Thanks that are long overdue

Kids take a lot of things for granted.  It’s part of being a kid, to accept the world and its people as part of how life should be.   That’s a terrible thing for kids who live with pain or deprivation but for a lot of us that meant a childhood where we took bicycles, birthday parties, vacations and our family’s love and devotion as part of our just due. We rarely said thank you.  For example, I never thanked my folks for showing me why some stories are classics.  Still, I haven’t forgotten our time with Treasure Island.

I don’t know if Treasure Island is still one of the required books of childhood.  There are so many other stories now and Disney has such an imprimatur on the pirate world these days that Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic may get lost in the shuffle.  My folks had both grown up with the tale and I suspect they were a bit excited about sharing “their” story with me when I turned ten.  Perhaps I was a bit young, but I already had my nose in a book all the time so why not give me one they loved?  None of us expected I couldn’t get “into” it.

But I couldn’t, not past Section I, as I told my mom three months later when she caught me re-reading The Borrowers.  Mom didn’t fuss at me (as I feared) or remind me that I shouldn’t ignore an expensive present.   She walked away and the next evening told me that she and Dad had a new project: they would read Treasure Island out loud over the next several nights, one chapter per parent per evening.  All I had to do was sit and listen.  

How well I remember those evenings, Dad lying on the couch and mom in a chair while I perched in the rocker, listening.  Dad read with enthusiasm, enjoying the author’s writing style but my Mom touched greatness as a reader.  She had all the talent of an actress and a gift for mimicry so I recognized each character by their voice tone and accent whenever she read.  Squire Trelawney’s remarks had the drawl of aristocracy and Dr. Livesey used the Estuary English accent of an educated but self-made man.  The pirates, of course, all used cockney or West Country accents and Jim’s voice had the higher tone of a boy.  It was a wonderful performance.

My parents read every night, sailing through the dry area narrative where I’d stopped and into the sea-voyage, my excitement growing with each reading.  I asked mom to return the book to me so I could “read ahead” but my wise mother said no and hid the volume, knowing the wait would increase my desire for the story.  I took to wearing my winter boots for each reading, because they were the closest things in my closet to pirate garb and begged for extra chapters when we stopped at a cliff-hanger.  I hated it when the book ended.

I think we all enjoyed that wonderful experiment although we never repeated it.  My interest in reading rarely flagged after that and, though readers, my folks seldom liked the same books.  But when a loved one says some classic tale isn’t keeping their interest, I’ll volunteer to read it aloud.   My parents are gone now and it’s the only way I can thank them for those evenings of pirates and treasure. 

And now my month of steady blogging is done.  Have you liked it? What books did I miss that you like, which brought back memories for you, which books followed you home?   Having a blog is rather like throwing bottled messages into the sea and I’m curious to know where (or if) my letters wash ashore.  For everyone who has fished out a bottle by reading this blog, thank you.  I appreciate your trips to the beach.

If you don’t know Cannery Row, you don’t know Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

So says John Steinbeck, the twentieth century novelist teachers forced you to read  high school and professors mocked in college.   Steinbeck who preaches in The Grapes of Wrath and makes you weep in Of Mice and Men, did you know he could be funny?   That man, so serious and biblical in  East of Eden (except for the scenes with the car), also knew how to relax.   You wouldn’t guess it but Steinbeck was a versatile writer who loved life.  Of all things, Steinbeck cared about people and that shows up in Cannery Row.

Cannery Row was and is a waterfront street in the town of Monterey and for a while was the hangout of Steinbeck.  Then, it was a rundown place full of abandoned buildings and homeless  people who sheltered there.  Other impoverished people such as artists, prostitutes and rejects from society lived on the row but, most remarkably, Steinbeck’s best friend, a self-taught naturalist named Ed Ricketts lived and worked there finding sea animals for university labs and zoos. All of these people made it into the novel Cannery Row.

In the novel, Ed Ricketts becomes Doc, the owner and operator of Pacific Biologicals, a marine lab and one of the few profitable businesses in Cannery Row.  The other primary businesses are Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery (where any marketable item can usually be found because Lee Chong does not give up on merchandise just because it isn’t selling) and the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel whose madam funds or performs most of the civic projects in the area.  Wandering in between these establishments are a group of fellows known collectively as “Mack and the boys”.   These are men who Steinbeck says have “in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.”  This group of well-intentioned hobos get the idea they would like to thank Doc for all of his kindness by throwing a party for him.  A surprise party.   The ensuing adventure surprises a farmer, Lee Chong,  Doc, everyone on the Row, the police and more than a thousand frogs.  One of the funniest sections of this very funny book concerns the acquisition of those frogs and since I don’t have the rights to republish this and I don’t want to get sued for copyright infringement, I’ll add a link here to someone who has published the prose (A Frog’s tale)  If that page doesn’t make you smile, forget it.

But I can’t forget it, anymore than I can forget Lee Chong, Doc’s beer milk-shake or the woman who wants to hang curtains inside a boiler.  It’s a sweet place, Cannery Row, and I expect to find it one day in some place far away from ambition and close to the sea.  If you find it first, call me and get a six-pack of beer from Lee Chong’s.   It will be time to kick back and breathe..

A Pattern for Learning: Johnny Tremain

Every kid who is lucky gets one or two teachers in their childhood who seem to understand them, teachers they respond to.   All of my grade-school teachers were nice people and a few actually seems to care about me but my sixth grade teacher gave me the extra guidance I needed at that uncertain age.  She had an intuitive understanding of all the “outsider” kids in her room and found activities that made us valued members of the class.  During discussions, she treated us like we were reasonable adults and we responded in kind.  And she brought a great book into our lives, reading it aloud after lunch.  I will always be grateful for her introduction to Johnny Tremain.

Johnny is the story of a developing nation but more than that, it’s the story of a developing man, Jonathan Lyte Tremain.  In the beginning, Johnny is an apprentice in pre-revolutionary Boston, Massachusetts, a silversmith in training and one of those talented people you want to slap.   Yes, he is gifted and smart, probably the mainstay of his employer’s business but he’s also sarcastic, arrogant and an intellectual bully.  Some of this behavior comes from an over-inflated ego but part of it is a coverup for this isolation he feels as an orphan who has never made friends easily.  Two things cause Johnny to revise his character: first, a life-altering injury ruins his career and sense of identity; he’s cast away from the community that once valued his abilities.  Then, he finds that teacher we all need; the mentor who, by example, teaches us to value character more than talent and the worth of others as well as well one’s self.  This teacher gives Johnny the opportunity to overcome his injury and a front-row seat to history: the first blows of the American Revolution.

Johnny Tremain‘s author, Esther Forbes, was a historian who researched the lives of American colonists and she included real people as supporting characters in this book.  Well known figures such as Paul Revere,  Sam Adams and  John Hancock. and lesser known ones like Joseph Warren and James Otis walk across the pages as well as the fictional characters and the patriots bring Johnny into the Revolutionary War. Johnny’s struggle to develop his new life and identity parallels Boston’s and the colonies’ fight to reinvent themselves as parts of an independent country.    Both Johnny and the community face hardship and sacrifice in the battle for self-determination and it’s that battle that gives Johnny the purpose and community he’s needs to continue, not as the star apprentice in a small shop but as an American in a group of fellow Americans.  It’s an incredibly powerful lesson.

Teachers give lessons and homework and tests to get ideas and information into their students until the students begin to teach themselves.   A good teacher, like a good book, can take you into yourself but the best ones take you into the world.  At the beginning of this holiday season, let me wish you a lifetime of great teachers and great books.  Books like Johnny Tremain.

When you can’t pick a favorite: Dick Francis & Decider

I love the crime thrillers of the last century and one of my favorite authors in the genre was Dick Francis.  The man lived an incredible life (RAF pilot, champion jockey, best-selling writer, just look at his Wikipedia bio!) and if his novels run to a formula, each mixed a new field of information into an abiding love for horses and a solid block of principles.  I’ve read all of them at least once, I give most of them house room and I can’t pick a favorite.   So, I’ll give the first shot to one of his later books, Decider

In Decider, Lee Morris salvages ruins.  In today’s vernacular, he’s a flipper, one of those guys who buys distressed or damaged buildings and turns it into a marketable property.  Lee’s an architect and he specializes in reclaiming “listed buildings,” those structures the British government protects from bulldozing and developers because they have historic or architectural interest.  Lee’s business is to turn these often dilapidated buildings into marketable residences without destroying the characteristics that make the structure “listed”.  Lee’s learned how to work with a variety of people in order to do his job and right now he needs these skills to help a family that’s not quite his.  You see, Lee has inherited a few shares of a racecourse that’s primarily owned by the Stratton family and the Strattons can’t decide what to do with the property.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the family members’ energy (and some of the family weath) is devoted to infighting and or foiling the schemes of more outrageous relatives.  Against his better judgment,  Lee’s pulled into the Stratton disputes and by the end, he has to expose the Stratton secrets to keep his own family safe.

While this looks like just another Dick Francis mystery with chase scenes and horses, it’s a really a story about the stresses and structures that exist in both buildings and families.  The hero watches the Stratton power struggles and compares the destructive members to his troupe of growing boys, trying to anticipate the stresses his sons will face and reinforcing their characters.  Without saying so, the author draws a parallel between the damaged but salvageable buildings Lee rehabs for his livelihood and the damaged relationships he sees both in the Stratton family and his own.  While some derelict places or relationships can be revived,  Decider implies that salvage can be a dangerous game and restoration is achievable only to a degree.  Some breaks are beyond repair.

There are some delightful architectural asides thrown in such as the argument to using peach canvas when you need a fabric shade.  Light shines through the canvas onto the faces below and the peach tint is more complimentary than say, yellow.  Peach makes old faces look younger and healthier and since the older customers are usually the ones with real money to spend, choose materials that make them feel happier.  Another observation is that the smells in a pub are supremely important.   You can buy a pub with a great location, wonderful parking and a great wait staff but if the place smells like ammonia cleaner, you’ve wasted your money.   Get the smells right and your customers will come. Those observations are the kind of things that I love in a novel, the sense of getting insight from an expert.   Dick Francis did this in almost every book, researching subjects so his tales gave the reader insight on some new profession or industry.  They are fascinating as well as enjoyable.

Only you can say if you want to know more and whether you’ll pick up this book.  If you aren’t sure, make your list of pros and cons but listen to your instincts and heed what appeals to your heart.   Like Lee Morris, let that be your Decider.

The Spoils of Poynton or Why My English Teacher was right about Henry James

My English teacher said some writers often go in and out of fashion. A few, like some clothes, hardly ever go out of style.  You can like them forever and know they’ll always be available for discussion and the worst opinion you’ll hear is, “Well, of course, you like___, who doesn’t?”   For example, if Shakespeare was fashion, he’d be a great pair of leather loafers or a white, short-sleeved shirt.  Good for practically everything.  Oscar Wilde might be a burgundy velvet vest: (waistcoat for citizens of the U. K.)  dramatic, a bit sensual, fairly versatile but not the go-to choice in every situation.  Shame, because I really like burgundy velvet vests.  But the writer who seems a bit neglected these days is Henry James. Except for Halloween revivals of The Turn of the Screw and the occasional big-budget costume picture, his work is largely ignored and that’s a shame. He appreciated the complexity of human character and culture and he used it to create wonderful, memorable stories.   My favourite is The Spoils of Poynton.
Poynton is the story of four individuals who keep pairing off into irreconcilable teams.  Team One might be the Gareth, widowed mother and grown son, in trouble due to British probate laws.   Mrs Gareth and her late husband spent an incredible amount of time, effort and money to furnish their home, Poynton, with the greatest possible taste.   When the son (Owen) decides to marry, the house and everything in it become his property.  Legally, Mama doesn’t own anything. That’s hard on Mrs G, especially since she knows Owen didn’t inherit his parents’ taste or intelligence and she wants to make sure that his bride will be a better custodian.
Enter Team Two, the two main candidates, for Owen’s hand in marriage. Fleda Vetch, has wonderful taste but no money and Mona Bridgstock who has terrible taste but Owen’s interest.   Actually, Owen’s interest seems to vacillate between the two girls because (are you taking notes, children?) Owen and Fleda are basically nice people who try to think of others and the ethical thing to do while Mona and Mrs G. both focus on how to get their own way(s).  
Okay, now we’ve seen the Gareths v. the would-be brides and the nice ones v. the naughties and I’ve hinted at the third set of teams (the aesthetes v. the barbarians or the tasteful v. tasteless, if you prefer) and the plot wheel begins to spin.   Owen proposes to Mona who says she’ll wed when she gets the keys to Poynton and every stick of furniture inside it.  (Granted, Mona can’t tell Spode from a spade but she’s not about to let Owen’s mum run off with the silver and soft furnishings.  As far as Mona is concerned, Poynton and its fixtures are Owen’s dowry.)  Mrs G has developed a real friendship with Fleda Vetch and whenever Owen shows up wanting to talk about the wedding and mum’s eviction, Mrs Gareth sends Fleda to the meeting.  Now for the cherry on the Sundae: Fleda’s got a secret, world-sized crush on the son, Owen. She can’t tell Owen how she feels (he’s engaged!) and she doesn’t dare tell Mrs Gareth who would try to manipulate her. Fleda feels bad that Owen’s predicament and worse about her own role in this mess but she’s under strict instruction never to accept or turn down his suggestions about “What to do About Poynton.” 

Henry James
Now a couple of interesting side bits.  The plot of Poynton is partially based on legal case that Mr. James had seen in the news.  The dowager widow of an English estate didn’t want to turn over the house and land to her son when he came of age.  The son sued to get his inheritance and mum testified he wasn’t entitled to it because (wait for it!) her husband wasn’t the boy’s father.  When you consider how adultery was viewed in that culture, you’ll understand how desperate the mother must have been to come up with that defense!  The other thing you’ll notice if/when you read the book is that beyond one item, nothing in Poynton’s collection is described or documented.   The house is supposed to be an assembled work of art, a cohesive collection that brings out the best in each piece and every room but we really don’t know what it looks like.   Mrs Gareth continually refers to the contents of her home as “the things” (As in, “Has she any sort of feeling for the nice old things?”). The author originally wanted to call the novel “The Old Things” but he deliberately left most of the specifics of the collection off.   This allows each reader to conjure up a vision of what Poynton must look like to be worth this much trouble.
If you’ve been reading about these precious, immovable objects and teams of irresistible forces, chances are you’ve thought, “Something’s gotta give” and yes, it does.  Well, a lot of things do but not all at once and not the way you’d expect.  The Spoils of Poynton has a hum-dinging twist of an ending.  So pick up the book, brew yourself a good pot of tea and do not skip ahead to the ending.  This tale is wound up tight and you won’t appreciate the ride if you miss hitting most of the curves.   It’s the work of a master so appreciate it for what it is.   Intricate, archaic, wound up and beautifully designed, this work is the literary equivalent of a Victorian pocket watch.  And so is Henry James.  I hope he comes back into style.