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It's a real life epistolary story, and not a fictional one.This book is a great historical document that fascinated me from start to finish.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.