Friday, December 19, 2014

1958 Honor - Gone-Away Lake


Hrumph! I would not have thought this book would have been a Newbery contender. I found it tedious, shallow, and totally without a decent plot.

In a creative writing class I once took, I learned that there are several forms used within a piece. Exposition (The girl skipped along cheerfully over the iced-covered pond), Description (Her titian ringlets contrasted nicely against her red sunburnt shoulders, and the springy coils bounced in time with her merry cavorting.) Dialogue ("Oh my!" she said to her pet cricket, "It seems I can feel the ice shift under my little feet!") Action (Crack! Smack! Wham! sounded as the ice broke!) It felt to me as if I constantly shuffled through the pages of Gone-Away Lake wading through description after eccentric description, wondering if I might be finally stumbling upon a bit of interesting plot to tie it all together, but alas, it was not to be.

Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright, is basically a summer vacation story of 10 year old Portia, her little brother, Foster, and their older cousin Julian. Portia and Julian are out exploring through the woods and swamp and stumble upon a little abandoned neighborhood of summer houses that has been forgotten by everyone else. It was deserted after the lake receded into marsh long ago. But there are two elderly residents who continue to make a home there, relying on gardens, gathering, and aquiring things from the other rotting houses. It sounds a little creepy, but it's not. It's undendingly cheerful, eccentric, and full of buccolic charms as the two children sneak away every day to visit them.

There is one brief moment of scare when little Foster tries to follow them and gets stuck in the bog. But he is promptly rescued by the elderly gentleman resident, which leads to a general reveal about their presence. Thankfully, all the grownups instantly fall in love with the old man and woman when they bring the little boy back to his parents, and things generally improve for all concerned from this point on.

I can think of two non-Newbery books off-hand that were written along similar themes at about the same year (1957) that were more exciting, interesting, memorable, and re-readable than this one. (No Children No Pets, and The Ghost Boat.) Its weak plot could be forgiven if it were character driven, but alas, not much meaningful developement there either.

There was one chapter that really stood out to me, though I expect it was intended to just be one of the many stories of the past that was told to Portia and Julian, and that was The Summer Cats. Long ago, one of the more intimidating and obnoxious residents was discovered to have a custom of acquiring "summer cats." She would stop by a farmhouse on the way there, select a couple of kittens, enjoy them all summer, and then just before she went to her city home, she would take them by the vet to have them chloroformed.

How horrifying!

Although this book may appeal to some readers, I don't believe I would have especially enjoyed it when I was young, and today I was just anxious to finish it- no small task at 256 pages.

I bought this copy at Goodwill for probably a buck fifty.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

1934 - Invincible Louisa

This book by Cornelia Meigs is a biography of Louisa. And what other Louisa would that be but Louisa May Alcott? Most well-known by her books Little Women and Little Men, the follow-up novel, Louisa had an interesting life, full of poverty on one hand, full of love and family on the other. She came of age during the American Civil War, which had a great impact on her, and rubbed shoulders with some of the literary greats of the day, such as Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry Thoreau.

If you have read Little Women, much of Louisa's story will seem familar to you. Not identical, but very familiar. She was one of four daughters in a poor household raised by a steadfast mother and a father with lofty ideals and high ideas. He was so concerned with giving charity, that his own poor family often did without. One part especially rankled me. He was considering going the Shaker way with a friend, leaving behind his carnal relationship with his wife and family. His long-suffering wife protested, so he capitulated, but then fell into a depression. In despair, his wife, Abba Alcott, tucked her pride aside and contacted the friend to say that her husband, Bronson, was free to go after all. But thankfully, the friend was leaving for Europe and the Shaker plan was over.

Louisa feels the burden of helping to provide for her family and not being dependent on them for her sustenance. She tries her hand at writing, with some small success, but it is only when her collection of "Hospital Sketches" is published that she becomes well-known and on her way as a writer.

When the Civil War broke out, Louisa felt a great desire to help with the cause and volunteered as a nurse at a military hospital in Washington. She gained a great deal of life experience, but her health suffered greatly, and after that, she was never quite as strong as she had been. She was always sending home stories of the men and boys she tended to, which were eventually collected into the book, Hospital Sketches.

Invincible Louisa covered about all of Louisa's life, both before she became famous, and after Little Women was published, which changed the fortunes of the whole Alcott clan. But I found myself reading more quickly, less carefully, after she had achieved her success than how her life led up to that point.

You can tell that the writing is a little old fashioned, compared to today's writing styles, but is still very readable. Some parts seemed quaint, making effort to not be sensational.

Louisa Alcott had lovers during her varied life, that much we know. (though I'm not sure the author means that in the modern, carnal sense) ...She has been less frank about the others, so that who they were and just what she thought of them are secrets of her own which prying eyes have no right to investigate, not even in the name of her cherished fame.

Huh? None of our business? Well!

I enjoyed Little Women; it is a great book, though I am not a rabid fan. I think that real devotees would highly enjoy this biography. Another interesting facet to the book is the seeing the ideals and philosophies of the Alcotts, specific to the historical times they lived in.

The cover sort of bugged me, just because I feel that the illustration, while attractive, doesn't quite portray a young woman of the 1860's. Her dress looks "almost right," but her hair makes me think more of the 1980's. And the book says that she used a lap writing desk. That would have been an interesting, rather than traditional prop in the cover illustration.

I got this book for fifty cents at the thrift store.

Monday, January 20, 2014

2010 - When You Reach Me

I ran across this book the other day when I was skimming the titles in the children's book section at my local Goodwill. Hmm, kind of an ambiguous title. The spine said Yearling Newbery. Hadn't heard of it or the author, Rebecca Stead before. I pulled it out, thinking that it was an honor book. But no, there was that golden seal. Why not? So I put it in my cart.

I thought I was going to get a real-life coming of age story. Twelve-year old girl, her single mom, living in an apartment in the city, the mom's dreams of getting ahead a little bit by winning a tv game show. It seemed to start out that way, but with the strange plot device of the girl, Miranda, writing the book as a letter or story to an as-yet unknown character.

A little bit of a mystery is like a little bit of a fishhook, catching your mind and attention, just a little bit at first. But then the hook begins to set, and the line plays out, and you get a delicious anticipation of how and when it will all be made clear. The clues are there, and you think you might know what's up, but are always aware that the author hasn't given enough away that she can't end it with something you didn't anticipate. In this manner, it reminds me of The Westing Game, another Newbery book. It might remind you of another book too, but I'm not going to give anything away. You will have to read this yourself!

I paid $1.49 for this at Goodwill.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2000 - Bud, Not Buddy

This book, by Christopher Paul Curtis, languished on my bookshelf for awhile before I got around to reading it. It looked like a meaningful book, grounded in reality rather than a nice escapist fantasy piece, which is where my mood often seemed to be. Finally I picked it up and began. The first sentences hooked me.

"Here we go again. We were all standing in line waiting for breakfast when one of the caseworkers came in and tap-tap-tapped down the line. Uh-oh, this meant bad news, either they'd found a foster home for somebody or somebody was about to get paddled."

An orphan story! Orphan stories have lots of good possibilities, and it looked like the action was going to start right away. Two important facts emerge by the middle of the second page. The Great Depression is going on. An orphan is in a precarious position during this economically devastating era. And Bud has a confident sense of self, as he politely corrects the caseworker, "It's Bud, not Buddy, ma'am."

Predictibly, the foster parents that Bud is sent to are abusive, along with their rotten little son who likes to torture all the "street urchins" his parents take in. It doesn't take Bud long to realize he is better off on the lam than with these people, and so he escapes. He knows he cannot go back to the orphanage; they can hardly afford to feed the ones there. But Bud is resourceful and manages to take some kind of care for himself and spend wonderful moments in the public library.

But all along, he has the idea of a plan. In his precious suitcase resides a flyer. His mother had regarded it as precious and special before she died, and so does Bud. The flyer advertises a show featuring a jazz musician and his band. The boy has become convinced that the musician is his dad and begins to plan how to go to where the band is and present himself as the man's son.

I like Bud. I like his moxie. He is intelligent and practical, and is willing to risk to get what he wants.

A young reader can get a very good feeling for that era in our country's history by reading this book, and enjoying a good story with a nice ending at the same time.

I picked this up for a buck fifty at Goodwill.