Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Treasure!

I was absolutely floored when I received this priceless gem in the mail from a fellow Fry fan in the UK. I'm a huge fan of The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, but never thought I'd own an early copy of the book, this one with the original 1957 title. Thanks again, Stephen!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn contains some beautiful writing and a compelling plot. No, it wouldn't work without the P&P story overarching it, but still, the plot points manage to be as independently interesting as possible, which is quite an achievement.

I also thought Baker's take on some of Austen's characters was well done and felt that her portrayals of Mr. Collins, Wickham, and Elizabeth Bennet were particularly spot-on. And James, the footman, one of Baker's original creations, is as noble and likeable as any of Austen's own heroes; more so, in my opinion, since his lack of money could easily have made him desperate and unscrupulous. He's like an impoverished Mr. Knightly with a dark secret.

But on the minus side the book has some serious flaws and, in my opinion, they all involve the dirty details: how many scenes involving the lugging of chamber pots, scraping mud off of boots, or cleaning dirty diapers (soiled by the Gardiner kids) do the readers need before we get the point that, yes, the maids were given tasks that no one else wanted to do? There are several scenes having nothing to do with excrement or mud where the ick level goes absolutely off the charts, making Baker's quest to bring realism to the original story seem extremely heavy-handed.

Most of this, it seems, is to illustrate how difficult life was for the servants of this time period. Point taken -- again and again and again -- but in my opinion Baker's chief error is having protagonist Sarah constantly complaining internally about her grueling tasks while endlessly comparing her life with those she serves. I don't think many 18th/19th century people in service would have done much of either. Twenty-first century people transported back in time? Definitely. But there's no time travel going on here except for the reader who, though appreciative of the time Baker took to research what life was like for servants in Jane Austen's day, might have liked a more accurate depiction of their thought processes as well.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Another magical character from Mary Poppins

I finally finished the first Mary Poppins book. One major difference between the book and film: Mary Poppins is so unpleasant that you wonder why the children are even the smallest bit sad when she departs at the book's end. When I saw the film version as a child I did think Julie Andrews was a bit too strict, too unfeeling for my liking. But regarding unlikeability, cinematic Mary doesn't come close to the one created by P.L. Travers. Perhaps I'm missing something but the original character is completely vain (without good reason, apparently), self-centered to a fault, and oddly arbitrary. I think the natural sweetness, relative youth, and beauty possessed by Julie Andrews may have automatically toned down the character's negative characteristics when the tale went celluloid.

But however one may opine on the book's central character, the magical elements contained within the pages of Mary Poppins -- most not included in the film -- are what gives the tale whatever charm it contains. And those magical elements are considerable.

The last one to appear in the book pops into a department store where Mary, Jane, and Michael are Christmas shopping. They're just about to leave through the revolving doors when someone comes towards the doors at the same time, "the running, flickering figure of a child."

This is no ordinary child. She "had practically no clothes on, only a light wispy strip of blue stuff that looked as though she had torn it from the sky to wrap around her naked body."

She spins through the revolving doors for a while, entertaining herself, apparently, before beelining towards Jane and Michael.

"Ah, there you are! Thank you for waiting. I'm afraid I'm a little late," said the child, stretching out her bright arms to Jane and Michael. "Now," she cocked her head on one side, "aren't you glad to see me? Say yes, say yes!"

"Yes," said Jane smiling, for nobody, she felt, could help being glad to see anyone so bright and happy.

She's Maia, one of the "seven sisters" of the Pleiades star cluster. Maia has been watching Jane and Michael "from the sky," is very excited to be finally speaking to them in person, and asks their assistance in choosing Christmas gifts for her sister stars.

And of course, like all the other magical characters in the book, she has a previous connection with Mary Poppins. After the shopping is done, Maia's one arm full of gifts, she reaches "up her spare arm and put it round Mary Poppins's neck and kissed her. A long look passed between them, and they smiled as people smile who understand each other." Then, outside the store, in front of a crowd of curious onlookers, Maia ascends some invisible steps back to her home in the sky.

Mary Poppins may have been a vain, cold oddball but she certainly had some interesting acquaintances, even if half of them didn't make it into the film. No wonder Jane and Michael were sad to see her go.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Kite is a Victim by Leonard Cohen

It's still winter, I know, but this poem blew me away (no pun intended), especially the latter stanzas.

A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer.

A kite is a fish you have already caught
in a pool where no fish come,
so you play him carefully and long,
and hope he won't give up,
or the wind die down.

A kite is the last poem you've written,
so you give it to the wind,
but you don't let it go
until someone finds you
something else to do.

A kite is a contract of glory
that must be made with the sun,
so you make friends with the field
the river and the wind,
then you pray the whole cold night before,
under the travelling cordless moon,
to make you worthy and lyric and pure.

From Leonard Cohen's Poems and Songs.

Friday, February 7, 2014

P.L. Travers and William Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality in the Banks Nursery

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
The earth, and every common sight
                 To me did seem
            Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
             Turn wheresoe'er I may,
              By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
          The rainbow comes and goes, 
            And lovely is the rose; 
            The moon doth with delight
     Look round her when the heavens are bare;
            Waters on a starry night
            Are beautiful and fair;
     The sunshine is a glorious birth;
     But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth...
 From " Ode: Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" by William Wordsworth
I found another magical gem in my "Saving Mr. Banks"-inspired reading of Mary Poppins, the idea of which was taken straight out of Wordsworth's poem above.
Chapter nine is devoted to the Banks family twins, infants John and Barbara. We find them in the family nursery speaking to the sunlight and conversing with a starling, apparently a regular visitor. Mary Poppins, also gifted wit supranatural communication skills (surprise, surprise) joins the conversation, and soon the twins are discussing the limits of their elder siblings. John complains first about Jane:
"Why, only last Monday I heard Jane remark that she wished she knew what language the Wind spoke."
After Barbara goes on in a similar vein about their other dense family members, Mary Poppins explains that Jane and Michael were once were gifted with the same language skills as the twins now possess. The twins are shocked.
"What?" said John and Barbara together in very surprised voices. "Really? You mean they understood the Starling and the Wind and---"

 "And what the trees say and the language of the sunlight and the stars -- of course they did! Once," said Mary Poppins. 
Immediately realizing what this implies for their own futures, the twins insist that sheer determination will enable them to retain their infant gifts. The Starling, trying to be kind, explains:
"...You'll forget because you just can't help it. There never was a human being that remembered after the age of one -- at the very latest -- except, of course, Her." And he jerked his head over his shoulder at Mary Poppins.
John doesn't care that Mary Poppins is, in the words of the starling, "the Great Exception." He goes on desperately:
"Listen, listen, the wind's talking," said John, tilting his head on one side. "Do you really mean we won't be able to hear that when we're older, Mary Poppins?"
"You'll hear it all right," said Mary Poppins, "but you won't understand." At that Barbara began to weep gently. There were tears in John's eyes, too. "Well, it can't be helped. It's how things happen," said Mary Poppins sensibly.
The Starling gently jeers them but when he comes back for a visit, following the twin's first birthday party, and finds them babbling unintelligibly, their magical language skills lost, he is visibly disappointed,
He remained silent for a little while, staring into the cots. Then he shook himself vigorously.
"Well, well. I must be off. Back to my chimney. It will need a spring-cleaning, I'll be bound." He flew on to the window-sill and paused, Looking back over his shoulder.
"It's seem funny without them, though. Always liked talking to them -- so I did. I shall miss them." He brushed his wing quickly across his eyes.
So in P.L. Travers' world, not only are humans disappointed by their inability to communicate with nature, the reverse is true as well: nature is also disappointed by the unfortunate disconnect. Magical.

...trailing clouds of glory do we come 
               From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! ...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mary Poppins and the gingerbread stars: musings on the magic of P.L. Travers

I'm one of those people who became so smitten with "Saving Mr. Banks" that it caused me to dive headlong into the "primary source material" (I dropped generous just-before-Christmas-hints about my lack of this material and Santa delivered).

 But I somehow don't find myself in the yes-Julie-Andrews-was-much-sweeter-than-Travers-intended camp. I always thought the Disney incarnation was pretty cold. I will say, though, that the real, original deal is an absolute ice cube. She's so cold I couldn't understand for a while what made the books so popular.

 I guess the obvious appeal is the magic. The movie already proved this in spades: the laughing uncle who has tea in the air and sidewalk paintings one can enter. The book contains some additional, albeit quirky, magic not seen in the film: Mary Poppins is a sort of Dr. Doolittle who communicates with animals.

 But I still wasn't quite getting it until the end of chapter eight which features an odd character named Mrs. Corry who is supposed to be a charming seller of gingerbread but who berates and belittles her adult daughters in front of strangers. Okaaay. Anyway, she and Mary Poppins conspire to steal from the children some carefully saved and stored paper stars (part of the gingerbread wrapping) in order to paste them onto the night sky. The children watch this activity from a distance, enchanted:

 Then Jane and Michael saw a most amazing sight. As soon as she arrived at the top of her ladder, Mrs. Corry dipped her brush into the glue and began slapping the sticky substance against the sky. And Mary Poppins, when this had been done, took something shiny from her basket and fixed it to the glue. When she took her hand away they saw that she was sticking the Gingerbread Stars to the sky. As each one was placed in position it began to twinkle furiously, sending out rays of sparkling golden light.

'They're ours!' said Michael breathlessly. 'They're our stars. She thought we were asleep and came in and took them.'

Jane doesn't say much until the very end of the chapter:

'What I want to know,' she said, 'is this: Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars?'

Aside from the unfortunate Kleptomania involved this really is a magical scene and I think I may be getting why Disney worked so hard to bring this book to the screen.

 In the meantime, I'm going to keep reading. I have three more Travers books to get through after this one and I hope to "paste a star" on this blog every time a scene touches me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A little Plath

My, this woman was a stunning poet. Some startling imagery, the last stanza of "Southern Sunrise":

"A quartz-clear dawn
Inch by bright inch
Gilds all our Avenue,
And out of the blue drench
Of Angel's Bay
Rises the round red watermelon sun."

A little Haiku

If Haiku is 8-5-4 syllable lines, then I've just written some. I love minimalism. :)

The snow blower's motor rattles
the iced windows
or is it the wind?

The stray cat finds safe interval
sure of escape
turns to me and blinks.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Rosalie K. Fry's Promise of the Rainbow

I haven't yet cracked it open but I'm already in love, not only with the book's sweet cover art but also with its little card pocket and all those old stamped dates and names written in childish cursive. Whoever they were, I hoped they enjoyed reading the lovely Ms. Fry!

Susan Coolidge

I came across the following poem written by Susan Coolidge today as I was reading in my Poem a Day (yes, one of my NY resolutions is to read poetry more regularly and in the morning). Here's the poem:

New Every Morning

Every day is a fresh beginning
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.

Which is an excellent thought for any beginning but what struck me more was the biographical note under the poem. Apparently Coolidge wrote something called the Katy books "and other unsentimental stories in a natural style for girls." This is no small feat for a writer who lived from 1835 to 1905, decades of intense sentimentality.

I've already ordered the first Katy book from the library as one of my other resolutions is to read more classic children's literature (I can blame that one on the wonderful "Saving Mr. Banks").

Happy New Year!