Category Archives: good books

Where I’d Like to Be (a book by Frances O’Roark Dowell)

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This book made me cry. And that is not unusual, even though I am a 60-year-old man. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens made me cry. At the end, not during the funny parts. But this was a book about a lonely eleven-year-old girl trying to make friends. Why should that make me cry?
But it is also a bittersweet tale of memorable child characters who have nowhere left to turn but each other, and their imaginations. The poetic sting of it can make a grown man cry. You should read it. You will understand then.

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Filed under art criticism, book reports, book review, characters, compassion, empathy, good books, humor, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Holy Bagumba!

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I have just finished reading a wonderful book.  It is a young adult novel bordering on being a children’s book.  It won the 2014 Newbery Medal for best work of children’s literature.  But it is a book of so many dimensions that it totally defies categories.  Librarians with butterfly nets who want to pin this book down on their library shelves will be pointlessly waving their nets at it like they believe it’s a butterfly, but it will soar away from them like an eagle.

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Flora & Ulysses (the Illuminated Adventures) is a combination book of many different things.  G. K. Cambell’s cartoony paffoonies add to and amplify the story to the point that sometimes it becomes a graphic novel.

Flora herself is a comic-book lover and follower of the adventures of a comic-book superhero named Incandesto.  Ulysses the squirrel is run over by a rogue vacuum cleaner and the accident graces him with super powers (the ability to fly and throw cats and write poetry).  And Flora rescues and befriends this newly minted superhero and sets him on a path that pits him against the only super-villain available, Flora’s own mother.

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At certain points, through metaphor, elegance, and supreme focus, the story itself becomes poetry.  But, of course, when the poem ends with a line about the squirrel being hungry, it becomes humorous poetry, simply by the juxtaposition of the sublime with the ridiculous.

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As a writer, Kate DiCamillo is a master of everything I want to be.  She is as much a masterful story-teller as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, or William Faulkner.  But many people will be put off by the fact that she is a children’s author.  They will ignore her stories because how could a children’s author affect their lives in any way?  But if you are a reader who can think and feel about things in a book, she will make you laugh and make you cry and make you not afraid to die… for love of a good book.

Let me also suggest a few of her other wonderful, wonderful books;

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Tom Sawyer Abroad (Book Review)

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Yep, I read about being an “erronort” traveling in a balloon while sitting in a parking lot in my car.

Believe it or not, I read this entire 100+year-old book in my car while waiting for my daughter and my son in school parking lots.  What a perfectly ironic way to read a soaring imaginary adventure written by Mark Twain and mostly forgotten about by the American reading public.

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My copy of this old book is a 1965 edition published for school libraries of a book written in 1894.  It tells the story of how Tom and Huck and Jim steal a ride on a balloon at a town fair from a somewhat mentally unhinged professor of aeronautical science.  The balloon, which has space-age travel capabilities due to the professor’s insane genius, takes them on an accidental voyage to Africa.

Of course, the insane professor intends to kill them all, because that’s what insane geniuses do after they prove how genius-y they really are.  But as he tries to throw Tom into the Atlantic, he only manages to plunge himself through the sky and down to an unseen fate.  The result being a great adventure for the three friends in the sands of the Sahara.  They face man-eating lions, mummy-making sandstorms, and a chance to land on the head of the Sphinx.

The entire purpose of this book is to demonstrate Twain’s ability to be a satirical stretcher of the truth, telling jokes and lies through the unreliable narrator’s voice of Huck Finn.

Here is a quoted passage from the book to fill up this review with words and maybe explain just a bit what Twain is really doing with this book;

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Notice how I doubled my word count there without typing any of the words myself?  Isn’t the modern age wonderful?

But there you have it.  This book is about escaping every-day newspaper worries.  In a time of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, global warming, and renewed threats of thermonuclear boo-boos with Russia, this proved to be the perfect book to float away with on an imaginary balloon to Africa.  And the book ends in a flash when Aunt Polly back in Hannibal wants Tom back in time for breakfast.  I really needed to read this book when I picked it up to read it.

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Filed under book reports, book review, foolishness, good books, humor, imagination, Mark Twain, old books, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Mennyms (A Book Review)

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This is the book I have really read, though I intend to acquire the rest.

Sylvia Waugh is a British writer of children’s books who has a lot in common with me.  She spent her career as a teacher of grammar.  In her late fifties she became a published author.  Her book series of the Mennyma is a charming fantasy adventure about dolls so loved by their owner, they actually come to life… and survive her…. and then have to make their way in a world that would be horrified by them and might easily seek to destroy them.

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Hopefully none of my dolls come to life after I croak. After years of collecting, they nearly outnumber humanity.

But rest assured, the dolls in this sweet-natured children’s book series would never prove evil.  The books are more fantasy-comedy than horror story.  In fact, they are impossibly far away from horror.

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The original book.

Joshua Mennym is the head of a family of life-size rag dolls.  He pretends to be a middle-aged man.  He generally keeps his distance from the general public, because, up close, his basic rag-doll-ness would stand revealed.  Rag dolls are not supposed to walk and talk, let alone have families and live in a home of their own.   His wife is Vinetta Mennym, also a rag doll.  Together they are parents to the ten-year old twins, Poopie, the boy, and Wimpey, the girl.

The teenage twins are Pilbeam and Soobie.  Pilbeam is the girl and constant companion of the elder teenage sister, Appleby.  Soobie is the boy and  blue.  Why their former owner, Kate Penshaw, made him with a blue head and blue feet and blue hands is a mystery both to the Mennyyms and to me.   It causes him to be the one most likely to cause exposure of the family secret because even at a distance he does not look like a “real people” person.

Baby Googles is the smallest of the family, constantly cared for by the nanny, Miss Quigley, who is also considered a Mennym because she is also a doll.

Grandpa Magnus Mennym lives in the attic with Grandma and takes care of the household bills.  He writes scholarly works on the English Civil War and publishes them for a modest income which comes through the mail.  Granny Tulip is also relied upon for her wisdom and experience whenever a problem with keeping the family secret comes up.

Each book in the series contains a different adventure revolving around the realistic comedy generated by impossible people trying so hard to be real.  I absolutely love the adventures, even the ones I haven’t read yet.  And I know that the only way you could possibly love these books too is if you share my loony love of the fantastically impossible that turns out to be real.  After reading these books, I fully intend to keep a very close eye on my own doll collection.

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Filed under artists I admire, book review, doll collecting, good books, humor, imagination, old books

Old Library Books

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Recently I went through my store of old books in the library.  As a collector with hoarding disorder, I do have books I haven’t read, but also old books that I have read before… but really old editions… which makes me feel like King Midas with a golden touch and a room full of collected treasure of pure gold.  I have haunted Half-Price Books for over a decade.  I buy old library discards, books from Goodwill, and old family-owned books at yard sales.

Some of these treasures are rare and very special.  Tom Sawyer Abroad is a very hard book to find in print.  As one of Mark Twain’s lesser known works it doesn’t often appear in book stores, and it has never been a best-seller list.  The edition I have was published in 1965 by Grosset and Dunlap.  It was illustrated by Gerald McCann.  It is the kind of book that might’ve been on an elementary school library shelf in 1966 when I was ten.

Nelson Doubleday, Inc. produced the Best in Children’s Books series in the 60’s and my parents bought the four of us a subscription so that these books came in the mail every other month.  I still have one from my childhood, but I found more at Half-Price Books.  They were filled with children’s books excerpts and poems, cartoons and illustrations in color as well as black and white.

The Arabian Nights Entertainment was a very special find.  I actually paid ten dollars for it.  It is from 1916 with woodcut and full-color illustrations by Louis Rhead.  It is filled with wonderful stories like the History of the Old Man and the Two Black Dogs, and the History of Sinbad the Sailor.  I read these stories with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade playing in my head.  What a wonderful old book!  A century old this very year.

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I can’t tell you how much joy I get from sitting in my library now that I am retired and rummaging through my book stacks looking at my treasures.  I am like Scrooge McDuck swimming through his money bin when I am with my old books.   I know I suffer from mental disorders that cause some of this, but I also know that I do not want to be cured.

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Reading Old Books

My personal library is a final destination for a multitude of used and well-worn books.

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Half-Price Books employees used to know me by name.  They don’t now so much any more, because poor health has cut down on available funds, and they hire new people all the time.  But I have bought a number of books just cruising the Dollar-or-Less shelf.  A case in point is a recent purchase of an old book by one of my all-time favorite authors, Terry Pratchett.

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You can see why it was only worth about fifty cents.  It is all scuffed up and dog-eared from previous owners.  Of course, I know how to mistreat a book as well as the next guy, and some of the books I bought bookstore-new long ago look worse than this one does.  But that’s not what’s important.  The good part is on the inside.  You have to put in some effort to get at it.  It is an extremely funny and highly imaginative book.  Johnny is a kid living in Blackbury, England in 1996 (the present day of the story, though it is about time travel and drifts back to the early 1940’s).  He thinks he is just a stupid kid with more stupid-ness about him than he has pockets to keep it in, but he is blessed with an idiot’s ability to think outside of his own head (whatever the heck that means).  There just happens to be an old bag lady named Mrs. Tachyon who just happens to have a Tesco grocery shopping cart that just happens to be a time machine (or so Johnny and his stupid-kid friends just happen to believe).  Johnny and his stupid-kid friends, Bigmac, Wobbler, and Yo-less (don’t ask, okay) along with the girl Kirsty (who is definitely the opposite of a stupid kid), find Mrs. Tachyon lying in a bloody lump in an alley way, and sort of inherit the shopping cart when they get the old lady to a hospital.  And of course, the shopping cart is very unusual with its bags of mysterious wobbly stuff and its resident hyper-vicious cat named Guilty.  It soon accidentally transports the kids back to 1941 when German bombs (like the one in the title) are falling from the sky on Blackbury.  The very day, in fact, when the street they are standing in is supposed to be destroyed by a German bomb, according to history.

Of course, I can’t help but love any book by Terry Pratchett.  But this one is quirky-wonderful and full of surprises.  I really can’t even tell you more about it without spoiling something magical.  I won’t, however, recommend that you read this book.  After all, I had a lovely time reading it, and you certainly don’t need to share in that.  I can keep it all for myself.  No, don’t even think about trying to find a copy and read it!  I think it is out of print anyway.  Don’t you dare go to Half-Price Books!

I will continue to read and fall in love with old books.  I have a few in my library that haven’t actually gotten around to reading yet.  And I have a large number of books I want to read again.  Old books are the best books, and I will continue to say that… at least until I have a new book of my own coming out.

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John Green’s Book, Paper Towns (a Review)

I have to say, I was predisposed to like this book for far too many reasons to ignore it.9781410479990_l

Reason #1: I love John Green.   I don’t mean in some crazy boy-crush sort of mixed -up thing.   That would be too much like one of his characters, or one of mine.  I just find him an absolutely enthralling intellect and personality.

Reason #2; I know him from YouTube.

He posts videos for Vlog Brothers (with his brother Hank who is also someone I wish I knew in real life).  He also does Crash Course History and Mental Floss.  You can get to know how the man truly thinks and feels because he puts all of himself into his writing.  (I know the YouTube videos don’t seem like writing, but they are.  How could they not be?)

Reason #3; I know him as one of the geniuses behind the Mental Floss series of books and magazines.

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These wonderful books are brimming with weird and wonderful facts and narratives that are researched enough to feel like, if they aren’t actually true, they should be.

The books contain all kinds of things that make you go “Hang on there a minute, Bubba!  What the hell are you saying?”  These are things you have to reread at least twice.  You have to reread once for yourself, and at least once reading out loud to members of your family to watch their eyes pop out of their head like they are in a Tex Avery cartoon right before they explode with laughing.

Reason #4;  I saw the movie of The Fault in Our Stars before I ever had a chance to find and buy a copy of the book.  It made me laugh and it made me cry… both with the same degree of soul-punching feeling I want so desperately to put into my own fiction.  I have not read this book yet, but I already know it is on my list of top ten all-time favorite books.

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So, of course I have left myself only two hundred words to actually review the book itself.  And I can’t do it.

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This book is a quest book.  It tells the story of Q (short for Quentin, a near-genius thinker and feeler who has to be John Green’s idea of himself) who meets a girl at his bedroom window one night.  She’s a girl who he has known and gone to school with his entire life.  But he doesn’t know her at all.  And she takes him on a whirlwind one-night adventure of doing crazy things he would’ve never done otherwise.  Then she disappears.  She is gone.  She may be dead.  And she has left clues for Q to follow and maybe find her.  She leaves clues in a copy of Walt Whitman’s poetic masterpiece, Leaves of Grass for Crissake!  It becomes a quest of one person finding another person… not just that physical person… but who that person really is… how she thinks and feels.  It is a quest to find the meaning of “Paper Towns”… places that aren’t real, even though they are.  It is about connecting yourself to other people by the roots, the same way that the “leaves of grass”in your lawn are connected to each other.  And, dammit!  I am well over 500 words again.  And why?  Simply because you have to read this book.  It is so good it crosses over all boundaries of genre and intended audience.  Yes, it is a Young Adult novel… a kids’ book.  But it was written for you, even if you are 559 years old like me.  (And that is not a typo… If you don’t already know what hyperbole is, you should look it up, because I just gave you 500 years worth).

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