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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Ballet Shoes

It's children's books day today with the Somervillain ... another one I've been thinking about recently is "Ballet Shoes," by Noel Streatfeild. This one is set in 1930s London and follows the fortunes of three foundling girls, the Fossil sisters, as they make their way in the world.

As with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, all three major hair colors are represented. Pauline, the eldest, is platinum tressed, a gifted young actress, and was rescued as an infant from a shipwreck that sounds suspiciously like that of the Titanic (icebergs were involved). Brunette Petrova likes cars and airplanes, and only puts up with the family stage-training scheme to help out with household expenses. Littlest Posy, a ballet prodigy, has red curls and is, frankly, a bit of a brat, no matter how much the authorial voice tries to tell us we can't really hold it against her because that's just Posy. Sorry, Posy, hold it against you I do.

It's a strange story, with endless descriptions of the clothing the girls wear for dancing (lots of velvet and muslin, satin rompers, and something called tarlatan), along with highly detailed agendas of their daily activities -- in addition to dance lessons, there are morning lessons in the nursery, a brisk walk to the Victoria & Albert and back (all nicely brought-up children must have a daily walk, Nana says), and, of course, tea.

Finding the money to pay for things is a major theme, and all expenses are parsed in terms of complex combinations of shillings and pence, quite baffling to the non-British, contemporary mind.

None of this sounds particularly compelling, and yet when I recently reread the book, I found I couldn't put the darn thing down.

Part of its appeal has to do with its honesty about the heartless competition in the show business world, and the importance it puts on appearance. Petrova frets she won't get a part because of an unfortunate sty that's appeared on her eye ("Don't look at her sty more than you can help," Pauline urges the director), and at one point the sisters come to the aid of the hapless Winifred, the best student at their school, but so poor and overburdened at home that she keeps showing up late to auditions in a rumpled mess. Unlike the Fossils, Winifred doesn't have magic-seamstress Nana, who just happens to know where to buy good material for cheap, and manages to whip up new outfits for her girls in a single evening.

The story doesn't shy away from taking its protagonists down a peg, either. Pauline gets a big head when she stars as Alice in Wonderland in a professional theater production ("Pauline Learns a Lesson"), with consequences humbling enough to make a reader cringe. Lucky for her, Nana is there with solace ... in the form of a big bowl of bread and milk. Apparently, this is a great treat.

Next week -- on Boxing Day -- lucky Britain gets to enjoy a new television adaptation of the story, featuring Emma Watson as Pauline, in her first role since that of Hermione Granger. (Some devotees of the book are annoyed by the less-than-platinum tone of Watson's hair, as though that were the most important thing about the portrayal of the character. As I've said, hair color is very important in stories for girls.)

Watch the trailer and it becomes clear the production is basically a costume drama gateway drug for young girls. They'll never be able to just say no to "Pride and Prejudice" now. As for me, it's already far too late -- all I can do is hope I don't have to wait too long for "Ballet Shoes: The Miniseries" to make it stateside.

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Deep Valley Girls

The fictional town of Deep Valley, Minnesota, that is. Meet Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, best friends and stars of the Betsy-Tacy books, a series based on author Maud Hart Lovelace's own childhood in turn-of-century Mankato, Minnesota.

These stories were favorites of mine growing up, and last year I had the pleasure of sharing the first book with my goddaughter, Roxy, then six years old, who ended up loving the characters, too. This spring she came to Boston with her mom for our wedding, and during a grownups-only brunch at our house she wisely retired to my office, where we later found her sprawled on the floor reading: she'd located my old copy of "Betsy, Tacy, and Tib," the second book in the series, and was eagerly gobbling it up.

So these dolls were part of her Christmas present this year: that's Betsy with the perky brown braids, Tacy with the long red ringlets, and Tib with the fluffy yellow curls. (So much in books for girls depends on hair, doesn't it?) This illustration from the book, glued to the top of the box where I stored the dolls, shows each girl with her differentiating hair look.

If you're the sort of person who's not ashamed to read children's books, I highly recommend these. The early ones are written simply, but explore surprisingly complex emotions in their gentle way, and later on when the girls reach high school you get the fun of house parties, pompadours, and hearts won and lost on the skating pond (this is Minnesota, after all).

Take it from Roxy and me: it's never too late to have a happy Deep Valley childhood.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Wrapped Up

Does wrestling with piles of gift wrap, ribbon, tape, and scissors at holiday time make you feel like an unwieldy octopus with tangled tentacles and a Santa hat?

Wipe away your tears, gentle elves, for I am your humble authority on Perfectly Wrapped Presents.

Turns out there actually are a few tricks to make things easier ... and if you use light blue paper and white ribbon like I did for the photos in this article, you get the added benefit of pretending everything you're wrapping came from Tiffany's, too!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

City Holiday

Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh is all very well, but nothing gets my holiday started quite like the twinkly lights and window displays of a downtown shopping district. Call me consumerist, but for me it's an inevitable byproduct of having grown up in a big city.

We needed to go to New York for a couple days last week, and I got to spend an afternoon wandering up Fifth Avenue admiring all the commercially produced cheer. That's Saks, above, with its big sparkly snowflakes. Lord & Taylor had a sort of international holiday theme going: this window was its Parisian patisserie. I especially like that pyramid of croissants in the background. The big fluffy poodle is pretty terrific, too.

The downtown department stores in Boston are kind of sad and deserted, but the New York Lord & Taylor was positively bustling, and had big tables laid out with vaguely archaic goods, like opera-length leather gloves. Most of the women milling around the cosmetics and accessories floor wore real, structured hats and long wool coats, with nary a sneaker in sight. No distressed low-riders and teenybopper tees here. For such a modern, frenetic, moving-and-shaking city, New York sometimes feels as though it inhabits a bygone era.

Rockefeller Center was a madhouse, even on this prematurely dusky December weekday. Here are the skaters gleefully whizzing through the gloom.

Before I headed home I continued up Fifth to the bottom of Central Park to see the Plaza, as I like to do when I'm in this part of New York (my parents got married there). Flags were flapping along the avenue, the sun was going down, and the smell of hotdogs, pretzels, and roasted chestnuts wafted through the jostling crowds. It all looked exactly like the cover of a 1950s issue of the "New Yorker," a place where you might still need to wear a real hat and a pair of leather gloves, though perhaps not opera-length ones.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cotton Candy at the Acropolis

We had a good time attending the opening of our friend Becky's graduate thesis show over at the Tufts art gallery the other night. Her installation used the subject of the Parthenon to explore ideas about travel and authenticity (among other things), and was indeed quite "monumental," even while the little fellow pictured above threatened more than once to knock over the columns she'd so arduously constructed.

These postcards reproduced images of the artist visiting the Parthenon in Greece, its replica in Nashville, and the Elgin Marbles taken from it and housed at the British Museum in London. Each is printed in one of the primary inks used in color printing, and visitors were encouraged to take a postcard themselves as a way of participating in the project.

Spectators were not encouraged to pick up and shake the gold-glitter snow globes that formed the centerpiece of the installation, but unfortunately many of us could not resist the impulse. Charmingly, part of the artist's opening night attire included a sparkly gold turtleneck that echoed these tempting art tchotchkes.

The strangest thing about this show was the scent of cotton candy that hung in the air as we entered the building. Was this a new thing at show openings, along with the wine and cheese? It wasn't long before we discovered its source ...

Okay, that giant pile of fuzz wasn't real cotton candy, but at the entrance of the installation the artist was indeed spinning woolly puffs of it, making her exhibit quite popular with art-viewers young and old.

A video portion of the project depicted the artist herself in a room full of cotton candy, bouncing and twirling amidst flying strands of the spun sugar, her body covered with sticky pink floss. It was a giddy spectacle, and I got a big kick out of it.

Elsewhere other antics were playing out, as in an installation involving a wrestling match with the self-styled "best artist in the world." You could also buy his clothes.

We may not have understood exactly what it was all supposed to mean, but it all had a lot of energy and humor, and was more fun than any art show I'd been to in quite awhile. The art kids are all right!