Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

First Read | Finished 17 Sept 2014

Eisner-winner and young-crowd pleaser! NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WOULD BE QUITE SO MUCH CRINGE-INDUCING DENTAL WORK. Not for the weak of heart or perhaps the long-suffering of mouth. If you are neither, you will probably still wince for poor baby-Raina. Telgemeier has expressive, consistent artwork–I definitely want to check out her Babysitter Club adaptations now. And she manages to fit a whole arc of growing up–several years’ worth–into a single volume, moving from one school year to the next and one phase of life to the next without dropping any strands or making any jarring time jumps. Young Raina is infinitely familiar in her struggles with mean friends (and how much you should put up with), ill-fated crushes, and learning to love your own looks and abilities. I am really looking forward to reading Sisters.

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6.5.14 The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Reread / readaloud: 262/262.

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I feel silly not making about ten posts about this book as we went along. Owl’s been reading it to me, which is nice of him, since I started off and then got lazy. (On the other hand usually when Owl has been reading it to me I have been doing things like important cooking etcetera.) I haven’t read The Wind in the Willows since I was a kid. It seemed really brilliant then. I couldn’t remember anything that happened. I knew all of the characters gave me excitable feelings. I couldn’t remember what the feelings were. I couldn’t remember what anyone was like, except that Toad is wicked and Badger is nicer than real badgers are, probably.

IMPORTANT SELF-UPDATE: IT IS IN FACT REALLY BRILLIANT.

Other facts include being wildly funny, and really strange–it’s really strange. WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS? Why, you might say, they are animals! They are a badger, a mole, a rat, and a toad!

Well, yes, okay, except they’re all about the same size as each other and they have boat and motorcars, and when Toad wants to escape human prison he dresses up as the jailor’s daughter’s washerwoman aunt and her clothes fit him. Worse yet, he keeps horses–he RIDES a horse–THE HORSE CAN TALK–and these animals that you might expect to be small eat things like sides of bacon and cold beef tongue. There is a sea rat of approximately the same size that somehow still lives a stowaway ship rat life.

The line between sentient and non-sentient animals is jagged or nonexistent. Maybe there are normal sized versions of toads and rats somewhere in the world! Maybe they do not eat pigs! Maybe the pigs are not friends of theirs first? MAYBE THEY JUST EAT EACH OTHER AND THIS IS NOT A MATTER OF CONCERN. It’s certainly not a matter of concern to the author. He does not care. The worst thing of all is that right near the end of the book you find out that Toad has hair. At first you think, or you hope, that maybe it is a washerwoman wig, but no, it is just hair, his hair, and he parts it and slicks it. I am grateful to illustrator Ernest H. Shepherd, who showed true decency in not portraying the Toad with hair. Or maybe he didn’t know until he got to the end of the book, where the hair really showed up, and refused to go back and pen it on to all his drawings.

In rereading this book I have identified one of my strongest lurking feelings about it: Mole and Rat are cohabitating gentlemen. The Edwardian Bachelorian Air to the book doesn’t really seem to be a slur against women–there are female characters and while the wretched Toad does not always treat them well, the author is on their side.

(There’s also a “gypsy” character whose scene I sat through with trepidation–he does buy a stolen horse from Toad, but Toad is the thief, and Grahame lands a nice blow on the jaw of social attitudes near the end of the book in saying the “gypsy”‘s asking price was, rather than cheating or greedy, right on the nose. He’s also a good cook, and he keeps his bargains. I’m sure there’s better representation in the world but it was a reasonably good subversion circa 1908.)

Not hating women, if ignoring them somewhat, you have basically a jolly group of grown men comfortable in their ways who have no real interest in women, e.g., slightly homosexual, eh, chap? Mole is a mole who goes for a walk, meets a charming fellow who is crazy about the river, and immediately moves in. He and Rat can have their separate passions but always come back to one another and attend to one another and rescue each other. Mole decides to find Badger in the Wild Wood all by himself and Rat has to come save him from weasels and snow–

–and there is a very strange scene where the aforementioned Sea Rat appears to Rat alone and overcomes him with tales of life on the sea, and Rat sort of passes out and hallucinates and Sea Rat asks him to come away with him, and Rat goes home to pack in a frenzy, and Mole has to gently fix him up until the fever to follow has passed. IT IS A RAT SEDUCTION. IT IS VERY UNNERVING. IS THIS A CHILDREN’S BOOK? Mole takes no offense and Rat has no real interest in leaving after all. Mole and Rat NEVER leave one another. They are soft friends living in a comfortable home on the river who suit each other perfectly and are perfect forever. FOREVER.

Toad is also perfect, in that he is the worst. I remember this! I remembered something about a motorcar. Toad is a fiend. Toad’s brain is overrun with desires for things he should not have or want and then he goes after them anyway. Other people’s cars, for example. He is a Toad who sings conceited songs and breaks out of prison and yells at bargewomen and steals horses and cars and is crafty in a deal, and is generous, humorous, moody, jealous, and wildly repentant. Toad would be an exhausting person to know. I expect a lot of people know him.

I don’t think Grahame cared at all if the book matched up to anything. He writes it all as if it makes perfect sense, and anyway the characters are very good, and I don’t think I noticed when I was small that everything else was a little odd. Why should you? He believed in it! And Badger and Mole and Rat and (especially?) Toad and Grahame’s comfortable friendship with the countryside are very distracting from anything else.

4.10.14 The White Deer

The White Deer by James Thurber. First read/readaloud: 115/115.

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Finishing up the trio of James Thurber children’s books is The White Deer. James Thurber gets posthumous flack for being A Sexist, which gets some credence in The Wonderful O, but it goes in to superdrive in this book.

If you want to read a book where the term “true deer” is used with charming frequency and a bunch of princes go on ridiculous quests that totally subvert your expectations, HURRAH! HERE IT IS! But only if you also like ladies to not have memory or agency and it to be really unclear if they are animals or not and for their entire life courses to be determined by the whimmy emotions of some incompetent and generally unlikable dudes. Oh, and for the actual villains to be a witch and her lady helper.

Here is the story. Once upon a time a king married a hot lady who was deer and then was a hot lady, and then because the king was a jerk, was a deer again forever. Before she became a permanent deer, the king’s hot wife made this ungrateful jerkface three kids, all of whom are pointless additions to the earth. This king and his three sons (numbering 2 rangers and 1 bard, and you think the bard will be good news, but he’s only marginally better) go hunting in the enchanted wood, which is forbidden. They chase a hardcore deer and it turns into a hot lady. FAMILIAR?

What goes down: it transpires that the lady who may or may not be a deer doesn’t remember anything, like her name, so maybe she is a princess or maybe she is a TRUE DEER. Yelling over the advice of his recorder, his dwarf, his clockmaker, and his physician, the king declares her a princess and has her set the princes tasks to win her hand. The princes go do the tasks, and the king yells a lot about whether she is DEER or PRINCESS.

They decide she is probably a deer, but the bard wins her hand because he is the only prince who was willing to marry a potential deer.

S P O I L E R

In fact, she is a princess, not a deer! And you think she’ll get to speak for herself, now that she remembers stuff, but in fact, the torch of ever getting a word in edgewise passes to the dwarf, who turns out to be her hot prince brother! He explains her entire story while she sits prettily by, and then they all ride off to the prince and princess’s distant kingdom, and the deer princess gets hitched to the bard prince. Meanwhile, the evil witch which bewitched the prince and princess gets zapped by lightning and dies. THE END.

My Rating: U- / UNSATISFACTORY.

E N D S P O I L E R

Here are some things that could have happened instead:

  • Everyone calms down about whether or not she is a deer because their mom was a deer, so it’s a little late to be concerned, honestly.
  • Bard Prince passes the F/M/K test for If She Is A Deer, but the final enchantment is that she is actually a prince, WHAAAAAAAT? Bard Prince passes that test, too! The gay Prince Kings have a fabulous wedding and adopt enchanted deer babies as their heirs.
  • The Deer Princess becomes king of her own kingdom and the bard marries her brother, renouncing all thrones in favor of a musical career.
  • The enchanted deer princess and the enchanted dwarf prince are both actually deer. Their entire family are deer. Their entire kingdom is deer. As soon as the Bard Prince kisses the princess, every single person except his two brothers and his dad turn into deer. W H A T W I L L Y O U H U N T N O W? they murmur in unison. The princes and their dad begin to run. T O O L A T E N O W murmur hundreds of deer, stirring slowly into action.  H O W S W I F T I S M A N ? T O O  L A  T E N  O  W  W W   W    W
  • Alternately everyone is a deer but the Bard Prince is pleasantly surprised by this.
  • Protestors in the kingdom (which seems to have NO subjects, but if they did exist) rally around the castle with signs that say things like, “DEER MARRIAGE? WHAT IS NEXT, MARRYING THE LETTER O?”

Those would be some possible endings, and all of them would be pretty good.

4.8.14 The View from Saturday

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg. Reread: 163/163.

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I read this book about four times as a kid not because it was my favorite book but because I really did not get it. I thought I would read it again now and see if I got it. I don’t think I do.

The View from Saturday is a slightly mystical (not at all magical or fantastical), carefully portioned, formally precise novel. It got the Newbery Medal so I think either a bunch of other people did understand it, or they didn’t, and they were pretty sure they should have, and this impressed them, so they gave it an award. I don’t begrudge E.L. Konigsburg and her odd books awards, because there is something meticulous and elsewhere unspoken in her writing. That said, I’m not sure I ever completely understand her books.

In The View from Saturday, a sixth-grade team of four is making an unprecedented state-level showing at the Academic Bowl. The four children have been chosen by their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, who is returning to teaching after a ten-year absence following a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Mrs. Olinski is of the “things are not as they were, and children have changed for the worse” school. She takes comfort in very small prescriptions (for example, correcting a fellow teacher to say hanged rather than hung). There’s sort of a distant angelic rightness about her attitudes (of all kinds) in the book. I don’t think I agree with her attitude, though I may sympathize with it—but I find it so hard to get at the characters that I’m not sure how strongly I disagree or sympathize.

Independently of Mrs. Olinski’s choice, each of the four children are somehow connected: Noah, staying with his grandparents in their retirement village, serves as an impromptu Best Man in a retirement village wedding, after his wagon trips up the original Best Man and breaks his leg. That Best Man is Nadia’s father. Nadia’s grandfather has just married Ethan’s grandmother. And Ethan rides the bus with Julian Singh, who brings them all together for afternoon tea at his father’s new B&B, at which point they all become a cohesive unit of perfectly matched genius children.

All of these connections are odd because they’re too close to really explain all four of the children winding up in the same classroom or being picked by Mrs. Olinski for her academic-bowl-team-without-trial. There’s this little suggestion that somehow they planned to be picked, but there’s no indication of how that worked except for the virtuous powers of their four interconnected, precocious minds.

I’m not convinced by the end that I’m convinced by their connections or their coincidences or their outcomes. The characters themselves are convinced, and forge through everyone and everything else by the power of their rightness, but I’m not convinced. Maybe the problem is that their form of outcast is the holy pedantic, and while I have certainly been that, I’m not wholly agreeable to the idea.

The whole book for me is a tricky balance. I recognize those smart kids, and the need for them to believe they are right and worth something. I recognize that the outcast sometimes has to recast theirself as something truly glorious just to get through the disdain and dislike of people. The idea of a perfectly synchronized unit of like-minded people is heady, and attractive, and delicious.

But I don’t think I believe any of what happens (except for the part where they rescue sea turtle eggs), and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to. I didn’t see them as real sixth graders when I was in the sixth grade and I don’t know, and I don’t know if this is a wistfulness exercise by Konigsburg or a fable or a book written straight that I just cannot relate to.

Here are the takeaways I know I am meant to have: that in community there is power, that kindness is crucial, and that taking all things in parts and making all steps a part of you instead of an impediment to the real stuff is the best thing you can do for yourself. And those are actually great lessons. Which is maybe why my feelings about this book are complicated.

So it’s left me with the same uncertain mind about it as it always has, and in five or ten years I’ll have to read it again and see what if anything has changed.

3.29.14 The Hobbit

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. 317/317.

Owl read me The Hobbit. Apparently I cannot read the Hobbit myself, because I have not read The Hobbit since I was eight and my mother last bothered to read The Hobbit to me. I then thought about reading The Hobbit for the next fifteen to twenty years. I even managed to cycle through owning several different editions of The Hobbit but I did not actually read any of them, perhaps because they were not as glorious as this giant golden version I am holding in my hands.

EXCEPTION: I can read ‘Riddles in the Dark’ in any form. I am that person. I am the person who waits for the best part of the book and leaps into the air with all their limbs waving and goes OOH MEE MEE MEE I WILL DO IIIIIIIIIT like it is a burden unto Ring Bearing and a golden retriever’s favorite tennis ball all in one. I fought off a group of kindly Medievalists to win that chapter in a group readaloud in grad school, and in my seventh grade Readers Theater class I competed for the honor of being a be a slimy, ill-socialized, murdering magpie of the murky depths in an actual head-to-head readoff against my scrawny nerd frenemy Devin DeCamp.

I also read it now. But mostly it was Owl, because I cannot read The Hobbit myself apparently.

Here is what I learned after fifteen to twenty years of not reading the Hobbit:

  • Elves are GOOFY BAD CHILDREN who sing songs almost entirely about how they are better than you and you are cold fa la la la la tra la la la la you will die and they never get old tra fa la tra fa la DON’T TRUST ELVES WHO TRY TO LOOK COOL, THEY ARE NOT COOL
  • Gandalf
  • BILBO IS SLY, BILBO IS SO SLY, BILBO IS JUST ONE SLY ENTREE WITH A HEAPING SIDE DISH OF PRAGMATISM Bilbo is who I feel I could be on my best day and is definitely who I am every time I play D&D, which infuriates people, I SHOULD POINT OUT TO THEM THAT BILBO IS PERFECT WHEREAS THORIN, TYPICAL D&D PLAYER, RASH, STUBBORN, AND INTERESTED IN UNNECESSARY FEATS OF ARMS, ENDS UP COMPLETELY DEAD
  • The best way to write about traveling is to say, “Bilbo felt that he had done this terrible thing x for years and would never again be happy,” and then it turns out he was there for a week, or “The lake men starved to death and were weary and sick in that time” and that time is like, two days, JUST TO MIX IT UP.
  • A lot happens after they meet Smaug, a perfect person who is the only important part of the book according to reduced book wisdom (mine), so it is surprising that there is more after him.
  • Fewer than the expected number of dwarves die. Hurrah! But some of them later move into Moria even though they have just established that it is full of goblins who hate their guts. NOOOOOOOOO.

I also learned as previously suspected that Tolkien has a sense of humor, and none of it has to do with snot. Peter Jackson, I’m looking at you. And then I am looking away, because YOU HAVE DONE HEINOUS THINGS TO THIS BOOK YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT

Five stars! THE HOBBIT.

10 (?) MYSTERY WRITERS I LOVED AS A KID THAT MAKE ME WONDER WHY I DON’T STILL READ MYSTERIES

1. Marjorie Weinman Sharmat – Nate the Great series

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Nate is a tiny Sherlock Holmes for a young audience, born of the 1970s, whose Watson is a dog called Sludge. He loves pancakes. He is perfect. (Incidentally while I was Googling, I learned that Emily the Strange is a remarkable ripoff of one of Nate‘s minor characters. Thank you for solving that one, internet.)

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2. Donald J. Sobol – Encyclopedia Brown series

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Encylopedia Brown is known as Encyclopedia for his incredible ability to retain information no one else bothers to remember or even know. Possibly my favorite thing about his stories was that they were SHORT, which I always found incredibly satisfying to my distaste for delayed gratification. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from him was that if you carve your name onto a tree at ground level, it will not be WAY UP THERE fifty years from now.

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3. Wendelin Van Draanen – Sammy Keyes series

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SAMMY KEYES. The Veronica Mars of the late nineties midgrade set, the coolest of girls, the best of detectives. If you read Sammy Keyes and did not have a devastating crush on her I can only determine that you were a LOST AND EMPTY CHILD. Seriously, though, Sammy Keyes is. The. Best. And back in the day they had these great cover designs! I obsessed over these covers—why? Because they were perfect! Cool, sharp, and interesting. Distinctive. PERFECT.

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4. Crosby Bonsall – The Case of the Scaredy Cats,  The Case of the Dumb Bells, The Case of the Cat’s Meow

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NEIGHBORHOOD MYSTERIES. Crosby Bonsall’s mysteries are great, because they’re all about gangs of little boys being territorial and foolish and kind of bad at stuff, and then figuring out that SOMETHING WEIRD (not that weird) is happening and having to get together and fix it, squabbling all the way. They resent girls and little brothers, in the true fashion of a classically trained child male. Side note for non-obvious name: Crosby Bonsall is a lady writer.

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5. David A. Adler – Cam Jansen series

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Cam Jansen is called Cam short for Camera not because there are things wrong with her parents but because, like Encyclopedia Brown, she is preternaturally good at things. In her case, she is good at having a photographic memory! She uses it to solve mysteries and shuts her eyes and says CLICK! every time she needs to access a particular memory. I read approximately one billion of these books.

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6. Ellen Raskin – The Westing Game, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Mysteries

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No competition in my mind, The Westing Game is the hands-down winner of children’s mystery novels. It is smart, weird, uncomfortable, and perfect. It is actually a bit like the movie of Clue, although with fewer all around murders. In it, a high rise apartment building is constructed by a lake, under the eye of an old house. The master of the old house dies. All of the new tenants of the apartment building, hand-selected, find themselves in the will. All of them have secrets. One of them committed murder.

Side note: Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer attempted a similar mystery style, but for me completely fell apart by introducing some hand-waving mystical stuff at the end. No one gets handed anything they want in The Westing Game.

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7. Eve Titus – Basil of Baker Street series

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FAVE SHERLOCK HOLMES. Mouse Sherlock Holmes and his mouse Watson lifemate have different names from their inspirations because they live in Holmes’ house and are being the mouse versions of them completely on purpose. I have not read these books in a thousand years, and so I am afraid I cannot tell you for certain if Victorianesque mice are as rife with sexism and racism as Victorian men, but I had boundless respect for Basil as a young person.

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8. Gertrude Chandler Warner et. al. – The Boxcar Children

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The first Boxcar Children book was written by a schoolteacher and included important life knowledge such as: how to store your milk bottle in a running stream so it keeps cool. Later they get less “portrait of some uncomfortably unsupervised orphans doing mysteries and living in a train” and more “case of the week written by a hundred different authors,” but I ATE THAT UP. I don’t know how many of them I read. I got one from my teacher for Christmas in the second grade and immediately dropped it in a greasy puddle. I used to arrange all of them in rainbow order when I worked as a shelver at the library.

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9. James Howe – Bunnicula series

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The first Bunnicula book is co-written with Deborah Howe, and involves this poor dog being run around by this cat who’s freaking out because their people got a rabbit and the cat thinks it’s a vampire. The cat DOES NOT ADJUST WELL. After they figure out the rabbit isn’t going to kill anyone (and James Howe starts writing on his own) the cat has already developed a taste for mysteries, so he drags this poor dog (and a later, stupider dog, but not generally the rabbit, because rabbits do not go for this nonsense) on a bunch of other paranoia-driven quests.

A note to all authors: DO NOT FEED YOUR DOGS CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES.

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10. Franklin W. Dixon et. al. – The Hardy Boys series

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My dad kindly read me a few Hardy Boys books in this basic format and I spent the entire time screaming over words such as “chums” and the fact that I, who have always been incredibly bad at solving mysteries, generally knew what was happening. Let it never be said that there was a time when I did not like to read critically and with a smidgeon of rage.

3.28.14 The Wonderful O

The Wonderful O by James Thurber. 72/72.

Aaaaaaaaaargh I AM TOO TIRED. It is a children’s classic, this guy who’s afraid of the letter O comes to an island looking for treasure and he takes O-things away from the locals because he’s a big jerk who needs therapy.* The lack of o’s becomes problematic and then it comes back to bite him and we learn that LOVE AND VALOR AND HOPE AND MOST OF ALL FREEDOM are important things that we must always fight for.

THE WORST HEADACHE. NO CRIT. I like his essays better and I think I preferred The 13 Clocks so far as oddo Thurber kid books go.

*No, he does, for his pathological hatred of the letter O that was brought on by his mother’s traumatic death out a porthole. I’m not being flip or anything, just, the guy needs help. And not to do bad things.