Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Lady Weighs In ...

Seriously, what?
Every now and then, a book comes along covered in hype that just torques me right off. I long ago accepted that I judge books by their covers as well as their readers. Mostly this works for me. I also judge books by the people that write blurbs for them. Again, it works. Sometimes I find that one book that is not at all correctly portrayed by its cover (see: The Luminaries (which is so good and so not well represented by the cover (not that the cover isn't beautiful, but it has exactly not one thing to do with the story) even the paperback cover)). Sometimes, (well, let's face it: most of the time) it's the blurbs that turn me right around
walking the other way.

Sales reps (& my co-workers) - them I trust. Their opinions are based on reading waaaaay more books than I regularly read and they've got me good and pegged. Which is, in fact, the job description. We all get labels and under those labels are book titles and when those books are recommended or not by people who've been selling my boss books for years and then I come along with my obsessive reading of The Odyssey and Les Mis and Rainbow Rowell and Christopher Moore and Linda Medley it's nothing to them. Here, they say, read The Art of Joy. Here, try this new translation of The Iliad. Have some Ivan Vladivasic. Maybe this one about cooking food for your face. I am putty in their hands.

Life goal achieved. New levels of book love unlocked.

And then, and now, there is Karl Ove Knausgaard. He wrote a bunch of books. Six of them make up My Struggle (yep, Hitler's book title (yes it's deliberate)(no, he's not an obsessive genocidal power mad mustache haver)(although he does seem to sport a mustache on a regular basis)(dude facial hair is, well, confusing sometimes)).

I picked up and promptly put down the first book at least five times in the space of 2 weeks. The blurbs suggested some navel-gazing self-indulgent masturbatory violently lyrical dude novel and the photo on the cover did nothing to change that impression. You may be surprised to learn that I am not the intended reader of those books. Also, people seemed to suggest that Knausgaard is like Proust or (worse) The Beats. I've read some Proust. I adore him. I've read some of The Beats. I do not allow their books into my home. You see my struggle, I think? But then - well a tenth of Norway has read his books. One Tenth of An Entire Country. And not any country, a country that is one of the great loves of one of my most favorite people on the planet.

The best test of whether a book will even get read is to simply pick it up, open it up and read what it shows me. What it showed me was humor and a couple of children in a tense but not unfamiliar childhood moment. I bought Book One. And read it. In one day.

I have read Books Two & Three and am desperate for the Fourth one to be released next year.

This is not easy reading. Even the subtitles can do nothing to lighten the constantly tense internal processing of this narrator. Knausgaard's writing is grounded firmly in the physical world. A person could learn much about cooking and house cleaning and the processes of childcare from these books. I spent several hours wandering forests, snow-filled tracks and urban sidewalks and restaurants. The storytelling is paramount here with tales nested in each other like parenthetical phrases or lines of melody in a fugue. I see them not so much novels as exercises in craft with a lifetime of subject matter to hand.

There are important conversations happening around them and their author: when will we get one of these written by a woman, more relevantly when will we recognize this level of craft in works that already exist written by people who aren't straight cis white guys? What is up with all of the worrying about the presentation of masculinity (o.m.g.) and what does it say about gender obsession? Does every autobiographical novel written by a cis dude have to be compared to Proust or The Beats? What process of writing leaves room for the kind of associative segues that Knausgaard uses to connect his ruminations on death and Death and children and childhood and parents and parenting? Are the Swedish really like that? What happens to people whose selves are shown by such an observant and detailed third party?

It is no exaggeration to say that I love these books. The hype notwithstanding.

See, now this cover I like. Probably because I had that haircut once.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Stories with Boats for Storytime

Dan Bar-El's new book Dream Boats landed in the store last week. I added it to the Storytime pile because it is lavish and gorgeous and filled with boats and children's dreams and all of the myth worlds that children know and learn around the world. We got a bit busy, though, so I decided to wait until this week for it, and that's when I found the coolest thing: the endpapers are printed with instructions for making origami boats. (I learn things. I learn them from books. Books are good at teaching things.)

And that got me excited and thinking.

This week, we're making and/or coloring paper boats for Storytime!

To get us in the sailing vibe, we'll read Little Bear's Little Boat by Eve Bunting, If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freeman and then let the breeze carry us into and through Dream Boats.

Eve Bunting's book is a lovely tale of a little bear with a little boat. The little bear spends an entire summer on the lake in his boat. They go everywhere together and the summer is a wonderful one. But what happens when Little Bear isn't so little anymore? The illustrations are bright and friendly and the story is one that even small children can appreciate.

If You Want to See a Whale isn't exactly a story about waiting, and it isn't exactly not a story about waiting. It is a sort of a how-to guide for young people who are interested in whale-watching and also a how-to guide for observing the world around us. A young person and a dog are treated to views of many parts of the world, none of which include a whale, though there are many things that look like one. The images in this book are careful, detailed and done is lovely almost muted colors, the better to represent the layered look of the sky and the sea.

Friendship and adventure are the themes in The Story of Fish and Snail. Shy, retiring Snail enjoys waiting by the castle in the book he shares with his best friend Fish. Fish is brave and fearless and leaps from book to book, bringing back stories to entertain Snail. Until the day that the story needs two to make it real. Can Snail be brave and leave the comfortable old book to explore a new one? While I generally recommend that people keep liquids and books made of paper very far away from each other, in this case the illustrations are so gently done that I make an exception for the water that Fish and Snail live in. A new Storytime repeat by request.

The story in Dream Boats isn't one tale; it is a survey of the tales that children around the world experience in their waking and dreaming lives. As one child dreams and sails the skies in his dream boat, he encounters other children in their dream boats, sailing skies with different stars and different clouds. We travel all around the world, back and forth in history and are shown how well-populated the tales of others really are. The poetry is a bit dense, but the illustrations are filled with images both familiar and new. I look forward to discovering what my Storytime audience sees in them.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stamp your feet at Storytime!

This morning began (for me, at least) with pancakes at Stefano's restaurant. It was a Neighbor's Morning Out fundraiser for the Friends of Lucas Park. The pancakes were delish.

And: wow, was everyone excited after pancakes!

Big thanks to everyone who came out this morning for the largest regular Storytime we've had! There were a ton of new faces and everyone was so great. I mean, I was terrified because, let's face it, adults are a much easier crowd, but the kids were all very patient with me.

The story of little Toot! by Kristen Hall and Charlie Alder drew gasps and claps as the little red engine got ignored and brushed aside, but then used his one big strength to save the day after a tunnel collapse blocked the tracks! Heads and Tails by Kate Stone is one of these new-fangled board books that folds out and out or folds over and over with images of various animals: heads on one side, tails on the other! Elephant and Piggie tried to go for a drive. Everything with these two is an adventure, and this is no exception.

The unquestionable hit of the morning, though, was Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodnika. This classic tale of a peddler, his well-balanced caps and a tree full of mischievous monkeys continues to delight. The peddler's weariness, his careful walk and the call for sales described in very easy language that invites young people to share his experience. Also the chance to stomp your feet in a public place is the kind of things that I would get up early for. Oh, wait. I did.

Cheers and a lovely day to all!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Storytime and Things!

It's a strolling around kind of a day here in Downtown St. Louis. The weather is fine and inviting, and the sidewalks, while never thronging with folks, are definitely energetic this afternoon.

We're getting a little bit excited about Theron Humphrey's book event this week. Okay, so when I say 'we' I mean 'me', and the plural should just express how excited I am about this event. The book is called Maddie on Things and is almost entirely photographs of a coonhound named Maddie standing on things. Maddie will be attendance on Wednesday, July 10th at 7:00pm, and we are told that she will paw-tograph books. I am already in love with Maddie.

Also, Oliver Jeffers has illustrated a book by Drew Daywalt. It is called The Day the Crayons Quit. One day, Duncan goes to use his crayons and instead finds a stack of letters with his name on them. Every one of them is from one of his crayons. They have had enough of overuse, underuse and coloring outside of the lines, and they are not taking it lying down. Anymore.

Which means that we are so going to read these for Storytime.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Much Ado about Spies and things...


I do love me a spy movie.

Much Ado About Nothing: a story about corporate spies? Joss Whedon has shown us that yes, yes it can be.

The action takes place entirely within the confines of Leonato’s home – it is large enough to hold the 11 major characters, sundry bodyguards and messengers, and contribute to the maintenance of a local constabulary that is less or more competent and accidentally effective.

Visually, the world is monochrome and impeccably dressed. It is a comedy of manners played out by relatively un-comedic people. There is timelessness to the noir style that fits very well this interlude in obeisance. There is a kind of timelessness in the relationships of duty and the manners expressed. These folks are educated, well-traveled, well-spoken, well-trained corporate spies and hired guns.

It is a world of relatively formal dress codes and a lingering patriarchy. There are women in positions of responsibility, but the management hierarchy is very definitely pre-feminist. No specific action is mentioned: not the war lately finished, not the work that Leonato presumably does on his phone through the entire play, not the plan for the end of the month of visiting at Leonato’s home. Note that the background of this gentleman’s home becomes a kind of enforced domesticity – witness the two bachelors lodged in what are definitely small children’s quarters, and how all the hallways seem to lead to the kitchen.

The closed-off world of Leonato’s house combined with the undefined nature of the rule of The Prince suggests an organized society in a world of walls. Doors and walls of every kind exist to confuse and confound secrets. Words break through barriers sometimes at the expense of meaning, a particularly enjoyable situation if you believe, as I do, that these are people very well-versed in the arts and acts of manipulation and discovery.

Beatrice and Benedick are the most radical members of this world – both willing to speak out against the social constructs of patriarchy and tradition. From a business perspective, they are more safely focused on each other than allowed to continue unattached. Neither is ambitious; they do not want the work of ultimate leadership. I like to think that Amy Acker’s Beatrice is just waiting for the chance to use her energies ‘for good’ well out of sight of the kitchen. She is energetic, in constant and elegant motion, controlled and quick. Benedick is smooth and sure. When he is engaged in a task, whether writing words of love or challenging his best friend to a duel, he is absolutely focused and deliberate. They are truly well-matched and well-mated, and will be more effective together than ever they could have imagined apart.

Their dalliance as referenced at the beginning, suggests that they have a history of successfully accomplishing some professional task together outside of the world of her uncle, and that circumstances (her female-ness, his militaristic obligations) led them to the cruelty and charged bickering of the first part of the play. Beatrice is too careful with her actions at her uncle’s house to have simply flounced off for a night of revels with someone as cavalier and disreputable as Benedick. Some triumph was the cause of that episode.

It is Hero who suffers the most for the maintenance of the home and hearth. She cannot be a whole person unless it is in the service of someone other than herself, and no amount of following accepted rules prevents some other from permanently harming her complacency. Claudio, as accepted, is a rash youth who needs a focus and foundation, without it he is as like to become a villain as pointless and rash as Don John.

And what about Don John? His crimes are never stated. He is never free to move about as he will. His seconds are vapid and unsuccessful, and his cause is never more clearly stated than simply to confound his brother and anyone close to him. What a bore. And yet, he is without remorse, without change and willing to save himself at the risk of anyone who may care for him. The interesting parts of his character get sort of lost in the relatively boring parlor games of whispers and love affairs. He seems to be waiting for his own play.

Leonato is forever focused on his technology, or in his cups. He runs his world from the inside and while there is joy and decoration, work is never far and duty is always closer than clothing. I toy with the story of the war. There is something in the protective world of Leonato’s that is forced and new and newly accepted as necessary.

I intrigue myself with this question and a thousand others like it: What does Don Pedro do for Leonato that Leonato’s world will have changed & yet welcome someone of manners and no meat as Don Pedro is, to his table?

Of course I reread the play after I'd seen the movie (of course) - the narrative shifts that Whedon made are delicious to find and even more fun to ponder (see all of the above if you need proof). Thanks, Joss Whedon, for making something real out of something scripted.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Storytime in Review

So, I may be a little bit more than slightly excited for this month's reading list.

Many truly lovely books have been released lately, and we've had a lot of fun with them.

The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freeman features gorgeous, dare I say liquid, illustrations in a story about the nature of friendship and adventure. Joone by Emily Kate Moon treats us to a day in the life of an energetic and joyful little girl: Joone. Whose Egg by Lynette Evans makes a fantastic companion to What Will Hatch by Jennifer Ward (altho, disappointingly, none of the eggs hatched a puma) with its lift-the-flap pages and larger than life drawings of eggs and nests. I love Max and the Tag Along Moon by Floyd Cooper, a tale of family and connections.

The next week brought a visit from Cousin Irv from Mars by Bruce Eric Kaplan in which Irv comes to visit from Mars, shared our hero's room and breathes very loudly all of which is extremely trying until it turns out that Irv has a way with people that is just right for his roommate. Just right is what Billy's parents hope for when Mustache Baby is born. Bridget Heos gives a story of the ups and downs of childhood behavior with heart and humor. Frank Viva's new book A Long Way Home can be read from front to back or back to front, probably it would be just a lovely if you started at the middle. It is the story of the route a young alien takes that has one end in space and the other at the bottom of the sea. Mo Willems' That is Not a Good Idea is probably funnier for me than for anyone else. I credit the set up and the silent movie theme of the illustrations. What fun!

This week we revisited The Story of Fish and Snail by special request. The black and white drawings of the library their book is in are just stunning, especially with the splashing book pages as the only color. Stunning. Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett is an exercise is frustration and humor as every critter who doesn't belong in a deciduous forest comes to visit. Be sure to look out for the lumberjacks. Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great by Bob Shea is a delightful tale of something like jealousy and something else more like cupcakes. Goat sees Unicorn's rainbows and cupcakes and suddenly his only cheese-making and bicycle-riding are just not what they could be. Until they finally meet. Meeting people isn't exactly what Oliver is looking forward to on his first day of school in Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid. In fact, he gets so nervous that his vocabulary is reduced to one word, and that one may not help him as much as he thinks.

Stay tuned to Storytime's webpage! (There are crayon protests ahead)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Group Review pt. 1

I started this book group at the beginning of the year. I called it Reading the World. The group was to read travelogues from all parts of the globe, all times and in as many voices as we could find. We’ve done a pretty good job of this so far, and I thought I’d sit down with the stack of books labeled “So Far” and try to review them a bit. Yes, you can read this as an excuse to spend an hour or so with a bunch of books that I really liked, that’s fine. It’s a thing that I do.

January: For our first meeting, I chose The Best American Travel Writing 2012 edited by William T. Vollmann. It’s one of The Best American Series that are released towards the end of every year. (As an aside: these are a very accessible way to feel connected to the amazing writing in many genres during the year. I recommend them highly and gladly.) I must here admit that I would have been fine if every essay after Monte Reel’s How To Explore Like a Victorian Adventurer had been crap. It’s a survey of books that were written less as route and sightseeing guides, and more as how to see your world guides.

Discussing Colonel Julian R. Jackson’s 1841 book How to Observe we are told: “Jackson spends thirty pages advising travelers how to look at a river (Is the surface of the water flat, or does it actually appear slightly convex? What sort of debris does is carry?). There is no such thing as an insignificant detail. After reading a few dozen pages of this stuff, his book works like a mind-altering drug. You look up from the page and notice that the world around you is popping into new dimensions. (p5)” Delicious.

We agreed that this wonderful essay aside, our favorites were Henry Shukman’s Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden and Mark Jenkins’ Conquering an Infinite Cave. I would also like to make special mention of Aaron Dactyl’s Railroad Semantics as something akin to the active radical living we only believe happened way back when.

February: Seagull Press recently published never before collected essays by Annemarie Schwarzenbach under the title All the Roads are Open: the Afghan Journey. The journey was undertaken by Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart during 1939-1940, in a Ford motor-car. They drove from Switzerland to Afghanistan, where Schwarzenbach stayed for a few months before she drove on into India and then boarded a ship in Bombay that returned her to an already war-ravaged Europe. (Maillart’s book about their journey The Cruel Way was reprinted only a month or so ago as well.)

Outside of the absence of maps (a massive deficiency in contemporary book design – really) I found the book fascinating, terrifying and tragically romantic. At our meeting it was pointed out that Schwarzenbach’s presentation of the lack of troubles they had almost everywhere they went seemed a bit far fetched: “If we made our way through all of Turkistan despite all these tribulations and without the slightest accident, if our memory of the mountain paths and semideserts of ancient Bactria is a tranquil one, filled to the brim with a wealth of life, we owe it to Afghan hospitality. We stopped worrying where we would find something to eat, where we would spend the midday hours and what the next night would bring.(p94)” We agreed that may have had to do with our distance and culture, her diplomatic pass and a writer taking liberties. The threat and presence of the war is never far from their roads, where there are roads.

Her writing is spare in translation, and it takes a few essays to get into the feel of it, but when you get there the effect is close to transcendent.

March: Population: 485 by Michael Perry. I wasn’t sure what to make of this at first: Left Bank Books was part of World Book Night again, and part of the agreement was that at least one of our book groups would read a World Book Night title, and this was the only one that fit even a little bit.

Can we talk about how much I love this book? We almost couldn’t talk about the book, it’s so likeable.

Michael Perry moved back to New Auburn, Wisconsin, the town he’d grown up in and then left for probably good, except not so much. He joined the volunteer fire department as a way to become a neighbor in this town where his job of being a writer did nothing to connect him.
As he rebuilds roots with the people of New Auburn, he also traces the land on foot and in memory. “I still do a little running. I have this loop, 3.9 miles, a few hills and slow rises, just enough to burn your legs and lug the engine some. I try to run it four or five times a week. The loop is laid out in a rectangle, with a bit out of one corner where Highway Q curves up and over the four-lane. To run the loop is to trace an off-kilter frame around my hometown. I think of myself taking a lap inside a living zoetrope, moving past images present in collage and linked by constantly shifting associations, overlapping and bleeding through to form a dynamic composition of history, place and event. I run the loop, and I get perspective (p87-88).”

The stories he shares are the stories of love, death, pain, triumph and miracles that connect members of communities to each other, and all the individuals in them to the constant shift and settle of living.

So, it turns out that it's distracting to sit next to a pile of books...
I may have begun reading and stopped writing. 
Look for a part 2...