29 November 2007

On Main Street

The lives of ten year old Flora Northrup and her eight year old sister Ruby change abruptly one night in January when they go out with their parents for ice cream: a car accident robs them of their parents. Their kindly grandmother Min lives with them for the remainder of the year, then sells their home and packs them up, bag, baggage and their beloved cat King Comma to the little Massachusetts town of Camden Falls, where Min and her partner Mrs. Walter own "Needle and Thread," a sewing/stitchery store on Camden Falls' main street.

Soon Flora and Ruby are ensconced at Min's home, one of the historic Row Houses a block away from Needle and Thread. Through summer visits, they are already friends with Mrs. Walter's granddaughter, Olivia, a budding naturalist who skipped a grade and who is in Flora's class. In the course of the first book, they also make friends with Nikki Sherman, a generally shunned girl who wears old clothing and sometimes cannot bathe everyday. Nikki tries her best, but her father is an alcoholic and a "mean drunk" at that, who terrorizes her, her mother, older brother, and younger sister, and her mom, as a way to cope, also drinks.

This is the premise of the "Main Street" books by Ann M. Martin, who is well-know for the "Babysitters Club" book series. While I never had any interest in the latter, the first three books in the "Main Street" series sounded appealing as a counterpart to the almost idealized Callahan Cousins books. Both feature brisk grandmother characters, but Min—who loses her temper and occasionally is cross—is much more realistic than Grandmother Gee, and the novels are a little less fairy-tale: the girls have to do chores, help out at the store, and there is no fairy-tale ending for Nikki, whose alcoholic father is simply a fact of life (although one wonders if there is no children's protective agency in Camden Falls). The stories are simple enough for tween kids, but the neighbor characters are intriguing even for those older: a Downs Syndrome teenager who is about to graduate from his special school and take his place in the working world, an older gentleman who realizes his memory is beginning to fail and who takes Olivia into his confidence, and an elderly couple who face separation when the wife develops Alzheimer's disease. Quiet Flora's struggles with grief for her mother and father contrast sharply with outgoing Ruby's seeming acceptance of the event (which Ruby carefully compartmentalizes). These are people you might meet: neighbors, co-workers, even relatives.

The books so far are:
• Welcome to Camden Falls
• Needle and Thread
• Tis the Season
and a fourth to be published in April:
• Best Friends

You may enjoy a visit to this Main Street. I certainly did.

14 November 2007

Books Read Since October 22

• Re-read: Harvest at Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
More sketchily written than Taber's later Stillmeadow books, this covers two years of life at Taber's Connecticut home. Her children are young in this first book, so interspersed with the dog stories are amusing boy and girl stories as well.

• It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic, Lee Mendelson, with Bill Melendez
Similar to the "making of" volume about A Charlie Brown Christmas, including the conception of the plot and a chapter on Vince Guaraldi's memorable score. Includes the entire script for the classic television special.

• Best Friends: The True Story of the World's Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary, Samantha Glen
I love real-life stories about veterinarians and animal rescue, so I was prepared to enjoy this. I did and I didn't. There were some great animal stories in it, but most of the stories were about the people building this sanctuary with lots of offbeat religious commentary. The author also occasionally tries to be too clever with her words, such as this cutesy-poo line from a chapter about a Hollywood fund-raiser: "Timothy Leary dazed onto the lawn." This was followed by a couple of other descriptions of this flavor. Pity, because the animals are so memorable.

• Doctor Who: The Legend Continues, Justin Richards
Coffee table book chronicling all the television adventures through the ninth Doctor and introducing the tenth. There are better episode guides but this has beautiful photos and interesting sidebars about the various reworkings of the theme, various alien species, conceptions for each new Doctor, etc.

• Re-read: National Velvet, Enid Bagnold
The ordinary Browns—well, except for Mrs. Brown—find their lives changed when their plain but horse-worshiping youngest daughter Velvet inherits five horses from a dying landowner and then wins a high-jumping piebald horse in a lottery and determines to train the undisciplined animal for England's greatest steeplechase, the Grand National. If you've only seen the Elizabeth Taylor movie, you'll find a grittier tale, with more horses (the Pi of the movie seems a combination of Sir Pericles and the Piebald), one more sister (Merry is the canary-fancier in the book and Mally the snippy one), a different past for Mi. Donald, unfortunately, is still annoying. :-) Written in unsentimental language; a glimpse of a long-gone way of life in a 1920s English village.

• Gaits of Heaven, Susan Conant
Is it me, or is Conant getting cranky? Holly Winter is apparently happily married, yet she's kvetching about her late mother. Having taken in a young woman who's overweight to rescue her from the poisonous atmosphere at home, instead of just providing shelter, food, and a shoulder to cry on, she goes on and on about the girl's obesity. (Has Conant got something against overweight people? She harps on and on, not just about it not being good for the girl's health, but more about how ugly it makes her.) Psychologists also take a beating in this book; you mean people really put up with this analyst crap as Conant portrays it? Oh, yeah, and she goes on for three pages justifying keeping her cat locked in her office because it's so unfriendly but at least she's giving it a home. Also, the asides written as "imaginings" to portray events happening away from Holly's view are really...annoying. But the dogs are still great.

• The Original Boy's Handy Book (Daniel Carter Beard) and The Original Girl's Handy Book (Lina and Adelia Belle Beard)
Both these books were written in 1887 as The American Boy's Handy Book and The American Girl's Handy Book and some time ago were reprinted in trade paper format, but I found the price then prohibitive. They have been reprinted yet again in hardback format at a better price. The boys' book, of course, covers more manly subjects like hunting and fishing, while the girls' book has the usual china painting and flower pressing, but there are surprisingly useful items in the girls' book about building items for use in the home and for public occasions. The two together are a fascinating portrait of the projects and amusements for young people of over one hundred years ago (and of the once-common items that you can't get any longer!).

• The Daring Book for Girls, Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz
This is a companion book to the infamous Dangerous Book for Boys. I find both interesting, but the girls' book has too many sports entries to be satisfying. Why not more about reading or pets? The math tricks chapter is fascinating as well as useful, though.

03 November 2007

"I'd Like to Drink Color..."

Fall always reminds me of these passages from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm:

It was a rustly day, a scarlet and buff, yellow and carmine, bronze and crimson day. There were still many leaves on the oaks and maples, making a goodly show of red and brown and gold. The air was like sparkling cider, and every field had its heaps of yellow and russet good things to eat, all ready for the barns, the mills, and the markets...A gorgeous leaf blew into the wagon.

"Does color make you sort of dizzy?" asked Rebecca.

"No," answered Emma Jane after a long pause; "no, it don't; not a

"Perhaps dizzy isn't just the right word, but it's nearest. I'd like to eat color, and drink it, and sleep in it. If you could be a tree, which one would you choose...I'd choose to be that scarlet maple just on the edge of the pond there...I could look at all the rest of the woods, see my scarlet dress in my beautiful looking-glass, and watch all the yellow and brown trees growing upside down in the water..."