Saturday, July 28, 2012

Kenneth Grahame

The most priceless possession of the human race is the wonder of the world. Yet, latterly, the utmost endeavors of mankind have been directed toward the dissipation of that wonder... Science analyses everything to its component parts, and neglects to put them together again... Nobody, any longer, may hope to entertain an angel unawares, or to meet Sir Lancelot in shining armour on a moonlit  road. But what is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment?  ~~ Kenneth Grahame

Given the Olympics Opening Ceremonies having just aired, it seems fitting to do a post on Kenneth Grahame. In between reading some of my more serious, academic books I decided to revisit a couple of old childhood classics of his -- his famous The Wind In The Willows and maybe lesser known The Reluctant Dragon, a story originally featured in his 1898 book, Dream Days.

Grahame was born in Scotland in 1859, but sadly orphaned at an early age. Still a young child, he was moved to England to live in the care of relatives. He grew up to have a mix of jobs aside from writing, including being a social worker at night and the Secretary of The Bank Of England by day. He was also part of the London-Scottish Regiment. The shy-natured Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1889 who later gave Grahame a son, Alastair (who went by the nickname "Mouse").

"I write not only for children,
 but for adults who remember what it is like to be children."

How cute was he!

Wind In The Willows

This classic came about when Grahame brought home a mole as a pet for his son and the housemaid accidentally killed it. The stories started as a way to comfort Alastair and let him know that the mole would live on in the stories. Alastair enjoyed the stories so much, he begged his father to continue them in letters even when the young boy was sent on trips with his mother to visit family. The stories continued to grow through these letters between father and son. Grahame's wife, Elspeth (who had always encouraged her husband's writing) found the stories so adorable, she recommended that Grahame have them published as a book. The end result was The Wind In The Willows, published after Grahame retired from the Bank of England. Sadly, Alastair, who was sickly and blind in one eye (perhaps the reason for the side profile in the pic above?) battled depression, committing suicide at the age of 19 (the link under Alastair's pic will take you to an article discussing the sad story).  The pain of his son's death stayed with Grahame until his death in 1932 at the age of 73.  I've read elsewhere that excitable Frog who was always curious about "the next big thing" was based on Alastair's energetic and inquiring nature. 

1966 illustration of Toad by beloved children's illustrator
Tasha Tudor (my favorite of all the illustrators I've seen
tackle TWITW)

Re-reading this book as an adult, I am struck by how relatable the characters are, even now. Everyone knows someone like all of these characters. Have a friend always into the latest gadgets, fashions, trends? That's Toad. Rat is the one you might call very "granola", he loves the outdoors and simple living. Mole loves experiencing new things and meeting new people even if he has some trepidation in being outside of his comfort zone. He's ever curious about what's going on just over the next hill. See what I mean? Even the landscape, especially The Wild Woods... at least the way Rat describes it... sounds like that sketchy part of town you know to avoid as much as possible.  Perhaps that's part of the eternal appeal of this book, it just never gets old. 

BTW... There's a 1996 Terry Jones live action screen adaptation that's a nice mix of eerie and sweet and there was a really cute BBC / PBS Masterpiece Theatre aired version made in 2006. You can watch the whole thing (but in sections of course) on YouTube.

1996 Terry Jones adaptation:

2006 adaptation with Bob Hoskins & Matt Lucas

I also heard that yet another version was set to be released this year with Ricky Gervais doing the voice of Mole... does anyone know, did that project get shelved or is it still in the works? Just curious. 

The Reluctant Dragon

Perhaps not quite as famous as The Wind In The Willows, I think I first read The Reluctant Dragon when I was about nine years old. I recently found my old copy in a box of books in my mom's storage. I remember really liking the book but not much else so I figured it was time for a refresher. I think it took me maybe 45 mins to read (and I'm a slower reader), it's that short but so adorable! The dialogue is very fun and witty, making the story move very quickly. And I loved that the dragon spoke like "a perfect English gent"! This is the story of a dragon who makes his home on a hill above a quiet English village but instead of wanting to attack the villagers, he wants to be friends with them, recite poetry, eat delicious foods, and just bask in good friendship. How do you convince a bunch of medieval villagers of that though? There's one little boy (just known as The Boy) who lives in town who climbs up the hill every day, not showing a moment of fear around this dragon but instead is the first of the humans to offer up his friendship while explaining that the rest of the town won't be won over so easily. 

The Reluctant Dragon illustration by Ernest H. Shepard
"Do for goodness' sake try and remember that your a pestilential scourge or
you'll find yourself in a most awful fix."
The Boy to The Reluctant Dragon

The dragon has a pretty funny hashing out with St. George, the knight you may have read about in legends who was reputed to be quite the dragon-slayer. They calmly and sensibly discuss the terms of a faux battle to appease the riled up locals --  where George is allowed to strike the dragon, how much noise will be made, etc... all as if it were some business deal between friends!

Written in 1898, I wondered if this book was maybe the idea behind Disney's Pete's Dragon but it turns out Disney did a 1941 cartoon adaptation of this book, sticking with the book's title for the cartoon. Though I thought I had seen just about every old Disney movie out there, I can't seem to remember this one. 

The dragon has the characteristic high, squeaky voice of so 
many characters in early Disney movies. Not quite how I pictured 
the dragon in the book but still a cute clip:

and this was a little before my time, but I found this ABC-TV clip of a show where Grahame's characters The Reluctant Dragon and Mr Toad were given a show together... anyone see this when it was on?

"Banquets are always pleasant things, consisting mostly, as they do, of eating and drinking, but the especially nice thing about a banquet is that it comes when something is over, and there's nothing more to worry about, and tomorrow seems a long way off."  ~~ Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon

Grahame uses a unique humor to teach kids the importance of really getting to know people before you judge them. People (or dragons) may seem scary or anti-social on the outside but maybe they really long for people to take an honest, non-judgemental interest in them. :-)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Have You Read Anything By Charles Martin?

On one of my recent perusals of a local Goodwill Store book section, I found a couple of books by this guy Charles Martin. Had never heard of him before, but I was intrigued by the covers. Come to find out he's a Christian author with a number of books already under his belt! Christian fiction is not something I actively seek out but it's not something I necessarily steer clear of either. I enjoyed both of these books so much, I unashamedly googled Charles Martin and to tell you the truth, had I not read about his Christian roots, I would not have guessed anything about it from the writing. These books do not preach at you, they just have beautiful, simple but powerful stories about loving marriages. I saw my own marriage in these books, the lengths my husband and I would go to for each other (fingers crossed no such thing happens because Martin writes some pretty hardcore medical problems for his leading ladies, part of the pull of the story -- you get so pulled into the characters you want to know if they'll pull through).  One thing that really appeals to me about these books is they're not overly sappy. The men are like my husband, there's no doubt they love their wives but they don't have to spout sonnets 24/7 or burst into tears over how achingly beautiful life is all the time. Not saying they can't feel that way on the inside but I'm a bit of an old fashioned girl. I like men TO BE MEN, throw me a nice letter or a surprise gift, improptu trip or something from time to time but if you profess too much, the special moments stop being so special. I like that Martin lets his men be men and his ladies be sassy but loving. I would say if you like Nicholas Sparks, Martin is better! I like a few of Sparks' books but some of his recent stuff gives me cavities (figuratively, of course. I care for my books too much to gnaw on 'em.. :-P).

The Dead Don't Dance

Dylan Styles is orphaned at a young age and goes to live with his grandparents, Pappa & Nanny, in an old farmhouse in South Carolina. Dylan grows up, meets lovely, lively Maggie and gets married. Maggie and Dylan continue to live in the old farmhouse (which Dylan inherits after his grandparents pass away). Dylan has a "city job" as an English professor but feels his real interest lies in continuing his grandfather's farming work... problem is, the farming isn't really making any money. Maggie has complications with a pregnancy and winds up in a coma. Dylan, refusing to let his wife go, starts to look at where his priorities have been and where maybe they need to be now. There are some great side characters in this story, mainly in Dylan's English class, such as Marvin, the class clown, and Koy, the emo chick who becomes an important friend to Dylan. My favorite character was Dylan's ball-bustin' best friend Amos (who is also the town sheriff), who never lets anyone wallow in self-pity. I know with the coma and all that, it sounds like this would be a sap-fest, but seriously, the characters are compelling and the dialogue feels real. There is a sequel to this book called Maggie. Haven't had a chance to read it yet... but soon :-)

Me Phi Me, "Revival"
Reading The Dead Don't Dance
 had me remembering this song :-)
If you're trying to place where you might have heard 
this one before, it was on the Reality Bites soundtrack.
That's right... going a little old school for y'all! 

Trace Adkins, "Muddy Water" 
The ending had me thinking of this song... 

Where The River Ends

A similar story, concerning a South Carolina couple, Doss and Abbie Michaels, but with a "wrong side of the tracks" element thrown in. Doss is a struggling artist, Abbie is a socialite /model/ politician's daughter who throws her social status to the wind, deciding to marry Doss and promote his artwork.  With Abbie's encouragement, Doss develops a reputation for making beautiful paintings from visually unattractive subjects. 

Again, Martin writes in a sick wife, this time it seems terminal. Ironically, the woman that taught her husband to see the beauty in ugly struggles to find how her husband can still be attracted to her as she gets more and more sickly and more dangerously thin each day (combination of the illness and the treatments). Doss in a similar way struggles to show her he sees the beauty of her soul, which always makes her beautiful inside and out to him. But ladies, you know how resistant we can be to believe such things when we feel that low. My favorite scene in the whole book comes when Abbie is in the hospital for a treatment and her husband keeps hearing the nurses talk about her or mention her on the overcom, but they refer to her by her room number, "1054". He gets fed up and calls the whole floor staff to his wife's room:

I'd like to introduce you all to my wife. This is Abbie Michaels. You can just call her Abbie. She's a wife, a daughter, a friend, she has a tendency to talk with her hands, she likes Lucky Strike jeans and she sees beauty where others don't. She is not and has never been '1054' {to which a head nurse starts to say HIPPA laws mandate...}... I know you all work hard. A lot harder than most give you credit for. I am thankful for what you do and how you do it, but HIPPA's wife is not lying in that bed. I need to ask you to look at the woman in that bed and not think of her as a number. Not a statistic. Hope is what feeds us. And to be honest, it's running in short supply around here. 

BOOM! Gotta love that kinda fella, not afraid to demand respect for the woman he loves! Doss, working off of a sort of bucket list of 10 "normal life" things Abbie wants to do in her lifetime (things that have no connection to her fame or family money, just everyday living moments), decides to take her on a river trip from SC to Florida, rather than have her wither away in the hospital. This book ponders the question of whether, in one's final days, it's better to have quantity or quality of life. Do you fight just to have more days in general or do you make the most of the days you think you have? The one problem I had with Doss is he always seemed to get tangled up in confrontations with people but didn't have a bit of fighting ability, ever! He would talk brave but physically he was always getting whooped on! :-S Sometimes it's best to nod or shrug and move on lol. 

"All My Love" by Led Zepplin
Doss talks about how special this song is 
to him and Abbie

One of the elements of the story I really enjoyed was all the art history and amazing paintings that were special to Abbie & Doss woven throughout the story. I love art history so having a character tell these stories was like candy to me :-)

"Woman In A Grove" by Jacek Malczewski
"People are always telling me I'm beautiful. Okay, so what. I've spent most of my life in front of the cameras. People use my image to sell a product. That's all. At the end of the day, they've used me -- my face or figure, which by the way I had nothing to do with -- to tell everyone how they are not like me. Hence, you're not beautiful. Or, you're not pretty. Or, you don't measure up. If you want to make great art, something that can reach beyond time and space, find someone, find someone who isn't and show them that they are. Paint the broken, the unlovely... and make them believe." ~~ Abbie

Abbie and Doss visit numerous art galleries and museums in their time together -- some of their favorites mentioned:

"While her body is provocative, it is drawn in such a way that leads you time and time again to her face, the angle of her neck,the inviting drop of her shoulders, the playfulness in her eyes, the relaxed crossing of her legs. It's what a nude should be." ~ Doss

How dedicated are you to your art? When Bernini was in the process of sculpting this bust, titled "Damned Soul", he burned his forearm with a hot iron to get the face of agony just right!!

This book surprised me... how much it tugged at my heart. Similar books usually have me internally yelling "AHH C'MOON!" where the woe-is-me thrown into overdrive. But Martin's characters thankfully feel like real people. The ending in Where The River Ends has a bit of a what-you-might-expect-tearjerker wrap up but until then you really want to be on the boat ride with these two!

"River In Forrest" from
"The river can be a magical place. As much as I've been here, I still don't quite get her. No matter how you hurry or how hard and fast you pull on the paddle, the river controls the tempo. She stretches every minute and steals back every second. Rivers do this naturally. They don't give two cents about the destination. Name one straight river and I'll show you a man-made canal. People make a big deal about how their watch automatically sets itself to atomic time from a tower somewhere in Colorado, but if we were smart, we'd set our watches to river time. We'd wrinkle less and wouldn't grow old as quickly." ~~ Doss Michaels

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Odd Couples

Here's a couple books for you to check out that have unusual couples, unusual in that you might have an "ick" or "what tha..." moment here and there reading about them, but the writing is so good, I had to throw some props their way!

THE GIANT'S HOUSE by Elizabeth McCracken
(National Book Award Finalist .. figured it couldn't totally suck..)

This is the story of Peggy Cort, a 26 yr old "spinster" librarian living in the Cape Cod area in the 1950s where she meets 11 yr old James Carlson Sweatt, who suffers from gigantism. By the age of twelve, James is 6'5. James and Peggy develop a friendship at the library, Peggy giving him books that take his mind off of his disability and social awkwardness. Somewhere in the midst of their friendship, Peggy finds she's actually falling in love with James but realizes this is an inappropriate feeling to have towards someone still not legal. She can't seem to shake her deepening affection for him so she just keeps it to herself, struggling with seeing James grow up over the years, learning to flirt as a teenager, struggling with not knowing how to dance, etc. With everything that goes on, at the toughest moments James always comes back to Peggy, one night confessing his own feelings. You'd think this book would be really awkward to read but nothing inappropriate happens. James grows up, becomes a man and Peggy continues to help him as his condition worsens. It's actually really sweet (and bittersweet) the way this relationship develops between them. The one problem I did have with the story was the last few chapters, the way McCracken decided to wrap things up confused me, it felt a little disjointed and then like she quickly brought it back and tried to tie things up neatly.  But definitely give this one a try. It's a slow burn kind of read, doesn't really race through, but the development in itself is powerful.

There's some great quotes in this book. Check it out:

On history:

For some people, history is simply what your wife looks good in front of. It's what's cast in bronze, or framed in sepia tones, or acted out with wax dummies and period furniture. It takes place in glass bubbles filled with water and chunks of plastic snow; it's stamped on souvenir pencils and summarized in reprint newspapers. History nowadays is recorded in memorabilia. If you can't purchase a shopping bad that alludes to something, people won't believe it ever happened. 

On Love:

Despite popular theories, I believe people fall in love based not on good looks or fate but on knowledge. Either they are amazed by something a beloved knows that they themselves do not know; or they discover common rare knowledge; or they can supply knowledge to someone who's lacking. Hasn't everyone found a strange ignorance in someone beguiling?

I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him and I was not.
Truthfully, this is the fabric of my all my fantasies: love shown not by a kiss or a wild look or a careful hand but by a willingness for research. I don't dream of someone who understands me immediately, who seems to have known me my whole life, who says 'I know, me too.' I want someone keen to learn my own strange organization, amazed at what's revealed; someone who asks, 'and then what, and then what?' But you can't spend your life hoping that people will ask you the right questions. You must learn to love and answer the questions they already ask. Otherwise you're dreaming of visiting Venice by driving to Boise, Idaho. 

THE MOST WANTED by Jacquelyn Mitchard

This is the story of Arlington "Arley" Mowbrey a 14 yr old girl who, partly from a dare, partly out of a sense of charity, decides to write to Dillon LeGrande, an inmate at a South Texas prison who just happens to be 25. It starts out innocent enough because Arley doesn't expect anything more than a simple pen-pal sort of communication. But Arley feels a freedom in telling all her inner feelings to someone she figures it won't matter to. She figures the guy will think she's crazy and not write back. To her surprise (but not to the reader's 'cause c'mon 400+ pages here.. of course he wrote back!) she gets a letter from Dillon with him saying how moved he was by her honesty... and so starts the blossoming of their relationship. Did I mention Arley lied about her age to impress this guy she thought wouldn't care about her? Ahh plot muck :-). Well Dillon's not a total perve.. I guess.. he does take a pause and consider "okay.. she's 14" but then that leads to "well she's a mature kind of 14". Okay... bit of an ick moment there but hear me out. No, I'm not a wackadoodle myself endorsing these kind of things, I was disturbed by a lot in this book but because it was so well written I kept reading. And it helped that the story is broken up and alternated between the POVs  of Arley and Annie, her lawyer, who acts as the voice of reason in the story... oh, and Annie has a sweet, legal love affair of her own ;-)

 I thought Arley was a well developed character in that in the beginning we see her acting as if she knows exactly what she's doing but later as things get twisted up (as any adult could see from a mile away that they would), she freaks out and wants to be free of everything, though Annie tries to tell her it's too late, the proverbial bed's been made. I like that the teenage character actually sounded her age without going to the cliche airhead tone, but instead you get to see the mix of almost-adult thinking with the "can I get my mom to write a note" stage of life still in there. This book gets pretty dark as the story moves along. I hoped for Dillon to be that one in a million case of rehabilitated former sick puppy... seems like there were shreds of good guy in there. I was curious to know more about the backstory of Dillon and his brother but there wasn't much given. Oh, and Arley's mom? OMG.. that lady was pretty much flat-lining on the mom-o-meter. I don't think I've read such an exaggerated case of a woman having kids for the welfare money!

She did not neglect her children; neglect might have required more concentration than Rita was able to muster up.. Arley's mother simply did not love her, and not only did she not love her but she regarded Arley's school successes, as well as her timid attempts to involve herself in extracurricular activities, as a source of irritation, an obstacle that got between her and her right to cheap labor. 

Is it any wonder Arley turned out such a confused girl? Still, here's another book that offers great writing if you can get passed the taboo subject matter. 

"You asked somebody, they'd always say kin is kin. But that doesn't mean the same thing to people everyplace. When you grow up with all kinds of love from your blood kin, maybe you don't have that desperate hope for someone out there waiting who can make up for all the things blood never brought you. Someone who can look deep inside you and see things no one ever bothered to tell you were there." * Arley

Oh and btw.. wondering about Arley's name? Yeah.. her mom's one of those women who named all her kids after the towns they were conceived in... Arley is for Arlington, Texas... awkward name to try to pull off as feminine... poor girl  :-(