15

Childhood favourites: A Little Princess

It’s rare for me to re-read anything that doesn’t involve Hogwarts or wasn’t written by Jane Austen or one of the Brontes. There are just too many books that I want to get to before I die.

But.

There’s something to be said for re-reading a book that you love. And in the present climate, I make the case for embracing those little things that bring you joy.

Enter: A Little Princess.

little-princess

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 book about a little girl at a boarding school who suddenly finds herself an orphan bereft of her fortune was a delight the first time I read it. I will admit freely that the 1995 movie has always been a favourite too – that rare bird that captures the essence of a great book (despite the liberties they took with at least one major plot point).

And thankfully, I still loved the book. I might have loved it more this time. Sara Crewe is so good and her belief that all are worthy of love and respect ripples out towards all she encounters. Her good deeds are multiplied as she inspires others to pay it forward. Even when she is at the mercy of Miss Minchin, who is determined to punish Sara for being left on her hands without a fortune, Sara tries to put on a cheerful face, to look out for those who are worse off than she is.

Sara is never cowed by the bad things that happen to her or around her. She befriends a rat in the cold, bare attic because he’s probably just as scared of her as she is of him. A RAT. When a little boy gives her a sixpence, she keeps it as a talisman to remind herself that there is good in the world, even though she could use it to buy bread when she’s hungry.

I’m not sure that this message of kindness struck me quite so forcefully the first time I read it. I was likely more focused on the romance of a boarding school and the twist that restores Sara to her rightful place as a ‘princess.’ But this time, Sara’s kindness really resonated with me and brought me intense comfort. I admit freely that this little book, marketed towards readers aged 9-12, reduced me to tears in the end.

I so appreciate the simplicity and the purity of a children’s book that intends to show its readers how to be kind. No matter what your circumstances, you can afford to be kind.

If you’re in need of something quick and uplifting, read A Little Princess. It’ll do you good.

20

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Custom of the Country

I did not read enough classics in 2015. I read Persuasion again, fell in love with East of Eden, The Woman in White, The Count of Monte Cristo was a 5-month endeavour, and a handful of Agatha Christies if those count.

I hope to make more of an effort classics-wise in 2016 and kicked it all off with Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which also happened to be on my unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge list.

When I finally read The Age of Innocence, I was blown away by it. I’m not sure what it was – maybe that a woman wrote so effectively from the perspective of a man? Maybe how scandalous it actually was? I don’t know but I made it my mission to read the Novels of New York.

When I finished The House of Mirth, I cried.

I was very much looking forward to The Custom of the Country.

This one was tough, guys.

Undine Spragg is a small-town transplant in New York City, intent on making her mark. She doesn’t care much for the rules that govern the right New York society – she wants what she wants and she intends on getting it. She immediately catches the eye of Ralph Marvel, the son of one of the ‘right’ families, and he decides to marry her before she is ruined by the society he detests. She thinks he’s loaded but actually she’s married the appearance of money and that won’t do at all.

Dogging her steps are a former flame, a super shady guy called Elmer Moffat. He knew her back home, and has arrived on scene in New York making lots of money for lots of people but never really being a part of the right crowd. Undine, bored with life in New York, aims for Paris where she hangs out with some questionable people and meets a Marquise.

Her flirtation with the Marquise becomes more than than, bringing shame on her husband back home. Eventually she gets divorced and marries the Marquise but even that life isn’t what she thought it would be. She hadn’t bet on spending all year in the French countryside in a rundown, ancient chateau. Just as she chafed against the rules of New York society, so she fails to understand or embrace the rules of French society. Until she does, she will be thoroughly miserable.

I never really liked Undine. I especially disliked her father’s habit of calling her ‘Undie.’ In the end though, I did enjoy it. Undine strikes me as thoroughly modern, even if its not in a good way. She’s the kind of woman that is never quite satisfied with what she gets, even if it’s exactly what she asked for. She’s all about instant gratification but she’s very much hampered by the rules that govern her sex at the time (the book was published in 1912, I assumed the story takes place sometime around then).

Wharton continues to throw obstacles in her heroine’s way right up until the very last page and for that I will love her forever.

5

Children’s Lit: Heidi

I’ve recently discovered that I enjoy reading children’s books. Not the kind with pictures (although if there’s an actual child around to read to, I will totally read those) but the classic children’s books that we’ve kind of forgotten about. Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden etc.

There’s something so perfect about revisiting children’s books, a way to pretend like you’re not an adult for a few hours. I’m constantly surprised at how much it sucks to be an adult considering I wished away huge chunks of my childhood, wanting to be an adult so I could stay up as late as I wanted, eat delicious things and buy all the things. Turns out staying up late makes me really tired, I feel like crap when I eat all the nice things and I can’t buy all the things because all the things are expensive.

Evidently my husband knows this about me because for Valentine’s Day he got me the Puffin in Bloom books. These are the classic children’s books that Anne Rifle Bond of Rifle Paper Co. fame collaborated on. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess and Heidi all got the most exquisite makeover and I lusted after them for months (if you don’t already know, she’s also worked on a 150th anniversary edition of Alice in Wonderland, so look for that in November) before they were gifted to me. Major brownie points for the husband.

Out of the bunch, the only one I hadn’t read was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. This weekend I remedied that and devoured this sweet story in a sitting.

heidi

Heidi is an orphan who is delivered to the mountain hut of her grandfather when her aunt can’t look after her any longer. While the aunt goes off to a new job in Frankfurt, Heidi is left to charm her grandfather, who everyone calls Uncle Alp. Uncle Alp was once a big part of his community but long ago stopped caring what his neighbours thought of him and, embittered against God, he retires from village life altogether. He lives at the top of the mountain in a little hut with his goats and that’s the way he likes it. Until Heidi arrives and in her gentle way shows him that there’s more to the world.

Just when everyone gets used to this new way of living, with Heidi visiting Peter-the-goatherd’s grandmother as much as possible while she convinces her grandfather to start looking after his neighbours, everything changes. The aunt comes back and says that Heidi must come back to Frankfurt with her, that she has found a place for her with a wealthy family who is looking for a companion for their invalid daughter. Heidi is taken from everything that she loves to start a new life mostly alone.

The book is basically split into two parts – the first when she is taken to live with the family in Frankfurt and then after she finds her way back and changes the people she knows at home with what she’s learned in that strange other world. While away she learned to pray to God and tell Him all her troubles and to have faith that He will help her when He has decided she is ready. Perhaps a little evangelical for our modern sensibilities but I actually found it a really lovely little reminder that we can’t do everything ourselves. For some of us that means looking to a higher power, for others it means leaning on their families or their communities.

It’s a simple little story but sometimes that’s just what we need. I found Heidi’s desire to be helpful and good to be refreshing. I totally teared up reading this (happy tears) and I’ll definitely read this story again someday – until then this edition will look lovely on my shelves.

16

Finally Read: Rebecca

Aside from having a weird habit of asking for murderous books for Christmas, there’s nothing I like better at this time of year than curling up with a book that takes place at an English manor house.

I had the luxury of of a few days off ahead of the holidays this year. Once the presents were wrapped, the place was clean and we just had to wait for Santa to head this way, I decided that the time had come to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

The kind of opening line that is immediately familiar even if you’ve never read the book before, that sends a delicious chill down your spine because you know good things are coming.

It’s hard to explain this book to the uninitiated. It’s one of those books that is so much better if you know next to nothing about it going in. Du Maurier lays the groundwork from the beginning, delighting in red herrings and confusion caused by the social cues of the day and the lack of any sort of communication. But make no mistake, the lack of communication doesn’t make what’s actually happening any less sinister.

A young woman is learning to be a professional companion in Monte Carlo when she meets the recently widowed Maxim de Winter. When Mrs Van Hopper becomes ill, the young woman is left to her own devices and finds her time taken up with driving excursions with Mr de Winter. At the end of two weeks she becomes engaged and after an Italian honeymoon, she travels back to Manderley as the second Mrs de Winter.

Once they get back, she is thrown into a lifestyle that she certainly didn’t grow up for. She’s now in charge of a grand old house, an entire county is looking to her to provide the kinds of entertainments that the former Mrs de Winter made the estate famous for. She has to deal with the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers who was completely devoted to the first Mrs de Winter and delights in undermining the new one.

Oh this book. I don’t want to say much more – if you haven’t read it, you should remedy that. If you have, you know what I mean. When you read the first line, you know it’s a big one but it isn’t until you finish the book that you realize how big that line is.

Rebecca is now most definitely on my list of all time favourite books. I can’t wait to read this again one day.

9

Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley Is No North and South

I’m working my way through Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley right now. It’s been a week; I’m starting to get antsy.

Reading Shirley is reminding me of forcing my way through Daniel Deronda. That story doesn’t have a happy ending. I mean the story of me reading the book – taking three weeks to slog through those 700 pages has long been blamed for only managing to read 64 out of a planned 65 books that year. The actual story…I can’t remember the ending.

The funny thing about Daniel Deronda is that every time I go back and read a summary I’m like that book sounds awesome! Why didn’t I like it? But despite my love for Middlemarch (by the same author), Daniel Deronda just didn’t work for me.

And I fear that the same thing is happening with Shirley. Is Charlotte Bronte a one hit wonder? You may recall that I didn’t have a lot of love to give for Villette. With Shirley, I swear I run in and out of consciousness; I read without realizing it and that is no way to read.

It should be good. It reminds me a lot of North and South which I loved so much. But there’s no Mr. Thornton to love. Robert Moore is kind of a dick and he can’t make up his mind between lovely, sweet, thoughtful Caroline Helstone and temperamental, generous, wealthy Shirley Keeldar. I have no idea how this is going to go down – Caroline probably dies of consumption.

It took 200 pages to even meet Shirley you guys. Two hundred pages of leg work to meet the title character. Not even a whisper of her before that. It’s all Caroline. Which would be fine except that the people in Caroline’s life spend an awful lot of time talking about how feeble women and Caroline are.

The dialogue between the women is strong, I’ll give it that. I just read a delightful scene where Caroline is visiting Robert Moore’s sister who is being visited by Mrs. Yorke, the town matron. Mrs. Yorke sermonizes at Caroline about this, that and the other, being a general pain in the ass, and Caroline, soft-spoken, shy Caroline, totally gives it back to her. I’m enjoying the discussions on the place of women in society, seeing how far we have come and yet, how much is sadly similar.

But I’m still waiting for the magic. I’m still waiting to be swept up in dramatic Yorkshire.

I hope there’s a payoff waiting for me. Have you read Shirley? Is it coming?

8

Book Questionnaire

It’s not always easy to come up with posts for a blog, especially one solely about books. So every once in a while it’s fantastic to find things like the Book Q&A (which I stole from My Life in Books) to fill blog space! If you end up doing your own, leave a link in the comments so I can see!

(Please excuse the formatting on this!)

Book Q&A Rules
1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favorite book cover
3. Answer the questions below
4. Tag a few people to answer them too
5. Go to their blog/twitter and tell them you’ve tagged them
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you’ve taken part!
Your Favorite Book Cover:
NightCircusTPsmallAs a rule, I don’t love books about the circus, but I couldn’t get away from the brilliant simplicity of the paperback version of The Night Circus. I was completely seduced by the cover and it became one of my favourite books!

What are you reading right now? The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. 
Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that? Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell or Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. I’m not sure that 2 more different options exist…
What five books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to? 
1. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (this book will likely plague me for always)
2. The End by Ian Kershaw
3. Gold by Chris Cleave
4. That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba
5. The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel (irony no?)
What magazines do you have in your bathroom/ lounge right now? Uh yeah, that’s gross so, none.
What’s the worst book you’ve ever read? The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. I know. I was really surprised too.
What book seemed really popular but you didn’t like? Water for Elephants. People still try and convince me that I was wrong and it’s really very good. Circuses guys, not my thing.
What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone? Pride & Prejudice but that’s because it is my own favourite and I just can’t understand how people have managed to go their whole lives without reading it! I try not to blanket recommend though – people’s reading tastes are very diverse.
What are your three favorite poems?
1. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare. Thanks to Sense and Sensibility for that one (Marianne and Willoughby? Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments, for love is not love which alters when it alteration finds – sigh)
2. In Flanders’ Fields by John McRae because I’m Canadian.
3. Because I Could Not Stop For Death by Emily Dickinson – a bit morbid, but the imagery of riding in a carriage with Death has always stuck with me.
Where do you usually get your books? Big chain bookstores like Chapters. I know. For shame. I also use bookdepository.com because shipping is free. And I plan on spending a lot more time at the library so there’s that.
When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits? Not that I can really remember. I just remember the point where I didn’t want to be read to anymore because I felt like I could read faster than if someone was reading to me. Little jerk.
What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was too good to put down? Honestly this doesn’t happen very often because I’ve gotten very good at parcelling out my reading. I can tell how long it will take me to finish something so more often than not I finish reading on the bus home and have another book in my bag to start.
Have you ever “faked” reading a book? No. That seems like a waste of energy.
Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover? All the time! That’s why book covers are important. We all do it – probably because we know we’re not supposed to!
What was your favourite book when you were a child? Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Oh Canada.
What book changed your life? Anne of Green Gables and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Anne of Green Gables because Anne was a kid just like me when I read it (well not exactly like me obviously – I had electricity and indoor plumbing) and she went on to do amazing things. The Happiness Project because it showed me that I can make little changes in my own life to up my day-to-day happiness quota. Seems simple but it really is something that someone else needs to point out to you!
What is your favorite passage from a book? 
The first time Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth and she gets SO angry. It’s long but it starts with You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than it has spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner. 
And then Mr. Darcy is all startled and she keeps going. It’s awesome.
Who are your top five favorite authors? (Aside from number 1, in no particular  order)
1. Jane Austen. Hands down.
2. Marian Keyes
3. Ken Follett
4. Agatha Christie
5. JK Rowling
What book has no one heard about but should read? The Imperfectionists by Tom
Rachman. Set in Rome at an English language newspaper as we’re all struggling with the potential loss of print media, it is a masterpiece.
What books are you an ‘evangelist’ for? Pride and Prejudice. Seriously, it will blow your mind how many people have not read it. Currently I’m working on getting people to read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.
What are your favorite books by a first time author? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.
What is your favourite classic book? Really? Pride and Prejudice. Les Miserables is a close second. 
Five other notable mentions?
1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
OK! That’s it! Your turn!
7

Some Thoughts on Les Miserables

I did it. I finished Les Miserables. There were no pages missing. I wasn’t bored. I didn’t drift off. I finished it and it was glorious.

I loved this book. I loved it. It was so beautiful and uplifting but heartbreaking and devastating all at the same time. I belong to Victor Hugo for life.

Do you think I’m being a shade overdramatic? Perhaps. But this book really was incredible.

I saw the movie before I read the book, which means that some of my reading experience was for sure coloured by that. For instance, in the book Marius is really not friendly to Eponine. And I found myself disappointed by that because I was so into that unrequited love angle in the movie. Don’t get me wrong, you can tell that Eponine is into Marius. But it’s harder to get behind the idea when Marius is being kind of a dick to her all the time. Why do some women fall for cruel men? Marius in the book is not nearly as heart-throbby as Eddie Redmayne’s Marius. But was Mr. Darcy hot before he was Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy? I don’t know. For me, they are one and the same. It might be the same thing with Marius. Although he really disappointed me when Jean Valjean came clean with him and Marius kind of turned against him and didn’t want Cosette to see him anymore.

He’s her dad Marius. He saved your life!

(Marius didn’t know this at the time. He made up for it. But it was a shade too late.)

I think Gavroche was actually my favourite character in the book. Jean Valjean is clearly the best character ever- everything he does is motivated out of a wish to be good and do the right thing. But while Valjean’s sainthood can sometimes be exasperating (can you just not go try and clear that other man’s name? Can you just leave it?!), Gavroche is a cheeky devil. He’s still concerned with doing right, but mostly by himself. He’s a street urchin, he needs to eat and he will do whatever he needs to. When he ends up taking care of two little boys (his brothers, but he doesn’t know that) who have lost their home…oh man. I don’t know if there’s a better illustration of poverty in France at the time than this. And then when he dies? Poor little man!

Obviously it’s a long book. And there were moments when I thought that I might never get through it. But they never lasted very long because even on his tangents of war and faith and love and goodness, Hugo always has a point. The story is so skillfully crafted – everything has meaning. Characters that you encountered early on, come back to be significant later. Finally, everything is tied together so perfectly. There might not be a more satisfying ending.

Despite its size, I’m actually contemplating reading this again one day. It was that good. In the meantime, I have the soundtrack to bring me back there.