Friday, December 28, 2018

'Miss Buncle's Book' by D.E. Stevenson

Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara's bank account has seen better days. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from fellow residents of her quaint English village, writing a revealing novel that features the townsfolk as characters. The smashing bestseller is published under the pseudonym John Smith, which is a good thing because villagers recognise the truth. But what really turns her world around is when events in real life start mimicking events in the book. Funny, charming, and insightful, this novel reveals what happens when people see themselves through someone else's eyes.

This is a good recommendation for those who enjoy books about village folk in small, country communities. (Think Avonlea, Middlemarch, Cranford.) It would have been a good choice for the the Comedy Classic category of the upcoming  Back to the Classics Challenge 2019, but I've just missed out by finishing it in December. If you're brainstorming good classic comedy titles though, this one fits the bill.

Miss Barbara Buncle has found herself struggling to make ends meet, and thinks she might have a go at writing a novel. To her relief, Mr Abbott from the publishing firm Abbott and Spicer loves it, and agrees to publish it under the pseudonym John Smith. But the real drama starts when Barbara's village neighbours of Silverstream begin to recognise themselves in the thinly veiled characters of Copperfield. Some think it's hilarious, while others are outraged and make it their personal mission to discover John Smith's true identity, so they can pay him out as he deserves.

But whenever anyone tries to figure out who he is, Miss Buncle's name never crosses their mind. She's the sort of person who doesn't slide onto anyone's radar because they perceive her as a meek, frumpy spinster. She's automatically eliminated from lists of townsfolk. Little do they know she's an expert people-observer with plenty of practice.

It's a simple story with fairly standard characters we recognise from sitcoms, although D. E. Stevenson might have been among the first to use them, since she wrote this in 1934. At the forefront of the crusade to unmask John Smith are Mrs Featherstone-Hogg, the snooty social climber, and Vivian Greensleeves, the heartless gold digger. There are great contradictory reflections such as, 'Mrs Horsley-Downs was a horrible character not the least like her, but it was obviously intended for her because it was exactly like her.'

It's clear that the novel becomes a wake-up allegory for the whole town, as folk see their real selves mirrored in the pages of Disturber of the Peace. On one hand, nobody knows us as well as we know ourselves, so we could take the book's portrayal with a grain of salt. But on the other, our closeness to our own self might create multiple blind spots, since we overlook and reason away a myriad of quirks and character defects. The sharp perception of someone else is like a slap in the face. If you're like me, the story might make you wonder how others perceive you, if you were to appear in a novel.

Miss Buncle's young neighbour Sally considers John Smith a heroic crusader, because he exposes humbugs and frauds for who they really are. Barbara Buncle is flattered by this image of herself as a public benefactor, since her only goal had been to earn a bit of money. She's a straightforward, childlike person, which is meant to make it funnier, since someone with more depth might have reconsidered showing everyone they know with warts and all. And a wiser author might have anticipated their indignation more, since their biggest and most secret faults are being revealed to the whole world. It's easy to understand why there was an uproar, and Barbara's never-ending naivety got a bit on my nerves. 

After all sorts of awkward situations, the story ends in a very rom-com worthy way. The canny reader can see it coming a mile away, but it's still fun. For anyone who just wants to put their feet up and relax, it's a light, fluffy read with a bit of an edge. Good escapism for us, although not for the poor people of Silverstream.

One other gripe I had is a technicality. I don't usually get hung up over international spelling differences, but since this is clearly such an English story, why don't we have British spelling, instead of bumping up against words like parlor maid and characterization? Forcing something into an American shape sometimes feels wrong, and this is one of those times. Since American readers are enjoying the British place and characters, I'm sure they wouldn't mind dealing with parlour maid and characterisation just for a little while? That's my Australian opinion.

Anyway, it's a quick, cheery read and held my interest all through. It even taught me a bit about how far authors can go, when it comes to representing living people in novels. I think my favourite sub-plot was the story of young Sally and Ernest, the vicar.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

The litmus test of humility

What's the real indication of whether or not a person has humility? Recently I had a bit of help trying to tackle that question from C.S. Lewis and a horde of sneaky demons he created.

It's not that Catch 22 we may instantly think of.

Does this seem familiar? You're graciously blowing off praise, and it suddenly occurs to you, 'I'm being very humble right now.' Then the whole illusion bursts into nothing. Humility is a bit like a shining soap bubble and pride is a sharp pin. Now you have to crank up the next attempt to convince yourself that you're humble all over again.

In Lewis' classic, the demon Screwtape instructs his protege Wormwood how to work on destroying humility in his human assignment. 'He's truly getting humble, so draw it to his attention. And if he tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt and so on, for as many stages as you please.' He does add, 'Don't try it for too long though, for fear you awaken his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he'll merely laugh at you and go to bed.'

Perhaps we do reach a stage where we roll our eyes and stop buying into that spiral anymore.

Screwtape goes on to spell out for his nephew what true humility really is. He needs Wormwood to be on the lookout for it. It's getting your attention turned away from yourself and fixed on others. He advises Wormwood to work with special care, to convince his human to believe the lie that humility is actually having a low opinion of himself. This just makes us feel bad and keeps our minds riveted on ourselves, where those nasty demons want them to be.

Here's the real litmus test

I'll quote Screwtape directly. 'The enemy (God) wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it were done by another. The enemy wants him to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's.'

Wow, if that's it, I know in my own heart I've fallen way short of this many, many times since childhood. I've always wanted to write well, and my tremendous love and admiration for books I've read has been tinged with a wistful envy, and the thought, 'I wish I could've written that.'

Have you ever caught yourself saying the same? 'I wish I could write such an epic mission adventure that brings a time and place so vividly to life.' Or, 'Wow, imagine coming up with such convoluted twists to bring racial prejudice to the public so powerfully. I wish I could manage world-building of that magnitude.' Or, 'If only I had the skill to draw from centuries of folklore and tradition to create such a complex universe.'

When we think about it, that's such a miserable and limited way to think. Instead of picturing ourselves as separate beings working on our own projects, how about expanding our vision to see ourselves as small creative cogs, sharing a collective assignment to bring heaven closer to earth? A great achievement for one person is an achievement for all. That goes for writing as much as anything else. The goal of the accomplished author, and the appreciative fan who keeps the momentum alive should be synonymous. That's real humility, and I'm sure it taps into what the Bible means when it calls us members of one body.

But it sounds so hard to pull off, especially in our world where talented mouthpieces and catalysts get valued so highly. However, if we don't embrace the humble way of thinking, the price may be too high and sad to pay. I remember watching the movie Amadeus back in my teens, which was based on fact. The composer Antonio Salieri kept fuming at God for not giving him Mozart's genius. In his jealous mind, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a shallow, flippant, spoiled brat who didn't deserve his talent, while he, the dedicated and hard-working Salieri, did. How tragic that he was so wrapped up in himself, he missed the whole point of what creativity is all about. Salieri couldn't rejoice with the world that powerful compositions were flowing forth from somebody. A truly humble person would be delighted, regardless of the source. Whenever we have our own ego dripping into anything, it instantly makes the pool murky.

So I encourage us all not to forget that the truly humble and generous spirit is worth far more than merely writing well. Only then can we be part of something as big as what we originally dreamed of. Humility makes our own lives far happier too. Because when we can set our minds to truly rejoice in any great success, regardless of the source, we can enjoy millions of victories instead just a few, if any. I'll let Screwtape have the last word. 'When they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours.'

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

'Mistress Pat' by L.M. Montgomery

When she was twenty, nearly everyone thought Patricia Gardiner ought to be having beaus  - except of course, Pat herself. For Pat, Silver Bush was both home and heaven. All she could ever ask of life was bound in the magic of the lovely old house on Prince Edward Island, "where good things never change." And now there was more than ever to do, what with planning for the Christmas family reunion, entertaining a countess, playing matchmaker, and preparing for the arrival of the new hired man. Yet as those she loved so dearly started to move away, Pat began to question the wisdom of her choice of Silver Bush over romance. Was it possible to be lonely at Silver Bush?

Pat of Silver Bush is back for a sequel. If you imagine nobody could possibly eke out an interesting story about a young woman who simply keeps house and enjoys simple things, then think again. But your feelings about the book might hinge on how you feel about sitting in cosy rooms, having jokes, chats and nibbles with close family members. If you're a domestic introvert like me, it'll tick all your boxes. But if you always prefer more of a complex action plot, then consider yourself duly warned, a huge percentage is jokes, chats and nibbles.

I'd better just warn you, there are plot spoilers in this review (despite some readers considering Mistress Pat doesn't have much plot.) It's the sort of book where any decent thoughts for a review must directly address what happens, or else there's nothing much to say. Occasional ones are like that, so proceed with caution. But I will warn you when we get to really dangerous waters. 

It picks up soon after the spot where the first book leaves off. Mother is a semi-invalid, having undergone a tricky heart operation. Even though Pat calls her the 'life and soul of the house,' the ongoing story still seems to function without her playing much of a role. I think Judy is the real heart and soul. Pat has opted to give up the chance to teach school so Winnie is free to marry Frank, but the decision was a no-brainer for her. Dad and Sid still work hard, and hire a great new hand named Tillytuck. Baby sister Cuddles is now a bright young teenager who prefers to be called Rae (short for Rachel). And Jingle/Hilary is off learning to be a terrific architect.

The story quietly taps into the topic of time, which always fascinates me. A distant relative who pays a visit thinks, 'What a quiet, beautiful place where there is time to live.' That's part of the charming Silver Bush atmosphere Pat loves to foster, but even with the illusion of time meandering slowly, the changes she tries to ward off keep coming. I was in the perfect mood for them. Not long ago, my Dad passed away and soon after that it became necessary for my family to move house. Both were out of the blue. And our little nine-year-old guinea pig crossed the rainbow bridge too. I sense LMM wrote this book in a later stage of her career, as her similar reaction to being knocked around by life's sudden turns. One sentence I highlighted was this one. 'How life grew around changes until they became a part of it and were changes no more.' Pat has to experience this and so do we.


The end for good old Judy gives us one of the best perspectives about death I've come across in a story. She faces it with composure and contentment rather than any sense of fear or dread. Judy's simply relieved that her final days will not be a nuisance to the family she loves so well. 'I've had a happy life here Patsy, and now death seems real friendly.' Pat reflects as we all do that many people might not consider Judy's life happy from their outside observation, since she was just a servant working on a small farm. Yet Judy controlled the one thing anybody can; her attitude. What a brilliant old role model she is, and I shed a few tears over her.

The tragedy that befalls Silver Bush seems so cruel! As I reached that part, I thought, 'Whoa, can LMM really be mean enough to take it there?' knowing instantly that she does. How will Pat cope without the love of the family home she's built her whole identity around? Maybe no worse than me, since I was crushed just reading about it. The more you dwell on it, the huger the loss looms. It's not just the precious walls but all the story fodder they contain. The cookbooks with the ancient clan recipes, and the old love letters reduced to ashes.

Was the burning totally necessary as a plot device? Wouldn't it have been nice for Hilary to have Pat choose him over Silver Bush while it was still standing? Surely the way it is might give the impression that she took him as a last resort, regarding him as second best? I'm sure her wider community would think so.Yet on the other hand, he has the pleasure of knowing he'll be the only one who can possibly make up for her crushing loss, which I think is how LMM would want us to see it. There was far too little of Hilary in this story. Too many passing mentions, and not enough personal appearances, which is why I didn't give the book quite full marks. Also, I wish Montgomery hadn't dragged it out to eleven years, when all of the events could have been just as easily compressed into three or four.


Since life's messages can dawn on us in simple insights from the blue, that's how a lot of the book is structured, so I'll finish with a few very brief observations.

* Courtships can take as short as Rae's (three days) or as long as Pat and Hilary's (20+ years). Most are more normal, and fall anywhere in between.

* Hilary Gordon deserves more of a high profile in readers' list of wonderful romantic heroes than he often gets. The way he stays true to Pat while she fobs him off for year after year is astounding. And this extract from the letter he sent her works its magic on me. 'Don't feel badly because I love you and you can't love me. If the choice had been mine I would have still have chosen to love you. There are people who try to forget a hopeless love. I'm not one of them, Pat... My love for you has enriched my whole existence and given me the gift of clear vision for the things that matter. It has been a lamp held before my feet whereby I have avoided many pitfalls of baser passions and unworthy dreams.'

* David Kirk is one of my favourite characters in this story. Rather than coming across as 'the other guy', he's such a cool, kind person.

* Perhaps different families are neither superior nor inferior to others. Do the Binnies really have bad taste in every aspect of their lives, or are they just different from the Gardiners? I wouldn't be surprised if some readers concur more with their decorating styles and methods of communication.

* Pat hates inter-family quarrels but I'm wondering how they'll avoid future friction between her offspring and Sid's, since he went and married May. With such different mothers, I can't imagine these sets of cousins ever seeing eye to eye.

* Pat and Hilary's kids had better steel themselves to hear lots of stories about Silver Bush!


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens

Dickens' story of solitary miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors, has proved one of his most well-loved works. Ever since it was published in 1843 it has had an enduring influence on the way we think about the traditions of Christmas. 

I wanted to include a classic Christmas story this December, and the plot of this one is a legend, of course. Scrooge's old business partner, Jacob Marley, used to be just as mean and tight-fisted as Scrooge, but he's belonged to the next world for long enough to grasp what's really important. Marley's ghost decides to pay Scrooge a visit to give him some tough love, with the help of three supernatural buddies who represent the three tenses of Christmas: past, present and future.

Some readers have mentioned one-dimensional characterisation. Can anyone really be as cranky as Scrooge, or as hearty as his nephew Fred, or as good-natured as Bob Cratchit, or as holy and angelic as Tiny Tim? I have no problems with it, because the season of Christmas is like a main character in its own right, which brings out the best and worst in everyone. We're getting a glimpse of these characters for a specific two days in the calendar, when they always put on their most extreme behaviour. (Anyway, I've come across real people who strike me as close matches. Sometimes people we meet in true life are more like caricatures than others might imagine.)

But wherever you stand, you've got to admit Charles Dickens succeeded in what must surely be just a distant dream for most authors. The name of his main character has now become a noun for a specific type of person. 'Don't be such a Scrooge.'

Ebenezer Scrooge considers himself a careful realist, but it progresses to stinginess. The narrator says, 'The heaviest rain and snow could boast the advantage of him in only one respect. They often come down handsomely and Scrooge never did.' His downfall was all in the name of looking out for himself, and I understand his reasoning, especially since he belonged in the Victorian era. When you make adequate provision for your welfare, you needn't worry about being destitute and alone in the future, right? But outcomes sometimes turn out to be the opposite of our aim. He's alienated everyone by his ungenerous spirit, and is headed for a very lonely death.

Dickens descriptions of London coldness add loads to the atmosphere. 'The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole... Candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.' The Victorian winter would have been no fun to live through, but was certainly fun to read about.

You have to really read the book to get the impact of the different personalities of the ghosts themselves. Christmas Past is like a wise child-cum-old man, who can be snuffed like a candle. Christmas Present is a jolly giant, living it up and scattering cheer wherever he steps. And Christmas Future is like the silent and spooky Grim Reaper type we've all come across. Some reviewers think it's inconceivable that Scrooge could experience a total personality reversal in one night, but again I disagree. When the catalysts are as dramatic as this trio, wouldn't you?

I'll just summarise some of my favourite parts of what they show him.

One of my most loved themes pops up, the comfort of reading books. Lonely young Ebenezer, who was left behind at school over the holidays, reminds me of David Copperfield, another of Dickens' boys, as he sits quietly by the window reading stories. The way the scene plays out here is  so impressive from a nineteenth century author like Dickens. As the boy sits reading, a procession of his favourite characters pace past the window as if they're real, including Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe. To think that was imagined straight from Dickens' head onto the page with no knowledge of on-screen entertainment is astounding. So is Scrooge's glimpse into the supernatural world of ghosts and spirits, who fill the outside world, often lamenting bitterly because they can no longer perform the good actions they'd like to. If only they'd done it while they were alive, hey?

There's good old Fezziwig, Scrooge's employer as a young apprentice, and the awesome staff party he threw. Fezziwig demonstrates the unequal effect of the mathematics of kindness. The ripple effect of one kind action can far exceed the effort it took in the first place. It was all over in one evening, but remained fondly in people's memories for decades. Even fleeting moments are valid, and Scrooge says so. 'His power was in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to count 'em up. The happiness given is as great as if it had cost a fortune.' I love that idea, because some of us can't afford to make grand, sweeping gestures, but it doesn't mean our impact will be any less when we do what we can.

It's no wonder this story has left several generations of readers with the idea that our own acts of kindness can be worthwhile, even if the scope isn't as huge as Scrooge's. Tiny Tim's whole life seems to rest on the treatment his father receives from his employer. It's easy to see why this novella took off and sold out its first printing, because it has touches of so much of the great stuff Victorians loved. Plenty of sentimental moralism, loads of Gothic chills and thrills, some hard-hitting lessons, and lovely feels for the Christmas season itself. It's just as easy to see why so many contemporary readers of the twenty-first century keep re-reading it each year too.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

'West From Home' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

In 1915, Laura Ingalls Wilder traveled by train from her home in Missouri to San Francisco. Laura's westward journey to visit her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, coincided with a spectacular event taking place in that city-the Panama Pacific International Exposition. 

       This was a great world's fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, and Laura was amazed by the attractions that had been gathered there.
 Her husband, Almanzo, was unable to leave their Missouri farm, and it was Laura's letters that gave him the chance to see what she saw during her visit to California. 

       These letters, gathered together here, allow the reader to experience Laura's adventures and her intimate thoughts as she shared with her husband the events of her exciting sojourn.

It's a real life epistolary story, and not a fictional one.This book is a great historical document that fascinated me from start to finish. In 1915, Laura's daughter Rose was a well-known journalist in San Francisco, and invited her parents to visit. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was being hosted there at the same time, which highlighted the best goods and produce many nations had to offer. The descriptions of it remind me a bit of the Great Exhibition in Victorian London, but this one had the benefit of far more developed technology, being about 65 years further advanced.

Of course one of them had to stay home to look after the farm, so Laura set off and promised to keep Almanzo updated. She wrote him long, descriptive letters almost every day, and we get to read them all in this book. Nowadays we'd send quick snaps from our phone, but back then, her words were the picture. She took care to keep them extra detailed, and those of us separated by space and time get the benefit. Laura herself wasn't always happy with them. 'I am disgusted with this letter. I have not done halfway justice to anything I've described.' Although I loved the book, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that I was snooping at somebody else's letters, or reading over his shoulder.

The evidence of their devotion to each other is beautiful. Laura wasn't the type to write lovey-dovey letters, and they'd been married for over 30 years at this point anyway. Yet the whole structure of the letters emphasises their unity. Especially lines like, 'Half the fun I lose because I am all the time wishing for you.' I love their mutual partnership. It seems they had lots on their mind, such as how to save and invest their money, and whether to move closer to Rose. Laura always writes something like, 'I've gathered all the literature to show you, so when I get home we'll discuss it.' It's a great picture of a good, stable marriage. Her lifelong frugalism comes through too, as she was always counting her pennies.

Panama pacific poster.jpgThe world fair sounds amazing. 1915, with its electricity and tram cars and moving picture theatres, must have seemed ultra modern for people born in the late 1860's and early 70's, like Laura and her sisters. Progress had been super speedy during those forty odd years, and it reminds me of a similar scenario for those of us born about 100 years later, who can remember life before the computerised, digital world as we know it. Perhaps these last two centuries really match each other for their acceleration of progress around the turn of the century.

Laura sees enough of Rose's working schedule to put her off that intense, deadline driven style of writing. 'The more I see of how Rose works, the better satisfied I am to raise chickens. I do not see how she can stand it.' It's interesting to remember this was all the before the Little House books had been started. She eventually hand-crafted a project that suited her better. And somehow with their differing styles, the mother and daughter worked on it as a team.

At one stage, Rose writes a secret letter to her father, to tell him that his wife is getting fat! She seemed anxious to convince him that it wasn't her fault if her mother wanted to gobble up all the seafood and Scottish scones she set her eyes on. It seems Laura was an advocate of the 'see food' diet, if Rose is to be believed. 'See food and eat it.' The letter starts, 'Something is happening which I think you should know, although it is a painful subject to contemplate.' I thought, 'Come on, seriously?' Would Almanzo really be bothered by such a thing, and was he in the position to do anything about it if he was?

Overall, I felt like cheering because Laura achieved a lifelong dream to make it to the far west coast, even if it was just for a couple of months. I'm sure it would have crossed her mind how much her father would have loved the opportunity too, had he been alive. I love how she describes her first sight of the ocean, when she talked Rose into wading with her. 'The water is such a deep, wonderful blue, and the sound of the waves breaking on the beach, and their whisper as they flow back, is to dream about.' What a great reminder for coastal dwellers like me to never take for granted what we have all year round.

Although she loved her time away, Laura's final verdict was satisfaction at the thought of getting home. 'The more I see here, the more I think I will come home and put all my attention on the chickens.'

I'll finish off with a few of her comments which have good historical significance.

'We stopped at a moving picture show and saw Charlie Chaplin, who is horrid.'

'The foghorn of Alcatraz is the most lonesome sound I ever heard, and I don't see how the prisoners on the island stand it.'

'The threat of prohibition is ruining the grape industry in California, and it is only a question of a little time when the grape grower will go out of business, except of course those who furnish fresh grapes for eating.'

Next up will be a book of reminiscences from others entitled I Remember Laura


Friday, November 23, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018 - Wrap Up Post

I've completed the Back to the Classics challenge, hosted by Books and Chocolate, for another year, and it never fails to stretch me out of my comfort zone. I read some beauties this year, although it kept my total number of books completed lower than normal since some of them are so massively thick. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and Moby Dick.) Once again, I've ticked off all 12 categories, and here they are.

A Nineteenth Century Classic David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

A Twentieth Century Classic - Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

A Classic by a Woman Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

A Classic in Translation - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A Children's Classic Pat of Silver Bush by L.M. Montgomery

A Classic Crime Story Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

A Classic with a single-word title Emma by Jane Austen

A Classic with a colour in the title - Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

A Classic by an Author that's new to you The Napoleon of Notting Hillby G.K Chesterton

A Classic that scares you - Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A re-read of a favourite Classic - The Children of the New Forest by Captain Frederick Marryat

Last year I awarded medals to my best three picks from the list, and thought I'd do the same again, with the only three 5-star reads on the list.

Bronze Medal - Pat of Silver Bush
I adore this story because it's so full of everyday magic and the beauty of living a quiet, simple life. It's a perfect cure for the sort of depression that comes from thinking your life doesn't measure up to some arbitrary standard. It also has one of my favourite young L.M. Montgomery heroes, Jingle Gordon.

Silver Medal - Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy kept the characters' personal epiphanies coming thick and fast enough for me to keep turning pages, and they're the sorts of insights we can adopt for our own lives too. I think Konstantin Levin was the character who nudged this up among the best reads of the year for me.

Gold Medal - Wives and Daughters
This has got to be up top, because it holds so much of what makes the Victorian era a joy to look back on for those of us who never lived through it (and that's all of us, of course). It's perfect in its balance of subtle, nuanced characterisation and the buzz of what was going on, such as scientific discoveries by the likes of Charles Darwin. No Victorian novel has made me feel I might have been there as much as this one.

Looking over this list, I think my three stand-outs might all share the simple satisfaction of enjoying ordinary lives, and that probably reveals a fair bit about me, the reader, too. Now, bring on next year! 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Great Reason to Re-Read Novels

I'm a big fan of re-reading excellent books, although it seems counter-intuitive to my sudden urge to just get through as many as possible. I've finally reached an age in which I realise I'm not ever going to be able to finish as many books as I'd like to. When I was younger (and not even that much younger), I had the illusion that there would always be ample time to read every book that sparked my interest. Not anymore. I'm now aware that my remaining days on earth will be too short to squeeze them all in.

A small part of the change might be knowing I've reached what people consider middle age, and balancing that awareness against the size of some of the books on my to-read list, and also the steady stream of recommendations I see every day from bloggers and instagrammers. But the large part is because my dear Dad died not so long ago, and I can still clearly remember those days when I was young and he was my age. It brings the idea of mortality far closer to home. Even though I hope there will still be decades to read books, my reading time is definitely limited.

But instead of letting that put me in a hurry to buzz from book to book, I'm going to keep making time to re-read at least sections of really good ones. Re-reading books has never failed to impress me with extra insights I always missed the first time through. I believe a normal person just can't take away all the good stuff in just one read. So if you're going to bother reading a good book at all, you owe it to yourself to read it at least once more.

Here's my recent example of how it works. Last month I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time, and soaked in every moment, including the time the Nolan kids lost their beloved father Johnny. In one poignant scene, the new widow Katie sends her two children out for some fresh air at night, and they see several reminders of their dad. Francie and Neeley end up sitting together by the roadside and crying until their tears are spent. I shared their pain on a personal level, although Johnny Nolan was much younger than my dad, and I'm a lot older than Francie and Neeley were.

They recover, as we do, and in the last few pages of the novel is a seemingly random incident. Francie Nolan is 17 years old and soon to leave home for college. One evening her brother Neeley runs cheerfully upstairs looking for a clean shirt because he's in a hurry. Francie says there's one washed but not ironed, so she sets up the board to help him out. After a bit of banter with her handsome brother, she watches him dash outside again. It's a sweet way to end the book, but I thought nothing of it.

Okay, so when I was planning a review, I thought I'd leaf back to the start to get some fresh ideas. And in the first few pages is another incident I'd forgotten by the time I reached the end. Francie is 11, and her bright and dashing father Johnny runs upstairs looking for his waiter's apron, because he has an unexpected job. She tells him there's one clean but not ironed, and sets up the board to be a good helper. After some hurried, affectionate chatter, she watches him leave and waves goodbye.

Wow, there were such obvious parallels between those two scenes, including how careful Francie was to press around their union badges. The author, Betty Smith, was giving us a really subtle way of seeing one of her best themes. (Well, I admit it's not so subtle in retrospect, or for anyone more on the ball than I was.) She's surely suggesting that although the thread that connects all things may seem tenuous, weak or completely snapped, it's really extremely strong. Having the bulk of the story sandwiched between those two incidents is probably her way of suggesting that there are always traces of our departed loved ones to be found when we search with open eyes; whether it's in the form of memories, belongings, or the DNA of other family members. When Francie thinks, 'Neeley is just like Papa,' she probably remembered that earlier incident which I forgot, even though it was seven years of real time for Francie and just a week or two for me.

That was so meaningful to me I shed a tear or two, and started looking for similar parallels from the life of my dad in the presence of my children. It's a really comforting thought, and one which I wouldn't have got if I hadn't flipped back to the beginning of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to read the first few chapters. I won't stop re-reading books, because I want to always pick up on other great reinforcing moments. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

This pseudo-Victorian novel has been making a stir, and I was curious to find out why. It deals with people's reactions to rumours of a fierce sea beast from ancient times believed to be terrorising their Essex coast. The two main characters are Cora Seaborne, a young recent widow, and William Ransome, the local vicar and father of a family. The main thing these two share is a deep desire to get to the bottom of it.

At first, people imagine a Lochness Monster type of critter. Those with a scientific bent are excited to think it could be a species that outwitted extinction, like a living fossil or dinosaur. But it's soon clear the fear factor runs far deeper. The serpent is blamed for every stroke of bad luck, such as scantily laying hens, crop failure, sour milk, and even children's bad behaviour. It sounds bizarre to blame an elusive creature in the water for all these things, but that's how illogical the human mind is, when superstition and mass hysteria take hold.

Cora is excited to dig around, inspired by the legendary scientist Mary Anning, to see what she can find. Will is exasperated by the rumours, since he takes it as a slap in the face and insult to his position. Surely a good clergyman should be able to curb the collective terror of his parishioners. These two are introduced by mutual friends, and while they rub each other up the wrong way, neither can deny a strong attraction to the other.

That last paragraph might make this sound like a fairly typical romance, but it really turns out not to be.

The story seemed to take ages to rev up though. It starts with information dumps and excessive detail on every page, slowing the pace to a crawl. The back-story and exposition seemed as boggy as the mud of Colchester itself, making it easy to put down. But the wonderful prose and description of setting eventually won me over. You can't help growing to love a book that puts you right in the picture with lines such as, 'Rooks lifted from the oak with a look of black ashes blown up from burning sheets of paper.'

In turn, the characters also took a long time to grow on me. I tried to figure out why, since they were certainly well threshed out. I decided maybe they had depth but not much development. They were all pretty much as intense at the start as they were all through. Cora the free-thinker (her sort of unconventionality is fairly conventional in fiction), Luke the surgeon, Will the vicar, Martha the reformer. They were archetypes rather than people, perhaps, until they started getting more endearing. First the kids, then some of the more peripheral characters, and finally even Cora and Will themselves.

The subtle presentation of different types of friendship is what drew me in. The two doctors, Luke Garrett and George Spencer bring us the perfect bromance. I won't reveal more. Then there's the wonderful friendship between Will's sick but colourful wife Stella, and Cora's young son Francis. These two are an ideal proof that kindred spirits might pop up in totally different shapes, but recognise each other on sight.

In fact, Francis might be the quiet glue that holds the whole story together. We modern readers recognise him as somebody who obviously fits somewhere on the autism/Asperger's spectrum, but the Victorians knew nothing of this. To the people in his life, he was just remote and obsessive. He's a boy thoroughly engrossed in his passion of collecting things, valuing his routine, and responding to shows of affection for the most part with coolness. But Francis' strengths of perception and sharp intellect are revealed throughout the story, overshadowing most of the other characters. He's like an occasional eyepiece generously offered to us, to help us see clearer ourselves.

Most reviewers have mentioned the beautiful cover, so I'll follow their lead. I wonder if textile designer William Morris actually sold several books for Sarah Perry, because the design inspired by his work initially drew several readers (if not virtually all) to pick it up. I was no different. But the question is would he have endorsed the story, being an author himself? That part's unknown, because he's been dead since 1896. It's possibly quite a smart idea to use the great work of somebody you can be sure won't pop up to offer an opinion.

I can't give it full marks because of that early clunkiness, plus it doesn't completely deliver on suggestions in the blurb and reviews. The characters don't delve into matters of science versus faith as much they could, or explore the idea that these ways of thinking don't have to be mutually exclusive. Nor do they address the even bigger dichotomy between faith and superstition, which is more confrontational to me. Maybe if the publicists and big reviewers didn't suggest these things feature strongly, we wouldn't be disappointed. And for all her talk, Cora doesn't really do much in the way of natural history at all. But overall, I've got to rank the story highly anyway, since it encourages us to start noticing the charm in our own worlds. Nineteenth century rural Essex doesn't hold the monopoly on magic and colour.

So forget any preconception that the main theme is about the progressive nature of Victorian thought, because I think it's really about finding beauty in unexpected places and choosing contentment, no matter what life throws at us. I highly recommend you give it a read, since I was prepared to give it the thumbs down through the first twenty or fifty pages, but it ended up bewitching me.


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Women who love Bad Men

Fiction isn't valuable just for its entertainment potential. One of the best ways to approach it is as a spotlight on the world. Stories can hone in on changes needing to be made, which are not always visible to the naked public eye. The treatment of helpless women at the hands of abusive men might be a prime case, and there's no shortage of examples in classic novels. The abundance of them might indicate the need there's always been to bring such incidents out into the open, for preventative measures to be taken in future. This list highlights several cases of girls falling for the wrong person; mentally, emotionally and even physically. They've surely helped the general public see a need for drastic action over the years, and maybe even added to solutions. Here they are. 

Warning: Spoilers Ahead. Most of these are old classics, but if you still haven't read them and intend to, then skip the title. There's also a spoiler for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Isabella Linton and Heathcliff
The pampered, but headstrong girl falls for Heathcliff's rugged good looks, despite everyone warning her off. He takes full advantage of her affection. Heathcliff seduces and marries Isabella for no better reason than to get back at Catherine, his true love, and Edgar Linton, her husband. He pounds his point home by abusing Isabella in every way, and then doing the same thing to their son after her death. The best thing she ever did was escape from the 'fierce, pitiless, wolfish man'. (Review is here.)

Clara Copperfield and Edward Murdstone
This guy could well be my most loathed character in all of literature. He tenderly woos a girlish widow into falling for him, then treats her like dirt, and all her worldly goods as his personal possessions. He abuses her little son Davy, and absolves himself with all sorts of Puritanical, high sounding reasons for his cruelty. And when Clara's death makes him a widower, he begins the cycle all over again with some other innocent girl. (My review is here.)

Little Em'ly and James Steerforth 
Here's a classic example of an aristocratic young fellow choosing to play around with a beautiful girl from the lower class he has no intentions to marry like a true gentleman should. Steerforth knew he could have any woman he liked, but choose to ruin the life of a girl who had a wonderful fiance who treated her like a princess. And 'Em'ly' made the classic mistake of misreading his true character and believing his smooth talk. (Here's more about the the bad boys of David Copperfield)

15823480Dolly and Stepan Oblonsky
Anna Karenina's unfaithful brother cheats on his poor wife all the time, and he regards her discovery as a nuisance to be swept under the carpet. Dolly considers herself in no position to do anything about it, since he's in a public position and they have a houseful of young children. Even when she confronts him and wrests an apology, they both know very well he'll never stop his affairs with other women. Dolly deals with it by focusing on what's good in her life, and pushing him to the periphery of her thoughts where he deserves to be. (Review is here.)

Helen and Arthur Huntingdon
Young Helen finds herself head over heels in love with a handsome, witty rake who she plans to reform once they tie the knot. But the safety net of marriage simply brings out Arthur's true colours, and he becomes even more of a dissolute alcoholic. He delights in drunken revels and sordid affairs. But when he starts deliberately trying to charm their small son with his corrupt lifestyle, Helen knows it's time to pack up and leave. She's one of the few women with a money making skill to fall back on. It's a hard way to learn that we can't change anybody but ourselves.

Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby
These two hit it off instantly, and are always together. But he breaks her heart by dumping her inexplicably just when she believes he's on the verge of proposing. When Marianne discovers Willoughby has got himself engaged to another girl, she grieves herself sick. It's gradually revealed that he is a complete scoundrel who seduced another young girl, made her pregnant, then refused to marry her. He ends up marrying for money rather than love, while Marianne struggles to recover from the loss. Some people think she had a narrow escape.
Estella Havisham and Bentley Drummle
It's easy to say it serves this ice-princess right. She turns her back on our hero Pip, even though she knows he's been devoted to her from the moment they met. But breaking a nice boy's heart has been her freaky guardian's plan for Estella all along. The man of her choice is one of Pip's worst enemies, who is killed while mistreating his horse. We find out later that marriage to Drummle has broken Estella's spirit and softened her haughty spirit. It's such a shame that's what it took. (Review is here.)

Patience and Joss Merlyn
Mary Yellan remembers her aunt Patience as a bright, beautiful young lady who fell head-over-heels for a handsome Cornish inn-keeper. But marriage to that same man has reduced her to a pale and edgy drudge who flinches at the sight of a shadow. The radical change in Patience alerts Mary that something's not right with Joss. Indeed, the unfolding story of Jamaica Inn reveals him as a crueler wretch than either woman had ever imagined. (Review is here.)

5297Sybil Vane and Dorian Gray
The pure and beautiful young actress falls madly in love with our cold-hearted but ravishingly gorgeous anti-hero. She'd give her life for him - which turns out to be exactly what happens. When she messes up a stage performance because she's distracted with love for Dorian, he cruelly rejects her in no uncertain terms. And she can't bear it, so commits suicide. Oh Sybil, he wasn't worth it! (Review is here.)
Nancy and Bill Sikes
This pair are members of Fagin's pickpocket gang in the London underworld, and Nancy adores Bill. Who remembers her singing, 'As long as he needs me' in the Oliver musical? But she also has a kind heart, and decides she'll do her bit to prevent young Oliver Twist being sucked into the toxic lifestyle. When Bill finds out that she's revealed the boy's peril to the good guys, he sees red and savagely murders her. It's probably one of the cruelest returns for devotion in literature.

Sonya Marmeledov and Rodian Raskolnikov
This is probably the best on the list, since he does end up loving her in return and plans to mend his ways. But it starts unfortunately for poor Sonya, who falls for a handsome and intense young man believing him to be nothing more than a kind acquaintance of her father's who helped them out of a financial jam. Little does she know he was the axe murderer who killed the pawn broker Alyona and her sister Elizaveta. (Review is here.)

Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldemort
It definitely serves her right, no two ways about it. Bellatrix is passionate for Lord Voldemort knowing full well that he's the destructive, dark menace of the wizarding world. Have you ever wondered what she'd see in old snake-face. Perhaps she remembers him as the handsome Tom Riddle of yore, but most likely the corruption in her own heart simply responds to the evil in his. Voldemort is a cause she can believe in, as well as a man she can love. He uses her whenever he can, and she doesn't even care. It's good riddance to both of them at the end of the battle for Hogwarts, but alas, the publication of The Cursed Child reveals that they managed to become parents together. Any offspring of these two definitely needs to be looked out for. (Review is here.)

The Risky Way Home
This one's not a classic of course, but I even had a go at one myself, in a contemporary novel I wrote years ago. A young girl named Moira living in France falls for a man named Jean-Michel, whose mental delusions cause him to be truly dangerous to her and their children. Escape to Australia is still fraught with difficulty, and the terror of her years with him is revealed in flashbacks from a diary. (See here for more details)

Do any of these unfortunate couples stick out in your memory, or can you think of any others? I guess the obvious opposite is men who fall for bad women, which I may work on, although I'd expect it to be more of a challenge.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

'Pat of Silver Bush' by L.M. Montgomery

Patricia Gardiner loved Silver Bush more than anything else in the world. She was born and raised in the beautiful old-fashioned house on Prince Edward Island, "where things always seemed the same" and good things never changed. But things do change at Silver Bush--from her first day at school to the arrival of her new own first romance. Through it all, Pat shares her experiences with her beloved friends and discovers the one thing that truly never changes: the beauty and peace she will always find at Silver Bush--the house that remembers her whole life.

I've chosen this as my Children's Classic in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and I'm lucky enough to own a very old edition, although I've no idea where it originally came from. But the publication date is 1934, and since the story was first published in 1933, it must be one of the earliest versions possible. Maybe my mum had it when she was a girl. It's a delight to read something so old.

If you're a fan of Lucy Maud Montgomery, you'd have to be living under a rock not to know that several readers throughout the decades have called Pat Gardiner her worst heroine, but to me she's the best! While favourites like Anne and Emily are easy to admire but pretty unreachable, Pat is the sort of girl anyone can aspire to be. She doesn't have their same drive to excel, but her special talent is simply the ability to love things and people extra hard, including her family home Silver Bush. Other than that she's quite content to be ordinary, with just a few close friends, average intelligence and no burning ambition. To me, that makes her a breath of fresh air in a world of self-promotion.

No Montgomery heroine can escape their own brand of intensity though, and it's the nature of Pat's that make detractors call her silly. She loves things so hard that she can't bear change of any sort, from the chopping down of trees, to people leaving the family nest, to her dad shaving off his moustache. We can guess from the start that she'll be in for one letdown after another, since change is inevitable. The episodes are structured in such a way that one looming change after another threatens Pat's security, until they're either diverted or prove to be not so bad. Except for the few that are heartbreaking. In our era of mental health awareness, it strikes me that this is Pat's form of anxiety, which can manifest in many shapes. So twenty-first century readers who call her nasty names may be missing the point, or lacking in sympathy.

Pat is also the only LMM heroine to live in a reasonably stable traditional family, with both parents and several brothers and sisters. Some family members come across a bit shadowy at times, but that's fine. I'm not concerned with Winnie and Joe, the eldest sister and brother, not having a bigger presence on the pages. My older sister and brother floated around the periphery of my life too, which didn't mean I loved them any the less. I listened to their doings, but they never impacted my personal story, which is where Pat is at with Joe and Winnie. Montgomery has made it clear that the two eldest siblings are living eventful lives of their own, but this is Pat's story. Sid, the brother next in age to her, gets more of a look-in, and the father, Long Alec seems like a decent chap.

A story like this needs strong support characters though, and this one has two. First is Judy Plum, the loving old Irish housekeeper who's been with the family since Dad was a small boy. She's a master storyteller who seems to know something juicy about everyone within a hundred mile radius. Her method of childcare would never be endorsed in any modern text books, as it includes stories of ghosts, murders and wicked fairy folk. The kids all 'get' her though, and enjoy the thrills of her tales. Judy says, 'If ye can't be believing anything, what fun are ye going to get out of life?' I love her.

There's always someone with a sad or dysfunctional family background in LMM stories, and this one belongs to Pat's friend Jingle, aka Hilary Gordon, my favourite character. This boy is an absolute legend. In terms of supportive family members and opportunities for fun, he has nothing going for him. His father is dead and his neglectful mother has dumped him with her brother-in-law, who's equally indifferent. But in terms of appreciation, beautiful heart and sheer good nature, he has everything going for him. He's one of literature's best geeks, who proves that a boy can be gentle and dreamy without sacrificing manliness and strength of character. And if somebody asks which Montgomery episode first springs to spring to mind from any series, I might even choose the occasion when his mother pays a flying visit to sort out his future, and he's thoroughly disillusioned. It wouldn't be the same story at all without Hilary.
The person who falls short for me is 'Mother.' Montgomery never knew her own birth mother, which makes me wonder if that's partly why Mrs Gardiner doesn't spring to life on the pages. She's like a mousy person who creeps around the house without a strong identity. Even Judy calls her 'Mrs Long Alec' rather than 'Mary'. But I didn't like Mother after an episode where Pat was caught dancing around outside in the nude (yeah, truly). The family devises a punishment which a loving mother should never have gone along with. You'll see if you read it. From then on I saw her as not just a wimp but a cruel wimp, the worst sort.  Even though we're supposed to think she was a wonderful mother, we are told told and not shown. I'm sorry, Lucy Maud Montgomery, but I hardly liked her any better than I liked Jingle's mother, who was a callous cow, but at least she was a cow with colour.

On the whole, it's great to read a family story full of such magic. It's not the obvious magic of Harry Potter stories, but the sort of hidden, subtle, everyday magic that could fill any of our lives, such as psychic cats, subtle atmosphere changes, and the effect of ravishing beauty and great emotion, not to mention legends of kelpies, leprechauns and other fairy folk.

But most of all, how liberating to come across a heroine full of such enthusiasm for what others consider mundane work, who proves that running a household isn't demeaning but just another valid life option for people who genuinely appreciate the lifestyle. I loved seeing the usual ending scenario turned on its head. In many stories, a girl gets an opportunity to spread her wings, leave the family nest and meet the wide world head-on. But it doesn't have to be that way if there's a better, humbler fit. Pat was nudged out of the nest to spread her wings grudgingly, but expands with joy when circumstances enable her to return home. And that makes me happy enough to give the story full marks.

Update: I've now reviewed the sequel too, Mistress Pat.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

'On the Way Home' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

In 1894, Laura Ingalls Wilder, her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose, packed their belongings into their covered wagon and set out on a journey from De Smet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri. They heard that the soil there was rich and the crops were bountiful -- it was even called "the Land of the Big Red Apple." With hopes of beginning a new life, the Wilders made their way to the Ozarks of Missouri.

During their journey, Laura kept a detailed diary of events: the cities they passed through, the travelers they encountered on the way, the changing countryside and the trials of an often difficult voyage. Laura's words, preserved in this book, reveal her inner thoughts as she traveled with her family in search of a new home in Mansfield, where Rose would spend her childhood, where Laura would write her Little House books, and where she and Almanzo would remain all the rest of their happy days together.

Here's another book you could comfortably read in one sitting. I guess we could consider it the first Laura ever wrote, although it was back when she had no idea she'd ever be an author or become famous. It's a diary she kept on the road as they travelled between De Smet, South Dakota, and Mansfield, Missouri, where they hoped to thrive instead of suffer. I like the line from the song about South Dakota. 'We don't live here, we only stay, 'cause we're too poor to get away.' Well, the Wilder family saved enough to make an escape, along with their friends, the Cooley family.

It's sandwiched between an intro and conclusion by Laura's daughter Rose, who got it all together presumably to satisfy public demand for more Little House stories. She slots explanatory footnotes throughout the text too. When Laura mentions, 'luscious looking fruit I don't know,' Rose tells us they were persimmon and pawpaw.

It's an interesting read, but more of a factual document than Laura's usual lovely storytelling prose. This time she wasn't 'seeing' for her sister Mary or thousands of readers, but just keeping notes for her own records. For anyone who expects another novel, there are lots of gaps and unanswered questions. For example, did the Wilders even like the Cooleys? Rose liked the two boys, but Laura never wrote anything about their parents, such as, 'Frank and Emma are great.' We'll never know what things were really like on the road.

She describes the landscape in terms of crops, water quality, soil consistency and size of farms. There's not much of the usual description of setting Laura became known for. The beauty is summed up in passing remarks, such as their first impressive sight of the Ozarks. 'Manly says we could almost live on the looks of them.' But most likely she didn't have her full heart in the trip. Rose reveals how she mentioned it to her mother years later, and Laura snapped, 'I don't even want to think about it.' Probably the upbeat terseness covered lots of grief at all they were leaving behind.

I'll mention just a few points of interest I noticed.

There's the hundred dollar bill that went missing just when they intended to purchase their dream block of land. Oh whoa, can't you just imagine Laura and Almanzo searching frantically through all the nooks and crannies of the little lap desk? It appears Rose never really forgave her mother for asking whether or not she took it out to look at or play with. She felt angry and insulted because they should've known she wasn't such a baby. Well maybe she wasn't, but I can't help thinking she made no allowances for desperation, which shows her youth anyway. What a relief when they found it.

Some more of Rose's black-and-white memories make me smile, such as the indignation she felt on her friend Paul Cooley's behalf. Whenever they passed through big cities, his mother grabbed the lines of the team he'd been driving. The kids all resent this, since he'd proven himself such a good driver on country stretches.

We see Laura's strong notion of independence which comes through in later books. A friendly family offers to host them for dinner, but it's out of the question. Laura writes, 'Of course we could not stay. We could not be neighbourly to them in return.' It sounds like the mindset she'd acquired from her mother, Caroline Ingalls, but sort of limits people who want to make gracious, random acts of kindness.

She can spot people who aren't hard workers. 'Judging from the weeds in the gardens and fields, the people are shiftless.' Her description of Kansas perfectly matches my concept from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although I'll surely never visit. There were three to five inches of dust on the road, which they stirred up and had to breathe all day. And when they got to rocky Missouri, Rose and the Cooley boys always had bandaged toes, since they were stubbing them against half concealed stones underfoot.

Finally, there's the new gimmick Almanzo sells here and there along the road, to help with expenses. To them it was a labour saving wonder tool, but to us it sounds extremely unhealthy. He was peddling asbestos fire mats, which you could heat up knowing they'd turn bright red without burning, so then you could keep your pots and pans hot on them. He says, 'Every woman should have one.' No thanks, Almanzo, I think I'll pass.

This is a great supplement to the series, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone read it first, before the main canon.

Next up will be West From Home.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

The Classics Club has challenged us all to tackle a classic book of our choice that scares us for this Halloween month of October. Here is their dare. It can be horror, mystery or Gothic, as long as it suits the theme. I chose Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this year marks the bicentenary of its original year of publication, 1818. Secondly, it's so impressive that the author of such a masterpiece was a 19-year-old girl. She lived a very sad life too, but left her stamp of genius on the world and no doubt influenced the history of the horror and sci-fi genre for years to come. Reading her book is as close as we can come to saying, 'You go, girl.' 

The background alone is interesting. This teenage author was having a getaway at the Lakes District with her fiance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their good friend Lord Byron. To pass time, Byron suggested the three of them should have a horror story writing contest, and this novel was Mary's contribution. Surely she must have been the winner, because I couldn't even find whatever the two fellows came up with. (If you know, please tell us.)

Anyway, here's how it goes down. Victor Frankenstein is a talented science student with a great ambition to create a superior life form all of his own. So he pulls lots of all-nighters because he's in the zone, letting his imagination run wild. He forgets to keep in touch with his loved ones at home, since he's so wrapped up in visions of personal glory. 'A new species would bless me as its creator, and many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.'

Victor really admires beauty, so he robs graves for the nicest parts he can find. My favourite character in this story is basically a composite of human flesh chunks which Victor dismembers, then gets his needle and sews together. But when he uses his secret method to breathe life into it, the result is a major stuff-up. Instead of a noble super-being, the person he's created looks repulsive and hideous. If we can imagine a revived piecemeal corpse that has recently been rotting underground, it's probably close. Aha, so maybe our boy has just proven why humans shouldn't play God. 'It was such a thing as even Dante couldn't have conceived.' Victor runs out and hopes the thing will just go away. But although he's relieved in the short term, his creation returns to haunt him down the track, of course.

We get the monster's personal story of what happens when he first wanders out to explore the world. He's in the weird position of being fully grown from the start, with no babyhood memories to draw from. But unlike the original Adam, Frankenstein's monster finds himself feared and rejected wherever he goes. Anyone who's ever felt lonely to their very bone and longed to be part of the in-crowd should spare a thought for this poor fellow. 'My heart yearned to be loved by these amiable creatures. To see their sweet looks turned toward me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.'

His plea to Victor seems reasonable at first to both of them. He basically says, 'You created me, which means you have a certain responsibility for my welfare. So create a female companion to ease my loneliness, and I promise I'll never bother you again. Or suffer the consequences.' Anyone who's ever procrastinated on a dreaded project should spare a thought for poor Victor too. He said, 'Every thought devoted to it was an extreme anguish, and every word that I spoke in allusion to it caused my lips to quiver and my heart to palpitate.' (Actually, that reminds me of past days when I used to defer work on exam revision, essays or writing synopses.)

Victor's conscience starts to bother him as he considers that he might end up as the curse of mankind, if he carries his promise through, and a spawn of repulsive and malevolent monster babies are unleashed. 'A race of devils would be propogated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.' Whoops, it'd be the opposite of the adulation he'd hoped for, so there's still a bit of self-interest there, but at least he's trying to be honourable.

There's something I overlooked, and Mary Shelley herself didn't even seem to consider. I thank my husband for mentioning this, while I was discussing the book with him. Wouldn't any kids of the monster and his missus end up being quite normal? After all, Victor made the monster by collecting deceased body parts and infusing them with life. So since the reproductive organs and their DNA presumably weren't hideous to start with, the offspring themselves could end up quite socially acceptable. They might either think, 'Mum and Dad sure are ugly,' or, 'If Mum and Dad are normal, then everyone else is really gorgeous.' How cool if the plot had gone that way, but Victor abandoned the female project part way through. That spelled the end of his peace of mind from then on.

One of the saddest themes is how quick human nature is to assign bad motives to someone just because he's ugly. Even moments when the monster is intent on preserving life, he's perceived as a threat and his intentions are misinterpreted. All because of first impressions. His tragic life shows how loneliness and bad treatment might drive a person to turn resentful and vengeful in return. The monster dares just one person to push beyond human shallowness, but nobody steps up. 'If any being felt benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred fold. For that one creature's sake, I would make peace with the whole kind.' It's a powerful line, because even though we don't get to meet Victor's monster in person, we can take his challenge on board and pass the test with other people or creatures society might shun in general.

Even though it's a fairly somber story, there's amazing beauty in Mary Shelley's writing, and many small glimpses of how easy it is to live a good and satisfying life. It all comes down to how we respond to the beauty around us in creation, and appreciate what we're part of. Victor's best buddy Henry Clerval is master of living in the moment. And Victor himself says, 'I was formed for peaceful happiness. If I was ever overcome by ennui, the sight of what is beautiful in nature, or the study of what is excellent and sublime in the productions of man could always interest my heart and communicate elasticity to my spirits.' So there's a direct prescription for those of us who haven't created a monster who's hell bent on destroying our life.

There are morals aplenty, and a range of characters to pick off from the whole Frankenstein family. The monster discovers that revenge isn't all its cracked up to be. 'While I destroyed his hopes, I didn't satisfy my own desires.' As for Victor himself, he was possibly the scarier of the two in several ways! What could be more terrifying than a self-absorbed, immature young student with tickets on himself who suddenly discovers that he can bring inanimate flesh to life? Maybe we could sum up what this poor kid learns in just one sentence. 'Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.'

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