Thursday, October 29, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read Station Eleven for the first time, I know I said that while I enjoyed it, I would probably never re-read it; it wasn't that kind of book. Surprise! I've re-read it. Although, in all honesty, this was for my book club, so it wasn't really by choice. Still, it was a surprisingly satisfying re-read. Mandel is deftly genre-bending here, squeezing the pulp out of the (what I think is now tired) dystopia genre, leaving behind a slowly building, non-linear, character rather than action/plot driven novel of pure reading pleasure. The end of the world is never a pretty sight (Thunderdome), and Mandel's Armageddon still has dog-eat-dog. But enough with the dystopian tyrants (and zombies and cannibals); Mandel chaos is still scary, but Shakespeare and symphonies bring order to that chaos, and thank the muses we have a dystopia we can turn to and maybe say "things are going to be okay." Because art, creativity. Perhaps. But there are signs here that art and literature can be dangerous in the wrong hands. A tremendously enjoyable accomplishment, the second time for me was definitely the magic charm.


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When I read Station Eleven  for the first time, I know I said that while I enjoyed it, I would probably never re-read it; it wasn't that kind of book.  Surprise!  I've re-read it.  Although, in all honesty, this was for my book club, so it wasn't really by choice.  Still, it was a surprisingly satisfying re-read.

When we read The Bone Clocks, the Read-Think-Talk exercise found here was quite helpful in organizing my thoughts about that particular book.  Here is my R-T-T for Station Eleven.

Spoilers ahead!  If you are reading this because you stumbled upon it wanting to know if you SHOULD read Station Eleven, then read no further (you SHOULD read it).

Characters

The Georgian Flu.  Obviously not a human character, but still an actor and change agent in this novel. 
Arthur, the famous Hollywood actor, like all actors, both likable and unpleasant. Arthur is clearly the axis upon which the novel turns, but I'm not sure what his significance is; if this book is indeed about the power of art to move us and change us and make us more human, his particular brand of art has corrupted and calloused him.
Kirsten, child actor who is part of the Traveling Symphony, strong, certainly not innocent, likable.
Jeevan, the paparazzi turned EMT in training to tries to save Arthur's life, likable, identifiable.  What is Jeevan's role in this novel?
Frank, Jeevan's paraplegic brother, almost a paper doll.  
Miranda, the first ex-wife of Arthur, the graphic artist responsible for Station Eleven, who also has a corporate life, very likable, certainly not innocent or naive, strong
Elizabeth Colton, the naive and innocent glamorous second ex-wife of Arthur, who (because I was listening to a podcast about the Manson murders) looks like Sharon Tate in my head.  She is the mother of Arthur's only child, a son 
Tyler, the prophet, unlikable (which is the point), mentally ill, 
Clark, Arthur's gay friend and roommate from before he became famous, very likable, sad.
Dieter (older, was a punk rocker), August (philosophical and spiritual), Sayid (was Kirsten's lover), members of the Traveling Symphony who seem important. All three are not paper dolls, Mandel subtly crafts them into life.


Are the characters convincing? Do they come alive for you? How would you describe them — as sympathetic, likeable, thoughtful, intelligent, innocent, naive, strong or weak? Something else?

Mandel's characters seem authentic; only a couple felt like paper dolls carefully placed and manipulated to move the plot along (something I generally find annoying in a book).  The main characters listed above (mostly?) acted and reacted in ways that seemed legitimate.  I particularly thought Jeevan was a vivid and memorable character, mostly because of the scenes with his brother; he certainly came alive. (his brother, though alive, also felt plotted, although not necessarily clumsily).   Arthur, perhaps, was the only character that seemed a bit murky, and perhaps that was on purpose; who really knew Arthur anyway?  


Do you identify with any characters? Are you able to look at events in the book through their eyes—even if you don’t like or approve of them? Do they remind you of people in your own life? Or yourself?

I don't usually identify with characters, so that's a hard question to answer.  Perhaps Miranda, because she possesses creative strengths but doesn't actually pursue her art, instead going corporate.  I was most attracted to August; he seemed wonderfully gentle and interesting.  

Mandel was most definitely able to create characters who we can crawl inside of and peer out through their eyes, feel what they are feeling.  I think this was one of the strongest points of the book.

Clark was definitely someone I've met, although I can't specifically name one person who he reminds me of.  

Are characters developed psychologically and emotionally? Do you have access to their inner thoughts and motivations? Or do you know them mostly through dialogue and action?

Very much so.  Even some of the minor characters, like August, Mandel gives enough subtle hints and clues using phrases, descriptions, words, language, dialogue to create vividly emotional and vibrant characters.  There isn't really all that  action in this book, particularly one that takes place on teh back end of the Armageddon - unlike some end of the world books, this has a dearth of battle scenes, but much emotional energy and inner dialogue.

Do any characters change or grow by the end of the story? Do they come to view the world and their relationship to it differently?

Arthur dies at the beginning and at the end.  He's some sort of crux (obviously) but I'm not sure sure what.  He does not change or grow.  

Kirsten ages from an innocent child actor with typical child actor problems (hints of a horrible mother and crappy childhood) to a hardened, world-wise and somewhat world-weary battle hardened woman warrior; the end of the world has made her strong but not brittle; she's tempered; she longs for the old world but accepts the new.  She also uses her art to find a place in the world, perhaps as a solace (uses her art like Miranda uses her art; as Arthur can't use his).

Jeevan also is a practitioner of an art - photography - that he uses for evil intent that he ultimately feels guilty about.  His life changes drastically, but I don't think he personally changes as much as Kirsten.  

Miranda changes throughout the novel; she's naive and scared at the beginning, and becomes confident and corporate by the end.  Although she dies, so we never get to see how the end of the world would hone her.

Elizabeth Colton.  Stays the same.  Always thinks "things happen for a reason" which is delusional at best when considering the end of the world; a practitioner of pop psychology of the Oprah one hour variety that doesn't serve her well when Armaggedon hits; and turns her already mentally ill son into a monster.  

Tyler. He's the other side of Kirsten; the world changed, and they adapted in different ways.  We don't really know what he was like as a child though; we get both exposition and hints about Kirsten's life, but Tyler we just don't know.  We know what Tyler becomes; I learned a new word:  he's a lusus naturae, a freak of nature.  

Clark.  I think Clark becomes something else because of the Armageddon, but he's kind of like Tyler in the respect that we don't really know all that much about his previous life, so we don't know how he changes.

Plot

Is the story plot-driven, moving briskly from event to event? Or is it character-driven, moving more slowly, delving into characters' inner-lives?

I think something really interesting about this book is Mandel's genre-bending; she took the traditional (and now sort of done to death) end of the world/dystopia genre (World War Z, The Hunger Games) and sliced out most of the action and sex (read: Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling).   This story isn't plot-driven at all; we don't move briskly from event to event.  Instead, we jump around in time and space, a story that told from all sorts of different time angles.  It's most definitely character-driven; each character is an attentively dropped blob of color (although hardly formless; these characters are crafted) into a plot and chronology that's a pan of water; eventually, slowly all the drops become one, but that takes time.  

What exactly is the plot here, and does it even matter?  Weren't we more interested in reading about how these particular people survive the end of the world; and how what happened to them before makes them who they are now?  

What is the story’s central conflict—character vs. character...vs. society...or vs. nature (external)? Or an emotional struggle within the character (internal)? How does the conflict create tension?

According to this source, there are four classic (and sexistly named) conflicts.
Man vs. man.  A struggle between two forces.  If we take Kirsten as the heroine of this novel, then she is in direct conflict with the Prophet.  But that's such a boringly weak conflict; the lack of action makes that a cherry on top of the cake at best; more like a little sprinkle.  A bit of sweetness, but nothing much.

Man vs. society.  Now this one is a bit more interesting to think about, because for all intents and purposes, society has collapsed.  Kaput, it's gone.  But a large portion of the novel takes place before the collapse of society, and some of it takes place during and right after the collapse.  This lack of society precludes a conflict.

Man vs. nature.  This conflict is very apparent throughout the novel.  Society has collapsed because of nature, in this case the Georgia Flu, and all the events and effects of that collapse; everyone is suddenly forced to the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, whereas before the collapse all of these characters were someplace in the middle or top.  If Man vs. man is the little bit of sweetness on top of the cake, then man vs. nature is the cake.

Man vs. self.  I guess, the four main characters (Kirsten, Arthur, Jeevan, and Miranda) all have internal struggles involving their need to create.


Is the plot chronological? Or does it veer back and forth between past and present?


This plot is the exact opposite of chronological, but non-linear done really well.


Is the ending a surprise or predictable? Does the end unfold naturally? Or is it forced, heavy handed, or manipulative? Is the ending satisfying, or would you prefer a different ending?

The ending wasn't predictable, but also not a surprise either, not a Sixth Sense  or "The Lottery" or "The Gift of the Magi" type of surprise.  At no point did Mandel walk and talk her paper dolls into the ending; really there is only one bit that felt forced, the paraplegic brother, and that was only slightly paper-dollish, and it was the ending.  I thought the end was satisfyingly gentle.  There wasn't some shoot out at the OK Corral.  There was a shoot out towards the end though, but it was almost anti-climatic; the true villain is still the Georgian Flu.  At least part of the gently rolling end was augmentation to the whole theme of illegitimi non carborundum; the bastards in this case being the Georgian Flu, and "us" being humanity.

Point of View

Who tells the story—a character (1st-person narrator)? Or an unidentified voice outside the story (3rd-person narrator)? Does one person narrate—or are there shifting points of view? What does the narrator know? Is the narrator privy to the inner-life of one or more of the characters...or none? What does the narrator let you know?

I believe Mandel wrote this in third-Person omniscient; the all-seeing and all-knowing narrator kens things (e.g. Clark at the airport coincidentally missing every infected person as he walks through the terminal) and sees into people's minds (Miranda's dying thoughts at the beach, for example).  

Imaginative Development

What about theme—the larger meanings behind the work? What ideas does the author explore? What is he or she trying to say?

I think the "duh" theme is the power of art.  Art can bring comfort, make order out of chaos, remind us about our humanity. But art can dehumanize too; several times Arthur strikes various characters as unreal, as always acting; his art that built him up has destroyed him.  Miranda uses her art as an escape of some sort too (I think) while Jeevan's art harmed people.  

This certainly ties in with the Star Trek quote:  Survival is insufficient. 

Humans create; they also destroy. I think the Georgia Flu is man-made; the doctor at the beginning hasn't ever seen anything like this before.  

Symbols intensify meaning. Can you identify any in the book—people, actions or objects that stand for something greater than themselves?

Station Eleven the graphic novel is some sort of symbol, but I don't know what it stands for.  Art?  Space? Escape from reality?  What does it mean?

I think Arthur represents something too.  I'm bad at symbols though.

What about irony—a different outcome, or reality, than expected. Irony mimics real life: the opposite happens from what we desire or intend...unintended consequences.

I don't think there is much irony in this book.  Plenty of coincidence though.  It's sort of ironic, I guess, that Kirsten uses Station Eleven as something to keep her strong and alive, while Tyler uses it for ill purposes (although he uses the Bible more).  Again, that idea that art can sustain or cause pain.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes; illustrated by Edward Adizzone (1960)

An ad hoc squint at  The Witch Family may leave you with a just impression that this novel lacked some of her subtle wit and narrative expertise; its definitely an episodic plot, and the characters never quite come to life like the Pye family. But I definitely appreciate what she is attempting to do here.  There is a strange meta-story going on here, in which two little girls (Amy and Clarissa) are telling each other (including crayon drawings) the story of two witches (Old Witch and the Little Witch), who then may (or may not) come to life.  By the end, you aren't so sure.  I may be grasping at literary straws here (I will never claim to be any sort of expert at deep reading and literary criticism) but that sounds like metafiction to me - one of the spells of postmodernism.  So maybe The Witch Family may be more of exercise in children's fiction, and taken from that vantage point, it's quite interesting.  I don't think a whole lot of children's literature from that time period or before was doing anything like that.

The shades of postmodern writing isn't the only interesting (or strange) thing about The Witch Family.  There are these occasional macabre hints of a world that's cracked a bit.  The scene when the old witch is compelled to brush the little witch's hair is creepy - and not in a delicious way.  It's odd and goose-bumpy.  Another scene, this one brushing into the horror genre, is when the little witch meets the (little) mermaid; the little witch is ready to leave, and the little mermaid does what sirens throughout history have done:  starts to sing a song of enticement, to keep the little witch with her - the subtext being forever.  She doesn't succeed (the spelling bee, another odd character, warns her) and the little mermaid goes back to being friendly - but I was stuck with the idea from then on that the mermaid wasn't quite so benign.  Perhaps she was only doing what mermaids do, but still...

An odd book, not quite likable, but admirable.  I'm remaining ambivalent about the works of Eleanor Estes ; I love her Pye books, thought The Hundred Dresses was moving, hated the Moffats (I've tried them three times).  The Witch Family, chronologically, falls somewhere in the middle of the life of her writing and works.  What I'm not ambivalent about is her talent though; she was an adventurous and daring writer, who never pandered to a children.

I can't leave The Witch Family behind without at least some comment on Edward Ardizzone's superb pen and ink drawings.  To me, his illustrations are the epitome of sixties and seventies illustrations for children's novels.  They, like Estes, never pander to children; they aren't cutesy.  They remind me of Alton Raible's illustrations for Zilpha Keatley Snyder, or the non-wacky original Joseph Schindelman illustrations for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or E.L. Konigsburg's own illustrations for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I appreciated the unique narrative of The Witch Family rather than liking it; I loved the illustrations.  As I write this, Halloween is only a few days away, and these illustrations are perfect for the holiday.


The Witch FamilyThe Witch Family by Eleanor Estes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admired this book much more than I liked it. An ad hoc squint is going to reveal a sort of treacly, episodic book that quite frankly lacks the narrative strength and subtle wit of a book like Pinky Pye. But on deeper reflection, I think Eleanor Estes is experimenting with plot here; there is a story within a story, one of the thumbprints of postmodern writing; I'm not sure that was happening in very many children's novels in 1960. She's playing around with characters too; the "friendly" mermaid who croons a siren's song before becoming friendly again flirts with the horror genre; so does the Old Witch's compulsion to brush her new little charge's hair (that was creepy in a goose-bumpy sort of way). I admire Estes for trying on a different writer's hat here, even if she wasn't completely successful. Success, however, belongs to the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone. They are quintessential 60s illustrations for children's novels, and set the every scene perfectly. What's truly admirable about both Estes and Ardizzone is the lack of pandering: at no point does Estes "write down" or Ardizzone "draw down" to their child readers. It is exactly the opposite; the writing and art found within this book is quite sophisticated.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Redgraves: A Family Epic by Donald Spoto (2012)

I think whoever chose to call this book "an epic" was grossly overstating the lives of the Redgraves.  They were many things - all of them incredibly strong and good actors, some of them activists or adulterers (or both),  one of them a closted homosexual.  But livers of an epic life, I don't think Spoto successfully made that case.  The Redgraves: Interesting Lives.  The Redgraves: All the World's A Stage.  But not "an epic."  Do actors lead epic lives?

Still, Spato's book was strong; I knew nothing about the Redgraves other than some of their names (and, of course, Vanessa Redgrave is in my favorite movie, Howards End).  Michael Redgrave's story was particularly interesting - his marriage to fellow actor Rachel, who bore him three children, but also his gay side, his same sex love affairs and relationships.  I think you would want to say after reading this, if Michael Redgrave had lived today, he could have been in a long term same sex relationship rather than closeted relationships and a wife to hide that; but I'm not so sure.  For starters, was Rachel a beard, or an equal partner in an unusual relationship (she had love affairs too).  If he were alive and acting today, would he be able to be openly gay (perhaps, perhaps not).  Maybe instead of a sad thing, Michael and Rachel's love life was revolutionary; maybe they were happy the way things were (they never divorced) and it makes a better narrative - or at least a 21st century Puritan narrative - to point out some of the unhappier moments.  Whose relationships are completely happy or unhappy anyway?

Tony Richardson, closeted homsexual too.  He sounds like a douchebag though.

The book made me want to see The Lady Vanishes, which we did.  Michael Redgrave is a hoot.

The Redgraves: A Family EpicThe Redgraves: A Family Epic by Donald Spoto
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Redgrave family were quite interesting and talented, but they certainly did not live epic lives. Spato's book was strong though; what I knew about this acting family could have fit into a thimble before reading his book. It drags in some spots; and the last 30 years or so seemed scrunched together. Michael Redgrave and his wife Rachel's unconventional marriage was the most fascinating part of the book; he a bisexual who carried on numerous affairs with men, she with her own short and long-term love affairs. You can approach this with two minds - one being how sad, but the other, how revolutionary and radical. As they never divorced, something worked for them, which I think is surprising at the very least (you might think they'd be divorced today, in these freer and more modern times, but then look at the Clintons). At some level, you take away that Tolstoyian question: what is a happy family anyway?


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Thursday, October 15, 2015

How To Be A Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman (2013)

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian LifeHow to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ruth Goodman clearly knows her stuff, and I liked how she injected herself into the narrative, detailing her personal experience with period clothing or performance of period tasks. But the book could have had a lighter touch; I thought it collapsed on its own heaviness; Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England is a much more engaging work on a similar subject.


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All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

In my personal pantheon of literary greatness, E.M. Forster is Jupiter, and other books, literary fiction in particular, are measured against the golden literary mean of Howards End (my perfect novel).   Of course, this is hyperbole (rhetoric?); but it's difficult not to compare anything written between 1900 and 1945ish to Forster (or sometimes Downton Abbey and occasionally Agatha Christie).  All Passion Spent lands squarely (and a bit heavily) into that box of delights, and falls short of Forsterian greatness.  But then in my literary comparisons, everything skates up to Howards End before falling off into the abyss of other novels not Forster.  At least so far.  Alan Hollinghurst has come closest.

All Passion Spent spends a lot of time in Lady Slane's head, which if I were more knowledgeable about literature, I could safely say was a Virginia Woolf sort of thing as opposed to a Forster sort of thing.  Forster spends much time throwing characters at one another, in sometimes humorous, other times tragic ways.  All Passion Spent started out that way, with a group of elderly siblings at the opposite end of their even more elderly recently-widowed mother's wishes and desires. At the very least, this had the lightest shades of Wilcox (Howards End); without the Schlegels (and the plots are never the same; just the color).   I enjoyed this much too short section immensely; it gave the book Forsterian promise.  The novel had several spikes of this at various other places; the relationship between Lady Slane and her new landlord; the millionaire miser Fitzwilliam's leaving his fortune to her.  But, as with all peaks, valleys lay beneath them.  I thought Sackville-West used Lady Slane's inner thoughts, reminiscences and musings about her artistic desires as a young fiancee and wife, were heavy handed and could have been written more deftly.  (perhaps I always want a different book, outside Howards End, which is a failing on my part, not Sackville-West's).  It does seem a shame that Sackville-West created a subset of really delightfully awful characters, and then couldn't seem to find a way to use them in a more interesting way.  The awful Wilcoxes, even the lesser ones who don't play that important of a part in Forser's novel, all breathe.  The children of Lady Slane aren't exactly paper dolls, but they don't ever fully come to life either.  They are mechanisms to move a story without breathing much life into it.

I did dog-ear one page that contained a passage that struck me, almost at the very end of the book.  Lady Slane is being unexpectedly visited by an uninvited great-granddaughter, Deborah (who shares her name), who has come to thank her for something life changing, something Lady Slane has done (I won't spoil) to propel Deborah the younger into a different, more artistic direction (that Lady Slane herself couldn't follow at the same age).  Deborah the younger is talking about "a kind of solidarity between" her grandfather, great-aunt, "and the people that grandfather and great-aunt Carrie approve of.  As though cement had been poured over the whole lot.  But the people" she likes "always seem to be scattered, lonely people - only they recognise each other as soon as they come together.  They seem to be aware of something more important than the things grandfather and great-aunt Carrie think important."  I adore this metaphor of the great-aunts and their ilk being poured over with cement, stuck in place, unable to move.  I take this metaphor even further; they aren't merely stuck in cement, but are even more like the denizens of Pompeii, frozen and dead.   Of course, Lady Slane was trapped in this same cement, and it's death (of her husband) that frees her to pursue, if not the art she wanted to do as a young, repressed lady, then at least to surround herself with the "scattered, lonely people."  Sackville-West injects hope into these last few pages; the generation of her children (I assume Deborah the younger would be approximately the same age as Sackville-West's children when she was writing this book at the time).

Does the future live up to Sackville-West's hope that art can be a noble and satisfying vocation and pursuit, particularly for women?  I would say she certainly found satisfaction and fame (notoriety?), even if she describes her milieu as scattered and lonely.  At times in our history, artists, musicians, writers have found themselves in times of societal foment (and ferment; usually brief and bright) and times of societal restraint (and repression; which can also produce great works),   Whether today is an era of one or the other, history will decide.


All Passion SpentAll Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The characters that Sackville-West created, the group of delightfully awful elderly siblings who must deal with their recently-widowed and even more recently independent minded mother, were less memorable than I hoped. As the novel shrunk away from the interactions between these brothers and sisters and their mother, and into their mother's musings and recollections of her repressed artistic life as a young bride, some of the pleasure of the novel was sucked out. As a female artist herself, at this time and place in history, this was probably a very personal work for Sackville-West; but I think if those relationships had been flushed out more, this would have approached the golden mean of literature (which to me is always Howards End; I'm sure you have your own golden mean by which you measure all else). This novel has several peaks like that (the relationship between the miserly millionaire Fitzgeorge and her is one such peak); but the valleys, though probing and thought-provoking, aren't as interesting (or well written). The unexpected and uninvited visit at the end of an artistically minded great-granddaughter to her grandmother is the true center of gravity of the novel; it's well worth the reading journey to get there, where Sackville-West injects hope for the future, in which artists and writers and musicians (particularly female ones), scattered and lonely (her words) are able to freely practice their art without restraint (particularly gender-based repression). I would hazard a guess that Sackville-West would dive headfirst into the artistic world of the 21st century.


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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes (1958)


Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes (which I've written about here previously) is probably one of my top children's books.  I love it dearly and completely.  I have a stuffed owl named Owlie Pye, after the pygmy owl at the end of the book.

áThis is my personal copy of Pinky Pye.  

The inside cover is stamped:
CENTRAL KANSAS LIBRARY SYSTEM
(two illegible numbers)09 WILLIAMS
GREAT BEND, KANSAS 67530
MAR 10 1977
APR 5 1977
JUN 30 1977
AUG (illegible date, possible 19) 1977

And that's it.  Why I have a book from the Central Kansas Library System I don't recall.  Have I always had it?  Did I purchase it at some used booksale?  I went to college for three years in Great Bend; did I buy it then?  My public library growing up, Lang Memorial Library in Wilson, Kansas is a member of this cooperative (I just googled it).  Perhaps I bought it as a used book sale at my public library as a child.  In my mind, it came from my grade school library (our librarian let us choose old books to take home at the end of the year, which is how I ended up with a very worn copy of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and a book about a brownie from the early 20th century). But that's not true - I don't know why I have this copy.  As Eleanor Estes might add in aside if she were writing this blog, I just do.  I never actually read this book, because it's falling apart.  I keep it for sentimental reasons.


Pinky PyePinky Pye by Eleanor Estes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No matter how many times I read this book, I come away renewed and re-charmed. It's an almost 60 year old book, but it's still crisp and enchanting, with it's small mystery and chatty yet wry narrative; reading Pinky Pye - really, reading Estes period - arouses an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a another time and place (albeit one most likely nonexistent outside of children's books and fuzzy memories). I hope there are still families like the Pyes out there, children who can still be fascinated by crickets and watching a man catch a 2 lb fish in the surf, who build wagons from junk drifted to shore after a storm, who teach their dogs to count, who are content (or even allowed) to sit on the roof and watch whatever needs to be watched. The last lines are poignant, as the Pyes (as far as I can tell) never appeared in print again: "'Well,' said Papa, 'since we have finished with the book and we have finished with the book report, what do we do now, Pinky Pye?' ... at the door, [Pinky] looked back at Mr. Pye... 'Woe,' she replied sadly."


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This is spine of the book I actually read, checked out from the Ovitt Family Community Library, Ontario, California.  I loved this spine, because it has a Edward Ardizzone illustration of Pinky on it.  












I love Ardizzone's illustrations for the book.  Here are a few of my favorites:



Fourth of July, the Pyes are getting ready to watch the Long Island fireworks from a pier on Fire Island.    A gang of rowdies appear in this chapter, and drunkenly threaten to toss Pinky into the ocean, angering Papa, who twists his ankle in his anger, which leaves him incapacitated in a wheel chair for most of the summer, which then later ties into the parts of the plot.  This is what is great about Pinky Pye: Estes weaves bits and pieces of a small mystery together to from a whole story.


Pinky the typewriting cat

Uncle Benny looking for crickets







Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss; pictures by Maurice Sendak (1953)

I loved the last two Krauss/Sendak collaborations I read; but oh brother, was this one unsatisfying.  The story is long on longness and short on anything interesting to say; the illustrations seem like cocktail napkin doodles turned into a picture book (I guess there is this Harold and the purple crayon thing going on, but the color scheme wasn't purple or fun). Talent, I guess, is a thing of peaks and valleys; this is a valley for sure.


A Very Special HouseA Very Special House by Ruth Krauss
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Talent comes in peaks and valleys, I guess, and this is valley for Sendak and Krauss.  It's long on longness, and short on anything interesting.  I suppose there is some sort of Harold and the purple crayon going on here, but the crayon in this case is a mustard yellow of incredible ugliness and produces passable cocktail napkin doodles.  But not much story.  Too bad.


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Jesus, I just realized this was a Caldecott Honor book.  The winner that year was The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward, a book I've never actually read, but always looks dull as hell.  I guess it was a dull year all around.

Flat Rabbit by Bardur Oskarsson; translated by Marita Thomsen (2014)

What the fuck was this about?  Death, obviously.   I mean, the rabbit is flat in the road.  Dead.

But the dog and rat make a kite out of her dead body.  And they fly the kite so high that you can't see her anymore.

Nonchalantly.  Almost glibly.

Is that how how far we've come regarding death?  From Victorian nonstop mourning to making kites out of dead bodies?

Is the kite supposed to celebrate death?  Make light of it?

Is this a European thing?  Is this a Faroe Islands thing?

I wasn't offended by the book.  But I wasn't as amused as I thought I would be either.

I was puzzled.

The New York Times says the book is "quietly profound" so obviously something is wrong with me.

The Flat RabbitThe Flat Rabbit by Bárður Oskarsson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a strange book.  It's not offensive (or at least it wasn't offensive me); and not unlikable (I guess).   It's more of a book that begets one of those genuine puzzling, wtf responses.  The New York Times review said it was "quietly profound" but I'm not exactly sure the profundity is here.  Something about death, yes.  But what?


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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

I re-read this recently; I've written about it in this blog several years ago, and I don't really have anything new to add, other than I still think it's a warm and wonderful book; Eleanor Estes always has a touch of wry to her narrative, descriptions, and characters as well, which may be why I like it so much.

Ginger Pye (The Pyes, #1)Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Pyes are one of my favorite families in children's literature.  I'm sorry Estes didn't write more than the two books about them (Pinky Pye is still my favorite); but maybe I'm also glad, because quality can wain when an author goes to the well too many times.  This is definitely not a book for everyone; I would imagine some children would find this one a bit tough going.  But it's warm and wonderful story, a deserved award winner.  Eleanor Estes also has a touch of wry in her narrative, dialogue, and characters that I find to be quite humorous as well.  My one request:  may the Pyes most definitely not ever make the transition to film.  I want them to stay in 1950s book form forever.


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Searching for Shona by Margaret J. Anderson (1978)

What is remarkable to me about this book is not the plot or the characters, because honestly, the book is  not all that interesting.  What's remarkable is that it made such an impression on me, long ago, age 10, when Miss Shull read it aloud to our fourth grade class. I hardly remembered anything about this book, other than the general premise - two girls switch places in the confused disarray of children being evaucated from the Blitz during World War II. I  remembered one girl was named Shona.  And I remembered the end, that when the two girls met again after the war, one girl claimed to not know the other girl, and basically stole her life.  Until re-reading this, I had no idea why any of this happened; and in fact, I had remembered the main character (Marjorie, another  thing I didn't remember from the book) was the one who went to Canada (she wasn't).

It's the act of being read aloud to that makes the book stick so much, I guess.  Miss Shull must have liked books about World War II, because she also read aloud The Silver Sword (only that edition was re-titled Escape from Warsaw for some reason; perhaps that sounded more exciting).  I also remember her reading some book with Basenji dogs in it; I will have to do some research on that one.  

I bought books through a Scholastic catalog; maybe it was Weekly Reader.  One of those books was another book by Margaret J. Anderson called In the Circle of Time, about a girl and boy who go forward in time.  But I never owned Searching for Shona.

Searching for ShonaSearching for Shona by Margaret J. Anderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book my fourth grade teacher, Miss Coralie Shull,  read aloud to our class sometime in 1979-1980.  I'm not going to claim that this is wonderful literature, but something about it has stuck in my head for 36 years, bits and pieces that were wonderful to explore again. It's a strange little book, sort of unbelievable, and some things I at age 10 probably accepted at face value I puzzled over at age 40something.  I also think that if this were written today, we'd probably get a sequel or two (or three or four...), but way back in the dark ages of children's literature, you had to use your imagination to come up with "the rest of the story."  I don't know if kids today would even like a book like this.  I do know that the power of reading aloud to impressible fourth graders must be pretty strong, as I remembered this (and several others).


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Charles: Heart of A King by Catherine Mayer (2015)

I recently finished a "portrait" of Queen Elizabeth II that I really enjoyed, so I wanted to read something similar about Prince Charles.  This didn't pass muster though; I finally put it down in a pique of boredom.  Charles isn't very interesting (yet).  I'm not sure he ever will be.  Earnest, yes.  Interesting, no.

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