alexandra alger

ABC

Okay, Fine. It’s Worth Reading.

 

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The plot finally kicked in for me, and once it did, I tore through the last two-thirds of Cursed Child. I’m in the mood to talk details here, so if you haven’t read the script but plan to, stop here!

Rowling and co-writers (mainly Rowling?) came through with a satisfying take on the Potter crew one generation later. It doesn’t have the sprawl and heft that a Book 8 would surely have; it’s missing a few vital characters (Hagrid! and, um, Voldemort); nonetheless I found myself admiring, as always, Rowlings’ storytelling genius.

I had trouble focusing at first (you know this, if you’ve read my earlier post). There were disturbing oddities, like Ron’s becoming a goofy, hapless adult. More problematic, I had trouble warming up to the two young heroes. In theory, what could be more interesting: the offspring of Harry and Draco, best friends! And in Slytherin together! Poor Albus is lousy at spells and flying. He’s almost obligated to hate Quidditch, and he does. He sees himself as the disappointing son—the “spare,” as he calls himself, using Voldemort’s word for Cedric Diggory. (Harry’s first born, James, and the youngest, Lily, are “easy” children.) Scorpius struggles not as much because of his own dad— though Draco is chilly and removed—than because everyone at Hogwarts believes a rampant rumor that he’s the secret son of Voldemort. I should’ve been brimming with compassion for these boys, but exasperated was more like it. I wanted to tell them to stop sniveling, to stop worrying about what their dads thought of them and to get a life! Rowling et al. expect us to appreciate the irony of Albus’ predicament—he has the family and love his father yearned for, but he’s miserable being his father’s son. It’s right up Rowling’s alley, this kind of emotional messiness but—there’s no time for depth. It’ll all telling instead of showing.

SCORPIUS: I know the—Voldemort thing isn’t—true—and—you know—but sometimes, I think I can see my dad thinking: How did I produce this?

ALBUS: Still better than my dad. I’m pretty sure he spends most of his time thinking: How can I give him back? (p. 81)

Going back in time to save Cedric Diggory from a brutal death was something, anyway. It’s a decision full of self-pity—awww, the spare wants to save the original spare—but any action is welcome at this point. Albus and Scorpius’ plan begins with a time-honored tradition: Polyjuicing in order to sneak into the Ministry, in this case to steal the Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, our own Hermione Granger.

They manage it far too easily, if you ask me. They know just where it is, and there’s no doubt they’ll find it, even if they do have to fight off a few enchanted books first. And if they’re caught? They don’t even worry about getting into trouble—that’s how ho-hum that trouble could be. An angry parent? What else is new? For the original trio, sneaking into the Ministry was a life-or-death affair once the Death Eaters took over. Think of the time they stole in to steal back Regulus Black’s locket from the horrible Dolores Umbridge, and Hermione, disguised as a low-level Ministry witch, is dragged into a Muggle-denouncing proceeding to act as Umbridge’s secretary. The three of them barely escape, with Hermione only at the last second able to shake off Death Eater Yaxley.

The clash of good and evil—that’s what’s missing in the first half of the script. There’s a specter of evil. Harry has disturbing dreams and wakes up with his scar hurting and the voice of Voldemort hissing his name. Haaarry Pottttter….I’m sure this was supposed to send shivers down my spine. It seemed hokey, though. I was unmoved until Albus succeeds in his mission, and in an instant disappears from the world, having altered time in the worst possible way. Voldemort doesn’t die—Harry does. Which means Albus himself doesn’t exist.

Page 159, halfway through. This is when I thought: Rowling is baaack.

Who hasn’t wondered what would’ve happened had Voldemort lived? Rowling seized upon the most compelling what-if of all. Here’s where I finally began to respect Scorpius, who’s left alone to figure out how to restore the post-Voldemort present and bring back his best friend. It’s clear once and for all that he’s too decent to be a Death Eater—he’s horrified at the cruel, Muggle-torturing world he’s trapped in. He ably takes on the hero role and proves himself much like Harry did time and time again (oddly, he’s more Harry-like than Albus is).

Of course, he’s got an easier time of it than Harry, because he knows everything about the past he’s entered. He knows to go to Snape for help—Snape, alive and well—as well Hermione and Ron, the last existing members of Dumbledore’s Army. These were my favorite moments: When three characters we know intimately from Book 1 to 7 meet, in an alternate past, a Voldemort-ruling past, a boy they think they know but they don’t, because he’s from an alternate future. It’s so crazy and mind-warping!

The whole Delphi-Augurey development was a delightful surprise—I didn’t for a moment suspect she was anything but what she was. She’s far from being a Voldemort replacement, though. I hoped he’s make an appearance at the end, when Harry and the gang are waiting to intercept Delphi in Godric’s Hollow. Instead of Harry v. Voldemort, Round 2, we get Harry disguised as Voldemort. “Horrendous,” the script notes read. Not for me, knowing that he’s just Harry. I can see reasons for keeping Voldemort out of the action. His and Harry’s history would swamp every other dynamic in the play. The scene as is brings in Albus to fight on the side of his dad, which honestly is hard to imagine against the real Voldy.

I have to grudgingly admit that whatever I might find lacking in the script, I can see it as the basis for a riveting theatrical production. I’d love to see how a set designer would create the Forbidden Forest; the Dementors; the fight against Delphi. With the play a sold-out success in London, it’s sure to come to New York. It could travel the globe eventually.

It’ll probably be turned into a movie. Don’t you think? We may well see it on the screen before we see it on the stage.

I hope Robert Patterson is free to play Cedric.

A few random thoughts and quibbles.

Who’d have thunk it:

Draco—wiser than Harry when he urges Harry to see that Albus needs him and Scorpius. A lonely child, like Tom Riddle and Draco himelf, lives in a dark place

Moms are a big deal in the books, but not here. Fierce, self-confident Ginny has virtually no role. She could be whited out and no one would miss her.

Funny:

When Albus is Polyjuiced into Ron at the Ministry and tries to distract Hermione by suggesting they have another baby—“Or if not another baby, a holiday. I want a baby or a holiday and I’m going to insist on it. Shall we talk about it later, honey?”

Moaning Myrtle, as always. Flirty Myrtle acts as if Harry and Draco visited her bathroom only yesterday. “Hello, Harry. Hello, Draco. Have you been bad boys again?”

Biggest beef:

Where’s Hagrid? We see him in two flashbacks but never in the present. No wonder Albus is such a sad sack–no Hagrid to cheer him up. Could he have retired?

Huh?

Cursed child–Harry, Albus, Scorpius? Every child who has issues with Dad/Dad figure? The unknown kid in the cover image?

What on earth is that cover image? A nest with owl wings?

 

Curses, Child!

Here we are, a week after I was supposed to have bought the Cursed Child and devoured it in one euphoric sitting. By now I should been well into the Joan Mitchell biog. I picked up from the library, even with time allowed to re-read favorite parts of CS.

Somehow, once I’d decided to postpone buying the book, I forgot to buy it all together. I forgot to write it down. It’s been true for quite some time now: If I don’t write a thing down, it doesn’t exist. I can’t say when I would’ve remembered had I not passed the wonderful Books of Wonder on 18th Street and seen Cursed Child in the window.

This was Wednesday. Lunchtime. I sat in the kitchen with some leftover pasta carbonara and open the book. For a few pages, it read more or less the way I thought it would, picking up the last chapter of Deathly Hallows. It was strange to see paragraphs winnowed into one-line bits of dialogue. Right, this was a script—a “Special Rehearsal Edition Script,” as the cover trumpets. (I could imagine the marketing meeting about the cover design. “Is there any other kind of script?” someone asked. “No.” The presenter, standing with a huge full-screen mockup. “It just sounds good. I mean, come on—it’s the eighth Harry Potter book! If that isn’t special, I don’t know what is.”)

But it wasn’t Deathly Hallows, in play form. Not for long. Page 10: Ron greets his niece Lily Potter with a…trick. Huh?

“RON: Are you aware of the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes-certified nose-stealing breath?

ROSE: Mum! Dad’s doing that lame thing again.”

Lame is right. Why is Ron doing lame jokes? He was never funny, like George and Fred—not intentionally, anyway. Is this the hand of Jack Thorne, the playwright?

Anyway. We’re still in Hallows territory. Albus get on the Hogwarts Express, with Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter. They’re looking for somewhere to sit. Remember Harry’s first trip? Rose does. She reminds Albus that his dad and her parents met on that first train. To my dismay, Rose reveals herself to be a terrible snob from the get-go—she wants to find just the right people to sit with, the ones deserving of being friends with the children of Harry, Ron and Hermione. But Albus ends up wanting to sit with—

All right. I’m not going to give anything away. Just in case you find the first part more riveting than I did. I found I was perfectly capable of putting the book down after lunch, and not looking at it again until I was in bed. At which point I read only a few pages before my eyes grew heavy. I put the book down and fell asleep. No all-nighter for me!

Michiko—how could you steer me so wrong?

I’m sorely missing Rowling’s voice. And her world building. And character development. I wonder why she didn’t just write this as a novel?

Well. I need to finish it before I say anything more. I’m on page 94—about a third of the way through. I’m going to try to get a chunk read this weekend.

The Harry Potter All-nighter

 

The night Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows was released I stayed up ’til 5 am reading feverishly. Like a vampire, my time would be up come morning. I was going to have to hand it over to my son, who waiting eagerly for me to pick him up at sleep-away camp. (It never occurred to me to buy two copies. I’d like to say it’s because of how deeply I believe in sharing, but it has more to do with my Puritan  horror of excess and lack of discipline. What–buy TWO books, just because I can’t for my turn?)

Is there another all-nighter in my future? The New York Times most senior book reviewer, the august Michiko Kakutani, is calling Cursed Child “a compelling, stay-up-all-night read.”

Now I’m not a rabid follower of Michiko or anything. I respect her. She’s not a gusher. She seems more inclined to hate something than love it. For Michiko to say a work is “compelling,” is astonishing enough. If she’d said it was compelling and stopped there, I’d go ahead with my plan to buy the book (script, rather) today.

But she’s saying it’s so incredible, I’m gonna be up all night reading it. And because she’s baldly saying this–could it be the first time Michiko’s ever called a book a stay-up-all-nighter?–I believe it. I feel the truth of it. On the one hand, I’m thrilled, as every Harry Potter fan has to be, that the script is so gripping. But man oh man–do I want to be up all night tonight? I’m nine years older than I was when Deathly Hallows came out. Do I have the stamina? Do I even have the will? (She whines. I know, nine years older and whinier.) I know if I buy it, I won’t have a choice. I’ll be up all night. Unless I ran out and bought it right now. Then I’d have to forgo the writing and research I was going to do this afternoon. I don’t have quite as much Puritan self-discipline as I like to give myself credit for.

I should wait for the weekend. Yes. Buy it Friday. If I stay up all night Friday, I can sleep in Saturday. Perfect.

Do I really have to wait ’til Friday, though?

Yes. I do. It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read. I’m going to finish Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (it’s absorbing enough). I’m not going to the bookstore.

Good. I’ve decided. A good decision. Right.

Right.

Harry Potter!

Harry Potter’s back! Behold the window display in my local independent bookstore for a midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

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A release party! Just like the good old days, when J.K. Rowling produced her seven Harry books ever year or so, starting in 1998 (stunning, given how long and complex the later books were). My bookstore, Bookcourt, has clearly been missing those years. “Costumes welcome!” the handwritten sign (so Mugglish) reads. “Butterbeer! Get sorted into your Hogwarts house! Make your own wand at Ollivander’s!”

I have to admit I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the news about a Harry Potter play opening in London. I’d gotten the Amazon emails, trumpeting my chance to pre-order the script. “Why would I want to read a play script,” I grumbled to myself. I’m as big a Harry fan as the next person—which is to say big—but this just seemed like a massive, cynical marketing ploy Why would Rowling write a play when she could write a novel? The play couldn’t be any good. Well. it’s rave review in today’s New York Times changed my mind about that. The review tried not to give too much away—in keeping with the level of secrecy that Rowling always insists on prelaunch, quite rightly—and I know just enough to know I’m going to have to buy this damn thing, a “rehearsal edition script,” whatever that is. After all, I won’t be getting over to London anytime soon. (The play is reportedly sold out until next May.) When’s that release party again?

I have fond memories of going to a midnight bookstore party for the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My husband and I were in Hanover, N.H.,  spending the night before picking our son up from camp the next day. It was the night be before  would be released–and of course, we didn’t know the title then, we didn’t know anything. The Hanover book store was having a release party at midnight. We went with another couple, friends who were  picking up their son at the same camp. The bookstore was packed, of course. I remember being pushed backward by the crowd. I was resigned to waiting many hours before being able to buy a book, when all of a sudden our friends–tall and determined–pushed their way to the front of the line and bought a book for all of us. Heroes!  I remember reading late into to night, and having trouble rousing myself for the trip to camp. When we got there, our son took possession of the book, and for days afterward, I waited impatiently for him to go to sleep at night. There was no other time for me to read, except when he was in bed. My longing to get on with the book drove me to distraction. But we did end up sharing the book,  the three of us, Dan, my son and I. For some reason, it never occurred to us to buy more than one book. No, there was one, and it was precious.

How nice it would to have that feeling again! And maybe I will.

 

 

 

 

Highlights

I participated in a four-day picture-book boot camp at the Highlights Foundation last weekend. Days later, I’m still sifting through my thoughts about the whole experience, what I learned, and what I had to relearn.

There were twenty of us, all author-illustrators save for four –five?–who were writers only. The whole weekend, I thought of myself as “just” a writer, a lesser person, frankly, than these extraordinary individuals who could tell a story both in words and pictures. Honestly, I’d never recognized how much work goes into the pictures alone.

 

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The Highlights campus lies in bucolic northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles from the town of Honesdale,  home of the Highlights magazines for kids. Here’s the barn, where we met for meals and had many of our critique sessions. It really reminded me of the lodge of my summer camp, Green Cove, down in North Carolina. The food was much better, though. The food was astoundingly good. Everything was from a farmer’s market. Eggs  and sweet New Jersey blueberries at breakfast; homemade soups and salad and hearty breads at lunch; for some reason I’m blanking on the dinners, but they were delicious, too. And with all that,  because we are children’s writers, after all, we could have ice cream anytime we wanted. That’s right. Highlights has an ice-cream bar. With sprinkles. Two kinds. You’re searching for the Highlights schedule right now, aren’t you?

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Most of us stayed in individual cabins like this. Simple inside, with two single beds, a dresser, a small desk, a mini fridge (with seltzer and sodas inside–a thoughtful touch). Here are three of our talented group–from left to right Merrill Rainey, Kristen Bannister and Sabina Hahn. I feel sure you’ll be seeing their names in print at some point soon. It’s a funny thing, how quickly  strangers can bond when they have a common goal. We were all there to polish a particular work, and we were all eager to share it with our own kind. We were members of a tribe coming together for the first time.

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I worship the faculty–four noted author-illustrators,  Pat Cummings, Denise Fleming, Steve Light and Floyd Cooper. Here’s Steve in the Barn, talking about his career. My photo’s crummy, but note the fantastic ink illustration on the screen. Each one of them gave me something valuable to think about.

The crux of the weekend was a 15-minute meeting, for each of us, with a publishing trio: an editor, an agent and an art director. Of course, we were all incredibly nervous. And hopeful; a few of us had agents or books already out, but most (like me) were looking for their big break. I was pitching a biography that I thought was compelling, naturally.

It wasn’t for them. So be it. I did get some feedback I can run with,  having to do with digging more deeply into my character. That rang true to me, and that’s what I’m working on now.

Other boot-camp takeaways:

  1. Make a dummy for every revision. I mean writers–it’s obvious that author-illustrators need to make them. A dummy magically reveals where the story falters or where it needs more room–it’s astonishing. I knew this, and yet had managed to arrive at boot camp without a dummy for my manuscript. Denise Fleming, bless her, had a pile of ready-mades ones that she’d brought for us. ( I think she said she’d stitched them on a sewing machine. She’s amazing.) Once I’d put mine together, I saw all kinds of possibilities I hadn’t before.
  2. Make your writing irresistible to read out loud. Punch up the text. Shorten sentences, use lively verbs.  Cut out any “then”s. (This last was Floyd’s pet peeve, and for good reason. A “then” is usually a sign of flabby writing.)
  3. Stay true to your idea, and to your writing, but keep an eye on the realities of the marketplace. Some ideas aren’t going to lead to a book deal. Which leads to….
  4. It’s not you it’s me: Editors’s decisions are subjective. They like what they like, and sometimes they don’t want things for reasons that are entirely personal. As Pat put it, in her inimitable way, if you’re pitching a cat book to an editor who was mauled by a cat as a child, that editor isn’t going to want your book, no matter how good it is. Knowing this doesn’t prevent the sucker punch of rejection, but it’s something.

I know my group of boot campers is hard at work right now, using the ideas and inspiration from the weekend. A few are already starting to submit. One may well have a contract (I’m waiting for confirmation).  I salute this talented bunch!  In one or two year’s time, boot campers’ will have books on sale. Fingers crossed.

 

 

 

 

A Brooklyn Walk

I was walking home from the southern end of Hicks Street, where I’d taken my car for an inspection, when a bridge appeared in front of me–a metal pedestrian bridge that stretched over the busy four lanes of two-way traffic. In two decades of driving up and down Hicks, I’d never registered the existence of this bridge. Which is really strange, but there it was. Of course, I had to walk across it. Here’s the view north:

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And to the east:

 

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There’s nothing like a bridge for a new perspective. Walking on the other side of Hicks now, I passed a slim hardback book sitting on top of a garbage bin.

 

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Will do, I thought. I picked up the book. I was fated to take it, wasn’t I? When I saw it was written by a Google engineer, I decided against it. I wasn’t going to assign Google the power of the universe. Enough already. But I admired the contrast of the vibrant blue against the battered wood. It’s a Brooklyn tradition, to leave books outside for others to take. Granted, most of the books are old, quirky or obscure titles that no one else wants either, but the impulse is nice, I’ve always thought.

 

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Taking Sackett Street east, I passed this evocative painting hanging in a window and realized I knew the painter: Ken Rush, who taught art for many years at my children’s primary and middle school, Packer. What an oddly satisfying 10-minute walk, which began with something new and ended with a memory from the past.

L.A. Story

In Los Angeles for two days, there was time for only the highlights of the sprawling city–food, art and beach. Heavenly fare at Gjelina, not too far from the Getty Center (and we glimpsed Christoph Walz, of Quentin Tarantino’s must-see films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, having lunch with his wife and a son ). Also tasty: Norah, in West Hollywood (I feel kind of cool being able to throw around “West Hollywood,” as if I know what I’m talking about) and Otium, next to The Broad museum. You’re now starting to get a sense of our schedule: Museum in the morning, then satisfying lunch with some kind of alcoholic elixir. Brilliant combo, which leaves the rest of the day pleasantly open to aimless wandering. The distance between areas of interest are usually enough to discourage concentrated site seeing.

A few things I love about L.A.:

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That you can find a exterior museum view as breathtaking as anything inside. This is from the Getty Center.

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This, too. And:

 

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At The Broad, Robert Therrien’s big table and chairs!

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Without warning: beautiful cacti.

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Paparazzi! They look like something…out of a movie! Here hanging outside of Craig’s restaurant on Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood. They shrugged when we asked who they were waiting for. “David Spade’s inside,” one offered. David Spade…who knew he was still famous?

 

An End and a Beginning

My daughter has graduated from high school. It’s been two weeks but I’m still up to my chest in emotion, all the stronger this time around because she’s my youngest child.

There’s no holding back the swelling pride and wonder that comes along with seeing your child, in the long black robe, walking down the aisle as you look on, in this case under the vast vaulted nave of St. John the Divine in northern Manhattan.

It was a joyful, celebratory day, but—underneath it all, for me, the sadness of knowing that life as I know it—the parenting life—is coming to an end. Do I have to say I’m empty nester? The bird analogy is so cheesy.

Do people who are empty nesters actually call themselves empty nesters? I’m starting to think only people who are about to be empty nesters—and are dreading it, like I am—use that term. Sort of like people who are about to turn forty or fifty can’t stop talking about how awful it is to be turning forty or fifty. Once you’re actually there, once the condition is real instead of speculative, then you don’t need to label it. You’re simply in it. It’s once again your life, but a new way of living in which the kids are in college. Once they are out of college, they are officially grown up. “Our children are grown.” I’m going to feel so old when I have to start saying that. That’s a whole other issue: How old I’m going to feel without kids in the house. There’s no getting around it. Once you have to say your kids are in college, people know pretty much how old you are. They know you’re at least in your 40s, and probably older. Which is fine, I’m not at all trying to hide my age, but it’s just unsettling, that the math is so obvious. It’s less so when you’re in your 40s and have toddlers. People may suspect you had kids late, but no one’s going to ask; it’s info that’s yours to share or not.

It’s weird to think of the free time awaiting us. Granted, Vanessa doesn’t take up a ton of time at this point; long gone are the crazy days of 6 am-9pm parenting. I’ll miss what little I do do, though. Making sure we have Vanessa-only foods—almond milk and almond butter, sweet potatoes and cartloads of bananas and those amazing dark-chocolate-covered pretzels from the fancy market around the corner. Come to think of it, keeping her fed is the main thing. I love that role. I’ll miss having coffee with her in the morning before school, one of the day’s few quiet moments. I’d commiserate about tests coming up, with any luck get a snatch of high-school gossip. Only a few moments, ten, fifteen minutes. Then a few words maybe after school, but then then we convene again at dinnertime. We mostly love the same foods and on weekends we cook together. It’s usually just the two of us, because Dan travels frequently and is often home late. Throughout the kids’ childhood, he’s rarely been home when the kids ate at 6:30 pm. Vanessa and I still generally eat around then. When she leaves, so will the dinner routine of twenty years. That’s an odd thing to contemplate. I’m likely going to have many nights when I’m on my own for dinner. Will I go European and have something like soup or bread and cheese? Will I drag empty-nester friends out to hip Bklyn eateries? I could become a regular at a cool but low-key local joint (there are some definite possibilities in my ‘hood). “I’ll have my usual, Louie.”

I have to concentrate on how absolutely great it’ll be to have all this new time—for writing, for one thing—and not on why I have all this free time. I get all weepy when I think about all that is coming to an end—not just child-rearing but a twenty-year period that looking back, were the bounty years. The years of being young but with responsibilities, years of energy and ambition, when the future was still vast.

I know I’ll shake off this melancholy and come to terms with the next stage. I figure by mid-fall—a month or two after Vanessa’s gone. With my first-born, Davison, I moped for three months, but everything’s faster the second time around. I’ll shoot for one month, because I have a terrible feeling Vanessa will has some kind of school break come October, and I’ll need to be on solid emotional footing by then. Wish me luck.

Thoughts on Hemingway

Generation gap? My daughter, Vanessa, is reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and can’t stand it. In her view his characters do no more than meander through life, glass in hand. “All they do is drink,” she says disdainfully.

I, too, read Hemingway in high school (hasn’t everybody?). But I found all the drinking, amid the bull fighting of Pamplona, kind of glamorous. Drinking counts as doing something, doesn’t it? Then again, when I was my daughter’s age—18—I liked beer and wine and had already discovered that rum gave me a crushing hangover. Vanessa doesn’t like any kind of alcoholic beverage I can see it might be difficult to settle in with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises if you aren’t wondering what a Jack Rose is—one of the drinks Jake orders—and half wishing you were in the Paris hotel bar with him. (Turns out a Jack Rose is composed of applejack, grenadine and lemon or lime juice. Hmm. Not sure what to make of it.)

The drinking scenes throughout Hemingway’s oeuvre are famous enough to have inspired Philip Greene’s Hemingway cocktail compendium, To Have and Have Another, a second edition of which came out last year.

Of course, the drinking is not the only reason Vanessa shuns Hemingway. She’s indifferent to the unvarnished style that made him famous. She finds it really boring. I’m fascinated by her confidence here. I don’t remember feeling as if I could not like Hemingway. We were expected to appreciate, if not revel in, the short declarative sentences, his insistence on cutting away everything but the essence, leaving the reader to interpret what is left unsaid. (That’s what I vaguely remember. If I’m misrepresenting Hem, let me know.)

Thinking about him now, I know I didn’t just like him because I was supposed to. That man could write. Okay, he was clearly a male chauvinist pig. But he could write. Here’s something he once said about the training of a would-be writer, in an interview with Paris Review editor George Plimpton, back in 1958 (as printed in Newsweek):

“Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

P.S. In my local Barnes & Noble, on the “Books Everyone Must Read” table, two Hemingway classics lie front and center:

 

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I spotted For Whom the Bell Tolls on another side of the table, along with The Old Man and the Sea. He was the only author to have more than two books, and only two had more than one–Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut. What does this mean? Is it a reflection of Hemingway’s stature in American literature? Are the B&N staff composed of big fans? The former seems more likely than the latter.

 

Stories from the Past

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This book was sitting on a stool outside of a second-hand store calling to me. It was published in 1932 (there were four copyrights, and ’32 was the most recent). The name of a onetime owner—the last?—is Eulalia M. Cunningham. (I’ve heard of Eulalie but not Eulalia—lovely name. Lilting.) Her name is written on the copyright page, along with the words “Christmas 1944.” On the front page, in a more childish script, Eulalia herself (I’m guessing) wrote, “E. Cunningham, and then, having realized she forgot something, “E.M. Cunningham.” She added a Christmas sticker to the page, just the way a child would—it’s randomly placed on the left side of the page, toward the bottom—just where it happened to come off her fingers. A man and a woman in a sleigh, with a Christmas tree sticking out the back. Just think—a seventy-two year-old sticker!

The title page says the stories are selected from John Martin’s Book, which was a popular children’s magazine, aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, published from 1912 to 1933. (Thank you, Google.) John Martin was a pseudonym of founder Morgan Shepard. I couldn’t find any info on why it folded, but far bigger enterprises than this failed during the Great Depression. John Martin’s Book must’ve continued to resonate with readers if this book was available for purchase in 1944. (It’s not easy to find a ten-year-old book these days—not unless it’s an enduring classic.)

This is one dense book, with marvelous black-and-white drawings on nearly ever page. There are not just stories but poems, biographies, riddles and even pictograms.

Check this out:

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I can’t figure out the meaning of the line with the feather and the flat iron. A feather sail an iron for a ship?

Riddles! These are kind of complicated. And a bit weird. Hats off to the five- to eight-year-olds who are getting these:IMG_2926

There’s always something about stories from past eras that startles or even shocks. In a few of the stories here, people get hurt, and good. “Tommy Elephant Discovers the Railroad,” a monkey named Fibber-Jibber convinces Tommy that a strange creature running along a new jungle trail wouldn’t dare hurt as large an animal as Tommy. So Tommy stands on the train tracks, in front of an oncoming train. Yikes!  He gets hit, naturally. There’s an illustration showing the elephant, head over heels, while the train rushes past. He’s not killed, which he surely would be in real life, but he’s badly bruised—-much to Fibber-Jibber’s amusement. It’s hard to imagine this was ever funny to anyone, but it must’ve been. Americans of the early 20th century clearly didn’t think of animals as stand-ins for boys and girls, the way we do today. At least not wild animals. (Perhaps that changed with Babar, published in 1931?) Fibber-Jibber gets a punishment of sorts. Using his trunk, Tommy hoses him repeatedly, until he’s a “very wet, but much wiser” monkey, who doesn’t play any more tricks on Tommy for a  “long, long, long” time.

There’s a tale called “Catskin,” which reads much like Cinderella except there’s no glass shoe and no stepsisters, and the heroine is, yes, wearing an outfit made out of—catskin! No wonder this story has slid into obscurity. Oh, and also, the cook beats the poor girl like nobody’s business. She’s forever breaking a ladle or a skimmer over Catskin’s head. Incredibly—thankfully—Catskin is always “none the worse.” She sneaks off to go to balls, where she meets a squire (not a prince, but quite good enough). Before long she marries him and lives happily ever after. With brain damage, no doubt.

There are Grimm-like stories like this one, but many others. The variety is pretty astonishing. Origin stories, such as how corn got its ear and how the woodpecker came to be. Christian stories—St. Francis convinces robbers to change their ways. A story about Mozart as a young boy. A tale about St. George and the dragon.

I can’t say the poetry impressed me, but I am impressed with the presence of the poetry. It’s so tough to get kids to read poetry today–to give it a chance!  Shepard, writing as John Martin, contributed a poem that I wouldn’t mind reading to little ones:

A Magic

One day I saw a rule hand
Rise up to strike a heartless blow,
It did not stop to count the cost,
It did not care to know.

And then I heard some gentle words;
They worked a magic, sweet and calm,
Their gentle power held that hand
So it could do no harm.

One day I heard an angry voice,
Its words would neither think no spare,
How deep they cut another’s heart
It did not know nor care.

And then your gentle words were said.
The angry voice to softness fell.
Repentance quivered in that voice
Beneath your magic spell.

Oh, it is strong, and fine, and good
To find what gentle words will do.
I’m sure that they are always best,
And bravest too—aren’t you?

 

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