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As I’ve been enjoying the recent steampunk literature, I realized that I’d never read many of what are now considered the Originals. I downloaded this audio version from the library website, and happily listened to it while washing dishes.

Around the World in 80 DaysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Narrated by Frederick Davidson.
For those who are unacquainted with the book, here’s a brief summary: The year is 1872. Phileas Fogg is a reasonably wealthy Englishman, with no known family or real friends. As many Englishmen of the era were wont to do, he spends most of his time at his club, playing whist. His most distinguishing characteristic seems to be his unfailing regularity. He has just fired a manservant for not keeping proper time. His new manservant, Passepartout, who took the job in search of a predictable life, is therefore shocked when Fogg announces that they are going on a trip around the world, as he has bet his club members 20,000 pounds that it is possible to make it around the world in 80 days. Things are pretty quiet for the first weeks, with the only interest being a detective who has followed them from London, convinced that Fogg must be the bank thief currently sought in London. Things pick up once they hit India, however, as Fogg detours to save the life of a beautiful young Indian widow, Aouda, and they must travel by elephant between stretches of railway. Even past India, travel remains challenging. Fogg’s detached attitude towards the whole affair contrasts with Passepartout’s French emotions as the scrapes get closer and closer. Even if Fogg loses his entire fortune – will he despair? And can the beautiful Aouda convince the confirmed bachelor to care about something? Neither outcome is ever seriously in question, but the book is an entertaining romp (while staying very proper, of course.) It’s fully conscious of its own humor and the ridiculousness of trying to live life as a machine, even as it celebrates the modern technology that allows the voyage. Davidson was, I thought, the perfect narrator for this. His accents were spot-on, but turned to eleven, as it were – Phineas Fogg’s English accent extra-crisp, Passepartout extra, um, however it is that you describe French accents. This is an excellent choice for kids and adults wanting to explore a classic.
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The Wind in the WillowsThe Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Read by Jim Weiss.
I have fond memories of my father reading this aloud to my siblings and me when we were children, but this was the first time I’d listened to it as a CD book, and my son’s first time ever. Ah, going back to old favorites! I remembered it having the fun animal adventures, with those great, memorable characters, and I remembered it having a summery feeling. Listening again, the characters still stand out as memorable. The book is mostly episodic, with stories about Mr. Mole meeting Mr. Rat, Mole disobeying Rat and going into the Wild Woods by himself on a winter’s evening. There are my father’s favorites, “Dulce Domum” about the Mole’s return to his own home after living with the Rat for some months, and entertaining the little mouse carolers there, and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, where the Mole and the Rat have a magical encounter with the god Pan. They are really lovely. That transcendence is combined with a more slapstick humor in the stories of Mr. Toad’s reckless misadventures, and the stories are bound together with lyrical descriptions of the scenery with the turning of the seasons. While I found these descriptions beautiful, I worried that my blood and action loving son would find them slow, but he gave the book a thumbs up. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Wind in the Willows takes place in a homosocial world: there are no female main characters, and the only two incidental female characters occur in the same story of Mr. Toad escaping from jail. This, I think, dates the book more than any other aspect of it. I am willing to forgive Mr. Graham because that really was the world he lived in, where men and women just lived in highly separated spheres (and I am glad it’s not like that anymore!). I had mixed feelings about the narrator. He did very well with the numerous and lengthy narrative portions of the book. I liked all of his character voices except for Mole and Ratty, which was a bit awkward as they are the two main characters. He made the Mole sound lower class and the Rat sound more educated, which was a bit odd, and somehow his reading of both of these characters annoyed me just a little bit every time. I see that my library has the book in a downloadable audio format with a different narrator, and I’d be curious to try that version to see if I like the narrator better. Still, we very much enjoyed listening to this book. It’s definitely still worthy of the “Classic” title. Just in case there was any doubt.
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This one was part of my on-going listening adventures with my son. As my dear readers no doubt remember, he’s about to start first grade, but is listening on more of a fifth- or sixth-grade level, so we’re always looking for books that will be enjoyable without getting too advanced subject-wise. I’d never actually read this classic, but remember Mrs. Austin reading it to the family in Meet the Austins by Madeline L’Engle. LB is often of the opinion that if children have been enjoying a book for a long time, there’s probably a reason. He chose to listen to this over the modern fantasy I checked out at the same time.

book cover Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney. Read by Bernadette Dunne This book, published in 1881, is a Victorian Sweet Family Struggles through Hard Times novel. (Little Women, featuring a family with older children, was published in 1868.) The Peppers are a family of six. Mrs. Pepper, or Mamsie, is a widow struggling to support her five children with her needlework. As hard as she works, it’s only ever enough to put bread in their mouths, never enough to send them to school. Ben, the oldest at twelve, also works outside the home to bring in some extra cash, while Polly, probably eleven, manages the house, doing the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the three younger children, Davie, Joel and little Phronsie, the baby at three years old. Despite their poverty, the little brown house in which they live is filled with love and laughter. They have little adventures around things like trying to bake a birthday cake for Mamsie, though they can’t afford white flour, getting measles, and trying to celebrate Christmas with gifts. One or the other of the girls getting lost is a recurring theme, resolved by the little girl being found by a rich man of some variety. In the first incident, little Phronsie is kidnapped by an itinerant organ grinder, left behind in the country, and rescued by thirteen-year-old Jasper King and his dog Prince. This develops into a family friendship that leads to first Polly and then the whole Pepper family moving into the King family mansion. I counted this plot device happening three times over the course of the book, and it’s not really a life message I want my children to absorb – just get lost and find a rich stranger who will rescue you and improve your lot in life. I also found the relentless sentimentality of the writing style to be a bit much. Never a child is mentioned to be doing something but the hand doing it is described as being a chubby little hand, even when the owner of the hand is eleven or twelve. I found that the narrator’s style exaggerated this with her reading style, so that it might not be so cloying if someone else were reading it. However, I was still able to enjoy it, even as the plot got increasingly improbable. When LB gets old enough not to want to hold hands in public, he might not enjoy this series so much. For right now, I’ll enjoy both holding hands and his excitement at finding out that we can get sequels from Project Gutenberg for free.

Originally posted at .
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book coverThe Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling. Book 1 narrated by Flo Gibson. Book 2 narrated by Patrick Tull. It turns out that in a childhood spent reading, somehow I’d only read a couple of stories from the Jungle Book. The only one I remember clearly is Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Somehow, despite living without a TV and rarely seeing movies as a child, I have a few images from the animated Disney movie stuck in my head, too. The original, as you might guess, is a whole lot less cute and funny than in Disney. Mowgli is still a child raised in the jungle by wolves. There are lots of short stories of his adventures, from his efforts to kill the tiger who was responsible for him coming to the jungle to his being cast out by the wolves, trying to live with humans, and coming back with the jungle to renew the Pack. In between Mowgli stories are others, most also set in India, but some set in the Arctic and other similarly remote places. Each story has an accompanying poem, which these days seems delightfully old-fashioned.

The whole thing is quite violent, mostly of course against animals, but still often horrific, as in the story where a young seal witnesses a group of others his age being clubbed to death, or the unforgettable battle between the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the cobras Nag and Nagina. There is no sex, of course, and hardly any women. The only one I can remember who isn’t a mother is a beautiful girl in white whom Mowgli sees walk by at one point, and that isn’t even a speaking role. Though in many ways I think that Kipling was trying to make his jungle function like a real one, his sexism extends to having the animals most respected in the jungle be the male elephant and his sons. I don’t know whether the matriarchal nature of elephant society was unknown at that point, or whether Kipling was too bound up in his worldview to see it. The supremacy of man to beast and white man to native Indian is of course even worse, both clearly there and balanced against Man being clearly crueler than Beast. But we found, the Boy and I, that these parts were infrequent enough that they didn’t interfere with the stories, which were with just one exception cracking good. We talked over the issues, agreed that the attitudes were outdated, and moved on. Underneath those outdated ideas are some deep truths, and great adventures in the meantime. The Boy very much wishes that there were more Jungle Books, especially more Mowgli stories.

We listened to both volumes of the Jungle Books. The first of these was narrated by Flo Gibson, whom Wikipedia says was a pioneer in recording classics for children, and whose voice is low and cracked enough that I heard age before I heard gender. The second was narrated by Patrick Tull, also possessed of a gravelly British voice, and who is best known for recording the vast majority of Patrick O’Brian’s Maturin-Aubrey series. Both narrators sounded more like a grandparent reading a story aloud than like some of the modern narrators who do convincing, distinct voices for each character. There are several other recordings out there, and I would be curious to know if any of my readers have listened to them. But in general: heartily recommended, within your and your child’s tolerance especially for violence.

Now this is the Law of the Jungle - as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk the Law runneth forward and back -
For the strength of Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

"The Law of the Jungle" in The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling

Originally posted at .
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book coverThe Knitter’s Almanac by Elizabeth Zimmerman Just in case there is a knitter reading my blog who hasn’t heard of Elizabeth Zimmerman… well, this seems pretty darn unlikely. But just in case. Elizabeth Zimmerman’s books take homey, personality-filled writing applied to quite revolutionary ideas about making knitting just challenging enough but as easy as possible. Of course you can design your own sweater. Of course you’ll enjoy making a shawl, and you’ll naturally come up with some embellishments to make it pretty along the way… that kind of thing. The Knitter’s Almanac features her thoughts and activities for each month of the year, with a selection of projects. Each is talked through in detail in the main body of the chapter, and followed with “pithy” short directions at the end of the chapter. There are some famous patterns in this book, including the Pi shawl and February’s baby sweater. I read the new commemorative edition, which features a lovely introduction by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee and an adult-sized version of the famous baby sweater, February Lady. Never mind that at my current rate of knitting it would take me twelve years rather than twelve months to get through all the projects here – this is a book that every self-respecting knitter should own.

Originally posted at .
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book coverPippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. Read by Esther Benson. I read Pippi multiple times as a child, of course, but hadn’t reread as an adult. And I tried Pippi on my son a couple of years ago – he would have been three or four – with high hopes that were soon dashed. It just didn’t work for him. Now, however, he is a big six-year-old, with kindergarten behind him and newly chafing at the rules that define childhood. In other words, ready for tales of a girl who defies the rules, who lives by herself and does what she wants. Even when the adults get upset with her, she ends up being loveable and saving the day her own way. I had remembered Pippi as a coherent story, and so was somewhat surprised to find that each chapter is a more or less independent story, with only the three main characters coming through from one story. Pippi rolls out cookies by the hundreds on her kitchen floor and gives Tommy and Annika lavish presents from her treasure stash. She rescues small children from bullies and fires, decides that school is much too restrictive for her, and puts on a better show than the circus. Though my LB is used to listening to books with longer plots, I’d imagine that these shorter stories would be ideal for introducing children to longer books, with continuing characters but shorter plot arcs. It’s a classic book, and Esther Benson reads it in classic style – which made me chuckle, too, as Pippi sounds much more refined than I imagined her being. We’ll be coming back for sequels.

Originally posted at .


Apr. 19th, 2005 02:01 pm
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Well, I was supposed to have this talk for the teens on classics and award winners. I didn’t, because I ended up having my appendix out the day before and didn’t feel like toddling in to the library in my hospital gown dragging my IV pole along. But I still have this nice list of a dozen classics-and-award-winners that I think would be interesting to 7th and 8th graders. If you’re interested, I can give you the whole list. But for now, here are the classics that I read just for this assignment.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley I’m not much into horror. OK, really, I’m not into horror at all. But the teens seem to be, so I thought I’d try something to appeal to them. Frankenstein was written in the early 19th century by the wife of the poet Shelley, who was inspired when she eloped with him (leaving his pregnant wife at home) and spent some time with Shelley and Byron reading ghost stories in Switzerland. Fascinating, no? The story, as Naked pointed out, has one of the most complicated narrative structures ever: a captain writing letters to his sister, in which he narrates the story told to him by a man he finds at sea, who at times switches to first-person narration told to him. This is the original horror novel, and the genre has changed quite a bit since then. Rather than reveling in suspense and gore, we are plunged into the depths of despair and urged to feel pity and revulsion for Frankenstein, the creator of the monster he realizes he should never have unleashed upon the world – as well as for the monster, who feels driven to atrocities when he realizes that he is doomed to be despised.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury This one wasn’t on my parent’s science fiction shelf, but after watching Fahrenheit 9/11, I thought it would be interesting to read the original. Yep, you guessed, it’s about censorship. It feels increasingly timely in this climate where Pixie’s library won’t subscribe to databases that reference gay books, and schools here cancelled an author visit from an acclaimed teen author on hearing that her books contained one or two dirty words. The story itself, while clearly a product of the 50s is still riveting. Guy Montag is a fireman whose job is to burn books and the houses that contain them. His wife stays home socializing with her TV family. He thinks life is fine, until he meets a 17-year-old girl so vivid that he realizes how gray his life has been. She tells him that firemen used to put out fires, and that people used to think, before the books were banned. This one encounter sets Guy off on the Path of Doom.

The Children’s Homer translated and adapted by Padraic Colum The Odyssey is the original adventure story, and modern translations can rescue it from the obscurity of language that makes English classics so difficult to read. That was the idea, anyway. This particular translation, recommended by the teen librarian, was written in 1911 or so and uses beautiful poetic language, replete with “thees” and “thous”. The stories are lovely and heroic, and probably more suited for my 7th and 8th graders than the younger children the title would imply, though the title might put them off. My only two quibbles with the translation are as follows: first, it is actually a retelling, not a translation. Maybe someday I’ll get around to reading a direct translation. Secondly, I get the distinct impression that Odysseus is more a salty than a poetical character. Not having read the original, I can’t say what it sounds like, but this beautiful translation seems to pretty up the guy more than he probably deserves. It's still a rolicking fun read.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy Ok, I didn't actually finish this book. I started it, and got far enough to realize that it was going to be really, really depressing and decided I just didn't need to deal with that post-surgery. It's back at the library now.


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