July 30, 2009

Grendel by John Gardner

This review will actually be quite short because, after a quick synopsis, there are really only two major things I'd like to address.

So, before going any father, here's the quick synopsis:

Grendel by John Gardner, is a fictional autobiography of Grendel, the troll/ogre antagonist-creature of Beowulf fame. Grendel, it turns out, is really quite a thinker, pondering all manner of metaphysical and existential questions while indulging his baser interests - he is still Grendel after all, which means he's pretty base and mean. The narrative is spare and follows the general goings-on of the Beowulf right up to the end, when Beowulf triumphs.

So, the first thing that bears commenting on is the portrayal of Grendel as being quite a thinker. I actually really liked it, and I liked that he behaved in his famously brutal, cruel way, despite being metaphysically concerned. For example, he continues to attack Hrothgar's hall, not only out of malicious rage, but because it gives him an identity - he becomes the monster that sacks Hrothgar's hall. The only reason he doesn't simply kill everyone is because, if he did, he would lose the identity he's earned. However, it's important to remember that Grendel is a philosopher only when compared to those in his society. His mother has long since lost the gift of coherent speech, and most of the other characters - both those like Grendel and human men are not what you might call "socially curious" or even terribly "smart."

The real mind of interest is that of the dragon. Among the many things of philosophical interest that the dragon says during a conversation with Grendel, his most pithy bit of advice is "collect as much gold as you can, and then sit on it." I liked the dragon so much, that I would have preferred the book to be about him. This leads me to my second point.

The real reason that I didn't enjoy Grendel as much as I felt that I should have, despite beautiful language and good humor and interesting characterization, is Grendel's narrative voice, or more specifically, John Gardner's authorial voice filtered through Grendel. We're now entering into dodgy territory, because what I'm talking about is not in any way concrete. Gardner filtered through Grendel is, to put is gently, painfully self-satisfied, not a pretty quality in an author, no matter how celebrated.

It's all right for Grendel to be a little bit pompous - he's both sympathetic and repellent, a thinker and a brute - but the pomposity is not Grendel's, it's Gardner's. Everything in the narrative smacks of authorial self-satisfaction. You can almost here Gardner in the background, daring you to think he's not clever. This is a real turn-off, and it's the reason that, despite everything that's great about it, I didn't enjoy reading Grendel. It's a real shame. I almost wish Gardner's fictional dragon had written it instead.

July 12, 2009

A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker & You've Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave

I don't usually read children's picture books, mostly because I don't have children. But for several months, I've been reading a lot of them as research for several projects. Many of the picture books I've read are cute but, for the most part, nothing special. I have come across two, however, that made a serious impression. 

The first, Bonny Becker's A Visitor for Bear, I heard read on the radio before I read it for myself. Daniel Pinkwater, the great children's book author, was on NPR's week-end edition. He read through Becker's A Visitor for Bear, which is about Bear, a reclusive sort who doesn't like visitors (he even has a sign) and the mouse who wears him down. Even without seeing Kady MacDonald Denton's illutrations (which are lovely and expressive) I was completely charmed by the story. Bear's revelation, that maybe friends are a good thing, comes around with gentle inevitability and good humor. To see the apron wearing Bear exhausted into providing tea and a crackling fire for the cheeky mouse is one thing, but Becker takes it further, exposing Bear's vulnerabilities - the mouse listens to him, takes an interest and laughs at his jokes, which are all new experiences for Bear - so that when the mouse says he has to go, Bear's despair is painful and understandable. Happily the mouse ends up staying and the pair enjoy a second cup of tea by Bear's fire, a comforting ending to a moment of genuine catharsis and change on Bear's part.

The second book, You've Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave and illustrated by Nick Maland, is the sort of book I wish I'd had as a child. The dragons are humorous stand-ins for the very real fears and anxieties children (and adults) have. The book goes through all of the things we tend to do when we've got dragons - we ignore them, yell at them, hide from them, fight them, and yet they keep growing bigger until we're expert dragon-havers. But, if we take a different approach, if we acknowledge our dragons, give them names (I liked Montgomery the Math Test Dragon), know what they look like and treat it with respect, the dragon shrinks, until one day it disappears. But the really wonderful thing is that it gives no false promises to the child reader, ending with the line, "now you'll know what to do the next time you've got dragons." You will get more dragons and that's ok, because now you know what to do. It's a comforting message, and practical advice that both children and adults could benefit from, delivered in a humorous and charming package.  

Very often, children's books are formulaic, or didactic, or saccharine, or simply nothing special. Every once in a while though, you come across a book that reminds you of why you loved picture books as a child. A Visitor for Bear and You've Got Dragons are two such books. I will very proudly read them to our children should we be lucky enough to have them, and if we aren't, I'm very happy to have them on my shelf anyway.