Monday, January 25, 2010

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White; illustrated by Dennis Nolan (Philomel Books, 1938).

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White; illustrated by Dennis Nolan (Philomel Books, 1938).

I know I've read The Sword in the Stone at least one other time, and I think probably more than once. I first read it in high school (or maybe junior high?); regardless, it was long ago. I have to read parts of it aloud to a group of K-5th graders tomorrow afternoon.

This go 'round, I wasn't as impressed. For whatever reason, I couldn't get my brain around it. White's narrative is dense and packed with information. He's very clever, and that may be part of the problem this time; I thought he was too clever and a bit too precious. I didn't finish it; I read a few chapters and picked some to read aloud, and now it's on to something else. I'll still booktalk, I'll still give it away to an interested child or adult. Maybe I'll even change my mind and re-read it again someday. But for now, I'm done.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William J. Mann

As gays and lesbians, I think we sometimes imagine the days of the closet to be a difficult, suicide-ridden, depressing, horrid and horrible place. But in discussing Katherine Hepburn's lesbianism / bisexuality: "In decades past, especially in Hepburn's worldly circles, sexuality was far more fluid than it is in today's more rigidly defined, politically charged atmosphere."

Katherine Hepburn, and other gays and lesbians, didn't live a prescribed role. They just were.

Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William J. Mann

I just started another William J. Mann celeb biography, this one of Katherine Hepburn. I'm not as interested in Katherine Hepburn as I was in Elizabeth Taylor (at least not yet) so I'm solely attracted to this book on Mann's writing style alone. So far, I haven't been disappointed (granted, I'm not that far into the book).

I liked something Katherine Hepburn had to say about herself. She was talking about herself & Katherine Hepburn the Actress:

"I'm a very different from the one everyone seems to know. She's a legend...I really don't know her. I'm sort of like the man who cleans the furnace. I just keep her going."

I think that's kind of profound and maybe a little bit true about us all. Don't we all have a Katherine Hepburn or a Shawn Thrasher that we show to the world, maybe not a legend, but a persona we put on... then we have our inner monologue, our "true" selves that, like Katherine Hepburn's man who cleans the furnace, keeps us going, gives us pep talks, tears us down, makes sure we are honest or embarrassed or scared or happy or quiet.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor In Hollywood by William J. Mann (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).

How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor In Hollywood by William J. Mann (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).

My Facebook review:

Early on, Mann writes that this isn't going to be a traditional birth-to-death biography with everything in between; there were plenty of those about Elizabeth Taylor. This was -- and indeed and gloriously is - the biography of Elizabeth Taylor's stardom. It's handbook really - on how to court publicity, cut movie deals, conduct various affairs, seduce the paparazzi, keep the public alternately in love and in hate with you, and maintain your glamor. When we think of today's celebrities, most of what we (and they) take for granted Elizabeth Taylor pioneered. Mann really proves that there was a time before Liz and after Liz, and the two eras couldn't be any more different. An absolute pleasure to read from beginning to end.

Now this book isn't high art (thank god; there is enough high literature to last me a cat's worth of lifetimes) but I think Mann is on to something societal here about Elizabeth Taylor's impact not only on the world of film but also on the public perception of sexual mores. Her varied affairs with married men, sometimes while she herself was married, publicly chipped away at the Victorian moral code; maybe people did read about her and see her in the public eye being more free with her sexuality than ever before, and acted accordingly. I don't think anyone could say adultery suddenly became more fashionable (although perhaps for a while it did, a la the swingers of the seventies) but it certainly became a lot less shocking and unmentionable. Elizabeth Taylor was a product of her time - or was the time in part a product of Elizabeth Taylor?

To quote a current song making the rounds, "damn, she's a sexy bitch."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers & Bedknob and Broomstick

I read Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers and Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton back to back, and let me say it was an interesting experience.

I'm not a newcomer to Mary Poppins. As a child, I probably read the book a dozen times (and maybe some of the sequels). I don't recall seeing the movie the entire way through until I was at least in my late teens (more likely in my twenties) but like everyone, I was aware of it. I've re-read Mary Poppins as an adult several times, the last time several years ago.

Mary, Mary, Mary, who are you? What are you? Nanny or goddess? It seems as if at times Mary Poppins has existed throughout history, a cousin to snake gods, a friend and helper to the maker of stars, a magical being who can still speak to birds and sunshine and the wind, whose mother knew kings and dancing cows, the center of the chain of being.

A children's book had this mystical line, from a talking cobra god, on a night when people are in cages at the zoo instead of animals: "After all, it may be that to eat and be eaten are the same thing in the end. My wisdom tells me that this is probably so. We are all made of the same stuff, remember, we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us -- the tree overhead, the stone bench beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star - we are all one, all moving to the same end..." "But how can a tree be a stone? A bird is not me. Jane is not a tiger," said Michael stoutly. "You think not... bird and beast and stone and star, we are all one, all one... child and serpent, star and stone all one." That's philosophy talking there (from an Eastern snake god, no less), in a nominal children's book about a (persnickety and let's face it, kind of mean) nanny.

It's no wonder that P.L. Travers was reportedly pissed off at Disney's movie treatment of her goddess nanny. Julie Andrews may be Disney's Mary Poppins, but she certainly is not P.L. Travers's.

Now to Miss Price in Bedknob and Broomstick, I can't speak quite so confidently about. The Disney movie - pluralized - is one I still don't think I've ever fully seen (I know it starts at least one of the kids and the dad from Mary Poppins and Angela Lansbury (pre- or post- Mame?). I know Miss Price (if that was even her name in the movie) enchants some suits of armor to fight off the invading Nazis. And that is almost all I remember. (a vague memory of cartoon lion king and some underwater cartoon scenes; there must have been some musical numbers too).

The Miss Price of Mary Norton's Bedknob is a really interesting study of what I imagine was supposed to be a modern woman in 1943. Single, with a career (in this case witchcraft) well-dressed, not fond of children (she essentially threatens them with magical harm if they reveal to the world she is a witch). It's really interesting that the two strongest characters - and the two characters who go head-to-head the most - are not the boys, but their sister Carey and Miss Price. Miss Price is short and to-the-point with all three children, but it's Carey that she treats as an intellectual equal. And Carey more than holds her own. Even when faced with dangerous witchcraft, Carey isn't afraid to challenge Miss Price. There's certainly a taste of Nesbit in Carey (Nesbit had strong female characters) and a bit of Alice too (she who also stood up to dangerous magical beings). Brother Charles is flatter than flat (perhaps duller than Peter Pevensie would be a better way to describe him; he's not even noble, he's just boring and that's mostly because he gets absolutely nothing interesting to do or say); Little Brother Paul is interesting (he gets many of the best lines, is alive with personality, and is the bearer of the magic bedknob after all is said and done); but we all must admit that it is Carey that shines throughout both halves of the book. Without Carey's insistence on fairness, there wouldn't even be a Broomstick half of the book or the romance of Miss Price.

What has struck me about 101 Dalmations, Mary Poppins, and Bedknob and Broomstick is how adult they seem sometimes. Cruella de Vil's PETA-cringing cruelty and over-the-top clothes and lifestyle; Mary Poppins's brushes with philosophy, religion and spirituality; and Miss Price the very model of a modern witch whose love story with Emilius is essentially the last half of the book. These are very adult goings on in a book for kids. There is little or no talking down here; you the 8 year old reader either got it, asked about it, guessed about it, or skipped it - but it was rarely explained. And what was it? National debt, military rankings, English aristocracy, Nanny Butler (101 Dalmatians); the chain of being, karmic energy, philosophy (Mary Poppins); a pretty sophisticated love story, with two awkward suitors gradually falling in love (Bedknob). That may be why these are still being read today. They challenge kids (and adults) to think, but the challenge is hidden away in really enchanting writing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith (1956)

“Those dogs would make a lovely fur coat!” said by one of Dodie Smith's friends about her pet Dalmatians (she owned nine, which might as well be 101).

Dodie Smith was great friends with gays like Chrisopher Isherwood, so I'm guessing this mysterious friend (in five minutes of researching on the 'net I could not identify this friend's name) was a flaming 'mo.' Probably Noel Coward. (or perhaps the Duchess of Windsor, which would make this story even more gossipy and delicious!).

The 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith (1956)

My Facebook review:

A remarkably adult book for one written for children, chillingly & delightfully bloodthirsty. Making fur coats out of Dalmatian puppies is a shocking and brilliant plot twist after all; after fifty years we may think of the plot as old hat but imagine reading it for the first time in 1956 and starting to realize with horror, as poor Pongo starts to realize, that his cute roly poly lucky plucky brave little puppies are going to be made into a coat! And made into a coat by one of the most deliciously evil and oh so sophisticated villainesses in all of bookdom. Who is cooler, crueler, and better-dressed than Cruella De Vil (one could argue the Duchess of Windsor, particularly in 1956. Cruella may be part-devil; I think she’s all-drag queen. And let’s be perfectly honest here – the book is REALLY about her. As much as we love and root for the Dalmatians, it’s scary Cruella we’re frantically turning the pages to read about. If you’ve only seen the movie, take a trip back to childhood and treat yourself to the book – and it’s marvelous sequel, The Starlight Barking.

The 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith (1956)

Is there a better drag queen that Cruella de Vil? Even the name says drag queen. And who but a drag queen (or maybe the Duchess of Windsor in the 30s) would wear the clothes Dodie Smith lovingly details:

"A tight-fitting emerald satin dress, several ropes of rubies, and an absolutely simple white mink cloak."

"A ruby satin dress with ropes of emeralds"

"A black satin dress with ropes of pearls, but the same absolutely simple white mink cloak."

She's one of the best villains in all of bookdom, and to be honest gets far too little "airtime" in the book. She's a very adult villainess too, and really bloodthirsty and scary.

If Cruella de Vil is one of the best villains, then her cat, the white Persian, is one of the best cats of bookdom. The White Persian definitely wins a Best Supporting award. She's everything a cat should be, in just a few short appearances: slinky, smart, a little snide, sly, and (like all good cats) with a eye out for revenge at all the best times.

I read The 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith (1956).

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell

I read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company, 2008, 9780316017923).

My Facebook review:

Another thought-provoking and sometimes stunning book by Gladwell. I love, love, love the way he tells these unrelated stories (and that’s what I feel he’s doing; he’s telling nonfiction stories; it’s like you’re in the same room as he is, listening to him tell a really long, groovy story) and then ties them together in an amazing way and presents them to you as a perfect little (or big) gift of thoughts and feelings and reconsiderations. A story about family feuds in the Appalachians leads to a discussion about the different temperaments of Southerners vs. Northerners which leads a (scary) discussion of airplane crashes which leads to a discussion of math which is really about success being based on not only who you are, but who your grandparents and great-grandparents and great-grandparents and begat begat begat were. That’s just the last part of the book – the first part is just as interesting and juicy. I really didn’t want this to end; I wanted these stories and this discussion to go on and on.

I was on vacation while reading this book, and wasn't able to adequately blog my thoughts. I'm not sure I could have done so anyway - Gladwell turns over plenty of stones, but does a great job of describing what's beneath them in loving detail. The chapters about geniuses were heartbreakingly sad and touched close to home. I discussed upbringing with my partner and several friends, trying to figure out if we (or our parents) were brought up as entitled or brought up us an entitled (an interesting discussion not fully answered). The chapter on air line crashes was a little bit terrifying and sad as well.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 1400043468).

My review from Facebook, which, if I may so myself, I thought quite good:

"My only real experience of Julia Child was the Meryl Streep knock-off in Julie and Julia; I came to this book as an admitted admirer of the movie Julia (and the movie, I must admit) but as for the real Julia, I was in the dark. Mais quelle surprise! The Julia Child of "My Life in France" is even more delightful and intriguing and interesting than Mademoiselle Streep! I have no idea if the ACTUAL Julia Child was someone I would have wanted to personally know (the nature of autobiography means a biased author, and I want to read a meaty biography next), but the autobiographical Julia Child, smart, witty, adventuresome, artistic, scientific, passionate, headstrong, creative... now that's a woman I would want to at least have over for dinner (or better yet go to dinner at HER house). If you love to eat, read this book. If you love to cook, read this book. If you love France, read this book. If you love history, particuarly 1950s or Cold War history, read this book (a perfect slice of life of post-war Paris). If you WANT to fall in love with France, or cooking, or Julia Child, definitely read this book!"

I am so hungry for boeuf bourguignon right now!

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

Julia and Paul move to Germany and "our first dinner party revealed that our once-crack team of hostess/cook and host/sommelier was woefully out of practice. We had no salad forks, we forgot to clear the cocktail clutter unobtrusively, and we spent the evening rushing about in a breathless rush. This was not up to our usual standard...

[here is the part I love and respect]

We liked to treat our guests as if they were royalty, so as to be fully prepared for those occasions when we would be called upon to entertain actual royalty!"

Fine words to live and entertain by!

Snake Agent by Liz Williams (2005)

My Facebook review:

"I love discovering a new author and/or a new series, and if the rest of the Detective Inspector Chen novels are as good as Snake Agent, then I'm destined for a few months of reading heaven. Liz Williams delightfully turns the police procedural mystery and the urban fantasy novel both upside down, shakes out some of each, and then mixes them all up together into an exciting brew of action, adventure, and magic. It's a little bit CSI (or better yet, Miami Vice), a little bit Lord of the Rings (a trip to Mordor, anyone?), a little bit Narnia (a talking badger, but in a completely different sense) and a large dash of originality. Inspector Chen is hot as hell!"

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