Friday, May 27, 2016

The View of the Plaster Cast Collection at Charlottenborg Palace (1830)

We close our birthday celebration of Christen Købke (born 1810) with this witty picture, The View of the Plaster Cast Collection at Charlottenborg Palace, painted when the artist was just 20 years old.

Artists of that era spent much of their time drawing from plaster casts; in fact, in many academies, it was standard practice to draw from plaster casts for several years before moving into drawing from the live model.  Artists thronged to ateliers and museums to stand before casts and draw from a variety of different angles, learning perspective, anatomy and proportion.

The casts here so scrupulous tidied by an attendant are of a sort to be found in most top-tier collections.  (For example, in the upper right is the celebrated marble relief in the Louvre of Apollo, Artemis and Leto.)  This witty picture mixes the exalted with the mundane – fabulous pieces of art dusted by a household servant.

As usual, Købke is in full command of light and color.  Anyone looking at a plaster cast would say that it was ‘white,’ but, instead, look at the medley of colors Købke uses.  He takes into account light, shadow, surrounding colors and time of day – yes, the casts are ‘white,’ but white reflecting the world in which they inhabit. 

Købke also employs shadows with a clean and unfussy hand, while posing for himself another challenge in a difficult pose: our servant is leaning forward, reaching out, but also elevating his head.  Købke makes the difficult look easy.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Portrait of Frederik Hansen Sødring by Christen Købke (1832)

Just to get this out of the way, though something about this picture looks a little … off, I love it unreservedly.  It is by Christen Købke, born today in 1810, and depicts his friend and confidant, the landscape painter Frederik Hansen Sødring (1809-1862).

Købke painted portraitslandscapes and architectural paintings. He liked to paint things close-at-hand (like yesterday’s landscape that was almost right outside his door), and the vast majority of Købke’s portraits depict friends, family members and fellow artists.  This beautifully composed work is emblematic of his innate sense of coloration and his mastery of everyday life. In 1832 Købke shared a studio with Sødring, and painted this portrait which now hangs in the Hirschsprung Collection.

Sødring was the son of a merchant, and was born in Aalborg.  He lived in Norway before studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen (beginning in 1825).  He married Henriette Marie de Bang (1809–1855), and had several children before dying at the early age of 52.  The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was one of his beneficiaries, where he established a scholarship in his name and left money for the widows of landscape painters.

We know that Købke and Sødring were great friends, but know very little about the actual mechanics of their friendship.  Though married himself, to Susanna Cecilie Købke (1810–1849) in 1837, Købke had a gift for enduring male friendships.  He was often traveling across Continent with brother landscape painters, and seems to have spent little time at home.

Now, take a moment to look at this wonderful picture.  To the modern eye, something seems a tad off in the composition: one wonders if Sødring’s head is a tad too large, or if his body haunches unnecessarily in the middle.  I think, while looking at it, that these issues resolve themselves when we see that Købke set himself the difficult task of capturing Sødring in an unusually convoluted pose.  The young artist perches on the edge of the chair, drapes his body backward, while thrusting his head forward and shifting slightly to the side. 

At first, this seems unnecessarily fussy until one realizes that this is exactly how a painter would sit while backing away from his easel.  His trousers bunch up and puff around his pelvis because his body is sliding within them while the seat of his pants stays on the chair.  When one realizes the challenge that Købke set for himself, the result is nothing short of astonishing.

Now, look at the frank and friendly countenance of Sødring and you will see not only the charming ruddy completion of a northern European, but you’ll notice that his left eyebrow is starting to beetle.  Then, Købke captures the lines of his shirt and the pattern of his silk vest with a minimum of fussiness.  And speaking of attention to detail: look closely at the thumb struck through the palette and you will notice that there is a smudge of paint on Sødring’s thumb.  The paints on his extended palette are arranged in color-wheel order, and the wood bears the paint stains of previous use.

There is so much in this picture to admire.  I love the panels in the wall; I love the creeping flower behind him; I love the top of his own easel reflected in the mirror above him.  This picture seems so careless, so effortless, but closer inspection reveals that it is a work of great detail, subtlety and affection.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A View of One of the Lakes in Copenhagen, by Christen Købke (1838)

This week we celebrate the birthday of Christen Schiellerup Købke, who was born on May 26, 1810.  He had a brief life, dying in 1848, but this Danish painter born in Copenhagen to Peter Berendt Købke, a baker, and his wife Cecilie Margrete, was one of the greatest artists of the Golden Age of Danish Painting.

One of 11 children, Købke was a student of Copenhagen Academy and, from 1828, a pupil of Christoffer Eckersberg (1783-1853), who influenced his style.

Starting in 1834, his landscapes acquired a more solemn and emotional quality, inspired by his interest in Caspar Friedrich (1774-1840).  He left for Rome in the summer of 1838; during his journey, he visited Dresden and Munich.  In May 1839, he arrived in Naples, and he stayed there until August 1840, copying the Pompeian frescoes in the National Museum. 

He lived in Capri with his compatriot painter, Constantin Hansen (1804-1880).  When he returned home, he turned his Italian life studies into large-scale painting.  He worked on the interiors of the Thorvaldsen Museum, and in 1845, he moved back to Copenhagen.  He had hopes of being called into the arts academy, but when that didn’t happen, money concerns forced him to start working as a decorator.

Today we look at one of my favorite Købke pictures, A View of One of the Lakes in Copenhagen, painted in 1838 and now at the Copenhagen National Gallery of Art. 

In this oil, two women stand on a short wooden pier in the tranquility of the summer twilight, watching a boat move away towards the far lake shore.  The delicate silhouette effect accentuates the slightly melancholy mood of the scene and the hour, and simultaneously suggests the artist’s sensitivity in communicating the naturalness of the scene.  The Danish painter acquired this ability during his long apprenticeship to Eckersberg, during the time the two men traveled together, sketching the Danish countryside from life.

Before deciding on the definitive layout for this painting, Købke executed various sketches of this view that he knew and loved – in fact, Købke lived right on the lakeshore.

Though Købke is clearly a gifted draughtsman and painter, there is something else going on in this picture that makes it so special.  First and foremost, Købke had the most important gift an artist can have – that of composition.  The layout and design of the picture frame is what makes the finished work so haunting and evocative. 

Købke also has the gift of subtlety – a sense of wistful yet intense emotion is captured by the artful placement of a few carefully rendered figures.  There are no faces in anguish or delight, no straining muscles or fiery (or smoky) colors, but still Købke manages to create a world of emotion without.  Amazing.

More Købke tomorrow.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Waiting for Augusta, by Jessica Lawson

We have been looking at children’s books this week here at The Jade Sphinx, and easily the funniest of the bunch is Waiting for Augusta, by Jessica Lawson.  It is written with considerable dash and brio, and has genuinely laugh-out-loud passages every few pages.  If you are looking for a lark for your young reader (or for yourself), you can’t go wrong with this book.

Our main protagonist is 11-year-old Benjamin Putter, who has a lump in his throat that he is convinced is a golf ball.  His mother – who runs the remnants of a once thriving pork restaurant in rural Alabama – takes the boy to various doctors who all fail to diagnose the real problem.  Even Ben thinks he may be cracking up … if only he didn’t think the whole thing made so much sense in a strange kind of way.  Ben’s recently deceased father was a huge golf fan, and much of their time together was spent with his dad talking about the game, the greens and the pros.

But … all is not lost.  Ben hears his late-father speaking to him from the urn holding his cremated ashes, telling him that these ashes need to be scattered at Augusta National gold course, the Valhalla of golf champs.  Ben, an amateur painter and gentle soul, runs away from home with his late father in search of the perfect resting spot for the old man.  Things get even more confusing when it seems that other inanimate objects have no hesitation to give Ben helpful advice, leading to many comic interactions.

On the way, he takes up with another runaway, Noni, a take-charge young girl with a gift for giving orders, hatching schemes, and making trouble.  Together, Ben and Noni make it from Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, with a great deal of fun and hijinks during the trip.  Zany passages include an inebriated guard chicken (much better than a guard dog), passing Ben off as a hapless mute to get sympathy, and navigating the ‘big city’ of Augusta through disguise and improvisation.  The book, though, is no simple romp.  It has a surprise ending that brought this reviewer up for a shock, and is promised to resonate with readers for some time to come.

The great joy of Waiting for Augusta is the interplay between Ben and Noni.  Though only children, they are soon bickering like Lucy and Ricky; unlike sitcom couples, however, Ben learns something from Noni’s talent for schemes, her ability to play tricks and her skill at bending the rules.  In looking to find peace for his father, Ben ultimately finds himself.

Be sure that while the ultimate purpose of Lawson’s book is quite serious, she never flags in her comic invention and deft gift for dialog.  She also has a keen ear for regional prejudices, and the book, set in the South in 1972, is rich in historical details that are interesting and informative to young and old alike.

Jessica Lawson is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, and Nooks & Crannies, a Junior Library Guild Selection.  Waiting for Augusta is a terrific book, and we hope to see more from Lawson in the future.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Somewhere Among, by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu

Proving that children’s literature is endlessly fertile, rich and protean, we find Somewhere Among, a unique, resonant and disturbing book-length poem by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu.  A novel of subtle grace and undefinable beauty, Somewhere Among is unlike anything you have read before, and will haunt you for some time to come.

Somewhere Among tells the story of 11-year-old Ema, who lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father.  When Ema’s mother has a difficult pregnancy, she and Ema are housed with her father’s parents: Jiichan, her happy-go-lucky grandfather, and Obaachan, her cold and overbearing grandmother.

The story takes place over the course of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Everywhere, Ema seems to encounter bullying – she and her mother are bullied by Obaachan; Obaachan bullies Jiichan; Ema is bullied by a school punk named Masa, who is, in turn, bullied by his own mother.  Even Ema’s father is bullied by his bosses at work.  At times, it seems that the whole world is an unending spectacle of bad behavior.

Donwerth-Chikamatsu uses the microcosm to explore the macrocosm – how can the world be at peace, she wonders, when its people can’t be at peace with themselves?  So much of the bad behavior that Ema sees every day is motivated by other bad behavior, creating a cycle that makes the world increasingly intolerant, hostile and disengaged.  Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu is saying that this cycle of abuse has ramifications both personally and internationally, and that it cannot and will not be broken until we strive to be better, do better and live more consciously.  It is a bold and daring gambit to mirror historical events like Pearl Harbor Day and Sept. 11th with more mundane, personal hardships, but the case Donwerth-Chikamatsu argues is a persuasive one.

Ema sees the chance for renewal and second chances in her soon-to-arrive baby sister.  Few events are more positive and optimistic than newborn babies, and the arrival of the baby helps mend the rifts within Ema’s family, just as the cycle of life can help renew our faith in our fellowman.

It is a daring choice for Donwerth-Chikamatsu to write her book in free-verse poems.  At first, the reader is convinced that this may be little more than an authorial trick; once into the story, however, the reader realizes it would be near-impossible to tell any other way.  The spare language of free-verse poetry connects directly with the deep and powerful emotional current that runs through the book.  At times wistful and full of hurt, her language also has the simple power of either a lament or a prayer.  Her versifying compounds the mighty emotional effect of the story, and its last few lines will linger with you long after you close the book.

Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu lives in Tokyo, Japan, and this is her first novel.  Her previously work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Highlights, Y.A.R.N., and other magazines.  Somewhere Among is a dazzling achievement, and we can expect great things from her.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce

Many artists reach a plateau and stay there, revisiting the same themes or visions, never expanding, never stretching, never evolving with their work.  And then there are those lucky few artists – which includes writers, graphic artists, musicians and performers – who continually grow, develop and stretch their capabilities.

Into that happy few we must count author, illustrator, animator William Joyce (born 1957).  After creating some of the most beautiful picture books of the 1990s, Joyce then branched off into his other love, filmmaking, and helped design a number of memorable films (including Toy Story), before branching out into production himself.  He also started the company Moonbot to make apps, games, animated shorts – anything, in fact, to which he could harness his storytelling genius.  Located in Louisiana, Moonbot is a human-scale Disney, where talented artists, writers and filmmakers create the next generation of children’s classics.

His first love, though, remains books.  He started a series of picture books and prose novels that detailed the origins of such childhood myths as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny called The Guardians of Childhood, and he has now served up a new original novel with illustrations, Ollie’s Odyssey.  It is his most daring and interesting prose novel to date, and a significant demonstration of his ever-increasing capabilities.

Ollie’s Odyssey is all about a kid named Billy and his special relationship with his toy, a ragdoll his mother made named Ollie.  During a wedding party, Ollie is kidnapped by the minions of an evil toy, the demented clown Zozo.  Billy must sneak out of his home at night and trace his lost friend, a journey that leads him to a deserted underground carnival, to a confrontation with a horde of menacing reconfigured toys, and to a final battle royale led by Ollie and some odds and ends who form a junk army.

In outline, it would seem as if Ollie’s Odyssey would be just another kid’s adventure story.  But Joyce uses this framework to write a deeply moving tale about growing up, the inevitability of change, loss and, perhaps most important, the power of memory.  Rather than a stock villain, Zozo has become twisted through the loss of his beloved ballet dancer-doll.  He is a tragic-villain, fully formed and compelling enough for the most adult fiction.  Similarly, Billy and Ollie fear changes to their friendship as Billy ages, and Ollie wonders what becomes of toys that are no longer loved.  The coming end for their partnership does not mitigate in any way the love they have for one another, but it does add a tragic dimension unusual for kiddie fare.  Joyce also talks about resurrection and rebirth during the junkyard sequence, where now useless bric-a-brac takes on new life and new identity to help Ollie and save Billy.  It is a stunning juggling act: Joyce has written a profoundly moving and emotionally resonant novel in the guise of a children’s book.

Just as Joyce has previously illustrated his picture books with dazzling watercolor work, and then branched out into both line drawings and computer illustration, Ollie’s Odyssey tests his versatility with a series of charcoal drawings – a medium he has not used in his published work before.  The illustrations of Ollie’s Odyssey are unlike those of any of Joyce’s previous work, and fit the overall emotional tenor of the story beautifully.  Charcoal brings a gritty, tactile sense to this tale of fuzzy friends and frayed castoffs that would be missing from glossier modes of illustration.  He also used the paper upon which he drew to great effect, allowing what would normally be the white ‘tooth’ of the paper to soak up computer-added color.  The book is also beautifully designed by Joyce with chapter heads in bold red crayon, and different colored papers representative of different characters and scenes. 

As with much of Joyce’s oeuvre, his latest book can be savored by adults as well as children. A man who loves popular art immoderately (and wears that love on his sleeve), Joyce peppers Ollie’s Odyssey with echoes of titans and works that come before.   Attuned readers will catch bits of filmmakers Todd Browning and Lon Chaney, hints of the classic Universal Monsters with a touch of The Island of Lost Souls, a healthy smattering of Ray Bradbury, and shout-outs to everything from the original King Kong to Batman Returns to The Magnificent Seven.  Indeed, the final image of the book is a direct rift on John Ford’s mighty ending for The Searchers … and one wonders if Joyce is writing for adults who have kept their inner child alive and well, or if he writes for children who will one day make more adult connections.

Ollie’s Odyssey is a bigger, grander, more ambitious book than anything that Joyce has attempted before, and he rises to the occasion splendidly.  It is certainly the finest of his prose novels, and one cannot but wonder what this protean talent has in store for us in future years.

While we are delighted that Joyce has spread his abilities into so many different areas, it is perhaps in books that devotees get the fullest distillation of his talents.  His written and illustrated works are the least collaborative of his output, and capture his philosophy best.  That view of life has been changing and evolving over time – that William Joyce names his protagonist Billy is surely no accident – and if the man himself can emerge from the crucible of experience with his sense of wonder intact, what is he not capable of?  And what, he asks, are any of us not capable of?  It’s that sense of possibility, that childlike sense of limitless adventure, that the world is filled with things to delight each and every one of us, that is the essence of Bill Joyce.

Ollie’s Odyssey is highly recommended to kids, old people, and everyone in between.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Arthur Anderson (1922-2016)

Though I couldn’t call the late Arthur Anderson a friend, we certainly knew and liked one-another.  I had been meeting him on-and-off since the early 1980s, when I was on the board that organized a yearly seminar on vintage radio, The Friends of Old Time Radio convention (FOTR). 

FOTR, run from its inception till its end just a few years ago (in 2009) by Jay Hickerson, was unlike other conventions.  The three-day event would have multiple recreations of vintage radio shows starring the very people who starred in them during the 30s, 40s and 50s, and the event was small enough to create a feeling of family among regular attendees.  I was in college when I went to my first FOTR convention, and well into my 40s for my last.  If that doesn’t say something about Hickerson, vintage radio fans, and the event, then nothing does.

The most important names in radio drama attended FOTR at one time or another, and several were regulars every year.  Anderson was in that latter category, and I actually had the pleasure of appearing with him in several radio recreations.  (One of the great joys of FOTR was that fans and attendees were often part of the recreations; better still, there was a dinner event two nights of the three, and often you were seated next to the likes of Jackson Beck or Burgess Meredith.  How cool was that?)

Anderson was a fixture on Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater (1938 – where you can hear Anderson in Treasure Island and Life With Father), and a regular on the classic children’s program, Let’s Pretend (1928-1954).  His story – in a highly fictionalized form – is told in the film Me and Orson Welles (2009), where the handsome Zac Efron played young Anderson.  (Anderson was actually much younger than Efron in the film, which allowed filmmakers to incorporate romance into the story.)

Anderson can be seen in the Woody Allen film  Zelig (1983), and in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and on television in Car 54 Where Are You, as well as the more sober Law and Order.  And he worked till the end, doing voices for commercials (his is the voice of the Lucky Charms leprechaun from 1963 till 1992), cartoons and the like, and being the best spokesman vintage radio could ever have.  As Anderson said: I never got the girl, not in 19 seasons. I was never starred, I was never featured. But I always worked.

Anderson was unfailingly friendly and one of that rare vanishing breed: the jobbing New York actor.  He and his late wife, Alice, were always a pleasure to see and both always had terrific stories to tell.  He was really the last of the great voices from the classic era of radio drama, and we won’t see his like again.  He will be missed.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2006)

It’s not often that we review nonfiction unrelated to the arts here at The Jade Sphinx, but we have just finished a fascinating book by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, called My Stroke of Insight.  In it, she chronicles the onset, affects and long term recovery of a devastating stroke she suffered at age 37, and it is an alternately harrowing and fascinating tale indeed.

Bolte was a respected brain researcher, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a member of the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry.  Her younger brother suffered from schizophrenia, and Bolte was interested not just in mental illness, but the physiological reasons for it – in short, she was deeply invested in the mechanical and chemical workings of our brains.

So when she suffered an asteriovenous malformation (AVM), a rare form of hemorrhagic stroke, it was from the privileged space of being an expert on the inside looking out.  However, that privilege was not something she could communicate to her peers – shortly after her stroke, Bolte could not speak, read, and process her impressions.  Her brain was a prisoner within her own body, and it would take eight long years before she would recover completely.

My Stroke of Insight is harrowing in its depiction of the onset of stroke and its affects on cognitive function and simple quality of life.  Perhaps nothing could be more terrifying than lying helpless and conscious while various loved ones and professionals calmly decided her fate.

It is fascinating because the damage done to Taylor’s mind was mostly on the left hemisphere, the portion of the brain that reasons, deduces, makes connections and is rational.  This freed her right hemisphere without reservations; it unleashed the portion of her mind that was intuitive, creative, free and receptive to the world without filters of reason.  In the absence of the normal functioning of her left orientation, the perception of her physical boundaries were no longer limited to her left-filtered impressions.  She felt like a genie escaping from its bottle and swam on a sea of euphoria.

As Bolte puts it:  My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me.  I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid.  Of course I am a fluid!  Everything around us, about us, among us, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space.  Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity.  My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others.  Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow.  I was no longer isolated and alone.  My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.

Now, before we dismiss this as so much New Age hoo-haw brought on by brain damage, let’s consider what happened here.  If the left hemisphere of the brain is a filter through which our reason, capacity to measure and ability to make connections is the part of our brain that makes sense of reality, then the right hemisphere is the part of our brains that receives reality without the blinders of cognition.  In short, perhaps what Bolte saw was indeed the world as it really is, without the blinders of our own reason getting in the way.

Another way of thinking about it is that Bolte was given the insight that the human psyche and consciousness are a very subtle type of force that interacts with the brain, but are not necessarily produced by the brain.  That we are, indeed, entities that would exist without our very human bodies.  An interesting thought, that.

My Stroke of Insight is an extremely rewarding book.  If nothing else, it is a warning to take care of our health to avoid stroke, and also an invaluable guide in helping loved ones recover from stroke.  But, most important, it is a fascinating look at what might be that realm where existence within the brain ends, and something not quite yet known resides.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

William Joyce Wants Your Toys!

We have frequently looked at the work of illustrator/film-maker William Joyce (born 1957) in these pages.  He is one of the most gifted creators in the field of children’s entertainment today; his books have won numerous awards, one of his animated films has won an Oscar, he created his own wonderland-cum-story-telling-factory Moonbot, and most important, he was won a place in the hearts of everyone who takes expertly crafted, intelligent family entertainment seriously.  Joyce has shared his peculiar magic with the world, and now he wants something in return … your toys.

Recently, Joyce has been thinking about toys while preparing his upcoming book, Ollie’s Odyssey (soon to be reviewed in these pages).  In particular, he has been thinking about Big Teddy, a huge stuffed bear owned by his late daughter, Mary Katherine, as well as his own bear who became lost when we has around six years old.  What happened, he wondered, when beloved toys became separated from the people who loved them?

Right now, Joyce is collecting stories of beloved toys and their people on his Twitter account.  Tweet him at @heybilljoyce with a photo or drawing of your most beloved toy.  Every week, Joyce will pick one to illustrate and post, and then he will mail the drawing to you!

This is a wonderful opportunity to share an important part of our childhood with a man who has done so much for children’s literature, and who has brought a significant amount of wonder into the lives of children and adults.  Make your day a little happier and check out Bill Joyce on Twitter.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (2016)

It’s understandable that so many have soured on adult fiction and are finding greater rewards in Young Adult novels.  It seems that contemporary adult novelists devote themselves to a minimalist approach, stripping life of its mystery, its romance and its quality of transcendence.  This reductive quality in contemporary fiction – shorn of story, shorn of suspense, shorn of purpose – is perhaps the greatest threat to contemporary engagement with reading.

Many novels targeted towards Young Adults, however, have evaded this post modern rot.  This is largely because the fodder of so much bad contemporary fiction – failed relationships, unsatisfying sex, career depression – still lie ahead for many young adult readers.  Also, Young Adult novels drive in an engine powered by plot; and plot is something much contemporary fiction ignores.

There is also a quality of fearlessness in Young Adult fiction that contemporary adult fiction lacks.  It can take risks, go for the big effect, approach realms of magical realism.  And certainly few new Young Adult novels go for the big effect more ambitiously than Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee.

Maybe a Fox is about two sisters, Sylvie and Jules.  Both girls live with their widowed father in rural Vermont.  When Sylvie, a runner, disappears and is presumed dead, Jules must cope with her feelings of loss and guilt.  She must also try to find a greater, more deep understanding of her sister, their relationship, and reconcile them to memories of their late mother.

Also going on, her friend Sam is dealing with the return of his brother, Elk, who is back from active service in Afghanistan and dealing with the loss of his own dear friend, Zeke. 

The novel shifts from its realist roots with sequences involving Senna, a new-born fox who feels a strange affinity for Jules.  Is this, in some way, the returning spirit of Sylvie, or something more mundane?

Appelt and McGhee are to be given kudos for their remarkable evocation of grief.  For readers (young or old) who have had to deal with loss and its resultant pain, the taste of this peculiar agony is palpable on the page.  Here is a good sample, where Jules realizes that her life can be divided into her earlier life, and “after Sylvie:”

After Sylvie, Dad laced and then untied, then relaced his boots, and then sat there staring at them as if he didn’t know whether to relace them once more.

After Sylvie, Jules caught Dad more than once pouring two glasses of milk, then pouring the second one back in the carton.  Her dad didn’t drink milk.

After Sylvie, Jules poured the rest of Sylvie’s coconut shampoo down the drain of the shower.  Even though there was no trace of the shampoo, Sylvie’s signature scent lingered in the bathroom, clung to the shower curtain, hung there in the steamy air.  Jules used her dad’s Old Spice shampoo when she took a shower.  It didn’t smell like coconut.

After Sylvie, Jules stood in the kitchen and watched Dad stir a pot of spaghetti sauce.  It was the first time since … It was the first time they were eating something besides Mrs. Harless’s soups.  She was sick of Mrs. Harless’s soup, even though she knew that Mrs. Harless was just trying to be nice to them.

The sauce bubbled, thick and spicy.  Jules made a salad and her dad dished up the spaghetti and they sat down and ate it at the table where Jules had set down three plates before she remembered.


Every day she forgot and then every day she remembered.

And that’s how it was After Sylvie.









After Sylvie.

That plaintive style reminiscent of incantation is extremely powerful and the book has many strong passages like this.  There are also several surprisingly clumsy passages, as if the co-writers were unsure of the dominant authorial voice.  Because of this, Maybe a Fox gets off to a slow and unsure start; but readers are encouraged to stay with it for the greater rewards.

The supernatural or preternatural aspects of the book will move you or not, according to taste.  It is a bold gambit on behalf of Appelt and McGhee because it mitigates, to some degree, the pain at the loss of Sylvie.  The pain of the void is great material for a novelist; for novelists to fill that void is courageous, but not always successful.  However, Appelt and McGhee do a wonderful job with their central story conceit, and it’s impossible to read Maybe a Fox and remain unmoved.

Maybe a Fox comes highly recommended to readers young and old alike.  It is deeply affecting, emotionally demanding and eminently rewarding.