One-Minute Book Reviews

August 7, 2008

You Don’t Need to Be a Cockeyed Optimist to Enjoy James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’

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Bali-ha’i is calling to a new generation of readers and theatergoers

Tales of the South Pacific. By James Michener. Fawcett, 384 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

By the end of his career James Michener was writing books so gassy and bloated, critics joked that you didn’t review them – you weighed them on a freight scale. But it wasn’t always so.

Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific, his first work of fiction, which shows a flair for storytelling that ebbed later in his life. Inspired by Michener’s work as a naval officer in World War II, the book is perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

But Tales of the South Pacific stands on its own and has a surprising lightness next to behemoths like Texas, Alaska and Centennial. It gathers 19 related tales about U. S. servicemen and –women and others trying to fend off alternating terror and tedium on beautiful coral islands as Japanese bombers fly overhead.

One plotline describes efforts by Ensign Nellie Forbush to resist her attraction to the French planter Emile de Beque (who in South Pacific courts her with “Some Enchanted Evening,” which she soon counters with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”). A second and darker narrative thread follows a Tonkinese woman known as Bloody Mary who, when not selling shrunken human heads to sailors, offers her nubile daughter to a Marine for trysts on Bali-ha’i.

Both romances involve people of different backgrounds, and some critics have called Tales of the South Pacific a plea for tolerance. It’s a fair assessment but one that may owe less to Michener than to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which says that people learn how to hate. And you don’t read Michener, even at his best, for theme: You read him for a sense of a time and place and, above all, for story.

Michener delivers all those in Tales of the South Pacific, a book especially memorable for its glimpses of rank-and-file members of the armed forces. You know exactly what he means when he says that “It was sort of nice to think that your outfit had a guy stupid enough to pay fifty dollars for a human head … It gave you something to talk about.” His servicemen embrace distractions, however ironic, from thoughts of the death and what faithless girlfriends might be doing back home.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also set on a Pacific island during World War II, stands taller with critics than Michener’s more enjoyable book. But South Pacific has helped to keep Tales of the South Pacific in print. All the more reason, then, to welcome the wonderful first-ever Broadway revival of the musical now playing the Vivian Beaumont. You don’t have to be – as Nellie Forbush sings – a cockeyed optimist to expect to find pleasure in Michener at his best.

Best line: “In Albuquerque Harbison married the daughter of a wealthy family. She was a Vassar graduate and found Bill a fine combination of dashing Western manhood and modest cultural attainment. He at least knew what the Atlantic Monthly was.”

Worst line: In the last few pages Michener sounds as though he’s channeling Mammy in Gone With the Wind when he brings on a black caretaker at a cemetery, who speaks this way: “Me ’n’ Denis, we is bof’ cullud. He f’um Geo’gia. I f’um Mississippi.”

Quote: On why islands like Bali-ha’i seemed magical: “It is a miracle of the South Pacific that islands which are relatively only a few miles away are rarely seen. Hot air, rising constantly from steaming jungles, makes omnipresent clouds hover above each island. So dense are they that usually they obscure and often they completely hide the islands they attend. So it is that an island like Vanicoro, only 16 miles away, might rarely be seen, and then only after torrential rains had swept the sky clear of all but high rain clouds, equalizing temperatures over the entire vast sea. Then, for a few hours, islands far distant might be seen.”

Published: 1947 (first edition), 1984 (Fawcett reprint).

Furthermore: Michener www.cnn.com/US/9710/16/michener.obit/won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted for South Pacific. The first-ever Broadway revival of the musical opened in April theater2.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/theater/reviews/04paci.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who wrote the novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

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

July 31, 2008

What! It’s My Birthday, AGAIN?

Filed under: Life — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 am
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Yes, there’s a mathematical explanation for why this one seems to have come around so fast: As you get older, each year becomes a small fraction of the whole. But that math takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?

One of my gifts was a trip with friends to the wonderful new Broadway production of South Pacific, and I’d hoped today to read and write about the book that inspired it, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. But that will have to wait wait until my toes stop tapping out all those great tunes — “Bali Ha’i,” “Honey Bun,” “Happy Talk,” “Bloody Mary,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and others. Even as the fractions get smaller, we can feel “Younger Than Springtime,” can’t we?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 26, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Laura Amy Schlitz calls Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! “a book of miniature plays – 19 monologues (or plays for one actor) and two dialogues (for two actors).” Strictly speaking, she’s right. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! are young people between 10 and 15 years old who live on or near an English manor in the 13th century, the time of the religious wars known as the Crusades. They include girls like Nelly, who helps to support her family by catching eels, and boys like Hugo, who has to track down a wild boar as his punishment for playing hooky. But some characters know one another, so their stories overlap and at times read more like a collection of linked short stories than a series of plays. This unusual format may have helped the book win the 2008 Newbery Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Questions for Young Readers

1. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! live in medieval times, also known as the Middle Ages. Many people first learn about that era from fairy tales about princesses and others who live in castles. What ideas did you have about the medieval life before you read this book? How did your ideas change after you had read it?

2. Most books of fiction have a main or most important character. Does this book have one? Why or why not? How did the presence or absence of a main character affect your enjoyment of the book?

3. Why do you think Laura Amy Schlitz began the book with the tale of “Hugo, the Lord’s Nephew”? What aspects of this story would grab your attention right away?

4. Schlitz made up all the stories in this book. If you didn’t know that, would you have thought that some of the tales were true? What makes them seem believable?

5. “Camelot, it’s not.” These were the first words of a review of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that appeared in a New York newspaper. What did the writer mean? [“You Are There,” by John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 16, 2007.]

6. Some of the characters in the book speak in prose (such as “Nelly, the Sniggler,” “Pask, the Runaway” and “Will, the Plow Boy”). Others speak in poetry (such as “Lowdy, the Varlet’s Child,” “Thomas, the Doctor’s Son” and “Otho, the Miller’s Son”). Why do you think they do this? Might the book have become monotonous or less interesting if everybody spoke the same way?

7. What does Otho mean by: “There’s no way to retrace our steps, / the mill wheel’s turning — ”? How does this line relate to his life? How does the line relate to the theme of the book as a whole? [Page 29]

8. Pictures can have different purposes in a book. For example, they can show you exactly what you see on page (acting as a mirror), or they can or focus on and enlarge a detail (acting as a magnifying glass). What purposes do Robert Byrd’s pictures serve in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!? Why might the sun and moon have human faces on pages x-1 and elsewhere?

9. Before you read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, did you ever think that you might have liked to live in medieval times? How did the book affect your view?

10. The characters who speak in poetry in this book use different verse forms. Thomas speaks in iambic pentameter when he says: “A healthy man is careless with a bill — / You have to make them pay when they are ill.” (The two lines form a heroic couplet, a specific type of iambic pentameter.) [Page 18] Lowdy speaks in a different verse, dactylic, when she say: “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas the bread.” [Page 60] If you’ve studied verse forms, how many can you find in the book?

Extra Credit
Schlitz writes about the “Children’s Crusade”: “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.” [Page 37] Some scholars aren’t sure that this “crusade” occurred in the form Schlitz describes. You may want do some research on the “Children’s Crusade” and decide what you think might have happened.

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

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: The American Library Association has posted information about 2008 Newbery at www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore. She also wrote the text for the 2007 picture book The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, illustrated by Max Grafe, and 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.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your library blog or ready-reference links, so patrons can find other guides and reviews. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and appears on Open Directory lists. It is the sixth-ranked book-review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

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.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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.

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