Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1920)

Something put me in the mood to re-read some of my oldest best of favorites from childhood, the Doctor Dolittle series by Hugh Lofting. The Story of Doctor Dolittle is the first in the series. I read the expunged version, without the racially insensitive bits - although that was the version I read as a child, and I don't remember it making me racism - although if I were an African American child reading the book, I wouldn't have felt so good about myself. It's interesting, because later on in the series, I remember Bumpo being a well rounded character, and not particularly stereotypical (I might be wrong though; we'll see). I even have it in the back of my head that he went to Oxford, but I again, we'll see. Lofting's portrayal of the Africans might have been insensitive, but the reason Doctor Dolittle and company are chased and captured by the African king is pretty anti-colonial - white men make mischief and cause problems, so they aren't welcome in my kingdom. Unlike something like Babar, in which everything in the Elephant kingdom is made whole by the French.

I think that in the first half or so of The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Lofting is still getting his footing, and he's not quite sure where he wants his world to go. His story is sound, but his characters aren't full developed into what they eventually would become. Only Polynesia the Parrot is completely developed from the beginning. But once the ship leaves Africa, suddenly everyone starts to have the familiar personality - Dab-Dab the Duck worries like a housekeeper and occasionally snaps, Gub-Gub says inappropriate things at inappropriate times and thinks about food, Jip is heroic and brave with jokes.

It's been many years since I've read the series, and I think it will hold up to adult scrutiny.

As a sidenote, I didin't realize that The Age of Innocence and The Story of Doctor Dolittle were both written in the same year. And have absolutely nothing in common other than that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

I finished The Age of Innocence a few days ago, but it's really stuck with me. The sign of a really good book, I guess.

Why can't Newland go up to Ellen even after all these years? Is the memory of the past better than what the future holds? Is the fantasy better than the reality? Is he so ashamed, so scared, still mired in the past? Was he aghast that everyone has known about this all along, but no one ever talked to him about it? What a pitiful and pitiable scene.

Why can't Edith Wharton ever write something with a happy ending? Or maybe she has, and I just haven't read it. Or maybe she doesn't believe in happy endings. Or romantic endings.

May Welland Archer is scary.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

Heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. I hate Newland Archer, and I feel so sorry for him. "You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact!" That line was like a poison dart, so right, and so sad, and so still true about so many people. The clothing have changed, the mores have changed, art and society have changed, and certainly the divorce laws have changed, but the story still rings true. People still fall in love with someone they can’t be with (for whatever reason) and pine and pine, and often stay with someone for reasons other than love. People still get married and stay married for reasons that have nothing to do with romance and love. Even in this day and age.

Wharton describes what a hell Newland and Ellen's life would be if they started their affair: "A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and every quarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence." It’s a great line, and iIt's old time country music.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

I'm not sure how I graduated from college with a degree in English. I distinctly remember writing a paper for some class (who knows which) that compared Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence to some other work of fiction - I think it was Daisy Miller by Henry James. Let's see... that was probably twenty years ago. I thought I was re-reading The Age of Innocence, but I barely remember anything about it. It's like I'm reading it for the first time, and knowing the kind of lazy student I was, I probably AM reading for the first first time! (I know I saw the movie though).

I'm enjoying it though, as much pain and heartache as the book is slathered with. Let's be honest too - it's a very soapy book. It's filled with gossipy type questions. Do you think Ellen slept with Beaufort? I don't think so; I think Newland thinks that, and I think Ellen is a minx and wants him to think that. She plays with men like a cat plays with mice - she's an expert. Do you think Newland is a laughable pussy and completely dominated by the women (and gay men like Sillerton Jackson) in his life? Yes - he is basically the pawn on a gigantic chessboard played by his female relations. He's very romantic, and I guess in Edith Wharton's eyes romantic meant femanized; but all the men in The Age of Innocence seem very female and catlike -- almost but not quite gay. Except maybe Beaufort, and he's always described as an "other." Is May Welland the biggest bitch of them all? Newland might think he' s knight with Ellen as his queen, but in May Welland's hands they are all pawns. Wide-eyed, butter won't melt in her mouth, blink blink blink innocence. I think she might be my favorite character in the end - she's made of steel.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time by Louis Auchincloss (1971)

I was flipping through channels a few days ago, and watched a bit of a documentary on TCM about Natalie Wood, narrated by Robert Redford. It wasn't a biography - it was more like reminiscences from Redford about his relationship with Natalie Wood and what she meant to him. Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time reminded me of that. Although Louis Auchincloss is from a generation or so later than Edith Wharton, this book still felt like his memories of Wharton and her world. A lot of narrative, a little bit biography, a bit of literary criticism - this could have been the words behind a PBS doc on Wharton's life. I like Auchincloss's style of writing - it feels like you're in his class to talking with him over coffee or martinis.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor (2011)

What a pleasant surprise - I wasn't expecting much out of this book, and it was fantastic! Really well written, and interesting. Helen Castor did an excellent job drawing a line from Matilda to Elizabeth, comparing and contrasting, but also giving a gradual progression from women wanting to rule to women actually ruling - Jane Grey seemingly some kind of throwback that showed that women rulers on their own like Mary and Elizabeth were going to be taken seriously unlike Jane Grey, who was under the thumb of her father-in-law.

The book was full of thought provoking passages of interest and new ideas:

Jane Grey, Mary and Elizabeth all came to power because Henry VII and Henry VIII systematically killed off almost every conceivably possible male heir.

"Three Londoners who had been overheard to say that the king was dying had their ears cut off in punishment." When I read this passage, I immediately thought of why we have free speech laws. We have plenty of people who say things, either in jest or in vitriol, about our elected officials. But imagine if when Sarah Palin spouts off about Barack Obama or Jon Stewart says Marcus Bachmann is a gay, and they get their ears cut off as punishment! What a completely different world this was, and how far we've come.

In a scene straight out of a movie, Matilda and a group of male supporters made their way seven miles to safety through the frozen, snowy landscape. "Wrapped in white cloaks as camouflage against the snowy landscape, Matilda and knights walked silently across the river, its treacherous current now muffled under a lay of ice thick enough to bear their weight with ease. No one saw them pass; and no one challenged them as they trudged seven miles through the cold and dark, feet numb and freezing in the drifting snow." Nonfiction does many things for me - fills me with awe or wonder, causes Eureka moments during which I might shout out with glee, instructs and educates. But it's not often that I get such a clear, visual image from a book of nonfiction - that's a sign of sharp, good writing. It's such a great story too, an illustration of Matilda's bravery, and the devotion of knights to her cause. One other note about this story - she was 40 years old when this was going on! Hurray for fortysomethings - we rock!

I knew only a little about Matilda and her battle with King Stephen for control of England (I never realized, for example, that Stephen was king because he was annointed). The little I knew came from Brother Cadfael - and that wasn't much.

Isabella I knew a bit more about - many gay men know at least something about gay King Edward II. What I didn't realize in full was that the uprising against the King was not especially because he was gay - Castor points out that King William Rufus was probably gay as well, but supported -- but because Edward played favorites, and his favorites either were greedily selfish or brutally selfish.

It's when Castor writes about Margaret of Anjou that really changed my thinking. My knowledge, and more importantly opinions, of Margaret came from Sharon Kay Penman's Sunne in Splendor and other books about the Wars of the Roses. Specifically in Penman, Margaret and her son the prince are definitely meant to be antagonists painted in the broadest of stripes, a wicked, haughty, malignant - sort of a Sleeping Beauty Maleficent character. Castor's Margaret though is definitely a more heroic character. Her is this wife and mother, whose husband is mentally ill, in a brutal land where several men stronger than she want to essentially take over the kingdom - and one does. So she's ruthless - what lioness isn't ruthless when protecting her cubs? The saddest, saddest scene in the book, after he husband and son are killed, something out of ancient Rome: "When the victorious (King Edward IV) made his triumphant entry into London, with trumpets sounding and his loyal lords about him, there was a chariot at the back of the procession in which the queen sat, straight-backed and blank-faced, staring at nothing." She who had been in the front, now at the back, and eventually reduced to poverty and forgotten by all. "Her life was over." I have a brand new appreciation for Margaret of Anjou, and all of these women (including Mary Tudor, who stiff necked and unbending as she was, started out as a badass). Thank you Helen Castor.




Sunday, July 10, 2011

More of the Littles

I read The Littles Take a Trip (1968) and The Littles to the Rescue (1968). Somewhere in my attic is a box of books from childhood and among them is The Littles to the Rescue, a book which I remembered with nostalgic fondness - lthough I had forgotten much of the plot. I don't remember owning any more of the Littles books, and to be honest, I'm not sure I read any more of them! My only exposure as a youth to the Littles was this single book - and the Saturday morning cartoon of the same name.

Like the first in the series, The Littles Take a Trip is short on character development but action packed. All three end abruptly - suddenly, they are just over, like that. There's no meditation or evaluation of the preceding events by the character or the author (and to be honest, very little by me). I will say that of the three, The Littles to the Rescue is the best of the lot; and I'm not saying this because it was one of my old favorites (at least I don't think that is what is swaying me). Rescue is really exciting, and the characters are starting to be a more developed and less flat (except the parents). I'm still not exactly sure where they get their clothes and shoes. That never occurred to me as a kid. The illustrations are still excellent, but I noticed now that all the tiny teenagers have beetles haircuts and where bell bottoms and turtleneck sweaters, which is a hoot. And they Little kids are rebellious - just like contemporary kids in the sixties.

Still, as books go, these are kind of bland. Again, if you are a second or third grader and this is some of your first chapter books, the Littles probably make for interesting and exciting reading. But they aren't going to change anyone's lives.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Littles by John Peterson (1967)

Someone donated two boxes full of dusty children's paperbacks to the library, and while sorting through them I found about six books in the Littles series by John Peterson. The Littles were some of my favorite books growing up. I had this old, old book called The Adventures of a Brownie by Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs. Craik) - that's how her name is on the cover and the title page, I just pulled it off my shelf of old books, about a little fairy who lives in a house and tricks or treats the inhabitants depending on what they fed him, or his moods. I also remember reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton, at least a couple in the series, and Mistress Masham's Repose (sp?) by T.H. White, both again about little people who live hidden among us. I always liked The Littles the best, maybe because they seemed the most likable to me. The Brownie was kind of a bitch (plus the pages were smelly and old) although I liked him second best; the Borrowers dressed and talked funny, had strange names, and the mother was mean. Everyone in T.H. White's book was unlikable; I can still see the illustration of the girl's face in the book, all scrunched up and mean looking. (As a child, I still read and re-read all of these books multiple times, so usually starved was I for reading material). The Littles, on the other hand, had adventures that were exciting and made sense (or at least that's how I remember them - re-reading them might change my mind). They had normal names -- Tom, Lucy, Uncle Pete. They dressed and looked like normal people (except for the tails and size of course).

The Littles, which I assume is the first book in the series, wasn't one I remember reading as a kid (I read from the school library, the small public library, and my own very small personal library; I owned only one Littles book myself, which I dimly recall being about Mrs. Little having a baby and being kidnapped by someone). The plot is pretty thin, but it's written for children, and specifically for children who are just starting to read chapter books. It certainly ends rather abruptly. But in 80 pages - most of which had a picture - we learn that Tom Little is pretty brave, Lucy Little is even braver, that small wall people (I don't think they ever get a species name) and mice are deadly enemies, and that cats were thought to be deadly enemies as well (we find out that isn't necessarily true!). The Biggs - they own the house - we really never get to meet; they are away on vacation and have let their house to city folk. An artist and a writer -- a lady writer at that! (who still has to cook). The Newcombs -- get it, "new comers" -- are terrible housekeepers (that's what brings in the mice).

Maybe one thing that's appeal about books like the Littles (and the Borrowers too) is that it's sometimes a peephole into what our lives are like.

This isn't a profound or life changing book, but not every book has to be. Some books are just simple, little adventures, with great pictures. And there ain't nothin' wrong with that.

The FItzosbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper (2010)

I was under impressed with the first book in this series, and I should have just left it at that. I should like these books - royalty, 1930s - but I just can't get past some points about the books. Why is it a journal? It doesn't read like a journal at all - why can't it just be in first person? Why does it have to be a journal? That bugged me. And the characters, other than the three siblings, are all shits. Are they supposed to be likable? Or hateful? Certainly Princess Whatever (I've already forgotten her name), the one who wrote the journal, is likable - but far too glib for my taste. I've read the other reviews, and discussed this with a colleague, and it's clear I'm in the minority on these books. But in the minority I will plant myself and stay - I've given it the old college try, and I'm on to another book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)

I can't even begin to do this book justice. I like dabbling in reviews, writing down my personal feels, what I think, what I liked or didn't like... but Deathless feels beyond my powers of description. It was is so good! What I didn't like about it was that I felt too dense for most of the book; my head, thick as a plank, and only bits of the beauty of this book could seep in, but those bits were magical. Other people's reviews describe what I felt. On the cover: "Romantic and blood-streaked, and infused with magic so real you can feel it on your fingertips," writes Cory Doctorow, and I nod madly "yes, yes, so yes!" I picked up Andrew Laing's Red Fairy Book because it has a re-telling of Koschei the Deathless, and after reading it, I understood a bit more about what probably was Valente's starting point - why was he chained up in her basement?

"You can taste the summer in this mixture," Marya says of a jar of brined pickles. "Summer boiled down and soaked in brine. Because that is life... jars on a shelf, bright colors under glass, saved up against winter, against starving."

"After love, no one is what they were before." So true.

I can't recommend this book enough right now. It has a clever conceit and is so lyrical and beautiful.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fraud by David Rakoff (2001)

A time machine trip, jump in and fly back to a simpler time, when soap operas were still on television, when Steven Seagal was a celebrity - that's what Fraud felt like. Snarky and urban hipster (from before urban hipsters actually existed as such) and tres New York - but also occasionally funny and good. The above mentioned Steven Seagal article, although definitely a slice of time, was still readable -- remove Steven Seagal, replace with Suzanne Sommers or some other minor celebrity with a faddish religion or movement to sell, spiced with new age idiots and frenzied fans, and the article could take place at any time or place; Rakoff's sometimes bitchy sometimes dead on running commentary is delightful. That was the highlight of the book for me; most of the other essays were good, but not David Sedaris brilliant.

Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester (2011)

Disappointing and misleading. From the title, one might think that the book is going to be the story of Alice Liddell, her relationship to Charles Dodgson, Lewis Carroll, and the famous books, and then what happened afterwards. Anyway, that's what I wanted the book to be. Instead, this is a very simple look at Charles Dodgson and his relationship with the beginning of photography and photography as a Victorian science and art. Interesting, but not exactly what I wanted to read about. "The photography behind Alice" might have been a better title.

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