Tuesday 30 April 2013

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' by Winifred Watson was my first book for the Read-a-thon at the weekend. Having seen the film ages ago this has been on my list to read. The book gallops along at the same crazy pace as the film and is wonderfully entertaining and you can quite forgive it the terribly outdated assumptions about women, men and marriage.

Miss Pettigrew is a meek little governess looking for a new job who just happens to end up in the wrong place, and finds herself unwittingly dragged in to the complicated affairs of Miss Delysia LaFosse, an actress, singer and social butterfly. Over the course of one wild eventful day Miss Pettigrew sorts out Delysia's tangled love life, and the troubled relationship of her friend Miss Dubarry,and is in her turn transformed from a dowdy spinster into an admired and respected woman of the world. The story is told from Miss Pettigrew's point of view, giving us her moment by moment reaction to the unfolding events. 

It is a story about transformation and second chances and the idea that people can remake themselves given the opportunity. You listen to her thoughts, hear her self doubt and then witness her determination to make the most of this unusual opportunity that has presented itself. This quote kind of sums up what happens to Miss Pettigrew:

"Miss LaFosse's face became illuminated with joy.
'I knew it. The minute I laid eyes on you I knew you were the kind of person to be relied on. I'm not. I'm no use at all. The kitchen's through that door. You'll find everything there. But hurry. Please hurry.'
Flustered, bewildered, excited, Miss Pettigrew made for the door. She knew she was not a person to be relied upon. But perhaps that was because hitherto every one had perpetually taken her inadequacy for granted. How do we know what latent possibilities of achievement we possess? Chin up, eyes shining, pulse beating, Miss Pettigrew went into the kitchen." (p.7) 

I love the fact that it is republished here with the original illustrations (unusual itself in a novel nowadays) which give a wonderful atmosphere to the book.
The social whirl is all so very glamorous, and like Miss Pettigrew you can't help but get caught up in the excitement. In fact she becomes taken up with this new life so quickly that it is when they finally sit down for a quiet cup of tea that she begins to get a little anxious:

"She poured herself another cup of tea. This interlude was very pleasant, but it was getting a little protracted. Something should happen soon. She had only known Miss LaFosse for part of a day, but something had happened the whole time. She sat waiting for something to happen now. She would have been gravely disappointed if events had not kept up the standard. She was not a bit surprised when the bell rang." (p.134)

Miss Pettigrew is just wonderful, and I suspect that the spark for this adventure was always in her, just waiting for the right circumstances to ignite it. By the end of the story when she has untangled Phil and Nick and Tony and Michael and Joe, and she finally confesses to all and sundry the true reason for her presence in the flat that morning, but she has already become a legend in her own lifetime for her skilful handling of difficult situations, and a satisfactory outcome is assured. Fun, delightful and engaging, but also very witty and full of thoughtful observations of human nature, it fully lived up to expectations.


Today is the final post in the A to Z Challenge. My Z post is for zzzzzz and these are books that send me to sleep.

We had a couple of the original Rev. W. Awdry 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books when Lewis was a toddler. They are just plain awful. I gave them away and swore I would never read them again.
Similarly Postman Pat, trite and unreadable. I dislike them on a second front these days because of small children (and grown men) calling 'Hey Postman Pat' at me and for the terrible, inaccurate impression they give of being a postie.
We had a boxed set of Beatrix Potter books given to us by the great-grandparents. I might have tried to read Peter Rabbit once but never again. They come from an era when the view of children and childhood was so different. The children very much enjoyed carrying them around in the little box that had a handle but they were a huge pain and I spent far too much time having to put them away again.

However ... on the subject of going to sleep and discussing this post with Creature this morning she told me about a much more fun and much more inappropriate bedtime story book, and it seems like a good way to end the month. It is called 'Go the Fuck to Sleep' by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cort├ęs. I think that this is a book for the parents to share with each other and I doubt if anyone is buying it to read to their children.
Here is the book read by Samuel L. Jackson, excuse the poor sound quality and he does chat for the first couple of minutes.

I hope everyone participating and visiting had enjoyed the A to Z challenge, it has been a lovely month of nostalgia for me. Thanks to all my visitors and commenters, and the new followers, I hope you stick around and read the more grown up book reviews to come.

Monday 29 April 2013

Y for Yeoman

'The Wild Washerwomen' by John Yeoman has appeared on this blog before but I could not resist writing about it for the A to Z because it is so brilliant. Quentin Blake gets another outing as the illustrator.

The seven washerwomen work in a laundry for Mr Balthazar Tight (excellent name), but he is really mean and makes them work too hard, so one day they push the mound of laundry on top of him and escape (it seems to be some form of indentured labour because they all live there together too). The years of hard work have made them pretty tough so they run amok amongst the local community creating havoc.
They splash people with muddy water and overturn the stalls in the market. They steal apples from the trees and hats from hat shops, then swing on the church bell ropes and make a terrible noise.

They are so tough no one can stop them. Then a bunch of woodcutters hear the story. They cover themselves in mud and soot to make themselves intimidating, hoping to scare the washerwomen away. However when they come up the mountain path in the goat cart things don't turn out like that.
"But then Minnie realised they were looking at the dirtiest and grubbiest things that they had ever seen in their lives. 'Come on girls,' she shouted. 'Remember you're washerwomen!' "
And they grab the woodcutters and plunge them in the river. "They soaked them and squeezed them and pounded them on stones. They rinsed them and wrung them and laid them out to dry."
And it turns out they weren't such a bad looking load of woodcutters and the washerwomen take a liking to them. So they marry the woodcutters and "after that, people who travelled along the mountain path would see them, all happily washing and woodcutting and having the time of their lives."

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)

Sunday 28 April 2013

The Second Half - Dewey's 24 Hour Read-A-Thon

It's been a long night, I had a sleep, then Creature had a sleep. She keeps waking up and chatting for a moment and then falling asleep again.
I finished reading 'The Hours', what a wonderful book. 
I feel inspired to re-read Mrs Dalloway.
226 pages
Creature has read to page 180 of 'She's Never Coming Back'

Am moving on to 'Y' by Marjorie Celona
There has been cake and more tea, and I think, now more tea. I have gotten my second wind after my earlier sleep and am feeling perfectly awake.
Hope the night is going well for everyone (though it is probably not night yet for some people.)

Finally flagged at around 5am and slept for a couple of hours, woken by Dunk taking a photo of me asleep.

Read pages 1 - 141 of 'Y'
For a change of pace I picked up 'Horoscopes for the Dead' by Billy Collins 
and read most of the 103 pages.
Will give you this very short one that amused me:

The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there

to tell me they were all still talking about it

just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.

Creature finally woke up and is now at page 274 of 'She's Never Coming Back'.

Creature finished 'She's Never Coming Back' - 393 pages
We ate the last of the cold pizza. Creature has had to go to work again.
I am still reading 'Y' - currently at page 219.

The end.
49 - 81 of 'This isn't the sort of thing that happens to someone like you'
Up to page 264 of 'Y'

Total pages read by me - 870
Total pages read by Creature - 513
Congratulations to everyone who joined in, this has been quite an exhausting experience. Going for a shower and a sleep now.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Read-a-thon progress report (ongoing)

We have cake and we have books, what more do you need in life.
4 hour progress report:
Arrived back from work and was on the sofa with tea and book by 1.10pm
First book finished by 3.00pm ish - 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' by Winifred Watson 
Read pages 137 - 234 = 97 pages
Then had a break to ice the cake.
Read pages 3 - 51 = 48 pages 
(This is short stories so am going to come and go from this one)
4.23pm started 'The Victorian Chaise-Longue' by Marghanita Laski 
(both books picked up from Didsbury library this morning)
Read pages 1 - 20 = 20 pages
Taking short break to check out the Read-A-Thon website.

Creature arrives home from work 7pm and tells me off for being on the computer ... but I am ordering pizza!

Had a nap. Had pizza.
Finished reading 'The Victorian Chaise-Longue'
Read pages 21 - 99 = 79 pages
Starting 'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham
Creature is reading  'The Virgin Suicides' by Jeffery Eugenides

Creature finished 'Virgin Suicides' around 10pm
Now reading 'She's Never Coming Back' by Hans Koppel
I have had another nap (but then have been up since 5.30am and done a days's work)
Back to 'The Hours' and another cup of tea.
(Posting for the 'Picture It' Mini Challenge)

The April 2013 Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon

These are some of the books that may be read during the next 24 hours. Or a whole new plan may be formulated as the night wears on. I checked the online catalogue and managed to acquire some from my library wish list. I started 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' on the tram coming back from picking it up at the City Library and am already half way through, and 'Descartes Error' has been on the go for a couple of weeks for my Coursera course and I would like to get it finished. Creature is going to be joining in too, though she has to be at work for the afternoon. When my eyes get tired she is going to read 'The Hobbit' aloud to me. We have snacks and cake all lined up and we are ready to go. 
Good luck to all the participants.

X for Xargle

Dr Xargle's explanations of the oddities of human life from the point of a view of a green alien are just wonderfully inventive, described as being 'translated into human' by Jeanne Willis (a second mention for this author too) and illustrated by Tony Ross. The one about Earthlets is brilliant too but here I have Earth Mobiles and Earth Tiggers.

Dr Xargles is an alien teacher and he is trying to help his charges make sense of the peculiar behaviour of humans. They are funny books for children because it allows them to laugh at someone who doesn't understand what to us are obvious things, but it also points out that the things we think are obvious might not be so after all. It also points out to children how there might be any number of alternative explanations for things, and that different cultures have totally different ways of seeing the world.
"A car has many eyes. It winks at it's friends with these. It has a tail. Out of this comes stink fume."
The definition of a boat: "A boat is made from a tree and a sheet is tied to a stick with string"
Weird behaviour on aeroplanes: "The earthlings are only allowed to get on if they smile. Then, they are tied to the chairs so they don't escape."
At the end of each book his students disguise themselves as schoolchildren and travel to earth, only to get in a whole lot of trouble because of their slightly strange lessons.
We always liked the cat one, you probably have to be a cat person to find it funny.
"Earth tiggers like gardening. They dig a hole and plant a stinkpot. This never grows."
Earth tigers mainly eat 'meatblob' but "A healthy earth tigger also needs cow juice, tandoori cluck bird, muckworm and old green gibble in dustbin gravy." Just brilliant and laugh out loud funny.

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)

Friday 26 April 2013

W for Waddell and Wise

As I mentioned earlier in the challenge here is a post for Martin Waddell. His list of publications is pretty extensive and he has collaborated with many different illustrators. Mostly his stories are very gentle and reassuring, perfect for bedtime reads. 

I am annoyed at the library for failing me. I requested their copy of 'Once There Were Giants' weeks ago and according to the online catalogue it is sat on the shelf in Wythenshawe but it has not arrived so I have no photos of the story to share with you. This book was always my favourite, though I am not sure if the children were so taken with it. It is the story of a young woman looking at family photographs and watching her own growing up, the 'giants' being the adults around her, and how in the end she becomes one of the giants and has a baby of her own. Just lovely. (Illustrations in this by Penny Dale, who also illustrated another called 'Rosie's Babies' which I love too.)
'The Tough Princess' (illustrated by Patrick Benson) is a wonderful role model for little girls too exposed to Disney princesses. Our heroine is Princess Rosamund. Her mother and father are very  poor and they all live in a  caravan, they are worried about their old age and need to marry her off. But instead of fitting in with their plans she grows very tall, beats up the bad fairy and goes off on her bike to find a prince. She has adventures and rescues several "but she didn't like them, so she threw them back".  Eventually she fights through to an enchanted castle and kisses a beautiful prince so it all ends happily, but at least she does it on her own terms.
The most beloved of Martin Waddell's books however is 'Owl Babies' (also illustrated by Patrick Benson), and if you have a two-year-old and don't own this yet ...go buy a copy.
A lovely simple tale of three baby owl, called Sarah and Percy and Bill, who wake up to find themselves alone. A little bit of tension builds as they worry about where their mother might have gone or the things that might have befallen her, but the big sister reassures the little ones and they all sit on the branch awaiting her return. And of course she comes back, "Mummy, they cried, and they flapped and they danced, and they bounced up and down on their branch." The message being that no matter what, mummies are reliable and will always come home. 

'Ten Sly Piranhas' by William Wise, illustrated by Victoria Chess (hear it read on youtube here). I am just sneaking another one in here under the radar. This book came I think from a library book sale and is a counting book with a tasty twist. 
We start the story with ten sly piranhas but there is one really sly one and during the course of the story he manages to sneak up and eat all the others (I mean I'm assuming it's the same one, it might be that several of them eat someone and then they get eaten in their turn). The book is full of these lovely vivid pictures as the river passes through the jungle and we see a vast array of different animals both above and below the water. It puts a slightly more 'friendly' face on a much maligned creature; I saw one once in an aquarium and they really do not look friendly at all. 

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)

Thursday 25 April 2013

V for Varley

I am going back to the illustrators today with two books from Susan Varley, each with very different styles. The first is 'Why is the Sky Blue' written by Sally Grindley which I confess I love mostly for the message it conveys.
In this book Donkey and Rabbit live in a field. "Donkey was very old and knew a lot of things" and "Rabbit was very young and wanted to learn". But Rabbit is very excitable and runs back and forth around the field discovering things for himself and finds it hard to pay attention to the lessons Donkey wants to impart. The pictures show Rabbit chasing butterflies or looking at the clouds or trying to fly like the birds:
He comes back each day and tells Donkey excitedly all about the things he has discovered and says how he really does want to learn about why the shy is blue, Donkey always says "But I can only teach you if you sit still and listen." Eventually, one day when Rabbit doesn't come back, Donkey sets out to look for him and along the way rediscovers the joy of adventure and imagination. I always liked it because it subverts the classic school message that children can only learn if they sit quiet and listen to what the teacher says, and embraces the notion of individual discovery that forms the basis of autonomous education.  
(By the way, here is why the sky is blue, in case you are wondering.)

The second one is 'The Monster Bed' written by Jeanne Willis, another book that subverts the monster story genre. 
In it we have young Dennis the Monster who is afraid of the children who might be under his bed while he is asleep. He decides that to prevent this happening he will sleep under the bed. Unfortunately when a small boy who gets lost in the woods happens to wander into their cave and find the bed a traumatic meeting between the two of them becomes inevitable.

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Nemesis (not an A to Z post)

It is three years since I read and reviewed American Pastoral (with these afterthoughts). 'Nemesis' by Philip Roth has been on my library list for quite some time, and according to the New York Times will be his last novel. It seems strange to me that a man so patently consumed by writing should choose to stop, but then it is a good thing that he can recognise he has said everything he wishes to. 

Nemesis takes place mainly towards the end of WW2 and follows the events surrounding an outbreak of polio and the character of Bucky Cantor who is a playground supervisor. The story is told partly in retrospect, as we discover at the end, with him relating the events much later in life to one of the children from the playground. We watch with Bucky as the epidemic takes hold and begins to cut a swathe through his community and the boys under his care. He is powerless to help and eventually gives in to his girlfriend Marcia's request that he join her at the summer camp where she is working. With easily anticipated inevitability the disease follows him to the camp and to his horror Bucky realises that he has carried it there with him. Bucky too succumbs to polio and is left broken both physically and mentally. He pushes Marcia away fearing her rejection of him and after a lengthy recovery returns to care for his ailing grandmother and a life of empty mediocrity. 

Roth manages to combine some exquisite writing with deep understanding of the human condition. So much going on in this relatively short book, but a couple of quotes first. This is Bucky's observation of his grandmother:

"As for the face above the ruin of her neck, it was now a tightly drawn mesh of finely patterned wrinkles, grooves so minute they appeared so be the work of an implement far less crude than the truncheon of old age - an etching needle perhaps, or a lacemaker's tool, manipulated by a master craftsman to render her as ancient-looking a grandmother as any on earth." (p.123)

And at the camp a disorientated swarm of butterflies arrives as the boys are swimming:

"While he stood in the hot sun at the dock, watching the faces full of sunlight bobbing about in the water, one of the butterflies landed on Bucky and began to sip on his bare shoulder. Miraculous! Imbibing the minerals of his perspiration! Fantastic! Bucky remained motionless, observing the butterfly out of the corner of his eye until the thing levitated and was suddenly gone. ... what he did not tell them was that he was so astonished by the gorgeous butterfly's feeding on his flesh that when it flew off he allowed himself to half believe that this too must be an omen of bounteous days to come." (p.180-1)

This book seems to lack the political symbolism that abounds in American Pastoral and is much more personal. In fact the only strong character in the book is Bucky. There is much emphasis on physical prowess, Bucky values his highly and values it in the children too, and I was left wondering, as with 'Still Alice' a few weeks ago where her intellectual losses were emphasised, whether it is supposed to add poignancy in some way when the gifted athletes are struck down, maimed or killed by the disease. The story takes us through the gamut of his emotions and allows us to watch as his moral compass spins in all directions. His sense of who he is and what he wants to be is so disrupted by this force of nature over which he has no power. One minute he is determined to stick it out in Newark and support the children there through the epidemic and then abruptly he makes the decision to leave. He has an opportunity and runs away, and we read in all honesty his self-justification for this choice. He ties himself in knots and then just as quickly decides to return to his former job, even when he has listened to Marcia's plaintive description of her fears for his safety. Then the following day he changes his mind again and decides to stay, getting no particular comfort from the news that back in the city the playgrounds have been closed down anyway as a precaution. He thinks he has found this safe haven but within days it is destroyed and the realisation dawns on him that he is the cause of its destruction. Wracked with guilt and shame he refuses to see Marcia when he is recovering. Her father insists that he at least meet and talk to her but he rejects her pleas to still marry her. He is crippled far more by guilt than by the polio and a hatred of what has become of his once athletic body, he would rather hide than face up to it and make what he can of it. What the book said to me was what a bad thing patriarchy is for men: Bucky had this notion of who he was, what he ought to be, what his role was in society, to care and protect, to support a wife and family, to be physically strong, to be in control, and when polio took all that away he had nothing to replace it with, no notion of how to make a life that was not based on those things. Part of me pitied him, part of me felt angry at him for his lack of imagination. In a way there was again something of the loss of the American Dream about the story but at the same time it was also about the insignificance of the individual; Bucky agonises over his decisions and the impact of his choices but in reality they were negligible in the face of the enormity of the events. All in all a very interesting read, I am sure I will come back to Roth again, maybe in another three years.

U for Unknown

This is slightly cheating but I make the rules for my A to Z challenge and today I am going to write about a few books that I have come across that I thought were brilliant but were not around when my children were little. 
First up is Jon Klassen. 'I Want My Hat Back' apparently raised a bit of a furore (Spoiler Alert) because the bear who is looking for his hat finds the rabbit who has taken it and eats him. Although the event is not pictured there is some concern about whether this is okay in a children's story.
 His other book sees a similar story from the other perspective. 'This Is Not My Hat' is told by a small fish who has stolen a hat from a very large fish and is convinced he will get away with it. The big fish hunts him down into the weeds and comes out alone so you are left unsure as to his fate. Both books have a lovely sparse quality to them, just the characters passing across each page in pursuit of their respective objectives. The reader is required to interpret to a certain extent, judging the emotions based on minimalist eye movements. I like the kind of book that is more subtle and allows the listener to engage and wonder what the characters might be thinking.
 Second up is Oliver Jeffers. His books have a similar feel to Klassen, again they are very sparse with a plain coloured background to each page and minimal uncluttered pictures. These are the ones that I sat and read in Waterstones.
'The Heart and the Bottle' about a little girl who protects her heart by putting it in a bottle.
In 'Stuck' a little boy gets his kite stuck in a tree and attempts to get it down by throwing other things into the tree. The story gets more and more surreal as he throws bigger and bigger items and the tree gets more and more crowded . It reminds me of the definition of stupidity; doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 
The one I really loved however was 'This Moose Belongs to Me' in which a boy discovers the true meaning of friendship and how you shouldn't take anyone for granted. 
I mentioned 'Stanley's Stick' by John Hegley (illustrated by Neal Layton) back in October when I saw a  most peculiar dramatisation of the story during the Manchester Literature Festival. It is just a lovely story about a little boy and a stick and the games he plays. I liked it because it makes me think of Lewis and the years I spent going on outings with him and *always* coming home with a stick. They are just the best toys ever.

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)

Tuesday 23 April 2013

T for Three Little Wolves

'The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig' by Eugene Trivizas (what an interesting man, do go read his wiki page), illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (coincidentally married to John Burningham who I wrote about earlier this month). I thought I still had this book but unfortunately not. I will definitely buy another copy. The pictures today are courtesy of Passionate about Picturebooks, where a lovely lady called Sandie shares her enthusiasm for books that she uses in teaching english. This is another book where you really need to be familiar with the original to appreciate the subversion of the tale. 

The three little wolves are sent out into the world by their mother, after a stern warning about the Big Bad Pig, and meet a random selection of animals who provide them with building materials. Rather more robust than the feeble house of straw that the little pigs build, the wolves start off with one made of bricks. However, after all the huffing and puffing, we discover that the pig "isn't called big and bad for nothing" and he takes a sledgehammer and knocks it down:
So they follow that up with a house of concrete and then a house made of metal sheets and barbed wire. I rather like the bit where the Big Bad Pig does not knock on the door but buzzes for their attention via the video entrance phone. I also like the fact that their most precious possession is a china teapot that they manage to save on each occasion.
What is lovely about the pictures is how beautifully the animal roles are reversed; the wolves do look sweet and defenceless and the pig looks mean and vicious. 
In a very neat bit of outside-the-box thinking the wolves then decide to build a house of flowers. It has roses and sunflowers and cherry blossom, it smells beautiful and it sways gently in the breeze.
When the Pig comes to try and blow it away he is so overwhelmed by the scent of the flowers that he sees the error of his ways and ends up playing games and having tea with the wolves, and they all live happily ever after. This book is the whole package, fantastic illustrations, full of details that are integral to the story, and an excellent clever tale, with an interesting point to make about the nature of criminality. I always liked books that give rise to conversations about the motivations of the characters, and this one was always thought provoking.

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)

Monday 22 April 2013

S for Sid and Sendak

'Six Dinner Sid' by Inga Moore apparently won the Smarties Prize in 1990. She is not a prolific writer and has spent much of her career working on illustrations for classic children's books like 'Wind in the Willows' and 'The Secret Garden'. 

I tend to think you are either a cat person or a dog person (apart from those people who don't like having animals around at all) and our family were definitely cat people. Unlike dogs, cats are pretty fickle creatures, if they deign to come home in the morning for breakfast you feel quite grateful. In Six Dinner Sid we have a cat who really does play the game well and strings along a whole street full of 'owners'.
 Sid likes his six homes, he has to remember six different names but not only does he get six dinners, he also gets scratched in six different places and gets to sleep in six different beds:
"Since no one talked to their neighbours in Aristotle Street, no one knew what Sid was up to. They each believed the cat they fed was theirs, and theirs alone."
Unfortunately for Sid he gets a cough and ends up with six visits to the vet ... and so his cunning scheme is discovered.
"When they discovered what he had been up to Sid's owners were furious. They said he had no business eating so many dinners. They said, in future, they would make sure he only had one dinner a day."
But Sid is a cat, a six-dinner-a-day cat. If he was a dog he would have just sulked in the corner. Being a cat he has his own plans. So he moves house.
"Unlike Aristotle Street, the people who lived in Pythagoras Place talked to their neighbours. So, right from the start everyone knew about Sid's six dinners. And because everyone knew, nobody minded."

There are a few classics that just cannot be omitted from any perusal of children's picture books and Maurice Sendak's 'Where The Wild Things Are' is one of them. It has everything really, fantasy and imagination, a child protagonist who gets to be king of his own land and faces up to the scariest of monsters.

 I always felt it was a story that allows children to express their anger, to be wild. Max goes off to where the wild things are and is the wildest one of all. But then home is still a safe refuge, and when he decides he's had enough of being wild and he comes back his supper is waiting for him.  

Linking back also to my review of The Sad Book by Michael Rosen.

(Go to the list here and visit other A to Z Bloggers.)