Friday, May 31, 2013

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (1923)

I continue in my quest to read Agatha Christie's murder mysteries chronologically from first to last.  The Murder on the Links isn't nearly as good as some of Christie's later masterpieces, but it still shows her trademark twists and turns in plot.  Just when I thought I knew who the murderer was, she led me down another path, strung with red herrings as usual.  I think at one point there were three simultaneous solutions going down, with only one being able to win out in the end.  Hastings, making his second appearance, is delightfully bumbling and stupid; I had no idea he would meet someone and fall in love!  Romantic love is not something I imagine when thinking about Agatha Christie's books - although, when pondering that, Ten Little Indians and The Murder on the Orient Express both have characters who are deeply in love.

I don't think I'd ever read The Murder on the Links before; or if I had, it was so long ago I remembered nothing about it at all.  Which is great, because I had no idea whodunnit!

Funny Goodreads review:  "To explain its plot accurately would take half an hour and a whiteboard..."

I did have some problems with the title.  Although there was a golf course, it featured so little in the book that I wondered why it was there.  The golf course hadn't even been finished yet!  The cover of this particular edition, while really quite good, made the book like it was going to be all about 1920s golf; I kept expecting Jordan from The Great Gatsby to make an appearance; she didn't.
2011 William Morrow edition; notice Jordan Baker.
File:Murder on the Links First Edition Cover 1923.jpg
Original cover, very 1920s

Also, if the setting of the book is a village in northern France, why does everyone speak English?  Is Hastings translating as he tells the story?  And if he's translating, why does he sprinkle his translation with "Poirot French," all those cute expressions and interjections in italicized French?  

Still, those quibbles aside, it was a murder mystery that kept me guessing.  

I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blase of editors, penned the following sentence:  

" 'Hell!'  said the Duchess."

'Hell!' said the Duchess first appeared in print in 1895, at least according to the A Dictionary of Catchphrases; the entire phrase is 'Hell,' said the Duchess, when she caught her teats in a mangle.  If you "google books" the phrase, it appears as an anecdote in various trade journals, including this one by a B.S. Pearsall called "Cooperative Advertising For Margarine" from the American Food Journal of 1921.  I quote the beginning of the article in full, because I think it's giving the gist of what Agatha Christie is trying to get across in the opening of her book:

SEVERAL, years ago a young man essayed to become a successful writer of short stories. He wrote several and sent them to the publishers of various magazines, only to be sent back. He couldn't understand why, but as he had a friend who was already a successful author, he took what he considered his best story to his author friend and asked him to read it and tell him wherein it was lacking. The successful author did read it, and when the young man called he said, "You have a good story here, hut you take too long to get into it. Rewrite the first part of it and start it off with a punch. Don't forget the punch." Later he again submitted his factory to his friend to learn whether he had put the required punch into it. His critic found that in the revised form it now started out: "Oh, Hell!" said the Duchess, who hitherto had taken no part in the conversation."
 Although some of you may have heard this before, the point of it is none the less pertinent, for the moral or immoral of it is that the time has come for us, as margarine manufacturers, to give our story to the public with more force. We have a good story, an excellent one, but our trouble has been — like the young author — we did not start right.
I think this one of those phrases that was in usage during the time Agatha Christie wrote this book, but has gradually fallen out of use.

"Is it that you have forgotten the method most excellent of Laverguier?  His system, I practice it always.  One balances oneself, if you remember, turning the head from left to right, breathing in and out, counting six between each breath."  

Laverguier.  Hastings teases Poirot about being sea sick, and Poirot uses the "most excellent Laverguier" system to combat seasickness.    A google search turns up nothing about this system or Laverguier, other than references back to this and other Agatha Christie novels, so maybe she made it up.

"It's not everyone who can distinguish between a demi and a duchess."

Demi and a duchess.  Oooooh, this is a good one.  A demi is slang for a prostitute!  She also says to Hastings:  "I knew you weren't such a mutt as you looked."  Although what comes to my mind automatically when I hear the word "mutt" is a dog, another meaning for mutt is a "fool," an abbreviation of the word "muttonhead."

Poirot French.  Agatha Christie's Poirot French is sprinkled throughout all of her Poirot novels, and The Murder on the Links is no exception.  Some examples:  Eh bien:  Well now.  Sacré tonnere:  Holy Thunder!  Hein:  Isn't that so/isn't it.  Toqué:  crazy!

Merlinville.  The setting, where the Reynaulds have their villa, is fictitious.  

"Sacré tonnere!" ejaculated the Frenchman.  

Ejaculate.  According to Google ngrams, "ejaculated" was prominently used from around 1827 to 1910, and started declining after that, hitting the peak in 1900.  It's a word you only find used in older books; new books certainly don't use the word in any other context other than the semen/dick related context.  According to Merriam Webster online, the first known use of "ejaculate" in the sense Christie uses it was in 1578.  In the same same article, the first use of "ejaculate" in the semen/dick related sense seems to have been in 1927.  That would explain the decline, as the sexual meaning superseded the original meaning.

"The veriest amateur of an English Mees knows it -- thanks to the publicity the Bertillon system has given in the Press."  

English Mees.  The only definition I can find for "mee" is that it is French for chickadee.  

The Bertillon system.  Was used prior to fingerprinting as a way of identifying suspects and criminals; it seems that maybe Christie was confused as to the actual meaning of the system, and thought it referred to fingerprinting.  Although some aspects of the Bertillon system have been retained (identifying features, mugshots, photographs of a crime scene), fingerprints (and now, of course, DNA) have replaced most of what was being used.

Soupçon was used twice in the book.  It means "a slight trace" or "dash."  

Where one hates, one also loves.  I can't find this exact quote; which makes sense, because Hastings admits that he's misquoting when he says it.  I don't even know what he's misquoting, to be honest.  Plenty of similar ideas though about love and hate; "there is a fine line between love and hate" is something I've heard.

"I think you should write for the Kinema, mon ami!"

Kinema.  Poirot and Hastings tease each other quite a bit, which I never realized before.  In this instance, after Hastings gives his solution, which quite frankly isn't much more twisted than Christie's own denouement, Poirot tells him this.  "Kinema" is simply a British version of "cinema."  According to ngram, its peak use was in 1926, and drops after that; modern usage seems to all be in reference to past usage.

Bunkair.  The body was found in a half finished "bunkair" which in modern golf terms is called a "harzard".

The Murder on the Links: A Hercule Poirot MysteryThe Murder on the Links: A Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The second outing featuring Poirot and Hastings, with a body in the "bunkair" (hazard) of a half-finished golf course.  Christie filled this one with red herrings galore; at one point, there were three solutions headed down the track together, and I had no idea which one was going to reach the station first.  Great plot twists and turns; Poirot and Hastings friendly animosity and gentle ribbing is fun.  Like Athena from the head of Zeus, Poirot emerged from the head of Christie almost completely intact; the Poirot of 1923 isn't much different from the Poirot of later years.  While not Christie's greatest work (those are yet to come), this is still a solid, fine whodunnit that will keep you guessing until the end.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza (2003)

I read this aloud to my niece and nephew over the weekend.  I'm such a huge Keiko Kasza fan, and this one did not disappoint.  A terrific read aloud, with a great Kasza twist at the end.  I'm not sure how I missed this one, but it's going into my reading repertoire for sure.

Most of the time, the people who review children's books on Goodreads are morons.  The first twenty reviewers or so of My Lucky Day were much less moronic than usual.  Perhaps Kasza attracts a better class of readers.  Or more likely, it was my lucky day.

Hitlerand by Andrew Nagorski (2012)

I never could find a narrative thread here and finally gave up.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey (1921)

I know next to nothing about Lytton Strachey.  He was friends with Virginia Woolf.  I think he was gay.  He had a beard.  He wrote another book (which I have not read yet) called Emminent Victorians which skewered some reverential figures of the past and ended the Victorian Era officially (does that make him an Edwardian or Georgian?  I do not know).  E.M. Forster has some connection with Lytton Strachey, but I don't remember what.  I don't even really know how to pronounce his name (I always hear something that rhymes with Mitten Patchy in my head).

I do know quite a bit about Queen Victoria, however.  I can name all of her children.  I can probably name the husbands and wives of her children, and maybe even a handful of her grandchildren.  If forced to, I could probably write a pretty decent social biography of her life.  I've read up on Victoria and her brood, to the point where it's hard to find new books to read.

Strachey wrote Queen Victoria in 1921.  I don't know what other biographies had been written about the queen prior to this - from the bibliography at the back, quite a few.  What struck me from almost the first pages of Strachey's biography was that by the time he was writing this, only 20 years after the queen's death, so much of her story is in place.  The villainous John Conroy, the fights between her mother and her evil Hanoverian uncles; the "affair" with Lord Melbourne; the Lady Flora Hastings debacle; the hissing of the Queen at Ascot; the machinations of Lehzen; the adoration and death of Albert; the perpetual mourning; Gladstone and Disraeli; Victoria Imperatrix.  Everything was in place, like vases on the mantelpiece, all in the right order, all with the right understanding of the situation.  Practically the only things missing are the sticky, messy relationships with her children (some of whom were still alive in 1921, making that a bit tricky for Strachey, I would assume), more details about John Brown (who gets a bit of a mention) and the Munshi (I'm not quite finished with the book, so he may get a nod, but there isn't much left).  The Prince of Wales messy business with Nelly Clifton, for example, is distilled into this by Strachey:   "The Prince of Wales, who had been placed at that University in the previous year, was behaving in such a manner that a parental visit and a parental admonition had become necessary."  I've read other books that claimed that this parental visit is what killed Albert, and certainly the Queen blamed her son for her father's death because in Albert's worried state he became ill and died.    So some of the meat is still missing, but the bones are all there, strung together by Strachey's sharp prose.

So that got me to wondering:  is the modern story of Queen Victoria in part based on the Victoria Strachey created for his biography?  I mean, Strachey used many of the same sources that current biographers probably use; and current biographers may have more access.  Strachey himself admits this, which I thought was telling and explains why the latter half of the book is so short:  

The death of the Prince Consort was the central turning-point in the history of Queen Victoria. She herself felt that her true life had ceased with her husband's, and that the remainder of her days upon earth was of a twilight nature—an epilogue to a drama that was done. Nor is it possible that her biographer should escape a similar impression. For him, too, there is a darkness over the latter half of that long career. The first forty-two years of the Queen's life are illuminated by a great and varied quantity of authentic information. With Albert's death a veil descends. Only occasionally, at fitful and disconnected intervals, does it lift for a moment or two; a few main outlines, a few remarkable details may be discerned; the rest is all conjecture and ambiguity. Thus, though the Queen survived her great bereavement for almost as many years as she had lived before it, the chronicle of those years can bear no proportion to the tale of her earlier life. We must be content in our ignorance with a brief and summary relation.

I think we know far more about the later life of Queen Victoria in part because when Strachey was writing this, many of the people involved in that later life were still alive.  Princess Louise, Prince Arthur, and Princess Beatrice were all very much alive, with a decade or more left to each of them.  The Lady in Waiting, Marie Mallet, whose letters I so recently enjoyed was very much alive.  People connected in some way to the fading years of Queen Victoria probably hadn't released their papers; their diaries were still being written and hadn't been given to biographers by their grandchildren or great grandchildren.  There was probably still sealed information that has been unsealed in the intervening years.  

Back to the bones.  Did Strachey tell this story first?  I'm not an expert on this.  But now I'm curious.  Was he the Frankenstein to this accepted portrait of Queen Victoria, and other biographers through the years have aped him?  Or is his story the same story, told over and over again, each through a different eye but telling the same story?

I don't know enough about Strachey to know what he of himself he injected into his biography.  He's certainly there, like all biographers, and I would imagine he's more there than most.  There is definitely a very modern style to this, and I could have totally forgot I was reading a 92 year old biography if it hadn't been for the lack of sex (e.g. we all know the story of the queen telling her doctor about no more fun in bed; also, a woman with nine kids clearly enjoying doing the deed with her husband) and some of the missing meat.    

Queen VictoriaQueen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book written and published approximately 90 years ago, this had a very modern feel.  Strachey's biography certainly contains all the bones of Victoria's life; biographers writing after Strachey added meat, particularly the later years of Victoria's life and reign.  Even Strachey has all the meat in the early years, up to the Prince Consort's death.  I wonder if Strachey's biography set the narrative tone, created the Victoria story (so to speak) that future biographers all follow?  I also assumed that one of the reasons the latter part of the biography was slimmer than the first half was that some of the players, including three of Victoria's children, were alive when this was published.  I wonder what their reactions to the book were, or if they even read it?  I had never read anything by Strachey before, and I always assumed his nonfiction was witty or catty or revolutionary, sort of like a Bloomsbury Mark Twain or Bill Bryson.    But this was essentially a straightforward biography that could have been published today (we'd demand more sex though, I think, especially about a queen with nine children).  Maybe publishing the biography of a beloved queen, when people still remembered her fondly (or otherwise) was revolutionary in the 1920s; it's certainly common place now.  

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by John R. Neill (1904)

The Marvelous Land of Oz (Books of Wonder) (Oz, #2)The Marvelous Land of Oz (Books of Wonder) by L. Frank Baum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Marvelous Land of Oz contains a good dose of Edwardian era Belle Epoque realpolitick, some crazy ass characters, and gentle poking fun at early feminism and the suffragette movement.  I wasn't sure I even liked The Marvelous Land of Oz at first, and at times the weight of it all drags it down considerably.  But characters like the H.M. Woggle Bug T.E. and his atrocious puns, the marvelously evil Mombi (who doesn't get nearly as much airtime as she deserves), and mischievous, courageous Tip make this mostly a joyous jaunt through Oz.  Watch out for Glinda though - she's not all pink spun sugar and spice. For such a beloved character, she's incredibly Machiavellian; if Oz conspiricists are looking for some sort of Ozian New World Order, they should be spying on Glinda (who, you come to find out, was spying on the Wizard of Oz himself all along!).  I've always loved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; now I understand the appeal of the rest of the series.

View all my reviews

I wasn't so sure I liked The Marvelous Land of Oz all that much, but after some thought, I'm going to give it a thumbs up.  It's not The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (far less of a fairy tale, folklore quality, for starters).    It's certainly not The Wizard of Oz.   The artwork by John R. Neill is art nouveau good, but not as art nouveau good as Denslow's art for the first book (his only illustrations for the entire series).  The Marvelous Land of Oz features the Scarecrow and Tin Man (where are you Cowardly Lion?  You are missed) in more settled roles.  Jack Pumpkinhead, who is about as smart as he sounds (if the Scarecrow can be given brains, why can't the pumpkin head).  The Woggle Bug, who could have stepped right out of the pages of The Phantom Tollbooth (most of the main characters in this book could).  Mr. H.M. Woggle-Bug, T.E. to be exact -Highly Magnified Woggle-Bug, Thoroughly Educated.  He gets some crackerjack puns but gets no respect for them either, sort of like Chandler on Friends, only not as ironic.  The Gump, who gets very little air play but is quite interesting.  The Saw Horse, who doesn't speak very much, but is a major player.  And  SPOILDER ALERT

Tip, who is transgender.  But we don't find that out at the end.  Tip is Ozma!  I never knew.  I thought that was a really clever plot twist, very Shakespearean.

The Marvelous Land of Oz is partly about feminism; at least a playful jab at early 20th century feminism; Baum's mother in law was a bigwig in the suffragette movement; the entire plot hinges on an army of girls taking over the Emerald City.

It's a fun story, but it also has something to say about diplomacy and realpolitick and geopolitics, certainly for the time  The Tin Woodman is an emperor  even though he rules over a kingdom, which Baum pokes fun at (gently, because the Tin Woodman is still a beloved character, and he carries an axe so you don't want to fuck with him too much).  Certainly, in 1904, there were Emperors who had empires, but if I remember correctly there were also emperors like the ruler of Bulgaria who did not necessarily have an empire.  The whole scene with Jellia Jamb (I love that name) being forced to translate for King Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead because they are from different parts of Oz, even though they obviously speak the same language, is also a mocking look at diplomacy.

General Jinjur's takeover of the Emerald City, and Glinda the Good Witch's eventually marching on the capitol of Oz is a little more pointed though, at least in my opinion.  At it's heart, Baum is writing a story for children (and, according to the afterward, a story that he wanted to adapt for the stage, so it has plenty of grown up jokes thrown in, including one the Tin Woodman makes about tarts, i.e. prostitutes.  Huh!), but you can't ignore that in the world at that time, Kingdoms, Empires and Republics were squabbling and going to small and large wars, that would eventually lead to World War I.  The Russian Revolution wasn't far off in the future, and although it wasn't an all girl army, the demands for equality and sharing the wealth can't not be compared.  Glinda essentially meddles in the affairs on the neighboring country, marching on the Emerald City, and conspiring to put back on the throne someone she favored instead of General Jinjur (notice, deposing the Scarecrow at the same time; and making Ozma dependent on the good graces of Glinda - that Glinda is a piece of work, very Machiavellian).

I noticed General Jinjur looked quite a bit like the Gibson Girl.  Don't you think?
Gibson Girl verse General Jinjur

Dorothy and the Wizard hang over this novel; their influence is everywhere, even though they never make an appearance.  The Wizard, a sly old (Vaudevillian) humbug in the first book (and movie) is much more Machiavellian himself in the second book;  he conspires with Mombi (the main villainess of this piece, far more evil than General Jinjur, who at the least has some reasons behind her revolt; Mombi is just wicked) to keep Ozma hidden from the populace so he can assume and keep power in Oz.

Mombi, both as Neill illustrated her and Baum wrote about her, is more in line with the traditional idea of a witch - the hooked nose, the magical powers of transformation, the wickedness.  She's much more like the movie version of the Wicked Witch of the West than the actual witch of that name.  She was an interesting as any other character in the book, and I wished she had more air time.  That said, the book could only be so long!

Ozma looks lightly like a blonde Megan Fox.  Which I know is a revolting remark to make, but it's slightly true.  If Ozma had collagen lips and a more vapid look.

“For although I feel that I know a tremendous lot, I am not yet aware how much there is in the world to find out about. It will take me a little time to discover whether I am very wise or very foolish"  Jack Pumpkinhead is the wise fool.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Stone Soup by Marcia Brown (1947)

World War II had just ended, most of Europe was starving (again, for the second time in fifty years) and probably sick to death of invading soldiers, who - among other things - steal and eat all the food.  Amid all of this post-war turmoil and suffering (with the Korean War knocking at the door), Marcia Brown re-tells and illustrates the classic French folktale, nominally about soup made from stones but really about sharing your bounty with others.  I remember the story a bit differently - the villagers were all starving but unwilling to share with one another, until they make stone soup.  Brown's including soldiers is an interesting, and timely take.  These mid=century illustrations and color palettes are so beautiful.

Apparently, Marcia Brown lives (lived?) in Laguna Hills!

I've probably shelved Stone Soup at every library I've ever worked hundreds of times - but this is the first time I've read it!

Stone SoupStone Soup by Marcia Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very famous story about sharing and "it takes a village."  Marcia Brown's mid-century illustrations have the lovely color and feel of 1940s wallpaper.  I think the story must have really resonated when it was written and published in 1947; World War II was just over, people all over the world were hungry and probably very distrustful of soldiers.  Re-telling the old French folktale, with soldiers as the main characters, was timely and interesting.

View all my reviews

Open Very Carefully: A Book With Bite by NIck Bromley & Nicola O'Byrne (2013)

This was lent to me by a librarian I go to church with.  I usually like her book suggestions, but this one not so much.  It is in the same family of books as Press Here by Herve Tullet and James Stevenson's Don't Make Me Laugh, and related to the famous The Monster at the End of This Book.  Open Very Carefully could be as good, but just misses the mark.  As with all books like this, I never am quite sure how to approach the book.  When a book breaks the fourth wall, it better be damn good, and this one just wasn't.  Plus, there is a "bite" out of the back of the book, which is annoying, but not as annoying as those books shaped like vehicles that have wheels; or puffy books; or books that make sounds (except Eric Carle's book about Santa with the tinkling sleigh bells at the end).

Monday, May 13, 2013

Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders (2003)

This one far exceeded my hopes, wonderfully - I could barely put it down.  I never realized Victorian times were so filthy, grimy, dark, and generally unpleasant.  Victorian era movies and television shows tend to leave out the carpets of cockroaches that invaded homes each night, the constant battle against soot and smell, the adulterated food, the absolutely unending battle with laundry.

We are obsessed with property; the Victorians were obsessed with propriety and place.  It didn't matter to Victorians whether you owned your house - it was okay to rent, and in fact almost everyone did rent.  What mattered was where you rented.  Class was everything in Victorian Britain.

The shift over the last 150 years from Victorian mores to "modern" mores (Elizabethan?) was from an adult centered world to a child centered world as well.  "In earlier centuries households were run by adults for adults."  In my house, it's household run by adults for dogs.

Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian EnglandInside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one far exceeded my hopes, wonderfully - I could barely put it down.  I never realized Victorian times were so filthy, grimy, dark, and generally unpleasant.  Victorian era movies and television shows tend to leave out the carpets of cockroaches that invaded homes each night, the constant battle against soot and smell, the adulterated food, the absolutely unending battle with laundry.  So well written and obviously well researched; I loved the inclusion fiction from the time as source material.

View all my reviews

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss; pictures by Crockett Johnson (1945)

Crockett Johnson was just this side of a commie/pinko/red, so I'm sure there is some leftish Marxist moral in here as well.  Maybe "Carrots are the opiates of the masses."

Interestingly, Syd Hoff was a leftist as well.

Goodreads Review:

The Carrot SeedThe Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
View all my reviews

The moral of this story is "keep on keepin' on."  Or, "don't stop believing."  Or "illegitimi non carborundum."  Or "the power of positive thinking."  Or "fuck off."  Or "don't trust anyone over 30."  Or "don't let the man keep you down."  Or "I think I can, I think I can."  Or "patience is a virtue."  Or "Well done is better than well said."   Or "the scorners delight in their scorning."  Or "hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but when the desire" - or the carrot - "cometh it is the tree of life."  Or "hope springs eternal."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

Like everyone, I get some parts of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz mixed up with the movie of the same name.  I've certainly read the book before; I even have a starred review on Goodreads - but no actual review, which means I pulled it in from that other book review source I was using (Social Bookshelf?  Living Bookshelf?  Whatever.).  So I've read it in the last five years at least.  My plan is to read a few more into the series; I know I've tried to do that before but failed (even as a kid!).  The Wind in the Willows syndrome - trying and giving up and trying and giving up until suddenly, magically, everything clicks.  The next book in the series is The Marvelous Land of Oz. 

The edition I remember reading as a kid, I think, had a "blue" chapter as well.  The Munchkin chapters were all illustrated in blue; Oz and the way there was green; the West was yellow; the Quadlings were red.  I could be totally wrong though.  But that's how I remembered it.

The Denslow illustrations are magnificent examples of art nouveau illustration; stunningly beautiful, detailed, quite modern.   My favorite illustration in the book, truly, is one of the first ones:  the cyclone.

  The sandy brown color (monochrome, lovely lovely monochrome), the dust clouds, the house in the air, the little details like the wagon and barrels - I love it.    The Wicked Witch of the West is magnificent too, nothing at all like the movie witch.  I love the flying monkeys.  The "dropped cap" illustrations (a new word for me) are also favorites.  

If you read details about prairie life and homesteading wives, the Aunt Em of the book rings true:  

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child's laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy's merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

This passage reminded me a bit of another recent prairie classic I read, My Antonia.  

This passage also made me wonder why Dorothy wanted to return.  "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we... would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home."  Spoken like a true Kansan, I guess.

I wonder if Dorothy rode the orphan train?  You never think of Dorothy being an orphan - I wonder where she came from?  I wonder who Dorothy's parents were?  Aunt Em and Uncle Henry (like every white person on the prairie) are from somewhere else too - I wonder where they came from?  

I had never noticed the folklore qualities of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, so much of which is left out of the movie.  The violence of folklore and fairy tale is front and center such as the Tin Man chopping the wolves in half or the Scarecrow strangling the witch's black crows.  I had completely forgotten those parts of the book.    I read in the afterward that Baum was trying to create American folklore; that folklore up to that time had princesses and knights and that he wanted to write a fairy tale that was American.  I think this is one of those American stories that will continue resonating through the ages of our country; a hundred years from now, the movie will be intertwined with the book to form a piece of real American folklore.

There is religion in Oz - at least in the Dainty China County - because at the end the Lion knocks over a church and breaks it into pieces.  

The power and values of American industry and capitalism - the Wizard tells Dorothy:  "You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return.  In this country everyone must pay for everything he gets.  If you wish me to use my magic power to send you home again you must do something for me first.  Help me and I will help you."  Glinda sings the same tune at the end:  "Bless your dear heart," she says.  "I am sure I can tell you of a way to get back to Kansas... But if I do, you must give me the Golden Cap."  And then she tells her she could have done it herself all the while.  She's certainly anticipating the information industry and the knowledge culture.

I think my favorite character in the book is the Cowardly Lion.  He's so brave and doesn't even know it.

The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The movie and the book have become so inextricably tangled together over the years that it's difficult to figure out where one ends and the other begins.  Probably sometime in the future, they will meld into a piece of American folklore.  That certainly was Baum's intention, to write a fairy tale that was distinct from European fairy tales and folklore, with American values at the heart.  Even one hundred years later, it's a tremendously fun, interesting, and modern story. If a bit violent for our time - the bloody parts were all removed from the movie, and they are really sort of disgusting.  Although no more disgusting than some of the Grimms' original (non-Disney) tales.  W.W. Denslow's illustrations are magnificent examples of art nouveau illustration - dense, intricate, organic, alive.  Nothing in my mind can ever compare to these original illustrations; I'm sure this is what the makers of the movie had in mind as they created costumes and scenery.  The Cowardly Lion is my favorite character in the book; he's a gentle giant and truly brave.  I love the Wicked Witch of the West too - she's so completely different from the movie witch, yet still memorable.

View all my reviews

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

The author note at the end says that Robert McCloskey "wrote and illustrated some of the most honored and enduring children's books ever published" which is certain true.  I know I've read Blueberries for Sal before; I also know I've read Homer Price before. There is something about a donut making machine; I don't think I particularly enjoyed it as a kid though; I think I kept wanting Home Price to be Henry Reed and kept being sadly disappointed.

I'm familiar with Make Way for Ducklings but to be honest, I don't think I've ever actually read it.  I know it's about ducks -- and Boston, right?

Blueberries for Sal is much longer than I remember.

The mom is such a New England mom.  She could walk right off the pages onto the streets of some Maine or Vermont town today, and no one would be the wiser or have any idea she'd time traveled from 1948.  Sal feels the same way.  Maybe the mom's shoes would be different - maybe.  A hipster mom probably would have those same vintage shoes. I love her cardigan.  Because Blueberries for Sal is monochromatic (dark blue?)  pen and ink, I have no idea what color her cardigan is, but I'm guessing something practical, although I hope it's dusty rose.  The canning makes this really hipstery too, doesn't it?

As I was reading this, and before I took to Goodreads to review, I thought, "there is some modern reviewer out there that is aghast that a mom would lose her child, and has harsh words for parents reading this to their children."  I hate those kinds of reviews.  "If kid read this, then they will do that..." sort of reviews or "What kind of parent would ___________."  Fuck off.  I watched Bugs Bunny every single Saturday morning for at least ten years, and I never dropped an anvil on anyone's head.

I've now gone to Goodreads, and this is what I mean:  "I thought this was a cute book. Teaches children the importance of staying close to their mothers (or parent/teacher) while out in places they're unfamiliar with. Also reminds parents/teachers the importance of keeping an eye on their children while out and about."  Oh screw off.

Oh, plus several reviews kept referring to Sal as a "young boy."  WTF?  Did they even read the fucking book?  

Blueberries for SalBlueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blueberries for Sal has this dual quality of being  timeless and at the same time completely mid-century modern and of the past.  The illustrations are right out of 1948, lovely monochromatic (dark blue?) pen and ink.  The story, though, will never grow old:  toddlers will continue to bravely venture off on their own, moms will temporarily lose children (whether humans or bears), to be happily reunited at the end. A classic of American Literature and American Illustration (dare I say, Art?) that will be around for our grandchildren to read to their grandchildren...

View all my reviews

The Giant Carrot by Jan Peck; pictures by Barry Root (1998)

An Appalachian twist on the Russian folktale "The Turnip."  This time, Papa Joe, Mama Bess, Brother Abel and Little Isabelle dance and dream and work hard to grow the biggest carrot ever, and then sit down at the end to some good carrot based vittles. What I particularly like about this book is that Little Isabelle's contribution is dancing over the carrot to get it to grow.

I'm doing storytime at the library branch for the next session because we are so short handed!  It's been a long time since I've had to plan six different storytimes.  I'm used to reading the same books over and over again to different groups! I've read this one aloud at least once before with some success. I think this time I'm going to have the kids dance along with Little Isabelle.

The Giant CarrotThe Giant Carrot by Jan Peck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Appalachian re-telling of the classic Russian folklore story "The Turnip."  Bright colors and a fun text make this a good read aloud for older kids.  If you are good at accents, pile on your fake southern accent (unless, of course, you are from the south).  I particularly love Little Isabelle, whose dancing makes the carrot grow. Barry Root's illustrations of Little Isabelle's wild dancing is what made me start reading this book in the first place.  

View all my reviews

Pickin' Peas by Margaret Read MacDonald; illustrated by Pat Cummings (1998)

I've read this aloud so many times I don't even really have to read it anymore; I can basically tell it.  "Little girl planted a garden of peas.  Come July, those peas got ripe and ready to eat..."  I love several things about this book.  For one, the simple little songs that she sings and the rabbit sings make the story interactive; I teach the song and actions to kids before I read it, and then have them sing along.  The story also has a funny ending, and kids get very wide eyed and expectant as they see the rabbit getting closer to the window at the end.  I also love the fact that Little Girl is African American, and modern African American too, but only just because.  Her race isn't relevant to the story, but if I have children of color in my audience (and I usually do), particularly little African American girls, they can see someone who looks like them, and that's really rare in children's books, and even rarer in children's books that make good  re-alouds!

Pickin' PeasPickin' Peas by Margaret Read MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my go-to book for reading aloud to groups of all ages; it works for preschool all the way up to fourth grade.  Different ages get different things out of the story, but all find it funny and enjoy singing the simple little songs.  Trickster tales are always popular; everyone like Rabbit (and his many, many tricky relatives). The pictures are bright and large.  What I especially like about this book is Little Girl being African American.  Her race isn't relevant to the story; she just happens to be African American.  It's hard enough to find picture books with characters of color; finding one that's a great read aloud is even tougher.  I like that a little African American girl in the storytime circle can look up and see herself in the story.  What a shame that's such a rare thing.  I can't recommend this story enough - although I also have tried to keep in a semi-secret in my immediate circle, because I don't want everyone else reading it aloud too!  

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bambi by Felix Salten (1923)

I had this:

And this:

So I read (and listened to) Bambi quite a bit as a kid.  I also have a used copy of Bambi's Children that looks like this:

It was a discard from the Wilson Elementary School Library - that's also how I got my copy of The Adventures of a Brownie and The Little Lame Prince which I plan on re-reading sometime in the future.

As I read Bambi, I started to remember bits and pieces of the book, only I mixed some of it up with Bambi's Children.  The story of Gobo, for example, I thought was in the sequel (it's not).  After a few chapters in, I got this faint memory that kept getting stronger and stronger of two leaves talking to one another about autumn, until one falls and winter comes.  It's Chapter VIII, and when I got to it, I was impressed by its beauty and power.  I also loved the scene about the mayflies talking about time and the contrast of creatures who only live 24-48 hours talking about a beetle who can live months, and how time is relative.

Bambi is incredibly violent.  It's full of blood and guts.  Deer die.  Pheasants die.  A fox kills a squirrel. A fox kills a mother duck.  A fox dies.    Ravens or crows (I don't remember which) pick at a sick baby hare until it dies.  Bambi's mother dies.  Gobo dies.  And then a man dies at the end.  I don't know exactly know what the hell Bambi is about, but I think it must be at least partly about death.

It's sort of sexy too, but in a very muted way.  I mean, it's deer sex after all.  And who wants to really read in depth descriptions of deer sex.  In a children's book.

Bambi was translated by Whittaker Chambers.  Yes, THAT Whittaker Chambers. McCarthy, Cohn, the fabulous fifties, commies and pinkos, HUAC.  I had absolutely no idea.

One of the most famous and infamous pieces of early erotica was called The Memoirs of Josephine Mutzenbacher.  For many years, it was an anonymous work, and no one knew who wrote it.  Scholars finally figured out it that the author was none other than Felix Salten.

Felix Salten was a Viennese Jew; and lived in Austria until the Anschluss.  He was fortunate enough to be able to move to Zurich, Switzerland and escaped the Holocaust.  Bambi was banned and burned by the Nazis in 1936 because it was an "political allegory of the treatment of Jews in Europe."  I can definitely see this as a diatribe against hunting, particularly European hunting of the royal kind, but I guess this the allegory must run pretty deep because I don't get it.  Are the Jews the deer?  Is He the Germans?  Is the hummingbird the neutral countries who won't help the Jews?  That seems a bit convoluted.  As we know, the Nazis were nutsacks, so I guess I should take this definition with a grain of salt.

Felix Salten also wrote the story that ultimately became The Shaggy Dog.  Who knew?

BambiBambi by Felix Salten
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Bambi, many things die. Many, many, many things.  Pheasants die.  A ferret kills a squirrel.  Deer die.  A fox kills a pheasant.  A fox kills a duck.  Some ravens peck a baby hare to death.  A man kills a fox.  Bambi's mother dies.  A deer named Gobo dies.  A man dies.  Even some leaves die, and they talk to one another about it before they do so.  It's a gruesome book.  It's like a slasher movie about deer.    There is also some muted sex scenes too, although it's deer sex, and who really wants to read in depth descriptions of deer having sex?  In a children's book?

All snark aside, Bambi is really a quite compelling book.  It's not for people who like to hunt.  It's not for the squeamish. It's not really for kids.  But it does have a lyrical, majestic quality.  It reminded me quite a bit of   Watership Down; if you liked that book you'll like Bambi.  Don't let the Disney movie (which is beautiful in its own way) throw you off of this really great book.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll

I can't possibly write anything new or interesting about Alice and Wonderland that hasn't been written or said before...

John Tenniel's illustrations freaked me out as a kid.  I was trying to think back as I re-read Alice about what it had been like the first time I read it.  It was a Junior Deluxe edition.  The pictures of  
This is the right edition, but not my copy

the Queen of Hearts and particularly the Duchess were terrifying.  Tenniel's illustrations are really, really scary!  I must have had a really great imagination as a kid.  The Duchess looks so mean, like the worst kind of teacher.  And she beats her baby!  The Duchess scene that has always stuck out in my head the most though is:  "Alice did not like her keeping so close to her:  first, because the Duchess was very ugly, and secondly, because she was exactly the right height to rest her chin on Alice's shoulder, and it was an uncomfortably sharp shin."  I think this entire scene is really funny as an adult; I hope Lewis Carroll was thinking of someone in particular when he wrote about the Duchess; I wonder if John Tenniel had some model in mind when he illustrated her.  I know I can think of several "Duchesses" in my life who I don't want particularly close but can't seem to get rid of.  If I'm around someone of a certain height, where my chin is just above their shoulders, I have to stop myself from pulling a Duchess, because I know what will be funny to me won't be so funny to them, and painful.

The Queen of Hearts was terrifying too, and I can remember thinking her something out a nightmare, and feeling sorry for everyone with their heads cut off. She's definitely a Victorian villainess.

I love the chapter at the White Rabbit's house; it's probably my favorite chapter in the whole book ("The Rabbit Sends in A Little Bill").  It's the most delightfully comedic in the book, very slapstick, and I still laugh.

I never realized before that John Tenniel's Mock Turtle has a turtle's body but a calf's head.  Of course it would, as mock turtle soup is really calf's brain and organ soup.  I'm sure Victorian audiences thought this a total gas.

It's still a remarkably fresh and funny book, after nearly 150 years.

What was quite interesting to me personally was that Through the Looking Glass I didn't like at all.  I know I didn't own this book as a child.  I don't think I've ever read more than once or twice, to be honest.  None of it was familiar; I mean, quite frankly, all of it is familiar, because Alice and Wonderland and all of the creatures are so familiar to us culturally, but the story was almost new to me.

Both Wonderland and Looking Glass are utter nonsense; but Wonderland seems to me a more developed book, more pointed, certainly less strange.  There is more a dreamlike quality to Looking Glass that is far less satisfying than Wonderland.  In Wonderland you aren't ever sure if Alice is dreaming or not; in Looking Glass you always know it's a dream, and that took some of the immediacy and fun out of it.  No one likes hearing someone else describe their dreams aloud (unless, of course, you are in it in some way).  That's what Looking Glass feels like and it's really quite boring.

It's the poetry in Through the Looking Glass that really stands out, not the story.  Some of my favorite poetry of all time is in Through the Looking Glass.  "Jabberwock."  "The Walrus and the Carpenter."  And the beautiful and haunting:

A BOAT beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?

The best lines in the poem:  "Still she haunts me, phantomwise, Alice moving under skies, never seen by waking eyes" is really quite dark, and sad.  Alice, more the book than the girl, probably haunted Charles Dodgson / Lewis Carroll the rest of his life in one way or another; the real Alice, whoever she was (I think she was at least partly based on the acrostically described Alice Pleasance Liddell), was dream to Lewis Carroll, a pleasant punting  on the Thames so long ago.    

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don't remember the very first novel I ever read, but "Alice in Wonderland" was probably among the first, because we owned a Junior Delux edition of it, complete with John Tenniel illustrations.  It was definitely a favorite long ago, and many a "golden afternoon" was spent in the company of Alice, the White Rabitt, the King and Queen of Hearts, the Caterpillar, and all the rest.  I vaguely remember it being quite scary;  Tenniel's illustrations of the Duchess are terrifying and ugly; the Queen of Hearts with her many cries of "Off with his head" makes her one of the scariest of Victorian villainesses, even if we know that her ferociousness is all for show.  My favorite, favorite chapter is "The Rabbit Sends In A Little Bill."  It's slapstick comedy at it's very best, mixed with high fantasy; Terry Pratchett is the direct descendent of this single chapter.  The many movies and renditions of both this and Through the Looking Glass are all muddled together now in people's minds; the original story is still far better than anything ever produced as an imitation since.    I've probably read Alice at least 25 times, and probably many more - but you can learn something new everytime you re-read a book.  I didn't realize, until now, that the Mock Turtle of Tenniel's illustrations has a calf's head; real Victorian mock turtle soup was made from calf's brains...  

View all my reviews

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found ThereThrough the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Does anyone ever like hearing someone else describe a dream they've had?  Unless you feature prominently in the dream, the answer is probably not (maybe Freud would say yes).  Through the Looking Glass is like listening to someone describe their dream for a long, long time.  Both Wonderland and Looking Glass are dreams; but Wonderland isn't so obviously a dream; if one has been raised on fantasy (Oz, Narnia, Middle Earth), you can accept that a girl in a book could fall down a rabbit hole and the whole thing is believable; the fact that it's all a dream is both a charming part of Alice (her sister imagining that she too could imagine herself in an adventure, which was probably heady stuff for a well bred Victorian teenage girl to imagine in 1866) and annoying too (part of you wants everything to be real, right? not a dream, but a real wonderland exists for everyone, if we only can find it).  Looking Glass, though, has none of this pretense.  it's very, very obvious from the beginning that Alice is dreaming.  And while in Wonderland, things disappear or change into other things (a baby into a pig, for example) that all seems to be part of the magic of Wonderland.  In Looking Glass, the magic is all dream; Alice floats and flies, things abruptly change into other things or scenes abruptly change.  That was disappointing.  I always wondered why people compared Wonderland to a drug trip when it always felt like a typical fantasy; it's Looking Glass that feels like a wild acid trip.  And hearing someone describe their drug induced acid trip is even more annoying than listening to them describe their dreams.  Quite frankly, Looking Glass is great because Lewis Carroll wrote two of the greatest poems of all time and included them in the book:  the brilliant Jabberwocky and the wonderfully comic (and under appreciated) The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Then he adds one of my personal favorite poems, the beautiful and haunting "A boat, beneath a sunny sky" that perfectly captures Lewis Carroll and wonderland in several lines -- still she haunts me, phantomwise, Alice moving under skies, never seen by waking eyes" and a philosophical thought for us all to end on:  "Life, what is it, but a dream?"  The sharp, brittle nonsense of Looking Glass is all worth these three poems.  

View all my reviews

Blog Archive