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397799Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

Alison Lurie

London: Chatto and Windus, 2003.

I went book shopping yesterday and came home with a book I already own.  This is happening with more frequency.  Can full-blown senility be far behind my dotty bibliophilia?  Luckily the book was Boys and Girls Forever, so I can enjoy telling you about a marvelous book before they cart me off to the seniors’ home.

Many of the essays collected in this book first appeared in The New York Review of Books.   I’ve been away from this kind of leisurely book review for far too long, and one of the primary pleasures of this collection for me was to read an unhurried essay, not a review that would determine a sale.  Of course, I am more than happy to be persuaded to buy a book, but there was such delight in reading an expert’s take on children’s classics that eventually came around to a contemporary occasion for its discussion: a new film of Little Women, the centenary of The Wizard of Oz, a new biography of the author.  Parenthood has brought with it many joys, among them (re)reading children’s books, but time in which to read the likes of The New York Review of Books of a weekend morning is in scarce supply.  Oddly, I raced through this book precisely because it was so wonderful to enjoy again the pleasure of a leisurely-paced essay.

The central theme of this collection, as stated in its brief introduction, is that many children’s authors failed to grow up.  It’s a bit forced, this argument, as well as being a bit facile, and the forced nature of the introduction really does not do justice to the wonderful work done in the individual essays.  I see no reason to apologise for reprinting essays in book form and so have little patience for false pretenses.  In the essays, Lurie does tell us how the authors’ lives and times informed their creations, so there was a common biographical thread throughout, but they were also so much more than that, and I found that in almost every instance my appreciation of the works under discussion deepened.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, but I am a huge fan of her fans, which is to say that I find enthusiasm about books ever so infectious, and I delight in others’ delight of her work.  Lurie is definitely one of Jansson’s admirers, and she revels in the Moomin books’ complexity and darkness.  I love Jansson’s language, especially her names for her characters, and I’ve collected all of the beautiful Drawn & Quarterly editions of her books, but the reading of the books always falls flat for me somehow.  What I love about Lurie’s chapter on Jansson is that it makes me want to go back and give the Moomintrolls another go.  (Tove is pronounced Tova, and in both the hardcover and paperback editions of Lurie’s book, her name is misspelled several times as Tova, as if the author had slipped up between sound and spelling.  There are also several other glaring errors, like Patrick rather than Philip Pullman, that made me feel a bit less alone in my absent-mindedness.  I may buy multiple copies of books by mistake, people, but at least my spel-ckeck wroks.)

Not all of the essays are full of praise.  Lurie, while largely enthusiastic about Theodor Seuss Geisel, has nothing much good to say about Dr. Seuss’s all-American, fame-and wealth-driven definition of success to be found in Oh! The Places You’ll Go!:

Who is buying this book, and why?  Apparently it is a very popular college-graduation gift, and also often given to people who are changing jobs or careers.  It is a pep talk, and meets the same need that is satisfied by those stiffly smiling financial experts who declare on television that any glitch in America’s prosperity is a Gunk that will soon be unthunk, to be followed-On Beyond Zebra!- by even greater success.  (104)

So, there’s a bit of spit and vinegar in this collection, too.

The  book ends with an essay on nature in children’s literature that begins with a wonderful piece of memoir:

When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country, and my perception of the world entirely altered.  I had been used to regular, ordered spaces: labeled city and suburban streets and apartment buildings and parks with flat rectangular lawns and beds of bright “Do Not Touch” flowers behind wire fencing.  Suddenly I found myself in a landscape of thrilling disorder, variety, and surprise.

As the child of modern, enlightened parents I had been told that many of the most interesting characters in my favourite stories were not real: there were no witches or fairies or dragons or giants.  It had been easy for me to believe this; clearly, there was no room for them in a New York City apartment building.  But the house we moved to was deep in the country, surrounded by fields and woods, and there were cows in the meadow across the road.  Well, I thought, if there were cows, which I’d seen before only in pictures, why shouldn’t there be fairies and elves in the woods behind our house?  Why shouldn’t there be a troll stamping and fuming in the loud, mossy darkness under the bridge that crossed the brook?  There might even be one or two small hissing and smoking dragons–the size of teakettles, as my favourite children’s author, E. Nesbit, described them–in the impenetrable thicket of blackberry briars and skunk cabbage beyond our garden.  (171-172)

I adore this retreat from urban rationality to rural possibility.  The child she was sees the natural world for the first time through eyes educated by story.

Though nowhere near as transformative, Lurie’s book took me on a pleasurable tour of my own bookshelves and gave me new eyes through which to see some of the books perched there.  Really, the only problem with books about books like these, books that make you want to go back to your shelves and pull down great piles of things, is that they bring home the fact, yet again, that there are so many books and so little time.

Surprise Packages

I received in the mail today a lovely surprise: a letter and a gift from The Folio Society.

I write to express my warmest thanks for your support of The Folio Society.  We do hope you are enjoying the editions you’ve ordered this year.  As one of our most valued members in North America, your enthusiasm for our books is especially important to us.

We wish to express our gratitude in a tangible way and are pleased to enclose a gift of special edition Folio [letterpress] notecards, each one featuring a different quotation from Shakespeare.

(We needn’t dwell on their sense that I am one of their most valued members in North America.  I’m quite certain that my bibliophilia is not in the least extraordinary.  At least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes…..)

But, honestly, there could be no more fitting a gift of thanks than a set of letterpress cards on deliciously heavy stock.  I’m thrilled to have received them.

Thank you, Folio Society.  Long may you reign as quality publishers of covetable books.

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Our House

and all the readers in it.

photo (6)

Library Hotel

I’m going to New York!  This is where I want to stay:

http://www.libraryhotel.com/offers.html

Each floor is named for a number of the Dewey Decimal system, and the rooms are decorated, and furnished with books, from the category.  With the Guilty Pleasures package, you can even have their in-house librarian supply you with books by the foot in the subject of your choice!

Alas, no room at the inn.

What kind of fool buys a book like this?  A romantic fool.  A fool in love with books.  Me.

My Ideal Bookshelf collects brief essays and interviews from dozens of readers and pairs them with painted portraits of the books the subjects chose for their ideal bookshelf.  Jane Mount’s paintings of the books are beautiful to behold.  I know that there is this great current of fear out there that we are fetishizing the book and that we do books and publishing no great service by over-emphasizing the book-as-object.  But we do, and we collect and we covet and it’s a delicious indulgence.   You know that thrill of scanning a person’s bookshelves to see what’s on there?  With this book, you get to do that with the slight twist of looking at those books through the veil of art.  The spines are all hand-lettered, the Penguin Classics get the added beauty of the uneven line, the imperfect reproduction.  You recognize immediately the red and cream of the spine of The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s slightly off; mine, but not mine.

As interesting as the mix of subjects who share their ideal books (lawyers, chefs, designers, writers, dancers) is the mixed approach they took to the task: some made a desert island selection, some chose books that captured their childhood, some chose books that would make a good introduction to their field.  Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle appeared on a startlingly high number of shelves.

This is not the best book about books you will ever read, this is not the most moving selection of praises sung to the book.  The selection of people who contributed their ideal bookshelves was an odd collection (vampire lit’s Stephenie Meyer and cookbook author Mark Bittman; novelist Dave Eggers and fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy; picture-book writer Oliver Jeffers and essayist Malcolm Gladwell), and the essays are often annoyingly brief, cut short.  But the book had some great moments.  Did you know that there is a book out there that is a collection of photographs of junkyard dogs paired with quotations from William Shakespeare?  It’s called Junkyard Dogs and William Shakespeare.  It will, apparently, make you cry.

Coralie Bickford-Smith, a book designer for Penguin, wrote one of my favourite entries.  She describes the design for Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

The pattern I created for Dracula is composed of garlic flowers.  In the book, the heroine wears garlic flowers around her neck to stop Dracula from biting her in her sleep.  So the idea is that they’re wreathed around the book, too, to keep in the evil.

I love the fact that I get to repackage amazing literature that has stood the test of time.  I really couldn’t be designing anything more important.  (22)

Agreed.

A Tale Dark and Grimm.  New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2010.imagesCA1ULPSW

In a Glass Grimmly.  New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2012.

by Adam Gidwitz

In each of these books, Gidwitz has cleverly linked several fairy tales into a continuous narrative, starring siblings Hansel and Gretel in the Tale and cousins Jack and Jill in Glass.  The pairs battle their way through adversity (hunger, homelessness, goblins, dragons) to arrive at (spoiler alert) a suitably happy ending.  They go at a rollicking pace, and I read them with relish, albeit with occasional difficulty suspending disbelief.

I love an intrusive narrator and, in fact, all narrative techniques that break the barrier between life and fiction.  Embedded texts, stories that circle back on themselves, meta-narratives, books about books (!).  The more the better.  In this case, while I very much enjoyed the narrator’s voice (comparisons to Lemony Snickett’s narrator are inevitable), I found other self-referential aspects of the telling tried too hard.

glassThe acknowledgements indicate that the author thinks these books are ground-breaking because they re-introduce violence into the stories, and he expresses gratitude to those who assured him that kids can handle it.  There is plenty of gore, but there is also a very intrusive narrator who, in bold print, will occasionally interrupt his telling of the stories to suggest that we clear the room of little children.  The gore, in other words, is simultaneously highlighted and robbed of its ability to truly frighten with the comedic interruptions.  For some reason, the narrator also finds it necessary to claim that these are the real, true versions of the stories, as if we should treat them as historical fact.  Retelling and playing with the original tales becomes a kind of assertion of primacy on the basis of truth, an odd stance in books that feature magic, conversations with the devil and confronting a dragon.  I found that particular rhetorical technique distracted from my enjoyment of the stories.

In both books, it is the children who really come to the fore as the heroes and heroines of the tales, and it’s a role that is celebrated with much pomp and ceremony.  In handing back the spine-chilling gore of the original Grimms’ tales, he is also handing children their right to star in their own adventures, often in spite of adult interference.  Each book ends with a fairly heavy-handed moral about the importance of valuing yourself and your own point of view, but somehow the stories do call for that extra bit of didacticism at the end.

I bought these to read to my middle son, who is having a year of Grimm.  He’s immersed in the fairy tales, he did a drama production with the Canadian Opera Company about the Grimms’ tales, and we are reading several versions of the classic tales each week and comparing tellings and illustrations.  The thing is, I am so back-logged with the books I want to read to him.  I just jumped ahead and read these myself to clear some space on the TBR shelf.  They will now sit on the kids’ bookshelf and wait for him to read them to himself when he’s ready.

In a post-Christmas reading spree, I gobbled The Fellowship of the Rings, inspired by our umpteenth watching of the films, a Christmas tradition, and I finished re-reading Paradise Lost, which I’ve had on the go for a month.  (That one was inspired by reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to the boys earlier this year.  It’s loosely based on Milton, and I wanted to remind myself of Milton’s Satan.  Definitely the best character in the epic, all pale ire, envy and despair.)

You will understand, then, that I had quite a hefty hangover and could not settle into my next read.  I wanted a bibliophilic one.  I wanted a page-turner.  I wanted humour and escape, but it had to be smart.  I tried a few Jasper Ffordes, but reading out of sequence is something I do not do lightly, and Thursday Next is not a series to read out of sequence, apparently.  (I really liked The Eyre Affair, but there are, what, eight books in the series now?  I’m missing a few, but I have the most recent ones and just wanted to read them already.  Didn’t work.  Will I ever catch up?)

coverThank heavens for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, another suitably bibliophilic read, a page-turner, and a fun note on which to end the year.  This book was under the tree for me this year, a perfect gift for holiday reading.  Part bibliophilic novel, part mystery, part fantasy, it had a sprinkling of many things to please.

The narrator, Clay Jannon, is a newly-hired clerk in the eponymous San Francisco bookstore, which appears to be a front for a book-based cult.

Now: I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something.  It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.  (7)

We get an inside look at the cult’s underground library of leather-bound, one-of-a-kind books, as well as a look inside the operations at Google, where the narrator’s girlfriend works.  It’s a wonderful mixture of old and new, with many a sly wink at the reader who knows better than to believe in rumors about the death of the book.  Various generations of human readers file in and out of the narrative, as do generations of computers and electronic reading devices.  Even the Canadian Kobo gets a walk-on part.  Typography features heavily in the plot, and I found myself itching to google as I read in order to find the font the author describes.  The narrator made me laugh out loud, and his arch humour was the perfect counterpoint to the more fantastical aspects of the plot.  He does not take himself too seriously, and that, I think is the key to the book’s success for me.

I may be able to squeeze one more book in before the toll of midnight tomorrow, but if I don’t, I am content to end a year of reading on this book about books.

Happy New Year, all!

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