Wednesday, September 28, 2016

61 Books: #47

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–46 are below this post.

47. Alessandro Sanna, Pinocchio: The Origin Story (2016) (9/28/16)
I subscribe to a wonderful website called Brain Pickings, by "cartographer of meaning" Maria Popova. It features fabulous book reviews about (to narrow it down to one thing) the creative process, complete with long, thought-provoking quotations and beautiful illustrations. The other week she wrote about a picture book called The River by Italian Alessandro Sanna, about the Po and the people who live on it, and about the seasons of the river. In that review she mentioned a newer book of his: Pinocchio: The Origin Story. The title seized my imagination. I ordered it.

Maria's review of Pinocchio is lovely, so I'd strongly suggest you check it out. Me, I'm just going to quote from the author's foreword to the book, which presents the premise and inspiration so beautifully.

But the point of the book is Sanna's luminous watercolor-and-ink illustrations, which you get a small taste of in the book's cover. Absolutely exquisite. They tell a story of creation: a genesis myth. They also reflect in advance the story of the wooden boy who could tell no lies.

Here's Sanna's brief foreword (edited down very slightly):
I created the images for this book because I felt I had to release an uncontainable energy.

For several years, I have been visiting children at the pediatric hospital in Turin, Italy, where I encountered the eyes and hands of very fragile children. Children made of glass. The strength of these children and their parents sent me into an invisible parallel world made of waiting, sleepless nights, and hopes hanging by a thread.

There was one child in particular, Gabriele, with whom I was very close. He undertook a voyage that was unwanted but inevitable. I gazed at the sky for a while before figuring out how to channel the energy of this experience into a book. Then, one winter's day, from the window of a train, I saw a tree embracing a branch shaped like a human being. . . .

The next day I drew that tree with the branch innumerable times. A few weeks later I realized that the branch was one of those fragile children I had encountered at the hospital, and it was also the soul of Pinocchio before he became a marionette. I carefully reread Collodi's Pinocchio, and I began a journey [composed] of images that brought me to the dawn of time, when there was nothing but primordial land that had yet to write its story.

In this way, a tree grows. Maybe it's the very first one. The tree is hit by lightning and a branch cracks off; the branch becomes animate and goes to greet the world on its own little legs. In that world there are some characters who are recognizable form the original Pinocchio. The are characters yet to be born, who live in the mysterious limbo that comes before each story, before life. At a certain point, the branch puts down roots in fertile land and starts to bloom. It grows into a tree. In the fall, a farmer will come to get one of its branches, from which a marionette will be born.

The end of the book coincides with the beginning of the story that we all know.

61 Books: #46

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–45 are below this post.

46. Erlend Loe, Naiv. Super (1996) (9/28/16)
Several years ago a friend, Thelma, and I started studying Norwegian together once a week. She lived in Bergen decades ago and learned some then, and I go to Norway frequently enough that I thought getting some grasp of the language might be . . . fun? useful? A good challenge, anyway. So far, "useful" has not played out—I still can't understand any spoken Norwegian, or summon up even the simplest sentence on my own. But it's a good mental workout, and I enjoy getting together with Thelma and thrashing our way through our readings.

Today we finished a delightful book called Naïve. Super. (We read it, out loud, in Norwegian but had the English version, Google Translate, and two dictionaries ever at the ready.) It is the first-person story of a young man who has an existential crisis, drops out of university, and starts pondering the nature of time and space, encouraged by a book he's reading by the physicist Paul Davies, while throwing a rubber ball against a wall, hammering on a peg-and-hammer toy, and making lists. Well, that's not the whole story, but it is sort of the gist of it. The unnamed narrator also spends time with a six-year-old neighbor boy, meets a young woman whom he cares about, exchanges faxes with a friend who's studying the weather in the far north of Norway, and travels to New York to meet up with his brother.

Midway through the book, the young man sends a letter to Paul Davies in Australia. In it he says, "I don't like to think about the time that passes, and you seem to say that time doesn't exist and that makes me glad, but I do not feel certain that I understand you perfectly.
     "You also say that the universe will collapse one day.
     "You say so many frightening things.
     "I would love to have the feeling that everything has a meaning and that it will be o.k. in the end.
     "Right now I don't have this feeling at all.
     "I would like to ask you twelve questions, and I will be immensely grateful if you answer."
The questions cover matters of time and space, as well as more frivolous (or maybe not) ones like "Do you sometimes wish you didn't know all the things you do, and were free to run on a beach, careless and ignorant of everything?" and "Do you disapprove of television commercials that feature animated food, for instance biscuits that dance and jump into the cheese?"

The style of writing is very simple. The narrator's thinking seems to be simple too, but that's deceptive. He's actually coming to some important realizations about love, life, and happiness. By the end of the book, when he receives the answer to his letter—sort of—we get the sense that he's back on track and will be just fine. And we're glad.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

61 Books: #45

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–44 are below this post.

45. Matthew Burgess, Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings, with illustrations by Kris DiGiacomo (2015) (9/11/16)
This report goes hand-in-hand with my previous one (see immediately below), where I wondered if maybe I'm just not a fan of biography picture-books. Turns out I can make no such generalization, for although I didn't care for that other one, about Albert Einstein, I thought this one about e. e. cummings was topnotch.

Compare and contrast: the previous one tackles weighty scientific topics (largely by skirting them), which perhaps isn't the appropriate subject matter for a picture book, while this one treats us to words, the dance of language, the joy of observation and expression. When it comes to presenting the people behind the science or words, the first book picks out quirky characteristics that (seem to) want us to say, "Awwwww, how cute!"—as a way to "humanize" a genius?—whereas this one treats us to significant biographical details: Cummings's adult home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City, where he lived for 38 years until his death in 1962 ("when asked why, he would reply: 'because here's friendly, unscientific, private, human' "); his family growing up, his teachers, how they encouraged his imagination; his first poems, first publications; his stint as an ambulance driver in France during WWI; his relationship with his common-law wife, Marion (granted, his third, but she was with him for almost 30 years: not every fact is relevant). Details such as these add up to an understanding of the man.

And then, of course, there are his poems, a few of which are included—of course. (Click on the elephant to see this spread nice and big.)
 

I did not mention the illustrations of the previous book, which are cartoonish, cute. The illustrations of Enormous Smallness are more mature, combining fun elements —some reminded me of Maurice Sendak—with elegant graphic design. I was delighted to find the Krazy Kat comics Cummings covered his college dorm walls with represented, his childhood treehouse, and his first poem, which "flew out of his mouth when he was only three: 'Oh, my little / birdie, Oh / with his little / toe, toe toe!' "

So no: I'm not averse to biography picture-books. This book made me well up with tears on occasion, it was so lovely. The other one mostly made me mad. In short, an author must choose her or his subject very carefully. E. E. Cummings was a good choice. And in able hands.

61 Books: #44

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–43 are below this post.

44. Jennifer Berne, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, with illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky (2013) (9/10/16)
It is admittedly difficult to distill history and science into a picture book intended for young children. I found this book to be an unsatis- fying mishmash of sophisticated ideas, way oversimplified, and "quirky," "endearing" traits that somehow help to define Einstein as the genius he was.

On the one hand, we have the young Einstein "zipping through the countryside on his bicycle," when he looks up and sees beams of sunlight "speeding from the sun to the Earth." What would it be like to ride one of those beams, he wonders. "And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road . . . he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions."

Okay, fair enough: he was full of curiosity, and started to read: about light and sound, heat and magnetism, and "gravity, the invisible force that pulls us down toward our planet, and keeps the moon from floating away into outer space."

But then we see a man who, having graduated from college in physics and math, sits around pondering how sugar dissolves in tea or smoke dissipates into the wind. Those are such basic, elemental, nonatomic processes: do they really lead to the next statement: "He began to figure it out. He thought about the idea that everything is made out of teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—tiny bits called 'atoms.' Some people didn't believe that atoms existed, but Albert's figuring helped prove that everything in the world is made of atoms . . . even sugar and tea, even smoke and air. Even Albert and you."

This is what I mean by oversimplification. The existence of atoms had been philosophically proposed since Greek times, and was well accepted by the early 1800s, "when the blossoming science of chemistry produced discoveries that only the concept of atoms could explain" (Wikipedia, q.v. "Atom"). Granted, Einstein's theoretical work helped the scientist Jean Perrin to experimentally determine the mass and dimension of atoms, thus verifying those important 19th-century theories. So the above statement isn't exactly false. It just strikes me as misleading, suggesting that Einstein himself somehow "came up" with the idea of atoms.

Perhaps what I object to is making a picture book about Einstein in the first place. This book caused me to look him up in Wikipedia, and it's astonishing how complicated and rewarding his life was: something one fails to appreciate from a simplified notion of him as an eccentric who liked to think while sailing in this little sailboat, who would play his violin when having a tough time with a tricky problem, and who was known "in the town where he lived" (he actually lived lots of places, including Princeton, N.J., for the last 22 years of his life, a refugee from Nazi Germany) for "wandering around, deep in thought. Sometimes eating an ice-cream cone," and typically wearing no socks. "He said now that he was grown up, no one could tell him to put on his socks."

Of course, one of the points of this book is to present someone who thought big, "until the very last minute of the very last day of his life. He asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamed before"—and to encourage young readers to do the same. As the author's dedication puts it: "To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now." That's a worthy message.

My first thought is, I should just stay away from biography picture-books, real life being too messy to distill into a few broad strokes. But I have another one on my stack, devoted to
e. e. cummings. Let's see how that one fares in my estimation. Coming up soon!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

61 Books: #43

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–42 are below this post.

43. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016) (9/9/16)
I had not read Whitehead before, but I will be reading more of him. He is a good storyteller, has a wonderful way with words, and—if this book is an indication—writes about people, issues, and history that we should all know and talk more about.

In the case of The Underground Railroad, he takes on the pre–Civil War South, and the stories of slaves. His heroine is Cora, a teenager whose mother disappeared into the night when Cora was nine years old. She is a strong young woman, and when a fellow slave invites her to join him in an escape attempt, she agrees. They are helped by white folks, and chased by other white folks. The underground railroad in this case is an actual railroad, stretching from state to state in dark tunnels. Along the way someone who comes to her aid tells her, "If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America." She thinks often about this advice, and late in the story realizes, "It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness." Over the course of her journey, she loses faith in many things, but gains faith in others.

The railroad is an apt metaphor indeed for a story that sees Cora enjoying relative safety for a while in a South Carolina city where blacks and whites mix fairly freely, before she must flee because a bounty hunter is hard on her trail. Her next stop, in North Carolina, sees her shut up in an attic, where from the window she can watch the weekly "entertainment" of speechifying and public lynchings. When the bounty hunter catches up with her again, she is rescued by some free blacks who take her to Indiana, where, again, she can live in relative contentment among other freedmen and escaped slaves. But that idyll, too, is destroyed through violence and fear.

The main chapters, labeled according to places Cora winds up, are interspersed with short profiles of people in her life: her grandmother, Ajarry, who was brought (i.e., bought) from Africa; Ridgeway, the bounty hunter; Stevens, a physician advocating sterilization of blacks; Ethel, the terrified white woman who reluctantly takes Cora in in North Carolina; Caesar, who invited her in the first place; and Mabel, Cora's mother, whose fate we finally learn, though Cora herself never does.

Here is a sample of the writing from the short chapter about Ajarry:

"Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention. She learned to quickly adjust to the new plantations, sorting the nigger breakers from the merely cruel, the layabouts form the hardworking, the informers from the secret-keepers. Masters and mistresses in degrees of wickedness, estates of disparate means and ambition. Sometimes the planters wanted nothing more than to make a humble living, and then there were men and women who wanted to own the world, as if it were a matter of the proper acreage. Two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and sixty, two hundred and seventy dollars. Wherever she went it was sugar and indigo, except for a stint folding tobacco leaves for one week before she was sold again. The trader called upon the tobacco plantation looking for slaves of breeding age, preferably with all their teeth and of pliable disposition. She was a woman now. Off she went.
     "She knew that the white man's scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won't survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities. She minded her place."

Monday, September 5, 2016

61 Books: #42

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–41 are below this post.

42. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone (2006) (9/4/16)
I'm inclined to say this book is sheer poetry—the language! incredible —but it's much more than that. The story is relatively simple: sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly, who lives with her crazy (as in checked out) mother and two young brothers in a holler in the Ozarks, learns that her father has used their house as collateral for jail bond and now is nowhere to be found. She has to find him, dead or alive, if she's going to keep the house, which of course she must. Simple, but also mythic: the hero's quest, and full of demons and dragons—in the form of a large extended family, where everybody's related to everybody else, many of them are crank cooks (like Ree's daddy), and not everybody's friendly, by any means.

Ree is a fully drawn character: "Brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs." In her private, alone time she listens through headphones to ambient sounds: of oceans, of streams, of tropical dawns. She dreams of joining the army as soon as she turns eighteen. She knows she must defend her fragile family.

The writing is like something carved into an ancient oak, gnarly, tough, beautiful.

"She sniffed the air like it might somehow have changed flavors and looked closely at the stone fencerow, touched the stones and hefted a few, held them to her face. . . . Those stones had probably been piled by direct ancestors and for a long while she tried to conjure their pioneer lives and think if she saw parts of their lives showing in her own. With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, cooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can't, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup."

And the dialogue as well, is musical and gritty and true. Here, Ree is teaching her young brothers how to shoot.
She held the shotgun, said, "This trigger shoots this barrel, this one shoots this one. There's hardly goin' to be any time ever when you need both barrels at once, but if what you got to shoot is somethin' big'n mean, pull 'em both and splatter the fuckin' thing. For these cans'n stuff, though, just shoot one barrel at a time."
     She started them both on the shotgun. She steadied their arms and guided their fingers on the trigger. Snow jumped where they shot and each blast rocked the shooter backwards.
     "You think you can't miss with a shotgun, but you can. You still gotta aim good."
     Harold said, "Holy cow, that's loud!"
     "Uh-huh, it is kind of, ain't it."
Despite the harshness of the life depicted in this book, there is also a holiness, a soft place in the middle where we know Ree, no matter what, will survive. And, we hope, thrive.

Friday, September 2, 2016

61 Books: #41

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–40 are below this post.

41. Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North (2009) (9/1/16)
This novel, about four young Mexicans who, inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven, head to Los Yunaites to round up seven migrants/samurai to bring back home as protection against drug lords (in a nutshell), is an absolute delight. It's full of quirky, strong characters who do not hesitate to speak their mind while standing up to bandidos, coyotes, la migra, and white supremacists, and who appreciate with full heart every shred of kindness they encounter along their journey. Place is a character as well, as we journey through Mexico to San Diego, via the Tijuana dump, and then two of the protagonists take off on a cross-country trip to Kankakee, Illinois, drawn by a postcard the main character, Nayeli, received from her father many years before when he left to find work "in the beautiful north."

Urrea's descriptions are richly evocative. Here's home: "In an hour, they had come to the bend in the river where the boats could be beached and tied to bushes, and the party disembarked and grunted over the slope, breaking suddenly, amazingly, from jungly dark to a dazzling white cove that had at its center a wide oblong lagoon of brightest turquoise. Beyond the far end of the lagoon, the thundering surf of the deadly beach could be seen, dark ocean water exploding in spray and foam with a relentless basso roar. Everything seemed woven of purest sunlight. The coconut palms bobbed with their bright green harvests nestled among the silky-looking fronds. Beyond the coconuts, hibiscus trees stood twenty feet tall, burning with crimson blossoms. Little thatched huts sagged at jaunty angles, and Nayeli wasted no time getting to them, prying open their storage boxes, and unfurling the mesh hammocks stored inside. The breeze never stilled: miraculously, no one could tell how hot it was, or how humid. The faint whiffs of rotting porpoise occasionally spoiled the Edenic effect, but otherwise they had reached the most perfect spot in the world.
     "Irma said to María, her niece: 'Your husband should have come here before he left. He would have stayed home. ¡En México lindo!'
     "Nayeli's mother replied, 'You cannot eat beauty.' "

Here's Tijuana: "Down, into the hard dirt of Tijuana. Shacks and huts and scattered little cow farms gave way to small colonias and clutches of houses around gas stations and stores, and the road got bigger and fuller, and there were newer cars, and more of them. Trucks everywhere. They saw canals, and now the fences appeared as all trees vanished. They saw their first bridges. A prison. They plunged into the maw of the city—shantytowns surrounded the dusty center. Cars everywhere. Everyone stirred and craned, and Tacho nudged Nayeli and pointed, and she looked up at a dead hill across a tall fence where white trucks sat watching and a helicopter circled.
     "The USA didn't look as nice over there as it did on television."

But what makes this book move is the people. The dialogue sparkles with wit and levity, and not a little bit of Mexican slang. The various characters' thoughts and perceptions as they take on this new, not always so friendly country, pierce to the heart of the matter. There are the four main characters, Nayeli, the ringleader, Yoloxochitl, goth Verónica (or La Vampi), and gay Tacho, as well as Tía Irma, rooting them on from back home. We meet Matt the missionary; Chava Chavarín, a former bowling champion now turned janitor; Alex the Wizard; Mary Jo, the Kankakee librarian; and most colorfully, Atómiko, of the Tijuana dump, who wields a mighty stick. (In the reader's notes, Urrea explains that he would be the Toshiro Mifune character in the original Seven Samurai.) As they tackle their mission, we all learn a lot about perseverance, strength, the resilience of the human soul, and the saving grace of humor.