Monday, September 21, 2015

TTT: It was the Summer of '69

Edited because MY BAD, I forgot to credit the wonderful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish for inventing and sponsoring this link-up extravaganza!  And also because the placement of the book covers vs. historical photos was bugging me.

In which, yet again, Wendy rebels against the topic of the week and makes up her own.  My too-read list is too long and my approach to it too impulsive (and/or too driven by what I can actually get at the library) to let me put together any kind of comprehensive list for you guys.  Instead, I'm going with an idea I had while working on last week's list.

I got my first real six string...

Well, no, I didn't actually.  Instead, I was BORN, which is also pretty exciting and important.  Missed the moon landing by three days, and I think I was in high school before I figured out that the Vietnam War was actually going on when I was alive.  Still, it was 1969, and I was there.

Neil Armstrong.  Photo credit: Buzz Aldrin.  
Putting together last week's TTT list I discovered that, just like me, one of the books on my list was published in 1969.  That got me thinking about which other books came out that year, so I looked it up.  There were some I've never heard of (Flashman, The Sunflower, Travels with My Aunt) and others I've never felt moved to read (Portnoy's Complaint, The Godfather, The Cay).  There were a few that made me think, "Oooh, I probably should have read that by now" (Slaughterhouse Five, a collection of poems by Anne Sexton, and one of Farley Mowatt's delightful memoirs).  I had no idea What To Expect When You're Expecting was around before the 1980s, or that Milan Kundera published a couple of books way back then.

Woodstock, man.
There were quite a few I remember from the collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books we kept at our beach cabin: The Adromeda StrainThe King's Pleasure, Mary, Queen of Scots, Master and Commander.  (For those of you too young or too cultured to know what those are, they were omnibus collections of 3-5 best selling novels boiled down to about 2/3 of their original size, and I believe they were published quarterly throughout the sixties and seventies.  I read both serious junk and rather good books in that format.  Mostly junk, though.  I doubt serious literature lends itself to being condensed.)

The real question, of course, is which books published in my birth year have I read and enjoyed. In no particular order, here they are:

The Beatles looking decidedly groovy.

1.  Betty Crocker's Cookbook by some impersonal company masquerading as a sweet little housewife in order to sell more groceries.
We have a later edition of this book in our pantry even as I write.  I believe my mother-in-law gave it to my husband when he got his own place.  I don't use it a lot, but it is home to my biscuit recipe, my German pancake recipe (both memorized by now, but that's where I got them from originally), and some decent cake recipes.  It's what I check whenever I forget how long and at what heat meatloaf needs to cook.  It doesn't have the same importance in my life that Betty Crocker's Cookie Cookbook does, but it's a solid entry.

2.  Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban
I adore the Frances books (although it turns out they're kind of LONG for nighttime read-alouds).  The arbitrariness of the characters all being badgers, Frances's revealing little songs, the patience of her parents, and the lovely illustrations with those Nesco wafer colors--they're pretty much dripping with charm.

It turns out that this particular one involves a threat of a spanking, so it probably wouldn't fly these days, which may explain why although we've found and read all the others to my children, I don't remember seeing this one since I was a kid.  Some Goodreads reviewers also complain that Frances is disobedient, which is kind of the point, or that her father smokes a pipe, which is retro enough to be a non issue.  I mean, if you're going to complain about that, you can also complain that her mother wears a dress and doesn't have a career, or that Frances's bedtime is awfully early.  Different era, people.  Your kid is not going to take up pipe smoking because they see a badger with a pipe in a picture book.

Also, I did not realize before that Garth Williams illustrated the first book before the author's wife, Lilian Hoban, took over as illustrator.  Williams is one of the few illustrators whose work I recognized as a kid (along with Ernest Shepherd and Quentin Blake), so I'm not surprised that he originated the style for a series with pictures I loved.

3. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
I take that back; I also recognized Steig's art as a kid.  I don't remember specifics about this Caldecott winner, but I do remember Sylvester the donkey being turned into a rock, unable to communicate with his frantically searching parents, and their joy at being reunited at the end.

4.  The High King by Lloyd Alexander
This series was the fantasy series of my youth.  The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit were beloved, but old even way back then.  The High King was the conclusion of the Chronicles of Prydain, but Lloyd Alexander was still writing as I grew up.  There was an excerpt from The Black Cauldron in one of those anthologies read at school, and I went straight from that to the book to the entire series, then to everything else he was writing.  It is Welsh influenced, both dark and humorous, with characters that were more believably flawed than the Pensevie children.  I was reminded of it recently by Poison, because a pig plays an important role in this adventure also.

I'm guessing that men of all colors looking like Barbie dolls while wearing bell bottoms was NOT part of King's dream.

5.  The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
A Victorian tragic romance...or is it?  Fowles plays with the tropes, lifts the curtain behind which the author toils, and injects a sixties spirit into his story.  I never saw the '80s Meryl Streep movie, but I remember the romantic looking movie posters, which inspired me to pick up the book itself a few years later.  I was surprised and happy to realize it was not just faux Hardy, yet neither was it experimental enough to make me feel stupid, and thus annoyed.

6.  I Sing the Body Electric by Ray Bradbury
The title of this short story collection always makes me hum the song from Fame (again, dating myself here) even though it's actually referencing a Walt Whitman poem.  Bradbury is just such an amazing writer, skating smoothly between horror and nostalgia and sci fi and philosophy and humor.  I've been wanting to write a Throwback Thursday post about The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, Bradbury's more famous collections. This collection is not one I remember as well, but after  we read the first two in middle school, I methodically plowed through everything else by him I could get my hands on, and I know this was among them.  It may not sound like a compliment to say Stephen King reminds me of him (though he does), but it's clearly legit to see a connection to Neil Gaiman, given this incredible short story and tribute Gaiman narrates here, called "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury."

My dad told stories about covering Vietnam War protests in Portland.  Hard to imagine.

7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Sometimes I wonder if we're going backwards.  I got pushback on reading The Giver with 8th grade students a few years ago, and I've already written about the actual banning of a YA book from our middle school last spring.  But when I was in ninth grade, we read this searing autobiography, complete with incestuous rape, in class.  Of course, we were assigned it because it's a monumental celebration of the human spirit, not to mention a huge wake-up to call to reality for all the white, middle class kids I grew up with.  (Including me.)  Angelou went on to become one of the most famous poets of our time, and one of the most widely respected female African Americans in general.  To those who would shelter their children from reading this book--that is the very definition of privilege, since Angelou, and thousands--millions?-- of kids still today are living this life, not just reading about it.  Sticking our heads in the sand is not going to improve anyone's life.

*carefully steps down off soap box*

8.  The Promise by Chaim Potok
The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen, which I ALSO read in my freshman English class.  Then I ran out and looked for other works by the same author.  Yes, I have always been a major nerd, why do you ask?  (Man, we read Romeo & Juliet and Cry the Beloved Country that year too.  What was UP with that teacher?  It's like she was trying to educate us or something!)

Part of the fascination may have been the up close look at the life and quandaries of mid century New York Jews.  The local Jewish Academy only went through 8th grade, so freshman year there was an influx of new-to-us students who identified very clearly as Jewish.  They were, of course, a lot like us (did I mention white, middle class suburban kids?) and yet there was something different too, and these books showed me some of that.  Then again, the differences also revealed similarities, because you don't have to be an Orthodox Jew to question the faith of your ancestors, or struggle to balance between two worlds.

9.  Helen Keller by Margaret Davidson
Oh my god, when I was a kid my obsession with Helen Keller was second only to my obsession with Sacagawea.  (See previous comments re: my general nerdiness.)  I can still picture the illustrations that went with the children's biographies I read about both of them.  So yes, when I got older, I read this full length biography.

Biographies tended to be overly glowing when I was a kid, and now I know that all heroes have flaws.  The thing is, Keller's life really does prove that you can do anything if you have enough determination.  And Anne Sullivan proved that the right teacher can literally change your life. You really don't get much more badass than these two. (Unless, you know, you accompany a pack of oafs around the country, keeping them out of trouble, while toting your baby and translating for a teenager.)

10.  Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, and this is one of my favorite books.  If you like science fiction, you must read this.  If you don't like science fiction, you should read this anyway.  Le Guin has joked that she wrote the book just so she could include the sentence, "The King was pregnant."  Because on the planet Hainish diplomat Genli Ai is visiting, all people can become physically male or physically female at various points throughout their life.  More specifically, they periodically enter a state of kemmer, which is rather like being in heat, and at that time take on sexual characteristics of either sex.  But when kemmer passes, they go back to being asexual.  (This makes it challenging for me not to smirk at my kid's pediatrician, Dr. Kemmerer.)  So the same person could father one child and then give birth to another.

That's all pretty great, and gives Le Guin great scope to speculate and imagine what the world might be like if sexism (but not sexuality) was effectively removed from the picture.  SHE PUBLISHED THIS IN 1969, PEOPLE!  I mean, yeah, sexual revolution, women's lib, blah blah blah, but I'm pretty sure most Americans weren't really wrapping their heads around the idea that hetero was not the only option, or that gender didn't have to be destiny.

The book is not all cerebral though, it's an adventure, with political intrigue and daring escapes, and even better, a story of how friendship and love can shake you up and set you down in a new place.  The Hainish people are civilized beyond imagination, the product of centuries of steady development.  Imagine Scandinavia, only more so.  They are the We of these books, and the people they encounter on other planets are the Other.  Yet Ai himself comes to understand that he is not inherently superior to the people of Winter, and he is changed by his time there.

A final comment: The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published that year.  I feel ambivalent about this book.  The structure is cool, especially to kids, and the colors are gorgeous.  I don't really care for the art itself, and even as a kid, the "story" bored me to tears.  I don't loathe it like I do The Giving Tree, and it's not creepy like Love You Forever, but it's not a book I've ever been into.  Still, it's so famous and beloved that I feel weird not mentioning it on this list.  So consider it mentioned.  Coldly.

TL;DR?  Wendy's older than than most of the book bloggers out there, and you need to read Left Hand of Darkness.


  1. "Your kid is not going to take up pipe smoking because they see a badger with a pipe in a picture book." - I love it! So true - give your kids some credit, overprotective parents!

  2. I was also born in 1969, and I confess that never before did I have any curiosity about what books were published in that year. It's fascinating to see the variety, from Betty Crocker to Ursula K. LeGuin. I must read The Left Hand of Darkness soon. (It is on my Classics Club list).


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