Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for May

Coincidentally, The Literary Birthday Book Reviews for May are spotlighting two male British authors who live in London; Graham Swift, author of Waterland, celebrating a  birthday on  May 4 and Michael Rosen, well-loved children's poet celebrating on May 7.  

Born on May 4, 1949, Swift published his semi-autobiographical novel Waterland in 1983, winning the Guardian Fiction Prize. The story's main part takes place in the Fens, the lowest land in the United Kingdom.  This coastal area, consisting of fresh- or salt-water wetlands, is a major agricultural source for grains and vegetables. The land here is particularly fertile with its nutrient-rich shallow water, mineral-based silt deposits, clay and peat.  Reading this book triggered interest about the landscape and history of its civilizations.  It makes sense why early settlements took to this soggy environment, considering the natural barrier it provided against foreign invasion.  The Fens were a place of refuge for monasteries, now cathedrals, and are referred to as “The Holy Land of the English.” 

In the past, windmill pumps assisted in the job of building drainage banks, but in the 1940s when this story begins, diesel-powered pumps and electric stations are employed for continuous reclamation of the land.  With this setting in mind, imagine how teenagers, living in this isolated region, might have spent their free time.  And imagine what purpose an abandoned windmill might play when sexual curiosities develop.  Tom Crick, a high school history teacher, is the central character and narrator of Waterland.  He describes the Fens as a magical place; like a fairy tale. On second thought, maybe I shouldn't say this story begins during post-war times.  In fact, to tell it properly Tom goes back several generations, tying in historical references from the French Revolution to Heraclitus of Ephesus. 

This book would appeal to those who like literary fiction. For readers not inclined to digest a saga spanning decades, there is a film based on this novel, starring Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusak, and Jeremy Irons. When we gathered to watch the film, my book club friends had mixed feelings, but everyone agreed Waterland is a strange story. It was also noted, that this story covers a number of depressing topics, beginning with murder, followed by suicide, incest, abortion, and kidnapping. That's a lot of fear and guilt! Refreshments served to enhance our discussion included: fried eel, pickled herring, salt and vinegar chips, crackers, and 'ale.'  The reference to ale comes from the family's history in the ale-making business. There is also mention of various ways to cook and eat eel, and even a whole chapter about the biology of eels. Some of us loved the eel, while among others, I politely declined this delicacy.  
Another major character is Tom's mentally challenged brother who spends a good amount of time riding or working on his Velocette motorcycle.  This bike probably has some sort of symbolic meaning, since motorcycle is the last word in this book.  Also near the end of the story, Tom's wife Mary is unraveling and becoming hyper-religious.  But most magical of all, (totally unplanned) when meeting my friend Cheryl for coffee (at A's Backstreet Café) to share thoughts about Swift's book … this is what we saw sitting next to us, as a table ornament! 

Michael Rosen, born May 7, 1946, is a bestselling author of picture books and poetry. He was the Children's Laureate in the UK for 2007-2009, and winner of the Eleanor Farjeon Award.  Rosen has a YouTube channel where he recites his poetry and tells stories.  Believe me it is worth checking this out. Very entertaining! He mentions on his website that he is currently writing a rhyming picture book for Scholastic.

“I can’t say much about it yet – top secret! – but it’s about a dog. Well not actually ‘about’ a dog – more, ‘by’ a dog. OK, I realize a dog didn’t write it, but you get what I mean! Anyway, I’m still working on it. I mean, the dog’s still working on it.”

In honor of National Poetry Month, a special reading was held at the library in April.  Maureen Dintino and her little dog Roxy stopped in to read aloud Poems for the Very Young, an anthology collected by Rosen.  There are traditional verses, nonsense rhymes, and poems by Jack Prelutsky, Stevie Smith, A.A. Milne, Eve Merriam, Margaret Mahy, Michael Rosen, and many more in this collection.  Some poems are even authored by children. 

One anonymous poem, “Man Fat,” was the favorite of young reader, Alena Dodd.  The illustrations (by, Bob Graham) contribute greatly to each poem’s presentation. For instance, Man fat / Top hat / Fell flat/ Squashed hat … showed a rather large man lying across the bottom of a two-page spread. Next to the flat-on-his-back man was a flat-as-a-pancake hat.  It is the sound of words, rhyming and repeating, that makes them so appealing to listeners and readers. 

Maureen even discovered a poem that she uses all the time on her husband, Tom. And she didn’t even know it was a poem! “Go to bed Tom,” is in fact an English nursery rhyme.  As for Maureen, she uses this phrase fairly often when Tom falls asleep in front of the TV at night.  She used a loud, annoyed tone of voice when reading this poem.  With hilarious hind-sight, we later discovered that this rhyme has a very sweet melody.  

Roxy enjoyed all kinds of attention from the children at her debut poetry reading.  She brought along “magic rocks” (crystals) to give everyone who attended the event.   She is also looking forward to reading Rosen’s new “dog book,” once it is published. This collection, although targeting the very young, is fun for adults too. Especially when reading aloud with children!

No comments:

Post a Comment