readallthenewberys: animated gif of Snoopy writing a story with multiple strange subplots (Default)
[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: cut for spoilers )

Reaction: On the one hand, I was really epically impressed by the amount of detail research the author obviously did, and by the light hand with which she distributed the details to draw a clean, memorable picture. I was also massively impressed by the illustrator, Harrie Wood (definitely not the Australian civil servant), who did a full-page illustration in period style for the beginning of each chapter.

On the other hand, after a rather hopeful first chapter or two with spoilers ), the writing kind of devolved into "sympathize with THIS side!", and every single time it was the whiter side. (Except I don't know about spoilery conflict ). Was there a whiter side in that one?) Every time. I quit on the chapter about spoilery name ) the Muslim pirate, because the writing was all about how he was EVILLY EVIL and really he was a pretty cool guy. He just did his pirating at Europeans instead of at brown people, like proper European pirates do. *end ALL THE SNARK*

I learned a massive amount from all the Wiki-searching I did to check things this book was saying, though. It was packed chock-full of references to historical events and characters I'd never heard of before. I wouldn't have wanted to read it pre-Google - there wasn't quite enough background provided to help check anything - but I enjoyed it as it stood.

Conclusion: Three stars, out of five possible. It wasn't bad, it just could have been so much better, and all it would have taken is some more balanced writing. It came so close.
readallthenewberys: animated gif of Snoopy writing a story with multiple strange subplots (Default)
[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: A collection of eighteen short stories and poems, previously published separately in a children's magazine, here gathered as a book and illustrated with 200 silhouettes by the author.

Reaction: Humor is a very subjective thing. Let's just put that out there. Me, for instance, I've never heard a Joss Whedon joke I unequivocally liked, but 99%1 of geeks seem to think he's the last word in humorous adventure writing.

1: 55% of all statistics are made up on the spot - including these. ;-)

So it's hard to criticize a book like this whose only stated purpose is humor. But, well, I didn't like it. I only managed to get through the first two stories, one of which was a long poem set in a "China" which only resembled any historical or traditional version of China in that the men wore their hair in braided pigtails and the women had tiny bound feet -- oh, and one character was a mandarin. ;P The other story was about a Caliph of Definitely-Not-Baghdad (this does not seem to refer to a Caliph in the specifically religious sense, the leader of a whole sect of Islamic worshippers, but to a more-or-less secular ruler of a city) who buys a clock from a Yankee con man in order that Mr John Bennett may try to write a parable on Daylight Savings Time, and fail miserably. You don't spork DST by ignoring how it actually works.

And the inherent racism in having a city full of "laughable" brown people conned by a Yankee deus-ex-machina, which left a bad taste in my mouth by itself, is followed up - in a later story (I flipped forward) about the same fictional Caliph - by an entire court of Persian astronomers and mathematicians who didn't know the earth was round. :P On which I gave up.

Conclusion: One star. I'm really tired of giving no stars to book after book, and this one's illustrations are impressively detailed and lively for silhouette-work, even though I am well prejudiced against them because of the offensive subject-matter: they started with a Chinese laundryman using his queue or pigtail as a clothesline, and didn't get any better. :P

I don't know if Mr John Bennett's older book Master Skylark, set in Shakespeare's England, is any good, but you can read it from Project Gutenberg at that link if you want a sample of his writing. ;S Like I say, humor is subjective, and he might not be as racist in Elizabethan England.
readallthenewberys: animated gif of Snoopy writing a story with multiple strange subplots (Default)
[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: Attempts to tell the history of the human race from caveman times to 1922, that being "the present". Succeeds in telling the history of white people, sort of, with a strong anti-religion skew.

Reaction: I had high hopes, because it was acclaimed the first Newbery winner by 163 librarians and has remained in print ever since, being repeatedly updated with chapters on the end - my 1980s edition finished with "Looking Toward the Year 2000". And the writing quality is really, really fabulous; if nothing else, I recommend opening the Gutenberg version and reading the author's preface for a large dose of gorgeousness.

But that does not excuse the repeated blatant distortions of history the author pulls out of his hat! Things like asserting that Sparta didn't care at all whether the Persians invaded northern Greece, and then going straight into a retelling of Thermopylae that skips the part where Leonidas - King Leonidas, thank you very - and the fabled Spartan 300 (actually 7,000) were volunteers on a suicide mission DURING. THE. OLYMPICS. I may have flailed a lot about that.

Honestly, I learned a lot via this book, but most of the actual info came from Wiki after I said "WHAT?!" and googled something. ;-) Also, it's very much The Story Of White People, with a few suitably pale brown people graciously whitewashed. :P Black people are almost completely ignored, except for a couple of sentences using them as the nadir of uncivilization - I ditched out after cut for racism ) :P

Conclusion: Three stars. Because the writing really is that good (I do highly recommend reading the prologue, a gorgeous paean to the importance of history books; you can find it here), the history at least attempts to be a lot more comprehensive than the Brit-centric '50s Eurasian history I grew up on, and he did teach me some things. I think toward the end, we were just about breaking even on things I had to google because he was wrong versus things I had to google because I was wrong.

ETA: ...there's a movie. A Marx Brothers movie. With Vincent Price as the Devil, Peter Lorre as Nero, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc - it sounds like a hot mess. "The council of elders of outer space is deliberating on a very important subject: Must mankind be allowed to survive, or is it so essentially evil that it must be destroyed? A devil and an angel act as prosecutor and defense for the human race", presenting (I assume) scenes from human history as evidence. It's a Cold War moral tale, it seems: if the human race is found wanting, we're going to blow ourselves up with nuclear bombs. O_O

I'm so glad I'm not trying to watch all or any of the movies that have been made based on Newberys. ;-)
readallthenewberys: animated gif of Snoopy writing a story with multiple strange subplots (Default)
[personal profile] justice_turtle
Summary: An anthology of Ancient Greek myths tied together by the frame-story of Jason and the Golden Fleece; most of the stories are told to the Argonauts by Orpheus at appropriate points in the narrative, as backstory to their own adventures.

Reaction: This is some of THE BEST English epic prose I have ever read in my life, and that includes the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

And, as if that wasn't enough recommendation on its own, it's also a surprisingly feminist-friendly story: Jason's mother gets a personality, Atalanta is one of the Argonauts (only one of whom puts up any fuss about "omg a GIRL", and he's explicitly characterized as a boor), Medea has actual character conflict over betraying her family to help Jason... seriously, considering that this was written by a man in 1921 and is based on well-known traditional stories - one of the world's better excuses for leaving things misogynist, not that there are any good excuses - I am boggled by how far out of his way he goes to pull in gender equality.

I'm also rather amused and pleased by the way Mr Colum extends his delicate 1922-style handling of the many sexual relationships in the myths to Hercules/Hylas and Hercules/Iolaus, treating them exactly like the het pairings, so that I didn't even have to check Wiki to make sure they were pairings. :D

Furthermore, there are a LOT of stories included here, in detail; it's not a short book, and it's well worth putting in the time to read. (Also, the satirical tale of the Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice is gloriously hilarious. The quality of all the writing, in various tones, is amazing.)

Conclusion: Five stars out of five. Highly recommended. And because the universe is a wonderful place, it's on Project Gutenberg.

I'm looking forward to the other two Padraic Colum offerings on the list.

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