Friday, December 27, 2013

The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit; illustrated by H.R. Millar (1900)

This seems to be the second book by E. Nesbit actually published (or third?), a of short stories mostly about dragons, but some about other beasts.  Some of the stories are a bit treacly - particularly for Nesbit - but all still  have her trademark style.  Some of them feel very modern and could have been written today, although a few have a Victorian feel to them.  "The Deliverers of their Country", "The Island of Nine Whirlpools", and "The Dragon Tamers" were my favorite stories, although every reader and lover of books can't help but like "The Book of Beasts."

The Book of BeastsThe Book of Beasts by E. Nesbit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A collection of Nesbit stories, published in 1900, all of them about dragons.  Almost all of the stories have a modern fantasy feel to them, and with some minor tinkering could be published today.  There is still some Victoriana stuffed in some of the stories; I thought "Uncle James" felt more like Lewis Carroll.  But all of them still have the trademark Nesbit drollness and point of view.  Quite fun.


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D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire (1967)

I think the D'Aulaire's are all about the illustrations.  In his preface to this new edition, Michael Chabon describes them as "Raphaelite friezes as cartooned by Popeye's Else Segar, at once grandiose and goofy..."  I don't think I could possibly describe them better.  I'm not a huge fan of the fuzzy quality, but some of them are quite beautiful.  I think if I'd read this in high school, with some of Mrs. Belton (my art teacher)'s art history fresh in my mind, I would have really liked them.  Having seen a multitude of illustrations since then, some of which I adore (Barbara McClintock), I think they are good but not (for me) great.  The writing ranges from quite good to hum-drum.  
I've never read their beloved Greek myths.  `

I liked their translation of Odin's proverbs.  To quote:  "They had manners, for Odin himself taught them how to behave...

"Your friend's friends shall be your friends; your friend's foes shall be your foes.  Tread down the path to your friend's house and don't let it grow over with the weeds.

"Always keep your door open to the tired traveler.  The man who comes to your house with shivering knees needs a place by the fire and dry clothes and warm food.  

"When you enter the house of a stranger, look into cupboards and dark corners to see if a foe might be hiding.  Then take the seat that is offered you, and listen more than you speak. For then not one will notice how little you know.

"Always have a bit to eat before going to a feast; a hungry man is not a bright speaker.

"It's an unwise man who sits awake worrying all night.  When morning comes he will be too tired to think and matters will be still more tangled...

"Men die, cattle die, you yourself must die one day.  There is only on thing that will not die - the name, good or bad, that you have made for yourself."

These are all from the Poetic Edda, the Hávamál.

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse MythsD'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths by Ingri d'Aulaire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wasn't a huge fan of this book; I had some trouble with the writing, which I thought ranged from quite good to humdrum.  The illustrations are really what make the book beautiful.  I know some people out there are huge fans of the D'Aulaire's, but I haven't found myself to be one of their fans.



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Monday, December 23, 2013

Arthur's Christmas Cookies by Lillian Hoban (1972)

When I first became a children's librarian fifteen years or so ago, Arthur the anteater was probably the hottest picture book series - we couldn't keep any on the shelves.  But the only Arthur I knew, and loved, was Lillian Hoban's Arthur the chimpanzee.  I loved this book as an early reader, and read it even though it wasn't Christmas.  My 8 year old self though that salt instead of sugar in the cookies was hilarious.  The kids in the book - like Peanuts, the adults are off screen - are all chimpanzees.  Interesting chimpanzees too - they dress like Edwardian children, but have an EZ Bake oven (straight out of the sixties); they also perch on chairs like a chimp would and never wear shoes.  The gender roles are switched too, which I suppose was pure 70s - Arthur, a boy monkey, not only bakes, he ends up crying at the end when the cookies don't turn out.  His previous attempts at masculine gifts - such as building something - have fallen flat. I still think this story holds up really well; only the clothing is a bit dated, and afterall, they are chimps - they can wear whatever they want.  Kids won't care.


Arthur's Christmas CookiesArthur's Christmas Cookies by Lillian Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another beloved childhood favorite, which has stood the test of time.  My 8 year old early reading self thought the sugar/salt mix up was hilariously funny. And chimpanzees dressed like Edwardian children is funny, regardless of how old you are.   I also now have  hard time imaging Christmas without hot chocolate, sugar cookies, and a good friend sticking his head through the door asking if I want to go out and have snowball fight - a tough one in southern California.  Arthur's Eyes is so lame compared to the almost Peanuts like characters in these Arthur books.  I still think they rock, all these years later.


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The Mole Family's Christmas by Russell Hoban; illustrated by Lillian Hoban (1969)

Written before Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Mole Family's Christmas wasn't nearly as charming or moving.  It was kind of disjointed, with a world that didn't wholly make sense.  I can think of three worlds with talking forest animals where the world building was more clear cut - Thornton Burgess, Jan Wahl's Pleasant Fieldmouse, and especially Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson.  This book doesn't even come close to those three, which is a pity  - this could have been quite good.  It wasn't bad, just not very interesting.  I was reminded a bit of how the immigrant experience of American Christmas must be though.


The Mole Family's ChristmasThe Mole Family's Christmas by Russell Hoban
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not anywhere as charming as Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas; which I would recommend over this one.  Not going to stuffing any stockings at my house.


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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May (1939)

I always though the song came first, but in 1939, Montgomery Ward put out a booklet - a coloring book, really, by an advertising copywriter.  The song was written ten years later (I thought it was far older).

 The illustrations have an advertising feel to them, and I'd never read the poem aloud - I think I will stick to the movie.  It's amazing that something sort of cheesy and temporary feeling created this Rudolph industry.  Rudolph, Santa, Blitzen and company look like they should be hawking some 1930s product  in Montgomery Wards.  "Santa and his 8 Tiny Reindeer ALWAYS smoke Lucky Strike!  It's the choice of the North Pole."  Or "As he drove out of sight, I heard him exclaim, I only use, Burma Shave."  Bad rhyme, I know.

Interesting only for the history behind Rudolph.


Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is most interesting as an stylistic piece of 1930s advertising, and also as a historical piece.  Robert May and the good folks at Montgomery Wards must have had no idea back in 1939 that a color book would launch a reindeer revolution.  Rudolph feels like he's been a part of Christmas since the baby Jesus was born (his nose was the star that led the Wise Men from the east, right?) but this book only dates from 1939, and the song from 10 years later!  The illustrations feel like 1930s advertising - you half expect as some point for Santa to tout the wonders of Lucky Strike, or for Burma Shave to rhyme with something in the poem.  The story of Rudolph is here, though, in all its glory.  This wouldn't be my first choice of a Christmas read aloud, but it's fun and harmless.


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Friday, December 20, 2013

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban (1971)

Let's say O. Henry decided to write a short story about an otter family at Christmas.  Or better yet, Steinbeck decided to write a picture book about a down-and-out otter family and their Depression era Christmas.  Because that's essentially what the Hobans have done here.  There are shades of O.Henry, and Steinbeck, and maybe even Flannery O'Connor in this warm little Christmas story. The author that really hovers over the story, though, is Thornton Burgess.  But nothing about the story is even derivative of any of the above mentioned authors.  Simply a southern flavor, a Depression-era flavor, and the Burgess ability of weaving modern American animal fable.  Lillian Hoban's illustrations are the other side of this coin; really, without them the story would be like a fallen souffle - still edible, but flatter and not as interesting.  I loved
some of the minor characters the best - Mrs. Snapper is amazing (if this were 1938, she'd be played by Hattie McDaniel in the movie version); I loved Doc Bullfrog as well, in his tuxedo.

I missed this book growing up - and this is directly from my childhood (1971)  I know there is a beloved Jim Henson version as well, which I've never seen but would now like to see!

Strange to think that the Hobans are making a beautiful story together in 1971, a just four years later
divorced.


Emmet Otter's Jug Band ChristmasEmmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas by Russell Hoban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's say Steinbeck, or O. Henry, or even Flannery O'Connor decided to write a picture book about an otter family at Christmas - this would be the result.  Thornton W. Burgess also hovers over this book as well.  But the book is derivative of anything these authors have written; the story stands alone, quite warm and beautiful.  Lillian Hoban's illustrations are the other side of the coin; without them, the book is like a fallen souffle - still edible, but not nearly as interesting or tasty.  I missed this book growing up (it's definitely a book from my picture book era) and I'm glad I picked it up in a Christmas mood this week.  Made me feel all warm and cuddly inside.


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Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie (1925)

Oh Agatha, how you disappointed me!  This was one of the lamest books I've tried to read in a long time.  The characters are flat, the adventure thriller is flat; it too much too long to get off the ground, so long I lost patience with it.  Agatha's plots can be circular and venn-diagram-my, and most of the time that plays to her favor, but not this time.  I'm not going to do my usual "annotated Agatha" thing this time, because I didn't actually finish the book.  What a bummer.  I think the next one chronologically is TheMurder of Roger Ackroyd, which I know I've read and I'm looking forward to reading again.


The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle #1)The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie


Certainly the worst Agatha Christie I've ever read; I found this one so dull I couldn't complete it, but finally put it down in a fit of apathy.  Flat characters inhabit an even flatter, duller plot.  Perhaps in 1925 this was a rousing, page turning best seller, but I just didn't want to spend any more time on it in the here and now.


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Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (2010)

I'm not going to waste (too much) energy bitching about this really, quite frankly, dull book.  I don't like military books, and maybe this becomes something else, but up to the part where I stopped, skipped ahead, and read the end, it was a military book.  I hope The Hunger Games are done with now.  May the odds ever be in my favor that this series ends here.

I'm one of the only people I know who disliked these books.  I'm not sure what that says about my friends or I.

Christmas In Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren; illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1963)

Christmas In Noisy Village is quite beautiful, and didn't feel at all 1960s; I thought it was from the 1980's actually.  I guess the illustrations were twenty years ahead of their time!

"Everything is so beautiful and Christmasy that it gives me a stomache-ache," said Anna - a childish, Charlie Brown sentiment that rings so true.  

No sign of Pippi Longstocking anywhere in this book.  

This is part of a series - one I've never heard of before.  A Swedish series, obviously, about the children of Noisy Village.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
No Pippi Longstocking to be found here (perhaps she's hiding out in the barn); just a children of a little Swedish village celebrating a beautiful, nostalgic, and sweet holiday.  "Everything is so beautiful and Christmasy that it gives me a stomach-ache," said Anna.  A sentiment that most of us can agree with whole-heartedly.  Reminded me much of Shirley Hughes.  I don't think you can close this book without thinking fondly of your own childhood Christmas memories.  "Oh, isn't Christmas a jolly time?" the book ends.  "I wish it could come oftener, don't you?"  


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell (1930)

"He forgets to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness."

"Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it."

"There are two motives for reading a book:  one, that you enjoy it; the other that you can boast about it."

"A happy life must be to a great extent quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live."

______________________

Fail. A month into this, and I only have half it read.  I don't have a happy life apparently, because I can't seem to find some quiet time to read this small yet dense book.  There is too much here to simply read it at lunch or trying to fall asleep at night.  I want to savor it, and can't.  What I've read I like, immensely.  I think this is funny, sometimes biting, witty, a wee snarky, and also has some grains of truth. My takeaway from half the book is that I'd probably be happier if I had some down time.  Maybe someday I'll have to come back to it.  For now, abandoning it.  Like Cicero and others - I think I have a thing for being unable to fully comprehend philosophy without leading some sort of monk-like existence.


The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell


I read half of this, and liked it immensely.  But life got in the way of finishing it.  I need some decent down time to read deeply and absorb this book, and the holidays aren't going to give me that luxury!  Will have to return to this book in the future.


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Monday, December 16, 2013

Truman by David McCullough

The first fourth of this book is the story of Kansas City, my favorite city in the world, told through the story of Harry S Truman, my favorite president.  Harry and KCMO were alike in many ways - progressive yet also old fashioned.

__________________________


"You know how it is when you see the President... He does all the talking, and he talks about what he wants to talk about, and he never talks about anything you want to talk about, so there isn't much you can do."  Harry Truman about FDR.  I hope I'm not like that.

_______________________

"More than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn't care who received the credit."  McCullough writes this, and I wanted to know when and where Harry Truman said this.  I couldn't find anything at all about the quote, other than the quote itself.  So I chatted with Ask a Librarian at County of Los Angeles Public Library (I have a card), and they finally sent this response, which I thought was so cool:  

Yesterday you contact instant librarian about a famous quote attributed
President Truman. I spoke to a librarian at the Truman PresidentialLibrary this is what he was able to find:

Thank you for your e-mail request of 12/4/2013. I was able to find thequote on page 564 of David McCullough's 1992 book "Truman." Mr.McCullough is considered a very reputable source for anything related toPresident Truman. He spent 10 years conducting his research for the bookhere from 1982 until the book's release in 1992. Unfortunately,President Truman used this quotation more than once and I was unable tolocate any specific date.

I hope this helps please let me know if there is anything else I can dofor you.

Thank you and have a great day,



__________________________________________

McCullough quoted from one of Harry's "give 'em hell" speeches in 1948:  "Something happens to Republican leaders when they get control of the government...  Republicans in Washington have a habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people.  They have a hard time haring what the ordinary people of the country are saying.  But they have no trouble at all hearing what Wall Street is saying.  They are able to catch the slightest whisper from big business and the special interests."  The whole speech is here:   Address at the State Capitol in Denver . Although McCullough doesn't quote it, a great line follows:  "The Republican Party today is controlled by silent and cunning men who have a dangerous lust for power and privilege."  Silent and cunning.  This party hasn't really changed much.  Except added some Democrats in name only to the mix.  I think Truman could be describing most of Washington now.

________________________________________

First, this is probably one of the best biographies ever written.  Even if you hate Harry S Truman and think he was an awful president, the writing is exquisite; this is never, ever a recitation of facts or dates.  It is never "and then this happened"and "then this happened" sort of biography.  Truman is always front and center.  Isn't this the definitely biography of Harry Truman, the definitive biography of biographies?  William Manchester's Winston Churchill's have this feeling, although McCullough brings the secondary characters more to life too - Bess, Margaret, Acheson, etc.  

________________________________________

Never will there be another president like Harry Truman.  Machine politics don't exist in the same way, for starters - a man can't be handpicked by a boss, not like Pendergast picked Harry.  There isn't a spoils system like there was.  A president also won't leave office poor, ever again.  A former president isn't going to drive across the country with only his wife in the car on a trip. 

He reminds me so much of the old men of the past, my great uncles, even my grandfather.  The small town burghers and farmers and bankers.  


TrumanTruman by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been satisfactorily plowing through this for a month.  It's my second time to read; the first being many years ago.  It's quite possibly the best biography ever written, certainly the best one I've ever read.  You can hate on Harry Truman, disagree with him, hate the New Deal - but you can't say this is poorly written.  It's exquisitely written; it's never, ever a recitation of dates and days and times and people at parties or in meetings.  Not only is Harry a living, breathing entity on every page, but so too are the secondary folk who McCullough writes about - Mama Truman, Bess and Margaret, Dean Acheson, Sam Rayburn, General Marshall.  I suppose it borders on hagiography at times, but Harry's warts are also there for all to see - his turn of the century racism and sexism, his whole-hearted adoption of the spoils system, his temper, his misplaced trust, his mistakes.  But while I don't want to read all praise, I don't want a hatchet job either, and McCullough includes plenty of the good that Harry Truman did for America.  He was a great president, and this is one of the great books about a president.  It's the definitive biography about Truman, and the definitive biography of biographies.  Depth, breadth, length - all worth the journey.  Less slick snake oil salesmen and more Harry Truman is what we need today.  


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Friday, December 6, 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)

I didn't dislike Catching Fire, but I didn't exactly like it either.  I was so made - twice - at the end of The Hunger Games that I said (to myself and to others) that I wasn't going to read any further in the series.  I was sick of series, and more sick of love triangles, and I wasn't having anything to do with The Hunger Games trilogy.  But the Catching Fire movie has gotten so many good reviews, and a colleague at work convinced me that the love triangle bullshittery was minimal in the book - this double whammy convinced me to give it a try.  

My expectations were low to begin with - the only direction my feelings about this book could go were up, so I certainly wasn't disappointed in any way.  My colleague was mostly correct, although I felt like Rollie Welch wrote in her review in The Plain Dealer:  "But after 150 pages of romantic dithering, I was tapping my foot to move on."   My colleague actually said: "Once the Hunger Games starts, then the book gets good."  And it did, I guess.  

Except.  What is the point of the book (s) ?  I thought maybe Collins was trying to say something about our obsession with reality television, our glorification of violence, maybe even the whole "bread and circuses" thing.  And I guess she still is.  But if you set a series in a dystopian future of our country, shouldn't we at least find out what happened to our country for it to get that way?  And what about the rest of the world?  Is Canada sitting idly by while this is all going on?  What about Mexico?  NATO?  China?  Okay, you may say - we are seeing things from Katniss's point of view, and she may not know anything about that.  Panem is like North Korea, the media is strictly controlled...  and maybe The Hunger Games is a parable or an allegory or a metaphor for America past present and possible future... except that doesn't seem plausible.  Maybe this is all explained in the final installment.  Which now that I'm sucked in, I probably am going to have to read - and I do feel that way.

Something I hate about the book:  the violence committed against Katniss.  It almost has this pornographic (non-sexual), sadistic quality.  So many, many bad things happen to Katniss in this book, quite frankly least of all the Hunger Games themselves.  The leaders of Panem are obviously sadists, but aren't we also, to devour this?  I will say that Collins isn't glorifying the violence of the Hunger Games in any way.  It's there, it's disgusting, I hated every minute of it, but there is definitely a tone about the Games that (hopefully anyway) helps the reader understand that the violence perpetrated against these people is disgusting.

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My expectations were quite low for Catching Fire, and really had no place other to go than up.  I did not hate this book, but neither did I particularly enjoy it either.  Certainly not as much as I did The Hunger Games.  There was the prerequisite (too many goddamn) pages about the mushy gushy love triangle which I knew was going to be lurking within this book (I'm neither Team Peeta or Team Gale; rather, I'm Team Why Do We Need a Love Triangle How Boring or Team Katniss Don't Need a Man).  There was not nearly enough historical background as to why Panem is the way it is - exactly what happened to Canada, Mexico, China, Great Britain, NATO, Russia, Hawaii... I want to know.  And Suzanne Collins could cleverly figure out a way for Katniss to figure it out and tell us.  I love the politics though - whenever the book gets political, that's when it gets really interesting.  The initial interactions between the Hunger Games participants was interesting too, and I wished there had been more of that.  I'm completely (and reluctantly, I must say) sucked in, and feel like I have to read Mockingjay now. 



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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout (2008)

I love it when a book that doesn't look at all like something I would even remotely enjoy turns out to be a page-turning work of delight (just as conversely, I'm so disappointed, sad even, and sometimes angry, when a book that appears to be written specifically for me turns out to be boring or badly written).  Olive Kitteridge was recommended by my Goodreads friend Nick; my boss at work also raved about the book.  I completely understand why.  It was quite moving, sometimes heartbreaking, more than occasionally humorous, and really well written.

The setting, and the short stories with Olive either as a central character or peripheral character, reminded me of Sarah Orne Jewett.  Who couldn't read the book and not be reminded of Maine's second most famous writer (I suppose Stephen King would be first)?  I've read both Deephaven (which I absolutely loved) and Country of the Pointed Firs (which was powerful and quietly beautiful), and they also are essentially short stories loosely connected by time, place, and character.  I have no idea if this was on purpose or not, but I'm assuming so (I haven't yet done any additional reading of reviews or criticism of the book, but plan to).  Obviously Elizabeth Stout has the last century and a half of progressive change, and is able to write quite freely about the messy and dark bits of life - mental illness, divorce, growing older, death, infidelity.  But Jewett tackled tough subjects in the way the 19th century allowed writers (especially female writers) to do so - I remember stories about mental illness, and the two girls in Deephaven were lesbians (Boston marriage).  Jewett couldn't use the word "cunt", but I suppose if she were writing in 2008, she probably would have.  Stout used the word at least twice that I remember.

The other thing about the book, and I may have a harder time explaining this, is the sense of mythology, at least to me, that the book possessed.  Olive is almost like a goddess from a myth (a grumpy goddess, but a goddess just the same).  In a book of mythology, some stories about specifically about Venus, while Venus makes a brief appearance in other stories, there to move the plot along, to cause problems, to provide comfort, to be the boulder that turns the stream.  I'm not saying Olive is Venus (I chose a random goddess as example; she's more like Hera or Magna Mater, or Hel from Norse mythology perhaps, a crossbreed between all goddesses).  But Olive has a similar existence to a goddess in a book of mythology.   In some stories, she is the main character, we grow with her, watch her struggle, or observe and understand what's going on with her in ways she can't ("Security" is the best example of the reader as a knowledgeable observer who has more information than the main character).  In other stories, she provides comfort, or briefly appears as a wise elder with something pithy but important to impart.

Third point - infidelity is almost another character, and appears as a theme in several of these stories.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love it when a book that doesn't look or sound like something I would even remotely enjoy turns out to be a page-turning delight.  Olive Kitteridge is deeply moving, often heartbreaking, more than occasionally humorous, and almost perfectly written.  A book of loosely connected short stories with a small Maine town as its setting can't not be compared to Sarah Orne Jewett (Deephaven; The Country of the Pointed Firs), and favorably so; it's like the Victorian sea-faring folk of Jewett's 19th century stories are brought into the 21st century, with the same warts and wens, laughter and tears. But these stories aren't merely carbon copies; Olive Kitteridge herself, whether the main character in a story, or a peripheral but important minor character, is a living, breathing, real person.  She's so unattractive, yet so brilliantly rendered and sympathetic.  We love her and hate her.  She's almost mythological in stature; like Venus or Hera (or the Norse Hel), she stars in some stories, and in others serves as a guide, a comfort, a boulder to turn a stream.  Like myths of old (and Jewett for that matter), Stout's stories deal with love and marriage, infidelity, murder, old age, death and dying.  Heavy stuff, but there is lightness here too.


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“But after a certain point in a marriage, you stopped having a certain kind of fight, Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different.”  

From the NYT review,which I thought described Olive and the book really well:  "The main thing we learn about her is that she has a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it’s an empathy without sentimentality. She understands that life is lonely and unfair, that only the greatest luck will bring blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she’s been rotten; she has regrets. She understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes."  The highlighted line, I thought was particularly true, devastatingly so - this could be one of the themes of the book, certainly of some of the stories.

More from the NYT review:  Strout’s prose is quickened by her use of the “free indirect” style, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. “The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor” is a narrative statement — but “ridiculous” is very much Olive Kitteridge’s word. Similarly, in a description of a pianist, the clucking of communal disapproval creeps in: “Her face revealed itself too clearly in a kind of simple expectancy no longer appropriate for a woman of her age.” These moments animate Strout’s prose in the same way that a forceful person alters the atmosphere in a room.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)

Sometimes, it's difficult to tell where E. Nesbit ends and C.S. Lewis begins, at least Narnia-wise (I haven't read any other Lewis, but probably should at some point).  Her influence on Lewis is well known, and quite obvious.  There are stylistic choices that Lewis makes that mimic Nesbit; in characters, in narrative voice.  Plots are definitely different - Lewis sets his in Narnia, while Nesbit brings magic into the real world.  The narrator has the same, slightly sarcastic, somewhat witty voice in both Nesbit and Narnia - but never patronizing.  It's not a child watching over the story though - it's a really cool adult.  Maybe an aunt or uncle that's nearer your age than your mom or dad, telling you a story, but making it funny and understandable. And if there is a moral to the tale, it's not saccharine or in your face.  

What's missing from Nesbit that I think Lewis accomplishes is character development.  Everyone who has read Narnia knows that each of the children have distinct personalities.  Nesbit's siblings are somewhat interchangeable.  I couldn't always tell them apart.

Two characters in the book with well developed personalities, however, where the Psammead - crotchety, vain, easily offended, tricky; and really, Martha the maid, although in reality perhaps Martha was a representation of "Every maid"; certainly she was as distinct as the Psammead.

A century and some change later, the book holds up remarkably well.  It's still later Victorian in setting, but the fantasy elements overshadow some of the more confusing bits related to the era (clothing, slang, servants, etc.).  Although Nesbit set this in the "real world" in 1902, things have changed enough since then that it could feel like a fantasy land.  The brothers and sisters could still fit neatly into a Lewis novel (friends of Digory and Polly); they could also be characters in a Diana Wynne Jones book.  They are the ancestors of Harry Potter and his gang, although Harry and company have evolved into something completely different from the five children.  

The best chapters are the first ones - "As Beautiful As the Day" and "Being Wanted" are really hilarious.  The "Wings" chapters were also quite good.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Five Children and It is the ancestor of the Narnia books, and even Harry Potter (with a dash of much else).  And although children's fantasy has evolved much since 1902, Nesbit's book is still charming, witty, and enjoyable.  The narrative point of view is what makes the book special (and is a direct line to C.S. Lewis and Narnia) with the omniscient, wise, witty, slightly sarcastic voice that finds adults silly and stupid; sort of like being told a story by a much loved uncle or aunt who is only slightly older than you, a bit wiser, but still understands what it's like to be a kid.  The stories at the beginning are best; "As Beautiful as the Day" and "Being Wanted" are fantastic and funny.  The five children are almost interchangeable - it's the crotchety, vain, overly sensitive Psammead who steals the show.  This century-and-some-change years old story will still have appeal to modern children; the clothing, slang - and servants - are merely window dressing to a great story.  


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