Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Life in Books, Part the Second.

"You monkeys, you! You give me back my caps!"

I forgot to mention Caps For Sale in my list of favorite Captain Kangaroo books. My brain nattered on about it all night and most of today. I hope the book is now duly noted, cerebrally, and we can move on. Sheesh.

I've always been somebody who reads everything, fiction, nonfiction, magazines, soup cans, cracker boxes (mealtime Desperation Reading). . . so I started a list of my significant books, hoping to sort them all out before blogging about My Life In Books. This was a mistake. One book memory led to another and soon I was drowning in titles. I'm ready to write about my early adulthood books but all the adolescent-era books keep bubbling to the surface.

Take, for instance, the books my grandparents owned. They subscribed to Reader's Digest and had a massive collection of condensed books. I read 84 Charing Cross Road in one of them. I read it again years later and wondered what those Reader's Digest editors could possibly have taken out since it was already a short book. My grandparents also had a bookshelf devoted to gems and minerals, treasured aids in their rockhounding. They owned several volumes from The Five Foot Shelf of Books and a number of classics (heavy on Dickens, Stevenson, and Verne). Grandma still had a lot of the books she'd used in her classroom and Grandpa had a shelf devoted to humor (Robert Benchley was one of his favorite humorists.) Then there was the Miscellaneous Shelf, containing titles like The Winning of Barbara Worth and What Kinda Cactus Izzat?, along with Pilgrim's Progress and other inspirational writings. There were a lot of books in their home. I read them all.

I enjoyed building my personal library once I was out on my own. Portland was (still is, actually) a great city for readers. Powell's was a weekly stop, of course, but I particularly loved a little nook of a bookshop tucked into the basement of an office building, a shop that specialized in authors who were wonderful but unsung. That's where I discovered Zenna Henderson, a science fiction writer. She wrote books about The People, a race who had to flee their planet (it was self-destructing) and who landed unintentionally on Earth. She also wrote short stories, stories written with warmth and a level of spirituality that was rare in science fiction.

It was around this time that I became a Wodehouse nut, thanks to a garage sale purchase. I was beguiled by a sealed box of paperback books priced at $2.00, buying it just to see what was inside. Mulliner Nights was buried in there and it inspired a fresh Author Binge. Wodehouse is still a hot author for me. We raised our kids on his books (aided by PBS' Wodehouse Playhouse.) We visit the Random Wodehouse Quote generator on tumbler. Hm. I'm losing focus here.

1973 was a huge reading year. A friend handed her copy of Lord of the Rings to me, saying "Read this now." I did. I've reread it every three years ever since. Reading Tolkien led me to C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. I finally read Wind In The Willows and Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad and Gibran's The Prophet. I read a bunch of Harlequin Romance novels on a dare issued by a roommate. Believe me, you haven't experienced "formulaic" until you've read one of those.

Gosh. I'm only up to 1974. I knew I couldn't be brief.

Overheard on Twitter: What's that technique where you pan-fry cold pizza? Is there more to it than just "pan-fry cold pizza"?

Next time: My Life In Books, Part the Third. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Life in Books, Part the First

Currently circulating through Facebook: write a brief autobiography based on the books you've read and post it in Notes. My Life In Books. What a compelling idea. But how could I truly capture the influence that books have had? The more I thought about it, the more clearly I could see that this was something I'd need to explore in blogland rather than in Facebook. "Brief" was not going to happen.

According to Mom, I started reading when I was three. The first word I pointed to and read aloud was the, not your typical first word (perhaps an early indication of eccentricities to come.) The earliest books that I remember were the ones that Captain Kangaroo read, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Five Chinese Brothers, and Make Way for Ducklings. The Captain's storytime was my favorite part of the program, a great introduction to good books.

I spent a lot of time in a Portland hospital during my childhood, in for an odd orthopedic birth defect. Some of those surgeries were outstandingly-creative attempts to fix my peculiar hip joint. Reading was the answer to the weeks, sometimes months, of being stuck in a bed. Mom brought books for me, all the classic chapter books - Black Beauty, Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Homer Price...Homer Price! That was probably the first book to introduce me to humor in storytelling. All the others were so earnest, full of life lessons, early predecessors to After-School Specials. But Homer Price was funny, with stories about skunks and television superheroes and bracelets lost in donut makers.

Fast forward to high school. I met books that still influence my thinking, books that I regularly revisit. I discovered Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water in the high school library, a book that made me homesick for England despite the fact that I had never been there. It inspired a lifelong hunt for all of Goudge's books, one of the few authors that I deliberately collect.

My favorite senior class was held in the early morning. The only thing we had to do was choose books and read them. No book reports, no analysis, just reading. What a heavenly class that was! The best book for that class was Les Miserables, originally chosen because it was the thickest book on the library shelves. I was a fast reader and I wanted a book that would last longer than a few days. Did it ever! Wow.

High school was responsible for some real yawners, too. We analyzed books right into the ground, killing any simple enjoyment of the story. The worst book? The Great Gatsby. To this day I don't understand the significance of green and yellow or the symbolism of the two Eggs or anything else. We talked the book to death, which is too bad because Fitzgerald was such a good chronicler of his generation. Ah well.

Summer vacations were full of public library visits. I went on Author Binges, especially during the summer that I worked at a produce processing plant. The shift started at 3:00 p.m. and ended when that day's produce was completely processed, sometimes into the early a.m. I have some hilarious stories from that job. Someday I'll write about The Tree Frogs and the Strawberries. Also The Snakes and the Green Beans. But I digress.

Author binges occurred when I discovered a great author and wanted to read more. One summer's reading included Donald E. Westlake, G. K. Chesterton, Franz Kafka, and Agatha Christie. An odd group, really, but they hit the spot. Agatha's books turned out to be more formulaic than I expected. By the time I'd read eight or nine, I could predict who had done it most of the time but that didn't stop me from reading all of her books. Westlake was the antithesis of Christie, humorous, gently irreverent, playing with detectives-in-gangland cliches. Chesterton, however, was a challenge, especially Orthodoxy. That was sturdy reading for a 16 year old but it was worth the effort. It revealed that I was fuzzy about my faith and inspired me to pay a lot more attention to what I believed, to think about it, to question things and sort them out. It was a relief sometimes to retreat to Father Brown.

Kafka was...Kafka.

One benefit to author bingeing: should the day come, I will be a formidable player on Jeopardy if "Donald E. Westlake" is a category.

Overheard on Twitter: Playing Tetris is essentially an object lesson in dealing with mistakes.

Next time: My Life in Books, Part the Second. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

One song leads to another

I found myself thinking about childhood songs last night. Music has always been a strong influence. When I was a child, nearly everyone in the family played an instrument (great-uncle Spencer was a Grand National Champion fiddler) and singing was a natural pastime. My public singing debut was a solo performance in our kindergarten graduation ceremony. I sang The Little White Duck. I can still sing it, complete with ominous tones when the little red snake comes along.

Grade school brought an opportunity to sing in a girl's group. All the girls were in 8th grade except me, a 2nd grader. I could hold my own with harmony but I suspect I was also in there for the Cute Factor, especially when we sang I Love Little Willy (I Do, Ma-Ma.) An early claim to fame: our group performed for J.F.K when he came through Portland campaigning for the presidency.

Humming I Love Little Willy sparked a memory of The Sunday School Bus. My parents would make sure that my brother and I were out on the corner every Sunday morning, waiting for the bus that took us to the 1st Baptist Church. We were the first stop on the route so we had our choice of seats. The bus cut a wide swath through the community of St. John and there wasn't an empty seat anywhere by the time the driver finally headed to the church.

The best part of the ride was coming home. Two wonderful men drove the bus, alternating Sundays. Both of them loved kids and it showed. They had sturdy rules about safety, of course. We had to remain in the seats, or else. They helped us stay in the seats by teaching us songs and singing them with us, silly songs, songs that sometimes took us to the edge. I'm still fond of Helen Had A Steamboat:

Helen had a steamboat,
The steamboat had a bell,
Helen went to Heaven and the
steamboat went to Helen had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell...

Those were heady lyrics for a Baptist kid, because we almost know...

My brother and I were always the last ones off the bus so we had a nice long ride, plenty of time to learn all those songs, the 3 and 4-part rounds, the classic campfire tunes, all of them. We sang Found A Peanut, and Be Kind To Your Web-Footed Friends, and The Worms Go In. We even sang (good Baptist children that we were) Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer On The Wall. We sang serious songs, too, songs such as Battle Hymn of the Republic. And then, sometimes, the drivers would teach us parody verses, mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school...

It's no wonder I grew up with a goofy sense of musical humor.

There's a classic round, One Bottle of Pop, that I would dearly love to teach to some library staff to sing at Staff Day. I changed the words to reflect the library (One library card two library cards...) and ran it by Shannon. She gave it an enthusiastic review so I shall hunt for staff who would like to participate in some musical fun.

Overheard on Twitter: learned 2 things today from twitter 1) the new edition of Scrabble will allow use of proper nouns 2) lots of people think this is a bad idea

Next time: humorists old and new, if I can remember what I wanted to write regarding them. Stay tuned.