My oldest grandson Philip is an avid reader, a trait my wife and I like to encourage. He'd encountered this Newbery award winner in his school libraryMy oldest grandson Philip is an avid reader, a trait my wife and I like to encourage. He'd encountered this Newbery award winner in his school library, and wanted to own a copy, so we gave him one for his 11th birthday last fall. When he discovered that I'd never read it (it was first published in 1967, by which time I was in high school, and focusing my reading on more "grown-up" books), he wanted to share it with me, so he loaned me his copy. (Last year, he likewise introduced me to another kid's classic, Stone Fox.) I'd heard of the book, but had no real clue what it was about.
Elaine Konigsburg (like some other women writers in the earlier decades of the past century, when the book trade was more male-dominated, she hid her gender behind her initials) became an instant success in children's literature with this essentially debut novel. (It was technically the second one she had published, but both books were submitted at the same time.) That's a deserved tribute to her skill as a writer; the craftsmanship of the book is of a pretty high order.
As we learn from the outset through a short "cover letter," the body of the book is supposedly a narrative composed by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her longtime (and long-suffering) lawyer, Saxonburg, to explain a change she wants made to her will. She's a childless 82-year-old widow, as rich as Croesus, and definitely eccentric, imperious and opinionated. Ordinarily, she's not the sort of narrator many kids would readily relate to; but she immediately focuses her tale on two kids, Claudia (age 11) and her nine-year-old brother Jamie. In fact, it's not immediately made clear what relation Mrs. Frankenweiler is going to have to the events of her story. That's a deft move on the author's part, giving child readers child protagonists to relate to, and a bit of mystery as a hook. Claudia's made up her mind to temporarily run away from her home in the New York City suburb of Greenwich, dragging Jamie along for the ride to get the benefit of his assiduously-saved allowance money, and plans to stay in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (an actual institution that's still there today) for the duration of her adventure. The expedition will involve both children in a mystery surrounding a Renaissance statuette of an angel that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo --and in some life lessons and self-discovery as well.
Like most books aimed at this age group (older pre-teens), this chapter book is a short (182 pages of main text) quick read. It's also well-written, with the kind of story-line that keeps you turning pages compulsively to see what happens next. The author had a genius for characterization; the two kids are extremely realistic embodiments of children their age (while being nicely differentiated individuals with distinctive personalities and speaking styles). She also laces her writing with an undercurrent of dry humor that frequently crops out. Both the humor and the characterizations, as well as the subtleties of the psychological content, IMO, might actually be perceived and appreciated better by adult readers than by kids. The plotting isn't predictable, and we get one surprise near the end that fits like a jigsaw puzzle and was foreshadowed by clues hidden in plain sight, but which most readers won't see coming. On the whole, it's a kid's book that can hold adult interest. Still, I think I might have liked it better as a child than as an adult reader. Why, you ask?
As I said, Claudia and Jamie are very realistic child characters; I could recognize a lot of traits of my grandkids in them. But these include a lot of traits that (even though I love my grandkids!) are very calculated to drive me up the wall, and I expect many other parents and grandparents have the same reaction. These kids aren't evil or cruel, but they do have a basically self-centered orientation and ethical cluelessness at times, an aversion to responsibility and a feeling that mild chores are an insufferable imposition. Add to this a capacity for sibling rivalry thick enough to cut with a knife, and a willingness of a younger kid to check his brain at the door and let an older sibling lead him around by the nose into outrageous behavior that he should never even have considered. (Been there, see that every day --want to scream at it.) The whole runaway scenario factors into this. Claudia isn't an abused, unloved child trying to escape a horrible home life. She's a pampered, well-to-do kid who doesn't think she's pampered enough, and just wants to run off to subject her family to "a lesson in Claudia appreciation." Yes, she mailed them a letter (which they wouldn't get until at least the next day!) telling them not to worry --as if they wouldn't! Konigsburg keeps the adults in Claudia's family largely offstage, so that readers can put them out of mind. But you don't put people you genuinely love out of mind, and you don't put them through hell just for purely selfish reasons --and as a father and grandfather myself, whenever I'd let myself think about it, I knew Claudia and Jamie were putting the adults in their lives through hell. Yes, if I'd been the parent, I'd have been unspeakably thankful and relieved to get them back safe. But I might also have grounded them for about 47 years, and possibly packed them off for a semester at a boarding military academy in northern Alaska as a lesson in family appreciation. (Okay, I might be exaggerating slightly for effect. :-) ) That colored my reaction to the tale in a way that it might not have as a kid. (It's also why I recommend the book only for mature kids, who wouldn't blindly consider these characters role models and be encouraged to run away themselves!)
Interestingly, a book I read last year, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (b. 1966) has a similar plot structure: his protagonist is a runaway who sets out for, and hides out in, another real-life New York museum (the American Museum of Natural History). Selznick isn't a Goodreads author, so I don't know if he ever read Konigsburg's classic; but I think it's possible that he did, and that it may have been one of his literary influences. The difference between the two books, though, is instructive (and helps to explain why I rated the later book higher): Selznick's protagonist Ben manages his escape in a way that won't leave his family members insane with worry, and does tell a family member where he's going. And he has a psychological need to go, to deal with a question that's crucially important to him in learning who he is; it's not just a whim, and he doesn't pull a nine-year-old sibling along into the venture.
The edition of this book that I read was a 35-year anniversary reprint, with an afterword by the author, which explained a bit about the models for the characters in her own family, the changes in New York City and the Museum itself since she wrote, some of the inspiration for the story, the reason she never wrote a sequel (and I agree with that decision, because I think this is a story that's truly artistically complete in itself, as it stands) etc.; I enjoyed this feature, and felt it enhanced the book. At the time, she mourned the recent passing of both her husband and her longtime editor, who'd both loved the book. Sadly, Mrs. Konigsburger herself passed away as well, in 2013. But this book alone would be a worthy legacy (and she wrote other prize-winning tales as well!), and I give it a solid rating of three earned stars!...more
First-time author Laurel June Thompson is a Bluefield area resident and an acquaintance of my wife. The latter isn't really into this type of literatuFirst-time author Laurel June Thompson is a Bluefield area resident and an acquaintance of my wife. The latter isn't really into this type of literature; but, taking a chance that it might be something I'd like, gifted me with a copy last Christmas. It appears that I'll be the first person to review it here on Goodreads, so I wish that I could, in good conscience, rate it more highly.
Noah's flood, recorded in the first book of the Bible (Genesis), is a subject fraught with disagreements. Many people consider it mythical. "Conservative" Christians such as myself, as well as many Orthodox Jews and Moslems, regard it as historical; but there are differences of opinion as to whether it was a worldwide cataclysm (a view that usually goes with "young earth" creationism, the idea that the seven "days" of creation in Genesis 1 are literally 24-hour days and that the earth is only a few thousand years old) or a cataclysm localized in the Mesopotamian plain. (The latter is the view that I hold; for a detailed defense of that view, and explanation of the issues involved, see The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis by Hugh Ross.) It also took place in a time before written history (the Hebrew and Sumerian accounts of it were written well after the events) and is shrouded in all the obscurity that entails --archaeology only provides limited information about the antediluvian world.
Thompson here takes on the task of imaginatively reconstructing the background of the Flood, over a period of some 73 years. Her three and 1/2 page Author's Note indicates that she did a fair amount of research for the novel, but unlike some authors, she regrettably doesn't identify her sources, except for the inter-testamental Book of Enoch, which she relied on pretty heavily. This furnished the idea that the "Nephilim" of Genesis 6:4 are to be understood as the hybrid offspring of human women mating with fallen angels (a view that Ross actually seems to lean towards, although it's not the majority opinion of modern evangelical scholars)., as well as providing names for characters, the idea of Dudael as a place in the bowels of the earth for imprisoning fallen angels, etc. (To be fair, she does acknowledge that modern scholars consider the legitimacy of this source "questionable" --which is a charitable characterization; NO serious scholar believes it was actually written by Enoch, nor that it has any value as a primary source for the antediluvian period.) She clearly draws on the beliefs of "young earth" creationism and the idea of a universal flood for elements of her picture. Huge flying reptiles and "dragons" (which from her description are clearly dinosaurs) are thought here to be contemporary with humans, and we have mammoths and saber-toothed tigers as passengers on the Ark, while her map of the antediluvian world shows the present site of the Mediterranean Sea as a vast plain. (The Author's Note claims that, "It is an archaeological fact that the ruins of at least two hundred cities have been discovered beneath the Mediterranean Sea," but I'm fairly well read in archaeology and have never encountered any such information.) Finally, she gets the idea of the tzohar, a luminous gemstone containing the "primordial light of creation" (whatever that might be?!) passed down from Adam to Noah and used to light the interior of the Ark, from Jewish rabbinical tradition, the reliability of which is very dubious.
Given all of these factors, plus the idea that in antediluvian times fallen angels --and humans or half-humans who were versed in it-- could wield angelic magic which actually worked (and which plays a major role in the plotting here), I've chosen to classify this as fantasy rather than historical fiction. Like Robert E. Howard (though they're in many other respects very different writers), though she nominally sets her tale in very ancient times on this world, functionally it's for all practical purposes a fantasy world. The attempt to connect it with actual history, though, made it hard to suspend disbelief. Thompson also falls into several of the traps that tend to beset amateur writers: a temptation to tell rather than show, shallow character development, and a use of big or obscure words (sometimes used incorrectly) in an attempt to impress the reader rather than to communicate. (English has a rich vocabulary, and it's okay to use big or unusual words when they're needed to do a job --but not for their own sake.) Blocs of chapters narrated in the third person alternate erratically with first-person chapters narrated by various characters; but there seems to be no artistic reasons for the shifts of person. (The epilogue is an exception; the choice of first-person narrator there makes excellent sense.) Dialogue and first person narration often sound stilted (Ren and Tamara, in particular, don't sound like 11-year-old children at the times when that's what they're supposed to be). The world-building is mediocre. Finally, a seven-year gap in the action, inserted unexpectedly in the middle of a chapter, kills the forward momentum and sense of expectancy at this point in the tale. (it would have been okay inserted between chapters, and maybe with the Table of Contents divided into a Part I and Part II.)
It's fair to be said that there are some positives here, though, and I did finish the book (and gave it two stars rather than one, which says something). The author generates enough actual suspense in several places that (even knowing the basic historical outline) I wanted to keep reading to see what would happen to particular characters. I liked it that, despite the patriarchial nature of their society, our focus here is on three strong female characters with plenty of agency. Some readers might have a problem with relationships that could be characterized as "insta-love," but under the cultural and psychological circumstances of these particular characters in their situation, I found this aspect perfectly credible. There's also a lively awareness here of the fact that, as the 19th-century hymn declares, "There's a wideness in God's mercy," and I found that a rewarding message. (Some more censorious evangelicals might consider Thompson's view of God's mercy too wide --but I'm not one of these.) Some of her historical speculations come across as plausible and even astute (such as the possible identity of Tubal-Cain's sister Naamah in Genesis 4:22, a rare --and unexplained, in the text-- mention of a woman in a male-oriented culture).
There's now a sequel to this novel, Split Tongue, which I'm guessing deals with the Tower of Babel. However, I don't personally plan to add that one to my to-read shelf....more
First airing in theaters in 1947, and based on a story by Valentine Davies (though the actual screenplay was by George Seaton) Miracle on 34th St. isFirst airing in theaters in 1947, and based on a story by Valentine Davies (though the actual screenplay was by George Seaton) Miracle on 34th St. is one of America's better-known and beloved classic Christmas movies. In contrast, the novelization, done by Davies himself, is so little known that I had to add it to the Goodreads database myself when I began reading it two days ago. (I started reading it because one of my Goodreads groups has a thread for classic Christmas books, and I wanted to contribute something to that.) Having read the book, I could understand its relative obscurity. This is actually one of the very rare cases where I enjoyed the film more than the book.
The movie and the novel were released simultaneously; so Davies probably never watched the movie itself before novelizing it. (He probably worked from Seaton's screenplay, though we aren't told.) I'm guessing that his writing schedule may also have been considerably rushed to meet that deadline. At 120 smaller-than-standard pages, with good-sized type and a lot of white space, the book is definitely a quick read. It reproduces, in bare-bones fashion, the essentials of the movie storyline (some incidents in the film are omitted or changed here); but in general, the film version is the more detailed in developing the characters and events, and the more emotionally evocative. Davies comes across as very mediocre in his literary gifts; he's produced a dry retelling of the story, with a great deal of telling rather than showing, and a fairly flat tone. Since I've seen the movie (more than once), the book benefited from my familiarity with the characters, but if I'd only read the book, I probably wouldn't have been as engaged with them; and the fact that I'd seen the film acted to eliminate any suspense or tension in the narration. A better writer, with more apparent understanding of fictional technique, could have really adapted the material to the written medium and made it compelling; Davies didn't. (I was also surprised to find that the book has one d-word early on --the film, in keeping with the Hollywood standards of that day, has no bad language.) I didn't really dislike the book (it benefits from nostalgia for the movie); but I hesitate to recommend it --readers who've seen the movie are apt to be disappointed with this pallid version, while readers who haven't seen the celluloid version might assume it's as lackluster as the book, and miss a good viewing experience. My advice is to watch the film (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039628/ ) and skip the book.
Also, I've always had mixed feelings about the message conveyed by both book and movie. Yes, I get that "Santa Claus" functions here (as in some other classic works, such as Francis Church's "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus") for the warm-fuzzy side of human experience: altruism, optimism, belief in intangibles, recognition of a dimension to reality that's outside the coldly rational, pessimistic and self-centered. As such, I naturally sympathize. BUT, I also believe it's possible to reject a materialist and egoistic view of the universe without necessarily equating this with a claim that an immortal man in a red suit lives at the North Pole and delivers gifts to all the world's children via their chimneys on Christmas Eve; and that one can recognize the limits of reason without actually disparaging reason ("Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to" is, unfortunately, a prime example of the latter). What Seaton and Davies are preaching is essentially postmodernism: objective reality doesn't matter; all that really matters is whatever you subjectively want to believe. That's not, ultimately, the most helpful way of relating to reality. And it can be particularly pernicious when it takes the form of claiming that the warm-fuzzy side of human experience is a myth, but a myth that's the comforting province of childhood; i.e., children should be encouraged by adults to live in a cocoon of fantasy to shield them from awful reality (and then have that cocoon ripped away from them when they're "old enough"). It's always seemed to me that this is what the conventional practice of making kids believe in Santa actually is based on. (Of course, I don't know much about it from personal experience; I don't ever recall believing in Santa, and had figured out by the time I was five that he was just a man dressed up in a red suit and fake beard.)
My wife and I are both firm believers in the intangible dimension of reality: in the importance of love, caring and generosity; the idea of meaning and purpose in the universe; existential optimism; the value of believing in the unseen. For us, this is in accord with what reason leads us to, though it goes beyond reason, and it's centrally embodied in the baby born in a stable at Bethlehem, to bring mankind peace and goodwill in an eternal scheme of things. We always tried to lead our kids to the understanding that this is what Christmas is about, and we never deliberately told them untruths; they knew about the historical St. Nicholas as an example of gift-giving, and they always knew where Christmas gifts really came from. Every parent or set of parents, of course, has to do what they honestly believe is best in that area. But that's what we felt best to do, and I would do it again; so that colors my approach to this tale. All of that said, we've watched the movie as a family, and appreciated it as a fictional metaphor --we just didn't confuse metaphor with reality!...more