Thursday, October 30, 2014

8 Great Period Dramas About Marriage

Most period films focus on the romance before marriage, the intrigues of courtship, ending with a wedding. This is a legacy of the historical difficulty of obtaining annulment or divorce (Henry VIII would have executed fewer people if he could have just gotten divorced). Marriage, for many centuries, was a permanent legal bond and in the nineteenth century the idea of a faithful romantic love culminating in marriage became increasingly influential and continues to exert influence today. Since proximity and lack of obstacles render most romantic plots mundane, and in period films, marriage is permanent and thus either a happy or tragic culmination of events, the aftermath of the wedding is much more rarely the subject of period drama. These ten period films all examine marriage, though from a diverse range of class and cultural perspectives.

The Dead (1987)
John Huston's final film, a meticulous adaptation of the story by James Joyce, stars Anjelica Huston as Gretta, who with her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) attends an Epiphany party in Dublin at the home of two elderly sisters (Cathleen Delaney and Helena Carroll). The slim plot follows the minute happenings at the party, which ends with a young tenor singing a traditional Irish song. This song leads to the revelation that Gretta lost a lover, forever transforming her marriage. A rare film that focuses on the significant happenings of the psyche and their devastating effect on an outwardly unchanged reality.

Everlasting Moments (2008)
This Swedish film, directed by Jan Troell and based on a true story, is about Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), the put-upon wife of a boorish and frequently intoxicated husband (Mikael Persbrandt), who in learning photography expresses her inner life. Everlasting Moments is far too complex a film to be clearly aligned with any particular ideology, though the subject matter easily suggests a feminist interpretation. The cinematography, fittingly for a film about the power of image-making, is absolutely stunning.

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
This kaleidoscopic drama directed by auteur Max Ophuls stars Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica, as three bored, over-sexed blue bloods, whose lives unravel as a set of diamond earrings pass from hand to hand. This is one of the superlatively great films of cinematic history, a piercing examination of class and gender set among the French noblesse, a profound and beautifully filmed analysis of the entanglements of men and women in an inequitable world.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman's final film, partially based upon his own unhappy childhood living under the strict command of his Lutheran pastor father, follows Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), brother and sister, whose fragile world is shattered by their widowed mother's (Ewa Froling) second marriage to an ascetic and paternalistic Lutheran minister (Jan Malsmjo). The cinematography by Sven Nykvist, Bergman's long-time collaborator, was never more beautiful, capturing nuances of color and movement, in this haunting, nostalgic and yet deeply disturbing masterpiece.

The Good Earth (1937)
Based on Pearl S. Buck's classic novel, The Good Earth, which tells the story of a Chinese farmer, his long-suffering and virtuous wife, and their brutal struggles to survive famine and civil unrest, was a risky project in 1937. Though today many may feel uncomfortable with the cross-racial casting (the vast majority of the characters are played by white actors), this sympathetic and, for its time, culturally sensitive portrayal of Chinese culture is a moving, if complex, cinematic classic.

Madame Bovary (1991)
There have been numerous adaptations of Flaubert's novel, but Claude Chabrol's coldly bitter film to my mind best captures the stringent realism of the book. Isabelle Huppert stars as Emma Bovary, profoundly bored in her marriage to Charles (Jean-Francois Balmer) and convinced that adulterous love such as she has read about in novels is the only escape to the world she fancies as the realm of "real" experience. Each shot is beautifully composed, reminiscent of the paintings of Manet.

Marie Antoinette (1938)
Norma Shearer, in one of her best performances, stars as the ill-starred French queen opposite Robert Morley as the clock-obsessed King Louis XVI. This lavish costume drama is surprisingly historically accurate and subtly tracks the development of the relationship between the two monarchs, from its inauspicious wedding night disaster to their ultimate support and affection for each other in the midst of the revolution. The supporting cast includes John Barrymore, Tyrone Power, and Joseph Schildkraut.

The Piano (1993)
Holly Hunter stars as a mute woman married by proxy to a rough New Zealand settler (Sam Neill). Bringing with her her illegitimate daughter (Anna Paquin) and her piano, she rebels almost immediately when her new husband refuses to transport the instrument to the house, instead selling it to a fellow settler (Harvey Keitel), who has adopted Maori customs. Writer-director Jane Campion's masterpiece, The Piano is one of the greatest feminist films of all time. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

It's a testament to just how enormous a fortune J. K. Rowling has accrued for her publishers that they were willing to allow her to publish The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym. Naturally, as soon as the true authorship of the debut novel of the new Cormoran Strike detective series was made public, the book catapulted onto best-seller lists and made the pots of money that any book by the author of the Harry Potter series is bound to make. For Rowling, it was an opportunity to be reviewed on her own merits, as a writer of detective fiction, and without any reference to her phenomenal popular success, her status as a billionaire, or the various forms of pettiness that seem to attach themselves to her work, either in anger that the new book is not related to the Wizarding world or in ill temper that she attained a form of unprecedented literary success that will most likely never be repeated.

The Cuckoo's Calling received very positive reviews indeed. As Robert Galbraith, Rowling was able to shed the mammoth critical bulk left by Harry Potter, a critical legacy that sabotaged the reputation of The Casual Vacancy (not that it wasn't a best-seller - but it's been widely and unfairly derided and dismissed). Both a fascinating experiment in critical reputation and an incredible concession to Rowling, the decision to back the pseudonymic ruse gave the first Cormoran Strike novel a fair chance to be judged on its own merits.

In order to be clear about my own point of view, I will say that my sole reason for seeking out The Cuckoo's Calling was my love of Rowling's writing. I'm an unabashed fan of Harry Potter, but I've been delighted by her forays into other genres and genuinely admired and liked The Casual Vacancy. I would never have picked up The Cuckoo's Calling otherwise, though I'm very glad I did. I rarely read detective fiction, crime fiction, or any other mystery subgenre, and when I do, I'm drawn to older incarnations, the Victorians, like Wilkie Collins, G. K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, or twentieth century novelists, like Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Aside from a general preference for older literature, I'm simply not terribly interested in criminality, one of the ugliest facets of humanity's selfishness. On a deeper level, I do not feel that plot is particularly important as long as characters are compelling, and the mystery genre tends to favor plot over character. All that being said, my review of The Cuckoo's Calling is inevitably tinged by a lack of larger literary context. I would find it difficult to name any contemporary mystery writers. Thus, I forgo any attempt to fit the novel into the current mystery landscape.

The detective of the series, Cormoran Strike, seems poised for a good run, though he's unlikely to prove very enticing to Hollywood. Strike is described as a big burly man, not handsome, with "pubey" hair. He's also missing a leg, a result of a tour in Afghanistan where he was with the military police.  He's hired by distraught lawyer John Bristow to investigate whether his glamorous model sister's alleged suicide wasn't a murder, a case he takes half out of pity and half out of necessity (business has not been booming). Though we're granted partial access to his thoughts, Strike remains rather enigmatic, though one imagines his character will develop with the series. Strike's assistant, Robin, is perhaps a simpler and more clearly imaginable character, a snappy Girl Friday, but she also needs development.

One of the most surprising strengths of the novel is the way in which Strike's disability is portrayed. As a person with a limb difference myself, I tend to be hyper-sensitive to the way disabled characters are portrayed in literature and it's rare to find such a realistic, un-condescending and un-pitying depiction. Strike's attitude towards his missing leg is free of the sort of histrionics most people without disabilities seem to imagine is typical of those with disabilities; rather he's irritated that his prosthesis needs to be refitted and is causing him pain and frustrated by the pity parties and unnecessary cheerings-up being thrown at him ("I couldn't even see you limping when you arrived. Isn't it amazing what they can do these days? I expect you can run faster now than you could before!") - in other words, his disability is portrayed as a mundane reality that is something of a pain in the neck (leg? no?), but requires no gushing sympathy. This aspect of the novel endeared it to me greatly.

Each section of the novel opens with a rather overly portentous quote from a classical Latin source, usually Virgil, not a device I particularly liked, though it's unobtrusive. Like the later Harry Potter novels, the first chapter has omniscient narration and lays out a fundamental scene, the catalyst for future events, while the protagonist is not present. In this case, the stage is set outside of a posh London apartment building where the body of model Lula Landry lies on the pavement in the snow. The rest of the novel stays with Strike and, less frequently, with Robin, as they interview witnesses, collect evidence, and solve the case. The pacing is fairly slow, much slower than in The Casual Vacancy, but Rowling is an adept at both pithy dialogue and subtly planting clues (and red herrings). In the Harry Potter novels, hints at what is to come, information that will prove decidedly handy later, revelatory hidden details, abound; one thinks of the appearance of Slytherin's locket in the fifth book or even Sirius Black's motorbike, which appears in the first few pages of book one. This technique allows Rowling to unfold the mystery (which can most likely be deciphered by the meticulously attentive reader) without giving us full access to Strike's reasoning and yet still write an ending that packs a punch. Rowling is a master of complex structure, peeling back the layers of the narrative for the reader, fitting the various puzzle pieces of the plot neatly but not too much so.

The Cuckoo's Calling isn't just about a suicide-or-murder investigation; it also examines, with an acidically tinged satire, celebrity, race, money, class, and how they all intersect. The extreme selfishness and self-absorption that fame and wealth can, and very frequently do, cultivate are evident in many of Lula's associates: her pill-addled and possessive mother, her heroin-addicted actor boyfriend, her nosy gossip of a make-up artist, the proprietorial fashion designer who calls her his muse. To Rowling's credit, few of these characters are really caricatures (though a criminally selfish movie producer is on the verge) and morality is not determined by class.Though not a masterwork, The Cuckoo's Calling is a highly entertaining, labyrinthine puzzle of a mystery, and promises to be only the first of many fine adventures with Cormoran Strike.

Friday, October 17, 2014

7 Works of Nonfiction That Will Change the Way You Think About the World

As I've grown older, I've tried to expand my reading and include more non-fiction. Though this list isn't even a cursory attempt at an exhaustive "things everyone should read"-list, these seven books all provoked intense thought in me and in many cases changed my opinions. These aren't works of reporting; they're works of reflection and they cover a variety of subjects, from feminism and the body to animal rights and physics. With each of my suggestions, I've included a short quotation that gave me food for thought.

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir
This, one of the most important books in human history, certainly had a hugely significant impact on my own life and it's crucial reading for any student of feminism or gender studies. The Second Sex encompasses a mind-boggling array of subjects, from biology and literary criticism to economics and behavior studies, and examines them through the lens of feminism and de Beauvoir's essential thesis that women were and are oppressed. Sex and gender are implicated in every facet of our lives, in every discipline, in every art - de Beauvoir's masterpiece shows us how. 

"Biological need - sexual desire and desire for posterity - which makes the male dependent on the female, has not liberated women socially. Master and slave are also linked by a reciprocal economic need that does not free the slave."

Better Never to Have Been - David Benatar
Benatar's groundbreaking philosophical treatise comes to the painful and radical conclusion that procreation is inherently unethical and, that in order to behave strictly morally, human beings should cease to have children. Better Never to Have Been cannot but provoke a powerful and ambivalent reaction. Without invoking religious beliefs, his argument is, thus far at least, unanswerable, his reasoning entirely sound. This emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and morally challenging book unsurprisingly influenced Nic Pizzolatto while he was writing True Detective

"First, what is so special about a world that contains moral agents and rational deliberators? That humans value a world that contains beings such as themselves says more about their inappropriate sense of self-importance than it does about the world."

Out of My Later Years - Albert Einstein
Einstein's reflections on science and religion, education, and social questions reveal the intellectual workings of the man who revolutionized our understanding of the physical world. Though the chapters on physics prove enormously challenging to those who have not studied mathematics and physics at the university level, they are well worth an essay, given the transformational effect these esoteric ideas, the theory of relativity and quantum theories particularly, have had on modern human life.

"Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be."

Zamba - Ralph Helfer 
In this memoir of his life-long relationship with a lion named Zamba, Ralph Helfer, an animal wrangler who worked tirelessly (and controversially) to ensure better treatment and training techniques for wild animals working in the entertainment industry, provides a passionately delivered plea for respectful treatment of animals, particularly those that we fear and that could harm us. Zamba's story is an extraordinary one - he is not so much a pet as a brother and friend. Though most of us who have owned and loved pets are already convinced of the complex emotional lives at least of fellow mammals, it is difficult to read Zamba and fail to feel new respect towards animals.

"Lying together in the sun were camels, a llama, a baby hippo, an eland, a few deer, a swarm of ducks and geese, a few tigers and cougars... It was a totally impossible scene, one out of a movie, or a children's story-book.... It was like the Garden of Eden must have been."

The Problem of Pain - C. S. Lewis
As regular readers of this blog know, Lewis is one of my absolute favorite writers and, although I often disagree with him, his writing never fails to provoke in me serious and studious reflection. In this volume, Lewis sets himself the task of reconciling the brutal fact of suffering with a belief in a God both loving and omnipotent, one of the thorniest difficulties of Christian theology. Though the focus is on human suffering, Lewis also addresses the suffering of our fellow animals. Lewis had an extraordinary gift for facing the difficulties of life, whether suffering or spiritual doubt or grief, with courage and compassion. The Problem of Pain is one of his finest works of apologetics.

"Indignation at others' sufferings, though a generous passion, needs to be well managed lest it steal away patience and humility from those who suffer and plant anger and cynicism in their stead."

And There Was Light - Jacques Lusseyran
Lusseyran's memoir of his childhood, his leadership of a French resistance group called the Volunteers of Liberty during the German occupation, and his internment in Buchenwald is a powerful document of the realities of resistance under the Third Reich. Aside from being a rather brilliant intellectual who learned German in order to be able to understand radio broadcasts, Lusseyran was also blind. And There Was Light is beautifully and movingly written - it's also free from self-pity. Through this book, those who do not have disabilities can access the reality of living with a difference, one that limits but also liberates.

"There is nothing I want more than not being an exception."

The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking work of feminism posits that, as women have gained greater political, social, and professional power, the standards of so-called beauty have become increasingly burdensome and stringent. A bold, uncompromising vision of modern patriarchal culture, Wolf's critique makes a compelling argument and in doing so offers a means for women of partially freeing ourselves from the bonds of the beauty myth.Whether or not one identifies as feminist, this book provokes a deep engagement with the ways in which we judge the body.

"A girl learns that stories happen to 'beautiful' women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not 'beautiful'."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A 7 Step Recipe for a Great Movie Franchise

Certain elements are essential for any film, whether it's part of a franchise or not. Every film needs a good editor or it will be bad - editors do not get the credit they deserve. Every film needs a good cinematographer, lighting team, and sound team - if they don't do their job well, it won't matter how great a job anyone else does; the film simply won't work. But in today's film market, the franchise is king and every good movie franchise requires certain elements in order to be sustainable.

1. Source material that can be naturally sustained
A lot of the most popular franchises have been based on book series, meaning that the filmmakers automatically have enough material for multiple films, like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and, debatably, Twilight. These franchises can draw on hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of pages of content and thus legitimately make multiple films. Peter Jackson making three films out of the humbly short book The Hobbit is a clear example of the folly of choosing insufficient source material; the films have to be absurdly padded to make feature length running time and thus lack coherence, suspense, and interest. But literary sources are not necessarily the best sources. Though no one could accuse me of being a fan of superheroes in any context, superhero comics are perfectly designed for film franchises. Aside from that large and lucrative fan base, superhero comics have stories that are meant to be sustained episodically and some, I am told, have their characters in split story-lines or time warp situations that make reboots a natural step. Good source material should above all take place in fictional universes, literary or not, that invite reiteration, cultivate interesting characters, and most importantly, provide the basis for multiple story lines.

2. Lots and lots of character actors
My favorite film franchise by far is Pirates of the Caribbean and though I can't easily ascribe my enthusiasm to any one element, if I had to, I would pick the fabulous cast of character actors. Character actors were once a staple of Hollywood filming, appearing in every film regardless of genre, lending variety to the faces, bodies, and voices seen and heard on screen. Character roles tend to be far more entertaining than hero, damsel in distress, or even villain roles because their ultimate destiny isn't defined by their type, nor are their ambitions. Pintel and Ragetti, Murtogg and Mullroy, even Captain Jack Sparrow - these are all character parts and the actors playing them are exceptional character actors. (Johnny Depp is at heart a character actor, but his movie star looks have ironically gotten in the way.) The character actors provide the meat of any good franchise and they are sorely lacking in a film industry that emphasizes youth and misogynistic standards of attractiveness across the board.

3. A distinctive score (by a composer who is not Hans Zimmer)
Not that Hans Zimmer is necessarily a bad composer. His scores, however, exemplify the typical epic, beat-laden music that is usually identified with today's blockbusters; everything sounds like Inception. In just the last four years, Zimmer has provided scores for films from the Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock, and Kung Fu Panda franchises. The best scores eschew this by now banal style and create a distinctive, unique atmosphere. This is extremely difficult to sustain over a long-running franchise. John Williams wrote evocative and quite beautiful scores for the first three Harry Potter films, each one unique, but linked by common tonalities, themes, and instrumentation. The remaining films were scored by three other composers, with greater or lesser success, but the score became increasingly generic and increasingly Zimmeresque. A distinctive score creates an individual atmosphere, immediately evoking the world of the franchise and sustaining its mystique over multiple films.

4. Quality over quantity of CGI
Though poor quality CGI is a problem throughout the industry, franchise films have a particularly bad track record when it comes to CGI. The emphasis on large-scale spectacle to the detriment of character, plot, and logic has resulted in a serious downturn in quality overall. The solution is simple and benefits everyone. Contrary to popular belief, CGI is neither cheaper nor easier to produce than most traditional effects and film techniques. Case in point - the company that did the effects for Noah bankrupted itself, produced poor work, and received grossly inadequate resources and compensation. Those massive shots of CGI ocean could have been easily achieved with actual footage of the ocean. It would have cost a mere fraction of what was spent on the CGI, could have been handled by a secondary unit, would have taken substantially less time and cost less money, and, most importantly, it would have looked a lot better. It is possible to produce top-notch CGI effects, but CGI should be reserved for things that really and truly cannot be done otherwise. A more sparing use of CGI, and the resources to do the best possible job, are key to producing worthwhile films. Not to mention, I'm pretty sick to death of going to films that look like video games with live actors superimposed onto the footage.

5. Witty, cinematically cultured screenwriter(s)
A well-written screenplay is essential to any good film, but successful film franchises call for a particular type of screenwriter, or more often for these films, screenwriting team. The screenwriters need to have the skill to juggle a large number of characters, keeping them consistent and complex, create logical plots unfolded over multiple films in a way that satisfies the structural demands within each film, and construct a convincing world that viewers will want to explore over the course of many hours. It's also essential that the screenwriters, whether they remain consistently involved in the franchise over time or not, adhere to their own logic. Though I admit I have not managed to sit through more than ten minutes of the Twilight films, I heard frequent complaints that the various supernatural beings had particular powers when the plot called for them and didn't at other logical points. This destroys the fabric of the narrative and it's a particularly difficult issue when plots are spread across multiple films. The best franchises will employ screenwriters that are cinematically cultured (any fan of swashbucklers will find endless homages in Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio's screenplays for Pirates of the Caribbean) and, most importantly, know how to write witty dialogue. Speaking of which...

6. A sense of humor
The trend of making every movie epic, dark, and gritty, has sucked much of the humor out of many a franchise, but it's an essential element. The tediousness of the later Harry Potter films can be largely attributed to their deadly seriousness (in contrast to the novels, which even at the most dramatic moments retain an irreverent sense of humor), while many other franchises begin to seem like parodies of themselves (not to keep ragging on Twilight, but it's the prime example). Once again, Pirates of the Caribbean gets full marks - they're consistently witty and funny - as do the Scream films and the original Star Wars trilogy (though I may be laughing at the latter, rather than with it). Humorlessness gets old very quickly, and the more epic the story, the sooner it begins to seem utterly ridiculous. A judicious dose of humor is essential for the sustainability of any film franchise.

7. A committed cast and production team
And I mean committed in a variety of senses. Hopefully, the people making the film should be enthusiastic about it, but more importantly for a film franchise, they have to be willing to commit their time for the long-haul. Few things are as disruptive to a film franchise as a major player dropping out. Imagine if Johnny Depp left the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or if Daniel Radcliffe had bowed out of Harry Potter. Even worse, and far more common, than replaced cast members are replaced directors. Switching up directors hit the Harry Potter franchise hard, resulting in a series that is frequently incoherent, with each director's contribution tugging the series in a different direction. Such changes have less impact when the films are not meant to tell a continuous story (which is the case for many superhero franchises), but the strongest franchises hold onto their significant players.

And, bibbity bobbity boo, a great film franchise. Get these seven ducks in a row and you're set. It seems like I'm missing something though...

Oh, yes. A great deal of money.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Reading Favorite Books from Childhood

I belong to a generation that often gets criticized for failing to put aside childish things (Disney films are the most frequently cited example), but in fact there is a perfectly legitimate reason that we are reluctant to do so. Most likely, more than one. By retaining the books (or films, or music, etc.) that fired our imaginations in childhood, we are able to retain, at least a little, the sense of endless possibility, illimitable transformation, and transcendent expansion that is only really possible before we become familiar with the horrific realities of the world in which we live. And, as technology advances and we become ever more connected, we see these atrocities occurring in real time and they feel closer and more threatening than they possibly could have when news arrived days, weeks, even months after the events. How can we counteract the existential crisis, the paranoid terror, the overwhelming despair that inevitably assail us as we watch beheadings, airstrikes, devastating floods and tsunamis, the fallout from nuclear disasters, terrorist attacks, the piles of bodies resulting from all these horrors and epidemics?

Perhaps, returning to the innocent pleasures of my childhood is nothing more than a selfish escapism. I don't discount that possibility. Perhaps, these books merely serve to nullify what I've been reading in the newspaper. Perhaps, I'm simply immature and not willing to let go of childish things. Without dismissing any of these possibilities, I do believe that these books, most free from violence, injustice that goes unpunished, and despair, can serve a more profound purpose.

It's not that there isn't terror and rage within these stories. They are there, but in the form in which we experience them as children. In L. M. Montgomery's Magic for Marigold, her young heroine experiences such unspeakable fear when she confronts a large, barking dog that she loses faith in God, while in Emily of New Moon, Emily nearly dies of terror when she mistakes a family of owls in a chimney for a malignant ghost. In Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox throws fits of rage whenever her will is challenged, smashing her mother's favorite keepsake and kicking her caregivers. In E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Fern must be separated from her beloved pet pig, Wilbur, that she saved from slaughter. Terrible things are possible in the universes of these stories: loved ones die, homes burn down, people get hurt, promises are broken, friendships end. The difference is in degree. The horrors are bearable, endurable. Marigold can discover the dog is just enthusiastic to make friends, and Mary can lose her rage when her feeling of abandonment and neglect is conquered by friends and new interests. And even where hurt remains, healing is in the ascendant.

From an adult perspective, many of the fears and stings of childhood are laughable, but to shrug them off as mere nonsense is to forget that these horrors loom large in the child's miniature world, just as our horrors loom large in our expanded, complicated, and far less enticing world. (And I do realize that in talking of the child's world, I'm talking of the safe child's world; one of the most sickening of our adult horrors is that many children are forced to face the same atrocities.) In Magic for Marigold, a very wise adult says, "It is such a pity that she will lose [the wonderful gift of creation] as she grows older - that she will have to forgo its wonder and live, like us, in the light of the common day." The inevitable consequences of growing up, the narrowing of our imaginative realms (conjured so brilliantly in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story), and the loss of the almost supernatural power of making believe, are not simply the trade-off for adult pleasures, responsibilities, and control; these costs, these casualties to time, forever diminish our capacity for fantasy, and with it, our capacity to transform the self without mutilation or pain.

When I reread The Wind in the Willows, the first chapter book that my mother read to me as a child, I'm not pretending to be a child again, but rather accessing, in my limited adult way, that capacity for fantasy. The chapter in which Rat and Mole find Otter's missing son in the care of the god Pan, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," is one of the most profound pieces of prose I have encountered in my years of reading and it only grows in stature with each perusal. What precisely Pan's music means remains somewhat mysterious to me, just as it does to Rat and Mole, but Pan's joyous, terrifying wildness, too savage for us civilized mortals to remember for long, is perhaps that wild, limitless song that we hear as children and that fades as we become integrated into the adult world, with its limits and injustices. Even if we hear only the faint echo, it can recall a state that may not be free from violence or fear but that is utterly boundless and thus ever-hopeful.

And that is precisely what these books provide: a reminder of hope. Wilbur may be headed for the farmer's axe, but with intelligence, friendship, and perseverance, he can hope to live a long and contented life. Though Rose Campbell of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins has been orphaned, she can hope to find a new home and loving family with her uncle, aunts, and cousins. Even in the darkest of children's books, like Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Shere Khan can be defeated and the objects of his predation saved, though at a price. It is easy, as adults, to become lost in hopelessness and cynicism because our adult problems are so complex, so overwhelming; on the other side of the coin, blank optimism is not so much hopefulness as a steadfast blindness to what cannot be easily or comfortably resolved. In the best children's literature, the darkness is as present as the light, but whether the dark or light wins the day, these stories exist in universes of possibility and creativity, that is, the base ingredients of any good solution.

As the Happy Lion observes, in Louise Fatio's brilliant picture book, "People are foolish, as I begin to see." We are too closed, too hemmed in by the petrification of our stultifying creative power. If we open our minds to the stories that fired our childish brains and charted the realms of our imaginations, we access some of that boundlessness, that fantasy, that transcendent imaginative power, that can offer us both the openness that can lead to clearer thinking and more compassionate feeling and the hope that in grappling with these problems we may find panaceas. I sincerely hope, in any case, that this is so. If not, I have at least spent many pleasant hours deep in the perusal of these lovely stories and whether or not it has done me good, it has certainly done me no harm.