Archive for January, 2011

A bit of a catch-up/catch-all post today just to tidy up some of the odds and ends that have accumulated over the last month, books that I enjoyed but haven’t really been able to gather the energy to review at length.  So, here we are:

Eating India by Chitrita Banerji
I never get tired of reading about India.  Histories, memoirs, novels, cookbooks…anything that educates me about this fascinating country I will try.  Here, Banerji, a Bengali-born food writer who now lives in the States, takes the reader on a culinary journey of India, introducing the specialties of each region as well as the customs and cultural influences that have shaped the gastronomic traditions of the areas.  None of the previous books I’ve read on this topic have ever gone into as much detail as Banerji did on the Portuguese influence, which was by far the most fascinating bit of the book for me.  Overall, I found it quite interesting but neither personal nor descriptive enough to be all that memorable.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
I can’t lie; this was a rather depressing read.  Very informative, absolutely, but super depressing.  Demick focuses on fifteen years in the lives of six North Koreans, all of whom eventually defected to South Korea.  This period saw the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the disappearance of the aid Soviet countries had been sending North Korea), the transition in leadership from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-Il, China’s shift towards capitalism, and, most importantly, the famine that plagued the country throughout the 1990s, killing an estimated two million people.  I never really connected with any of the people profiled.  What kept me reading was my interest in learning so much about such a secretive country and how quickly it went from being a Communist success story to a nation without electricity or running water: as Demick describes it “…North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.”  Well-worth reading.

Free for All by Don Borchert
Who doesn’t love reading about librarians?  This was certainly a light, fun read after the dismal prospect of life in North Korea!  As a devoted library user I’m always interested to hear more from the librarians’ perspective.  What they do in a normal day, what they think of the various users, etc.  From Borchert’s tale, I’m rather impressed by how frequently they have to interact with the police (though, given the number of times I’ve seen my own librarians call the cops, I don’t suppose I should be hugely surprised).  All in all, a pleasant read, amusing but not laugh out loud funny, an excellent afternoon’s distraction – just the sort of thing to check out from the library rather than purchase.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My first Connie Willis and such fun!  Despite a rather dizzying beginning that felt more Fforde-like than Jasper Fforde’s own works, this was a genuinely pleasurable read.  It did not quite live up to all the praise that had been heaped upon it but it was a fun day’s entertainment and escape.  While I love time travel novels they can get overly clever in their mysteries, as I think happened here.  Too many different issues all intersected far too quickly and the conclusion felt a bit rushed and muddled.  Comprehensible, yes, but not as enjoyable as the rest of the novel.  I did adore the many mentions of Golden Age mystery novels though, particularly the repeated allusions to my favourite Gaudy Night.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
My attempt to expand my knowledge of Australian literature began with this strange novel, the story of a father who promises his beautiful daughter Ellen to the first man to name all of the hundreds of species of eucalypts on his property.  It’s a strange, dream-like novel that ably displays the art of story telling though perhaps focuses too much on the art of telling at the expense of the story itself.  Everything in this modern-day fairy tale moves slowly, achingly so, only increasing the tension felt first by the reader and then, as she comes to understand the danger, Ellen herself.  It’s a very strange but absorbing novel with a rhythm and style completely its own.

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If there is one thing I have learned from Rachel and Carolyn’s Virago Reading Week it is that VMCs have many devoted fans.  However, after having thought about this for much of the week, I’m not certain I can consider myself one of them.  I appreciate that through them I can readily obtain some of Elizabeth von Arnim’s works and that I can always find a copy of The Diary of a Provincial Lady to give to a friend but I have to admit that even allowing for these virtues I have difficulty working up much enthusiasm over the VMCs that are so loved by many of my favourite book blogging friends.  Maybe if someone could start by explaining the appeal of the green spines?  I find them vile even as I accumulate more and more of them on my shelves.

According to their website, Virago Modern Classics is “dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works” and “to broaden the sometimes narrow definition of a ‘classic’, which has often led to the neglect of interesting books.”  An admirable aim, I’m sure we can all agree.  But you can hardly call Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot or Daphne du Maurier authors who Virago rediscovered.  How much more I could have respected Virago if they had only stuck to promoting little-known authors who works were out of print as they’ve done with great success, exposing new generations to the talents of otherwise neglected authors like Rebecca West, Winifred Holtby, Antonia White, Barbara Comyns…the list goes on.  When you find a title by one these authors in a second-hand store it is invariably a Virago edition.  And that’s marvelous.  So why mix up such a clear brand identity by throwing in popular authors whose works were never abandoned by the reading public in the first place? 

I suppose I just don’t see the point of reprinting books that are still not only in print but widely read, certainly not given their mission statement.  Clearly, they’ve now chosen to concentrate more on the celebrating female authors rather than bringing attention to only the forgotten ones and the more exhaustive their catalogue becomes, the more exploitative it feels.  Rather than a celebration of female authors it seems an insult: recognizing the authors’ accomplishments not by virtue of their complimentary literary talents and chosen themes but by their coincidence of gender.    

So ends the rant.  I’m excited to continue discovering many of the authors and titles Virago publishes, including a number of the ones I’ve mentioned above – The Return of the Solider and South Riding have both been high on my TBR list for some time and, having seen both mentioned this week, I’m now even more eager to finally read them.  Just don’t expect me to fall in love with the green covers!

Notes on the week:

  • I started the week off with Willa Cather’s excellent The Song of the Lark, which has kept me pondering artistic devotion and sacrifice long after I read the final words.
  • The second VMC of the week was The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim with the fantastically named heroine Ingeborg who, despite being a bit of a dolt, combines to be both entertaining and sympathetic.
  • And of course I had to revisit my favourite Elizabeth and Her German Garden, also by Elizabeth von Arnim, just to be able to openly declare my devotion to it and ensure that everyone who hasn’t read it yet is now tempted to do so.
  • I tried four different Elizabeth Taylor novels this week and they did not appeal at all.  She shall join fellow VMC author Rosamond Lehmann in being exiled from my shelves. 
  • I started Good Daughter by Mary Hocking, forced myself to read until page fifty in the hopes that it would improve and do something (anything!) to catch my attention.  No such luck.
  • I visited a used bookstore on Saturday to offload some old books and came away with two green VMCs: The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim and Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith.  Both were on my wish list so I’m pleased to have tracked them down!

Many thanks to Carolyn and Rachel for organizing this week!  It’s been wonderful to have so many new reviews to read each day and to hear so many fond stories of first or most memorable experiences with VMCs.  My TBR list has grown ridiculously and that can never be a bad thing!

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Library Lust

credit: Christchurch City Libraries (flickr)

Isn’t this a charming room?  It’s at the Ngaio Marsh House in Christchurch, NZ.  I must admit that I’ve never read any of Marsh’s mystery novels, being not particularly fond of the genre, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate these lovely bookcases.   And I adore the colour of the walls!  As I’ve mentioned before, I love blue rooms and this particular shade is one I know I’ll be tracking down when I once again have a home of my own to decorate.  How nicely it compliments the browns and reds of the book covers and sets off the small table!  And the white ceiling keeps everything bright and cheerful.  Lovely.

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I am always happy (out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture) but in quite different ways, and my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden, in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies.

Whenever I try to compose a list of my favourite books, an almost impossible task, Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim invariably claims one of the first spots so, of course, I had to read it again for Carolyn and Rachel’s Virago Reading Week.  I have lost count of how many times I’ve read it, always picking it up at least once during the year, usually in the depths of winter when, like Elizabeth, I’m dreaming of spring plantings and June roses.  Like Elizabeth, I may be ignorant about gardening (her blunders seem more delightful than mine) but I am certainly enthusiastic.

After five years of marriage, all spent in urban gloom, and the births of three daughters, the April, May, and June babies as she refers to them, Elizabeth finally visits her husband’s Prussian estate and falls in love with it, despite its rather dilapidated state.  With her indulgent husband’s approval, she stays on to oversee improvements to both the house and the gardens, falling more in love with the place every day.  Delighted by her new life, full of light meals – the kind no proper German husband could ever approve of – taken casually in the garden, Elizabeth happily relinquishes her city life and devotes herself to the enjoyment of her beautiful surroundings.  Her family is not altogether pleased to have been so easily abandoned and forgotten: 

The first part of that time of blessedness was the most perfect, for I had not a thought of anything but the peace and beauty all round me. Then he appeared suddenly who has a right to appear when and how he will and rebuked me for never having written, and when I told him that I had been literally too happy to think of writing, he seemed to take it as a reflection on himself that I could be happy alone. I took him round the garden along the new paths I had had made, and showed him the acacia and lilac glories, and he said that it was the purest selfishness to enjoy myself when neither he nor the offspring were with me, and that the lilacs wanted thoroughly pruning. I tried to appease him by offering him the whole of my salad and toast supper which stood ready at the foot of the little verandah steps when we came back, but nothing appeased that Man of Wrath, and he said he would go straight back to the neglected family.      

Though the lure of the rural idyll is certainly a common enough basis for novels and memoirs now, with city folk happily running away from their hectic lives and demanding careers to pursue the good life, Elizabeth’s acquaintances are aghast at her decision to live in the country, demanding that her husband remove her to town for the winter and not keep her captive any longer.  None of them believe that she could really be happy in such obscurity and such isolation, though she is blissfully so:

What a happy woman I am living in a garden, with books, babies, birds, and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them!  Yet my town acquaintances look upon it as imprisonment, and burying, and I don’t know what else besides, and would rend the air with their shrieks if condemned to such a life.  Sometimes I feel as if I were blest above all my fellows in being able to find my happiness so easily.  (p. 26)

Indeed, Elizabeth enjoys her solitary lifestyle so well than the intrusions of neighbours and visitors provoke some of the most memorable lines of the books, perhaps because I so identify with her on this issue:

The passion for being forever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible.  I can entertain myself quite well for weeks together, hardly aware, except for the pervading peace, that I have been alone at all.

But visitors, guest who stay and who can not be got rid of after a cup of tea or even a meal but who must be entertained for days at a time, are the bane of her existence, taking over her private places and giving advice where none is desired.  Being always a little resentful of those who disrupt my peace and who tear me away for the things I would much rather be doing, I can sympathize:

I have been much afflicted again lately by visitors – not stray callers to be got rid of after a due administration of tea and things you are sorry afterwards that you said, but people staying in the house and not to be got rid of at all.  All June was lost to me in this way, and it was from first to last a radiant month of heat and beauty; but a garden where you meet the people you saw at breakfast, and will see again at lunch and dinner, is not a place to be happy in.  Besides, they had a knack of finding out my favourite seats and lounging in them just when I longed to lounge myself; and they took books out of the library with them, and left them face downwards on the seats all night to get well drenched with dew, though they might have known that what is meat for roses is poison for books; and they gave me to understand that if they had had the arranging of the garden it would have been finished long ago – whereas I don’t believe a garden in every finished.

Reading this immediately after another of von Arnim’s novels (The Pastor’s Wife) I was struck by some of the similarities.  Here, our eccentric heroine seems to share Herr Dremmel’s passion for manure and von Arnim again displays her talent for humourous writing, though the tones of the novels are very different with Elizabeth and Her German Garden being infinitely warmer and less cynical:

The longer I live the great is my respect and affection for manure in all its forms, and already, though the year is so young, a considerable portion of its pin-money has been spent on artificial manure.  The Man of Wrath says he never met a young woman who spent her money that way before; I remarked that it must be nice to have an original wife; and he retorted that the word original hardly described me, and that the world eccentric was the one required.  Very well, I suppose I am eccentric, since even my husband says so; but if my eccentricities are of such a practical nature as to result later in the biggest cauliflowers and tenderest lettuce in Prussia, why then he ought to be the first to rise up and call me blessed.

Yes, as you can see, this ‘review’ was really just a chance to share some of my favourite passages from this delightfully quotable book.  Elizabeth is a charming, honest narrator who I love more and more on each rereading.  If you have not read it yet, please do, preferably before the planting season as it’s quite impossible not to be inspired by Elizabeth’s horticultural passions!

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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!

Marg has the Mr Linky this week.

Three holds came in this week, all titles that I’ve been eagerly waiting for:


The Thirties: An Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner
I started reading this immediately after picking it up and am currently halfway through and loving it.  The more I read of Juliet Gardiner’s works, the more impressed I am by her skill as both a researcher and a writer of popular histories.

Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary, 1939 -1945 edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming
Pictured is the cover of the most recent edition of this popular volume but what I actually have out from the library is the stylish 1981 hardcover.  Let’s just say that graphic designers have come a long way and leave it at that.  Having come across Nella in so many other books it’s exciting to think that I’ll finally be able to read her diaries at length in a coherent, well-ordered manner! 

Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman by Sheema Khan
This is one of those titles that has been on my TBR list since just after it was published but I have no idea where I first heard of it.  Presumably through Khan’s articles in the national press?  Regardless, I’ve been excited to read it and was thrilled when I moved home to see that the Vancouver library had a copy!

In these thoughtful essays, Sheema Khan – Candian hockey mom and Harvard PhD – gives us her pointed insights on being a modern and liberal, yet practicing, Muslim, especially in Canada. Tackling a host of issues, such as terrorism and fanaticism, human rights post 9/11, Ismalic law, women’s rights, sharia, and the meaning of hijab, she explains Islam to the greater public while calling for mutual understanding and tolerance.

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I was delighted by The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim, the second book I read as part of Rachel and Carolyn‘s Virago Reading Week.  In the hands of any other writer, anyone who lacks von Arnim’s light touch and gift for clever humour, this would have been a tiresome tragedy about a woman stifled by first her father and then her husband before finally being exploited by an egotistical artist.  Happily, this is not that book.

The novel revolves around Ingeborg, rather exotically and surprisingly named considering her father the Bishop’s general determination that she be unexceptional and unremarkable.  As the novel begins, Ingeborg is unexpectedly at liberty in London, where she’d gone to visit a dentist about a toothache.  With the tooth pulled shortly after arrival and with her parents not expecting her back for a fortnight, her life is, for the first time ever, her own:

Not only was she suddenly and incredibly relieved from acute pain but for the first time in her life of twenty-two years she was alone.  This by itself, without the business of the tooth, was enough to make a dutiful, willing, and hardworked daughter tingle. (p. 2)

So, like any respectably cloistered Bishop’s daughter, Ingeborg decides on a whim to join a tour group heading to Lucerne.  Adventure and novelty, two things she had never until now tasted, are hers for the asking!  Off she goes without telling a soul on a trip that will change her life, for it is on that trip that she meets Robert Dremmel, a Lutheran pastor from East Prussia, who is soon to become her husband.

This early part of the novel, dealing with Ingeborg’s rebellion and the beginnings of her relationship with Robert, is hilarious.  Robert’s forthright proposal on a Swiss mountain top is particularly amusing while, at the same time, having a great deal of sense, if not romance, about it:

‘…I do not ask you,’ he went on, ‘to love me, or whether you do love me.  It would be presumption on my part, and not, if you did, very modest on yours.  That is the difference between a man and a woman.  He loves before marriage, and she does not love till after.’

‘Oh?’ said Ingeborg, interested.  ‘And what does he -’ 

‘The woman,’ continued Herr Dremmel, ‘feels affection and esteem before marriage, and the man feels affection and esteem after.’

‘Oh,’ said Ingeborg, reflecting.  She began to tear up tufts of grass. ‘It seems – chilly’ she said. 

‘Chilly?’ he echoed.

He let his stick drop, and got up and came and sat down, or rather let himself down carefully on the grass beside her. 

‘Chilly?  Do you not know that a decent chill is a great preservative?  Hot things decay.  Frozen things do not live.  A just measure of chill preserves the life of the affections.  It is, by a very proper dispensation of Nature, provided before marriage by the woman, and afterwards by the man.  The balance is, in this way, nicely held, and peace and harmony, which flourish best at a low temperature, prevail.’ (p. 37-38)

And poor, indecisive Ingeborg is not at all certain that she wants to get married, not to this strange but fascinating Prussian with his hair like a beaver’s pelt and his overwhelming fascination with agriculture, particularly manure:

Oh the mischief people got into who came up to London to dentists!  She now saw what provincial dentists were for: they kept you in pain, and pain kept you out of mischief.  For the first time she understood what her spirit had till then refused to accept, the teaching so popular with the Bishop that pain was a necessary part of the scheme of things.  Of course.  You were safe so long as you were in pain.  In that condition the very nearest you could get to the most seductive temptation was to glance at it palely, with a sick distaste.  And you stayed at home, and were grateful for kindness.  It was only when you hadn’t anything the matter with you that you ran away from your family and went to Lucerne and took up with a strange man positively to the extent of letting him propose to marry you.  (p. 58)

But marry him she does, and happily, leaving behind her angry family, so affronted that she would dare to leave them and for a foreigner!  From then on, the novel tells the story of Ingeborg’s life in Kökensee, from her first months as a bride with no knowledge of German language or customs, through the traumatizing births (and, more often than not, deaths) of six children which lead Ingeborg to permanently deny her husband his conjugal rights, to the arrival of a suitor of sorts, an English painter who becomes obsessed with seducing Ingeborg though she remains happily oblivious to his intentions. 

Rather fabulously, von Arnim treats her heroine with no particular respect; Ingeborg is not particularly intelligent or thoughtful, is stupidly passive as life changing events take place, and matures almost not at all from age twenty-two to thirty.  Her husband Robert refers to her as a “little sheep”, a term of endearment that’s a rather apt description of the pliable, suggestible Ingeborge.  She is endearing with her child-like enthusiasm but it is impossible to respect her as an individual.  Robert remarks early on that his mother is a simple woman and I’m inclined to say the same of his wife who, with particular skill, runs away to Italy with her would-be seducer, entirely ignorant of his rather clear intentions.  And yet, despite these traits, Ingeborg remains a likeable heroine, if not necessarily a sympathetic one. 

The marriage between Ingeborg and Robert, while hardly perfect, is far from awful.  Indeed, it is quite affectionate until Ingeborg withdraws from the marriage bed, unable to bear the thought of any more pregnancies and births after having six children in a scant seven years.  Robert reacts surprisingly calmly, finding solace in his laboratory, which had always been first in his affections, and forcing himself to view Ingeborg as a companion, almost a sister, rather than a wife.  Left with a husband she has pushed away and two surviving children who are eerily composed and require none of the affectionate mothering that Ingeborg is finally willing to provide, our heroine has time enough and freedom enough to strike up a friendship with a visiting English painter, Edward Ingram (rumoured to be based on von Arnim’s one-time lover H.G. Wells).

The artistic and temperamental Ingram is the finest comedic creation in a book full of amusing characters.  His attempted seduction, his willful misunderstanding of his love’s intelligence and sense, is wonderful to behold.  Captivated by Ingeborg’s beauty, her simplicity and her enthusiasm for the natural world, Ingram displays what for him must be extraordinary patience as he attempts to woo and win her.  After all, how could she not prefer him and the promise of a trip to his studio in Venice to her plain little parson and her dull country life?  But when he does get her out of Kökensee and into Italy she is insultingly indifferent to him, intoxicated by the new and beautiful sights around her:

At Kökensee she had been entirely concentrated on him, eagerly listening only to him, drinking in only what he said, worshipping.  Here she seemed possessed by a rage for any sights and sounds merely because they were new.  There had been moments from the very start in Berlin when he almost felt of secondary interest, and they appeared to be becoming permanent.  It was disturbing.  It was incredible.  It was grotesque. (p. 428)

For many modern readers, this novel is a study in male oppression, with Ingeborg trading her domineering father and the isolation of the Bishop’s palace for her remote husband and a life of seclusion in East Prussia with a disappointing family.  And then there is the third option, an insecure life with her cosmopolitan, self-centered, would-be lover.  But, importantly, she has options.  And if there is an element of tragedy in this comedy, it is Ingeborg’s decision to stay in the life she has made for herself, bound by her unquestioning acceptance of her role as wife and mother rather than any external tyrant.

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After much anticipation, it is finally Virago Reading Week hosted by the delightful Rachel and the lovely Carolyn, two of my favourite bloggers even when they’re not giving me reason to discover new books and explore the offerings of a publisher who, until now, had rather intimidated me.  I’m not sure where this sense of intimidation came from – really, with a catalogue as large as Virago’s there’s something for everyone – but  until now all the Virago Modern Classics I’ve picked up have been incredibly depressing.  For me, this week is all about banishing those negative associations so I’ve started with a very approachable book and one that has been on my To Be Read list for – and this is a terrifying thought – a decade: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather.

The Song of the Lark details the life of Thea Kronborg from her beginnings in a large Scandinavian-American family in a small town on the Colorado prairie to her eventual glory twenty years later at the Metropolitan Opera House.  But it is less a tale of her career development as an opera diva than a coming of age story, detailing how Thea both discovers and then comes to train and understand her musical gift:

The growth of an artist is an intellectual and spiritual development which can scarcely be followed in a personal narrative.  This story attempts to deal only with the simple and concrete beginnings which color and accent an artist’s work, and to give some account of how a Moonstone girl found her way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor.  Any account of the loyalty of young hearts to some exalted ideal, and the passion with which they strive, will always, in some of us, rekindle generous emotions. (p. 397)

I’m struggling to find the words to describe this novel.  It is primarily a novel about desire and about devotion to one’s art.  A devotion that drives everything else and also excludes everything else.  It is a magnificent, noble emotion, the natural but all too rare result of desire.  For Thea, it is everything, an all-consuming passion that is hinted at in her childhood by an extraordinary, insightful music teacher but not fulfilled for another ten years until she comes to know herself:

‘Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires.  The world is little, people are little, human life is little.  There is only one big thing – desire.  And before it, when it is big, all is little.’ (p.68)

A less subtle writer than Cather could have made this a very narrow, very trite novel about the value of hard work in making dreams come true.  Cather, however, rises about such mundane considerations, describing the spiritual awakening of an artist discovering her calling.  Thea is neither forceful or dominant but rather quietly focused and determined.  She is intelligent and serious, remarkable enough to find a kindred spirit in the town’s stifled doctor, Dr. Archie, who has known, loved, and encouraged her since childhood and, as a young woman, to attract the energetic Fred Ottenburg who loves and guides her to both acknowledge and fully develop her talents.  But though these men – and others, primarily music teachers – help Thea along the way it is she who devotes herself to her art, she who makes the sacrifices necessary to become a great artist.  This is not a Pygmalion story, of men molding a perfect woman as they think she should be, but a tale of a woman who takes on almost god-like significance to the men who revere her and worship at her feet.  I was particularly interested by the secondary, almost servile role men play in Thea’s life, always adoring supporters who respect her art and encourage her without demanding or expecting anything in return.  Even Fred is more eager to give than to receive: his primary interest is in Thea the artist rather than Thea the lover.  As a aficionado of the opera perhaps he knew long before Thea what it meant to be a true artist, knew before her what kind of relationships she might be able to sustain when her whole being was devoted to aesthetic perfection:

Your work becomes your personal life.  You are not much good until it does.  It’s like being woven into a big web.  You can’t pull away, because all your little tendrils are woven into the picture.  It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life.  Not much else can happen to you. (p. 378)

Is it worth it?  Even for true musicians life Thea, are such sacrifices – so emotionally draining, so destructive to any hopes of a personal life – ever worthwhile?  The final section and then the epilogue attempted to answer this question with muddled results.  The epilogue seems to contradict everything we’ve learned in the three main volumes of the novel.  Things were tied up too neatly, an attempt to give Thea a conventional happy ending completely at odds with all that she stands for.  It was a “have your cake and eat it too” ending, guaranteed to make some readers smile while the others wonder what just happened. 

I suppose, as with any of Cather’s Prairie novels, it is necessary to discuss her passionate descriptions of the landscapes that so influence her characters.  Indeed, Thea’s pivotal maturation and self-discovery take place in a great and desolate desert, a location as grand and majestic as the score of any opera.  I know I’m missing something from Cather’s novels by not enjoying these descriptive passages but I can’t bring myself to care about physical surroundings when there are characters to be discussed.  I am particularly apathetic about prairies and deserts, which are of course where Cather’s novels are set, so her lyricism is wasted on me.  Cather’s fascination with and respect for the native tribes of the region and Mexican immigrants would also probably be of interest to a more socially conscious reader but I was reading primarily for the story of Thea the artist, not the historical significance of how minority groups were portrayed.  I’m sure those who are concerned by such things would be intrigued to see how Cather approached those groups and her characters from them.       

I loved both O, Pioneers! and My Ántonia, the two other novels that make up her “Prairie Trilogy”, but I think The Song of the Lark might be my favourite of the three.  Cather’s honest and passionate treatment of artistic devotion is both fascinating and humbling, a reminder of the author’s own life as this is generally described as her most autobiographical novel.

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Recent Acquisitions

We’re nearing the end of January and I’ve just realised that I never shared with you all what books I got for Christmas!  There were quite a few acquisitions over the holidays, both as gifts from friends and family and personal purchases – 15 in total!   Here they are:


The Christmas Loot

At Home with Madhur Jaffrey by Madhur Jaffrey
From my brother ,who clearly knows how to read a wish list.  He’s a bit of a foodie too so this was a very appropriate offering.

George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to War by Miranda Carter
My brother’s girlfriend knows my reading tastes so well she bought me two books I already had!  I exchanged them and used the credit towards this.  Still counts as Christmas, right?  Even though I just picked it up this week?

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
From my father, who listened well when I was explaining Persephone books and which ones I particularly longed for.

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple


The Voucher

When I left Calgary my work mates pitched in and gave me a $50 voucher to an online bookstore.  Since I’d been lusting after the Oxford World’s Classics for some time (and longing to replace my hideous editions of both Wives and Daughter and Vanity Fair) I splurged on these four:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

The Treats for Myself

A good haul of Eva Ibbotson novels bought second-hand off Amazon.  Rereading them this winter has reminded me how enjoyable they are – just the kind of books I like to have close at hand!

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

The Treats for Myself, cont.

Do you ever need a reason to expand your Persephone library?

House-Bound by Winifred Peck

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

Manja by Anna Gmeyner

Aren’t they all lovely?  I had a very nice reread of A Company of Swans right after it came, have flipped through and been delighted by the cookbook, and have gazed adoringly on all the Persephones.  As much as I’ve longed for Miss Buncle’s Book I think I’m most excited to read Manja though I shan’t rush anything.  Anticipation is a wonderful part of reading and I like to draw it out for as long as I can!

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Library Lust

This room is far too mid-century modern for my tastes, but there is something rather impressive about a wall of books overwhelming such a small space.  Arranging them by colour is very striking, though I can’t help but feel how impractical it must be when searching for a specific volume.  If you look at top shelf on the right hand side, what do you see?  Could it be a trio of our beloved Persephones?

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Like Eight Cousins, I had such fond memories of Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott.  I remember reading and rereading it and my poor battered copy bears proof of my enthusiasm.  Though I’d grown fond of Rose and her cousins in the first book, it wasn’t until Rose in Bloom that I really came to love them.  I adored Rose and Phebe, admired Archie, Uncle Alec and Mac, and cried for poor, wayward Charlie.  I remember all this fondly, mentally classing the novel with other unchallenging childhood favourites such as Anne of the Island and Pollyanna Grows Up (I was a romantic child – sequels with grown up heroines always held much more appeal).

What could I possibly have been thinking?

Even more than Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom is compulsively preachy.  I adore a good, morally upright novel but so much here is over the top, though I love it nonetheless.  For all my eye-rolling over the didactic passages, I still adore this novel and love it as much as I did as a child though in a very different way – certainly, I can no longer class it with the titles I mentioned above. 

Uncle Alec who had seemed so appealing in Eight Cousins now comes across as rather tyrannical though his intentions are good.  To want to shelter a girl of thirteen from the foolish fads of society women is one thing but to control the reading material of a twenty year old woman, to be disappointed in her when she wishes to attend balls and parties is too much.  In aiming to shelter Rose and keep her innocent and wholesome he is infantilizing her in the most infuriating manner.  Occasionally, Rose seems poised to rebel but inevitably she yields to his judgment.  And that’s where the real conflict for me as a reader comes in: I want Rose to rebel, just a little, even as I’m going the same way as she in agreeing with Uncle Alec’s views.  I suppose Rose has her minor rebellion in a three month whirl of gaiety – a period during which she does all the normal social things young, wealthy unmarried women did.  And her reaction, her distaste for such a frivolous lifestyle, perfectly echoes my opinions on the topic:

 ‘I don’t wish to get used to being whisked about a hot room by men who have taken too much wine, to turn day into night, wasting time that might be better spent, and grow into a fashionably fast girl who can’t get along without excitement.’

How can I be disappointed in a character for rejecting that which I too reject?  I think because she does it with such force, with such a clear idea of what is right and what is wrong.  Her view of acceptable behaviour seems very narrow and unyielding.  Rose has energy and spirit enough to help as many errant souls reform as will offer themselves up but she is not particularly strong on acceptance or tolerance for those who wish to remain as they are.

And yet I still love Rose.  Her actions may be directed by Uncle Alec but her emotional dramas are very much her own and it is through these that we finally see her weaknesses and flaws, her frailty, as she struggles to understand what it means to love, to be loved, and to be worthy of love.  As a reader, it was these disappointments and revelations that finally made Rose a sympathetic, human character.  Also, an unexplained mystery of my life has been solved: her reflections very clearly reveal the origins of my own views on love:

‘I don’t know how others feel, but, to me, love isn’t all.  I must look up, not down, trust and honor with my whole heart, and find strength and integrity to lean on.’

Unlike Rose, it is easier to respect characters such as her cousins Mac and Archie for their successes; although each struggles with what is right and good versus what is thrilling and enjoyable, they triumph over these temptations on their own while Rose always has the controlling hand of dear Uncle Alec guiding her.  In some ways, yes, this is a clear example of the freedom many parents gave and continue to give their sons while cosseting their daughters but I think it’s also a reflection of the parenting styles examined in the novel.  Aunt Jessie, Uncle Alec’s staunch ally in the experiment of raising Rose, seems to lack his heavy-handedness when it comes to the raising of her sons.  The same values and morals were instilled but Jessie seems to understand that her adult son must stand on his own and must know himself in order to face the world proudly.  Mac’s mother just appears to have yelled at him and his brother a lot, beating sense into them when it was necessary.  Not a soft maternal figure by any means but still a loving one, doing her best to raise two fine young men.  Alcott treats both with respect.  Aunt Clara, on the other hand, mother to Charlie, the black sheep of the family, does not get off so easily. 

Poor Charlie, ruined by late nights and drink.  Most of the blame is placed on silly Aunt Clara, which hardly seems fair.  The entire family watched her spoil and indulge him as a child and no one did anything to intervene in a meaningful way until it was too late.  By the time Rose in Bloom begins, Charlie is a grown man, surrounded by uncles and cousins enough to show him what a good man looks like.  But Charlie gets his just desserts, as judged by Alcott, though I have despised since my first reading how neatly and simply everything is tied up.  Charlie is allowed undeserved dignity and nobility, redemption that all previous allusions to his character would decry as implausible.  And that is all I have to say about that, without spoiling it.  But, regardless, I still always cry.

One of the central questions Rose in Bloom raised for me is: to what extent should we let ourselves be guided by the good advice of those who love us?  It’s a complicated question and one I certainly don’t have an answer to.  In the novel, you have both Rose and Charlie as foils, one following the exact wishes of her guardian, the other ignoring or unable to follow the advice of those who love him and all too easily follows in the footsteps of those who lead him astray.  And then you have Mac…

Mac develops into the most independent of the cousins, the one who listens to everything his parents and aunts and uncles say and then goes off into his books or into the wilderness seeking his own answers.  He is rather magnificent, actually, even if he did turn out to be a poet.  He is clearly a man, not a boy, and one of principles and patience.  Like Rose, he can at times seem almost too good to be true.  In Eight Cousins, Mac had been the most human of the children to me, the best written and most life-like.  Here, even more attention is devoted to him and while he’s certainly appealing I’m not confident that he’s as true to life.  It is, however, through Mac that Alcott begins to introduce the transcendentalist beliefs that so strongly influenced her own life, which was terribly fascinating (though paragraph after paragraph on the genius of both Thoreau and Emerson does grate).  When Mac finally falls in love, he does it not at a ball or a party but through correspondence on the essays of Emerson, letters that show him the “beautiful soul” of his beloved.  He is also a bit of a feminist, winning me over with this little speech to his brother and cousins:

‘It is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts or, at best, one not half as good as theirs.  If they weren’t blinded by love, they’d see what a mean advantage we take of them and not make such a hard bargain.’

It might not have been the book I remembered but I appreciate it far more now as an adult than I ever did as a child.  Yes, there are things I dislike about it but it’s still an excellent story written by a wonderful, intelligent author who made it engaging for audiences of all ages.

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