Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 31, 2009

Three Quick Reviews

I’ve been lax in reporting my reads this season.  I’ve been lax in reading as well – I think my final total for the year is something like 25 books.  I have three excuses: 1) a small child who does not like to share my attention 2) a heavy schedule of school-related reading and writing and 3) once again I managed to get stonewalled by some long, boring book that I couldn’t manage to read more than 2 pages at a time of.  I need to learn to abandon books sooner!  On the one hand there’s the question of discipline, of needing to try extra hard to get through dry, long or difficult books.  But really that doesn’t give any old book the right to torture me for long hard months.  I have some right to be engaged, don’t I?  If I put in the time and the effort to give it a fair shake, I should be allowed to finally throw it down guilt-free.  Perhaps this should be my New Year’s resolution.  I resolve to not feel guilty about giving up on books that I’ve given a solid chance to.

Anyway, here are the last three books I’ve read:

This book here (Hunter’s Oath by Michelle West) was exactly as good as it looks.  It came hesitantly recommended by a coworker of the author’s.  I was, at the time, looking for undiscovered gems of Canadian fantasy.  This was not one.  I have a longer post to make about how fantasy as a genre has missed the point of magic as a literary tool, and this book will make an excellent example of what not to do.  For a simple fantasy novel, this book took me an extraordinarily long time to read because I was continually bored with it.  Oh well.

The book on your right (Airborn by Kenneth Oppel), on the other hand, was wonderful.  Set in a slightly alternative past where the rich fly in luxury zeppelins rather than steamships like the Titanic and where the Lumiere Brothers were triplets, Airborn is everything you would want in a book to recommend to a younger person, or an older person who enjoys the freshness and optimism of young adult literature.  Loved it to pieces!

And finally, on the left you will meet the book that stalled me out for two months, The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper.  This was a tremendous disappointment.  There’s no question as to the value of the scholarship here, but the presentation, especially coming from an author with experience as a poet, was utterly lacking.  The book felt long, repetitive, and boring.  We know right from the get-go exactly what will happen:  A slave, Angelique, will set fire to her owner’s house causing the big Montreal fire of 1734.  She will be arrested, tried, tortured and hung.  So what does the book add in the telling?  Some details, often tangential.  Archival evidence and some history.  No drama, revelation, insight.  I can see the value of this work to research, but heavens it lacked as a straight-ahead read.  I almost wish she’d just approached the material differently, maybe saving us the details of the event for a “climax” of the story, rather than giving us everything we need to know in the first two chapters and leaving the rest of the book to serve as an itemized list of evidence.

So there you go, a little catch-up.  I am still reading Nikolski as well as Eleanor Wachtel’s More Writers and Company (a purchase from last year’s Trinity College Book Sale).  Both will warrant longer thoughts – but will have to wait for the new year!

December 14, 2009

The Mind of [my] 17-Month-Old

Buying books for toddlers is, I have discovered, a bewildering enterprise. It isn’t so much that there is a gap in the literature for the youngest toddlers – books tend to be “for babies” followed by 2-5 year-olds – though that can be frustrating. And it isn’t that there’s any lack of authoritative bodies to offer recommendations for parents without the time (or ability – spending time in the children’s section of a book store with an actual child in tow is an invitation to a disastrous shelving incident) to browse, for everyone from local library associations to awards bodies have lists for handy reference. It’s that toddlers have the most unexpected preferences. My 30-year-old brain can’t anticipate her 17-month-old one. I have had to resort to quantity over quality, in the hopes that if you swing enough times one is bound to connect with the ball eventually.

In the hopes that I can save even one of you from the same bewilderment I am experiencing, I have compiled below a list of recommendations and vetoes, based not on my literary expertise but instead on my child’s actual preferences.

5 Books My Toddler Loves For No Good Reason I Can Work Out

M is For Moose: A Charles Patcher Alphabet by Charles Patcher, Cormorant Books.

I really thought Patcher’s art was a bit high concept for a 1.5 year old.  I mean, Elizabeth Simcoe?  Margaret Laurence?  Who is the target audience here?  But colour me wrong, she loves this damn thing.  We read it three times at a sitting.  It might be the combination of photo-realism and bright, stark colours in Patcher’s art.  It also might be the ducks and moose.  See below.

A Barbecue For Charlotte by Marc Tetro, McArthur & Co.

This book was actually a gag gift to myself, bought long before Miss Margaret was conceived.  Charlotte the Moose wants to play with the boys but THEY all have antlers and she doesn’t, so she wears a barbecue on her head to fit in.  It’s sort of the story of my life.  The writing is… well, not exactly clear and well thought out.  The pictures are bright and shiny though.  I thought that might be why Maggie likes it, but she really gets into the story nowadays, yelling “NO!” when we learn Charlotte doesn’t like pretty bows, and giggling with the other animals when Charlotte first puts the BBQ on her noggin.  Go figure!

10 Fat Turkeys by Tony Johnston, Scholastic Books

I won’t lie to you, I don’t like this book at all.  It’s highly annoying.  It is a library book to us, and after it goes back I won’t be getting it again.  My big pet peeve with kids books right now is lazy poetry.  This one tries to get away with rhyming “down” and “none” as well as “dance” and “fence”.  But man, Maggie loves it.  Does she even have any idea what on earth all those turkeys are doing?  I doubt it.  But she likes the refrain – “Gobble gobble wibble wobble”.  Fine.  Whatever.  But never again!

Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle, Aladdin Books

Maggie is an Eric Carle fiend, which I suppose many children are.  I don’t blame her, his books are simple and pretty.  But this one in particular I don’t see the appeal of.  It’s repetitive without being musical – “Have you seen my cat?  This is not my cat!” over and over again.  And can a 1.5 year old really tell the difference between a panther, a cougar, a cheetah and a leopard?  Does it matter?  She seems to grasp which ones say “meow” and which ones say “rawr”, at least!

Snuggle Puppy: A Little Love Song by Sandra Boynton

Okay, I admit I know why she likes this one.  It’s based on a (totally uninspired) song off her Philadelphia Chickens album which I picked up at a garage sale for 25 cents, and so I “sing” rather than “read” this one, complete with hugs and kisses.  So what’s not to like?  Well how about THE BOOK?  Boynton seems to have banged off this one on a weekend.  There are hardly any pictures and the song is boring.  I like Boynton when she’s at her best (Hippos Go Berserk, But Not the Hippopotamus, Moo, Baa, La La La) but the board book versions of her crummy songs all seem like cheap money grabs.

***

5 Books My Toddler Should Like, But Doesn’t

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, Harper Collins

I remember loving this book as a kid, but the young Miss does not.  Of course reading it as an adult, I’m sorta glad: this is the tale of a young spirit stiffled and smothered by an overbearing parent.  Maggie’s complaint with it seems to be the dry black-and-white pages… she hastily turns ahead to the paintings.  But even they are not enough of a draw to make her ever want to actually read this one.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Harper Collins

Okay, yes, this isn’t age-appropriate, but neither are a lot of the books we read.  There is less text in this book than in many that she loves.  The book is tolerated until we actually come to the place where the wild things are, and then she yells “NO NO NO” and shuts the book.  I think the monsters are a tad too aggressive for her – we will revisit this one in the future.

Anything by Dr. Seuss

I started with Fox in Socks, because I enjoy reading it.  We tried Cat in the Hat because it had more of a narrative.  We downgraded to Hop on Pop and One Fish, Two Fish and finally, in desperation, tried the abridged pocket version of There’s a Wocket in my Pocket, but we’ve had no luck.  Perhaps it’s that the critters are too strange looking, or that the books are too long, but she has absolutely zero interest in the works of Dr. Seuss.  This makes me a sad, sad mother.

Have You Seen my Duckling? by Nancy Tafuri, Harper Collins

Have You Seen My Cat redux, right?  Wrong.  My best guess is that Maggie doesn’t know what to make of the many pages with no words.  I tried to make up a story for her on those pages but she seems to know that something’s up, maybe because the story changes every time.  She also can’t find the duckling, so the hide-and-seek format is lost on her.  Instead she “finds” the other seven ducklings standing right there and wonders why the mother duck is such a bone-head.  Sigh.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Harper Collins

This is a no-brainer.  Maggie LOVED this book up until a few months ago and now it (along with the Going to Bed Book) is the great enemy.  Because Goodnight Moon means we’re going to bed, and that is a BAD THING.  Even if we love to find the socks on each page, and the mouse and kittens are great old friends – no.   I ‘m wise to your tricks, mummy.  I know you’re trying to put me to bed and I won’t have it!  Poor maligned Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd.  Still I keep it on the night stand just in case.  At the least, yelling at Goodnight Moon has become part of our bedtime ritual.  I’ll take what I can get!

December 7, 2009

More Things To Do With Books & Giftmas

If you, like me, have been banned from buying any more books for your family this Giftmas don’t worry – there’s still a way for a good bibliophile to push the printed form. This year the bee in my bonnet is all about bookish gift cards!

From The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library's Christmas card offerings.

Libraries are a surprisingly good source of tasteful gifts.  Fundraising has always been a major issue for libraries, though few of us seem to take notice outside of the occasional bake or book sale.  Almost every library has, tucked in behind the front counter, a selection of items for sale like bags, publications, shirts or bookmarks available year-round.

Gift cards are probably a no-brainer for a good reference collection because so many of their books are beautifully photogenic and summon the aesthetic of Nutcracker Christmasses complete with giant fireplaces, trees trimmed with candles and leather-bound books being read to a clutch of excited children before bedtime.

This one available from the Osborne Collection of Children's Books.

Toronto certainly has no shortage of libraries with behind-the-counter gift shops, but ambitious gift-givers among you might enjoy looking further abroad.  The J.P. Morgan Library in New York has a fabulous shop including a reproduction of the first known Christmas card, while the British Library has a huge selection including reproductions from the Lindisfarne Chronicles.  Link madness here I come:  see also the Huntington Library, the Library of Congress,  the Bodleian, and the New York Public Library.  But you don’t have to take my word for it – walk into your favourite library and just ask the librarian.  I guarantee [1] they will have something cute you would never have expected.

[1] No actual guarantee available.

December 1, 2009

Canada Reads 2010 Quickie Thoughts

I won’t be back on this subject for months now, but I have to quickly state my apprehension at this year’s Canada Reads books.

For starters, I own four out of five of them already.  Of those, I have read two (Generation X and Fall On Your Knees), gave up on one because I found it very, very dull (Jade Peony) and was anxiously looking forward to reading the fourth (Nikolski).  So I suppose that makes this year’s list very inexpensive for me to acquire (here I come, Good To A Fault).

I will give Jade Peony another try I suppose, but the Coupland & Macdonald are headscratchers.   I could read Generation X again to refresh my memory, though I don’t remember liking it enough to actually want to.  Meanwhile Fall On Your Knees still lives in my mind as the single most painful thing I’ve ever read.  I didn’t dislike it; it was quite good.  But do I really want to live through that read again?  I mean, eek.  I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I doubt anyone would claim it is a pleasant read.

Interesting, though.  Hm.  Yes, hm.