Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The World is a Deaf Machine

That title is a quote from a favorite picture book of mine, Shaun Tan's The Red Tree. It's being reprinted soon (coming in April, as part of a bindup of three Tan-illustrated picture books), and I'm glad to hear it. The Red Tree is really a picture book for grownups, as many are, and it combines Tan's rich paintings with simple, poetic text about how bad a bad day can feel.

It seems like this past winter, a lot of people around me are having a really hard time for various reasons, and I thought about posting terrible, horrible, no good very bad day picture books in solidarity, then realized I've done that post before. So I've decided to do a post about bright, exuberant, celebratory picture books, the kind with irrepressible protagonists that somehow work even though there's not a ton of conflict, or the ones that just warm you up, even if you try hard to stay Eeyore-y. Let's go:

#1: Keisha Ann, from Keisha Ann Can! Lots of picture books, especially ones about school, are about the dark side. Separation anxiety, bad grades, bullying, scary new experiences, etc. And those are great. But other than Keisha Anna Can! I can't think of one that is just a whole book about a totally capable kid celebrating how proud she is of herself. And sometimes I need to read it to myself, to pick up some Can! when I'm all can't.

Who knows all the weekdays?
Who can read the alphabet?
Who can sharpen pencils?
Who can feed the classroom pet?

Who can count how many days
it's been since school began?
Who can pass out paints and brushes?

Oh my gosh, Keisha Ann, meeeee tooooo!!! Now let's go kick some butt at tetherball just you and me! WOOHOO!!!

#2 Brand new Forsythia & Me, by Vincent X. Kirsch (what does the X stand for? I must know!). Forsythia is the narrator's best friend, and is rambunctious and creative and brilliant. It opens like this: "Forsythia and I are best friends. She does things that amaze me." Aw, man! I want my friends to describe me that way. What a lot in one simple sentence. And who hasn't had someone like that in their life? The next thing we hear is: "Forsythia can decorate the most incredible birthday cakes I have ever seen. This year she flew out of the cake she had made just for me." So we know it's going to be one of those wackadoodle stories that's just over-the-top enough to be worth a picture book. She performs in the circus, they have tea with zoo animals, and throughout the whole book she's wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and sticky-outy braids ('cause that's how she rolls). When she's feeling sick, it's Chester's turn to pull out all the stops to entertain his friend, and when the book heads toward the finish line with Forsythia saying, "Chester, you amaze me!" my little heart gets all squooshy.

#3 is Millie's Marvellous Hat and I cannot believe none of us has blogged about it before. The Kids Department loooooves this book, and so does everyone we sell it to (right, guys? Back me up). Great for two- or three-year-olds on up to early elementary, this'd be a perfect preschool read aloud (and it often is around here). Sometimes I find books about imaginative play kind of weird, like they're almost redundant or something. Kids know how to play make believe, and books are already fiction, so books about make believe often fall flat for me. But not Millie— for one thing, just look at her cheerful little face. Satoshi Kitamura's illustrations are always pretty and interesting, but sometimes too busy or with too many jagged angles for me. This time, the palette is great, the faces and bodies expressive, and the story is a winner. Millie can't afford the beautiful hat in the window of the hat store, so the man sells her a hat (for free) that "is a most marvellous hat, Madam...It can be any size, shape or color you wish. All you have to do is imagine it." So she goes outside, starts imagining her hat into all sorts of great things, and then moves on to imagining everyone else's hat all through the park, until she gets home and gets her parents to imagine their own hats (a penguin hat and a flowery one, if you're curious). I want the cake hat!

#4 would be Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, by Patty Lovell and David Catrow, but we don't have a copy right now and I don't want to just write about it from memory. She's a great character, though, and just a reminder that if you embrace being weird, it can be empowering. I always need to learn/remember that.

-Anna, Kids Books

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence

And wrestle he does, and with such self-effacing candor! When I first ran across this book while shelving in the Lit. Crit. section, I took it to be yet another ‘literary study’ of Lawrence, albeit of an emotional sort as implied by the title and Lawrence’s defiant face staring from its cover. But from the first sentence, you realize that this book is a far cry from the more than a thousand serious literary studies/biographies of one of England’s greatest, and certainly most controversial, modernist writers.
Instead, Dyer takes us inside his own inner struggle just to start working on his ‘Lawrence book’ — an ambition long-cherished and long-procrastinated. It was, after all, Lawrence who originally inspired Dyer, a fellow Englander, to be a writer. And so Out of Sheer Rage is Dyer’s hilariously personal memoir about the prolonged writer’s block that hounds him all the while he globetrots to several Lawrentian ‘hotspots’ in search of the perfect place to settle down and write his book. Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Capri, Greece, the south of France, Oaxaca, and Taos. Dyer’s search provides a grand, though often frustrating, distraction from just settling down somewhere and writing his book.
It seems that Oxford-educated Dyer is ready for an excuse to get out of stuffy England and the ‘Dullford’ (as he calls it) literary scene, though nowhere as fed-up as Lawrence was in 1919 when he went into self-imposed exile and embarked on his “savage pilgrimage.” Because of Lawrence’s outspoken contempt for militarism during WWI and his marriage to a German aristocrat, the British had suspected Lawrence and his wife Frieda of spying, supposedly even signaling to German submarines off the Cornwall coast where they were living, destitute. In late 1917, the couple was driven out of Cornwall at three days’ notice under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA, which actually is the name of one of Lawrence's characters!).
And during all this, Lawrence was being vilified by puritanical British govt. officials who suppressed his 1915 novel The Rainbow on charges of obscenity, though the book was hailed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, E.M. Forster, and Aldous Huxley. The Rainbow is now considered by many to be his finest work.
Indeed, at the time of Lawrence’s death in 1930, his public reputation was largely as a pornographer. You can certainly understand the ‘rage’ that drove him to abandon England. Thus began Lawrence’s ten-year wanderlust, along the way struggling with bouts of pneumonia (the result of his childhood in a sooty Nottinghamshire coal-mining town), a journey that was sometimes exhilarating despite his inner torment. He did manage, however, to do some substantive writing along the way, including Lady Chatterly’s Lover published in Italy in 1928 and his marvelously sensual travel writings. But it all left him exhausted and sick with TB at the age of 45, when he died in France.
And now comes Dyer who takes us and his companion Laura on his own sprawling and frustrating travel adventure in Lawrence’s footsteps, a journey marked with endless comical distractions and mishaps, including a serious moped accident on a Greek island, grievances about every place he visits, and a mounting disillusionment with the whole quest. Not to mention his utter failure to begin his Lawrence book. All the while, we hear his inner ramblings of self-doubt, his stubborn ambivalences about nearly everything, and the sense of wasted energy. He carries none of Lawrence’s fiction along with him for reference, instead (and wisely, as it turns out) only two volumes of the Cambridge Edition of his personal letters (noting especially his ‘grumpier’ ones), and some other casual writings. What we get is a deep and revealing character study of Dyer in despair over his failing search for a deep connection to Lawrence the man, and yet simultaneously perhaps the deepest, most revealing profile of Lawrence at his rarest!
And what’s more, Dyer brings Lawrence back to old admirers like me, who read his Sons and Lovers and short stories and poems in college in the 70s. It wasn’t so long before that, in 1960, when Penguin Books first published the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s lover in Britain—and was subsequently tried and found ‘not guilty’ under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959—that the literary merit of Lawrence’s work came to be recognized. Much to my pleasure, he was read widely in Modern Brit. Lit. courses, right alongside Woolf and Joyce and Huxley. The British movie of Sons and Lovers was released in 1960, followed by Women in Love in 1969, both critically acclaimed. And in 1964 Ana├»s Nin’s highly regarded D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (orig. published in 1932) was republished by Swallow Press in Chicago, and is still available today. The Women’s Movement of the 60s and 70s resonated with his overwhelming commitment to presenting strong, complex, and self-directed women characters.

I say it’s time for Lawrence’s work to be revived and newly experienced, by older and younger readers alike. I'm into The Rainbow now, and will follow on to its sequel Women in Love.The force of his expressive power, the sensual and physical fullness of his language, and his daring intuitions about intimate relationships—still leave me breathless.
— Nancy

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

... Saying "goodbye" to old friends! ...

I am aghast! A book that I recommended for a scifi staff pick in April of 2009 is already out-of-print!

Here's the story: I have been reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's 'Retrieval Artist' series since it first came to my attention in … say … 2002. I came to care about Miles Flint, a principled man with a past, and the universe that Ms. Rusch created (that was much more diversely populated than ours seems to be now.)  All manner of  dicey, painful, and seemingly unresolvable conflicts arise because of the juxtaposition of alien populations and the blundering homo sapiens.

There have now been about six novels in the collection, and I have read them all. But along the way the earlier books started dropping off the in-print wayside. Still, I was holding onto the idea that the new paperback editions would keep on coming ... but alas they have not.

I wouldn't have known about the later part of this story if Nancy, my ebullient coworker at UBS, hadn't brought to my attention that a customer, whom she says enjoys my staff picks (how delightful is that!), was unable to secure a copy of the most recent 'Retrieval Artist' book or even order it through us.

So, for now until maybe the 25th Anniversary publication of this series revives this book or we receive used copies (yes, please, do bring them in to sell to us!), we must bid Miles, the flint man, adieu. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has not stopped writing, nor have I stopped noticing all of her scifi works, but I shall take a moment (here) to sigh.


Through the Looking Glass

The "memoir" genre is difficult because (by definition) a memoir's plot is dependent upon the self-awareness of its author. If the author is not insightful or honest enough about themselves and their story, memoirs can come across as self-indulgent or underwhelming. I have often come to the end of a memoir and said, "This is the take-away message?" 

The more memoirs I have read, the more I have grown to respect authors who possess a perceptive, authentic voice. 

In  Sh*t My Dad Says , author Justin Halpern gives us a glimpse of his upbringing and life as an adult that feels so real it will make you squirm. There is no fluff or justification. It is an honest portrayal of his father, a very unusual man, that will make you laugh out loud (and secretly cry). Halpern's ability to candidly admit both embarrassing moments of his life and emotional truths will win your heart. You may even recognize some of his father's traits in people from your own life (but this isn't likely). Buy it for your dad!

Several of my co-workers and I have recently been sucked into The Impostor's Daughter, a graphic memoir by Laurie Sandell. I could not put it down. I compare it to the time I opened up Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" at a book store. I read it (while standing) for half an hour and had to buy it because my family was going to leave the Oregon coast without me.

In The Impostor's Daughter, Sandell compares her star struck childhood perceptions of her father to her changing perception of him as she matured. It was powerful viewing Sandell's father from the eyes of an innocent child, and slowly seeing his mysteries unravel. Sandell is open about the choices she has made and why she has made them. She has spent years analyzing her motives and researching her past. In the end, I believe she could have given herself a little more credit. This is not merely the story of why she is justified in writing the story, but the story of how she triumphed in spite of it.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Spoiler Alert! (164 years later)

This Friday marks the release of yet another Jane Eyre film adaptation. There have been nearly 30 versions made as films or TV miniseries since 1910 (and certainly countless stagings by newly enamored readers in Victorian parlors before that). What other book can boast as many reimaginings? Charles Dickens' Great Expectations may hold second place, with a new film coming out next year to mark his 200th birthday. But while the adaptations of Dickens' story have taken great liberties with setting—both in time and place—Charlotte Bronte's novel has always inspired much closer retelling.
First, you have to get the casting exactly right. Jane must not, above all, be too pretty. This is more important than the age of the actress playing her. To me, the most successful Janes have been the most unremarkable upon first glance. As viewers, we have to be able to project a bit of our own outrage at the adults who insist on imbuing Jane's already unfortunate childhood with their own emotional and religious terror. Though prettiness is thoroughly punished in this story, we should not miss it. After all, in one of her best moments Jane insists: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will."
Then, of course, there's Rochester. Oh, Rochester. As one who has never fallen for Mr. Darcy or any other Austen men, I thought I would be immune also to Edward Rochester. But there is something so deliciously cruel in his charisma, especially when stacked against Jane's moral strength, that makes me long for his redemption. His suffering is second only to poor Bertha's (locked in the attic all those years; you wonder if he ever went up for a visit...) and any actor looking to take on this role must be able to juggle anguish, sly humor and a barely-visible heart of gold. I'm partial to how Orson Welles played him in 1943.
My two other most important characters to get right are Helen and St. John. Jane is met with many interpretations of Christian morality throughout the story, and these two have equally pious but otherwise very different personalities. Dear, sweet Helen could easily turn into a big-eyed, saccharine parody of a sickly orphan. But Charlotte Bronte writes her as one of the few rays of hope in Jane's early life at Lowood School, where they both endure the puritanical tyranny of Mr. Brocklehurst. Helen has a quiet intelligence and confidence, credit for which she attributes modestly and entirely to her faith, but Jane, who is more skeptical of “heaven and the universal parent,” loves Helen for her humanity.
St. John Rivers, the repressed missionary whom Jane stays with after fleeing Rochester and his clandestine marriage, is often cast rather two-dimensionally. He should not be portrayed as the villain trying to guilt-trip Jane into giving up her love for Rochester; he is really an uptight but good-intentioned friend whose proposal helps Jane realize that she is far too passionate for missionary work.

Finally, there's Bertha, the infamous Madwoman in the Attic. Granted, her character arc in the novel begins spectrally and ends with an act of suicidal revenge, but the few clues we get from her brother's visit elicit curiosity about her origins. More than any other character, Bertha is rooted in 1847; whatever her “madness” is, there is no treatment; whatever her life could be outside the cold walls of Thornfield is irrelevant because Rochester can't divorce her. Ever since I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a brilliant, nightmarish exploration of the Caribbean meeting between Bertha and Rochester), I've wanted Bertha to be more sympathetic in the movies.
But this story belongs to Jane, and she will have many readers yet, and many incarnations on the screen. 


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Wood Angel

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

At first glance this story is bleak. The Heroine, Plain Kate, is orphaned young, left only with talent for carving and her father's tools. She struggles to survive in a world where food is scarce and magic is feared. But through this, with one seemingly disastrous event after another, it turns into a story about love, friendship, family and, maybe most importantly, living with grief.

This is Ms. Bow's first novel. Poetry was her medium before this and I think it shows. Elegant imagery and an understanding of emotion that wrenches your heart are prominent throughout. This is not a light-hearted YA read.

With all that in mind, however, I think Plain Kate is a promising debut for a YA author and, if you're willing to get your heart broken a little bit, a great read.


(aside note: The title in the UK is 'Wood Angel' which I think is a much better and more descriptive title.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Black History Month: Picture Book Edition

It's Black History Month, and in the Kids Department, the display looks beautiful. Local blogger Kitri and the Animals recently blogged about one of the coolest books on our display, Bad News For Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall, here (have I mentioned I'm a sucker for a super-long subtitle?). A coworker says he has to stop and look through that book almost every time he passes by. Cover art success!

Anyway, even though that display is mostly nonfiction, honoring the History part of Black History Month, there's another thing that Black History Month reminds me: there are just not enough picture books with black protagonists that aren't historical, or biographical, or dealing specifically with the topic of race, or with a focus on sports or music. It's pretty startling, if you start to go and look for a regular old narrative picture book. So I thought I'd highlight some favorite titles that do what narrative picture books do best: capture small moments in a meaningful way, keep the voice and perspective true to the age group, make the text and pictures interact and complement each other well, and work well as a read aloud. They also happen to have black main characters.

Who doesn't remember Ezra Jack Keats's Peter? From The Snowy Day to Peter's Chair to my favorite, Whistle for Willie, these books were published in the '60s and were, for a lot of people, the only African American picture book character in their house/library/school. Whistle for Willie is my favorite of them all because learning to whistle is this sort of meaningless but fun and empowering milestone for kids that grownups mostly forget about. Most kids at a storytime aren't old enough to whistle, so we often all end up trying together, and when Peter finally whistles at the end, there's a lot of triumphant smiles. Keats's stories do a great job of highlighting specific sensory and emotional experiences that stay in the realm of small moments but are really fun to read about. In The Snowy Day, Peter (in his unforgettable red snowsuit) makes lines and footprints in the snow for pages. "Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow. He walked with his toes pointing out...he walked with his toes pointing in...then he dragged his feet slowly to make tracks."

In Willie, Peter tries whistling but can't. "So instead he began to turn himself around— around and around he whirled... faster and faster...." until Keats's iconic stoplight at the end of the block looks like this:

On his way home, Peter draws a chalk line all down the sidewalk, all the way back to his house. I always love Keats's brick walls and neighborhood scenes:

Once Peter gets home...

"He went into his house and put on his father's old hat to make himself feel more grown-up. He looked into the mirror to practice whistling. Still no whistle!"

Over 40 years later, Keats's books are still some of the most beloved narrative picture books around. And his life story is pretty interesting, too.

Next: The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring.

--Anna, Kids

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