Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where is Maisie's Panda? by Lucy Cousins & Happy Baby Words by Roger Priddy

From the favourer's father: "...truly a tour de force of the lift-up-flap genre."

Where is Maisie's Panda?

Where is Maisie's panda? This question has plagued the 0-3 year old demographic since time began.

Is it in the laundry?

Is it in the toilet?

Is it a lens-grinder in Omsk?

This book is definitely a classic in the lift-the-slightly-torn-flap style. It's a rollercoaster ride of suspense, disappointment and ultimate panda-related redemption. The splayed-finger hand flapping exhibited by it's 8-month-old favourer only proves the extent of the impact of this seminal text.

For if we are truly honest with ourselves, at some point in our lives do we not all lose our panda?

From the favourer's mother: "His criteria appears to be that the narrative must stand up to endless repetition."

Happy Baby Words

So many words. So many happy babies. The favourer fancies the baby girl with the soft brown eyes and the wispy curls. Personally I was quite partial to the fuzzy pink hat.

And the mind games! An orange orange? When nouns and verbs collide!

The babies are happy. The words are happy. And the cover is pleasingly squishy. It's a win-win situation.

Bedtime for the favourer, and for me. Night night, Possum.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

From the favourer: "In truth, I don't remember the story all that well...all I knew at 12 was that I wanted that raft for my own, but alas, all I had was a skateboard..."

I don't think I'd read any Mark Twain since I was about 14 (at which point I committed to memory once and for all that it was "Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain and not "Mark Twain" by Tom Sawyer). I'd forgotten about the effect his writing has on your non-reading moments. When you're not physically reading it, you think about the book so much - it's as if you're missing out on something, somehow when you're not reading they must be having adventures without you.

Huck is my kind of boy. When informed by his aunt that one of the central tenets of Christianity is the 'do as you would be done by' thing, Tom interprets it as: "I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself." He ponders this notion; "I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time," but concludes; "I couldn't see no advantage about it - except for the other people".

When we meet him, Huck is in the process of being "sivilized" by his adoptive aunt, and he's beginning to get used to the washing and the lack of cussing. But at this point his drunken, violent father, who everyone had thought (and hoped) was dead, shows up in town and steals Huck away to a log cabin in the woods. He locks Huck up alone for days at a time, then comes home toasted, yells at the demons that his DTs produce, and beats Huck mercilessly. One particularly bad night, his (significantly uncapitalised) "pap" thinks Huck is the Angel of Death and tries to stab him to death. Huck sits up all night with a rifle pointed at his unconscious father, ready to shoot him if he should wake and try to finish the job. Always the master of understatement, Twain usually has Huck respond to his regular beatings with such lines as "I was used to being where I was, and I liked it, all but the cowhide part." So when Twain has Huck say, very simply, "I was scared", the weight of these stark words is enormous.

After this sleepless night (of which his father remembers nothing), Huck fakes his own death with the help of a pig carcass and escapes to the river, teaming up with the runaway slave Jim.

And the adventures begin.

As you might have gathered, they're not quite adventures in the light-hearted Famous Five style - there's rotting bodies in half-submerged brothels, execution plots, unwanted unshakeable passengers, drownings, family feud shoot-outs where young boys pay the ultimate price, and the ever-present threat of Jim being caught and sold, or lynched. Even the initially humorous story depicting a group of men's fear of a "haunted barrel" (it floats in the same place in the river, despite the swift current) suddenly changes tone when the barrel is cut open and the dead baby inside is revealed. All of this is laid out for us in Huck's matter-of-fact colloquial voice.

Despite being way more violent than I expected (and it's understated violence that has the most effect on me), it's also a very funny book as well. It's a laid-back, laconic type of humour that I really enjoy - the encounter where Huck lies to a doctor in order to get help with Tom Sawyer's gunshot wound is a prime example:

"The Doctor was an old man; a very nice, kind-looking old man, when I got him up. I told him me and my brother was over on Spanish Island hunting, yesterday afternoon, and camped on a piece of raft we found, and about midnight he must a kicked his gun in his dreams, for it went off and shot him in the leg, and we wanted him to go over there and fix it and not say nothing about it, nor let anybody know, because we wanted to come home this evening, and surprise the folks.
'Who is your folks?' he says.
'The Phelpses, down yonder.'
'Oh,' he says. And after a minute, he says: 'How'd you say he got shot?'
'He had a dream,' I says, 'and it shot him.'
'Singular dream,' he says."

Heh heh. Singular dream.

To be honest, I think a lot of the satirical matter that this book is famous for may have gone over my head - some of it slid so close to farce that it just annoyed me. Some others parts are so in line with modern-day cynicism that they just seem to be more statements of fact (one character observes the further away from their doorstep a 'good cause' is, the more money 'good people' will donate).

The nature of racism that is examined in the book seemed less shocking to me than it is probably supposed to be (given that the book is still banned today in some schools). The casual ugliness of the attitudes towards slavery that Twain depicts get so tangled up with the high farce descriptions of events that they seem more trivialising than satirising or derisive. The only times where I didn't feel this were in the descriptions of Huck's inner struggles with Jim's runaway status. Huck 'knows' that to do right by God and go to heaven he must turn Jim in - after all, he is 'stolen property'. Several times he is on the brink of betraying Jim, but he can never quite manage to obey what he thinks is his 'conscience'. Finally, in an amazingly mature act of courage (considering that he really does believe he is committing a mortal sin), he gives in to his natural humanistic instincts and commits fully to his friendship with Jim. He reasons that if he's going to Hell anyway, he may as well not do it by halves.

You've probably heard this book lauded as a masterpiece of tonal consistency and it's warranted - the voices of the characters never hit a wrong note, and while humour comes naturally to a colloquial tone, I was most impressed by Twain's ability to create a highly evocative descriptive scenario without any faltering of the character's voice. It's such a hard thing to achieve - I'm useless at it myself. Take the description of a thunderstorm, as told to us by Huck:

"It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest - fst! it was as bright as glory and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know."

How's that for a very long yet somehow not over-long sentence? The best bit is where the lightning strikes, I went "Yeah" on the train. No wonder Twain's writing follows you around like the morning after a particularly vivid dream.

It's the rare kind of book where I can't help thinking that any 'flaws' I find are probably flaws in me, rather than the book.

And the shadow of Huck's father finding him that hangs over the whole adventure? Well, let me just advise you not to peek at the last page until you get there (and yes, for once I didn't either).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Against Nature (A Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

From the favourer: "another adolescent read that made an impression on me. I tried the same kinds of exorbitant decorations in my own room, but it's not quite the same if you don't have your own chateau and endless supply of money."

How can you not immediately be attracted to a book where in the prefacing "Note on this translation" you are advised by the translator that "it is only fair to warn the reader that he may find [this book] is best taken in small doses."

This is definitely the kind of book that is hard to read in your lunch break, surrounded by Commerce students, carpet tiles and artificial lighting. So I was forced (it was tough I tell you) to read most of it seated in the window at Rue Bébélons, tumbler of house red in hand, feeling as if I really should have taken up smoking to complete the Bohemian ensemble.

Des Esseintes, the main character, is a bit decadent. Just a bit. Overwhelmed by his immense horror of Parisien societé and its near-complete lack of "people with delicate eyes who have undergone the education of libraries and art-galleries", he retreats to his country mansion where he sleeps during the day and at night sets about immersing himself in sensual pleasures - the essence of jewels, perfumes, flowers, literature, painting and music. He's fulfilling Spike Milligan's dearest wish: "All I want is the chance to prove that money doesn't make you happy."

It's very florid writing. I was ready for that (thanks to the translator). But I wasn't expecting the book to have a sense of humour. Early on Des Esseintes (when he is still hosting the occasional richly themed social event) holds a dinner party modelled on an eighteenth-century funeral feast, complete with a black-draped dining room, the garden strewn with charcoal, the fish-pond filled with ink, black waitresses "wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears", and black-coloured food (including olives, caviare, black pudding, liquorice sauces, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, mulberries, black cherries, coffee and walnut cordials). We are initially told the event is "to mark the most ludicrous of personal misfortunes." As the evening draws to a close, we are told that the funeral feast was in fact held "in memory of the host's virility, lately but only temporarily deceased." Heh heh.

He then plunges himself into his interior decorating, buying a large tortoise whose shell he has covered in gold leaf and sets to walk around on his carpets, in order to set off the colours of their weave. (This doesn't work, so then he has the tortoise's shell covered in an exquisite array of jewels...which doesn't go so well for the tortoise, god rest his soul).

He acknowledges the beauty of women, but asks us "Does there exist, anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzlingly, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?" He recreates a sea voyage using only a perfect combination of perfumes. He embarks upon a fabulously cruel, Miss Havisham-style social experiment on a Parisién urchin which doesn't quite go as planned. He drinks wine by the "hogshead" (whatever that is - next time I'm going to go to King & Godfree and ask for a hogshead of wine). He re-reads all his books and in my favourite, Monty-Pythonesque moment marvels at the instructional volume "where a miracle-worker expounds a most peculiar method of discovering, with the aid of a lettuce, whether a girl is still a virgin."

Is there anything you can't acheive with the aid of a lettuce?

But we all know the result of extreme decadence - a nervous stomach disorder. Des Esseintes' fate looks grim. As he lies unable to eat, read or move, his doctor gives him the facts - he must choose between death (in his current lifestyle), or...return to Parisién societé.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I've had to add a new rule.

Rule #5 - I am not going to read "Triton Workcentre 2000 User's Manual : The Ultimate Woodworking Machine". Sorry Pete.

And by the way, the list is up! As it stands, to your right, in no particular order (although I have paired people's books together, those of you who've managed to name two).

No sign of "Lord of the Rings" yet (Matty?), and no two people have named the same book. Good work all of you. I'm surprised and pleased at how many of you are naming children's classics.

I was wondering if anyone would ask me what my favourites are and join me in some reciprocal far only three people have asked (cheers to Dave, Paul & Pammy). For the record;

  1. "The Children of Green Knowe" - L.M. (Lucy) Boston (contains one of the most haunting, subtly moving moments ever in children's literature, which is a big call coming from me. Move over Watership Down).
  2. "Everything is Illuminated" - Jonathan Safran Foer (you'll laugh, you'll cry, it'll change your life. And there's a great farting dog. Steer clear of the film though).

I'd love to hear what you think of them...and yes, I'm still getting through the first book. I actually read quite slowly. Hence starting this project while I'm still youngish.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

What's your favourite?

I loved that "My Favourite Book" program on the ABC. And like a lot of people, I looked up the list of the top 100 books that were voted for, competed with Paul as to which of us had read more of them (he won, naturally), and then proclaimed that I was going to read to all of them.

And then, naturally, I never did.

I think I figured out why (apart from general slackness). There's no personal connection to a list of favourite books voted for by the general pulic (or rather, the general ABC-watching public, which is possibly quite a distinct subset). It's just a list of books - you don't know who liked them, why they liked them, and you can't tease them because you know they chose their 'favourite' just to sound intellectual.

I thought about a book that my grandfather loved, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee". I gave him a copy of it a million years ago, but I've never read it. I thought to myself, lying in bed (the natural thinking-spot of all humankind), "I should read it. He loved it, and that's important to me, so I should read it."

Then I thought, why should I just read his favourite book? I should read everyone's favourite book, everyone I know and love. Some of these people are passionate about books, some of them are not. Some of them still read a lot, some of them don't. But pretty much all of them can choose a favourite or two.

I'm embarrassed to say this, because it's a bit soppy and even thinking it to myself makes my "sentimental claptrap" antennae quiver. But, [deep breath] I think a favourite book can tell you something about a person - their childhood, their sense of humour, their email login and password. If nothing else, it can tell you what their favourite book is.

That kind of idea appealed to me way more than tracking the literary loves of the ABC's voting nation. A completely biased, non-random, non-valid-sample-size of people (I always knew my Psychology minor would be useful for something, if only knowing what makes for a valid sample).

Earlier this week I asked all my loved ones that I could get hold of to tell me what their two favourite books in all the world are. Friends, family, penpals, friends of friends, colleagues. People generally fall into one of two camps when asked this question - type #1 say "This book is the best book in the world, ever, and no better book has or ever will be written, ever." Type #2 first of all berate me for only allowing them to choose two (hi Sean), draw up a shortlist of 100 over the following week, and then finally and painfully name their two favourite books. This type often follow up with repeated disclaimer statments about how difficult it is to choose only two, and how I really should have allowed them several hundred nominations. But I would like to read these favourites before I start to develop dementia, so sorry dudes, you have to choose two.

Now I will read them. All of them.

This may take a while. It's hard to read and sell stuff on eBay at the same time.

I won't read them in any order, or thematic grouping. The first book I'm reading has been chosen because the person who named it grabbed it off a shelf and put it in my hand.
But I will write here about each one after I've read it, and I'll try to avoid being a reviewer, but it is kind of my default setting. Once I've got everyone's answers I'll compile a list so you can see what's ahead of me. But I'm not going to tell you which favourites belong to which person (but feel free to 'out' yourself), I'll just include some comments they made when they told me about their choices.

Naturally, being a librarian, I've had to lay out some rules.
  1. I'm not going to read "Ulysses". Sorry Paul. I just can't do it.
  2. I don't have to read it if I've already read it. I might, though, depending what it is.
  3. I can stop reading it at page 200 if I really, really hate it (I've only stopped reading one book in my life, John Updike's "Couples". Yergh. So, it's not likely that I'll stop).
  4. It needs to be written in English (apologies to my penpals, but I'm just not going to get much out of a novel in Finnish. Ask Nil if she remembers when I attempted to show off my newly acquired knowledge of Singhala characters by reading a kid's book about a cow, written in Singhalese. No idea what happened to the cow. I know it was white.)

There might be more rules, if I think of them...

So...what's your favourite?