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.