A New Batch of Under-the-Radar BooksSeattle librarian Nancy Pearl returns with another set of titles you should be reading but haven't (yet). The latest batch features the story of three royal cousins, tales of wild animal adventures and a pun-filled picture book for younger readers.
Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl returns with another set of what she calls "under-the-radar" books — titles you really, really should be reading but haven't (yet). The latest batch features the story of three royal cousins, tales of wild animal adventures and a pun-filled picture book for younger readers.
King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay, hardcover, 432 pages
Although I was vaguely aware of the interconnectedness of the European royal families, I never really appreciated quite how close they actually were until I delved into Catrine Clay's eminently readable biography, King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War. Making excellent use of newly translated and recently discovered letters and other materials, Clay explores the events, both personal and public, that led up to World War I, focusing on the lives of the three cousins of her title: George, who became King of England; Nicky, destined to become Tsar of All the Russias after the death of his father, Alexander; and Wilhelm (known as William to his English relatives), who grew up to be the final Kaiser of Germany.
To what extent did the characters of these three men lead inexorably to the war? Of what significance were other, more impersonal, factors? Did the very forms of government in their respective countries make war likely, if not inevitable? As Clay makes clear, despite the physical distances that separated them as they were growing up, the three developed close relationships with one another. They spent vacations together, "visited each other's homes, played together, celebrated each other's birthdays, danced with each other's sisters, and later attended each other's weddings. They were tied to one another by history, and history would tear them apart." She comes to the conclusion that "the relationships between the three, their personal likes and dislikes, did indeed contribute to the outbreak of hostilities." This is an excellent choice for both fans of biography and history.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, paperback, 256 pages
Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm has the mixed blessing of being among the very few books that have been made into equally good films. But, even if you've seen the movie (with Kate Beckinsale and Rufus Sewell among the stellar cast of characters), don't let that deter you from reading the book (which, however good the movie, still has something more to offer) — it's quite simply one of the funniest satirical novels of the last century. When Flora Poste is orphaned at the age of 20, leaving her an income of a paltry hundred pounds a year on which to survive, she decides to go live with her relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort, their dilapidated, perennially failing farm in Sussex, located just outside the town of Howling.
There she discovers one extremely quirky family. Aunt Ada Doom, her mother's sister, has pretty much refused to come out of her bedroom for almost seven decades, ever since the day that she saw "something nasty in the woodshed." And Aunt Ada Doom's children and grandchildren are not much better. Flora's cousin Judith is depressed (well, who wouldn't be, in such a situation?), while Amos, Judith's husband, ignores the farm in favor of the hell-and-damnation preaching he does for the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Their three children, Seth, Reuben, and Elfine, are equally eccentric, each in his or her own way. Then there's Adam, the handyman, who uses a twig to wash dishes with and adores the cows he milks, whose names happen to be Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless.
Once Flora gets the lay of the land, so to speak, she decides that she could manage her relatives' lives better than they've been doing themselves — and she takes it upon herself to do so. How she succeeds — or not — in clearing Cold Comfort Farm of the gloominess and foreboding that envelops it (and whether we ever learn what it was that Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed all those years ago) makes for a deliciously entertaining read.
The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs, hardcover, 336 pages
I have long been a huge fan of Craig Childs' nature writing, and I was delighted to discover his newest offering, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. This is a book to read slowly and savor, accompanying Childs one chapter at a time as he travels through the rain forest of Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the Arizona desert, from the mountains of Colorado to the rapids of the Colorado River, from Alaska to New Mexico, and sharing his experiences — vicariously, of course — with the animals he meets along the way. (I have to say that, for much of this book, I was in a state of extreme anxiety on Childs' behalf though he seems to have undertaken the (to me) daunting excursions described here with no more worry than I might feel, say, crossing a street against the light. At times, I felt there needed to be a warning label on the book: "Author is a trained professional. Do not try this on your own." But then, I have never claimed to be an outdoorsy sort of gal, and perhaps I was overreacting.)
There are sections on a wide variety of animal life: the Great Blue Heron and the Blue Shark, ravens, coyotes, camels, owls, and jaguars, to name just a few. If I had to choose my three favorite chapters, they would include the description of Childs' mostly futile attempts to get rid of the (uninvited) mice that are sharing his tipi (where he lived for quite a while) in the snowy Colorado mountains; his tense standoff with a mountain lion (even knowing, obviously, that the author survived didn't keep this part from being a heart-pounding experience for me); and his discussion of grizzly bears, which includes this marvelous description: "Most animals show themselves sparingly. The grizzly bear is six to eight hundred pounds of smugness. It has no need to hide. If it were a person, it would laugh loudly in quiet restaurants, boastfully wear the wrong clothes for special occasions, and probably play hockey." Pick the species you want to know more about and read on.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, paperback, 352 pages
American readers probably know the British writer Dodie Smith best — if they know her at all — as the author of the book The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was made into the popular 1961 Disney animated film. (As entertaining as the movie is, the book is much better.) In I Capture the Castle, first published in 1948, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain begins her account of her family's life in a dilapidated castle with these lines: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." And write she does, all about her unpredictable, often irascible father, who published one critically acclaimed novel many years ago but developed a terrible writer's block and has been unable to produce anything since; her stepmother, Topaz, an artist's model who loves to commune with nature sans clothing; her older sister, Rose, who dreams of escaping the family's poverty; her younger brother, Thomas, who together with Cassandra schemes to get their father back to writing; and Stephen, the orphan (son of their deceased housekeeper) raised by the Mortmains. But when an American family moves into the estate next door, life for each of the Mortmains, as well as Stephen, changes in dramatic ways. Cassandra continues writing, through heartache and happiness, giving us a book that's perfect for any woman with even a scintilla of romance in their hearts, from the ages of 12 to 112.
Wise Children by Angela Carter, paperback, 240 pages
If it's true that, as Homer (and others) have said, "it's a wise child that knows its own father," then septuagenarian identical twins Nora and Dora Chance can be called wise. Unfortunately, as Dora relates in Angela Carter's Wise Children, she and her sister have never been able to persuade Melchior Hazard, the man they know to be their father (Grandma Chance told them), and the finest Shakespearean actor of the 20th century, to admit — publicly or privately — his paternity. Instead, he refers to them as his nieces, daughters of his twin brother, Peregrine, adventurer and bon vivant. (Just to complicate matters, Saskia and Imogen, the twin girls who believe that Melchior is their father, and vice versa — he was married to their mother, after all — are mistaken. They're actually Peregrine's daughters. Two other sets of twins in the Chance-Hazard extended clan also make brief appearances here. It's all somewhat like a play by Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde.)
Illusion and reality blend in this novel as it ranges from the vaudeville halls of the 1890s to Hollywood in the 1930s to the British home front during World War II, from the death of Dora and Nora's mother immediately following their birth to their singing and dancing childhood and adolescence under the benign, loving, and frequently inebriated eye of Grandma Chance. The last, priceless scene takes place at Melchior's 100th birthday party (which happens to be Dora and Nora's 75th birthday as well). Carter was a brilliant writer, and in this, her wickedly entertaining final novel before her untimely death at age 52, there are numerous quotable sentences to savor: Grandma Chance's toast as she downs a glass of the bubbly: "Champagne to all here, real pain to the other bastards," Dora's assertion that "comedy is tragedy that happens to other people," and "It is every woman's tragedy that after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator."
In By George, author Wesley Stace weaves together the life stories of two different Georges — one is human and the other is a wooden ventriloquist's dummy. In 1973, 11-year-old George Fisher, who comes from a long line of show-business folks, is sent off to boarding school because his famous actress mother is going on an extended tour starring in Peter Pan. George is heartsick at being separated from his adored mother, but he can't bear the thought of leaving his beloved 93-year-old great-grandmother, Evangeline, who once performed as a successful ventriloquist, and bequeathed that talent to her son, George's grandfather, Joe.
School is just as bad as George fears, until he's befriended by the headmaster and by the school's groundskeeper, who presents him with a how-to book on ventriloquism, a gift that will change the direction of George's life. Meanwhile, the wooden George relates his own experiences of working with George's grandfather, especially those years during World War II when the two, ventriloquist and dummy, were sent overseas to entertain the British troops. Neither of the two Georges is aware of the existence of the other, until a series of events brings them together and forces long-buried family secrets to come to light. This inventive novel rewards the reader with its intelligence, its wit, its poignancy, and its splendid writing. By George, I loved this book!
Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share by Kevin O'Malley, hardcover, 32 pages
You can always count on Kevin O'Malley for an entertaining picture book — his Little Buggy has long been a favorite of mine. But even by the standard of his past work, Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share is something special. In the spirit of the book and its barnyard setting, I'd go so far as to say that it's something eggstra special. Although it's clearly aimed at 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds who are just beginning to appreciate the possibilities of language and the pleasures of playing with words, this groanworthy, pun-filled picture book will delight the grownups in their lives, as well.
"One night," the book begins, "Chicken had a dream. He dreamed that in a beautiful barn, buried under a great pink pig, was a treasure of cracked corn — all the corn that any chicken could ever want." When he tells his friend George, George says, "You must be yolking," and "What are you — a comedi-hen?" Nevertheless, when Chicken sets out the next morning to follow his dream, George agrees to go with him, explaining that he's been "feeling a little cooped up lately." An adventure, and further wordplay, ensues. Readers, young and old, will get every yolk and probably cackle with amusement as they follow Chicken and George's eggstrordinarily entertaining adventure.
If you're longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don't walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte's Fowl Weather. There are animal lovers, and then there are REAL animal lovers, and then there's a higher class altogether, consisting of Bob and his wife, Linda, among very few others. (Among the others is Gerald Durrell – don't miss his comic masterpiece, My Family and Other Animals.) Just take a look at the (much necessary) cast of characters listed at the front of the book; it includes some human animals, true, but it's primarily animals who are winged, feathered and furred.
Whether he's engaged in an altercation with a duck, dealing with a master gardener who doesn't know his flowers from his weeds, hand-feeding a spider, worrying over the health of Stanley Sue, an African Grey parrot, fretting over Bertie the Bunny's missing puff of a tail, extricating himself from a pesky former classmate who somehow knows the fate of everyone in their old elementary school, as well as unsavory facts about Linda's now long dead pig, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, or trying to cope with his dad's death and his mother's growing dementia, Bob's tone is self-deprecating, humorous, and totally winsome.
About Nancy Pearl
Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.