THE BOOKS I'M GIVING FOR CHRISTMAS
by Marylaine Block
Instead of talking about reviewing books of professional interest ot talking about the worthiest books of the year, as all the book reviews are doing, I'm going to tell you about some books I love that are still in print that I'm giving people for Christmas.
Wayne State University Press, bless its heart, has published in both hardbound and paper a new edition of Edmund G. Love's wonderful book, The Situation in Flushing, which had been out of print for ages. How to describe this book? Well, not the way the Library of Congress did, when it cataloged it under one, and only one, subject heading: Flushing, Michigan - Social Life and Customs. It's an utterly charming memoir of Love's boyhood in a small town in Michigan, where the 20th century didn't really hit until about 20 years after the fact.
One might list this book under "Small Towns," because it is rich with funny stories about American small town life. Or one might list it under "Railroads-History," because as a boy, Love studied steam engines with a child's passion, running out to greet, catalog, and become intimately familiar with every steam engine as it passed through town. The book could also be listed under "Technology-Social aspects," because he chronicles the arrival of automobiles and telephones and shows how they transform the town, and he talks about the introduction of electric powerunder the auspices of the curmudgeonly owner of the power company who would cut off your electricity when he was annoyed with you. The story of Love's sixth birthday, a day in which he ended up missing out on the two biggest events -- the ONLY big events -- that ever happened in his town, is one of the funniest and saddest stories I've ever encountered.
I also like to give books by the writers I'd like to be when I grow up. That includes Barbara Holland, an essayist and cheerfully unreconstructed grumpy old lady. One of my favorite books to give is her Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences , which is about all the fun things that we are supposed to deny ourselves because they're unhealthy or impolite or out of keeping with today's hurried, harried lifestyle.
Of mail, for example, she says, "Those devoted to technological progress keep trying to convince us that mail is obsolete... They're wrong. We'll hang on to mail because it's one of life's small recurring pleasures. It arrives daily at its appointed hour -- unlike the bullying phone that rings when it pleases -- to suit our convenience. A mailless holiday has a dead spot at its center. He who says, 'I haven't looked at my mail in a week' has abandoned all hope of change or drama or romance and slipped into clinical depression.'"
She points out that "recreational talking is, along with private singing, one of our saddest recent losses. Like singing, talk has become a job for trained professionals, who are paid considerable amounts of money to do it on television and radio while we sit silently listening..."
Another favorite that I give people is her book Bingo Night at the Firehall: the Case for Cows, Orchards, Bake Sales and Fairs, which is about how she is slowly coming to be accepted in the small old Virginia community she's moved to, and how that community is changing as the highways make it ever closer to Washington D.C. and Starbucks comes to rub shoulders with the feed store as commerce follows the yuppies who moved into "Mountainvue Estates" and similar developments.
There are some books that are nominally picture books for children but are much too beautiful and too multi-level to be limited to them. One of these which I have sent to several friends and relations is Dav Pilkey's When Cats Dream. Yes, that is the very same Dav Pilkey who created Captain Underpants, but in this case, what this exceptionally talented artist has done is explore modern art through the dreams of a cat who has fallen asleep on the lap of Whistler's mother. Cats wander freely through landscapes that smack of Rousseau and Chagall, because "When cats dream, someone has always left the back door open, and no cat is afraid."
For the perfect read-aloud for children over 7, I like to give Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. For children, it's just a funny adventure story. For the parent reading it aloud, it's a parable about the workings of the mind, and the tools like language and mathematics that help us think. The greatest of all the attributes of mind -- indeed, the one that makes acquisition of all the others possible -- is curiosity, and the young hero, Milo, who at the beginning of the book is completely apathetic and bored, becomes an eager, inquiring adventurer. The book is full of wordplay and ideaplay, and a complete delight for both adult and child. Truth is, you don't even need a child on your lap to enjoy it, but then, you wouldn't read it outloud to yourself, and so you'd miss the pleasure of the sound and feel of Juster's words, rolling around on your tongue.
There are plenty of other books I could tell you about, but our time is short, so I'll just refer any of you who want more to BookBytes, http://marylaine.com/bookbyte my web site on all things book-related. Enjoy!
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I entered the house of strangers last week and immediately felt uneasy.
It took me a few minutes to identify the source of my anxiety: There wasn't a book in sight, upstairs or down, not even in the bathroom on a stand next to the commode. Not one volume, not even the Bible, was anywhere in sight.
"Who are these people?'' I wondered. I had no way of knowing. Their books, which would have given them away, couldn't tell me anything.
I grew up around books. My mother and especially my father loved filling up shelves in room after room of our homes. Just by glancing at the shelves, one could tell that my father loved politics and history, that my mother was an anglophile of the first order. SHELVES REVEAL OWNER'S TASTES.
Bill Eichenberger, in the Columbus Dispatch Arts Section, April 14, 2002
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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