Caldecott Monday: Ox-Cart Man

Alas, alas - my library did not get me the next Caldecott book in time for my Monday read! WHATEVER SHALL I DO?

Well, fortuitously, next week's book is one that I already own and love and have in fact posted about before: Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. You might think that I would have run out of things to say about it in that previous post, but you would be WRONG - and yet again fortuitously, I didn't write much about the artwork in my earlier post.

Barbara Cooney was probably my favorite illustrator as a child; I also liked Patricia Polacco and Jan Brett, but Cooney was the one who illustrated books about the Power of Imagination (although, fair warning, Ox-Cart Man is not even slightly about the Power of Imagination) which was basically the theme of my soul when I was five.

I like the stories she tells/chooses to illustrate, and I also like her style. There's a certain Grandma-Moses-ishness about it in this book - the detail, the rolling landscapes, the neglect of mathematical perspective in favor of what one might call emotional perspective (maybe you can't see quite this many hills at one time, but you can feel the hilliness all around you) - although her figures seem more supple than Grandma Moses's to me - more like real people and less like wooden dolls in a carved barnyard scene.

There's a particular illustration of the Ox-Cart Man walking home after taking all his goods to market, a new iron kettle over his shoulder and money in his pocket - walking down the dusky path past the vast vista of the darkening hills, a small village with lit windows, the sky deep red with sunset, up the hills to his own house. The promise of coziness is so strong.

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How to Be a Better Dictator: The Dictator's Reading List

To the illustrious President Snow:

What dictator has time for books? This is the most frequent complaint that we at the SfID hear when we send out our reading list. It’s true that dictatorship leaves little time for leisure - heavy is the head that wears the crown! - but even the busiest dictator needs to carve out some quality alone time for reflection and self-improvement. And what could be a more fruitful topic for reflection than the theory and practice of dictatorship?

One note of caution: don’t read too many memoirs or other works actually written by dictators themselves. Many of them have the obvious drawback of being written by deposed leaders, like Nikita Khrushchev, who are clearly poor role models. But even those written by dictators at the peak of their powers are suspect: they’re writing to burnish their own images, not to give a nitty-gritty how-to guide to other budding dictators. Why help the competition?

Fortunately, however, there are plenty of students of human nature who have provided reams of helpful work. Anything with a title like “cult brainwashing” or “emotional abuse” is likely to be full of wonderful tips. They tend to be couched in terms that suggest that they aim to help their readers foil such strategies, not make use of them, but any clever dictator can figure out how to turn their advice to his own ends.

If, however, you don’t want to suffer through the headache-inducing task of doubling advice back on itself, there’s always C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Told as a series of letters from a demon to his apprentice, a novice in the ways of tempting humans, this book is a must-read for any dictator - for temptation is one of the pillars of any long-running dictatorship. If you want people to work their hearts out for you, then you can’t just give them something to fear; you need to offer them something they want.

Now of course base bribery has its place. The loyal should be rewarded with good food, fancy cars, trips abroad, etc. But Lewis’s chief insight for the dictator is that the strongest and most binding temptation is that of self-righteousness, particularly when it is paired with an ideological commitment to judge oneself not by one’s actions, but by the intended effects of those actions. Minions can forgive themselves any atrocity if they believe they performed it in the name of some far-future utopia - especially if someone in authority tells them so. (Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority is also a key text here. Humans are beautifully receptive to the blandishments of authority figures.)

Solzhenitsyn makes a similar point when he discusses ideology in The Gulag Archipelago, but the SfID realizes that three thousand pages is too much reading to heap on any dictator’s head. The early sections about the secret police, however, are well worth a look. They point out the heartening fact that a totally incompetent secret police force is just as terrifying than a competent one - and perhaps even more so, because the randomness of their arrests fills the populace with superstitious dread.

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is similarly a godsend to any dictator with staffing problems. We can’t count the number of dictators who have come to us despondent over their difficulty in finding good minions. We invariably find that their standards are too high: they want active malice, mustache-twirling, the whole shebang from their rank and file.

But Eichmann in Jerusalem has good news! It turns out that you don’t need any of that. In fact, the best minions are absolutely average types. You want utterly unimaginative nose-to-the-grindstone company man types, the kind who join every organization that comes their way but never lead anything. These people are a dime a dozen. Their consciences may flinch at the first atrocities they’re ordered to carry out, but in most cases their consciences will be too weak to exert any control over their actual behavior - and after the first atrocity is hurdled, habit is a great salve.

In any case, you can turn that flinching of conscience to your own advantage. Focus on your minions’ heroism in overcoming their inner scruples to commit atrocities for the greater good. They still have nightmares about the bloodshed they caused! How heroic they are, overcoming their inner suffering to continue fighting the good fight! Their feelings about their actions are far more important than the actions in themselves.

However, when you’re filling key staffing positions, it’s best to get someone a little more colorful. Stalin liked to hire non-Russians to head his secret police, crescendoing with N. I. Yezhov, a bisexual Jewish dwarf, whose status as a triple outsider made him the perfect scapegoat when Stalin wanted to distance himself from the mass arrests. Find yourself a hunchbacked albino with a foot fetish to place in a highly visible role in your regime. You’ll thank yourself later.

The Society for Improved Dictatorship

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March movies

I have actually already posted about most of the movies I saw in March! Go me! But here are a couple that got left behind.

Muppets from Space: This movie is delightfully weird, as befits a Muppet movie. Gonzo has always wondered what he is… and when his breakfast cereal starts spelling out messages for him, at last he has the opportunity to find out! He will meet his family… from SPAAAAAAACE!

Also there’s a sinister government agency that kidnaps him as a suspected alien spy, etc. etc. Miss Piggy karate chops a Man in Black, Bunsen and Beaker invent an invisibility rubber ducky, Rizzo befriends a bunch of lab rats, and a good time is had by all. Although the lab rats never do get revenge on the mean lab technician who denies them their cheese. Grrrrr.

Thelma and Louise: Two women set out on a road trip for a weekend of frolic and fishing and end up accidentally going on a crime spree instead. This is one of those classic movies about female friendship (I sometimes think every halfway decent movie about female friendship has become “a classic movie about female friendship,” purely because so few are made) that I’ve been meaning to watch since forever, and I’m glad I’ve seen it, but it’s kind of painful to watch because it’s one of those movies where absolutely everything that could go wrong, does.


In April, I’m hoping to see the movie Leap!, which is about a pair of orphans who run away to Paris in order to study ballet and build ludicrous vaguely steampunk flying machines. How can I resist that?

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Whither Obernewtyn

For my March reading goal - "a book that's more than 600 pages" - I chose Isobelle Carmody's 1100-page doorstopper, the long-awaited finale to the Obernewtyn series, The Red Queen.

And I made it! I slogged my way all the way through to the end, finishing up the last fifty pages this afternoon.

Honestly I'm almost glad that the final book was so long in coming, because I was so devoted to these books in high school - I lent my copies to all my friends & then checked the books out of the library repeatedly because I couldn't bear to be parted from them for so long - that it would have broken my heart to read this then. At some point around book five I think Carmody lost the thread of the plot, or her previously pretty decent ability to write plots, and never really got it back.

However, her plotting was never the strongest part of the books; what's more painful is that in book seven she seems to have lost her grasp on characterization, too, so the characters will have long philosophical/expository discussions during which they are all basically interchangeable. I repeatedly had to slow down to sort out whether Dragon or Dameon was speaking, because the names are visually similar and there was no longer any clear difference in their dialogue to help me tell.

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Book Review: Touring America by Automobile in the 1920s

If, like me, you read the title Touring America by Automobile in the 1920s and all but swoon with joy - and swoon again when you realize that this is a primary source, a diary that a woman named Hepzy Moore Cook write during two early American road trips with her husband (one to Yellowstone and the other through the South) - then this is the book for you. There’s lots of good information about the experience of road-tripping in early cars,with their constant tire troubles and the poor state of the roads and the all-but-nonexistent hotel system outside the cities. They either camp or rent rooms in private homes.

I realize that capsule summary makes traveling in the 1920s sound awful, but actually as I was reading it sounds delightfully adventurous (well, except for the part where the diary-writer gets dysentery). I wish there’d been a bit more information about the food, but one can’t have everything. And there is a lot of interesting information about the understanding of history at the time, especially the Civil War: it was sixty years ago by this 1927 road trip, but there’s still a sense of it as a raw spot on the national psyche. The highest praise Hepzy can offer for a Civil War memorial is to say that it shows the spirit of reconciliation.

However, if this sort of thing doesn’t make your heart go pitter-patter, it’s probably not the book for you. The interest is all in the subject matter; the writing is pedestrian at best. It also includes a few clunky typos - I’m not sure typos is the right word for them; but there are places where the author/editor, Hepzy Moore Cook’s grandson William A. Cook, has written something that sounds kind of like the right word but isn’t, including this gem:

“The Prohibition era would also be the geniuses of another popular form of racing in America - stock car racing.”

Geniuses. Isn’t that great? (I’m apt to make these too, although I don’t think I ever made one quite as sublime as geniuses for genesis.)

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Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Mockingjay. D: D: D: TEARS FOREVER.

I also finished Miss Read’s Miss Clare Remembers, which I enjoyed very much for the sort of bird’s-eye view of English history that it offers. Miss Clare is reflecting on her life as she waits for a friend to visit, which covers everything from the 1880s to the 1950s, although it must be said that bulk of the book is pre-World War I and before.

What I’m Reading Now

Still The Red Queen. There are only two days left in March! WILL I FINISH IT BEFORE THE END? I’ve only got two hundred pages left, so I think yes.

The more important question is “How will Carmody pack in enough story to wrap up all the loose ends she’s got dangling?” Elspeth hasn’t even met Matthew again - I’ve been waiting for Elspeth and Matthew’s reunion since book 3, goddammit! - let alone restored Dragon to her throne, found the last sign of her quest, spoken the ancient promises in the place where they were first made, confronted her nemesis Ariel, disarmed the weaponmachines permanently, or led the animals to a new home where they will be free from the depredations of humanity.

I’ve given up on hoping that it won’t feel rushed. Right now I’d settle for Carmody managing to get all that in.

I’m also still reading Miracles on Maple Hill, which continues to be a delight. There are whole scenes which pretty much consist of Marly listing the different flowers or berries that grow on Maple Hill at a certain time of year, which sounds tedious when I write it like that but actually is wonderful. I feel like children’s books have really tapered off the natural history in recent years, which is really too bad.

What I Plan to Read Next

I was puzzling over what to read for my April challenge, “A book of poetry or a play,” BUT THEN I found a copy of Tolkien’s translations of the Middle English poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Problem solved!

And the TransPacific Book Exchange is back in action: soon I will have Norah of Billabong! YESSSSSSS.

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Caldecott Monday: Noah's Ark

We've reached another Caldecott book that I'm familiar with from childhood! (And in fact we'll run into quite a few of them for the next twenty years of Caldecott books or so.) My parents actually owned Peter Spier's Noah's Ark, so I was quite familiar with it, although I must say it never was a favorite: the ark gets awfully dirty from having so many animals in it, which is only reasonable, but I thought all the piles of dung were gross.

I also found the Noah's ark story itself a bit upsetting - particularly the bit at the beginning where alllll the animals are gathering around the ark, but Noah's only letting them on two by two so you've got, say, a bunch of elephants standing around, dolefully waiting to drown. Why do the elephants deserve to drown because humans were horrible? It seems so unfair.

It occurs to me, rather gloomily, that at this point we might see the Noah's ark story as something like a prophecy: the elephants etc. still don't deserve to suffer, but human activity is slowly killing them off anyway - not with a literal flood, but from poachers servicing the rising tide of human greed. It is often the innocents who suffer most.

This is rather gloomy, especially considering the book itself is about as cheery as a retelling of Noah's ark can be. There are all sorts of fun animal vignettes (the elephant who doesn't fit out of the ark; the flood of rabbits coming out, because the two beginning rabbits have bred a four score and seven baby bunnies), all of which is very cute.

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How to Be a Better Dictator: The Cinnamonrohl Edition

To the illustrious President Snow:

We can neither confirm nor deny that we became aware of District 13’s existence because President Coin enrolled in our correspondence course. Our student list in confidential, and frankly, we’re embarrassed that you even asked. Surely your District 13 spies can uncover that information for you.

Surely you have spies in District 13? This is Dictatorship 101 stuff, President Snow. We’re growing weary of spelling it out for you.

And speaking of Dictatorship 101, President Snow, your obsession with Katniss Everdeen is complete amateur hour. At least when Stalin obsessed about Trotsky, he was obsessing over an enemy with a proven track record of rallying the masses to revolution and penning scathing denunciations. Katniss, on the other hand, has a proven track record as a poacher. Not very threatening, President Snow.

In fact, you’ve been obsessing about the wrong tribute: Peeta is the real threat. Katniss’s flamboyant gestures may be more eye-catching, but if Peeta hadn’t laid the groundwork for their tale of star-crossed love, she never would have had the chance to show such defiance.

That star-crossed love is the cornerstone of their power, President Snow. Break them up!

Or, at least, make them appear broken up. Given that you have total control of the media and all of their public appearances, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

In our last letter, we suggested framing Gale Hawthorne as a spy, but if you persist in refusing to tell your people about District 13’s existence, there is a much more obvious use for him: he’s Katniss’s illicit pre-Games lover, the man she ran back to the moment she returned to District 13. They’ve been meeting clandestinely in the woods for years! Clearly they’ve been banging for ages. We’re smelling an investigative report right now.

The fact that your news crews earlier portrayed Hawthorne as Katniss’s cousin will only strengthen this smear campaign. There’s no reason to correct this misapprehension. Let your people recoil from those District 12ers and their incestuous ways!

But there’s no reason to stop by linking Katniss with just one lover. No, you’d better portray her as an ungrateful slut who doesn’t give a damn about Peeta, despite all the sacrifices he made for her in the arena. He lost his leg for her! And how is she repaying him? By sleeping with every eligible bachelor in Panem.

It doesn’t matter if she’s actually sleeping with any of them or not. All you need is some photographs of her arm-in-arm with other men and you’re set. At very least, we’re sure that you can maneuver Finnick Odair into a clinch with Katniss: his reputation is so scandalous that all you need is a picture of the two of them standing side by side and a smutty headline and people will assume the worst.

Peeta may be too canny to repudiate Katniss on television, but surely there are Panem gossip rags that could invent an interview. “Peeta Opens Up” - we’re seeing the headline now, preferably accompanied by a photo of Peeta with his head drooping in exhaustion - accompanied by an interview with a sympathetic reporter whose kindly listening at last gives him the chance to share his grief and pain over Katniss’s defection.

If you’re lucky - and canny enough yourself to keep the supposed lovebirds apart - you’ll get a real interview from Katniss in return. And then perhaps a response from Peeta! Dueling interviews across the issues of Panem’s premier gossip magazine! It will make them both look petty and malicious and altogether unsuitable as symbols for a rebellion.

Peeta is the real prize here, President Snow. Your obsession with Katniss has blinded you to the fact that he’s the real mastermind behind their star-crossed lovers act. He’s the one who needs to be neutralized. Could you hook him up with Johanna Mason? Or how about linking him to FInnick Odair too? How do people in Panem feel about homosexuality? We’re guessing a gay scandal will blow Peeta out of the water. If nothing else, it will suggest that his feelings for Katniss are nothing more than an angle.

And that, President Snow, is the killing stroke. Peeta is the one carrying this star-crossed lovers story; if you want to kill it, you need to convince people that he made it all up from the start to manipulate the audience. Hell hath no fury like a populace deceived by someone they consider beneath them.

The Society for Improved Dictatorship

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The Philadelphia Story

I first saw The Philadelphia Story back when I was in high school and it totally blew me away. Katherine Hepburn! Cary Grant! Jimmy Stewart! The actress who plays Tracy Lord’s (Hepburn) little sister Dinah, I don’t know who she is but she is hilarious and I love her. The entire scene where she’s putting on a show for the newspaper people who have come to cover her sister’s wedding, acting the part of the obnoxiously precocious show-off child: comedy gold.

I saw it again last night at the ArtCraft theater, and Dinah is still wonderful as are all the main characters - but boy howdy does a lot of this film consist of various men telling Tracy Lord everything that’s wrong with her. She’s more like a goddess than a woman: so unsympathetic and judgmental! Convinced that she never makes mistakes and disdainful of mistakes in others!

Now there is something to be said for seeing oneself as part of the great mass of people who make mistakes and recognizing that we all have feet of clay. But I’m not at all convinced that Tracy does believe that she never makes mistakes - she’s got a divorce under her belt, for goodness’ sake! - and even if she did, why should she be sympathetically nonjudgmental about her father the philanderer or her ex-husband the abusive alcoholic?

(“I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives,” Tracy’s ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven tells Mike Connor, the newspaper writer. “You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.” And he and Tracy glance at each other disdainfully.)

C. K. Dexter Haven has quit drinking by the time the movie begins, and because he’s played by Cary Grant he’s 100% sold me on the idea that he’ll be a better husband the second time round, but as a general rule I think there are times when it’s a good idea to be “judgmental and unsympathetic” - or, you know, just to hold your own well-being in higher esteem than that of the person who is treating you badly.

...I still think Tracy Lord, Mike Connor, and C. K. Dexter Haven would make a fabulously tempestuous OT3, though (and I suppose we’ll have to send Elizabeth Imbrie off to Europe as a war reporter; I love her but I’m just not seeing the OT4). Mike’s got a chip on his shoulder, and Tracy and Dex are never really going to understand why because they were both born with an entire silverware drawer in their cribs, and he’s terribly prickly about taking any monetary support from them and probably continues to feel it even after he’s become successful as a writer and doesn’t need it anymore.

So sometimes he walks out and then shows up at the door again weeks or months or years later, probably drunk and definitely bedraggled by the rain, and C. K. Dexter Haven lets him in and listens to his drunken ramblings and covers him with a blanket when he falls asleep on the couch with his hat still on, and when he wakes up, there’s Tracy with a glass of orange juice, waiting to see him as if he’d never been gone.

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