Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Reading

At left is one of Fillius's Halloween pumpkins. This is actually last year's vegetal creation. This year's is currently in progress and probably won't be ready for a photo until evening -- because you just can't rush good art. Fillius does not restrict himself to pumpkins; last year his Jack-o-Lanterns were made out of potatoes in honor of the Irish side of the family.

Today I'm wearing my WWAKD tee shirt, so I'm officially in costume. The tee shirt and my skirt are both black, so we're all very seasonal around here.

This morning I was reading a post written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker (former Anglican clergyman, now a Catholic priest) after one of his children asked him if witches were real.

In my experience witches are very real indeed. I've never met one with green skin, a pointed nose with a wart on the end, nor have I seen them fly on a broom or heard them cackle like a demented crow. However, when I was an Anglican priest in England I served in a parish that was home to a witches coven, and not just any witches coven . . .

There was a negative feeling in the town and a string of unexplained tragedies and scandals within the church community. As a priest I was called out to a surprising number of low level hauntings, psychic disturbances and disturbed personalities. Once I learned who actually lived in the parish I was concerned. I was also concerned that the other clergy in the town simply laughed at the King of the Witches and dismissed the whole thing as so much nonsense.
Read Witches and Wizards to find out which weapon he and his friends decided to employ and how the conflict was resolved.

On a lighter note, while shelving books at the library this week, I chanced upon California Demon by Julie Kenner. I was in the mood for a frivolous book, so I checked it out. (That's one of the interesting things about being a library aide -- I get a chance to have look at how the other half reads. For instance, I had no idea that Danielle Steele wrote so many books!) California Demon is one in a series of novels about Kate Connor, retired demon hunter who's spent the last 14 years in the equally demanding profession of suburban housewife and stay at home mother.

However, as she explains at the beginning of the novel, "I'd been drawn back into active duty after a demon attacked me in my kitchen, setting off a whole chain of events which (as you can probably guess) pitted the forces of good against the forces of evil in one final, cataclysmic battle." (That's a reference to the previous novel, I presume.) After the dust settled, she found herself back on active duty as a Level Four Demon Hunter unbeknownst to anyone except her best friend, Laura who has her own amazing super powers. (". . . she's the woman who'd successfully returned outfits to Nordstrom despite the huge 75-percent Off, No-Return, Clearance-Final Sale signs plastered all over the store.")

So far, it's been a fun read, and I'm hoping that the light, humorous tone is an indication that it won't get too icky for me. As you may have guessed,
I don't read books (or watch movies) in the horror genre. My life has had enough scariness in the past ten years that I've never felt the need to go in search of more as a form of amusement. So I don't really know whether or not some of Kenner's story elements are showing her individual creativity or just her ability to make good use of the genre's conventions.

For instance, in Kate Connor's world incorporeal demons usually can't do much except enviously watch human beings. They long to be human, and occasionally a demon will manage to hijack the body of a living person. But possession is pretty rare. Usually the best a demon can do is to reanimate the body of a person who's just died. So all those amazing stories you hear about people who die on the operating table and then come back to life; people who are trapped underwater for ten minutes but live to tell the tale; and those who walk away from a horrendous auto accident despite a massive blow to the head are not tales of miraculous survival, but the result of very determined demons.

I found that an interesting bit because I'd just read something similar in an entirely different sort of book, The Darkness Did Not by William Biersach. It's the second in a series of novels about Father John Baptist, a former cop turned Catholic priest in a Los Angeles very much like the real one. Father Baptist is on the outs with his bishop because he kept a low profile while in the seminary and only showed his true colors after ordination. He's an orthodox, traditional Catholic who, now that he is a priest, is committed to offering only the traditional Latin Mass.

In retaliation, his superiors put him on extended leave. But Father Baptist cashes in his pension from the police department and buys a tiny run down church, St. Philomena's, which the diocese had decided to close down and sell off. As it's his private property, he is free to offer the Latin Mass there and he's soon ministering to an unofficial parish of "rad-trad" Catholics including the arthritic Martin Feeny who plays Watson to Father Baptist's Holmes.

As in Biersach's previous book, the police department asks for Father Baptist's help in solving a murder case which has occult overtones. This time a serial killer is preying on beautiful young women who had previously shown an interest in the subject of vampires. The police are skittish because each murder victim was almost completely drained of blood, and there were no marks on the bodies except a curious neck wound. Is the murderer really a vampire?

For that matter, what is a vampire? In Biersach's novel, vampirism is the lowest form of demon possession because the demon merely takes possession of a corpse. But it's a hellish thing for all that.

As Father Baptist explains, "The vampire is an unholy amalgam of demon and dead flesh -- evil spirit and coarse matter, if you will -- which is the satanic mockery of the Incarnation in which the Son of God took on human flesh." The demon's reanimation of dead flesh is also a mockery of Christ's resurrection. And isn't that the jealous sort of thing that demons would do? Because Satan himself can't come up with anything original; he can only imitate and distort. Suddenly, because the author began to show a way in which the topic might fit into a Catholic worldview, vampirism became a story element I could take more seriously, and for the characters (in my mind at least) the stakes suddenly became higher. At this point, if it had been a movie, I probably would have been shouting, "Hey, guys! Don't go anywhere without your scapulars!" And I would have been serious, not sarcastic, because the universe of this novel is the same universe I live in -- one in which sacramentals are an incredible conduit of grace.

It's only fair for me to mention that Biersach has a writing style that will annoy many readers. The narrator, Martin Feeny, has a florid style of writing which doesn't bother me as much as it ought to, probably because I'm such a big fan of Victorian novels and children's books. But he also has other stylistic quirks that drive me up the wall. One, which was more frequent in the first novel, is his tendency to attribute volumes of meaning to Father Baptist's glance, followed by a terse remark. An example:
He stared upon us with penetrating eyes that seemed to whisper determined but fearfully, "Considering all that has happened, gentlemen, and is soon to transpire, do you really expect me to offer any comfort other than the same sufferings for which I admonished you to prepare?" But all he said was, "Nearly there."
In the previous novel he did this sort of thing over and over and over. It's not as frequent in this book, but I still shudder each time I encounter it. And accents are not his forte. He has an Eastern Rite bishop who talks just like Yoda! And the ethnic accents of other minor characters are just embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book despite its limitations. For one thing, I enjoyed the Catholic geekery,
though the author does get a little too self-indulgent at times. After all those segments with Monsignor Havermeyer practicing the rubrics for the Latin Mass (he's a former modernist priest who has seen the error of his ways), he should have had an important, Latin speaking role to play in the final confrontation. But no. As much as the author may have enjoyed writing some of the geekier segments, they ought to have been pruned if they were not significant to the plot.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn't mind the long liturgical descriptions. In fact, I loved the author's description of Benediction -- especially the part where Martin, despite the sublimity of the liturgy, finds himself becoming hopelessly distracted. The way his mind was jumping from subject to subject, despite his best efforts, was all too familiar. And I loved the Knights Tumblar, a Chestertonian group of men in evening dress, who gad about town drinking champagne when they're not kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in all night prayer vigils. They are Father Baptist's back-up troops and true knights.

Well, I started this post early in the morning, and now it's so late that it will soon be All Saints Day. So while I still can, I will wish you a Happy Halloween and will close with one of the quotations which C.S. Lewis placed just before the preface of The Screwtape Letters:

"The devill . . . the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked." -- Thomas More

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ah, so that's the problem . . .

"Sir, he hath not fed of the dainties that are bred of a book; he hath not eat paper as it were; he hath not drunk ink: his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts."

--William Shakespeare, Love's Labor's Lost

Monday, October 27, 2008

Moving Day -- Moving Books

It's been almost two years since I moved into my current house, and there are still boxes I've yet to unpack. Fortunately, none of them contain books. (Moving tip: always unpack the most important items first.) So why can't I find my copy of A Girl From Yamhill? I know I have a hardcover copy. Somewhere.

If you ever decide to move yourself and your library to a new house, here is some essential advice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beverly Cleary -- Who Knew?

I've been reading Beverly Cleary ever since I was a kid, so I thought I was well acquainted with her oeuvre. But I never knew that she had written Leave it to Beaver tie-in novels.

But Peter D. Sieruta of Collecting Children's Books spilled the beans in his post, Leave it to Beverly which is written in the form of a dialog between Wally and Beaver Cleaver. I'd never heard of these three novelizations, Leave it to Beaver, Here's Beaver, and Beaver and Wally. Apparently Cleary didn't talk about them much, and Sieruta says that the only reference to them that he's found was in Beverly Cleary by Pat Pflieger, published in 1991.

"These books...have little of Cleary in them: they lack her air of easy confidence, and she seems uncomfortable with Beaver's 'gee-whiz' style of thinking and speaking that is so different from her own Henry Huggins. In novels that are almost collections of short stories, television episodes are expanded or altered or combined to emphasize family and growing up."

Sieruta currently works as a cataloger of children's books for a university (what a dream job!) and writes about my favorite genre in a way that is both personal and personable. I've put him on my list of Blogs to Check Every Day.

The first of his posts I stumbled across was this one which has pictures of his Newberry collection. As you know, I'm a sucker for photos of other peoples' libraries. But then I began to nose around his archives and discovered so many favorite posts that I'll have to limit myself to just three links.

Colorblind Writing is about making assumptions about an author's ethnicity based on the protagonists in his books, something which was probably more likely to happen before the appearance of the Internet where information about an author is just a click or two away.

Hornbooks and Battledores is a fun post about these forerunners of the primer, though I was surprised that the author hadn't previously known that hornbooks were actually covered by a thin layer of horn.

Library Lesson, one of my favorite posts, captures the school culture I remember from my own childhood, particularly the experience of being accused by an adult in authority of a misdeed of which one was innocent.

Which sort of brings me back to Beverly Cleary. One of the things she does so well is to portray her characters' experiences from a child's point of view. When you read her books, you really do see things through a child's eyes. They rang true when I first read them in the '50s; they rang true when I read her later books to my own children in the '80s. And they still ring true today as I discovered last week when I read Ramona's World which was published in 1999. That title, which had previously escaped me, was brought to my attention in Beverly Cleary by Jennifer Peltak, a title in the "Who Wrote That" series. It was heavily based on Cleary's two memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. I discovered it when I was emptying the bookdrop at the public library where I now work and checked it out because I was curious how the author would present Cleary's life to present day children. On the whole, she did a pretty good job of telling her audience what I would have most wanted to know about Beverly Cleary when I was a child: how did she come to write all those books? Because when I was a little girl, Beverly Cleary was the person I wanted to be when I grew up.

And I still remember the light bulb moment of my childhood when I realized that my other favorite author, Louisa May Alcott, was the Beverly Cleary of the 19th century. Like Cleary, Alcott's characters spoke a life-like idiom which her readers identified with.* In the books of both authors, universal themes were clothed in the characters' ordinary experiences and seasoned with a good deal of humor.

Alas, I never did grow up to write stories about ordinary boys and girls. And eventually fantasy became my favorite subgenre both for reading and writing. But even in fantasy, I still feel that the most successful books are grounded in the ordinary and have at least a dash of humor.


*Did you know that some of the grammar and slang in Little Women was cleaned up between the first and second editions?

Update: Here's the link to the first edition republished by Norton Critical Editions.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Perelandra: The Opera

The Oxford C.S. Lewis Society and the Donald Swann Estate are planning a production of the opera Perelandra by Donald Swann . The libretto was written by David Marsh. This opera was originally presented in 1964.

Although most people probably remember Swann for the comic and satirical songs which he and his partner Michael Flanders wrote in the 1950s and '60s, it should not be forgotten that he also composed The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle in which he set seven poems of J.R.R. Tolkien to music.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

With His Usual Extravagance . . .

On His Books

When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'

--Hilaire Belloc, Epigrams

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sucked Into a Book

I guess this is what you'd call a music video? I sort of missed out on this whole concept since I've never been into popular music and had dropped out of popular culture by the time they appeared on the scene.

But I saw this on somebody's blog and its image of being pulled into a book was one which evoked instant sympathy.

When I was young I had a poster with an image from Ballentine's paperback edition of The Fellowship of Ring and the caption, "Come to Middle-Earth!" Although Tolkien never never liked those illustrations (especially the emu), I always thought them evocative. The poster hung on a closet door, and there were times when I quite believed that someday I'd open that door and find myself in Hobbiton.

(By the way, apparently this video is someone's altered version of the original. I looked up the original and it's not as enjoyable. Disclaimer: I know nothing about the original song or the group which produced the video. Though I watched the original, I suffer from an inability to distinguish most sung lyrics, so I'm not even sure what that song was about.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Working Out at the Library

Hooray! I just got a part time job at one of the local public libraries. I don't mind that I'm just a lowly aide whose only duties consist of shelving books. Giving me a job in a library is like inviting a kid to run a candy store. But my librarian muscles are out of shape. My upper thighs are sore from squatting down to put books on the lowest shelves and then standing back up again. But I'm only working three days a week, so my legs will have a few days to recover before their next workout. (Now if only turning pages could somehow tighten the tummy muscles.)

Truth & Fiction

All good books have one thing in common -- they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you have read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever.

--Ernest Hemingway

(I don't like Hemingway's books, but I think he got this bit right.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reading and Memory

Katherine Langrish has an interesting post on how rereading certain books transports her back into her own past:

“The Tale of Mr Tod”. . . . I’m about six years old, sitting on a hard-wearing blue hall carpet, leaning against a polished cedarwood chest which my father brought back from Burma before I was born. Sunlight slants across the hall. My two dolls, the one with curly fair hair, the one with long brown hair, and my panda bear are lined up on the floor beside me. I am teaching school, and reading aloud to them this most exciting story, full of natural violence and terror.
I've had that experience too. Rereading Little House in the Big Woods triggers memories of the school library at Holy Trinity School in Virginia. I'm a new student, and this is the first school library I can remember ever having seen. The room seems enormous. The faint autumn sunlight slants down through tall windows. I feel shy and almost paralyzed -- so many books! Am I really allowed to choose one? Can I actually take it home with me? I can still see the shelf with the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. What riches! There are so many of them.

Interestingly, I sometimes find myself transported back to the age I was when I first read a book. That certainly happens with the Little House books unless I consciously rear my adult head in order to admire the transparency of the author's style.

What's even odder is the way that the certain actions will bring back the memory of certain books which I happened to be reading while performing similar actions in the past. For instance, I was reading through The Science Fiction Hall of Fame last year when I was also taking a clothing construction class. While sewing in the class room one day, I was idly thinking about a particularly tedious short story in that volume which I had just read. So now, every time I set in a sleeve, that particular story pops back into my head. Last week, as I was sewing down some bias tape around the armholes of the summer dresses I was making for my granddaughters, I could not shut out the memory of Jerry's Charge Account, a book I read in junior high. Why that particular book? I have no idea.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Madeline and the Cats of Rome

What do I like about this new Madeline book written and illustrated by John Bemelmans Marciano? (Marciano is the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the original Madeline books.)

Well, I like the title; it's evocative and promises a good story. I like the cover. It is the most successful of Marciano's attempts to reproduce his grandfather's artistic style. And I have to give him points for his meticulous preparation. According to an AP article,

Marciano meticulously practiced Ludwig's line techniques, tracking down which pen nibs he preferred. First, Marciano blew up drawings from some of Ludwig's originals and sketched them in pencil, then placed clear velum on top and worked in pen and ink over and over again.

'I went over his lines less for the style than actually wanting to learn what his literal strokes were," he said. "How long they were. I was almost meditating over what he did. When I was ready to actually do the book I threw all that stuff away and just kind of went with it."

But however well Marciano has captured the mechanics of his predecessor's style, I think that there is still a tad less life in his artwork, perhaps because it is so studied.

Where the book really fails is in the text. Rhymed narrative is extremely hard to do, and Marciano's is just lame. The original Madeline books were never very easy to read aloud because of the way the text scans, but a skilled reader, with care, can pull off a smooth reading. I would never want to read aloud Madeline and the Cats of Rome. Marciano's syntax is annoying, his rhythm limps, and many of his rhymes are a real stretch. I am definitely not buying this for the granddaughters even though they are big fans of the original Madeline.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Great Mystery

"I see scores of people every day, and most of what makes them who they are remains a mystery. And I love a good mystery. Like Philip Marlowe, I love figuring out people's stories.

". . . I understood early that there was something magical in the power of words. To me, words were like incantations that could conjure fantastic worlds in the mind and take me to places I had never been. I devoured books, hunted words in dictionaries, and was a library junkie by the time I was eight. I read Star Wars before I saw it in the movies and devoured all of Ian Fleming's books by the time I was thirteen. I picked up most of what I know about grammar and usage by osmosis. I also had two great English teachers in high school. They taught me that reading literature could teach you about the 'universal human experience.' Maybe you'll never hunt another man through the jungle, my teachers told me. Maybe you won't climb Mount Kilimanjaro or watch a bullfight in the afternoon -- you don't have to. The word's a big place. You can't do or be everything, nor should you. Life is bigger than any one man. But when you read about other people's lives, when you read their stories, you catch a glimpse of a world bigger than your own. You may never travel a hundred miles from where you were born, but if you read stories, you'll get to see the entire world. You'll enter into the Great Mystery." (p. 188-189.)

-- "The Waiter" in Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter