Sunday, December 30, 2007


OK, no luck so far downloading files from the LibriVox site proper. Apparently there are ongoing technical difficulties with their archive site. But over at Project Gutenberg, I successfully downloaded iTUnes files of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost and Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon. There are all kinds of kid's lit treasures here: Jules Verne, L. Frank Baum, E. Nesbit, Lewis have to refine your search if you don't want your audiobooks read by computer or in, say, Esperanto, but the search is pretty straightforward. I might not pay highway robbery prices for a commercial audiobook for a long, long time. $75 for Harry Potter comes to mind.

What's really cool about LibriVox is that the books are read and uploaded by worldwide network of volunteers, and so far they've been voices I can imagine wanting to listen to and getting to know. It's not just a DNA bank of endangered books they're saving, but in sending the words out in a warm, living voice they are keeping not just books, but love of books, alive.

It's not his fault, but I could go a long, long time without needing to hear Jim Dale reading anything.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Books from the Attic, Part 1

I'm really enjoying rereading the Little House books to the Budza. My grown-up self is blown away by how well written they are: how powerful the simple language is, how skillfully drawn and three-dimensional the characters are, how closely nature and daily life are observed.

Now I'm hankering to go up into the attic and bring down boxes and boxes of old favorites, once we clear some space in Budza's bookcase by rotating some picture books to the attic (some of those can go to the East Somerville Community School, which lost most of its books in a recent fire).

I'm eager to read to Bud or just to myself some E. Nesbit--I only ever read The Enchanted Castle, myself, but there are many more. I want to revisit Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Velvet Room, and just for a trip down memory lane some Enid Blyton boarding school stories. In 1973, the year I was in the seventh grade in the International School in Bangkok, I read Lloyd Alexander's Book of Three and The Black Cauldron in Puffin Armada paperback editions, and Enid Blyton's St. Clare boarding school series. I notice from looking for The Velvet Room online that there is an Author's Guild website called, which bears further exploration.

No single best site for E. Nesbit, surprisingly, but I found a wicked cool site with free audio files of books in the public domain, LibriVox, which has The Enchanted Castle for a free download. LibriVox itself seems worthy of a separate post, if I have success downloading and unzipping a free audiobook.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Lovely Light Luscious Delectable Cake

The Budza is eight today. I got up and made him the Big Apple Pancake recipe from Epicurious. It was way yummy. In fact, it was so lovely, light, luscious and downright delectable that it put me in mind of the Virginia Kahl classic The Duchess Bakes a Cake, a picture book much beloved by my sister and me when we were littler than eight.

It tells the story of a duchess who puts too much yeast into a cake with hilarious results. Long out of print, it was reissued in the last year or so by Purple House Press, and there's an excellent description of the book archived over on the Brookeshelf blog of children's librarian Brooke Shirts.

I always loved the silly doggerel rhyme and droll line illustrations with their flat, minimalist colors, the infectious absurdity of the duchess borne aloft as the cake rises out of control. In my family we still refer to a "lovely light luscious delectable cake." It's got echoes in Strega Nona and all those fairy tales about magic pots that won't quit.

The pancake was quite good: sauteed apples with eggy batter poured over, baked in the oven. Not too sweet. I plan to make it again Christmas morning.

And for more on the theme of baked-goods-gone-berserk, there is a classic Homer Price story in which a diamond bracelet gets lost in some doughnut batter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bookstore Nirvana

I really think I need to relocate to the old 01063 zip code of my college days, when I worked in a library, a rare book room, and interned at Barry Moser's Hampshire Typothetae letterpress.

The New York Times has a great article and slide show of some of the many new and used bookstores in Western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, including the Bookmill in Montague. (The picture here is from Half Moon Books on Pearl Street in Northampton.)

THe 02138 zip code of Harvard Square has lost several bookstores since I moved to Boston 20 years ago. In 1987 ,when I arrived to take the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, there was Wordsworth, the Penguin Bookstore up on Mass Avenue, Revolution Books, Starr Bookshop over by the Harvard Lampoon building, MacIntyre & Moore, a New Age bookstore called Seven Stars (where I could usually find good folklore collections), the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, as well as the Harvard Book Store and the Coop. Grolier is still hanging on, the Coop and the Harvard Book Store are still there, but all the others are gone. Revolution moved to Central Square, and McIntyre & Moore to Davis, closer to where I live.

As if to stem that tide, I am tithing a big chunk of my not-so-disposable income to my local independent bookseller. If they aren't here in 10 years, it won't be because I didn't do my bit.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Moomin and Miyazaki

For years, as a young library patron, then as a teen-aged library page, and now as a mom haunting the children's room for books for the Budza, I had always passed by the Finn Family Moomintroll books. I am not sure why. I think perhaps because I found the Pippi Longstocking books a little weird, and Finn Family seemed to hail from the same part of the world.

So it's been a real revelation to receive as a gift from my good friend Jim a copy of Tove Jansson's complete Moomin comics in a reprint edition from Drawn and Quarterly. These were Jansson's daily comic strip that she drew for a number of years before writing the books. The book was a huge hit with Jim's two sons, who fall on either side of my son in age. And it was an instant hit with the Budza.

How to explain the appeal? Some describe the Moomins as looking like a capybara, but I think they are more like a hippo, and there is some Totoro about them, too: I can definitely see them holding an umbrella, waiting for a cat bus, can't you? As for the comics' tone--concerned with adult things, knowing but not cynical--I detected something of Walt Kelley's Pogo in these. I thought the Miyazaki resemblance was just me, but it turns out there is a Finnish/Japanese Moomin cartoon that is, surprise! available on DVD in this hemisphere, on Amazon if not yet on Netflix.

An interesting discussion of the Moomin world, its appeal, and its subtext here in a wonky comics journal.

Link to a page about Moomin World, the Moomin theme park (!!) in Finland.

Reading the Little House books to my son

First, a confession. When my husband and I found out in the summer of 1999 we were having a boy, one of the many thoughts that went through my mind was that he wasn't going to attend my alma mater and that he probably wasn't going to love dolls houses or Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

I was introduced to the Little House books in second grade, when my teacher read them aloud to us. The next year we moved overseas, and it was living in the Makati suburbs of Manila where I read (and reread, and reread) the rest of the series. My favorite was The Long Winter, in which the Ingalls family is snowbound during a tough North Dakota winter, twisting straw into bundles to burn in the stove and grinding wheat in the coffee grinder to make bread. Books in which snow features heavily were something of a fetish for me in a tropical childhood that meant trying out new snorkel and fins in December.

Because Budza is now reading chapter books, and because he'd just finished a book report on one of the Magic Tree House books set on the prairie, I decided to try one of the Little House books on him, just to see if he liked it. I thought about starting with Farmer Boy, but decided to begin at the beginning with Book One.

I have to say, I had forgotten how early in the book the description of pig butchering falls. I kept shooting Budza sideways looks to see how this was going over, and his look was hard to read. It was an odd sensation, to read and feel myself falling under the old familiar spell of the words and the marvelous Garth Williams illustrations, at the same time all a-prickle with curiosity about whether he liked it. Was going to humor me this once and then ask for something else tomorrow night? Or would be love these books, too?

When we came to a stopping point, I asked "Did you like that?" and he nodded his head vigorously. It turned out he did want a different book the next night, but then turned back to it, fascinated, as I was, by the way of life in the middle of nowhere in the 1870s, and trying to imagine a Christmas of new mittens and peppermint candy, woods full of panthers and bears, and having for toys a corncob doll and a Nerf ball made of the pig's bladder. Budza loves the other Wheres and other Whens of the Magic Tree House books, but they're necessarily short on this kind of detail. For me, there is enough story and heart in these books to withstand the latest attempt to turn them into an American Girl brand.

For now, we're still reading. I have a feeling it's a window of opportunity that might soon close. Will Budza grow into the kind of reader who won't want to read books about girls? I hope not before I have the chance to take him to The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Golden Compass Boycott and God in the Dust

Last Sunday there was this great editorial by theologian Donna Freitas in the Boston Globe about the campaign by some ultra-orthodox Catholics to boycott the forthcoming movie based on Philip Pullman's Dark Materials triology.

The Catholic League's boycott announcement is up on their website. Here is a more thoughtful statement of the anti-Compass camp at FamilyLife CultureWatch.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I'm a lapsed Congregationalist who now considers herself agnostic. My first novel, The Spellkey, has been described by Eve Tushnet as anti-Catholic at the same tme that some neo-Pagans declared it anti-Wiccan, which has to be a first, I think, in the annals of children's fantasy. And if God is really in the dust, as Pullman says, my house is some kind of Lourdes.