Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Manqué & Anodyne

I guess I can use my blog for whatever the hell I want.  Like to collect interesting words.

man·qué  [mahng-key; French mahn-key]
adjectivehaving failed, missed, or fallen short, especially because of circumstances or a defect of character; unsuccessful; unfulfilled or frustrated (usually used postpositively): a poet manqué who never produced a single book of verse.Origin:
1770–80;  < French,  past participle of manquer  to lack, be short of < Italian mancare,  derivative of manco  lacking, defective < Medieval Latin, Late Latin mancus  ( Latin:  feeble, literally, maimed, having a useless hand, probably derivative of manus  hand).

In reference to Sarah Palin, who is most reliably and undeniable manqué!   "Recent events seem to confirm that she is an Obama-era novelty politician — and not much else."

II hope that adjective can't be used to describe me!

And another one:  

an·o·dyne  [an-uh-dahyn]  noun1.  a medicine that relieves or allays pain.
2.  anything that relieves distress or pain: The music was an anodyneto his grief.adjective3.  relieving pain.
4.  soothing to the mind or feelings.
 Origin:  1535–45;  < Latin anōdynus  < Greek andynos  painless, equivalent toan- an- + ōdyn-  (stem of odýnē  pain, with lengthening of ) + -os adj. suffix

Also in reference to Die Führerin from Alaska, from the same article.  Although clearly less Führerin as she was in 1998.  All Führerin  and no bite, so to speak.  

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Steadfast Tin Soldier retold by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Jen Corace (2013)

Why retell this story in the first place?

And then take out the sad ending, and replace it with a happy ending... why Disney-fy it?

In the Alderson version I just read, boys throw the tin soldier in the fire for no reason - pointless cruelty. And the winds of fate blow the dancer into the fire with him, where they are both consumed - but can not consummate their relationship.

The Rylant version has him pop out of the fire into the arms of his beloved - who had never even acknowledged him to begin with.  And he certainly never made his love known to her, one of the themes of the story.

Bah.  Why?  Wasn't Hans Christian Andersen a good enough storyteller?  This was an original story, no a fairy tale based on the oral tradition.  I think changing the ending is uncalled for -  a literary travesty.

The Steadfast Tin SoldierThe Steadfast Tin Soldier by Cynthia Rylant
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Why did the story need to be retold?  And then why change the ending so much? Every story doesn't need a happy ending.  I think Hans Christian Andersen was a good enough storyteller than he didn't need any additional help from Cynthia Rylant, no matter how great a writer she is.  Very disappointing.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

White Snow Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt; illustrated by Roger Duvoisin (1947)

This book is the same age as our house.  And my mom.

I certainly wasn't alive in 1947, but this book made me nostalgic. Not in a schmaltzy way.  Well, maybe in a schmaltzy way.  I think there are a bunch of people out there, when they think of snow, they think of snow like that found in White Snow, Bright Snow.  "Softly, gently in the secret night...  drifting, sifting, silent night... then without a sound, just when everybody was asleep, the snow stopped, and bright stars filled the night."

That's how I remember snow from my childhood. Exactly like that.  Perfect and silent and beautiful and wonderful.

Was there anything more precious and lovely than a silent night with snow on the ground and stars and a big bright moon above?

Was there anything more fun and wonderful than the first real snowfall, that first day.  And a really good blizzard?

Snow was made for kids, and this book proves that.

I love these old forties illustrations too.  So much.

White Snow, Bright SnowWhite Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think there are bunches of people out there of a certain age, who will read this book and have it take them instantly back to childhood.  Tresselt's people might be historical (and trite?) at this point (the postman, the policeman, the housewife), but the sentiment of first snow, and what it means to children, that's neither trite nor historical.  Snow may be a pain in the ass for grownups, but for kids in the real world, like in Tresselt's book, snow is a time when children laugh and dance and try catch lacy snowflakes on their tongue.  And there still is nothing more precious and lovely than "Then without a sound, just when everybody was asleep, the snow stopped, and bright stars filled the night."  Big contented wistful "sigh."

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Olson Family Matters, on Goodreads:  "Of its time. Text too long for the under-3 crowd. "  I agree with the sentiment that it's "of its time."  Certainly the illustrations are pure mid-century, and with a little less grace or charm than Burton's (the zenith of that time period in illustration).  But does that say something about our youth?  Were kids more content to sit and listen back in 1947?  I'm not sure it was written for the under-3 crowd anyway.  In fact, my edition clearly states that the book is for Ages 4-8.  And I think I may have a 1947 copy in my hands.

Boot & Shoe by Marla Frazee (2012)

The zenith of this book was when the squirrel threw something at the dogs.  It kind of looked like the squirrel vomited at the dogs, which is grosser and funnier, and I imagine some 9 year old boy thought the same thing.

The dogs look suspiciously like cats.  I thought they were cats until Frazee helpfully told us that they were dogs.

You know in the last Harry Potter when Harry and Hermione spend a huge chunk of the book doing nothing but waiting and complaining and traveling around aimlessly?  Boot & Shoe is that in miniature.

Boot and ShoeBoot and Shoe by Marla Frazee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was merely okay, mostly because of the squirrel.  The squirrel is the zenith of the book, and everything was the doldrums after that.  You know that part in the last Harry Potter where Harry and Hermione spend an inordinate amount of time doing nothing, wandering around aimlessly, arguing and moping?  That's what this book felt like, only in miniature.  Thank god Frazee told us the species of Boot and Shoe; they look suspiciously like cats.  I usually like Marla Frazee books, but this one just didn't float my boat.  Except for the page with the squirrel.  That squirrel, like all squirrels, is perfectly lovely sass on the page.

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Grandpa Green by Lane Smith (2011)

Ah man, this one made me tear up.    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  I love a book that makes me cry.  If you are like me, or know me pretty well, then you know exactly which page made me choke up.

That's a good kind of book.

The illustrations are lush and lavish.  And luxe - the book feels abundant and alive.   Ebullient.  Halcyon.  Nostalgic.  And then, finally, wistful.

A great gift for a gardener, that's for sure.

Grandpa GreenGrandpa Green by Lane Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lush illustrations and a sweet, wistful story that resonates long after you put the book down. There is one page in which I literally choked up and tears filled my eyes.  I love a book that makes you cry!

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A Pig Parade Is A Terrible Idea by Michael Ian Black; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (2010)

A pig parade may be a terrible idea, but this was anything but a terrible book.  Witty, delightfully deadpan, with wonderfully funny turns of phrase.  This type of humor isn't for everyone, and I'm sure when I turn to Goodreads more than one reviewer either will hate it (or suck the fun out of it).  But I loved it.  I'm not sure if I'd read it aloud -the humor may be too subtle. But I think when I was 10 years old I would have totally got this, and I totally get it now.

My favorite thing about the book, hands down, is that while the pigs are cartoon pigs on the first few pages, they turn into real pigs, doing real pig things.  And the twisted ending with the pandas - marvelous!

Goodreads Grinches:

Robert thought the book was "dismal and unfunny... not at all spectacular. Worst of all, the story lacks any justification for itself and fails in every respect."  Bah, humbug Mr. Picture Book Scrooge.  You clearly have no sense of humor whatsoever.  And are pedantic to boot.  Fuck you.  

Ashley "was not impressed with this book. It was silly and didn't make sense. Would be great to read to younger students but has no educational value."  Ashely, you are a fuckwit.  Literally - apparently all wit has been fucked right out of you.  Because a book has no educational value, it automatically is silly.  And I thought this would be hideous to read to younger children; their senses of humor aren't fine-tuned enough.  Clearly yours isn't either.

A Pig Parade Is a Terrible IdeaA Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea by Michael Ian Black
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A pig parade may be a terrible idea, but this book was as far away from terrible as you can get.  Witty, dead pan humor combined with Kevin Hawkes's absurdly realistic pig pictures to create a perfect little model of humor.  I dare you not to laugh out loud at least once.  

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

If you are going to write a book set in the late 19th/early 20th century, then write it so we feel like we are there.  Drop us  down in the middle of the late Victorian as if we are dressed in bloomers and shirtwaists and straw boaters and spats.  That's my main beef about The Night Circus.  It's not the story (as snaky and convoluted as it's been) - it's the fact that Morgenstern's Victorian setting feels like painted cardboard trees and flowers at the back of a high school stage.  Nothing feels authentic.  It's frustrating and more than a little annoying.

That's enough said about this book, other than a  good friend gave it to me, and I was supposed to read it and then discuss it with her and NOW I CAN'T because I didn't like the book enough to finish it.  I even gave it well over my 50 page rule - I stopped on page 154.

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

If you are going to write a book set in the late 19th/early 20th century, then write it so we feel like we are there.  Drop us down in the middle of the late Victorian as if we are dressed in bloomers and shirtwaists and straw boaters and spats.  That's my main beef about The Night Circus.  It's not the story (as snaky and convoluted as it's been) - it's the fact that Morgenstern's Victorian setting feels like painted cardboard trees and flowers at the back of a high school play.  Nothing feels authentic.  It was frustrating and annoying and took away from my enjoyment of the book.  I so gave this a game try too - 154 pages worth of excruciatingly game try.  What's embarrassing is that a good friend recommended this, and many of my goodreads friends loved this book.   What's wrong with me? (or what is wrong with you?  Hardy har har).

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I don't feel SO BAD now - some reviewers on Goodreads feel exactly the same way I do, only more so.  They obviously felt compelled to finish the book, which meant they wasted precious reading time on this piece of crap.  I, however, superiorily, did not. 

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer (2012)

A quite good mix of information about Elizabethan England, written like a travel guide.  Although a few parts were a little dullish (lists of facts), most of this was solidly likable.  Any nonfiction which I enjoy reading and I learned a few new tidbits is worthwhile reading to me.  I didn't know, for example, that there were two kinds of pox:  smallpox and the great pox.  Smallpox, which we are all familiar with, was rarely a lethal killer for adults until the 1630s, when "it turned into a lethal killer."  I had always assumed that smallpox had always been a lethal killer, but something  in smallpox must have mutated to become a dreadful and feared disease.  The great pox was syphilis, which did the opposite - started out as a lethal killer ("it would kill you in a few weeks"), and then gradually became the sexually transmitted disease we know today "which people can live with for decades."  (although with the rise of the superbug, that may be changing).  

I also liked the "envoi" (a new word for me, meaning:  the usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially :  a short final stanza of a ballad serving as a summary or dedication) in which Ian Mortimer espouses on the importance of history.  I particularly liked this sentiment:  

Our ancestors do survive and thrive.  We are the descendants of the survivors.  Elizabethans are not some distant, alien race but our families - they are us, in a manner of speaking - and they show us what human beings of capable of enduring.  They cope with plague, low life expectancy, child mortality, endemic violence, superstition, harsh winters and the taut rope of the law: humanity is remarkably resilient.  More than that, our ancestors overcome their adversities to build, collect, and create.  There might be a gnawing hunger in their bellies but they circumnavigate the world and sail to the Arctic, they laugh and sing, they cut topiary gardens and design banquets of sugar.  They look to the stars and chart a new course that the Earth follows round the sun.  They are afraid, and, at the same time, they are excited and in love.  

They are our families.  I'd never thought about people in the past quite like that before.  Interesting, fascinating characters, almost like actors in a play - but never family.  But that's what they are, right?  Our ancestors are our families, we are related across time and space.  We time travel through this book and others like it to visit them; but they are with us always as well, through their works of art and literature, their architecture and laws and scientific discoveries, through their music and religious changes - and physically through their genes.  They are us.  

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThe Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Overall, a strong, good piece of (pop) history framed as a travel guide, which in an interesting conceit. There were a couple of dragging sections (mostly when facts were listed) but those sections were few and far between. The Elizbethans were a fascinating bunch, but Mortimer made sure in his envoi at the end to remind us that "they are us;" that they "are not some distant, alien race but our families."  I'd never thought about people in the past quite like that before.  Interesting, fascinating characters, almost like actors in a play - but never family.  But that's what they are, right?  Our ancestors are our families, we are related across time and space.  We time travel through this book and others like it to visit them; but they are with us always as well, through their works of art and literature, their architecture and laws and scientific discoveries, through their music and religious changes - and physically through their genes.  They are us.  Any nonfiction book that's enjoyable reading, includes some new tidbits of information (I learned about not one but two poxes), and some philosophical pondering - to paraphrase that great Elizabethan William Shakespeare - this is the stuff that dreamy books are made of!

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I guess I started a post on this already, and then forgot about it.  Here is what I had started:

The earl and countess of Northumberland are served each morning with a "a loaf of bread cut into trenchers, a couple of manchets, two pints of beer, two pints of wine, to pieces of salt fish, six baked herring, and four white [pickled] herring or a dish of sprats."  That's bar-sized serving of alcohol per person to start the day with.

Everyone must have been drunk by noon back then.  (Harry Truman had a shot of whiskey every morning).

Libraries: Cathedrals of Our Souls by Caitlin Moran (2012)


Because it includes these beautiful pieces of prose:

The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books--but they were, of course, really doors: each book-lid opened as exciting as Alice putting her gold key in the lock. I spent days running in and out of other worlds like a time bandit, or a spy. I was as excited as I've ever been in my life, in that library: scoring new books the minute they came in; ordering books I'd heard of--then waiting, fevered, for them to arrive, like they were the word Christmas.

and this:

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate "need" for "stuff." A mall--the shops--are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy's taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins ; illustrated by Jill McElmurry (2013)

The Tree Lady was the 2014 Beatty Award winner (honors the author of a distinguished book for children or young adults that best promotes an awareness of California and its people) , so I decided to read it and see what the fuss was all about.  And I liked it!  The illustrations are good - not great, but good and strong.  The narrative is strong too.  It's a simple little nonfiction book, but tells a story I certainly didn't know, and could appreciate having been to San Diego numerous times - I think San Diego is beautiful, and know I know one of the reasons why!

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City ForeverThe Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Local southern California history.  If you love San Diego (I do) and think it's a beautiful berg (I do), then you'll learn one of the reasons why - this lovely and amazing tree lady Kate Sessions.  Strong and good pictures accompany a simple but solid and engaging narrative.

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Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne; decorations by Ernest H. Shepard (1926)

The last exposure to Winnie the Pooh I had (other than riding the psychedelic Pooh ride at Disneyland a few weeks ago) was listening to The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh in 2011, with a full cast of British Actors of Note.  I re-read my blog posts from way back when, and am now reminded of how much I thoroughly loved listening to it.

I wasn't so thoroughly in love with reading it this time.

I remember not liking this first Pooh book when reading them as a kid; I think I remember them as being difficult to read and understand (Paddington was worse; I had a good friend who loved Paddington, but I could never, ever get into them, finding them really hard reading; I've never tried them since).

Maybe Pooh is meant to be heard, not read to yourself.

I thought the interjection of Christopher Robin and Milne into the story was sort of awkward.

Some of the Shepard illustrations are terrific; a few are really, really sentimental and Holly Hobbyish.  Pooh illustrations have been pummeled into the ground by commercialism anyway.

"Pooh Goes Visiting" and  "Eeyore Has A Birthday" are terrific stories.  My favorite Pooh story of all time is still "Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded By Water," although I'm not a big fan of the ending.

I love "Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet Has a Bath."  It's a great story on face value - really funny.  It also has a great message about xenophobia and immigrants.  Rabbit is such a type - middle class values, wary of strangers, patriotic.  If Rabbit were American, he'd be a Republican, through and through.  Pooh and Piglet are the gullible masses, who at their heart know they are doing something wrong.

Winnie-the-PoohWinnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While a adoring devotee of the world of Pooh, I do think some of the stories are humorous.  I particularly like  "Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet Has a Bath" which is not only a very funny story, but has some sharp commentary on xenophobia how communities treat immigrants.  The entire cast of characters is here in full force (sans Tigger, who appears in the next book).  I really do think though that Winnie-the-Pooh needs to be read aloud or heard; it's not as much fun otherwise.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton (2012)

I think this humorously and charmingly characterizes what it's like to own a dog.  Haughton's illustrations, which are quite nontraditional and modern, really do the trick, particularly in depicting the dog George's eyes (the surprised cat is also funny).  There is also an "awwww" moment  as well, which I said audibly while silently reading the book.

I think this would also make a really cute read aloud.

I do have a quibble about Chris Haughton.  The first book I read by him, Little Lost Owl," was almost derivative of several books, including Are You My Mother? and My Mother is the Most Beautiful in the World.  Now we've got Oh No, George!, which is remarkably similar to Bark, George! by Jules Feiffer.  Both dogs named George, both with exclamations  ("Oh no, George!" verses "Bark, George!"  Obviously the stories aren't exactly the same, but there are enough similarities to cause me to go"Hmmmmm...."

Still, Oh No, George! is sweet and fun.

Oh No, George!Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charmingly and humorously characterizes what its like to have a dog in your life.  Haughton's story is sweetly funny, and the illustrations do the trick in capturing the dog George, particularly the eyes.  There was an audible "awwwww" moment for me at one point.  This definitely has interactive read-aloud-ability. Although I will quibble a bit - this was almost but not quite like Bark, George, enough to make me go "hmmmmmm..."  I don't think that detracted from the book's charm necessarily, but if I were Jules Feiffer I would be wonderin'...

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Little Lost Owl by Chris Haughton (2009)

Essentially, this is the same story as My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World , or at least it feels that way.  I don't have that older book (by Becky Reyner) to reference, but I remember reading it.  Since in today's polite society, we aren't really supposed to point out how ugly people are (which is sort of what My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World does at the end), I think this is a nice, equally humorous, sort of parable substitute.  The pictures are retro-modern - this could equally be at home in the children's library down the street from Mad Men as well as in the private literary stock of a hipster dad.  Anything with a sassy squirrel in it, particularly one that looks like Wile E. Coyote in squirrel drag, is okay in my book.  Oh yeah, and owls are cool too, always cool.  Three hoots at least!

I know, I just know, when I go to review this on Goodreads, there will be plenty of pablum about how this can teach children what to do when they get lost and blah blah blah...  and there may be even be some bullshit about stranger danger thrown in for good measure.  I haven't yet looked.. I'm a little afraid too...

I looked.  I was pleasantly surprised, but did find at least one pedantic school teachery review.  Fuck that person, but otherwise everyone else either got it (or detested the book).

Little Owl LostLittle Owl Lost by Chris Haughton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You should give a hoot about this one.  Although you may have heard a similar story before My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, this is a nice update.  It's a humorous parable, and you can take the discussion with whoever you are reading this with or to as far as you want.  I love the modern retro illustrations.  This book could be equally at home on the shelves of the children's section of the public library down the street from Mad Men or in the private literary stock of a hipster dad.  The squirrel is great, and looks some sort of The Island of Dr. Moreau cross between Rocky (of Bullwinkle) and Wile E. Coyote.  This wise old owl says yes.

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All the Small Poems by Valerie Worth (1987)


Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard,
Round, in neat flat rings.

Even cut and bunched
Arranged to please us
In the house, in the water, they
Will hardly wilt– I know
Someone like zinnias: I wish

I were like zinnias.


This clock
Has stopped,
Some gear
Or spring
Gone wrong -
Too tight,
Or cracked,
Or choked
With dust;
A year
has psed
Since last
it said
Ting  ting
or  tick
or  tock.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tillie Lays an Egg by Terry Golson; with photographs by Ben Fink (2009)

I love chickens.  They always look so sassy.  Or mean.  They are the Mean Girls of the barnyard.

I don't remember any chickens in Charlotte's Web, which I would say is the most famous barnyard stories.  A goose, a rat... a pig and a spider (of course).  The sheep were the Mean Girls of that book.  But no chickens that I recall.  Interesting.

Tillie Lays an Egg isn't the best book of all time, or the best book I've read in the last week.  But I like chickens, and it's photographs of chickens, and Tillie is a sneaky attitudinal chicken. So it's pretty good.

Tillie Lays An EggTillie Lays An Egg by Terry Golson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story - in photographs - of a sassy, attitudinal chicken.  There's not much more to be said, except if you like chickens (I do!) then you'll enjoy this book.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Ollie by Olivier Dunrea (2003)

Ollie won't come out.  Ollie is duck in an egg, and his siblings (friends?) Gossie and Gertie are waiting for him to come out, but he won't.

Olivier Dunrea also has a book called Old Bear and his Cub.   If gaydar is like a metal detector, then it just buzzed a little bit.  Awfully odd coincidence.

OllieOllie by Olivier Dunrea
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Awfully cute, and quite simple.  Would make a nice little read aloud, particularly in the Spring or around Easter.

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Except If by Jim Averbeck (2011)

Loved this picture book.  It's short and cute.  It has the same sort of narrative If You Give A Mouse A Cookie (I guess this is called a "circular plot").    This is a definition of a circular plot that I liked:  "A character would go through the entire journey of resolving the dramatic question only to end up right back where they started, with nothing solved."  Except (ha ha) in Except If there is something solved (the egg is actually a baby bird at the end).

I liked the illustrations in this one too.  They were simple without being doodles or scribbles (unlike the book I read and hated before this one); bright and large and colorful.  Perfect for reading aloud.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An easy, fun read-aloud with big, bright pictures and a cute, humorous (but not cloyingly so) circular plot.  Anything with a big pink(ish) dinosaur is tops in my book.

Peep! A Little Book about Taking a Leap by Maria Van Lieshout (2009)

I usually hate message driven children's picture books.  So I hated this book.  Quite a bit.

Who would buy this book?  Who would read it aloud to a child?  Why was this book even published?

Why is it about a chick?  What the hell was the green balloon,and why did it pop?

Peep!: A Little Book About Taking a LeapPeep!: A Little Book About Taking a Leap by Maria van Lieshout
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Why exactly do we even care about Peep the chick and his leap off the curb?  There are too many weird things about this book.  The illustrations.  The creepy green balloon and its loud pop.  The  scribbly illustrations that look like someone's doodles.  This seems like some sort of vanity project that was picked up and published, but I don't know why. I usually hate children's picture books with an obvious message.  I hate this book.

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From someone else's Goodreads review, someone who liked it :  "ideal to use at the end of a school year, celebrating successes and reassuring about readiness for new challenges."  Yes, but how?  It's too short and weird to effectively read aloud, and doesn't have a narrative to follow along.  I'm not exactly sure how one would use this effectively.  It's such a flat, boring story too.   Most message drivel is.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

It's actually sort of rare that I'm caught up with new literature, but in this case I'm on point.  A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki was one of the top reviewed books last year, read and still read in numerous book clubs, positively reviewed, made the semifinals of The Morning News Tournament of Books (http://www.themorningnews.org/tob/).  I used to say I wasn't a fan of modern fiction, but that has completely changed in the last year or so.  Actually, a more true statement would be "I used to say I wasn't a fan of fiction at all, outside genre fiction and children's literature, with some favorites thrown in (Forster comes to mind)."  That is really what has changed.  Maybe my branching out into classic fiction created a taste for good fiction overall.  Who knows.

A Tale for the Time Being reads easily but has so much depth.  It's a quick read, and I was almost instantly drawn into the lives of both narrators. Ozeki's book is about time (the title says it first), and she plays a bit with structure without the book becoming a confusing jumble - there is still an order here, like time itself, the book follows laws but bends them too.  The addition of a third character, the diary of Haruki, the Japanese soldier, bends this concept of time again.

Ozeki's use of the competing theories of what happens to Ruth in the last chapters - essentially magic (although it's never called that, I'm using that word) verses quantum mechanics was really quite brilliant and intriguing.  So if Ruth was able to travel through time, or Haruki #2 was able to manipulate time and space from another world - then what about the jungle crow?

Schrodinger's cat indeed.  At what point does a writer decide to combine quantum mechanics, multiple world theory, Japanese culture and history (both modern and early 20th century) folklore (Japanese, Salish), Canadian custom, small towns, art theory - and then mixes them all up in such a way that you get this beautiful story.  It's a definitely a wow.

Plot is important, but I think in a complicated story like this character is everything.  Without perfectly crafted characters, it would be a mess.

The idea that art is time travel was a concept new to me (I'm sure it's part of Proust, which I'm not going to read, and to which this book refers to continually); essentially that you are going back in time when consuming art, always to a time when whatever it is was being created, and that that the artist is talking to the future too, and that these exist simultaneously.  Like that cat.

If I related to anyone, it was probably Oliver - who has to live with a complicated person, and is a complicated person himself.  Ozeki's portrayal of their relationship, two people who are similar and dissimilar in important ways, really hit home for me.

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don't be lulled into thinking this is a lightweight book by how quickly you are pulled in and how easy and fun it is to read.  Ozeki plumbs the depths and breadth and width of the cultural and scientific concepts of time, with injections of the meaning of life and death and art along the way.  A chronologically complicated book like this is nothing without meaty, memorable characters, and Ozeki doesn't disappoint. Ruth and her teenage Japanese counterpoint Nao are strong, believable, intriguing and challenging; they are surrounded by equally solid and magnetic characters.  Jiko, the ancient Grandmother and Buddhist priest, is the lodestone of the story, the spiritual center, and she's one of the most interesting fictional characters I've discovered in a book in quite a while. Certainly one of the best books of 2013, and one of the best books I've read in quite some time.

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone (1973)

A stock re-telling of the Asbjørnsen and Moe tale, with Galdone's typical bright pictures - perfect for reading aloud.  I read this to a group of toddler two year olds in a storytime this morning, and I have to say, they were pretty wide-eyed whenever I roared out "Who is that tripping over my bridge."  Kids like being scared though - and it makes them feel good when the biggest billy goat kicks the troll's ass at the end (figuratively and then literally, right into the river).  No pussy-footing around here.

The Three Billy Goats GruffThe Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A stock re-telling of the well-known Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe tale, with Galdone's large bright, storytime friendly illustrations and easy to read (aloud) text.  Two-year olds will get wide-eyed when you roar in a big badass troll voice "Whose that tripping over my bridge" - but they will also be relieved when the biggest billy goat Gruff butts his butt right off the bridge.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers (2012)

I'm not exactly sure how to describe this picture book.  I know I liked it - very much.  I wanted to describe it as "surreal" but I think that I have bandied that term about without a lot of thought to what it actually means.  I certainly don't think the pictures can be defined in as "surrealism"in the artistic sense.  Nor, really, can the story.  "Surrealism" seems to be defined by dreams and hyper-distorted reality; surreal always leaves an unsettling taste in my mouth too.     A boy owning a moose isn't necessarily reality, it's also not hyper-distorted.  Perhaps a better way to describe it would be "deadpan fantasy."  Something about the tone reminded me of Terry Pratchett; and Mo Willems writes and illustrates in this realm as well.  

The best illustration, maybe the best ever in any picture book - the moose and boy going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

This Moose Belongs to MeThis Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not exactly sure what to call this, because "surreal" always leave behind an unsettling discomfort, and the story and illustrations of This Moose Belongs to Me left behind nothing but a trail of laughter and delight. "Surrealism" distorts reality with dreamlike imagery; there is some dreamlike imagery in this picture book, but it's more snorting with laughter than distorted.  Perhaps "deadpan fantasy" is a term to use (and that maybe I just coined,although I doubt it). Mo Willems writes in this realm; Dr. Seuss did as well, in his best books (except, thank goodness, Oliver Jeffers eschews poetry in favor of dry humor prose).  There is an illustration of a boy and his moose going over Niagara Falls in a barrel that may be the best illustration in any children's picture book I've ever read.

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The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At the Turn of the First Millennium : an Englishman's World by Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger (1999)

Lacey and Danziger lit up a Dark Ages a bit, at least the English Dark Ages.  Watching Vikings recently has me more and more interested in that time period.  We know so little!  I like the Anglo-Saxons.  I'm particularly intrigued by Queen Emma of Normandy, who was married to two kings (King Æthelred the Unready and King Cnut the Great) and mother to two more kings (King Edward the Confessor and King Harthacnut).  My knowledge of English history gets very spotty in certain spots, and anything before 1066 was one of them - until now!  She sounds like a kick ass woman, and I'm surprised she's not more well known.  

"It only takes a morning to read all surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry."  I wonder what great ones didn't survive.  
I thought of another cool tidbit about the book. That while dog poop and other kinds of poop survive from this time period, people poop didn't. "Human stools, on the other hand, have not often survived in a similarly cohesive form, suggesting that bowels in the year 1000 were subject to significantly looser motions than they are today.  Recurring gut infections and a diet with a high vegetable content are the likely reasons for this."  Wow!  History about poop.  That's rare.

Those Anglo-Saxons had filthy minds too, which is wonderful to contemplate.  Cold, long winter nights had to be spent doing something in the truly dark ages before electricity and television and nearly universal literacy and video games.  So they told riddles, and some of them were delightfully dirty:

I am a strange creature, for I satisfy women...
I grow very tall, erect in bed,
I'm hairy underneath.  From time to time
A beautiful girl, the brave daughter
Of some fellow dares to hold me
Grips my reddish skin, robs me of my head
And puts me in the pantry.  At once that girl
With plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting.  Her eye moistens.

It's an ONION!


A man came walking where he knew
She stood in a corner, stepped forward;
The bold fellow plucked up his own
Skirt by the hand, stuck something stiff
Beneath her belt as she stood,
Worked his will.  They both wiggled.
The man hurried: his trusty helper
Plied a handy task, but tired
At length, less strong now than she, 
Weary of the work.  Thick beneath
Her belt swelled the thing good men
Praise with their hearts and purses.


These were copied down by monks.  Great fun.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lacey and Danziger make the Dark Ages a little less dark - at least the English side of the Dark Ages.  A quick read, quite interesting,and concisely but interestingly written.  Some interesting tidbits strewn throughout (I'm fascinated by Queen Emma of Normandy now, wife of two kings, mother of two more - she sounds fabulous).  Interesting stuff.

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