Friday, September 23, 2011

The Week in Review (4): Alan Jacobs on the Pleasures of Reading, Coville's Hamlet, and a Newly Illustrated Velveteen Rabbit

Ah. It's almost the weekend, and I realized that I never posted last week's review links. So I'm almost a week behind. (Somehow I started a post in draft and then never had a chance to go back in and edit it. Some weeks are like that!) Well, better later than never. Here's the round-up of links to my reviews from last week:

More Monet ~ in this case, a picture book entitled Monet's Impressions. Just images and words by Monet. Doesn't get much simpler than that. Or more lovely.

I finally finished my review of Alan Jacobs' interesting book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Not that I was distracted or anything. A fascinating read for anyone who cares about reading and enjoys thinking about the ways our approaches to reading have changed (and are changing) as the years go by, as well as the riches of reading that never seem to change.

You might not think that readers as young as nine could enjoy Hamlet, but Bruce Coville's picture book version might prove you wrong. He interweaves his own rich prose with actual quotes from the Bard to provide a compelling version of the story. Leonid Gore's pictures also add a lot to this terrific introduction to one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.

I still love Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit. The story never seems to wear out, and Gennady Spirin's gorgeous illustrations make this new picture book version (published by Marshall Cavendish) a keeper. This would make a beautiful gift book.

Poetry Friday: Edna St. Vincent Millay

I'd almost forgotten how much I love the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. But for the past week or so, my nine year old daughter has been memorizing "Afternoon on a Hill." Its gentle music still speaks to my heart, and I've loved discussing it with her. We've talked about the lovely alliteration of "I will look at cliffs and clouds/ with quiet eyes" (how I long for "quiet eyes"!) and we've also talked about how the speaker of the poem felt joy in the present moment as she declared "I will touch a hundred flowers/and not pick one." That's always been my favorite line ~ I love the way the narrator doesn't feel the need to possess what she's enjoying, but just lets the flowers stay free, growing right where they are.

Remembering this poem sent me looking for another old favorite by Millay. I was introduced to "Recuerdo" (the title means "Memory") through Madeleine L'Engle, who provided my introduction to so many wonderful poems through the years. I still love the whimsical, lilting quality of this poem:

"We were very tired, we were very merry --
We had gone back and forth all night upon the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable --
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon."

I love the story sense in this poem. How easy it is to picture two people having such joy in each other's company that they spend the whole night just talking, riding back and forth (no destination intended) on the boat, lying on the hilltop, watching the moon give way to the sunrise. It strikes me that this poem also celebrates the practice of the present moment, the joy of living right where you are without worry about what's to come next. In the final stanza, they do start for home (as does the person on the hilltop in "Afternoon on a Hill") but they give away all their remaining fruit and all their money except what they need for subway fares. Just living simply and with gratitude in the moment, again without the urgent need to possess.

The whole poem can be found at Poetry Archive.

Today's poetry round-up can be found at Picture Book of the Day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Words Work

I've got a handful of posts in the pipeline, but life is doing that funny thing it sometimes does...getting in the way of blogging. Imagine!

Words keep being on my mind though. The way we use them wisely, the way we don't. How they can give life and hope and spark creativity and form connections. How they can wound or trivialize. How much I need them in my life, and how much I still have to learn about crafting them and using them well.

The other day I was reading a bit from Leonard Sweet's book Aqua Church as I prepped for a discipleship group with the teen girls at church. He loves to weave quotes and bits of poems into his reflections, and I stumbled upon a stanza I'd never read but which spoke to my heart. I quoted a line from it as my FB status. A friend asked me what it was from. I told her, and she went looking for the whole poem (it was from a book published in 1900!) and posted all several beautiful, hope-filled stanzas. She's been grieving the death of her brother, and the poem touched her heart. I watched as other people commented on the poem, sensing the comfort and beauty in the words, and then I saw one of them say they were passing it on to a grieving friend.

Do you ever marvel at the way words form a web? I often think about poetry and stories as long, ongoing conversations, but sometimes that firms up in front of our eyes in unexpected ways. An author over a century ago pens a prayer poem. An author several years ago excerpts it in his book. I read the words and they touch me so I pass that on. My friend is so touched she goes looking for deeper context and more of the poem. She passes it on to someone who passes it on to someone and...more people are blessed.

This is how words work at their best. They fly like birds and blow about like leaves, like seeds. They're messages in bottles and scrawled notes in balloons (something my elementary school did once, years ago in the pre-green days...we wrote messages and then released them in balloons, waiting to see if we would hear back from those who found them).

As writers and teachers we can choose our words carefully, shape them wisely and beautifully (we hope) but ultimately we send them out there into the world. And they do their thing, connecting hearts and minds and sometimes ending up in surprising places.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Just a Few Wordplay Musings

I'm drafting a review this evening, and I find myself wondering...

Isn't chock-full a real word, not just a coffee brand? And am I strange to use it? My spell checker won't take it no matter what.

Why, when I'm writing flat-out in creating/first draft mode, do I have a tendency to use one certain word over and over again?

Don't you want to know now what tonight's repeatedly used word is? Of course you do! It's musings! (And I've used it again in the title of this blog post).

Why did I have to go a thesaurus to come up with synonyms like ponderings, reflections, contemplations, speculations, cogitations, ruminations? (I had managed to come up with meditations on my own.) And have no fear, dear reader, I did not use them all in one book review. I promise.

And one last question, aren't we writers thankful for thesauruses? Or is it thesaurii? (Doesn't that sound grand? The mighty herd of thesaurii thundered over the plains...)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Week in Review (3): Prelutsky Poems, Monet Trains, and the Final Harry Potter Film

I'm late posting my round-up of review links from last week. I generally try to do it over the weekend, preferably on Saturdays. Not that I need an excuse, but my computer continues its erratic, moody behavior. I think this is yet one more way that a sweeter and more patient temperament is being nourished in the garden of my heart!

So here are the links to my reviews from last week: two picture books, and a movie everybody else saw in July. (It was worth the wait though.)

There's No Place Like School is the title of a Jack Prelutsky selected collection of poems about school. Written for the elementary age crowd, and recounting familiar school experiences and feelings any child can relate to (no matter what kind of schooling they're involved in) this is a book of fun poems with comic pictures to match. My homeschooler thoroughly enjoyed it. Two Prelutsky poems are included, but there are other great authors represented, including Kenn Nesbitt and Rebecca Kai Dotlich. This was a complimentary review copy provided to me by Greenwillow Books. Life's been pretty hectic the past few months, so I'm happy to finally have a chance to get some Greenwillow reviews up -- hopefully a few more to come soon.

The second picture book is the beautiful Claude Monet: The Painter Who Stopped the Trains. We're on a big Monet kick in our fine arts time this month, and this book is a gem. I'm slowly building a stable of reviews on fine arts resources for children and was really glad to include this one. Links in the review will take you to other reviews I've written on other Monet books and books about other impressionists.

I finally managed to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2). It was a Labor Day gift from my husband. My musings about the villains in the piece (and some of the poetic special effects) can be found down below, but my review of the film as a whole is found at the link. I could never love the movies the way I do the books, but in general, it exceeded my expectations.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Death of Villains (Or "Does Mundane Work for Movies?")

My dear husband gave me a great gift on a rainy Labor Day: a couple of hours to myself and a ticket to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2). Though I suspected I was the only person in the crowded theater who was making this film journey for the first time (considering the movie has been out since July) I didn't mind. I was just very happy to finally see the film, which pleasantly surpassed my expectations.

I'll save my longer review for later, but for now, I just had to ask this question: what is up with the death of villains in movies? Have you noticed that real baddies can't seem to just die like normal people? They have to go out in a blaze of pyrotechnics. Maybe this has always been true, but I'd never found myself quite so aware of it as I was yesterday. Even as I marveled over some of the astounding visual effects, I found the back of my mind wondering why they chose to make these deaths look the way they did.

There were three "bad guy" deaths in a row in the final battle of Hogwarts (I'm assuming here that you either know who dies because you've read the books, seen the films, or perhaps just don't care either consider yourself spoiler warned).

Bellatrix dies first. She's terrible -- the torturer of Neville's parents and the murderer of Sirius Black -- and the filmmakers have given her huge amounts of screen time, mostly because Helena Bonham Carter is so good at playing a manically deranged character. The death effect here? Wave after wave of magic spells hit her until she's suspended in mid-air, frozen like the cartoon coyote just before he realizes he falls, and then she shatters. Literally shatters like glass, or even more precisely like ice, into a million little pieces. An interesting effect given her coldheartedness.

Nagini the snake dies next. I won't go into the weirdness of how they handled that scene (so differently from the book) but at least in the end the right hero walloped off her head. And she sort of disintegrates in a swath of black smoke. Fitting because of her magical qualities (no mere snake here) and interesting because the smoke reminds you of ring-wraiths and dementors and all sorts of other evil fantasy creatures. Not to mention the smoky instruments in Dumbledore's office that gave us one of our first subtle clues to the snake's importance to Voldemort.

Speaking of Voldemort: the big bad guy falls last. He too shatters, though instead of an explosive shattering, it's more a falling to pieces. As he and our hero battle, the curse he attempts to kill Harry with is pushed back up through his wand (a la Goblet of Fire graveyard scene, or so it appeared to me) and then pulses through him instead. He is sort of eaten from the inside-out by fire, killed by his own hand. We see him cracking -- and it really does look like cracking, especially with his bald, white head looking so egg-like -- and then he falls to pieces. Visually that's interesting, given the fact that he has been in actual "pieces" for so many years, having given up bits of his soul as he continued down the path of evil and tried to pursue immortality. And the effect was also interesting: we see the pieces flaking apart, like onion skin or burned parchment, and then raining down in ashes (sorry to go into such gory detail, but the visuals were quite arresting).

Okay, it's all interesting and symbolic and all that, but is it necessary? I know, I know...films have to show us what novels can tell us (and allow us to create in our own imaginations) but I've always been sort of fascinated by the way Rowling writes Voldemort's death. There is something almost...well...boring about it. I don't use that word lightly ~ she beat me to it, or close enough. She seems to understand that death coming for Voldemort is enough, all by itself, without it being symbolic, dazzling, unusual, bizarre, poetic-justice death. He is human, after all...though he kept forgetting that fact and kept losing more and more of his humanity. But in the end he's just human -- a broken, lost man who "fell backward, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upward. Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snakelike face vacant and unknowing. Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his enemy's shell."

Note that in the moment when he hit that floor with a mundane finality (and can't you practically hear the thump?) Rowling refers to him by his actual name, not by his fearful, grandiose, self-chosen moniker. In this moment we are reminded, with a resounding thud, of his humanness, his frailty, even his lostness. And it works powerfully. It just works, in all its minimalism, the way it should.

But does mundane work for movies? Would the same things that come across on the page come across on the scene if they played the death that way? Those were the kinds of thoughts flitting through my mind as I watched the spectacular battle effects in HP7.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Week in Review (2): Prydain Finale, Return to Enderverse

It was a light reviewing week for me, not surprising given that it was our first week back to school! I'm also trying to get my work (and work schedule) set for fall. Hopefully I can get back on a better writing pace as September progresses.

So for this week, just two reviews, both of books whose fictional worlds are such fun to spend time in.

I finally reviewed The High King, the fifth and final book of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series. I finished the series long ago, but couldn't quite bring myself to write the final review because I didn't seem to want the experience to end. D. and I have been listening to the audio book versions (marvelously read by James Langton) and I'm pretty sure we'll be tackling Prydain as a family read-aloud sometime in the next year. The sweet girl has loved Narnia, and we're planning to read The Hobbit sometime this year too. So Prydain seems like a perfect next step into fantasy literature. Links at the bottom of review will take you to my reviews of the first four books in the series.

I also reviewed Ender in Exile, the most recent return to the Enderverse by Orson Scott Card. I had mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it's always enjoyable to spend time with Ender, and I can understand Card's love of returning again and again to this character and his world. On the other hand, some of these story points have been hashed out so many times in other books in the series that it felt a little flat. If you're an Ender fan, however, you'll likely enjoy this...and there are some great moments. I especially liked the letter from Colonel Graff to Ender (written near the end of Graff's life). I suspect I will continue to return to Ender's world as long as Card keeps wanting to write it...and I'm always fascinated by the ways he explores how stories change and grow as you look at the same event from multiple perspectives.