Classic Children’s Literature Month

2015_childrens_lit_originalThe blog Simpler Pastimes is hosting a month-long Classic Children’s Literature Event. Given that I’m only reading from my TBR piles and have plenty of children’s classics, it was ideal to join in with. But which one should I read?

Should I revisit a much-loved tale that I loved as a child?  Or one that I’d missed reading before?

After some perusing of my shelves, I came up with the choice below – by an author I don’t think I ever read as a child, but whom I know is highly regarded after all the reviews of new reprints of The Runaways (formerly Linnets and Valerians) by her, not least the one in Issue 1 of Shiny New Books – always good to get a plug in! So what did I choose? …

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Little White HorseIt was first published in 1946, but I had bought my copy only a few years ago (with my daughter in mind I expect) because it is a film tie-in one. They had to go and change the title to ‘The Secret of Moonacre‘ too for the film for some reason. This edition also includes a section of colour stills from the film with its great British cast – Ioan Gruffudd, Natascha McElhone, Juliet Stevenson. Tim Curry and, as the young heroine, the over-named Dakota Blue Richards.

My daughter bypassed this book in the end but I kept it for a rainy day to read myself. So, what did I think?  Well, I’ll save that for after a little resumé of the story…

Maria Merryweather is newly made a poor orphan and as the book starts she is in a carriage on her way to Moonacre, where she is to live with her Uncle Benjamin as they had to sell the London house to pay off her late father’s debts. Accompanying her is her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins.

Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.

Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people – those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.

So, from page one, we know that Maria is used to the finer things in life. Miss Heliotrope is long-suffering and bookish, and we think Wiggins might be a dog – he is.

They eventually arrive in the valley of the Moonacre estate, coming through a tunnel in the hill which was opened for them.  They meet Uncle Benjamin, who is large and jovial, and are shown to their rooms in the manor-house.

No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. …

The ceiling was vaulted, and delicate ribbings of stone curved over Maria’s head like the branches of a tree, meeting at the highest point of the ceiling in a carved representation of a sickle moon surrounded by stars.

It’s all too lovely.  A small four-poster bed, sheepskin rug, and silvery-oak chests finish off this dream interior.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

Everything about Moonacre seems perfect. But it isn’t long before Maria starts to find out about the legends surrounding her ancestors, who had stolen lands and sheep from the other local squire and engendered long-lasting bad relations with the fishermen in the bay. There is much talk about how Moon Princesses never stay long at Moonacre, of which of course, Maria is the latest and last of the line.

Maria being more than a little bossy sets out to put things, by which I mean everything, right, and we never doubt that she’ll succeed for a minute … and that is where my problems, reading this book as an adult, lie.

Maria is just too good!

She does have her good points though – she listens, but she uses what she hears to her advantage – she shamelessly manipulates everyone – thank goodness she only does it in their best interests. I’d hate to think what she’d be like crossed!

She and village boy Robin, do have an adventure when she goes to bargain with the wicked decendant of Black William, wronged by her own antecedent. But although chased by the men in black, you never feel that they’re in any real danger. To me, it felt as if it already had a Disney-type of gloss. Maybe the film stills insert gave me the wrong picture (it was Warner Brothers by the way). Everything was too easy for her and too obvious for me.

I did like the animals though. She rescues a hare from a trap and calls her Serena, and then she is kept safe in her escapades by Wrolf, who is essentially a lion pretending to be a giant hound. Trusty little steed Periwinkle the pony, and of course, Wiggins the spaniel complete the menagerie.

Underneath the sweetness of the narrative are themes of atonement, redemption, and a strong reminder that pride is a sin and will do its best to get in the way of true love (nearly made me choke saying that), and they all lived happily every after. To saccharine for me, however, it’s perfect fun for eight-year old girls who like a fairy-tale adventure. (6/10)

Am I being too harsh?
Have you seen the film?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon (via affiliate links), please click below:
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, Lion books paperback, 224 pages.
The Secret Of Moonacre [DVD] [2008]

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The problems with other peoples’ dreams…

Humor by Stanley Donwood

humor

The publisher of this book wishes me to vouch for the writer of this book who is a friend of mine in order to utilise whatever celebrity kudos the writer of this quote, i.e. me, has left in order to advance the sales of this book. This has been duly done now in the form of this quote. I am sure the book is very good though I cannot remember what it is called or whether I have read it. I’ve read lots of his stuff and it’s always good and I am in no way biased.  Thom Yorke, middle-aged father of two.

Having read that quote on the blurb for this book, I was intrigued enough by it and its rather lovely cover featuring giant red spiders in a forest to accept a review copy. Stanley Donwood is an artist, renowned for working with the band Radiohead (he designed their OK Computer sleeve for instance). He also illustrated the book Holloway by Dan Richards and Robert MacFarlane which you may have seen.

Humor is a collection of Donwood’s writings grouped into sections named for the four humors – sanguine, phlegm, choler and melancholy. The pieces that make up this collection vary from a single paragraph to over a dozen pages. In the Introduction, Donwood tells us how he mostly wrote these pieces in a period of his life during which he had bad dreams and used to wake with a scream.

In the first Sanguine group is a half-page piece called Game:

I am disturbed to discover that my colleagues have invented a new game which seems to involve attempting to kill me in every juvenile way that presents itself to them. They delight in surprising me with shoves into the paths of oncoming double-decker buses, constructing ridiculous rope-and-pulley devices with the aim of dropping heavy furniture on my head, placing tripwires at the tops of escalators, and other such inanities.
They persist for some weeks, during which I become increasingly adept at avoiding suddent death by blackly humorous means. I feel that my senses are sharpened day by day, that my sight is keener, my reflexes quicker.
Soon I can detect by the smell of linseed oil alone the presence of a cricket-bat-wielding acquaintance in the bathroom. Everything is enhanced. Colours are richer, noises are louder. I awaken to the pattern of life, the weight of deeds.
Eventually my heightened awareness evolves into a vividly focused paranoia. I can only retreat; I move surreptitiously to a small seaside resort on the east coast and wat, slowly, for a death of my own choosing.

That short one does at least have a beginning, a middle and an end, and is not an entirely unknown scenario (cf: Inspector Clouseau and Cato). But many of the other short pieces in this first section were just downright weird – and reading them was a bit like listening to a friend telling you about the weird dream they had last night. Other peoples’ dreams may be bizarre but, sleep scientists and psychiatrists excepted, the weirdness only has any real significance for the dreamer.

In the Phlegm section, a little tale called Condiment is about collecting his  bodily secretions of urine, ejaculate, blood and tears, harvesting the salts from them after the liquid has been evaporated and using it as a spice in cooking. Very odd indeed.

One I did really like from the Choler section was entitled East Croydon – and just comprised a list of the things seen from a train window approaching the station. More Croydon references – they keep on coming, (see my previous post)!

Nearly all the pieces are written in the first person. Many of these ‘micro-narratives’ have that dreamy, stream of consciousness feel to them – they could almost be flash fiction. Others, as we’ve seen above, are more structured. I enjoyed quite a few of these little stories, but many, although bizarre and born of nightmares, lacked either true horror or enough charm, as in Murakami’s recent novella The Strange library for instance (see here).

As a whole, Humor was more of a miss than a hit for me. I’m not a fan of Radiohead’s albums after The Bends (which I adore) either – OK Computer does nothing for me. I did love the glorious painting by Donwood on the endpapers though … (6/10).

Endpapers to Humor by Stanley Donwood

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Source: Publisher – thank you!

To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate links):
Humor by Stanley Donwood. Pub Nov 2014 by Faber and Faber. Hardback, 192 pages.
Holloway by Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. Faber paperback.
OK Computer by Radiohead. CD, 1997.

Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy-millerWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – to read all those books (mostly but not exclusively classics) that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; the aim is to read them in a single year.

The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded a bit with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon – my own neck of the woods.

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, (a book I have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself – being a scientist, not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.

‘I like a fresh bowl.’

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.