Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

by jhwygirl

Missoulian Michael Punke was nominated by the Obama administration for U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization.

Punke has worked on trade issues for Senator Max Baucus and has held previous trade positions under the Clinton administration.

Sen. Tester lauded the appointment of Punke, saying “I’m proud of this nomination because Michael is one of us. He’s a hard-working Montanan who understands the needs of working folks, small businesses and family farms and ranches. Michael’s expertise will do a lot of good for our country and for the future of trade.”

Punke’s an an accomplish novelist too, having written two non-fiction novels Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West, which was just released in paperback on September 1st.

He’s also the author of The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, which is based on actual historical events.

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by jhwygirl

For those of you who haven’t heard, Dick Cheney’s gotten an advance to write a biography. Who better to hear it from than someone in Wyoming? Michael Shay, of Wyoming’s premier progressive blog hummingbirds, has the news.

I love his suggested titles. Too funny.

Montana massacre

by Pete Talbot

“Ripped from today’s headlines,” as they like to say on those television teases for Law and Order.

I was cruising Left in the West when one of the ads on its home page caught my attention. I always thought I was immune to website advertising but I guess those ads really do work.

Anyway, the headline said, “Massacre in Montana,” so I had to click on it. Turns out it was a promo for a recently published book. The ad had a slick little trailer, too, that looked like a real TV news story.

The book is about a group of terrorists who take over an exclusive ski resort named the ‘Jefferson Club’ (gosh, I wonder where the author got the idea for that) and then hold AIG/Bernie Madoff-type executives hostage.

Not sure who the bad guys are. Guess I’ll have to buy the book.

by Pete Talbot

Contributors at 4&20, and a few other Montana political blogs, try to maintain some semblance of objectivity — either in the posts themselves or in the comments section. I believe allowing the opposition the opportunity to weigh in goes a long way toward site legitimacy and civil discourse. Otherwise, blogs are just personal rants.

The occasional personal rant, on the other hand, can be quite informative.

Some would call Bill Vaughn’s attacks on Rep. Bill Nooney (R-HD 100) personal. So what? If my representative gave the sand-and-gravel industry the wherewithal to put a gravel pit next to my house, I might get a little personal, too. Check out Vaughn’s latest, entitled, “Denials and Delusions” with the subhead, “The website of Montana Representative Bill Nooney is a place where something besides the truth has beaten out everything else for control.” That sort of says it all. It’s vintage Vaughn and vintage Nooney.

(You might have to scroll down a bit on Vaughn’s site to get to the story. It’s below a fine piece on author James Crumley.)

Remember the name Willis Curdy out there in West Missoula when you step into the ballot booth on Nov. 4.

*******

Others have waxed more poetically than I about the death of James Crumley. (Here’s his obit in the Missoulian, L.A. Times, and N.Y. Times.)

You can still see him down at Charlie B’s, amid the legendary photographs taken by Lee Nye, during Eddie’s Club heyday. That same photo graces the dust covers of Crumley’s first few novels.

In my youth, I fancied myself a writer and Crumley had great influence on my prose. I’d sit on the periphery while the writers and poets like Crumley, Hugo, Ganz and Kittredge would shoot the shit at Eddie’s or East Gate.

Later in life, I’d join Crumley for the occasional drink, etc. Ran into him at the Depot one time and I ordered us a couple of shots of Glenlivet, which I thought at the time was exceptional Scotch.

“Swill,” he said and then proceeded to buy many rounds of Lagavulin, Oban, Glenmorangie, and other single-malts. I don’t recall what we talked about.

I dated his stepdaughter, Mary, for awhile. She had a wild soul, like Jim, and soon tired of me. In those days, she was a stunning redhead.

He was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather. This mellowed him, somewhat, in his later years. He was a friend to the down-and-out and a mentor to the up-and-coming. He was a good Democrat, too.

Crumley captured the ethos of Montana and the West like few other writers. His writing lives on but his presence at the workshops, watering holes and soirees will be greatly missed.  Condolences to Martha, Mary and the rest of the Crumley clan.

by jhwygirl

Nobel Prize winning Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn passed this afternoon, at his home in Russia.

Solzhenitsyn was somewhat of an enigma – imprisoned for speaking against Stalin, he later wrote a book about his experiences in a Russian camp (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) which was actually published in Russia. Later, he was exiled from his home and eventually moved to Vermont, where he lived for nearly two decades. There he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, a painfully detailed and depressing encyclopedia on Russia’s gulag system. Always wanting to return home, he went back to Russia in 1994.

Russian writers are fabulous for their brutal logic and simplistic honesty, all influenced by a political system designed to keep people from daring to dream.

From his Nobel Prize for Literature lecture, 1970:

So also we, holding Art in our hands, confidently consider ourselves to be its masters; boldly we direct it, we renew, reform and manifest it; we sell it for money, use it to please those in power; turn to it at one moment for amusement – right down to popular songs and night-clubs, and at another – grabbing the nearest weapon, cork or cudgel – for the passing needs of politics and for narrow-minded social ends. But art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives to us a part of its secret inner light.

But shall we ever grasp the whole of that light? Who will dare to say that he has DEFINED Art, enumerated all its facets? Perhaps once upon a time someone understood and told us, but we could not remain satisfied with that for long; we listened, and neglected, and threw it out there and then, hurrying as always to exchange even the very best – if only for something new! And when we are told again the old truth, we shall not even remember that we once possessed it.

One artist sees himself as the creator of an independent spiritual world; he hoists onto his shoulders the task of creating this world, of peopling it and of bearing the all-embracing responsibility for it; but he crumples beneath it, for a mortal genius is not capable of bearing such a burden. Just as man in general, having declared himself the centre of existence, has not succeeded in creating a balanced spiritual system. And if misfortune overtakes him, he casts the blame upon the age-long disharmony of the world, upon the complexity of today’s ruptured soul, or upon the stupidity of the public.

Another artist, recognizing a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God’s heaven; then, however, his responsibility for everything that is written or drawn, for the souls which perceive his work, is more exacting than ever. But, in return, it is not he who has created this world, not he who directs it, there is no doubt as to its foundations; the artist has merely to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellow-men. And in misfortune, and even at the depths of existence – in destitution, in prison, in sickness – his sense of stable harmony never deserts him.

But all the irrationality of art, its dazzling turns, its unpredictable discoveries, its shattering influence on human beings – they are too full of magic to be exhausted by this artist’s vision of the world, by his artistic conception or by the work of his unworthy fingers.

by Pete Talbot

Writer Bill Vaughn has a dick noir story over at Dark Acres that I’m enjoying immensely. It stars a seedy private detective (a la James Crumley) and features lots of Missoula landmarks. I love the art, too — pulp-like watercolors of the Turf and Flame and Flamingo Lounge by an artist named Ray Ottulich. Maybe one of Missoula’s many galleries will host an exhibition of Ottulich some day.

Anyway, parts one through four are online and Vaughn promises, “ … more tomorrow, or maybe the next day.”

by jhwygirl

Local bookstore Fact & Fiction will be hosting a release of author Greg Lemon’s biography of Governor Brian Schweitzer on July 1st.

Pat Williams, who wrote the forward, will be hosting the event.

I’m wondering if the author is the Greg Lemon of Newwest?

This is the first I’ve heard about the book, unless I’ve missed something.

by Pete Talbot

Kim Todd, wife of 4&20 founding father Jay Stevens, has an essay in the latest issue of High Country News. It’s a wonderful piece in one of my favorite publications. Give it a look.

(P.S. I’ve just returned from a trip to Madagascar. Miss me? Hope to be filing some thoughts and photos soon, if I can just figure out how to upload, download, crop and edit in Flickr and Picnik. Then I’ll try to crank out some copy in a style that approaches Ms. Todd’s. Yeah, right.)

by Rebecca Schmitz

Bestselling author and part-time Montanan James Lee Burke has a letter about the proposed Bitterroot Resort in the Missoulian’s Letters to the Editor column today:

Regarding the debate over the development of Lolo Peak, the central issue seems to have been quickly diverted into a discussion of jobs and real estate values, etc. That’s all good and fine. An individual, for the most part, can do whatever he wishes with his private land, and if he creates jobs for other people, even low-paying ones, so much the better. But the group wishing to develop Lolo Peak wants to use public land and in effect to change the character of a mountain that is one of the most beautiful in western Montana. That’s the issue.

That land belongs to all of us. It also belongs to people who have not been born yet. We’re entrusted with its care. We are also entrusted with protecting it. But rather than rely on words in a letter to the editor or reportage on a public meeting, drive just south of Lolo Creek on Highway 93 and look westward at the mountains whose faces have already been scalped with ski runs that are evidently the first stages in the development of a Lolo Peak ski resort. To say they are ugly doesn’t do them justice. They look like enormous lesions. I assume they represent the model for what will be done on Lolo Peak as well.

The fact that a small group of people can even propose commercializing a state and national treasure and then seek to negotiate the issue strikes me as mind-numbing.

James Lee Burke, Lolo

Reading that, I could hear Detective Dave Robicheaux patiently explaining the economics of our area to his wife, Molly.  Then I started wondering…what would Clete Purcel have to say about Tom Maclay’s land grab?

Bookworms Rejoice

by Rebecca Schmitz

Earlier this week, Jay posted about the news that warmed the hearts of bookworms like myself all over Missoula: the sale of Fact & Fiction to the UM Bookstore. Fact & Fiction is one of three fantastic bookstores here. The other two are the Book Exchange and Shakespeare & Co., of course. (Unfortunately, I think I only have ten cents left in credit at the former. I need to trade in more books.) That’s why I’m very pleased to learn the folks at Shakespeare & Co. began their own blog last month. I read many of the posts earlier today. Thanks to them I discovered one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, has a new book on the shelves. I’m adding their site to our rather large blogroll there on the left because they also write about local neighborhood news. If you enjoy reading either books or blogs as much as I do, it’s well worth a visit.

by Jay Stevens

Montana Kaimin‘s Mike Gerrity heard the rumor: the UM Bookstore today bought Fact & Fiction, Missoula’s longtime independent bookstore. F&F owner Barbara Theroux has the check in hand; it’s official.

Here’s what Theroux wrote in an email:

F&F is merging with the university bookstore. The downtown store will remain the same, the tradebook section (non-text) will become F&F on campus and a new location will contain a third F&F. As part of the deal I will be working for two years to see that the brand is established.

From what I understand, all branches will keep the Fact & Fiction name, and the new ownership will keep alive the spirit of the current bookstore. Which is great, because Barbara is the center of Missoula’s vibrant book writing and reading community, a frequent host of readings and one of the main forces behind Missoula’s Festival of the Book. She’s always stocking and promoting local authors, and is a good friend. If the new owners are anything like Barbara, our city’s loss will be minimal…

The best part of the deal is that Barbara is sticking around to run the events.

All-in-all, it sounds like a great deal for Barbara, the UM Bookstore, and Missoula.

by Jay Stevens

Some quick hits from Missoula:

Anthony Michael Dailey, the man who killed biker Stacie Ann Dewolf, was sentenced to 30 years in the Montana State Prison, the maximum allowed by law. He pled guilty to vehicular homicide; it was not part of a plea agreement.

I said it before, I’ll say it again: justice was served, but the punishment has yet to be crafted that can bring back the dead.

Also in today’s Missoulian was City Attorney Jim Nuget’s opinion about emailgate:

“City Council deliberations pertaining to City Council agenda items should be conducted openly in public so that the public has an opportunity to observe the deliberations,” Nugent wrote. “The public’s right to observe City Council deliberations is important for complying not only with Montana’s public right to know law but also for facilitating the public’s right to public participation.”

Sounds about right. Those of us who have had jobs with company or government email accounts know that email conversation is not personal, but public, correspondence, despite the solitary and informal nature of the craft. Now the question is – how to use electronic communications and open them to the public? How about a city council blog that allows public comment?

And last, Mike Jakupcak must have read yrs. truly’s post urging all city council meetings to begin with a chicken dance, only he improved on the idea by donning a chicken suit and reading a pro-chicken poem created for the event:

Before more serious issues arose, Mike Jakupcak read a poem asking councilors to grant chickens “urban asylum” and resurrect from committee a proposal to loosen up a regulation that mostly bans hens from city limits.

“Seek common ground between tastes of Colonel Sanders delicious/And sanitation freaks complaining our droppings are odoriferous,” read Jakupcak, to laughter and applause all around.

You can read the poem at the Missoulian’s new blog, Western Montana 360°. (And why am I always the last person to find about new blogs?)

by Jay Stevens

Catching up on Ed Kemmick posts, I read his synopsis of his vacation reading, notably “Lucky Jim,” by Kingsley Amis, which we all can agree is a fine book. (Tho’ I see it as anti-establishment rather than a conservative tale.)

Anyhoo, one particular line from Ed’s post struck me:

I forget who said that great humorists are usually great misanthropes, but that would certainly describe Amis, especially if you accept the corollary that great humorists are usually alcoholics as well.

When I did a Google search on “misanthrope” and “humorist,” I stumbled on links to Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Florence King, and HL Mencken. Said search, if not finding me the quote, provided plenty of evidence to support Ed’s maxim.

But what struck me – after reading some particularly misanthropic local blog posts masquerading as humor – is that Ed forgot another and equally valuable corollary to his Kemmick Maxim: not all misanthropes are humorous.

Kurt Vonnegut links

by Jay Stevens

Kurt Vonnegut is dead.

I’m at a loss for what to say. He was one of my favorite writers and humans.

Julie Fanselow fondly remembers Vonnegut’s scathing indictment of new conservatism.

The Booman Tribune’s Steve D thinks Kurt – WWII POW, survivor of the Dresden firebombing, teacher, and social critic – was American hero.

Stefan Beck talks about his influence as a writer.

The Y Chromosone fondly remembers his appearance in Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School.”

Cory Doctrow has more links.

by Jay Stevens

The Missoula Independent profiled Bill McKibbon, who’s coming to town Sunday, March 25.

Pretty much, I agree whole-heartedly with McKibbon’s vision of a “deep, durable” economy. Basically, the premise is that our economy, based on provide consumers with bigger, faster, cheaper products isn’t making us any happier.

The problem, as he puts it in [his most recent book] Deep Economy, is: “We have a surplus of individualism and a deficit of companionship, and so the second becomes more valuable.” Rather than ask how much money do I make, McKibben suggests people should ask: “How many close friends do I have and how much time am I able to spend with my family, my friends and my neighbors? These are things that have changed dramatically in this country in the last 50 years. Connections and relationships not only don’t track economic growth, but run in an opposite direction.”

In order to become happier, McKibbon argues, we need to concentrate less on consumer goods and materialism, but on products that really matter to us, like housing and health care, community and environment.

Pressed for specifics on how the region and its residents can make their economy deeper and more durable, McKibben offers this thought exercise: “Try to imagine a Missoula where 50 percent of the calories people eat are grown in a radius of a few hundred miles; where there’s a good local transit system that people are using; where people get half their pay not in federal greenbacks but in Missoula Money that only works in Western Montana, so they produce a thriving economy that supplies food and energy and entertainment and other essentials like beer.”

McKibbon’s vision runs completely afoul of most economists’ theories and feelings on how the markets should work, because it means it’s likely we’d pay more for our consumer products than we would if we shipped them from some huge factory in Mexico. Economically speaking, it’s inefficient. It’s a money giveaway.

But here’s what they miss: McKibbon’s fantasy Western Montana seems like a delightful place where you’d actually want to live. It’s the same impulse that drives people to pay three dollars for a cup of coffee, so they can sit in a leather armchair and read magazines in a cafe – an impulse that baffles many economists. But we’re people, not commodities, and we want to live good lives.

by Jay Stevens 

I’m back, but busy as hell, just enough time to promote Kim’s reading tonight at Fact & Fiction in downtown Missoula, and also to point out some great media attention she’s been getting.

Here in Montana, Jason Wiener profiled Kim and her book, Chrysalis, for the Missoula Independent. On how she came up with the idea for the book:

“I was at Rockin Rudy’s,” says Todd, who holds a master’s degree in environmental studies and an MFA in creative writing from UM. “[I was] just wandering around, and picked up a notecard that had [Merian’s] illustration on the front of it. It was incredibly beautiful but also had this scientific sense to it…not just a butterfly on a leaf but all the life stages of the butterfly, the leaves all chewed up and very beautiful in their own way. Then when I turned it over and saw that it was a woman painting so long ago—and in South America. It just seemed like there was a story there.”

This past weekend, Kim was interviewed for a San Francisco talk show called “Forum” with Michael Krasny – a Bay Area radio staple. Fortunately the show was archived, so take a listen.

The reading tonight is at the bookstore, Fact & Fiction, on Higgins in downtown Missoula, at 7:00pm.

by Jay Stevens 

I meant to do this earlier, but that nasty cold I got during the Patriots game struck me down again, so that I was bed-ridden this morning…

Anyhow, Kim will be reading from Chrysalis in Helena and Montana soon. Here are the dates and places:

Where: Fact & Fiction, Missoula, MT
When: Feb. 2 at 7:00 p.m.
What: Chrysalis reading

Where: Montana Book & Toy Co, Helena, MT
When: Feb. 10 at 2:00 pm
What: Chrysalis reading

The New Yorker reviewed Chrysalis in its “briefly noted” section and called it a “spellbinding biography.” So you’ve been notified!

Sorry about the lack of posts. I can barely stand fifteen minutes in front of the computer right now…

Go out and catch Kim. The book is fantastic, and you can get an autographed copy…

by Jay Stevens 

Here’s a personal revelation, something that might surprise the two people who picked 4&20 blackbirds as Montana’s “best written” blog: my wife is the real writer in the family.

Her name is Kim Todd, and today marks the release of her latest book, Chrysalis, Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis.

Maybe I’m biased – no, I’m definitely biased – but I think Kim’s an extraordinary writer. H*ll, that’s one of the reasons I married her…

Just like her first book — Tinkering With Eden, about the introduction of exotic species to North America – Kim, in Chrysalis, writes about not so much about Nature, but about our very human encounters with it, and how that shapes both nature and our own essential humanity.

In Tinkering, for example, the stories of introduction are as much about the people who introduced them as they are about the species and their effects on our environment. French aristocrats, for example, brought doves to the Canadian colonies as a symbol of their feudal privileges; those doves escaped and became pigeons. Or, a New York City chemical magnate released starlings into his city in an effort to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to Central Park; he belonged to a society dedicated to “beautify” the rugged and savage American wilderness with European flora and fauna. As an entirety, the book is ultimately a history of our perception of Nature, and the evolution of that perception.

Merian, as depicted in Chrysalis, lived in a “plastic” era of burgeoning ideas concerning science and society. She was able to buck tradition and apply the artistic skills she learned in her family’s print and art shops to a new field of science, and eventually pay her own way to South America to study insects. Merian’s story is as much about a woman seizing an opportunity for self-discovery and self-sufficiency as it is a story about the early scientific movement. In a parallel narrative, Kim, relates our changing perception of metamorphosis itself, from early Greek and Roman days to the present, as if in our dynamic understanding of our surroundings also lies a glimpse of the evolution of our self-understanding.

Kim’s writing is hardly “academic” – both books are considered “pop” environmental works, which belittles Kim’s poetic voice and the application of the new creative nonfiction style that uses fictional tools to enhance the narrative of works of nonfiction.

I recommend both books.

But don’t take my word for it, check out some of the early reviews…

Kirkus Reviews:

An extraordinary portrait of an artist and amateur naturalist who explored the teeming life of the Amazon and helped lay the groundwork for our present-day understanding of ecology.

Daughter of a prominent Frankfurt publisher of illustrated books, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) mastered the art of drawing and engraving while studying the metamorphosis of silkworms. She went on to paint the larvae of butterflies and moths and to raise important questions about the role of intermediate life forms.

With a detective’s eye, PEN/Jerard Fund Award–winner Todd (Tinkering with Eden, 2001) has pieced together the life of this neglected genius who charted the micro-world of insects. While male contemporaries considered a species in isolation, Merian looked at its relationship to the environment, its sensitivity to change and its long-term survival strategies. Todd gives equal time to Merian’s own metamorphosis. The artist abandoned her husband and took up residence in an austere Pietist community in the Netherlands. She sold her paintings to support her mother and her daughters. She befriended naturalists, scientists and collectors in Amsterdam during its Golden Age, produced a popular book on caterpillars and at age 52 set off for the Amazon to document new species and collect snakes, iguanas and geckos for resale back home. Merian sold everything to finance her journey, braving tarantulas and yellow fever to produce a landmark work. After her death, Peter the Great purchased her paintings and field notes, which later languished in vaults until long after the Russian revolution. European publishers pirated her prints and displayed them out of order, misrepresenting her main ideas.

Todd’s long overdue re-examination of Merian’s work shows the extent of her scientific contributions and reminds us how much of our early understanding of biology depended on the keen eye of the amateur. This bold, wide-ranging text also considers the theological view of metamorphosis, the controversy over spontaneous generation, Merian’s connection to other accomplished women of her day, her opposition to slavery in Surinam and her reliance on Amerindians to bring her specimens. A breathtaking example of scholarship and storytelling, enriched by ample illustrations of Merian’s work.

Booklist:

Todd…emulates Merian’s richly contextual approach in her vivid descriptions of every facet of her subject’s vibrant world as she insightfully chronicles Merian’s extraordinary life…Todd’s discerning analysis and deep appreciation resurrect Merian and reclaim her still vital achievements, ensuring that Merian will stand as the resourceful and courageous visionary she truly was.

Library Journal:

Todd’s writing itself is lush, almost poetic, whether she is describing the science of metamorphosis or Merian’s own personal metamorphoses throughout her life.

You get the idea.

There are a bunch of readings coming up, but I think this dang post is already long enough. I’ll post Kim’s schedule when reading times draw closer…

by Jay Stevens 

I’ve said it before, but one of the joys of having kids is readings hundreds of children’s books – although now I have to fight off Ms. Marvelous, who wants all the books to herself.

And one of my favorite authors is Peter Sís. The dude is a friggin’ genius.

Now my liking Sís could be an example of a book appealing more to adults rather than children. After all Ms. Marvelous and Mr. Proud both prefer inane Elmo and farm board books that have all the charm of a common housefly. (But then, houseflies do have charm if you look at them from a two-and-a-half-year-old perspective.) But I don’t think so in Sís’ case. In fact, when I asked Ms. Marvelous if she liked Sís’ work, she said she did. “I like the pictures,” she said.

Yes! The pictures!

What I like about Sís is the pictures, too. What I like is that Sís has an amazing ability to depict memory and imagination in simple, yet nuanced, illustrations!

Take, for example, Madlenka’s Dog. In it, a little girl named Madlenka – who isn’t allowed to have a dog in her family’s city apartment – wanders her block with an empty collar and leash, playing with her imaginary dog. During her walk, she runs into some of her neighbors – a multicultural gang of shop owners, musicians, and story-tellers – and greets each by saying, “do you like my dog?” The neighbors each have a flap to turn over – the painter over her easel, the Scotsman over his drum, etc – and under each flap is a brightly colored picture of the neighbor as a child with their childhood dog. And each answers, “Yes, I like your dog,” and describes the dog they had as a child.

In one series of illustrations, Sís depicts how we each carry our childhood memories around with us, colorful and warm and enclosed within our bodies, and how those memories influence us even as adults.

In Komodo!, a boy obsessed with dragons travels to Indonesia to see real, live dragons – Komodo dragons. The boy, disillusioned with the staged, for-tourist display of the dragon, slips off on his own into the jungle. (Not recommended, by the way. Komodo dragons eat people. Here’s a video of a Komodo dragon eating a live deer – not safe @ lunch.) As the boy walks through the jungle, he “sees” dragons everywhere – in the illustration, every bush and tree and green frond is shaped like a Komodo dragon. Just like in life, when you’re slightly spooked and looking really hard for something, you see it everywhere.

Here Sís manages to convey that feeling in a simple drawing.

And then there’s Dinosaur!, a simple, wordless board book that shows a boy getting into a bath with a dinosaur bath toy, and slowly his bathroom transforms into a prehistoric setting literally crawling with dinosaurs.Sís shows imagination transforming setting with a shift in perspective. Basically, the narrative eye slowly zooms out from picture to picture, so that the boy becomes smaller and smaller, his bath transformed from a tub into a small natural pool, until he’s nearly a speck dwarfed by an enormous brontosaurus and his dinosaur kin in a pullout page that’s twice as large as any other.

Ultimately, Peter Sís’ books are no so much about character, but about imagination and memory. The worlds he creates are elaborate and beautiful, but also hushed, almost silent. (Or completely silent, like in Dinosaur!) There’s a brilliant sort of emotional layering to each of his books that appeal to kids (if Ms. Marvelous is to be believed) and adults alike that is trying to convey something profound, yet oddly difficult to describe. It’s like being underwater. Or asleep.

Or something.

(And check out Sís’ bio. Very impressive. What leaps out is that he won a MacArthur “genius” award – a nice $500,000 grant to do whatever the h*ll you want to – the penultimate artistic award for artists and writers.)

On “Goodnight Moon”

by Jay Stevens 

There was a great article on children’s books in the recent issue of The New Yorker. Not that this is a childish post – no more than usual – I enjoy considering kids’ things as an adult. I’ve already given the literary treatment to Curious Georgetwice. Now it’s “Goodnight Moon’s” turn. Actually, Elizabeth Kolbert more than adequately tackles children’s books all on her own. Here’s the opening for her piece, “Goodnight Mush”:

If, as Joan Didion famously put it, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up. A book read to a toddler who, after running around the house all day, has had to be stuffed, quite literally, into his pajamas, may traffic in imaginative freedom and wonder, but it is still an instrument of control. I will read this to you, and then you will go to sleep. End of story.

Kolbert postulates that many children’s books focuses on the clash between parental control and child’s liberty played out in the unfilled time between when the bedtime story is over and when the child actually falls asleep. Consider all the books dealing with that unfettered, escapist imagination struggling against the inevitable bedtime: “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” “Madeline.” “Goodnight Moon,” in its 60th year, of course perfectly exemplifies this struggle:

The struggle between parent and child that is the explicit subject of so many bedtime stories is, in “Goodnight Moon,” only implicit. Indeed, there’s no parent on the scene. The story begins with the little rabbit, drawn with wonderful flatness by Clement Hurd, already in bed. It is seven o’clock. A few pages later, according to the blue clock on the mantelpiece and the yellow clock on the bed table, it is seven-twenty. Then it is seven-thirty, then seven-forty. When the “good-nighting” begins, it is not clear who is doing the speaking. The moon is rising, yet the light grows dimmer. The clocks tick on—seven-fifty, eight o’clock. A parent is bigger than a child, but still a person. He or she can be appealed to, as in “Bedtime for Frances,” or even tricked, as in “Good Night, Gorilla.” The arrangement in “Goodnight Moon” is completely uneven. Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn’t stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want to die. But we both have to.

Pretty nifty, eh? A child’s struggle against sleep mirrors an adult’s struggle against death. Do not go gentle into that good night, indeed.

By the way, this line of thinking is, of course, probably a fallacious generalization, best evidenced by my own Ms. Marvelous, who does not view reading as a means of control. In fact, she reads every chance she can get:

 

(And I thought I was a bookworm when I was a child…) That picture was taken more than a year ago; Ms. Marvelous’ reading habits are more sophisticated now. Her idea of a great time is to while away a couple of hours on the couch with a towering stack of books…

by Jay Stevens 

I know the “creationism” versus “evolution” hubbub is dead in the water (thanks, Pennsylvania!), but I recently re-found this passage from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller:

“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling on over objection. “There’s not nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about — a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

“Pain?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously. “Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.”

“And who created the dangers?” Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. “Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t he have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He?”

“People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads.”

“They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don’t they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead. His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!”

Discuss.

Patricia Goedicke’s memorial is this Sunday, September 17, at 3:00 pm in the Del Brown Room of Turner Hall on the University of Montana campus.

For more on Patricia, check out the obituaries in the national press. Also, I received an email press release with a lovely summation of Patricia’s career:

Through her poetry, her teaching and her life, University of Montana Professor Patricia Goedicke was an inspiration to countless UM students and community members. Goedicke, who taught poetry at UM from 1981 to 2006, died this summer at age 75 from pneumonia, a complication of lung cancer.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, the University’s Department of English, in conjunction with the College of Arts and Sciences and the President’s Office, will honor Goedicke, a beloved colleague, at a memorial gathering in the Dell Brown Room in Turner Hall.

All are invited to attend.

Born in Boston June 21, 1931, Patricia McKenna graduated from Middlebury College in 1953 and received a master’s degree from Ohio University in 1965. “Between Oceans,” her first book of poems, was written the year she married Leonard Wallace Robinson, editor, writer and “love of her life.” Leonard Robinson died in 1999.

Goedicke and her husband lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, during the 1970s, where she wrote several books of poetry, including “Crossing the Same River,” which engages her first bout with cancer: “sweet steadfast cells of love/forever replacing each other/and ringing.”

Tireless in her devotion to the art of poetry, Goedicke became legendary for dramatic delivery and incisive editing in workshops at her McLeod Street home in Missoula – the setting for many of her poems, the place where she “ran barefoot . over the stony asphalt” to see the full moon “riding between clouds/over the windy streetlight.”

Goedicke wrote 12 books of poems during her career and received numerous fellowships and awards, including the William Carlos Williams Prize from “New Letters,” a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Bellagio, Italy, and the H.G. Merriam Award for contributions to literature in Montana.

She wrote free verse that was uncompromising in its engagement of political violence, sexual ecstasy, disease and what one critic called the “wonder and misery of being alive.”

Her most recent volume, “As Earth Begins to End,” was declared one of the top 10 books of poetry in 2000 by the American Library Association. In the title poem, she declares, “I’ve never been able to tell/where we end and the earth begins beyond us.”

A memorial scholarship fund has been established in Goedicke’s name at the University. Those who would like to contribute may do so by sending a check to the UM Foundation, P.O. Box 7159, Missoula, MT, 59807-7159. Please note “in memory of Patricia Goedicke” on all donations.

Here’s the UM Foundation’s website, where you can donate online.

There I was, an innocent yard sale customer, perusing the children’s books on the lawn of a soon-to-be ex-neighbor, when I stumbled on a set of five small hardbacks featuring a small boy and his teddy bear. Knowing how much my children love smallish books – easier on the hands – and stuffed animals, I bought ’em. A quarter apiece.

It took my wife all of nine seconds to realize they were Christian books. As soon as she mentioned it, I could have kicked myself. It was so obvious. Here’s a sampling of the back covers:

In this story about Joe and his bear, Joe makes new friends at preschool. He thanks God for them in his bedtime prayers.

In this story about Joe and his bear, Joe learns all about God and just how much God loves him.

In this story about Joe and his bear, Joe finds out about angels and shiny stars and God’s Son, lying in a manger.

Of course I hadn’t read the back covers, just glanced through at the pictures and read a sampling of the text. That’s how I pick books; this usually works. I can tell if the pictures will draw the kids in and how complex or simplistic (or annoyingly rhymed) the text is.

That’s still a pretty lame excuse, considering the book titles are all variations of the bear’s name, “Christopher bear…”: “I Love You, Christopher Bear,” “Christopher Bear Makes Friends,” “Christopher Bear’s First Christmas.” If I had just read one book through, I would have come to the religious conclusion of each, heavy handed, awkward, shamelessly proselytizing:

(From “I Love You, Christopher Bear.”)
“I hope someone loves that lady…like I love Christopher Bear,” said Joe. “I know someone who does,” said Mom.
“Who?” asked Joe.
“God does!” said Mom. “He loves you and me and that lady in the supermarket and everyone everywhere. And he never, ever stops loving us.”
“Does he love us right up to the ceiling?” asked Joe. “Does he love us up to twenty-one eleven?”
“God loves us right up to a trillion zillion!” said Mom. It was the biggest number she could think of.
“Well,” said Joe. “That’s how much I love Christopher Bear.”
And Christopher Bear just smiled his crooked smile made of button thread.

If you hadn’t guessed the bear’s metaphoric meaning from his name, that passage ought to have made it obvious. And if you’re still a little confused, consider that each book cover features the bear in a cross-shaped position, two slabs of wood and a handful of nails short of a plush crucifix

(That d*mn bear’s smug crooked smile! How it annoys me, especially in the Christmas book as the kids reenact the birth of Christ. Every other sentence the bear just smiles his crooked smile made of button thread!)

Thing is, most of the books actually have interesting things to say. In one, the boy learns to share. “Sharing makes everybody happy!” How true. At least, it’s good spin for a preschooler. In another, the boy’s transition to preschool is made easier by the warmth of his new-found friends. Again, this is a nice lesson: appreciate the people who care for you, and be nice to the new guy. You’ll go places if you learn this lesson. (Just ask Conrad Burns.) It’s good, basic Sesame Street stuff.

What burns me up is all the God stuff thrown in. I’ve been trying to think exactly why. I mean…I give my kids books about the Red Sox in a naked ploy to get them to root for the same baseball team I do…what’s wrong with a little preschool religious indoctrination?

It’s probably because I believe religion is an intensely personal and utterly complex topic. I’m more than willing to answer questions, give my own views, and support any religious and spiritual exploration my children might have – heck, I’m going to plug their Jewish heritage when they’re interested – but I don’t feel comfortable introducing my two-year-olds to a simplistic and harmless – and unrealistic — version of Christianity.

Christopher Bear is just too easy.

Any book that depicts God as a harmless plush toy won’t do.

No, my God is closer to a foul-mouthed homicidal abuser who kicks his children in drunken rages then apologizes later with lavish gifts. Or. My God is a infinite, unknowable, mysterious…thing?…above, below, and beyond comprehension. Or. My God is light and earth and life and time. Or. You get my point.

Even if we consider the Judeo-Christian version of God, things get complicated and horrible and frightening as well as comfortable and lovey-dovey. My earliest memories of Judeo-Christianity come from reading a children’s Bible, and the passage (Genesis 20-something) where Abraham is ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. I mean, that’s a Biblical passage to dig into a kid’s head! That’s a complex God! And the crucifixion of Christ — that’s a gritty story of betrayal and pettiness and pain, pain, pain. You know. Life.

Somehow, to me, Christopher Bear reflects the easy kind of American Christianity that offers up a comfortable suburban neighborhood as the pinnacle of creation, a contemporary Eden for frolicking middle-class Christians, where religion is a hiding-place, a den, a snuggly warm place where you sip your hot chocolate while the world outside is battered by a ferocious rain storm. But any religion that pushes you closer to Life, the Universe, and Everything has to be terrifying and repulsive, as well as comforting. I mean, it has to be everything, doesn’t it?

So, yeah, I think it’s a little early to start teaching my kids about God.

I’m glad to see that Patricia Goedicke’s passing got some national notice. Her obituary appeared in the LA Times and the Washington Post (which quotes yours truly – tho misspells my name…), and in an AP wire story (shame on the Gazette for using a wire service to cover this news).

The AP story mentions an on-campus memorial service will take place at the University September 17. I’ll keep you all posted as more details emerge. If possible, I’ll attend. It should be interesting, moving, and poetic.

The best surprise was this picture of Patricia as a young woman.

I mean, wow. Not surprised, but still…

Patricia Goedicke died Friday night at St. Pat’s. She had been suffering from lung cancer, and was apparently in good spirits the weeks leading up to her death.

For those of you who didn’t have the pleasure — or experience — of knowing Patricia, she was a poet and instructor at the University of Montana’s creative writing program. She was sassy and rude and flirtatious and wise and proper and wild. She was a diva. She was an icon in the powerful body of Montana writers. Whatever she was, she was never tame. Although I never took a class with Patricia, I got to know her first during my wife’s stint in the program, and then again — after she had retired — during my own two years in the writing program.

I used to co-ordinate the graduate students’ Second Wind reading series and had the pleasure of once introducing her before she read. I combed through all the reviews of her work and snipped here, cut there, and created a poem with the stolen words from those reviews. I think it came out well — not because of any particular genius on my end — but because of the ideas her work dislodged from professional critics.

That is, I didn’t write it. She earned it into existence.

Where undeniable talent lies

She didn’t look hard, but she looked as if she had heard all the answers and remembered the ones she thought she might be able to use sometime.

–Raymond Chandler

Wherein undeniable talent lies is difficult to fix —
Patricia Goedicke,
discursive,
intensely emotional, intensely physical,
bears down on the language,
casts a wide net,
exhibits a Whitmanesque exuberance,
produces exact ambiguities,
and catches exotic fish.

Her poems,
an accretion,
indeed leap up,
startling and funny —
they never seem to end,
are products of the mind
where mundane is transformed into the terrifying —
they haunt us because they clarify — terror
changes into tender yet disturbing
love poems like parables
of survival.

Engaging, truthful, hard, elusive, powerful, excessive, surreal.

Reading Goedicke’s poems is like being
invited into the mind.

Of course, Patricia was a hundred times the poet I’ll ever be, so I’ll pass on one of her poems that was passed on to me. It speaks for itself.

Another Light

You thought you were only going on a picnic but you aren’t,
There is more to it than that.

Sitting here waiting for your friends

Somewhere in the center is a cracked voice
Gradually opening its mouth, and growing

For the young tree you are leaning against is moving:

Right through your backbone you can feel the smooth pole of it
Lurch back and forth, like a ship at sea that walks

High in the mountains, where the wind ruffles itself into whitecaps
And your hair lifts like feathers!

You know the crumbling dirt you are sitting on is a deck,
Inside the round hull of your body there are wings

There are compasses, strong spars
And a nose sharp as a prow to cut the wind

That is always with us, heavily moving through space

Especially at evening, in the blazing surf of sunset,
The slow heaving underfoot

You know you will have to set out anyway,
With or without your friends,

Crescents of Canada geese in their slim wedges
Swoop over the tall mastpole of your head

The black wall of the mountains stands straight up
In front of your face but there is another light

Behind it, always behind, the glittering bronze rim of it,
The vast eye of the universe like a lake

That is staring at you, mysterious, green at the far edges,

(Patricia Goedicke, from The Wind of Our Going 1985)

I miss you, Patricia.

Go fly a kite!

Now comes a discernible change in the Curious George series with “Curious George Flies a Kite.” First, it's a much longer book than the others – a whopping eighty pages. Next, the language bumps up a notch; instead of “This is George. He's a monkey,” suddenly it's “George is a little monkey, and all monkeys are curious. But no monkey is as curious as George. That is why his name is Curious George.” Cause, now, alongside effect. And then the narration gains an element of cohesion, where previously – as mentioned on this blog – there was none.

The plot. Again George is left on his own by the clueless Man in the Yellow Hat. This time he leaves with a warning:

“I have to go now,” said the man with the yellow hat. “Be a good little monkey till I come back. Have fun and play with your new ball, but do not be too curious.” And the man went out.

(Um. I'm sure that will work, Man in the Yellow Hat.)

George strikes out minutes after the Man's departure. He raids a rabbit hutch, tries his luck at fishing and nearly drowns, then flies a kite, which pulls him high into the air, where the Man in the Yellow Hat rescues him with a helicopter.

For the first time in a Curious George book, the plot takes on a three-act structure: rabbit, fishing, kite. Each act builds off the first and increases in peril. Each act – rabbit, fishing, kite – has also got a catch, wrinkle, and resolution, climaxing in the dramatic mid-air rescue of George by the Man in the Yellow Hat.

The cool thing about this plot is how the seemingly disparate acts are tied together in a single panel early in the book: George standing on the windowsill of the Man in the Yellow Hat's house overlooking the landscape of the neighborhood. Lying beneath the monkey's feet are the elements soon to star in the book's plot: there's the rabbit hutch enclosed in its stone wall; there's the road to the lake and the pier where George will fall into the hungry jaws of lake fish; there's Bill slowly pedaling his bicycle, clutching the very instrument of George's future ascension into the book's heavens, the monstrous kite, bigger than the boy and his bicycle combined.

Not only is this landscape a map of the book's plot – an elaborate foreshadowing – it's also a map of peril for the monkey. This neighborhood is where George will nearly die – twice – in the next few hours. But not only that, this simple drawing is a synecdoche of George's world, a seemingly placid and unremarkable world from which George creates adventure, chaos, and, invariably, great danger to himself.

This adventure and peril that George wrests from this world always involves the way in which he violates its rules, the theft of the cow and destruction of the museum in “Curious George Gets a Medal,” for example, or the false alarm called in to the fire department in “Curious George.” (Of course, the monkey doesn't know the rules, which is why we think the book is so d*mn funny.)

But what's also interesting about this world is that the authority that safeguards it is not guiding: it punishes, it does not explain or lead. The world's inhabitants intuitively follow the rules. Nothing needs explaining. The world is the offspring of the collective unconscious of its inhabitants. (Which might explain the unnatural furor of those that punish George for wrongdoing: the firemen who imprison George in a maximum security facility for making a prank call, the museum curator who locks George away in a cage for vandalism and then coerces the monkey into a suicide suborbital flight in exchange for his freedom. George, in his cheerful ignorance of the rules, is also violating the essence of culture.)

Ripped from his native habitat, bereft of family and friends, the monkey has no authority figure to guide him through this intuitive and most delicate of environments – other than, of course, the Man in the Yellow Hat, who seems an almost criminally indifferent eccentric, ever inappropriately dressed, of indeterminate sexuality, unknown profession, and mysterious comings and goings. Is it any wonder that George consistently runs afoul of the law?

It is then with little surprise when we discover Curious George sprung from the minds of two Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis on a bicycle:

In 1940 [H.A. and Margaret Rey], both of whom were Jewish, fled Paris as the Nazis mounted their invasion of the city, making their way by bicycle to Spain, by train to Lisbon, then to Brazil, New York City, and finally Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they made their home. The few belongings they carried with them from Europe included the manuscript of Curious George, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1941.

(Check out this additional information about the Reys with some links.)

How like George to be two foreigners set down in 1941 America, just having faced an unspeakable horror, to now negotiate the quaint American towns and suburbs, which must have seemed a fairy-world compared to Depression-era Europe, wracked by violence, extremist movements, and crushing poverty. But American suburbia also contains an irrational sensitivity to things that are “wrong.” How else can you explain the contemporary hysteria surrounding non-issues like gay marriage and Mexican immigrants?

Curious George is the story of an immigrant trying to co-exist with a world that views itself as rational, just, and orderly, when it is actually none of those things. Still, everything turns out in the end. In part because this world is quick to forgive and accept, in part because George's friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, seems to have friends in powerful places. That's a good lesson for anybody trying to carve a niche in a new place: be persistent and cultivate important people.

The rush of Curious George books released in 1958 – alongside “Curious George Flies a Kite” were “Curious George Takes a Job,” “Curious George Rides a Bike,” “Curious George Goes to the Hospital,” “Curious George ABCs,” and “Curious George Gets a Medal” — are obviously influenced by the raging popular and intellectual success of Dr. Seuess' “The Cat in the Hat.” Seuess' classic was written during a major shift in pedagogy, when educators were rejecting memorization as the path to reading comprehension in favor of learning through phonics, the forty-four sounds found in the English language. The theory is that, if kids learn phonics, they'll be able to spell out, learn, and use words quicker an on their own. (American Democracy was at stake: those pesky Russian children were learning quicker and better than our kids – just look at Sputnik, fer chrissakes!)

The culprit in the mess were those irritating reading primers, “See Dick Run” and the like. Something else was needed, educational books that would engage a youthful reader's attention with its creativity and storyline and would educate the reader's mind, paying specific attention to teaching children to read on their own at an early age. So Theordore Geisel – Dr. Seuess – already known for his creative and entertaining books like “Horton Hears a Who” (1954), was given a challenge by Houghton Mifflin director of educational literature, William Spaulding: write a book using only words from a list three hundred long that embodied the phonics program:

Spaulding handed Geisel three lists, drawn up by experts. The first was composed of two hundred and twenty words that first graders could be expected to recognize at sight—like "a," "about," "and," "are," and so on. Geisel selected a hundred and twenty-three. The second list contained two hundred and twenty words that beginning readers might recognize from phonics exercises—sets of words similar in sound, such as "make" and "rake" and "cake." Geisel chose forty-five. And the third list contained two hundred and twenty words that first graders had probably never seen but should be able to decipher, such as "beat," "fear," and "kick." Geisel used thirty-one. This netted him a hundred and ninety-nine words. It wasn't enough to make a story from, so he added twenty-one words of his own, including "nothing," "mess," and "pink." "The Cat in the Hat" is 1,702 words long, but it uses only two hundred and twenty different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.

The book was a runaway success. Released in 1957, benefiting from a Cold-War program to boost American education, which swelled the coffers of schools and libraries who were desperately looking for books like Seuess', it sold upwards of 12,000 copies a month, a million by 1960, and 7.2 million copies by 2000. In response, Random House started a division called “Beginner Books,” and put Geisel in charge. The publisher made up a list of 379 words and sent them out to authors. The rush of entertaining, educational books was on.

The 1958 Curious George books were a part of this educational race. The Reys published through Houghton Mifflin, the publisher Geisel left for a cushy desk job at Random House. That the Reys to the publishing standards Geisel set with “Cat in the Hat” is obvious from the book flap of “Curious George Flies a Kite,” which specifies the number of words found on different English lists.

(I suspect that this educational program produced maybe the best run of children's books – ever seen. Thanks to government funding of schools and libraries!)

You're probably asking yourself, is this all Jay has to say about Curious George? Well, funny you should ask, because, well, no it's not. There's the movie, which I haven't seen, but, like a good blogger, I am prepared to give you my opinion about it. Or at least I want to say a few things about it…

First, it's gotten decent reviews. The worst say it's too boring for adults to sit through, but that kids love it. Fine, I can handle that. Second, the reviewers, almost to a man/woman claim that the movie is faithful the spirit of the original Curious George books. By that, I suppose the filmmakers didn't make the monkey talk. The Seattle P-I review praised the movie for what it wasn't:

Here are the easy outs and common crimes the filmmakers didn't make, though: no flatulence jokes, no pointless cruelty or violence, no bad language, no scenes that seemed designed to tie into a video game, and no product placements we could identify beyond a crate of Dole bananas. It's fast-paced, but not in a hyperkinetic, MTV fashion — more in the entertaining style of the book itself, which lets each scene play out quickly and simply, then moves on to other, loosely linked fun.

Yet after claiming the movie was faithful, the review dropped this little bomb:

It also deals, deliberately or not, with the uncomfortable overtones that make modern parents wince when reading the stories: Rather than having the Man in the Yellow Hat pluck George from his home to imprison him in a zoo, the movie George stows away on a boat (sweetly titled "H.A. Rey" after one of the book's two creators) in order to follow his curiosity and new friend. Added P.C. points for having a native guide repeat "I know. I live here!" when explorer Ted offers lectures on the region's marvels; Elgin Marbles points deducted for a story line that makes it heroic to remove an ancient icon from the jungle and move it overseas for museum display.

Oh, really? So giving the Man in the Yellow Hat a name – which you will never see my type on this blog – a love interest and a foil is “faithful” to the original? You know what I think of the Man's distant, paternal role and George's romps through American suburbia. Slapping a good/evil dichotomy on George's escapades is frankly heretical. Do kids need a world where everything is defined as good and bad? Can't they just watch a monkey f*ck sh*t up and laugh their *sses off?

And that, my friends, is about all I could ever say about Curious George. But there's still “Madeline”…

An unanticipated joy of having children is access to hundreds, thousands, of children's books. And let me tell you, there are some fan-tas-tic books out there. And some lousy ones.

Here's the deal, the books written as concepts, or books written for parents – these books suck. Let me give you an example: “Autumn Walk” by Ann Burg, illustrated by Kelly Asbury. The first warning sign is that it's topical. In this case, an autumn theme. It's about…well..an anthropomorphic dog-boy who takes a walk. And, well, that's pretty much it.

What makes the book particularly odious is that it's written in a strict metric and rhyming scheme, something like seven beats per line, an iambic-esque beat. That's another warning sign, because children's authors who do this end up stuffing their “stories” into a tangle of increasingly complex sentences and metaphors, and they use too many adjectives and adverbs. (Writing advice: like a canoe, a sentence overloaded with baggage tends to tip. At the very least, it looks funny.) The book's storyline, which is why we read children's books, is non-existent.

(Okay – Dr. Suess could do the ryhme thing, the no plot thing, but he made up his own words. “Big F, little f, what begins with f? Four fluffy feathers on a fiffer-feffer feff.” And he was a friggin' genius. I mean, a normal guy would give up the whole alphabet theme thing once he landed on “X.” Not Suess. What does he do? He colors outside the lines: “X is very useful if your name is 'Nixie Knox.' It also comes in handy spelling 'ax' and 'extra fox.'” That's right — you don't have to use words that begin with the letter “X'!)

Here's sample language from “Autumn Walk”:

A whiff of apples and cinnamon toast, air that is corduroy-cold,

The street is ablaze in crimson and brown, and the sun shines pumpkin gold.

Whirling and twirling, the leaves are calling. “Come play with us, come play!”

Laughing like clowns, spinning around – autumn is here, let's play!

Ugh. “Ablaze”? What the h*ll does “corduroy-cold” mean? Corduroy's not cold! So who's “laughing like clowns”? The leaves? Autumn? The dog-boy? Leaves call, my *ss.

That's not even the worst of it. And there's this one panel that drives me nuts – at least since my dad pointed it out. There's a picture of this little dog-boy looking up into a tree, and there's a spider in her web, and two birds building a nest! See? See? It's a book about autumn! The text? “Plump feathered birds search for scraps to pad their cozy nests.” Birds build their nests in the spring, you moron. Unless you're from New Zealand, but then there's the falling leaves, pumpkins, etc…

“Autumn Walk” is a book written by an adult for an adult. Only both adults think it's all about children. There is a surprising amount of this crud on the market.

Now, a great book: “Curious George.”

It stars a monkey. I mean, come on! Do I need to explain this to you?

The language is simple and direct. Take the opening lines of “Curious George,” they'd make Hemingway proud:

This is George. He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey and always very curious.

What more do you need to know?

Besides being easy to understand and especially laden with imagery, the language is weird. There's a strange juxtaposition between sentences, one blunt statement following the next, implying causation, but really narrating a series of random events. Take the scene where the firemen break down George's door, catch him, then…well…read on:

The firemen rushed into the house. They opened the door. NO FIRE! ONLY a naughty little monkey. “Oh, catch him, catch him,” they cried. George tried to run away. He almost did, but he got caught in the telephone wire [by the way, try explaining telephone wires to a 21st century child], and – a thin fireman caught one arm and a fat fireman caught the other. “You fooled the fire department,” they said. “We will have to shut you up where you can't do anymore harm.” They took him away and shut him in a prison.

Holy smokes! Talk about government workers exceeding their authority! It's like a Bush administration fantasy! But see what I mean? One sentence piling on the next, absurdity multiplying, no messy details or concerns about the “whys” and “hows.” Get that monkey into prison! Forget about due process of law, animal control, the issue of breaking and entering and the theft of the Man in the Yellow Hat's property, the monkey he stole from Africa.

(Off the topic: The cover for “Curious George” comes from this scene. In the book the two firemen – one thin, one fat – have George by the arms. The thin guy looks smug, the fat guy is dang angry and lecturing George and pointing to what we can only assume to be his future in a cell. George looks miserable, as one would expect. On the cover, however, it's the same picture – only George is laughing! Talk about misrepresentation! Some poor kid, from seeing the cover, might think the book is about a monkey enjoying a walk with firemen. Imagine his surprise – his shock — when that innocent image is revealed to be a mockery of George's sufferings! I tell you, this H.A. Rey guy is a genius.)

Things happen. For example, on page one, George is swinging on a vine in his jungle home, enjoying a banana. By page five, he's stuffed in a bag and headed out to sea, captive of the mysterious and sadistic Man in the Yellow Hat.

Which brings me to…bad things happen. This is a very important feature for a good children's book. What's a better story, “Hansel and Gretl,” or “Barney's ABCs”? I don't know about you, but I'll take the book about parents who leave their kids to die in the woods and a cannibal witch, over a fat, excessively happy purple dinosaur reciting the alphabet.

Lots of bad things happen to Curious George in “Curious George.” He's kidnapped. He falls overboard during an ocean voyage and nearly drowns. He's assaulted by an entire fire department. He's thrown in prison. (Complete with wooden bed and rats!) He's dragged into the air by runaway balloons and nearly falls to his death. At the conclusion, he's living in a dilapidated tree on a tiny island in an overcrowded zoo.

And while we're on this topic, let's talk about the Man in the Yellow Hat. This is the guy who should be thrown in prison.

First he kidnaps George, then he provides no supervision while George is in his care. George falls in the water, fights a fire department, goes to jail: where's the Man with the Yellow Hat all this time? You steal a monkey from his home, you should at least have the decency to make sure it's okay!

And when George is in some particularly nasty tangle, does the Man in the Yellow Hat ever look concerned? Sad? No way! George comes floating down on top of a traffic light causing a massive pile-up at the intersection, does the Man in the Yellow Hat gasp with horror at the carnage? Does he show remorse for letting the monkey get in trouble? Is he angry at least? No! He's laughing! “Ha ha ha, there's my monkey causing a twenty-car pile-up, floating down out of the sky when I thought he was home in my apartment.” I'm curious to see how the movie handles this.

In the first book, at least, we can understand why the Man in the Yellow Hat leaves George alone. He doesn't know what trouble George can make. In the later books, however, the Man in the Yellow Hat has no such excuse. In “Curious George Wins a Medal,” he leaves George home all day. George ends up staining the rug with ink, flooding the apartment, stealing a cow, and destroying a museum exhibit. In “Curious George Rides a Bike,” the Man in the Yellow Hat gives George a bike, then drives off to work! He just gave a monkey a bike! And drives off! Is it any wonder George hitches a ride with two strange men who dress him up in a costume and make him do acrobatics?

And what's with the yellow outfit?

See, these are elements of a great story. Random events linked only by proximity, but causation is implied. Folks, that's how we experience real life. We go throw a series of random events then create a story from them after the fact. The story creates meaning. From meaning we derive comfort for the multitude of sufferings and joys that afflict us.

Kids dig that.




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