The Day the Crayons Quit

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No need to come up with a catchy title for a review of a book called The Day the Crayons Quit.  This hilarious, yet thoughtful book, was written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.  This book tells Duncan, the colorer, what his crayons are thinking.  Not only is this a great story, but it is a great segue to having children imagine what their other inanimate possessions may be thinking.  I really recommend that you get this book and then share it with a young colorer.  This book is destined to be a classic.

I found it while I was browsing through the exceptionally wonderful children’s book collection at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  If you haven’t visited this museum, you are missing something truly special.  The collection is magnificent, and the museum building and its grounds are gorgeous.  There are even some easy trails for walking.  The current exhibits are “Van Gogh and Nature” and another focusing on Whistler’s Mother.  The Van Gogh exhibit is reason enough to make the trip.  I thought I had really seen a lot of Van Gogh  —  at the big museums, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and at a bunch of special exhibits through the years.  But, this exhibit sheds new light on what he was trying to do with nature and focuses on his influences.  I am so glad we made the trip.  You should, too.

Twentieth Century European History in One Dense Book

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If you need to know what happened in Europe during the Twentieth Century, Konrad H. Jarausch’s Out of Ashes is a great resource.  It is no quick read at 788 pages, but it is lucid and informative and does an excellent job of summarizing an astonishing array of events.  The plain descriptions of military strategy during the world wars and the origins and aftermath of the break up of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain are particularly good.  The overlying theme of the book is modernity and what it has meant to Europe.  Some of the book’s economic history was less exciting, but nonetheless informative.  Even if you are very familiar with European history, this book is really useful because it  provides clear descriptions of personalities and events in a useful and coherent narrative.

Mr. Jarausch was born in Germany during World War II.  He grew up in Germany and then came to the United States for college and his academic career.  He acknowledges that much of his book has a German perspective, which is most evident during his summing up of where things stand today.   It was helpful to be reminded of that when I reread his Preface after I finished the book, because it explained some gaps that I found troubling in this comprehensive work.  For example, relatively little was said about many countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece in recent years, and discussion of women and minorities was pretty sparse.  To a large extent, the emphasis was frequently on Germany and Britain and their relationships with the United States and  Russia.

The book’s conclusion focused on a purported  comparison between Europe and the United States, as well as a discussion about how these two entities should regard each other.  This often came across as a stilted comparison between the Tea Party United States and the disciplined, sensible Europe that perhaps Germany would like to see.   Even if one disagrees with some of the generalizations, it is useful to hear that perspective.

That said, there seemed to be some pretty big elephants in the room that were often ignored.  Recent surges of terrorism, anti-semitism and xenophobia received little or no mention.   Recognizing that this is a book about Europe, in this global era, it seemed a little anachronistic to focus so much on a less than convincing discussion of Europe vis-a-vis the United States.

There is inevitable difficulty about ending the book at the end of the Twentieth Century, just 15 years ago, and yet trying to form a conclusion that is more timely.  So much has happened in the last 15 years that it is difficult to sum up and analyze it in a few pages at the end of a tremendous book.  The author persuasively lets us know how a major German-American scholar views Europe and its history.

Out of Ashes  is a really good book.  Even if one does not always agree with the author’s take on events and personalities, he tells a good story with a consistent theme.  You learn a lot, and it is always valuable to get the  perspective of someone who has studied a period so carefully and has a different viewpoint.

A Porcupine Named Fluffy and Other Wonderful Books by Helen Lester

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Helen Lester has written some of the very best children’s books.  A Porcupine Named Fluffy is a truly wonderful book about how silly it can be to try to conform to others’ expectations.  The story shows all the absurd ways the world’s cutest porcupine tries to live up to his name and become “Fluffy,” only to realize that it’s fine to be the way you are.  In addition to the lovely theme, the book is hilarious, so children adore it, even as the message comes through.  Tacky the Penguin follows a similar theme.  This very funny book celebrates how a brash penguin happily goes his own way in the face of shock and tsk-tsking from his fellow penguins.  Happily Tacky perseveres and proves his worth to his skeptical friends.  There is a whole Tacky series, and they are all fun.  Fluffy  and Tacky can be read again and again, and the humor never grows old.  They are both supported by excellent illustrations, too.

Author, A True Story,  is a little different.  It has humor and it has lovely illustrations, but the point here is the author’s story of how she became a writer.  This is a useful, interesting story and it gives children a blueprint to think about how they might become an author, too.   I particularly loved the fact that it showed how it all started when she was a child and how she succeeded.  It is also nice to see a girl as the star of this realistic, inspirational book.

If you haven’t discovered Helen Lester, you should!

Lucky Jim — Hilarious Academic Classic

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I’ve bought and given away more copies of this very funny novel than I can count.  Lucky Jim was Kingsley Amis’s first book, and what a debut!  This post WWII novel concerns the travails of Jim Dixon, a mediocre academic desperately trying to hang on at a mediocre English university.   Why he wants to be there is unclear.  He is reliably his own worst enemy and turns all opportunities into disasters.  He can’t navigate the murky academic waters, and yet he persists in trying.   Along the way, Jim mixes it up with all manner of ridiculous academic caricatures.  If you have spent any time at all on an academic campus, this book rings absolutely true.  Very funny, but very true.

It is summer.  You deserve a fun read.  Try this!

From Reykjavik to London During the Blitz — Two Fine Mysteries

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I like to read mystery series in order, when I get the chance.  I’ve just finished Arnaldur Indridason, Reykjavik Nights, which is actually a recently written prequel to his popular series featuring Inspector Erlendur.  A true “first in a series” is Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, which features Maggie Hope as a less professional detective, at least in this first book.  I really enjoyed both books.  They share intriguing settings, excellent detail and interesting sleuths, so I plan to read more in both series.

Reykjavik Nights, not surprisingly, is set in Iceland.  Erlendur is a low level cop with a stubborn need to know what happened to one of the town’s homeless men.  He works without authorization and under the radar in a way that would be implausible in the average police department, I hope.  Like so many detectives in the Scandinavian mysteries, Erlendur’s thought process regarding his case is set out fairly plainly, but it is hard to understand what makes him tick outside this need to solve the crime.  His more personal side is referenced but not given the kind of passionate detail common to so many American mysteries.  Even he seems to be merely observing his personal life without any need to evaluate it or commit to it.  Nor does he have the close friend or colleague to support him and serve as his sounding board that are so common in the American genre.  That’s not a criticism, but this is something that sets Reykjavik Nights apart.  The actual plot is quite interesting, and all the shady characters Erlendur encounters in his unofficial investigation really enhance the story.  Even as Erlendur seems uninterested in his own personal life, his sympathy and regard for many of the down-and-out people he interviews helps to fill in some of the contours of his own character.

I picked this particular book because I am about to go to Iceland for the first time and am curious about the country.  Reykjavik Nights provides rich detail and helpful historical background about Iceland in general and Reykjavik in particular.  Some of the descriptions of peoples’ public behavior seems oddly consistent with some of the bizarre characterizations sketched by Michael Lewis in his recent book Boomerang (a great book about Lewis’s visits to Iceland and other countries that contributed in their own special ways to the worldwide financial crisis of 2008).   It will be interesting to compare the Iceland I see as a tourist with the world that Indridason sets out.  Of course I am hoping to avoid death in general and murder investigations in particular.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal is an historical mystery set in London during the Blitz.  Unlike Erlendur in Reykjavik Nights, we know a lot about Maggie Hope, who finds herself working as one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries during World War II.  Maggie is very likable, and it is easy to empathize with her resentment that she is only permitted to be a secretary because of her sex.  Her Wellesley education and monster math brain are initially of no importance to anyone but Maggie, but of course things change and Maggie’s talents are revealed.  As she becomes involved in an investigation into wartime spying and a murder, she stumbles upon her own personal mystery.  There is a lot going on in this warm and sympathetic mystery.  I liked the character, and I am a sucker for World War II stories, so I found it a good read.  The descriptions of London and the people living and working there at that time were excellent.  If you don’t know much about the period, this book is a very enjoyable way to get a little background.  It has a more chatty and social tone, but it shares some of the code-breaking background of that wonderful movie, The Imitation Game.

Now that I have read Inspector Erlendur’s prequel and the initial installment of the Maggie Hope series, I am interested to see how these characters develop and how their subsequent books play out.  I recommend both books.

 

 

 

Beautiful, Thoughtful Small Town Novel

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One of the saddest things about Our Souls at NIght by Kent Haruf is knowing that this short, beautiful novel is his last book.  Mr. Haruf died at the age of 71, shortly before the book’s publication, and this was only his sixth novel.  I plan to track down the other five.

The story of Our Souls at NIght is simple and very moving.  A new and resilient approach to old age is presented by simply drawn characters in a small town setting.  It seems right that this book was written by an older person, because the book’s perspective is that of someone who has lived an active life and is now is in a position to reflect upon what means to slow down and be alone.  The warmth and creativity of the story is captivating.   It is a wonderful, sensitive novel that can be read pretty quickly, but keeps you thinking long afterward.  This will be the perfect book for you to read this summer.  It may also inspire you to expand your options when your world seems too narrow or lonely.

Entertaining Biographies of Four Epic Couples

imageI love biographies, and biographies of dynamic couples are particularly entertaining. I read Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie when I was a teenager and learned a lot about the last Tsar of Russia and his ill-fated family, the Russian Revolution, hemophilia, genetics, and the tangled family ties of Queen Victoria and her descendants.  Mr. Massie deftly intertwines the drama of overpowering international events with the equally overpowering and more personal tragedy of NIcholas and Alexandra’s very sick child and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia.  The takeaways, apart from the fascinating historical background, were that you really need to be careful about who you marry and also that a couple can really love each other and their children and still make absolutely horrific decisions.  Of the four couples discussed here, Nicholas and Alexandra may have been the most loving and consistently faithful, but their blindness to their changing world literally doomed them and their children.  This is a great read with lots of juicy family details, and you can pick up some wonderful historical background at the same time.

Apart from the march of history, the fatal flaw for Nicholas and Alexandra would be their lack of foresight and resilience.  When things went wrong, they just clung to the vestiges of their autocracy for dear life —  until they were executed along with their children and servants.  In welcome contrast, Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin, the biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, presents a case study in foresight and resilience, not to mention a legendary ability to think outside the box.  Joseph Lash was a long time friend and political soul mate of Eleanor Roosevelt, and his loyalty and admiration toward Eleanor is evident.  Still, this is a great recounting of the lives of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and all that they accomplished.  Neither one of them seemed destined for greatness.  Franklin was rich and spoiled, he fooled around, and he was struck by polio early in his political career. His domineering mother exerted economic blackmail to keep him in his marriage and then tried to turn him into an idle invalid after he got polio.   Eleanor lost her mother as a young girl, had an alcoholic father who couldn’t take care of her, and ended up living with a grandmother and some creepy uncles.   She felt unloved and very ugly and never received a college education.

The way in which Franklin and Eleanor rose above these obstacles makes for a great story, and of course the world has never been the same.  Despite their privilege, they both somehow grasped that other people were not so fortunate and that there was a need to level the playing field in some fashion.  Old ways were not going to work.  Domestically, FDR’s administration accomplished so much so quickly that it makes your head spin.  He faced enormous opposition from his privileged peers and other champions of the status quo, but he pressed on.  He was not an economist, but he grasped and pushed the idea that to get out of the Depression, it was essential to inject money into the pockets of those who would spend it.  When his most ambitious plans were thwarted, he just took another approach.  Of course some of his tactics proved problematic, and it is likely a good thing that his Supreme Court packing plan never went anywhere.  His international prowess was equally inventive and ultimately successful.  He knew the country needed leadership and reasonable explanations, and he provided that.  It is hard to imagine what the world would have been like if FDR had not supported England through Lend Lease.

Eleanor also overcame a bleak and sheltered life of privilege to become one of the most important figures of the Twentieth Century.  She had enormous energy, empathy and perseverance and deserves much of the credit for getting her husband’s political career back on track after he contracted polio.  Famously, when he was President, FDR got tired of her indefatigable pressing on social issues, such as Civil Rights and the Anti-Lynching Law, but he knew he needed her, and often he ultimately moved in her direction.  FDR’s election to the Presidency was not welcomed by Eleanor, who was really unhappy at the prospect of giving up the independent life she she had created for herself.  But Eleanor was resilient, and so she developed a significant and unprecedented role as First Lady.  She traveled, she inspected mines and poverty-stricken areas, she wrote her column, she took positions, and pushed for a host of progressive causes, not the least of which was Civil Rights.  They may not have been the happiest of couples, but Eleanor and Franklin were a formidable team.

One of the mysteries is how they got together in the first place.  FDR had a rather frivolous reputation as a young man, but he must have had unsuspected depth because he knew he wanted to marry Eleanor.  He had apparently seen something in Eleanor that drew him to her.   Eleanor appeared to have loved him, too, at the time they were married.  They had six children together, but ultimately, the marriage had huge problems.  He persistently cheated on Eleanor.  She was terribly wounded and didn’t get over it.  She stayed in the marriage, but she also created her own purposeful life and circle of friends.

The Roosevelt children may have suffered the most from their parents’ marital strain.  Eleanor apparently was not a particularly warm or loving mother and seemed content to let servants and nannies pretty much raise the children.  That was pretty easy to do in that day and age.  FDR might have been a warmer presence, but there is no indication he took up the slack.  The five children who survived to adulthood struggled in their personal and professional lives, and Anna in particular was critical of Eleanor as a mother.

So, the Roosevelts were flawed individuals in a flawed marriage, but they were probably the best thing that could have happened to the United States in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  They presented a stable and highly successful political partnership, and they didn’t allow their marital issues to detract from their public contributions.  Part of what made them tick was undoubtedly their ability to find friendship and affection outside their marriage.  Mr. Lash’s book tells a wonderful story, and it is very helpful to look at the Roosevelt both as individuals and as a couple.

In Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel Nicolson writes about the 49 year marriage of his parents Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson.  His book includes the journal his mother wrote in 1920 at the age of 28, when she was trying to end her very passionate love affair with Violet Trefusis and save her own marriage.  Nigel Nicolson discovered his mother’s jounal, as well as many personal letters, after her death.  These sources provided rich and highly emotional detail to a story that he had known only as a “bare outline.”  He made his mother’s journal and her struggle the centerpiece of his book and then provided narrative and context from letters and other sources in the parts he wrote himself.   In this story, politics are far less important, and personal relationships take center stage.  Sackville West was a famous Bloomsbury poet and novelist, who also designed gardens.  Harold Nicolson was an equally distinguished career diplomat, who wrote a famous account of the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles.  In fact his son had previously published his father’s legendary diaries, which were more historical in nature.   Neither party was faithful in the Nicolson/Sackville West marriage, and they both seemed to have been bisexuals.  One might think that their son would have been greatly traumatized by the drama of his parents’ relationship, but Nigel Nicolson is remarkably sympathetic to both his parents.  This book was written after his parents’ deaths and when he was in his mid-fifties.  The son takes great pains to explain why he feels justified and even obligated to publish his mother’s diary and tell his parents’ story.  The moving result is a thoughtful and sensitive biography of an unusual marriage between two accomplished, aristocratic individuals who neither practiced nor expected marital fidelity.  Yet their son presents a convincing case that they truly loved and depended upon each other.  The story of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson covers a fascinating historical period with great insight into an unusual yet ultimately successful relationship.  This book is well worth reading.

Finally, on a more frivolous note, Tracy and Hepburn, by Garson Kanin is another great book about a famous duo.  Kanin knew and worked with both Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and has great stories to tell about his friends.  As is now well known, although Tracy and Hepburn were not married to each other, they had a long standing affair that lasted until his death. This book examines their unique personalities and the spark of their relationship in a very entertaining fashion.  In so many ways the admiring characterizations presented in the book mirror their screen personalities and screen relationships, and it is all great fun.  Movie buffs will particularly love the stories from the sets of their movies.  This book is a great read for many of the same reasons that the Tracy Hepburn movies are so much fun to watch.