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But then, one summer, everything changed! 5 offbeat books from my childhood

Friday is usually “What’s for Supper?” day, but this week we had hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, tuna noodle, and pepperoncini beef sandwiches for supper, and no end of chips and carrot sticks. We had good reasons for eating cheap and easy all week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write 900 words about it.

Instead, just for fun, let’s talk about odd books we read as kids. Anybody remember these?

The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken (1980)

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Joan Aiken’s more popular books are the funny and thrilling Wolves Chronicles (a loosely-connected historical fiction adventure series set mostly in an alternate London where James II was not deposed), many featuring the wonderful Dido Twite; and the hilarious Arabel and Mortimer series, about a sensible little girl and her almost-coherent pet raven; but Aiken also wrote several novels about the supernatural. One of these, The Shadow Guests is creepy, and fairly sad, but with a satisfying finish. An Australian teenage boy is sent off to live with a distant relative after his mother and her more-favored son apparently commit suicide together. Already lonely and upset, he begins to see ghosts — and they may have a particular message for him. Very dramatic and captivating. Aiken’s characters are always so well conceived and fleshed out and sympathetic. For middle school and up.

***

Miss Osborne-the-Mop by Wilson Gage, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (1963, so not technically from my childhood, but I did read it then)

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Wilson Gage is the pen name of the prolific Mary Q. Steele, which sounds like even more of a pen name. A glum and shy girl has to spend the summer with a cousin she doesn’t like. They accidentally magically bring a mop to life — a mop who looks and acts disconcertingly like a bossy former teacher. The mop takes over their life, and their summer gets much harder, and much more fun, than they expected. Here’s a bunch of people who also remember this strange and charming book with fondness.  It’s one of those books where something ridiculous and unlikely happens, and the characters know it’s ridiculous and unlikely, and they have to figure out how to deal with it like real people. For grade 3 and up.

***

Peter Graves by William Pène du Bois (1950)

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The author is much better known for the offbeat fantasy The Twenty-One Balloons, but I think Peter Graves is the better book. A rowdy teenager, while showing off for his friends, accidentally destroys the home of an eccentric old inventor who lives on the outskirts of town. To help repay him, the boy goes on a mission to help him market an amazing but volatile substance he has invented. It turns out to be harder than it looks. The way I remember it, this story doesn’t really have a theme or a point; it’s just super interesting and funny and weird, and very much in tune with a real child’s imagination. For grade 4 and up.

***

Singularity by William Sleator (1985)

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I honestly can’t remember if this book is any good or not. It centers on twin boys who are not alike and who do not get along. One summer, the smaller, less confident twin discovers something that may finally give him a leg up, but he’ll have to pay a horrible price. There was more to the plot — I think there was a monster? — but the unforgettable part is the scene where he’s deciding whether or not to go through with it. Anyone remember this book? Was it any good, or just weird? For middle school and up.

***

Banana Twist by Florence Parry Heide (1982)

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Heide is best known for The Shrinking of Treehorn, illustrated by Edward Gorey, which I don’t think I’ve ever read. I’m only mentioning this book because I read it five billion times, hating it every time. Why do kids do this to themselves? I don’t know. The hero is an irritable TV- and candy-obsessed kid named Jonah B. Krock who is trying to finagle his way into a boarding school so as to escape his health-obsessed parents. His life becomes intertwined with his repulsive neighbor, who falls under the illusion that Jonah has an obsession with bananas. But at the end, there is a twist! This is such an 80’s book. It’s basically a lame and pointless joke spun out to book length for no reason at all. Naturally, there is a sequel.

***

Finally, a book that doesn’t fit in with the rest of these books at all, but maybe you can help me find it! It’s a picture book, with no words at all. The pages are cut into three or four horizontal strips. By opening the cut-up pages into different combinations, you can make all kinds of odd scenes. They were very cleverly drawn so that every combination worked. I remember it being in a hyper realistic style, or maybe sort of surrealist, like Chris Van Allsburg or David Wiesner. I feel like there were lots of umbrellas involved, and also factories and maybe giant lollipops. Anybody have any clue?

***

Happy Friday!

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The return of Darwin’s immediate book meme!

Remember back in the old days, when bloggers used to help each other out? Mrs. Darwin Catholic is still pulling her weight. Check out her immediate book meme, which, rather than getting you to cast your mind back over influential books in your past, asks questions about “the books you’re actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read.” Excellent idea! Here’s mine:

1. What book are you reading now?

This is going to be the biggest category. I’m currently insulating the space between my bed and wall with countless books I’m in the middle of. Here are a few:

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.

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This is a pure comfort read, because I’ve read this book probably a dozen times. Completely fascinating account of a fictional bourgeois family as it slowly declines over the courts of four generations, published in Germany in 1901. The characters are so real, but the times are so different. Here is Tony, who has arrived in hysterics at her parents’ house, after fleeing from her second husband, Herr Permaneder:

She sprang up. She made two steps backward and feverishly dried her eyes. “A moment, Mamma!” He forgot what he owed to me and to our name? He never knew it, from the very beginning! A man that quietly sit down with his wife’s dowry–a man without ambition or energy or will-power! A man that was some kind of thick soup made out of hops in his veins instead of blood–I verily believe he has! And to let himself down to such common doing as this with Babette–and when I reproached him with his good-for-nothingness, to answer with a word that–a-word–”
And, arrived once more at the word, the word she would not repeat, quite suddenly she took a step forward and said, in a completely altered, a quieter, milder, interested tone:  “How perfectly sweet! Where did you get that, Mamma?” She mentioned with her chin toward a little receptacle, an charming basket-work stand woven out of reeds and decorated with ribbon bow, in which the Frau Consul kept her fancy-work.
“I bought it, some time ago,” answered the old lady. “I needed it.”
“Very smart, “Tony said, looking at it with her head on one side.

Harry Potter and the blah blah blah

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I picked this up because it was a book, and my lord, it is dull. I read it through several years ago to make sure there was nothing dangerous for the kids, as reported. There wasn’t but my land, such tedious writing, and the inconsistencies in how magic works is just maddening. I wish I hadn’t let my kids read these books, because they are dumb. A dumb book is fine, but they read these books over and over and over again. I hate that this level of writing is sinking into their brains.

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.

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Somehow I’ve never read much Steinbeck. The writing is just. . . crystalline. I’ve only just started it, and the little boy has only just gotten the pony. I FEEL LIKE SOMETHING BAD IS COMING AND IT’S PREEMPTIVELY BREAKING MY HEART. Don’t tell me!

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.

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It’s a chatty and gargantuan Victorian novel of courtship, corruption, dissolution, greed, lovers, and sissy boys. I was enjoying the book for its own sake; but about halfway through, I realized that Augustus Melmotte sounded awfully familiar. He’s a blustering financial giant with glitzy, vulgar tastes and a murky past, who bulldozes his way to the top of society because he acts so rich that everyone assumes he really is rich—and so they’re willing to lend him even more money. Eventually, his wealth becomes so impressive that he decides to run for public office. ALL THE SIGHS. There are also love triangles and pleasantly despicable side characters, dissolute rats ripe for comeuppance, and almost-heroes you want to shake and make them get their act together. I have a few hundred pages to go, and I honestly have no idea what is going to happen.

Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken.

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This is the third book in the series that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but you can enjoy the books independently. I love Joan Aiken with all my heart. If all children’s and YA authors took such pains with dialogue and had such respect for the reader, we wouldn’t be in such a pickle today. Dido Twite is one of the most appealing characters I’ve ever met in a book.

2. What book did you just finish?

Nothing. I finish nothing. I stink.

3. What do you plan to read next?

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Ahem, I am super about to start Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, which is, look, just pick it up yourself. Okay, fine, it’s about “The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.” Everybody has a hobby, and mine just happens to be . . . surprising new science. A bunch of my friends read this book and said it was great. I’m just looking for an opportunity to whip it out in a manner designed to maximize humiliation for my children. What I’m trying to say is, people need to stop complaining about the cover of my book.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver.

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I haven’t read a ton of marriage books, but this one is pretty good and reasonable and practical. There is a bit too much bragging about how much research he’s done and how effective his advice is, but you can skim.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales.

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I’ve been recommending this book forever, but I don’t think I’ve ever come right out and claimed to have read it. I did buy a copy, so there’s that.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

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I’ve actually read this before, maybe twenty years ago, but I got bogged down trying to keep track of all the characters and insane plot details. This time, I’m not going to sweat it, and I’ll just enjoy what I can manage.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Headlines on Facebook. If I were a real adult, I’d cut down now, but I’m waiting for Lent. I guess I’m reading fiction, as usual, and have a yen for uncluttered forms of expression.

And I’ll add a seventh question of my own:

7. What are you reading out loud?

The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

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I’m reading this to the five-year-old, and oh, she loves it. We made our way through the first two books (My Father’s Dragon and  Elmer and the Dragon) pretty quick, and this is the last one (we have a volume with all three books in it, including the original illustrations, which are indispensable). The first is by far the best, but the other two are also very charming. It’s just enough action and danger to keep the little ones wide-eyed, but everything turns out exceedingly well for everyone. The chapters are very short, so you can read two chapters a night in less than ten minutes. An excellent first chapter book.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by Gideon Defoe.

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Bought over Christmas vacation in hopes of easing the older kids back into the habit of being read to. It is so dang stupid. I enjoyed the part where the immensely virile and impressive Pirate King “paused for a moment to pull a great white shark from behind his throne and punch it in half with a fist.” I do have to skim ahead a bit and occasionally skip over a naughty line or two. Silly stuff, just for fun.

Wow, I guess that’s about it. I need to shape up.

Here’s a list without my answers, if you want to cut and paste and answer on your own blog or FB or whatever. Always interested in hearing what you’re reading, especially if you give us some hints about what it’s about and why you like it or don’t!

1. What book are you reading now?

2. What book did you just finish?

3. What do you plan to read next?

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

6. What is your current reading trend?

[and my own question:] 7. What are you reading out loud? 

While we’re at it, here’s a reminder that I am an Amazon Affiliate, which means that any time you get to Amazon through one of my links (above), I’ll make a little money any time you go on to buy something. Here is my general Amazon Link. If you shop at Amazon, please consider bookmarking my link and using it any time you buy something! This makes up a significant part of my family’s income, and I appreciate it very much! Thanks.

 

 

 

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And in His hand, the golden ball

I’m not sure if you want to cry, or what; but if you do, you might consider reading Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Quick summary: In Renaissance Italy, a ragged street boy falls in with a travelling show troupe, and as he grows, he becomes an expert juggler. Eventually he strikes out on his own, and becomes a celebrated performer all over the country. He has a complicated routine, but always ends with a rainbow of balls and then “The Sun in the Heavens,” a single golden ball that he tosses impossibly high.

He enjoys his fame; but then times get hard, the clown gets old, and no one cares about his act anymore. He even drops “The Sun in the Heavens,” and the crowd jeers. Now a ragged beggar, he stumbles back to his old hometown, where he takes refuge in a dark church and falls asleep. He wakes up in the middle of the night to blazing lights and music, as a procession of villagers and religious present Christmas gifts before a statue of Mary and a somber Child Jesus.

When they are all gone, he gazes as the statue; and, remembering that he once made children smile, he suits up and goes into his old juggling routine one last time. He works his way through all his tricks, and finishes with the rainbow of colored balls. Finally he adds “The Sun in the Heavens.” He juggles it higher than ever before and cries out, “For you, sweet child, for you!”

And then his old heart gives out and he falls dead to the ground. A sacristan finds him and calls a priest, who blesses the old man’s body.

But the sacristan backs away in fear: The child Jesus is smiling, and in His hand, He holds the golden ball.

***
Among other things, it’s a story of when things are almost too late — when we almost miss Christmas, because of all the hustling and costume changes and juggling and fuss.

If you can, remember that phrase: “For you, sweet child!” — and toss Him one golden ball.

Apologize to someone if you were rude.
Put your phone down and read a book to your kid.
Let an insult pass without comment or retaliation.
If a street person asks for one dollar, give him ten.
Stop and pray for someone, or give a word of encouragement, before you go on with your juggling routine.

For you, sweet Child! He will catch that ball, and smile.

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Additions, corrections to Greg Popcak’s book Holy Sex?

Gregory Popcak and I were chatting the other day. He’s thinking of writing a second, revised edition to his book Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.

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If you have read it, are there things you would like to see included in any future editions (certain problems addressed, topics discussed, sections refined)? Even if you haven’t read it, are there things you would like to see addressed in a book that’s intended to help people live the Catholic vision of sexual love in a healthy way and overcome problems and struggles in a faithful manner?

Let me know in the comments, and I’ll pass it along to him. Please don’t be a jerk. Criticism is fine, but keep it factual, not personal, please!

I will admit, I haven’t read his book in a long time, so I’m not sure if I remember exactly what’s in it. My own suggestion for an expanded topic: a clear discussion about what kind of intimate behavior is moral when you’re abstaining — or at least a guide for how to judge your behavior. Some couples keep a strict hands-off policy, which may or may not work for them, and some couples think that’s everything’s okay as long as no one reaches orgasm.

I do cover this topic in my book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, in the chapter called (heh heh) “Groping Toward Chastity.” I said that there are a few things which are always off limits; that we’re not supposed to try to make each other orgasm; that some behaviors are acceptable for some couples and not for others; and that we must remember that we speak through our bodies, so we should pay attention to what we are saying to each other when we do what we do with each other. I don’t know if there’s really a better answer than that, but I’d like to hear more opinions about it, anyway. In my experience, priests have no idea what to say, other than keep praying and go to confession if you think you  need to.

Oh, and I always associate the phrase “toe-curling” with sudden, severe pain, like when the baby latches on wrong. That might be just me. “Mind-blowing,” I’m okay with.

NB: It will be ten thousands times easier for me to pass along your comments if you leave comments HERE, rather than answering on Facebook or Twitter or via email. I understand that it’s a hassle, but if your goal is to really reach Greg’s ears, then that’s the way to go! Thanks.

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Additions, corrections to Greg Popcak’s book Holy Sex?

Gregory Popcak and I were chatting the other day. He’s thinking of writing a second, revised edition to his book Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.

[img attachment=”78026″ size=”full” alt=”BLOG – SIMCHA – holy-sex-cover” align=”aligncenter”]

If you have read it, are there things you would like to see included in any future editions (certain problems addressed, topics discussed, sections refined)? Even if you haven’t read it, are there things you would like to see addressed in a book that’s intended to help people live the Catholic vision of sexual love in a healthy way and overcome problems and struggles in a faithful manner?

Let me know in the comments, and I’ll pass it along to him. Please don’t be a jerk. Criticism is fine, but keep it factual, not personal, please!

I will admit, I haven’t read his book in a long time, so I’m not sure if I remember exactly what’s in it. My own suggestion for an expanded topic: a clear discussion about what kind of intimate behavior is moral when you’re abstaining — or at least a guide for how to judge your behavior. Some couples keep a strict hands-off policy, which may or may not work for them, and some couples think that’s everything’s okay as long as no one reaches orgasm.

I do cover this topic in my book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, in the chapter called (heh heh) “Groping Toward Chastity.” I said that there are a few things which are always off limits; that we’re not supposed to try to make each other orgasm; that some behaviors are acceptable for some couples and not for others; and that we must remember that we speak through our bodies, so we should pay attention to what we are saying to each other when we do what we do with each other. I don’t know if there’s really a better answer than that, but I’d like to hear more opinions about it, anyway. In my experience, priests have no idea what to say, other than keep praying and go to confession if you think you  need to.

Oh, and I always associate the phrase “toe-curling” with sudden, severe pain, like when the baby latches on wrong. That might be just me. “Mind-blowing,” I’m okay with.

NB: It will be ten thousands times easier for me to pass along your comments if you leave comments HERE, rather than answering on Facebook or Twitter or via email. I understand that it’s a hassle, but if your goal is to really reach Greg’s ears, then that’s the way to go! Thanks.

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Reading, watching, listening to …

I’m reading …

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

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Sedaris is the master of the short, comic, grotesque personal essay.  Are his rambling ideas connected, or is he just really good at making it seem like they are? I don’t know, but I die of envy. A little David Sedaris goes a long way, though, and the essays in this collection are not quite as tight and sharp as some of his other works – but still, very funny stuff, enough to make me snort while I’m reading in bed.  An excerpt from “What I Learned”:

It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when I went to Princeton, things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.

It gets a little more R-rated than that in other essays; caveat lector.

 

I’m watching …

Disney Animated Shorts on Netflix streaming.  An overall entertaining collection with good animation, including:

“John Henry,”
“Lorenzo,”
“The Little Matchgirl,”
“How To Hook Up Your Home Theater,”
“Tick Tock Tale,”
“Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa,”
“The Ballad Of Nessie,”
“Tangled Ever After,”
“Paperman,”
“Get A Horse!”
“Feast,”
“Frozen Fever” which even the kids thought was kind of weird. Adorable animated snot monsters? Sure, why not.

“Feast,” which premiered before Big Hero 6, is just wonderful, especially if you have a dog. Very beautifully rendered, sweet, deft, and funny. Also, I appreciate the fact that Pixar consistently says, “Psst, babies don’t actually ruin everything!”  (It’s not about kids, it’s about a dog (well, really it’s about love, like all Pixar films); but it shows a happy family as the natural progress of love.)

We have a bunch of pukey kids at home, and these are keeping them happy, but they are skipping past the little introductions before each short.

For Halloween, the little kids watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which features actual Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.  Benny, 3, was almost overcome with terror; the rest of us watched with one eyeball and let the other eyeball rest. This movie is a bit of a puzzle for us, as my husband and I are both convinced that we only show it to the kids because the other one desires it. I don’t even like Abbott and Costello, so I guess that settles that. Why would you watch Abbott and Costello instead of the Three Stooges? Other than Lon Chaney, Jr.?

The older kids were too worn out to deal with the scary DVD we rented, Diabolique, so we watched Army of Darkness again.  Still funny. But the next day we went to Mass and I told my son I was going to write the grandparents’ names in the Book of the Dead, “UM, I mean ‘Book of the Deceased.’”

This is the kind of thing that gets us quietly taken off the LifeTeen email tree.*

*Not really. They are very  nice.

 

I’m listening to …

a bunch o’ Sibelius, because it’s his birthday, and I’ve had just about enough. I do like singing hymns set to “Finlandia,” though, unless the words they choose are “This is my song.”

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

And God is like, “That’s your song, eh? That’s your song? Check yo’ Unitarian privilege, mah people!”

What, are you saying God is racist? That’s just weird.

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I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to . . .

I’m reading . . . 

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith.  

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Fourth in the Arkady Renko series that began with the brilliant Gorky Park, about which I said this:

Maybe because it was so popular when it came out, or maybe because the author’s name is so snazzy, I somehow assumed that it was a trashy beach book, or some kind of dated, two-bit thriller.  Boy, was I wrong.  This is the real deal — real literature, a genuinely great novel.  Almost Dostoevskian at times.

The characters are so real.  Their sorrows and loves are so real.  The places are so real.  My memories of passages I read are as strong as memories of places I’ve actually, physically visited.  The plot is insanely complicated, but it’s never outside the realm of what might, actually possibly happen to someone who is as unlucky, as talented, as driven, and as flawed, and as Russian as Moscow homicide investigator Arkady Renko.

Havana Bay is not quite on the same level as Gorky Park (so far Polar Star comes closest. I can’t remember the last time I felt so cold while reading a book), and I don’t think I’m just imagining it when the plot feels a little wobbly; but it’s still good writing. I came across this passage last night:

Bugai had kept retreating and Arkady had kept advancing until he stepped on a pencil that broke with a sharp crack. The vice consul jumped and looked not as cool as a jellyfish anymore, more like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. His nervousness reminded Arkady that he had killed a man; whether in self-defense or not, killing someone was a violent act and not likely to attract new friends.

This tone of melanchony wiseassery is pretty typical. Love that: like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. Ha.

***

I’m watching . . . 

The IT Crowd. If you don’t like very broad British comedy, then avert your eyes. It’s a spoof of the nerdliest nerds navigating office life and trying to have a social life.Northanger Abbey it ain’t. There is a lot of naughty language, poo jokes, sex  jokes, screaming, etc. Just funny enough, sometimes hilarious. Honestly, it’s not something I’d sit and watch avidly, but it’s pretty good for when you’re blitzed and just want something making amusing noises while you sip your glass of Chateau de There There, The Kids Are In Bed Now. And I kind of love the opening credits:

Bonus: Roy, the tall Irish doofus, also does the voice of the narrator for Puffin Rock. It’s a comforting brown corduroy kind of voice, just right.

***

I’m listening to . . .

Son Little’s self-titled new album, which my dear husband bought for me as a surprise. I’m listening to it now.

Here’s “Lay Down,” which I could listen to on a loop all day (video is PG):

On the label’s website, it says, “For Son Little, studio time is a joy, where every good idea leads to four more.”
I’ve mentioned Son Little before. The many-layered production of these songs is a delight, but the real pleasure is in his voice, where there is both brass and velvet and deep dark earth. Best new music I’ve heard in years and years.