Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: "Keep Curious and Carry a Banana: Wisdom from the World of Curious George"

Keep Curious and Carry a Banana: Wisdom From the World of Curious George (2016)
Justin Martin and Liza Charlesworth

80 pages

A selection from the delightfully vibrant illustrations of the Curious George books of Margaret and H. A. Rey serve as the centerpieces of the book Keep Curious and Carry a Banana. Accompanying each illustration reproduced here is an aphorism that draws from the outlook with which Curious George approaches life in those stories.

The sayings associated with each illustration --- what the subtitle describes as Wisdom From the World of Curious George --- do not provide particularly deep or novel insights. Instead, the charm of the book lies in pairing these gentle suggestions with the little monkey’s playful spirit, as demonstrated by the pair of pages from the book reproduced below.

Beyond the simple pleasure of enjoying these illustrations in a new context, this collection serves as a reminder that finding ways to ease our path through life need not always be a weighty proposition, and indeed may be best accomplished with a bit of play.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Door" by Magda Szabó

The Door (1987)
Magda Szabó (1917-2007)

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

262 pages

Someday perhaps someone will speak with absolute sincerity about all the things he has felt, and the world will be astounded to find that most of its maxims and observations are mistaken, and that there is an unknown soul at the center of that soul about which all the stories are told. .............................. Germaine de Stael, French Author, 1766-1817
The mysterious challenge of discovering the most profound feelings and motivations of another soul --- as captured so wonderfully by de Stael in the quote above --- animates Magda Szabó’s novel The Door. The tremendous responsibility that comes with such knowledge, and the likelihood of achieving only an incomplete understanding, set the stage for a gripping --- and devastating --- endgame in the story.

As Szabó’s story opens, a couple in Budapest, Hungary, have moved from a small apartment to a home. Magda and her husband are writers, and quickly realize that they will need to hire a housekeeper to allow them the time they desire to dedicate to their writing. Recommendations from neighbors and friends lead them to Emerence, an old lady who lives in a nearby apartment building, where she serves as the building caretaker. Magda discovers that, along with that caretaking job, Emerence performs a variety of other work and activities in the neighborhood, from sweeping snow for several families to rescuing abandoned pets and bringing food to neighbors who are sick.

Though a seemingly indefatigable worker, Emerence comes with a prickly and peculiar personality, which becomes immediately apparent to Magda and her husband when they realize that the normal interview process has been turned on its head: Emerence arrives to interview them, and so decide whether to take on the position as their housekeeper. As Emerence tells them, “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen.” (6)

In the months after Emerence begins working for the couple --- adding the housekeeping job to her existing workload --- Magda comes to realize what an unusual person she has introduced into her presence. Emerence performs the work needed in the house, but on her own schedule and terms. She can be generous to the extreme, but will never accept help or a gift for herself. She seems to have almost a sixth sense for knowing details about the people and happenings in the neighborhood, but remains cryptic and circumscribed in revealing anything about herself. Perhaps most surprising to Magda, Emerence has never been known by her neighbors to have allowed anyone into her apartment; she entertains a stream of people on her front porch, but the door to her home, as to her thoughts, remains firmly closed.

Already in the opening pages we learn that over the course of some twenty years together, Magda and Emerence develop a complex yet powerful relationship, and that the very strength of that relationship will finally have traumatic consequences for both of them. The story, then, follows the evolution of the relationship between these two wildly different personalities: Magda a writer and philosopher who seemingly second guesses her every thought and action, and for whom working can consist of sitting for hours staring out at the landscape; and Emerence, a stoic and disciplined laborer, with solid and unwavering convictions, who can be deeply generous to someone one day and fiercely chastise them the next.

Since Emerence gives no quarter, and accepts no compromise, the novel develops around Magda’s struggles to accommodate Emerence by learning about her past and so divining her intentions. Magda’s preconceptions and tendency to rush to judgement in every encounter color her view of Emerence; with Magda serving as our narrator, we too only slowly come to understand the complexity that lies behind Emerence’s tough exterior. The other characters in the novel, including Magda’s husband, remain largely in the background, serving mainly as foils for Emerence, and thus opportunities for Magda to potentially discover new information about her.

The Door opens as a moving character study, building on the quotidian interactions between Magda and Emerence. Seemingly innocent and even mundane moments transform into psychological battles between two extremely different personalities who nonetheless come to slowly, grudgingly, feel deep affection and trust for one another. Ultimately, however, as de Stael intimates in the quote that leads off this review, there remain limits to Magda’s understanding of Emerence, limits engendered by her inability to overcome her own personal convictions and outlook, and in the final part of the novel these limits prove to be of dramatic and fateful consequence.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf