Duck Duck Book

51 – emily’s runaway imagination
02.4.2008, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

Emily’s runaway imagination / Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush.
New York, Morrow, 1961.
[MCL call number: j CLEARY; five copies, one hold; one copy reference only at Central Library]

Emily lives in Pitchfork, a tiny town in Yamhill County, Oregon, in the 1920s. As her story begins, she has just received a letter from her cousin Muriel, a girl her own age who lives in Portland and is blessed with a public library to provide her with a copy of Black Beauty. Emily thinks it is punishingly unfair that Pitchfork has no library, from which she might also borrow a copy of Black Beauty, and tells her mother as much. Emily’s mother is not only sympathetic, but proactive, and that very day she writes to the State Library in Salem to inquire about how the citizens of Pitchfork might set up their own library. As the book progresses and Emily has other adventures, the town’s library slowly moves from idea to reality, with the help of Emily, her mother, and many of their friends and neighborhoods.

(As you can imagine, this is a story that makes the heart of any public librarian glad. And perhaps particularly so a public librarian here in Oregon, where rural and small town libraries, like many cultural institutions outside the glare of urban areas, are both strong and weak. And it is worth noting, for those of you who think of her merely as the famed and award-winning author of the Ramona books, that Beverly Cleary is a librarian as well as a writer, so perhaps the storyline is no surprise. But I digress. . .)

Emily is vivacious and energetic, and although she often makes mistakes or confuses things unnecessarily in the course of her many adventures, the turmoil is relatively sedate. There is no terrible upset for her to undo — trouble is sorted out in short order and with the comforting mantle of family and community around her Emily is safe to muddle about until she finds the path she means to take.

And the stories are fast-paced, almost self-contained little novel-ettes in each chapter: Emily helps her mother throw a party for the matrons of the town, she dresses up a plow horse like a graceful steed when her cousin Muriel comes to visit, she drives around with her grandfather in his newfangled automobile, she makes a homely looking custard pie, and so on. This would be a very good book for reading out loud at bedtime — each chapter is substantial and reads almost a separate story, but the tale of the town’s library is always in the background providing a nice sense of continuity, accomplishment, and civic togetherness.


51 – i capture the castle
02.4.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: fiction

I capture the castle / by Dodie Smith.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
[MCL call number: FICTION SMITH; eight copies, one hold;
also in audiobook format at MCL call number CD FICTION SMITH; two copies, no holds]

There is a particular type of novel, the story of genteel poverty, which may be familiar to contemporary readers, but which is not often written now. Generally the actual plot is about something besides poverty — romance, a kind of literary situation comedy, the trials of adolescence, or another medium-weight topic. But a major feature of this particular kind of book is the poverty of the main characters. They are really destitute. They have little or no income, their earning potential is incredibly slight, and although they just manage to have someplace to live, they are having trouble feeding and clothing themselves. Our heroes are people who weren’t always poor, and they’re vaguely guilty about not being able to figure out how to stop being poor. For reasons of family background, education, or profession (which of course boil down to class, more or less), they are expected to be financially comfortable, and their friends and acquaintances are embarrassed to see them in poverty.

Perversely, another feature of this kind of novel is that the intense contrast between the main characters’ potential for wealth and comfort, and their actual dismal poverty makes them seem more unfortunate than people who are socially expected to be poor. They have fallen very far, and everyone (people in the novel, and readers) is supposed to find them sympathetically pitiable for this.

As I said, novels of genteel poverty are not currently in vogue. There are a few nineteenth century American stories with genteel poverty elements — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott is a familiar one — but the more recent examples I have encountered are all British, and I Capture the Castle, written and set in the 1940s, is one of these.

Cassandra Mortmain is the middle child in her family, and she is a writer. She begins the diary which forms the text of the novel with a sort of mission statement:

“I am writing this journal partly to practice my newly acquired speed-writing and partly to teach myself how to write a novel — I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations. It ought to be good for my style to dash along without much thought, as up to now my stories have all been very stiff and self-conscious.” (page 4)

Cassandra and her very odd family are holed up in an antique house built onto a medieval castle, and since they have no money they do not entertain or travel. They are friendly with the local vicar, who is not very heavy-handed on the question of religion, and with the village librarian, who delivers books to her patrons by bicycle.

The family’s quiet, impoverished life is interrupted by the arrival of new neighbors — a pair of American brothers who have inherited the local manor house and attached fortune from their grandfather. The brothers have inherited the role of the Mortmain family’s landlords, and almost immediately Cassandra’s older sister Rose sets out to get the older brother (the one with the money) to marry her. This Jane Austen-style romance plot is surprisingly compatible with the 20th century setting, even as it exposes the family’s sometimes shameful conspiracy to aid Rose’s fortune hunting. In the meantime, Cassandra’s father is researching his second novel — he wrote one 15 or so years earlier, which was very successful and very post-modern. He won’t explain his work to anyone, but his research seems to consist entirely of doing crossword puzzles and reading mystery novels, which confuses and worries his loved ones, who fear he may be going mad.

It is not so difficult to imagine some of the direction of the plot, with this short introduction in hand. There is romance, and romantic trickery. There are several painful scenes of poverty intruding on the family’s ability to eat well, to dress appropriately for social occasions, and generally to rise to their station. There is quite a bit of friendly bohemianism, stimulating intellectual conversation, and distressing adherence to society dictums. It is not so much the plot, though, that drives this novel. The people in the story are compelling, and not just for their oddness — what makes the novel worth reading is that Cassandra remains true to her initial project to practice for writing a novel — her descriptions of events, conversations, and her own observations and feelings are rich and complicated. She gets at the detail without missing the bigger picture and without having to actually recount every single thing that takes place. Cassandra’s narrative exposes the network of events as they occur, to be sure; but the real joy is getting to know the people, their habits, their interests, their desires, their feelings for each other, their limits, and their strengths.

* * *

If you need another slightly romancy early 20th century novel about an intelligent young woman finding a way to master her own destiny, set in the framework of a very similar genteel poverty, you might try Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons.

* * *

Dodie Smith is perhaps most famous for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is worth reading even if you think you know the whole story from the movie.

51 – mingering mike
02.4.2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Mingering Mike / Dori Hadar ; with a preface by Neil Strauss and an afterword by Jane Livingston.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2007.
[MCL call number: 741.66 M664m 2007; three copies, no holds]

I am not at all sure how to properly review this book, it is so odd and beautiful and touching.

Mingering Mike is a soul star, an incredibly successful musician with a string of hit albums and sold-out concert tours, who also found time to write, direct, and star in nine films. His career spanned a brief but very active ten years from the late 1960s to the day in 1977 when he laid down his instruments and retired.

But every one of his dozens of records now function more as visual art objects than anything else, because they are all one-of-a-kind, handmade with pencil, cardboard, and marking pens. The grooves are drawn carefully into each record, liner notes are written out in pen, and a few albums even feature home-made shrink wrap covering the whole gorgeous package. Mingering Mike wrote songs too, for sure, and with his cousin The Big “D” he recorded many tunes at home on reel-to-reel tape, with a backbeat provided by one of them pounding on a mattress or phone book. But the circumstances of everyday life made it difficult for Mike to pursue his dreams of focusing on music and performance, while creating the cardboard albums was a creative outlet that fit relatively neatly into his life.

The book functions somewhat like an exhibition catalog — its main contents are reproductions of Mingering Mike’s album covers, 45s, movie posters, and 8-tracks, interspersed with critical essays about Mike’s life and artwork, followed by a complete discography.

The records (to judge by their covers, at least) are widely varied, some serious, some funny, some romantic, and some downright angry. Mingering Mike’s genius is partly in his song titles: “Last Night I Thought I Was Bruce,” “While Waiting for the Bus,” “222 Love Avenue,” “Eat Now and Eat Later,” “3 Footsteps Away from the Altar,” “Do the Nixon” (from the album Boogie Down at the White House), and my favorite, “It’s a Good Thing Mike and Big D Weren’t Here Because They Both Would Have Been Wasted.” And this is not just lightweight pop music — in addition to writing songs and creating albums and films about love, dancing, and having a good time, Mingering Mike also tackled the negative impact of drug abuse in the black community, the toll of the Vietnam War, sickle cell anemia, and many other political and social issues. The albums show Mike as an honest, three-dimensional artist unafraid to speak his piece and bare his soul to his fans. You will be a fan too, once you have a few minutes to get to know his work.

* * *

Mingering Mike has a webpage as well, where you can listen to some of his actual recordings and view many album covers and other pieces of Mingering Mike memorabilia. Even more Mingering Mike recordings are available for the listening at the Vanguard Squad.