Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 23, 2020

A blog for 'normies'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satisfaction is in the journey. 

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2020

'Kristin Lavransdatter' by Sigrid Undset

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Anne and Gilbert's bookshelves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12) Bishop Hatto by Robert Southey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2020

'Dubliners' by James Joyce

Or 'Lessons from a disgruntled Irish lad.' 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course I was right. 



Monday, October 26, 2020

'Rilla of Ingleside' by L.M. Montgomery

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

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

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

Things I loved even more than before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some great quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, October 19, 2020

'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 15, 2020



As an Aussie Gen X girl, I was slow to realise that being unrooted was possibly my problem. 

Australia is a young nation as far as British and European settlers are concerned. While millions of people around the world are comfortably rooted in their ancient settings and traditions that extend back to the year dot, we are a nation descended from a whole lot of restless wanderers. Some were outright crooks who had no choice but to come here. (I've met descendants of convicts hailing from the east coast or Tasmania.) But others were escaping from intolerable situations, which was the case with my South Aussie ancestors. Some of them were fleeing religious persecution in Germany, while the majority were from the British Isles and simply wanted to end serious poverty and make a fresh start. All the settlers had basically one thing in common. They were disgruntled folk in desperate straits fed up with their backgrounds.

So to put it bluntly, this hot, scorched land which mapmakers have set at the bottom of the world hasn't had time to twine its roots deeply into many of us white Aussies yet. It's only been a matter of a few hundred years. Our forebears simply lobbed here and started winging it incredibly recently in the grand scheme of things. I remember as a school kid being very envious of fellow students of more recent ethnic backgrounds who still had strong ties to their international food, costumes and traditions. Whenever I asked my mother about ours, I was told quite cheerfully that we are Australians and don't really have any. That didn't seem to bother her but disappointed me immensely.  

It's not just my background but my era that strips meaning from my life. We 21st century westerners live in an automated, increasingly digital  and computerised world. The generations just a few back from mine are the first who had no necessity to get up close and personal with the land for basic subsistence. I grew up knowing all we need is in the supermarket. From time to time we hear reports of some modern kids who don't even realise where their fruit, vegetables and meat come from beyond the packaging. I remember my own kids flinching when they discovered tiny feathers or flecks of chook poop on our free range eggs. Even this ease of being fed is a meaning stripper, when we compare our lot with times gone by. 

And we belong to a world where we are now encouraged to become anything and everything that takes our fancy. Being born at the end of a string of professionals who pass down a family livelihood to their children is greatly a thing of the past. On the surface this seems amazingly liberating, because ambition is limitless and nothing can theoretically stop us from becoming whatever we please. Yet when you think about it, this freedom is also a potential meaning stripper, leaving us uprooted like dandelion seeds. Especially those of us who fail to make a decent go of whatever we set our hearts on. 

So there I was, the youngest kid in a family born toward the latter end of the 20th century; an unrooted soul if ever anyone was. No family traditions, no real ties to the Aussie landscape, no generational occupation to instill pride and identity in me, no need to develop the patience of a green thumb just to survive, and no good reason to be aware of how my food comes to me. Just an untethered child left to float along and make her own random decisions with nothing tangible to grasp. I'm sure many others can relate to me here. It's hard to wrap our heads around this sort of emptiness while we're in it, but perhaps there's a very good reason for those vague feelings of restlessness and depression we can't account for in our youth. 

I recently read Sarah Wilson's latest book, This One Wild and Precious Life, and instantly got her drift. Sarah Wilson wrote that a major problem with our era is not feeling necessary. She goes on to describe how technology imposes a disconnected feeling. 'The moral aloneness of our guard rail free culture makes very little of what we actually do or care about seem important.' 

So what are we to do when we're a generation of emotionally disengaged sleepwalkers? Or when we feel more like dandelion seeds floating in the wind than necessary, meaningful craftspeople of our own lives?

Sarah Wilson suggests that we stay informed about the state of the world and never stop caring about the small stuff, such as returning texts, ditching bottled water in favour of metal bottles from home, shunning single use coffee cups and picking up our litter. Those automatic choices which take a moment are actually infused with meaning, when we stop to reflect.

But what else? Having identified this general malady of unrootedness while reading her book, I wanted to think of a couple of suggestions of my own. Here they are, for what they're worth. As I've said, I've identified myself as much a casualty of unrootedness as many others in our era, so I'm open to hearing more.

1) Decide on something meaningful to you and stick to it, no matter how it seems to be going over with everyone else. For me that might include writing this stuff out, writing in general, acknowledging good material that I've read and passing it on. In recent years I've homeschooled my three kids, which seemed like a very meaningful move, given their temperaments and the current school system. 

2) Research your background as much as possible. I actually benefited from my Dad's decision to do this very thing, once he was retired. He asked me to type his notes for him, which brought to light several British ancestors from Ireland and Scotland who were actually very brave and resourceful people. We Aussies are essentially unfamiliar with the land where we hail from, but learning these things is a step in the right direction and helps that feeling of disconnect dissipate. 

3) Consider spirituality. I didn't have this in my early years, since my parents had pulled the plug on a very mind-controlling sect from their past. Back then, Sunday mornings were just another opportunity to watch telly. But as a teenager, with the help of the books I read, I started researching my Christian background and realised it wasn't a matter of discovering something brand new, but of grafting myself back in to something ancient, true and vital I'd lost hold of.

4) Surround yourself with symbols. I've always been drawn to necklaces and key rings that depict the Tree of Life. Perhaps that's an irony suggesting that I craved for good, sound roots I didn't realise I'd grown up without.  

What would you add to this list? Can you relate to my reflection on unrootedness in any way? What works for you?      

Monday, October 12, 2020

'Rainbow Valley' by L. M. Montgomery

Or 'The one with the minister's kids.'

It's the 7th book in the Anne series, but the focus is on the new Presbyterian minister, John Meredith, and his young family. Mr Meredith is a widower preoccupied in his own head space while his four children, who love hanging out with the Blythe kids, virtually run amok. They intend no harm, but innocence of social cues is their undoing. They clearly need a woman's touch, but who'd marry such an airhead and hopeless dreamer? 

What I appreciated even more than before.

1) The four Meredith kids, and their lifestyle predicament. They simply do whatever takes their fancy without knowing it's frowned upon, because nobody has ever told them. Even when they try to screen their actions and hold themselves accountable, things turn pear-shaped. What a great example they are that 'naughty' may be completely arbitrary and unintentional. I love it when Anne defends them, but wish her audience had been wider than just Miss Cornelia and Susan on her front porch.  

2) The Meredith girls specifically. Faith is thought to have the wrong personality for a minister's daughter, because she laughs too much to please her father's congregation, yet she's expected to adapt to their sober demands rather than them accepting her as she is. Una is anxious and sweet, but when she musters her courage to make requests of people in the town, she gets results! 

3) The Meredith boys too. I love decisive Jerry with his great intentions, and gentle little Carl with his fascination for creepy crawlies. LMM is great at character development.

4) I really love it when Miss Cornelia decides to adopt Mary Vance. It's like Marilla and Anne all over again.

5) The state of the manse! Those descriptive bits went a bit unnoticed when I was a kid, but as the person chiefly responsible for housework for many years, I got a real laugh out of it this time round. Especially when Faith and Una decide to clean house. 

6) Walter Blythe, and his attempts to bolster his own courage. This beautiful boy really assumes the role of misunderstood genius in this book, and even takes on the mantle of a sort of prophetic bard. Not that anyone ever really listens to him, but we know the time until the Great War is moving steadily closer.  

7) Norman Douglas. What a good ally to have on your side, and a total legend. I love his macanacaddy.     

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

1) What's up with Shirley Blythe? My calculations show that he's only slightly younger than Carl Meredith, who runs around Rainbow Valley with the rest of the gang. Yet Shirley is being cuddled by Susan and having her carry him to bed when he falls asleep. I've noticed his fluctuating age is a bit of a joke among hardcore LMM fans. In the case of Rainbow Valley, he should be around seven or eight years old at the beginning, but appears to be a toddler all through. 

2) Where are all the other Blythes? Walter gets featured in a nice story or two, but Jem and the twins don't appear as much as I'd hoped they would. And after Anne of Ingleside, I really missed them. 

3) The villain of the piece is Aunt Martha. The chapter about poor Adam horrifies me. If you haven't read the book yet, I'll let you experience it for yourself. A quick summary can't do it justice. I wonder if poor Faith ever got over it. 

4) At times, Mr Meredith irritated me chronically, and I wasn't inclined to brush off his shortcomings as LMM expected us to. The saying, 'he's so heavenly minded, he's of no earthly good,' could have been written about him. Surely being able to preach an interesting sermon doesn't make up for being completely clueless about what's happening beneath your own roof! Yet when I started thinking of him as a lost cause rather than a bad dad, I found myself mellowing a bit. He does have good intentions, but is so dreamy, they have no way of materialising (It's similar to me keeping my fridge crispers in pristine shape over the long term, but so much more at stake.) It's great when Rosemary West gets to marry him at the end, but man, I feel she's in for a frustrating time, more with her hubby than her stepkids.  

Some great quotes

Faith: I don't want to be like other people. I like being myself. It's more interesting.

Susan: I had an uncle who began by being a poet and ended up being a tramp. (She said that to discourage Walter from writing poetry, but I'm sure Susan's uncle was no random case.) 

Mary Vance: Your father's alright when he does wake up. It's a pity he doesn't wake up oftener. (You said it, Mary.) 

Faith: The things that don't seem a bit of harm to us seem simply dreadful to other people. How can we tell?

Miss Cornelia: What business has a man like that to have a family? He might as well be a monk.

Norman Douglas: A hundred a year to the salary and church once a month, but no spoiling good heathens to make poor Christians! 

Susan: Cornelia Elliot thinks she was born to run this world, Mrs Dr Dear, so she is always in a stew over something. I have never thought I was, so I go calmly along.

Miss Cornelia: We've just been shutting our eyes to the big worthwhile things and squinting them on the little things that don't really matter a pin's worth.

Walter Blythe: I'm not going to be frightened anymore, sir. Being frightened of things is worse than the things themselves.  

Jem Blythe: I'd give anything to see a big battle. Let the Piper come. (Nooooo!! He's going to regret saying that so much!) 

Okay, the time is finally here. Stay tuned, because next up will be the emotional roller coaster which is Rilla of Ingleside.

Bonus: I've never sought or read fan fiction before, but when it comes to the Blythe and Meredith kids, I thought I'd just have a look to see if there's anything out there that might fill in the gaps between the end of Rainbow Valley and the start of Rilla of Ingleside. And I stumbled upon this one. The author has stayed true to canon, setting and characters, and I was very impressed. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen

Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor's warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.


This is a re-read, the last time being long ago. Basically, it's a probing story about the opposite reactions shown by the two Dashwood sisters when it looks as if bust-ups with their respective boyfriends are inevitable. Marianne is an intense, hysterical girl with no self-command or emotional backbone to help her weather the blow, but then there is Elinor, who has sense enough to refrain from non-productive histrionics, even though she feels just as bereft and horrible.

She's often overlooked by readers, but Elinor Dashwood is now my favourite Jane Austen heroine, especially in the role model sense. She has a kind heart, yet her bulldust radar is so finely tuned, she won't be duped by anybody. There's no way an ulterior motive can slip past this girl, yet she doesn't hold it against people. She's canny but not cynical. She can sniff a phony a mile off, yet still gives others the common kindness and courtesy she believes anyone deserves. Such acute perception doesn't always go hand in hand with such generosity, and I salute her for it. Another thing Elinor doesn't do is wear her feelings on her sleeve to be seen by all, yet Austen makes it clear that she feels them no less deeply. 

I also cheer her love interest, Edward Ferrars, a young man brought up in a ridiculously showy and pretentious family unit who persists in believing that a modest, quiet life will suit him to a tee. He actually reminds me of my husband. Edward is never one for flowery expressions and earnest creativity himself, yet is willing to listen to those who are. His supreme moment, of course, is when he allows his family to disown him for the sake of the principle at stake, even though it's not at all to his own benefit to dig in his heels. What an honourable guy!  

Oh gosh, Marianne's meltdown lasted months! What a girl to place all her eggs in one basket. Having a fixed and one-track mind might sound romantic, but Austen suggests through Marianne that it's a recipe for misery. Her rudeness and contempt for well-meaning friends does her no favours either. She just doesn't grasp that self-command and self-distraction are reasonable coping tools, and simply assumes Elinor doesn't feel as deeply as she does. Or at least, she doesn't start getting it until the end of the story. 

One thing I've notice divide readers is whether or not the handsome young bounder Willoughby deserves our sympathy, when we discover that he regrets jilting Marianne after all. It's a 'No way!' from me. How dare he ghost her, leaving her to wonder whatever she did to upset him, rather than being man enough to at least own up about his predicament. His callous treatment of other young women as playthings clinches it. At best he's a selfish brat who looks out for Number One, and at worst he's a dangerous jerk who preys on, and ruins, innocent lives. 

I think Elinor nails it when she basically says that Willoughby pines for Marianne just because she's forbidden fruit, and that if he had married her, he'd surely notice greener grass elsewhere before long. (Yet having said that, I admit to being glad his life wasn't too bad in the final wrap-up. Although we readers see through him, Austen has a way proving that we're not immune to a cute face and cheery smile.) 

Oh, if only the alternative she'd written for Marianne got my thumbs up! It's the most disturbing part for me. The Marianne/Colonel Brandon match strikes me as terribly wrong on so many different levels! Sure, he's a good egg and a great catch, but not for this girl! She was clearly still on the rebound from Willoughby when her family started hatching their plan. Marianne had never spared one romantic thought for the colonel to justify her loved-ones' scheming. She'd always regarded him as a sort of asexual, grave, paternal gentleman who's way too old for her. 

Things were different in the Regency Era, but a 36-year-old guy with the hots for a 17-year-old girl does seem way creepy. Especially when he's the guardian of another girl her same age, and she reminds him of that girl's mother, who he once had a passion for. But the coercion from all sides for Marianne to marry him comes on the heels of her genuine regret for the trouble she'd caused everyone, and her desire to make amends. I can't help feeling they all just wore her down, and there's no way she could muster the sensual feelings a girl should feel for her husband. Nope, I can't believe this is a rational decision from either Marianne Dashwood or Jane Austen. In fact, it could be one of my least favourite Austen decisions ever.  

Luckily for me I back Elinor and Edward all the way, or the book might have been one big letdown, as far as romantic stakes go. Not only are they a more reasonable age for each other, but they both lack personal greed and have plenty of understanding for others. That's a great combo for a marriage, and they'll surely go from strength to strength. When your ambitions and expectations are modest, happiness is far more attainable.  

One extra thing that sticks in my mind is the pleasant dynamics in the Dashwood home, including the affection each of the girls is willing to extend toward her sister's boyfriend, teasing them like real brothers. I think Willoughby missed out on far more than he ever realised by his final decision. 

So all up, this book is a bit of a pendulum for me, when it comes to Jane Austen. Favourite heroine - Elinor Dashwood. Least favourite match - Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Perhaps they cancel each other out. 



Monday, October 5, 2020

Great, comforting death scenes from novels

In February 2017, my beloved Dad passed away quite unexpectedly. He'd been ailing with one thing or another for some time, so his death was on the distant horizon, but still felt quite sudden to us all when it came. Earlier that week, he'd tumbled over at home. Mum couldn't manage to help him up, so she called an ambulance, and the medics decided to take him to hospital, where he really didn't want to go. Her last glimpse of him was being wheeled out the door pleading, 'No, not the hospital!' 

He was kept under observation for a few days and given the all-clear to return home the following Monday. But on Saturday morning, we received news that he'd had a sudden massive heart attack. We all rushed from different places to get to him, and my carload got to the hospital first. After navigating the maze of corridors, we made it to the ward just ten minutes after his official time of death. The nurse told me, 'I'm so sorry,' and it felt surreal.   

She had been with him until the end, and assured us that when she asked if he was in pain, he replied no. And his speech was legible almost until his final breath. The others trickled in as we were speaking. My brother and his family had been to get Mum, a couple of other nephews caught a taxi, and our sister was living far away in Cairns at the time. 

It was such an emotional morning, losing someone who'd been a fixture our entire lives, but I couldn't shake the impression that he probably knew what was happening every minute. Although he'd resisted being taken to hospital, he wouldn't have wanted to die at home and have Mum walk in and discover him. He was a devoted Dad and Papa, but always shied away from appearing vulnerable or being the centre of attention. A stoic worry-wort is what he was. I've no doubt he would have been distressed beyond measure to see our faces surrounding him in those last moments. Quietly sliding to the next world from somewhere other than home, ten minutes before we arrived would have suited him to a tee.

 I know nothing about final passage phenomenons beyond what I've read. The research of experts in the field of near death experiences, such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Raymond Moody and John Burke has always intrigued me.  In several ways, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some orchestration or pulling of strings to suit Dad's wishes might have come into play. Of course we couldn't ask him, but knowing him as well as we did, several of his boxes seemed to be ticked.

Since Dad's death, my middle-aged mortality has been more in my mind than ever. (In fact, see this reflection here for more.) I don't want to waste a minute of time or be needlessly moody any more, because our days are all numbered, and our number will be up some day. I have no idea what that moment will be like, but our recent experience with Dad actually gives me some hope that it may be gentler and more welcome than we might imagine. Here are some favourite death scenes from novels that have struck a chord with me. They all possess some comforting commonality. We can only hope their authors were drawing from something vast and true.     

1) Anne of the Island

As a kid, I found poor Ruby Gillis' death from consumption confronting and scary. She was only in her early twenties, and wanted so badly to marry her sweetheart and start a family. Deep down, Ruby knew the truth her family and friends were hiding from her. Her days on earth were dwindling rapidly. At last she faces facts and confides to Anne her great fear that she'll feel frightfully homesick and out of her element in heaven, because it won't be what she's used to. Her heart is still set on things of earth, and she resents being torn away to the next world way before she's ready. Wow, heavy stuff!

With a stroke of insight, Anne describes her strong belief that heaven will be a comfortable extension of our current lives in which we can continue being ourselves, but just minus all the the hindrances and annoyances that dog our mortal footsteps. A few days later Ruby dies in her sleep with a smile on her face, 'as if death has come as a kindly friend to lead her over the threshold' instead of the terror she feared. (See my review of the whole book.)

2) Watership Down

Hazel, the leader of the group of rabbits, has grown old and slow, and feels the cold a lot. One day he wakes from his regular doze to find a rabbit with faintly glowing ears waiting beside him. The stranger says he knows Hazel has been feeling very tired lately, but he can do something about that if Hazel is willing. It suddenly dawns on our friend that his visitor is none other than El-Ehrairah, the hero rabbit from their favourite legends. 

As they hop out the burrow, it seems to Hazel that 'he will not be needing his body any more.  'So he leaves it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stops for a moment to get used to the extraordinary feeling of strength and speed flowing through him.' It's a beautiful reward for someone who has come to the end of a long, faithful and productive life. How gentle and happily surprising his exit was. (My review in its entirety is here.)

3) In This House of Brede

The setting is a convent full of nuns. Beloved Dame Emily has been old and sick for several years, and is now 'frail as spun glass.' As the others keep vigil, Dame Philippa senses that something wonderful is happening. 'The world seemed to be filled with expectancy of something tremendous, just out of sight, waiting for Dame Emily.' The impression gets thicker that all around her is 'a joyful kind of window through which had she the eyes she could have looked straight into heaven. But it's only the dying or the very holy who have eyes like that.' 

Indeed, when Emily passes away, Philippa sees a bird soaring to the sky at the exact same moment. It's an awesome picture of something we find threatening and fearful being turned on its head. That day death presents itself at Brede as the triumphant finish line of a great victorious journey. (See my review.) 

4) Death Comes for the Archbishop

The novel's title sounds ominous, but as we read we come to understand that it indicates a final prize of gold medal status. The looming appointment does catch up with main character Father Latour, but only in his twilight years. After catching a bit of a chill while out on his rounds, he realises that it will be his final illness. He lies in bed, facing his demise in a super-reflective and peaceful state of mind. 'I shall not die of cold, my son,' he tells his young protege. 'I shall die of having lived.' One thing I've taken away from this great book is the great anticipation and relish with which Father Latour faces death. (My review is here.) 

Whew, some blog posts are harder to write than others, and that was one of them. But the theme for this list kept playing in my mind, so had to be done. Have you any great or comforting death scenes from novels or stories to add to mine? 

Monday, September 28, 2020

'Anne of Ingleside' by L.M. Montgomery

Or 'The One with all the Kids'

When we last saw Anne and Gilbert, they were rejoicing in their one beloved baby boy, not long after the loss of the daughter who didn't live out the day she was born. But Gilbert suggests they upgrade to a more spacious house closer to town. It's a good thing they did, because a mere six years later, they're expecting baby #6. In this book, we become acquainted with all the young Blythe kids, as we become flies on Ingleside's walls.  

What I loved even more than before.

1) Lucy Maud was super clued-up on how children tick, and the Blythe kids' headspaces are fun and original places to visit. I think I love the boys best. (As I mention further down, the Blythe parents themselves shouldn't have favourites, but we readers are allowed to.) Jem is a vibrant, active lad with a flair for drama and throwing himself wholeheartedly into life. Walter has a brilliant, poetic imagination, and might nowadays be considered an Indigo child. We're told his ancient soul knows too much for his young brain to comprehend. And Shirley is most famous for never being highlighted in any specific incident. That boy is a consummate attention-dodger. Just too down-to-earth to do anything worthy of a yarn, perhaps. I wonder what LMM thought, since she was the one who withheld the spotlight from him.  

Talking about the Blythe boys, the foreshadowing is none too subtle. Montgomery had already completed the rest of the series by the time she backtracked to write Anne of Ingleside, and her main purpose seems to be to fill in some time gaps in the Blythe kids' early years. Whoa, she doesn't hold back from dropping some very broad and grim hints of what's in store. It's no spoiler at this stage to say we're clear that Jem, Walter and Shirley are heading off to war in their none too distant future. And one of them isn't coming back! 

The girls are very cool too, and Nan is probably up there with her brothers as a favourite of mine. She appears a bit distant and haughty to outsiders, but is merely enjoying the wild world she conjures in her own head. Practical, sensible Di has rotten luck at choosing decent, loyal friends. And the baby Rilla is born near the start of the book, and becomes everyone's princess. 

2) I like the multi-faceted nature of the book, as we get glimpses into the lives of many different people. For example, the story of the bitter, morbid women at Peter Kirk's funeral has a way different tone to the incident when cute little Rilla was too self-conscious to walk down the street with a cake. I suspect books like this might never even be published today, as editors might decide the author has no idea of her target audience. But I can't help wondering if modern novels swing too far the other way, and lack this presentation of people from all stages and walks of life, which results in very rigid, genre-bound readers.

3) Anne's deep satisfaction with life as a stay-at-home-mum gets big thumbs up from me. She makes the lifestyle come across as a work of fine art, requiring all sorts of wisdom, sensitivity and insight to pull off. I'm sad about the many fellow reviewers I've read who think she's sacrificed her unique identity and ambition to become a boring housewife who's chained to the sink. Even my daughter took that view of things during a discussion we had. But these ladies don't seem to realise that they're echoing the digs of Christine Stuart in the last chapter. 

Get ready for a string of exclamation marks, as I feel strongly about this. Anne was an orphan! Living under a roof with a large family of her own was always the ultimate dream! And she achieved it! She expressed her joy with the way life panned out in so many different ways! Anyone who can't be happy for her might be denying a woman the right to work out her own destiny in a way that suits her to a tee!

4) Susan Baker! What a good old stick. 

5) The accidental way Anne manages to finally get rid of Gilbert's aunt Mary Maria, who's way overstayed her welcome. Fantastic! 

6) The last couple of chapters is a revelation that not even Anne is immune from having to guard her mind, and that full-on bad moods develop quickly from stinking thinking. It doesn't even have to be true to be powerful. Interesting stuff. 

What I was on the fence about.

1) Is there a Brady Bunch style formula happening here? As a little kid of the 1970s, I couldn't help noticing parallels, including droll housekeepers (Susan/Alice) who love them all unconditionally. They're both 6 kid families with boy/girl splits, and each child taking turns at the centre of some drama which their parents help them overcome. (Well, everyone except the ever elusive Shirley.) In this case, that's mostly Anne, since Gilbert is an overworked local doctor. An old high school teacher of mine loathed The Brady Bunch because it was trite in his opinion, and never helped young viewers accept the existence of insoluble problems. 

I honestly think Anne of Ingleside escapes a similar quick fix-it stigma, because Anne does face a few of those sticky issues, especially from threads involving Jem and Diana. Jem suffers heartache when he loses two beloved pet dogs under different circumstances, and Di's faith in human nature takes a beating after exposing two false friends she'd trusted completely. Anne knows she can do no more than offer her deepest sympathy, and a shoulder to cry on while they process grief as best they can. She also embodies the assurance that there will always be beauty and fresh tomorrows in life. What more can we ask for from a mother?  

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

1) The favouritism factor is something that never fails to shock me. Especially after the birth of Rilla when Anne says, 'All our babies were sweet, Gilbert, but she is the sweetest of them all.' She drops that one right in front of Walter! But I guess it's just the way LMM rolls. Di is Gilbert's favourite, Shirley is Susan's favourite, and Jem is Aunt Marilla's favourite. Nobody seems the least put out about it ever. But sheesh! I cringe every time. 

2) The chapter with the ladies quilting day is rather on the long side. Young Walter's cameo appearance toward the tail end of it is priceless, but it's a tedious road to get there. 

Some great quotes to take on board.

She would hold all the threads of Ingleside life in her hands again to weave into a tapestry of beauty. 

Anne: Gilbert is always a little depressed when he loses a patient he thinks ought to have lived. (Haha, I would sure hope so.) 

It's the little things that fret the holes in life, like moths, and ruin it.

Nan: I'm in the habit of believing people.
Mrs Six-Toed Jimmy: Well, it's a habit you'd better get out of in this kind of a world.

There was always change. Well, that was life. Gladness and pain, hope and fear. You had to let the old go and take the new to your heart, learn to love it, then let it go in return.

Anne: An imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but like every gift, we must possess it and not let it possess us. I know that rapture. But you must learn to keep on this side of the borderline between the real and the unreal. Then the power to escape at will into a beautiful world of your own will help you amazingly through the hard places of life. I can always solve a problem more easily after I've had a voyage or two to the Islands of Enchantment.  

Stay tuned, because next up will be Rainbow Valley. 


Monday, September 21, 2020

'My Antonia' by Willa Cather

Through Jim Burden's endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland, with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature's most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia's desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia.

This is my choice for the 20th Century Classic in the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge. It was published in 1918, the year my grandmother was born. 

Jim Burden is a 10-year-old orphan who gets sent to live with his grandparents in rural Nebraska. On the same train is 14-year-old Antonia Shimerda along with her family, who are migrants from Czechoslovakia. They share the same destination and once they settle down, the pair become good friends. Jim narrates us through the years ahead as he continues to share a lovely platonic relationship with Antonia, although at times he wouldn't have minded something more. 

Jim is a deep and reflective kid from the get-go. There are no ants in his pants at all. He knows the immense value of just soaking in the sunshine, for example. Although the writing's wisdom comes from the older Jim, it's clear that he's drawing on discoveries made by the young boy. 'Nothing happened, I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. At any rate that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great.' 

The Shimerda family, with their foreign background, are ingenues when it comes to spotting American shysters. They're ripped off when they purchase their house, land and stock package, and never totally recover. Mrs Shimerda is self-pitying, boastful and entitled; the sort of overbearing personality who becomes a liability rather than an asset. Ambrosch, her eldest son, is grouchy and self-important. The sensitive, music-loving dad, who never really wanted to move to America, eventually succumbs to his broken heart and commits suicide. But Antonia turns out to be made of far sterner stuff. 

Although she remembers her childhood land with clear, loving detail, Antonia rises to the challenge of adapting to the new environment, since that's her only option of maintaining some level of satisfaction. She pulls it off to the extent that Jim comes to regard her as a symbol of the great country itself. That's some pretty successful assimilation. When the Burden family move into the nearest small town, Antonia is hired by their next door neighbours to help with housework, and continues to take everything in her stride. 

She's a very admirable character because she's genuinely aware of what she enjoys and never feels inclined to bow to fashion or copy others for nods of approval. She eventually finds her grinding life as a country mother of a huge family suits her perfectly. 'I'm never lonesome here, like I used to be in town. You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn't know what was the matter with me? I've never had them out here. And I don't mind work a bit, if I don't have to put up with sadness.' It's a fair trade-off indeed, and sets us readers reading between the lines to figure out why her embracing of anonymity is so refreshing. 

I really appreciate the staunch and simple faith of these characters. Otto the hired man tells a story in which he basically complains that good karma never caught up with him. And Mrs Burden, Jim's grandmother, says she's sure the Lord has remembered these things to his credit, and helped him out of many a scrape when he didn't realise he was being protected by Providence. Her husband has the gift of saying very moving prayers. Jim decides that because Grandfather is not a big talker, his words have a peculiar force whenever he does open his mouth. 'They're not 'worn dull from constant use.' What cool encouragement for quiet people. 

Jim's experiences studying hard at University are an interesting offset to Antonia's rural simplicity. He has doubts whether or not he's a true academic at heart, since the old faces from his childhood keep crowding into his memory which he wants to fill with 'more important things'. He blitzes it anyway, and gets a decent job out in the world at large. And their friend Anna says, 'It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind and words to put them in.'Yet although Willa Cather doesn't say as much, we're left with the strong conviction that Antonia's lifestyle is no less dignified, meaningful and worthwhile, and perhaps hers is even more satisfying over the long haul.

Perhaps the wonderful descriptions of the landscape which she's famous for help push the appeal of Antonia's beloved bleak country over the line. 

'There's nothing but land. Not a country at all, but just the material out of which countries are made.' 
'The scanty detail in that tawny landscape made any detail at all so precious.' 
'The snow spilled out of heaven like thousands of feather beds being emptied.' 

Cather's books are non-eventful and anti-climactic in many ways, but I do feel compelled to go on reading them.  


Monday, September 14, 2020

'Anne's House of Dreams' by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Or 'The One with the Creepy Amnesiac Dude'
Warning: These discussions may include a few minor plot spoilers, but I consider old classics are fair game. 

It's the big day Anne and Gilbert have been waiting for. They tie the knot and head off to their new home sixty miles from Avonlea, where Gilbert is about to launch his medical practice. It's the halfway point of the series, which is evident through the tone. From now on, the action will take place around their new home at Glen St. Mary and Four Winds Harbour rather than Avonlea. The tang and romance of the sea is more present too. 

What I appreciated even more than before.

1) I realised Anne and Gilbert are the only couple LMM ever took beyond their wedding day. None of her others get this honour. Not Emily and Teddy, nor Pat and Hilary, nor Valancy and Barney. It puts Anne and Gilbert in a class of their own, and we get to share those wonder years of family planning and setting up house when you're married to your best friend. There's no other life season quite like it, which makes me think even more stories should probe beyond the 'happily ever after' of the wedding day. 

2) There's a sense of groundedness I love after the flotsam of characters who stream into Anne of Windy Willows and straight out again. I guess that's ironic since the lure of the sea and distant lands is a repeated motif, but it's like a breather to have a small cast we can get to know well. They are the closest neighbours of our super-couple, and all live a fair way out of the nearest town. There's Captain Jim, a retired sea-captain who's now the district lighthouse keeper, and the kind of guy every reader would love to have for their granddad; Miss Cornelia Bryant, a hilarious man-hater with a kind heart; and Leslie Moore.

3) Wow, Leslie is surely one of Anne's most complex and multi-layered friends ever written! She's a ravishing beauty with a tragic past, married to Dick Moore, who was once 'a big handsome fellow with a little ugly soul' but has a longstanding case of amnesia after an accident. Now Leslie is his baby-sitter rather than his wife, but either way she's trapped. A protective skin of aloofness has developed over her heart, although she knows in her head that it's unreasonable.I like the imagery LMM wraps around this girl, including the splash of scarlet she always adds to her clothes, whether it's a scarf, hat, belt or necklace, which Anne believes represents the vivid personality she's almost successfully suppressed.

4) I've seen The Blue Castle and The Tangled Web referred to as LMM's only novels for adults, but Anne's House of Dreams should be up there on the list too. It's assumed to be a kids' book since it belongs in a juvenile series, but the themes have a depth and maturity perfect for older readers. It's sad to think people with the potential to adore it may pass it by. They'd miss Anne's grappling with deeper reasons for the loss of her first child, Joy, who died the day she was born. (I can't say I loved that part, but it touched me deeply.) There's also Leslie's preoccupation with the heartbreaking events she's witnessed, and Captain Jim's lifelong devotion to one woman who was swept away from him. 

5) Gilbert's awesomeness deserves a mighty cheer. He has a major disagreement with Anne over an intense matter of conscience, but what she's asking him to do is something totally unethical which would be enough to have him struck off the medical register in our era. I don't think that aspect occurred to me as a younger reader, but I loved the conflict this time round. The fact that Gilbert would doggedly do the right thing, even if it makes Anne mad at him is very impressive. But would we expect anything less of our boy?  

6) The outcome of his decision is breathtaking! It's a re-read for me and I knew it was coming, but still loved it as much as ever. 

7) James Matthew Blythe, aka Little Jem! Isn't it fantastic when a new baby can change the dynamics of a household and infuse so much sunshine and delight, just by his mere arrival? No baby could have been more eagerly awaited than this one. I love everything, from the earliest evidence that he'll be another redhead to Anne's insistence on talking baby talk to him, even though she'd always vowed not to. For a very short time, this little boy is Numero Uno in everyone's lives, so take a breath before the Blythe family explodes exponentially in the next novel.

 I was baffled when they talked about 'shortening' him, but it seems that was the normal process of moving babies from long, flowing dress-like clothes into shorter dresses when they begin to get more mobile. Yep, even the boys wore dresses. I reckon Anne might have appreciated the little onesie suits we use today. Nothing could be more handy and functional.    

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

1) Where were all the Blythes? I know Gilbert's parents were just side characters in the early books who never actually appeared in a scene, but at least they were given lip service. Now they don't get a mention at crucial moments in their son's life at all. Not on the wedding guest list, nor paying a visit to meet their new grandson. Omissions like this irk me, but I guess we must assume they were still there for him at these times, but just unrecorded. 

2) Perhaps occasional moments could've done with a touch of re-writing. For example, how could Anne tell that Leslie's eyes were blue, when she and Gilbert were passing in their horse-drawn vehicle, and Leslie was standing far enough back off the road that Gilbert didn't even notice her at all? Perhaps she should be called X-Ray vision Anne from now on. 

3) Anne comes across a trifle overbearing in her parenting of Little Jem at times. But then again, who can blame her? Anyone who has lost one baby could be forgiven for being extra precious with the second. 

4) The nitpicking quality of those first three points shows there's really not much I would fault. That's why I love this book as one of my favourites in the series.   

Some great quotes to take on board. 

Miss Cornelia: I have had a real placid, comfortable life, and it's just because I never cared a cent what the men thought. 

Miss Cornelia: Fred Proctor was one of those wicked, fascinating men. After he got married, he left off being fascinating and just kept on being wicked. 

Captain Jim: I like to ponder on all kinds of problems, though I can't solve 'em. My father held that we should never talk of things we don't understand, but if we didn't, the subjects for conversation would be mighty few. 

Captain Jim: I've kind of contracted a habit of enjoying things. It's got so chronic, I believe I can even enjoy the disagreeable things. It's great fun thinking they can't last. 

Captain Jim: Heretics get lost looking for God under the impression that He's hard to find, which He ain't, never. 

Miss Cornelia: For my part, I think there are too many books in the world now. 

Captain Jim: It ain't our feelings we have to steer by through life. The only safe compass is what's it right to do?

Anne: I have a little brown cocoon of an idea that may possibly expand into a magnificent moth of fulfillment. 

Anne: I wonder why people so commonly suppose that if two individuals are both writers, they must therefore be hugely congenial. Nobody would expect two blacksmiths to be violently attracted towards each other merely because they were both blacksmiths. 

Stay tuned, because next up will be the cosy domesticity of Anne of Ingleside.