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!