{book} birth stories

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Four: The Baby on the Way 

by Karen English

Illus. Sean Qualls 

Farrar Straus Giroux 2005

the baby on the way1The Baby on the Way was not what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be about a boy who is feeling anxiety about a new baby sibling on the way. And maybe Jamal is and maybe there is a younger sibling on the way, but the book takes a decidedly other track. It is a story a grandmother tells about when she was born in a decidedly different time.

With his grandmother harvesting salad-makings from the rooftop gardens, Jamal suddenly wonders if his grandma was a little girl, or smaller yet, an actual baby. He looks and looks at her, trying to reconcile the differences. As they return to kitchen and have their salads, she tells him about when she was born, the tenth child. The story crosscuts time between kitchen scene and historical past and often places them beside one another with stunning full-page portraits.

the baby on the way021Jamal (and Reader) learn how it was, the traditions, the community. Grandma’s voice is unlike the narrator’s in a pleasing way, but both have a sweet and entertaining way about them.

Grandma’s story has Jamal wondering if he will have a story of his own someday. Grandma tells him he can and that she has his story to give him as well as her own, reminding us that her own story must have been told her. The story inspires further storytelling in Jamal and his grandmother and for the reader and their family.

the baby on the way041

Little wonder at the confidence in both writer and artist to allot text-only pages beside full-length artwork, the voices and illustrations have an understated appeal. This is my first picture book illustrated by Sean Qualls, and I can tell you there will be many more.

The Baby on the Way makes the child a part of something larger. We come to understand that the boy’s place in the story and family will be both unique and shared; like the grandmother’s. All birth stories can hold importance, not just that of the latest arrival, and English acknowledges that these kinds of stories are situated in community. English gives a ‘baby on the way’ story depth and scope, context and legacy, inspiring the reader to lift their eyes from introspection and desire to participate in not just their own specialness, but that of their family’s as well.

Now, if only all children were so blessed to have the storyteller from which The Baby on the Way benefits–and to commission Qualls to do their family portraits.

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Multi-cultural author Karen English has been writing children’s books since 1992. [
]Many of English’s books focus on multi-racial friendships, feuding friends, resolving differences, and the internal struggles of young females facing a range of controversial issues from discrimination to questioning their own religious beliefs.” (blog for your book bio) English is a Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning author and a retired elementary school teacher. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

books include: Francie (Farrar Straus Giroux 2002), Nadia’s Hands w/ Jonathan Weiner (Boyds Mills 1999), Nikki and Deja series.

Sean Qualls is an award winning, Brooklyn-based, children’s book illustrator, artist and author. He has illustrated a number of celebrated books for children, including Giant Steps to Change The World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis-Lee, Little Cloud and Lady Wind by Toni Morrison and her son Slade and Before John Was a Jazz Giant, for which he received a Coretta Scott King Illustration Honor. [
] Qualls has created illustrations for magazines, newspapers, and advertisements. His work has been shown in galleries in New York and across the country. Sean draws inspiration from an array of influences such as movies, television, childhood memories, aging and decaying surfaces, architecture, old buildings, nature, folk art, fairy tales, Americana, black memorabilia, outsider art, cave paintings, collectibles, African art, golden books, vintage advertisement graphics, psychology, mythology, science fiction, music, and literature. He lives in lives in Brooklyn (where you can find him DJing on occasion) with his wife, illustrator/author Selina Alko and their two children Ginger and Isaiah.

do check out “Seven Questions over Breakfast with Sean Qualls” via Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast 

{images belong to Sean Qualls, text to Karen English}

knock for yourself…

30 days of pbDay Fifteen: Knock! Knock!: My Dad’s Dream for Me

By Daniel Beaty, illus. Bryan Collier

Little, Brown for Young Readers 2013.

knock knock coverEvery morning, I play a game with my father.
He goes knock knock on my door
and I pretend to be asleeptill he gets right next to the bed.And my papa, he tells me, “I love you.”
But what happens when, one day, that “knock knock” doesn’t come? This powerful and inspiring book shows the love that an absent parent can leave behind, and the strength that children find in themselves as they grow up and follow their dreams.—publisher’s comments.

It is not unusual enough for me to laugh loud enough to draw attention when reading picture books in public spaces. It is a rare moment for a picture book to draw a tear, even in private. Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is one that slays me every time. Seated with a stack of picture books in the studiously quiet adult section of the library, I was tearing up and sniffled beneath a few casual stares.

KnockKnock3I was first moved by the tender ritual between father and son. The heartstrings tightened to breaking when the boy wakes to find his father no longer there. It is a slow waking. A dawning is not fully realized until the end of the book when the boy has grown into a man with a family of his own, “For despite my absence you are still here.”

Why or where the father has gone is left without explanation. There are any number of reasons, nevertheless the little boy is left to deal with the reality of the absence and unrequited desires: “Papa, come home, ‘cause there are things I don’t know, and when I got older I thought you could teach me.”

knockknock2Like A Snowy Day (Keats) and Bird (Elliott) we see a boy sitting by the window looking out from the inside. We are there with him as he sends a paper airplane letter into flight.

The text is powerful on its own, the father’s letter is touching, and the son’s maturity aggrieved but inspiring as he comes to take on the dreaming for himself. But the images do more than hold their own. They have the kind of narrative complexity I usually anticipate with graphic novels. Everything about them moves to strengthen the evocation of the written narrative.

Collier’s photo collage and water color, the inclusion of textures and patterns–a life made up of clippings–gives the images layers, depth, the concrete complications of reality. Not only are the boy and his settings tangible, but the emotional conflicts as well. The most easily read is the rainbow on the wall that falls. I love the border of marching elephants, memory in a line on a bedroom wall, large in composition. The construction trucks crash together in the hands of a troubled boy. Instead of constructing something they become destructive. As the young boy grows, the childhood interest in construction, in building things, returns in a positive aspect for the man he would become.

knock knock pagesBuildings figure in as the story expands from a room to a kitchen to the neighborhood and we see the photographic images of children’s faces on tenement rooftops, and then street level the fading of a father’s visage. This is when the boy tells his absent father: “I want to be just like you, but I’m forgetting who you are.” We witness the juxtaposition and, indeed, the conflation of the forgotten and the forgetting. He is left imagining what it would be like to be a grown man, a husband, a father. Fortunately, the imagination proves able. He dreams and grows into an image of wholeness, of achievement, of being present.

Knock! Knock! is not one to only be especially selected for a reader’s situation. The narrative, the gorgeous visual storytelling, this is a book that should belong to everyone. If you can only own it for a little while (thank you public libraries) please do.

of note: I really really love that cover. It was appealing before the read, but so much more deeply felt afterward.

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Daniel Beaty  is an award-winning actor, singer, writer, and composer. He has worked throughout the U.S., Europe, and Africa performing on programs with artists such as Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Jill Scott, Sonia Sanchez, MC Lyte, Mos Def, Tracy Chapman, Deepak Chopra, and Phylicia Rashad. He holds a BA with Honors in English & Music from Yale University and an MFA in Acting from the American Conservatory Theatre. He is a proud member of New Dramatists and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University. Both Emergency &Through the Night have are published by Samuel French and available online. Knock Knock is his first children’s book based on his poem.  Daniel has also written a Spoken World Ballet Far But Close that premiered in the 2012/13 season for Dance Theater of Harlem.  (via site’s bio)

the poem performed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0jTeuBpn5s

Bryan Collier‘s “interest in art was always encouraged both at home and at school. He began to develop a unique style of painting that incorporated both watercolors and collage.

“Collage is more than just an art style. Collage is all about bringing different elements together. Once you form a sensibility about connection, how different elements relate to each other, you deepen your understanding of yourself and others.”

In 1989 Bryan graduated with honors from Pratt Institute with a bachelor of fine arts degree. Today Bryan spends his time working on his book illustrations, creating his own studio pieces, and going into classrooms to talk with teachers, librarians, and students about books and art. “I ask them to tell their own story. Then I ask them to tell their own story through art.

“The experience of making art is all about making decisions. Once the kids really get that, you see them making the connection. They go from saying, ‘That’s not about me’ to ‘Hey. Look at me. This is who I am.'” (via site’s “bio”)

gorgeously rendered

30 days of pbDay Eleven: Nasreddine

By Odile Weulersse, Illus. Rébecca Dautremer

Translated by Kathleen Merz

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers 2013

Orig. Flammarion 2005 (Fr)

nasreddine cover “No matter what Nasreddine tries, it seems that someone always finds something to disapprove of. Nasreddine is a legendary character popular in stories told throughout the Middle East, and this clever story will bring him to a new audience. Accompanied by stunning artwork, this tale offers a gentle reminder to readers that it isn’t always necessary to listen to the world’s criticisms.”–goodreads

nasreddine 1758327Nasreddine is worth picking up just to admire the cover and the artwork inside, but you should go ahead and read the delightful tale Weulersse has recorded inside. This one will go a long way for children and adults alike because no matter what young Nasreddine does, someone in the public sphere has something critical to say. Can such an old figure of wisdom in lore be any more timely?

nasreddine-pg-8Nasreddine is so small on the page, but always the most present that he does not risk insignificance—an important lesson to notice in and of itself. His father is marvelous and the world is rendered in such beautiful angles, colors and light.

nasreddine-pg-6

Nasreddine is just a gorgeous book from text to image and back again. No doubt someone will want to read the French, but I found no trouble with Merz’s translation. This one is an absolute must!

* There is a “Historical Note” at the close. It tells us that Nasreddine is spoken of in many stories throughout the Middle East as a man who has the “ability to offer both wisdom and delight.” I am enchanted by the decision to render him as a child learning from his own wise father. Imagine this child growing up to continue in his delight and wisdom.

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Odile Weulersse is an accomplished French author of children’s literature, writing historical fiction mainly. All this, of course, after earning impressive degrees at a young age before lecturing on Film and writing screenplays for television.

Rébecca Dautremer was born in 1971 in Gap in the South of France (Hautes Alpes). She attended classes in the ENSAD of Paris and got a degree in graphic edition in 1995. She afterwards became a graphic editor and illustrator. A few years ago, she started to write books of her own. Now living in Paris with her husband Taï-Marc Lethanh and their three children, she also works for the press for children (Milan-Presse and Fleurus-Presse), school publishers, and in advertising.  Her picture books are very poetic, with a hint of humour. Bio via goodreads

Dautremer has illustrated these books: The Secret Lives of Princesses by Phillipe Lechermeier (Sterling 2010), music-cd book Swing CafĂ© by Carl Novac (The Secret Mountain 2010), and many, many more that have yet to be translated from French into English, but might find in Spanish. And I’m interested to see her picture book app Eleanor’s Secret.

check out Kirkus Reviews

{images belong to Rebecca Dautremer}

 

{book} once begun

silence-once-begunSilence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

Pantheon Books, 2014. 232 pages

“The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.”

Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as the “Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman. Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated—but he refuses to speak. Even as his parents, brother, and sister come to visit him, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. Our narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, is grappling with mysteries of his own when he becomes fascinated by the case. Why did Sotatsu confess? Why won’t he speak? Who is Jito Joo? As Ball interviews Sotatsu’s family, friends, and jailers, he uncovers a complex story of heartbreak, deceit, honor, and chance.–publisher’s comments

Errol Morris brought more than justice to the wrongly accused when he brought The Thin Blue Line (1988) to the screen. He demonstrated how fiction lies within the justice system and how reality reveals itself in the imaginations of human perception. Both institutions and human beings can be corrupted; the question is whether doubt can lead to a liberating or confining truth. I thought of Errol Morris as I sank into Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball’s latest novel.

“One has the impression one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so” (4).

Jesse Ball, self-proclaimed professor of “lucid dreaming and lying,” exercises his particular gifts with the latter. We have a want to forget that as a gifted storyteller, he is a practiced liar. The heartbreak of increasing solitude and silence experienced in the narrator’s own life is raw enough to cite the provenance of a genuine artifact. “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact,” but what in the work is partial, or impartial? Silence Once Begun invites suspicion. What becomes awkward for the reader is when the suspicion is found directed not toward Ball or a character, but inwardly. Readers who favor romance and/or political activism will find themselves the easiest targets, among other professional prevaricators.

That smooth teller of tales that drew his reader in a single sitting through door after door and haunted them long after the curfew ended, confines the whimsy of his silvery tongue to his own “prefatory material” and Jito Joo. Joo takes on the silkiness of Milton’s Satan and I remain unconvinced that Kakuzo is able to vindicate her. Questions of love’s selfishness and sacrifice deepen the mystery Ball would document. As it is, the fans of Ball’s novels since Samedi the Deafness will be jolted awake by the halting language of concrete explication. Even the stories spun by relatives as a means to explain one another, find sentences short and constantly revisited. The language Ball adopts is not only one familiar to reportage, but translation—and the earnestness of finding the correct expression.

Oda Sotatsu’s mother is fond of telling stories by means of clarification: When talking with the mother, the interviewer notes how “the impression of exactitude remains” (18). He experiences a feeling that what she is saying is true; he sees what she sees before the evidence presents itself, before what she has seen appears (e.g. butterflies). Whether the mother is telling the truth about butterflies is negligent without a strong enough moral imperative. In Silence Once Begun, lives are hanging in the balance.

The interview is seeking someone to speak where Oda Sotatsu would not and now cannot. Once a silence had begun, can the silence ever be broken? The novel ponders how reputations are powerful constructs (29): how we are represented, expressed, speaks for us; it can certainly lie for us. Jito says of role-playing: “Each person chooses his life from all the roles in all the theaters. We are a prisoner and his love. For I am sometimes one and sometimes the other. You are one and then the other” (187). The liberated speak from a place of privilege and the imprisoned the limitation of choice. In a mystery based on mistaken identification, conversations on love and identity are the discourse that bind, and often blind the character and reader both.

“You don’t know me at all, I said, but I have a feeling that you know about something that I know” (Interviewer 163).

How can we truly know the other? We understand that different kinds of knowing exist. As one character after another jockeys for supremacy of knowledge, we test their validity. Jiro claims, “He hadn’t done it, because I believe he hadn’t done it” (45). The sister is an educated one yet distanced; Kakuzo is the architect of the crime and vain; Jito Joo, the most intimate of actresses.

Jesse Ball, the interviewer, is consciously aware of influence. How his ability to capture an image through a lens is affected, is made literal and then figurative when he takes photographs of the prison and other locations. He questions his ability to be objective, and the state of his relationship with an interviewee can be temperamental at best. He finds amusement and delight without anticipation by the reader. Even as it could be argued that “everything is contextual” (41), there is still the phenomena of surprise. Few could demonstrate the art of startling the reader into remembering that not everything can be anticipated nor traced back to an origin like Ball; which is key in a story where explanations are not just obscured, but elusive.

The attempt of the novel reads like Joo’s own: “I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is” (180). A sacrifice exists at the heart of this novel, more than one; and a person, more than one. Interpreting it and their meaning, to see what it is is a marvelous experiment, and a convicting one. At what point in the time-line is the act of invention initiated, because it would be dangerous to mistake Joo for not inventing a love into existence, wouldn’t it? Maybe your reading will disagree. Silence Once Begun interrogates human impulses: what we would remember, and what we would choose to conveniently forget.

If your cups of tea always require coherence in the mystery to be opaque in the end, to invite an explanatory flashback with solid connecting lines rather than perforated, any of Ball’s work will be uncomfortable, but none more than Silence Once Begun. This is not to suggest Ball leaves lazy gaping holes. His work is impressively spare. No, coherence needn’t have a clear answer everything, and Ball’s coherence artfully alludes to the corrupted nature to the human, the memory, the fictions we tell to make sense of things. The mystery is how we can ever pretend to be so very certain—so certain that we can carry through the life-threatening convictions that we do.

Jesse Ball’s provocation can be both frustrating and an absolute delight; which is how I could describe the conclusion. Ball makes the narrative personal and familiar, investing the reader in a summation that is as tidy as the novel will allow while yet demanding its lingering effect. He does not employ Errol Morris’ chilling play button on a tape recording at the end, but he does compel the reader to ask what it is we wanted to believe happened when the world turned upside down, when the expanding silence entered the room and asked us to wonder why.

{television} Miss Fisher’s second series

miss f header“Our glamorous lady detective, The Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, swans into early 1929 Melbourne, fighting injustice with her pearl-handled pistol and her dagger-sharp wit.”

No need to imagine my delight with the second series return of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2013) if you’ve read my ravings about series one or have seen the Australian television show for yourself. We signed up for a free month’s trial for Acorn TV (which we are tempted to subscribe to once we’ve the funds) so we could get our greedy medium-sized hands on the latest 13 episodes. Please, renew, please renew for a series 3!

If you are unfamiliar with my reasons why you should watch The Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) and company at work: read my ravings here. and then catch series one on Netflix, I believe they are still streaming.

In the meantime…Season/Series 2

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsnhHvlHDOw

Miss Phryne Fisher, Lady Detective, returns to television with as fabulous a wardrobe as ever, and the mysteries aren’t too shabby either. Of course, the interactions between the primary characters of absolute interest. The evolution of Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) continues in an exciting fashion. And the ways in which the male characters respond to the ‘new woman’ and their own societal pressures/expectations is especially emphasized this season—and not at the cost of Fisher’s ideals.

miss f s2 stats b miss f s2 stats

We get to meet:  Dot’s sister—who is decidedly not Dot-like. Aunt Prudence’s (Miriam Margolyes) husband (in a flashback). Learn more about Hugh’s (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) familial background. And Jack’s ex-wife Rosy, and his (ex)father-in-law join the cast


That romantic-friendship tension between Jack (Nathan Page) and Phryne…yeah, it gets even more delicious and so achingly sweet. And if you don’t leave certain shows wanting to hug Hugh and Dot, you’ve no romantic bone in that body at all!

We are still recovering from World War I, so mysteries related continue. Other excitements include: Gentleman’s clubs; Seances; Temperance Unions; Pugilism; Gangs; Haute Couture versus Ready-to-Wear; Football; Labor abuses/trafficking; Race Car driving (ladies); Religion; University life; and madness; creepy rural villages; Radio Shows; Silent cinema; and Christmas in July.

miss f s2ep1

(1) “Murder Most Scandalous” dir. Tony Tilse, written by Kristen Dunphy

Miss Phryne Fisher is back! When Jack’s father-in-law is implicated in the brutal murder of a prostitute, Phryne decides to perfect her ‘fan dance’ in order to go undercover at a gentleman’s club.

(2) “Death Comes Knocking” dir. Ken Cameron, written by Ysabelle Dean

Phryne plays host to ghostly soldiers and exotic spiritualists and Aunt Prudence is swept up in the new spiritualist fad and enlists a famed psychic to contact her dead godson.

miss f s2ep3(3) “Dead Man’s Chest” dir. Ken Cameron, written by John Banas

Buried treasure and pirate legends bubble to the surface in the seaside holiday town of Queenscliff and Phryne finds herself at the pointy end of a Spanish dagger.

(4) “Dead Weight” dir. Declan Eames, written by John Banas

When a gang leader is found dead outside a travelling boxing tent, Phryne’s investigation leads her into the dangerous but thrilling world of fight rigging & tribal payback.

miss f s2ep5(5) “Murder A La Mode” dir. Sian Davies, written by Kristen Dunphy

When Phryne arrives at the exclusive fashion house of Madame Fleuri for a fitting, she unexpectedly finds herself amidst a crime scene, and everyone present is a suspect!

(6) “Marked For Murder” dir. Declan Eames, written by John Banas

Set amidst the passion & fanaticism of 1929 Australian Rules football. When Phryne is duped into investigating the coach’s missing ‘lucky cap’, she discovers a gruesome murder instead.

miss f s2ep7
(7) “Blood at the Wheel” dir. Sian Davies, written by Michelle Offen

When the driver of the ladies’ motorcar rally team is found dead in her roadster, Phryne is up in arms struggling to convince Jack that her friend’s death was no accident.

(8) “The Blood of Juana the Mad” dir. Peter Adrikidis, written by John Banas

Now estranged, Phryne and Jack step around each other to investigate a murder and the disappearance of a valuable manuscript.

miss f s2ep9(9) “Framed for Murder” dir. Peter Adrikidis, written by Chris Corbett

Phryne journeys into the twilight world of silent movies. When a lead actor and a director are murdered, Phryne steps in to solve the crime and save the production.

(10) “Death on the Vine” dir. Catherine Millar, written by Chris Corbett

When Phryne arrives at an idyllic vineyard to investigate a suspicious death, hostile townsfolk do everything they can to drive her out of town, and Hugh prepares for a perfect proposal.

miss f s2ep11(11) “Dead Air” dir. Catherine Millar, written by Ysabelle Dean & Mia Tolhurst

There’s a new wireless in the Fisher household – and a murder on the airwaves. Dot suffers the realisation that she doesn’t want to relinquish working for Miss Fisher when she marries.

(12) “Unnatural Habits” dir. Tony Tilse, written by Ysabelle Dean

The gothic world of a halfway house for pregnant & wayward girls sets the scene for the death of a teenager. Phryne & Jack realise the threads of the crime lead closer to home than they suspected.

miss f s2ep13(13) “Murder Under the Mistletoe” dir. Tony Tilse, written by Elizabeth Coleman

Phryne, Dot and Dr Mac accompany Aunt Prudence to a picturesque chalet to celebrate Christmas. When they arrive they find one of the residents dead and soon the body count starts to rapidly rise.

{episode synopses via ABC Australia}

{comics} good literature

janefoxmecoverJane, the Fox & Me

by Fanny Britt, and artist Isabelle Arsenault

translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

Groundwood Books, 2013.

orig. Jane, le renard & moi (Les Éditions de La Pastùque, 2012)

HĂ©lĂšne has been inexplicably ostracized by the girls who were once her friends. Her school life is full of whispers and lies — HĂ©lĂšne weighs 216; she smells like BO. Her loving mother is too tired to be any help. Fortunately, HĂ©lĂšne has one consolation, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. HĂ©lĂšne identifies strongly with Jane’s tribulations, and when she is lost in the pages of this wonderful book, she is able to ignore her tormentors. But when HĂ©lĂšne is humiliated on a class trip in front of her entire grade, she needs more than a fictional character to allow her to see herself as a person deserving of laughter and friendship.–publisher’s comments.

Jane, the Fox & Me is simply stunning. I spent a long quiet moment after closing the book and muttering a ‘damn.’ Naturally, I think we should all now experience this graphic novel.

janefox1Isabelle Arsenault illustrates HĂ©lĂšne’s life in pencil; black and white overlay a depressing tonal grey. HĂ©lĂšne has not only been isolated but she is being brutally tormented. The insults written on walls, like her weighing 216, increase in her mind to 316 and more as the story progresses. However, contrary to what she tells her mother near the end, that she exaggerates, is dramatic, the story disallows us to believe all of what HĂ©lĂšne is confronted with is a figment of her imagination.

Her obesity is imagined. Arsenault does not depict even a mildly overweight girl. A problem that accompanies what seems real versus imagined is trying to negotiate what is normal–and how to negotiate conflict. It is horribly tense, anticipating HĂ©lĂšne’s school trip away for a couple of days, but there is the lovely reference to Jane Eyre just then…and the opportunity to see other students implement HĂ©lĂšne’s strategy for dealing with inevitable awkward moments like tent assignments.

Jane-the-fox-and-me-jane-eyre

The inclusions of Jane Eyre are beautifully done, in both the narrative Fanny Britt creates and the illustrations by Arsenault. Like HĂ©lĂšne, I, too, found myself preferring to linger in BrontĂ«’s world where the aesthetic allows for lush color-work (gouache, watercolor), brushwork and a shift in a gentler drawing style. The foliage, vibrant with life, does begin to seep into HĂ©lĂšne’s world, though yet to find color. As with the book she is reading, she hides here in the foliage, too, aggrieved. HĂ©lĂšne figures that if Jane can overcome the tribulations of her youth to “grow up to be clever, slender and wise anyway” (16), surely she can as well. Even once she is grown, Jane has difficulties and HĂ©lĂšne wisely observes that “everyone needs a strategy, even Jane Eyre” (53). It is a subtle realization of the book that the reader needn’t be left imagining that HĂ©lĂšne will eventually become ‘clever, slender, and wise’ herself. She begins to demonstrate these future moments here and there as the book makes its way.

JaneFoxMe5“Its eyes are so kind I just about burst./That same look in another human’s eyes, and my soul would be theirs for sure.” note, how much this close up of HĂ©lĂšne looks like the young Jane.

jane-the-fox-and-me-bus

For all the angst of shifting relationships with others and self, there are amusements to be found. Britt and Arsenault shift from of harsher lights into the lyrical; tempering, too, the lyrical with the serious study of their HĂ©lĂšne, her Jane, and her fox.  The fox…wow–the ways in which we internalize the metaphor, and not just other people’s ways of seeing us! Jane, the Fox & Me has some amazing narrative texture. Note how Britt incorporates the quotes of what was written on the walls into the sentence of the speaker. When we often label a narrator such as HĂ©lĂšne unreliable, rarely do we question what causes her to be so. Britt forces the question of what creates the narrative presented to us in HĂ©lĂšne’s voice. What words and ideas begin to compete and crowd-out (both literally in the visual text and figuratively) the negative commentary at the beginning?

jane83

Literati’s will appreciate HĂ©lĂšne’s refuge in books, finding their empathic nature well-depicted in Jane, the Fox & Me. It is nice how the mother looks to music. Neither is the conversation on clothing frivolous; that effort to find expression/identity.

Jane, the Fox & Me is neither heavy in text nor incomprehensible in its visual sequences. I cannot attest for the text in its original language, but the translations create a successful telling of HĂ©lĂšne’s story. As the seasons change and HĂ©lĂšne grows (again both literally and figuratively), things get better for our protagonist, and the reader perceives new lessons on the horizon for our growing-up girl. Though Jane Eyre is finished by the reader, Jane’s return to Mr. Rochester have yet the opportunity to make sense to the young HĂ©lĂšne.

janefoxend

Britt and Arsenault achieve so much in 101 pages. Jane, the Fox & Me is a richly textured and engrossing story that tells all too familiar stories of the relationships so many of us find in the world, our home, our selves…and our books. I only touched on a few things. I restrained from going on about the urban and nature, of fantasy and reality…or fox lore. It is something to experience for yourself.

Jane, the Fox & Me is absolutely beautiful… and to be gifted simply. Please, do not assault a young reader with “the edification of this read” or in the company of a lesson plan on bullying or eating disorders or alienation or poverty, etc.  Jane, the Fox & Me is why artful storytelling matters. It can stand on its own and in conversations. If anything, pair it with a meaningful piece of classic literature or a trip to a nature preserve…

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recommendations: if not already noted: girls, boys, grade-school upwards. for those who love the color orange. it’s great to be read by each if not together, though probably not too close to bathing-suit purchases. there are strategies you know.

of note: we’ll be visiting Arsenault’s work again during picture book month–which I think will happen more Summer than Fall.

{images belong to Isabelle Arsenault}

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Brain Pickings‘ Maria Popova’s excellent review which includes more pictures (if you don’t mind being a bit spoiled) and this gorgeous summation: “Jane, the Fox & Me is an absolute treasure that blends the realities of children’s capacity to be cruel, the possibilities of transcending our own psychological traps, and literature’s power to nourish, comfort, and transform.”

 

{book} the power & in just one body (of work)

Of note: my writing about an excellent short story collection equates to a long post. But I do give you a few paragraphs (up to the asterisks) before ~brief remarks on each of the stories.

The Thing Around Your Neck : a collection of short stories

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Alfred A Knopf, 2009.

Hardcover, 12 stories. 218 pages. Library loan.

Adichie turns her penetrating eye on not only Nigeria but America, in twelve dazzling stories that explore the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States. [
] Searing and profound, suffused with beauty, sorrow, and longing, these stories map, with Adichie’s signature emotional wisdom, the collision of two cultures and the deeply human struggle to reconcile them. The Thing Around Your Neck is a resounding confirmation of the prodigious literary powers of one of our most essential writers.—publisher’s comments.

Even as a voluntary (and paying) student of literature, I find myself making the mental preparations for a Literary short-story collection. Occasionally, this will mean that I forgo the read at the time, believing I will be more exhausted than pleased by the exercise—because it so often is. The Thing Around Your Neck reads like I am sitting down with a storyteller who is merely intent on relating something about someone they know. I found myself disarmed. The subjects are not easy, but the reading is and its enjoyment is effortless.

In the past few weeks since I finished this collection, I had occasion to read a few different conversations where female authors have said (to the effect): when I write my female characters into difficult situations, I am considering verisimilitude, but just as importantly, I have an aim to demonstrate an empowered female response. Oftentimes, this means changing the script written by popular cultural beliefs. Adichie writes women who are seen questioning and resisting. Many of her female characters do surprising things—not always the easiest in consequence but the unexpected (w/in the cultural responses dictated w/in the story). I am still lingering on “The American Embassy,” which trades in a familiar theme in the collection: human dignity and the cost/risk involved in having a voice.  More than a few stories depict the female desire of another. Read this how you will, but I was drawn to the notion of envy—the sort of appeal that drives the desire to have what another has to positive consequence. This takes us back to demonstrating non-traditional choice-making. If memory serves, the parts of the body, the spirit, the vocations that attract the protagonist are significant, especial to their experience of said desire. Adichie employs eroticism in an enviable way
I’m telling you, her work has a rich eloquence that is both medicinal and sweet.

The majority of the pieces are told by a first person female, but not all. There is a particularly lovely implementation of the female protagonist’s use of second person in two, and a fascinating first person male in another. Adichie situates exchanges of assumptions and generalizations the narrators themselves would find chaffing, but she provides more often than not that voice the reader can respond to with a ‘I know what you mean;’ ‘I am not alone.’ She is both foreign and achingly familiar.

The Thing Around Your Neck is not to be dismissed as “women’s fiction” as there is much to realize about social  & personal situations that go unobserved, let alone considered and discussed. Much of Adichie’s success in provoking such thinking is in how she works with characters, not caricature, sampling representatives or some such didactic alienating force.

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“Cell One” (pp 3-21) finally instills fear and selflessness into the brother of narrator Nnamabia who observes the complicity and enabling actions in the negative consequences of her culture.

We are introduced to structures of privilege and corruption, and of both son and gender preference.

“Imitation” (22-42) wherein resides one of my favorite lines in the book:

“One of the things she’d come to love about America, the abundance of unreasonable hope” (26).

Though pages in, it reflects the tone of the collection. In whom or what may Nkem place her hopes and her happiness. How does one define “happy” (40); the inhabitation of a role set down by whom? The conversation on the female body as a commodity not just prior to marriage but after is beautifully touched upon.

A gorgeous meditation on assimilation; the first, but not the last on this.

“A Private Experience” (43-56) moves in and out of time as two young women of potentially polarizing differences find commonality in a form of sisterhood whilst hemmed in by the violence that surrounds them.

The insight into the culture of Lagos and Nigeria continues; of varying outcomes


“Ghosts” (57-73) introduces an old professor who runs into someone whom he believed dead. The appearance of a ghost does not alarm him for particular reasons and the meeting spurs further self-reflection.

This is the point where it really struck me that I was having tea with someone, not a paper preparation conference.

“On Monday of Last Week” (74-94) a young woman observes her new home (America) and its inhabitants to whom she is serving as nanny—particularly an affluent father of her helicoptered charge and the artist wife who appears, much to her distraction.

“She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.” (82)

What Kamara comes to understand continues into more than a criticism but an observation of those tensions between maintaining an appearance and reality; of desire and repulsion. Appearances, the making them (e.g. the wife) and creating them (façade) is of enjoyable import in the story.

Different stories make me self-conscious in different ways; and sometimes one will contain all kinds of self-reflective appointments.

“Jumping Monkey Hill” (95-114) is the resort where Ujunwa is attending a writer’s retreat w/ other representatives of their African countries.

Here is one for writers, readers, and cultural studies with questions regarding type casts; authenticity; What is Africa; which Africa?; verisimilitude in fiction; who writes the narrative; the male gaze; the presence of the white foreigner; relevant issues like religious oppression, homosexuality, sexual harassment, oppression, independence. [such are the notes on my page.]

It is within Adichie’s artistry to bring so many voices and conversations together. And to maintain such a personal, individual focus on Ujunwa.

Adichie resists “type” because she knows the person tells the more effective story.

“The Thing Around Your Neck” (115-27) begins with:

“You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.”

How and where do you assimilate and yet maintain difference: who dictates those things? There is a lot of offers up for the taking, but at what cost? The second person speaking to herself negotiates the liminal spaces between where she was and where she is now, and her difference as individual and other—resisting clichĂ© (normative scripts) and exoticization. The observations on poverty and privilege, the African female and the white male, and the ways some things are the same wherever you go. The struggle of give and take in the relationships written into the story are compelling, as is the courageous narrator. I will leave the title and its appearance in the story to you.

“The American Embassy” (128-41) places us in a detailed setting and the unraveling of the significance of Ugonna’s mother’s long wait in line alone.

This is one that moved me and is still sinking inward—in ways I can articulate and others I cannot. It is a provocative piece. Political causes and beliefs more often than not cost the lives of others, more than one’s own. And what does courage of conviction look like. And how do we grieve and move forward with the knowledge that risk has suddenly afforded us. The word “abandoned” comes to mind, and “home;” as does the notion of woman as cultural keeper of the hearth (tasked by whom?).

“The Shivering” (142-166) The ties that, well, introduce us at the very least. In an exchange of experiences: who is it all about? I’ll share two quotes that hardly work as summary, because as I began a summary, I realize I actually said nothing about it anyway and erased it.

“It wasn’t a crisis of faith. Church suddenly became like Father Christmas, something that you never question when you are a child but when you become an adult you realize that the man in the Father Christmas costume is actually your neighbor from down the street” (152-3).

“He used to make me feel that nothing I said was witty enough or sarcastic enough or smart enough. He was always struggling to be different, even when it didn’t matter. It was as if he was performing his life instead of living his life” (153 emphasis mine).

Adichie proves to be masterful with the titling of her work. And continues to prove diverse enough to write characters who are familiar not because they are always likable or easy.

“The Arrangers of Marriage” are many, from relatives to cultural tradition to pragmatism. Our first person female narrator arrives at her new home in America to begin a new chapter of her life with the husband arranged for her. This is another one of those stories you wish Adichie wasn’t so good with similes and metaphors when describing people. I’m trying to recall if it was this one or an earlier piece with the man whose teeth are likened to mildew. I had to stop then and share with the daughter who looked at me in awe.

I love this story in particular because while there are circumstances beyond the woman’s control, there will be an opportunity when it is not, and then it is she who will make the arrangements.

There is a lot of empowerment in community. A lot of terrible circumstances are brought about via men and women both, but so is wisdom, advice, and a helping hand out.

“Tomorrow is Too Far” (187-197) is the translation of a snake’s name: the echi eteka, who plays a role in the story, but really, tomorrow is too far for the child female protagonist. Both her mother (whom she lives with in the States) and her grandmother (whom she is visiting in Nigeria), prefer/privilege her elder brother. The tension for this “you” narrator is the weight of that cost of waiting (or not) for your turn.

The setting in the climate (literal and figurative) is oppressive. And but for the brother and the male cousin (who is not hierarchically good enough either due to birth placement), the cast is female and this emphasizes women’s complicity in patriarchical oppression—an oppression that does not only hold consequence for the female child.

This one is a must. It is provoking, engaging, and entertaining.

“The Headstrong Historian” (198-218) relays the importance of history, of legacy and heritage, of honoring yet rebelling. There is both a desire and a goodness in keeping record of history and leaving legacies, but some more are best left in memory-story-form. Some histories need not come with us, their performances unhealthy in their repetition.

The story echoes traditional storytelling form, demonstrating the pleasure of certain traditions being handed down and continued in the voices of the younger. The generational inheritances and shifts, the struggle with modernity, the timeless quality of it all; and the desire to preserve and the desire to change centers around the story of Nwamgba until it changes hands with a granddaughter.

It is a great punctuating piece to this powerful and empowering collection.