March 3, 2013 @ 8:46 pm | Filed under: Books
The other day I asked Jane to hunt up our copy of Noel Streatfeild’s Dancing Shoes for Beanie in relation to something we were discussing. At the time I couldn’t remember whether the event I was recalling happened in Dancing Shoes or Ballet Shoes, or possibly even Theater Shoes. It didn’t matter which, because it turned out what I was really wanting was to reread all the novels myself.
I haven’t started yet, but I’m so in the mood. Streatfeild’s writing is delicious and occupies a unique niche in children’s literature: the behind-the-scenes lives of children in the performing arts, in London, in the mid-20th century. (An extremely prolific author, she wrote a great many books about other subjects, but the only Streatfeild works I’ve read are her “Shoes” books—and not even all of those. Party Shoes, for example, is still on my TBR list.)
The cover at left is from the mid-90s reissue, which is when I was introduced to Streatfeild’s work. I missed them, somehow, growing up. During the year I spent at Random House after grad school, my boss, the brilliant Stephanie Spinner, was in charge of bringing the three Shoes books mentioned above back into print. These were the editions with the Diane Goode covers like the one pictured above.
All we had to work with were out-of-print editions from the archives. I was offered the job—freelance, during my off-hours—of typing two of the manuscripts into Microsoft Word. I was either saving up for my wedding or freshly returned from my wedding (I left Random House for HarperCollins in the summer of 1994, just a few months after Scott and I got married), and the eight bucks an hour I was offered for the typing gig felt like a windfall. I remembered reading that Hunter S. Thompson honed his writing skills by typing out novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. There was something thrilling about continuing this practice of literary apprenticeship, and I enjoyed the hours I sat up late at night, typing onto my Mac Classic, wrapped up in these charming stories I’d never read before.
Streatfeild is a good writer to study under. Her prose is rich, wry, vivid, never treacly, laced with humor. She conjures up wonderful old London houses and populates them with memorable personalities, including adults who treat children with great respect. (Some of governesses and tutors seem straight out of Charlotte Mason’s teacher’s college at Ambleside, and I smile, sometimes, at the influence this trio of novels must have had on my ideas about education.)
Anyway, I’m in the mood for a nice Streatfeild binge and I wondered if any of you would like to join me? Which of her books is your favorite—Shoes or otherwise?
March 12, 2009 @ 10:57 am | Filed under: Books
Trying something new here…instead of straight-up book reviewing, I’m going to blog my reading notes once or twice a week. I’ve always been an unfaithful journaler of my reading because one-way dialogue (monologue I guess) isn’t terribly appealing to me. And yet, as I’m reading, there’s always so much I want to make note of, remark upon, explore, remember, question, hash out with someone else. I’m thinking the blog may lend itself nicely to that purpose. So please feel free to jump in.
—Am finding I really miss having Little Brother to turn to on the iPod. Despite its bumps (I still don’t get how it’s a YA book; some of those scenes were decidedly adult), it was entertaining and thought-provoking, and I loved reading it. Am now of course even more freaked out about privacy erosion than I was before, which is saying something. I always knew those E-Z Passes were bad news. Downloaded Doctorow’s first book, Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom, and it too is massively engaging. Sci fi future set in Disneyland. There’s no real death anymore; computer implants are so integrated into human thought that people can access internet connections from within their own heads, and they can upload backups of their memories to be downloaded into new, cloned bodies in the event of accidental demise. CREEPY.
—Began Lucky Girl (ARC). Certainly compelling so far. Young American woman is contacted by her Chinese birth parents, discovers she has several sisters in Taiwan. They are all eager to meet her, sending letters & faxes, calling, imploring her to come visit. Kind of a shock to her to realize they are (now at least) middle class, not the starving, miserable peasants she always imagined.
—Began new read-aloud: Red Sails to Capri. Officially to Beanie, but I noticed the other girls couldn’t help but listen in. I tried to read this to Jane years ago, didn’t get past chapter 3. The corny dialogue tanked me. But I’ve heard such raves about it as a read-aloud that I thought I’d give it a second chance. This time, knowing the bulk of the action (at least in the opening) is conveyed through dialogue, I found it more engaging. Played it up, big comical voices. Beanie’s belly laugh is totally intoxicating, I must say. She’s a delight to read to.
—And later she asked if we could return to Theater Shoes. We started it, oh, ages ago. Fell by the wayside. So I had to start over. Gosh I love Streatfeild. Nobody quite like her. (Though I suppose I do get a sort of Nesbit vibe from her tone.)
—Another chapter of Theater Shoes. We met Alice the housemaid today, and I was so happy to see her—I always remembered a character who talked in Cockney rhyming slang but had forgotten which book she came from. This book is set in WWII London, which has generated some good discussion with Beanie. It was eerie to see the post-bombing neighborhood through the eyes of the children in the story, the one intact wall with mantelpiece standing in the middle of the rubble.
—More Red Sails. I’m still rolling my eyes at the repetitive dialogue, plus how many times can they say each other’s names?? “Michele!” “Pietro?” “Michele! Are you there?” “Yes, Pietro, I’m here.” “Michele, I must tell you something!” and on and on it goes. And since most of the exposition is handled via dialogue, the characters are forever telling each other things the other knew perfectly well already. But: the kids (all of them, even though Jane read it long ago) are LOVING it, howling with laughter. Or maybe they’re just laughing at my French accent. I think the only way I’m going to make this book work is to do it up big. It is quite funny, and maybe the pace will pick up once we get to the actual adventure. So far it’s all set-up.
—I reread Coraline. Have been meaning to do that for weeks. I think I liked it better this time. I mean, I liked it before; it’s a gripping story well told. But this time I knew how creepy it was going to be, so I wasn’t distracted by the thoughts of “good NIGHT this is going to scare the pants off half the kids in its audience.” When Coraline (SPOILER!) goes through the mysterious door and on the other side is a flat identical to hers, and she walks into the kitchen and there’s her mother with her back turned, preparing dinner, and then she turns around and she’s got BUTTONS for eyes—!! Possibly one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever read. (I’d expect nothing less from the guy who wrote that John Dee diner story. Egad.) “I’m your other mother.” ::::shiver::::
It’s a perfectly paced story. Interesting, though, that Neil chooses a POV that is, for the most part, a neutral observer reporting the action. We’re not (or seldom, at least) thinking Coraline’s thoughts and feeling her emotions & sensory impressions; the narrative is quite straightforward. Actually, it’s very much out of the comics tradition, now that I think about it…clear, visual storytelling, with internal monologue occuring in lean, spare captions. This contributes, I think, to the novel’s chilling effect; we’re outside observers, watching these dreadful events unfold around this very nice child. But we don’t have (I don’t at least) the same kind of deep emotional attachment to the character the way we do with a Huck or an Anne Shirley or a Betsy Ray. Or even Mary Lennox. We’re a safe distance away.
Maybe that’s why I felt such a jolt of surprise at the warmth of Coraline’s reaction to the sound of her real mother’s voice:
And then a voice that sounded like her mother’s—her own mother, her real, wonderful, maddening, infuriating, glorious mother—just said, “Well done, Coraline,” and that was enough.
We never saw Coraline being driven crazy or infuriated by her mother, never felt her irritation or affection. All their exchanges were quite matter-of-fact. So this quite passionate and touching statement hit me as incongruous, nothing at all like the emotional wallop you get from, say, Mrs. Sowerby’s first appearance in The Secret Garden—and that’s a mother the child has only ever heard about, not met.
Still, I quite like the book. Rose won’t touch it: too creepy, she says; but Jane has read it numerous times and is a huge fan.