too clear cut and obvious. Her progression should have felt more organic and messy, like real change and growth always does.

In Jemima J, Jemima is at least not completely clueless. Nor is she a chronic mess who cannot develop any sort of self-control, a la Becky Bloomwood Branden or Bridget Jones. Over the course of the book, she loses 100 pounds, makes some new friends who care about her and falls in love with one of them, takes a trip to Los Angeles to meet a gorgeous man she met on the Internet, and sees her career options open up. Her friends assure her she’s a talented writer. She’s not. She’s a hack writer with a basic grasp of editing, but she has the ability and the work ethic required to churn out work to specifications, and in the world of fashion journalism to which she aspires, that will take her far. (Hey, it worked for Bonnie Fuller). And I liked that she has the self-discipline to do what’s necessary.

But… the novel isn’t funny, the characterizations are flat and stereotypical, and the plot twists are contrived. I’m less than enthusiastic about Green’s employment of dual narrative voices. She switches back and forth between Jemima’s first person narrative and an omniscient third person narrator. In the hands of a more skilled writer this could be an interesting way to structure a narrative. In Jemima J, it’s simply clunky, like a driver who can’t figure out what gear to use nor how to shift smoothly between them. The reader, to extend the analogy, winds up feeling like a confused and motion-sick passenger.

I’ve also read a number of criticisms on the net about the unrealistic elements of this book, and definitely agree with some of them. I don’t think Jane Green got the weight loss right. I’m going to hazard a guess and say Green has never been obese and that her research about it was cursory. Her depiction of Jemima’s weight loss project just does not have the ring of authenticity. I’m afraid those of us who have had to struggle with the occasional extra ten or twenty pounds are too prone to think we know all about what it’s like to be overweight. We don’t. Being 20 pounds overweight is nothing like being 100 or more pounds overweight. I struggle with my weight, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with such physical limitations and so many daily humiliations, to not be able to find anything in the stores to fit me, to live with the kind of abject self-loathing some obese people do, to have people avoid eye contact or glare at me because I sat next to them on the bus. This thread on MetaFilter about what it’s like to be obese made this clear to me. I can easily walk four miles in an hour regardless of what I happen to weigh. I don’t know what it would be like to feel as though my knees are full of broken glass after walking a couple of blocks. A blog linked to in that thread, Clemie’s Reasons Why, almost had me in tears because it seemed so tragic that such a young, intelligent, personable woman could be reduced to such abject shame that some days she hides when there is a knock at the door rather than have anyone see her.

Jemima loses 100 pounds in approximately three months, which is surely very unlikely if not completely impossible. Sure, she might have lost 30 pounds that first month, but she would have been VERY lucky to lose three or four pounds a week for those last twenty or thirty pounds – one or two pounds a week would be much more realistic. Dieting plateaus are inevitable no matter how disciplined one is, and her rate of loss would have gotten slower and slower the closer she got to her goal, especially when her goal weight of 120 was very thin for her 5’7” frame There’s also no mention of skin sag or stretch marks – I find it hard to believe that at that rate and amount of weight loss there was none.

Jemima does not buy any sort of a transitional wardrobe as she downsizes, and I don’t see how that could have been avoided, even leaving aside the consideration of how it would have made her look. In my experience 10 pounds (lost or gained) = approximately one clothing size. A hundred pounds lost would mean a drop of 10 clothing sizes. Since Jemima wears a size eight at her goal weight, her original clothing size would have been a 28 or thereabouts. Even if I'm way off in my estimate and her old size was say, an 18 or a 20, her old skirts, pants and underwear would have literally fallen off her before she hit her goal weight.

Then there’s the fact that she met a gorgeous L.A. fitness studio owner named Brad via the net. Some reader reviews I have seen on the net scoff at the idea that such an attractive man would use internet dating. I’m not incredulous. Extremely good-looking people do use internet dating services; I’ve met some of them myself. I don’t find it hard to believe that a man like Brad, who turns out to be very shallow (even more so than everybody else in the book, amazingly), would resort to Internet dating to meet a “perfect” girl who looks the part he wants her to play in his life. What I do find impossible to believe is that Jemima spent months regularly communicating with this man via telephone, internet and fax (the narrator comments that Brad proves during this time “to be the one light of her life”) and never realized how one-dimensional he was until she met him in person. Such a prolonged communication would soon peter out unless there were some serious metaphysical rapport to sustain it, and the two participants would get a very good sense of who the other was. That said, Green does depict the gradual deflation of Jemima and Brad’s relationship fairly well. It wasn’t quite necessary for her to throw in a coup de grâce plot twist that would put a definite end to it, especially one that wasn’t all that believable, but never mind.

Green also does reasonably well with Jemima’s adjustment to her weight loss. I recognized it from my own experience – for awhile you feel streamlined enough to take flight, and are giddily euphoric… and then you get used to it and you realize that weight loss isn’t magic, that it hasn’t essentially changed who you are or made your life complete. Jemima also has the late bloomer’s experience of social life and makes mistakes most women make at a younger age than 27, such as mistaking great sexual chemistry for love.

One of the notable things about this book is that it actually tries to document the experience of a fat woman. It doesn’t succeed at all well, and there are some truly offensive elements in it, such as the idea that it’s a shameful fetish for a man to find large women attractive (why is this any more kinky or weird than having a thing for redheads?) or the idea that Jemima must lose weight to find love and be happy (I know a number of overweight women whose partners adore them). But the book tells a story about a fat woman. And the fact that such a fourth-rate book is the one of the few I can think of that are about an overweight woman is very telling. Something like half the population of North America is overweight, yet in our novels and movies fat people are either completely absent, or relegated to being the sassy best friend, the comic relief, or the pathetic mess who must slim down before she can enter into the world of the people who are loved, who have successful careers and friends, who register with the rest of us. This says something about the disconnect between our collective imagination and our reality, and leaves me pondering the nature of fantasy and its appeal for us.

I may have daydreamed about being a princess as a child, but now my most satisfying day dreams are those that lie in the realm of possibility. Whether creating my own stories or watching or reading someone else’s, I don’t like being the caustic, disinterested observer, thinking, yeah, right, that would never happen. I like being able to enter wholly into a story, feeling both able to relate to the characters and able to experience a new world vicariously through them. And I know it’s difficult to create work of this calibre in any genre, but for some reason writers who write for a largely female audience (those who produce romances, chick lit, and the new and equally horrendous genre of “mom lit”) seem to get a special license to churn out garbage, probably because there’s a market for it. While we don’t necessarily get the fiction we deserve, we do get what we pay for.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Friends, Foes, and Shakespearean Drama in Canadian Media

Like a lot of other Canadians I read Margaret Wente’s column in The Globe and Mail at least semi-regularly, and again as is common with many other Canadians I find what she writes to be problematic to say the least. I won’t get into why as it would take much more time than I ever want to devote to Wente’s work. If you’d like to read that sort of thing, Tyrone Nicholas of Wente Watch has done quite a good job of critiquing Wente’s columns. Unfortunately Nicholas has decided he will no longer be updating his useful blog, but its archive is still accessible, and he links to other Wente critics on his sidebar.

What I wish to discuss here has to do with the particular nature of Wente’s running commentary on Conrad Black’s legal woes — and not incidentally, on his wife, Barbara Amiel Black. The latest of Wente’s columns on this topic was published this past Saturday and can be found here.

I have to admit I’ve been keeping tabs on the Conrad Black trial drama with something resembling avidity myself. To someone who works in publishing or media in Canada (and especially in Toronto), this story is catnip. For those of you who aren’t Canadian and/or media junkies, Black was a huge media figure here, and internationally, for many years. Black began buying small Canadian papers in the sixties and by the nineties his conglomerate Hollinger International controlled 60 percent of Canadian newspaper titles, as well as hundreds of daily papers in the United States, England, Australia and Israel. Hollinger’s holdings are no longer nearly so extensive, and Black is not its CEO any more, but at the height of his involvement in media, he was the third-largest newspaper publisher in the world. He is perhaps best known in Canada for having founded The National Post (though he no longer owns it), and he has also written biographies on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Maurice Duplessis as well as his own autobiography. He’s also known: for cutting jobs at any media outlet he owned; for his extreme right-wing beliefs, (i.e., Canada should dismantle its universal health care system and its sovereignty to become part of the U.S.); for his marriage to Barbara Amiel Black, a well-known Canadian journalist and columnist; for giving up his Canadian citizenship in order to be inducted into Britain’s House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour; and for many other telling biographical details such as the fact that as a teenager he was expelled from Toronto’s Upper Canada College for selling exam papers to his classmates.

Conrad Black’s current legal difficulties include the twelve counts of criminal behaviour for which he has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The counts include mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice, and money laundering and relate to his alleged appropriation of millions of dollars from Hollinger International’s funds. Black is facing a maximum 95-year jail sentence if convicted on all charges. His U.S. criminal trial is set to begin on March 5, 2007. And I won’t even get into describing the criminal prosecution he faces in Canada once the U.S. criminal courts are finished with him, or the several massive civil suits also lodged against him.

Perhaps even if you had never heard of Conrad Black before you read what I have written here, you have begun to see why Canadian media columnists — so many of whom have had dealings, pleasant or unpleasant, with Black — are so willing to discourse about the man’s legal battles, and about the man himself. Laying off journalists never makes for good press ten or twenty years down the road, but even to those without any personal grudge against Black, he and his legal difficulties are a meaty topic. This story has it all: hubris, well-known figures who have long raised much ire, business dealings on the grand scale, colossal sums of money, possible corruption, epic court battles, a beautiful and staggeringly extravagant wife, Black’s purple prose and pontificating, and plot developments such as Black’s caught-on-tape removal of twelve boxes of files from the Toronto headquarters of Hollinger Inc. (after an Ontario court order barred Black from removing documents from the Hollinger offices). Shakespearean plays have been based on less.

All this is a long preface to my saying that I don’t entirely blame Margaret Wente for writing about the Blacks the way she does. It's a story a Canadian columnist would naturally write about. And one could certainly argue that it's better for Wente to write about this than about global warming or Iraq, given her irresponsible coverage of those topics. But what I do wish to address is the personal dimension to Wente's repeated returns to this topic, which seems to have a certain viciousness beyond anything in other articles about the Blacks, even though so many journalists also know them.

Wente does freely admit that she is acquainted with both the Blacks. She was Conrad Black’s boss when he wrote a column for a publication she then edited, and she has sheepishly admitted that he managed to charm and/or railroad her into giving him the raise that would make him the highest-paid columnist in Canada. (The raise he got would have been less than pocket change to Black; he just couldn’t stomach being Canada's second-highest paid columnist.) In a past column she described the time she went out to lunch with the Blacks over a decade ago. According to Wente, the Blacks arrived in a limo and Barbara Amiel Black complained in her newly acquired (or reacquired) English accent of how petty and small-minded Canadians are.

In this latest column Wente writes that Conrad Black is supremely confident he will be found innocent of wrongdoing and allows that he may in fact walk away from this trial as he says he will. As she writes, “Flying around on corporate jets, being a pompous windbag, dressing up like Cardinal Richelieu, and having a wife who says her extravagance knows no bounds” are not crimes. “Having lapdogs as directors is no crime either. The fact that the chairman of your executive committee frequently signed important documents without reading them, and that you made sizable investments in his company, is not enough to put you behind bars.” But Wente concludes that if Conrad Black takes the stand in his own defense, he may seal his own conviction by presenting himself badly. Wente comments, “For a man who has spent a lifetime in the spotlight, Mr. Black seems astonishingly un-self-aware. He has sometimes shown a remarkable inability to read an audience, or see himself as others do. He seems unable to grasp that fair-minded people might not think as well of him as he does, and that not everyone is won over by his brilliance and erudition.”

In this column, Wente also manages to sneak in a not really relevant and extremely unflattering description of Barbara Amiel Black by describing a notice of libel from Conrad Black. According to Wente, “The notice states that contrary to the malicious accusations in a certain recent book about them, the Plaintiff's wife is not a grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill, domineering, vulgar, obsessively materialistic harridan.” I suppose Wente could technically defend this with a, “But I didn’t say Barbara was shrill or slatternly or a harridan! I said Black or his lawyers said she wasn’t!”

When you read the column I have linked to, if you’ve read the several past columns on the Blacks, do you get the sense of a very personal enmity that I get? I could criticize Margaret Wente for the lip-smacking enjoyment so evident in every one of her columns pertaining to the Blacks, but then in all fairness I’d have to say I read them with unseemly pleasure myself, and I know I’m not the only one. I could say she isn’t making the most responsible use of a national media platform, but it’s also true that the Globe editors wouldn’t allow it if it weren’t being read. We get the media we deserve.

So I will just say is that self-awareness is an excellent thing, and that Conrad Black isn’t the only person who could use more of it. Yes, Conrad Black needs to realize (among other things) that if he opines that Canada should become part of the U.S. and has renounced his Canadian citizenship to for the sake of wearing ermine, he may not be taken seriously when (now that it would be to his advantage legally) he calls himself a “demonstrative Canadian flag waver” and asks if he can have his citizenship back, please. And yes, Barbara Amiel Black needs to understand that if she writes in Maclean’s that Canada can’t afford universal health care or a minimum wage but should better support its national ballet company, and then appears in Vogue wearing an $11,000 dress, she may raise some hackles among even the noble and most broadminded of Canadians.

And no, I'm not done. Wente would benefit from increased self-awareness as well. I’m going to assume the fact that she was described as “a friend of Amiel’s” in this Guardian article was a touchingly naive mistake on the part of the Guardian. However, my jaw did drop when, in a Globe and Mail column written sometime back about Barbara Amiel Black’s snobbish disregard of people from her past, Wente supported this characterization by telling the story of how, upon meeting Amiel Black at a party, Wente offered to shake hands in greeting, only to see Amiel Black turn silently away from her outstretched hand.

How could Wente possibly expect Amiel Black to want to be friendly at this point? Frankly, given Wente’s gleeful commentary on the Blacks’ legal problems, dissection of Amiel Black’s outrageous spending habits, descriptions of Amiel Black as volatile, and repeated speculations that Barbara Amiel Black will leave her husband, I thought Amiel Black showed admirable restraint, and even dignity, in only cutting Wente in the social sense of the word.

If Wente continues to skewer the Blacks in The Globe and Mail, she should be honest with herself and with the rest of us about the personal nature of her actions and its consequences. Perhaps this self-examination will lead her to conclude she needs to leave the topic alone. Perhaps it will only mean a fuller disclosure about the nature of her relationships with the Blacks and her motivations in writing about them, because readers have a right to know about the conflict of interests inherent in a writer’s work. Wente will have to decide these things for herslef. But at the very least, if Margaret Wente has chosen to gloat in the national media over the Blacks’ failings and problems, she should know better than expect them to want to be friends with her.