Review: The Chronicles of Avonlea – L. M. Montgomery

2017: 72
4 of 5 stars
Published 1912

Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables. She wrote many books about Anne Shirley but she also wrote about the Islanders and communities in and around Avonlea where Green Gables is. These are 12 stories about the men, women and children of various communities in the area around Avonlea and Carmody. Anne Shirley even gets name checked or makes a brief appearance now and then but the stories aren’t about her. They’re about an engaged couple that haven’t spoken in 15 years, or a proud old woman who sacrifices to do special things for the daughter of a lost love, or a young lad who has an extraordinary talent for the fiddle or two very different sisters trying to raise a young lad. We get heart warming stories, humourous stories, hopes and dreams all told in the superb prose of Montgomery, never cloyingly sweet or “folksy”, just prose glowing with wit and painting a perfect picture of rural Prince Edward Island and it’s inhabitants.

This book nearly completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. Just one for the Northwest Territories left, that will be “Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay.

Review – Persuasion by Jane Austen

2017: 67
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

I never read Jane Austen’s books when I was younger. What sparked my interest, along with a lot of others’, was after watching the British mini series Pride and Prejudice including *that* scene, you know the one, Colin Firth popping out of a pond after a swim, standing there, soaked to the skin in a white shirt. Yes. I also loved another BBC production, Persuasion that featured rugged Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Let’s not forget Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. If you’re spotting a trend here, you won’t be far wrong.

But whatever it was that lured me to pick up the original material, it was worth it. I quite enjoyed the Jane Austen books I read. With some classic books, I find the language a bit difficult to process in my modern brain. Dickens mystifies me. Jane Austen is much easier to read and her “old fashioned” turn of phrase comes across as elegant. I have decided to reread the ones I’ve already read and finish the set of all her novels. There aren’t that many, she only lived a short life. Can you imagine what she would have produced if she’d lived even just 10 or 20 years longer than her final age of 42? This year is the 200th anniversary of her death so there’s been a lot of publicity around. What better time to undertake this reading project?

So the first novel out of the gate is Persuasion which was published in 1818 after her death. It is the story of Anne Elliott and her family. Anne had fallen in love with a sailor, Frederick Wentworth, seven years before at the age of 19 and they were engaged to be married but her  father, older sister and, primarily, a family friend, Lady Russell,  interfered and persuaded Anne to break off the engagement. Wentworth was not from a family of good background and he was not rich. It just would not do. Anne never married though her younger sister did. The family’s finances have been sinking lower and lower since the death of Anne’s mother, now no longer there to prevent her Baronet father from living beyond his means. Lady Russell has been consulted and in turn has consulted Anne who has been running the home and they have devised a plan.

Kellynch Hall will be let out and they will rent cheaper rooms in Bath. The Napoleonic wars have recently ended and Kellynch Hall has been let by an Admiral Croft and his wife, Sophie. Lo and behold, Captain Frederick Wentworth is Sophie’s brother and he has returned from the war a rich man. These are the days when officers and sailors alike can still profit from war.  It’s clear that Anne still loves him and if he still has feelings for her, he does not act on them, still resentful of her allowing her family to persuade her to break off with him.

Anne’s family moves through society,  with long suffering Anne preferring a quieter life so she tends to stay in the background when she can, avoiding the apparent resentful and accusatory glares of Wentworth whenever possible. The heir to Kellynch Hall, William Elliott,  has also reappeared and may be looking for a wife. Anne’s sister Mary’s two sisters-in-law are also anxious to be married and one of them seems to have caught the eye of Wentworth.

Anne herself is generally taken for granted by her family, dismissed by them when they think of her at all and used by them when they need her to do something. She is not beautiful like her older sister nor married with children like her younger one though her younger sister, Mary,  does show more love to Anne even if Mary’s selfish side that depends on Anne’s generosity for child minding and help in the home.  Anne does not have the skills to shine in society and lives a quiet life though that may not be what her heart truly desires. She seems to have an adventurous soul but for women, that’s not an easy dream to follow in those days.

Will Anne and Wentworth finally reconcile their past and make a future together? What do you think?! It’s not really a spoiler to say this has a happy ending. All of Austen’s books pretty much do. The girl always gets the man she desires. (SPOILER)  Anne and Wentworth’s reconciliation comes after a romantic letter about the fidelity of the hearts of men wherein Frederick declares himself to Anne.

Jane Austen could write about Society with all it’s rules, banality and put-on airs and graces and nails it firmly through her own real-life observations. She has a sharp humour woven through the narrative and quite clearly a romantic heart.

Family tree for the characters of Persuasion, courtesy of Wikipedia. Click on the photo for a larger view

All About Austen

This year marks the 200th anniversary since writer Jane Austen died. Miss Austen was 41 and had never married. Jane Austen wrote 7 books, 3 of which were published after she died, which have become hugely popular classics. They are “Pride and Prejudice”, “Northanger Abbey”, “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Persuasion”, “Susan” and “Mansfield Park”. She also published three collections of “Juvenilia”, odds and ends written when she was younger including poems, satirical pieces, essays etc.

Royal Circus

Bath – The “Royal Circus”. Houses by architect John Wood, the Elder (and the Younger who finished the work his father began)

Jane Austen has become hugely popular, as I’ve said, to the point where there are university courses on her life and works and there are Austen scholars that spend their careers researching this woman. There isn’t a lot of detail known about her. She was a private person and there were not many women writers back then. Because she never married, she lived with family, stayed with friends when she could. She’s associated with the city of Bath which also features in several of her books. There is a Jane Austen museum/resource centre in the historic city and Bath attracts a lot of her fans. The Georgian streets haven’t changed a lot in 200 years aside from the shops sporting more electric signs and the hordes of tourists. The architecture is elegant and graceful and the streets wide enough for two carriages to pass by. You can still imagine what it was like in the days when Bath was *the* place to be seen by society.

Austen heroes

Everyone has their favourite of her novels, with most people pointing to Pride and Prejudice. I think that has to do, in part, with the British series starring Colin Firth as Darcy. Many a heart beat a little faster watching him dive into that pond and emerge soaking wet with his white shirt nearly transparent and clinging to his broad chest.

Excuse me. I’ll just go sit by the air conditioner for a minute.

Actually, my favourite Austen book is Persuasion and, I confess, that’s also influenced by a filmed version that the BBC did staring Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Oh yes. A very close runner up was the movie Sense and Sensibility starring Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant. Rickman’s Colonel Brandon will also set pulses racing! I also confess that I hadn’t read any Jane Austen until I had seen my first filmed version, P&P and then Persuasion, both of which persuaded (ahem) me to pick up the books. There have been a few filmed versions of these novels that I’ve enjoyed and a great number of movies and tv series that have been made from them. It says something about the perpetual popularity of Austen’s works that they continue to be made.

Other filmed versions I’ve enjoyed are Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and also Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless was based on Emma and it was quite fun as well. Mansfield Park starring James Purefoy and Frances O’Connor. P&P probably has the most filmed versions including a 1938 movie and a 1952 television series, 6 episodes, starting Peter Cushing as Mr. Darcy! Fans of Cushing’s horror movies will find that an odd casting choice but of course he was an actor long before he became popular for the macabre. However, there’s also Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Cushing would have fit right in there! It’s a bizarre mash up of P&P and the current zombie fad where the five Bennet sisters are badass zombie fighters.

There’s a really good podcast by the British newspaper, The Guardian, here which includes an interview with historian Lucy Worsley . The podcast talks more about the woman, Jane Austen, who she was and why she’s popular. Lucy Worsley has a  new book about Jane, “Jane Austen at Home” which  covers her home life via the various homes where she lived and how that was so important to her books’ characters. If you’re a fan of Jane Austen, you will enjoy this new book.

 

Lucy Worsley

Lucy Worsley’s pretty awesome, by the way. She’s the curator of the Royal Palaces in London and she writes books about various historical topics and they’re very approachable. She’s also filmed companion television series to go along with many of the books and they’re really good, too. She’s very charming and quirky and cheeky and very likeable. She makes history very interesting, bringing out it’s human side rather than just parading dusty dates and relics. On the Austen topic, there is also an article written by Lucy for the Guardian on Jane Austen and an interview with History Extra as well.

Various other writers have also submitted their opinions on which is their favourite Austen Novel, published in the Guardian here.

I haven’t read all of Austen’s books and I think probably I should. I’ve never been a FANatic fan but I *have* enjoyed the ones I’ve read and it’s likely time for a reread. The ebooks are free to download because they’re outside the copyright limits. Project Gutenberg (a great site to get free ebook versions of classic novels) will have them but you should also be able to get them via Amazon Kindle or other ebook retailers though some of them will still try to charge you for some electronic versions so be persistent. I may even lend an ear to an audiobook version via the library.

Are you a fan of Jane Austen? If so, what is your favourite of the books (or movies)?

Lucy Worsley on Twitter
Jane Austen Centre in Bath

Review: Rockbound by Frank Parker Day

2017: 37
4.5 of 5 stars
Published January 1928

This really is a David vs Goliath tale where a young man, David, comes to a small rocky island off the coast of Nova Scotia to work as a shareholder in the fishing industry with his uncle Uriah Jung who is “king” of the island though the rival family, the Krauses are continually the bane of his existence. David has inherited a legitimate share and is determined to make a living. He’s a hard worker and does not back down when challenged.

The life of a fisherman when this book was written, in the late 1920s, was tough, tougher and more arduous than you can imagine, without even any outboard motors on the boats at the beginning of the book though they crept in. It was man against the sea and the tremendous forces of nature and nature usually won if it had a mind to. There’s drama on the island, family relationships, as David slowly finds his feet and starts to make a home for himself.

David spends most of his time on the island of Rockbound at odds with Uriah Jung. His best friend is Gershom who ends up being a rival for the love of the new school teacher, Mary along with one of Uriah’s sons. The men of the island are rough and strong and hard workers. The women, too, work hard and seem to be stoic in their acceptance of their lot in life, a life for all which is very hard. The ocean is almost a character itself with many moods and tempers.

The book is written with the dialogue as spoken, a very strong accent similar to what we think of as from Newfoundland but I suppose the fishing community would spread out all around the Maritimes from a similar origin. I didn’t find it difficult to read because I can hear it spoken in my head but some may find it hard to decipher. I think the depiction of the life of an early-twentieth century fisherman is accurate and the main characters and dialogue are both true, real. And that David and Goliath story? We know how that came out though how Goliath is ultimately brought down in the end is a spoiler.

edited to add: I guess I didn’t really say if I liked the book or not though the 4.5 stars is a good indicator. I did, very much. I liked the characters, I read David’s struggles over the years with  hope that he’d come out on top. I found the descriptions of the lifestyle really interesting and have a new respect for fishermen especially for the ones that did the job for centuries with no technology at all. If the accented dialogue doesn’t put you off, I would really recommend it.

This book won Canada Reads in 2005. It would have been interesting to hear the competition and defenses.

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

2017: 28
3.5 of 5 stars
Published October 1953

Fahrenheit 451 was published in the early 1950s during the early days of the Cold War and the McCarthy era where potential Communists were targeted. Bradbury took a look at the present and foresaw a future where society was oppressed and locked down. Even in the 1950s there were book burning threats and censorship which hasn’t really gone away, with books being banned from schools and libraries even today.

At the time, he thought the rise of mass media was minimizing interest in reading and today, that’s even more relevant when people spend so much time watching movies and television, streaming video, and communicating in short sentences, brief video clips and photos of their everyday lives.

This is the story, set in the future (post-1960, remember, it was written in the early 1950s) of Guy Montag. He lives with his wife. He burns books for a living because books are now illegal. Firemen of the future will not prevent fires since houses and buildings are fireproofed, instead, they start them, seeking out places where people have hidden illegal books. Guy’s wife is detached and absorbed into the world of media, blasted out from flat screened walls in the living rooms of their house. He meets a young neighbour whose interests are old fashioned and who is shunned by her fellow students. Oddly enough, she disappears and Montag later finds out she was hit by a car and killed. I’m not sure if it’s hinted that there was a sinister reason behind this or not.

The turning point for him is the day where a woman refuses to leave her home when the firemen are trying to burn the house filled with books. She lights the fire herself and commits suicide. That affects Montag deeply. We discover he is not happy and  has been curious about books, wondering if there might be something in them that could make a difference to his life. He has been pilfering them from the fires and hiding them. We then find out from his boss how books came to be illegal: People began to lose interest with the onset of various types of new media, and little by little, the attention span of the general public shortened, books became abridged more and more until they were next to irrelevant. The government cashed in on the apathy towards books and began burning them, leading to new laws making them illegal altogether.

He connects with a former university professor who attempts to help him but when he impulsively reveals his books to his wife and her friends, they report him. He has to burn his own house but things get out of control and he ends up a fugitive. There are people living “off the grid” that help him. People who still believe in books. The final message of the book is surrounded in the legend of the phoenix, a creature that is destroyed in flames and is reborn over and over. Perhaps mankind can learn from their mistakes rather than self destructing repeatedly. The destruction at the end of the book might lead to a new rising and a lesson learned the next time around. We can only hope.

While censorship doesn’t seem to be prevalent these days, I feel sometimes it’s just under the surface. There are still governments in the world that are oppressive and some that seem like they could go either way if left to their own devices. People are so involved in the online world, social media and the like. Books are still popular but not as much as they were. Travel bans, rules, restrictions are all becoming more and more common. Newspapers are selling less as people turn to television and the internet for headlines. What Bradbury saw from the perspective of the 1950s doesn’t seem all that different to what could happen now. The fears he had are still relevant. We may not turn into a society that burns books or kills people for thought crimes (1984), but if we’re not careful, things might not be so very different in another generation or three.