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The three puddin’ musketeers

January 26, 2014 17 comments

The Magic Pudding (1918) by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)

We swear to stand united, Three puddin’-owners bold.

Lindsay_Magic_PuddingLisa chose The Magic Pudding as my Humbook gift for Christmas and receiving a book starring a pudding is kind of spot on for Christmas, isn’t it? She hoped I could read it along with my daughter but alas, no French translation was found. So it’s just me writing about it now.

The Magic Pudding is a traditional Australian children book, featuring Sam Swanoff, Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and a Magic Pudding named Albert. He’s a steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy who regenerates himself when eaten. So basically, the pudding-owners can’t starve. The story starts when Bunyip Bluegum decides to leave his home to see the world. Along the road, he meets and befriends with Sam and Bill and they decide to travel together. Their magic pudding is much wanted by Pudding Thieves incarnated by a possum and a wombat. The story is mostly about rescuing the pudding from being stolen. The plot is simple enough to appeal to children and an undercurrent of irony lets adults understand that there’s more to it than the apparent story.

When I discovered Lisa’s pick for me, I thought, “Children lit? Piece of cake!” (Or in this case “Slice of pudding!”) How wrong I was. Firstly, I forgot (again) that Australia is far away and that there are many things about the environment that I don’t know about. So I ended up reading on the kindle and with a tablet in front of me set on Google image where I’d look for pictures of wombats, barnacles, bandicoots, bunyips, kookaburra, flying-foxes, possums and wart-hogs. Secondly, I forgot that Australian English is like Canadian French: same language but lots of different words. The definitions of words in the kindle dictionary would often start with “Early 17th century”, which brought the comparison with Canadian French. (Nincompoop, galore). And of course, there’s slang. Fortunately, Lisa came to my rescue and sent me a link to a website for Australian slang.  In addition, there are Hergé-esque insults like ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ which are probably very funny with their Captain Haddock style but were lost on me. Plus, there are distorted words like in this sentence

‘You ain’t poisoned, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘That was only a mere ruse de guerre, as they say in the noosepapers.’

I could guess this one but I still wonder how many of them I missed. The text is also full of songs and has a folk-song musical style like here:

Out sprang Bill and Sam and set about the puddin’-thieves like a pair of windmills, giving them such a clip-clap clouting and a flip-flap flouting, that what with being punched and pounded, and clipped and clapped, they had only enough breath left to give two shrieks of despair while scrambling back into Watkin Wombat’s Summer Residence, and banging the door behind them.

I read slowly, trying to hear the musicality in my head.

And last but not least, I forgot how much children literature can be rooted in the quotidian. The book keeps telling about this steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy and I don’t even know what it tastes like. Initially, I thought pudding was a dessert. The mention of steak-and-kidney in a dessert didn’t bother me, after all, English cuisine has the reputation to be weird and I knew about the ingredients of mincemeat. Then, they mentioned the gravy and everything I had imagined about this pudding crumbled.

Reading The Magic Pudding was an unexpected challenge. It made me think again about how hard it is to know about another country without growing up there. Reading this children book reminded me of all the tiny cultural details that build a country and hold a society together. It was also confusing because I guessed that Norman Lindsay was sending messages to the adults through the apparently innocent adventures of the Pudding Owners against the Pudding Thieves. Bunyip Bluegum speaks like an English aristocrat and Sam and Bill came on a ship but speak like sailors –or English criminals deported to Australia? I wonder if they represent the ruling class and the first settlers in Australia. The Pudding Thieves are a wombat and a possum, typically Australian fauna. Do they represent the natives? I couldn’t help wondering about a metaphorical pudding. Wealth in the form of everlasting food is kept by the pudding owners while the others are condemned to try to steal their share…

Even if it’s been a challenging read, thanks Lisa for choosing this book and for answering my questions while I was reading. I feel a bit frustrated because I know that I didn’t understand everything but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read about this classic of Australian literature for children.

Guest post: Marion reviews The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

August 15, 2012 18 comments

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck French title: Le poney rouge. 1945.

Marion is 11 and she’s my daughter. I’m very proud to publish her first billet about a book we read together this week. She wrote it in French, so I’ll leave the French text and translate it into English for you. I’ll tell you my thoughts about this novella afterwards. If you wish to leave a comment, it would be lovely to write it in French if you can.

Ce livre parle de Jody, un petit garçon de 10 ans qui va à l’école. Il vit dans un ranch en Californie avec ses parents et Billy Buck, le garçon d’écurie. Un jour, son père lui offre un poney qu’il appelle Gabilan. Jody s’en occupe toute la journée sauf quand il est à l’école. Billy Buck est très bon pour s’occuper des chevaux et aide Jody à dresser le poney. Un jour, le poney reste dehors sous la pluie et il tombe malade. Le poney va-t-il survivre ? Jody va-t-il s’en remettre ? C’est un livre émouvant avec à la fois de la joie et de la tristesse. J’ai bien aimé ce livre car il y a de l’aventure et des émotions fortes. Aussi c’était super de savoir ce qui se passe dans un ranch en Californie, comment ils vivent avec beaucoup d’animaux, en particulier des chevaux. J’ai bien aimé les parties de descriptions car on pouvait vraiment s’imaginer les endroits avec les détails. Je me suis posé quelques questions : Jody appelle ses parents « M’sieu et M’dame ». Cela m’a surprise parce que d’habitude on n’appelle pas nos parents comme ça. Donc si vous lisez le livre vous vous poserez peut-être des questions vous aussi…

Infos pratiques : Ce livre est conseillé à partir de 11 ans. John Steinbeck a sorti ce livre en 1945. Les personnages sont : Jody et Gabilan, des amis très proches, Billy Buck,le meilleur soigneur de cheval de la Californie, et M et Mme Tiflin, les parents de Jody.

Translation: This book is about Jody, a ten-year-old boy who goes to school. He lives in a ranch in California with his parents and Billy Buck, their cowboy. One day, his father gives him a pony. Jody names him Gabilan. Jody takes care of him all day except when he’s in school. Billy Buck is very good at taking care of horses and he helps Jody train Gabilan. One day, the pony stays in the rain and gets sick. Will he survive? How will Jody cope with the situation? This book is moving and is both joyful and sad. I liked this book because it includes adventure and strong emotions. It was also great to know what happened in a ranch in California, how they used to live with a lot of animals and especially horses. I enjoyed the parts with the descriptions because I could really imagine the scenery, with all the details. I had some questions: Jody calls his parents “M’sieu” and “M’dame” [Emma: Sir / Ma’am] It surprised me because you don’t usually call your parents like that. So, if you read this book, perhaps you’ll have questions too.

Information: This book is for children over 11. John Steinbeck published this novel in 1945. The characters are Jody and Gabilan, close friends, Billy Buck the best horse raiser in California and Mr and Mrs Tiflin, Jody’s parents.

I hope you enjoyed reading Marion’s thoughts about The Red Pony, which I read in French too, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to include quotes in my billet although I’d love to because Steinbeck’s descriptions of California would be worth quoting.

The Red Pony is composed of three episodes of Jody’s life, a little boy who lives in a ranch in California, near Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. The first one gives the book its title and recalls the moment Jody got a red pony. The second one is about an old paisano, Gitano, who comes to the ranch. He wants to stay here until he dies because he was born in a nearby ranch which is now abandoned. Jody’s father can’t afford to feed someone who can’t work and refuses to keep him. This episode was the most difficult for Marion. I guess a child has difficulties to grasp how poignant it was. The old man has nowhere to go and like an animal, comes to his birth place to end his life. The third episode is about Jody, a new colt and Billy Buck. This time Jody’s father decides that he can have a horse and sends his mare Nellie to the stud to provide his son with a colt. Jody has to wait and take care of Nellie until the colt is born and months are a lot of time for a little boy.

This novella is an incredible glance at the life in such a ranch before WWII. Steinbeck’s love for his native California filters in his descriptions of the surroundings. Life is incredibly violent and instable. Everyone needs to earn their bread and the violence is in the human’s life and in the wildlife. The scene with a harrier hovering an animal which just died is almost unbearable. Carl Tiflin, Jody’s father struggles to repay the loans for the ranch and doesn’t have extra money for fantasies or to take care of old Gitano. He’s a hard man, hardened by a tough life on the ranch. (His father was a disciplinarian. Jody obeyed him in everything without questions of any kind.) He’s used to shutting out any emotion and fails to comforts his son when he needs it.

Billy Buck is the cowboy living on the ranch and he dearly loves Jody. He understands more than Carl Tiflin how much Jody loves his red pony and what it costs him to wait for Nellie’s colt to be born. He’s the one who takes into account the boy’s feelings when he has to make a difficult decision. In the end, he’s the real father figure of the book. Steinbeck doesn’t say it but it gives a new perspective to cowboy’s life: Billy Buck can’t afford to have a family and probably would have loved to have a son like Jody. His life is only made of hard work and a substitute son in Jody. I thought it was very sad.

The relationships between the characters are defined by rank and sex. Billy Buck doesn’t come for breakfast until Carl Tiflin, the master is in the kitchen. Mrs Tiflin is just a woman; she has no first name. The male characters are called by their Christian name and family name but Mrs Tiflin is only Carl’s wife. She has no identity of her own. This also says a lot about the rural society of the time.

I’m not a great Steinbeck fan but this little book is worth reading. It encapsulates the life of rural California, the landscapes, the living conditions and the social rules. All this in a very short book.

Lullaby by J-M. G. Le Clézio

January 15, 2012 14 comments

Lullaby by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. 1978. Lullaby is a short-story (novella?) included in Mondo and Other Stories.

Reading this was a mother-daughter readalong. My daughter had a school assignment; she had to choose a book, read it and fill in a reading form about it. I don’t know how it is in other countries but in France, teachers are sort of fans of reading forms. Lullaby was on the children book shelves at home, among my children books and books I buy for them from time to time. I try to select literary ones from well-knows writers.

Lullaby is a girl who decides she won’t go to high school again. She lives by the sea and she’s uprooted in this town, but we don’t know why. School is a prison except for physics classes. When she ditches school, she starts taking walks on the smugglers path along the sea. The sea here is probably the Mediterranean, according to the description of the landscape and the wildlife.

Lullaby has a secret, her father is away or gone but we don’t know why. She writes him letters, read his letters, let their words fly into the sky. She seeks for freedom by the sea and a connection with her beloved father too. She melts into the natural elements, the sea, the wind, the scents penetrate her being through all her pores and senses.

Lullaby était pareille à un nuage, à un gaz, elle se mélangeait à ce qui l’entourait. Elle était pareille à l’odeur des pins chauffés par le soleil, sur les collines, pareille à l’odeur de l’herbe qui sent le miel. Elle était l’embrun des vagues où brille l’arc-en-ciel rapide. Elle était le vent, le souffle froid qui vient de la mer, le souffle chaud comme une haleine qui vient de la terre fermentée au pied des buissons. Elle était le sel, le sel qui brille comme le givre sur les vieux rochers, ou bien le sel de la mer, le sel lourd et âcre des ravins sous-marins. Lullaby was like a cloud, a gas, she melted in what surrounded her. She was like the scent of the pine trees heated by the sun on the hills, like the scent of the grass with the honey smell. She was the spume of the waves where the quick rainbow shines. She was the wind, the cold blow coming from the sea, the warm blow like a breath coming up from the fermented earth at the bushes feet. She was the salt, the salt that glitters like frost on the old rocks; or the sea salt, the heavy and acrid salt from the undersea ravines.

As always, Le Clézio’s prose is full of poetry. He was born in Nice and although the coast he describes here has white rocks and Greek houses, I couldn’t help thinking about the Estérel coast between Nice and Cannes. I’ve been there many times and Lullaby’s errands on that smugglers path reminded me of mine on the customs officer path along the sea. I know how she finds her way among the rocks, looking for the best passage, climbing under the sun on the heated rocks. I know the scent of the sun on the pine trees mixed with the salty breath of the nearby sea. I was there with her.

Lullaby is a tribute to the sea whose vastness makes us feel Lilliputian. With her overwhelming presence, the sea shrinks our earthly worries to a speck of dust.  

Lullaby ne pensait même plus à l’école. La mer est comme cela : elle efface les choses de la terre parce qu’elle est ce qu’il y a de plus important au monde. Le bleu, la lumière étaient immenses, le vent, les bruits violents et doux des vagues, et la mer ressemblait à un grand animal en train de remuer sa tête et de fouetter l’air avec sa queue. Lullaby didn’t think about school anymore. The sea is like this: it erases the earthly things because she is the most important thing in the world. The blue, the light were immense, the wind, the violent and smooth noises of the waves. And the sea looked like an animal moving its head and wagging the air with its tail.

I’ve spent hours sitting on these rocks, reading in the sun, watching the turquoise water move back and forth, feeling the wind in my hair. I understand Lullaby’s fascination. My daughter knows that path too, she’s been there several times and she has a lot of fun climbing the rocks, reaching a small beach or going by the sea. She also pictured that place when she read Lullaby and she enjoyed the novella because it brought back vivid images of her holidays. She understood that it’s a story about loneliness and travelling in one’s mind.

Such readalongs are tricky for me. On the one hand, I enjoy reading her books and discussing them with her. It’s an opportunity to share and nourish the pleasure of reading in her. On the other hand, I feel like an intruder. Reading is something personal and you shouldn’t be obliged to talk about what you’ve read if you don’t feel like to. So I’m not asking too many questions, I don’t push too far; I leave to the teacher the disagreeable role of pulling out emotions and analysis from her.

 

Please, draw me a sheep!

August 28, 2011 14 comments

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1943.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I was eleven and I loved it. This summer I decided to read it along with my children. The Narrator – possibly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – is an aviator whose plane is out-of-order in the desert. He’s trying to repair it when a little boy with golden hair comes to him and asks « Please, draw me a sheep » The Narrator draws the sheep and starts chatting with the Little Prince. He comes from a tiny planet with three volcanos and a rose. The Narrator assumes the planet is the Asteroid B612. The Little Prince left his planet because he thought his rose was too demanding. He relates his journey to the Earth, going from one planet to the other and meeting with strange people. All the issues are still relevant or have become bigger or more urgent since 1943. Through a candid Little Prince and his exploration of foreign planets, Saint-Exupéry questions the exploitation of natural resources, our greed, our respect for processes until absurdity, the domination of the West on other cultures, the dictatorship of appearance.

My favourite ones are the businessman and the lamp-lighter.

The businessman thinks he owns the stars and spends his time counting them. The Little Prince is rather puzzled:

– Comment peut-on posséder les étoiles? – A qui sont-elles? Riposta, grincheux, le businessman.- Je ne sais pas. A personne.- Alors elles sont à moi, parce que j’y ai pensé le premier.

– Ça suffit?

– Bien sûr. Quand tu trouves un diamant qui n’est à personne, il est à toi. Quand tu trouves une île qui n’est à personne, elle est à toi. Quand tu as une idée le premier, tu la fais breveter: elle est à toi. Et moi je possède les étoiles, puisque jamais personne avant moi n’a songé à les posséder.

How can you own the stars?  – Who owns them?, the businessman retorts curtly– I don’t know. Nobody.– Then they are mine because I thought about it first.

– Is that enough?

– Of course. When you find a diamond that doesn’t belong to anybody, then it’s yours. When you find an island that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s yours. When you’re the first to have an idea, you take out a patent for it. It’s yours. And I own the stars since before me, nobody ever thought of owning them.

Aren’t there people who now sell parts of the moon?

The lamp-lighter has to light the street lamp at night and switch them off in the morning. He can’t sleep because on his planet one day lasts one minute, so he spends his time switching on and off the street lamps. It was different before, days became shorter but the man lives according to the book. It says to switch the street lamps on and off once a day and that’s what he does whatever the cost or how absurd it is. He can’t adjust or use his good sense and act differently.

Then there’s the part on Earth. In our times of frantic social networking and calling « friend » a person met by a random click on Facebook, children should all read The Little Prince and discuss with an adult the passage with the fox. The Little Prince encounters a fox who wants to befriend with him. The fox says « you must tame me »

– Je cherche des amis [dit le petit prince] Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser »?- C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »- Créer des liens?-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde… – I’m looking for friends, [the Little Prince says] What does ‘to tame’ mean?– It’s a long forgotten thing, the fox says. It means « to create bonds… »– To create bonds?– Of course, the fox says. For me, you’re still a little boy, similar to 100 000 other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me. For you I’m only a fox similar to 100 000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. To me, you’ll be unique. To you, I’ll be unique…

Friendship is not a declaration (or a click), it needs time to settle, to build and that’s what the fox teaches to the Little Prince. In that chapter, the Little Prince also learns about love. He discovers that his rose is unique and that friendship and love go along with some responsibility. You receive love but you have to care about who gives it to you.

I had forgotten about the businessman but I remembered this part. I recalled this book as full of light. Years later, I still think it’s a fantastic tale, a concentrate of humanism and goodness. Saint-Exupéry wrote this in 1943, during dark ages for Europe. I wonder if it was a way to forget the war and its horrors. He was lost at sea in 1944. He probably never knew about the Holocaust. I wonder what this knowledge would have done to his faith in humanity.

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