Category Archives: Best Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left.  And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. . .

Thus begins I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, a book I’ve had forever on my Classics Club list.  (Have you ever read a better opening scene?  I haven’t.)  Just last month read aloud The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Smith for Carrie’s RtK Bookclub.   It seemed natural to read Smith’s two most popular books in quick succession.  I’m really glad I did.  The books are very different from each other, but both are extremely enjoyable in their own right.

I Capture the Castle is the story of the Mortmain family, written from the perspective of the younger daughter of the family, seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain.  She lives in a tumble-down castle in England with her eccentric (crazy?) author father; her young, loving, exotically beautiful stepmother, Topaz; her very pretty older sister, Rose; her younger brother, Thomas; and her devoted “swain,” Stephen, the son of the family’s late cook.   Cassandra sets out to “capture” the castle and its inhabitant in her journal.  What follows, then, is an interestingly written and very engaging tale of a family in the grips of poverty due to Father Mortmain’s inability to write anything after his first highly successful book.  Rose longs to escape from her life, ideally by marrying someone wealthy.  It’s no surprise, then, that things begin to develop in that direction when the Cotton brothers come from America to lay claim to the Mortmains’ castle (where the Mortmains live as tenants) as a part of their inheritance.  Cassandra is there to write about it all, both as a keen observer and as an active participant.

I Capture the Castle is the best kind of coming-of-age story, which is one of my favorite types.  Both the characterization and Cassandra’s voice are wonderfully done.   Although the whole premise of the story–that this very odd, even rather dysfunctional, family lives in an old castle in poverty–is rather a stretch, it seems believable because of Cassandra’s witty, sympathetic, and engaging voice.  This story is really a young adult novel, with Cassandra growing up as we, the readers, are privy to her thoughts, dreams, hopes, and ideals.  In fact, I would say that this is what a YA novel should be:  it doesn’t skirt real, growing up issues in the least, but there’s nothing gratuitous in it.  (Conservative readers will want to note that the book contains a fair amount of mild cursing–mostly Father Mortmain is the culprit here–as well as some kissing that threatens to go further than that but doesn’t because the characters show some restraint.)   Again, it’s the fact that it’s a bildungsroman that makes it so good to me–we really get that Cassandra is growing up, and through all of her confusion over what’s happening to her and her sisters, we see some real growth.   One of my favorite parts of the story–a real a ha! moment, at least for the reader–is when Cassandra realizes that her need for Miss Blossom , a dressmaker’s dummy that sits in her and Rose’s shared bedroom and gives them advice (through Cassandra’s voicing the wisdom she already possesses but doesn’t seem to know it), is past.  It is a very touching scene to me, especially as I realized that Miss Blossom was really Cassandra and Rose’s surrogate (albeit imaginary) mother:

And then a different voice spoke in my head, a bitter, sarcastic voice–my own at its very nastiest.  It said:  “You’ve sunk pretty low, my girl, clasping a dressmaker’s dummy.  And aren’t you a bit old for this Miss Blossom nonsense?”  Then, for the first time in my life, I began to wonder how I “did” Miss Blossom.  Was she like Stephen’s mother, but not so humble–or nearer to a charwoman of Aunt Millicent’s?  Or had I taken her from some character in a book?  Suddenly I saw her more vividly than ever before, standing behind the bar of an old-fashioned London pub.  She looked at me most reproachfully, then put a sealskin jacket over her blue blouse, turned off all the lights, and went out into the night closing the door behind her.  The next second, her bust was as hard as a board and smelt of dust and old glue.  And I knew she was gone forever.  (Chapter 13)

I might have shed a few tears at this point in the story.  :-)

I haven’t said anything at all about the romance in the story so as to avoid spoilers, but I did want to say that this story reminds me of an old movie–think something like Roman Holiday or some other such lighthearted romance.  It also has an ending that I didn’t see coming, which was refreshing given the predictability of most romances.   It turns out that I Capture the Castle was produced as a movie, and while its rating definitely gives me pause, I might look it up some day when I have a spare evening (ha!) and give it a try.

One more thing I found interesting about the story is its approach to religion, specifically Christianity.  At one point in the story, Cassandra’s life loses its vim and vigor for her because of a romantic complication, and in the middle of the flatness she considers giving religion/faith/Christianity a try.  It turns out that she doesn’t, in the end, but I thought her conversation with the village’s very interesting little vicar was interesting and at least didn’t paint faith in a negative light:

“You ought to try it, one of these days,” he said.  “I believe you’d like it.”

I said:  “But I have tried it, haven’t I?  I’ve been to church.  It never seems to take.”

He laughed and said he knew I’d exposed myself to infection occasionally.  “But catching things depends so much on one’s state of health.  You should look in on the church if you’re ever mentally run down.”

I remembered my thoughts on the way to the village.  “Oh, it wouldn’t be fair to rush to church because one was miserable,” I said–taking care to look particularly cheerful.

“It’d be most unfair not to–you’d be doing religion out of its very best chance.”

“You mean ‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity’?”

“Exactly.  Of course, there are extremities at either end; extreme happiness invites religion almost as much as extreme misery.”  (Chapter 13)

Their conversation went on from there and gave me plenty of food for thought.

I thoroughly enjoyed I Capture the Castle and can see why it appears on many readers’ lists of favorites.  I suspect it will be one of my top picks of 2014.  Highly Recommended.  (Little, Brown and Co., 1948)

Congratulations, a favorite book, and some pictures

DSC_0005My good bloggy buddy Carrie of Reading to Know fame is celebrating 8 years of blogging!   Carrie is hosting a giveaway in celebration of her 8 years, and the requirement for entry is that we post a picture of ourselves with our favorite book.  Well, that’s no easy task, of course.  I’ve written a long list of books I love here, I frequently tag books I particularly enjoy as Best Books, and every year I publish a list of my top picks.  (To see those lists, click on Booklists in the header and then pick Booklists by Year.)  When it comes to favorites, though, a few come to mind from different times in my life.  My favorite book from the past decade–maybe even two decades–is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. You can read my faltering thoughts about the book here, but you should really just skip reading my review and read the book for yourself.   The subject of the book, Mr. Louis Zamperini, passed on to his eternal reward back on July 2, 2014, and a movie based on Unbroken debuts Christmas Day.  I plan to read the book again before I see the movie in December, and I hope to get as many people as I can to read it before they see the movie, too.  The trailer is below:

I can’t remember exactly when I first started reading Carrie’s blog, though I know it has been over five years.  I think I first started reading Reading to Know through her L.M. Montgomery Challenge.  (My first post for the challenge was way back in 2009!)  That was way back when I only had two children, only one of which was school age (and that unofficially, since she was only in kindergarten).  I feel like Carrie and I have been through a lot (and a lot of books!) together, and I definitely consider her an IRL friend.  :-) (Even though we’ve never actually met–one day!  And if not here, on the other side!)

And just because I really can’t just post one book, I’ll share a few shots of my very disorganized bookshelves where some of my lifelong favorites reside.  :-)

Narnia L.M. Montgomery

 

Congratulations, Carrie!  You’ve enriched my life, and I’m very happy and proud to call you my friend!

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken for this month’s Read to Know Bookclub, and I am so glad I did!  I chose to not read this one aloud to my children because I thought it might be scary, but it turns out that think this is one that we would’ve all enjoyed as a read-aloud.   Although this book has been on my radar for a while (after all, it was published in 1962!), it’s not one I’ve ever been inclined to pick up on my own.  I steer a pretty wide path around anything that seems like it might be scary or have questionably evil undertones, and for some reason that’s the impression I’ve always had of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  While this story does contain a trio of dastardly villains (not to mention some pretty creepy wolves!), there’s nothing in here that I predict would cause my ten and eight year olds to have trouble going to sleep at night.  What is does have is adventure aplenty, with a duo of spunky heroines and a helpful gooseboy who comes to their rescue.  What I particularly love are the Dickens-esque characters and characterization and the delightfully descriptive writing:

“So I should hope!  Am I right in supposing that you are Miss Green?  I am Miss Slighcarp, your new governess.  I am also your fourth cousin, once removed,” the lady added haughtily, as if she found the removal hardly sufficient.

I was pretty sure from the outset that having a governess named Miss Slighcarp couldn’t be good.

Cold in spite of their furs, the children were glad to be sat down before a glowing fire in the night nursery, while Pattern scolded and clucked, and brushed the tangles out of their hair, brought in with her own hands the big silver bathtub filled with steaming water, in which bunches of lemon mint had been steeped, giving a deliciously fragrant scent, and bathed them each in turn, afterward wrapping them in voluminous warm white flannel gowns.

Next she fetched little pipkins of hot, savory soup, sternly saw every mouthful swallowed, and finally hustled them both into Bonnie’s big, comfortable bed with the blue swans flying on its curtains.

Doesn’t that make you want to curl up in Bonnie’s cozy bed and take a nap?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is described as an “alternate history” of England, though I didn’t really notice anything terribly amiss in this particular story.  (Read more about this in Carrie’s post about the author, or on the author’s website.)  It did make me think about the steampunk genre, something I admittedly know next to nothing about but have been intrigued by.

I loved this story of orphans and near-orphans, villainous governesses, courageous girls, and one heroic gooseboy.  The only thing that seemed a bit off to me was the title; wolves enter the story only peripherally, so the title seems odd.  I can overlook that, though, and it makes me more eager to read more of the series.  I’d like to check out more of Aiken’s works, particularly her Jane Austen sequels.   I give The Wolves of Willoughby Chase a Highly Recommended, and I offer an enthusiastic thank you to both Carrie and the bookclub hostess for the month of May, Tammy of Bluerose’s Heart.

Reading to Know - Book Club

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

The Saturdays is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time.  It’s even on my Classics Club list!  Sherry recommended I read it and The Book of Three this year in her annual reader advisory post, so this year I decided to do it early before I forgot.  To give myself extra incentive, the girls and I volunteered to host our library’s mother/daughter bookclub and chose this novel as our book for March.    I actually read Enright’s 1939 Newbery Medal-winning novel Thimble Summer when I was a child and then re-read it a few years ago.  I was pleased that it stood the test of time for me and that my fond memories of it weren’t disappointed.   Thus, I approached  The Saturdays with some expectations–that it would be an episodic sort of story that treats the interior lives of children with great respect.  This is certainly true–the Melendy children have some mild adventures on their Saturdays in this novel, but it’s more about their relationships and the way they experience their world.   The Melendy children form the I.S.A.A.C.– the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club–to give themselves something special:  the opportunity to go out independently for their own adventure, a treat unheard of for children with three siblings and a motherly housekeeper/nanny.  Randy, whose idea it is to begin with, chooses a trip to the art museum because she loves art.  Rush chooses a trip to the opera.  Mona goes to the hair and nail salon all by herself and spends her money on a hair cut and a manicure, neither of which she asked permission for before leaving home.  Little Oliver takes off by himself for the circus.  What they actually get, in addition to the experiences they anticipate, are side adventures:  Randy runs into a family friend who takes her to tea and tells her a story; Rush finds a dog; Mona meets interesting people at the hair salon and also hears a story; Oliver gets lost and is brought back home by a mounted policeman.   They also have a few family adventures, including narrowly escaping asphyxiation by coal fumes and a small house fire.  The story ends happily with them spending their summer at the seashore at the invitation of the friend who took Randy to tea on the First Saturday, and so the story comes full circle.

I just love stories that are rich in characterization and in which one might argue not a whole lot actually happens.  Well, plenty happens in this story really, but everything that happens isn’t outside the realm of normal childhood adventures (normal for 1940s era New York City children, that is), but Enright writes in such a way that even the most humdrum of adventures is wonder-full, which is just as childhood should be.  This story is in the same vein as the Eleanor Estes books (we love both the Moffat stories and the Pye stories), and my girls even noticed that like the Moffats, there are four Melendy children, two girls and two boys (and they also only have one parent living).   This story is also very similar in spirit to the Penderwick stories and even some of the E. Nesbit stories just a little bit.  What I love most about them is Enright’s wonderful ability to describe mundane events in the most beautiful way–she truly paints word pictures!  I shared a couple of her descriptions here; here are a few more:

This from Mona’s Saturday at the salon:

 Cascades of warm water and foaming suds of perfumed soap flowed over Mona’s scalp.  Miss Pearl’s fingers were light and dexterous.  This was something entirely different from Cuffy’s brand of shampoo.  Cuffy scrubbed as if her hope of salvation depended upon it.  When she was through, your eyes were red and smarting from all the soap that had got into them, and your whole skull was throbbing as though it had been beaten with a mallet.  The Melendy children dreaded shampoo days as they dreaded few things, and Oliver had once been heard begging Cuffy to use the vacuum cleaner on his scalp instead.  (Saturday Four)

This lovely description is from the final Saturday when the Melendys vacate their city home for the seashore:

At least it was Saturday.  The express men, smelling of crates, and wearing caps on the backs of their heads and pencils behind their ears, had taken away the trunks.  The taxi drivers and Father and Willy Sloper and Rush took the rest of the luggage down to the waiting taxis.  It was interesting luggage.  Besides a rare accumulation of elderly suitcases and hatboxes, there were several cardboard boxes, a duffel bag, a tricycle (Oliver had won on that but lost on the rocking horse), two umbrellas and a walking stick bound together, some steamer rugs, and the special suitcase with a window that contained the melancholy Isaac [Rush’s dog].  (Saturday Eight)

Rush’s first glimpse of what he’ll have at his disposal in their summer home:

“Look at that!” said Rush, standing still; both his arms pulled down by suitcases.  He was staring at a piano.  It was the real McCoy all right:  a Steinway parlor grand, black and shining as wet tar, with all its ivory keys gleaming in a sort of elegant smile.  (Saturday Eight)

The Melendy children explore the seashore upon their arrival.  (It reminded us of Pagoo.):

Randy walked along the rocks exploring.  Her knees and elbows were lavender, her teeth chattering, and she was covered with gooseflesh; but as long as Cuffy didn’t know it Randy could ignore it.  She came to a little pool full of sea water and kneeled down shivering, to examine it.  She saw barnacles, and seaweed, and blueblack mussels, and some tiny turreted shells that wobbled decorously across the floor of the pool.  When she reached down and picked one up to find out what made it wobble all she could see was the tip end of a minute pink claw.  She dropped it back again, and lay down on her stomach to get a better view of this small busy world.

She saw a big crusty old villain of a crab waltzing sideways through the weeds, and some little fish that would hang motionless and nearly invisible in the water for minutes at a time and then dart quickly as if pulled by threads.  The longer she looked the larger the world of the pool became, until it was a jungle ravine full of wild beasts and sudden dangers. (Saturday Eight)

And one more, just because I love it so much.  This exchange is from their first supper at the lighthouse:

The older ones had supper on the terrace later with Mrs. Oliphant.  They looked very clean with their wet hair and salt-scoured faces.  A whole flock of freckles had already alighted on Randy’s nose, and Rush said he thought he must be sunburned because he could feel his back; usually he hardly knew it was there.  (Saturday Eight)

We wracked our brains to come up with some sort of activity–usually it’s some sort of craft–to do at our bookclub meeting.  This book didn’t seem to lend itself to anything crafty, so we settled on a tea party, complete with petit fours, in honor of Randy’s tea party with Mrs. Oliphant.  It was a lovely evening, and all of the mothers and daughters in attendance enjoyed the story immensely.  We all give it a Highly Recommended, we here at the House of Hope are looking forward to picking up the next novel in the Melendy Quartet.  (Henry Holt, 1941)

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A couple biographies by Bryant and Sweet

Confession: the real reason, the primary one, that I want to mention these books here at Hope Is the Word is because I am completely taken with Melissa Sweet‘s illustrations.   Her illustrations alone would make these books worth a second glance in my opinion.  However, when you combine Sweet’s detailed and beautiful collage-style illustrations to Jen Bryant‘s storytelling, what you have then is a very winning combo of story and pictures and the perfect way to introduce elementary aged children (well, anyone, really) to an artist and poet they might otherwise not learn about until much later.

A Splash of Red is the life story of Horace Pippin, an American folk artist whose life and art were hidden in obscurity until the artist N.C. Wyeth brought it to light.   (Visit the book’s website to learn more about Horace Pippin.)  What I really appreciate about Pippin’s life as communicated by this fabulous book is how he persevered in his art even after a war injury could’ve sidelined him permanently.  This is such an interesting, inspirational, and beautifully rendered story, certainly worthy of the  2014 Schneider Family Book Award and the Sibert honor it received.  Highly Recommended.  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Art and poetry are two of my favorite things, so I was completely tickled to bring home another Bryant/ Sweet book from the library, this one a 2009 Caldecott honor-winning picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams.  A River of Words relates the life of Willie Williams, the young dreamer who spent hours outdoors just listening to the rhythm and cadences of the Passaic River tumbling over rocks and ultimately cascading in a waterfall.  Although he loved poetry, Williams ultimately became a doctor because “no one paid much money for poetry.”  Of course, the urge to write was so strong in  Williams that he often jotted down his thoughts on his prescription pad and wrote poetry late into the night.  My girls were familiar with Williams’ poetry, specifically his poem “This Is Just To Say” thanks to Gail Carson Levine’s inspired-by collection, Forgive Me, I MeanTo Do It which we had read before during a poetry tea time.  Both of these Bryant/Sweet books made a great addition to last week’s tea time, and I give them both a Highly Recommended.  (Eerdmans, 2008)

I shall certainly have my eyes peeled for more books by this dynamic duo!