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A     B O O K L O V E R S '     P L A C E


Books, books, books!
Is there anything better than losing yourself in a good book,
whether fluffy novel or scholarly tome?
This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
essays about book series, memories of books,
quotations, and anything else with a literary bent.
 

23 April 2007

Stories for "Wide Awake" Youngsters

Many children's magazines flourished in the 19th century. While several were published by religious groups and featured highly-moral stories, others were secular, although milder moral stories were the rule, and disobedient children or those urchins who smoked or used slang were reformed (except in the weekly Youth's Companion, where even mention of tobacco or "drink" was forbidden).

While St. Nicholas was the most remembered of these publications and had the second-longest run, others were quite well-known during their time: Merry's Museum (edited for some time by Louisa May Alcott), Our Young Folks (whose merge with St. Nicholas upon the latter magazine's 1873 debut was unknown to editor J.T. Trowbridge until it was a fait accompli), and Wide Awake, published by Daniel Lothrop starting in 1875; he later married Harriet Mulford Stone, better known as "Margaret Sidney," whom he met when she submitted the first of the "Five Little Peppers" stories to the magazine. Wide Awake was also later bought out by St. Nicholas (in 1893).

Having finished my St. Nicholas collection, I thought I would add one or two other titles of the same time period, but so far I've only obtained some bound volumes of Wide Awake. My first was the June-November 1889 volume, "CC," my oldest, "R" from 1884 arrived today (but I won't be reading it for a while as it needs major repairs as did the "CC" volume). The oldest I have read at this point is "Z" from 1888.

In format, the Wide Awake volumes closely resemble St. Nicholas as well as other adult magazines of the time: two column 10-point type, with engravings as illustrations. It has a couple of regular features: "Men and Things," short anecdotes about discoveries, people, or even cute stories about the things small children say, and "Tangles," a short puzzle page.

I'm probably biased by my St. Nicholas collection, but the stories in Wide Awake seem a bit more didactic than those of its competitor. All the fiction, even the continuing adventures of the Pepper clan, seem to emphasize ideals and lessons learned; these qualities are also present in St. Nicholas despite Mary Mapes Dodge insistence that the magazine not be too didactic, but of a lesser emphasis. For instance, one continuing "serial" of Volumes BB and CC is a series of letters from "Daisy," a newly-married middle class young lady in Boston, to her friend "Pattie," in which Daisy usually works some instruction in good manners, for instance, how hurt she felt when a young woman she knew snubbed her due to the part of town she lived in and how snubbing is wrong, or how some of her old friends visit and show poor manners.

However, the Wide Awake volumes also have some articles about traveling in the 1800s that are fascinating and absorbing to read. Olive Risley Seward, for instance, has a series of travel narratives called "Around the World Stories" in which she talks about the dangers, hardships, and joys of two young women traveling the world, including trips to China and Java. Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of pioneer John C. Frémont, has a remarkable series of articles about Western pioneer life.

There are also numerous articles about life in foreign countries and stories about royalty, the latter which seemed to fascinate Americans in the late 19th century. Of course, as with all articles dealing with foreigners in those days, some customs are described as "queer" or "savage" or "barbaric," with American customs generally regarded as superior ("pretty" customs like Japanese flower arranging and other things of that nature are usually conceded as being a good thing, however, and often something that might be emulated in American homes).

There are even some articles in Wide Awake that seem more suited to adults of the time, and were probably written for older children, what we today would call high school/college age teenagers. "The Republican Court," for instance, is a long article about Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, and their contemporaries in "society" in early U.S. politics. A later series, "Children of the Presidents," discuss the offspring of George Washington through James Madison (at least of the issues I have) during both their childhood and adulthood.

The most unique portion of the magazine is the C.Y.F.R.U., the Chautauqua Young Folks' Reading Union. The Chautauqua movement began in 1874, "an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day." Today we pop on the television or surf the internet and watch/read about these subjects and cannot really imagine how isolated communities, especially rural communities, were in the 1800s. Both men and women, and even children, flocked to Chautauqua meetings and classies that brought them knowledge of the outside world.

Wide Awake's Chautauqua sessions-in-articles include "Cooking in the Public Schools," which include lessons on how to make a proper fire in a cookstove and about basic cooking of bread and meat. There is a long series about famous gems and another about geologic and wilderness habitats. One series called "Our Asiatic Cousins," covering the "Hindoos" and other Asiatic peoples, was written by Mrs. A.H. Leonowens, the "Anna" of Anna and the King of Siam/The King and I.

Each C.Y.F.R.U. is concluded with "Search Questions" in various sections of history.

The format of Wide Awake, however, apparently changed between 1889 and 1891, the latter the most recent volume I have received. Perhaps the publisher, due to failing sales, decided to aim the publication more at younger children, because the majority of the articles in the 1891 volume are in larger type over one page instead of in columns, with a simpler vocabulary, and only twenty or so pages near the end of the issue revert to the two-column format with more adult themes (including Margaret Sidney's Five Little Peppers Grown Up).

It will be interesting to investigate this further.

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19 April 2007

Books Read Since March 29

• A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

I was caught up enough in this book about Victorian girls at a posh boarding school who become involved with magic to buy the sequel, although I do agree with the reviewers that all the characters are self-centered. However, most girls of that age are, and wealthy girls were brought up to be self-centered. I can't say the leading character is altogether likable, but she is absorbing to follow.

• Trouble in Spades, Heather Webber

I don't usually read second books in a series first, but I found this on the $1 spinner at Dollar General. It's about a woman who does landscaping who has recently been divorced, her prima-donna sister, and assorted other crazies. I found this cute but nothing special. I usually don't have problems with a multiple cast of characters, but all the players in this one made my head spin. Also it seems there were too many weird neighbors to go along with the weird relatives.

• Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin

I've seen this in paperback at the store, but this particular volume I found in hardback at the Smithsonian on discount. I was fascinated, not just due to the examination of how animals percieve the world differently, but also by the fact that the author is autistic, but has learned to cope with the chaotic (to her) world of the non-autistic. I have a friend with an autistic child, but his condition is more serious than the author's and it gave me an insight into his world.

• I started reading the Civil War mystery A Grave at Glorietta (another $1 spinner acquisition, since I'm not much of a Civil War buff), but I ended up forgetting it at the bank on Saturday morning and it wasn't worth going back for.

• The Rocking Chair Reader: Coming Home

This is a feel-good anthology of Chicken Soup for the Soul-like stories about people's memories of growing up and returning to the small towns where they either grew up or spent a lot of time (with grandparents or other relatives). If you have similar memories, or just want to see what it was like, these are sweet stories, but I didn't like them well enough to keep the book.

• Re-reads: Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers and Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women, both about fan fiction, although Jenkins and Bacon-Smith both discuss "songtapes" and Jenkins addresses filksongs. These are two 1992 classic texts about fandom and fan fiction. I also have Jenkins and Tulloch's study of Star Trek and Doctor Who fans, which I have not re-read lately. I would like to get some of Jenkins' (and others) books about fandom in the age of the Internet.

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11 April 2007

How Can So Many Memories Fit Into One Little Book? #1

Does anyone else have books that are more than just books, because they have become part of the time and place that you first read them?

Back during college I happened to catch the Masterpiece Theatre presentation of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Murder Must Advertise (this was before the British mysteries were spun off to Mystery). I remember Alistair Cooke's delightful commentary on the British society portrayed by Sayers, but most of all I remember Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. Many people complain he was too old for the role and I suppose he was, but he fit the bill perfectly.

In any case, this caused me to go out and buy all the Wimsey books, and several weeks ago I dug out my copy of The Nine Tailors again and plumped happily into the affairs of little Fenchurch St. Paul and making agreeable reacquaintance of Lord Peter, the inestimable Mervyn Bunter (Wimsey's faithful gentleman's gentleman), the garrilous Reverend Venables, precocious Hilary Thorpe, the Thodays and all the working-class folks of the village—and of the eight-bell ring in the large village church: the bells John, Jericho, Jubilee, Saboath, Batty Thomas, Gaude, Dimity, and Tailor Paul. (That's all from memory!) Tailor Paul is the tenor bell, which is rung nine strokes whenever a man dies, which gives the novel its name.

I can't sniff the book print in this one without falling deep, deep into a time machine and coming out in the midst of the little Paperback Books (that's what it was called, and that's what you made the check out to) store that used to be on Weybosset Street in Providence in the 1960s and 1970s. It was across the street from Providence's signature department store, the Outlet Company.

Compared to the designer stores we have today, the paperback bookstore wasn't much on decoration. The show windows in front were always filled with books whose covers were fading from the sun. When you entered, you faced an L-shaped floor plan and the linoleum on the floor was cracked and broken. The cashier sat in a booth that was reached by a short flight of stairs, so she could overlook the store for shoplifters. Racks of books were even set up against this booth. The bookshelves were plain wood, nothing much—but they were crammed with books, books, books... The shelves reached up to about six feet, and then the remainder of the wall and then entire ceiling was covered with posters: rock bands, television favorites, even those black-light psychedelic things so favored in the late 60s. No coffee shop, no games, no overbright lighting—just filled bookshelves and the heady scent of bookprint.

The paperback bookstore had the best media book section anywhere. If a television series had a novelization based on it, or if a book was being made into a movie, it showed up on their shelves long before it hit the screen or theatre. I still have my copy of Cromwell that I bought after we had seen the Richard Harris movie as a school field trip.

The cashier there, a heavyset young woman, was also fannish. One day I was surprised to see what looked like some typeset 8 1/2 by 11 pages stapled together with a colored cardstock cover with drawings of some Star Trek characters on it. I looked at it, but it was priced more than I had. I wish I'd picked it up; it was the infamous "Night of the Twin Moons" Sarek/Amanda fanzine, the very first time I'd ever seen one. I didn't realize what it was until I read the book Star Trek Lives!

The mystery books were off in the back right corner—I can remember the whole floor plan as if it were yesterday—and the Lord Peter Wimsey books were on the right wall, a shelf or two from the bottom. They were $1.25 in those days, a vast sum, and I ended up buying two at the time from my college textbook money without telling my mother. (I bought the trade paperback, Lord Peter, with all the Wimsey short stories including the elusive "Talboys," which takes place after Peter and Harriet have three sons, and my mother had a fit when she found out I paid...ulp!...$3.95 for it!) Most of the books were published by Avon, but for some reason The Nine Tailors was owned by another publisher, Harcourt, so all my copies don't match. I swallowed them all like sweets and then read them a second time, and some, like Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors, over and over again.

When I open up The Nine Tailors, I open the door to the paperback bookstore again, hear the bell, sniff the ink scent that is more compelling than any perfume...

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04 April 2007

Studying Harry Potter

If in some ways unconventionally.

Harry Potter and the Mystery of an Academic Obsession

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