Via Media

A little bit of book-blogging to ease myself back into this.
(Actually, I have another post coming on the rest of the Pope’s visit to France…I’ll get there.)
First, some interesting and unusual children’s books we’ve read recently.
(By the way – and I’ve been meaning to say this for a while – if you want some informed, deeply-felt and finely-written onging reviews of children’s books, make Melanie Bettinelli a regular stop – her MomBlogging is wonderful, too, but since books are the topic of this post, I wanted to make sure you knew what wonderful reflections she offers on that score.)
We’re still doing the scores-of-books-library-haul thing. It’s complicated a bit because of the weirdness of the library system in Birmingham, which corresponds to one of the points of weirdness of Birmingham, period.
(See, I’m going to be even-handed!)
This has taken me a while to figure out, but what we might foolishly call “Birmingam” is really a collection of independent towns. I think. There is a “Birmingham” which (I think – you’ll hear me say that a lot these days as  try to comprehend) includes downtown and runs mostly east and west from there. But then, running right up against Birmingham proper are places like Homewood, Mountain Brook, Hoover, Vestavia Hills and so on. All are independent (I think) towns with their own civic structures and school systems. There is a definite racial and class aspect to this – Birmingham is mostly black and skews poorer, while some of the others – Mountain Brook in particular – are overwhelmingly white and far wealthier. I have not lived here long enough to really get a sense of how strong the barriers are and the extent of any mutual animosity or racism, but it’s there. People who live in Mountain Brook wil be quick to correct you when you say they live in “Birmingham” and the desire among many to live anywhere but “Birmingham” – mostly because of the schools, but, I wonder, perhaps partly because of the implications – seems to be strong.
And where do we live? I’m really not sure. I don’t think it’s “Birmingham,” but if it’s not, I really don’t know what it is.
So, when it comes to libraries, what you have in the county (Jefferson) is scores of different libraries. When I first got here, I thought they were all Jefferson County libraries or something, but they’re not- they’re independent. So you have a Homewood library, a Hoover library, a very chi-chi Mountain Book library, a large, but not particularly inviting main Birmingham libary downtown and so on. This confused and depressed me at first because the libraries in the smaller cities are nice, but their holdings are as exensive as a good branch library, and not much more. Was I going to have to get four library cards? Or more?
No – as I discovered, the different libraries do, in fact have a relationship – your card is for all of the libraries in Jefferson County and you can return books (although not AV materials) to any library. This is good because, for example, the Homewood library is right across the street from Joseph’s school, and the children’s room has the great attraction of pets – a tarantula, some birds, a frog, some gerbils or something – but its holdings are not as extensive as the Mountain Brook library (naturally) or even Hoover, neither of which are as directly placed on my usual routes as Homewood, but are not ridiculously far, either.
Isn’t this just fascinating? Hey, libraries are important to me. My mother was a children’s librarian for a while and I was one of those kids who marked the stages of growth and maturity by what sections of the library she frequented. I still remember being the frisson of standing in the adult section of the library in Lawrence, KS, browsing those stacks at 12 or so, feeling so grown up as I picked out my books – mostly mysteries at that point.
(One thing I’ve noticed here, too – a very high number of male librarians. I don’t think I’ve ever seen libraries with such a high proportion of men behind the desk.  I’m talking what seems to me, on a quick survey – to be majority male. Meggan? Opinions?)
Okay, finally:
Mr.Maxwell’s Mouse is an odd, fascinating book, ever-teetering on the verge of gruesome. If you read the reader reviews at Amazon, you’ll find a couple that are horrified that the normally placid Frank Asch would produce such a book.
Plot: Mr. Maxwell is a cat who goes to lunch at his regular restaurant. Since today he has received a promotion at work, he decided to celebrate by having a live, rather than his usual baked mouse for lunch. What follows is a morbidly absorbing, well, cat-and-mouse game as the mouse very politely discourses on how resigned he is to his fate, praises Mr. Maxwell for his kindness and even asks the cat to say a blessing before he digs in. Mr. Maxwell demurs, saying that he isn’t religious, so the mice gets on his own little knees and offers a rather lengthy prayer, thanking God for his life and his friends and his family..whether they are dead or alive.
I actually liked this book a lot. It was different and funny and in its own fantastical way, realistic. One of the several types of children’s books that I just hate are those in which carnivore predators are swayed from their usual ways and end up sharing salad or something with their former prey.
So, if your little ones are squeamish, avoid this one. Otherwise, dig in.
(And don’t worry – spoiler alert! – the mouse is a clever little fellow. But ever polite, as his note sent to Mr. Maxwell in the hospital reveals.)
The next two share a sense of the continuity of life,  of memory, of life lived now informed by both the soft shimmering light of the past and impending, yet not fearsome, twilight.  Again, unusual books, but I liked them.
William Joyce is a favorite both for his retro-tinged illustrations and his odd, sharply focused, specific tales. The Leaf Men is about an old woman, some children, a garden and an old toy. Oh, and some Leaf Men. It comes from all over, and is, in the end, rather moving.

Garmann’s Summer is by a Norweigan author and has been very popular in Europe, winning an award and so on. It bears some Euro-weariness, sometimes a bit heavily. The illustrations are collages and the plot involves a little boy visited by his three elderly aunts at the end of summer. It is the end of all kinds of things, you see. The aunts are old and declining in various ways, albeit cheerfully. Garmann is facing not only the end of vacation, but also the end of something else as he faces going to school. We end, we begin, we face it all.  Insert resigned Euro-sigh here.  Given my own sensibilities, I rather liked the book. I am not sure how much of it the little boys actually got, but I appreciated the oddly winsome art and the invitation to take our own fears and try to place them in the big picture.
(And for the record – Michael picked this out based on his appreciation of the cover: “The boy has swimmies on!” he declared as he placed it decisively on the pile.)


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