Category Archives: old books

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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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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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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Beloved Books

While visiting home in Iowa, I re-connected with an old family friend.  It was in the farmhouse upstairs bedroom where I was being quartered as a visitor.  It was an it, not a him… a book, not a man.  It was a very old book, published in 1938.

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Yes, the Ittle Red H is a child’s picture-book.  Of course the first time I saw it, it was titled The Little Red Hen .  It was in much better shape then.  I was a beginning reader back then.  My mother and my two uncles were the first beginning readers who began reading this book.  It was in very good shape after it passed on to my generation at grandpa and grandma’s house.  Does that mean it was my fault that it got all child-chewed and doggedy-eared?  There was, after all, my cousins’ kids, and my cousins’ grandkids in between there looking at the book and possibly eating it too.

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Members of my family learned valuable lessons from this old book.  We learned that you can tape pages back together as long as you retrieve the page-parts from the child’s mouth before they actually get swallowed and digested.  We also learned that a Red Hen can still bake bread even though the top of her head has been removed.

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Alternating pages were printed in black and white and pink ink.  I can remember studying these pages for a long time and wondering why sometimes the duck and the goose were pink, and other times yellow, and other times black and white.  I think that may have taught me that color doesn’t matter… it’s the character of the character that can be recognized in spite of pink ink.  A very profound realization I do believe.

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I also learned that ducks and geese are richer than chickens, as determined by the fine clothing and the fact that their noses are held high in the air.  Monocles in duck’s eyes mean that ducks are supposed to be smarter than chickens too.  Apparently if you are smart and rich, you don’t do any of the actual work, yet expect that you are going to get to eat the bread anyway when it it is baked.

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You can tell by the many tools and the grouchy face on the Red Hen that she is a chicken and expected to do all the work, even though she has kids to support and is the same pink color as the duck and goose sometimes appear.

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When the Red Hen is in full color, she’s kinda brown in color.  That is certainly telling too.

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I love the comical comics in the illustrations of this book.  I traced them and copied them many times in my misspent youth.

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Perhaps I have blathered on a bit too much.  Maybe I should just shut up and show you the rest of this precious old book.

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As I go back and edit and re-read, I am just guessing, but it may be easily apparent that I was watching the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup while writing this loopy post.  But it is, after all, mainly about using my meager photography skills to preserve this beloved old book.

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