Frog and Toad Are Friends

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A Year in Reading: Shanthi Sekaran

2017. The best I can say for 2017 is that it showed us new and unexpected ways to be punched in the stomach. But there were good things. I’ll focus on the good things. My book came out, for one. My kids grew a few inches. My kids, period. I discovered non-dairy cashew ice cream. I met Eva Longoria. That was cool. I met Mohsin Hamid, whose every book I’ve read, including his latest, Exit West, a spare and sublime fairy tale steeped in the realism of civil war and refugee flight.

2017 was also the year I found two fantastic writing partners. We met almost every Wednesday at a café in Oakland for writing and no talking, followed by lunch and non-stop talking. One of those writers is Nayomi Munaweera, whose first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I finally got around to reading. You know when your friend writes a play or belts out a song or makes a working beehive out of marzipan and you’re like, “Oh, good God”? I read most of this novel sitting stick-straight, my mouth agape, quietly cursing. Yes, I’d known about the Sri Lankan Civil War, but only vaguely. I knew Tamils were involved, because I’m half Tamil, but that’s where my knowledge ended. This book took my marginal knowledge, fashioned it into a dagger, and drove it straight into my chest. It gives us the stories of both Sinhalese and Tamil families before, after, and during the war. The bloodshed is brutal and perpetrated by both sides, and it spills over family loyalties, inter-community romance, and post-migratory memory.

When it came to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, I thought I was on stronger footing. I know India. I’ve written about India. I know Indian history. But Roy forced me to look at Indian progress in a way that was both uncomfortable and revelatory. She looks past the facades of India’s vast new malls, its gleaming tech centers and hotels; she takes us out the back door to meet the people who’ve been left behind because they don’t fit the contours of shiny new India. Her novel offers up contemporary India on an overladen platter, to be considered not for its particularities, but for its panorama.

While Roy’s novel is about the intentional blindness necessitated by economic development, Chilean author Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red takes on the experience of actually going blind—something that happened to the author herself. What got to me, ironically, was the book’s vision. It’s not often that I read something that provides such pleasure merely through perspective. Lina, the narrator, establishes instant intimacy with her reader, who has no choice but to follow, like someone strapped to a toboggan, hurtling through the viscerality of going blind (suddenly, bloodily) and the interpersonal crises that ensue.

I turned 40 this year. Not much of a surprise there. I pretty much knew it was going to happen. One thing I didn’t expect was a package in the mail with a book in it and no indication of who sent it to me. This wasn’t a galley seeking a blurb. This was an old book, its cover tattered and faded. The edition was printed in 1956. The title was Gift from the Sea: An Answer to the Conflicts in Our Lives,  by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (wife of Charles). It was a beautiful thing to receive, its mystery compounding its beauty. It’s not often I get to read old books; my reading and writing lives are steeped in the contemporary. Gift from the Sea is a sort of manual on living and seeking contentment. But it doesn’t claim to have any answers. It elegantly, and quite humbly, invites its reader to think quietly alongside it, like two people on a beach.

In February, I picked up a book called The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan, an Irish writer who lives in California now. I have a thing for the Irish generally, and for Irish literature, specifically. Rohan’s book takes on the issue of teenage suicide, a growing epidemic in Ireland. The story itself is less about the decision to die than the decision to live. It’s told through the eyes of Billy Brennan, a morbidly obese man whose son has recently killed himself. We meet Billy as he decides to take control of his body, and to stage a long-distance walk to raise awareness for suicide, a notion that some find inspiring and others—including Billy’s own family—find distasteful. What I love most about this book is the way it grapples with the discomforts of tragedy—the embarrassment that often closes a suffocating fist around family trauma. What results is a novel that embraces possibility, and champions a man burdened by grief, but brave enough to naysay the naysayers.

And then there was the day in July when I went to Pegasus Books in Berkeley. I picked up Winter Journal by Paul Auster. To be honest, I picked it up because I’ve always loved the picture on its cover: black and white, taken sometime in the 60s, Auster with that dark-ringed serial killer gaze, his lower lip thrust out brattishly, brooding and Heathcliffian. I turn back to the book now, and try to find the sentences that first grabbed me, that made it impossible to put that book down. Because that’s what happened. I’d never been much of an Auster fan, but there was something about that book. Looking back, I see that there was no single magical sentence, but a propulsion of sentences, a frank and snowballing narrative that was impossible to put down. Written in the second person, the book is a meditation on aging bodies, aging hearts. I took Winter Journal on vacation with me. I read it mostly in a hammock. I didn’t put it down for six days.

Books on aging, books on childhood. Mostly, I read books for children. Hundreds, maybe, each year. I read to my two sons every night. This was the year I finally threw a Power Rangers book in the recycling bin. I hated that book. My four-year-old loved it. I don’t feel guilty. I couldn’t read that book one more time. Not one more time. The children’s books I did love from this year: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Nicholas and the Gang, Wonder, and Frog and Toad Are Friends. I will always, always, go back to Frog and Toad.

And there were so many other books I haven’t even started to talk about: Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua, The End of My Career by Martha Grover, Get It While You Can by Nick Jaina, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Broad Strokes by Bridget Quinn, A Good Country  by Laleh Khadivi.  The year doesn’t sound so bad, if I look only at the books. Maybe this will be how I survive 2018—looking only at the books, hearing and speaking only their words. But books are physical manifestations of vision’s triumph. The writers above have dared to sift through blindness, to look and to report what they see. And isn’t this what books are? Missives from the front lines? But I need a break. I need to not see. This winter, I will hibernate. I’ll watch pointless comedies. I’ll read horoscopes like they’re The Bible. Maybe I’ll read The Bible. And then I’ll return. 2018. I’ll return, ready to see again.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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The Anxiety of Influence: Children’s Books and Their Grown-Up Counterparts

If, like me, you’re a parent to a young child, you probably find yourself reading a lot of picture and chapter books, and then, before your own bedtime, reading different books, ones that feature more adults, more drinking, more ennui. You might believe these books, theirs and yours, to be quite different — but that’s not always the case. Over the years I’ve made connections between my favorite authors and my son’s. Once you see the similarities, you can’t un-see them. So read on, brave adult, if you want the veil pulled from your eyes…

Jonathan Franzen and The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Once you get beyond the shock of how the most famous Bear Family spells its name, you might notice how alike these books are to certain famous American novels written by a certain famous American man. A classic Berenstain story (by the original duo Stan and Jan, not the later, inferior titles by Jan and Mike), contains a lot of back story and exposition, and its lessons — on manners, nightmares, and so on — contain at least one moment of domestic strife and misunderstanding. Like The Corrections or Purity, these are narratives about beasts in human clothing (a la Chip Lambert and Andreas Wolf), and the mother controls not just the household but everyone’s psyches. And like Franzen’s novels, the Berenstain Bear books might meander, reveling in details alternately informative and irrelevant, but ultimately they’re straightforward tales about family. (Also, as a friend pointed out to me recently, JFran sort of looks like a Berenstain Bear. This can’t be coincidental.)

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel

Yanagihara clearly recognizes this connection because she put it in her book: artist JB names his series of paintings of Willem and Jude Frog and Toad, after Lobel’s famous amphibious friends. And, let’s face it, A Little Life is basically Lobel for Adults (now with rape and suicide!) Willem is Frog, the perennial optimist, while Jude is sad old Toad. Like Frog and Toad, Willem and Jude need and love each other despite their differences, and because of them. Toad will keep trying to push Frog away, but Frog will remain by his side. Lobel’s stories, like Yanagihara’s novel, maintains an elegant clarity about the unimpeachable sadness of the world.  Plus, Toad’s nice, cozy Toad Hole is the animal equivalent of Willem and Jude’s million-dollar country home.

Emma Straub and What Pete Ate From A-Z by Maira Kalman

Kalman is mainly an artist and illustrator for people of all ages, but her children’s alphabet book is a favorite in our household for its cheeky commentary and beautiful, funny drawings. (I would like to live inside her picture of a pink ice-pop, please.) The characters in this book — Roberta Rothschild, president of the Rubber Band Society; cousin Rocky with his list of people who have wronged him — remind me of the Post family in Straub’s novel The Vacationers: they’re sometimes put-upon, often very funny, from Manhattan, and quite lovable. An Emma Straub novel is the literary equivalent of a Maira Kalman drawing; I have no doubt that her forthcoming novel, Modern Lovers, about two families in Brooklyn, will cement this kinship.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Scarry

You might think you’re super literary, cozying up with Knausgaard’s multiple-tome fictional autobiography after a long day with your toddler. You probably agree with James Wood, esteemed literary critic for The New Yorker, who wrote: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.” But you probably also feel this way reading Richard Scarry’s books, which, like Knausgaard’s, describe so much of the mundane. Do we really need to know about every piece of clothing in Huckleberry’s wardrobe? Also, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, with its quaint town squares, its weird cars you’ve never heard of, and its waiters carrying tagines, could only be, like Knausgaard himself, one thing: European.

Gary Shteyngart/George Saunders and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Have you introduced your kid to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet? I don’t mean the movie with Gene Wilder (or the remake with Johnny Depp in that creepy bob). I mean the book by Roald Dahl. Shit is fucked up! Charlie Bucket lives in horrible poverty, Wonka is a shut-in maniac with too much money, and the Oompa Loompas are victims of the global economy, trucked in from some far-off land to perform labor cheaply. (I’m not kidding. Wonka performs experiments on these workers! They never get to leave the factory!) Wonka’s crazy schemes and nonchalance about everyone’s endangerment remind me of the nutty heroes of Gary Shteyngart’s novels. (Absurdistan, indeed.) The book’s workplace commentary, so tragic it’s funny, is straight Saunders. In fact, I’d love to see him write a novel from the perspective of an Oompa Loompa. It would be like “Pastoralia” but with sugar and torture instead of a cave fax machine.

So there you have it. I suppose it’s time we just rolled up our sleeves and read the child some Don DeLillo, and at night tucked ourselves in with Hop on Pop. We’re tired enough, aren’t we?

May Books: A Reading List for the Month of Love

Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.

May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the “uncertain glory” of April, Shakespeare’s May, with its “darling buds,” is always sweet, and ever the month for love. Traditionally — before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot — May Days in England were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations. It’s on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose “bouncing handsome womanliness” among her fellow country girls still reveals flashes of the child she recently was.

May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother’s Day to honor the death of her own mom. The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in “The May Magnificat” Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that “May is Mary’s month,” and asks why. “All things rising,” he answers, “all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature’s motherhood.”

The many meanings of a simple word like “May” can get to be too much, though. When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse’s fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy: “month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida.”

Here is a selection of recommended May reading, including love, friendship, underground adventure, and a very bad prom:

Memoirs by Lord Byron (unpublished)
You might wish to read Byron’s Memoirs (who wouldn’t?), but you can’t, thanks to a decision made by six men in the drawing room of the publisher John Murray in May 1824, a month after their dangerous friend had died of fever in Greece. Fearing the effect of its publication on “Lord Byron’s honor & fame” (and perhaps on their own reputations), they instead fed the pages of the manuscript, unread, into the fire.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

She may have met a March Hare that was mad as a hatter, but it was in the month of May — the birthday month of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson’s model for his heroine — that Alice followed a rabbit with a watch in his waistcoat pocket down a hole and began her adventures underground.

The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (1899)

In January he had written to her, “I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett,” but it wasn’t until May 20 (from 3:00 to 4:30 pm) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met in person for the first time, in her invalid’s bedroom in the house of her domineering father. They eloped the following year.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

What better cure for end-of-term blues than the campus novel that launched the whole genre (along with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, published the same year)? You may never want to go back to class at all, especially if you’re lecturing, miserably, on medieval history at a provincial English university.

“The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin (1964)

Amis based Lucky Jim on, and dedicated it to, his good friend Larkin, who made his own mark on postwar British culture with this ambivalent ode to the hopeful mass pairing-up of springtime, three years before the Kinks captured the same lonely-in-the-city melancholy in “Waterloo Sunset.”

“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” by Hunter S. Thompson (1970)

A son of Louisville returned home for the ninety-sixth running of the local horse race in the company of the bearded British illustrator Ralph Steadman and emerged with his first piece of journalism that earned the adjective “gonzo.”

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)

The lesson of “Spring,” the opening tale in Lobel’s thrillingly calm series for early readers, is, apparently, that there is honor in deception, as Frog fools hibernating Toad into joining him on a fine April day by tearing an extra page off the calendar to prove it is, in fact, May.

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

“Remember, it’s YOUR prom; make it one to remember always!” With over 400 dead in the town and the school gymnasium a charred and blood-soaked ruin, it’s not likely that anyone — assuming they survived it — will forget the climactic late May event of King’s debut.

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982)

An early May visit to the Eastman film archives in Rochester and then to the nearby apartment of the forgotten elderly woman who had starred so thrillingly in the silent films he screened there led first to Kenneth Tynan’s classic New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, “The Girl in the Black Helmet” and then, following her rediscovery, to the publication of this collection of Brooks’s own sharp-witted memoirs and film criticism.

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)

All within the month of May 1948, Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph meet, become engaged, and are wed, and Gilbert sets off from Jamaica for the larger island of Great Britain, to be followed six months later by Hortense, who had funded both their journeys in an immigrants’ alliance that’s as much a business partnership as a marriage in Levy’s subtle, sympathetic novel.

Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (2008)

“I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK,” sixteen-year-old Sontag scribbled on the inside cover of her journal for May 1949, marking a moment when she was colossally precocious — rereading Mann, Hopkins, and Dante — and falling in love for the first time, with a young woman in San Francisco.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

In late May 1943, just a few days after Memorial Day, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, former Olympian runner and holder of the NCAA mile record, crashed in the Pacific with two fellow airmen, beginning a record forty-seven days drifting on a raft, which proved to be just the beginning of his ordeal.

Image via Leland Francisco/Flickr

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