Friday, July 14, 2006

Green Knowe

The Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston is another bit of classic children's literature. I read the first two books in the series about seven years ago when I was working on my Master's thesis. I was examining the symbolism of patchwork quilts in literature for children and young adults, and came across a reference to the second book, Treasure at Green Knowe, in which a quilt plays a part. I read the first to books so as to discuss them in my thesis, and I was enchanted.
They are both the story of Tolly, a lonely boy who begins to spend his vacations with his great-grandmother Oldknow at her home, Green Knowe. An ancient estate, Green Knowe is filled with stories, and Grandma Oldknow begins to share them with Tolly. Or are they just stories? For strange things happen at Green Knowe, and in a place so ancient, the past never seems too far away.
The beauty of these books is the blurred line between reality and imagination. Are the things Tolly sees and experiences real - and does Grandma see them too? - or is she just pretending with Tolly, encouraging his imagination? Boston never really says, so the reader can decide himself.
I've yet to read the remainder of the series. I had to stop after the first two when I was working on my thesis (too many other things to read, and all that writing!). I've been vowing for years to get back to them, but now I'm stalled again waiting for the third and fifth books through interlibrary loan. I may decide just to purchase the whole series - it really is that charming - and it has been re-issued in a beautiful new edition.
Lucy Boston actually based her stories on some of her own life - Green Knowe, the real star of the series, was inspired by her own home, a historic manor she restored throughout her life. She loved it so much she used it in most of her stories, even those not in the Green Knowe series. For great summaries of the Green Knowe books as well as some essays and additional info on Lucy Boston, check out this site.

The Green Knowe Series
The Children of Green Knowe
The Treasure of Green Knowe (published in England as The Chimneys of Green Knowe)
The River at Green Knowe
A Stranger at Green Knowe
An Enemy at Green Knowe
The Stones of Green Knowe

What I'm Reading: 1846 (I think)
On My Bookshelf: The Peabody Sisters; E. Nesbit

The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine

Another piece for The Hub, this time on a hilarious book by Paul Collins about what happended to Thomas Paine after he died.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point

A little diversion here - in the line of my historical reading, I suppose, but perhaps a bit out of order. Or perhaps not, depending how you look at it. West Point was founded in 1802, so it's founding fits in my current time period, I suppose...
Anyway, I've been diverting quite a bit from my reading plans, as you may have/will notice. I've agreed to write a series of articles/reviews on American authors for The Hub - the Mark Twain piece was the first. Others will include Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Paine, and Nathaniel Hawthorne & the Peabody Sisters (one was his wife). So, some history, but not in my prescribed order. The James Madison bio has been set aside - again! - as I work on these articles & read some children's books in between for a break.
West Point has nothing to do with American authors (except that Edgar Allan Poe was briefly a cadet there); this one was pure pleasure reading. I'm not sure why it appealed to me, but I've been intrigued by West Point & other military academies since reading John Jakes's North and South in high school. I was really into Civil War history at that time (the colonial period interests me more now), and the idea that so many great men of the War Between the States were at West Point at the same time amazed me. (Coming soon on my list to read is a book about this exactly: 1846 by John C. Waugh.)
Stephen Ambroses's history of West Point didn't disappoint; I sat down and read the entire thing in one evening, even devouring chapters between innings of the All-Star Game. The story of the US Military Academy's history is also the story of the US, the US Military, and the history of education in this country. I thought the chapters about the early years were most interesting, and I learned much about higher education in the early 19th century. At the time of West Point's founding, all other colleges in the country were still providing a classical education rooted heavily in the study of Latin and Greek and capped by moral philosophy - a curriculum designed to educate ministers as well as a few lawyers. West Point, from it's very inception, was something very different. An engineering school with a goal toward training military officers, the courses at West Point were unlike those taught anywhere else. West Point instructors were covering ground so new they were often forced to write their own textbooks. In the first half of the 19th century, West Point become one of the premier educational institutions for young men in the US, as evidenced by the success of it's graduates.
The second half of the 19th century was less kind to West Point; in an effort to preserve past glory days the curriculum and instruction stagnated. That is, until a new superintendent arrived with a host of new ideas - Douglas MacArthur stepped in and turned West Point on it's head during his brief time in charge. These years were the first in a time of reform for West Point, resulting in an integration of modern military technology and a complete overhaul of the curriculum.
The book was originally written in 1966, but an afterword was added in the 1990s that brings much of the history up-to-date. Unfortunately, Ambrose did not write the afterword, and the last few decades of happenings sorely miss his interesting and accessible writing style. While I was enthralled through the entire book, I found myself skimming the afterword, despite it's discussion of the advent of elective courses at West Point (a huge break from tradition) and the admittance of women as cadets. Still, the "boring" afterword was a small issue when the rest of the book was so well done.

Ambrose, Stephen. Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.

What I'm reading: The Trouble With Tom by Douglas Phillips and the Green Knowe series
On my bookshelf: 1846; The Peabody Sisters, Hawthorne in Concord, and stacks of Edward Eager & E. Nesbit books

Monday, July 10, 2006

Chasing Vermeer

After finally finishing the Mark Twain bio, I took a bit of a break with Chasing Vermeer. A "thinking" children's book, Chasing Vermeer reminds me of E.L. Konigsberg's From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Through a series of coincidences and strange happenings, Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay, students at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, become involved in the search for a stolen Vermeer painting. The art thief has stolen the painting to force art historians to reconsider their indentification of Vermeer's works - thief believes several paintings commonly attributed to Vermeer are actually imitations. Petra and Calder's search for the painting becomes not just a mystery but a puzzle as more and more strange connections between those invovled become apparent. What is significant and what is mere coincidence? Who can be trusted? And can Petra and Calder find the painting before it is lost forever?
Blue Balliett, a former teacher at the University of Chicago Lab Schools, has created a fabulously fun story using codes, maps, pictures and puzzles that will draw in readers young and old. Petra and Calder are incredibly fun, quirky characters - the sort of students any teacher would love to have (lucky Ms Hussey!). Besides deciphering coded letters and solving the mystery, readers
can also attempt to solve the reader's challenge, a series of clues hidden in Brett Helquist's wonderful illustrations. For more puzzles and hints - and for the answer to the reader's challenge, check out the book's website-
If you like this one, be sure to check out From the Mixed Up Files of..., and the new sequel to Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, a mystery about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Balliet, Blue. Chasing Vermeer. New York: Scholastic Press, 2004.
Konigsberg, E.L. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

What I'm Reading: I haven't decided yet!

Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers

I've spent the last week making my way through Ron Powers' new biography of Mark Twain. It's a great read - it just took me a while. To read about it, check out my review in The Hub Weekly.

I'll be doing a series of reviews on American authors this summer, and I'll post links as they're published.

NOTE: Since this post was originally written, The Hub has ceased to publishe & reviews are no longer posted online. Following is the review originally published in The Hub:

Mark Twain’s works are perhaps the most recognizable of any American author., and Twain’s life has been mined repeatedly by biographers for explanations and inspirations for his American stories.
So why another Mark Twain biography? Ron Powers has now produced two, in fact. Nearly all readers are aware that Twain’s stories of Tom & Huck were inspired by his own childhood in Hannibal Missouri, and Power‘s first work, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Become Mark Twain, went right to the source of Twain’s stories in the childhood of Sammy Clemens. His recent work, Mark Twain: A Life, examines Twain’s entire life, exploring the man that so exemplifies 19th century America.
Much of Sam Clemens’s early life - his childhood on the banks of the Mississippi and his years as a riverboat pilot - are familiar to most, but Powers examines these years with fresh eyes, carefully connecting the early events of Twain’s life to the literature they inspired. The pace of life in the small town of Hannibal was set by the Great River, just as the flow of the river sets the pace in the adventures of Tom Sawyer and, more importantly, Huck Finn. Growing up in antebellum Missouri , surrounded by the soft cadences of the voices of the black slaves, and listening to the stories of a slave known as Uncle Dan, Sammy Clemens heard what became the “first trumpet note[s] of the first great jazz composition in American literature” - the voice of Huckleberry Finn’s Jim (12).
A prankster with acerbic wit and developing a “pen warmed up in hell,” (53), Clemens began his writing career as a journalist, traveling throughout 19th century America and unconsciously gathering information for his later books, storing away not just names and events but the voices, stories and characters that would bring his books to life for generations of Americans. His journalistic writing built a name for Mark Twain as a humorist, and, in the following years, Twain would capitalize on this following on the lecture circuit, as an author, and finally among the drawing rooms of the upper echelon of the East Coast literary elite. Powers does an excellent job of chronicling Twain’s transition from rough riverboat pilot and western journalist to a successful East Coast author. One to instinctually push the bounds of propriety with his humor and his words, often called vulgar and crass by reviewers and readers, Twain depended on his proper Eastern connections, including his wife Olivia Langdon, to gentrify his work, making it palatable to readers with a more refined sense of propriety. Their success is debatable; while Twain enjoyed a large amount of success as an author during his lifetime, his work was still considered controversial, as was demonstrated by the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in many town upon it’s publication. Still, it is the resulting combination of honesty and artistry that is the strength of Twain’s works.
The strength of Power’s biography lies in his true exploration of Sammy Clemens the boy, Sam Clemens the man, and Mark Twain the author - three very different personas that combined to create one of the great characters of the 19th century. Twain’s life was a reflection of the era - slavery, war, western adventures, foreign travel and a gilded age combined to produce a man much like the country he so ably and humorously described in his work: brash and brave, ambitious and isolated, reflective yet uproariously humorous. Mark Twain’s greatness lies in his embrasure of what was - and is - American. Unlike other Romantics and Realists, Twain had no desire to imitate the great literature of Europe and felt no obligation to pay lip service to the works of the past. Instead, he forged a new literature for a new land.
Ron Powers, as Twain’s biographer, manages to forge something new as well. In a voice often as lyrical and humorous as Twain’s own, Powers produces a contemplative portrait of the entire man known as Mark Twain. Mark Twain: A Life presents the chronicler of America in lights both bright and dark and provides a multi-dimensional portrait of one of the greats of American literature.

Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2006.