Retro Review: The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

When I look back at the books I loved as a child I think of the books by Judy Blume, Dr. Seuss, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the poetry of Shel Silverstein. I think of the classics and think of getting lost in a world of fairy tales, myths, legends, and folklore.

And then there is the Newberry Medal Winner The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.

Even as a little girl I was a bit of a fashionista. I played dress up and adored my Barbies. I even made clothes for my paper dolls.

The Hundred Dresses is about two classmates and besties, Maddie and Peggy. Wanda Petronski is their classmate.

Wanda has a funny last name, lives in a scary place called Boggins Heights, and her family is very poor, not exactly a recipe for popularity.

Wanda also wears the same raggedy dresseveryday, which her leads her classmates to tease her, including Maddie and Peggy.

Wanda tells her classmates she has a hundred dresses at home. She has to be lying. If this is true why does she wear she wear the same dress? The girls continue to tease Wanda. They are total bullies.

Then one day Wanda isn’t in class. It turns out she won’t be back. The Petronski family are moving.

Soon after the class learns about Wanda’s hundred dresses, conveyed by her creative and artistic talents.

Though released in 1944, The Hundred Dresses is very important book. Bullying still exists and people deemed as different are still demonized.

But on a positive note, The Hundred Dresses is an inspirational tale of how art and creative expression can be an act of healing and human connection.

I loved this book as a child, truly appreciate it as an adult. Estes’s writing is warm and heartfelt. And Louis Slobodkin’s impressionistic illustrations are lovely.

The Hundred Dresses is a tale that endures.

IMG_20190807_174957

Retro Review: The Child Who Never Grew by Pearl S. Buck

For the longest time I only knew multi-award winning author Pearl S. Buck through her classic The Good Earth, among other notable works of both fiction and non-fiction.

But Buck was also a mother of daughter with special needs, a daughter named Carol, which I was made aware of this when I came across Buck’s slim memoir about raising Carol called The Child Who Never Grew. And it at turns, bittersweet, wise and very touching.

When Carol was born she seemed perfectly normal and healthy. Buck and her husband felt truly blessed. But it wasn’t long before they realized Carol wasn’t developing at the same rate as other babies. In fact, Carol’s cognitive abilities would never surpass that of a four year old child.

Devastated, yet determined to do right by Carol, Buck and her husband arose to the challenge of raising a child with “mental retardation,” finally sending Carol to a facility most suitable to address her needs in Vineland, New Jersey.

The Child Who Never Grew is brutally honest on the “stigma” of raising a child like Carol but also the compassion that was so needed and desired by Buck and her husband, and most a beneficial to a person like Carol. I was also impressed on how Carol was looked at in the western culture of the United States and the culture of the far east. This book is also interesting on how we’ve come in our society when it comes to the lives of children and adults with special needs.

A book filled with heartache and triumph, The Child Who Never Grew isn’t just a memoir of mothering a child who is “different,” it is an amazing look at motherhood itself.

Retro Review: My Way of Life by Joan Crawford

When it comes to a film diva’s way of life I can’t help but think of Joan Crawford. Certainly she was so much more than using evil wire hangers to beat her kids and being hailed as Mommie Dearest, right?

Well, of course one of the first ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age is full of wisdom, so what a blessing it was to find Crawford’s book My Way of Life, a book written long before Gwyneth Paltrow thought up “unconscious coupling” and told us to stuff vagina eggs up our tampon tunnels via her lifestyle website Goop.

My Way of Life is part memoir/part self-help book. Published in 1971, long after Crawford’s heyday and just a few years before her daughter Christina told us her tale of the abuse she and her siblings were slung at the hands (and yes, wire hangers) of “Mommie Dearest.”

My darlings, Crawford just knows we are clueless when it comes to our love lives, our careers, our households, our looks, our child rearing and our entertaining skills. And she’s only too willing to help because she’s a giver. Plus, she does this with a lot of juicy Hollywood tales and a steaming heap of name dropping that TMZ’s Harvey Levin and Perez Hilton would sell their mothers for!

Now, I’m sure most of you know some of the common sense ideas Crawford pontificates upon in My Way of Life. You’re very own Mommie Dearests probably taught you these things when you were growing up. You should always prepare for the day by writing down a to-do list, or as Crawford calls it “plan of action,” and it’s best to do this the night before. No matter what, remain confident and positive. And it’s a good idea to have your day’s outfit already laid out and cleaned and pressed.

Okay, but what else Joanie?

Well, we should never let our husbands know about childrearing and cleaning routines. Apparently, they can run Fortune 500 companies or run a country, but that can’t handle changing a diaper or loading the dishwasher.

Crawford also tells us to not to get fat and ugly or a man will leave us for another woman.  But a man should never catch his wife without a full face of make-up on or with curlers in her hair.

When it comes to eating Joan admonishes us to never serve a dish featuring the colors red and yellow together. Well, there goes my corn, tomato and basil salad. And Crawford wasn’t exactly fond of butter, potatoes, cheese and avocados. You’ll get my butter, potatoes, cheese and avocados out of my cold, dead hands.

When it comes to making your figure slim and chic, Crawford advises us to never sit on a soft chairs because it spreads out one’s hips. And here I thought my curvy hips was due to genetics.

Scrubbing the floor is great exercise. If you want to go without a bra you should swim for it’s good for the chest. Well, sorry, but my girls need a house.

Crawford is full of advice when it comes to beauty and fashion. Moisturizing is key. Or as Crawford puts it, “Moisturizer is probably the most blessed invention of the past two decades” (Dr. Jonas Salk, “Bitch, please!”)! We should never have our face in a sour, disagreeable expression because it makes us ugly.

Ahem…

smiling-gives-you-wrinkles-resting-bitch-face-keeps-you-pretty-quote-1

As for our wardrobes, Crawford has a lot of advice on extolls the virtues of matching, hats, gloves, and jewelry. And never dress for yourself; dress for the man in your life.

Did I mention men? Yes, according a Crawford thinks a woman needs a man like a fish needs water. And she isn’t reticent on how to please our husbands. For instance, learn about every aspect of his life including his job (as for you having a job? Well, your husband is your job, silly!). It doesn’t matter if your man pumps gas for a living or is the Chairman of the Board for Pepsi-Cola like Crawford’s fourth husband Alfred Steele. Make his career your career and he’ll be happy morning, noon and night. Also, never let you man know about the mundane aspects of your life. You’ll just bore him. Let him know nothing of household purchases. Goodness, don’t you ever let hubby see that box of Kotex or his testicles will shrink into Rasinettes.

As for childrearing you ask? Well, never once does Crawford mention wire hangers as a method of discipline. But boy does she know how to raise kids. According to My Way of Life. Crawford is the perfect mother.

For the most part, I couldn’t help chuckle and roll my eyes while reading this book. However, I did think it had some good advice on keeping healthy with both exercise and good, decent non-trendy food choices. I do think some of her fashion advice was pretty timely even today like finding your own style, choosing your clothes for your way of life and find the colors that make you most happy. I also appreciated her praise of sex, not just for one’s man but for one’s self, too. She also mentions about the importance of relaxing after a long, hard day, advising readers to put the phone away, have a glass of wine and have a good conversation with people you love.

Yes, a My Way of Life is dated and a bit silly, but it’s still a fun read in our age of Kardashian, and one retro read I can highly recommend!

Retro Review: The Ways of Folks by Langston Hughes White

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. He was a prolific writer, poet, playwright, author and activist. As a young man, Langston led a complex and adventurous life both in the United State and abroad, which undoubtedly influenced his writing style and his outpouring of work.  He was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, a collective of African-American writers, artists, performers, and activists, which included Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Alan Locke, Claude Toomer, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong.

Intrigued by both the Harlem Renaissance and its key players, I found myself drawn to Hughes collection of short stories The Way of White Folks. And though it was published in 1934, I find it immensely timely in 2017.

Langston’s stories fully express the lives of black people, especially when dealing with white people, during the 1920s and ‘30s, even those so-called good liberal white people who only seemed to be on the side of “colored people.” These stories are at turns sad and humorous, and not one of them rings a false note.

The Way of White Folks consists of 14 powerful short stories. It opens with “Cora Unashamed.” Cora of the title is Cora Jenkins who lives in small town called Melton. She is considered a “Negress,” that is a polite, unassuming, and quiet colored lady. She works for the Studevants, who sadly to say, don’t treat her in a favorable manner. And Cora accepts this because due to her race and her sex, she doesn’t have much power.

Cora does everything for the Studevants. She cleans cooks, runs errands and takes care of the children. But to the Studevants, Cora is just a servant, nothing more. She should be grateful for the job.

But she is so much more than a servant. She is quietly strong. She once had a passionate love affair. And as the “Cora Unashamed” unfolds proves to be far more bold and passionate than she lets on unleashing a very surprising and interesting dénouement.

In “Home,” the protagonist, Roy Williams  goes back to his home in the United States after many years of making a living as a jazz musician, traveling all over Europe. Roy contemplates how his experiences in both cultures as a black man are similar and different.

The Colony, a collective of black artists and intellectuals, is splendidly examined in the chapter called, “Rejuvenation of Joy.” These talented people convey both the good and bad of The Colony and what they face when not in their protective and inspiring community of shared experiences.

The final chapter “Father and Son” tells the tale of Colonel Thomas Norwood’s relationship with his black mistress Coralee Lewis and their biracial children. Colonel Norward takes advantage but doesn’t offer advantage to these children. And his attitude is best summed up in the dejected and heartbreaking words of his son, Bert.

“Oh, but I’m not a nigger, Colonel Norwood. I’m your son.”

Although I finished this book several days ago, I still feel them greatly. I have very little in common with Langston Hughes. I am a privileged white woman born and raised after the age of Jim Crow. Yet, I’d like to think it’s my deep well of empathy that made me love this book, but I also grew up in a small town where people still harbor the racist ideas of the white folks in this collection. When it comes to works of culture and art, we don’t only see them as they are; we also see them as we are.

But for the most part, the reason why The Way of White Folks cuts so deep is due to the book itself, and Langston’s gifted, soulful way with the English language. It is a book that will take a figurative spot within my soul, and one I can truly say is placed on my book self.

Retro Review: Every French Man Has One by Olivia de Havilland

every-french-man-has-one

“In France it’s assumed that if you’re a woman you are sexy, and you don’t have to put a dress on to prove it, too.”

And it was that sentence from the chapter “The Look I Left Behind” from Olivia de Havilland’s collection of essays Every French Man Has One that utterly enchanted me and reminded me why I’m such a Francophile and a lover of classic Hollywood.

Most of you best remember the iconic Miss de Havilland for her role as Melanie Wilkes in the film classic Gone With the Wind. But she also starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Snake Pit, and one of my favorites, The Heiress, for which she won a very much deserved Oscar for Best Actress.

Miss de Havilland is still with us at 100-years-old and makes her home in Paris, France. So I felt it was only befitting to read her memoir Every French Man Has One (published in 1962), which chronicles her early days in Paris with her French husband Pierre and her children Benjamin and Gisèle.

Like a lot of Americans de Havilland was both charmed and confused by the French culture, language, traffic, food, people and customs. But being a plucky sort, she chose to rise to each befuddling occasion with humor and an open mind.

Throughout Every French Man Has One de Havilland delights the reader with her elegant yet down to earth writing style. Yes, she is a movie star and quite privileged; most of us don’t associate with the high society and famous people, and most of us don’t have maids. But de Havilland’s musings on tackling learning a new language or learn a foreign custom (and often failing at the attempt) is quite amusing and easy to commiserate with. I remember my high school French lessons didn’t quite help when I got to go to Paris many moons ago. Needless to say, I ordered a lot of café au laits during my brief time in the City of Light.

There were other segments of Every French Man Has One that completely enchanted me like how American women and French women approach everything from fashion to cooking to rearing children.

Every French man fully exposes de Havilland’s honest self-awareness without slipping into narcissistic self-absorption that seems to have a grip on today’s celebrities (Lena Dunham, I’m looking in your direction).

Now for those of you who are looking for some sordid Hollywood gossip, well, you won’t find it in Every French Man Has One. de Havilland is a class act and a keeper of secrets, which is quite refreshing as her is her breezy and witty writing style.

Another thing I liked about Every French Man Has One was how each chapter can be read piecemeal; yes this book is a memoir but it is done in an essay style format. And every reader will find a chapter that is a true standout.

Now as for that elusive title, Every French man Has One. Is Olivia de Havilland referring to what your think she is referring to? You’ll just have to read the book to find out…

Reading to Reels: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

838488For Gene Wilder (RIP). Thank you so much Mr. Wilder for being a wonderful memory and an icon of my pop culture loving childhood. You will be missed.

Can you believe the much beloved movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is now over 40 years old? It seems just yesterday my sister and I were sitting in front of the television, transported to a world of candy, Oompa Loompas, bratty kids who get their just desserts and of course, the mysterious Willy Wonka. My sister and I loved this movie and we watched every broadcast.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is based on the classic Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Played by Gene Wilder in the film, Willy Wonka is the reclusive proprietor of a world-famous chocolate factory. In the beginning, Willy Wonka makes a huge announcement. He is granting five lucky people a chance to tour his factory, learn some of his tricks of the candy trade and win a lifetime of free chocolate. The catch? You must first purchase a chocolate Wonka bar, and if one of those bars has a golden ticket, you are a winner. The world loses its collective shit and the media goes wild for the story (and this is the pre-Internet days). Who will win the golden ticket?

One person who would love to win a golden ticket is Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum). Charlie is good hearted but his family is broke. Even buying a simple candy bar could put a dent in the Bucket family budget. But somehow Charlie gets the money, and he purchases a Wonka bar. Charlie rips open the chocolate bar with anticipation, and low and behold, there lies a shining golden ticket!

However, before Charlie arrives at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, he is offered a proposal by the devious Arthur Slugworth, the owner of a rival chocolate factory. Slugworth wants Charlie to steal Wonka’s secret recipes, most ideally, Wonka’s recipe for his latest creation the everlasting gobstopper. Will Charlie succumb to Slugworth’s shady plea, or will he stand by his convictions and not steal the recipe?

Being a minor, Charlie has to bring along a chaperone to tour Wonka’s chocolate factory. Charlie brings along his beloved Grandpa Joe played by the irascible Jack Albertson (yep, the “man” from Chico and the Man). Along for the tour are four other rather vile children, and their equally vile parents. First there is the gluttonous Augustus Gloop who doesn’t say much but sure loves to stuff his face. Violet Beauregard talks a mile a minute and is always chomping on a piece of gum. Mike TeeVee is obsessed with television and pop culture (wait, this is a bad thing?). But most odious of all is Veruca Salt, a spoiled, entitled brat. Hmm, if Veruca existed today she’d probably have her own reality show on Bravo.

Willy Wonka meets the winners and their adult chaperones at his factory’s elaborate gates. After freaking everyone out by pretending to be feeble, falling, and then finishing his “fall” with the perfect somersault, Wonka invites Charlie and the gang into the factory. Before anyone can go further they must read and sign a very elaborate contract, which pretty much looks like the contract you had to sign when you got your credit card. Now it’s on to the tour of the magical Wonka factory.

The first room the winners visit is a totally edible garden with flowers, mushrooms and a chocolate river. The winners also meet the Oompa Loompas, Wonka’s vertically-challenged, green-haired, orange-skinned helpers. Veruca Salt tells her daddy, “I want an Oompa Loompa right now” because she’s a snotty bitch, and you pretty much realize she is going to work your last nerve. However, it is Augustus Gloop who is the first to be eliminated from the tour when he falls into the chocolate river and gets sucked up in a large tube.

Still, the tour goes on. The winners and their chaperones visit magical room after magical room. They even go on a crazy boat road right out of a bad acid trip (it was the 1970s). Throughout the tour, the kids misbehave and are punished. Even Charlie gets up to some mischief. He and Grandpa Joe sneak into a room to try some Fizzy Lifting drinks, and start floating up towards a menacing whirling fan on the ceiling. Will they be beheaded? Fortunately, Charlie and Grandpa Joe find out belching will help them get their feet back on the ground, and they join the others on the tour.

At the end of the tour, only Charlie is left. However, Wonka finds out about the Fizzy Lifting drink fiasco, and he is pissed! He denies Charlie the ultimate prize because he defied the contract’s rules. Charlie turns to leave dejected, but not before he hands Wonka the Ultimate Gopstopper he swiped to give to Slugworth.

But all is not lost! Wonka turns to Charlie and tells him, “You won!” It turns out Slugworth is not rival and a spy; he’s actually one of Wonka’s employees and his name is Wilkinson. The Everlasting Gobstopper predicament was actually a test, and Charlie passed!

As the movie ends, Wonka leads Charlie and Grandpa Joe to the “Wonka-vator.” The Wonka-vator is an elevator that goes up, down and in all other directions. The Wonka-vator blasts through the factory’s ceiling and flies over the city below. It is at this time Wonka tells Charlie that the factory is his once Wonka retires.

I loved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a kid, but I saw it again as an adult and I loved it even more. There is something so subversive about it, but at the end the good kid wins out. Sure, Charlie isn’t perfect but his heart is in the right place. And the bad kids are punished which totally fills me with schadenfreude. Jeff Gordinier even covers this in his book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep from Everything Sucking.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was later remade in 2005 and starred Johnny Depp; but to me, Gene Wilder owns the role of Willy Wonka.

And while doing research for this piece I found out some interesting trivia. Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregard) totally crushed on Peter Ostrum. I can’t say I blame them. He was adorable. And speaking of Peter Ostrum, Charlie Bucket was his first and last film role. He’s now a veterinarian.

What else? The flower-shaped cup Willy Wonka drinks from in an early scene was made from wax (ew). However, many of the props found on the set like the giant mushrooms were edible. Jean Stapleton was slated to play Mike TeeVee’s mom but had to back out due to another acting role. You probably know her best as Edith Bunker from the 1970s classic TV show All in the Family. And Julie Dawn Cole admits to hating chocolate!

I don’t have kids, but I do have a niece and nephew. And I’d love to share Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with them. And I bet there are a lot of Gen X parents and aunties and uncles who have done just that.

Retro Review: My Ántonia by Willa Cather

my-antonia1Willa Cather has written several novels, My Ántonia being one of her most famous. My Ántonia is written from the point of view of Jim Burden to a friend of his. Jim Burden is a successful attorney living in New York City. But in his youth, he lived in Nebraska where he lived with his grandparents after the death of his parents. Both he and his acquaintance are friends with Ántonia Shimerda, who was an immigrant from Bohemia, and whose family were trying to make a new life in a new country so different from where they came from. Ántonia Shimerda is the main focus of Burden’s memories of his Nebraskan youth.

Burden first meets the Shimerdas while traveling from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. The Shimerdas become neighbors of Burden’s grandparents when they take up residence at a neighboring farm. Burden becomes friendly with the entire family, but he becomes closest to Ántonia for the simple fact they are quite close in age and they decide to explore their new homes in Nebraska. Burden also agrees to teach Ántonia the English language so she can become more familiar and comfortable in her new homeland.

Early one winter, Ántonia’s father takes his own life. Ántonia and her family are left devastated. Jim and his grandparents do their best to comfort the Shimerda family. But sadly, their grief is almost too much to bear, and Burden and Ántonia’s friendship is seriously tested.

Years go by, and Burden and Ántonia become reacquainted when they find themselves both in the same city. Several years older, Ántonia is working as a housekeeper for the Harling family. Burden and Ántonia rekindle their friendship. At this point in the novel, Burden recalls Ántonia spending her off hours at various dances and other fun social events.

Burden soon graduates from high school and is about to embark on his college studies. But before he leaves, he and Ántonia decide to travel to the country with their friends where they reminisce about their younger years.

While in college, Burden becomes very close to a young lady named Lena Lingard, who is also a friend of Ántonia’s. But his future beckons him, so he moves back east, arriving at Harvard to finish up his education.

Meanwhile, Ántonia faces another cruel obstacle when the boy she was supposed to marry leaves days before the wedding. Ántonia is also pregnant and after giving birth, struggles to raise her child as a single mother. Horrified by Ántonia’s lot in life, Burden comes back to Nebraska to help Ántonia any way he can.

However, Burden has his own life to live. He moves back east soon after, becomes a successful attorney. Ántonia marries and has more children. She is happy and Burden is happy for her. With his money, he is able to help Ántonia and her family. At the end of My Ántonia Burden reminisces how this woman, from the time they were both children, shaped his life, both the good and the bad.

My Ántonia is not just the story of two people. It is the story of our American ancestors who tried to make a life of the rough terrain of the frontier, some who were recent immigrants, and others whose family had been living in America for generations. My Ántonia tells of embracing both family and community. It’s a story of challenges and successes, trials and triumphs.

What I love about My Ántonia is how Cather captures me with her descriptions of a girl I feel I know and all through the lens of man, Jim Burden. Often, when women’s lives are told through the memories of men they are so one-dimensional and fulfill limited themes-the silly little girl, the sainted wife and mother, the lonely spinster, the “good time girl” and so on. But Ántonia is so vivid and real as is the landscape of America in her younger years. Published in 1918, My Ántonia remains a classic, one that should be read and treasured for years to come.