Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hamlet-Libs: There's More Madness than Method

I'm sure you've done this before, but a good literary mad-lib always makes me giggle.

Hamlet's Soliloquy
To curse, or not to curse -- that is the delight:
Whether 'tis nobler in the foot to embrace
The scissors and roses of yellowing goldfish
Or to take arms against a fjord of flags,
And by billowing end them. To extinguish -- to smile;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural needles
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a thirst
Devoutly to be wish'd. To extinguish, to smile;
To smile -- perchance to kiss: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of agony what dreams may frown
When we have billowed off this mortal snakeskin,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The cinnamon sticks of despis'd rapture, the law's delay,
The angst of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy strokes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a raging wire coat hanger? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and fall under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after desire --
The undiscover'd glacier, from whose bourn
No mechanical engineer returns -- tears the will,
And makes us rather slap those ills we have
Than rage to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make gardeners of us all,
And thus the weeping hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the purple button of thought,
And sparrows of vivid pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of dormouse. Earnest you now!
The chastised Michael! -- Nymph, in thy books
Be all my shelves remember'd.

(What a plea to end on!) If you want to play (you know you do!), go to Crazy Libs and scroll down to Classic Stories. Feel free to post any particularly great warpings in the comments.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang

I'm not quite sure what to make of Mordecai Richler's Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (illustrations by Fritz Wegner, who I know for The Little Cat Baby).

On the one hand, I feel compelled to give it points for being such an odd, funny little book. The situations in the story become crazier and crazier, building on hilarious horrors like a children's prison with a Happy Nightmare Hour and an agent of evil who secretly puts puzzle pieces in the wrong boxes, so no one can ever solve them. Richler also plays on children's delight in stories where most grown-ups are villainous and must be outwitted by resourceful kids (think Roald Dahl). And I love the "reveal" with the Hooded Fang at the end.

On the other hand, I keep wondering about Richler's audience. The 1975 New York Times reviewer claimed, "I haven't the vaguest idea who it's written for and don't care," but I want to know who the target age group is. suggests a reading range of 9 to 12. Jacob Two-Two, however, is is only "two plus two plus two" years old, and protagonists are rarely younger than their intended readers, so I would assume that the readers are meant to be those who most identitfy with Jacob's inability to "ride two-wheeled bicycles, dial a telephone number, whistle, do joined-up writing, play checkers, and catch a ball." Yet the reading level and humor of the book seem beyond most six-year-olds. The book could be read aloud (it seems to written for that purpose), but some of the things that would be funny to an eight-year-old would still be confusing to a six-year-old (i.e. dream sequences that aren't explicitly explained and fears of a real court that might lock up children for accidentally insulting "big people").

Ah. I have just found a review of Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (the sequel to The Hooded Fang) that recommends pushing the reading age up to 9 because of the cynical humor of the book, particularly in regard to authority figures.

Apparently, none of my concerns have kept Jacob Two-Two from popularity. I was surprised to find a recent television series based off of Jacob Two-Two, as well as two movies, and, of course, the rest of the book series.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Library Booksale!

Today was a special event, an event that only comes twice a year: the McCracken County Friends of the Library Book Sale!

I didn't take as many pictures as I thought I would because I was too busy elbowing my way through the crowd.

Here is Saint Paul's fellowship hall at the end of the sale. (To those in the area still hoping to buy books, the sale opens to the general public tomorrow at 9am and closes at 7pm; on Saturday you can shop from 9am to 1pm. As you can see, there's plenty left.)

The family "book cart," second load.

People in line to pay, wondering what I'm taking pictures of.

My haul (minus one book, for a friend). You should have seen the ones that got away! (Lack of shelving kept me from being overly impulsive.) So happy!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An Odd Odyssey

Here's a little game. If you know all the answers, get a few wrong anyway--more fun that way. (P.S. It's more entertaining to pick Odysseus.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Research into variations of a certain form of fairytale led me to The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated by Jack Zipes, and now I'm all caught up in discovering stories I've never read before and rediscovering childhood favorites. (Note: Those familiar with the grotesqueness of original fairytales will know why I wasn't introduced to many of these as a child... and the Grimms' versions are still considered "sanitized.") In my mind, as in fairytales, one thing leads to another, and I started to think of interpretations of various stories...

So, today, "Rumpelstiltskin" (sometimes Rumpelstiltskin):

Vivian Vande Velde's The Rumpelstiltskin Problem will always be a favorite of mine. In her introduction, Velde complains that Rumpelstiltskin is the most convoluted and illogical of the popular fairytales (i.e. Where does a poor miller's daughter get a ring and gold necklace? And why would you want them if you could spin straw into gold? And doesn't the king sound like a horrible sort of husband?). Each of Velde's six tales reinterprets "Rumpelstiltskin" in a different and delightful way, while filling in some of its plot holes.

In the realm of picture books, it seems like there's Paul O. Zelinsky's Rumpelstiltskin... and then somewhere at the bottom of the ladder there's every other version. Zelinsky's illustrations are rich and glowing, and I love his Renaissance details (i.e. "the strange little man" has a gold piece attached to his hat brim as a sign of his trade). I didn't think another illustrator could hold a candle to this version...

...until I saw The Girl Who Spun Straw into Gold written by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. The story is based on a West Indian version of "Rumpelstiltskin." The Dillons' illustrations are lavish: gold-leaf, scrumptious clothing, and architecture that is almost a character itself. I particularly love the changes in the illustrations as Quashiba moves from being afraid of to being ticked off at her greedy husband.

There are several story-cousins to Rumpelstiltskin. One of the funniest in my Brothers Grimm collection is "The Three Spinners," in which three strange-looking women help a lazy maiden complete an impossible spinning task and get her out of ever having to spin again. More recently, the January 1994 (vol. 12, no. 5) issue of Cricket published "The Old Woman and the Imp" written by Sophie Masson, illustrated by George Riemann, in which the "imp" (obviously, though unnamed, Rumpelstiltskin) matches wits with an old spinner who is just as sneaky as he is.

Because you've all been so good: The Fractured Fairy Tales version by A.J. Jacobs and an odd little poem.

(Book cover images from Vivian Vande Velde,, and Children's Books for Parents.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

It's sad that I have been a reader and a Christian for this long and this is my first attempt at reading one of C.S. Lewis' nonfiction works (I've read The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, part of The Space Trilogy, and a short story or two). I doubt I have much to say about Mere Christianity that hasn't already been said, so I'll be brief.

Mere Christianity was not quite what I was expecting. I found myself arguing with Lewis all the way through the book, but when I got to the end I had to admit that I agreed with his basic statements. I suppose what made me argumentative was the knowledge that if I didn't already believe what he was writing about, I seriously doubt I would have been convinced by his arguments. Particularly since a large portion of his arguments consist of "What if the world was really more like [insert analogy] instead?" which is interesting, but not exactly irrefutable logic and made me want to ask, "Or what if it's really more like a kumquat?"

I can't, however, think of many other books that give such a concise and quotable summary of basic Christian beliefs. Below are a couple favorites:

I feel a strong desire to tell you--and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me--which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse (160).

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call "humble" nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all (114).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Other Writers" Myths, or Occupational Neuroses

Some days, I can write and write and at the end of the evening realize that almost everything I've typed is going to be cut out in the next round of edits. Then my mind starts building on this despair with stories about what other, better writers do. Some are true; I've read them in some writer's guidebook or blog somewhere. Some of them are just part of the inborn "Great Writer" legends we humble wordsmiths warmth ourselves over.

Don't tell me I'm the only one...

Other Writers
  1. Other writers sit down at their computers, tap out 50 pages, and then stretch and say, "Hmm... still another hour till lunch."
  2. Other writers do not pick up new books (or friends' drafts) with dread, afraid of another Crap! That's already been done too? moment.
  3. Other writers have memorized the Chicago Manual of Style, the dictionary, and Norton's Anthology of Really Impressive Poems. For fun.
  4. Other writers have secret parties where they drink Chardonnay and do imitations of saps who haven't finished their first novels yet.
  5. Other writers do not want to lie when asked, "So, what do you do?"
  6. Other writers do not forget how to spell their protagonists' names halfway through their drafts.
  7. Other writers do not stop in the middle of writing their climaxes and think, I'd really like a chicken sandwich.
  8. Other writers would not rather play with their cats than work.
  9. Other writers do not repeat with increasing desperation, "A novel is how many pages?"
  10. Other writers will be hunted down, one by one; shot with an elephant gun; and arranged to be found holding their least favorite books.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Excuse me while I gush. I loved The Power and the Glory. I loved Graham Greene's combination of suspense and absurdity. I loved the balance of the human and the divine. I loved lines like:
Sometimes, instructing children in the old days, he had been asked by some black lozenge-eyed Indian child, 'What is God like?' and he would answer facilely with references to the father and the mother, or perhaps more ambitiously he would include brother and sister and try to give some idea of all loves and relationships combined in an immense and yet personal passion... But at the centre of his faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but he was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God's image had thought out, and God's image shook now, up and down on the mule's back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God's image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said, 'Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?' and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God's image.

Greene is certainly not the first author to write this sort of line, or even the best, but what I love about The Power and the Glory is Greene's juxtaposition of Christian ideals with the ridiculousness and grime of his characters' lives. The unnamed "whisky priest" risks his life performing mass and giving the sacraments, but what he really wants is a drink. Luis' mother reads to him about saints and martyrs, but the only "holy men" she's seen for years have been the whisky priest and Padre José, who has denied his faith and married.

History: As I was reading, I wasn't sure if The Power and the Glory (originally titled Labyrinthine Ways) was based on real politics or a sort of Orwellian "possible future." Turns out, that the novel is based on Catholic persecution that Greene witnessed in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution. Goes to show how much I know about Mexican history.

What is the most intriguing to me is the Catholic Church's original response (though 14 years after publication) to Greene's novel. While not condemning the novel outright, officials considered it dangerously "paradoxical" and admonished Greene against writing more of the same. (I generally consider paradoxy a marker of Christianity: "He who would save his life must lose it..." and all that.) When Greene met with Pope Paul VI, however, the pope basically told him not to worry about it, some people just would be silly.

(Book cover image from here.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not Just for Kids

I suppose it says something about my immediate family that no one in it is under twenty and yet there were still several children's picture books given out this Christmas. Among these were...

The Milkman written by Carol Foskett Cordsen, illustrated by Douglas B. Jones. Cordsen's rhyming sentence fragments read aloud well. While a few of the phrases may be unfamiliar to young children, they should become obvious in the context of Douglas' illustrations. The illustrations are uber-nostalgic (and reminiscent of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel). Young readers will love watching for the milkman's cat and the "missing" puppy.

Ten Minutes till Bedtime by Peggy Rathman (of Goodnight, Gorilla and Officer Buckle and Gloria fame). This is one of those "short" bedtime stories that can take forever to read, especially if you want to count all the little hamsters, and heck, I know I do!

Loud Emily written by Alexis O'Neill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. I imagine that this story could cause some trouble when parents say, "Use your indoor voice" ("But Emily's loud, and she saved everyone from being smashed to bits!"), but I love that this book is about a young girl who speaks up (quite literally) and finds her place in the world. Also, the story follows the deliciously bizarre logic of children's-picture-book world, and Carpenter's American folk-style illustrations are the perfect expression for Emily's outlandish adventures.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gifts for the English Major in Your Life (3)

The Jane Austen action figure. I have this one, but there's also Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe. (Image from here).

All Natural Tasty Notebooks from Ivy Lane Designs on Etsy.

If you have $400 lying around (and who doesn't?), how about this one-of-a-kind Writer Charm Bracelet (also on Etsy) from Caitlin M. Shurilla? Includes etched pen nibs, etched letters spelling WRITE, cast sterling silver paper with bits of text, cast sterling silver wads of paper with text, etc.

Supposedly, the poet Friedrich Schiller needed the smell of apples rotting in his desk drawer to help him write. So perhaps apple (and blueberry and grape and...) scented pencils from Laurentien will banish writer's block. Or you can always try pencils marketed for just that purpose, both the inspirational and the absurd.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God by Sybil MacBeth

She had me at Chapter -5.

The (short) introductory chapters on prayer in Praying in Color count backward down to Chapter 1, where Sybil MacBeth begins to explain her own method. And at that bizarre little numbering system, I knew I was going to like this book.

Let me add here that this is a book for people who pray like I pray... distractedly. This is a book for fidgetters. The idea behind it is not so much to still the body and the mind for prayer, but to focus the mind through involving the body in prayer and to use visuals as a prayer aid (both for prayer itself and for prayer reminders).

The Praying in Color theory is extremely simple (and the book, at just over 100 p., is extremely short): "When I draw as a way to enter prayer, I get to delight in my prayer and to feel God's delight that I am making an effort to pray." As someone who is always trying to connect the Arts and Christianity, I appreciated MacBeth's belief that prayer could be creative.

The cherry on the cake would be that this is a very well written little book. Authors of how-to books are not usually this enjoyable and honest:

"I feel quite free to make a mess of my personal prayer life; but when someone says, 'Please pray for me," they are not just saying, 'Let's have lunch sometime.' They are issuing an invitation into the depths of their lives and into their humanity--and often with some urgency. They are publicly exposing their vulnerability, sorrow, and fear. Something about their life is so out-of-control that they call upon the likes of me for help. I warn them: sometimes the people I've prayed for have died. It's a risk."

Finally, the proof is in the practice. I find I enjoy longer times of prayer when I include colored pencils and paper, and drawing helps me focus on what I'm praying for and who I'm praying to. I'm not, unfortunately, having an easier time remembering the person I'm praying for during the rest of the day. This may, however, say more about my memory than it says about Praying in Color. But using MacBeth's ideas with passages of Scripture does help me remember what I've been reading beyond the moment I close my Bible.

I'll definitely be adding Praying in Color to my devotional repertoire.

Friday, January 9, 2009

West Wind: Poetry and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver

A sinus infection and a bad internet connection have interrupted my blogging plans, so I have a bit of catching up to do...

You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
~ Mary Oliver,
"West Wind #2"

When I was taking Contemporary Lit. in college, I went to a Mary Oliver reading on the professor's recommendation. Afterwards, the professor asked me what I thought. I had connected to the few Mary Oliver poems we read in class, yet... "Well, I enjoyed it. But... um--for a contemporary poet she, well, seemed kind of 'old school' to me."

I couldn't explain I meant by 'old school' at the time, but now I realize that there were two elements in Oliver's work that stumped me.

First, after being told over and over that most of my poems would be better off with the last two lines chopped off, Oliver's conclusions sometimes seemed amateurishly overstated. She was blatant in ways I never could have gotten away with in a college workshop.

Second, Oliver's poems lacked the edginess that I had come to assume was a necessary part of contemporary poetry.

I felt embarrassed by my lack of appreciation for the Pulitzer-winning poet, so it was with joy and relief that I recently ambled through West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems. The author is so delighted with the transient beauty of the world, so full of awe and expectation, that it's no surprise that she seemed a little naive to me. There is no slyness in her work. Reading West Wind is like taking a walk with Oliver in her own backyard. She gives you the weight of her meaning with the same simplicity with which she might hand you an interesting stone. I still sometimes feel the sacrilegious need to lop of a last word or line from some of Oliver's poems ("Pilot Snake," for instance), but I wonder sometimes if this isn't because I've been trained to be less generous in my writing.

I'm a pretty selfish poetry reader too. What I look for most in poet is that "yes" moment. The moment in which I say, "Yes, that's exactly how that is, but I never could have said it that way" or, even better, "How does she know? How does she know it feels just that way, but only to me?" It doesn't matter how beautiful the language or refined the style is, if I don't have that "yes" moment, I leave a poetry collection disappointed. I was not often disappointed with West Wind. I've read the poem "Black Oaks" about six times now. The whole poem is like a "yes" moment, but the lines that clinched it for me were "Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from /one boot to another--why don't you get going?" It is hard for me to pull a single line out of any one of the poems in West Wind because the lines were made for the poem and not the other way around (which tends to be my temptation when I write), and I don't know when to stop quoting.

There is not a large variation in tone, theme, or subject in West Wind, and this may keep Oliver out of my very favorite poets list, but West Wind is arranged so that the poems build gently on the same ideas. Not many collections feel as perfectly ordered as this one. If she reminds me of a child at the beginning, by "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches," the last poem in the book, she seems ancient enough to ask, "Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?" and then explain what the world really is. I find that I accept her credibility as a guide without knowing at what point I gave in.