Friday, November 29, 2013

Food and Fiction

Image from

One of my fondest memories from my college literature classes is from my first semester of college.  I had signed up for British Literature II, a course based, obviously, on British Literature.  The “II” encompassed the years 1800-1950.  The professor lady was cheerful and friendly to her students, including myself, and it was clear from the way she talked about books that she derived absolute glee from them.*  She had us read out loud the poetry and act out the plays.  She had outdated and esoteric video adaptations that we would watch and discuss, or play musical numbers.  She would instruct us to draw illustrations of scenes from the classic literature.  And she graded on a “200%” scale, something she knew would drive the more mathematically-minded of her students crazy. 

Thus, when one of the students suggested we have a “Literature Tea” during class, this very interactive and engaging professorin was all for it.  The rules were simple: any student who wanted to participate should sign up for a food that had been included in one of the works we had read on the syllabus.  We had read The Importance of Being Earnest, so there was tea and teacake and bread and butter (I brought English muffins, someone else brought “American) muffins” and we had a friendly discussion as to whose were more accurate to the actual play.  Someone who had not been studying hard enough brought crumpets (which were NOT in anything we had read.)

Food is actually dangerous to keep around books.  Not just the obvious dangers of coffee spills or staining, but the insidious odors that books soak  up like sponges, or the crumbs that wriggle their way into the binding.  Yet food and books are both “cozy” things that seem to go so well together.  And many books—not just cookbooks, but novels and poetry—talk about food in such a way that makes one ravenous in their reading.   I know that I can’t read a Charles Dickens novel without getting peckish…and it’s not just because it takes such a long time to read his novels, either!

I remember reading Pippi on the High Seas and suddenly needing some fruit because of all the talk of coconuts.  Good luck to anyone reading a Nero Wolfe mystery and not getting a sudden desire for a tall glass of milk.  Brian Jacques, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Kenneth Grahame…there must be something about British fantasy writers that causes them to go on long diatribes about succulent feasts.  Oh and for the record if you read C.S. Lewis, Turkish Delight is pretty good as long as you’re not getting it from Jadis the White Witch.  

See? she doesn't look very trustworthy at all.

And watch out for those Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It’ll make you crave pure maple syrup, flapjacks, salted pork and pies made from green pumpkins.  My two favorite spreads for toast or biscuits are honey and marmalade, and my two favorite fictional bears are Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington…coincidence? I think NOT! 

*No, this was NOT high school, and there was NO singing.  But “gleeful” is a perfect adjective for the way she talked about things in class.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I love it when TV talks bookish to me

From the ABC sitcom "The Middle."  Obviously the character Brick is my favorite, played by the actor with the very literary name "Atticus."

Monday, November 25, 2013

Literary Cupcakes

"My Father's Dragon" by Ruth Stiles Gannett

I’m sure I’ve recounted how my mom used to trick me into reading books when I was younger* by reading aloud the first few chapters of a book and then stopping at the Critical Moment so I had no recourse but to devour the book when she was off making my PB and J. 

Once, however, this backfired.  I was about ten years old, and as we were in the process of moving we were at the time living in my grandma’s basement until our new home was vacated.  My mom got out this book called My Father’s Dragon and was trying to get me to read it.  Now by ten years old I was a confirmed reader, but frankly the illustrations of My Father’s Dragon (and its sequels Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland) seemed pretty babyish to me. 

“This dragon looks like a dork,” I thought dubiously as she handed me the slim paperback.  “Why does this lion have bows in its hair?  And who wants to read about a story starring someone’s father?”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Beverly Cleary's "Ramona" Series

Illustration by Louis Darling
I am sure I read every book of fairy tales in our branch library, with one complaint—all that long, golden hair.  Never mind—my own short brown hair became long and golden as I read and when I grew up I would write a book about a brown-haired girl to even things up. 
 ~ Beverly Cleary

As wonderful as Anne Shirley or the American Girls or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Alice in Wonderland are…no one, not even Laura Ingalls Wilder (who was REAL) is as real and relatable as Ramona Quimby.  At least for me. 

When we meet Ramona, she’s the pesty preschool sister of Beezus, the best friend and proto-love interest to Beverly Cleary’s other hero, Henry Huggins.  Beezus got her own spinoff from Henry in Beezus and Ramona.  But Ramona, being Ramona, quickly took over, spinning off in Ramona the Pest.  She didn’t stay a pest, though.  By third grade she’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (which happens to be the first book by Cleary I ever read, and remains my favorite to this day), and by the conclusion of her series it’s Ramona’s World. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Terrible Covers: The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man

Some books are so good that it would be miraculous if any cover did them justice.  Lloyd Alexander's The Cat Who Wished to be a Man is just such a book. 

The copy I own personally is this:
Now don’t get me wrong; many of the elements in this cover are good.  There’s a cat that matches the description of Lionel (orange fur, green eyes), there’s the MacGuffin wishbone and the sack he keeps it in around his neck.  He’s wearing a vaguely Renaissancey hat that places the approximate time period in which the story takes place.  And behind him is the bridge and the village where the story takes place. All good, right?  To be honest I don’t have much of an issue with this one, except now that I have cats (one of them an orange one, in fact) this cat’s expression is just…strange.  Cats can smile, sure, but not like…that.

Next on the docket is the second most common cover:

Again, not too much wrong with this one.  A lot of Alexander’s book covers have a similar layout, with a lot going on.  I don’t have a problem with these sorts of covers because it gives you something to inspect in between chapters.  Shut the book for a breather, stare at the cover trying to glean clues about what’s going to happen.  That’s my motto.  But Stephanus’ outfit is…well, it’s Mickey Mouse, isn’t it? 

Last, and probably the oldest and worst (which isn’t necessarily always the case, but it sure is today):

Okay, okay, I admit this scene is from the book.  It’s the bridge scene, which is one of the best and most hilarious where Lionel uses his kitty strength in his human body to humiliate the evil bridge troll…er, I mean, tollbooth guy.  But face it: Lionel looks pretty ridiculous.  He doesn’t look as he’s described in the book, with the orangey hair and green eyes and feline grace.  Actually, this cover makes it look like Lionel is riding in Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.  What makes this cover the definitive worst, however, is the font.  I mean, really?!  I don’t remember what that font is called, but all I know is that book titles should avoid it like the plague unless they WANT to be judged by their covers.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reviewing Lloyd Alexander's "The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man"

I’m going to divulge a secret I’ve never told anyone*: I love Lloyd Alexander’s books. For the most part my favorites of his are series: The Adventures of Vesper Holly, The Westmark Trilogy, The Chronicles of Prydain. But his one-shot novels have their own merits, and of them one of the best and brightest is The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man. 

The plot is pretty much nutshelled by the title. The cat, Lionel, wishes to be a man.  Lucky for him, his owner is a magician who can grant this wish…to teach Lionel the error of his wishes, of course, since humans are dumb and inferior to cats. So Lionel is humanized—literally—and sets off to learn the error of his ways in the vaguely European medieval/renaissance village. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Another inscription in one of my used books

In the current book of poetry I am slowly reading, I found this written (apparently in a fine-tipped Sharpie-style pen) on the back of my copy of A Choice of Kipling's Verse ~  selected with an essay on Rudyard Kipling by T.S. Eliot (Published 1941 by Faber and Faber Ltd.):

"And this letter will be the last
If I don't hear from you --
Not out of anger or pride but
Simply because one-way discourse
is [...] boring for me -- I can
hear my own voice quite enough as
it is, thank-you."

Thinking perhaps it was a quotation, I tried searching it on the Internet, but to no avail.  (If it IS from some poem or another sort of literary reference, please inform me in the comments below!)  Either way, it struck me as so sad, so lonely, and so final.  Why write it in a book?  Why this particular collection of Kipling's poetry?  Why the last page (really, the paperback cover) rather than the first--if this was a gift to someone who wasn't replying to letters, surely the flyleaf or something would be the obvious choice so the receiver would see it right away.

Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" and Its Influences

Until the early modern European era, English literature was not considered of the same high caliber as its continental counterparts.  By England’s renaissance and subsequent reformation, the kingdom began to distinguish itself as a major power.  As a consequence, the English people became aware of their need for artistic achievement in order to prove themselves to the other nations.  In competition with Italian and French renaissance writers as well as Classical poets like Homer, Virgil, and Petrarch, the British endeavored to recreate in English the forms that had instilled such prestige in other languages.

Accepting this quest was Sir Edmund Spenser, and his epic poem The Faerie Queene defined contemporary English culture.  A glorification to Elizabeth I’s reign, The Faerie Queene recalled not only the epic, but the romance-cycle poetry of the Arthurian legends.  Through the analogous stories of chivalric quests for virtue, not only was England’s ruler glorified, but the English nation’s Protestant religion and their ensuing values were endorsed as well.  In juxtaposing England’s literary heritage with its contemporary moral attributes, Spenser’s purpose was to create a work that would show England’s worth to the entire world.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

T.S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady"

Poetry as a genre is distinct from other genres of writing in that, although it has the ability to tell stories, poetry uses form as well as plot to illustrate a particular theme.  In his poetry, T.S. Eliot uses words not only for exposition of characters and situations, but also to instill form in a poem.  This is evident in his poem “Portrait of a Lady,” in which words not only create the personas’ characters, but also create order in a poem that in many ways goes against formulaic convention. 

"Portrait of a Lady” tells an intricate story condensed into three sections, and mainly concerns interactions between two characters: the narrator and a lady.  In the first section of the poem, the narrator is one of a group of people visiting the lady, but in subsequent sections they are alone, as the action centers on them.  The two characters are exposed through the poem’s story by how they react to their current situations: the narrator voices his reactions in thoughts and the lady does the same through dialogue.  In both cases the characters and situation develop as the poem itself progresses.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Color by any other Title

Awhile back  I called the color ORANGE "clockwork," referring to Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Although I haven't read this novel myself (and having learned something of the themes in it, it might be a bit too graphic for my taste), it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I love books so much, you see, and am so often surrounded by them, that even their titles enter into my everyday jargon in unexpected ways.

For instance, why call colors by their boring names when you can use literary epithets instead? Your conversation is bound to be more interesting:

ME: I have one with clockwork fur and wallpaper eyes, and another cat with picture-of-dorian fur and eggs-and-ham eyes.  I also have a dog with like-me and fang fur and marbled eyes of island-of-the-dolphins and man-in-the-suit. 


ME: Oh, you don't get the literary references to popular book titles?  Well allow me to explain the plots of each of them in agonizing detail....