Charlotte’s Web redux

There aren’t many books I’d call perfect, but Charlotte’s Web tops this elite list.  I just finished reading it aloud for oh, I don’t know–the third time, maybe, this time to a very interested six year old and a squirrely three year old.  No matter the audience, the story never gets old; in fact, I’d say that there are so many nuances about it that I am only now old enough to appreciate:  the changing of the seasons, the fleetingness of childhood, the nature of friendship and loss.

What I really want to say about it, though, is this:  E.B. White’s descriptions are beautiful, as in take-my-breath-away when I read them again after not having read them in a while.  I just want to share a few of them here.  This, from chapter two:

The barn was very large.  It was very old.  It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure.  It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows.  It often had a sort of peaceful smell–as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.  It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope.  And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish.  But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead.  And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood open to the breeze.  The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns:  ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps.  It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in.  It was the kind of barn that children like to play in.  And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Homer L. Zuckerman.

This makes me want a barn like this, doesn’t it you?  Reading an description like this, I take note of the diction and rhythm, the lists and imagery.  Again, perfection.  It makes me want to pay attention to every sentence.  It makes me want to ferret out my copy of Strunk and White and actually read it for once.

Reading this description from chapter ten makes me long for a childhood I only had a glimpse of while playing with older cousins in my papaw’s barn, sliding down stacked bales of hay:

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county.  It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway.  At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on.  It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed.  You climbed a ladder to the hayloft.  Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy.  Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat.  Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped.  For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair.  Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope.  Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

I’m terribly afraid of heights and just a big chicken to boot, but that description makes me want to swing on the Zuckerman swing.

Today’s reading of the last couple of chapters of Charlotte’s Web was well-timed, for a group of my friends did something incredibly kind for my family today.  It occurred to me how these kindnesses, even small or anonymous ones,  really do matter–they add up to something really beautiful.  What a testimony to the power of friendship!

The Fair Grounds were soon deserted.  The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn.  The infield was littered with bottles and trash.  Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.

Ah, the poignancy of this story.  I hope I never read it with jaded eyes.  I’m glad I have at least one more chance to read it aloud.

Related posts at Hope Is the Word:

**My copy of the book is one I received as a gift from my cousin on November 21, 1983, while I was in the hospital with a broken leg.  What a treasure!



The Case of the Left-Handed Lady by Nancy Springer

I’m always on the lookout for something that piques the curiosity and interest of Lulu, age twelve-going-on-twenty.  I have a sneaking suspicion that mystery might be her genre, though fantasy is her current interest (well, that and all things 39 Clues). In anticipation of a short road trip she and I were to take together, I checked out the audiobook of an Enola Holmes mystery by Nancy Springer.  So far as I could tell, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady is one of the first in the series, so I thought we shouldn’t have any trouble following it.  It turns out that this was certainly true–we were engrossed!  Enola Holmes is the much, much, much younger sister of Mycroft and  Sherlock Holmes, and at the mature age of fourteen she has been granted her independence by her forward-thinking mum and has quite a life on her own in London.  Like her older brother Sherlock, Enola has quite a knack for solving mysteries, but she’s so much more than that!  She has learned how to navigate a man’s world in London by her own wits.  She has a small but effective collection of disguises and alter-egos, and she goes about London both solving mysteries and doing good.  In this particular volume, she works to both solve the mystery of wealthy young woman’s disappearance, all the while communicating via cipher with her mother and staying clear of her brother Sherlock, who’s in cahoots with Mycroft to make a proper young lady of her.

There’s much to love about this book, and I would assume by conjecture, about the series.  Set in Victorian England, it has just the right flavor for me.  Wikipedia calls it a pastiche of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and I’ll admit it makes me want to delve into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a bit and see if I like the originals.  It’s well written–what I’d call both clever and witty.  I loved pointing out to Lulu when Enola used deductive reasoning as Lulu has been learning about inductive versus deductive reasoning in her math studies.  (She, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as thrilled about it.  😉 )  The historical setting of the story is quite developed.  Enola Holmes is a first wave feminist, her birthright as the daughter of a rather avant garde mother.   This particular story goes into class warfare, Social Darwinism, labor strikes, etc.  I enjoyed that part a lot and hoped against hope that Lulu was taking it all in.  😉  I’d definitely classify this as young adult rather than juvenile fiction; there’s some violence as well as veiled references to the seedy underbelly of Victorian London.   I really wish that our libraries had them in book format; instead, I’ll either have to buy them (something I’m trying to do less of these days) or just stick to the audiobooks.  It’s a good thing they’re well done!  Katherine Kellgren does a fantastic job as the narrator of this particular tale.  We first fell in love with her voice via The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and I have to say that it’s just as fitting as Enola Holmes and her various aliases as Penelope Lumley.  We give both the story and the audiobook a Highly Recommended!

Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery

My girls and I are in the middle of our Year of Anne, and we just finished book three, Anne of the Island.   It has been twenty-plus years since I read this one, but I had plenty of fond memories of it, and I have to say that it mostly lived up to what I remembered:  deep, meaningful friendships, in the setting of the utterly delightful Patty’s Place.   I remembered with fondness the china dogs, Gog and Magog, as well as the “globe-trotting” owners of Patty’s Place knitting their way across Egypt.  Such an image!  🙂   Reading it as a bonafide adult this time for the first time since I was married (way back seventeen years ago tomorrow!) was curious for me.  It made me a little wistful to note how often Anne said or thought, upon returning to Green Gables, how different it was for her, and how she longed to be back at Redmond.  Also, the whole Roy Gardner affair was (again) a bit much for me.  It is so remote and distant-feeling–anyone can see that Roy isn’t the man for her.   Maybe because Gilbert is such a foregone conclusion (though he wouldn’t have been at the time of publication, of course)–that part just rings a bit hollow.  The thing I love best about Montgomery’s writing–all the vignettes–is as much a part of this story as all the others, so it was an entirely enjoyable experience for me to share it with my girls.  One little bit of wisdom jumped out at me as I read this time, and I wanted to note it here for posterity.  This, from Rachel Lynde about Aunt Atossa, upon the occasion of her funeral:

“Nobody except her parents ever loved poor Atossa, not even her husband”. . . “She was his fourth wife.  He’d sort of gotten into the habit of marrying.  He only lived a few years after he married her.  The doctor said he died of dyspepsia but I shall always maintain that he died of Atossa’s tongue, that’s what.  Poor soul, she always knew everything about her neighbors, but she never was very well acquainted with herself.”

To never be acquainted with oneself is tragedy indeed.

Lastly, I have to say something about the cover of the paperback I have.  I have had this set of books since I was a young teen, so they’re over twenty-five years old.  It’s pretty special to me to be reading these to my girls.  Anyway, I think this particular cover is perfectly dreadful.  Do either of these individuals look like college-aged students?  I don’t think so.  Yes, Roy Gardner is a bit older than the typical college student, but he’s certainly NOT a middle aged man!  (And let’s not even consider that this is supposed to be Gilbert!  Eeeek!)  I definitely prefer the cover linked above.

Monthly reading report: April and May 2016

I’ll spare you and myself the lamenting over my not being able to make this a monthly event and get right to the point.  🙂

What I read in April and May:

      • Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
      • The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson–I’ve re-discovered a versatile author whose books I really enjoy!
      • I found Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s story of her conversion to Christianity gripping–by far the most compelling story I’ve read this year.  If you’re unfamiliar with her story, you can read a summary here.  I love her voice and her absolute bewilderment over her “trainwreck conversion.” The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert is just plain old refreshing.    Highly Recommended.
      • Like Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Mary Beth Chapman’s Choosing to See is a book I’ve had on my Kindle for ages.  I found it as gripping, if not nearly as well written (well, of course!  Butterfield was an English professor!).  The story of the Chapmans’ tragic loss of their daughter Maria and how they coped was a story I couldn’t put down.  Getting an inside scoop on the SCC family didn’t hurt.  😉  One thing that struck me after reading the two books so closely together was how adoption is such a huge part of both the Butterfields’ and the Chapmans’ calling and voice in the world.  I doubt that I would’ve put the two together if I hadn’t read them in such quick succession, but at any rate, there it is.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle–LOVE

What I read aloud in April and May:

Here’s to more reading (and better bookkeeping!) in June!  🙂

Newbery Through the Decades–the 1970s

newbery through the decades

Ah, the 1970s!  This is my decade.  Well, this is the decade of my birth, though I definitely wasn’t reading contemporary juvenile and YA fiction during the 1970s.  I did get around to a few of these in my childhood, though, which probably explains my familiarity with many of the titles but the lack of reviews of them here at Hope Is the Word.

Here’s what’s up for grabs:

1979 Medal Winner: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Honor Book:

  • The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

1978 Medal Winner: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Honor Books:

  • Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
  • Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey by Jamake Highwater

1977 Medal Winner: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Honor Books:

  • Abel’s Island by William Steig
  • A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond

1976 Medal Winner: The Grey King by Susan Cooper

Honor Books:

  • The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis
  • Dragonwings by Laurence Yep

1975 Medal Winner: M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton

Honor Books:

  • Figgs & Phantoms by Ellen Raskin
  • My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier
  • The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  • Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe by Bette Greene

1974 Medal Winner: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

Honor Book:

  • The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

1973 Medal Winner: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Honor Books:

  • Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel
  • The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss
  • The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

1972 Medal Winner: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Honor Books:

  • Incident At Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert
  • The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles
  • The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

1971 Medal Winner: Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars

Honor Books:

  • Knee Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt
  • Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
  • Sing Down the Moon by Scott O’Dell

1970 Medal Winner: Sounder by William H. Armstrong

Honor Books:

  • Our Eddie by Sulamith Ish-Kishor
  • The Many Ways of Seeing: An Introduction to the Pleasures of Artby Janet Gaylord Moore
  • Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele

I feel quit conflicted about what to read for this month.  Constantly on my mind these days is the class/bookclub I’m facilitating at our co-op starting in August.  I’m in the process of choosing books for it, so I’m looking for Newbery titles that are appropriate for middle schoolers.  Here’s what I think I’m going to read this month with that in mind:

(Though Alice tells me I should read these books in order, and I’m not sure I have time to read Over Sea, Under Stone first, plus all the other books I want to read.)  

How about you?