Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ferdinand the Submariner Bull

The October, 2009 Naval History magazine has an article by British submariner Rear Admiral Sir David Scott, recounting his experiences patrolling the Mediterannean in World War II, a theater where British submarine mortality rates approached 50%. He mentions the importance of humor, no matter how desperate the circumstances and relates:

Such were the puerile comforts in the face of imminent annihiliation. We even displayed a sense of humor when we painted emblems on the subs. In one case, for example, we avoided the obvious sharks with huge teeth and avenging devils and instead emblazoned our boat with an image of Ferdinand the Bull, who preferred to stay home and sniff the flowers rather than face the combat of the bullring. In any case, we knew that, like Ferdinand, we were the muscular best of the breed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Burying the lede

The New York Times carried an article, A Library's Approach to Books that Offend by Alison Leigh Cowan on August 19, 2009.

While the article opens with the instance where Brooklyn Public Library has rather shamefully bowed to pressure from a patron to hide a Herge book, "Tintin au Congo", there is actually good news when you read through the whole article. The most embarrasing quote in the article "'It’s not for the public,' a librarian in the children’s room said this month when a patron asked to see it." It breaks your heart to see such craveness. On the other hand there is the marvelous quote from the American Library Association, "Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable." That is wonderfully heartening.

What is even more reassuring is how relatively few people ever actually follow-up their heated words or outrage with actual action. The fact that the New York Public Library, serving several millions of people, only receives six or so formal written objections a year to particular books is a wonderful statement to everyone's general broadmindedness. Alternatively one could conclude that the noisemakers are just that, makers of noise but not really serious about their nominal concerns.

At a national level, the ALA reports an average of about 700 written objections a year to particular titles. In the context of roughly 120,000 libraries serving some three hundred million Americans, that is a marvellously low number. Granted that there are probably many more complaints made verbally that are resolved without action simply by librarians explaining library policies. But still: only 700? That's great. On almost any metrics you might use (formal complaints per population, complaints per volume of books held, complaints per circs) the number is vanishingly small. That's good news that ought to be highlighted.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Canada in a thong

From the August 24, 2009 New Yorker, an article "Laugh, Kookabura" by David Sedaris.
For an American, though, Australia seems pretty familiar: same wide streets, same office towers. It's Canada in a thong, or that's the initial impression.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chandler and The Simple Art of Murder

Speaking of Chandler, I have a number of times come across reference to what was apparently a seminal essay by him, The Simple Art of Murder. Follow the link to a copy of his critical evaluation of the detective or mystery writer and his stories. The most often quoted portion of the essay I have seen is:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

But there is more in the essay than that. I was interested, from a children's literature perspective, to find a disquosition on A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie the Pooh books) and a mystery book of his from 1922, The Red House Mystery, still in print eighty-seven years later. You never quite know what those children's authors are going to get up to next.

And then there are a series of barbed opinions and one liners that are classic, whether or not they are merited.
There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult towrite well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels.Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull. This is very annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked "Best-Sellers of Yesteryear," and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it that "really important books" get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the news-stands of the country, and is obviously not there just to say goodbye.

And then there is this:
The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.

Again, Ouch!

Finally there is this assessment of his mystery writing predecessor, Dashiell Hammett.
He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quotable Chandler

I only came across Raymond Chandler in the past five years and have scooped up everything I can find of his. I really enjoy his rich, descriptive language. Something I came across this week reminded me of his marvellous description of the Santa Ana winds in California.
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When stories are the story

An interesting article in the June 1, 2009 edition of the New Yorker, It's Spreading; Outbreaks, media scares, and the parrot panic of 1930 by Jill Lepore.

While we reflexively think of reading with children in terms of books, it does of course encompass newspapers, magazines, etc. While there is much in common, between the formats, there is a difference. Newspapers are the first rumor of history, magazine articles the rough draft, and books eventually reflect the collected (somewhat) settled record. Newspapers, magazines and books are the conveyor belt of history.

While one should always read with some degree of respectful skepticism, there is much more of a need to do so with papers and magazines where bias, trendiness, incompleteness, and ignorance are perhaps much more prevalent than in books and where passion and fervor are more predominant than clarity and inspiration. That is not to say that these issues are absent from books, just less prevalent.

Lepore uses a case study from 1930 in the US as newspapers first wildly propagated a story of the dangers of parrot fever before just as enthusiastically debunking it. In fact there was never much of a story in the first place. Her whole article, though, provides an example of the power of storytelling for good or ill and provides a catalyst for our helping our children to understand how to read newspapers and magazines differently and with a heightened attunement to the standard empirical rationalist questions - What's the problem?, how big is it?, how do we measure it?, how will we know when it is resolved?, what's the proposition?, who is pushing the proposition?, how do they benefit? what are the consequences? who will be affected?

Whether discussing mad-cow disease, global warming (2000's), new ice age (1970's), healthcare, or any of a huge portfolio of controversial issues, these are perfectly good questions to always have in mind. The more our children put together the picture that words are powerful but not sacrosanct, the better and clearer thinkers and questioners they become.

From Lepore's article:
Epidemics follow patterns because diseases follow patterns. Viruses spread; they reproduce; they die. Epidemiologists study patterns in order to combat infection. Stories about epidemics follow patterns, too. Stories aren't often deadly but they can be virulent: spreading fast, weakening resistance, wreaking havoc.

Can the Kindle really improve on the book?

In the August 3rd, 2009 edition of the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker has an article A New Page Can the Kindle really improve on the book?

He covers the pros and cons of electronic reading, focusing on the Kindle. He makes some interesting digressions into the history of the development of the technology. He talks about some of the alternative readers that are available.

I find nothing to contradict my working assumption that electronic-readers are an occassionally useful supplement to reading but will neither replace or even displace real reading.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I begin this Pigeon Post essay on pets having just walked downstairs to let the boxer dog, Merlin, out the back door and with a twelve-week old tabby kitten, contentedly leaning against my computer keyboard, purring in the sunshine. Also resident in the house is another large, nearly panther-like older cat, as well as the sole surviving member of what at one time was a large group of guinea pigs. We are at low ebb though, usually also having various fish, frogs, any of a variety of rodents, etc.

And now, just a few minutes later, I hear my wife calling upstairs to my daughter (to whom Sonja, the kitten, belongs), "Sarah, Sonja just fell into Merlin's water bowl." Life with pets is full, unpredictable, disgusting, and usually a joy.

Pets are a companion for a child, a better place for them to spend their time than on a Playstation. A pet is their last best friend when the rest of the world is ignoring them or failing to understand them. A pet can be their charge, their first foray into having responsibility for the well-being of another. And not to be overlooked is that, even for the very youngest child, a pet is one rung down on the family social hierarchy - there is someone to whom they can be senior.

Pets are an integral part of the family and in some ways might be viewed as a child's first real dry-run at life, responsibility and growing up. It is often said that acquiring a new pet, particularly dogs, is like adding a new member to the family. This is supported by scientists (see article), who peg the average dog's intelligence as roughly that of a two or two and a half year old human, with the capacity for understanding 165 - 250 words, rudimentary math skills involving amounts up to four or five, and basic problem solving capabilities. Perhaps reflecting their long term co-evolution with humans, dogs also have the capacity to undertake deception of one another and of their humans or, as one of the researchers put it, "they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs."

The human species is not simply a social group within itself as is well established, but has shown a predisposition in all its known history, as being a species accustomed to associating across specie barriers in a way not often discussed.

We have a large population of animals with whom we have shared our history and whom we have affected and been affected by. Cattle, camels, sheep, llamas, horses, goats, pigs, chicken, fish, turkey's, guinea-pigs, donkeys, etc. are all creatures with whom we have shared close proximity for many thousands of years. We have caught and suffered from their diseases as they have ours. We have exploited these animals as sources of food and sources of energy to move things. But there are a handful of creatures, usually also social animals, with whom our relationship extends beyond simple exploitation.

We have a history of close proximity to and interaction with other social creatures such as non-human primates, social carnivores such as dogs and wolves, corvids (crows and ravens), rats, parrots, etc. What differentiates this history from the simple exploitation of animals for food is that we extend to these other social creatures some sort of acknowledgement of their social similarity to us. We adopt them into our lives. They show up in our myths, fables and legends in ways that are quite different from other animals.

One of the earliest species with whom we have taken up was the canidae, dogs. Genetic evidence indicates that dogs and humans have been coevolving for at least a third of the time since we broke out of Africa and populated the modern world. With that long association, it is no wonder that there is such a latent affinity. We have had a lot of time to come to some sort of understanding.

Approximately 63% of US households (71 million out of 115 million households in total) have at least one pet. In order of popularity, dogs are present in 45 million homes, followed by cats (in 38 million homes but with more cats per home than there are dogs per home), fish, birds, rodents (politely called small animals in the survey), reptiles, and horses. In terms of total numbers 71 million homes are host to 382 million creatures (a third of which are fish). That's a lot of livestock that is cheek by jowl with us.

I don't know what proportion of children never have a pet; I wouldn't imagine that it could be all that many, though I do seem to meet a lot of kids with no pets. I suspect though, that it is something like meeting children who can't swim or can't ride a bike; not all that many but they make a disproportionately large impression because you are so surprised.

Children tend to love creatures with whom they share their lives, whether the pet is a large dog or horse or, at the other end of the scale, tiny pygmy hamsters or sea monkeys. While as parents we are perfectly aware of the time, expense, inconvenience, risks, and heartbreak that can eventually be associated with pets, it all becomes worthwhile when we see the genuine love and eventual responsibility a child can show for their best furry, feathered, or scaled friend.

Pets also become the source of a significant portion of the web of stories a family tells about and to itself. It is not just the pet that helps bind a family at moments of fraying, but the very action of storytelling which creates a part of the shared bond.

Sometimes we relate the stories of humor such as the time when our boxer dog, Brutus, escaped from our yard when we lived in Sweden. Sweden is very ordered and civilized and there just are not dogs running loose. While we children searched the neighborhood for our Houdini dog, my mother received a call from the local police station. In Swedish she was told that Brutus had been found running loose and that he was now being held down at the station if she would care to come fetch him. This she did. As they showed her into the holding cells to collect him, my mother realized that they had a man in the cell keeping Brutus company. The Swedes are a marvelous and humane people but this was a degree of caring that took her by surprise.

Even greater was her surprise when Brutus was released from the cell but the man remained. Not a dog companion he, but a fellow inmate.

Stories of shared family outrage as when one of our long line of boxer dogs deftly jumped up onto the kitchen table in order to delicately partake in the iced cake left there to cool. The outrage was not so much about the transgression itself, dogs after all will be dogs, so much as about the fact that he had carefully licked off all the icing and left the cake.

Secret family stories. In one home, we had a pantry and in which we kept things that needed to stay at a steady cool temperature. My mother's many foods and fancy trifles that she prepared for a cocktail party were carefully tucked away there on the day of the occasion. At some point over the course of the day's preparations, the door to the pantry was left microscopically ajar. To Brutus, this was clearly a simple invitation to investigate and sample. Fortunately he was discovered before his investigations and samplings had proceeded too far. However, he had tried out a pate loaf which my mother had made. Clearly, from the fact that it was only the end that was nibbled and had teeth marks on it, he did not favor pate. After properly berating Brutus for his forwardness, my mother set about rescuing and restoring what she could. When she came to the pate loaf, her pragmatic solution was to cut off the nibbled end and serve the rest of the loaf anyway. We young ones took special delight in watching who unknowingly ended up sharing the pate loaf that evening with our dog.

Stories of marvel, admiration and gratitude. When my older sister was a toddler of four or five years, we lived in Venezuela. Big old Duchess, yet another boxer, was the family dog who had been around for all of my sister's life and was a constant boon companion. One afternoon, B_____ wandered into the living room and seeing Duchess lying on the doorsill between the room and the outdoor veranda, began to toddle over towards her. As she approached, Duchess rose up, snarling and barring her teeth to B______. This had never happened before and, terrified, my sister ran shrieking to my mother. Mom came running to see what was the matter, fearful that Duchess might have contracted rabies. As she faced towards Duchess, from her greater height, my mother was able to look over the dog onto the veranda and see what my sister could not. There, in the corner, lay a large rattlesnake. Duchess had not been threatening B____, she had been protecting her from danger as best she knew how.

And on and on. For all the effort and disruption that they can be, most pets are a wonderful and ineluctable part of our family lives.

Our literature is rich in stories of family pets. We have here collected together stories which we hope can be used to prepare children for a new pet or remind them of how fortunate we are to share our lives with an animal companion. We have included a few horse stories but really they are a different booklist. Horses are wonderful animals but you don't usually want one curled up at the bottom of your bed. Likewise we have steered clear of general animal stories where the animal is the fantasy protagonist, a creature in the barn, a part of the natural habitat. These are stories of the animals to whom we are closest.

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books
(2) Books for Independent Readers
(3) Young Adults

Picture Books

Curious George by H. A. Rey Highly Recommended

Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day Highly Recommended

Harry and the Lady Next Door by Gene Zion Highly Recommended

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham Highly Recommended

Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer Recommended

Allison by Allen Say Recommended

Billy and Blaze by C.W. Anderson Recommended

Dick Whittington and His Cat by Marcia Brown Recommended

Floss by Kim Lewis Recommended

Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski Recommended

McDuff Moves In by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Recommended

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag Recommended

The Mog Collection by Judith Kerr Recommended

Puss in Boots by Philip Pullman and illustrated by Ian Beck Recommended

Puss in Boots by Charles Perrault, retold by Paul Galdone and illustrated by Paul Galdone & Charles Perrault Recommended

Sam Bangs and Moonshine by Evaline Ness Recommended

The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra and Sal Barracca and illustrated by Mark Buehner Recommended

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer Suggested

Big Dog Little Dog by P.D. Eastman Suggested

Biscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories Suggested

Blaze and the Mountain Lion by C.W. Anderson Suggested

Cat Up a Tree by John Hassett and Ann Hassett Suggested

Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo by William Joyce Suggested

Harry by the Sea by Gene Zion Suggested

Mcduff and the Baby by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Suggested

Mcduff Comes Home by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Suggested

Nothing At All by Wanda Gag Suggested

The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg Suggested

Independent Reader

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo Highly Recommended

Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard Highly Recommended

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg Highly Recommended

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey Highly Recommended

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber Highly Recommended

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Highly Recommended

Stuart Little by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith Highly Recommended

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and illustrated by Keith Ward Highly Recommended

The Call of the Wild by Jack London and illustrated by Martin Gascoigne Highly Recommended

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and Carl Burger Highly Recommended

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls Highly Recommended

Babe by Dick King-Smith and illustrated by Maggie Kneen Recommended

Catwings Collection by Ursula K. Le Guin Recommended

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey and illustrated by John Schoenherr Recommended

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes Recommended

Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary Recommended

Irish Red by Jim Kjelgaard Recommended

James Herriot's Dog Stories by James Herriot Recommended

James Herriot's Treasury for Children by James Herriot and illustrated by Peter Barrett and Ruth Brown Recommended

Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey and illustrated by Peter Parnall Recommended

Lad - Albert Payson Terhune and illustrated by Sam Savitt by Author Recommended

Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight and illustrated by Marguerite Kirmse Recommended

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater and illustrated by Robert Lawson Recommended

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson and illustrated by Carl Burger Recommended

Rascal by Sterling North and illustrated by John Schoenherr Recommended

Ribsy by Beverly Cleary Recommended

Seaman by Gail Langer Karwoski and illustrated by James Watling Recommended

Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James Recommended

Sounder by William H. Armstrong and illustrated by James Barkley Recommended

Star in the Storm by Joan Hiatt Harlow Recommended

The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson and illustrated by Gerald L. Holmes Recommended

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico Recommended

Thunder from the Sea by Joan Hiatt Harlow Recommended

Young Adult

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell Highly Recommended

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Malcolm Durrell Recommended

The National Velvet by Enid Bagnold Suggested