Which book will win the Newbery tomorrow? I don't know. Many years I'm very sure and although I'm usually wrong, once I was right (When You Reach Me). Once my prediction for the Newbery won the Caldecott (The Invention of Hugh Cabret) and once my choice ended up an honor book (A Girl Named Disaster).
This year I have a few possibilities to suggest. One book I think could win is Elizabeth Ross' Belle Epoque. Based on a story by Emile Zola, "Les Repoussoirs," it takes place in Paris in 1888 and 1889. Les Repoussoirs are foils, girls and women who are homely and plain who are hired to go around with pretty girls to make them look more beautiful in contrast.
When 16-year-old Maude Pichon's father arranges a marriage for her with the 40-year-old butcher in her small village in Brittany she runs away to Paris. She takes a job as a laundress, but it's backbreaking work, so when she finds an ad for "ugly young women" she answers it and is hired to accompany a high-society debutante during the "season."
The girl, Isabelle Dubern, doesn't know Maude is hired and she becomes friends with her "foil." Isabelle wants to attend the Sorbonne and study science but her mother finds that unthinkable. Maude sympathises with Isabelle but she is in a false position and risks losing her friend and her employment at any moment.
In the background of the story the Eiffel Tower is rising in time for the International Exposition of 1889.
I don't know whether Belle Epoque has a chance, but another book I've read recently has been mentioned by a couple of reviewers as a likely candidate. Doll Bones by Holly Black, the author of The Spiderwick Chronicles. It's about three twelve-year-olds who play fantasy games with dolls and action figures. When her mother's china doll starts sending messages to one of the children that she must be buried in a nearby town or she will haunt all three children, they set out to find the grave she wants to be buried in. Not my kind of story, but there's a great librarian with pink hair and yellow shoes with bows who appears late in the story and whom I found amusing.
The book I'd like to see win the Newbery is The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, the author of Lily's Purple Plastic Purse. Billy Miller isn't a picture book, it's an easy reader aimed at a kid in grades 3-7. In the story Billy begins the second grade and in the four sections of the book he sets right his relationships with his teacher, his dad, his sister, and his mom. A simple, straightforward story with no supernatural events and no heart-wrenching tragedy and abuse to overcome. Just a kid who is worried his teacher might not like him and who finds his little sister a real bother.
As for the Caldecott, I read an average of two or three picture books a week and I can think of a dozen first-rate books that might come out on top. But the two I'm rooting for are Journey by Aaron Becker and Locomotive by Brian Floca.
Back on 17 January 2006 when I wrote my first blog post I was reading these books:
I remember the pleasure of reading this book about all aspects of ice from where it comes from (used to come from ice ponds in New England - there was one near my house in Massachusetts) to icicles, icebergs, and frostbite. Delightful.
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857) I have re-read this book three times since 2006 and that was by no means my first reading of the novel. My taste in books and my favorite novels are both wobbly but one thing remains firm: my love for the novels of Anthony Trollope. All 47 of them. Some more than others, of course, and this one is among the more cherished half.
The Gentleman in Trollope by Shirley Letwin (1982) This is another book that I was re-reading in 2006 and that I'm planning to read again soon. The term "gentleman" was important in the 19th century and sometimes the plot of a Trollope novels will hinge on whether a character is accepted by society as a gentleman or not. It has been said (by Trollope himself as well as others) that Glencora, the Duchess of Omnium, was a fine gentleman. (She was a bit edgy to be a real lady.) The most obviously gentlemanly man in Trollope was her husband, Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium.
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (2005) Everything you might want to know about waste disposal and recycling. What happens to garbage after many years in a landfill? The author is a scientist and she talks to other scientists: an odor chemist who explains why garbage smells bad and an ecological specialist who is trying to clean up polluted waters. Very good book if you are interested in the subject . . .
Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson (2004) This lovely book was a gift from a friend who knows how much I love the 18th century and how much I admire old china and silver. And like to drink tea. And read Jane Austen novels. It's a treasure.
John Ruskin: The Early Years by Tim Hilton (1985) This enormously long biography comes in two volumes, this first one with 320 pages and a second with 544 pages. I didn't get to the second volume, though it's around here somewhere and I'm certain it would be the more interesting of the two. Soon. Maybe.
Many of us remember that first Masterpiece Theatre production, back in 1969, of the Forsyte Saga. It went on for 26 weeks and since there were no commercial tapes let alone DVDs we had to watch it every single week for half a year on Sunday night at 9 PM. Who could forget?
But it turns out The Forsyte Saga was not a Masterpiece Theatre production. In her delightfully gossipy book, Making Masterpiece, Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of the show for the past 28 years, clears up a lot of such mistakes.
I borrowed this book from the library because I assumed it was a coffee-table book with lots of photos and very little text. I was wrong, although there are many photos. There is one of the author with Sherlock Holmes, Morse, Campion, and Poirot that I particularly like.
The book is a memoir of the life of Rebecca Eaton, who turns out to be an interesting person with a rich family background in show biz. When she graduated from Vassar she took a year-long job in London working for the BBC. She was entirely new to broadcasting. When she asked her boss where she could get tapes so she could watch the show she was going to be working on she was shocked to discover it was not television but radio. Oops.
Nonetheless that job led to her being hired by WGBH in Boston. It's now a PBS station but when she joined it was part of National Educational Television (Bergan Evans, Sunrise Semester, Julia Child's first cooking show.) In those early days Masterpiece Theatre had no competition from other television stations (there were only three other television stations for one thing) and there were shelves of BBC productions to choose from when she went to England to acquire costume dramas.
And there was rock solid financing. Mobile Oil sponsored the program for many long years until the leadership at Mobile changed, the company was acquired by Exxon, and eventually it was felt Exxon-Mobile was not getting its money's worth (although it was spending for an entire year's sponsorship what it would cost for a nanosecond of ad time durng the Super Bowl) from what it increasingly saw as musty old programming.
Now that Downton Abbey is the most viewed television drama in broadcast history I wonder if Mobile is second-guessing their decision to drop the show. For years I bought gas at Mobile stations because of Masterpiece Theatre, now re-branded (ugh) simply as Masterpiece. They also added Mystery! with the witty introductory animated cartoon by Gorey.
Eaton takes us through the wonderful years when dinner party invitations were declined and phones were left off the hook on Sunday nights at nine as we all watched Alistair Cooke (or Russell Baker or Diana Rigg) introduce I, Claudius or Upstairs, Downstairs or The Jewel in the Crown. And of course some of us also remember Monsterpiece Theatre with Alistaire Cookie.
You can find a complete list of Masterpiece Theatre broadcasts here.
Flavia de Luce is still only 11 years old in this sixth Alan Bradley mystery and if I count correctly it's only about a year since the first book in the series, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which takes place in 1950. That book surprised me with its engaging heroine, a skilled chemist and a talented sleuth. Could Bradley keep Flavia delightfully fresh and find murders intriguing enough to engage her and the reader?
He could and he has done so. Each book has introduced new characters in and around the town of Bishop's Lacey and each has deepened our interest in the de Luce family. Flavia's father continues to be a wounded widower who struggles more hopelessly in each story to keep Buckshaw, the family estate, from crumbling, and to support his daughters.
We have learned more about Dogger, the wise man of all work around Buckshaw, who has an unbreakable tie with Flavia's father. We discover clues in each mystery about his background and connection with the family. We meet Aunt Felicity, a somewhat formidable woman who will have a great influence on Flavia's life.
And in this volume, The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, everything comes together. We learn about Flavia's mother, Harriet, and why and how she disappeared in the Himalayas. We gain some insight into why Flavia's sisters dislike her so much. The problem of money is resolved and the ongoing story takes a new turn.
The Dead in their Vaulted Arches begins at a railroad station when a stranger falls in front of a train. Or was he pushed? Flavia would like to solve that mystery but she is busy with family events that are complicated by the unexpected visit of a hitherto unknown relative, Lena, and her bratty but extremely entertaining daughter, Undine. Flavia has found some undeveloped film in a movie camera and she uses her chemistry skills to rig a darkroom and develop previously unseen pictures of her mother.
Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mysteries are, with the possible exception of C C Benison's Father Tom Christmas series, the freshest and most entertaining mysteries of recent years. Do yourself a favor: start with the first book and read all six. They take two to three hours each to read. They are reasonable in price, especially in e-reader format. They are delightful and this volume with its important turning point in the series is unusually rewarding. There's even an appearance of Harriet's Gypsey Moth, Blithe Spirit. Irresistible.
The topic for today is actually new books by first-time authors I'm excited about but I decided to widen that to new books by anybody. And once widened 10 wasn't enough so here are 15 books that look interesting.
Tessa Hadley, Clever Girl
Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage
Richard Powers, Orfeo
Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Ayelet Waldman, Love & Treasure
Alexi Zentner, The Lobster Kings
No cover photos yet for these:
Michael Faber, The Book of Strange New Things
Peter Heller, The Painter
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guest
Is it my imagination or are book jackets looking particularly dull and uninspired these days?
A few years ago Bill Dedman, one of the authors of Empty Mansions, was looking to buy a house in Connecticut. He wasn't having much luck, all the houses being either unsuitable or too expensive. So one night he decided to open up the maximum price to see what he would find.
What he found was a mansion in New Canaan, asking price $24 million, down from $35 million a few years earlier. Set on 52 wooded acres, river and waterfall on the property, 14,266 square feet, 20 rooms, it was called Le Beau Chateau and was owned by Huguette Clark. No one had lived there for more than 50 years but it was kept in perfect condition. Dedman later learned there was another mansion, this one in Santa Barbara, that was also kept in readiness for the owner but that Huguette had not visited in decades. Not to mention two whole floors in a tony apartment building on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.
Who was Huguette Clark? It was not easy to find out. She was a recluse living in a hospital room, the sole surviving child of W A Clark, known as the Copper King. He extracted millions of tons of copper from his mines in Montana making himself one of the largest fortunes in America during the age of great industrial fortunes. He built the largest and most expensive house in New York City on Millionaires' Row (Fifth Avenue from 50th through 90th.) That's the house on the cover of the book.
Eleven years after it was finished it was torn down. These Clarks were not people who took good care of their money.
Huguette, it turned out, had been giving her money away to the people around her for decades. She gave more than $30 million to the nurse who cared for her at Beth Israel Hospital. She sent checks to a childhood friend, his wife, and eventually his child. She supported ageing French cartoonists. She helped to support her ex-husband, the daughter of her governess, and many others. She spent many millions on dolls and doll houses. The hospital tried to coerce her into making large donations to them but she repeatedly said no and left them only about $1 million in her will.
Her will, when she eventually died age 104, gave $5 million more to her nurse, and was arranged so that her lawyer and her CPA (a felon) would receive millions in fees. The descendants of her father's first wife, 19 of them, contested the will and the lawyers descended on the money. (A couple of them made two trips to Vienna to interview a man who had senile dementia and couldn't remember his own name.)
Writing about Huguette Clark isn't easy when all you have to go on is anecdotes from acquaintances, court depositions, and her financial records. But it appears she knew what she was doing when she wrote all those checks for all those millions of dollars in gifts to people she wanted to reward.
For example, when her investment manager died of cancer she heard about his nurse, a Jamaican immigrant who traveled more than an hour and a half each way to his apartment in the Village to care for him. One day her lawyer showed up at the nurse's house with a check for $30,000 to thank her. You can see where the family might not like that use of her fortune, but you can also see a generous and caring woman with her hand on the checkbook.
The story verges on unbelievable. (She owned how many Strataveri?! Her empty Fifth Avenue apartments were how many square feet?! She owned how many millions of dollars worth of dolls?! How much jewelry was stolen from her safety (sic) deposit box at Citibank?!)
The book ends before the courts decided what was to happen to Huguette's $310 million estate. You can Google her to find out where the money went. But first read this book to see where the money came from and how she disbursed it during the 20 years she lived in that small hospital room while owning those empty mansions.
In Free Air it's 1919 and Miss Claire Boltwood of Brooklyn and her father are on a road trip. They are driving west from Minneapolis to Seattle.
Think about it. Most of the roads are not paved. You have to buy gas in cans from a hardware store. The only mechanic in a small Montana town might be the blacksmith. Claire had to know her engine and how to fix it, how to repair and replace tires, how to drive up steep inclines and, more important, down them (in 2nd gear using both the foot and hand brakes.) The book mentions that the road down the western side of Snoqualmie Pass is paved with loose gravel. The road on the eastern side is just ruts down the mountain.
During their somewhat eventful trip, Claire and her father are rescued when their Gomez-Dep auto gets stuck in the mud by Milt Daggett, a lad from a very small town not far from Gopher Prairie, a location familiar to readers of Sinclair Lewis' next book, Main Street. Milt takes a liking to Claire and decides to make a road trip himself and follow her. He is a mechanic and owns a shop so he can hand it over to be run by his assistant and take off for Seattle.
After a couple of additional saves the Boltwoods come to appreciate the rough, countrified Milt. He has decided to put his mechanical ability to better use and enrolls in the University of Washington to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. But Claire's wealthy suitor from New York and her wealthy friends on Queen Ann Hill don't see what endears Milt to her.
The question is, can a wealthy society girl and a boy from a small town in the midwest with no appreciable education make a go of it?
The book held particular interest for me and it will for the rest of the 22nd Avenue Book Club here in Spokane because so much of the action takes place in Washington. Claire falls in love with the names of the towns and cities of the state and makes a free verse poem of them, from Cle Elum and Humptulips to Walla Walla and Mukilteo. The travelers move quickly through Spokane but they visit and linger in other places like Yakima and eventually Seattle.
I have the titles of those books I couldn't remember yesterday.
Veronica by Roger Duvoisin is the book about the restless hippopotamus who gets in trouble going the wrong way on a one-way street and who is arrested when she blocks the sidewalk. And then doesn't fit through the door to the jail. Delightful.
The book that I had entirely forgotten was Three by the Sea by Mini Grey. It's about a dog, a cat, and a mouse who live harmoniously but a little boringly on the seashore until a fox arrives to make them discontented. The mouse tries to run away but gets in over his head and the cat (hard to imagine) jumps into the ocean to try to rescue him. But before long he needs rescuing too.
And a preview of next week, Oscar and Arabella Hot Hot Hot by Neal Layton about a couple of woolly mammoths who get too warm and decide they need to adapt to global warming.
Seven books today, most of them Christmas presents for Baby Joel, since Elaine is now old enough to have graduated from picture books. This doesn't mean we don't still love to read them. You are never too old for picture books. But the person they are being given to in Elaine's family these days is now her brother.
Elaine's favorite was How to Train a Train by Jason Carter Eaton. It's written as a manual for the person who gets a train for a pet. How to take care of it and what it will like to eat. Absolutely adorable and appealing to those from (at least) 6 to 71.
Brown Rabbit in the City by Natalie Russell was charming, gentle and short. The brown rabbit goes to visit his friend the white rabbit who lives in the city and she wants to go here and there and everywhere, to a cafe for carrot cake, shopping, and up and down the streets. She wears out brown rabbit who isn't entirely satisfied with the visit.
Unfortunately I failed to write down the names of the other books, but one that we particularly liked was about a hippopotamus who felt he was too inconspicuous among his fellow hippos and who takes off for a visit to the city. Troubles ensue but he finally makes his way home and is much more content, although he likes telling long stories to his family about his adventures.
Ordinary Oscar by Laura Adkins is about another creature who wants to make his mark (or in this case his slime trail.) Oscar is a snail who is granted three wishes by a fairy god-slug or something. I don't recall the details. But I couldn't forget the gaudy outfit Oscar wishes for, nor how out of place he is when a bird comes after him and he wishes himself bigger than the bird. Much bigger. What will he do with his third wish? Will he ever be really outstanding?
Another good book the title of which I can't recall is also about trains (you will recall that Elaine's father is a railroad engineer and she is very interested in and knowledgeable about trains.) This story shows a slow local train moving along, passed by a freight train, which in turn is passed by a passenger train. Finally the passengers on that train board a high-speed train and we arrive in the modern station in no time.
The book I liked best, I think, is by Aaron Becker and is called Journey. It's about a girl who wants to play but everyone in her family is too busy. So she takes her red crayon and draws a door in the wall and off she goes. She starts out in a hot air balloon and then draws a boat and floats into a fantastic castle filled with water where she rescues a purple bird who then rescues her. No words at all. None needed.
The last book I can't recall at all except that it had a brown cover with no pictures on it, and endpapers that were blah.