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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The series of mysteries that begins with this novel and features almost eleven year old detective, chemist, and poison expert Flavia de Luce has been on my radar for some time now, but I finally used my Barnes and Noble gift card to buy The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and I’m determined to consume the other novels in the series as quickly as possible. The first one is just as good as the many fans have said it was.

From Mr. Bradley’s website: “Great literary crime detectives aren’t always born; they’re sometimes discovered, blindfolded and tied up in a dark closet by their nasty older sisters. Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s bitter home life and vicious sibling war inspires her solitary diversions and “strange talents” tinkering with the chemistry set in the laboratory of their inherited Victorian house, plotting sleuth-like vengeance on Ophelia (17) and Daphne (13), and delving into the forbidden past of her taciturn, widowed father, Colonel de Luce. It comes as no surprise, then, that the material for her next scientific investigation will be the mysterious corpse that she uncovers in the cucumber patch.”

I will say that Flavia is unbelievably precocious; she reminds me of my youngest, Z-baby who is intelligent, stubborn, sassy, and spoiled rotten. I say this with some chagrin, since I promised myself that my youngest would not be a pain in the you-know-what like so many other babies of of the family tend to be. And then life happened, and I find myself amazed at her maturity and giftedness and at the same time busily correcting and counteracting her sometimes tendencies to be presumptuous and impertinent.

Anyway, Flavia is a character who might exhaust you if you were her parent, but in a book she’s a delight. I can’t wait to get to know her better, and I’m also anxious to find out more about her sisters, her long-suffering but somewhat absent father, and Dogger, the loyal retainer who serves as dependable adult in Flavia’s life (even though he suffers from something like PTSD or some such ailment as a result of his war experience). The other books in the series are>

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
A Red Herring Without Mustard
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Speaking From Among the Bones
The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches

I plan to request them from the library immediately. Mr. Bradley is a Canadian author who now lives in Malta, Sherlockian author of a book that argued that Holmes was a woman (!), and a septuagenarian.

Sweet and sassy, and the author is over seventy years old? Congratulations, Mr. Bradley!

1950: Events and Inventions

January 26, 1950. The new constitution of India is ratified, forming a republic, and Rajendra Prasad is sworn in as India’s first president.

'india map' photo (c) 2008, Bri Lehman - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/March 6, 1950. Scientist Klaus Fuchs is sentenced to 14 years in prison for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

April 27, 1950. In South Africa, the Group Areas Act is passed, formally segregating the races. This segregation is called apartheid.

June, 1950. The first human kidney transplant is performed by U.S. surgeon R.H. Lawler.

June 25, 1950. The People’s Republic of North Korea launches a surprise invasion of The Republic of South Korea. The 38th parallel of latitude marks the border between the two nations now, but communist North Korea under the rule of Russian-supported President Kim Il-sung wishes to unite Korea under one communist government.

June 27, 1950. U.S. President Harry S. Truman orders American military forces to aid in the defense of South Korea.

'Ziploc Peanuts All Stars Cards' photo (c) 2009, Mark Anderson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/October 2, 1950. The comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz is first published in seven U.S. newspapers.

October 7, 1950. The 1950-1951 invasion of Tibet by People’s Republic of China begins.

October 19, 1950. The People’s Republic of China enters the Korean conflict by sending thousands of soldiers across the Yalu River.

1950: Books and Literature

The Way West by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The National Book Awards are established and the fiction award is presented by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to author Nelson Ahlgren for his book, Man With the Golden Arm.

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli, published in 1949, went on to win the Newbery Award in 1950. The story a boy, Robin, during the Middle Ages who wants to become a knight like his father. However, disease (polio?) strikes, and Robin’s legs become paralyzed. He is taken to a monastery where he regains the use of his legs to some extent and strengthens his spirit and character with the friendship and help of the monks. Robin later becomes a hero. It’s a lovely story to read aloud to children who are trying to figure out what real bravery and heroism are.

The Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature is awarded to The Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont. Has anybody read it?

Published in 1950:
The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi.
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

So they went and knocked on the study door, and the Professor said “Come in,” and got up and found chairs for them and said he was quite at their disposal. Then he sat listening to them with the tips of his fingers pressed together and never interrupting, till they had finished the whole story. After that he said noting for quite a long time. Then he cleared his throat and said the last thing either of them expected:

“How do you know,” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but–” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”

“That is a point,” said the professor, “which certainly deserves consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard you brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”

“That’s just the funny thing about it, sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.”

“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.

“Well,” said Susan, “in general, I’d say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true — all this about the wood and the Faun.”

“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”

“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan; “we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”

“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her to see that she is not mad.”

“But then,” said Susan, and stopped. Shehad never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn’t know what to think.

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute.
Three Doors to Death and In the Best Families by Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe’s charge to his assistant Archie: “You are to act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.”
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. Reviewed at Things Mean a Lot.

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.”

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl.

The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh

Jill Paton Walsh has continued the story of Dorothy Sayers’ famous sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, in her books Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death. These two bring the story into the early 1940s, while Paton Walsh’s third installment, The Attenbury Emeralds, takes place after World War II with Lord Peter and his wife, the famous mystery novelist Harriet Vane, dealing with post-war changes and reminiscing about the good old days of post-World War I Britain and Peter’s very first case.

So the book happens in two time periods, both post-war. As fans know, Lord Peter was quite torn up by his part in the Great War, and he only recovered with the help and ministrations of that perfect manservant, Mervyn Bunter. As The Attenbury Emeralds begins, Lord Peter is telling Harriet the story of how he rejoined society after the war (slowly and with much trepidation) and how he blundered into his first detective case, recovering a stolen emerald for his friends, the Attenbury family.

Jill Paton Walsh isn’t Dorothy Sayers, but she’s a good writer in her own right. She’s written several good children’s and young adult books, and if anyone can presume to extend the story of Lord Peter Wimsey, Ms. Walsh has made a good claim on the right to do so with her first two volumes. (I wrote a little about Walsh and Sayers and the Lord Peter books when I first discovered Ms. Walsh’s sequels back in 2004.)

There is a big change in store for Lord Peter in his personal and his public life in this book, and I think Ms. Walsh writes about Lord Peter’s later years (he’s sixty plus by the time this story takes place) convincingly, with respect for Sayers’ creation and with some charm. This older Peter Wimsey is not quite so tortured and emotional as the youthful Lord Peter was, but he’s still just a bit vulnerable and highly attractive.

I recommend all three sequels by Jill Paton Walsh, if you’ve read the original series by Dorothy Sayers and just can’t get enough of Lord Peter Wimsey and his family and his lovely wife, Harriet. If you haven’t read Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, you have a treat in store for you. Get thee to a library or bookstore and read. Here’s a chronology of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories and novels. I’d suggest that you start with the first novel, Whose Body?, and travel through the book-length stories, not worrying about the short stories unless you’re particularly fond of short stories.

Friday Night at the Cinema: All About Eve

We watched All About Eve, a 1950 movie with Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, and Hugh Marlowe. Brown Bear Daughter said it was “the creepiest movie ever, except for Signs and The Village.” Anne Baxter plays what we nowadays would call a stalker; she idolizes actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Ms. Channing is a great actress, but has her own insecurities and character flaws, to say the least. Eve (Anne Baxter) plays off those insecurities masterfully and acts as diabolically as any backroom politician or criminal mastermind.

If you’re in the mood for wickedly entertaining, I’d recommend All About Eve. As a study in idolatry, it’s superb.

According to Internet Movie Database:

In real life, Bette Davis had just turned 42 as she undertook the role of Margo Channing, and Anne Baxter, still an up-and-comer, not only wowed audiences with her performance, but successfully pressured the powers that be to get her nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category rather than Best Supporting Actress. This is thought to have split the vote between herself and Davis. The winner for the 1950 Best Actress was Judy Holliday for her noticeable turn in Born Yesterday (1950), so Baxter’s actions in effect blocked Davis’ chances for the win.

The dialog in the movie is remarkable, like a play since it’s from a different era and it takes place in the world of the New York theatre. Here are some quotes. And here’s my favorite scene:

Semicolon’s September: Celebrations, Links and Birthdays

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman

“It was probably just a silly rumor, but I’d heard that nuns had their heads shaved, and I was afraid they relaxed by taking off their veils and running around bald, something I certainly did not want to see.”

A lot of this book reads like a “silly rumor”. However, some of it is true-to-history, and how is a young adult reader to tell the difference? Were Catholic schools and Catholic nuns back in the 1950’s really repressive and threatening? Probably some were. Were some people blacklisted for Communist sympathies in Hollywood during the so-called “red scare”? Yes, some were. Did those who were blacklisted become so intimidated and frightened by the questions and the pressure from the FBI that they committed suicide? Not unless they were already disturbed and depressed. (The author’s note in the back of the book says that “at least two” of those Hollywood types who were blacklisted committed suicide, but I can’t find any names or independent verification of this fact.) Did children really learn to fear The Bomb and the Reds so much that they worried that airplanes flying overhead might drop a bomb on them? I’m sure some imaginative children did.

Author Karen Cushman lived in California during the late forties/early fifties. I didn’t. She attended a Catholic school. I didn’t.
She says she was taught to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack. I wa taught to go out into an interior hallway and cover my head in tornado drills, but by the time I went to elementary school in the 1960’s, no one was talking about nuclear attacks or fallout shelters to schoolchildren in West Texas. At least, not to me.

So, I’m giving the events in this book the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to read as a straight story. It felt more like a series of caricatures: the angry nun teacher, the poor Jewish liberal actor blacklisted as a consequence of his compassion for the poor and downtrodden, the friend who speaks out and gets herself into trouble, the pious goody-two-shoes who wants to become a nun, the empty-headed teenage sister who’s only interested in fingernail polish and boys, and the bumbling dad who can’t figure out what to do to protect his family from godless Communists and atomic bombs.

Only the narrator, Francine, felt like a real person. Francine is conflicted; she wants to be friends with Sophie, the afore-mentioned outspoken defender of lost causes, but she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Francine is a self-described coward. She’s become accustomed to being overlooked and ignored, and some part of her likes to be unnoticed. The nuns at school and her family at home never ask for her opinion on anything, so Francine isn’t even sure she has any opinions of her own. Francine’s supposed to be a representation of the American public, silent in the face of McCarthyism and persecution of Hollywood Communists. But Francine is more than a symbol. As a character, she insists upon being more complicated and interesting, just as I’m sure the politics and culture of the 1950’s were more complex and multi-layered than this simple presentation would indicate. And the ending is confusing and would be epecially so for those “imaginative young people” to whom I would think this book is targeted. What happened to Sophie and her father? Did the Big Bad FBI put them in a dungeon somewhere? Did they emigrate to Russia? Did they just decide to move and start over elsewhere? The uncertainty is realistic, but annoying, perhaps giving young people the idea that America in the 1950’s was a place like Chile in the 1970’s where people just disappeared never to seen again except as bodies in a mass grave somewhere.
48hbc
It’s a middle school/young adult novel of one author’s experience of the 1950’s, the red scare, and growing up to become a person with thoughts and ideas of one’s own. There’s some humor in the vein of the opening quotation, a decent plot, and one very engaging narrator. In Texas idiom, I’d call it “fair to middlin”.

Reviewed, much more favorably, by Fuse #8.

Picture Book Preschool Book of the Week (12)


Today is the first official day of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere. To celebrate, all the books listed in my curriculum, Picture Book Preschool, for this week have something to do with springtime. One of the best of the best is Springtime for Jeanne-Marie by Francoise Seignobosc.

Z-baby loves this story. The little French girl, Jeanne-Marie, loses her pet duck, Madalon. Jeanne-Marie also has a pet sheep, Patapon, and she and Patapon set off down the river to look for Madalon. Of course, they ask everyone they meet whether or not they have seen a little white duck, but the answer is always “no.” Eventually, Jeanne-Marie and Patapon make a new friend, Jean Pierre, who helps them in their search. And finally, when they have almost given up hope, the children and Patapon find Madalon in a most unlikely place.

The watercolor illustrations in this picture book are beautifully Old World European. There’s also some counting practice involved in reading the story, and the book is just right for three or four or even five year olds who are just beginning to appreciate a simple plot with some repetition and a little surprise at the end. The children, Jeanne-Marie and Jean Pierre, are delightfully innocent and seem to come from the French countryside of about the 1940’s or 50’s, maybe even earlier. The Jeanne-Marie books, of which there are several, were actually published in France in the 1950’s.

I couldn’t find any information on the internet or in my home reference books about Francoise Seignobosc. Does anyone else have any information about this French author/illustrator?

Picture Book Preschool is a preschool/kindergarten curriculum which consists of a list of picture books to read aloud for each week of the year and a character trait, a memory verse, and activities, all tied to the theme for the week. Click on the link in the sidebar if you are interested in purchasing a copy of the preschool curriculum, Picture Book Preschool by Sherry Early.

Cartoon King

He was born on November 26, 1922, and his friends called him “Sparky.” He became “the highest paid, most widely read cartoonist ever.” The very first Peanuts comic strip, written by Charles M. Schulz, appeared in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950.

A few good words from Sparky:

There’s a difference between a philosophy and a bumper sticker.

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.

I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.

I have a new philosophy. I’m only going to dread one day at a time.

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.