Sunday, 31 July 2016

Riding Along with CJ

The 2016 Newbery Medal Winner, Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is an atypical pick for the Newbery committee, which usually goes with a full-length novel rather than a storybook intended for very young readers. (This in turn might just mean that my corresponding review is also shorter than usual.) However, the Newbery committee wasn't alone in recognizing the book's merit, as Last Stop on Market Street was also a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book, a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, a New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of 2015, and a Wall Street Journal Best Children's Book of 2015. If it had any more award stickers on its cover one wouldn't be able to see the illustration.

Last Stop on Market Street is a simple tale of a little boy named CJ who boards the bus with his nana on a Sunday afternoon to go downtown and work a shift at the local soup kitchen, and more generally, is a book about living in the moment and connecting with others as opposed to comparing oneself to others and envying them. CJ looks enviously at his friends who drive away from church in a car and who don't have to go to the soup kitchen on Sunday afternoons, and his grandmother, who is awesome, gently redirects him towards finding value in his own Sunday afternoon experience. The text is very evocative and sensory as CJ sees and feels and hears everything about him: the rain, the diversity of the other passengers, the music made by one of the passengers on the bus. The illustrations are vivid and appealing with some fun details for children to discover on their own while they are being read to. I especially loved that CJ's nana, in her white bob, black dress, and green bead necklace and earrings, is a stylish-looking individual rather than a more clichéd frumpy grandmotherly type.

I must agree with those who chose to honour and award this book that it's a book worthy of praise, as it is delightful in both its appearance and content, so much so that I might just have to buy my three-year-old grandnephew a copy for Christmas.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Virtue Unrewarded

Since I don't think I need to worrying about spoiling a novel that is nearly 300 years old, let me start off with a synopsis of Samuel Richardson's Pamela. Pamela is a beautiful 15-year-old lady's maid whose employer dies, leaving her in the employ and at the mercy of the departed lady's lecherous son, Mr. B. He begins a campaign of trying to get her into his bed, and when she resists and insists on being sent home to her parents, he pretends to agree but actually directs his coachman to transport her to another estate of his, where she is held prisoner, her extra clothes and all her money and even her shoes are withheld from her, and her letters to her parents and other sympathizers are intercepted. Her employer makes an appearance at this second estate and slips into bed with her disguised as another maid, and later threatens to strip her naked in an effort to find the letters and journal she has written and hidden away from him. All this occurs in the text that comprised the original first volume of the book. In the second volume (for the writing of which Richardson seems to have changed dominant hands), Mr. B. discovers by reading Pamela's papers that he has made Pamela so miserable that she has considered suicide as a means of escape, at which point he turns an unexpected right-about-face. He relents, returns Pamela's belongings, allows her to choose between going home to her parents or back to his other estate, and proposes marriage. Pamela equally inexplicably decides that she's in love with Mr. B. and accepts his proposal. They marry and are happy, though Mr. B.'s change of spots is clearly only skin-deep (among his many rules for Pamela: she must not approach him unsent for when he is angry, or be "twice bidden" to do something), and he blithely introduces her to his previously unmentioned illegitimate daughter.

Through the course of Mr. B's pursuit and persecution of her, Pamela repeatedly prides herself on her virtue and her honesty. She will not sleep with a man who is not her husband, regardless of what inducements he offers her or hardships he inflicts upon her. Her determination to protect herself from the the very real possible eighteenth-century-style consequences of pre-marital sex, and the considerable courage and ingenuity she demonstrates when trying to escape the clutches of Mr. B., are very admirable. But then she sold herself puzzlingly short. It was her right to refuse to have sex before marriage if that was what she wanted, but she seems never to have considered that rather than simply holding out for an offer of marriage, she should have held out for an offer of marriage from a man worth marrying, as marriage to a terrible husband can be every bit as miserable in its own way as being abandoned, penniless, unemployable, shunned by all "decent" people, and with a child to support. This was the eighteenth century, and the sexual double standard that lingers on today, even in mainstream secular society, was received wisdom then. But it's a double standard that is about much more than only sex. It still seems strange to me, even for the time, that a young woman who cared so much about her own honesty and virtue did not insist that the man she married should also have those qualities, that a young girl who was so insistent on having sex on her own terms while single was unconditionally willing to submit to such overbearing behaviour from her husband. We don't see this kind of thing even in Richardson's novel Clarissa, in which Clarissa Harlowe steadfastly refuses Robert Lovelace, who similarly abducts her, because she is not satisfied with his character, public opinion or her future matrimonial chances be damned.

Depressingly, we haven't made all that much progress in leveling the sexual politics playing field since 1740, when Pamela was published. Yes, in secular Western society it is now uncommon for women to be considered dishonest or unmarriageable because they've had premarital sex. But even leaving aside fundamentalist religious cultures in which abstinence is expected of only the females, and of such extreme consequences for non-compliance as what are indecently designated "honour killings", even in this best case scenario of a secular, liberal society, there is still a pernicious myth that women bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for making their relationships work, that if they play their cards right they'll get their reward: a healthy, happy, lasting relationship. As I read Pamela's reiteration of the 48(!!!) rules her husband had set for her, and her anxious annotations as to how she could best adhere to them, I was painfully reminded of my own and my friends' Herculean attempts to make our relationships with men work out... and of how the men in question sat back and refused to change a thing about their treatment of us, or made at most, and very grudgingly, a few tiny concessions. As a close friend of mine said to me, "In bad relationships, you're staying more for the fantasy of what the relationship could be than for its actual potential." And that's what Pamela is -- a fantasy. No man who would abduct a woman and hold her captive would ever make a good husband, and no woman can change an abusive, controlling asshole into a kind, respectful man. Yet so many of us keep rowing the boat of our relationships all by ourselves, hoping that one day, if we try hard enough for long enough, our partners will get it and start doing their share of the rowing. I've never seen that work -- we inevitably end up going in circles, and exhausting ourselves -- and I don't buy that it worked in Pamela.

That's not to say that Pamela doesn't have its fine qualities. It was progressive for its time, because it was the first important English-language novel to feature a heroine who worked for her living. Pamela's rightful insistence on her chastity would have also been a much-needed goosing of classist sexual mores of the time, which regarded working class women as sexually available and disposable. The novel is unsparing in its censure of those who do not dare help Pamela because they don't feel they can afford to offend such a wealthy and powerful man, and to those who unquestioningly aid Mr. B. in his efforts to bend Pamela to his will. Richardson's erudite prose is a pleasure to read. And the book is compulsively readable and suspenseful. I enjoyed the first half of Pamela, rending as it was to read about Pamela's growing privations and distress, and looked forward to the reward Pamela was promised in the subtitle. I just wish such an intelligent and strong-willed heroine had gotten the reward she truly deserved: the freedom to live her life on her own terms without having to turn herself inside out to please a man, regardless of whether she was married or single.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Neverending Pigeon Story

A Good Reads review written by Good Reads member Phil Jern says of Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the Newbery Medal winner for 1928, "This book is a milestone in anyone's life as a reader. Before it, you are one of a multitude. After it, you are one of a select few who have heard about it, sought it out, picked it up, and persisted with it well past the point of enjoyment." This seems harsh. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with a word of it.

Gay-Neck, like 1927's Newbery Medal winner Smoky the Cowhorse, is the story of a life of an animal told by a writer who clearly has a great love of and significant experience with the species, and again as in the case of Smoky the Cowhorse, the resulting book manages to be very dull anyway. Gay-Neck is at least mercifully free from the ugly racism and folksy affectations of Smoky the Cowhorse, though the titular name of its main character hasn't dated as well. The story's narrator is a young boy who raised Gay-Neck in pre-World War I Calcutta (now Kolkata). There are a few sections of the book in which Gay-Neck speaks for himself, but Gay-Neck's narrative "voice" reads as identical to that of the main narrator, which is not only confusing but a missed opportunity for adding to the literary quality and reader's enjoyment of the book. Anthropomorphized animal or object "voices" can be a lot of fun when properly done. (I have fond memories of an email correspondence that occurred between the problem mice in my house and a friend of mine years ago before I adopted my cat. The first email had the subject line "send cheees now" and in it the mice claimed to have "trapped the murderus human in her own trap ha ha ha send cheees now we like bree".)

Gay-Neck's story is based upon Mukerkji's own boyhood experiences, as he also grew up in India and kept pigeons. We learn next to nothing about the boy -- not even his name! -- or the Calcutta of the time, which seems a waste. There are tantalizing glimpses of India and its culture in the book's descriptions of Mount Everest and the jungle and some fragments of Buddhist thought, but in general the story's narrator is too busy telling us about the care and feeding of pigeons and advising us on how often to clean pigeon's nests to develop much of a setting for his story, much less any of the other qualities that make for good fiction. There's no character development and not much of a narrative arc, and the prose is flatly observational.

Then Gay-Neck serves as a messenger pigeon in World War I, and whatever the story gains in narrative interest during the war chapters it loses in authenticity, as Mukerji never trained pigeons for war service much less witnessed their use for such a purpose. He claims that the nictitating membrane or "third eye" that pigeons protected Gay-Neck from the effects of mustard gas. Pigeons did prove resistant to all but the most poisonous gases, but they were fitted with masks and provided with pigeon lofts especially designed to protect messenger pigeons from poisonous gas, and there's no mention of this in the battlefront scenes in Gay-Neck. I'm also skeptical that the narrator, who spends the book repeatedly losing and rediscovering his precious pigeon, not only gets Gay-Neck back after the war but also helps him make what must be the world's fastest-ever recovery from PTSD with some Buddhist monk magic, but at that point I was too relieved to have reached the end of the book to care very much.

After making most of my way through the Newbery Medal winners of the 1920s, I sometimes wonder if the librarians who were the Newbery committee members of the period actually secretly hated children.