Saturday, March 10, 2012

February Storytellers: A Month of Books

In my first book of the month, a children's book, there was an inscription to the recipient, "May books always be a vital part of your life." I found it an estate sale, and looking around the house, books were a vital part of the entire family's life. Books provide a soul to a house, I think.

This is just the way my February went: I only read two books, and my March - it's taken me nearly to mid-month to write about them. I've had a lot on my mind, like the family dog Scotty's declining health and departure and living in our frustrating limbo housing situation as we wait anxiously for our overdue mortgage to arrive to move into our new two family house. So I've been reading and blogging less. I hope spring brings rejuvenation on all fronts. Here's what I did read.

Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards, $2, an estate sale.

Part of why it's so appealing to go to estate sales and thrift shops is that things come into my life that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. I had no idea Julie Andrews, star of one of my favorite musicals, The Sound of Music, was a children's book author and such a popular one at that. An online reviewer said they could just hear her soothing voice narrating this book, and that's how I imagined it. Mandy is an enchanting tale about a young girl from an orphanage who discovers a secret cottage on her walks in the woods and steals away each day to lovingly restore the garden and house.

Andrews says on her site,

"In the summer of 1968, my husband and I were making a film on an old estate in Ireland. The great manor house was enclosed within thick walls and had its own stables, kennels, dairy, cemetery, vegetable gardens, and bird sanctuary, plus a lake with a weir and glorious beech woods with abundant wildlife. There were also several small cottages on the property, including one decorated entirely with seashells. The moment I saw it, the seed of a story lodged in my mind. Sometime later, I was playing a game with our children. I lost and had to pay a forfeit to our eldest daughter, Jennifer. What should my forfeit be? 'Easy! Write me a story,' Jenny replied. I thought to dash off a couple of paragraphs – but the image of that shell cottage came back to haunt me, and thus "Mandy" began. Two years later it became my first published work."

This book came into my life at just the right time, when I long for a garden and home of my own the way Mandy did. I've been an apartment dweller for more than a decade and we're in a very cramped two-family house. I can't wait to be in our new house and see my laundry hang drying on a line in the sun, bring out the coffee grinds to compost, plant a garden, maybe get a book on bird watching to identify the visitors in our yard that looks out to woods. I'm so excited to have a nice kitchen and dust off my cookbooks, take a nap in our lavender colored bedroom and do some writing in a room I hope to decorate with Southwestern decor with such happy memories of my trip there. I happened upon one of those hanging planters made of seashells that the homeowner was going to discard. I rescued it from a sad fate in a landfill, and will always think of Mandy's shell cottage.

I often wonder, "Whatever happened to just being a kid and not a consumer-in-training?" when I see all these young (really young) kids clutching phones and even "designer" handbags (both made in China). Even at restaurants, gadgets are replacing the simple joy of a crayon and paper. What will happen if children stop having creative outlets, and don't explore the natural world like Mandy did?

"She was looking at a whole new world: hundreds of trees stretching as far as the eye could see - most of them with that soft, silvery-green trunk and fine-textured bark that make the beech tree so easily recognizable. Sunlight filtered through the leaves in bright patches. The woods were open and clear - not dense at all. It looked wonderfully inviting and explorable."

Mandy is a recommended read for readers of all ages, and will make you want to go into the woods for your own adventure, and plant a packet of seeds and watch it grow.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, $3, Cinema Verite thrift shop, New York City.
I'm not sure why New York City keeps calling to me this year in literature. There was an article in the New York Times about how reading on a tablet can be distracting because of the temptation to look things up online. If I read Rules of Civility, set over the course of a year in 1938, on a tablet, I'd be looking things up all the time, whether it's the restaurant Katey Kontent dines in La Belle Epoque, now shuttered, to the Agatha Christie novels Katey starts reading (I can't believe I haven't read any Agatha Christie!)

This book very much reminded me of Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, but we're not following a real-life Hadley Hemingway looking back on her life, we're with Katey looking back on her own, with her friend Eve and the well-to-do Tinker who the women meet on New Year's Eve. I thought the major plot twist was a little underwhelming, but the language of this book was so beautiful.

I love the witty writing, like after hearing a story, one character remarks, "That's a Grand Canyon of a tale!" to after eating a iceberg salad with bleu cheese so divine, Katy remarks, "If I was a country, it would be my flag," to more contemplative passages, like this,

"Anyone who has ridden the subway twice a day to earn their bread knows how it goes: When you board, you exhibit the same persona you use with your colleagues and acquaintances. You've carried it through the turnstile and past the sliding doors, so that your fellow passengers can tell who you are - cocky or cautious, amorous or indifferent, loaded or on the dole. But you find yourself a seat and the train gets under way; it comes to one station and then another; people get off and others get on. And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away. The super-ego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades."

At my tea party at Alice's Tea Cup, one of my dining companions brought up the stunning beauty of language found in the letters of Civil War era, which had been recently on my mind. Ken Burn's Civil War soundtrack came into my life at Cinema Verite thrift shop and a letter had been read on it from a soldier who died. Even if we did write letters to our loved ones, I don't think our ability to express ourselves in that written forms exists. A mother of two teenagers bemoaned that her kids are talking like they text. More than just a threat to book stores, books, and civility (how uncivilized society seems since these handheld phones appeared), our language faces the greatest threat of all.

I get e-mails where people abbreviate anything and everything, and I hate when people call me "C." There's no abbreviations in Towles' book, only a love of the written word, and of books, which Katey devours and the author references so often, everything from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations to Thoreau's Walden.

Mandy loved books too. "She exchanged books at the local library at least once a week. The wonders of Robinson Crusoe and Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels were very real to her...

On Saturday morning, she helped out at the local grocery store. She was given a small sum of money, and she used it as she pleased. Most of her money was spent on her precious books and some paints, crayons and paper for painting and drawing."

I hope you love books too, and are reading something wonderful, creating something magical or are going to enjoy something in the natural world. Maybe it's just taking a moment to listen to the birds chatter or observing animals, plants and even people slowly start to awaken from their winter slumber, although old man winter has been pretty tame in 2012. Now if you will excuse me, I'm off to France, at least for some literary arm-traveling.


  1. Oh! Mandy is one of my favorite children's books of all time. I don't even know what happened to my copy...I think I read it so much that it fell apart! So magical. I need to track down another copy (hopefully on Paperback Swap!)

  2. Funny, though I have been aware of Julie Andrews being a children's author for many years, I have never read any of her books! But your description of "Mandy" sounds right up my alley, and I shall have to get it from the Library! Something about what you wrote reminded me of a book I read last year that you might like, "The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton. A woman unraveling her past through the mysteries surrounding a special garden. I read this one right after having read "The Sandalwood Tree" by Elle Newmark which was strangely similar in nature though entirely different. Strangely, I have this type of thing happen frequently, that books I'm reading are strangely similar or connected. I just love that!

  3. P.S. Congratulations and Good Luck on your move and your new home!

  4. Hi Cate! It's now one of my favorite children's books too. Magical is so right. It even makes me want to spring clean, and I never want to clean! Hope you find a copy. :-)

    Thanks Amy! The Forgotten Garden sounds right up my alley too! Aside from being excited from moving from our very Daisy and Onslow-like house to our not-quite-as-posh but close enough Richard and Hyacinth house is the town has a library. The town we live in now doesn't have one which is why I've been reading thrifted books. I can get access to the next town's library but I'd have to take a day from work off to go to the borough hall. I also found The Secret Garden (haven't read that either, unbelievably!) at Goodwill which is now on my massive stack of books to read.

  5. Oh, yes, the Secret Garden, that's one I hadn't read until a few years ago when we read it aloud with my daughter. We all loved it and then rented and watched what I think was a BBC production of it and enjoyed it. Marvelous book!

    And I cannot say enough about having a good Library in your town! We have an awesome Library that I am proud to be working at (even if it is just as a substitute!). Can you imagine if libraries didn't already exist and someone in this day and age suggested we have public buildings where the public could come and check out materials for free -- it would never happen! Support your local library! And perhaps in a few years you'll be going for an even larger house that has room for a pony! :-)

  6. So true about libraries, that would never happen in the modern age. I still visit my old library to patronize their book sale (5 paperbacks for $1!) I found some of my favorite books I read last year at that sale, like The Diary of Mattie Spenser, Witch Child and Sorceress, and I have several on my to-read pile, including A River Runs Through It.

    How fun to work in a library. I've actually considered going back to school to get a degree to become a librarian. Maybe!