Monthly Archives: December 2014

Families in Books

The Guardian has a lovely series on families in literature. My favorites:

I was a 26-year-old living by myself when I first read The Mouse and His Child. I spent my evenings reading on an old, yellow sofa my mother gave me when I left home. It was uncomfortable and covered in stains, but it was a fixture in family pictures of the house I grew up in – a grainy bit of furniture in the background, sat next to a bookshelf and a little wooden seesaw. It reminded me of living with my sisters, of the posters on the wall and the dusty globe on the shelf. As I sat on it and read Russell Hoban’s book, I thought about my family.

I’m with Robert Freeman, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child is absolutely about family. It is lyrical, beautiful, melancholy, witty, demanding, and wonderful.

All of this makes Tove Jansson’s adorable Moomin family a joyous anomaly. There is a nuclear family at the centre – the boyish Moominpappa, the serene Moominmamma (who, wonder of wonders, encourages children to smoke) and Moomintroll, gullible and guileless, intending to do good and invariably getting into trouble….Yet it’s the fringes of these Finnish hippopotami-things that is intriguing. Moomintroll’s on-off girlfriend, the Snork Maiden, seems to live in the house with them at some point. Is she and her brother the Snork even the same species as the Moomins? …Why do they have that lucre-loving weaselish creature, Sniff, as a semi-permanent houseguest?

considers Tove Jansson’s delightful non-traditional Moomin family.

I didn’t like the March household at seven, when they were pressed on me as a warm refuge from my own family’s ungenteel poverty …. There are a few glimpses of a harsher world outside, as in the opening, when Marmee inspires the girls to give their Christmas breakfast to the children of a destitute immigrant (three of whom later die of scarlet fever offstage), but Alcott pulled a quilt of cosiness – a comforter, as the Americans say – over the Marches. As a child, I couldn’t have explained exactly why they felt phoney, but I was sure there was something much darker to Marmee/Abigail Alcott, and that Jo/Louisa faced more than trivial tribulations.

Veronica Horwell on her difficulties with Louisa May Alcott’s March family.

Dickens and Christmas are so intertwined that those of a literary disposition often think of them together. It is usually Ebenezer Scrooge and the Cratchit family who spring to mind, as we make our yearly return to A Christmas Carol and the otherChristmas Books. In contrast to these tales of hope and good cheer, Bleak House is, to use a phrase from the first chapter, “perennially hopeless”. Instead of the small and close-knit Cratchit family, we have the infamous Jarndyces: not so much a family as a disparate group of ill-matched individuals whose only real connection is their involvement in the never-ending legal dispute of Jarndyce v Jarndyce.

That’s Daniel Gooding on my favorite Dickens’ novel, Bleak House.

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X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

Fictionalized history is a tricky business. On the one hand, the past is a wealth of fascinating material for use in creating imaginary worlds. On the other hand, those doing that creating can’t go wild, they must honor the historical truth the best they can, especially when they are writing about real people from not so long ago. And so we come to X: A Novel, a gritty and glorious rendering of Malcolm X’s youth by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon.

Friends tell me trouble’s coming. I ease out of the restaurant onto sidewalk, gun in my pocket. Hand in there, too, keeping it close for good measure. I gotta get back to my pad, and quick now. One foot in front of the other. Keep my head down, hope no one sees me.

These first tense sentences introduce readers to the young Malcolm. It is 1945 Harlem and he is clearly in trouble. Big trouble. By the next page we know more about the trouble and more about Malcolm. He’s shrewd, clever, and at this moment very scared, rueing the direction his young life has taken. And then we are taken back to 1940 Lansing, Michigan where we see a younger Malcolm setting out on his new life. The novel goes on, fluidly moving back and forth in time, filling in elements of the young man’s history. There is family: a tragically lost father, sad mother, and supportive siblings. After a childhood of profound poverty,  Malcolm leaves for the city, exploring exciting and darker places, girls, drugs — a very different world from that of his childhood. Settings are remarkably evoked, the dire poverty and horrific racism of Lansing swirling in and out amidst the jittery jazz environments of Boston and New York. Shabazz and Magoon do a remarkable job generating atmosphere, balancing family love in the face of dire circumstances against the pulsating energy of a self-assured young man swaggering through Harlem streets in a fine zoot suit and a conk. At times the language is blunt and challenging, appropriately in this fierce rendering of  the youthful development of an iconic figure of America’s past.

The story of a reckless young man finding himself, X: A Novel is historical fiction at its best — an artistic exploration of a part of a renowned person’s life , one that stays true to his time and place.

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Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert’s The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars

I’ve served notice here and elsewhere over the years of my devotion to Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War and am now beyond delighted that the wonderful new York Review Children’s Collection has brought it back in print.  Along the way I came across another of her books, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars and, guess what — they’ve brought it back in print too! I adore this book and recommended it wholeheartedly. So much so that I was invited to provided this quote to the publisher. Too cool to be able to blurb one of their books and this one most of all!

From bubble wrap to bugs, the urge to smash and smush seems to be a part of the human condition. Just think of that group of four-year-olds building towers of blocks and then merrily knocking them down. Or those older kids bashing into each other during recess. Here’s a wonderfully subversive little book that captures the joy of that impulse and highlights the results. A perfect read aloud for all ages.
—Monica Edinger, author of Africa Is My Home and proprietor of the blog Educating Alice

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Ayn Rand Reviews the Charlotte’s Web Movie Among Others

“Charlotte’s Web”

A farmer allows sentimental drawings by a bug to prevail over economic necessity and refuses to value his prize pig, Wilbur, by processing and selling him on the open market. Presumably, the pig still dies eventually, only without profiting his owners. The farmer’s daughter, Fern, learns nothing except how to become an unsuccessful farmer. There is a rat in this movie. I quite liked the rat. He knew how to extract value from his environment. —Two stars.

At the New Yorker, of course (where she takes on a bunch more, among them”Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka” —that last she likes).

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A New Short Story from Philip Pullman and Some News about The Book of Dust

I was very excited to read about a new short story by Philip Pullman, featuring the nefarious and fabulous Mrs. Colter, that is being released today in the UK as an Audible.uk exclusive. Audible US has informed me that “The Collectors”will be available for those of us on the other side of the pond on January 12th. Until then we will have to make do with the below tantalizing excerpt read by Bill Nighy.

But wait, Pullman fans, there’s more; this in the Guardian article about The Book of Dust:

He said today: “It’s three pages longer this morning than it was this time yesterday, and … I’ll do another three pages today. It’s going steadily. But it’s a big book and it’s spreading out in the way I discussed, and I keep having to discover which ways are fruitful for the story to go in, and which are not. It’s a long process.”

Pullman promised: “I’m aiming to finish this next year. Then it’s a fairly lengthy process of editing. But I’m well on my way and proceeding steadily.”

Be still my heart!

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Neil Gaiman Does Jabberwocky

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In the Classroom: This Blog’s on a Top Ten List!

Thank you, Teachability Lounge‘s Mary Graham, for including this blog among your “Top Ten Teacher Blogs.”  With all the blogs now out there, I sometimes wonder how many teachers read this one. After all, I’m pretty eclectic. So, I was thrilled with this affirmation.

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