osprey_archer: (books)
2017-09-20 09:07 am

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief, which features exuberant spoilers )

What I’m Reading Now

At last I started The Ordinary Acrobat and I’m quite enjoying it! I had not realized that a memoir about attending a circus school was a thing that I wanted in my life, but it totally is and it’s just as fascinating as it sounds. And also it has made me want to learn how to juggle.

I found myself pining for the bucolic world of Miss Read, so I went ahead and borrowed the last two Miss Reads in my mother’s collection: Thrush Green and Winter in Thrush Green. Will I be forced to turn to the library to supplement my Miss Read needs? Perhaps! Although probably I should give James Herriot a try first - I think he’s got a similar thing going on in his tales of life as a country vet, in the quirkily amusing yet tranquil English countryside.

What I Plan to Read Next

Now that I’ve almost finished reading down my pile of books-I-own-but-haven’t-read, I’ve decided that it’s time to make some serious progress on my to-read list. Perhaps Emily Arsenault’s The Leaf Reader? I quite enjoyed her earlier novelThe Broken Teaglass, and it sent me on a fruitful search for more mystery novels about unraveling literary puzzles. Or maybe some more Jon Krakauer…

I’ve already borrowed Sara Pennypacker’s Summer of the Gypsy Moths from the library, though, so probably I will read that first.
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2017-09-18 08:51 pm

Caldecott Monday: Smoky Night

The Caldecott award winners - indeed, picture books in general - often seem to float in a gentle timeless world untouched by history, or at least only brushed by the brighter and more beautiful parts of it. It's a peaceful place, picture book land, a pleasant respite.

This is not true of the 1995 Caldecott winner, Smoky Night, which was inspired by the Los Angeles riots in 1992 (although the riot within the book has no specific location). The two year turnaround time (Caldecott winners are selected from the books published the year before the award is given) makes the riots a red hot topical reference in picture book terms.

It's, well, it's a very 90s take on race relations. If only we all get to know each other, maybe we can all get along! Well, maybe. This seems a little too pat to me - it all ties up too neatly with a bow at the end.

On the other hand, it may be asking too much to expect a picture book to explain systemic racism to five-year-olds.

The illustrations are acrylic, thick black outlines filled in with heavy dark colors, and mixed media collages for the backgrounds. It isn't a style I particularly like: there's something upsetting about the teal & purple palette David Diaz used for the faces, although I understand that he probably didn't want to commit to races for all the characters. But the collages are definitely striking (there's one with broken glass; another with crumbled dry cleaner clothes, still in the bags), and quite unlike anything I've seen in other picture books.
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2017-09-15 08:09 am
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Book Review: White Gold

I requested Susan Falls’ White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing from Netgalley because the topic fascinated me: informal breast milk sharing networks in the United States. That part of the book is interesting, and there’s also some information about breast milk traditions in other parts of the world that I found interesting too (did you know that in some Arab countries, unrelated children who are breastfed by the same woman become milk siblings?), but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the book as a whole.

There are two reasons for this. The first is simply that the book is not written in a style that appeals to me. I have a low tolerance for jargon and for intensive theorizing, and this book is all about jargon, and often uses the topic of breast milk sharing networks as a springboard to theorize about, say, the nature of agency. There is a place where Falls stops dead to consider whether she ought to consider whether breast milk itself has agency, before mercifully concluding that this question is beyond remit of her book.

I’m sure there are people who find this sort of thing fascinating, although personally I always feel that this sort of thing shows either a dangerously loose grasp of the theory of agency, or possibly that agency itself has become so loosely defined that it’s no longer a useful concept.

The other problem - which I think is an actual problem with the book, rather than a problem with me as a reader for this book - is that Falls is so deeply embedded in a particular perspective on social justice that she never notices her actual prejudices. She is stunned to discover that many breast milk donors in the American South are conservative white Christians - she mentions multiple times how much this surprised her - but it never seems to occur to her that she ought to interrogate her own surprise, or for that matter to investigate why breast milk donation would be an appealing prospect for many conservative white Christian women.

Surely these questions are at least as important and interesting as the possible agency of breast milk.
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-09-14 09:12 am
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Book Review: Bayou Magic

”I’ve got another one. Another saying. ‘Planting seeds grows happiness.’”

C’est vrai.” Grandmere starts rocking again, her lips upturned.

I think but don’t say:
Sometimes bad happens.

Sayings come from observing the world. As true as the sun rises and sets, bad
is. That’s what I’ve learned.

Oil and salt destroy land. A bird’s wing gets broken. A turtle gets eaten by a gator.

Mami Wata couldn’t stop Membe being captured as a slave.

This quote does not entirely capture Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Bayou Magic - the book is more hopeful than this excerpt really expresses - but it does capture the rhythm and the cadence of the book, the darkness that hangs just beyond the light of the fireflies Maddy’s grandmother teaches her to summon. There is light and beauty and magic in this book, but these things can only hope to hold back the badness, to make it bearable, not to defeat it.

I was curious how Rhodes would combine a “girl meets magic” storyline with African-American history without either getting losing the wish-fulfillment aspects that make this sort of story fun, or else getting too wish-fulfillment-y which would require straight-up ignoring the ugly parts of history. In fact, she finds an excellent balance between the two - with room to spare for beautiful passages about the bayou and the mermaids, which both seem to get more magical through their association with each other.

This is the third book in a series (I’m not sure how tightly connected the series is; they might just be connected by the premise, “African-American heroines in Louisiana + magic”), and now I want to go back and read the first two.
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-09-13 09:06 am

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I finished Edna Ferber’s Great Son, which remained disappointing right up until the end. The misogyny remains strong to the last page, and she doesn’t even do anything interesting with her Japanese characters. There are some vague feints in an anti-racist direction: the one openly racist character is Vaughn’s prudish wife, who we are supposed to despise, and in response to one of her complaints about “Those Japs are all alike,” Vaughn mutters, “Nobody’s all alike.”

But the son of the Japanese family attempts to steal Vaughn’s grandson’s plane on the morning of Pearl Harbor, presumably with the intent of… flying to Hawaii to join in? Suicide bombing Boeing? WHO KNOWS. In any case he fails, and soon after the family is “whisked away to a secret place,” at which point Vaughn’s wife trumpets “didn’t I always say I always felt there was something I never did trust?” - and that’s the end of it.

I also finished Nancy Bond’s A String in the Harp, which I enjoyed in a mild way, although I was disappointed that neither of Peter’s sisters ever get to see any visions from Peter’s magical harp key. Well, I guess they sort of do, because the visions start spilling over into the real world - most notably in the form of a wolf who slides out of time into modern-day Wales and has to be hunted down - and I did really like that aspect of the key’s magic, actually, that blurring of times. But still. The girls’ role is to believe or disbelieve and neither of them gets to see.

What I’m Reading Now

Julia L. Sauer’s Fog Magic, which I might have read before. I remember reading - something - about a girl who found magical adventure by walking into a fog bank - and this might be that story; and yet it doesn’t seem quite the same, the details don’t really match what I remember, and it doesn’t feel familiar to me as I read.

Does anyone else know of another book about a girl walking into the fog and finding something magical? Or is my memory just playing tricks on me?

What I Plan to Read Next

I’ve almost finished the Unread Book Club! There are only three left: Duncan Wall’s The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present, Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, and Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. Victory is within my grasp!

Although it has occurred to me that I have a whole nother box of hundred-year-old books that I inherited from my grandmother that I still haven’t touched. Maybe those will be my project for next year.
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2017-09-12 08:54 am
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Book Review: The Long Hangover

I liked Shaun Walker’s The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, but in a mild sort of way: I finished it over a week ago and it’s already fading out of my mind.

Two things that stuck with me. First, there’s a part where Walker is talking about Chechnya, and comments in amazement on the number of Chechens who serve in the Russian armed forced - even though Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation during World War II, even though Russia has leveled Grozny twice since the end of the Soviet Union.

When you put it that way it does sound surprising. But then, Native Americans serve in the US military in high numbers (I just learned this in Onigamiising), despite having a similarly harrowing history with that institution - and it struck me that perhaps these things seems baffling only if you look at them from a certain angle, if you assume that joining the military is a reflection of burning patriotism or at least some enthusiasm for a country, when really sometimes it’s just a job, an opportunity, maybe the only opportunity for someone living in a marginalized community.

No one thinks you have to have a burning love of McDonalds to start flipping burgers, after all.

The other thing that struck me is the total failure of empathy in the West vis-a-vis the collapse of the Soviet Union. My impression is that the American assumption was that everyone in the USSR would react about the same way as, say, Poland, where the Soviets were viewed as an invading power and their withdrawal caused celebration.

But outside of eastern Europe (which only came into the Soviet sphere post-World War II in any case), most people didn’t see it that way: they saw their own government and way of life collapsing, national purpose and identity crushed, with nothing to replace it but a kleptocratic oligarchy, and meanwhile the West looked on in bafflement and said “You’ve got democracy now! Why aren’t you rejoicing?”
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-09-11 02:19 pm

Caldecott Monday: Grandfather's Journey

Allen Say's Grandfather's Journey, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1994, was probably not written expressively for the purpose of repudiating the 1941 winner, Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good - but as they are both Caldecott medalists, it does sort of work that way.

They are the same kind of book, both windows onto American history through the medium of the author's own family history - but these windows offer very different views. In They Were Strong and Good diversity needs to be quelled, tamed, by white supremacy, whereas in Grandfather's Journey it's something to be greeted, even welcomed. In his journey, Say's grandfather "shook hands with black men and white men, with yellow men and red men."

And of course Say's grandfather was himself a Japanese man who immigrated to America, which is in itself a celebration of diversity - to present this is a quintessentially American story, the immigrant who comes to this nation and goes on a cross-country trip and marvels at the marvelous weathered rock formations, the amber waves of grain, the towering mountains and mighty factories and gorgeous trains.

Edna Ferber actually has a similar passage in Great Son, where a German Jewish refugee marvels at the natural beauty and industrial strength of America. Say is drawing on a tradition: the immigrant who becomes an American by falling in love with the country.

(And, because Say's family returned to Japan before World War II, the Japanese internment camps never come up. Say grows up hearing stories about beautiful California, and the family is about to visit, but then "a war began. Bombs fell from the sky and scattered our lives like leaves in a storm." So it is not until the postwar years that he goes to California, and "came to love the land my grandfather had loved.")

The text is poetic, as I think the above excerpts illustrate - gentle, thoughtful - and the illustrations share in that gentleness and tranquility. Many of them are composed like studio portraits, the subject looking straight at the camera/viewer, which sounds like it ought to be boring or static but instead is just - peaceful.
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-09-09 06:37 pm
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The Neapolitan Quartet

I finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and have since been forced by bitter exigencies (well, work) to put off reading the fourth Neapolitan novel - AGONY! Although I decided that this agony would be much better than the agony of being forced to read it in driblets around work, so really I have no one to blame but myself.

The third book ends Spoilers for everything so far )
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-09-06 06:38 am

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Elena Ferrante has taken over my life. I finished My Brilliant Friend, sped through The Story of a New Name, and now am halfway through Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and broke for the night only because we reached a nice pause in Lila’s unending descent into misery and I figured I’d better stop while it lasted. Lila and Elena are together! Elena’s taking Lila to a doctor for her terrible symptoms! This is actually a super happy moment for these books, a real high point, although obviously it can’t last, given that Elena is about to get married and leave Lila who will doubtless get sucked into the maelstrom again.

And perhaps Elena is about to enter a maelstrom too. Her fiance seems like a nice guy, but if there’s one thing I have learned from these books it’s that you can never trust men, never, except maybe Enzo, who has not turned horrible. Yet.

Actually, I think Elena’s husband may stay fine, but somehow Nino will get involved and ruin everything. He’s insidious. You know, I’d heard about him before I read the books, people complaining that he was THE WORST, so when I read My Brilliant Friend I was puzzled because he didn’t seem like THE WORST at all - in fact I do understand why both Elena and Lila fell so hard for him - but as I read on I realized. OH MY GOD. THE ACTUAL WORST.

Men who are THE WORST is sort of a theme in my reading this week. I also read Kevin Henkes’ Olive’s Ocean, and I guess the male person in question is technically still a boy, being but fourteen years old, and perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on him, but all the same I wanted the heroine Martha to beat him to death with his own video camera after he filmed her first kiss (with him, of course) for a stupid movie that he’s making. And also crowed about how filming it meant that he won a bet, that he could totally get her to kiss him.


What I’m Reading Now

I’m halfway through Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, as aforementioned, and also I’m reading David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, in a desultory sort of way.

What I Plan to Read Next

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, clearly. I have no choice in the matter.

Once I finished that - I have Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Bayou Magic, which I can only hope will be bright and uplifting after the beautiful but clinging misery of the Neapolitan Quartet. The cover looks promising in this regard! There appear to be magical fireflies.
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2017-09-05 02:15 pm

Book Review: Triumph and Disaster

I quite enjoyed Triumph and Disaster, which is a collection of - historical sketches, I guess you could call them, by Stefan Zweig, each on the theme of a great turning point in history and the small "for want of a nail..." details that led events to turn out the way they did.

Waterloo - which Napoleon lost because Marshall Grouchy followed his orders and continued to pursue the Prussians, rather than realize that he must disobey and turn back. The fall of Constantinople - which might have been avoided, except that a postern gate had been forgotten, and left open in the wall. Wilson - giving in to pressure to compromise on a realistic peace treaty, rather than holding firm in his dedication to the Fourteen Points.

I do wonder a bit if this last sketch doesn't suffer from wishful thinking on Zweig's part. He was writing a Jewish writer in interwar Austria, and I think must have yearned achingly for the Treaty of Versailles to turn out differently - for Wilson's dreams of endless peace to come true, rather than World War I slipping ineluctable toward World War II. I am not at all sure I share his belief that Wilson could have created a more lasting peace if he had refused to compromise. Might he not simply have ended up sidelined? The wider structural forces against a lasting peace may simply have been too strong for any one man to overcome.

But even if I don't agree with his historical conclusions - and even in translation, which I know probably mutes his voice - Zweig's writing is beautiful. As Wilson sails away, he says, concluding his sketch, he "will not let his eyes look back on our unfortunate continent, which has been longing for peace and unity for thousands of years and has never achieved it. And once again the eternal vision of a humane world recedes into mist and into the distance."
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2017-09-04 05:22 pm

Caldecott Monday: Mirette on the Hihg Wire

We bought Emily Arnold McCully's Mirette on the High Wire at a Scholastic Book Fair when I was in first grade (does anyone else remember the glory of going to the book fair? Books, books, an entire room in the school suddenly filled with shiny new books), and I dug out my old copy to read it for the Caldecott project.

The illustrations still delight me: the flaming red of Mirette's red hair, the deep blue of her dress and the white froth of her petticoats, the impressionist feel to it all - so appropriate for a book set in fin de siecle Paris. And the loveliness of Paris in these illustrations! No wonder I always had the idea of Paris as an enchanted city.

This is one of those books that has a moral point that is quite clear to an adult - learning an art, any art, not just walking the high wire - requires work, and more work, and many mistakes. You'll fall down and pick yourself back up and get overconfident and fall again. But it's not blunt - obvious - obtrusive about it - I never felt I was being preached at when I read this book as a child, only enchanted by the illustrations, the city, Mirette's slowly mounting competence, the way that her courage and determination inspire her teacher who thought his own days as a high wire walker were done.


I haven't posted recently not because I have nothing to say but because I am quite, quite behind on things I've meant to post about: the first season of Sailor Moon Crystal, books I read on Netgalley (Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power; a series of historical sketches by Stefan Zweig), and all the movies I saw in August, some of which I liked and some of which I didn't but most of which inspired lots of thought and feeling and therefore an intimidating number of things to say.

I'll start here with one of the less thought-provoking ones: I finally saw The Lego Movie, which I found moderately amusing but did not like nearly as much as Lego Batman (which had a surprising amount of emotional heft and perhaps set my bar for The Lego Movie too high). And I wasn't particularly impressed by the twist, when Spoilers )
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-08-30 07:09 am

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Holly Webb’s Return to the Secret Garden, which has a charming premise - evacuee children during World War II sent to Misselthwaite Manor! - and proceeds to use it to make the our beloved Secret Garden characters heirs to all the miseries of history.

No, I did not want to read about Dickon becoming a grumpy old man because during World War I he got facial scarring so severe that children flinch away from him. Nor did I want to read about Colin Craven dying at Dunkirk in World War II. No! The fact that it was a heroic death does not make it better! COLIN CRAVEN IS NEVER SUPPOSED TO DIE, DID YOU NOT EVEN READ THE SECRET GARDEN.

I have never been fond of “major character death” fic and the fact that this is professionally published does not make me like it any better.

What I’m Reading Now

I read a lot of books by women because generally speaking I find them less likely to be misogynistic than books by men. But there’s generally, and then there’s Edna Ferber, whose writing I don’t remember being nearly this soaked in misogynistic tropes in Dawn O’Hara. Maybe she soured as she got older, soured by her life as a ~failed spinster~ - spinsters being, in Ferberville, by definition failures. As are wives if they’re too conventional. And women who sleep around if they sleep around too much.

Pansy Deleath has just gone to the Klondike with a troupe of dancing girls, and Ferber takes every opportunity to remind us how silly they are and how much better and more solid and less slutty Pansy looks by comparison. She may end up being Vaughn Melendy’s mistress for the next fifty years, but that’s because it’s TRUE LOVE, not for base mercenary gold-digging reasons like those ~other girls.

Ugh. I’m going to finish the book because it’s part of the Unread Book Club and I intend to finish them all, but UGH.

In cheerier news - well, cheerier is the wrong word. But in more pleasurable if somewhat soul-destroying reading news, I’ve started Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is beautiful and wonderfully observed (and a good example of how to write a story set in a deeply sexist culture without making the story itself sexist, so TAKE THAT, Edna Ferber) and weirdly engrossing. I meant to do other things yesterday evening and instead gulped down the first half of the book.

What I Plan to Read Next

My reading challenge for September is “a book by an #ownvoices or #diversebooks author.” I was already planning to read Ashley Bryan’s Freedom Over Me, which won a Newbery Honor this year (also, I just looked Bryan up, and he’s 94 years old. Ninety-four and still winning book awards! I find it strangely inspiring), and also Jewell Parker Rhodes Bayou Magic, which looked intriguing when I found it at the used bookstore… although upon looking it up online, it looks like it’s the third in a trilogy, so maybe I ought to start at the beginning?

Upon further inspection, it looks like a rather loosely knit trilogy, so probably I can start with Bayou Magic and go back and read the others if I like it. I was planning to find a third book to make it a hat trick anyway - if I don’t like Bayou Magic enough to want to read the rest of that series, then maybe Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Mighty Miss Malone.
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2017-08-28 11:49 am

Caldecott Monday: Tuesday

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had us write stories about David Weisner's Tuesday - a picture book peculiarly conducive to having stories written about it, as it's almost entirely without words. I don't recall what I wrote (later that year I wrote a story about a tiny Borrower-type person who got lost on my teacher's famously messy desk), although clearly there is quite a bit that one could write about a phalanx of frogs who ride their flying carpet lily pads for a night flight over a sleeping New England town.

Seriously, though, that's it. That's the story. The frogs go flying and have a jolly time chasing crows, drifting through open windows to watch TV with an old lady (who has conveniently fallen asleep), and stealing dish towels off a clothes line so that the towels can billow behind them like capes as they fly. Superfrog!

It also does an interesting thing visually, where many of the pages have inset panels that elaborate on the story that the main illustration is telling. I've seen this in comics before, but not a picture book, and I wonder if this isn't the reason that the book won the Caldecott - using this technique from another medium to level up picture books' visual storytelling game.
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2017-08-25 04:59 pm
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Book Review: Onigamiising

Here's a lovely book I never would have found without Netgalley: Linda LeGarde Grover's Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, which is a melange of many things: an exploration of Ojibwe (or Anishinaabeg) culture (Grover is a member of the tribe herself), a memoir, a family history, a meditation on how to life a good life - mino-bimaadiziwin - which involves "modesty, respect, thankfulness, generosity, and an awareness of one's ability and obligation to contribute to the well-being of others."

It's even occasionally a cookbook. I bookmarked the recipe for Blueberries and Dumplings. Will report back if I ever make it.

There are echoes of historical trauma in the book - particularly the Indian boarding school era, which lasted from 1879 to 1934, although, as Grover points out, the schools generally didn't close on the dot in 1934. That's just the date when the federal government decided the schools should be shut down, but many lingered on afterward.

Grover's father was sent to a boarding school, and although he didn't talk about it, Grover feels the contrast between his experience and her own memories of going to a regular day school, and sending her own daughters and grandchildren to school confident that they'll come home that night.

But on the whole it is a gentle book. The emphasis on family pleasures and the changing seasons is a relaxing contrast to the generally harrowing news right now.

Oh, and it's got another facet: craft guide. Grover reminisces about ironing autumn leaves between waxed paper (between old dish towels, so the wax didn't melt to the iron) and then hanging the leaves in the window "where the afternoon sun lit them to a stained-glass effect." Doesn't that sound gorgeous? I want to do that too.
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-08-23 09:39 am

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

The long voyage, with its comparative peace, was behind them: ahead was only war, and all that it might mean to the boys. The whole world suddenly centred round the boys. London was nothing; England, nothing, except for what it stood for; the heart of Empire. And the Empire had called the boys.

A quote from Mary Grant Bruce’s From Billabong to London. I don’t even believe in the Empire and this gave me goosebumps; I can only imagine the effect it must have had on readers in 1914 for whom the Empire seemed a great and glorious thing.

I also finished The Chestry Oak, which really was not that harrowing after all. Of course it’s not a walk in the park either - it is set during World War II - but Seredy skips over most of the really harrowing bits. In fact I was disappointed, which is really quite unfair of me given that I put off reading the book on account of the harrowing possibilities - but it does seem a bit like cheating to simply skip from Michael’s birth family to his adoptive family and leave out his year as a displaced child almost entirely.

And also The Motor Girls On Crystal Bay. The most exciting thing about the book was finding a long-forgotten piece of graph paper - left there no doubt by one of my ancestors - containing a string of nonsense words. What do they mean?

What I’m Reading Now

I’ve started Edna Ferber’s Great Son, which is going on tiresomely about spinsters - which is especially irritating as Ferber was a spinster herself. For goodness sake, Ferber, show some solidarity.

The book starts just before the beginning of World War II (and was written in 1945), and has already set up a quartet of Japanese characters (the family servants and their two children, who are studying at the University of Washington) and a German Jewish refugee girl who I’m pretty sure the son of the house has just fallen for - so I’m curious to see how that develops. Total trainwreck or actually pretty good? We’ll see!

What I Plan to Read Next

Two books arrived from [personal profile] evelyn_b! Ngaio Marsh’s Final Curtain and Death in a White Tie. My next day off will be dedicated to at least one of these beauties.
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2017-08-21 08:36 pm
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I am returned from my eclipsnic! Which is a portmanteau of eclipse + picnic, and involved eclipse cookies (chocolate cookies with white chips really, but "eclipse cookies" sounds better. I may change the name permanently in my brain), and pop rocks Oreos, and little individually sized bottles of champagne that Becky brought. We had a lovely time!

We did not have eclipse glasses, but Julie made us eclipse boxes which worked quite well enough, and also a woman stopped by the park halfway through the eclipse and called out, "Want to look through this welding helmet?"

So of course we did and it was splendid and none of us have gone blind, so that seems to have gone well enough.

The park came equipped with a Little Free Library (I would like to say this was serendipity, but in fact I looked into it before), which I raided - with great success! for I found Mary Downing Hahn’s Stepping on the Cracks. I liked Hahn's ghost stories when I was a kid. This one doesn’t look like it has any ghosts, but it’s about two best friends on the American homefront during World War II, which seems Relevant to My Interests.

And in return, I left The Railway Children, which I found in a Little Free Library in Ann Arbor. So it will continue to wend its way through the libraries of the world, like a ship upon the waves.
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2017-08-21 09:45 am

Caldecott Monday: Black and White

You may know David Macauley for his books Cathedral - Castle - Pyramid - or The Way Things Work. But the book he won the Caldecott Medal for, in 1991, was Black and White.

In between the title and David Macauley's other books, I would have expected Black and White to be illustrated with stylishly meticulous black and white drawings. But in fact it is not; almost all of it is in full color, and the few pictures that are not are in a completely different style than the sort of precise architectural detail in Cathedral. (It always impresses me to see illustrators with this kind of versatility. I'm still impressed by Robert McCloskey's two Caldecott wins, with two totally different illustration styles.) They concern cows that have gotten loose and turned into a festival of blotches as they move across the landscape.

Rather than tell the story straight through, Black and White starts with four separate stories: a boy on a train, a pair of kids at home, an empty train station, and a thief climbing into a cow pen. Eventually these stories become interlocked, all part of the same slightly surreal tale. Nothing that happens is actually impossible. Cows do escape and get onto railway tracks (although perhaps not choir practice...). Bored commuters waiting on a late train might decide to make themselves newspaper hats to pass the time. A boy traveling alone for the first time might mistake newspaper confetti for snow.

But altogether it does have this odd liminal feel, as if the characters have somehow stepped into a liminal space at the edge of reality. And this is heightened by the way that the illustrations carry the story. You couldn't make sense of it if you just heard the text read out in an audiobook; the illustrations hold all the connecting information. And perhaps that is what makes it feel slightly surreal: the fact that the story is not told in words, as if perhaps it could not be contained in words.
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-08-16 06:55 am

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, which is rather in the same vein as D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book, although less funny. Which I guess means it isn’t in quite the same vein after all, really. They both write about spinsters and quiet English country villages, but Stevenson is writing comedy and Pym has, to my mind, a slightly tragic vein to it: all these people living their quiet faintly claustrophobic lives where nothing ever changes and no one seems particularly happy, although they are perhaps contented with their discontent, if you will.

Possibly it’s meant to be funny. Certainly there’s some humor to the ironic bits where Belinda says something like “one didn’t want to be snobbish, but - ” followed inevitably by something quite snobbish. But the limitations of their lives, not just the outward limitations of circumstance but the inward limitations of timidity, or lack of education (Belinda thinks a number of times about her lack of a classical education), or simply lack of cleverness - anyway it all seemed faintly sad to me.

I also finished A Bride for Anna’s Papa, which is pretty mediocre, unfortunately. Anna has mixed feelings about her father’s new bride, which sounds interesting but never gathers much emotional force - and then bam, it’s the last chapter and there’s a big fire and suddenly Anna is reconciled to the fact that the bride is part of the family now. I realize that disasters can have this epiphany-forcing effect, but I would have liked some kind of emotional arc leading up to it.

What I’m Reading Now

The Motor Girls at Crystal Bay, which was published in 1914 and ne’er, so far as I can tell, saw the hand of an editor. The author keeps fumbling which characters are speaking to each other in a conversation. Oh dear. Why did you keep this one, my great-great-aunts?

And I have nearly finished From Billabong to London - which, coincidentally, was also published in 1914. As I write, the Billabong crew have just been stopped on the HIGH SEAS by a GERMAN WARSHIP, and Jim and Wally are about to be taken prisoner for their part in arresting a German spy. Will rescue arrive before the Germans drag them away into the darkness???

The next book is called Jim and Wally, so nothing too fatal can befall them, although I suppose it could concern Jim and Wally’s daring escape from a German prison camp. But really I think they are going to be saved in the nick of time by a dashing British destroyer.

What I Plan to Read Next

The Disaster Artist! The library came through for me and I am PRETTY EXCITED.
osprey_archer: (books)
2017-08-15 06:59 am

Book Review: Sparrow Road

...kids are always part of grown-up problems. Even when the grown-ups think they aren’t.

So Raine tells her grandfather in Sheila O’Connor’s Sparrow Road, thus summing up the theme of the book: you can’t protect your kids from the problems in their lives just by refusing to talk about them. The kids will notice those problems on their own - in Raine’s case, the problem of her missing father, who disappeared when she was a baby.

I really liked this book. The themes may be heavy, but the story itself is a summer idyll. Explorations of the vast old house at Sparrow Road, once an orphanage and now an artist’s colony. Getting to know the artists who live there: reading poetry with fragile Lilian, going to town for ice cream with exuberant Josie who makes her own patchwork dresses, rowing on the lake with Diego of the booming laugh. Raine begins to discover her own talents, too: inspired by the attic dormitory, she begins to write an orphan story of her own.

It does have one peculiar quality. Although Sparrow Road was published in 2012 and it’s never explicitly stated that it’s set any time but now, it feels like it’s set at least twenty years before. No one has a cell phone, no one’s ever heard of the internet, and Raine was born during her mother’s “hippie years.” When did people last have hippie years? 1975?

I think this time warp effect gives Sparrow Road some of its timeless idyll quality, so this isn’t a criticism so much as an observation. And, now that I think of it, a lot of the best children’s book writers write books set in their own childhood era. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace both wrote explicitly autobiographical books series; Anne of Green Gables, IIRC, is also set during L. M. Montgomery’s childhood years. (Perhaps also Emily of New Moon? I know Pat of Silver Bush is intended to be set when it was written, which just makes it seem more old-fashioned.)

Maybe I should start plotting a 1990s magnum opus. The characters occasionally get on the internet long enough to watch Hamster Dance, except then Mom wants to use the phone, so they dash outside again to ride their bikes down to the park to… uh, play pogs maybe?

In any case. Sparrow Road! A neglected gem.
osprey_archer: (art)
2017-08-14 09:13 am

Caldecott Monday: Lon Po Po

Ed Young's Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China won the Caldecott medal when I was young, so it was everywhere in my early years, and it terrified me. Not the story, mind you, I never got to that part - but the cover: all in red, except for the shadowy black wolf with its terrible hypnotic white eyes.

It's probably just as well I never read it, even though the art style is beautiful, because many of the illustrations have that same terrifying effect. Like the bit where the three girls let the wolf into the house, because the wolf has convinced them that he's their grandmother, and the picture is simply the vast black shadow of a wolf splashed across the top of the page with the three girls looking tiny underneath...

I've heard a number of variations on the Red Riding Hood story, and in my recollection Red escapes in the end in all of them - but the illustrations created such a sense of menace that I began to worry this story would buck the trend. Especially as there are three sisters. Doubtless the wolf would be vanquished in the end, but he might still eat one of the sisters first.

(I hope you will not consider it a hopeless spoiler if I reassure you that he doesn't. In fact the sisters defeat him all on their own, no woodcutter in sight to help.)

And the illustrations truly are gorgeous. They never become wholly abstract, but there's definitely something expressionistic about them: lots of intense close-ups on the wolf's face, broad washes of color for the sky or the trees.

The first picture, which shows the mother leaving home to visit the actual grandmother - beneath a golden wash of dawn, with pale purple clouds above, and the ground still black with night, except for the golden gingko tree nestled against the house - well, that's just lovely. And there's a similarly lovely picture at the end of the book, bookending the story to show that peace has been restored.