Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Simon and Adele by Barbara McClintock ( 2006)

Adèle & SimonAdèle & Simon by Barbara McClintock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

McClintock must have gone to Paris – this is a love letter to the city, but definitely not one of my favorite books by her.  What I did love was -- the illustration of Madeleine and all the orphans are matching behind Miss Clavel.  The end paper map, according to the note on the copyright page, is from a 1907 Baedeker – which sets the scene in beautiful art nouveau / beaux arts Paris.  (Although I never saw a motor car, which makes me think it’s set earlier.)  Her illustrations are wonderfully intricate and lovely again, but the story is really weak – it seems to me that she had the idea for the pictures and created a story around  it.

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The Mitten by Jim Aylesworth; illustrated by Barbara McClintock (2009)

I'm not exactly sure why we needed a new version of "the mitten," but another Aylesworth / McClintock pairing is worth it.  The animals faces are fantastically funny - I wouldn't expect anything less from McClintock The warm, comfortable 19th century grandma with hot chocolate setting is super sweet with nostalgia and Norman Rockwell. Don't miss the note on the copyright page for an unexpected touch of the macabre.  A great read aloud.

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I’m not exactly sure why The Mitten needed to be retold yet again – there seem to be plenty of versions that are equally good.  I still love the Aylesworth and McClintock pairings though.  Once again, the setting is some time in the 19th century – maybe early 20th, where the kindly old grandmother makes a steaming hot mug of hot chocolate in her old fashioned New England kitchen with a woodburning stove.  The grandson is a red haired boy in a knitted green sweater, and of course Grandmother knits the mitten of the title as well (red, as all mittens and scarves in stories should be). The winter wonderland setting of sledding and snowballs and snowmen is perfectly crisp and cool.  The mitten itself is filled  with McClintock’s perfectly rendered fox, mouse, bear, and rabbit.  Their facial expressions – freezing, contentedly warm, pleading for room, annoyed and squished (the fox is best), to mightily surprised are fantastic – McClintock can illustrate both animals and people in realistic ways.  While not their strongest work, this still would make a fantastic read aloud.

The little note on the copyright page has something creepy that would make a good addendum when reading this aloud to a class of older children.  “The favorite old folk tale is believed to have originated in Ukraine.  The motif is of too many characters crowding into a vessel until it bursts.  There are many variants of this story, which have appeared in different countries.  The vessels have included a hat, an earthenware jar, a house – an even the skull of a horse.”  Macabre!

GOODREADS REVIEW:  I'm not exactly sure why we needed a new version of "the mitten," but another Aylesworth / McClintock pairing is worth it. The animals faces are fantastically funny - I wouldn't expect anything less from McClintock The warm, comfortable 19th century grandma with hot chocolate setting is super sweet with nostalgia and Norman Rockwell. Don't miss the note on the copyright page for an unexpected touch of the macabre. A great read aloud.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

When the Drum Sang: An African Folktale by Anne Rockwell (1970)

Smiley Hippo
Why did Anne Rockwell change her style over the years so considerably?  When the Drum Sang is almost as good as Tuhurahura and the Whale (I like the pictures and story just a bit better).  The animals are all all a little too smiley for my taste. The story is almost magical realism - it has fantastic elements (a kidnapped girl lives in a drum) but no real magic. The solution is very matter of fact and down to earth - the father gets his revenge using bees.

The story itself is really, really creepy, in a horrible Silence of the Lambs kind of way.  It's definitely a cautionary tale about strangers. As in Tuhurahura, the villain of this story has no reason to be the villain - he's just greedy and evil.  A psychopath.  Or just a zimwi, an ogre.  Afterall, when monsters appear in fairy tales and folklore, they don't always have a reason for doing what they do.  This particular zimwi liked the sound of this poor little girl's voice, so he kidnaps her, and then uses her.

Other monsters from folklore:  Japanese oni love to eat baby belly buttons.  Again, greed is their primary focus, although they loot and pillage villages too.

Trolls and ogres are always blustering, awful asses who are gross and greedy.

Orcs and goblins are nasty too.

When the Drum Sang: An African FolktaleWhen the Drum Sang: An African Folktale by Anne F. Rockwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A cautionary tale from the Bantu tradition about the malevolence of strangers.  Silence of the Lambs has nothing on some of these old, creepy folktales and fairy tales.  A little girl with a beautiful voice gets kidnapped by a no good, greedy zimwe (ogre).  Grim indeed, but also kind of fun.  Everyone likes a happy ending, especially after a particularly scary time, and the zimwe gets stung by bees on the second to last page and runs away, never to be seen again (it might have been a more satisfying ending if he'd been stung to death, but this isn't a serial killer movie, it's a children's book).  This would actually make a pretty good read aloud; it's frightening without being too scary, and the pictures are bright and colorful.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Go To Bed, Monster! by Natasha WIng; illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz (2007)

A girl who doesn't want to go to bed uses her crayons to draw a monster, who comes "alive" (everything looks like crayon drawing, actually). The two have a great time together building castles, flying airplanes, marching in parades - but when the girl wants to go to bed, the monster refuses, leading to some more creative drawing on her part.

With Harold and the Purple Crayon  in mind  (but perhaps more in the spirit of the Daffy Duck classic Duck Amuck http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH6i2Z6mTRE), Wing and Kantorovitz have created a cute, completely innocuous, somewhat disposable bedtime story.  The two redeeming features of the book - the very fun and quite good illustrations in oil paints and oil pastels (that look like a child's crayonings) and the idea that art and what we create can sometimes leap out of our control in unexpected ways.

Papa , Please Get Me the Moon by Eric Carle (1986)

I always think Eric Carle is so gimmicky and overrated.  I just do get it the appeal.  All of his books "toy appeal" which annoys me.  I'm sure kids love this book, I'm sure it's a classic, I'm sure the interactivity is great for growing young brains.  Blah blah blah.  I still don't like Eric Carle.  Anathema, I know.  But I've said it and I can't take it back (Alice).

If Monica's dad goes up the sky - which I have to admit is a cute scene - and takes the moon for her - what about the rest of us?  We don't get to enjoy the moon because Monica is greedy.

Papa, Please Get the Moon for MePapa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So Monica wants the moon, and Papa (in what I must admit is a very cute picture) climbs up with his very long ladder and gets it for her - what happens to the rest of us? I guess we don't get to enjoy the moon anymore because Monica was greedy and Papa couldn't say no.  Veruca Salt, anyone?  Carle was clearly attempting to imitate Mother Goose, but I think he should have left this story to the cat, the cow, the dish and the spoon.

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Henry Reed's Baby-Sitting Service by Keith Robertson (1966)

I know there is two more Henry Reed books in the series, but I may stop here, at least for now.  I'm getting a little Henry Reed-ed out.

I still have no idea when I first read the Henry Reed books or why, but I do know that our library - school or public, I don't know which (maybe both) only owned Henry Reed, Inc. and Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service and that it wasn't until later that I read the middle book, Henry Reed's Journey.

Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service is a child of the sixties as much or more than Henry Reed's Journey, but still a fun read.  It's equally episodic, and while each episode isn't equally fun or funny, taken together they make a great book.   The Sebastian twins, older teens with a car (a little red 1966 MG that's as much a character as its drivers) and driver's license, insufferably so, are as perfect foils for the slightly older Henry and Midge (driver's license-less,and thus inferior) as the Apples were to the slightly younger and more rambunctious Henry and Midge of Henry Reed, Inc.  

My favorite chapter remains the disappearing and reappearing Belinda Osborne - that's certainly the peak of the book, and while Midge's exasperation comes across as far older than her 13 years (Keith Robertson talks through his characters quite a bit, making them sound more than occasionally like the 40something parent of baby boomers than the baby boomers themselves), she - and the entire chapter - are as funny as hell.  If Henry and Midge occasionally sound older than their years, Robertson still does a great job of creating memorable characters that seem very real, and at the same time incredibly humorous. Who doesn't remember Ruth and Johnny Sebastian - or the facsimile of them - Ruth the know it all, Johnny the dumb almost-bully.  

The chapter where Henry feeds the guests horse meat is pretty funny too, and has always stuck in my mind, although no one would eat horse meat today, not even dogs.  That's certainly a plot point that would stick out today.  Henry's reluctance to babysit because he is a male may or may not stick out - I think 15 year old boys might still be reluctant and think it was a girl's job. I remember having at least one boy babysit for us; he taught my brother and I how to fill a glass of coke up to the very top.  I'm not sure boys or girls babysit anymore though.  I think people rarely leave their children at home, which tends to anger me probably more than it should.  Times change, but that change means Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service as an entirety is a sticking point.

Goodreads Review:

Pure nostalgia, in so many ways. This was a beloved book from my childhood, re-read many times. It holds up remarkably well. Of course, from the little red MG to the idea that boys and girls babysit (do they today?), this is definitely a child of the sixties (although not historical fiction!). But Robertson creates real, humorous characters that could live in any time period, especially his creation of twins Ruth and Johnny Sebastian. They are perfect foils for Henry Reed and his friend Midge: a few years older, they have a driver's license, which in turn sets them on a different plane of existence (at least in their teenage minds). This battle between the younger license-less teens and the (almost) bullying older teens is one that could definitely happen today (with some adjustments to hair style, clothing and language). Often throughout the book Midge and Henry are mouthpieces for author Keith Robertson; their language sounds more like a 40 something parent of baby boomers than the baby boomers themselves. This annoyed me slightly as adult; as a kid I never noticed it. In fact, it probably makes Midge and Henry seem more mature and reasoned than the assortment of idiotic adults and boobs that surround them. Great, great fun!

My favorite review from Goodreads (after mine, of course), from a reviewer named Shelley:  "My mother's house is filled with young adult books from the '30s-60's. Sometime you need to read about a group of kids that mow the lawn and bbq in casual sport jackets."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Henry Reed's Journey by Keith Robertson (1963)

Jungle Cruise at Disneyland

Probably the last time I read this was at least ten years ago - more likely 15 or so.  Henry Reed's journey in Henry Reed's Journey probably isn't one many teenagers make anymore.  Unlike Henry Reed, Inc., this one is definitely a blast from the past.   Do people still pile into cars and drive across the country?  I know I've done this myself - and certainly my family has. But I'm not so sure that's the "family" vacation anymore.  When I last read this, I didn't live in L.A., so now I've been to some of the places Henry writes about such as Disneyland and Olvera Street.  Olvera Streets sounds similar - no organ grinder monkey running around, but still shops and "old Mexico."  Disneyland has changed; I suppose when Robertson wrote this, it had just opened a few years before.  No more mule train, no more Skyway either, and I don't think you could fall out of the jungle cruise now (maybe you couldn't then either, and that was just a fantastic scene from Robertson's imagination.  I've also made that Route 66 trip that they made, although I haven't done the Grand Canyon.  Missouri is still  a great place to buy all sorts of fireworks.

I do think more than not, Henry Reed is a stand in for the attitudes of Keith Robertson, but never in an overtly bad way.  I think Henry has what could be considered some sexist views, but I think most 15 year old boys probably do - they just were allowed to put them in print back in 1963, and can no longer do that today.

One thing I completely forgot was the Henry Reed ass shot - children's literature porn!  

Another thing I don't  think I realized is how mean Henry and Midge were to other people occasionally - things that would probably get them called bullies today, but on paper are really funny.  1963 was still a simple time.  Pre-Beatles, right?

Henry Reed's JourneyHenry Reed's Journey by Keith Robertson

Unlike Henry Reed, Inc., Henry Reed's Journey is more of a slice of time and place, in this case a cross country trip from San Francisco to New Jersey in 1963.  What was probably very current when the book was published now feels nostalgic, although Henry Reed's (and Keith Robertson's) dry and wry delivery still packs a humorous wallop.  I think the sixties references could throw a kid - although when I read in the book in the late seventies/early eights, Tab Hunter was a distant memory, and I still loved it.  If you ever plan to motor west (or east) on Route 66 (or the modern equivalent of it), this might be a fun little book with which to start your journey. (Disneyland lovers note that there is a whole chapter devoted to what was then an almost new Disneyland, written in a non-copyrighted no residuals way).

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury; illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini (1972)

The Halloween Tree read something like a movie would, with careful detail put into - well, the details.  There is a scene where bricks are place one by one in front of the feet of the young heroes, building a staircase to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, and I immediately thought what a good movie scene that would make.  Well, whaddya know - The Halloween Tree, according to the great and powerful Wikipedia, was first "an unproduced collaboration with animator Chuck Jones."  I wonder what that collaboration would have looked like - very Rikki Tikki Tavi I imagine.

I'm not a Bradbury disciple; I've only read The Martian Chronicles (which I liked and I'm going to re-read as soon as a copy appears back at the library).  Since Mr. Bradbury's recent death, I decided to read some of his most famous works (including Martian); this was on our Halloween display at work, so I picked it up.

It's very poetic and definitely has qualities of a word painting.  The Halloween Tree itself is a sharp, keen image in my mind now, a million jack o'lanterns hanging from spooky tree.

The "Marley knocker" at the beginning is clearly meant as an homage to A Christmas Carol - the entire book is sort of A Halloween Carol but only with Halloweens past and present (just a strange allusion to Halloween future in "the stars").

While the Halloweens past are all sharply in focus, and Moundshroud himself is purposely mysterious - he's Death, right? - the boys themselves are just ciphers for all boys, with Pipkin being Every Boy.  Pipkin's name is a quite interesting choice.  A "pipkin" is a "small earthen pot" or "wooden pail."  Pip, which they call him many times, is a the seed of an apple.  The Tree of Knowledge from the Bible was, at least in popular culture, an apple tree.  So maybe Pip represents knowledge, or perhaps innocence - a seed isn't a full tree, so Pip doesn't possess full knowledge of good and evil; he's an innocent.

It's not a perfect book - homage it may be, but isn't A Christmas Carol.  For all the poetic language, Bradbury's points about Halloween seem hammered in; he tries too hard.  Sometimes it feels a little didactic, which may be on purpose, but what exactly was the point?  Why these boys?  Why save Pipkin?  Of course, one could say the same thing about Scrooge - but the entire plot of A Christmas Carol revolves around the life and times of Scrooge, while these boys are merely ciphers to paint a picture of "why Halloween."

I am going to go find "On Fairy Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien, which is the classic explanation of fantasy, and see if The Halloween Tree falls into fantasy, and the "purpose" doesn't matter?

The Halloween TreeThe Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With fealty towards Dickens' A Christmas Carol (it practically begins a Marley knocker),this "Halloween carol" has shades of long poetry; Bradbury word paints various types of Halloweens from the past through the eyes of these Every Boys.  The Halloween Tree itself is the pinnacle, a keen, bright, sharp image of a million jack o lanterns and one spooky old tree.  Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud (one of the greatest names in literature) is the Ghost of Halloweens Past, Present and Future all rolled into one  hoodoo man.  As beautifully written as it is, some of the book felt like a film treatment - which is should, because it was first conceptualized as a film collaboration between Chuck Jones and Ray Bradbury (imagine for a moment oh children of the 70s that Rikki-Tikki-Taviish early 1970s cartoon - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W9V9S... -).  I didn't particularly mind that, although it occasionally became annoying; what I really disliked was that some of the book felt didactic.  More story, and less history of Halloween (no matter how beautifully written) - although perhaps that negates the entire point of the book.  It's still a great book to read the week before Halloween; like reading A Christmas Carol right before Christmas, this may become a new tradition for me.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood; illustrated by Don Wood (1987)

What's amazing about this gem of a book is that the story is an original one, but seems straight outta Grimm.  It makes you wonder - all folk tales had some origin; someone told them first. Now while I don't think Heckedy Peg is destined to be designated as "folklore" on some 25th Century library bookshelf (or some robotic space age version of a bookshelf, more likely), I wonder if other of our beloved classics will end up as such.  Folklore is different from literature in the fact that it's oral rather than written, even if it's been transcribed and written down and collected (and then re-told and rewritten).  But I wonder if something beloved like Charlotte's Web or The Pokey Little Puppy or even The Wizard of Oz in two or three centuries might be told and retold so much that the origins of the stories may be lost.  Folklore comes from non-literate people though; as long as there are words to read, perhaps the stories remain literature rather than folklore no matter how often they are told and retold.

Maybe this should be classified as a fairy tale.  Hans Christian Anderson made up all his stories; Oscar Wilde has fairy tales as well.  Heckedy Peg has fairy tale and folklore elements to it.

I actually thought the pictures were sort of realistically menacing.  One of the kids looks like an Irish midget.  They don't look happy, they all look evil.  I don't get it.   Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, which I read a few months ago after Mr. Sendak died, has that same 80s feel to it.  I thought the faces in Outside Over There were creepy, and I think they are in Heckedy Peg as well.

Terrific story, but less than appealing illustrations.

Heckedy PegHeckedy Peg by Audrey Wood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What's really amazing about Heckedy Peg is that it's an original story.  You are going to read this and think to yourself "Is this from Grimm?" or "Is this some (Insert European region here) folktale?"  Because that's exactly what the story feels like - something straight outta Andrew Lang.  It's not; Audrey Wood has crafted an imaginative story that combines fairy tale and folkloric elements but is completely fresh.  It would make a terrific read aloud - and could easily be told without any pictures at all.  I love the fact that the witch "jumped off the bridge and was never seen again;" there isn't some peacenik granola sort of ending in which the witch mends her evil ways. Probably the Grimms would have made sure the mother and kids eat the witch bit by horrifying graphic bit instead of the other way around, but the Woods probably had a line they couldn't cross, so it was better to have her peacefully drown (out of frame too).    It's the illustrations that were my main complaint.  I suppose art and illustration is completely subjective, but I found the oil paintings of the child protagonists to be vaguely menacing.  They could easily all be stand ins for Regan in The Exorcist.  I thought they all looked more evil than the witch (although in a meta sort of way, I suppose witches think kids are the ultimate evil, albeit tasty evils).

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

A Pulitzer Prize winner that started out really good, very promising, but I think about 3/4 of the way through fell apart.  The title bugged me the most.  Maybe it should have been called The Searcher: Discovering a Lost Book that Changed the World or something like.  Because that was what most of the book was about, this guy Poggio and his search for this book.  I think the book by Lucretius was influential, and I think Greenblatt successfully argues that... but most the book is not about "how the world became modern" but how this guy searched for this book and what the book was about.  I don't think I was disappointed or anything like that, just bored by the end.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson (1958)

Henry Reed, Inc. and the entire series weres some of my favorite books growing up.  My personal copy is a quite worn and beloved paperback.  They are very sophisticated books - the language and humor is defnitely on the upper end of the reading level, certainly fifth and sixth grade.  But even as a grown up, I still enjoy the situational humor immensely.  It's too bad Henry Reed isn't more well known, but at the same time, I'm really glad he hasn't been made into a movie.  A boy who loves books and information so much should remain on the printed page.

I don't think I realized that Henry Reed, Inc. was published in 1958.  It still has a timless quality - at least to me - and most of the situations he and Midge hilariously find themselves in could possibly happen today.  Like many books, the clothes are all off.  But if you tick through what happens to Midge and Henry, you find that they could be 21st century events too:

Finds and adopts a dog.
Chases after pet rabbit.
Opens small business in barn.
Mean, suspicious neighbors
Sells earthworms to fishermen
The small tractor breaks down in the middle of the road
Agony the dog stuck in culvert
The balloon incident
Finding the pottery when looking for mushrooms
The wasp nest
Putting the rabbit in the mailbox

Probably the only episode that may be a bit off is the painted turtle at the garden club - that seems very fifties to me.  And mixing up the cars - I can't imagine anyone leaving their keys in the ignition today. 

Princeton has probably changed considerably too. 

I do think that people are much nicer and less litigious in the book than they might be today. 

I was trying to figure out how old everyone would be today.  Henry is 13 in 1958, so he was born around 1945, making him around 67.  Midge was born around 1947, making her my mom's age.  Henry and Midge's parents' ages are never really mentioned, but I think we can assume that they were in their early twenties when Henry was born, making them all in the late 80s or early 90s (same age as my maternal grandparents).  Uncle Al Harris is older than Jane Harris Reed (Henry's mother) by about seven years (when he got stuck up in the tree, he was in his mid 20s and she was 17), definitely putting Uncle Al in his mid 90s; Aunt Mabel is probably the same age.  Author Keith Robertson was in his 40s when he wrote Henry Reed, Inc., which means I still have a chance for literary greatness.

The balloon incident still makes me laugh outloud. Keith Roberton's subtle use of language and character throughout the book to paint a complete picture of the the sour Apples and their rotten cat Siegfriend means that by this scene, you are gleeful when something bad happens to them.

All the incidents are really indirect results of Henry and Midge's "research", and the image in my head is always of them just aroudn the corner, or crouched behind the hedge, watching something unfold.  In my memory, that's exactly what we all did when we were tweens and early teens and watching something we did go awry (hitting the neighbor with a football in the head, for example).  Because Robertson's voice he creates for Henry is both self assured, reasoned, and matter of fact, almost all adults come across as boobs - which is exactly how 12 and 13 year olds think of adults. 

Henry Reed, IncHenry Reed, Inc by Keith Robertson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beloved favorite of mine, part of a fantastic series that should be read by more kids but isn't. Keith Robertson's humor is ebulliently deadpan (if that's possible), with one hilarious episode after another.  The book has aged remarkably well; it's from 1958, but I was reading it in the early 1980s and not really thinking that it felt old or dated; and twenty-some years later, I can pick out a few dated references, but not all that many.  Humor may change over time, but a really good writer of humor can make something funny regardless of the era in which you reading their work (see Mark Twain).  Robertson's characters and situations, as narrated by the stoic and reasoned Henry Reed, are keenly drawn. The balloon scene at the end still has me laughing out loud, even though I've re-read this book at least a dozen times.  

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Press Here by Herve Tullet (2010)

Is this really a book or a toy?  It looks like a book, it has pages like a book, it feels like a book - but it's interactivity seems to place it in the toy category. Conceptually it's really interesting - but it's not literature.  Or is it?  Who am I to say what literature is or isn't... it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, so it must be a duck, right?

Press HerePress Here by Hervé Tullet
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ambivalent reaction.  On one hand, the concept is fun and interesting, almost brilliant.  Little book haters (the can't sit still long enough crowd) are going to be drawn to the interactivity and wonder of it all.  But there is that pesky other hand, at least for me - is this really a book? Or is it a toy disguised as a book?  I would still probably recommend it or even give it as a gift based on the novelty  and clever meta, but I don't know if it's the same league as Mo Willems or the classic fairy tales...

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Dahlia by Barbara McClintock (2002)

For some (gay) reason, I've always liked stories about dolls and toys that come alive in some way.  Miss Hickory and the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories are two I remember from childhood.  The Toys Go Out by  Emily Jenkins is another; of course, Toy Story takes that entire idea to film (I guess Chuckie does too, but in a vile way).  The Velveteen Rabbit is another beloved one.

Dahlia by Barbara McClintock is about a little Victorian-era girl, Charlotte, who gets a doll from her Aunt Edme.  Charlotte seemingly is not a doll type of girl, regardless of how she's dressed or her golden ringlets.  Charlotte is a tomboy who'd rather play in the mud, collect bugs, and race wagons down the big hill with the boys.  But the more Charlotte plays with Dahlia, the more she comes to love her - and when something horrible happens to Dahlia, Charlotte realizes how much she has come to love and depend on her.

The last few pages are really the best - you think Aunt Edme is going to be this mean old woman, and when Charlotte brings a dirty, bedraggled but much loved Dahlia downstairs to show her aunt, you think Aunt Edme going to pull a typical old maid aunt thing and chew her out.  Instead, she says something delightful and wonderful, and you hope that little girls in the 1880s all had an Aunt Edme somewhere to encourage them in the rough and tumble world.

McClintock's Victorian illustrations are as good as any, and I liked her storytelling much better too.

DahliaDahlia by Barbara McClintock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More vintage-y Victoriana from Barbara McClintock, this time in the form of a little tomboy (Charlotte) who is given a doll (Dahlia) that she initial thinks she hates.  Friendships can be formed from the strangest pairings, and Charlotte and Dahlia become besties by the end.  McClintock's story is sweet and fun, and her gentle descriptions of the doll's changing attitude and face, from cold to warm, is quite lovely.  Aunt Edme could have been the stock mean old maid aunt, but instead McClintock creates an elderly Victorian female who isn't all prim and proper and who loves her niece for who she is.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry (1910)

As familiar as this story is, I don't think I'd every actually read it before.  At this point, it's over 100 years old, but still really fresh.  I suppose in 1910 it felt very modern; it certain now reads like a period piece, but in spite of that is easy to read and fun.  And funny - the entire story in one big joke, with a great punchline waiting at the end.

I supposed Home Alone owes much to this one short story.  The "Red Chief" trope will now exist throughout literature and entertainment, arising again and again in various plots, morphing to represent the times.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

While England Sleeps by David Leavitt (1993)

As I write this,  I'm only about half way through David Leavitt's While England Sleeps -- and I'm enjoying it immensely.  What struck me almost immediately about the book is the open, honest exploration of gay sex in the smuttiest, hottest terms.  That's in stark contrast to another book I recently tried to read - and finally put back on the shelf about half way through - Away by Amy Bloom.  Away is the story of Lillian, a Jewish immigrant who escaped from a Russian pogrom to come to America. She thinks that her entire family is killed, but eventually finds out that her daughter is still alive.  Lillian makes plans to go back to Russia to save her.   If this sounds like a book you might like, go out and find a copy, then let me know.  Because  blah blah blah - I hated this book.  I finally put it down (it's okay to do that) and went on to While England Sleeps. I have no idea what happens after Lillian finds out her daughter is still alive, because one of the reasons I hated the book was that I hated Lillian.  She's so utterly unlikable.  And she's surrounded by equally unlikable characters.  In books (and film, for that matter), I usually need at least one character I can grab hold of and follow breathlessly from start to finish, cheering them on and loving them (while maybe hating their actions). But Lillian was such a robot, hard and brittle.  Her voice was ugly, which made the book ugly.  

Remember, this is my personal opinion; this book came highly recommended from a podcast I devotedly listen to (the Slate Political Gabfest, if I recall correctly), I was incredibly excited to start it, and so so disappointed by it.  If you read the reviews on Goodreads, you will find plenty of devotees for the book.  Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review.  And I'm certainly not saying the book isn't well written.  I can appreciate its sparse language and the modern style.

One review on Goodreads stuck in my head. I attempted to find this review today but could not; Goodreads has 3,000 reviews of Away, not searchable.  So you'll have to take my word that this reviewer wrote:   "great sex scenes." Great sex scenes?  What the hell?  Did I read a different book than the reviewer?  Because the sex scenes in Away were hideous to me. They aren't great.    They were transactions.  They were perfunctory, mechanical, unsexy.  People did have sex in Away.  Much sex.  But no one seems to enjoy the sex they are having. Bear in mind that  I did put this book down half way through.  So maybe the later sex scenes are incredibly hot, steamy, semi-erotic and make you want to wank.

Because that's the sex scenes David Leavitt writes in While England Sleeps.

While England Sleeps - and remember, I'm not finished, I don't know the end yet, I'm only about half way through -  is a novel within a novel, set in 1930s England, about an upper class but poor writer, Brian Botsford, who is having a steamy gay affair with a tube station employee, Edward Phelan.  Both are in their twenties and having their first real sexual relationship (as opposed to sexual encounters they'd had before, either anonymous or of the schoolboy circle jerk variety).  David Leavitt's descriptions of their sex leaves no doubt that they are having the best sex of their young lives and that they love it. He writes their sex scenes just like gay men would talk about their sex lives, graphically, funny, and passionately.  The backdrop, of course, is Europe on the verge of darkness and Götterdämmerung and of Spain convulsed in Civil War, when anything and everything and nothing was possible, which makes their sex all the more urgent and wonderful.

The sex scenes David Leavitt writes are graphic but in a true way. There is nothing robotic here. Brian and Edward's sex is messy and sweaty.  Their sex isn't some transaction.  They enjoy and explore each other's bodies in the the most luridly and sensually written manner.  You may come away from half of Away with a tough question to answer (and one I'm not going hold my hand up at some Amy Bloom author reading in an independent book store somewhere and ask):  "Do you even like sex?"  I don't need to ask David Leavitt that.  He clearly likes sex, understands sex, writes knowingly about sex, and allows us to understand how important sex is, to these two  individuals, and maybe to us too.

I play this game all the time, and I'm sure you do to:  "Would I be able to live in this fictional world?"  Amy Bloom has created a world where sex is a weapon and something done to you.  In David Leavitt's world - or at least halfway through the world - sex is a choice, and fun one at that.


I finished this about an hour ago, crying like a baby.  SIGH.  What a wonderful, wonderful book.  I loved it so much.  It certainly took a left turn though.  I guess that's what good books do. Quite frankly, up to that point, as much as I was liking it, it could have an almost erotica feel to it.  Having that all abruptly end, with stupid Brian thinking he needed to marry a woman, and breaking poor Edward's heart - so romantic and heartbreaking!  I do so love a good book.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Molly and the Magic Wishbone by Barbara McClintock (2001)

Molly and the Magic Wishbone by Barbara McClintock (one of my favorite illustrators) is based on a tale by Charles Dickens (one of my new favorite authors).  It was written as a little girl of seven, which is a bit weird (and Carollian?).  Dicken's tale has some beautiful elements - the dance of the 18 cooks, as illustrated by S. Beatrice Pierce, was particularly beautiful, in a late 19th century kind of way.  Very Victorian.  The Dicken's story itself has a fairy tale quality about it, with a bit of bite (the King is poor, for example, and named Watkins).  The Fairy Godmother has a quirk about her that's quite likable and funny; she's definitely a type.  Princess Alicia, long suffering, good daughter that she is, has a friend, who is a doll, the Duchess, and Dicken's best passage in the entire story are about the Duchess:

IllustrationAfter the Queen had come out of her swoon that morning, and was dozing, the Princess Alicia hurried up-stairs to tell a most particular secret to a most particularly confidential friend of hers, who was a Duchess. People did suppose her to be a Doll; but she was really a Duchess, though nobody knew it except the Princess.

This most particular secret was a secret about the magic fish-bone, the history of which was well known to the Duchess, because the Princess told her everything. The Princess kneeled down by the bed 

This most particular secret was a secret about the magic fish-bone, the history of which was well known to the Duchess, because the Princess told her everything. The Princess kneeled down by the bed on which the Duchess was lying, full-dressed and wide awake, and whispered the secret to her. The Duchess smiled and nodded. People might have supposed that she never smiled and nodded, but she often did, though nobody knew it except the Princess.
and selfless Princess Alicia uses it to wish her poor father money so that they might make it through the month.  Because of that selfless wish, the Fairy Godmother grants everyone new clothes (there are 18 babies in this family, plus the queen, king and Princes Alicia; the queen is sick for most of the book, and no wonder, having had 19 children).  Then Princess Alicia gets married, which I suppose is the dream of many a little girl, but seems creepy that a little girl is getting married.  I wonder if they thought it was creepy back then?

Barbara McClintock takes this basic premise - a magic bone (still a fishbone but referred to as a wishbone), a disappearing fairy godmother, a sick mother, a selfless little girl, a passel of kids who keep getting into scrapes (although thank goodness not 19), poverty (no servants!); she scraps the wedding at the end, and instead of a wish for money, Molly (not Alicia) wishes that her missing sister Phyllis would appear again (she does, with the Fairy Godmother).  McClintock faithfully creates a Dickensian London for Molly and Company to inhabit, only instead of people they are all animals in people's clothing (similar to her previous Aesop's Fables, only this time it's not a play).  Molly and her family, plus the fairy godmother, are all cats and kittens; a great variety of animals exist in this London, including storks, bears, foxes, ravens, mice, a possum (I guess)bulldogs, a woodpecker, a lion and his wife (who looks like a greyhound), a pig, and so on.
A bit of weird - the cat family has a pet rabbit, who is sick - but turns out to be pregnant and has babies.  I thought this little strange interlude must have come from the original story, but it didn't.  The Mickey Mouse conundrum - why is Goofy sentient and Pluto is not?  Why do cats have pets?  Why aren't rabbits sentient?  
McClintock on her own isn't as good as McClintock and Aylesworth; the story is still charming, but it's missing some of the crispness of Aylesworth's prose.  It's still a worthy book, and whether McClintock is using Americana as her inspiration or Dickens, I love her illustrations.

Molly and the Magic WishboneMolly and the Magic Wishbone by Barbara McClintock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story is a gentler, sweeter version of Charles Dicken's fairy tale (although his fairy tale is still really gentle), a tale retold lovingly by Barbara McClintock, but even more lovingly rendered.  Her illustrations of cats and dogs and ravens and lions and other animals in Victorian costume walking the streets of Dickensian London are a joy.  Ebenezer Scrooge and Oliver Twist are just around the corner (as are the riverfolk and gentry gentlemen of The Wind in the Willows and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from Narnia).  A perfectly sweet, quiet little bed time story.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Away by Amy Bloom (2007)

I just can't finish this book.  The characters are so unlikable.  And the writing style is so goddamned modern.  I wanted to like it so much too, but I just couldn't.  They were talking about on of the gabfests - I think David Plotz mentioned it on the political gabfest, so I was quite excited to read it.  But it just isn't my kind of book - way too modern.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Aunt Pitty Patty's Piggy retold by Jim Aylesworth; illustrated by Barbara McClintock (1999)

I'm a total sucker for these Aylesworth / McClintock pairings.    Aylesworth writing style is simple, engaging, and full of repetition, making the books perfect to read aloud.  Aylesworth's illustrations are from the same idealized, stylized world as Norman Rockwell or Charles Wysocki or Grandma Moses (or Holly Hobbie).  And while these types of illustrations aren't for everyone, I love them - detailed, colorful, with something new and interesting to see every time.

Although nominally a story for kids, there is a small romantic back story for grownups hidden in the illustrations.

Aunt Pitty Patty's PiggyAunt Pitty Patty's Piggy by Jim Aylesworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm a sucker for the McClintock / Aylesworth pairings, and Aunt Pitty Patty's Piggy is as fantastic as all the others.  Aylesworth has a strong, simple, writing style that's perfect for picture books; his books beg to be read loud; Aunt Pitty Patty's Piggy has a rhythmic quality that will lead kids to anticipating then repeating key phrases.  McClintock's illustrations for Aunt Pitty Patty are her usual stylized pictures, reminiscent of Norman Rockwell or Charles Wysocki (or Grandma Moses) - intricate, colorful, busy.  She creates a romantic backstory for grownups that children probably will miss that was one of the sweetest things about the book.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Helpful Mr. Bear by Chizuko Kuratomi; illustrated by Kozo Kakimoto (1966)

Helpful Mr. Bear was another one of those books that came from Parents Magazine Press; interestingly the inscription inside (from my mom) says 1975, but the book was published in 1966 - a nine year old book that arrives "new."  I can't imagine that would happen today.  But I'm also now sure how the selections were made - if my mom got to choose or the company chose for us.  And there is absolutely no way my mother is going to remember (she's not a detail person like this).  On the other hand, that was the "Shiko-Sha Co., Ltd." date, so perhaps the American publisher got the rights in 1975.  If this was originally published in Japanese, who as the English translator - because he or she is not listed (another thing that probably wouldn't happen today).

Biography of Chizuko Kuratomi, from Literature Resource Center online database:  Family: Born March 30, 1939, in Tokyo, Japan; daughter of Kazuma and Matsuko (Kawamura) Kuratomi. Education: Attended Aoyama Gakuin Women's College, 1957-59, 1963-64. Addresses: Home: No. 106, 28-16, Kinuta 3-chome, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan.

Chizuko Kuratomi is a female!  I had no idea.    This is all I can find about her on the web; perhaps there is more in Japanese?

Mr. Bear was an extensive series, again something I did not know.  Interestingly, Literature Resource Center's bibliography of Chizuko Kuratomi doesn't even mention Helpful Mr. Bear.

Shiko-Sha Co. Ltd publishes, among other things, Christian themed books in Japanese.  Ergh.

The illustrations are "retro pop" ( a term I stole from someone's pinterest).

The story is really, really odd.  Maybe that's because it's Japanese?  A giant bear comes is lonely, comes down the mountain, causes havoc in the town of the little rabbits, who are both bemused and annoyed by the bear.  He leaves in shame after trying to help some rabbits working on the road and instead bursts a pipe.  The rabbits, as annoyed as they are, still love the bear, and honor him with a statue, a yearly trek up the mountain to visit him and bring him flowers, and a strange little song.

From a child's point of view - well, this child's point of view - I always felt really, really sorry for Mr. Bear and thought the rabbit's bemusement and annoyance was mean.  For a child, perhaps Mr. Bear is a standin for themselves, stuck in the world of grownups either yelling or laughing at something they did.

From a grownup point of view, I wondered if the story was a look at recent Japanese history.  Maybe "helpful Mr. Bear" is the United States?  And the little Japanese rabbits are both annoyed and bemused by his "help" but still like him anyway.

Or maybe Mr. Bear is a stand in for Godzilla.  It's 1960's Japan, afterall.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Very uneven.  I can't figure out whether I really like this book or not.  The steampunk, alternate universe premise is fun and appealing, to history buffs particularly.  The idea of the Darwinists in particular are intelligently thought out; the Clankers less so.  My main challenge with the book was the lack of character development.  Deryn Sharp seemed anything but sharp; Alek was a bit more developed, but everyone's motivations seems flat at best.  Like marionettes, they flew in living airships and operated machinery and interacted with talking lizards and had the fate of an alternate World War I in the palm of their hands - and like marionettes, they were obviously not real. 

Of course, maybe we find out more about them later in the series.  The almighty, money grubbing, series, sucking the life out of literature like a vampire. That maybe be a bit strong of a sentiment -  I don't mind a series of books where each book can stand alone.  Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa is a great example.  Each book builds from the preceding one, but can still (mostly) stand alone.  Connie Willis time travel books could almost be considered series as well.  But it's a book like Leviathan that annoys the shit out of me.  If it can't stand on its own feet without being propped up by the next book in the series, then I have a tendency to say fuck it.  I don't want to be forced to keep reading - keep buying actually - in order to figure these characters out.  I resent it. Either make it one big book, or start developing the characters.  There isn't anything wrong with saving some juicy tidbits for later books, but saving character development, that's not cool.

I finished this, finally, last night.  Slogged through until the end.  Books written like movies (or video games?  Although I don't play video games) drive me nuts.  This is a smart book written for stupid people.  I think I kept hoping this would turn into The Golden Compass

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6050678-leviathan" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px">Leviathan (Leviathan, #1)http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1275694232m/6050678.jpg
" />Leviathanhttp://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6050678-leviathan">Leviathan> by Scott">http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13957.Scott_Westerfeld">Scott Westerfeld

My rating: 2">http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/422497173">2 of 5 stars

A really great premise completely dumbed down.  Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials proves that a writer can write intelligent, rich, dense alternative history and fantasy for kids and still keep the pacing, plot and character development in the realm of literature AND still be a popular book.  Leviathan, on the other hand, feels pulpy, like a movie script re-written as a book; not just one movie either, but an hideously obvious series with a prerequisite cliffhanger.  I hesistated giving this two stars - the second is for the incredible world that Westerfeld created.  His world building is fantastic; the plot (between the many, many, too many battle scenes) is good; but the lack of character development (the two main characters feel like marionettes, interesting to look at but obviously not real) really hampers the story in the end.  This series is popular, and I'm obviously in the minority, but I just did not like this book.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

The Wonderful Eggs of Furicchia : A Picture Story from Italy by Anne Rockwell (1969)

This is my second venture into the picture book world of Anne Rockwell in as many weeks.  As a (former) children's librarian (although, like kings and queens of Narnia, "once a children's librarian always a children's librarian") I'm familiar with the works of Anne Rockwell, but only in a very superficial way.  They always seemed very simplistic to me, and not very interesting.  I was really surprised to find that Tuhurahura and the Whale was written and illustrated by Rockwell, because the story is complex and the pictures are so rich and deeply colorful.

The Wonderful Eggs of Furicchia is very much in the style of her later works, at least the illustrations.  The story isn't the "this is a car" and "this is a donkey" sort of simple text of the later Rockwells - in fact, it's very complex.  The style of the entire book is what I call "cheap sixties picture book."  The illustrations are great, the writing is good, but the entire look of the book seems cheap.

I loved the end of this story, so surreal and unexpected. 

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