The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton


I’ve read S.E.  Hinton’s novel The Outsiders somewhere between 25 and 30 times over the last 13 years.  It’s long been a staple of the 7th grade reading program, sometimes beloved by all, sometimes just really, really well liked.

This year one class loved it, one almost loved it and one really liked it.

You can find standard reviews of it here and on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. if you’re interested.  This time around I thought I’d just offer a few observations knowing full well that these observations all come from reading the book far too many times.

First off, S.E. Hinton really tried to show her literary chops when she wrote the book.  Someone told me that she didn’t do all that well in her English classes, so I suspect she may be showing off here.  Ponyboy is quite the reader: Great Expectations, Call of the Wild, Robert Frost and Gone With The Wind are all specifically mentioned.

But beyond this, there are a couple of hints that could be deliberate.  One, just after killing Bob, Johnny says, “There sure is a lot of blood in people.”  Maybe just something he says, maybe S.E. Hinton referencing Macbeth, “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him.

Later, when Ponyboy finally returns home after days spent hiding out with Johnny one of the reporters interviewing him asks, “What would you do right now if you could do anything you wanted?”   Ponyboy replies, “Take a bath.”  The reporters all laugh.

This one, I admit is really a stretch, but when David Copperfield first arrives at Betsy Trotwood’s home, after running away just as Pony and Johnny did, Miss Trotwood asks her good friend what they should do with the boy.  His reply, “Give him a bath.”

So, is the author showing off here?  I’m probably over-reading the book, but I have read it at least 25 times, so maybe I can be excuse.

The second, and I think much more valid think I noticed this time around, is how S.E. Hinton links individual Socs with individual Greasers.  I can argue that she is looking at how the same character would have developed given differing circumstances.  That Ponyboy and Cherry Valance are two sides of the same coin is obvious after the second or third time you’ve read the book.  They are kindred spirits, they even like the same type of guys.

Bob and Johnny are also linked.   When Ponyboy meets with Randy just before the rumble, he explains how Bob’s parents never really saw him, which is precisely the problem Johnny has with his parents.  The neglect each faced isn’t the same, but what makes it different is really the result of their social standing.

Randy is also linked, in my opinion to Dally Winston.  Randy is Bob’s best buddy, so broken emotionally by Bob’s death that he cannot continue being a Soc.  He leaves town rather than participate in the rumble.  Dally is Johnny’s best buddy, really his brother.  Dally is so broken by Johnny’s death that he commits suicide by forcing the police to kill him.  He famously wants to win the rumble for Johnny.

Pony’s older brother Darry was almost a Soc himself.  At the rumble we meet his former best friend Paul Holden.  The two were once captain and co-captain of the high school football team.  Both are at the rumble reluctantly, both agree to fight the other.

This mirroring of characters is something I noticed before, but not nearly as much as I did this time around.  I think it could make a decent paper.  If someone is looking for a thesis idea, please feel free.

Meantime, I’ll be reading The Outsiders at least twice again next year.  Who knows what I’ll find.

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Did You Double Dog Dare? How Did You Do?

tbr dare 2014Just two days remain until the “official” end of the The TBR Double Dog Dare so I thought this Sunday Salon(ish) post would be a good time to check in and see how everyone did.

I have kept to The Dare this year, but overall, my reading is down from past years. My reading is down overall so this is no reflection on The Dare.  I did find some treasure in my TBR stack– A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr is a new favorite book that I might not have ever read but for The Dare.

My total for The Dare is 18 books, most of them on the short side.  I went after the short books in my TBR stack in a naked attempt to jack up my numbers this time around.  I’ve already culled 15 books that will be going to the Friends of the Library Book Sale un-read, and I’ll probably do another 15 this week once The Dare is over.  If they’ve been on my TBR shelf more than five years, it’s time to admit that I’m never going to read them.

And I will confess that I have a stack of about 20 books waiting to be added to my TBR case.  Remember, The TBR Double Dog Dare was not a book-buying ban.  I could never go without buying books for three months.  So the books I bought along with the ones that came in the mail mean that my TBR list will go down just about 20 books when it could have gone down much more what with the culling and the reading I’ve done.

I can’t say that I really learned anything this time around.  The first time I did The Dare was kind of eye-opening.  Forcing myself to read only what I already owned for three months changed the way I read a little.  But after so many years of running The Dare I’ve become someone who regularly reads from the TBR list.  I’m a lot more picky about what I add to the TBR stack than I used to be now that I so clearly know what happens to those books.

So, I’ve got a feeling that this may be the last time I run this activity.  Who knows how I’ll feel about it come next fall, but if you think you might be interested in taking it over, please let me know.  I’ll be happy to pass the dog leash over.

Meantime, how did you do?  And what bookstore will you be visiting on Wednesday, April 1?  I hope to visit Pegasus Books in Berkeley, one of my new favorites.

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Summer of my German Soldier by Bette Greene

WIN_20150324_183023Bette Greene’s Summer of my German Soldier comes highly recommended by two people whose opinions, and friendship, I highly value.  So there was some pressure for me to like it.  There shouldn’t have been, since neither person would have been all that upset with me if I hadn’t liked it, but there was.

It’s a good book.  I did have a few problems with it, but I’m not sure how much I can really hold the book responsible for them.

The story is about Patty Bergen, a teenager living in small town Arkansas during the Second World War.  Hers is the only Jewish family in the town, but they are just barely Jewish.  They don’t practice or attend services and are distanced from their slightly more observant extended family who all live in Tennessee.  One summer, the friendless Patty is attracted to a young German prisoner of war who stops by her father’s store after a work detail to buy supplies.  When she later finds the German prisoner hiding in her family’s barn, she decides to help him rather than turn him in.

This is a bit of a stretch, really.  Polly’s family is difficult. Her father is borderline abusive.  She has no one other than the family maid to really talk to.  The young German soldier, who speaks English, is really the only person who has ever considered Polly worth talking to seriously.  I can see why she’s attracted to him, as can most readers.  But even in rural Arkansas, it’s difficult to believe a Jewish girl wouldn’t know enough about what was going on in Germany to keep her from helping an escaped German prisoner of war.

Add that to my on-going problem with the sheer number of good Germans in fiction.  I’m really beginning to wonder how it is that the Nazis ever got anyone to go to their rallies what with all these German characters who really don’t like them.  And there is the black maid who just can’t help but be totally devoted to the lonely white girl.  When my family lived in the south, in 1973, we had a black maid; she had her own family just as most people do.

But, Summer of my German Soldier was written in 1973, so maybe I should try to overlook these things.  They were not the tired clichés they have become over the years quite yet.

What really saves the book is the character of Polly.  Though even she has been done before, see Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding for example, Bette Greene does her so well that I was willing to let go of  my other issues long enough to enjoy spending time with Patty Bergen.  I was very glad when she finally got up the nerve to tell her father off, too.

I have two students currently reading the book, a first.  Middle schoolers avoid historical fiction, especially historical fiction without supernatural characters, and this cover really is terrible.  What are they looking at?  A parade of seriousness?  I’ll be interested in hearing what they have to say once they are finished.


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Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire

fanfarloSamuel Cramer, a “passionate atheist” circa 1820 Paris, meets a kindred spirit who happens to be a married woman.  She tells him of her husband’s affair with a popular dancer, Fanfarlo.  As a favor to her, Cramer begins to pan the popular actress/dancer in his daily newspaper column.  After several months he finally meets Fanfarlo who insists he explain himself.

After he tells her that he is in love with her, the two begin an affair which forces her to end the long running affair with the married woman’s husband. The married woman writes Cramer, thanking him.   After many months together, Fanfarlo finds the letter and insists Cramer explain himself once again.  When he tells her that he only began the affair with her to force her to break it off with the married man, she is furious.

That’s the plot in a nutshell of Baudelaire’s only prose work.  Supposedly based on his real life affair with dancer Jean Duvall, Fanfarlo is a slight piece that provides Baudelaire an opportunity to spread his wings a little.  It’s a very funny story, written very in the 19th century so it shows it’s age some.  The novel had not quite been fully formed yet and this is really a novella, really a longish short story if you want to be exact about it.

I found it entertaining with just enough little bits of treasure spaced throughout the story to make it well worth reading.  Here’s a few:

One of Samuel’s most natural failings was to deem himself the equal of those he could admire; after an impassioned reading of a book, his unwitting conclusion was: now that is beautiful enough for me to have written — and in only the space of a dash, from there to think: therefore I wrote it.

He resolutely snuffled out his two candles, one of which was still quivering on a volume of Swendenborg, and the other expiring on one of those shameful books beneficial only to minds possessed by an excessive taste for the truth.

He gave her his volume, The Ospreys, a collection of sonnets, like those everyone has written and everyone has read, at the age when our judgement was so short and our hair so long.

In the midst of what may look like frivolous stuff, Baudelaire manages to make a few profound points about the way passion can adversely affect many people.  I enjoyed Fanfarlo so much that I’m disappointed to know that it’s Baudelaire’s only prose work.  While I do not know his poetry, I would like to have more by him.

Fanfarlo was translated from the French by Edward K. Kaplan.

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Sunday Salon: The secret of making good biscotti.

Later today I will be making biscotti.

Years ago, I had my first homemade biscotti, made by the Italian mother of a friend of mine.  They were delicious, unlike any biscotti I’d ever had.

Instead of being dry and hard, so hard that you risked cracking your teeth by eating them like the ones you’ll find for sale in individually wrapped packets, they were crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside.  There was a brief snap when I bit into them followed by warm Italian-mother goodness.


Not having an Italian mother, what was I to do?  I’m from the Mid-West.

I come from a very long line of very bad cooks.  My mother pioneered the use of frozen vegetables back in the 1960’s along with not just Hamburger-Helper but Tuna-Helper in the 1970’s.  Both of my grandmothers were even worse.  One would never let any food go to waste, even fallen fruit we passed by the side of the road.  She even bought ice-milk instead of ice-cream because it was cheaper.  You can’t get ice-milk anymore, but trust me, it was cheaper for a reason.

My other only discovered the existence of olive oil very, very late in life which sums up her cooking quite well.  When she once tried making bak lava, she thought it would be a good idea to add the basked of blueberries she saw in the market.  It was not a good idea.  Neither my father nor either of my grandfathers cooked anything other than the occasional pancake.  Men of their background did not cook family dinners.

So, with no one to make homemade biscotti for me, I had to become my own Italian mother and teach myself how to make them.

There is a key to making excellent biscotti.  It makes no difference what recipe you use as long as it contains both almonds and anise seeds.  There are people who do not put anise seeds or almonds in their biscotti, but they are generally very sad people.  One should avoid their biscotti.

Simply follow the recipe you’ve found with one exception.  When you go to bake the biscotti reduce the stated cooking time by about one third.

Your biscotti will be delicious.  The outside will cook to a crisp cookie while the inside will stay soft and chewy.

I once gave my biscotti to my friend whose mother introduced me to their wonderful goodness in the first place.

She said, “Not bad,” which is high praise in my book.

Her mother’s biscotti were the best.

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