Category Archives: Books

Rereading: DOCTOR DOLITTLE’S CIRCUS by Hugh Lofting

Though I have and enjoy reading all the Doctor Dolittle books, this was always one of my least favorites. After rereading it recently, I think I know why. Much of the book deals with the Doctor’s dealings with other people, and his own animal family and other animals often play a lesser role. Written in 1924, it was the fourth book published. Chronologically it takes place after “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” and “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” in about 1821-22. The Doctor, his animal family, and the fabulous two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu from Africa have joined a circus. They need to raise money to help pay for the ship that the Doctor borrowed for his voyage to Africa in the first two books, which was wrecked.

The Doctor and some of his animals locate a small circus run by Alexander Blossom, and he is so impressed with the Pushmi-Pullyu that he not only agrees to let the Doctor exhibit him in the circus’s sideshow, splitting the proceeds, but gives him a fine circus wagon to live in. Matthew, the Cat’s-Meat-Man is along to help out with the Pushmi-Pullyu, and the duck Dab-Dab is there to keep the books, when she can manage to save any money at all. The Doctor is notoriously kind-hearted and generous. As they transition to circus life, the Doctor is very unhappy with the conditions of the other animals in the circus. Of course he talks to them, and they all have complaints from too much confinement to the wrong kinds of food, and so on. When Dolittle tries to help them by going to Blossom, he gets nowhere, and many of the other circus employees are hostile to his ideas.

The worst case is that of an Alaskan seal named Sophie, also being exhibited in the sideshow by her owner. Sophie is terribly worried about her mate, who birds have told her is in trouble at home, and wants desperately to escape the circus and get back to him. The Doctor eventually agrees to help her, and the two of them do manage to escape, but have lots of trouble and close-calls as they try to make their way to the sea. (This takes up about half the book.)

Returning to the circus, the Doctor has an idea for helping one of the old cart horses. He and the horse Beppo put together a talking horse act for the big top, and it draws crowds. Considering that the Doctor and Beppo can speak to each other, it’s not surprising the act is an amazing hit. The circus is suddenly the talk of the area, and is invited to perform at a very large venue. Money is rolling in, and just when the Doctor’s troubles seem over, Mr. Blossom and his wife disappear with all the money! It seems the circus is through, but the animals and the remaining circus performers, all now friends, beg the Doctor to take over the circus on his own terms. Reluctantly, Dolittle agrees, and soon the Dolittle Circus is once again on the road, with everyone sharing in the work and the profits, and all animals treated kindly.

I did enjoy rereading this, and Hugh Lofting’s skill at social commentary, humor and insight into human nature were more appreciated by me now than they were when I read it as a child.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: BUILDING BLOCKS by Cynthia Voigt

Cover art by Eileen McKeating.

The other early works by Voigt that I’ve read have been realistic dramas about broken families and troubled teens written very well. This one from 1984 is a departure in that the main character, Brann Connell, goes back in time. In the present, Brann’s family is having their own troubles. Brann’s mother wants to go back to school to become a lawyer and help the family’s flagging fortunes. Brann’s father is an architect with a good job but no ambition. He’s recently inherited a family farm that he wants to go live and work on, but that would mean quitting his current job. If the farm was sold and they stay where they are, the money from it would allow Brann’s mom to go back to school.

Tired of their arguing, Brann retreats to the basement and builds a fort around himself with a set of wooden blocks built by his father. He falls asleep there, and when he wakes up he’s in a different time and place, in the room of a boy named Kevin whose family is also troubled. Kevin’s father is a tyrant with strict rules that, when broken, result in severe punishment. His mother is exhausted from caring for their large family, and pregnant with another child. As Brann tries to fit in to this new situation, he finds a friend in Kevin, and tries to help him through family mishaps and adventures gone wrong that Kevin, the oldest, always seems to get the blame for, something none of his siblings seem willing to do. It takes a while, but Brann finally figures out that Kevin is his own father as a boy. Voigt uses the time travel experience to give Brann new insight into his father in a story that, as usual, is well written and satisfying. The plot spirals back to the present eventually, where Brann sees his own family through new eyes.

Recommended.

Rereading: THE TWELVE AND THE GENII by Pauline Clarke

This excellent book had different titles in the UK (left) and the US (right). By either title it’s a gem.

Max and his family have moved to a new home, but an old house in rural northern England not far from Leeds. Max discovers a hidden treasure in the attic, a set of twelve wooden soldiers, clearly very old, worn, and much loved. To his great surprise, as he plays with them, they begin to come to life. Each has a name, rank, history and distinct personality, and they treat him as a sort of god, or genii, as they call him. Max learns they once belonged to four other genii, he guesses children like him, who created elaborate stories and adventures for them. Somehow that creative energy brought the wooden soldiers to life.

Max’s sister Jane discovers the secret by spying, but soon joins in the game. Max’s older brother Philip is more interested in the possible value of the toys, especially when he hears that a wealthy American is offering a large reward for any set of similar toy soldiers found in the area. The American is looking for the soldiers once owned by the Brontë family in nearby Haworth. The four Brontë children; Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, wrote extensive stories about “The Young Men,” as they called them, a prelude to the literary fame and careers of the three Brontë sisters. Philip, Max’s older brother writes to the American to say they have such a set of soldiers, and Max is furious when he finds out. He explains the danger to the Twelves, and they decide on their own they must make a dangerous journey to their old home, the Haworth parsonage, now the Brontë Museum, where they will be cherished and protected from being taken overseas.

Not even Max is witness to their escape from the attic and the beginning of their journey, but he and Jane soon figure out what is happening, and help the soldiers along when they can. Still, the Twelves must face many perils in the oversized human world, from automobiles that want to squash them to people who have heard of the reward and want to capture them and collect it themselves.

This is a great story full of imagination and literary relevance. When I read it in my own childhood, it led me to fine books like Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” and Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” as well as biographies of the talented but tragedy-prone family. It won Britain’s Carnegie Medal in 1963. I recommend it highly.

And Then I Read: THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS by Neil Gaiman

Photograph by Allan Amato, cover design by Adam Johnson.

This is a collection of essays, forwards, introductions, speeches and other similar short non-fiction. If you’ve been a Neil fan for a while, you’ve probably read some of them before, but it’s great to have them collected. It’s a large collection at 522 pages, and divided into ten sections, so while perhaps not perfectly complete, close enough, at least until the next one.

You can learn a lot about Neil from reading his fiction, and plenty of interviews are out there too, but if you want to know more about what Neil likes, and what he thinks about what he likes, or what he dislikes (ditto), this is the place. There are also many personal anecdotes that fill out Neil’s story in one way or another, assuming a life is a kind of story. There is some repetition. Some anecdotes are told more than once or even more than twice, but as they are relevant to the context, that’s okay, and the retellings are all a little different anyway. Neil is a complex person with a wide variety of interests, and a life-long voracious reader, so there’s lots to discover and enjoy in that area. Neil has strong opinions about big subjects too, and his speeches and essays about things like the importance of libraries, the harm of censorship, making good art, and the crisis in Syria are here too.

Perhaps the pieces I liked the most were on authors and artists we both love, as it reminded me of conversations we used to have about such things in the early days of SANDMAN, when we were both getting to know each other and had the time. There are also entries on authors and artists I don’t know, which make me want to read or explore them.

I perused this over a long number of days, one or two entries per evening, and it was a delightful way to spend some time in the mind and words of a friend I rarely get to see, but one I feel I know even better now. As a rule, I am not a non-fiction reader these days, but this book is a wonderful exception.

Highly recommended.

Rereading: THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting

Above is my much loved and much battered copy of this book. It was already battered when I bought it for five cents at a book sale, an ex-library copy from my own grade school in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. The book was first published in 1922, the second published book in the Dolittle series by Lofting. This was the 11th printing in 1929, so clearly it was popular and sold many copies from the start. It is, in my opinion, the best of the series.

The kind, bumbling but strong-willed human doctor who learns the languages of the animals through his parrot Polynesia and becomes the most successful and well-known veterinarian in the animal kingdom (at least among the animals themselves) was introduced in 1920’s “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” reviewed by me in the link. It’s a fun, if improbable story with lots of great characters, many of them the animals that the Doctor considered his family. What the second book added that greatly improved the concept was the character of Tommy Stubbins, who narrates this book. Tommy is a young boy in Dolittle’s home town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in rural England. He’s the son of a cobbler, but he has a desire to see the world, a wanderlust that is unlikely to be fulfilled until he meets the Doctor and becomes a part of his family too. By seeing the unusual man and his animal companions through fresh, wondering eyes, Tommy Stubbins gives us, the readers, a new, deeper understanding of all the characters, and allows us to become part of the story. Tommy’s parents are puzzled by his new friends, but when the Doctor offers to employ Tommy in his own home as his assistant, with room and board included, and seeing their son wants this very much, they agree. Soon Tommy, with the help of Polynesia, is learning the animal languages too, and is a vital part of the Dolittle household.

Tommy knows that Dolittle and his animals have made several ocean voyages of discovery and adventure, in Africa and elsewhere, and more than anything he wants to go on one of them. The perfect reason for a new voyage arrives when the Doctor learns that his fellow naturalist, the native American Long Arrow, has disappeared on Spidermonkey Island in the south Atlantic Ocean. Dolittle decides he must sail there and try to find Long Arrow, who he greatly admires but has not yet met. Spidermonkey Island is a strange place: it’s a floating island that moves around the South Atlantic, but with help from his animal friends, and a sturdy ship he buys, the Doctor is sure he can get there. This begins an epic voyage that is a delight to read and full of exotic adventures, great characters, humor and wonder, enhanced by Hugh Lofting’s quirky but appropriate drawings. Forget the movie versions, this is the real deal.

Highly recommended!