Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Tiny Seed – Eric Carle

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I am a sucker for beautifully done cycle-of-life stories and Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed is one of them. The art is typically exuberant and imaginative. The words are simple and evocative. It’s a book that would make perfect sense to a very small child and is so well written that even a grown-up can understand it.

The adventure begins in autumn when the wind blows a scatter of flower seeds high across the land. One seed is much tinier than the rest but it, too, is caught up in the air and sent flying. It barely keeps up with the others as they encounter the hazards of nature. A seed flies too high and is burnt up by the sun, another lands on an icy mountain. As the tiny seed slows and drops lower, one seed falls into the ocean and is eaten by a fish. Another lands on the parched desert and dies. When all of the remaining seeds finally fall to earth, hungry birds and mice compete with winter to threaten their survival and spring brings its own challenges.

Learn about the conditions for seed germination, what it means to pick a pretty wildflower, how a random patch of shade can stunt growth and how the tiniest bits of life can become the most fabulous and impressive. By summer, magical things are happening to flower seeds and the winged creatures that visit them. And then the days are shorter and a chill wind begins to blow–a wind that could shake loose a handful of tiny seeds and send them tumbling far and wide.

So thank you, Eric Carle, for yet another lovely glimpse of nature from the brush of a genius through the delighted, all-knowing eyes of a child. 

The Tiny Seed (World of Eric Carle)   Eric Carle | Simon & Schuster   1987

The Sound of Butterflies – Rachael King

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The Sound of Butterflies is a horror story. Rachael King has written a trip into the heart of darkness that is relentlessly and increasingly horrific as a group of fin de siecle collectors travel up the Amazon to Manaus and beyond. As they journey, their experience grows more disjointed and they fall deeper under the influence of a decadent and ruthless rubber baron.  Santos, the sickeningly wealthy rubber baron, is the sort of maniac who grew up pulling the wings off flies and setting fire to cats. He toys with a botanist, a doctor, a lepidopterist and a zoologist and he tortures indigenous people who work for him as virtual slaves. It is seriously creepy.

At home in England, Sophie, the wife of amateur butterfly collector Thomas Edgar, harbors escalating fears as letters from her husband slow and cease. She enjoys a flirtation with an attentive acquaintance without troubling too much about the consequences and spends time with her irrepressible friend Agatha, a young woman who delights in ignoring convention. Then Thomas arrives home abruptly and her cozy little world is destroyed. He seems absent from his own eyes and he refuses to speak. The crates of specimens he has collected sit, unopened, and nothing Sophie can do cracks the impenetrable shell around him.  Sophie’s story alternates with letters from Thomas and accounts of his adventures in the towns at the mouth of the Amazon and farther upstream, where exotic specimens diminish and clues to depravity explode.

Thomas has set out to find a rumored yellow and black butterfly, as large as a spread hand, with impossible markings. It is his dream to discover the first specimen and to name it after his beloved wife and win for himself respect and lasting acclaim. Instead he finds the rough and real world–strong caffeine, imported spirits and local moonshine, hallucinatory drugs, hotbeds of prostitution, and human frailty–his own. He is kind of an unsympathetic jerk for a long while–innocent baby adrift in the wicked world with no defenses. Really, who could care what happens to someone so hapless? Sophie, caught in her doubts at home and later caught in the mystery of her stranger-husband, is marginally better but these two are like children, playing at marriage and life.

Eventually, Sophie forces Thomas’ hand and the terrible secrets of the jungle are revealed.  No surprise that he was no match for any of it but a nice surprise that he has more mettle than I first suspected. Sophie, too, so all is not lost, although many lives are and so are some valuable specimens and all of innocence. The Sound of Butterflies (not a good name–too predictable, cliche or something) is fluently written and contains an entire ecosystem of rich description that brings the Amazon basin, its exotica and its human monsters alive. I can recommend it if you are unfamiliar with the rigors of rain forests, the perilous and poisonous encounters that confront the unwary visitor, and the protocols for collecting specimens to donate to British museums, sell to private collectors and opine about in scholarly societies and scientific clubs. But it’s definitely a horror story so beware of its treacherous webs if you decide to dip into it late at night.

The Sound of Butterflies   Rachael King | William Morrow   2006

Once Upon a More Enlightened Time – James Finn Garner

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I had the brilliant idea to rummage through a few boxes of books, yet to be sorted for restocking the shelves or the library donation, to dig out Nora Ephron’s Scribble Scribble. Back in the day, when New York City was 1300 miles north and I spent my time chasing after dictators and dining with network producers on the expense account, Ephron’s witty, funny columns about the media seemed very insider and sort of glamorous to me.

Alas, I recalled in the midst of a dusty mish-mash of philosophy, history and misc. that a few of my Nora Ephron and early Woody Allen books vanished into the carry-on of a disconsolate and highly-paid national correspondent who thought his career was on the rocks because he was chasing jefes in the banana republics instead of presidents in the White House. Never saw those books again. Sayonara, Nora. I doubt media-specific humor from the dark ages would have held up too well anyway. And I did find this lovely collection of politically correct bedtime stories while I was hunting so I read it instead.

Remember politically correct? A nostalgic construct. James Finn Garner hit the bestseller list with his first volume of PC fairytales and the second,  Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, followed in the same vein. It’s mildly funny in 2012, although it dates from 1995. But you have to have been there. For instance, Hansel and Gretel is translated into an environmentally-sensitive and gender-free version that requires real concentration, a good memory for the original and knowledge of treehuggers, rampant capitalism and Julia Butterfly Hill. Here’s a sample from the opening page:

“The family tried to maintain a healthy and conscientious lifestyle, but the demands of the capitalist system, especially its irresponsible energy policies, worked ceaselessly to smother them. Soon they were at a complete economic disadvantage and found themselves unable to live in the style to which they had become accustomed, paltry though it might have been.” 

The father is a”tree butcher by trade”, Hansel leaves a trail of granola into the forest and the witch is actually a friendly Wiccan who is ultimately co-opted by a lumber conglomerate that offers her a Vice Presidency with full medical and dental benefits. “The Princess and the Pea” introduces a channeler who rotates among multiple personalities, one of whom is a princess–but the prince is pretty knocked over by the Viking warrior persona and somewhat charmed by the renunciant St. Giles so he marries her anyway, when she is in princess mode, of course.  

Guess what fairytale “Sleeping Persun of Better-Than-Average Attractiveness” is? Right. And happily ever after–even after 100 years–is not possible when Charming believes the awakened one has attained perfect peace and enlightenment and begs her to be his guru. She, being an old-fashioned, 116-year-old female persun, just wants to get married and get it on. Cursed match.  

It was entertaining. I tend to like fairytales that have been twisted and, wholesome intentions or not, these definitely are. I would read the first book if I could find it in the library. That’s where this one will end up when I finish cleaning out the rest of the books, so you can snag a bargain copy in pristine condition at the next book sale in the St. Agnes library basement. Or just download it for your Kindle.

Once Upon A More Enlightened Time (The Politically Correct Storybook)   James Finn Garner | Macmillan  1995

Open Heart, Open Mind – Tsoknyi Rinpoche

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Open Heart, Open Mind is a how-to manual–how to prepare for and practice as a bodhisattva–one who lives to bring enlightenment to all people. In practical terms, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a very practical Buddhist, that means learning to access the deep wells of peace and knowing within us and sharing what we have achieved with gratitude and generosity. 

Rinpoche was born in Nepal to a Tibetan Buddhist family with a distinguished line of meditation teachers. At age eight, he was identified as a tulku, a reincarnation of an important teacher. By the time he was twelve, he had traveled from his family home in a small village in Nepal to Tashi Jong monastery for training. During his intensive studies, the boy discovered that his calling was not to monkhood but to the life of a householder and teacher of the Dharma. Today he is a highly-regarded international Buddhist teacher who uses prosaic examples to deliver esoteric knowledge that is accessible to both serious and curious seekers.

The book takes you through the simplest teachings about the mind and the heart and goes deeply into mindfulness practice and the ways to approach it. Rinpoche details the personal benefits from the growing mastery of mindfulness, a slowing down and a paying attention that makes space for inner peace and the discovery of who we really are. I particularly liked the examples that explained some of the workings of the mind. Anyone who has ever meditated knows that the chatter of our minds is relentless, filling our consciousness and sometimes our unconcious with thought after thought–most of it just junk messages and old tapes on an endless loop. Try to clear the mind, to make it perfectly still, and the thoughts rally like a third-rate street parade band, discordant, noisy and confusing.

But you can contemplate clouds scudding across a blue sky to put those thoughts in context. Different people may see clouds as a sign of impending rain that will flood a river or rescue parched crops. Clouds can give shade and they can soak you–when it is cold enough they can cover you in snow. But the sky is just empty space and it doesn’t change. Whatever you think of the clouds, the thoughts, the sky-mind stays the same.  Too often we fail to notice the sky and focus on the clouds.

The message in Open Heart… is that we can and must awaken the power of love to inform and illuminate our lives and Rinpoche gives pragmatic exercises to put the teachings into action. From listening to the wisdom of the body to connecting with our essential joyous nature, this is a compassionate primer that urges you to be kind to yourself as you begin the great work of uncovering the truth about life and your real purpose in this world. It is anecdotal, funny, historic, meticulous in its depiction of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and inspirational enough to send you to your meditation cushion and the beginning of a great bodhisattva adventure.   

Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love   Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson | Harmony Books   2012

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar – Suzanne Joinson

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At first I was irritated at the alternating scenes, very brief chapters, in A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar that shift beween present-day London and the cities and deserts of the Silk Road nearly a century ago. Frieda is an academic, ceaselessly traveling for her sociological research, compelled to keep moving, even as she grows increasingly exhausted by her life. Her married lover seems like a complete dud but there’s no accounting for taste, even in novels, and she isn’t as delighted to see him as she once was. Progress. One night a strange Yemeni immigrant (illegal) sleeps outside the door of her flat and she surprises herself by giving him a pillow and a blanket. The next morning he is gone, blanket neatly folded and the graffiti of a wondrous Arabian bird left on her wall.

Evangeline English longs to travel, feels stifled by her narrow, 1923 British life. So, when her ethereal little sister, Elizabeth (Lizzie), decides to join a lady missionary setting out to christianize the Muslims, Eva fakes a religious calling and goes along.  She takes her bicycle, over protests, and a secret agreement with a London publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, based on her adventures and her diary. 

Disaster is the first order of business. The missionaries’ travel caravan stumbles across a pile of bones next to a desert road and a very young girl about to give birth all alone. When Millicent, the domineering older missionary who has arranged the trip and seduced Lizzie into a trance-like proselytizing fervor, attempts to deliver the baby, the girl bleeds to death and the English women are placed under house arrest and threatened with a charge of murder. Eva scoops up the baby.

Meanwhile, Frieda receives a solicitor’s letter informing her that her next-of-kin, a woman she has never heard of called Irene Guy, has died and left her belongings to Frieda. She has one week to clear out the woman’s council flat. In the cluttered flat, Frieda finds a live owl in a cage and no clue to the identity of her mysterious benefactor. Tayeb, the Yemeni artist, returns–he has been busted to the immigration police and is on the run with no place to go. The owl gets loose, Tayeb bird-whispers him back into his cage and Frieda decides Tayeb can live in Irene’s apartment for a few days until he figures out what to do next.

The scenes from the Silk Road are vivid and horrifying in a dreamy sort of way. Eva tries to make sense of all she sees and is increasingly concerned for their safety as Millicent insists on alienating the Kashgar Muslims, placing herself, Eva and Lizzie in even greater danger. Lizzie is drifting away from sanity and the baby is a constant concern. They obtain a nursing cow to provide milk for the baby, visit the women’s quarters of a local chief where Millicent spies a potential convert who may be their downfall , survive a deadly sandstorm and cope with the rapid unravelling of their lives.

Tayeb finds a photograph in Irene’s flat that turns out to be Frieda’s very pregnant teenage hippie mother and she decides to find the woman who walked away from her a lifetime ago, when she was seven. As events spiral out of expectation and control in both stories, the connection between them begins to emerge. In truth, it’s very well done and I ended up really enjoying and admiring this book.  A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is packed with extremely interesting characters, cinematic detail in both eras , great wisdom about the yearning to fill in the gaps in our lives, and a perfectly satisfying resolution to Eva’s and Frieda’s adventures that is far from neat but completely credible. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar: A Novel   Suzanne Joinson | Bloomsbury   2012

Stone Soup – Jon J. Muth

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Stone Soup is an old folk tale that appears in many cultures and often features a trickster wanderer. I think of the purveyors of stone soup as bards, bringing the magic of imagination into the real world and changing what we perceive. In Jon J. Muth’s beautifully-illustrated version, the chefs are three Zen (Cha’an) monks in ancient China, searching for happiness in a poor village. The rich, traditional watercolors bely the impoverished hearts of the villagers and draw you through the pages. Muth has included a lot of symbolism in his art–from the color yellow which is typically reserved for the emperor to a stack of rounded stones that looks like a sitting Buddha.

The mendicant monks are traveling in the countryside when a young one asks the eldest to explain the meaning of happiness. Instead of a talk, the old monk shows him. They approach a picturesque village that has been through hard times. No one will speak to them, answer the door or offer them hospitality. So they collect a pile of twigs, set a tin pot on top and fill the pot with water. Then they light the fire and begin to scour the ground for stones. A small girl in a yellow dress runs out to ask what they are doing and helps them to find the perfect stones. Then she brings a much larger pot from her home to hold all the delicious soup. Soon people are slipping out of their shuttered houses to check out the disturbance.

The monks lament that they have no salt and pepper for the soup so a villager runs to get some. Then another villager brings a basketful of carrots. Soon everyone is getting in on the act–mushrooms, onions, spices, and dumplings all go in the enormous pot. Each household tries to outdo the others in what it contributes. And the monks do make a fragrant, hearty pot of stone soup–enough to feed the whole village. Naturally, the villagers set up a festive banquet and bring all the trimmings to enjoy with their stone soup and then vie to see who will host the distinguished monks in their homes.

Stone Soup is a charming story that shouldn’t be limited to very young bibliophiles. It’s a potent reminder that the power of imagination is limitless when it meets an open heart.  The big life lessons can be gentle ones, delivered as easily as the old monk planned his simple soup. Muth’s work is captivating and thoughtful and Stone Soup is a book worth collecting and keeping–a cookbook for the soul.

Stone Soup   Jon J. Muth | Scholastic Press   2003

Midnight in Austenland – Shannon Hale

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Shannon Hale writes funny, sharp YA books so Midnight in Austenland held real promise of being entertaining. It was a trip. A key to this weird stumble down the rabbit hole is in the novels Hale cites as part of her research: Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Jane Eyre, a lot of Agatha Christie and Northhanger Abbey. Toss in a little chicklit, too, I’m guessing, for good measure. But not too much. Hers isn’t a ditzy, designer-label heroine–just a confused one. When Charlotte Kinder, the divorced mother of two barely adolescent kids, decides to thaw her frozen heart on a Jane Austen re-enactment vacation she expects pre-scripted nineteenth-century romance, not bloody murder. But bloody–actually bloodless–murder is what she gets.

Charlotte can’t get past the calculating, cheating, cold fish who replaced her non-theatening husband and then moved out to marry his girlfriend, Justice. That’s a name? Even hippies didn’t name their kids Justice–but it may signify the comeuppance James Kinder is due, if only Charlotte will open her eyes and see him for who he really is. She has some trouble with that (see name: Kinder) so off to England and an estate called Pembroke Park and a brooding actor named Mallery who is assigned to court her in the Austen manner and propose at a fancy ball on her last night in the costume drama. Living in a Jane Austen novel should take her mind off things.

From the beginning, the story lurches a bit immodestly from the corsets and crumpets world Charlotte has entered to random recollections from her past that conveniently explain her present neuroses. You have to pay attention–but it’s okay because there are some funny lines and a certain vertigo involved in vacationers adopting Regency personas. The kids, when Charlotte slips off to a nearby inn to check in with them by cell phone, are adjusting too well to vacation with dad and the new step-mom, who sounds like a clueless jerk on the phone. The parlour game of murder awakens Charlotte’s childhood fears of the dark and gives her something to really be afraid of. Despite her inadvertant creation of a wildly successful online gardening and landscape architecture business, Charlotte has about as much self-confidence as a limp rag–her necessary character arc is pretty obvious. The girl has issues but so does everyone else in the game.

Almost immediately, she is convinced there has been a real murder and sets out to uncover proof, endangering herself–or maybe just intensifying the trappings of the theater that surrounds her. Did she see a dead hand in a secret room, or was it a clue? Is someone from the household missing and are those tire tracks going from the house to a pond in the woods? Cars are not allowed anywhere near the estate and stables, so whose tire tracks might those be? How does the celebrity-in-disguise maintain such a perfect illusion of a consumption victim, complete with gray pallor, episodes of shaking and sweating and frequent retirements to her room? Are Mallery’s fervent protestations of love part of the script or is he for real? Why does her “brother,” another of the actors, always seem to have her back? Who set the fire that destroyed a charming cottage at the edge of the property?

Charlotte spends half her time hunting murderers and the other half hunting for her authentic self. She is desperate to fall in love–just for two weeks–but she doubts everything. After a while, you do, too. When are these people speaking as themselves? Ever? Never? Right up to the end I expected to have the curtain pulled back and the pupptmasters revealed. Midnight in Austenland is crazier than that, though. The real stuff is as fantastical as anything Austen would have dreamed up–more, in fact, as Austen made high art of the most ordinary quotidian and Hale treats the most improbable events as commonplace.

It was an amusing read, witty in spots, consistently superficial, but madcap as a comedy of manners, claustrophobic as a country cozy, not convincingly gothic, and wrapped up expertly in the final chapter and the helpful epilogue. It’s not The Princess Academy but a kind of grown-up fairytale with a sort of a princess who survives long enough to do the happily-ever-after bit  at the end.  

Midnight in Austenland: A Novel   Shannon Hale | Bloomsbury USA  2012