children's books, fiction, homeschool, novels

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

Classics, fiction, short stories

More big ideas in short stories

leaf_by_niggle_tolkien

Short stories, done well, are a literary treasures delivering a wealth of food for thought.

First inspired by Lindsay Brigham Knott’s piece at Circe Institute’s superb classical education blog, then further by Maeve at Wanna Be Martha, I spent a little time during a road trip this weekend reading short stories. The stories, which ran the gamut in terms of content and message, are all well done, literary treasures which delivered a wealth of food for thought. Each of these three linked stories are enjoyable, although in wholly different ways:

  • Thank You, Ma’am, by Langston Hughes: When a young purse snatcher picks the wrong mark on her way home from work one night, he gets far more than he bargained for, in the most unexpected ways.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor: There’s not a whole lot to love here besides O’Connor’s deft turn of phrase and the uncomfortable irony which rounds out this strange tale. This is classic Flannery O’Connor. You kind of either love her work or hate it.
  • Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien: This one is last on the list, but certainly not least, as it’s the story I gleaned the most insight from of the three. Niggle fights the battle I have not yet conquered. It’s one which Lindsay Brigham Knott beautifully dissects in her Circe piece; the battle of mastering our time in such a way that we fulfill the duties of our vocations, fulfill our soul’s longings through our avocations, and get proper rest, all without being overwhelmed. Niggle learns this lesson “too late”. I interpret that Tolkien’s way of demonstrating how tough the battle is, even when, like Niggle, our hearts are “in the right place”.

If you happen to take the time to read any of these (or have read any of them), take a minute to include your opinions of them. I’m dying to know!

Related:

Classics, fiction, novels

A Girl of the Limberlost

girl of the limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter, Kindle edition. Originally published in 1909. 306 print pages.

I was not very familiar with the work of Gene Stratton-Porter before reading this classic novel. She was just one name among many authors bibliophiles encounter along our trail of books. Some authors we read, others we tuck into our mental Rolodex for a later date. Stratton-Porter was one I’d tucked away for a later date.  I am grateful to say that I was induced to pull her from the recesses of my mind, out from among the heaps of jumbled authors and genres I hoped to some day read.

The Practical Conservative’s  posted review of her work was the impetus, and after some reconnaissance I learned that Stratton-Porter is one of my favorite kinds of writers: the regional sort, highlighting the beauty and culture of a particular time and place. In this case, the place and time are the swamps and forests of northeastern Indiana around the turn of the century. It is in this context that we are introduced to Elnora Comstock, the young heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost.

The Limberlost swamp  borders the land Elnora lives on with her widowed mother, Kate. As the story begins, she is a young teen who never knew the father who died while her mother was giving birth to her. Somehow, Elnora’s mother transferred all of her grief and bitterness over the death of her young husband onto the young girl. She was convinced that had she not been in labor with Elnora, she might have saved her husband from the tragic end which befell him when he sank into the quicksand of the Limberlost.

As we follow Elnora through her tumultuous terrain of life, her determination, kindness and virtue keeps readers at the edge of hope that the girl’s extraordinary character and work ethic will one day be fully rewarded:

It was a compound of self-reliance, hard knocks, heart hunger, unceasing work, and generosity. There was no form of suffering with which the girl could not sympathize, no work she was afraid to attempt, no subject she had investigated she did not understand. These things combined to produce a breadth and depth of character altogether unusual.

In the end, Elnora does reap the harvest she has so diligently worked for, yet without the fantastical sort of whirlwind that one often finds in these sorts of novels. One of the wonderful things about old stories is that they don’t often find the need to inject its hero or heroine with a fatal flaw. The postmodern tendency to denouce the notion of a character worth aspiring to gets tiring, which is I rarely read any modern fiction.

Stratton-Porter’s vivid portrayals of natural elements in the swamps along with the detailed descriptive categorizations of the moths and other creatures which Elnora was able to use to earn the money she needed to go to school were very beautifully executed. It was easy to imagine oneself standing at the edge of the Limberlost, taking in all the beauty, mystery, and danger one might find in a swamp.

I’ll end this review with one of my favorite lines from within it. Such wisdom could only have come from Elnora herself:

“I do not know why it is the fate of the world always to want something different from what life gives them.”

Heart wrenching and beautiful with a satisfying ending is my description of this classic book by Gene Stratton Porter. It would make an excellent summer read.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

Classics, fiction, iconic characters, novels

The Sun also Rises

the sun also rises

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Originally published in 1926. 251 pages.

I don’t often re-read books, and the few that I have re-read are ones that have spiritual implications. C. S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and similar authors can draw me back in for a second read. I rarely give fiction books other than Jane Austen a second look.

Since beginning this book blogging experiment, I re-discovered something quite obvious: that reading a book during different seasons of life changes the way you react to that book. This is true for novels as much as any other books. It was true for Their Eyes Were Watching God, and If Beale Street Could Talk, so I have begun revisiting many of the novels that I would have listed as among my favorites a decade ago or more. One of those is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I read when I was much less wise, worldly, relationally, or spiritually, than I am now. I still appreciate Hemingway’s prowess with words, but the characters annoyed me this time in ways that they didn’t 20 years ago.

Jake Barnes is an injured war veteran whose injury left him impotent. The ultimate irony is when he falls in love with Brett, the nurse who cared for him as he recovered from his injuries. She is also a woman who very much in touch with her sensual nature. She loves him she declares, but not enough to resign herself to a sexless existence. The rest of the novel is a torturous journey with Jake through his adventures and friendships drinking and pining away after Brett throughout Spain.

Meanwhile, Brett drifts from lover to lover, breaking hearts and taking names then returning to Jake to pick up the pieces of the messes she leaves in her wake. At the end of the novel, her startling lack of self-awareness dawns on Jake:

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Brett, after all that they have experienced, seems to believe that but for Jake’s injury, they would have had a wonderful life together. It strikes Jake as absurd as any of the things that had happened to that point.

Reliving the narrative of strong, gallant male characters employing strength and competence in every arena from the battlefield to the bull-fighting ring only to be felled by one little woman was a different experience than years prior. I don’t know that my understanding or opinions of the characters is different, just better perceived than before.

This is still one of my favorite novels, precisely because of the raw honesty Hemingway displays with the faults and virtues, such as they were, in his characters.

 

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

children's books, fiction, genres, iconic characters, joys of reading, just for fun

Our love affair with magical nannies.

mary poppins

There was a nanny debate the other night in our house. No, we’re not considering getting a nanny! The debate centered upon which is the most magical magical Nanny. Is it Nanny McPhee  (originally Nurse Matilda) or Mary Poppins? After this post at Of Maria Antonia recently reminded me of the similarly delightful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I came away wondering about our love affair with magical nannies, and began Googling in an earnest search for others I may have forgotten.

Including the delightful dog Nanna in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan,  it was clear that the magical nanny trope extends beyond my original limited imagination of what a magical nanny is. She’s not only characterized by the possession of literal magical powers, but also has a magical effect on the entire family as she serves. The literary blog Slap Happy Larry outlines the general story arc of children’s books which employ the magical nanny trope:

  • The parents are colourless and unremarkable except for their utter cluelessness.
  • The nanny might be actually magic, or seems to work magic due to being a ‘child whisperer’
  • The children are highly spirited tricksters
  • The nanny sees right through the children and although she may have a harsh exterior, has a heart of gold
  • The children are at least upper middle class
  • Nanny stories of the old-fashioned kind, set in large houses, are probably from an earlier era such as the Edwardian
  • The plots tend to be episodic rather than dramatic, with each day bringing a new adventure which is over and solved by bedtime. But there is still a character arc whereby the children become better behaved (or more morally upstanding) by the end of the story.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, an American story, necessarily demands a slightly different twist on the notion than we find in the the other renown stories, typically written by British authors. In contrast to Nurse Matilda, Mary Poppins, or even Nanna, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t live with her charges. Instead, she is a kindly neighborhood lady whom all the children love and all the parents trust to know just the trick to rectify their children’s bad or detrimental behavior.

This short exploration doesn’t even begin to address the numerous nannies and nursemaids to be found in adult literature, who are far more likely to have a significant effect than magical powers. The unrefined but devoted Mrs. Wix from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew springs to mind here. I’m not sure I could even exhaust the list in a short post as short as this one. This leads  me to the question:

What is it about the magical nannies that grabs hold of our imaginations and makes us enjoy them so? I have my own hypothesis, but I’d much rather hear yours first!

 

 

 

 

fiction, marriage and relationships, short stories

Short Story Review: The Bachelor

The Bachelor, by Joseph Epstein. Posted at Standpoint Magazine Online, July/August 2018 edition. Read the story in its entirety here.

One of the literature and arts websites I subscribe to is Prufrock, which is published by the Weekly Standard. This short story was included in the latest edition sent to my inbox. Because it is a short story, easily read in 20 minutes, it would be really enjoyable to me if any of you inclined to click over and read it would come back here and share your thoughts.

The Bachelor is written as a first person narrative whose titular character is of course, a bachelor; a lifelong one. At 52-years of age, he is a successful attorney thoroughly enjoying his freedom. The minor things that most of us marrieds have concluded are well worth sacrificing for our beloveds and the families we’ve built are no longer minor sacrifices to the bachelor, and life is good.

Despite the fact that he genuinely enjoys women, he simply hasn’t found one worth the trouble of giving up his autonomy. That is, until he meets Laura Ross.

That’s as much as I can offer without spoiling the story, so click over and read it.

I liked it.

Content advisory: It’s a clean story in so far as it is free of any gratuitous sex or language, but it’s a very adult story and our bachelor is living the life of a healthy, red-blooded, secular bachelor. It’s not a Christian morality tale.

children's books, fiction, Uncategorized

Nurse Matilda

nurse matilda

Nurse Matilda, from Nanny McPhee, the collected tales of Nurse Matilda, by Christianna Brand. Originally published in 1964. I read the first story in the book, which was 132 pages. The entire volume (published in 2005) is 384 pages.

The past couple of weeks have been a little hectic. How hectic? I haven’t even made it to the library hectic. When coupled with the fact that I was spending far too much time imbibing the sensational, depressing and slightly infuriating news of the day, I decided what I needed was a good, funny children’s book. I don’t really need to go to the library to find a book, since I haven’t even read all of these yet:

wp-1470260885827.jpg

Given that there are shelves and shelves of books here, many that I haven’t ever read, I decided to poke around and find something cute and funny, and landed on this collection of beloved stories by Christianna Brand. They  are the stories on which the Nanny McPhee movies our family enjoys were based on.

Nurse Matilda is an ugly nanny with a magic stick who is called in by parents whose children are naughty beyond anything anyone else has been able handle, and the Brown children are the worst the nannies of their town have ever seen. Every group of nannies and nurses who run screaming from the Brown house after little more than one day on the job offers the Browns this advice: “You need Nurse Matilda!”

The Browns not only have children who are naughtier than most, they also have more children than most other families which makes their plight all the more lamentable. They don’t know who this Nurse Matilda is or how to reach her, but thankfully she mysteriously shows up at their door one day ready to tackle the task.

The children try as they might to rattle Nurse Matilda, but to no avail. They are no match for her, as she is able to handle all of their hysterical antics with aplomb, emerging victorious as she helps the children learn to be more obedient and mannerly. Along the way, the formerly ugly nanny becomes more and more beautiful to everyone in her midst as the children become better behaved.

I enjoyed this story’s slight twist on the ending that most people are familiar with from the movie, as it did surprise me, and I fully appreciate why Nurse Matilda is a beloved character. She was just what the doctor ordered for me this week.

4 out of 5 Stars

Reading level: This book can be quite enjoyable at the 3-4 grade independent reading level. As a read aloud, children as young as 1st grade would find it quite funny. Especially the baby.