Friday, February 29, 2008
Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)
Looks like I'm a bit late, as usual. And this is a really tough question. I guess my absolute favorite female heroine would have to be Alice from the Lewis Carroll books – she was a very early literary love, and I still re-read those books frequently. I also enjoy Barbara Pym's women; but in her case, it's the type of heroine I'm responding to, rather than any single character. And Miss Marple will always be a favorite, too – I love the way she's always not what she seems.
I'm beginning to appreciate Elizabeth Bennet more now, after seeing the mini-series on PBS - in fact, that show has inspired me to re-read the novel. I like her sense of humor and the way she stands by her family even though they don't always seem to deserve such loyalty. Have to say, when I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, I thought Lizzie and Darcy both were boring beyond belief. Interesting what a difference a few decades can make! And recently I've discovered a new favorite in Nancy Clark's The Hills At Home – its main character Lily Hill seems a bit like a modern Lizzie who's grown old and never got to marry her Mr. Darcy.
But I suppose my earliest favorite "literary" chick was Lulu Moppet. She's funny, resourceful, courageous, honest, and loyal, has lots of exciting adventures, and her hair is never out of place. Hate to admit that my love of reading was sparked in large part by a comic book character, but it is the truth. And the fact that I have a large Little Lulu collection squirreled away must mean that she still has a place in my heart.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Published by Berkley Prime Crime Books, 1999, 243 pp.
If she could get into the rhythm of the needlework, she would find peace. That's why she loved needlepoint – it worked like meditation. It was better than meditation, actually, because after a while you found you had both peace of mind and a work of art. [Chapter 9, p. 116]
In addition to the "formal" reading challenges I have going this year, I've set up a personal challenge for myself to complete the series of Betsy Devonshire mysteries by Monica Ferris.
Now in theory, I believe you should always start out with the first book in a series. But somehow I usually manage to jump right into the middle somewhere. Thus, I started Ferris's "Needlework" series with the fifth title, A Murderous Yarn, and followed that with the fourth book, Unraveled Sleeve. Not very organized, I know – but I loved the series and knew I wanted to read them all. So I figured it was time to knuckle down and read the opener.
Crewel World introduces us to Betsy Devonshire and her younger sister Margot Berglund. In California, Betsy's marriage to a philandering college professor has just broken up; so Margot invites her for an extended visit in Excelsior, Minnesota, where Margot owns and operates a needlework shop, the "Crewel World" of the title. The two sisters haven't seen each other for years when the story begins, and they both enjoy the reunion – in fact, Margot encourages Betsy to make Excelsior her new home and even gives her a job in the shop. The small town is friendly and Betsy is settling in comfortably when disaster strikes – Margot is found murdered, and Betsy is drawn into the search for her killer.
Having already read a couple of the later books, I missed out on a good deal of the mystery in this one – I knew that several of the suspects were innocent and would return as regulars in the later novels. But that certainly didn't spoil the enjoyment. And although I sussed out the culprit pretty early on, watching Betsy develop both her sleuthing and needlework skills was lots of fun (if murder can ever be considered fun).
Of course one of the main attractions of the books, for me anyway, is their emphasis on the "needle arts" – I've always been an admirer if not much of a practitioner. And they're definitely cozy mysteries – set in a small town with a lot of interesting characters and day-to-day detail, and not a lot of gore or mayhem – another reason to keep me reading.
But I think the main thing I like about the books is Betsy herself. Already 55 when the series begins, she's not quite sure where life is leading her:
Betsy remembered reading somewhere that while men are scared of birthdays ending in zero, women are frightened by birthdays ending in five. Certainly Betsy was. Fifty-five is no longer young, even when considered while you were in good spirits. Fifty-five can see old age rushing toward it like a mighty tree axed at the root. All too soon it would be crash: sixty! [Chapter 1, p. 10]
Betsy Devonshire is someone a reader of a certain age can really identify with.
(Each book in this series includes a free needlework pattern. In this first book, the pattern is a magnificent Chinese horse, adapted from a T'ang Dynasty sculpture – a tie-in with the book's plot, and much too ambitious for the inexperienced needle-worker. I believe the patterns in most of the later books have been a bit less intricate. You can learn more about the Betsy Devonshire books and their author by visiting the Monica Ferris web site.)
Published by Hyperion, 2001, 360 pp.
Winter Reading Challenge
The search began with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.
"I beg your pardon," said the man, bowing ever so slightly, "Might I steal a moment of your time?"
So begins Allen Kurzweil's The Grand Complication. The book's narrator and protagonist, Alexander Short, is a reference librarian at a Manhattan library, very much like (wink, wink) the New York Public. Through his job, Alexander meets and is, in effect, seduced by the impressively named and impressively wealthy Henry James Jesson III, who wants the young librarian to help him "with a case." The "case" turns out to be an actual box – an incomplete cabinet of curiosities put together by a mysterious 18th-century inventor. Alexander resists the offer at first, but eventually gives in, and the rest of the novel involves his search for the cabinet's one missing object – a magnificent timepiece supposedly made for Marie Antoinette.
The Grand Complication is a mystery tale and, as in any good mystery tale, along the way we learn that many things are not exactly what they seem. Mr. Jesson's story, the legendary timepiece, and Mr. Jesson himself turn out to be much more complicated than at first we might have suspected – well, at least more complicated than Alexander suspected. So we end up unraveling more than just the secret of the queen's magnificent pocket watch.
This book has drawn mixed reviews, and I have to admit Kurzweil doesn't produce the most sparkling prose. But I enjoyed it very much – it's a fast-paced read, with a lot of humor and many surprises sprinkled throughout. There's also a nice love story included – the courtship and rocky marriage of Alexander and his French wife, Nic.
Then there's all the library arcana – my favorite part of the book – and Alexander's fascination with "objects of enclosure" and with the Dewey system of classification:
The system lets the well-trained librarian synthesize a hierarchy of people, places, and things, of ideas and phenomena. What's more, it encourages that hierarchy both to grow and to be remembered. Familiarity with classes, divisions, and sections means this: that if a reader walks up and requests, say, The Study of Arab Women: A Bibliography of Bibliographies, a librarian who knows the system can direct the inquirer with confidence to 016.016305488927. [Chapter 55, p. 319]
Ultimately, I suppose I was attracted to Alexander because he's such a meticulous list-maker. At one point, he admits to Nic that his ambition is "to compose lists," prompting her to ask if he wants to set them to music. He collects library call slips – his own and those of other library patrons. He even goes so far as to wear a journal (hand made by Nic) fastened to his clothing, for making lists and notes – in imitation of the "girdle books" employed by medieval monks. Now that's a man after my own heart.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
This has got to be the last one for a while, OK? But I found another reading challenge that's just too perfect to pass up, especially since overlaps with other challenges are allowed.
It's the Eponymous Reading Challenge, hosted by CoversGirl at Between the Covers and while I might have some trouble spelling it, I'm definitely going to sign up. These are the rules:
The challenge will run from 1 March to 31 May, 2008.
During that time your mission should you choose to accept it is to read 4 books whose titles are the name of one or more of the characters (e.g. Evelina, Oscar and Lucinda); or a description of one or more of the characters (e.g. The Merchant of Venice, Sylvia’s Lovers).
Non-fiction books and overlaps with other challenges are welcome, as are books named after four-legged characters.
I'm already reading several books that will fit right in, so I think I can do this. Here's my (tentative) list of titles:
Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd (overlap: Man-Booker Challenge) [See Review]
Emma, by Jane Austen [See Review]
Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field (overlap: Young Readers Challenge)
The Master, by Colm Toíbín (overlap: Man-Booker Challenge)
And since I don't yet have the Chatterton book in my hot little hands, I've got a few (well, quite a few) alternate choices from my to-be-read pile:
Dolly, by Anita Brookner
The Fencing Master, by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Gravedigger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling
Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey
Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, by Ann B. Ross
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (overlap: Young Readers Challenge)
Mrs. Malory and Death By Water, by Hazel Holt [See Review]
Winnie and Wolf, by A.N. Wilson
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
60th Anniversary Edition, published by Purple House Press, 2002, 152 pp.
Originally published by The Macmillan Company, 1942
Young Readers Challenge 2008
"Well, who ever heard of going to Fairyland with a plain ordinary old dress on? Just look at it, Your Majesty!" said Twig. "And just look at these old shoes!"
The Queen looked at them and smiled. "They're only on the outside of you, Twig," she said. "It doesn't matter how plain or how ordinary or how old the things on the outside are, you know. It's what is inside that matters."
This book was first recommended to me by my friend Carol Sue when we were in second grade together. She absolutely loved it, and talked about it almost incessantly for about a week. And I was very attracted to it at first – the pictures were wonderful and I loved the idea of being able to shrink down to the size of a sparrow and sit on a dandelion leaf. However, as soon as CS told me that one of the characters in the book was a cockroach, I said "No way, José!" (or the mid-1950s, second-grade equivalent of "No way, José"), and that was that.
But I remembered Twig over the years, and as I grew up and became more liberal about reading-matter taboos, I always intended to try to find and read the book that had made my little girlfriend so happy all those many years ago. And thanks to the Young Readers Challenge, now I have.
Twig is a little girl who lives with her Mama and Papa in an apartment on the fourth floor of a "high sort of house" in the city. She doesn't have other children around to play with, and her world is the back yard, "bounded by houses on three of its sides and by a high fence on its other. Outside the fence was an alley. Inside, was a garbage can."
In the midst of this rather bleak little world, where no grass grows, Twig has discovered a dandelion plant with long leaves "that were bent over like the branches of a tiny tree." And when she finds a discarded tomato can with a rip in its side that resembles a doorway, she washes it out and places it next to the dandelion plant, delighted to see that it looks just like a little house – "just the right size for a fairy."
And eventually a fairy does come along – not just any fairy, but the Queen of Fairyland. But before she shows up, we're introduced to a lot of other wonderful characters, along with Twig. There's the Sparrow family – Sparrow and Mrs. Sparrow and their four children (who are just eggs at the beginning of the story). And there's Old Boy, the ice-wagon horse. And Old Girl, the cat who gives concerts every night.
And then there's Elf, a tiny little fellow dressed in a potato-skin suit, who shows up with a magic book and manages to shrink Twig down to his size – tiny enough to set up housekeeping in the upside-down tomato can. They use one of Twig's Mama's thimbles for a cook pot, and toothpaste tube caps for plates. And Twig sweeps the floor with an old feather from Mrs. Sparrow. And at one point Elf does come home with the aforementioned cockroach (called "Chummie"), but Twig shoos it away very quickly.
When they're not tidying up their tomato-can abode, Twig and Elf visit Mrs. Sparrow in her nest, and sit on her eggs while she goes in search of food and her wandering spouse. The two tiny playmates climb up Old Boy's tail and take a ride inside his ears. And Elf brings Twig a pair of butterfly wings that she attaches to her back and uses to take a little flight around the backyard – before the wings fly off on their own again.
Twig is a very appealing and resourceful little girl. And, of course, when she gets the chance to go live in Fairyland with Elf and the Fairy Queen, she decides she really would rather stay with her Mama and Papa. But during her adventures with Elf and all the other characters, she's learned that she doesn't need a magic book to perform magic – she can make magical things happen anytime she wants, just by using her imagination.
Twig would be a perfect book for reading aloud to preschoolers – most likely over a period of a few days. Since it's aimed at the 4-8 age group, it would probably also work for kids who've learned to read on their own, although I'm not sure how well such an old-fashioned tale would hold their attention. It was first published in 1942, and definitely has a pre-war feel to it.
Elizabeth Orton Jones, in addition to winning the Caldecott medal for Prayer for a Child, also did the illustrations for the 1948 Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood, which is one of the best-loved versions of that tale (and one of my childhood favorites). In Twig, the illustrations are a delight: small drawings throughout the book, as well as a number of full-page color pictures.
It's a very cute story – it even has a bit of a "Wizard of Oz" twist at the end. I can see why Carol Sue liked it so much – cockroaches notwithstanding.
Monday, February 18, 2008
This one was taken at Shenandoah National Park, back in July. And this little fella posed for me for a very long time, while I fiddled with my camera, walking stick and various other paraphernalia. If he had a little hat, he'd look just like Alvin, wouldn't he?
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Booking Through Thursday - today's topic:
Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.
Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?
Well, if I really fall in love with an author, I'm usually theirs for life. But occasionally I can become less infatuated than I was at the beginning of our relationship. If this happens, it's usually when I'm reading works in a series. One author I can think of is Patricia Wentworth, author of the "Miss Maud Silver" mysteries: I read half a dozen or so of the books, over about a year back in the 1990s. I loved them at first, but by the fifth or sixth book, they were getting very same-ish, so Miss Silver and Miss Wentworth and I parted company. But that doesn't mean I'll never return to the series.
I notice at least one other responder mentioned Maeve Binchy, and I had a similar experience. I discovered Binchy's short stories in England one summer and read a couple of collections – Victoria Line and Central Line. They were absolutely sparkling – witty, unpredictable, and sometimes emotionally devastating. I quickly put her on my favorite new author list, and I was looking forward to reading her novels. But when I tried one of her longer works, it seemed so formulaic – just a run-of-the-mill romance novel. It was hard to believe the novel had been written by the same person who had produced the stories. I had to abandon it mid-way and I've never gone back. Maybe it's time I gave Maeve another chance, hmmmm?
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
One nice development was that M decided to back Hill, too – at least that's what he's telling me. For a while it looked like we'd cancel each other out, since he was leaning toward Obama.
But even though the election contest might not be going my way, I finally managed to pick a winner at Westminster. Uno the Beagle won Best in Show last night and saved the day from being a total washout. Finally a beagle in the spotlight – take that, you nasty poodles!
Monday, February 11, 2008
"But Enough About Books - Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?"
Well, I do sort of read ALL the time – or at least, I try to do some reading everyday. Other than that, much as I hate to admit it, I guess my major leisure-time activity is watching movies (and old TV shows) on DVD – M and I subscribed to Netflix a couple of years ago so we could catch up on all the films we don't go to anymore. In the last 15 years (since the early '90s), we've gone out to see a movie in an actual theater about half a dozen times. So Netflix has been great for us.
A couple of cousins got me interested in genealogy many years ago, and since then I've spent a shocking amount of time and effort on family history research. It's a great hobby for a former history major. And it's a lot easier now than it was ten years ago, before there were all the online resources we have today.
I don't do sports and I'm not a real artsy-craftsy sort of person, although I am getting the itch to try doing some needlework again. I tried cross-stitch once and just couldn't stick with it – all those little x's over and over and over just got mind-numbingly boring after a while. But I think I could enjoy regular needlepoint or embroidery a little more.
For about a dozen years or so, I was deeply into doll collecting. Nowadays, I don't really collect – I maintain. I still love dolls and enjoy the collection, but I'm not actively buying anymore. The condo just can't hold any more additions. In fact, I may be on the verge of becoming a seller of dolls – could be my new hobby!
So, if you live in Virginia or Maryland, go vote! And may the best woman win!
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 295 pages
Winter Reading Challenge 2008
"Life is an uncertain adventure in a diffuse landscape, whose borders are continually shifting, where all frontiers are artificial, where at any moment everything can either end only to begin again or finish suddenly, for ever and ever, like an unexpected blow from an axe. Where the only absolute, coherent, indisputable and definitive reality is death. Where we are only a tiny lightning flash between two eternal nights, and where . . . we have very little time." [Chapter XV: "Queen Ending," p. 269]
Julia, a 20-something art expert in Madrid, is hired to restore a painting about to be auctioned off by Claymore's, a prominent auction house. The Game of Chess, by fifteenth-century Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, depicts the Duke of Ostenburg and one of his knights seated at a chess board, engaged in a game, while in the background a lady in a black velvet dress sits reading by a window.
When she has the painting X-rayed before cleaning, Julia discovers a hidden message in a corner of the work, presumably written and then deliberately painted over by the artist himself. The message is written in Latin: "Quis Necavit Equitem" ("Who Killed the Knight?"), and Julia's obsession with finding out more about the inscription, the picture and the historical events surrounding its creation are the basis of Arturo Perez-Reverte's sophisticated mystery novel, The Flanders Panel.
As she turns up more information about the painting and the characters involved, Julia begins to realize she's uncovered a Renaissance murder mystery that seems to have ramifications in the present century. But even as violence and danger begin to erupt, her fascination with the painting and its story increases until it threatens her own life and the lives of her friends and loved ones.
As the book's advertising claims, The Flanders Panel is truly a "mystery for the connoisseur." The writing is sophisticated and elegant, the plot twists and turns, and the story shifts easily back and forth among many attractive (and yet somehow sinister) settings – auction houses and museums, antique shops and chess clubs, nightclubs and the streets of Madrid. The chess motif is well-researched, and runs through the whole book, but readers who know little about chess (and I'm one) can still enjoy the story.
Images of Alice and her looking-glass are sprinkled through the book – another heroine caught up in a story based on a game of chess. The author throws in several paradoxes and puzzles along the way, and many references to Edgar Allan Poe and Dupin, and to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, I suppose to emphasize the fact that the story is a mystery. And there are surprises (almost literally) around every corner.
This is the second Perez-Reverte novel I've read – the first was The Club Dumas; and I don't think "Flanders" quite comes up to that level. Still, it kept me turning pages into the wee hours, several nights running, and whetted my appetite for more of his work - and I consider that a pretty good recommendation.
Saturday, February 02, 2008
"To participate in the Man Booker Challenge, you just choose 6 books that have won the Man Booker Prize, or have been shortlisted or longlisted. They can be from any year. The challenge will run from January to December 2008. . . . You may overlap with other challenges. You may change the books on your list at any time."
There's a list of all the prize winners and some of the short and long lists since 1969 at The Booker Prize Archive. So many of these are books and authors I've been meaning to read, it seems like a challenge that was dreamed up with me in mind. I even find that most of the books I'll be reading are already in my library – obviously just waiting for the Man Booker Challenge to come along and give me a nudge.
Here's my list of six books (subject to change, of course):
Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd (short-listed, 1987) [See Review]
Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner (winner, 1984)
The Master, by Colm Toibin (short-listed, 2004)
The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis (winner, 1986)
The Road to Lichfield, by Penelope Lively (short-listed, 1977)
Saturday, by Ian McEwan (long-listed, 2005)
My husband thinks these challenges are crazy. But they're keeping me reading, so I'm a believer.
Friday, February 01, 2008
Written by Maud Hart Lovelace
Illustrated by Lois Lenski
Published by Harper Collins
First published by Thomas Y. Crowell, 1940
Young Readers Challenge 2008
First there was just Betsy Ray, a four-year-old girl with plump legs and brown braids, living with her mother and father and her eight-year-old sister Julia in a small yellow cottage, "the last house on her side of Hill Street," in a town named Deep Valley. But even though there are plenty of other children on Hill Street, there are no other little girls just her age, so when a new family moves in across the street, Betsy is thrilled to find that one of the many children in the family is another little four-year-old girl, named Tacy (short for Anastacia).
Tacy is as thin as Betsy is plump, and her hair is red and curly. At first, the two girls don't hit it off – Tacy is painfully shy ("bashful," as Tacy's older sister Katie always tells people) and it takes a while for the two to get to know each other. But after they do, they become inseparable: "It was difficult, later, to think of a time when Betsy and Tacy had not been friends. Hill Street came to regard them almost as one person." So they became Betsy-Tacy.
Maud Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy is the story of the first year of friendship between the two little girls, with Betsy taking the lead in most of their adventures. Along the way, the girls start school, explore their village, and meet their neighbors. They play paper dolls and dress-up, and help their older sisters color Easter eggs. They climb trees, make snow angels, and turn a piano crate into a playhouse – one of my favorite episodes because I had a similar playhouse when I was about that age, made from a box that a refrigerator came in.
Lovelace combines the reality of their situation with a liberal sprinkling of fantasy, mostly in the form of really magical stories made up by Betsy. In one of their early meetings, the two ride through the sky on feathers and look down on their houses and neighbors below. Well, not really. But Betsy and Lovelace have a way of enveloping both Tacy and their readers in the magic.
Not all of the book is charming fantasy. There's a bit of real-life trauma thrown in. When Mrs. Ray has a baby, Betsy has a little trouble adjusting to not being the youngest member of the family anymore. And there's a death in one of the families, that's very surprising and sad.
Betsy-Tacy is the first of a series of books Maud Lovelace wrote about the two girls and their friend Tib, who makes her first appearance at the very end of this book. According to most histories of the books, Lovelace based the character of Betsy on herself and used incidents in her own life for story lines. The books are set in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are appealingly slow-paced and nostalgic. For many years, it was hard to find the books outside libraries; but the huge cult following that's recently developed has led to new editions being issued.
I'm not sure how this book would go over with youngsters today – it's very old-fashioned and, I suppose, quaint. I've been meaning to read it for years. And now that I have, I'm very happy I finally met Betsy and Tacy, and I'm looking forward to getting to know Tib. But I certainly wish I'd discovered their books as a child – I would have loved them.
You can learn more about Maud Hart Lovelace, and Betsy and Tacy and the books by visiting the Betsy-Tacy Society Home Page.
Of course, if the sun were shining, the view would be lovely.
February is my least favorite month of the year. Nothing good ever came of it. OK - my apologies to George and Abe and Thomas Edison. From my personal viewpoint, only two good things have ever happened in February – my grandmother and my cousin MLB were both born in February.
But mostly, the month is just something to be dreaded and gotten through as painlessly as possible. Fortunately, it's short; although this year it's a whole day longer because of leap year.
On the other hand, Valentine's Day is one of my favorite holidays – it doesn't really fit with the depressing tone of the rest of the month. It's one of my favorites because it doesn't involve my hanging out in the kitchen all day, cooking huge inedible meals. My other favorite holiday is Halloween – for much the same reason. That and the fact that I've always loved dressing up in costumes.
Oh, well, today's a good day for staying indoors and curling up with a good book (or a good blog). And I certainly have a lot of good books stacked up around the place. I guess that's one nice thing about February – the weather usually keeps me from feeling guilty about not being out and about. Maybe we should make February "Stay Indoors and Read" Month. I'd vote for that.