Thursday, January 31, 2013

Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Jim Aylesworth; illustrated by Barbara McClintock (2003)

Probably my least favorite collaboration from these two favorites; just a standard retelling of the famous old story.  Like all the Aylesworth/McClintock stories, Goldilocks would make a fun read aloud.

I thought this was funny - Goldilocks bears a striking resemblance to Honey Boo Boo Chile!

Goldilocks and the Three BearsGoldilocks and the Three Bears by Jim Aylesworth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aylesworth and McClintock are usually a dream team, but this wasn't as good as some of their other collaborations.  Although this would still make a nice read aloud, I think there are better versions out there.  Or if you can, choose another one of the better books by McClintock and Aylesworth (The Tale of Tricky Fox comes to mind).  The illustrations are still excellent though - in my mind, McClintock never goes wrong.   Funny note - Goldilocks bears a striking resemblance to Honey Boo Boo Chile of current television infamy.

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This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (2012)

The 2013 Caldecott winner is incredibly good.  I love the fact that there are two stories going on - the story the little thief fish is telling, and the story the real story the pictures are telling.  For example:  "I stole it from a big fish.  He was asleep when I did it.  And he probably wont' wake up for a long time."  The little fish says this, but the big fish is wide awake in the picture, and looks surprised and and then not too happy.  The ambiguous ending is delightfully creepy too - does the little fish get beat up?  Eaten?  Your mind has to picture that, because the (probably!) violent climax is hidden by sea grass.

The crab is my favorite character.

Klassen's illustrations are reminiscent of Leo Lionni but not an imitation.  I love the Wall Street Journal's review of his other book, I Want My Hat Back"  which I haven't yet read but plan to now - "stylishly deadpan."

I found it quite interesting that Jon Klassen was a Caldecott winner AND a Caldecott Honor.

All picture book illustrators and writers of note today all have this ironic and hipsterish cloud around them, like marijuana smoke.

This is Not My HatThis is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a brilliant little book that deceptively simple.  Note that the little fish is telling one story about the hat he's just stolen, while the pictures of the bigger fish tell a much, much different story.  An incredibly illustrated tale of false bravado and the perils of thievery with a deliciously creepy ambiguous ending.

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December 1941 by Craig Shirley (2011)

What a disappointment.  I didn't even bother finishing this one.  I heard Mr. Shirley talking about the book on The Daily Show about a year ago, and finally checked out the book.   Much too choppy, and lack of narrative thread.  The amount of research that must have gone into seems extensive, although I thought it was a bit much to give credit to your college age son as "principle research assistant."  I wonder how Mr. Shirley swung that - he must have some pull at Thomas Nelson.

This from the acknowledgements at the back:  "During the final course of writing this book, my editor and friend at Thomas Nelson, Joel Miller, was in the middle of doing a wonderful thing.  He and his wife Megan were in Uganda adopting two young boys.  While there for several weeks, he edited December 1941."
Except he obviously did not.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

from Roussea and Romanticism by Irving Babbitt (1919)

"In general a thing is romantic when, as Aristotle would say, it is wonderful rather than probable; in other words, when it violates the normal sequence of cause and effect in favor of adventure. Here is the fundamental contrast between the words classic and romantic which meets us at the outset and in some form or other persists in all uses of the word down to the present day. A thing is romantic when it is strange, unexpected, intense, superlative, extreme, unique, etc. A thing is classical, on the other hand, when it is not unique, but representative of a class. In this sense, medical men may speak correctly of a classic case of typhoid fever, or a classic case of hysteria. One is even justified in speaking of a classic example of romanticism. By an easy extension of meaning a thing is classical when it belongs to a high class or to the best class."

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2012)

At first I wasn't so keen on this book Green because I sort of thought "Been there,done that - we've seen this book before."  But about half way through, the book grabbed me and didn't let go.  Something to do with the cut-outs; I started turning back and forth, trying to figure out how they worked, and the interplay between pages.  There was something very Sesame Street about the whole book as well; it's simplicity reminded me of those old Sesame Street commercials about letters or concepts.  The very few words:

forest green
sea green
lime green
pea green
fern green
wacky green
slow green
faded green
glow green
shaded green
all green
never green
no green
forever green.

Actually make a really beautiful little poem all themselves.  I initially thought this was all painting and no literature - so few words on a page hardly make a book, right?  But those words taken all together make poetry, and the words and painting combine poetry and painting (and craft, if you count the brilliant cut-outs) to make Art.

GreenGreen by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's funny how a deep reading of something - even (or maybe especially) a picture book can really change one's attitudes and opinions.  I approached this newly minted Caldecott Honor with some skepticism; we've seen this kind of stuff before, it's nothing new, whatever.  About half way through it, though, I started really paying attention to the artistic placement of the cut-outs, which caused me to turn the pages back and forth, which in turn caused me to read the book over again several times, and then really think about it.  i>Green is not just merely a book of lovely oil paintings of green items (limes, lizards, etc.).  The words are poetry; the poetry and painting merge to create something beautiful, and meaningful - Art.  And craft as well, for the craftsmanship that went into creating this is amazing and magnificent.  It's amazing as well that something so simple can evoke an emotional feeling of warmth and romanticism.  

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Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds; pictures by Peter Brown

Creepy Carrots!Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Both story and illustrations are inspired by the stark black and white beauty of movies and television, and the twisted, surreal storytelling of The Twlight Zone.  You don't have to be some know-it-all adult to appreciate the book though - it's really cute and funny. The book is structured sort of like a graphic novel as well, appealing to kids and grownups who love that genre.  Peter Brown's pictures are damn creepy cool; well deserved of a Caldecott Honor.

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"On Fairy Stories" Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien (1964

"Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word."

Monday, January 28, 2013

One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo; pictures by David Small (2012)

Won a Caldecott Honor Award today, but I'm not exactly sure why.  Kind of an odd / cute story, and sort of standard pictures, although somewhat different from David Small pictures of the past.  Must have been some vote trading going on during those meetings, that's for sure.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett; illustrated by Jon Klassen 2012)

I wonder if this is how fairy tales started out, a thousand years ago someone told a really cool story with some magical elements and a bit of wisdom, and it just kept passing from person to person (and fireside to fireside and lap to lap) until it became a fabric of whatever particular culture or group or society in which is was being told. Knitted into society.  Because I hope that happens to Extra Yarn. It's such a cool little story, with elements of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Strega Nona and Stone Soup, but not some lame re-telling of those tales.  It's something unique and quite beautiful.  And the illustrations are excellent - a book doesn't have to be a painting to tell a story.  Stark, simple illustrations do the job here quite nicely.  If there has to be some sort of message, other than this is just a rockin' good story, maybe it's don't be a dickweed like the Archduke and steal stuff that doesn't belong to you.  Or, as the Bible said, Thou Shalt Not Covet.  Good stuff.

Extra YarnExtra Yarn by Mac Barnett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maybe this is how folklore started.  A thousand thousand years ago, sitting around the fire, someone tells a really good story that has a little gem of wisdom buried in it, and then the story spreads and spreads until, it's, well,knitted in.  I hope Extra Yarn is like that, because it's a great story that walks and talks like a fairy tale, and is hopefully with us for all time.  There are hints of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Strega Nona and Stone Soup here, but it's still a really original story.  The illustrations are incredible.  A picture book isn't a painting, and the stark, expressive illustrations like those in Extra Yarn do the trick.  The gem of wisdom (if there has to be one) is don't be a dickweed and steal other people's stuff; the Bible called that "Thou Shalt Not Steal" and "Thou Shalt Not Covet."

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Social Media is Bullshit by B.J. Mendelson (2012)

It is.  But a whole book about it got sort of boring.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (1922)

About twenty-three years ago, an instructor at my community college told me to read The Velveteen Rabbit.  I was working in the library; I think she was an instructor for early childhood development but I don't remember her name.  I don't have any idea how this even came up, but I remember her saying "it hurts to be real" and that was a life lesson from The Velveteen Rabbit.  In many ways, she was my Skin Horse (although I've had several other Skin Horses in my time).

It's still a beautiful passage:

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse.  "It's a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse... "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked.  "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse.  "You become.  It takes a long time.  That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept.  Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

I'm not sure I totally agree with that sentiment anymore, but my 21 year old self adopted it wholeheartedly.  It really helped me through some dark, difficult times, and quite possibly molded me into the kind of partner and husband I am today.  Sometimes, love hurts.  Sometimes, the person you love hurts you, without meaning to, and it's okay.  That is part of what makes love Real.

I think the second part of the passage makes more sense over the years.  When you are young and single and have the whole world before you, everything seems possible for everyone.  But after many years, knowing many types of people, some people really are doomed to never know Real.  I certainly know people who break easily, who have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept because they are so sensitive.

Still, there are bothersome parts of the passage.  For one, it could be read that you need to take abuse.  Or,like the awful song says, "you're nobody until somebody loves you."  Which isn't true - although if nobody loves you, you probably should look at yourself to see if you have sharp edges or need to much upkeep.

But overall, I think the sentiment remains the same, and is still a good relationship lesson, friendship or otherwise.

On a side note, apparently the rabbit world is full of dicks, just like the toy world.  The toy world was very classist, and placed the rabbit at the bottom of the pile (except for the Skin Horse).  The rabbit meets live rabbits for the first time, and they are really douchy to him, pointing out his flaws and telling him he's shit because he can't jump.  I'm not sure why they are any better than the toys, but oh well.

The Velveteen RabbitThe Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 At a crucial time in my life, the lessons about love and friendship The Velveteen Rabbit imparted to me were valuable and maybe even life-changing; namely that to love and be loved, you sometimes have to suffer some pain in the process, but that the end result is worth the pain. "People  who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept" have a far harder time becoming "Real" than those who can bend, be pliable and receptive to love,and be flexible.  Some of that message, though, has depreciated over time, and while The Velveteen Rabbit is still a lovely story with lovely illustrations, the message that "when you are Real you don't mind being hurt" has something of the double edged sword to it.  It's nice to think that toy rabbits get to romp with real rabbits at the end of their usefulness; and for one who is self aware, to love and be loved is still a tremendously powerful message.   But taken to the extreme, becoming "Real" could be confused with a lifetime of abuse and hurt.  People aren't toys, and the world is far more complex place.

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A reviewer on Goodreads:

Lesley rated it 2 of 5 stars false
This book depressed me. Also I'm relatively certain it's what gave me hoarding tendencies. I started worrying about the feelings of all my inanimate objects!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1918)

The Magnificent Ambersons think they are magnificent - certainly George Amberson Minifer thinks so, is led to believe so, by an overly doting mother.  They aren't so magnificent for them in the end, when their world gradually withers away.  Truly gilded age aristocrats, these Ambersons; the gold leaf flakes away to reveal they are just like everyone else.

This quote, from "Brideshead Regurgitated: The Ludicrous Charms of Downton Abbey" by James Parker.  Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2013.  " Class in America is not the ancient, neurotic, and quasi-magical apparatus that it is in Britain... Class in America is a greasy pole: you go up, you go down. "  The Amerbersons climb the greasy pole all the way to the top, kings and queens of the social mountain in an unnamed Midwestern city that is really Indianapolis.  George Amberson Minifer, more than any of his relatives, confuses aristocracy with the greasy pole of the American class system.  George may believe he's an aristocrat, who doesn't have to  do anything ("Don't you think," says one of his obnoxious - thought not as obnoxious as he is - college friends.  "really,don't you think that being things is rather better than doing things?").  But the other citizens of the city are sure he's not; they have been waiting for his fall since he was born, put up with his bullying and snobbishness and boorishness because they, better than him, understand that greasy pole.  Aristocrats may lose their money, but they never lose their place in society.     By the end, the Amerbersons prove Mr. Parker in the Atlantic completely and totally correct.  George Amberson, the elder, former congressman, bachelor, with just a hint of  roué about him, says to his nephew George Amberson Minifer, towards the end of the novel, and well after the magnificence of the Ambersons has ended:  "Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. And when they’re gone we can’t tell where—or what the devil we did with ’em!"  

George Amberson Minifer is truly one of the most ugly and odious characters I've encountered in a book in quite a while.  I'm not sure I've encountered someone exactly like him in literature before, although I can think of a few people from life experience that come close.  The richest people in a small town always have a George Amberson Minifer, sometimes a pale facsimile, not always so awful.  They always have an Isabel Amberson Minifer, a doting mother who loves her son too much.  They always have a patriarch like the Major, who flounts his wealth in some way or the other.  I say have, but maybe I should say "had."  Part of the pathos of The Magnificent Ambersons is a nostalgia for another time and place; the entire first chapter is a hymn to the "good old days."

Did Tarkington mean for us to pity George Amberson Minifer?  I never quite understood the deep attraction Lucy Morgan had to him.  He really was such unlikable character, without any redeeming qualities that I could see.  His wanting to protect his mother's reputation from scandalous talk was really more about himself, obviously.  He wanted Lucy Morgan as a possession, I think; he didn't want her for herself, never really understood her or tried to.  He was  grabbing bully, and what he wanted he just took.

Aunt Fanny was really one of my favorite characters, although the Aunt Fanny of the first of the novel was far more interesting than the defeated Aunt Fanny at the end.  Ending up dependent upon George Amberson Minifer, who she clearly resented and disliked for most of her life, could have been a living hell for her.  But she seems to have twisted it into a hell for him.

The end was soapish melodrama, with the medium and all.  I'm not exactly sure why George Amberson Minifer deserved it - or Isabel Amberson Minifer either, for that matter.  What makes those Ambersons so magnificent anyway?

The Magnificent AmbersonsThe Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Those Ambersons end up not being as magnificent as they liked to think of themselves, huh?  If you've ever lived in a small town, you'll probably recognize some of the characters, although painted with broad strokes.  Tarkington's novel is a one of wistfulness - the first pages are a nostalgic hymn to days of yore, when everyone knew everyone else, there weren't any foreigners, and "darkies" and everyone else knew their place. According to the Amberson family, their place was right on top, and the youngest member of the clan, George Amberson Minifer, crouched at the top like a monstrous bully.   The book is also a look at class in America, at least class as defined by the social standards of Gilded Age Indiana.  This quote, from "Brideshead Regurgitated: The Ludicrous Charms of Downton Abbey" by James Parker in Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2013 sums up nicely what what I think Tarkington was trying to say:    "Class in America is not the ancient, neurotic, and quasi-magical apparatus that it is in Britain... Class in America is a greasy pole: you go up, you go down."  Up went the Ambersons, and down they came.

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The Twelves Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen (2012)

The perfect cozy has plenty of great suspects, lots of bodies, a fisherman's catch of red herrings - The Twelve Clues of Christmas has all of these, plus a classic setting - country house at Christmas - that would make Agatha Christie proud.  Unlike Agatha, Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness series is a punch that includes a heady jigger of screwball comedy and a plucky heroine who happens to be 35th in line to the British throne.  Ok, the plot is ludicrous - so don't think about it too much.  Just sit back and enjoy the sleigh ride.

I love this series so much I bought this book instead of checking it out from the library!

The Twelve Clues of Christmas (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries, #6)The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pure Agatha Christie - a group of strangers gathered in a holiday country house setting, with a body count that gives And Then There Were None a run for its money.  But unlike the grand old dame of murder mysteries, Rhys Bowen adds 1930s screwball comedy to the mix.  Twelve Clues is like a holiday punch, full of fun ingredients that will make you jolly at the end.  Coziest cozy I've read in a long time!

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan by Christopher Benfrey (2003)

The title is better than the book itself.  I liked this until about half way through, and then it stalled.  There was too much going on without a really clear narrative thread.

The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old JapanThe Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan by Christopher E.G. Benfey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A great title, and a great fourth or so, but stalled after that.  Lacked narrative thread (or narrative flair, for that matter).  Of interest to Japanophiles perhaps (definitely of interest to Henry Adams-philes) but otherwise, meh.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians by Robert W. Merry (2012)

I'm on a trip back to my hometown of Wilson, Kansas (pop. 780), and I couldn't bring too many books.  I ended up bringing around six; the only nonfiction book I brought was Where They Stand.  It was sort of a mindless type of nonfiction - neither incredibly bad (I finished it quite quickly) but not particularly awe- inspiring either.  I like reading about presidential history and Merry is a good writer, so the book was intellectually nourishing.  Nothing too surprising here though.  If you like reading presidential history, you already know who's in the top and who's in the bottom.  Merry makes quite a todo about a theory called the thirteen keys to the white house, based on a book I've never read but sounded interesting.  I may take a look at that.

Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and HistoriansWhere They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians by Robert W. Merry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No big surprises here, particularly if you like reading presidential history.  The tops and bottoms in the presidential popularity contest are the usual suspects, but it's interesting finding out reasons why that may be so.  Intellectually nourishing, but not awe-inspiring.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Giant's Toe by Brock Cole (1986)

I picked this up because I had read somewhere (on Wikipedia I think) that this was an example of a classic fractured fairy tale.  At first, as much as I was enjoying the story, I wasn't so sure.  On the back cover of Vivian Vande Velde's excellent book Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird in which she fractures 13 fairy tales, she gives four rules for fracturing on the back cover of the book:

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale

1. Make the villain a hero.
2. Make the hero a villain.
3. Tell what really happened.
4. All of the above.

So I suppose if you follow these rules (I've looked for other rules and these seem to be the best and only), then I suppose The Giant's Toe is a fractured fairy tale.

Make the villain a hero.  Grumpy as he may be - and he's illustrated in the very best grumpy old man way - the giant in Cole's book is most definitely the hero, or at least he shares that role with his "toe."

Make the hero a villain.  Jack, of beanstalk fame, shows up at the end, and he looks and acts like a utter brat.

Tell what really happened.  Not does really apply here.

All of the above.  Ditto.

This is more a flipped fairy tale than a fractured one, maybe.  Or Jack and the Beanstalk, on the next spectrum.

The Giant's ToeThe Giant's Toe by Brock Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brock Cole shifts Jack and the Beanstalk to a different spectrum, flipping rather than fracturing the classic fairy tale.  The giant is illustrated as a little old grumpy man (he looks a bit like John McCain); the adventures with his "toe" are sweet and funny.  Paired with the original, you could have a great discussion about heroes and villains.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003)

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is like cheese or wine, growing better and better with age.When the book came out in 2003, I was a teen librarian, with my mind set on young adult literature (and booktalking); if I read it at all that year, it was probably a glance only.  I jumped on the Mo Willems bandwagon much several years after that.  I had been told that Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was perfect for an interactive storytime; the one time I tried it, it bombed, and I never tried it again. That's probably a mistake on my part, one which will be harder and harder to remedy the farther away I get from doing a regular storytime.  It really is a terrific book, and I think with a class that is encouraged to think imaginatively and discuss books, it would be great fun.  Pigeon is one of those classic characters in children's literature, both a child and a grownup. His universe is starkly simple - a few rough, stylistic drawings on each page of only four or five colors, some word balloons.  Like all the great illustrators, Mo Willems can bring to life a character that looks almost like a child drew him, with subtle use of color and movement on the page. Charlie Brown lives in that same universe (especially Peanuts from the 60s); the Pink Panther lives in that universe as well.   The story is one that would appeal to children (who doesn't want to drive from age 4 on up?), but like everything in Willems's world, delight adult readers as well (what adult hasn't occasionally parented Pigeon; what childless adult hasn't been to a restaurant with Pigeon sitting at the table ).

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How could one rate Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! anything less than five stars?  It's the Mary Poppins of children's books - practically perfect in every way.  This book will continue to ripen and ripen as the years past, just getting more and more deliciously funny.  In the Willems world - related worlds are Peanuts circa 1965 and that of the Pink Panther cartoons - are simply, starkly drawn but contain wonders. Pigeon, who looks as if a child may have drawn him, is Every Child - what kid doesn't want to drive the bus?  And what parent doesn't have a Pigeon on their hands at some point (and what childless adult hasn't been seated next to Pigeon in a restaurant).  That is what is so freakin' great about Mo Willems's world - kids love it, adults love it.  Pigeon was the first in a continuum of fantastically written and drawn picture books.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cinderella by Barbara McClintock (2005)

I love Barbara McClintock's illustrations, and still do.  But I'm not sure why we needed a new version of Cinderella - other than to see what McClintock does with.  Nothing much new here, in my opinion.

What's Cinderella's real name?  If "Cinderella" is a nickname, is her real name Ella or something else?

Also, in McClintock's version, one of the stepsisters is skinny and bitchy, and one is fat and not as bitchy.  That got me to wondering - why isn't Cinderella ever depicted as fat?  One - or both - of the sisters always is.

Chekhov's Gun

I'm following Kate Nepveu's re-reading and blogging of The Hobbit at ( and she wrote this which intrigued me:

"I have to say here that I think Beorn and Gandalf did poorly by the company in not telling them about the elves. The narrator says, “Yet if they had known more about it and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared upon their path, they would have known that they were at last drawing toward the eastern edge.” Well, and whose fault is it that they didn’t know more about it? I realize that in some ways, this whole chapter is an exercise in waiting for the firing of the gun on the mantelpiece that is Gandalf’s last words, “DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!”, but still, it’s vexing when that tension is created artificially."

Although I have loved Nepveu's entire blogging so far, "the firing of the gun on the mantelpiece"  led me down a different path.  I'm always on the look out for new ways to describe literary themes or problems.  The gun Nepveu is referring to is Chekhov's gun.  

Thank you wikipedia (again and again and again) for a quick take on Chekhov's gun.  Essentially, if you have a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act of a play, you'd better shoot it in the second act, or then why was it there in the first place?  "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it," writes Checkhov.  

There are all of these really interesting and funny examples of riffs on Checkhov's gun here:

I'm definitely going to use this!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1936)

I have probably read The Hobbit at least 30 times, and I would hazard a guess that it's closer to 50.

The animated version of The Hobbit first aired  in 1977 (Sunday, November 27, 1977 to be exact, on NBC; the weekend after Thanksgiving).  In my mind, I watched The Hobbit on television and then read the book, but I can't imagine reading The Hobbit at age 7; I don't think I was that good of a reader in second grade, as I remember reading clicking about then.  I think I was more likely 9 or 10 when I read The Hobbit, so I probably watched a re-run of it some time in 1979 or 1980.

I also have memories of watching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe on television and then reading the book,  That scenario actually fits much better to be honest than my memories of The Hobbit. Lion aired on April 1, 1979, the Sunday two weeks before Easter, on CBS.  That means we (meaning Mrs. John's third grade class) all watched Narnia on Sunday night, and then all came back to school on Monday morning reading to read the Chronicles of Narnia.  

I have at least one vivid memory of the animated Hobbit, which was the gruesome giant spiders and their awful high pitched hissing voices.  I can remember being absolutely terrified by this (I was also scared by Scooby-Doo).  This fits in with the first viewing of the film - a seven year old would be scared by giant spiders.  But then I can't imagine that same seven year old who was scared of cartoon spiders would be able to read The Hobbit.  I mostly likely read this at least a year later, and more likely 2-3 years later. I may have  even watched The Hobbit the first time, then watched it a second time in re-run.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, The Hobbit is my favorite book of all time.  Because it's so ingrained, I'm not sure I even can think consciously or coherently about the book anymore; it just is.  It's like trying to write about my arm or my big toe.  But I'm going to give it a try.

One thing I noticed about The Hobbit is that the tone of the book changes from the first chapters to the last. I'm sure Tolkien scholars have some reason for this, but I'm not a Tolkien scholar, just a Tolkien fan (although I would not call myself a fanboy anymore, although my 16 year old self was most definitely a fanboy).  The tone at the beginning of the book is lighter and simpler (for lack of better terms); read "Roast Mutton" and the compare that to "The Clouds Burst" and you will see what I mean.  The Lord of the Rings has this quality too, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring.  It's almost like the minute characters cross the Misty Mountains, they start talking like they walked about of the Elder Edda or Beowulf.  Gandalf is guilty of this for sure.  The scenes at the end from the death of Smaug onward is full of "high falutin'" talk, especially from Bard.  In Tolkien, hobbits always talk and act like Edwardian middle class yeomen and burghers and gentry. When in Hobbiton, Gandalf and the dwarves talked like that too.  The trolls talked like lower class street thugs; elves sang and talked like gay aristocrats at a house party.  Even Elrond's speech brushed up against hobbit talk rather than the stilted language you find Bard using later on.  The Raven may be the best example (worst offender). Gandalf and Thorin also start talking less like a hobbit and more like  Beowulf.  Some of this high falutation is described away by Tolkien himself a bit, as formal language used by formal people in formal parley.  But here is an example of Bard talking aloud:  "Fools!... to come thus beneath the Mountains arm!"  I can't imagine Bilbo or any hobbit ever saying "to come thus" about anything. 

Don't get me wrong though --  the last chapters of The Hobbit - from Beorn onward - are actually my favorite parts of the book, although it's also the part of the book that I feel like I know least.  I think that's because in the past, I was so excited by the middle of the book that I was madly reading to see what's coming next (even though I'd read it 29 times before).  

I have so many favorite lines and quotes from the book - basically the whole book - but this time, it was the very end that stuck out for me in a beautiful and moving way:  
"Indeed Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons – he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be "queer" – except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders."
1957 German edition: 
gay gay Elvenking

Sometimes I wish I was a bit more Tookish and bit less Bagginish, you know?  Or maybe I am, and just don't know it.

The Gandalf in The Hobbit is far more vain than the Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.  And sarcastic.  

The dwarves are kind of assholes too, more than I remember them being.  When Bilbo gets lost in the goblin caves, they want to leave him behind.  They act all tough and brave, but are really quite bumbling idiots.  There's no way they could have ever got their gold back on their own.  They won't even go down the secret passageway with Bilbo.  

Tolkien basically says that dwarves are born assholes, so get over it.
“The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it. . . . There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.”

I suppose at the end, the dragon sickness took them all and made them especially douchey.

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world"

Probably my favorite line in the whole book  It's sad too.  I love the sad, wistfulnes of "child of the kindly West."  So much said in that one phrase, considering it's among Thorin's dying words.  A real apology for being an asshole of the most orcish kind.  

"Never laugh at live dragons."

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."

Sound pieces of wisdom and advice, the both of them.

Smaug is such a badass, you know?  He's sly and crafty and wicked, and like most really good villains (think Cruella DeVil), gets far too little time in the book. No one can ever love Sauron or goblins, but Smaug has something about him that makes you want to know more.  I want to know Smaug's story.  Who is he and where did he come from?  Sauron is satanic evil, but Smaug is just wicked, and wickedly funny too.  You know Smaug has a great sense of humor - at other people's expense, of course.  He probably never laughs at himself.

Another quote I noticed this time that I thought poignant and lovely:

"So snow comes after fire, and even dragons have their ending."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have probably read The Hobbit at least 50 times in my lifetime, but it is a tale that never, ever grows old or cold.  Can one say more than this:  the greatest book ever written.  30 years after reading it for the first time, I'm still a hobbit fanboy.  Long live Bilbo.

What I realized in this re-read:  Smaug is a badass.  I never really realized that he is one of the best literary villains in all of literature.  And, like all truly great literary villains, he doesn't get nearly as much "air time" as you would like.   But he's like an old vaudevillian (vaude-villain?) who steals every scene he's in.  What a ham.  But what great fun of about whom to read.

The annotated version includes some terrific illustrations from Hobbits around the world; my favorite are Swedish illustrator's Tove Jansson's from 1962.  The bridge over Rivendell is beautiful; Jannson's Gollum looks like a triffid.  Television and movies has ruined our imaginations, I guess - Gollum will always look like a cross between the movie gollum and the animated movie Gollum now to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Emma's Christmas by Irene Trivas (1992)

Certainly, this book isn't going to change your life.  But it's cute, and that's enough for me.   In the world of could should and would, Trivas could have fractured the carol a bit more into an even funnier place.  This would make a cute read aloud paired with the song; I can imagine a lively discussion about what a mess all those hens and cows and swans would create!

Emma's ChristmasEmma's Christmas by Irene Trivas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While this book isn't going to dramatically alter either your Christmas or your life, it will make you smile - it's cute without being too treacly.  Less than a fracture, more  of a "now you know the rest of the story" type of re-telling.  Great fun, would read aloud nicely followed by a rousing rendition of the actual song - plus a discussion about what a mess all those hens, swans, calling birds and cows would make!

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems (2012)

Mo Willems has definitely honed his skill in hipsterish, ironic smart assery to a sharp, sharp point in Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. While probably not to everyone's taste, I found the book witty and fun.  I wasn't quite sure of the audience (is it for kids?  for grownups?  for the kids of hipster grownup?), but I am sure that Mo Willems is the Shakespeare of children's picture books.  He's borrowed everything good about Dr. Seuss and chucked everything bad (starting with too many rhymes).  He's channeled the dizzy ditzy demented world of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  He's taken what can be maudlin about children's picture book literature - feel-goodness, the emphasis on self esteem,  morals - and turned them to his (and our) advantage.  He always makes sure his books work on several maturity levels - dads reading this aloud can enjoy it just as much as their daughters.  I can't pick a favorite Mo Willems book because they all are so damn good.  

End papers - my first laugh out loud
"Some other dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway" - second laugh out loud
"Five minutes later a poorly supervised little girl named Goldilocks came traipsing along."  - third laugh out loud
And so on until the end...

He takes this old story that's been done many, many times in various ways.  Maybe it's even been done to death... and then he turns it on it's head and does something completely new and different with it, while still remarkably remaining true to the origins and intent.   The ghosts of Fractured Fairy Tales past hangs over Willems; I just watched three fractured versions of Goldilocks on YouTube, and Willems is no copy cat.  His version can go head to head to with the Edward Everett Horton version anytime.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mo Willems is the William Shakespeare of picture books. He's a master of smart assery, who borrows all that is good from Dr. Seuss while ditching some what is not so good (e.g. ghastly rhymes).  He also takes the often maudlin world of children's picture books, the world of very special problems and morals and teachable moments, and spins that world until you are dizzy and delighted.  The morals and special problems are often still there (existentialism, friendship, individuality), but instead of hammering you on the head, the teachable moments are subtle and often sublime.   In this particular book, he's channeled the ditzy demented and far from drab world of Rocky and Bullwinkle, parodying Goldilocks and the three bears with the same skill and talent that made those long ago Fractured Fairy Tales so wonderfully sharp and memorably witty.  Everyone has read Goldilocks a zillion times; you might have thought it had been done to death.  Not so - Willems brings fresh zing.  Who'd a thunk it?  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit by Corey Olsen (2012)

If, like me, The Hobbit is your number one favorite book of all time, the book that made you love reading in the first place, and a book you've read at least once a year since you were 10 (and were Thorin in a high school version of the play 25 years ago), then Corey Olsen's Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit may be a bit too simple for your taste.  I heard Mr. Olsen speak on NPR, and enjoyed him immensely. I've also listened to some of his Hobbit lecture podcasts, and to me (personally) they suffer from the same problems.  Maybe a better title might have been "an introduction" rather than "exploring."  Maybe what I wanted all along was "spelunking" - delving down really deep, figuring out whys and what-fors and hows and the history behind each and every little thing.  Although he book did cause me to re-read The Hobbit (which I'm doing right now) so it definitely served a purpose.

That said,the book did give me some new food for thought about The Hobbit so it's not entirely a wash.  I never quite appreciated the whole idea of "Took" and "Baggins" being a yin/yang sort of being for Bilbo, and sort of an ideal.  It's Bilbo's Tookish instincts that lead him down the merry path to adventure, but it's his strong, business-like Baggins manner that gets him through several of his adventures, particularly those with the dragon at the end.  If one is totally Took, then that person (hobbit, dwarf, elf, man, ent...) tends to "leave live dragons out of their calculations if they live near him" and blunder aimlessly around waving swords and generally coming to no good end.  Of course, the Über-Baggins is all business and strictly no adventures - meaning no risk taking.  While the always dynamic Took life is a crazy maker's paradise, the ultra static Baggins life would be ultra boring and pretty unsatisfying.  Here's to the Baggins and Took in all of us.

Another thing Olsen points out several times in detail is that the dwarves, for all of their talk, are little better than Bilbo, and in many cases far worse.   They bumble through the book far more than Bilbo ever does.  They harp on him quite a bit too, at least before the episode with the spiders.  At one point, they are going to leave him behind, lost in the tunnels of the goblins. They aren't the best of companions, which had never occurred to me.  

That's tied into this whole idea of "prose" verses "poetry" as well, another theme I neither appreciated or really understood completely.  To quote Mr. Olsen:  
Bilbo, it turns out, is "not so prosy as he liked to believe."  Bilbo's settled, Baggins life is like prose, plain and businesslike, and the magical world of Gandalf and the dwarves is more like poetry, full of wonder and marvels, but also strange and sorcerous like Gandalf's smoke rings."  
I don't think I ever really pondered that before, the prosy life verses the poetic life.  It's an interesting concept.

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The HobbitExploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit by Corey Olsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Hobbitis my number one favorite book of all time, the book I'd hope to be stranded on a desert island with, the one I hope that I'm reading when the plane goes down.  I've read it at least once a year since I was ten years old, and probably twice a year or more between the ages of 10-20.  I was Thorin Oakenshield in my high school production of The Hobbit.  So I come to Corey Olsen's book with adoration for and much pre-knowledge of the book.  I certainly don't know every nook and cranny of The Hobbit, which is why after hearing Olsen talk about his book on NPR, I was looking forward to reading  Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I wasn't exactly disappointed with Olsen's book, but I also think "exploring" is a misnomer.  "Introduction" might be a better term.  Quite frankly, after so many re-reads of The Hobbit, I was looking for a spelunking, not exploring and certainly not an introduction.  That said, Olsen is definitely a Tolkien master, and his adoration for the book clearly surpasses my own.  Olsen gave me some new food for thought about The Hobbit, so it's definitely not a wash.  Newbies to the book looking for some lit crit should give this one a try; those who love the book as much as I do should also pick it up to see something new.

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

What's Marley's story anyway?  How come he doesn't get visited by three ghosts of his own?  Why is he doomed to spend eternity dragging chains around?

A Christmas Carol is a story I've read lightly probably twice before, and always at Christmas time.  I read this a little more deeply and thoughtfully this time.  It's a tremendously good story.  And what I think I always forget (that we all forget) is that it's a ghost story, and it's really kind of frightening.  Of course, the Christmas scenes are all light and happy (well, until the end).  But the ghost scenes are old fashioned scary.  The door knocker that turns into Marley's face; phosphorescent green spirits flying through the air dragging chains and irons and moaning; the great death-eater that is the Ghost of Christmas Future; Scrooge's lonely grave.  You don't need blood and gore and intestines dropping all over the ground; torture porn is frightening, it's just stupid.  Being shown what a shit you have been to everyone you've ever known by three ghosts, the last of whom is basically death - that's scary.

It's A Wonderful Life is sort of in this same vein.  Both of these Christmas works are dressed up with holly on the hearth, some turkey and mistletoe - but underneath the red and green ribbons and bows are some stuff that is supposed to scare you.

And make you think about yourself too- and what better time of year to do so but as the year draws to a close?

A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the HearthA Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I only read "A Christmas Carol" and as this is January 3 and I'm holiday'd out, I'm going to save the other stories until next year. A Christmas Carol
is a classic Christmas story, maybe the best one of all time(well, perhaps second best of all time, after THE Christmas story in Luke, King James Version of course). It's also moving and uplifting, even after a century and a half. But what's really sort of cool and amazing about A Christmas Carol is that it's still pretty scary. Not modern movie scary (torture porn in which pretty young things are brutally murdered in bloody ways - which isn't so much scary as just stupid) but old fashioned, haunted house, floating apparitions and things that go bump in the night scary. The door knocker that turns into Marley's face; phosphorescent green spirits flying through the air dragging chains and irons and moaning; the great death-eater that is the Ghost of Christmas Future; Scrooge's lonely grave. You don't need blood and gore and intestines dropping all over the ground. Come to A Christmas Carol with an attitude that it's a ghost story and read it at night by candlelight sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)

It took me nearly a month to finish Great Expectations but I that was definitely time well spent - completely worth it.  I invited all of my friends on Facebook to read along with me, and several told me that this was their favorite book of all time.    I understand why.  Okay, so the plot is overly dramatic and chock full of coincidences, twists and turns - but like iron to a magnet, you are drawn in and can't get away.  It's Dickens's characters that are the true delight of Great Expectations.  He's masterful at creating characters.  Oliver Twist, one of his earliest works of fiction, has brilliant characters; the later Great Expectations shows that over time Dickens honed the craft of character development to a fine point.  Merrily I read along, not exactly caring what happened to Pip, but more interested in who he would meet and how they would develop.

Pip's great expectations - the mysterious benefactor and his chance to be a gentleman instead of laborer, the opportunity to climb the social ladder and perch on the rung above, certainly hit close to home for me and for everyone who left a one place (socially and/or physically) to better themselves in some way in another place.  Pip's embarrassed disregard for the people and place of his past was particularly poignant for me; his feelings for beloved Joe and Biddy were a cross between contempt and pity touched with shame mirrored my own (long ago) feelings for my upbringing in a small town and my subsequent move (physically, intellectually, and eventually socially) to a different place.  I was really happy that at the end Pip realized that Joe and Biddy were foundations upon which he was built, and their warm love and regard for him was strong and pure even when he was at his most snobbiest.  I had the same realization many years ago, that "place" isn't as important as people and that class is an attitude.

Uncle Joe Gargery is my favorite character in Great Expectations, the gentle giant who hovers over the entire book.  He's not bright in the brains, but isn't he really Pip's lighthouse, the bright and shining example of someone who loves unconditionally?  Joe (and through association Biddy) and Estella are opposites - Joe is gentle and warm, like a hearth or freshly baked bread; the smithy is always warm and full of light.  Estella, cold and brittle, always in darkness. It's like that idea of chiaroscuro that I was reading about when I was boning up on the themes in Great Expectations - Miss Havisham's house is darkest of dark, with only the light of one small candle, while a smithy with its forge would be a contrast of light and warmth (even with the abusive sister Mrs. Joe as head of household).  And Pip has to be remade (like iron at a forge) in order to realize what truly matters, right?

In addition to the themes of chiaroscuro and class, the theme that struck me as the most relevant and beautiful was that of friendship.  Pip was a snob at times, and his choice in women was questionable (don't you hate those guys who fall in love so deeply that they can't ever swim back up to the top?  I don't ever find that romantic, just stupid), but Pip must have been a good guy at heart, because he had some really, really good friends.  First, Joe and Biddy, who had no reason to continue loving Pip who was ashamed of them.  Herbert Pocket, who Pip even fought, was a true friend, as was Startop.  Wemmick, who really didn't have to help Pip at all.  Mr. Jaggers was a friend (of sorts) even if he was black and white.  And Magwich, the best friend of all, who set Pip's life on track.  Even Miss Havisham ends up being something of a friend.

Oh, Miss Havisham.  Probably one of the most famous characters in literature - the one character you know something about before reading the book.  Jilted at the altar, still wearing her wedding dress, the rotted and dried up wedding cake full of spiders.  I think this is what people remember about her because she's such a stark portrait, all dark lines without much color.  A caricature of a real person - but that's really what she's become with her many years of darkness and hating, just lines, no color (or warmth). Until the very end, of course, when she realizes that she's both broken Pip and raised a monster.

The back of my edition has SOME THINGS TO THINK ABOUT...

When Pip comes into a fortune from an anonymous benefactor, he expects to move up into high society and become a gentleman.  What other expectations does he have in life?  Are they fulfilled?

He certainly thinks that he will marry Estella.  He's got it in his head that Miss Havisham has had him coming over all these years, and now given him this chance, in order that he may marry Estella.  Obviously, that doesn't happen.  Obviously, becoming a gentleman means leaving behind a difficult life too, or at least in Pip's mind - but all that money really just created a new set of difficulties for him, didn't it?  Keeping up with the Joneses costs a much, and Pip ends up in debt.  I don't think that was part of his great expectations.

From being a little boy at the beginning of the story until he is grown-up, Pip relates the important events of his life, ,and it is those events that shape who he becomes.  What do you think are the most significant episodes?  And in what way do you think Pip's character changes over the course of the novel?

Meeting the Pockets and Wemmick certainly, as they become his friends and steadfast supporters.

Obviously, finding out the truth about his mysterious benefactor, and subsequently helping him.    That ties into finding out the truth about Miss Havisham, and Estella.

Pip eventually realizes that even though he grew up in a working class background, true class is about attitude towards your friends and family - they are what truly matter.  He's sort of broken by the end though, which is sad.  He's not necessarily a stronger person.  He never meets another person like Estella, which is really sad to me - he must have really been attracted to bad women.

Charles Dickens is renowned as a storyteller of great genius and a master of characterization.  The first person narrative in Great Expectations endears Pip to readers.  Which other characters leave a lasting impression on you, and why?

Definitely Estella and Miss Havisham.  Estella isn't even in the book a whole lot, but she hovers over it like some sort of ice queen.  Herbert Pocket, Wemmick, Startop - because they are good friends.  The Aged, because there is something both funny and sweet about him.

Do you feel any sympathy for Miss Havisham and Estella?  That's an interesting question to ponder.  Unlike Pip, as women in the mid-Victorian period, their choices aren't as broad as Pip's.  Even with a huge difference in class, Pip is able to go to London and learn how to become a gentleman (which really seems to have entailed running up debts - I'm still now exactly sure what Pip was doing for a living).  When Miss Havisham is jilted, she's not given the opportunity to run off to London and change her life.  Dickens doesn't give us much background into Miss Havisham - who were her parents?  Did she have any friends?  We know she had a crummy brother - and that she was rich.  Maybe when she was jilted, she didn't have a group of friends (or sisters!) to give her any support.  Over the years, like the wedding cake, she rots from within and is full of spiders.  She might have done so anyway.  But maybe if, like Pip, she'd had a support system, she might have come out of the darkness.  Perhaps still broken, but not so much.

Estella is sort of the same as Miss Havisham, with the added burden of being raised by a crazy person.  That's tough.  Apparently she has no friends either.  If she'd had some sisters or friends, they might have talked her out  of being such a bitch.  What Estella really needs is a pocket gay.  "Girrrrl, your mom is cray cray."  "Girrrrl, Pip is hot.  I'll take him if you won't."  "Girrrrl, he's no good even if he is rich."

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even 125 years later, it's still a really great book.  Haven't we all been there (or at least know someone who has) - in love with someone inappropriate who treats us like shit?  Jilted on our wedding day, and still wearing the same clothes twenty years later (maybe not physically, but metaphorically maybe...).  Embarrassed about our past and upbringing after a physical, social, or intellectual move?  Hiding an escaped convict for several months until we can whisk him away to safety in another country? (if you know someone like this, they lead a very exciting life indeed).

You know what Estella and Miss Havisham needed?  A gay friend who would say things like:   "Estella, girl, if you don't want Pip, then I'll take him. And your mom is a crazy bitch."  And: "Havisham, dahling, you look like shit.  Take off that wedding dress right now, and let's go for a skinny cocktail. He ain't worth it."

Pip might not have had gay friends (that we know of, although wouldn't THAT have made an interesting plot twist, Startop comes out) but he did have a group of strong friends who helped him when he needed it most.  Maybe is Miss Havisham and Estella had had the same thing, the story would have turned out differently (although, let's be honest, it would have been far more boring - to quote Tolkien:  "Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, but not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortably palpitating, and even gruesome, maybe make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway").

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