Archives for the month of: December, 2010

“Once [Horand] had heard the song of Fair Hilde, he could not get its sweet, simple tune out of his head.
He began dreaming of it, wove melodies around the notes, he made the words more passionate, and when he sang the song in his own way by night, in his lonely fortress by the sea, the fishermen stopped pulling in their heavy nets to listen, and the fish they had caught escaped” (10-11).

Alma Johanna Koenig’s Gudrun, translated beautifully from the German by Anthea Bell,  also weaves a spell around the reader. As I read this aloud to my infant daughter, I found myself sneaking in a page here, ten pages there, throughout the course of the day and feeling quite good about it, as it exposed her to many new words. A prose adaptation of the story thought to be the precursor to the Nibelungenlied (think: Wagner), the story is at turns romantic and violent, with beautiful language to enchant the reader, even in translation. Hilde and Gudrun, mother and daughter, share a great beauty and consequently, each is greatly desired and greatly fought over. Both show a single-minded devotion in love, and many people die as a result – although the deaths are, perhaps, more caused by the men who hopelessly or blindly pursue the women, bringing with them armies to prove their strength. Power and love seem to be inextricably intertwined.

“Many good warriors died there; blood stained the rough sea water, floating on it like oil, and sea swallows darted to and fro above the clashing swords, screeching and circling over the cliffs where they nested in alarm” (66).

Hilde’s story lays the groundwork for her daughter’s tale. A great beauty in her own right, Gudrun is wooed my several men, including the Prince of the Moors, Hartmut of Normandy, and Herwig of Zealand. At last she falls in love with Herwig but does not marry him immediately, which causes more bloodshed. A cast of supporting characters – Frute, the rational and far-seeing lord; Wate, the descendent of giants with a giant fury in battle; Horand, the singer whose voice enchants, saddens, and empowers; and Gerlind, the almost-heartless mother of Hartmut – moves the story forward, one judgment, one slash of the sword, one song, one machination at a time.

As with many stories written down later than they were created, including Beowulf, Gudrun suffers a bit from the clash of Christian tradition with a more strongly-felt pre-Christian set of moral codes. In most cases, however, the awkward intrusion in the story passes quickly, and on the whole, the pre-Christian values have their day: men fight for their honor, and forgiveness, while it plays a role, shows itself more in fairness in battle than in the ceasing of battle.

This story of love, loss, and family ties is made more poignant by Anthea Bell’s note about the author: “In 1942 Alma Johanna Koenig, as a Jewess, was deported from Vienna to the concentration camp of Minsk. Unlike Gudrun, she was to have no happy ending; nothing more was ever heard of her” (187). Perhaps the novel itself, with its bloody battles and thousand killed, is more relevant than it might seem. Horand gives Gudrun the rather questionable gift of “grief–the grief the gods give to those they love…”(43). The grief permeates the novel – inside and out.

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Koenig, Alma Johanna. Gudrun. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Kestrel, 1979. Print.

The Color Kittens, written by Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame) and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, recently joined our collection of children’s books; it’s a board book version of the Little Golden Books. I vaguely remembered having read it as a child, but I don’t think I’d seen it since.

The tone is very much on the mark for children, playful yet earnest: “The buckets [of paint] had the colors written on them, but of course the kittens couldn’t read.” We’ll overlook the fact that, as non-reading kittens without opposable thumbs, they’d also not be likely to be opening and mixing cans of paint! As with many children’s books, this is a story with a purpose: it teaches children about colors. In addition to color identification, color mixing plays an important role, as these curious kittens, Brush and Hush, seek green paint: “And they wanted green paint, of course, because nearly every place they liked to go was green.” With a slightly trippy dream sequence, the story takes a turn for the odd but interesting, including a pale pink sea and dancing Easter eggs. Intrigued yet?

After the first reading, my husband didn’t like it much. He liked the dream sequence, but the final line left him dissatisfied. Endings matter.

After further readings, however, he’s come to love the story, final line and all. I have, too – and it’s mostly for the language, which leans towards the literary. Vivid imagery and a strong sense of repetition propel the tale of the mischievous kittens. My personal favorite lines follow:

“The sky was wild with sunshine.
The kittens were wild with purring and pouncing –”

The sky was wild with sunshine! They awaken to no ordinary day, and if this is the world that the Color Kittens live in, it’s one that I want to be a part of regularly. It’s now stashed near the bed for frequent bedtime reading.

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Brown, Margaret Wise. The Color Kittens. New York: Golden Books, 2009. Print.

Reading to children is a good thing, and I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement. It’s not like saying that TV is good for children – I don’t think there really are two sides to this one.

We decided to start early: we read to our baby while she still made her home inside of me. Every night, my husband would get out one of our books (Tacky the Penguin; Let’s Dance, Little Pookie; etc.) and read, his mouth near my belly, sending a very early statement to our daughter about reading – and how much we love her. He ended every session with his advice for her (although we didn’t know ahead of time if she was a boy or girl, so we just called her “Baby”) to grow and become “big and strong” – but as her birth approached, he thankfully changed it to “not too big and strong.” She listened.

Now that she’s joined us, we’ve been reading to her every day without any barriers; she can see the pages and the pictures, and she smiles particularly when she sees Pookie books. Does she remember the voice that came through to her in the womb while she was busy growing into the small, wonderful person that she is?

But we don’t just read her books with pictures that she can enjoy. I’ll read her excerpts of articles from magazines and books that I’m reading, and I also read her books in full of a more grown-up sort. It started when she was just new, her first week in the big world, and I took out my childhood copy of The Secret Garden. Over the course of several weeks, I read to her while she nursed – which means I read to her a lot. I didn’t want to read just to myself since it would take me away from the special, intimate moments with her, so I read to her – and I’ve been doing it ever since. Now I’ll read to her while she nurses or while she’s playing, and I like to think it’s good for both of us. I get to read more than just The Very Hungry Caterpillar (although it is one of my favorites), which makes it more exciting for me, and she certainly hears a wider range of vocabulary (and ideas) than she would if we were only reading books for very small children. It’s also a good way to work through some of the many books on our bookshelves!

So far, we’ve read The Secret Garden, The Good Thief, The Five Little Peppers, Rascal, Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, and now we’re into Gudrun (by Alma Johanna Koenig). Along the way, I’ve been discovering some old favorites and enjoying some great lines.

As my little one grows in her understanding of the world (when she drops a spoon while sitting in her high chair, she looks down to the ground to catch sight of it), the books are right there with her, giving her a hint of just how much the world can hold.