Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Mother Goose in Prose
by L. Frank Baum
Recommended Age: 9+ (younger if being read to)

Have you ever tried in vain to make sense of "The Cat and the Fiddle"? Or perhaps you thought there must be an amusing story behind "Old King Cole"? You could read Chris Roberts's Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme if you want to know the whole sordid truth. Or, you could visit this underrated, should-have-been-classic collection of facetious fairy tales for an imaginative, often silly, and decidedly G-rated alternative.

Discover how a lad setting out to make his fortune inspired the "Song o' Sixpence." Learn how both Little Boy Blue and Little Bo Peep lost, and found, their sheep. Discover the touching motivations of the Black Sheep (he of the three bags of wool), Mistress Mary (quite contrary), Tom the Piper's Son (pig thief that he was), and Humpty Dumpty (whose death was not, after all, in vain). Find out what Miss Muffet learned from her adventure, how the Old Woman's house came to look like a shoe, and what fun Little Bun Rabbit had visiting Santa Claus. Laugh at foolish wise men, roll your eyes at a bit of political sermonizing, and enjoy the fate of assorted ne'er-do-wells and even (contrary to the title) a bit of verse as Baum makes a little sense - sometimes very little indeed - out of 22 snippets of singsong folklore that, to this day, continue to lull little heads to sleep throughout the English-speaking world.

First published in 1897, three years before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this collection of nursery-rhyme-inspired fairy tales is now available in a Dover facsimile of its 1901 edition, complete with Maxfield Parrish's whimsical decorations. Sometimes sad, occasionally pedestrian, they are mostly delightful stories full of wit and charm. Even if you aren't fully convinced by Baum's idea of the stories behind the rhymes, you will certainly appreciate the scholarship of his introduction on the just who "Mother Goose" was, historically speaking. Which contrasts nicely with the carefree nonsense of certain tales, such as the one that begins:
What! have you never heard the story of the Man in the Moon? Then I must surely tell it, for it is very amusing, and there is not a word of truth in it.
The Amazing Compendium of Edward Magorium
as told to N. E. Bode
Recommended Age: 10+

I liked the movie Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, but not well enough to endure the junior novelization of it. I haven't read one of those since E.T., which came out when I was about 10. Movie novelizations, I find, tend to fall into two categories: the "twice-boiled cabbage" type, in which you read pretty much exactly what was in the movie only with 50% of the color and excitement blanched out of it; or the "habanero chile" type, which digresses into flights of creativity so impressive that they leave the film in the dust. Neither is ever quite satisfying to a film fan; and if I'm going to enjoy a book strictly on its merits as a book, I would rather pick the book the movie was based on than vice versa.

On the bookstore display next to the novelization of Magorium's Emporium, however, I found this charming little piece by an author (or rather, pseudonym) whose other works I have already enjoyed. Bode, the alter ego of Julianna Baggott, relates the backstory of Mr. Magorium, hinting sideways at elements of the story familiar to fans of the movie, but otherwise inventing fresh material. It is the name-dropping story of a toy inventor who lived for 243 years, traveled all over the world, rubbed elbows with all kinds of amazing people (real, historical ones), and emerged from the scratchy, stinky, fresh-fruit-deprived 19th century to inspire your favorite alumnus of the "Alton School for the Remarkably Giftless" to follow his own dreams and find his own gifts.

This not-quite-movie-novelization advances the character of N. E. Bode almost as much as that of Edward Magorium. It will be interesting to see what further adventures Baggott - I mean Bode - has in store. The story itself is a bit disorganized, or rather arbitrarily organized (A to Z), so that after some initial chapters of consecutive narrative it lapses into a loose collection of anecdotes. Nevertheless, it brings a hopeful, encouraging philosophy of life to the level of kids who would just as soon visit a toy store as a book store.

Keeper of the Doves
by Betsy Byars
Recommended Age: 12+

Set in the waning years of the 19th century, this is the tale of five sisters approaching a big change in their family life; it is an acrostic book, told in 26 chapters beginning with each letter of the alphabet in order; it is a story about a child coming to terms with the all-but-smothering fear of her personal bogeyman; and it is a bittersweet tragedy in which the concepts of guilt and innocence, good and evil, prejudice and family play a role.

Amie McBee, whose real first name (embarrassingly) is Amen, bears the brunt of being the fifth daughter of a businessman who has always wanted a son. She has one beautiful sister, one who is musically gifted, and a pair of mischievous twins who could hold their own against Fred and George Weasley; but as the one who loves words, and the one who sees things most clearly, Amie is the best suited for telling this tale.

It has to do with an old hermit named Tominski who lives in an abandoned chapel on the McBee family land. The girls' father leaves him alone because of a longstanding obligation, but the old "keeper of the doves" is widely rumored to be dangerous. Even once she sees him for herself and overcomes her fear of him, Amie seems inclined to agree that old man Tominski "isn't all there." But even so, shouldn't it take more than a minor family tragedy to destroy Mr. Tominksi's whole world?

Byars, South Carolina-based author of the award-winning Summer of the Swans, gives young readers plenty to think about in this slim, quickly-read book.

by Catherine Fisher
Recommended Age: 14+

In a long-ago culture similar to the Norsemen of old Scandinavia, a young woman named Jessa is banished into the frozen wastes of the north - exiled by a sorceress-queen and her usurping husband - sent to all but certain doom, either from cold and hunger or at the hands of the queen's son Kari, rumored to be a hideous monster.

Surprise! Kari isn't what the stories about him let on. A youth of otherworldly beauty and power, he joins Jessa, an old warrior named Brochael, a clever minstrel named Skapti, and the rightful heir to leadership of her people in a desperate march against the snow witch Gudrun.

The first round goes to Kari, but Gudrun isn't vanquished so easily. In Books Two and Three of this three-part epic, Kari must face the loneliness of being suspected by his very friends; the temptation to use his terrible powers to control and destroy people; and a series of deadly curses whereby Gudrun seeks to punish the people of the Jarlshold for joining forces with Kari. At the same time, Gudrun is trying to draw Kari back to herself, so as to force him to become like her: cold, ruthless, inhuman.

Joined by a brave young ex-slave and a grim, savage stranger who is sometimes man and sometimes wolf, Kari's party treks north through harsh conditions and terrifying adventures, all the way to the end of this world and the beginning of another. It is a strange journey in which the final jeopardy is over Kari's soul - in which spookiness, terror, weird beauty, dull throbbing ickiness, and all shades of surprise play as much a role as friendship, love, hate, and internal conflict. Altogether it is a unique and compelling book from a Welsh fantasist in whom I place much hope.

The Silent Gondoliers
by William Goldman
"as told by S. Morgenstern"
Recommended Age: 13+

All right, you didn't believe me when, in my review of The Princess Bride, I said there was no such thing as S. Morgenstern. But even though this book dispenses with Goldman's conceit of merely editing an abridged, "good parts" version of a Morgenstern original - indeed, it claims to be Morgenstern's work from start to finish - it still has William Goldman's name on the spine, the front cover, and the copyright page. The nature of this "collaboration" is even more transparent than those involving Lemony Snicket and N. E. Bode; and yet I am sure to receive several emails denouncing my ignorance because, surely, S. Morgenstern really lives!

Morgenstern himself (if you will) makes a delightful argument for his own existence in a letter to the publisher, printed at the beginning of this book. "You say in several places [in the 'good parts' version of The Princess Bride] that I am dead. As I sit here and watch my fingers form this note, I am forced to believe that you are in error. I am old, but alive. Perhaps as you age, you will find the two are not mutually exclusive."

Nevertheless, I congratulate Mr. Goldman on the revival of his charming alter ego, who in a few brisk chapters (gorgeously illustrated by Paul Giovanopoulos) spins a tale of romance, humor, irony, magic, and destiny - all along the most beautiful street in the world, the Grand Canal in Venice.

Our hero is Luigi, an aspiring gondolier with an incredible gift for seamanship, but a tragic lack of singing ability. His story of heartbreak, heroism, and hope is, on the face of it, merely Morgenstern's explanation of why the Venetian gondoliers - long famed as the beautiful singers of the world - now punt along silently or, at most, to the accompaniment of hired accordion-players. And why, almost beyond belief, the silencing of so many glorious voices is actually not a tragedy at all.

Luigi lives in a world in which elements of fantasy, romance and magic mix with earthy characters and concrete reality. A world in which even a happy ending may be bittersweet because not every hope is fulfilled in the way one originally expected; a world in which suffering, danger, and humiliation are landmarks on the hero's journey, in which the ridiculous marches shoulder-to-shoulder with the poignant, and in which deaf opera coaches, projectile vegetables, PG-13 language (hesitantly translated from Italian to English), and beer served by a guy named Porky VIII can form part of a timeless, heartwarming fable.

If you enjoyed reading The Princess Bride, you will definitely enjoy this leaner, tighter, less discursive cousin - even though it is set in something more like the real world. Goldman's writing has a wonderful directness, a kind of street-wise poetry so that, even when he inevitably digresses from his point, he does so in prose that reads effortlessly, tickling that nameless part inside you that only laughs out of pure joy.

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