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Archive for the ‘The Century Project’ Category

We sit opposite on another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hand, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common — now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.

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Rebecca has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Where to begin with my discussion of Rebecca. Let me begin by acknowledging that du Maurier tells a ripping good story. The book, written from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, tells the tale of her whirlwind courtship and marriage to bereaved widower Max de Winter. The second Mrs. de Winter returns to Manderley, where she is ill-equipped by birth, education or confidence to take over the running of the great home. Du Maurier builds suspense as the second Mrs. de Winter clashes with Rebecca’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who makes her feel inferior and generally lurks about in a way that is extremely creepy. This part of the book was excellent, and Mrs. Danver’s obsession with the beautiful Rebecca and her contempt for Rebecca’s replacement is well-drawn and successful.

Unfortunately, I had really high expectations of this book. And, also unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Let me warn now – this post is likely to get very spoilery in a paragraph or two. So, if you’ve never read Rebecca, if you don’t know what the big reveal is, and if you want to experience the suspense as du Maurier created it, then stop reading now.

I mean it. Stop reading. Now.

Okay, so I am now assuming that everyone left reading this post has already read the book, and knows about the big reveal: Max murdered Rebecca as she taunted him with her infidelity, and then he disposed of her body by scuttling her boat so that it will appear that she was lost at sea. Our narrator, a singularly weak and annoying character, learns this when she weepingly acknowledges that, in spite of her love for him, she recognizes that she can never measure up to Rebecca, and that he will never love her.

Astounded by this great confession, Max disabuses the narrator of her illusions. He hated Rebecca. Rebecca was an evil, two-timing monster.

But how can we present a murderer as a great romantic hero? The narrator, far from being repelled by the confession that her husband MURDERED HIS FIRST WIFE in a hail of bullets and blood, is overjoyed. Her only thought is: he never loved Rebecca. And this brings her great comfort.

In part, I think that Rebecca demonstrates how far we have come as a culture. Because I hope that it is fair to say that it would be unlikely for a writer to write a wife-murderer as a romantic hero in quite the same way that du Maurier did. What, precisely, was the great crime that was committed by Rebecca that rendered her worthy of slaughter in the boathouse? It appears to me that her great crime was that she acted just like a man of that time period. Rebecca is set well before the days of no fault divorce. During that era men of property often maintained mistresses and engaged in other extra-marital sexual liasons without repercussions, and which were accepted by society.

Rebecca, by Max’s account (and let’s leave aside the unreliability of his version given that he is, of course, a murderer) had affairs. She was promiscuous, slutty. She tramped around, and lived life on her own terms. She was a bloody rotten wife, and it would have been totally reasonable for him to have tossed her out on her ear, cut off without a shilling, for him to have moved to America with all of his money, divorced her and dragged her name through the mud. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he murdered her. And then his second wife reacts to the fact that she has married a murderer by rejoicing in the fact that he didn’t love his first wife after all.

Are you kidding me?

What makes the second Mrs. de Winter think that she won’t end up just like Rebecca if she displeases Max? After all, he’s already gotten away with murder.

Let me finish this post by saying that I didn’t hate Rebecca. It is well-written, and interesting, and a lot of fun to read. But I just can’t get behind a murderer as a romantic hero. Because, actually, Max de Winter belongs in prison for what he did. What really distinguishes Max de Winter from someone serving a sentence of 25 to life for murdering his wife? Nothing, in my mind.

So, Rebecca, you didn’t work for me. I’m just not up for a book that uses female infidelity as a justification for a domestic violence homicide. As a reason for divorce, sure. But being a woman and having an affair (or three or ten) shouldn’t be a capital crime. Not even in 1938. And certainly not in 2013.

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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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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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The House of MirthCompletely amazing.

Upon finishing the book, I wrote the above fragment. Now that a few days have passed, and I have had a chance to digest the book more fully, I want to elaborate on why I found this book to be completely amazing.

This was only my second Edith Wharton book – I have previously read The Age of Innocence, which I also highly recommend – but no others. Wharton treads much of the same ground from The Age of Innocence in this one. Both books are set in gilded age New York, and both are, in a sense, novels of manners. But, while there are similarities in time and place, the stories are entirely different.

Lily Bart is a remarkable character, and Wharton’s slow unfolding of her character is masterful. I spent the first quarter of the book being completely disgusted by her. Her frivolity, her shallowness, her materialism – I saw very little in her character that was redeemable. As the book progressed, though, I found myself beginning to admire her, first unwittingly, then unwillingly, and finally without reservation. She is a fool, certainly. She has been trained since childhood to be a pretty ornament on the arm of a man with money. In spite of that training, she finds herself unable to overcome an innate sense of integrity which precludes her from marrying for money, because she does, it seems, love Lawrence Selden. The price that she pays for that integrity is unparallelled.

I have thought a great deal about the society that Wharton portrays. A society in which a man like Sim Rosedale turns out to the be the most honorable man in the room – an honest social climber. Selden was so deeply disappointing – he thought of himself as throwing off the shackles of society, and yet when it came down to a point where it was really, really important that he stand against society, he completely failed.

There are two characters who were, actually, completely unredeemably monstrous: Bertha Dorset and Grace Stepney. The first is a deceitful hypocrite, the second a venal back-biter. In this relatively short novel – as compared to Dickens or James – Wharton lays bare a society in which appearance of morality is all that matters. In which women are not merely ornamental, but are raised in such a way that they are utterly incapable of so much as feeding themselves. In which the rules are bizarre, absurd, and the only people who have to follow them are the people without the power to ignore them.

I know that a lot of people hated the ending. I didn’t. But, I will say that it is unsatisfying indeed that that bitch Bertha Dorset never gets the comeuppance she so richly deserves.

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