Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Review: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Written and Illustrated by E. L. Konigsburg
Simon & Schuster / Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002, 172 pp.
Young Readers Challenge 2008

Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1968, E. (for Elaine) L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the story of Claudia Kincaid and her younger brother Jamie, and their adventures in New York City when they decide to run away from their Greenwich, Connecticut home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Well, actually it's 12-year-old Claudia who decides to run away – she takes 9-year-old brother Jamie along because "he was good for a laugh" and because he has the amazing sum of twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents saved up, mostly his winnings from gambling on card games.

The two escapees pack their clean undies in their violin and trumpet cases, take the train to New York City, and spend a week living in the Met. They hide from museum guards and workmen, bathe in a museum fountain, sleep in antique beds complete with antique bedding and antique dust. They also manage to solve a mystery involving a statue of an angel that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo.

Their story is narrated by the wealthy and aged Mrs. Frankweiler of the title, and she's part of the mystery. She was also my favorite character. Well, how could I not like a woman who keeps a lifetime of newspaper clippings and personal items in "rows and rows of filing cabinets that line the walls" of her private office? She has the soul of a librarian.

She also hates beauty parlors and has her butler cut her hair. Now who couldn't fall in love with that?

I'm not going to give away much more of the plot, except to say that Claudia and Jamie eventually go home, and the ending has a couple of very neat surprise twists. And along the way, Claudia learns something very valuable about what you can and can't run away from.

This book is very definitely a modern children's classic. It's been around for over 35 years now, and it still delights new readers every year – children and adults alike. There have been two film versions, and it's referenced in several other films and TV shows. So it's stood the test of time and taken a firm place in popular culture.

I enjoyed the book and would recommend it whole-heartedly to readers of all ages, but I think I missed a lot of the charm it would have held for me if I'd first read it as a child. As an adult, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief – even in the Olden Days of 1967, two children hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum for a week would have been far-fetched stuff. And I also kept wondering about the poor parents of the runaways: What must they have been going through back in Greenwich while Claudia and Jamie were harvesting coins from the fountain, and eating breakfast every morning at the automat? OK, I know it's fantasy and not to be taken too seriously. But a lot of it felt very real, too, and I think it was that mixture of the real and the decidedly non-real that kept tripping me up.

I also couldn't help noticing how dated a lot of the book seemed. Things have really changed since 1967. How many kids today will know what an automat is? Or a transistor radio? Or an Olivetti typewriter?

But in the edition I read, the author herself addresses this problem in an afterword. And she rightly points out that "the events of September 11, 2001, that have changed forever both the conscience and configuration of New York would not have changed Claudia and Jamie. The skyline that they would have seen when they arrived in Manhattan would not have been very different from that which we now (sadly) see."

And though she admits that many things have changed since 1967 (including the author herself), one thing Konigsburg says is still true: "the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Young Readers Challenge: Update

Well, I think I've finally come up with my list of books for the Young Readers Challenge. There are so many children's books I've always meant to read, and so many interesting new ones coming out all the time, that it's been a challenge just putting together a workable list.

Of course, the list is subject to change. And I don't have a theme or anything; but there's a lot of fantasy represented, and several of the books have been Newbery or Caldecott medal winners or honor books. And I notice that I've included at least one book from each decade from 1920 to 1980, although that wasn't planned.

These are the twelve titles I'll definitely be reading (I think).

A Wrinkle in Time. Madeleine L'Engle (1962; ages 9-12; Newbery Medal winner 1963)
Betsy-Tacy. Maud Hart Lovelace (1940; ages 9-12) [See Review]
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. E.L. Konigsburg (1967; ages 9-12; Newbery Medal winner, 1968) [See Review]
Gone-Away Lake. Elizabeth Enright (1957; ages 9-12; Newbery Honor book 1958)
Henner's Lydia. Marguerite de Angeli (1936; ages 4-8)
Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. Rachel Field (1929; ages 9-12; Newbery Medal winner, 1930)
Knight's Castle. Edward Eager (1956; ages 9-12)
Many Moons. James Thurber and Louis Slobodkin (1943; ages 4-8; Caldecott Medal winner, 1944)
Miss Rumphius. Barbara Cooney (1982; ages 4-8; American Book Award winner) [See Review]
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Robert C. O'Brien (1971; ages 4-8; 1972 Newbery Medal winner) [See Review]
The Time Garden. Edward Eager (1958; ages 9-12)
Twig. Elizabeth Orton Jones (1942; ages 4-8) [See Review]

Well, it's not carved in stone, but those are the books I'm hoping to read during the year. Naturally, I do have a rather lengthy list of additional or back-up titles. Quite lengthy, in fact. Oh well, maybe I should just admit I'd like to read every children's book ever written and be done with it!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

My Year of Holiday Reading

Well, I've finished two books on my Winter Reading Challenge list: Civil To Strangers, and The Flanders Panel. And I've posted my thoughts on "Strangers." So now I need to get to work on a review of "Flanders." (Note to self: get to work!)

Almost got sucked in by yet another challenge. CCDPiper is hosting the "Every Month is a Holiday Challenge," which runs all through 2008 and which sounds like a lot of fun. The rules are pretty loose – just read a minimum of one book a month that has something to do with a holiday or celebration, or some other event occurring during the month (authors' birthdays, etc.).

Finally decided it's a little too scary to commit in January to a whole year of reading, so I'm going to pass it by. But being an inveterate list-maker, I thought it would be fun to put together my own private challenge along those lines. Haven't got a whole year's worth yet, but here's what I've put together so far:

International Creativity Month (who knew?) – Crewel World, by Monica Ferris. I'm reading this one right now.

Lots of interesting events, etc. to choose from in February:

Black History MonthWrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd.

Library Lovers' Day (isn't that everyday?) – The Grand Complication, by Alan Kurzweil. I'd be reading this one for the Winter Reading Challenge as well, but both challenges allow overlapping.

Also, possibly From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (born 10 February 1930). Again, I'd be overlapping this one – reading it for the Young Readers Challenge, too.

Birthday of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (6 March 1927)Love in the Time of Cholera (also reading this one for the Winter Reading Challenge).


Unique Name DayYonie Wondernose, by Marguerite deAngeli (who was also born in March – how neat is that?). Again, a possible Young Reader overlap.

Another month chock-full of dates and happenings to commemorate:

National Poetry MonthPoets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson. I was feeling sad about having to delete this title from my list of books for the Winter Reading Challenge – decided to substitute The Concord Quartet instead. But it's perfect for National Poetry Month, so I can still keep it on my list of books to read this year.

Birthday of Maud Hart Lovelace (25 April 1892)Betsy-Tacy, overlapping with the Young Readers Challenge.

Birthday of Beverly Cleary (12 April 1916) – Any of the Ramona books; I've never read any of them!

Arbor Day – Well, there must be a nice book about trees out there somewhere.

William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Hans Christian Andersen, Ngaio Marsh, Charlotte Bronte, Edna Ferber, Eudora Welty, Queen Elizabeth II, and my mother were all born in April, too. So, as I said, lots of possibilities.

Mothers Day – Hated to do this, but I've never read it and always intended to: Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth.

Fathers DayMarch, by Geraldine Brooks. The imagined Civil War experiences of the father of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."

Beginning of SummerThree Junes, by Julia Glass. I've had it on my summer reading list for two years now.

Birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (4 July 1804)The Marble Faun. Didn't realize he was a Yankee Doodle guy.

Sisters DayThe Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall. Well, this is just pie in the sky. At 580 pages, including notes, this one is much too long for me to finish in one month – especially a month when I'll be looking for short, relaxing beach reads! But this is a make-believe list, so I can allow myself make-believe speed reading powers.

And that's as far as I've gotten. And that's probably as far as I should go with this. Wouldn't it be more sensible to stop listing and start reading? (She asked herself, sensibly.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Civil To Strangers

Written by Barbara Pym
Published by E.P. Dutton, 1987

Edited by Hazel Holt

I first learned about Barbara Pym back in the early 1980s, probably not long after she died. In those days, it was still rather difficult to find her books in this country. But M. and I spent the summer of 1982 in England, and I picked up a couple of her novels at Blackwell's in Oxford - I believe they were Some Tame Gazelle and Jane and Prudence. And from the opening sentence of that first book ("The new curate seemed quite a nice young man, but what a pity it was that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks, when he sat down."), I was hooked.

As rapidly as possible, I acquired and devoured all the novels then in print. I became a Pym fanatic, even going so far as to execute my own Pym pilgrimage on a later England trip – visiting places she'd lived and her old college in Oxford (St. Hilda's). It helped that M. had become almost equally enthusiastic about her books, and indulged my whim. In fact, we liked the books so much, we started forcing them on friends and colleagues – sort of forming our own little Barbara Pym fan club for a time.

While I was reading the novels, I discovered A Very Private Eye, the "Autobiography in Diaries and Letters," edited by her sister Hilary Pym and Barbara's friend and literary executor, Hazel Holt. It was a wonderful, fascinating look at the woman behind the novels – I read it quickly and have re-read it many times since.

And after that, the darkness. Or so it appeared for a time, anyway. I'd read all the novels and the autobiography, and it seemed like that was all there was to be. Barbara Pym had died in 1980 – I would just have to content myself with re-reading her ten wonderful books (sniff).

Well, I needn't have felt so bereft – there were more works to appear, posthumously: the novels Crampton Hodnet and An Academic Question, and then a collection of pieces, including the novel Civil to Strangers. And of course, I gobbled them all up immediately – all of them, that is, except Civil To Strangers. For some reason, I was keeping that one in reserve. Saving it up – like a fine wine or the last bon-bon in the box. Just knowing that there was one more Pym out there to be discovered gave me a nice comforting, hopeful feeling.

And then the Winter Reading Challenge came along, and I said, "why not?" and pulled out my last Pym. Dear Barbara.

Although not published until after her death, Civil To Strangers was actually the second novel Barbara Pym wrote – in 1936 when she was twenty-three, after the first version of Some Tame Gazelle was rejected by several publishers. And as Hazel Holt says in her introduction, it has "all the confidence of youth."

The novel is the story of Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon and her novelist husband Adam who live in the Shropshire village of Up Callow; and as the dust jacket says, "both the village and Cassandra's marriage are thrown into upheaval when a mysterious Hungarian moves into town." And I'm not going to give away much more than that. But the story of Cassandra and Stefan Tilos, and whether they will or won't (or have or haven't) run off to Budapest together, is just the central narrative around which a number of other tales are woven. And all the familiar Pym character types are represented – the Rector and his family; Mr. Paladin the very eligible young curate; the aging bachelor Mr. Gay and his spinster niece Angela, who are "still hoping that there was a rich woman or an eligible husband in the town whom they had somehow missed in their search."

Barbara Pym has often been compared to Jane Austen (unfair, I think, to both authors), and this is probably the most Austen-like of all her books. In fact, I was a little surprised at first at how little it seemed to resemble the later novels. But after a few chapters, the familiar Pym voice started to emerge and I realized that it's actually one of her most comic works. Only Barbara Pym could have written lines like these:

"Holmwood is let," said Mrs Gower in tones of satisfaction, "and to a foreigner!"
"Oh!" Mrs Wilmot gasped. "Are you sure it's true?"
"Oh yes," Mrs Gower replied. "I saw him coming down the drive. Quite dark and wearing a black hat."
"Really . . . " mused Mrs Wilmot, a smile stealing over her eager little face. After the black hat there could of course be no doubt.
[Chapter 5, p. 43]


"I daresay he is going to Birmingham," said Mrs Gower, still on the subject of Mr Tilos.
"Yes, perhaps he is," said Mr Gay lazily. "Let us be thankful that we are not going there."
[Chapter 18, p. 121]


"Science is weaker than Nature," said Adam positively. He looked as if he were about to quote Wordsworth, but Cassandra stopped him in time. [Chapter 25, p. 169]

And the whole of Chapter 14, where all the characters come together for a bridge party and get to know their newly arrived foreign neighbor for the first time, is absolutely perfect Pym. Hardly anything happens, but it's quietly hilarious just the same.

The novel is included in a collection (under the title Civil To Strangers and Other Writings) along with several more works also unpublished at the time of Pym's death. They're all worth reading, of course; and the final piece, "Finding a Voice," is especially interesting to those of us who are under the Pym-ish spell. It's a transcription of a radio program she did for the BBC in 1978, part of a series by well-known writers speaking about how they found their own personal writing styles.

In her introduction to the collection, Hazel Holt says Pym was "pleased to be asked to contribute [to the program], since it was a confirmation at last of her position as a professional writer." In the BBC talk, Pym asks if it's enough just to write for oneself if nobody else is going to read it. And she comes to the conclusion that, though she might not go on writing if absolutely no one were reading, so long as a few people are there "to spur me on," she'll go on: "So I try to write what pleases and amuses me in the hope that a few others will like it, too."

And I'm so glad she did go on. But what am I going to do now that I've read my last Pym? Start at the beginning and read them all again, I suppose. Because there's no one quite like her.

Dear Barbara.

(For an introduction to Barbara Pym and her work, you can visit the "Official Web Site" of the Barbara Pym Society at

Winter Reading Challenge 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Another Food Meme: You Are What You Eat

I don't ordinarily play the meme tag game, but this one caught my eye. Apparently, it's been passed around a lot – I found it on the Books Please blog, where Margaret said she got it from Geranium Cat at Cat Musings, who got it from Ted at Bookeywookey, who got it from Ganda at eat drink one woman, who seemingly got it from Molly at les cadeaux, who got it from . . . . Well, I guess it might very well continue on back to the beginnings of blogdom, but I just now found it.

I probably won't "tag" anybody else, but here goes my list.

What did you eat/drink today?

Oatmeal for breakfast (just plain old Quaker Oats), with blueberries and a little brown sugar. Starbuck's Breakfast Blend decaf, black. Peanut butter on whole wheat sandwich for lunch (Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy Style – wish Peter Pan would put its low fat version back on the market). I know peanut butter is a fairly high-calorie choice, but it's supposed to be good for cholesterol, and it's a quick fix. Also some Welch's grape juice. Also a pear – tasty, but not as good as the ones we got from Harry & David at Christmas.

Haven't had dinner yet, but it looks like it'll be pizza and a green salad (Wednesday is pizza night at our house). Also, a tiny piece of dark chocolate after dinner: since M. was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last year, we don't do desserts anymore.

Probably a cup of tea just before bedtime.

Oh, and quite a bit of Dasani.

What do you never eat/drink?

I'll eat almost anything I don't have to cook myself. But I don't like squid and I can't digest cucumbers. Tasted kidneys in England once, and swore never to make that mistake again. And I've never been able to bring myself to try sweetbreads, tongue, or tripe, so I don't know if I'd like those things or not. Never drink buttermilk. Or Gatorade. Don't drink a lot of soft drinks, and I'm not crazy about Scotch.

Favorite failsafe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don't.

I'm a terrible cook, and I've never really enjoyed cooking. M. is a much better cook than I am. So I wouldn't say that anything is "failsafe" in my hands. Well, I used to make a great pot roast, but we don't really eat beef these days. However, I've discovered supermarket rotisserie-roasted chickens – they're always tasty and easy to reheat.

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find . . .

Perrier, tomato or V8 juice, fat-free milk, Kraft grated parmesan cheese, various vitamin supplements, and probably several items well past their throw-away dates.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

Well, it would have to be the microwave, wouldn't it? That and my little rubbery thingy for unscrewing lids. Ok, AND my antique Sunbeam pop-up toaster which I got when I was married 110 years ago, and still works perfectly well, thank you very much.

Where would you recommend eating out - either on home turf or elsewhere?

Close to home: Taverna Cretekou in Old Town Alexandria; La Tomate Italian Bistro in DC. Further afield: Victor's (Cuban food) and Molyvos (Greek) in NYC; Schilo's Delicatessen in San Antonio. I was going to include the Berghoff restaurant in Chicago, but remembered that they closed recently. Bummer.

The world ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?

One of M's char-broiled burgers with extra sharp cheddar cheese, and a side of my own potato salad (one of the few things I can make without screwing it up) – just the way my mother used to make it, with chopped pimientos and lots of dill pickle and massive dollops of Kraft mayonnaise. Or, a generous serving of my Aunt Gussie's chicken and dumplings. Which would be difficult because she died in 1971. But we're talking fantasy here, right?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I'm Not Very Political, But...

Woke up to great news today. Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire Democratic primary. I was surprised at how happy that made me. Guess I didn't realize how much I wanted her to win until it looked like she would lose!

Not that I'm a huge Hillary fan – in fact, I'd really be an Edwards supporter, if I thought he had any chance of winning. I don't dislike her in the way M. seems to, but I have my own problems with her policies and with her personality. However, I think I agree with a comment on last night's evening news – one woman voter said she didn't want to look back, ten years from now, and have to say she didn't vote for the first female president.

Well, that may be a slightly ditzy remark, but I think I know what she meant. And that's sort of the way I feel – men have been screwing things up for centuries now. Maybe it's time they gave us little ladies a chance.

Also, I was really put off by the reactions to her "emotional breakdown" the other day. Both the press and the other candidates were like sharks who'd tasted blood. I was especially disappointed in John Edwards' remark about the U.S. needing a strong leader. Where the heck is it written that a person can't show a little emotion and still be a strong leader? Mothers have been doing that since the beginning of time.

So now it's on to Michigan and Nevada and South Carolina. Go, Hillary!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas. . .

Poof! It's gone. The holiday season doesn't live at our house anymore. Or I should say, at our condo. Gathered up all the decorations, folded up the tiny tree and stuck it back in the box until next year. Put all the plants and lamps back where they belong.

M. took down the wreaths, and the lights on the balcony, and put the screen back on the sliding doors. I think the lights will be the one thing I'll really miss – when they go every year, it really seems like winter's darkness had descended on the land.

And this year we were a little more melancholy than usual, I think. M. will be retiring after this year. He's already given up his "extra" job on the adjunct faculty at the U of MD, and now he's down to counting the days, hours, and minutes. Soon we'll have to start getting serious about looking for a new home in Texas, and leaving the Washington DC area behind. Mixed emotions, obviously – but I'm trying to look at it as an adventure and not a reason to tear my hair and sob.

So, the holidays are over and the new year is well started. New experiences await, and spring is just around the corner – so they tell me, anyway.

There's just one vestige of Christmas left in the apartment – my big white Kringle Bear, a Christmas gift from M. way back in 1987. Since 2007 was his 20th birthday, I decided to let him hang around a little longer. I think he's happy about it, too. Doesn't that look like a smile on his fuzzy puss?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Anticipation - Booking Through Thursday on Saturday

I've only just discovered the "Booking Through Thursday" web site – well, I'm still learning about the blogosphere. And while I'm really late to be answering this week's question, it was so intriguing I just have to put in my 2 cents.

The topic is: "What new books are you looking forward to most in 2008? Something new being published this year? Something you got as a gift for the holidays? Anything in particular that you’re planning to read in 2008 that you’re looking forward to? A classic, or maybe a best-seller from 2007 that you’re waiting to appear in paperback?"

Well, to start with, I'm just hoping to read more books than I read in 2007. And I must admit I haven't really been keeping up with the new titles for spring 2008. So I'm not actually anticipating anything "about to be published." Most of the books I'm looking forward to reading have been out for a while. But I am hoping to get to a couple of works that came out last year – The Gravedigger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth's Exit Ghost.

Of course, I'm excited about reading all the books I've chosen for the couple of challenges I've signed up for – especially Civil To Strangers, by Barbara Pym, and Twig (Elizabeth Orton Jones). Those two titles have been on my "To Read" list for decades.

I also want to get back to a few books I started in 2007, but never finished: A Gentle Madness, by Nicholas A. Basbanes; The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall; and Jose Saramago's The Double.

I'll probably be reading quite a lot of children's lit, since I've gotten myself into the Young Readers Challenge. And I'm really looking forward to that. Also, I've decided to try to read all the Hazel Holt and Monica Ferris mysteries that I haven't read yet.

I'm NOT planning to tackle War and Peace, which seems to be on everybody's list this year. Strange how these trends go – a year or so back, it was Tristram Shandy. I didn't read that one, either.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Young Readers Challenge

Like I need another challenge.

Well, I've heard that this reading challenge business can be addictive, and I guess I believe it now. But this one looks so inviting!

The Young Readers Challenge "is for those interested in reading more children's literature" (that sounds like me all right) and runs from January to December 2008. And the only rules seem to be to read 12 or more books "written for the 12 and under crowd" during that time period. "A theme is NOT required. A list is not required. Choose what you like. Choose as you go. Or plan it all out now. Whatever you want."

How attractive is that?

Haven't put my final list together yet, but it will include:

Gone-Away Lake (Elizabeth Enright)
Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field)
Many Moons (James Thurber)
Something by Marguerite de Angeli
Something by Edward Eager
Twig (Elizabeth Orton Jones)

What a great opportunity to read a bunch of the books I should have read as a kid. So if I'm not too late, I'll definitely be joining up for this one.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Closing the Books on 2007

Well, 2007 is just a memory now, and it's on to 2008! Looking back on my journal for the year we just lived through, I notice that on January 1, I said goodbye "and good riddance" to 2006. But 2007 wasn't too terribly unpleasant, from my own personal point of view anyway.

I'm aware that the world at large is going to hell in a hand basket, but I've finally accepted the fact that there's not much I can do about that (well, the last two presidential elections were wonderful lessons in futility).

And I'm not going to explain that hand basket phrase.

So I guess this is as good a time as any to look back at my reading history for 2007. After I made my list of all the titles, I found that I read 23 books this year. More than I realized, although not a great record – I've definitely had better reading years. But this is the best one in a long time. In 2006, I only read nine books. So I'm doing better, but there's a lot of room for improvement.

Books Read in 2007

The Big House. George Howe Colt
The Body in the Transept. Jeanne M. Dams
The Book Shop. Penelope Fitzgerald
Booked To Die. John Dunning
The Bookman's Promise. John Dunning
Codex. Lev Grossman
Coraline. Neil Gaiman
The Egyptologist. Arthur Phillips
The End of Mr. Y. Scarlett Thomas
The Jane Austen Book Club. Karen Joy Fowler
The Ladies' Man. Elinor Lipman
Lady Audley's Secret. M. E. Braddon
The Maytrees. Annie Dillard
Message in a Bottle. Nicholas Sparks
Mrs. Malory and Death in Practice. Hazel Holt
A Murderous Yarn. Monica Ferris
Now and Forever. Ray Bradbury
Pontoon. Garrison Keillor
Publish and Perish. James Hynes
The Shadow of the Wind. Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Thirteenth Tale. Diane Setterfield
The Unburied. Charles Palliser
Unraveled Sleeve. Monica Ferris

If I had to rate them - well, I wouldn't rate them. But Shadow of the Wind was my favorite. In fact, I think I'll be adding it to my list of all-time faves. But I enjoyed them all - generally, I don't finish books that I don't enjoy. However, I have to say that The Egyptologist was the most frustrating read - one that I kept abandoning for other books, all year long.