Thursday, December 29, 2016

Fire Engines by Tibor Gergely (1950)

Are Little Golden Books still ubiquitous?  They were always around in the 1970s.  I don't remember ever actually owning one though.  My grandma had some (The Poky Little Puppy and Howdy Doody's Circus); doctor's offices always seemed to have a few.  My other grandma had The Monster at the End of This Book.  I know that children's librarians of yore hated them, which makes no sense to me  - but I know a children's librarian who wouldn't collect Disney or popular television stuff - to which I say, fuck that.  As I wrote about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a few days ago, it was a television movie that brought me to that series.  The Hobbit was the same way.

The Fire Engine Book is a classic from the 1950s; Tibor Gergely's illustrations have all the style and charm of midcentury modern everything.  Of course, all the fire fighters are white and male:  Golden Books aren't revolutionary screeds.  What's sort of funny and weird is that all the fire fighters - fire men all - look exactly alike.  (unfortunately, if you walk into a modern fire house, they sometimes still do).  The trucks haven't changed all that much since 1950, which I found kind of interesting.  Future fire fighters will still enjoy this book, but modern parents may want to remind little tykes that people in 1950 weren't all white, and that anyone can be a fire fighter.

Fire EnginesFire Engines by Tibor Gergely
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one is all about the illustrations, which are classic mid-century modern children's picture book pictures. The Fire Engine Book isn't going to change anyone's life, but future fire fighters will probably enjoy it (what do I mean probably: I know they will; I was a children's librarian for nearly 15 years, and boys, and some girls, LOVE firetrucks and fire fighters). Modern parents will probably want to remind their tykes that 1. In 1950, not everyone was white and 2. Anyone can be a fire fighter, not just boys. Guess what though - Little Golden Books were never revolutionary screeds, or even vaguely progressive; the most out there Little Golden Book was probably The Monster at the End of this Book, and that was published 20 years after this one (and it's not even that far out, other than it's wild and weird meta-ness that changed children's literature FOREVER; yeah, a Little Golden Book did THAT; in your face Anne Carroll Moore). Garth Williams had trouble with putting black and white rabbits together, let alone people - so I'm going to cut Tibor Gergely a little slack.

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Tibor Gergely was a Hungarian Jew who moved from Vienna and New York City in 1939 - I bet he knew a little something about discrimination; but hey, a guy's gotta eat.  So no black people in his book.

Cars and Trucks by Richard Scarry (1959)

I guess only white people drove cars and trucks in 1951.  It was the height of patriarchy too.

Richard Scarry did better stuff later. I liked it when they were all animals.  Goldbug, where are you!?

Midcentury modern illustrations are still cool though, even if they celebrate whiteness and the patriarchy.  The cars look substantial.  And loud.

Also, Little Golden Books are rad.

Magic in the Park by Ruth Chew (1972, 2014)

They've brought Ruth Chew back into print, with fancy new covers but the same illustrations. Good!

The only Ruth Chew book I can remember is The Witch's Buttons; I couldn't find my own copy (yet) but I'm going to keep looking.

In the meantime, I read Magic in the Park.  It has a super funny first line, as if Ruth Chew knew all about the 21st century from 45 years ago:  "I hate Brooklyn.  Why did we have to move here?"  I think that's a sentiment you hear a lot now, even if I personally find hipsters and hipsterdom to be attractive.

This book fits neatly into the Chew-ian universe, and lovers of witches and urban fantasy won't be disappointed.  As with The Witch's Buttons, magic causes some trouble for two kids, and it's sort of scary (but not really).  I imagine all of Ruth Chew's books are sort of scary (but not really), which, after the witches and witchcraft, is what is appealing about these books.

The book ages pretty well, although a little fourth grade girl wandering about by herself doesn't seem to be something you would see much of in New York City - but I don't actually live there, so who knows.

Spoiler:  I had figured out that the old birdman was the tree, but I liked that touch - it was very Narnia.

Magic in the ParkMagic in the Park by Ruth Chew
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovers of witches, magic and urban fantasy will enjoy this book. I loved The Witch's Buttons as a kid, and this had a similar type of plot: two kids get into trouble with magic; it's scary (but not really) - which is how the Chew-ian universe operates. Everything is scary (but not really). 45 years old, fourth grade girls could go the park in city new to them all by themselves; I'm not sure that would still happen - other than that, I think the book ages really well. Jennifer and Mike, a boy and girl, are friends, which I liked; they also aren't typical boys and girls (other than Mike's appetite).

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Then There Were Three by Eleanor Farjeon; illustrated by Isobel and John Morton-Sale (1965)

In the Methodist hymnal,  I found a hymn this Advent season with lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon, whom I knew as a poet for children ( I read a clever book of poems about each British monarch, which I liked immensely).  In all my Christmases, I had never noticed this hymn before, and after listening to it, really enjoyed it.  There is some history of the hymn here.  It's a great hymn to sing, and a great poem to read, after Thanksgiving but before Christmas really begins - during the "O Come O Come Emmanuel" time of year, when, as Farjeon writes, we make our house fair, trim the hearth and set the table.

I went searching for and found a book of Farjeon's poetry.  It's actually three books in one  - Cherrystones, The Mulberry Bush and The Starry Floor - and they were all published as children's picture books and illustrated by the Morton-Sales (Isobel and Eleanor were besties) during the 1940s (both during and after the war).

Cherrystones I didn't care for at all; it was all about marriage and weddings, from little girls' points of view, elegant and poetic takes on nursery rhymes dealing with love and marriage; not really my cup of tea.    The Mulberry Bush had a similar conceit, only Farjeon expands on other types of nursery rhymes; I liked this one better than the Cherrystone section.  My favorite section was The Starry Floor, which were all poems about stars, planets, and the heavens, but not in a scientific way - rather, mythology plays a definite part (as it well should, since most stars and constellations names in English are from Greek and Roman mythology.

Something that occurred to me about when they were written and published:  Cherrystones, about love and marriage, was published in 1942, but probably written during the middle of the worst of the Blitz; I imagine Farjeon was trying to give little girls and the rest of England, everyday facing death, some hope for the future; life was going to eventually go on, with happily ever after weddings to come.  The Mulberry Bush, about nursery rhymes and games, was written towards the end of the war, when children were starting to feel safer and could play and be kids again.  And The Starry Floor, written after the war, told children is was okay to dream and fantasize again.

I chose two poems that I liked the best, "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" and "The Zodiac."

"Mulberry" I liked because it has a haunting quality, in a nostalgic way, yes, but also in a slightly more portentous way.  It's a much deeper poem than you would suspect on your initial read:  about childhood, and adulthood, about generations, about sunrises and sunsets, about the permanence of poetry in our lives, and maybe how that is disappearing - because how many kids would know this song now? "Singing words all children know" but I suspect many no longer do.  That idea that children grow, but childhood remains, which is a sweet thought, and a little sad.

"The Zodiac" I liked for the play on words and the descriptions that Farjeon comes up with.  I thought it was a clever and witty poem.  I'm "the man who waters the starry track" and I live with "the archer who shoots with a twinkling string."

Then There Were Three: Being Cherrystones, The Mulberry Bush, The Starry FloorThen There Were Three: Being Cherrystones, The Mulberry Bush, The Starry Floor by Eleanor Farjeon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is actually three books of Farjeon's poems in one volume (Cherrystones, 1942; The Mulberry Bush, 1945; and my favorite of the three, The Starry Floor, 1949), all illustrated by Isobel and John Morton-Sale (Farjeon and Isobel Morton-Sale were very good friends). I was not a fan of Cherrystones, which seemed to be predominantly Farjeon's elegant and poetic whimsy on the nursery rhymes and games associated with love and marriage, from little girls' points of view of the first part of the 20th century. If I had to pick a favorite poem from this section, there is a quite good one about Cinderella, told from the pumpkin's point of view, called "Coach." The Mulberry Bush I liked slightly better; it comes from the same conceit of nursery rhymes and games, although Farjeon broadens it to include many famous, and some no longer famous, games that children play. The poem "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" was my favorite in this section, a haunting and beautiful take on the famous song and game. My favorite though was The Starry Floor; this contained poems about stars, planets, comets - but not from a scientific point of view, but rather a classical romantic, mythological point of view. The poem "The Zodiac" was my favorite here, for Farjeon's clever use of language and description; but all of these were quite good.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"The Call" by Charlotte Mew (1912, 1929)

Loved this poem from the moment I read it.  I hadn't ever heard of Charlotte Mew; if the rest of her poems are like this one, then she's amazing.  I liked the sense of urgency and need, the sense of purpose.  Made me feel good.

Charlotte Mew's story is so sad.  She committed suicide at the end by drinking lysol.  All alone.  Makes me weep to think about the lovely words above and the sad woman Charlotte Mew became.  

(originally, "The Call" was published as "The Voice.")

"Easy as That" by Brendan Gillett (2016)

I have a friend who is an incredible poet. He asked for a poetry prompt, and I sent him one. I'm so amazed and moved by what he created from my prompt.

"To become adult can certainly feel like walking a high wire, can’t it? If my foot slips, I’m gone. I’m dead.” Ursula Le Guin from New Yorker article October 17, 2016. I tried and failed to write a poem I liked using the quote!
—Shawn Thrasher

Easy As That

Don't you see?
Being adult
is not much different.
There is still time
for children's books
and playing
with the dogs
or making jam
in the morning—
so sweet, the sugar
filling the air with
innocent scents.

Becoming adult,
however, now that
is a task. It is at once
simply to stay alive
while so many things
call you away, to confront
what you think you must be
and all of the attendant

But you have shown me
what it means to have become.
Your enjoyment of
the simple things, taking it
easy. An example of love
and settlement that I couldn't
picture before, that you had
fewer examples of
but created anyway; that is
the bravery of becoming adult.
You crossed the high wire,
each footstep
making it just a little wider
for those of us who would

follow behind.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk drifts like the walk main character Lillian Boxfish herself takes on New Year's Eve, 1984. The non-linear plot turns various corners, strolling back in time, then forward again. Another way to look at this plot is that it is Lillian musing to herself about the past and the present, and bit about the impending future (she's 85 years old, and it's the future that is in store for us all). Lillian is an interesting character, based on a real woman who took the advertising world by storm in the 1930s. This is not really historical fiction; it's almost fictional memoir, if that is really a thing. I mostly enjoyed the book, although I felt like it occasionally lurched rather than meandered. 

(had a strange, bitter end).

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Before Morning by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Beth Krommes (2016)

Before MorningBefore Morning by Joyce Sidman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Living in the land of perpetual spring and summer, I'm a sucker for books about winter. And even though the winter portrayed in Sidman and Krommes book is an urban winter rather than the rural winter of my childhood and dreams, it still tugged at my heartstrings and made me wistful for snow days and the sound of boots crunching, and the hot smell of hats and gloves. Krommes illustrations (scratchboard and watercolor) and deep and almost luxurious; full of dark and light, almost too busy. It's not a quick read, but meant to be savored (with some hot chocolate and gingerbread, maybe?). Sidman's poem was the clincher for me; it perfectly matches Krommes artwork; the bit at the end "on wishes and invocations" was icing on the cake - or the tophat on the snowman.

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The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis (1953)

If doing something two years in a row is a tradition, then re-reading a Narnia book on or around Christmas has become a tradition for me.  This is the second year I've done so.  Last year, I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; this year it is The Silver Chair.

Not my copy
As with most of the books I read and re-read between the ages of just-learning-how-to-read and my twenties,  I don't remember first reading The Chronicles of Narnia.   I do remember that I first watched the animated movie on television, which then turned me on to the books.  I know from some research that the movie was first on CBS, Sunday and Monday nights, April 1, 1979.  I probably watched it then, with my whole family (this was pre-cable days, at least for us, and we only got a few channels, and not all of them got very good reception).  I would have turned nine years old just a couple of months before, and in third grade.  My sister would be born 17 days later, so my mom would have been very, very pregnant (which I can't remember at all).  Easter was just a week or so away too.  Interestingly, on Sunday night, Jesus of Nazareth was also on television, and for an hour at the same time; we only had one tv too. I imagine we watched Narnia, and then turned the channel and watched the remainder of Jesus of Nazareth until we were put to bed.

(note:  I later found out that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was re-run on Tuesday & Wednesday, April 22 & 23, 1980.  This sounds like a more likely time and date for me to have watched this, although to be honest, I will never know.)

On Monday, I must have gone to school and we all talked about Narnia, and then finished watching it that night (if you watch it on youtube today, there is a clear end of episode and beginning of the next - it's the part where the White Witch, Dwarf and Edmund, and the Beavers, Peter, Susan and Lucy are all racing to the Stone Table but before the come across the Christmas party of fauns and squirrels.  

After this, Narnia is a blur.  One of my friends, who was richer than I was, had the whole set.  Another friend, younger than I, was a lover of witches and witchcraft, and always wanted to be the White Witch when were we playing.  

I did remember something new when I sat down to write about The Silver Chair:  my first Narnia book was a beat up old paperback copy of The Silver Chair that I got for free from the elementary school library.  It was completely falling apart, the cover was all ratty, the pages were falling out, but it was one of those cherished, magical items of childhood.  That I lost over the years; we look through that glass darkly, put away childish things, and then later, much later, we regret those choices.  

The Silver Chair, like all Narnia books, is uneven.  It has a great beginning, and then lots of highs and lows, like a roller coaster.  It's much too short; about three Silver Chairs can fit into book four of the Harry Potter series, Goblet of Fire. Nit picking Narnia has been a pasttime of Narnia lovers for a generation or so.  It's a fruitless pursuit:  we all know Tolkien thought the books sucked; but then some people think Tolkien sucks too.  To write and publish a book in 1953 that is still in print is no small feat (that, incidentally, was the year of Fahrenheit 451; if you glance at the NYT bestsellers for the year, they are mostly books that have faded way).  

But I will nitpick anyway.  Jill is a high point; you want more and more of Jill.  Lewis loved strong female characters, even if he often gave them traditional things to do and say; Jill seems more modern than any other girl he created, certainly more of a Lucy and less of a Susan.  I'm not going to call Lewis a feminist by any means - but compare Narnia to Tolkien's boys' club.  Puddleglum - and all the marshwiggles - are total high points.  Lewis's world building is always hodgepodge; but in the marshwiggles he creates a totally new being, believable and funny, and attempts to give them a culture and historical background.  He just can't do it very well; marshwiggles are not ents.  But they are still cool, and Puddleglum is always a delight.

Eustace is neither a low or a high point.  He's really there as Jill's raison d'etre and really doesn't exist for anything else.  He was more interesting as a villain, to be honest - but then so was Edmund.

Prince Rilian is the absolutely the lowest of the low point in the entire book.  Perhaps the entire series.  Well, The Last Battle is truly the lowest point in the series.  But Rilian is close.  He's hot headed, impetuous, makes bad decisions, easily fooled, easily manipulated, was a puppet of a witch for ten years.  Somehow, we are supposed to believe that he will make a good ruler.  If I were Trumpkin or Drinian or a strong minded faun with a political bent and a lust for power, I would contemplate overthrowing the government.  Why would anyone in their right mind trust this man with the reigns of power?  Narnian government seems to be an absolute monarchy; I smell tyranny ahead once Rilian gets into power.  No wonder the whole world ended two books later.

I know as a kid I loved some of this book.  But as an adult, I can see its flaws very clearly.

The actual silver chair is only mentioned by name three times, which is weird.  It must be some allegory for something, but with Lewis, you get tired of the allegories very quickly.  The Christian allegory is ad nauseum throughout the book, heavy handed, and really - it takes away from the story.  As an adult at least; I imagine as a kid, I didn't even notice.  

I was a prudy little kid, and never swore.  We weren't allowed to say "oh my god" (taking the lord's name in vain) or "pantyhose" (which rhymed with "cheerios" and made a nifty song).  So imagine to my surprise when, on page 4 of The Silver Chair, Jill says:  "Dam' good of you."  Jill was a modern woman!  She used a swear word! She had pretty short hair too, and wore shorts.  

I think the end, when Jill (with her riding crop) and Eustace and young Caspian (with the flats of their swords) with Aslan beat the shit out of the bullies, that must have always felt so good to read for me, who was (occasionally) bullied, although never severely (even if it felt like it at the time); it must feel great to all ten year olds reading it for the first time, and thinking to themselves:  "I want a riding crop."   The bullies call them fascists in this passage too, and I wonder if I knew what a fascist was, or how to even pronounce it.

Lewis hates modernity,  particularly modern education.  

If I were to make a list of Narnia books in order by best to worst:

The Horse and His Boy.  Still my favorite.  The best.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Best plot, still feels fresh.
Prince Caspian.  Sequel almost as good as the first. Political intrigue for kids.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Rousing adventure, but sucky ending.  So sucking.  Bleah.
Magician's Nephew.  I would have put this one second to last, but I read it and enjoyed it far more as a grown up.  Heavy handed ending
Silver Chair.  Just okay.
The Last Battle.  So bad I never want to read it again.  

Why in all the Narnia books, when things just start to get fun and good, the kids are always whooshed away.  Can't they enjoy the fruits of their labors ever?  Only in Wardrobe do the kids get to stay and enjoy themselves.  Narnia is such a cool place too:  sausages are always cooking, fauns and dryads are always dancing and singing and having snowball fights.  Even when the White Witch had made it always winter and never Christmas, the Beavers still  had a fine haul of food in a cozy little den.  And Tumnus tea sounded divine.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The second worst in the Narnia series (The Last Battle is still, by far, one of my least favorite and most hated books of all time). Nitpicking Narnia is a time honored pastime among adults who grew up reading the Chronicles, and I'm not exception. There are some things about the books I love, honor and adore; there are things about the books I can't stand. The Silver Chair is no exception. I love Jill; she's actually one of my favorite characters, she veers awfully close to being a feminist, and she's certainly Lewis's strongest female character (well, after the White Witch; Aravis could give Jill a run for her money). Tolkien may have hated Lewis's world building skills, but at least Lewis knew how to create mostly believable girls. I also love Puddleglum and all the marshwiggles; truly unique creations, especially in a series of ripoffs from folklore and mythology; it's regrettable that they don't appear more often. What I don't like about this book is how the plot lurches about, like a bad roller coaster. There are more low points than high points. And Prince Rilian. Other than all of The Last Battle, Rilian is the lowest point not only in the book but in the entire series. He's stupid, hot-headed, clearly spoiled, impetuous, easily manipulated and fooled, and was the brainwashed puppet of a green witch for ten years. He returns to Narnia, and everyone just automatically accepts him, no questions asked. Who in their right mind would return the reins of power to this idiot? If I were Trumpkin or Drinian or a strong minded faun with a political bent and a lust for power, I would contemplate overthrowing the government. No wonder the world ended two books later; these people earned it by not overthrowing their stupid absolute monarchy.

The owls are funny though. More owls and marshwiggles, less Rilian.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Magic Grandfather by Jay Williams (1979)

I don't think this book, which I've held on to since about 1980, has stood the test of time all that well.  It's okay, but I am sure that modern readers of contemporary urban fantasy, Harry Potter-ites, would clamor for more, more, more.  It's too short; the conflict too easily solved; the characters seem underdeveloped.  It's not a mess; rather it is a blandly enjoyable throw away fantasy story.

I forgot how shlubby and unromantic everyone is in the book.  They are all not very likable.

The Magic GrandfatherThe Magic Grandfather by Jay Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blandly enjoyable urban fantasy story that's too short and somewhat underdeveloped. Ten year olds who long for some magic in their lives, but are at a reading level where Harry Potter is too big of a pill to swallow, would enjoy this.

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; read by Tim Curry (1843, 2010)

This year, I listened to A Christmas Carol instead of reading it, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  For a story that is 173 years old, it still reads extremely well.  That's especially true with a good narrator, and Tim Curry was very strong.

Ebenezer Scrooge is such a fully developed character.  Dickens makes us loathe him, then feel pity for him, and then feel frightened for him, and finally so very happy for him.  I particularly noticed how Dickens made us think about how "Scrooges" are made, not born.  Scrooge was not always "Scrooge" - events in his life made him the way he was.  And if events had gone differently, he may have grown up to be a different person. When the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to his nephew's house for Christmas, the singing makes Scrooge soften "more and more and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands..."  Circumstance pushes and pulls the Scrooges of the world, but they also have free will to do as they wish.

Nothing really says Christmas like A Christmas Carol.  As I've said elsewhere, next to Luke, and maybe Rudolph, it's the most famous story of Christmas.

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim Curry's rendition of A Christmas Carolis exuberant and boisterous, a merry narration, God Bless Us Every One. After Luke, and maybe Rudolph, Dickens's morality play is probably the best known Christmas tale out there. Ebenezer Scrooge (as of this writing) is 173 years old, but still feels as fresh and alive as he did back in the early Victorian days. Dickens wrote a contemporary tale all those years ago; modern readers now are taken back in time. Life was harsh; although this isn't a story of social reform like some of Dickens other works, Victorian poverty and want creep into the tale here and there. But Christmas, feasting and singing and being with family and friends, wassail wassail, resting merry and decking the halls, and above all choosing the spirit of Christmas over Scroogery: that's what the story was about way back then, and still is.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

The Dolphin Rider and Other Greek Myths by Bernard Evslin (1976)

My copy is so beat up it is missing its title page.  From what I gather, this book w as published in 1976, and I'm going with that date.  That would make sense; I probably bought or was given this book in the late 70s.  I found it in my parents basement.  It smells like it too.

It's a very simplistic re-telling of the Greek myths.  I had very, very dim memories of reading this long ago; the myth of Cadmus and Europa stood out the most.  When I re-read it, "Cupid and Psyche" and "The Man Who Overcame Death" were also very familiar.

The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink (1959)

I refuse to throw out my very worn and torn, beloved copy of The Pink Motel.  
I don't buy books very often anymore. I'm a librarian, so I obviously use the library to check out books.  I also use my kindle app on my phone - these I usually check out from the library as well.  If I buy a book, it's usually because I think the cover or spine is beautiful; or I want something I can write in; or something similar.  I don't tend to save books I buy; they get left behind in places, or donated to the library or to the little free library across from my house.

But I have three shelves of books that all look like The Pink Motel.  The pages are yellow and falling out.  They smell very old.  There is food stains all over.  They have been dearly loved.

These books are magic to me.  They will never be thrown away.  They are my literary lucky charms.  A reminder of other days.  They are nostalgic and beautiful.  They each have their own story.

The Pink Motel has, carefully written in teacher cursive on the title page, RIF Shawn Thrasher.  I think this is quite possibly my grade school librarian, Mrs. Whitmer.  But I could be wrong.  RIF is "Reading is Fundamental" and I think I probably got this book for free, sometime between 1978-1981.  Probably not after that, and certainly not before.  

I have read thousands and thousands of books between 1978 and now.  The great majority of them, I couldn't even begin to tell you what they were about.  But those magic books, those shelves, and full of books that I know by heart.  

The Pink Motel is one of them.  I haven't read it in years and years.  It's so beat up, I was almost afraid to read it this time.  But I dove in, read it all in about one hour.  And it all came rushing back:  the hamper full of tarts and ladyfingers, the tanning parents and their bored daughter, the mystery of Hiram's secret treasure, and what it really was.  Several characters I had forgotten (Big, their neighbor boy - who I think is black although Brink never, ever says that; Mr. Carver) and others I remember vividly.  I actually shouldn't use the words "rushing back" - it is more like it all seeped in as I read it, like it was raining on me, and I have a slow leak in my brain.

Would kids today even like a book like The Pink Motel?

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have lovingly saved my copy of The Pink Motel for around 40 years. It's falling apart. The pages are yellow. It's covered with food stains. It's in horrible condition. I don't remember the last time I read it - many, many years ago. But picking it up and reading it again, the strange characters and mysterious plot slowly seeped back into my brain. I loved this book when I was ten years old, and I can still say I love it now. The Florida setting, the weather vanes, the motel's odd customers, the hamper full of ladyfingers and jam tarts, the alligator, the gangsters, Uncle Hiram's secret treasure. An excellent little book.

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie (1933)

Original UK Cover
My copy is called Thirteen at Dinner - it's part of a larger omnibus that includes "five complete Hercule Poirot" novels.  I'm not exactly sure why the title was changed.  The dinner is important, but the fact that thirteen are at the dinner is really a small plot point.

The "Hastings" books are never my favorite Agatha Christie's, and this is no exception. It's a bit too much like Sherlock Holmes and Watson for my taste; I prefer Poirot on his own, or with Mrs. Oliver.

To be honest, this was sort of a throw away mystery.  It wasn't horrible, but it was not the most gripping book either.  Still, it kept me guessing until the very end, so that counts for something.

Lord Edgware Dies (Hercule Poirot, #9)Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Neither the best or worst of Dame Agatha. But she definitely keeps you guessing to the end.

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The covers from various editions are always fun.

What the hell is that mask?  Looks like a Nancy Drew cover.

What a weird cover.

What's up with the conductor's baton?  Or chopsticks?  Or is that the murder weapon?

Jane Wilkinson!

This scary as hell.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Other Earths by Nick Gevers (Editor) & Jay Lake (Editor) (2009)

Other EarthsOther Earths by Nick Gevers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books of short stories are always a grab bag -- you never exactly know what you are going to get. This book of "what if" alternate histories has some real stinkers (I won't name names) but tucked within the stinkers are a couple of gems, and that's the reason (at least for me) that books of short stories exist. First skip right ahead to Liz Willaims "Winterborn" about a Elizabethan fairy queen in an alternate Renaissance London; also Jeff VanderMeer's disturbing "Goat Variations" about parallel 9-11's; and the modern Incan Empire of Stephen Baxter's "The Unblinking Eye."

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson (2015)

This may be the best book I read all year.   A terrific, old fashioned murder mystery.  The entire book is "Christie"an to its cozy little core.  1950s English village life, aristocracy, servants, class and money, an actress, some espionage thrown in.  I can't recommend this enough - it's a perfect way to end a year of reading.

Elizabeth Edmondson died this year - so there will be no more books from her!  That makes me quite sad.

A Man of Some ReputeA Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This may be the best book I've read all year. It's a terrific, old fashioned murder mystery, and completely Dame Agatha Christian to its cozy little core: 1950s English village, aristocrats, servants, an actress, a ne'er do well boozy society daughter, some humor, some espionage. I mean this as the best of flattery to this book: it was like Edmondson took stock Christie characters and sprinkled them throughout the book like raisins in a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread. Every time I bit into this book, it was delicious. The only things missing were cameos by Christie detectives (Miss Marple at the tea shop). The whodunnit at the end wasn't all that great: but Agatha Christie's whodunnits weren't always that great either (they can't all be Murder on the Orient Express). It's the journey there that was tons of fun.

Here's something sad: Elizabeth Edmundson died last January, so this series will be no more.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin; narrated by Rob Inglis (1968, 1992)

"Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise. Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do you must know the price that is to pay!”  So warns Ogion, a wise older mage, to the raw, young magician Ged, after the first time he screws up because of his hubris and braggadocity.  These words can also be used to sum up, in at least part, of what A Wizard of Earthsea  is all about, the nutshell theme.     There is more going on here than just that, of course; Le Guin is too good a writer for any of her books to be that simple. The short but steep steps between adolescence and adulthood is another major theme; making amends in and to the world is another.

But what stood out for me was the idea of power and its corruptibility.  In this time in which we are living, right now, there is a dark shadow creeping and skulking about our land and world.  Like Ged, it's a shadow we (as a people) have called up and nurtured on our own, through our laziness and greed and lust for power and arrogance, or whatever you want to call it, our practicing as a people of the seven deadly sins.  At the very least, Le Guin is reminding us of our own penchant for "dark magic," as individuals and as a people.

I first listened to Rob Inglis narrate this many years ago; I had not been able to find this version since then.  It's almost as good I remember (memories askew over time, and what was good can become great in the mind's eye over many years).  Le Guin's writing reminded me again and again of Tolkien, but that may because I associate Rob Inglis's narration with The Lord of the Rings, which he also lovingly and excellently narrated.  Le Guin is a master craftsman, and spins straw into gold again and again.

A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Le Guin is a master at the art of of writing, spinning the straw of words into pure gold again and again. "Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise. Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do you must know the price that is to pay!” So speaks Ogion, the older, wiser mage to the younger, raw Sparrowhawk at the beginning of the book. It's one of those golden truths that both sets one of the themes of the book (some of the others being those short, steep steps from adolescence to adulthood and making amends in and to the world) and also a proverb for a dark time. Like Ged, we have shadows we create and nurture, and in order to vanquish them, we have to cross perilous seas (and not usually physical seas). Those shadows can be personal; they can be societal and cultural too. Power, its lustful cousins greed and arrogance and pride, are dangerous dark magic indeed. Le Guin's mastery of storytelling and wordsmithing, punch these truths home again and again. But all in the context of a terrificly moving and beautiful and heartfelt story.

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Birdsong: A Story in Pictures by James Sturm (2016)

In my years as a children's librarian, sometimes parents (of a certain stripe) would ask for books about "consequences."  To be honest, books with clear cut consequences written for children are difficult to find.  And really awful.  A lot of books written for a children have a moral of some sort, but they are usually sort of subtle; they are never along the lines of "Dakota told a lie, and the consequence was that her mother was brutally burned up in a house fire."  When things like this happen in books, it's usually satire.

Birdsong, however, is a book for children with a clear cut consequence for behavior:  two children kill a turtle and tease a bird, and a magician  (of some sort) gets mad at them for it and turns them into monkeys; they are subsequently tortured by being locked up in a circus as freaks and made to perform, before someone takes pity on them.  They never are turned into children again.  They do, however, eventually live happily (ever after is unknown).

What's absolutely cool about Birdsong is that the book has no words.  It's a wordless picture book.  In fact, according to the blurb on the inside cover:    "In the tradition of kamishibai, or Japanese paper theater, the wordless format gives freedom to the readers to tell the story as they see it."

So my interpretation of this gruesome little moralistic story could, in the hands of another little monster other than myself, be told in a completely different way.  The joy of wordless picture books, right there.

As for kamishibai - I don't know enough about this artform to know whether this book is representative or not; but the concept is cool.

I loved Sturm's illustrations, which feel sort of old fashioned; it's like Dick and Jane are the ones turned into monkeys.  The illustrations sort of reminded me of this animated short called Rabbit that I love.

Birdsong: A Story in PicturesBirdsong: A Story in Pictures by James Sturm

Wordless picture books are a mixture of annoying and cool. This is no exception. It's cool because you get to make up your own story. It's annoying because you get to make up your own story.

I loved Sturm's illustrations, which feel sort of old fashioned; it's like Dick and Jane only far hipper. The illustrations sort of reminded me of this you tube animated short called Rabbit that I love (here:

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When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano; illustrated by Julie Morstad (2016)

Fogliano takes us through the seasons in a circle of poems, starting and ending with the same poem, set in March, that month that is the cusp of spring and the last breath of winter.  That particular poem is one of my favorites in the collection:

march 20

from a snow-covered tree
one bird singing
each tweet poking
a tiny hole
through the edge of winter
and landing carefully
balancing gently
on the tip of spring.

Big contented sigh.  All the poems are perfect little gems like that.

Another one I liked immensely:

The illustrations of Julie Morstad I don't like quite as much as the poems, but they are still really, really good.  I love that the children in the illustrations are not all little blonde angels.

Obviously, the poems and illustrations are from a place where there are actual seasons.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All SeasonsWhen Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano

Fogliano takes us through the circle of the seasons via small, perfectly crafted poems. Nothing here is a cutesy-cute, including the illustrations (good!); every one is charming, some are sweet, some are quite moving. You will be reminded of your own childhood, and perhaps how quickly the years pass us by.

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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (2015)

The last Sarah Vowell books I've tried to read have led me down the road to meh-dom.  Something must be wrong with me.  All of my friends love her.  I, too, have thoroughly enjoyed some of her books.  I guess it's the subject matter:  I just do not like books about the Revolutionary period in our history.

Christmas Pudding (1932) and Pigeon Pie (1940) by Nancy Mitford

I wasn't as keen on these two Nancy Mitford novels as I was on some of the other books by her that I have read.  Christmas Pudding felt disjointed to me, as if it could never decide who or what it was about, undeveloped, sort of trainer fiction.  Pigeon Pie, I could never quite latch hold of either; it felt more developed, but just not as interesting as I wanted it to be.

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon PieChristmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was not as keen on these two Mitford novels (published together) as I was about other Mitford fiction I have read. Christmas Pudding was the better of the two, but still felt disjointed and lurched about, as if it could never decide what it wanted to be or where it wanted to go (although its well worth sticking through to the end, which was unexpectedly and wickedly funny). Pigeon Pie I wanted to like far, far more than I ended up doing so. Flat as a pancake, and I was glad when I was finished reading it.

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Interesting article:  It made me appreciate the book more, but I'm sticking by my review of half-heartedness.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare; with illustrations by W. Heath Robinson (1913, 1924)

This book has a varied publishing history; if I understand correctly, it was first published in England in 1913; then illustrated by W. Heath Robinson in 1916; then published in the United States around 1917 or so; the copy I have in my hands is (I think) from the early 1920s.

There are some tremendously good poems in here, absolutely lovely stuff.  Robinson's illustrations are so evocative of the period as well, and perfectly match the poems, although I will say each illustration feels like stepping into an antique shop.

Peacock Pie, a Book of RhymesPeacock Pie, a Book of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some tremendously good poems in here. The latter half of the book as my favorite. Some of the poems are quite haunting, particularly "The Song of the Secret." Beautiful poems too - "Silver" is one of those. And some funny and cute poems, that old children's magazines were famous for.

I read the edition illustrated by W. Heath Robinson, whose pictures are perfect and evocative of the era - although his illustrations are a bit liking stepping into an antique store. You can almost smell the old doll's clothing and costume jewelry and furniture polish.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

There Is A Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith (2016)

All about collective nouns for animals and other things - some of them quite beautiful or interesting or moving.  Or sad.  "There was an unkindness of ravens" was particularly sad, because I love crows and ravens so much!  They are certainly not unkind to each other, but loving and loyal.  We are unkind to them!

Lane Smith's illustrations are dreamlike and wonderful.  Right off the bat, they are incredible.  You are sucked right into this dream world he's created.  I love the color scheme too.  I envy artists like this!  I wish I were so talented.  "Painted in oils and sprayed with acrylic varnish to create various mottled textures.  Also used were colored pencils, graphite, traditional cut and paste and digital cut and paste."   I particularly like the illustration below.

There Is a Tribe of KidsThere Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All books are magical to someone. Picture books, however, are especially magical. And strong, good picture books - a unicorn in the publishing world - are painted or drawn with extra enchantment. This extra enchantment is called "love of the craft." Lane Smith's There Is A Tribe of Kids is one of those books jam packed full of extra enchantment. At it's most basic level, it's a simple list of collective nouns for animals and things ("tribe of kids" "a colony of penguins" and my least favorite, no fault of Smith's, "an unkindness of ravens"); but take the words out (easily done) and a story progresses from page to page of a ungendered human's marvelous journey. Smith's illustrations ("painted in oils and sprayed with acrylic varnish to create various mottled textures. Also used were colored pencils, graphite, traditional cut and paste and digital cut and paste" - WOW) are enviably incredible; if I even had a pinky's worth of Lane Smith's talent for illustration, I would consider myself blessed. You will get sucked in from the moment you open the book (the winsome, cute blue and white mountain goats!) and enjoy every minute of your time spent in this dream world. Note: Picture books are for everyone, not just children! This should be shouted from the highest mountaintops. If more people read pictures books, the world would be a happier place.

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