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This is the second book that I read for the ‘Once Upon a Time’ challenge hosted by Carl.. 

Once Upon A Time

I discovered ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ by Jackie Morris, through Ana’s (from ‘Things Mean a Lot’) review of it. A fairy tale set in the cold northern lands, featuring a young girl and a polar bear – how can one resist it? I couldn’t wait to get it and read it and I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

East Of The Sun West Of The Moon By Jackie Morris

‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ is Jackie Morris’ retelling of the classic fairytale with the same name. There are two parts to the story. The first is a simple fairytale which reminds one of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. The second reminds one of the story of Psyche and Cupid. In the first part, a polar bear one day enters a city and knocks at the door of a refugee family. When the father opens the door, the bear tells him in his native language that he has come to visit them. He later tells the family that he has come to invite the eldest daughter of the family, our heroine, to come and live with him. In return the bear will make all their problems go away. The family is reluctant to accept this idea, but the girl agrees and goes to live with the bear. The bear takes care of her and she is happy. But there is a secret (and here comes the Psyche and Cupid part). After the girl has fallen asleep in the night, the door quietly opens and someone enters the room and lies next to her. When the girl tries to light a lamp to find out who it is, the matches and the lamp don’t work. The girl keeps quiet about this and doesn’t mention it to the bear the next day. But this scene keeps recurring every night. One day the girl is homesick and asks the bear whether she can visit her family for a short while. The bear agrees and takes her home and tells her that he will be back after a month and a day to take her back. The girl discovers that her family has been well provided for and her parents and siblings are happy. When she tells her mother about the strange person who visits her room during the night, her mother gives her a box and tells her to use it when it happens the next time. A month and a day later, the bear comes back and takes her back to its home. That night, the bedroom door opens and someone comes in and lies next to our heroine. After this person has gone to sleep, our heroine opens the box her mother has given and finds a candle and some matches. She lights the candle and it works. She shows the light on the person lying next to her and discovers that he is a handsome young man. But this handsome young man wakes up and then there is sorrow in his eyes and he says that everything is lost. When the girl, who loves the bear by now, and who realizes that this handsome young man might be the person who appears as the bear during the day, asks him what was wrong, this young man tells his story. He tells her that he is a prince who has waited for her for a thousand years. He was supposed to marry the Troll queen’s daughter, unless he found a woman who loved him willingly when he was in the form of a bear and came to live with him and lived in his place for a year and a day. And he was not supposed to reveal his human form to her. But now that our heroine has lighted the candle and seen the prince’s original form before the year and a day period was over, he has to leave the next day to the castle which was at the east of the sun and the west of the moon and marry the troll queen’s daughter. The prince and our heroine spend the night in each other’s arms, mourning what they had lost. Our heroine tells him that she will come and find him wherever he is and get him back. The next day morning when the girl wakes up, there is no castle, there is no bear and there is no young man. She is lying in the forest with her bundle. She decides to go in search of her sweetheart and she is ready to go to the ends of the earth to get him back.

 

Is she able to do succeed in her quest? The answer to that is the rest of the story.

 

So, what do I think of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’? I loved it. Mostly. Let me explain that more. I loved the story. The way the fairytale of the Beauty and the Beast merged seamlessly with the story of Psyche and Cupid, and the way it is set in today’s world in which the heroine of the fairytale is a girl who is a refugee from her homecountry and how that blended seamlessly with the rest of the fairytale – this was all beautifully done. I loved the heroine and the polar bear, the three women who help the heroine, the four winds. I liked even the troll’s daughter for the way she passionately loved the prince.

 

The watercolour paintings of Jackie Morris are stunning. I am not exaggerating here or praising Morris just for the heck of it. The paintings are really and literally stunning. The book can be read just for the artwork alone. And then there is Jackie Morris’ prose. Purple is one way to describe it. It is probably the very definition of purple. There are beautiful sentences in every page and I enjoyed reading those sentences again and again. Each of those sentences was sculpted by a fine hand and a sensitive mind. It was as if Jackie Morris was born to write and illustrate fairytales. To give you a feel for the flavour of Morris’ purple prose, I will include a few of those gorgeous sentences and passages here.

 

A flower of orange flame blossomed so bright and a petal caught to the candle wick.

 

…golden leaves of autumn played a beautiful tune with the breeze, and the light painted dappled gold pennies on the rich earth beneath horse’s hooves.

 

…the hot wind of the desert stroked her cheek like a kiss, and she turned to see, far out on the horizon, the sand moving like water, wave after wave rolling towards them, sand made liquid by the force of the wind.

 

All through the desert the wind teased her, tangling his fingers through her hair and winding it into tresses so that no matter how she tied it, before long ti would weave around her head like snakes. He stroked her cheeks, blew cooler air when the heat became too much. He played with her. He drew shapes in the sand with tumbling weed for her He swept up waves of sand and shaped them to run behind her like wild wind horses, a great herd, keeping pace with her horse. He caught snatches of music and carried them to her ears, at night, gentle lullabies, in the morning, birdsong. He blew a flower over the desert and placed it in her hand.

 

Did you like them?

 

So, we have a beautiful story blending fairytale and mythology, lovable characters, stunning artwork, purple prose. That should be enough to fall in love with a book for life, isn’t it? Yes, normally, it should. The book had one thing, though. It was the ending. In the original fairytale (you can read it here) the prince marries our heroine and they live happily everafter. That is not how it works out in Jackie Morris’ retelling. I am in two minds now. Should I write more about this or not? If I do, it will be a spoiler. If I don’t, I will be avoiding discussion on an important aspect of the book. I think I will tell you what I think about the ending. But I am marking it as a spoiler and so please ignore it if you are planning to read the book 

*Beginning of Spoiler*

The first thing about the ending was that it was a surprise. It is not that I didn’t see it coming. Morris leaves clues for the reader and we half expect it. Still, it is surprising. A fairytale which doesn’t end with the prince and the princess marrying and living happily everafter, has a surprise ending. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the ending (or to use a stronger word – I wouldn’t say that I disliked the ending). The ending was good, though surprising, and in some ways it was geared to our modern way of thinking and was perfect in its own way. But there was a dissonance there when we related it to the rest of the story. Without telling you what the actual ending is, I will use the example of another fairytale. Let us take ‘Rapunzel’. After Rapunzel is thrown out of the tower by the witch and the prince goes blind, towards the end of the story, the blind prince hears Rapunzel’s voice singing in the wilderness and he finds her and they are united and Rapunzel’s tears of joy cures the prince of his blindness. The traditional fairytale ends after this with Rapunzel and the prince living happily everafter. Let us say that this story is retold and the reteller changes the ending and the new ending goes like this – after the prince is cured of his blindness, Rapunzel thanks him for saving her from the witch and also says that she is happy that the prince’s blindness is cured. But then she adds that now that both of them are free, they should be able to do what they want and the prince doesn’t need to feel obligated to marry her and neither should Rapunzel feel that way. Each of them can live their lives the way they want, fall in love with whomever they want, get married or not, travel the world etc. and enjoy their freedom. Well, it is not a bad ending, but it takes away the magic of the fairytale. Something like this happened at the end of Jackie Morris’ retelling. I didn’t dislike it, but I was disappointed with it.

*End of Spoiler*

So, would I recommend ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’? Yes, with all my heart. It is a stunningly produced book and the artwork and purple prose alone are good enough reasons to read the book. And don’t worry about the ending. Maybe you will like it more. 

 

Have you read Jackie Morris’ ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’? What do you think about it?

I have never participated in the ‘Once Upon a Time’ challenge. This year, I decided on a whim, to participate in it. It is always exciting to read fantasy, folklore, fairytales and mythology, isn’t it? :) It is always fun to plan for an event and think about books to read and write a post on one’s potential reading list. But I have mostly veered off from my planned lists in the past, and so I am not going to do that now. I am going to just read spontaneously and see what that takes me. The first book I read for this challenge was ‘The Luck of Troy’ by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Once Upon A Time

I loved Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek and Egyptian myths and the Arthurian legends. There was one book of his that I hadn’t read and that was ‘The Luck of Troy’. It is a novel version of the Troy legend and the story of Helen, Menelaus and Paris. So, I thought I will get started with this.

 The Luck Of Troy By Roger Lancelyn Green

‘The Luck of Troy’ is the story that we have all read about – the tale of Helen, Paris, Menelaus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Patrocles, King Priam, Hector and others including the Trojan horse. But it is different in one perspective. It tells the story from the perspective of Nicostratus, the son of Helen and Menelaus, whom Helen carries with her when she leaves for Troy. So, we see the important events of that age unfolding through the eyes of young Nico. Roger Lancelyn Green says that he has done his research and though young Nicostratus is not mentioned in the Troy story in general, he is mentioned by one or two authors. All the major events of the Troy story are covered in this book – the eloping of Helen with Paris, the Greek kings deciding to go on war, the siege of Troy, the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the duel between Menelaus and Paris, Odysseus appearing in Troy disguised as a beggar, Patroclus and Hector fighting and dying like heroes, the story of Palamedes, the treachery against Achilles, the Trojan horse and others. It was amazing to see how Green has managed to squeeze most of these stories into this slim book. My favourite parts of the book though were the scenes involving the children – the conversation between Hermione (daughter of Menelaus and Helen), Iphigeneia and Elektra (daughters of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and cousins of Hermione) in the first chapter and the conversations between Nicostratus and Polyxena (daughter of King Priam). I especially loved reading about the friendship between Nicostratus and Polyxena, as Nico, who normally thought like a Greek and didn’t like the Trojans, loved Polyxena like his own sister, though she was Trojan, and wanted to save her from the Greeks. His mother Helen says in one scene – “My poor Nico! Neither Greek nor Trojan, it seems!” That made me smile :)

 

Though I enjoyed reading ‘The Luck of Troy’ and found it interesting to look at things from young Nico’s perspective, for some reason, the book as a whole didn’t work for me. Maybe because I was familiar with most of the events of the story (though I had also forgotten most of them) and the retelling wasn’t fresh enough. Or maybe because it is an old story which we have heard so many times, there is no way to get a new fresh perspective here. I don’t know. Or maybe there was some other reason. I also felt that as Green was trying to stay loyal to the original story and so gave the original events a lot of importance, he missed out on exploring the relationship between Polyxena and Nico and Hermione and her cousins in more depth. Also, I wasn’t sure about his portrayal of Helen. When I first read about her in primary school, the story was that Paris kidnapped her. So, I thought that Paris was the bad guy, while Helen was a good woman. But after growing up the version I read said that Helen eloped with Paris. That made things more complex. It made me think whether what Helen did was right – abandoning her family and her daughter and running away with another man. Now, my thinking of the story has changed again. I feel now that Helen probably fell out of love with her husband and was attracted to another man and wanted to explore that relationship. By our modern day standards, there is nothing wrong with that. It happens all the time with normal people. So, why can’t a queen do that? Well, as we grow old, our points of view keep changing. But I wasn’t sure what the book said. It seemed to depict Helen as an innocent person, who also eloped with Paris, but then blamed him for the elopement, thus making him to be the bad guy. I wasn’t exactly convinced with that. I don’t know whether that is the original version of events. The book also showed Paris to be a bad man – someone who seduced Helen but who is nasty everyday to her and to others. That is not the Paris I remember at all. The Paris I remember was a handsome, sensitive man whom women found attractive, who played the flute and melted their hearts, but who was also not a soldier or a warrior, who was not somebody who can fight a battle and shed blood and win, but someone who avoided fighting. So, I am not sure whether my perception of Paris is true or whether Green’s description is. 

 

There is some good news too. There were some interesting things that I learnt from the book. Some of these were : Hermione is the daughter of Helen and Menelaus. (It made me wonderful whether Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series is named after her.) Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, is Helen’s sister (I didn’t know that!). Penelope, Odysseus’ wife is Helen’s cousin. (Really? I didn’t know that!) It was also interesting to read Palamedes’ story. The book depicts Palamedes as a bad guy – he is a Greek who helps the Trojans to kill Achilles – while when I checked in Wikipedia, it said that Odysseus didn’t like him and committed treachery and got Palamedes killed. Very interesting!

 

‘The Luck of Troy’ was in some ways interesting, but also in some ways disappointing. I don’t know whether this is because this book is not as good as other books by Roger Lancelyn Green, or whether this is because it is written for younger readers and I have finally grown up and so am not able to relate to it. (I sincerely hope that I have not grown up!) I hope to read Green’s mythological retellings again and find out. I have another book by Francesca Petrizzo which tells the story from Helen’s own perspective. I would like to read that too and see whether I like it more.

 

Have you read ‘The Luck of Troy’ by Roger Lancelyn Green? What do you think about it? Which version of Helen and Paris do you like more?

I discovered Lucy Knisley’s ‘Relish’ through Shweta’s (from Literary Grand Grounds) year end favourite graphic novels post. (You can also find Shweta’s review here.) I love reading a book on food occasionally, and a graphic novel memoir was too tempting to resist. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Relish By Lucy Knisley

‘Relish’ is Lucy Knisley’s memoir with a focus on the important food moments of her life. She tells us the story of her life – how things were when she was a child, about her artistic mother and her father who liked fine cuisine, about the dinners that her parents used to host, about her parents’ artistic friends who used to visit, how she grew up with rich experiences related to food – growing vegetables and fruits, visiting the farmer’s market to buy and sell, rearing chicken, trying all sorts of cooking at home with her mother starting from the simplest delicious things to the most complex, how food played an important part in important events in her life, how moving from the city to the country side led to a big change in the way she perceived food, how going to a country with a totally different cuisine opened her life to the rich cultural complexity of the world, how her mother inspired her to cook and appreciate beautiful food – these and other beautiful foodie stories and themes are covered throughout the book. Every chapter has a recipe on a particular food item and I enjoyed reading all of them.

 

Some of my favourite reading moments in the book were these – when Knisley describes the best tamales she ever had in a very cheap Mexican eatery, her description of the best croissant she ever had in a small bakery in Venice, her description of Osage oranges (a new discovery for me), her description of a flock of geese which attack her proving that geese are not at all benign as we might think, her description of how her mom’s cookies were always better than hers (exact quote coming later), her take on junk food, how she and her mom sometimes satisfied their crave for food by just eating sautéed mushroom or spinach for dinner, her Japanese culinary and cultural experience, how her dad liked sniffing her mom’s earthy cheese smell clinging to her hair and skin and how in later years her boyfriend did the same to her – these and many other moments were my favourites, that is most of the book:)

 

The book started with a recipe for spice tea (chai) – how can one resist that (though I make chai in a slightly different way) – and I fell in love with the recipe section of the book after that. My favourite recipes were this one and the ones on how her mom made sautéed mushrooms and the one on Huevos Rancheros. The recipe on making sushi was an eyeopener. I felt sad that the surprise has been revealed behind this magical dish, but I was also happy to read it.

 

I loved many scenes and conversations in the book but my favourite was the one where Lucy Knisley compares the cookies she made with the ones her mother made. It went like this :

 

I’ve since turned to the mixing bowl so often in times of turmoil, I can practically bake blindfolded. The act is so soothing – reminding me that I might be a mess, but I can at least do ONE thing right. For me, the act of assembling and combining chocolate chip-cookie ingredients is like watching ‘The Sound of Music’. Mom might make fun of me for being generic or clichéd in my cookie / movie choices, but when I’m upset, it’s all I want. Cookies are all about comfort. Sometimes something simple can comfort the most.

My mother might scoff at the unimaginative chocolate chip cookie, but when she can be persuaded, she makes a mean batch. After all these years of me ritualistically dropping spoonfuls of chip-peppered dough on baking sheets, she still trumps me in cookie skills. Maybe because baking, unlike cooking, is more of an exact science. My mother’s steady hand and cool head make her an excellent baker, though she prefers the creative freedom of cooking. My baking is too emotional, too volatile with distress, to ever match Mom’s cookie perfection. But my cookies contain the anxious deliciousness earned through an afternoon spent in turmoil, soothed by separating my troubles into warm crispy pieces. 

 

If Hazel (the heroine of John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ ) doesn’t mind, I would like to use her line here. I fell in love with ‘Relish’, the way you fall asleep : slowly, and then all at once. I still remember the ‘all at once’ moment – it was when Knisley described how she and her mom satisfied their food cravings by eating sautéed mushrooms and then went on to describe how to make sautéed mushrooms. That was the moment I totally fell in love with the book. 

‘Relish’ is a beautiful book. It is a treat for foodies and graphic novel lovers. If you are either or both of these, you will love it.

Have you read ‘Relish’ by Lucy Knisley? What do you think about it? Which were your favourite reading moments?

When I was discussing about favourite books with one of my bookish friends a few years back, my friend told me that Norton Juster’s ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ was one of her top-five alltime favourite books. I had never heard of the book or Norton Juster before and I wondered what this book was about. I couldn’t get the book then, but recently while I was looking for something else online, this book popped up and I thought it was time to get it. Here is what I think..

The Phantom Tollbooth By Norton Juster

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is about a boy named Milo, who is not interested in anything – he finds that most of the things taught in school don’t seem to have any purpose and are not exciting and life is not exciting in general. One day when he comes back home, he discovers a big package in his room. He opens it and finds a tollbooth in it with instructions on how to fit it and use it. He fits it and then takes his small car – the toy version that children drive inside the house – and pays the toll and drives past the tollbooth as instructed. He suddenly discovers that he is no longer in his home but is out on the road and there are trees on both sides of the road. The journey takes him to strange lands, he makes friends with a dog called Tock, a bug called Humbug, enters a city called Dictionopolis and meets the king and his ministers, learns about the kingdom of wisdom, discovers that things are not what they used to be because the princesses Rhyme and Reason are no longer there and with the king’s blessings, Milo and his friends Tock and Humbug have many adventures and try to rescue the princesses. Whether they succeed in their mission forms the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’. The story is interesting, the wordplay is wonderful, the commentary it offers on the human condition is very insightful, the characters are likeable and the ending is perfect. The book pays homage to the masters – to Lewis Carroll and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with its wordplay, especially in dialogues like this – “being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it’s a matter of not knowing where you aren’t – and I don’t care at all about where I’m not”, to C.S.Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ by showing how opening the door of a closet (in this case how crossing a playful tollbooth) can lead you to a totally different and fascinating world, to George Gamov’s works with its references to the highest number (being three, according to the Hottentots, which is described in Gamov’s ‘One, Two, Three…Infinity’) and to the ladder of infinity and to Russell’s paradox which Milo uses to solve a problem and get ahead in his plan the rescue the princesses. There was even a passage which talked about asking the right question – “That may be true (that it is absurd), but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.” It made me wonder whether Douglas Adams got inspired by that sentence when he wrote that scene in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ about the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Two of my favourite scenes in the story were the one in which the conductor conducts a symphony in the morning for the sun to rise and and the one in which the soundkeeper describes different kinds of sounds and how they are initially produced and then collected and categorized. I loved the character of the soundkeeper.

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is a story that can be read by children of all ages, whether one is eight or eighty. When I was halfway through the book, I thought that I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it as a child, but now after having finished it, I think that though I would have enjoyed the story and the wordplay as a child, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate some of the above references and the depth of some of the insights as much. I think readers of different ages will enjoy the book in different ways.

The edition of the book I read had an introduction by Diana Wynne Jones which is quite interesting to read (she takes potshots at the way maths is taught at school which made me smile) and a note by the author at the end in which he talks about how he got to writing the book, which is quite fascinating.

I read this about Haruki Murakami somewhere – “Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon – a roster so ill assorted as to suggest Murakami is in fact an original.” I think we can say something similar about Norton Juster. He is unique and so is this book. I know now why my friend loved this book. It is sad that Juster didn’t write a sequel to it or another book set in the same universe.

I am pretty sure that I will read ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ again one of these days. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Different Kinds of Sound

“She was generous to a fault and provided us with all the sound we could possibly use : for singing as we worked, for bubbling pots of stew; for the chop of an axe and the crash of a tree, for the creak of a hinge and the hoot of an owl, for the squish of a shoe in the mud and the friendly tapping of rain on the roof, and for the sweet music of pipes and the sharp snap of winter ice cracking on the ground.”

 

The Different Kinds of Silence

“Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But, sadly enough, no one pays any attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause in a roomful of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re all alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful, if you listen carefully.”

 

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare”

      “Many years ago, on this very spot, there was a beautiful city of fine houses and inviting spaces, and no one who lived here was ever in a hurry. The streets were full of wonderful things to see and the people would often stop to look at them.”
“Didn’t they have anywhere to go?” asked Milo.
“To be sure,” continued Alec. “But, as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes, you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.”
Milo remembered the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember.
“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”

 

Have you read Norton Juster’s ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’? What do you think about it?

I discovered ‘Flora & Ulysses’ by Kate DiCamillo through Ana’s (from ‘Things Mean a Lot’) review of it. The book featured a squirrel who wrote poetry and who can resist that? Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t stop. Here is what I think.

Flora And Ulysses By Kate DiCamillo

‘Flora & Ulysses’ is about Flora, our heroine, who is an introverted teenager who likes reading comics. She sees her neighbour, Tootie Wickham being dragged around the lawn by a vacuum cleaner which seems to have a life of its own. Accidentally, the vacuum cleaner sucks in a squirrel. Flora runs out of the house and tries to find out what happened. She pulls the squirrel out. And suddenly the squirrel gets up, starts dancing and even does super-squirrel (that is the squirrel equivalent of ‘superhuman’) stuff like carrying the giant vacuum cleaner with its tiny paws. Flora realizes that the squirrel has had a transformative experience and it has become a superhero now. She talks to the squirrel and it seems to understand her. Flora calls him Ulysses. Flora takes Ulysses to her home and Ulysses suddenly jumps on her mother’s typewriter and starts composing a poem. And thus the fun starts. The rest of the book is about the adventures that Flora and Ulysses have, the coming of the arch-nemesis (there has to be one in every superhero story, isn’t it?), Ulysses excursions into writing poetry, Flora making new friends and how Flora and Ulysses defy the arch-nemesis. Do they live happily ever after? You should read the book to find out.

 

I loved ‘Flora & Ulysses’. Kate DiCamillo prose is easy and smooth and flows like a river, the story glides along beautifully, there is humour sprinkled throughout, the characters are interesting (I loved Tootie Wickham, William Spiver and Dr. Meescham), the book’s narrative style is innovative (using text, pictures and the comics form to move the plot along)  and the ending is perfect. And, of course, Ulysses, the poem writing squirrel who can also fly and is a superhero, is totally adorable. The squirrel is one of my favourite animals. I watch one sometimes in the afternoon when it comes to eat the food that I keep on the wall (for birds typically, but the squirrel stops by sometimes as a delightful uninvited guest). When it uses its hind-leg to scratch itself, it is cuter than even a baby kitten. Well, when a squirrel composes poems, loves people and flies – who can resist that?

 

In conclusion, I have to echo what Flora says in the book, when she encounters something unexpected but wonderful – “Holy Bagumba! Holy unanticipated occurrences! What a book!” :)

 

If you enjoy children’s literature, you will love Kate DiCamillo’s book.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

On Poetry

 

      Life was dangerous, particularly if you were a squirrel.

      In any case, he wasn’t thinking about dying. He was thinking about poetry. That is what Tootie said he had written. Poetry. He liked the word – its smallness, its density, the way it rose up at the end as if it had wings.

 

The Giant Squid

 

Dr.Meescham – “The giant squid is the loneliest of all God’s creatures. He can sometimes go for the whole of his life without seeing another of his kind.”

 

(Later)

 

William Spiver – “I meant what I said. I’m here because I was looking for you. I missed you.”

 

      Flora’s heart, the lonely, many-armed squid of it, flipped and flailed inside of her.

 

Good News

 

      She never believed it when someone said there was good news. In her experience, when there was good news, people just said what the good news was. If there was bad news that they wanted you to believe was good news, then they said, “Good news!”

      And if there was really bad news, they said, “Good news, Flora Belle!”

 

Holy Unanticipated Occurrences

 

“It is what I love about life, that things happen which I do not expect. When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, we left the window open for this very reason, even in the winter. We did it because we believed something wonderful might make its way to us through the open window. Did wonderful things find us? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But tonight it has happened! Something wonderful! A window has been left open. A squirrel flies in the window. The heart of an old woman rejoices!”

 

Have you read ‘Flora & Ulysses’? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read it Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’ ever since Bina (from ‘If You Can Read This’) told me that it is one of her favourite books. Happily, I got a chance to read it this week. Here is what I think.

Ronia The Robbers Daughter By Astrid Lindgren

‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’ is about Ronia who is born to the robber chieftain Matt and his wife Lovis on a stormy day. She brings happiness and delight to her parents and to everyone who is part of the robber gang. She grows up into a young girl who is very active, energetic, intelligent and adventurous. Then the time comes for her parents to let her go outside the fort and spend time in the woods by herself. Her father gives her a list of things that she should be careful about. Then Ronia sets out for the woods, spends time exploring and discovering new things, plays and comes back. She also discovers a boy there called Birk who is also exploring the woods. When she discovers that he is from a rival robber gang headed by Borka, there are some initial word-wars between them but gradually Ronia warms up to Birk and he does so too and they become friends, like a sister and a brother. When Ronia gets into trouble with the Unearthly Ones, Birk saves her. But, unfortunately, Ronia’s and Birk’s fathers don’t see eye-to-eye and are fierce enemies. And Birk’s father’s robber gang has moved into the adjacent part of Matt’s fort which heightens the tension between the two families and gangs. One thing leads to another and things come to a crisis point. It leads to Ronia leaving her home and going to the forest, finding Birk there and living there with him in the BearCave. They have some beautiful adventures, some wonderful times and some dangerous scrapes. What happens to them and whether they are able to get back to their families and whether Matt and Borka reconcile with each other form the rest of the story. I won’t tell you more. You should read the book and find out the rest of the story yourself.

 

I loved ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’. It was charming and beautiful. I enjoyed reading about Ronia’s time at home and the delight and joy she brings to her parents and the robber gang which is like her family. I also loved reading about the adventures that Ronia has in the forest with Birk. I loved the way the story depicts the relationship between parents and children when children start growing up and start asking uncomfortable questions and having opinions of their own.

 

I loved most of the characters in the story – Ronia, her parents Matt and Lovis, her brother Birk. One of my favourite characters was old Noddle-Pete, an old man who used to be a robber in Matt’s gang, but who is now an old wise man who shares his wisdom with the robber gang. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which Noddle-Pete says that he doesn’t have much time left and he is going to die soon and Matt asks him to stop talking like that. The description of that scene goes like this :

 

      “But I’m going to leave my own two little tufts of hair alone. No unnecessary fuss, for I’ll soon be under the ground,” he said, stroking his bald pate contentedly.

      Then Matt flung his might arms around Noddle-Pete and lifted him a good way off the floor. “You stop that about dying! I haven’t lived a day of my earthly life without you yet, you old fool, so you can’t just go and die behind my back, as you very well know!”

      “We shall see, little boy, we shall see,” said Noddle-Pete, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.

 

I also loved the animal characters in the story – the mare Lia and the young wild horses Villain and Savage and the fox cubs which play around and bring a lot of joy to Ronia and Birk. One of my favourite parts of the book was when Ronia and Birk save Lia the mare, and Lia allows them to milk her and nearly becomes a tame horse and then one day she is pregnant again and she stops giving milk and she goes back to her herd and to being a wild horse. I loved the description of the parting scene between the two children and the mare :

 

They stayed with the mare a long time, and when they left her she followed them a little way through the light summer night. It was almost as if she understood that it was over now, this strange time she had been living through, which was not at all like the rest of her life as a wild horse. The little human beings who had made strange things happen were now going away from her and she stood there for a time, watching them until they disappeared among the spruce trees. Then she turned back to her herd.

 

I also found it interesting that the magic creatures depicted in the book are mostly nice and harmless (except the harpies) while real danger comes from real animals like bears and wolves and the sheriff’s men.

 

One of my favourite passages from the book was this – it made me think of Ray Bradbury’s delightful ‘Dandelion Wine’.

 

“I’m drinking in the summer like the wild bee sucking up honey,” she said. “I’m gathering it together in a big lump of summer, to live on when…when it’s not summer any more. Do you know what there is in it?…It’s a whole batch of sunrises, and blueberry bushes covered with berries, and the freckles you have on your arms, and moonlight over the river in the evening, and starry skies, and the woods in the noonday heat when the sun is shining on the fir trees, and the small rain in the evening, and squirrels and foxes and hares and elk and all the wild horses we know, and when we swim and when we ride in the woods – well, it’s a whole batch of everything that is summer.”

      “You’re a good summer baker,” said Birk. “Keep it up!”

 

I can’t believe that I waited so long to read ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’. I loved it. It is one of my favourite reads of the year and it is a book that I will read again. I think I must be the last person on the planet to read it, but in case that is not true and you haven’t read it yet, I would heartily recommend it.

 

Have you read ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Astrid Lindgren book?

I discovered ‘101 Great American Poems’ last week by accident. I was trying to buy some other book at the online bookstore when this title popped out. It wasn’t a thick book – it was slightly less than a hundred pages – and so I thought why not give it a try. I got it last week, dipped my toe into it and then got submerged into this poetic ocean. How a slim, thin book can also be so vast – I have no idea. It made me think of a line I read somewhere on how sometimes the inside of a house or a room can be bigger than the outside (I think I read that either in Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’ or in Diane Duane’s ‘So You Want to be a Wizard’ or probably in both). That totally applied to this book.

101 Great American Poems

Now more about the book. ‘101 Great American Poems’ contains a selection of American poetry from the seventeenth century till around the time of the Second World War. Most of the greats are covered – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S.Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes. I am sure there are significant omissions which a discerning reader will be able to spot, but for an amateur poetry reader like me, I think the list of poets featured is pretty good. The only complaint I have is that just ten women poets are featured (out of a total of thirty-nine poets). One of the reasons for this might be because of the time period this book covers – it features only poetry written till around the time of the Second World War. So there is no room for Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, Linda Pastan, Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, Pat Schneider. It is a real shame and unfortunately it is something that we have to live with. Other than this issue, I found the selection of poets and poems quite excellent. (I also have a minor complaint – my favourite Emily Dickinson poem ‘For Each Ecstatic Instant’ was not featured. But that is a playful complaint, not a serious one.)

 

Some of my favourite reading moments while reading this collection were :

 

Reading the legendary line It was evening all afternoon’ in Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’

 

Reading about a candle burning at both ends in Edna St.Vincent Millay’s poem ‘The Fig’ (probably the first ever time this phrase was used)

 

Discovering that when the characters in the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ said ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’, they were probably making a reference to Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name

 

Reading again those two famous poetic lines from Robert Frost’s poems – ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference’ (from ‘The Road Not Taken’) and ‘But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep’ (from ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’)

 

Discovering that there is a Robert Frost poem called ‘Fire and Ice’ (Did George RR Martin get inspired by Frost’s poem when he named his series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’? What do you think?)

 

Falling in love with Emily Dickinson all over again

 

Falling in love with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all over again

 

Discovering that William Cullen Bryant was just seventeen when he wrote his profound meditative poem ‘Thanatopsis’ (‘Meditation on Death’)

 

Discovering to my surprise, that Abraham Lincoln has written a poem (In case you are curious, it is called ‘My Childhood’s Home I See Again’)

 

Discovering the amazing Langston Hughes for the first time

 

Discovering the wonderful Paul Laurence Dunbar for the first time

 

Discovering that America’s first published poet was a woman, Anne Bradstreet

 

Smiling while discovering that both T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden were both featured in the collection (Eliot was born American and then later became a British citizen, while Auden was born British and than later became an American citizen. Who is British and who is American? Do these distinctions matter while experiencing the beautiful pleasures of poetry?)

 

Smiling while reading Walt Whitman describing his own poetic style as ‘barbaric yawp’

 

Reading the baseball anthem ‘Casey at the bat’ by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, for the very first time

 

Discovering beautiful poems by new-to-me poets – Frances Harper, Emma Lazarus, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale, Claude McKay

 

Here are some of my favourite poems from the book. I have included only the shorter ones.

 

First Fig

 

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

My candle burns at both ends;

  It will not last the night;

But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

  It gives a lovely light.

 

 

Still Here

 

By Langston Hughes

 

I’ve been scarred and battered.

My hopes the wind done scattered.

Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.

    Looks like between ‘em

    They done tried to make me

Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’ –

    But I don’t care!

    I’m still here!

 

‘Hope is the thing with feathers’

 

by Emily Dickinson

 

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

 

And sweetest in the gale is heard,

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

 

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strongest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

 

 

 

The Arrow and the Song

 

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.

 

I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

 

Long, long afterward, in an oak

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

 

 

 

Fog

 

By Carl Sandburg

 

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

 

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

 

 

Euclid

 

By Vachel Lindsay

 

Old Euclid drew a circle

On a sand-beach long ago.

He bounded and enclosed it

With angles thus and so.

His set of solemn greybeards

Nodded and argued much

Of arc and of circumference,

Diameter and such.

A silent child stood by them

From morning until noon

Because they drew such charming

Round pictures of the moon.

 

 

Fire and Ice

 

      By Robert Frost

 

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

 

 

 

The Lesson

 

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

My cot was down by a cypress grove,

    And I sat by my window the whole night long,

And heard well up from the deep dark wood

    A mocking-bird’s passionate song.

 

And I thought of myself so sad and lone,

    And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring;

Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,

    Of my heart too sad to sing.

 

But e’en as I listened the mocking-bird’s song,

    A thought stole into my saddened heart,

And I said, “I can cheer up some other soul

    By a carol’s simple art.”

 

For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives

    Come songs that brim with joy and light.

As out of the gloom and the cypress grove

    The mocking-bird sings at night.

 

So I sang a lay for a brother’s ear

    In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart,

And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,

    Though mine was a feeble art.

 

But at his smile I smiled in turn,

    And into my soul there came a ray;

In trying to soothe another’s woes

    Mine own had passed away.

 

 

 

Have you read ‘101 American Poems’? Which were your favourite reading moments while reading the book?

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