Oz kick!

Attempting to read Wicked got me off on an Oz spree (one of my favorite things in life, following my ‘satiable curiosity–to borrow from Kipling–wherever it leads):

  • The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History – John Fricke, Jay Scarfone and William Stillman, 1989
  • The Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum, 1900
  • The Land of Oz – L. Frank Baum, 1904
  • Ozma of Oz – L. Frank Baum, 1907
  • The Scarecrow of Oz – L. Frank Baum, 1915

I knew that the movie differed from the book, but I didn’t remember the specifics. (I was one of those who only saw TWOO on a black-and-white TV when growing up, so I missed the transition to color once Dorothy gets to Oz. Watching the movie now, I enjoyed the effect of the B&W; to color transition, but thanks to the fertile imagination of childhood, I don’t think I missed out on anything back then–my mind supplied plenty of color! As kids my brother and I got to go to the short-lived Oz amusement park in the North Carolina mountains, which was pretty cool (you entered the house, then it actually spun around in the “tornado” and you exited onto the Yellow Brick Road).)

When you think about how the movie terrified so many children, it’s ironic to find out that Baum specifically wanted to get away from fairy-tale scariness (“It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out”). The book is indeed lower-key than the movie and the witch is nowhere near as prominent. On the other hand, Oz specifically instructs Dorothy to go and kill the witch. And the Tin Woodman sees a wildcat chasing a field mouse: “…although he had no heart he knew it was wrong for the wildcat to try to kill such a pretty, harmless creature.” So of course, he chops the wildcat’s head off without a second’s hesitation!

I had thought I’d probably get rid of my Oz books after this re-read–and I didn’t get past these four–but I do enjoy Baum’s limitless inventiveness so for now I’m keeping them. Favorites: the Gump (a creature assembled from two sofas and a stuffed quasi-elk head, brought to life with magic powder); the Princess Langwidere, who keeps dozens of heads to wear and therefore doesn’t need to vary her outfits; and the Hungry Tiger, who craves fat babies but whose conscience won’t let him eat any (he doesn’t deny how yummy they would be, so as a vegetarian who still craves meat I very much identify with him!).

Cork Boat – John Pollack, 2004

I loved loved loved this tale of a silly quest—to build a navigable craft entirely out of wine corks—that became a seriously-interesting adventure. Pollack completely succeeds in showing the reader why this ridiculous-seeming goal was in fact a creative and worthwhile challenge, and explaining how he got so many people to help. His enthusiasm is contagious and helps to put all of our arbitrary human pursuits in perspective. When he gives us the context, Pollack’s choice to step off the White House speechwriter hamster wheel to fulfill a lifetime dream (with its own crazy stress and impossible deadlines) makes perfect sense. The technical and personal obstacles are brought to life so vividly that when Cork Boat triumphantly floated in the Potomac, and then sailed the Douro River in Portugal (the home of cork), I got choked up. Pollack writes beautifully and sincerely, without understating any of the difficulties. The closing lines:

But Garth says that, for our next project, we ought to build a rocket ship out of bottle caps. I’ve always wanted to go to the moon.

America At Last: The American Journal of T.H. White – T. H. White, 1965

I love T.H. White, especially The Once and Future King, one of my all-time favorite novels, and Mistress Masham’s Repose, one of my favorite children’s books, with passages that always make me laugh. So when we were weeding the basement collection at work, of course I was going to check this out before sending it to the book sale. It’s got some good bits and lot of tiresome bits. At times, White exhibits a mixture of pomposity and denseness/insensitivity that’s almost touching in its innocence but is also annoying (I’ve known people like that). He loves Jefferson for all the reasons I did when I was younger, and has Tocquevillian insights into the US, as non-natives often do.

I forsee a time when the President of the United States will be as powerful and vicious as Caligula. We are in Republican Rome at present, the Emperors of America have yet to sieze power.

Yet there is something wrong with Disney … Why those awful mermaids encountered on the submarine trip? Why were they so saccharine, insipid, dishonest, unworthy, coy? Why was the sea serpent a babyhood dream, not grand or terrible or beautiful or even reptilian? Why was everything just wrong, the galleon unsailable, the whale provided with toy teeth? Why was everything a toy, in fact? Why was everything a pet? It seems that to Disney women, animals, children, knights, dragons and elephants are all pets.

Two more teen summer reading picks

Hatching Magic – Ann Downer, 2003

Quite good fantasy set in modern-day Cambridge, MA (where we lived for many years). There are lots of references to familiar landmarks (the NECCO factory, Rosie’s, Harvard Square) which made it extra-enjoyable for me, and the depiction of the struggling academic lifestyle is accurate. The wyverns are believably animal-like as well as magical and seem like great pets!

The Supernaturalist – Eoin Colfer, 2004

I’ve yet to read any of the Artemis Fowl books, so I was glad to try something by Colfer. I didn’t like it much. It’s got the choppiness/terseness I hate in much contemporary YA fiction, combined with a kind of macho action-overkill/emotional flatness; beyond-bogus “science” (viruses that reproduce in millions instantly, for example); and a future world so dystopian that I couldn’t understand how the protagonists could even survive. Lots of the plot didn’t make much sense. Some good satirical bits though–for example, in this future world lawyers are like a private police force and paralegals are the muscle.

Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine, 1997

My sister Elisabeth had recommended this, and then it made it to the list of the teen Summer Reading group (“Joust Read”) which I participate in to help out the Children’s Librarian. Great book, a truly original fantasy. (The language is a little choppy for my taste, but less so than much YA fiction nowadays). Re-interpretation of fairy tales (this is “Cinderella”) are a dime a dozen, but this one is so original that the characters come alive in a remarkable way. Ella’s predicament–she is cursed with obedience and must obey any direct order given her–feels genuinely alarming, and her skill in languages (and the importance of language to the ogres especially) is a great touch. My favorite little bit was the giant’s wedding ceremony:

The giants pantomimed their lives together. They framed and built a house and brought a series of older and older children from the audience into the imaginary home, and then more babies for grandchildren. It ended when they lay down in the grass to signify their deaths together.

We also watched the movie, which is nice enough but a totally different animal from the book. It’s all played for laughs and jollied up with silly anachronisms and impossiblities–a farce instead of an emotionally-realistic fantasy. Slannen the elf and the magic book are travesties who bear no resemblance to the characters in the story. And there’s nothing special about Ella (no gift for languages, for one thing)–she’s much more of a traditional fairy-tale princess with a good heart. Nonetheless, I liked the way the movie resolves Ella’s overcoming her curse much better; it doesn’t feel symbolically convincing enough in the book.