{a very mouse and bear christmas}

My very favorite holiday book is, sadly, out of print.

The Ernest and Celestine books by Gabrielle Vincent are, quite frankly, the cutest books I’ve ever read. I will forever thank my mom for somehow tracking down Ernest and Celestine, Ernest and Celestine’s Picnic, and Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine when I was an infant, since they seem almost impossible to come by nowadays.

Ernest is a bear and Celestine is a mouse. Are they father and daughter? Just friends? Why are all the “adults” bears and all the “children” mice? Are they really adults and children? These questions are irrelevant. In all the books, the story text is entirely dialogue, with the detailed and engaging illustrations providing the rest.

Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine finds my favorite animals at the brink of economic crisis. How can they afford to make a nice Christmas for themselves and their friends?

In fact, they don’t need money—all they need is the simple belief that good acts will inspire love and enjoyment, a true Christmas lesson. They take a tree from the woods, decorate their house with paper chains and ornaments, and draw pictures as present for their little mice guests. Everyone has a great time!

Alright, let’s take a beat. After rereading this post, I realize that my summary reads a little snarkily. I really don’t mean it that way! I just don’t encounter such genuinely sweet books often enough to be able to justifiably write about them.

In all honesty, if you can get your hands on a copy of an Ernest and Celestine book, buy it immediately for the most special little person in your life. Or yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.

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{the dickensian revolution}

For the second week in a row, my post on an old favorite this week is inspired by a book I’m currently reading. I am still working my way through Our Mutual Friend, due partly to holiday chaos and partly to the fact that Dickens can be hell to read quickly. In any case, I wrote a post for the (thanks to Fresh Pressed!) newly-famous Book Blob last week that mentioned A Tale of Two Cities, my standard Dickens favorite. And since then, I just can’t get it out of my head.

Let’s just take a quick look at my academic background: English major with a focus on 18th- and 19th-century literature, and minors in French and history. Clearly, a Dickens novel about the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror is a total lock for me. Schoolwork aside, I’d argue that Dickens’s well-utilized tragic element is at its best in AToTC. For me, the book starts off with a bang, and then really comes together in the last third. For the most part, I could do without Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, who take up most of the middle of the book. They’re definitely reminiscent of a couple from another true favorite, Hugo’s Marius Pontmercy and Cosette Fauchelevant; they’re the two nice people that everything works out for in the end. All well and good, of course, but not nearly as interesting as the tragedy of various minor characters.

No, no—for me, it’s all about the finale. Charles Darnay, locked in the Conciergerie, meets an unnamed young seamstress, charged with “plotting” of which she knows nothing and condemned to die as well. The two exchange few words, maybe a page in total, but their emotion and pathos resonates throughout the ending and revitalizes the entire reading experience.

“I am not unwilling to die, if the Republic which is to do so much good to us poor, will profit by my death; but I do not know how that can be.”

And, of course:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Never mind that Dickens appropriated a Bible verse for that last one. I know it’s a good book when a single page makes me cry like a baby.

If you’re not a sucker for tragedy or history (in other words, we have nothing to talk about), you still might love this book for the villians, namely Madame Defarge, who knits at every execution, encoding the names of those who die at the guillotine. I mean, how cool is that?

{a story of fail}

Yeesh. It’s been a while. Firstly because I’ve been super busy driving back and forth from SF to Oregon for various reasons, and secondly because everything I would’ve had to blog about is basically a story of fail, so I’ve been avoiding it.

Case in point:

1. Missed Friday Favorite again.

2. Was supposed to have finished Our Mutual Friend by Friday to blog about it on Book Blob. Did nay finish.

3. Because of trips to and from SF, I had to return On Canaan’s Side to the library before I finished! And now it’ll be another million years, if ever, that it will come around on reserve hold for me again. So I will never know how it ended. GAH.

Here, though, is the one interesting thing I have to talk about. My immediate thought upon reading this was, “Why on earth would famous writers respond to a 16-year-old high school student? And through snail mail nonetheless!” My second one, “Why was I not badass enough to mail more letters to authors when I was young enough for it still to be considered cute/precocious and not sad/stalkerish?”

The second question is, perhaps, not entirely fair. My most prized possession to this day is the response I received from Beverly Cleary after writing her a multiple-page document that was, in hindsight, more like a diary entry than a fan letter. Not only did she respond, but she answered questions I’d posed, proving that she actually read it! I was thrilled. And continue to be so.

But I digress. How hilarious is Norman Mailer, that he typed out a separate reply saying he couldn’t reply? And Ray Bradbury definitely reached bamf status by referencing Guy Fawkes’s Day.

As a longtime English student myself who has frequently been “tired of symbol hunting,” I found the authors’ answers actually less brilliant than I might’ve hoped. Perhaps that’s why I never bothered to send out similar letters: My illusion of the omnipotent author would’ve taken a severe blow. I did enjoy McAllister’s conclusion as to why he got so many responses: My mind instantly conjured the image of poor, lonely writers being ignored by the other kids as their precious books got torn apart by scholars and high schoolers. Literary theory of all kinds is pretty much beyond me, but I’m sure someone who’s studied Barthes and actually understood it would have some pretty big things to say here.

What do you think? Did the authors’ letters answer any of your long-standing questions about symbolism? Any authors out there care to weigh in with their opinions?

{because i’m actually an old woman}

I mentioned in a previous entry that when starting Maine, I was reminded of Colony, a particular favorite of mine. So, natch, I decided to feature Colony in this week’s favorites.

Colony is one of those books that always surprises people when I count it among my favorites, namely because I think Anne Rivers Siddons’s target audience is primarily much older ladies. IndieBound calls it a romance, which while I don’t entirely agree and certainly wouldn’t consider myself a romance novel fan, kind of makes sense. Despite my earlier uncertainty about the term, I definitely would call Colony a “beach read.”

In short, Colony is the story of one woman’s life in her wealthy in-laws’ summer beach retreat (seeing the similarities to Maine already?). Maude Gascoigne has grown up a wild child in the swamps outside of 1920s Charleston, South Carolina (Siddons is primarily known for her Southern-set novels), but when she and Peter Chambliss fall in love at first sight, she quickly finds herself transplanted among the austere Chambliss clan, who are considered New England old money at its finest.

The Chamblisses spend summer in Retreat, a summer “cottage” in a beach community with rigid divides between the locals and the rich city folk that only come for the warm weather. Maude, already feeling out of place and backwards in her new family, immediately rebells against the strict traditions of the colony. Over the following decades, she struggles to define her own identity and keep her troubled family together at the same time.

One of my favorite things about this book is how none of the characters are normal. They’re pretty much all tragically flawed. You’d think this would get old or exhausting, but for me it expands what might otherwise be a pretty fluffy read into a epic, a testimony to 20th-century New England. There are very few characters that you actively root against as a reader; mostly you’re just praying that somehow, against impossible odds, Maude won’t lose her family to bipolarism, panic disorders, suicide, alcoholism, promiscuity, and the like.

Also memorable are Siddons’s descriptions of place, both the small amount in South Carolina and the wild coasts of Maine that take up most of the book. The flavors of the settings—both geographically and over the span of decades—are strong and enjoyable. (Maybe that’s what makes a good beach read…)

This week’s been pretty crazy, so I’m actually fairly impressed I’m managing to post at all. As I read over this, it seems singularly chaotic and disjointed, which is a pretty fair respresentation of my mental status at the moment. Guess I’ll quit while I’m not too far out of whack!