Category Archives: essays

Mo Willems – When a Pig Meets an Elephant

Catching up with the New Yorker recently, I not only laughed out loud at Rivka Glachen’s profile of children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems – Funny Failures – but also connected to this children’s author’s wry outlook.  I needed to find his books.

A quick search showed ninety-eight of his titles in my local library system, so I returned to the article to note those highlighted in the five page article.  Two have won Caldecott Honors – Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2004) and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (2005).  Another I added, just to meet the elephant and the pig in We Are in a Book.

Knuffle Bunny may remind you of the last time you lost something in the laundry; the pigeon is hilarious – what’s the first thing any child wants to do when told not to?  As for the elephant and the pig, I dare you not to say “BANANA” when you read their book.

Although Willems’ books are identified as Easy Readers, in the same vein as Eric Carle  or P.D. Eastman, his animals are funny in their anxiety and resilient in their failures – a lesson for adults as well as children.  Give yourself a laugh; find Mo Willems.

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Dipping into Proust

51W1RQKCT9L._AC_US218_After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Original in the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.  

Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences.  I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable.  Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.

From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:

“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”

Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting.  It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose –  better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.

 

Lost in the Stacks

Mahesh Rao commentary on libraries in his New York Times essay “Lost in the Stacks,” reminded me of how libraries have nurtured my own love of reading.  My first memory of going to a library is linked to  holding my mother’s hand as we walked through the park to a tall building – an adventure to a new world.  Later in college I found comfort in hiding behind books in a remote carrell as I studied obscure passages.  Just like Rao, I inadvertently forgot to return a book or two, discovered years later in my own collection.

Librarians, more than authors, have always held my reverence.  Some are modestly taciturn, never revealing their wealth of information until asked.  Others, like Rao’s North London friend, are ready to share common interests and review my selections as I check out more books than I can carry.

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Trinity College Library, Dublin

Books about libraries draw me in.  Some of my favorites:

  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a library for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. Daniel  finds mystery and adventure, as books salve the lingering pain of his mother’s death.
  • The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai connects a children’s librarian with questionable ties to the Russian mafia to a curious 10-year-old boy whose parents enroll him in an anti-gay class and strictly monitor his library material.
  • This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson challenges the stereotype of librarians.  See my review – here
  • By Its Cover by Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries. My review – here.

 

 

Do you have a favorite book about libraries?

Related:

 

The President on Books and Reading

President giving a speech clipartAs one of the most literate United States Presidents, Obama discussed books with Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for the New York Times. In an interview as he leaves office,  Obama noted “…the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.”

Citing books he has recommended for his daughter as she prepares for college – how many have you read? –  he included:

  • The Naked and the Dead
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • The Golden Notebook 
  • The Woman Warrior
  • The Moveable Feast

From some of his favorite authors, I found a few familiar names and two new ones I might try:

  • Marilynne Robinson
  • science fiction writer, Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem)
  • Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies)
  • Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon)
  • V.S. Naipaul (A Bend in the River)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Junot Diaz
  • and leaders: Mandela, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Gandhi, Teddy Rossevelt, Abraham Lincoln

And he offered a clue about what he might be doing after January 20th, when a new President will be inaugurated:

“…and so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.”

Read the full interview – here

Gift Giving: If You Find One Great Book…

Have you finished your shopping for Christmas?  Are you still trying to find the best gift for each individual?  John Tierney of the New York Times suggests – The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For.  Don’t make gift-giving complicated.

“If you can find one sure thing, don’t be afraid to give it more than once.”

In that spirit – not overthinking – find a great book and give it to everyone.

Vanity Fair offers “The Bookworm’s Bespoke Gift Guide” from Juniper publishing, and the New York magazine lists 15 of the year’s most giftable books including 9781609452926  Frantumaglia “for the Ferrantephile “who just can’t get enough,” and Hillbilly Elegies for anyone who keeps asking who voted for Trump. The Journal Sentinal has an exhaustive list, including some of my favorites from Maria Semple, Ann Patchett, and Amor Towles. The Star-Tribune includes a few classics in its 50 best books for holiday giving – many I have on my to-read list, but their best suggestion may be Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat.

9780836221367_p0_v1_s192x300My favorite book to give at Christmas is Bill Watterson’s It’s A Magical World.

What great book have you found to give?