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[Nonfiction Monday Reading] Gorey-isms, Cautionary Tales and Melancholy Meditation of the False Millennium

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen and Kellee from Teach Mentor Texts (and brainchild of Sheila at BookJourney). Two of our blogging friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have inspired us to join this vibrant meme.

Last Week’s Review and Miscellany Posts

Here are a few of the reviews we have done last week. We are also inviting everyone to join our Award-Winning-Books Reading Challenge. We hosted the AWB Challenge last year and we are thrilled to be able to host it again. Do sign up if you are looking for exciting reading challenges with monthly book prizes.







Photo Journal: Food for Thought


Photo Journal/ A-Z Photo Challenge: P is for Park


Poetry Friday: Book Spine Poems for National Poetry Month

5. The Sound of the World, 2009 (New York), by Danny C. Sillada

Arts Corner: The Agony of Living and Dying – Photographs from the Existentialist Perspective


Book Hunting Expedition (49): Love for Mo Willems, Lemony Snicket, David Levithan and More


We can not possibly end our theme on oddballs and misfits, the surreal and the peculiar without giving much deserved love to Edward Gorey, the master of macabre himself, a man who has always fascinated me to no end.


We are also happy to join Nonfiction Monday once again. The host this week is A Mom’s Spare Time.

540805_10200256966079713_1991169509_nAscending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey

Interviews selected and edited by: Karen Wilkin
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc. 2001.
Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.

As the title states, this fascinating book is a collection of interviews done with Edward Gorey, an astounding artist described by the editor of this book, Karen Wilkins, to be “notoriously protective of his privacy.” Instead of the usual biography, one is able to gather shards and fragments from Gorey’s life through the many interviews he has granted through the years. I also enjoyed reading how other people perceived him and how uniformly he has been described by writers, journalists, and academics alike.

Trivia and Tidbits. One thing that struck me as I was reading this book [which I was not able to put down the minute I started reading it] is how brilliant Gorey was. It may seem like a given but my life’s work is on creativity and genius – hence my unparalleled fascination with Gorey – the man, the artist, the writer. He devoured literature and was obsessively-opinionated about the authors he enjoyed (Jane Austen and Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji) and loathed (Henry James). He was aware that people regarded him as strange, but it was inconsequential – nothing but a cause for the occasional baffled bemusement than anything else.

He was considered somewhat of a cult figure in New York partly because of the nature of his books, but also because of the fact that he attended all the performances of the New York City Ballet religiously. He was a huge fan of George Balanchine and his entire life seemed to have revolved around ballet performances:

Balanchine is my life now. Just the fact of Balanchine’s being here dictates so much of my existence. I’m sure I would have left New York years ago if it weren’t for the New York City Ballet. – page 16, from “Balletgorey” by Tobi Tobias for Dance Magazine, January 1974.


When asked by the same interviewer how he could possibly watch each and every performance, Gorey explained:

You just don’t know when somebody is going to turn up with a performance you’re never going to forget. Those Saturday matinées when nobody is there and people are dancing like dreams.

Gorey’s physical appearance has also been described to be eccentric at best. In fact, he seemed to resemble his exceedingly tall, thin, bearded and fur-coated male characters clad in tennis shoes.

Oh, I’ve always been eccentric. Part of me is genuinely eccentric, part of me is a bit of a put-on. But I know what I’m doing. I don’t think I do anything I don’t want to do. If you’re at all self-conscious, you realize perfectly well what you’re doing – most of the time. – p. 96, interview by Lisa Solod, for Boston Magazine, September 1980.

I think he looks handsome.
I think he looks handsome.

Other tidbits that I gathered from the interviews (one caveat though: most of the interviews tend to be repetitive, but still worth the read):

  • Gorey did not have any formal art training except for art schools he attended on Saturdays when he was in high school.
  • He was an only child and had a pretty uneventful (read: boring) and relatively average childhood.
  • He read Bram Stoker’s Dracula before the age of seven (he said he was about five or seven when he read it)
  • When asked about his sexual preferences, he replied “Well, I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly.” – p. 101 – I love that! In another interview, he noted: “Sometimes I ask myself why I never ended up with somebody for the rest of my life, and then I realize that I obviously didn’t want to, or I would have.” – p. 119
  • Gorey has always considered himself a grown-up even when he was a young child.
  • He loves cats – so much so that he lives with quite a number of them in his home – they seem to have a run of his place: “That’s why cats are so wonderful. They can’t talk. They have these mysterious lives that are only half-connected to you. We have no idea what goes on in their tiny little minds.” – p. 105
  • When asked about how he comes up with his characters: “I just kind of  conjured them up out of my subconscious and put them in order of ascending peculiarity.” – p. ix


Gorey-isms. I put together some of the more unforgettable lines from Gorey – brilliant ideas which struck me and which I thought provided a glimpse of the man that he was. Some of these also reflected his thoughts on writing.

What appeals to me most is an idea expressed by Eluard. He has a line about there being another world, but it’s in this one. And Raymond Queneau said the world is not what it seems – but it isn’t anything else, either. These two ideas are the bedrock of my approach. If a book is only what it seems to be about, then somehow the author has failed. – p. 84, interview by Jane Merrill Filstrup for The Lion and the Unicorn, Number I, 1978.

I know that my work does not seem to be about reality, but it is! God knows that day-to-day reality is certainly drab to the point of lunacy sometimes. And that means that you have to leave an awful lot out. I have a fairly eccentric talent, but I try to tone it down rather than heighten it. Most people, I think, take the opposite approach; if they write a novel about everyday life, it winds up being wildly melodramatic. Classical Japanese literature concerns very much what is left out… I don’t use it consciously. I don’t say, “Well, I’m going to leave out this and this.” It just works out that way. Sometimes the only way I can work is by trying some private, experimental thing. One of the things that George Balanchine has always said is that you don’t put everything that there is into any one thing that you do. But you do put in everything that you know. – p. 104, interview by Lisa Solod, for Boston Magazine, September 1980.


I disagree with the quotation about the saddest words of tongue or pen being what might have been. I don’t think anything might have been. What is, is. That’s the whole idea. Any other idea is remote, such as, “Oh if only it had been different, Jeanette and I would be gliding down the NIle on a gondola,” or “Harold and I would be in Antarctica together,” or “I would be a famous movie star.” All of this is absolute nonsense. What is, is, and what might have been could never have existed. – p. 106, interview by Lisa Solod, for Boston Magazine, September 1980


I hate being characterized. I don’t like to read about the ‘Gorey details’ and that kind of thing. I admire work that is neither one thing nor the other, really. All the things you can talk about in anyone’s work are the things that are least important. It’s like the ballet. You can describe the externals of a performance – everything, in fact, but what really constituted its core. Explaining something makes it go away, so to speak; what’s important is left after you have explained everything else. Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable. – p. 123, interview by Richard Dyer for The Boston Globe Magazine, 1984.

“There are so many things we’re brought up to believe that it takes you an awfully long time to realize that they aren’t you.” Suddenly, his voice goes bossy and falsetto, as though he were imitating some all-purpose Midwestern schoolmarm. “Why don’t you travel? Why don’t you get a master’s degree in … something? Why don’t you try doing this, that, or the other? Well, you’re probably not doing it because it’s not right. Why worry about it? God knows, there’s enough to worry about without worrying about worrying about things… You know, Ted Shawn, the choreographer – he used to say, ‘When in doubt, twirl.’ Oh I do think that’s such a great line.” – pp. 156-157, interview by Stephen Schiff for The New Yorker, 1992.

The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False MillenniumIMG_6620

Story and Illustrations by: Edward Gorey
Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999
Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos were taken by me.

I would not even pretend to understand this book by Gorey. This was published in 1999 and the whole world must have been in bated breath for the coming of the year 2000. The main character in this story, Edmund Gravel, was portrayed in each of the page with this strange Bahhumbug. The entire vibe of the book is Kafka-esque in orientation as it reminds me very subtly of Metamorphosis but not quite, as it has a voice and a character of its own.


As Gravel seemed to be deep in thought, a dragon fly takes him and this Bahhumbug to otherworldly places (yet remaining very much of this world) with strange characters such as La K with “waving scarves and veils”


Then Gravel and Bahhumbug find themselves in “Snogg’s Casino-not-on-Sea’ with another character afraid of people tampering with the marmalade. Then there is a Summer Solstice Cake with infant topping, while our protagonists wander off in a Glummish bog. It is a glorious collection of absurdities – any attempt to make sense of it would produce a head-splitting migraine, as I believe it is meant to be enjoyed for what it is. Eventually Edmund Gravel finds himself exactly where he started – as he and the Bahhumbug wait for the end of the millennium, with just the right smidgen of melancholia – not too much, not too little – enough for it to matter, though not quite.

DSC_0162Cautionary Tales for Children

Story by: Hilaire Belloc
Rediscovered and Illustrated by: Edward Gorey
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc., 2002. Bought my own copy. Book photos were taken by me.

I found this lovely book on bargain here in my institution for one dollar. It was a lovely garage sale with quite a number of book treasures.

As I read through the book, I could see why Hilaire Belloc’s strange little cautionary tales would appeal to Gorey who seemed to revel in the untimely deaths or the karmic comeuppance of naughty children. The titles of each vignette clearly indicate what the story is about. There is the tale of “Jim, who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.” That’s practically a no-brainer in terms of the plot or the narrative, or so I think.


Then there is “Henry King, who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies.” Did you know about the tale of “Matilda, who told lies, and was Burned to Death” or “Franklin Hyde, who caroused in the Dirt, and was corrected by his Uncle”? Children are also taught about the follies of arrogance with the tale of “Godolphin Horne, who was cursed with the Sin of Pride, and became a Boot-Black.”


Then there is the tale of “Algernon, who played with a Loaded Gun, and on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father.” Equally irreverent is the strange little tale of “Hildebrand, who was frightened by a Passing Motor, and was brought to Reason.”

Evidently, Gorey’s predilections may not be for everyone. Yet strange little creature that I am, I marvel at its seeming-complexity, its cheeky impudence, its gentle mockery that makes fun of itself more than anything else. I enjoy Gorey’s capering and blithe tone which remains farcical despite its being contained with the odd propensity towards propriety (whilst making it appear ludicrous). You need to read at least one Gorey creation in your lifetime.

Currently Reading…


I have just recently received this book The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis from Adeline Foo who invited me to be part of a Panel who would be interviewing the author here in Singapore two weeks from now at The Arts House. This is an advanced review copy of the book, and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Especially with lemon chamomile tea on the side.


Zamonia is keeping me sane amidst marking and course preparations. Thoroughly enjoying Walter Moers’ The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books.

How about you, dear friends, what have you been reading this week?


87, 88, 89 of 150

13 comments on “[Nonfiction Monday Reading] Gorey-isms, Cautionary Tales and Melancholy Meditation of the False Millennium

  1. I’ve loved Gorey’s New Yorker cartoons, but I did not realize hat he had also illustrated children’s books! Of course, seeing the pages you shared, this makes perfect sense, Myra. A national treasure. And I love this quote:
    You can describe the externals of a performance – everything, in fact, but what really constituted its core. Explaining something makes it go away, so to speak; what’s important is left after you have explained everything else. Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.


  2. Gorey is such an intriguing character! I loved reading your tidbits about him. I’m reading The Colossus Rises with Kathy (The Brain Lair) as our current Batty choice!


  3. Fascinating information about Gorey – someone I knew almost nothing about. Thanks for piquing my interest!


  4. Darnit, I am hungry now! Lol. 🙂 Have a great reading week.


  5. Many of these books found their way into my daughter’s hands, Myra. She has loved Gorey since childhood, & I found delight in sharing some with my class. Each year for a long while, we had his ‘day to day’ calendar. He is fascinating. Thank you for sharing so many of the parts of his interviews. He seems quite a pragmatic soul, doesn’t he? I love “there’s enough to worry about without worrying about worrying about things…”. And I looked up “The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books”-looks interesting. Thank you for this wonderfully full review!


  6. Now to look for The Viewer… great collection of information!


  7. Oooh! Love Gorey . . . we have a first edition of an alphabet book, that is true to form Gorey. And so many of other fun titles shared last week!


  8. Wow! You write such interesting blog posts! I went to see Peter Lerangis talk about and sign his new book The Colossus Rises and want to read it, but my students snatched it up, and I haven’t seen it since! 😉 I love the cover of The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books and will have to check it out!


  9. Charlotte

    Just finished Knots and Crosses and started Haunted Ground.


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