Stacks: March Edition

I kept several of my childhood books because I loved them and I hoped to share them with my own children. Maybe I was an odd child. I loved the Brothers Grimm and wonder what I did with the collection of their terrifyingly terrific stories. My mother gave me a new copy of Babar several years ago. I loved Leo LIonni's The Greentail Mouse. It's kind of a scary read. Mice meet mouse who tells them about Mardi Gras. The mice get so carried away with their costumes they forget they are mice and fear each other until the mouse comes back and says, hey, you are all mice! Oops.

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We've read a number of Lionni's books (Frederick, Fish is Fish, Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse). This week, our favorites are An Extraordinary Egg and Swimmy. 

An Extraordinary Egg is silly for lots of reasons including the names of the principal characters: Marilyn, 

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It feels less a book about lessons than many of Lionni's books except that it asks the question How Do You Know? How do children know learn and know what things are and mean? Is their information accurate? Who is a trusted source (and what do you do when you're wrong, although that doesn't come up in An Extraordinary Egg)?

During last week's snowstorm, we spent the afternoon first looking at toys at a local store, then at the bookstore checking out coloring books and then reading a stack of selections. Carver's all came from the bottom shelf. 

We haven't been buying as many things in general, including books, because we don't have a lot of room. Given we check out a dozen or so books at a time from the library, we're not lacking in new reading material. Still, it's nice to cultivate favorites and Swimmy is fitting in nicely, thanks to the snowstorm bookstore visit. Swimmy is the last of his school of fis to survive, the others being slurped up by a giant tuna. (Tuna, when allowed to reach maturity, are massive. They seem so innocuous when slabbed up on a chunk of rice.)

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Lionni's artwork is exquisite and interesting in Swimmy. 

There are a number of activities for Lionni's books. I thought these about Swimmy could be fun, especially with Juniper. The State Theatre NJ put together this very cool packet of questions for several books as well as fun activities that could be done at home or at school. 

For my own part I finished, today, Emile Zola's Germinal. I read L'Assommoir in college and it made an impression on me. They are both part of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series which explored social issues through tales of two families. Etienne, the chief protagonist of Germinal, is the son of the unfortunate laundress from L'Assommoir
These aren't books which will show easy appeal. They are long and dense but so masterfully written that it would be a shame for any reader to not at least try one of them. (The other from the series that has great staying power is Nana.) Germinal aspires to bring issues of social injustice to the fore, reminding readers of the time of failed struggles (and their continuation) by focusing on coal miners. At the time, children were still working in mines, women had just been banned (though there are women working in the mines in the novel). Etienne is reading what he can about communism, socialism, anarchism, cobbling together theories as he works in the mines and sees the germ — the beginnings — of a possible revolution. 
Zola writes as a Naturalist, using clear, realistic details brought to life through exquisite use of imagery, to set the stage. The mine is an animal that gulps the men down in buckets as they are lowered into its belly. It is impossible not to symphatize with their plight — injuries result in lost pensions, not payments; families force their children into the mines to work to help put food on the table; drinking and sex are rampant, the only outlet available for people left behind by society. The mine owners and managers, on the other hand, are gluttonous and willfully ignorant. Zola has been criticized for giving them too much humanity, for trying to portray the "stuck" nature of both sides of the conflict, but I don't buy it. Especially, by the end, when the women laugh as one of the mines swallows itself, trapping 20 miners and literally dying. They are exposed as the insensitive, protected fools that they are.
One could argue that Germinal's relevance has passed. But I don't think so. Given the ever-widening gulf between the absurdly wealthy and the rest of us, revisiting the past is critical. Not to go all political, but there is something wrong in this country when the very top continue to flourish at the expense of the rest of the country, literally on the backs of the workers. Maybe we're not coal-miners, but offices are swallowing up workers, families are financially strangled, and getting out from under can seem near impossible. 
What's the gulf like? Check this well-thought out video. 
For book club, I read over and sent out a few resources for Germinal including this page and these study questions. Probably the best read would be this article from the Guardian UK on rereading Germinal
Also for book club, I'm reading Marcus Samuelsson's memoir, Yes, Chef. I didn't think I was going to like it, and I'm only in a few chapters, but I'm fascinated. He's Ethiopian, adopted by Swedes, and is describing the influence of his grandmother's cooking on his own culinary style and training. I suspect it will be a faster read than Germinal
Stacks: March Edition

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