Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Caddie Woodlawn": A Review

Carol Ryrie Brink wrote both Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons (the latter being episodes she couldn’t fit into the former) about her grandmother’s girlhood during the early days of Wisconsin, when girls were expected to be ladies and Indians were expected to be bloodthirsty, white-scalping menaces.  

Caddie proves both assumptions wrong. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Keeping the Book Alive

For some people, e-readers such as Nook, Kindle, or iPad are the Future of Reading. Bibliophilia meets Technophilia. No more heavy books to lug around when/if you travel.  No more need to have a lamp keeping your bedmate awake while you read into the wee hours of the night. The opportunity to shop online for new books from the comfort of apparently a beach chair (usually the commercials show such e-reader users on a beach) rather than have to go out to a bookstore or library. And rather than taking up loads of space with books, you have one single rectangular device which holds all those books in compact neatness for your reading pleasure.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Peter and Wendy": A Review

All children, except one, grow up. [...] You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie, opening paragraph

One hardly needs to introduce, synopsize, or discuss the coming-of-age symbolism of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (or, to differentiate the novel from the play of the same name, Peter and Wendy). One doesn’t need to go into the history of the book, how it was first a play, or the origins of the story, since Finding Neverland informs us adequately of the author’s inspiration. 

So why even review it? If all that I could say upon the topic has been said numerous times before, why clutter up the vast expanse of the internet with worn-out reviews. 

Because it's great, that’s why. 

Why, after all, does everyone know the story of Peter Pan—even if they haven’t read it—except for the simple reason that it is wonderful? The story, like many classic Children’s Literature, speaks to us even after we are grown (which we all know we must do, after we are two) because it is about childhood, and adulthood, and the painful process of leaving one and entering another. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Inscriptions of Book-Owners Past

Having acquired most of my current book collection from public library used sales, garage sales, rummage sales, etc., a lot of my books hold secrets of their previous owners. Bookmarks (or slips of paper such as receipts doubling as bookmarks), free bookplates (I received about a dozen complimentary Ex Libris stickers for never joining the Readers Digest Book Club), and inscriptions of strangers’ names are among the surprises I’ve found in used books.

Whenever I receive a book as a gift (which is quite often…although not as often as I would like…hint hint), I like to ask the giver to inscribe my name, their name, and the date on the front page for posterity. It seems a shame, then, that there are so many used books which once belonged to someone else whose name is now meaningless to me. 

Part of me views these books as MINE, since I paid for them (and they were most likely donated to the library booksale of the owner’s free will). But another part of me can’t help but feel I am a mere curator of lost possessions, a foster-owner of orphaned tomes.

So in honor of those readers who came before me, here is a list of (some) of the inscriptions found inside the covers of my library. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to protect me from having to return any books, should a reader recognize his name and want his copy of Silas Marner back.*

  • The Princess by Tennyson: From Wave (?) 1888
  • Caesar’s Gallic War: $2.45 Marquette U. Book Store
  • Minor Victorian Poets: Novel = attempts to develop character.  3+4 chap of Thorundyke (?)
  • The Works of Dumas: 25 C.
  • Milton’s Complete Poems: DCC Library Acc# 3224
  • Silas Marner: Jane Jones 1912 from George
  • A Child’s History of EnglandMerry Christmas from Auntie Dec 25 1902
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Frederick W. Rockford  February, 1940
  • Idylls of the King: Steve Riley from “Skipper” Christmas 1946
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Happy Birthday, Tom!  I hope you like these books as much as I do!  These are some of my favorites!  Ann and John
And probably the saddest, most beautiful inscription, from Tennyson’s Poems:
 (A pressed flower was right inside the cover; I’m not sure what type it is, but it’s a light pink)
Miss Moller A. Gibson, compliments of J.P.S. (this was in pencil, and then the handwriting changes and the rest is written with an old-fashioned ink pen)
In loving remembrance of dear sister Mary who esteemed you as one of her dear friends.
Grand Blanc
June 1st 1901

For further reading of other people’s private thoughts, try looking into The Book Inscription Project’s website.

When doing my personal research for this post, I found that mostly older books had more than a name written on the flyleaf. This is a shame. Books leave their marks on us, there is no reason why we shouldn’t reciprocate, even in a small way. So I challenge you: look at your own bookshelves.  Are there any remnants of readers past in your used books? And next time you give someone a book as a gift, what words will you share just inside the front cover?

*Finders keepers, losers weepers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Borders in memoriam

Say what one will about the shortcomings that led to its eventual downfall, to me Borders Books will always be a fond memory in my life as a young reader. I know that a lot of bibliophiles avoid "big chain bookstores" such as Borders and Barnes and Noble, preferring instead to patronize a favorite small bookstore-cafe. But for me, Borders was My Store. And now it is gone.

A lot of my personal purchases were not, what could normally be assumed, the great literature that most book collectors seek while on a shopping spree. Rather, I tended to collect the "coffee table" books that were set out on tables in front of the cashier counter--no doubt strategically tempting impulse buys. Yet I am no impulse buyer when it comes to books, and would go to these tables first in search of my intended quarry: ancient history and mythology books with full-page color photographs. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A confession...except I'm not really ashamed of it

So I was trying to decide which of my books to read next (I’m approximately 60% through the volumes on my shelves) and I came across a collection of works by Rudyard Kipling, most famous for The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. My mom had found this collection at a used book-sale (why I wasn’t with her at such a glorious event is beyond imagination) and like the good enabler she is bought it for me. 

Anyway I took it off the shelf to consider whether I should start reading it immediately or save it for a special reading occasion. Sometimes feeling the “heft” of a book…it’s weight, its solidity, its gilt binding….

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reviewing Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"

Indian Gray Mongoose

This is the epic story of a brave mongoose protecting his adopted human family against the evil machinations of a family of cobras.  I borrowed Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 short story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, when I was about eight years old.  I read it every night before bed, by the light of the hallway coming into my dark bedroom.  (If I had known about the convention about making a tent out of sheets and reading by flashlight, I would’ve followed tradition.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How to Survive if You're in a Mystery Novel

How to Survive if You’re a Character in a Sherlock Holmes Adventure:

1.      Hire Sherlock Holmes. 

2.      OR hire Scotland Yard. They will then go to Sherlock Holmes.

3.      Hide in the Diogenes Club until case is solved.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reviewing Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows"

"One does not argue with The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us.  As I wrote once: It is a Household Book; a book which everybody in the household loves, and quotes continually; a book which is read aloud to every new guest and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth."
~ A.A. Milne

C.S. Lewis once said that “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” By extension, a children’s story that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike is the definition of a good children’s story. And when you look up that definition in the dictionary, a cover photo of The Wind in the Willows is at the top of the entry. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

When the Sidekick Tells the Story: Two Vernean Narrators for the Price of One

As I was making a mental list of narrators who are actually the sidekicks, I thought of the sidekicks of heroes in series of stories surrounding them. To round out this series of entries, however, I’m going to depart from that pattern to talk about two narrators of two distinct novels by one author, Jules Verne. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When the Sidekick Tells the Story: Professor Brinton “Uncle Brinnie” Garrett

He’s been crushed by collapsing ancient ruins, trudged across the Sahara, paddled up Central American rapids, stopped government coups and archaeological frauds, and had everything explode around him from riverboats to gift-baskets of bratwurst. All things considered, it’s a wonder Professor Brinton Garrett survived long enough to narrate the six books that comprise the Adventures of Vesper Holly series by the often-overlooked and almost-always-underappreciated young adult author, Lloyd Alexander. 

And who, you may ask, is this Miss Vesper Holly? Only Professor Garrett’s adventurous teenage ward who keeps dragging him from his peaceful home in Strafford, PA to exotic and dangerous locales abroad!  With marmalade-colored hair and a penchant for danger, Vesper not only is the orphaned daughter of Garrett’s old colleague, she’s also a genius in her own right and has the wanderlust of a Victorian female Indiana Jones. She also owns a volcano. But just a small one.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When the Sidekicks Tell the Story: The Often Irrelevant and Confusing Archie Goodwin

[Wolfe's] brain works better when he is sitting down and mine when I am on my feet. Not that I would dream of comparing mine with his, though I do believe that in one or two respects – Oh, well. 
~ Rex Stout, Plot it Yourself

To recap my “When the Sidekicks Tell the Story” series thus far: Watson is the narrator for Holmes because Watson adds emotional depth to the mind puzzles. Hastings is the narrator for Poirot mainly for his good-hearted, relatable British familiarity in comparison to the eccentric Belgian. Wooster is the narrator for Jeeves because it would be uber annoying to have every sentence end with “sir” which would have been the case had Jeeves narrated it himself. 

Archie Goodwin is the narrator for Nero Wolfe for NONE of the above reasons. No, the true reason Archie is the narrator is because Nero Wolfe NEVER WILLINGLY LEAVES HIS HOUSE. Therefore without Archie, Wolfe would just sit and read and never solve any cases until he ran out of caviar. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Recipe for a Detective: Nero Wolfe and the Amalgamation of Mystery Styles

Take one deductive genius with outlandish eccentricities.

Combine with one hard-boiled gumshoe with an eye for a good-looking dame and a .45 in his holster.

Stir in some hardnosed, cigar-chewing NYPD policemen who think both genius and gumshoe are concealing evidence.

Fold in a Swiss chef who has no personal life. 

Pinch of Saul Panzer (if desired). 

Yield: 33 novels and 39 short stories by Rex Stout.* 

Monday, January 14, 2013

When the Sidekicks Tell the Story: Captain Arthur Hastings

In a recent entry I talked about Doctor Watson in his sidekick/narrator role for Sherlock Holmes.  I want to point out that nowhere in that entry did I call him buffoonish, comic relief (although Holmes probably laughs on the inside whenever he withholds the solution to a mystery from his friend), or foolish in any way. 

Unfortunately a lot of adaptations (*cough*NigelBruce*cough*) felt that in order to make Holmes look brilliant on film, they had to lower Watson’s intelligence to show a greater differentiation between the two. (Happily the latest adaptations of Watson (played by Jude Law in theaters, Ian Hart in the latest BBC adaptations, and Martin Freeman in the BBC update) have allowed him to actually possess some brain cells. One can only hope that these adaptations, and not the old cartoonish stereotype, will restore Watson’s reputation.)

In this entry, however, I get to introduce Captain Arthur Hastings, the sidekick of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. I haven’t read all of Christie’s novels (yet…), but I’ve noticed that Hastings’ character is the stereotype of Watson.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

When the Sidekicks Tell the Story: Bertie Wooster, Master and Sidekick

“I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”

P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves

Do you ever get that urge to write a complex story about a genius servant who, through intelligence, deadpan wit, and sheer luck manages to control his cheerful-but dippy master and even more dippy friend and enemies?  Does that urge come with the matching accessory of wanting to include dialog ranging from Shakespearean poetry to phrases like ‘What ho,’ 'oh rather!' and 'toodle off,' names like Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little?

Then I’m sorry to tell you that you’d be ripping off P.G. “Plum” Wodehouse big time.  But luckily he saved you the trouble of writing them, so you can straightaway start reading them.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

When the Sidekicks Tell the Story: The Watson that Started It All

Okay, so maybe the title exaggerates. I’m not sure Dr. Watson is the first sidekick-narrator in all of fiction. I’m pretty sure the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s mysteries is the sidekick of Dupin, and that was written before the Holmes stories. However, the narrator of those stories has no name. Not very sidekick of him. Any self-respecting sidekick would at least have a name, if not a catchphrase like “Holy morgue-murdering apes, Dupin!”  or “Great perniciously purloined letters!”

But I digress.  

My point is whether Watson was the first or not, he is the one who people will think about first when you say to a random passerby, “Hey, what literary character is a sidekick who tells the stories of an awesome hero?” He even has his own trope. 

Watson may not be the brilliant mind, avid detective or raving eccentric that makes Holmes one of the most iconic characters in literature, but Holmes owes a TON to Watson. Without Watson’s character describing the “lumbering” and emotional details of a case, the Holmes adventures would be sterile and boring.  

It is Watson who takes note of the beauty of the damsel in distress, or the malicious expression on the villain’s face when Holmes thwarts his dastardly scheme. If Holmes narrated his own stories (and he does in two of them, but it’s just not the same!!!) the brilliant deductions would be treated as obvious, if Holmes took the time to describe them at all. With Watson as narrator, however, every deduction is treated as stupendous and awe-inspiring. 

The other characters of the Holmes adventures are more important because of Watson, too. With Holmes, it’s the mystery itself, not his clients, who interest him in his cases. But Watson adds heart.  

This isn’t just a mystery to be solved for the good doctor, it’s a matter of saving lives, or putting them back together, or setting someone’s mind at ease, or helping a girl with no other protectors. The people who come to 221b are desperate enough to seek out a private detective rather than go to the police, and because Watson tells the story they are given some and humanity. 

Holmes might be a genius about the different soil types or cigar ash, but Watson is a genius at making the Holmes cases about the people as well as the puzzle.

When the Sidekicks Tell the Story: Introduction

We like our heroes to be awesome. That’s what makes them heroes. They’re smarter, stronger, faster, better looking, and can zip off witty one-liners while dueling the villain. We enjoy these things vicariously through the heroes, knowing all too well that we are average Joes who tend to think of the best comeback after the confrontation is over. 

But sometimes writers are just too good at their jobs. They make the heroes so awesome that it’s beyond the readers’ ability to relate to them. So the writers have no recourse but to have a sidekick who is just as average—and maybe more buffoonish—than we are.

Another useful thing about the sidekick is the writer can use him or her as the narrator if they want to use first-person perspective. Otherwise they’re stuck with third person because it would not be as awesome for the overly-awesome hero to relate how awesome and heroic they were. That would be bragging, and no matter what other faults the hero can have, bragging is just not cool.
So this series of blog posts is dedicated to the sidekicks who tell the story. And obviously the first person that came to your mind—either because he’s the most well-known or because his name is in the title of the next entry—is Doctor John H. Watson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures. So that’s where I’ll start.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An ironic post about Thoreau's "Life without Principle"

"I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,-- to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought." 

~ Henry David Thoreau, Life without Principle

I'm blogging about this...see the irony?

Now normally I am not a huge Thoreau fan--(I mean, really? Who really cares about the temperature of Walden Pond in the dead of winter? It's not like we're gonna be swimming in that any time soon...)--so I will immediately turn the topic of conversation to my default topic of conversation, Sherlock Holmes. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Best Books to Listen To

Before there were books, there were still stories. Epic poems recited and improvised upon around a bonfire at night. Passed by word from one generation to the next and spread from one village to the next until some bright kid invented the alphabet and wrote all these stories down. Even today some cultures maintain that oral legacy of storytelling. Now you can recreate the experience of listening to great oral works, too! Below are three categories of books that work particularly well in audio format, as well as a few suggestions of the best authors and readers available.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"I claim this planet in the name of Mars. Isn't that lovely?" : H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds"

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells…sweded.

 Scene: The Turn of the Century, English Countryside.

ENGLISH PEOPLE WITH STIFF UPPER LIPS: tut tut it looks like rain.

MARTIANS: lol nope. *crash land*

FIRST PERSON NARRATOR: Oh look an alien Pringles can.  And since we have just been looking at Mars that must be where it came from.

ENGLISH PEOPLE: tut tut it looks like rain.

FIRST PERSON NARRATOR: we must help the aliens that obviously are inside this cylinder! 

Monday, January 7, 2013

"What's in a name?" Re-titling Shakespeare

Most people probably know already that in acting circles it's considered bad luck to call "MacBeth" by its proper name. To ward off this curse, actors call it "The Scottish Play." Which got me thinking: what if all Shakespearean plays were cursed? What would the alternate titles be?

  • Hamlet - The Danish Play
  • Othello - The Racist Play
  • King Lear - The Bad Parenting Play
  • Timon of Athens - The Misanthropic Play
  • Romeo and Juliet - The Completely Avoidable Teen Suicide Play
  • The Taming of the Shrew - The Sexist Play
  • The Merchant of Venice - The Antisemitic Play
  • Measure for Measure - The Ol' Switcheroo Play
  • The Tempest - The Revenge-by-Matchmaking Play
  • A Comedy of Errors - The Extra Confusing Play
  • As You Like It - The "go live in the forest.  everything's better in the forest" Play
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream - The "this would make a good reality dating show" Play
  • A Winter's Tale - The "of course faking your death will restore all relationships" Play
  • Twelfth Night - The "Wait, how'd they live happily ever after in this enemy kingdom?" Play
  • All's Well That Ends Well - The "how I promised to love my wife if she became a kleptomaniac" Play
This isn't a complete list. If you are disappointed by seeing your favorite play omitted, feel free to make up your own "codeword title" and post it in the comments. I'd love to hear alternate titles to my own as well!

How to be smarter if your name's MacBeth

Things you should do if you happen to find yourself in the same situation as MacBeth:

1.      Ask yourself: “Hum, three WITCHES just appeared in the wilderness OUT OF NOWHERE with a CAULDRON and are for some reason trying to get me to KILL THE KING.  I wonder if maybe they have some personal agenda of being EVIL WITCHES?”

2.      Ask your wife the same thing when, after telling her the witches’ prophecy, she seems freakishly gung-ho about it even though you know she’ll just cave to guilt if you actually carry out the assassination. 

3.      If you do fall for the whole “kill the king” thing, don’t go around with a fake clownish smile on your face repeating “don’t look like a murderer don’t look like a murderer” between your gritted teeth.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

CANNON-BALL!!! Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay “Self-Reliance”

There comes a point in an individual’s life when they must take into account all that they’ve been taught—by tradition, parents, teachers, and popular society—and decide whether they will passively accept these teachings or reevaluate them for themselves. It’s at this point when that individual either chooses conformity or what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls Self-Reliance. This self-reliance comes from the ability to express oneself—one’s “genius”—whether or not it conforms to other expectations.