23 December 2004

Everyone's Christmas

Your little girl asks for just one thing for Christmas, a small, insignificant treasure. You procrastinate and then find out the one thing, the only thing, the sole thing she has requested of Santa Claus, is out of production. What do you do?

That's the dilemma of the young father in "Lipstick Like Lindsay's," just one of the stories in Gerald Toner's collection Lipstick Like Lindsay's and Other Stories. I found Lipstick misfiled and shoved among the tattered children's volumes in a used book store. Toner doesn't write Christmas stories in which apprentice angels turn up to solve miracles or holiday tales where little magical characters appear. One or two of his stories have a slight religious slant, but even that is low key, concentrating not on the religion itself, but the warm feeling of well-being that belief brings.

What his stories are are about real people. Some may be rich, some may be poor, but they all have the usual problems: perhaps a job or lack of same, perhaps parential or spousal problems, or enigmatic children. They may not want to face Christmas, or go into the holiday with different perceptions, and Christmas doesn't solve all their problems, but in some way they make peace with the spirit of the season, and in a way that isn't lachrymose or overly cute.

One of my particular favorite stories this year was the final story in Lipstick, "My Dad's Idea of Christmas." Every year, the father of the story's seventeen-year-old protagonist takes his family into the big city to visit a venerable department story and explore a nearby shopping arcade. The descriptions of the department store brought back all those wonderful memories of Christmas shopping at the Outlet Company and Shepard's and Grant's. Even though you've never met the people or visited the places Toner has created, you know them all, if not still there physically, forever in your heart.

If you want to read Christmas stories that will leave you with a smile and a good feeling, please pick up any or all of Toner's books, which also include Holly Day's Cafe and Other Stories and the novel Whittlesworth Comes to Christmas. I've always been thankful that I rummaged through the untidy shelves of that bookstore one year; the effort is well worth your while.

04 November 2004

A Member of the Family

This morning's Thursday Threesome asked a question about which children's book series was your favorite. My answer brought me back...

The first series books I ever read were the Bobbsey Twins. The twins (two sets of them), their names now taken in vain as symbols of white-bread goody-goody kids, go back a long way. The first Bobbsey Twins novel was published in 1904 by the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate (who also did Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, etc.) by Mershon. (This first Mershon edition is so rare that if you have one, you can count yourself in for a good deal of money right now.) More sequels were published by Grosset & Dunlap right through the 1930s and 1940s, and then in the 1960s the books were completely revised to bring them up to then-modern sensiblilities. (Some of these revisions were rewritten completely, as in the first book, and some remained with only part of the plot intact--in The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May, for instance, a baby is abandoned; in the revision, it's an elephant that's abandoned.)

I had only about eight or nine of the revised books as a kid, since their $1.25 price was prohibitive on our budget, and I liked those, but I really enjoyed the first three original stories, reprinted by Whitman books, The Bobbsey Twins: Merry Days Indoors and Out, The Bobbsey Twins in the Country, and The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. The new novels had the Bobbseys solving mysteries, but the early ones were much more fascinating (if sedate): the Bobbseys rode around in a horse and carriage (horse and sleigh in the winter), and there were fantastic things in the books, like the kids watching the "town well" get cleaned out, or having an Independence Day parade or a boat pageant, and, most astonishing of all, the rescue of men from a sailing ship wreck with something called a "breeches buoy." I was wide-eyed in all the differences in this 1904 world from my own 1960s world. Some things I expected--the children were much more disciplined, especially in school, where boys had to wear ties, and they all stood up when the teacher asked them a question--and in other ways the kids seemed so much more adult and independent. Bert, for instance, at the tender age of nine, is allowed to use adult tools including saws, to build his own iceboat--which he and his pal Charley later sail on the lake without supervision! (In the early books, Bert and Nan, the dark haired older twins are eight to begin with and Freddie and Flossie, the blond younger twins are four; later, they become twelve and six respectively. Even in the early books, Nan, although she typically likes pretty clothes and baking, is described as a sturdy, athletic girl who participates in sports, not following the prissy girl predecessors in the serial book world.)

When I got older I sought out the older, original versions for my own. As the publication dates changed, so did the Bobbseys--Mr. Bobbsey, for instance, in the original books was called "Papa" by the children and "Mr. Bobbsey" in talking about him, but in the 1920s books became "Daddy Bobbsey" in the narration, which always struck me as silly. (Many books of that time also have mothers being addressed as "Momsy," which is really freaky.) Oddly, one of the things that changed, and not for the better, was Dinah.

If you've read any Bobbsey Twins books, you know that Dinah Johnson is the Bobbsey's faithful, nurturing "jolly colored housekeeper." Her husband Sam, who in the original books is the Bobbseys' handyman and gardener, is late the foreman at Mr. Bobbsey's lumberyard on Lake Metoka. As is common in all books written around this era, Dinah and Sam are the usual stereotypical African-American characters--they speak in "black dialect" and, God in heaven, in the country story Dinah even makes a joke about stealing watermelons. This is probably enough to get the early Bobbseys kicked off a modern reading list. However bad Dinah looks in the early books, however, her character actually degenerated during the 1930s stories, which is where I quit collecting.

If you look beyond the obvious racial props Dinah is burdened with in the early stories, she is actually a generous, admirable character. Mrs. Bobbsey, in her role of busy society wife, is a loving mother, but she's out a lot of the time doing charity work. Dinah isn't just a servant, she's a surrogate mother to the kids: she bakes them cakes and cookies, resolves their squabbles occasionally, cleans up after them and doesn't tell on them, and helps them with projects. She has even been heroic: in Merry Days Indoors and Out, when Freddie is buried in the snow while the twins are building a snow fort, she is the one who keeps her head, runs outside and digs him out of the pile of snow. The children in turn adore her; they can't imagine a home without Dinah and she even accompanies them on vacation.

You would have thought that over time Dinah's lot in life would have improved, but in the 1930s they started using her as comic relief. She became the mistress of malaprops, misunderstanding some word the children were using and having to be corrected by her younger educated white charges. It was depressing and embarrassing to read. Other obvious racial stereotypes started appearing more in the stories at that time as well.

Dinah and Sam survived the 1960s revisions--I think they were now referred to as "Negro" in the new editions--and thankfully had quit speaking in that "nebba had dis so good" manner of speech that was so degrading. The later "New" books removed Dinah from the action all together and the stories felt incomplete. Dinah, after all, really was part of the family.

Recently those 1960s revisions have made a comeback in new covers. They look, inside, very much like the editions I had, but I understand they have been changed in subtle ways. Freddie and Flossie, for instance, who were always described as being plump, have lost their nicknames of "fat fireman" and "fat fairy" (I'm not sure if it's because of the program to fight childhood obesity or because "fat" is now considered insulting). Also, Dinah's heritage is not referred to in the text at all. I can't decide whether I like this or not. Certainly it's a positive step forward--it no longer matters what color her skin is...and at the same time it's rather sad. Everyone one of us has an ethnic or racial heritage that should be celebrated. Dinah's race was so often denegrated, especially in the "comic relief" 1930s, that it seems sad that we cannot now turn around and show it in a positive manner. It is as if part of Dinah's identity has taken away. I would be a different person without my Italian roots; it seems crass and wrong to rob Dinah of her African-American heritage.

For more about the Bobbseys, visit Dr. Mike's site.

A description of the series from St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture.

27 October 2004

100 Years Past

Back in the early part of the century, one of the most prolific writers was a woman named Carolyn Wells. While she wrote articles and mysteries, she was most well-known for her children’s stories, chiefly those for girls.

Wells did several series, including the Patty Fairfield stories, which I believe I’ve spoken of briefly before. The series starts with Patty at fourteen visiting relatives, then follows her to school and college, abroad and then to courtship. Patty’s dad is not rich, but well-to-do enough that Patty isn’t forced to work and always has lots of nice party dresses and things. It’s a much more innocent world, where middle-class girls of seventeen weren’t too old to sit in Dad’s lap while the family gathered around the fire and while descriptions of clothing abounded were full of activities rather than lovesick teenagers mooning over the opposite sex. Patty always had something doing, whether it was a picnic or a charity bazaar or sightseeing.

Wells’ other series was for younger girls and concerned Marjorie Maynard, a lively twelve-year old, again in an upper middle-class family. Unlike Patty, she has siblings: older Kingdon, the only boy, and younger Kitty and the obligatory cute small child with a lisp, Rosy.

The differences are almost shockingly startling, and it has nothing to do with the family having horses instead of a car, traveling by steam train instead of airplane, and using crank telephones. Marjorie at twelve—and her friends of the same age—are still little girls. They play with doll houses and dolls, play tag and climb trees, and the thought of boys as future romantic mates never crosses their minds. It’s so pleasant and relaxing watching them get into mischief no worse than marking up the front stairs with their heavy shoes or splashing water at Grandma’s hired man. They get to be real kids and not premature women, with no sturm und drang about premarital sex, makeup, sexy clothing, and violence in school.

Interestingly enough, they are also smaller in stature as well; one can see how today’s children physically mature so much faster. Marjorie’s Uncle Steve and Grandmother build a tree house for her and her friends and furnish it for her with wicker chairs that are "not of a size for grown people, but were just right for twelve-year-old girls." And these are well-fed well-cared-for children, not underfed waifs from the slums--I don’t think I know a twelve-year-old today who is not adult size and who would fit in those quaint little wicker chairs!

07 October 2004

Stormy Weather

Back when I was looking at the reviews for Scotti’s Sudden Sea, about the Hurricane of 1938 (see “There Are Bricks Flying By”), I noted another hurricane book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and remarked that the excerpt on Amazon.com was quite good. Well, Tuesday at Kudzu, the remaindered book store, along with Enright’s classic The Saturdays and a book about American regional language differences, I found a copy.

If you watch documentaries about hurricanes, as we usually end up doing, you find several ubiquitous notables along with the 1938 disaster. There is of course the killer 1900 storm that hit Galveston, Texas, vividly reproduced in Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm. There’s the 1926 hurricane on the East Coast of Florida that destroyed the finances of several businessmen building tourist accommodations in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale as well as property. (Ironically, one of these men recovered enough capital to sink all his cash into building oceanfront homes again. On the southern coast of New England in 1938.) More modern storms, such as Hurricanes Camille and Andrew, are also included.

And then there’s the 1935 storm, which struck the Florida Keys with howling force and basically destroyed the old way of life among the “Conches,” as the residents were known.

The facet that makes the 1935 event different from the others is the presence in the Keys of the workers building the highway that now connects Key West to mainland Florida. These men were United States military veterans, and they were there basically because there were no jobs for them anywhere else (and, some say, to get rid of them).

Many of these men had been in the Bonus March of 1932. There are many different “takes” on the Bonus March--President Hoover and many other Government officials apparently truly did believe that what were left of the Bonus Marchers were simply troublemakers, thieves and Communists--but all the histories will tell you that General MacArthur’s high-handed and cruel treatment of them was unfair, whether they were mad radicals or not. The day MacArthur burned out the Bonus Marchers and drove them away from town with tanks and mounted troups, Franklin Roosevelt knew he had won the upcoming election.

The Roosevelt folks will tell you he was trying to do the best for these desperate men when he sent large numbers of them down to Florida to work on the road project. They would have food, shelter, and a job. Detractors say Roosevelt shipped them there so they wouldn’t be near Washington. Either way, the men got a raw deal: the camps they were placed in were dirty, they were inadequately housed and not protected from the hordes of mosquitoes that plague that part of the country, and most of the men overseeing the project had no knowledge of hurricanes or how fast they could move and ignored the locals’ warnings of the possible force of the storm.

From all accounts the men at these camps weren’t the best folks in the world. Many of them had come back from the war with what we would call today “post-traumatic stress syndrome” but back then was known more vividly as “shell shock.” They were belligerent, nasty, and tended to get roaring drunk on payday, partially because the camps were so bleak there was nothing else for them to do. But however badly they behaved, they didn’t deserve the offhand treatment they received—and the fate in store from them as the hurricane struck.

Author Willie Drye doesn’t have quite the narrative strengths of Larson, Scotti, or Everett Allen (A Wind to Shake the World), but the story is still quite compelling and is an excellent portrait of the old way of life in Florida and the hardships of the time.

Synopsis of Storm of the Century on Amazon.com.

1926 Hurricane

American Experience: MacArthur and the Bonus March

Bonus March information

The Bonus March as written by an honors student

Herbert Hoover's take on the Bonus Marchers

28 September 2004

Skipping Grisham

I stopped at the library last night. (Good God, here I go again.) I was looking for Elizabeth Peters’ Guardian of the Horizon and ended up with four books. The other three were Christmas books. One of them was one I’d wanted to read for a while: John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.

Brief boring notes of exposition:

I’ve never read John Grisham. Even though I watched Perry Mason religiously as a kid, a book involving law has all the appeal of curdled milk. I have no interest in reading about it.

If you hadn’t gathered from my “Holiday Harbour” blog and my Christmas web page, I love Christmas. I like the decorations, the music, the entire idea. Despite all that, I don’t relish the overspending and maniac fanaticism that cames at the Christmas season. Fun and exciting is one thing, desperation and bankruptcy is another.

Which is why the idea of Grisham’s book sounded so appealling.

[Warning! Major spoilers ahoy!]

Luther and Nora Krank (I should have guessed what the ending would be when I saw that surname) have just seen off their 23-year-old daughter Blair, leaving for two years in Peru with the Peace Corps, her first Christmas away from home. It’s Thanksgiving weekend and a grumpy Luther notices the already burgeoning Christmas madness--and decides he’s sick of it. He retreats to his calculator and realizes he spent $6,100 on Christmas the previous year and neither he nor his wife were satisfied. It was hectic, no fun, they got and gave useless presents, etc.

Time for another personal interjection: I collect Christmas books. Not Christmas books with crafts or recipes, but books about Christmas itself. Several of them, like Unplug the Christmas Machine, are about simplifying Christmas, since I dislike the furor that goes on during the holiday season. So although Luther isn’t the world’s most likeable character, I was completely in sympathy with him and what he decides to do next: he convinces his wife, also weary of Yuletide shenanigans, to go on a cruise for the holidays, leaving Christmas Day.

It’s not like it’s a new idea; many folks do it. But the Kranks go one step further than some might: they’re not going to decorate, or throw their usual party, or buy a tree, etc. They will forgo all the trimmings of the holiday except their charitable contributions, which they plan to make at other times of the year. Great. Not what I would do, but I understood perfectly.

Unhappily, most of the Kranks’ friends don’t. Oh, a few of them are envious of the pair not having social obligations or unwanted relatives coming over, but most of them are downright indignant. Their bafflingly selfish attitude is “how dare you not have Christmas with all the trimmings?”

The worst are the Kranks’ "neighbors." The couple live on a street that always takes place in a neighborhood decorating contest. This includes every house having a big plastic Frosty the Snowman on the roof. When the neighbors find out the Kranks won’t be decorating, they are nearly apoplectic with rage. Even the neighborhood police, firefighters, and Boy Scouts collecting for charity treat the Kranks like they’re...well, some sort of cranks, even though Luther assures them he will give to their spring and summer charities. The printer who usually does Nora Krank’s Christmas cards and party invitations is downright indignant when the Kranks won’t even tell him why they’re not ordering cards and invitations (as if it were any of his business).

The neighbors, however, go over the top. They harass the Kranks with whispers and gossip, and serenade them with loud Christmas carols under their windows every night. Even the newspapers get into the act, publishing a picture of the Kranks’ undecorated house as if it’s some type of hideous unknown crime.

Well, Linda, you say, that’s the point of the book, isn’t it? Non-Christians, athiests, and others who don’t celebrate Christmas are bombarded with this stuff from before Halloween onward. This is just that syndrome taken to absurdity.

And had the book left it at that, it might have been fine.

But remember, our name is “Krank” here, and we must see the error of our ways. So while I was hoping desperately that Luther and Nora would eventually get away from this boorish herd of obnoxious revelers, it doesn’t happen. In fact, since the entire book has a television sitcom air about it, the predictable thing happens on December 23: daughter Blair calls. She’s not only coming home for Christmas, but she’s engaged for God’s sake to a Peruvian doctor named Enrique who’s always wanted to see a real American Christmas with the tree, the feast, the decorations on the roof.

Were these real adults with backbone Luther and Nora would have told Blair the truth. But no, in true TV sitcom fashion Nora, who was a little reserved about the “skipping Christmas” gig at the beginning but then warmed to it, does a “complete 180” to her husband, decides they will not go on the cruise and sends Luther into a frantic search for food, party guests and decorations before Blair and Enrique arrive on Christmas Eve. A requisite amount of slapstick occurs, including Luther’s foray on the roof to mount the plastic Frosty, to which the obnoxious neighbors look on with glee.

And then they find out why Luther and Nora are doing all this, immediately become sweet and kind again, and help the Kranks get Christmas together.

At the end, Luther gives the cruise tickets to a neighbor and his terminally ill wife.

Oh, please. I’ve gone through 45 years of loving Christmas stories with sappy endings, but this one just made me want to throw the book against the wall. As annoying as Luther Krank is, the idea of him having to be grateful to all these insensitive, malcontented morons makes me positively ill. If I were the Kranks, I’d put that house on the market posthaste--they seem to have the cash to do so--and go live somewhere else. But I’m sure that wouldn’t suit Nora Krank, who just up and repudiates her husband after agreeing with him for most of the book. She probably now thinks all these people are wonderful. Me, I think they deserve to have their cars keyed and eggs tossed at their windows.

The only thing I did like about the sappy ending was Luther giving away the tickets. Yeah, it was a clichĂ©, but it was the only really nice thing anyone does for anyone in this book. And as someone who has known people who were terminally ill with cancer, it’s just a Good Thing all around.

As for Skipping Christmas, you can skip it across a pond for all I care.

24 September 2004

Trim Up the Tree

Do old photos intrigue you, especially those of old Christmas trees and decorations? Are those old-fashioned cornucopias and candle holders on the branches an invitation to more investigation? Wouldn't you like to step into those old parlors and meet the little girls with corkscrew curls and little boys in Buster Brown outfits and look at their tabletop trees and floor-to-ceiling beauties, covered with kugel, Dresdens, bead ornaments and wax babies?

Impossible, of course. The next best thing is Robert Brenner's Christmas Past.

Having seen most collectors' books, I can attest that, unless you are looking for prices, they're pretty dull. Oh, if you have a volume that has old colored photos of something you're interested in, the attraction factor increases, but it's still a glorified price book.

Brenner's book isn't. Instead, it's a history of the Christmas tree and its decorations and lights (candles and electric). After a chapter on the origin of the tree tradition and some reminisces from people who remembered seeing their first trees, or decorating their first trees with popcorn and cranberries and tatted doilies, each chapter is a detailed (in small print, no less) examination of each type of ornament from the glass-blown kugels (a history of Thuringia, where the glassblowers plied their trade, is included) to cotton confections to wire and bead creations to wax babies made in the form or angels or Jesus, and even more. The chapters on lighting the Christmas tree are particularly fascinating--and finally, an explanation of why early electric strings were called "Mazda lights" (named after the Babylonian god of light)!

This detailed examination of all things ornamental and lucent is accompanied by pages and pages of color and black and white photos of the different objects, old-time rooms decorated for the holidays, and old advertisements going back to the 1800s for the various ornaments and lights. It is the definitive book about old Christmas trimmings.

15 September 2004

"There Are Bricks Flying By"

It was one of those rainy summers through July, then August raised sweltering temps, exhausting for people without air conditioning in three-story homes. In September it began to rain again, until the ground was saturated.

Mary worked through it all in a factory in Providence, RI, on Pine Street. She was 21 and had had to quit school to take care of her mother in 11th grade. When September 21 turned out to be sunny and pleasant, she was almost reluctant to go in that day.

Later that morning the wind picked up, however--it grew cloudy, then dark. Her workplace had big windows on one side of the room so that the lights were augmented by natural sunlight on nice days. Today she had to peer at her work.

Then, in the early afternoon, she looked outside and saw bricks flying, one by one, past the windows. It was raining steadily and then hard, lashing the glass.

She mentioned it to her supervisor, who only told her to get back to work. She was doing piece work at the time and every minute she dawdled meant a penny or two less in her paycheck. When she mentioned the bricks to other people, they only pooh-poohed her. Once she said she was going home early, but was told to sit down and do her work.

A scant half-hour before quitting time they announced, "It's pretty stormy out. Everyone can leave early."

Mary was lucky--she didn't have to take the bus home or walk as always; a girlfriend's brother had called: "I'm coming to pick you up." They had to walk six blocks in driving rain and were drenched by the time they got to the car.

When she got home her mother was frantic. Her father had chosen that day to go up to their vegetable garden allotment and was not back yet. The power was out and Mary's younger brother trudged to the hardware store in drenching rain to buy kerosene for the storm lanterns. At nine o'clock, finally, a voice from the darkness outside asked, "Hey! Where are all the lights?"

It was her father, who had had to take a different bus to get home in the storm and then got trapped downtown as a storm surge flooded Providence. Mary's niece Anna and her godmother had been in Providence, shopping for a dress for the former. They also made it home unharmed.

The place where Mary worked, Coro's, hadn't been touched because it was on high ground; the flying bricks weren't even from that building. Most weren't so lucky, especially if they had a home at the shore.

What Mary--my mom--had struggled home through was the great Hurricane of 1938. The Weather Bureau didn't believe a hurricane would hit New England and did not send out timely warnings. They were sure it would go out to sea. Instead it hit Long Island--to this day the fast-moving storm is referred to as "the Long Island Express"--and New England like a battering ram. It not only tore up the coastline, it roared inland, destroying pine in New Hampshire, a quarter of Vermont's maple trees, and countless little New England tree-shrouded greens. Downtown Providence was submerged under 17 feet of water that had roared up Narragansett Bay, flooded the basements of the department stores and killed shoppers, submerged cars and drowned their drivers, short circuited trolley cars so their horns blew endless ghostly symphonies under the water.

The hurricane of '38 tale was one of the stories I always begged from my mother as a little girl. It was like the tornado in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or some other fairy tale cataclysm to me, but this one came with photos--we had a "hurricane book" from Hurricane Carol up in the attic that compared the damage done in 1938 and again in 1954--and an "up close and personal" extra. I vaguely remember Hurricane Donna in 1960, lashing the house and tearing shingles from the roof, leaving us under the light of the kerosene "hurricane lamp" for three days.

R.A. Scotti's Sudden Sea, which I recently re-read after purchasing the book in paperback, transports you to 1938--to the salt-air homes on Napatree Point, RI, the hardscrabble farms on Conanicut (Jamestown), the coastal communities of Long Island, and even "Fenwick," the Connecticut home where Katharine Hepburn was spending the summer with her parents and brother. I re-read the book in a sultry setting that was as warm and oppressive as the approaching storm, and blinked and felt lost and disoriented when I finally finished and returned to my own world.

This is a fabulous book, with all the intensity and realism of Larson's Isaac's Storm and Junger's The Perfect Storm, a time machine back to "the last of the old New England summers," and is much recommended, along with Everett Allen's A Wind to Shake the World, which was written in the 1970s. Not only did Scotti used Wind as part of her research, but his narrative equally absorbing and evocative, and Allen knows of what he speaks: he was there. A neophyte newspaper reporter, Allen began his first journalism job in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on September 21, 1938.

(BTW, I have only read the excerpt on Amazon.com, but Willie Drye's Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, sounds super as well.)

(YOW! I'm glad I found my copy of the Everett Allen book last spring...it's now going for a minimum of $20. Someone at Alibris wants $619.00 for it!)

02 September 2004

Library Books du Jour

Finished:

Unsinkable, purportedly the "entire story" of the Titanic disaster, starting with the conception of the ship and ending with Bob Ballard's discovery of her resting place and the subsequent graverobbers who visited her. I learned quite a few things, including that there was an American inquest into the accident. I found some of the reviews on Amazon.com, however, very amusing: several people accuse the author of quoting from Walter Lord's A Night to Remember nearly word for word. They might want to look at the recommendations on the book jacket: the first "attaboy" is from Walter Lord himself. I think if someone were copying his book "word for word" he'd have something different to say.

1876. This was a volume drawn from newspaper and magazine articles of the era and published in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. Despite all the nice accompanying photos and engravings, I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped when I first saw it.

In Progress:

Sunday Nights at Seven, Joan Benny's biography of her dad interspersed with Jack Benny's own unpublished autobiography, found after his death.

Endurance. Story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, with photos taken during the journey.

1900 by Rebecca West, someone who lived the year.

Flanders' Follies

In 1996, I took the two classes CDC then offered on that newfangled frontier, the Internet. In "Internet II" class, we learned how to make a basic web page using Notepad, writing the HTML code by hand.

I was like an adult duck getting to swim for the first time. I went back to the office next day and found "The Beginner's Guide to HTML," which is still wandering around at NCSA's site. Having devoured that, I went to Paul McFedries' Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page, which is still around as well.

So I got myself addicted to HTML and web books as well and still have a fair collection of them. Two of my favorites are the Vincent Flanders' Web Pages That Suck books, based on his web site. These are "for God's sake, don't do this!" volumes with amusing text and highly illustrative--if not ysterically funny--screen caps of so-called "professional" web sites that are so mind-bogglingly bad that you can't believe someone paid to have them done. I especially enjoy Flanders' diatribes at "mystery meat navigation," which refers to those websites with obscure looking graphics or photos that are not labeled and you have to mouse-over them to see what they stand for. The poor man practically gets apopleptic about them.

My one complaint with computer books is they are so darned expensive. I understand that even with the popularity of computers today, they are still a niche market, so they are priced higher to recoup publishing costs. But they come at college textbook prices most of the time, an unreal cost that has you paying $40-$50, even $60+ for one book.

Luckily for my habit, I've gotten most of my HTML books at Sam's (back when they had the occasional title), on remainder counters, and lately off Amazon Marketplace. Flanders' Son of Web Pages That Suck was a heart-stopping $45, but I got it for a tenth that price on AM. And I'm enjoying it, too, perhaps even more than the original. There are some great links to web usage sites in this edition.

31 August 2004

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear Part 2

I'm enjoying this Dana Girls story a lot. The author has the language of those older series books down pat. It may surprise folks who know what a devotee I am of these old kids' series books, but I've never read a Dana Girls book, whether the originals or any updating they did in the 1960s. I've never actually read a Nancy Drew, either. The books cost $1.25 when I was of the age to read them and my mom couldn't afford them (and it would have taken five weeks to save up for one with my allowance). I owned mostly Whitman books, which were 29 cents, and later paperbacks. Occasionally on Christmas or my birthday, I would get a Bobbsey Twins book--the rewritten ones of the 1960s, not the original books I collected as an adult. I only had about eight of them, though.

It is so funny reading these, with their proper grammar and condemnation of slang, and remember that they were banned from most libraries of my day! The librarians scorned them as cheaply written and manufactured sensationalist twaddle. They wanted us to read the classics, like Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island and Jane Eyre and the Maud Montgomery books. (To be honest, I always loathed Treasure Island; I never have figured out what is so romantic about dirty, smelly killer pirates. Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and yes, even the Dana Girls, were well-educated, clean and respectful. What was the problem?)

30 August 2004

Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

Remember those wonderful series books of the past? The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Joyce Jordan, Rick Brant--and the Dana Girls? If you do, check out The Secret of the Ice Castle, a full-length fan-written Dana Girls mystery done in the style of the 1930s originals.

25 August 2004

For Robert Heinlein Fans

Wow, I didn't know this existed online:

The Heinlein Society

Take a look at their cool concordance!

I started my Heinlein reading career with Have Spacesuit, Will Travel from the Hugh B. Bain library.

24 August 2004

For "American Girls" Fans

Well, it figures...it would be about Samantha, who I always found less interesting than the others! I would have preferred Molly--but Felicity would have been interesting, too, since not many dramas center around the Revolutionary War era any longer.

First there's a new "Samanthauniverse" book out, Nellie's Promise, about the orphan girl and her sisters who were taken in by Samantha's family.

Plus the WB network has apparently just finished Samantha: An American Girl's Christmas, which will debut on November 23 of this year.

22 August 2004

A Red-Headed Stranger

I think I watched every--or almost every--episode of The Partridge Family; I seem to remember skipping the episodes with "adorable Ricky Segall." My favorite character was Danny, played by Danny Bonaduce. He was cute, red-haired, and, most importantly, smart.

I never quite got over liking Danny Bonaduce (I still miss the syndicated The Other Half, with Bonaduce, Mario Lopez, Dorian Gregory and Dick Clark, a guilty pleasure), even though I knew he'd been in major trouble over the years for drugs, alcohol and violence. I didn't read a lot of tabloids, so I didn't realize how much trouble with drugs, alcohol and violence until I picked up his book Random Acts of Badness.

I swear, I cannot for the life of me understand how people can do this drug shit to themselves. His stories are absolutely horrifying--not just the effects of the drug use on his body and his personality, but the lengths he would go through to get drugs, including going into neighborhoods where slayings were common just to get his next "hit." What I can't figure out is how, after doing all that damage to himself, he actually survived. It seems nothing short of miraculous.

19 August 2004

Too Busy Reading...

...to write about books:

From the library:

So Dear to My Heart, Jane Goyer--memories from a 90+-year-old woman from Worcester, Massachusetts (written in 1990, so I assume she's passed on). Jane talks about her childhood and all the fun things she and her brothers and sisters used to do: listening to the radio, playing outdoor games, helping grow vegetables. A bright portrait of a bygone era.

Triangle: the Fire That Changed America, David von Drehle--despite the title, only a few chapters about the 1911 New York sweatshop fire, but well done: sets up the era and the lives of the people who worked in the factory, the labor movements that proceed it, the trial afterwards and how the factory owners got off. It will make you admire our immigrant ancestors and the trials they endured.

The Blizzard of '88, Irving Werstein--Story of the unexpected March storm that brought New York City and environs to disaster: death, destruction of property, and terrifying events. Illustrated with engravings and photos of the storm. Some very touching stories about the victims, including the poor girl whose tale opens the book.

Isaac's Storm, Erik Larson--Story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane that killed thousands due to botched weather predictions that could have been avoided. Larson weaves a tapestry of characters, Galveston history, and the history of the Weather Bureau together as Galveston heads for disaster.

23 July 2004

In Love With a Tall, Dark Stranger

Hopefully, my husband will forgive me, considering this man lived, if he lived at all, 1500 years ago. :-)

Many years ago, my mom fed my book addiction by enrolling in the Doubleday Bargain Book Club. These were the miracle of miracles, hardback books, although less expensive club editions, with ragged page edges. The monthly selections were announced in a glossy color booklet with the featured selection receiving illustration and a page or two of plot summary, with the alternate selections behind. I remember a lot of romance/women’s type books, Catherine Cookson, Victoria Holt, that sort of thing, plus nonfiction of mostly the self-help variety: dieting, Dr. Wayne Dyer, etc. I traded off some of them when I moved, but I still have a dozen or so of my favorites including Leon Uris’ QB VII, Marilyn Durham’s Dutch Uncle, Gone With the Wind, and Robert Kimmel Smith’s Sadie Shapiro’s Knitting Book.

But my favorite three have always been Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy*: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.

I’ve never been much of an Arthurian buff. My mother was the one who liked the knights and lords and ladies stuff, movies like Knights of the Round Table with Robert Taylor or Camelot. Frankly, all the thous-thees-and-thosing bored me, as well as the Lancelot-Guinevere- Arthur love triangle. I didn’t even like Disney’s Sword in the Stone very much, and that was as child-friendly as you can get. (I tried reading the T.H. White novel once; it has such good reviews. But again I couldn't get around the medieval setting or the idea of calling the future King Arthur "Wart.")

The most interesting character in these stories may have been Merlin the magician, but the doddering, grey-bearded fellow in all these adaptations left me cold. He was usually extremely eccentric and/or talked in riddles and was so distant that I couldn’t get a handle on the man.

Then came Mary Stewart. The three books mentioned are the story of Merlin’s life, from his childhood in Wales to his old age, and they drew me in irresistibly from the first paragraph of the first book. Stewart’s Merlin is an approachable creature, a real man who knows magic, not some fey glimmer in spangled robes, someone I would have enjoyed speaking with or even being friends with. He eats, sings, works, and tells his story with compelling power. From the moment I open one of the books, I become entangled in Merlin’s world: Great Britain and Brittany of the 5th century. I can see the landscapes of Wales, smell the horses and trails, see the different dwellings and the various characters Merlin interacts with as well as I can sense my own surroundings. Everything is lovingly and vividly described.

I have to admit Stewart has ruined me. I went to see the otherwise realistic John Boorman flick Excalibur, which portrayed Arthur and his retinue as the real 5th century warriors they were rather than the medieval personages in 1940s knight movies, and was repelled by their snake-surrounded Merlin, even though he was portrayed by one of my favorite actors, Nicol Williamson. Not even for the love of Sam Neill could I sit through NBC’s miniseries Merlin, partially due to its jerky “artistic” photography and SFX and the presence of Martin Short, but mostly because their Merlin was another one of these otherworldly, distant incarnations. (Had only Neill been cast in a version of the Stewart story; I smile dreamily just at this intriguing thought.)

I found, eventually, there was one problem with my Stewart books: when I wanted one, I wanted all three, and if I wanted to take them somewhere, I had to carry those three. So, recently, armed with a Borders discount coupon and a $5 off certificate, I bought the trilogy once again, published by Morrow in one hardbound volume. I’m sure some would think me foolish to repurchase books I already own, but I don’t care. After all, it’s not everyday one can carry an entire lovingly crafted world under one arm, to dip into any time one chooses.

Be part of the magic! Buy the trilogy at Amazon.com. (Or just hit a bookstore!)

Here's an interview with Stewart about the trilogy.

Review

Another Review

Yet a Third Review

* As someone once reminded me, this is actually an "Arthurian tetralogy." There is a fourth book, but it's not about Merlin, and while I've read it, it (if you'll forgive the description) doesn't hold the magic that Merlin's story does. It's called The Wicked Day and is basically the end of the story of King Arthur, concerning his bastard son Mordred and the end of Camelot.

22 July 2004

Discovering the Joy of Reading

I've found several online quotes from Eudora Welty's "A Sweet Devouring," about her adventures as a child discovering the world of reading. After a search, I found a copy of the entire essay:

"A Sweet Devouring"

13 July 2004

Books Finished and Continued

Done:

The Speckled Monster, history of the 18th century fight to have immunization against smallpox accepted as a legitimate medical treatment in both America and England. The book has a novel-like narrative that draws you into the story and there are copious notes at the end.

Freedom Just Around the Corner, a new history of the United States from the early 1600s to the Missouri Compromise. First history book I've ever read that made me understand what Bacon's Rebellion was all about.

Doctor Who: The English Way of Death--as I mentioned in another post, these have proved increasingly annoying in narrative in general, but this particular one wasn't bad. Features the fourth Doctor and Romana Mark 2, and a not-bad use of K-9.

In Progress:

Doctor Who: Milennial Rites--just started; surprised at the absence of the usual verbal gymnastics--this may be the first sixth Doctor story I've ever liked. But I won't hold my breath.

Christmas Customs and Traditions, the classic Clement Miles history from 1912. If you're into light prose about Christmas traditions, you probably won't like this book. This is a more a scholarly tome, going back to medieval hymns. On the other hand, due to its publication date, it's full of real Christmas traditions that don't involve the 35th viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, starting from All Saint's Day on November 1 and ending with Candlemas on February 2.

The Ghost Finds a Body--I haven't been so delighted by a mystery novel and its characters in a long, long time. Written by Brad Strickland and the late Thomas Fuller (damn, it still hurts to have to put that "late" in there), this is a grand mystery set in a small Florida panhandle town, involving a writer, a smart-mouthed Asian computer whiz, a romance writer's convention, the obligatory mysterious death, and a colorful collection of interesting supporting characters, including a reclusive romance author. So highly recommended this one bleeds...pun intended...off the scale.

12 July 2004

Doomsday Book Story

Found this wandering about in newsgroups, of all places; it's a story set in the universe of Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, which I enjoyed a lot:

"Fire Watch"

06 July 2004

My St. Nicholas Book is Here!

Despite what McFarland's web page said, Amazon was right about this book.

The articles are:
"Children's Magazines" by Mary Mapes Dodge
"In Memory of Mary Mapes Dodge" by William Fayal Clarke (Dodge's successor)
"Fair Ideals and Heavy Responsibilities: The Editing of St. Nicholas Magazine" by Susan R. Gannon
"Illustrating St. Nicholas and the Influence of Mary Mapes Dodge" by Michael S. Joseph
"'Here's to Our Magazine!': Promoting St. Nicholas" by Susan R. Gannon
"St. Nicholas and Its Friends: The Magazine/Child Relationship" by Suzanne Rahn
"Young Eyewitnesses to History" by Suzanne Rahn
"In the Century's First Springtime: Albert Bigelow Paine and the St. Nicholas League" by Suzanne Rahn
"Onward and Upward with the Arts: the St. Nicholas League" by E.B. White
"A Debut in the League" by Suzanne Rahn
"The St. Nicholas Advertising Competition: Training the Magazine Reader" by Ellen Gruber Garvey
"'Work Well Done': Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge" by Daniel Shealy
"The Utopia of St. Nicholas: The Present as Prologue" by Fred Erisman
"Two Narrative Formulas" by R. Gordon Kelly
"Money: The Change of Fortune Story in St. Nicholas by Anne MacLeod
"St. Nicholas and the City Beautiful (1893-1894) by Greta Little
"'When Did Youth Ever Neglect to Bow Before Glory?': St. Nicholas and War" by Marilynn Strasser Olsen
"Young England Looks at America" by Gillian Avery

Needless to say, it looks "yummy"!

30 June 2004

Collected Miscellany - What Kind of Book Person are You?

1) What is your favorite type of bookstore?
A. A large chain that is well lit, stuffed full of books, and has a café.
B. A dark, rather dusty, used bookstore full of mysterious and vaguely organized books.
C. A local independent bookstore that has books by local authors and coffee.
Hon, a bookstore is a bookstore is a bookstore. All of the above. Not to mention the online stores--but they just don't have that appeal, especially the delicious scent of bookprint...

2) What would excite you more?
A. A brand new book by your favorite author.
B. Finding a classic you've been wanting to read.
C. Receiving a free book from a friend in the mail.
Ooooh, I'm greedy; I want all three.

3) What's your favorite format?
A. Novel
B. Short story
C. Poetry
Novel, followed by short story. Certain poems are cool, though.

4) Favorite format, part II.
A. Contemporary fiction.
B. Classic novels.
C. Genre (mystery, espionage, etc.)
Genre, mostly, although I have many favorite classic novels. Contemporary fiction in general leaves me cold, like the old "Oprah's bookshelf" material.

5) Favorite format, part III (none of the above) Fiction or non?
A. Almost entirely fiction.
B. Almost entirely non-fiction.
C. A mix of both.
C. Although I probably have more fiction--but you haven't seen my collection of history and Christmas books. :-)

6) Does the design and condition of the book matter?
A. Yes, I love a well designed book and keep mine in mint condition.
B. No, the words are what matter.
C. Yes and no, I appreciate good design and treat my books with respect but I am not obsessive about it.
Hmn. Is this how I keep my books or how I purchase my books? I'm afraid I've gotten enough gravy stains and berry spots on my books, simply because I'm obsessive enough to be reading even when I eat. As for buying them, if I want it bad enough, I'll pretty much take anything. Some of my St. Nicholas volumes were in horrendous shape. I've glued, taped, and patched. Heck, I once wanted an out-of-print book so badly I paid someone to photocopy it for me.

7) On average how many books do you read a month?
A. I am lucky to read one.
B. I am dedicated. I read 4 or 5.
C. I am a fiend. I read 10 or more!
Ah, a simple question. C!

8) Do you prefer to own or borrow?
A. There is a particular joy in owning a book. I have a large library.
B. Why spend money when you can read it for free? I use the public library.
C. Different tools for different jobs. I do both.
I borrow books from the library all the time. Some I just want to read but not to keep. Some I have read and then ended up buying (or going to buy--Sudden Sea isn't out in paperback until August). I'd rather own most of them; it's a bit hard to hit the library at two in the morning.

9) Where do you get (the majority) your book news?
A. Newspapers.
B. Magazines.
C. TV
D. Blogs.
Sheesh, almost always A, B, and C recommend bestsellers. I tend to loathe bestsellers. I think I've read about a few interesting books on blogs. More likely it's a newsgroup or a search on Amazon.com.

10) Are books a professional obsession?
A. Yes, I work in the field (writer, reviewer, publisher, teacher, etc.).
B. No, I do it for fun.
C. Kinda, I write the occasional review but have a regular job outside of books.
Sadly, B. I'd love to do something I love for a living, especially working with words. I hate numbers. Numbers are God's way of punishing us for our sins.

19 June 2004

Remarkable Twinning

"Way back when," from 1911 to 1938, Lucy Fitch Perkins wrote a series of books that were beloved by youngsters--the "Twins" books. The protagonists, as one might guess from that description, were twin children, always a boy and a girl except in one volume. I remember Dana's Bookstore in Providence having some copies of the book, alas lost in their fire.

Recently, eight of the books have been transferred to e-book form and posted online, so I had the opportunity to read them. I also found the Twins' Homepage, which gives synopses of most of the books. I was quite interested by the description of Perkins' flouting the conventions of the time by making the girl character in almost all of the books just as ambitious and adventurous as her brother--while still keeping her feminine "values" as was required at the time.

The books about the younger twins are mostly nice little travelogues that contain details of child life in that society. The Dutch Twins (age 4), The Eskimo Twins (age 5), and The Japanese Twins (age 5) fall into this category. The adventures are very simple but fascinating, talking about traditions that had not yet been diluted by the influence of movies, radio, television and the internet.

As the children get older, the adventures get a bit more complicated as well. The Swiss Twins, age 9, and The Spartan Twins, age 10, both embark on journies which hold a little danger; the former are caught in an earthquake and have to get their sheep home by themselves, the latter overhear a plot to discredit a well-known man and are kidnapped when this is found out and must get away to warn the potential victim.

Two of the stories, The French Twins and The Belgian Twins, take place during World War I. The description of life in those societies, therefore, is interrupted by artillery and separation, even death. The scene in the former book, where the cathedral of Rheims is bombed by the Germans and the soldiers inside are killed, is very strong for a novel written for children.

My favorite of the eight books, however, is The Scotch Twins, a corking adventure story about Jean and Jock, who live with their father in a "wee hoosie" on the land of the laird. The twins and their friend Alan discover that a poacher is on the laird's property and set a trap for him, have adventures in a boat and in a secret cave--all like a jolly Enid Blyton or Swallows and Amazons type tale. Jean not only participates in all the boys' adventures but can keep house for her widowed father "as good as Mother." Plus there's quite a surprise at the end.

You can find the books at Project Gutenberg and also at Blackmask.com.

05 June 2004

Real Life is Scary Enough

I don't read horror novels as a rule. I understand Mercedes Lackey's three Diane Tregarde novels were considered "horror," but I just gulped at a couple of the graphic parts and went on. Otherwise I don't enjoy the "cut-and-slit-and-bleed" school of novel writing. Besides, real life can be much worse:

I just finished reading Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire, which is darned enough horrifying for me. It's the true story of July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, when the "big top" caught fire at the matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. The tent was waterproofed with a combination of paraffin and gasoline and became an inferno in minutes. People crowded out the exits, including having to cross cages at two exits blocked by animal ramps. Some people just walked out, frightened but unharmed. But most were caught in a maelstrom of terrified people escaping the pitch-hot flames. Some were heroes, some trampled others in their efforts to get out. Some died there, some were buried under others and survived although badly burned.

O'Nan has taken the text of depositions, talked to survivors, combed the newspapers of the day, and come up with a book so vivid you feel as if you are there. Especially vivid--and horrifying--is the description of the melee in the tent, the smell of burnt flesh, and the descriptions of the dead and wounded. The book also covers the recovery of several badly burned children and the investigation into the cause of the fire, which was never determined.

At all times it was so graphic I had to just put it down for a while several times and go do something else. But it was a good read.

28 May 2004

Pushing Backward...

Arrrgh! I've had this book, St. Nicholas and Mary Mapes Dodge, ordered ever since they announced it was coming out. Originally it was supposed to come out this month. Amazon is now saying July. And this page says "Fall 2004."

Whimper...

(I could probably spend the rest of my life reading the books out of the McFarland catalog--especially the television and radio books, the World War II books. Go on, check 'em out; I dare you to go in and not want at least one of these fascinating volumes...)

With apologies to Lerner and Lowe:

"All I want is a room somewhere,
Filled with full bookcases stand-ing there,
And one enormous chair--
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?

27 May 2004

Farewells...Some of Them Welcome

"Mark's" went out of business last Saturday.

"Mark's" was officially the Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop (run of course by Mark Stevens). It was here when I arrived in Georgia in 1988. It was so much of an institution in our lives that it seems remarkable that it's gone. But Mark just couldn't keep up with the expenses of running an independent bookstore. The internet and the bigger chain stores were eating his market.

Actually, we had stopped going to the store frequently after it moved from the Virginia Highland area. The new store on Cheshire Bridge Road was roomier but not as homey, and since the Phoenix Science Fiction Society was no longer meeting, we just weren't out in that neighborhood very often. I could go at lunch at work until we moved, and even then could only spend about 20 minutes browsing because of fighting through traffic there and back.

Mark was then gradually surrounded by "adult entertainment" facilities and finally he moved to a little store off Shallowford Road. Most people didn't know it was there. In fact, the day I went to the closing sale, at least two people wandered in saying they had never known the store was there before. A pity.

Anyway, I picked up nine books, including a British Sherlock Holmes homage I enjoyed (sadly, it's the only Holmes book by that writer ever released in paperback). Five of the books were from Valerie Wolzien's Susan Henshaw mystery series, including the newest, which I'm steadily reading through.

When I'm done reading, it's bye-bye Wolzien.

I don't hate these books, but I don't really like them, either. Susan Henshaw is a well-to-do Connecticut housewife with a penchant for solving mysteries. In the later books, the police chief even calls her in on crimes. Her best friend is Kathleen, a police officer who came to town to solve a murder in the first book, fell in love, married and had a family. Susan is married to Jed, and they have two children, Chrissy and Chad. Jed works for an advertising agency.

If this all, except for the solving mysteries part, sounds unbearably boring, it is. Plus I find that, although I'm perfectly okay accepting wealthy Lord Peter Wimsey and Sir Adam Sinclair as protagonists of what I find interesting stories, the Henshaws' prosperity annoys me. Susan spends gobs of cash on pricey Christmas presents, she shops at Saks and Neiman-Marcus, her friend gets a Jaguar as a holiday gift, they all wear designer clothes and expensive shoes, they can afford to hire caterers for big parties, the house is absolutely gorgeous with slate kitchen floors, imported tile, and expensive woodwork. I feel like I'm the Little Match Girl peering in the windows at the opulence.

The other irritating thing is Wolzien's penchant for starting action in the middle of a scene at the beginning of a chapter and then "flashing back" to what happened next in the sequence. It gives the book a very cinematic feel, but if I wanted a movie, I'd go see one. For instance, at the end of one chapter Susan is trapped on a widow's walk of a house she's attending a party at after the door shuts and locks behind her. The next chapter starts with Susan in bed, enjoying the warmth and talking to her husband about the party. She then tells her husband how she got out of the predicament. One or two times is a nice change of narrative pace. But in The Old Faithful Murder, for instance, almost every chapter is written this way. In one, Kathleen and Susan start to go somewhere. The next chapter starts and they are coming back from wherever they'd gone, talking about what they did. The rest of the chapters are similar in structure. It about drove me mad.

These books get good to excellent reviews on Amazon.com, so maybe I'm just being a crank. But after constant exposure to the Henshaws' lifestyle, I have this irresistible urge to go live like the Waltons.

14 May 2004

Ooops, Been Reading...

I'm still here. I've polished off The Adept: Lodge of the Lynx one more time, plus the rest of the library books: I loved the book about Gilbert and the erector set, Paris 1919 and Benjamin Franklin were both good, although I didn't read as deeply as I probably should have.

I also was quite absorbed by Everett Allen's A Wind to Shake the World, which I mentioned in Yet Another Journal. The combination of Allen's prose and a dark rainy day were quite extraordinary!

Also have finished Leo Laporte's 2004 Technology Almanac, The Science of Harry Potter, and James Burke's The Knowledge Web (I'm now starting his Circles). Sigh, so many books to read and so little time to do it in.

I mentioned Trixie Belden in Yet Another Journal--has everyone seen the republished versions Random House is doing? I hate the covers; Trixie looks like a simpering blonde bimbo of the Jessica Simpson school--not to mention she's supposed to have "sandy" hair, which is usually the equivalent of some shade of red. But I love the reprint, which has used the original text--this means you'll find Trixie riding on the running board of her dad's car in the first few pages of the original novel, The Secret of the Mansion--and the original 1940s-1950s illustrations, which show the girls in dresses and pedal-pushers and rolled-cuff blue jeans. Cool.

04 May 2004

A Book Meme

Tuesday Twosome

Reading

1. Do you prefer: Fiction or non-fiction?

That's a hard one. I probably have as many nonfiction books as fiction ones. I think I prefer fiction because it's usually written in a more lively manner.

2. Do you prefer: Magazines or books?

Books. I don't like most magazines and I'm down one: it looks like the Borders at Akers Mill doesn't carry Best of British anymore. [Later today: No, they haven't. I must have missed the March issue while I was in the hospital.]

3. Do you prefer: Biography or autobiography?

Biography most of the time. Most people don't talk about themselves well. However, my favorite biography of all time is an autobiography, Rosalind Russell's Life is a Banquet.

4. Name your two favorite books:

I don't have two favorite books; I have lots of favorite books! How does one expect me to pick two????

5. Name two books you haven't read, but plan to:

Paris 1919, which I have from the library, and A Wind to Shake the World, Everett Allen's book about the Hurricane of '38, which I ordered recently.

01 May 2004

Suffering from a Surfeit of Books (What a Way to Go)

I got a library visit in this week and and am now happily wallowing in new books. I practically devoured the first three. I started with Sue Henry's Cold Company and Death Trap, which feature Henry's heroine, independent musher Jessie Arnold, in a series of books that began with Murder on the Iditarod Trail. I had started collecting these in paperback, then got pissed off about four books ago when Henry dumped Jessie's love interest, state trooper Alex Jensen. Jessie can't seem to keep out of trouble, with or without Jensen around; in the "six months" (four books) since he left, she's been stalked innumerable times, involved with killers, and in the last book, left in a trap that would require her to kill her favorite dog, Tank, to save her own skin. Henry's next book is about a supporting character she introduced two Arnold books ago, which leaves Jessie time to--hopefully--rest up. I'm surprised the woman is not stark raving mad in a rest home by now. (Incidentally, we find out why Jessie is so self-reliant and reluctant to depend on anyone in Cold Company, but it reads as a bit of a cliche.)

I also got my mitts on a copy of the hottest fiction book of the last few months, Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. As you remember, I didn't think much of Angels and Demons, which is the first Robert Langdon book. This one is a bit less improbable. I find it surprising the sudden interest in DaVinci and his "codes." I've watched two different specials about it already. Had folks not heard of the Gnostic gospels and the theories about Jesus' family, which have included brothers and sisters as well? Also had not heard the terms "Divine Principle" or Fibonacci numbers or even "phi," but do remember this ratio being discussed in history--or maybe math--class as "the Golden Mean."

At the moment I'm in the middle of two other books, last year's highly publicized--they did a story in Time, as I remember--Walter Isaacson biography of Benjamin Franklin and Bruce Watson's great The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made, the story of A.C. Gilbert, the man who gave the world the Erector set.

26 April 2004

The Re-reading Files #2

More books for the list:

Esther Forbes: Johnny Tremain. I've been in love with this book since fifth grade and our student teacher Miss Greenberg "insulted" the lot of us by starting to read it to us after lunch. I mean it. Now there are books about reading aloud for all ages and if you read older books, you will see that reading aloud was old-fashioned family entertainment in the last century. But we were 1960s children who read on our own; only "little kids" got read to. Anyway, we didn't spurn Miss Greenberg long; in fact in less than two weeks you couldn't get a copy of Johnny Tremain in the school library. I still love the entire cast of characters, including egotistical Johnny--and especially his horse, Goblin.

Katherine Kurtz, Deborah Turner Harris: The Adept. Oh, the reviews I've read of these books online--"Mills and Boon romance with the occult thrown in" is one of the common ones. Chill, folks. That's what I like about them, and I'm generally not a fan of the romance genre: they have heroic, attractive heroes fighting the forces of darkness. Yeah, okay, the breathtaking beautiful and doelike Julia Barrett is a bit wet, but she exists only as a love interest for Peregrine, not as a real person and she doesn't appear much. These are fantasy books, after all. I love the descriptions of the beautiful homes, horses, grounds, and landscapes of Scotland in storm and fair weather, too; Kurtz and Harris draw everything in high detail.

Obligatory New Book:

Lynn Truss: Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Entertaining British bestseller about the death of proper punctuation--her chapter with the listing of misplaced apostrophes is hilarious and should not be read by those still hospitalized after surgery for fear of popping open staples. The title, by the way, comes from this anecdote:
A panda walks into a bar. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

"Why did you do that?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda walks towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

...now back to our story:

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Nine Tailors. The Anglophobe who reviewed No Graves as Yet on Amazon.com would find this Lord Peter Wimsey offering even worse than Murder Must Advertise. The titles and epigrams on the chapters, plus part of the plot, all center around the English custom of change-ringing of church bells. How horrid for this poor woman; something not strictly American that she can't easily understand. [End sarcasm alert.] Richly textured novel about small-town English fen-country life in the 1930s, an unsolved robbery, clues including a fantasy cipher and French underclothing, and delightful characters--besides Lord Peter and Bunter, of course--such as the Reverend Mr. Venables, "Potty" Peake, and "Nobby" Cranton.

Kate Seredy: The Chestry Oak. Absolutely wonderful, compelling story about a young Hungarian prince whose proud father pretends to be a puppet of the Nazis during World War II and how the boy, with the help of his motherly nurse, helps the cause and later escapes from the enemy, but at a stunning cost. It's illustrated with Seredy's own beautiful creations, but her words are pictures all in themselves. I dare you to get through the conclusion of this touching book without having tears in your eyes.

19 April 2004

The Re-reading Files #1

Well, if I wasn't looking forward to surgery I was looking forward to recuperation to wander blithely through the bookshelves and pick out things to re-read.

I watched the film version of My Friend Flicka the day before I had surgery, so one of the first volumes I tasted was Mary O'Hara's lovely novel. The movie adaptation is really not bad--it tells the essential parts of the story well, except for that little twit girl they substituted for Ken's brother Howard. The descriptions of Wyoming in the novel are so vivid and beautiful that you want to pack up the moment you finish and move. I saw Wyoming many years after first reading Flicka and indeed found it as beautiful as Ms. O'Hara said.

I also re-read L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light in a last-ditch effort to get the bad taste of the Disney television movie out of my mouth. Granted, I knew Disney couldn't have made the original into a movie. About half the story is Vicky's introspection over the events of her life: the differences in the boys she is friends with, her relationships with her parents and siblings and dying Grandfather, her thoughts about the "unfairness" of life in general, etc. However, Disney could have taken the essentials of the story as the makers of My Friend Flicka did and made a good film; they instead standardized and politically corrected and simplified the issues until it was just a banal story about "bad" industrialists hurting dolphins and "good" teenagers trying to help them. Even the marvelously dislikeable and complicated Zachary Gray ended up as a one-dimensional misunderstood teen.

And the always delightful Dorothy Sayers, of course, has supplied another volume: Murder Must Advertise, which, again, has been adapted as a television story. This one, like most British productions, pared down some characters and situations to fit into a four-hour timeslot, but kept the spirit of the book. The book, of course, has many more layers. I did smile, recalling the annoyed review of Anne Perry's No Graves as Yet on Amazon.com, in which the reviewer complained that the author used too many British terms--the novel takes place in Britain--and that several pages were taken up with a "boring" cricket match. I assume this reviewer will never partake of the delights of Sayers and Advertise in which lots and lots of British terms--some of them slang from the 1930s, when the novel is set--are used and an entire pivotal chapter takes place during a cricket match!

Her loss, not mine!

04 April 2004

"Let's See What's in Johnny's St. Nicholas..."

The classic Christmas scene is, of course, the small boy not being able to play with his electric trains because Dad has commandeered them.

The joke goes back a long way, even into my collection of St. Nicholas children's magazines. One or two children are liable to write to "the Letter Box" and mention how Dad sneaks away the issue once they are finished with it, and testimonials from mothers appear frequently.

So I wondered what the adults were reading while the children were happily perusing the new month's issues, since St. Nicholas was the offspring of Scribner's Magazine, which later became The Century. I had my chance: someone had a reasonably priced copy of the bound issues May 1890-October 1890 of The Century on e-Bay sometime back.

Over a year later, I'm still trying to slog through May 1890.

The first article is "Archibald Robertson and His Portraits of the Washingtons," a profile of an artist who did many paintings of George and Martha Washington. Perhaps only in a modern painting magazine would this many pages (11, in 9-point type) be devoted to an artist. The story begins with the minutae of Robertson's early life, including the English royalty he was related to (British royalty seemed to obsess Victorian Americans; this subject comes up several times within the magazine issue, along with other Victorian novels I've read), with depositions from various owners of these portraits to "enliven" the text.

Another article about George and Martha Washington follows, this "Some New Washington Relics," about memorabilia of our first President and his wife, including fans, firestands, and candlesticks, again with affidavits from the people who own them. Ten pages are devoted to this subject.

The next article is "Two Views of Marie Bashkirtseff." Who? Apparently the young woman was a recently celebrated artist, but the article begins by asking if the lady's lifestyle and her "absence of reserve" does not "seem a very abdication of womanhood"! Evidently the artist in question...gasp!...expressed strong opinions as well as led an unconventional lifestyle. Wonder what the opinonated writer would think of today's celebrities pregnant out of wedlock and wearing next to nothing?

Next, a fiction offering, chapters twelve and thirteen of "Friend Olivia," which is a classically overwritten Victorian romance involving a Quaker woman, another woman named Anastasia who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man although she is in love with someone else, founder of the Quaker movement George Fox, a gentleman named Nicholas, Oliver Cromwell, and pages of descriptions of brocaded gowns and the English countryside.

Following this potboiler is...I kid you not..."Chickens for Use and Beauty," 14 pages of descriptions of the various breeds of domestic chickens, their laying abilities and feather details, etc., and then we have a four page (with illustrations) poem about the bravery of a minister who fought during the Revolutionary War.

I've made it as far as "Blacked Out," a 8-page dissertation on censorship in the Czarist Russian press. Upcoming seems to be such exciting subjects as "The Women of the French Salons" (and we're not talking about beauty parlors here!), "Institutions of the Arid Lands," and "Valor and Skill in the Civil War." Plus the autobiography of the great actor Joseph Jefferson and a few shorter pieces of fiction.

One can certainly view the times, however, within the pages. Interspersed within the articles are other poems, which either seem to be about the death of a loved one or are memorials of the Civil War.

I can't stand the mindless drivel in today's magazines like People, but if this is the sort of "interesting and instructive" articles that 19th century adults had to wade through, I'm not surprised they swiped Johnny and Janie's St. Nicholas for more lively reading!

30 March 2004

Which Classic Novel do You Belong In?

GWTW
Darling, it seems that you belong in Gone with the
Wind;
the proper place for a romantic. You
belong in a tumultous world of changes and
opportunities, where your independence paves
the road for your survival. It is trying being
both a cynic and a dreamer, no?


Which Classic Novel do You Belong In?
brought to you by Quizilla

27 March 2004

"Dear America" -- Some Less Dear Than Others

So since I'm into this "history thing," as some of my puzzled former schoolmates might put it, when I first saw the "Dear America" novels, I was intrigued. These small hardbacks are published by Scholastic and are supposed to be the diaries of girls in various points of American history. They started with, appropriately, Winter of the Red Snow, which is a Revolutionary War girl.

Of course, being written for the modern girl, we have no shrinking violets here. Our heroines are not the meek, prim little women they were supposed to be back in those days of "seen and not heard." Oh, each of the girls usually has a weakness, but they are usually strong characters in general.

The darn things are so expensive, though ($10.99 each), that I've been loathe to buy them except on sale or with a coupon.

I have six now, and they range from very good to annoying. Evidently there are others of the latter opinion: I read a scathing review of the volume that deals with the Carlisle Indian School. The reviewer is a Native American and not only dealt harshly with an experience which for the tribal children was harrowing and traumatic but which the "Dear America" book views as, although hard, eventually a positive experience, but who takes the writer to task for giving the female lead initiatives and characteristics, which, they say, a properly brought up female child in that particular tribe in that era would not have had. She would have not aspired to a boy's position or played boys' games, or done other things out of character with a female in that particular tribe at that time. Strictures on Native American girls were just as rigid as those of white girls.

Anyway, my favorite "Dear America" is still Christmas After All, the 1932 diary of Minnie Swift, although the improbable ending--shades of the Kings and the Five Little Peppers!--still makes me laugh. It was written by Kathryn Lasky, who has written some of my other favorite children's books, including the East Boston-based Prank, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The characters seem very true to the 1930s and Minnie's observations are funny--and occasionally touching. Her cousin Willie Faye is unforgettable.

The only thing that bugged me was...the reviews of this book on Amazon.com! There is a scene in the book where a chicken--the family keeps chickens as a source of food in the lean Depression years--has its feet frozen to the lid of a garbage can after a winter storm. Multiple reviewers seemed to consider this event hilarious. What kind of people think an animal getting its feet frozen is funny????

I also have West to a Land of Plenty, Voyage on the Great Titanic, and When Christmas Comes Again, all which I found on clearance, and the two World War II stories, Early Sunday Morning and My Secret War, which I got on coupon.

Of those five, the Pearl Harbor story is my least favorite. Never mind Amber Billows has a first name that is totally wrong for the era; she's an annoying, whiny child who sets my teeth on edge. Not to mention that the one bigoted person in the story comes to such a bad end that it's ridiculous, like those old-fashioned tomes where little kids who did bad things were eaten by bears or died and went to Hell. Please. Or that Amber, to be really Politically Correct, has a best friend who's Japanese (and of course has her family accused of all sorts of horrible things after the attack).

Plenty I picked up because the lead girl, Teresa, is Italian. She's a bit feisty--read: she complains a lot--but she's thankfully not as much a whiner as Amber, and becomes a more likeable character as the story progresses. Also, there are amusing interludes where her pesty little sister writes in her diary. The story ends with a big punch as well.

When Christmas Comes Again keeps being stocked as a Christmas novel and it's not. It's the story of Simone, who volunteers as one of the "Hello Girls" (telephone operators on the front lines) during World War I. I'd never heard of the "Hello Girls" and found that part of the story extremely interesting.

Titanic is told by Catholic orphanage-educated Margaret Ann Driscoll, who gets a job as companion and helper to a rich American woman sailing on the Titanic alone. "Maggie" gets to experience the splendor of the Titanic first hand--but it's all old stuff: opulent staircases, grand dining rooms, dropping names like Molly Brown and John Jacob Astor. I would have been much more interested in a book about the second or third class passengers on the ship. Still, she's a likeable character, so the voyage isn't so bad after all.

Last is My Secret War in which Madeline Becker is about the most ordinary of the lead characters. She's your typical 40s schoolgirl with a crush on a male classmate and close encounters with a snobby classmate, who is then involved with the war effort. Later in the book, some bad news fells her, which felt very natural against the heroic effort of some of the other girls in the series. The hook in this one is that the author worked a real World War II event--German U-boats trolling the East Coast--in with Maddy and Johnny's shore patrols. Of the two WWII books, this is much better. Avoid Amber at all costs.

26 March 2004

Reading Children's Books at the Tender Age of ... Well, Pushing 50

My dad used to worry about me because I was still reading children's books well into my 20s. I didn't know how to explain it to him because I wasn't sure how to explain it to anyone else. But basically I like a good story, and when a story is good, it doesn't matter what age group it was written for.

There's another thing about children's books--unless you are reading the "problem" books which address things like teen pregnancy, drug abuse, etc., most of them lack the conventions that populate popular adult novels lately, which include sex, excessive violence, and enough abnormal psychology to slather on bread. It's like the old Oprah's Book Club, in which the book's lead character always was a woman who had, as a child, been a victim of verbal/physical/sexual abuse by her father/stepfather/guardian/trusted relative and who grows up to get involved with an abusive boyfriend/husband/lover and who is further verbally/physically/sexually abused by that person--or she has a mentally challenged child and a neanderthal of a husband/boyfriend/father/guardian who wants her to toss the kid into an asylum. I'm not making light of any of these situations. These horrible events go on every day--and I don't want to read about more of them.

And this is not to say that children's books that are not "problem" books don't have their share of hard knocks. There is death in Old Yeller and Bridge to Terabithia and A Ring of Endless Light, cruelty in Anne of Green Gables and Black Beauty, poverty in Little Women and The Five Little Peppers, personal challenges and threats in the "Dark is Rising" novels...well, you get the idea. But in general the children's book world seems to be free of the excesses that drown the adult market.

Which is the long way of saying I picked up the latest History Mystery, Betrayal at Cross Creek, today. This one takes place in 1775 among the Scottish pioneers in North Carolina, people who escaped Scotland after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, as did my father-in-law's family, and examines the problems arising between the Patriots and the Loyalists. Pretty good. Although I guessed what the clue was, I didn't realize until the heroine, Elspeth, did who the "betrayer" was. It's pretty surprising for a children's book, too.

23 March 2004

Camping With the Winnebagoes

I could read Hildegard Frey’s Campfire Girls books all day, judging by the two I’ve read via e-book. As you remember, I had a "corking good time" with The Campfire Girls Go Motoring, as much for the portrait of automobile travel in 1916 as for the mystery involving the separated car and the mysterious girl they pick up. The Campfire Girls at Camp Keewaydin which I just finished, has no such compelling narrative, but I found it interesting just the same. (Yay! There's another one waiting at blackmask.com!)

It is mainly the story of "Agony" (Agnes), a nice, honest, athletic girl who longs for popularity. Innocently, she is caught up in a lie, which she perpetuates because it gives her the longed-for popularity, but it weighs upon her soul all season and eventually comes to a bad end, from which she emerges truly "sad but wiser." It's one of those stories where you keep mentally advising the lead character to do something to get herself out of the mess, because except for this one fault, Agony is really a nice kid.

What is more fascinating in the book is the glimpse of 1920s girls' camp life--canoe trips, swimming contests, practical jokes, good and bad councilors, crafts, plays--especially the idea of "crushes." From the other books of the era, even boys' novels, it was apparently very common in those days for younger teens to hero-worship older ones. Oh, this still happens today, but the "crushes" are described in the books then in a way that today would smack to most people of lesbianism and homosexuality. Intimate sharing of a sleeping bag with a special friend is made a point of, or sharing glances with a fellow girl or boy. However, in those days it was all quite innocent and people would have been shocked and outraged had an accusation of homosexuality been leveled at these "crushes." It was considered natural for a girl to idolize an older girl who was popular and pretty, or a boy to admire an older companion who was good at sports or in leadership.

Funny how today we can make admiration and friendship into something that many people consider unsavory--and into something sexual when it's not.

Anyway, here is Jo Anne's Girls' Book Web Page, which has short and long reviews of different old girls' series books, plus a few in-general essays about them at the bottom of the page.

19 March 2004

Dr. Who, TV Series Novels & Novelizations, and Other Ramblings

It's sometimes hard to believe that Dr. Who started as a children's historical series. The initial aim was to have the travelers on the TARDIS visit different points in history; a few fantasy episodes were thrown in for lagniappe. Which explains why the first "exotic" adventure involved going back to the Stone Age and helping cavemen develop fire.

And then Terry Nation's Daleks screamed "Exterminate!" and nothing was quite the same again.

Writer Bill Strutton novelized two early Who episodes, but it wasn't until Target started its paperback novelizations of the series that these took off. Novelized television episodes, along with original adventures based on television series, had a long history. Whitman's children's books had a long line of original titles based on series like Lassie, Fury, and the Roy Rogers Show, among others. Novelizations of popular or upcoming movies began showing up in paperback during the 1960s. In some cases, like Terrance Dicks' workmanlike Dr. Who episodes novelizations, the author simply made a narrative out of the basic script, adding descriptions as needed. In other cases, the author expanded or added characterizations and incidents to the story with good effect: Harry Brown's novelization of the telefilm The Gathering took a superior product and added even more intriguing layering to it; Robert Weverka's Waltons books skilfully interwove two episodes into one story (Weverka's weaving even solved the "geography problem" in The Magic of Lassie in which Lassie fell off a hillside in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and landed in Zion National Park, Utah).

When the BBC's Michael Grade managed what every monster, meglomaniac, and the Master couldn't do, shut down the Doctor for good, fans still clamored for more. So was born the continuation novels, "The New Adventures," and later "the Missing Adventures," which used the previous Doctors.

These novels definitely provided the finishing touch in changing Dr. Who from a children's adventure series to a sometimes dark science-fiction series for adults. I have read only a handful of them and have been alternately interested in the clever ideas and disappointed in many things, including excessive violence, but mostly due to the writing style of most of these books. It seems that many of the writers cannot tell an imaginative story in simple, precise language anymore, opting instead for obscure points of view, stream of consciousness narratives, or a babble of words that less represents a story than a mishmash of hallucinatory prose.

The last book I finished, Downtime, wasn't actually a Dr. Who novelization. It is based on a drama that was presented using characters from the "Whoniverse": Victoria Waterfield, the Brigadier, and Sarah Jane Smith. I loved the story, but some of the convoluted prose describing people's takeover by the Great Intelligence I found hard slogging. It was, however, better than some of the books, including the one, title forgotten, that I finally forcefully tossed against a wall in frustration after 30 pages, and then bundled in the library donation box.

However, as obscure as some of the Who plots can get, I can say I vastly prefer them to the Star Trek books. I gave up on these several years ago after I read what looked to be a great adventure story in the TOS universe. After 350 pages, nothing had changed and no one had learned a thing. That was the last totally random Trek book I bought. There are a few exceptions. I loved Peter David's Imzadi books, for instance. (James stayed up reading the first one, and greeted me, bleary-eyed, next morning with the pronouncement, "I hate Peter David." "You thought it was that bad?" "It was that good. I was up until 3 a.m.!") I also loved Greg Cox's Eugenics War duology.

I also was reading the Buffy novels and finally gave up. The writers were good enough, but the characters didn't read to me the way they appeared on the screen. The anthology How I Spent My Summer Vacation finished me. I don't know who these people were, but they certainly weren't Buffy, Angel, and the rest of the "Scooby gang."

16 March 2004

Not So Wild in the West

I polished off Robert Vaughan's second Wild Wild West novel tonight with a mixture of amusement and regret. (BTW, many people who review this book on Amazon.com are under the impression that the author is Robert Vaughn, a.k.a. the man from UNCLE. Sorry folks, note the difference in spelling. The last time I saw Mr. Vaughn, he had started a descent into squalor and degradation by doing a commercial for an ambulance-chasing lawyer. How the mighty have fallen. But I digress...) Mr. Vaughan is a fairly good writer who tried his best in three books to recapture the feel of one of the best of the 1960s adventure series.

The amusement came from a review on Amazon.com that chided Vaughan for not using the two things that WWW was always noted for: gorgeous girls and great gadgets. The reviewer was right: there are two beautiful women in this book, but neither Jim nor Artie ends up romancing either one of them, and the most technologically advanced gadget in the story is the locomotive pulling their train in a cross-country dash.

The WWW series sizzled with all sorts of Victorian-appearing, technologically-advanced machines and gizmos. It was always a surprise to see what modern gadget in 19th century garb the West writers and the able CBS prop department came up with, especially the ones created by series irregular favorite, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, performed con brio by the wonderful Michael Dunn. Vaughan's novels stick to more of the possible inventions of the time, and, alas, in this age, the babes that delighted 1960s audiences are considered trite and chauvinistic now.

Vaughan does point out some adventure clichès that we've all sat through in books and movies for years. For instance, one sequence in Night of the Death Train has that inevitable "fight on top of a moving train," this time taking place between Jim West and an assassin. Vaughan takes the time, in very descriptive language, to mention how darn hard it is to hold a fistfight/shootout on the top of a bouncing railroad car wooshing along at about 35 m.p.h., which may seem like a snail's pace on the interstate, but isn't when you're trying to duck bullets and keep your balance.

Probably what makes the novels--any Wild Wild West literature that I've ever read, really--less compelling that any of the filmed episodes is that I haven't seen an author yet who could capture the magic wrought by Ross Martin in the role of Artemus Gordon. Did anyone ever really watch this show for Robert Conrad? Okay, Jim West was handsome, resourceful, athletic, agile, and intelligent and Conrad did a great job with the "hero" role. But what made West different from any other run-of-the-mill adventures was Artie Gordon and his disguises. See that doddery professor of music? The pompous German general? The effete cook? The two-faced hellfire preacher? Presto-chango, and it's Artemus Gordon, who was also handsome (at least I thought so), resourceful, athletic, agile and even more intelligent--not to mention he was a good cook and a wine connoisseur! It was a treat every week to see Martin's new disguise. The few weeks when an ailing Ross Martin was replaced by other "agents" (played well but not as delightfully by Charles Aidman and William Schallert) revealed how much of the charm of the series was tied to Artemus Gordon rather than the titular hero.

Maybe Mr. Vaughan's readers felt that as well, because this revival series ended after three books which ended up on remainder tables quickly. The pen is usually mightier than the screen--but in this case it had a hard time living up to Ross Martin.

15 March 2004

Standing Pat

I've recently made the acquaintance of Miss Patricia Fairfield via the realm of e-books, and so far it's been a lovely association.

Patty is the creation of novelist Carolyn Wells, who, if I'm permitted to judge Patty against the one Wells mystery I have read, Raspberry Jam, was a heck of a lot better children's book writer than adult novelist.

Patty Fairfield is the only child of an alternately serious and indulgent father. Her mother died when she was three, so Patty and her dad are very close. On her fourteenth birthday, after the two have lived like gypsies for years, Dad proposes that Patty stay three months apiece with four of different relatives while he winds up some overseas business deals. Then at the end of that year he will rejoin her and they will settle down in a place of their own choosing.

But first Dad warns her about having a sense of "proportion," which she understands better once she's on her travels. Patty's four sets of relatives turn out to be like the three bears' porridge with one place setting added: one is polite-but-snobby, one is so busy with clubs and good causes that humor and feelings are forgotten, and another is so flyaway and careless that accidents are always happening. Luckily the fourth family is "just right" and it's here that Patty finds her home--but don't just listen to my summation; download Patty Fairfield and join in the fun at the Hurly-Burly and elsewhere.

I'm now in the second book of the series, Patty at Home, in which the Fairfields have acquired not only a lovely house, but in which Patty is happily keeping house helped by two eccentric servants, young Pansy Potts the budding horticulturist turned waitress and Mancy Jackson, the cook. Mancy, is, of course, the standard stereotypical black servant of the day (her full name is "Emancipation Proclamation"), but thankfully she is not used for "humorous" racist comic relief. In fact it's Mancy's down-to-earth comments that try to quench Patty's high-flying ideas about keeping house, especially cooking.

There are a few more online and I hope more upcoming, for I enjoy Patty's company and can't wait to see what she's up to next.