Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: The Wind in the Willows

Considering how much I loved books anthropomorphizing animals as a kid, it’s a little shocking that I never read Kenneth Leighton’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).  I read and re-read my Redwall books so often that several of them actually wore out, and I had to buy new copies.  I read (and re-read) Watership Down well before I was old enough to actually understand its commentary on community, politics, and government.  But I didn’t read The Adventures of Frog and Toad because I’d never heard of it (how, I ask you, how?!) – though I did get to that one recently, and you can read my thoughts on it here – and I didn’t read The Wind in the Willows because, if I remember correctly, my sister had a copy and growing up, it was never okay for us to like something if the other one did.  However, my husband loves The Wind in the Willows and has a really beautiful, illustrated copy that he let me put on my to-read shelf for as long as it took for me to get around to it.

The Wind in the Willows has that characteristic rustic, homey English charm, some amusing adventures, and a strangely out-of-place battle sequence that I’d be willing to bet was an inspiration for Brian Jacques’s great action sequences in his Redwall books.  It is usually lighthearted, fun, entertaining, and probably a big hit with children who are avid readers.  But it is also surprisingly sophisticated.  Its language often waxes complex, with some really subtle but remarkably funny moments that I’d never have understood as a child.  A few of the slower chapters must simply drag on to a young reader, but these moments turned out to be my favorites, those that will stick with me long after I’ve shelved the book.

The novel centers mainly around the newfound friendship between the Mole and the Water Rat, and their adventures with their friends the Toad, the Badger, and the Otter.  None of these characters are named, and it is never clear whether these are animal-sized or human-sized creatures – the book is strangely noncommittal on that point.  Though each seems to represent their entire species, they have distinct personalities.  Getting to know them was a delight, except for Toad, who is selfish, ostentatious, and generally annoying.  I was disappointed that the last few chapters of the book focused on him, because I’d wanted a more contemplative end to the story.  The best moments in this book are the slower-moving ones.  These chapters describe the changing of the seasons, the comfort of home, the call to wanderlust and travel, and an encounter with deity (the Christian God?).  This focus on nature and relationships is a very romantic sentiment, one that suggested that the book, though 20th-century in its publication, was significantly earlier in conception.

If you haven’t read The Wind in the Willows, you simply must do so!  It is a delightful set of stories, and is among the most sophisticated in its language among all of the children’s literature I’ve read since beginning this project of reading the classics.  And hopefully, you can find a copy with illustrations – they add to its charm.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

An unexpected book sale

It’s fall break, which means that I get exactly one day off from classes (in contrast to my husband, who gets the entire week off, and of whom I’m very jealous).  But because I had a paper due last week and took (passed!) my one midterm, I have a bit more time to breathe this weekend.  After the midterm and some organizational stuff at the music library yesterday (IE finding and bringing home several books to start on my next few papers), I took a Sabbath, which I’ve needed for a while and was absolutely wonderful.  I folded a bunch of laundry, watched some television, finished another book, and took a trip to the local thrift store where I found a new mug to replace my broken school mug, a lovely grey shirt that I wished I could have worn today but couldn't because it hasn’t been washed yet, and a $1 copy of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (which I’ve had on my TBR list for ages now – score!)  Dinner and a movie with my husband completed a very relaxing afternoon and evening.  Today we even took a trip to the farmer’s market, where we got to see a live Iron Chef-style competition!  So we definitely have more time to do things other than schoolwork this weekend, and I’m loving it.

I’ve realized that I feel happier if I carry a free-reading book with me to school each day.  Yes, it’s one more thing to carry in my already-heavy bag, but there are a lot of moments during the day when I’m, say, waiting for the bus and could read a few pages.  It’s very comforting to take these few minutes during the school day to do something just for me, and the satisfaction of working my way through fiction even in the midst of so much academic work is tremendous.  I’m happy to report that even with a paper due, a presentation on that research, and the midterm, I’ve finished two books this week!

A fellow music grad student was kind enough to inform me today about a book sale at the public library downtown.  (Please tell me I'm not the only one with a tendency these days to initially spell that as "downton"...)  While it was a much smaller sale than the enormous annual book sale in St. Louis, it actually had a far superior selection of classics and literature, and browsing through it was a really marvelous way to spend an afternoon.  I bought far more books than I'll actually get to this semester!  And this despite being very (okay - somewhat) selective in my purchases.  Two books that I've been meaning to read, Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace did not make the cut.  I mostly bought Viragos - and there was much rejoicing that their distinctive green (or occasionally black) spines make them easy to pick out when scanning through the literature section.  I didn't buy ALL of the Viragos for sale; I passed up a few whose summaries or writing style seemed not quite to my taste.  When they're only a dollar, I don't mind buying any Viragos that look interesting.  If I don't like any of my new purchases, I can always send them off through paperbackswap and let some other reader enjoy them.  And I had birthday money from my family, and what better way to spend it than supporting my local library?

So here's what I found today:

Five Children and It, E. Nesbit - a lovely Puffin Classics copy of the book that helped inspire Edward Eager's fabulous magical children's series beginning with Half Magic.  I've never read any Nesbit, and that needed to be fixed.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf - I was going to pass this one up, but I got to chatting with a wonderful old woman who was working at the sale, who after hearing of some of my recent favorite books and authors, said that I simply must try her.
Washington Square, Henry James - Never read him; really want to.  I have a hunch that he's along the same lines as Edith Wharton, whose Age of Innocence was my favorite read from the end of this past summer.

And many Virago Modern Classics:

The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West
The Rising Tide, M.J. Farrell (Molly Keane)
The Unlit Lamp, Radclyffe Hall
The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy
The Wedding Group, Elizabeth Taylor
Palladian, Elizabeth Taylor
The Soul of Kindness, Elizabeth Taylor
That's How It Was, Maureen Duffy
Precious Bane, Mary Webb

Now I have exactly one book that won't fit on my to-read shelf.  Does anyone else have this problem?  Perhaps it's time to separate the non-fiction, and devote this entire shelf to fiction.  On the other hand, I should really be reading more if I'm going to keep buying new books.  Hmm.

In other happy news, my mother found my old Harry Potter hardcovers and Madeline books in a box in her basement, and is mailing them to me as my birthday present!

So my final question to any readers is, have you read any of the books I've just brought home?  All of these are new books to me, and in most cases, I know next to nothing about their plots, quality, or writing style.  Did you enjoy them?  Are any of these sure to be new favorites?  Which one(s) should I start with, once I finish my current read (To Kill a Mockingbird)?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Autumn greetings

Hello!  This is just a quick check-in, as I have fifteen minutes to kill before a faculty colloquium lecture on Strauss.  While my grad student life remains really busy, I've still been enjoying reading everyone's blog posts, even if I don't comment as frequently on them.  Thanks for recommending several new books that have landed on my TBR list!

What have I been up to?  Well, this week, I will finish and turn in a paper comparing 15th-century Burgundian polyphonic settings of the plainchant Alma redemptoris mater, and I have a theology midterm on Friday that focuses mainly on the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, and Christology.  I turned in my first ever real musical composition for my string quartet class, and we'll get to hear all of our compositions tomorrow - I can't wait to hear mine live!  I've also been slowly but gleefully reading The Wind in the Willows, which I cannot believe I avoided as a kid - I was a huge Redwall fan as a kid; I reread my Redwall books so often that I had to purchase second copies of several of the paperbacks because they wore out!  Why I avoided a similar book on animals I'll never know.  I've quite enjoyed its very British brand of homey comfort.

Have a lovely week, and if you've got cool weather like we do, enjoy the chance to pull out sweaters, boots, and wool tights!