Tuesday, December 1, 2020

'To Sir with Love' by E.R. Braithwaite

The modern classic about a dedicated teacher in a tough London school who slowly and painfully breaks down the barriers of racial prejudice, this is the story of a man's integrity winning through against the odds.


This is my choice for the Book by an Author of Colour category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. The action takes place in the mid forties, which astonished me because I imagined it was the sixties. That's probably because of the movie starring Sidney Poitier, which was released in 1967 and set around the same time as far as I can recall. But the actual book on which it's based is a real mid-twentieth century classic. 

 Rick Braithwaite is an ex-RAF pilot who came out of the War with honours. With a Science and Electronics degree behind him, he applies for some engineering positions for which he's highly qualified, but potential employers keep deciding against him on sight because of his skin colour. Every! Single! Time! Braithwaite grows to resent the people who so callously and unfeelingly deny him a right to earn a living. 

At last he's interviewed and accepted for a school teacher job at the daunting and dubious Greenslade Secondary School. His position turns out to have a higher turnover than a Harry Potter DADA teacher, because his predecessors have a history of walking out on the spur of the moment. The senior class in question is a bunch of delinquents from the wrong side of the tracks who are disillusioned enough to keep flouting authority. As far as the ruling powers are concerned, Braithwaite, being a coloured man, is second best for them just as they, the dreaded rebels, are for him. But he accepts the challenge with energy and enthusiasm, because he's delighted to have a job at all. 

Rather than tailoring his lessons to their supposed standard, Braithwaite makes it clear to the students that he expects them to raise theirs to meet his, which he assures them isn't too high because they are intelligent young men and women. It's really cool to read how he draws the best from each of them. It's one of those paradoxes of life. Advice to not cast pearls before swine makes sense, but so does treating others like the people you want them to be, trusting they'll honour your faith.

Changing times is evident throughout this story, which still comes across so modern, although it took place almost eighty years ago. I appreciate Braithwaite's stern words to the boys, after young Potter turns on the gym teacher Mr Bell, who has mistreated his friend Buckley. 'Are you going to resort to clubs or knives every time you're upset or angered?' He then reasons that there will always be bullies and idiots who anger them on the workplace, which is a fact they must get used to, and insists that Potter apologise to Mr Bell. This is a great scene, yet I can't help wondering if in the twenty-twenties, this lesson of self-control might be allowed to slide in favour of 'standing up for your rights!'  

One thing that hasn't changed enough is racial discrimination. You can't read this book without getting angry over the way Braithwaite is treated across the board. I was groaning in sympathy for him and shame for all those others who reject him on sight. Everything he attempts to do, whether applying for jobs or taking his girlfriend out for dinner, attracts the same negative attention. I was fed up with the appalling behaviour of the general public just after reading this 180 page novel, so the pain of facing the same old flak every day of your life for something completely irrelevant and unchangeable must be unimaginable. 

The poor guy has to psyche himself up to meet his white girlfriend's parents just as a matter of course. It's all in a day's work, but shouldn't be. Braithwaite describes how defensiveness and edginess can become wound up in a person's integral make-up, all because of the prejudice of others. 'Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you,' is truly a limited maxim. 

I wasn't crazy about the thread with Braithwaite and his fellow teacher, Gillian Blanchard, because it doesn't seem to fit this particular story. The book's focal awesomeness is all about the changing relationship between him and the students, so whenever it shifts to Braithwaite's romantic life, I wanted to return to the main theme ASAP. I wasn't enthralled with her character, so whatever spark they had didn't work for me.

On the whole, I applaud Braithwaite for writing this book. Without giving himself much of the spotlight at all, he comes across as the dignified, gracious human-being he was, and a great example to take life as it comes with aplomb and tact. As I read, I found myself humming the old song, 'To Sir with Love' sung by Lulu, who played Barbara Pegg in the old 1967 film. Although it's a hard-hitting story, there is also plenty of fun. 


Monday, November 23, 2020

A blog for 'normies'

I recently finished Dubliners; James Joyce's collection of stories set in that city around the turn of the twentieth century. It finishes on a highly charged emotional note in the final story, The Dead, which I've seen called the Grand Finale. So I was lying in bed, wondering if I'd managed to squeeze all the juice out of the main character Gabriel Conroy's profound epiphany. It intrigued me enough to start an internet search, hoping for an extra boost of enlightenment and clarity. I only had to begin typing, 'The Dead - Gabriel's epiphany' for Google to finish the line for me. So far so good. 

But before long, I found myself in a Joycean rabbit warren of confusion, mystification and head spinning. The writers of these articles have far sharper and shinier intellects than mine, and more appreciation for the arty aspects of the story. Their brilliant fingers are obviously on the pulse of psychoanalysis, symbolism, this-ism and that-ism I'd never even considered. I ended my search feeling more bewildered rather than less.

Sometimes this sort of thing is enough to make me feel a bit deflated if I dwell on it. Perhaps my reviews and book chats are more like swimming pools rather than the vast ocean of literary significance we'd all like to dive into. Don't get me wrong, I do try to dive deep. That's why I've set myself the challenge of a regular book blog, which I may add I thoroughly enjoy. It's just that my depth falls short of Professor Smartfella's. It sometimes seems reasonable to ask the question, 'Is it even worth putting all my stuff out there, when I'm not picking up on all this, and can't even wrap my head around half of it?' 

I've written this reflection partly to remind myself of the reason I started. I want to give books the sort of straightforward appraisal that anybody whose grey matter falls short of Mensa level may appreciate. I want to present the bare bones of the themes as far as I can tell, to help others on my wavelength form an idea of whether or not it's something they might dare to invest time in. I want to provide sense of humour alerts which clever enthusiasts too invested in a book might accidentally overlook. And I want to help burst those scary bubbles which too much awe or reputation can blow way out of proportion. It's always a shame when anybody avoids a book they'd probably love, just because our well-meaning arty friends have made them appear too big and too shiny. By the same token, I'm willing to be that little boy who announces that as far as I can tell, the emperor is naked. When a book strikes me as too high-falutin' or OTT for us mere mortals, I'll say so. 

I've actually come across a similar train of thought in some of the novels I've reviewed here. In The Fountain Overflows for example, Mrs Clare Aubrey considers all her kids musical virtuosos, except for her eldest daughter Cordelia, who doesn't realise she falls short. She's out giving violin concerts which crowds enjoy, while her more brilliant sisters Mary and Rose sit home labouring over their more complex pieces, (because there's no way they're going out if their delivery is short of perfect), and talk about what a clueless embarrassment she is. Cordelia is the stand-out character for me, because she doesn't let the sky-high standards of those supposedly superior beings stop her from pursuing her passion and having fun. 

That's one of the things I'm all about here. Life is always too short to leave fun pursuits solely to those who are brilliant at them. 

Satisfaction is in the journey. 

And a less elaborate way of looking at a subject is not necessarily less valid.

I'll sign off with this fun link to a site my eldest son put onto, called artybollocks. Have a go at this generator. If you've been stumped for inspiration as often I have over the years, you'll find it lots of fun.    

Monday, November 9, 2020

'Kristin Lavransdatter' by Sigrid Undset

In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period. Now in one volume, Tiina Nunnally's award-winning definitive translation brings this remarkable work to life with clarity and lyrical beauty.


This review is only of the first installment in the trilogy; The Wreath. It will also be my choice for Classic in Translation in this year's Back to the Classics Challenge. Early twentieth century Scandinavian author Sigrid Undset was translated by Tiina Nunnally in this celebrated version.  

Until quite recently, I'd never heard of this classic. But suddenly I saw it recommended by several highly respected reviewers all at once. It has an average 5 star rating on Goodreads, and just to clinch it, it won the 1928 Nobel Literature Prize. With such high indicators of excellence, I was certain a brilliant novel awaited me, and it seemed to be so popular, I was on the library waiting list for several months. You can bet I cheered when I saw the message on my phone that it had arrived for me at last.  

Boy oh boy! I turn out to be one of those reviewers in the minority to speak up for the other side. I'm bound to step on a few toes, but here we have it in a nutshell. Girl falls for a young dude with a questionable reputation just because he's hot, and her concerned dad withholds his consent for as long as he can before rolling his eyes and letting them have their way. That's basically it, but I'll thresh it out a little.

I'm guessing the authenticity and detailed description of rural life in medieval Norway is what earned this book's reputation. Indeed Sigrid Undset did impeccable research and seemed to nail the minutest details of lifestyles in this time and place. (As far as we can tell, since we weren't there.) The contrast between people's staunch Catholic faith and the lingering pull of pagan folk tales and legends comes through loud and clear. I was impressed by her scope too, but not so much that it excused the over-the-top characters and plot. Nobel Literature Prize! What the heck? It's like a soap opera of the most melodramatic type. 

Our title character is the sort of girl all men love and all women tolerate. Kristin is the eldest of three daughters. She's very holy, obedient to her parents and embraces the ancient ways things have always been done. When her affectionate dad betroths her to a steady young man named Simon, she's willing to roll with it and decides that Simon is quite likable. Kristin spends some time in a convent in the lead-up to their marriage date, partly to help her recover from some other drama, and partly for a bit of character formation. While she's there, a chance encounter sends everything she's ever stood for flying out of her head. Kristin meets a guy named Erlend and decides he's definitely the love of her life. Her father and Simon can just pull their heads in! It's now, 'I'd rather sleep with Erlend on bare straw than with any other man on a silk bed.'

 This about-face occurs the second time she ever sets eyes on Erlend. Kristin is totally ready for him to have his amorous way with her on the spot, and her only reason appears to be that he's good looking. She knows nothing about his character, except for rumours that portray him as a seducer, marriage breaker and father of two illegitimate kids. If it ever occurs to her that a guy who would make a move on a young girl in a convent who is promised to another man could be a bit dodgy, it doesn't matter a bit, because he has bright eyes and a charming smile. In turn, Kristin's stunning blonde beauty is enough for Erlend to add more friction with yet another family to his track record. 

You can bet there is plenty of drama in the pages following. Stabbings, poisonings, sudden appearances of unexpected foes and enough shrill screaming to make my ears ring through the pages. The moral seems to be spoken by Erlend's Aunt Aashild, who is a bit of an outcast with a reputation of being a witch. She says, 'Good days are granted to sensible people, but the grandest of days are enjoyed by those who dare to act unwisely.'  

Another thing the story is short on is a sense of humour. That's the vital ingredient that makes everything without it as flat and insipid as such high drama can possibly be. Characters rarely tease each other. The dialogue is all totally serious and to the point. Or if there are any jokes, they're along the lines of, 'A slut must have made the porridge for us today. Overly bedded cooks make overly boiled porridge.' 

I've decided to pass on reading the rest of the trilogy. Predictors of what's coming are already flashing in this one. I'm certain that now she's got her own way, Kristin will get all repentant, morbidly religious, and super miserable. Come on girl, pull yourself together. Since you've gone to such lengths to have him, at least enjoy him! 


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Anne and Gilbert's bookshelves

When Anne Blythe entertains her troubled and book-deprived new friend Leslie Moore, she invites her to borrow any book from their bookshelf any time. Anne and Gilbert have only recently set up house, and Anne explains, 'Our library isn't very extensive, but every book in it is a friend. We've picked our books up through the years here and there, never buying one until we've first read it and know that it belongs to the Race that knows Joseph.' (This conversation takes place in Anne's House of Dreams.)

Wow, that must be a great bookshelf indeed. Anne learned about the Race that knows Joseph a little earlier, from Captain Jim and Miss Cornelia Bryant. 'If a person sees eye to eye with you and has pretty much the same idea about things and the same taste in jokes, then he or she belongs to the Race that knows Joseph.' 

Their method of organising their shelf turns out to be similar to mine. No book is given place by size, age, thickness, genre or colour but simply by love. I can only hope the Blythes would find mine a good, congenial Joseph-Racy sort of shelf too. 

But I do wish we'd been given a list of those on Anne and Gilbert's, so that we may track them down if we wish. That's one shelf I'd dearly love to browse. However, perhaps Lucy Maud Montgomery left us enough leads so we needn't make random guesses. A careful read of the series reveals books sanctioned by either Anne, Gilbert or any of their kids. (Mostly Walter, since he was the budding poet.) I'm pretty sure that at least a section of Anne and Gilbert's bookshelves would contain the following.

1) Tennyson's Poems. Anne and her three best friends were clearly enthralled with the tale of the Lady of Shalott when they decided to re-enact it on Barry's Pond, and Gilbert saved Anne from near disaster.

2) Ben Hur. Anne was busted in class by Miss Stacy, sneakily reading this epic instead of studying. Anne reasons that she hadn't thought she was being very bad, since it's a good, religious story and no mere novel.

3) Pickwick Papers. Anne was treating herself to this tale of Dickens on the day of Gilbert's regretful first marriage proposal, which she refused. Anne's friend Phil Gordon remarked that reading Pickwick always makes her hungry, because it contains such delicious food descriptions. 

4) Martin Chuzzlewit. Anne assures Diana that she'll be a perfectly amiable guest whenever she comes to stay with her and Fred; just like Mark Tapley would be. 

5) Vanity Fair. When Anne is the principal teacher of Summerside High, the rebellious Jen Pringle reminds her very much of a young Becky Sharp.

6) Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Anne lends this to Jen Pringle once they became good friends. She treasures it not because she enjoys reading about martyrs, but because her beloved Mrs Allan gave it to her as a Sunday School prize. 

7) Homer's The Odyssey. Anne enthuses about Ulysses' adventures to Captain Jim, who relates to the mythical hero's adventurous spirit.

8) Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Whew, this complex text book about science and religion by Henry Drummond seems to be a pretty random choice, lent to Miss Cornelia by Gilbert. She returns it to him without making it all the way through, because she found it 'sort of heretical.' 

9) Lewis Carroll's Alice and Through the Looking Glass. Gilbert alludes to this when he tells his family. 'The walrus said, "It's time to get a dog.'" The announcement goes over well with all his kids, and Jem is especially delighted with the idea. 

10) Rudyard Kipling's Poems. LMM refers to these when Jem's first little dog, Gyp, passes away. She suggests that if Susan was familiar with Kipling's wise words about beloved dogs, she would say that a poet had said something sensible for once.

11) The Pied Piper. This folk tale by Robert Browning affects Walter enough to spur a stunning vision in Rainbow Valley which he never forgets, and later inspires his own celebrated War poem. 

12) Bishop Hatto by Robert Southey.

13) The Wandering Jew by Percy Byssche Shelley. (Both 12 and 13 were loved by Walter Blythe.)

14) Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems. Even though young Mary Vance was in awe of Walter, she revelled in his book talk when the gang was all down in Rainbow Valley together. 

15) Marmion by Sir Walter Scott. Teenage Walter Blythe was secretly hard at work on an epic of his own resembling this masterpiece.

16) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Walter was reading this classic when he decided to bestow the name on Ingleside's diabolical, two-faced cat, formerly known as Goldie.

17) Robinson Crusoe. Walter was reading it when Jem's beloved and devoted spotted dog joined the family, and suggested Dog Monday as a suitable name, because the pup joined the family on a Monday.

18) Baroness Nairne's Jacobite Songs. On the night of the lighthouse dance when war was declared between England and Germany, a devastated Walter briefly converses with a hyped-up Jem, who was whistling, 'Wi a hundred pipers an' a' and a' (I actually downloaded The Hundred Pipers on Spotify. It's quite a catchy marching tune.) 

19) Several gardening books. Gilbert suggested that if any book contained the word 'garden' in its title, Anne would be sucker for it. 

20) Gilbert's medical journals. Although he presumably had a separate shelf for these in his office, they round this list up to twenty.   

Monday, November 2, 2020

'Dubliners' by James Joyce

Or 'Lessons from a disgruntled Irish lad.' 

This work of art reflects life in Ireland at the turn of the last century, and by rejecting euphemism, reveals to the Irish their unromantic realities. Each of the 15 stories offers glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners, and collectively they paint a portrait of a nation.


I first read this collection years ago for an English unit at Uni which focused solely on James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. Big mistake right off for a teenager unfamiliar with either author, who thought it sounded like an easy cruise. But compared to Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, I remember finding this slim volume of short stories Joyce's easiest offering to wrap my head around. I don't remember much else, and thought I'd like a refresher.

So first off, these stories are not what spring to my mind when I hear 'the luck of the Irish.' They are quite gloomy, not with full-on catastrophe or tragedy, but with soul eroding disappointments that wear away hope and anticipation. I'm talking about those callous, everyday let-downs that seem to testify to the aloofness of a world which won't deliver our fondest dreams. In other words, the stories are all small tip-offs that we're not the centre of the world. 

I've seen them called 'linked stories', which made me expect recurring characters, but it's more to do with that predictable vein of disillusionment running through each incident, all taking place in the same time period and setting, which is of course Dublin around the turn into the twentieth century. They're definitely linked by feelings of being trapped or thwarted, which tend to be common. 

Key characters get progressively older with each new story, if this helps link the collection. In early chapters they are mere boys who grapple with discoveries that life won't conform to their idealistic expectations. The next batch are young adults with similar cosmic slaps in the face, followed by disillusioned young parents, then gruff middle aged mums and dads who have been hardened by now. Finally there are a few elderly characters too. To be honest, I was getting sick and tired of the 'Life Sucks' refrain very early on, and paced my reading of these stories to no more than one per day.

My intro tells me that Joyce was doing the round of publishers with version #1 of Dubliners in 1905, which I quickly figured would have made him 23 years old. Aha, call me ageist, but I wondered if his tender years might help explain the cynicism and pessimism permeating his work. Perhaps he hadn't yet reached a stage himself when it dawns on many of us that despite the sucking quality of life, the little things have always been the big things. Satisfaction is out there when we have the grace to lower our standards and find joy in a delicious cup of hot chocolate or a peachy sunset. Some might call this defeatist resignation, but I choose to regard it as wisdom. 

I kept reading because James Joyce has a truly beautiful way with words.

'My body was like a harp, and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.' 

'Mr Duffy lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances. His eyes gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others, but often disappointed.' 

'Her companionship was like warm soil around an exotic.' (How's that for a superb simile!) 

'The first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust.'

Wow, J.J. if only you'd used that stirring, descriptive talent on more encouraging and affirming plots than anything this grumbling mob of fall-shorts ever deliver!  (Having said that, I'm aware this is a matter of taste. Those who thrive on bleak and melancholic stories might well give Dubliners 5 stars.)

The final chapter, The Dead, did enthrall me, along with the main character Gabriel Conroy's musing on the concept of 'shades' or people who were once vividly present, but with us no longer. But at this stage, even this highly acclaimed tale falls victim to the general tone of the whole collection for me. I loved the part after the dance, where Gabriel and his wife Gretta walk off in the snow to their hotel room, while he's occupied with sweet, unexpected anticipation of the physical intimacy they may enjoy, since their young kids aren't present. But being Dubliners, I was thinking, 'Nope, you won't get it.' 

Of course I was right. 



Monday, October 26, 2020

'Rilla of Ingleside' by L.M. Montgomery

Or, 'The One set during the Great War'.

Note: If you haven't read this book, beware of spoilers as I've made no attempt to conceal major character deaths and survivals.

The moment in time nobody ever expected crashes down on the Blythe and Meredith families. It's 1914 and the world is plunged into years of war of an entirely vast and unprecedented scope. At one stage, Gilbert remarks that other famous battles from myth and history books have been dwarfed in comparison. The boys all enlist, leaving everyone at home dealing with the desperation and hopelessness of following their progress. Newspapers and telephone calls become things of intense dread. For Anne, the magical half hour before sleep becomes a time of torture. Yet the brave families waiting at home find ways to help with the war effort in their own unique ways, adding to the heroism required from everybody.  

Things I loved even more than before.

1) Dog Monday! I adore this devoted fur ball. He sits at the station and waits 4.5 years for his master to come home, helping his human friends deal with a particularly traumatic crisis in the process. Who could ever forget the powerful moment at the end when Jem Blythe finally steps off the train? I stumbled across an article which described how LMM was asked to do a reading from one of her books before a huge crowd, and chose that reunion scene. As she was reading, LMM apparently dissolved into tears herself, and the atmosphere in that 1920s lecture hall was electric. 

2) Walter! RIP you beautiful boy. He aimed to be an English literature professor but ended up as a dead war hero by the age of 22. His soul's horrific stand against the ugliness and malignity of war is very moving. So is his eventual triumph over terror and inner certainty that the rosiest post-war years could surely never appease him after all he was forced to witness. Walter was born in the wrong era; too pure and sensitive to process the ghastliness of it all. It's heartbreaking to think of all the creative beauty he still had to offer were he to live out his full lifespan. What a waste!

3) Jem! My word, I guess the change we see in this young man reflects the reaction of a bewildered world that hardly knew what hit it. Brought up on colourful tales of the romantic and chivalric side of war, he shoots off as a charged-up, energetic wannabe hero. At the end he hobbles off the train injured, subdued, and worn out way before his time. He'd spent years in the filthy trenches, and months as a prisoner of war, managing to escape a whole lot wiser than he'd ever bargained for. But he still considers it worthwhile to have poured out his strength to make the world a safer place for following generations. It all comes back to love. 

4) Rilla! The positive character development drawn from our title character by the Great War is a major theme. At the start, her mother Anne says she's 'lacking in responsibility and abominably vain.' But Rilla's shallowness and vanity is only along the lines of Amy March's, which I find easy to excuse in a young girl. (I get girls such as these, because I was a youngest sister too.) Rilla's war baby and Red Cross work are always fun to read about. I was glad to see she stuck to her guns and stayed uninterested in pursuing a tertiary education like her siblings. Being resistant to study is a valid choice, and Rilla makes a refreshing contrast to some of LMM's super-academic gals. 

5) The melancholic Miss Gertrude Oliver and her mystical, prophetic, nocturnal dreams. What a fascinating character she is. 

6) Susan! As the Blythes would say, what a brick! Rilla calls her a 'faithful old dear who would lay down her life for any one of them.' I love it when she tries to help Rilla out while she's entertaining Ken Ford. 

What I wasn't a big fan of this time.

1) I can see how the attitudes against Whiskers on the Moon might be problematic for some. Hmm, to my teenage mind, Mr Josiah Pryor was the dodgy blackguard who sympathised with the baddies. That seemed to be just what LMM wanted us to think. But any thoughtful 21st century reader surely has the perspective to step back and observe him with more clarity. The man considers himself a pacifist, yet those around him translate that to mean possible pro-German. Some go so far as to accuse him of being a spy and rejoice when his property is vandalised. I think today, more readers might be ready to sympathise with Whiskers on the Moon's point of view.

But we need to keep the book in its cultural pespective. LMM was writing with great immediacy, and for those whose sons and sweethearts were risking their lives for their country, old Whiskers' attitude was a huge kick in the gut. It was black and white for these people. In my own home city, German place names in the Adelaide Hills were being changed to more innocuous, British sounding alternatives. Anyone of German heritage or suspected of being sympathisers in any way were immediately intercepted, to wipe out any chance of threat. Suspicion was obviously the same in Canada, to the extent that Susan and the Blythes considered it retribution when he suffered a massive stroke! That sure reflects that emotional upheaval going on at the time. 

2) The final part in the story of Rilla's war orphan baby. I've got to wonder how the sudden change in little Jims' circumstances might have affected him. For all his life, the Ingleside folk were his family, then he's suddenly hustled off with a dad and stepmum who are total strangers to him. LMM's account makes it sound as if the transition was as easy as possible on Rilla, but how about Jims himself? Pretty traumatic for a 4-year-old boy I'd imagine, even if he wasn't moving very far away. Oh well, I guess that's another story. At least his stepmother was a nice lady.

3) Bruce Meredith's sacrifice of Stripey the kitten. OK, there is lots of horror from other reviewers about this incident. I was shocked too, but not as much as I was about the attempted murder of Rusty the stray tomcat in Anne of the Island. Bruce had the noblest intentions in mind, and his very action proves that Stripey was the dearest thing he had. He would never have committed such a drastic action for anything less than bringing Jem back, who was still wounded and missing at the time. But whoa, yeah, what a completely misguided action for a minister's son. (If only Nan Blythe had managed to slip in a word of warning to him, after her own attempts to bargain with God in Anne of Ingleside.)

4) Minister's kids weren't supposed to dance! What sort of silliness of the times was that?

5) Shirley's fluctuating age strikes again. In this book, the lucky dude seems to age at a slower rate than everyone else. He's described as 'a lad of 16' at the beginning in 1914, but then LMM has him enlisting in the airforce straight after his 18th birthday in 1917, when he should surely be 19 rather than 18. In fact if he was 18 as LMM claims, that would make him a matter of three months or so older than Rilla! Once again she didn't get her calculations right, making him the shapeshifter of the Blythe family.  

Some great quotes

Susan: Knitting is something you can do even when your heart is going like a trip hammer, and the pit of your stomach feels all gone, and your thoughts are catawampus. 

Walter: Life has always been such a beautiful thing to me, and now it is a hideous thing.

Gertrude: There have been many days when I didn't want to believe in God. I believe in Him now. I have to. There is nothing else to fall back on but God.

Gilbert: Would you have him stay, Anne? Would you have him so selfish and small-souled? (At the outset when Jem enlists.)

Walter: I'm going for my own sake, to save my soul alive. It will shrink to something small and mean and lifeless if I don't go.

Susan: There was a time when I did not care what happened outside of PEI and now a king cannot have a toothache in Russia or China but it worries me. 

Rilla: Perhaps some day a new kind of gladness will be born in my soul, but the old kind will never live again.

Jem: The old world is destroyed and we must build up the new one. It will be the task of years. I've seen enough of war to realise that we've got to make a world where wars can't happen.

Walter (who surely deserves the last word): It will be a better happiness. A happiness we've earned. 


I guess we've come to the end, or have we? It's such wonderful family epic in eight books. The way I see it, it's sandwiched between two very significant train station incidents. At the start, we meet our optimistic, red-haired orphan girl, anxious to face the world and give life her best shot. Then finally on a different station platform, we have her tired son, having done that very thing to the best of his abilities. What a privilege to spend hours of my time with the Blythe and Meredith families again. Thank you Anne, Gilbert, Jem, Walter, Nan, Di, Shirley and Rilla! And I mustn't forget Susan. Also John, Rosemary, Jerry, Faith, Una, Carl and Bruce. Here is where I normally say stay tuned, because the next book is coming up. Well, we've sort of come to the end, but do stay tuned anyway, for the bonus Anne series material I have coming. I guess I can't get enough of these guys.  

Extra: I came across a wonderful, authentic, canon-friendly fan fiction to read in conjunction with Rilla of Ingleside. It's a epistolary story told in the form of the letters sent between the Blythe and Meredith boys in the trenches and their loved ones at college and home. We get to keep track of the romances of Jem and Faith, and Jerry and Nan in the loveliest way. The author very carefully wove it in to match the actual text itself, and reading them together was great. If you want to enjoy the experience too, you'll find it here.

Monday, October 19, 2020

'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.


Wow, it only seems fair that a book that blew me out of the water should be set on the ocean. The plot can be summed up in a sentence. Castaway boy survives for seven months in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean with a full grown Bengal tiger for company. It's written in three parts, and I spent most of Part Three saying, 'Aww, no way!' But there will be no spoilers because this is one book whose crux you can't un-remember. 

Suffice to say author Yann Martel had a metaphysical agenda in mind. He intentionally draws readers to the point where he challenges us to make a leap of faith one way or another. And he presses the point that it's not all that different from the choice people make every day to become atheists on one hand or devout believers on the other. I think he pulls it off with real panache. (Martel and his protagonist Pi seem to have least patience with agnostics, who they accuse of choosing doubt as a life philosophy. This, says Pi, is tantamount to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. He has no problems with atheists, who he considers brothers and sisters of a different faith. They simply get to the end of their reason and make a leap, just as he does.) 

Part One is all about Pi's boyhood in India, with a zookeeper for a father. Pi (full name Piscine Molitor Patel) is a seeker of truth from a tender age and follows three religions. He weaves all sorts of features from different religions into his own tailor made personal faith. He loves the sensual, colourful nature of his birthright faith, Hinduism, and its tenet that a bit of the divine runs through all creation. As a young teen he adds Christianity, because the concept of the suffering, sacrificial Son of God won't let go of him. Then finally he adds Islam to the mix, because he's so impressed by the all-encompassing unity of their call to prayer. When his parents urge him to narrow down to just one religion, Pi is unwilling to relinquish anything precious to him and surreptitiously keeps up all three. 

I guess some may say that young Pi is swayed by anything, and has no filter at all, while others may consider his filter is sensitive and refined enough to extract the most valuable essence from everything. As he says, 'I just want to love God!' This would make a fantastic text for anyone studying inter-faith doctrines, and the story has hardly even started rolling yet.

In Part Two, Pi relates his tale of incredible survival. The Patel family are on a ship heading for Canada when it sinks, leaving him the sole human survivor in a lifeboat with four animals. There's a motherly orangutan named Orange Juice, a gorgeous, suffering zebra with a broken leg and a wily, opportunistic spotted hyena. And most majestic of all is the stunning flame-coloured tiger, Richard Parker. Pi soon realises he has no choice but to train RP to understand that he, the skinny 16-year-old, is alpha animal on the boat. 

I can't describe how Martel pulls it all together without venturing into the sensitive landmine area of spoilers. I'll just finish off with a few general Pi-isms which he takes on board from his long ordeal on the water. First is his acceptance of the fact that sometimes life doesn't roll like we think it's supposed to. But what can we do but take each day as it comes and make the best of it? Pi grits his teeth and resolves to 'make miracle into routine' to the greatest extent in his power.

He delivers such stunning descriptions about all sorts of things, ranging from the nature of fear to his lifestyle on the water. Pi likens the Pacific Ocean to a huge city with highways and boulevards that he never noticed until he got the chance to stroll through at walking pace, so to speak. Reading his account is like the virtual tourism we'd never choose for ourselves, yet can't help finding quite awe-inspiring coming from Pi. He calls the barnacles 'oceanic hitchhikers.' 

And we can all learn something from his honesty about how he tackles the heavy blanket of despair whenever it descends. Basically, Pi figures the best ploy is to do nothing but wait it out, because it always passes. 'The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain a shining point of light in my heart, and I would go on loving.'

Even though we readers are used in a way as guinea pigs by Mr Martel, to prove the vital impact of a great story, I didn't mind at all. I way prefer Life of Pi to the other metaphysical book set on the high seas that springs to mind; Moby Dick.  

I'd recommend this one to anyone and everyone. And when you've read it, watch the movie too. It really keeps true to the book, and complements it beautifully.