Sep 28 2020

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

The afterword of T Kingfisher’s terrific The Hollow Places (which I’ll shortly be reviewing over at mentions that it’s based on the classic horror short story The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, which has been cited by H. P. Lovecraft as being one of the most terrifying stories ever written. Being a voraciously curious reader, I immediately went to look it up and read it. I’m a bit sorry I did, but only in relation to THP, which lost just a little bit of its luster when I realized that so much of it wasn’t original to Ms Kingfisher (THP is still a great book, tbc.)

The Willows itself is the tale of a canoeing expedition undertaken by Mr Blackwood’s unnamed narrator and his friend, The Swede, upon the Danube. They have an easy companionship, enjoying the various delights and enduring the various travails of their adventure, till they arrive in a Hungarian stretch of water where the river runs rapid and high. They decide to make camp in an archipelago of small islands inhabited primarily by willows. A passing boatman appears to warn them off, but they laugh off his pantomimed warnings as being peasant superstitions. But then night falls, and the duo find themselves victims of sabotage as something is lurking in the willows, seeking a victim on which to feed…

My immediate reaction to finishing this story was “holy shit, that was so incredibly gay!” As I do not use “gay” as a derogatory term, please know that I mean literally homosexual, as that was undoubtedly one of the most “I desperately need an outlet to discuss my sexual attraction to the same gender” stories I’ve ever read in my entire life. It’s as if Mr Blackwood sat down and thought, “Hmm, I want to talk about the sex I had on my last nature trip but society will literally try to imprison or otherwise crush me, so how do?” Substitute “imagination” for “homosexual longings” and the monster in the trees as “society’s homophobia” — I mean, the entire scene where the narrator and The Swede stumble around in a physical embrace, where the only way they can shut out thought of the monster is to surrender to pain or a swoon is so overwhelmingly “I just had anal for the the first time.” For fuck’s sake, there’s a scene with a column of nude bodies ascending to the sky in an awe-inspiring pillar! This is Brokeback Mountain by way of an Edwardian horror story, and frankly I am here for it.

But ofc, I had to see if anyone else had the same opinion, and was honestly shocked at how the internet failed me. Given how the sexual subtext of Victorian and post-Victorian fiction is fuel for hundreds of graduate theses, I do not understand how there is no serious mention of The Willows’ obvious metaphors to be found, barring one intrepid Reddit poster. Anyway, don’t take my word for it: you can read the whole story at Project Gutenberg as I did. Let me know what you think if you do!

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Sep 24 2020

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

It’s sometimes funny what sticks with a reader. I first encountered Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Fritz Leiber’s famed sword and sorcery duo and the protagonists of Swords and Deviltry on the order of 40 years ago, and I remember very clearly that I started with the second volume, Swords Against Death. If I were recommending the series to someone who hadn’t read them before, I think I would have them start there too, and come back to the origin stories that make up Swords and Deviltry some time later.

Leiber himself did much the same; the three stories that comprise this volume (“The Snow Women” 1962, “The Unholy Grail” 1970, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” 1970) were published more than two decades after the first print appearance of the duo. It’s better to come back and have these stories fill in the details of the pair’s beginnings, to enjoy Leiber’s stylish tics, and see how Leiber conceives of his heroes as youths after having chronicled many of their later adventures.

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

I have always enjoyed the mock archaic summaries that Leiber places in the table of contents. Here, for example, is what he says about “The Snow Women”:

“Of the ice magic of women and of a cold war between the sexes, setting forth the predicament of a resourceful youth ringed by three masterful women, together with pertinent information on father-son love, the bravery of actors, and the courage of fools.” (p. 3)

Much of the story is there, and yet it isn’t — a splendid teaser.

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Sep 22 2020

Dracula’s Child by J.S. Barnes

As pastiche, J. S. Barnes’ Dracula’s Child is a remarkable sequel to Bram Stoker’s classic tale of vampiric horror, the legendary Dracula. Told in an epistolary manner similar to its predecessor, it tells the tale of the surviving vampire hunters some thirteen years past their execution of the dark Transylvanian lord, as pieced together by a young man on the eve of one of the greatest real-life horrors to sweep through Europe, the scourge of The Great War.

Having retired to the countryside, Mina and Jonathan Harker are married but not entirely happily. Their son, Quincey, is a smart, sensitive boy on the verge of adolescence. The occasion of his twelfth birthday party draws Jack Seward, Abraham Van Helsing and Lord Arthur Godalming, with his delicate lady wife Caroline in tow, to the grounds of Shore Green to celebrate. But Van Helsing is seized with a fit and collapses after suddenly warning the assembled party of dire things to come.

The Harkers immediately take on the responsibility of Van Helsing’s care, as he has no other family left. The Godalmings promise to cover any additional expenses after Dr Seward sends a beautiful young nurse, Sarah-Ann Dowell, to assist the Harkers. But Sarah-Ann’s arrival seems to stir up inappropriate feelings in the Harker men, even as she worries about her own lover back in London, a gangster she’s been trying to reform. Meanwhile in Europe, two hedonistic bachelors form an attachment that sees their paths cross that of a scientist determined to bring an unusual species of bat back to England for display. But surely none of these odd events can have anything to do with Dracula, given that he was executed and put into the earth so many years since?

Finding out exactly how all this has to do with Dracula is only part of the charm of this novel, that keeps Mr Stoker’s prosody while filing off some of the duller aspects of his writing, to tell a lively tale of a resurrected vampire hellbent not only on dominion but also revenge. In expanding the ambitions of Mr Stoker’s original, the events of Dracula’s Child take a decidedly political turn, as the press, the police and even parliament itself are pulled into the shadows of a dark cabal that believes the ends justify the means. One of my favorite passages from the book involves a motorist refusing to assist our heroes because he believes that the count is bringing order back to England: a terrifying but not at all unrealistic depiction of the kind of bullheaded arrogance seen in too many “patriotic” citizens the world over.

I do wish that an explanation had been given as to the source of the many dreams and oracular pronouncements that aided our vampire hunters tho. The emphasis on faith in the text was appropriately Edwardian but I felt that the evil was better accounted for: if God was willing to work so many miracles through the subconscious, why not do more to stop Dracula and his minions directly? The wonderful set pieces felt marred by the fact that I often had no idea why some of them were happening. There was tons of creepy Gothic/gaslight atmosphere but my critical mind kept wondering how we were getting into and out of these passes.

That said, this was a perfect novel to kick off the changing seasons, as the nights get longer and the days grow chillier, and all you want to do is enjoy hot soups and snuggle under the covers with a good, scary read. We’ve been given the opportunity to speak with Mr Barnes about Dracula’s Child, so you can look forward to that interview in the coming days! The novel itself comes out today from Titan Press, and is available from all good booksellers.

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Sep 21 2020

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

It’s starting to get cold here in Maryland, so time for my thoughts to turn to hot soups and snuggling under the covers with a creepy tale or two! First up, an American classic that isn’t, perhaps, as overtly scary as its reputation has made it out to be, tho many literary people have certainly gone looking for a there that isn’t there. Or perhaps I have been merely been desensitized by years of reading thrillers: I imagine the subject matter back when it was written in the 1960s seemed far more transgressive of the “natural”. Still, that doesn’t excuse modern critics from parroting similar interpretations over half a century on.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle is an extremely straightforward story of the remnants of a traumatized family living in a small town that hates them, but its reputation has been built up in such a manner that I’m honestly baffled, having finally read it, when people suggest it should be treated as metaphor, as if the story itself needs to be metaphysically papered over in order to work. The edition I read included an afterword by Jonathan Lethem (and thank you to the editor for wisely sticking it at the end of the book instead of the front) which aimed to point out the obvious to, I assume, the oblivious. While I did appreciate the inclusion of certain of Ms Jackson’s biographical details that likely influenced the writing of the book, I was less enthused by Mr Lethem’s smug championing of her work as well as by his unnecessary (and IMO occasionally wrong) analysis of the text. Hence this rant.

Anyhoo, WHALitC is narrated by Mary Katharine “Merricat” Blackwood, an 18 year-old seemingly frozen on the cusp of womanhood. She lives by a set of very strict rules handed down by her beloved, almost-a-decade older sister, Constance, with whom she lives in a beautiful house on the outskirts of town. Their mother had insisted that their father set up a wall all around their property, cutting off easy walking access from the village to the highway, because she didn’t like the villagers crossing so close to their front door. But their mother is dead now, as is their father and brother Thomas and Aunt Dorothy. Only their invalid Uncle Julian survived the deadly dinner that killed the rest of them, and for which Constance was charged with but eventually acquitted of murder.

As the book opens, Merricat is describing one of her twice-weekly walks to town for supplies. She hates the people there and it seems the loathing is mutual, tho it’s easy to read between the lines of her unreliable narrative. She’s happiest back home with her cat Jonas and with Constance, whose agoraphobia doesn’t stop her from running a functioning and warm, if quite small, household. With spring taking hold, Merricat resolves to be kinder to Uncle Julian, and constantly checks in on the many protective totems she’s placed around the grounds of the estate in an effort to keep out trespassers. She’s concerned however that Constance is starting to show signs of interest in leaving the grounds for the first time in years.

And then Cousin Charles appears. Loud and vital, he quickens something in Constance, who seems blind to his obvious flaws. So Merricat will have to take matters into her own hands, and not, as is glaringly obvious from the first few pages, for the first time either.

I came to this book after Cynthia’s scathing review of Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts, and while the similarities there teeter between homage and a less sincere imitation, I do feel that WHALitC reminded me most, at least tonally and in its ending, of Marilynne Robinson’s harrowing Housekeeping. I don’t think Housekeeping was meant to be a horror novel — honestly, I don’t think WHALitC should be considered a horror novel either — but both books evoke a creepy sense of detachment from reality, a willing embrace of a self-destructive co-dependency that eschews “normal” society. WHALitC leans into that more tho, I feel, talking as well about sex and class in a masterclass of very pointedly discussing a subject while never addressing it directly. It’s a weird, sad, creepy book, a beautifully written Gothic mystery with, in the form of Uncle Julian’s ravings regarding Merricat, just enough supernatural influence to make it the kind of book people would recommend at Halloween. Personally, I felt it a cautionary tale for rich people: teach your kids how to get along with the poors or set them up for anguish and implosion, tho I don’t think that was Ms Jackson’s aim at all. More’s the pity, as this is one of the best examples of what inevitably happens to dynasties that consider themselves better than the hoi polloi. I wonder sometimes how the literary criticism of this book has been influenced by the critics’ own assumptions of class, whether aloofness or solidarity are their watchwords. In this neverending year of 2020, one would hope for a greater empathy, and not one primarily reserved for the murderous rich either.

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Sep 20 2020

Und keiner weint mir nach by Siegfried Sommer

When the editors of the Süddeutsche Zeitung planned out their 20-book set “Selected Munich,” Siegfried Sommer must have seemed a natural to kick off the series. He had been born in the city in 1914, died there in 1996, lived practically all of his life in Munich except for his time in the army during World War II. After the war, the occupation authorities deemed him sufficiently non-Nazi that he was allowed to work for the newly founded Süddeutsche. Although he had published a small amount before the war, he came into his own with the newspaper work. In 1949, he switched to a competing Munich paper, the Abendzeitung (Evening Newspaper, often called AZ) and in December of that year he started a local column titled “Blasius the Pedestrian.” He continued writing Blasius for nearly 40 years and almost 3500 pieces, ending on January 2, 1987.

Und keiner weint mir nach

Two years after Sommer’s death, and about six months after I moved to the city, Munich honored him with a life-sized statue on the south side of the downtown pedestrian zone. Set not on a pedestal but on a mount only about an inch high, the statue depicts a slightly rumpled man in a half-zipped jacket, newspaper under his arm, walking the city and observing, as Sommer must have done to gather the material for his column. The statue appears on the cover of Und keiner weint mir nach, with a bit of the view towards Munich’s central square.

The book, first published in 1954, takes place in and around the house at Mondstrasse 46, which is a real enough address in contemporary Munich but not as Sommer depicts it. The building that Sommer describes is a cheaply built set of apartments five stories tall, including the set of three up under the roof. All the other floors have five apartments, except the ground floor that is divided between the Hausmeister‘s (superintendent’s) rooms and those of the Steins, a family so proud that no one has seen the interior of their apartment. Sommer sketches each of the families or persons in the building’s 20 apartments, building up a portrait of lower middle-class Munich life.

On the one hand, this approach allows Sommer to introduce the complete ensemble, to show readers how closely involved the tenants are with each other’s lives, and to begin to portray the dynamics among the different people in the house. On the other hand, for a casual reader it is a lot of characters to keep track of all at once, and I was not always certain whose job was sharpening scissors, who drank and who abstained, who was barely hanging on to a job, and who was determined to come up in the world. Fairly soon, though, Sommer devotes more attention to the group of kids who live together in Mondstrasse and play in the street out front or in the various yards and construction sites nearby.

The book begins in the the mid-1920s, after the tumults and hyperinflation of Weimar Germany’s early years (in particular, the first Nazi putsch in Munich), but before the Great Depression. The timing is not immediately clear — or at least it wasn’t to me, perhaps there are more subtle signs that I missed — but that is also an effect of Sommer’s extremely close focus on events in and around the Mondstrasse. The characters are not interested in the wider world (although one is very casually nicknamed “Nazi” Kastl); most of them have difficulties enough getting by day to day.

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Sep 19 2020

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The magic is still there, in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. More than half a century after its publication, it’s still lodged partly in a timeless yet post-WWII America and partly in places whose times and locations are much more suspect, nearly pure mythical settings of village and unhappy kingdom and enchanted castle, leavened by characters such as Schmendrick the Magician (could a wizard have a more deflating name?) and the equally grounded Molly. And I suppose magic, enchantment, is one of the things that the book is about, if it has to be about anything beyond its story.

The Last Unicorn

At the point in the tale where Beagle picks it up — pointedly not the beginning, because he tells readers on the second page that unicorns are immortal — she lives amidst enchantment, unselfconscious of her magic, and just as unaware that she is the last. “…[S]he had no idea of months and years and centuries, or even of seasons. It was always spring in her forest, because she lived there, and she wandered all day among the great beech trees, keeping watch over the animals that lived in the ground and under bushes, in nests and caves, earths and treetops. Generation after generation, wolves and rabbits alike, they hunted and loved and had children and died, and as the unicorn did none of these things, she never grew tired of watching them.” (p. 2)

One day, hunters enter her woods, looking for deer but talking of unicorns. One says they are long gone; the other says there is one left “good luck to the lonely old thing, I say.” (p. 3) The talk about what the books say about unicorns, about what their great-grandmothers said about having met one when they were very young. Then the hunters ride off, knowing they will bag no game in a unicorn’s wood. But their talk has disenchanted the unicorn:

“The unicorn stood at the edge of the forest and said aloud, ‘I am the only unicorn there is.’ They were the first words she had spoken, even to herself, in more than a hundred years.
“That can’t be, she thought, She had never minded being alone, never seeing another unicorn, because she had always known that there were others like her in the world, and a unicorn needs no more than that for company. ‘But I would know if all the others were gone. I’d be gone too. Nothing can happen to then that does not happen to me'” (p. 6)

The seed of doubt, planted, grows quickly. She wonders, she worries, she is under the spell of not knowing and finally decides to leave her woods, leave quickly without fully admitting it to herself, in the hope that she will soon return. When she emerges, she finds the world changed: paved roads, things the reader will recognize as automobiles. But those are not the worst differences for her.

“‘How can it be?’ she wondered. ‘I suppose I could understand it if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated all unicorns now and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else—what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?'” (p. 11)

Magic seems to have gone out of the world. She wanders until one day she meets an eccentric butterfly whose speech makes only a modicum of sense, but who imparts important knowledge: “You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints. Let nothing you dismay, but don’t be half-safe.” (p. 15)

And with that what she had felt is confirmed. Something has befallen the other unicorns, she is truly the last, but maybe she can change that. The rest of the book that is her story is about whether or not she can. But not all of the book is about her. There is also Schmendrick the Magician, who seems to have no ability at all, but actually has more than anyone else if he can only find a way to consciously access it. There is also Molly Grue, who has been a bandit’s wife and who knows the way to Haggard’s kingdom that neither wizard nor unicorn would have known.

They are all seeking, and they all face fear and failure when they get close to what they have sought. There’s more, very much more all in a register halfway between Lyonesse and Schenectady. The book has kept its magic for half a hundred years now, and likely will for many more.

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Sep 17 2020

Department Store by Gail Gibbons

Decided to devote a full work-week’s coverage to kid’s books, since it looks like I’m on an unintentional roll!

My mother-in-law lives in the Virginia mountains, and is a longstanding frequenter/supporter of her local library. She also loves their library book sales, and brings bundles up to us in Maryland, primarily of books for the kids (since Heaven knows, I do not need more books!) I was poking around in my eldest son’s room the other day, trying to help him find his scattered Diary Of A Wimpy Kid novels, when I came across this volume. It was pretty unusual for me in that it had the full color cover illustration stamped on its hard binding. Most of the hard covers I’ve encountered usually limit themselves to a single contrast color with the background, but this book was published in the 1980s, so perhaps that accounts for it (plus, I’m pretty sure it never came with a slip cover, given the library stampings and lack of tape marks.) Drawn in by the cover, I paused my search for Jms’ other books and began to flip through.

Department Store is a fairly short book, a non-fiction depiction of the workings of your average department store, oddly reminiscent of the DK Discoveries series I’d devoured as a kid, tho the latter covered topics far further flung in history. To see that treatment granted to the department store in its heyday is like opening a wonderfully weird and layered time capsule here in 2020, not far removed enough to find department stores romantic as we watch them sink in real time to their grand dame ends, but close enough to remember when economies worked the way they’re depicted in this volume. The borrowing history of the book, which seemed to have been checked out several times a year on average from 1985-1991, till a last gasp in 1995 before it was weeded from circulation in 2013, follows that timeline, such that it feels odd to be holding this book now, like holding a wake for someone who isn’t dead yet.

Because this book is gorgeously illustrated in brightly colored line drawings with a strong mid-century modern influence, it feels like a celebration, not only of department stores but also of the epoch in which they thrived. Gail Gibbons peoples her store with customers and employees of every color, in a delightful utopia of shopping pleasure. I turned the pages, admiring the craftsmanship even as I wondered “who is this for?” The answer, I’ve concluded, isn’t just for the kids in the past who wanted to know more about the workings of their economy, but also for posterity, for the future and the curious children who will look back and wonder about structures like these, just as I once obsessed over the workings of castles and frontier towns. It feels strange to be reading this book now — and I’m not sure my kids would appreciate it either — but I’m looking forward to handing it to a curious grandchild several decades from now who wants to know more about the pre-Internet world.

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Sep 15 2020

Geeky Fab 5 Vol. 4: Food Fight For Fiona by Lucy & Liz Lareau and Ryan Jampole

This very cute graphic novel tackles a very serious subject in a truly accessible way. The Geeky Fab 5 are students at Earhart Elementary, four of whom have just begun their fourth grade class curriculum on nutrition. They’re also participating in a fundraising bake sale by putting together a rainbow volcano cake, and prepping for a field trip to a real farm. When new girl Fiona joins the class, their teacher Miss Malone knows to put her in the charge of the GF5, who will take good care of their new friend. But Fiona is hiding a troubling secret, and when the GF5 figure it out due to Fiona’s little brother Freddy, will they be able to combine their geeky skills and talents to solve a really big problem?

One of my favorite things about this book was the way the authors, mother-daughter duo Lucy and Liz Lareau, as well as editor-in-chief Jim Salicrup, went to great pains to stress that even tho being poor and hungry can make you feel small and not as good as everyone else, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially if you’re a child. In any country of plenty, the onus is on those who have more than enough to ensure that those with less are given a chance to thrive, not just survive. It’s easy to forget how many go hungry daily because of matters out of their control, and books like Food Fight For Fiona remind us of the necessity to pull together as a society and do what we can to help those in need. GF5:FFFF also includes a bunch of different suggestions on how everyone can contribute, from food drives to helping build modern-day victory gardens to seeing what local food pantries need in terms of infrastructure.

All this is presented in an adorable manga format that the cover simply doesn’t do enough justice to! I can be pretty iffy in my opinion of most manga, particularly in terms of panel-to-panel flow, but Ryan Jampole sidesteps all my issues, with perfect layouts that eliminate any possible confusion as to who is doing or saying what. I also love the diversity of the girls and their families, with the added bonus of there being zero chance of confusing characters with one another. Even though this is the fourth book of the series, it’s also really easy to figure out who is who and how they’re all related.

Overall, a terrific book to share with your middle-grade reader that comfortably discusses childhood hunger without sounding preachy, and offers concrete ideas for what to do to help feed those who need it. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of these volumes!

Geeky Fab 5 Vol. 4: Food Fight For Fiona by Lucy & Liz Lareau and Ryan Jampole comes out today from Papercutz and is available from all good booksellers.

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Sep 14 2020

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Penelope #1) by Ryan T. Higgins

Since my kids started remote learning, I’ve been spending my days as their teachers’ assistant, making sure they are paying attention in class, have all the supplies they need for each lesson and are turning in their assignments. Despite my background in corporate training, my new job as paraeducator is exhausting. People frequently underestimate the benefit of peer pressure in a contained environment in getting little kids to stay on task and behave, so I have a lot of sympathy for the educators doing their best to corral a screen full of rambunctious kids when I can barely get my three to sit up straight and engage. I thought I hit my nadir last week when I was running from room to room, helping the teachers figure out what each kid needed even as another kid was yelling for help from where he’d sequestered himself, but then today my eldest dropped and smashed a light bulb on the kitchen floor while I was trying to ferry workbooks and crayons to where each twin was perched in the living and dining rooms. I’m fine in body but feeling considerably rumpled, to put it mildly, in spirit.

So it’s always a bit of a treat to get to the reading portion of the day, when the 6 year-olds and I can sit down and watch a video of a picture book being read (while the 9 year-old is hopefully being productive on his own Chromebook.) We’ve done our fair share of Pete The Cats and other well-meaning, earnest kids’ books, so I was expecting more of the same from their latest social studies class, where we’ve been working on books about getting used to the new school year. But then teacher put on this video for Ryan T Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates.

Y’aaaall. My jaw dropped as we followed Penelope the little T-Rex as she prepares for her first day of school. The other kids don’t like her because, as the title suggests, she keeps trying to eat them, and as the book progresses she learns a valuable lesson in empathy and self-regulation. It’s a short book and I’d rather not include any spoilers here, but I will say that I yelped with laughter as it was read (and only partly due to Awnie’s excellent narration.) The twins seemed less impressed, tho at least they sat through the entire thing, which is more than they often do with other titles. I loved it, tho, and only partly because it reminded me of Patrick Rothfuss and Nate Taylor’s hilarious The Thing Beneath The Bed. While that volume featured some delightful line drawings, I think I enjoyed Mr Higgins’ full-color illustrations even more, especially given the diversity of Penelope’s classmates (and one terrifying goldfish!)

But more importantly, WDEOC serves as a nice counterweight to all the titles that encourage kids to be proud of their individuality and to look for friends who will make them feel appreciated and supported. While those are important lessons, they don’t mean that your friends should be your doormats, especially if your behavior is truly harmful. WDEOC uses a humorous worst-case scenario to remind kids that actions have consequences, and that friendship is a two-way street. It’s a great picture book addition to any kid’s library, especially if that kid has a bit of a mean or selfish streak that you’re trying to train them out of. Best to teach them how to empathize as a little one, after all, than to try to do it years later, when it may be too late and they’re ranting against wearing masks around others or engaging in other appalling antisocial behaviors.

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Sep 11 2020

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Old School (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #10) by Jeff Kinney

“Mom,” my eldest child asked me the other night. “Were things better in the good old days?”

I looked up from my typing. Given my severe allergy to nostalgia-induced rose-colored glasses, I wanted to be sure to answer this carefully. “What do you mean “good old days”?” I asked.

“Well,” said Jms. “When you were my age.”

I thought about it. About being 9 and living in Malaysia and not having air-conditioning or the Internet and living on a limited number of books with a mom who thought I read too much. Contextually, I know he only cared about the air-conditioning (which is nice, but hardly necessary for survival) and the Internet (which is both very nice and necessary in this age of COVID-19.) So I answered honestly, “No, it was not better.”

Which led to me asking why he wanted to know, and he brought up the book he was reading, from a set I’d bought him earlier this summer when I was desperate for him to read something besides his otherwise terrific Dog Man books. Since his 4th grade teacher is encouraging parents to book club with their kids, we agreed that I ought to read Old School as well, despite it being the tenth in the series and my having never read any previous installments, so we could discuss it together.

In the tenth installment of the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid books, Greg Heffley’s mom is on a tear against modern technology. She’s even petitioning City Hall to declare a technology-free weekend, to the chagrin of the rest of her family. However, after an accident involving Grandpa and Dad’s car, Greg decides to escape his father’s wrath by joining his classmates on a trip to Hardscrabble Farm, a week-long camp devoted to “old school” living, which mostly consists of outdoor showers, lots of farm chores and some truly disgusting camp food. While suffering through the lack of modern conveniences, Greg accidentally stumbles across the secret of Silas Scratch, the long deceased farmer whose restless soul supposedly haunts the farm. Will living old school ever look the same for Greg again?

Honestly, this was a refreshingly light-hearted look at the life of a modern middle school kid, whose slightly eccentric family is probably not too different from yours (tho not every family has such a talented pet pig!) I loved how easy this volume was to pick up and enjoy even without any prior experience with the series — as my 9 year-old had assured me it would be — and how the humor, like the family, was relatable in a delightfully off-kilter way. I particularly admired the way Jeff Kinney wove the seemingly unconnected diary vignettes together to form a clever whole, as well as the light satire of Greg’s choice to perpetuate the nostalgia he disdained, for the same complicated reasons parents sometimes do.

I really need to find time to read the rest of these books with Jms, as he and I both enjoy them greatly and enjoy discussing them too. We did watch the first movie the other day — well, he watched it while I worked on my PC in the same room — so perhaps I’ll do a Page To Screen column on the series once I manage to consume it all, as well. Hopefully, he won’t have to nag me too hard to complete all this!

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