Category Archives: Bookshelves

Swimming in Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

In mid-May my book discussion group will meet to discuss Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece,  In Search of Lost Time.   We’re not taking on the whole seven volumes, of course – if any of us want to do that, we’ll do it on our own. But this overdue introduction to Proust (how is it I never got around to reading his work before this?) can be enough for now. I’m not sure how well we’ll all do with this book – book club members take Proust on with uneven results (click here for one take on that.)

Possible Book Club Reaction

Possible Book Club Reaction

Happily, I’m loving the book – no real surprise there, since I ask little from the plot line of a book and a lot from the language. Proust, who writes long, complicated sentences (even Proust’s whole name – Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – is Proustian!) can be challenging, but I like his digressive style, and I particularly like the way he plays with temporality and the idea that memories change the smell, sight, taste, texture and music of the present moment. I like to linger and float with a story – I need to move forward only so often. This ability to linger isn’t shared by everyone. An editor once said  to Proust’s brother, “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don’t understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Swimming. Precisely. I like my head – my whole body – to swim in a piece of fiction, and I often shoot for that effect in my poetry.  Sometimes submersion is a good thing, and my natural inclination as a reader and a writer is to get a little obsessive about (and totally soaked to the skin by) anything that captures my interest [see ** note below.] When I read, I read in a trance. And during my more lucid moments with Swann’s Way, I dog paddle by doing Proust-related research.

I hunt up Proust’s precise landscape on the Internet…

The village of Illiers-Combray.

The village of Illiers-Combray.

I find a picture of his bed at Aunt Leonie’s house…

Proust Slept Here

Proust Slept Here

I look up a recipe for the very famous madeleine (sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, rosewater…aha, there’s the Proust: rosewater!):..

l_5181_madeleine“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…. but ….as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me …. immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage…” (from Swann’s Way.)

I imagine myself learning French and reading Proust in the original. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: ‘Je m’endors.’ ”

And while I’m at it (speaking French), wouldn’t it be nice to go to France and see the original manuscripts…?

First Proofs - Swann's Way

First Proofs – Swann’s Way

I imagine the trip…I go to the Proust Museum. I drive around Normandy in a Peugeot. I read the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time in a nice little cafe every morning for several months.  I order tea and a madeleine every day.  I write postcards home…

proust stamp

Chère famille, je suis toujours là en France. Je nage dans Proust.

I buy an old farmhouse and restore it…

Chez Julie

Chez Julie

also, considering Proust’s lifestyle, I buy a townhouse in Paris…

Paris Townhouse

and at night (no matter where I sleep) I take at least 30 pages to turn over in bed….

Viking/Penguin Classics came out with a new translation of the first volume, by the novelist Lydia Davis, about ten years ago, and now it’s true, I’m swimming in it. Maybe growing gills would be a good idea? It’s hard to come up and breathe the regular air when you’ve been spending afternoons with Proust. As if that weren’t enough, I’m trying to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life before our discussion because I think it will help me understand the profound effect this book has had on some writers I admire – both in terms of their own writing and in terms of the way they see the world.

There’s no guarantee I’ll love Swann’s Way through to the last page. But I’ll be glad to have read it. I’ll end here with this quotation from Proust. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across – it’s true, and it’s basic: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When writing teachers say, “Make it new,” that’s what they mean.

———————————————-

**Note: I say “swim,” but other people describe it in a less complimentary way. Consider this review of Proust’s work by another author whose writing I admire, Alexander Wollcott: “Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else’s dirty water.”

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by Pierre Bonnard

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by P. Bonnard

Ah, well  – that’s what’s fun about a book discussion group: so many different reactions to the same book! If you’re a writer, remember that you’re not writing to please the largest possible audience – that produces insipid writing. Instead, you’re writing for the reader who is going to feel buoyed by (immersed in, swimming in) the way you tell your story.

 

 

Another Alice

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 1

A few weeks ago, Maria Popova published a post in her wonderful Brain Pickings blog featuring the illustrations by Ralph Steadman from a 1972 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.

Before you go any further, read her post. Then come back here. Then go read more of her posts if you haven’t already.

I didn’t know Steadman illustrated Alice In Wonderland, but I should have,  because I own a copy of his Through The Looking Glass, also published in 1972, that I bought on a trip to England in 1975 (Steadman’s Alice In Wonderland is mentioned on the book jacket flap, but what 15-year old reads  jacket copy?). It is one of my Most Valued And Beloved Books. Here are more of my favorite images:

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 2The Jaberwock, with eyes of flame. Steadman is also a political satirist.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 3

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 4

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 5Notice how he uses the gutter split to advantage. Perfect for a story set in a world of reflection.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 6

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 7

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 8 Steadman takes the commonly accepted view that the White Knight is Lewis himself.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 9

When I was first starting out as an illustrator, nearly thirty years ago, I tried out pen and ink as a medium, a la Steadman. The image below was for The Clinton Street Quarterly, a small publication from the 80s out of Portland, OR. It is humbling to look back that far in my professional history, but take it as a tribute to my love of Steadman’s work.

Chodos-Irvine Marcos

Coming Soon: The Mock Caldecotts

My Current Favorite: LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca. Big and beautiful and true! This is a book to spend hours pouring over....

My Current Favorite: LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca. This is a book to spend hours pouring over….

As the year draws to a close, Mock Caldecott groups start compiling lists of the books they’ll discuss through early January. It takes time to get copies of the books, read through them, read through them again, compare them to other books being mentioned for the prestigious medal, deliberate, consider.  So November – right now –  is when the real conversations start and the winnowing down to a manageable list begins.

Some of these Mock Caldecott groups involve librarians in districts around the country. Some are formed by groups on websites such as GoodReads. Many teachers discuss and vote for favorites with their students.  Anyone can have a Mock Caldecott discussion – gathering together as part of virtual or real communities with a shared interest in picture books.  Author Leda Schubert tells you how, step-by-step, over at Write at Your Own Risk this week.

The goal of the discussion is usually 1) to guess which book might win or 2) to toot the horn for a chosen – possibly overlooked – favorite. I sat in on a 2013 Mock Caldecott discussion at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it was definitely an eye-opener. Some books that I thought were not really “distinguished” enough had great champions in the group; some books I loved left other people cold.  A few – just a few – were loved by almost everyone.  For example, we were thrilled by Unspoken by Henry Cole, and voted it our favorite.

Unspoken by Henry Cole, a favorite which went unmentioned by the committee in 2013.

Unspoken by Henry Cole, a favorite which went unmentioned by the committee in 2013.

But Unspoken did not even get an Honor Medal; Creepy Carrots did, which didn’t even make our list. Mock Caldecott winners are often off the mark, because the dynamic of every group of readers can be so different. The eventual winner of the medal that year, This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, was considered “cute” by our group, but not really “distinguished,” which is the criteria the American Library Association says should be used to choose the winner. The real Caldecott committee sometimes tries extra hard to find something both kid-friendly and distinguished – not an easy task. Sometimes they do an excellent job of honoring brilliant illustrations (for which the medal is awarded) without ignoring the need for a story well-told, and the Mock Caldecott groups try to do the same.

I can’t imagine what the pressure must be like if, when the final decision about the medal nears, opinion is divided (though the person who led our discussion at VCFA – Leda Schubert again – had been on the Caldecott committee before and told us it was all quite civilized – no one came to blows.) The book that wins the medal will be elevated to Oprah-level attention immediately, will be sought out by every K-3 teacher in America, not to mention parents and grandparents (and even, sometimes, kids!)  and will most likely never go out of print. The committee members will be hailed as geniuses by some and dismissed as nincompoops by others, all within 24-hours of the announcements.

I thought those of you reading BOOKS AROUND THE TABLE might like some quick links to websites/blogs that report their lists and the results of their discussions (usually just before the January ALA conference when actual winners are announced.) You’ll find links if you scroll down past this collection of cover images for books mentioned again and again in the Mock Caldecott lists. If you have favorites that are getting overlooked, use the Comments field to share the titles with us so we can all check them out!

CALDECOTT FRONTRUNNERS:

Building Our House (written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean)

Building Our House (written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean)

The Mighty Lalouche (written by Michael Olshan, illustrations by Sophie Blackall)

The Mighty Lalouche (written by Michael Olshan, illustrations by Sophie Blackall)

Journey (wordless, illustrated by Aaron Becker)

Journey (wordless, illustrated by Aaron Becker)

Matchbox Diary (written by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)

Matchbox Diary (written by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (written and illustrated by Peter Brown)

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (written and illustrated by Peter Brown)

Inside Outside (wordless, illustrated by Lizi Boyd)

Inside Outside (wordless, illustrated by Lizi Boyd)

The Dark (written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen)

The Dark (written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen)

Bluebird (written and illustrated by Bob Staake)

Bluebird (written and illustrated by Bob Staake)

Tortoise and Hare (written and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney)

Tortoise and Hare (written and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney)

(And don’t forget the book which opens this post – Locomotive by Brian Floca. It’s big and beautiful and non-fiction, which I couldn’t get enough of as a kid.)

There are many other books that make multiple lists – I’ve singled out just ten of those mentioned consistently.  Here are links to several Mock Caldecott lists (not all lists have been finalized…some are just being compiled, some come in seasonal sections – Spring, Summer, Fall….)

1. Fuse #8 Production list (Scroll past the Mock Newbery to reach the Mock Caldecott list. This is compiled by the savvy and influential librarian, Betsy Bird, of the New York City Library.)

2. Watch. Connect. Read. (The author of this blog is a K-5 librarian – I wish we could put someone like him into every elementary school in America.)

3. Read, Write, Reflect. (A fine bunch of books under discussion, and ditto the comment I made above. The leader of this discussion with students is a 5th grade teacher named Katherine Sokolowski.)

4. Allen County Library System list (Indiana librarians – they have a particularly lively discussion and add many books throughout the year.) Click here for their blog site (One Book, Two Books, Old Books, New Books) and then enter “Mock Caldecott 2014″ in the search box.

5. Calling Caldecott (compiled by The Horn Book)

6. Ashland University (Ohio) list, through August.

7. GoodReads.com group (they list “Currently Reading” – about four books discussed at any given time) as well as several past months’ reading suggestions – scroll down at the site to see those.

You’ll find plenty of other interesting discussions going on – just enter “Mock Caldecott 2014″ as your search terms.

You can keep an eye on these through December and early January to see what books get added. And you can collect a stack of your favorites (or even some non-favorites – to keep the discussion lively!) from the library, invite friends over, and talk about which ones you would give the award to. Here is the ALA description of what the winner should be: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.”

Use that as the guideline for your discussion.

I'd like to thank every committee member who agreed to give the book the Caldecott medal. Nicely done.

I’d like to thank the committee that agreed to give this book the Caldecott medal in 1942.  Nicely done.

Curiosity Kills the Cat, but Not the Writer….

Woodpecker - Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

Woodpecker – Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

I love getting newsletters from Smithsonian magazine emailed to me once a week – they send links to their articles and I usually find a thing or two (or three or four or more) to think about and explore further.  I subscribe to the print magazine, too;  it’s the one I reach for first when the mail brings me lots of heady reading. I have a thick folder in my file cabinet that’s just for articles I’ve torn out from their pages. This week, it was the beautiful birds of paper sculptor Diana Beltran Herrera (see link below.) I sent the link on to my sister, who also likes such things and whose intellectual curiosity and capacity for wonder inspire me. It seems to me that the bottom line for all artists is curiosity, no?  If you want to be a better writer, try being more curious about the world and the way it works.

Here, then, are links to some recent Smithsonian articles (and there are links within those articles – you can get lost inside it all.)  I hope they set you wandering and wondering…and writing!  Just click on the description:

1. Paper robins, woodpeckers, cardinals, kingfishers…

Robin in flight...

Robin in flight…

2. An insect with “mechanical” gears…

3.  …and a mechanical insect! (this one is from the archives)

Man-made beetle...

Man-made beetle…

4. A “sonic bloom” at the Seattle Center

Sonic-Bloom-Dan-Corson

5. Making music with the Brooklyn Bridge …

6. Shooting frozen flowers? (Who would even think of it? Eerie and beautiful…)

Frozen Flower, Shot

Frozen Flower, Shot

7. Repairing memories and changing memories…

"Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it."

“Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it.”

8. There’s an exhibition of Brian Skerry’s photography up at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. right now. Here’s a slideshow of his work. 

This is how you photograph a whale...

This is how you photograph a whale…

(By the way, it doesn’t take much to support our wonderful national museum – just $19 and you automatically get a subscription to the magazine.  Click here to visit their website and become a member.)

****

The word is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Fairy Tales

Gordon Laite-Snow White-Rose RedSnow White-Rose Red – Gordon Laite

Yesterday, my youngest daughter and I were driving in the car, listening to the latest news on the radio about baby Prince George, when she asked me, “Why are we so obsessed with the British Royal Family?”

After pondering the question for a bit, I told her I didn’t think it was their fame or wealth that fascinates us, it’s the narrative that goes with it. We all like a good story.

And that got me to thinking about fairy tales, and my obsession with them when I was younger. Obsession is probably too strong a word, but I read more fairy tales (and folk tales) than any other fiction from age nine to about age twelve, at which point I moved on to works by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander – essentially fairy novels. I still have most of my old fairy tale books, and I’ve added to the collection since then; evidence of their importance to me (or the difficulty I share with Julie Larios in clearing off my shelves).

My favorite book was Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, A Selection published by Oxford University Press in 1959. Andersen’s tales are more complex emotionally than the average fairy tale, and they don’t always end happily ever after. I also enjoyed Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books (The Blue Fairy Book, The Crimson Fairy Book, The Olive Fairy Book, The Grey Fairy Book…) but I pretty much read everything in this genre that I could get my hands on.

The influence of fairy tales on my pubescent psyche was profound. I think I still live by rules that came largely from the moral lessons sprinkled throughout my fairy tale books:

Don’t trust appearances.

Sendak-The Frog KingThe Frog King – Maurice Sendak

Have faith and persevere.

The Wild SwansThe Wild Swans – Vilhelm Pedersen

Don’t be lazy, selfish, greedy or vain.

Gordon Laite-Cinderella
 Cinderella – Gordon Laite

True love is worth the necessary sacrifices.

Adrienne Segur-The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty – Adrienne Segur

Usually.

Edmund Dulac-The Little Mermaid
 The Little Mermaid – Edmund Dulac

Keep your wits about you.

Kanako Tanabe-Blue-Beard
 Blue-Beard – Kanako Tanabe

Be careful what you wish for.

The Fisherman And His Wife-HJ FordThe Fisherman and His Wife – H. J. Ford

Be nice to old hags, animals in need, and dead people, just in case.

H J Ford-Lovely IlonkaLovely Ilonka – H.J. Ford

Do we follow the stories of real Princes and Princesses because of the fairy tales we heard in childhood, or did Princes and Princesses show up so often in fairy tales because of what they represent to us in the larger picture of the human narrative?

Bruno Bettleheim‘s The Uses of Enchantment  (I made my parents buy that one for me too and yes I still have my original copy) attempts to explain why fairy tales make such “great and positive psychological contributions to the child’s inner growth.” They give children stories that they can stretch their newly formed emotional muscles on, and they do it through colorful, imaginative storytelling. “The fairy tale could not have its psychological impact on the child were it not first and foremost a work of art.”

But nowadays we must suffice with William and Kate, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Kanye and Kim. For the sake of the children, I hope they can all live happily ever after, at least most of the time.

But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting story, would it?…

Julie Paschkis-sisters Glass Slipper Gold SandalJulie Paschkis – Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal