Tag Archives: Lucy Mangan

Summer of My German Soldier

It became necessary to take plenty of breaks. Usually this is a sign of a not very captivating book, but with Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier, it was imperative not to read too much in one go, and not because I wanted the book to last longer, either. It was ‘just’ too strong stuff. I needed to brace myself, somehow.

I’d already forgotten that that is what Lucy Mangan says in her Bookworm memoir; ‘when I reread it now, I have to put it down every few pages and walk around for a bit to let it all bed down before I am ready for the next chapter.’ Because it was on her recommendation that I bought a second hand copy of the book.

Bette Greene, Summer of My German Soldier

And if I only have one of her favourites, this has to be the one. Rarely have I come across anything quite like this WWII story about a 12-year-old Jewish girl in Arkansas, who ends up sheltering an escaped German soldier.

Patty is an unusual girl, not loved by her family, but very intelligent, except perhaps when it comes to understanding when not to say some things. Beaten often by her father, it’s hardly surprising she laps up the kindness and politeness Anton Reiker has to offer. They have intellectual conversations and Patty learns about his home in Göttingen.

You know this can’t end well, and it doesn’t. But this must be the best really bad ending to a children’s novel I’ve ever read. Whether I could have coped with reading it in my early teens is another question entirely. Probably not, would be my guess.

Written thirty years after it’s set, I don’t know if Bette describes the American south correctly, but it does feel like it. German soldiers were obviously bad. So were Jews, and also all black people, whose job it was to clean and cook for everyone else. There is unexpected goodness in places, but otherwise this is harsh.

If it was difficult to read for any length of time, then it is harder still to work out what to read next.

I suppose I could reread it…

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Disappearing act

Eleven years after writing about Kriktor the boa constrictor, my thoughts return to this old childhood favourite.

I was reminded of Kriktor’s disappearance from the library when reading about the young Lucy Mangan’s search for The Phantom Tollbooth. Some things are easier today, now that we can search all over the world for almost anything we want or need.

When Lucy’s teacher had read the book to the class, Lucy understandably wanted a copy for herself. But there were none; the library had no longer got it. My Phantom Tollbooth copy is an ex-library one, as was one of Lucy’s subsequent [three] copies, when she finally found them, years after falling in love with the book at school.

We can probably assume that the London libraries near her got rid of this book because they saw no need for it. My Kriktor’s tale was different. He was ‘borrowed’ and never returned. Used for a television programme, I suspect his disappearance was not unusual. Busy people in a busy studio won’t stop to consider one picture book, and whether it should be accompanied ‘home’ to the safety of its library, where more children can enjoy it.

There are other ways of losing books from libraries, of course. I have often thought of writing about the wicked ways of the world here, but stopped before giving anyone ideas.

In my early twenties I had a boss, who told me about this fantastically funny novel she liked, and how hard it had been to source another copy when hers went missing. Eventually one was discovered in a library, and she borrowed it, before going back there, apologising for ‘having spilled coffee’ on the book and offering to pay for it.

All right for her, and as it was anything but a literary marvel, possibly not the end of the world for the library. But it’s the principle of the thing that bothers me.

And then she lent it to me to read.

Before you get too excited, I gave her the book back when I’d read it. I have no recollection of either the title or the author, but she was right; it was very amusing and a fun read. And there was not a single stain of coffee anywhere.

The Phantom Tollbooth

It’s a bit Alice, this book I was telling you about last week. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, so loved by Lucy Mangan that she owns three copies, just to be on the safe side.

Or maybe it’s the Marx Bros, or possibly the Wizard of Oz (which I haven’t read…).

First published in 1961, it forgets to talk down at children. It was written by not-an-author, so that could be why. And it was illustrated by his neighbour, Jules Feiffer, on not very good paper, because he had no idea this might become a classic.

Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth

Just as well, or they could both have got so full of themselves that the book would have been ruined.

The story is about a boy called Milo, who is bored by life and can’t be bothered with most things, until one day he finds a tollbooth in his room and takes his toy car and drives through it, as you do, discovering a whole new, very strange, world.

There is a deliciousness about the language. I mean, did you ever think about jumping to conclusions? There is an island called Conclusions, which you get to by jumping. Milo’s quest is to find Rhyme and Reason (now would be a good time to go looking for these two ladies again), and he and his companions Tock and Bug have many adventures in the oddest of places, while they search.

Strange they may be, but I found all the odd people a lot less odd than those in Alice. I could relate better to the Mathemagician, for instance. And Short Shrift? Obvious, really. And I am always in the Foothills of Confusion. Unless in The Doldrums.

I came to the book as an adult, so can’t see what the young Lucy Mangan saw. I do hope it’s not too late for the children of today to read something like The Phantom Tollbooth. We, and they, and Milo, need stories to engage, and to impart a little learning and to have some fun with language.

(But I imagine it would be hell to translate.)

Plus a phantom Phantom

And another thing I discovered at Waterstones. Book, I mean.

After reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, I knew I needed to read her beloved The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I put it on my Christmas wish list and the Resident IT Consultant sourced a copy and gave me.

Because it was an ex-library copy, he took the liberty of first reading it himself, and he seemed a little confused as to why I’d want it. Well, I didn’t know, did I? Except if it was life-changing for Lucy, then…

Anyway, I was astounded to discover this very book for sale at Waterstones on Thursday. Seemed like the same cover and everything. It was – apparently – a 50th anniversary edition. Made sense to me.

Except, when I got home and searched, I could not find such a cover, and the only 50th edition seems to be from 2011 [book first published in the US in 1961].

Did I hallucinate this Phantom?

Reading it, I can understand how the book had such an impact on Lucy, experiencing it at school where an enlightened teacher read it to the the class. It’s perfect for reading aloud. Although I wonder about the many illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Did the teacher show them every page?

I like the quote [in Bookworm] from Jules, about how he’d have used nicer paper to draw on, had he known it was going to be a classic!

And dear Lucy owns at least three copies of this book. It’s reassuring to find someone who understands about safeguarding against a lack of books at some ghastly point in the future.

A thought for our time

Before we look too deeply into our mince pies, I want to share the quote Lucy Mangan shares in her Bookworm. It’s from one of her ‘older’ children’s books, Summer of my German Soldier, by Bette Greene.

Set in the American deep south, the quote comes from a [hidden] German soldier, who’s made friends with a young Jewish girl, and his explanation of ‘how Hitler succeeded is still my go-to reference as I’m reading the headlines about the rise of whichever new (or ancient) evil is dominating the news cycle that day.

“His first layer is an undeniable truth, such as: the German worker is poor. The second layer is divided equally between flattery and truth: the German worker deserves to be prosperous. The third layer is total fabrication: the Jews and the Communists have stolen what is rightfully yours.”

Evil builds in increments. Your understanding of this basic truth may grow in sophistication and detail over the years, but the earlier and harder you grasp the simple, unchanging bastard fundamental, the better off you’ll be.’

Needless to say, I want to read this book.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading

I want to be Lucy Mangan. We are so alike in many ways, but I haven’t read all the books she has, nor can I write like she does. I want to [be able to] write like Lucy Mangan!

I don’t expect that will happen.

I also want to know what her house/library/bookshelves look like. I can’t conceive how you can keep that many books – in a findable way – in a normal house. Assuming she lives in a normal house.

Lucy Mangan, Bookworm

After reading Lucy’s Bookworm, I now love her parents, too. I especially feel I’ve got to know Mrs Mangan better – and that’s without the letter to the Guardian stating that the Mangans were happy to have their daughter adopted by some other Guardian letter writer.

A friend of mine often mentions the fear induced in millions of people by the four minute warning so ‘popular’ in the 1980s. I’d almost forgotten about it, and never really worried all that much. Little Lucy was extremely concerned, but was reassured by her mother, who clearly knew what the child needed to hear. Basically, it would be in the news, so they would be prepared. They’d not send her to school if the end seemed imminent, and they would all die together at home. Problem solved.

Bookworm is about what one bookworm has read – so far – in her life of loving children’s books. She is not repentant (I must try harder), and will keep reading what she wants, as well as keep not doing all those ghastly things other people like, if she doesn’t want to. That’s my kind of bookworm!

This reading memoir is full of the same books we have all read, or decided not to read, as well as some real secret gems I’d never heard of and will need to look for. Lucy rereads books regularly, but doesn’t mention how she finds the time for all this.

It’s been such a relief to discover that she dislikes some of the same books I’d never consider reading, and even more of a relief to understand how acceptable, and necessary this is. Lucy even has the right opinions on clothes. Very useful to know there are sensible women in this world.

I had to read Bookworm slowly. I needed to savour what I could sense wouldn’t last forever. Although one can obviously reread Bookworm, just as one can other books. (Where to find the extra time, though?)

Growing up a generation – not to mention a North Sea – apart, we didn’t always read the same books. But by now we sort of meet in the here and now, and Lucy ends her book by listing a number of today’s must-read authors, and her judgement is almost completely spot on and correct.

So to summarise; I can read the same books. I can probably not store as many in my house. But I will never be able to write as well. (And I rather mind that.)

(According to Lucy, she loves her young son more than she loves books. Bookworm was given to me – after some hinting – by Daughter, whom I happen to love more than books too.)

Generosity

Translator Daniel Hahn had two pieces of good news to share yesterday. First he won the International Dublin Literary Award with author José Eduardo Agualusa for the book A General Theory of Oblivion. They share the €100,000 award, which is very generous as literary prizes go. Even Daniel’s 25% is a lot of money.

And then Daniel decided to give some of it away again. He’s using half his money to fund a new First Translation Award for the Society of Authors, with an annual £2000 given to a first literary translation, to be shared by the translator and the editor.

But the generosity of people does not end there. Many of our favourite illustrators have donated art to an auction starting tomorrow, in aid of stranded refugees in Greece, via the Three Peas charity. I’ve had a little look, and there are many, many beautiful illustrations that would look great on anybody’s wall. Go on, you have about ten days to bid!

Not surprisingly the dreadful tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower in London has caused many authors to join in to help raise money for the British Red Cross to help residents affected by the fire. Authors for Grenfell Tower can be found here.

As always, there are many interesting and diverse items and services on offer. I quite fancy naming a character in Philip Pullman’s 2nd Book of Dust. I’m guessing that could fetch a lot of money. Or I could go book shopping with Lucy Mangan.