Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Wind in The Willows: Annotated Editions [Review]

I'm looking at two distinct publications in this review, interestingly both annotated editions of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.

Title: The Annotated Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame, edited with a preface and notes by Annie Gauger
Introduction by Brian Jacques
Copyright: 2009, W.W. Norton, New York City (ISBN: 978-0-393-05774-4)
Length: 384 pp.

Title: The Wind in the Willows: An Annotated Edition
by Kenneth Grahame, edited by Seth Lerer
Copyright: 2009, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (ISBN: 978-0-674-03447-1 -- linked page includes interview with Lerer in mp3 format, as well as a 14-page excerpt in PDF)
Length: 273 pp.

The 100th anniversary of the initial publication of The Wind in The Willows (WitW) was actually in 2008, but these two editions celebrating that anniversary appeared in 2009. I can't recall how the two came to my attention, but I purchased both of them in August of this year in order to see how they compared. One of the most memorable fictional events from my childhood was the Dulce Domum chapter of WitW. Mole, walking along in mid-December, suddenly catches a whiff of his old home and runs urgently back to it with Ratty in close pursuit. Mole is in bad shape, but his supportive friend helps him back to some semblance of himself, with a reassuring preparation of a meal and the arrival of a holiday chorus of field mice singing in the snow outside the door of Mole End. It's one of the most emotionally reassuring renderings of home that I have ever found in literature. Looking at the way in which these two editors handled the annotation of this particular chapter is indicative of the differences between the two editions.

The Norton edition, primarily intended for the trade marketplace, opens with an extended explanation of the chapter's title in latin (essentially, home sweet home), including other uses of the phrase in art and poetry. She makes an attempt at identifiying the geographical location for the fictional Wild Wood. Perhaps most controversially, she notes unspoken themes of homosexuality based on Mole's and Ratty's friendship as evidenced by the 1937 illustrations by Payne. In particular, this chapter contains a dozen illustrations from the various editions of WitW. Because it is so closely aligned with Christmas, despite never being called that in the text, the illustrators could draw from the emotional symbols of that holiday in their contributions. Given that Mole is supposedly a middle class, low-church Victorian sort, Dulce Domum functions as a landmark for showing how far Mole has come in his own journey from an unseen creature laboring in a burrow to being up above ground and out of his natural element on the River. Gauger points this up with an annotation regarding potential allusions to The Odyssey. Gauger has 52 notes to this chapter, some of which are (in my opinion) irrelevant. While it might be valid to tie Mole's unconscious awareness of proximity to his home to a telegraphic signal, it doesn't seem worthwhile to take up space by noting Nelson's use of flags to send the message at Waterloo (England expects every man will do his duty).

By contrast, the more scholarly Belknap Press version, edited by children's literature scholar Seth Lerer (University of California-San Diego), offers no explanation of the chapter title. Where the Gauger edition has 12 illustrations included with this chapter, eight of which are in color, the Lerer edition has only 3 black and white Shephard illustrations. (Note: The single inset of color illustrations in the Belknap edition has 8 glossy pages of illustrations from a variety of editions, not all of which refer to this particular chapter. However, the inset is placed squarely in the middle of this chapter, most likely for production/binding reasons.) Lerer includes 47 notes to Gauger's 52, but his are brief and predominantly tied to his stated scholarly themes. Those include a belief that Grahame was deeply influenced by John Ruskin's thinking on the value of domesticity and a human need for caring shelter. A second theme in Lerer's interpretation of WitW is Grahame's language and the frequent inclusion of examples from the text in the Oxford English Dictionary to illustrate contemporaneous usage. Another contrast between the two interpretations of these editions is that Lerer sees the function of this chapter as differentiating Mole's emotionally valid affinity for his old burrow with Toad's artificial ties to his estate, Toad Hall. The former is naturally appropriate whereas the latter shows Toad in a stone and wood construct, not the natural dwelling place of an amphibious creature. Toad has never found his natural place in the world and Mole still retains that awareness.

I don't think I would be satisfied with owning just one or the other of these annotated editions. Each is a perfect complement to the other. Gauger's edition focuses less on the total body of Grahame's life and work and more on the various editions and body of illustrations associated with The Wind in the Willows. Lerer's effort is at positioning The Wind in The Willows in the larger context of the author's life and historical context. If Grahame's work has any emotional significance in your life, you may also wish to have both on your shelf.

Other useful links:
Interview with Charles van Sandwyck, illustrator of the most recent Folio Society edition of The Wind in the Willows
Web Resources Compiled by Kenneth Grahame Society

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thomas Nelsons American Patriot Bible

Consider Carefully Before You Buy

Caveat: I had requested Thomas Nelson's The American Patriot's Bible as a participant in the Thomas Nelson Book Review Blogger program (see As a part of that program, bloggers receive review copies with the understanding that they will post their feedback on personal blogs as well as on one commercial site. My interest in reviewing this text sprang from my interest in how this particular re-packaging of the Bible had been handled. I'm not the target market for this product and that should be weighed in reading this review.

In the past five to ten years, there has been significant publishing industry emphasis on making the Bible more immediately relevant and attractive to modern readers. Re-packaging, interesting graphic design, and active merchandising has become common in order to reach different market sectors (teens, women, whatever, etc.) In the case of The American Patriot's Bible, the appeal is to those who think public duty should be infused by personal piety.

The full title of Thomas Nelson's targeted volume is The American Patriot's Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America. The press release positioning it rationalizes the presentation as melding together "the teaching of the Bible, the history of the United States, and the connection it has to its citizens today." Post-election results having come in, the publisher's press release (April 15, 2009) also points out that " our knowledge, this is the first Bible to ever include a mention of President Obama or to focus on the Bible's influence on American culture."

The emphasis is on family and American heritage; the first few pages allow the user to document family trees, marriages, military service, and deaths of family members as well as pages for noting special family history (immigration, pioneering, etc.). Such inclusions indicate to me that this really is intended for domestic use rather than for educational or reference use. Also included are seven pages of maps, a subject index and a brief concordance.

Throughout the pages of this New King James Version translation, there are boxed entries that draw the attention of the reader to specific virtues that might be associated with developing good character as well as good citizenship. Each boxed entry has a heading indicating which virtue is exemplified -- faith, honor, service, truth, freedom, and moral strength among others. The feature is a key element breaking up dense text in a very attractive page lay-out, designed to encourage interest as well as connecting specific passages with historical figures and events. One such example would be a box appearing on page 83, noting the 1665 legislative enactment in the New York Colony calling for the building of a church for each parish in the colony of New York, capable of holding 200 people. The scriptural tie-in is Exodus 20:8, one of the Ten Commandments (Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep It Holy) and the inference is that together these exemplify honor. Another one matches up Longfellow's poem, "Sail on, O Ship of State" with the prophet Obadiah under the heading of hope (pg 1035)

Even assuming that the majority of such boxed entries are historically accurate and intended to bolster pride and historical awareness, one can't help noting that selection and placement of such quotations might seem to suggest -- even direct -- a particular interpretation. (For example, one might consider the box on page 44. It ties the sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers to a statement by Dick Cheney that those who have never had liberty taken from them may not properly value such liberty. There is indeed a topical relationship between the two items, but so is there potential for political bias.)

Where the editor(s) could document the scriptural selections of presidents used for purposes of the swearing-in portion of the ceremony, those selections are also noted and boxed throughout. Where such information cannot be documented or where the Bible was closed during the ceremony, the information is not included and this is properly noted in the index. What is striking is that some Presidents are heavily referenced throughout the volume (usually those from the 18th and 19th centuries), while others (President Lyndon B. Johnson being a case in point) have no index listing at all. Those presidents appear solely on a single page listing the U.S. presidents' names and terms.

What I found somewhat more worrisome was the lack of bibliography or documentation. Presented in such a way, the historical viewpoint of various entries is left open to question. There are no footnotes in the printed text referring the reader to any kind of source documentation or even a list of institutional libraries consulted. Where did the quoted text from the 1665 legislature of the New York Colony on page 83 come from? There is no credit line associated with the quote on that page or on any other page including such entries. (Only illustrations and photos are credited to their source.) The copyright for all notes and articles included in the volume belongs to the general editor for the volume, Dr. Richard G. Lee, founding pastor of First Redeemer Church in Atlanta, Georgia. However, neither in print nor on the Web is there any indication of the man's professional credentials for the creation of this material. (One hesitates to trust Wikipedia in this instance). I raise this as an objection because in at least one instance, I was able to verify that a quotation attributed to an historical figure was edited from its original text. Such a situation is troubling to me and leads me to wonder what other quotes or historical accounts might have been similarly "modified" to fit a particular political agenda.

That lack of objectivity and balance is particularly obvious in the "special inserts", each several pages in length. These inserts cover a diversity of topics -- the Civil War, World War II, the American Civil Rights movement -- but emphasize how fortunate Americans have been to live through such trying periods with such positive end-results. There is nothing wrong in wishing to instill national pride but there is something decidedly wrong in appearing to suggest that this country is particularly favored by God over others or more enlightened than other countries. In some of these inserts (as in the instance of women's suffrage), any Christian opposition to such change that manifested itself at the time is entirely overlooked.

This volume may be an appropriate purchase for families, for personal or home use. Inclusion elsewhere (as part of either educational or reference material) might be questionable.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

2007 Video on How We Will Read and Books

Alexandre and Marie have a lovely European weekend. The video is in French without subtitles, but I rather think it's self-explanatory.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Playing with the Book Glutton Embedding of Text

This is just an experiment to learn more about how Book Glutton facilitates online reading through the embedding of a text on a blog or web site. Click on the book below. 

Monday, April 06, 2009


Perhaps it is the seasonal shift that is affecting me. We're still in the early days of spring with winds blowing chill, but sunshine warm enough to cause the hyacinth to bloom in the side garden patch. Spring refreshes the spirit after the winter and I see now that pastoral fiction does the same.   

If you've not encountered it elsewhere, Lark Rise to Candleford is the work of Flora Thompson, originally published as three separate books between 1938 and 1943. In 1945, the three titles were combined into a single volume and that combined edition has survived through the decades (more here), having recently been adapted to television with great success for the BBC for two successive seasons and an upcoming third. 

The book tells of the childhood of Laura Timmins in a small rural community 19 miles outside of Oxford. Using that fictional device, Thompson is actually describing her own upbringing in the agricultural hamlet up through her adolescence, leaving school at the age of 13 to work in the village post office. The stories -- in most instances, brief anecdotes -- emphasize the prevalent cultural attitude of the time -- a willingness to accept life as it comes and the virtue of welcoming both the hard work and small pleasures that make up the ordinary day. 

An extract may be helpful here to give the flavor of the writing: Yet even out of these unpromising materials, in a room which was kitchen, living-room, nursery, and wash-house combined, some women would contrive to make a pleasant, attractive-looking home. A well-whitened hearth, a home-made rag rug in bright colours and a few geraniums on the window sill would cost nothing and yet make a great difference to the general effect. Others despised these finishing touches. What was the good of breaking your back pegging rugs for the children to mess up when an old sack thrown down would serve the same purpose, they said. As to flowers in pots, they didn't hold with the nasty, messy things. But they did, at least, believe in cleaning up their houses once a day for public opinion demanded that of them. There were plenty of bare, comfortless homes in the hamlet but there was not one really dirty one. (page 89)

It's a different way of thinking. One might be poor by external social standards and yet one might still preserve a certain dignity, unlike much of the current thinking which would appear to only endow individuals with value if they have a conspicuous level of consumption of material goods.

Flora Thompson offers us a wonderful reading experience, even if one suspects that some of the true dreariness of those lives has been left out of the narrative. There is an unmistakable tone of respect throughout the book for the cultural values of the time, despite our perception of limited opportunity, and I think I enjoyed it particularly for that reason. Just as with the return of spring, Lark Rise to Candleford causes one to throw off the grimness of the modern economic winter and instead feel a re-born sense of pride, energy, and practical renewal. 

The book is published by David Godine in the US (see catalog entry).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Read This Now!

Incredibly wonderful analysis of what book reviews should encompass!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Eifelheim [Review]

Title: Eifelheim   
Author: Michael Flynn (author's live journal)
Copyright: 2006, Tor Books, New York
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 312 pages

Summary: This is a braided tale of time and space. Flynn takes us back to the culture of 14th century Rhineland Germany, a period of technological shifts and venture into the sciences. He introduces a foreign (or, as this is science fiction novel, alien) culture into the village of Oberhochwold. This culture contrasts sharply with the medieval culture because its governing values are more closely related to the modern sensibilities (mechanistically, scientifically oriented rather than theological). That tale is juxtaposed with the experience of a trio of modern-day researchers who are investigating issues tied to both time and space. The stories intertwine, but the tale of primary interest is the first contact story between the medieval priest, Father Dietrich, his parish, and the Krenk.
Flynn draws a parallel between the encounter of historians grappling with an ancient culture of centuries past with that of a science fiction "first contact" between space alien and mankind. The conflicts presented in scientific concepts and spiritual beliefs are intriguing because each side understands and explains the world differently. Father Dietrich, in a world that has only the most shallow grasp of mechanics, energy and disease, must communicate his rational understanding of how the world operates (temporal and eternal) to a highly advanced race of beings with a far more sophisticated understanding of how the world operates. While Dietrich is challenged to incorporate the aliens into his belief structure, the aliens are faced with technological, physical and ultimately spiritual challenges. When both sides are faced with an unreasoning challenge to survival (bubonic plague), which belief structure emerges as being correct? This is what *good* science fiction does -- it explores assumptions and ideas -- and it is not surprising that this novel was nominated for a Hugo Award. (It lost against Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge.)
Pacing is slow until the last quarter of the novel; the long build-up introduces a variety of questions relevant to the final outcome of the story. Flynn's use of language is not particularly lyrical, as one might expect of a trained mathematician and statistician. There is an extensive list of historical names and dates that play into the development of the theme as well as a complex set of fictional characters that one must keep straight. The characterization, however, is quite robust. These characters have flaws and temperament and behavioral quirks.
The author demands intellectual engagement by the reader because Eifelheim is neither a frothy space opera nor is it a bastardized medieval fantasy. There are lengthy passages of theology as well as physics. However, the story's conflict is primarily revealed in human capacity for understanding as well as a stubborn failure to understand. That extends not just to the inter-species relationships but the human relationships as well. Dietrich has a ward, his primary familial relationship, and that relationship is tested as is his primary professional relationship with a mendicant Franciscan, Father Joachim.  

Extract:  "There was no cadence to the voice," he decided, "or rather its cadence was mechanical, without rhetorical flourishes. It lacked scorn, amusement, emphasis,...hesitation. It said 'Many thanks' with all the feeling of a shuttlecock flying across a loom."
"I see," said Manfred, and Dietrich raised a finger post.
"And that was another convincing point. You and I understand that by 'see' you signified something other than a direct impression on the sense of sight. As Buridan said, there is more to the meaning of an utterance than the precise words uttered. But the Heinzelmannchen did not understand figures. Once it learned that the 'tongue' is a part of the body, it became confused when I referred to the 'German tongue'. It did not comprehend metonymy."
"That's Greek to me," Manfred said.
"What I mean, my lord, is that I think...I think they may not know poetry."
(page 76 of the hardcover)
For more, there is a limited preview on Google Books.
Also relevant: This novel was written as an offshoot of a novella originally written and published in 1986. The modern portions of this braided tale are taken from that novella, which was also nominated for a Hugo. Fans of James Blish's A Case of Conscience or Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow may find this to be of equal interest. Religious belief systems are accorded respect in this narrative  as having equal footing as scientific knowledge in constructing an understanding of how we traverse this world and our lives (again, that theme of temporal vs. eternal). This is a challenging read, but well worth the time it takes to get through it.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spam & Eggs [Review]

Title: Spam & Eggs: A Johnny DeNovo Mystery 
Author: Andrew Kent [official web site]
Copyright: 2009
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Mystery (Hard-Boiled)

Summary: Johnny DeNovo, ultra-cool and world famous detective, gets spam in his email box. Well, who doesn't? And why would such a mundane occurrence trigger an investigation? As with all great detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, when between cases, Johnny is bored. It is due to this lack of significant brain stimulation that he notices some peculiarities in his spam messages and sets out to make sense of the problem. Supported by both his beautiful publicity agent, Mona Landau, and his techno-geek friend, Tucker Thiesen, Johnny follows clues that take him from his Boston condo to the rolling hills of Virginia's horse country as well as to the side streets and art galleries of Paris. 
Andrew Kent successfully delivers in this debut both an interesting sleuth as well as a cyber-crime that surprises and challenges the thoughtful reader. Most interestingly, he articulates the back-of-the-mind processes that permit a detective to understand what it is that has taken place in a crime, both in terms of the actual behavior as well as misdirected perception of behavior which allows the criminal to believe his or her acts have gone unnoticed. Just as Miss Marple would solve a crime by thinking of some seemingly unrelated occurrence in her village of St. Mary Mead, Johnny Denovo is a sleuth who toys mentally with metaphors,allowing useful connections to surface in his thinking and succeed in his public persona.   
Pacing is good and the laughs are not infrequent. DeNovo may be a sly send-up of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character, but there is sufficient action of the sort that Chandler would applaud. The setting is modern-day and all of the technology is futuristic. Normally, this would not be a formula that I would find engaging (preferring as I do a good cozy Miss Marple) but Kent has mastered the technique of ending chapters in ways that induce one to keep turning pages. About half-way through the novel, I was sure I had figured out the identity of the mole who keeps Johnny DeNovo under close watch, but I was charmed when I realized that I was thoroughly mistaken in my conclusion. The book avoids predictability, in part because of the running themes that deepen the story. Kent touches on the nature of metaphors, self-presentation in both a physical and virtual sense, the nature of detection, and the brain processes necessarily employed in solving puzzles. Recommended.
Extract: The site linked to above has excerpts from chapters one and three, but I've bulleted a gem or two here worth noting.
  • It wasn't good for weapons to become metaphors for security.
  • Choice and chance separated people only very faintly, yet gazing across the divides made people seem very different.
  • ...he always thought he sensed behaviors changing as the light faded, as if criminality, identity and possibility emerged as illumination dimmed. 
  • ...savoring the touch of chaos he'd injected 
Also Relevant: This book is self-published. Like many readers and many acquisition librarians, I would tend to consider such a statement immediate cause for dismissal if not outright disdain. Do not make that mistake. Kent writes a satisfying, literate, and neatly executed tale of detection.  There is a balance in Spam & Eggs between the logical structure of the mystery form chosen by the author, and the nuances of perception and misdirection caused by the reader's tendency to make assumptions (in much the same way that a detective is required to do in the course of his work).  Indeed, the title itself playfully draws on words and symbols which percolate throughout the material. This book didn't have to be self-published because the author had reason to fear  the wash-wring-press of traditional editorial work. The book is self-published because the author chose to experiment with new mechanisms for distribution and there is a world of difference in the experience. Spam & Eggs isn't perfect; there were one or two annoying questions that occurred to me by the end, but the questions were more niggling slips rather than significant gaps in the narrative.
The book is worth your notice and your time. Personally, I look forward to the next title in the Johnny Denovo series, The Green Monster.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The American Patriot's Almanac [Review]

Title: The American Patriot's Almanac: Daily Readings on America
Author: William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb
Copyright: 2008, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee
Length: 515 pages
Genre: Reference (U.S. History)

Summary: This is a useful single-volume reference, created with the intent of fostering awareness of and pride in the historical heritage of the United States. Each day of the year (with the exception of leap years, there being no entry for Feb 29) has a primary entry running about 4-5 paragraphs in length and a series of bulleted items (American History on Parade) that are single sentence entries of other events associated with the date. In between the pages for a specific month may be inserted full text primary documents (the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.) or lighter offerings such as 100 All-American Movies. In the same vein, the text of patriotic poems and songs, including works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohen and Walt Whitman punctuate the volume. (I missed the inclusion of Whittier's patriotic - albeit sentimental - poem about Barbara Frietchie, but as it turns out, there is no historical basis for that particular incident.) The seven pages following the month of November contain a section entitled Prayers for the American People, including one credited as being said daily by Harry S. Truman. Except for the afore-mentioned primary historical documents, vocabulary is not particularly challenging and sentence structure tends to be relatively simple. The target audience for this book (based on the reading level of the material offered) would appear to be students third-grade and up. Certainly, the book might readily sit on a classroom or family library shelf and get significant use.

Extract: At the beginning of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, at age eighty-one the oldest delegate, had noticed that the back of George Washington's chair was decorated with the image of a sun. At the convention's end, Franklin commented, " I have often and often in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

Also Relevant: I spent some time with this book, knowing that one of the authors, William J. Bennett, tends to the conservative end of politics and fearing that it would reflect exclusionary attitudes in terms of gender, creed, etc. There was less of a problem than I had anticipated, but the presentation is not without its bias. My particular examination focused on the inclusion of notable women (where I might personally claim some better-than-average expertise). Obvious historical female entities were included: Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Helen Keller. Such women are safe role models. Abigail was mother of a large family, kept the home farm operating while her spouse was politically active in public service, and remained devoted to her husband during those long absences. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American-born saint and founder of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female to receive a medical degree in the U.S. is also allowed her place as is educator and civil rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune . My difficulty is that, as near as I can determine, no achievements of women past 1960 are cited in the text. One does wonder about the missing Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, or about the missing Sally Ride, first American woman in space. Teacher Christa McAuliffe gets a brief mention in the context of the Challenger space shuttle accident, but otherwise references to modern women are few if not entirely missing from this text.

Similarly, my other nitpicking criticism of the text has to do with what may or may not be included in each of the bulleted items in the "American History on Parade" feature. Some percentage of these were simply included for their peculiarity or oddity. For example, the Almanac notes that on November 21, 1984, "millions of TV viewers" tuned in to learn who shot J.R. Similarly, the feature for May 20 notes the name of the first cab driver ticketed for speeding in the city of New York. In both instances, one has to wonder how such inclusion furthers the author's intent of instilling pride in the country. Television and speeding can't be considered worthy cultural hallmarks, can they?

But I admit that this is the kind of generally educational book that would have entertained me at the age of nine or ten. Just enough of a good story to stick in the memory, delivered without too many caveats or specificity. One can only hope that parents and teachers who purchase it don't allow it to be the *only* historical reference made available.