Monday, March 31, 2014

Harriet the Spy - The Movie

Well, I am sorry to report that the three best things about Harriet the Spy - the movie - are Eartha Kitt in a cotton-candy pink wig, the theme song, and oh, dear, maybe there are only two best things.

I recently discovered the book this Nickelodeon movie is based on about 11-year-old Harriet and her spy route. Harriet carries her notebook with her everywhere she goes and writes down everything she observes because she wants to become a writer and childhood is her training ground. You can read my thoughts on this classic here.

I enjoyed the book - celebrating its fiftieth year. And I will admit that the overall arc of the story in the film followed the original, but the 1996 version of Harriet loses something in the intervening decades.

To me, the casting of Harriet wasn't right. Actually, not one of the kids was very engaging or memorable. For some unknown reason, the grocery store owned by an wild Italian family that Harriet spies on in the book becomes an Oriental store in the movie. Rosie O'Donnell as Golly the Nanny plays her part with absolutely no expression or warmth and has the deadest eyes imaginable. 

The background music seemed very loud and the camera angles and shots were frenetic and dizzying. 

Sigh. Maybe if I were eleven, the movie would have appealed to me. As it is, I will stick with the book. You might want to as well.

Anyway, here is the theme song "The Secretive Life" written and performed by Jill Sobule.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Delight by J.B. Priestly

J.B. Priestly delighting in his
typewriter and pipe

It just has to be said - Delight by J.B. Priestly is a delight!

I got my hands on this book, published in 1949, through an inter-library loan. Hooray for my public library. It actually came from the shelf of the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library so it didn't have far to travel. Maybe two miles...

Anyway, Priestly, a self-professed grumbler, wrote this book with the intent of helping raise the morale of the British people after the end of World War II by giving them reasons to rejoice of life's simple pleasures. It contains 114 short essays on such delights as fountains, smoking, a gin and tonic, old photographs, charades, a walk in the pine wood. Easy enough to be delighted by any of those (except maybe the smoking!)

But digging deeper, Mr. Priestly comes up with such pleasures as: not going, suddenly doing nothing, discovering Vermeer, a first time abroad, found money, orchestras tuning up, and departing guests.

The longest essay here runs to maybe three pages; most fit on one page or two. All are written in the richest of language and with more than a twinkling of humor. If you can get your hands on a copy of this Delight, I don't think you will be disappointed.

And it may get you to thinking about some of your own delights. It certainly did me.

You will see what I mean. Here is Number Fifty-one:

There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind. The old romancers must have been aware of this odd little bonus of pleasure for the reader, and probably that is why so many of their narratives, to give them a friendly start, began with solitary horsemen, cloaked to the eyebrows, riding through the night on urgent business for the Duke, sustained by nothing more than an occasional and dubious ragout or pasty and a gulp or two of sour wine (always fetched by surly innkeepers or their scowling slatterns), on side-roads deep in mire, with wind, rain, thunder-and-lightning, sleet, hail, snow, all turned on at the full. With the windows rattling away and hailstones drumming at the paper in the fireplace, snug in bed except for one cold elbow, I have travelled thousands and thousands of mucky miles with these fellows, braving the foulest nights, together crying "Bah!"

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Little Treasury of Great Poetry edited by Oscar Williams

I hate to admit it, but I am really not much of a reader of poetry. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver aside, I don't spend much time immersed in the poets of the ages.

But I am a sucker for a vintage book. When I discovered A Little Treasury of Great Poetry on the Friends of the Library sale table, I snatched it up quicker than you could say "Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright..." 

This anthology, which boldly promises to hold The Best Poems of Seven Centuries, was published in 1947. Its editor was Oscar Williams, himself a poet, although he was more well-known for his collections of others' poetry than his own.

What I like about this anthology, American and British poems ranging from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas, is that the works are divided into categories. 

So we have Poetry of the Earth, Beginnings, Spirit of Man, Mortality, Snow, Auguries of Innocence, Time, Age and others. And finally there is the delightful section of humorous ditties, Jabberwocky. 

In all there are 766 pages of long, short, narrative, and lyric poems; ballads; songs; and, passages from great plays. There is an index of authors and titles, an index of first lines, and lo, and behold, portraits of the poets. I just love looking at their faces! Only two females are featured in this gallery - Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the anthologist's wife, poet Gene Derwood.

The book is just the size to sit on my bedside table which may encourage me to pick it up and read a stanza or two before bed.

I kept thinking that Mr. Williams' name sounded familiar, so I searched my shelves and sure enough, I came across Immortal Poems of the English Language which he also gathered. It was given to me by a dear friend on my birthday (which just happens to be tomorrow - I hope there will be cake!) many years ago. To give you an idea of just how long ago, the little paperback cost seventy-five cents.

Are you reading any poetry these days?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

"My name is Harriet M. Welsch. I used to be a spy."

Or perhaps Harriet, now 61, still is a spy and right now is sitting in a coffee shop sipping on a latte and recording in her notebook the conversation of the couple at the next table and making note of what the man at the counter is wearing.

Harriet, of course, is the creation of author and illustrator Louise Fitzhugh. When the book Harriet the Spy was published fifty years ago, Our Harriet was an 11-year-old girl living and going to school in New York City. Her father had some sort of job in television, her mother played bridge, and they both pretty much left Harriet alone to be raised by the nanny Ole Golly and the cook. 

Harriet spends her afternoons after school going along her spy route and writing down her observations. First there is Dei Santi's grocery, then Harrison Withers and his 26 cats, the Robinsons with a house full of things they like to show people, and Agatha Plumber, a woman who spends her days in bed.

Harriet lives on tomato sandwiches, egg creams, and her afternoon treat of milk and cake. She has her specific spy clothes (jeans and hooded sweatshirt), her notebook, and a tool belt holding her flashlight and extra pens.

She has two best friends: Sport, who tends to his father who spends his days and nights holed up writing the Great American Novel, and Janie, who wants to be a scientist and blow up the world. 

The life of a spy holds certain dangers. Harriet is not above writing about her friends and classmates and this is where she really gets into trouble. Her classmates find her notebook and read about themselves through the eyes of a spy. Harriet is truthful if not always complimentary in her observations. 

Ms. Fitzhugh has created an intelligent, energetic Harriet. She also gives the reader - young or old - a glimpse into different lifestyles of the adults in the story and teaches Harriet a few lessons about life.  

Harriet the Spy is another book I missed reading when I was younger. I wish I had made Harriet's acquaintance sooner. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle

I am a big fan of Peter Mayle and his 1993 Hotel Pastis, a novel of Provence, did not disappoint. It has all sorts of things going for it.

1. It takes place in London and Provence.

2. The main characters include Simon, newly divorced and fed up with his life as a London ad agency executive who gets out of the rat race and opens the high-class Hotel Pastis in a small village in Provence; Ernest, Simon's 'man' of exquisite taste who takes on planning and organizing the opening of hotel along with some help from his bulldog Mrs. Gibbons; and Nicole, Simon's love interest and partner in the hotel whom he conveniently meets on his very first visit to the village.

3. The book is filled with beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes all eating beautiful food.

4. There are amusing gentle jabs at journalists, advertising agencies, chefs, vineyard owners, workmen, artists, and corporate bigwigs.

5. There is a bank robbery gang on bicycles.

What's not to like?

While the hotel gets ready for its grand opening, along the way we meet all sorts of folks: the menacing Enrico with his 'protection' racket; The General who masterminds the bank robbery; Caroline, Simon's ex-wife who is always looking for some way to get even more alimony; William, Simon's ne'er-do-well uncle who comes to Hotel Pastis to sponge off his nephew and help himself to his cigars and liquor; and Crouch the sour British journalist who fights any changes made in the village tooth and nail and yet has a dirty little secret of his own.

There are many more, of course. Some merely stroll across the pages, champagne glass in hand, and some stay for a while. Each one will bring a smile.

This book truly swept me away to Provence. Not a bad place to be.

Friday, March 14, 2014

In Which Michael Sims takes a look at Henry David Thoreau

Portrait of Thoreau

 Henry David Thoreau
by Samuel Worcester Rowse

My book of the year for 2012 was The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims. I wrote about it here

I have a signed copy of the book as Mr. Sims made a stop on his book tour that year at an independent bookstore here. He was delightful to listen to as he told his tale of visiting White's farm in Maine and actually seeing the barn where Charlotte was first imagined. 

So imagine my glee to find that Mr. Sims now has written a book about Henry David Thoreau. The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond.

Just as he took a look at White's life growing up and events that inspired Charlotte's Web, Mr. Sims focuses on Thoreau's life before he became famous for his journals of life at Walden Pond. 

I have checked Mr. Sims's website in hopes that he will be traveling through my city for this book but so far no events have been planned. I will keep my fingers crossed. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Right here, on our stage, Billy Collins

Billy Collins
Kentucky Author Forum

My second literary find on the DVD shelves of the library was an interview with American poet Billy Collins. It was actually recorded here in 2011 as one of the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum events that have been going on since 1996. 

These interviews, which are staged about four times a year, involve a well-known author and a sometimes well-known interviewer. They are filmed before a live audience. The stage set consists of a large wooden desk, two leather chairs, a bookshelf full of books and the ubiquitous green plants. It is all quite literary and civilized.

But back to Mr. Collins. He was interviewed by the very expressive author and radio personality Garrison Keillor. I was fascinated by the contrast between the two men. There sat Mr. K, who by all accounts was having a very bad hair day, looking like a great shaggy bear. (For all I know it may have been a bear in a Garrison Keillor costume.) 

Then we had the dapper Mr. Collins, past poet laureate. I was entranced by his graceful movements and by how completely comfortable he was in front of his audience and the cameras. Such a gentleman. 

The interview consisted of short monologues in the form of questions by Mr. K followed by responses from Mr. C. He also read a couple of his poems. I loved hearing him read and am a devoted fan. 

He talked of his persona in his poems. The real Billy Collins drinks coffee. His poet persona drinks tea. They both, however, like dogs and jazz. His poems, he said, are not about past events but are an effort to create current experiences on the page.

The show ran about 60 minutes. The best news is that you can watch this interview as it is archived on the local public television station's website: This should link you to the page with the listings of past shows. Your own public television station may broadcast these programs under the name "Great Conversations". If not, you can watch on your computer such worthies as E.L. Doctorow, Stephen Pinker, Erik Larson, Rosanne Cash, Madeleine Albright, and Margaret Atwood.

All for free; all for you. 

Because I don't own a television, I didn't realize that these programs were broadcast and I certainly didn't know that they were available on the station's website. 

A treasure trove of  literary finds indeed!

Friday, March 7, 2014

In Which I Experience a Literary Coincidence

About two weeks ago I was browsing about in the public library's DVD collection and came across two literary finds. One, which I will tell you about today, was a PBS American Masters film Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women written by Harriet Reisen.

I finally got around to watching it last night and was highly entertained by the likes of Louisa and her family - parents Abigail and Bronson, and three sisters - with guest appearances by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 

The film features a combination of Louisa (played by Elizabeth Marvel) reflecting on her life experiences through her writings, commentary by Alcott scholars, author Geraldine Brooks's nod to Ms. Alcott's influence on her own choice to become a writer, and shots of the Alcott homes and the scenery in and around Boston and Concord.

It was a fascinating look at a strong, vibrant and free-spirited woman who practically worked herself to death to keep her family in food and clothing. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was not a very good provider and Louisa was determined to make money through her writings. 

In her lifetime, it was said, she earned over $100,000 from her books and stories which would make her a millionaire in today's economy. Many of her stories were published under pen names and scholars are still discovering them in dusty files. She also worked as a nurse in a Washington, D.C. hospital during the Civil War until she herself contracted one of the fevers - typhoid? scarlet? yellow? I don't remember which - but in any event it put an end to her war efforts.

I have three of her novels - Little Women, Eight Cousins, and Under the Lilacs - that belonged to my mother and that have wonderful illustrations and color plates which so add to their enjoyment.

But here is the coincidence. I don't know what made me decide to watch this DVD last night - it has been sitting on my desk for almost two weeks, but it turns out that yesterday, March 6, just happens to be the date in 1888 that Ms. Alcott died at the age of 55. 

(Cue Twilight Zone music...)

Pretty weird, wouldn't you say?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

The other book I finished on National Read Across America Day was the total opposite of Fannie Flagg's The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion (here).

Claire DeWitt  is the creation of Sara Gran and debuts in Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. Claire is, by her own admission, 'the world's greatest private eye'. 

She is called from her current home in San Francisco and travels to New Orleans - not too many months after Katrina - to investigate the disappearance of assistant district attorney Vic Willing. The man's nephew hires Claire and is impatient with her ways of detecting which include throwing the coins of the I Ching, interpreting dreams, going undercover with the homeless, buying a handgun off of a young black man hanging out on the street corner, and consulting the convoluted and mystical book Detection written by (fictional) French investigator Jacques Silette.

In addition to investigating a rather baffling and nasty crime, the book paints a grim portrait of what the city and its citizens suffered during Katrina. Not a pretty sight.

Dark. Dark. Dark. 

Claire is not someone you would invite to a family Sunday dinner for fear she would show up with a hangover, a gun in her purse, and a joint in her jacket pocket. 

But she gets the job done. I am still trying to figure out if I like her or not. I read this as an e-book from the library and then I downloaded the second mystery, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Road. I returned it before reading it. I just wasn't quite yet ready for another dose of the darkness of Claire's world. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

As yesterday March 3 was National Read Across America Day, I did a bit of reading myself and finished up two books that were very, very different.

Although the action in both tales takes place in the South, has at their center an historical event, and are both mysteries - one concerning the mystery of life and the other the mystery of murder - one would not find them cuddled next to each other on the library shelf.

I'll write about one today and feature the other at another time.

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg is a sweet book. I don't usually read sweet books but I fell in love right away with Sarah Jane "Sookie" Simmons Poole, citizen of Point Clear, Alabama, who has finally gotten through the weddings of her three daughters and is looking for a little deserved down time. 

But, she has a lot to contend with.

There is her overbearing mother, the still beautiful, 88-year-old Lenora, known in the family as Winged Victory for her propensity to enter a room with scarves and flowing skirts trailing after her to the accompaniment of the clanging of her bangle bracelets. Lenora considers herself a true Southern Belle and is committed to her real pearls and set of Francis the First silver.

Lenora has bossed about the gentle Sookie all her life - pushing her through ballet lessons, the debutante ball, sorority rush at college, and a hundred home permanents trying to put some curl into her daughter's straight red hair. 

Despite her domineering mother's pushing and prodding, Sookie, now 59, has turned out to be a gentle woman who is well-loved by her children, her dentist husband, Earle, and her friends.

When she is not dealing with Lenora's nosy, opinionated ways, Sookie is fighting with the blue jays in her yard that keep eating all the birdseed and not letting the little birds - the wrens and sparrows and chickadees - get their fair share of the goodies. Tenderhearted Sookie spends her mornings trying to outfox the aggressive jays - to no avail.

But Lenora and the blue jays are the least of her problems for one day she finds out that she is not who she thinks she is. Turns out Lenora is not her real mother. The truth is that Sookie was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in Texas, that her real mother was one of four Polish sisters, with a last name containing far too many consonants and not enough vowels to be pronounceable, from Pulaski, Wisconsin, and that her actual birth date isn't really the one she has celebrated all her life. All of a sudden she learns she is not 59 but 60! 

Needless to say, Sookie has a hard time absorbing all this new information and it sends her on a journey to find out about her birth mother. She takes to meeting the town's psychiatrist at the Waffle House out on the highway for sessions to help her deal with her discovery.

This story, in Ms. Flagg's hands, is engaging and funny and heart-warming and, well, sweet. Ms. Flagg certainly loves her characters and gives them funny little quirks without making them seem grotesque. Their idiosyncrasies are always grounded in the real world. 

Through chapters that take the reader to Pulaski in the 1930s and '40s,  we learn that the sisters' father owned a filling station and not only did the girls work at the station they all ended up taking flying lessons from a barnstorming pilot who came through town. When World War II began they joined the WASPs - the Women's Airforce Service Pilots - and ferried planes from factory to bases from which they would be flown oversees. 

Through the eyes of the sisters, Ms. Flagg enlightens the reader about the WASPs, the first women in history trained to fly military aircraft. Their story is filled with the discriminatory treatment by their male counterparts. To add insult to injury, the women were never officially recognized as being part of the military and therefore were not entitled to any service benefits when the war was over.

In the end, Dear Sookie finds not only her real mother but her real self as well. And there are many other happy endings along the way. Fannie Flagg gets my vote as someone I would most like to sit with on the veranda, drink sweet tea, and chat.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bounty from the Book Sale

I had a marvelous time at the Locust Grove Used Book Sale yesterday. Each time I go to this twice-a-year event, there seem to be more and more people. Good for the historic home, but it makes getting to the books a bit of work. But everyone is in a good mood, so we just jostle and browse and chat. It is all quite festive.

I donated five books from my shelves to the cause. It is getting more and more difficult to cull my collection though because the majority of the books I buy, I buy because I want to keep them. I am down to the keepers, books that were gifts, souvenirs from one of the Grand Southern Literary Tours, or books from my family shelves.

At the sale I showed restraint and did well with a net gain of three books. Here they are:

I was happy to find two books I had not read by Peter Mayle, Chasing Cezanne, an art caper, and A Good Year, the story of a British fellow who inherits his uncle's vineyard in Provence. Apparently this last one was made into a movie starring Albert Finney.
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive is by Alexander McCall Smith and is the eighth in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I have read all the books but only own the first one. I like the look of these hardcover editions by Pantheon so I snatched up this one. Looks like I am starting a collection!
Machiavelli's Lawn is an anthology of garden writings in the style of twelve writers from Raymond Carver on planting a hanging basket to Pablo Neruda on pruning roses. It is written and illustrated by Mark Crick. I picked it up not realizing that it was a parody on the listed writers' works, but it looks to be fun.

I am always on the lookout for vintage volumes. I did not know of Ernest Dimnet but discovered he was a French writer and his book The Art of Thinking was popular in the 1930s. Maybe reading it will help me think!
I like vintage Modern Library editions and this nice clean copy contains both of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (which I have never read) and A Journal of the Plague Year which I once started but never finished although I remember it to be quite fascinating. It is an account of London in 1665 during its battle with The Great Plague.
So You're Going to Paris! is a vintage guide to the City of Light. It was written by Clara E. Laughlin in 1924. It depicts a Paris just after World War I. But this edition, published in 1948 has been updated to reflect a Paris after WWII and the German Occupation. This is one in a series that the American Ms. Laughlin wrote for women travelers. I love reading travel books no matter what the age.

Frugal Luxuries by the Seasons by Tracy McBride is the only paperback book I purchased. It looks to contain everything needed to celebrate the changes in the year from recipes to wreath making to flower arranging to cleaning out one's pantry. As the seasons seem to all run into one another, maybe this book will help them - and me - slow down.