Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss; illustrated by Marc Simont (1949)

I live in southern California now, so winter is a thing of nostalgia to me now, a memory of Christmas lights twinkling in the snow, sledding and snowball fights, snowmen and the silent sound of snow falling.

Real winter, the kind when the snow is brown, and driving to work becomes a madhouse of scary danger, and slipping on the ice and breaking something is a real possibility, when your nose and toes are frozen all the time, I remember that too, but those memories aren't as fun. The Happy Day is about that kind of winter.  

Winter is beautiful in this book though.  Marc Simont's Caldecott Award winning, monochrome illustrations are stark and lovely.  But the end, with it's one bit of color, a yellow flower growing in the snow, and the bears and mice and squirrels and groundhogs - this groundhog in particular -

even the snails are dancing for joy around it...  Well, people who live through winter, northern people know, The Happy Day is that day when the first flowers burst through the crust and snow, and everyone knows that not only is spring finally here, but winter is almost over.

Ruth Krauss writes prose poetry:

"They stop.  They laugh. 
They laugh.  They dance."

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are two kinds of winter:  the nostalgic winter, in which Christmas lights twinkle in the snow and everyone drinks hot chocolate around a fireplace, and real winter, in which snow is yellow and brown, commutes to work are dangerous nightmares, and everyone's  noses and toes freeze off.  The Happy Day perfectly channels the feelings of joy the sufferers of real winter have when the first flowers of spring starts to bloom.  "They stop," Krauss writes in perfect picture book prose poetry.  "They laugh. They laugh.  They dance."  Simont's monochrome winter is stark and lovely, with that one perfect bit of spring color at the end that creates such understandable happiness; he definitely deserved the 1950 Caldecott Honor (which also, interestingly, went to Bartholomew and the Oobleck that year!).  

When I was a little boy, my Grandma fed the squirrels dried ears of corn in the winter.  There was a feeder my Grandpa nailed to the huge old cottonwood tree that grew behind their house.  Whenever my brother (two years younger) and I stayed with my grandparents, we would watch te squirrels.  We each got to name "our" squirrel:  mine was named Charlie, and my brother called his squirrel Monkey.  

This squirrel reminds me of those squirrels - their bright eager eyes and quick movements.

I still love squirrels to this day, especially red squirrels.

Simont's dancing mouse on the title page.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss; pictures by Crockett Johnson (1945)

Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson were married.  Crockett Johnson also wrote and illustrated the more famous Harold and the Purple Crayon ten years later (although The Carrot Seed still has some cachet, just not as much as Harold).    Johnson must have liked a simple palette; his illustrations are certainly simple enough.  Harold doesn't have many colors, and I think Carrot Seed has even less. - browns and yellows and tans.  It's sort of dull.  Perhaps in 1945, the military had all the cool colors and rationing left Crockett with just a few dull ones.

I've read two other of Krauss's books, A Hole is to Dig and Open House for Butterflies.  Her partner in illustration for those was Maurice Sendak, and those are far more successful outings, although The Carrot Seed is more well known.  A Hole is to Dig is sweetly revolutionary, particularly when it comes to gender; Open House for Butterflies is way out there; parts of it could have been a manifesto for 1960s peace and protest movement; Thoreau would have been comfortable taking it to Walden Pond.

The Carrot Seed has that can-do attitude that found in The Little Engine That Could (published about 15 years earlier).  Just coming out of World War II (ending around the time The Carrot Seed was hitting the shelves), American children probably needed to hear that their dreams could come true - regardless of what everyone told them, their carrots would thrive.  This boy - who looks like Harold's older brother - just doesn't give a flying fart about  anyone's opinions - his carrot IS going to come up, by damn.  He doesn't need to argue about either; in fact, he doesn't ever say anything at all.  He just gives everyone a sort of Mona Lisa smile.

And, of course, the carrot does come up.  And it's huge. The can-do, never quit attitude worked.

Although maybe the carrot boy is some sort of witch?


SURPRISE.  I've read and reviewed this before!!!  And my Goodreads review fucking kicks ass!!!

The Carrot SeedThe Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The moral of this story is "keep on keepin' on."  Or, "don't stop believing."  Or "illegitimi non carborundum."  Or "the power of positive thinking."  Or "fuck off."  Or "don't trust anyone over 30."  Or "don't let the man keep you down."  Or "I think I can, I think I can."  Or "patience is a virtue."  Or "Well done is better than well said."   Or "the scorners delight in their scorning."  Or "hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but when the desire" - or the carrot - "cometh it is the tree of life."  Or "hope springs eternal."

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Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss; pictures by Maurice Sendak (1960)

Ruth Krauss is some sort of wise philosopher, with pithy philosophy disguised as picture books.  I loved A Hole is to Dig so very much, but was unaware that Krauss and Sendak had collaborated on more books until I came across this darling picture and daring picture and prose:

What kind of glorious revolution was this, in staid 1960?  Maybe there is a direct line between a screaming song and the burgeoning peace movement - Krauss and Sendak lead to the summer of love?  I'm only jesting a bit here; there had to be some small but impressionable children who heard this read aloud to them in 1960 that thought to themselves "Mmmm...."

The truths of this book are sometimes wonderfully surreal and sometimes wonderfully pointed.

Yes, it is true that sometimes, you meet people, and you just know exactly what they are all about; and I think Krauss perfectly captures that.

I'm sure that's how I felt about my baby sister!

This isn't picture book land anymore;this is Thoreau.

And yes, "loveabye" is a good word to know.

Who exactly was this book for?  What was it's reception like?  Who was buying it in 1960?

Open House for ButterfliesOpen House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved A Hole is to Dig very much.  This book was certainly as enjoyable, and remarkably thought-provoking.  Krauss, with Sendak's help, takes us out of storybook land into a world that Thoreau would have been quite at home in.  Picture books can be philosophical - the best ones usually are.  But this combination of Krauss and Sendak is special.  The book starts with this bit of rebellious prose:  "a screaming song is good to know in case you need to scream" and goes on from there, sometimes wonderfully surreal, other times wonderfully pointed.  It's hard not to imagine a small boys and girls of the early sixties having this read aloud to them, and taking that "screaming song" and other bits of revolutionary thought into their classrooms and then to the streets (a line drawn from Sendak and Krauss to 1968).  Who knows.  I do know that this book is a small gem of genius.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

I kept thinking that it was amazing that Hersey was able to do this research and talk to all of these survivors so soon after the war ended - barely a year after the bomb was dropped!

HiroshimaHiroshima by John Hersey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a horrifying book though.  It's scary.  I know I read it in high school, and as I read it, bits and pieces returned to me.  The woman whose skin came off like a glove, the soldiers whose eyes melted out of their sockets.  Real horror movie stuff, that teenagers love.  And adults, at least this adult, does not.  Images in my head that terrify.  Which, I suppose, is the point.  Hersey wanted to remind  John and Mary Average the absolute power possessed by only one country (at that time, at least) and the effects of that power.

On August 6 it was 70 years, one of the reasons I picked this book up.  I don't need to read it again.  Twice in a lifetime, like the atomic bombings themselves, is enough.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr (2012)

I don't ever pretend to have an English accent, unless I am alone, reading something aloud to myself for fun.  Something like an Agatha Christie book.  Or Oliver Twist, or Narnia.

I'm not that kind of person.

But I suppose, reading-wise at least, you could call me an Anglophile.

I love Mary Poppins and Dodie Smith's Dalmatians.  I have always had the biggest crush on Edmund Pevensie (Don't.  I already know).  Even evil Edmund (perhaps, especially evil Edmund).  I love Miss Jane Marple and Philippa Gregory's Tudor potboilers.  Nell Gwynne and The Sword in the Stone.  Alice in Wonderland and Alice Liddell.  Interestly, I've never seen nor read Peter Pan.  The Wind in the Willows is a favorite.  Connie Willis's time travel novels are all set in England, and I adore them.  Pride and Prejudice.  A Christmas Carol.  The Dark is Rising. Diana Wynne Jones.  Harry Potter.

I particularly love reading about the Royal Family.  I'm a nut for it.  It's my not so secret passion; I don't trumpet it about, but I'm sure my friends know this.  Or suspect.  I know my husband knows; a running joke in our house is that I will wake him up in the middle of the night to discuss at length the color of Queen Victoria's underwear.  I'm doubly offended - I've never actually done this, and I would probably call them knickers.

Victoria and her brood are my favorite, and I would hazard a guess that I've read almost everything worth reading about her, Prince Albert, Edward and Alexandra, the many other royal children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren,  the whispering Waleses, Marie of Roumania, Queen Mary and King George, the Kings speech (I actually have not read this, but saw the movie),  the Battenbergs and Coburgs and the Tecks.  

I like the Tudors too.  I enjoy the Wars of the Roses nearly as much.  Pre-Lancaster verses York I'm not so crazy about; the Hanoverians aren't my favorite either.  The Stuarts can be fun though, particularly Charles II.  

Which brings me to The Real Elizabeth, Andrew Marr's 2012 portrait of the current queen.  She made history last week, passing the record set by Queen Victoria, so this was a good time to read about QE2.  Marr's book isn't a standard biography though, it's truly a portrait, a look at the queen and the state of the monarchy today.  Although this wasn't a snapshot either; there is some depth here, well-written and interesting.  There is a smattering of gossipy-ness, but just a tiny bit.

After so much royal reading, I thought I knew everything too.  But the mark of a good book for me is learning at least one new thing.  Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was called "Buffy" by her family.  Did not know that!

Marr made a truly thought-provoking (if your thoughts are provoked by such things; mine are) about the Queen and the 1960s.  The Queen superimposed against the 60s - the youth oriented culture of  Swinging London, the Stones and the Beatles and Mary Quant, miniskirts and "make love not war" - is a picture of an obtuse and hidebound conservative, out of touch.  But, as Marr points out, "the world of the 1960s, remembered now as the decade of social revolt, looser morals, and 'liberation,' was for those those at the top of power structure a deadly serious and frightening place."  Nuclear annihilation was figuratively and almost literally just around the corner for Great Britain, with the bullyish USSR just  just about 1,500 miles away.  Marr again and again places the Queen at the pivot of power in the United Kingdom, as head of state, but also as active listener, sometimes prodder, pusher, suggester.  The Government may still be in charge, but the Queen, the monarchy still matters, and certainly did in the 1960s.  That's Marr's argument anyway, but that maybe it paid to be conservative in a time when at any moment, missiles could make the kingdom your reigned over a wasteland.  Tread carefully.

"It has been a good life," Marr writes toward the end.  "The Queen has moved among beautiful places and interesting people, and she has always known that she was here for a purpose...  It is a public life of great predictability and minimal spontaneity. At the same time, it has been a private life with a lot of fun and warmth as well as the odd disaster.  She has been an outdoor woman who has bred racehorses, gossiped with close friends, walked, shot and ridden, and been amused, as well as alarmed, by her family."

A good life indeed.

The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth IIThe Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It has been a good life," Andrew Marr writes at the end of this thought-provoking, true portrait (rather than snapshot or standard biography) of Queen Elizabeth II.  "The Queen has moved among beautiful places and interesting people, and she has always known that she was here for a purpose...  It is a public life of great predictability and minimal spontaneity. At the same time, it has been a private life with a lot of fun and warmth as well as the odd disaster.  She has been an outdoor woman who has bred racehorses, gossiped with close friends, walked, shot and ridden, and been amused, as well as alarmed, by her family."   This portrait isn't a Lucien Freud, all discomfort and warts, but rather a more nuanced look at the life of the current queen and the changing face of the monarchy over her now record reign.  Nothing written about the queen can't be completely devoid of gossip (Margaret, Diana, Camilla, etc.), but Marr isn't Kitty Kelley.  There is thoughtful well written depth about the rise and fall of power as centered on a small, graceful, discrete, intelligent, subtle woman.   Marr again and again places the Queen at the pivot of power in the United Kingdom, as head of state, but also as active listener, sometimes prodder, pusher, suggester.  The Government may be in charge, but Marr reasonably writes that the Queen and the monarchy more than still count for something.  A good life, and a good book.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

White Cat by Holly Black (2010)

White Cat was a recommendation from my best reading friend, Miguel, the person who has the closest reading taste to myself of anyone I've ever met.  The only reason he has not read as much as me is that he's 20 years younger; I have a head start.  We call each other "reading twins."  We have rarely diverged. He likes graphic novels, particularly superheroes, more than me.  That's one strike.  There haven't yet been strike two or three.  Yet.  

Accordingly, I was more than a bit terrified to read White Cat, one of his favorite books from the last few years.  

On face value, White Cat has some literary elements that over the years as a reader, I have come to dislike. For starters, it's a Young Adult book, and I think most YA is overblown, formulaic, and overly earnest in it's YA-ness.  YA writers are constantly pushing the envelope, trying to be more controversial, but I think that ends up making the books more lamely conventional;  I'm also not a huge fan of first person fiction, which most YA seems to be written in (the eternal self absorption of the typical teenager).  I also loathe the tendency in YA to have to have a love triangle of some sort.  All YA seems to come in characters of three now.

(I've been a consumer of modern fiction long enough to know that modern YA isn't aimed at me; teenagers are the primary consumers and adults who read YA are at best lurkers in the genre; at worst, adults who read only YA and nothing else are... well, I won't go there).  

What do you do when a friend recommends a book to you and you just don't like the book?
This has happened twice to me in recent memory.  My good friend Deidre, a rabid reader like myself, recommended The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  She loved  it.  I was completely ambivalent about it.  I gave it one of my better "badder" reviews:   "Morgenstern's Victorian setting feels like painted cardboard trees and flowers at the back of a high school stage.  Nothing feels authentic.  It's frustrating and more than a little annoying."  That feeling is also the feeling I get when I feel like I'm supposed to like a good friend likes and wants you to like too - I'm frustrated and annoyed with myself.  Why am I so picky?

Recently, my friend Sarah, not so much a rabid reader but a delightful discusser (discussant?) of books, recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  She adored it, raved about it, thought it was a great book.  I, on the other hand, found it be tepid and not very interesting, with flat characters and a dull plot.  Also, the book made me feel stupid, as everyone seemed to like this book BUT ME.  What the hell is wrong with me?  (interestingly, both All the Light and The Night Circus were well reviewed bestsellers).

At the beginning of the summer, another reading friend, Molly, wanted a book to take with her on a trip. She was over at my house, and borrowed one of my favorites from when I was in my twenties, Grass by Sherri S. Tepper.  I was a huge fan of several of Tepper's books (The Family Tree has one of THE BEST plot twists I've ever read; better than The Sixth Sense or The Others, which I consider two of the other best plot twists, even though they are films).  I haven't read Grass in many years; perhaps, like some other books I've recently tried to re-read, it wouldn't hold up very well.  I know that Molly was very "meh" about the book, and I doubt she finished it.  I felt bad because I recommended a bad book to her!  

Being in a book club for the first time in my life has made me think about this even more.  What makes a book wonderful to someone and hideous to someone else?  (and what do you even call this?  Do the Germans have a word for it?).  

We've read two books so far in our book club:  The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (which was both repellent and wonderful) and Schubert's Winter Journey by Ian Bostridge (which wasn't very well written but provided two hours of excellent discussion).  I don't think we've come to a book yet that half the club is passionate about and the other half is most definitely not.

I know I've gone around Robin Hood's barn, so back to White Cat.  It actually turned out to be a pretty strong book, and by the middle or so, I was excitedly reading it not wanting to put it down.

First, let's dispose of the laundry list of literary thing-a-ma-bobs I hate about YA, how I separate the good YA wheat from the chaff.  Was White Cat overblown - pretentious and inflated?  I would say no, although later books in the series (another thing I hate about YA is the never-ending series, although the series is venerable in publishing, obviously).  Formulaic?  In this case, I thought absolutely not - in fact, it did something I often like, took a genre - in this case the mobster/crime boss genre and injected a cool and unique fantasy element into it.  Overly earnest in its YA-ness, pushing the boundaries to the point of conventionality - perhaps yes.  It's very dark and violent; there is quite a bit of language and sex; it's a PG-13 with shades of R.  Sometimes you forget they are teenagers; but I suppose that's the point.  And a love triangle - between Lila, the teen femme fatale, Cassel and his brother Barron,  wasn't annoying like the pandering asshat love triangle at the end of The Hunger Games; it actually made sense in the plot of the book and added to Cassel's confusion, Barron's douche-iness, and Lila's role as siren slash bad ass bitch.

Good book?  Yes, definitely yes.  A clever start to a series that could sputter out and die; entertainingly genre-bending.  What Holly Black does best here is build an alternate universe bit by bit; she allows Cassell's first person point of view to reveal pieces of this universe, and shines light on the problems of this particular society.

Miguel gave me The Corrections to read next.  I'm  terrified all over again.

White Cat (Curse Workers, #1)White Cat by Holly Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not a fanboy of modern YA (I have my reasons), but this is a rare YA that hit the bulls eye for me.  Holly Black genre-bends, mixing the classic mob/Mafia story with some original urban fantasy storytelling - it's like The Godfather meets a grittier Harry Potter (if Harry Potter was from New Jersey).  Black's alternate universe looks a lot like ours on face value, but using Cassel Sharpe's first person point of view, she shines the light on some dark and scary prejudice that exists in this world for people who practice this kind of magic called "curse work" (shades of X-men here).   It's dark and sometimes violent; PG-13 that skates back and forth over the Rated R line; sometimes you forget they are teenagers - but I supposed that's the point.  Even the most annoying YA trope - the love triangle - gets a bit of a twist here; Black certainly doesn't take it into The Hunger Games love triangle ridiculousness (the stupidest, tacky tack-one love story of all time).  The rest of the series may suck, but this number one worked for me.  No curses here!  

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories by Maria Tatar (2009)

Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in ChildhoodEnchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This seems to go here, there and everywhere and lacked a coherent theme.  I wasn't ever quite sure what the point was, other than the really broad stroke of "children's literature changes children's lives and is powerful."  Tatar ticks off all the greats - J.R.R. Tolkien, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Charlotte's Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Dr. Seuss, Narnia, Hans Christian Andersen - but it was kind of like mixing different kinds of paint.  At first it was really colorful and pretty and interesting, but then turned grey at the end.

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Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen (2015)

I've been reading and loving this series since its start in 2007; that's nearly ten years, which doesn't even seem possible.

Like all series, some books are stand outs and others ho-hum.

Malice at the Palace is a definitely standout.  It's a pleasant reminder of why I love this series.  This entry is more lively and peppy than some of the more recent ones.  It heavily features actual members of the real royal family  - the Prince of Wales, Prince George and Princess Marina.  Noel Coward makes an appearance as well.  Most delightfully, Mrs. Simpson is back, and although Lady Georgie's mother is away in Germany tending to her rich industrialist (and Nazi-to-be, I assume) husband, the always funny and feisty royal gives and well as takes from Mrs. Simpson in what Bowen delightfully refers to as cat-on-cat action.

The series always has plenty of sex appeal, always skating towards sex farce before skating back, and Malice is no exception.

Malice at the Palace (Royal Spyness #9)Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a definitely standout and it's a pleasant reminder of why I love this series.  This entry is more lively and peppy than some of the more recent ones.  It heavily features actual members of the real royal family  - the Prince of Wales, Prince George and Princess Marina.  Noel Coward makes an appearance as well.  Most delightfully, Mrs. Simpson is back, and although Lady Georgie's mother is away in Germany tending to her rich industrialist (and Nazi-to-be, I assume) husband, the always funny and feisty royal gives and well as takes from Mrs. Simpson in what Bowen delightfully refers to as cat-on-cat action.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman; illustrated by Kristyna Litten (2014)

Once upon a gay old time, there were only two picture books for kids about gays and lesbians (and no one else).  There may have been more, but all I was aware of was Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate.  They were groundbreaking, daring, controversial books.  Compared to other picture books, they also were kind of low rent. The production value of  the books and illustrations weren't the best.   They were created with loving intent, but lacked the slickness of the mainstream picture book world.

Fast forward 25 years to This Day in June.  No more low-rent picture books about the gays!  This Day in June is slick. The illustrations are colorful and fun.  And where Heather and Daddy, although controversial in their time, may have painted gay life in the most rose colored of terms, This Day in June let's it all hang out.  There are drag queens, leather daddies, sisters of perpetual indulgence, go-go boys - the whole gang is here.  And thank God for it!  There is a direct line between those two ground breaking books and this wildly colorful and fun picture book, and I'm glad I live in a time when this book can be so beautifully rendered. It's not for everyone - but every city of any size has some sort of gay pride event and parade, and this is a great picture book describing those days in June (or whenever).

This Day in JuneThis Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a long but successful road from Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, which are both groundbreaking and daring books.  But also sort of pleasantly amenable picture books at their hearts; they try their best not to offend.  This Day in June is anything but offensive (except maybe to haters), but it's also in your face with leather daddies, drag queens, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and all the other cast of fabulous characters one may find in a 21st Century Gay Pride parade.  The road runs directly between those two first ground breaking books and this wildly colorful and fun picture book; It's probably not for everyone - but every city of any size has some sort of gay pride event and parade, and this is a great picture book describing those days in June.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Stone in the Sky by Cecil Castellucci (2015)

I didn't enjoy the sequel quite as well as the first book, but it was still  really good and engaging.  It reminded me of a really, really good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which by my standards of science fiction is a wonderful thing.  I get tired of first person Young Adult (why always, always from a teenagers point of view, alone in the world; it's annoying) and I also couldn't quite figure out Tula Bane's age in this book (she's supposed to be a teenager, and she occasionally acts like one, but I think that's a publishing thing; I feel that she would have acted far more adult in a book written for adults; more sex maybe).  Still, those are quibbles - the two books are great together, and I highly enjoyed them.  Bring on more strong science fiction!  We need the inspiration to dream again; all of these dystopias are depressing.

Stone in the Sky (Tin Star, #2)Stone in the Sky by Cecil Castellucci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not quite as strong as Tin Star, but still very, very good.  Tula Bane is a magnetic character, and her point of view is anything but dull.  This, like  Tin Star, has to stray into teen-love-triangle-dom (modern teen books apparently have to have a love triangle, and have a first person narrator), but Castellucci again barely (deftly) squirms out of that bear trap; the plot and characters stub out the love triangle bullshit and leave it dying at the end (i.e. it's not the main point).  The plot zigs and zags a bit, but overall, this reminded me a really good mid-season episode of  Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that's high praise from me.

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All the Children Were Sent Away by Sheila Garrigue (1976)

I acquired some books as a child from Scholastic Books.  I think, if the dim past is correct, you would place an order from a flimsy catalogue. This could have been a free book from RIF though; I do not know.  

All The Children Were Sent Away isn't a very good book. It's not as exciting or good as Ian Ian Serraillier’s Escape from Warsaw (also called The Silver Sword, although I didn't know that until I was an adult).  I imagine I picked this/ purchased this because of Miss Shull, our fourth grade teacher, who read aloud Escape from Warsaw, and another book, Searcing for Shona by Margaret J. Anderson.  Both of these were World War II books; Searching for Shona even had a similar plot - girl sent to Canada to escape the Blitz.  Only Searching for Shona was the other side of that coin - what happened when the girl got to Canada.  All the Children is more of the story of how one girl gets to Canada, and a little bit of what happens when she gets there.

It didn't hold my attention as much as when I was a kid, although when Ernie, the Cockney boy (oh, those awful Cockney accents; I hate trying to read them) calls Lady Drume "me old tulip" I distinctly remember thinking that phrase was a riot when I was 10 years old.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a book I really loved as a kid, but upon re-reading it as an adult, it wasn't so good.  I think I probably chose it (from a Scholastic book catalog in the late 70s/early 80s I'm sure) because our fourth grade teacher had read aloud Escape From Warsaw and Searching for Shona, both World War II stories, and I probably wanted to read another one.  I don't know about Searching for Shona (I haven't read it in 35 years) but Escape From Warsaw (also known  as The Silver Sword is a much, much better book (I re-read it every few years or so).  This book is a mere supplement, I think.

Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During England's Tumultuous Wars of the Roses (2006)

The Pastons are sort of like neighbors you've never met, but see occasionally driving down the street or working in their yards, neighbors you are on nodding acquaintance with but have never actually talked to.  And when you finally get to talk to them, you find them to be delightful people.  If you read anything about the Wars of the Roses or the early Tudors, you are bound to run into the Pastons.  They usually don't get a whole book to themselves, particularly fiction, as their lives - or at least their letters - are remarkably normal, full of the kind of small family drama and love, and litigiousness, that make up the everyday lives of the majority of people.  I imagine they've lurked at the edges of fiction, used for research purposes to give characters authenticity.  Their letters are occasionally quoted by books of nonfiction about the era; they lives were representative of a class of people, and they were also swept up into the turbulence of the time on several occasions. 

 I know there is at least one other book about the Pastons, which I have not read.  I found this particular book to be a mixed bag of interesting and then ploddingly dull.  I think this could be Castor's fault as a writer, but more likely it's the lives of the Paston's themselves.   Most of the letters - and thus what we know of their lives - was taken up with legal matters related to estates and inheritances.  This can make for rather dull reading unless you reading about laws and lawyers of the 15th century.  But woven between all of this was the small soap opera that make up the lives of every family.  A father who thinks his eldest son is good for nothing; the hard mother who always sticks up for him; the daughter who runs away to marry a servant (Downtown Abbey, Wars of the Roses style); the love match between the second son and a local girl.  The backdrop to this is the actual wars of the roses, which injects into their lives on several occasions.  The Pastons were probably pretty typical in that their loyalty lay with whoever they thought could give them the best government, government in this case being who could help them win their cases in court for disputed property.  They were York when it suited them and Lancaster when it suited them, and were playing a dangerous game that probably many had to play.  Regardless, a bad king meant bad business; a stable government meant that land ownership was stable too; and back then land was money.

The  Pastons came out on top; one of the Pastons accompanied Henry VII when he took a retirnue to meet Catherine of Aragon when she arrived on English shores to wed Prince Arthur; the wealthy, aristo line of Pastons eventually died out, penniless. 

As Castor elegantly ends the book, the Pastons spent much of their time scrambling to acquire wealth and property.  They were very, very proud of their manors and a castle they (finally) acquired (with some battles, legal and otherwise, involved). They planned and built elaborate tombs for themselves too.  They thought through building, they would leave a lasting legacy, a mark.  It's like Shelley's "Ozymandias", that old chestnut we all have to read in high school.  The sands of times have buried the manor houses and castle of the Pastons (or more likely, flats and parking structures).  But what remains is what they probably considered almost a throwaway - their letters.  Their words have survived five hundred years and provided us a telescope through time.  Of course, it's through a glass darkly; we can't see every little detail about 15th century living. But the Paston letters give us a tantalizing picture of life in the late middle ages.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Pastons are sort of like neighbors you've never met, but see occasionally driving down the street or working in their yards, neighbors you are on nodding acquaintance with but have never actually talked to.  And when you finally get to talk to them, you find them to be delightful people.  If you read anything about the Wars of the Roses or the early Tudors, you are bound to run into the Pastons.  They usually don't get a whole book to themselves, particularly fiction, as their lives - or at least their letters - are remarkably normal, full of the kind of small family drama and love, and litigiousness, that make up the everyday lives of the majority of people.  I imagine they've lurked at the edges of fiction, used for research purposes to give characters authenticity.  Their letters are occasionally quoted by books of nonfiction about the era; they lives were representative of a class of people, and they were also swept up into the turbulence of the time on several occasions.

I found this alternating between incredibly interesting and ploddingly dull.  Other people's legal battles aren't really all that intriguing, when you get down into the details.

Relating the story of the Paston family aloud to someone who asks "what are you reading right now" was actually more fun than reading the book.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien; narrated by Rob Inglis (2001, 1954)

Listening to The Fellowship of the Ring on audio.  Long ago, one time only, I listened to Rob Inglis narrate LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea , which I can still hear in my head when I think about it.  I know I've listened to at least part of this before, and maybe the whole thing, but that was years ago.

I love Tolkien.  He changed my literary life (for the better or for the worse, I still do not know; perhaps both).  He saved my life.  At one point in what I thought of as my sad, lonely high school existence, I think I thought they were my only friends; certainly they were one way out of a stale, mostly intellectually dead ghost town.

But as I've grown, and my reading tastes have grown, Tolkien has become more and more problematic for me.  I want to love his works uncritically.  Alas, I am finding more and more that pure enthusiasm isn't my entire reason for reading; I now enjoy reading things more deeply and with a critical eye (jaundiced eye?  God, I hope not).  A critical eye on Tolkien, particularly listening to it and hearing every written word read back at you (no skimming) has lead to some questions for me.

 I just finished hearing Inglis talk about Gandalf's tracking of Gollum, and I kept thinking about Gollum's motivations.  Surely he wouldn't have spent fifty years continually muttering about the ring; was he completely incapable of growth or change?  I guess one could argue that the Ring did this to him.  But then there is this:

"The Wood-elves tracked him first, an easy task for them, for his trail was still fresh then. Through Mirkwood and back again it led them, though they never caught him. The wood was full of the rumour of him, dreadful tales even among beasts and birds. The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles."

Come on.  Mirkwood was full of giant freakin' spiders - and the Necromancer lived there too!  You'd think Gollum would be the least of anyone's worries.  He's not THAT evil.  That's one thing that's bothering me right now.  Not enough to stop loving the book and appreciating the book (Tolkien essentially invented a genre, afterall) but enough to be critical of the book.


August 1, 2015

Frodo and company are making their way through the Old Forest; they just crossed through the Bonfire Glade, and Frodo just sang the song about all woods failing.  Rob Inglis is a terrible singer, by the way; I love his narration but hate his singing.  The voice he uses for Frodo sounds like Leslie Howard's Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind which is funny but perhaps fitting.  Ashley is a milquetoast.  Frodo is a little bit too.  He is a vessel for the carrying of the ring (which he fails at in the end) and propped up by those around him (mainly Sam, but others, including if you think about it too much, Bilbo).  Ashley was a vessel for all of Scarlet's hopes and desires, and is propped by everyone around him too.  Ashley is weaker than Frodo though.  Harry Potter is a character like that too.

In listening to the last chapters, with Frodo being tailed by Black Riders through the Shire, having to scramble down banks with riders at the top, and particularly the Rider crouched on the far bank of Brandywine with them crossing on the ferry, I definitely was transported back to age 13 or 14 for a few moments, and that delightful feeling I always got when I started Fellowship of the Ring anew (for the sixth or eighth or tenth time).  That sense of urgency that Tolkien gives the narrative, the scariness of pure evil dogging their footsteps in what is supposed to be a safe place, the idea that adventures of a grand and great sort lie ahead and are just beginning.  Even the old book smell came back to me.  It was a good feeling and made me quite happy to be listening.


Someone's artistic rendering of Old Man Willow
But I can't find any really good pictures that I like of Brandy Hall, or the Brandywine River, or the Brandywine Ferry.  I did find a photograph that I think captures the Brandywine Bridge though.
Hildebrants Old Man Willow.
Closest to my imagination
Howe's Old Man Willow.  Creepier, for some reason.
Beautiful watercolour rendition of Old Man Willow

Brandywine Bridge; a real bridge somewhere outside the real of Middle Earth


"Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, `a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all'. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness."  

This is what I want people to think of our house.  


Who cleans the toilets in Rivendell?  I asked my friend Miguel this, and he answered "Do elves even poop?"  I commented that they poop like rabbits, only it smells like snozzberries.  He said they probably have a captive dwarf to clean their toilets.


Frodo asks Gandalf how the horse of the Black Riders are able to endure their presence.  Gandalf answers:  "Not all his servants and chattels are wraiths! There are orcs and trolls, there are wargs and werewolves; and there have been and still are many Men, warriors and kings, that walk alive under the Sun, and yet are under his sway."

Werewolves?  Huh?  There are werewolves in Middle Earth?  Where?  Why?

There are hobbits of course.  And whatever Tom Bombadil is.  And the Goldberry is some sort of naiad, obviously, and she's referred to as the river's daughter.  There is at least one talking fox.  There are dragons.  Dwarves.  Elves of a various sorts.  Men.  Horses and ponies.  Ravens.  Thrushes.  Giant spiders.  Goblins and orcs. Trolls. Ents.  Huorns. Harts.  Kine (whatever the hell kine are).  Beorn.  Bears.   Barrowwights. Bats.   Wizards.  Whatever the hell Sauron is.  Oliphaunts.  Stone giants.  Balrogs.  Gollum.  Pterodactyls or whatever the Ringwraits are riding after they ditch their horses.  Ringwraits.  There are wolves and wargs. 

But only ONE mention of werewolves in the entirety of the series.  Just the one.  There is a WereBear (Beorn), which is pretty fucking rad.  He was the turning point of the Battle of the Five Armies (although how the hell one giant bear turned back so many goblins, I never understood, but I still liked it).  

You'd think Sauron could have made great use of werewolves.  They could infiltrate wherever - Rohan, Gondor, Dale, Bree  - in the guise of men, and then under the full moon, become wolves and rip the whole town apart.



Elves are always my least favorite characters in Lord of the Rings, which is stupid on my part, because the entire series exists because of Tolkien's fascination with and creation of elves and elvish, right?

But elves are bitches.  They are boring.  They are immortal (I guess).  They can't be bothered.

And they are bitches.  Let's go back to that for a moment.  They.  Are.  Bitches.

Case study:  Old Bilbo (who isn't nearly as interesting as young Bilbo honestly) has just finished declaiming a poem in Rivendell to a group of bitches, I mean elves (I will write about Tolkien's poetry later).  Here is the exchange that happens:

`Now we had better have it again,' said an Elf.
Bilbo got up and bowed. `I am flattered, Lindir,' he said. 'But it would be too tiring to repeat it all.'
'Not too tiring for you,' the Elves answered laughing. 'You know you are never tired of reciting your own verses. But really we cannot answer your question at one hearing!'
`What!' cried Bilbo. 'You can't tell which parts were mine, and which were the DĂșnadan's?'
'It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals' said the Elf.
'Nonsense, Lindir,' snorted Bilbo. 'If you can't distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgement is poorer than I imagined. They're as different as peas and apples.'
'Maybe. To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,' laughed Lindir. `Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business."
You know what? That's just fucking rude.  Perhaps they are teasing, but their teasing has a bite to it.  And calling mortal men (including hobbits) sheep is really rude.  Essentially, he called men (and hobbits) stupid.  What a bitch.

I'm nearing the end of Fellowship of the Ring; I've been at it for about a month or so.  

I've changed? My tastes have changed?  It kills me to write it, but Tolkien doesn't appeal to me in quite the same way anymore.  I don't know how that makes me feel.  Sad, maybe?  I don't want to abandon my love of J.R.R. Tolkien completely.  He's an extraordinary storyteller.  But I don't think he's a great writer.  A good writer.  But not great.

Take for example, his poetry.  Here is what Tolkien writes about what people thought of Bilbo, at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring:  "All the one hundred and forty-four guests expected a pleasant feast; though they rather dreaded the after-dinner speech of their host (an inevitable item). He was liable to drag in bits of what he called poetry; and sometimes, after a glass or two, would allude to the absurd adventures of his mysterious journey."  I think Tolkien may have been writing about himself.  About his "absurd adventures" I have no comment, but I would be like the guests - I think Tolkien's poetry is pretty dreadful.  It's long and not interesting, and he's constantly interrupting the flow of the narrative with a "song."  Listening to Rob Inglis try to sing some of this was excruciating too.  At first, I told myself I would listen no matter what.  But I couldn't do it.  These LOTR characters sing and chant poetry altogether too much, and strange and inopportune times.  Being chases by Orcs or Black Riders?  Let's stop and burst into song, shall we? It's a romanticized picture of the past, and also just annoying.

His lack of female characters is disappointing too.  I know he was writing in a completely different time period than today, and he shouldn’t necessarily be judged by today’s standards.  But his lack of female characters is akin to Margaret Mitchell’s depiction of African Americans in Gone With the Wind.  Distant cousins – Mitchell is just plain racist. I don’t think Tolkien is misogynist; he just was old fashioned, and probably carried very traditional paternalistic views of women.  Probably – I don’t know enough to do anything more than comment on this.  If you type “are there any female characters” in Google, the first autofill that pops up adds “in The Hobbit.”  So I’m certainly not alone in wondering this about Tolkien.  (The Hobbit, according to that search, mentions three female characters.  Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna Took; Girion’s wife, and Fili and Kili’s mother; none have a speaking role).

In Fellowship, I counted the women who actually had speaking parts.

Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is a major personage in Hobbiton, and if Frodo had stayed in the Shire instead of going off adventuring, would have been a Sauron-sized antagonist for him at home.  She is mentioned by name 14 times in Fellowship.  She first gets to sass Merry Brandybuck:

 ‘Hiding, you mean,’ said Lobelia. ‘Anyway we want to see him and we mean to see him. Just go and tell him so!’

 Then a few paragraphs later, she gets to insult Frodo:  ‘You’ll live to regret it, young fellow! Why didn’t you go too? You don’t belong here; you’re no Baggins - you - you’re a Brandybuck!’ 

She also gets to say ‘Ours at last!’ after taking possession of Bag End.  She never gets to speak again, even when she’s released from prison at the end of Return of the King and everyone applauds for her. 

Farmer Maggot’s wife gets to talk (she serves everyone beer too).  One line:  ‘You be careful of yourself. Maggot!’ she called. ‘Don’t go arguing with any foreigners, and come straight back!’ Wise words, for sure. 

Goldberry, the river’s daughter, is a minor character, but at least gets to speak.  Several times actually.  She even sings.  Of course, that’s all she gets to do.  That and pick water lilies.  At least she’s pretty.

Bree has no women.  At all!  You’d think an inn would have busty, lusty serving wenches flirting with dwarves and squint-eyed southerners.  Nope.

Arwen is seen in Rivendell – apparently she is the only female in the whole place.  She never even gets to sing.  She just sits by Elrond, and when she leaves, he leaves.  Frodo does catch Strider and Arwen having an intimate conversation, but we have no idea what they were talking about.
The three most important female characters in Lord of the Rings are Galadriel, Eowyn, and Shelob.  Galadriel actually gets lines aplenty; she actually says some memorable stuff, and her scene with Frodo and Sam at her mirror has some of my favorite lines in the whole book.  “I pass the test… I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”  It’s an important part of the book.   Eowyn and Shelob come later of course; I haven’t re-read The Two Towers or Return of the King for quite some time, but I know they are both pivotal characters.  Eowyn gets to speak.  I don’t know how much but I know she does at least say this:  “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman” to the ringwraith Witch King of Angmar before she kills him.   

Shelob doesn’t ever speak.  The spiders in Mirkwood got to speak.  Shelob does not.  You’d think she’d at least get to hiss a little.

I think in Return of the King at least, there are some other women who get speaking roles.  But that’s it for Fellowship of the Ring.  Four women get to talk.  (and none of them are human).

My last complaint about Fellowship of the Rings is one I’ve had for a while.  His characters, particularly his evil characters, lack some depth.  The anguish Frodo feels over the ring, I think there is real depth here, and some of Tolkien’s best writing describes the ring and its affects.  But the story and the storytelling is always the thing here; that’s not exactly problematic, but it’s not always very interesting either.  There are no good orcs.  There aren’t even any mediocre orcs.  They are all simply bad.  What are the motivations of orcs, other than to just be slavering slobbering gross mongers of evil?  What do orcs get out of Sauron winning?  Are there any orcs that want to betray Sauron?

When you hear the book read aloud, you realize what an asshole Boromir is.  That doesn’t come across as much when you are reading it to yourself.  But Inglis made sure we understood that he was an asshole, and challenged Aragorn’s authority in voice if not in action or deed.

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This continues to be one of my favorite books of all time, and listening to it is a treat.  Rob Inglis is a terrific narrator.  Tolkien created a genre, and for this he should always be lauded.  His work can be uneven - he's certainly not a perfect writer.  But a storyteller, there aren't many who are better.  You get this feeling especially while listening; even though I've read this book multiple times, listening gave me a new appreciation for Tolkien's storytelling skills.  This isn't literary fiction, and if you approach is such, you're going to be greatly disappointed.  Appreciate it for what it is, and how groundbreaking it was.  In a world full of knock offs though, this is the real deal.  That can't ever be forgotten.  

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