Category Archives: Coming-of-Age Books

Books that examine growing pains. Although, truthfully, all ages have growing pains. And if they don’t then they should.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Fascinating, smouldering, dark gypsy, orphaned, Heathcliff who only has Cathy to love him. From the second he is brought to Wuthering Heights, the audience gives him their complete and total sympathy.

Well. At least I did.

Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights as the adopted stray of Mr. Earnshaw, and immediately he is singled out as unmanageable, resentful, foreign (which is a bad thing…in 19th century England), and, what the 21rst century might call, ‘in need of anti-psychotic drugs.’

Alas, Heathcliff does not have the access to the meds he might have had had he been born 160 years later, so he goes along, getting more and more unruly and wild. Of course, he is very badly treated by the son of the house, who sees him as a threat. (I always rage silently at Hindley for being a little jerk in general and feel secretly glad when Heathcliff gets revenge on him later.)

The story begins with the new tenant, Lockwood, who’s living at Thrushcross Grange – great names for houses in this here book – wandering over to Wuthering Heights for a friendly chat with his new landlord. What he finds is a very, very dysfunctional and unhappy family living there and nobody seems at all enthused over his visit. The ruling master of the house is Mr. Heathcliff; all scary anger and disdain and a tad crazy. He scares our new tenant, but, trapped by a snowstorm, poor Lockwood has to spend the night.

This part always creeps me out completely and I can’t read it if it’s nighttime. Shudder. I can barely write about it right now, cause it’s dark. So Mr. Lockwood falls asleep in this old, dusty room and in the middle of the night he hears tapping on the window. Thinking its a branch, he opens the window and finds his hand grasped by an icy cold hand. He hears a woman crying and pleading to let her in and, terrified, he drags the hand across some broken glass to get free of it. It lets go and right then Heathcliff rushes in and demands to know what Mr. Lockwood is doing in that room.

(Shudder, shudder. I can’t handle it. But that says something about a novel doesn’t it? I mean, if a passage like that can scare the bejeezus out of you 160 years after it was written…that’s some damn good writing. Ugh…ok…disembodied hands aside.)

Lockwood stumbles home and the housekeeper, who used to be the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, tells him the story of Cathy and Heathcliff, which turns out to be one of the greatest love stories you will ever read.

Heathcliff loves Cathy, and the two grow up together. Then Cathy becomes a teenager and starts feeling a little snobbish about Heathcliff being the adopted boy, and a little resistant to the fact that he’s so into her. Woman-like, she can’t decide if she wants to carry on as she is, wild and childish, or grow up and become a lady.

In this mood, she gets carried away by the neighbor boy’s attention. Edgar Linton is all well-mannered and refined and everything Cathy envies. Her home is disorderly and chaotic, while his is peaceful and respectable. She flirts with him, and when he proposes, she accepts.

But she still feels like it isn’t quite right – and the best scene in the whole book happens- where she talks about how her love for Linton is like “the foliage in the woods; time will change it” and her love for Heathcliff is like “the eternal rocks beneath; a source of little visible delight, but necessary.’

Heathcliff, who is eavesdropping, only hears her say she could never marry him; that to marry him would degrade her even though, “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is a different as moonbeam from lightning,or frost from fire.” (He doesn’t hear this last bit, even she says it right after the degrading part…like, without a pause for breath…and I always picture Heathcliff plugging his ears and running away…even though he just gets up and calmly leaves the room.)

He takes off for new horizons. Cathy is horrified that she drove him away, but she marries Linton anyway and moves to Thrushcross Grange. The years roll by and Heathcliff comes back. He’s now wealthy, educated, well-traveled, and bound and determined to get revenge on everyone who was ever nasty to him – including Cathy – even though he’s still mad about her.


He marries Linton’s sister, then basically ruins her life by being horrible to her. He tortures his old enemy, Hindley, who’s now a drunk and a gambler. He lurks round Cathy’s house and marriage and does his best to disrupt them both.

But for all this, you can’t help but admire him. I mean, it’s revenge in its most enraged and vicious form.

Then Cathy dies – of some unknown cause – which always bothered me slightly…I think she’s supposed to be dying of a broken heart because Heathcliff married her sister-in-law, but maybe it’s consumption.

When Heathcliff finds out she’s dead he gives the best speech ever written in any love story ever.

“And I pray one prayer – and I repeat it ’til my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you – haunt me then!  Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God, it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”

Then he bangs his head on a tree until he bleeds.

It’s wicked awesome.

So we have our tale. Heathcliff grows older and gets more bitter and nuts while Cathy lurks around as a ghost…just like he told her to do.

This novel is the perfect gothic horror novel; all dark and windy, lonely moors and passion and ghosts and drama all over the place. It’s startling when you think that it was written by 29 yr old Emily Bronte, who had had so little exposure to the outside world. She and her sisters were reclusive (putting it mildly) and essentially they only knew anything about the world through their reading. Emily died before her only novel was fully credited for the genius work it is.

“Stronger than a man,” wrote her sister Charlotte, “simpler than a child. Her nature stood alone.”

Sort of like Heathcliff.


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Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Literature

The Emily Series by L.M. Montgomery

Last summer- or maybe it was the summer before – I was reading the four huge volumes that make up the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

She is my favorite author and I don’t give a damn who knows it.

The reason is – although she was only a ‘childrens/young adult author’  her books managed to contain every single thing about being human that is worth anything. I don’t know how she gathered up the simple fact that the only really interesting things in the world are (in her words) births, deaths, scandal and marriages, but she did and was able to weave her stories in such a way that they remain relevant and true to us 90 years later.

Every copy I have of all 20 of her books are dog-eared and pen-marked and well-worn. I have whole passages memorized and I believe that the only man for me is actually a conglomeration of Barney Snaith in The Blue Castle and Jane’s father in Lantern Hill.

Yes, yes, Jane’s father, but oh, Barney Snaith. You guys have no idea. Or, if you do, then you must agree with me.

In the Emily series, L.M. wrote what I consider the best of all her works. They were certainly the most autobiographical of all her books.

Reading Montgomery’s journals was an odd experience. Finding the woman behind the characters I love was often surprising. In her journals, she is lively, funny,  fond of society and people, interested in daily happenings, even weirdly snobby and racist, and always prone to fits of sadness and isolation.

She was very young when her mother died.

Interestingly, in all of her books, there is no real mother figure. If the mother exists, she is a shadow with no real character. More often than not, Montgomery’s mother-figures are Aunts and Grandmothers and older sister’s.

The character of the father is always the ideal father; loving, wise, understanding and compassionate. Lucy loved her father very much, even though he actually abandoned her to the care of her strict grandparents and moved away from her to re-marry.

It seems odd that she loved him so much, when he outright rejected her, but perhaps this was just the textbook example of the woman who idealizes the father no matter what he does.

When she was older she went to college and taught school. She was always moving from place to place, teaching and meeting new people. She had several love affairs, but her curious, intellectual snobbery pushed her to marry for intellect and not love. This turned out to be a bad decision, as the man she chose for his brains ended up making her life miserable.

When Lucy’s grandmother became ill, she went home to take care of her. Because of Montgomery’s unwillingness to turn her ailing grandmother out of the only home her grandmother had ever known, poor Lucy ended up waiting thirteen years to marry her fiance, Ewan McDonald. It was during this time, isolated on a farm in Cavendish, when she wrote her first novel and was rocketed to instant literary fame.

When she finally did marry the Reverend Ewan he turned out to be mentally ill – given to fits of ‘religious melancholy’ and erratic behavior. For the rest her life, Lucy would be stuck caring for him. His mental state, combined with the rigidity of being a minister’s wife in several narrow-minded communities, must have been extremely frustrating for the lively, educated, and sensitive Lucy.

Anne of Green Gables and the rest of her books made her a national celebrity and known all over the world, but Lucy Maud would end by committing suicide in 1942. It was a rather startling and gloomy end to an author who was always pinpointed as a ‘romantic and happy-hearts-and-flowers’ writer.

This reality, when measured against Lucy’s stories, is just what I find so interesting about her writing. The stories are light and humorous and often romantic, but when you really delve into them, there exists a much darker side.

Of course, measuring her books by our standards today, they can be passed off as a by-product of the era; a very ‘Victorian’ style with morals about temperance and an overlay of prudishness, but underneath that, there are human passions; love, jealousy, hate, grief and loneliness. Here are the things that make people really live, and, always, Montgomery’s sly and sardonic humor to give it that light feel.

In Emily of New Moon you meet Emily Starr, who is ten years old and orphaned by the recent death of her beloved father. She has to go live with her two Aunts and her odd Cousin Jimmy at New Moon Farm. She has a flare for writing and the book is made up of a series of letters to her dead father as well as anecdotes. Emily goes from little girl to young girl, establishing her world of New Moon, her strong personality full of pride, her circle of friends and family, and her ambition to write.

This book sets up Emily’s personality. She is stubborn, smart, sensitive, and imaginative. We are introduced to Ilse, wild and neglected, who becomes Emily’s best friend. We meet Perry, the hired boy, who is full of ambition and will spend the next ten years openly asking Emily to marry him every so often. She always refuses. We meet the dreamy Teddy Kent, a natural artist, with whom Emily instantly feels kismet.

Teddy’s mother, Aileen Kent, is a most interesting character. She is a widow and Teddy is all she has, so she loves him to the point of unnatural obsession. His mother has been badly burned by dropping an oil lamp. Her face is scarred, so she never leaves the house. From the start she sees Emily as a threat, and Emily feels this, but does not understand it. Mrs. Kent is a character that develops as the series goes on, and she goes from creepy to sympathetic as the reader watches her through Emily’s eyes. Indeed, as Emily goes from child to woman, her empathy for certain tragic figures in her life grows and evolves.

Montgomery was something of a genius when writing characters with tragic histories. She understood very well how things can happen to us; things that mess us up forever. It was her gift. She really saw people. Not just their surface exhibition of what they wanted to show the world, but the layers that they hid behind. It is another reason I think she was so successful as a writer.

Emily is particularly sensitive and has something she calls the flash, which she gets from time to time when she is really happy. She has psychic experiences where she sees visions. In each book, there is an episode where Emily has a vision and changes the life of someone around her. She doesn’t like these episodes, and tries to forget them when they happen, but it is a trait that lends to Emily’s special sensitivity to the world around her.

I always wonder if L.M. Montgomery wasn’t a bit of a sensitive herself. She did write about an experience she had when her best friend passed away. She was sitting in her parlor – they had parlors back then – and she suddenly felt she was not alone. She said aloud to her cat: If (her best friend) is here, then make (the cat) come and kiss me. The cat immediately got up and walked over and licked her hand. According to L.M., this was unusual, as the animal was not usually affectionate.

The second book, Emily Climbs, is set in a nearby town where Emily goes off to high school. In school, she develops as a writer, gets her first poem published, learns to live with a detestable family member, and realizes she’s in love with Teddy Kent, her childhood friend.

Aunt Ruth is another character that develops into a sympathetic person. She is crotchety, suspicious of Emily’s every move and motive, and endlessly invades her niece’s personal space. Emily has a hard time learning to live with her, but an education is important, so she toughs it out.

Then there comes the scandal. Emily, Ilse, Teddy and Perry are trapped by a blizzard one night and forced to spend the night in an abandoned house. To their families, the incident is a minor one. The ‘children’ did what they needed to do to weather the storm and no one thinks much about it, but in the town where Emily goes to high school, the gossip begins cruelly and increases. Emily is ostracized by people and asked to resign from some local charities that she has volunteered for.

It’s here that I sort of love Aunt Ruth. She goes to battle, sweeping in and calling down all those stuck-up people who would talk smack about her niece. It’s a lovely moment in the book, and although Emily doesn’t feel she will ever ‘love’ her aunt, she comes to respect her.

Teddy and Emily. Never fully got it. Teddy is not a strong character in the book. For me, he just didn’t have enough of a personality. There are many, many references to him, but Lucy Maud never really draws a full picture of him the way she does with Dean or Perry or Ilse. His figure remains this ideal of all that Emily wants in a man, but you never really understand why he’s so great. Unless it’s that he’s an artist and sensitive to beauty just like Emily.

For me, just sharing some things in common isn’t enough. There has to be something else. A contrast, if you will, so that there is a mutual sharing of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the person should be strong where you are not, and vice versa.

I get the feeling that L.M. was trying to create a soulmate for Emily, in the sense that he’s so perfect for her we don’t even need to know why. It should be obvious. But it kind of isn’t. So no, I never liked Teddy as much as I should.

Teddy is madly in love with Emily too. He paints her face into all of his paintings of women. Despite this obvious sign that he loves her, everyone just goes about saying: Oh well, it must just be a quirk of his – left over from an old, unconscious, emotion. No big deal. I don’t know, but I’d be a tad suspicious if an artist painted everyone to look like me.

But Emily is too blind to see it, and too prideful to say anything until he says something first. The book ends with nothing said between them as Teddy goes off to Montreal and Emily gives up a chance to go to New York and work on a newspaper.

Emily stays home to write. This is a fine example of Montgomery. You might think that she arranges matter thus because Emily has to be the typical early twentieth century woman and stay home and wait for Teddy. In a way, you’d be right, but there is one very important thing about L.M.:  She has a thing about homes and about Prince Edward Island.

In her books, simple home life always wins out over glamorous big city lights.

It’s very romantic. I don’t totally agree with the idea that home is best, but I’m not Montgomery. She loved PEI. It was ‘her place’ and every one of her books is set there.She was always homesick for it; the beauty of it. It’s interesting how one can be homesick for places that one has spent very little time in. I am always a bit homesick for Paris, France, for instance, even though I have only spent a few weeks there altogether. But both times I have flown in and out of it, I have cried to leave it, and cried to touch down in it. It’s a place I will always feel is ‘home’ to me, no matter where I was born.

Montgomery always felt that about PEI, even though she actually did not live there her entire life. Certainly, as I grow older, I note the longing for ‘place’ that naturally occurs in us all. The lure of the horizon is all very well, but the world can be empty and cold, too. There is something to be said for roots.

Book three! Emily’s Quest is my favorite. In it, we have Emily, left alone on the farm while all her friends go off to Montreal and college. The book is starkly honest about her depression and despair when she is stuck home writing and getting rejected all over the place. We have her friend, Dean Priest, the older man who knew her father just hanging around and biding his time until he can catch her on the rebound.

Dean Priest. He’s a fascinating sketch. He has one shoulder higher than the other, and therefore life has not been very kind to him. Because he’s slightly handicapped, he has spent his life reading everything and traveling all over the world. He is clever, rich, tragic and about twenty years older than Emily. He meets her when she is ten. He saves her from falling over a cliff, and the two have become good friends. His brilliance appeals to Emily’s smarts, and she looks on him as something of a mentor. Its obvious through all the books that Dean is just hanging around waiting for her to grow up so he can marry her. Despite his initial creepiness, I always liked Dean more than Teddy. He is so much more interesting and tragic.

Meanwhile, Teddy is off in Montreal with Ilse, forgetting about Emily and meeting other women. He only comes back every so often, and every time, he is more and more full of himself. Emily feels the connection between them fading, but she is too prideful to try and stop it. So all she does is write and wait rather hopelessly for Teddy to grow up and figure it out.

In short, it has all the elements of a woman waiting with no end in sight – and most women have some inkling what that’s like.

Because it’s Montgomery, the series ends happily enough, but despite everything coming right in the end, there was always an element to the books that left me vaguely unhappy. I suppose, it is because the books touch too closely to real life to be really happy.

Dean’s fate, for instance, always bothered me. He was so miserable his entire life, and suffered cruelly. He doesn’t ever get what he wants.  Emily’s silent loss of hope is so intense and personal that you get the feeling that she will always be scarred by it, even after it turns out all right. By comparison, Teddy does not seem to have suffered much, he only gets his ego nicely deflated.

I suppose that it may be why I think the series is the best of Montgomery’s.  It is a very real, very touching portrait of a woman and her stupid choices, as well as her good ones. Emily is pursuing her dream. She is ambitious and clever and working steadily away at becoming a famous author, but she is also experiencing the isolation that ambition and being clever can bring. Like when one of the Popes (can’t remember which one) was given a hand-carved bed. He said: “It is beautiful, but I shall die in it.” If the Emily books were true-to-life, they probably wouldn’t turn out so well.

Montgomery knew what she wrote. She knew about pain and being alone and being left behind. She knew about how choices can ruin your life or save it.

Montgomery was a master at character. She wrote character so well, Mark Twain called her Anne (of Green Gables) ‘the sweetest creation of a child since the immortal Alice” and as one master to another, he would know.

Character is a difficult thing to write, much less master. I think it is one of the hardest things as a writer to really create life on the page. Montgomery is my favorite author because she has mastered character. Although I haven’t been writing much lately, I study her style to see what I can take from it. She draws a fine portrait of people; she lets their flaws show as well as their beauty. She writes real people and not puppets. She lets people be themselves on the page.

Because of my initial, absent-minded, sort of dreamy gaze, I generally look at people with, most people think I am never really paying attention. They are often right. If I am coming up from the depths of a book, for instance, it might take me a few moments to figure out where I am. Same as when I’m writing. I might look at you in a puzzled, irritable, way, as if I am none to sure who you are. Which I am not. At least not for a few seconds. All this a character writer does not make. But I cant help it. There seems to be a sort of invisible blanket between me and the world – a lot of the time. I don’t know what to do about it at this point. I pay attention when it matters, I guess. Like in class. And while driving. But when someone is explaining whats wrong with my brakes or what the job I’m interviewing for involves…yeah, I tend to drift off into other realms.

Lucy Maud knew how to pay attention to people. She knew what made them work, and if she didn’t, she explored it until she did. Through literature and art and social happenings of the day. She read the newspapers and traveled as much as she could. She examined her world, wherever she was, whether it was large or small. I think its the secret to writing people. Pay attention to human frailty and human strength. Figure it out. Then make it fit.


Filed under Autobiography, Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Girly Books

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Some very adult themes here – namely death – which is perhaps why this book didn’t appeal to me when I was ten. Not only is this a coming of age book, but it is a grappling-with-thy-mid-life-crisis book as well.

When do we face our own mortality? What happens when we do realize that life is going to stop for every single one of us someday? Not just know it, but know it in your soul. Death lies in wait. Hopefully when he comes it will be when you are ready to meet him and not before, but there is no assurance of that.

Tuck Everlasting makes a point of illustrating the Wheel of Life, the natural way of birth and living and dying.

Some of my earliest memories are death-related. A friend of my parent’s – his death by drowning and his funeral; the grief of his wife. My grandfather’s funeral with the open casket. “He just looks like he’s asleep,” my father assured me. Even then I knew that what I was about to see was supposed to be something we draw away from.

But death is natural, and living forever isn’t. This is heavy stuff for a children’s book. Natalie Babbitt has written a complex story that is deceptively simple. I love the richness of her description and her flawless portrayal of a child confronted for the first time by the mystery of life and death. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? You can’t have one without the other Tuck says, but that is just what the Tuck’s have: Life. Forever. No death. How exhausting would it be to live forever? How futile would everything seem with no limits, no end, no constraints? How meaningless everything must become.

The sadness of their fate pulls at my heart even though I know that this story could never actually happen. I suppose it is because I know that there are many, many different ways to avoid living your life – I have tried a few of them without any success, thank god.

Dying is at the end of everything, but the end is not anything I’m worried about. I made my peace with death years ago.

I suppose, when my time comes I feel something like Henry Ward Beecher when he famously said on his deathbed in 1887: “Now comes the mystery.” It’s true. No one knows what lies ahead of us, but we know where we are now.

This book contains that message. Live presently. Live in the now.

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Filed under Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Fantasy

It Just Hasn’t Happened Yet bogus ridiculous absurd explanations as to why you’re still single and how to deal with them…plus a few silly things we do to ourselves By Karin Anderson

I’m not kidding. That is the title.

To tell you the truth, I’m not a huge fan of the non-fiction, self-help, book about relationships. I have never read Men Are From Mars, or How to Snag A Man or whatever else people write about relationships.

Instead, I have always thought to myself: For centuries, people have muddled through all kinds of relationships either making them work – or not. That’s life. What can they tell you about relating to other humans that you don’t already know – or that you won’t figure out eventually?

Plus, it all seems like a lot of effort. I mean, knowing how to phrase things just right so you are expressing your needs, understanding that men are simpler creatures, caring, sharing, being open and all that stupid crap that becomes generic one-size-fits-all advice (which is stupid because no one person is exactly alike) and if there is any real stuff in there – everyone just figures it out on their own anyway – through experience.

Karin Anderson’s book is really different. She doesn’t give you one single solitary piece of advice about what to do on a date, or how to relate to the guy, or admonish you for being needy and super clingy. Instead, she glories in all the mistakes you make, in all the bad choices, the silly behavior, and the way we obsess about the mysterious ways of men.

Then she tells you to get the heck over it because there isn’t anything wrong with anything that you are doing, it just hasn’t happened yet.

After a lot of books about all the things that are wrong with us, Anderson’s book is a breath of fresh air. She tells us girls that essentially there is someone out there for everyone, and eventually, if you just keep living your life (going to work, hanging with friends, shopping at the grocery store, and so on and so forth) you’ll one day trip over him.

Or not.

But even if you stay single your entire life, what so bad about that anyway? I can hear the hum of protest in defense of marriage and the joy it brings rising from you, but in answer I’m going to throw my trips to Europe, my pending M.A. degree, my friends, my family, my pet, and my whole, rich, interesting, diverse life I have had up to now in your face and say: What are you saying? Are you saying my life is pathetic and meaningless unless I get married and have a kid? I’m a big, fat, losery failure otherwise? That’s your narrow-minded opinion. (Besides it just hasn’t happened yet, so chill out.)

And its exactly why you should read this book.

Karin Anderson goes over all the cliches that people lecture us single girls with and debunks every one of them.


You need to get Out There more! You’re never going to meet anyone if you don’t Go Out! You aren’t even Trying!

Try Internet Dating! Internet dating myth: Stephanie Fleffanie met her rich, charming, handsome, husband on eharmony/match/whatever! And now they have three kids and a beautiful house on Lake Washington!

Whatever happened to Bill Schmill? He was sooo nice! Why don’t you give him a call?

You aren’t getting any younger, you know!

She debunks these. Really. She does. It’s awesome.

She gives us the guy’s perspective – men have such a different experience, don’t they? It’s weird. She offers us our own defenses in favor of those above tired cliches – and her rebuttal. She addresses a special chapter to our panicking mothers (who have visions of us dying alone with only a cat for company) and she talks about the exhausting social pressure women get handed every single day from the time they are twelve until they are eighty to be in relationships, to get married, to have children, and, most importantly, to do all these things by a certain age.

She points out the ugly truth of the culture we live in; one that de-values women for success in work, in school, in society, in personal life, and chooses instead to focus only on our relationship status, making us feel like there is something desperately wrong with being single. And its not just a sexist thing done by the big, bad men. Here, women are the worst culprits. We do it to each other.

Be honest. How many times have you and your friends debated a mutual friend’s single status? “She’s awesome and beautiful, but she just can’t manage to get/keep a man!” You and your friends shake your heads and mourn her single status, while ignoring her bio-engineering degree, her beautiful daughter, her work with the homeless, her genius for making people laugh. Or whatever. We don’t mean to put down our single friends, but that’s how it comes out. She’s great, but can’t land a man. Therefore not successful or worthy. I’m guilty of it, too. But it’s time we stopped doing it.

Above all the book offers you a nice shot of much-needed perspective – if it does anything.

Love has no age limit. Kids aren’t for everyone. Women don’t have a shelf-life of eighteen to thirty-five.

And, excuse me, but your married/or in a solid long-term relationship best friend, how did she get that way? Did she go out clubbing every night or frantically internet date? Did she start attending church when she’s secretly an atheist? Did she get set up on blind dates by every well-meaning, but short-sighted person in her life?

No. She did not. You know what she did? Very little.

She met him through mutual friends at a bar/party/camping trip. Or she sat next to him in a class. Or maybe he bought her a drink one night. Or maybe she bought him a drink. Simple as that.When you jive with someone you jive. That’s it.

Anderson has written fantastic book. I hope it will have an impact on the way women view ourselves and each other. I can only advise you to read it, because I’m sure you will like it. It will make you laugh. It will make you think. It’s not your typical self-help book at all. By the end of it, if you were feeling crappy about being your lack of love-life, you’ll feel differently about your single status, I promise.

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Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Girly Books

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Ah, the classic Priest Fantasy.

What? You might be thinking. That’s blasphemy.

Yeah, but that’s apparently what makes it so hot.

Dirty movies aside, It is my opinion that the Priest Fantasy came straight from Colleen McCullough’s epic novel of love and loss in the heart of Australia.

I personally have never experienced a yen for the saintly brothers of Catholicism, but then, I’m not Catholic and I don’t run across them too much. Anyway, just in case you were wondering what the heck is the deal with the ‘Priest Fantasy’, The Thorn Birds is the book that made this particular fantasy so famous that it became an episode on Sex and the City. Since its publication in 1977, women have been swooning over Father Ralph de Bricassart and his fifty year intense  internal struggle with his celibate faith versus his passionate love for Meggie, the beautiful and spunky girl who he meets when she is, like, six.

(Ok, I can hear you saying: EW. Pedophile! And yes, I admit, to the casual reader, there might be a kind of creepiness to the twenty year old Ralph being super fond of a little girl he’s just met, but in the book it’s all innocent because Father Ralph is a really good man and has absolutely no flaws whatsoever. Except one. And then two, as we find out.)

Meggie’s family, the Clearys, are poor and have come to Australia to live on Drogheda, which is this big ol’ sheep farm belonging to the really wealthy sister of their father’s. Since they are the poor relations, all they have is a hope that when the old lady dies, she’ll leave Drogheda to them. But the sister is a selfish and cruel old cougar-type – she has the hots for Father Ralph, who keeps refusing her advances because he is a godly man.  But she’s also a shrewd woman, and she does find out his first weakness, which is ambition and power. This is key to the novel, because  it is what drives his character forward, and what makes him deny his eventual love for Meggie, his second weakness.

The woman dies and leaves Drogheda to the Holy Catholic Church, with Father Ralph as the trustee. This is a big slap in the face for the Cleary’s, but they are permitted to stay on as managers of the place, working the land and shearing the sheep and all that. They also get to move into the big house and hang with the swanky and elite country club types. Although this may have been pre-country club. And I’m not sure they have country clubs Down Under anyway.

The book follows the entire family for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, and there are a lot of tragic deaths, and broken hearts, and children being big disappointments and going to prison and all the other fun stuff that makes up life. But the main story is the love story of Meggie and Father Ralph.

The young Catholic priest feels an instant pull to little Meggie which (being the wonderful, intelligent, good, honest, fair, just, kind, and devastatingly handsome human being that he is) he interprets this as a ‘elder brother’ kind of thing, (thank goodness) and immediately makes sure that Meggie has a pony, pretty dresses, a good education and stuff like that. The two become best friends.

Of course, as the years roll by, Meggie turns into this gorgeous seventeen year old, and Ralph realizes that he might feel something stronger for Meggie than mere brotherly affection. In a noble attempt to stop himself  from sinning, or bringing scandal on Meggie (who’s starting to catch on to his feelings and reciprocate them)  he leaves Australia. This really doesn’t do much good, since now that hes the trustee of Drogheda, you know he’s got to keep coming back there every few years. While he’s away he keeps telling himself that he only loves God, and that he’s not a real man who’s capable of falling in love. He’s a priest, he keeps reminding himself, he’s above all that – but through it all he can’t get the girl out of his head.

(Note: The thing that bugs me most about Father Ralph is that he does all these contradictory things: he keeps insisting Meggie call him Ralph, not Father, makes out with her while they’re out riding, dreams about her every night, thinks about her every second, but STILL insists that he’s meant to be a priest and that she’s meant to go off and marry some silly boy who’s not half good enough for her and forget him.

Hence the tragedy of the whole book I suppose. I mean, McCullough tells you about his childhood and how he’s kind of disconnected from people and God is the only thing that makes him happy. In a sense you get that she’s trying to convey the idea that Ralph had to wait for Meggie to come along so he could meet her – his soulmate- finding the one person he could truly be happy with, but by that time, its too late, since he’s already fixated on the idea that only the church makes him feel joy and no human will ever compare to that. It’s the tragedy of life. The things we miss along the way because we are so fixated on the way we think stuff is supposed to be. Just something to think about. End of Note)

Meggie, who spends the whole book loving Father Ralph and trying to lure him away from his chosen profession; at first with youth’s certainty that all she has to do is: “talk to him about it and he’ll leave the priesthood for her.’ Then with the more traditional way of a woman-scorned: she goes out an marries the first man she hooks up with (That’ll show him! she thinks. I can get a man and have a kid and move on with my life and THEN he’ll be sorry) Of course, when he hears he does feel sorry, but it doesn’t bring him back to her. Poor Meggie keeps giving up on him in despair, over and over, making sacrifices, finally coming to terms with the fact that he will never be with her although she will love him her whole life- and the beautiful and perfect man just keeps picking his stupid faith over her. You actually want to reach inside the book and slap him upside the head.

Meggie is such a wise-women, with her insight into Father Ralph’s mind, and she calls him on his feelings for her time and time again. But Ralph, man-like, keeps denying that he can be any good for her, and instead he keeps climbing higher in the church, finally becoming an archbishop and so on.

This goes back and forth for the entire span of the book and of course, the reader is delighted and enthralled by the frustrating and thwarted romance that is forbidden at every turn, even though these two people are clearly meant to be together and live happily ever after- they just never quite manage it and as a result: we have the Priest Fantasy.

The book is epic, beautiful, and Colleen McCullough’s best work. It’s Australia’s answer to Gone With the Wind and (surprise, surprise) it was turned into a passable mini-series in the eighties. (What was up with the 1970’s-80’s and it’s love of dramatic mini-series? Lonesome Dove, Rich Man, Poor ManRoots. Seriously.)

In the 1983 mini-series Father Ralph was played by the delicious Richard Chamberlain (who was the ‘it’ romantic leading man of the eighties. Believe me, he may be old now, but he was hot back then) while Meggie is played by the beautiful Rachel Ward. The cast includes Barbara Stanwyck, Christopher Plummer, Jean Simmons, etc etc. and some other old-school stars.

It’s a decent movie. I enjoyed all four hours or whatever of it. Definitely worth watching on a rainy afternoon.

I’m not going to write an excerpt here. Honestly the book is so good I’m not sure I could pick a favorite part. Plus it’s tiring to write all this and then copy out excerpts, too.

Leaving you with this: In the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, Scarlett and Rhett, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, etc etc etc….add Meggie and Father Ralph. Beautiful and tragic love story. And what’s not to love about that?

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Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Epic Novels, Girly Books

The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764 – 1765 by Cleone Knox (Magdalen King-Hall)

Remember that really cheesy bookstore at the North Bend outlet mall? Well, maybe not. I was about twelve when I came across this book in the young adult section of that cheap bookstore. Turns out, it has a really interesting history.

It was published in London in the year 1925. The book was thought to be a recent discovery by a man who claimed to be Cleone Knox’s descendant. It was great success in England and the US, becoming a bestseller, and everyone was intrigued with the eighteenth century girl’s private diary and her detailed descriptions of famous places and people and events. Alexander Blacker Kerr was the editor and self-proclaimed descendant. He makes a lot of interesting footnotes to the diary and even writes a forward where he details the history of the family and his discovery of the diary.

One year later, the truth came out. The book was a hoax, written by a nineteen year old girl named Magdalen King-Hall. Both Alexander Blacker Kerr and Cleone Knox were pure invention. The public was outraged and the secret made headlines.

King-Hall writes a new Author’s Forward in 1966 and comments that “what halcyon days the Roaring Twenties must have been, one feels, seeing it all now as though through the wrong end of a telescope, when such a small mystery could make headlines!”

Outraged they might have been, but eighty years later, I am impressed with King-Hall’s careful research of the 1700’s, the language and the liveliness of her main character, who you instantly like because of her smarts, her spunk, and her determination to be happy and have a good time despite her domineering father, her self-absorbed brother and the frustration of not being able to marry who she wants – for a little while anyway.

The book covers the Grand Tour of a genteel Irish lady, Cleone, her father and her brother. From Ireland to England to France and then on to Switzerland and Italy; a Grand Tour was considered a necessity for the young and the wealthy. In this case, the father takes his children on a long trip around Europe, hoping that his spirited daughter will forget her attachment to the charming and roguish Mr. Ancaster. Of course, she doesn’t. But her wonderful descriptions of her travels help make life without ‘Mr. A’ (as she calls him) tolerable and diverting.

King-Hall’s fantastic sense of history is my favorite thing about this book. I don’t know if anyone reading this is a history buff, but I am. Although I know the diary is all made up, it is a historically accurate piece of work. The description of clothes (and Cleone is a teenage girl so there’s a lot about new bonnets and dresses and jewels and things) the witty language, the little things (like having her hair washed and done only once a week (yuck) and bathing and diet, staying in inns that were dirty and the difficulties of traveling by coach, and shopping) the famous people and well-known royalty referred to, the politics of each country and cultural differences – just everything.

Imagine being in London and meeting the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Imagine your father discussing him doing a painting of you. Think of being in Paris in 1764. The city is on fire with talk of new ideas and revolution. Nothing has happened yet, but the energy is there. Cleone writes of Venice, which was one of the most lively and scandalous cities in Europe at the time: “I heard things I could scarcely write down. This is indeed a gallant and loose city.”

It’s an interesting little book, and I have read it many times. Cleone goes from one adventure and/or mishap to the next and writes of it with great humor and fun. In the end she elopes with the persistent Mr. A and settles in Ireland. Her father finally comes round to forgiving her when she gives him his first grandchild and Cleone and Mr. A live a long and happy life.

Here is a bit from the very beginning. The style of writing breaks every grammatical law in the books, but it is amusing and gives you a sense of Cleone’s personality, which is the major draw to this story. The words that are capitalized are meant to be so.

“March 3rd
This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indiscreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say goodnight to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at that late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but halfway up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t Lord knows what would have happened for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at that moment and saw him lying Prostrate on the ground!
No need to describe the scene that followed. My father it seems thinks me guilty of Indiscretion and Immodesty, though why I don’t know, for I was sound asleep the whole time and never heard so much as an Oath (and I dare swear there were plenty flying round!) My father said some mighty unkind things to me this morning and I wept loudly for more than Half an Hour.
Poor Mr.A. from all accounts is a Scoundrel, a Libertine and a Blackguard, and I have been forbidden ever to see, speak or indeed think of him again. Well, we shall see.”

She does see. And so does the reader, as she embarks on a year long adventure on the Continent. Incidentally, this book is out of print, so it might be difficult to find. I did manage to find a few copies by googling it. I found one that is the original 1926 version! But it was 60.00 and I am not that in love with it.

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Filed under Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Girly Books

Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Since I use a quote from this right here on my front page, I felt I should probably review it pretty soon. Like now.

Franny and Zooey is Salinger’s best book (in my opinion) It didn’t get as much press as Catcher in the Rye but it retains a charm for me that his other books don’t. It takes place over a couple of days at an Ivy league school, a restaurant, a bathroom in the Glass apartment, a parlor and a bedroom of that same apartment. Location is everything as Salinger always goes into great detail describing the contents of the bathroom cabinet and giving a thorough going over of the living room.

I have read this book over and over and each time I find some new angle of it that I missed before, or that I had to grow into. My copy is highlighted, margin scribbled, penciled, and underlined like crazy. Its funny as hell. (To use a Salinger phrase; he’s always saying things are ‘blank-blank as hell‘ I always do too, and I think I must have picked up some of my language from him as I have been reading him religiously since I was fifteen)

J.D. Salinger recently passed away. My mother emailed me the article from the New York Times and my best friend Jeanette wrote a quote from his short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish on her Facebook status…which I answered…with a quote from Franny and Zooey.

Salinger. After a crappy experience with Hollywood in the 40’s, he refused to allow his books to be turned into movies (BRAVO!) and spent most of his life as a recluse on his estate in New Hampshire. He only published four books and about twenty-two short stories. He avoided interviews like the plague. He didn’t like all the attention he got from Catcher in the Rye.

He’s a curious fellow and rumors abound. I like what he said once when asked to cite his influences:
“A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O’Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won’t name any living writers. I don’t think it’s right.”

Franny and Zooey Glass are the youngest of the Glass kids. Wes Anderson, when he made The Royal Tenenbaums, cited ‘several New York novels’ as his influence, and Salinger’s Glass family is most definitely one. The Glass kids are child prodigies and grew up participating in a radio show called “It’s a Wise Child.” The eldest of them, Seymour, was the most brilliant, and committed suicide in 1958.

The kids are now all grown up and only Zooey is still living at home. Franny is supposed to be away at college, but has had a brief nervous breakdown in which she is questioning her belief system and place in the world. As a way to cope, she has taken a book from Seymour’s old room. A little green book that tells the story of a pilgrim wandering around teaching people how to pray without ceasing. She becomes obsessed with it and starts saying the prayer and searching for enlightenment, all the while lying on her parents sofa and hiding out from the world.

The following section is from a ‘four-year-old letter’ that Zooey, who is a television actor, is reading, while he sits in the bathtub, smoking and contemplating his next role. It’s from his brother Buddy, who not only providing some career advice, but is apologizing for forcing Zooey and Franny to contemplate a plethora of religions when they were small.

I adore this whole letter. I was deeply indoctrinated in the rigid ways and weirdo beliefs of Evangelical Christianity while also dealing with a father who filled my infant brain with various things about eastern religion.
Like Buddhism and the seven levels of nirvana which bring you from the self-centered and egotistical to pure spirituality.

When I was five.

So I kinda’ relate to this.

Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point)that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn’t begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge. Dr. Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of Pure Consciousness – satori -is to be with God before he said, Let there be light. Seymour and I thought it would be a good idea to hold back this light from you and Franny (as least as far as we were able) and all the many lower, more fashionable, lighting effects -the arts, sciences, classics, languages – till you were both able to at least conceive of a state of being where the mind knows the source of all light. We thought it would be wonderfully constructive to at least (that is, if our own ‘limitations’ got in the way) tell you as much as we knew about the men – the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, the jivanmukatas – who knew something or everything about this state of being. That is, we wanted you to both know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Hui-neng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula, or how to parse a sentence. That, anyway, was the big idea. Along with all this, I suppose I’m trying to say that I know how bitterly you resent the years when S. and I were regularly conducting home seminars, and the metaphysical sittings in particular. I just hope that one day – preferably when we’re both blind drunk – we can talk about it.”

Zooey is one of those top five male characters of mine. He’s smart and introspective and hilarious. He spends a lot of time airing his opinions almost as if he is suffering from Asberger’s syndrome. He confidently rolls over the feelings of those around him, but is ashamed when he realizes he has really hurt someone. I think I have a knack of doing this, too, and perhaps that is why his character appeals to me the most. I can relate to Franny’s confusion, and her search for a sense of peace, but Zooey is not weighed down with too much angst, or else he has put it away from himself because it would get in the way of his living.

One of the best moments in the whole book is when Mrs. Glass is in the bathroom with her son, lamenting the fact that no one is being any help to her. (Another reason I love this – it sounds exactly like my mother) She laments that her children are scattered across the world, and that her husband is going about ignoring his youngest daughter’s nervous breakdown, and now Zooey is in the tub, refusing to talk to his sister and see whats wrong. The exchange of banter is excellent. The italics are killing.

“Sometimes I could almost murder Buddy for not having a phone,” she said. “It’s so unnecessary. How can a grown man live like that – no phone, no anything? No one has any desire to invade his privacy, if that’s what he wants, but I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to live like a hermit.” She stirred irritably, and crossed her legs. “It isn’t even safe, for heaven’s sake! Suppose he broke his leg or something like that. Way off in the woods like that. I worry about it all the time.”
“You do, eh? Which do you worry about? His breaking a leg or his not having a phone when you want him to?”
“I worry about both, young man, for your information.”
“Well…don’t. Don’t waste your time. You’re so stupid, Bessie. Why are you so stupid? You know Buddy, for God’s sake. If he were twenty miles in the woods, with both legs broken and a goddamn arrow sticking out of his back, he’d crawl back to his cave just to make certain nobody sneaked in to try on his galoshes while he was out.”
A short, pleasurable, if somewhat ghoulish, guffaw sounded behind the curtain. “Take my word for it. He cares too much about his goddamn privacy to die in any woods.”
“Nobody said anything about dying,” Mrs. Glass said.

After lots of hilarious and compelling moments in the bathroom, Zooey finds Franny and gives her an earful about how selfish she’s being, worrying everyone, and how Buddy and Seymour made he and Franny into religious freaks and there isn’t anything that either one of them can do about it now. He spends about six pages on a tirade about the Bible, and religion, and Jesus and all the other prophets, chastising his sister for her short-sighted view of the prayer and telling her she is saying it for all the wrong reasons. The way he eloquently rips her a new one is some of the best writing on religious philosophy I have ever read. I think the first time I read it I may have as a response, like Franny, lay on the sofa and wept.

Zooey, when he realizes he has hurt his sister and is feeling guilty for not being more helpful, determines suddenly to help Franny figure things out. He pretends to be Buddy and calls her from the private phone line that still exists in Seymour and Buddy’s old room.

That’s another thing I like about this book. Every room in it is a shrine to days gone by. The living room is full of ping-pong tables and old books, photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Glass when they were young, old scarred furniture and ancient radios and framed letters and awards.

The bedrooms are still kept as they were, too, especially Seymour’s old room. So Zooey enters it and after a bit of looking around and taking note of the decor, calls Franny and entreats her to tell “Buddy” whats wrong.

Of course, after a few minutes, she figures out it isn’t Buddy and perhaps its the barrier of the phone that allows Zooey to tell her a few things about what he really thinks about her state of mind, without being hurtful.

It’s a book about seeking the truth, and how our families can wound us without meaning to. Its a book about growing up, and facing facts about things and adjusting your experiences to fit in with your ideologies. I think that’s why I respond to it the way I do. I can’t really say why others like it so much, but for me it hits home.

Not that I was a child prodigy, or had a lot of brothers and sister who were. Nor did anyone commit suicide and my mom would certainly never allow her home to be a shrine to our childhood, but still. This book mirrors me in a deeper way than just it’s plot. It speaks for me. That’s all I think.

As Salinger said: It’s a love story. And it really is.


Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Literature