Spoiler Warning

Book reviews and discussions may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk!

Monday, September 26, 2011

New Book Selection

I'm just gonna step right in and pick a book, if that's okay for now with you people.
The book is called Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.

Have you forgotten why you love reading, my friends? Have you lost your reading mojos, mi amigos? Has your book list gone from totally chic to totally geek, my comrades? Well, here is a book that will get you back in the reading groove. After you read this, you will scower (how do you spell scower, fhs?) the Internet, looking for more books with teenage boy protagonists (and you'll have a hard time finding anything that measures up). This is a book you can safely purchase, rather than borrow from the library. This is a book you will continue to think about long after you close it/power it off. This is a book you will recommend to acquaintances during awkward lulls in conversation. This is a book you will bake a cake about.

You can read my review of it HERE on Goodreads if you need more convincing.

--Jenny ESP

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Discussion Place for The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a Novel

And go...

Only a little bit of Love

I was curious about the circus thing. I even got a little bit pulled into the story there for a few minutes. But Vinnie was so unlikeable. I couldn't stop wondering the whole book how she never wanted, felt, tried, wished, missed, or thought about doing it with Charles. And I felt so so sorry for him. I hated all of the travelogue stuff. Again? We have to hear about every city, the dirty wagons, trudging through the mud? Months and months of ships and trains and ugh! That could have been summed up pretty easily in a page or two.

I too googled pictures of Lavinia and her little husband. She wasn't that pretty. I wish I could find better pictures of her. What an ego the author gave her. So anyway. The other reviews are much better phrased and written than mine. A big thumbs up Landee. I felt the same way!!

"Landee Loved This Book" and other Humbugs

Alternate Title:  Landee Gives Mrs. Tom Thumb Two GIGANTIC Thumbs Down

First of all, I looked at the photos of Miss Lavinia Warren Bump.   She's no Beauty Queen.  Perfectly proportioned?  I'm gonna go with no.  MORE perfectly proportioned than the peeps on Little People, Big World, yes, I'll give her that.  But still.  Her head is bigger than it should be.  Minnie is adorable though... I just want to put her in my pocketbook and carry her around!

#2, Vinnie was highly unlikable.  Who ever heard of a snotty dwarf/pituitary disorder?  I recently found out that my ancestors also came over on the Mayflower and you don't see me with my tiny nose stuck in the air, do you?  I can't like a snob, no matter how tiny she is.  Therefore, I couldn't completely enjoy the story as it is told entirely from within her tiny brain.  I can't forgive her for being so cold with poor Charles either.  I mean, I wasn't looking forward to any nasty tiny person intimacy scenes or anything, but geez!  A man has needs, I don't care how wee he is.

C.  I LOVE P.T. Barnum.  If he really is anything like how he is portrayed in this book then I want to know more.  I guess that is one good thing about this book... it did make me want to know more about these people.

4th, the writing was subpar.  I wanted less of a travelogue and more of a character driven story.  The foreshadowing was driving me crazy too.  Things like "I would later look back at that handshake and remember it as the moment I sentenced Minnie to death"  (not an exact quote, but who cares?).  Rarely did actual events live up to to the drama of the foreshadow.   I was totally expecting Barnum to have strangled Minnie with his bare hands!  As it turns out, he happened to have introduced Minnie to some short-ish dude whom she married, got pregnant with and then died in childbirth.  Give it a rest, Vinnie, fhs.

Lastly, between this and Water For Elephants I'm starting to think that circus freaks are the new vampire.

Landee out.

Markie's Review of Mrs. Tom Thumb

While this book wasn't particularly entertaining; definitely not a page turner and nothing I would read again, I found the subject quite fascinating and I'm glad I read it. What fascinated me? Well, first off the idea that a person can be born a normal sized baby and then at at couple years old stop growing vertically, while otherwise continuing to age and develop normally in every other way. Apparently this type of dwarfism is not common today because it's easily treatable with hormone therapy. I guess that's why you never see little teeny tiny pocket people around any more. Kinda sad. I miss them... not that I ever had them... but still... I miss them.

I'm also fascinated by what kind of challenges one would face being a teeny tiny person in a normal world (or being a normal person in a world of giants depending on your perspective). "I had always looked up, of course; that was my natural position, just as a flamingo stands on one leg or an otter swims on its back" - challenging, both on a practical basis; things like boarding a train, getting into bed, using a bathroom, cooking, finding clothes, etc.; and on a social basis - the constant stares and whispers, and the challenge of finding a companion. In the case of Miss Lavinia Warren Bump there were extremely limited options.

I also think its facinating the way the author gave a personality and voice to this little person. I have no idea whether it was accurate or not; whether she was the nicest kindest bravest person in the world, or a selfish, bitter, cynical beotch. I suspect like most of us she was some of all the above. For me, I found the personality and voice that the author gave her to be believable, and I did not dislike her. I thought her motivations seemed genuine and I never had a "gimme-a-break" moment where I felt like nobody would act/feel/behave that way.

I don't know how I would handle being a teeny tiny person. Probably not gracefully. I think I would have been very reclusive, willing to stay on the farm and be sheltered and protected, and terrified of the day when my parents would no longer be around to provide that shelter and protection. I loved the fact that Vinnie did not want to be defined by her size, and had the courage and determination to first become a school teacher, and then to go explore the world. I didn't think there was anything incongruous or disingenuous about her wanting to protect her little sister, while at the same time feeling the need to get off the farm herself, see the world, and have people know and remember her.

I also can't judge her for marrying for practical and financial reasons rather than for love. I believe people have been doing that for generations. In fact I think the idea of marrying solely because you are in love is a relatively modern idea. Arranged marriages still happen today in many parts of the world. And again, her options were very limited. Marrying a normal (or giant depending on perspective) sized person would be out of the question for reasons I would think I need not explain. I think it was very sad that she never had any intimacy in her marriage (according the author) - I felt particularly sad for her husband, but again I can't blame her. Indeed she saw her worst fears played out when Minny foolishly did what Vinnie knew she could never do. It's just sad they didn't have something better than prevention powders in those days. Or maybe they did, but these tiny people just didn't know about it, or couldn't find anything their size. Poor little people.

I found P.T. Barnum fascinating too, and I wouldn't mind learning more about him. He certainly left a legacy. The Barnum & Bailey circus still travels around the country today. I liked the way the author portrayed him and would like to think it was accurate. I felt that while he was clearly a business man and out to provide entertainment and make a buck, he respected his employees. I personally don't have any problem with his passing off a wrinkled old lady as being 161 years old and the nanny of George Washington, or sewing half a monkey to half a fish and calling it a mermaid. I love that in our nation a person is free to find suckers and take their money. I did have a problem with his taking orphans and trying to pass them off as the Thumb's child; while at the same time being impressed by the brazenness of it. I think he probably should have done some jail time for that one given that people around the world sent expensive gifts for the baby's birth, and again for its supposed death.

I like the way that the author focused the narrative on the relationship between Barnum and Vinnie. I was sad that Vinnie blamed herself and Barnum for her sisters death, but again I found it genuine and didn't question it. I was happy that they reconciled in the end. These are two people that I will add to my list of people I'd like to meet on the other side. Of course I also found her interaction with, and feelings about the Mormons interesting. I completely understand her disgust at Polygamy. I wish I knew more about her meeting with Brigham Young.

I'm actually old enough, and maybe some of you are too, to remember "Freak Shows". I remember one "human oddity" I saw as a child. It was a tiny man. I paid my dime or whatever it was, and climbed the stairs into a trailer where we stood behind some Plexiglas staring at a little man in a tiny recliner watching TV. He wasn't an every day Oompa Loompa like midget, but he also wasn't a perfectly proportioned little man like Tom Thumb. He was rather misshapen, hunched over, and looked like he must be in constant pain. He looked to be in his middle ages and quite unhappy. I can't blame him. In the few minutes that I was there I witnessed several Cletuses banging on the Plexiglas, and shouting things to try and get the little guy to do something, like Dudley Dursely trying to get the attention of the Burmese Python. But the tiny man never acknowledged the people on the other side of the glass. I felt very sorry for this little person, and wondered about the ethics of this situation. On the one hand we were providing him with an honest living (assuming his employers were treating him fairly) while on the other hand it may have been at the expense of his dignity and self worth.

I pondered this ethical question throughout the book. It's one of the reasons I ultimately give this book thumbs up. It made me ponder some big questions. I like how the Author addressed this issue and how it must have always been a part of Vinnie's thinking. "There were hundreds of 'Tom Thumb Wedding' parties; 'Tom Thumb Wedding" fundraisers; 'Tom Thumb wedding' pageants at schools. Was I supposed to be touched by this, viewing it as a tribute to our love? Or was I supposed to be offended, seeing it as a mockery, a joke? I never could decide." When an Elvis impersonator marries a couple in Vegas, or dozens of them parachute from an airplane is it a tribute? a mockery? Both? Can you really pay tribute to somebody while you are making a joke of their appearance/size/voice/style/etc.?

Other passages that made me ponder:
"I wondered if this was how it always felt when all your dreams came true. Perhaps, after living with them for so long, did you simply toss them away - and begin to dream about something else?"
- Discussion point: Have you ever had a dream come true; one that you thought if only you had that one thing you would be happy for the rest of your life? How did you feel immediately after? 1,5,10 years after? Are you still waiting for your dreams to come true, and provide you the happiness you long for?
"I must confess, right here and now, to making a dreadful assumption. And that assumption was that a person this tall who moved this slowly, must be very slow of mind and wit and well."
- Discussion point: What assumptions do you make based on appearances? Are others justified in making assumptions about us based on our appearance, religious belief, occupation, etc.?
"I imagined what it would be like to be able to walk around freely, anonymously, nothing about me remarkable in any way. Would I like it? Would I trade my fame if it meant that I never had to suffer fools hugging me to them ever again? I honestly did not know. And I was more than a little relieved that it was a moot point, after all."
- Discussion point: Have you ever wanted to be a movie star/sports hero/national leader/famous singer/etc.? Do we envy them without considering what they sacrifice in return for their fame? Would you be willing to pay the price in lost freedom and privacy?

Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the authors portrayal of Vinnie and whether or not you think she was a good or bad person there is no disputing the fact that this tiny person had the courage to travel the world, meeting kings, queens and heads of state, and on one tour alone "traveled 55,487 miles (31,216 of them by sea) and gave 1,472 entertainments in 587 different cities and towns in all climates of the world without missing a single performance because of accident or illness" and this without most of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. That's a pretty amazing feat IMHO and deserves my admiration and respect, if for nothing else.

Little Person, Giant Ego

JennyESP's review of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

The Writing:

The writing was very nice if you take it sentence by sentence. But those well-written sentences did not always move the story along. They sometimes just sat on the page looking pretty. And at times the dialog felt inauthentic, as if the characters were speaking for the sole purpose of informing the reader. (There would be long paragraphs of dialog from one character, saying things the other characters in the room had to have already known.)

The Pace:

Slow. Slow. Quick, quick, slow. I danced the Tango with this book, when I much prefer the Running Man. There were whole chapters that didn’t seem to add anything to the story and were, in fact, very dull. (Like chapter 5, for instance. You can skip chapter 5 and you won’t miss anything. Actually, you can skip the whole book and read about Vinnie Warren on Wikipedia.) Conversely, the parts of Vinnie’s life that I was particularly interested in reading about were skimmed over in a sentence or skipped entirely. For example, her courtship with her future little husband, Charles Stratton, Mr. Tom Thumb himself! I had to muck through 40% of the book, which included a lot of daily snobbery, before they finally met, only to have their courtship summed up in one unsatisfying “by the way, I agreed to marry Charles” sentence. (More on that relationship later…)

Mrs. Tom Thumb (aka Vinnie):

“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it would be defined as a self-absorbed, selfish, arrogant, condescending, uppity, heartless, cold, manipulative, opportunistic, cruel, self-righteous, judgmental hypocrite.” (Edits.)

The list of Vinnie’s unlikeable attributes grew and expanded as the story dragged on until any hope of redemption was lost. Although, such little effort was made to redeem this character that I have to wonder if the author intended for us to dislike Vinnie. Or perhaps the author and I simply define “strong, driven, independent female” differently. Either way, I utterly disliked Vinnie in an overwhelming contemptuous far-out way, and in the end, she killed this book for me. The most satisfying part of the book was when P.T. Barnum finally chewed her out, although it wasn’t nearly long enough and he failed to kick her into a thorny bush, as I was hoping. Vinnie never apologizes for her faults and never changes. If anything, she gets worse as the story progresses. Her mistreatment of her husband is particularly heartbreaking.

P.T. Barnum:

He was by far the best character in the novel. He shared many of Vinnie’s flaws, yet he was surprisingly down-to-earth and likeable. His relationship with Vinnie felt authentic.

General Tom Thumb (aka Charles Stratton):

Excuse me while I wipe the mud from this poor gentleman’s name.

Credibility (or lack thereof):

**spoilers ahead, and some frank talk about love-making, but I suggest you read on**

Charles Stratton was a real man. Vinnie Warren Stratton was a real woman. In this fictional autobiography, the author wants us to believe Charles and Vinnie never consummate their marriage.

Vinnie, the cold-hearted snake, only marries to advance her career. Unbeknownst to Charles, she never intends to consummate their marriage, or have children (adopted or otherwise, as children literally give her the heebie-jeebies). By the time the author is done with her, Vinnie is a 43-year-old, widowed virgin who is terrified of sex. Again, the author and I have different ideas about what makes a woman strong, driven, and independent.

Stretching the imagination even further, Charles, who married Vinnie for love, is blindsided by her unwillingness to consummate their marriage, but after a few rejections in the bedroom, he never presses the issue, never complains, and never strays from the marriage. He is given an almost child-like sensibility after that, as if he hasn’t any strong adult male desires. This is attributed to his small size and his “simplemindedness.”

I found this suggestion not only insulting, but lacking credibility. I read the author’s note at the end to see how she came to such bold conclusions about Vinnie and Charles, and found that the little evidence she gave to support her claims actually implies the opposite of how she portrayed them to be, if you ask me.

On Benjamin’s (author) website, she answers the question of how she balances “fact versus fiction” in her writing. Her reply: “I like to say that I never let the truth get in the way of a good story! There's a reason why "A Novel" is on the front of the book. It's fiction, and I trust the readers to know that it is. Always, my hope is that, after reading one of my books, the reader is then inspired to learn more about these remarkable people. However, I do use the known facts as a template; they're the "bones" upon which I hang the "skin"—the story, the fiction. But sometimes you do have to take liberties—although I always try to take them with people whose motivations are truly unclear in the historical record. Or with events whose details remain unknown to us.”

Oh, how I would've preferred if M. Benjamin had let a little more truth get in the way of her fiction! Her bones of facts were too easily broken. Indeed, I was inspired to read more about these real people, just as she hoped, and I believe she sold them short. Pun intended!

Here are some confirmed facts, not mentioned in the novel: Vinnie married an Italian Count (another little person) a few years after Charles’s death. She and the Count were together until her death, 34 years later. However, when she died, she was buried next to her first husband, Charles, and her grave stone simply reads “His Wife.” No name, no tiny life-size statue like her husband got, and no mention of her being a Countess. Just simply “His Wife.”

Yeah. They consummated their marriage, all right. In fancy hotels all over the world, including that weird little Mormon town in UT.