A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tales from the Library Book Sale

The library I frequented the last time we lived in Roanoke is closed now.  The building still stands there, across from the post office, looking sad and empty and alone.  I will miss it--its fiction aisles were just the right width apart for proper browsing and none of the books were beyond my (admittedly short) reach.  The fiction collection was large enough for one to be assured of finding something good to read but not so big as to be overwhelming.  But!  There is a new (I think new) library not more than a few extra minutes' drive from our apartment (we are living now in effectively the same place we did before), and it is big without being impersonal and there's wood and lots of seating and many of the librarians from the old closed branch work there now.  I was happy to see those same faces again, though I will miss, too, seeing them go about their business in that old branch, which was small enough that it felt (pleasantly) as if the building really were their domain.  This new building sort of hovers over everyone; I think the librarians belong to it now, rather than the other way round.

I got a new library card in short order (much easier than getting a new driver's license, as it should be), picked up a volunteer form, and asked for the quick standing tour.  New books and DVDs behind you, Children's thataway.  Fiction, nonfiction, and quiet study upstairs.  Oh, and we're having the last day of our fall book sale down that hallway in the meeting room to your left.  

I had seen some notice of that book sale on the website, but thought I had missed it, thought it had ended at the weekend.  How serendipitous to have idled out to the library on just this day, on this day when I had planned to do nothing more than laundry (which, incidentally, languishes still).  I made my way to the sale, giving myself a stern talking-to as I went.  "You will be restrained," I insisted.  "Money is a little tight, and, anyway, you couldn't fit more than two or three more books into the apartment, and then only if you get the cats to teach you that thing they do with parallel dimensions."  As luck would have it, the sale was "fill a box for $3" on this last day, so the money problem was well in hand, and the books were so well-picked-over after five days of sales that taking home a box-full of books I actually had any interest in would have been a challenge.  But I did manage an impressive and exciting haul of five books, all in excellent shape.

The first treasure I found was a near-pristine paperback copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins from the seventies.  Not worth anything, I'm sure, but I almost invariably like better the covers of children's and young adult books from around the time I would have been the right age to read them than the covers they put on those same books today.  And somehow I've never managed to read Island of the Blue Dolphins, so I considered my book-sale foray a success within minutes of browsing its long tables of collapsing rows of still unwanted tomes.  Next I found The Red Tent, which I have almost taken home at full price from book shops several times and of which I am somewhat wary.  But people whose opinions I trust have recommended it to me, so I tucked it under my arm along with Island and carried on, figuring if there ever was going to be a time, at $3 a box, now was probably it.

Somewhere about a third of the way through the fiction, a nice-looking elderly gentleman browsing on the other side of the table from me tapped his fore-finger on the spine of a hard cover standing on its edge in the middle of the table.  "If you're looking for a good one, that one," he said.

I smiled.  It was a Jean M. Auel novel, a Clan of the Cave Bear installment from somewhere in the middle of the series.  I have Clan of the Cave Bear, and I've been told that it's best to stop with that one.

"It's a whole series," my new friend said, pulling the book up and handing it to me.  "Prehistoric stuff."    

"Oh?  How interesting," I said, or something similar, as I took the book and pretended to look through its opening pages.  I was caught off-guard by the recommendation and couldn't summon the words to express my lack of interest without coming off rude.

He turned away, but just as I was about to return the book to its row, he turned back.  I ruffled a few pages, trying to look intrigued.  "It's speculative, too.  Of course it would have to be, because no one knows what happened in prehistoric times." 

Was this a joke?  Some kind of religious remark?  Or just a statement of fact?  I smiled again, and gave a little laugh.  "Thanks," I said, probably at the wrong point in the exchange all together.  He smiled and nodded, and, this time, really did move on.  I scurried away to the nonfiction tables, leaving Clan of the Cave Bear IV behind.

I found there something called The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, which seems like it can't fail to be right up my street, and a Bill Bryson we somehow managed not to have yet, I'm a Stranger Here Myself.  I've peeked into this one already, shortly after I got home, and nearly choked on my afternoon snack laughing at a chapter called "Rules for Living."  ("11.  Any electronic clock or other timing device on which the time is set by holding down a  button and scrolling laboriously through the minutes and hours is illegal. . . . 19. In office buildings and retail premises in which entry is through double doors and one of those doors is locked for no reason, the door must bear a large sign saying: 'This door is locked for no reason.'")  And finally, just as I was about to pay for my finds and make tracks (upstairs to see the fiction and nonfiction stacks, where I found, my to my puzzlement, a copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy on the nonfiction shelves), I saw, in a sorry little heap of bedraggled, forlorn-looking nonfic with titles like "The Do-It Yourself Guide to Plumbing" and "Understanding Baby's Diseases Made Easy," a book called The Pencil, written by Henry Petroski, whose The Book on the Bookshelf I read with great delight a year or so back.  That someone could be so fascinated by this ingenious little writing utensil to write a whole book about it, and that some other someone could be so impressed by the first someone's enthusiasm to agree to publish the thing, makes me uncommonly happy.  And that it sat there, waiting, patiently, amongst such dismal fare, is one of the best arguments for a library book sale I can think of.  It is certainly my favorite find of the afternoon.

And so, only five books, and only three dollars spent!  Restraint, achieved, I say.  But now, where to put them?  So far I've had no luck at all convincing the cats to give up the secret to that thing they do with parallel dimensions. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

 Little House in the Big Woods

I recently read a review of the whole series of Little House books on the occasion of their being released in a two-volume set by the Library of America. These books were great favorites of mine as a child, but unlike many other childhood favorites, they have remained hidden away in the attic, unrevisited in my adult years. Reviewer Katherine A. Powers's discussion of the books' descriptions of frontier life and of the darkness inherent in it made me long to read these old favorites again. So I trotted off and snagged a few of them in paperback, my attic dwarf being unwilling to stand on her head and paw through boxes to find my childhood copies (which I once mutilated somewhat cruelly (by folding and crinkling the pages) in an effort to make the books look "old"; attic dwarf, in a slightly different role, was none too pleased with my efforts).

I remember that Little House in the Big Woods was not my favorite of the books (I think that was On the Banks of Plum Creek, but I won't be fully sure until I get to it), but gosh do I remember it well. I anticipated every incident, every illustration, even some turns of phrase. I started leafing ahead to see "How far til the stump that looked like a bear?" or "When do we get to the naughty boy and the bees?" Again, unlike other childhood favorites I have read again when grown up, I have little or no recollection of reading these, which makes me think I read them (or they were read to me) when I was so young that they just sort of became part of my own personal idiomythology (that's not a word, surely; surely it should be?). In any case, they were a delight to read now, and not just for the nostalgia. The prose is very simple, but there's often something poetic about it, and despite the episodic nature of the story (there's no plot beyond detailing how people stayed alive and happy in the big woods of Wisconsin in the 1870s), the book was practically a page-turner for me. Incidents that were mostly just adventures for me when I was a child now are tinged with a darkness that did not occur to me then. When Pa is away and Ma and Laura find a hungry bear inside the barn fence, what if the bear had killed Ma? What happens to a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a two-year old in the woods, alone, in winter with no way of contacting anyone? The reality of the thing is more real to me now, I suppose is a good way of putting it, and it engenders a respect for the courage of the people who lived these sorts of lives that just knowing that such a life was hard never could. This was fascinating reading, and I'm already well into the next one--or, the third one, really (I'm skipping Farmer Boy for now)--where I expect I may run headlong into some attitudes about native peoples which is going to challenge my fuzzy delight in rediscovering these books, but we shall see.

Little House on the Prairie

I didn't remember this one nearly as well as Little House in the Big Woods, but many of the incidents (and many of the illustrations) were familiar and welcome. I was struck in Big Woods by the ingenuity and courage of the settlers living on the frontiers in the 1870s; in Prairie I am no less impressed by those qualities, but the circumstances of the Ingalls family in this installment gives me the willies in a way that the realities of living in the Big Woods did not. Surely it is because I have always lived nestled among hills and under trees that the descriptions (and illustrations--maybe even especially the illustrations) of the wide open prairie and the notion of a house just plopped in the middle of all that space quite literally gives me the shivers. Do you know a person who must sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant because that open space behind him is discomfiting? That's how I feel about houses. They ought be backed up against the foot of a mountain or at the least tucked in a clearing with tall trees all around. I'm glad, I guess, that there are people who like that kind of open environment (both Pa and Laura in this book seem to take to the flat openness of the prairie particularly well) as not all of us can live at the foot of mountains--there just aren't enough of them. But I leave them to it.

The constant fear regarding encounters with restive Indians lent a sense of suspense to Prairie which was completely lacking in Big Woods. The fears I had about attitudes toward native peoples in this book were perhaps somewhat overblown. There is certainly othering going on here, and a fair amount of prejudice, but Laura (mostly) seems innocently fascinated by the Indians and Pa (though he definitely carries a nice load of white-settler-entitlement around with him) adopts a live-and-let-live attitude, talking his neighbors down from their fears on more than one occasion. Some passages made me squirm a bit, but keeping in mind the context in which the book was written and the time it recalls, and considering the perhaps more-enlightened-than-typical attitude of Pa, those passages weren't enough to ruin a series of childhood favorites. I would be fascinated, however, to read some articles delving into the portrayal of the native peoples in this book and providing some discussion of the political and historical situation. I'd particularly like to read some opinions on the scene where Laura becomes enchanted by an Indian baby with "hair . . . as black as a crow and its eyes . . . black as a night when no stars shine" and demands that Pa "get (her) that little Indian baby!" as well as on the fact that Pa's sense of morality when it comes to usurping the Indian land seems to stem directly from what the government says is okay. If Washington says the Indian Territory is open to the settlers then he's going to have his land and the Indians can go lump it. If they say not, then he'll move on. That the Indians are obviously living on the land and that they were clearly there first seems not to enter into it for him.

Pa, in fact (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ma), has become one of the most interesting aspects of these books for me on these rereads. How does he know how to make a life on the prairie anyway? That he should be a competent frontiersman generally can be taken as a given since when we first meet him in Big Woods he's already been making a successful go at that kind of life for several years (at least). But how does he know what the specific dangers of the prairie are? And how to deal with them? As a child, I accepted Pa as the all-knowing performer of crafty miracles and protector of home and family (I knew men like that myself, after all), but as an adult I begin to want to see him as a real person and to question him and to suspect that sometimes his pioneer spirit endangers his family (a number of minor catastrophes in Prairie, which are presented as things from which Pa saves the day, are actually his fault). The question of what children know and what adults know and keep from the children, I think, is a central theme in this book, and one which probably sails right over the head of children readers (except for the few times when it is made explicit as part of the action). I count six instances in Prairie when the whole family is a hair's breadth away from a horrible death, and much of what is interesting to me here (beyond the details of the day-to-day business of staying alive, which is always fascinating) is how these two adults try to--and mostly succeed at--giving their children a happy life which is free from fear and dread.

These reviews originally appeared on my LibraryThing account here and here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume III

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat" (though I am a touch late), where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  I imagine my packing in three categories: "New to Me," for books I've never read before; "Old Favorites," for past reads I'd like to revisit; and "Just in Case," for one book that can always be counted on to save me if one of the other selections turns out to be a dud.
New to Me 

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
I've had this one on hand for awhile now, but haven't cracked it open yet (though I have read Mitchell's Black Swan Green, which I gather is a very different sort of book, but which I enjoyed immensely).  I saw a preview for the movie version of Cloud Atlas and I quite literally wrinkled up my nose and said, "Cloud Atlas Cloud Atlas?  Like, David Mitchell?  Is that what that book is about?"  It was all science fiction-y-ish with the same actors playing different characters in different time periods.  I sort of knew that there was an element of souls appearing in different eras or reincarnation or something in Cloud Atlas, but the feel of the movie preview sort of shocked me in being not what I expected from that book.  But it looked like a movie I would like to see and it seems like a book I would definitely want to have read before seeing the movie, so it's been bumped up my mental list of books to read soon. 

Canada, Richard Ford
I recently saw a tiny snippet of an interview with Richard Ford which made me think I really ought to read something by him.  Canada is his latest, and I can't say that I picked it out of all his works for much more reason than because it is the most recent (and maybe because the story--a teenaged boy has to learn to fend for himself and avoid Child Services after his parents rob a bank--appealed to me).

The Time in Between, María Dueñas, trsl. Daniel Hahn
I have to confess that the cover and the first sentence ("A typewriter shattered my destiny.") are what drew me to this book and remain the chief reasons I want to read it.  Though the setting (WWII, Europe), as always, appeals.  I mean, who could resist that first line?

Old Favorites

 The Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
This is the tiniest bit of a cheat, as I've already dipped in to these, but I am still very eager to carry on with them, so I call it fair.  A recent review of the Little House books highlighted the darkness and danger of living on the frontiers, and that prompted me to want to reread these childhood favorites.

Just in Case 

 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
A beloved childhood read about a young man who sets out to seek his fortune and runs afoul of a dastardly uncle, is kidnapped, and then must make his way home through the Scottish Highlands during the turmoil in the years after the '45.  A pretty solid adventure story with a fascinating setting and wonderful attention to historical and political detail.

Previous Editions of Packing for a Reading Retreat:

Volume II
Volume I