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Archive for April, 2013

The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in 1849, and published The Secret Garden in 1911. The book itself relies heavily on Christian themes, and Burnett was an adherent of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science theology (not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement). These themes can be seen throughout the book, in which the physical frailty of Colin, one of the books three primary protaganists, can be seen to be entirely psychosomatic.

Looking at the book as metaphor through the eyes of an adult, I didn’t find it particularly successful. To me, trying to imbue the book with too much depth causes it to lose much of it’s charm – I would compare it to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is wildly successful as a child’s fantasy tale, but is much too heavy-handed as allegory when evaluated using adult standards. Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I liked The Secret Garden better before I knew WHY Burnett wrote it.

Where The Secret Garden really shines is if it is simply approached as a simple, pretty tale of childhood. There is much to love in the descriptions of the moor, and of the garden, and the inquisitive robin who makes friends with the girl. Burnett’s descriptions of Mary’s transformation from the unloved, unhappy, resentment-filled and spoiled child to a robust, laughing youngster is charming. The clash between Mary and Colin – two brats who’ve had their own way much too much – is hilariously foot-stamping. And Dickon is simply delightful as the boy who can talk to animals.

In addition, Burnett’s descriptions of the secret garden, and it’s impact on the children, are so winning:

There was every joy on earth in the secret garden that morning, and in the midst of them came a delight more delightful than all, because it was more wonderful. Swiftly something flew across the wall and darted through the trees to a close grown corner, a little flare of red-breasted bird with something hanging from its beak. Dickon stood quite still and put his hand on Mary almost as if they had suddenly found themselves laughing in a church.

Mary, describing the garden to Colin:

Perhaps they are coming up through the grass – perhaps there are clusters of purple crocuses and gold ones – even now. Perhaps the leaves are beginning to break out and uncurl – and perhaps – the gray is changing and a green gauze veil is creepin – and creeping over – everything. And the birds are coming to look at it – because it is – so safe and still.

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“It’s so beautiful!” she said, a little breathless with her speed. “You never saw anything so beautiful! It has come! I thought it had come that other morning, but it was only coming. It is here now! It has come, the Spring! Dickon says so!”

The Secret Garden is the perfect book to read in the spring, as it is full of descriptions of burgeoning life and youth. It’s enough to make me want to get outside and get some dirt under MY fingernails.

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Let me confess to my weakness for books with matching covers. Also, for English books set in the early twentieth century. The Bloomsbury Group titles fit both of these weaknesses to a “T”. Succumbing to this weakness means that I have a box of books winging its way to me from Amazon even as I type.

Brontes Went To Woolworths First published in 1931. “How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters’; so proclaims Deirdre at the beginning of The Brontës Went to Woolworths, one of three sisters.

London, 1931. As growing up looms large in the lives of the Carne sisters, Deirdre, Katrine and young Sheil still share an insatiable appetite for the fantastic. Eldest sister Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine a fledgling actress and young Sheil is still with her governess; together they live a life unchecked by their mother in their bohemian town house. Irrepressibly imaginative, the sisters cannot resist making up stories as they have done since childhood; from their talking nursery toys, Ironface the Doll and Dion Saffyn the pierrot, to their fulsomely-imagined friendship with real high-court Judge Toddington who, since Mrs Carne did jury duty, they affectionately called Toddy.

However, when Deirdre meets Toddy’s real-life wife at a charity bazaar, the sisters are forced to confront the subject of their imaginings. Will the sisters cast off the fantasies of childhood forever? Will Toddy and his wife, Lady Mildred, accept these charmingly eccentric girls? And when fancy and reality collide, who can tell whether Ironface can really talk, whether Judge Toddington truly wears lavender silk pyjamas or whether the Brontës did indeed go to Woolworths? [Description courtesy of Goodreads.]

11598639First published in 1985. Spirited Henrietta wishes she was the kind of doctor’s wife who knew exactly how to deal with the daily upheavals of war. But then, everyone in her close-knit Devonshire village seems to find different ways to cope: there’s the indomitable Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night to tell him precisely what she thinks of him; the terrifyingly efficient Mrs Savernack, who relishes the opportunity to sit on umpteen committees and boss everyone around; flighty, flirtatious Faith who is utterly preoccupied with the latest hats and flashing her shapely legs; and then there’s Charles, Henrietta’s hard-working husband who manages to sleep through a bomb landing in their neighbour’s garden.
With life turned upside down under the shadow of war, Henrietta chronicles the dramas, squabbles and loyal friendships that unfold in her affectionate letters to her ‘dear childhood friend’ Robert. Warm, witty and perfectly observed, “Henrietta’s War” brings to life a sparkling community of determined troupers who pull together to fight the good fight with patriotic fervour and good humour. [Description courtesy of Goodreads]

Mrs Hargreaves First published in 1940. When Norman Huntley and Henry Beddow, sheltering from the rain in a dismal Irish country church, placate the sexton by telling him that they knew of his beloved pastor (now departed), there is no reason to suppose that there is any harm in the invention. It is purely for their own amusement that they create a fictional mutual friend: an elderly lady, Miss Hargreaves…

The sexton does not doubt her existence. For him, Miss Hargreaves is as real as you or I. And she gradually assumes a fully-rounded character in the imaginings of the two young men as they while away their holiday in expanding the details of her life: her book of poetry, her parrot Dr Pepusch, her harp, and her hip-bath. It is merely a continuation of their little joke when they write to invite her to visit them back in their cathedral home-town of Cornford.

It is something of a surprise when Miss Hargreaves accepts their invitation. And their disbelief turns to confusion and horror as, one evening soon afterwards, her train pulls into Cornford Station . . .

As Dr Glen Cavaliero stresses in his introduction, Miss Hargreaves is a brilliantly funny and moving fantasy with an admirable lightness of touch and wonderful characterisation, but for all that it has a dark and frightening undercurrent. A burlesque parable of ‘the ways of God with man’, the book explores how the creator must live with the consequences of their creation, no matter how uncomfortable. And if they renounce their responsibilities, then there is always the possibility that their power may be turned against them. [Description courtesy of Goodreads.]

Mrs Tim First published in 1932. Tenth May, 1934. At this moment I look up and see the Man Who Lives Next Door standing on his doorstep watching my antics, and disapproving (I feel sure) of my flowered silk dressing gown. Probably his own wife wears one of red flannel, and most certainly has never been seen leaning out of the window in it – The Awful Carrying On of Those Army People – he is thinking.Vivacious, young Hester Christie tries to run her home like clockwork, as would befit the wife of British Army officer, Tim Christie. However hard Mrs Tim strives for seamless living amidst the other army wives, she is always moving flat-out to remember groceries, rule lively children, side-step village gossip and placate her husband with bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade. Left alone for months at a time whilst her husband is with his regiment, Mrs Tim resolves to keep a diary of events large and small in her family life. Once pen is set to paper no affairs of the head or heart are overlooked.When a move to a new regiment in Scotland uproots the Christie family, Mrs Tim is hurled into a whole new drama of dilemmas; from settling in with a new set whilst her husband is away, to disentangling a dear friend from an unsuitable match. Against the wild landscape of surging rivers, sheer rocks and rolling mists, who should stride into Mrs Tim’s life one day but the dashing Major Morley, hellbent on pursuit of our charming heroine. And Hester will soon find that life holds unexpected crossroad.

Oh, I cannot wait! They are going to be so pretty!

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Anne books

“I am well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit, thank you ma’am” said Anne gravely.

For those readers who have never met the charming Anne (with an “-e”) Shirley, let me assure that you are in for a treat. I did not find Anne until I was an adult, and cannot honestly remember what made me decide to pick up the first of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables series. Many readers begin with the first, but do not complete the series. I have read them all, from Green Gables to Ingleside, with stops at Avonlea, Windy Poplars and Rainbow Valley, in between. Thematically similar to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous Little House series, these books take us from Anne’s adoption by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert through her marriage and motherhood.

There are a total of eight Anne Shirley books. I re-read the first in March, and will be re-reading one a month through October. March was Anne of Green Gables month.

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The gift of L.M. Montgomery is in her characterizations. Anne is a headstrong, imaginative sprite of a girl with an indomitable spirit. The beginning of the book, with its descriptions of Anne’s orphanhood and disenfranchisement, is harrowing but never overwhelming. I get the sense that, because this book was written for children, Montgomery chose to pull her punches and failed to describe the loveless life of the orphaned girl as it truly would have been. Even with pulling those punches, though, it is clear that Anne has a resilience of spirit that is unique and remarkable.

Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are brother and sister who adopted Anne, and the moments where they come to love her are tenderly rendered. There are points in this book that unfailingly bring me to tears – the moment, near the beginning, when Marilla wants to return Anne to the orphanage because they had asked for a boy, when Marilla – acerbically – states to Matthew, in essence, “what good will she be to us” since she cannot help out on the farm, and Matthew returns,

We might be some good to her,” said Matthew suddenly and unexpectedly.

and then, nearer to the end, when Anne has gotten herself injured in a scrape, when Montgomery writes, about Marilla,

She would have admitted that she liked Anne – nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything else on earth.”

Anne is a bewitching child – she frightens herself with her own overly gothic romanticized imagination, she makes friends passionately, and makes enemies with just as much passion, she is gregarious. She possesses a talent for loving and for being loved. She is not without fault, being a bit vain, and she enjoys the spotlight. And she loves beauty for it’s own sake, being entranced by the sheer physical gorgeousness of Green Gables, and Prince Edward Island, and the natural world around her. Anne takes nothing for granted.

Covering years 11 through 16, Anne of Green Gables is the first of the Anne Shirley books that takes her through adolescence to young womanhood.

I don’t generally find star ratings helpful, but this book is beloved by me. I read it to my daughter when she was around 11 years old herself, and we laughed at Anne’s antics, and cried during the sad parts. I place it in the pantheon of children’s literature with Little House on the Prairie and Little Women. If you have ever been a girl, raised a girl, or loved a girl, there will be something in Anne that is familiar to you.

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I am in a reading rut right now. I haven’t been able to motivate myself to read from my classics list, and I’m not much enjoying what I have been reading (likely more on that down the road a bit). However, nothing makes me smile like Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, except possibly thinking about Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings at the same time.

Which got me started thinking about sidekicks. Sidekicks are invaluable in fiction, and especially in fantasy fiction. There is nothing like a great sidekick to really demonstrate the attributes of the hero – both faults and virtues. But a GREAT sidekick is more than just a foil to the hero, a GREAT sidekick is a fully realized character. A GREAT sidekick could carry his own book, even though he doesn’t.

Now, it is true that sidekicks don’t have to be male. We can have great female side kicks as well, although it is sometimes hard to distinguish between girl sidekick, love interest, and heroine, especially when the main character is male. And now that I have written the word sidekick somewhere around twenty times, I am realizing that sidekick is one of those words that sounds weirder every time I say it to myself.

So, in the sidekick smackdown between Ron Weasley and Samwise Gamgee, who wins?

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Ah, Samwise. Old school sidekick. Always loyal, willing to be subordinate, bursting with goodness. Samwise Gamgee is ALMOST too good to be true, as he is willing to, not just die for Mister Frodo but to, also, refer to him as Mister Frodo. Can anyone see Ron Weasley referring to Harry as Mister Harry? Yeah. But no.

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Which brings me to Ron Weasley, new school sidekick. Best friend, but willing to admit that sometimes he gets jealous of the hero. Why should Harry get all of the great press, great wandwork, and great girls? But, when push comes to shove, he always comes through. Even if it requires a little ball of light to get him back where he should have been all along.

So, in a head-to-head comparison who prevails?

In the category of “sidekick most willing to submit to really awful stuff” I call the match for: SAMWISE GAMGEE. Sure, Ron deals with three-headed dog drool, he barfs up slugs, and is nearly eaten by giant spiders. Samwise, though, in addition to giant spiders, orcs, and the Nazgul (who sometimes ride giant lizard dragon things), he has to deal with Gollum. For two whole freaking books, as Gollum worms his way into the affections of Mister Frodo. Never is Ron forced to see his BF Harry being all Mr. Friendly-Pants with Draco.

Next up: “who keeps his head in the game better?” Again, SAMWISE prevails in this category. Because no matter what, Sam Gamgee never leaves Frodo. And, he carries him up the side of Mount Doom when he can’t walk anymore. Ron, I love you man, but are you seriously making out with Hermione in the basement during the Battle for Hogwarts? Seriously?

But that brings me to girls. Because it is possible to tell a lot about a guy from the girl he chooses. So, in the category of “who shows the most actual manliness in their choice of a girlfriend,” sorry, Samwise, but RON WEASLEY totally has you there. Because Hermione Granger is an amazing character in her own right – brilliant, loyal, and brave. Not one to sit at home and wait to have the world saved for her (cough, Rosie, cough), Hermione is in there battling with the best of them. Because, in fact, she is the best of them. Only a real man can handle a wife who will outshine him in nearly every single category. Props to you, Ron. You rock.

Finally, in the category of “which of these characters could sustain his own book,” I’ve got to go with RON WEASLEY again. It would be a comedy, sure, but it would be funny. It would also involve Fred and George, which would make it even funnier.

Overall, it’s a tough call. But, since I love Harry Potter just a little bit more than I love LOTR, my thumb is on the scale for Ron. Samwise is noble. Ron is awesome.

As I close this very silly post, I will note something about both of these sidekicks. Each of them, arguably and at various times, could make claim to actually BEING the real hero. Because sometimes the hero is the guy (or girl) who is willing to stay in the shadows a little bit, and play a supporting role. Ron struggled with this more than Sam did, but in the end, they both did it. Because they loved Frodo and Harry like brothers. And that’s what real heroes do for the people they love.

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Riders of the Purple Sage

A sharp clip-crop of the iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.

So begins Zane Grey’s best known Western, Riders of the Purple Sage. Originally published in 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage has been called the most popular western novel of all time.

Let me confess that I can count on one finger the number of traditional Westerns that I have read – as the number is limited to this one. When I was putting together my list of 100 books of the 20th century, I wanted to include influential works from as many genres as I could come up with, which is how Riders of the Purple Sage ended up on my list. This is not a long book, nor is it a hard book to read.

A couple of things about this book surprised me. First, it is set in Utah, and involves conflict between the Mormon settlers – who essentially run the place – and the so-called Gentiles – or, non-Mormons. I went to college in Utah, and found the historical depiction to be fascinating. It also recalled Sherlock Holmes 1886 novel, A Study in Scarlet, which is set in the same area and involves many of the same tensions.

Because the conflict in this book is related to the mistreatment of Jane Withersteen, a Mormon woman who refuses to become a plural wife of one of the town elders, Tull, and, as a result, she is essentially persecuted. There are two side-by-side stories: that of Jane and Lassiter versus that of Bess and Venters, but the book is propelled forward by this situation where the wealthy and independent Jane refuses to submit; as all good Mormon women are required to do:

Jane smothered the glow and burn within her, ashamed of a passion for freedom that opposed her duty.

While Jane and Lassiter are contending with the attacks on Jane, Bess and Venters find themselves hiding out in a secret canyon in a story that seems to echo the Garden of Eden story from the Bible. This wasn’t the only rather heavy-handed Biblical reference in the book (and I am no Biblical scholar). There is a scene toward the end of the book that strongly alludes to the story of Lot and his flight from Sodom/Gomorrah.

After reading this book, I am reminded that my grandfather had an entire shelf of Louis L’Amour westerns on a shelf. If this book is any indication, the trad Western is the male equivalent of the trad Regency. This book was a romance as much as it was an adventure. It was a romance where strong men give their hearts, and sometimes even their lives, to vulnerable women. It was a romance told from the perspective of the man, but it was a romance none the less, relying upon adventure and horsemanship and violence to tell the romantic story.

The first half of the book felt like a slog, but the pace picks up dramatically at about the 50% mark, and the second half is a quick read. The dialogue is laughably bad, and if I hadn’t been committed to reading it, I might’ve given up in the first few pages. Mr. Grey occasionally gets a bit bogged down in his descriptive writing about the beauty of the landscape, horseback pursuits and gunplay, and the vagaries of the weather:

The gale swooped down with a hollow unearthly howl. It yelled and pealed and shrilled and shrieked. It was made up of a thousand piercing cries. It was a rising and a moving sound.

Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley – beautiful now as never before – mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in the quivering golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were tipped with glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds, as waves in a tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly and shone with gleams of fire.

But those descriptions are remarkably evocative and lovely.

I can’t say that it was my favorite kind of book – if I have to read a “Western” book, I’ll pick up a Wallace Stegner or a Willa Cather over a pulp Western any day of the week. But, overall, it was an interesting read.

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