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I am certain we had the boxed set of Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery at some point but they seem to have disappeared. But I just re-read the original Anne book, written in 1908, for my book club. I never read these books as a child, but did read the whole series aloud to my own kids. I remembered them as sweet, somewhat romanticized stories of an idyllic childhood on Prince Edward Island.

Re-reading Anne of Green Gables now, I noticed how much Montgomery comments on society, politics, morality, gender roles, etc. In the opening pages, it’s clear that Anne’s coming into Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s lives is accidental, and problematic because she’s a girl. That much I remembered. But I didn’t recall how diligently — and somewhat humorlessly — Marilla works to ensure Anne becomes hardworking, considerate, well educated, faithful, and humble not only because she believes she knows more about “bringing up a child” than Matthew does, but also because she’s afraid.

Marilla’s world is one in which a woman is not independent unless a man has made her so — a father, husband, or brother, for example, who provides either a home or an inheritance. When Anne has been selected for the “Queen’s class” to study for entrance exams for further education in town, Marilla notes, “I believe in a girl being fitted to earn her own living whether she ever has to or not.” Marilla knows that she herself doesn’t have that freedom. She’s afraid to leave Anne unprepared.

From the start of the book it’s clear that idyllic as their little town is, Anne and the Cuthberts are also not free of their neighbor’s opinions — Mrs. Lynde, Mrs. Barry and old Miss Barry, among others, weigh in on Anne’s behavior, personality, and looks. They live in a society where people adhere to expectations, and Anne is forever butting up against that set of strictures. And yet as far as I can tell, Anne’s only real “fault” seems to be a naturally optimistic and cheerful outlook and a tendency to let her imagination distract her.  And it becomes clear that these are qualities the adults in her world value, even if they think her “queer” or “odd.” Even Marilla, whose instinct is caution, comes to admire Anne’s spirit.

Montgomery was writing at a time when the world seemed scary. There had been  financial panic in 1907. Political changes, class and labor unrest, and signs that longstanding social and cultural structures and institutions were not necessarily as reliable nor benevolent as once thought made people uncertain and worried about the future. Perhaps because I reread the book in a time when people are afraid of similar things — economic concerns, social structures that have let society down, distrust of institutions and systems in education, labor, and government —  I seemed to notice fear and uncertainty rippling beneath the gentle story of a girl being brought up right in a small town in a beautiful place. I suspect anyone as imaginative and cheerful as Anne would be considered more than a little odd today.

Have you reread something from your or your children’s childhood and seen it in a new light? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

 

 

Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

Simon at Stuck in a Book commented here at bookconscious recently and I checked out his blog. When I saw the #1930club post, I looked around at my shelves and realized I had a to-read novel, Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, which was published in 1930.

I think I first heard about it on The Readers and I bought it with a gift card when I left my previous library job. That was about a year and a half ago, but sometimes I think books recede into the shelves until the time is right. I hadn’t read anything else by Hermann Hesse but noticed in the author bio in my ugly little mass market paperback that he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. As the world contemplates the bizarre 2018/2019 announcement, marred first by last year’s prize being delayed by scandal and then by accusations that the 2019 winner is “an apologist for genocide,” I read this strange and beautiful book about two motherless medieval men and their search for meaning.

Narcissus and Goldmund is set in a cloistered monastery in Germany, where Goldmund, a fair haired and sweet natured boy, is left by his father to study and prepare to enter monastic life. His teacher is younger than most, still training to be a priest himself, an intelligent and preternaturally observant man named Narcissus. As Goldmund reaches the end of his formal education, Narcissus tells him plainly that his calling isn’t scholarship or the priesthood. He conjures memories of Goldmund’s loving but faithless mother and brings back the pain of her abandonment.

After this crisis, Goldmund’s leaves the cloister on a years long journey of pleasure, responsible to no one, loving as many women as he can, skirting a possible calling in favor of wandering. I’ll leave the details for you to read but suffice to say he has plenty to confess to years later, when he’s in a real scrape and Narcissus manages to rescue him.

They return to the monastery and have a series of conversations about when people can realize their true selves, the role of ideas versus images, whether thinking and ideas are worth anything on their own or are made worthy when they are applied to life’s challenges, and more. Goldmund tries a more settled life and work, and the book’s final crisis leaves both men more aware of who they are and what they mean to each other.

The story feels less like a novel than an allegory, as many key details point to ideas about love, friendship, caring, faith, sin, bigotry, greed, selfishness. The role of nature and study in developing one’s identity, the purpose of art and ideas, and the benefits of ritual and discipline are also among Hesse’s topics. It’s an old fashioned tale, a little more male-centric than I’m used to reading, with women only playing the roles of temptresses or virgins.

Still it was a good read, and Hesse’s writing is powerful and descriptive. Take this passage where Goldmund has come across a house where all the occupants are dead of plague:

“How sad and ghostlike was this small home, with the remains of the hearthfire still glowing, inhabited by corpses, completely filled with death, penetrated by death. . . . What other people performed in the privacy of their coffins, in the graves, well hidden and invisible, the last and poorest performance, this falling apart and decaying, was performed here at home by five people in their rooms, in broad daylight, behind an unlocked door, thoughtlessly, shamelessly, vulnerably. Goldmund had seen many corpses before but never an example like this of the merciless workings of death. Deeply he studied it.”

Pretty vivid. I’m glad I picked it up and that the #1930club gave me reason to read it.

Discussion reads

I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer Fleming, one for book club and one for another group discussion. Rather than talk about those books specifically — what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said about Toni Morrison? And why review a mystery that is several books into a series? — I thought I’d muse on reading books other people have chosen.

We do it for years as children, reading what teachers tell us to, or choosing from a prescribed list. I hated it when I volunteered in the children’s room in a public library when my kids were small and a child would come in with a parent who wanted the child to read a book worth certain points; when I was young, my mother would turn us loose at the library to choose whatever we wanted and I can remember a delicious sense of agency and freedom, wandering the rows of shelves, exploring my options. I feel one way to turn a kid off of reading is to be prescriptive about what they have to read.

I’ve worked in different settings where I had to read either ahead of an author visit or in order to facilitate a book club and at one point here at bookconscious I wrote about my husband’s observation that reading wasn’t even fun for me anymore. Reading for work is slightly different. I choose to be a part of various discussion groups now, even though there will be months where I don’t like the selection.

Why? I feel like the act of following through with reading something I wouldn’t necessarily pick myself and/or that isn’t what I like to read, or even, occasionally, that I flat out don’t enjoy is about choosing community and expanding my horizons. Sometimes I still don’t like it even after the discussion, but sometimes I see new things in a book after I hear other’ views. Of course sometimes people don’t like a book I recommended, and so reading their recommendations is partly an acknowledgement that committing to a discussion group or book club is about trusting the process of collaborating on choices, and listening to others’ views.

Happily there are times when I end up reading something I am very glad to have read. Or that I didn’t enjoy but know was good for me to read anyway, and can appreciate for its power or beauty (The Bluest Eye falls into that category). But whether or not I enjoy a particular book, I think that showing up — to read and to discuss — is worth doing, because the experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, both in the text and in the group, is worth my time and makes life richer.

 

My daughter gave me The Diary of A Bookseller by Shawn Bythell for my birthday. I’d first heard about it in some sort of media report about Wigtown, Scotland and it’s annual book festival. It’s a yearlong diary Bythell kept to share his life as owner of a large used bookstore in a small rural town.

I’ve worked in an indie bookstore and I felt fairly well aware of the threat Amazon has been to booksellers but I was thinking from the perspective of stores that primarily sell new books. I didn’t fully grasp the way Amazon has undermined the value of used books and made it harder and less profitable to run a used bookshop.

I used to fantasize about having a used bookstore and even had a book (which I think I bought at Powell’s) about how to do start and run one, right down to how to build the shelves. I let the book go a few years ago when we were having a big clear out (to make way for more books) and realized then that the business had likely changed so much I’d be better off learning from someone in the trade today.  The Diary of a Bookseller drove that point home for sure.

Some of what Bythell described is recognizable to anyone who has worked retail or in a library — the regulars who are both very familiar and complete strangers, the rude or demanding or opinionated people who feel entitled to provide commentary on the way things are run, the stock, the prices, the staff, etc. Other challenges I hadn’t considered, like the wear and tear on the body of lugging boxes of books, the difficulty of heating a very old building, and the fearful difficulty of clearing a clogged gutter in a downpour to stop it flooding the shop.

I admire Bythell’s desire to be independent, to quietly fight on against giants like Amazon and Waterstones, and to find hope in kind customers and in the beauty of living where one wants, doing something one values. It’s also really interesting to read the quotes from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories at the start of each chapter and realize that as different as the world was in the first half of the 20th century when Orwell worked in a bookshop, many things he wrote about are still true today.

This was an interesting and enjoyable read, and I hope to make it to Wigtown and The Bookshop one day! I also hope the Random Book Club re-opens for membership. In less than a year I’ll be done with my second foray into grad school and free to read whatever I want, so that would be a good gift to myself!

Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

When I read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair couple of weeks ago, the section on heliotrope included notes Oscar Wilde makes in his play An Ideal Husband about the villainess Mrs. Cheveley when she enters a party at Lord and Lady Chiltern’s house in Grosvenor Square: “She is in heliotrope, with diamonds.” Just as I followed the trail from A Month in the Country to Under the Greenwood Tree, I decided this afternoon to read Wilde’s play and see whether Mrs. Cheveley, who St. Clair’s describes as Wilde’s “deliciously immoral antiheroine” and one of the many “badly behaved characters . . . often described as wearing the color” in literature is as wicked as all that.

And she is. I think I’ve only ever seen one play by Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest. I’d forgotten how funny he is. An Ideal Husband could be about rich politicians today . . . in fact I think it would be fun to see a contemporary setting. Lord and Lady Chiltern are pillars of London society, he a member of Parliament, she his political partner and very involved in worthy causes. They are widely thought of as good people. At a party, Mrs. Cheveley shows up, fresh from Vienna where she’s been living, and promptly blackmails Lord Chiltern. She has evidence of Chiltern selling insider information to a rich Baron when Chiltern was a young man, “well-born but poor.” She wants him to make a speech promoting a project he is set to denounce, which would make her a fortune. She threatens to expose his earlier misdeed if he doesn’t do what she wants.

Chiltern is terrified, not of losing his own position, but of disappointing and possibly even losing his wife. He turns to his dear friend, Lord Goring for advice. Goring is a vain young man whose father thinks he is lazy (his equally silly love interest, Lord Chiltern’s younger sister Mabel, counters this by noting that among other things he “changes his clothes five times a day and dines out every night of the season” and is therefore not “leading an idle life”). But he is a loyal friend, and does his best to help, to great comic effect.

The play moves along at a good pace and covers only one twenty-four hour period, so it was a quick read. Wilde skewers London’s “season” and comments acerbically on marriage, wealth, and greed — Mrs. Cheveley is really a nasty, selfish, mean-spirited person who has apparently despised Lady Chiltern since they were young and has stolen jewelry which she has the audacity to wear. But he is gentle on Chiltern, or so it seems to me. I could see how tempting it was for the young Chiltern to do what he felt necessary to put himself in a position of influence, and how he’d spent his life trying to make up for his ill gotten gains by using his ambition for good.

Wilde also writes fairly bitterly about relationships. At one point Chiltern is addressing his wife, after telling her about how he couldn’t admit his crime to her because she’d built him up into something he was not: “Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses.” That’s a pretty dark view of marriage.

I also appreciated this bit of Goring’s advice: “Well, the English can’t stand a man who is always saying he is in the right, but they are very fond of a man who admits that he has been in the wrong. It is one of the best things in them. However, in your case, Robert, a confession would not do. The money, if you will allow me to say so, is  . . . awkward. Besides, if you did make a clean breast of the whole affair, you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England, a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician.”

That to me is painfully funny — I love the understated ” . . . awkward”  and isn’t it true that politicians love to moralize, especially the ones who’ve done immoral things themselves? This passage seems to me to relate to much of what’s still wrong with politics and public perception of politicians today. An Ideal Husband was a really fun Sunday afternoon read. I’m interested in reading more — we have a a book of Wilde’s complete plays, so the next time I’m between books and casting about for something short and entertaining, I’ll know where to turn.