Monday, September 8, 2014

The Blue Castle (Again)

The title: The Blue Castle
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: McClelland & Stewart, 1926 (Voyageur Classic Edition,
Got it from: Amazon, 2010

I've blogged about The Blue Castle before, and it isn't the first time I've reread it, either.  I actually had to replace my old worn-out copy a few years ago.  I think, without exaggeration, that this is my absolute favourite all-time book.  Every time I read it, I notice something new, and it just gets better every time.

I read this over the Labour Day weekend and even though I knew exactly what would happen, I couldn't put it down.  I hardly even know what to say in this review because reading this book is almost a sacred experience for me.  It speaks to me on so many different levels.  Based on some of the online reviews I've read, a lot of women feel the same way.  I have a theory it's because there's a lot of women who are hungry, starving even, for stories about women just like themselves: quiet, romantic, passionate and above all misunderstood by everyone around them.  The world is a cruel place for women who possess these traits, who have reality forced on them in so many unwanted ways, their dreams mocked and belittled.  The history of Western literature is about men, but The Blue Castle is our story, separate from the demands of modern life and the painful noise of male voices.

Take, for instance, one of the central themes of the books: Valancy's escape from the stifling confines of family obligation.  How many women are forced to be the ones to try to keep everything running smoothly in families?  How many women secretly resent this?  Oh yes, this is a feminist book, through and through.  One early reviewer hated the book because he felt Valancy behaved in an unrealistic (unladylike) way, but what he didn't understand was that she was just ahead of her time.  And yes, one could argue against the feminist theory because there is a love interest.  But Barney demands absolutely nothing of Valancy except that she be herself (a trait that many women nowadays would do well to look for in a partner).  There is something so wonderfully appealing about Valancy and Barney's Edenesque escape into the woods, a life of solitude that beckons even more strongly in our hectic, stressful, overworked modern lives. 

It was amazing to be able to sit up half the night and look at the moon if you wanted to.  To be late for meals if you wanted to - she who had always been rebuked so sharply by her mother and so reproachfully by Cousin Stickles if she were one minute late.  Dawdle over meals as long as you wanted to. Leave your crusts if you wanted to.  Not come home at all for meals if you wanted to.  Sit on a sun-warm rock and paddle your bare feet in the hot sand if you wanted to.  Just sit and do nothing in the beautiful silence if you wanted to.  In short, do any fool thing you wanted to whenever the notion took you.  If that wasn't freedom, what was?

The ability to choose your own happiness, and to live it.  Bliss.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Unruly Places

The title: Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
The author: Alastair Bonnett
Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Got it from: The library

In this unusual book, author Alastair Bonnett dives into the psychology of those places considered to be "unruly."  What makes a place unruly?  It is the spaces we overlook, the borders that aren't quite there, those islands we can't quite get a hold of.  The author uncovers both the micro (a local fox hole, gutterspaces) and the macro (the vanishing Aral Sea, Leningrad.)  In a world increasingly overtaken by Blandscapes, unruly places draw us to the unknown.

There's a lot of entries in this book, so I'll touch on a few that spoke to me.  There's a small garden in New York City that began as an art project in the 1970's which grows plants that would have been native to the city before it was a city.  There's a town just outside of Chernobyl that has been left exactly as it was abandoned in 1986, complete with a half-finished amusement park.  And if you're super-rich, you can buy an apartment aboard a luxury liner that travels the world.

Beyond the descriptions of these varied places, what I enjoyed most was the author's psychology of space.  Places have meaning for us, one that we should embrace because it makes us human.  The yearning for a space of our own, familiar and reassuring, is in our nature.  But place is also unique: it changes based on time, from person to person, from mood to mood.  All spaces are shifting and ephemeral.  Appropriately, he saves what is perhaps the most ephemeral space of all for last: the places of childhood play.  Reading about his childhood experiences playing make-believe in an alley, I suddenly felt click of connection.  No one transforms a space like a child: a clump of trees becomes a fortress, a palace, a home.  This is where we learn to shape our world.  Unfortunately, like everything else in this book, it is being lost to a digital touch-screen childhood.  If we lose it completely, we will lose an important part of ourselves.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

So I changed the template

I don't really have the time or energy for a full-scale renovation, but I gave the old blog a fresh coat of paint.  Hope the larger font makes it a little easier to read, at least.

Meanwhile, please check out my latest post below!  I'm super excited about this book.

Lady Liberty

The title: Lady Liberty
The author: Vicki Hinze
Publication: Bantam, 2002
Got it from: Kobo

I am all about the political thriller romance this year.  In February it was Executive Bodyguard, now it's Lady Liberty.  There's something so addictive about the adrenaline rush these books provide.  I like that they tend to feature older, smarter women in positions of power and I like that the tension of political suspense tends to act as a foil to the romantic tension experienced by the protagonists.

There's a lot to love about Lady Liberty, which I think I enjoyed more than Executive Bodyguard, although I liked the latter.  Liberty is longer so it had more time to explore the main relationship, as well as the heroine's role and the ins and outs of Washington politics.  

Sybil Stone is the Vice-President of the United States.  She's a straight arrow in a world of crooked politicians and a lot of people hate her for that (as well as just generally for being a woman).  Among Sybil's enemies are a powerful senator who wants her job, a top Washington journalist who is looking to ruin her reputation and her dick of an ex-husband, the head of a top security company and possibly the most corrupt person in the country.

As the book opens, Sybil is abroad trying to negotiate a peace treaty with representatives from two warring nations.  Among her staff members is Agent Jonathan Westford.  Westford used to be on her security detail, but he left because he developed feelings for her.  (At one point he threatened to kill her emotionally abusive ex-husband, which was what led him to ask for reassignment.)  The only reason Westford is on the trip at all is as a special favor to the President.  Sybil also has feelings for Westford, but she doesn't realize them yet.  At this point she thinks he's just super-devoted to his job, not to her in particular, and she's also hurt that he left her detail, thinking she did something wrong.

Right away we learn that Sybil is being targeted by an international terrorist organization, but we don't know why.  She is called back to the U.S. because of an emergency.  Sybil tells her staff to stay behind but Westford insists on going with her.  He rightly senses that something's wrong.  As the plane is flying over Florida, his magic Secret Service instincts start tingling and he pulls Sybil out of the plane, even though she's the only one with a parachute.  Ten seconds later the plane blows up.  It's such a jaw-dropping holy crap opening, I knew then and there I wasn't going to be able to put this book down.

There's a whole lot going on in this story and it takes a lot of concentration to work out all the characters, their connections and secret motives.  It turns out there's a nuclear bomb set to detonate in Washington and Sybil is the only one with the key to stop it - but she and Westford are now stranded in the Florida swamps with no way to get back and no idea who to trust.  As the hours count down on the clock, they have a lot to figure out, including their own feelings for each other.  Sybil is great at being a VP but doesn't trust her judgement when it comes to men.  

One of the reasons I loved this book was that it has the same sort of dual-identity crisis that I love about superhero tropes, with the genders flipped.*  Sybil is constantly questioning whether Westford loves her or the VP.  This frustrates her, along with the fact that her personal life didn't turn out the way she once wanted it.  Part of Sybil's journey involves not just coming to terms with her feelings for Westford, but also learning to change her definition of personal happiness.  There's a wonderful line toward the end of the book that really spoke to me:

She wasn't the woman she had been when she'd created those dreams for herself.  She was the woman she had become.

How many people constantly strive for what they thought they wanted when they were younger?  And how many of us have ended up changing those dreams because we're different people now?  

Hooray for books that celebrate women in power.  If only there were more of them.

Rating:  4.5 Presidential Seals out of 5. 

*Side note - I also find it super amusing that hardly anyone discusses Sybil's looks, only her politics.  But Sybil and her best friend Gabby constantly talk about how hunky they think Westford is.  One reviewer on Amazon sums it up pretty well:
"She is tactful, and diplomatic. He is hard and sexy!!!!"

Monday, July 21, 2014

Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology

The title: Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology
The author:
Publication: New York Public Library Collection, 1997
Got it from: Annapolis Valley, 2013

I bought this book in anticipation of a trip I would be making last year and began it while I was visiting Concord, which you can read about here.  Louisa May Alcott is an author I admire almost as much as Lucy Maud Montgomery, and that's really saying something.  This collection is an excellent find for someone who, like me, knows Little Women back to front but wants to find out more about the author behind it.  There's a little bit of everything here: biographical sketches by those who knew her and selections of her diaries, poetry, letters and short stories.  The more I read, the more I was impressed by how ahead of her time Alcott was (as is the case in all the historical women I admire).  She understood the need for women to exercise, to learn and to be independent.  She had a sensitive and humorous understanding of society (G.K. Chesterton compares her to Austen) and advocated for women's rights and abolition long before it was fashionable to do so.  It is very difficult for me to separate the March family from the Alcott, and in fact when I visited Orchard House I had the disorienting experience of seeing both at the same time.

There are three very personal autobiographical sketches in this anthology.  In "Transcendental Wild Oats," Alcott paints a very vivid picture of her family's somewhat horrifying experiment with living in a commune at Fruitlands.  A hundred years before hippies made it popular, Bronson Alcott was advocating for peace, vegetarianism and brotherly love.  Unfortunately his lofty ideals couldn't support his family for long.  Particularly interesting to the history buff in me are the letters that comprise "Hospital Sketches," detailing Louisa's ill-fated experience as a nurse during the Civil War when she was thirty.  How exciting to read about the war firsthand from a woman my own age!  Unfortunately the experience doesn't last long, as Louisa developed typhoid fever and never fully recovered.  Perhaps the most amusing story is "How I Went Out to Service," chronicling a time during Louisa's youth that she went to work as a companion and ended up being taken advantage of by the family.  She ends up leaving in disgust but the family's vulgarity provides much fodder for amusement.

In addition to the lively glimpses of her life are some of Alcott's delightful stories.  "Debby's Debut" is a classic love-triangle story, with the "right man" obvious from the beginning.  "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," an early story of Alcott's, is a drawn-out melodrama that could easily have been one of the thrillers Jo March pens to amuse her sisters.  "Perilous Play" is actually about the dangerous effects of (shocker!) drugs.  Didn't I tell you she was ahead of her time?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness

The title: Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness
The author: Sheila Kohler
Publication: Bantam, 1994
Got it from: Book sale, 2011

Happy Bastille Day!

By coincidence, I have just finished reading Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness.  It's set during the time of the French Revolution, a time I always enjoy visiting, despite the rather gruesome realities.  The story is of one Lucy Dillon, a fictional biography of the real-life Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour du Pin Gouvernet.   Her mother is a favourite of Marie Antoinette and young Lucy herself visits court, hobnobbing with French nobility at Versailles and in Paris.  In her early twenties, the Revolution breaks out and she is forced to flee to America with her husband and young children.

The narrative is divided between Lucy's travels on board the ship crossing the Atlantic and flashbacks to her life of (caged) privilege back in France.  The story really picks up when the Revolution does.  The strength of the book lies with seeing how dramatic the day-to-day change was for an aristocrat before and after the Revolution.  The ordered world suddenly collapsed, leaving chaos and uncertainty on an unprecedented scale.  For many watching their friends and family members die at the guillotine, it must have felt like the world was ending.

Interestingly, the author chooses to paint Lucy as an unhappy victim of her circumstances.  It is only when she arrives in America that she gets to take control of her own destiny, becoming an ambitious dairy farmer in the Hudson River Valley.  This part of the story is very different than the 4/5ths of the book before it, now that Lucy is no longer a pawn in someone else's scheme.  Without spoiling the ending, it did leave something to be desired and I felt the narrative should have wrapped up differently.  However, it was a fascinating look at an absolutely fascinating time in history.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Last Bachelor

The title: The Last Bachelor
The author: Betina Krahn
Publication: Bantam, 1994
Got it from: Massachusetts, 2013

I don't know what's more of a crime - the fact that Betina Krahn isn't more celebrated and well-known, or the fact that she hasn't written a book since 2009.  How is it that she remains in near obscurity despite her wonderful, warm, intelligent, feminist and romantic novels, while other writers who shall remain nameless continue to churn out dreck and are beloved by millions?  Case in point: The Last Bachelor was published exactly twenty years ago and even though it was written in an "old school" environment it's practically perfect in every way.  It explores, in-depth, the nature of men's and women's roles in Victorian society in a way that's still relevant today, while crafting a deeply romantic and well-rounded relationship between two smart, believable and interesting people.  And yet millions of people are reading and buying antifeminist drivel involving airheaded 21-year-olds being spanked by billionaires.

Why?  Why?  Whyyyyyyyyyy?  There is no justice in this world.

So far I've reviewed three other Betina Krahn books on this blog which I've rated highly because of their original feminist content.  Between The Last Bachelor and Sweet Talking Man, I enjoyed Sweet Talking Man more because it was funnier, livelier and I loved the New York setting.  But I have to concede that I think The Last Bachelor is the better novel.  At over 500 pages it's the longer by far and I read it slowly, over several months, so that I could really absorb the story and the characters.  

The heroine, Antonia Paxton, is a young widow who's made a career out of trapping eligible bachelors into marriages with spinsters and widows.  While this may seem reprehensible (and based on some of the reviews I've read of this book a lot of readers feel this way) Antonia has a very good reason for doing so.  In Victorian society there was really no other option for unmarried women other than being disgraced and destitute.

Naturally, these trapped bachelors are angry about this situation, and set out to get revenge on Antonia, who they call "the Dragon."  Their plan is to enlist London's most notorious bachelor, the Earl of Landon, to seduce and disgrace her.  Landon is (in)famous for his unconventional views on women's rights.  He thinks men are better off never being married and that women should get jobs and work outside the home as men do.  He ends up making a bet with Antonia that traditional women's work is easier than men's work.  Before he knows it he's wearing a corset, peeling potatoes, scrubbing floors and eating his words.

There's a scene at the beginning - when Landon is playing cards with the disgraced bachelors - that I almost gave up on the book.  The way the author painted the scene made Landon seem so repugnant in his views on women, only my faith in the author's previous feminist works pushed me to continue.  Boy, was I glad I took that leap of faith.  Clever Betina Krahn, writing that scene in such a way to make him seem despicable, but then later revealing him to be entirely reasonable and sympathetic.  Giving away the key to the Earl's behaviour would spoil the revelation, but I have to say I've never seen it done better.  (No, it's not the usual, "my mother/last wife/last mistress was a horrible harpy and therefore I hate all women!"  It actually makes sooo much more sense than that, and anyway Landon becomes a total feminist and also, by the way, I love him so much.)

This book just gave me so much to think about and so many happy feelings.  I could go on but I won't bore you, except to end with this.  There's been so much said about marriage over the years: who should get married, why we should get married, is it in women's best interest?, etc.  This book shows the best of what marriage can be, and by doing so, shows what it should be.  It is about sharing your life with a person who loves and respects you, who watches out for you and helps make life easier.  Seeing both Antonia and Landon change their mind about marriage and each other is a revelation.  This book will be the benchmark by which I measure all other romances.