Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Goodbye, Maurice Sendak.

This morning I lie in bed after my alarm went off & scrolled through Twitter before getting up. It was just a string of book industry posts: Maurice Sendak Dead at 83, Maurice Sendak Dead at 83, Maurice Sendak Dead at 83.

I wept for half an hour before making myself get ready for work. All day I kept tearing up & having to duck into the bathroom to collect myself. As soon as I got home I lifted the stack of his books from my shelf, sat down, & cried into them. He wasn't a relative. I never met the guy. But to the extent that a twenty-something girl could be in love with an 80-year-old gay man, I loved him. If that sounds creepy, well, whatever. I did. & if you're reading this you probably already knew that.

The Light Princess, The Golden Key, The Juniper Tree, The Animal Family, & Mr. Rabbit & the Lovely Present - all illustrated by Sendak

My first Sendak memory is reciting Chicken Soup with Rice in kindergarten. "In April I will go away to far off Spain or old Bombay, & dream about hot soup all day..." The rhyme is so perfectly memorable. "Oh my, oh once. Oh my, oh twice. Oh my, oh chicken soup with rice."

The Nutshell Library

I probably read Where the Wild Things Are (Does it make me a Sendak hipster that I scoff whenever someone's only reference to him is Wild Things?) & the rest of the Nutshell Library & maybe a few others as a kid, but I didn't really connect with Sendak until a few years ago, when I sat in a tiny chair in the children's department of the Hollins U library & read through a stack of Sendak books looking for inspiration for a paper (which I found). That's where I first read The Sign on Rosie's Door, Outside Over There, & - my favorite Sendak book of all - Kenny's Window.

The scary ice baby from Outside Over There

I read Kenny's Window over & over. It was crushing sadness & falling in love all at once, though I guess those go hand in hand more often than not. Kenny's Window, published when he was 27, is the first book he wrote & illustrated. It's almost unrecognizable from his best-known works like Wild Things & In the Night Kitchen. The drawings are more like rough sketches, though with Sendak's same hatching, & the same little terrier. It's colored only in browns & yellows, & the story's very wordy & far from straightforward. Most critics who've touched on the book aren't fond of it, but it speaks to me like no other book I've read. One copy I have (I have a few...) has a gift inscription in it: "This book is strange. Let it be strange, & see where it takes you." Whoever wrote that was spot-on.

Kenny's Window

It pokes a finger straight into my heart in a spot that I don't like anyone else to know is there, the part that feels the painful passage of childhood & the guilt of growing up. The part that wants to fly on a horse to the sea where a boat waits to take me away from the place I grew up - but that also looks back at the teddy bear sitting on my bed & is so heartbroken all I can do is throw things. It's the same reason I love J. M. Barrie so much.

From there I was completely smitten. I've collected as many of his books as I can get my hands on (& still have a long way to go), including the first book he ever illustrated, a physics textbook called Atomics for the Millions. I've tried to learn everything I can about him short of knocking on his door.

Atomics for the Millions - It's easy to see his comics/Disney influence.

There are so many things that draw me to Sendak. His illustrations are captivating & his fairy tales are beautiful. But more than that it's the way he views children & childhood. He respected them; he thought them gutsier & smarter than grownups. Shelter a child from the harsh realities of the world? As he said about parents finding his movie too dark or scary: "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate. ... If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."

That might be my favorite Sendak quote. That or his delightful comment on ebooks: "Fuck them."

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life, his pop-up book Mommy?, & The Art of Maurice Sendak

Sendak didn't have an agenda; he just did what he loved & said screw anyone who doesn't like it. He never caved to parents who sought to censor him. He was nothing more than himself & thought children should be left to be themselves, too. Children, who are selfish, creative, lonely, gleeful, unrestrained, & sometimes tragic.

My favorite Sendak illustrations, from the book Dear Mili by Wilhelm Grimm

"Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, & then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don't like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it's vapid, so they'll go for the hard words, they'll go for the hard concepts, they'll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things."

It was an honor just to have my life overlap his, to be alive while he was alive. I can't say that about many of my favorite authors. & it would be selfish to wish that an 83-year-old man who welcomed death, saying, "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready," would've stayed longer. It's just so hard to see him go.

What Sendak book was your favorite? Feel free to mourn with me.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Age of Miracles

(coming June 26, 2012)

“It still amazes me how little we really knew. Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

Thursday my Random House rep handed me The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, saying not only that Random House expects it to be really big, but it'll be the book he'll still be pushing ten years from now because it's just that good. I was intrigued. I went straight home & started reading it (I should probably mention I'm halfway through A Clash of Kings & was eager to take a little break). I can't say I read it in one sitting, but in the times I was either at work or otherwise not reading, I was constantly thinking about it. I finished it last night, wiping away torrents of tears.

One Saturday morning, 11-year-old Julia & her family wake to discover the news that the world's rotation is inexplicably slowing. Minutes are added to the day, then hours, until eventually the sun stays up for a week at a time before plunging into a week-long night. The story is about how Julia copes with the changes in her family & friends, the perils of middle school & the beauty of first love, as the world disintegrates around her.

I'm not sure exactly why I loved this book as much as I did. Walker is a beautiful writer; I was underlining memorable passages left & right. The concept is super cool & she portrays it in a very human - not to mention terrifying - way. But more than that, I think it's the spot-on way she captures the pain, sadness, & awkwardness of being an unpopular middle-school girl. It hit seriously close to home. Walker had to have been one of us, too; she never would've known, otherwise. But she gets it. This book has a heart that so many books these days don't have; it mainly resides in its characters - Julia, her mother & father, her neighbors, her grandfather, her school friends, her crush.

If the scientific aspect of the novel (the repercussions of the slowing of the earth's rotation) is what most draws you to read the novel, I might not recommend the book so strongly. I was constantly having to suspend my disbelief because I'd ask a question regarding the environment, animal & plant life, the world's temperature, what was happening at the poles, the effects of the slowing on the human body, etc., that couldn't be answered, or because Walker's theory wasn't satisfactory to me.

But if you're willing to suspend your disbelief & focus on the novel for what it is - a realistic picture of how relationships flourish or crumble in the face of uncertainty & tragedy - then I think you'll love this book. I rarely am so deeply affected by a story. It's one of those books that leaves you wandering aimlessly after you turn the final page. You're so numb from the experience that all you can do is keep reading - you read the acknowledgements, the jacket copy, the back cover blurbs, you reread the last chapter two or three times, all because you aren't ready to pull yourself out of the world. These are my most memorable reading experiences, & are almost always coupled with uncontrollable sobbing. The Age of Miracles falls into company with Beatrice & Virgil, The Amber Spyglass, The Moor's Last Sigh, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Peter & Wendy, Jude the Obscure, & a precious few others.

I was worried my Random House rep had oversold the novel, but he absolutely didn't. This book will take up a special place on my shelf, to be reread many times. Three months from today, seriously, pick up this book. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I am the worst blogger! &, why ebooks certainly can burn.

Last week I did a brief interview for my friend & Hollins classmate Robin's blog in which she linked to my blog. Which made me go "Holy crap! How long has it been since I posted?" A shamefully long time. I never even finished my 50-something end-of-the-year book reviews & giveaways (although Kim will receive her books & it's likely she would've won them all anyway). My intentions were good, & I wish I could promise I'll be a diligent poster from here on out, but I can't. I can promise though that I am hard at work on my thesis. So yeah. Productivity.

But I am posting today partly out of shame & partly because the New York Review of Books made me mad enough to rant about something! It's this essay, "E-books Can't Burn" by Tim Parks, which made today's "Quote of the Day" in Shelf Awareness (if you're interested in keeping up with book industry news from a recreational &/or professional perspective, Shelf Awareness is a must-read).

Parks posits in this essay that e-books are a "medium for grown-ups," implying, then, that people who insist upon reading & owning paper books are whiny babies. It would be easy to write this whole essay off as asinine (as one commenter said, "what a silly attempt at an essay") but I'd prefer to pick Parks' essay apart because I got all riled up reading it & I like to get angry about things.

Parks' points on practicality & the environmental perks of ebooks are plenty valid. I love that I can take my Nook Tablet with me when I travel (though honestly I use it more for Netflix & still travel with paper books most of the time), but past the first paragraph, his essay falls apart.

The assertion I find most contentious is his opinion that the essence of a book is nothing more than the sequence of words & the words themselves. In Parks' view of the reading experience, nothing else matters. We don't take anything from a text other than the bare-bones words.

Unlike painting there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat.

I could try to sound scholarly & whatnot, but you know, this is just one of the dumbest things I've ever read. Does looking at a 14th-century manuscript of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight not inspire awe? What about a copy of the Gutenberg Bible? Lewis Carroll's scribbled & doodled notes? Thomas Hardy's handwritten manuscript of Tess of the d'Urbervilles? Philip Pullman's various incarnations of His Dark Materials? Shakespeare's first folio? Parks clearly hasn't had a chill creep up his spine when looking at Wordsworth's Prelude written in his own hand on paper he touched standing in the house he lived in.

I've done all those things, & I traveled a long way to do all those things. I don't say this to make myself sound important or privileged, just to show that "artifacts" do in fact mean a lot to some people. Many people, in fact, or else why preserve them? Why make people line up in a dimly lit room to squint at the Magna Carta through a layer of glass? Why do people whisper in that room? Because it's freaking amazing, that's why. Looking at a 600-year-old piece of paper with written words on it is a holy experience to those who love books.

In 600 years will people be crowding around an ancient tablet that died long ago but once held a bunch of ebooks? Or the computer that some famous author typed their work on but crashed eventually so now it's just a useless block? It's laughable. The digital format is transient; nothing digital lasts forever. You can burn an ebook. Computers crash. Paper books do not crash. Paper burns but ebooks do not last any more than than computers do. Funny what happens when you amend Parks' above statement to be talking about ebooks instead:

"Unlike paper books there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike paper books, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at an ebook. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat."

Now that is an accurate statement. 

Literature is made up of words. ... If written, the words can appear in this or that type-face on any material, with any impagination. Joyce is as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman. ... Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

Really? So if I took a poem of e. e. cummings, removed the formatting & had a seven-year-old copy it in crayon on a sheet of construction paper it would mean the same thing? If I took Jane Eyre & painted it in stories-high letters on a brick wall that wrapped around the world it would read the same as if you were curled up in a chair with a paper book? Would reading a Hemingway ebook written in comic sans feel the same as reading an old Hemingway paperback? I don't even like Hemingway & I still wouldn't do that to him. If the "literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception" what the hell does it lie in? What do we do with words but perceive them? What is perception but "the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end"?  

It’s true that our owning the object—War and Peace or Moby Dick—and organizing these and other classics according to chronology and nation of origin will give us an illusion of control: as if we had now “acquired” and “digested” and “placed” a piece of culture. Perhaps that is what people are attached to. But in fact we all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.

First, owning & organizing books does not give one the illusion of control. It builds an identity that is definitely not illusory. Want to know who I am? Look at my bookshelves. Being able to place a worn copy of one's favorite book on a special place on the shelf does indeed mean that you have "'acquired' & 'digested' & 'placed' a piece of culture." It is a highly personal act that every book lover does differently. I do not shelve my books to say that this is where the essence of the book belongs in the grand scheme of things; it's where the book belongs in my grand scheme of things. & to say that all we need to do to revisit a book is to close our eyes & experience the memory of that book is, again, ridiculous.

I suppose Parks doesn't keep a book of Romantic poems beside his bed in case he needs a little Wordsworth before he falls asleep. He must never walk past his bookshelf, glance at a forgotten title, & thumb through it just because. He must not own a book whose spine is broken & pages are softened from reread after reread. He must never have highlighted & underlined & jotted down notes in a book, only to pick it up 10 years later & laugh at himself because of how silly the notes were. Parks must not own a passed-down book that his grandfather scribbled his name in as a 6-year-old. He must not have a child to curl up in his lap & read a book with at night. (& if he does, & he's using ebooks to read bedtime stories to his kids, shame on him.)

"But are these old habits essential," he asks? Essential to what? Survival? Of course not. I could survive with nothing but digital books, but life would lose a lot of luster. The richness that physical, paper books add to life isn't an illusion. There is no pleasure for me like spending unhurried time perusing a used book store, or digging through piles of books at a library sale, or holding a brand-new hardcover you've spent months waiting for. Can you imagine a Harry Potter release party without stacks of those massive books to hand out to eager fans?

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names.

I just keep getting angrier! The first sentence of this paragraph, again, is almost comical in its sheer wrongness. An ereader is as much a physical object as a book; it is just another "variation." How exactly does the disappearance of a read page bring one closer to the "essence of the literary experience" than turning the physical read page? What does austerity, or spareness of text or font or text size, have to do with bettering the literary experience? It is not better. It is different.

& calling the collection of books a "fetishistic gratification" makes me want to puke. If books covering my walls is fetishistic, I guess I should just live in an empty apartment. I guess owning DVDs is fetishistic too. Or artwork. Or photos. Should the objects that fill our lives be only utilitarian? Why is removing the aesthetic, personal aspect of a book a desirable thing? 

This is a medium for grown-ups.

My first typed response to this sentence was four words long. Two were "Tim Parks" & one was a certain four-letter word. You can probably guess. But I deleted it because I'm a classy lady or something. For the sake of being nice, I will treat Parks' statement as true (WHICH IT IS NOT) & respond with the words of C. S. Lewis: "Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. ... When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Lastly, I'll share this Opus comic, which is one of my favorites ever & sums up my retort nicely. I guess I could've just posted this comic, actually. It would've been a perfect response on its own. But it was fun to rant.