Saturday, September 29, 2012

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

This book is a bit of a slog, and I'm not sure the ending is worth the effort.  Like a road trip, there are sights along the way that make the trip worthwhile, but there are also some long stretches that aren't so interesting.  I must admit that I've spent the last week or so concentrating more on why I drive the way I do and looking suspiciously at signs, intersections, bicycles lanes, pedestrians, and all sorts of other interesting and mind-boggling things that tempt us and harass us while we drive.

The book is very Gladwell-esque, without having Gladwell's charm or ability to connect and re-connect.  I probably learned quite a bit about traffic and why we drive the way we do, but if you were to ask me right now to name something... driving is cultural and how we drive depends on where we live.  Except I knew that already.

California roll.  I asked my partner if he'd ever heard of this and what it meant, and right away he said what it was (rolling instead of coming to a complete stop at a stop sign).  He said he heard that how Californian's drove when he lived back east as a child, and that he saw this all the time.  Maybe I just don't pay attention well enough - I haven't seen it.  And I don't do it either.

The Pittsburgh left he had not heard of, and neither had I - and I'm still not sure I completely understand what it is.  That was a repeated problem for me  with this book - Vanderbilt's explanations aren't always very enlightening.  Sometimes I wish I had an illustration of some sort.  It's a rare occasion when I wish books could link to You Tube.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is sort of like a long road trip, like driving from California to someplace back east on I-40.  There are some sights and sites along the way, but there are also some incredibly long stretches of sand.  I will admit that within a day or so of starting the book, I was taking a closer look at my driving and the driving of others, as well as the signs, intersections, bicycle paths, pedestrians and other mind boggling distractions and temptations along any given route.

Vanderbilt strives for the Gladwellian standard of pop nonfiction, I think, but falls just short of the connectivity and re-connectivity of Gladwell's works.  The book has an episodic quality to it that makes some individual chapters far better than others, without making them meet.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Vanity Fair's Tales of Hollywood edited by Graydon Carter (2008)

A collection of Vanity Fair stories about the making of various famous movies.  I  didn't read each and every story in the book; out of 13 stories I read Magnificent Obsession by David Kamp , about Orson Wells and the making of The Magnificent Ambersons which broke him (a movie I haven't seen); Everything About Eve by Sam Staggs, the very, very juicy and terrific behind the scenes look at All About Eve, one of my favorites; When Liz Met Dick by David Kamp, about the debacle of Cleopatra and it's influence on the business of film making and gossip mongering; Here's To You, Mr. Nichols by Sam Kashner, about the making of The Graduate; Producing the Producers by Sam Kashner, about Mel Brooks and the making of the movie of the same name (Mel Brooks sounds like a jerk); Swinging the Disaster by Steven Daly about the "disasterpiece" Myra Breckinridge (which also contained the phrase "sexual triumphalism" to describe sexpot Raquel Welch), and Fever Pitch by Sam Kashner about how groundbreaking Saturday Night Fever was and how cool John Travolta was in the seventies; he sure doesn't seem all that cool now.

Vanity Fair's Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds, and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind theMaking of 13 Iconic FilmsVanity Fair's Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds, and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind theMaking of 13 Iconic Films by Graydon Carter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A collection of stories previously published in Vanity Fair about the making of some famous - and infamous - movies.  I have to admit, because I hadn't seen all the movies written about in the book, I didn't read each article.  This a quick, light read, of particular interest if you've seen one or more of the movies and what some (often juicy) background and behind the scenes.  The best in the book probably depends on which movies you like or dislike; I thought the story about Saturday Night Fever was particularly good, and the story about All About Eve really juicy.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis ; illustrated by Pauline Baynes (1955)

Polly and Digory

The Magician's Nephew isn't my favorite Narnia book (I love The Horse and His Boy, which most people don't) but it's certainly not my least favorite (like most people, I dislike The Last Battle).  What I appreciate about it now is how it pays homage to E. Nesbit.  C.S. Lewis is never as sharp or trenchant (occasionally that is) as Nesbit, but his writing style is remarkably similar.  He always understands how boys and girls think (no blubbing, for example).  He mixes boys and girls together in realistic ways.  Some of the roles he gives them are traditionalist and sexist, yes, but he was writing in the 1950s.  Even so, Polly is a strong heroine, brave, not foolish, the voice of reason (certainly no Eve to Digory's Adam).  She's much like Lewis's other female protagonists - Lucy, Jill, Aravis.  She - and the rest of the Narnia Daughters of Eve - are much like Nesbit's Bastable girls (and the Sons of Adam are like the Bastable boys).  If you compare all the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve that appear in the Narnia books - Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy; Eustace and Jill; Polly and Digory - Lewis, a man, writes more beloved female characters than male.  Nesbit, a female, at least in the Bastables has more clearcut male characters, with Oswald being the primary mover and shaker and the favorite.

The White Witch, on the other hand, is one of the best female antagonists ever written in the world of fantasy; I haven't yet read all of Nesbit's works, but I can't imagine a better character than the White Witch. From reading about Nesbit, I understand that Lewis again paid homage to Nesbit and a Babylonian queen the Five Children and It called up from the past to storm through London, but I haven't read that Nesbit work.

The Christian imagery / allegory (or whatever you want to call it) is most annoying in The Last Battle, but it's really annoying in The Magician's Nephew too.  It's hardly in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at all; bits and pieces in the rest up until The Magician's Nephew - and then for the last fourth of the book, we are hit over the head with it.  The London scenes and the Charn scenes are far more interesting than the creation of Narnia scenes.   I don't think as a kid I was all that interested in Charn, but as a grown up, I wanted to know more about the history of Charn and the Deplorable Word (which is some sort of standin for nuclear weaponry - it's the fifties, after all).

I have to stop myself from saying or writing "dem fine woman" because I'm sure no one knows where it comes from.  And "gel."

Aunt Letty is a Nesbit-ian character too.  One of the very best scenes in the book was Aunt Letty vs. Empress Jadis.  "Get out of this house this moment, you shameless hussy... I thought as much.  The woman is drunk.  Drunk!  She can't even speak clearly."  Similarly to Nesbit, I don't think a modern book for kids would have a woman shouting about another woman being drunk - or the nickname Brandy for another character based on a word he keeps muttering.  Which is probably why books like Narnia remain popular - they aren't sanitized, so they remain fun to read for kids without being too heavy.

Narnia Gay Scene:  Mature Daddy Satyr,
Drag Queen, Twink Faun, random dwarf and others
(I want to admit something secretly here - I always had crushes on Pauline Bayne's satyrs and fauns.  They are so twinky).

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Magician's Nephew isn't my least favorite Narnia book (that would be The Last Battle) and it isn't my favorite (that would The Horse and His Boy).  What's weirdest about Nephew is that the best scenes in the book (at least from my jaded adult viewpoint) are the London scenes and the Charn scenes.  I suppose when I was a kid, the (almost cutesy) Narnia scenes were what I dug, but as a grown up, Aunt Letty calling the Empress a drunk and a hussy was pretty funny, while Charn and the Deplorable Word was frightening and interesting.  Polly is a strong, sensible and courageous classically Lewis heroine; both children have been painted with the E. Nesbit brush as well.  The Christian allegory isn't as heavy handed as the (deplorable?) Last Battle but it does hit you over the head several times (like a broken off bar of a lamppost).  One thing never changes from Narnia book to Narnia book - Aslan.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Bastables by E. Nesbit

The Bastables includes The Story of the Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods, the first stories in the (true) trilogy of the large, accident and incident prone Bastable tribe.  There is a really great introduction by Noel Streatfeild, which gives some interesting background and tidbits about the Bastables - but not much about E. Nesbit, whose private life was probably too spicy to write much about.  With her "throuple" relationship and leftist leanings, she's definitely all intelligentsia.

The Railway Children is one of my favorite books (and films too, the BBC version at least), although I discovered it late in life.  I also have read and enjoyed Five Children and It.  I never went any farther in that series.

I didn't like the Bastables as well as the Railway Children, but The Story of the Treasure Seekers is a brilliant book, perhaps the first truly modern children's book.  If you gave the Bastables modern clothes and appliances, you wouldn't have to change much about their language or their scrapes.  E. Nesbit was a very modern writer.  If she is one of the grandmothers of modern fantasy for children, she's certainly the grandmother of Judy Blume's Fudge or The Penderwicks.

She was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and his style reflects her style, mostly in The Magician's Nephew (where the Bastables get a shout out) but in all the other Narnia books as well.

Gore Vidal said that she has a "witty and intelligent prose style."  Her writing is fantastically sharp, incisive, stringent.  She's Dorothy Parker for the tween set.  Some of her stories could have appeared in The New Yorker, particularly the very funny story "Castilian Amoroso" where they try to sell booze to the tee-totaling clergyman and his wife.

The Bastable stories were clearly written in a far more politically incorrect time.  In addition to the word "nigger" which appears not once but twice - which is NOT humorous - the Bastables sell rum, open a bar, and buy and shoot a gun (which kills a fox).  In one very scary chapter, they are trapped by a tramp in a tower; this is not necessarily a scene which I think would appear in any children's book today, at least those written for tweens, which I assume was the audience (although it didn't even exist back then as audience).

There is always seems to be children who are the yin to the Bastable's yang, and not just Albert next-door (speaking of which, there is always an Albert next-door living next door to every child with an imagination; the lump of a child who can't imagine themselves out of a wet paper sack and just dull; the ones who only know how to play sports but nothing else).  Two little girls in each story stand out in my mind - the princess from The Treasureseekers and the little girl from the circus chapter (another really good one) who wishes she could go play with them.

I love the evolution of Denny Faulks to the Dentist; I think this shows again how modern this writing actually is, and also how much Nesbit understands children.

Although I enjoyed The Wouldbegoods, I did think it was a bit weaker than The Treasureseekers; both are really just episodes strung together, without much plot.

Nesbit could have created these godawful onery terrible horrible children without any redeeming qualities for shits and giggles, but the Bastables are really good inside, and Nesbit writes them as such.  You like them, even if they are horribly bratty and cause so much trouble.  Mrs. Pettygrew cries when they leave at the end of The Wouldbegoods, even though you know they've caused her a world of trouble, and you understand why - because for all of that trouble caused, they are good, honest, fair, loyal kids.

If only this were a 21st century book for grownups - Albert's Uncle and Father Bastable would get together.  That doesn't happen, but I certainly had a crush on Albert's Uncle by the end of the books.

I loved the references to The Jungle Books, which at that point weren't all that old.  I read somewhere else that Kipling loved Nesbit, and she clearly loved Kipling and understood the imaginative appeal of Mowgli and company.

The Wouldbegoods (Bastable Children, #2)The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a volume that included both  The Story of the Treasure Seekers and  The Wouldbegoods with an incredible introduction by Noel Streatfeild - if you can find this volume, do read it.  I come to Nesbit quite late in life - she wasn't an author I enjoyed as a child.   She's a very modern writer - she's certainly the grandmother of modern fantasy for children with books like  Five Children and It.  The Bastable stories are ancestors to Judy Blume's Fudge books and  The Penderwicks The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.  You can certainly tell that C.S. Lewis was a devotee of her works; The Bastables and Pevensies might as well have lived down the street from one another (and, as  The Magician's Nephew begins, Polly and Digory did live at the same time.   Treasureseekers is a bit better book than  Wouldbegoods but both are sharp as a knife and incredibly funny.  Nesbit's characters differ from modern kids in dress and slang, but for all intents and purposes they could easily fit in among today's literary kids (and surpass almost all of them in wit, knowledge, imagination and creative play).  The books are essentially humorous episodes - although a few are quite scary.  They are NOT politically correct in the least.  In the version I read, the children casually use the "n-word" at least twice.  They also try to sell sherry to a tee-totaling clergyman and his wife (my favorite story in the bunch), purchase and shoot a real gun, open a roadside bar... There is one chapter in which a tramp holds them hostage in a tower, which is terrifying.  You won't find ANY of these kinds on shenanigans going on in modern books written for children; I don't know whether this is a shame or not, but certainly modern kids don't have the opportunity to find trouble like the Bastables.  That's the sad thing.  The Bastables were bad kids, but they also had hearts of gold.  Loyal, courageous, literal, patriotic, loving, well intentioned. At the end of  The Wouldbegoods , Mrs. Pettigrew - who they gave no end of trouble to throughout the book, cries when they leave, and you totally understand why.  Nesbit is a genius, the first really modern writer for children, and it's this genius that creates these noble scamps who are both horrid and beloved at the same time.  Three cheers for the Bastables!

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003)

Reading Tom Holland's Rubicon was sort of like having friends over for dinner, and then having someone describe the dinner party after watching it through the window - another perspective on people who are essentially a blank slate.  Holland himself writes right off the bat that "one day perhaps, when the records of the twentieth century AD have grown as fragmentary as those of Rome, a history of the second world war will be written that relies solely upon the broadcasts of Hitler and the memoirs of Churchill."  Or, quoting Shakespeare, "There is no tiddle taddle nor pibble pabble in Pompey's camp."

Not that you'd want these brutal, drunk with power politicians / generals to come over for dinner anyway.  But I'm not sure I'd want to host any current politicians or generals at my house either.

Does a history of Rome reflect historical and current American choices because of the historian's perspective or are we an heir of Rome?

Tuhurahura and the Whale by Anne Rockwell (1971)

I am going to assume that once upon a time, we owned this book, and that it was part of the Parents Magazine Press book of the month club.  I remember this book really, really well.  But the copy that I own is a used copy I bought somewhere - probably off Ebay or Amazon.  In pondering what I remember about this book, I think what struck me the most is that it's really, really scary. Maybe not so scary now - but I think for a kid with a vivid imagination, it's probably still frightening.

The story is based on Maori folklore, something I didn't know as a kid but know now.  Rockwell writes in a small preface that she based the story on several different legends.  She also surmises that because there are several legends including tame sperm whales that there may be some truth in history that the Maori tamed whales - certainly the movie Whale-rider seems to imply this.

The story, in a nutshell:  Tuhurahura (how on earth I even pronounced this as a six or seven year old reader, I have no idea; that's the glory and fun of reading and our brains, right?  What we don't know, we just fill in).  was the best swimmer and diver in the village. He also cut down a tree and carved a kick-ass canoe out of it. Kiki, a powerful sorcerer, claimed this tree as his own, and he was pissed about this.  So "he disguised himself as a boy" and planned "a wicked plot" against Tuhurahura. When Tuhurahura was ready to launch his canoe, Kiki ran up and asked if he could join along.  Kiki "pretended to be friendly and cheerful, but all the while he paddled he was secretly plotting against Tuhurahura."  They paddled far out to sea, then stopped, and dropped their fishing lines.  Kiki made up a story about his fishing line being caught to get Tuhurahura to dive off the boat, and when he did, Kiki paddled away.  Tuhurahura was farther out to sea than he'd ever been before, and couldn't swim back before the sun set.  Night fell, and he was so tired that he stopped swimming and sank into the water.  He sank farther and farther into the deep - but suddenly a sperm whale appeared and brought him back to the surface.  The sperm whale, named Tutanai, can communicate with humans and says to Tuhurahura that "this deep... is no place for a boy like you" and he races towards Tuhurahura's home as fast as he could go.  It takes three days to return.  (along the way, there is this terrific illustration of "sharp teethed sharks" that Tutanai scolds; I imagine there is more to this part of the story than that simple line). Tutanai teaches Tuhurahura a song that whales sing when they are happy.  They finally catch up to Kiki, who is spotted paddling in the far horizon.  As they come closer to Kiki, they find that he's caught in the "whirlpool that lies at the end of the world."  Tutanai explains that not even the powerful magic of Kiki could save the sorcerer from the whirlpool.  "Round and round the sorcerer paddled in the dizzying water, singing an angry song about Tuhurahura."  Tuhurahura arrives home at last, and Tutanai's last words to the boy are "Wherever I am in the sea, whenever you whistle for me, I will come."  And ever after, whenever Tuhurahura whistled, the whale would appear, and Tuhurahura would fly kites off the whale's back.  "But the wicked Kiki never came back to the forest.  To this very day he spins round and round in the dizzying whirlpool at the world's end."

What I remember most about this story is how much I liked it and also how frightening it was.  Reading it again with fresh eyes, it's even scarier.  It's almost a horror story - but then folklore has that horror element more often than not (Hansel and Gretel, for example).  Let's break this down.

The first picture of Kiki, with his sour, evil glare and his tattooed face - pretty dang scary.  You would not want to meet this man on a dark street.  It's also obvious - and here Rockwell's terrific illustrations really start doing the trick - that he's not someone you should cross, even accidentally.

Then there is whole idea that someone can inadvertently piss someone off,  without meaning to, so much that they want to plot your death - that's scary.

And then Kiki disguises himself as a boy - which could mean that everyone is an evil sorcerer in disguise - no one can be trusted.

Then Kiki tricks Tuhurahura and paddles away, leaving him stranded in the middle of an ocean filled with sharks - which we know are there, because they appear later (luckily at that point the whale is around to chase them off).  That's an actual horror movie (Open Water), plus a Lifetime movie where a (pretty scary, although the illustrations are almost comic).

Then the whirlpool.  Look at Kiki's face - even though he's still a boy, his evil ways are showing on his face.  He looks possessed. And he's stuck in the whirlpool until the end of time.  The illustration of the whirlpool makes it appear infinite as well, and he's also going to go round and round and down and down for ever and ever.  That's a horror story.  And he's "singing an angry song about Tuhurahura."  Not only is the whirlpool scary, but Kiki's grudge is just as awful and scary.  He's going to be mad at Tuhurahura for all eternity, and he's going to be stuck there, paddling and paddling, never stopping, disguised as a boy.  This is  not the Christian version of Hell - it's more like the Greco-Roman version, with Kiki joining the eternally punished like Sisyphus and Tantalus.

In between this Maori horror story there are some real life lessons.

Some things - like trees - belong to other people, and they can get mad if you chop them down.  Ask first.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Friendship can appear in strange places and then last forever.  Of course, these two cancel each other out - because Tuhurahura both trusted Kiki, who betrayed him and the whale, who did not.

Tuhurahura and the Whale by Anne F. Rockwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A little known gem from the world of folklore, this time from Maori tradition.  Rockwell's story is great, short but exciting, and makes a great read aloud.  Her illustrations are excellent.  Like many stories from the world of folklore and fairy tale, this has enough horror elements to give kids (and adults) plenty to be both scared about and to think about.  Kiki, the sorcerer, is frightening from beginning to end, and my own personal yet irrational fear of the ocean may perhaps stem from this book, with it's sharks and infinite whirlpools at the world's end.  This needs to be back in print - (and could even make a good animated film).

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gore Vidal Quote

"I do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society's intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read."

Gore Vidal

E. Nesbit's Magic." The New York Review of Books (3 Dec. 1964). Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sep. 2012.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

I just finished Oliver Twist a few minutes ago.  It's very densely packed, full of characters and a meandering but exciting plot.  I want to get the plot down on "paper" before it all goes away.


Agnes.  Oliver's mother, dies having Oliver.
Oliver Twist.  Our hero.  A cypher for all that's wrong with England during the 1830s and 1840s.  Blonde, innocent, toph accent.  Big blue eyes.  A little angel.
Mrs. Mann.  Later Mrs. Bumble.  Takes care of Oliver in his youth.  Conniving and false.
Mr. Bumble.  The beadle.  Parochial.  Has a little bit of heart, but not much.
The gentleman in the white waistcoat.  The worst of the board.  Hates the poor.  Very, very libertarian.  Probably a tea partier.
Mr. Sowerberry.  Kind but henpecked Undertaker.
Mrs. Sowerberry. Hen that pecks her husband.  Hates Oliver.
Noah Claypoole.  Sowerberry's apprentice.  Jealous of Oliver.
Charlotte.  The Sowerberry's servant, who is also Noah's girlfriend.  Hates Oliver.
Jack Dawkins.  The Artful Dodger.  Child pickpocket.
Charley Bates.  Clownish child pickpocket
Fagin.  A Jewish fence, king of thieves.  Runs a robbery racket.
Nancy.  A hooker with a heart of gold. Desperately in love with
Bill Sikes.  A brutish criminal. Who is even mean to dogs.
Mr. Brownlow.  A kind gentleman.
Mrs. Bedwin.  His cook, who loves Oliver.
Mr. Grimwig. Mr. Brownlow's friend, who doesn't trust Oliver.
Mr. Monks.  Oliver's secret half brother who is working with Fagin and Sikes to get rid of Oliver.
Mr. Giles.  Butler who shoots Oliver.
Dr. Losberne.  Kind bachelor doctor who takes care of the injured Oliver.
Mrs. Maylie.  Kind old lady.
Rose.  Her ward.
Harry Maylie.  Her son, who is in love with Rose.

A woman gives birth to an illegitimate child (we find out later that her name is Agnes; we may have known that from the very beginning, but if we did, I've forgotten; it's a densely packed book).  The nurse knows something important about this woman; we find that out later.

The boy is named Oliver Twist by the Mr. Bumble, a beadle, who wears a cocked hat and is "parochial."  He's a petty tyrant.  Oliver gets put in a "baby farm" (I looked this up on Wikipedia) run by Mrs. Mann, who is conniving and keeps her charges barely fed.  He then goes to a workhouse, where he utters his most famous line,  "Please, sir, I want some more."  The poor asking for more means revolution and rebellion, and the authorities won't let that happen.  He goes before the workhouse board, who are all fatcats.  They first try to sell him to a chimney sweep, but Oliver starts to cry, and one of the board takes pity on him.  He is then sold, by Mr. Bumble, to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker.

Mr. Sowerberry is a nice guy, and takes pity on Oliver.  He decides to make Oliver one of the chief mourners for the funeral processions of small children, because Oliver looks to beautiful and forlorn.  Mrs. Sowerberry, however, takes an instant disliking to Oliver.  So too does Noah Claypoole, the Sowerberry's sour assistant, and Charlotte, their female servant.  Noah and Charlotte are sweet one another.  Noah says something mean about Oliver's mother, and Oliver attacks Noah.  Mrs. Sowerberry, Noah and Charlotte convince Mr. Sowerberry to send Oliver back to the workhouse.  But Oliver runs away.  Noah and Charlotte will come back to haunt Oliver later.

Oliver walks to London.  In Dickensian London, it is always foggy or raining, everything is busy and muddy, and there are many streets.   Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, also known as the Artful Dodger, who wears a top hat, and is a pickpocket.  Like that episode of The Facts of Life where Tootie gets lost in New York City and ends up almost becoming a prostitute, the Artful befriends Oliver and takes him back to a den of thieves run by Fagin, a Jew.  He also meets Charley Bates, another young thief who is a clown of sorts.  Oliver, being simple and rustic and innocent (again, like Tootie - I guess workhouses are like upstate New York private girls schools) has no idea at they are all thieves.  Fagin teaches Oliver a game of picking pockets, but Oliver doesn't realize they are stealing.  The boys gang steals handkerchiefs (and I supposed whatever else they can steal).  Oliver is sent out with the Artful and Charley Bates, and is aghast to see them steal from a wealthy gentleman.  The wealthy gentleman, however, thinks the thief is Oliver, and a chase ensues.  The Artful and Charley Bates pretend to be in on the chase, when in actuality they should have been the hares, which I thought was a clever scene.  

So Oliver gets caught and sent to court. The judge is a bloviating old fool who hardly knows what is going on - possibly meant to be a typical judge of the time. However, before Oliver can be formally charged, a bookseller comes to court and says that Oliver can't possibly be the criminal, because he saw the other two boys do it.  Mr. Brownlow, the name of the gentleman, takes pity on Oliver and has him come live with him.  Oliver is sick too - did I mention that?  Very ill.  Brownlow and his cook Mrs. Bedwin take care of Oliver, and basically adopt him.  Mr. Brownlow's friend Mr. Grimwig (his very good friend, I suppose), doesn't trust Oliver.

Meanwhile back at the den of thieves, Fagin is worried that Oliver knows all of their secrets.  He sends Nancy, a hooker with a heart of gold, to spy on Oliver, and she comes back saying to leave him alone.  But Bill Sikes, Fagin's brutish associate)  and Fagin aren't so sure, so they plan on kidnapping Oliver.  When Oliver is out running an errand for Mr. Brownlow, they nab him and keep him prisoner.  Oliver is incredibly upset, because he's afraid - rightly so - that the kind Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin will be proved wrong and Mr. Grimwig will be proved right, that he's a bad one.

Sikes and Fagin decide to make Oliver into their crime boy.  Sikes take Oliver with him and another man (I can't remember his name) out to rob a house in the country.  They force Oliver in through a broken window, I suppose to open the door and let them in.  But Oliver is discovered and shot by Mr. Giles, the butler.  Grimes takes Oliver upstairs, where he is tended to by a kind doctor, Mr. Losberne, a kind elderly lady, Mrs. Maylie, and what I thought was her daughter but ended up being some sort of ward, Rose.  The three of them convince the authorities that Oliver can't possibly be a criminal, and decide to adopt and take care of him.

The waters are muddled here, as the plot veers off into some delicious melodrama.  Mrs. Maylie's son Harry is in love with Rose, but she won't marry him (I never could figure out why, but there must have been some reason).  

Then there is this guy, Mr. Monks, who works with Fagin and Bill Sikes to kill Oliver.  Monks also meets with Bumble and Mrs. Mann, who is now Mrs. Bumble.  Mrs. Bumble attended the death of the nurse who tended Oliver's mother when she died, and the nurse gave Mrs. Bumble a receipt for which she can go get back a locket and ring that belonged to Oliver's mother, which proves something valuable.  Monks convinces Mr. and Mrs. Bumble to sell the locket and ring to him, and then he dumps them in the river, because (as we find out later) that will prove that Oliver is his illegitimate half brother and I supposed an heir he wants kept secret.

Nancy hears all of this and feels sorry for Oliver, so she decides to tell Rose Maylie about this.  Later, she agrees to meet Rose and Mr. Brownlow at London Bridge (how delicious, huh?!) at midnight but... I told you this was muddled and dense... Noah Claypoole and Charlotte have stolen all the money from the Sowerberry's till and run off together to London, where they plan on living as criminals.  They of course meet up and fall in with Fagin and company, and Fagin sends Noah to spy on Nancy.  Even though Nancy isn't really betraying Sikes or Fagin, just Monks, Noah implicates Nancy.

Bill Sikes beats Nancy to death in a really awful, gruesome scene.  He then is tormented by her memory, particularly her dying eyes, which seem to be watching him everywhere he goes.  He's wanted for murder, and can't redeem himself (even though he tries) and ends up being trapped by a murderous crowd intent on his death for so brutally murdering Nancy.  He tries to flee by tying a rope around himself to jump down from a building, but instead accidentally hangs himself.

Monks, meanwhile, admits everything.  I never could figure out why.  There wasn't any real evidence.  But oh well, it makes a great story.  Turns out that Monks's father, was best friends with Mr. Brownlow.  Monks (real name Edward Leeford) was having an affair with Oliver's mother Agnes.  He was willing to take care of Oliver, but couldn't find him again (I guess).

Not only that, but Agnes, Oliver's mother, had a sister who had a daughter - and that daughter was Rose!!!  That makes Rose and Oliver cousins, I think, although Oliver kept calling her sister.

Fagin ends up getting caught and hung, but reveals where he hid the evidence to prove that Oliver was for real Monks's brother, although why that wasn't destroyed, who knows.  One mustn't think too much about this.

So's all is well that ends well.  Brownlow formally adopts Oliver.  Rose marries Harry, who is a curate or something like that.  Charley Bates is redeemed.  Sikes's dog dies, which seems unfair.  Mr. and Mrs. Bumble end up in the very workhouse they used to run.  Neat as a pin at end, I guess.


I decided to read some Dickens this year, in honor of Charles Dickens 200th birthday (last February, actually - I'm behind).  Prior to this, I'd read three other works by Dickens.  The Sigmalman, a ghost story (I noted after reading this that The Sigmalman "made me want to read more Dickens"); A Christmas Carol (which I read a few years ago, before I started keeping this blog, at Christmas); and Hard Times (in college, for some English literature class, and which I don't remember fondly, but I don't remember much I read from school all that fondly, which is a pity, because now I'd give anything to read and discuss something meaty with a group).  I chose two initial books to read:  Great Expectations (because I read the "Comic Book Classic" version of this in sixth grade and wanted to see how much I remembered) and Oliver Twist (because I like the music from the musical).  Even though I liked The Signalman, even though I like A Christmas Carol, I was still expecting Oliver Twist to be drudgery like I remember Hard Times being. Damme (to quote Bill Sikes) was I wrong!  Oliver Twist was a delightfully exciting, sometimes funny, incredibly sad.  I assume because it was originally serialized, the chapters both contain plenty of lip biting cliff hangers and some handy dandy recaps. The language, far from being flowery or overly stilted, or - let's be honest here - hard to understand -- was actually pretty straightforward, and more easily understood than much modern literature.  If you google 100 best novels of all time, it's certainly not on the list - but everyone knows at least something about Oliver Twist; it's part of the English speaking (and perhaps beyond?) psyche at this point.  "Please, sir, I want some more..." is probably being uttered ironically even as I type this.  The ultimate in orphan stories - Annie probably owes more than a little to Oliver Twist, as does Frances Hodgeson Burnett - and Lemony Snickett.  I'd always had in my head that Oliver Twist was a story for kids too, I guess because the main character is a child.  Far from it - this is a dark, deep, heady brew.  We may take joy in watching the Artful Dodger and his chums sing and dance in the movie, but the book can be sinister.  The boys are all thieves who drink, smoke and gamble.  Fagin, far from being a clown or trickster character full of mischief (or even a Fiddler On the Roof type of character) is a rather a unpropitious and malignant character without any redeeming qualities that I can remember.  Nancy is that stock "hooker with a heart of gold" character, certainly not the first in literature (would that be Mary Magdalene?), but the fact that she's a hooker at all adds an adult component to the book.  Bill Sikes is a horrid brute, and -- spoiler alert - when he beats Nancy to death, it's one of the most horrible and gruesome scenes in the book (in any book, in my opinion).  This isn't Mary Poppins's London - this isn't even Bert the Chimney Sweep's London.  Dicken's London - at least in Oliver Twist - is always drab, always wet or cold, always dirty, muddy, mucky, smoky.  Always full of dark, twisted streets where criminals lurk, waiting to pick your pocket.  It was intoxicating stuff reading it in the 21st century; I can only imagine what it was like in 1838.  It must have been wonderful!  Just think, you are a reader in 1838, you receive this new book called Oliver Twist, you've never heard a thing about it (unlike us, who all know at least a little bit of the plot).  What must that have been like!

Oliver TwistOliver Twist by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you've never read Oliver Twist before (as I hadn't) everyone still probably knows at least a little bit about the novel.  The orphaned boy, the den of thieves, the Artful Dodger in his top hat, dirty, dank, dark, London...  probably somewhere, at this very moment, someone is sitting at a dinner table saying ironically "Please sir, I want some more."  There's a reason for this - Oliver Twist is a really exciting book.  That Dickens knows how to write!  Okay, so the plot can be a bit muddled and convoluted, and there are some twists and turns that seem improbable at best.  But with characters like Nancy, Bill Sikes, and delightfully evil Fagin - who cares!  2012 is Charles Dickens's bicentennial year, and there is no better book to read to honor him than Oliver Twist.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Cookie Tree by Jay Williams ; illustrated by Blake Hampton (1967)

Note the Parents Magazine
I think this book was in my childhood library.

Lang Memorial Library, named after some distant Mr. Lang, smelled of old musty books - which is one of my most favorite smells (look that up on Google and see how many hits you get - I'm not alone).  Here are some pictures of Lang Memorial Library.

Children's room at Lang Memorial Library, Wilson, Kansas
The library seemed so big when I
was a little kid.  Now it seems to
small. Mrs. Margaret Stadelman was
the librarian.
They added a book drop.  Other than that, still looks
the same.

It smelled the same too - old books.  One of my
favorite smells.

The outside still looks the same.
The Cookie Tree was what I call a classic fantasy story, in this case dressed up as a picture book.  It's sort of a forgettable story, so I'm not sure why I remembered it so fondly.  Maybe it was read aloud to me in some storytime and then we were served cookie.  Maybe it's because cookies are my favorite dessert, and a tree made of cookies would be awesome.  (not so awesome - the tree disappears at the end).  Maybe it reminded me of Narnia and The Magician's Nephew, where things like toffee grow into toffee trees (one of my other most favorite desserts, by the way).  

Sort of  surprise to me - this was another one of those Parents Magazine Press books, so maybe we actually owned the book, and I didn't get it from the library. But I remember checking it out and taking it home at some point.  Of course, my memory is like my Grandma Thrasher's quilt at this point. Some pieces of the quilt are the same bright colors as they were 30 years ago, some pieces are faded away, and some pieces completely gone.

I remembered nothing about this story, except the title.

I'm sure this was meant as some sort of fable.  Owlgate is a place where nothing ever happened, and that was how everyone liked it. Until the cookie tree grew one day, and everyone was all aflutter as to what it was and what to do with it.  The kids of the town knew though - they ate the whole damn thing behind their parents back.  If a story has to have a moral or a point, maybe that's it - while your parents are all gabbing and arguing and worrying, you need to just act.

And that some things that seem dangerous are actually good.  Like marijuana (this was written in 1967, wasn't it).

These could be neighbors.
The pictures in this are so utterly forgettable, but I did like the one of the three grumpy townspeople. 
I don't think I really have anything profound to say about this book. Unlike my beloved collection I've lovingly saved over the years of books that made me who I am, this one was a blip.  A strange little blip that only the title stuck, and nothing else.

The Cookie TreeThe Cookie Tree by Jay Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember this book being in the collection of my childhood public library (Lang Memorial Library, Wilson, Kansas - one of those beloved tiny libraries that hold the entire world for a small child in a small town). Other than the title and the cover art, nothing in The Cookie Tree was something I remembered, and now I know why. It's mostly a throw away story, nothing profound or even all that interesting.  A cookie tree appears one day in the  middle of some vaguely Ruritanian city; while the grumpy suspicious townspeople bloviate and debate over what to do with it, the children of the town eat the whole thing behind their backs.  A cute story, I guess, but nothing much there to write home about.

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