30 March 2004

Which Classic Novel do You Belong In?

Darling, it seems that you belong in Gone with the
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.

06 March 2004

Mixed Bag--with Poodles

I've been reading this and that the last few weeks, no bestsellers among them. Finally finished the huge WPA Guide to New York City, which is a delightful guidebook to what the Big Apple used to be. The guide was written in 1939 and has a preview of the World's Fair. I read the two Magickers books mentioned in an earlier entry, and in the last few days have been rereading some of my HTML books, which is my idea of fun. I have a few solid references I bought full price, but most of my HTML material has been gathered off remainder tables.

A good example is the web usability book I'm reading now, which discusses things as varied as alternative text for visually impaired people and using properly contrasting colors, including considering red-green colorblind persons when designing websites. I also enjoyed Wendy Peck's Web Menus with Beauty and Brains, discussing all types of website navigation, including text menus for faster loading, typography, color combinations, placement of menus, etc. I discovered in following one of her exercises that Earthlink does not support Server Side Includes, but Yahoo (my domain provider) does.

The one book I found most delightful this week was a re-read of a book I fell in love with in my elementary school library. I took this book out whenever I had the chance. The Christmas I was in fifth grade my mom went crazy trying to find a copy for me; alas, I think it was only printed for libraries or out of print. Most of the stores she inquired at thought she was crazy.

The book was Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles. Nope, not psychedelic canines. The Greens are Aunt Lena and her wards, teenagers Ann and Charlie, and eleven-year-old Allan, who end up providing a home for the last member of the British branch of their family, eleven-year-old Fern, who brings her silver poodle Juliet with her. Aunt Lena's never liked dogs much, but Juliet provides them a good turn: it introduces them to a noted poodle breeder, who helps the struggling Greens by fostering some of her dogs with them. In the end, of course, the Greens make good, and a family mystery is even solved.

I found a copy of this book several years ago online and didn't realize until I re-read it for the first time since the 1960s that this is where I developed an early interest in dog obedience trials. Juliet and another of the dogs, Ravel, are not just bench (show) dogs, but obedience trial competitors. I remember now being fascinated by the concepts of heel off leash and stand for examination and long sit and long down, and when I wrote my own first story about a girl and her collie, she was training him for obedience competition.