One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2012

‘Joy and Woe Are Woven Fine’ in Maurice Sendak’s ‘Bumble-Ardy’

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A birthday party goes haywire in a tale of an adopted pig whose parents “got ate”

Bumble-Ardy. By Maurice Sendak. Michael Di Capua/Harper Collins, 40 pp., $17.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maurice Sendak has often spoken of his admiration for William Blake, and in his latest book he develops a variation on the poet’s idea that “joy and woe are woven fine” in human life. Or, in this case, porcine life.

The author of "Where the Wild Things Are" returns with another wild rumpus

Bumble-Ardy transposes into a darker key a brief animated segment that Sendak and Jim Henson created for Sesame Street in 1970. Its hero is no longer a boy who throws a birthday party for himself on a whim while his mother is out. Bumble-Ardy is an 8-year-old pig who has survived the slaughter of parents who never gave him a birthday party. He lives with his adoptive aunt Adeline, who can’t see that he wants a big celebration when he turns nine. So he invites a group of swine to a masquerade after she leaves for work. He soon finds their sty full of costumed revelers — a jester, a pirate, Louis XIV and others – whose carousing turns into a six-page bacchanal reminiscent of the “wild rumpus” in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The party’s over when Adeline returns and threatens to turn the outsiders into ham if they don’t leave.

Sendak’s pictures express an idea larger than that of a birthday party gone haywire: the irretrievability of time. Bumble-Ardy brims with images of objects found in vanitas paintings, those symbol-filled art works about the transience of earthly life, or in their modern counterparts. His frontispiece and title spread show a birth certificate, a June 2008 calendar and the “Hogwash Gazette” along with pictures of Bumble-Ardy’s dead parents. Nearly every subsequent page has a memento mori, such as a skull, or another traditional symbol the brevity of life — a watch, mirror, dead flower, flickering candle, musical instrument, broken plate or a number representing minutes, days or years.

These images may have a melancholy undertone, but Bumble-Ardy isn’t funereal. Sendak applies his watercolors with a light hand and surrounds his memento mori with images full of  life. He also writes in lively rhyming poetry, beginning with a “Simple Simon” trochaic meter — “Bumble Ardy had no party when he turned one” — and moving on to iambic and anapestic couplets or triplets. If some verses work less well than in the more light-hearted Sesame-Street video, where music masked their imperfections, they offer a welcome counterpoint to the reminders of death. They have the spirit of “Three Blind Mice,” a nursery rhyme so bouncy you don’t dwell on the farmer’s wife who “cut off their tails with a carving knife.”

But Bumble-Ardy is at heart the story of a lonely and misunderstood pig who is — as child psychologists say — “resilient.” Its hero doesn’t sulk when nobody gives him a birthday party. He plans one for himself. And he tries desperately to please an aunt who is furious afterward: “I Promise! / I Swear! / I Won’t Ever / Turn Ten!” Adeline covers him with kisses, so the story ends happily enough, but Bumble-Ardy’s plight remains sad. He copes by denying reality: He “won’t ever” turn ten.

Sendak’s unwillingness to preach about such situations has always set him apart from authors who favor tidy solutions and has helped to earn him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s finest picture-book illustrators.  Bumble-Ardy stays the course. Sendak isn’t warning parents to do better than those of its hero. He is saying: This is reality for some children. His message isn’t a “message.” It is closer a question, written on a sign held by a pig: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Best line/picture: The six-page of the bacchanal, which includes visual references to Sendak’s earlier books and to those of other artists.

Worst line/Picture: Sendak says of Bumble-Ardy’s fifth, sixth, and seventh birthdays: “And five six seven just simply were not.” The line is wordy: It didn’t need both adverbs, “just” and “simply.” And the story includes an inherent contradiction. The book casts Bumble-Ardy as a young pig, but eight years old isn’t young for a pig: It’s at least middle-aged.

Published: September 2011

Furthermore: Sendak won a Caldecott Medal for his picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, which One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series.  Bumble-Ardy is the first book that he has written and illustrated since Outside Over There in 1981. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the follow button in the sidebar on this site.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a post about male artists’ dominance of the Caldecott awards.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 21, 2009

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ – What Color is Your 9/11 Novel?

Heard about the man who said after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”?

A GATE AT THE STAIRS: A NOVEL. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, 321 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

At the recent 35th anniversary party for the National Book Critics Circle, I spoke with a critic I admire, who said he found A Gate at the Stairs “really annoying.” I avoid self-referential words like “annoying” in reviews, but his comment tells you something. For all of its appearances on “Best of 2009” lists, this novel is – at best – an acquired taste.

Lorrie Moore is a witty and intelligent writer who has a distinctive style and a gift for close observation of modern life – all of which, in theory, ought to endear her to every serious reader. But she resembles the more talented John Updike, whose early short stories were his best work: She’s a miniaturist whose fine-grained brush works against the large canvas of a dense novel of more than 300 pages. In A Gate at the Stairs, all of her virtues don’t enable her to create believable characters or a satisfying plot.

It’s not that she doesn’t try to adjust her scale. Far from it: Moore strains to develop a big theme: the devastating effects of the everyday carelessness that results from national, familial, or individual complacency. This is a novel is about the big risks Americans take while going to absurd lengths to avoid small ones – a trait embodied by a character who seriously neglects a child while baking library books “to get rid of the germs.”

Tassie Keltjin is a potato farmer’s daughter and 20-year-old university student in a town that styles itself as “the Athens of the Midwest” when, just after the attacks of 2001, she finds her first boyfriend and a job as a part-time nanny for a callow professional couple who are adopting a mixed-race child. Her sheltered upbringing doesn’t allow her to see quickly enough that neither the man she loves nor her employers are who they appear to be. And Tassie’s fate represents in microcosm that of the country: She’s caught off guard, just as the nation was on Sept. 11.

This is a promising set-up, but Moore aims to do more than describe an upheaval in her narrator’s life. She adds broad social commentary, particularly about adoption and race, that clashes with her natural instinct for humor, wordplay, and, at times, the cute. Until the last 50 or so pages, you don’t feel the interest in her plot or characters that you should: The big picture keeps getting lost amid the cleverness and intricate embroidery of small images.

This aspect of the novel shows up especially in Moore’s promiscuous use of color, which makes you wonder if she’s spent too much time poring over a Sherwin-Williams catalog. She tells you colors that are unilluminating – that a man’s sweater was green, for example, when it doesn’t much matter whether it was green or blue, or that a casket was “cognac-colored” when most caskets are “cognac”-colored. She tells you colors that are redundant or confusing – that someone’s gums were “the pale lox pink of a winter tomato.” Why not just “pale lox pink”? Doesn’t she trust you to know the color of lox unless she mentions the tomato? And she tells you colors that are all of those things, and distracting, too. A dead soldier laid-out in church wears combat fatigues that were “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.” Moore may intend that sentence satirically: A character in the novel says that levity eases the pain of difficult subjects. But so many of the characters use humor as a shield that in this way and others, they often sound more like stand-ins for Moore instead of themselves. Tassie comes from a town so small she has never seen a man wear a tie with jeans, as a lecturer at her university does. Yet she repeatedly uses tropes such as “I feared” instead of “I was afraid” and knows that in England “every desert was called a pudding even if it was a cake,” which you don’t believe she got from a British-lit course.

A Gate at the Stairs has many amusing lines, including a comment made by Tassie’s employer, Sarah Brink, about her husband, Edward Thornwood: “He can’t do relationships. Can’t do acquaintanceships. He can’t do people at all. In fact, really he should just staff off mass transit!” And some of its bright lines offer insights into how Americans view adoption and other subjects. But a great novel is more than the sum of its parts. And A Gate at the Stairs is less memorable for its overall impact than for one-liners such as a comment Tassie’s boyfriend makes after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”

Best line: “To live in New York you have to have won the lottery and your parents have to have won the lottery and everyone has to have invested wisely.” — Sarah Brink

Worst line: No. 1: “We found a metal-edged diner, went in, and sat at the counter side-by-side, letting our coats fall off our shoulders and dangle from the stools, anchored by our sitting butts.” No. 2: Tassie says of writing songs with her roommate, Murph: “Murph liked our collaborations better than such lone efforts by me as ‘Dog-Doo Done Up as Chocolates for My Brother,’ and we seemed best on the rocking ones like, like ‘Summer Evening Lunch Meat,’ a song we had written combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love.” No. 3: Then there’s that description of the colors of a dead soldier’s combat fatigues quoted above: “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.”

Editor: Victoria Wilson

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Moore is Delmore Schwartz Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 11, 2008

No Consolation in Ann Hood’s ‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’

A mother’s account the death her 5-year-old daughter from a ruthless form of strep contrasts with Elizabeth Edwards’s approach to the death of her 16-year-old son

Comfort: A Journey Through Grief. By Ann Hood. Norton, 188 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

It is Ann Hood’s bad luck that I read Comfort a few days after finishing Elizabeth Edwards’s Saving Graces, which has a moving section on the death of her 16-year-old son. Edwards says that on what would have been Wade’s 17th birthday, she and her husband went to a park and handed out 100 printed cards that read:

“CELEBRATE WADE’S BIRTHDAY
“July 18 would be the 17th birthday of Wade Edwards of Raleigh. Please use the attached coupon to celebrate his birthday with an ice cream or treat from the Pullen Park concession stand.

“The gift you can give in Wade’s name is to do something nice for someone else.”

This lovely gesture caused some pain for Edwards and her husband, John, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice-president:

“It occurred to us later that this would have been a happy way to celebrate Wade’s birthday if he had lived. Instead, the delight on the faces of the children as they returned from the concession stand with ice cream treats was a sad reminder of what it might have been had Wade lived.”

Sad it may been, but the incident shows a warmth and humanity less apparent in Hood’s more self-absorbed account of death of her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, from a ruthless form of strep in April 2002. In a typical passage in Comfort, Hood seems outraged that nearly a year and a half after her daughter’s death, her church sang “Amazing Grace” on a September Sunday “close to Grace’s birthday” and “without any warning” beyond the usual notice in the bulletin. She and her husband went to see the ministers and apparently got the apology they sought: “It was a mistake. They were sorry. It would never happen again. In fact, they would not play ‘Amazing Grace’ in September, or in April, the month Grace died.”

Hood’s anger about this incident is believable. Anyone who has lost someone greatly loved knows that small events can have titanic emotional force and you may need do all you can to protect yourself from them. But “Amazing Grace” is perhaps the world’s most popular hymn www.hymns.me.uk/50-most-loved-hymns.htm and invariably ranks on surveys among the top ten. Perhaps more than any other, it has brought comfort to older people and others facing their own deaths. And the satisfaction that Hood finds in her church’s willingness ban the hymn for two months a year — even as she allows that it still “should be played” at other times — typifies the me-first tone of Comfort. This approach differs both from Edwards’s altruism and from the more journalistic treatment of books such as John Gunther’s classic memoir of the death of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud.

In a sense, the self-indulgence of Comfort is true to life. Grief makes narcissists of us all. A searing loss can leave us – when we want most to remember someone else – aware only of our own pain. But Edwards and others have found ways to acknowledge this reality while offering a more complex view of grief.

In Saving Graces Edwards writes of going after storm to the cemetery where Wade was buried and seeing a man, carrying a small dog, who often visited his father’s grave: “The only tree in the man’s section of the cemetery had fallen, and it had fallen across the grave of his father. His pain and helplessness were overwhelming. I made a small bouquet from the flowers at Wade’s grave and took them to him. He usually brought something for the grave, but that day he was empty in every way. Sometimes we pressed on as if we were not weakened, and then we saw ourselves in someone else.”

Saving Graces is Edwards’s first book, and Comfort is Hood’s tenth. But that cemetery scene may tell you more about grief than anything in Comfort. Hood spells everything out as neatly as an article in Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal, two magazines for which she writes, in prose as smooth as glass. Edwards leaves some things implicit or unanswered, as great novelists do. (Why was that man at the cemetery carrying his dog?) In that sense, Saving Graces is truer to perhaps the most painful aspect of grief: Its depths are unknowable, except to the people who feel it them.

Best line: After Grace’s death, Hood and her husband adopted a baby girl from China and learned in the process some Chinese mothers mark or “brand” their babies with small scars before they abandon them “as a sign of love.” She and her husband traveled in a group of families, all of whom received their children at the same time: “Soon people were lifting pant legs or the cuffs of sleeves to show the small scars on their babies.” On the neck of her new daughter Hood found “a thick rope of scar tissue, round and small,” which a pediatrician belived was a burn that had healed.

Worst line: Hood says that she used to sleep holding her daughter in the crook of her arm: “So that I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”

Recommendation? Tara McKelvey wrote correctly in a review in the New York Times Book Review that Comfort “doesn’t offer comfort, not really – only grief.”

Published: May 2008 www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring08/006456.htm

Furthermore: Hood also wrote Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine and The Knitting Circle. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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