Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

I'm not sure how they accomplished such a magical feat of writing, but Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme's My Life in France has the feeling that you are always right there, cooking with Julia, exploring Paris, watching loutish Cohn and Schine "interview" Paul Child, tasting and baking and befriending and living life. I can barely put this book down. An unconventional couple lead an completely enchanting and unconventional life. This isn't just an autobiographical account of Julia's life in France either; it's a slice of time history of what France was like right after the end of World War II and the during the first freezing birth pangs of the Cold War. I'm utterly charmed with Julia Child and I want her life and chutzpah.

I'm just over half way done, and I don't want it to end.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Snake Agent by Liz Williams, Night Shade Books, 2005

The trouble with Hell... was not so much the palpable miasma of evil... but the bureaucracy." (from The Snake Agent by Liz Williams, Night Shade Books, 2005, 159780018X).

After my frustrating and annoying experience with the US Post Office this afternoon, I can fully agree that if there is indeed a Hell, it's full of almost endlessly long lines, public service windows that unexpectedly open and close, and unresponsive, unhelpful stone faced bureaucrats when you finally get to the front of the line.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (Knopf, 2006

I am reading My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (Knopf, 2006, 1400043468) and thoroughly loving it. If the real Julia is indeed writing the book, then she definitely sounds like a wonderful character full of joy of life and living. I can hardly put the book down, I'm loving (and envying?) her life so much!

I certainly didn't know that she took up cooking at the age of 37 -- just a few years younger than I am right now. Gives me spark of a glimmer of hope that the world out there is always waiting for you to march right in an change it (by changing yourself !) and a person isn't stuck doing the same thing for ever and ever. Not that I want to change careers or anything drastic; but Julia Child's story can provide hope (and longing).

Another life lesson to be gleaned from Julia Child: she failed her first exit exam at Le Cordon Bleu. Not because she wasn't good (she was) but because she concentrated so much on the difficult, interesting techniques that she forgot to memorize and became adept at the basic techniques, and that was the exam! Master the basics of something, and everything else will fall into place.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, some last words

My review on Facebook Visual Booshelf:

"If only this book had stopped at World War II. But then, the author warned us that Queen Elizabeth's decades in the 50's 60's 70's 80's 90's tended to blend one into the other. Indeed they did. I have to admit - I skimmed a whole bunch of do-goodery volunteerism and Commonwealth tours to get to Diana's funeral et al. The first part of this book was wonderful though. What a woman, thrust into the limelight completely against her will, and then bravely facing the dangers of World War II at her husband's side. Queen Wallis - never! Read up to the king's death and skim the rest (even then, if you skim the large boring parts, there are bits and pieces that still illustrate what a lovely, witty, and charming woman the Queen Mother really was; but I still be her blood was sometimes ice when she was pissed off at you, isn't that right King Edward?)."

She never wanted to be queen, but will probably go down in history as one of the most beloved.

Her consumption of so many cocktails was admirable, to say the least, and somewhat enviable to say the most.

"When the Princess of Wales said to her, 'We're all so looking forward to your hundredth birthday,' Queen Elizabeth replied, 'Oh, you musn't say that, it's unucky. I mean, I might be run over by a big red bus.' [The organizer of her 80th and 90th birthday celebrations, Michael Parker, who was there during this conversations] said "he thought it was very unlikely, to which Queen Elizabeth replied, 'No, no, it's the principle of the thing. Wouldn't it be terrible if you'd spent all your life doing everything you were supposed to do, didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't eat things, too lots of exercise, all the things you didn't want to do, and suddenly one day you were run over by a big red bus, and as the wheels were crunching into you you'd say 'Oh my God, I could have got so drunk last night!" That's the way you should live your life, as if tomorrow you'll be run over by a big red bus."

She treated every day as a lovely surprise that was going to be wonderful.
What better way to live?

Friday, December 18, 2009

It's Magic

Philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin writing of a dinner party he attended. Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Maria Callas were among the guests. "They were like two prima donnas, one emitting white and the other black magic. "

I love the image of the two, calm but eyes blazing, in a Merlin vs. Madame Mim type of battle, only a comedy of manners rather than a battle of actual enchantment (enchanting and bewitching as the two women obviously were, both beloved in their own way). This whole image might make a kind of cool fantasy story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

"There is something very inhuman & beastly about death dealing missiles being launched in such an indiscriminate manner." Beastly indeed. It still is.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Light Years Beneath My Feet by Alan Dean Foster

About the only good thing about this book was the title. My mind wandered light years away every time I tried to read this one.

You know what? Character names are REALLY important, particularly in science fiction and fantasy. If they sound too "bullshit," then it ruins the book. TL-YBMF was full of bullshitty made up alien names, full of too many consonants and not enough vowels. That alone starts my mind wandering away, wondering what's going to happen in the dozen other books I have waiting on the shelf.

Too bad too, because Lost and Found, the first book in this series (?) was at the very least mildly enjoyable. I remember some of the finer plot points, the names were not excruciating, and I would recommend it. But Book Two stinks. I've never been overly impressed with the works of Alan Dean Foster - frothy hack work is a good term for his ouvre -- and TL-YBMF certainly falls within that.

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

"On 13 May the King was woken at 5 a.m. by an unprecedented phone call -- another monarch beseeching help. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands begged him to send the Royal Air Force to help defend her country, which was being overrun by the Germans."

Now that was something I learned today that I did not know!

What a different war it could have been, if the Nazi-symphathizing Edward VIII and Queen Wallis had come to the throne. Even Churchill said "King George and Queen Elizabeth are far finer, more popular and more inspiringly helpful pair than other (my italics) would have been."

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (1941)

I tried to read The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1941) with very raw illustrations by Louis Slobodkin (he's done far better illustrations) but failed miserably! The Moffats are no Pyes, my friends. Estes must have really honed her style and sophistication between this earliest of books and later masterpieces like Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye. Practice does make perfect, I guess. What I find most bothersome - about myself - is that I think I'm supposed to really love this venerable beloved old classic, but instead found it old, old fashioned (in a bad way, not a good way), very "dick and jane" -y, and frankly boring. Disappointing, because I was hoping to love it as much as her Pye books. Look at that cover too -- doesn't it look like one of those old fashioned (in a good way not a bad way) books that you should snuggle up with and love to death?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

Duke and Duchess of York.

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The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

Mrs. Simpson makes her first appearance 353 pages in.

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The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

Different: the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King and Queen of England) leave their young daughter, Elizabeth (the future queen of Engalnd) almost newly born, with her grandparents King George and Queen Mary, while they make a six month official tour of New Zealand and Australia. While they are gone, Elizabeth says her cuts her first teeth, says her first words, and celebrates her first birthday.

If a public figure did something like this today, the press would crucify them on the cross of negligence and bad parenting.

Same: Elizabeth believed "encouragement and understanding vital to [Elizabeth and Margaret Rose's] development -- something she felt her husband's upbringing had lacked. Among her private papers is a note she wrote for him, 'in case of anything happening to me...'" The last point to her husband was: "Remember how yoru father, by shouting at you, & making you feel uncomfortable lost all your real affection. None of his sons are his friends (my italics here), because he is not understanding and helpful to them."

Even in the 1920's, parents (except, I guess, for King George V) wanted to be friends with their children. Or at the very least, understanding and encouraging!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

Great words of sympathy from the (then) Duchess of York to King George V on the death of his mother :

"Words, I know, are useless in a tragic time, but I hope you will allow me to send you my deepest & truest sympathy from the very bottom of my heart."

I will definitely steal these lovely words to use on some future sad occasion!

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Queen Mother by William Shawcross (2009)

I am reading The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross (Knopf, 2009, 9781400043040).

The chapters on the early portions of Elizabeth and Prince Bertie's married life seems to show the real sense that the Duchess of York was the Princess Diana of her day, blowing fresh air into a stale monarchy. Of course, it's clear that if two paths diverged in a wood for both of these commoner princesses, Diana took one path and Elizabeth took another. But I'm going to keep Diana in mind as I read along (and pay close attention to how different the two eras in which these women grew up in were).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes (1958)

Here is my review from Facebook LivingSocial Book Review:

Even after 50 years on the shelf, Eleanor Estes writing is still crisp and fresh. A seemingly simple family adventure at the beach is also a cute kitten story (who doesn't love the antics of a cute kitten?) and a small but engaging mystery story (what is up in the attic?). It's a slice of time as well, when life (and stories) were a bit more uncomplicated and small events were more exciting. Pinky Pye was one of my favorite books growing up; it still is.

The Pyes are spending summer vacation at Fire Island and although I've never actually been to Fire Island, as a gay man, I know it's a gay mecca. I wonder if it was in 1958? Were the Pyes sharing their beach with the gays?

I hope there are still families like the Pyes out there, children who can still be fascinated by crickets and watching a man catch a 2 lb fish in the surf, who build wagons from junk drifted to shore after a storm, who teach their dogs to count, who are content (or even allowed) to sit on the roof and watch whatever needs to be watched.

Maybe by the time Estes wrote Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye (and the Moffats, which I have not yet read), the Pye family were already idealized figures of a then not so distant past; Estes writing in 1958 of family life in pre-World War II Connecticut that in all likelihood was already gone by the time she started writing about the Pyes and the Moffats.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Just a poem

A Plea

Stop and listen.
Stop and listen.
Be still for just a moment
and listen.
Your soul needs us.
You need us.
Hear us sing.
Hear us sing. Watch us swim
And fly and float and flutter.
Watch us hunt and play and struggle
To survive.

We're silently crying out
In a million different ways
We can not speak to you but
We need you to listen to us.
Open your hearts and souls to us.
We need you back in our lives.
Remember us?
You lived among us
Long ago.
It's happening again.
The deluge. The flood.
Listen to us crying in the wilderness.
Under the sea.
Over the mountain.
Over the river
And in the woods.
In the deep
In the dark dark forest.
Stop and listen.

to silence.
No more peepers welcome the spring.
No more bats or butterflies take wing
No more larks left to sing.

We do not speak in convetional ways.
so you must listen with your heart and mind.
Our mother is trying to tell you something.

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

Utterly beautiful passages:

Ginger's eyes had always been beautiful, gay, sparkling, laughing, and intelligent. Now they were even more beautiful for there were sadness and pleading, an anxious questioning, in them, too.


Ginger twitched his ears and the loose skin on his back and legs to let Jerry know he was here and he was happy. Then he lowered his head down on his paws again and he let out a deep sigh that sounded almost like a sob, there was in it so much relief and pain and pleasure and remembering.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

I'm going to track descriptions of food in children's literature.

I have a theory that in books written in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties by authors who lived through the Great Depression, feasts were more important than books written in a later time. Having lived through a time of want, when basic food was scarce in many households, feasts were a rare luxury. That's simply not true anymore, at least in the Western World, and as a consequence, the list of foods at a picnic or dinner isn't written in quite the same way anymore. I've also read that descriptions of delicious feasts in children's literature stands in for sex, that is, in adult literature descriptions of sex take the place of descriptions of food.

They had sandwiches, hard eggs, bananas, dill pickles, potato salad, baked beans, baked ham, jelly doughnuts, and homemade chocolate cake.

That a heap of food! (although there quite a few people at the picnic).

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

The Pyes on a picnic to the famous Judges' Cave, and Jerry, Rachel and friend and neighbor Dick (he of the great and gigantic dog Duke whose sole trick is scratching his belly in a certain way) conjure up images of a smuggler's cave with (missing) dog Ginger as the thieves' watchdog... except:

"This is not the real cave, is it?" asked Rachel.
"Can't be," said Jerry.
"Must be," said Dick. "Sign says so."
What a cave! Iron fencing all around it, a sign saying to keep out, even barbed wire along the top of the fence. They couldn't see the entrance to the cave. They couldn't tell how deep into the earth and rock it went. They couldn't tell whether this cave was like the cave in Tom Sawyer or what it was like...

"In old times, it was better," said Rachel. "They did not have cages around things."

Some things just aren't as interesting as the story we create around them. I had a similar experience with the Statue of Liberty. I wasn't expected a hollow statue full of smugglers, but I was expecting to be moved by this symbol of liberty and America - and was really sort of bored.

And even in old times, they were were longing for old times.

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

My review from Facebook Visual Bookshelf:

"Why aren't there more books about the Pyes? When I was young (in olden days of yore), Pinky Pye was one of my all time favorite books (it still is). Somehow, I missed Ginger Pye (which is weird - they had to have been right beside one another on the library shelf...). Now, having caught up, I'm almost as impressed. Pinky still has a place in my heart that's near and dear, but Ginger was a sweet book. It's nostalgic (probably not written to be at that time however) and innocent, definitely a slice of time and place perfectly captured."

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

Eleanor Estes is brilliant at drawing characters slowly, sprinkling the story with quirky characteristics. For example, Rachel Pye "had about the best memory of anybody in the whole Pye family. Rachel remembered things that happened before she was two." Jerry, on the other hand, "a lady once asked him what was the first thing he remembered and he said he didn't know he was alive until he was five."

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

I am reading Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes, and it's the perfect Thanksgiving weekend book. Some of the main action is set on Thanksgiving (a rarity in children's books). It's sweetly nostalgic. Interestly, Pinky Pye, the sequel, was one of my top ten favorite books growing up (and maybe of all time) but I don't remember reading Ginger Pye or any other Eleanor Estes books; I'm really not sure why.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had by Andrew Cook (2006)

My review from Facebook's Visual Bookshelf:

"I wondered why I even finished this one; I certainly skimmed quite a bit of the middle (like so many books, it had a promising start). Cook set out to refute other historians' theories that Prince Eddy was Jack the Ripper (or knew him) and/or that Prince Eddy was gay and that Prince Eddy went mad and was locked up until the 1930s, his brother becoming King George V. He succeeded (falteringly, flimsily) in that (although believing all of these stories about Prince Eddy to be true is far more interesting and fun) but the book was just kind of dull. Every once in a while, a tetch of bitchiness would shine through, as when Cook snidely commented on Patricia Cornwell's possession of two letters (supposedly) from Prince Eddy. That was the main issue I had with the book -- is it a respectable scholarly tome or a juicy bitchy tell-all? Sound and fury in the end, that's all."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had by Andrew Cook (2006)

I am reading Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had by Andrew Cook (Tempus, 2006; 0752434101)

..and wondering why I'm even bothering finishing it. It started out really well too, but has devolved into who the hell knows what. Just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. I think I've kept at it so long because I want to see if Cook actually has something interesting or new to say.

His bitchiness towards Patricia Cornwell was kind of funny, intentionally or not: she "mentions two letters (apparently in her possession) from [Prince] Eddy to George Lewis..." Snide icicles are dripping from the word "apparently" here; it sounds like something you would say at a cocktail party behind your hand.

Another interesting point I thought of while reading - unprovoked by anything interesting Cook had to say - was all about the Comte de Paris and his family. His daughter Helene and Prince Eddy were supposedly in love; Cook certainly believes and from this distance and at this time without any evidence to the contrary, who are we to argue (apparently the entire point to this book). Anyway, if the Comte de Paris is the pretender to the French throne, kicked out of France several times (finally for good in the latter part of the 19th century) then where did they get their money. Cook quotes someone about Helene's lifestyle, including growing up with two nurses -- how on earth did this deposed royalty pay for this? Did they escape with jewels hidden in their clothes (and even then, jewels don't buy a whole lifestyle). Banking? Hotels? This was left unanswered, and I'm intrigued.

Lost and Found by Alan Dean Foster (2004)

I read Lost and Found by Alan Dean Foster (Ballatine, 2004; 0345461258).

Here's is my review for Facebook Visual Bookshelf:

What would you do if you were abducted by aliens to be sold as a pet? Foster's story of Marc Walker, captured by aliens, is essentially Escape from Alcatraz set in space (with a little bit of Hogan's Heroes thrown in). Fast paced and funny, this will certainly also make you think about bit about what it is like to be a hamster or a "trained" chimp. I read this in bascially one sitting, could not put it down! Looking forward to book two!

I really did keep thinking about my poor guinea pigs from years ago, forced to subsist on square pellets of food, just like poor Marc Walker! Although Foster did an excellent job of making dogs seem appreciative of human/canine special relationship!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (1951)

I am reading Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (Odyssey/Harcourt Young Class, 0152025057.

In Boston one day, she had an unusual experience. While Papa and Auntie Hoyt waited out of sight somewhere, she had to go by herself into a large room in a department store and listen to someone dressed like Santa Claus read a Christmas story and "Twas the Night Before Christmas. This seemed odd to her for at Thanksgiving time, she was not ready for Santa Claus. In Cranbury they got through the turkeys and the pumpkins and the Pilgrims before they brought out the Santa Clauses. She was quite relieved when the whole occasion was over.

Christmas has always been coming earlier and earlier. This was Rachel Pye's experience in 1951; it could be any department store in Boston in 2009.

Inspired by The Secret Garden

Every now and then
You will realize you are going
To live forever
And ever.
It will happen you make funny faces at a baby
To make her laugh
And see her eyes fill with wonder and joy.
It happens when you paint
Or dance.
Or sing.
It happens when you feed a hungry dog
Or person.
You will realize after you plant a secret garden of flowers
And watch them grow and bloom.
Every now and then
You get up at dawn
And watch the pale sky
Slowly change and flush
From grey to pink to glorious gold
Or you stand in a wood
And listen to the birds sing
And marvel at the mysterious deep stillness
Or you throw your head back
And look at a million stars
Waiting and watching.
Every now and then
You realize you’re going to live
And ever.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bluegate Fields by Anne Perry (1984)

I read Bluegate Fields by Anne Perry.

Here is my review from Facebook Visual Bookshelf:
A disturbing mystery of a "violated" sixteen year old boy found murdered in the sewers below London doesn't tell us enough about homosexuality in Victorian England, other than it was a hidden vice both high and low society considered perverted. A little more depth would have been nice, but mystery-wise it was pretty good and kept me reading until the juicy reveal in the last chapter.

I'm going to read the entire Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mystery series by Anne Perry from beginning to end (well, I actually read the first one about 15 years ago, and the last one last year, so I'm filling in, but in order). I love the intricate social and cultural details about Victorian England that Perry plants throughout each book of this series (prostitutes, duchesses, lords and chambermaids... they are all here). And most of the time, the mystery aspect is damn good - I don't ever want to know whodunnit until the very last page; if I've guessed, I feel proud of myself (unless it's way too obvious) and if I guessed wrong or have no idea, that's even better.

So two things are starting to bug me. The first one isn't such a big deal (yet): those Pitts are prudes. I know, Victorian sexual mores are completely different from our own. But I can't figure out whether Anne Perry's mores are Victorian or 21st century (in the case of these early books, 20th Century). Maybe it doesn't matter; she's writing in the Victorian Age, so she's going to have her characters look, speak, and act like typical Victorians.

Here's the second thing, and it really bugs me. Twice now, her portrayal of gays and lesbians has been, well, negative. Again, Perry is writing novels with a Victorian background, and her characters are going to reflect that background at all times. Gay people couldn't live openly, and so their lives could be pretty bleak. But now ALWAYS bleak -- Oscar Wilde wasn't always bleak (well, perhaps at the end). Gay subculture started in Victorian times. But those chestnuts -- the murderous lesbian, the bitchy, desperately unhappy murderous gay man, have haunted two of her books now, and I'm hoping they don't keep making an appearance. I really enjoy these mysteries -- the setting is one of my favorites and Perry weaves a damn good mystery. But if more evil, black-and-white gays and lesbians play further parts, I'm going to go on to read some other series. I'm not asking for much -- just a some depth, and some gray area please.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Here is my Facebook Visual Bookshelf review of The Secret Garden:

Let's be perfectly honest: thirty years later (with musicals and movies in between), The Secret Garden is still two books. One book - up until "a bit of earth" is full of mystery (What exactly is the secret garden behind the door?) and has a kick butt character (sour Mary Mary Quite Contrary is one of those perfectly... drawn literary characters). But from "Colin" on, it's a second book that's sickly sweet with (ugh) Colin the Rajah and (double ugh) Dickon who I'm sure represents unspoiled nature or something. I still want a white witch or a dragon on a pile of gold or fairies or something exciting in the secret garden. There's barely even a ghost. Still, there is some beauty to be found here (Burnnett writes a few stunningly moving paragraphs here and there). Why did Sophie Dahl get to write the introduction to this?

Sophie Dahl is some relation of Roald Dahl's, and perhaps I'm supposed to be aware of who she is but I'm not. Information on line seems to point to her being a model or actress and maybe a writer of at least one book for children. How this makes her even remotely plausible as a writer of an introduction for The Secret Garden I'm not sure. She did write: "There is an old fashioned tenderness and joy to it; the sense that magic happens if you are observant and quiet and know it will" which is a beautiful statement about the book and a pleasant way to look at life, so she must be alright.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

You said WHAT?

Reading about the early sixties Diem regime in Vietnam was strangely reminiscent of the presidency of Aghani president Hamid Karzai. Corrupt elections, government run for the profit of a few at the expense of many backed by the US government, a popular uprising in the countryside...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

You Said What? Lies and Propaganda Throughout History edited by Bill Fawcett (2007)

I am reading You Said What? Lies and Propaganda Throughout History edited by Bill Fawcett (Harper, 2007; 978-0-06-113050-2).

"Johnson and his advisers never understood that Americans make war by the clock. A president can get two or three years of unconditional public support for a war, but he had to show results to justify sacrifice. A an unending war without results only produces political breakdown." How Not To Sell A War by William Terdoslavich.

That was obviously true about Vietnam, and certainly true about both Iraq Wars. In Iraq War Part I, King George Bush I made it clear to us exactly why we were there (to protect the sovereignty of an ally who had been invaded, Kuwait) and then made it quick (it seemed like we were in AND out like Flynn). The subsequent Clinton era flyovers and bombings seemed like mop ups, not an extension of the war.

But King George II made the mistakes the author talks about above. The reasons we went into Iraq the second time were both confusing and shady, never explained very well, and seemed rammed down the public's throat. Even then, the American public were more supportive than not, until it started to drag on. As the light at the end of the tunnel known as Iraq seemed to get farther away, not closer, public support dwindled and public outcry drowned out any truth or lies the Bush II administration tried to talk about. It probably (although only history will really tell) destroyed the Bush II presidency.

I think the question now is "What about Obama?" Iraq, for now, has slipped off the public radar. Afghanistan looms large (a war that I personally support, although I think it's unwinnable in the sense that we'll change Afghanistan into some sort of America Lite; but if we don't keep the Taliban down, they will attack us again somewhere down the road; but I digress). Both could become issues (out of the blue) for Obama after his first three years. Time will tell.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

"Of course, there must be lots of Magic in the world... but people don't know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen."

Of course, Mary (being quite contrary and my hero) goes on to point out on the next page that Indian fakirs have to "say the words over and over thousands of times." It probably wasn't meant to be contrary -- but it was. It sounds just like something I would say. In other words, even Magic takes work.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

"One of the strange things about living in this world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun-which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes."

I don't really think you'd find this beautifully written expression of religion or philosophy in any of today's literature written for either children or young adults. I think today's plots can be darker and more mature, but I don't books for youth are written at such a sophisticated level anymore. Or if they are, it's much more subtle. It could be a matter of dumbing down, but I think it's more likely a change in taste and writing style.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Alice: Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers (2002)

I read Alice: Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers (St Martin's Press, 2000; 0312288867).

"Alice, Princess of Greece (Prince Philip's mother) was an eccentric who seemed to be on the periphery of great events throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries: the periphery of the British Royal Family (Queen Victoria's great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II's crazy mother in law), the periphery of the Greek Royal Family (almost but never quite ruling Greece), the periphery of both. World Wars and the Cold War. Never a decision maker, never a mover and shaker, but always around for great events. I think that's why the book moved so slowly in parts and was so exciting in other parts; Princess Alice was never in the middle of things, and that's how the book read too." (the review I wrote for Living Social).

The last official photograph of Princess Alice in the book looks exactly like Prince Philip does now.

This famous story about Queen Louise of Sweden -- Princess Alice's sister - always strikes me as sweet and funny: When Queen Louise visited "London, she was inclined to go shopping on her own. Lest she got run over and nobody knew who she was, she placed a card in her handbag, announcing, I am the Queen of Sweden." She sounds like someone I would want to get to know better.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

If only fresh air and beef tea were the cure for everything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

"Don't let us make it tidy... It wouldn't seem like a secret garden if it was tidy."

The opposite of a secret garden must be landscaping - a scrubby tired highway median garden or the sad flowers you find outside a bank. A secret garden is barely tamed, with a touch of wild. Like the sassy talking flowers in Alice in Wonderland or the maze and gardens of Green Knowe.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart

I read Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart ; etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs; drawings by Jonathon Rosen (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009; 9781656126831).

The first Amy Stewart book I read -- I think it was her first book - was From the Ground Up: the Story of a First Garden, which I absolutely adored. I liked it so much, I read it more than once -- and gave it to a gardening friend who doesn't usually read anything but magazines AND HE READ IT. The second Stewart book I read was a natural history of earthworms, and while I don't remember a whole lot about it, I was impressed enough to want to have an earthworm farm (which I do now in the garage). (I didn't even know about her third book, which looks like it's about the cut flower industry; I'm going to give that one at least a try).

So I was looking forward to Wicked Plants, but I was kind of disappointed. It wasn't what I wanted it to be at all. I once read this book called The Red Hourglass by Gordon Grice, which was this magnificent book of essays all about spiders, particularly the poisonous kind. Gruesomely interesting, eloquently written, full of fascinating information delicately doled out like caviar at a wedding reception - it's been my touchstone for books of essays and books of information ever since. Wicked Plants was certainly a book of information, but there wasn't really any kind of narrative theme; it was just a series of short articles on poisonous and wicked plants around the world. It sort of felt like a book of school themes (albeit extremely well written ones). Individually interesting, but more for the information Stewart gathered, not for her writing style --and that disappoints.

Now if I had wanted to murder someone and wanted to use poison found in the back yard a la Agatha Christie, then I think I would have been far more satisfied with Wicked Plants...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

I discovered The Secret Garden in fourth grade. For social studies, we had Mrs. Stoppel, who also taught fifth grade. I remember being in the back row of the class, nearest the classroom collection of books. Mrs. Stoppel's collection was like manna in the desert for me; by this time I had probably gone through everything our small town public & school libraries had to offer. So I used to "steal" books off the fifth grade shelves, and either take them home or read them secretly in class. I didn't steal The Secret Garden and take it home; so I must have read it in class, a page or two at a time, for weeks on end. I never finished it that year; I remember stopping at the part where Mary Lennox explores Misselthwaite Manor on a rainy day, plays with a set of carved ivory elephants, and finds a mouse family burrowed into a chair. Oh, how I wanted my very own set of carved ivory miniature elephants to play with!

I was really into The Chronicles of Narnia at this point, and I'm sure I thought that The Secret Garden was really some sort of Narnia-like world full of friendly fauns who served tea and helped set up fantastic adventures where you ended up being feted as a king at the end.

When I finally got to read beyond the rainy day wanderings of Mary Lennox, what a disappointment! The secret garden was just that, a garden. The cries in the hallway weren't talking beavers or dryads, it was just a stupid little boy (who quite frankly is still not as interesting as Mary Lennox). There wasn't anything magic about the garden, at least the kind of magic I was used to in books. I honestly don't remember finishing the book, and I have no idea when I picked it up again -- but I think I was an adult.

The first chapters of The Secret Garden still hold a nostalgic pull for me that the middle to end does not. Even reading it now, I can remember that sense of wonder and interest I had, reading it (illicitly) the first time. Certainly, as an adult with a love for gardening, I right there with Mary and company, bringing a dead patch back to life. But reading a fourth of it for the first time, 30 years ago, I guess that was magic.

I stopped stealing books off the shelf when I took one home (I don't remember which one), dropped a piece of pizza on it at supper (my parents used to let me read at the table and had no idea that his particular book was ill-gotten), ruined it, burst into tears, and had to admit to my parents and Mrs. Stoppel that I had been stealing books. The gods of books blessed me with an understanding social studies teacher; she forgave me for the pizza stains and said I could freely and openly borrow anything I wanted from her collection. (not as much fun, perhaps -- this is probably when I actually read more of The Secret Garden, but I don't remember).

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

I'm reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with an introduction by Sophie Dahl (Puffin Classics ISBN: 9780141321066).

"It's a secret garden, and I'm the only one in the world who wants it to be alive."

Big contented sigh...

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