Monday, November 13, 2017

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy (2017)

I loved this book.  I love reading children's literature, and I love reading about he children's literature I loved as a child.  Handy has this apology at the beginning of the book for all of the authors and books that he missed when writing about this book - but I don't think he needed it.  He wrote about the perfect amount of authors and books.  Although I didn't want the book to end - I could have continued reading about his thoughts and research on children's literature for far longer than the book lasted.  Anyone who can  compared Portnoy's Complaint to Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny is a genius in my mind.  There are all sort of literary comparisons here, but not done in a glib way; Handy is as serious as hell about how terrific and literary the very best children's literature is.  He's not fucking around here. 

Bruce Handy feels the same way about so many books I loved as a child and still love as an adult.  He certainly has the same relationship to Narnia as I do. 

He compared The Giving Tree to Midnight Cowboy.  I love this man. I want to be at all the same cocktail parties as he is at, listening to his every word.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an AdultWild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I were forced to be a stalker, you know, someone put a gun to my head and made me stalk someone, I would have to choose Bruce Handy. I want to follow him around like an imprinted gosling. I want to be at all the same cocktail parties he is at, hanging on his every word. I want him to read bedtime stories to me. I'm in literary love. If you continue to love children's literature as an adult (I do) and love reading about the children's literature you devoured as a book hungry child (that's me),m then you will also fall head over heels in love with Bruce Handy as well. He compared Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny to Portnoy's Complaint - in a way that isn't glib or mean, but brilliant and funny. He compared the characters in The Giving Tree - that hateful, awful book - to the characters in Midnight Cowboy. WTF? He loves Narnia. Charlotte's Web continues to make him weep. He made me re-read The Cat in the Hat for the first time in 40 years; he made me read Goodnight Moon for the first time ever. I did not want this book to end. I'm in literary love, until the next gobsmackingly brilliant author new to me rolls around. Until then, I will be thinking only of you, Mr. Bruce Handy.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny ( 1942) by Margaret Wise Brown; illustrated by Clement Hurd.

I'm reading this truly fantastic new book called Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy.  It is all about how great children's literature is to read as adult, which I absolutely believe to be true, and advocate.  If you read my blog or follow my reviews on Goodreads, you know I read plenty of children's literature:  picture books, easy readers, early chapter books, novels.  (I'm not a huge fan of YA, preferring a middle grade reader over a YA any day).  Handy had a choice chapter on how fucking cool Margaret Wise Brown was (and how eccentric she was too).  Did you know that MWB was a lesbian?  I know I didn't!

Upon finishing that chapter (and moving on to fairy tales and Maurice Sendak), I realized that in all my years of reading children's literature, in all of my years of being a children's librarian, I had never actually read Goodnight Moon.  Recently I read Frankenstein for the first time, and found while I knew a few things about the book, I really knew nothing.  That was not true with Goodnight Moon.  When reading the book, I felt like I was re-reading it, even though I actually was only reading it for the first time.  

I have nothing unique or interesting to say about Goodnight Moon.  Read Brucy Handy's book - he's a far more interesting writer than me.  Clement Hurd's illustrations are so very, very 1940s, for some reason, to me at least, very aesthetically Miracle on 34th Street (1947 - same year!).  

The Runaway Bunny is from a genre of books I never really like all that well.  Perhaps this is the granddaddy of all those "I love you so much" books that parents get as baby shower gifts.  Anita Jeram's Guess How Much I Love You, Barbara Joose's Mama, Do You Love Me?, Robert Munsch's I Love You Forever.  I gave that particular book to my mom twenty years ago, so I'm not a hater on these books (I also know how this particular bookcreeps some people out).  I just don't think they are very interesting as books.  Bruce Handy makes a very, very good case for how interesting The Runaway Bunny is, and how it's also based on a (creepy stalkery) medieval folk song, which made Margaret Wise Brown ever more fucking cool in my mind.  This book also has 1940s stamped all over its style; it reminded me an Easter greeting card from that era that my father might have received from his grandmother.  Bruce Handy is right about many things, but what resonated for me about what he said about this book was how the mother rabbit became the wind and was going to "blow you where I want you to go."  That's mothering.  And perhaps smothering.  

The Runaway BunnyThe Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of these "I love you forever" types of books. I don't hate them, but they just leave me cold. Perhaps I have no heart. I definitely have no children (that I'm aware of), so maybe a baby would make me appreciate them more. I only picked this up because Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult had some really interesting things to say about it. I don't want to spoil Handy's book - go read it. Clement Hurd's illustrations are pure 1940s, although more like an Easter greeting card rather than - I dunno, wallpaper or the Thin Man's apartment or the Little Rascals or Benny Goodman's girl singer. 

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have nothing new or interesting to say about Goodnight Moon that probably hasn't been said before. There are some kick ass reviews here already. Go read them.

Note: I had never read this before now. I'm going to be 48 years old in a few months, and somehow, I missed out on Good Night moon. I knew of it, and reading it actually felt like re-reading it. But this was my first time. I think possibly it is my first Margaret Wise Brown book too. I can't recommend Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult enough; his chapter on MWB made me read this and The Runaway Bunny.

The Middle Ages by Edwin S. Grosvenor (2016)

This was a collection of articles written for Horizon, a “bi-monthly hardback” published by American Heritage from 1958 to 1989, the year after I graduated from high school.  The front cover and title page imply that Edwin S. Grosvenor is the author; he is not - I suppose he is the editor, although I’m going to guess “gatherer” or “included” would be more correct (if not very scholarly or proper terms; I never claimed to be anything other than myself, and that is no scholar, and barely proper).  The articles are a mixed bag; short, some of them crisply so, others not so successfully.  Only one of the authors is a woman, Regine Pernoud, a French historian and archivist who died nine years ago.  As far as I can tell, every writer in the book was white.   1958-1989 wasn’t really a time of “woke-ness”, so this should come as no surprise.  I am glad we live in the time we do now, when more people are getting chances to express their opinions and share their research.  Or research.  I think in 1958, if you were a black graduate student interested in medieval history, finding a school to admit you was difficult, let alone finding a library or archive to do research in.

There were eleven articles - they aren’t essays - and they read as if they had pictures accompanying them.  Alas, no pictures in this book.  I liked Regine Pernoud’s article on Charlemagne - I never quite realized how closely he was aligned to the Roman Empire rather than being French; they were speaking a language closer to Latin than French even.  The French certainly that claimed Charlemagne as their own, but he’s really the first European?  That’s a very unscholarly guess.

Morris Bishop’s take on 1066 was interesting.  Frederic Grunfeld’s article about the troubadours, while good, still felt dated; he compared them to The Rolling Stones, which instantly put the article sometime long before now.  I liked Philip Ziegler’s article on the Black Death as well; Ziegler wrote a book about the subject that I may go look up; I imagine this is a minuscule version of his book.

The most interesting of all the articles was Alfred Duggan’s look at Richard I and Saladin.  Duggan was a best selling writer of historical fiction in the middle of the last century; I have some of his books on my list to read, as I think they’ve all been re-released as e-books with snazzy new covers.  He was known for his meticulous research.

I picked out these two descriptions of Richard I and Saladin to show how vile they both were:

"On August 20, recognizing that the agreed ransom would never be handed over, Richard killed the soldiers in the surrendered garrison, along with their wives and children, some 2,700 people in all, excluding some wealthy emirs who bought their survival through the payment of individual ransoms. Having gained one impressive victory..."  An impressive victory that he got through slaughtering children.  A true lion - male lions will slay the cubs of rivals.
 "The Muslims, while killing the unarmed citizens, also had killed all the pigs, and fragments of pork had been deliberately mingled with fragments of Christians, so burial was a slow process."  Saladin was no better.  What a monstrous thing to do.

I don't think Duggan came down hard enough on these two beasts.  The last paragraph in the article, while not a lovefest, was still admiration about their gallantry and peace-keeping abilities.  I don't feel they deserved.  King John and Richard III get bad, bad press - but Richard I deserves some too.

Edwin Grosvenor is the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell - thank you Wikipedia!

The Middle AgesThe Middle Ages by Edwin S. Grosvenor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a collection of articles written for Horizon, a “bi-monthly hardback” published by American Heritage from 1958 to 1989, the year after I graduated from high school. The front cover and title page imply that Edwin S. Grosvenor is the author; he is not - I suppose he is the editor, although I’m going to guess “gatherer” or “included” would be more correct (if not very scholarly or proper terms; I never claimed to be anything other than myself, and that is no scholar, and barely proper). The articles are a mixed bag; short, some of them crisply so, others not so successfully. Only one of the authors is a woman, Régine Pernoud, a French historian and archivist who died nine years ago. As far as I can tell, every writer in the book was white. 1958-1989 wasn’t really a time of “woke-ness”, so this should come as no surprise. I am glad we live in the time we do now, when more people are getting chances to express their opinions and share their research. Things aren't perfect, but they are better. Alfred Duggan's article on Saladin and Richard I was the most interesting (and eye opening: these guys were monsters). I also liked Pernoud's article about Charlemagne. Nothing of note here; feel comfortable skipping this book.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley (1988)

When did I first read Judith Merkle Riley's A Vision of Light?  It had to have been back in college (I graduated high school in 1988), and I'm going to hazard a guess I checked it out from a public library (which one, I will never now know).  I probably checked it out because of the incredible, shining vision of light original cover, which is almost like an icon:  a good cover for a character like Margaret.  I'm nothing but a sucker for a good cover.  Incidentally, the new cover for this book is boring as f.  The cover pictured below doesn't glow like my personal copy at home!

When did I last read this book?  I'm going to guess ten years ago, at least.  But it continues to enchant.  Riley creates such incredibly memorable characters, who act, think and feel like real people, not medieval paper dolls.  The rich, brightly colored setting she creates for these characters to inhabit is often surprising and always wonderful.  Calling the medieval historical novel she's written a medieval tapestry is trite covered with mildew - but perhaps I can get away with an illuminated manuscript?  She writes (in gold ink) what's going on in the margins and in the middle of the O's and P's and under the A's. 

SPOILER...   There is a homosexual character who comes to a bad end, who is evil on top of that - I think if Riley (RIP) were writing today, she'd definitely get called out for having a character like this.  It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth that I don't remember having the last time or two I read this book.  However, gay men can be creepy villains too - having every gay in every book be a superhero is beyond the pale.

A Vision of Light (Margaret of Ashbury, #1)A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Calling this historical fiction novel a medieval tapestry would be trite, covered with mildew, clearly cliched, hokier than the hokey-pokey -but perhaps I can get away with illuminated manuscript, written in gold ink? Riley fills in all the illumined details along the margins, in the Os and Ps, under the As, sliding down the Ws and Vs. Those details include a rich, multi-colored stained glass setting, and memorable, soundly written living breathing characters that you soon grow to love (or hate, as the case may be). I've read this book several times, and each time I come away enchanted - and even though I know the ending already, I'm still biting my nails several times for Margaret's (unfair) plight. Spiritual, humorous, feminist. Pair this with Catherine, Called Birdy for a medieval faire.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)

Shhhhh... don't tell anyone... but....

I don't think I like fantasy anymore.

And maybe I never did.

Ken Liu came highly recommended by various review sources.  I read Tor on a pretty regular basis, and get reading recommendations from there frequently. That's probably where I read about The Grace of Kings and thought "that sounds really good."

Except, when I started reading, I just could not connect with it.  The writing was not bad (although I thought it was simplistic and stark).   But after only a few pages into it, I knew I was not going to ever fall head over heels into the book. In fact, reading it was a chore.  There were so many strange names of people and places, and history I had to remember, that I kept getting confused.

Perhaps my brain has grown rusty.  Also, research is (frighteningly) showing that smart phones are making us dumber.  Perhaps, like everyone else, I've become dumb.

But thinking back to my reading history, I've never, ever liked this type of fantasy.  Why did I suddenly think I would like it now?  

Tolkien was my launchpad into epic fantasy.  That is probably is true for many people my age and older.  I can't think of a single other epic fantasy, however, that I ever read and liked.  I belonged to a science fiction and fantasy bookclub for a while growing up, and I remember getting some of the Shannara series by Terry Brooks.  I would sit down and try to read the first book in that series (was it the Sword of Shannara?) every once in a while, and never be able to actually finish (granted, even then I thought Shannara was the poor man's LOTR, a cheap knockoff).  But I tried to read other epic fantasies too - usually suggested by other readers who swore I would like it.  My neighbor's dad tried to get me to read the Thomas Covenant series (nope).  Several friends my senior year of high school - my dungeons and dragons buddies (yes, I had those back then) - liked Roger Zelazny's Amber series (nope).  About 15 years ago, as a teen librarian one of my young adult customers got me to try to read George R.R. Martin (nope, and I don't really like Game of Thrones either).  Epic fantasy leaves me cold every time. I loved this book by Lawrence Watt-Evans called Ithalin's Restoration; but when I tried to read others in the epic series - nope.  Robert Jordan always looked too damn big - extra nope for that.  David Eddings - nope.  I had some of those Dragonlance books growing up as well, and never could get into them completely either.

Why Tolkien and not all of these other authors? Maybe Tolkien holds a nostalgic place in my reading history.  Actually, the more epic Tolkien gets, the less I like the books:  The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (and parts of The Two Towers) are the least epic in the series.  It took me years to be able to get beyond the first book of The Two Towers and finish the entire series.  I know for a while, I was a mad Tolkien-phile - but that didn't change the fact that The Return of the King was always my least favorite and (gulp) sometimes felt like a slog.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (1956)

In my memory, Miss Coralie Shull read this aloud to our fourth grade class.  I think that about quite a few books from my childhood, but I don't think that can be completely true.  That is all we would have done is read aloud all year long, the amount of books I "remember" her reading!  (I also designed another planet in her class as well, full of fantastic creatures; that in my mind are colorful crayon blobs of green and pink; that is probably where my love of science fiction and aliens started). 

I've read and re-read Serraillier's book too many times to county.  The picture above is one I found on the internet; that is what my original copy looked like - now long disappeared.  Why wasn't I more careful with my books?

I recently purchased a hard copy book club version from the 1950s with the original title The Silver Sword.  I didn't even know there were two titles for many years.  I wonder why they changed the title?  Escape from Warsaw sounds more exciting, I guess. 

For a book I've read so many times, you think I would never get anything new out of it - but I realized this time that the children meet and are helped by a Russian soldier, a British soldier, a family whose German sons were killed in the fighting, and an American soldier.  One from each side of the war.  I don't know who I didn't catch that for all of these years. 

The Silver SwordThe Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first discovered this book, under a different title (Escape From Warsaw in fourth grade, and have loved it ever since. Re-reading it as an adult hasn't diminished that love. Ruth, Bronia, Edek and Jan make their way through a destroyed post World War II Europe from Poland to Switzerland, in search of their lost father and mother. Along the way, they are helped by soldiers and civilians from all sides of the conflict - a Russian, a British officer, a German farmer, and an American soldier and son of Polish immigrants. A message of peace, fellowship and humanity ring true throughout the book; if only Serraillier's faith in his fellow humans continued to ring true. I remember being enchanted and thrilled by scenes in the book as a child; I still was as a forty-something man.

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Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones; read by Gerard Doyle (1982)

I last read Witch Week in September 2010 - almost exactly seven years ago.  That seems to be too long to have gone without reading one of my favorite books of all time, by one of my favorite authors of all time.  There are few writers out there who engage my attention and sense of wonder than Diana Wynne Jones.  Neil Gaiman does occasionally; the Roman mysteries of Steven Saylor have in a different way.  The Sorcery and Cecilia by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. WredeConnie Willis.  Michener.  Rowling.  Of course, Tolkien and Lewis.  (I don't like and haven't read every single Tolkien or every single Lewis; the same actually holds true for Diana Wynne Jones).

I discovered Diana Wynne Jones later in life - but what is really funny is I can't remember the first time I read Witch Week.  I know I didn't read anything else by her for years after that even.

Jones nominally writes for children, but I know I certainly enjoy her books.

I listened to Witch Week, and plan on listening to the rest of the Chrestomanci series.  They are all on YouTube - boot-legged, I'm sure.  The YouTube audiobook experience isn't ideal; but I will put up with those small difficulties to listen.  Gerard Doyle is a top notch narrator; not as good as Jim Dale, but pretty close.

I wonder if Nan Pilgrim a stand-in for Jones herself?  She is romantic, tells stories, and seems to be headed for the author's life in the end.

Interestingly, the bullying girls at the end - Teresa Mullet and her crew - all have sad, drab lives at the end.  But the bully boys all become friends with the boys they were bullying.  I am going to hazard a guess that Jones got even with some girls she knew as a child in this book.

She perfectly captures what it's like to be an eleven year old, and that eleven year old world - at leas the world I remember, the world of Judy Blume's Blubber, the shifting alliances, the cliques, and the entire section on "real boys" and "real girls."  I wonder if this is still true for eleven year olds?

I realized that the kids in this book were the same age as me when the book was published.

Being a witch in a society than not only shuns you but kills you can stand in for many things - being a Jew under the Nazis comes to mind.  But as a gay male, this especially rang true.  Not wanting to be gay, trying to hide, realizing it at puberty and knowing you were different, that first crush seemed to magical, so dangerous, so empowering, and then the dread of the inquisitors rushing in to crush everything, wanting to run away, being teased for being different.

Larwood House - I read it was a take on Jane Eyre's Lowood House (I've never read Jane Eyre, so I can't vouch for this).  I was reminded more of Scrubb and Pole's school in Lewis's The Silver Chair.

Witch WeekWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witch Week is probably one of my favorite books of all time - I think it's perfectly written. The characters are really, really well drawn and fleshed out. And there is many of them, so that makes DWJ's writing skills even more amazing. She doesn't ever mince words; adults are always bumblers or fools (except for the good ones, and even they are often oblivious). Which, maybe, is how children really see adults to some extent. Characters have layers, even the evil ones (although their layers aren't usually as thick). The mean girls and bully boys in Witch Week seem so real. Theresa and Simon and the rest are all pulled right out of Blubber, but in a much more funny, less frightening way. Simon and Theresa are as evil as those awful mean girls in Blubber, but for some reason they seem less threatening. It probably helps that Charles and Nan had both their own magical powers and Chrestomanci to help them; poor old Blubber had no one (similarly, with the exception of Chrestomanci, who essentially made them solve the problem on their own, both books are full of bullies and the oblivious teachers who don't seem to notice or do notice but don't care).

10/19/17 I haven't re-read Witch Week in almost exactly seven years, far too long to have gone without reading it. I listened to Gerard Doyle's excellently narrated audio version; his voice was perfect (I particularly liked his elegant, deep-voiced Chrestomanci). I haven't changed my mind about Witch Week or DWJ. I wondered if Nan Pilgrim was a stand-in for DWJ herself?

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929)

Gladys Mitchell may have been of the grand dames of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but I came away from her first book unimpressed.  I thought the dialogue was terrible; the pace of the plot was strange, and I just could never quite grasp what was going on, and find the willingness to care.  This was her first book of 60 books; the public for sixty years clearly liked her writing style and kept her employed.  This was not listed as among her best works; and perhaps I should give her one more try.  But I'm not sure she's worth it for me. Quite frankly, I found the mystery ridiculous.

Speedy Death (Mrs. Bradley)Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell

Although Gladys Mitchell is one of the grand dames of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I didn't find this - her first book - all that compelling. I thought the dialogue was terrible, the pacing of the plot strange, and the mystery was a let down. The end was out there, which was one of the saving graces of the book - but otherwise, I was unimpressed. Mitchell wrote 60 books in her lifetime, from the 1920s through the 1980s, writing up until her death (her last book was published posthumously). Obviously, people liked her enough to keep her gainfully employed. That makes me think I should read another book in the series, a later one that comes with a good review. This one did not make me what to do that.

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The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 by Will Durant (1950)

I don't know enough about modern scholarship to question Will Durant's sources or his historiography in any meaningful way.  I like reading history; I don't write it, and what little I studied was nearing 30 years ago.  Modern historians still write in interesting ways (well, some of them) but Durant's style of writing, I think, has done out of style.  It's more flowering and really just beautiful.  He crafts prose that is quite stunning and memorable.  His books are long, but they are gardens filled with flowers he's carefully tended.  

My biggest complaint about this book - I think Durant tried to do too much.  There were four main parts:  about the rise of Christianity on the heels of Rome, the rise and triumph of Islam, the perseverance of Judaism, and finally medieval Christianity.  Each part was interesting.  His writing about Islam and Judaism was never done in a way to make the two religions less than Christianity.  But there was just so much of everything that it became muddled - there wasn't a clear narrative line or chronology to this, and I think it needed it. The shear size of it all made the entire thing occasionally unwieldy.  

Here are some passages I copied:

Describing the philosophy of John Scotus:  "Here is the Age of Reason moving in the womb of the Age of Faith."  Incredible metaphor.

"History seldom destroys that which does does deserve to die; and the burning of the tapes makes for the next sowing a richer soil."  Describing the Norse invasions of various parts of Europe; a harsh, sort of Darwinian sentiment.  On the heels of Nazi invasion and destruction of large swaths of Europe makes this line hard to swallow, although I also think he is describing a historic fact.  The phoenix is an apt metaphor for this.

"Every civilization is a fruit from the sturdy tree of barbarism, and falls at the greatest distance from the trunk."

"Institutions and beliefs are the offspring of human needs."

Some strong Byzantine women who ruled in their own right, usually as some sort of regents, but still kicked ass.  Two sisters Zoe and Theodora;
 Placidia who "for twenty five years ruled the Empire of the West with no discredit to her sex."  No one ever writes about these kick ass women.

Incarnadine:  Durant liked this word; he used it four times.  It means, as a verb form (which is how he used it) to color something red.  He was more using it as a word meaning "to give a special character or distinguishing quality to" "they had seen the masculine virtues incarnadine half the world"  "His path to power was less incarnadined than most of those what have opened new dynasties" "they incarnadined their capital with assassinations" "Feud revenge incarnadined their sagas."  All four uses are really clever and slightly different.  Masterful and interesting.

"A thousand years before Christ northern invaders had entered Italy, subdued and mingled with its inhabitants, borrowed civilization from them, and with them, through eight centuries, had built a new civilization.  Four hundred years after Christ the process was repeated; the wheel of history came full turn; the beginning and end were the same.  But the end was always a beginning."  Lovely, lovely passage; I love this idea of the end being the beginning.

Durant's reason for being:  "The Roman Empire had raised science, prosperity, and power to their ancient peaks.  The decay of the Empire of the West, the growth of poverty and the spread of violence, necessitated some new ideal and hope to give men consolation in their suffering and courage in their toil: an age of power gave way to an age of faith.  Not till wealth and pride should return in the Renaissance would reason reject faith, and abandon heaven for utopia.  But if, thereafter, reason should fail, and science should find no answers, but should multiply knowledge and power without improving conscience or purpose; if all utopias should brutally collapse in the changeless abuse of the weak by the strong: then men would understand why once their ancestors, in the barbarism of those early Christian centuries, turned from science, knowledge, power, and pride and took refuge for a thousand years in humble faith, hope and charity."  This is a dystopian warning from Durant; also it reminds me of the end of The Bone Clocks when civilization has collapsed and religion is once again Puritanically taking control.

"Civilization is a union of soil and soul - the resources of the earth transformed by the desire and discipline of men.  Behind the facade of and under the burden, of courts and palaces, temples and schools, letters and luxuries and the arts, stands the basic man: the hunter ruining game from the woods; the woodman fell in the forest, the herdsman posturing and breeding his flock; the peasant clearing, plowing, sowing, cultivating, reaping, tending the orchard, the vine, the hive, and the brood; the woman absorbed in the hundred crafts and cares of a functioning home; the miner digging in the earth; the builder shaping homes and vehicles and ships; the artisan fashioning products and tools; the pedlar, shopkeeper, and merchant uniting and dividing maker and user; the investor fertilizing industry with his savings; the executive harnessing muscle, materials, and minds for the creation of services and goods.  These are the patient yet restless leviathan on whose swaying back civilization precariously rides."

"Apparently there were village atheists then as now. But village atheists leave few memorials
"The power of Christianity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth."

"It was a God-intoxicated age."  Unfortunately,  I think we also live in a God-intoxicated age, at least American public officials.  The mouthpiece is loud.

"And I wish that all times were April and May, and every month renew all fruits again, and every day fleur-de-lis and gillyflower and violets and roses wherever one goes, and woods in leaf and meadows green, and every lover should have his lass, and they to love each other with a sure heart and true, and to everyone his pleasure and a gay heart." From The Wandering Scholar.

"Those who cater to human vanity seldom starve."

"Next to bread and woman, in the hierarchy of desire, comes eternal salvation; when the stomach is satisfied , and lust is spent, man spares a little time for God."

Durant’s beautiful description of the Muslim's call to prayer:  “It is a powerful appeal, a noble summons to rise with the sun, a welcome interruption in the hot work of the day, a solemn message of divine majesty in the stillness of the night; grateful even to alien ears is this strange shrill chant of many muezzins from divers mosques calling the earthbound soul to a moment’s communion with the mysterious source of life and mind."

"Meanwhile, men loved life while maligning it and spent great sums to stave off death."

"So the continuity of history reasserts itself: despite earthquakes, epidemics, famines, eruptive migrations, and catastrophic wars, the essential processes of civilization are not lost; some younger culture takes them up, snatches them from the conflagrations, carries them on imitatively, then creatively, until fresh youth and spirit can enter the race.  As men are members of one another, and generations are moments in a finally line, so civilizations are units in a larger whole whole name is history; they are stages in the life of man.  Civilization is polygenetic - it is the cooperative product of many peoples, ranks and faiths; and no one who studies its history can be a bigot of race or creed.  Therefore the scholar though he belongs to his country through affectionate kinship, feels himself also a citizen of that Country of the Mind which knows no hatred and no frontiers; he hardly deserves his name if he carries into his study political prejudices, or racial discriminations, or religious animosities; and he accords grateful homage to any people that has born the torch and enriched his heritage."

"For that one death on the cross how many crucifixions!"

"The life of the mind is a composition of two forces: the necessity to believe in order to live, and the necessity to reason in order to advance. " 

"The isles of science and philosophy are everywhere washed by mystic seas.  Intellect narrows hope, and only the fortunate can bear it gladly. "

The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization, #4)The Age of Faith by Will Durant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a scholar; I don't know the ins and out of modern historiography. I like reading history, and I know what I like. I like Will Durant. I'm sure he's considered old fashioned; I'm sure he can be picked apart for all sorts of modern sins of scholarship. I'm not interested in doing that. I like his writing style; he writes incredible and beautiful prose. That's enough for me. I will let scholars go to town on his research; I just know that I like reading his books and find them fascinating for the subject matter and moving for the prose. This particular book, although well written (as usual), was unwieldy. Durant is tackling something huge: the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire/Byzantium; the rise and successes of Islam; the perseverance of medieval Judaism; and finally medieval Christianity. The immensity of these themes are also the book's main downfall: because there is so much to cover, some things get muddled; the book feels like a whirlpool, with names and facts and figures all spinning around together, touching and then breaking apart. It can get confusing. Although some of the individual passages are amazing - this a quote factory for sure - the entirety was not completely successful. I'm not saying skipping it; but I am saying be prepared for a lot.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal (2015)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest reminded me of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  Not in subject matter or writing style:  Strout's book was starker and darker than Kitchens; rather it in form and style. Like Olive,  Kitchens  as a novel is really more a group of short stories with interconnecting characters, traveling forward through time.  Once I wrapped my head around that, and stopped trying to find a narrative thread, I was able sit back and enjoy the book much more.  Each chapter is sort of a little gemstone.  A character, Eva, is the straight line through all the stories, but each chapter isn't necessarily about her.  Related characters skate back and forth through the novel.  It's about foodie culture, and sometimes the food is a bit precious (just like real foodie culture).  The chapter about bars made me my sweet tooth whine.  Stradal is terrific at creating memorable characters.  This isn't always a light book either; although never as dark as Olive Kitteridge, there are still some awful things happening to these people.  But Stradal approaches them with a gentler, often humorous touch.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In form, I was reminded of Olive Kitteridge, in that similarly as a novel this book is really more a group of short stories with interconnecting characters, traveling forward through time. Once I wrapped my head around that, and stopped trying to find a narrative thread, I was able sit back and enjoy the book much more. Stradal tackles some dark themes here - but does so with a light touch and a gentle humor. The chapter on bars made my sweet tooth ache. I don't know if Stradal is skewering foodie culture or honoring it, or both; sometimes it feels a bit precious - but then foodie culture always feels enormously precious too. 

Grass by Sherri S. Tepper (1989)

I re-read Grass for my book club; I've read it at least twice before.  I don't remember when I first read it; but I imagine I checked it out from a library.  This is all conjecture, but I probably had never read anything quite like it before.  Tepper wasn't a writer of hard science fiction; she often explored issues of women's exploitation, usually under the guise of other worlds, plants, aliens, and ideas.   I always call her a feminist science fiction writer, and a quick google search proves that I'm right about that.  She died almost exactly a year ago.

Grass is a strange book, but not in a bad way.  The characters are a bit wooden at times; they pontificate on occasion.  Tepper is great at coming up with characters - all of them in Grass are fascinating; but dialogue isn't one of her strong suits.  She has them say and explain a lot, instead of using plot and character to define their actions and their world.  That is not something I ever noticed before, but it definitely a weakness in the book.

The setting of Grass is unique.  I think I have always liked and appreciated Grass most for its unusual setting.  There is a touch of dystopia (before the genre had even been defined); Tepper also creates a future version of the LDS church that's scary and fascinating.  Grass is definitely about religion, and particularly about religion's treatment of women.  The monstrous Hippae in the book could easily stand in for the brutish patriarchy, trampling over everything, taking and raping young girls both physically and metaphorically, taking them and making them into something else.

The Hippae, in my head, have become velociraptors, which shows the power of film to influence the mind.  The last half or so of the book also reminds me of Jurassic Park because of that - there is a lot of people escaping and Hippae rampaging with intent.

Grass is still an engaging story, and for me at least, it's a novel that I can't read in small chunks; once I start, I have to keep reading until the end.  This latest re-read was enjoyable, and I'm exciting to discuss it in bookclub.

Grass (Arbai, #1)Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tepper has created a unique and memorable setting; her future building and world building are spot on. If you are looking for hard science fiction, shy away - there are space ships, but technology porn isn't her goal here. She uses a strange world full of aliens to explore ideas of patriarchy, what we now call rape culture, and religion's role in the empowerment or repression of women. Somehow, she does all this, and still tells a gripping story with some plot twists and excitedly harrying adventures. Tepper probably isn't for everyone; but I know I've enjoyed several of her books. None more than this one. This is her finest work.

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Adam in Blunderland by Bob Teague (1971)

Well, I found it.  After years of searching the internet, asking librarians and others with expertise in "stumpers", combing through old libraries and junk stores, I finally found it.  This a book I vividly remembered reading, checked out from my elementary school library, loving it so much that scenes stuck in my head for almost 40 years.  The book whose title I couldn't remember, with characters whose names I couldn't recall, a cover I couldn't remember.  I knew nothing other than this for sure:  it was a world without adults, run by children, who were magically transported there, but not by a wardrobe.  It wasn't Narnia, and it wasn't a dystopia.

I did a search a series of search on Worldcat - I don't now remember the exact search terms, but it was some combination of words found in this online catalog description:  "Blaming adults for the evils of their society, a black boy, a Chinese boy, and a Puerto Rican girl wish themselves to a land populated exclusively by kids, only to find it plagued by the same evils for which they must now accept responsibility."  I knew I read the book (unless I had actually experienced it; a little bit of me was hoping for that) sometime in the late 1970s; 1980 at the latest.  I did a search year by year.  I think I had tried this type of search before, but finally gave up.  But this time had the charm, and my search returned a result:  Adam in Blunderland by Bob Teague.  It sounded right.   I ordered a copy online.  And then, when it arrived, I waited a while to read it.  I didn't just pick it up and jump right in. Something felt weird.  

Maybe because ?  this was the almost last stumpers and the most important one too; I had solved all the others.  Takers and Returns (which I now own).  The Big Joke Game (I don't yet own this, because it is really expensive; I guess other people feel about the book the same way I do).  The Cookie Tree (now own it).  The Bernard Evelin book of free myths.  There is still one stumper left - a book my fourth grade teacher read us, that had basenji dogs who could climb trees, and some sort of mystery; still looking for that one).  This was the book I had been looking for, for years and years and years, in used book shops, antique stores.  One time, I found Castaways from Lilliput sitting on a shelf in a Goodwill type junk shop for $3 (I snatched it right up).  I kept hoping I would find this book, even though I didn't even know the name.

Maybe because when I starting leafing through pages, I could tell right way that at the book wasn't all that good.  And once I finally read it, I knew it wasn't very good.  What about the book back then did I like so much that I remembered it for nearly 40 years?  Some of the details I remembered were wrong (Jack O'Lantern Street was Pumpkin Plaza).  I remembered an illustration that didn't exist too (although the scene was in the book, just not illustrated).  There wasn't a red-headed gang like I thought either.  

I guess after all these years, there was the book I had imagined and written in my head, which was exciting and life changing and amazing; and the actual book, which was none of those things.  Memory is a strange beast that lives inside our heads.  We tell ourselves stories that are truer than actuality.  

Adam in BlunderlandAdam in Blunderland by Bob Teague

This was a book I had originally read in fourth or fifth grade. I couldn't remember the title, and had been searching for it for nearly 40 years. I finally found it doing a year by year search with some specific keywords that fit in Worldcat. I can't even being to guess what it was about this book that appealed to my 9 year old self so much that I remember details from it for so many years, and through thousands of books read. I hate to say it, but the book I wrote in my head for all of these years is better than the actual book. Memory is a strange beast, rampaging through your mind, changing things. making things better (or maybe worse). That's certainly true for Adam in Blunderland. It's still an interesting concept, but oh wow, not very well written.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie (1934)

My cool vintage copy
It is obvious after reading nearly fifteen Agatha Christie novels published between her first novel in 1920 and this book of connected short stories in 1934 that while the good dame wanted to stick to detective fiction as a genre, she had no intention of writing the same book over and over again. In fourteen (or so) years, Christie had already written books featuring a variety of detectives:  Mr. Quin, Tommy and Tuppence, Miss Marple, and (of course) Hercule Poirot.  She also experimented with different kinds of form, expertly taking the genre and shaking it up in various ways.  I’m not a voracious reader of golden age detective novelists; I’m aware of Marsh, Sayers and so on, but really I’ve only read Christie; I imagine though that all of them were doing the same sort of thing, so I don’t know how original Christie was being.  I would guess she was being VERY original - after all, they did name an award after her.  It is clear that no publisher or editor, particularly after 14 years of success, was going to force her write anything she didn't want to write..  She wasn’t going to only write about Hercule Poirot, at least at this stage in her career.

So here comes Mr. Parker Pyne, detective, into this mix of detectives and forms.  He’s the least clearly drawn of Christie’s detectives - Tommy and Tuppence have the madcap bright young things attitude of the 1920s; Mr. Harley Quin had a strange, supernatural bent; Poirot and Marple are, well, Poirot and Marple.  But Mr. Parker Pyne doesn’t jump off the page in such a strong way.  He is a bit like Harley Quin, without the supernatural; he shares a secretary and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver with Hercule Poirot, and also a penchant for using the powers of the mind, the little grey cells, only in a different, less subtle way (and frankly, less convincing).  Mr. Parker Pyne seems to be some sort of brilliant but retired government worker of some sort, a civil servant, but we never really find out much about him or why he should be considered so brilliant. The short stories at the beginning of the book feel redundant of one another; they aren’t really mysteries (another playing around with form), as Mr. Parker Pyne (always referred to as such) works to make unhappy people happy.  Several of these stories involve unhappy wives or husbands, and the solutions (no spoilers) are often sort of sexist.  
First UK edition

Mr. Parker Pyne does not really succeed as a character; it does not appear that Agatha Christie ever really considered writing a complete novel with him as a main character; he appears in two more short stories and that is it for him.   (There are only 14 total short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and most appeared somewhere else before being collected in one volume; that shows).  There just isn’t enough there, I think.  It’s interesting that Christie liked Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver so much that she used them again in the future, but with Hercule Poirot.  She may have ended up hating Hercule Poirot (I don’t know this to be true, but I suspect she tired of him after so many years) but he was a far more interesting character, and giving Poirot two of her most interesting supporting characters makes literary sense.  

In addition to the characters, Christie recycles a title - there is a short story called “Death on the Nile” in this collection; she goes on to write another Death on the Nile as a Hercule Poirot novel; this time far more successfully.  There wasn’t any punch to the whodunnit of her short story, while the longer, different novel is far more exciting.  

Mr. Parker Pyne, DetectiveMr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Agatha Christie only published 14 total short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and ten of them are found here. These ten were published in pulp and mystery magazines first, then gathered in one volume, unstitched. That "unstitching" shows; Mr. Parker Pyne is the least developed of all Christie characters, without any identifying characteristics; he's certainly no Marple or Poirot. Even at her worst, Christie is writer who likes experimentation with the form, and Mr. Parker Pyne is definitely an experiment in setting (if not plot or character). In most of these short stories, he's not really even a detective or an investigator, but rather an instigator and fixer. He advertises in The Times with "Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne" and his clients all come to him seeking cures for their unhappiness (sort of a grown up Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, actually). His secretary is Miss Lemon, who apparently quits Mr. Parker Pyne to go work for Hercule Poirot; another character who makes an appearance is Ariadne Oliver, the renowned mystery writer. Christie liked these two characters enough that she later made use of them in more flushed out and interesting ways; but poor Mr. Parker Pyne is literarily doomed to only these ten stories plus four more and that was all. If Christie thought he was uninteresting as a character, not worth building upon - well, I have to agree.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

No Such Thing as a Witch by Ruth Chew (1971)

The only Ruth Chew I ever read as a child was The Witch's Buttons - which I loved and still love.  No Such Thing as A Witch isn't nearly as good as Buttons.  Maybe because Buttons also has nostalgia attached to it for me, I approach it with less of a critical eye.  But I think the characters are less developed and less interesting, as is the magic.   This wasn't boring; it just wasn't very interesting either.

No Such Thing as a WitchNo Such Thing as a Witch by Ruth Chew
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My favorite Ruth Chew book is still The Witch's Buttons. Chew wrote this book earlier in her writing career (her sophomore book); the characters and plot aren't very well developed. Neither is the magic.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Turkey Red by Esther Loewe Vogt (1975)

If you know me, you know that I was a fan of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I’m not exactly sure why I loved them so much as a kid.  In fourth or fifth grade (I think it was fifth), Mrs. Stoppel, our fifth grade / social studies teacher, told me that the books took place in Kansas, and I remember being amazed by that. She either told me - or I misunderstood - that On the Banks of Plum Creek took place in Kansas; I now know that Little House on the Prairie took place on the Kansas / Oklahoma state line. I had most likely already at least the first few books in the series at least once by this point.

Probably because my family watched the television show together was when I started reading the books (much of my early reading was based on television shows:  The Hobbit, Narnia, Little House, Miss Switch).  Actually, I don’t even know if that is true.  I remember watching the show. I suppose my mom was watching too.  My brother, was he watching with us?  We only had one television, so I guess so.  My father was probably not even home, as Little House aired on Monday nights; he was probably at school coaching some sport.

Our public library was really small - Lang Memorial Library.  I don’t know who Lang was; some old Wilsonian who left a bunch of money or land for the library, I guess.  The football field at the high school was Lang Memorial Field.  Richest man in town? The Old Man Potter of Wilson, Kanass,  Dead long before I was born.  The library was - and is - a square red brick building, not imposing, but not particularly comfortable either.  The librarian was Mrs. Stadelman and she wore a wig.  Her husband taught shop at the school and was friends with my dad (I later took wood shop from him, and drafting; I sucked at both). I read everything I could get my hands on in that library.  We had no books in our house, or very few I wanted to read.  My mom bought us books, and I had a small personal library that grew over time.  I spent money on books when I could, and sometimes got books as gifts.  We got free books from the school library, Reading is Fundamental books, or library discards (some of which I still have). I ordered books from the Weekly Reader too.  I have those books as well, or most of them.

I don’t remember being afraid of Mrs. Stadelman, but I also don’t recall being all that close to her and well.  It was old fashioned library land - the books were still stamped (maybe they still are?) and there was a beautiful card catalog.  Everything always smelled so good in there: old, musty book smell that only strange people don't like.  I read all the Little House Books for summer reading club one summer - either before or after fifth grade.  Summer reading was some sort of map that you got stamps on for reading books; I suppose we got some sort of prize.  I still have it somewhere (note to self:  go look for this !).  

I bet this was the summer that Mrs. Stadelman suggested I read Turkey Red by Esther Loewe Vogt.  Maybe she asked me what I liked about Little House on the Prairie.  I sincerely doubt I asked her.  I rarely remember discussing books I was reading with adults; certainly when it happened they initiated the conversation.  Reading was (and maybe is) a very private thing, something I had to do (like drinking water or eating) but not something to be shared.  For one thing, no one read as much as I did.  I would check out huge stacks of books, often the same ones, and then return the next day and check out more (at one point, I must have been asked if I had actually read them, but I had - I was a fast reader, actually faster then than I am now, although I can still read a children’s book in less than an hour).  I never, ever wanted to be caught without a book, so I made sure I had a large selection.  

Mrs. Stadelman said - I'm paraphrasing here - “If you like the Little House books, we have this new book, Turkey Red.  It’s about a pioneer girl from Kansas.  I think you will like it.”  

I did like it, in spite of myself and what it was. Because it was a Christian fiction book. Christianity disguised as a book (like Narnia was!). Plus,  Martha Friesen, the main character, was no Laura Ingalls.  Laura Ingalls was bad ass, and she knew it, even if she felt guilty about it.  Nelly Olsen was her nemesis, and sometimes she got even with her.  In better ways on the show (pushing her down that hill in her wheelchair, for example) but in gross ways in the book too (leeches).  Martha was more of a cardboard character than Laura, who is far better edited and written and thus feels more real.  But I still liked Turkey Red.  You could only read Little House so many times, and Turkey Red was fun.  It was about Kansas in the olden days, the days when my grandparent’s parents were little kids.  I also knew about Mennonites too, and the Amish.  My dad grew up near Amish farms and we would go eat at a restaurant called The Dutch Kitchen (Pennsylvania Dutch, Deutsch, Germans) when we visited my grandma and grandpa.  The women all wore white lace caps, and I’m sure my brother or I rudely asked aloud what those women were wearing.  At some point, I even understood that the Mennonites and Amish were related but not the same thing; that the Amish drove buggies (always exciting to see) and the Mennonites drove cars (not exciting to see).  

In The Dutch Kitchen was this paperback rack of books for sale, and I always looked at these  books whenever we went there.  They were Christian fiction and inspirational fiction, from Mennonite and other publishers.  My other grandmother gave me a set of this Christian fiction by Janette Oke one time (later than this, but not too much later); I don’t quite understand why she thought I would like these books. They were prairie love stories about Jesus.  Not really my cup of tea.  Yet I kept them for years, even though I never read them.  They looked way too be mushy.  Maybe those Janette Oke heroines kicked ass like Laura Ingalls, but somehow, I doubt it.  Laura Ingalls was religious, but she didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.

Martha Friesen did, and re-reading this book almost 40 years later, I realize that Mrs. Stadelman essentially gave me one of those Christian fiction paperback spinner books (she wasn't Mennonite either, as far as I know she was Presbyterian).  Vogt stops to inject Jesus and his saving power and grace many times int eh book.  Always abruptly too.  She puts proselytizing it the mouths of Martha, her father, her cousin from the Ukraine.  There is a prodigal son in the book too, Martha’s brother Jake, who goes away to the big city (which one?  Wichita?  Kansas Ctiy?  Hays?  How did he get there?). because he hates Kansas.  SPOILER - he returns on the last chapter, on Christmas Day no less, and has found Jesus (although not from Mennonites, which was interesting).  You know what happened to Laura Ingalls brother Albert when HE went to the big city?  HE BECAME A DRUG ADDICT.  (As everyone knows, this was only in the television show).  Martha Friesen and her Mennonite life could never compare to Laura’s pioneer life.  Martha was a nice break between Little House books.  But Laura could always take Martha Friesen in a fight.  Actually, Nellie Olsen could take Martha Friesen in a fight too. I don't think Ma would have let Laura and Martha become friends either, although perhaps she would have (she did let a black doctor in their house to save them once).  

Turkey RedTurkey Red by Esther Loewen Vogt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In fourth or fifth grade, the children's librarian at our small town public library suggested I read this book because it took place in Kansas and I liked the Little House books. I liked it, in spite of myself, and in spite of it being pretty obvious Christian fiction. Jesus is everywhere in this plot, and in the most unlikely forced kinds of places. Every chance Vogt gets, she has someone talking about Jesus.
The clunkiness of this bothered me as an adult, and I suppose it annoyed me a young reader too - but not enough to forget the book. Re-reading it almost 40 years later, I still remember how exciting it was for Martha to see President Hayes (I wanted to see a president too) and the prairie fire (just like LIttle House!) and the tornado. And the Native American who appears mysteriously to save them all the time (which made me the modern reader squirm). I still think Laura Ingalls Wilder could take all of the girls AND boys in this book in a fight; Nellie Olsen could too. Little House will always be better, but way back in the day, I could only read and re-read the Little House books so much, especially if they were checked out when I went to the library, so Turkey Red would have to suffice.

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