Thursday, June 29, 2017

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)

I decided to subscribe to Poetry magazine, because I wanted to support poetry and poets.   Plus, I got a free canvas bag with a flying horse on it that is rad.   I used to think poetry - particularly new poetry - was mostly pretentious emperor's-new-clothes-ish bunkum.  Now after two months of the magazine, I will change "mostly" into "from time to time."  Each volume I've received in the mail has some poems that make me happy, and some poems that make me make a "what the fuck" face (that is, if someone were spying on my reading, which I assume they are not).  But I think that's poetry.  It's not always supposed to make sense, and it's not always supposed to speak to you in some meaningful way at that very moment.  Some poems have to age with you.  Other poems, you age out of.

In the first Poetry magazine, there were poems by  D. Gilson (here he is http://d.virb.com/ and he's really cute), he had two poems about children's literature and what happens to famous characters when they are all grown up.  One was about Where The Wild Things Are's Max, which was really funny and cute and interesting (although since roaring into American culture in 1963, Max has become ubiquitous, and perhaps less shocking as a choice for a poem;).  I liked that poem, but I also really liked his poem "Harold and the Purple Crayon" which you can find here:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/118554.  You can read the poem yourself and come up with your own conclusions; I'm not here to debate the merits of the poem, other than to say I liked this one equally well (and thought Harold as subject matter was more interesting).  But I did suddnely realize that I had never, ever actually read Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Not as a child; not as a children's librarian. I knew the story, or at least an outline of the story - boy with purple crayon draws his world.  I vaguely sort of thought it was the same as Duck Amuck, the famous Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoon.  But it's absolutely not.

 That Daffy Duck cartoon was surreal; it's weird and disturbing and bizarre, and in the surprise end (SPOILER ALERT) Bugs Bunny, the trickster figure of the 20th century is God.  Conversely, in Harold, little bald headed Harold is master of his own fate.  He draws his own world; there is no trickster artist hovering over him, painting pratfalls and pitfalls.   Harold does not live in the same world as Bugs Bunny; rather, he lives in the same world as Invictus:  "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." Harold creates a scary monster; he also creates friends. He creates a protector.  He creates beauty; he also creates danger.  He falls; he gets lost in the big city (how many artists have been lost in the big city, am I right?).  Following him, all along, is his first creation, the moon, a reminder of where he came from, and also there at the end when he returns home to the safety of his own bed.

Or - let's say I wanted to get really meta right here:  there is a God watching over Harold and directing his every move, and his name is Crockett Johnson; so the artist is god over his own work.; free choice doesn't really exist for Harold; his world, which is powered by illusion, is also an illusion.  Children's literature is neat.


Harold and the Purple CrayonHarold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In purple crayon, perhaps in another book, Harold writes "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." Except he's not. That's an illusion. Crockett Johnson is in charge of Harold's fate. And that's art. Or religion. Or Nietzsche. Perhaps everything. And nothing.

As an intellectual exercise, it's an interesting book. As an exercise in storytelling, it's an interesting book. But as a children's book you want to read to your four year old nephew or a group of kindergartners, it is not a particularly interesting book. And who wants to discuss nihilism or art theory with your four year old nephew anyway?


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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli (2014)

The Watermelon SeedThe Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a younger brother or sister, an older sibling - probably a brother - maybe told you if you swallowed a watermelon seed (or any other type of seed) that said seed would sprout and grow inside of you (I was the eldest brother; I'm sure some older neighbor enlightened me at some point, and then I in-turn told my younger siblings). The premise of this book is that a young crocodile loves to eat watermelon more than anything else (because: why not?), and then he (she? that is one of the many nice things about this book) swallows a seed and imagines the horrible result. I immediately went to the trickery of siblings (and older neighbors) -- although I will admit, the 70s were a different time to be a child. Terrific illustrations (watermelon colored!) accompany a short, fun to read (aloud) story; another famous seed The Carrot Seed has a similar comic/cartoonish feel; Ed Emberley sort of draws inspiration from this artist's well too.


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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell (2016)

I had to go back and re-read some of Witches of Lychford but they are such good books that it was completely worth it.  They are so short though - truly novellas rather than novels.  But the novella format doesn't detract from the punch and beauty of these books; they are deliciously fun to read!


The Lost Child of Lychford (Lychford, #2)The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Cornell's second venture into Lychford is as good as his first. The book is so short - it's another novella - that I'm afraid if I go to far into writing about it, I will give some important stuff away. Here's a list of important and intriguing things about the book: it's Christmas, a doppelganger (I've never encountered one in a book EVER, good job Mr. Cornell!), fairies (real fairies, not Tinkerbell), and three witches. If you've read this list and your eyes light up on each word, then this book's for you Read Witches of Lychford first; you can probably read both of them in about two hours or less. But I promise you, it will be two delightful, enchanting, gripping and wonderful hours.


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Friday, June 16, 2017

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco & Lauren Oyler (2017)

I don't like memoirs.  I can't think of one I've ever liked.  They are mostly unbelievable.  The more honest they get, the more unbelievable they are to me.

Alyssa Mastromonaco was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  Maybe Terry Gross should have been the ghost writer.  Because the interview was far, far more interesting than the book.

Lots of things lately have made me miss the Obamas (pictures of them dancing with C3PO and R2D2; every thing His Grand Poobah of Orangeness and his Cronies and Family says and does).  This, however, was not one of them.  It's heavy on the memoir and light on the work in the White House.

Perhaps there are still too many confidential things that can't be put in the book.  Then wait.

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White HouseWho Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will preface this with: I don't like memoirs. I really don't. I can't think of one memoir I've ever liked. If I'd known how "memoir-ish" this book was going to be, I would not have picked it up. I heard Mastromonaco talking with Terry Gross on NPR, and it was such a fascinating interview. Alas, perhaps Terry Gross should have written this book. Lots of things lately have made me miss the Obamas (pictures of POTUS and FLOTUS dancing with C3PO and R2D2; every single thing His Grand Poobah of Orangeness and his Cronies and Family says and does). This, however, was not one of them. It's heavy on the memoir and light on the work in the White House. Perhaps there is still too much classified information that can't yet be written. Then I say: wait.


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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard (2013)

Mary Beard is pretty fucking amazing.  I think this book was almost completely comprised of book reviews Beard wrote of a variety of other books - books about famous Romans and ancients (Augustus, Cleopatra), or books about classicists famous in their field, or even a graphic novel (a new Asterix).

I write book reviews too.  I now know they suck.  Beard is the master of book reviewing.  She is an excellent, sharp reviewer.  Her reviews are reviews, but they are also essays, informative, full of information.  And she knows her shit, and she isn't afraid to show it. Here she is writing a review about the Cleopatra book (I think it was the new one by Stacy Schiff:  "Cleopatra was born in 69 is just one of the many examples where modern biographers cherry - pick the parts of an ancient text that suit them and turn a blind eye to those that do not."  Beard is the hole puncher, the anti-cherry picker, she never avers; she always prefaces with "I have a hunch" and "I believe" with emphasis on the I.   She is utterly charming when she does so, and eviscerates with a twinkle in her eye.  She is professionally aware of the uncertainty of history that's 2,000 or so years old, and wants us to know that too

She doesn't just peck either.  Here is another review:  "Poetry is grilled for ‘ facts ’ that it could never yield . In one horribly memorable argument he takes a fragment of an epigram by the poet / historian Florus ( ‘ I don’t want to be the emperor / Strolling about among the Britons ’ ) as evidence to support his claim that Hadrian made his first inspection of Hadrian’s Wall on foot."

"One horribly memorable argument"  This is a take down.  Not mere pecking.

I love her.

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and InnovationsConfronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is primarily a book of book reviews that Mary Beard has done in various publications over the years.

I also write book reviews. I now know they suck.

Mary Beard is the master of book reviews. She is sharp and clever. Her reviews do actually review books she has read, but the writings found within this book are also so much, much more than mere book reviews. They are essays; they intellectually challenge; they are treats for the mind; they are all so damn good. She knows her shit, and she expects other authors and scholars and historians to know their shit too, and when they don't seem to know their shit, she calls them out on it. She is unafraid. Beard is the hole puncher, the anti-cherry picker, she never avers; she always prefaces with "I have a hunch" and "I believe" with emphasis on the I. She is utterly charming when she does so, and eviscerates with a twinkle in her eye. She is professionally aware of the uncertainty of history that's 2,000 or so years old, and wants us to know that too.


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Julian by Gore Vidal (1962)

I was sure I had read Julian before - maybe in college?  - but this so-called reread felt like a first time.  Nothing struck me as familiar; I didn't read a single passage that stuck out.  Only the bare bones of the story was familiar.

Gore Vidal's prose is dense but enjoyable, sort of like wading waste deep in chocolate.  Not that I've ever actually pulled an Augustus Gloop and waded into any sort of chocolate river, but hopefully you get my drift. I kept wondering "why Julian the Apostate?"  He's not exactly a character from history that rolls of the tongue in a game of charades.  I suppose in Julian's time, there existed this razor thin line between the western world becoming completely Christian on one side, and Julian succeeding in bringing back the old gods on the other.  Perhaps something about the late 1950s struck the same chord in Gore Vidal.  Julian ends up being a fascinating character all the same, and the structure of the book - two unpublished memoirs of the emperor, with notes and asides by two philosophers (it makes more sense when you read it).  Did Gore Vidal do this kind of thing first?  The Autobiography of Henry VIII with notes by his Fool Will Somers by Margaret George is another example of this type of historical fiction that I have read and enjoyed in the past.

I like his fiction about the United States - Lincoln, Empire - better than Julian.  I always mean to read more Gore Vidal and yet never do.  So many books, so little time. 

JulianJulian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Exceptionally good historical fiction; Gore Vidal's fiction is dense but enjoyable, sort of like wading waste deep in chocolate (not that I've ever actually pulled an Augustus Gloop and waded into any sort of chocolate river, but hopefully you get my drift). Julian is a fascinating character and Vidal certainly writes him into reality; this isn't paper doll historical fiction. It's also a fascinating setting and time period: the transfer of power from pagans to Christians was relatively fast paced; in less than a hundred years, the Roman Empire and its dominions completely switched religions and thence power structure. There was this brief time of Julian's reign that Christians sat on the thin edge of the wedge, but his untimely death changed that (literally) over night. Setting and character are important, but in this particular novel, it's Vidal's often witty and thick prose that truly and literarily delights.


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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (2011)

I continue to enjoy the Penderwick sisters, especially because of the narrative skills of audio reader Susan Denaker, but this was the weaker of the series so far. Three of the four sisters (plus their friend, Jeffrey Tifton, the Laurie Lawrence of this novel of sisterhood) head to Maine for a seaside vacation, but the promise of ocean adventure never materializes.  I suppose what makes the Penderwicks so charming is their series of insignificant perils, small accidents, and comedies of errors, but with a seaside setting, I was expecting more seaside circumstances.   Birdsall made different writing choices, and I won't fault her for that; the story is still charming, if a bit soap opera-ish towards the end.


The Penderwicks at Point MouetteThe Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Penderwicks under Birdsall's obviously loving pen are still the modern Marches; while never exactly paralleling those famous sisters, Jo and Co. are like the Penderwick sisters Roman lares. But this go round, the magic was just a bit faded. Like wearing a comfortable but worn part of blue jeans, you will enjoy the story, but it won't be as new and exciting as the first time you met them. The seaside setting is almost never used, and while I suppose the joy of the Penderwicks is their penchant for getting into small accidents and insignificant perils, and always experiencing the comedy of errors that is the life that precocious and smart young people of books inhabit, I was expecting more oceanic adventures that never materialized. The soap opera ending wasn't my favorite either. But definitely worth a listen (Susan Denaker as narrator is still ice cream), although not quite as good as the first two outings.


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