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In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliant Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

After finishing Amy Gary’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, In the Great Green Room, I have two major conclusions. 1) Margaret Wise Brown was clearly a brilliant, complex, fascinating character who would benefit from a great biography about her. 2) This is, sadly, not that biography. While I’m glad to have read more about Wise Brown and her life, this book suffers from a couple of huge flaws that made it intensely frustrating as a reading experience.

What we’re given here is a recounting of the events of Margaret Wise Brown’s life. This is done in a narrative style, which results in a rather breezy read, organized by years. Unfortunately, that same style also lends itself to the lack of contextualizing and critical thought which hampers the biography in several ways.

First, there is the absence of sourcing and citation. There are no footnotes or proper endnotes in this book. We are given a list of sources in the backmatter, separated by chapter, but they are not explicitly linked to any specific line or claim in the text itself. Nor are there any actual quotations within the text. It is a stream of assertions–Margaret said this, thought this, did this–with no background. Are these based on memories from her friends and family? Published or unpublished memoirs? Newspaper articles? Are the sources trustworthy or biased? It’s impossible to say.

I am writing this review having just read several excellent biographies of challenging and complex women, whose authors took great care in approaching source material and presenting it in a helpful context. I recognize that this has perhaps spoiled me, but the absence of that care made me send furious text messages to friends. (You know who you are, sorry not sorry.)

Gary’s biography seems curiously immune to any attempt to locate Wise Brown within her familial, social, or historical background. We are given the bones of her relationship with her parents–with a bonus shaming of both her mother and sister for their mental illnesses–but Gary doesn’t even try to look at why Margaret might have felt so estranged from Maude, what social pressures might have been weighing on Maude herself, or what wider cultural patterns are reproduced in Margaret’s warmer feelings for her brother and father as opposed to her mother and sister.

While this is generally annoying, on occasion it leads the book to repeat wholesale some really harmful attitudes. As I mentioned above, the characterization of both Maude and Roberta Brown as people who enjoyed using their depression to make those around them miserable shows up several times. (“At first, Margaret attempted to cheer her sister, but saw that, like their mother, Roberta relished layering a foul mood over happy occasions.”) It shows up again in Margaret’s sexism towards Bill Gaston’s other lovers (“Margaret’s name for women like this one was Slitch”). It is possible to show a person’s problematic attitudes while also making it clear that they are in fact problems. But this never happens–both of these attitudes are simply stated as if they are true, and without any primary source quotes to give them background, they weigh the text down with their casual cruelty.

Even a look at Margaret’s emotional state with regards to her own personal life and sexuality barely appears, aside from a factual recounting of her affairs with Bill Gaston and Blanche Oelrichs/Michael Strange. The historical context of queer relationships in the 1930s and 40s apparently isn’t relevant. Her last romance with Jim Rockefeller Jr, just at the end of her all-too-brief life, is given a total of about 20 pages, despite the fact that he wrote the forward for the book.

The lack of depth holds true for issues of class, as the emotional and social implications of the Brown family’s place on the edge of high society (connected to but not part of the Carnegie/Rockefeller clan) only comes up to contrast Margaret’s positive feelings towards the Carnegies with her attitude towards her own family. Further, the biography barely even attempts to trace the impact of Margaret Wise Brown on children’s literature, even though ostensibly this is one of the major threads of the book.

There’s an odd lack of connection within the text itself. Moments which should have been linked, either in reinforcement or in contrast, are left to stand on their own. For instance, at one point Gary tells a story about Margaret’s bungled reaction to learning that Esphyr Slobodkina (her friend and frequent collaborator) was Jewish, and her subsequent regret and attempted apology. Then, a bare four pages later, we’re introduced to Margaret’s eventual lover, Michael Strange, who was a prominent isolationist and vocal member of the America First Committee. It’s not that Gary dismisses the tension between these two moments; it’s quite simply that she doesn’t seem to think there is any tension there to dismiss.  What are we to make of Margaret Wise Brown’s complicated and contradictory self? This biography doesn’t seem to ask this question, let alone try to answer it.

In fact, because we only see Wise Brown at second hand, she remains a curiously opaque figure. At the very end of the book, Gary quotes a brief passage from one of Margaret Wise Brown’s journals–the only direct quotation from anyone in 240 pages–and that moment shines the brightest for me in memory. For the first and only time in the entire biography, I felt I had a sense of who Margaret Wise Brown was and how she thought. Had her words been allowed to tell her story, it would have been so much more powerful.

A good biography tells the story of its subject, fully and accurately. A great biography not only does that well; it also contextualizes and illuminates that subject. It presents a deeper understanding of the person, their life, and their world. And so, in reading, a great biography gives also a deeper understanding of ourselves. I hope that someday one is written about Margaret Wise Brown.

_________

Other reviews:

Biographies I do recommend:

  • James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
  • A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm
  • The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
  • Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

 

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Favorite covers of 2016

I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my favorite covers from last year! These are all 2016 releases, and it’s interesting to look back over some of the similarities and differences. (Illustrated covers seem to have been popular across age groups, for instance.)

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March 2017 releases

Lots of exciting releases in March! What are you looking forward to reading?

the-gauntletwhite-road-of-the-moonmiss-ellicotts-school

March 7

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (YA)

 March 14

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (middle grade)

The White Road of the Moon by Rachel Neumeier (YA)

March 21

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood (middle grade)

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (adult SF)

March 28

Overturned by Lamar Giles (YA)

Just a Girl by Carrie Mesrobian (YA)

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi (middle grade)

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (YA)

 

 

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February 2017 round-up

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: Fascinating, enraging, heartbreaking biography of Christine Granville. Mulley does an excellent job of differentiating between different types of evidence, and of telling a very complex and contentious story. She treats Christine with warmth and respect, letting her be the flawed, complicated, and vivid person that she so clearly was. There are parts that had me in tears, and other parts that made me so angry with the world. Very, very well done.

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow: Every time I read a new book by Erin Bow, I know it’s going to be an incredibly emotional experience even if I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen. The Swan Riders is no different. I read it in big gulps and cried so, SO much. While it’s perhaps a little bit slow to get started, the payoff is amazing. I loved it almost more than I can say.

Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon: I’ve heard good things about this run of Hawkeye and I decided to read the first volume. I liked it okay? To be honest, I didn’t quite see what everyone else clearly does, which is a little bit disappointing. I’m not sure if I’ll try the next volume or just chalk it up to, “things that are not For Me.”

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud: As I said on Litsy, this series keeps doing just enough to keep me coming back, but the charm is also starting to wear a bit thin. I want some kind of resolution to actually happen, rather than just having it continually teased for the next book. I’m not sure if I’ll be reading the rest of the series as they come out.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin: I read this one with book club and it’s so delightful! I’d read it when it first came out and had fond impressions of it, but didn’t actually remember what it’s about. I really liked the way the stories are woven in, and the book itself is a beautiful object, from the illustrations down to the font and paper. The story itself is also lovely, with the themes of friendship and family. Plus: A DRAGON.

Spindle by E.K. Johnston: The sequel to A Thousand Nights, which I absolutely loved. I’m not sure if this is a case of too-high expectations or of me just not being in the right mood, but while I appreciated a lot about the story, it never quite emotionally clicked for me the way ATN did. I think perhaps the tension between the original fairy tale and the setting made me a little uncomfortable, in ways that ultimately jolted me out of the story just a little bit too much.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: reread it, yes, even though I read it last month. I cried a lot again because it hits all of my emotional buttons.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker: Reread, since I really enjoyed Parker’s debut and wanted to revisit it before her second book came out!

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker: Somehow I had the wrong impression of what the central conflict in this one was going to be about–not at all the book’s fault! Once I reoriented a little bit, I really enjoyed the story. I especially appreciated that Parker shows the amount of work that goes into a West End production. While I wasn’t initially impressed with the “I know we shouldn’t, but oh well!” theme, the strength of the characters kept me reading and in the end I was charmed by Lily and Luc.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: I appreciated the first book a lot, but The Obelisk Gate gave me so many Feelings. Jemisin digs deeper into the world she’s created, and also starts to weave in Nassun’s story. This worked really well for me, as we see Essun from a different perspective and begin to understand some of the personal ramifications her choices have caused. I can’t wait for the third book, even if I’m worried about what’s going to happen.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman: My awesome friend Ally recommended reading this book after I watched the movie recently, and I’m glad I did. It’s quite different from the adaptation–in some moments I preferred the film and in others I liked the book better. I definitely think the film has a clearer through-line, but the book is more nuanced and has a lovely dreamy quality to it.

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin: Also read this one with book club (we’re on a Grace Lin kick) and oh wow, this book was something. Grace Lin is really good at writing emotional journeys, and this one largely worked really well for me. (I have some personal hang-ups about forgiveness that got poked a bit.) There’s a lot I’m still thinking about and chewing on here.

Booked by Kwame Alexander: This is a thoughtful, engaging story. For me, however, it didn’t quite have the emotional impact of The Crossover. It’s perhaps not fair to compare the two, but it’s also very hard to not do so, especially when they were billed as companion books.

 

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January and February releases

I realize that it’s slightly ridiculous to publish this post when February is almost over at this point. On the other hand, I tend to be a completist and it feels wrong not to. And there are some books out in the last few months that look GREAT, so I want to highlight them anyway.


great-green-room binti stef-soto

January

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden (juvenile nonfiction)

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (adult historical fantasy)

The Silver Gate by Kristin Bailey (mg fantasy)

In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary (biography)

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (YA contemporary)

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres (mg contemporary)

Dreadnought: Nemesis by April Daniels (YA SF)

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer (adult fantasy)

Caraval by Stephanie Garber (YA fantasy)

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu (YA fantasy)

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor (SF novella)


piecing-me-together amberlough american-street

 

 

 

 

February

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza (YA SF)

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (adult historical fantasy)

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones (YA fantasy)

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey (adult fantasy)

The Last of August by Brittany Cavallaro (YA mystery)

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (YA contemporary)

The Wish Granter by CJ Redwine (YA fantasy)

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (YA contemporary)

American Street by Ibi Zoboi (YA magical realism )

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas (YA fantasy)

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (adult fantasy)

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairEverfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

 

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January 2017 round up

Books already talked about

Dared & Done by Julia Markus

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Other books
A Little Taste of Poison by RJ Anderson: This one is the follow up to one of my favorite books from 2015, A Pocket Full of Magic. It was delightful to be back with Isaveth and Quiz, and I enjoyed the school setting of this book as well as the complications that arose from the resolution of the first book. I do think the set up portion took longer than I expected it to, and I wished for more of Isaveth’s family, because I think they’re delightful. But overall, this is another solid middle grade mystery.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: This was a reread, the first book I finished this year. It’s one of my favorites (the humor! the language and word-play! BRYONY!) and it fit especially well with some things I’ve been thinking about in regards to my personal life and this year. But mostly, I just love Billingsley’s books and especially this one: a story about a prickly, unkind girl whose voice shines from the very first page.

Bandette v. 2: This series manages to be incredibly charming and incredibly menacing somehow at exactly the same time. The tone is light and cheerful and the storyline flows along merrily until you realize that actually the villains are pretty terrifying. It’s a very weird mental adjustment, but I like it.

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill: This is one where my personal reaction and my professional reaction are totally different. Personally, it just didn’t resonate for me–the story is a little too condensed, and we don’t spend enough time seeing the characters get to know and appreciate each other. However, I absolutely see the value in it, even though it didn’t quite work for me as an adult reader, and I’m glad I know about it and can recommend it to the readers who need it.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: Florand’s latest release in her Provence series is absolutely lovely. Tristan hasn’t been my favorite character in the previous books, but as usually happens with Florand, I wound up really appreciating him in a new way. And Malorie won my heart almost from the first page. This is one that meant a lot to me personally, which is really why I haven’t written a longer review–I think I have too many feelings about it to do it justice! Beautiful, as usual.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl: reviewed here

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard: review coming soon

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Continuing my Ann Leckie reread and ooohhhhhhhh, I have so many thoughts and emotions and reactions to this book. It manages to do so many things so well, and there are moments that are just so beautifully written. Leckie’s control of Breq’s voice is fabulous. But perhaps one of my favorite things is the way we begin to see what Breq can’t, reading other characters’ reactions differently. I can’t wait to reread the third one and have lots more feelings about what it means to be human + found families + surviving trauma.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: I can’t BELIEVE I waited this long to read Binti, because it is outrageously beautiful and amazing. I really like Okorafor’s work in general, and this one is just great. It’s a novella, and the first of at least two, so there’s a slightness to it. But there’s also a lot packed into the pages: family and culture, diplomacy and building trust, math as–religion? experience? Plus spaaaace. Most of all, though, Binti’s voice is so clear and vivid right from the first sentence. I can’t wait for the next one!

Let Evening Come – Jane Kenyon: I recently discovered Kenyon’s poetry and wanted to check out a collection. Overall, this is a powerful set poems, though there are a few that certainly stand out more than the rest. I loved the juxtaposition of nature imagery with a kind of rejection of sentimentality that runs throughout.

The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn: I loved Kuehn’s first book, Charm & Strange, but haven’t actually read any of her subsequent work. This one, dealing with a cult in California, was a little bit difficult because my adult brain with a lot of experience reading and thinking about cults was yelling things the whole time. Certainly, the ending wasn’t a surprise to me. However, that isn’t to say that  teen reader won’t like this a lot and find that the ending works for them.

Other posts
Favorite children’s & YA read in 2016

Favorite adult books and reading notes in 2016

2017 releases I’m excited about

Currently reading: 1-19

Books that have been helping me lately

Newsletter + news

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned here that I’m writing a newsletter now! It goes out monthly, with reflections, recipes, interesting links, and whatever else I’m interested in when I sit down to write it. You can check out the first two and sign up right here.

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