Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review by The MVP: Where is Baby's Belly Button?

by Karen Katz
Copyright 2000

Though published a decade ago, the persistent popularity of Karen Katz's seminal work makes a thoughtful examination relevant and, in my case, timely. Though customer reviews have been generally positive, such reviews are rarely thorough enough to capture the nuance that marks the difference between an acceptable effort and a great one. And nuance, gently crafted by the hands of an expert, can turn an experience on it's head in a way that can linger long after the initial exposure. In Karen Katz's hands, the story of Baby's Belly Button slowly transmogrifies from what, at first, seems a piece of navel-gazing pulp schlock, to a suspenseful tale of mystery and, finally, a journey of self-discovery that will cause you to question your assumptions about what is important in life and the meaning of existence itself.

The story begins, in deceptively unassuming fashion, with the first in a series of questions: Where are baby's eyes? This question is quickly answered [Spoiler Alert: under her hat], and the herky-jerky plot continues with the next question. As each mystery unravels in rapid succession, the imagination is challenged to see its connection to the last, making the plot seem somewhat disjointed. However, while only the most astute of readers will guess the final twist before the prestige, deliberate consideration of the whole sequence after the denouement will reveal the logic of the construction.

But it is only upon multiple readings that the genius of Katz's work becomes apparent. When the suspense of the mysteries is obviated by repeat consumption, the mind is freed to consider the philosophical implications of the disappearing and reappearing self.

Experts in the field of child neurology often refer to the acquisition of an understanding of "Object Permanence" as a critical milestone in cognitive development. Katz's work will challenge the notion that this is any sort of progress. Even the dullest of adults "understands" object permanence. But only the truly elightened ever move beyond this basic assumption to true philisophical reflection.

Consider the well-known metaphysical riddle - If a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? To quote the Buddhist monk Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo:

Whatever appears is your own mind. Your mind from the start is free from fabricated extremes. Understanding this, do not take to mind [inherent] signs of subject and object. This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

In a "pop culture" context (so my parents can understand), consider this well known homage to the Buddhist monk Huineng:

Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

And yet the so-called "experts" look down their noses at infants for failing to conform to the box of object permanence. Ms. Katz, understanding that nuance exists in nature as well as in literature, refuses to pigeonhole her subjects.

For bending herself I award Ms. Katz, and her excellent book, 5 MVPs (out of five).


Admin said...

Nice review MVP. If you liked that book, then you will love the Giving Tree. If you haven't read it, I recommend doing so now before you read it in college on drugs:

Wendy Mihm said...

I don't even know where to start with this, MVP. I am blinded by it's brilliance and award you 5 out of 5 iPhones (my rating system, based on what I have assessed to be the coolest item in the universe, based on my parents' unwillingness to share theirs with me). - The Edge.

Suelika said...

MVP, I totally want to read that book after reading your review! We should start a baby book club!

- Moochie