23 May 2008

"The Story of Mankind" - Chivalry

"The knights tried to model their own lives after the example of those heroes of Arthur's Round Table and Charlemagne's court of whom the Troubadours had told them and of whom you may read in many delightful books which are enumerated at the end of this volume. They hoped that they might proved as brave as Lancelot and as faithful as Roland" (p 160, van Loon 1922).

Aside from the vague use of "they" (does it refer to the knights or the troubadours?) van Loon does not stop to mention who Roland is or note that Arthur and Lancelot are mythic characters. It is entirely probable that a middle-school child in 1921/1922 might have been exposed to the legend of King Arthur and his Knights through a storybook but Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland)? The end of the chapter notes that Don Quixote de la Mancha was one of "the last true knights" (p 161) and, after his old sword and armor were sold, the sword somehow ended up in the hands of George Washington at Valley Forge (and also Gordon in the fortress at Khartoum). The chapter closes by stating "And I am not quite sure but that it proved of invaluable strength in winning the Great War" (p 161). That's a fairly large metaphorical leap to go from a fictional self-styled knight to General Washington to the Great War.

I've been reading ideas, too, and it's very interesting to compare the storytelling style of van Loon, with no citations to back up a statement, with that of a modern historian.

Vocabulary for the day:

Current book-in-progress: The Story of Mankind, The Host, and Songs for the Missing
Current knitted item: Gray neckwarmer
Current movie obsession: Little Miss Sunshine
Current iTunes loop: Sarah Brightman Harem

1001 Books

The NYTimes has an article today reviewing 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die - which I've owned since it was published in 2006 (why the times has an article now I have no idea). You can see a picture of the copy I own because that's what Dante is sleeping on (down and to the left). I've always agreed with many of the detractors of 1001 Books. Yes, there are authors with numerous entries (Phillip Roth has seven, including The Breast) and a few of those entries could be cut back to allow room for Milton, Shakespeare, and CS Lewis. There's also a pretty heavy dose of post-WWII fiction; nearly half the list if I remember correctly.

According to the article, Boxall wanted to rekindle arguments about canonicity. Well, kudos to him, I think 1001 Books has sparked disagreements over what properly belongs on that list and what has everyone scratching their heads.

22 May 2008

Newbery Vocabulary

Reading The Story of Mankind would certainly improve the average middle-schooler's vocabulary and spelling. For instance:

guerrilla warfare
alas and alack

Time to start a list!

"The Story of Mankind" - Jesus makes an appearance

In an interesting move, van Loon somehow avoids Virgil and The Aeneid:

"Their own accounts of the foundation of Rome (written 800 years later when the little city had become the centre of an Empire) are fairy stories and do not belong in a history...." (p 91, van Loon 1922).

Fairy stories, huh? I seem to recall that the Greek creation myth got a paragraph as well extensive descriptions of Greek home and city life. Homer gets several mentions as well as a number of Greek playwrights; strangely, van Loon will refer to "new forms" of something (either literature, theatre, government, etc) but not go into any detail about either the old or the new idea.

Jesus puts in an appearance in a chapter titled "Joshua of Nazareth: The Story of Joshua of Nazareth, Whom the Greeks Called Jesus" and this chapter is narrated entirely by two letters between an uncle (a physician) and a nephew (a Roman soldier stationed near Jerusalem). There are no references listed in the book (only a "historical" reading list for children) so my suspicion is that the letters and their writers are fictional. The uncle describes treating a man named Paul (who most probably is meant to be St. Paul the Apostle) and asks his nephew to ask around about Paul and the rumours about the Messiah (apparently the slaves are getting restless). The nephew writes back with a narrative that runs through the events leading up to Holy Week (he visited a Joseph, noted to have been a personal friend of the Messiah, so probably Joseph of Arimathea); the slant is decidedly Roman/Christian and very much cribbed from the Gospels. I really want to get my hands on the new edition because I would really like to see how these sections play out or if there are actual references.

Which brings up a thought: should history be "fictionalized" to make it more interesting to children, instead of just a series of places, people, and dates? I don't think it should be that terribly dry but I think children should be introduced to citations and references as soon as possible. I don't fault van Loon his writing style - it flows very well - but looking back at an eighty-year-old children's history book I think there should be a little more fact and a little less doctrine.

Current book-in-progress: The Story of Mankind and Songs for the Missing
Current knitted item: Gray neckwarmer, two buttonholes down (this thing is kind of ugly)
Current movie obsession: Little Miss Sunshine
Current iTunes loop: Sarah Brightman La Luna

21 May 2008

"The Story of Mankind" - Prehistory to the Greeks

I'm starting to wonder how different the 1990s edition is from the original. Other than being longer, that is.

The original (and also the 1972 reprint) contain thinly disguised doses of religious history. A good example is Moses - the author skipped the whole Moses-in-a-basket-raised-by-Pharaoh's-daughter childhood and instead has Moses appear back in Egypt (after communing in the desert) to lead the Jews (mostly Jews, rarely Hebrews, never Israelites) out of Egypt to Sinai (he does not part the Red Sea). At Sinai he takes two tablets into the mountains and returns with the word of God on them....gee, I wonder what those are. Anyone with a modicum of Sunday School instruction can fill in the blanks and recognize the Judeo-Christian ideology behind the surface ("Old Testament" gets a mention, too, as well as Noah at one point).

Another strange section consists of two pages on the Phoenicians and the alphabet (the book is a little confusing because the timeline jumps around, i.e. all of a sudden we're looking at a nineteenth-century archaeologist digging for Troy, and the maps are very poorly drawn). Apparently the alphabet was developed by the Phoenicians (who did not want to waste time with heiroglyphs or nail-writing) and passed to Greece and Rome. "The Romans modified the figures somewhat and in turn taught them to the wild barbarians of western Europe. Those wild barbarians were our own ancestors, and that is the reason why this book is written in characters that are of Phoenician origin and not in the heiroglyphics of the Egyptians or in the nail-script of the Sumerians" (p 43). Really? The "wild barbarians" are all our ancestors? Maybe for me (I'm German/Scotch/English and those societies did acquire the alphabet and Romanic/Germanic language as part of the Roman Empire) but perhaps not for someone with Asian, South American, or African ancestry?

Makes me wonder if there was a specific children's audience for whom this book was intended.

1980s "Pride and Prejudice"

I finally watched the 1980s BBC-era Pride and Prejudice miniseries; it's got the same tone and claustrophobic sets as the Zelah Clarke/Timothy Dalton Jane Eyre.

Immediate verdict: I did not like it. I liked it even less than the 2005 motion picture with Kiera Knightley.

Reasoning: I slept on it for awhile and I think it's because Elizabeth (played by Elizabeth Garvie) actually seems mean toward Darcy (played by David Rintoul) rather than prejudiced and offended by his pride. There's a point where she tells him "Save your breath to cool your porridge. I will save mine to [something] my song." And she plays and sings at her Aunt Phillips's evening party which completely throws the timeline off. Actually, there are a lot of timeline issues comparing this adaptation to the book and that is also my second problem. The third problem is that all the girls seem to be of the same age, more like quintuplets, and I seriously thought that the girl playing Lydia looked older than the girl playing Jane and Georgiana Darcy looked just as old as Elizabeth rather than looking much younger. In comparison to both the 2005 movie and 1995 miniseries (with Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth), this production was completely buttoned up and shot almost entirely indoors. The other two productions make use of the beautiful scenery to convey a sense of freedom and space (so problem number four).

Thought-out verdict: I still don't like it - but it did have a nice drawing that unfolded at the beginning of each episode (during the opening credits) that went through the major events of the episode. Kind of like a dumb-show.

The 1995 A&E miniseries is still my favorite.

Current book-in-progress: The Story of Mankind, The Lord of the Flies, The Shakespeare Wars, and Songs for the Missing (an ARC from Stewart O'Nan)
Current knitted item: Gray neckwarmer, two buttonholes down (this thing is kind of ugly)
Current movie obsession: Juno
Current iTunes loop: anything (I got my new iPod so I've been enjoying the ability to listen to whatever I want regardless of whether it was downloaded or ripped from CD - the old one has a few issues with that) and I bought the new Madonna CD (awesome dance tracks)

17 May 2008

Things that go "bump" in the ravine

So last night I was watching movies, minding my own business as usual, when a police siren goes off on the highway behind me. This is not uncommon because people tend to speed and so the cops have a field day. What made last night strange is that after about five minutes there were more sirens and then six more police cars pulled off on the side of the highway. There were flashlight beams all over the ravine between my parking lot and the highway. Shouting (couldn't hear what).

Then I heard rustling and thumping coming from the area of the ravne behind the dumpster. The flashlight beams all headed my way. I was thinking the local racoon population was out and about again.

Nope. It was a guy who, I gathered, decided to run from the cops during a traffic stop. I could hear them all swearing at each other by this point. The cops dragged him up my side of the ravine where they were met by a squad car. Turns out the guy didn't want to go back to prison on a parole violation. So he ran. Doofus.

Current book-in-progress: I'm primarily working on The Shakespeare Wars and The Black City.
Current knitted item: Gray neckwarmer, two buttonholes down
Current movie obsession: Finished Becoming Jane, it grew on me (loved the ending), but I still don't like Anne Hathaway as Jane (I just didn't like her in that role, it doesn't matter whether she did her senior thesis on Jane Austen or not); also watched X-Men 3 and I swear there were more questions than answers (loved Ellen Page as Kitty)
Current iTunes loop: Portable Professor "God, Monsters, and Heroes"

15 May 2008

Say what?

People have been telling me really random things lately. Examples:

Some lady was telling me how much she loved Barbara Walters. According to her, Barbara Walters was the first woman in China. Who knew?

The city buses are crawling with parolees. Today one of them persisted in telling me he'd just been released from jail where he'd been incarcerated for selling methamphetamine (no, he did not use the word "incarcerate"). Joe Convict then proceeded to tell me he had to shave his head because of lice. Mmmmmm....I don't normally wear headphones in public but they definitely came out of the bag after that. Didn't matter that the iPod battery was dead. I pretended it was working. And got off the bus one stop earlier than normal. I didn't care about the walk today.

13 May 2008

Summer Reading Project - The Newberys

Jackie, my fellow bookseller and kids' lead, thought that it would be really cool if a bunch of us read all the Newbery Medal winning children's books.

And I thought, "Why not?" I can count on one hand the number of Newbery books I've read previously - only five. I think it would be really interesting to see how the winning books have changed over time. There is an added bonus. Because these are children's books, only a few of them are very long so I can read them very quickly. Should satisfy my start-itis-type urges.

Kate dug the list of Newbery winners out of the ALA website. Honest to spit, I never realized that the Newbery awards started back in 1922. This is definitely a summer project. As it turns out, the University of Iowa Libraries has at least one copy of each title (except I think one might be available only in Special Collections). It helps when the College of Education has a Curriculum Lab, aka a library full of children's and teen's books. So I checked out both the 1921 and 1972 editions of the first Newbery winner, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. The 1999 edition (the one that's linked) is currently available. First impression? The language used in the book is so completely stilted and non-PC that it is laughable. Here's an example:

"Like many of the animals who fill the Zoo with their strange noises, early man liked to jabber. That is to say, he endlessly repeated the same unintelligible gibberish because it pleased him to hear his own voice" (pp 11-12, van Loon 1922).

It's a bit like the old educational filmstrips from the 1950s. Sing-songy.

In a related incident, I did finally acquire a library card. I really don't need seventy children's books. Especially the ones I don't particularly like.

PS: Jackie, you need to update your blog.

Current book-in-progress: The Story of Mankind, The Black City, The Lord of the Flies (I am revisiting old books I hated in school), The Shakespeare Wars (way more gossipy than I thought it would be), and ideas (bedtime book).
Current knitted item: Tan neckwarmer, which turns out not to be tan but dark gray because I forgot what bland color I bought and just remembered wrong. Essentially a 4x4 ribbed short scarf with buttonholes.
Current movie obsession: Just finished Excalibur (great performance by Helen Mirren as Morgana; I love Dame Helen); am currently working on Becoming Jane which feels miscast a way (Maggie Smith=good; Julie Walters=also good, and she would make a great Mrs. Bennet someday; Anna Maxwell Martin=excellent; Anne Hathaway=really? there weren't any British actresses willing to play Jane Austen?)
Current iTunes loop: Chill Tracks list and Juno soundtrack (happiness)

New Bond Covers

Has anyone else seen this? I'm not sure if I like them or not. While I like the retro styles and layouts reminicent of the 60s movie posters, I can't decide if the movie-like layout is good. The movies were shot completely out of sequence and had major plot lines changed (i.e. Moonraker is so different that one could easily believe that the drippy movie was based on an entirely different source) so I don't think that should reflect on the books.

But the spines look very nice all lined up next to one another in the photo at the bottom of the post.

Return of the Electric Company!

The NY Times reported today that a new version of The Electric Company will return to PBS as part an educational block in January 2009.

Let's all say, "Hey, you guuuyyys!" (ah, Rita Moreno) I would so watch TEC if it came back (I'd even settle for re-runs of the original followed by Reading Rainbow).