Archive for July, 2011

Friday Potpourri

It’s all about book lists this week!

Summer’s Biggest, Juiciest Nonfiction Adventures - Nothing Daunted was already on my TBR list but I’m also really intrigued by Turn Right at Machu Piccu.

Back to School Reads: 13 Big Books to Read While the Leaves Fall - Autumn is coming whether we like it or not.  NPR has pulled together a list of the Fall’s new releases to get us (a bit) excited about the end of summer.

Kamin Mohammadi’s Top 10 Iranian Books - From 10th-century epics to 21st-century graphic novels, the author picks the books that best illuminate a country too little known in the west

The 100 Greatest Non-fiction Books - I don’t particularly agree with this list, but it is an excellent example of a well-made book list and that at least is admirable.  And it certainly offers variety! 

Amanda Craig’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies and Jilly Cooper’s Top 10 Romantic Novels - because all the non-fiction lists needed to be balanced out with something romantic and fun.  Very happy to see that Austen and Trollope show up on both lists.

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I don’t read a lot of plays.  I never have really, aside from a few pretentious phases and the required readings for school, but I do generally enjoy the experience when I pick one up.  A good play is powerful, entertaining and, when read, short – always a winning combination.  But the trouble is picking the good ones, isn’t it?  As usual.  Well, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie Macdonald, written in 1988 before she turned her hand to novel-writing, is definitely a good ‘un. 

Queen’s University Assistant Professor Constance Ledbelly (such a Shakespearian name!) is, when not ghost-writing academic papers for her boss, working to decode a manuscript that she believes was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  And in their original forms, in the manuscript, she is convinced that both plays began as comedies, that there was a Fool there to guide the characters to happy rather than tragic ends:

What if a Fool were to enter the worlds of both ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’?  Would he be akin to the Wise Fool in ‘King Lear’?: a Fool who can comfort and comment, but who cannot alter the fate f the tragic hero?  Or would our Fool defuse the tragedies by assuming centre stage as comic hero?  Indeed, in ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the Fool is conspicuous by his very absence, for these two tragedies turn on flimsy mistakes – a lost hanky, a delayed wedding announcement – mistakes too easily concocted and corrected by a Wise Fool.

When Constance falls into the worlds of the plays – pushed over the edge after learning that the man she loves a) is marrying another, b) is taking the job she had wanted at Oxford, and c) has arranged for her to take a position at a university in Saskatchewan(“Regina.  I hate the prairies.  They’re flat.  It’s an absolute nightmare landscape of absolutes and I’m a relativist.  I’ll go mad.”) – she has a chance to see just what would have happened had fate dealt the lovers kinder hands.

You know you’re a true geek when Shakespeare jokes get you going.  Soon after arriving in ‘Othello’,Constance notices a strange new pattern to her speech:

I speak in blank verse like the characters:
Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
It seems to come quite nat’rally to me.
I feel so eloquent and…[making up the missing beats] eloquent.
My god.  Perhaps I’m on an acid trip.
What if some heartless student spiked my beer?!

And when Constance descends on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, my goodness, what Shakespearian comic device isn’t used?  Awful bawdy jokes, mistaken identities, women dressed as men, men dressed as women hoping to seduce women dressed as men…it’s all quite wonderful.

While comic relief is in ample supply, so is intelligent commentary on both plays and, particularly, the females at the centres of the tragedies.  Here, Desdemona is no pale, weak beauty but a blood-thirsty combatant, wooed by Othello’s gory descriptions of his previous victories, wedded to the warrior she wished to be.  Though Iago is thwarted in his initial manipulation of Othello by Constance, Desdemona proves to be as susceptible and jealous as her husband.

And Juliet, after the secret of her marriage is revealed just as Tybalt and Mercutio are about to fight, is as far from flying into an Othello-like jealous rage as possible.  After a day of marriage, the magic is gone and both she and Romeo are on the lookout for a new pretty face, in love with the concept of romantic, passionate, forbidden love (and, in Juliet’s case, death) and completely immune to the charms of married life.  Unfortunately for Constance, now disguised as a boy, the pretty face both Romeo and Juliet fall for is her own.  

Macdonald has written a very fun, very imaginative story of how an academic, transported into ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, manages to turn the tragedies into comedies while learning far more about Shakespeare’s heroines than he ever revealed.  Quite delightful and highly recommended.

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I finished reading The File by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday and just had to talk about it immediately.  It is a fascinating, bravely personal examination of the secretive, fearful culture of the GDR and the way it shaped the lives of those touched by the Stasi, be they employee, informer or, in Garton Ash’s case, subject.  After retrieving his own Stasi file once they were made available in the early 1990s, Garton Ash sets out to gauge its accuracy (comparing it against his own diaries and memories of the period) and to track down and interview those who informed on and monitored him, a particularly intriguing task for a historian who, after all, arrived in Berlin in 1978 as a student studying the city under Hitler, when German citizens had to choose whether to resist or yield to the totalitarian state of the Third Reich.  But once he arrived, he realised that the present was perhaps more interesting than the past:

I was fascinated because here, in East Germany, people were actually living those endlessly difficult choices between collaboration with and resistance to a dictatorship.  Here I could pursue the Stauffenberg/Speer question in, as it were, real time. (p. 44)

Happily, there were no sinister consequences for Garton Ash as the result of information passed on by informants.  He did not suffer at anyone’s hands and was more intrigued by why they became informants and how they’ve lived with the consequences of that decision than why they informed on him personally. 

I have never read extensively on the GDR so some of the numbers were staggering for me.  The sheer scale of the Stasi’s operations and the cooperation they received from the general population is overwhelming:

The sources the Stasi themselves considered most important were the ‘unofficial collaborators’, the IMs.  The numbers are extraordinary.  According to internal records, in 1988 – the last ‘normal’ year of the GDR – the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 ‘unofficial collaborators’.  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in ‘conspiratorial’ services, such as lending their flats for secret meetings, or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The Ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police.  Allow just one dependent per person, and you’re up to one in twenty-five.  (p. 74)

The interviews with the informants, while predictably awkward, were surprising in how openly the informants talked to Garton Ash about their actions.  They all had their reasons, their rationalizations to protect themselves from their own recriminations, their own consciences, perhaps even more than Garton Ash’s.  Some began as idealists, some were hoping for improved standing and future benefits in return for their assistance, and some were being blackmailed or coerced.  To a man, their decision to inform was not a personal grudge against Garton Ash; there was no malice intended.  It was something they did for themselves, for their own reasons.    

His interviews with the more reticent former-Stasi officers are even more interesting.  Unlike the informers, these men know they ruined lives, had people killed or imprisoned for political differences that now mean nothing.  But that was their world, their job.  Some harboured doubts then and regrets now while some remained convinced that all they had done, they had done for the best.  But who is brave or foolish enough to be a dissident in a totalitarian state, when an ideological quibble could see your entire family’s future ruined?  Or worse?  Are you an evil person for protecting yourself while knowing that your organization is doing wrong, even if you aren’t personally doing anything to its victims?  Are you worse if you believe that it is not wrong but absolutely necessary, as you’ve always been told?

There is no definitive answer to those questions and never will be and Garton Ash comes away with no conclusion, just profiles of people who touched his life without him ever having known it, without, thankfully, having damaged it:

What you find here, in the files, is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances…What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness.  And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty then our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.

If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.

But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human.  Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil.  It’s true what people often say: we, who never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship.  So who are we to condemn?  But equally, who are we to forgive?  (p. 223-224)

I think what made this so special for me, aside from just being informative, were all the personal details Garton Ash includes.  It is a memoir of his time there as a young ‘bourgeois-liberal’ (as his file described him), struggling to define his identity and career path even as much darker struggles are taking place all around him.  And it is the story of an older man looking back on the youth he once was and trying to remember and identify with him:

What the Stasi’s Lieutenant Küntzel called my ‘legends’ were in truth less cover stories than different strands of an unformed life.  Like the confused, ambitious twenty-three-year-old graduate students who now come to my rooms in Oxford to ask me for life advice, I wanted to do everything at once: to write a doctoral thesis about Berlin in the Third Reich, and a book about East Germany, and an essay about the Bauhaus, and brilliant reports for the Spectator, and probably to be George Orwell, Foreign Secretary and war hero too.  Cover stories that I told myself.

The diary reminds me of all the fumblings, the clumsiness, the pretentiousness and snobbery – and the insouciance with which I barged into other people’s lives.  Embarrassment apart, there is the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt.  How much easier to do it to other people!  At times, this past self is such a stranger to m that where I have written ‘I’ in these last pages I almost feel it should be ‘he’. (p. 37)

There are delightful, lighter moments too.  How, for example, to resist the arrogant, comedic stylings of twenty-something males?

As we sat up at 1 am, drinking in the flat next to Mark’s office, the telephone rang.  Heavy breathing, then the line went dead.  Half-an-hour later, the phone rang again and a voice said: ‘I see you have a guest.’  We guessed they were bored, or simply wanted us to go to bed.  Knowing the place to be bugged, we took pleasure in loudly deploring the latest article by ‘Edward Marston’, my pseudonym in the Spectator.  ‘Did you see Eddie Marston’s latest piece, Tim?’  ‘Yes, terrible wasn’t it?  He must have been drunk again.’  I ask Frau Schulz to enquire if there is a file on this enemy of the people but, alas, the central card index has no entry under Marston, Edward.  (p. 67-68)

The File is a gripping personal history centered on great ethical questions with no clear answers.  Garton Ash’s writing is superb: thoughtful and skilled, passionate and compelling, he does a wonderful job illuminating all the players in his little story in a balanced, sympathetic way, without the reader ever forgetting that this is his story.  All this happened not that long ago, not so far away, and not to a political firebrand or revolutionary but to a twenty-something history student.  And to many others.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!


Naming Nature: The Clash between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
I don’t read a lot of science books normally, mostly because it never occurs to me to wander into that section of the library.  But when I do venture down that aisle, I always find the most interesting things, like this book about taxonomy.

And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding
Highly recommended by the library assistant at my local branch.  Aside from one course at university, I really haven’t read that much about occupiedParis. 

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg
Reviews of this were everywhere when it came out last year and, really, was I ever going to be able to resist trying something with that subtitle?  The opening line is promising too: “Pimps make the best librarians.”


The Smell of Summer Grass by Adam Nicolson
A chronicle of the years spent by the author and his wife (Sarah Raven) restoring Perch Hill farm in Sussex and making a life there with their family. 

The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire
Where does a young boy turn when his whole world suddenly disappears? What turns two brothers from an unstoppable team into a pair of bitterly estranged loners? How does the simple-hearted care of one middle-aged nurse reveal the scars of an entire community, and can anything heal the wounds caused by a century of deception? Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Lemire pays tribute to his roots with Essex County, an award-winning trilogy of graphic novels set in an imaginary version of his hometown, the eccentric farming community of Essex County, Ontario, Canada.

A House in Fez by Suzanna Clarke
Recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go, when can I ever resist a book about renovating a home in an exotic locale?

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A Taste of Summer

It might not be sunny here, it might not even be particularly warm, and yes, I may have been fighting a head cold for several weeks but my calendar assures me it is summer and so summer foods will be prepared.  And in my home there is nothing more summery than this pflaumenkuchen mit streusel.  It was the first dessert I learned to make on my own and I can do it in my sleep.  It is the go-to dessert for office parties, potlucks and picnics and is, for me, the essence of summer.  And of all the fruits I make it with, plums are my absolute favourite. 

I don’t actually use a recipe but, if you want to try it for yourself, Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for blueberry crumb bars yields a very similar and delicious result (though I use more fruit and don’t mix it with sugar or cornstarch).

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As you may recall, I went a little crazy for Katie Fforde in June.  I managed to read/reread 9 of her novels in less than four weeks, on top of all my other reading, which, let me be clear from the beginning, was not necessarily my cleverest plan.  With so many books that are so similar read so close together, it can be a bit overwhelming and, frankly, exhausting.  And yet I could not help myself.

Katie Fforde writes wonderful escapist fiction.  Yes, it is formulaic, yes, the male characters in particular can be so poorly constructed that they’re barely present, and yes, most of the time the plots are madly unrealistic.  But all that is completely fine because this is escapist fiction and that is exactly what I want from this kind of book.  There are times when all you want is a novel that will whisk you away for a couple of hours, the kind that is easy to read, makes you smile, and where your heroine is able to completely turn her life around in 300 to 400 pages of well-spaced type.    

I started with Love Letters and, perhaps because of its bookish focus, it was one of my favourites, though mostly for its minor characters and commentary on the publishing industry.  The heroine, Laura Horsley, had been contentedly working at a small bookshop, which, as the novel opens, is about to close.  When she takes on the daunting task of helping to organize a literary festival, she is also faced with tracking down an elusive Irish author and convincing him to attend in order to secure the support of a wealthy donor.  It features the standard evolution of a Fforde heroine: she changes her boring life into something she’s really excited about, landing the perfect job, as well as the guy.  Careers are a main focus in Fforde’s novel and each heroine’s search for a job that she is engaged by and passionate about often takes up more time that the romantic subplot, though often the two are intertwined. 

 Laura is rather forgettable but the first pages detailing her bookish habits made her instantly recognizable as a fellow bibliophile and I would have found it difficult after reading them to have actively disliked her:

Laura read a lot.  She lived alone in a tiny bedsit and her television was so small and snowy she didn’t watch it much.  But she read all the time: at bedtime, while she ate, while she coojed, while she dressed and while she brushed her teeth.  She would have read in the shower if she could have worked out a method that wouldn’t completely ruin the book.  In the same way she could read anywhere, she could read anything and if it were good, enjoy it.      

But the best thing(s) by far about Love Letters are the conversations that happen at the literary festival, specifically the ones between the snobbish literary fiction authors and the cheerful, significantly wealthier, women’s fiction authors.  They are cozy and friendly and don’t particularly care that their work isn’t great art, just that it is being read and that they’re getting the very welcome cheques from the publishers.  I adored their attitude.

A Perfect Proposal replaces career fantasies with real estate fantasies, which I am usually all for, but, despite becoming rather fond of the protagonist Sophie, this book did not work for me.  There was a lot going on.  Sophie’s academic family ships their embarrassingly domestic daughter off to care for a great-uncle for a few weeks, in hopes of extracting some money from him.  After that episode, Sophie jets off to work as an au pair in New York but, after that falls through, ends up meeting and befriending a wildly wealthy woman at an art gallery opening.  The old woman has a grandson, of course, who is both suspicious of Sophie and, at the same time, eager for her to pose as his fiancé to throw off fortune hunters.  And that’s just the first third of the book.  A lot, a lot, a lot of stuff happens, occasionally for no reason, and it makes for a bit of a strange reading experience.  Enjoyable, but strange. 

Flora’s Lot was madly fun.  Who knew I would find auction houses so engaging?  It has definite shades of Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, my favourite Heyer, which perhaps explains part of its appeal.  Flora Stanza, having inherited half of the family antiques business, has moved down to the country, determined to learn all she can from her cousin Charles and become a true partner in the company.  Charles and his fiancée Annabelle are less than pleased by her arrival and by her determination not to sell them her half of the company.  There’s a cottage, a pregnant cat, a hippy drifter, a village choir…oh so many details that made this a really fun read.  And the romantic climax, which happens with dizzying speed, is probably my favourite in all of Fforde’s works.

Highland Fling, which predictably takes place in Scotland, is instantly forgettable, as is Stately Pursuits (though I did rather enjoy it, since I’m a sucker for any story involving renovations and villagers banding together).  Wedding Season, rather than focusing on a single heroine, follows the stories of three women: a wedding planner, a hair stylist, and a dressmaker.  I liked the three-pronged approach but was never particularly won over by any of the heroines and there is a particularly vile epilogue.

I can count on one finger the number of books I have read about cleaners.  That would be The Rose Revived.  Like Wedding Season, it follows three women rather than a single protagonist, who meet when they answer an ad for cleaning ladies and, after being cheated by their slimeball employer, start up their own cleaning service.  None of them are particularly passionate about cleaning, thank goodness (I think I might have difficulties warming to anyone who get excited about scouring or bleaching).  Harriet longs to be an artist, Sally is an actress constantly in search of work and May…well, she’s not quite sure.  May’s evolution over the course of the novel is by far the most satisfying, as she emerges as a competent organizer and coordinator, and her love-interest, the lawyer Hugh, is definitely my type of hero.   

Life Skills was where my enthusiasm for Fforde started to wan and, frankly, I think we should all be a little impressed that it took this long.  Clearly, I have a high tolerance for repetition (as well as no sense whatsoever when it comes to balancing my reading).  I don’t know whether it was my failing interest in light fiction or the novel itself but I found the heroine, Julia, to be particularly unsympathetic.  Abandoning her job and her lackluster fiancé, Julia goes to work as the cook on a pair of hotel boats.  I really, really hate characters who run away from their problems rather than face them, which is what Julia does so enthusiastically here.  Fforde loves to write about narrowboats (May in The Rose Revived lived on one and they also feature prominently in Going Dutch, which I read several years ago) and I do love reading about locks and life on the canals but even that does not make up for a frustrating heroine. 

Finally, we come to Artistic License where I was delighted to discover a likeable, relatable heroine.  I had almost despaired of even encountering one again but Thea Orville makes sense right from the first page to the last.  Her love interest Ben, on the other hand, is probably supposed to be mysterious but actually just comes across as a bit of a jerk.  But he does like puppies and his son is very sweet, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. 

As a novel about a woman getting her life back on track, I think Artistic License absolutely succeeds.  After leaving a career as a photo journalist, Thea has been running a boarding house for university students and working the odd shift at a pub to bring in some cash, all without any particular enthusiasm.  But when she meets artist Rory on vacation in France and subsequently visits him at his home in Ireland and sees his work, her passion for art is reawakened and she sets to opening up her own gallery.  Rory is entirely delightful as the charming, feckless artist – entirely unthreatening but wholly entertaining.  If only Ben had proved as engaging.

That’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about Katie Fforde’s books, isn’t it?  I did have fun reading them (some more than others) and I think it is awfully unfair that entertaining, escapist books like this don’t get reviewed as consistently as more serious but infinitely less enjoyable novels.  Escapist books – comfort reads – are an important part of my reading diet and while Fforde may rank behind my absolute favourite comfort authors (Georgette Heyer and Eva Ibbotson are certainly at the top of the list) she is dependable, which is a particularly admirable trait.

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Library Lust

credit: unknown

I am a bit in awe of this room and of the visual impact made by that glorious wall of books.  Almost nothing else here appeals to me but I am always impressed by books when presented in such volume.  My IKEA shelves don’t really measure up.

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Friday Potpourri

The Seine at Paris (1904) by Henri Lebasque

Reading Retreats: Paradise for Book Lovers - I’ve always dreamed of taking a vacation centred around reading (my travel companions are less enthused about the idea) and Laura Miller’s article describes retreats that offer exactly that.  Though I can’t say Bulgaria has much appeal.  I’m thinking more along the lines of Moravia or the Lake District. 

Heads Will Roll: Three Bastille Day Reads - a delightful list of books focused on the Revolution, all new to me.  Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama sounds particularly alluring. 

The Charm of Battered Books - Broken-backed and dog-eared, the more decrepit these volumes are the more I love them.

Is it curtains for Jilly and Joanna and the middle-class novel? - “Middle class’’ has become a sneering term.  And yet what is fiction built on if not the middle classes?

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Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener by Dominique Browning, the story of House & Garden’s then editor-in-chief’s attempts to restore and personalize her suburban New York garden, is just the kind of gardening book I like best.  Frank and personal, it is more a portrait of a gardener and her struggles than of the garden itself.  I adore this approach.  I can’t think of anything I’d rather read about than gardeners struggling against nature, against inconsiderate neighbours, against reason and dwindling bank accounts in pursuit of their own oasis.  Paths of Desire certainly delivers all these things in an unexpectedly delightful and humourous manner.  Browning is consistently charming, amusing and sympathetic as she describes her attempts to transform her garden into a place that is truly her own. 

I am not comfortable in the suburbs.  Rural is fine, urban is better but the hazy middle ground is unsettling for me.  I have certainly acted the role of Browning’s city-dwelling friends in conversations with my suburbanite colleagues, which is perhaps why this passage amused me so much:

It is imperative that your city-dwelling friends look down their noses at your suburbanite ways and middle-class, escapist values.  Gardens, indeed.  Though I commute to an office in midtown Manhattan every day, urbanites always ask me, with smug concern, whether I ever ‘get into the city’, so that we might manage a dinner together.  Suburbanites think, with their smug superiority, that city folks have lost touch with the good life, and are selfishly sacrificing their children’s need to swing on swing sets for their own need to wear black all the time. (p. 13)

But Browning’s suburb sounds rather, dare I say it, habitable.  Leafy and green with adequate transit connections into the city, I can understand the appeal.  And, after years of living in apartments and city houses with minute gardens, I can certainly understand the temptation posed by large suburban gardens – all that space to be handled however the homeowner desires!  There is a delightful map at the front of the book showing the layout of Browning’s property and my poor urbanite senses were overwhelmed with jealousy at all the land on offer.  The prospect of so much green-space with so much potential makes me practically giddy:

The suburban garden begins with nothing.  Its contours are shaped by people – not just the gardener, but those who wander through, just visiting or lending a hand.  The suburban gardener is all about ushering nature back into the very plot of land from which it has been recently banished, then controlling and ordering it.  The stories a suburban garden will tell you are about birds and skunks, driveways and neighbors, fountains and furniture, dreams disappointed, then resurrected.  And at its best, the suburban garden will become a place for enchantment, casting its gentle spell on all who pass through. (p. 4)

The restoration Browning undertakes is no small matter, each alteration or update leading to another larger, costlier one (as is always the case).  There are definite shades of Mr. Blandings about as Browning interacts with her “Helpful Men”.  My household is pathetically dependent on such creatures, so I was in complete sympathy with Browning as she described her devotion to them (as well as her frustrations):

The trick, by the way, to happy suburban life as a single woman – or a woman married to a hapless man – is to find the Helpful Man.  Sometimes I have pangs of mortification at my dependence on them, but mostly I feel a defiant slavishness to their whims and fancies, especially when it comes to setting timetables and prices. (p. 37)

I could see that, as a Helpful Man, Gary was going to be a handful; this happens, sometimes.  They take charge.  These are postfeminist men.  As far as they are concerned, the only useful thing that came out of that quaint woman’s rights era was a woman’s right to pay a Helpful Man’s bills.  I felt as if I had entered my own personal prefeminist era: I was entirely dependent on these men.  Still, the wonderful side of Helpful Men is that, once you are in their ken, they will come to your rescue at any time. Gary is the only man I know who will come right over on a rainy Labor Day morning because the sump pump is not working properly and the basement is beginning to flood.  That’s the code.  They are on this earth to be helpful.  And they care about doing things right.  (p. 158)

I am starting to believe that a good gardener must have an excellent sense of humour in order to weather the whims of the gods as well as their own personal blunders.  Happily, this also seems to make them entertaining authors.  Whether discussing her children, her tumultuous relationship with the True Love, or her battles with local wildlife, Browning is always engaging and entertaining.  I came away inspired by her determination to create the space she dreamed of, despite the many hurdles and missteps along the way.  No matter how large or small our own gardens, there is always something that can be done to make them ours.

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My memories of reading prior to Grade Three are very hazy.  In Grade One, there was a very serious non-fiction treatise on the daily lives of bunnies that introduced me to the wonderful world of independent reading but my recollection trails off after that.  Until Grade Three when I picked up Anne of Green Gables for the first time.  In retrospect, it was a major life event for me.  I had loved reading before that but more for the sense of accomplishment I felt, for the pleasure of being good and quick at something, not out of any particular fascination with my reading material.  After all, when you are seven or eight what is going on in your imagination is often far more interesting that what any adult could think to put down on paper.  But then I had my first encounter with Anne and I fell completely, utterly, and eternally in love with her.  I delighted in her escapades and saved my allowance money for weeks to buy all the other books in the series, reading them over and over again until they fell to pieces.  Anne led, of course, to Emily, and once I’d exhausted all of her works, L.M. Montgomery led to Laura Ingalls Wilder, to Louisa May Alcott, to Roger Lancelyn Green…to everyone I have read since that day, really.  I became not just someone who could read, I became a Reader.   

I read and reread everything I can by and about Montgomery but, until now, I had never touched a volume attempting to analysis the works and their cultural significance but I am so glad I did and that I started with the delightfully wide-ranging Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture edited by Irene Gammel, described in the introduction as” …the first critical book examining the national international popular industry that has emerged in Montgomery’s name.” 

The book is divided into three sections: Mapping Avonlea: Cultural Value and Iconography; Viewing Avonlea: Television, Drama, and Musical; and Touring Avonlea: Landscape, Tourism, and Spin-Off Products.  The tourist mecca that is Cavendish, PEI and the Japanese obsession with the red-haired Anne have very little to do with how I experience the books and, honestly, Anne’s role in Canadian tourism is far too well-documented, even in school books, to be of much interest to me and, for that reason, Touring Avonlea was probably my least favourite section.  It was still interesting, absolutely, particularly the “Day in the Life” provided by a young woman who is ‘Anne’ at a Japanese theme park, but I was far more intrigued by the other sections.

Mapping Avonlea is wonderful.  This is where the literary criticism of the Anne and Emily books (the only works touched on) happens and where Montgomery’s own life and her records of it (her journals, her photography) are discussed. Montgomery’s journals are wonderful and, as is only right given Montgomery’s significance in my reading life, reading them was my first real encounter with primary sources and I can’t think of a more engaging way to be introduced to the research process than uncovering information about a person you’re already so passionate about.  I have lost count of the number of times I have reread the journals since then.  I love Montgomery and appreciated her books even more after gaining insight into her life and her struggles, so Margaret Steffler’s essay on the value of the journals in giving adult readers an even greater connection to Montgomery and her works was particularly resonant:

As our reading of Anne and Emily helped us to construct our girlhood identity, so our reading of L.M. Montgomery in the journals has played a role in confirming our places as women; and few of us have been disappointed in the role she had played.  The reading of the novels and the journals, when viewed as a continuous process, connects girlhood and womanhood in a remarkable manner, accounting to a certain extent for the popularity and attraction of the journals and of the persona of L.M. Montgomery as a woman as well as a writer.  It is a connection that we welcome and crave, as our reading of Maud, developing out of our earlier reading of her characters, continues to be an active process that often recognizes and validates our needs, choices, and decisions as Canadian women at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (‘This has been a day in hell’: Montgomery, Popular Literature, Life Writing by Margaret Steffler, p. 72 – 73)

And I’ll certainly never be able to read the already unsettling Emily books again without thinking of Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L.M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes”.  It definitely made me think more about the books than I had done in years, though I was both delighted and vaguely alarmed by how many of the small details I still remembered.  I loved the Emily books but they scared me as a child and even as an adult I’ve never been comfortable with their gothic overtones and intensity, which is why I rarely reread them.  Emily, with all her darkness and brilliance, her passion and otherworldly ‘spells’, was too extreme for me, at any age.  Her devotion to her writing was too complete, too exhausting.  Dean Priest was the only alluring thing about the novels for me, until he is disappeared in favour of the insubstantial Teddy.  Dean was unsettling in a good way, an exciting and terrifyingly sexual figure in what unsuspecting adults might consider tepid children’s books.  But his desire and passion for Emily pale in comparison to her obsession with her writing. 

Viewing Avonlea is simply fun.  It is hard for me to take the miniseries and television shows based on Montgomery’s works all that seriously (and, honestly, if you’ve seen even an episode of “Emily of New Moon” you should be able to understand this) but I loved both “It’s all mine: The Modern Woman as Writer in Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables films” by Eleanor Hersey and “Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan, and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, which discuss Kevin Sullivan’s alterations to Montgomery’s plots in his television adaptations and the late twentieth-century feminist agenda imposed on the character of Anne, vastly exaggerating her interest and seriousness about writing.  There is also a wonderful discussion of Sullivan’s decision to use “The Lady of Shallot” in the first adaptation rather than “Lancelot and Elaine”, which is the Tennyson poem Montgomery’s references, and the implications of that change.  I am a firm believer in loyal adaptations and have never forgiven Sullivan for his many liberties so I was in full sympathy with K.L. Poe’s argument against the modernization of my most beloved literary heroine:

…what is the value of books written in the past if we perpetually modernize them?  First, if we insist on wiping away any contextual traces under the misconception that modern audiences won’t ‘get’ what is going on, we risk pushing the past farther and farther out of sight.  Second, if we continually privilege the present over the past, there is little way we can educate ‘unsuspecting’ younger generations, and girls in particular, about how far people (especially women) have come in the intervening years.  The homogenizing effect creates a world in which no one is able to understand that other live(d) and believe(d) differently than they do; it emphasizes not the internal elements that can bridge the gaps of ages but rather the superficial aspects that are ultimately meaningless without the contextual situation.  The extreme devotion of the Japanese to Montgomery’s Anne should be evidence enough that a work must not reproduce its readers’ world exactly to be loved and respected.  (“Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, p. 152)

The essays are written primarily by scholars yet most are highly readable and entertaining (yes, this betrays my expectation that academics are only capable of dull writing but I am always happy to be proven wrong).  Carole Gerson’s “Anne of Green Gables Goes to University: L.M. Montgomery and Academic Culture” may be the exception, though Gerson’s tracking of Montgomery’s popularity as a research subject over the twentieth century and her explosion in popularity as a ‘serious’ subject after the airing of the miniseries in the 1980s in quite intriguing.  Still, its tone is rather dry compared to the other essays.  As always, the most personal contributions were the most interesting ones.  Brenda R. Weber’s “Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” is a delight from start to finish, recalling how she bonded over the books with her grandmother during summer vacations and how, as an adult, she was able to reflect on how much of her personality was influenced by Anne Shirley.  She also captures what it is, at least for me, that made the Anne books so special, so different from the countless other children’s novels about young girls:

Yet the figure of Anne is unlike other orphans in literature…predominantly because the reader is encouraged to laugh at Anne even while admiring her.  This is an interesting writerly device on Montgomery’s part, for it pulls the reader not through common devices of sentimental fiction (for instance, tears, pious lessons, and innate goodness, though certainly the Anne books have those too), but through a shared field of humour.  The result is a re-imagination of what a childhood heroine might look like…She can be a girl both ardent and ridiculous, trying and talented.  (“Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” by Brenda R. Weber, p. 49)

I had a delightful time reading this.  Growing up, I tried endlessly, pathetically, to get my friends to read the Anne books with me.  I just wanted to share the reading experience with someone, to have someone at least understand what a kindred spirit was.  Anne of Green Gables is the most famous children’s book Canada has ever produced and yet I was surrounded by people who had never read it!  I suspect my paternal grandmother read the books as a child and, given our similar tastes in reading, probably loved them, but we lived too far apart to be familiar enough with one another for such conversations.  Instead, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family, a trio of women who had never read, had never even heard of the English-language classics I was raised on.  My maternal grandmother was a great reader but there was no common literary heritage between us – indeed, at one point she insisted that I abandon what she was certain were trashy light romances (the cover art on those editions did not help my argument that they were in fact classic Canadian novels) and move on to ‘real’ literature.  Given that, I suppose it is not surprising that to finally read an entire book devoted to Montgomery, full of the kind of discussions and analysis I love best, made me irrationally happy.  I loved reading this, both because it engaged me on an intellectual level and because, finally, I felt I had found other readers who connected withMontgomery on the same emotional level that I did.

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