Monthly Archives: February 2009

Coraline, Briefly

For artistry and skill of execution, Henry Selick’s Coraline leapfrogs over his 1993 stop-action feature The Nightmare Before Christmas – and mercifully keeps the musical numbers to a bare minimum, with no Danny Elfman in sight.  On the downside, the plot beggars any sense of necessity, with gaping lacunae and complex metaphysical mechanics passed off without explanation (blame Neil Gaiman).  But the sheer spectacle of it all left me feeling uncommonly generous and I gladly forgave every fault for the sakes of Misses Forcible and Spink and for the dumb childish joy of Bobinski’s Jumping Mouse Circus.  (Put those mice in front of me two minutes after an inoperable cancer diagnosis and I’d smile away Death himself.)

Stop-action is really something special.  It preserves the glorious imperfection of all hand-made animation techniques while giving us a dose of the spooky realism of CGI at its best.  Of course, stop-action isn’t always spooky: think Wallace and Gromit or the Rankin/Bass holiday specials.  But while Selick’s sentimentality is still in evidence, with Coraline he returns stop-action to frontiers of the uncanny last traversed by Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay.  There’s something about watching a stick figure doll of a girl walk frame by frame through an old house that gives you an eerily novel perspective on your own creatureliness – and a dread of every supposedly inanimate object in the room.

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Marginalia, no.45

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; -they are the life, the soul of reading; -take them out of this book, for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer, – he steps forth like a bridegroom, -bids All hail, brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

It is a generally reliable observation that whatever is true of books is true of life itself.

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On Children’s Books

One of the richer returns of parenthood is the welcome excuse to reacquaint oneself with children’s books. There are the old crowd-pleasers, of course, like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Kipling’s Just So Stories, Dr Seuss, Curious George, Madeline, Babar and all the wonderful little books by Beatrix Potter (my daughter sleeps with a copy of Mister Jeremy Fisher every night). There are other books too, some of which you may only vaguely recall or never read as a child, but which specially impress you now that you’ve trudged a certain distance into the long fog of adulthood.

Among these I would include Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances stories, several of Margaret Wise Brown’s books (including Little Fur Family, The Runaway Bunny, and her Noisy books), Wanda Gág’s marvelously illustrated Millions of Cats and The Funny Thing, some of Sendak’s more obscure pieces, Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, all of William Steig’s books, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and James Marshall’s George and Martha collection.

The children’s books you are happiest to read now that you’re an adult aren’t always the books your children prefer to hear, however. Steig’s child protagonists (in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, and Zeke Pippin, for example) are always being abducted by bandits or prepared for supper, or transformed unexpectedly into dumb boulders atop which the wolves howl hungrily through the winter snows. Which is scary stuff. And when it comes to books of poetry, they had better be illustrated. Luckily, my copy of Stevenson is chock-full of pictures, so that when I get to my favorite lines in ‘Travels’:

There I’ll come when I’m a man
With a camel caravan;
Light a fire in the gloom
Of some dusty dining room;
See the pictures on the walls,
Heroes, fights and festivals;
And in a corner find the toys
Of the old Egyptian boys,

they’re nicely matched with an ink line drawing of infant Victorians in dresses yanking the beard of Pharaoh and hugging a mummified cat. It’s sufficiently weird, anyway, for a three-year-old to puzzle over awhile as you appreciatively reread the lines.

James Marshall’s George and Martha books are as much fun for my son and daughter as they are for me, and they deserve to be more widely known. George and Martha are hippos named, curiously, after Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -only they get along much better. Each of the several George and Martha books contains five small vignettes, some of which are no longer than a couple pages. Each makes a fine little monument to the author/illustrator’s genius. My kids’ favorites include one in which George practices his fibbing, and another in which Martha attempts, with mixed results, to guilt George into giving up sweets by taking up cigar smoking herself. Marshall, it happens, was one of Maurice Sendak’s friends and was only fifty years old when he died of a brain tumor in 1992. I wish I had known his books when I was a kid.

I knew Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, however, and loved them as a child almost as much as I do now that I’m approaching fogeydom. When my kids were younger I had the opportunity to read Frog and Toad stories several times a week. My favorites include one in which Frog is ill in bed and Toad offers to keep him company and tell him a story. Frog likes the idea, but Toad can’t think of a story to tell. In an attempt to cure what sounds like a bad case of writer’s block, Toad walks back and forth on the porch, without any luck. Then he stands on his head, but still no luck. Then he pours cup after cup of cold water over his face. Finally, enraged, he rams his head into the wall. By now Frog is feeling better and Toad is feeling terrible. So they swap places and Frog asks if Toad would like a story. “Yes, Frog, if you know one,” says Toad. Frog then proceeds to tell him a funny story about someone who wanted to tell his friend a story but couldn’t think of one…

In another story, Frog gives Toad an envelope full of seeds so that he can plant a garden. Toad drops them into the soil and tells the seeds to start growing. He stands there awhile but the seeds don’t seem to be listening. He repeats himself, louder: “Now seeds, start growing!” Still nothing. This goes on until, his patience exhausted, Toad screams at the seeds and jumps up and down, commanding them to start growing. Frog comes running and explains that Toad’s seeds are probably too scared to grow and that he needs to give them time and let the rain and sun do their work. Toad feels wretched to think he might have scared his seeds, so he tries a different tack:

— He reads them stories and poems
— He sings to them
— He plays music for them
— He stays up with them night and day, which is hard work

and eventually his seeds begin to grow all on their own.  Which, it occurs to me, is a pretty good description of parenthood.

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Three Paragraphs of Weather

Four days of rain in California is something of note.  The roof of our little home beats like a drum under a waterfall.  At night our dreams filter through purling treble notes that ring from the metal throats of gutters stretched under the eaves.  The soil drinks to reeling limit and vomits all excess onto walks and streets and courtyards.  In brief gaps between the showers, doves dive famished from the boughs to hunt for worms fighting up through liquid earth.

In Seattle, where I lived for twelve years, forty days of rain at a stretch was not unheard of.  I managed somehow to bear it, to claim to enjoy it.  When the dark and wet had found its way too far into my brain I would visit the heated cactus room at the Volunteer Park Conservatory, or sit for an hour under the lights in the butterfly garden at the Pacific Science Center.

Here summer consumes nine months of the year.  Sol reigns invictus from April to October but scatters himself a week at a time through the rest of the calendar too.  His banishment behind the clouds is always a piece of play-acting, all the better to astonish us into awed submission at his next revelation.  The weather prophets predict his return tomorrow.  Already the magnolia out my window is lit like a candelabrum with pink tongues of flame.

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Marginalia, no.44

Don Fabrizio felt his heart thaw; his disgust gave way to compassion for all these ephemeral beings out to enjoy the tiny ray of light granted them between two shades, before the cradle, after the last spasms.  How could one inveigh against those sure to die? …Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.

~ Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Glossed as infinite linear progression, eternity is just the finality of death.  But there are other kinds of eternity.  Don Fabrizio, the old leopard, is attending a ball.  It’s the image of young couples dancing that shakes him out of his accustomed misanthropy.  Human happiness is in the dance, in participation in recurring forms, brief circuits that mirror the choreography of the stars.  If eternity is defined as the simultaneous presence of all time, then to have lived and loved once is to live and love forever.

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“Beyond the page there is the void”

I was in Seattle this past weekend.  For the return flight I occupied a middle seat in a very full aircraft.  On one side of me was a friendly Iranian woman who kept offering me dried cherries with pits in them.  On the other side was a muscular fellow about my age reading a giant hardbound volume titled Modern Reloading, which describes the process of reloading firearms to a degree of detail I would have thought impossible.  I felt a little womanish seated beside him fingering my copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

But it was while flying to Seattle, two days before, that an odd conjunction occurred.  I had been seated in the terminal at my gate for perhaps a half hour and had just finished a chapter of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I replaced the book in my carry-on and boarded the plane.  As soon as we had taken off and reached an altitude sufficient to convince me that the plane really could fly all by itself, I took out my book again and opened it to the next chapter, which was chapter nine.  (Now before I quote the passage which so surprised me I should explain that Calvino’s book, a post-modernist classic, is written largely in the second person, which is to say that you, the Reader, are often addressed directly and play an active role in the story – a trick which Calvino manages to pull off fairly well.)  This is the first paragraph I read:

You fasten your seatbelt…  To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration which is itself a void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you had vanished.  Meanwhile, what do you do?  How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world, and of the world from you?  You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and another, because beyond the page there is the void…  You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation. (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)

I read on with rapt attention, worried.  But I was comforted to learn that the flight passes without incident and the Reader’s plane makes a safe landing.  And it did.

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Small Things

Small Things

The vastest things are those we may not learn,
We are not taught to die, nor to be born,
Nor how to burn
With love.
How pitiful is our enforced return
To those small things we are the masters of.

~ Mervyn Peake

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