Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Picks of the Two Weeks, and a Tribute, of Sorts

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading as much E.L. Konigsburg as my local library shelf provided. Even before the sad event of her passing on April 19, I was well through my fourth reading of all time of her Newberry Award-winner, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I was trying to determine if my third reading of all time (about three years ago, out loud to my daughter), in which I found myself vaguely disappointed by the story, was really a case of not-in-the-mood, or let-down due to Ada’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, or just of a once-beloved book—through no fault of its own—not being able to live up to the adoration in which it was once held. In short, I wanted to know if I plain didn’t like the book anymore. And more broadly, I was also considering the question of whether certain books seem out-of-date after a generation or two. Also in the back of my mind was The Wind in the Willows, my absolute favorite book of childhood, the one that made me want to be a writer in the first grade and which I plagiarized heavily for a story I scribbled in the notebook my mother bought me for my first day of school. When I tried to re-read it in adulthood, it seemed so dry and slow I could barely find my way out of the first chapter.

My 4th grade teacher read From the Mixed Up Files…out loud to us, way back in 1976. I was completely, unutterably entranced. So much so that when she finished the read-aloud, I asked her if I could borrow the book, so I could read it again at home. “What do you want to read it again for?” She asked. “We just finished it!” I wanted to read it again, of course, because I wanted to savor it all on my own, without having to listen to the tittering and commenting and breathing of my classmates—the scenes of planning and organizing to run away; the scenes of choosing where to sleep in the Metropolitan Museum, and those in which Claudia and Jamie have free run of it afterhours. In retrospect, it’s obvious why I loved these as much as I did. I grew up a few blocks away from the Met and my parents and I spent every Sunday afternoon there, wandering the Egyptian wing, and the Arms and Armor, and those rooms full of furniture. The book was like my own private fantasy written into life.

After my fourth read-through, I still wasn’t sure what I thought. Except for this: kids don’t really talk like that anymore. And also this: the story requires patience, which contemporary kids aren’t asked to dredge up very often when they read these days—they are thrown right into the action of a story, right off the bat. I had never read another book by E.L. Konigburg, so I checked out Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, her first novel; The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World; The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place; and Konigsburg’s second Newberry winner, The View from Saturday.

These books span four decades. And still, after reading them, I thought, kids don’t really talk that way anymore, and also, these stories require patience. And I also thought: these two observations are irrelevant. Because what was obvious on considering these five books all together were Konigsburg’s real talents. She had a true and deep understanding of the emotional complexity of relationships—the kind and savage ways we treat each other, and the place where those disparate sides of ourselves meet. And she was a master of the chaotic coincidence—the narrator who turns out to mean much more than the reader (or the protagonists) bargained for; an incidental, never-introduced character who holds the key to a grand mystery; four teenagers whose friendship hinges on a seemingly random wedding in Florida.

To enjoy the results of these talents, it is worthwhile to overlook quirks in dialog, and also to have patience.  And as a parent, and a late-arriving fan of some of these books, perhaps I should have patience, too. Ada may not have been ready for From the Mixed Up Files… as a six year old; and she might not be ready for it now, as a 4th grader; but perhaps one of these years she will discover this book and the others all on her own, and find them just right for the moment. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

My New Pick of the Week—Now With Extra Newness!

It’s not easy to pull off a story whose core has potentially maudlin proclivities, with no trace of sentimentality or the author’s own pity for her character.  If I hadn’t first read WONDER by R.J. Palacio for myself, though, I might have been alarmed to hear my daughter chuckling as she read the opening chapters of this book about boy with no real ears to speak of and a severely misaligned, surgery-scarred face; might have worried that she was sociopathically lacking in empathy.

But laughing your way through is a good impulse (albeit one I didn’t have, probably because I’ve already lived through middle school, the backdrop for WONDER, and remember precisely nothing amusing about the experience). It not only serves to honor the efforts of the protagonist, August, and those around him to muddle through adversity—living with your own impossible face or living with a person who has an impossible face—but negates the corniness of an inevitable happy ending. Not that a book like this shouldn’t have a happy ending. In fact, one thing I realize I’ve been enjoying about middle grade novels is their absolute unabashed conviction in happy endings; it’s always a joy to reach the last page, when you feel fulfilled by what’s come before.

WONDER begins in August’s voice, as he grapples with the idea of going off to the terrifying world of school for the very first time, and all the angst, fear and bravery that entails. A few chapters in, it switches its POV to August’s various family members and acquaintances, then eventually circles back to August. Initially, I wasn’t sure I liked this devise. It snaps the reader out of the carefully-constructed world of the story, which is a little bit dangerous—the reader may never come back around. But because of it, the book achieves a broader, more complex and compelling understanding of the workings of empathy. It also recognizes that some people who cross our paths are just jerks, beyond the reach of empathy; a happy ending is happy, too, to leave them behind.