Archive for the ‘Madeleine L’Engle’ Category

A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

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The Summer of the Great GrandmotherBack in late 2012, Lisa reviewed The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle.  Familiar with L’Engle’s children’s books, I had not known until then she had written any non-fiction, never mind four volumes of very personal “Crosswicks Journals”, focusing on her own life.  I almost immediately read and adored Two-Part Invention, the fourth Crosswicks book, but The Summer of the Great-Grandmother remained on my To-Be-Read list.  Until now.

Published in 1974 (14 years before Two-Part Invention), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is L’Engle’s record of the last summer of her mother’s life, spent at Crosswicks, L’Engle’s Connecticut home.  L’Engle’s mother is ninety and suffering from dementia.  Though a doctor friend assures L’Engle at the beginning of the summer that her mother is not likely to die soon (not, in the circumstances, a particularly comforting message), she only lasts a few months.  It is a rapid and far from graceful decline but, perhaps thankfully, one that she is not entirely present for.  L’Engle, spending a summer with four generations of family under one roof (not to mention the young friends brought in to help care for her mother), is caught between moments of delight – a family wedding, the joy of having her granddaughters with her for the summer – and the exhausting duty of watching the sharp, engaging mother she knows fade away.

This is not a distressing book.  Not in the way Two-Part Invention was, certainly.  In that book, L’Engle struggles to make sense of her husband’s cancer diagnosis and – within a few months – his death.  But the death of a parent, particularly one in her nineties, is the most natural thing on earth.  That doesn’t make it cheerful, exactly, but L’Engle spends most of the book thinking about her mother’s life and the family members who came before, remembering the stories she was told as a child that her mother, robbed of her memory, can no longer tell.  Memories are important, something that is shown all the more clearly by the loss of them.  This book is L’Engle’s way of ensuring that her mother is not forgotten, even if L’Engle herself should one day start to forget:

How many people have been born, lived rich, loving lives, laughed and wept, been part of creation, and are now forgotten, unremembered by anybody walking the earth today?

And yet it is not a biography – it cannot be.  L’Engle, whose memory of her mother is “the fullest memory of anybody living”, knows that even she only has a partial portrait of the woman who her mother is and was:

I am trying to take a new look at my mother’s life and world, and I find that I can do this only subjectively.  I can look objectively at Mother’s life only during the years before I was born, before my own remembering begins, when I did not know her; and even they my objectivity is slanted by selectivity, my own, hers, and that of friends and relatives who told me stories which for some reason Mother had omitted from her repertoire…

But there attempts at objectivity fall apart, and biology makes me subjective, and this is the other strand of the intertwined helix, my very subjective response to this woman who is, for me, always and irrevocably, first, Mother; and second, her own Madeleine.

How long does family memory last?  For how long will our descendents remember us?  Two generations, certainly.  But three, four?  By the fifth, what will your great-great-great-grandchildren know about you, other than that you must have existed?  Will they even know your name?  They almost certainly won’t know anything of the family you came from, all the family stories you heard growing up, the legend of uncle so-and-so, the scandal of great-aunt whatshername.  That small fraction of their lives that we know will be forgotten, just as the facts of our own lives will be forgotten.  It is natural – our memories are not that long and we, already bent under the weight of expectation loaded on us by living (or still remembered) relatives, certainly don’t need to feel that umpteen generations of ancestors are judging us as well.  But we would not be human if we did not, even while embracing logic, long to be remembered, to leave our lasting mark on the world.

That is what this book is: a record of L’Engle’s mother, a determined effort to ensure her life will be remembered, as well as the lives of her parents and grandparents.  And what lives they were.  Full of breathless brushes with danger, moments of tragedy, and far too many women named Madeleine, L’Engle’s family tree is full of fascinating characters.  In fact, the more distant ancestors – with their encounters with a pirate and a empress , not to mention flights from flaming cities – rather take over the book, edging out L’Engle’s mother much of the time.  And that is a pity because she sounds like a fascinating woman who, particularly in early years of her marriage, lived an excitingly cosmopolitan life.  It was an extraordinarily well-lived life and this book is a beautiful, loving testament to it.

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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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I cannot remember the last book that made me cry as much as Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle and I mean that as the highest form of praise.

Last month, Lisa posted a review of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle, a book I had never heard of before.   Like so many children, I grew up reading L’Engle’s children and young adult books but she was never one of my favourite authors.  I liked A Wrinkle in Time, was bizarrely attached to Many Waters, and still keep my copies of A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star on my bookshelf today but I never felt the urge as I did with other authors to find about more about L’Engle herself.  So, until I read Lisa’s review, I had no idea that she had written quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly about faith, but also a set of four memoirs called the Crosswicks Journals, named after her family’s home in Connecticut.

Two-Part Invention is the last of the four journals, published in 1988 but focused on the events of 1986, when L’Engle’s husband of forty years, the actor Hugh Franklin, was dying of bladder cancer.  Diagnosed in the spring and dead by the end of September, his illness was intense and very difficult to read about.  I always struggle to read about illness but this was especially tough, perhaps because the indignity of it felt so cruel, with one ailment piling on top of another and then another as his body weakened.  And, of course, it is made that much more painful since we are witness to L’Engle’s thoughts as she is forced to watch this happen to the man she adores.

The majority of the book is not about Franklin’s final illness but about his life with L’Engle: the subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Marriage”.  L’Engle takes us back to her childhood in New York City and, later, in Europe, where the family moved in hopes of finding a climate better suited to her father’s lungs, damaged during the First World War.  Later, there are her college years (now back in the States) and her early twenties in New York, where, after auditioning for Eva Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster and Joseph Schildkraut, she found herself hired as an understudy for a Broadway play.  I loved reading about her years in the theatre, mostly because it is a world entirely foreign to me.  She was never going to be a great actress – nor did she aspire to be – but she was an excellent observer and her stories about the other actors and their experiences on the road fascinated me.  And it was in the theatre that she met Hugh and they began their courtship.

That background takes up only the first hundred pages or so and I loved it.  Then, moving on to the next section, I was in for a bit of a shock as L’Engle’s started talking about religion and its role in her life.  Since it had barely been mentioned at all until then, I wasn’t quite prepared but then I never am when religion makes an appearance in any book or conversation.  It has never been part of my life, nor have I ever been close to anyone even vaguely religious.  I find it fascinating to read books by intelligent, thoughtful believers, which L’Engle certainly was, but it can make for very strange reading.  For example, I am always momentarily taken-aback when I come across people asking others for prayers or when someone says they have considered a problem “prayerfully” (as their doctor did regarding Franklin’s treatment).  It is a lovely and tender sentiment but it is utterly foreign to me and it took some time to get used to the casual frequency with which prayer is mentioned.

But get used to it I did and, truly, I think this is one of the best perspectives on faith that I have ever read.  Her faith played a major part in L’Engle’s life and it was interesting for me to see what comforted her and also how her experiences made her reflect on her relationship to God and with her religion.  She is not pushy or preachy about her beliefs; this is simply her faith and it is what sustains her.  I really don’t think she could have cared less about trying to convince any non-believers among her readers (which I, as an emphatic non-believer, appreciated).  When she ponders questions of faith (as she does frequently), she does so for her benefit and understanding, not ours.  It makes for a deeply personal book, especially since these reflections and so closely tied to her feelings about her husband’s illness and decline.

Really though, the focus is not on faith or death but on love, specifically the love that sustained L’Engle and Franklin through forty years of marriage.  I grew up surrounded by wonderful examples of healthy, supportive long-term relationships and so the lessons L’Engle notes are ones I grew up hearing, especially “a long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship.  It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjured with other ways of love.”  That evolution wasn’t always easy but L’Engle recognizes that the difficult years played just as much of a role in cementing their marriage as the happy ones:

Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static.  Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up.  There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs.  I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen.  The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys.  I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over.  Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without.

Throughout the book, L’Engle embraces all that life has to offer, both the joys and the pains.  I was struck by the warmth and love that filled her life, obviously in her marriage but also in the close bonds she maintained with her three children and grandchildren, and her many friends and godchildren.  She and Franklin seem to have had a gift for loving and accepting others and there was a real sense of tenderness in all their relationships, both the long term ones and even the short term ones with Franklin’s dedicated team of nurses and doctors.  I was left with a longing to belong to the Franklin/L’Engle circle of friends – it sounds like a wonderful group to be part of and their marriage, rock solid but always evolving, was at the heart of it.

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