Review: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall

Oh, the Penderwicks. Jeanne Birdsall has said that she wrote the sort of book she liked to read when she was a girl, by which I must assume that Jeanne Birdsall and I had vastly similar reading tastes. When I read one of the now three books in the Penderwicks series, it makes me feel like I am about ten years old and back in southern Maine, curled up reading on the attic bed in the little cottage we rented every summer. This, presumably, is exactly what Jeanne Birdsall intended.

The Penderwicks books are about four sisters (I am one of four sisters too!): responsible Rosalind, outspoken Skye, aspiring author Jane (oh how I would have identified with Jane when I was little), and shy little Batty. Their mother died shortly after having Batty, and they have been raised by their kind, clever professor of a father. In the first book, they went on vacation and made friends with a lovely boy called Jeffrey; and in the second they sorted their father’s life out for him; and in this one, poor long-suffering Rosalind gets a break from them all. She goes off to the beach, and the younger girls go vacationing in Maine (in Maine!) with their aunt Claire. I missed Rosalind but it turned out to be just as fun spending time with the younger three girls.

What can I say? Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books are reliably wonderful, and this the third is no exception. I just can’t say enough good things about this author and this series. They are funny and smart and self-aware. They do that thing where the kids have not quite picked up on what’s going on with the adults, but the way the kids view the story is enough to tell the reader what’s going on (I love that thing). They do that thing where the kids figure out everything because the adults aren’t paying attention. The sisters love each other but they don’t always get along and they frequently drive each other crazy. At the climactic moments, this book shines. I cried at the end of The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. My eyes filled all full of tears and I read this one scene like four times.

It is not that Point Mouette (or the foregoing Penderwicks books) are perfect. Some characters are drawn too broadly. Some plot points are telegraphed far, far in advance. I always wonder if I’d have picked up on this as a kid, or if I really was ever young enough not to know that there aren’t that many plots out there to be used and authors consequently use the same ones over and over. But somehow these things don’t seem like flaws. They seem like the way childhood really feels in my memory: some people were caricatures, and the things that happened were things I expected to have happen. And besides, although you can see the plot points coming, they are still paid out in such an incredibly satisfying, non-simplistic way, that you do not mind that you knew what was coming. At least I don’t.

Don’t start with this. Read The Penderwicks first, and then The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and then, subsequently, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. You will feel all warm and happy inside when you read them. Promise. They are that kind of book.

Other reviews:

Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Library Chicken

Any others? No? No more? This is it?

I WANT THIS. I WANT IT.

I went into Bongs & Noodles today, (the one in Union Square — yes, I know, why would you go to B&N if you are at Union Square when the Strand is right there? and the answer is, I had to buy some non-book items for upcoming birthdays), and as I was heading single-mindedly for the non-book items section, I beheld a display table of books from small presses. So I swung sideways and espied a book that was not so much a book and more of a box. A box by Anne Carson, called Nox.

The reasons I thought I was going to be disappointed when I opened the box Nox:

1. Anne Carson and Anne Sexton are the same person.*
*Fun fact: No, they aren’t. Anne Carson translated Sappho, and Anne Sexton hit her children and killed herself.

2. Anne Carson killed herself over thirty years ago**, therefore all her stuff has already been published, therefore this will just be fragments o’ crap they are trying to make interesting by putting them into a book and then putting the book in a fetching little box.
**No, she didn’t. That was Anne Sexton. Stop it, brain.

3. I love things that come in nice boxes. Not only do they have a prearranged storage unit that makes them seem tidy even when strewn around my room like all my other stuff, but also they feel like a present. The publisher knows this and is trying to seduce me.

4. Many things look pretty because someone came up with a good marketing scheme, but then when you dig a bit deeper, they turn out to be not nearly as awesome as the marketing scheme that made you want to dig a bit deeper.

5. I read how Zachary Mason (whoa, y’all, I never reviewed The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Stand by.), whom I will of course be marrying someday, sent The Lost Books of the Odyssey to reviewers inside of a little wooden Trojan horse. No box containing a book will ever win more than that.

But then I opened the box, and the book wasn’t a book, but one long, foldy paper that folded out accordion-style. And the first page after the copyright and acknowledgments contained a smudgy copy of Catullus 101, the poem he wrote after going to see his brother’s grave. I may have shrieked out loud. It was like running into an old friend unexpectedly. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you, but I love Catullus. I love him. (I wrote I love him three more times, but deleted them because I know you get the picture with me just saying it twice.) He has such a lovely, human variety of poems — some of them are whimsical, some are pining, some are vindictive, some are really filthy, and some — like 101 — are heartbreaking. I am utterly fond of that poem and realized last year that I remembered a surprisingly high percentage of it from memorizing it in a grade school Latin class. Catullus travels to his brother’s grave, getting there of course long after his brother has died. He says he’s come ut…mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem, to speak in vain to his brother’s silent ashes.

Anne Carson the poet and classicist created a journal of scraps and reflections following her brother’s death, and Nox, this book in a box, is the closest approximation to that journal that she could manage. Each fold-out verso contains a single word from the Catullus poem, with a translation of that word and some examples of its use. The rectos have a variety of things on them, memories and photographs and thoughts about history and night-time and memory.

There is nothing not great about this. Except, obviously, that Anne Carson’s brother died. The book is in a box. It’s Catullus. It’s Anne Carson-not-Sexton, whose haunting, evocative scraps of translated Sappho in If Not, Winter won my heart, as if my heart needed winning. (Catullus adored Sappho’s poetry, by the way. Catullus loved Sappho so much that when he had to use a fake name for his married girlfriend so her husband wouldn’t catch on, he nicknamed her “Lesbia” after Sappho’s island home of Lesbos.) The papers fold out.

Okay, this is not a review. I didn’t read the book yet although I really really want to. I didn’t buy it because I am about to get a bunch of new books from another source, and since I am poor, and new books are not a regular feature in my life, I’d rather space out the new book acquisitions. My plan was to wait until some week when I was having a really, really bad day, and then buy the book for myself as a lovely treat. Only it occurred to me that Nox is published by New Directions Publishing Company, and it is a small press, and what if I waited and then when I went to buy Nox I couldn’t find it? That would make a bad day worse, not better. Thoughts?

P.S. Frances of Nonsuch Book loved it, and has pictures. Ditto Emily of Evening All Afternoon.

Review: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon; trans. Lucia Graves

Y’all. What is wrong with me?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. What really is wrong with me? Lovely Kristen of We Be Reading, one of my favorite people in the blogosphere and fellow Diana Wynne Jones lover, gave me this book as part of her blogiversary giveaway last summer, and I am only just getting to it now. What? Why am I like this? I was fully aware that this was a delightful adventurey booklover’s novel, and yet I let it sit around my Louisiana room for months and months, and then I let it sit around my New York room for three months more. What? Why would I ever do this?

(That one was not a rhetorical question. I know why I would ever do this. It is because of the translation issue. I am shy of books in translation and tend to avoid them because I think I’m going to dislike them. I’ve only read like ten books in translation since I started this blog. That’s terrible. I deeply enjoyed a third of those books, which isn’t an awful record, but it should be borne in mind that I only read translated books when I am moderately to extremely confident that I will love them.)

The Shadow of the Wind was just the reading experience I was after this week. On paper it should have been the best book in the world for me, and in real life, that’s exactly how it worked out. Don’t you love that?

Our protagonist, young Daniel Sempere, discovers and adores a book called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax. When he goes looking for more books by the author, he discovers that a mysterious figure who goes by the name of the devil character in Shadow of the Wind has been going around finding every copy of Carax’s books and burning them up. There are wicked police officers, abandoned mansions, unreceived letters, unrequited love, coveted Montblanc fountain pens: basically everything you need for a lovely, bookish, gothic mystery story.

The Shadow of the Wind was the fully satisfying version of The Thirteenth Tale. I loved the characters and wanted good things for them. I was entranced by the mystery of Julian Carax, the unraveling of the story behind the book-burner, the relationships of the characters, particularly between Daniel and his friend Fermin (I kept thinking of Phantom of the Opera — anyone else?). There was also one particular mystery strand (I won’t spoil it for you) that I was sure would resolve in a predictable way that would irritate me, but instead of that the resolution was quite unexpected, and I think far more interesting. I was delighted with Carlos Ruiz Zafon when I got to that bit.

Not that it was a perfect book, but its flaws were the kinds of flaws I like, such as straying into the realm of melodrama at times, and having slightly soapy elements. These are flaws that remind me of Victorian sensation novels, and those are novels I love in my heart. If you are not a Victorian sensation novel lover, The Shadow of the Wind might not be for you. But if you are, then this book will fill your heart with joy.

When Mumsy and I went to London in 2009, and I was strolling down the South Bank, Carlos Ruiz Zafon was having a signing in the South Bank Foyles. I didn’t care about Carlos Ruiz Zafon so I didn’t go in, but I remember thinking, Gosh, if I ever start to love Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I’m really going to regret this moment. That has happened now. Same with Shaun Tan signing books in the Charing Cross Foyles. Bother. Bother. If I still lived in Louisiana, I would regret these moments even more. I feel like in New York I’ll have a second chance to see these authors, whereas publishers don’t really send authors to the South because they think we don’t read. (This post on that subject made me want to give Neil Gaiman a hug.)

Many, many other people have read this, so I’ll refer you to the Book Blogs Search Engine. One of you who has read this and loved it, may I inquire if you felt the same way about the other two of Zafon’s books that have been translated into English? Are they equally full of letters and books and gothic streets and joyless gay-hating police officers and book-burners? Should I read them tomorrow, or will a Shadow of the Wind hangover make them less fun for me?

Review: Beau Geste, P.C. Wren

I am so glad right now that I invented my Sparkly Snuggle Hearts category. Because I have a weakness a mile wide for early twentieth century adventure novels, and I know that they are not objectively books of value. My parents gave me Beau Geste and its two sequels for Christmas a couple of years ago, and you know I brought them all with me to New York. I love these books so damn much. If you read them, you will probably think that I am a terrible person for managing to like books so blatantly classist, racist, and sexist. You will read the bits where John is all, When one has been at Eton one doesn’t wish to associate with Italians and lying thieves from the East End of London, or whatever, and you will probably never trust anything I say about any book ever again because you will think I am an imperialist asshole with bad taste in books.

But Beau Geste is just so exciting and thrilling! It starts with a French officer telling the story of coming upon an abandoned fort in the middle of the desert of French North Africa. The ramparts are manned by dead soldiers, the fort completely empty except for a dead British soldier and a bayoneted adjutant. In the British soldier’s hand is a signed confession stating that he, Michael Geste, stole the legendary Blue Water sapphire from his aunt, Lady Brandon. It is all very mysterious, particularly as there had been no indication that the legendary sapphire in question had been taken at all.

We then jump backwards in time. John Geste, our narrator, is the youngest of three orphaned brothers who live with their aunt, Lady Brandon. The eldest brother, Michael, is known as Beau Geste because he’s such a radiant example of British honour and manhood; twin Digby, while hardly less upright and honourable, is a bit of jokester. Also living at Brandon Abbas are cousins Claudia and Isobel, as well as priggish Augustus. One day as they are all viewing Aunt Patricia’s priceless sapphire, the lights go out. When they come back on, the jewel is gone. Cue dramatic music.

Next thing you know, Michael has taken off for parts unknown, leaving behind a note in which he claims that he was the one who stole the Blue Water. Digby and John don’t believe this, of course, knowing as they do his sterling character; they are sure that he has made the confession in order to shield the true thief. So off goes Digby the next day, claiming that in fact he was the thief; and John, feeling honour-bound to do no less than his brothers, follow suit, even though he has just recently discovered in himself a mad passion for Isobel, who reciprocates just as madly. But honour dictates that he must go. The Geste boys all join the French Foreign Legion, where they meet American cowboys Hank and Buddy who, like–

There are tears in my eyes right now because this book generally, and Hank and Buddy in particular, fill my heart with such sparkly joy. Hank and Buddy say things like “We’re sure for it, pard. Our name’s mud. That section-boss makes me feel like when I butted into a grizzly-b’ar. On’y I liked the b’ar better.” Oh my God, I simply couldn’t possibly love this book any more than I do. Some of the men in the Legion determine that they will rebel against their wicked, vicious adjutant, and Michael and John call them fatheads and strive to remind them of their duty as men and soldiers. IT IS SO GREAT. (Great in the sense that it is complete imperialist trash. I know it is, I know, I know.) Look, they all leave home and they join the French Foreign Legion to shield the rest of their family members from suspicion of theft. It is so self-righteous-mazing I don’t even know what to say about it.

This is my guilty pleasure: early twentieth century imperialist adventure novels. Please don’t be my enemy now.

Edit to add: I just have to say, since I’m already gushing, y’all are the BEST. The BEST. I mean it. Every time I think the book blogging community has maxed out on being amazing, y’all do something else that just resets the scale. I mentioned on Alita’s blog the other day that her epistolary chick lit book sounded like just the thing I’d like to read with a cup of  hot chocolate under a nice thick blanket in my cold New York apartment. So she sent me the book, with a packet of hot chocolate mix. It came in the mail yesterday evening. How nice is that? Thank you, Alita, you made my day. And — I just can’t say this enough — thank you, book blogosphere, for being so relentlessly amazing.

Review: The War that Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander

What was I reading recentlyish that talked about the Dark Ages being defined by the lack of Homer and Ovid? Was it The Secret History? Or The Fall of Rome maybe? Probably it was Tom Stoppard, Arcadia or The Invention of Love. It sounds like the kind of thing Tom Stoppard would say. Anyway, whatever character it was, they said something about how the Dark Ages were Dark because we didn’t have the classics around, in all their universal brilliance, to explain us to ourselves. When the West got them back again (thanks, Arabia!), it was like being reborn, a Renaissance.

Caroline Alexander, author of The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, seems to be of this mind. As I understand it, the book began as a series of lectures on the Iliad, which she eventually expanded and wrote down in bookish form, and lo, they are now a book. I kind of like it that a book about one of the world’s most utterly magnificent oral traditions, the Iliad, started out as lectures. That seems fitting.

The book is mainly an explication of what’s going on throughout the Iliad, from start to finish, with many admiring asides and fun trivia facts. Alexander goes through the poem and explores why people are doing the things they are doing, and what it says about them, and what crafty tricks of the trade Homer is using to make his poem the enduring masterpiece of genius that it is. She writes about the boring bits and why Homer would have included them and what audiences of the time would have thought;and she talks about the various strands of mythic and poetic tradition and when scholars think they got added into the Iliad. It was so great. I kept stopping reading it and reading other books instead, just to make it last longer.

It has occurred to me that I need to add a new category to my categories of talking about books. Sometimes I read a book, and I have a response of overwhelming joy, but the joy is coming from a place in my heart that is unrelated to my critical faculties. Every time this happens, I think that if you read the book I’m talking about, and you hate it, you won’t know that I know that my response has been colored by, for instance, my passionate love of the classics and desire to snuddle Homer and Ovid and Virgil. And then you’ll go away and think, That Jenny, she thinks books are fantastic that we know are only sort of okay. What an idiot. Accordingly I have added a new category and I have called it “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts”. Hereafter, if you see that I have put a post in this category, you will know that my ability to be critical of a certain book has been overthrown by desperate, protective love for some aspect of it. Then you won’t think I have bad taste ever again.

Glad I’ve solved that problem.

You know the one problem with this book, which is otherwise really cool? Caroline Alexander is using Lattimore’s translation. What? Why would you? When Fagles is around, being obviously better and only using enjambment when it’s called for and not every single damn line. FAGLES. FAGLES. FAGLES. I have never actually read Fagles’s Iliad but I’ve read his Odyssey, and I know the man translates Greek like a champion. Lattimore? I think not.

By the way, here is another bit of Old School that I liked a lot and sort of pertains to this because it’s about classical poetry:

Augustus Caesar had sent our Latin master’s beloved Ovid into exile…Yet the effect of all these stories was to make me feel not Caesar’s power, but his fear of Ovid. And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.

CLASSICS. I LOVE THEM SO HARD.