Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Title: Girl with a Pearl Earring

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 248

Format Read: Paperback

This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Set in 17th century Holland, the novel follows Griet, a girl who receives a couple of surprise visitors one day. She is, she is told by her mother, to work as a maid for a certain painter, and the painter and his wife have come to see her. The wife is a little short of temper, pregnant, and difficult. The painter notices that Griet arranges vegetables for her soup in a methodical fashion, and asks her about it, much to her surprise.

That painter is, of course, Johannes Vermeer.

Griet learns to work at his household that is full of children with more on the way. She learns how to deal with the older housekeeper, Tanneke. She meets the formidable mother of Catharina, Vermeer’s wife. She learns how to clean Vermeer’s studio without making it seem that she’s been in there at all.

And then she becomes a part of Vermeer’s world and the subject of a painting of a girl with a pearl earring.

Griet and the events surrounding her employment at the painter’s household are fictitious, but Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fascinating novel. The historical world of the Delft is brought to life in simple prose without the ponderous verbiage that sometimes accompanies historical fiction novels. Griet comes across as impetuous yet courteous, curious without being overbearing, and is a well-drawn out character. It is easy to sympathise with her as she navigates this new world of art and the painter’s peculiar attention to her. Vermeer himself is rarely named, and simply alluded to by Griet as ‘he.’ Which is, actually, an interesting way of referring to him. Naturally, Catharina is impatient with her, Tanneke is annoyed and a little jealous, Maria Thins (Catharina’s mother) does not know what to do with her. And then there’s Vermeer’s daughter Cornelia, who, despite her youth at the beginning, manages to get Griet into all sorts of trouble.

There are also some other…problems that Griet must learn to deal with. Uncomfortable problems, like van Ruijven, Vermeer’s patron. Griet is just a maid, now, isn’t she? And thus, van Ruijven thinks he can take liberties with her, putting her in a perilous situation, considering her station and his influence.

I thought this a very interesting novel indeed.

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The Sundial

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Title: The Sundial

Author: Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin (Modern Classics)

Pages: 222

Format Read: Paperback

I enjoyed this book. Mrs. Halloran inherits Halloran House with its peculiar past on account of her son’s death. Naturally, her daughter-in-law is upset, and that much is made clear right at the beginning of the novel.

And her daughter-in-law is the least of Mrs. Halloran’s problems. Her husband isn’t in the best of health, and her sister-in-law has begun to have visions of her dear departed father. So much so that she has declared herself a prophetess of doom (all while wearing her mother’s diamonds, of course. You can’t be a prophetess without the diamonds.)

But what is the book about, exactly? It seems to be about the house itself, and its history. Then it seems to be about the visions Aunt Fanny (the prophetess sister-in-law) talks about. There’s also a doomsday cult thrown in for good measure.

Most of all, though, I found the novel a fascinating interplay of characters in an odd setting trying to make sense of looming uncertainty, even insanity. There’s an undercurrent of wry humour, a sense of dread. Nobody is quite sane in the book, and Aunt Fanny’s nightmare wanderings in the garden are eerie. Tying the story together is that odd sundial in the garden with its inscription ‘WHAT IS THIS WORLD?’

Added to the fracas are visitors, employees, and Mrs. Halloran’s creepy little granddaughter Fancy. A strange novel, to be sure, and difficult to describe, but a lot of fun to read.

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.

 

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.