What I’m Backing: Punnies by Llyn Hunter

Okay, I’m a sucker for puns. A HUGE sucker for puns. And the only category I come close to backing as much as I back games is publishing. So, when I saw Punnies by Llyn Hunter, it was kind of a no-brainer.

Stats*:

  • Goal: $11,000
  • Funding Status: partially funded, ~72%
  • Total Backers: 190+
  • Interesting Stretch Goals: Two stretch goals for expanding the amount of art in the book.
  • When Did I Jump In: In the first couple days.

And now, of course, why I backed the project.

Again: Art. I love supporting good, fun, quirky art as much as I love a well-designed game.

Puns. I grew up in a family whose sense of humor consists of ALL THE PUNS. It’s somewhat disturbing actually. So, with that in mind, seeing the puns take visual form in pretty, pretty art was a strong draw. Also, I’m a big fan of the table art book. It’s a great way to set a mood in a room and I feel like having a book of puns in my front room is just perfect (especially considering the guy I’m marrying and will be sharing a front room with). The fact that each visual pun comes with a poem (there are some examples of the accompanying poem on the Kickstarter page) that explains/reveals the pun is a fun bonus. It puts me in mind of a lot of the Tomie dePaola and Michael Hague books I grew up reading. There was often a short text and a beautiful illustration to go with it, and say it’s more nurture than nature, but that’s a book style I like.

Another really attractive part of this project is that there’s clearly a plan. Hunter states that ze** has drawn 32 of the planned 48 pages and would like nothing more than audience input for those last 16 pages. I do love Kickstarters that ask for backer participation. Best kind of project. HOWEVER, if there is no backer participation, ze has said that ze enough ideas to fill over 100 pages. This is excellent and I really appreciate knowing both the preferred plan and the back-up plan.

The stretch goals are pretty simple in this project: more pages. More art. The original funding allows for a beautiful table art book, so the only logical improvements are to add more art. Each goal adds another four illustrations and poems (or eight pages).

I hope this one makes it. I’ve never backed a project that failed (although I did back one that was canceled by the creator . . . it doesn’t count) and I don’t want to ruin my record now. Thankfully, Punnies has been pretty steady in its progress and it still has about halfway to go in its funding period. I’m hopeful!

*As of posting 9/17, 12:00 Mountain Time.

**I used a gender neutral pronoun since I don’t know gender and don’t wish to assume. That’ll be a standard on this blog.

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“We all have flaws and mine is being wicked.”

Most books need some introduction.  Some need a little, some need just a bit more.  Some need far too much.  Some need none at all.

James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks falls under the last two categories.  Either it is passed off without a word, or the recommender spends so much time explaining the engaging little book that the reader may as well have already read it.  Perhaps that is part of its charm.  (Certainly this is why I let the book introduce itself.)

However, before I go into all the charm and wit of Thurber’s book, I want to discuss the criteria for choosing a children’s book on this blog.  This blog is for, as I have stated, “challenging” books.  What defines a challenging children’s book?  Clearly not the length in this case (124 pages in positively huge type), nor the writing itself.  I’ve been reading this book since I was a very young child.  The vocabulary of a book isn’t necessarily a determining fact, though in The 13 Clocks Thurber makes up enough words that one has to gain the meaning from context, which is a wonderful challenge . . . for children.  So do I determine challenge by a child’s standards?  If so, this book would count at least on one level.  Ultimately, after thinking about it, I feel like that approach is inappropriate.  Any book is challenging for someone.  The question is, why is this book challenging for me?  If I cannot answer that it is, then the children’s book does not deserve a place in weekly line-up (though I do have the option of doing an OP book review after having finished the weekly book).

Thankfully, I have an answer as to why this book is challenging for me.  I will be including this answer for all Young Adult and Children’s books, partially for the reader’s benefit, partially for my own (don’t want to cheat myself, you know?).  Usually, I would include it at the end, but after all this fuss, I’ll include this one now.  The 13 Clocks is challenging for me because, after literally hundreds of readings, in many ways it is still ineffable.  I penetrate the surface story, but I know that there is so much I am missing.  It will take at least another quarter of a century for me to feel like I have a good understanding of this book.

Okay, onto the review itself.

Perhaps the best introduction to this book, since I am going to try, is the wonderful book flap that was written for it.  I do not know who wrote this book flap, but I will say that I wish that this person was still around.  Book flaps these days have a dull sameness to them.  This person was an artist! (Question: do you know of any other masterful book flaps?  I’ll check out the book just to read it/them!)

How can anyone describe this book?  It isn’t a parable, a fairy story or a poem, but rather a mixture of all three.  It is beautiful and it is comic.  It is philosophical and it is cheery.  What we suppose we are trying fumblingly to say is, in a word, that it is Thurber.

There are only a few reasons why everybody has always wanted to read this kind of a story, but they are basic:

Everybody has always wanted to love a Princess.

Everybody has always wanted to be a Prince.

Everybody has always wanted the wicked Duke to be punished.

Everybody has always wanted to live happily ever after.

Too little of this kind of this is going on in the world today.  But all of it is going on valorously in The Thirteen Clocks.

I cannot disagree with the four assertions.  I always preferred to be the savior than the saved.  I naturally like punishing the wicked archetypal character.  And, as ridiculous as it may seem with all my pragmatism, I have ever believed in happily ever after.  I think that book flap is a perfect introduction.  Then again, the newest version published (after several sad decades out of print), has an introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I am seriously considering buying another version of the book just for that introduction.  Having never read it, I will declare this book flap perfect with room for tandem perfection in introduction form.

That being said, the Foreword by Thurber himself describing the process of writing the book is well worth the time and pages.  Anyone who is willing to admit to “several grueling conferences” with a four-year old deserves the honor of having their forward read.

And then there is a book.  Loathe as I am to overuse any word, I have to use “perfect” again.  If there ever was a perfect villain, it is the Duke of Coffin Castle (although you don’t get that name until the very end, my apologies for the spoiler).  Unlike most books, which begin with the heroes (perhaps the villains get a short preface), the Duke debuts in the very first chapter.  This is one of the best image-invoking descriptions I have ever run across:

[The Princess] was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold.  His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.  He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult  for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of  nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.  He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.  One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half.  He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul.  One afternoon, a mother shrike mauled him first.  His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

Isn’t that just marvelous? 😀   Not only is it that, but it is a comfort to me that the two best introductions I have found to this book are exactly what they should be: the book flap and the first para of the first chapter. I adore it!  I think this book is the reason that I don’t like melodrama: Thurber is such a master of it that any melodrama that is not as finely balanced and paced as this just doesn’t measure up.  Also, in a continuity that doesn’t seem over-done or terrible, he begins the next paragraph with, “Wickedly scheming . . .”  As you might have guessed, the quote that titles this blog is the Duke’s.  What a wonderfully self-aware dastard!

As you may have noticed, there are some embedded rhymes in the text.  They are all over and there’s a rhythm to them.  Sometimes Thurber uses them to high-light an important part, sometimes to just point out something.  I tend to think Thurber is just pointing out the summary of the Duke with the dreams/schemes rhyme.  The Duke is eeeeeeeviiiiilll.  ‘Nuff said.

There is so much I could talk about, but I hate to ruin such a wonderful book for you.  This is Thurber’s second children’s fractured fairie tale (the first is The White Deer, also highly recommended), and it is just about the best thing he ever wrote.  I say that having a love-affair with all his works.  So, I think I have to point out in bullet form a few more things, or I will over-introduce this book.  I do hope you discover it on your own.  It’s clever, charming, quixotic, and just gets better as you get older.

  • The female lead, the Princess Saralinda, actively participates in her own saving.  Plus, she’s a brunette!  Score for the non-stereotype.
  • The means to saving Saralinda comes via another woman, who is neither a young temptress nor an old crone.  For a book written in 1950, it is remarkably modern-day friendly.
  • The hero is neither stupid, nor helpless, but is willing to accept help.
  • The magical help, the Golux, is labelled, from the start, as a “mere device” and later called an “ex machina.”  LOL and score for the classical education!
  • There are some truly amazing tongue twisters and phrases for helping with diction.
  • It is not just a fairy story, or a parable, or a poem, but all three.  Children can learn each aspect and be far more prepared for the different types of literature in school.
  • The book teaches the importance of living for Now and not in Then, despite how frightening Now can be.

This is the first book I remember my father reading in voices.  This is the first book I remember my father reading to me.  He read it to me when I was sick, when I was down, when I asked, and when I didn’t.  It is the family classic, and it deserves that honor.  It is one of the two formative books of my childhood.  It began my love affair with words.  All educational roads in my life, both formal and recreational, trace back to here.

I think I wish to close by leaving you with the words of the Golux to the lovers as they part, for I think they are incredibly wise:

Keep warm.  Ride close together.  Remember laughter.  You’ll need it even in the blessed isles of Ever After.

Our endings are there, but we decide if they are happy.  Yes, this book has taught me so much about life and I fully expect it to teach me more.

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The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

It’s hard not to be enchanted by a book called The Meaning of Everything.  Harder still to avoid its siren call when that title is followed with the subtitle The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary and paired with an author’s name that is so typically and wonderfully British that it seems the author was named specifically to compliment the book.  But when said book chronicling the story of the English language’s most definitive dictionary has a chapter entitled, “The Hermit and the Murderer–and Hereward Thimbleby Price” it becomes truly irresistible.  Having read hundreds of books and thousands of chapters, I can say definitively that there is no more disarmingly charming and unexpected chapter title than this.

Unfortunately, the above mention chapter is far into the book and the intrigue it presents in what–at first glance–may seem to be a “dry” subject comes some six chapters equaling 185 pages (nearly three full quarters of the book) after you begin.  Chapter length can be a bit daunting.  But, never fear, the chapters are arranged to have several sections in each, so you can easily pause mid-chapter, and the bewitching playfulness of chapter seven’s title is, by then, a standard well-kept from the Prologue of this wonderful book.

Considering the subject matter, it seems only fitting that I finished this book the day I chose by happy accident to wear the t-shirt proudly proclaiming myself to be a bibliophibian (meaning one who breathes both books and water, a word the OED has yet to see fit to include in its honorable tomes).  After all, one learns, the strongest tradition of the OED is the legions of volunteer readers who send in quotations illustrating obscure, old, out-dated, merely out-of-fashion, current, or entirely new senses of words.  I want this job.

The breadth and depth of the project that took nearly seventy years to complete, as well as seven Senior Editors (though three remain vastly uncredited, as nothing beyond sample pages were published while they handled the project), is summarily encased in the prologue of the book, which graciously provides the specs of the first edition of the OED: 12 tombstone sized volumes containing 15, 490 pages of single spaced text cover the then 414,825 words of the English language with 1,827,306 illustrative quotations.  These contained a total 227,779,589 letters and numbers which occupied 178 miles of type.  All of this represented the work of several lifetimes, much of it donated by those who wished to help the scholarly endeavor.

As I’ve learned, the OED was a source of light and hope to many people.  In fact, it was exactly that for the hermit and murder of chapter seven fame.  A man once honored in the peak of the academic world was wrongfully ousted from his high seat and responded in hermitic fashion.  He spent the remaining thirty-two years of his life cloistered by his anger, but kept company by the Dictionary for many of these.  He is widely regarded as one of the greatest contributors and, in return, his academic standing was–if not returned–proved by his contributions.  The other was a schizophrenic with psychotic episodes who also found his redemption in the pages of “the Big Dictionary” (as long-time Senior Editor James Murray called it).  During one of his psychotic episodes, he shot a man.  This lead to him finding himself with time in abundance in a psychiatric facility.  Rather than actively contribute, however, he waited for requests from the Dictionary staff.  Once received, he would respond to a request by pulling out scads of homemade books of illustrative quotations (organized by source book, no less) and provide the information needed, plus any extra the staff could have wished for.  In the matter of a day or two.

Of course, Sir James Murray was no stranger to the redeeming qualities of the book.  As Senior Editor to what eventually became the OED, he saw these stories as well as was part of them.  There were endless arguments with the publishers, and he nearly always emerged the winner.  He was dedicated to the purity and academic quality of the book, regardless of the quantity it required.  He had a high regard for accuracy, and for every enemy this made him, it made him–the book seems to imply–at least one full hundred friends.  Considering that he began the process with red hair and beard and never lived to see it end (passing away with the most spectacularly white beard), one might say these friends were well deserved.

But, as interesting as the story and the book’s people are, I wish to leave the reading of it to you.  Half the fun of this book is the discovery.

As for the book’s style, well, it is simply marvelous.  There is no reason that historical records should be boring, but they seem to end up that way more often than not.  Winchester not only manages to avoid that trap, I don’t think there’s a single moment I can even call the book slow or slightly dull.  His storytelling style is engaging.  He doesn’t hesitate to meander into the rabbit trails that we so often find ourselves following in oral tellings of stories.  In fact, he makes an art of it.  But each meandering has a significance of its own and yet, as fun as they are, Winchester always has a more interesting tidbit that brings you back to the main story, more interested than ever.  As one should expect in a book about the überdictionary, he also makes sure to use words that require a little thinking, perhaps even use of the subject.  And he never lacks illustrative quotations. 😉

Speaking of illustrations, included are several pictures worth looking at.  Winchester was very careful to give a face to the main players of the Dictionary, as well as as many minor characters as he could.  Admittedly, this helps quite a bit, and the cheery Santa-like man in an academic cap from the cover of the book (and his associates) becomes alive in the book.

Also, the footnotes alone are worth reading the book.  Many are hilarious, some poignant, some a mere word or two, others full paragraphs.  They are beautiful (and full of rabbit trails).

Conversational without foundering in purposelessness, informative while hardly punctilious, fast-paced but never sloppy, this book is possibly one of the best stories I have read.  It’s also entirely true.  It sings of unsung heroes, which I love considering that many books like this choose to honor only one or two of that breed.  Winchester honors thousands, and names as many as possible.  He says of them:

We know these things [about the volunteers], but we do not really know why so many people gave so much of their time for so little apparent reward.  And this is the abiding and most marvellous mystery of the enormously democratic process that was the Dictionary–that hundreds upon hundreds of people, for motives known and unknown, for reasons both stated and left unsaid, helped to chronicle these immense complexities of the language that was their own, and that they dedicated in many cases–such as the Thompson sisters [two dedicated volunteers who sub-edited all letters following C] did–years upon years of labor to a project of which they all, buoyed by some set of unfathomable and optimistic notions, insisted on becoming a part.  The Thompson sisters of Liverpool, Reigate, and Bath, living an otherwise blameless and unremarkable (though moneyed) suburban life in three most ordinary English towns, left no greater memorial than the one they performed for the greatest literary enterprise of history.  They became footnotes in eight-point Clarendon type in a preface to a volume of that enterprise.  That was truly their only reward–and yet in all likelihood they, and scores of others like them, surely wanted no other.

I can think of no better description of the legion of volunteers.  The most blameless and unremarkable of people (though, Winchester is careful to note there were several remarkables as well) dedicated lives to this Dictionary.  Thankfully, as grand as these figures are, the book also celebrates the imperfection of the men on the project, as well as occasionally mentioning the newest edition’s men and women who are already recognizing their own potential failings and compensating for it.  He clearly has great respect for the old and new guards.

I went into reading this book loving the OED.  I would not have survived my thesis (or several bouts with one particularly vexing professor) without it.  I have come out of the experience with nothing less than a dedication bordering on worship to the book and the history that it encompasses in its depths.  It is truly a work for the ages and I so look forward to 2037 when, 44 years after work began on it, the Third Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is projected to be released.

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P.S.  If any of you were wondering, I chose not to update yesterday in the hopes I could finish this book today.  Normally, this will not happen, but as I published twice on Thursday, I felt a little better about it.