At the Other End of the Timeline: Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children
I know a Good Story / November 10, 2014

I like literary archetypes.   To me, they’re the puzzle pieces a person can assemble to understand the canon of Western Literature.   Anti-heroes, tricksters, mentors and shadows are all wonderful but my favorite is the orphan-hero.   His search is for home, his judgments are his own and like all archetypes he/she morphs to reflect the values of whatever era he’s created in.**  If yesterday’s Oliver Twist lives at one end of the Hero/Orphan timeline, then Tensy Farlow in Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children resides at the other. As I said yesterday, Oliver is a sweet kid and everyone’s victim.  Graceful and sympathetic beyond his circumstances, his victory is in surviving long enough to be rescued by kind adults.   Well, that’s fair, given Victorian Times.  Unprotected kids were nature’s victims and the best any of them could hope for is a reasonable adoption.   But that’s not very heroic. Orphan heroes in today’s take charge of their own fates and everyone else’s.   They’re brave, caring individuals who stand up to tyrants, tall and small, and they often rescue the adults.  I realized this a few years ago when I was working on a long research paper tracing the evolution of…

The Villans of Oliver Twist

Full disclosure:  I love the novel Oliver Twist but I can’t say I love the title character.  He cries far to easily for my taste and he’s altogether too sweet for words.   Dickens wanted to show Oliver’s basic gentle nature couldn’t be corrupted by the environment he lived in but basically his protagonist is a Casper Milquetoast.  When people are kind to him, he laps it up and soaks them with tears of joy.   When they are unkind, he leaves and cries on himself.  A very soggy kid, needing someone to rescue and rehydrate him.  Occasionally, Oliver will stand up to a bully but on someone else’s behalf, like his dead mother. In this book it’s a lot easier to like the bad guys. They have all the best lines in this book.  No one has ever developed supporting characters as thoroughly and lovingly as Charles Dickens and the villains in Oliver Twist are either strong and bad (like scary Bill Sikes) or weak and bad.  You know who the fun ones are, right? Of course there’s Fagin.  A fence and corrupter of children, Fagin sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist.  People do have a habit of buying things that…

Lest we forget: Taylor Caldwell’s The Balance Wheel
I know a Good Story / November 8, 2014

Veteran’s Day is coming up and I can’t help thinking about a poem called “Ode of Remembrance” by Laurence Binyon.   It reads (in part) They went with songs to the battle, they were young.Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,They fell with their faces to the foe. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.At the going down of the sun and in the morning,We will remember them. Those verses and this holiday were to memorialize the veterans of the first World War, the war that was supposed to end all the others.  Well, we know what happened after that.  Despite the enormous cost, wars continued to flourish, large and small, and although no one publicly prefers sending soldiers into battle, the soldiers keep being sent.  Taylor Caldwell explores the reasons and pressures that lead in to war in her book, The Balance Wheel.   It’s an old-fashioned novel in many ways but some of its themes are contemporary. As the balance wheel among four adult brothers, Charles Wittmann is a very busy man.  Most of his time and energy…

Growing up with a Gem: The Domestic Novels of Shirley Jackson
I know a Good Story / November 7, 2014

Readers love a seldom-read story or an under-praised author.  To appreciate a less-known work or author is the a mark of a book connoisseur and readers delight in being seen as connoisseurs.    Without knowing it, my sister and I trained to be gourmet readers when we grew reading  the work of an under-appreciated writer.  You may  or may not have heard of Shirley Jackson but do you know about  her books Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons? When Ms. Jackson’s work is recalled (which isn’t often enough) she is remembered for disturbing tales such as The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived at the Castle and the short story, “The Lottery”.   These are artful, unsettling, well-constructed narratives that leave the reader with the impression they would not want to meet Ms. Jackson in a dark alley.  The titles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons may sound like more “tales of terror” but these are something different.  These stories would be called domestic humor. Now domestic humor has never enjoyed a great reputation.  The same critics that sneered over the pulp paper tales of crime and science fiction in the 1940’s ignored the later stories about raising…

There’s Always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm
I know a Good Story / November 6, 2014

So intones Judith Starkadder, at the beginning of Stella Gibbon’s comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  To Judith Starkadder this statement is a curse and a warning but it’s more of an opening salvo in the war of English novel types.   On one side are the moor, mud and fen school of Novels where the clouds are always lowering, the males are always glowering and life is eternally soiled.  Opposing this school of brooding romantics is the pragmatic, organized and cheerful Flora Poste, a Jane Austen heroine in 1920’s regalia.  Can an intelligent girl with a will of her own “tidy up” the morbid and moribund Starkadders?  Can she overcome their devotion to sukebind and jumping into the well?  And can she break Aunt Ada Doom’s preoccupation about seeing “Something narsty in the woodshed”? Since this book satirizes many novels that aren’t widely read these days, I worried some readers might not get the joke. However my spouse (who mixes up D. H.Lawrence with T. E. Lawrence) got it immediately so read away.  It’s a hilarious satire of English literature but never mind that.  You’ll love the gloomy Starkadders who live in Cold Comfort Farm and the ridiculous, pedantic Mr….

The Book that gave us “The World…”
I know a Good Story / November 5, 2014

If you ever run across a group of serious readers,  those people who see books as magic carpets and TARDIS boxes that guide us to understanding, you will always find they accord certain books special significance.   “This book,” they’ll say, “was my world at one time.  This is the book I picked up, read and re-read for weeks.  This book dominated my imagination. It changed the way I looked at life, at least for awhile.  I’m a different person now for reading it then and reading some of it now takes back to when it was new.”  For me, one of those books is The World According to Garp by John Irving. Garp’s first wave of popularity had already crested when I first picked it up.  It was one of the first “adult” novels I read as an adult.  As a precocious reader I had consumed many adult volumes before then (YA lit was a thing of the future) but I approached those stories from the perspective of a child with parents and authority figures to tried to regulate my reading.  I doubt if any of them would have recommended The World According to Garp .  Luckily, I didn’t have to…

You Know You Make Me Want to….Shout!
I know a Good Story / November 4, 2014

For a now-decreasing segment of the population, the Beatles are a cultural reference point we share.  We grew up learning to twist to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or teaching ourselves to play instruments by mastering the licks and leads on their records.   Our parents hated their innovation (My mom snapped off the car radio in the middle of “Hey Jude” when I was 9 moaning, “What will they be playing when you’re in high school?”) but couldn’t deny the brilliance of the words and music.   We didn’t care what they thought and we didn’t understand the source of the brilliance; we just accepted the Beatles when the band existed and missed them after the group broke up. Almost eleven years after the breakup came Shout, the first book that put the band and the phenomenon they created into a kind of historical/sociological context.  The book would have sold well if it had been published six months earlier: it’s an interesting, well-crafted book and there was a ready audience of hard-core Beatle fans.  Instead it came out in the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder, when much of the world seemed to be grieving and it sold like hot-cakes.  Shout didn’t…

The Book that Stays: Jane Eyre
I know a Good Story / November 3, 2014

Many people read the Bible throughout their lives.  It teaches and comforts them and never becomes tiring.  I like that kind of relationship with a story, where the characters are so developed and the narrative so strong that the book reveals different strengths as you re-read it at different points in your life.   I suppose the book I’ve had the longest relationship with is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I first tried reading Jane when I was in junior high, too young to understand most of it.  The part I did understand was the child Jane of the first nine chapters.  Here was a fearsome little girl, capable of attacking a bully or standing up to adults when necessary.  Since I didn’t have the nerve to do either, I loved the little hellion and cheered her on.  I didn’t really understand her friendship with the gentle Helen Burns (like Jane, I have too much original sin to identify with the saint-like Helen) but I was sad to see her go, with an exit that still gives me a chill.  Imagine waking up next to a corpse! Teens and twenties are high times for romance and that’s when I dwelt in the…

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
I know a Good Story / November 2, 2014

I may not believe in fate but I do believe in Serendipity, that sunny-natured cousin between Destiny and Coincidence.  I’ve benefited from too many “happy accidents” in my life to believe otherwise.  My “best friends”, my husband, my home and my career all appeared when I was ready to find them, usually long after I had quit looking.  Some of the books I love presented themselves the same way but the first time I recognized this was when I found, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  I was around twelve, a bit old for the book’s target audience, but I was looking for a story to enchant me, preferably set in England and very cheap because I didn’t have much spending money.   Even at that age I’d learned that the cheapest volumes in any bookstore are usually on the classical shelves and that is where I found Joan Aiken’s tale of an alternate England where James II sits on the throne and people shoot attacking wolves from moving trains.  “Wolves” is a thrilling and well-paced kid’s book and very Dickensian in its execution.   The heroes were sympathetic and believable, the villains are terrifying and the characters had the most evocative names:…

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