Monthly Archives: August 2012

Sometimes Moon – Carole Lexa Schaefer

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We’ve been enjoying the fabulous blue moon over Central Park these last few nights–the weather has been clear for a change so the moon is perfectly round and fat and visible. There is something infinitely calming and hopeful about standing around soaking up moonlight. When my kid was small we would link arms under a full moon, coming home from baby violin class in winter usually, and sing a pieced-together version of “I Want to Be Seen with You” from “Funny Girl.” (The moon, over mother’s saloon...) So Sometimes Moon gets high marks for a picture book to delight in, read aloud if you are big enough, and learn about the phases of the moon along with the life of a little Greek girl named Selene. If you’ve ever had trouble remembering which is waxing and which is waning, it might help you, too.

Carole Lexa Schaefer writes a charming story and Pierr Morgan creates bright, engaging illustrations that are simple and wonderful. Selene lives by the sea in a family with her mother, father, baby brother, grandmother and grandfather. The grandfather is a fisherman so the family goes for dory rides in the moonlight and Selene helps him to mend nets. Then she imagines a fishnet for the moon with her criss-crossed fingers. Each element of her life links to a phase of the moon with seashells in crescent shapes and baby brother’s round cheeks as full as the moon. It’s easy to grasp and the warm family is comforting. Selene is an exuberant little girl and her ‘ownership” of the moon is fully supported by the grown-ups in her life. Selene is the Greek goddess of the moon so the child is aptly named–or maybe she is the moon goddess. Just a very small one.

Sometimes Moon doesn’t burden you with mythology (pity, I LOVE mythology) but it does include a basic primer on waxing and waning–with pictures. So you can finally get it right.

Sometimes Moon   Carole Lexa Schaefer | Crown  1999

The Stone Gods – Jeanette Winterson

Here’s the thing about reading a book a day: you get to read a lot of books but when you find one that is brilliant, pure poetry and a ripping story to boot, you cannot savor it and you can’t read it again. Not until late October anyway. And that’s too bad because The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson is brilliant–and beautiful, chilling, wickedly funny and apocalyptic. This is the novel you read after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is Buddhist, Sartrean and very very dark. It’s a little tale about us and how we eff’d up the world and how we never learn–and aren’t learning now. It has dinosaurs, messages from far space, Robo-sapiens–the next evolution of intelligent life–John Donne, Easter Island and a corporate wasteland. Step in, you’ll feel right at home.

There is no good way to describe what Winterson’s lucid, twisted mind has wrought.  Billie Crusoe lives on the far edge of adventure in a post-World War 3 society that represents the last gasp of a grievously wounded and nearly-dead planet. She has a small farm with fruit trees and animals and a fireplace and a rain barrel. She hasn’t been genetically modified to remain 24, or whatever age she feels is cover-girl perfection for her, and she hasn’t handed her mind over to the machine either, which makes her suspect and eventually prey. Billie works with Spike, the lone Robo-sapiens who is rather spectacular, sagacious and lovable. Corporate scientists from MORE, the corporation that runs what’s left of the West after a nuclear and environmental holocaust, have discovered a Blue Planet that supports the identical abundant life Earth did 65 million years ago. Very large flora and fauna to go with the breathable air, drinkable water, verdant food and treacherous beauty.

But that’s too simple. Just picking up and going to another planet may seem like a wrench but the real scary part is when history repeats itself. Asteroidally speaking, that is. You thought that giant space junk that hit Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs was an astronomical anomaly? Think again. Humans meddle. Primitive perfection gets blasted into disaster. Everything dies. Even humans. And Robo-sapiens. Or do they? Do we? What if it’s all an endless loop?

Okay, enough spoilers. This is a truly brilliant, poetic, imaginative, comic and horrifying book. Only you already know the story. So read Winterson’s telling of it. Read it twice if you have time.  The Stone Gods is worth repeating.

The Stone Gods   Jeanette Winterson | Harcourt Books  2007

Old Turtle – Douglas Wood

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Old Turtle is a philosophical picture book with astonishing, fabulous watercolors by Cheng-Khee Chee and a message about open-mindedness and tolerance.  The concept is simple and profound. I have a pronounced “God” allergy but even that doesn’t obscure the beauty of the logic in the story. And the ideas are, sadly, all too relevant to our messed-up world.

In the beginning, all the flora, fauna, geology and elements exist in gorgeous harmony. (The art is divine.) Everything speaks the same language until one day there is a whisper of contention. It begins with the breeze, defining the sacred in an inflated version of its own image–a restless wind. A stone asserts that the heart of everything is an immovable rock. And so it goes. All the bits and beings of the earth have conflicting points of view, strong opinions and deaf ears. The clamor is thunderous until a deep voice calls, “STOP!” The voice belongs to the sage and silent Old Turtle and the long speech that follows describes the ineffable as all–all the winds and rocks and rivers and birds and sky and plants and marvels of the magical planet are one inseparable spirit.  (I am smudging the repeated use of the term God here because I’m not kidding about that allergy.)

Old Turtle calms everyone down and then predicts the arrival of an even more wondrous creation, a reflection of the divine and a blessed steward of the planet. You know how that turns out–hate, cross-bows, drones, environmental devastation, ignorance, righteousness, more hate. But the turtle has a few minimalist lectures left and she trains her powerful voice and vision on the squabbling people with hopeful results. We have yet to see how this turns out, although early indications are not promising.  Amazing art, wonderful message, a gentle fable to initiate conversations about Important Things with small children. And a nice reminder of what could be to adults.

Old Turtle   Douglas Wood |  Scholastic  2001

Falconer and the Ritual of Death – Ian Morson

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Ian Morson writes a series about amateur sleuth, Oxford don William Falconer who has a 13th-century jones for solving murders. 1271 A.D. is rough times in Falconer and the Ritual of Death and there are any number of murders to be solved. A body is discovered in the walls of a house, abutting the Jewish quarter of Oxford, that is being torn down. A serving girl’s suicide isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Old murders and a ritual killing that sparked a mob re-surface with chilling resonance in present-day crimes. Templars are involved. The early days of the university, before the magnificent buildings, at the time when sewage ran right down the middle of the street, are described in fascinating architectural and quotidian detail.

Despite the grisly killings and the gutsy forensics carried out clandestinely in the religious and superstitious town, the book was larded with name upon name of new character to remember and it read a little drily. But still a compelling historical crime novel, reminiscent of the Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters. I liked those when I read them and I liked this book. Just my thing– a celibate professor who wears the vow very very loosely and keeps a snowy owl in his manuscript-strewn lodgings. Several attractive and ultimately unavailable but interested women–bright and beautiful, we can deal with that. Some creepy plots and a terrific old blind rabbi. Layers of prevarication that threaten longstanding friendships. An exposition of the status of Jews in the Oxford ghetto. Falconer and the Ritual of Death was the sort of introduction that will make me hunt for other books in the series whenever I need a rest from too much modern.

Falconer and the Ritual of Death (William Falconer)   Ian Morson | Severn House   2008

Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers

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The twentieth anniversary edition of Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway that I picked up from the library was as ruffled and waffled as if it had fallen in the tub and redolent of someone’s heavy perfume. It was dog-eared, only slightly marked-up, but definitely well-read. Apparently there’s a lot of fear out there and this is a popular antidote. Once I dug into it, it was easy to see why the book showed signs of heavy use.

Susan Jeffers is lucid, logical and refreshing. She doesn’t waste a lot of time spouting wispy logic and buzz words at you–although her habit of attributing famous aphorisms to ordinary people is disconcerting. (Lao Tzu was the one who said “If you keep doing things the same way, expect the same result” not somebody-Janet, a student of Jeffers.) But that’s a quibble. For the most part, the observations and advice in Feel the Fear… are useful and intelligent. I particularly liked the 9-box Whole Life Grid that graphically portrays the elements of a balanced life so you aren’t lopsidedly putting all your emotional eggs in one basket. Fixated on career or relationship and forgetting to have friends, personal growth work, hobbies, leisure time, and solitude? Not too bright–you’re going to be awfully needy and unattractive with that approach. Fill in those boxes and expand your attention so the loss of one thing isn’t the loss of everything in your life.  

And more good advice–see everything as opportunity. If it’s an unwelcome thing, see it as opportunity to learn something new or prove to yourself that you can handle whatever comes along. You can make no wrong choices–just wrong suppositions in dealing with the consequences. Takes the charge out of tough decisions and some of the sting out of life’s little unpleasant surprises. I wasn’t wowed on every page, Jeffers recycles conventional wisdom as part of her system for shaking off paralysis and getting on with your day. But she does it with such rational good sense that you start mumbling cliches like “Why didn’t I see that?”

So, good book. Worth the read. High utility value. I am very very close to acquiring this one because I suspect it will be valuable to re-read it now and then. And it is in such heavy demand at our library that it will probably be confetti if I ever try to check it out again.

Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway   Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. | Ballantine Books   2007

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox – Lois Banner

Lois Banner’s exhaustive study of the life of Marilyn Monroe reveals details of her fractured childhood, multiple foster homes, early sexual abuse, family mental instability and the fragile sense of self she parlayed into international stardom. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is not a pretty story. It begins in illegitimate hardship, burns periodically into iconic photographs and celluloid and ends in a confusion of drug addiction, cover-up and possible homicide. In between, a passably pretty girl with no prospects or education launches herself at Hollywood, determined to become the biggest possible star.

What Marilyn paid to purchase her unstoppable celebrity is difficult to evaluate. She grew up in an era when child rape was unreported and untreated. She had no stability at all throughout her entire life, birth to death. She turned herself into a hot pin-up, blonde bombshell, babycakes-come-hither seductress and she perfected that persona in real life and on film. It seems as if real life wasn’t any more real than the films to her. She was ambitious, canny, smart, savvy, fighting an uphill battle against a misogynist society and an even more sexist Hollywood system, using the only coin she had–her body and her mastery of the lens–to scale the heights.

Banner writes parts of this account in an irritating “I did this” and “No one else has ever uncovered that” style that is somewhat reminiscent of a research paper and somewhat just plain distracting. But most of the text seems meticulously referenced, assertions are extensively footnoted and the story is very readable–Marilyn is still good copy. The marriages to DiMaggio and Miller, the affairs with nearly everybody, including Sinatra, Yves Montand, several women and a couple of Kennedys, the brushes with overdose, the manipulative behavior on movie sets–it’s all in there in detail. So are the acts of kindness, memories of a bubbly, funny and winning personality, the perfectionism, the hunger to learn that drove Marilyn to read, study classics, music and art, the obsessive acting, voice and dance training  that helped her to become an accomplished performer, the numerous physical problems, personal slovenliness, casual nudity and strategically unleashed scandalous behavior. 

This Marilyn orchestrated much of her life and success, even as she was helpless to defeat the dark depressions, nightmares and insecurities that kept her restless and frightened. Was it fame or was it Norma Jeane Baker who was cracked? Did she ever have a prayer of overcoming her demons? Was she so far ahead of her time that she was destined to fail? Did she blaze a new trail for women or did she succumb to the endless traps set for people who challenge the status quo? And, most intriguing, what really happened the night she died? Banner has come up with evidence, copious but not definitive, that Marilyn Monroe may have paid with her life for crossing paths with the deadly Kennedy brothers.

There is certainly enough to question in the official accounts of her death and enough motivation to make the case for a possible hit. But there isn’t much in her life to argue for a happy ending in any case.  She knew every angle of the camera and tilt of the head that would ensure her immortality as an image. In the end, an image is all we have, part or wholly mnaufactured from the bits and pieces that Marilyn assembled and reassembled all her life to create her most enduring character, Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox   Lois Banner | Bloomsbury  2012

Into the Woods – Sondheim, Lapine, Talbott

Last night I saw Into the Woods in the park–Central Park, to be precise. At the Delacorte–muy terrific show. So tonight I read the illustrated adaptation by Hudson Talbott from the show by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. This is so not a children’s book. First, the fairytale is a nightmare–funny but horrible. Second, the mash-up of all those Brothers Grimm stories is perverse. The wolf is a lascivious, lecherous, mangy carnivore–although Red is easily his match. Cinderella is plagued by Commitment Phobia, well-placed as it turns out. There are a couple of sassy gay princes, both ADD when it comes to monogamy. Rapunzel is a bit of a slut and gives birth to twins–magic beans or fertility drugs? Beanstalk Jack is trapped in pre-adolescence and has a somewhat weird fixation on his pet cow. The Baker and His Wife are just bourgeoise. And the Witch–ahh, the Witch is a bitch. She’s very satisfying, until she loses her powers in a Glamour makeover. Poof.

The illustrations in the book are rich and divine. The Giantess in the performance is a lot more fun, though. The bookish one shouts in ALL CAPS and wears a purple peasant dress with white cap sleeves. Not scary. All the lyrics are treated like verse story, which works, even if I did hear the tunes in my head as I was reading them. The good lines are intact. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” the Prince tells Cinderella when confronted with his infidelity. You can find just about anything you want in these woods.  

I would not necessarily toss this in the kiddy pile as I did, never having vetted it first. Fortunately, it failed to capture anyone’s imagination until the 4-year-old was a bit more mature. And the book is missing the leering and sexual innuendo of the acting, so it is at worst PG.   In the end, no happy ending, everything is wrecked, most of the players are dead, homicides have been ruthlessly committed, children are orphaned, the witch is banished (a real loss, she is deliciously wicked), magic seems to have fled. A few survivors straggle out of the woods and begin to tell a story…”Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom…” Maybe not such a far-off kingdom. Life is uncannily similar to those woods.

INTO THE WOODS. Adapted and Illustrated by Hudson Talbott   Sondheim, Lapine, Talbott | Scribner 2002

Witchlanders – Lena Coakley

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Witchlanders is a fantasy about black, white and the red of spilled blood and witches’ clothes. In Lena Coakly’s imaginative world the Witchlanders and the Baen are mortal enemies, their wars have decimated populations, destroyed families and embittered the survivors. Ryder struggles to bring in the harvest after his father dies, leaving his grief-stricken mother half-mad and addicted to a hallucinogenic plant that grows in the river. She was a bonecaster, able to see visions of the future in the bones. But no more. Now she is desperate and spouting crazed prophecies of doom and his two younger sisters are dependent on him for survival.

And then the terrible day dawns when Ryder discovers his mother may have been saner than he realized, and more gifted with terrible magic, and his damaged world is rent apart. His sisters go to live with the witches up on the mountain–the mediums and hags who foresee what the village will face and who take a quarter of all the farms can produce as tithe. Ryder sets out to find his real enemy as voices in his head tell him about a strange life, a Baen life. When he meets a Baen youth his own age, their enmity and their improbable bond set events in motion neither believes he can control. 

Excellent fantasy. Completely thought-through world–and one full of surprises. In places, the motives of a few key characters were muddier than I might have liked. Much of the power in this book belongs to the women but so does a fair amount of the chaos and destruction. A dread mythical animal isn’t as fearsome as it might have been and some of the horrors are targeted to the typical audience for fantasy, middle grade kids, so not so horrible.  But, on the whole, Witchlanders is a satisfying Book One of a series–it seems clear that it is designed to be an ongoing story as the end is left open. The book was recommended to me by a connoisseur of fantasy novels and it lived up to its glowing review. I’d probably read a Book Two if Lena Coakley decides to write one.    

Witchlanders   Lena Coakley | Atheneum  2011

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

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Gone Girl is an extremely well-written crime story about seriously sick people. Gillian Flynn twists contemporary life into a mad, grinning parody of itself–her protagonists (who speak in alternating chapters) suffer the slings and arrows of sudden and permanent job loss, shocking financial free-fall, abrasive encounters with the criminal justice system and even more jagged brushes with the media. Alzheimer’s, domestic abuse, psychological warping, false personas and lives, hidden indiscretions and dark, slimy secrets, too much alcohol, too little resilience and no salvation at all–for anyone–it’s all nicely described in a tale of two people and one unravelling marriage that reads like a tabloid shocker.

Girl meets boy who loses her number but finds her again and they marry. Her wealthy parents buy them a Brooklyn brownstone, probably next door to Norman Mailer as they are writers of a sort. Jobs disappear, money disappears, they disappear to his hometown in Missouri where she disappears. Suspicion, searching, angst, more suspicion, her diary, his doubts, who did what to whom? Short version–no spoilers.

I have to say that Flynn is a brilliant wordsmith and that I found the account depressing. I figured out fairly quickly who was off the rails and what was up–just not the fine points of what really happened. And I’m never anxious to spend hours inside screwed-up heads–life being screwed-up enough so I don’t miss that. All of which caused me to skim chunks of the story, gleaning enough facts to piece together the unfolding picture. IOW, I did not savor the reading of it, even for the very good writing. Maybe it’s a personal failing to find my preferred escapes in mysteries from gaslight Manhattan or Edwardian England or the time of the French Cathars.

When I was a reporter, I covered a lot of dramatic crime, being based in a region where that was daily fare. I learned the ins and outs of the modern iterations of homicidal behavior and unimaginable cruelty and sicko perversion. I met a few sociopaths, some were behind bars and some never would be. A mob hitman used to send me mash notes and red roses from prison after I interviewed him. Pretty young girls and cute kids vanished and their bodies were found sooner or later, just dead or in pieces. Weird stuff went down all the time. I got tired of it. Twisted is not an irresistible hook for me and Gone Girl is predictably askew.  

This is an amazing book in every sense of that word. It’s a very very well-done novel. I could recommend it without hesitation. I did anticipate diving into it with great pleasure. But I didn’t like Gone Girl and I didn’t get that lovely calm space reading confers from reading it. There’s a highly-recommended YA fantasy waiting for me, and a fat dishy book about Marilyn Monroe. I can go there. Pedestrian reader that I am, I’m looking forward to it.

Gone Girl: A Novel   Gillian Flynn | Crown  2012

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World – E. L. Konigsburg

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E. L. Konigsburg will forever reign as the spellcaster who handed us the secret desire of every child who has wandered the halls of a great museum. In The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Konigsburg smuggled two runaways into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They proceeded to take up clandestine residence and to discover a treasure and resolve their own prickly problems of belonging. They were extremely bright and precocious children who didn’t act very much like children at all. Great book.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World is a variation on a theme, although its hero, Amedeo Kaplan, lives in a Florida backwater next door to a retired opera diva who used to play boys and bitches–the trouser roles. The great, or maybe not-so-great mezzo outgrew her career many decades ago, married a distinguished European and, now widowed, still lives in the Italianate mansion her family’s fortune built in an overgrown hammock on the river. Amedeo and his mother have just moved into the Spanish-style grand house next door.

He’s an odd kid, more like one of the grown-ups who have been his real company for most of his life. Extremely bright. And happy to make a friend, the equally misfit William, part-owner of a property liquidation business with his very nice conciliatory mother. When Aida Lily Tull, now Mrs. Zender, decides to sell her house and move to a retirement community, William and his mom are hired to catalog and sell her stuff. Amedeo gets himself invited to volunteer decluttering and cataloging–a prospect that makes him happy for two reasons. One, William is a cool friend, possibly the first real friend his own age he has  ever had, and a fellow conspirator, mature beyond his years. Two, Amedeo has always wanted to discover something–like the caves at Lascaux or a woolly mammoth or something to astonish the world and secure for himself a celebrated place in it. Mrs. Zender’s treasure trove of memorabilia seems to be fertile ground for discovery.

The plot is a little too neat in this one but the characters are so outrageous and so marvelous that you can forgive that. Mrs. Zender’s theatrical life holds some dark secrets. Almost everyone in this book has at least one huge secret and they are hinted at but not always revealed. That keeps things interesting. There are issues upon issues dealt with in the course of the story. Once again, art is front and center and this time it’s the “degenerate” modern art looted during Hitler’s march across Europe. The boys are sharp and self-confident but it’s Mrs. Zender who steals the show. As she means to, being a great diva in every possible sense of the word. Mrs. Zender is so much larger than life that she deserves more than one book.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World   E. L. Konigsburg | Atheneum   2007