The Art of Losing: Charlotte’s Web

I liked sad things when I was a child. I probably still do like sad things, the lovely feeling of loss and connection one gets when unfortunate things happen to imaginary people in books. I would beg my Grandma Dory to read me The Little Match Girl over and over, and I would weep giant crocodile tears of pain and empathy at the girl’s frozen body, the grandmother and the candles, the matches all struck and burnt down to a flash of pain and then the letting go…

Charlotte is something of this for me, but it’s worse, her little spider body grown stiff and brittle and almost silly. I don’t know why I think about the corpses these ladies leave, but there’s something incredibly sad about how Charlotte diminishes from this great spinning speaking voice into a dead bug. Sad, so so sad.

I’ve tried to write this review a couple of hundred times, but it keeps falling apart. This story is so light, so airy, that it resists too much pressure, or goes squishing out the other end. I’ve half-written a dozen childhood reveries; I’ve cracked some jokes about how well punctuated this book is; I’ve talked about Charlotte-as-writer. None of this worked, and I promise it was all fumbling garbage. The following story comes closer to capturing how this book makes me feel than any other thing I’ve written for this review. I’m not satisfied with it, but it’s what I’ve got.

My Grandma Fran was dying, and I was a thousand miles from home. The hospital was like a hospital. My two-year-old-girl did the very best a 2-year-old could do with the beeping boredom of sitting for hours at a hospital bedside, but often we would have to go rambling around just to see what we could see. The hospital had no grounds to speak of, very little grass, but it did have a square pool of water that we considered every time we walked in from the parking lot. I think it may have been a fountain at some point, but it had been turned off or broken so it was just water in the ground.

We walked up to the edge. We took off our shoes and put in our feet. She splashed with her hands held so tight that her fingers curled up, a funny, baby-like gesture from a someone who was tending towards girlishness more and more at the time. Even though the air and the water were the same temperature, the air felt warm and the water cool. We rolled up our pants and walked around. She fell onto her butt and I laughed. She splashed me and I splashed her back. We found cars in my purse and drove them around the edges and fished them off the bottom. Then a security guard came and told us that the pool was only for decoration and we had to get out. We did, and went back to the hospital room, dripping. We told Grandma about swimming in the forbidden fountain, and she laughed. Grandma was still dying.

Here’s something you should read:

“Let’s swing in the swing!” said Avery.

The children ran to the barn.

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.

Avery put the frog in his pocket and climbed to the hayloft. “The last time I swang in this swing, I almost crashed into a barn swallow,” he yelled.

“Take that frog out!” ordered Fern.

Avery straddled the rope and jumped. He sailed out through the door, frog and all, and into the sky, frog and all. Then he sailed back into the barn.

“Your tongue is purple! ” screamed Fern.

“So is yours!” cried Avery, sailing out again with the frog.

“I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” called Fern.

“Scratch it!” yelled Avery, as he sailed back.

“It’s my turn,” said Fern. “Jump off!”

“Fern’s got the itch!” sang Avery.

When he jumped off, he threw the swing up to his sister. She shut her eyes tight and jumped. She felt the dizzy drop, then the supporting lift of the swing. When she opened her eyes she was looking up into the blue sky and was about to fly back through the door.

They took turns for an hour.

When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up toward the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

“Let’s build a tree house,” suggested Avery. “I want to live in a tree, with my frog.”

My Boo

Recently the boy came home from school with a comped copy of The Story of Ferdinand. I somewhat vaguely seeing that book in school, but it hadn’t registered. Apparently, Ferdinand has this ridiculously long political history, coming out as it did just on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, and set in the Spanish bullfighting rings. Gandhi admired it; Stalin named a gun after it (in a whack totalitarian dick-move); Hemingway wrote The Faithful Bull in response to it; Hitler banned it. Lots of sturm und drang with that one, boy howdy. But because I’m a philistine, I didn’t know all that. I took one look at the author’s name, and began squealing, because Mr Monro Leaf wrote one of my most favoritest books that lived at Grandma Dory’s: BOO Who Used to be Scared of the Dark. I really thought Leaf was just some dude who had fallen down the memory hole, like this book has, and I’m just jazzed as heck to find he’s a bigger deal than I knew as a kid. 

Boo is a fearful child. He’s afraid of frogs, dogs, bugs, mice and the dark. Thank goodness he has a talking cat named Alexander who walks him through his outdoor fears, teaching him to be quiet and watchful around frogs and dogs, and to eat mice. Actually, Boo does’t eat any mice, but Alexander’s cattiness about mice makes them not-scary. The art is in this odd 50s style that feels like pin-up art, with the weird shiny round skin that people have in pin-ups, but I’m not saying this is sexualized or anything. It’s just a convergence of lithography stylins of the times. So, Alexander gets Boo over most of Boo’s fears, but the fear of the dark hangs on.

One night, Boo’s parents leave him alone in the house to “go to the neighbors” *wink wink* which I think is adorable and awesome. There’s no way most nervous middle class type parents would leave their six year old alone in the house at night, much as we would occasionally like to, but here it’s like, shrug, fend for yourself, kid. Boo wakes up in a panic, convinced there are all manner of wild animals – a gorilla, a snake, a lion – hiding in the darkness of his room. He screams; Alexander, who has been sleeping under the stove, wakes up so hard he cracks his head. 

This is the scene I died laughing about as a kid, paging back and forth through the Boo panic and the spit-take of Alexander’s reactions. Sure, this is crazy dopey, but it was so funny to me. Alexander runs a Socratic dialogue on Boo, showing him that the snake was a pile of clothes, and the gorilla was the light fixture, and all of the fear is dissolved into the bright light of clean up your room. Boo’s parents arrive and wonder what is going on with how awake and cleaning Boo is, and Alexander says the only thing he ever does when adults are present: meow. Hearts.

I was very frightened of the dark as a kid, because if I slept facing the alcove, monsters would certainly eat my face off. I had this whole thing about jumping onto the bed so that Oncler arms wouldn’t reach out and grab me. I can’t say this book ever helped with that, exactly, but it was a valiant effort, and one I thought was the highest form of physical comedy. (I know kids have no taste.) So, for me, certainly the whole literary pedigree of bulls smelling flowers is notable, but I’ve got my Boo as my first love, in true hipster fashion. Sure, I mean, that wine bar is great, but there’s this other one just around the corner that no one knows about….

The Zombie Night Before Christmas

Sure, we all hate monster mash-ups of the classics at this point. We’ve gotten jaded since the idea of the monster/classic mash-up first arrived on the scene with Pride and Prejudice and Zombieswith its great cover, hilarious study guide, and boring and dumb everything else. Our opinion faltered when we were confronted by a long string of cash-ins, from sea monsters to robots, hastily and messily stitched into anything and everything in the worst, most mercenary way. Fuck you marketing assholes for teasing us so. These books have always and ever been impulse gift books, the kind of thing squealed about after unwrapping – thank you for knowing I give a shit about classics and/or monsters – and then read on the toilet and dumped at the used bookstore. 

However, The Zombie Night Before Christmas is a cut above your usual monster/classic mash-up. For one, being a pretty short little poem, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. I cannot imagine wading through Anna Kareninaa second time just for android bits, and the concept of changing the roach into cats in The Metamorphosissends me into a rage. But whatever many lines of couplets which might have been plagiarized anyway? Sure. The art is good – really very cromulent – and my only complaint here is that there could be more of it. There are several pages where the slightly tweaked lines stand sadly alone, and a page or two more of the funny, bloody art would be cool. 

But the neatest part? So many of these mash-ups are just a half-assed pun – Android Karenina, Jane Slayre– more concerned with an attractive title and cover than creating anything but the most sopping of bullshit within the covers. But, according to the flap, “H. Parker Kelley was a curious child who wanted to know how Santa was able to bring gifts to children for hundreds of years without aging or dying.” Right before Netflix went down for the entirety of Christmas – I see how all you assholes have the day off, and are on the Netflix hard – my husband and I searched for Xmas movies. Being Netflix, much of what was available on streaming was Finnish horror films about Krampus, who, if you did not grow up Scandinavian, is like evil Santa, the stick to Saint Nicolas’ carrot.

An immortal semi-deity who can see when you’ve been naughty and nice is a scary ass thing, when you get right down to it, a sort of God-lite moral agent. While Coca-Cola, Disney, and the entire American mercantile machine has defanged the Victorian Santa who had no qualms about shoving naughty children into sacks and leaving switches in stockings, his scary, home-invasion sensibility still remains under the treacle and sugar plums. Which is why this book kinda rules. It rules more because it was a gift from someone who knows my proclivites, which maybe isn’t hard given all the shatting about zombies I do on the Internets, but the wrapped gift of one’s obsessions is a joy in any season. But even more so on Christmas Eve, the paper stripped to reveal the perfect book at the perfect moment. 

Thank you, Stephanie. You rule.

The Animal Family

I am not going to do The Animal Familyby Randall Jarrell justice, I know. This is incredibly beautiful, powerful, sad, wonderful stuff. My brilliant friend Georgeanna (and next door neighbor – Lyndale neighborhood represent!) pushed this into my hands when I freaked out about how wonderful The Last Unicornwas. She’s right – this is just as amazing, heartbreaking, literate, and poetic as Beagle’s stuff. Add in art from Maurice Sendak, and I am in hook, line and sinker.*

I am a land-locked soul, which is funny, because if I have a soul, it resides somewhere on a rocky beach on the north shore of Lake Superior. My soul watches the water, but it can’t swim, and spends its time trying skip rocks over the glass of the lake. Maybe this is why I freak out all day about selkie stories – freak out completely beyond the bounds. This isn’t necessarily a selkie story – she, who has no name, is referred to as a mermaid – but there’s something selkie-ish about the way the hunter and the mermaid find their connection on the spit of land between meadow and sea. Selkie stories** are about miscommunication and alienation and how they can be the basis of love, and how that is the most profound paradox to ever blow my mind.

But she is a mermaid, not a selkie, and that works because selkie stories are usually massive bummers and this is not. I know from reading that if I am ever caught in an undertow, I am to swim at ninety degree angles against the pull, so that I may find myself in still waters. I’m not sure I would remember this if I were caught and drowning, but I know this now on land. I’m not a sea creature, and I can learn through telling, but that knowledge is incomplete and it always will be. I don’t know much about Randall Jarrell. I had this boyfriend once who loved him, and I hair-tossingly did not understand that love. (I was young. Shut up.) I associate him strongly with the WWII poetry that he is best known for:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

 From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I guess he was also a critic, but criticism has a faster expiration date than poetry even. (Sorry, no offense all of Goodreads. We’ve lit our candles at both ends.)

So a mermaid and a hunter find their strange love on a beach, and then they adopt a family of animals over the years: a bear, a lynx, a human boy. I can’t put my finger on why, but I found myself near tears at the oddest of points. And that’s weird. This isn’t the kind of tale that is determined to work your tear ducts – in fact, it is sweet and comic in its tone – but there’s this sorrow to it, an affectionate sorrow, an everyday sorrow, but a sorrow nonetheless. I don’t even know how to describe it. Here’s a passage, where the lynx is scratching the hunter accidentally in play:

 “Velvet paws! velvet paws!” The hunter would cry warningly.

 The mermaid had got used to his saying it, but the first time she’d asked perplexedly: “What’s velvet?”

 “I don’t know,” the hunter said. “But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in. My mother used to say it on the boat.”

So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way – a little scrap of velvet between the forest and the sea.

Omigod, do you see it? Do you see how this is everyday, happy and sad all in the same smooth movement? I think I may be done reviewing for now. I go to freak out.

*So I can’t decide whether I want to use the Oxford comma or not. Sue me.

**I recently saw the movie Ondine, which is a selkie story set in modern Ireland. I loved it like crazy.

Slightly Irregular Steampunk

I snapped The Slightly Irregular Fire Engineup at a local used bookseller because I’m kind of obsessed with steampunk, and a weird-ass kid’s book from the 70s that seems to have a steampunk aesthetic is right up my alley. The idea of Victorian futurism imagined by contemporary writers makes me all hot and bothered, but I’m often disappointed and/or enraged by how stilted the writing is, how fawning the depictions of Victoriana, or just how dumb. The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson, one of the very first full-blown steampunk novels, is pretty emblematic of my problem. The ideas are straight-up OMFG brilliant, but wrapped up in some fish-paper of boring and going-nowhere. (It’s not a huge surprise I feel this way: I heart Gibson for all his failings, but pretty much everything Sterling does makes me cringe. This includes Burning Man, Bruce, you douche.)

One of the more fascinating things about steampunk, as a cultural movement thingee, is that there’s huge disconnect between the literary branch and the Maker movement. Maker types build things, raise chickens in Brooklyn, try to master archaic technologies, and generally keep RadioShack in business. The more cosplay end dresses up in top hats, corsets, and goggles. I still haven’t bridged the gap between the lit and the doings, partially because the lit hasn’t bridged the gap between the costume and the ideas. The worst of the genre fetishizes Victorian reserve (or our imaginings of that reserve), blathering about “a simpler time” while totally ignoring class/race/colonialism, blah blah, you know. 

Anyhoo, now that I’ve gone off on a random digression, this book is arguably not steampunk at all – it’s too early – but it definitely clarified a lot of my somewhat useless ditherings about the genre. Barthelme takes a series of (often bizarre) Victorian etchings, mixes them up like Tarot cards, and divines an odd little tale out of the mix. It feels like one of those patched-up stories that gets written in that little game where one person writes a section, covers up everything but the last line, and then passes it to the next person, who writes a section, and so on. (Do you know the game I mean? That was great fun at summer camp.) 

The art is cool, but it’s clunkily done, simply not altered enough, or done with enough visual style, to be interesting. They read like cut-outs, which is what they are, but they lay as still as a game of Solitaire. The language, however, whoo-boy, this is nice. More please. A girl, Mathilda, wakes up to find a pagoda growing in her yard. She enters, looking for a fire-engine. Djinns, pirates, and other wackiness ensues. It’s winking, post-modern (amusingly, almost archaically post-modern at this point, which is something of a trip), and clever without making you feel dumb. Like this:

“Would you like to have an escapade?” the djinn asked. “We can arrange that. Escapades come in two styles – fancy and more fancy.” 

“What is an escapade” Mathilda asked. 

“An escapade is something you didn’t expect,” the djinn said, “which surprises you, pleases you, and frightens you, all that once.” 

“Like a good dream,” Mathilda said. 

“Or you could be something,” the djinn suggested. “You could be a grown-up tennis-playing hat-wearing woman, or a one-man band–”  

“The one-man band doesn’t look too happy,” Mathilda observed. 

“He began as a piccolo player,” the djinn said.

Hahahaha! Phew. I had to google this Barthelme cat, and I was pretty much entraced by what I found. Writer of micro-fiction, inveterate post-modernist, regular contributor to this and that fancy (and extra fancy) periodical. The bastions of wiki said he wasn’t much for the whole narrative thing, but there is one here, even as it winks and smirks. 

Maybe I find steampunk so fascinating because it’s a post-modern attempt to leapfrog back to before Modernism even questioned, well, anything: the Nation, the Psyche, the Individual, the Narrative, back before when you could capitalize those things and not look like you were a Jerk-Face who was making A Point. ZOMG. What origami! Instead of taking the mismatched deck and building a house, steampunk folds and cuts the cards into something that casts the shadow of the house, but looks like an absolute mess straight-on. The ones I dislike tend to be really perfunctory narratives dressed up in high boots and cleavage, or anti-(post)-modernist claptrap that totally doesn’t get where it’s coming from. Fascinating pedigree, this steampunk stuff has. 

So, I would start my rating for this with three stars, because I liked it, take one off for the art, add one for the steampunk flavor, and then add another just because it blew my mind a little bit. Yes!