Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Brontes Went to Woolworth's

Finished The Brontes Went to Woolworth's by Rachel Ferguson. A wacky, wonderful, speaking my language sort of a book. A family of mother and three daughters live an eccentric existence cultivating imagined relationships with people and things, yet not believing in the run of the mill, like Santa Claus.

"As a family we never liked dolls, never believed in fairies and all rather hated Peter Pan...... and the only doll we ever unitedly esteemed was the plainest of the collection. Ironface. She was given to me when I was seven. Her face and forearms were of painted tin and she had a well made kid body. Ironface, unfortunately, outgrew us. She developed an intolerably overbearing manner, married a French Count called Isadore (de la So-and-So, de la Something Else), and now lives in feudal state in France, whence, even to this day, she makes occasional descents upon us by private aeroplane-de-luxe, patronizing us in an accent enragingly perfect and bearing gifts which we have to accept."

Thank God for Virago Modern Classics!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Village School

Finished Village School by Miss Read. Such a charming book. Set in a rural English village in the 1950s, the story is told by the teacher and headmistress Miss Read. Life in the village of Fairacre is full of superstition, gossip and colorful characters. Her descriptions of the disappointments and triumphs of her pupils are genuine and drawn from the author's own teaching experience. My favorite moment is on Sports Day. The children are all lined up for a three legged race, the spectators are standing by the sidelines. A goat, excited by the commotion breaks through a fence, wanders to the sidelines and begins to ingest the back of the vicar's wife's skirt while she is intent on the race. I guess it's silly, but things like this make me laugh out loud.

Miss Read is the pseudonym of Jesse Dora Saint who wrote several series of this sort. She was an inspiration to Jan Karon, author of The Mitford Series which I enjoy so much. Village School is the first book in a series. I look forward to reading many more.

The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

Finished The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. This is the second book in the series. It won the Newbery Medal in 1923. This book differs from the first because the narrator is a child. Tommy Stubbins meets the Doctor, becomes his friend and is inspired to be a great naturalist when he grows up. His parents have not been able to afford to send Tommy to school. Tommy and the doctor propose to the parents that Tommy go to live with the Doctor and be his assistant. In return for the work he performs the Doctor will teach him to read and write.

Well the doctor teaches him much more than this. Tommy learns the languages of numerous animals and has great adventures traveling with the Doctor. Within the book are some interesting criticisms of zoos, aquariums and bullfights. I enjoyed this one, although the dated racial stereotypes still made me squirm.

The Thanksgiving Visitor

Finished The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote. This one is darker than A Christmas Memory. Buddy is plagued by a bully at school. His elderly cousin, Miss Sook, invites the bully to Thanksgiving dinner hoping to remedy the situation. Things go from bad to worse. Like the other story this one is very honest. At one point Buddy calls the bully a sonofabitch, at school in front of the teacher. Obviously this is not well received. I'm not used to seeing a word like that in a children's book. After some additional research I found that these stories were not originally intended for a young audience, but are now packaged and illustrated for children. I'm glad the publisher kept them intact.

The illustrator for both books I borrowed from the library is Beth Peck. Her illustrations for A Christmas Memory were done in watercolor. They are delicate and lovingly detailed. Her illustrations for The Thanksgiving Visitor were done in pastels. While the detail is less fine, the texture of the pictures makes the facial expressions and general mood raw and thus more keenly felt. I like these better.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Story of Mankind

The Story of Mankind won the very first Newbery Medal in 1922. It has taken me MONTHS to get through and if the subsequent winners were anything like this book I would have abandoned my project of reading all the medalists (in chronological order) long, long ago.
The Story of Mankind, written by Hendrik Willem van Loon, is up there with Moby Dick as one of the most tedious books I've ever encountered. Most Newbery medalists are fiction, with a few biographies here and there. This is more like a text book. I'm so happy to be finished with it. On to The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle!

The Romance of a Christmas Card

I finished The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggins last night. I purchased the book at the Antiquarian Book Fair a few years ago for ten dollars. It was published in 1916 and has a lovely cover. It's one of those forgotten, gentle books that no one reads anymore. Sweet and quiet and sentimental. Not as much fun as Wiggins' Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but still a cozy, Christmas read.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hard Times

I finished Hard Times today. I've never finished my Christmas Dickens read before Christmas before. Very slight compared to last year's Little Dorrit, which took me way into February. Hard Times also has a much smaller cast of characters than the usual Dickens fare. A story of extremism and the dangers of living by facts alone. Children in Coketown are raised to respect facts and let their heads rule them at all times. Childrens' hearts are not squelched, they simply have no opportunity to develop them. As usual this leads to ruination. I rather liked this book. There are only one or two characters that you love to hate and everything gets tied up in a nice, neat, emotional bow at the end. The whole thing was so brief that I almost feel cheated.

What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy

Finished What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy by Gregory Maguire last night. It was pretty good. I've loaned my copy of Maguire's novel Wicked out so many times that I haven't actually read it yet myself. Maybe next year.

The format of What-the-Dickens was interesting, a story within a story. While it's written for children there are plenty of references to literature and popular culture to help hold the interest of an adult reader. When I was a young reader I read plenty of fantasy and enjoyed it. But now I have trouble sticking with it. Towards the end of this book my interest waned. I was glad to finish it. I don't think it was the book's fault. Just me.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Christmas Memory

I finished Truman Capote's childhood memoir A Christmas Memory, about his life as a young boy living with his elderly cousins. One of these cousins is his best friend. She is quite child-like in her ways. Open, giving and whimsical. They have various adventures together during the holiday season, scrounging up enough money to buy what they need to make fruitcakes. One of these adventures is buying home brewed whiskey from a notorious local. The book is charming and honest. After they have finished making the thirty something fruitcakes there is just a little bit of whiskey left and they share it. They are found out by the other elderly cousins and scolded.

His best friend, who is not named in the book, calls him Buddy, after her best friend who died when she was a child. This made me think of Holly Golightly, in Breakfast at Tiffany's, calling Paul Vargus "Fred" after her brother Fred who she loves and misses so much. In both cases the renamed characters serve as substitutes for those they are renamed for. These are the only two Capote pieces I've read. It would be interesting to see if he uses this renaming device elsewhere.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Enchanted Night

Finished Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser this weekend. Quite an unusual book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Ugly Dachshund

This book is hilarious. First published in 1938, it was out of print for a long time. It's the story of Tono, a Great Dane who is raised with a litter of Dachshunds. Growing up with them he does not realize that he himself is not a Dachshund. He longs to be carried under his master's arm and to sleep upon his master's feet. There are many amusing characters, mostly dogs, who are worldly, intellectual and very conscious of social order and manners. Some are fluent in French and German and one even makes reference to Flush, Virginia Woolf's novel written from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog Flush.

This book is sweet, funny and would make a great gift for any dog lover.

The Secret of the Old Clock

This is a vintage re-issue of the the original. First published in 1930, it's quite different from the re-written, trimmed and expurgated version I read in the 1970s. Applewood Books re-printed the first twenty one Nancy Drew books. The Secret of the Old Clock was the first book. Nancy sleuths alone in this one. Bess and George (and boyfriend Ned) are introduced later in the series. This edition features racial stereotypes typical of the 1930s. It was interesting to compare it with my later edition. The inebriated African-American caretaker of 1930 was replaced with an older, cranky Caucasian caretaker in the later edition.

Frankly, the book itself was a bit dull, but not as dull as the updated version of The Mystery of the Hollow Oak, which I read to my daughter when she was seven. At that time I wondered how I could have read so many of these when I was younger. They are facile and obvious, but in many ways a good introduction to independent reading.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Wow. I really loved this book. The main characters are very strongly drawn, defined not so much by description, but by their actions. The respect that Shane, Joe and Marion all have for each other is so great that it is almost emotionally overwhelming. The writing is simple, the drama compelling and the last 25 pages so moving that I bawled my way through them. Not at all what I expected when I picked this book up. After reading it it's easy to see why it shows up on so many lists of classics.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Windy Hill

What a lovely book. The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs was one of the first Newbery Honor books in 1922. Meigs' Clearing Weather (1929) and Swift Rivers (1933) were also Newbery Honor books. She won the Newbery Medal in 1934 for The Invincible Louisa, a biography of Louisa May Alcott.

The Windy Hill is a tale that wraps family history, adventure, personal integrity and forgiveness in to a charmingly written package. It's a story that portrays its juvenile characters with as much importance and respect as any of the adults. It demonstrates that children can and should be taken seriously as individuals and illustrates the critical role they can play in family and the larger community.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Early Autumn

I finished Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield yesterday. It won the Pulitzer in 1927. It reminded me a lot of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, which won the Pulitzer in 1921. One of the characters in Bromfield's novel even thinks, "Her mother, she saw now, belonged to the America of the nineties. She saw her now less as a real person than a character out of a novel by Mrs. Wharton." Early Autumn, while set in the mid 1920s, is chock-full of such characters, who consider money, rank and family lineage as the most important factors of life. I found the book a bit depressing and not as enjoyable as that earlier one "by Mrs. Wharton."

Having now read the first decade of the Pulitzer winners I can recommend "His Family (1918) by Ernest Poole, The Able McLaughlins (1924) by Margaret Wilson, So Big (1925) by Edna Ferber and Arrowsmith (1926) by Sinclair Lewis.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky

I finished The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron two nights ago. It's this year's winner of the Newbery Medal. I'm trying to read the medalists in chronological order and am still stuck on the first one, The Story of Mankind, which is just deadly. Reading Lucky was a relief.

Lucky's world is a challenging one, She lives in a poor community in the desert. Her mother has died and she does not know her father. She is being parented by a guardian (who happens to be her father's first wife). Lucky is intelligent, resourceful and brave, but very human, with plenty of shortcomings, including her "meanness gland." I've read some cranky reader (and obviously non-reader) reviews of this book. Some folks felt that it was not worthy of the medal, that the subject matter was inappropriate or too worldly, but I think it's just right. Kids are growing up in a world that imposes adulthood on them far too soon. Lucky's world is a shaky one. I think kids reading this book might feel relieved to encounter characters who, like themselves, grapple with non-nuclear family scenarios, death and dying, poverty and an uncertain future.

The American Library Association states that the purpose of the Newbery Medal is to " encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field." I think the originality of the setting, characters and their circumstances within The Higher Power of Lucky more than qualify it to receive the medal.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Way of All Flesh

Yesterday I finished The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. An ominous title. The book itself, while long and often dry, had its moments of scalding criticism of Victorian values. I first became aware of it while reading Christopher Morely's Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. The bookseller Roger Mifflin idolizes Butler and even creates a dish called "Eggs a la Samuel Butler." Morley's two books are so delightful that I had high expectations for Butler. Unfortunately it turned out to be a long haul. There were times when things had a decidedly Dickensian lilt to them, but it wasn't enough to keep me reading at a rapid pace.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Just So Stories

Listen and attend oh Best Beloved. I have finally finished this book. It was my first encounter with Kipling. I'm not sure why I took so long with it. Perhaps because it was almost too fanciful for me. Or maybe it was the redundancies of phrase, which were a bit irritating. Anyway, of all the stories I enjoyed The Elephant's Child and The Butterfly That Stamped the best. While reading I imagined the stories being read aloud to Christopher Robin and them ultimately influencing his play, what with all that watching out for heffalumps and jagulars.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Finished The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting yesterday. I had not thought of reading this book until I decided to read the winners of The Newbery Medal in chronological order and discovered that the second book in the series had won the second medal in 1923. It made sense to start at the beginning, so there I was.

The edition I borrowed from the public library was a recent, expurgated version with the derogatory terms removed and the chapter featuring Prince Bumpo altered. Also missing were Lofting's own illustrations for the book. These in particular interested me. I was able to obtain a 1920 edition from the University library, read the Prince Bumpo chapter in it's original form and look through the author's charming drawings. Being able to make the comparison was exciting.

The book itself was better than I expected. Somehow my only exposure to Dr. Dolittle before this was through the 1967 Twentieth Century Fox musical starring Rex Harrison. I remember being plunked down in front of the television to watch it on Thanksgiving and finding it long and dull (might be worth a second viewing today).

The characters of the animals are amusing, as is the Doctor himself. Just having returned from the Darwin exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago I couldn't help comparing the two naturalists who set off on long voyages across the sea. A bit of Googling brought up a book from Yale University Press Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language by Stephen R. Anderson. A critique by Professor Marc Hauser, Harvard University states, "If Dr. Dolittle had met Charles Darwin, they would have shared two things in common: an extraordinary love of animals and a deep belief in the continuity of human and animal communication. In this book, the distinguished linguist Stephen Anderson challenges Dolittle and Darwin’s belief in the continuity claim, arguing that our capacity for language generates a uniquely designed system of communication, unparalleled in the history of life on earth. Written in a playful and highly accessible style, Anderson navigates some of the difficult territory of linguistics to provide an illuminating discussion of the evolution of language.


Monday, October 29, 2007


Finished Ian McEwan's Atonement last night. In some ways it felt Proustian because such a long time was spent describing the incidents of one day. In other ways it reminded me of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in terms of coming of age, family saga and sensuous detail. The characters are so human, and thus prone to making mistakes, that the pain of those mistakes was somehow more bearable because I was able to recognize myself in some of the characters.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Uncommon Reader

Finished The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett yesterday. It's a delightful book. I had read about it in The New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago. As a novella it's quite short so you can breeze through it pretty quickly.

The Queen has an unexpected encounter with the Bookmobile and out of politeness is compelled to borrow a book. This launches her on a journey she never foresaw. Along the way there are numerous references to books that are old friends to seasoned readers.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the way in which members of the Queen's staff, and those beyond, continually attempt to sabotage her efforts to "catch up" on all the books she's missed over the years. Reading for pleasure is an entirely new pastime for the Queen. Her relentlessly regimented existence begins to change. Reading gives small things and insignificant people meaning. Things that were beyond her notice before are now obvious and troubling to her. It's a funny book. I liked the Queen and I found myself rooting for her.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Good Master

Finished The Good Master by Kate Seredy last night. It's a sweet, warm book, peppered with Hungarian folktales. It won a Newbery Honor Medal in 1936. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel The Singing Tree, which won the Newbery Honor Medal in 1940. Seredy won the Newbery Medal for The White Stag in 1938. Haven't read that yet either. Seredy illustrated her own books. I'm curious to know how many other Newbery Medalists did this as well.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Finished reading March this weekend. It won the Pulitzer in 2006. A very emotional experience. It is the story of Mr. March, the father character from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and his experiences before and during the Civil War. Various details that are glossed over by Alcott are examined and drawn out by Brooks. We learn how the March family lost their fortune and came to live in the modest house next door to Mr. Lawrence. While this is exciting for Little Women fans, they should be aware that March is a difficult read at times. Brooks portrays the brutalities of war and the lives lead by slaves in such detail that I found myself nauseated at one point. That fact aside, I really enjoyed this book. While it probably stands on it's own without the reader's prior knowledge of Little Women, familiarity with the story really enriches the experience of reading it.

The Alcott family has always fascinated me. I visited Orchard House a few years ago and wish I could have spent more time there.