Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Odd notions

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

It’s been a long time since I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, but one short episode sticks in my mind. An old woman, Mrs. Bentley, begins chatting with three children who pause by her yard on a summer afternoon. One is Tom Spaulding, one of the main characters of the novel; the others are two girls, Jane and Alice. Mrs. Bentley mentions having been their age once, and the girls’ reaction is startling.

‘My mother says it isn’t nice to fib,’ said Jane.
‘Of course it isn’t. It’s very bad,’ agreed Mrs. Bentley.
‘And not to listen to fibs.’
‘Who was fibbing to you, Jane?’
Jane looked at her and then glanced nervously away.
‘You were.’

The fib, it turns out, was in claiming that she was once a girl like Jane and Alice. Mrs Bentley then tries to convince the girls by showing them some of the things she’s saved: a hair comb and ring she once wore, a set of jacks, a photo of herself at age seven. They simply don’t believe her. They laugh and run away with her things.

The idea that old people were once young is an odd notion for a child, one that takes an imaginative leap to comprehend. Bradbury’s treatment of the incident makes it quite striking: the children’s sure and stubborn disbelief in the very possibility that old people could have been young, their open mockery of Mrs. Bentley.

The story turns into a sort of fable about the folly of clinging to the past. But it’s also a fine example of an author getting inside a child’s head, bringing into sharp relief the brightness and strangeness of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

Lame literature

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I was prompted to get back to this too-long-neglected blog by a friend’s posting on Facebook, a link to a site called Awful Library Books. It has an amusing selection of truly odd titles that were actually found in real libraries.

Good books tend to survive, one way or another, but unfortunately bad ones do too. Often they’re just forgotten, but they do reappear at yard sales, in thrift stores, in used bookstores, and in dusty corners of people’s houses. And, judging by Awful Library Books, some linger on library shelves despite being outdated or just plain silly.

Some bad books are so bad they’re funny. Some are loathsome. Others, especially books you enjoyed uncritically as a child, seem clumsily written and just plain uninteresting when you come back to them as an adult (apologies to anyone who still likes reading the old Nancy Drew books).

I’ve got a few Awful Examples on my  own shelves. The thing is, once they’re on the bookshelf they tend to stay there. Where else would they go? Who’d want them? Besides, I maintain a certain affection for some of these books.

There’s one called Freddy the Fox, which has been around since I was five. It survived several years in my parents’ garage, the pages are stained and it still smells a bit. The story is not particularly interesting; it has neither the whimsy of Winnie the Pooh nor the musical language of Margaret Wise Brown’s books, but I keep it because it was with this book that I learned to read. So, although some books have come and gone, this one’s going to stay for now.

Cautionary tales

Friday, March 19th, 2010


Struwwelpeter is a classic example of the cautionary tale. It’s a collection of illustrated stories in verse showing misbehaving children and the dreadful consequences they suffer. First published in 1845, its original title was Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln für Kinder von 3-6 Jahren (Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures with 15 Beautifully Coloured Panels for Children Aged 3 to 6).

Maybe I was born in the wrong era. Although I find the book amusing now, as a child I found the pictures ghastly, especially the ones accompanying “Daumenlutscher” (Thumb-sucker) and “Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug,” a story of a girl who plays with matches and is burned to death. The final picture in this story shows the girl’s two cats beside her ashes, crying a great pool of tears.

It’s the illustrations that really stay in my mind, probably because I could not read German as a child. But I didn’t have to know German to understand the message of the stories: look what happens to misbehaving children!

I was prompted to read Struwwelpeter again, oddly enough, after reading Martyrs Mirror for the first time.

Martyrs Mirror is one of those books, I suspect, that many people know about but considerably fewer people actually read (so I was mildly surprised to find that the public library’s sole copy was checked out). It is a huge work, over a thousand pages, with 104 illustrations. The full title is The Bloody Theater, or, Martyrs’ Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Saviour, From the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660. It was compiled by Thieleman J. van Braght, a Dutch Mennonite pastor, in 1660.



Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I’ve been roaming through this old anthology, published in the 1920s and entitled, with great simplicity, The Canadian Poetry Book. Without even looking at the preface or the endnotes you can tell it’s a school text. The names of Doris Morgan and her sisters from Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan are written on the cover and flyleaf. One of them, clearly bored stiff, wrote her name several times and copied out all the information on the title page. Inside, you can tell exactly which poems the girls studied by the notes written on them in turquoise ink.



This poetry is from the 19th and early 20th centuries— fairly old in terms of Canadian literature. The poets represented here have largely gone out of fashion, and some, I suspect, have been pretty well forgotten. Canadians who went to school in the 1940s and ’50s, maybe even into the ’70s, will know Bliss Carman, William Henry Drummond, E. Pauline Johnson, and Archibald Lampman, but does anyone study them now? And how many today know the names Ethelwyn Wetherald or John Hunter-Duvar?

Anthologies can be a mixed bag, of course. Not every poem in this book is a gem (there’s an especially forgettable piece on the death of Sir John A. Macdonald). But there are some real treasures here, among them Johnson’s haunting  “The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley,” and Lampman’s “Heat” which conveys, with its alliteration and slow-swinging rhythm, the sleepiness of a summer afternoon. Until now I’d read very little of these poets— aside from Johnson’s “The Song my Paddle Sings,” which almost everyone reads— but having found their work here, I want to read more.

All there is to see

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just re-read  My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell for at least the fifth time. It’s an account of the time his family spent on the Greek island of Corfu when he was a boy. My husband and I both enjoy this book, but have discovered that we can’t read it at bedtime, at least not when one of us is trying to sleep, because the one reading will keep the other awake with laughter.

I often find, with favorite books, that I notice different things each time I read them. What struck me this time around was how much careful observation there is in Durrell’s stories. Here is someone who was insatiably curious about the world around him, and was willing to spend a great deal of time just looking at things— geckos on his bedroom ceiling, trapdoor spiders, or scorpions in the garden wall.

His curiosity was rewarded with some fascinating sights. There was the epic battle in his bedroom between a small gecko and a large praying mantis, the slow-motion mating rituals of turtles, and the sight of a giant toad stuffing an earthworm in its mouth.

I’ve had experiences like that, too, but not nearly as many as the young Durrell. The thing is, you have to get outside— that’s the easy part— and then you have to sit still.

Have you seen birds?

Monday, May 25th, 2009

This spring, for some reason, I’ve been noticing birds more than ever before. Their sounds, their colors, their omnipresence. And that reminded me of Barbara Reid’s lovely illustrations for the children’s book, Have You Seen Birds? It’s worth a look even if you don’t have a child to read it with. Reid’s Plasticine illustrations are expressive, detailed and colorful. It’s the kind of book that can make you aware of things around you that tend to go unnoticed.

In the same vein, I also recommend Saskatchewan Birds by Alan Smith. I discovered this beautifully illustrated book, and many of the birds described in it, while attending the Sage Hill Writing Experience last May. As a city-dweller, I tended to notice the obvious birds— sparrows, robins, the ubiquitous Canada geese— while remaining oblivious to the thrushes, warblers and nuthatches. This book showed me that

  1. Sparrows are more varied— and unexpectedly beautiful— than I realized
  2. In movies, the cry of a red-tailed hawk is often paired with the image of an eagle, because eagles do not have impressive voices
  3. There really is such a thing as a coot