Monday, May 25, 2020

Intriguing fictional books we'll never get to read

If you're a bookworm like me, you've probably jotted down several titles to search for just because they sound so jolly good. Yet sometimes they're hard to track down, especially if they're old or out of print. I was thirteen years old the first time this frustrating wild goose chase happened to me. And since then, I've come up with another stack of super-enticing sounding books we'll never have an opportunity to read ever. This is because they only exist within the fictional worlds of others. They were written by characters from novels, and the only way we'll ever get to read them is to travel into the worlds in which they're set. Here is a list of titles I would surely love to read if only they were available to me. All I can do is highlight the books in which they're entrenched. See if you can add to it. 

1) The Moral of the Rose
This is the bestseller written by Emily Byrd Starr just when she'd given up hope of becoming a great writer. It starts off as a string of yarns about a family named Applegath, which Emily wrote to help Aunt Elizabeth recuperate from a broken leg. But the final product turns out to be a 'witty, sparkling rill of comedy in which characters troop into Emily's consciousness demanding a local habitation and a name.' Cousin Jimmy clandestinely sends the manuscript to one of Canada's leading publishing houses, and surprises Emily with a letter of its acceptance. Its subsequent contradictory reviews helps fans like me wish we could read the novel too, to add our own opinions to the mix.

2) Help
It's a shocking expose about the true lives of coloured maids in southern Mississippi, contained within a novel that has an almost identical name. Help is written by Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan, who puts her reputation on the line to tell the dirty truth about racism people would prefer not to hear. Her co-authors Aibileen and Minny insist on remaining anonymous, since their lives will be utterly destroyed should anyone guess their identities. It's blatantly obvious to the white female employers whose lives are bared for all to see, but of course it's in their own best interest to purse their lips and refuse to claim their characters. After seeing how hard and furtively the heroic trio worked on this book, I would have loved to read it. (See my review of The Help)

3) The Transfiguration of the Commonplace
This religious self-help book is written by Sandy Stranger, who was once one of the schoolgirls in her teacher Miss Jean Brodie's favoured set. Sandy apparently grows from a sly and cynical young girl to become Mother Superior of a convent. Her own amazing development is enough to make me want to read the acclaimed book she eventually writes. It's title is most fascinating too. I probably would have preferred this book to The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie itself. (See my review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

4) Disturber of the Peace
This is literally Miss Buncle's Book. Quiet, retiring author Barbara Buncle has spared nobody. All of her neighbours are presented larger than life, warts and all, making it obvious to the townspeople that the fictional world is in actual fact a carbon copy of their town. The indignant victims of Barbara's sharp pen long more than anything to figure out the identity of author 'John Smith' so they can pay him out. But nobody would ever dream of suspecting mousy, unassuming Miss Buncle. (See my review of Miss Buncle's Book)

5) Magical Me
Gilderoy Lockhart, the flamboyant celebrity wizard, is signing copies of his hot-off-the-press autobiography at Flourish and Blotts bookshop. He tugs poor, bashful Harry to stand beside him for a cheesy photo shoot, then drops the bombshell that he's the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. And this is only the latest of the pretentious, self-aggrandising books he's written, which comprise most of their second year curriculum. Only later do Harry and his friends discover Gilderoy's fraudulent secret. He has plagiarised almost every incident in his books, then wiped clear the memories of the true greats. Okay, this book might be the most groan-worthy on my list, but I guess it'd still be worth reading for the laughs.

6) The Lifebook of Captain Jim
Here's a second offering from Lucy Maud Montgomery, because her characters seem to write such great books. Captain James Boyd, the lovable retired sea captain, has lived a fantastic and eventful life, but lacks the writing skills to do his experiences justice. When professional author Owen Ford comes to town, he instantly recognises the opportunity set before him. Owen does a series of interviews and gives the old man's memories the treatment they deserve, making the Lifebook a bestseller. How I would have loved a copy of my own, when I was reading about it in Anne's House of Dreams.

7) Songs and Sonnets
Mac Campbell, a nerdy and unpolished young hero from Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom has produced a book of poems that has wowed the world. It's said to 'smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.' Now he's hailed as a young genius, and the boy cousins who used to tease him regard him with respect. To the adults, 'their Ugly Duckling is now considered the most promising young swan of the flock.' And best of all, his little book helps him wow the socks off his cousin Rose, since she finds his verses so awesome and seductive. How I wished Alcott had given us a sample or two of what he wrote. I suspect she held back because she'd given his brilliance such a awesome build-up, she herself probably doubted she could deliver. 

8) Distributing Heaven
I had to have a go at this myself, so I'm finishing with one of my own, which I wrote way back in 2009 when my kids were small. I got the idea straight after the huge disappointment of being unable to find the sequel to a book I adored. So I wrote my story in such a way that the same thing happens to my young hero, Jerome Bowman. He loves a memoir named Distributing Heaven written by a man called Gareth Edgley, and goes to great lengths to locate its sequel. The back cover tantalises him with the promise, 'If you thought this story was gripping, you've seen nothing yet!' But it's all in vain, no matter where his search takes him, until a twist at the very end. I named my own book A Design of Gold after the elusive title he was searching for, and I guess the irony is that paperback copies of my own book are now quite rare. (See here)

Which titles from this list do you join me in longing to read? Can you mention any others to add to my list.

Monday, May 18, 2020

'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' by Anne Bronte

This is the story of a woman's struggle for independence. Helen "Graham" has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage. Exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.

This is my 19th Century Classic in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. What a powerful read. The moral is, 'Girls, don't romanticise bad boys.' This book puts Anne Bronte into a class of her own, since her two sisters' novels tend to do that very thing. But I think Anne considered it her mission to show that you can't reform them. She has her heroine Helen say of her new fiance, 'I should think my life well spent in the effort to preserve so noble a nature from destruction.' Then she proves by his later behaviour that it's bollocks! 

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Gilbert Markham is the first narrator. He's a young country farmer who's curious about Helen Graham, a beautiful artist who lives with her small son in a wing of the nearby Wildfell Hall. It's a cold, inhospitable place, and she pays their rent by selling paintings. Gilbert finds Helen prickly, opinionated and over-protective of little Arthur. But as her deep and intelligent nature charms him, he gradually falls in love with her, and suspects she's warming to him too. Village gossips hint that Helen isn't the simple widow she seems, but the truth is a bitter blow to Gilbert. Her husband is still alive and she ran away from him, taking their son with her. 

The bulk of the book is Helen's diary; one engrossing flashback. She tells her own tale of how she fell for Arthur Huntingdon, a charming rake who sweeps her off her feet but turns out to be a bad-egg who makes her life a living hell. 

I think Anne's reputation of being the weakest Bronte sister is totally undeserved. It's like trying to argue which is most inferior out of apples, oranges and bananas. Perhaps she doesn't have Charlotte's classical scope of reference or Emily's mystical tone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This story is refreshingly free of Charlotte's frequent waffle in French, which is a plus in my books. Anne has an earnest, candid style and plenty of graceful 19th century dialogue which I love. And that's as good as anything the other two have. 

Her characterisation is excellent. We can see exactly why Helen falls for Arthur in the first place, then grows to resent him so fiercely later on, while it's clear to us that he's the same douche all through. Anne Bronte has created a classic case of the initial attraction feature eventually becoming the biggest turn-off. At first Helen loves Arthur's 'joyful, playful spirit', but it takes living together to reveal him as a shallow, restless narcissist with no idea how to fill his spare time if he's not drinking or gambling. And since he's a member of the landed gentry, that's every day.

Arthur expects Helen to drop everything to amuse him. He's a cheat, a liar who never intends to keep his word, and eventually winds up as an alcoholic. His emotional abuse is horrendous, and when he starts pulling similar dirty moves on Arthur Junior, Helen knows enough is enough. Her allegiance has rightfully shifted from her husband to her innocent son. She does what few wives of the era would have done, and leaves him. Anne Bronte was surely among the first to suggest through this story that marriage vows should not be binding when enough lines are crossed. 

But then there's the Gilbert factor! My word, far more complex than just the 'better guy', he's super-reactive and life in his head space is just one emotional roller coaster after another. Gilbert is a hot-head and an over-thinker rolled into one, which is not the best combo. But he has empathy for others and a sense of his own shortcomings, which Arthur seemed to have been totally born without. They are Gilbert's saving graces. 

Ultimately it's Helen's story. She draws on her courage and rock solid Christian faith to bolster her conviction that the socially unpopular move is her only recourse. And I love her comments that mark her as a clear introvert centuries before the 21st century introvert liberation I've been enjoying. For a start, she finds social chit-chat draining. 'I'm wearied to death with small talk. I cannot imagine how they go on as they do. I hate talking where there is no exchange of ideas or sentiments, and no good given or received.' And many modern introverts surely echo, 'You preach it, sister!' 

There's so much more I could share about this book, including its secondary characters? The Preface, written by Anne Bronte herself, is well worth a read. It seems rigid nineteenth century PC standards deemed that drunken louts behaving like morons shouldn't appear in the pages of novels. Authors should entirely block them out, as if they don't exist. I loved reading Anne's own polite justification for causing offence. Basically, she says that she won't use her writing skills simply to give escapist readers some feel-good sighs. She felt she had a responsibility to warn idealistic girls like Helen about handsome, walking stumbling blocks with the potential to ruin their lives. Her own words are beautifully formed, so here's a direct quote. 

'Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller or to cover them with branches and flowers?'  

If I'd been around back then, I would have written to Anne, congratulated her for a fantastic job and told her that I think the drunken chapters were the most impacting of the whole book. Unlike her sisters, she calls a jerk a jerk. It's so authentically written, I believe Anne probably drew a lot from real life with her brother Branwell. What we're getting are probably creepy echoes from their Haworth Parsonage home two hundred years after Branwell's carrying-on. And it sticks in my mind long after finishing the book. 

Finally, I love this cartoon from Hark, a Vagrant, which I won't share straight onto the blog and violate copyright laws, but the link is here


Monday, May 11, 2020

'Peace Like a River' by Leif Enger

Once in a great while, we encounter a novel in our voluminous reading that begs to be read aloud. Leif Enger's debut, Peace Like a River, is one such work. His richly evocative novel, narrated by an asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, is the story of Reuben's unusual family and their journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother. Charged with the murder of two locals who terrorized their family, Davy has fled, understanding that the scales of justice will not weigh in his favor. But Reuben, his father, Jeremiah—a man of faith so deep he has been known to produce miracles—and Reuben's little sister, Swede, follow closely behind the fleeing Davy.

This is one of the novels I've seen recommended far and wide online, but turns out to be super hard to get hold of in Australia. In the end, my daughter brought it home for me, among a stack of souvenir books she picked up from Portland, Oregon, during a holiday to America last Christmas. I was so glad to see it among the pile, and it didn't let me down.

It's the early 1960s and the Land family are suffering a major crisis. School janitor and single dad Jeremiah rescues a female student from some thugs in the gym. The resentful attackers warn him to watch out for the safety of his kids. That's a big enough threat for the eldest son Davy, who takes the law into his own hands and shoots both menaces dead when they break into the house at night. He reasons that he has vulnerable younger siblings to consider, and never pretends to be remotely sorry.

The court doesn't think it's a clear case of self-defense. On the eve of serious charges, 16-year-old Davy breaks out of jail and flees. His father sets off in a trailer looking for him, along with 11-year-old Reuben and 9-year-old Swede. Their search brings them through freezing cold country and face to face with goodies and baddies alike, including Martin Andreeson, the federal cop who's also on Davy's trail and Roxanna Cawley, an ally who takes on the role of an angel. There's also Jape Waltzer, a dangerous sort of fruitcake people prefer to steer clear of, even when he claims to be on the right side. 

The great, immersive writing is told from Reuben's point of view at some future date as an adult. He delves into the futility of longing to be stalwart like Davy but trying to cope with severe asthma, which they only ever seemed to tackle with steam inhalation. It would seem Ventolin didn't exist back in the early sixties. He also grapples with his own conscience throughout the story, especially when the lines between right and wrong blur, and the clearly honorable move appears to make him the worst of all traitors. We all see what he should do, but clearly appreciate the bind he finds himself in.

Maybe I wouldn't have enjoyed the story so much if the narrator wasn't such a cool kid who never holds back his own caustic observations about people he thinks should be ashamed of how they behave. He has a wry, cynical, sometimes self-deprecating style of humour I can't help but enjoy. And he himself is not immune from his own digs, whenever he thinks he deserves it. Somebody suggested that Peace Like a River is the perfect book to read aloud, and if I'd come across it during our homeschooling days, I probably would have done it. 

Reuben feels frequently awed by his family members. Along with manly, justice-seeking Davy, is their sharp and precocious little sister Swede, who has a wonderful way with words and produces poetry and ballads that puts her in the category of kid geniuses like Roald Dahl's Matilda. In all honesty, I would have doubted the possibility of such brilliant verse from a 9-year-old, because her vocabulary and themes are so mature and polished, except that I know such young prodigies do exist. And their father is a prayer warrior who Biblical type miracles tend to follow. This causes his children to react according to their characters, and diverge off on different faith paths. Reuben tries to explain it. 'Davy wanted life to be something you did on your own. The whole idea of a protective, fatherly God annoyed him. I hadn't the strength to subscribe to it, for I was weak and I knew it.'

Maybe not quite five stars from me, although it's hard to figure out why not. Perhaps because of a few coincidences that seem stretched beyond the scope of Jeremiah's miracles (which I was quite cool with, by the way). Also because I wasn't totally happy with the way things panned out all round. Almost, but not quite. However, it was a great read which the cover tells me is a 'national bestseller.' Well, I'm sure it could also be an international one, if it was made easier for Aussies to get our hands on.


Monday, May 4, 2020

Worst Characters Ever

This list is just what it claims to be. I found myself in the mood to identify the worst of the worst in many different categories, and finish off with a mighty drum-roll for baddest of all. I'd love to see your choices too, as they surely differ from mine. 

Biggest Freeloader
This has to be Harold Skimpole from Charles Dickens' Bleak House. He's a shameless parasite who lives off the bounty of his friends, with an elaborate rationale behind it. Skimpole explains that he's a free spirit designed by God to delight in nature, books and leisure. In his logic, anyone who expects him to man up and pay his own way through life is a killjoy who'd crush a person's true essence. Debt collectors are hounds of the devil. And grocers, bakers and other tradesmen with goods and services handy are churlish not to donate them to a needy, appreciative person like himself. He never stops to reflect that others have their own bills to pay. He's a truly despicable leech.

Biggest Coward
I'll give this one to Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter series. Any man who would choose to permanently assume the form of a rat for over a decade in order to hide from his enemies has some pretty serious fear issues happening. Especially if he's not even a self-respecting alley rat, but a family pet owned by a string of young boys who sling him into their luggage and sleep with him beneath their pillows. His appeal to Ron to protect him for being such a good rat is a low moment in an already pathetic life. I love Sirius' response that anyone who can state that he was a better rat than human has nothing to boast of. 

Scariest Stalker
I'll go with Bradley Headstone from Our Mutual Friend; another Dickens choice. Bradley loved a girl named Lizzie and hated his rival for her affection with all his heart. He vowed to make taking Eugene Wrayburn out of the picture his Priority One. Every night under cover of darkness, he stalked his prey, even when Eugene clearly knew he was onto him and played it for all he was worth. But Bradley patiently awaited his opportune moment, growing steadily madder. Although Eugene didn't take his danger seriously, others recognised the fixed, manic desperation in Bradley's eyes.

Cruelest Character
Definitely Simon Legree from Uncle Tom's Cabin. He represented the nastiest, most brutal type of slave owner of his generation. Think of nasty little boys who torture helpless pets. Legree is simply a big one who wreaks similar havoc on men and women, knowing that nobody can stop him because he has the law on his side. He steals their belongings, vows to stamp out their spirit, and simply works them until the drop. Then he's back to the slave auctions for more. A poor excuse of a human being indeed.

Most Self-Centered Character
I'll take Rosamond Vincy from Middlemarch for this one. She's a town belle who presents herself as a lovely person to meet, and a great catch for a lucky guy. But her poor new husband doesn't have to dig far beneath the surface to discover that she values him only as far as he shines a spotlight on her. She's mastered the passive aggressive pout and has her 'poor me' attitude down pat. And like many such people, the truth never dawns on her even once. She simply thinks she's lived a life a trials. (Mrs Clare Gibson from Wives and Daughters is tarred with the same brush, but Rosamond wins because she makes me crossest of the pair of them.)

Most Manipulative Character
I'll go with Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. She's heartbroken when her no-good bounder of a fiance jilts her at the altar, but doesn't limit her response to merely sitting for decades in a draggly wedding dress staring at a mouldy cake. Instead, Miss H decides to start a hobby of making others as unhappy as herself, because misery loves company. Anyone who would adopt a little girl for the sole purpose of bringing up to break the heart of a random boy has way too much time on her hands and takes manipulation to a deranged level. (Close behind is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, who also lived to twist the fates of others, but at least he had some personal gripes against his victims, so Miss Havisham wins this round.)

Most Deluded Character
It's the Reverend Nathan Price from The Poisonwood Bible. After a hefty dose of survivor's guilt, this guy thinks he's doing the utmost good with his life, but is really making an absolute hash of it, and dragging his poor wife and daughters along with him. Any pastor who would try to hammer his narrow cultural worldview upon a foreign population without ever bothering to fathom the layers of their identity before heading off is bad news. Reverend Price lives to regret it, but still never actually overcomes his delusion.

Biggest Traitor
Plenty of nasty characters fit this category, but unlike my other choices on this list, I'm going for a person I'm actually fond of. It's Edmund Pevensie from the Narnia series. Long after he redeems himself and becomes a kind and brave monarch, everyone still remembers him as the boy who'd sell out his brother and sisters for a chance to pig-out on Turkish Delight! Some things just can't be lived down. His big mistake sounds really bad against him, but we need to keep in mind that the sticky sweet was enchanted, making it hugely difficult to resist. He was bitterly repentant, and if the great Aslan can make the ultimate sacrifice for Edmund, who are we to hold a grudge?

Most All-Round Easy to Loathe 
I've left it open with this finale to choose any despicable character from controversial, mischievous and offensive authors everywhere, but my choice is a creation from the pen of Jane Austen. It's Mrs Norris, the meddlesome old aunt from Mansfield Park, who makes me see red whenever she enters a scene. She presents herself in the guise of a kindly philanthropist who wants to improve the life of an impoverished young niece, yet her real motive is to have a slave she can treat like dirt. Mrs Norris is forever slinging digs at Fanny Price about how inferior she is and how grateful she ought to be. She's every other attribute on this list rolled into one; tyrant, hypocrite, freeloader, egoist and manipulator. Perhaps worst of all, SHE TRULY BELIEVES SHE'S AS GOOD AS SHE CLAIMS TO BE! That makes her deluded too. I feel my temperature raise just writing about this horrible woman.

As usual, I'd love to pass on the baton and ask who would fit the bill for you. For me, it seems Dickens characters have a way of slipping in to these extremes, which probably explains why he's one of the most memorable British authors of all times. Since I had more males than females over all, it was cool to choose a female for the last category. I'm pleased (I guess) to see my choices are spread across historical, fantasy and more modern, proving that awful people are never bound by time and place.      

Monday, April 27, 2020

'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they've become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers' imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. 

Here is my choice for the Title which includes Nature category of the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge. Hibernation time is over and young Mole pops out of his burrow, fresh for adventure. He bumps into his friend Water Rat, aka Ratty, who invites him to be a permanent guest and enjoy life on the great wide river. They make successful friendship overtures to the wise but elusive Mr Badger, who hates society as a rule but has a soft spot for his little friends. And together the trio tries to curb the dangerous behaviour of Mr Toad, who has a serious addiction to fast vehicles, even though he's a terrible driver. Their attempts to stop him by sheer force are all to no avail, and he finds himself saddled with a hefty jail sentence, forcing him to shift his thirst for adventure into a crafty break-out.

Clearly many readers have a soft spot for reckless Toad, who shows us how to follow our passions wholeheartedly. We'd all like to live with a similar twinkle in our eye, knowing that we've milked life for all it's worth. He says, 'I'm not sorry. And it wasn't folly at all. It was simply glorious!' I've got to say, so is that line, Toad.  (More about Toad and his attitude here.)

But the dude has a fully developed case of FOMO syndrome. That's fear of missing out. For a short time he pours his heart and soul into the vehicle of the moment, then as soon as he sees anyone enjoying the next best thing, he abandons whatever he's doing to jump straight on board. And each time he declares that it's so amazing and great, he's going to devote the rest of his life to it. Toad is a prime example that FOMO is a self-defeating attitude. Because when we move on too quickly to master anything, or give it a fair chance, of course we cut short the pleasure of all it has to offer. If only he'd stuck to any one conveyance for longer, he might have developed more skill and not been such a menace to himself and others.

As a contrast we have Ratty, who was born with no curiosity or desire to explore the wider world at all, so satisfied is he in the knowledge that he's living his best possible life beside the lapping banks of his beloved river. He does succumb to a restless curiosity to discover what all the fuss is about when others get itchy feet, and lets the chatter of a couple of migratory birds get to him. But he soon comes to his senses, realising that what's right for others isn't necessarily a good fit for him. A basic theme of this book seems to be, 'To thine own self be true.'

There are plenty of beautiful, descriptive passages to contemplate, such as Mole's impression of the winter landscape. 'He was glad he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine, strong and simple.' And just to prove he's no respecter of seasons, we have this nice line about summer. 'A hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings.'

It's not really what modern kids read, but that's not to say it shouldn't be. Perhaps early 20th century authors like Grahame gave children what they thought could benefit them, including slow, insightful reflections about nature. In the 21st century, in the true spirit of consumer culture, authors and publishers may kowtow to their audience, giving kids the upper hand and providing what they think they want; fast action and sparse description to suit their impatient, restless, ADHD little hearts. Or perhaps I'm just beginning to sound like the oldie I keep claiming not to be :)

There are sudden moments of strangeness that make us step back and say, 'Hey, come again?' I'm thinking of the chapter entitled, 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' in which Rat, Mole and Otter's baby son come face to face with the Greek god Pan. The writing is saturated in reverential awe, and it's difficult to figure out whether Kenneth Grahame was promoting pagan pantheism to his young readers. The thing is, this story's heroes are anthropomorphic little critters and Pan has been depicted as the protector of animals, so perhaps Grahame is inviting humans to substitute the deities of our choice. His theme here seems to be that we generally perceive no more of the supernatural world beyond our senses because we couldn't handle it if we did. Our minds would be completely blown. It's such an interesting chapter I'd like to return to.

I have to say at times I found my credulity stretched to snapping point. We're expected to believe that Toad can break out of jail and head straight home to Toad Hall without having the law straight on his webbed heels! But then I remember we're talking about a book full of inconsistencies, in which certain animals walk around in waistcoats and slippers, yet still eat others. So why not?

Toad meets a travelling gypsy along the road, and gobbles up loads of his succulent stew. 'It was indeed the most beautiful stew in the world, being made of partridges, and pheasants, and chickens, and hares, and rabbits, and pea-hens, and guinea fowls, and one or two other things.' What a tempting description for the meat lovers in our lives, but comes as a bit of a shock since Toad's friend Mole was talking to a couple of rabbits as fellow compatriots earlier in the book.

Overall, it's a great little book that gives us quite a cool taste of the early 1900s, including Toad's driving costume, with goggles, cap, garters, gloves and the whole works. Not my favourite kids' classic ever, but it's clear that Grahame wrote it with love in his heart. It's brimming over with home comforts, rustic beauty and simple joys that aren't too hard to find, and probably form the backbone of a life well lived.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Excavating Passions

In her book The Art of Extreme Self Care, Cheryl Richardson tells the story of how she uncovered a long-buried passion in a department store. She admired a smartly tailored hat but decided it was far too expensive to buy. Yet for weeks after that, she kept thinking about it. One day she went to have another look and discovered the price had been reduced.

So she stared at her new hat, which was nice but not amazing, and wondered why it had been so compelling. Then it hit her with force that it was stirring a buried passion from her teens, when she was crazy about creating lovely outfits with smart matching apparel. She challenged us readers to resurrect some passion we'd discarded over time, in the interest of growing up and moving on.

Well, I'd recently given mine a new lease of life, and didn't have to ponder at all. It's reading and discussing classics and famous books. Once long ago I'd dreamed of devoting my life to them, and maybe even becoming an English professor or some such smart person. Alas, four years of studying an English major at Uni cut me down to size. I realised the folk at the top were in a way different league to me when it came to reading. The depth of analysis we were expected to engage in, discussing the ins and outs of feminism, racism and many other isms were poles apart from my desire to simply dream up new scenarios for my favourite characters. All the long words with which we were expected to deconstruct themes and deduce possible unconscious author intentions seemed to wring every bit of magic and happiness out of it for me.

I finished the course, but went in hyped up and confident after doing very well at High School, and came out feeling like the runtiest ant in the mound. I remember deciding I'd been deluded, and only imagined I ever wanted to study books, because I obviously couldn't give them the polished focus they evidently deserved. I simply wasn't cut from the right cloth. I wasn't smart enough.

Well, fast forward a few decades. I'd been homeschooling my kids, writing some novels of my own and reading plenty of others. Then one day I pulled a couple of classics off my shelves and found I had a lot of feeling for the characters within the pages. It renewed a love of visiting second-hand bookshops for that cool adrenaline rush when I get my hands on famous and celebrated books from long-ago. But I'd turned a corner. At this stage they were no longer part of any lofty ambition. I just want to read and discuss them because they're so much fun.

In early 2017 my dad died. I've been thinking a lot about how fast his few decades of retirement flew, and how he spent time doing plenty of what he loved, including gardening, hiking and watching TV. I've reached an age where I'm fully aware that the years ahead are limited for all of us. So putting aside time for reading is vital not because I'm significant enough to make a major contribution, but because it's an excellent treat I look forward to. I'm sure that great books also provide us with lofty company and tools to put our own lives into perspective in the light of well-known characters, but those are just bonuses after the tremendous enjoyment. 

This blog is here to honour that enthusiastic part of myself, as Cheryl Richardson suggested. Up above is a photo of me aged 20, visiting Highgate Cemetery in England. Many famous folk are buried there, but I was hunting specifically for the tombstone of one of my favourite authors, George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans. She wrote some of my favourite classics, including Middlemarch.

 I was stoked to find the grave, especially when I remembered the famous final paragraph of her masterpiece. Discussing her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot wrote, 'Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'

Well, George Eliot's own tomb isn't unvisited, but I certainly had it all to myself that morning, as a kid pilgrim all the way from Australia. And the memorial from my past reinforces how deep and long my passion flows. (I'm even wearing my Adelaide Uni windcheater, as I'd taken a semester long break from those interesting but disillusioning days I mentioned.) All these years later I'm taking it as a sign that I was on the right track, and that life is more to do with paying homage to the brilliant than aspiring to be anything out of the box myself. 

I guess anyone who enjoys visiting my blog might have a similar passion for reading, but is there anything else that does it for you, or had to be excavated?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

'Vanity Fair' by William Makepeace Thackeray

A novel that chronicles the lives of two women who could not be more different: Becky Sharp, an orphan whose only resources are her vast ambitions, her native wit, and her loose morals; and her schoolmate Amelia Sedley, a typically naive Victorian heroine, the pampered daughter of a wealthy family.

Here's my choice for the Classic Adaptation in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. We are to choose any novel that's been adapted as a film or TV series, so I thought I'd take the chance to read Vanity Fair and also watch the highly acclaimed BBC series from 2018. I was soon engrossed in this family drama set between 1815 and 1830, but published as a serial throughout 1847. I can quite understand why Thackeray's readers would have been panting for the next installment. It drops us right into scandal and intrigue and even whisks us off for a while to the Battle of Waterloo.

It all starts when two young friends graduate from finishing school and head off in a carriage together. Even though they seem fond of each other, it's soon clear to the reader that they have nothing remotely in common beyond heading for a week to the same destination.

Amelia Sedley is the soft-hearted daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. She's returning to her family home and looks forward to marrying her sweetheart George Osborne; a match preordained by both families from their babyhood. Amelia is the type of girl others automatically take care of and make decisions for. Conveniently for her she's madly in love with the boy they've chosen, because Amelia sets her tender heart devotedly on those she loves, blinding herself to their faults. When things go pear shaped, as they tend to do in the dog-eat-dog Regency era, she's the sort of victim who's always first to crumple. Amelia is a real canary in the coalmine type of character. Thackeray calls her a 'harmless lost wanderer in the great, struggling crowds of Vanity Fair.'

Her friend Rebecca Sharp on the other hand, is an orphan who relies on her street smarts and social awareness, since she has no relatives to look out for her. Becky has set her scheming heart on ascending to the top of the social ladder, which means she has no room for useless emotions like love to make her vulnerable. She's great at faking niceness to the right people, playing on their blind spots and giving them what will most flatter their vanity. But our admiration for an underdog who knows how to play the game changes to horror at her monstrous methods of getting what she wants. That makes this such a fun book. Our own sense of justice is kindled, and discussing the story with others becomes an exercise of comparing the moment we first saw her true colours as an unscrupulous con artist.

There's always an interesting contrast between Becky's callous lack of love for anyone, and Amelia's smothering excess of that same emotion, poured out on undeserving targets.

Becky intends to spend a week with Amelia's family before moving on to a post as family governess to a baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. Unwilling to let any opportunity slip, she first attempts to seduce Amelia's brother Joseph, then tries her chances with the Crawley family. Sir Pitt's second son Rawdon is a simple, sporty, macho-man and gambler who expects to inherit lots of money from his wealthy aunt, with whom he's a favourite. So he becomes Becky's next target. Although he never dreams he's just a stepping stone in her selfish machinations, we know that's just what he is. And he's caught up in the mess when Becky's carefully crafted plans backfire on her.

Although Becky's clearly a gold digger, innocent Amelia sets us groaning for other reasons. She has so many good qualities. She's self-sacrificing, long-suffering, a model daughter and sister. Yet there's a strong sense that Thackeray doesn't intend us to approve of the way she wraps her whole being around the people she loves, which is a strain for anyone, let alone a selfish brat like George Osborne, or a spoiled, breezy kid like their son. She has all the feels, but lacks discrimination of worthy objects. When the good Captain Dobbin finally wins her hand after years of pining for her love, even he's come to understand that she's clueless, and not really that great a catch. The text puts it like this. 'Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling.'

All through the story, Thackeray keeps showing us that money is a personality changer. It's a society in which anyone with decent dough suspects they can't trust claims of devotion from friends and family members. The section in which relatives visit grouchy Aunt Matilda Crawley are hilarious, especially since she sees straight through their ruse. Miss Crawley knows full well that she's a cantankerous grouch who's not at all lovable. Perhaps it's sadness over her family's hypocrisy which keeps her cross, so it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The story keeps us psyched up waiting to discover who she finally decides to leave her moolah to.

Becky drops a famous line when she says, 'I could be a good woman on $5000 a year.' She sets us wondering whether raw need makes crooks, or at least unpleasant companions, out of otherwise harmless people. Thackeray's narrator helps us ponder the question with terrific observations such as, 'An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carriage to steal a leg of mutton, but put him to starve and see if he will not purloin a loaf.' (I remember having very similar thoughts while reading Dickens' Pickwick Papers, if you'd care to compare.)

Anyway, I love this book mostly for the subtle nuances of its secondary characters. Between the shifting pendulums of our two flawed heroines we have very cool character development of others whose lives are tangled in theirs. We see matrimony and fatherhood have a positive effect on Rawdon, because unlike Becky, he's essentially a decent, normal person. We see their son figure out with childlike accuracy the truth about his mother, which takes adults years to comprehend. We have the unassuming Captain Dobbin, who fills Thackeray's every criteria of the perfect gentleman, including 'an equal, manly sympathy for the great and the small.' And we have Becky's sister-in-law, the awesome Lady Jane Crawley, who knows when enough is enough, because she's been considering Becky's outrageous behaviour, just as we have. These are all favourites of mine, making it a book I'll return to down the track.

This category of Back to the Classics challenges us to also watch and assess the film or series the book is based on, so I'll do that as a separate post I'll link to this. Look out for it soon.


Monday, April 6, 2020

'The Enchanted April' by Elizabeth von Arnim

A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed.

The women at the center of The Enchanted April are alike only in their dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. They find each other—and the castle of their dreams—through a classified ad in a London newspaper one rainy February afternoon. The ladies expect a pleasant holiday, but they don’t anticipate that the month they spend in Portofino will reintroduce them to their true natures and reacquaint them with joy. Now, if the same transformation can be worked on their husbands and lovers, the enchantment will be complete.

The Enchanted April was a best-seller in both England and the United States, where it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and set off a craze for tourism to Portofino. More recently, the novel has been the inspiration for a major film and a Broadway play.

Here's a runaway bestseller from 1922 to highlight in the month of April, for obvious reasons. It'll also do nicely for my Classic by a Woman category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's a pretty good choice for this crazy year of strict Covid-19 measures, since these four ladies have chosen to do a bit of self-isolation together. But whew, what a story. Love is so thick in the air, it's almost suffocating.

Four ladies who are virtual strangers decide to each chip in part of their savings to rent San Salvatore, a medieval villa in Italy, for the month of April. All four are suffering from burn-out, adrenal exhaustion and disillusionment with their ho-hum lives in London.

Lotty Wilkins is a mousy little tryhard who suspects she keeps disappointing her solicitor hubby Mellersh. During the story, she taps into a dormant prophetic power that transforms her. Pious Rose Arbuthnot is ashamed that her husband Frederick, a raunchy memoirist, is earning money on sin and sensationism. She aims to acquire happiness through good works and self-denial, but it's exhausting her!

Mrs Fisher is a gruff and overbearing elderly widow living in the grand old past. Her father was a great host, and she's forever name-dropping dead celebs from her childhood into conversations. And Lady Caroline Dester is a stunning beauty who suffers the misfortune of being overly admired wherever she goes. She's all peopled out and just wants to recharge in peace and quiet without empty small talk and silly jokes.

The setting, which sounds like a Mediterranean version of a Thomas Kinkade painting, turns out to be quietly restorative, sanding down their rough edges and coaxing out their inner goodness. It even acts as a magnet for males, including the two irritating husbands along with the young man who owns the villa. And what do you know, it has a similar remedial effect on the dudes. Who woulda thought?

Is it way too cute? You bet! Lady Caroline's situation annoyed the heck out of me at first. We're supposed to believe her attempts to be rude and stand-offish keep failing because her face is such a beautiful filter. My word, was Elizabeth Von Arnim serious? Mean girls with snarky intentions can always get their messages across, no matter what they look like! But when you look at all the five star reviews, it seems this book somehow gets away with heavy-handedness that might destroy any other story. Or who knows, maybe the atmosphere starts working its way with us through the pages. I went from groaning to grinning, yet the kitsch writing quality surely never changed.

It's quite cool when the owner, Thomas Briggs, tells Rose that he's an orphan. 'Oh, are you,' she said, with proper sympathy. 'I hope you've not been one for very long. No, I mean I hope you've been one very long. No, I don't know what I mean, except I'm sorry.' At least Von Arnim has nailed the awkward response.

I kept thinking I should DNF it and move on, but continued turning the pages for the following reasons.

1) I like seeing how people who have just met each other manage to work through personality clashes and find common ground. It's the same reason I occasionally persevere with reality TV series.
2) The concept of healing environments intrigues me, because I do believe place contains power.
3) I appreciate epiphanies. It's easier for readers to take characters' lessons on board, especially when we have no means of getting to breathtaking Italian villas ourselves.
4) The inclusion of the blokes shows good sportsmanship. This story isn't just feminist propaganda about how women may be better off without them, but stays well balanced, showing that there are two sides to communication glitches.
5) I like garden settings. Anyone who liked The Secret Garden may enjoy hanging out with four grown-up versions of Mary in a similar environment.

I guess Von Arnim's two main themes are as solid and sound as they ever were. Firstly, whenever we start treating others with kindness and respect, they may surprise us by acting nicer toward us in return. And secondly, our environments truly do make a difference to our satisfaction levels, and perhaps even altar our characters for the better. So it's in our own best interest to choose good ones whenever we can. This book is a lovely destination overall, but prepare yourself for quite a cheesy, twee road to get there.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Masters of choosing a great attitude

Here's a list for where we find ourselves in 2020, which will always be remembered as the year of Coronavirus. We are still just a couple of weeks into the global social distancing measures intended to flatten the curve of new cases. Reluctant hermits everywhere are feeling a gamut of impotent emotions bouncing between fear, impatience, boredom, and frustration. I've noticed some positive remarks from exhausted souls embracing the peace and quiet, but that might peter out if this drags on for long. On the whole, we just want the threat of a catastrophic pandemic behind us and our old lives back. 

Our only recourse is to wait this out, so it would seem the one thing we can control is our attitude. So I've drawn on the collective wisdom of philosophers, characters from epic historical classics and kids' tales alike. Since these diverse people all figured out the same secret under very adverse circumstances, I'm taking it as a clear sign that it's universal enough for us to latch onto too. Let's make the choice to follow in their footsteps, and here they are.   

Smith Wigglesworth
This stern and scary plumber turned evangelist from the early 20th century was known partly for his unconventional healing methods, in which he'd forcefully strike the ailing body parts of patients seeking prayer. However, he did see stunning results, and a delve into his personal life reveals that he lived with an iron control over both his faith and his emotions. One quote of his I appreciate is along the lines of, 'When I wake up, I don't ask Smith how he's feeling. I tell him how he's feeling!' Perhaps our friend Smith was onto something there.

He was a famous French Enlightenment philosopher who helped shape western thought as we know it. Voltaire was known for his outspoken championing of pure reason, and his criticism of church and state alike. Poles apart from Wigglesworth in most of his thinking, they did converge on that one simple, possibly crucial matter of attitude. Voltaire said, 'The most important decision you will ever make is to be in a good mood.' Hmm, that's from a famous thinker, folks.

Pierre Bezukhov
Our chubby young millionaire from War and Peace was battered from pillar to post in his emotions throughout most of the huge novel, as he tried desperately to wrap his head around the meaning of life. His huge bank balance and outspoken advisers left him reeling and puzzled. Only when he was captured by the French as a prisoner of war, herded with a group of other Russians toward the border and stripped of all but the rags on his back did the answer dawn on him forcefully. True freedom and meaning consists of being free to make the choice to stay serene, peaceful and optimistic no matter what the world deals out to us. It takes losing everything for Pierre to gain that epiphany through experience, and by then we readers have journeyed with him for so long that it's a powerful eye-opener for us too. (My review is here.)

This happy little heroine of kid's lit had the secret all along, and clung to it even when people tried to shoot her theory down. It's the Glad Game her father taught her as a tiny tot, when she received a pair of crutches in a relief box instead of the doll she'd hoped for. He told her in effect to use her imagination to create lemonade from the lemons life throws at us. In her case, Pollyanna could be glad that she didn't need the crutches. That moment started a revolution that lasted through a whole book series, as Pollyanna grew up sharing her Glad Game with whoever she encountered. And in our digital era, we needn't look far to find a host of online Pollyannas dispensing positive advice to help us through our global crisis. (Here is my review)

Uncle Tom
He's the sturdy, noble slave from the novel that helped shape American history. Every day in which Tom served his earthly masters was done from an attitude of setting his heart on things above, which he trusted contained immeasurable glory and joy beyond his wild imaginings. He knew that transitory circumstances always change, which kept him patient no matter what. The only time Uncle Tom opened his mouth in opposition to Simon Legree, the cruelest master of all, was not so much a mouthful of backchat as a triumphant faith statement and attitude shaper. Tom told Legree that no matter what he inflicted on his body, he had no influence whatsoever over his attitude and soul. Tom's allegiance to God and looking to help from heaven would continue no matter how hard Legree tried to stamp it out (and that rotter tried his very best!) Tom's decision to remain trustful and optimistic was the defining crux of his life. Hurray! (My review is here.)

Esther Summerson
Charles Dickens' only ever female narrator is hard to forget, because life has taught her the benefit of choosing cheerfulness every single time. This girl practices what she preaches. Her loved ones are horrified when her beautiful porcelain complexion is ruined forever by the smallpox scars left over from a long illness. After one moment of grief, Esther draws on her habit of looking for something to rejoice over, instead of dwelling on her very hard luck. Maybe she couldn't have done it if it hadn't become second nature over time. But here's what she said and meant with all her heart. 'I found every breath of fresh air, every scent, every flower and leaf and blade of grass, every passing cloud and everything in nature more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet. This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight to me.' (Check out my review of Bleak House.)

Toad of Toad Hall
Okay, this egomaniac isn't the best role model in general, but he does learn some valuable wisdom while serving a jail sentence for car theft and reckless driving. The jailer's generous daughter brings him a delicious plate of bubble and squeak on toast to help cheer him up, and to the great surprise of both, it works. The succulent dish, appealing to all five senses, is the catalyst Toad needs to snap into a happier frame of mind. He discovers that thinking pleasant thoughts is a real mood-booster. Toad's new and inspiring thoughts include, 'Chivalry, poetry, broad meadows, and cattle browsing in them raked by sun and wind: kitchen gardens and straight herb borders; warm snapdragons beset by bees; the comforting clink of glasses set down on the table; breakfasts on bright, frosty mornings; cosy parlour firesides on wintry evenings; the purring of contented cats and twitter of sleepy canaries.' That's the spirit, Toady! When optimism fires his imagination, he begins to consider creative ways out of his fix which never occurred to him for as long as he was sobbing with hopelessness and depression. (Review of Wind in the Willows is on the way.)

Viktor Frankl
Perhaps this humble and famous Austrian doctor and Holocaust survivor says it best of all, which is why I've saved him for last. What Frankl figured out (which is basically a very eloquent wrap-up of everyone else I've cited) saved his life in Auschwitz. He devoted his remaining years to sharing his personal testimony and attitude methodology with others. The first draft of his classic, 'Man's Search for Meaning' was written in nine days flat when he was first released. Since it's based on the most horrific personal experience, it's no wonder this 1946 bestseller keeps making a powerful impact on readers. Frankl's basic tenet is that although we can't always avoid suffering, we can always choose our attitudes in dealing with it and moving forward. 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,' he writes. 'The last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one's own way.' (Review coming down the track.)

This is only scratching the surface of book characters and authors who echo the same sentiment. I kept thinking of more, but limited it to these eight for the sake of keeping this list succinct and diverse. If you admire any of my choices, or would like to add examples of your own in the comments, please do. Most of us have more time than usual on our hands for discussion, so what better subject than good attitude examples? You could even do worse than cherry pick any book from this list to read during these times.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

'City of Girls' by Elizabeth Gilbert

Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

I have great respect and admiration for Elizabeth Gilbert's work, especially after reading Big Magic, which is one of my favourite books about forming our creative mindsets to withstand hard knocks. I wasn't as big a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but did find it interesting and easy to read. I'm sure Gilbert has established herself as one of the significant voices of the 21st century, so when I saw City of Girls at the bookshop I was interested right away but decided to hold off until I could borrow it from the library. Sure enough, it appeared recently for a one week loan, and turns out I was even more riveted than I expected to be from the blurb.

It's the overview of an elderly lady's life, focusing for the first section on the era just prior to and during the second world war, when she was a young woman. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris' high achieving parents are embarrassed when she flunks her first year at college, and send her to live for a while with her Aunt Peg, who runs a small theatre company in NYC. Vivian's knack for sewing amazing costumes makes her a favourite of all the actors and showgirls, and she also falls for the city nightlife in a big way.

This turns out to be a stunning epic about a girl who hits rock bottom and can barely hold her head up for shame, let alone figure out how to move beyond it. It's not the sort of false, misplaced shame we all get from taking critical comments and media comparisons on board. It's the huge, overwhelming shame of knowing that you've made a really bad stuff-up, bared for all to see and impossible to excuse. Vivian is a sitting duck for anyone who might cast aspersions at her, because she knows she has absolutely no comeback. We readers know long beforehand that something big is coming, and keep turning pages thinking, 'Oh oh, what does she do?'

After it's over, she's totally demoralised by a person she deeply admires, then wounded by the scathing words of a total stranger. Then in the wake of her big mistake, Vivian discovers one of life's big paradoxes. Sometimes people we pour lots of effort into nurturing relationships with just fall away, even though we may assume they will always have significant roles in our lives. And those who start off as sideliners have the potential to become very meaningful.

I really enjoy Gilbert's prose. Vivian becomes an artist with words as she tells her own story, yet she's still totally believable as the girl who says, 'How many books does a person need to read in order to prove she can read a book?' I guess it takes skillful talent on Gilbert's part to make Vivian both literary genius and rebel dunce rolled in one, but she pulls it off. And gives Vivian a great sense of humour to boot.

The opening hook grabbed me, as it's intended to. It's all meant to be one long letter. Vivian is writing her story for the benefit of a woman named Angela, who has written to finally ask what she meant to her father, since both parents are now dead. Vivian replies that she can't presume to tell Angela what she meant to her father, Frank, but she can certainly tell her what Frank meant to her! And that's what the whole story leads up to. At first it seems that Frank takes a looooong time to appear in Vivian's life, but we eventually understand why his appearance is tied up with all that went before.

Anyone who hates reading sex scenes, and stories about casual sex in general might be totally grossed out by this book! In all honesty, there is probably way too much information at times for all of us. It's not essential to the story, and certainly not the sort of stuff I can imagine Vivian would want to tell Angela! But as for the whole package, it's all about dignity, self-acceptance, looking through people's facades at the common humanity beneath the surface, and life's curveballs looking way different to how we might expect. Oh, and of course the assurance that no matter what we've done, it's possible to not only live it down but become good people in the process. What more can we ask for in a book?

Now I might look out for Elizabeth Gilbert's earlier novel, The Signature of all Things.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mark, Charlotte and Us

KOVID-19 has entered the world silently and knocked it off kilter within a short length of time. The physical manifestations aren't the focus of this discussion. We in South Australia are possibly among the least statistically affected. I think there have been 20 cases to date as I type, and we are hoping and praying that stricter quarantine of international travelers and more vigilant social isolation will knock this sucker out sooner rather than later.

But I want to talk about the financial repercussions of this beast. My husband is an entertainer who visits nursing homes for his livelihood, so our household has been hit hard. His flourishing business was decimated literally overnight, as every nursing home has cancelled visitors for the foreseeable future. Avoiding a possible over-run on our hospital system must take priority of course, but my word it takes its financial toll on families like ours, who are left overnight in the frightening position of a mortgage and no income. We have to focus solely on practical ways of staying afloat and my head has been spinning like a top and getting nowhere.  

This blog is partly about drawing on literary heroes for inspiration, so I settled on an unlikely pair for one thing they share in common. That's their confidence that all will end well, in spite of the dire way things may look. This astronaut and spider are good role models for such hard times. Then I added the true example of a family from the 19th century.

I'll give a quick summary of what they faced themselves.

Nobody would ever choose to be in Mark's shoes. He was assumed dead and abandoned on Mars. Learning to wing it and improvise was necessary to keep himself alive on a barren red planet with no oxygen, food or water. He figured out many creative hacks including the use of his own manure to fertilise potatoes. Several times things looked very dicey. Mark's typical response was, 'This seems very bad, and I know I'll work something out or else I'll die, but I'm not sure what it'll be yet.' And he did pull through, with the help of a mighty roll of duct tape that never seemed to end. (My review is here.) 

For Charlotte, it was her best friend's life at stake. Poor Wilbur the young pig discovered that he was destined for the chopping block to be made into ham and bacon. Charlotte promised to save his life, but to Wilbur's agitation, admitted she had no idea how. But Charlotte was a wise spider who knew that necessity is a powerful trigger for creative inspiration. She was so certain she'd figure it out that she refused to lose her composure at all, and even told Wilbur that his histrionics were most unbecoming and annoying. Sure enough, cool and calm won the day, and she figured out an ingenious way to save Wilbur by weaving complimentary phrases about him in her web. (My review is here.)

For more inspiration is the Ingalls family from De Smet. During a scary winter in which a freakishly heavy barrage of back-to-back blizzards prevented the supply train all season, the townsfolk wondered whether they'd freeze or starve first. The only option was to sit at home and try to wait it out, without even the modern luxury of electricity. Pa and Ma got clever, improvising their own alternative sources of heat and light. He twisted hay into hard sticks to replace the scarce coal, and she made button lamps from scraps she had on hand. Perhaps they'd never have thought of these measures if the need had not been so dire. (My review is here.)

I guess we must all call on our inner Mark, Charlotte or Charles and Caroline Ingalls in the days ahead. There is no way of estimating when this is all going to end, which makes it all the more heartbreaking and frustrating for anxious control freaks like me. I just want my husband to be employed again, our elderly citizens to be safe and sound, and the assurance that anyone who needs a hospital bed for whatever reason may be assured of quality care. Oh yeah, and just a little bit of cash flow for groceries and overheads would be nice! But it's looking very much as if faith and creativity will be vital while we're waiting. In the spirit of these two heroes, my motto must be, 'I know we'll get through this, because we have to eat, although I'm not sure how it'll look.'  

Are any of you in a similar position to us? Perhaps we could pool creative ideas of staying afloat, if we're all sharing social distancing at home while supplies run short and income dries up. I can't suggest much myself, because I've got nothing yet. But at least we have cool, calm legends to inspire us in anxious times. Hopefully their example will prove to be even more contagious than COVID-19.         

Monday, March 16, 2020

'Charlotte's Web' by E.B. White

Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte's Web, high up in Zuckerman's barn. Charlotte's spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur's life when he was born the runt of his litter.

E. B. White's Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. This edition contains newly color illustrations by Garth Williams, the acclaimed illustrator of E. B. White's Stuart Little and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, among many other books.

This will go into my 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge for the category with a person's name in the title. The last time I read it was as a 9-year-old behind my classroom desk during silent reading. It all comes rushing back. Wilbur, a tiny piglet who was runt of the litter, is saved from the chopping block by a little girl named Fern. Alas, his luck soon runs out. Fern's father eventually sells Wilbur to his brother-in-law, Homer Zuckerman, who intends to make him into pork sausages and bacon. But Wilbur makes an unlikely alliance with a great brain who intends to save his life. She's a spider named Charlotte.

As is often the case, I enjoyed the story far more this time round. The charisma of the title character won my greatest respect and admiration. Charlotte is an absolute legend who liberates us from negative, menacing impressions that abound about spiders. Who else do we even have in literature to compare her with? There's Aragog and his hungry, ruthless offspring. Or the crafty, 8-legged she-demon Shelob. Even Miss Muffet's inquisitive spider scared little girls silly. I'll rattle off several reasons why I love Charlotte, not only for giving spiders a more positive profile but for encouraging us to be the best versions of ourselves we can.

1) She accepts and defends her essential nature. 'I'm not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it's the way I'm made.' At first Wilbur has misgivings about making such a brutal, scheming and bloodthirsty friend, yet he comes to understand that she's actually humane and great for the environment.
2) She encourages us to adopt an orderly, slow pace. 'I'm glad I'm a sedentary spider.' While she lies in wait for what might come, she uses her web as a good place to sit and think, at which she excels. Even with no idea how she'll save her friend Wilbur, she's confident that something will occur to her in good time. I love her motto, 'Never hurry. Never worry.'
3) She motivates friends to become their best selves. Even though Wilbur considers himself an average little porker, he aims to take Charlotte's words about himself, such as radiant, on board. And before long, his spotless white glow begins to shine for all to see. All because of his best friend's words.
4) She's content to stay in the background, satisfied that she's done her best and made a difference to her sphere of influence. If nobody even notices, it doesn't matter one bit. When she knows she's languishing toward the end of her short life, she still spends those moments in peaceful contentment, because she's saved Wilbur's neck.
5) She has a super-descriptive vocabulary, enabling her to make applications with breadth, depth and wisdom. And once again, it's okay if she doesn't get the credit. Using her creativity and skill with words is the main thing, after all. Not being recognised for it.
6) Altogether, she's a real lady. Charlotte is elegant and smart. Quiet industry is second nature to her, and she doesn't get hung up about what others may think of her. For the short time she lives with the gang in the barn, she adds class and contemplation. A perfect role model.

The supporting characters are excellent too. Who could possibly not love Wilbur, and his stout, merry approach to life, reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh? I also sort of dig the sneaky opportunist Templeton the rat, who has no 'milk of rodent kindness' but can be coerced into good deeds if he's convinced they're in his own best interest. He's a super hoarder who proves that even the stinkiest junk may come in handy at times.

All up, this re-visited book from my earliest childhood was more of a page-turner than several other longer and more 'grown-up ones I've read recently. And Garth Williams' awesome illustrations brings the story to life. It's a good weapon in our quest not become like the conventional Mrs Arable, who's alarmed by the merest hint of her daughter's imagination.


Monday, March 2, 2020

That Pesky Plot Spoiler

It's the time of year again when students return to Uni, including older ones like myself. After my first week back, I knew I'd be altering the way I post on this blog for the duration of the semester. Much as I love it, I won't be so rigid about keeping a regular book blog that it's like a fourth subject. That would be no good at all.

So I'll be posting roughly fortnightly instead of weekly and even delving deep into my archives for old posts to dust off and tweak, like this one. I'd love to know if you've been told off for this sort of thing, as I have from time to time.

We all know book reviews are way different from plot summaries. Their purpose is to give readers an idea about whether or not they might enjoy a particular book. If we love a book, we want to sing its praises. And if we find ourselves let down, we may want to give others the heads up before they commit. Since they're for people who haven't read the book, giving away too much of the story line is a big no-no. It's generally recommended that nothing which happens after the 50% mark should be written about in great detail. Some say it should be only 25%.

I know some people who are walking, talking plot spoilers (most definitely talking). My husband is King Plot Spoiler. He only needs to mention the name of a story and our nephew has learned to poke his fingers in his ears, shout out, 'LaLaLaLa,' and dash out of the room. My husband is the sort of person who shouldn't write reviews, and thankfully he doesn't.

I make an effort to stick to the 50% guideline when I write reviews, but on rare occasions someone will respond, 'Thanks for the plot spoiler' or some equally snarky comment. It's easy to feel chastened, but I've come to believe that spoiler accidents are a peril that goes with the territory of book reviewing.

It's a problem that seriously bothers some people. I've met several lovely ladies, who are courteous, considerate and understanding in the normal course of a day. Yet if they think they've got the whiff of a plot spoiler, they turn into raging beasts. It's like waving a red flag in the face of a bull. They hurl abuse at the poor reviewer as if she's gone on a killing rampage rather than let a few details about a story slip.

But I believe we would be kind to cut reviewers a bit of slack, if they are genuinely trying hard to do the right thing. Just as chocolate bars come with the warning, 'There may be traces of nuts', perhaps book reviews should have similar disclaimers. 'While great care has been taken to keep this review spoiler free, there may be traces of story line due to the nature of the processing'. I've read a number of articles about the art of writing excellent reviews. Here are some random snippets of advice which might help to prove how murky the waters can get when it comes to making reviews completely uncontaminated.

1) Tell us who your favourite character was, and why.

Well, just say the author planned him to be a red herring. From what we know of him in the first few chapters, he may well be a heartless criminal. And maybe that's exactly what the author intends us to wonder at that stage. Yet if enough reviewers write something like, 'I really loved Alex,' then surely we approach the book with a bit of a spoilerish impression that he'll be sound.

2) Explain why the book made you laugh or cry.
I picked up a novel that seemed set to be a whimsical, light-hearted comedy. Yet a few reviewers had written, 'The ending was absolutely gut-wrenching.' Even though no specific details have been revealed, isn't it still verging on spoilerish when we know from the outset that we have to brace ourselves for something?

3) What was your favourite part of the book?

Here's my warning to reviewers. If it happens to come after the 50% (or even 25%) mark, you should tread very carefully indeed. Don't be fooled by the community of seemingly docile readers. They may well take your vague impressions like a whiff of blood.

If you are trying your best to stick to the rules when you're writing reviews, I wouldn't feel too devastated if somebody accuses you of spreading plot spoilers. Read over it to see if they have a point, then either edit it, delete it, or ignore it. And readers, if you're the sort of people who need a guarantee that everything is completely spoiler free, then maybe you should treat all review forums as a bit of a land mine area and stay out. Or if you do enter, do so at your own risk.

Image courtesy of pixabay

Thursday, February 20, 2020

'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens

Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A 'great Victorian novel', it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation.

Here is my choice for a Classic with a Place Name in the Title in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's always a pleasure to return to Dickens' London, where fog and mud reign supreme and we know that whenever any character bobs to the surface we're bound to see them again later, possibly under surprising circumstances. He pulls so many divergent threads together, which puts me in awe of his genius when I consider that his long novels were originally published as magazine serials. It means he obviously had it all planned in his head before Issue 1 hit the newsstands.

Dickens' major gripe in this novel is the frustration of court cases that drag on forever, driving some people to put their lives on hold while waiting for a verdict that may have the potential to change everything. The problem is, decisions are so prolonged that successive generations inherit all the angst. It's these non-criminal, inheritance sort of spats that absorb costs to help lawyers feather their nests, but merely break the hearts of the clients concerned and send them bankrupt.

The long-running court case in this story is Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, and the current Mr Jarndyce chooses to stand aloof from all the uncertainty and take three needy young people to live beneath his roof. Richard Carstone and Ada Clare are distant cousins whose interests are also caught up in the court case, and Esther Summerson is a young orphan he invites to keep house for them all. Esther narrates great swathes of the story. Dickens has given us many, many super-sweet, good girls, but she is the only one we are ever allowed into the actual head space of. And she's such a great point of view character!

Esther was brought up by a stern, unloving aunt who taught her that she was born as a disgrace. When Mr Jarndyce becomes her kind benefactor, she's stoked. All of Esther's comparisons are in a positive direction, since she's trained herself to choose gratitude over grumbling every time, and never grows sour or jealous of the bounty of others. She's a perfect example of how mood management should work, and succeeds in setting contentment as her default. The irony is that Esther's existence has been so hush-hushed, since she's the most admirable person in the whole book (with the exception perhaps of the guy she eventually marries.)

An intriguing underlying mystery concerns the identities of Esther's parents. It's easy for the reader to figure both out early on, and then the fun comes from watching it dawn on others as the story unfolds.

There's a very cool cast of characters across the board. It includes freeloaders like old Mr Turveydrop and the parasitic Harold Skimpole, who is surely one of the most despicable leeches in literature. It appears Dickens based his character on a fellow Victorian author, Leigh Hunt, and everyone who knew them both instantly recognised Hunt in Skimpole. The two writers were sort of friendly before Dickens wrote Bleak House, but definitely not afterwards!

There are dysfunctional families like the Jellybys and Smallweeds, and those who have chosen numbness over feeling. The scenes in which Lady Dedlock and her lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn have conversations with huge stakes, yet both apparently try to outdo each other for nonchalance and languidness are very well done. There is so much intense under-reaction from both, the air is charged with it.

This story hasn't knocked Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations from the top of my Dickens favourites list. I think there's a little too much of poor Richard's plight and Skimpole's dodgy shenanigans for that. But it's well worth a read, especially for the success in which Dickens pulled off a first person female point of view in Esther, who is definitely one of my favourite characters.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Guys who were refused, then later accepted!

Leading up to this Valentine's Day, I noticed an unusual trend in classic novels. It often occurs that men who propose to the women they love are rejected at first, and then accepted by the same lady down the track. What are we to make of this? I don't think it's meant to encourage guys not to take no for an answer, nor is it to suggest that girls don't know their own minds. The best spin I can think of is that there's always room for hope. True love is shown to be an unpredictable phenomenon, because feelings may be in a state of flux at crucial moments. Fellows, if your romantic dream has been crushed, you're in great company. Take heart from these rejected chaps and hang in there.

Warning: Of course this list contains plot spoilers, so feel free to skip over any you don't wish to know. 

1) Fitzwilliam Darcy
What a superb wake-up call for this haughty individual! He tussles with the wisdom of proposing to a girl whose connections are far beneath his, and whose immediate family members are major embarrassments on legs, as far as he's concerned. Then when he finally proposes to Elizabeth Bennett anyway, he tells her his misgivings! And she tells him that he's a proud, pompous prat she'd never consider marrying in a fit! Definitely not the reaction he expected. Luckily for him, she's open-minded enough to regret her own prejudice later, and allow his better nature to work on her. 

2) Frederick Wentworth
This poor young sailor proposes to the girl he loves, and who he knows loves him back. But alas, Anne Elliot lets her trusted mentor talk her out of accepting. All he can do is skulk off to sea heartbroken, but little does he know, she's been kicking herself for her foolishness for a decade. He's let a lot of bitterness and resentment strangle his romantic feelings throughout those years, but are his barriers up to the challenge of seeing her again? This is one of my favourite, 'maybe it's not too late,' stories.

3) Gilbert Blythe
He's loved Anne Shirley from the time he was a young boy, and when she rejects his marriage proposal and suggests they just remain friends, he knows the compromise will never work for him. But in this case, it turns out the heroine truly doesn't know her own mind. It seems to be a common failing with Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroines. Gilbert is wise not to latch onto any other admirer on the rebound, and I'd suggest that clueless Anne was luckier still that he didn't.

You may enjoy my Battle of the Book Boyfriends, where I pitted Darcy and Gilbert head to head. 

4) Konstantin Levin
What a shemozzle! This shy young farmer draws on every ounce of courage he has to propose to the girl he adores, but his timing is most unfortunate. Kitty Scherbatsky is deeply infatuated with another man, Alexei Vronsky, and tells Levin she can never possibly marry him. Eventually she wakes up to herself, especially when Vronsky jilts her for Anna Karenina. Kitty realises that Levin is indeed the man she truly loves. But our hero has retreated back to his country property with his tail between his legs, resolved never to stick his neck out again. The way in which she prevails on him to have another try makes one of my favourite romances. (See my review.)

5) Edward Beverley
He's the main character of one of my favourite YA classics, Children of the New Forest. Edward proposes to Patience Heatherstone, the daughter of his employer, and she refuses, thinking her father would hate to her marry below their station. However, Superintendent Heatherstone has sussed out his protege's noble birth, and helped orchestrate that proposal. Ooops, it backfires all round, especially for Patience, when Edward rushes off into the army to nurse his broken heart. She has to live up to her name for years, while he decides if he'll ever return to have another crack. (I've reviewed it here.)

6) Fred Vincy
Oh, his girlfriend Mary Garth loves him dearly, but she's far too sensible to accept his first proposal. Fred is an unreliable spendthrift with no desire to buckle down and work, so she's compelled to give him an ultimatum. 'This'll only happen if you shape up.' Fred is so set in his ways, it's tantamount to a refusal. The way in which he makes it happen, aided by Mr Featherstone, who's a sort of rival for Mary's affection, is a touching read. (See my review of Middlemarch.)

7) Gabriel Oak
This humble young shepherd loves his neighbour Bathsheba Everdene very much, but she values her independence and likes him too little to accept his proposal. It takes a disastrous marriage to the feckless Captain Troy, and unfortunate entanglement with intense Farmer Boldwood for her to reconsider her opinion of Gabriel. Only then does Bathsheba realise the value of steadiness and loyalty. It's a great example of hanging in there, and my favourite story by Thomas Hardy.

8) Robert Martin
Perhaps his proposal to Harriet Smith would have been accepted right off, if not for the influence of her friend, Emma Woodhouse. Snobby Emma has decided that no pal of hers will ever settle for a mere farmer, and Harriet is like putty in her hands. Only after a disastrous set-up and another dead-end crush does Harriet realise that her first choice was actually the best. At least the awkward mistakes help her to think for herself. (See my review of Emma.)

9) John Harmon
He's a bit sneaky, because he knows his father made a condition in his will for him to marry Bella Wilfer, and he wants to test her true feelings for him first. So he proposes to her in the guise of a poor man, and Bella instantly knocks him back. She is too familiar with the effects of privation and self-denial, thanks very much. It falls on John to figure out a way to work on her better nature without revealing his true wealth. I had my reservations about this plot thread, but loved the book. (See my review of Our Mutual Friend.)

10) Jem Wilson
Whoa, this is one instant when the heroine refuses a heartfelt proposal, then regrets it the second he steps out the door. Mary Barton faces the stark truth that of course she's in love with Jem, and not flirty Harry the mill owner's son she's been encouraging. Without wanting to admit her blooper outright, she tries more subtle methods to make him try again, but Jem has taken her statement, 'I'll never marry you,' as absolute truth. Shocking circumstances mean that Mary has to prove in a big, big way that she's in love with Jem. (See my review of Mary Barton.)

These are my ten favourite examples, but the list is surely not exhaustive. Are any of your favourites among them, and as always, can you suggest any others?