Monday
Nov202017

Myself and My World: A Biography of William Faulkner

On a week when Joyce Carol Oates was quoted as saying, “If Mississippians read, Faulkner would be banned,” it just so happened that this Mississippian was in the midst of an excellent biography of William Faulkner, Myself and the World: A Biography of William Faulkner by Robert W. Hamblin. It seemed the perfect foil for her statement.

Hamblin himself notes that excellent biographies of Faulkner have been written by academics for academics. His intended audience, the general reading public including younger readers, brought him to write an interesting and readable volume. Chronologically, he follows Faulkner from his birth in New Albany, Mississippi to his death with his wish fulfilled of leaving work that would live long after him.

Contrasts abound in Faulkner’s life. Critical acclaim in the world at large was followed by antipathy in his native Mississippi. His brilliant writing periods intersperse with times when he fell prey to alcoholism.  Family ties include devotion to his mother and taking an orphaned niece into the family but having multiple extramarital affairs.

Hamblin says if the book causes the readers to want to read (or reread) Faulkner’s novels and stories, it will have served its purpose. I will admit that I found myself wanting to do just that as I read the account of where he was in life as each manuscript was finished. Starting with the Snopes trilogy, I plan to read with the biography at hand to match the time in his life to the book he was writing. I recommend the biography even to those who aren’t all that interested in Faulkner’s work.

Even before I begin the Snopes books, I just downloaded The White Rose of Memphis, his grandfather Falkner’s claim to fame, intriguingly mentioned in Hamblin’s introduction.

So, Joyce Carol, there are those of us in Mississippi who read quite a bit. Sometimes we used to read your books.

Friday
Nov172017

Playboy Magazine and The Snowy Day

People who know me well may be surprised that Hugh Hefner’s death triggered thoughts for a blog. Then again, there have been other strange topics covered here from time to time. The second surprise may come in pairing Playboy magazine with The Snowy Day. Hang with me, and I’ll connect the dots.

When he answered the phone, Ezra Jack Keats expected the first words he heard, “Long distance from Chicago.” He’d had a problem with Playboy magazine’s paycheck sent for an illustration he had done for them. They’d overpaid him. Scrupulously honest, he’d called the magazine and talked to a secretary who knew nothing about it but promised to check and get back with him.

But this wasn’t that phone call! A different voice said, “Mr. Keats? This is Ruth Gagliardo from the American Library Association. Are you sitting down? I have wonderful news for you. Your book The Snowy Day has won the Caldecott Award.” She sounded excited.

Still a novice in the children’s book world, Keats had no idea what a Caldecott Award was. He thanked her for the award and figured he’d ask around later and find out what he’d won.

“Would you like to make a statement?” she asked.

How should he respond? “Well, I’m certainly happy for the little boy in the book.”

“Oh, my. How touching! I’ll always remember what you said . . . Your Snowy Day, we all believe, will be a landmark in children’s books.” Mrs. Gagliardo asked him to keep the award a secret until after the press released the story. Keats promised and surreptitiously questioned friends who said the Caldecott was the highest award given for picture books.

If you’re still curious about the Playboy issue, Keats got a another long distance call from Chicago, the Playboy secretary saying the editors decided his art was worth more than the original agreement – no mistake and he could keep the money.

I can’t guarantee that the picture in my photo is the one under discussion since he did several for Playboy, but the magazine date makes it possible. Herbert Gold’s description in the piece of fiction “Happy Hipster” says, “He had a long creased horsy face, intelligent, and with large square teeth, a long lazy body with lots of lean on it.” Seems to me Keats captured the fellow pretty well, and one might actually read the magazine for the story and enjoy the art.

As for Mrs. Gagliardo’s prediction that The Snowy Day would become a landmark, here we are more than fifty years later buying Snowy Day stamps at the post office!

Monday
Nov132017

Maya Lin

Fittingly, Susan Goldman Rubin titles the chapters of her book Maya Lin with artful substances from nature since the natural world informs Maya's architectural art.

            Chapter 1 – Clay describes Maya’s early years in a home of Chinese ancestry with a father who is a ceramicist and a mother who is a poet. Given the chance to do her own modeling with the clay, hearing poetic words, and being surrounded by natural beauty sets a stage early for what she will become.

            Chapter 2 – Granite tells the story of her unexpected win by a college student over 1,421 entries to design the Vietnam Memorial. Who would have thought her simple symbolic design would require so much strength on her part to keep that design as she had envisioned or that she would get only a B + for the class?

            Chapter 3 – Water gave her a vision of using the biblical quote from the Martin Luther King address on the Civil Rights Memorial “Until Justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” with water flowing over the quote.

            Chapter 4 – Earth took her back to childhood playing with her brother over hills behind their house. She created “Wave Field,” “Flutter,” and “Storm King Wave Field” from that memory experience.

            Chapter 5 – Glass kept an old barn in one sculpture and created a skylighted Noah’s ark with another, both with abundant glass to give a feeling of being outdoors in nature.

            Chapter 6 – Celadon green from her Chinese heritage was Maya’s choice for the basic color of the Museum of Chinese in America.

            Chapter 7 – Dunes and Driftwood became replacements for parking lots as she paid tribute to the paths of Lewis and Clark and the parallel path of the Native Americans to the ocean. She achieved her goal of showing what had been lost and what could be saved.

            Chapter 8 – Wood has her only design for a family home. Most of the time, Maya will not do this kind of work. However, she did not abandon her outdoor approach since the house has a tree growing up through the deck and an abundance of windows.

The final chapter sets her philosophy of giving back and thinking about what is missing as society takes over the natural world.

With many beautiful photographs, abundant research, and a gift for story-telling, Susan Goldman Rubin shows Maya, the human being, along with her artistic achievement and her love of nature.  I recommend this fascinating biography of the work of the accomplished architect which is also a Junior Library Guild selection if you would like additional verification.

Friday
Nov102017

Ear Worms

Okay, they’re not really worms – just the name for that song that goes around and around and around in your head – at least until you get another song to take its place.

Six years old, I walked a quarter mile down the country road to school. Playing in my head, I heard, “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down . . .”

Grade school summers found me building a playhouse under a spreading apple tree. Amusement came with the lyrics, “It rained all night the day I left. The weather it was dry. . . Susannah, don’t you cry.”

In junior high, I watched recess athletes from the sidelines wishing I was home with a book. Passing time in my head, I heard, “Oh, do you remember Sweet Betsy from Pike who crossed the wide prairie with her brother Ike . . . ” (Turns out it was her lover Ike, but it had been cleaned up for junior high consumption.)

A high school nerd, I eschewed Elvis and his hound dog, preferring the Glee Club number Mrs. Doxey taught. The bittersweet mood playing in my head matched my own, “In the still of the night, as I gaze from my window. . . ”

A ninety-mile-a-day commute as I finished my last two years of college at Ole Miss brought “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again . . . ” Technically, I wasn’t that excited, but what do you do when song lyrics accompany the hum of tires?

In adulthood, the ear worms have usually lingered after choir practice, following the seasons of Christmas, Lent, Easter, and ordinary time. “Lord, listen to your children praying, Lord send your spirit . . . ”

Is this phenomenon heredity or contagious? I watch my five-year-old grandson color his picture at the counter and carefully write B-E-N-J-A-M-I-N on the bottom, humming all the while. “There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo . . . ”

I think I’ll wait until he’s a bit older to tell him he has an ear worm.

Monday
Nov062017

Full Curl

The promise of a mystery set in Banff National Park overcame my hesitancy of reading a book by an unknown debut author. We had visited both Banff and the counterpart United States Rockies in recent years. I relished a vicarious return and took a chance that the new Canadian author from a Canadian publisher would be a good storyteller. Consequently, I clicked “request” on the offer from Net Galley to read Full Curl by Dave Butler (no relation).

The intrigue lasts from beginning to end as park warden Jenny Willson (yes, with two “l’s”) almost catches the poachers who are hunting wildlife in Banff National Park only to miss them. The ante rises for her and the perpetrators as murder and drug dealing incorporate into the crime mix. Then there are the bureaucrats who are reluctant to join the chase because they don’t take a woman warden too seriously. Obviously, they don’t know Jenny Willson well.  

Dave Butler portrays the park skillfully and beautifully in the narrative without calling attention to his descriptions but giving the reader a sense of being present in the park. No doubt this ability comes from his internalizing the area during his day job as a forester and biologist near the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia.

Caution for the debut author was completely unnecessary. In fact, I was pleased to see the notation on the cover, in the front, and in the back of the book “a Jenny Willson mystery, Book 1.” Since my pleasure reading genre is a good mystery, I think I’ll be seeing Jenny Willson – with two “l’s” – again.