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.