The British novelist Elizabeth Goudge’ s books are full of magical, beautifully observed settings, memorable characters and amazing occurrences. These are books you want to walk into and shut the door behind you. Who wouldn’t want to live in the beautiful, falling-down medieval inn, The Herb of Grace of the book of the same name, where the children find the mysterious mural in the jam closet..and then there’s the mysterious couple from the houseboat.
But, as always in Goudge’ s books, the biggest drama is deep within the human spirit. The Herb of Grace is part of a trilogy that explores the repercussions of an adulterous relationship on a family and particularly on the two lovers. So while children explore a mythical-feeling forest and a jaded actor creates a deeply-felt Christmas pageant, the real work of the story goes on beneath the surface, a drama of sin, redemption, acceptance, and grace.
A mystical current runs through all of Goudge’ s work, a blend of Anglican mysticism and nature mysticism. She tackles the impossible, over and over again. What does it feel like to give over your life to God, to experience grace, to repent? Whatever your beliefs, it is fascinating to watch someone take on these questions with such imagination and lyricism. Does she succeed? Is success possible when writing about internal spiritual struggles and states? Try one of these and decide for yourself.
The City of Bells
The Herb of Grace (also published as Pilgrim’s Inn), part of The Eliot Family Trilogy
The Dean’s Watch
Green Dolphin Street
Have I mentioned lately that Goudge also wrote J.K. Rowling’ s favorite children’s book, The White Horse? (Yes, I have). Also one of my favorites, Linnets and Valerians. Much of her work is out of print but sometimes I can find something on http://www.powells.com/ or check out her author page on http://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Goudge/e/B000APM9OA/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1413125822&sr=8-2-ent
*I’m doing a off-and-on series on forgotten women novelists, of whom Goudge is the first. Stay tuned.
Lies and secrets are troublesome in real life, I guess, but in fiction they are well-nigh indispensable. Secret weddings, secret births, adultery, concealed crimes–all are the very stuff of fiction. Misunderstandings and mistakes can be funny, but lies and secrets, because they are intentional, are usually serious business.
The mystery writer Tana French is a master of lies and secrets. From her 2007 debut, In The Woods, French’ s Dublin detectives (a different detective narrates each book, so characters overlap but viewpoints change) have solved complex crimes, but they do much more than that. They uncover secrets kept by witnesses, family and friends of the victim and suspects, and they also reveal to us the lies they have told and the secrets they have kept even from themselves.
For more on Tana French, check out her author page on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Tana-French/e/B001H6IGWU/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1411504161&sr=8-2-ent . I think my favorite of her books is The Likeness, but the new one, The Secret Place, is a close second. Which ones do you like?
Archy and Mehitabel, Booth Tarkington, Don MArquis, Douglas Adams, Humor, james Thurber, Jean Shepherd, Kinglsey Amis, Lucky Jim, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Penrod, Raising Demons, Ring Lardner, Seventeen, Shirley Jackson, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Thurber's Dogs, You Know me Al
Having already addressed the pleasures of books that make us cry, I thought it was time for some laughter. Here are some of my favorite funny books. They’re all pretty old–is humor writing in book form over? Do the standups rule the roost? Is digital media destroying…okay, let me calm down. If anyone has more recent recommendations, please send ’em along–we could all use a good laugh.
Penrod and Seventeen, Booth Tarkington
The title character in Penrod is a bad boy in the Tom Sawyer mold. His Christmas pageant rebellion is one of the great scenes in the literature of childhood martyrdom. His teenage romantic angst, and his bratty little sister’s observations on same, in Seventeen are even better.
Thurber’s Dogs, James Thurber
Forget Walter Mitty and get yourself a copy of Thurber’s Dogs. The piece on the ludicrous names people give dogs makes me laugh till I cry, and the family history parts are great too. Just skip the last piece, about the family that accidentally ran over one of Albert Payson Terhune’s famous collies, it will harsh your mellow.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
All the books in this series are funny, but I think the first one is best of all. In the first few pages, we learn that an employee of the galaxy-trotting tour book company went to lunch and never returned. The sign on his desk reads “Missing, presumed fed.” Need I say more?
Archy and Mehitabel, Don Marquis
Don Marquis was a newspaper columnist. Archy was a cockroach who lived in Marquis’ office and sometimes came out and wrote his column for him at night by jumping headfirst onto the typewriter keys (come to think of it, a lot of writing feels like that, even for us non-cockroaches). Mehitabel was the cat with the bohemian lifestyle that Archy loved. The columns are hilarious.
You Know Me, Al, Ring Lardner
Anything by Ring Lardner is funny. I’d start here, with the epistolary account of life on the road with a minor league ball team, in the form of letters from a player to his friend Al.
Life Among The Savages, and Raising Demons, Shirley Jackson
Move quickly past The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House–Shirley Jackson was funny, too. These two books about family life will have you rolling in the aisles.
Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, Jean Shepherd
The title story is the tale of a disastrous prom night that even teenagers find funny.
I could go on and on (obviously). Anything by Peter DeVries. Anything by P.G. Wodehouse. Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Much of Mark Twain, with a special shout out for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Your turn. What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?
Back in the day, my college roommate and I mystified a friend raised in Hong Kong with phrases from(I think) the twenties. (This was the early eighties, by the way. The Bookworm is old, but not that old.) Our dorm maintained a nearly round-the-clock game of spades, with people cutting in and then leaving briefly to attend to minor matter like exams, classes and term papers. In the course of the game, my roommate was wont to exclaim “Hot damn!” Pat’s International School education had given her fluent English, with a distinctly posh-sounding British accent, but it had not included this particular colorful phrase. She suspected we were making it up to throw her off her game. When sometime later we said something was “the cat’s pajamas,” she was sure of it and the fits of laughter that followed probably did cost her a trick or two.
I love old slang. It’s creative: hot spit, cool drool and warm monkey vomit. It’s playful: good grief; holy moly. It’s evocative as all get out.
My maternal grandmother had a lot of rude similes about how people looked. She would say that someone looked “like a sack of potatoes tied in the middle” (disheveled). When she said an article of clothing looked like it had been “made by loving hands at home,” it was the reverse of a compliment. Someone down in the mouth (another good one, possibly equine in derivation?) looked like “Patience on a monument smiling at Grief” (possibly as a result of being compared to a sack of potatoes, etc.).
A lot of people say something is “like white on rice” to indicate that one thing (or person) is adhering so closely to another as to be indistinguishable. I also like the rarer “on (object) like a cheap suit”. That one is vividly tactile as well as visual; I can feel that sleazy material uncomfortably tight across my shoulders. And similarly, “like a duck on a June bug” sounds like a pounce and a snap to me, despite the fact that I’m not sure if ducks can really be said to pounce, or what a June bug is.
Some of these old turns of phrase aren’t PG, and some aren’t pc, either, but often they are funnier, stronger and more evocative than mere profanity or vulgarity would be. Send along some of your favorites, without dilly dallying or lollygagging!
Among the children’s books my mother passed on to me from her own childhood, there were a lot of familiar classics: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. There were also some books I have never seen or heard mentioned elsewhere: Bitsy Finds the Clue, Understood Betsy. Almost all of these books contained passages that might seem morbid now, but were an accepted part of children’s literature then, just as, I guess, they were an accepted part of children’s lives. That is, in almost every book a friend or sibling of the main character dies.
Most followed the standard “only the good die young” format. I cried long and hard over dear, gentle Beth in Little Women, and Ed in Jack and Jill. (Being kindhearted and fond of music is pretty much the kiss of death in Louisa May Alcott’s books). As soon as someone is described as selfless and beloved by all, get the hankies ready for a Beth March rerun. Dreadful little Amy,on the other hand, lives through all the sequels. (That girl is too mean to die.) Every once in a while, a bad kid died, maybe just for variety, like silly, flirtatious Ruby Gillis in Anne of Green Gables.
I mourned them all, and since it was my habit to read at bedtime, there were more than a few nights that my mother had to come sit with me until I was consoled enough for the latest fictional death. But none of this prepared me for Billy the puppy. Billy the puppy was a character in Beautiful Joe, a book I have long believed was essentially a propaganda piece for the ASPCA. I looked it up recently and could find no direct evidence, but I stand by my original conclusion. The kids in the book not only scold adults they find abusing animals, they take a detailed pledge, like miniature animal abuse teetotalers, promising to never engage in behaviors like stealing birds’ eggs or nests.
Billy’ s death, only a short time after he was rescued from an abusive situation, was heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard, at least not over a book. But there is something pleasurable about luxuriating in grief, when you choose to, like my college friend who never missed a late night rerun of Love Story, box of tissues at hand. Jodi Picoult has legions of fans, and even though I always feel manipulated by her books, I also always cry.
What books have you read that made you cry? Are there any you return to for “a good cry”?
My mother was a grammar nut and an avid proofreader. I benefited (and sometimes smarted) from her skills. She marked up books with typos and homonym errors, sighing over bridal paths when nobody was getting married, and interests that were peaked, or peeked. She always threatened to send the books to the authors with her corrections and an offer of future copyediting, but as far as I know she never did.
Mother (she refused to be called Mom) wouldn’t have anything to do with a dictionary later than Webster’s Third. The fourth edition included “finalize” which she insisted was not a word. She and my dad argued about whether common usage could ever make an error correct–I think some of the debate centered on “hopefully” instead of the more correct (and cumbersome) “it is hoped.”
But nothing got Mother going like someone using “less” when they should have said “fewer.” In her later years she worked at the state Department of Education, and for some reason educators seem particularly prone to this mistake. She had many opportunities to point out that there were fewer students graduating, or enrolling, or being proficient in one way or another–not less. “The students may well be less,” she would say, “but that isn’t something we generally want to advertise about them.”
I would roll my eyes. But now I find myself yelling, “Fewer, not less!” at the people on TV and muttering under my breath when people say the new employees have been “orientated.” I share my mother’s love of commas and Trollope, but not her fondness for Strunk & White and Henry James. I have her forehead and hatred of the telephone, but not her height or her passion for social action.
This is what I have learned about parents and children since my mother died: we will always be locked together, in battle and embrace. We remain interwoven, intermingled, like the sea and the shore. From a distance, we think we can see where one ends and the other begins, but up close we see that the sand is full of water and the water is full of sand, the two merging, but not quite together and not quite apart, endlessly.
I know the novelist Alice Hoffman has many devoted readers, although I know only a few. She has had a long writing career, and an examination of my downstairs bookcases shows I have at least 15 of her adult novels, as well as probably a few more (along with her YA ones), upstairs. Some of her early works (Fortune’s Daughter, White Horses,The Drowning Season) were republished when her later ones became popular. Practical Magic won a wide audience when it was (very loosely) adapted into a movie.
Hoffman’s writing is unique: the gentle magical realism of many of her novels, the lyrical quality of all her prose. Hoffman is the poet of summer the way Ray Bradbury is the poet of autumn. To read her descriptions of a summer evening is to be there, smelling the warm asphalt, pressing a cold can of beer against your sweaty neck, hearing the cicadas.
My very favorite Alice Hoffman novel is her first (written when she was only 21, which I find kind of depressing): Property Of. There’s a nameless teenage female narrator with an unforgettable voice spinning a love story, a tale of gangs, addiction, death, loss. Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story became something as lyrical and gritty as a Springsteen song.
If you feel inspired to read it, or have already read it, please let me know what you think. Here’s a link to Hoffman’s complete bibliography:
Just a quick roundup of what I’ve read lately. After some consideration, the Bookworm’s ratings will be on a five-chomp scale.*
The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan
One of Tan’s best, and without the back and forth between two stories that sometimes makes her books heavy going. This one sticks, more or less chronologically with only occasional flashbacks, to the story of a young Eurasian girl in China prior to the Boxer Rebellion. At times the plot strains credulity, as Violet’ s fate closely follows the more lurid incidents of her mother’s before her, but it’s definitely hard to put down.
Rain Girl, Gabi Kreslehner
Attractive, quirky detectives with personal problems, an interesting Scandinavian setting, and a mystery whose solution I didn’t guess until the end. I’ll be looking for more by Kreslehner.
Help for the Haunted, John Searles
An amazing psychological thriller about a teen trying to figure out the deaths of her exorcist parents, as well as the deeper mystery of their lives.
The Jinni and the Golem, Helene Wecker
There are both a jinni and a golem in this book, yes, but what really stuck with me were the amazing descriptions of turn-of-the-last-century life in NYC immigrant communities.
Hoping to hear your thoughts, recommendations and suggestions too. Happy reading!
*The dratted computer keeps changing this to “chimps.” Damn you, autocorrect!
On a very special day in 2002, I waited eagerly, but also somewhat sheepishly, for the mail. When the knock at the door finally came, it was a friendly man with a shoebox-size package, who cheerfully told me, “I’ve been delivering these all up and down the street.”
“Great!” I said. “Thanks.” I resisted the urge to yell “Caitlin, your book is here,” before grabbing the box and hastily closing the door. Which was just as well, since I was single, childless and alone in the house except for Sophie the Shih Tzu, a great little dog but not much of a reader. There I was, a thirty-something, embarrassed to have pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for same-day-as-available-in-stores delivery. Blush fading, I immediately sat down and devoted the rest of the day to reading.
Except for the delivery part, and the imaginary kid, this wasn’t unusual for me. Even before the world discovered the existence of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, some of the best fantasy around was written for the 9-11 year old age group. And I continued to read it (and sometimes buy it) long after I aged out of its target market. All of E. Nesbit’s books, of course. The Narnia books. Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Black-and-Blue Magic. Margaret J. Anderson’s In the Keep of Time. Eleanor Cameron’s The Court of the Stone Children. Andre Norton’s wonderful Lavender-Green Magic. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge, who also wrote J.K. Rowling’s favorite children’s book, The White Horse.
Many of these books feature regular kids who happen into magical adventures–the new nursery carpet turns out to be a flying one, with a phoenix egg rolled up in it. Their history project turns into a time travel adventure; witches, fairies and other magical creatures overlap with the regular world of school, chores and family. I loved these books as a child. They gave me a sense that something amazing could be just around the corner. They sparked and fed the imagination, and I greatly preferred them to the “reality” themed books my contemporaries considered more grown up, like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and the rest of the hugely popular Judy Blume oeuvre.
The good news is that kids’ fantasy, which was never entirely gone, is now back with a vengeance. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows came out, most of my adult friends were shameless about taking the phone off the hook and staying up all night to read it. And then putting the phone back on the hook so we could call each other and say “are you done yet?” and discuss the outcome. (I try to avoid spoilers, so if there’s anyone else left on the planet who hasn’t read the ending, I will just say this: Ginny? Really?!)
These days, my eight year-old argues when I come to turn off the light because she’s deep into Rick Riordan’s wonderful trilogy, The Kane Chronicles, where modern kids save the world with the help of, and sometimes from, Egyptian gods. And sometimes I give in and let her stay up longer, because, as soon as she’s done with that second book? I get it next.
Image courtesy of [digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net