But then, one summer, everything changed! 5 offbeat books from my childhood

Friday is usually “What’s for Supper?” day, but this week we had hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, tuna noodle, and pepperoncini beef sandwiches for supper, and no end of chips and carrot sticks. We had good reasons for eating cheap and easy all week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write 900 words about it.

Instead, just for fun, let’s talk about odd books we read as kids. Anybody remember these?

The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken (1980)

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Joan Aiken’s more popular books are the funny and thrilling Wolves Chronicles (a loosely-connected historical fiction adventure series set mostly in an alternate London where James II was not deposed), many featuring the wonderful Dido Twite; and the hilarious Arabel and Mortimer series, about a sensible little girl and her almost-coherent pet raven; but Aiken also wrote several novels about the supernatural. One of these, The Shadow Guests is creepy, and fairly sad, but with a satisfying finish. An Australian teenage boy is sent off to live with a distant relative after his mother and her more-favored son apparently commit suicide together. Already lonely and upset, he begins to see ghosts — and they may have a particular message for him. Very dramatic and captivating. Aiken’s characters are always so well conceived and fleshed out and sympathetic. For middle school and up.

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Miss Osborne-the-Mop by Wilson Gage, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (1963, so not technically from my childhood, but I did read it then)

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Wilson Gage is the pen name of the prolific Mary Q. Steele, which sounds like even more of a pen name. A glum and shy girl has to spend the summer with a cousin she doesn’t like. They accidentally magically bring a mop to life — a mop who looks and acts disconcertingly like a bossy former teacher. The mop takes over their life, and their summer gets much harder, and much more fun, than they expected. Here’s a bunch of people who also remember this strange and charming book with fondness.  It’s one of those books where something ridiculous and unlikely happens, and the characters know it’s ridiculous and unlikely, and they have to figure out how to deal with it like real people. For grade 3 and up.

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Peter Graves by William Pène du Bois (1950)

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The author is much better known for the offbeat fantasy The Twenty-One Balloons, but I think Peter Graves is the better book. A rowdy teenager, while showing off for his friends, accidentally destroys the home of an eccentric old inventor who lives on the outskirts of town. To help repay him, the boy goes on a mission to help him market an amazing but volatile substance he has invented. It turns out to be harder than it looks. The way I remember it, this story doesn’t really have a theme or a point; it’s just super interesting and funny and weird, and very much in tune with a real child’s imagination. For grade 4 and up.

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Singularity by William Sleator (1985)

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I honestly can’t remember if this book is any good or not. It centers on twin boys who are not alike and who do not get along. One summer, the smaller, less confident twin discovers something that may finally give him a leg up, but he’ll have to pay a horrible price. There was more to the plot — I think there was a monster? — but the unforgettable part is the scene where he’s deciding whether or not to go through with it. Anyone remember this book? Was it any good, or just weird? For middle school and up.

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Banana Twist by Florence Parry Heide (1982)

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Heide is best known for The Shrinking of Treehorn, illustrated by Edward Gorey, which I don’t think I’ve ever read. I’m only mentioning this book because I read it five billion times, hating it every time. Why do kids do this to themselves? I don’t know. The hero is an irritable TV- and candy-obsessed kid named Jonah B. Krock who is trying to finagle his way into a boarding school so as to escape his health-obsessed parents. His life becomes intertwined with his repulsive neighbor, who falls under the illusion that Jonah has an obsession with bananas. But at the end, there is a twist! This is such an 80’s book. It’s basically a lame and pointless joke spun out to book length for no reason at all. Naturally, there is a sequel.

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Finally, a book that doesn’t fit in with the rest of these books at all, but maybe you can help me find it! It’s a picture book, with no words at all. The pages are cut into three or four horizontal strips. By opening the cut-up pages into different combinations, you can make all kinds of odd scenes. They were very cleverly drawn so that every combination worked. I remember it being in a hyper realistic style, or maybe sort of surrealist, like Chris Van Allsburg or David Wiesner. I feel like there were lots of umbrellas involved, and also factories and maybe giant lollipops. Anybody have any clue?

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Happy Friday!

The return of Darwin’s immediate book meme!

Remember back in the old days, when bloggers used to help each other out? Mrs. Darwin Catholic is still pulling her weight. Check out her immediate book meme, which, rather than getting you to cast your mind back over influential books in your past, asks questions about “the books you’re actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read.” Excellent idea! Here’s mine:

1. What book are you reading now?

This is going to be the biggest category. I’m currently insulating the space between my bed and wall with countless books I’m in the middle of. Here are a few:

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.

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This is a pure comfort read, because I’ve read this book probably a dozen times. Completely fascinating account of a fictional bourgeois family as it slowly declines over the courts of four generations, published in Germany in 1901. The characters are so real, but the times are so different. Here is Tony, who has arrived in hysterics at her parents’ house, after fleeing from her second husband, Herr Permaneder:

She sprang up. She made two steps backward and feverishly dried her eyes. “A moment, Mamma!” He forgot what he owed to me and to our name? He never knew it, from the very beginning! A man that quietly sit down with his wife’s dowry–a man without ambition or energy or will-power! A man that was some kind of thick soup made out of hops in his veins instead of blood–I verily believe he has! And to let himself down to such common doing as this with Babette–and when I reproached him with his good-for-nothingness, to answer with a word that–a-word–”
And, arrived once more at the word, the word she would not repeat, quite suddenly she took a step forward and said, in a completely altered, a quieter, milder, interested tone:  “How perfectly sweet! Where did you get that, Mamma?” She mentioned with her chin toward a little receptacle, an charming basket-work stand woven out of reeds and decorated with ribbon bow, in which the Frau Consul kept her fancy-work.
“I bought it, some time ago,” answered the old lady. “I needed it.”
“Very smart, “Tony said, looking at it with her head on one side.

Harry Potter and the blah blah blah

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I picked this up because it was a book, and my lord, it is dull. I read it through several years ago to make sure there was nothing dangerous for the kids, as reported. There wasn’t but my land, such tedious writing, and the inconsistencies in how magic works is just maddening. I wish I hadn’t let my kids read these books, because they are dumb. A dumb book is fine, but they read these books over and over and over again. I hate that this level of writing is sinking into their brains.

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.

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Somehow I’ve never read much Steinbeck. The writing is just. . . crystalline. I’ve only just started it, and the little boy has only just gotten the pony. I FEEL LIKE SOMETHING BAD IS COMING AND IT’S PREEMPTIVELY BREAKING MY HEART. Don’t tell me!

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.

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It’s a chatty and gargantuan Victorian novel of courtship, corruption, dissolution, greed, lovers, and sissy boys. I was enjoying the book for its own sake; but about halfway through, I realized that Augustus Melmotte sounded awfully familiar. He’s a blustering financial giant with glitzy, vulgar tastes and a murky past, who bulldozes his way to the top of society because he acts so rich that everyone assumes he really is rich—and so they’re willing to lend him even more money. Eventually, his wealth becomes so impressive that he decides to run for public office. ALL THE SIGHS. There are also love triangles and pleasantly despicable side characters, dissolute rats ripe for comeuppance, and almost-heroes you want to shake and make them get their act together. I have a few hundred pages to go, and I honestly have no idea what is going to happen.

Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken.

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This is the third book in the series that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but you can enjoy the books independently. I love Joan Aiken with all my heart. If all children’s and YA authors took such pains with dialogue and had such respect for the reader, we wouldn’t be in such a pickle today. Dido Twite is one of the most appealing characters I’ve ever met in a book.

2. What book did you just finish?

Nothing. I finish nothing. I stink.

3. What do you plan to read next?

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Ahem, I am super about to start Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, which is, look, just pick it up yourself. Okay, fine, it’s about “The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.” Everybody has a hobby, and mine just happens to be . . . surprising new science. A bunch of my friends read this book and said it was great. I’m just looking for an opportunity to whip it out in a manner designed to maximize humiliation for my children. What I’m trying to say is, people need to stop complaining about the cover of my book.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver.

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I haven’t read a ton of marriage books, but this one is pretty good and reasonable and practical. There is a bit too much bragging about how much research he’s done and how effective his advice is, but you can skim.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales.

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I’ve been recommending this book forever, but I don’t think I’ve ever come right out and claimed to have read it. I did buy a copy, so there’s that.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

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I’ve actually read this before, maybe twenty years ago, but I got bogged down trying to keep track of all the characters and insane plot details. This time, I’m not going to sweat it, and I’ll just enjoy what I can manage.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Headlines on Facebook. If I were a real adult, I’d cut down now, but I’m waiting for Lent. I guess I’m reading fiction, as usual, and have a yen for uncluttered forms of expression.

And I’ll add a seventh question of my own:

7. What are you reading out loud?

The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

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I’m reading this to the five-year-old, and oh, she loves it. We made our way through the first two books (My Father’s Dragon and  Elmer and the Dragon) pretty quick, and this is the last one (we have a volume with all three books in it, including the original illustrations, which are indispensable). The first is by far the best, but the other two are also very charming. It’s just enough action and danger to keep the little ones wide-eyed, but everything turns out exceedingly well for everyone. The chapters are very short, so you can read two chapters a night in less than ten minutes. An excellent first chapter book.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by Gideon Defoe.

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Bought over Christmas vacation in hopes of easing the older kids back into the habit of being read to. It is so dang stupid. I enjoyed the part where the immensely virile and impressive Pirate King “paused for a moment to pull a great white shark from behind his throne and punch it in half with a fist.” I do have to skim ahead a bit and occasionally skip over a naughty line or two. Silly stuff, just for fun.

Wow, I guess that’s about it. I need to shape up.

Here’s a list without my answers, if you want to cut and paste and answer on your own blog or FB or whatever. Always interested in hearing what you’re reading, especially if you give us some hints about what it’s about and why you like it or don’t!

1. What book are you reading now?

2. What book did you just finish?

3. What do you plan to read next?

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

6. What is your current reading trend?

[and my own question:] 7. What are you reading out loud? 

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