Thursday, January 11, 2018

Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013)

I am not a Jane Austen stan.  I have read Pride & Prejudice one time, I've seen the Colin Firth as Darcy, Saffy from Ab Fab as Lydia, and Cicero from HBO's Rome  as Mr. Collins version one time, and watched the Keira Knightley movie once. I've seen Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant at least one time too.   I've also seen about three minutes of the movie version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.  I watched a BBC doc with the inestimable Lucy Worsley that was about Jane Austen - but you know what:  I don't  remember a thing about it.   Now you know my exact relationship to Jane Austen (to be completely honest, I sometimes mix up the Austens and the Brontes, which makes me a terrible, terrible English major). 

 I didn't realize that Longbourn was an adaptation - of sorts - of Pride & Prejudice until I started reading it.  This is a full disclosure type of blog post - I put Longbourn on my reading list originally because I saw a poster at a library that showed a list of books that were similar to Downton Abbey.  I may or may not have still been watching Downton Abbey at that time (we never watched the last seasons) but I knew I liked reading Upstairs Downstairs types of books.  When I listed the book, I probably knew it was about the Bennets' servants - Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, her husband, Sarah and Polly the maids, and James Smith, the mysterious new footman.  But I promptly forgot all about that until I picked it up.

Initially, I wasn't impressed, and found it hard going.  I remembered only the barest details (that everyone with a bit of cultural literacy knows) from Pride & Prejudice - character names, their relationships to one another, the neighbors.  Characters kept appearing that would spark in my memory (Lady Catherine de Burgh - oh yeah!) but I couldn't always remember what they actually did or didn't do in the book.  I completely forgot about one sister (Kitty?  Who was the fuck was Kitty in the movies?).  I have no idea what parties or balls or dinners or whatever they attended in the book. The author carefully matched up whatever the Bennet girls were doing - attending a dinner at the Bingleys', for example - with what their servants had to go through to make that happen.   But because I wasn't all that familiar with source material, the sense of wonder someone who was familiar and who was reading the book escaped me. 

 At some point, I put that all aside, and just decided to read the book without thinking all that much about Pride & Prejudice - because I started to enjoy it, and wonder what was going to happen to the main characters.  The Bennets and other characters from Pride & Prejudice are really ghosts in this book, flitting in and out of rooms and scenes, to cause chaos of various sorts.  Some prior knowledge of Pride & Prejudice is probably necessary, but you don't have to be an expert to enjoy the book.  (knowing that Pride marries Prejudice at the end, though - that helps; Jane marrying Bingley; Lydia running away with the vile Wyckham (he's terrible in this book, beyond creepy - all of this helps). 

Jo Baker really brought home the dismal, backbreaking, and disgusting work of the servant class of the 19th century:  the chillblains, and cleaning sanitary napkins and dirty diapers, the backbreaking work, the capriciousness of the ruling class towards their servants.  While not exactly slaves, the Bennet servants often seem that way. 

There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more.  I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over.  I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more. 


LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not an Austen stan. Sometimes, I even mix up the Brontes and the Austens. I now that makes me anathema. But I have read (and watched) Pride and Prejudice, once (for each), and that was enough to make Jo Baker's book really quite enjoyable. I didn't quite realize that the book was an adaptation (of sorts) - Pride and Prejudice from the servant's viewpoint (sort of). That could have made it terrible, but the servants are all injected with the life and energy that Jane Austen herself left out of them when she wrote the into being 200 years or so ago. Jo Baker gave them names and backstories and drama (but not soap opera drama). She also reminded us again and again how awful, how literally shitty (washing baby diapers by hand and slipping and falling into pig shit are just two examples) the lives of servants were in the 19th century. All those tea parties and Regency balls took a lot of work, struggle, pain, chilblained hands, aching backs by men and women whose last names weren't Bennet or Bingley, or didn't have Lady in front of their name. There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more. I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over. I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more.


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Monday, January 8, 2018

Collected Short Stories: Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham (1951)

This book took me FOREVER to finish.  I've been reading the damn thing since October.  I have to admit, I didn't read each and every short story very carefully; I wasn't equally impressed with all of them.  For one thing - caveat emptor - some of the stories have some overt racism that's not at all pleasant to read.  Perhaps Maugham himself wasn't racist but many of his characters were.  That was ugly reading.

Many of the stories are like epigrams - they are witty, and have amusing, often surprise-twist endings.

I especially liked "The Voice of the Turtle" about an opera singer; "Mr Know All" (about the know it all on the Trans Atlantic trip); "A String of Beads" (which was so incredibly witty and also meta); and "Louise" (which was dry and droll in all the best ways, very  Nancy Mitford - or is Nancy Mitford very Somerset Maugham?)

Collected Short Stories: Volume 1Collected Short Stories: Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of these short stories are difficult to read in their overtly racist characters and tone (I don't know enough about Maugham to know if he shared the views of some of his characters or not). Others were delightfully dry and droll. Many were like epigrams: short - pithy - with a witty punch or twist of surprise at the end. I enjoyed those the best.


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The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller (2008)

  In library land, all nonfiction books get subject headings, and The Magician's Skeptic has these:  


  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963. Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Appreciation.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Influence.
  • Children's stories, English -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy fiction, English -- History and criticism.

I'm in heaven.  Big blissful sigh.  There is something very rewarding about reading something very well written that is about a book that you love dearly, a piece of writing that expertly, lovingly, but also objectively appreciates a book, discusses the influence of a book, explores the history of the book, and adeptly practices literary criticism upon the book (without totally ruining the book forever and ever).  Miller can't possibly personally ruin Narnia because she loves the books so much.  Like so many readers and writers out there, Narnia was Milller's- and my - first literary adventure, that book that all other books and stories are judged against, that place you so desperately wanted to be real, the literary touchstone.   Her book details her love for Narnia, and how she fell out of love, but back into appreciation and respect for the books.  Along the way, she writes about Lewis's own literary influences, his friendship and falling out with Tolkien, his education and background, career and Christianity, his ideas about myth making and storytelling.  And, most importantly, she writes about Narnia:  his ideas of Narnia, other authors ideas of Narnia (Neil Gaiman!), and her ideas about Narnia.  

I was not ready for this book to end - I'm sort of at a loss for what to read next!


The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in NarniaThe Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something very rewarding about reading something very well written that is about a book that you love dearly, a piece of writing that expertly, lovingly, but also objectively appreciates a book, discusses the influence of a book, explores the history of the book, and adeptly practices literary criticism upon the book (without totally ruining the book forever and ever). Miller can't possibly personally ruin Narnia because she loves the books so much; this is not her goal here. Like so many readers and writers out there, Narnia was Milller's- and my - first literary adventure, that book or books that all other books and stories are judged against, that place you so desperately wanted to be real, the literary touchstone. This book details her love for Narnia, how she fell out of love, and back into appreciation and respect for the books and the author. Along the way, she writes about Lewis's own literary influences, his friendship and falling out with Tolkien, his education and background, career and Christianity (and her own lack of faith), his ideas about myth making and storytelling. And, most importantly, she writes about Narnia: his ideas of Narnia, other authors ideas of Narnia (Neil Gaiman!), and her ideas about Narnia. This book was bliss.


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Friday, January 5, 2018

Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty (1938)

  by James Daugherty was the a Caldecott Honor book in 1939.  It's held up remarkably well for a nearly 80 year old book.  The plot is as old as storytelling itself - Androcles and the Lion, "updated" for the 1930s.  Daughtery's illustrations are pure Americana, Depression era, Grant Wood-esque - block cuts?  I'm not sure of the medium.  The entire book is in black and yellow/tan (lion colored).  The lion is obviously related to the Cowardly Lion looks-wise (and even bursts into tears at one point) although he is no coward.






Andy and the LionAndy and the Lion by James Daugherty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The plot is as old as storytelling - a Depression-era re-telling of Androcles and the Lion. It's the illustrations that really make this 1939 Caldecott Honor the cat's pajamas: Daugherty's wood cuts (?) are pure 1930s Americana; a striking example of American Regionalism in the style of American Gothic's Grant Wood, with some Ozian Denslow thrown in (my favorite is Andy's mother waving goodbye to him from the front porch as he goes off to school, which could almost be a storboard for the musical Oklahoma). The illustrations are also "lion" colored, which is extra neat. A striking book, if you love American art from this time period.


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Noah’s Ark by Dorothy Bell Briggs; illustrated by Elizabeth Webbe (1952)




“Blue Grandma” (because she had a powder blue pickup truck) read to my brother and I all the time.  She was cuddly and had a soft, gentle, crackly reading voice, the perfect voice for a bedtime story.  We wanted her to read to us ALL the time (my other grandma wasn’t cuddly like this; I don’t ever remember her reading to us; but she taught us how to play cards, which was just as important).  She read us three books we requested over and over again:  The Poky Little Puppy, Peter Rabbit, and Noah’s Ark.

My brother, I think, especially loved Noah’s Ark (I was more of a Poky Little Puppy fan, I think).  But we both thought it was hilarious.  There were several scenes we particularly loved in the book.  

“Two little gray squirrels.”  My brother and I would watch the squirrels at grandma’s feeder all the time:  one was named Monkey (my brother’s) and the other was named Charlie (mine).  These were lithe little red squirrels, not big fat gray squirrels.  But that little fact didn’t matter when reading this book with Grandma:  those two squirrels in the illustrations were Monkey and Charlie.
“Leaping high, having heard the news / Over the hill came the Kangaroos.”  For some reason, this scene made my brother and me giggle.  I think it’s because the rhythm is perfect; there is a bounding quality to these lines, just like kangaroos bouncing over the hills. The rhythm is different from teh other stanzas in the book, unexpectedly bouncy and rhythmic.  To me, at least, this one of those perfect lines in literature, and probably subtly has influenced my appreciation of various kinds of art ever since.  
“Huffing and puffing... and terribly late.”  I can remember liking the page about the hippos too; it’s toward the end of the book, they are the last animals to arrive, and something about their faces and the stanza just was comforting and sweet.  


I truly treasure my worn, beat up copy.   

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley

She might have been the mother of her country, her kingdom and her empire - but she was a terrible mother to her children; as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara in one of their knock down drag out fights, “why, a cat’s a better mother than you.”  Queen Victoria certainly had a litter of kittens - she had nine children.  According to legend, she loved sex with Prince Albert, but apparently didn’t like the end result.  She once wrote a letter to her daughter Vicky (Empress Frederick) complaining horribly about her daughter Alice, but accidentally sent the letter to Alice.  Victoria’s response:  it was good for Alice to hear what her mother REALLY thought about her.  Victoria was petulant, stubborn, vindictive, loved to say “I told you so”, spoiled, unforgiving, imperious. She also could be loving, generous, had a loud infectious laugh, and as an older wiser queen loved her last set of grandchildren - but this was not the Victoria that made an appearance in Ridley’s book.  This book was nominally about Edward VII, known as Bertie, the Prince of Wales throughout much of this book.  That’s because he was Prince of Wales for a hell of a long time; his mother was very long lived.  She also did not trust her son; nor did she want to share power with him.  She was particularly awful to him.  She said terrible things about him in letters to her daughters, her ministers; she played favorites, and he was NEVER her favorite.  She thought him dull, stupid, fast, and louche.  She never particularly like his wife, Queen Alexandra, and his kids were NOT her favorites.  I sort of thought I knew everything there was to know about this family; I’ve been reading books about them for years.  But Ridley’s Bertie was something new to me.  He was sneaky - he would have to be with that horrible mother always on his case.  He was also strong.  He was loyal to his friends (female and male) even when his mother did not like them.  He traveled when and where he pleased regardless of her carping.  He lived his life exactly as he wanted, and then - so Ridley argues - when she died, he became a strong and good king who ended up being as beloved as her, even though he reigned for a very short time.  Ridley forcefully argues that Bertie played a larger role in world affairs than was given credit for - he was basically written out of the histories of the year as leading up to World War I, and Ridley has done a great job of writing him back in.  He was uncle or cousin to much of the ruling families of Europe - some of them like the Czar of Russia, autocratic rulers; and beloved Paris; he had a lot more power and influence than ever given credit for before.  He was not simply Edward the Caresser (although he was this) but ended up being a political player as well.

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy PrinceThe Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley argues that history gave King Edward VII undeserved short shrift, and she sets out to prove history wrong about “Edward the Caresser.” He, indeed, earned this moniker and much of the book is about his various scandals and love affairs, which are not always as juicy to read about as you might think (he could be quite cruel; also, the ongoing list of mistresses wasn’t all that interesting to read about). But once Edward became king, he was a powerful influence on domestic and foreign affairs during his short reign, and had lasting influence on the world. His ministers, though, downplayed his importance in their later accounts, and historians came to accept this. Ridley convinced me otherwise through her writing and research; I came away assured that Edward VII was more than a louche art nouveau cad. What I found most interesting about the book was Edward’s relationship with his mother - at least Ridley’s take on this relationship. It was poisonous - she was not a nice mother to any of her children, but particularly to him - but unlike in other biographies (of him or her) or portrayals (Mrs. Brown comes to mind), the Prince of Wales was a strong willed man, loyal to his friends (and mistresses) and pretty much determined to do whatever he wanted regardless of his mother’s incesssant carping. About the only thing he ever did that she wanted him to do was marry Danish princess Alexandra, and when she came to regret that, he held firm and supported the Danish people against the Germans until the end. He was a fascinating monarch, and this was a mostly fascinating book. It did bog down occasionally - there were quite a few scandals and mistresses, and they aren’t all equally interesting to read about. But overall, a great biography.


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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Waiting by Kevin Henkes (2015)

WaitingWaiting by Kevin Henkes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Waiting for stuff to happen is one of the joys of life, really. Christmas is great; but waiting for Christmas, the expectation, the build up, the fun of imaging what Santa is going to bring you - that’s the real deal. Kevin Henkes book explores this idea through the “lives” of a set of toys in a window, waiting on the moon, or rain, or snow, or for a child to come play with them. Lots of deep ideas here about what it means to wait, what a life of waiting means, what happens after the waiting stops. Challenging and interesting book, with Henkes great illustrations (as usual).


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Dragon Was Terrible by Kelly DiPucchio; illustrated by Greg Pizzoli (2016)

Dragons are always terrible, and this dragon is particularly terrible:  teasing the castle guards, stomping on flowers, and spitting on cupcakes (“Who does that?! - Dragon, that’s who.” A terrific use of the interrobang, my favorite and so very useful piece of punctuation).  Nothing at all can stop this dragon from being a complete and total brat, until a little boy comes up with an ingenious idea:  books will save the day.  Research has shown (I’m suspect about this though) that reading novels makes people more emphathetic - books can even tame dragons.  Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations, per usual, are the bomb.

Dragon Was TerribleDragon Was Terrible by Kelly DiPucchio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This dragon is a complete and total brat. He even spits on cupcakes, which is terrible and vile (Ariana Grande knows all about this). After everyone in the whole kingdom tries their hand at taming this terrible beast, one little boy has an ingenious idea. This book is cute AF. Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations are a perfect match for Kelly DiPucchio’s prose.


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Not Very Scary by Carol Brendler; illistrated by Greg Pizzoli (2014)

Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations are most adorable - about as far from scary as you can get.   I particularly love the Beatles-seque vultures, which are straight out of The Jungle Book.

Templeton Gets His Wish by Greg Pizzoli (2015)

Unless you were an only child (or an orphan), at one point or another, when you were a kid, there came a point when everyone around you were assholes, and you just wanted some alone time.  Especially if you lived a small house, and had to share a room with your little brother (and occasionally a bed, although only at Grandma’s house or on vacation; I wasn’t a Walton).  Or you just wanted everyone to go the f*** away.  Greg Pizzoli’s Templeton (a cat, not a rat), finds a magic diamond and wishes everyone away (shades of The Twilight Zone here).  And just like that, they are all gone.  What would you have done in the same situation?  I probably would have cried like a little girl.  But Templeton goes to town and has a party for one.  Until he realizes that grumpy dads and toy stealing little brothers are what makes life worthwhile, and wishes them back (if this were really The Twilight Zone, he would have been alone FOREVER and had to wallow in his guilt and loneliness).  I love Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations, with their flat, simple color palette.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Unless you were an only child (or an orphan), as a child you probably were greatly annoyed at one time or another with your grumpy (perhaps pregnant) mom, your cranky (worked all day) dad, and toy stealing little brother. Especially if you lived in a small house and had to share a bedroom (and occasionally a bed) with said brother. Sometimes you wanted to Calgon them all away. In Greg Pizzoli’s book, Templeton finds a magic diamond and does exactly that (shades of The Twilight Zone here). I think I would have sat down and cried like a little baby, but Templeton goes to town and has a party for one, including doing that extra special awful thing we all know we would get beat for : DRAW PICTURES ON THE WALLS (we all wanted to do this, and some of us did it JUST ONCE with grave consequences; I tried to blame my brother the time I did it but was unsuccessful). But as this day progresses into scary, dark night, Templeton finds out that being all by yourself all the time really sucks. Luckily, he’s able to wish them all back into existence. I love Greg Pizzoli’s work; his flat illustrations and simple color palette are a joy (I always want to live in his color palettes, I find them so appealing). 


Friday, December 29, 2017

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1947).  Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle’s Magic (1949). Hello Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle (1957) all illustrated by HIlary Knight; Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle’s Farm (1954) illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Baby Boomers
I read all four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in a row right around Christmas.  I have to admit, by the end, I was Piggle-Wiggle’d out.  I loved these books back in the day, and would check them out from the library all the time.  When the library was giving away old weeded copies of books they didn’t want anymore, we got to choose some to take home and I have an ancient copy of Hello Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle somewhere in my house.

Good old Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle:  when I was eight or nine or ten, she seemed safe, warm, and comforting, like the steaming hot cocoa and gingerbread that always seems to be being served by various mothers or Mrs. P-W herself throughout these four books.  My poor mother:  after I read these books, I fantasized constantly to be met at the door after school with brownies or cookies, just like the kids in the books always are in the first few pages of every chapter.  I even occasionally asked my mom to do this.  It never happened.

These bitches
Reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle as an adult is a far different experience.  The books still have some charm to them - I still love some of the chapters ("The Crybaby Cure" and "The Whisperers" are two I remember fondly).  But the Piggle-Wiggle world is definitely strange.  The dads all work while the moms are all housewives, and the families are all huge baby boomer households. There is only one single parent in the whole book - Cornelia Whitehouse's mother, who works in a factory. Everyone (except see above) are comfortably middle class.  Everyone is white.  If there are kids of color, they all live in some other town (or perhaps their parents don't need Mrs. P-W's help).  These parents are pretty trusting of these non-FDA approved cures as well.

Owl by Maurice Sendak
One thing that is lovely about the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books are the illustrations: three books are illustrated by Hilary Knight; one book by Maurice Sendak.  The illustrations are charming; in addition to all the mentions of warm gingerbread, it was the illustrations that kept me coming back. 



The other thing I've always loved about Piggle-Wiggle world were the names.  With these giant baby boomer families, Betty MacDonald always had to be coming up with a multitude of names.  I can remember as kid being eager to read the next set of names:  Nicholas Semicolon; Roscoe Eager; Fetlock; Cornell and Harvard Foxglove; Evelyn Crackle... I could go on forever!  She must have loved coming up with these names.
Love this Sendak illustration  I'm also a "can't find it"

Fetlock Harroway, my favorite geek.  He made billions from a .com in the 1990s, and now lives on his own island in the South Pacific.  That Sendak dog is full of sass.

Knight's Piggle-Wiggle and her
non-FDA approved cupboard


Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, #1)Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s 1947: the war has been won by the good guys, the depression was over, everyone was rich and had a big car, families were gigantic, no one was ethnic (at least in this part of town), and moms must have been worried sick about raising their kids the All American Right Way. In steps Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle with all sorts of amazing cures for selfishness, not going to bed, not picking up toys, not bathing (my favorite story in the whole bunch). Voila - problem solved! The mothers can go back to their housework and garden clubs, the dads back to work and golf, rest assured that their little angels are now perfect. Until the Beatles, Vietnam, and the summer of love... but that’s all the future. For now, all was well.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, #2)Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic by Betty MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the Piggle-Wiggle world, there is a magic cure for everything: interrupting, bad table manners, not wanting to go to school, and all the moms (and occasional dads) can rest at ease knowing she’s there to take the tough cases out of their hands.


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My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I sat down and read all four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in one fell 2 day or so swoop. Take aways: 1. All the children in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle grew up to be hippies, went to Vietnam, danced disco, got rich in the 1980s, went through tech bubbles and real estate booms, and now are retiring en mass. 2. Hilary Knight and Maurice Sendak are equally good illustrators, and their envisioning of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle herself are totally different, but both versions smell like gingerbread and are very huggable. 3. There were no children of color in any of the Piggle-Wiggle books, which bothered me now, and did not bother me when I was 8. 4. Betty MacDonald must have a shit ton of fun coming up with all of these names; some are pure baby boomer (Molly, Susan, Linda, Dick) and some are just delightful (Fetlock, Percy Penzil, Morton Heatherwick). 



My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Father may have known best on television in the 1950s, but it’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle all of these mothers turned to way back when. She had a funny, magical cure for crybabies, gossips, bullies and other assorted childhood “ailments.” 











The Tiny Book of Tiny Pleasures (2017) by Irene Smit & Astrid van der Hulst (2017)

 The Tiny Book of Tiny PleasuresThe Tiny Book of Tiny Pleasures by Irene Smit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each page is some small pleasure - making a wish and blowing a dandelion, creating something, spotting something beautiful, glimpses of nature in the city - with a delightful little accompanying illustration. This past year has been a humdinger on the world stage, and we need all the small pleasures we can get. Lose yourself for a while in this small pleasure of a book.


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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka; illustrated by Chuck Groenik (2014)

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North PoleSanta Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a lovely book! I love the idea idea introduced on the first page of text that Santa Claus is a poet and typed out a haiku a day from December 1 through Christmas. "Santa is a man of many talents," reads the note. "Now you can peak at Santa's haiku... and catch a glimpse of life at the North Pole." This is a fantasy mixture, part Rankin/Bass productions (elves, hot cocoa, a snowman) and part real North Pole life (wolves howling at the moon, the aurora borealis). Raczka's haiku are cute and clever (a few move into the beautiful category), but (like most picture books) it's Groenik's illustrations that make the book truly special. His color palette isn't the traditional bright red and green of Christmas wrapping paper but more muted and soft - maroons, tans, creams, navy blues, etc. The setting is North Pole Sweden, and Santa and Mrs. Claus dress a bit more like modern Swedes rather than the jolly old elf and his wife of an old Coca Cola ad. To me, while Santa has the big white beard of a Caucasian lumberjack, Mrs. Claus looks more indigenous look about her (maybe Sami?) which I think is really quite awesome.


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The 12 Days of Christmas by Greg Pizzoli (2017)

I loved singing this song as a kid; not so much as an adult.  The idea behind this picture book is not something new:  receiving twelve days of hens, geese, swans etc. is a huge pain in the ass.  Perhaps the original song was meant to be that exact thing (it was a chant before it was a song; no one knows the exact origin; first English printing was 1780; the music is only from 1909).  Pizzoli adds his retro flair; I always love his illustrations.  They are bright and colorful; the expression on the adult elephant's face at receiving each day's worth of gifts is a hoot - s/he steadily becomes more annoyed with each haul.  The crocodilian character from The Watermelon Seed makes a fun cameo. 


The 12 Days of ChristmasThe 12 Days of Christmas by Greg Pizzoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The idea behind this picture book isn't really something new: the twelve days of Christmas gifts from the true love steadily grow to be an enormous, messy, expensive, noisy, crowded pain in the butt. But Pizzoli's take is cute and enjoyable. An elephant family (genderless, which I love) are the receivers; an the adult elephant page-by-page becomes more and more annoyed by various birds, musicians, dancers and so on that have invaded his/her house. It's amazing what a strong, good illustrator like Pizzoli can do with simple lines and colors to indicate a round of emotions (annoyance, fear, frustration, etc). This is a colorful and fun addition to the large group of 12 Days of Christmas books out there, and well worth a holiday purchase or a bedtime sing along.


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A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell (2017)

I don't think Lychford is running out of steam (yet), but I didn't love this latest entry in this  series of fantasy novellas as much as the first two.  It's still a rollicking read though - Cornell three witches are as fun and engaging as any triad of witches in literary history.  I have a very good friend - a non-reader - who loves the television series Charmed and this entry, more than the other two, reminds me of a (very good) episode of that show.  This series would make a strong television show; I wonder when and if it will end up on tv. 

A Long Day in Lychford (Lychford, #3)A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I don't think this is as strong an entry in this series of fantasy novellas, Lychford hasn't yet run out of steam. The three witches that Cornell has written into existence are as strong as any witchy triad from literary history: welcome additions to the likes of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain trio (see: The Black Cauldron), Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters and, of course, Macbeth. The pacing is pure television show, but that certainly doesn't detract from the rollicking good fun here. I'm eagerly awaiting the next book in the series!


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Monday, December 18, 2017

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (1939)

A beautiful haunting short novel - nominally written for children, but really, anyone who loves good literature would enjoy this book, regardless of how old they are.  Uttley crafts beautiful, sosphisticated phrases like this:  "I saw the web and woof of time threaded in a pattern, and I moved through the woven stuff with the silent footfall of a ghost."
That passage gave me chills, it was so wonderfully well written.

I love time slip novels; they all should sound like this (and often do). (Charlotte Sometimes, The Children of Green Knowe).    I did not realize that time slips novels were this old - but then I remembered Mark Twain's  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  That was a comedy (of sorts); this was most definitely not a comedy.  The book is about Anthony Babington, who fell head over heels in love with Mary, Queen of Scots and plotted against Queen Elizabeth in favor of her, losing his life over it.  This doom (of both Anthony and Queen Mary) haunts the the book like a ghost; you know it, the main character Penelope knows it, and that adds an ache to the book that makes it all the more better.  Again, the best sorts of time slip novels do this.

The River Darward flows in and out of the novel, and at one point Penelope and another character are talking about fishermen catching fish in one part of the river, and releasing them in another:  I realized that this was an incredible metaphor for not only time, but the time travel that Penelope was doing as well.  Uttley's idea that history is a continuous river, and that we are part of that river, is also put in the mouth of another minor character, whose grandfather told stories f of the Napoleonic wars; as long as there are people around to tell the stories, they (and the people) still exist.   

Why Babington rather than Queen Elizabeth?  (or Henry VIII?  Or King Arthur?) .  The novel never explains how the time slipping works, or why Penelope goes back to this certain time and place, but Uttley doesn't really need to - it doesn't detract from the novel in the least.  

Uttley used the language of the English midlands, the north of England and Scotland throughout.  The book was full of words that were both new to me and fascinating.  One such word: "dumbledore."  Which I had no idea existed outside of Harry Potter!  Uttley was did her research when it came to language; at least twice Penelope used words that didn't yet exist in the time period she was visiting, and was asked questions about the meanings of those words.  I loved this.  

A Traveller in TimeA Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A haunting, beautiful, compelling time slip novel - nominally written for children, but really, anyone who loves strong, good, well-written literature would enjoy this book, regardless of how old they are. The book is carefully and excellently crafted, containing phrases like this: "I saw the web and woof of time threaded in a pattern, and I moved through the woven stuff with the silent footfall of a ghost" that stick with you after the last page. Uttley's use, and obvious love, of language is a treat. The book is filled with words that were new to me, from the English midlands, the north of England, Scotland, that were a joy to discover. The inevitable and unavoidable doom of Mary, Queen of Scots hangs over the book, providing that pleasant heartache that only the best time slip novels can produce. I'm glad I picked this one up! No regrets here. 


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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sylvester by Georgette Heyer; read by Richard Armitage (1957, 2009)

I have never been a reader of romance.  I'm not - well, I try not to be - a snob about reading.  I'm just not drawn to romance books.  I like romance in books (sometimes, it depends).  But the kind of romance that has Fabio on the cover aren't appealing to me (Fabio probably hasn't been on the cover of a romance novel since I was in high school; he may not even be alive for all I know; note:  he still is alive).    

Georgette Heyer writes regency romances.  I've heard her named before, and I know she is beloved.   This was the first Heyer book I'd ever read, or in this case, listened to.  I would definitely listen to another Georgette Heyer again, particularly narrated by Richard Armitage; he had a droll delivery for the men reminiscent of old school Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice; he also used voices for the women in the book that wasn't annoying. It's hard for male narrators to do women's voices without being grating.  Armitage succeeds.

Would I have read the same book?  Perhaps.  It certainly was interesting. Very Jane Austen-ish, which I supposed is a "duhhhhh" sort of statement to make.  Because Georgette Heyer most likely exists to fill the enormous gap left when a reader finishes all of Jane Austen.  

I did become caught up on the story of Sylvester and Phoebe's budding romance.  I thought some of the book was humorous, and I would definitely recommend it.  

The only thing missing was magic, as found in The Sorcery and Cecilia.  I understand why fantasy writers of a certain vein love Georgette Heyer, as this was plotted like some of those same books and authors.  


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm never been a huge reader of romance novels. This is certainly the first Georgette Heyer I've ever read. She is very Jane Austen-ish, which I suppose is the point: Heyer exists to fill the gap left when a reader finishes his or her very last Jane Austen and wants something similar. This is fluffy and droll all mixed up together at once, and really quite enjoyable. Made all the more enjoyable by Richard Armitage's narration; his voice and characterization was the perfect combination of charm and wit,
sort of like a drawing room party at Lord Melbourne's (he was particularly adept at women's voices; I've found male narrators have a hard time capturing women's voices in a believable way, but Armitage did so admirably). 


Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (2017)

I read The Wanderers because it was my book club book; it also came highly recommended from one of my most extraordinary colleagues.  We discuss tomorrow morning (brunch!) and I'm curious as to why she loves it so.  I can't say I hated this book, but I wasn't immediately in love with it.  My colleague  put it in a similar box to The Martian, which I haven't read.   The tale in a nutshell:  set in the very near future, a private company is sending humankind to Mars, but first runs a simulation that's as much psychological as physical.  They want to test three astronauts - in this case Helen, a 50 something widowed American woman and mother of one adult daughter, Yoshi, a 40(?) something married but childless Japanese man, and Sergei, the cosmonaut captain, a 40(?) something divorced Russian father of two teenaged boys - in a seventeen month case study of the science behind the expedition but also how to best manage a small crew on a long journey in a scienced-up tin can. Chapters alternate, are told in third person present-tense, and also feature Helen's daughter, Mirielle, a young actress; Yoshi's (very weird) wife Madoka, and Sergei's sixteen year old son Dmitri, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality.  One of the set pieces that point toward the future rather than now are Madoka's profession, which is working for a robotics company - in this case robots that are caretakers for the elderly and provide companionship for lonely parents of busy adult children (another set piece are starving Arctic polar bears, which as of yesterday became a tragic and frightening "now" rather than the near future).  Each of the chapters reads like it is told by one of these robots, in an emotionless voice - but that hides some deep emotional chasms and fissures that are present in these six people (there is a seventh narrator, one of the psychologist types monitoring the simulation, who is falling in love with Helen's daughter).  These people have some problems, and perhaps that is what the book is about - hiding problems is tough work, and we are all sort of fucked up whether we want to be or not.  Helen thinks she has been chosen because she is not sexually attractive to the men; she also realizes her deceased husband didn't love her and was sarcastic and mean; and that Yoshi is mean too.  Sergei knows his son is gay (we find out at the end) and doesn't want to be the awful dick his father was to him; he also thinks a SPOILERY type of thing about the mission that may or may not be true.  Yoshi has these issues with his wife, particularly about whether they should have a baby or not.  Madoka is maybe mentally ill and fantasizes a lot about death and destruction in weird ways (is the dog a stand in for a her husband or a baby or ? ).  Mirielle is both jealous of her mother's success and hates her mother and loves her mother (as do we all); she refers to Helen as ASPy at one point, which is slang term for a person with Asperberger's, which shone an immediate light on Helen.  Dmitri is having anonymous sex with older men, who think he's older than sixteen; he meets a college student who figures him out pretty quickly; his relationship issues with this college student were, to me, the most interesting part of the book, and I wanted to keep coming back to that - Dmitri's story was the most relatable.  All of there stories have a quality of unreliability to them:  they think things that may or may not be true; they have perceptions that are true to them but may not be true to the world at large.  That ties in with the story arc as a whole, as there is something fishy going on - or we are led to believe that, have this perception, but that may or may not be true.  It's a mystery that is not quite ever solves (or I missed it).  It's also an arc that I saw coming - if you read murder mysteries as puzzles, you become adept at picking up clues, and Howrey drops hints throughout that things aren't all that they seem to be.  Perception is a shifting thing, and what the three astronauts (and us) think about their mission and themselves at the beginning of the novel aren't necessarily what they think at the end - or what the truth is.  It's an interesting concept that to me doesn't always hold water (the "why" behind the spoiler is weak tea and seems forced and convenient rather than foreshadowing).  It kept me reading though (plus, I liked Dmitri's part of this soap opera).



The WanderersThe Wanderers by Meg Howrey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ostensibly this is about three astronauts - Helen, Yoshi, & Sergei - who are on a simulated seventeen month mission to Mars and back, in a sciended-up tin can, set in the very near future, and what physically, emotionally, and psychologically happens to them and three of their loved ones left behind (Helen's adult daughter Mirielle, Yoshi's wife, and Sergei's sixteen year old son) during that long journey. But Howrey's book is also about the shifting nature of perception verses reality. All three astronauts and their loved ones all believe certain things to be true; any or all of those things could also be false. You, dear reader, have to sift through the flat, emotion-less third person present tense voice to figure out that out. What does emerge at the end is the portrait of six people who have it all together on the outside, and are full of dark crevices and fissures just below that pristine surface. We get to see both the snow covered beauty of their lives, and the bottomless dark caverns that lie just beneath, and wonder as the book progresses if and when any of them will fall through. Hard science lovers may or may not enjoy this (I don't have enough background in astrophysics and rocketry to know); lovers of psychological studies of the human beings and their interactions will probably love this more.


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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (1999)

Eleanor of Aquitaine's light continues to burn brightly across (almost) 900 years ago.  She's been portrayed in so many ways over all this time - mother of all mothers, political savage, noble prisoner, wanton slut.  Alison Weir tries to scrape away all the detritus and muck that has clung to her over the years; she also injects some of her own theories into the mix (e.g. some of Eleanor's sexual peccadilloes may have been more than just 12th century monkish gossip).  What remains is still an interesting study; but truly getting to know Eleanor is difficult.  She's not a character in a movie or a book; but she's also not the character you usually find in a (pop?) historical narrative or biography either.  Records on women, even royal women, were scarce in  middle ages (and beyond); trying to go back that far, Weir must necessarily tell Eleanor's story often through the eyes and deeds of others:  her two husbands, her children, her enemies.  What we can know, still, is that Eleanor was more of a lion than her lion-hearted son (that spoiled favorite of hers that quite frankly sounds as bad as bad King John); she was sometimes politically savvy, but often impetuous.  She wasn't going to play by the rules for the time - but was also sometimes forced to.  She was pious when she needed to be; impious at other times.  She would not have made a good 21st century mother - she wasn't a helicopter parent, and definitely played favorites among her offspring.  She was (probably) sexually adventurous (and also impetuous).  She was a teenager (15!) when she married her first husband, Louis the king of France; when she married Henry, she was 30 - eleven years his senior.  She outlived him (and most of her kids).  She was rebellious.  She was one of the most famous women - perhaps THE most famous woman - of her time, of which the troubadours sang.  She's maybe the most famous woman of the middle ages; if asked to name a famous female from that time, I think her name would pop up first almost every time. 

And yet, we still don't even know exactly what she looked like.  We don't know what color her hair was, or the color of her eyes.  This wasn't a time of portraiture, so there is no pictures that are definitely her; and what little murals or stonework that do survive do really show a likeness.  She was described as one of the most beautiful women; I would bet she was quite bewitching.  

Very little writing even survives from this time, outside of religious chronicles, so her voice is also still - as is the voice of so many others.  We don't really know what she thought about her husbands other than conjecture.  But it seems as if Henry and Eleanor had a passionate marriage:  they made lots of babies together, and fought beautifully as well.    Henry II imprisoned her for 16 years for being a kickass rebel (in this, Eleanor was probably a lot like his mother Empress Matilda, who was also a kick ass rebel), but, unlike his ancestor, another Henry (the VIII), he didn't execute her.  That says something about the two Henrys; something about the two time periods; but also something about Eleanor:  Henry, at some level, thought the world was a better place with Eleanor in it rather than absent from it.  

She was also a awesome old lady.  She was 51 when Henry put her in prison for stirring up trouble; when he died and she got out, she was 67 years old.  Age was just a number to her; she acted as regent for Richard I, traveled all over Europe  (remember, this was by horse) up until her death.  She was really quite extraordinary.


Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life (Ballantine Reader's Circle)Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleanor of Aquitaine's light continues to burn brightly across (almost) 900 years ago. She's been portrayed in so many ways over all this time - mother of all mothers, political savage, noble prisoner, wanton slut. Alison Weir tries to scrape away all the detritus and muck that has clung to her over the years; she also injects some of her own theories into the mix (e.g. some of Eleanor's sexual peccadilloes may have been more than just 12th century monkish gossip). What remains is still an interesting study; but truly getting to know Eleanor is difficult. Records on women, even royal women, were scarce in middle ages (and beyond); trying to go back that far, Weir must necessarily tell Eleanor's story often through the eyes and deeds of others: her two husbands, her children, her enemies. What we can know, still, is that Eleanor was more of a lion than her lion-hearted son (that spoiled favorite of hers that quite frankly sounds as bad as bad King John); she was sometimes politically savvy, but often impetuous. She wasn't going to play by the rules for the time - but was also sometimes forced to. She was pious when she needed to be; impious at other times. She would not have made a good 21st century mother - she wasn't a helicopter parent, and definitely played favorites among her offspring. She was (probably) sexually adventurous (and also impetuous in this regard as well). She was a teenager (15!) when she married her first husband, Louis the king of France; when she married Henry, she was 30 - eleven years his senior. She outlived him (and most of her kids). She was rebellious. She was one of the most famous women - perhaps THE most famous woman - of her time, of which the troubadours sang. She's maybe the most famous woman of the middle ages; if asked to name a famous female from that time, I think her name would pop up first almost every time. Weir doesn't perhaps bring her to living, breathing life - but with what little actual knowledge we have about her, that is always going to be difficult (we don't even know exactly what she looked like). But Weir still writes a strong book.


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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Murder in Three Acts by Agatha Christie (1934)

Murder in Three Acts, a.k.a. Three Act Tragedy, almost kept me guessing until the very end.  It's a rare Christie I had not read (of if I read it, it was only once, and so long ago I didn't remember anything about it).  It was a trip down memory lane in two senses:  what it must have been like in 1934 to have bought this brand new, and also what it was like in seventh grade to be reading an Agatha Christie for the first time myself.  I still remmeber the sense of horror I felt about And Then There Were None or the pleasant completeness of Murder on the Orient Express.  The multiple red herrings made guessing the whodunnit  deliciously difficult.  At various times, I thought the murderer was everyone but Hercule Poirot (and if you know your Christie, even that's a possibility - I think there is one at the very end of her career where he is the whodunnit).  The motive stinks though - really disappointing.  The U.K. edition had a completely different motive, which made far more sense (and was one I thought of, only about another character).  They always change the Christie titles for reasons I can't fathom; changing the motive makes no sense (some sense of it was made here, but it's still a dumb reason to change the motive).

Murder In Three ActsMurder In Three Acts by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dame Agatha kept me guessing the murderer almost to the very end. A sea of red herrings made me change my mind about whodunnit several times; the only one I didn't suspect was Hercule Poirot himself. I will quibble a bit about the ending - no spoilers though. The American edition and the U.K. edition have slightly different endings (thank you Internets); the U.K. ending sounds way more plausible. Still, I was happy. I read a vintage paperback that smelled of attic, with a cool artistic cover, and neat-looking old font.


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Monday, November 27, 2017

Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun (2017)

I first heard about this book from a podcast on language.  They were discussing the unique spelling and grammar  in the book with the author, and why he chose to the particular spelling and grammar he did.  I was fascinated and decided to read the book.

It's a quick read, but really quite wonderful.  It's sort of graphic novel, and sort of a comic strip, and sort of of one of those daily calendars.  It's also really lovely, thought provoking and moving.  There are some beautiful philosophical musings on death, depression, being alone, friendship, and what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.  It's a book that should be read slowly, and thoughtfully, and more than once. 

Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A BookEveryone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A big, hulking WOW followed by a pleased SIGH was my visceral reaction upon finishing this book. I initially listened to The World in Words podcast talking to Jonathan Sun about the unique grammar and spelling he used in the book, and the reasoning behind it. It sounded so fascinating, I wanted to read the book. It's an artistic endeavor, a graphic representation of topics ranging from depression to delight, from friendship to art and so very much more. You will muse, you will think deeply, you will laugh to yourself, you will feel. The whole book resonated with me, feeling so familiar. A lovely, lovely book.


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones; narrated by Gerard Doyle (1977)

I have read Charmed Life at least twice before; this time I listened to Gerard Doyle's narration.  Gerard Doyle is a top notch narrator, too.  He's not overzealous with "voices" but adds just the right touch to every character (particularly a witch towards the very end; if you listen, you will know who I'm talking about).  He narrated Witch Week as well, and I think he's got the perfect voice for Diana Wynne Jones's work.

Charmed Life is an orphan story, but Jones does something really quite brilliant.  There is an orphan trope that goes like this:  the orphan gets adopted by a family, but is a total brat.  This may be because the orphan does not fit in yet; this may be because the orphan was raised in a tough orphanage or on the streets and doesn't have the etiquette or know how (yet) to make it in the Warbucks household.  The orphan may act up; the orphan may get teased and tease back; the orphan almost always at least once tries to run away.  The family with whom the orphan lives has a heart of gold, and there is always redemption of some sort  Orphan stories end all fuzzy wuzzy and warm.  Little House on the Prairie - the television show, not the books - was awash with orphans.  Albert Ingalls fits neatly into this trope.

Because we are trained to think certain things about orphans in books, we think Gwendolyn Chant is going to be this kind of orphan.  From the moment she arrives at Chrestomanci Castle, she's a total brat.  She causes havoc.  She breaks rules.  She summons apparitions.  She's terrible.  And we have been trained to be on her side because she's an orphan.  She can't be all bad, right?  At some point, she's going to realize that the loving family who has adopted her loves her very much; there is going to be a warm and fuzzy ending.  That's one of the shining brilliance of Charmed Life.  Jones turns this particular orphan trope over on its head.  Because Gwendolyn Chant is not going have a warm and fuzzy ending, because she's not a heart warming, misunderstood orphan.  She's really evil.  She's not just a bad girl, she's actually poisonously evil. It's rare to meet a purely evil character in a children's book, and she's also a doll like little girl.  The best kind of evil character - completely unexpected!  She has killed her nine-lived brother five times, and wants to see his throat slit another four times at the end.  She's a sociopath.  AND SHE ESCAPES at the end too!  She's done all of these horrid things, and she's gets away with it at the end.  She is truly one of the most memorable and comic (but disturbing too) characters in fantasy and children's literature, right up there with villainesses like Cruella DeVil, sitting at the same table with Veruca Salt. 

The end isn't all fuzzy wuzzy and warm (ish, but not completely).  It's really quite a brilliant book.

Jones knows her fantasy; she has sat at the feet of the masters that came before her and learned from them.  She pays them a bit of homage, I think, in Charmed Life.  When Cat and Janet meet the dragon in Michael's office, Janet falls under the dragon-spell, just like Smaug was able to do to Bilbo in The Hobbit (although Jones doesn't use Tolkien's term, the implication is there).  And at the end, when the evil witches are going to kill Cat, they are going to do it in a stone, reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. This homage though; Jones, in my opinion, towers up there with Tolkien and Lewis.  She's not a copy cat. 

Charmed LifeCharmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a treat to listen to Gerard Doyle interpret the marvelous Diana Wynne Jones on audio. I've already read Charmed Life (several times), but (as always) listening to it was a rich, fulfilling, different experience. Jones takes some of the familiar tropes of the orphan story, and turns them on their heads (to say more would be to spoil too much) in her usual quirky, witty, very smart way. I never want Jones books to end.


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The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown; illustrated by Christian Robinson (1938, 2016)

Another picture book I picked up because of Bruce Handy’s marvelous book.  He wrote lovely things about the book and made it sound intriguing.  It was indeed.  Brown copyrighted the text in 1938; Remy Charlip illustrated it in 1958, which was after Brown had died.  Christian Robinson published this newly illustrated version in 2016, and really does the text justice.  Charlip’s original illustrations (note:  I’ve only seen google’d images; I haven’t read the original version, so I’m basing my review not that) seemed very flat and of their time.  I think Robinson’s illustrations also seem of their time as well; I wonder if in 50 years, someone else will create new illustrations for that time?  Because I do think this book is lovely enough to be reissued again and again for a new generation of kids.  I remember finding dead birds, and being sad, and burying them, and then forgetting about them, just like in the book.  Playing “funeral” which is what the kids in this book are doing (I also remember digging one bird back up, and being unpleasantly surprised at the results).  Brown is commenting on death for kids, and also commenting on death and kids for adults.  Robinson’s illustrations are vibrant.  I particularly like the kids who runs around in a fox mask and tail.  Because I would like to be able to do the same.  Handy specially mentioned the multicultural kids, which is very modern, but feels a bit like one of those World War II movies where all the buddies are a different color and ethnicity.  But how you make a multicultural book feel natural is always tricky, and that certainly didn’t bother me about the book.


The Dead BirdThe Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was originally written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1938; published posthumously and illustrated by Remy Charlip in 1958; and the reissued in 2016 with new, updated (and far more colorful and eye catching) illustrations by Christian Robinson. I googled some of Charlip's original illustrations (the older edition is out of print), and I thought this update was well worth it; those older illustrations were pretty flat. This book, which has a poetic feel to it, needed these more vibrant pictures to make it sing an even brighter song. I did wonder if in 50 years, someone else will re-illustrate this again; Brown's book is worth reissuing over and over for a new generation. It's that good. 



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Monday, November 20, 2017

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg (1973)

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and MiniverA Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What an odd book. I’m not sure I would have even finished it if I hadn’t also been reading Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life I wasn’t exactly sure who the audience for this book even was. It’s in the children’s section, by a writer for children, but the subject matter was quite adult. Would an eleven year old want to read about Eleanor of Aquitaine? In 1973, maybe? In 2017, farther from maybe, leaning towards no. I don’t remember this book at all as a child. I adore Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This one, not so much.

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The Cat in the Hat (1957) & The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958) by Dr. Seuss

The Cat in the Hat
Bruce Handy wrote this rad as fuck book about children's literature which I adored (see here).  There was this entire chapter on Dr. Seuss, particularly The Cat in the Hat, and how revolutionary it was.  I'm not going to go into a whole bunch of detail on this - just go read his book.  If you are reading this right now, you will like it.  If you don't, let me know.  I will lose respect for you though. I may have to compare you to that bitch kangaroo from Horton Hears A Who.  She's the worst Dr. Seuss character.  She's one of the worst characters in children's literature.  She terrified me as a kid.  Not liking Bruce Handy's book is not as bad as that.  So you, hater, will not be a bitch kangaroo.  Just stupid.

My mom didn't like Dr. Seuss.  She's said so more than once.  She hated reading the books aloud.  I have to agree:  they are horrible read-alouds.  Kids may love them, and there may be some children's librarians who love them too.  I was not one of those librarians.  The sing-songy pattern of Dr. Seuss makes for some excruciating reading aloud.  


I don't remember the last time I actually sat down and read either The Cat in the Hat or The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.   I think as a kid, I liked the sequel better; there was something about all of those little cats, and the pink snow, that appealed to me.  I don't think I ever liked The Cat in the Hat part I as well as part II.  The entire book is sort of terrifying.  Part II takes place mostly outside; Part I is inside their home - essentially, it's the story of home invasion. Also, the cat doesn't really look like a cat.  Garfield looks like a cat.  Heathcliff looks like a cat.  My pet cat looked like a cat.  The Cat in the Hat looks like a monster.  He's creepy looking, sort of like something from the island of Dr. Moreau.  


Plus, he's a crazy maker. I took a class called The Artist's Way, and we learned all about crazymakers.  I'm not sure I buy everything Julia Cameron wrote about in the artist's way, but I definitely bought into the concept of the crazy maker. I hope to fuck I'm not one.  Here is part of a blog post she wrote on crazy makers:


-Crazymakers spend your time and money

-Crazymakers break deals and destroy schedules-Crazymakers expect special treatment-Crazymakers discount your reality-Crazymakers triangulate those they deal with (So, your crazymaker might say “Everyone really hates you at the office” so that you’re thinking “Who hates me at the office?” instead of “Who is this horrible person saying this to me?”)-Crazymakers are expert blamers-Crazymakers create drama, but seldom where it belongs-Crazymakers hate schedules-- except their own. (Your deadline becomes an excuse for them to ask you for something time consuming.)-Crazymakers hate order (You clear a place in the house so you can work, and your crazymaker comes along and messes it up before you can begin.)-Crazymakers deny that they are Crazymakers

All of these things describe the cat in the hat.  He comes in, disrupts these kids' lives, destroys their schedules (and their house), spends their time, triangulates (makes them lie to their mom), creates drama, hates order.    He's fucking crazy.  He's a chaos god; he's not good natured, he's not a coyote or Pan figure.  He's fucking crazy, and he's out to destroy.  "I know some new tricks" he says, one of which is gotterdammerung.


I think what Dr. Seuss wrote was sort of a bit of genius (again, read Handy's book) but in pondering the cat in the hat, now I know what disturbed me about him as a child.  I'm even more scared now.



The Cat in the HatThe Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What do stars even mean for a book? The Cat in the Hat is beloved. It was published long before I was born, and will be in print long after I die. I'm going to give it 5 stars for its genius (the story of Dr. Seuss and the writing of this book is pretty cool) and its longevity. I can remember being disturbed by this book, but it's been 40 years and I couldn't remember why. Now I know. This book is essentially the story of a home invasion by a cousin of Gremlins. Let's face it: he's not a cat. Garfield is a cat. Heathcliff is a cat. He looks like some sort of half-bred monkey creature from The Island of Dr. Moreau. He's a chaos god, who invades the home of two kids, and wreaks monumental havoc on their home and their psyches before cleaning up his mess and leaving - but not before he gets them to lie to their mom about it. So really, he leaves an even bigger mess behind emotionally speaking (plus PTSD). "I know some new tricks" he says, one of which is gotterdammerung. Every kid should read this.


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The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
The Cat in the Hat was a scary book.  A stranger who looks more like a monster than a cat essentially breaks into the home of little boy and girl while their mother is out, and wreaks the kind of havoc that could get them into deep shit when she returns.  Unlike this time of modern helicopter parenting, in my day (when we walked to school barefoot in the snow), we were left alone to fend for ourselves pretty frequently (plus I had a baby sister). The chances of a monster breaking into our house were slim (the chances of our neighborhood friends coming over and wreaking havoc were much greater.  Still, the idea of this was scary.  I don’t remember this being one of my favorite books, although I, like everyone else, was aware that it existed and had read it as least once.  

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, however, I remember liking much more, at least as a child.  It was far less scary, and I think that’s because the action mostly moved outside.  Having a stranger invade your house and fuck everything up while your mother was out was frightening shit; having something show up in your front yard and turn the snow another color was loose dogs. When I re-read the book, I could remember being fascinated by the Little Cats.  I remember particularly liking how they kept taking off their hat to reveal another, even smaller, cat hidden underneath; and even though I knew it ended with Z, it made me wonder what was under Z’s hat (maybe the first concept of infinity).  I also loved playing in the ice and snow.

A snowy day never feels as cold, does it?  A windy, brisk day was always miserable.  A windy, snowy day was a new playground.  Those Little Cats understood exactly those sentiments.  (Shoveling walks never seemed like work; it seemed satisfying.  Mowing lawns seemed like work).  In the first book, it may have SEEMED like playing, but no one was having any fun.  They were just being bullies to that poor fish, scaring the crap out of the two kids, and just being assholes (I am especially talking about you, Thing One and Thing Two).  In the second book, at least in the outside scenes, I think all the Little Cats looked like a helluva lot of fun.

(I realize the cat did break into their house, but he was lured outside and didn’t really wreck their house at all, not like in the first book.  He’s still creepy).

The Cat in the Hat Comes BackThe Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always get the impression that no one likes The Cat in the Hat Comes Back as much as they like The Cat in the Hat. But as a kid I always liked the second book much better than the first one. In the first book, this monstrous "cat" invades and terrorizes the two kids - and their poor bullied fish - in their own home. Their place of safety was breached. I think that is what i always found so off putting as a little beginning reader forty years ago. But in the second book, tmost of the book takes place outside their home. The cat does do some fuckery inside the house - he makes a mess in the bathrub, almost ruins their mother's dress - but then all the action moves outside - and looks a helluva lot more fun than balancing a cake on a rake (or whatever). Thing One and Thing Two are demons; all of those Little Cats, while not exactly angels, look like they'd be fun to play with - who didn't like the play in the snow when they were seven years old, and with a bunch of little cats that have all sorts of snow related toys. Who gives a shit if the snow turns pink - dogs turned the snow yellow all the time, and that's much more disgusting (unless the pink had some sort of odd odor; I'm assuming not, but you never know).

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