Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Soft Spring Evenings with "Apricot Sky" by Ruby Ferguson

In the early 1970s my uncle delivered a stack of books to me. He'd picked them up on a trip to Ireland and assumed, quite rightly, that his horse-crazy niece would love a series of books about a girl her age who acquires first one pony, then a second, and tumbles into a series of misadventures with them.

These books were the "Jill" books by Ruby Ferguson, a series of nine titles starring the sharp, funny, sometimes klutzy, and often impetuous Jill Crew. She begins the series as an 11-year-old and ends as a 17-year-old, pony-mad from start to finish.

Sadly, there were only the nine, and my equally horse-besotted friend M. and I read the paperbacks over and over and went around talking like Jill, saying "frightfully" and "smashing" rather a lot, until the pages became soft as tissue and the spines scored with folds.

So, since there weren't any more Jill book to be had, about a decade ago I thought I'd have a go at reading some of the books Ferguson wrote for an adult audience. (Ferguson, by the way, was born Ruby Constance Ashby in Yorkshire in 1899. Between 1926 and 1934, she published 7 mystery novels under the name R. C. Ashby. Her 13 adult novels were published between 1937 and 1967; the "Jill" books fall in the middle of that span, as does a children's book entitled A Paintbox for Pauline. More biographical information can be found here.)

Ruby Ferguson
Unfortunately, it isn't easy to find these books, at least not in a Pacific Northwest library system, which is pretty far removed from Yorkshire. At one point the Seattle Public Library had two of her titles circulating (or not circulating actually, which would explain why they were ultimately weeded from the collection). The King County system had just one title: Apricot Sky, published in 1952.

Apricot Sky is picked out by Ferguson fans as the best one to track down, the other romances being fairly gloomy and the mystery novels being just OK. Author Hilary Clare describes this book as "a glorious romp through the summer of a West Highland family and contains some children who might be straight out of the Jill saga." And she's totally right.

The story unfolds in post-World War II Scotland. There are references to some brothers lost in the war and to rationing, but there's generally an air of "things are looking up," no doubt because the heroine, Cleo, has just arrived home after spending three years in the United States and because her younger sister is about to be married--to the younger brother of the next-door laird, Neil. Whom Cleo has pined after for years. Neil, however, is very Darcy-like and barely seems to notice her existence.

Cleo's hapless attempts to engage in conversation while writhing inwardly at her blunders alternate with the escapades of her niece and nephews, Primrose, Gavin, and Archie, who are wonderfully messy, rambunctious, and realistic kids who long to spend the summer potting about in boats rather than preparing for a wedding and entertaining their sordid, stuck-up older cousins, Cecil and Elinore.

Apricot Sky is an affectionate comedy of manners, with humorous touches that remind me not only of the beloved "Jill" books but also such works as Shirley Jackson's stories about parenting (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons) and Betty MacDonald's stories about finding a job in Seattle and spending time in a TB sanitarium (Anybody Can Do Anything and The Plague and I).

Ferguson described moors, fishing villages, and lovely seascapes, but didn't neglect to leave out the little things that intrude into the most heavenly moments, such as ill-fitting shoes and sore feet, leaky  jam jars, and the embarrassment of saying stupid and obvious things when you're desperately trying to seem lighthearted and carefree in conversation with the object of your crush.

A New York Times review sums up the book thus: "What happens during the long, lazy summer of Apricot Sky is not of great consequence....What counts are the gently satiric pictures of life in the highlands and the fresh, light wind of wit and charm that ripples the pages of this book."

Here are a few of my favorite bits and pieces from the story.

Scene: the garden. Characters: Cleo's mother, who's been ambushed by the arrogant, pretentious poppycock of a novelist who lives next door and has asked her to tell him, as a woman, what his Sister Agnes character in his latest work might do next. She hasn't been listening to a word he's said, so is caught off guard and wildly suggests she break her vows, which makes the novelist cross, saying that would be out of character.
"There wouldn't be any novels at all if everybody did everything in keeping with their characters,' said his hostess stoutly. "and what's more, people love stories about nuns who break their vows. Look at The Woman of Babylon, by Joseph Hocking. It's the best novel I ever read."
     Mr. Trossach closed his eyes in pain and made a kind of whiffling sound in his throat.
     "Would you mind getting off that pansy?" said Mrs. MacAlvey. "It's rather a favourite one of mine. You know," she added triumphantly, "I've always thought I could write a novel myself if only I had time."
(Any writers among you will be only too familiar with that last line.)

The "Jill" books are filled with descriptions of food, because Jill and her friends are always starving and gobbling up cream teas and toast, so it was fun to discover that the inhabitants of Apricot Sky likewise enjoy good feasts:
In spite of being so disturbed by love, Cleo was hungry. The roast chickens came in, preceded by a rapturous smell mingling the odours of bread sauce, rich gravey, and game chips....Everybody disposed of large platefuls.
In their sailboat, the younger kids are barely away from shore before they're ready to tuck into their picnic:
"I've never been so famished since that day we went to watch the shooting and forgot the sandwiches. I could eat a whole sheep. Let's start on the meat pie, and then work up to the apple charlotte and the chicken legs and the crackers and jam. Isn't this utter blissikins?"
That's 15-year-old Primrose speaking, who's what they would've called a tomboy back then. She's full of great observations, such as  her disgust at her aunt's decision to buy 25 yards of brocade for curtains in her new home:
"What a waste!" said Primrose. "Fancy spending fifty galumptuous pounds on curtain material when you could use old sheets or anything and buy a cine-camera."
Primrose is not one to mince words ("She really is the most binding clot," is how she describes cousin Elinore). And she's not about to be put down by her supercilious cousin, as evidenced by the mockery she incites among her siblings and their friend Gull at Elinore's expense:
"I think Elinore is a beautiful name, and I have another. Felicity. Elinore Felicity. Don't you think that's musical? Have you got another name, Primrose?"
     "As a matter of fact, I have," said Primrose, dragging one leg out of the sand to scratch the ankle. "But I don't like it much. It's Hephzibah. Primrose  Hephzibah."
     Archie gave a great snort of joy. "I've got another name, too," he volunteered. "It's Brontosaurus."
     "I think Neurasthenia is an awfully musical  name for a girl," said Gavin. "Don't you, Prim?"
     "Oh yes, and so's Lethargy."
     "They only call me Gull for short," said Gull. "My real name is Seagull Nightingale Cuckoo Stork Tordoch."
One scene mid-book reminds us that fussy food fetishes have always been in fashion: here Raine and Cleo are visiting their snobbish, controlling sister-in-law Trina and her two milquetoast children. Trina is ushering them out the door of her home at lunchtime without exactly shedding a tear at their departure.
"I'd have asked you to come back and share ours, but I don't think you'd be satisfied with our simple food."
     "Oh, but we're not fussy--" began Cleo, and Trina interrupted, "When I said Simple Food, I was speaking advisedly. I don't suppose you've read Adelaide Amble MacPherson's book, but we all have the greatest faith in it. She says that to obtain the maximum of nourishment, food ought to be simplified to the nth degree; that is to say, colourless, formless and practically tasteless. We've been practising this for three weeks, and we're all wonderfully better for it. It seems to have made our lives quite different."
     "I'm sure it has," said Cleo.
But I'll have to leave you with much better fare than that. Here's the younger kids, out on another sailing adventure, and Archie has just asked if they can have dinner before they do anything, because explorers always begin by eating.
"I've never heard that," began Gavin, but Hamish was already unpacking the food....There were packs of sandwiches, ham, egg, and tomato, wrapped up in separate dozens in paper napkins with pink roses round the border. This novelty added considerably to the success of the feast, especially from the point of view of Elinore, who was faddy about finding bits of the boat bottom in her food. There were also fresh scones, buttered thickly, and chunks of fruity cake. There were tarts with apple inside and biscuits with chocolate on top. Finally everybody had a bottle of fizzy orangeade, the quart size, all to himself. So superior a lunch seemed fitting for such an occasion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Getting to Know the Garden

Last year was a doozy of a year. Family illnesses and emergencies made it hard to find time to garden; falling off the front steps right at the juncture of spring and summer and breaking my arm effectively wiped out any gardening ambitions.

So although I certainly enjoyed seeing the magnolia bloom, the azaleas and rhododendrons burst in fireworks of blossoms, and the dogwoods deck themselves out in spangles of starlike flowers, I didn't really get to know the garden on that intimate, shovels-in-the-dirt, gravel-in-the-knees way that I'd gotten acquainted with my Seattle garden of 18 years.

It was blissful to be gifted with so many beautiful, warm, dry days this April and May--days that conveniently fell on weekends--to explore our new garden and get to know it better at, literally, a grassroots level. I especially liked discovering how beautiful the tracery of veins in fallen magnolia leaves are.

Things are popping up all over the place that we labor to identify (and to determine if it's OK to let them stay, lest we find ourselves with a horror on our hands like the Himalayan Balsam non-native highly invasive species that briefly lurked in our Seattle garden).

Earlier in the season, a plant came up near the drainage ditch out front that made me hold back the overeager scuffle hoe. There was something about the leaves that gave me pause, the way you might hesitate upon meeting someone who reminds you of somebody else.

I think I've managed to identify it as a native wildflower, the large-leafed geum. Cultivated geums are among my favorite flowers, so that explains why this plant tugged at my heartstrings and prevented me from tugging at its roots.

Apparently, the timing of this plant's growth of new leaves correlates with the birthing season of seals, so now every spring I can stand at the base of the driveway, check the drainage ditch, and say in tones of great profundity, "Somewhere, right now, a baby seal is being born."

Up the slope from this wildflower is a super-sized bleeding heart, which I saw briefly last year but really noticed this spring, especially as the plum tree that once stood next to it fell down in a windstorm this past autumn.

Bleeding hearts are always lovely, but this particular plant is bewitching me because it seems to be producing a clutch of white flowers, too:

We also found a large patch of leaves that looked like those of columbine spreading across part of the front garden where little else grows in front of the shrubs. Now that they're flowering, they continue to look like columbines, and I think they're a variety called Clementine White.

The previous occupants of our house hired landscapers to take care of the garden, and someone in the past had professionals plan it all, so that there are lots of pretty, healthy shrubs and small trees (for which I am grateful; my last garden had to be hacked out of a thicket of half-dead trees and blackberry bushes and overgrown shrubs, so it was nice to start off with good bones in this garden).

They mainly covered open areas with layers of black bark, with the exception of one small area near the deck where someone planted a nice little garden of groundcovers and some daisies. I'm planning to slowly replace a lot of the bark with groundcovers elsewhere in the yard.

One nice surprise is an avenue of ferns that the landscaping crews were no doubt told to remove every spring, because they weren't here when we moved in but are now growing vigorously in a strip of stones bordering the deck. I think they're Lady's Ferns.

Ferns pop up all over the place, and I've added a bunch of ferns from the nursery (as part of the groundcover master plan). After taking a few books out of the library about ferns, I felt myself ready to go haring off in search of rare ferns and desirous of setting up a large upturned root section from a Douglas-fir in order to build a stumpery, the fern-garden setup that those crazy Victorians went mad for. Had to steel myself because It's Not Like I Don't Have Other Things I Must Be Doing. For now I'll just enjoy the built-in Douglas-fir stump sitting in the yard, and the huckleberry tree and ferns and moss growing on it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Training Horses, Now and Then

Let me make it clear from the start that I am not talking about me training horses. Now, then, or ever. I am not a horse trainer, nor do I play one on TV. I just read a lot about horses, and watch the Resident Teen as she rides and works with horses, and admire the trainers who've worked with her and her horse.

But, like most people, I can tell the difference between being mean and being kind. (I often think of the quotation in Melissa Holbrook Pierson's book Dark Horses and Black Beauties regarding lack of compassion: "Whenever people say 'We mustn't be sentimental,' you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add 'We must be realistic,' they mean they are going to make money out of it.'" The cruelties inflicted on Tennessee Walking Horses come to mind.)

There's no end, of course, to the sad stories streaming through news feeds every day about animals and people who'd benefit from some compassion, but what made me dwell on horse training were some old paperbacks I picked up at a thrift store recently.

They are part of a series called "Professor Beery's Illustrated Course in Horse Training." A quick Googling on the topic doesn't provide much illumination, just a few websites that worship him as the greatest trainer ever, a real natural with horses, and other sites that reprint and sell his books.

Although there are nods to not breaking a horse's spirit, to "caressing" the horse when it minds, and to past abuse that contributes to a particular horse's nasty temperament (and the sensible reminder that the horse must obey you--a horse is a lot bigger, after all, and can really do some damage if it doesn't respect you), "Professor" Beery's techniques are pretty jarring in their harshness, involving an awful lot of trussing up horses and yanking their feet out from under them and jerking on their heads.

To wit:

"To subdue a horse properly, he should be thrown on his side to convince him of your power." This involves a lot of ropes, foot straps, and knee pads (for the horse) as well as a lot of people, plus making a great deal of noise with a bunch of frightening objects while the horse lies helplessly on the ground.

Yeah, because this is how you build trust and respect in your equine partner. That guy who looks like an organ grinder is cranking a "horse fiddle"--basically a supersized version of an old-fashioned clacker or rattler used to make noise at festivals and holidays. "It makes a deafening noise," asserts Beery cheerfully.

Teaching a horse to stand for the farrier involves strapping up his foot so it's tied below his belly, and you have to "punish him with the bridle" until he stands nicely.

"The instant the halter is on, remove the lasso from the neck, so that you will not choke him any more than is absolutely necessary."

"Work him hard while the ropes are on, compel  him to fight, and fight hard, show him that you are master, and can handle him as you please."

Got a biter? "Turn the horse loose in an enclosure...and enter the pen with a whip in your right hand and a revolver, loaded with blank cartridges, in the other. As the horse rushes toward you to bite, fire blank cartridges straight up in the air in front of his face. He will whirl and try to kick. As he whirls, hit him a hard stroke with the whip."

Gosh, our horse liked to nip, but nobody suggested we try this method to curb the habit.
Dealing with a horse who breaks straps and pulls on his halter? Just rig up a pulley around his middle and tie it to his halter and then to a post--reasonable enough.

But then, force him to spring forward to ease up on the rope by rushing at him with pans or flinging papers in his face: "have a little limber-lashed whip handy and strike him five or six sharp taps with the lash across the nose...the sudden added punishment about the body and the fright and pain caused by the whip will most certainly bring him forward."

Horse afraid of firecrackers? "Lay the horse on his side. Crack the whip all about him, and make all sorts of other racket. Take fire-crackers and fire them off all around him."

Beery also offered to sell items such as the Beery Pulley Bridle and the Beery Four-in-one Controlling Bit (which can be adjusted for "very severe" action). There are also instructions for how to make a variety of bridles to subdue the horse, such as variations on war bridles...

...which are prohibited by the American Quarter Horse Association at their shows under their "inhumane treatment rules" as being indicative of a "general course of dealing with horses which is unacceptable."  Apparently these bridles can be useful for dealing with emergencies, according to various sources, one of which also warns that "It can be very harsh so I do not recommend it to anyone that is too rough or relies on force too much." Which would seem to rule out "Professor" Beery...

Lest it seem that I still live in the elementary-school world of belief that horses are just big sweet Labrador Retrievers who will Forge a Bond with Your Soul (and only your soul) and am therefore too fuzzy-headed to have an opinion about horses, I will dragoon an actual horsewoman to provide Exhibit A, straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak:
Throughout the ages, many people have chosen to ignore the advice of such classical riding masters as Xenophon, who wrote The Art of Horsemanship in approximately 400 BC. Xenophon advocated a kind and fair regime for the training of horses, but this seems to have been repeatedly forgotten or ignored throughout the centuries. Horrendous practices such as hobbling or physically restraining horses, who are terrified until there is no fight left in them, have arisen.                                                                                                                             Anne Wilson, Top Horse Training Methods Explored
As for all that throwing a horse to the ground--it appears that some horsemen still bring horses to the ground, though it's now called "laying" them down, and I doubt it involves yanking their feet out from under them. An actual horse trainer (unlike moi) makes an interesting point about this process on this website, noting that the laid-down horse is enduring the tonic immobility (TI) of a downed prey animal:
On the psychological side of things, creating TI, or utilizing training methods that don’t allow an animal the opportunity to ‘find the answer’ to relieve physical and mental pressure can create a psychological state known as learned helplessness....Animals who feel they have no control over aversive situations appear passive, demotivated, and depressed....Learned helplessness will trickle over from the situation where it was created, into other areas of the animal’s existence. Although there is no current scientific evidence, could this be what explains the ‘attitude change’ in many horses who undergo being laid down?
I don't know, but it's great to know that horse people are talking about these things.

Back to Beery. Interestingly, his pamphlets and methods aren't even all that original. He started publishing them in 1905. But they're all expounded in an earlier book published in 1887: The Standard Horse Book by circus proprieter and horse trainer Dennis Magner. (It's frequently reprinted but with a warning on the copyright page that "Of course, the reader will realize that many methods of breaking, training, and caring for a horse will have changed since this book was first written some time ago.")

Just another fun day at the Magner riding school.
This wouldn't make your horse distrust you. No, not at all.
"[T]his was the first experience I had of men's kindness; it was all force," laments the feisty mare Ginger in explaining her training to the placid Black Beauty in Anna Sewell's famous book, published in 1877, when such methods were routinely used (although there were plenty of horse trainers who practiced the kindness and patience that Beauty's trainers did, too).

It wasn't that long ago that throwing horses and otherwise subduing them were pretty standard techniques, and I imagine there are still many people who rely on similar shortcuts; the book Horse Breaker by Ed Bateman, Sr., which was published in 1947, relates how weaned colts and fillies were roped and "staked out" to learn to submit to a hackamore and rope around the nose and head while a cowhand "boogers" them into straining against the rope:
This method is strictly western, and often criticized as too severe, but it works for men who make their living riding horses. They know as well as you do a colt on the stake line is a forlorn and desperate animal. Entirely alone for the first time in its life, scared to death...and falling to pieces with each scare, the little fellow has a bad time of it.
Though there seems to be a bit more of a middle ground edging in, as he explains in the next section, in which the horse breaker hops aboard the colt for the first time:
There are no rules and this is no contest. The colt must realize quickly that you are master, but you must not fight it. You are up there to get its respect and confidence, not to conquer it by breaking its heart and will....For the next few days, the horse breaker intensively cultivates that hoss as a friend. No spurts, no quirt, no bit, no unwary moves. Trust a man, little feller; if he's fit to work on a cow and horse ranch, he'll never hurt you.
Bateman's book shows an appreciation for horses as individuals and horsemen as people of integrity who don't abuse them, but it still seems a pretty rough way for a horse to be indoctrinated. One caption about a filly who bolts and drags a handler notes that "Little Sister went to a severe 'schooling' immediately after, which she probably will never forget." Those quotation marks around "schooling"...makes one feel a little uneasy, wondering what's meant by that.

from Horse Breaker by Ed Bateman Sr. (Carl K. Wilson Co., 1947)
At any rate, it's balm to the soul to look at listings of horse-training books at the library and see what words abound nowadays in the titles and subtitles: understanding, gentle, humane, trust, confidence, obedient, safe, leadership, respect, friendship, reliable, accepting, compassionate communication, harmony, "Respect, Patience, and Partnership, No Fear of People or Things, No Fear of Restriction or Restraint." 

I do have a favorite bit in one of Beery's books, however. It's an item that involves only firmness and not harshness, in which the author encourages the rider to urge the horse toward an object that frightens him; while you do this, you are to "speak out commandingly" the following phrase: "Take care, look out, sir! Walk right up to it!"

I am going to try saying that in ringing tones the next time I'm hefted upon some unfortunate horse. That wouldn't embarrass the Resident Teen a bit if she were out riding with me.

For what the horse does under compulsion … is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.--Xenophon

Monday, April 13, 2015

Spot the Beetle

A few weeks ago, as we continued to explore areas in our new community, we stopped by a little wayside between Duvall and Carnation called Chinook Bend Natural Area.

We'd popped in there last summer and attempted to go for a walk but were felled by the heat within five minutes, as the path took us through a treeless swale and, after 25 years of living in the Puget Sound region, we were no longer capable of surviving outside a narrow temperature range.

This time, however, it was a gentle, early-spring day with a light breeze, so we made it to the river, over a pile of slash, into a woodland, and back again.

Along the way we encountered this marvelous beetle (at left).

Most western gardeners would probably not call this a marvelous beetle. They would call it many rude names. Because it is a western spotted cucumber beetle, Diabrotica undecimpunctata. 

No sources have much good to say about this beetle. Most of the sources are ones dealing with pest management, and they point out that this insect transmits crop diseases and damages a wide variety of garden plants and crops, including corn, soy, squash, and cucumbers.

Even the Audubon field guide says (of its eastern cousin) that it's "one of the most destructive beetles" and "damages foliage, flowers, and pollen of cucumbers, melons, corn, potatoes, and peanuts." Its offspring are called "corn rootworms" because they feed on the roots of crops.

I would surely pluck this beetle off my vegetables if I found it in our garden, but this beetle was minding its own business and trundling around in its native habitat, ignorant of the fact that it was named after a vegetable (actually, a fruit) that itself is native to southeast Asia.

The plant it's on appears to be a Sitka willow, Salix sitchensis. Part of what made this insect so marvelous to us was its cartoonish pattern of big black spots on a bright green background, but also the way that ridiculous coloration caused it to blend in with the catkins, which appeared black-spotted thanks to the dark bracts at the base of its small flowers.

What the beetle's nefarious plans were after we left, I cannot say, though from what I could dig up on its life history, it'll include laying up to 300 eggs over the next few weeks, if it's a female. For now, it was busy doing just what the field guide Insects of the Pacific Northwest said it usually does: "feeding on light-colored flowers." Apparently it's fond of dandelions.

It was a lot easier to find admiring commentary on the willow, which was used by native peoples for a variety of purposes--making ropes, gray pigment for dyeing mountain-goat wool, and even absorbent material for diapers. It'd be interesting to know what Native Americans thought of the beetle in those times, as I assume it wasn't a major agricultural pest back in the day.

I couldn't figure out the meaning of the first half of its scientific name, but the undecimpunctata part means "11-spotted." A curious name for a 12-spotted beetle, except that two of the spots come together to form one big spot when it closes its wing covers. Tricky beast.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Plum-Blossom Snowfall, Then Spring

While friends and relatives back east were being pummeled by snow, we were enduring a deluge of plum-blossom petals drifting to the ground. And that was before Spring officially arrived last weekend. It was supposed to pour both days, but Saturday proved to be bright and warm, and so we were able to get out in the garden and start prepping it for the growing season.

Barrels filled with soil in the sunny side yard.
A robin has staked out our front yard as his territory and sings from atop a blue spruce.

An Anna's hummingbird continues to rule the back yard and spends a lot of time and energy chasing an interloper away from the feeder and sitting on a branch chirping his indignation.

Meanwhile, the female hummingbird--whom the male chased from the feeder most of the winter--has forgiven her suitor his loutish ways and has a nest secreted away somewhere in the garden. He has gallantly decided to let her sip from the feeder.

Here she is enjoying some time away from tending to her eggs, looking rather like a tired mom nursing a latte in a Starbucks while someone else minds her children at home for a few minutes.

At night we can hear the spring peepers singing, a barred owl hooting, and coyotes yipping and howling. The morning brings a dawn chorus of robins, wrens, and sparrows with the flicker providing the drum section. I've always liked early-morning sunlight, especially on days when I don't actually have to be up early and can linger to savor it with a cup of coffee.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Odd Things People Say to Writers

Look! Even pre-Internet, cats. (Image courtesy Graphics Fairy).
A few weeks ago a humor piece about what it'd be like if strangers spoke to everybody the way they often speak to writers was making the rounds, eliciting chuckles, sighs, and rueful self-recognition along the way.

It made me think of some of the odd things people have said to me over the years as I've pursued my freelance-writing career.

I present them here with no irritation, astonishment, bitterness, or desire to have my soul soothed, because by now I just think they're kind of funny. Everybody in every walk of life hears people say stuff that takes them aback (how many times a day does a doctor hear "but I read on the Internet that..."?).

Scene: college cafeteria, freshman year.
Me: Oh, hello [unnamed arrogant author who happily lay around on college lawn with nubile college roommate discussing her, um, writing]! Er, I was just wondering if I got into your writing class?
Author: Hmm? Oh. No, I'm sorry. You have a lot of enthusiasm, but little talent.

Scene: college, different professor's office, later in freshman year.
Me: Um, hello [frightening professor who went on a tear one day raging against people who described things as being "a dull black"]...you wrote on my paper that you wanted me to come in and see you?
Professor: Hmm? Let me see. [Takes paper. Reads uplifting comment that says "Please come and see me. You have unusual talent."]
Me: [Silent. Scared. Hopeful.]
Professor: [Hands paper back abruptly. Fixes me with glare over pince-nez. Sneers.] Soooooo. You've come to hear me sing your praises, then?
Me: Oh! No! No, not at all.
Professor: [Rambles on a really long time about something.]

Scene: Living room, right after opening parcel that contains new book I wrote as work-for-hire about the history of everyday objects.
Houseguest (angry young woman fresh out of college): This your new book?
Me: Yes.
Houseguest: It's all just schilling for corporations!! Listen to this! [Reads text aloud in mocking tone.]
Me: Well, sometimes companies did invent and make stuff that we buy, like Band-Aids and crayons...
Houseguest: [goes on to scorch teakettle left on untended stove and to borrow clothing without returning it.]

Scene: Same living room, years later. Family from down the street whom we thought would be New Friends asks to see some of my books.
Me: Here's some animal books I did for young kids.
Guy from Other Family: "All About Baboons"???
Me: Yeah, I know, the title's funny! Can't help it, "baboon" is just a funny word.
Guy from Other Family: [Reads aloud from book while wife and children snicker and sputter.]
Me: [Silent in clear knowledge that these people will not be New Friends.]

Scene: kid's soccer game.
Soccer dad: So what's your next book about?
Me: Birds.
Soccer dad: Oh. So you just go and steal other people's research and write it all down.

Scene: UW classroom, science class for elementary-school teachers.
Fellow student: So you write books?
Me: Yeah.
Fellow student: So what are you doing in this class? You're here to steal all our ideas, aren't you?
Me: [Silent, thinking, What is up with this stealing stuff? And, hey, don't flatter yourself, lady.]

Scene: elementary school cafeteria.
Other mom: So what's your next book about?
Me: Birds.
Other mom: Oh. How boring!

Scene: A friend's baby shower.
Guest: I hear you're a writer!
Me: Um, yeah. I work as a freelance writer.
Guest: I've written a book! It's a memoir! Let me go get it.
Me: [worriedly waiting as fellow guest runs out of house to her home to fetch manuscript.]
Guest: [dumps manuscript in lap.]  Here! Maybe you can just read some of it for now.
Me: [vast alarm as manuscript reveals itself to be long, rambling diary filled with complaints about the woman's husband and personal details.]

Scene: Multiple occasions, throughout life, whenever people winkle it out of you that you're a writer of books for children. (Note, however, that the vast majority of people say pleasant things. Sometimes I think people are stinkers, but at heart I think most people mean well, so I actually don't mind the common comment "Would I have read anything you've written?")

"I've always wanted to write a children's book, but I don't have time."

"Really? Do you think that you'll ever write a real book?"

"Well, it's not like you need a college education to do what you do."

"That must be easy."

"Well, that's nice. I have to work for a living."

"So you just write stuff with short words?"

"Did you ever have a real job?"

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Weird Vintage Pop-up Books in the Basement

The creepy pop-up clown.
When I was a kid, I was always amazed to read stories in which the child protagonists felt fortunate to own a book.

I loved to read, so it wasn't that I thought a book was a strange item to cherish. It was just that books seemed like something everybody had, like air, or spoons.

Books were indeed plentiful and relatively inexpensive by the time the 1960s had rolled around (for a typical middle-class family, that is, such as mine).

My childhood home was awash in Little Golden Books, Big Little Books, and "I Can Read It All By Myself" Beginner Books. School order forms for paperback books routinely trailed me home, and books regularly appeared wrapped up for birthdays and Christmas.

There were also the somewhat mysterious books that had come down through the ages to reside alongside our colorful books on the shelves. At least, they seemed to me as if they came from antiquity--they dated back to my mother's childhood, a time that seemed as distant to me as Jane Austen's heyday. (I believed her when she said, after being badgered for hours by five-year-old me to reveal her age, that she was 100 years old.)

Among those books were four battered cardboard books filled with clever pop-ups and some vaguely unsettling illustrations.

I didn't like the stories very much, but I did enjoy opening the books to the pages that contained the pop-ups.

My mom always spoke reverently of the books, noting that they were very old and very valuable.

She wasn't far off the mark--they would have been valuable, if they weren't in terrible condition. Though they'd come by that condition honestly; they'd been read to pieces by my mom and her brother when they were kids.

My uncle had also colored in most of the pictures with paints. He filled them in very neatly and carefully, but I don't think they've done much to increase the books' value.

Their value wasn't further enhanced when one of my siblings, discomfited by some of the distorted, exaggerated features of various characters, went through the books and cut off the heads of many of the pop-up people and animals.

In researching the books, I learned they were part of a British book series called Bookano Books (which made sense family-history-wise, because they'd been sent from Ireland by my great-grandmother to my uncle in the 1930s).

Their creator, a publishing-industry executive named S. Louis Giraud, teamed up with a paper engineer named Theodore Brown to create pop-up books that featured "mechanical" moving parts. The name "Bookano" was a blend of the words "book" and "Meccano," the name of a popular European building-toy kit. The team produced 16 or 17 books between 1929 and 1949 (sources vary on the number).

Giraud geared the books to sell to a wide audience by using very thick, cheap paper, inexpensive printing techniques, and low-cost bindings (which is obvious to collectors of the falling-apart books) so that the books could be priced low. Oddly, it's the colorful pop-ups in each book that have best stood the test of time.

Bookano Books was also a cottage industry. Cutting out and constructing the pop-ups was a job hired out to women working from home. The materials would be delivered to them and picked up when finished. The pop-ups' claim to fame was that they could be viewed from all angles.

That was a big part of their appeal, and I can personally attest to that appeal because I spent a lot of time getting down on eye level with the books to peer into some of the scenes. I remember being particularly fascinated by this one, with characters gathered around a table, because you could see them from the front and the back, unlike a flat illustration in a book.

I don't know why I thought this was magical--I certainly didn't regard my three-dimensional toys in this way. I suppose there was just something about the 2-D managing to be 3-D that was inherently amazing, like View-Master slides. Or like getting one of those postcards with a plastic corrugated front that turned the picture into a 3-D image. (I spent a few hours of my youth trying to peel the plastic off one of those cards so as to enter the world of Mowgli and Baloo the Bear on a Disney postcard. I never succeeded.)

The regular illustrations in the books were, as mentioned previously, just kind of weird. I mean, jeepers. Check out this one. The first of many scary ringmasters in children's books. And clowns.

The comical stories were illustrated in a style similar to that used in the early Disney cartoons, with exaggerated features and rubbery limbs, lots of big teeth and giant nostrils. The serious fairy tales' illustrations were peopled by stiffer, more remote characters. The writing varied from formal and wordy to overwhelmed-by-cupcakes cheerful.

There were stories the likes of which you'd probably not find in the children's section today:

And I don't think I've ever run across the words "eunuch" and "female slaves" in any other children's books outside of these ones.

But the books' endpapers often delighted with more enchanting images:

The pop-ups really could be astonishing, such as this one of a Red Admiral butterfly and an orchid:

Though I don't think I'll ever forgive Bookano for giving me nightmares about clowns.