Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

During my recent ill health I turned to L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle as a comfort read of sorts.  My mother was here to help during and after my hospital stay and when she saw me reading it she told me that it was my grandmother's favourite Montgomery.  I loved hearing that, and it is perhaps a little glimpse into my sentimental side when I say that I think it made me enjoy the book even more.  It has been years since I last read it so most of the finer points of plot and character have long been forgotten.  I remembered it as a simple romance, improbable and sentimental, but amusing.  Since that last reading I have read all five volumes of L. M. Montgomery's published journals as well as Mary Henley Rubio's Lucy Maud Montgomery: A Gift of Wings which clearly added to my reading of The Blue Castle this time around.  Remembering the scorn and frustration she expressed in her journals toward some of the members of her husband's congregations, and with her husband himself, it was clear to see that she was working out some of her angst in this story!

The Blue Castle is the story of Valancy Stirling and her transformation from a brown-frocked spinster to modern lover.  At first glance what appears to be a simple and uncomplicated romance offers fertile ground for contemplation.

The first sentence states, "If it had not rained on a certain May morning Valancy Stirling's whole life would have been entirely different."  This preoccupation with fate is explored throughout the novel.  To what degree is the path of our lives determined by mere chance, how much is preordained and what role does free will play?  A humourous but socially marginalised character challenges church doctrine on predestination and his argument prevails over those of the theologians.  Just so, the protagonist Valancy questions the validity of her status as a member of the "elect," as a daughter of the well-respected Stirling family.  She throws off the shackles of her birthright, a status confirmed on her not by merit or effort but by chance, and consciously choses her own path to self-fulfillment.  Free will here is for the courageous visionaries.  It is a new world order we see envisioned in The Blue Castle, and it is the brave, those undaunted by fear who are able to transform themselves through their own efforts and live in freedom and happiness.

Valancy's favourite author, the naturalist philospher John Foster gives us the overarching theme of the novel: "'Fear is the original sin,' wrote John Foster.  'Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.'"  Most of the characters are ruled by fear; "What will people think?" dictates every behaviour of the dour Stirling clan: it is the wagging finger of the church leader, and the gossip of the townsfolk.  Fear has dictated the rules of belief and behaviour that make life a prison for those who abide.

L. M. Montgomery allows us to see what happens when a character is given the opportunity to cast off the fear that keeps her confined.  A natural lifestyle is equated to a modern one, and all that is traditional and established is equated with outdated, passionless, stagnant, disease-causing artificiality.  In the fantasy world free from society's artificial constraints, clothes are valued for their comfort, food is simple and nourishing, sleep comes in a rhythm that matches the needs of the body, there is a connection to the land that is entirely lacking in society, and the needs of the emotional life are fully met.  The psychological interior and exterior appearance begins to meld and the emotions break through the shell of social contraint.  When this happens, social regulations strictly delineating class structure become meaningless.  The true measure of a human is no longer the superficial attributes of wealth, social position, family name or appearance.  It's a wonderful fantasy!  And L. M. Montgomery places before us a projection of what could be possible if one were brave enough to take the reigns of one's own life, to cast off all that is unnatural, staid and conventional, to live a utopian existence where all emotional needs are met.

Of course, I am always fascinated by fictional character who struggle with illness, and Valancy Stirling is an interesting case.  Diagnosed at the beginning of the story with a fatal heart ailment, Valancy is given a year to live.  The illness narrative itself is merely a plot device, and not of nearly as much interest as the real psychological ramifications of the diagnosis.  The mind can create its own cure when it is deprived of its natural nourishment, and Valancy has created a place of peace, comfort, and escape in her imaginary blue castle.  L. M. Montgomery addresses both the cause, but also the remedy for this psychologically distressing lifestyle where, trapped in a world where creativity is stifled, solitude forbidden, novels strictly disallowed, the mind finds its own healing.  One senses that Valancy's retreat to this internal world of fantasy and of books is something L. M. Montgomery wrote straight from her heart.  This internal world served to fulfill all her basic emotional needs and soothed her soul until Valancy was able to manifest her heart's desire in reality.  When her reality was offering her all the emotional support she needed, her fantasy world was no longer needed - her inner and outer lives had merged.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

I know that The Blue Castle is one of L. M. Montgomery's quietly popular books after the Anne and Emily series.   I loved the descriptions of the Muskoka region of Ontario, of the contrast between the musty Stirlings and the moonlight canoe trips.  The darkness that often lurks just below the surface in L. M. Montgomery's writing is here; she does not shy away from social ills and uncomfortable topics such as illegitimate children, alcoholism, depression, illness, bullying, death, neglect, hypocrisy.  There is a constant undercurrent of negativity, but it is counter-balanced by her overwhelming optimism.  The old will die away, and the new world will bloom, reborn.  The new ruling religion is based not on the rules of the past but on love and joy in nature.  The "shock of joy" is the birth pang of a new life, but the resurrection is not dogmatic, but firmly grounded in the pleasure of earthly joys.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Thursday, 19 December 2013

My Favourite 13 of '13

It has been an excellent year of reading!  Going over the list of books that I read this year made me so thankful that I have access to the voices of so many talented writers, and that I am able to engage freely in conversation about the books I read.  Choosing my favourites for the year was not so easy this time around.  For my Favourite 13 of '13 I decided to limit my choices to books that I read for the first time this year.  That automatically eliminated some of my most enjoyable reading experiences so I've added my favourite re-reads at the bottom.

I have been facing some challenges to my health this fall, culminating in a 9-day hospital stay this month.  I have Ulcerative Colitis, and suffered a serious flare-up at the beginning of the month.  I had hoped to catch up on writing about some of the wonderful books I read, especially in November, but I have to accept that is not going to happen.  I have linked back to my original thoughts on each of my favourite books and will be happy to talk about the unlinked selections if you are curious about any of the titles.  I am very disappointed not to be able to share my thoughts on some of the most amazing books I read this year (Merilyn Simonds' The Holding, Irmgard Keun's The Artificial Silk Girl, Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock...) but have decided to let it go.

1. The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata.

2. The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman.
3. Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi.
4. La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier
5. Tay John by Howard O'Hagan.
6. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster.
7. One Happy Moment by Louise Riley.
8. The Artificial Silk Girl by Imgard Keun.
9. W;t, A Play by Margaret Edson.
10. Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven.

11. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.
12. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather.

13.  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Most Enjoyable Re-reads

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
The Holding by Merilyn Simonds.

I look forward to seeing everyone's end-of-year summaries, and the goals and challenges for next year.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Little Free Library Project

 photo credit: Ali Eminov

Have you heard of the Little Free Library?

From the website:

It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share.

Little Free Libraries have been turning up all over my neighbourhood and of course I've been having a peek, and occassionally finding a new book to enjoy.  I have decided to add this as a regular series on my blog as my way of sharing the love.

Please feel free to join me in the celebration of the Little Free Library movement!

[And special thanks to Ali Eminov for including this photograph of a Little Free Library in the creative commons of flickr.]

A list of the books I have enjoyed from Little Free Libraries:

  1. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson (1947)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Word to Caesar by Geoffrey Trease

In the remote Roman garrisons in northern Britain, young Paul witnesses devastating barbarian attack which destroys the fort he has called home, and leaves him an orphan.  He escapes with his life thanks to Severus, a Roman poet who offers Paul his protection.  Paul discovers that his debt to Severus can be repaid, but it requires that he travel to Rome, a homeland he has never visited, and deamands bravery, quick wit and a lot of luck.

In typical Geoffrey Trease style, this adventure is action-packed, and involves all manner of jumping into rivers from prison windows, escaping face-to-face encounters with angry lions, outrunning bloodhounds through the forest in bare feet (!), and using a diamond ring to cut a hole in a glass window pane not once, but twice! 

Although Trease wrote his stories for both girls and boys (usually including a protagonist of each gender to share the stage) Word to Caesar is disappointingly light on female characters.  There are three in total: one is a nasty spy, one an annoying brat, and the third shows up near the end and disappears just when things get really dangerous.  This aspect of the story was much less satisfying for my daughter to whom I was reading it aloud.

The historical aspects of the Roman setting were much less convincing than when he writes about Britain in the same period.  However, he does take great care in describing the details of the Circus Maximus, and that made up for any lack in the fact that Rome was otherwise fairly nondescript.  We both agreed that Geoffrey Trease writes a good adventure story, although this was perhaps not his finest effort.  However, it is exactly the kind of historical fiction Elizabeth and I both enjoy.

Geoffrey Trease

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Strange Things by Margaret Atwood

Strange Things was first presented as a series of four lectures at Oxford University in 1991 as part of the Clarendon Lecture Series in English Literature.  With her characteristic sense of humour, Margaret Atwood explores the The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature through three different themes: the mysterious, magnetic lure of the sinister North, the north as a place of renewal and the urge of non-Native peoples to connect with the aboriginal people and the land,  and the North as the home of the Wendigo, the snow monster. In her fourth lecture, these themes are re-examined through the women writers who have adapted them for their own purposes.

Concerning Franklin and his Gallant Crew

The first lecture tells the story of Sir John Franklin and his crew of 135 who left England on a polar expedition in 1845 in search of a pre-Panama Canal commercial trade route through the Arctic.  The mysterious disappearance of their ships the Terror, and the Erebus has long inspired artists and writers.  Margaret Atwood looks at work by E. J. Pratt, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Mordecai Richler and Robert W. Service, and how the lure of the north calls out to the "ancient hubris in the dreams of men".

...and my favourite: Stan Roger's Northwest Passage (link to Youtube video)

The Grey Owl Syndrome

After the death of naturalist, writer, lecturer Grey Owl, it was discovered that he was not in fact an Ojibwa, but an Englishman from Hastings named Archie Belaney.

Archibald Belaney

Margaret Atwood, refers to other white men who are aboriginal wannabes, and explores the ideas of "claiming kinship" with Native Canadians, the Woodcraft movement, the origins of the Boy Scouts, the "appropriation debate," and the complexity of defining, in Canada, who qualifies as native.

I enjoyed this lecture which gave me a new perspective on the summer camp tradition of encouraging children to become metaphorically Indian, which I certainly experienced both at school and camp, and can still sing all the words to "Land of the Silver Birch" (check out this Grade Five students' video).  This lecture also made me keen to read Grey Owl's writings, John Richardson's Wacousta, Robert Kroetsch's Gone Indian, and to find a biography of Ernest Thompson Seton.

Eyes of Blood, Heart of Ice: The Wendigo

The Wendigo, the legendary northern cannibalistic monster of the eastern boreal forest evokes fear, for along with the possibility of being eaten by one, it is possible also to become one.  It evokes fear in me because I'm not all that comfortable with the vampire/zombie kind of monsters who lack language and induce madness.  It's not really my thing, so I found this lecture the least interesting for me.  (Yes, I'm cowardly like that.)  It did make me slightly curious about Wayland Drew's novel The Wabeno Feast, but the creep-out factor is probably too high for me.

Linoleum Caves

Although CanLit is filled with wonderful women writers and has been since the earliest days of exploration and settlement (the records of the nuns of New France, the wives of British officers and settlers like Anna Jameson, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill...) the female voice has been excluded from the writing of the north.  Margaret Atwood's fourth lecture is about what happens when women writers incorporate these traditional literary motifs created by men into their own writing.  She also briefly touches on how she has used these themes in her own writing in Surfacing (1972, novel), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970, poetry collection), and Wilderness Tips (1991, short fiction).

(photo credit: Jean Malek/Random House)

This is a captivating little book, and of special interest to anyone with a fascination with Canadian Literature.  She expands a few of the themes from her landmark 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.  Margaret Atwood's unique sense of humour and wry wit is in evidence, and I found this work very readable and entertaining.  How wonderful it would have been to have been in attendance for the lectures!  I have now added quite a number of books to my To Read list.

Sunday, 1 December 2013