Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan

Square Peg, Random House UK|1 March 2018|336 p|Review copy|4*

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan will appeal to all bookworms, but it’s more than an account of what Lucy read, it’s also a history of children’s books, details of their authors and a memoir of Lucy’s childhood. I loved it – it’s full of the joy and love of books, the intensity of reading and the ‘instant and complete absorption in a book‘. She writes with verve and humour, in a chatty style that makes it so readable. Reading her book is like being in conversation with a friend.

As I am older than Lucy, inevitably she mentions books I didn’t read as I was growing up (but have read some of them in later life) , especially in the later sections of her book, books she read as a teenager, but I was quite surprised and pleased to find that our reading in early childhood was so similar, and just like her, books have made me the person I am – why else would I be writing a blog called ‘BooksPlease‘.

As long as I can remember I have loved books and I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. So I was delighted to find that she too loved Teddy Robinson by Joan L Robinson.  This is the first book I remember borrowing from the library. I loved it so much I was dreadfully upset that I had to return it. Teddy Robinson was owned by a little girl named Deborah and I am so envious that Lucy Mangan has actually met Deborah, who showed her the original drawings for the books her mother wrote.

And then there are some of my most loved books when I was young such as Milly-Molly-Mandy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Katy books, Little Women, Good Wives and Jo’s Boys, The Borrowers, the Narnia books, Ballet Shoes, and The Secret Garden. I re-read them many times over.

There’s a whole section on Enid BlytonThe Blyton Interregnum. I was very interested to see her view of this writer whose books I too adored. Blyton wrote around 760 books during her fifty-year writing career! Despite the criticism of her books as mediocre material, formulaic books with fantastical plots Lucy considers, correctly I think, that they are books that provided comfort reading during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. Not only that, they are satisfying stories that lay down a base for future reading, providing books that are fun to read and opening up the ‘pleasure-filled world of reading’. Then there are the questions about prejudice, sexism, class snobbery and racism, in Blyton’s books, which Lucy (and I) missed completely whilst reading as children.

She writes about re-reading the books as an adult as a ‘discombobulating experience‘ – stories that once wholly enraptured you no longer have that same magic, and about her disappointment in returning to Enid Blyton’s books and finding them unreadable. It’s the main reason I don’t go back to the books I loved as a child – I really don’t want to lose the magic they held for me then.

There is so much in this book I could write about, it’s packed with the magic of books and reading it has given me hours of nostalgic pleasure – but the best thing I think is to leave you to read this lovely book for yourself.

Many thanks to Random House UK for a review copy via NetGalley.

Short Story Sunday: Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve been reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales as part of Carl’s Once Upon A Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest. So far I’ve written about The Rose Elf, The Shepherdess and the Sweep, and The Snow Queen.

I’ve been disappointed in some of the other stories, some are gruesome and moralistic.  I don’t remember feeling that about them when I first read them as a child, which shows, I suppose, the different approach children have to such tales, or maybe it’s just me.

In my descriptions of today’s stories I have not concealed the endings. It’s difficult to write meaningfully without doing so or to decide what should not be revealed in these stories and anyway they are well known and have been told or retold in one form or another. But if you don’t want to know how they end please be aware that there are spoilers in what follows.

First, The Red Shoes, in which a little girl, Karen, longs to have a pair of shiny red shoes, even though the old lady who had adopted her told her that the shoes were very wrong and unbecoming. Karen disobeys her and wears the red shoes to go to church. But they are magic shoes and they compel her to dance, won’t come off her feet and take her dancing where she doesn’t want to go. The result is just awful.

An angel tells her she must dance until she dies, so that children will see the consequence of pride and vanity. In desperation she begs the executioner to cut off her feet along with the shoes, which then go dancing away by themselves and she is left a cripple with wooden feet. She begs for God’s mercy, is taken into service by a clergyman and eventually dies, ‘her heart was so filled with sunshine, peace and joy that it broke. Her soul took its flight up to heaven.’

 

The strange thing is that I didn’t remember what happened at the end! So I either stopped reading when the horrible bit began, or have blanked it out of my memory. The moral of the story is to point out the consequences of pride and disobedience.

The next one I read is The Brave Tin Soldier, a bitter-sweet tale that also ends in disaster. I suppose this one is about the dangers of pride too. He is one of twenty five tin soldiers, but he has only one leg as he had been cast last when there was not enough tin left to complete him. He wants to marry the cardboard ballet dancer, standing in the middle of a looking glass lake as it appears that she too has only one leg as she balances with one leg lifted raised so high the soldier can’t see it.

At midnight the Jack-in-a-box opens and the little black imp inside warns the soldier to keep his eyes to himself. The soldier ignores his warning and the imp tells him to just wait until the morning. Morning comes and a draught from the window (or is it the imp’s doing) knocks the soldier off the window and down into the street. He is too proud to call attention to himself when the little by who owns him looks for him and he is swept away down the gutter and ends up in a canal, threatened by a large water rat and is then eaten by a fish. The fish is caught and cooked, whereupon the soldier is saved. But that is not the end as one of the little boys throws him into the fire, a door is opened and the draught carries away the little dancer also into the fire. She blazes up and the tin soldier is melted down, leaving only a tin heart.

It’s true he was brave, but he was also too passive or too proud and so fails to save himself. But I do remember liking this story as a child, but maybe that was because I just accepted his fate.

Much more encouraging is the tale of The Ugly Duckling – a famous story about the duckling who was different from the other ducklings, mocked and picked on by the other birds. I remember seeing this story in the film with Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen and the song: There Once Was an Ugly Duckling – quack, get out, get out of town. Of course the ugly duckling is not a duck at all! I thought of this story whilst watching Springwatch this week when the poor bedraggled blue tit was worn to a frazzle feeding her babies that were actually great tits, not blue tits!

And another story that has a happy ending is The Nightingale -one of my favourites as a child, so I’m pleased I still like it. It’s about a nightingale whose beautiful singing captivates all who hear her, including the Chinese Emperor. She agrees to come to his palace and sing for him, living in a cage but still allowed to fly twice a day. The Japanese Emperor sends him a mechanical bird, decked in rich jewels, which when wound up imitates the nightingale’s song. Everyone loves the artificial bird and the real nightingale flies away.

But eventually the artificial bird’s mechanism became worn out and it could no longer sing. The Emperor was heart broken when the real bird cannot be found and he collapsed close to death. But the live nightingale comes to his rescue and sings to give him hope and consolation and his death is averted. He wants her to return to the palace but she refuses as she can’t live inside, but agrees to come and sing for him in his garden.

It is a beautiful story contrasting art, technology and nature and one that is full of optimism about the joys of life.

I think this will probably be my last post for the Short Story Quest, which I have enjoyed even though some of the stories failed to live up to my memories.

Short Story Sunday: The Snow Queen

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales ‘“ I first read a lot of the tales as a child in my mother’s book: P1010936Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

The Snow Queen was one of my favourite stories as a child and I read it many times. So, I have been holding back from reading it now in case I found that the magical experience was no longer there. However, I felt I really wanted to read it this week and told myself that I would stop if it wasn’t as entrancing as before. Of course I read all of it and if it wasn’t quite as magical it was still entrancing.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten some of the details, but my memories of the way evil came into the world when the magic looking-glass was shattered were vivid and correct. The pieces let loose in the world distorted whatever was reflected in it, so that whatever was good and beautiful dwindled to almost nothing and whatever was worthless stood out boldly. They entered into men’s eyes, so that they saw only evil, or into their hearts, turning them to lumps of ice. Some were made into panes of window glass and some into spectacles. Some are still flying about in the air even today.

I remembered well the two main characters, the childhood friends, Kay and Gerda, and how Kay was changed when his heart and eyes were pierced by pieces of the magic glass  and how he followed  the beautiful Snow Queen and was whisked away to her ice palace.  I also remembered Gerda’s search for him, but not all the detail of how she was enchanted by a strange old woman, who took her into her strange little house, and how the roses and other flowers brought back her memories.

I had forgotten about the Prince and Princess and the Ravens who helped her on her way to look for Kay and the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman who also helped her. More memorable was The Little Robber Girl who stopped her robber-mother from killing and eating Gerda.

It was the chapter on Kay in the Snow Palace that was most vivid in my memories and it didn’t disappoint me. Kay’s heart was by then just like a lump of ice and he was almost black with the cold and he didn’t recognise Gerda until her tears penetrated his heart, melted the ice and dissolved the broken glass and washed all the pieces of glass from his eyes. It was Gerda’s love that saved him. As the Finland Woman says:

I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her, and how barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world. She cannot receive power from us, that is in her own heart, and consists in her being a good, innocent child.

What I hadn’t noticed as a child was that this is not only a story of good against evil but also about love versus reason and logic. At first when the ice has entered Kay’s heart and eyes he becomes focussed on science, looking at the snow flakes through a magnifying glass to see their structure and as the Snow Queen lures him from home he couldn’t pray but could only recite his multiplication tables; he could say how many square miles were in the country as well as the number of inhabitants.

The task the Snow Queen gave him whilst she was away from the Palace was the ice-game of understanding to fit together large pieces of ice to make figures of ‘the highest importance’. But he was unable to make the word ‘Eternity’, which the Snow Queen had promised she would give him the whole world if he succeeded. He thought and thought about it until his brain almost cracked. It was only when the ice had melted from his heart and out of his eyes that the pieces of ice danced and formed the letters of the word so that he was able to leave the palace.

Short Story Sunday: The Shepherdess and the Sweep

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

This will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales ‘“ I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936This week it’s another fairy tale that I don’t remember reading before – The Shepherdess and the Sweep.

Unlike The Rose Elf, the story I read last week, The Shepherdess and the Sweep is not a gruesome story, but a story of love, romance, and bravery.

The Shepherdess and the Sweep are two china figures who fall in love but their love is threatened by a strange looking carved satyr the children called the Goatsleg-Highadjutant-general-militarycommandant, as he had goat’s legs, short horns and a long beard and was constantly grinning. He stood on top of a very old wooden cabinet, looking down on the beautiful Shepherdess on the table opposite and wanted her for his wife. There is also a bigger china figure than the little couple – a big old Chinese, who could nod his head. He claims authority over the Shepherdess and says she will marry the satyr that night.

So the two little china figures decide to leave the table and venture out into the wide world. In their desperation to escape they decide to climb the chimney, but when they get to the top the Shepherdess is overcome with fear and cries “This is too much” she sobbed, “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking glass!”

Illustration from “Fairy Tales, 1850” by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator (from Wikipedia)

Spoiler follows – don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how this story ends.

The sweep can’t console her and so they climb back down even though he thought it was foolish. But they find that the Chinese figure in his attempt to follow them had fallen and broken into three pieces. The family mended him but his head, which had rolled far off into a corner of the room had to be riveted onto his neck, so that he could no longer nod. He was too proud to tell the Satyr and so when he asked if he were to have the Shepherdess or not, the Chinese figure was silent. And the little couple remained together. So, a happy ending for this tale.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been on my shelves for a few years and as I’m taking part in the Once Upon a Time event hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings I decided it was time I read it. It’s a complete change of genre for me as I rarely read children’s books.

It was first published in 1900, made into a Broadway Musical in 1902 and a film in 1939. I’ve seen the film and also a stage version in a local amateur dramatic society production some years ago.

I enjoyed this entertaining story, pure escapism, which I would have loved as a child, following Dorothy’s adventures in the Land of Oz after the cyclone whisked her house high in the air out of Kansas and set it down on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, thus killing her. Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, are very anxious to get back home to Kansas and they set out on the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz to help them. On the way she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, who go with her as they want the Wizard to give them brains, a heart and courage respectively.

Their journey is interrupted in various places and by a variety of creatures, some very dangerous indeed; as in most fairy tales, there is a fair amount of violence in the book, as Dorothy and her friends combat the Wicked Witch of the East. I was fascinated by the Winged Monkeys, who can grant three wishes, the Fighting Trees, the Dainty China Country and its pretty little, fragile people and by the Quadlings with their flat hammer heads.

There are several interpretations* of the story that I’ve come across, but the simple message of the story is, of course, that you have to use your brains yourself, after all the Scarecrow can think, he just doesn’t realise that he can and he came up with lots of ingenious ideas along the way; courage comes from facing danger even when you are afraid – it comes from within and the Lion does that without realising he already has courage. As for the Tin Man, again he truly did have a heart – his desire for one shows his kindness and goodness.

And by the way Dorothy’s shoes are silver and not red as in the film.

*On Goodreads there are several reviews that draw parallels with the economics of America in the late 19th century and the political climate of the time.

And I found this interesting article in The New York Times Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man and Freud, Too by Janet Maslin discussing this book: The Real Wizard of Oz, The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum by Rebecca Loncraine. Baum apparently drew on his own experiences in writing his book – images of the Civil War amputees led to the Tin Man, bizarre sights such as displayed by PT Barnum, the Chicago World Fair and so on. It sounds a fascinating book! I am constantly finding reading one book leads on to wanting to read yet more books – and I hadn’t realised before that there are more Oz books that Baum wrote!

Seven White Gates by Malcolm Saville

Once more I’m behind with writing reviews – I blame it on the season! So to catch up I’m going to write some shortish posts with just a few thoughts on the books I’ve been reading.

Seven White Gates by Malcolm Saville is the second in his Lone Pine series. I first read some of his books when I was a child, but none of this series. But even so this was a nostalgic read for me and I would have really loved it if I’d read it years ago. It was first published in 1944. The Lone Pine books are about a group of children who formed a secret society in wartime Shropshire.

I particularly like the setting of Seven White Gates, in Shropshire not far from the border with Wales, an area rich in folklore and legend. It begins at the beginning of the Easter holidays, when Peter (Petronella) Stirling, who is fifteen, discovers that she cannot spend them at home with her father at Hatchholt, as he has to go away. Instead she is to stay with her unknown aunt and uncle, near Barton Beach, whose farm is under the Stiperstones mountain crested by the Devil’s Chair. The Stiperstones range lies within the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is now on my wishlist of places to visit and the Devil’s Chair is really there:

The Devil’s Chair – Photo from Wikimedia Commons

She invites the other members of the Lone Pine club, David Morton, aged sixteen and his younger brother and sister, the annoying twins, Dickie and Mary, who are nine to stay at the farm with her. She meets a family of gypsies and makes a new friend, Jenny at Barton Beach, who all tell her the terrifying legends about the Stiperstones and the Devil’s Chair. Reuben warns her:

Remember, Petronella, our friend, never to be seen near the Stiperstones on the longest night of the year, for then all the ghosts in Shropshire and all the counties beyond meet on the summit – right on and around the Chair they meet – to choose their king … And any who venture out on that night and see the ghosts of all the years dead from hereabouts are stricken with fear and often do not live the year … (page 31)

What follows is an exciting adventure story. Peter’s Uncle Micah is a strange character, a forbidding. gloomy, unhappy man missing his son Charles who had left home some years earlier. It’s fast paced and full of danger for Peter and her friends as they explore the Stiperstones and its secrets.

The book is illustrated with full page black and white drawings and a plan of Seven Gates, which I found very useful in following the action!

Seven Gates plan

The Witch's Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, but it’s been years since I read any of her books. I came across her children’s book, The Witch’s Brat after reading Mary Delorme’s novel, St Bartholomew’s Man about Rahere, the founder of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. I wanted to know more about Rahere and discovered that he featured in Rosemary Sutcliff’s book set in 12th century England.

The Witch’s Brat, first published in 1971, tells the tale of Lovel, a boy born crippled with a twisted leg and crooked shoulder, but also with a gift for healing. His grandmother was the local Wise Woman whom people feared thinking she was a witch, and after she died he was driven from his village in a shower of stones, both because he was her grandson and because he was a cripple. He is taken in by the monks at a priory and it is here that he meets Rahere, who encourages him to be a healer. This is how Rahere looked when Lovel first met him:

Lovel gazed with his mouth open in awed delight at this mad and magnificent man with the monk’s face and the cool mocking voice and long fantastic legs like a crane fly, who spoke English, but in such splendid and far-off words that much of it was as far beyond his reach as the Norman French spoken by most of the knights and wealthy travellers who passed that way, and by some of the brethren among themselves. (page 29)

It’s a beautifully written little book (112 pages), full of period detail, including herbal lore and vivid imagery. Like St Bartholomew’s Man it’s about the building of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but seen through Lovel’s eyes instead of through Rahere’s. As well as being historical fiction, this book is about overcoming prejudice and and disability. Rahere is seen as a charismatic character, an inspiration to Lovel, a man who thought there must be more to life than entertaining a king and who vowed to raise an infirmary, a hospital for the poor sick.

This a ‘feel good’ book that is a delight to read.