Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg (2006)

Each president from Benjamin Harrison on has some claim on the moniker "first modern president."  Without reading a biography of William Taft, I think the title of "first modern Republican president" really goes to Calvin Coolidge.  Every Republican since then - from president on down to dog catcher - has basically and publicly announced the same platform.  Business - yes.  Taxes - no. Spending - as little as possible.  Deregulation - yes.  Trickle down economics - hurray!  Only the ebb and flow of national security and state affairs, and the modern Christian right movement have added to the Republican mantra.  Coolidge was a pro-business, low tax, no spend Republican with little to no interest in the progressive policies of his predecessors.  He's been referred to as the last Victorian, and his attitudes may have been so, but his political identity could adapt well to the 21st century.  He was as slick as any modern Republican too. He's probably our most successful accidental president after Harry Truman.  He was really a nonentity on the national stage when he became Harding's vp (basically another nonentity too).  Yet through manipulation - in a most modern way - of publicity, use of new media like radio, a willingness to be photographed and talk to the press, he made himself popular and was re-elected.  You may question his policies; you may think he caused the Great Depression (probably not).  But he was definitely a terrific accomplished politician.  "Silent Cal" he might have seemed, but that was a put on.  Underneath that silent exterior beat the heart of a true, down and dirty politician in all the most admirable ways.

David Greenberg (who also writes for Slate) had some interesting things to say about his most modern Republican.  As recently as November 2011, he was writing about the Republican Party's love to Cal - Michelle Bachmann wants his face carved into Mt. Rushmore, after that of Reagan, and Sarah Palin has also expressed her admiration for the Vermonter.  He's very in among conservatives, and deservedly so.

"Where winning elections had once depended on the party mobilizing a large, loyal base of voters, it now relied on an individual's ability to rouse a broad range of citizens, including those willing to split their tickets."  He was the first to really take advantage of this, using the mass media to get his name out to millions and millions and millions of people in ways that hadn't been possible before.  He was the first "public relations"ized president.  That could cause problems too, when a president that was popular among all parties had to work within his own party if they controlled the Congress.  That's been true since Calvin Coolidge, and every popular president since then has had exactly the same challenges.

"He methodically disposed of his major rivals for the nomination."  Calvin Coolidge doesn't look all that cut throat, but again, he was a great politician who knew how to get elected - and surrounded himself with people who knew how to get that done too.

"Harlan Stone... would go on to a distinguished term on the Court, where he became an important voice upholding the constitutionality of the New Deal, and Franklin Roosevelt would name him chief justice in 1941."  Another modern problem - what happens when your supreme court nominee moves farther to the left (or the right) years after he or she joins the bench?  Probably the last thing Calvin Coolidge wanted was to nominate a New Dealer, but that's what he did.

Greenberg quotes Willa Cather:  "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts"  Old fashioned Calvin Coolidge more than adequately bridged that gap.  He might have seemed Victorian, but he was really quite a modern man.

Calvin Coolidge (The American Presidents, #30Calvin Coolidge (The American Presidents, #30 by David Greenberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Calvin Coolidge is the darling of the Republican Party (after Ronald Reagan, Michele Bachmann said that Silent Cal should have his head up there on Mt. Rushmore).   Rightly so too - Coolidge is the first truly modern Republican president.  Every president from Benjamin Harrison on has been called the first modern president, but its Coolidge who walks and talks like Mitt Romney (minus the moral majority).  Low tax, no spend, deregulate, pro business - Calvin Coolidge was the first Republican president to espouse these traits (perhaps Warren Harding would have done the same, if he'd lived long enough). Coolidge was also the first true master of spin - on the death of corrupt Harding, Coolidge came out of it all smelling like a rose, and turned what could have been a liability into asset; the first real master of modern media -- he courted and manipulated radio, movie moguls and newspapers.  He also had a PR man, another first.  He was a slick politician, in all the best senses of those words.   David Greenberg's portrait of Calvin Coolidge is humanizing (the death of Coolidge's son was heartbreaking for the president) and informative.  While not exactly an entertaining read, Greenberg's writing is good enough to be enjoyable for lovers of history in general and presidential history specifically.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001)

After reading Alison Weir's dry(ish) Mary Boleyn, I decided to re-read The Other Boleyn Girl to catch out all the historical inaccuracies.  Guess what - I got so drawn up in the story that I forgot to pick it apart.  Was Philippa Gregory ever as good again as The Other Boleyn Girl?  Maybe The Queen's Own Fool (which I decided to re-read as well).  After that, they progressively get more and more "meh" until I'm not sure I want to even read the most recently published.  Her writing in The Other Boleyn Girl is crisp and sharp, and the entire book feels thought out and thought over.  The latest ones all feel rushed.

It's still kind of trashy, but in all the best ways.  I guess I'm kind of trashy too, which is probably why I like it.  Regardless of who was actually cast in the movie, should Angelina Jolie and her brother Creepy Jolie been cast as Anne and George????  And if the Tudors were the Kennedys, wouldn't Jane Parker Boleyn = Ethel Kennedy? (must not mix historical time periods this way).

It's the best kind of beach read - full of ish (historical accurate-iss, literary-ish, history-ish).  No ish about it being well written though - great plot (since the 1500s it's been a great story told and told and told again), sexy characters.  Back in the day, Gregory knew her shit.

The Other Boleyn GirlThe Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read this twice, and the second time as as deliciously trashy as the first.  It's the best kind of "beach read" - full of ish (historical accurate-iss, literary-ish, history-ish).  No ish about it being well written though - great plot (since the 1500s it's been a great story told and told and told again), sexy characters, and impossible to put down.(note:  I did not actually read this at the beach).  I picked this up because I recently read Alison Weir's actual historical biography of Mary Boleyn, and I wanted to see if I could pick out all the historical inaccuracies.  But I got so wrapped up in the proceedings that I forgot to nitpick.  And upon finishing The Other Boleyn Girl promptly picked up The Queen's Fool to re-read as well!  Back in the day, those Boleyns were the s*** (as was Ms. Gregory!).  

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Can We Save the Tiger by Martin Jenkins; illustrated by Vicky White (2011)

Horn Book named Can We Save the Tiger? as one of the best nonfiction books for kids published last year.  I usually have mixed opinions of nonfiction published for children.  I guess it's because primarily I like nonfiction, particularly really good, well written, engaging nonfiction that both knows how to inform but still tell a story.  Too much children's nonfiction either weighs too heavily on the story part or too heavily on the information part, without finding the balance between. When children's nonfiction really works for me is mostly when it's heavily illustrated - nonfiction picture books.  Can We Save the Tiger? is one such book - its illustrations aren't stellar, but they are good and interesting (if a little like National Georgraphic photographs scanned into one of those art programs that photos into pencil drawings).  The narrative is what really makes this book. It's simple without being dumbed-down.  Its simple narrative explores all aspects of extinction and endangered animals, the causes, why some animals have become extinct and how some have come back from the brink.  It would actually read aloud well - something nonfiction books (regardless of illustrations) have a hard time overcoming.  The prose feels like someone who may be older and wiser is having a gently frank conversation with you about why tigers and polar bears and snails and kakapos are close to being no more.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wasn't a huge fan of the illustrations (they seemed almost like National Geographic photographs fed through some sort of pencil art creation software); it's the narrative that's super wonderful.  Nonfiction for kids is hard to write; all the best popular nonfiction has to balance on a tightrope between information and storytelling.  Kids nonfiction is the worst - it can either be too much story (those old Childhood of Famous Americans books come to mind) or too much information (report fodder).  Can We Save the Tigeris the perfect blend of narrative and information.  The prose is almost like an older, wiser adult is having a frank but gentle conversation with a young reader about the tiger, polar bear, dodo, and other endangered or extinct animals.  It's thoughtful and thought provoking, age appropriate, and would even make a decent read aloud for older children (hard to do for any kind of nonfiction) that would spark some discussion about what we are doing to the world and if there is any way to save some of these precious, wonderful animals.

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak (1981)

The last in the triumvirate  of Maurice Sendak (the first two being Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen).  I don't recall ever reading Outside Over There.  The story was completely new to me, as were the illustrations.  They felt very early 80s, although not in a bad way.  The faces are creepy though.  I also was disconcerted by the German shepherd.  The story, which must be in homage or based on Christina Rossetti, is set in the past - maybe early 1800's (the clothing has that feel) or maybe even late 18th century.  The German shepherd as a breed is an almost 20th century creation (1899, so one year shy).  I suppose there were dogs that looked similar in 1799, but it just seemed sloppy.  Like maybe Mr. Sendak's friends had a dog who came to pose for him or whatever.  There are shades of Odysseus as well (a bit).

I certainly didn't know that Labyrinth was based on this book.  And Christina Rossetti wasn't a specific influence - the Lindbergh kidnapping was.  Leave it to crazy Maurice Sendak to base a book for little kids on one of the most famous murders of all time.

Of the three,  I still like Wild Things best.  This isn't as effed up as Night Kitchen and actually seems to have a real plot to it.  The folklore aspects are interesting, and if it wasn't for the creepy faces and dog, I would have given this two enthusiastic thumbs up.  Only one thumb.

Outside Over ThereOutside Over There by Maurice Sendak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Other than the creepily illustrated faces, and an anachronistic dog (German shepherds are a twentieth century invention; while this seems to have an early 19th century feel to it), I enjoyed this, the third in the Maurice Sendak triumvirate.  Sendak's work can be so pretentiously self aware and full of pop psychology so I'm sure you can read a whole bunch of childhood angst and fear and loathing and anger into Outside Over There  It has some basis in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; leave it to Maurice Sendak to write a picture book for little kids based on a horrible kidnapping/murder. But on a simple level, the story was engaging and exciting and the pictures aren't gruesome or creepy enough to be ghastly.  It's definitely an 80s product (the colors feel very 1982), but that isn't necessarily a distraction or detraction, just an observation.  I noticed that unlike Night Kitchen and its banned naked baby, the babies in this have their baby parts artistically hidden.

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Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures by Maurice Sendak (1988)

I'm barely going to count this is as read because I just flipped through it.  It made me want to find some Little Nemo comics (which aren't at my library).  Somewhere in it - I don't remember which essay - Sendak essentially called for a moratorium on new children's picture books, so as to give kids a chance to read books from the past.  I wish I'd mark the page, because I agree with that sometimes.  There are so many new books published all the time!  It sometimes becomes overwhelming.  And treasures from the past get shuffled aside (sometimes for Dora and her ilk, which is frustrating and sad).  You hear all the time that the book is going away, to be replaced by some electronic device.  The used book will certainly become a hot commodity,and I secretly think "I'll just get a delightful chance to spend my twilight years re-reading all of my favorites in good old fashioned hard copy."  That doesn't sound half bad.  By that time, I won't remember any of the Christie murderers (in fact, I don't now).  I'll get to go back to Prydain and Narnia, and Middle Earth again and again.  Sounds like heaven to me, come a little bit early.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

Kind of like watching 30 Rock - incredibly funny, witty, charming, sometimes disgusting, off color, progressive. Tina Fey really is awesome.

Warren G. Harding by John Dean (2004)

If Warren G. Harding can be rehabilitated, then I guess any president can.  Take heart George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.  It seemed that much of Warren Harding's life and work can only be seen through the cipher of his friends, political associates, his father-in-law, and especially his strong willed wife Florence (I would say his mistress too, although John Dean doesn't).  That isn't what John Dean is specifically stating - and seems to be trying to negate that - but it's hard not to think that.  I don't think he was a yes-man; Dean writes that Harding was by nature a humble man who didn't need the spotlight.  Nature abhors a vacuum, right?  So his friends and political cronies are what really shine.  That's admirable when good things happen, but when some of them are stinkers, that makes you look bad.

Harding and Mitt Romney seem remarkably alike.  They both "look presidential."  Tall, handsome luggish.  Harding was a newspaper man (such a person could never be elected today) but he looked like a banker (or a Babbitt; I really need to read that book before I continue using that moniker).  Mitt Romney looks like a small town banker too, all glad handed and handsome and big and in your face, wearing suits.

He looks presidential - could he be elected today?  He seemed to be a slick politician (and I actually mean that in a good way, not an oily way) but that mistress might be a big problem (although it wasn't for Newt Gingrich - or was it?).  He definitely seems to be the first truly modern Republican president.

Warren G. Harding (The American Presidents, #29)Warren G. Harding by John Wesley Dean III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time does heal everything. Take heart past and future presidents - if Warren Harding can be rehabilitated, then so can you!  John Dean does a pretty good job of making Mr. Harding seem more upstanding and less of a louse.  His scandalous term in office were mostly tempests in a teapot (dome) that weren't his fault.  He's been given a bum rap on most fronts. Dean's Harding really reads like the first truly modern Republican president- anti-spending, low tax, fiscally conservative businessman.  He spoke up for civil rights - and perhaps would have actually done something if he'd lived.   If you want a juicy, scandal-ridden hatchet job expose of the scurrilous Harding administration (sex in broom closets!  smoke filled rooms!  booze and floozies!  Lady Macbeth of a wife!) then go elsewhere.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

People by Blexbolex (2011)

Blexbolex is a "French comics artist and illustrator" (from Wikipedia) who currently lives in Germany.  Unlike many illustrators (at least that I've seen), this book is silk screen, which is damn cool.  People is both an incredibly simple book and incredibly complex.  Simple - each page is a picture of a person, with a descriptor naming that person.  For example, the first page says MAN and has a picture of a fat plutocrat with a can and a newspaper tucked under one arm; a bloated version of the Monopoly man without his top hat.  WOMAN is an African (French-Afrrican?) woman in a very bright green dress with polka dots looking into a mirror.  She has a pink beehive hairdo; I wonder if this is Nikki Minaj.  COUPLE is a very pink man and woman holding hands; they could either be from Mad Men or lesser Kennedy's.  BACHELOR is in a brilliant yellow suit and holding a bouquet - perhaps he was supposed to be GAY.

It's with BACHELOR that this book takes a turn, and I start to wonder if this book is for children.  At least American children.  I think it's most likely for French children, and maybe German children.  Maybe hipster American children.  For one thing, there is a page for SMOKING.  That's really, really European.  The GIRL is also really French looking - she's fabulously dressed and incredibly thin.  Not as thin as MODEL though.  FLIGHT ATTENDANT is this drop dead gorgeous female; across the page from her is CAT BURGLAR and you realize they may be one and the same, only the burglar is in this sexy form fitting cat suit.  There is sometimes a connection between the two words -- SOLOIST and LISTENER for example (although LISTENER looks like she is from Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.  SECRETARY though is across the page from YETI (what connection are we supposed to draw from that; maybe something idiomatically French?  There are some creepy things too (EXECUTIONER?).  The BUTCHER has a dead pig slung over one arm.  Modern France (Germany?) and a modern European audience is reflected; in addition to Africans (African French?  African German?) there is MUEZZIN and EMIR.  And RABBI.

PeoplePeople by Blexbolex
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A picture book, with awesome silk screen pictures.  On each page is the magnificently ultra cool silk screen of a person, and a descriptor name of that person.  MAN WOMAN COUPLE BACHELOR... very normal, everyday words and then a whole passel of words and illustrators that reflect the French writer/artist (SMOKING, MODEL).  Every illustration is mid-century mod groovy -- COUPLE looks like they could be lesser Kennedy's or perhaps from Mad Men.  The pages more often than not match (SOLIST and LISTENER for example; LISTENER looks like she just came back from a casting call of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks -- how cool is that?).  Sometimes, though, the opposite pages jar in the most interesting way (SECRETARY and YETI, for example).  EXECUTIONER was deliciously creepy; BUTCHER, with a dead pig slung over one shoulder, was hilariously over the top. Definitely not a typical picture book (if it can be called a picture book at all).

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The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? by Mo Willems (2012)

Is Mo Willems the new Dr. Seuss?  Like Dr. Seuss, he churns out book after book.  And like Dr. Seuss, each book is really a gem.  I can't name one Dr. Seuss book I don't like - maybe some ambivelence - but outright hatred?  Not at all.  Mo Willems has that same quality.  Every one I read, I like.  And, like Dr. Seuss, he writes a variety of books - from easy readers to longer picture books. With messages, and that work on different age levels.  And you can learn things too, while laughing all the way.  Mo Willems is Dr. Seuss for hipster parents.

The Duckling Gets a Cookie is the latest "Pigeon" book, and it's as cool and hip as any of the other books.  It's not existential like Elephant and Piggie's adventures with death in We Are In A Book.  It's not as adult as Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.  But it's as good as Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and maybe even better.  Pigeon is the Liz Lemon of the picture book animal world.  A little weird.  Prone to self absorption. Has some sort of epiphany and/or tantrum in every book.  Surrounded by characters.

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? by Mo Willems
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is Pigeon the Liz Lemon of the picture book animal world?  A little odd.  Always wanting something and going to great lengths to try to get it.  Prone to fits, tantrums, epiphanies, and many sarcastic or ironic statements and non sequitur  in a short period of time (the length of a picture book). A smart ass. Surrounded by characters like Duckling or Tracy Jordan.  (perhaps Duckling is the Kenneth of this series).

Once again, a f***ing fantastic offering from Mo Willems, a god (read: Dr. Seuss) among picture book authors/illustrators.

Go get this for a small child now.  Be sure and let the small child in you read it first.

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Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk (2011)

Certainly not life changing, but cleverly and wittily written.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir (2011)

We think we know much about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne and supposed mistress of Henry VIII = but really we know so very little about her.  This book was more about what we don't know than what we do know, and Alison Weir painstakingly picks apart the musings of previous historians and writers of historical fiction who've written about Anne Boleyn's older OR younger sister (Weir says older, and then sets out to almost boringly prove it).  She probably wasn't as whorish as she's come down to be, and her relationship with almost everyone she knew is basically pure speculation.  She probably got into some sort of trouble in France with the King; her later affair with Henry VIII probably produced at least one bastard daughter.  She was incredibly discreet.  Her parents and sister were probably dismissive of her. Her prospects were always dim.  Her last marriage was almost certainly a love match, at a time when that was considered beyond the pale (and makes one think how the concept of marriage has indeed changed over the years from a business or dynastic venture to a love match).  Of the Boleyn family, she survived the most unscathed and avoided the fates of her sister and brother.  She fought for and finally won some of her inheritance.  Her daughter by Henry VIII grew up to be a close intimate of her half sister Queen Elizabeth I; her son by her first husband William Carey was also part of Elizabeth's inner circle.

Like all Weir histories, this is really detailed, and a reader can get bogged down in dates and people's names and side stories that twist and turn.  Her arguments and refutations are dead on.  She proves that Henry VIII - by some historians accused of being of low fertility - in actuality fathered "fourteen children, seven of them sons."  She proves that many of the rumors surrounding Mary Boleyn through the years were either really about her sister or simply weren't true.  I thought that Weir's arguments about Mary's purity actually ran counter to the whole point of the book, that Henry VIII had an affair (of unknown length) with her; I didn't feel that Weir proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt, and I wondered if that was another rumor started to sully the Boleyn name.  She does give valid argument as to why of the two children of Mary Boleyn, the daughter Katharine was most likely Henry's illegitimate child (if the affair did exist) and the son was not.   Henry might have been an absolute ass, but he did take care of his children out of wedlock.

Weir's appendix 1 about the descendants of Mary Boleyn Carey Stafford ended with a most interesting paragraphs about how how Mary survived where her siblings did not:

"It is often said that Henry VIII's line died out with Elizabeth.  None of his legitimate children left issue, and his acknowledged bastard, Richmond, was childless.  But if Katherine Carey was Henry's daughter, as seems likely, then his direct bloodline survives in numerous direct descendants... Among the illustrious descendants of Mary Boleyn are numbered Winston Churchill; Lord Nelson; Charles Darwin; Sabine Baring-Gould" (among other things wrote "Onward Christian Soldiers")... "William Cowper; Lady Antonia Fraser; J.H. Round" (English historian)... "Vita Sackville-West; Thomas West, the Baron de la Warre, after whom US state Delaware is named; Lady Anne Somerset; Algernon Swinburne; Ralph Vaughan Williams; P.G. Wodehouse; Princess William of Wales; Sarah Fergusonm, Duchess of York; Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall; Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (through the Earls Spencer); the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother; and Queen Elizabeth II."

I guess the Boleyns won afterall.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bumble-ardy by Maurice Sendak (2011)

I read two of Maurice Sendak's most famous and first books, and I also wanted to read his last book to see if had the same charm / terror.  It does.

Even more so than Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, I came to Bumble-ardy with some preconceived information, because Fresh Air replayed several interviews with Sendak the day after his death, and Terry Gross asked some pretty poignant and pointed questions about the book.  She was fascinated / disturbed by the end, when Bumble-ardy says:  "I promise! I swear! I won't ever turn ten!" She asked a couple of questions about it, and Sendak admitted that those lines "sum up his life and work."  From the interview:  
"Those two lines are essential. 'I'll never be 10' touches me deeply but I won't pretend that I know exactly what it means," says Sendak. "When I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean. ... It comes at a time when I am getting ripe, getting old — and I want to do work that resonates."
Sendak says that he worked on Bumble-ardy while taking care of his longtime partner, Eugene Glynn, who died of lung cancer in 2007.
"When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death," he says. "Eugene, my friend and partner, was dying here in the house when I did Bumble-ardy. I did Bumble-ardy to save myself. I did not want to die with him. I wanted to live as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house. ... Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own. And it took a long time. It took a very long time."
Another I noticed, more so than either Wild Things or Night Kitchen was that Bumble-ardy's party had more than a passing resemblance to some sort of gay pride parade.  Lots of pigs in what appeared to be drag.  I can't imagine that wasn't one purpose, but now we'll never know.

Sendak's books are always open to a myriad of interpretation.  Although Bumble-ardy isn't as surreal as Night Kitchen or as full of punch as Wild Things, you still walk away from it wondering what the hell it was about.  Some reviews I've read on Goodreads said that this was aimed at Sendak's gloomy sad self, and I heartily agree. When you are an old, famous writer, you get to write whatever you damn well please, and that's exactly what Bumble-ardy is.  

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I think maybe you either like and/or "get" Maurice Sendak or you don't.  I must fall in the don't category, although I can appreciate his storytelling and artistic technique.  I came away from Bumble-ardy like I came away from In the Night Kitchen - mystified as to what exactly the book was about.  Or maybe I'm just thinking too hard about it.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James (2011)

I'm giving this one up - maybe for now, maybe forever. I need to re-read Pride and Prejudice or some other Jane Austen before tackling this again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (1970)

It's interesting, because as much as I don't remember reading Where the Wild Things Are as a kid, I do remember reading In the Night Kitchen.  Probably because the naked little boy was so delightfully risque.  Perhaps that is why I'm gay, because of In the Night Kitchen.  It corrupted me.  Genetics - pshaw.  It's all Maurice Sendak's fault.

In the Night Kitchen is one weird damn book.  What the hell is it about?  Let's be honest, Wild Things basically knocks you upside the head with various themes about childhood and innocence and emotions and rules and growing up and love and getting sent to bed without any supper. And it does all this with a sense of good humor and storytelling that doesn't get in the way or get too preachy.

But Night Kitchen, who the hell knows.  Perhaps it's just this - everyone really hates listening to someone else's dreams.  And nothing is worse than listening to a kid tell about a dream he or she had.  And that's what Night Kitchen is, a particularly surreal dream sequence where somewhere toward the middle you're internally saying "Just shut the fuck up already, I don't really care about listening to your god damned dream" but externally you're nodding your head and going "Uh huh, hmmm, yeah, wow!"

Why is the boy naked?  I supposed Mickey is naked because in dreams we are often naked.

Why do the bakers resemble Oliver  Hardy?  Mickey is based on Mickey Mouse (I caught that in the letting on the oven - good eye).  And much of the book is an homage to 1930's tropes such as King Kong, art deco, depression-era colors, and yes, Laurel and Hardy.

Wikipedia says that when Terry Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak, the boy getting baked in the oven is a reference to the Holocaust.  That's really interesting and disturbing.

It's about sex!  It's about sex! That's even more interesting and more disturbing. It's about sexual awakening.

Interesting bits from an article about Maurice Sendak's art and writing:

Inside literature's weird, wonderful night kitchen: the picture books of Maurice Sendak
By Terri Brown-Davidson ; Hollins Critic. 32.1 (Feb. 1995): p1. From Literature Resource Center.
This is why a Sendak picture book can never be reduced to pure sentiment, as less successful picture books are. Like Shakespeare, who employs Mercutio in the balcony scene to add an ironic counterpoint to what could easily become Romeo and Juliet's excessively syrupy wooing, Sendak presents images of sweetness that contain an edge because of the accompanying irony of his pictures (envision Mickey's crowing, arms akimbo, in In the Night Kitchen after his triumph of piloting the plane). Perhaps Sendak is so adept at this because his own childhood was such a strange mix of sweetness and terror: although he has described himself as an essentially "happy" child, one endlessly immersed in his fantasy life of poring over comic books and illustrations, it seems to be trauma that activates him artistically. Certainly, despite his obsession with The Magic Flute, Sendak possesses no Mozartian sweetness: he is tenderness and terror and bite, the sharp, shivery bite of pure originality.
This sweetness and bite is especially evident in what I consider Sendak's finest (and possibly most emblematic) picture book, In the Night Kitchen. Published in 1970 by Harper & Row, In the Night Kitchen was to become a Caldecott Honor Book, and I would characterize it most simply as a splendid act of homage--to Disney, to the 1930's, to Art Deco, to the movies, including Laurel and Hardy's and King Kong's.
This is how the book functions emblematically, for Sendak has declared that the character of Mickey was inspired by Mickey Mouse, though Mickey (our hero) bears, in my mind, only a passing resemblance to the mouse: he is much more unkempt than the dapper Disney creation, with his bug-eyed stare, shock of black hair, and his squat, nude body, which, amazingly enough, caused a stir when the book came out (Mickey's genitalia are visible). Also emblematic are the three, identical-to-Oliver-Hardy bakers who inhabit the Night Kitchen: they bring the humor of the movie association to the text while remaining sinister. And that is one of the book's wonders: its tonal ambiguity. Is Night Kitchen warm, sinister, funny, or frightening? However we might classify it, ultimately, In the Night Kitchen furnishes a terrific example of tonal control in that it is able to suggest all these tones without seeming disjointed, unfocused.
And the book is ultimately successful in that, like Alice in Wonderland, it is able to operate simultaneously on a number of levels. It is easy to read the story of Mickey's falling out of bed, into the Night Kitchen, and back into bed as a representation of gestation culminating in birth. Or, on a more Freudian level (somehow I think Sendak would have sympathy with the Freudian), as a story of Mickey's "pre-awakening" to sexual pleasure because of the joy he experiences in tumbling out of his clothes and, later, in the Night Kitchen, piloting the plane so skillfully he's compelled to crow "Cock-a-doodle-do," and then bathing himself in the fresh milk until he rises to the top and pours milk "from his cup" into the batter below.
Or the book can be read simply as the story of Mickey's growing autonomy and independence, from his impatient urgings for "Quiet down there" to the bakers at the beginning, to his refusal to be "baked" as a "delicious Mickey cake," to his masterful commandeering of the dough-plane, a feat which causes even the bakers to marvel. Note, too, in the last interpretation, how quickly Mickey is separated from his parents at the beginning of the story and how many dazzling, adult adventures he undergoes before, rightfully exhausted, he returns to his bed at the end, but not before he has fully established himself as a conquering hero and even, the implication is, a legend--one which other children might well delight in, since the last page of the text details Mickey's triumph thus, accompanied by a picture worthy of any Saturday-serial heroism Sendak might have witnessed in his own childhood: "And that's why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning."
In the Night KitchenIn the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don't remember reading Where the Wild Things Are as a kid, but I do remember reading - or at least looking at - In the Night Kitchen. I'm sure it was because of the naked kid; I probably hunched over it with a group of other shocked and giggling kids (I remember doing the same thing with Gnomes in fifth grade because a gnome was peeing). Going back to In the Night Kitchen thirty-some years later, that's about the only thing I remembered. Whatever I thought it was about back then I don't know, and I still am not quite sure what it's about now. My first initial reaction was that it's like when a little kid (or anyone, for that matter) tells you a dream, and you have to sit there and say "Uh-huh, yeah, neat, wow" and nod your head but really don't care about it. I've since read a little bit more about the book, the 1930s tropes (King Kong! depression era colors! Laurel and Hardy!), and that it may be about sexual awakening! I certainly didn't read that
into it back in 197something. I've also read that it's about the Holocaust. It's certainly surreal and crazy and to quote from the article I read: "Is Night Kitchen
warm, sinister, funny, or frightening?" All of the above.

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Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)

Where the Wild Things Are doesn't have resonance with me like other picture books (Green Eyes or The Poky Little Puppy) most likely because this wasn't a picture book we had at home.  Like all classics, I was aware of it - it's become one of those books that everyone knows; Max and the monsters have become part of our culture of childhood.  But I don't recall it being particularly special or influential.  I don't even remember reading it as a kid.  I mean, I probably did read it, but it's just there, in my memory now. I can't remember the first time I experienced it.  And who knows, that may have been as an adult.

Since Maurice Sendak died last week, I thought I would re-read his two most famous picture books, and read his last picture book as well.  Where the Wild Things Are is still a magnificent book.  I wonder what it is like a for a little kid having it read to him or her for the first time now.  I imagine that no one ever gets sent to bed without supper now, at least in households where books are read outloud, so Max being sent to bed must seem like something foreign and terrible, some sort of frightening abuse. Or do they even wonder about it at all?  Does it just seem like part of the story?

I'm not even going to try to discuss this book in any depth or detail, because it's probably already been done to death.Exactly what more can I say?

What I did notice and want to comment on are the incredibly thought provoking and intelligent illustrations.   When Max is at home, his world is boxed in; the illustrations are small and not on both pages.  As he starts his journey to where the wild things are, the illustrations (his world?  his imagination?) grows and grows and until it takes over both pages and there isn't any white space left.  When he returns to the world, the white space - the rules? - return, until the last page is just text.  Life is back to normal? Max needs and misses the order of the world; anarchy is fun for a while, but it gets tiresome.

I love when illustrations in a book go "meta" and have meaning beyond just the illustration itself.  When the pages and text and white space are all used to tell the story.  Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is another example of a book that uses font and text and white space and illustration to tell a grand story that's larger than itself.

Where the Wild Things AreWhere the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't think I can really add anything to the reams that have been written about this important piece of children's literature (particularly since the death of Maurice Sendak).  Other than to say I love it when a book uses more than just its illustrations and text to tell a story.  Sendak (and most likely his editor) used white space and text placement as part of the story; notice that when Max goes to the world of the wild things, the illustrations and color gets bigger and bigger until it takes over both pages of the book; when he is in the land where he's loved best (and has to follow the rules of loving and being loved in return), the white space boxes him in, until the very last page there isn't any illustrations at all.  Another book that does this brilliantly is Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which also uses white space and text placement in addition to traditional picture book techniques to tell an engaging and brilliant story.  I don't think it's a coincidence that both won Caldecott awards.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Shepherd Moon by H.M. Hoover (1984)

Sometimes when I re-read a book, I'm disappointed (James Michener's The Covenant comes to mind).  Whatever it was that attracted me to the book the first time is gone; that old spark has disappeared.  Sometimes, I enjoy the book in the same way, but I'm not intrigued or enjoy the book in any new way.  H.M. Hoover's The Shepherd Moon was a pleasant surprise.  I don't remember when I first read this (I don't think I was a child), and I know I've read it more than twice.  I know I thought the book was good.  But I didn't remember it as such a brilliant, well written piece of short science fiction.  It's rich in small details that set up the future, adjectives and descriptors and nouns that weave a tapestry of the 44th century.  H.M. Hoover is a really good writer; she packs much into a small space.  The mystery of the Shepherd Moon was plotted out well.  It's not a life changing book; but it's still a great piece of science fiction.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

The Help is neither a great book or trash; like most books it falls somewhere in between.   It belongs to a family of books that include Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and The Bridges of Madison County and early John Grisham and The Kite Runner or The Horse Whisperer - you know, books that book clubs read and discuss that aren't really destined to become classics, but will probably always be in print - and 5-10 years from now will fill boxes of books destined for library used book sales.  Maybe you can re-read The Help over and over and over again, but I doubt it.  It's more like pop music with a shelf life.  You may hear Spice Girls on the radio, and still dance and sing along to it, but the Spice Girls aren't current, they don't feel current, and their staying power isn't the same as that of a classic.  But who knows, maybe The Help is destined to become a classic.  I saw it compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, and since I've never read that particular classic, who I am to even speak of staying power?

What I can say is my opinion, and quite frankly, I didn't want to read the book.  My friend Zach originally lent me his copy, and after leafing through it a bit, I put it down.  Steel Magnolias lite, I thought.  Meh.     I didn't really want to read a book about the south.  But after Scott made me read it (he twisted my arm), and after a very reluctant start, I just couldn't put the damn thing down.  Okay,  It is a bit like Steel Magnolias meets The Color Purple (there is even a character named Miss Celia, only she's white).  But the story is somewhat unique.  It's written exactly like a movie script, which means it was fun and easy to read, and easy to get caught up in.  Nothing really too bad ever happens.  You think a bit about what life must have been life back in 1963 for black people in Jackson, Mississippi.  You really think about the fact that if Skeeter and her horrible racist friends were real people they would still be alive today (unless they all died from lung cancer caused by the constant cigarette smoking).  And you wonder if they are still all mean girl racist bitches.  Then you think "Trayvon Martin" and you realize some things are still the same.

There is a book study guide in the back.  Oh good!

Who was your favorite character? Why? Quite frankly the characters are all so broadly drawn that they are like big, black (no pun intended) brush strokes on white paper. They are almost, but quite, Orcs. You know, characters who are simply evil for no discernible reason. They simply exist as is, without any subtlety. Perhaps not that bad, but almost.

What do you think motivated Hilly? On one hand she’s so unpleasant to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes she can’t control her. But she’s a wonderful mother. Do you think you can be a good mother but at the same time a deeply flawed person? Hilly is the most Orcish character of all.  She's a mean girl, through and through.  Even Hitler was kind to his dogs and small German children.  Hilly's mother seemed nice enough.  She doesn't seem to have a father.  Perhaps she was abused?  Most likely she was motivated by meanness because it moved the story in a particular direction.

Like Hilly, Skeeter’s mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic. She seems to care for Skeeter – and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine. Yet the ultimatum she gives to Constantine is untenable. And most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical. Do you think Skeeter’s mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why? I didn't find Skeeter's mother in the least sympathetic.  I thought she was sort of horrible.  If that was typical Southern mothering, I don't understand why everyone didn't just up and move North like Skeeter if they were able as soon as they could.

How much of a person’s character do you think is shaped by the times in which they live? That's an interesting thought, because as I mentioned above, these women - at least their contemporary doppelgangers - are probably still alive in Jackson, Mississippi, and maybe wondering how a n***** could possibly be our president.  Or a Mormon.
Did it bother you that Skeeter is willing to overlook so many of Stuart’s faults so that she can get married, and it’s not until he literally gets up and walks away that the engagement falls apart?  Skeeter was a fish swimming upstream against a culture that valued women just above black people, and white men on the top.  She was going to get pushed back downstream every once in while.  She's young, and it's tough.

Do you think Minny was justified in her distrust of white people? That's a dumb question.

Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, that Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother? Do you think racism is inherent, or taught? Miss Elizabeth had a mammy who loved her too.  So did Miss Hilly.  But racism isn't inherent.  Why do some people rebel against their culture and society and others do not?

From the perspective of a 21st century reader, the hair shellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous. Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of “beauty” changes with the times. Looking back on your past, what’s the most ridiculous beauty regimen you ever underwent?
  Obviously, this question is designed for a woman's group.  Plus, there is no such thing as natural beauty.

The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her. How do you think she does this?   I didn't.  I thought Aibileen was sort of glorified and deified.  Plus, the woman was terrified all the time, that would make anyone quiet.

Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships where people of color work for people who are white? Have you heard stories of someone who put away their valuable jewelry before their nanny comes – so they trust this person to look after their child, but not their diamond rings?
  Racism still exists.  It probably always will.  Shit rolls downhill.  But I think it's based as much on socio-economics and class as skin color now.  Of course, someone who isn't white is probably going to heartily disagree.

What did you think about Minny’s pie for Miss Hilly? Would you have gone as far as Minny did for revenge?  That's one of the best parts of the story.

One more thing - the racist language.  I wasn't especially offended by this, but I'm not black. I knew that coming into the book, and I was expecting Gone With the Wind style black lingo.  It wasn't that  bad.  But I can understand maybe feeling a bit disconcerted.

My Goodreads Reviews:

After a somewhat reluctant start, I just couldn't put the damn thing down.  Okay,  it is a little like The Color Purple came for a hair do at Miss Truvy's beauty shop (and then went to the Whistle Stop Cafe for some friend green tomatoes afterwards). There is even a character named Miss Celia, only she's white.  But the story is somewhat unique.  It's written exactly like a movie script, which means it was fun and easy to read, and easy to get caught up in.  Nothing really too bad ever happens; if you thought so, then you need to read more tragic books - start with Ethan Frome.  You think a bit about what life must have been life back in 1963 for black people in Jackson, Mississippi.  You really think about the fact that if Skeeter and her horrible racist friends were real people they would still be alive today (unless they all died from lung cancer caused by the constant cigarette smoking).  And you wonder if they are still all mean girl racist bitches.  Then you think "Trayvon Martin" and you realize some things are still the same, and that's so sad and so scary.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith (1992)

I recently joined a book discussion group on Goodreads called  1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up; this months's selections were The Hundred Dresses (which is beautiful) and The Stinky Cheese Man (which is beautiful in a completely opposite kind of way).  Prior to re-reading the book, I looked at the first (and as of now only) comment, which was:

Did anyone else find this book a little bit underwhelming? I thought the layout was clever, but I think my kids (4, 6, and 7) were a bit too young to appreciate it. Probably more appealing for older kids, am I right? The stories really were fairly stupid, but I think I was expecting them to be stupid in a "haha" sort of way, which they weren't (at least for me). That being said, we all did enjoy Jack's {neverending} Story. It took a few repetitions before the aha! moment kicked in. My girls didn't like it as much as my son did, but I kind of expected that. I think the illustrations turned them off.

I think unless you grew up on healthy doses of Mad Magazine, or love satire and wit, and thrive on sarcasm (and midwestern humor) then you probably don't get this book and would indeed find it underwhelming.  And quite frankly, if you are a nine year old boy, and you are understanding parody and satire for the first time, then you probably LOVE this book.  This is a book written for boys (and girls) who hate reading and books and fairy tales and Disney princesses and who are smelly and loud and love books about smelly, loud, obnoxious, gross things.  

The Stinky Cheese Man: And Other Fairly Stupid TalesThe Stinky Cheese Man: And Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mad Magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle's Fractured Fairy Tales are certainly the grandparents of The Stinky Cheese Man.  I think unless you grew up on healthy doses of Alfred E. Newman, love satirical wit, and thrive on sarcasm (and midwestern humor) then you probably would hate this book.    And quite frankly, if you are a nine year old boy, and you are understanding parody and satire for the first time, then you probably LOVE this book.  This is a book written for boys (and girls) who hate reading and books and fairy tales and Disney princesses and who are smelly and loud and love books about smelly, loud, obnoxious, gross things.  Lane Smith illustrations are an acquired taste.  Reading "Cinderrumpelstiltskin" alone is worth the price of the book.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener (1946)

Even back then, they knew they were doing something special.  They were just kids.  They did their duty.

It's still a magnificent look at war, and what young men and young women do when they are away from home, in an unfamiliar place, facing terror and danger and boredom and random orders from crazy superiors and different cultures.

I've read quite a few books by James A Michener, and this, his first book, is "proto-Michener."  Still wonderfully written, detailed, with great characters - but his style is just developing.  You can see stirrings of Hawaii or Centennial or The Source throughout the book.

Happening as I write this.  Today, how many WWII vets died?  A great generation passes.  "They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific.  They had an American quality.  They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives.  After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers.  Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge."

Each tale is loosely connected, and characters are introduced in an almost circular way.  It's obvious that when narrated in first person, the narrator is meant to be Michener himself; other tales are told from a dispassionate point of view.

I kept thinking as I read the book that when this was written, men (and a few women) gathered in bars, around a pool table, playing poker, and exchanged stories just like this.  They told their own tales.  A tale isn't necessarily true either - it's embellished, maybe based on something that really happened, but changed over time.

"Fo' Dolla'" and "Our Heroine" are probably the most famous tales, because they became Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.  But the most poignant, heartbreaking tale was "Dry Rot."  The saddest death in the book doesn't even take place in the war zone - it's back at home.

Tales of the South PacificTales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific.  They had an American quality.  They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives.  After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers.  Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge."  The greatest generation is passing away, but something beautifully written and moving and romantic and gritty and poignant and sad and sexy and funny like Tales of the South Pacificwill be with us forever, to remind how this group of kids, both boys and girls, went out into the world and did their duty.  They fought and loved together, and learned about the world outside Little Rock and Pennsylvania and America.  War is hell, but it's also boring, and hilarious, and heartbreaking.  When this book was written, men still gathered around a pool table or over a game of poker and exchanged stories - told tales - that probably sounded a hell of a lot like these.  About lovely Pacific girls, and mean old son of bitch skippers, virginal nurses and dead companions bobbing in the waves of little islands, about volcanoes and coconuts and pigs as religion.  Quite possibly one of the best books written about modern war; boys and girls in Iraq or Afghanistan might have more technologically advanced weapons, but the boredom and fear, the barrage from foreign culture, the sex and death are still the same.

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Inside Job by Connie Willis (2005)

I've decided I must read everything Connie Willis has ever written if I'm truly going to call myself a devotee (fanboy?).  I love her work so much, and go on about it so much, that you would think I had read everything she's published, but there appears to be plenty of short stories out there (and a few novels) that I missed.  So in between other challenges I've given myself (Steven Saylor, The Presidents, Penguin Lives, classics) I'm adding the complete oeuvre of Connie Willis.

Inside Job was originally a novella published in the January 2005 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, and the published as a hard cover book, which is the version I read.  It won the Hugo Award for novella for 2006.  It's definitely pure Willis, with a delicious twist on a comedy of manners.  The "manners" in this case is a skewering of modern Hollywood's obsession with psychic healers and mediums, the comedy a debunker and his assistant (who used to be an actress and insider, and now plays the part of infiltrator) who set out to prove that various mediums are fakes.  When one medium begins to expectantly and humorously channel the greatest debunker of all time, H.L. Mencken, the two have to figure out what's real and what's not real.  It's a ghost story without any ghosts, told in Connie Willis's trademark rich, entanglingly layered, often humorous, occasionally surprising prose.

I did have one quibble  - at one point Rob and Kildy talk about the Beverly Hills Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.  There isn't one - Beverly Hills has it's own library, separate from the Los Angeles Public Library.  The closest LAPL branch looks like Fairfax.  Even though this isn't specifically set in the near conceivable future (like many of her novels and stories), perhaps it really is and LAPL has taken over the Beverly Hills Public Library system.

Inside JobInside Job by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another Connie Willis gem.  Don't let the length fool you - this pithy little book is chock full of Willis's trademark rich, entanglingly layered, often humorous, occasionally surprising prose.  It's a comedy of manners, the manners being a skewering of Hollywood's obession with psychic healing and mediums, the comedy a debunking journalist and his insider actress assistant who discover that a medium may be channeling the ghost of all time greatest debunker of all, H.L. Mencken.  And there is a really sweet love story as well.  If that sounds confusing, then you're in Connie Willis territory, and don't expect to get each and every question answered.  You won't care - the ride to the end is well worth a few loose ends.

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Winston Churchill by John Keegan (2002)

Another short Penguin Life, really a sketch more than a biography, each written with in the definite voice of the author, often with a particular slant.  The first half of this book, up to the 1930s, was meatier than the latter half, although the entire book was pretty good.  Keegan, a military historian,  called Churchill a "libertarian" several times, which was surprising but apt.  I thought the term anachronistic to describe Churchill - not so; the term first appeared in 1789 (at least according to the Internets).  He also took pains to point out that Churchill gets a bum rap for being an arch conservative who hated all government intervention, when in fact bits and pieces of the structure of the modern socialism of Great Britain was put into place by Churchill (like Nixon and the Endangered Species Act).  It's hard to do justice in such a small book for such a large man; the 1930s alone could have filled a book five times this size.  But Keegan's sketch covered all the necessaries and in a readable, interesting, thought provoking way.

Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill by John Keegan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short, engaging sketch of Winston Churchill.  It's hard to do justice to such a colossus in an almost pithy little book (the 1930s alone could be covered by a book five or six times the size of this), but Keegan covers all the necessaries.  He injects his own ideas of Churchill the aristocrat, writer, politician, husband, father, soldier, and takes pains to both point out Churchill's libertarianism and the fact that some bits and pieces of the modern welfare state in Great Britain were either proposed or championed by Churchill. A very interesting and thought provoking sketch.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (1944)

Two of Eleanor Estes's books -- Ginger Pye and  Pinky Pye -- are among my favorite children's books.  I can't say that The Hundred Dresses ranks up in my top ten favorite children's books ever read, but it's definitely pure Estes.  Simple, declarative language, almost dispassionate, completely omniscient.  (interestingly, as much I love the Pye books, and thought The Hundred Dresses was pretty good, I disliked the Moffats).

The Hundred Dresses is the original Mean Girls, and proves that bullying - particularly the girl style of bullying - has been around since the caveman.  I'm sure Neanderthal girls bullied other Neanderthal girls because the bones in their hair we zebra instead of mammoth, and unlike boy bullies, they didn't beat the shit out of each other but gossiped and made fun of each other.  This isn't as horrifyingly mean as Judy Blume's bullies in Blubber (no one gets called a bitch), but the mean girls sentiment is still there.  The message seemed pretty clear to me the entire way through - bullying is bad, particularly bullying based on class or ethnicity.  The teacher's admonishment at the end -- "I'm sure my class would NEVER have done something like this" seemed straight out of the 1940's teachers' discipline playbook - didn't the teacher in A Christmas Story say almost the exactly the same thing?  What really struck me is that at the end of the book, when Wanda says the two mean girls (the pretty blonde Rachel McAdams mean girl and the guilty Lindsay Lohan mean girl) can have the pictures she drew of them, and the blonde girl (Peggy - the perfect girl is always named Peggy) tells Maddie that Wanda "must have really liked us anyway."  "Yes, she must have," agreed Maddie.  Maddie herself hates and loves Peggy at the same time (pure mean girl-ness) and I'm sure if Wanda as a twentysomething were asked (in Polish) if she liked Peggy and Maddie, she would have said "I hated those bitches."  And, quite frankly, at 40, would nostalgize the entire incident into good old schools days (because if you're still pissed off at grade school bullies at age 40, then you've got bigger problems than a blue dress).  Wanda didn't like you Maddie - you were a bitch to her, and she hated you.  But if imaging that she liked you anyway makes you feel better, then so be it.

The Hundred DressesThe Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The original  Mean Girls.  Bullying is as old as the cavemen; Neanderthal girls probably teased each other about the bones in their hair ("You have a ZEBRA bone in your hair - everyone has mammoth. Ha ha ha ha ha...").  What struck me is that girls in 1944 teased each other the same way they teased each other in the 1970's  Blubber (only no one got called a b***h in  The Hundred Dresses) and continue to tease other the same way today.  The lesson seems pretty clear - don't tease each other, especially based on class or ethnicity.  But the ending has a bit of a mixed message, at least in my mind. At least Maddie is able to forgive herself (I guess) and Wanda isn't around anymore to prove Maddie and Peggy right or wrong.  One can probably argue the merits of  The Hundred Dresses forever (it will most likely stay in print that long, because it's an award winning beloved book).  Estes writing is always sharp, clear, declarative, simple but grand.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

All About Emily by Connie Willis (2011)

Connie Willis does such an excellent job of describing a believable future.  She uses bits and pieces of the present or near present mixed with very probable advances in technology and/or probable disasters or challenges to create this believable future.  In All About Emily, the technology is AI, and it's presented in a backdrop of the probable future that includes Lindsay Lohan as an older actress, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Justin Bieber, Jr. current Broadway stars.  There isn't a recent pandemic or time travel hanging over everything, but there could have been - afterall, we're in New York City this time, not Oxford - but Mr. Dunsworthy could easily have made an appearance.  Christmas again hangs over another Connie Willis story.  She and I must share similar tastes (time travel, World War II, the middle ages, the Titanic, All About Eve, Broadway...) but that isn't the only reason I love her books. I love them because they are almost perfect, incredibly dense, detailed, and absolutely wonderful.  This is no exception.  Loved it!

All about EmilyAll about Emily by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another work of pure reading pleasure by the incredible Connie Willis.  She has this ability to create an utterly believable near future, mixing current events and people from our present (in this case Lindsay Lohan!) with probable technological advances (time travel, AI).  Sometimes she includes natural disasters or challenges (such as the Pandemic of Doomsday Book and although that wasn't mentioned in this book, it would have come as no surprise if Mr. Dunworthy and Co. had dropped in to see a Broadway show.  All About Emily is short and sweet; if you love Connie Willis the only thing that will disappoint you is that brevity.

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