June 13, 2019
(++++) BLUE AND BLUER
The Blue Day Book: A Lesson in Cheering Yourself Up—Illustrated Edition. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Illustrated by Claire Keane. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Apologies That Never Came. By Pierre Alex Jeanty. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
Thank goodness there is still so much goodness, and thank simplicity that there is still so much simplicity, in Bradley Trevor Greive’s 20-year-old “cheer yourself up” meditation, The Blue Day Book. Were it not for the continuing need for something upbeat to counter the ever-present sense of being relentlessly downtrodden by life nowadays (and 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, and so on), the book would long since have outlived its usefulness and would have fallen victim to well-intentioned rethinkings such as the new “Illustrated Edition.” The reality is that The Blue Day Book has always been illustrated, and a great part of its charm and effectiveness came and still comes from its use (in earlier editions) of wildlife photographs in which animals seem to reflect, comment on, think about, or otherwise respond to the human concerns expressed in Greive’s simple prose (the book contains fewer than 100 sentences). What is different in the new edition is that the illustrations are done cartoon-style (or graphic-novel-style) by Claire Keane, the animal photos are absent, and the narrative now has a single central character in the form of a woebegone elephant (no doubt as in “the elephant in the room”) who eventually “snaps out of it” (the “blue day,” that is) and is thereafter seen against light-colored backgrounds rather than the dark-colored ones that dominate the first part of the book.
What could possibly be wrong with this? The answer depends on how you see the value of The Blue Day Book, whether in its early incarnation, its 10th-anniversary edition, its version for children, or in any other guise. The book is certainly a worldwide phenomenon in terms of sales and therefore, presumably, in terms of its ability to connect with diverse audiences. But for that very reason, it has become a place, in this 20th-anniversary illustrated edition, for Greive to hold forth rather immodestly: “Writing this little book in the winter of 1998 helped me smile at a time when I needed it most, though of course I had absolutely no idea that it would eventually become the world’s bestselling gift book of all time.” Um, yes, there is that – and it is, um, a bit full of oneself to draw attention to it this way rather than to, say, let one’s publicists do it. It also makes perfect sense to draw one’s attention to the need for perspective on one’s life, the notion that as bad as any “blue day” may be, someone else is surely having a worse one, and there is always an opportunity to have a brighter tomorrow. And the animal photos were a big part of that, helping keep the book’s message light and serious at the same time, making it easier to laugh at one’s problems by imagining how, say, a grumpy-looking toad must feel. But what have we now? We have one person’s (or animal’s) story; we have a narrative structure in which the same imagined person/animal endures the various depredations of life and eventually overcomes them. In other words, we have personalization of The Blue Day Book, which is exactly what it does not need. What if a reader does not identify with the elephant as an apt central character here? What if the “turnaround” two-page spread, with the disheartened elephant in the dark on the left and a smiling human woman carrying a guitar case and seen against a light background on the right, doesn’t work for a reader? Well, too bad – because that is the turnaround two-page spread, and the elephant is the character with whom (or with which) it is necessary to identify. The Blue Day Book still carries its marvelous message of keeping downbeat times in perspective, its wonderful realization that there is always tomorrow until, eventually, there isn’t: “Live every day as if it were your last, because one day it will be.” Greive’s message, simple and thoughtful and meaningful specifically because it does not pretend to be profound, continues to resonate through all editions of The Blue Day Book, including this new one. And it really can be a recipe for getting through the inevitable “blue day” that we all encounter from time to time. Whether the message works better with Keane’s illustrations is a matter of opinion. Happily, for readers for whom it does not, plenty of earlier editions of The Blue Day Book continue to be available.
To see just how valuable the uplift of The Blue Day Book is in any form or edition, consider Pierre Alex Jeanty’s (+++) Apologies That Never Came, another book dealing with the tribulations of everyday life and attempting to give readers ways to cope with them. This is a book of short poems about love and loss, and one of them is actually called “Perspective,” beginning as follows: “Cloudy days are nothing to love unless/ you’ve known the loneliness that will try to/ swallow you through dark nights.” Greive would never put it that way – and never did – but Jeanty is getting at much the same issue as Greive, namely that even when some days are cloudy (literally or emotionally), others will not be, need not be. Being unillustrated, Jeanty’s poems succeed or fall short solely because of their words, which are certainly heartfelt but tend to lapse into cliché, even when Jeanty knows he is starting out from a cliché: “You hear that time heals all wounds, but/ your clock seems to have the seconds/ mixed with the hours and the hours with/ the months./ The days come like molasses dripping,/ the minutes like a snail traveling.” Some of the sentiments in Apologies That Never Came directly address the same issues that Greive explores: “Grow from your failures,” Jeanty writes at one point, and at another, “There are phases in our lives that will drag us down. …The bad is not that it’s happening, the bad is staying in it and allowing it to destroy you.” There is no humor in Apologies That Never Came, no attempt at lightness despite the recognition of the importance of perspective – instead there is wallowing in might-have-beens with the intent, having wallowed, of emerging cleansed. Whether this works better than the admittedly simplistic “brighter days to come” notion underlying The Blue Day Book depends entirely on each individual reader’s response to heartache and heartbreak – depends, in short, on different people’s differing perspectives.