Tag Archives: Harper Collins

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth  as a child for the simple reasons that I missed its publication and was soon too old. So when I read Lucy Mangan’s enthusiastic comments in Bookworm I decided to see what I had missed. She described her delight when it was read to the class by her primary teacher and how she longed for the daily readings. From this experience she found that …

… words weren’t just markings on a page to be passively absorbed and enjoyed but could be tools, treasures and toys all in one. (219 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

What a gift from Norton Juster! She recalled Milo ‘the first unlikeable central character’ she had ever come across. But recalled also the pace, wit, invention, action and wordplay which fell from the pages ‘like sweets tumbling from a bag.’ This, I thought, I should read.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo is introduced as follows.

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (13)

Milo is clever and has lots of books and toys but he has no friends and does not settle to anything, is not interested in what he learns at school and sees ‘the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time at all’. Until one day he finds a package containing a tollbooth in his room and in his toy car he pays his toll and sets out on a journey to Dictionopolis, which is marked on the map that was supplied with the booth.

He arrives in Expectations where he meets the Whether Man and soon finds himself in the Doldrums. He is rescued by the Watchdog called Tock, who will not let him kill or waste time and joins him on his adventures. Later they meet Humbug. They find problems in the land that arise from the banishment of the princesses Rhyme and Reason by two warring brothers. The princesses were banished for refusing to adjudicate between the relative importance of numbers and words.

Our three heroes set off to rescue the princesses, [it is the early ‘60s and the second wave of feminism had not yet broken] meeting on the way such characters as the Spelling Bee, Officer (Short) Shrift, Faintly Macabre the Official Which, Dischord and Dynne and musicians who play colours, the .58 of a child from the average family which had 2.58 children, the Senses Taker and so on. They visited both Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and when they return with the princesses harmony is restored, although squabbling breaks out as soon as Milo makes his farewells.

When the three friends meet the princesses Reason explains the importance of learning, from experience, from mistakes, and for its own sake. When Milo complains about what he has to learn in school having so little significance now she explains,

‘…for whatever you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.’ (234)

And when he returns home and finds that the tollbooth has disappeared, he realises that his books will open doors to other worlds, and there is so much to do.

Here’s Lucy Mangan’s assessment:

It remains a masterfully wrought, glorious, hilarious, life affirming read – a celebration of words, ideas, sense, nonsense, cleverness and silliness but also a love of learning for its own sake. I suspect, in a world in which education is increasingly being reduced to futile box-ticking and forcible rendering into measurable quantities that which can never be made tangible, this is a message that will only become more revelatory and valuable to those lucky enough to hear it. (221 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

Norton Juster

Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. When he wrote this book he was trying to write one for children about cities, having trained as an architect. Apparently he had not, at that point, read Lewis Carroll, which is surprising because Alice in Wonderland is precisely what came to mind when I read it.

Famously he also shared an apartment building with Jules Feiffer, who was just making his name as a draughtsman. Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are an integral part of The Phantom Tollbooth.He captures Milo’s innocence and pre-adolescent energy perfectly.

Norton Juster went on to make a career as an architect and an academic, and he also published more books, some of them for children. None seem to have met with the acclaim of this one. It is, with justification, known as a classic. It is also great fun.

Bookwormby Lucy Mangan reviewed on Bookword in July 2018.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton JusterFirst published in the US in 1961. I used the Harper Collins 50thAnniversary Edition (Essential Modern Classics). 256pp. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

It is easy to see why this book is so popular. When anyone says they are ‘completely fine’ we all know that they are trying to mislead us. Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine, and the reader knows this from the start. She will only get better, with blips on the way. This is an attractive feel-good story that appeals to the misfit in all of us. We want her to feel fine and we are happy to read about how she manages it.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is doing very well: Book Award overall winner 2018;Costa Book Awards Winner 2017; No 1 Sunday Times Bestseller; Women Prize for Fiction long list 2018.

The story of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is just 30, but socially inept. And her face is very scarred. She is a very unreliable narrator, for having told us about her boring job, lack of office or other friendships, a visit to the doctor to beg for more painkillers, and her routines that involve speaking to no one at the weekend and an unhealthy consumption of vodka, she presents herself to the reader in the first chapter in this way:

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I have always told myself at any rate. But last night, I’d found the love of my life. (8)

As she tells her story it emerges that she had a most terrible childhood, her mother being a frighteningly wicked presence, and with a sister who died in terrible circumstances, probably at the hands of their mother. She has lived on her own in Glasgow since leaving care, and worked at the same office job since graduating with a Classics degree. She is a woman of routines, who keeps her distance from neighbours, colleagues and casual acquaintances. It emerges that Eleanor is not even her given name. The reader can see that this young woman has a terrible backstory. The question that hangs over the narrative is what caused Eleanor such pain that she has chosen to live in this way?

The story begins at the point at which Eleanor’s life starts to change. We feel for her excruciating loneliness, and all that she does not have in her life. A new computer geek comes to work at her office and fixes her computer. Raymond befriends her. She conceives a plan to fall in love with a singer, and is horrified when she sees how unrealistic it is. Gradually she begins to see how being kind to people and having them be kind to you alters how she feels about people, and she gradually changes herself to better fit in. There are set backs on this journey of this ugly duckling. The second question for the novel is, how will Eleanor Oliphant become completely fine?

Her outsider status allows her to notice the curious, the odd, and the illogical in the world around her. She is capable of some very funny observations and of some socially excruciating behaviours, and clothing.

One of the receptionists had hosted a party at her flat and invited all the women from work. It was a beautiful flat, a traditional tenement with stained glass and mahogany and elaborate cornices. The ‘party’ however, had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unedifying spectacle; seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators. (96)

In the end, after an unexpected plot twist, Eleanor Elephant is completely fine, and no longer needs to assert this. She has been helped by friends and by counselling, and has taken her own steps to emerge into the world. No longer lonely, we know that she will go on to find romance and deal with what’s left of her demons.

I have read that Gail Honeyman was inspired to write a novel about loneliness having read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: adventures in the art of being alone. Eleanor is a character that emerges from the isolation enforced by her childhood, a childhood in care, an abusive relationship, an unchallenging job and the geography of the city. We are reminded that small acts, open-heartedness and generosity together with a dose of initiative help people to live together.

It is a winning structure, to put all the bad things behind Eleanor, to watch her make mistakes and misunderstand, and then observe her acquire more poise and wisdom and escape.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, published by Harper Collins in 2017. 385pp

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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women retells the Alaskan legend celebrating the fortitude and wisdom of the two old women of the title. As their tribe approaches a difficult winter with few resources, the chief and council decide that The People must move on, but leave behind the two old women who are draining their resources.

Two Old Women by Velma Willis is the 30th in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog.

The Story of Two Old Women

It is the time before Westerners arrived in the Yukon. The People must live off what the land provides. Some years the land is more bountiful than others. The People are moving to their winter quarters but finding it impossible to support themselves. The chief’s decision is a difficult one, but it is argued that these two old women contribute very little, are a burden on the younger folk and moreover they complain all the time. To leave them behind might save the Qwich’in People.

Of course they survive or this would not be a legend. But at first the women are stunned and shocked. It is hard to be abandoned, especially by your daughter and grandson.

The large band of famished people slowly moved away, leaving the two women sitting in the same stunned position on their piled spruce boughs. Their small fire cast a soft orange glow onto their weathered faces. A long time passed before the cold brought Ch’idzigyaak out of her stupor. (12)

Ch’idzigyaak is 80 years old. Her younger companion is 75. In the beginning Sa’ is the stronger in spirit and body.

At that moment, Sa’ lifted her head in time to see her friend’s tears. A rush of anger surged within her. How dare they! Her cheeks burned with the humiliation. She and the other old woman were not close to dying! Had they not sewed and tanned for what the people gave them? They did not have to be carried from camp to camp. They were neither helpless nor hopeless. Yet they had been condemned to die. (12-13)

It is Sa’ who encourages her friend to hope and then to take action.

“Yes in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.” (14)

The imminent death would be dreadful, either from the cold or from hungry wild animals. Predation, as we have learned to call it. The chief’s decision to leave them behind reflects his perception of the old women‘s position as the least useful members of the band.

As winter approaches they set off to find a safe place to shelter, to find food and wood for warmth. As they go they tell each other a little about their pasts, and find that both have been resourceful and have learned survival skills. They meet and overcome difficulties. They support each other through their struggles.

Their survival teaches the rest of the band, when they are reunited, important lessons about perseverance but also about the value of old folk.

The Old Women

Legends are handed down for a reason. They pass on important lessons from the older generation to the younger. This legend of the old women is full of the importance of not giving up: “let us die trying.” And of the mutual value of different people within a community. It reminds us that old women, even if they are whiners, are not ‘old and useless’. The legend tells us that even age does not limit the ability to accomplish what is necessary.

The legend counters the strong story of dependence and decline that old people, especially older women, have told about them even today. As Sa’ says, older people are neither helpless nor hopeless. Much current social debate assumes that older people have nothing to offer as they become increasingly dependent, and that the world and life belongs to the young.

It is no coincidence that this story is introduced as a mother retelling it to her daughter as they collect the wood for winter. It reminds the reader of the harsh conditions that face many people even today. In this short novel these hardships and challenges are made vivid through the author’s personal knowledge of living near the Yukon. The author is from the tribe of the Qwich’in People.

Two Old Women: an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival by Velma Wallis (1993) Harper Collins 130pp

Illustrated by Jim Grant.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Photo credit: The Silmarillion via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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