Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stephen Szymanski

First, a brief DNBR Day report:

I did okay. I finished three books, and started a fourth. Two of those three were from the Bone series, so it's absolutely not that they don't count; it's just that they are short. And quick to read. So I feel I could have read a lot more, except that partway through the fourth book I hit the wall. I hit it like an excited, floppy-eared dog hits a sliding glass door. I hit a book that I expected to enjoy, I was really looking forward to, and was horrified to discover around the fifth chapter that I wasn't enjoying it at all. I was bored and incredulous. I tried to pick up anything else I have lying around here and just couldn't find anything to engage me at all. So... the short of it is, I did more than just read yesterday. I did still thoroughly enjoy my reading, at least up until the last five chapters, so I consider the day a success; next time I'm going to bring home a much wider range of books in case I hit another wall.

And now! On to the review. Of note: this book has a different title across the pond, of course. There, it's titled Why England Loses. I prefer our title, I think it has more of a ring to it; but the English particularly are rather picky about not calling the game soccer.

I have World Cup fever. I get it every four years or so, and this year I got it hard. I put myself in charge of a World Cup display at work, and have been keeping the game scores updated and asking people which team they support, and charting that on a little graph. So far we have equal and large numbers of England/Brazil/Netherlands supporters, with a few smatterings of other countries: Italy (poor things), France (ouch), Portugal and Spain and Argentina and Germany (would have thought more than two supporters each), Japan (they were my pick, and sooooo close they were) and Ghana among those.

So, as I was watching some excellent soccer, I decided it was time for me to pick up Soccernomics, which is a book I've had my eye on for some time. I've heard Simon Kuper interviewed a couple of times and he always seems like a really intelligent guy, not to mention interesting and funny. If I'm going to read a book about sport and statistics, he's the kind of guy I'd want writing it. Turns out, my intuition on this point was correct: Soccernomics is really interesting, often funny, and enlightening on both soccer and the human condition. Kuper and co-author, sports economist Stephen Szymanski, have managed to write a book analyzing soccer and its fans that is loving, enlightening, and eminently readable.

The whole thing is pretty fascinating, but the part I found most interesting was the dissection of England's national side and England's national expectations. The whole section is pretty scathing without being nasty. It was particularly fascinating watching the reaction pour in to England's defeat at the hands of Germany; Soccernomics (published in 2009) predicted almost all of the fan and commentator reaction I caught on BBC's live commentary pages, in some cases in exact words. Soccer being invented by the English, and dominated by the English at the start, the English believe that they should always be the best. That is the players, the media, the fans, the soccer establishment: there's a manifest destiny-style feeling about soccer in England. Kuper and Szymanski systematically and logically dismantle this: no matter what anyone believes or feel should be the case, the numbers say that England actually overachieves in current-day international play. This is not to say that they are the best that they could be -- Kuper and Szymanski also offer several points that hamper England, including systemic if largely unconscious discrimination against middle- and upper-class and foreign players/managers, and consistent refusal by the vast majority of suits in England's soccer establishment to use the numbers and think logically about the game, and instead swearing by traditional "wisdom." Nothing about international or professional soccer is given a free pass with this book -- it's all put under the statistical microscope, examined, and explained.

I think part of the reason I found this whole discussion so engaging, aside from the fact that it's so well-written, is that I recognized a lot of the advantages and problems with English soccer from Canadian hockey. Ice hockey is in no way the international sport that soccer is, and never will be, but it's a lot more international than it used to be. And the exact same problems -- and advantages -- of English soccer can be identified in Canadian hockey. We have the same feeling of entitlement and when the Canadian international team loses we feel the same sort of outrage and shock that English soccer fans feel when the English team loses. You also see the same kinds of ugly anti-foreign sentiment, the sort of thing that makes me embarrassed to say I'm a hockey fan, the sort of thing that would be considered racism anywhere else but gets a pass in our respective "national" sports. The traditional management "knowledge" versus actual science. It's all there.

In the interests of not going on too long, I'll hold most of my other thoughts there. Aside from the content, the bones of this book are solid. The mathematics are clearly explained and not at all confusing or overdone; for someone who isn't always particularly fond of math, I had no trouble with it here and even enjoyed the way the statistics was explained. Every once in a while there is a bit of repetition that seems needless, sometimes across chapters and sometimes it is worded so closely that it almost seems like an editing mishap -- the one I'm thinking of is the discussion of etymology, whether or not the word "soccer" is actually an Americanization (it's not; apparently before the 1970s the English tended to call it soccer, too, which puts lie to the argument that North Americans call the game "soccer" to differentiate it from American football.) There are other areas where connections and comparisons could have been drawn a little tighter, as in the discussion of the Premier League standings near the beginning of the book and then the international standings further on. But overall, I thought this was an excellent book.

One doesn't need to be a soccer fan to enjoy it, although it certainly helps to know some of the names of people and teams. I think being a sports fan, though, is probably a prereq. Though there is some anthropological discussion (what is a "fan"; big sports tournaments save lives, by reducing the number of suicides in the countries that have teams participating; and there's a discussion of how and why poverty-stricken countries will never do particularly well at sport despite traditional arguments to the contrary) there is not enough to engage someone who isn't already at least peripherally interested in sport as an institution. But any fan of any team sport will probably find something in here, and enjoy the read.

I'm very keen to read a couple of Kuper's other soccer-related books now, including one about soccer in Europe during World War II and another about the social and cultural implications and ties of soccer, called Football Against the Enemy which sounds absolutely fascinating. Szymanski's other work seems to be primarily economics-related, which while I'm sure some people would enjoy, is not exactly my thing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a soccer match on.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I am reading, and the internets can't stop me

I am doing this today. This is the last time you will see me online this Sunday; I am unplugging to fully immerse myself in the feel, smell, sight, and brain-taste of books.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

So, my confession: the World Cup is putting a bit of a damper on my reading, and my reviewing. I finished this book a some time ago. I am usually pretty careful about reviewing very soon after the book is done, but in this case, I finished the book and the next morning happened to be a game I desperately wanted to watch: South Africa vs. Mexico. It was worth it. And then there was another game -- and another -- and oh look, I finished this book last week sometime, and I still haven't reviewed the thing yet. So here it is, posted, finally.

This is not fair to the book, as I loved it. It's unsurprising, as it's written by Terry Pratchett, but I still feel it warrants a mention: this book is awesome. It took me a little longer to get into it than usual, but I think I can blame this on circumstance (Summer reading is coming. Summer. Reading. Is. Coming. summerreadingiscomingomgaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh!!!) rather than the book itself. I persevered and was well-rewarded: Guards! Guards! is now one of my new favourite books. I have noticed this happens a lot with Pratchett. Not every time, but regularly enough to spot a trend.

This is the first of the Discworld books featuring the Watch. Sam Vimes is the captain of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, a ... well, diminished, perhaps is the nicest thing we can say about them... group of individuals who are all that is left of a once proud force for law and order in that most fragrant of cities. Vimes is an alcoholic, not even really functioning anymore as we meet him. He loves his city and he's blackly, horribly depressed at what the Watch has come to since the various guilds -- The Thieves Guild, the Assassins Guild, etc. -- have been declared legal. It's an interesting commentary on what happens to those who feel irrelevant, even if they have work and a place in society. Vimes knows that what he is, and what he does, means nothing to the larger society even though it means a great deal to him. It's one of those deeper threads that often sneak their way into the Discworld books.

But then due to circumstances largely unrelated to Vimes, things start to change: a new member of the Watch actually starts arresting people, men in dark cloaks start stealing various magical trinkets around the city, and a dragon starts setting various parts of Ankh-Morpork on fire. It's this last part that Vimes really takes exception to; Ankh-Morpork is his beloved city, and he's extremely unhappy that a flying impossibility is laying waste to it.

If there was ever any doubt about which genre Pratchett was delving into here, this paragraph should lay that to rest:

Now, why did I wonder if it has a lair? Vimes thought, as he stepped out into daylight and the crowded square. Because it didn't look real, that's why. If it isn't real, it doesn't need to do anything we expect. How can it walk out of an alley it didn't go into?

Once you've ruled out the impossible, then whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. The problem lay in working out what was impossible, of course. That was the trick, all right.

There was also the curious incident of the orangutan in the night-time...

The Holmes fan in me literally squealed when she read that passage. Luckily I keep her deeply enough buried that she doesn't embarrass me in public.

So yes. Mysteries. Police procedurals. Even, to my delight, noir -- there are nods to Philip Marlowe, which having actually read The Big Sleep, I got. A lot of the hard-bitten cop/private-eye tropes show up here, lovingly made Discworld's own by Pratchett. It works really well for me. The mystery is slightly different; we know who is responsible for the dragon's appearance, but we don't know who that person is. We know a little bit about the dragon, but we don't know everything. Like anything I've read by Pratchett so far, the truth is revealed in such a careful, imaginative way that I was both awed and thrilled. There are moments of catharsis in this novel that any fiction I've read would be hard pressed to match, and yet I never felt overly manipulated. And Vimes does his sleuthing with such hard-boiled, alcohol-fueled, city-smitten zeal that I couldn't help but fall for him hard.

The other aspect of this novel I enjoyed was spending a great deal more time with the Librarian, the above-mentioned orangutan in the night-time. That is one ape I would like to emulate; I would possibly give up being human if I could be a librarian like him. I leave you with this moment of librarian zen:

Then he tied one end of the ball to the desk and, after a moment's contemplation, knuckled off between the bookshelves, paying out the string behind him.

Knowledge equals power...

The string was important. After a while the Librarian stopped. He concentrated all his powers of librarianship.

Power equals energy...

People were stupid, sometimes. They thought the Library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books, which was true enough, but what made it one of the most dangerous places it could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.

Energy equals matter...

He swung into an avenue of shelving that was apparently a few feet long and walked along it for half an hour.

Matter equals mass.

And mass distorts space. It distorts it into polyfractal L-space.

So, while the Dewey system has its fine points, when you're setting out to look something up in the multidimensional folds of L-space what you really need is a ball of string.

Next up: a soccer book. Yes, I am serious.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Do Nothing But Read Day: June 2010

So, I haven't managed to hit a Readathon yet. But this doesn't mean I can't have my blog-related reading days... such as Do Nothing But Read Day, which I've just signed up for. It's a little more low-key than Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon. The website suggests that cats are optional. I may have to borrow some. It comes at a perfect time for me -- the summer is so busy at the library, and the day after DNBRD is actually the first official day of the summer reading programs. I don't know what I'll be reading on Sunday, June 27, but I'm sure going to enjoy having a day where I have given myself permission to slack the hell off. It's possible I might have some soccer games playing in the background. And I may eat some stuff. But mostly, I will be reading.

I haven't settled on a list yet, but here are some of the things I'm thinking may make the list:

Keeping the Bees by Laurence Packer
Nonfiction. About bees! And the problems they face and some of the things we can do to help them. I heard Packer being interviewed on the radio and I was quite taken with his outlook. I'm hoping that he's got some good news and solutions. I may find this a bit heavy going for a full day of reading, though, so we'll see if I make it through or whether or not I just dabble in a chapter here and there.

Playing with Fire by Derek Landy.
Kids' fantasy action. Second of the Skulduggery Pleasant books. I am going to enjoy this one so very hard.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Graphic novel memoir. After recommending my library purchase this one as a book club set, I thought I'd better actually sit down and read it cover to cover. I've skimmed through it before and read some really excellent reviews, so I'm looking forward to it.

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
Historical fantasy. I didn't actually mean to buy this, but I went to see Kay speak and read from his newest novel, Under Heaven, and found myself purchasing this one and standing in line to get it signed. So, um. Now it is signed, and now I am going to read it.

The Great Cow Race and maybe even Eyes of the Storm by Jeff Smith
Graphic novel epic fantasy. The blog hasn't heard about this yet, but I've actually started reading Bone. Finally. I am loving it, and drawing it out as far as I can because I'm not going to want it to be finished. So, I am saving the second and third books of the series for DNBRD.

Eric by Terry Pratchett
Fantasy. Discworld. I don't really need to explain the inclusion of this on my list, do I?

There will probably be others that make the final day list, and some on this list that get bumped. I mean, it's only one day, and it's not even a crazy read-a-thon kind of day. Even on my craziest reading day in recent memory I only managed three books. But I'm happy with this list so far, and I'm looking forward to my self-imposed reading geek-out.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary

So, the book club saga continues. This was the book our child-parent book club was reading this month. I suggested it because, not having read it myself mind, it seemed like something about the right age level and a fairly safe choice. I'm not always going to pick safe choices for this group, but it's the first meeting I'm leading and I want to get my toes wet gradually.
Ralph is a young mouse living in the Mountain View Inn in California. It's a small, out of the way hotel, a little shabbier than it had been in its hey-day. Ralph and his family live in room 215, and as the story opens, a boy takes up residence with his parents for a few days. This boy brings with him a number of toy cars -- including a motorcycle just right for a mouse. This is an opportunity far too good for adventurous Ralph to pass up. And Ralph is about to get at least as much adventure as he hoped for.

Since I've already done a fair bit of thinking following the Deconstructing Penguins roadmap, I thought I'd just post my own answers to some of the questions the Goldstones suggest. When I wrote out my thoughts for the book club, the result was four pages long. I'm only going to include the things we touched upon during the book club discussion.

Incidentally, the book club didn't work perfectly; there were only four participants, two kids and two parents, and one of the kids dominated the group. I did my best to try and find some balance, but what I need is a bigger group. We managed to get to my big "point of view" discussion, and I think that got some attention. So that was good.

Who is the protagonist? What action are they trying to move forward?
Ralph strikes me as the most likely protagonist. He wants to have adventures; he wants to go down to the first floor; he wants to ride the motorcycle. In short, Ralph wants to grow up. However, at the beginning of the book at least, he doesn't understand that growing up is about more than size and ability -- it's about responsibility and consequences, too.

Who is the antagonist?
If Ralph is the protagonist, his mother (not the most obvious choice, as she really isn't a main character) is the antagonist. She's not terribly effective as an antagonist; Ralph doesn't listen to her. But she definitely represents the forces trying to hold Ralph back from growing up.

Knowing the protagonist and antagonist, what is this book actually about?
Personally, I think it's about growing up, and about how growing up is more than just getting older. It's about being mature enough to understand how your actions affect others, and how when you're given privileges, you're also given responsibilities. If you don't live up to those responsibilities, people aren't going to respect you as an adult. But if you do live up to those responsibilities, people will take notice of that, too.

That was about as far as we got on the roadmap. I only have an hour and we kept getting sidetracked by the colours of markers I was supposed to be using. Sigh. I did manage to squeeze in a discussion I wanted to have that didn't exactly follow the Deconstructing Penguins plan, but was something I thought was pretty important to think about: point of view. It's brought up in Deconstructing Penguins for sure, but not in quite the same way.

In The Mouse and the Motorcycle we have two very obviously different points of view: the mice, and the humans. So it was (relatively) easy to get the group to understand what I meant by "point of view." We did it by demonstrating the difference in the way the mice and the humans view the phrase "mice are pests." Then we talked about how, from the point of view of a mouse, people might be the pests instead. This is supported by several things that happen in the book, which is important. One doesn't want to be conjecturing about what the author meant to say without any evidence to back one up.

So we had two clear points of view -- and then we talked about whether or not it was possible that Ralph and his mother maybe had different points of view, too. They were both mice, but they didn't see things the same way. We were just starting to get into the whys of that when one half of the group had to run to swimming lessons, so it was cut short; but I think there was more fodder there for discussion, for sure.

This particular book club is breaking now until October. The summer's too crazy for me to keep working on that, and the kids are pretty busy too, with sports and friends and so on. So I've got some time to do some advertising and some planning, and I feel cautiously optimistic that this might be a really fun program to run.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

So, I have a new job. I may have mentioned this a couple of times before, I can't quite remember. But yes -- I have transferred from my old position (which I loved) to a new position in which I am responsible for all programming, except 3-5 year olds, at a different branch. I am starting to love this job, too, but I have occasionally felt a little overwhelmed.

One of the things I'm doing now, as mentioned previously, is leading book clubs. Not just an adult book club, but a child-parent book club. The adult book club I think I can probably handle (I have managed so far with only one major foot-in-mouth moment) but a child-parent book club? I feel completely unprepared for this task. The parents are going to expect me to know stuff. It has to be differently structured from an adult book club, if I want answers to questions more eloquent than "I liked Ralph! Can I have another cookie?"

Enter Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading. This book was brought to my attention by a co-worker; she started these programs up and her research included this book. So the first thing I did when starting here was find a copy and read it, and wow, am I glad I did. Indeed, this is perfect for anyone thinking of starting or facilitating a child-parent book club, but it's better for more than that, and I'll tell you why.

At it's heart, Deconstructing Penguins is about talking books with kids, no matter if you are leading a book club, a teacher, a parent, or a librarian. It's critical literary analysis structured in a way that makes sense to both adults and kids, and in a way that gives discussions about books a form that is easily facilitated and easily understood by everyone involved. The structure is that of a mystery: each child (and parent) is a detective. The author has hidden clues in their book to point the reader to the story's meaning, and as a book detective, each participant is charged with figuring out what those clues say. Then the participants get to defend or critique the author's choices; in essence: is this a good book?

The Goldstones have come up with a way that makes literary analysis and critique completely accessible to kids. Along the way, reading and participating in discussions like those reported in the book, kids pick up critical thinking skills, too. And frankly, it's useful from an adult perspective too. The Goldstones make the point that often children's literature is more straightforward than literature written for adults, which is why their book detective method of analysis works so well. They never suggest that children's literature is simplistic, however, and they also do works written for adults (such as Animal Farm) with their groups as well.

The breakdown throughout this short book is simple: one chapter for studying character, one for setting, one for conflict and climax, one for point of view, one for critiquing, and a few others on either side. The stories they tell within each chapter are illustrative and interesting, and there are a couple of books that I'll look at differently now, and a few more that I'd like to read.

It's not all roses; there are a couple times when I wince a little at the way the authors lean slightly towards book snobbery at some points, and the one section where they completely devalue video games and television hurt their authority, in my mind. I didn't think it was a necessary attack as it only came up once and had nothing to do with the rest of the book. I think that television and video games have their place in the literacy pantheon, when watched/played wisely. Yes, reading is important, and reading good literature is important, but one gets the impression that if the Goldstones had their way, no one would even publish easy and fluffy reads for kids. I agree, reading only that is kind of like a white-bread diet, but at the same time, I wouldn't restrict my reading to only critically acclaimed literature and I'm not about to tell kids to do that either. A mixture of both is fine, beneficial even: if kids can think critically about what they're reading and say why they like something and what it is that makes The Black Stallion a better book than #800,000,000 in the Thoroughbred series, even if they enjoy both, then rock on.

I think their point was more that there is a tendency (I have this myself) to say "well, as long as they're reading something!" and not try to challenge children to read things that make them think. I agree that this is dangerous and, to take that further, insulting to the kids. Children are nearly always far more sophisticated thinkers than we give them credit for. What they need is a place and an opportunity to hone those skills. I would really like my book club to be one of those places.

This is an extremely approachable book, and I think it's going to be invaluable for me. So much so that I have ordered a copy to buy to have of my own. I think anyone who reads would benefit from reading this, but especially those who have anything to do with reading with children between the ages of six and thirteen. Absolutely recommended.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor *guest review by fishy*

fishy and I have pretty different reading tastes, in a lot of ways, which is why it's great that he's happy to review a book here now and then. I've read a little bit of Flannery O'Connor and while I was certainly impressed, I have to admit that I didn't enjoy it very much. So instead of my take, here's fishy:


Thanks again to Kiirstin for letting me post occasional reviews here. I enjoyed writing the last review very much, but I have struggled with the follow-up.

The Violent Bear It Away
Flannery O'Connor
1960 Farrar, Straus & Giroux

I picked up this book largely at random while strolling through the library. I read an article about Flannery O'Connor in The Atlantic maybe 4 months earlier and I had thought at the time I should read something by her.

The book opens with Mason Tarwater ("the Old Man"), bootlegger and prophet, dead at his kitchen table at Powderhead, a backwater farm. His great-nephew, Francis Mario Tarwater ("Tarwater") a teenaged boy kidnapped as a child by the Old Man, struggles with how to dispose of the body. We flash back through their dozen or so years together, the Old Man paranoid and controlling; Tarwater independent and willful, but with a reality born from the Old Man.

In flashback we encounter Rayber, Tarwater's uncle, and Rayber's "simple" son, Bishop. Like Tarwater, Rayber was abducted by the Old Man and taken to Powderhead as a child, but was rescued by his father. Rayber attempts to rescue Tarwater as a child, but is shot by the old man, and left half-deaf. The novel continues with Tarwater travelling to meet Rayber and Bishop, and in their encounters either escape the destiny laid out for him by the Old Man or fulfill it.

Through a series of tragedies, the family consists only of these four characters. The set-up here is self-consciously neat. Closed and archetypal, the characters felt like they were arranged in two dimensions to rest neatly in quadrants, each aligned strongly on an axis. Damned if I can figure out exactly what those axes are. With the strong focus on religious themes and a small cast of archetypes, I read this as a parable. The slightly surreal environment that feels like it has thick air and a heavy echo fit with this reading beautifully. Nothing really had a sense of scale, and the sense of place and time was very loose. A parable, or stretching a bit, a fable: all the characters here have a slightly anthropomorphic feel.

A number of reviews say the work contrasts the passion of the Old Man with the secular Rayber. I use the term 'passion' because I struggle with the lexicon of belief, but I mean a religious passion: both torment and engagement. But calling Rayber secular I think is dishonest. Rayber is all about suppression; his secularism is a willful reaction. He too was "infected" by the Old Man's passion, either by his genetics or during his abduction. Rayber himself feels it was awakened by the abduction, but the actual origin escapes him.

There is a clarity to the Old Man's belief that borders on childishness. Rayber and Tarwater aren't lucky enough to inherit his clarity. For Rayber, the right and the sane are at odds. For Tarwater, destiny is a hopeless chain. Tarwater inherits the destiny from the Old Man: He must baptize Bishop. A pointless act, in Tarwater's mind; Bishop is simple, almost vacant. For this to be Tarwater's destiny seems an insult to the strong willed boy, but the compulsion is seated deep.

Bishop and the Old Man reside in a world of simplicity and a sort of dark innocence. Actions flow from inevitability, both exist like twigs in a stream they don't bother to understand. Where Bishop is passive and reactive, the Old Man rages violently at virtually everything. Rayber and Tarwater live in a reality of conflict and uncertainty, for both of them, the devil is more internalized.

This last point is the one that made this novel so interesting to me. Here is a honest representation of faith as torment. Tarwater's internal monologue is presented as a stranger who speaks to him. His monologue is temptation, distraction and resentment. I imagine this sort of monologue is familiar to most, but in this theology, it is the voice of the devil. In this theology, the devil is always present in us, challenging us away from the right path with confusion, while truth and God are permanently inaccessible. God might speak to us once in lifetime, but more likely our life is defined by resisting the chatter of the devil.

But the "secular" Rayber is not really any different. I can't tell if his secularism is intentionally ironic, or if this is really how O'Connor imagines the secular mind. For someone of great belief like O'Connor, you can imagine that the secular mind is one that has to constantly battle off faith. She depicts Rayber as a man afraid of letting down his guard, lest he be infected with the dominating faith of the Old Man. But this guard insulates him from love and humanity as much as it does from faith. I think it is a narrow view of the secular, of course, this is the secularism of rejection, a negative only.

I knew in advance of reading that Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic. A number of times through this work, I stopped and asked myself if I would be interpreting the material differently if I hadn't known she was a devout Catholic. This book is not marketing material for Christianity, the faithful here are tormented and ugly. I found one or two reviewers that said they read it as a cautionary tale about fundamentalism, I don't see how anyone could support that claim. While the images of religion can be stark at times, the pains of the faith are clearly something the author feels must be borne. The cautionary note here is about trying to suppress something seeded strongly inside you. Rayber has avoided the fundamentalist zeal, but he pays the highest price for his success.

At the end, I asked myself if my knowledge about her beliefs caused me to interpret differently, I came to the conclusion that it would not. There is a lucid honesty to this that paints her theology in all its Catholic torment. O'Connor said her work was representative of Christian Realism.

I liked this book, mostly because it presented a sort of faith that I can understand. It comes back around to passion, in it's old meaning of suffering. Her faith is one of great violence, not one of a warm grandfather. Reality is full of violence, as is the Bible. Is violence in conflict with God, or a core component of God? I think it is a type of theology that is deeply unpopular in mainstream North America right now. When I say that I can understand this sort of religiousness, I don't mean that I like it. I mean that the torment and the absence of God in this sort of religion at least aligns with the reality we see around us. No troubling ellipses here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Instructions by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess

It's probably too rarely that I review children's picture books here (um, I think I have done it once before). Being a librarian whose primary duty involves working with kids (of all ages, mind) I think I probably should be reviewing more children's books. I tend to have my favourites, the ones I recommend all the time, but I haven't even mentioned those here, either. I'll get to that.

This picture book confounds me, because I'm not sure who to recommend it to. I know that as a child I would have loved it, and I love it even more now as an adult. But I also know that there are a lot of kids (and adults) who won't find Instructions particularly captivating. It's going to be one of those books that I will feel the need to know the child extremely well before I recommend it to them. One of my co-workers and I were having a discussion about the fact that there seem to be two different kinds of children's picture books. There are those that are perfect for reading aloud, for engaging a child in a story, for going through with a group of restless children or for reading together before bedtime. And then there are the picture books that will captivate a child if they read the book at just the right time, where reading the book is a solitary pursuit, where they can stare at the pictures for as long as they want and wonder and create stories in their head, where they can savour the feel of the words on their tongue as they whisper them to themselves. The second type of picture book is the one that really opens a child's imagination up, where they feel let into a secret, amazing world where anything can happen. I think there's an absolute need for both types of books in a child's life, even though the second type can be much harder to choose for a kid because they are so much more personal than the first type.

For the child that I was, Instructions would have been just the right second type for me. The narrative, such as it is, is open and leads to more questions than answers; it reads like a poem, though it doesn't rhyme at all. It is also a little book that will mean more to older readers who understand the conventions of fairy and folktales -- which, by the time they will be able to read this book to themselves, they almost certainly will be. The illustrations by Charles Vess are stunning and intricate, providing ample fodder for fertile imaginations. They are muted and cool, unlike a lot of the picture books being published right now, which gives the whole book a slightly anachronistic feel. It reminds me very much of a nursery rhyme and children's tale omnibus I had when I was very small.

Actually, now, I said that children who can read this and have an understanding of fairy and folktales will appreciate this more, but I recall sitting with that omnibus and just drinking the pictures in, before and even after I could read the stories that went along with the illustrations. This is a book that encourages that sort of thing. So perhaps what I mean to say is that I think anyone, young or old, reader or not, can love something about this book, if they're the sort of person who believes in mystery and imagination and hidden doors and faraway lands and wishing wells.

I think it's because of this muted style that I worry about whether anyone will take this book off the shelf, competing as it is with brighter colours and bolder lines. I often do displays, and this one will make it onto every fairy and folktale display I do from now on, which always helps. While I imagine Neil Gaiman can read this aloud to whomever he wants and it would be wonderful, I don't think this would make a great read-aloud for me except perhaps to a specialized group (a colleague did a "real nursery rhymes and fairytales" discussion group with 9 - 12 year olds -- I would read this to them in a heartbeat, for example.) All that said, I haven't tried yet and I'm thinking I might. I do think, however, that this would make a wonderful keeper, a book to read at bedtime to the right child, and one to leave for them on their shelf so that they can pick it up and drink it in whenever they need to travel away for awhile.