le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Princess & Curdie

Just finished The Princess & Curdie. I'd read The Princess and the Goblins years ago, and several times since then, but never managed the sequel.

And my stars, was it ever WEIRD!

I don't think it'll be on my Weirdness Syllabus (Macdonald will be represented somehow, probably with At the Back of the North Wind), but what a strange and disturbing book.

It's all about Curdie, of course, and has the feel of allegory, but its peopled with such oddness - the pack of bizarre, deformed hybrid creatures, for instance. The detail of the punishments meted to the treasonous court. The battle scene.

Most weird - and unsettling - is the conclusion. Curdie and Irene married, then dead and gone -- and the kingdom destroyed by greed.

truly strange. i don't know what to make of the hybrid monsters. i REALLY don't know what to make of Curdie's gift of the "testing hands" - his ability to take the hand of a person, and feel that person's true nature (either true human, or some sort of animal - snake, vulture, ox, mule).

what a weird book. i'm sure there's more brilliance in it than i've yet figured out, but it's just so odd i don't quite know what to do with it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

bouncing ideas helps

I've been struggling for - well, most of the summer - to put together a KILLER syllabus for my fall childhood's books class. The summer edition went so well, and I want another fabulous, exciting class. I couldn't just duplicate the summer syllabus, for a number of reasons, not least my desire for a course that has greater historical breadth.

I had a few titles I was determined to use: The Golden Compass, Alice, Peter Pan, Story of the Amulet, a Roald Dahl title, some Janeway and Newbery, Christina Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses.

But what was my theme? what was the organizing principle of the course, other than a generic survey?

So i talked with my friend B last night. B is a fellow grad student, and probably the best grad student teacher amongst us (of all the grad students currently teaching, probably, and CERTAINLY the best in our year). She's a medievalist, and doesn't know children's lit in any special way.

I ran my ideas by her, and she said: "wow, these all sound really disturbing and weird."
and then "why not just do that? focus on the disturbing, the darker parts of children and childhood?"


and I will.

Death, grimness, poverty, the supernatural/spooky, disturbing, bizarre, the child imperiled - THAT will be my theme.
Rossetti fits perfectly, now. I can do Stretton, and Andersen's fairy stories (and a few of Grimms' or Jacobs' fairytales, probably). I'm contemplating excerpting from The Jungle Books - "Letting in the Jungle," which I found a very sinister and terrifying story (as well as being a representative of Kipling, as well as featuring the wild child, Mowgli).

I'm thinking of including Macdonald's At the Back of the North Wind, though it's been some years since I last read it; but Diamond dies, and that's creepy enough!

One of my decisions - to be made ASAP for book-ordering purposes - is WHICH Dahl to use? Initially, I planned to use Matilda, but after talking with B, I think The Witches makes a MUCH better choice.

What other texts would be good in this syllabus? I'm going to include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (supernatural + Aslan's death + Edmund's Badness), and I'd like to put in HP & the Prisoner of Azkaban (the dementors - need I say more? though Order of the Phoenix would be much more appropriate, I don't think any of the books after book 3 can work as stand-alones).

Suggestions welcome, please!!!! especially any from, say, 1890-1970. I have the contemporary overbooked as it is (it occurred to me that Snicket is IDEAL for this class!), and the Victorians are well represented, but anything before 1840, and after 1890, would be fantastic!!!

Saturday, July 21, 2007




I just finished THE BOOK. shockingly, it only took a little over five hours. i'm sure i missed a million things.

but i am a satisfied reader, mostly, except for the epiloguey part.

Chapter Thirty-Three was my undoing. I've always had my own set of opinions about Severus Snape, and this chapter confirmed many of them (in a much more detailed, elaborate way than I'd ever thought through). THE moment of the book that got me is on page 687, and here is the dialogue:

"After all this time?"

oh god. the tears.
the sobbing.

goodness snakes alive.

what a book!

there were some horrendous moments. Hedwig, dobby. some wonderful moments: Neville, Luna, Kreacher.

some of it, I think, is a bit of a cop-out. mostly, though, not so much. The epilogue seems like a sneaky foreclosing of possibilities, but I can live with that.

The Dursleys were not wrapped up sufficiently for me. But i can handle that, as well.

This book clipped right along. It was tremendous.

I am pleased.

and now, I need some sleep!

Friday, July 20, 2007

In fewer than four hours...

..... I will be holding in my hands Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I am tremendously excited. As long as nothing bad happens to Luna Lovegood, I am not terribly invested in who dies and what happens. I'm just RAGINGLY CURIOUS to see how all the various threads get resolved.

Ever since - book three? - I've been particularly curious about how the Dursleys' story concludes, as well as Malfoy's.

I WILL be writing about this book once I've read it - and I am planning on staying up all night to read (I think I wouldn't be able to sleep without finishing, anyway). I have a supply of snacks and caffeine, and I am READY!

The tag/title will indicate spoilage, but essentially, whatever I write about HP7 here WILL include spoilers, so readers beware!

Now it is time to dine and then get ready for book-acquisitioning! I'm going to a Barnes & Noble; I don't do the party stuff, but I plan to get there early and observe the goings-on, and wait for my book surrounded by undergrads, hysterical 12-year-olds and dorks like myself.

can't hardly wait!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nesbit, Sewall, Wiggin

I re-read The Story of the Amulet, and E. Nesbit is still so, SO good. I hate that I didn't know her books when i was a child....that book is just so smart and clever and funny, and I love the Psammead in all his sandy, cranky glory.

On to the new books!

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin.

What a nauseating load of bunk that book was! bleargh. it felt like Anne of Green Gables to me - in its talkative, artsy girl bringing sunshine and originality to a stuffy little town, but at least Wiggin has the decency not to flood us with too much moralizing. Rebecca got on my nerves, but the book was reasonably readable. I have to say I was creeped out by the way "Uncle Jerry" and "Mr Aladdin" admire Rebecca. Now, I am a devotee of James Kincaid, and Erotic Innocence changed my intellectual life. I am quite tough-skinned when it comes to pedophilia-related issues, but even *I* thought the way Mr Aladdin and Jerry go on and on about Rebecca's beauty and charm, when she's only 12 years old, was downright creepy.
other than that, nothing terribly surprising OR interesting to me about this book. American literature, especially for children, seems dreadfully pragmatic and puritanical. i find it unexciting.

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewall.
I'm ALREADY a total softie for animals. I'm a vegetarian, I don't buy/use leather, I try to shop cruelty free, I dote on three cats (one of whom is a foster), I recently rescued a terrifyingly large beetley thing from certain doom in my basement washtub-sink. I did NOT need to read about the horrors of the horse-using industries of the late 19th century.
I cringed my way through a lot of that book, because I HATE hearing about animals being hurt or killed.
I suppose I am glad it was written, if it affected the way people dealt with their horsies, but honestly, I don't ever want to read it again. Poor horses. The barn fire?! the death of poor Ginger? Shooting Rob Roy and Captain? it was horrifying!

I do have to wonder: is Black Beauty a children's book? If so: why?
The dustjacket notes compare it to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is not a children's text. Black Beauty is a political tract, really, and it strikes me that most purchasers and users of horses are adults. There are, in fact, very few children in the book. So WHY is this a classic of children's lit? is it more of the old children-and-animals alliance?

this is worth thinking about. i've been interested in the relationship between children and animals via children's books for years, because it seems - well, weird. and provocative. if i had world enough, and time, i would write a nice long essay on animals and children's lit. it would be very animals-rightsish, and probably PETA would publish it.

ah well!

HP7 tomorrow, so I shall have to set aside the project for a day or so.
tonight, I shall probably finished Frances Browne's Granny's Wonderful Chair!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

overheard/missing the boat

after seeing Order of the Phoenix, a friend and I went to dinner at max & erma's. in the booth across from us were two women who irritated me for a variety of reasons, both petty: one was wearing an engagement ring with a diamond roughly the size of my head, and kept flashing it around (she gestured a LOT with that hand). the other was a very skinny woman, but wearing an oversized shirt. an acquaintance came up and inquired, and the woman was all patting her (very flat) tummy and crowing about being pregnant. The oversize tunic was a maternity top. This woman on her worst days was probably a size 2. Maternity shirt not necessary. patting flat tummy not necessary either. but whatever.

their WORST offence:

they were also discussing the Harry Potter film. and started talking about Loony Lovegood. And they called her LOONY. as if that was her name.

Now, I am very partial to Luna; she's probably my favorite character (along with Lupin). It literally hurt me to hear these two dumb women calling her Loony; it's meant, in the books, to be unkind. Ginny and Harry constantly correct people for calling her Loony. It's not a nice name to call her.

It made me think: these women have totally missed the boat. they have no idea what it's like to BE the Luna Lovegood of your class, or your school. They don't get it at all.

and then I wondered: what else don't they get? and how many other viewers/readers are out there, missing the point all over the place?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

coral island, katzekopfs, hesba stretton, Nesbit!

i've been working away at the PhD Project Reading List (sort of; june got lost in the haze of teaching). but since summer session ended, and i am a Free Girl again, I have been trying to read steadily.

The Coral Island - RM Ballantyne. There seems to be this pattern of sneaking natural history/science lessons into books disguised as novels. I found this to be the case in both of my "island" books - Coral Island and Anne Parrish's adorably-illustrated The Floating Island. Not being particularly interested in snails and coral and small sea-creatures, I found most of the natural history quite dull. The Coral Island is weirdly unbelievable because of Our Heroes' ages (18,15,13) - but they don't speak or act like teenagers or young men. It's a pretty typical boys' adventure story - King Solomon's Mines MEETS Robinson Crusoe, I guess (having to rescue the light-skinned black girl and all). At ChLA in June, I'd heard a paper on coral insects, and the way they, and natural history, were used by British Missionary societies, so i had that in the back of my mind while reading. It was useful to have someone else's pre-digested ideas on hand for a book I'm not likely to do much with in the future. Of course, my queer-detectors went off when tall, manly Jack tenderly whispers to Ralph Rover, but beyond that - well, I'm glad I don't have to read it again.

The Hope of the Katzekopfs by "william churne" (the pseudonym of Rev Paget). So I read this one, and kind of went "wtf???" It's a fairly typical 19th century fairytale/moral tale - Lady Abracadabra whisks the nasty little Hope of the Katzekopfs, Prince jerkface, off to Fairyland to learn him a lesson. (think of Toad and Badger, saying "we don't want to teach them! we want to learn them!!!")
It had all the weirdness of the Victorian fairytale - I was thinking of the fairystories collected in Forbidden Journeys, (eds. Nina Auerbach and U.C Knoepflmacher). There's the grotesque, the Fairy, the moral, the transformation: nothing terribly new or surprising, though since Katzekopfs was written in 1844, perhaps I've got the wrong end of the stick, and Rev Paget was really doing something extraordinary and new. "Amelia & the Dwarves" is a better, weirder, story (in my opinion). What perplexes me most about Katzekopfs is the way it is so.....German-ish. But this isn't a terribly pressing (or productive) question, so I'll bracket it.


I was dreading reading anything called "Jessica's First Prayer." But I found it....freakishly compelling. I went on to read the three other novella/tracts in the collection with "Jessica," and enjoyed them all. I'm surprised by this, because they're all very Algerish stories: dirt-poor and helpless children with good qualities find benefactors who teach them about Jesus and God. Sometimes, the child dies. Sometimes, the child does not die. Either way, everyone's really excited about Jesus and God and lives happily ever after (but never as happily as those morbid children who ecstatically die, ready and willing to go chill with God and Jesus rather than live their earthly lives).
"Little Meg's Children," "Alone in London," and "Pilgrim Street" were the other three stories, and I have to say I enjoyed them all. Stretton's writing is solidly good, and there's something so wonderfully Victorian, almost Dickensian, about her characters and settings. I don't know much about Stretton, other than that she was a christian reformer, concerned - obviously! - with the poor, and with poor children. i sometimes wonder what would happen if we had decent writers cranking out tractlike stories like this now - about the poor and underprivileged - would anyone read them? would any child read them and be motivated? would any adult?

which is a decent segue into today's re-read, Five Children & It. Now, I love Nesbit and I've re-read nearly all her books repeatedly. I just zipped through The Magic City (possibly my favorite) again, and it's still damn fantastic.

Five children & It is not one of my favorite Nesbit stories, perhaps because the wishes-adventures are SO snarkily carried out. I LOVE The Story of the Amulet, however; which is the Stretton connection. Nesbit and Stretton have similar projects in terms of politics (Nesbit not from the Christian angle, though), in their concern for the poor. And I find it fascinating that they handle their political material SO differently - and equally successfully, I think. Stretton wants to move us through pathos and christian spirit (or maybe christian guilt?); Nesbit wants to move us through a kind of pragmatic rationality, and through a kind of ostranenie , the defamiliarization she can achieve through time-travel.

I'm thinking I might teach "Little Meg" and The Story of the Amulet this fall.....

what do you think?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

order of the phoenix - movie montage madness!

so i surprised myself by being very eager to see the film adaptation of Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix. surprised, because though I am just as addicted to the books as the next person, I've been vastly disappointed with the films. But I've become, in the last year or so, VERY attached to Phoenix (the book), and I really quite wanted to see how the director (David Yates, who has far as I can tell, hasn't done much of real note before) dealt with it.

Yates seems to have been an excellent choice - there were a lot of small visual details, and cinematographic decisions that I really, really liked. lots of weird, rapid zoom-in close-ups of fragmented body parts - an eye, a neck - that really gave the film a nice spooky tone without being over the top or horror-movie-ish.

Imelda Staunton does a KICK-ASS job as Dolores Umbridge. Her costumes were perfect; she nailed the smiley pinkish evil of Umbridge perfectly. her desire for power is brilliantly staged - one scene has her seated in a throne-like chair, overseeing an exam or lesson. the way she briefly caresses the arm of the throne is genius.

one other genius move: in the final scenes of the film, in the Ministry, we see an enormous portrait banner of Fudge - it's a touch right out of, say, 1984 or any other film about dictators. It's such a brief touch but so brilliantly frames the politics of the movie - i cheered when i saw it.

Also, and I feel hideously creepy saying this, but my friend (with whom I saw the film) said it first: Daniel Radcliffe is going to be one extremely handsome young man. and soon. (although the ringer t-shirt/corduroy hipster/intellectual look he sports in the final scene could go).

I still loathe Emma Watson as Hermione Granger; she's simply NOT hermione. The actor playing Ginny would make a much better Hermione; she has a less glamourous prettiness. The film keeps wanting to make Hermione a Leading Lady, but the stories just don't permit that, so every glowy scene with Watson seems forced. And - sorry, Emma - but she just doesn't look smart.

Helena Bonham Carter is PERFECT as Bellatrix, and stole every scene she's in. I wish she was in it more, somehow.

Evanna Lynch, a fangrrrl who was cast as my favorite character in the whole series, Luna Lovegood, was incredible. Totally dreamy, totally Luna. I wish she had more screen time.

NOW! Let's rip the film to shreds! Keep in mind that of the films in the HP series, this was by far the one I'm most pleased with.

An acquaintance very astutely observed on Monday that they'd need to make two films per book (especially after Azkaban) to really do the books justice. The amount of STUFF in the novels simply cannot be squeezed into a 2+ hour movie. Recognizing this limitation is essential, I think, to having any kind of objective reaction to the films.

The main criticism of this film: to cram everything into 2 hours - everything required to set up the next installment - Yates & co decided to produce a series of montages, rather than a solid block of narrative film. There's remarkably little dialogue. Things happen very, very quickly, and in montage - one of my favorite parts of the book, the St Mungo's chapters, are eliminated altogether. Within about four minutes, Harry has:
seen the snake attack Mr Weasley
been whisked off for Occlumency with Snape
gone on christmas holiday
Mr Weasley returns home cured

it happens rapidfire, montage style.
The DA sessions also run in montage, as do the series of Educational Decrees and Umbridge's inspections of the teachers.

We SEE a lot happen in a short space of time, but never really experience it. The film has virtually no interiority; there's a weak-ass attempt early on, when Harry writes a diarylike letter to Sirius, talking about how sad and alone he feels. Harry's estrangement and persecution by the Wizard community - the awkwardness at school, his sense of alienation from everyone, his anger (ALL CAPS HARRY, WHERE ARE YOU???) are almost completely absent in the film. They're gestured at - he snaps at Ron and Hermione a bit, but the real angst is just....gone.

In my humble opinion, they blew it with the Ministry - it's a hightech 21st century-looking black and glass underground city, not the peacock blue and jewel-toned ministry i imagined. it has the look of being built in a subway stop (and in fact the credits thank and cite Westminster tube stop as a location), and feels creepy in all the wrong ways.

The details of the Ministry - especially the Department of Mysteries - is absent. Harry finds his way into the hall of prophecy instantly; there is none of that spooky blue-black lighting, no Time Room. They don't stumble into the Death Chamber (with the Veil) until after retrieving the prophecy.

I think these absences matter. In teaching Azkaban this summer, (the novel), one of the things that seemed evident to me through our discussions is that the wealth of detail - the fullness and depth of the fantasy world Rowling creates - is perhaps THE major reason why so many people are so passionate about the books. It is a deeply, thoroughly realized Other World. There are spellcheck quills and magical socks. there are self-peeling potatoes and family-vehicle flying carpets (or were, before the ban on them). there are things we can't imagine: the beautiful, glittering belljar, with the hummingbird in its stream - the jar of TIME - in the department of Mysteries; the myriad ailments in St Mungo's ER; the very entrance to Purge & Dowse, Ltd (in Regent Street). The magical parallels of real-world life are what make the books so enthralling. we want to live in that world, and it's so vividly created that we almost believe it exists.

The films fail us in this respect. The richness of the fantasy world is lost, and instead we have this weirdly fakey juxtaposition of magical world and muggle - this is perhaps most cringeably noticeable when harry and the order fly on broomsticks to Grimmauld Place, in London - the "flying broomsticks" look so fake against their bluescreen backdrop of 2006 London. the Magic doesn't seem REAL, in the films, and so it disppoints.

The feel-good moments of emotion between Sirius and Harry, Dumbledore & Harry, and Harry, Ron and Hermione feel like crap, though. It's the problem virtually ALL children's texts suffer when they are transmediated for the big screen: we can't have gritty, subversive, grotesque or subtle emotions. The darkness of the film vanishes in this hopeful conclusion, with harry feeling good about what's worth fighting for. he's too heroic in the most cliched way possible, and too inspirational. Not much about Harry Potter, the character, is truly inspirational. But the film forces him into that position, and again: it grates and jars against the rest of the narrative. The novel does not end on an especially uplifting or hopeful note; the film tries to, and that's when it suffers most.

But i did love some of the staging and cinematography; the Weasley twins are marvellous, as always; Luna and Bellatrix and Umbridge are brilliant casting decisions.