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All posts for the month October, 2013

Books My Mother Gave Me: Down With Skool (Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle) Book Review

Published October 28, 2013 by julietstubborn

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Yes, that is how they spell ‘school’ in the title of the book. In fact, this book is full of spelling (or speling as they put it) and grammatical mistakes, it is probably quite a good book for teaching children how not to spell,  or at least it worked that way for me.  If you know ‘skool’ is a wrong spelling, then it widens the chance of you getting it right.

“On the right is the fire escape which props up the skool i think or the skool props it up i am not sure.”

The book was written in 1958, which explains some of the more old fashioned things about the boarding school of St. Custard’s, such as there being Latin lessons and the use of canes. But, interestingly, even reading it now, it does not seem so old fashioned as to be incomprehensible, at least not to me anyway. The school is obviously a school and Nigel Molesworth, the almost illiterate narrator, tells you all about the school from his point of view. The teachers are still teachers, the school dinners are still disgusting, and Molesworth himself seems to want to try to avoid doing as much work as possible by annoying all the teachers in various ways.

'Canes I have Known' by Nigel Molesworth

‘Canes I have Known’ by Nigel Molesworth

“Headmasters are always proud of their skools and think they are the best in the world in britain in space or at any rate better than the nearest one in the districk.”

While the constant bad spelling may have taught me how not to spell, I’m not sure the same could be said for the abbreviations. When I was read this book as a child, there were so many abbreviations for words, and I had no idea what half of them meant, so couldn’t elongate them in my head. Reading books can be stilting when you’re unsure what half of the words are.

“I am quite unable to inform you molesworth for what purpose the Gauls wished to attack the ditches. The latin is correct. That sufices.”

The book has a lot of cartoons in it, which makes sense as it was written by Ronald Searle – a cartoonist. If you read the book as a child, it is entertaining to find that all schools up and down the country are pretty much the same. As an adult, it can transport you right back to the boredom of double maths and help strip away some of the nostalgia you may have for your school days. With some slightly macabre humour thrown in this definitely makes it worth a look, even with the abbreviations.

There are other books in the series all narrated by Nigel Molesworth, but this was the only one in the series we ever seemed to own.

Books My Mother Gave Me: The Happy Prince and Other Stories (Oscar Wilde) Short Story Review

Published October 21, 2013 by julietstubborn

The Happy Prince and Other Stories originally only had five stories in it (The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend and The Remarkable Rocket.) Although, my copy seems to have four more stories added on the end. Though these added stories are longer than the others and seem to have much happier endings than the original five, which may be why they were added to what is after all a children’s book.

The Happy Prince:

“The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.”

The happy prince tells the story of a statue of a prince, made out of gold, with sapphires for eyes, and everyone knows that the prince the statue is of was happy while alive.

But now he is dead, and his statue has been placed high above the castle walls so he can finally see the suffering of his city, and so is not happy anymore. An eagle sees him crying and helps the statue give away his eyes made from sapphire and the gold leaf covering him to the poor, meaning the statue is finally happy, but no longer beautiful.

“As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful.”

The now ugly statue is taken down, but the wording of the quote above does seem to serve a point. The prince was useful to the poor only while he was beautiful as he could give away his sapphire eyes and gold leaf, but once it is gone and he is ugly, he is not useful to the poor any longer, for he has nothing left to give them, being just a statue, though a happy one for having helped the poor.

The Devoted Friend:

“Flour is one thing, and friendship is another, and they should not be confused. Why, the words are spelt differently, and mean quite different things.”

This story is a moral story about friendship, though what the moral of the story is, is never explained and depending on which side you are on, the moral seems to change dramatically.

A Gardener becomes friends with a miller, or rather, the miller takes things from him and the gardener allows him to because he believes them to be friends. At one point the miller offers the gardener an old wheelbarrow he has, as the gardener’s is broken. However, he never actually produces this wheelbarrow, instead uses it to make the gardener do more and more things for him, because he’s giving him his wheelbarrow at some point in the future, so the gardener must do all these things for him.

Both characters seem to have much to learn; the gardener must learn to not be gullible, while the miller, who believes himself generous, must learn the true meaning of generosity – i.e what the gardener does for him, not the other way round.

The Remarkable Rocket:

“Love is not fashionable anymore, the poets have killed it. They wrote so much about it that nobody believed them, and I am not surprised.”

The moral of this story seems to simply be: don’t think yourself too important, or you will end up not being noticed at all. The story follows a rocket firework, on the night of the wedding between a king and queen, but while the rocket thinks he is much more important than the other fireworks, and that he is going to be the firework that ends the show and makes everybody amazed; he ends up being too damp to burn, and instead ends up being set off in the day time when no-one can see him.

The Nightingale and The Rose: 

“For want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”

A student wishes to dance with the daughter of one of his professors, but he refuses unless he can bring her a red rose. A nightingale overhears and decides to get him one, the only way she can do this is to sing while letting the thorn of a white rose bush pierce her heart and kill her, the student takes it, but the professor’s daughter has already found someone else and refuses to dance with him anyway.

This story is a very sad one, although the poetic style of the writing makes it less so, the ending seems to be a cliff-hanger, although it isn’t. The story is wrapped up, but you can’t help feeling as if there should be more, as the student gives up on love at the end, you want more story where he realises love is not futile, but it’s only a short story and we don’t get that. It’s a wonderfully written story, although sad, and maybe the sadness is the reason I did not remember being read this story before. Though this story especially, and the entire book is definitely worth a read, as they are bittersweet, but poetically written, even if you don’t like the morals and the symbolism in some of the stories, you can still enjoy the writing.

Books My Mother Gave Me: Selected Cautionary Verses (HIlaire Belloc) Review

Published October 14, 2013 by julietstubborn

Hilaire Belloc is, I believe, the master of goriness for children. While poems with names such as ‘Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death’ may seem slightly too macabre for children, as I was read these as a child, I can assure you they are not. In fact to borrow a quote from Terry Pratchett:

“[Children] on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving. That is those who deserve to shed blood.”

The poems are extremely quotable and recognizable even just from the title, which are sort of like quotes in of themselves such as:

“Henry King who chewed little pieces of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies.”

It is almost impossible, on hearing the title to start quoting the rest of the poem if you know it, as they flow into each other. They are not just titles they are introductions.

The poems read as sort of fables telling children what not to do, such as don’t tell lies or you’ll end up being burnt alive, but I don’t remember ever being scared by the poems, as they are written in such a way that they appeal to children and even though they are extremely macabre, children and adults can both relish them.

“Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

As each poem has a moral at the end, such as the one above, I don’t know how well they work as actual moral poems telling children not to do things. Though I loved the darkness of the poems as a child, I don’t think I ever actually listened to the morals – I wandered off constantly and not once got eaten by a lion as Jim does in “Jim who ran away from his nurse and got eaten by a lion” – the poems didn’t frighten me as they were things that happened to the poem children, not to me.

“‘Breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea are all the human frame requires…’ With that the wretched child expires.”

It seems as if Hilaire Belloc really did not like the children in his stories, Henry King, which ends with the quote above is only made a good quote by the use of the word ‘Wretched’. Without it, it would be a sad quote and depressing. But with it, from Belloc’s point of view, we can understand that the world is somehow better off without someone who chews little pieces of string, plus it makes it so much more quotable, as it fits with the rhythm of the rest of the poem.

The same is done with ‘Matilda: Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death.’ – which is also the only one I can quote in its entirety – which ends with the quote:

“And therefore when her aunt returned, Matilda, and the house, were burned.”

Again, somehow, the ordering of the quote makes it seem as if the house burning down is worse than the death of Matilda, as Matilda was merely a girl who lied, but now her aunt is homeless because of the lies Matilda told.

Belloc seems to understand the minds of children and not really expect them to actually listen to his morals as in ‘Rebecca who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably’ there is the line:

[The children] inly swore they never more would slam the door. As often they had done before.”

That is, they will still slam doors, just not as often, they haven’t completely learned from the dark story of Rebecca.

The poems are macabre, but they stay on the right side of dark, never really stepping over into creepy. And the rhymes in the poems are wonderful, quotable rhymes whether you are a child or not.

Books My Mother Gave Me: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and other pieces (James Thurber) Short Story Review

Published October 7, 2013 by julietstubborn

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Again, as with my Phantom Tollbooth review I have also done a video review of this book, because of my likelihood to ramble.

If there ever were one book my mother read to me that I could claim was my favourite. This book would be it. Although the book I re-read to do this review was not the exact one I was first read as that book got lost for many years only to be found again when my mother moved house. So this was the substitute book.

The book is a collection of pieces that James Thurber wrote including many of his cartoons and articles and stories. Though the real title of the book – in the title of this post – was still unfamiliar to me as I had never read the Walter Mitty piece before doing this review, and indeed the book was so familiar to me and my brother that it was usually referred to simply as “The James Thurber Book”. The real title was rarely ever used, because it did not need to be.

As this is a collection of short stories, I am not going to review every single one individually. Instead I will do brief reviews of several of the stories I remember being re-read many times.

1. The Night The Bed Fell:

I was read this story so often (because of my insistence) as a child, I can probably quote the entire thing off by heart if forced too. The story or memoir as it might be, no-one really knows whether it were true or not, is more a story of confusion than anything else. Everyone thinks one thing has happened, when it turns out another thing has, which leads to great confusion. It is difficult to say much about the story without giving away the entire plot, not that that would ruin anything, if there’s one thing I can say for sure, is Thurber’s stories stand up to countless re-readings. But I will say this: Many of Thurber’s stories work better if they are read out loud, that is if they are read to you, you can read them out loud to yourself, which is still better than reading them in your head, but there is something in them being read to you, they are things to recite and quote from, not just stories.

This story also introduces us to some of Thurber’s Aunts who both have phobias of burglars and approach this in very different ways. Aunt Gracie Shoaf for example thought burglars had been getting into her house every night for forty years, but believed she scared them away by throwing shoes down the hallway.

“Some nights she threw them all. Some nights only a couple of pair.”

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2. The Day The Dam Broke:

Or to put it more accurately, the day everyone thought the dam broke, which seemed to cause the entire population of Columbus, Ohio to run for the hills, only to have to return sheepishly to their homes when the army came along.

“Order was restored and fear dispelled finally by means of militiamen riding about in motor lorries bawling through megaphones ‘The dam has not broken!’ At first this tended only to add to the confusion and increase the panic, for many stampeders thought the soldiers were bellowing ‘the dam has now broken’ thus setting an official seal of authentication on the calamity.”

3. More Alarms at Night:

This story is more a collection of things which happened such as the night Thurber’s father ‘threatened to get Buck’ which isn’t what happened at all if you read it, but is probably the easiest way to describe the situation. More Alarms at Night also mentions an old record called No News, Or What Killed the Dog, which apparently they played so many times, the record got stuck in one groove repeating the phrase ‘Ate some burnt horse flesh’ over and over until it finally woke up their father and he made them switch it off. I can remember my mother saying she couldn’t think of any worse phrase to be woken up by then ‘ate some burnt horse flesh’ being repeated at you.

The replacement copy of this book, had some extra material in the back of it, such as his moral stories, like The Owl Who Was God and The Moth and The Star which are short one page pieces, which makes them extremely difficult to review, so I won’t, instead I will say try and find them all, I’m sure they’re online somewhere, and if you can, get someone to read them to you, as they are infinitely better when read aloud.

This book was one of the main reasons I wanted to review the books my mother read me, as I read it so many times and no-one ever knew what I was quoting. The stories are not written for children, but most of the stories in the book can be read to children (not all though) I know this won’t be the last time I read the book. In fact, it probably won’t even be the last time I read it this month,