Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten

Everyone remembers the movie where Bambi’s mother dies. Cute little deer who mumbles ‘Bird’ and hangs out with an adorable rabbit. His mother is his whole world and then Bang!

She never comes back. Poor Bambi wanders around alone for the rest of his life. Leaving every kid slightly traumatized and all us grown-up kids kinda’ uneasy when they re-released this movie recently on DVD. (Do we really like this movie? I mean come on, no, not really.)

But I like the book. Maybe because it is written for a grown-up audience. I particularly love Felix Salten’s name. I don’t know why. Salt-en. Fe-lix. Like salt-lick…and salt-licks attract deer…for hunters to shoot, which, again, is not what this book is really about.

There is that element, of course, as with every book about animals living in the wild, but for the most part, the book is simply a compelling look at life from an animal’s perspective.

There is the overall theme of man vs. nature: man is literally the smoking demon in this book. He reeks of death and terror. The deer smell him and are frozen in horror. Man is portrayed as the enemy, the hunter, the savior, and the master of all.

Until another hunter shoots him, then he is just another victim like everyone else.

That, my friend, is the key to the story. Who is the Grand Master of us all? Salten seems to be indicating that it is Mother Nature and Her Scheme of Things.

Salten is taking a look at the circle of life in this book. He is getting his readers to examine stuff like: growing up, differences, survival, changing seasons, death and isolation. Through his simple portrayal of the woods in cruel winters and gentle springs, in harsh storms, and drowsy summers, Salten is able to successfully create complex moods and emotional response to his animal characters.

I think that my favorite part was always the chattering blue-jay and magpies. I liked the way they scream and fight over nests and trees. Salten’s gift is giving voice and interpretation to the natural habits of birds and animals. Salten gives a human-voiced explanation for whatever the animals do or whatever takes place in the woods; from the way the deer step carefully out onto a meadow only at certain times of the day, to two leaves, turning yellow in the fall and discussing how ugly and old they have grown.

As an educator, I could and will do a lot with this book. I could easily use this in several ways to discuss the environment, differences and prejudice, death, life-cycles, animal life etc etc. The possibilities are endless. Not only that, but its exceptionally well-written with a Hemingway style to it.

Plus, maybe if I use it in the classroom, the new generation being introduced to Disney’s Bambi won’t be quite so traumatized as we were.

Instead, my students will confidently say: Oh, yes, his mother dies, but she has to die, you see, so that Bambi can hang out with his father and become wise and grown up. Also, her death has a larger indication of man versus nature, particularly compelling when looked at from a the view of the animal.

Middle schoolers being so articulate and all.  :/


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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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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The story of King Arthur, but with a twist. The story is told – at long last – from the woman’s point of view. All I can say about that is, it was about time.

The book is huge. I once had it open on the bar and a bar patron came over, leaned his nose close to the page for a moment or two, looked up at me, squinting, and said seriously: “Is that the Bible?”

It is not. But it does cover three generations. Morgan Le Fay(really named Morgaine) the bad girl of the Arthur legend, is our heroine. As she navigates her way from child to woman to High Priestess of the Holy Isle of Avalon, she tells the story of King Arthur and his knights from her perspective. The story is one of a King put on a throne by the scheming of Avalon. In Avalon, they worship the Goddess, but in Christian Britain, the gradual spread of the worship of only one God is seen as a threat.

The Merlin (he’s always called ‘THE Merlin”, not “Merlin”, because apparently, Merlin is the name for the High Druid of Avalon. There’s a High Druid and a High Priestess. Got it? Good.) So the Merlin and the High Priestess, Viviane, arrange for Ingraine (mother of Morgaine) to meet Urther Pendragon and the two of them get together and create Arthur; daughter of the Holy Isle and the King of Britain bearing a child to rule both lands equally…that’s the idea. And a fine idea it is, until the fates take a hand and everything goes terribly caterwampus.  I think what the real key of the book might be is that Ingraine’s first marriage is something of a mistake, and therefore Morgaine is sort of the bane of the story. If she hadn’t been born, Arthur would not have become the legend he turned into. He would have been beloved and all that, but probably just died of old age, with no complications about religious principles. So focusing on Morgaine, you really see why the story went the way it did.

But Ingraine did get married at fifteen to the Duke of Cornwall, and as a result, Morgaine is Arthur’s half-sister and eventual prime foe in the matter of the Christian God versus the Goddess. It all kicks into gear whenViviane comes to Ingraine and Arthur’s court and discovers that Morgaine has the Sight…the old Scotland second sight….and she takes Morgaine back to Avalon to start training her to eventually become High Priestess. Arthur is put in the care of a foster family, to protect him from unsavory people after the throne, and the sister and brother don’t see each other for years.

It’s in Avalon where you learn that the road to being a priestess is not particularly fun, but all in all, it’s better than being married or in an convent. (The only two options for women in those days) Morgaine learns all about the Mysteries, gets painted with a half moon on her forehead, and just when she’s feeling secure about her future as Lady of the Lake, she meets Lancelot, Viviane’s son, and falls in love with him.

All the women fall in love with Lancelot. It’s like bowling pins dropping, one after the other. But here’s the rub, Lancelot is two things: He’s a warrior, first and foremost, and has no desire to settle down and have kids, and he’s sexually confused. Although he runs off with Guinevere – ASIDE: She’s a pill. She’s the most annoying character in the whole book and you basically want to sock her about every other chapter. All she does is pray, cry, and have miscarriages. She’s a shut-in. She’s afraid of everything. She has absolutely no spine. She gets kidnapped and raped and even that is boring. She’s so freakin’ useless. Basically, she’s just in the way from start to finish and you keep rooting for her to just resign being Queen and go join a nunnery or something. But she waits until she’s ruined everything, and then she goes off to her convent. Ironically, this is when you really start to like her – when she has gained some life experience and finally starts questioning some of her neurotic beliefs. The most frustrating thing about it is that it’s not even her fault she hangs around ruining everything. She’s a pawn in the story, along with the rest of the helpless females.

What was I saying? Oh yes, Lancelot. He does run off with Guinevere, but just ’cause by that time, he’s forced to (the two get caught in bed and it’s either stay and be hanged or run away) but all along, his one true love is Arthur – his besty. So he’s gorgeous and perfect and all that, and he breaks hearts right and left, but deep down he’s all conflicted because he’s gay gay gay.

So begins the long, lurid tale of sex, kings, religion, paganism, and more sex.

Unknowingly, Morgaine is given to the Beltane fires…a ritualistic ceremony where she plays goddess to some guy they are crowning King…they had a lot of little Kings in England, so she didn’t think much about it. Plus she hadn’t been out of Avalon in like, ten years. To her intense horror (and the reader’s) in the morning she discovers she has slept with her own little brother, Arthur.

Viviane tells her its all good and somehow rationalizes it like, “He’s your HALF-brother, and you were the GODDESS,” or some crap like that, but Morgaine is at first furious at being a pawn in Viviane’s plan, and then traumatized to find herself pregnant. This is what Viviane was hoping for… to create a royal bloodline from the two of them to eventually rule England. Creepy. But true. But Morgaine won’t have it. She leaves Avalon and goes to live with her Aunt Morgause in the North Country. While she’s there she has the baby, a boy, and then, feeling conflicted about the fact that he is both her son and her nephew, she leaves him to her Aunt’s care and goes off see what her brother is doing as the new King of England.

Bradley took ten years to write this book. Her research on early Britain is astounding. All of it is historically accurate. Well, the Roman, Saxon, Britain bits, anyway. She mixes in the legend of King Arthur, and old Welsh legends, and expands on it. Brilliant woman. Brilliant writer!

The novel touches on the depths of belief. In the end it asks: How much of what we believe is subjective to our own experience? The answer, of course, is like all answers to that question: It is subjective to our own experience.

Basically Morgaine spends her whole life fighting for the equal representation of the Goddess alongside the Christianity that is overflowing Britain. Many of her allies end up quietly giving up, as Christianity shows no signs of receding. Essentially its the story of ‘the times they are a’ changin'” and most people are willing to change with it, but Morgaine is a Priestess and its her personal job to make sure her belief system doesn’t die out, and that Avalon doesn’t fade into the mists. In the end, she does not really achieve what she hoped, but she realizes that it doesn’t matter too much. The Goddess will exist whether people believe in her or not.

I really admire the way Bradley leaves you doubting that any of the rituals, mysteries, and God(s) or Goddess(s) are even worth all the struggle and fight that the main characters go through. If it weren’t for her beliefs, Morgaine would not have followed the path she did; running off because she’s pissed at Viviane. Leaving her baby son with that unscrupulous Morgause, and spending all her time trying to fit in at court. If it weren’t for the conflict of paganism and Christianity, Arthur would not have followed his path; trying to please everyone, refusing to put aside his barren wife, etc. etc.

The whole time, while you are reading, you want to tell them all to just get over it already and give it up. (And put that stupid Guinevere in a convent already!) But I suppose that’s why I like the book so much. It sucks you in and makes you feel like you are really a part of the story. I mean, if the characters infuriate you and you want to sit them all down and say “Hey, why all the fuss about this? Don’t you get that it all ends up becoming a myth anyway?” that’s the sign of an excellent novel.

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Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Do I recommend you read this book? Yes and no.

It is not a book for the easily distracted, the person who gets bored by wordiness, the one who needs ” ” to enclose dialogue, or the person who reads fast (i.e. me)

It is also a movie with Jude Law…and that movie is really good and does the book justice – for once.

But despite all of the above I have to praise this novel because I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t. The book is startling in it’s complexity and unusual writing style. It is unlike anything I have ever read.

Actually, that isn’t true. It sort of reminded me of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Or both. When VW wrote her first novel, everyone freaked out because she was writing in a way that no one had ever thought of before. I think the same thing happened when Joyce wrote Ulysses. No could make heads or tales of Ulysses. For all you less than literate types, it was based on Homer’s Odyssey.

Charles Frazier was certainly drawing parallels between Ulysses/Odyssey and Cold Mountain. The story alone makes that obvious.  But, and this is only in my opinion, while I think he was imitating JJ and VW’s writing styles when he wrote Cold Mountain, he wasn’t copying exactly, so Frazier’s book definitely has the flavor of uniqueness about it.

It’s a gorgeous book set in the middle of the Civil War. It follows Inman, a disillusioned soldier marching across North Carolina, hellbent on getting home to Ada, his pre-war sweetheart who he has not seen in three years. Meanwhile, left alone, Ada, a society girl who hasn’t any idea how to take care of herself in the backwoods of Cold Mountain, is struggling to learn how to farm and hunt and stuff like that.

The two make their way towards each other as the story unfolds; Inman by hoofing it back to her and Ada by learning how to make it on her own. The characters they gather around them are colorful and fascinating. This is where the Odyssey really stands out. Each character has a special purpose to Inman, enabling him to keep traveling homeward. As for Ada, the characters in her world are there to keep her from collapsing in loneliness and grief. They teach her how to take care of herself, allowing her to grow as a woman and a survivor.

Reading the book is a rich experience. The descriptions are enthralling and the storyline takes a variety of twists and turns. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know how it ends.

So yes. The book is a difficult read because of its style. If you can’t get through it, I wouldn’t blame you. I had to sl-o-ooo-w way down to read this book. I also had to read it someplace where I could really focus. But if you pick it up and give it a try, at least struggle through the first three chapters. The first three are the most dense. After that, I swear it gets easier and more interesting.

And yes again. The book is totally worth the time and energy. It really is unlike anything else I have ever come across. It really is the most gorgeous writing. Some of Frazier’s lines are just sheer magic.Below is a sample of one of my favorite parts. Ada is remembering she and Inman’s goodbye before he went off to war.


Ada lacked experience in having her apologies rejected, and her first thought was to turn and walk down the steps and put Inman forever behind her. But what she said was, We might never speak again, and I don’t plan to leave that comment standing in place of the truth. You’re not owning up to it, but you came with expectations and they were not realized. Largely because I behaved contrary to my heart. I’m sorry for that. And I would do it differently if given the chance to go back and revise.

-That’s not a thing any of us are granted. To go back. Wipe away what later doesn’t suit us and make it the way we wish it. You just go on.

Inman still stood with his arms crossed and Ada reached out and touched where his shirt cuff came out from his coat sleeve. She held the cuff between finger and thumb and pulled until she unlocked his arms. She touched the back of his hand, tracing with one finger the curving course of a vein from knuckle to wrist. Then she took his wrist and squeezed it hard, and the feel of him in her hand made her wonder what the rest of him would be like.

~pg 203

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100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda

“I do not love you as if you were a salt rose, or topaz,

or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,

in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

His most famous Sonnet XVII, and the one that most people recognize.  South American poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote these sonnets and dedicated them all to his wife, Matilde Urrutia de Neruda . Although Neruda was known for his political poems in the 1960’s and gained popularity among North Americans for this reason, his sonnets are the poems I like best.

For me, sonnets explore human passion, and the style of them is simple and direct. The standard definition of a sonnet is a poem made up of fourteen lines written to express emotion or contemplative thoughts. I prefer sonnets to any other kind of poetry.

Neruda’s sonnets are beautiful. He talks about lightning, wood, water, sea, fire – always comparing his wife – her skin, her eyes, her hands, their love for each other, to the earth and earth’s elements. His wife is his universe, and I am not sure there has been a muse more celebrated in modern-day poetry.

Cien Sonetos de Amor is divided into four sections; Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night. Neruda uses each section to describe a bit of Matilde.

Heres the rest of Sonnet XVII

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
So I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

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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.


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

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Two of my favorite books tonight/today because I feel like it. Both are the base for popular cult films.

Last Unicorn is one of those books that IS like the movie. There were differences of course. Singing and animation and a few key scenes left out. Re-phrasing of dialogue was practiced. But all in all – and I think it’s because Beagle either wrote the script or helped write it, the movie remained remarkably similar to the novel.

Unicorn is one of those books (and I think I’ve said this before) reading it makes you fall in love with it, but in the end, if you are me, you despair a little because you know you will never, never, never write anything as good. Every other sentence is splendid and like a note of music. It all goes together to create a brilliant symphony of color and sound and emotion.

From the dedication in the first page: To the memory of Dr. Olfert Dapper, who saw a wild unicorn in the Maine woods in 1673, and for Robert Nathan, who has seen one or two in Los Angelos to the last page, which ends with a song, the book is riveting and fascinating.

Now before you go rushing off to google Dr. Olfert I have to tell you that I have already done it and it’s rather disappointing. Olfert never left his native Holland, even though he was a writer and ‘expert’ on distant lands. (How is that possible? you may query. Rightfully so. It was 1670. Most people were not well-traveled. To be fair, Dr Dapper never said HE saw one, he merely describes the unicorn in it’s natural habitat.)

It seems that Beagle was probably trying to be more humorous than not, and that in itself is not surprising as the whole book is a satirical fairy tale.

Our story begins with the Unicorn, who lurks about her trees and small forest and makes everything always spring. One day, she eavesdrops (and eavesdroppers never hear anything good of themselves) on two hunters one of whom is describing how she must be the Last Unicorn in the world since no one has seen a unicorn since his grandmother was a young girl.

The Unicorn begins to think about this and be unhappy as she debates on whether or not to go and look for the others. She hates to leave, but of course she does go and so begins our story. Along the way she is captured by a traveling carnival run by a sham witch who slaps a fake horn on her so the villagers can see her.

Schmendrick the magician is the carnival’s employee, and he alone sees the Unicorn for what she is and frees her. He tags along with her and they run across Molly Grue, who is a satire of Maid Marion, but who can also see the Unicorn. Little by little, the three make their way to King Haggard’s country and the castle that houses the Red Bull.

Not an energy drink!

Although an interesting comparison.

The quote is from King James.

“His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.”–Deuteronomy 33:17

The Red Bull has rounded up the Unicorns and herded them into the sea where they float around on the tide for King Haggard’s delight since he is this guy who NOTHING makes happy except watching Unicorns. Hes one disgruntled King. He only enjoys his life when other people are miserable. The three get attacked by the Bull and Schmendrick the bumbling magician uses his brief grasp of magic to turn the Unicorn into a woman.

Here is one of my favorite parts of the whole book. The Unicorn is lamenting her change into something mortal and wonders how anything that can die can be truly beautiful. In answer Schmendrick tells them the story of his own life.

Because of his inept ability to practice magic, his teacher explains to him that he is either the worst failure in the world or the most amazing magician that he, the teacher, has ever seen. In order to find out, the teacher casts a spell on Schmendrick, giving him immortality until he figures out his skill. When he can discover his magic, he will begin to die. So essentially because he has been mortal and is now immortal, he knows that dying is best and is the thing that makes one live. When the Unicorn says she does not understand, Schmendrick tells her that she will and that now she is in the story with the rest of them.

With that they name the Unicorn ‘Lady Almalthea’ and set off to find out how to kill the Bull and save the other unicorns.

Way to step out of a funny, ironic, fairy-tale and lay some heavy ideas on the reader. But Beagle does it marvelously. And he does it throughout the novel, shifting back and forth between humor and thoughtfulness and passion and despair with an ease I can only envy him for. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know what happens, but trust me when I tell you that you are missing some important depth to the story if you never read the book.

The gorgeous writing itself is worth picking it up for.

I suppose what I like best about this book is that it is completely one hundred percent original even though it draws on a number of well-known tales and myths. It’s funny and it has it’s dark moments, too. It’s sad, but it is hopeful. In the end you feel invested in all the characters and curious to know what happens to them.

Aside: Beagle wrote a follow-up novella called Two Hearts that gives you a rather vague and somewhat depressing end to the love story of Lir and Almalthea, but that’s another review.

The Last Unicorn stands by itself when it comes to fantasy works. I can’t think of any book that is like it. I guess that is the reason it’s one of my favorite stories.

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Filed under Fantasy, Literature