Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Logical Famly: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin (2017)

When I was a little baby homosexual, newly out (or nearly newly out at least) of the closet, I read Tales of the City.  I may have even read the next book in the series.    I don’t remember all that much about it, to be completely honest (this was 25 years ago).  It was during a reading time in my life when I wanted to read books by and about gay and lesbian authors.  I checked it out from the public library, because I couldn’t afford to buy books.  And I remember the plot twist about Anna Madrigal (and wasn’t her name an anagram?).  I don’t remember disliking the book(s).

“My youth would be.... the slow decay of cherished myths—about politics and race, about love itself—until nothing was left but compost from which something authentic could finally begin to grow,” he writes, in one of the more beautiful passages in the book.  This was particularly true for him.  His southern upbringing was filled with the casual homophobia and intended or unintended cruelties that many gay men endured - and still do.  When Maupin was a young adult, being gay was a crime, and a far more shameful thing than the freer times of today.  It’s still not easy to grow up a gay man, but doors have opened. This is in large part due to the deeds of men like Maupin, who were pioneers and fighters in battles for equality, some of which have now been won.

Maupin’s memoir was mostly a good read - I say mostly because 1) I don’t tend to even like memoirs (This was for my book club) and 2) I thought the first half of the book was more powerful and interesting than the second half.  He’s a genial name dropper but in the best kind of way.  No names were redacted or changed, and Maupin’s fame meant he was friends with quite a few people.  Rock Hudson! Christopher Isherwood!  He also brushed up against a whole box of 20th century gay icons or anti-gay villains.  Harvey Milk!  Jesse Helms (he worked for him as a young man)!

San Francisco was the kind of gay Mecca that no longe exists, and Maupin writes lovingly of living there.  He also writes about that idea of young adult creating their own families, something I think many gays of a certain age run up against.  “Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives.”  Maupin was lucky; too many of us have trouble finding this, and being without a biological family in close proximity can be lonely.

Logical Family: A MemoirLogical Family: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maupin’s memoir was a pretty good read; I thought the first half of this was better than the second. Maupin, being who he is, rubbed elbows or at least brushed up against quite a few equally or more famous people in his lifetime, and he’s not afraid to genially drop their names. Rock Hudson! Christopher Isherwood! Laura Linney! It made the book fun, and while there is definitely a feeling of bragging going on - isn’t that what memoirs are for? To brag and air some dirty laundry. Maupin does both, and fun was had by all.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)

I’ve read Deathless twice, and each time has been a rich literary feast.  Valente is a superb at her craft; paragraphs are like fine dining here, with each word carefully chosen and mixed and baked and prepared, then all placed before you.  This time I paid close attention to names: like magic, names and words have meaning here.  “Marya Morevna”, for example, is a fairy tale character from Russian folklore; “Marya” of course is a derivative of the name “Mary” which, among other things, means “from the sea” (Marya is originally from St. Petersburg, the fantastic port city of Russia) and “bitter” and “rebellion” - all of which describe the main character.  Valente has been thoughtful like that throughout - although I did need to google quite a few things as I went along.

When trying to explain what this book is about, I’m always saying “It’s the Russian Revolution told through the point of view of Russian folktale characters like Baba Yaga.”  It’s indeed that, but even more so, it’s the story of Russia.  I read that the three bird suitors at the beginning describe types of revolutionaries and also classes.  There is, of course, the archetypical Russian village Yaichka.  And then there is this line:

“ I think maybe Russia had two husbands, too, and one was rich and one was poor, one old and one young, and the poor husband shot the rich husband in the chest, and all his daughters, too. He was braver than I am.”

I liked this puzzle aspect of Deathless, and its literary lyrical quality, and how each reading was something slightly different.  And how not everything was instantly knowable or made sense; this book has to be savored, and some of the tastes are completely unfamiliar and unknowable.

Marya’s sisters are the same names as that of the daughters of the last Tsars.  I think I missed that the first time.
Deathless (Leningrad Diptych, #1)Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read Deathless twice; each time I’ve come away from Valente’s literary Russian feast totally sated from its richness, its baroque lusciousness. Deathless is a retelling of a beloved Russian folktale (it’s in Andrew Laing’s Red Fairy Book); it’s also a retelling of the Russian Revolution as it happened to all of these Russian fairy tale characters (and so much better than Animal Farm); it’s also an Alice in Wonderland history of Russia in the early 20th century. I love the lyrical literary writing; I love the puzzle the book is. Like magic, names have deeper meanings - Valente chooses everything with care (Google translate was helpful here; a smattering of Russian history may be helpful too). Not everything works - but Valente’s fine writing skill and craftsmanship makes even the occasional bit of plot clunkiness a joy to read.

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Friday, March 9, 2018

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie (1936)

First UK edition
I've read The ABC Murders before.  What I remember from the book so many years before was being disappointed by the ending.  It all seemed to so unbelievable and so pat.  I did not read Agatha Christie chronologically when I was in seventh and eighth grades; I read them in whatever order I could get my hands on. I used to own at least 25 paperback versions that I would save up and purchase (which I stupidly got rid of about ten years ago; dumb dumb dumb me); or what I could check out at the library.  I am almost certain I wanted ABC Murders to be another Ten Little Indians/And
Then There Were None
.  That novel had a serial killing psychopath (no spoilers here though), and I wanted the same kind of serial killer in The ABC Murders as well.  The book starts off that way, but it just didn't end up where I wanted it to.  It was Ten Little Indians.

Of course, The ABC Murders was written several years before The ABC Murders, and perhaps Agatha took some lessons from one and applied them to the other?

Here is my favorite line from the book.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A weird and gripping book; Christie plays around with narrative in such interesting ways, far more than I think she's ever given credit for. Although I don't believe she ever uses the word "serial killer" in the novel, she has her characters - including the famous Hercule Poirot - discuss the motives and psyche of serial killers. She uses language - and tropes - when discussing these types of killers that writers of fiction, and script writers, still use today. Did Agatha Christie invent the fictional serial killer? This isn't my favorite Christie, but I still enjoyed it (even, if only for this time, she didn't keep me guessing until the end). 

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones; narrated by Gerard Doyle (1988, 2006)

Adult characters in the books of Diana Wynne Jones are often obtuse, usually stupid, occasionally uncaring or neglectful, and almost always completely unaware of how children act and think.    Lives of Christopher Chant has all of these adults in spades - it's mostly grown ups in this world - plus a couple of purely evil characters.   A sociopath  and also a tyrant, both of who are really disturbing.  Her children aren't all sugar and spice and everything nice either - Christopher Chant has terrible parents, and he can't help being a bit terrible himself.  But at least he's aware of it.

This wasn't ever one of my most favorite in the Chrestomanci series, but I have to say, Gerard Doyle's narration made this a superb listen. He's really able to bring out the very best of what Diana Wynne Jones has to offer.

I'm always sad when I finish one of her books, because I want them to go on forever; I also am sad because she is no longer with us, and there won't BE ANYMORE.  That's a horrid, horrid thought.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gerard Doyle, once again, superbly brings to life the world of Jones and Chrestomanci.

I'm always so sad when one of her books ends; I want them to go on forever. It's also horrid to think that there won't be any more Diana Wynne Jones books ever again. That's always a sobering thought for me. I'm certainly an addict: I want an endless supply, one after the other.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 edited with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler; John Joseph Adams, editor (2016)

I didn’t like the first short story in this collection (and e-book I purchased), so I kept putting off reading it.  That was a mistake.  Almost every other story was enthralling.

“The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link -  weird and puzzling, in all the best kinds of ways.

“Interesting Facts” by Adam Johnson - I sobbed; so moving and sad

“Planet Lion” by Catherine M. Valente - I just finished Valente’s Deathless (literally a few moments ago); I appreciate Valente’s writing so much.  It’s careful and exquisite and lovely and moving, even if I don’t always understand it.  Her writing always sucks me in.

“The Mushroom Queen” by Liz Ziemska - I think this was the best story in the whole lot; it was really weird and cool.  That ending - man alive - so good!

“No Placeholder for You, My Love” by Nick Wolven - a very old fashioned kind of science fiction short story that reminded me of Robert Silverberg - but in all the good ways.

“Things You Can Buy For a Penny” by Will Kaufman - this vies for my favorite; I loved this new folktale.

“Rat Catcher's Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders - Anders near future forecasting is frighteniningly real and also often funny as hell.  This story definitely sits in the same universe as All the Birds in the Sky, even if nothing in that other book is ever mentioned or referenced.   Anders has a distinct literary voice, a voice I usually like.

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson - another one that was puzzling and weird and sort of wonderful, and also sort of like a really good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, only from the point of view of the advanced aliens.

It’s better to tout the good things in this book that talk about the few stories I didn’t care for, so I’m going to leave it at that.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The stories in this collection that I deeply dug far outweighed the stories I found ho-hum. This was a strong and good collection of the best of that particular year. If, for some reason, you are only going to choose and read three stories from this book (a mistake but...) then I highly recommend Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” (a wow of a story, really amazing); Will Kaufman’s “Things You Can Buy for a Penny” (a new folktale that’s wonderfully well written), and Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni” (it’s like a rad episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, only told from the point of view of the strange advanced alien civilization). Honorable mention for me is Charlie Jane Anders’s “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” - this writer has frighteningly real forecasts of the near future but always with some wit and humor (and maybe hope); Anders has a point of view and literary voice that shines very bright.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan by Ashley Bryan (2016)

In what seems like long ago, in a far away galaxy, I was a children's librarian.  It actually wasn't all that long ago - six years - but it seems like an eternity.  I'm now a library administrator - and let's be brutally honest, that's not the most glamorous of jobs - but I still read some children's literature, particularly picture books.  I used to eagerly look forward to the Newbery and Caldecott award announcements.  I was often at the midwinter conference where they were announced; once I was at the announcement, although that was always quite early in the morning.  I would then make sure my library had all the books, and if not, I would order them.  And I'd often read most if not all of the books.  That life is now behind me.  

Freedom Over Me was a Newbery honor book as well as Coretta Scott King honor book.  I didn't realize this until I looked it up online - part of the fall out of not being a children's librarian.  I never know the new books.  I also read this on my phone - and wasn't able to see the neat little medal on the front cover.  I did take a gander at a physical copy, but only briefly.  

Reading a picture book on your phone is just NOT the best way to read a picture book.  You definitely miss out on nuance, and also on grandeur.  It just looks flat and mostly unattractive.  Even so, I could tell this was a lovely, and moving book.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sad, grand book. Ashley Bryan's illustrations are vibrant, sumptuous, spirited. They draw you into the real lives and dream lives of the eleven slaves Bryan is writing about and creating art about. You feel their pain, learn their stories, feel their joy. A real masterpiece.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild (1966)

I bid on and won this beautiful old copy in a silent auction of books at a library; it is an old elementary school copy.  I’m loving old library copies right now; there is something comforting about owning an old book that had been loving held by many hands and read eagerly by many eyes.  I’m buying altogether too many of them - although, is there such a thing as “too many books?”  I don’t think so.  I want to be surrounded by books for the rest of my life.

The book may be a lovely object, but I have to admit, I didn’t particularly care for it.  Four children are forced by dire circumstances - a deathly ill father far away from London in Asia, and a mother who has to go tend to him and bring him home - to say with a mad aunt in the wilds of Ireland (circa 1966).   Sounds like fun, but something about my pesky modern sensibilities made me question much of what was going on.  I recognize this mad aunt from my own childhood - she’s a cross between my reclusive, witch-like elderly neighbor growing up and my very dramatically creative art teacher from the same time period.  But no modern parent would run off and leave her children with such an unknown quantity today.  That’s grinchy of me, I do understand that.  But there was plenty about this book I just didn’t buy.  The characters seemed undeveloped, and their annoyance at this mad aunt throughout the book, instead of annoying me, was completely understandable.  I, too, would not have wanted to stay at a dirty, scary house with a crazy woman.  There is also this nutty, unbelievable subplot with a boy trying to escape from an unnamed communist country hiding out in the aunt’s house that just seemed really extra to me - why in was it even there?  I know Noel Streatfeild is beloved - I tried and failed to read Ballet Shoes (or maybe I was trying to listen to is?  I don’t remember), but I don’t think I can count myself as a fan.

Who I am a fan of?  Edward Ardizzone.  He’s one of my favorite illustrators.  He’s the reason I bought the book in the first place, and why I kept on reading.  Among many books, he illustrated one of my top favorites, Eleanor Estes’s Pinky Pye.  His illustrations are pen and ink (I think), and I’m not sure why  I love them so much - I just do.  I think I would call them “impressionistic” except I don’t know if I’m right about that or not.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t think I’m a fan of Noel Streatfeild. I didn’t particularly care for this book; I thought the characters were disjointed and the plot was unbelievable - and not in a magic way. The cover of this book says that it is “a story of mystery and adventure in Ireland” - which was patently untrue (at least to me).

Who I am a fan of is the illustrator, Edward Ardizzone - it was he who kept me reading until the end. I purchased this as a lovely old used library copy, and as an object of art, this is a beautiful book. Ardizzone’s illustrations are elegant little pen and ink impressionistic portraits and scenes. I’m not suggesting skipping the book and just looking at the pictures. But I know I liked the pictures much better than the actual book.

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Friday, February 9, 2018

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)

This book has buzzed like a hornet's nest for two years.  A good friend from my book club read and revered Uprooted last year.  It's definitely been on my radar.  I'm glad I finally got to it, because it was really great! 

It has a very intense plot.  Nominally a fantasy book, there are elements of horror that pop up here and there - giant walking sticks and preying mantises that rip off people's heads, enchanted wolves and boars that rip open unsuspecting villagers.  There are strands of ideas from other books and folklore that run through Uprooted as well - Beauty and the Beast immediately will come to mind (which has its own elements of horror); I think the modern reader will also see a bit of The Hunger Games as well (John Christopher Tripod series also came to mind, but that allusion is a bit more unknown). Stephen King's IT has some similarity (the idea of the valley that's under the spell of this evil entity for generations; again with the horror).  But what I was most reminded of, again and again, was Tolkien's Old Forest.  I don't know Novik's influences (this is the first book I've ever read by her), but surely Tolkien played some part in her literary upbringing.  This isn't a copy of Tolkien - I would have thrown THAT book down in disgust - and not really an homage either.  Rather, the spirit of the Old Forest haunts the novel; it sort of like she asked herself at the very beginning "What if I wrote a book about the Old Forest" and then just went with it, whole hog.  The Old Forest in Tolkien isn't ever as terrifying as Novik's Wood - but it could have been.  Old Man Willow would be right at home in the Wood, and The Spindle and the Withywindle could be the same river (Mirkwood's enchanted streams start in this place too).  

I also though the title was germane - this concept of being uprooted really flows throughout the novel in a clever way.  The word is mentioned three times: 

And even before then, it occurred to me in a flash of bitterness, he had meant to steal her for himself—he’d meant to take her as much as the Wood had, to devour her in his own way. He hadn’t cared about uprooting her life before, making her a prisoner in a tower, only to serve him—why would he care now, why would he ever risk letting her out?

"I looked up into Kasia’s face, hungry for one last sight of her, but the Wood looked out of her eyes at me: black rage, full of smoke, burning, roots planted too deep to uproot. Kasia still held her own hands away from my throat."

“Do you?” Alosha said. “Tell me, if I said to uproot every person living in your valley, to move them elsewhere in the kingdom and abandon it all to the Wood, save them and let it all go; would you come away?” I stared at her. “Why haven’t you already left, for that matter?” she added. “Why do you keep living there, in that shadow? There are places in Polnya that aren’t haunted by evil.”

You think, at the beginning, that "uproot" is about Agnieszka being uprooted from her home and forced to live as a slave of some sort to the Dragon - but it soon becomes clear that the word "uprooted" has some literal meanings that relate to the Wood.  I really liked this imagery.

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A complex plot; precise, imaginative writing; memorable characters; and a setting that both feels familiar and unusual made this a splendid read. Nominally a fantasy book, Uprooted has shades of horror haunting its edges (for example, giant man eating walking sticks). There are strands of folklore and fantasy running through the novel too - Beauty and the Beast for sure, but most notably Tolkien's Old Forest. There is noting derivative here though: Novik's novel is fresh and original, exciting and unexpected. Excellent and clever writing; I liked the imagery throughout. Definitely deserves the recognition it's received since being published. 

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Friday, January 26, 2018

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (2017)

About a fourth of the way through, I thought this book was kind of dumb but fun.  The plot was engaging; Scalzi had done a pretty good job of setting up this believable world of an empire in space connected by a “flow” that space ships can travel in and beat the long distances without any  Einsteinian problems.    I still don’t really understand how the “flow” works - but to be completely honest, I don’t really care.  In science fiction there is “science” and there is “fiction” and I’m always much more interested in the fiction part than the science part, as long as the science is plausible and (mostly) believable.  I am pretty sure this is what you would call a “space opera” which to me is always the type of book (or film) that sits neatly with Star Trek and Star Wars - adjacent galaxies in the same universe.  The last science fiction book I read and really enjoyed was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and at no point in that book would Luke Skywalker or Jean Luc Picard fly up in a ship to say in hi or beam aboard.  But the Enterprise could easily dock at “End” or “The Hub” in The Collapsing Empire, and the reader would not even blink.


The big secret in the book is that “The flow” is collapsing - which will eventually lead to the collapse of the empire (hence the title); I realized (and you will too) that this collapse was a sort of metaphor for our own collapsing climate.  In this first book in the series, we don’t yet know the consequences of the collapse (it’s just beginning).  The same as we are living through right now - once we pour through the climate change funnel, what WILL the world look like?

The book feels a bit like Dallas or Dynasty in space, which could be a bad thing isn’t the wrong hands.  But Scalzi is a fun writer; his world building is pretty sound, his characters are soapy and wonderful, his plot engaging.  I think I’ll read book 2, out in Fall 2018.

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency #1)The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In 2018, can I still compare a piece of literature or art to Dynasty or Dallas? I expected the very last page to have a door open to reveal J.R. Ewing as the mastermind behind all the drama in the book. This is a night time space opera, with lots of drama and sex and a cast of characters that would feel equally welcome at the helm of a spaceship or shopping at Neiman Marcus with Sue Ellen Ewing (after which they get into a fight and throw one another into a duck pond). I find Scalzi to be enjoyably soapy and pulpy - but there is a needle in the midst of this that pokes the reader and reminds us, soberly, of or our own current “collapsing empire.” Even with (or perhaps especially because of) that bit of a bite, this is still great fun.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones (1980)

All Diana Wynne Jones books are complex reads.  The plots are intricate puzzles, the characters are delightfully quirky; the settings unique; the ideas and world building out of the ordinary.  There are some writers I ponder - where did they get this idea?  Diana Wynne Jones is probably number one in this respet for me; I'm always intrigued and gobsmacked at the genius of her plots and settings.  Magicians of Caprona is no exception.  Did she go see Romeo and Juliet, or read it, and hear "two houses, both alike in dignity... from ancient grudge break to new mutiny" and think "A-ha, I can set my next Chrestomanci book THERE.  But not exactly..." and her pen begins scribbling and scribbling (or typing and typing or however she wrote) and out comes this astonishing book.

And it's a book for kids.  This complicated book, complete with a Latin song towards the end, is a book for kids.

Jones is so much better than Roald Dahl.  She's better than Rowling too.  Or at least equal. 

Let's not kid ourselves here though:  Jones isn't for EVERY kid.  Jones is for smart kids, kids who not only love to read, but also love to explore, who love language, who understand a bit of history, who have quirky senses of humor.

Magicians of Caprona is also sort of scary, in several parts.  The villain is really quite terrifying - especially at the end.  There is a terrible, terrible scene involving a Punch and Judy show that was also scary as hell: listening to it read aloud (by Gerard Doyle, excellent narrator) was particularly horrifying. 

Diana Wynne Jones is really a miraculous writer; addictive.  I never want her books to end; I always want them to last and last.

The Magicians of Caprona (Chrestomanci, #4)The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to Gerard Doyle's narration; I think Gerard Doyle could read license plate numbers and I'd be happy. He's marvelous.

Diana Wynne Jones is marvelous too. I've only met a few of her books that I haven't been head over heels in love with - and this is NOT one of those. Magicians of Caprona is classic Jones: intricate, quirky, complicated (in a really great way), packed with complex characters - most of whom never act like they are "supposed to." I kept wondering - as I often do when reading her books - where these magical, marvelous ideas of hers come from. At some point, I suppose she either saw or read Romeo and Juliet, and particularly that famous beginning glowed bright in her mind: "two houses, both alike in dignity... from ancient grudge break to new mutiny" and thought "There is a Chrestomanci story in the world next door to this." And so her pen (or typewriter or word processor) starts churning the cream of her imagination into this rich, satisfying short novel. For children. Not a novel for stuffy old grown ups like me - Jones worshipper that I am - but for nine and ten and eleven year olds. That is what is particularly amazing about Jones: she always understood what children - especially children who love to read - wanted to read about, and never underestimated them. No dumbing down here: which is what makes her such a delight to read as a grown up.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Death in the Air by Agatha Christie (1935)

First American edition
Some Agatha Christie books I read in junior high are gems of my reading history:  I remember them fondly, and re-read them over and over again:  Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, all of the Marple books.  A few, like Crooked House or Cat Among the Pigeons, I remember being amazed by but don't recall ever reading again (I probably didn't own paperback copies of these particular books but checked them out from the library). Then, there were a very few books like Death in the Air that I distinctly remember NOT liking at all (there aren't very many of these that stick out; in fact, I can ONLY think of Death in the Air off the top of my head). I don't remember why I didn't like Death in the Air. I just knew, in my little grey cells, that as I read all of Christie, I would eventually come to this book that I knew I didn't like. So when the time came, and I started and the book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it wasn't THAT bad.
The edition I read

Not being "that bad" isn't the highest of praise; and this isn't her best book. I think quite likely I wanted the travel books to be as good as Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile - but Death in the Air just can't ever compete. The cast of characters in both of these is so rich; the mystery was so satisfying. That just wasn't true with Death in the Air.

What I did like about Death in the Air was Agatha Christie gently poking fun at herself, her profession, and her husband's profession. This is definitely my 7th grade self was unable to catch on to way back when. The murder weapon of choice in this particularly book was a poison dart blown through a tube - and Inspector Japp, among others, spends some time scoffing at how fantastic this sounds. It does, and Christie knows it. One of the suspects is a mystery writer with peculiar habits; he is no Ariadne Oliver, but he still was amusing. There were two archaeologist on board the airplane; she gently ribs their profession and how engaged they could become in talking about their work. "You can't write anything too sensational,"
cool paperback edition
Christie has her mystery writer say at one point. "Especially when you're dealing with the arrow poison of the South American Indians. I know it was snake juice really, but the principle is the same. After all, you don't want a detective story to be like real life? Look at the things in the papers - dull as ditch water."

Death in the Clouds (Hercule Poirot, #12)Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is not a masterpiece of mystery like Murder on the Orient Express - for starters, it lacks the rich cast of characters and complex plot of that particular book. It's still a reasonably good mystery - I certainly did not know "whodunnit" until Hercule Poirot revealed all at the very end (you would think if you were a murderer, and Hercule Poirot invited you over to "reveal all", you would skip town; but I guess all Chrisitie-n murderers are narcissists who are absolutely secure in their own superiority and ability to "get away with it"). I particularly liked this peak into 1930s air travel - planes had names like ships, and were very chic; I also loved Christie poking fun at her own profession on numerous occasions - including a best selling murder mystery writer as one of her suspects - AND that of her profession of her husband - including a pair of archaeologists. "You can't write anything too sensational," Christie has her mystery writer suspect say at one point. "Especially when you're dealing with the arrow poison of the South American Indians. I know it was snake juice really, but the principle is the same. After all, you don't want a detective story to be like real life? Look at the things in the papers - dull as ditch water." I heartily agree.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013)

I am not a Jane Austen stan.  I have read Pride & Prejudice one time, I've seen the Colin Firth as Darcy, Saffy from Ab Fab as Lydia, and Cicero from HBO's Rome  as Mr. Collins version one time, and watched the Keira Knightley movie once. I've seen Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant at least one time too.   I've also seen about three minutes of the movie version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.  I watched a BBC doc with the inestimable Lucy Worsley that was about Jane Austen - but you know what:  I don't  remember a thing about it.   Now you know my exact relationship to Jane Austen (to be completely honest, I sometimes mix up the Austens and the Brontes, which makes me a terrible, terrible English major). 

 I didn't realize that Longbourn was an adaptation - of sorts - of Pride & Prejudice until I started reading it.  This is a full disclosure type of blog post - I put Longbourn on my reading list originally because I saw a poster at a library that showed a list of books that were similar to Downton Abbey.  I may or may not have still been watching Downton Abbey at that time (we never watched the last seasons) but I knew I liked reading Upstairs Downstairs types of books.  When I listed the book, I probably knew it was about the Bennets' servants - Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, her husband, Sarah and Polly the maids, and James Smith, the mysterious new footman.  But I promptly forgot all about that until I picked it up.

Initially, I wasn't impressed, and found it hard going.  I remembered only the barest details (that everyone with a bit of cultural literacy knows) from Pride & Prejudice - character names, their relationships to one another, the neighbors.  Characters kept appearing that would spark in my memory (Lady Catherine de Burgh - oh yeah!) but I couldn't always remember what they actually did or didn't do in the book.  I completely forgot about one sister (Kitty?  Who was the fuck was Kitty in the movies?).  I have no idea what parties or balls or dinners or whatever they attended in the book. The author carefully matched up whatever the Bennet girls were doing - attending a dinner at the Bingleys', for example - with what their servants had to go through to make that happen.   But because I wasn't all that familiar with source material, the sense of wonder someone who was familiar and who was reading the book escaped me. 

 At some point, I put that all aside, and just decided to read the book without thinking all that much about Pride & Prejudice - because I started to enjoy it, and wonder what was going to happen to the main characters.  The Bennets and other characters from Pride & Prejudice are really ghosts in this book, flitting in and out of rooms and scenes, to cause chaos of various sorts.  Some prior knowledge of Pride & Prejudice is probably necessary, but you don't have to be an expert to enjoy the book.  (knowing that Pride marries Prejudice at the end, though - that helps; Jane marrying Bingley; Lydia running away with the vile Wyckham (he's terrible in this book, beyond creepy - all of this helps). 

Jo Baker really brought home the dismal, backbreaking, and disgusting work of the servant class of the 19th century:  the chillblains, and cleaning sanitary napkins and dirty diapers, the backbreaking work, the capriciousness of the ruling class towards their servants.  While not exactly slaves, the Bennet servants often seem that way. 

There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more.  I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over.  I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more. 

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not an Austen stan. Sometimes, I even mix up the Brontes and the Austens. I now that makes me anathema. But I have read (and watched) Pride and Prejudice, once (for each), and that was enough to make Jo Baker's book really quite enjoyable. I didn't quite realize that the book was an adaptation (of sorts) - Pride and Prejudice from the servant's viewpoint (sort of). That could have made it terrible, but the servants are all injected with the life and energy that Jane Austen herself left out of them when she wrote the into being 200 years or so ago. Jo Baker gave them names and backstories and drama (but not soap opera drama). She also reminded us again and again how awful, how literally shitty (washing baby diapers by hand and slipping and falling into pig shit are just two examples) the lives of servants were in the 19th century. All those tea parties and Regency balls took a lot of work, struggle, pain, chilblained hands, aching backs by men and women whose last names weren't Bennet or Bingley, or didn't have Lady in front of their name. There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more. I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over. I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

Collected Short Stories: Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham (1951)

This book took me FOREVER to finish.  I've been reading the damn thing since October.  I have to admit, I didn't read each and every short story very carefully; I wasn't equally impressed with all of them.  For one thing - caveat emptor - some of the stories have some overt racism that's not at all pleasant to read.  Perhaps Maugham himself wasn't racist but many of his characters were.  That was ugly reading.

Many of the stories are like epigrams - they are witty, and have amusing, often surprise-twist endings.

I especially liked "The Voice of the Turtle" about an opera singer; "Mr Know All" (about the know it all on the Trans Atlantic trip); "A String of Beads" (which was so incredibly witty and also meta); and "Louise" (which was dry and droll in all the best ways, very  Nancy Mitford - or is Nancy Mitford very Somerset Maugham?)

Collected Short Stories: Volume 1Collected Short Stories: Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of these short stories are difficult to read in their overtly racist characters and tone (I don't know enough about Maugham to know if he shared the views of some of his characters or not). Others were delightfully dry and droll. Many were like epigrams: short - pithy - with a witty punch or twist of surprise at the end. I enjoyed those the best.

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The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller (2008)

  In library land, all nonfiction books get subject headings, and The Magician's Skeptic has these:  

  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963. Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Appreciation.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Influence.
  • Children's stories, English -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy fiction, English -- History and criticism.

I'm in heaven.  Big blissful sigh.  There is something very rewarding about reading something very well written that is about a book that you love dearly, a piece of writing that expertly, lovingly, but also objectively appreciates a book, discusses the influence of a book, explores the history of the book, and adeptly practices literary criticism upon the book (without totally ruining the book forever and ever).  Miller can't possibly personally ruin Narnia because she loves the books so much.  Like so many readers and writers out there, Narnia was Milller's- and my - first literary adventure, that book that all other books and stories are judged against, that place you so desperately wanted to be real, the literary touchstone.   Her book details her love for Narnia, and how she fell out of love, but back into appreciation and respect for the books.  Along the way, she writes about Lewis's own literary influences, his friendship and falling out with Tolkien, his education and background, career and Christianity, his ideas about myth making and storytelling.  And, most importantly, she writes about Narnia:  his ideas of Narnia, other authors ideas of Narnia (Neil Gaiman!), and her ideas about Narnia.  

I was not ready for this book to end - I'm sort of at a loss for what to read next!

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in NarniaThe Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something very rewarding about reading something very well written that is about a book that you love dearly, a piece of writing that expertly, lovingly, but also objectively appreciates a book, discusses the influence of a book, explores the history of the book, and adeptly practices literary criticism upon the book (without totally ruining the book forever and ever). Miller can't possibly personally ruin Narnia because she loves the books so much; this is not her goal here. Like so many readers and writers out there, Narnia was Milller's- and my - first literary adventure, that book or books that all other books and stories are judged against, that place you so desperately wanted to be real, the literary touchstone. This book details her love for Narnia, how she fell out of love, and back into appreciation and respect for the books and the author. Along the way, she writes about Lewis's own literary influences, his friendship and falling out with Tolkien, his education and background, career and Christianity (and her own lack of faith), his ideas about myth making and storytelling. And, most importantly, she writes about Narnia: his ideas of Narnia, other authors ideas of Narnia (Neil Gaiman!), and her ideas about Narnia. This book was bliss.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty (1938)

  by James Daugherty was the a Caldecott Honor book in 1939.  It's held up remarkably well for a nearly 80 year old book.  The plot is as old as storytelling itself - Androcles and the Lion, "updated" for the 1930s.  Daughtery's illustrations are pure Americana, Depression era, Grant Wood-esque - block cuts?  I'm not sure of the medium.  The entire book is in black and yellow/tan (lion colored).  The lion is obviously related to the Cowardly Lion looks-wise (and even bursts into tears at one point) although he is no coward.

Andy and the LionAndy and the Lion by James Daugherty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The plot is as old as storytelling - a Depression-era re-telling of Androcles and the Lion. It's the illustrations that really make this 1939 Caldecott Honor the cat's pajamas: Daugherty's wood cuts (?) are pure 1930s Americana; a striking example of American Regionalism in the style of American Gothic's Grant Wood, with some Ozian Denslow thrown in (my favorite is Andy's mother waving goodbye to him from the front porch as he goes off to school, which could almost be a storboard for the musical Oklahoma). The illustrations are also "lion" colored, which is extra neat. A striking book, if you love American art from this time period.

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Noah’s Ark by Dorothy Bell Briggs; illustrated by Elizabeth Webbe (1952)

“Blue Grandma” (because she had a powder blue pickup truck) read to my brother and I all the time.  She was cuddly and had a soft, gentle, crackly reading voice, the perfect voice for a bedtime story.  We wanted her to read to us ALL the time (my other grandma wasn’t cuddly like this; I don’t ever remember her reading to us; but she taught us how to play cards, which was just as important).  She read us three books we requested over and over again:  The Poky Little Puppy, Peter Rabbit, and Noah’s Ark.

My brother, I think, especially loved Noah’s Ark (I was more of a Poky Little Puppy fan, I think).  But we both thought it was hilarious.  There were several scenes we particularly loved in the book.  

“Two little gray squirrels.”  My brother and I would watch the squirrels at grandma’s feeder all the time:  one was named Monkey (my brother’s) and the other was named Charlie (mine).  These were lithe little red squirrels, not big fat gray squirrels.  But that little fact didn’t matter when reading this book with Grandma:  those two squirrels in the illustrations were Monkey and Charlie.
“Leaping high, having heard the news / Over the hill came the Kangaroos.”  For some reason, this scene made my brother and me giggle.  I think it’s because the rhythm is perfect; there is a bounding quality to these lines, just like kangaroos bouncing over the hills. The rhythm is different from teh other stanzas in the book, unexpectedly bouncy and rhythmic.  To me, at least, this one of those perfect lines in literature, and probably subtly has influenced my appreciation of various kinds of art ever since.  
“Huffing and puffing... and terribly late.”  I can remember liking the page about the hippos too; it’s toward the end of the book, they are the last animals to arrive, and something about their faces and the stanza just was comforting and sweet.  

I truly treasure my worn, beat up copy.   

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley

She might have been the mother of her country, her kingdom and her empire - but she was a terrible mother to her children; as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara in one of their knock down drag out fights, “why, a cat’s a better mother than you.”  Queen Victoria certainly had a litter of kittens - she had nine children.  According to legend, she loved sex with Prince Albert, but apparently didn’t like the end result.  She once wrote a letter to her daughter Vicky (Empress Frederick) complaining horribly about her daughter Alice, but accidentally sent the letter to Alice.  Victoria’s response:  it was good for Alice to hear what her mother REALLY thought about her.  Victoria was petulant, stubborn, vindictive, loved to say “I told you so”, spoiled, unforgiving, imperious. She also could be loving, generous, had a loud infectious laugh, and as an older wiser queen loved her last set of grandchildren - but this was not the Victoria that made an appearance in Ridley’s book.  This book was nominally about Edward VII, known as Bertie, the Prince of Wales throughout much of this book.  That’s because he was Prince of Wales for a hell of a long time; his mother was very long lived.  She also did not trust her son; nor did she want to share power with him.  She was particularly awful to him.  She said terrible things about him in letters to her daughters, her ministers; she played favorites, and he was NEVER her favorite.  She thought him dull, stupid, fast, and louche.  She never particularly like his wife, Queen Alexandra, and his kids were NOT her favorites.  I sort of thought I knew everything there was to know about this family; I’ve been reading books about them for years.  But Ridley’s Bertie was something new to me.  He was sneaky - he would have to be with that horrible mother always on his case.  He was also strong.  He was loyal to his friends (female and male) even when his mother did not like them.  He traveled when and where he pleased regardless of her carping.  He lived his life exactly as he wanted, and then - so Ridley argues - when she died, he became a strong and good king who ended up being as beloved as her, even though he reigned for a very short time.  Ridley forcefully argues that Bertie played a larger role in world affairs than was given credit for - he was basically written out of the histories of the year as leading up to World War I, and Ridley has done a great job of writing him back in.  He was uncle or cousin to much of the ruling families of Europe - some of them like the Czar of Russia, autocratic rulers; and beloved Paris; he had a lot more power and influence than ever given credit for before.  He was not simply Edward the Caresser (although he was this) but ended up being a political player as well.

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy PrinceThe Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley argues that history gave King Edward VII undeserved short shrift, and she sets out to prove history wrong about “Edward the Caresser.” He, indeed, earned this moniker and much of the book is about his various scandals and love affairs, which are not always as juicy to read about as you might think (he could be quite cruel; also, the ongoing list of mistresses wasn’t all that interesting to read about). But once Edward became king, he was a powerful influence on domestic and foreign affairs during his short reign, and had lasting influence on the world. His ministers, though, downplayed his importance in their later accounts, and historians came to accept this. Ridley convinced me otherwise through her writing and research; I came away assured that Edward VII was more than a louche art nouveau cad. What I found most interesting about the book was Edward’s relationship with his mother - at least Ridley’s take on this relationship. It was poisonous - she was not a nice mother to any of her children, but particularly to him - but unlike in other biographies (of him or her) or portrayals (Mrs. Brown comes to mind), the Prince of Wales was a strong willed man, loyal to his friends (and mistresses) and pretty much determined to do whatever he wanted regardless of his mother’s incesssant carping. About the only thing he ever did that she wanted him to do was marry Danish princess Alexandra, and when she came to regret that, he held firm and supported the Danish people against the Germans until the end. He was a fascinating monarch, and this was a mostly fascinating book. It did bog down occasionally - there were quite a few scandals and mistresses, and they aren’t all equally interesting to read about. But overall, a great biography.

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Waiting by Kevin Henkes (2015)

WaitingWaiting by Kevin Henkes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Waiting for stuff to happen is one of the joys of life, really. Christmas is great; but waiting for Christmas, the expectation, the build up, the fun of imaging what Santa is going to bring you - that’s the real deal. Kevin Henkes book explores this idea through the “lives” of a set of toys in a window, waiting on the moon, or rain, or snow, or for a child to come play with them. Lots of deep ideas here about what it means to wait, what a life of waiting means, what happens after the waiting stops. Challenging and interesting book, with Henkes great illustrations (as usual).

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Dragon Was Terrible by Kelly DiPucchio; illustrated by Greg Pizzoli (2016)

Dragons are always terrible, and this dragon is particularly terrible:  teasing the castle guards, stomping on flowers, and spitting on cupcakes (“Who does that?! - Dragon, that’s who.” A terrific use of the interrobang, my favorite and so very useful piece of punctuation).  Nothing at all can stop this dragon from being a complete and total brat, until a little boy comes up with an ingenious idea:  books will save the day.  Research has shown (I’m suspect about this though) that reading novels makes people more emphathetic - books can even tame dragons.  Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations, per usual, are the bomb.

Dragon Was TerribleDragon Was Terrible by Kelly DiPucchio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This dragon is a complete and total brat. He even spits on cupcakes, which is terrible and vile (Ariana Grande knows all about this). After everyone in the whole kingdom tries their hand at taming this terrible beast, one little boy has an ingenious idea. This book is cute AF. Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations are a perfect match for Kelly DiPucchio’s prose.

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Not Very Scary by Carol Brendler; illistrated by Greg Pizzoli (2014)

Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations are most adorable - about as far from scary as you can get.   I particularly love the Beatles-seque vultures, which are straight out of The Jungle Book.

Templeton Gets His Wish by Greg Pizzoli (2015)

Unless you were an only child (or an orphan), at one point or another, when you were a kid, there came a point when everyone around you were assholes, and you just wanted some alone time.  Especially if you lived a small house, and had to share a room with your little brother (and occasionally a bed, although only at Grandma’s house or on vacation; I wasn’t a Walton).  Or you just wanted everyone to go the f*** away.  Greg Pizzoli’s Templeton (a cat, not a rat), finds a magic diamond and wishes everyone away (shades of The Twilight Zone here).  And just like that, they are all gone.  What would you have done in the same situation?  I probably would have cried like a little girl.  But Templeton goes to town and has a party for one.  Until he realizes that grumpy dads and toy stealing little brothers are what makes life worthwhile, and wishes them back (if this were really The Twilight Zone, he would have been alone FOREVER and had to wallow in his guilt and loneliness).  I love Greg Pizzoli’s illustrations, with their flat, simple color palette.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Unless you were an only child (or an orphan), as a child you probably were greatly annoyed at one time or another with your grumpy (perhaps pregnant) mom, your cranky (worked all day) dad, and toy stealing little brother. Especially if you lived in a small house and had to share a bedroom (and occasionally a bed) with said brother. Sometimes you wanted to Calgon them all away. In Greg Pizzoli’s book, Templeton finds a magic diamond and does exactly that (shades of The Twilight Zone here). I think I would have sat down and cried like a little baby, but Templeton goes to town and has a party for one, including doing that extra special awful thing we all know we would get beat for : DRAW PICTURES ON THE WALLS (we all wanted to do this, and some of us did it JUST ONCE with grave consequences; I tried to blame my brother the time I did it but was unsuccessful). But as this day progresses into scary, dark night, Templeton finds out that being all by yourself all the time really sucks. Luckily, he’s able to wish them all back into existence. I love Greg Pizzoli’s work; his flat illustrations and simple color palette are a joy (I always want to live in his color palettes, I find them so appealing). 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1947).  Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle’s Magic (1949). Hello Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle (1957) all illustrated by HIlary Knight; Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle’s Farm (1954) illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Baby Boomers
I read all four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in a row right around Christmas.  I have to admit, by the end, I was Piggle-Wiggle’d out.  I loved these books back in the day, and would check them out from the library all the time.  When the library was giving away old weeded copies of books they didn’t want anymore, we got to choose some to take home and I have an ancient copy of Hello Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle somewhere in my house.

Good old Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle:  when I was eight or nine or ten, she seemed safe, warm, and comforting, like the steaming hot cocoa and gingerbread that always seems to be being served by various mothers or Mrs. P-W herself throughout these four books.  My poor mother:  after I read these books, I fantasized constantly to be met at the door after school with brownies or cookies, just like the kids in the books always are in the first few pages of every chapter.  I even occasionally asked my mom to do this.  It never happened.

These bitches
Reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle as an adult is a far different experience.  The books still have some charm to them - I still love some of the chapters ("The Crybaby Cure" and "The Whisperers" are two I remember fondly).  But the Piggle-Wiggle world is definitely strange.  The dads all work while the moms are all housewives, and the families are all huge baby boomer households. There is only one single parent in the whole book - Cornelia Whitehouse's mother, who works in a factory. Everyone (except see above) are comfortably middle class.  Everyone is white.  If there are kids of color, they all live in some other town (or perhaps their parents don't need Mrs. P-W's help).  These parents are pretty trusting of these non-FDA approved cures as well.

Owl by Maurice Sendak
One thing that is lovely about the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books are the illustrations: three books are illustrated by Hilary Knight; one book by Maurice Sendak.  The illustrations are charming; in addition to all the mentions of warm gingerbread, it was the illustrations that kept me coming back. 

The other thing I've always loved about Piggle-Wiggle world were the names.  With these giant baby boomer families, Betty MacDonald always had to be coming up with a multitude of names.  I can remember as kid being eager to read the next set of names:  Nicholas Semicolon; Roscoe Eager; Fetlock; Cornell and Harvard Foxglove; Evelyn Crackle... I could go on forever!  She must have loved coming up with these names.
Love this Sendak illustration  I'm also a "can't find it"

Fetlock Harroway, my favorite geek.  He made billions from a .com in the 1990s, and now lives on his own island in the South Pacific.  That Sendak dog is full of sass.

Knight's Piggle-Wiggle and her
non-FDA approved cupboard

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, #1)Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s 1947: the war has been won by the good guys, the depression was over, everyone was rich and had a big car, families were gigantic, no one was ethnic (at least in this part of town), and moms must have been worried sick about raising their kids the All American Right Way. In steps Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle with all sorts of amazing cures for selfishness, not going to bed, not picking up toys, not bathing (my favorite story in the whole bunch). Voila - problem solved! The mothers can go back to their housework and garden clubs, the dads back to work and golf, rest assured that their little angels are now perfect. Until the Beatles, Vietnam, and the summer of love... but that’s all the future. For now, all was well.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, #2)Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic by Betty MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the Piggle-Wiggle world, there is a magic cure for everything: interrupting, bad table manners, not wanting to go to school, and all the moms (and occasional dads) can rest at ease knowing she’s there to take the tough cases out of their hands.

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I sat down and read all four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in one fell 2 day or so swoop. Take aways: 1. All the children in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle grew up to be hippies, went to Vietnam, danced disco, got rich in the 1980s, went through tech bubbles and real estate booms, and now are retiring en mass. 2. Hilary Knight and Maurice Sendak are equally good illustrators, and their envisioning of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle herself are totally different, but both versions smell like gingerbread and are very huggable. 3. There were no children of color in any of the Piggle-Wiggle books, which bothered me now, and did not bother me when I was 8. 4. Betty MacDonald must have a shit ton of fun coming up with all of these names; some are pure baby boomer (Molly, Susan, Linda, Dick) and some are just delightful (Fetlock, Percy Penzil, Morton Heatherwick). 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Father may have known best on television in the 1950s, but it’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle all of these mothers turned to way back when. She had a funny, magical cure for crybabies, gossips, bullies and other assorted childhood “ailments.” 

The Tiny Book of Tiny Pleasures (2017) by Irene Smit & Astrid van der Hulst (2017)

 The Tiny Book of Tiny PleasuresThe Tiny Book of Tiny Pleasures by Irene Smit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each page is some small pleasure - making a wish and blowing a dandelion, creating something, spotting something beautiful, glimpses of nature in the city - with a delightful little accompanying illustration. This past year has been a humdinger on the world stage, and we need all the small pleasures we can get. Lose yourself for a while in this small pleasure of a book.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka; illustrated by Chuck Groenik (2014)

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North PoleSanta Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a lovely book! I love the idea idea introduced on the first page of text that Santa Claus is a poet and typed out a haiku a day from December 1 through Christmas. "Santa is a man of many talents," reads the note. "Now you can peak at Santa's haiku... and catch a glimpse of life at the North Pole." This is a fantasy mixture, part Rankin/Bass productions (elves, hot cocoa, a snowman) and part real North Pole life (wolves howling at the moon, the aurora borealis). Raczka's haiku are cute and clever (a few move into the beautiful category), but (like most picture books) it's Groenik's illustrations that make the book truly special. His color palette isn't the traditional bright red and green of Christmas wrapping paper but more muted and soft - maroons, tans, creams, navy blues, etc. The setting is North Pole Sweden, and Santa and Mrs. Claus dress a bit more like modern Swedes rather than the jolly old elf and his wife of an old Coca Cola ad. To me, while Santa has the big white beard of a Caucasian lumberjack, Mrs. Claus looks more indigenous look about her (maybe Sami?) which I think is really quite awesome.

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The 12 Days of Christmas by Greg Pizzoli (2017)

I loved singing this song as a kid; not so much as an adult.  The idea behind this picture book is not something new:  receiving twelve days of hens, geese, swans etc. is a huge pain in the ass.  Perhaps the original song was meant to be that exact thing (it was a chant before it was a song; no one knows the exact origin; first English printing was 1780; the music is only from 1909).  Pizzoli adds his retro flair; I always love his illustrations.  They are bright and colorful; the expression on the adult elephant's face at receiving each day's worth of gifts is a hoot - s/he steadily becomes more annoyed with each haul.  The crocodilian character from The Watermelon Seed makes a fun cameo. 

The 12 Days of ChristmasThe 12 Days of Christmas by Greg Pizzoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The idea behind this picture book isn't really something new: the twelve days of Christmas gifts from the true love steadily grow to be an enormous, messy, expensive, noisy, crowded pain in the butt. But Pizzoli's take is cute and enjoyable. An elephant family (genderless, which I love) are the receivers; an the adult elephant page-by-page becomes more and more annoyed by various birds, musicians, dancers and so on that have invaded his/her house. It's amazing what a strong, good illustrator like Pizzoli can do with simple lines and colors to indicate a round of emotions (annoyance, fear, frustration, etc). This is a colorful and fun addition to the large group of 12 Days of Christmas books out there, and well worth a holiday purchase or a bedtime sing along.

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