Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Child's Delight

A Child's Delight is a 1997 book by Noel Perrin which aims to revive some fallen-out-of-favor children's classics. As he sketches in his introduction, the two main criteria for the list were that the books had to be good, and they had to be obscure. (You may disagree with what he calls obscure.) He then provides a capsule review and some background and publishing information for each title.
Here is the complete list (except for a couple of picture books.)
1. Rumer Godden, The Doll's House
2. Mary Stolz, A Dog on Barkham Street
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls
4. Mary Norton, The Borrowers
5. Virginia Hamilton, The Planet of Junior Brown
6. Ernest Seton, Two Little Savages
7. T.H. White, Mistress Masham's Repose
8. Margery Sharp, The Rescuers
9. Lucy Boston's Green Knowe books/Edward Eager, Half Magic
10. Robert Burch, Queenie Peavey
11. Zilpha Snyder, The Egypt Game
12. P.L. Travers, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land
13. Noel Streatfeild, Movie Shoes
14. Jean Merrill, The Pushcart War
15. Anne Lindbergh, Nick of Time
16. E. Nesbit, The Railway Children
17. Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
18. Lolah Burford, The Vision of Stephen
19. Richard Adams, Watership Down
20. Robert C. O'Brien, Z for Zachariah
21. Diana Wynne Jones, Dogsbody
22. Robert Lawson, Rabbit Hill
23. Rhoda Blumberg, Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun
24. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Wizard of Earthsea
Also a group of fairy tale books by George Dasent, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Laurence Houseman.
Like I said, you can disagree about obscure. For Perrin, I think it means not well-known to non-readers.
As I child, I read 6 of these (4,8,14,19,20,24) and I was familar with Godden, Stolz, Hamilton and Snyder as writers but read different titles by them. (Same for P.L Travers, obviously.) I also read The Railway Children and I Capture the Castle, but as an adult.
Discovering this book in the library sent me to catalog looking for all those books I missed. Some I never found. The Vision of Stephen, which is a kind of historical fantasy, is, I think, the most completely obscure. I Go by Sea, I Go by Land, which the diary of a WWII evacuee sent to the US, has also not been back in print in a long time, and none of the libraries here had it. I found the Green Knowe books easily, and the Half Magic series. The Planet of Junior Brown turned out to be kind of weird but good. Mary Stolz is one of those mid-century children's writers whose excellence cannot be praised high enough. I'm afraid I never looked for Hawthorne or Seton or re-read Watership Down.
I have to thank Perrin tremendously for 8 and 21, though. I hunted them down and eventually acquired two paperback copies of Mistress Masham's Repose, while Diana Wynne Jones has become one of my all-time favorite writers. Dogsbody is one of her early works and is now out of print but my library has a beat-up paperback copy. And I realize, looking back over the list, that I never followed up with 13 or 15. Back to the library catalog...
Has anyone else remembered or encountered any of these books? I love stories about how people came to find favorite books. (For instance, how I, who didn't like science fiction as a child, came to read The Wizard of Earthsea -- but I'll leave that for another post.)

How to See the Elephant - Part II (2)

Thetis waits out her time at Miss Barclay's because for a time in the summer of 1862 it looks like the war will end with a quick Northern victory. Then her father will return and normal life will resume. However, the North fails to take Richmond and the war continues. In September Thetis receives a letter that her father has been wounded fighting in Kentucky. Worried that he might have been captured, she runs away, taking with her, at the last moment and against her own better judgment, Sheba.

I got up and began folding the supper -- biscuits, stringy pieces of chicken, green beans and all -- into the napkin.
"Get out of my way," I said to Sheba. "If you say anything to anyone I'll tie you up and lock you in the outhouse."
I had nothing grander to threaten Sheba with than the belt of Polly's dressing gown, but I brandished it. I had always understood that Negroes frightened easily.
She jumped up from the floor and I found her suddenly hanging on me and pulling on my dress.
"I want to go with you! Take me with you!"
I turned and began to pull my valise out from under the bed.
"Don't be silly, Sheba -- "
"You don't even know where I'm going. And why would you want to leave, anyway? You've got it made here!"
"Miss Veda wouldn't take me on the boat and they're all mean! I hate them!"
"No." This was an obstacle. I had never intended to tie her up; for one thing, I didn't have the time. "Sheba, please -- "
"I'll scream, Miss Wymore!"
"I can't! It's ridiculous!"
She edged dangerously close to the door. I thought of the train I might be missing.
"Have you got shoes on? Because I'm going now!"

We stopped together at the top of the stairs. The clink of plates came from below, and Simon's orotound voice: "Don't worry one minute more, Miss Veda." Reddish rectangles of light from the sunset shone on the hall floor.
Down the stairs, eyeing each other, trying not to make a thump at the bottom. I motioned Sheba toward the room with the broken window, but I waited at the door while she went in before me. Then I shut it quietly and went to the window.
"We'll have to take off the boards," I said, and then I, not Sheba, proceeded to pull at them, trying not to jerk too hard lest the wood squeak. I got a splinter in the process. When I was done there was a four-foot rectangle, picked clean of glass.
"You first," I said.
I saw her magenta slippers and the silk shawl bunched around her neck as she slipped through. It was hopeless. Also, it occurred to me now, I was technically stealing Miss Veda's property. There would be slave catchers after us, men with dogs. And I could have gotten away so easily by myself!
I flung my valise through to the ground and stepped out the window.
"Come on," I said, and headed around the side of the house.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Cloudy Day

A week ago, it rained. There was a small flash of lightning and a single roll of thunder. I got up and looked out the window and saw that the street was wet. It lasted about 15 minutes altogether. As far as I know, it didn't rain anywhere else in Las Vegas or Henderson, and certainly not at the airport, so "officially" no rain fell that day. That happens a lot here.
Today is cloudy. Nice, dark clouds, and a calm atmosphere. Were it late July or August, a sky like this would almost certainly mean rain. But not today -- the air just feels too dry. Still, it's a nice respite, nice to be able to be outside for once. I look up at the clouds and I think, soon... In six weeks or so we'll start to get some thunderstorms. They'll start off small and scattered. Then, one day, there will be rain everywhere, even at the airport. And daily life in Las Vegas will, for a few minutes, at least, come to a stop.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Glurge

Glurge are those inspirational emails that get forwarded to you by co-workers or family members -- you know, inspirational stories or "ten rules to live by," often accompanied by dire threats if you don't send them on. (I should have died three times over last week alone.) If you follow the link above on you can find some of the back stories to these messages -- which ones are true, which ones exaggerate, etc. I've gotten a bunch of them, including some not mentioned on the site (I have some really bored co-workers.) But about a month ago I got the most surprising one I have ever seen. It claimed to be the last message of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who, it said, was dying of lymphoma and wanted to leave the world with some final thoughts. Against of rather nice slideshow, mostly of Paris at night, were the usual inspirational sayings -- tell your family you love life to the fullest...don't waste your days...
I don't know -- it could have all been real, but somehow it just didn't have that touch of orginality that I would have associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was kind of ho-hum. And why Paris? I know that Garcia Marquz lived in Mexico during his political exile, but I'm not aware that he lived in Paris a great deal and he's always been a kind of "New World" writer.
On the other hand, if it is fake, why Gabriel Garcia Marquez? What does a highbrow name like his bring to the world of glurge, which is mostly drawn from Reader's Digest and the Chicken Soup series? Has anyone else seen this one circulating? What do you think?

How to See the Elephant - Part II

Miss Barclay's is run by Miss Veda, a vague and cheerful woman of open Confederate sympathy. She owns three slaves -- Simon, her personal servant, Dalpha, the cook, and Sheba, Simon's daughter, whom she treats as a pet. Although the slaves are different from what Thetis expects, she observes that their presence casts a tension throughout the school.

Simon was a man to stay away from. His eye never fell on a person without making trouble for that individual -- girl or slave. Perpetual suspicion shone in his look. He wore an elaborate brass watch on a chain and when Miss Veda was not around he would sit in the armchair by the front door and hold it in front of him, eyes directly on it, as if time itself would not advance unless he personally supervised it. When it got dark he would say, bring me a candle, girl, and Sheba would reappear with a wax candle stuck at an angle on a broken bit of dish and set it down in front of him. There he would sit all night, I believe, his shoulders squared and his head at attention, as if he were listening, in some supernatural way, to the activities of the entire house. He rarely, if ever, spoke to anyone other than Miss Veda, and to her he used a special voice, deep and jovial, as he had at the breakfast table that first day. He did not speak in the Negro dialect, but he did lard everything he said with "ain't that right," and "you know it," nodding towards Miss Veda for affirmation. And she, in her turn, brought every mealtime pronouncement to him for approval, even if only in the form of a solemn nod, as if anything produced by a table full of women needed confirmation by a man.
Sheba was Simon's daughter, but he took no notice of her except when Miss Veda was around. She had her two beautiful dresses, along with shoes, wraps and gloves; everything was stiff and spotless as a doll's, and she could not stand to get anything on them. On rainy days she would stand on the doorstep and wring her hands like a temperance woman in front of a saloon, crying look at the rain, Miss Veda! look at all those people getting dirty! It was hard to tell her age. She was as tall as any of us, but she had a simple, scatterbrained appearance and was generally treated as if she were less than ten.

Thetis brings fleas from the Pittsburgh boarding house with her to Miss Barclay's. Even after this episode is forgotten, she remains a target of the other girls, tagged as an abolitionist (even though she has little idea what this means) and a Yankee.

"Were you scared last night? I was."
I laughed. "Polly thought it was the Rebs attacking."

"I did not!" Polly said.

"You did," I said promptly, "You said, 'It's the Rebs, isn't it?' and 'I was dreaming.'" I laughed again.

I wasn't trying to be rude. I liked Polly. I had heard the other girls make teasing comments like this to each other and shriek with laughter, without anyone's feelings being hurt. I didn't see why my comment couldn't be taken the same way.

"I never. You were more scared than I was, Thetis."

I didn't want to argue with Polly. But if they misremembered last night, my moment of glory would be forgotten.

"That was a good idea," I said flatly, in a voice that sounded fake to my own ears, "Asking me to recite last night, Polly."

Polly laughed.

"You did -- you asked me -- you said -- "

"I thought you just started talking out like that. I was going to tell you to be quiet."

"You did not!"

"Oh, Thetis, you're so..."

"...jealous," Jenny said.
I looked at them in disbelief.

"Jealous of what?"

"You're always pulling the other girls down and telling them they're wrong."

"You think you're better than us," Sarah said, gazing vacantly up at the sky as she leaned on the porch post. "And you're always chasing after us, trying to make us like you. And you make squeaking noises on the plate when you cut your meat."

"Sarah!" Ellen said.

"Typical Yankee," was Jenny's contribution. She leaned over toward the vegetable patch and made a flinging motion and suddenly one of those big hornworms that eat tomato plants landed on my arm. I froze. It began rippling up my skin, as long and thick as my finger and striped white and green. The sticky feeling of it attaching itself to me turned my stomach. Still, I did not move or scream. I reached over with my left hand, pulled it off, and, with it dangling between two fingers, marched around the side of the garden. The hornworm twisted and wiggled in mid-air, trying to grab hold of something. I hated it more than ever. The girls followed, at a distance. Polly squealed. I dropped it on a bare tomato plant and watched it inch away.
"What are you scared of? It's just a caterpillar," I said loudly.
It took me years to realize that I had done the worst thing possible. If I had screamed and had hysterics there might have been -- though probably not until much later -- a smidgen of sympathy, an eventual admission that it was a dirty trick, perhaps even a grudging apology from Jenny. Now I was clearly too crazy to be worth bothering about. Even Ellen turned away, sadly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Squash in bloom

I pollinated the squash this morning. Until I wanted to grow things I could eat (thanks, Michael Pollan), I never imagined sex to be such a integral part of gardening. You got some flowers and sooner or later fruit showed up...
I'm just hoping used a male blossom to pollinate the female and not the other way round.
Sheesh, how embarassingly reminiscent of high school.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How to See the Elephant - Prologue & Part I

"He was drawn in now. It had been like this during the war, in the hospitals. That was where I began to tell stories, and to recite, while I was nursing the sick and wounded. I told them about Katherine and stories from Mansfield, and being sent to Miss Barclay’s, and my escape, to find Pa, traveling across Pennsylvania and Ohio. They were easy stories, sometimes not quite true, the sadder parts skipped over, the funny parts played up. The men never tired of hearing them."

How to See the Elephant
begins with Thetis Wymore telling her story in 1869. After her mother and brother die from cholera, her father takes a job as a travelling salesman and they follow a circuit through Pennsylvania and Ohio together.

"We were in somewhere in north-eastern Ohio in the rain and for miles it had been nothing but woods and fields and not a sign of human habitation. The rain was that steady rain of big drops with an even finer, steadier mist in between them; there were puddles in the ditches and the road and for hours on end we heard nothing but the constant whispering of the rain, along with the plop! plop! of big drops in the puddles. Inside or out, it was a day to drive you to suicide. I was sitting on my knees in the back of the wagon, right amongst all our stuff, so I could be under the tarpaulin and keep the rain off. My legs were cramped and my arms were tired from holding it up, but I was mostly dry."

Given a chance, in the spring of 1862, to join an Ohio regiment being raised by an old friend, her father takes it -- without consulting her.

“What’s going to happen to me?”

Pa was sitting in the parlor, in the armchair by the window. We were the only boarders in there at the moment. Pa tilted his head back and looked out the window at the jumble of trash and scrawny bushes around Mrs. Hammersmith’s double outhouse.

“Well, I’ve thought of two ideas. One is the Shakers. I could ride you down to
Pleasant Hill in Kentucky. They’d take you in and you know ’em there. I think you’d be safe there, now that Donelson’s fallen, and it don’t look like Kentucky’s going to go out of the Union.”
“Yes,” I said vaguely.

I wasn’t thinking of any of the political stuff; I was thinking of how silent it was there and that the trees would go drip, drip all day long on rainy days and the nights would be pitch black.

“The other is to go to Miss Barclay’s in
Wilmington.” He spoke slowly, as if this idea looked uncertain when exposed to daylight. “Amaryllis teaching there should swing us a discount on rates, and she’d look out for you. You’d get an education, too. Other stuff as well, I’m sure, but an education.”
We had been through
Wilmington, Delaware last year on the way to Baltimore. I remembered a river and some factories.
I knew then what I wanted to say but I could not make my voice work. I knew that after Mama and Julius, after the cemetery, after the house in the days afterward, I had to accept my fate without asking questions."

How to See the Elephant - Intro

"I think I should tell you, Thetis, that I have already telegraphed Colonel McMillen. Such an opportunity won't come along twice. The 95th Ohio looks like an excellent regiment."

Thetis Wymore's father has given her a choice --
while he is fighting for the Union, she can go live with the Shakers or she can go to the finishing school where her half-sister Amaryllis teaches. Eager for city life, Thetis picks education at Miss Barclay’s, under the simpering Miss Veda, where she is teased for being an abolitionist and cold-shouldered after a flea jumps out of her luggage. Naturally enough, when Thetis learns that her father has been wounded and possibly captured, she plans to run away. But everything changes when she is forced to bring Sheba, the slave girl that Miss Veda has made a pet of. Together Sheba and Thetis flee from Delaware to Kentucky, across a drought-stricken countryside under threat of Confederate invasion, both of them in search of a new life.

"Men lay on chairs pushed together, and still more were on the floor, head to foot and foot to head, perpendicular, diagonal, arms and bodies tangled together. Some were shivering with fever. Some were dead. The smell was terrible."

When Thetis finds her father, and witnesses the carnage of the battle of Perryville, she discovers a calling to nurse the wounded that will take her from the fields of Perryville to a riverboat hospital on the Mississippi River to an army camp outside Chattanooga. Under the guidance of Mrs. Hancock, a veteran nurse, Thetis begins a career that will take her through four terrible battles, as Thetis learns the meaning of sacrifice and the unsought costs of winning a war.

"Seeing the Elephant" is Civil-War era slang for going out to see the world and coming back experienced and wiser. How to See the Elephant is the story of how Thetis Wymore does just that.
How to See the Elephant
is divided into 8 parts (somewhat longer than chapters), with a prologue and an epilogue. Brief excerpts from each follow. The total word count is 139, 394.
I am currently seeking representation. If you wish to contact me, please do so at

Monday, May 25, 2009

How to See the Elephant

I'm going to be posting some excerpts from my novel, How to See the Elephant. Briefly, it's about a girl who runs away from school to become a nurse during the Civil War. It runs about 140,000 words (no surprise I now have carpal tunnel syndrome) so what goes up will be brief. I welcome comments. No, seriously, I do.

How to See the Elephant is a completed work. Work in progress now is about a girl in 1920s Minnesota who is, to use the language of afterschool specials, "coming to terms" with her sexuality. (Boy, I'll have to think of better description when it comes time to write a query letter for that one.) Right now it's titled The Girl Who Didn't Bob Her Hair, but that may change. I expect to finish it by the end of summer 2009.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Memorial Day

From the Library of Congress Civil War Photo Collection.

Gardening 101

There's a moment every morning just before time to leave for work when I put aside the newspaper and grab my watering can from the garage. While it fills up I put on my stockings and shoes and then I go out front and water the vegetables, fill up the ollas and water the heliotrope and hen and chicks on the front porch. Then I go in the back and water the big pots with the dalea and ice plant and fill up the olla by the rose bush. If there's any left over it goes on the ephedra, because it's not quite established yet. I've always wanted to grow ephedra and now I have one and I'm going to bring it through the summer. (It shouldn't be too hard, since it grows in the wild out here.) The front is cool from the shade of the house, but the back is in sunlight diffused a little by the desert willow and palo verde. The chocolate flowers are open, the globe mallows are huge, the chaste trees have just started blooming; there are a lot of bees and some unidentifiable birds. I look for flowers on the vegetables, I look for yellow leaves and salt burn and old blooms that need deadheading. When I'm done watering I shut the back door on all this and put the watering can in the garage and go to work.
Gardening is as complicated as you want to make it. You don't have to have any special knowledge or talent -- to start, at least. (You do have to be willing to make mistakes and to learn from them.) Nor do you need a lot of money -- unless you are of that mindset. But what you do have to have is time. You have to be able to spend time with your plants, to read the signs of contentment and distress and respond to them. You have to put aside other things for a few minutes and go out and care for them, winter and summer. I'm convinced that a lot of failure in gardening has nothing to do with a "green thumb" -- it's just lack of time, or lack of drive to commit the time.
Well, if you do commit the time, your reward is five minutes in the garden before work.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Year of the Cat

There are certain songs that I hear once and never forget. Sometime in the mid-90s, for instance, the dj on one of the NYC radio stations I listened to had an all-request hour (or maybe he was about to be fired, so he just went ahead and played whatever he liked) and played the Indigo Girls cover of "Uncle John's Band." From that time, until the summer of 2006, I never heard the song again. But when I bought an Ipod that summer "Uncle John's Band" was one of the first songs I put on it. I could give other examples -- the Rev. Gary Davis' survival from 1988, from a tape briefly owned by my college roomate -- but this post isn't about them. This post is about the opposite.
At work I have to listen to oldies radio. I won't go into how, why, etc or what I feel about this. I have to listen, given the situation of my desk, and truthfully it could be worse. Recently this station has been playing a lot of Al Stewart. It brought back memories of lying around listening to "Year of the Cat" or "Time Passages" on Double Q FM in Lexington, wishing they'd play something more interesting. But there was another layer of memory, too, a kind of long-lost feeling, a mental picture of a time of general aimlessness and wandering, unsettled and chaotic and yet forward-looking and adventurous. I don't romanticize the 70s much but there really seemed the loose-limbed happiness and sadness of the era captured in these tracks. I guess I just wasn't prepared to hear it when I was 14.


I planted daylilies because I was told they were tough. I don't know what "tough" is like in other parts of the country, but mine are not tough enough for Las Vegas. They bloom every year in late May but only if we don't get an early hot spell. If we do, the daylilies quietly fold up their tents and die away for the summer. (The leaves, though not the flowers, come back in the fall.) This week and last week have been in the 100s, and this morning I noticed the beginnings of die back in the daylilies. It has been cooler in the past few days, however, so perhaps a few blooms will be spared.

Ollas and how to make them.

An olla is a Spanish (or some say Pueblo) device for maintaining a garden in a desert climate. Basically it is an unglazed clay pot, usually long and narrow, which is buried in the ground up to its neck within a garden and then filled up once a day. The water seeps out of the unglazed clay, right to the roots of the plant.
I purchased two ollas from High Country Gardens last summer and the only problem I had was that I immediately wanted more. Thus the homemade olla was born. I won't claim that this is effective as a centuries-old Spanish/whatever traditional method, but it does work. Take a plastic soda or water bottle, take the label off, and then poke holes all over the bottle with a pin. You need to make a lot of holes and it's a good idea to test it by filling the bottle with water. (Over time dirt will clog the holes and you'll need to make some more.) Then bury the bottle up to the neck, just like an olla, and keep filled up.
I use ollas particularly for plants that are not meant for the desert, like rosebushes and hibiscus. It gives them that extra dose of water that keeps them alive through days of 100+ temps.

Monday, May 18, 2009


My mother sent me this picture last week. I would guess it was taken around 1983 or '84. I remember the garbage bag dresses well. My best friend Amy and I decided that garbage bags would be chic so we cut a couple up as dresses. They were somewhat transparent so when we wore them outside people honked their horns and shouted things out of car windows at us. What I don't quite get in this picture is the expression on my face. Amy looks delighted, but you'd think someone forced me against my will to dress up in a garbage bag and pose in front of my Duran Duran poster.
In Lexington, in those days, "punk" was any music not played on the classic rock station. Duran Duran was "punk."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Paris Hat

A couple months ago I went up to Tonopah, Nevada and in the museum there I saw a pile of used books for sale. Most of them were books for teenagers. I bought two -- The Paris Hat by Mary Lee Cunningham (1959) and The Charmed Circle by Dorothea J. Snow (1962). I chose these somewhat randomly, because I liked the title or the illustrations. I had no idea what either was about and really didn't expect much.

The Paris Hat turned out to be a really good read. The basic subject, wrapped around the heroine, her grandmother and two of her aunts, turned out to be women choosing between careers and marriage, and the basic message seemed to be that it didn't matter what you chose so long as you made the decision that was right for you. Needless to say, this surprised me, given the year it was written, but it turns out The Paris Hat was part of a recognized teenage genre, "the career-romance" which was popular in the 1950s and 60s.

The Charmed Circle was about going to high school and learning that popularity is something you can achieve by being friendly to everybody and getting more involved in school affairs. It was enjoyable, in its way. Although I'm still not sure what planet it was set on.

Friday, May 15, 2009

People Grow Things Here

Last fall I made a raised bed vegetable garden in the little rectangle between my driveway and my front porch. Over the winter I raised spinach, baby carrots and red onions. The spinach did well, the carrots were OK but a little small, even for babies, and the onions...well, I discovered after I planted them that there are 3 kinds of onions - "long day," "short day" and "intermediate day." I don't know which kind I planted (although the package was printed in 5 languages, including Russian and illiterate) but it must have been the wrong kind. Anyway, come spring I started again with cantaloupe, squash, basil and oregano.
Generally I never plant anything after April because if it doesn't have a strong root system when the heat comes it won't survive. The squash went in in March and for 3 weeks of terrible winds I nursed it along but now that it's in the 90s it is thriving, as is the cantaloupe. The shadecloth went up last week and right now everything looks good. Although everything always looks good in May.