Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Old Granny Fox by Thornton Burgess (1920)

I still have the pink set of Thornton W. Burgess Bedtime Story Books (although Old Granny Fox was green, and Longlegs the Heron was purple; I don't know why).  They are beloved to me.  I don't remember my parents reading aloud to us very often; they may have done so that I've forgotten about.  But I do remember my dad reading Thornton W. Burgess to us; I think this was an author from his childhood that he shared with us.  I sort of remember Old Granny Fox  and Reddy Fox being favorites of mine.  Old Granny Fox is occasionally preachy and pedantic, but more in a slightly annoying way than detracting in any way from the book; it's full of little moralistic asides in the form of homilies from wise old Granny such as "You'll find as on through life you go / The thing you want may prove to be / The very thing you shouldn't have / Then seeming loss is gain, you see." and "A boasting tongue, as sure as fate / Will trip its owner soon or late" (which is true).  Burgess is clear about how Nature works; animals eat one another, Winter is a time of starvation.  Granny and Reddy steal and eat some chickens in one chapter, and here is how he describes it:

CHAPTER XXV: A Dinner For Two    Dark deeds are done in the stilly night,
   And who shall say if they're wrong or right?     —Old Granny Fox.
"It all depends on how you look at things. Of course, Granny and Reddy Fox had no business to be in Farmer Brown's henhouse in the middle of the night, or at any other time, for that matter. That is, they had no business to be there, as Farmer Brown would look at the matter. He would have called them two red thieves. Perhaps that is just what they were. But looking at the matter as they did, I am not so sure about it. To Granny and Reddy Fox those hens were simply big, rather stupid birds, splendid eating if they could be caught, and bound to be eaten by somebody. The fact that they were in Farmer Brown's henhouse didn't make them his any more than the fact that Mrs. Grouse was in a part of the Green Forest owned by Farmer Brown made her his.
You see, among the little meadow and forest people there is no such thing as property rights, excepting in the matter of storehouses, and because these hens were alive, it didn't occur to Granny and Reddy that the henhouse was a sort of storehouse. It would have made no difference if it had. Among the little people it is considered quite right to help yourself from another's storehouse if you are smart enough to find it and really need the food.
Besides, Reddy and Granny knew that Fanner Brown and his boy would eat some of those hens themselves, and they didn't begin to need them as Reddy and Granny did. So as they looked at the matter, there was nothing wrong in being in that henhouse in the middle of the night. They were there simply because they needed food very, very much, and food was there."

She then wrings the neck of several hens, although Burgess doesn't describe that in detail.  But you know those chickens are dead.  

I like this about Thornton Burgess.  His books have the same flavor as Bambi or Watership Down, but a much lighter tone. But there is still that whole idea of ecology and nature being red in tooth and claw.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some of my childhood favorites were the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess.  I remember that Granny Fox and Reddy Fox were two of my favorite characters (I also liked Billy Possum and Jimmy Skunk, and Old Mr. Toad).  They are a big moralistic and pedantic; Old Granny Fox has morals about good living as well; she's full of homilies.  But they are still strong, simple animal stories, a lighter version of Bambi or the child that grows into Watership Down.   Burgess also has an ecological heart; he's very much of the Theodore Roosevelt school of hunting and wilderness ecology.  Old Granny Fox is definitely not for every child, but I still think there is value is these old fashioned books.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

How did I ever miss reading this growing up?  At some point, in high school, I think my senior year, I picked up Gone With the Wind  and missed To Kill a Mockingbird.  That seems almost like a crime against, I don't know - a crime against literature, a crime against personal growth through literature.  I missed reading Catcher in the Rye, and I missed To Kill a Mockingbird.  I finished it Saturday, and bawled and bawled like a baby calf, big old tear drops running down my cheeks.  

I can't imagine writing anything original about this.  So just, it was beautifully written, the plot was amazing, and the end, oh the end, was wonderful.  Moving, poignant, funny.  Sad.  Happy.  Exquisite.  
I thought this line was particularly beautiful, and stuck in my head:  "Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A big, fat, tear soaked YES to this magnificent piece of literature.  This wasn't required reading in my junior high or high school, so I missed reading it in my formative years. I was enchanted as an adult, which makes me wonder how I would have reacted as a fourteen or seventeen year old.  I can't add anything of worth to the discussion of this book; I would imagine that there are enough term papers written about the novel to stretch to the moon and back, and probably too many comments on the web and blog after blog.  I bawled like a baby calf at the end; I cried so much my eyes hurt.  That's a damngood book.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Chrisitie (1928)

I believe The Mystery of the Blue Train is the ninth publish Agatha Christie; it's certainly the ninth I've read in my quest to chronologically read Dame Agatha.  It's the first I've read that felt like a Christie though, the Christies I know are coming in this quest.  It's Murder of the Orient Express lite, with a varied cast of characters, and red herrings galore.  There are the prerequisite twists and turns that Agatha Christie is known for.  Hercule Poirot stands alone, which is good.  He doesn't need a Hastings in the manner of Watson (although his interactions with Ariadne Oliver in the far future are some of my favorite Christies).  The setting is incidental to the story, which is probably true for every Christie in the end - I don't remember the Oriental Express being important or interesting for anything other than a vehicle to cram together a host of suspects.    The Mystery of the Blue Train isn't one of the great ones; it's not innovative like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  But Christie is really starting to develop a style that's very evident here.

Another thing I noticed, and for the first time, is how much more 21st century accessible Blue Train is as compared to the other books I read.  There is less 1920s slang; it's still there, but not as obvious or in your face.  The Poirot French is less as well.  It's almost as if she's started to write with a knowledge of her books lasting beyond whatever year they were published.  She will always be stuck in her time period - that's inevitable.  But this felt more modern in language than the previous ones.

I also really liked the mystery - I didn't know a single thing until the very end, which I loved.  I had all these ideas about whodunnit - and none of them were right.  And Christie dangled the truth out there right in front of our noses too.  Completely missed it.  It wasn't a gasp-worthy end, more of an "Ohhhhhh!" type of end.

I almost forgot the most important little tidbit - part of the action (well very, little action, but part of the story) takes place in St Mary Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple!  So Miss Marple is like a ghost in this story, nearly visible, a presence sensed but not actually there.  

apache.  "Something has been happening, yes?"  "Two apaches set upon an elderly American gentleman."  According to Criminal Slang: The Vernacular of the Underground Lingo by Vincent Joseph Monteleon (2003), an "apache" is slang for a "thief" which makes sense, but I hadn't heard of that term before.  It's quite obviously racist, which Christie often is.  Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives an origin that fits with the setting of the book:  a gangster or thug of Paris; French literally , Apache: first used of Parisian thieves (1902) by Victor Moris, French journalist. 

Debarrass.  Poirot says:  “But no, but no!  Debarrass yourself of that idea, mademoiselle.”  The Free Dictionary online is one of the few places I could find this; none of my go-to online dictionaries included this word.  Their definition, from a 1913 Websters:  v. to disembarrass; to relieve. (a later edition of websters actually has a different definition:  to disembarrass especially by removing what impedes or encumbers; her of her coat but that’s not useful in the contest of what Poirot is saying, although this Webster’s gives the word a French origin.)  It’s a word that has peaked several times in the history of the English language and literature, at least using Google Ngram viewer, with a high in the early 1800s, falling but occasionally peaking throughout the 19th century.  The 1890s was the last time it was in common use. 

Balbriggan stockings.  “Have you come back a stuck-up fine lady, as well as you might have done?  No, there you are, as sensible as ever you were, with a pair of good balbriggan stockings on and sensible shoes.” defines balbriggan as:  “a plain-knit cotton fabric, used especially in hosiery and underwear.”  Named for Balbriggan, Ireland, home of Smith’s Stockings Mill, makers of Queen Victoria’s favorite stockings.  So when the little old lady was complimenting Katherine Grey, she was staying that she was plain folk and like good old Queen Victoria – nothing fancy about her, even though she’d come into some money and been to the French Riviera. 

"Mademoiselle Katherine has spent a great deal of her life listening, and those who have listened do not find it easy to talk; they keep their sorrows and joys to themselves and tell no one."  I liked this quote; it describes several people I know.

Poirot French

Ça y est !  From what I gather on the Internets, and in context of what Hercule Poirot is saying and doing, I think he’s saying “That’s it” or “That’s all.” 

Ce type lá.  Mirelle is speaking to her lover Derek about the Comte de la Roche, and refers to him as ce type lá.   I think this means “he would be that kind of person.”  She might have just called him “duplicitous pot stirring asshat” too. 

The Mystery of the Blue Train (Hercule Poirot, #6)The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A strong Christie, that hints of the great, complicated murder mysteries that Christie was yet to write when this was published in 1928.  You, dear reader, will be frustrated by what Hercule Poirot keeps from us - but I was still delighted by the unexpected ending.  Quite frankly, Dame Agatha dangled the truth before us almost from the very beginning, but I for one followed other red herrings and totally guessed the "whodunnit" incorrectly. It isn't one of her perfect mysteries, and certainly not of the best; but utterly enjoyable all the same. 

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride by Sebastien Lifshitz (2013)

There are too many great photos in here to cut and paste in my blog.  But I've included a few of my favorites. 

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I think I was at this party.  In spirit for sure.

I wanna be at this party.

I love her so much.  Who is she?
Who are any of these people?

I want to crawl up into the pictures and find out what's going on, befriend these people, ask them questions, share a drink with them, a cry with them, and especially a laugh with them.  I really loved this book. 

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She is at every party I've been to in
the last ten years.

I think what I particularly loved about this book was the joy in being gay or lesbian, or just bending gender.  We think of these queers of the past as many things - brave perhaps, courageous.  Or dark and gloomy.  Suicidal.  But damn, those queens and kings from the past knew how to have fun.  I wonder - were they more ebullient than us today?  Their lives seem so much more difficult, but were they really?

The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride. Gay Couples in the Early Twentieth CenturyThe Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride. Gay Couples in the Early Twentieth Century by Sebastien Lifshitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was quite amazing and beautiful, vintage photographs of gays and lesbians and various gender benders from the past, culled from antique stores and flea markets.  Sometimes, modern GLBTQ folk think the past was a dungeon of repression and suicidal sadness; and for some it probably was.  But these pictures - which, mind you, had to be sent away to be developed, thus publically exposing the relationships depicted in the pictures - prove that the queer past also contained rollicking good fun.  Almost every picture made me want to crawl up into them and find out what's going on, befriend these people, ask them questions, share a drink with them, a cry with them, and especially a laugh with them.  I really loved this book. 

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

I was electrified and elfshot by this novel, from almost the very first page - I finished the entire book in one fell swoop.  Seeing the end of the world from the point of view of a normal, everyday eleven year old pubescent girl with the same problems as other girls (family problems, popularity problems, adolescent love problems) was a neat, intriguing device.  The drip, drip, dripping into the novel  of mild dismay and discomfort, then anxiety and finally wide-eyed horror  ( the psychological variety rather than the zombies eating brains variety) is what keeps you reading on - it's the end of the world as we know it, and everyone is pretending to feel fine, but the reader knows what lurks beneath, that bad things are going to happen, and you keep trucking on, wanting to know if anything can be done to stop it.  Short but definitely not sweet.  But also not a typical dystopia either.

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A white knuckle cross between science fiction and YA angst, with a touch of dystopia thrown in (although not, I think believe, published for a teen audience).  These aren't Hunger Games type shenanigans though - rather, the main character is a normal everyday eleven year old pubescent girl, with lots of typical problems (popularity, parents, a boy), and one big problem - the world's rotation is slowing down for some unexplained reason, and all life on earth is essentially ending.  The plot device of using the eleven year old's mostly self centered eyes to describe the endtimes is literarily innovative and interesting.  Walker's slow drip, drip, dripping into this bildungsroman of at first mild dismay and discomfort followed by anxiety and finally horror (of the psychological variety, not the zombies eating brains variety) is what keeps you wide-eyed and horrified, unable to put the book down, wanting to know what happens next.  It's the end of the world as we know it, but you the reader know that things are probably not going to be fine.

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The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy by Jacopo Della Quercia (2014)

I ended up liking this book far less than I wanted to, although I finished it.  Some parts were great; others weren't as well written and quite frankly didn't make a whole lot of sense.  Uneven.  You know when you were a little kid, and you were playing with army men, and you you made up elaborate plots that went something like this - "And then this happened.  and then this happened. And then he swooped in and saved the day.  Only he did this to him.  And then a giant horse appeared."  And the whole time, your hands are on each and every soldier, manipulating the action, and usually not in ways that made any sense, just flowing along, letting the soldiers do and say whatever occurred to your mind next, without any idea of what was next or how it would end.  That's what this book felt like.  The author, a giant little kid, like The Lego Movie, his fingers on every character, making them talk and walk - and fight - but without a clear idea of where everyone was headed.  The concept was outstanding - I loved the steampunk aspects - but the plot, on the plot...  As a friend told my husband one time, after he struggled to make his first Chinese potstickers from scratch - "pretty good, for a first attempt."  From what I understand, there's a second book on the way, so I'd give it another try.

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch ConspiracyThe Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy by Jacopo della Quercia
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An uneven - well, beyond uneven, jagged really, like broken glass - mars a great concept and some kick-ass characters.  I think another term might be "heavy handed" - I could never lose the sense that the author's fingers were wrapped around each and every character, making them talk, walk, swear - and fight, lots of fighting - without any clear idea of what was going to happen next.  That made for some confusing reading.  There may have been some master plot design to the whole book - but it still felt like a video game, only starring historical characters in a steampunk setting.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Maurice by E.M. Forster (1914, 1970)

"He was surprised their friends did not notice the change, but few undergraduates are observant - they have too much to discover within themselves, and it was a don who remarked that Durham had stopped honeymooning with that Hall person."

I think that this is a definite truism about college students.


Maurice is definitely not one of Forster's best works.  The first half or so is really wooden; it almost reads like a biography, of someone you don't really care about all that much.  Forster makes it really, really difficult to sympathize or empathize with Maurice Hall.  I don't know if that's because of the 100 years of gay liberation that have passed since the book was written, or that at it's heart, it's just not a very interesting story.  The magic of Howards End and A Room With A View just isn't present here.  One thing that's missing is that in the two I mentioned - and even in A Passage to India, which I don't even like all that much - the minor characters are so well developed, and the setting is so well developed.  That's missing here.  The minor characters feel like props in Maurice.  About half way through, the story picks up speed and loses the biographical feel - once Maurice meets Clive. But I was still sort of bored.

I wonder if Forster cared so much, so deeply, that he couldn't get the emotions and feelings inside of him properly down on paper.

It does include the words SHIT and FUCK, which struck me.

MauriceMaurice by E.M. Forster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not even close to my favorite Forster, the first half of Maurice is wooden and reads like a biography of someone who is not particularly very interesting.  About midway through - really, when Maurice meets Clive - the book picks up pace.  But by that time, it's really too late to approach the greatness of Howards End or the magic of A Room with a View or even A Passage to India (which, I must admit, isn't one of my favorites either).  Knowing more than a bit about Forster, I realize the book was a brave thing for him to write and share with his friends, and in the Forster canon it Means Something and is Important.  But if you take it out of Forsterology, the novel is a cardboard cutout sort of books, paper dolls standing around doing very little in a disappointingly dull dollhouse.

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Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd (2005)

A very short but meaty biography of Chaucer.  I like Ackroyd's writing style - this is the second Peter Ackroyd I've finished in as many weeks.  He's easy to read but writes in depth - very enjoyable.  The last time I read The Canterbury Tales was in college; Ackroyd's biography inspired me to read them again.

ChaucerChaucer by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short but meaty biography.  I like Ackroyd's writing style; it's easy to read, interesting, and far from dry.  This inspired me to read The Portable Chaucer.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by Peter Ackroyd (2012)

"Mercy was not a commodity... in which the king traded."  Henry VIII was a tyrant, that's for sure.


I came into this book not expecting very much.  For one thing, I wasn’t sure how four Tudors – and Jane Grey – could possibly be crammed into one book.  Another thing, there are so many books about the Tudors, fiction and nonfiction, that I just wasn’t sure how I could learn anything new.  I was happily mistaken.  Tudors by Peter Ackroyd was wonderful! 

He does a tremendously good job of “cramming” Henry VIII, Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I in one volume.  He skates back and forth over the line between fun pop history (Elizabeth purchased Hungarian horses, and then had their manes and tails died orange) and social history and religious history and political history.  Everyone who is anyone in Tudor times makes an appearance of some sort.  Ackroyd’s tome felt deep for a book that, by its very nature, has to be somewhat shallow (or you’d end up with a 3,000 page book). 

Apparently, this is part of three volume (or more?) series – so I’m going to seek out Foundation, the first in the series and read backwards through time.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I came into this book not expecting very much.  For one thing, I wasn’t sure how four Tudors – and Jane Grey – could possibly be crammed into one book.  Another thing, there are so many books about the Tudors, fiction and nonfiction, that I just wasn’t sure how I could learn anything new.  I was happily mistaken.  Tudorsby Peter Ackroyd was wonderful! He is tremendously able to "cram" Henry VIII, Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I in one delightfully readable volume.  He skates back and forth over the lines  between fun pop history (Elizabeth purchased Hungarian horses, and then had their manes and tails died orange) and social history and religious history (lots of Reformation history, which is sort of a "duh" statement) and political history (I guess he's skating a figure eight).    Everyone who is anyone in Tudor times makes an appearance of some sort.  Ackroyd’s tome felt deep for a book that, by its very nature, has to be somewhat shallow (or you’d end up with a 3,000 page book). 

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