Library Lion, a book review

2 10 2011

Should a children’s book aim to teach important lessons to kids or just exist to entertain? This is a false choice and Library Lion shows just how possible it is to do both. I loved this book about a lion who falls in love with story time at the library, breaks the rules – by roaring in protest when story time is over – and is allowed to stay only on the condition that he obeys all of the rules from then on. Eventually there is a choice to be made between following the rules and roaring to fetch help for someone who is hurt, and the lion chooses to roar and face his punishment. This book is quite plain about the key lesson it is trying to teach – that even good rules may need to be broken for the right reason – but, although the story was clearly written with that lesson in mind, it never strikes a false note in playing to its theme.
Children often relish stories with obvious morals – some of Aesop’s fables have stood the test of time and are still relished today, and the lesson of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is grasped again and again with glee as the story is enjoyed by generation after generation of preschoolers. But some stories with morals can be didactic or simply solemn, weighed down by the burden of an Important Lesson. This story, though, is anything but heavy and is completely natural and uncontrived. The illustrations make a fine first impression, drawn with such charm that they are certain to sway anyone even the slightest bit susceptible to such things: the lion manages to be both strong and cute (maybe even adorable, especially when he dusts the encyclopedias with his tail!) and the expressions of the people in the story are filled with life. The story is just as charming and lively, while also having more than a little drama. But almost every twist and turn has a kind of moral fiber in it that is enjoyable and fulfilling because it comes naturally out of the story and the characters.
I had fun mulling over some of the less obvious moral lessons tucked away in this little story. One is the basic moral choice behind civil disobedience: when the lion breaks the rules, he’s willing to take the penalty, in this case, never returning to the library. Another is the principle of judging people by their actions, rather than by who they are or where they are from. Mr. McBee clearly thinks that lions – just because they are lions – don’t deserve even the chance to be in the library; Miss Merriweather (a woman of some perspicacity) allows the lion to stay as long as he obeys the rules. There’s also, in the book’s final pages, a poignant lesson in empathy and treating others as you’d like to be treated. The lion is gone from the library and it seems likely that Mr. McBee is at least unconcerned by the lion’s absence –it never sat well with him to have a lion in the library in the first place. But one evening he stops by Miss Merriweather’s office on his way out:
“Can I do anything for you before I go, Miss Merriweather?” he asked her.
“No, thank you,” said Miss Merriweather. She was looking out the window. Her voice was very quiet. Even for the library.
(Never mind how delicious I find that fragment “Even for the library.”) Mr. McBee understands Miss Merriweather’s pain and knows what will make her happy so, instead of going home, he goes in search of the lion. It’s a moment of sweet redemption for the previously unlikeable Mr. McBee and in the end there are no “bad guys” in this story. That’s another lesson and, although it may not always come true, I find nothing wrong with the idea that anyone – or everyone – may be redeemed in the end.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression of this book – I love it because it is adorable, exciting and emotionally fulfilling. I love it in my gut, because it is fun and because I just plain enjoyed it (and because the pictures are so charming), not for its moral clarity. But the fact is that, just as in life, the lessons in this story are impossible to separate from the story itself.

Library Lion

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Heart Earth

9 02 2008

Finished (and started) yesterday: Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

 

This isn’t the first Ivan Doig book I’ve read, and it probably shouldn’t be a first introduction to his works. It’s more revelation than narrative — the flashes of life seen in the pages of this book are the raw materials input to the factory of his creative intellect that eventually produced his great Montana novels. This story is told in two voices — the memories of youth that, Doig,  an old man recreates, and the recovered letters of his mother, sent to her brother aboard a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Together he merges the present and the past, his memories and those letters into a brilliant sketch of that brief World War II stretch of Ivan’s life, the short time he had with his mother before she died — on his sixth birthday.

 

I think this book succeeds for me because Doig doesn’t have to persuade me to listen — I know his voice already from the first two volumes of his McCaskill trilogy. I know this hard land of shepherds and this hard life where life is filled with aching beauty, but does you no favors. I know it because it is Montana that seems more real to me than the real thing, the Montana he created in those two books and in the also excellent book The Whistling Season. Certainly there are parts of this book that would appeal to any reader, but it would be a shame if this were your first introduction to Doig because you would fail to appreciate the implication of so many elements of this story, the events whose echoes ring more clearly in his fiction than in this memoir.  So, read, if you can stand the painful reality of it, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and then (you must, you will) read English Creek. Or if the thought that a beautiful story could be loaded with a share of pain concerns you, then read his most recent book, published just last year, the wonderfully perfect story The Whistling Season (although no great story is all rose petals and spring rain, certainly not one set in Montana in the first half of the century…). I wish I had the time and memory to do justice to those books, or even to write a brief summary of how they handle the issues of love, loss, and the dynamic of a man and a woman, and of a father and son, but tonight is for Heart Earth, and the things I want to hang on to from it.

 

New word from this book: caryatids-

A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head.

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryatids> — go there for a picture!

 

Such civic women are caryatids of so much of that hard Montana past, they carry the sky.

Clever turn of a phrase: “The lariat proletariat, where my grandparents and parents started out, was done in by mechanization, ending up in town jobs or none.”

 

Two extended quotes, the first from Winter in Montana:

 

….World War Two and its songs on the radio had come, and I was the combination of kid who could listen to mairzy doats and dozy doats, and little lambsie divy, and staidly tell you, sure, everybody knows mares eat oats and a doe could too, and lambs would take to ivy; then go outside and disappear into fathoms of imagination the rest of the day. Tough and thorough, doctrinaire and dreamy, healthy as a moose calf, I seem to have sailed through the Faulkner Creek years with my adults giving to me generously from their days. Words on a page became clear to me there, long before school; somebody in the revolving cast of busy parents and young Ringer uncles hired to do the ranch chores and a visiting grandmother checking up on us from Moss Agate, one or another of those had to have been steadily reading to me. My immersion into print, the time indoors with books and a voice willing to teach me all the words, surely I owe to that ranch’s long winters.

 

Winter also brought out the trapper, to be watched from our kitchen window in the snow-roofed house, tending the trapline on Faulkner Creek.

 

The bundled figure sieves in and out of the creek-side willows, a dead jackrabbit in hand for bait. Gray to catch white, for weasels in their snowy winter coats are the quarry, their pelts fetching a prime price from the fur buyer in Helena.

 

The weasels hunt along the creek in invisibility against the snow, terror to grouse and mice, or dart up to the ranch buildings, murder in the chickenhouse; their sylph bodies are such ferocious little combustion tubes that they have to eat with feverish frequency to live. Wherever the double dots of weasel tracks indicate, the trapper sets a small contraption of jaws and trigger and neatly baits it with a bloody morsel of rabbit. Ritual as old as any tribe–though these traps are springsteel, bought from a catalogue–but every trapper possesses a trademark and this one distinctively takes the trouble to bend a bow of branch in attachment to each trap. When the animal sets off the trap, the branch will yank the entire apparatus up into the cold air and the weasel will die a quicker, less contorted death.

 

One after another the traps are attended to this way, an even dozen in all. The trapsetting impulse evidently is the same as in catching fish, the snarer hates to quit on an odd number.

 

Not nearly all the visited traps hold weasels this day but enough do, each frozen ermine form dropped in careful triumph into the gunnysack at the trapper’s waist. At last, from the end of the trapline the figure turns back up the creek, again toward the ranch house with the meringue of snow upon its roof. The trapper is my mother.

 

The second of the freedom his mother gifted him as a child

Any bloodline is a carving river and parents are its nearest shores. At the Faulkner Creek ranch I had learned to try out my mother’s limits by running as fast as I could down the sharp shale slope of the ridge next to the ranch house. How I ever found it out without cartwheeling myself to multiple fractures is a mystery, but the avalanche angle of that slope was precisely as much plunge as I could handle as a headlong four- and five-year-old. The first time my visiting grandmother saw one of my races with the law of gravity, she refused ever to watch again. Even my father, with his survivor’s-eye view from all the times life had banged him up, even he was given pause by those vertical dashes of mine, tyke roaring drunk on momentum. But my mother let me risk. Watched out her kitchen window my every wild downhiller, hugged herself to bruises while doing so, but let me. Because she knew something of what was ahead? Can it have been that clear to her, that reasoned? The way I would grow up, after, was contained in those freefall moments down that shale-bladed slope. In such plunge, if you use your ricochets right, you steal a kind of balance for yourself; you make equilibrium moment by moment because you have to. Amid the people and places I was to live with, I practiced that bouncing equilibrium and carried it on into a life of writing, free-falling through the language. My father’s turn at seeing me toward gravitational independence would come. But my mother’s came first and it came early, in her determination that I should fly free of the close coddling she’d had as an ill child. At the Faulkner Creek place she turned me loose in that downhill spree.

 

They head to Arizona, and his mother writes “I always thought a desert is just nothing, but have changed my mind…It is really beautiful here, in the desert way.”

 

And a  question — can desert dwellers really see this?

Everything so green, my mother’s pen granted. It wasn’t just our outlander imaginations that the saguaro cacti looked more portly every day; they indeed were fattening on the rain, the precious moisture cameled up inside their accordion-style inner works.





his safe smell was all around and he told me he was so sorry he would drink up every bit of water in Dresser’s Pond if that would make it all unhappen. it can’t

3 02 2008

LEARNING TO SWIM is a painful narrative of poems that — truly — I expected to hate as soon as I read the first page. I could see where they were going from that first page — as the poet intends —  and I didn’t think I had any desire to travel there.

 

I’ve only just begun to understand how to read poetry — reading particularly each word and phrase, not just the ideas and content, bringing a concentration that is unnecessary for comprehension but allows me to appreciate the art. It is not necessary to study a painting to understand what is portrayed, or even to appreciate it at some level. But if you do study it, and the artist has invested his skill in the painting, then you will be rewarded for your contemplation, especially if you have taken the time to educate your eye. This concentrated reading, I find, means that painful poetry has more power than painful prose.  And I’ve read enough “important” stories of trauma to have a distaste for it in literary form. So I set this book down when it got distasteful and ugly. I don’t feel that a book or a story has to be about some terrible act in order to be important, and I feel a distaste for the easy importance that clothes such stories. But that false patina of power is not what I found when I picked it up again — hoping to read swiftly until I found this passage, the one that had caught my eye in the first place:

 

There are veils

over the high bush blueberries,

like huge white wings

brushing the ground.

Mother and I scrooge under,

tin cans in hand,

and pull the berries down

so fast they rattle

and fill to the brim.

I hate their sour taste

but love being hidden

under the netting

where no one can see

me.

 

But as I quickly read, I found myself drawn in and found the story in these narrative poems so true as to be compelling. And these poems are true, reflecting not only the pain of the assault, but the eventual cleansing and moving on that happens in real life. A recovery that doesn’t make the original act any less repugnant, but is not a permanent destruction of youth and childhood either.

 

In the prologue, she says

 

This is what I remember:

that hot room,

your strange body,

your hands hurting,

and harsh words

telling me terrible things

would happen

if I ever

told.

 

But now you can’t

find me or reach me

or hurt me ever

again and once I tell the words

I am going to kick

you off my porch

and learn to breathe

again.

 

Perhaps you find this a promising beginning. I did not. But the speaker recovers, and so does the poetry.

Or, rather, first the poetry, then the person.

I hate the color yellow.

I hate limp curtains.

I hate iron bedsteads

and thick boys in shorts.

When I grow up

I will have a green room

with a soft, mounded bed

and white curtains

blowing in the windows.

In my room

there will never be

a thick boy in shorts.

 

For me this recovery was even more appreciated because I didn’t quite believe it was going to come, so fully, either in the story or especially in the almost poetry — I call it that just this once because it has so little besides formatting and intensity to make it such. Perhaps it is more fairly poetry that is almost not poetry…

 

Daddy held my hand

as we scrambled down

the path to Dresser’s Pond.

We waded in together,

and I thought of white, bony

things I could not see,

of a lake octopus waiting

to sucker its tentacles

around my skinny legs.

Daddy said,

“You are learning to swim,”

and I let go of his hand.

“I am learning to swim,”

I chanted

and when the bottom

fell away,

I bobbed on top,

my face like a white flower

before me.

 

Perhaps it is realistic because it is real — the book is subtitled A memoir. Perhaps parts are painful to read because they were painful to live — and to write, the author said that starting these poems was like eating ground glass (although I doubt she can truly make the comparison, I believe this right is included in the poet’s license.). The good thing to reflect on, is that perhaps she recovers so fully because that is what people do.

 

In the end, I don’t find this poetry to be many things that I want poetry to be. It is painful and uncomfortable in many places. But it’s true in a sense that includes emotions and goes beyond facts, and that is something.

 

LEARNING TO SWIM: a memoir by ann turner

ann turner’s books