Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke
You may never read aloud to your children again!
One night, a mysterious stranger, Dustfinger, comes to the home where twelve-year-old Meggie lives with her father, Mo, a bookbinder. He warns Mo that he is in danger from a man called Capricorn, who wants something Mo has. The three of them flee Meggie’s aunt’s home, a home filled with books. It turns out that Capricorn is no ordinary villain, but was accidentally read out of the book Inkheart as Mo read it out loud to his daughter. And at the same time, Meggie’s mother disappeared into the book. Now Capricorn is hunting up all the copies of the book in order to make sure that he stays in this world. But he also wants Mo to read out of the book an even greater villain. Meggie, her father and aunt try to defeat Capricorn and rescue Meggie’s mother, an endeavor in which they are joined by the book’s author, a boy accidentally read out of The Arabian Nights, and Dustfinger and his tame horned marten.
Tremendous excitement, danger and fun. A treat for any booklover. And a special treat for me, an amateur bookbinder, who very much enjoyed reading about Mo.
Ibid: A Life, A Novel in Footnotes by Mark Dunn
The conceit here is that the only copy of Dunn’s latest book, a biography of Jonathan Blashette, “the child circus sideshow performer who later made his fotune in male deodorants”, has been lost, and the publisher is making it up to him by publishing the footnotes.
It’s an amusing idea but it doesn’t quite come off. The problem is that the footnotes aren’t. I mean that they are not the type of footnotes that one ordinarily finds in a book. They are either far too long, or contain material that would ordinarily be in the main text, or digress so far off the subject that they would never be included. On top of which, the character is a bit too odd. Nevertheless, it has its moments.
#69 & #70
Daddy-Long-Legs, and Dear Enemy, by Jean Webster
These are together because the edition had both novels in the same volume.
Daddy-Long-Legs: If all you know of this book is the Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron musical, you’re in for a real surprise. Judy is not the wimpy-simpy sweet young thing of the film, nor is Jervie the jumpy flake played by Astaire. Judy is a real person, a strong personality, who finds her calling, not in a man (though she does marry Jervis Pendleton), but in her writing. Webster wrote the book in 1912. She was part of that Bohemian generation of women writers who ensconced themselves in NYC’s Greenwich VIllage. She was a socialist and suffragist. She carried on an affair with a married man (whom she later married). The film was made in the’50’s, the “New Look”, post-WWII, “go to college for your MRS degree” ‘50s. Chuck the movie, and read the book.
Dear Enemy: Judy Abbott, now Judy Pendleton, and a trustee at the John Grier Orphan Asylum where she grew up, prevails upon her friend and college roommate, Sallie McBride, to become acting superintendent of the Home. Reluctantly accepting, Sallie is appalled at the conditions and decides to get things in order for the next superintendent. But the longer she is there, the more the children and the job grow on her. She finds her métier as she finds families for the children, and a mission for herself. You will be strongly reminded of Jo March and Plumfield. There’s even a “Professor Bhaer” in the form of a Scottish doctor, with whom Sallie fights the “nature vs. nurture” battle.
The edition I read contained both epistolary novels in one volume (illustrated with Webster’s original delightful drawings), and I read them both in a day. It’s interesting to compare the two. The first is the story of an orphan girl, raised in an asylum in poverty, never knowing her family, who is sent to college by a wealthy benefactor. She must adjust to a world where she does not know things (she never heard of Michaelangelo or Maeterlinck, for example) that are as easy as breathing to her fellow students, and her pride prevents her from letting her college friends know that she grew up in a Home.
Sallie, on the other hand, is a child of privilege. She arrives to take over the running of the orphanage with her Chinese chow and her lady’s maid in tow. But she is not a snob (she couldn’t be Judy’s friend if she were). By now, of course, Judy has told all, and Sallie’s shock at the way the orphans are raised is increased by her knowledge that her friend lived through this.
Daddy-Long-Legs is a very enjoyable book, funny and pert, about a young girl’s coming-of-age, coming into love and into her own. But Dear Enemy is deeper, perhaps because the woman is a bit older, facing not college, but life. Her struggles to help others and, in the process, finding out who she is make for a more complex story. When she ends her engagement, she writes to Judy, “The girl he loves is not the me I want to be. It’s the me I’ve been trying to grow away from all this last year. I’m not sure she ever really existed. Gordon just imagined she did.” Had Sallie not taken on the serious job of running the Home, she, too, might have continued to imagine that she was the girl Gordon wanted. But she became woman enough to see that, had she married him, it would have come to a crashing end. “There’s never been a divorce in my family, and they would have hated it.”
On a less personal, and more sociological, note, both books, especially Dear Enemy, provide insight into the way orphans and dependent children were taken care of in the early-20th century, the clash between the "old man" and the "new woman", and theories of eugenics.
Little Black Book of Stories, by A.S. Byatt
Five short stories, with monstrous worms, a woman turning to stone, an odd relationship between a prominent obstetrician and a starving artist, an old woman teaching the writing instructor a thing or two, and a man whose wife is suffering from dementia meets her youthful spirit. In each story, there is a juxtaposition of opposites, a moral challenge, an odd turn, presented with Byatt's usual well-turned phrases.