Category Archives: old books

Books That Make You Hurt

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Yes, I read this book.  Yes, it scared the poop out of me.  Yes, it made me cry.  This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime.  Only the names of the characters would be different.

I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer.  He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago.  Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose.  And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time.  They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people.  I know those people personally.  Of course, they have different names in real life.

But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces.  It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator.  Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail.  I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending.  For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt.  A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.

This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings.  I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp.  But the bad guy wins.  No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does.  I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends.  It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  They mistook him for the monster.  I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.

The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could.  Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone?  I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live.  Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read.  It will hurt you.  But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.

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Filed under book reports, book review, horror writing, insight, inspiration, irony, old books, reading

Three Books at Once

No, this isn’t some kind of multiple-book book review.  This is an ungodly silly claim that I can actually read three books at once.  Silly, but true.

Now I don’t claim to be a three-armed mutant with six eyes or anything.  And I am relatively sure I only have one brain.  But, remember, I was a school teacher who could successfully maintain a lesson thread through discussions that were supposed to be about a story by Mark Twain, but ventured off to the left into whether or not donuts were really invented by a guy who piloted a ship and stuck his pastries on the handles of the ships’ wheel, thus making the first donut holes, and then got briefly lost in the woods of a discussion about whether or not there were pirates on the Mississippi River, and who Jean Lafitte really was, and why he was not the barefoot pirate who stole Cap’n Crunch’s cereal, but finally got to the point of what the story was really trying to say.  (How’s that for mastery of the compound sentence?)  (Oh, so you could better?  Really?  You were in my class once, weren’t you.)  I am quite capable of tracking more than one plot at the same time.  And I am not slavishly devoted to finishing one book before I pick up the next.

I like reading things the way I eat a Sunday dinner… a little meatloaf is followed by a fork-full of mashed potatoes, then back to meat, and some green peas after that…  until the whole plate is clean.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is the meatloaf.  I have read it before, just as I have probably had more meatloaf in my Iowegian/Texican  lifetime than any other meat dish.  It’s pretty much a middle-America thing.  And Treasure Island is the second book I ever read.  So you can understand how easy a re-read would be.  I am reading it mostly while I am sitting in the high school parking lot waiting to pick up the Princess after school is out.

fbofw1Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse is also an old friend.  I used to read it in the newspaper practically every day.  I watched those kids grow up and have adventures almost as if they were members of my own family.  So the mashed potatoes part of the meal is easy to digest too.

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So that brings me to the green peas.  Green peas are good for you.  They are filled with niacin and folic acid and other green stuff that makes you healthier, even though when the green peas get mashed a bit and mix together with the potatoes, they look like boogers, and when you are a kid, you really can’t be sure.  Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter wrote this book The Long War together.  And while I love everything Terry Pratchett does, including the book he wrote with Neil Gaiman, I am having a hard time getting into this one.  Parts of it seem disjointed and hard to follow, at least at the beginning.  It takes work to choke down some of it.  Peas and potatoes and boogers, you know.

But this isn’t the first time I have ever read multiple books at the same time.  In fact, I don’t remember the last time I finished a book and the next one wasn’t at least halfway finished too.  So it can be done.  Even by sane people.

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A $3.00 Treasure Trove

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If you cruise the bargain sections in an old used book store like Half-Price Books, eventually you are going to find something priceless.  This book I am showing you is that very thing for me.

It was copyrighted in 1978.  The inscription inside the front cover says this was a Father’s Day gift on June 19th, 1988.  Someone named Gary gifted it to someone named Claude in Burleson, Texas.  It was probably a cherished book until someone passed away and the book changed hands in an estate sale.

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Howard Pyle

The book chronicles the height of the publishing era when being able to print books and reproduce artworks began entertaining the masses.  Always before painters and great artists worked for a patron for the purpose of decorating their home in a way that displayed their great wealth.  But from the 1880’s to the rise of cinema, magazines and books kept the masses entertained, helped more people to become literate than ever before, and created the stories that made our shared culture and life experiences grow stronger and ever more inventive.  The book focuses on the best of the best among a new breed of artist… the illustrators.

These are the ones the book details;

Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Frederick Remington, Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, and John Held Jr.

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N.C. Wyeth

Wyeth was most famous as a book illustrator for Treasure Island, Kidnapped, other books by Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain,  and a famous volume of tales about Robin Hood.

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Frederick Remington

Remington is a name you probably know as a maker of Western art.  He was a famous painter of cowboys and Indians and the American frontier.

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Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish is my all-time favorite painter.  His work is something I gushed about in previous posts because I own other books about his fanciful works painted in Maxfield Parrish blue.

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Also Maxfield Parrish

 

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J.C. Leyendecker

You will probably recognize Leyendecker’s work in magazine and advertising illustration as the standard of the Roaring 20’s.  His paintings set a style that swept American culture for more than a decade, and still affects how we dress to this very day.

 

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More Leyendecker

 

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Even more from Leyendecker

 

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Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell and his work for The Saturday Evening Post is still familiar to practically everyone who reads and looks at the illustrations.  As you can see he was a master of folksy realism and could do a portrait better than practically anyone.

 

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Also Rockwell

I have also written about Norman Rockwell before too.  I have half a dozen books that include his works.  My wife is from the Philippines and she knew about him before I ever said a word to her about him.

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Charles Dana Gibson

As you can plainly see, Gibson was a master of pen and ink.  His work for Collier’s and other magazines thrills in simple black and white.  More cartoonists than just little ol’ me obsess about how he did what he did.

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Also Gibson

 

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James Montgomery Flagg… with a name like that, who else could it be?

 

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John Held Jr.

The work of Held is stylistically different than all the rest in easily noticeable ways.  He’s the guy that made all the big-headed Pinocchio-looking people in the 1920’s.  You may have seen his work before, though you probably never knew his name.

This bit of someone else’s treasure hoard will now become a part of my own dragon’s treasure, staying by my bedside for quite a while, while I continue to suck the marrow from each of its bones.  I love this book.  It is mine, and you can’t have it… unless you find your own copy in a used bookstore somewhere.

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Filed under art criticism, art my Grandpa loved, book reports, book review, humor, illustrations, imagination, oil painting, old art, old books, pen and ink, Uncategorized

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

Reading Twain for a Lifetime

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I wish to leave no doubt unturned like a stone that might have treasure hidden under it.  I love the works of Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

I have read and studied his writing for a lifetime, starting with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which I read for myself in the seventh grade, after seeing the musical movie Tom Sawyer starring Johnny Whittaker as Tom.  I caught a severe passion, more serious than a head-cold, for the wit and wisdom with which Twain crafted a story.  It took me a while to acquire and read more… but I most definitely did.  I took an American Literature course in college that featured Twain, and I read and analyzed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I also bought a copy of Pudd’nhead Wilson which I would later devour in the same thoroughly literate and pretentious manner as I had Huck Finn.  Copies of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Mysterious Stranger were purchased at the same time, though I didn’t read them cover to cover until later during my years as a middle school English teacher.  I should point out, however, that I read and re-read both of those, Connecticut Yankee winning out by being read three times.  As a teacher, I taught Tom Sawyer as an in-class novel assignment in the time when other teachers thought I was more-or-less crazy for trying to teach a 100-year-old book to mostly Hispanic non-readers.  While the lunatic-inspired experiment was not a total success, it was not a total failure either.  Some kids actually liked having me read parts of it aloud to them, and some borrowed copies of the book to reread it for themselves after we finished as a class.

marktwaindvd2006During my middle-school teaching years I also bought and read copies of The Prince and the Pauper, Roughing It, and Life on the Mississippi.  I would later use a selection from Roughing It as part of a thematic unit on Mark Twain where I used Will Vinton’s glorious clay-mation movie, The Adventures of Mark Twain as a way to painlessly introduce my kids to the notion that Mark Twain was funny and complex and wise.

I have also read and used some of Twain’s most famous short fictions.  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” are both masterpieces of Twain’s keen insight into the human psyche and the goofy and comic corruptions he finds there.

And now, retired old me is reading Tom Sawyer Abroad.  And, though it is not one of his finest works, I still love it and am enthralled.  I will review it and share it with you when I am finished.  But I will never be through with Mark Twain.  Not only is there more of him to read, but he has truly been a life-long friend .

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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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The Good Doctor Seuss

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I’ll say it again while my tongue is not loose,

I did learn to read from the good Doctor Seuss!

Yes, this writer I have chosen to talk about today, this wunderful wubble of werfinsky cartoons and sniggly sayer of savantish snapoons, is, perhaps, the most important literary influence on my life.  Back in the early 1960’s my parents bought a subscription to Dr. Seuss books that were written in simple, easy words… but the secret was always in the pictures and the sounds.  Yes, the sounds.  It’s the sounds that you see which will bollox the ear, and sear into your memory for many a year.  Oh, and the rhymes… the rhymes make a memory for many old times.  See if you can get that out of your head.  I bet you can’t.  The rhythm will make you remember instead.

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The secret is how with picture and word the old master teaches you painlessly how to read.  I loved Dr. Seuss as a child.  I loved him even more when I was a teacher who often had to teach middle school and high school students belatedly how to read.  I can’t tell you how many times I read Dr. Seuss books out loud while students looked at the words.  I can’t tell you because it is such a big number that my old teacher-brain swells with the effort to remember and count.  And it is not merely the reading skill you learn from this, especially the reading a book like Fox in Socks.  Some time in the future when I regain a bit of health, I’ll have to show you on YouTube the tantalizing tongue training I went through with Fox in Socks.  

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You learn life lessons from Dr. Seuss.  He not only made me a reader, he helped shape the sort of man I am.

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The Lorax taught us about conservation of resources.  The Sneetches teach us not to have foolish prejudices based on surface differences.  He inspires us to be better than we are.

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So here is the thing that I want to say,

If you read Dr. Seuss, there’s no better way,

To learn about life, and learn how to play,

And be the best you for all of your days.

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