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.