Monday, July 6, 2020

The Anne Series by L.M. Montgomery

I've been hearing plenty of nostalgia about Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne series recently. Along with everything else she ever wrote, these are heart-warming classics which I read many times during my childhood and youth. Anne is a genuinely beautiful soul whose happy outlook can't help rubbing off on readers. Even though I've referred to them lots since starting this blog, I haven't read them for many years. I decided I'm well overdue for a re-read. 

They're easy, pleasurable reads, so I'll space the eight of them out each fortnight, to take about four months all up. Each write-up will include aspects I still love, things that didn't impress me so much this time round, and great quotes. Please feel more than welcome to join me, or at least follow my progress. We'll kick off in a fortnight with Anne of Green Gables, the bestseller that got this mighty ball rolling. 

And just to add a bit more fun, let's give each book an alternative title to match the F.R.I.E.N.D.S sitcom format. If you've read the series before, these might spur your memory, and if you haven't, they'll stimulate your curiosity. Now, stay tuned for more as we get stuck into this Anne-athon.  

Anne of Green Gables
The One with the smashed slate

Anne of Avonlea
The One where she teaches school

Anne of the Island
The One with all the Proposals

Anne of Windy Willows
The One with Two Titles 

Anne's House of Dreams
The One with the Creepy Amnesiac Dude

Anne of Ingleside
The One with all the Kids

Rainbow Valley
The One with all the Minister's Kids

Rilla of Ingleside
The One Set during the Great War

Sunday, June 28, 2020

'The Hobbit' by J.R.R. Tolkien

Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.


This is my choice in the Genre Classic category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. Of course it's classic fantasy, but it's been ages since I've delved into any of these Tolkien stories. I'd forgotten a fair bit. Bilbo, the homely hobbit, is gatecrashed in his cosy home by the Wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves, headed by their chief, Thorin Oakenshield. They insist that he accompany them on a perilous journey to take back their mountain full of treasure from Smaug the dragon, an evil squatter who stole it from Thorin's ancestors generations ago. Gandalf has decided that Bilbo is the perfect guy to be the group's 'burglar'. Perhaps 'reclaimer' would be more accurate, since he's assigned to steal it back for its rightful owners. Bilbo is understandably unwilling to go, but they're an impossible mob to refuse. So we're off on an adventure.

Even though we readers haven't visited Middle-Earth ourselves, it's written in such a way that we can draw from snippets of earth geography stored in our imaginations to fill details with our own colour. Here's a good line about architecture. 'On some of the hills were castles with an evil look, as if they'd been built by wicked people.' Or we're invited to use our knowledge of forests in descriptions of the great Mirkwood. 'There was no movement of air down on the forest floor, and it was everlastingly still, dark and stuffy.' With a few great lines, we're there on the quest with Bilbo and the dwarves.

Who can help but notice Gandalf's habit of going missing? Occasionally he drops a big announcement that they're now on their own. (With some nonchalant line like, 'Hey ho, I'm off because this isn't really my adventure, but I might join you down the track if I have time.') And other times he just pulls a disappearing stunt, leaving his friends scratching their heads and inquiring, 'Hey, have you seen him?' I know it's revealed further through the series that he has an excellent reason, but in this book it's left a mystery.

It's easy to pay Gandalf out, since the others are essentially clueless in the face of trolls, goblins, wolves and spiders. Yet his absence does enhance the plot, forcing them all, especially Bilbo, to scrape from the barrels of their own resources in desperation and save the day. It would be a far more tedious story with a powerful wizard on hand every step of the way. The Elvenking says, 'Farewell, O Gandalf. May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected.' Well yeah, we get the impression that is indeed his modus operandi.

Deep underground near the goblin caves lives the pathetic, bulgy-eyed Gollum in his murky lake. I so enjoyed his high-stakes riddle-off with Bilbo. I'm one of those readers who can't help feeling sorry for this lonely, slimy character. I totally understand his despair at losing the one thing he has going for him in his miserable life. His ring was his protection and meal ticket. Even though the story doesn't divulge much at this stage, there's a sense that the ring has a sinister intelligence of its own. Perhaps it knows its future potential is limited with Gollum, so makes extra sure to sneakily slide off his finger. Super well played by the ring. A bit of an internet search reveals that Tolkien re-wrote this incident for the second edition published in 1951, to make Gollum's personality more consistent with that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the initial 1937 version, Gollum wasn't as pathetic, hostile toward Bilbo, or attached to his precious ring.  

Racial tension adds a nice dimension to our sense of place. We have the droll, mercurial quality of the essentially good elves, in contrast to the more down-to-earth, plodding natures of the dwarves, whose eyes light up at the thought of treasure. 'Even decent enough dwarfs think elves foolish, which is a very foolish thing to think.' But has Tolkien written himself into a racial dilemma, with his creation of the goblins and orcs?

Here we have a race which is simply born bad, not to mention ugly. They have horrible stony voices, never make beautiful things, but are experts at producing ingenious gadgety ones, such as cruel torture devices. I'll be on the lookout for a 'good' goblin in the books to come, but somehow doubt I'll find one. If we're to take Middle-Earth as a sort of duplicate of our plain Earth, does this create some ethical awkwardness? I think we wisely refrain from considering this aspect as a mirror of earth in any way at all.  

At the ultimate destination is the mighty dragon Smaug, who won't give up without a fight. A dog in the manger at heart, he merely sleeps on the outrageous hoard of treasure he's stolen, and goes berserk when he realises one golden cup is missing from a mountain that would take a century to excavate. But Smaug has his Achilles Heel, or in his case something more like Dragon's Nipple. Without being too spoilerish, I found his destiny in this story a bit anti-climactic, after all the build-up.

The best of this book is, of course, its title character. Bilbo is a pocket-sized legend. At first I was indignant on his behalf, for being forced to risk his life for something he didn't care a rat's behind about - dwarf treasure in some distant mountain. I wondered if that was a major story weakness, in fact. A quest's main character with no vested interest in the stakes! Why should we care about a hero drawn into someone else's agenda? But pretty soon it becomes all about friendship and loyalty, as he realises he's fighting with his quick wit so his friends may enjoy the home comforts which are rightfully theirs.

He also has undeniable good luck. Bilbo has a great knack of stumbling over major gems while he's just strolling along. And I love how he delivers the dwarfs some sass when he think he's in the right. Even the great Thorin Oakenshield gets a bit of lip from the disgruntled hobbit.

What makes Bilbo most heroic is his value for the really important things in life, which are exceptionally ordinary. His head is never turned with greed, like certain dragons and dwarfs, because home comforts always retain their rightful place. He knows full well the sound of the kettle on his hearth and the sizzling of bacon and eggs can't be beaten. His new coat of mail is a wonderful tribute but he knows it looks silly. The Elvenking is spot-on when he says, 'Bilbo Baggins, you are more worthy to wear the armour of elf princes than many who have looked more comely in it.'

Maybe the crux of the tale is poor old Thorin's final revelation. 'If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.'

This story has inspired me to keep on with the epic. I'm not going to tackle The Lord of the Rings as a whole review, but will break it up into its three components, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It might not be for some time, but they're coming. 


Monday, June 22, 2020

Fictional characters and the gift of pianos

My kids and I all had piano lessons at some stage. As a 19-year-old still living at home, I purchased a whopping ancient second hand upright, totally untuned and weighing a tonne. I lived at home with my parents on a fairly large property with a twisty, rustic driveway, and the delivery guys' grumbles have stuck in my memory all these years. On the other end of the spectrum, my daughter far more recently walked inside with a light keyboard tucked beneath her arm, which a mate had lent her. The one thing we had in common was good intentions we failed to see through. Big or small, we never stuck it out to be as proficient as we'd like to be. (She's moved on to the ukelele now, which is far more to her liking.) 

But piano nostalgia sometimes takes hold of me, especially when they pop up in good stories. Recently I dug up a great romantic novella on my kindle entitled 'Mail Order Revenge' by Angela K. Couch. It was a lovely quick read about a mail order bride who went into her marriage with scary intentions to wreak havoc, but eventually softened toward her new husband. Just the sort of tonic I sometimes need to unwind and relax. What helped disarm the heroine, Elizabeth, was when the hero, Axel, purchased a surprise piano for her. They lived on a very remote property in the era of horse and carts, so it was no mean feat getting it there. She just melted when she found out. 

But Axel and Elizabeth definitely aren't alone. Their story set me thinking about all the piano gifts ever given by fictional characters. My word, has it ever occurred to you how many there are? When somebody from the pages of a book wants to make to meaningful present to somebody special, it seems as often as not they decide upon a piano! Wow, I've never given anyone a piano in my life, or ever received one either. Have you? So what is the big draw card for these heroes and heroines?          

My guess is it must be a combination of size and significance. The sheer magnitude of a such a present declares commitment far more than something like flowers or chocolate. And it's undeniable that the recipient is getting far more than a wooden frame and ivory keys, valuable as they are. It's the gift of music! Beneath proficient fingers, music is the language of the soul, and the preferred communication of angels. Hearts may be stirred and emotions primed for hours on end. Perhaps the giver has an ulterior motive in choosing a piano, hoping that the loved one will remember them, whenever they sit down to play. 

Here are five classic examples that spring to mind. As you read them, I'll ask you to look out for your favourite.    

1) Mr James Lawrence to Beth March
This kindly old gentleman's gruff mannerisms unintentionally scare the timid daughter of his next door neighbours. He deeply regrets it, because Beth's sweet face reminds him of a little girl he lost years ago, and he dearly wants to be friends. At first he extends her a permanent invitation to give his own neglected keys a work-out whenever she feels like it. But eventually he orders a brand new piano all of her very own to be delivered to her home. That's the catalyst that spurs timid Beth to give Mr Lawrence a warm thanks. And hence two different but equally lonely people bond over the gift of music. (See my review of Little Women.)

2) Captain William Dobbin to Amelia Sedley
This shy and awkward soldier is madly in love with his best friend's wife. When Amelia's family goes bankrupt, all of their household goods are sold off at auction. William secretly buys Amelia's treasured piano, just for the pleasure of sending it back to her anonymously. Amelia chooses to assume it was a final gift from her dead husband George, who we readers know was far too self-centered and cheap to dream of doing any such thing. Her piano brings her great comfort for years - until her horror and mortification when she discovers the real benefactor. She stops playing it, at least for a little while. (See my review of Vanity Fair.)

3) Frank Churchill to Jane Fairfax
This expensive gift is the cause of much misunderstanding. The young dandy buys it for his secret fiance, but she prefers that he didn't because of the embarrassing speculations it gives rise to. Emma Woodhouse for a start, imagines a scandalous situation in which the smitten husband of Jane's closest friend sends it to her. Emma talks herself into believing her own far-fetched suspicion. She even confides it to Frank, who plays along. He's highly amused, but neither of the young ladies are when they learn the full extent to which he has meddled with both of their emotions. He has a lot of smooth talking to do. (See my review of Emma.)

4) The previous tenant to the Nolan family
Overworked and underpaid, Katie Nolan certainly regards the piano in their new apartment as a special gift, although the poor lady who left it behind didn't really intend it to be. She simply couldn't afford to have it moved. She asks Katie and her family to please take great care of it for her, and explains that she couldn't resist the way it smartened up the appearance of the drab little room. Katie cleverly barters with an acquaintance for piano lessons in return for house cleaning. She makes sure her two kids both watch carefully, in order to squeeze in three students for the price of one. It pays off down the track for her son Neeley, who has talent enough to earn some good money from his skill. (See my review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.)

5) The Ingalls family to Mary
Okay, this one is actually an organ, but I believe it fits this list anyway. I could've called it 'the gift of keyboards'. While Mary Ingalls is busy studying far from home at the College for the Blind in Iowa, her parents and sisters decide to chip in to buy her the welcome back home present of her dreams. Playing music is one of Mary's great passions, and they anticipate all the happiness it will bring her. Alas, their own delight is deferred when she opts to spend her holidays at the home of a friend instead. But it's all worthwhile when Mary comes home the following year and discovers what they've done. I believe this organ is still on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum The love and patience shared by Pa, Ma and the girls makes this my personal favourite. (See my review of These Happy Golden Years.)

So which is yours? Since they're all so good, I'd really like to know if there are any genuine stand-outs, or if they all get an equal number of takers across the board. So I'll do something different and ask you to please comment with your favourite of these five here or on social media. And soon I'll update this post with the results of my very informal poll. 

And as always, can you think of any others to add?    

Monday, June 15, 2020

'Cranford' by Elizabeth Gaskell

Through a series of vignettes, Elizabeth Gaskell portrays a community governed by old-fashioned habits and dominated by friendships between women. Her wry account of rural life is undercut, however, by tragedy in its depiction of such troubling events as Matty's bankruptcy, the violent death of Captain Brown or the unwitting cruelty of Peter Jenkyns. Written with acute observation, Cranford is by turns affectionate, moving and darkly satirical.

I'm making this my choice for the Abandoned Classic category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. I almost finished it long ago when I studied it for Uni English as a teenager, but only read enough to pad out what I felt my essay required. At the age of 19, I thought it was all about a bunch of pompous old spinsters and widows in a poky old town, regretting missed opportunities and trying to enforce a snobbish pecking order. Well, I still think it's about a bunch of self-important senior women trying to maintain their social status. But I seem to have developed more of a tolerance for that sort of thing, perhaps because some of it has come home to roost. The themes of dwindling time and money really leaped out at me this time round.

The narrator is a modest young woman whose name is revealed close to the end as Mary Smith. Mary often stays with distant family at Cranford. Miss Deborah Jenkyns was an autocratic town leader who has recently died, leaving her far more gentle and nervous sister Matilda (or Matty) in charge of their household. Matty thinks she'll make a mess of things and shame Deborah's memory. But several of her bossy sister's former decisions turn out to have a negative impact on her own life, which is obvious to Mary but not to Matty. And Miss Matty pulls through on strengths Deborah never had, such as empathy and generosity.

The community is revealed as one of general poverty, but they're able to conceal it, and even make it fashionable with an unspoken pact to disapprove of 'lavish spending.' The ladies all consider their cost cutting a form of 'elegant economy' and pay out anyone lucky enough to be able to splash out a few bucks as vulgar and ostentatious. I have to laugh as I read their reasoning, since this sort of sour grapeism has even made its way into our 21st century budgeting over the years.

The story deals with layers of time. Mary the narrator is speaking nostalgically as she looks back to her youth when she stayed with Miss Matty Jenkyns at Cranford. During that time period itself, she helps Miss Matty delve even further back as they collate old letters and talk about the happenings of former generations. This really makes time feel like a set of Babushka dolls, in which we can't help finding ourselves stacked. And what goes around most certainly seems to come again.

Several memories for me were loaded with extra significance Gaskell definitely can't have intended, because the events in my mind were way in my past and her future. She was long dead and I hadn't been born yet. Reflecting on her girlhood during the Napoleonic war, Miss Matty muses, 'I used to wake up in the night many a time and think I heard the tramp of French boots entering Cranford.' I straightaway remembered my Dad talking about about his own boyhood in the early 1940s of South Australia, and saying, 'I used to wake up and imagine I heard German troops marching down the streets of Adelaide.' Nothing levels human experience quite like reading books.

I can't help noticing that when Elizabeth Gaskell pokes gentle fun at the old snobs, they still come out on the page as sort of lovable. Even the totally stuck-up Mrs Jamieson. In Jane Austen's merciless hands, the same ladies could be made to look ridiculous and even villainous. (Think Mrs Elton, young Mrs Dashwood, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.) Is there a lesson there for us readers? Maybe since we have a choice to choose the lens through which we view people, we should make an effort to see those around us lovable instead of abominable. That can sure be a hard ask though. 

Overall, it's not an exciting book, but a highly readable one if you like small town politics and the fusing together of different personalities. And it was said to have been Mrs Gaskell's own personal favourite. I'm guessing that might have been at least partly because of the many gentle teasing and humorous remarks she slipped in. Such as when Martha the maid says, 'I won't listen to reason. It always turns out to be what other people have to say.' This little book is worth reading for Elizabeth Gaskell's keen sense of humour.


Monday, June 8, 2020

'An Unreliable Man' by Jostein Gaarder

From the creative genius of Jostein Gaarder comes a beautiful novel about loneliness and the power of words.
Jakop is a lonely man.
Divorced from his wife, with no friends apart from his constant companion Pelle, he spends his life attending the funerals of people he doesn't know, obscuring his identity in a web of improbable lies.
As his addiction to storytelling spirals out of control, he is forced to reconcile his love of language and stories with the ever more urgent need for human connection.


This is a most thoughtful unreliable narrator case, because we're warned at the outset in the title. Jakop is a lonely, middle-aged teacher with a weird pastime. He attends the funerals of total strangers, making up cockamamie stories about his brief but meaningful encounters with the dear departed in case anybody at the memorial services should inquire. People can't contradict him from their coffins. Although individuals often leave Jakop cold, he's addicted to hanging out in the middle of tight, extended family groups because there's something compelling about belonging. 'I doubt if I'm any fonder of people than the next man, but life has made me incredibly fond of families.'

As Jakob narrates his story, his own solitary past comes to light, including a history of being picked on at school. The younger Jakop bought into the shame which seems inevitable with victims of bullying. I've been there many years ago, and the memory is still strong. Forget all about any platitudes along the lines of, 'It shows more of a problem with them than it does with you.' We're closed to that sort of reasoning when we're in the thick of it. It's incredibly easy for young people to assume that since we're targets, our personalities must be seriously flawed. So apart from a brief unhappy marriage, this poor guy has been a fringe dweller at other people's events for years. He knows he's treading a delicate path with the potential to blow up on him at any moment, but so far so good.

Since he was a young boy, Jakop has one good friend named Pelle, and we have to read the book to understand the complexity of their relationship. Eventually a lady named Agnes meets the pair of them and begins to figure out what makes them tick.

Whoa, there are any number of themes for different reviewers to pick up on, depending how deeply we want to wade into linguistics, mythology, Christology and all the other deep and meaningful topics which ring Jakop's bells. Several of them went way over my head. For a simple reader like me, the best takeaway by far is that we are often far greater people than the social faces we present. As left of field as Jakop's creative coping mechanisms may seem, they help him plumb depths of his own personality that would never otherwise see the light of day. In fact, he often regards his different facets of storytelling as part of an entity which isn't himself at all.

I do get where Jakop is coming from. If you've grappled for years with the sense that you present an awkward, inhibited public face, you may think that any rebuffs are well deserved. Yet this book offers us encouragement to shrug in the face of rejection or indifference, and think, 'Perhaps this is the best face I can present right at this specific minute, but I know full well that what these people think they're seeing is not a fraction of all I am.' And then it doesn't seem to sting so hard. I've been giving quiet, shrinking souls the benefit of the doubt for years, and Jakop's story confirms that I'm on the right track. Our kindest response must always be, 'Just because I'm not getting the best of this guy (I hope), I'm sure there's bound to be more facets of him than I'll ever see.'

It's not my favourite Gaarder tale. (That is still The Solitaire Mystery, at least right now.) But Jakop is one heck of an unreliable narrator, who doesn't build himself up as a person many people want to spend time with. And I know enough now to think that Gaarder's one of those authors who'll be bound to deliver if we persevere, and sure enough, the magic worked on me the further in I was drawn. 


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.