December 28, 2009

The Blythes are Quoted - L. M. Montgomery

I know that in academic circles, it is the thing to do to declare biases at the beginning of a paper or a talk. I'm definitely not an academic, but I wish to declare that I am a huge fan of L. M. Montgomery, so this review is going to be written from this bias.

I have read all of the fiction that she wrote (novels and short stories) that are currently published, as well as some of her journals, poetry, and some of what has been written about her, so I was very excited to hear that a new book came out this fall. It is considered to be the 9th and final book in the Anne of Green Gables series, and apparently the manuscript was delivered to the publisher on the day that Montgomery died. It is not a novel, but rather a collection of short stories set in and around the village where Anne and Gilbert Blythe lived after their marriage. The short stories are connected by poems written by Anne, as well as her son Walter, as well as dialogue within the family.

The poems and dialogue are what I was really looking forward to. All of the stories were previously published (most in the book The Road to Yesterday) and so none were new to me. But the poems and dialogue give new insight into the Blythe family.

As far as the poetry goes, I'm not and expert so this is just my opinion. While a couple of the poems really struck me ("I Wish You", "The Change", "Grief", "The Aftermath"), most of them were or the style that I tend to skim across. I can't help but wonder what Mr. Carpenter (from the Emily of New Moon books) would think of the poetry. I see lots of the same faults that he finds in Emily's poetry popping up in the poems of Montgomery - overuse of certain words (including "purple"), weak rhymes in places, descriptions with no underlying meaning.

My favourite part of the book is the end, where the family comes to terms with the death of the aforementioned son, Walter, who died in World War 1 (in Rilla of Ingleside).

My least favourite part of the book is the over-mentioning of the Blythe family in all of the stories - almost as if Montgomery felt obliged to pull them in to every story, while most of the stories would have been fine without the mention.

In the publicity of this book, much has been made of it showing "the darker side of L. M. Montgomery". In fact, to quote the dust jacket, "Adultery, illegitimacy, revenge, murder, and death - these are not the first terms we associate with L. M. Montgomery. But in The Blythes are Quoted, completed at the end of her life, the author brings topics such as these to the fore." I, however, was not surprised by this. These darker themes do show up in her earlier books and stories, though maybe not as consistently as in this book. The Anne books don't shy away from darker topics (the death of Anne and Gilbert's first baby; the effects of World War 1; and some of the episodes in Anne of Ingleside); the Emily books are quite dark in places; Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat are downright depressing at times; and many of the short stories deal with the darker side of life.

But all of this doesn't detract from my enjoyment of her writing - rather, I find that it adds depth to it, when often Montgomery is dismissed as being too unrealistically cheerful and optimistic.

I can't wait to get home now to my bookcases, and compare the stories as published now in their entirety, with the previously published versions in The Road to Yesterday, and the other collections of short stories. Let me end with one of the shorter poems from the book that I enjoyed.

The Change

There is no difference this blithe morning
'Tween yesterday and today...
The dim fringed poppies are still blowing
In sea fields misty and grey.

The west wind overhead in the beeches
Is the friend of lovers still,
And the river puts its arm as bluely
Around the beckoning hill.

The rose that laughed in the waning twilight
Laughs with the same delight,
But, pale and sweet as the lilies of Eden,
A little hope died last night.
Anne Blythe

This book was read for the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

December 4, 2009

Down the Nile - Rosemary Mahoney

It is interesting to note that in the past couple of years, I have been reading more books in the "memoir" genre, whereas before, I would have never picked up this kind of book. I first discovered this genre when I was living overseas, when I would read any book that came my way and couldn't afford to be discriminating, fiction or non-fiction. I think that I came back to Canada having read every John Grisham novel ever written (and plots are all blurred together in my mind now); but I also discovered new books and authors that I enjoyed and probably wouldn't have read had I stayed at home. And I also discovered the allure of the memoir. The ability to see the world as someone else sees it; and to experience things vicariously that I will probably never experience.

In 1999, Rosemary Mahoney, a single American woman, went to Egypt wanting to procure a rowboat (of the local fishing boat variety) in order to row down the Nile from Aswan to Qena. The bigger struggle wasn't the rowing itself, but rather trying to make it understood that she wanted to row herself, and be alone, in a culture where women do not row and tourists are protected, whether they want to be protected or not.

I completely understand why she felt drawn to the challenge. Two years before this trip, she had been on a Nile cruise, and observing the river from the cruise ship, she noted, "With a score of middle-aged Spaniards sun-bathing on the deck behind me, I leaned against the ship's railing and watched, entranced, as the Nile slipped by. The wide river and its green banks looked old and placid, inscrutable and inviting, and yet it was all as distant and inaccessible to me as it had always been. Unable to leave the ship, with its planed itinerary and guided tours, I realized I might as well be watching this wonder from behind a glass wall. What I wanted, really, was not just to see the Nile River but to sit in the middle of it in my own boat, alone."

Rosemary Mahoney was used to rowing herself places, living on the water in Maine. I feel the same way about waterways as she does, but my preferred mode of transportation is a canoe. I am planning a solo overnight canoe trip for next summer, and most people that I have told my plan to think that I am crazy. But the water calls out to me and my paddle and my canoe (affectionately named Zig Zag), and the thought of being alone on the water with the shore slipping slowly by will get me through this cold winter.

So I found this book to be very readable, and I kept cheering her on in her quest to row down the Nile. And even though the actual rowing takes up much less than half the book, it was fun to read about someone else's fascination with water travel. My one quibble with the book is that it seems to end very abruptly. She arrives in Qena, ties her boat up at the dock, and gets a taxi to the train station to board a train to Cairo. There is no reflection on what she learned from the experience, how she grew from the experience, what memories she will take home from the experience. But a good read nonetheless!