Category Archives: Girly Books

All those books that make us girls swoon, cry, laugh and say aloud “Yes! This is my life!”

Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love by Patrice Hannon

I’ve been obsessing over Austen lately; re-reading Pride and Prejudice, quoting her, watching three different versions of Persuasion, etc. (which one do I like best? I never can decide) Obsessive as I am, (and I’m also on school break so I’m trying to read stuff I want to and not textbooks) I got Dear Jane Austen from the library and I thought it would be a sort of silly cute little book like How to Hepburn, but it was actually a bit more than just cute and amusing.

Dr. Hannon is an authority on Jane Austen and has managed to artfully weave her novels into a sort of literary criticism slash self help book. Written in a ‘Dear Abby’ form, it merges modern requests for advice and help with 18th century reflections. The book paints a really wonderful picture of Jane Austen; discussing her works, and using her characters to illustrate how human nature does not change, but only modifies in the sense that society changes and how we choose to meet that society changes.

 

(There is something fearfully wrong with that sentence. I haven’t been writing much lately. Can you tell?)

 

For each modern appeal for advice, Jane refers the letter writer to her heroines, and points out the similar issues that may be found in her books. It solidifies the idea that even though Jane lived in the late 18th century, her books are still relevant to today’s world. Women still misinterpret men’s behavior, make fools of themselves, lack self-confidence, worry about money, have dysfunctional families to contend with, and all of us end up either happily married or unhappily married or forever single.

Hannon’s Jane is wonderful and exactly as you’d expect Jane to be, if she were really sitting at her desk and answering letters from her readers. What I liked most, next to the use of characters to illustrate real-life problems, were the little illuminations into Jane’s actual life; her family dropping in to put in their two cents, and Jane’s speculations about her own history.

There was a particular point in the book where Jane gives a letter writer advice on the difference between reckless behavior and reserved behavior. Since I am usually somewhat more reserved than out-going, I read this part carefully. Then I stared out the bus window and thought about Marianne Dashwood and Lydia Bennet and the term ‘reckless’ used in lieu of ‘lively’ or ‘extroverted’, and the significance of it. I thought about all the women I know who behave recklessly, but it doesn’t follow that they have the self-confidence to drive them on. Anyone can be reckless, but having the courage of your convictions is a very different thing.

I also enjoyed the part where Jane points out the great difference between her works and the Bronte sisters, who wrote very passionate, but unrealistic characters, while Jane wrote real people. Wuthering Heights is a great book, but it’s a pure gothic fantasy, chock full of people who, if one met them in real life (and outside of a mental asylum) really wouldn’t behave the way they all did end up behaving.

Jane, on the other hand, writes characters that might not be as arresting or exciting, since none of them are extremely bad (except Willoughby, Wickham, or perhaps Henry Crawford, and even then its only a philandering type badness and no one dies of a broken heart or bangs their head against a tree or drives anyone to drink) and most of her characters are made of different levels of complexity; vanity, pride, kindness, reserve, and all kinds of neurosis’- which is precisely what makes them work as guides to modern day women, while the Bronte sisters characters would not. (Bless the Brontes, I love them, too, but Kathy is no Elizabeth Bennet)

We might watch a lot of Hollywood movies, and swoon over Heathcliff on the screen, but in real life we’d call the cops on him for stalkng and abuse. (Lets hope so anyway) In the same sense, we’d probably fall for a Wickham type, too, but when we catch on that he’s only using us as fodder for his ego, we’d just kick him to the curb and – while not necessarily call the police – probably tell all of our friends what a waste of time he is.

Anyway, I got quite a bit out of this book about the real Jane and her works. It made me examine her characters in new and interesting ways that I hadn’t thought of before. In a way, it was like taking an English survey course on Austen, and it gave me an even deeper respect for Austen’s writing.

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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.

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

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.

SOME COMMON CLICHES:

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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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.

Excerpt:
“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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Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

So I told you that this was going to be eclectic. I actually have been thinking of reviewing something else, but tonight when I got home, pulled this book out of my closet (Because my hall closet has the only shelves available anywhere) (Books are everywhere. Literally) and gave it some thoughtful consideration.

I have a love/hate relationship with Louisa May. Sometimes, if I’m not in the right mood, she bugs me ’cause she’s so damned preachy. Other times, I just adore her, because she does have those high ideals that I aspire to (But never quite reach, because I mean, come on. Who realistically among us is not full of original sin?)

Rose is one of her most privileged heroines. She has everything; good looks, fortune, good friends, the adoration of her hot cousins, and parental figures who dote on her. If she were super good, she’d be insufferable, but she isn’t – quite. She likes having a good time, the admiration of her bad boy cousin Prince Charlie, and she gets a tad jealous and insecure now and then.(I know, I know, cousin?? Eeeeewwww. But this was 1876 and the elite liked to keep those bloodlines pure)

Basically, Louisa May Alcott is writing a coming-of-age story, with the whole focus being Rose. Who will she marry? The audience breathlessly waits for her to wake up and realize that Mac is the only acceptable choice. Charlie seems to hold the field for the first half of the book, but after he (oh, horrors!) gets drunk and tries to woo our innocent Rose, she becomes disillusioned with him and begins to separate herself from him as delicately as a lady knows how. In the meantime, to distract herself and improve her character, she embarks on a series of good deeds and uses her money to help the less fortunate.

I suppose I love this book because Cousin Mac is one of my favorite literary heroes of all time. Well. Not of all time, but he’s definitely in the top five. He’s smart to the point of nerdy professor and he has a very clear, logical mind. But he writes poetry and can discuss Emerson and talk seriously about stuff like his emotions and dreams without sounding all girly. He worships Rose, but thinks he isn’t good enough for her until she clues him in on what her dream-fella might be like.

The whole dialogue between them is wonderful. When I first read it, I fell in love with Mac. I couldn’t help but think of all the times in high school I had nerdy guys confess their undying love for me. If they only had Mac’s confidence, then perhaps my life would be rather different, but none of them did…perhaps they couldn’t…being only high school boys and not men.
Or perhaps nobody ever loved me that much.
So here we are.

Rose has been sorta engaged to Charlie, but, like I said, her heart was never in it. He has died and here we see her explode because the family – especially Mac – insists on seeing her as heartbroken, when she isn’t.

Excerpt:
“You will insist on believing that I loved him better than I did!” she cried, with both pain and impatience in her voice, for the family delusion tried her very much at times.
“How could we help it, when he was everything women most admire?” said Mac, not bitterly, but as if he sometimes wondered at their want of insight.
“I do not admire weakness of any sort – I could never love without either confidence or respect. Do me justice to believe that, for I am tired of being pitied.”
She spoke almost passionately, being more excited by Mac’s repressed emotion than she had ever been by Charlie’s most touching demonstration, though she did not know why.
“But he loved you so!” began Mac, feeling as if a barrier had suddenly gone down but not daring to venture in as yet.
“That was the hard part of it! That was why I tried to love him, why I hoped he would stand fast for my sake, if not for his own, and why I found it so sad sometimes not being able to help despising him for his want of courage. I don’t know how others feel, but, to me, love isn’t all. I must look up, not down, trust and honor with my whole heart, and find strength and integrity to lean on. I have had it so far, and I know I could not live without it.”
‘Your ideal is a high one. Do you hope to find it, Rose?” Mac asked, feeling, with the humility of a genuine love, that he could not give her all she desired.
“Yes,” she answered, with a face full of the beautiful confidence in virtue, the instinctive desire for the best which so many of us lose too soon, to find again after life’s great lesson’s are learned. “I do hope to find it, because I try not to be unreasonable and expect perfection. Smile if you will, but I won’t give up my hero yet,” and she tried to speak lightly, hoping to lead him away from a more dangerous topic.
“You’ll have to look a long while, I’m afraid,” and all the glow was gone out of Mac’s face, for he understood her wish and knew his answer had been given.
“I have Uncle to help me, and I think my ideal grew out of my knowledge of him. How can I fail to believe in goodness, when he shows me what it can be and do?”

The two go on in this way for some time and Mac hints that Rose might wait a while before looking for her ‘hero’ and take him ‘on trial’ while she waits. Rose is touched and briefly considers it, but decides that she only feels only compassion for him, and that its no substitute for true love. Hoping to comfort him, Rose says:

“Dear Mac, I cannot give you the love you want, but I do trust and respect you from the bottom of my heart, if that is any comfort,” began Rose, looking up with eyes full of contrition for the pain her reply must give.
She got no further, however, for those last words brought a marvelous change in Mac. Dropping her hands, he stood erect, as if inspired with sudden energy and hope, while over his face there came a bright, brave look, which for the moment made him nobler and a comelier man than ever handsome Prince (Charlie) had been.
“It is a comfort!” he said, in atone of gratitude that touched her very much. “You said your love must be founded on respect, and that you have given me – why can I not earn the rest? I’m nothing now, but everything is possible when one loves with all his heart and soul and strength. Rose, I will be your hero if a mortal man can, even though I have to work and wait for years. I’ll make you love me, and be glad to do it. Don’t be frightened. I’ve not lost my wits – I’ve just found them. I don’t ask anything – I’ll never speak of my hope, but it is no use to stop me. I must try it, and I will succeed!”
With the last words, uttered in a ringing voice while his face glowed, his eyes shone, and he looked as if carried out of himself by the passion that possessed him. Mac abruptly left the room, like one eager to change words to deeds and begin his task at once.”

And of course he does succeed, in the end. And Rose realizes little by little what a swell guy he is, until she doesn’t feel so worthy of him herself. I just love these few pages of the book. Its romantic. Sappy as all get-out. But it touches on a significant truth about love and relationships. What I find missing from most of my experiences when I look back over them. I, myself, don’t really love someone without respecting them first. Nor do I enjoy looking down on potential boyfriends. Integrity and character are super important to me. More so than I usually admit.

And yeah, when you love someone, you should be willing to make yourself a better person for their sake, to really deserve their regard and love, not just have it handed to you because you desire it.

Of course, there are limits and gray areas and all that. But ultimately, I like Alcott because she cuts to the chase. She reminds us – even 100 and some odd years later – the importance of being a good person, a well-developed person, to treat one another with consideration and kindness, and to work hard at the things you do. She reminds us how necessary it is to feel fulfilled in all aspects of life; in one’s work, play, love, and family.

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