One-Minute Book Reviews

February 9, 2008

Natalie Babbitt’s Cycle of Stories About an Out-of-Work Pirate, ‘Jack Plank Tells Tales’

The author of Tuck Everlasting returns with a lighter book about a reformed plunderer-of-the-high-seas

Jack Plank Tells Tales. Story and pictures by Natalie Babbitt. Scholastic/Michael Di Capua, 128 pp., $15.95. Ages 7–9 (ages 4 and up for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

Jack Plank Tells Tales is the book many parents have been waiting for – a pirate story for children too old for picture books but too young for Treasure Island. It lacks the psychological heft and stylistic perfection of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a modern classic. But it’s several nautical miles beyond many other recent pirate stories, including Peter Pan rip-offs and cheesy movie tie-ins.

Jack Plank is an amiable out-of-work pirate who is cast off the ship Avarice because he lacks a talent for plunder: “You have to yell and make faces and rattle your sword, and once you’ve got people scared, you take things away from them.” So he has to find a new job after he settles into a boarding house on Jamaica in about 1720.

Each day he looks for work, with the proprietor’s 11-year-old daughter as his guide, and finds something wrong with one of his options. He can’t fish because it reminds him of a shipmate’s story of a man who turned into an octopus and can’t work in a sugarcane field because he would have to cross a bridge that brings to mind a sailor’s account of a troll. Each night he entertains the boardinghouse residents with another tale of why he has come up empty-handed, which leads soon to a job that suits him the way a deep harbor suits a galleon.

The stop-and-go narrative makes this book good bedtime reading for children who can handle its two deaths by stabbing even as the lack of a strong forward momentum may make it easier for others to put down. And there’s not much thematic development – this is light entertainment, an amusing cycle of stories billed by the publisher as a novel.

But Babbitt’s engaging pencil drawings – and a handsome jacket and design by Kathleen Westray – help to offset the narrative limits. The refusal of American Library Association www.ala.org to give Tuck Everlasting a Newbery Medal or Honor Book citation may have been the organization’s greatest awards blunder of the past 40 years, compounded by its continual failure to recognize Babbitt with the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement. Lois Lowry is a good writer. But why Lowry has won the Edwards award and Babbitt hasn’t is a mystery that this appealing book only deepens.

Best line: Many of the tales in this book develop folkloric motifs such as that of the mummy’s hand, and its story of a girl raised by seagulls has an especially memorable illustration of a feral child.

Worst line: The last: “But it seems to be sure that, as Waddy Spoonton pointed out, it’s never too late to be happy.” This ending is unusually sugary – and clichéd – for Babbitt. And the text doesn’t really prepare you for it.

Published: May 2007 www.scholastic.com

Furthermore: Babbitt won a Newbery Honor Book designation for Kneeknock Rise, a completely inadequate recognition of her body of work from the ALA. As a former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle, I appreciate the great difficulty of getting literary prizes right. But the ALA is just embarrassing itself on this one.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 9, 2007

Why Jane Austen’s Novels Aren’t ‘Trivial’ or ‘Frothy’: Quote of the Day #29

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:11 pm
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Like so many masterpieces, Jane Austen’s novels might sound trivial or frothy if reduced to their plot summaries. Here’s a partial explanation for why they aren’t:

“Though a contemporary of the major Romantics, Jane Austen is a child of the 18th century, particularly in its Neo-Classical aspects; she is a witty and ironic observer of human inconsistency and ludicrousness rather than a painstaking recorder of consuming passions. As a writer of comedy of manners, she is concerned with a world in which the problems are of good form rather than of subsistence, of the ill-bred rather than the undernourished, of manors rather than slums, of matrimony rather than careers, of gracious gregariousness rather than aggressive worldliness – in short, of bread-and-butter letters rather than bread and butter. To say as much is to risk suggesting that Jane Austen’s world is basically a rather trivial and frothy one. But no discerning reader of hers could hold such an opinion, for she is a serious writer of comedy. In her world the relative unimportance of economic, professional, and political problems permits a concentrating of attention upon personal relations and the quality of living that they make possible. The issue is uniting of moral and social graces, the reconciliation of form and spontaneity.”

From The Reader’s Companion to World Literature: Second Edition (New American Library, 1973). Revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, Leon Edel and Horst Frenz.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

As I’ve mentioned, I like The Reader’s Companion to World Literature partly because its A-to-Z entries — unlike those in many literary encyclopedias — aren’t timid. That “no discerning reader” above is typical of its editors’ willingness to put you in your place. I also use reference books that are more tolerant of lesser intellects. But those books are often duller than this one. The Reader’s Companion to World Literature – opinionated as it is — gets it right more often than wrong.

If you enjoy these quotes, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. The Quotes of the Day appear often but not every day. All of the quotes are intended to enhance your enjoyment of the books reviewed on this site and elsewhere.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 4, 2007

Handel Wrote ‘Messiah’ in 24 Days (and You Thought You Were Productive at Work) … Quotes of the Day #16 and #17

Do you have what it takes to write the “Hallelujah” chorus?

Come unto me, all ye that labor and believe you are worthy of the next employee-of-the-month award. Many authors have marveled at how quickly G. F. Handel wrote Messiah, which has a score of more than 250 pages that he finished in 24 days. Percy M. Young writes in The Oratorios of Handel (Dobson, 1949):

“Handel’s habit of rapid construction came less from the supposed mystery of ‘inspiration’ than from the fluency of technique: with him a set piece was accomplished in the shortest possible time so that other aspects of life could be accommodated. Messiah was composed, with perhaps more than usual haste, between August 22 and September 14, 1741. Clearly the beginning of the season of mellow fruitfulness … The original score comprises some 250 pages of manuscript; which means that Handel wrote, on the average, a little over ten pages a day.”

But take heart if this makes your daily output look a little less impressive. Peter Jacobi writes in The Messiah Book: The Life and Times of G.F. Handel’s Greatest Hit (St. Martin’s, 1982):

“Granted, some of the music wasn’t new; he’d used it before, an aria here, a duet there … And there are indications of changes: seven stabs at the great ‘Amen,’ for instance.”

There, now don’t you feel better?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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