One-Minute Book Reviews

January 26, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!': Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 15, 2008

Forsooth, ‘Tis Two Brief Excerpts From Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’ So That Thou May Know the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner

Twenty-two men and women of the 13th century talk about their lives in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99, ages 9 and up), illustrated by Robert Byrd, which won the 2008 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of American literature for children. Some of these fictional characters deliver their monologues or dialogues in poetry and others in prose. Here’s an example of each:

Otho, The Miller’s Son

“Father is the miller

As his father was of old,

And I shall be the miller,

When my father’s flesh is cold.

I know the family business –

It’s been drummed into my head:

How to cheat the hungry customer

And earn my daily bread …”

Nelly, The Sniggler*

“I was born lucky. Nay, not born lucky, as you shall hear — but lucky soon after and ever after. My father and mother were starving poor, and dreaded another mouth to feed. When my father saw I was a girl-child, he took me up to drown me in a bucket of water …”

* “A sniggler is a person who catches eels by dangling bait into their holes in the riverbank.”

You can read a longer excerpt and find more information about Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! on the publisher’s site www.candlewick.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

November 27, 2007

‘Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress Judges’ of 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, Times of London Reports — Here’s the Shortlist

[Note: A post with the name of the winner follows in five minutes.]

Ian McEwan is safe — at least until One-Minute Book Reviews considers the candidates for its next Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, the winner of which will be announced on the Ides of March. The online edition of the Times of London reports that McEwan’s longlisted On Chesil Beach didn’t make the shortlist for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

The newspaper says that the finalists who swept past McEwan are: Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, Richard Milward’s Apples, Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, David Thewlis’s The Late Hector Kipling, the late Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, Christopher Rush’s Will and Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters. The winner will be announced today after the offending passages are read aloud by actresses. Read the Times post, headlined “Ses in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress Judges.”

www.entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article2951176.ece

November 19, 2007

Hell’s Bells! It’s Anne Easter Smith’s War of the Roses-Era Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

A tale of the dynastic marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to a ruthless Duke of Burgundy

Daughter of York. By Anne Easter Smith. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 592 pp., $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Here is a fact that may cheer you up if you’ve been plowing stony ground on an Internet dating site: At least your brother the king can’t marry you off to a thuggish Duke of Burgundy as part of a package deal that includes the lifting of a ban on Burgundian imports in England. This is more or less what happened to Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV, who sent her off in 1468 to wed the expansionist Charles the Bold.

It was clearly the kind of marriage that a modern therapist would call “challenging,” at least on the evidence of the second historical romance from Anne Easter Smith. Margaret soon learns that her husband’s favorite activities include annexing large parts of the Habsburg Empire and hanging people from walnut trees. She is distressed to hear that after one conquest, he drowned all the people he hadn’t strung up: “What little respect she had for Charles was being eroded day by day.”

Amid all of this, Margaret is sustained – in a departure from history — by her love for a married courtier, Anthony Woodville. Anthony plays Lancelot to her Elaine, consoling her with, “I have wrestled with Satan over my desire for you, Marguerite. That day in your chamber, he almost won.” Even by the flexible standards of historical romances, this attraction isn’t fully plausible, given that Margaret was devout enough to have tried to reform permissive religious orders. Nor are anachronisms such as a reference to “adolescent insecurities” and a midwife who tells a woman in childbirth, “Now, one, two, three, push.”

But Daughter of York has more integrity and appeal than many books in its category, partly because Smith sticks closer to history without larding her story with undigestible chucks of research. The novel moves swiftly through signal events of the War of the Roses, has a dramatis personae that separates the real and invented Yorkists and Lancastrians, and generally shows how far such books have come from the days when people dismissed them all as “bodice-rippers.” There’s a bit of rough sex in this one, but just about the nastiest thing you’ll hear anyone say is, “Hell’s bells! or “You, you – bat-fowling, lily-livered skainsmate!”

Best line: A messenger’s report to Margaret’s mother on the Battle of Towton Field, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, where the Yorkists defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrians on a snowy Palm Sunday. The courier says that Henry’s routed soldiers left pink snow in their wake: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.”

Worst line: Let’s just say that simultaneous orgasm seems to have been easier to achieve in the 1400s than in later centuries.

Recommendation? Genre fiction with meat on its bones. This could be a good choice for book groups that want to read a historical romance that isn’t cheesy.

Reading group guide: The back matter includes a reading group guide, an interview with the author and a four-page glossary of historical terms.

Published: To be published in February 2008 www.simonsays.com

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ (and that reference to “the Marriage at Canaan” may have been corrected).

Furthermore: A native of England, Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com wrote A Rose for the Crown. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find information on Margaret of York at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_of_York. Besides Edward, Margaret’s brothers included the future Richard III, who has a supporting role in this novel.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 7, 2007

Does Ian McEwan Deserve the Man Booker Prize or a Bad Sex Award for Writing Like This? You Be the Judge

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The judges for the 2007 Man Booker Prize have named the six finalists for the award, and — no surprise — Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is among them. But does McEwan deserve that prize or the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given annually by the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk for his tale of a young couple’s disastrous 1962 wedding night? Reader, you be the judge. Here’s a sample of the writing about sex in On Chesil Beach www.randomhouse.com:

“Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.”

What’s the prose like when it isn’t about pre-sexual-revolution onanism? A sample:

“Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”

The other titles shortlisted for the Man Booker www.themanbookerprize.com are: Darkmans by Nicola Barker, The Gathering by Anne Enright, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. The winner will be announced Oct. 16. A review of On Chesil Beach (“A Mitch Albom Novel With a Higher IQ?”) www.randomhouse.com appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/.

Tomorrow in the Saturday Children’s Corner on One-Minute Book Reviews: A review of Chris Van Allsburg’s underrated The Z Was Zapped www.chrisvanallsburg.com and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 15, 2007

Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’: How Two Men Helped to End a Fearsome Epidemic

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:27 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The fascinating true story of a doctor and clergyman who defied the establishment view that cholera was an airborne – not waterborne — disease

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By Steven Johnson. Riverhead, 299 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Did you know that the doctor who gave chloroform to a grateful Queen Victoria during childbirth also helped to end a cholera epidemic? I didn’t. And details like this abound in Steven Johnson’s fascinating history of how two men took on the medical establishment after cholera erupted in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map reads at times like a cross between The Hot Zone with The Professor and the Madman, a medical horror story set in a gaslit city that bred disease and superstition. Johnson begins, unpromisingly, with a dozen pages on the difficulty of human waste disposal in a metropolis that had two million residents. But he quickly gets on top of his story of an epidemic that began when a mother tossed out a slop bucket in which she had soaked a sick baby’s diapers. From then on his book moves swiftly until he tries in the last chapter to extrapolate from cholera to modern threats such as suicide bombers and nuclear winter. This polemical leap is ultimately much less persuasive than what has come before it – a well-told tale of how a doctor and an Anglican curate changed the view of one of the world’s most feared diseases.

Best line: “At the height of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, a thousand Londoners would often die of the disease in a matter of weeks – out of a population that was a quarter of the size of modern New York. Imagine the terror and panic if a biological attack killed four thousand otherwise healthy New Yorkers over a twenty-day period. Living amid cholera in 1854 was like living in a world where tragedies on that scale happened week after week, year after year.”

Worst line: Any line that shows Johnson’s promiscuous use of the word “irony,” which he turns into a one-size-fits-all substitute for “sadly,” “oddly,” “coincidentally” or “paradoxically.” For example: “The sad irony of his argument for the waterborne theory of cholera is that he had all the primary medical explanations in place by the winter of 1848–1849, and yet they fell on deaf ears for almost a decade.” That is a sad fact, not a sad “irony.” Would you write, “The sad irony of Jan Harayda’s post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade level is that she did this on November 16, 2006, and yet it fell on deaf ears for almost five months and Albom continued to sell books at a frightening rate”?

Recommended if … you like popular history, especially books about the history of science or medicine, such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

Furthermore: Johnson also wrote Everything Bad Is Good for You.

Editor: Sean McDonald

Published: October 2006

Links: www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous Page

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers

%d bloggers like this: