Thursday, June 30, 2016

Abdication by Juliet Nicolson (2012)

This book is like a rummage sale (or, because it's set in Britain, a jumble sale; interestingly, the world "jumble sale" was first coined in the 1930s).  If you rummage around long enough in the jumble that is this book, you'll find everyone and everything English that made 1936 a year to remember (blackshirts & Jews, the Depression, the Berlin Olympics, a Hunger march, etc. -- and of course the abdication of the title).  Jumbled together are far too many characters, each with their own plot; they all zig zag around one another, to and fro, in the manner that soap opera stretched over a few weeks or months do best, and that novels of this size can't quite make happen.  But, like a jumble sale, there are some treasures to be found - these are unfortunately hidden amid a pile of dingy old socks and a paint-by-number by your dead grandma.  It really is those treasures that will make you finish this book.  The character of Evangeline Nettlefold, the fictional school days American friend of Wallis Simpson, is a weird and slightly repulsive creation to say the least - she could almost have been a character in the latest realization of American Horror Story, but for me at least that made me want her to be the main character all the time; Nicolson really missed an opportunity here to first write the entire story from her strange point of view, and to use that point of view as a laser beam into Mrs. Simpson and her circle.   That is a literary fail.  Evangeline is jumbled together with all those other characters - Philip and Joan, May and Hooch and Mrs. Something or the other who is a blackshirt fascist and whose 12 year old daughter doesn't want to be one, and May's Jewish relations, and Julian and his mother, and on and on and on (Oswald Mosely even makes a magnetic appearance). Culminating, of course, with the King and Mrs. Simpson.  

  Luckily, the book is sort of short, so it wasn't  too much of a slog. If you like this time period and setting (I do) then this is at least worth a passing glance.


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a jumble sale of a book; jumbled together are altogether too many characters, each with their own subplot. The book and all those plots zig and zag back and forth over and under one another until by the end, the whole book is like the jumble sale at the end of the day, a heap of mess. Also like a jumble sale, there are some treasures to be found - but these are unfortunately hidden amid a pile of dingy old socks and a paint-by-number by your dead grandma. It really is those treasures that will make you finish this book. The character of Evangeline Nettlefold, the fictional school days American friend of Wallis Simpson, is a weird and slightly repulsive creation to say the least - she could almost have been a character in the latest realization of American Horror Story, but for me at least that made me want her to be the main character all the time; Nicolson really missed an opportunity here to first write the entire story from her strange point of view, and to use that point of view as a laser beam into Mrs. Simpson and her circle. That is a literary fail. Evangeline is jumbled together with all those other characters - Philip and Joan, May and Hooch and Mrs. Something or the other who is a blackshirt fascist and whose 12 year old daughter doesn't want to be one, and May's Jewish relations, and Julian and his mother, and on and on and on (Oswald Mosely even makes a magnetic appearance). Culminating, of course, with the King and Mrs. Simpson. And they each have a story to tell; I think in 1976, this would have been a monstrously large soapy epic, with a glammy sparkly cover (maybe a tiara?) a la Judith Krantz; but in these days of literary economizing, Nicolson's book is cut down to a few hundred pages, not nearly enough to contain all these characters and their stories. Less is not more.

That said, it's shortness means less of a slog to get through. If you like this time period and setting (I do) then this is at least worth a passing glance.



The author is the grand daughter of Vita Sackville-West; I don't know about writing ability (I've liked the few books I've read by Sackville-West far more than this book), but knowledge of these kinds of people and this time period and that upperclass setting are definitely something passed down from grandmother to granddaughter.  

Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II (1991)

Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of VanderbiltFortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I suspect that in 100 years, they will refer to the time in which we live as the Second Gilded Age (if Donald Trump is elected, he can be a stand in for those Gilded Age presidents of yore, Grant and his bearded kith; perhaps these new Gilded Age presidents will be known for their cosmetic surgery or interesting hair styles instead of Victorian manly beards).

Fortune's Fall is a tale of the First Gilded Age, from the point of view of the most famous, the richest and the grandiosely gilded (and gross) family of them all, the Vanderbilts. I say "tale" because part of this nonfiction book read like a the very best potboiler or soap opera. If all this weren't true, then you'd think it was a melodrama, with all the family feuds, divorces, affairs, abandoned children, hints of lesbian sex - it's like Falcon Crest or Dallas with railroads instead of vinyards or oil, and all true (well, Arthur T. Vanderbilt's version of the truth, and who are we to question him, with a last name like that?). Vanderbilt traces the rise and fall of this golden family, from the beginnings to the bitter, income and inheritance tax ridden end.

The only thing missing from this rendition of the Gilded Age are politicians; the Vanderbilts didn't really go for politics (not like their far less rich neighbors, the Roosevelts). We already know when the write Fortune's Children: the Fall of the House of Trump, politics will have a chapter all to itself.


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This stops in 1991; I bet a new edition would include a whole chapter on Andersen Cooper; the house may have fallen, but the foundation is still there.


Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward (1941)

This was a frothy delight - that perfect kind of dry wit.  I found it interesting that it seemed to have premiered in the midst of the Blitz.

This play is never going to change anyone's life. But it is the definition of fun, unless you are a stick in the mud lacking any sort of funny bone.

I know next to nothing about Noel Coward, other than he's a sophisticate who appears with frequency in books, particular novels, I've read about the 1930s (he's been in Her Royal Spyness more than once).  I know he was gay, and I also know he had probably had a romance with Prince George of Kent.

I'd love to see this performed live, but at the moment, the LA Theater Works production I checked out from the library will have to do.

Blithe Spirit Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to an LA Theater Works production of this, checked out via streaming from a local library. All the martinis are dry as bones - just like the wit. Sophisticated frothyness at its very, very best.


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Monday, June 27, 2016

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

First of all, the audio version of this was utterly captivating.  The narrator, Ali Ahn, really made this audio fly.  I have a love/hate relationship with audiobooks (lately the pendulum has swung towards love).  Much of what I like about an audio book is the narrator; in the past, I've had a hard time listening to books I've never previously read.  My last two (well, three, if you count two different versions of Little Women) experiences, however, have been magnetic.

Also, I don't usually go for hard sci-fi; I like a little metaphysical mixed in, or some magic; I'm a gigantic fan of time travel; I love aliens.

I don't want to fill this with spoilers, so stop reading if you are wanting to read this!

I have to start with some notes I made half-way through this:


to quote various Star Wars characters, "I have a bad feeling about this."
It started out well; I was reminded of The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene duBois; the island where each household cooks the different food of countries depending on the letter of their last name (Mr. And Mrs. D cook Dutch food, and so on).  The different hubs of the ship, named for different biomes of earth (Nova Scotia, Siberia, Kenya, etc.).
But once they land on the moon Aurora, and then name the island Greenland - haven't they read an Jared Diamond?  Greenland is major foreshadowing, and I can't but think it's supposed to remind us of the failed Viking settlements on Greenland, also beautifully named but deadly to humans.

More notes from about 3/4th of the way through:

Kim Stanley Robinson, who I've never read before (that hard sci-fi thing, which I'm going to definitely have to reconsider now), does a really skilled, brilliant piece of literary impressiveness.  He essentially writes the protagonist into Life.  The setting is a multi-generational starship on it's way to Tau Ceti, the plot starts at the tail-end of a 150 year journey to a planet of that star called Aurora, to create a human settlement.   The crux of the plot happens when the the mission fails, and the colonists split into "stayers" (those who want to keep on keeping on) and "backers" (those who want to go home).  Nominally, the story's protagonist is Freya, the daughter of  Devi, who is the most intelligent problem solver ever born on the ship (and dies early in the novel but remains as a ghost of an idea in the colonists' psyches); the narrator is the ship's AI, which Devi at the beginning instructs to create a narrative story of the journey to Tau Ceti.  
Somewhere mid-way through, Robinson in this genius bit of literary artistry gives you a gradual "a-ha" moment - as you realize he written the ship's AI into life.  Gradually, using the narrative becomes richer, the ship more emotional, until it finally sounds human in its telling of the story (which becomes more and more gripping as the plot progresses; I don't want to give away the farm here).  

So now that I'm completely finished, I have to say how incredible this was.  It was a true performance, to begin with; Ali Ahn voice performing "Ship" was incredible.  I absolutely loved this book.

At some point, I was listening madly, wanting to know what was going to happen,  and becoming so upset by what was happening (it was that moment when they all start to starve to death onboard the ship) that my personal life became shadowed and muddy; I was letting my anxiety and fear about Freya and company bleed into my personal life.  Now that's a book; that's great writing, in this case combined with an excellent performance.


Various thoughts about the book, in no specific order.

The ending - I want someone to talk to about the ending! I guess earth is a biome too, only it can heal itself, unlike the ship, which can't.   Although the earth needs some help.  There was some scientist recently - probably Neil Tegrasse Tyson - who said (I'm paraphrasing, and badly) that our love of science fiction like Star Wars and Star Trek  leads us to believe that there is hope for planet earth in the stars, but the size of the Universe means there isn't really hope out there; we have to fix our problems on earth.  Is that the moral of this book?  And the ending then - the ocean is like space, and it can fuck you up, but you can just get back up again, we can make it?  Is Freya humanity of the near future, wounded, on a planet that we've ruined but are trying to rebuild.

Also, fanatics - they are the bad guys here.  The fanatics on the ship who think of the Colonization as a religion and have to go on.  And the fanatics on earth, who want to continue the colonization, and the awful, almost evil metaphor of the dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

But I have to admit, the stayers, I wanted them to succeed; I thought the backers gave up pretty quickly, although Ship obviously distilled that narrative down a whole lot.

AuroraAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did the audio version of this book, and I will recommend it to everyone I meet looking for something good to listen to or to read. The narrator, Ali Ahn, was incredible; I particularly thought her performance of the "Ship" was stellar; her voice changes and builds up, as the ship's AI changes over the course of the novel (I won't reveal how it changes; I try not to be a monster in my reviews). I did not think of myself as a fan of hard scifi before this (I'm partial to alien civilizations clashing with earthlings, and time travel), but now I think I'm going to have to modify my partialities.

I don't know Kim Stanley Robinson from Adam (this is my first book written by him, even though he's a prolific and famous author of science fiction), but I don't think calling Freya a "star girl" can be anything but a reference to Star Girl, but I could be wrong. I was also pleasantly reminded of The Twenty-One Balloons, mostly because the biomes on the starship reminded me of the houses of the denizens of that island.

I was unpleasantly reminded of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; I won't go any farther on this train of thought, as to avoid spoilers.

At some point in this book, maybe about midway through, I became so engrossed that not only did I want to not ever stop listening until I was done (I forced myself to leave my car several times) but I was letting my anxiety and fear about the characters and their predicaments bleed into my personal life. Now that's a damn good book.


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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

The 1990s movie of Little Women is one of my favorite movies.  It's beautifully filmed, rich visuals and costumes, with a lovely score that I can listen to over and over again.   I laugh aloud when Jo cuts off her a hair and Amy says "your one beauty"; I weep when Beth dies.

You would think for a movie I love so much, I would have read the book before now.  But something about the book always daunted me.  I've started it at least one other time but didn't finish it; that may have something to do with the size of the book (it's quite large - I have a similar challenge with Tolstoy).  

Like E.M. Forster's Howards End and A Room A View (two favorite books of mine), the film version of Little Women  gave me a launch into the book (The Age of Innocence and  The Color Purple are two other books/films I can immediately think of that I first watched and enjoyed, then read and enjoyed).   I was familiar (see below) with the the characters and plot already (most educated people, even if they have neither read the book or seen one of the films, know something about Little Women).

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I'm listening to two different audio versions of Little Women; the first one, which I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library online, ended after the first half; the second half I bought through Whispersync on Amazon.com - a new discovery that may be dangerous for my pocketbook.

___________________

I also simultaneously read a book about Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever, and it's interesting to see the parallels to and diversions from Alcott's own life and family and that of the March family.  The Alcotts aren't the Marches, or perhaps the Marches are both idealized and slightly smudged versions of the Alcotts.

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Something that strikes me about the book, that maybe describes its genius and staying power, is the behavior of the girls.  Marmee, their mother, is full of soft bromides.  Sometimes they are comforting, but often they read as gentle chastisements on her daughters' behavior.  At the end of each episode, at least in my mind, each girls has lain their head on Marmee's knee and she tells them how they should behave.  And then the next episode comes along, and they can't.  Jo can't help being Jo, Meg can't help being Meg, and Amy can't help being Amy ( a mean girl).  (Beth is in a league of her own).  I particularly noticed this with Meg; she's specifically told to not entertain the thought of marrying John Brook; she does so anyway.  

This is why this book was popular and has remained so popular. These girls feel REAL.  Marmee seems like the perfect, idealized Mother; she represents Motherhood (as well as a certain kind of thought, not exactly conservative for the time, but not liberal in our modern minds either). These girls screw up, and then go out and screw up again. They fight with one another.  They all love one another like sisters, and then turn around and do mean things to one another (like sisters).  They band together when they need to.  But they are also independent minded.  They love their mother, buy they aren't always going to listen to and do exactly what she says.

You know when you read a book from the 19th century, and often the characters and descriptions feel heavy handed and dated, and sometimes the characters don't say and do things that feel real. The worst Dickens has this problem (A Tale of Two Cities is one, I think, although many people disagree). Even the best 19th century fiction can be flowery at best (and prosy and drony at worse).  I think part of the staying power of Little Women is that Louisa May Alcott's characters almost always feel real.  Occasionally characters are ham-handedly written (Marmee sometimes feels this way).  But Jo and Amy particularly are characters whose realness shines through each page.

_______________________________

Finished Little Women; shed tears when Beth died; it's a very, very moving scene, quite beautifully written.

I didn't realize that Little Women is actually two books, one, more about their childhood, written and published first; then Alcott soon added a second book, about their young adult hood and marriage.  Beth dies in the second book.  Prior to reading (listening to) the second book, I thought the plot and characters were familiar, and they mostly still are.  There are some extra characters not found in the film version I love (Amy goes to Europe with Aunt March, not these cousins or whoever they are), but it's mostly still the same. Although the end never seems to come; the film version I love has a better ending.  I wasn't sure if I even liked the second book at all; but once I got into it, I found it as lovely and moving and beautiful as the first.

I think you can tell Louisa May Alcott literally sat at the feet of Charles Dickens; Little Women has the feeling of a good Dickens novel.
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Little Women (Little Women, #1)Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clearly, a book that's still read and re-read over a span of nearly 150 years is here to stay; I would argue that at some point a book this revered becomes less literature and more legend. What will this book look like in another 150 years? Will it still be relevant? Times change, but people's motivations remain the same, at least in our modern, industrial society. There's very few (Americans, at least) who can see a family of four girls and not compare them in some way to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, even if they've never actually read the book (that would be me; I read it - actually, listened to it - for the first time, although I'm a lover of the Winona Ryder movie version). Relevant? Anyone with siblings of whatever gender can empathize with the four sisters; many of us have been in love with the boy next door, or had him pining for us; every mother was a first mother at one time; writers and artists have to begin somewhere; many of us have had demanding or crotchety aunts or relatives that hold their inheritances over our heads. It’s good, strong writing that makes these characters and plot sing: Alcott has chunks of 19th century flowery prose, but also has a realism to her writing that (I've read) is what gave Henry James his inspiration. I’m really glad I finally read this book; I shed tears when Beth died, and I really was sad to see it end.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)

I re-read this for my book club. I don't have much to add to my original post. I enjoyed it again, but I was surprised at how little stuck in my head from reading it the first time.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever (2010)

I was listening to Little Women on audio, and simlulataneous was reading this biography of Louisa May Alcott, an experience that I've enjoyed immensely.  I finished the biographer just a bit before Little Women.  Amy and Laurie are falling love; Beth is dying but not yet dead; Bronson Alcott died one day, Louisa May Alcott literally the next day, and the biography mostly ended.

I really liked this book.  I have some quibbly carps, which I will end with.  But I want to start with a question Cheever asks:    "What is the connection of fictional characters to the writer and to the people in the world around the writer?"  That is a idea that comes up again and again in this book, as it should in any life of Louisa May Alcott - are the Alcotts the Marches, the Marches the Alcotts?  They are, and they aren't, and while never painstakingly (this isn't ever that kind of book), Cheever makes us aware that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy aren't exactly Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May.  She drops her father's name (John Cheever, the American novelist) later on, and in a good way:  "My father believed—and many critics agreed with him—that literature had to be read as if it were a self-contained dream. To begin to deconstruct it into the elements of the writer’s life was to destroy its power and reduce it to gossip."  That's a noble pursuit, but gossip is also what makes a biography juicy; the juices ran pretty thin and clear here.

This is another quote, a longer one, but these quotes make up what I think is a theme of this book.  If the purpose is to expose to Louisa May Alcott and allow us to delve into her life, and maybe even into her psyche, Cheever was also at work doing this:


Good biography scrupulously sticks to the facts. These facts are found in libraries and archives where journals and letters are kept—primary sources, and in other biographies and published books—secondary sources. Yet in spite of this necessary limitation, in spite of the facts, every biography has a story imposed on the facts by the biographer: Bronson Alcott was a genius who loved his girls but couldn’t manage to make a living, or Bronson Alcott was a punitive father who traumatized his daughters. Both are true according to the facts. Little Women is a great novel, the pouring forth of yearning and talent that came together for a mature woman at the height of her creative power, or Little Women was written by a writer who had caved into intense and accumulated financial pressure. In its own way, biography is more imaginative than the novel and more intimate than memoir.

Very occasionally, in between Bronson's bipolar episodes, and Emerson's flirtations, and Hawthorne's grumpiness, Cheever is telling us a bit about the art of biography (and nonfiction in general, I suppose). I appreciated this as much or more than her personal take on Louisa May Alcott.  These are words  for readers and thinkers about biography and nonfiction to ponder.  

But she soon returns to what she's actually doing:  "Every biographer reads letters, journals, contemporary accounts, and other biographies to discover the story of their subject’s life. Then they illustrate the story they have imagined using the facts that fit. To me the story of Louisa May Alcott is the story of how a woman finds her place in the world. How can women choose between love and work, or should they gamble that they can have both?"
 
The quibbles and carps.  The writing  in this book is easily accessible, but also a little-bit lazy.  I caught a couple of errors - she identified a person in one chapter, and then did it again in the next chapter, like she hadn't done that before.  In another paragraph, she uses a phrase, and then at the end of the paragraph, almost the same phrase (I can't remember exactly where these where; I just remembering thinking that it was sloppy in a few places and that she needed a better editor).

A postscript:  the dance, once again, around a historical characters homosexuality.  Cheever polkas around that a couple of times; that annoys me greatly (Eleanor Roosevelt) but in this case, I think Cheever is correct; if Louisa May Alcott had attachments to women (the old Boston marriage) either she purposely left them out, or Alcott wasn't a lesbian.  And as Cheever really says in the end, who can ever know?


Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Read this while listening to an audio version of Little Women, which made for a great experience for both books. "What is the connection of fictional characters to the writer and to the people in the world around the writer?" Cheever asks, a pertinent question for any biography of Louisa May Alcott (whatever the subtitle). Are the Alcotts the Marches, are the Marches the Alcotts? Readers for 150 years have been asking this, and Cheever's answer at least is that they are, and they aren't, and while never painstakingly (this isn't ever that kind of book), she makes us (gradually?) aware that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy aren't exactly Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. What I liked about this book is how Cheever went off the track every so often, to write about writing, or family, or sometimes the world and history in which Louisa May Alcott lived and worked (never quite enough of the latter for my taste though). She writes some strong thoughts about the art of biography ("Good biography scrupulously sticks to the facts. These facts are found in libraries and archives where journals and letters are kept—primary sources, and in other biographies and published books—secondary sources. Yet in spite of this necessary limitation, in spite of the facts, every biography has a story imposed on the facts by the biographer"). In the end though, Cheever is asking herself and us this: "To me the story of Louisa May Alcott is the story of how a woman finds her place in the world. How can women choose between love and work, or should they gamble that they can have both?" This idea if flushed out again and again; you can be the judge if Cheever succeeded in telling that particular story (no spoilers here). I have a few quibbly carps; some of the writing is a bit sloppy - some repetitive phrasing, a character introduced to us twice. Don't let those carps keep you from reading the book particularly if you a lover of the novel (or movie versions, I was in that camp until now!). 


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Covers

I love these three book covers:




Friday, June 3, 2016

"The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Robert Browning (1842)

Another horror story, that starts fun and funny, and then  ends with a macabre twist.  You can listen to a great version read by David Shaw-Parker here (it's also on Spotify).

Kate Greenaway has great, public domain illustrations for the poem. that can be found here.

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)

Tea for Two
Frog and Toad were all over the place in the last week.    Here.  Here.  Here.  I wonder why the sudden interest in Frog and Toad?   Additionally, about a year ago, Arnold Lobel was one of Horn Book's "Five Gay Picture-Book Prodigies and the Difference They've Made".   That was a eureka! moment for me, because I didn't know that Lobel was gay (and had died from AIDs in the bad sad old days).

I've expressed my love for Frog and Toad elsewhere and many times; so much that I believe I can start calling them my gay spirit animals.  

The picture books, easy readers, and novels from when I first started to read have formed so much of my social conduct and way of life, my tenets and mores, the way I am, some of the codes by which I live my life and how I treat others.  Bilbo Baggins and the Peanuts gang; The King with Six Friends; The Phantom Tollbooth and Doctor Dolittle and Trixie Belden and all the rest.  Frog and Toad are part of my pantheon.  Something about the Lobel world, and Frog and Toad in particular, is joyful and comfortable to me, even (perhaps even especially) as adult.  To tumble down a rabbit hole and end up in Frog and Toad Land would be marvelous and simple, full of small delights.  Even the colors of the illustrations, all earth tones of greens, browns, ochres, are among my most favorite
Possibly what my record looked like
comfort colors.

However, another thing I love about Frog and Toad, is what the linked stories above are all about:  the coded gayness of the these two fictional friends.  As much as Frog and Toad are friends, they also can be read as a couple.    Now when I was a seven year old, listening to my scholastic record and reading along, I had no idea that Frog and Toad were anything other than friends.  I knew I was gay even back then - I didn't have word for it, I just knew I liked boys in a way that I didn't like girls.  But if Frog and Toad were "gay" to me, it was completely a subconscious thing.  

When Lobel wrote and drew Frog and Toad, he was married to a woman but also gay - he came out four years after Frog and Toad Are Friends was published.   At that time, gay male couples could only live together openly in the biggest of cities,  and even there they often had to hide the true nature of their relationships.  Even today in many places gay male couples have to pretend they are friends to escape bigotry or even harm.  When Lobel was creating Frog and Toad, he wasn't even out, and there was no way he could write a book for kids about a gay couple, even a gay couple masquerading as amphibians.  

It wasn't until later, as an adult, that I realized that Frog and Toad could be coded as more than just friends.  This was before I knew Arnold Lobel was gay.  I  remember thinking - Frog and Toad remind me a whole bunch of my husband and I, in the way that they interact and take care of one another.  I remember loving that thought too. 

Here's the ammo for the haters - because those articles up there - there is one in People too, will start some Frog and Toad hateration.  Frog and Toad give little kids like I was an example of two males who could love one another unconditionally, have fun together, laugh and play,  comfort each other, and share each others joys. Let's be honest though - like me at seven, young early readers don't care about same sex relationships; they probably will just know from these books that a frog and toad can be funny and support one another, and get some gentle lessons about friendship, and learn to read a few new words.

It's later, maybe, that a struggling gay teen or young man can remember Frog and Toad, have an a-ha moment like mine, and realize that there is hope out there, that love and friendship like Frog and Toad's is waiting, and that it's possible to find someone who loves you dearly, even if you're a toad.

Frog and Toad Are Friends have five simple and beautiful short stories. They were published in 1970, the year of my birth.  They describe some aspects of my life.

Spring.  It's April - Frog is ready to go.  "The sun is shining! The snow is melting!  We can begin a whole new year together." He's jumping up and down, excited and delighted.  But Toad is having none of that.  Situations similar to this has happened to me and my husband so many times.  I'm sure we are not alone in this.  One of you is ready to rock and roll; the other is still buried under the covers at 11 a.m. 

The Story.  This is where is really begins for me because "The Story" truly is sort of the story of my life.  Confessional:  I'm not a comforter.  I'm not gentle or motherly.   I give off secret death rays that kill quiet and solitude.  I have an electric nature.  It's a funny trait for reader to possess -  I imagine the only time I'm not creating a symphony of cacaphony is when I'm reading.   This is well known and accepted and laughed about in my circle of friends (and husband, who incidentally, is not a circle).  "The Story" is a humorous take on the problems of atomically charged people forced by necessity or desire into a comfort role they aren't comfortable performing, but giving it their damnedest anyway.  Bless you Toad, I ken your struggle.

The Lost Button.  This is one of my favorite stories to read aloud to a group of kids.  It's short and funny.  Also, Toad is once again me.  In addition to being a horrible comforter, I'm a horrible loser and/or finder of items. And I  have in the past, perhaps the near past, had a tendency to make a big deal about said lost and/or found items.  Oh Lobel - how could have known me so well, when I wasn't even born yet?   When Toad says "Oh... what a lot of trouble I have made for Frog" - that's like an anguished inner apology I make all the time regarding my own dear Frog.

A Swim.  In this case, roles are reversed.  I'm never ashamed of new clothes - nor being naked, for that matter ( Frog does not wear a bathing suit; must be Palm Springs).    My husband is demurer and shyer -- he's playing the part of Toad in this story.  Remember when I said these stories were simple and beautiful?  Note that I didn't say "sweet."  There is a bite of reality to this particular story that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste:  when all the animals laugh at Toad.  Toad screws up his courage, comes out of the water, and they all laugh at him, even Frog.  Unlike Carrie, Toad does not instantly kill everyone, even with a glare.  Frog isn't a very supportive friend or lover here, which makes this my least favorite story in the bunch.  Plus, I think Toad looks cute in his bathing suit.  I think the gentle moral for kids is that you shouldn't take yourself too seriously.  (or perhaps swim naked?).  But if someone was laughing at my Toad, I'd tell them all to f*** off. We'd probably never swim at that particular water hole again either.
He just looks sad

The Letter.   Frog does something nice for Toad - in this instant, writes him a letter - because he knows Toad is sad. In a nutshell, isn't that what coupledom is all about?  Your partner is upset, and you comfort him in a way that you know how, to make him happy.  (Frog makes up for being a bastard at the swimming hole, by the way; Toad deserves something nice after that disaster).
 "They sat there, feeling happy together."  That's how you make marriages last folks - learn from Frog and Toad.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Frog and Toad are my spirit animals. I love them. Sometimes, I'm Frog, who seems to be the suaver, gentler one of the pair. Mostly here though, I'm Toad, who is electrically charged and loud, can be sad for small reasons, throws occasional tantrums, and loses things.

Lobel crafted this amphibian duo with love and care, which is apparent from beginning to end. The illustrations are comforting and classic; the greens, browns, ochres, dijon mustards of the palette are perfect for this world. The plots are small and beautiful, but far from simple; each story contains a kernel of psychological truth, and even occasionally a bite. Kids will certainly understand Toad's unnecessary temper tantrum and his shyness when it comes to revealing an unflattering bathing suit or Frog's jumping and joyfulness at the beginning when all Toad wants to do is just stay in bed. I imagine parents reading this with their kids will probably see something of their kids in each and every Frog and Toad story. But I think Lobel's gentle genius is that we can see our grown up selves, not always flatteringly, in these stories too.

A must read; if you have not yet read a Frog and Toad story, go forth and do so.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

"My Last Duchess" and "Meeting At Night" by Robert Browning (1842)














"My Last Duchess"

I had two main English Literature teachers at my small, Kansas liberal arts college (I think there were some others but I can't remember their names now).  I gave away all of my college textbooks long ago, in some awful, stupid move that I periodically regret so much every so often that my heart aches.  So I don't know who taught me about Browning or introduced me to "My Last Duchess."  

I wish I could travel through time, and take that class again.

Or access the little grey cells that hold all those memories.  Alas and alack.

It's always a gratifying thing to return to a poem, or novel that I've read at some point in the past, and re-discover those same pleasures.  This week of Browning poetry is turning out to be pleasantly satisfying.  

It's a macabre poem; Browning writes a resoundingly powerful story of the kind that we still tell today (Sleeping With Enemy anyone?); "My Last Duchess" is all proto-Oprah.  In very few words, and moreover in poetic form, Browning tells a spine-tingling horror story complete with creepy plot twist ending (horrified gasp - "he's looking for a NEW bride" ..... fade to black).

This poem has been annotated here and shmooped here , interesting and well-written essays with some historical background.  There is a great essay about Browning here.  












"Meeting At Night"

A twist at the end that's not as twisted as "My Last Duchess" has strong effect all the same.  It's full of resonant imagery and word choice that creates a scene of color and sound and emotion – grey sea and the long black land and the yellow half-moon are so beautiful and evocative of every moon you've ever seen; you can imagine exactly what Browning is writing about, hear the crash of the waves and see the moon shining upon their crests. A boat comes ashore, in the dark, and then there is that furtive scramble on the beach, sneaking across fields.  You know this person is going somewhere, and you might think, maybe up to no good.  Some sort of pirate or robber perhaps?  All that mystery, in one short stanza.  Ah, storytelling, just like "My Last Duchess."

Then the tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch, again, but so loud you can hear it as you read it, see and hear the match strike blue, and the quiet joy of two lovers, who aren’t supposed to be meeting, and the sound of their hearts beating wildly and crazily for each other as they fall into each other's arms.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett had a secret romance, and there is speculation that this poem was written about them.   But it’s also a great poem for anyone who has been in love, whether secretly or not.  This could have been lovers who hadn’t seen one another for some time, for example.  The story can be understood in several ways, but regardless each way is a melt-into-a romantic-

puddle .

These two poems can be found here.  That's where I pulled the snips from. 

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