Tomes from the Olden Times: Encyclopedia Brown…

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I have come to the conclusion that I am lagging so far behind on my review schedule that I might as well throw in the towel and bring you a Tomes from the Olden Times post instead.  Time seems to be getting away from me this month, and although I’ve read a bunch of the books I need to read, I don’t seem to be getting the time to post.  I will do my best to rectify this as soon as is gargoylely possible.

Some months ago now, someone, on some blog, somewhere, mentioned the Encyclopedia Brown books and I just knew I had to revisit them in a TftOT post.  (Actually, I’ve just had a search and it was a post on Sunlit Pages that brought these books to my renewed attention).  As far as I know, Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t a big thing in Australia and I can’t remember how I originally stumbled across the books as a youngster…probably the library had something to do with it…and I think I only read two of the fifteen plus titles in the series, but when the post from Sunlit Pages reminded me of the interesting formatting of the stories, I just knew I had to hunt the books down and see what memories surfaced.

I managed to order the first in the series, Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol from the Book Depository and promptly let it sit on the TBR shelf until I noticed how thin it was and decided I could knock it over in half an hour or so.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Leroy Brown, aka Encyclopedia Brown, is Idaville neighborhood’s ten-year-old star detective. With an uncanny knack for trivia, he solves mysteries for the neighborhood kids through his own detective agency. But his dad also happens to be the chief of the Idaville police department, and every night around the dinner table, Encyclopedia helps him solve his most baffling crimes. And with ten confounding mysteries in each book, not only does Encyclopedia have a chance to solve them, but the reader is given all the clues as well. Interactive and chock full of interesting bits of information—it’s classic Encyclopedia Brown!

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In case you haven’t come across these books before, they are set out like a book of short stories – the case of the missing this, the case of the mysterious that – but with one fun twist.  Each story ends on a cliffhanger, with Encyclopedia claiming he has solved the case…but leaving the reader to figure out the solution for themselves!  The solutions for each case are provided at the back of the book and I distinctly remember spending most of my time flicking through to the back to figure out the answer, back in the day.  Happily, this time around I was able to solve all but one of the mysteries on my own (take THAT, mystery book for children!!), but I can certainly see why I found this book frustrating as a young reader.

For a start, the book is constrained by its now-historical (1960s) setting as well as the fact that it is set in America and at least one of the mysteries requires a little bit of American history knowledge (although admittedly, the mystery can be solved without that tidbit of information).  Also, some of the cases involve knowledge and life experience that kids just might not have, but were blindingly obvious to me as an adult (or perhaps my subconscious just remembered the answers from when I read it the first time around!).  The Case of the Happy Nephew, for instance, requires a bit of knowledge about cars, while The Case of the Champion Egg Spinner requires knowledge about cooking – both of which may have been perfectly common pieces of information in the ’60s, but might not be so common to child readers of the 20teens.

I quite enjoyed the fact that it felt like Idaville was a hot-bed of crime, with Encyclopedia’s services in demand around every corner.  There was something charming and endearing about revisiting a character and series that hasn’t been updated for modern readers and sits as a perfect snapshot of kids of the time period, with not a screen or online message in sight.  I think today’s young readers would get a definite kick out of Encyclopedia’s escapades, because they really require the reader to think and observe and watch out for those hidden clues.  Then again, there’s always the fun of skipping ahead to the solutions and then proclaiming, “That’s what I thought.  I knew that.”

Until next time,

Bruce

Memoir as Fiction: Black British…

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We’re having a bit of a change of pace today on the shelf with some historical adult fiction that reads like a memoir, written by an Australian author and set in 1960s India during a time of social upheaval.  With India being one of the countries in whose history we are particularly interested (the other, of course, at the moment, being Japan), it would have been remiss of us not to get our collective paws on Black British by Hebe De Souza.  We were lucky enough to snag a copy from Ventura Press for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.

Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

Black British is, for the most part, a thinly-disguised memoir dressed up as fiction.  The story revolves around a woman who has returned to her ancestral home and ends up telling her life story to a stranger who asks a simple enough question: “Where do you come from, lady?”  The majority of the tale occurs in 1960s India, with extremely brief flashes back to the original chatting pair at the end of each chapter to link the sections together.

While I enjoyed the book, narrated by thinker and independent spirit Lucy, the youngest of three sisters living a comparatively wealthy upbringing as English-speaking, private school-attending young ladies surrounded by great swathes of people living in poverty, it was not the suspenseful and tumultuous ride suggested by the blurb.  I was expecting a lot more insight into the social upheaval of the time, but most of the story takes place within the walls of Lucy’s family’s compound and the girls are largely shielded from their family’s precarious social position and its implications by the adults in their lives.  Basically, I wanted the danger to feature more largely in the telling of a story that sees Lucy go from her early years of schooling to the cusp of adulthood with nary a scary experience to report – except for an overzealous monkey intruder and a very hairy cab ride after she ventures as a young adult into the community with her father.

Even though the book didn’t end up being quite as exciting as I expected, it remains an absorbing snapshot of a time and place undergoing rapid and permanent social change.  As English-speaking Catholics, Lucy’s family are well outside what was considered typical in her community and the struggles of being the outsider, even in one’s own home, are thoroughly explored. The prominent motif throughout the book is the security provided by a loving family unit and the ways in which adults nurture the enquiring minds of young people, even in situations that will cause the young person to move up a rung on the ladder of social maturity.

The book deals with a number of social issues including domestic abuse and the place of people identifying as homosexual in an unforgiving culture and time, and as the reader experiences these issues through Lucy’s eyes, it is clear that situations that one might consider black and white, move through every shade of grey when considered in a larger social context.  The implications for individuals of their life choices – whether to remain in an unhappy marriage or relegate oneself to a life of hardship, for instance – are offered as fodder to fuel Lucy’s own looming crisis: to remain in the only home she knows, despite her outsider status and the ever-present threat of violence and hardship, or leave her roots behind for the sake of building a comfortable future.

This is certainly a book that focuses on familial relationships as a means for exploring the wider social conflicts that influence the decisions we make as individuals.  As a fictional memoir, it is engaging and the characters are fleshed out and authentic.  I would have liked to have seen more made of the Lucy of “twenty-one years later”.  The tiny flashes we get of the Lucy who has returned to her homeland in search of belonging felt a bit contrived, as so much of the focus was on the period set in the 1960s, and I would have liked to have been privy to what Lucy did with, at least, some of her life since her family’s decision to move away.  Nevertheless, this is a strong debut from De Souza and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next – particularly something that is wholly fictional.

If you are looking for historical fiction that reads like a memoir and places an emphasis on growing up as an outsider in one’s own land, you should certainly give Black British a look.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Undertaker’s Daughter: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Welcome to another “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review, wherein I relay to you, the eager reader of this blog, the insights gained from one of my recent reads.  Today I have the memoir of a lady who literally grew up among the dead; residing, as she did, in a funeral home.  I requested The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield partly because I was drawn in by the cover and partly because of my interest in the funerary rituals of your kind, so I was smugly grateful to receive a copy from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the skinny on the story:

As the child of an undertaker in Jubilee, Kentucky in the 1960s, life for Kate was relatively typical, provided you discounted the corpses temporarily populating the ground floor of her home. Sharing her house reasonably comfortably with Jubilee’s dead – although always avoiding the embalming room – Kate watches as her father renders vital services to the townsfolk during the aftermath of a resident’s passing.  From feuds between the two funeral homes in town to family bouts of fisticuffs over the wills of loved ones, Kate learns about the shadier sides of human nature through others’ reactions to the spectre of death in their midst.  As she grows up, her ideas about her father evolve and family secrets and struggles shed new light on the stresses of life in a small town.  As well as one girl’s personal experience of growing up around the undertaker’s trade is a reflection of the broader social climates of a small Southern town across some turbulant decades. 

undertakers daughter

So here are…

Five Things I’ve Learned From…

The Undertaker’s Daughter

1. Embalming is not a spectator sport.

2. Even funeral homes are not immune to underhanded tactics of sabotage from business rivals.

3.  In the 1960s in some small towns, the hearse also served as an ambulance.

4. Small towns in the Southern US seem to have higher proportions of colourful characters with quirky lifestyle choices than elsewhere.

5. Living in a funeral home is much like living in any other home, except for a slight awkwardness regarding filling in the “how many people are staying in your place of residence” question on census night.

This was a bit of a hot-and-cold read for me.  There were some bits during which I felt really interested and engaged, and there were some bits that I could take or leave.  On reflection, this is quite a broad memoir that not only takes in the specifics of living in a funeral home, but also encompasses the author’s learnings from watching her father’s interactions with various people in their town.  There are big chunks of the book dedicated to Kate and her father’s relationship with a reclusive, wealthy lady resident of the town and the resulting friction that occurs between her family and the townsfolk after the lady’s eventual death.  There’s quite a bit about the volatile social climate around race in the post-segregation era as told through Kate’s experiences with friendship and dating as a young teen.  There’s an awful lot about Kate’s family struggles as she learns more about her father’s less-than-stellar behaviour and deals with her elder sister’s untreated mental illness.

So if you have an interest in that time period and its impact on the relationships between different groups in a small town, there will be a lot of extra bang for your buck if you pick up this book.  For me though, while some of those bits were reasonably interesting, I really just wanted to find out more about living in a funeral home.  By the time Kate gets to be a young teen, the funeral home bit of the memoir is pretty much wrapped up and the rest of the book focuses on Kate’s emerging social awareness, before relating her family’s experiences in dealing with her father’s death.

Overall, I suspect this wasn’t really ever going to be the book for me.  It’s in no way a bad book – it’s very readable, and as I said, got plenty to draw in the person with an interest in memoirs that focus on social history – it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Nevertheless, I – and now you, dear reader – will depart this reading experience with some valuable learnings, and for that also, I am smugly grateful.

Until next time,

Bruce

Retro Reading: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural sensitivity….

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It’s that time again! For those Joany- or Johnny-come-latelies to my musings, I am currently undergoing something of a personal quest to re-read some tomes from my distant past to see whether any new insights come to mind in so doing.

The next book in my meander down memory lane is one that has always stuck in my mind due to its amazingly catchy refrain and the challenge it presents for those who enjoy tongue twisters and saying things really really fast.  It is, of course, Tikki Tikki Tembo, a retelling of a supposedly traditional Chinese folk story, by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent.

tikki tikki tembo

Essentially, this tale claims to explain why Chinese first-born sons are traditionally given short names.  I say “claims” because, not having spent any time inancient China (or indeed its modern counterpart!) I cannot vouch for the validity of this tale as a traditional folktale, as opposed to something some Westerners made up because it is stereotypically amusing and fun to say.

I am quite, well, sensitive, to addressing cultural sensitivity in printed matter and believe that wherever possible, items that offend (when looked at in hindsight, or otherwise) should be re-worked to better fit a contemporary audience.  To that end, I was greatly relieved to discover the Little Golden Book edition The Boy and The Tigers had been re-worked both in content and illustration, from its now cringe-worthy 1970s incarnation titled Little Black Sambo. Although having said that, the original version by Helen Bannerman is still in print. I wonder, then, to what extent Tikki Tikki Tembo might offend the sensibilities of contemporary audiences….

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Debates over cultural appropriateness aside, this book charts the significant difference in the emergency response times elapsed in the rescue of two young brothers in (separate) near-drownings in the town well.  Chang (son number two, as indicated by his short, not-very-honourable name) is fished out in a jiffy, while the unfortunate, fortunate-first-born Tikki tikki-tembo no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo has to wait considerably longer for help to arrive.

Re-reading this tale has been just as enjoyable as its initial reading. Just one glance at the distinctive illustrations – particularly those eye-catching kites and the bearded Old Man With The Ladder (an prototype for David Hasselhoff’s Baywatch character, perhaps?) – took me right back to my youth.  I could feel the urgency of the poor old second son, Chang, as he stutters over his brother’s ridiculously long (though fun-to-say!) name, while time is ticking away.

All in all, I was very pleased to find this story still in print and available for the new generation of readers who appreciate rhythm in their reading.  At the same time I wonder whether this tome needs a little re-working too, to bring it in line with modern standards of inter-cultural folktale appropriation.  Perhaps something as simple as removing the completely untrue bit  about the name Chang meaning “little or nothing” would suffice?  If nothing else, that bit is deeply hindering to anyone attempting to learn other languages through incidental mentions in children’s literature.

I would love to hear what others think about this – particularly how flesh-parents might go about explaining such issues to their mini-fleshlings!

Until next time,

Bruce