Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Little Red Caboose by Marian Potter; illustrated by Tibor Gergely (1953)

The Little Red Caboose is a book I missed reading as a kid.  It's a famous Little Golden Book - not as famous as The Poky Little Puppy, but among the top.

There aren't cabooses on trains anymore, which is sad.  Everything started to go wrong with the world when cabooses disappeared. Everyone in the story waves to the big black engine (until the end of the story, at least) - but my brother and I always waved to the caboose.  And sometimes the guy riding in the caboose waved back.

The world of The Little Red Caboose is a railway trip through Eisenhower's America.  The wilderness looks like Yellowstone.  The skies are blue and clear.  Optimism everywhere.  People are smiling and waving.  There is a busy feeling of progress.  And everyone is white. Except one page, which has stereotypical Indians doing stereotypical Indian things like living in a teepee and wearing feathered headdresses.

Snark aside, it's beautifully illustrated, and the story, while no Little Engine That Could, would keep the attention of most kids.

The Little Red CabooseThe Little Red Caboose by Marian Potter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The railway equals progress and the 1950s world of The Little Red Caboose is optimistic progress at its very Eisenhowerian best.  Everyone is smiling and happy and going some place. It's an American trip.  Although there are several scenes with castles tucked away in the distance, which is obviously more European.  Ignore those castles, it's definitely still 1953 America.  There's a pesky lack of diversity though, which reflects 1953 as well (except for the Native Americans, but that's a whole other issue).

The Little Red Caboose is probably not as iconic as The Little Engine That Could, but the story is still sweet.  The illustrations (even without the diversity) are gentle and happy.

What this world really needs is the return of the caboose.  Kids need cabooses to wave at, to remind them about going places,and to take their love out into the world.  The little red caboose is no more, and that's a sad thing.  

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Ghost on Saturday Night by Sid Fleischman; illustrated by Eric Von Schmidt (1974)

I always thought the guy on the right was "Eric Von Schmidt"  He's not.
The Ghost on Saturday Night is another one of those books that I haven't picked up in 30some years.  It's really a perfect little tale (is it a novella?  Or a short story?).    It's probably classified as historical fiction - that bugaboo of children's literature that exists that teachers love and kids hate.  There is just so much bad historical fiction out there!  The Ghost on Saturday Night is not bad historical fiction though.  It's great.  It's not a ghost story, which I think disappointed me the very first time I read it as a kid.  I remember thinking it was really difficult to read as well.  It's a complicated for such a little book, with much packed into its few pages.  Sid Fleischman wrote really great historical fiction, the kind you read as a kid and didn't realize it was history.  By the Great Horned Spoon is one of my top favorite books of all time, and it takes place in this same California gold rush universe (although the characters do not meet).

I had completely forgotten the entire plot of The Ghost on Saturday Night, so it was almost like reading it for the first time.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters (2010)

The very last sentences of this book is in essence Peters' take on LBJ:

Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird's press secretary, who was affectionately regarded in Washington for her humor and common sense, says: "That's just him.  You have to face the fact that he was that way.  You had to accept him warts and all."  And so does history.

Peters really doesn't pull any punches, and LBJ's accomplishments and warts are scattered throughout the book for all to see. His extramarital affairs, his abuse and humiliation of his subordinates and associates, his political chicanery to get elected.  His story about LBJ's huge dick - Jumbo - and how he used to whip it out and make his male subordinates take theirs out to compare was deliciously gossipy; his taking a shit in front of them was crudely gossipy as well.  Still Peters is fair - Johnson was half diamond, half dirt, and Peters details the diamond aspects as well.  The Kennedys - Bobby in particular - aren't all good to Johnson being all bad.  With Vietnam, he followed both the conventional wisdom of the time (which only overwhelmingly turned against the war rather late in the game, perhaps due to press manipulation) and his fear of being branded a loser like Truman who "lost" China.  His Great Society, although berated by many today, was still a shining jewel - "only Franklin Roosevelt can match Johnson's legislative record."  As time recedes from the heady days of the sixties, Johnson (like most presidents) will be evaluated and reevaluated and probably found wanting in some areas but great in others.  There will probably never be a better politician in the White House though, and that may be something we are going to need to ever get anything done again.  He really believed in helping the underdog too, whatever his issues with power and courage.  He's certainly an anti-hero; there's not much on the outside to admire.

Lyndon B. Johnson (The American Presidents, #36)Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not the most interesting book in this series, but still well worth reading.  Peters quotes Lady Bird's press secretary Liz Carpenter at the end:  "That's just him.  You have to face the fact that he was that way.  You had to accept him warts and all."  And so does history."  That seems to be the guiding principle behind Peters narrative.  Johnson was a combination of diamond and dirt, and Peters shows both sides.  The cheating husband and horrible boss (The Devil Wears Prada in politics) was also the gentle giant who passed the Great Society.  It's a study in contrasts.  If Peters didn't bring LBJ quite to life in the book, he certainly presented the many facets of a president  that history is still trying to figure out.

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The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin (2010)

I think I'm going to give up on children's nonfiction.  Maybe this time is was the subject. I'm not a huge fan of Revolutionary War, 18th or early 19th Century, or Enlightenment.  But I also just don't ever, ever like children's nonfiction - the simplicity, the narrative, almost everything.  I just need to stop trying to like it - I never, ever do.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Petunia by Roger Duvoisin (1950)

Petunia is one of those books that seems to have been around everywhere when I was a kid - at the public library, in the dentist's waiting room, in other kids' toyboxes - but never one that we actually owned.   The cover is incredibly familiar and eye-catching - white goose on a red background, Petunia is big green letters.  All the illustrations are very fifties too, atomic age color palette, bulky and angled, like the cars.  I don't think I ever had actually read the book before.  I knew Petunia was a goose, and that was just from the front cover.  

 The story in a nutshell (or in a goose's egg, perhaps).  Petunia finds a book but doesn't read it; instead she carries it around thinking that by merely having it, that makes her wise.  As she becomes prouder and prouder, the other animals in the barnyard decide that she must truly be wise, so they start asking her opinions on different things.  She gives the wrong answer every time, often with horrible results.  In the end, she realizes that reading is what really makes you truly wise. So she decides she needs to learn how read.  

Great message, cute story.  I wasn't quite sure I knew where the story was going at first.  Petunia as a know-it-all, and wrong one at that, just because she was a lover of books stuck in my craw, until I got to the end.  

It's definitely Aesopian (if that's a real word).  There is a moral at the end - "It is not enough to carry wisdom under my wing.  I must put it in my mind and heart. And to do that I must learn to read."  That's certainly a message I can get behind.
Note the poor cat.

Pride also seems to goeth before Petunia's fall - although to be honest, she doesn't really get injured in any way.  Everyone else does.  So perhaps the other moral is about placing trust in people only appear to be wise without having true wisdom.  Maybe it's "Don't listen to politicians or people in power; do a little research on your own."  So secretly is Petunia a screed against McCarthyism, for example?  Mmm, that's an interesting thought.  Petunia = McCarthy.  McCarthy had his (ultimately fake) list of Communists; Petunia had her book full knowledge but actually knew nothing.  Everyone trusted Petunia and got hurt; if everyone had trusted McCarthy, they would have been hurt as well...  It's the right time period (late 40s)...  It's an interesting thought, that's for sure.

PetuniaPetunia by Roger Duvoisin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Petunia is a silly goose who thinks that merely carrying a book around makes here wise.  But her barnyard friends are even more silly - they also think the same thing, and start asking her advice on a number of troubling issues they are having.  Advice, as Tolkien writes, is a dangerous things, and the results are merry for the reader and painful for the barnyard animals.  Except for Petunia, who gets off scott free.  She realizes at the end that reading the book is what makes one wise, not just owning the book.  Written at the beginning of the McCarthy years, I wondered if Petunia and her silly, too trusting barnyard friends were stand ins for something far deeper - perhaps about slick politicians who appear wise and a too trusting electorate.  Or maybe it is just a little Aesopian fable of a goose and her book (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Scoop on Animal Poop by Dawn Cusick (2012)

Now that I'm a children's librarian, I can probably stop picking up books like this to read.  Old habits die hard though, and when I saw the cover, my children's librarian brain kicked in and said "That book looks promising."  It wasn't. 

When I was a kid, I had these big paperback books, three of them, full of fun facts and trivia.  I remember one was about sports - it had green cover - and probably as bought for my sports-loving brother.  One was about the world, I think, seperated by continents; one was general. 

I just found it online, at least one of them - The Big Book of Amazing Facts.  The three of these were among my favorite books to read (even the sports one, although I read that one far less). 

I imagine my mom bought these books at Duckwalls or Otasco or TG&Y (none of which probably exist anymore as chains). 

They were set up in a question and answer format.  The answers were sometimes humorous, but always real too.  The cartoon illustrations that accompanied most answers were simple. I can't find any examples online, but the cover of the book, although in color, gives some idea of what they looked like.

They were VERY lo-tech.

So The Scoop on Animal Poop is in that same genre as The Big Book of Amazing Facts.  I've probably just gotten too old.  I should probably go back and re-read The Big Book of Amazing Facts to see if the books have changed or I have changed.  Because the hi-tech Scoop was confusing for me.  Too many photographs, too much going on, and to me, at th expense of the writing.  The writing was poorly edited, didn't always seem to match what was going on in the illustrations.  Too much color, too much to look at.  I know, I know - we're living in the future.  Kids today, who are used to brilliant bright images and gaming and the web, need their books to reflect the digital world. Maybe it's just me.

But it seemed like a bunch of stock photographs of animals in strange poses, some of them pooping, tied together by different colored fonts at different sizes, without much content.

I think if I went back and re-read The Big Book of Amazing Facts (my copies if they still exist, are 1,300 miles away in my parents basement or attic), I think I would find that while the writing was perfect, it was still the POINT of the book.  The cartoon illustrations were secondary to the content and the writing. 

At least in The Scoop on Poop, the stock photos and funny fonts and wild colors are the content, and the writing regrettably comes second. 

"Kids... what's the matter with kids today..." Maybe what's the matter with kids is that adults think they are stupid.

The Scoop on PoopThe Scoop on Poop by Wayne Lynch
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I'm going to preface this review with a disclaimer -- I'm a grown up.  I can attempt to read a book with a child in mind, but I can't read this as a child.  So I think an 8 or 9 year old boy or girl would probably dig this book - let's face it, most kids love to read about and discuss poop.  I don't think I would necessarily buy this as a gift, but I certainly would check it out from my local library for a kid.

So from my grown up persective, I was really disappointed.  I usually like books of trivia and weird facts, and the 8 year old boy in my giggled and said "POOP!"  I think this is the push to create children's books that appeal to the gaming generation.  Books, particularly nonfiction books, have to bright and shiny and full of fun fonts and different colors and stock photography of animals doing crazy things, like sticking their tongues out or pooping.  It's just like a web page, and kids love web pages, right?

But do we really have to sacrifice writing for style?  Maybe Ms. Cusick is a terrific writer, and she was pigeonholed into producing this crappy (ha ha) book.  I don't know - this is my first attempt at readig one of her books.  But I thought the writing was choppy and poorly edited, and sort of forced.  There was always so much going on on every page that it as hard to figure out what to read first.

Maybe that's what kids want.  But I've been reading now for about 35 years now.  I think I'm a pretty good reader.  And I was having trouble.  So let's say I'm 8 years old again, and I try to read this book.  Seems to me it would be sort of difficult.  Seems to me I'd end up looking at the pictures mostly, and skipping the text.

I may be wrong.  Maybe I'm just too old.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How Fletcher Was Hatched! by Wende and Harry Devlin (1969)

 All the kids in this book look like they were extras on the Brady Bunch.  It's very, very late sixties / early seventies, but without any of the campy goodness.  As I read it, this brought back creepy memories - there is this picture of the dog, crammed into that egg, scared shitless.  For some reason, I always hated that Otter and that Weasel (or whatever the hell kind of animal it was - maybe it was a Beaver).  I always thought what they did to that dog was mean.  Fletcher was kind of stupid to trust them, they built this egg around him, and to me then - and now - it seemed like some sort of mean-ass practical joke.  To be really honest, until I read it, I hardly remembered anything about this book at all, and now I know why.

Oh yeah, there is ONE black child in the book, who looks like she's been added later, at some sort of stab at multiculturalism.  It's like finding Waldo.

How Fletcher Was HatchedHow Fletcher Was Hatched by Wende Devlin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every child depicted in this book looks like an extra from the Brady Bunch.  Fletcher the dog is a fool to trust that Otter and Beaver, and he shouldn't ever do so again. Some friends.  That picture of him trapped in the egg creeped the shit out of me when I was six, and it still does.  This reminds me of the kind of book you'd find in a 1976 doctor's office waiting room.  Next to the already-done Highlights magazine.  Which means everyone of a certain age probably recognizes that big pink egg with the dog hatching out of it on the cover.  I certainly did when I found it among my old books,  but when I re-read it today my warm 1970s memories turned sour.  Ugh.  Not one of my favorites.  I'm going to give it two stars only because my mom wrote my name on the front inside cover in 1975.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker (2002)

I think Tom Wicker's final thought on Eisenhower - he "was a great man -- but not quite a great president" is also pretty much his take on the president the entire way through.  A beloved figure to millions of post World War II men and women, his presidency was filled with missed opportunities for greatness.  His presidency wasn't necessarily filled with blundering but squandering.  He could have used his immense popularity as a force for dynamic change when it came to peace with the Soviets or racial inequality or McCarthyism.  Interestingly, for a conservative president who did not use the bully pulpit but rarely domestically, Eisenhower and his administration were the first to use executive privilege, thus strengthening the executive branch.

He's a real grandfatherly figure in my mind, with his bridge playing, golf, salted peanuts and saltier language.  The added Kansas connection also makes him seem like a distant but relevant relative.  The 50s, with Eisenhower at the wheel, sort of loom over the 70s childhood, what with Happy Days and LaVerne and Shirley.  My grandparents were young parents in the 50s, with Ike the genial paterfamilias over a prosperous land. He won one war, untangled us from another, and kept the Cold War cold (at least officially).  

He's far to the left of most conservatives today, although likely he and Mitt Romney would have much to talk about.  

Khrushchev is the yin to Eisenhower's yang.  Or perhaps a better analogy would be Richard Nixon is the yin to Eisenhower's yang.  Eisenhower wasn't very good to Nixon, but it sounds like he wasn't all that nice to any subordinates, or anyone else for that matter.  I guess when you are a famous general who becomes president, you don't get into those positions by being squeamish about yourself.  It sounds like Eisenhower certainly thought he was the best and brightest in any gathering, and that may have been true a lot of the time.

Wicker injected himself into the end, when he spent a week with Eisenhower; there were also a few other personal asides and anecdotes as well.  I appreciated that in the book, more than some others in the series.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (The American Presidents, #34)Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wicker's makes the statement that Ike was "a great man, but not quite a great president" at the end of the book, but this is pretty much his sentiment throughout.  He convincingly makes the argument that while Eisenhower wasn't necessarily blundering his way through the 1950s, he certainly was squandering.  A beloved, father figure of a president with much political will and capital, he could have done so much more but did not.  Wasted opportunities included peace with Russia, truly fighting McCarthyism, and taking the bull by the horns when it came to racial inequality.  He was also sort of shit to Richard Nixon.  Interestingly, this conservative president was the first to use executive privilege, so he clearly believed in the authority of the executive branch.  I imagine if Ike were alive and well today, he and Mitt Romney would have much to discuss. Wicker injects himself into the biography in several spots with anecdotes and personal asides, not too many, but enough to give this a personal touch.

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Miss Suzy by Miriam Young; illustrated by Arnold Lobel (1964)

Miss Suzy is one of those picture books that makes me feel all warm and cuddly and cozy inside.  First of all, I really love squirrels.  My Grandma and Grandpa Thrasher used to leave corncobs out for them to eat, and my brother and I named the squirrels Charlie and Monkey.  All squirrels were Charlie and Monkey after that.

She's an old fashioned kind of girl, Miss Suzy. "She liked to cook, she liked to clean, and she liked to sing while she worked."  Sounds like a nice life.  Her funny little house at the top of a beautiful oak tree, with its acorn cups and a "little broom she'd made from maple twigs" always seemed nice and cozy to me.  "At night, Miss Suzy climbed into her bed and looked through the topmost branches at the sky.  She saw a million stars.  And the wind blew gently and rocked her to sleep.  It was very peaceful."  Sounds like it.

"One day a band of red squirrels came jumping and chattering to the foot of the tree... they were quarrelsome fellows and liked fighting so much, they even fought among themselves."  In a scene from The Wind in the Willows, those rascally squirrels kicked Miss Suzy out of her house, and broke all of her nice stuff.  They look mean as hell too.  Monkey and Charley didn't look like this at all.  Clearly, from the hats, they are part of some 1960s inner city gang, Westside Story style.  Something I noticed as a grown up that I never noticed (or at least I didn't remember) as a child is that Miss Suzy is a gray squirrel and the gang are all red squirrels.  Why bring race into this?  

It starts to rain, and Miss Suzy finds this old abandoned house (one of my favorite, most longing, nostalgic illustrations from the book is the old house in the rain; it's probably 100 degrees out now, in this land of no seasons, and seeing an autumn oak and an old house on a rainy evening depicted in such a lovely way makes me want to be a little kid again, snuggled up, hearing this story read aloud while it rains or snows outside).  

In the attic of this old house is an old dollhouse that's full of dust and cobwebs.  Miss Suzy cleans it all up and lives there.  She also finds a box of toy soldiers - all boys - who come to life.  She befriends the soldiers, and invites them to come live with her.  With a touch of Peter Pan, she "took care of them like a mother."

Personally, this is where the story takes a turn that I don't really like.  There are too many unanswered questions about the soldiers and the dollhouse.  Why are they there at all?  If the soldiers can move around and have free will, why did they stay in the box - why didn't they march off long ago?  That's bothersome.  When you create a fantasy world,you shouldn't leave holes.  I mean, you can't possibly fill up every hole, and obviously the story hinges on these toy soldiers.  But that's a pretty big hole all the same.

So in return for her kindness, the toy soldiers decide to go kick red squirrel butt.  Their mere presence and a warning to the red squirrel gang "This is Miss Suzy's house.. will you go peaceably or must we fight?" is enough to send the rascals scattering.

So Miss Suzy moves back into her old house, and then "the soldiers waved good-bye and marched off through the forest, singing merrily."  And Miss Suzy lives happily ever after, I guess.  Except for the next day, when the red squirrels all figure out that the toy soldiers are all gone and Miss Suzy is once again all alone.  Not a very satisfying end.

So if you think about it too much, the story is kind of lame, but Arnold Lobel's pictures definitely save the book.  

Miss Suzy for me is about nostalgia rather than having a great story.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you think too deeply about Miss Suzy, you may end up in the same place I did:  Miss Suzy was a little gray squirrel who lived all by herself in the tip, tip top of a tall oak tree who needs to learn how to fight her own battles, because tomorrow always comes.  Ignore the swiss cheesy story and concentrate instead on Arnold Lobel's warm and wonderful illustrations.  All world weary smugness aside - who wouldn't want to live in Lobel's cozy little squirrel house at the top of an autumn oak, cooking and cleaning and singing the day away?  The red squirrel gang look like they came straight out of an early 1960s production of West Side Story - in the most delightful way.  My favorite illustration, the one that leaves me with this intense feeling of nostalgia, is the old house in the autumn rain - how wonderfully lonely and sad is that picture?  If only the story had stopped there, or become something else entirely.  Poor Miss Suzy.  Almost set free by her illustrator, but trapped instead by so-so story.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Superman in the Sixties (1999)

I don't think I've read a single Superman comic before this.  I've seen at least two of the old Christopher Reeve movies; re-runs of the George Reeve television show; loved the Superfriends as a kid; watched some old cartoons from the thirties and forties on DVD.  I know about the "Superman" curse. I listened to Fresh Air with Terry Gross when she interviewed Larry Tye, who has written a biography of  Superman.

So I decided I wanted to actually read some Superman comics, and while I'm glad I did, Superman in the Sixties was just plain weird.   I just have such a hard time with comics anyway, and superhero comics have never,ever been my favorite.  Even as a kid, I was more of a fan of Casper and Donald Duck and Archie.

I can't get past the idea of a "superman" anyway.  What's the point if he has no flaws and can do or create just about anything?

These Superman stories are just unbelievably crazy.  And some are lame and kind of pointless.  Although Superboy and Superman are really hot.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (2011)

I feel barely smart enough to read this book at all, let alone comment on it publicly.  I wasn't totally sure what the hell was going on at any given moment, but I still wanted to keep going because I was intrigued.  I kept half expecting someone to die or be outed or be caught having gay sex in the woods... none of which actually happened.

I thought it was telling that the two main characters at the beginning were called "Cecil" and "George" - the yin and the yang for Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A View because the book occasionally felt very much like what E.M. Forster might write in 2012, if he were around to write.  The Mitfords made occasional appearances as well, although in very, very muted form (no discernible fascists) - perhaps I should say "Tom Mitford" was a stronger presence, his more famous sisters less so.  A Goodreads Friend also compared this to Atonement, but I will have to take his word for that, as I haven't read Atonement.  He turned me on to Vita Sackville-West, and I can certainly see her influence, so probably Virginia Woolf was floating over the whole damn book as well.  And any closeted gay English writer and/or poet from about 1880 - 1967.

I'm almost scared to read anything about this book, any reviews or criticism, because I'm going to have missed just about everything of importance in the book and feel like a complete idiot.

The Stranger's Child The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel barely smart enough to read this book let alone comment publicly on it.  I know that I thought it was fascinating and I kept on reading because I wanted to know what was going to happen next, and sometimes didn't know what the hell was even going on.  The characters are all, for the most part - not quite reprehensible - but unlikable.  No heroes or heroines here.  It was telling for me that the first two characters you meet on a golden afternoon in the nouveau riche suburbs of Edwardian London are named George and Cecil - the yin and yang to Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A View.  The entire book tasted of Forster, only a Forster alive and well and writing in the 21st century.  The Mitfords were there as well, at least Tom Mitford, the less famous brother (the sisters are in the book as well, only muted). Downtown Abbey is a way down the road though; this isn't a soap opera.  It's a solidly good book.

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Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright (2012)

With Bill Woodward.  How much was Madeleine Albright and how much was Bill Woodward.  Her speech writer - I did some research.  Regardless of who wrote what, it was really engaging book.

I grew up in the Czech Capital of Kansas, and I've always considered myself something on an honorary Czech.  Because of my interest in history, I've occasionally thought about what "Czech" really means.  I've also wondered why, in the Czech Capitol of Kansas, there wasn't really any education on Czech language, history, folklore, etc.

We grew up eating what we called Czech food (kolaches -- - are most definitely Czech; my educated guess about bieroch -- -- was right, they are Volga).  Sausage with English names but most likely Czech origin.  Jeternice, which is Czech sausage for sure, is vile stuff, by the way.  Head cheese.  When we went to eat in a Czech restaurant a few years ago, I didn't recognize anything on the menu.  But foods change, and if you move, are influenced by your neighbors, and influenced by new ingredients, so this is no surprise.  The recipes a group of settlers brought 130 years ago are bound to change, as are the recipes back in the homeland.

As the subtitle says, Albright's book is  a "personal story."  Her personal story of being a small child during war time, is really just gloss; obviously a baby doesn't have a whole lot of insight on what's going on in the world around them, politically or culturally.  What she really provides for us is the personal story of her family as a vividly described tragic backdrop to the story of Czechoslovakia.  I certainly learned much about Albright - I don't even think I knew she was Czech.  I also learned quite a bit about the history of the Czechs.

You'd think growing up surrounded by Czechs, some of the history would have been a part of our lives.  That wasn't true.  Maybe because my family was neither Czech nor Catholic, we just weren't exposed to Czech history.  It's a shame, because the history of the Czechs is kind of a history of Europe in a nutshell.  Before coming into this book, I knew that Woodrow Wilson wanted to carve a country out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Czechoslovakia.  I knew about Munich and the appeasers.  I knew about Sedutenland.  I knew about Ma Vlast by Smetana.  Although this book stops with the Communists, I knew a little about Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.

As a history of Czechoslovakia, the book can be divided into four parts, and each added significantly to my scant knowledge of Czech history.  In the first, shortest part, she gives some pre-history of the Czechs, their nationalism under the Austro-Hungarians, and their country being created after World War I.  The second part is the 1930s and how the Nazis tricked the world and invaded Czechoslovakia.  This bleeds into the third part, which is Czechoslovakia under the heels of the Nazis and during World War II; Albright's family provides the backdrop here, as anyone who wasn't able to leave the country as rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where all of them were killed.  The fourth part was the immediate post war, when Czechoslovakia became Communist.  This was the part of Czech history that I knew the least about and learned the most.  I just assumed that the Russians, in their march towards the west, simply controlled Czechoslovakia from the outset, as they did with Poland and East Germany.  I didn't know that Stalin actually allowed elections - and that the Czechs pretty much chose Communism over the West - although I can't see that they had much choice; nor were these elections altogether free.

I do wonder if we weren't exposed to much Czech history because of this - the modern Czechs were communists.  If there were connections between the old country and the new, I wasn't really aware of them.  If they were talked about, it wasn't in school.  In going through surnames at my church, none of the Czech names stick out; I know there were a few Czech protestants, but most were Catholics (the Klemas were Lutherans; the Zelenkas were Baptists).  I know there were visitors from Czechoslovakia - I have vague memories of that.

No one ever explained the difference between Slovaks and Czechs.  I heard the terms Bohemian, not as much as Czech.  And Moravian, which I think I heard as part of a discussion of kraslice - Czech egg painting, which we were taught to do.

I think that's subtly political too, and even Albright's book talks a bit about that.  The Czechs were far most interested in having the Slovaks as part of the greater country than vice versa.  During World War II, Slovakia was an allied country of Germany, and pretty brutal (the Czech part essentially no longer existed).  Of course, now Slovakia has broken away.  Albright writes that she and her family were against the separatists who wanted two countries.

I say it's political, but it could be that "Czech Capital of Kansas" is all about marketing, and the "Czechs" that were left neither knew or cared very much about anything that happened back in Europe.  They were all farmers and small town business people who cared far more about their livelihoods than anything else.   Albright quotes Jan Masaryk, the beloved, murdered Czech diplomat and politician, son of the first president of Czechoslovakia:  "My father was the son of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian housemaid, who were serfs.  I can't prove what the blood of their parents was and neither can anyone else."  In the end, all those Czech Wilsonians are just Americans, and who can prove anything else beyond that.

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madeleine Albright's personal story of her experiences during World War II are limited - she was just a little child.  But the personal stories of her family are vividly described and provide a tragic backdrop to the history of Czechoslovakia.  We get some background information on the Czechs and why the country existed, but the tale is really that of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the rest of Europe, the country as it was under the Nazis, and what happened immediately afterward.  Albright's extended family were Jewish, and she details what happened to them as well,  as sad examples of Czechs of Jewish origin.  A well written, interesting history from various points of view, including that of an adult Albright with years of diplomatic experience.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams; illustrated by Imero Gobbato (1968)

Another book from Parents Magazine Press, this with an inscription:  Shawn & Patrick Thrasher 3 June 1975.  The "three" I think means that my brother was three years old when she wrote this; it's not in my mother's handwriting though, it's in a child's hand, so my brother or I wrote it.

The King With Six Friends is the very first book I remember reading all by myself, to myself.  I think I was in second grade, which makes me around 8 years old.  (around that same time, I remember realizing that "basghetti" wasn't the word was pronounced  - it started with an "sp" which amazed me).  The King With Six Friends isn't an easy reader; it's really difficult and rather long.  But it's a great story, and probably started me on a love of magic and adventure that really continues to this day.

Zar is an out-of-work king.  A note about names - they are totally "fantasy" types names, which makes sense, because Jay Williams often wrote fantasy short stories.  He had been a good king, but "a bold, strong king with many soldiers attacked his kingdom.  When the battle had ended, the strong king had won" and Zar found himself on the open road.

"The road was long and the world was wide."  No one was looking for an out-of-work king.  But "fortunately, as a king, Zar had already learned how to meet happiness or unhappiness with the same cheerful smile."  That's a good trait for anyone to have.  I'd like to think I have that trait myself.

Along the way, he meets and saves his six friends, in the way that fairy tale and folklore denizens meet their friends and companions.  An axe calls for help, stuck in a log, Zar frees it and it becomes a man named Edge.  An elephant, scared of a mouse; Zar shoos the mouse away and the elephant becomes a man named Agus.  A snake, tied in knots, untied becomes a man named Eryx.  A tree full of nests full of noisy baby birds which Zar removes becomes an entish man named Furze.  A hive of bees under attack from a hungry bear becomes a man named Dumble.

My favorite, then and now :  "After a bit it began to rain.  they took shelter under some trees, and all at once Zar heard a small, crackling voice crying, "Help, help!"  Looking around, he spied a fire burning with much smoke and smolder.  The voice came from the center.  Zar took off his cloak, and he held one end while Agus held the other.  They stretched it over the fire and sheltered it from the rain. Soon it had blazed up brightly once more.  When it had done so, it turned into a man with bright red hair and freckles like sparks.  "Many thanks, strangers," he cried, snapping his fingers.  "I thought I was done for."  Kindle was his name, and to a little red-headed boy, this must have been like magic.  When I was eight, I'm not sure I knew any other redheads.  I'm not sure there were any other red-heads in the school, at least not as red as my hair.  As all red-heads know, you get teased for having red hair and freckles.  Yet here, in a book, was a really cool guy named Kindle with freckles like sparks, who can turn himself into fire.   That was extra magic to the story.

Of course, all the companions join, because as Kindle (!) says:  "It is sad to travel without friends in the world."

Another point about the story that was probably appealing was the logic behind each rescue.  Zar asks of each friend the question an inquisitive eight year old boy with a big mouth might ask.  He asks Edge the axe (who looks a bit like Jack Palance and F. Murray Abraham had a baby), why he just didn't turn himself back into a man and save himself, and gets a reasoned and polite answer back "My nose would have been caught firmly in the log."  Each friend has a similar answer, except for Dumble the Beehive man, who "was, in fact, not very bright."

They eventually come to a beautiful city, where a king with a beautiful daughter is looking for a king to marry his daughter.  Of course, Zar is the perfect candidate, but this being a fairy tale, has to go through a series of tests first in order to marry the princess.  Unlike some stories - Three Perfect Peaches comes to mind - the king is completely willing for this to happen, as long as Zar completes the tasks.

As with all fairy tales, being good to others pays off, and having six friends who can change themselves into a cool things like an axe, a tree, a fire, an elephant, a snake, and a hive of bees helps Zar immensely.  One good turn deserves another is at least one moral of this tale.

The other moral is more subtle, but may be the coolest part of the story (after the ginger, of course).  "There's just one thing about the whole story which I don't understand," said the king's steward, who was sitting next to Agus.  "Each of you six have something he could do best.  It seems to me that it was you who passed the tests, not Zar.  What did he do?"

Again, good question - the eight year old mind hard at work.  "Agus smiled an elephant smile, his small eyes twinkling.  "He did what only a good king can do," he replied.  "He led us."

I wish I knew where Jay Williams took his inspiration for this story.  There is a similiar story "Long, Broad and Sharpsight" which Andrew Lang collected in his Grey Fairy Book; it's apparently Bohemian or Slovakian.  There is also the seven or ten Chinese brothers - and apparently many, many variations.

The King with Six FriendsThe King with Six Friends by Jay Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I can remember reading to myself, all by myself.  Re-reading it today as a adult, it's still a fantastic story, fairy tale/folklore with really subtle fantasy elements (like the names of the characters).  As a ginger, Kindle the red-headed character who can turn himself into fire and has freckles that sparkle (like embers, I supposed) was and still is my favorite.   The watercolor illustrations are perfectly soft, deep, muted.  The world in which King Zar and his six friends inhabit, illustrated by Imero Gobbato, is one of my dreams.  I'd move there in a heartbeat - as long as I too can turn myself into something incredibly cool and useful.  King Zar, by the way, looks a little bit like a very cute hipster.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dorrie and the Blue Witch written and illustrated by Patricia Coombs (1964)

Milk and cookies!  
Dorrie and the Blue Witch was another cherished book that I remember from childhood.  My maternal grandparents weren't big readers, but they did have a few books.  For example, they had a huge collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books which I read pretty voraciously when we stayed at their house (one had My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck, which I loved and have written about previously in this blog).  They had some old Disney editions of - I think - Swiss Family Robinson and Toby Tyler.  My grandparents are both dead, so all of this now exists in my memory only.  Mmm what else... many Bibles.  A Biblical lands travel guide sort of book, with color photographs.  Plenty of Reader's Digest, Guideposts, and Sports Illustrated (if was out of books and was desperate, I would even read those).  The Monster at the End of this Book, although that must have come much later.  Some Holly Hobbie books (also much later).  Maybe some Sweet Pickles?  And most definitely, a paperback version of Dorrie and the Blue Witch.

Witches were the thing when I was 8-9-10.  We played witches all the time.  In the winter, I can remember after an ice storm (or two) playing The White Witch from Narnia (that was cold but fun).  I had this friend, two years younger than me, named David Bunker - we always called him Bunker - and he and I and whoever else was around would play Bewitched, which was syndicated afternoons where we lived.  I think Bunker always played Endora; I don't know who I played.  No one EVER played Darren.  Meh.  (Bunker is also a homosexual - no surprise there.  We also loved The Addams Family, which we played too.  Bunker, if I remember correctly, was always Morticia.  Again, I don't know who I was.  But for Addams Family, you could safely play ANY character and have fun.  Not like Bewitched, where only lame people want to be Larry or Louise Tate, or god forbid Darren (Mrs. Kravitz, though, that was fun).

So witches have been a part of my creative energy, stuck in my head and fantasy, since I was a little kid. I wonder if some of that has to do with that little paperback copy of Dorrie that my grandma and grandpa had.  In my head, witches don't actually look like those characters from Bewitched.  Witches look either like  the White Witch from Narnia (never, ever the sultry green witch, who was more of an enchantress in my mind, not a real witch) or Dorrie and her family.  Black pointed hats, funny shoes, striped stockings.  Goth before goth.  I guess the Wicked Witch of the West falls in this category too.  Like in Oz, witches were all things - benign, good, evil - not purely evil.  The witches from A Wrinkle in Time also exist in this realm, as does Miss Switch, the substitute teacher who was also a witch.  She had a couple of after school cartoon specials, and some books. I owned one Miss Switch book, and it wasn't the first in the series.  I think maybe I read another one too, checked out from a library.

Dorrie, though, I don't think I even knew that Dorrie was a series until I was an adult.  She wasn't in my public library or school library, and I could only read that Dorrie book when I went to visit my grandparents.

It's not a very good book - it's certainly not profound or life changing.  The illustrations are really what make the book wonderful.  They look like pen and ink to me.  My paperback copy has only blue and black ink; the library copy in front of me right now includes yellow as well.

I've probably re-read Dorrie every other year or so.   I think about ten years ago or so, probably when I discovered this was a long series, I tried to read as many as I could get my hands on. Let's face it --  Dorrie and the Blue Witch isn't all that good of a book, and the others weren't either.  Not even the pictures were all that attractive.  My copy was in all blue and black, the library copy added yellow - but I recall other Dorrie books being just in black - or maybe black and brown.  They don't necessarily need to be colored - full color ruins the world of Dorrie. But the very, very best Dorrie book is black and blue, and that's what I'm sticking to.

I love this picture - I want to live in this house
I wonder who originally owned my paperback copy?  I can't imagine that it was bought specifically for me or my brother - that kind of purchase of books for us didn't happen all that often, and certainly not by my grandparents (Colorforms and sticker books though - I remember those.  I still remember the taste of the stickers on my tongue).  Dorrie was originally published in 1964;  so it can't be for my mom or aunt or older uncle - maybe for my younger uncle, who would have been about the right age in the late sixties to have this book, although I would be surprised if he read that (or any) book.

In the world of Dorrie, at least in this book I read, there are no men.  Where are all the wizards?  Maybe they come in later books.

Dorrie and the Blue Witch (Dorrie the Little Witch, #2)Dorrie and the Blue Witch by Patricia Coombs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dorrie and the Blue Witch is one of those picture books where illustration is everything.  The story isn't profound or literary or life changing - although it's quite solid and good - I've read it aloud successfully to a group of third graders at Halloween time.  But the book is really about the classic illustrations.  My original copy, a paperback from the 1960s which originally probably belonged to my mother, was done up in black and blue ink; the library copy I recently read was in yellow, black and blue.  Dorrie is the perfectly illustrated, and whenever I think of the word "witch" I actually picture Dorrie - black pointed hat, strange shoes, striped (blue!) socks.  Her black cat Gink is a perfectly illustrated blacker than black cat; the blue witch, Dorrie's mother, Mildred the cook - perfect, perfect, perfect.  As someone who loved stories about witches and still loves a good story about a witch, Dorrie is the tops.  She's got that black magic.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban; illustrated by Lillian Hoban (1964)

 Bread and Jam for Frances is one of those books that I must have read as a kid - I have an old, old paperback copy of it - but it doesn't resonate like other books.  It just is, if you know what I mean.  The words and pictures exist in my head almost as if Frances and her family were neighbors growing up, and the story is on par with stories about my real neighbors.  I actually think that we may have had this as a read along record.  The language of the story sticking in my head, but neither in my own voice or in my grandmother's voice (I don't remember my mom ever reading to us, although I suppose she did; I remember my dad reading to us on occasion, usually at night).  That's why it feels so much like poetry or storytelling - because someone on a record was reading it aloud thirty five years ago.

I do know I've re-read this since then, as a children's librarian, although never aloud myself that I recall.  It's a elementary school story, not a preschool story.  Although Frances is a badger (?), she acts and reacts like a real seven or eight year old.  She's very much Ramona in a badger suit, only in picture book form.  Kevin Henkes mice exist in this world too. Animals standing in for people.

There is real poetry in this book - funny little rhymes that Frances makes up.  But the true poetry is in the language of the storytelling. There is a rhythm and cadence to the entire story, brilliantly complicated, sparse sentences.  Sentences written like free form poetry.  Here's a description of Albert eating his lunch at school:

Albert took two napkins from his lunch box.
He tucked one napkin under his chin.
He spread the other one on his desk like a tablecloth.
He arranged his lunch neatly on the napkin.
With his spoon he cracked the shell of the hard-boiled egg.
He peeled away the shell and bit off the end of the egg.
He sprinkled salt on the yolk and set the egg down again.
He unscrewed his thermos-bottle cup and filled it with milk.
Then he was ready to eat his lunch.
He took a bite of sandwich, a bit of pickle,
a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk.
Then he sprinkled more salt on the egg and went around again.
Albert made the sandwich, the pickle,
the egg, and the milk come out even.
He ate his bunch of grapes and his tangerine.
Then he cleared away the crumpled-up wax paper,
the eggshell, and the tangerine peel.
He set the cup custard in the middle of the napkin on his desk.
He took up his spoon and ate up all the custard.
Then Albert folded up his napkins and put them away.
He put away his cardboard saltshaker and his spoon.
He screwed the cup on top of his thermos bottle.
He shut his lunch box,
and put it back inside his desk, and sighed.
"I like to have a good lunch," said Albert.

Wow, brilliant, brilliant piece of poetry.  It's all about tone, isn't it?  I could read that aloud in a sing song children's librarian voice, or in a excited storyteller voice.  Put a poetry slam voice to that, and you have free form verse about Albert's lunch.

Of course, the next line is the absolute climax of the story:  "Frances ate her bread and jam and drank her milk."  Oh snap, Frances!  We just have this beautiful, exquisite, poetic lunch described to us in lush, sensuous detail - and Frances has her same old bread and jam, a contrast of incredible proportion.  

Every word carefully chosen, even carefully placed on the page for greatest impact.  

We need the pictures though - it is a picture book - and these are some of the most famous of all time.  Everyone of a certain age probably recognizes Frances (I think she has a television show now, which is a real shame - some characters should exist purely on the page and should not come to life - weren't the pictures lifelike enough?).

I'm flabbergasted a bit on how poignant and beautiful this book is, and not because of nostalgia.  It's really, really good not because I have emotions attached  to it, or grandma reading it aloud, but because it's one of the very best picture books ever written.

Bread and Jam for FrancesBread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most perfectly written picture books - perhaps one of the most perfectly written books ever.  Every single word is meticulously chosen, carefully placed on the page, like an artist painting a masterpiece.  Wipe away the familiar story for a moment, the (just right) illustrations of badgers (?), and the now familiar rite of childhood trope of picky eaters, and rather think about this book as a long, free verse poem.  It's a rich, lush, descriptive book that aches to be read aloud, not just in a sing-songy "I'm reading to kids" way, but in a poetic manner, like a bard or a poetry slammer.  I know, it seems silly, but think about the way Russell Hoban chose his words, placed on them page, purposefully slashing sentences in half to add to the strong, declarative tone.  Consider Albert's lunch, with Frances dismal bread and jam as a short, sad comparison. Bread and Jam for Frances is filled with this kind of incredible, thoughtful, deliberate writing. It's monumental.    

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Room by Room

Spare Room
Ceiling fan -- $500.00
treadmill -- $2,000
futon - $300
Closet remodel - DIY, $250.00

Hall Bath

TV:  $1,2000 + cable installation (?)

Bedroom Bath

Couch:  $1,000
Chair:  $500
Clock:  $200
Reupholster grandma chair:  $600

Back yard
Screen in porch? $500 (Gil)
Paint porch:  $100
New roof on porch:  $1500
New fence:  $4,000
Garage door opener:  $300

Dishwasher $500
Flatscreen: $500 + installation and cable installation (unknown)

Dining Room
Dining room table and chairs:  $3,000
Refinish hardwood floors:  $1,200

Living Room
Fireplace:  $1,500
Chandelier:  $500

Front Porch
Fix fountain:  $75
Rocking chairs:  $350

$10,000 (?)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown; illustrated by Garth Williams

Little Fur Family has a special place in my heart.  Since becoming a librarian, I really no longer collect books for books' sake.  Almost every book I now own has some sort of meaning to me, some intrinsic value.  It may be attached to the story itself (for example, I have multiple copies of Lord of the Rings).  A special view are precious to me because of the physical book itself.  Little Fur Family is such a book.  Inscribed inside the book, in perfect "girl" penmanship, is this note:

To: Shawn
for "Perfect" attendance in Kindergarten
From:  Mrs. L. Lyon

It's in pencil.  "Perfect" is in quotes - perhaps meaning that while my attendance was perfect, I was not.

I don't remember Mrs. Lyon very well now.  She's a blob in what little memory I have left, in seventies dresses, with big glasses and black hair.

I could be all cynical and bitchy about Little Fur Family but I'm not.  It's a perfect little story, with nothing at all wrong with it.  Garth Williams illustrations are perfect.  Like all things Margaret Wise Brown, it's simple and graceful and majestic and pure.

There is something very European about the Fur Family.  They don't look American or English; they look and dress very Slavic.

It's a day in the life of a fur family, only a day from the past.  That kind of perfect day no longer exists for any of us.  It makes me sad.

The little fur child is sneezing, but it looks like he is crying.

The fur mother is absolutely comforting to me; I love this picture.

What kind of fur do fur children wear?

Little Fur FamilyLittle Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you read Little Fur Family in the 21st century, it's an almost sadly nostalgic picture book. The Fur Mother bathing her child in a old fashioned tub, the Fur Child's Depression-era coat and hat; the glow of lantern and candle and firelight as night falls at the end.  This isn't necessarily a deep story (although I've since read that there are themes of life and death, and the power over death, which is faintly disturbing to me); it's powerful because it's simple.  Small adventures - catching a fish, visiting grandpa, finding a neat looking bug. The majesty of this story lies in the sparse text, combined with its warm illustrations.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Two Roman Mice by Horace; illustrated by Marilynne K. Roach 1975) and The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse by Paul Galdone (1971)

It's interesting that these two were published at approximately the same time, because in style and content they couldn't be more different.  Quite frankly, the Roach version seems more like a vanity publication than Galdone's. It's in black and white,and each page includes some piece of Roman history attached to it - Roman food, art, extinct dogs... mildly interesting.  Roach translate directly from a poem by Horace about Urbanus Mus and Rusticus Mus - the town mouse and country mouse.  I was confused, as I thought this was an Aesop story.  The ending is the same (in all three versions I've read so far).  In the Roach/Horace ending, the extinct dogs chase them off, and Rusticus Mus heads back to the countryside, but not before saying "Better seeds in the woods than feast in a trap."

Two Roman MiceTwo Roman Mice by Marilynne K. Roach
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Apparently Roach translated Horace's poem from Latin to English, and illustrated the story as well.  Rusticus Mus and Urbanus Mus are in an ancient Roman setting this time, and Roach decorates her little book with plenty of nods to the time of Horace.  In addition to mice, each page includes something Roman from that time - a plant, a mosaic, even extinct Roman dogs that chase the mice away at the end.  It's only mildly interesting; the premise is far more interesting than the book itself.

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I like Galdone's version better, although it's certainly not the best of this prolific author's works.  He has a genius of distilling down fairy tales, folktales, legends, and fables into their purest, simplest essence - generally.  The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse wasn't quite as sharp as some of his others.  Roach has Roman mice; Galdone has medieval mice (who end up on a very modern looking table, which bugged me a bit).  Like all the stories, County talks smack on the life of the city, in Galdone saying (quite long windly for Galdone):  "If your fine living is interrupted constantly with fears and dangers, let me return to my plain food and my peaceful cottage.  For what good is elegance without ease, or plenty with an aching heart?'

The Town Mouse and the Country MouseThe Town Mouse and the Country Mouse by Paul Galdone
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Galdone usually can distill a folktale down to simplicity, but this is the rare one that misses the mark.  His illustrations are still bright and fun.  But the story was stilted and a little flat.  I also thought the moral at the end was long winded, particular for Galdone, who is the master of simple retelling. While certainly not a failure, there are probably better, more interesting versions of this classic fable out there.

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(Barbara McClintock's Regency era mice say: "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear." I wonder if every version ends with the same moral told in a different, catchy way?).

I'm definitely going to do a bit more research on this fable - is is Latin or Greek?

The Caldecott Aesop illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1883)

This is a "facsimile" of the 1883 edition, with colored illustrations.  Randolph Caldecott's brother Alfred translated the stories.  He was fussy and wanted to translate from the original Greek, but Randolph had already illustrated them, so he had to stick to using English versions.  I only know this because I read the introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn, who I had never heard of before.

 The illustrations in here are kick ass, even if the stories are mostly obscure.  Caldecott and brother first illustrate and tell the original tale, then they have an "application" in which Caldecott illustrates a modern scene (or an 1890s scene) that applies the fable and moral to the (then) present day. For example, "The Fox and the Crow" has the fox charming the cheese out of the crow's mouth in one scene, and in another little vignette, a Gay 90s Casanova charms a mother in to leaving him alone with her daughter.  That was my favorite one, really cute and funny. These are wordless, which makes me want to have a historian of Britain next to me to translate - because I didn't understand half of them.

"The Ass in the Lion's Skin" has an ass dressed up as a lion, and everyone is scared of him - until the lion costume falls off, then everyone returns and beats the crap out of him.  The accompanying picture is of a guy talking in a museum to a group of people - you can tell he's pontificating on something.  In the corner is his coat, and two guys are going through it, and they find a piece of paper with the words "Winckelmann" and "Lessing" on them.  They are German critics and writers (I had to look them up).  I guess the Caldecotts thought they were ass(holes).

Secretly, I liked the one called "The Ass, the Lion and the Cock."  Very Beavis and Butthead of me, I know.

"The Fox Without a Tale" is about a fox without a tale who tries to convince all the other foxes that tails were "ungraceful... a heavy appendage, and quite superfluous."  The other foxes aren't having any of that crap though.  The "application" is a woman - a classic 19th century bluestocking, I'm sure, with glasses on - who tells another group of women "Nonsense, my dears! Husbands are ridiculous things & are quite unnecessary."  Snap!  I can't imagine that was too popular among feminist women of the day!

This is shelved in the children's section of the library, but to be honest, it's not really a children's book at all.  Unless that child can intelligently discuss Irish Home Rule.

I had never heard "The Frogs and the Fighting Bulls" before.

These frogs are watching these bulls fight.  One frog - the cross-eyed one, says "Oh, those bulls are fighting!  Oh dear!"  The second frog - the one looking right as us, kind of smugly, says (I'm paraphrasing here) "Who gives a shit.  They are fighting each other, and it's far away from us."  The third frog - the one in the middle with the scary ass face, says "They may be fighting each other far away from us now.  But one of those Bulls is going to be driven from that pasture and end up over here and crush us to death, so this does concern us, fool."  Is the middle frog proposing that they go fight the bulls themselves?  Because I don't think that's going to end well.

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)

The Country of the Pointed Firs was all talk and conversation and storytelling.  I did not love it as much as Deephaven - even though this is considered Jewett's best work.  All the old critics and writers from that time had good things to say about the book - Kipling, Willa Cather, William Dean Howells, Henry James... I certainly don't have anything negative to say about the book.  I found it quietly engaging.

The haunting story of Joanna, the scorned woman who goes to live alone as a hermitess on Shell Heap Island is beautiful and gothic.  It's better because it's all told second hand, like old gossip repeated again and again and aged by the telling.  That was a brilliant part of this book.

The chapters about the Bowden reunion were also fun, but I kept waiting for a Wilder or an Ingalls or a Nelson to make a cameo appearance - alas, they never did.

I think I would have enjoyed the book better if the chaptering had been set up in a bit different way.  I've seen this described as a series of sketches, as well as a short story sequence.  Both seem to describe the book much better than calling it a novel.  I was expecting more of a narrative line, particular with numbered chapters.  I don't know, that just bothered me.

Novels and Stories: Deephaven / A Country Doctor / The Country of the Pointed Firs / Dunnet Landing Stories / Selected Stories and SketchesNovels and Stories: Deephaven / A Country Doctor / The Country of the Pointed Firs / Dunnet Landing Stories / Selected Stories and Sketches by Sarah Orne Jewett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Please note that I'm reading this book in fits and starts - not because I don't like it, but because I want to savor it.  I was hesitant about the book at first, but Deephaven was a delightful start - short, sweet, romantic, sometimes painfully sad, beautiful, vivid.  Although never specifically written, it's obvious that Helen and Kate are at the very least deeply in love, and at the most a committed couple; there are many beautiful passages about them exploring, talking, laughing, listening, or just sitting together in front a fire or along the sea.  The fact that they both have chosen their stars - and have shared that fact with each other - is wonderful in all senses.  I can't recommend Deephaven enough.  I'm exciting to read more.


I didn't enjoy The Country of the Pointed Firs nearly as much as I did Deephaven, even though critics from old until now have called this Jewett's best work.  The entire book is really a series of sketches or short stories, written as conversation or gossip between various people in a small Maine town called Dunnett Landing.  The very best tales are the gothic, hauntingly beautiful story of Joanna, a scorned woman who becomes in a hermit on an island off the coast.  Another more enjoyable sketch is that of the Bowden family reunion, where I half expected Pa Ingalls to make a cameo appearance (he did not).

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Animal Fables from Aesop by Barbara McClintock (1991)

In my most recent quest to ingest and digest Aesop, I stumbled across Barbara McClintock's version.  McClintock doesn't cite any of these tales - other than they are from Aesop - so I'm not sure where she gets her translations.  Perhaps she speaks Greek.

Animal Fables from Aesop has incredible illustrations - McClintock really is one of my favorite illustrators.  I think I read this about Harry Truman in David McCullough's famous biography that his taste in art was pretty pedestrian - a horse should look like a horse (maybe not, but that's how I remember it).  I sort of feel the same way.  Abstract art can be beautiful and moving in its own way - I'm not that pedestrian.  But for something like Aesop's fables, beautiful, detailed, intricate illustrations like McClintock's are excellent.

Her premise is both quite interesting and a little odd.  The opening pages start as a play, with an old goat introducing the cast of characters.  The book ends with those characters taking off elaborate costumes to reveal humans of all ages inside.  I guess McClintock is trying to say that the fables, although nominally about foxes and crows and cranes, are really about human foibles and lessons to learn.

I liked how McClintock put the moral in the mouths of the animals instead of in italics at the end.  For example, in "The Fox and the Crow," after the fox - completely dapper in Regency attire - tricks the crow (very Victorian) out of her cheese, he runs away - but not before taunting her "I'll give you a piece of advice - don't trust flatterers."

"The Fox and the Crane" is the same story from Jack Kent's tale.  Kent's is shorter - it's a shorter book - but essentially the same.  I love McClintock's Crane - a Victorian lady, with an incredibly expressive face.  She definitely does not get the joke -- "We are not amused."  Her reply at the end is slightly different from Kent's "A dose of our own medicine is good for us."  In Kent, the crane seems to be teaching the fox a lesson. McClintock's Crane, though, says "One bad turn deserves another."  That's a moral with more of a bite than Kent's, a moral about revenge.

I'm not exactly sure what I thought "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" was about - a cute little story about urban living verses country living.  The moral the Country Mouse imparts to us a the end of McClintock's version is "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear."  I'm going to do a bit more research on this tale, and see if that's the general ending or are there other versions.

"The Wolf and the Crane" features the same Crane Dame again, helping out a wolf in need, much to her chagrin.  There seem to be two morals to this tale, which McClintock provides.  The wolf warns the crane:  "You should be happy.  You put your head inside a wolf's mouth and taken it out again without harm. That ought be reward enough for you."  "Don't expect gratitude from the greedy" she thinks as she walks away.  The illustrations of her sticking her are disgusting, which makes the illustration all the cooler.

"The Fox and the Cat" is another really good one - I think overall McClintock's choices of fables was spot on.  I loved "the dogs and peacocks" at the beginning, and love them even more carrying the fox.  "The Wolf and the Lamb" is my least favorite in the book.  "The Crow and the Peacocks" is terrific.  The illustrations of the crow trying on peacock feathers is awesome, and the peacocks themselves look like they just got back from a Pride and Prejudice ball.  I love the peacock dandies.

"The Fox and the Grapes" is another one that's incredibly familiar; McClintock's adds some detail to the story, but in essence it's the same -- it's easy to hate what you can't have.

"The Wolf and the Dog," with it's fat contented dog and starving wolf exchanging stories about their lives was probably radical 2,600 years ago and may be a bit radical even today.  The smug dog - with his pipe and waste coat, the epitome of business success, says to his old friend the wolf - "I knew your wild life would be the ruin of you.  Why don't you work steadily, like I do, and get your food given to you every day... I could easily arrange that... You can share my work guarding the house."  Then the wolf notices and remarks upon the worn spot on the dog's neck, which turns out to be "the place where my collar is put on at night to keep me chained up.  It chafes a little, but you soon get used to it."  The wolf replies Goodbye to you... it's better to starve free than be a fat slave."  Live free or die, right?  What is the better life, in the end - is it better to be free and hungry or fat and contented yet chained to something?  There is so much room for interpretation and discussion here - again, what is the different between a parable and a fable?

Some of Aesop's brilliance (or whoever really made these up) is that he took the actual nature of animals and spun them into fables.  The grasshopper really does sing all summer long while ants appear industrious.  A dog is a fat contented slave to mankind while the wolf remains free.

Animal Fables from AesopAnimal Fables from Aesop by Barbara McClintock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Incredibly illustrations, detailed, intricate, bright, and fun.  Pure McClintock - when aren't her illustrations slightly quirky yet gorgeous?  The familiar animals of Aesop - cranes, crows, foxes, and so on - are all dressed in their very best Regency and early Victorian finery.  A crow dressed as a peacock goes to a peacock ball that might as well be in Jane Austen's Pemberly.  McClintock's foxes are always, always the best, but her Grand Lady Crane is exquisite - who knew that a crane could purse her beak!  So much fun, and definitely a conversation piece.

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