Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the society of clever women.–Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
SparkNotes’ memes are 🔥
A Coney Island of the Mind, 13
Not like Dante
discovering a commedia
upon the slopes of heaven
I would paint a different kind
in which the people would be naked
as they always are
in scenes like that
because it is supposed to be
a painting of their souls
but there would be no anxious angels telling them
how heaven is
the perfect picture of
and there would be no fires burning
in the hellish holes below
in which I might have stepped
nor any altars in the sky except
fountains of imagination
Part of a series of installations called Biografías by Spanish artist Alicia Martín
Hope you all had a lovely and safe New Year!
Now that the Year-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named is over, I’m looking forward to making 2021 better—it shouldn’t be too hard. And part of that is more books.
While I’m not big on the pressure of New Year’s resolutions, joining the Goodreads Reading Challenge has been the one goal I like set for myself at the start of each year (or, at least since 2016 when I joined the site). It’s a great way to not only track what you’re reading but keep an archive of what you’ve read over time. It also helps you to push yourself to read a little more than you might do normally. Highly recommend joining!
My 2021 reading goals:
- Read 60 books. In 2016, I set a goal of 20 books. Since then, the most I read in a year was 70. Last year I did 50. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to read more in lockdown; part of that was due to a demanding writing job that left me drained at the end of the day, to the point where I didn’t want more words in my face. So now I’m trying to get back to where I was. It’s surprising how easily you can get competitive with yourself every time you meet a reading goal. Even if you don’t use Goodreads, I recommend making a goal for yourself! No matter what the number.
- Finish A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin!!! I’ve been reading this off and on since 2019, and it’s past time I finish it. I don’t know why it’s taking me so long when I actually like it more than the previous book in the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Feast for Crows) that took me less time. It’s all the extra details, they’re a bit much. I just want to see what happens but instead I get descriptions of food and ships and food again. I’m kind of just in it for Dany and Tyrion at this point, but I like them enough to push through. And I’m still hoping for a new book from Martin, sometime.
- Read more Flannery O’Connor. Besides a few of her short stories in college, I haven’t read much of O’Connor. A friend and mentor of mine says O’Connor is her favorite author, and since I super-trust her taste I’ve been meaning to give this classic American writer more attention.
- Read more Stephen King. As big a King fan as I am, there is still SO. MUCH. of his work I haven’t read. Mainly, because he has SO. MUCH. work. If ten of the books I read this year are King’s, I’d be happy with that.
- Start reading War and Peace. I say start on the chance I run into a Dance with Dragons situation with this brick of a book, but I’m going to try to stay on track and read a little every day. I mostly want to read it because the musical based on it piqued my interest. I’ve always been intimidated by Russian literature, but I think I’m underestimating myself. Here goes nothing.
The first new book I’ve started this year is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, her 2020 prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy that I bought immediately and then let sit on my shelf for six months. Looking forward to revisiting Panem!
Here’s to books and better days! Thanks for reading.
He yearned to step out of his life the way one steps out of a house into the street.—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Merci Paris in le Marais, Paris
I desired to see new things. I desired to experience volumes.—Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
The genre: Children’s literature
The gist: A fairy tale story about an unconventional, self-made family.
The background: In elementary school, my library teacher (yes, we had a library class. I can only guess every class was about the Dewey Decimal System?) gave my class a list of all the Newbery Honor books. She encouraged us to read as many as we could by the end of the school year, so sure enough it became something of a competition. The Newbery books were flying off the shelves, and one of the first ones I could get my hands on was a peculiarly small, square book called The Animal Family. From the first page, I loved it. The world was so ethereal and utopic that I never wanted to leave.
And I’ve read it over and over again since. As cheesy as it sounds, it still holds the same kind of magic for me as when I first read it as a kid (though I think books from our childhoods can tend to do that). I’m transported every time. It’s not only one of my favorite childhood books, but one of my favorite books. So here’s its much-deserved review.
The tea: 1965’s The Animal Family is an underrated, little-known gem.
Authored by poet Randall Jarrell with illustrations by iconic children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, this book packs a lot of punch in a small package.
Let’s talk about Mr. Sendak for a second first: Though Sendak is known for his distinctive character designs like in Where the Wild Things Are, among others, the drawings in The Animal Family are all landscapes or embellishments. A cliff, a forest, an ocean, a cave, some decorative vines. The pretty, penciled illustrations show just how wide his range was as an artist, and some of his distinct style shines through in the forest drawings that remind me of the forest-y scenes in Where the Wild Things Are.
The choice not to illustrate any of the characters adds to the magic of the book, so the reader is free to imagine the them however they wish.
Now, the story. The events are simple, but even in prose, Jarrell’s poetic insight lifts the story off the page, and that’s what makes this book truly enchanting.
A hunter lives alone “where the forest runs down to the ocean” and begins hearing a lone mermaid singing from the water. Over time, he befriends her, she decides to live on land, and they soon add members to their makeshift little family one by one, including a bear, a lynx, and a boy. The five-creature family lives happily ever after.
What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in genuine, even wise sweetness. Every time a new member is added to the family, it’s mentioned how they couldn’t believe they used to live without them. Once the hunter has the mermaid in his life, he can’t imagine how he used to live alone. Once the mermaid and hunter have the messy, sweet bear cub in their life, the mermaid remarks, “To think we used to live without a bear!” And when the boy comes into their life, his being found on the beach after a shipwreck fades to less of a truth than the one they tell him: “We’ve had you always.”
It’s a warm hug of a book, without being cloying. It’s a celebration of self-chosen families. Of adoptive families. Of friends. Of the ones you pick to have by your side not out of obligation but because you want and like them there.
Like in fairy tales where you don’t question an enspelled maiden sleeping a hundred years, you don’t question the practicality or realism of a lynx, bear, and human living together, nor the existence of mermaids. But unlike many fairy tales, Jarrell gives the story just enough detail to make the characters real and lovable: in the conversations the hunter and mermaid have learning each other’s language (“Whatever you say has that—that walnut sound,” she says to him); in the specific, thoughtful ways the hunter helps the mermaid adapt, like building a rocking chair for her because the land is so still compared to the ocean.
When I first read this book as a kid, it was, and is, unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s novel in every sense of the word—the perfect of example of the art form’s namesake.
The wrap-up: Read this book. Read it alone. Read it to your kids. Give it as a gift. It’s, sadly, out of print, but easy enough to find used for a decent price. And there’s always the library. I’m not promising it’ll blow you away like it did me, but I’m pretty sure it’ll warm your damn heart.
The rating: 5/5
The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.—Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family