Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

This book fell short of its potential in so many ways for me. I can see that the author was trying to pay homage to Victorian Romanticism, its writers and craft, and romance, and it is an ambitious attempt to create a saga, but it falls victim to a messy predictable plot, lack of voice, and flat characters. The plot follows three women: Eliza in London during 1913, Nell in 1975, and Cassandra in 2005. The jumps in time and flashbacks were awkward at times and I found myself rereading sections to try and follow the story thread. Eliza was more interesting than the other two making me skim through some sections to get on with her story. The mix of fairy tale, "Secret Garden" plot, and mystery didn't work particularly well either. The mystery was easy to figure out and the fairy tale foreshadowed the plot and while it was written well, it gave away too many clues and was clunky how it was worked into the plot. The time changes were jarring at first and the voice would change making parts inconsistent. This got better as the story progressed. Sometimes the Victorian voice of the characters was distinct and then they'd sound modern or alike. I thought the three characters sounded alike at times and didn't represent the different time periods well. This got really high ratings on Goodreads and I have some friends who really liked the time juxtaposition of the characters and how the stories intertwined. I'd describe this emotionally charged book as romantic with a weak mystery and few historical details.

The mystery surrounds a woman trying to discover her biological parents. It was easy to figure out even though the author tries to add different suspicions, particularly at the end, but they were illogical choices. Some might like the mystery but there weren't enough plot twists for me. I did like the twist with the doctor and would have liked more along those lines. The story begins in Australia in 1975 with a woman, Nell, full of regrets. I disliked the beginning the most because the premise is absurd. It doesn't make sense that Nell would react so strongly against her adoptive parents and family. She goes from a happy person to an isolated woman that creates her own suffering. The plot here felt forced to setup for the rest of the book.

Her granddaughter, Cassandra, bored me the most. All three women have something tragic happen to them that changes their lives forever and Cassandra is a prop that is supposed to represent hope for the future. I found Eliza from the Victorian period the most interesting of the threesome, but she never comes to life as the reader is not privy to her inner monologue. There are some plot points left undotted as well. The brother-niece deal is not explained. Eliza needed a clearer character arc along with Nell. Cassandra's is the only clear one but her story held my interest least and her dialogue with Christian was dull. The stepmother is your one-dimensional fairy-tale stock character while her daughter, Rose, has more depth. The minor characters with the author of "The Secret Garden" showing up was fun. The nod toward Victorian writers and their craft is throughout. I liked it when the author tried to imitate the writing of the Romantics with their emphasis on nature and its healing nature. The orphan section of the plot is mimicking Dickens and there are nods to the Bronte sisters, Grimm and Andersen fairy tales, and more. I thought it was too much and enhanced an already choppy plot making it lack cohesion. I tried to like this one, but the author tries to do too much and it doesn't have enough focus for me.

2 Smileys

Friday, April 15, 2016

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature by Philip Nel

"Mommy, don't step on my words," said a cross four-year-old to her mother when she interrupted her. Children phrase words in such unique ways that I wish I was a better record-keeper. So here is my first recording of a comment told to me by a grandma about a phrase her granddaughter likes to use on adults. Why tell you this? Ruth Krauss used to go and listen to children speak at a nursery and kindergarten school near her home. Her picture books were innovative in that she tried to replicate how young children actually spoke in her stories creating an authenticity not seen before in the children's literary field. Her unorthodox use of language and poetic skills gave her text a rhythm and imagery that appealed to children and adults: "Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo" or "Rugs are so dogs have napkins" or the neologism "bears, bears... everywheres." Ruth Krauss was a spitfire that never stopped moving or talking while her husband, Crockett Johnson, was the calm, pragmatic person. The two creative geniuses worked together and had a long-lasting marriage and careers as children's book authors, comic writers, poets, and artists.  This well-written book gives a glimpse into their lives, the history of McCarthyism and how it affected them, and the impact they had on other artists.

Maurice Sendak was a frequent visitor to the Johnson-Krauss home collaborating on picture books with Krauss. When he branched out on his own it was Crockett Johnson that came up with the word, "rumpus," in his famous book, "Where the Wild Things Are." Crockett started his career in writing the comic strip "Barnaby" that was a social satire on American society. Although not as widely popular as other comic strips of the time, it had fiercely loyal followers and is regarded as one of the top comics in the twentieth century according to Comics Journal. After a decade of producing "Barnaby," Crockett turned to children's books because he needed a break from the intense schedule of producing a comic strip. "Harold and the Purple Crayon" rocketed him into children's literary stardom. It has sold millions of copies and shows how a person can invent his or her own world using a big imagination.

Crockett kept reinventing himself as an artist so it is easy to see a bit of Harold in him. When he got tired of creating children's books he turned to art using his love of mathematics to create geometric forms that were exhibited and sold in galleries. Ruth Krauss was a prolific writer cranking out 36 children's books before turning to poetry. Krauss was an experimental writer that was willing to take risks and not deterred by mistakes. Her poetry is now all out of print and has not sustained over time. Philip Nel shows her verse as a "curious blend of progressive education, children's literature, and the twentieth-century avant-garde"; however her emphasis was on freshness and surprise and this worked as an impediment as the surprise wore off. She even questioned whether "good poetry should necessarily be astonishing and surprising all the time." While her poetry was extremely popular, it is not studied today.

Ruth and Crockett's relationship with Ursula Nordstrom shows angst and humor. After reading "Dear Ursula: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom," by Leonard Marcus, I found this an interesting follow-up on her as a director of children's books at Harper Publishing. Nordstrom is a hoot and Nel shows how sensitive she had to be with the authors she worked with critiquing their works. She could get tough need be though. There is one letter she sends to Crockett Johnson that shows anger when he accuses publishers of withholding a printing of Harold books. Nordstrom, Johnson and Krauss respected each other inspite of occasional differences and she was critical in their success as a meticulous editor demanding a high quality of work from them as writers and artists. A terrific glimpse into the creative process and life of two very successful artists.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Popular Tales from Norse Mythology (Paperback) by George Webbe Dasent

This work takes some of George Webbe Dasent's translation of P. C. Asbjoernsen and J. Moe's 1842 publication of Norse folk tales and presents it to modern readers. I am glad that I read Jack Zipes, "The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm," because the introduction does a better job explaining the times. The introduction in this book is only part of Dasent's and it doesn't put it in its historical context. I think an update or a comment from a scholar from today would have made it stronger for the modern reader.

Dasent was a professor and philologist who admired the Brothers Grimm, as well as, Asbjoernsen, and Moe's works, as they reflected the idea of shaping a corpus of folk tales as a way to prove literature as a part of a vast Indo-European tradition. He retains the flavor of the folk tales as told by middle class or peasants. Unlike Zipes book there are only a few footnotes that explain where the tales came from historically. Dasent wanted the stories to be read as popular not scholarly tales. I found Zipes book quite fascinating as to where the Grimms got their tales either from medieval manuscripts or different people representing different classes. I can't help but think Asbjoernsen and Moe's work had that but have never read their work.

Philologists like Dasent, Grimm, Asbjoernsen and Moe, try to show how many folk tales descend from eastern tales before being absorbed by the culture and transformed into unique stories representing local legends and more. Through isolation, the Norwegians absorbed and developed their own flavor for telling stories mixing Christianity, Norse myth, socioeconomic status and landscape. I would have liked to have seen this footnoted like the Grimms collection as it shows more clearly the literary roots of the tale. Cinderella is found in the folk tale, "Katie Woodencloak," who has to battle trolls with the help of a Bull. And who would have come up with a wood cloak? Only a culture that values the tall pine forests and woods that were critical to shipbuilding and more. There are magical snowshoes, reindeer, and wool, to name a few.  Odin is now a mysterious figure in a broad-brimmed hat and cloak that brings fortune to any character he helps. He is never named but it is obvious who he is as well as Valkyries and Loki-like tricksters. The tales are about marginalized, poor men that succeed through some magical help and gain wealth or a kingdom, harsh stepmothers, dads, or mothers, sibling rivalry, the underdog that triumphs, and strong people that abuse power.

While the narration is male-oriented, like Grimm's, there are a few stories with strong, intelligent females. Katie Woodencloak is one such character. However, it is the triumph of the youngest boy out of three sons that comes through the most. He is the wanderer who triumphs over injustice and evil in the end. What I find odd with these pieces is that Dasent like Grimm is male; yet many of the oral stories were recited by women. I can't help but wonder if the slant of these stories would have been different if a scholarly female in the 1800's wrote them with a philological bent.

Dasent's introductory essay was 160 pages when first published and a collection that covered 60 folk tales. That is not the case here. The introduction is about 20 pages and there are 42 stories in the collection. I'm not sure why the editors put mythology in the title. This is very misleading. They are really just popular tales with only implied mythology.

Dasent writes with a consistent, colloquial style that is easy to read. Some of the stories are violent and many remind me of ones I read in the Jack Zipes book, except the violence is more toned down than Grimms. Two sisters get their heads cut off and the third sister uses a troll's magic potion to put their heads back on. Or the queen's babies are thrown into a pit full of snakes (which reminded me of Ragnar Lothbrak's fate in that Viking legend) only the babies are fished out after the queen's treachery is exposed. The "Nasty Flax Spinning" and "The Three Aunts" are quite similar. One story that repeats often and that I don't recall reading as much is the Samson-like character who gets strength from drinking water from a flask and killing three trolls or the character has a girtle or ribbon that gives him strength. But don't quote me on that... I have a wickedly poor memory when it comes to details. Dasent wanted his stories to be a window into oral traditions, peasant life and cultures. This does just that.