The Blue Castle

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Title: The Blue Castle

Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery

Publisher: e-artnow

Pages: 235

Format Read: Kindle

L.M. Montgomery is best known for “Anne of the Green Gables” – the story of that redheaded, talkative, imaginative child called Anne (whose name is spelt with an ‘e’). This was a book I read and really, really enjoyed. Montgomery’s writing was beautiful, and Anne was a spirited little girl with her head full of dreams and magic stories. It was hard not to like her. “Anne…” was originally published in 1908.

“The Blue Castle,” published first in 1926, introduces a grown-up protagonist, Valancy Stirling. Valancy is twenty nine, socially awkward, and low in self-confidence, and, in what is considered quite scandalous, unmarried. She is unattractive, her bossy mother likes to remind her. She is strange, her aunt and cousins like to tell her. There is also, much to Valancy’s chagrin, a younger, exquisitely beautiful cousin called Olive who is graceful and articulate and engaged to a wealthy young man.

As an escape, Valancy conjures up a ‘blue castle’ in her mind, where she is the lady of the house. A place where everybody likes her and she has an endless stream of suitors.

The atmosphere at home is oppressive, and Valancy, in a shocking revelation, is told that she has a fatal heart condition. The doctor’s terse letter explaining her illness to her shakes Valancy up – and she finds courage that she never knew she had. She moves out of her home (ignoring her family’s hysterics) and takes up residence with the terminally ill Cissy Gay and her father.

With Valancy’s new found independence also comes a romance with the notorious Barney Snaith. Naturally, Valancy’s family is scandalized, and to their shock, Valancy just does not care. That she is now as notorious as her husband in the little town of Deerwood does not concern her at all.

The fictitious town of Deerwood is beautifully described – you can almost see the beauty of the landscape through Montgomery’s lyrical use of prose. The author also makes some astute observations on human nature. Valancy is a relatable, flawed heroine, a young woman who manages to break free from those who constantly tell her she can never, ever succeed. And her happiness, she discovers, is entirely of her own making, without the shackles of negativity that dogged her throughout her life.

An inspiring, gentle story of self-discovery that is masterfully told.

 

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Man-Eaters of Kumaon

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Title: Man-Eaters of Kumaon

Author: Jim Corbett

Publisher: Rupa

Pages: 170

Format Read: Paperback

“While looking at the leg I had forgotten all about the tigress until I suddenly felt that I was in great danger.”

– Jim Corbett in ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’

A British hunter and conservationist, Jim Corbett (1875-1955) was instrumental in the creation of the tiger reserve in Uttarakhand, India, the Jim Corbett National Park. He was also, as his writings show, a keen tracker of man-eaters and a prolific writer. The anecdotes in the book took place in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Man-Eaters of Kumaon” is probably his best known work, and as the title suggests, this is a book about the hunter Corbett on the trail of man-eating tigers. Some of these animals had kill counts in the hundreds, terrorized villagers, and left a trail of destruction and fear in their wake. These were, from the accounts of Corbett, highly intelligent creatures that waited for the perfect moment to strike.

Corbett’s view of the villagers, their lives and customs, and his commentary on their beliefs do not come across as supercilious in “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” unlike several other colonial writings of the time. He appears to understand that Hindus cremate their dead and tries to find the bodies of victims killed by the tigers.  He offers insights into the habits of man-eating tigers and why they become man-eaters in the first place. He recounts his efforts to track the tigers and notices the unusual way they hunt. His account in ‘The Chowgarh Tigers’ is particularly eerie, where a tigress and her cub hunt as a pair. And the Champawat man-eater, Corbett says, reportedly killed 436 people.

Nearly all of his short essays in “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” are about actual man-eaters. The exception being ‘The Bachelor of Powalgarh’ which was, frankly, a disturbing recollection of big game trophy hunting.

My favourite piece in this book is naturally the short essay titled ‘Robin.’ Robin was Jim Corbett’s dog, a little animal that Corbett chanced upon quite unexpectedly. Robin was a happy and faithful companion on Corbett’s adventures, a dog who quickly learned how to accompany his human on hunting quests.

Corbett takes pains to elaborate his hunting process and does not hide the fact that these tigers terrified him as much as they frightened their victims. Man-eaters are intelligent creatures that have strayed from their normal diets to feast on humans, and that is not natural, as Corbett explains. Almost all of these tigers were also, he remarks dryly, well nourished.

“Man-Eaters of Kumaon” is a very well written, highly readable work that explores the techniques of a hunter on the trail of other hunters in the wild.

Collected Poems (W.B. Yeats)

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Title: Collected Poems

Author: W.B. Yeats

Publisher: Macmillan Popular Classics

Pages: 476

Format Read: Paperback

“Come round me, little childer;

There, don’t fling stones at me

Because I mutter as I go;

But pity Moll Magee.”

–  ‘The Ballad of Moll Magee’ by W.B. Yeats, in “Collected Poems”

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote poetry and plays and prose pieces that were lush in imagery and mysticism, and myth – with themes ranging from mythology and folklore and romance to politics and war and the world around him. “Collected Poems” is a beautifully compiled volume of Yeats’s poetry, and since the book is over 400 pages long, there are a great many poems dealing with a variety of themes.

Sometimes, there are moments when I would like to disengage from the chaos of the world around me, and dive straight into a poem rich in symbolism. And Yeats’s poetry gives me exactly that, an escape, a reprieve. There is a dream-like quality to the poems in ‘Collected Poems.’ Personally, I prefer the works that touch upon mythology and folk tales, poems with a hint of otherworldly magic.

It is difficult to choose a few from such a large selection of poetry, especially when there are classics in here like ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’

‘Anashuya and Vijaya’ (page 7) is particularly intriguing. This one has an ancient Indian feel to it, like looking past a gauzy veil into a sunlit colonnade. ‘Anashuya and Vijaya’ is a romance – Anashuya is a priestess, and she suspects Vijaya of seeing another woman. What follows is quite the lyrical confrontation.

‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ (page 173) is the soliloquy of a pilot during the First World War. At a time of turmoil, the pilot sees himself perishing for his cause – and he finds hope in his country, and his people, and the place of his birth, Ireland. This is a short poem, and very heartfelt. ‘Easter 1916’ (page 234) again deals with Ireland’s uprising against the British in the Easter Rising of April 1916. It is a political poem that uses powerful imagery – peaceful pastoral scenes and the fire of an uprising, and then, finally, sorrow for the dead.

Overall, “Collected Poems” is a lovely, well indexed compilation that makes Yeats’s poetry that much more accessible.

“Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor…”

–  ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ by W.B. Yeats, in “Collected Poems”

Laugh with Leacock

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Book:  Laugh with Leacock

Author:  Stephen Leacock

Publisher:  Pocket Books Inc. (1947)

Pages:  324

Format Read: Paperback

She was begirt with a flowing kirtle of deep blue, bebound with a belt bebuckled with a silvern clasp, while at her waist a stomacher of point lace ended in a ruffled farthingale at her throat.

Stephen Leacock in ‘Guido the Gimlet of Ghent’

Laugh with Leacock (page 52)

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) was a Canadian writer, humourist, political activist, and professor. He was, during the early twentieth century, the best known humourist in the English language.

“Laugh with Leacock” is a collection of short pieces with themes ranging from a rattled customer going to a bank, to a certain tenant insisting on paying rent to his benevolent landlord, with so many others in between. There’s a play of words in these pieces that is absolutely refreshing – and it makes the satire that much more effective. The author’s social commentary is scathing. And hilarious.

My favourites in this collection include ‘Guido the Gimlet of Ghent: A Romance of Chivalry’ and the ridiculously ridiculous ‘Gertrude the Governess.’ Both are gothic-type mediaevalesque parodies (although ‘Getrude’ is a little more modern.) ‘Letters to the New Rulers of the World’ is just that. Letters. They’re missives to rulers including a disposed, disgruntled king with many titles and names, and a ‘brother in darkness.’ ‘The Snoopopaths’ is a cleverly crafted mystery that manages to play games with the reader’s mind.

‘Love Me, Love My Letters’ has a series of disastrous love letters, and ‘The Great Detective’ features an all knowing, impossibly intelligent detective solving impossible cases. These are described by the Poor Nut, his mystified associate. The Poor Nut realizes that the Great Detective “…knew as much of the finesse of Italian wines as he did of playing the saxophone.” (page 31)

And of course, ‘The Affair with My Landlord’ is all about that crazy tenant who wants to pay rent. Only his landlord isn’t allowing him to. How incredibly infuriating.

The second-last piece, ‘Humour As I See It’ is an author’s commentary on humour in general, its writing, and how humour is perceived. It was, after a series of humorous tales, an enlightening read.

Leacock’s humour is sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, rarely slapstick, and very well written. “Laugh with Leacock” is a classic feel-good book.

Wildwood Dancing

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Book:  Wildwood Dancing

Author:  Juliet Marillier

Publisher: Knopf

Pages:  432

Format Read: Paperback

Jenica, or Jena, fifteen and the second oldest of five sisters, has a secret. She and her sisters know of a portal that opens during the Full Moon. And that portal, in all its magic, leads them, and her, to a Dancing Glade, where faeries gather for their moonlit revel. There is dancing, and music, and, as Jena discovers as the story progresses, hidden secrets and danger lurking in the shadows.

Set in Transylvania, “Wildwood Dancing” vividly depicts the old castle Jena and her sisters live in, and the woodlands surrounding the castle are steeped in magic and folklore. I found the setting mysterious, and Marillier’s prose fluid. Jena’s father leaves his daughters for a few months on the doctor’s orders – he is ill, and needs rest away from home, somewhere warmer. That leaves Jena, who must manage his business and his merchant trade, until her rather bigoted and narrow minded cousin Cezar arrives to take it all away from her.

All that keeps Jena going is the promise of the Other Kingdom and its Dancing Glade. Until that too causes her worry when her older sister Tatiana decides to pursue a dark suitor from the realm beyond. There’s nothing Jena can say, or do, to prevent that forbidden romance.

Jena finds solace in Gogu, her best friend. And a frog. A talking frog, except nobody can hear him other than her.

Woven through the story is also a childhood tragedy, that of Cezar’s cousin Costi who drowned in the nearby Deadwash. His death has apparently driven Cezar to near madness and a maniacal need for control. Whoever heard of girls doing business anyway? That’s his argument for anything Jena tries to do. Besides, she’s too assertive for his tastes, and so, naturally, in his own words, a shrew.

I found this book deceptively simple. The story has many threads running through it – enchantments, lost lives, romance, mystery and magic – and all of them are brought together to form a strange and unexpected conclusion. Cezar is incredibly annoying and believes in the inferiority of the female mind. Jena, intelligent and mature beyond her years tries to make the best of a horrible situation. Tatiana is…well. Tatiana is simply in the throes of her romance. Gogu, Jena’s frog, is sweet tempered and supportive, and not quite what he seems.

“Wildwood Dancing” is an enchanting book with a beautiful cover. I’m glad I read this one.

Daphnis and Chloe

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Book: Daphnis and Chloe

Author: Longus, translated by Phiroze Vasunia

Publisher: Penguin (Little Black Classics series)

Pages: 110

Format Read: Paperback

The grove was beautiful, full of trees and flowers and flowing water, and a single spring nourished everything…”

Longus, “Daphnis and Chloe”, translated by Phiroze Vasunia

Classified as an ancient Greek novel, “Daphnis and Chloe” is a pastoral romance, usually dated to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Not much is known about the author Longus. He does say that he was hunting in Lesbos, and that he found a painting in the grove of the Nymphs, and that he wove the story of the painting in words. And from those words came the story of the young man Daphnis, the goatherd, and  the young woman Chloe, the shepherd.

Both of them were adopted – and both were suckled by animals for a short period of time. Dryas and Lamon, their fathers, are told in a dream to send their children off to become a goatherd and shepherd, presumably so they can meet. Neither father is happy about this choice of vocation, but the dream was sent by the Nymphs, and there can be no defiance.

“Daphnis and Chloe” is a simply told tale, heavy on the romance. Both protagonists are naïve and when they discover their feelings for each other, neither knows what to do. Which leads to some comical scenes. And of course they cannot take their eyes off each other, for has not Eros put a spell on them? But before that happy conclusion where they can finally be together, there are challenges. Rival suitors and fledgling jealously, and a disgruntled rival bemoaning the loss of his best cheeses. Raider attacks. A hint of the supernatural. Daphnis is handsome and Chloe is beautiful, and both are really, really awkward.

Also, the pastoral countryside, the customs of the time and the uniqueness of the religion of the area are all drawn out skilfully, providing a wondrous glimpse into an ancient time, beautifully told. The translation in this one is natural and fluid.

The Penguin Little Black Classics edition simply presents the text of “Daphnis and Chloe” – there are no introductions, or notes, or footnotes. I didn’t have a problem with that though because the story tells itself eloquently.

This book definitely grabbed my interest. Also, for me, “Daphnis and Chloe” was a happy read.

Crenshaw

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Book: Crenshaw

Author: Katherine Applegate

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 246

Format Read: Kindle

Jackson is an intelligent and articulate child. He wants to be an animal scientist when he grows up, and “Crenshaw” is told from his point of view. And while he has his grown-up profession all mapped out in his head, his life at the moment is fraught with difficulties. He lives in a cramped apartment with his parents and five year old sister. Their finances are dwindling, and Jackson’s father is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Most of the family’s possessions have to be sold – and Jackson is terrified that they will become homeless, and forced to live in their minivan.

And in the middle of all that, a large (outsize, actually) and friendly cat turns up. His name is Crenshaw, and Jackson is pretty sure he isn’t real. Cats do not take bubble baths and surfboard. His rational, scientist mind is appalled at the idea that he, of all children, should have an imaginary friend.

But there it is.

Crenshaw the cat really shouldn’t be there, but he is. And his presence gives Jackson a sense of purpose, and the strength to deal with the crisis around him. Something about Crenshaw gives the boy a chance to reflect, and something to hope for.

Essentially, “Crenshaw” is the story of an imaginary friend who keeps a lonely child company. Crenshaw the cat knows all that Jackson knows, obviously. But he also knows a little more than the child knows. So is he really imaginary?

I also found Jackson’s best friend Marisol an interesting character. On the surface, Marisol is as rational as Jackson is. But Marisol, unlike Jackson, is hardly surprised by an imaginary friend. Because she believes in magic, even if it is imaginary magic, because it gives her something to believe in and hope for.

And for Jackson, accepting Crenshaw (bubble baths included), as a friend was exactly the kind of magic he needed. Even if he is only imaginary.

Except that his dog Aretha can see Crenshaw…

A very true and vibrant children’s story, “Crenshaw” was definitely worth the read.

“I’ll leap on to their beds and walk on their heads. It will be amusing.”

Crenshaw in “Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate