Book Review: Jane of Lantern Hill

Regular readers know that I have read a lot by L. M. Montgomery—in fact, every novel, short story, journal and letter available! One of her last books, Jane of Lantern Hill, was also the very last novel of hers I read. I only read it once, and that was several years ago, so it seemed like time for a revisit.

The book opens in Toronto, where Jane lives on the very bleak Gay Street with her domineering grandmother and lively but dominated mother. Under her grandmother’s critical eye, Jane is awkward, unsure and lonely. Jane always believed her father was dead…but in fact her parents simply live apart (not divorced, mind you!) and one day a letter arrives from her father. He wants Jane to come live with him for the summer on Prince Edward Island. And there, of course, Jane finds her true home and her true self.

This book has all of Montgomery’s charm and beautiful descriptions, painting a world that invites the reader in. Jane is another plucky Montgomery heroine, one with more challenges and more character growth to go through than many of the more fortunate ones—who began life on Prince Edward Island! Jane is less of a dreamer and very much a homemaker, delighting in cooking and tidying her house and planting her garden. Somehow Montgomery makes it sound so charming that of course Jane loves doing it all (and I say that as someone who wants to shake Wendy for doing very similar things in Neverland!) Continue reading “Book Review: Jane of Lantern Hill”

Classics Club June Meme: Racism in Classics

June Meme

 

 

 

I’m not actually a member of The Classics Club (whose members pledge to read 50 classics in 5 years), but I saw the June Meme question recently on Jessica’s blog.  I started to comment…and realized I had so much to say that I had better write my own post!

For an example of a classic with racism in it, Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs came pretty immediately to mind.  The first book is a classic, though I’ll talk about the rest of the series in the discussion as well.   Throughout the series, the overall portrayal of the African natives is both negative and stereotyped (and probably contributed to later stereotypes…), and there are overt comments describing them as inferior to the white man.

Interestingly, Burroughs does make an exception for one African tribe, the Waziri, who Tarzan allies himself with.  It’s still troubling in that they make the lone white man, Tarzan, into their chief, but they are at least portrayed as intelligent, valiant and strong warriors.  (And just to make things more complicated, in Burroughs’ Mars books, the black Martians are secretly controlling all the other races, and John Carter, while remarking that it’s a strange thing for him to say as a Virginian, comments on the beauty of their dark skin.)

But the positive potrayals really don’t do much besides complicating matters, and the negative portrayals are clear, abundant and deeply unfortunate.  There are two reasons that I personally feel like I can still enjoy these books in spite of that.

First, I think that in general, books have to be taken for their time period.  That’s not to say that the racism is acceptable, but we also can’t reasonably expect a past author to have modern values.  I tend to say this about Shakespeare too (usually while discussing The Taming of the Shrew!)  The people and the books are a product of their times, and have to be taken as such.  For that matter, our reactions are a product of our time too!

Second, and this is equally crucial or more so, I don’t feel like the racism is a core part of the Tarzan books.  The racism is fully apparent, but it always felt to me like a sidenote.  The focus of the series is on Tarzan, the struggles in the jungle, his efforts to rescue the frequently-kidnapped Jane, or to explore one of Burroughs’ many lost cities (which seem to crop up all over Burroughs’ Africa).  The strengths of the book carry through into the present and are just as appealing now.

I want to talk about two of the later books in the series as different examples (and together they make quite a good story too…)  Book Seven, Tarzan the Untamed, was written during World War I and is very anti-German. Burroughs planned to have a German officer kill Jane (although his publishers saved her life by talking him out of it!)  After the war, some of the Tarzan books were translated into German and became wildly popular…until someone, without authorization, translated Tarzan the Untamed.  Burroughs wound up completely blacklisted in Germany, to the point that booksellers were afraid to stock even his other books.

But Burroughs apparently learned nothing from this, because during World War II he wrote Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, which is virulantly anti-Japanese…

Tarzan and the Foreign Legion is an example where I can’t get past the racism and just accept it as a product of the time.  It’s so overt and so integral to the plot that it’s actively uncomfortable to read.  So while in principle I don’t think I can extend morals into the past, there are incidents where, as a modern reader, on an emotional level I can’t enjoy a book with objectionable morals.  It also doesn’t help that, by Book Twenty-two in the Tarzan series, Burroughs was getting formulaic to an extreme, and the book has very little to recommend it anyway.

All of this is, of course, highly subjective.  I can probably get past the racism in one book that someone else would find too uncomfortable, and another person might be bothered less by a different example I can’t handle.

Have you read any Classics with racism in them, and how did it feel to you?

And maybe some other time I’ll do a post about sexism in the Tarzan books…because that could be a whole discussion on its own!

The Ozma Trilogy

You may remember I was reading my way through L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, reviewing in batches along the way.  You may remember, but I forgot for a few months that I never reviewed the last three!  So today I’m finally returning back to Oz to wrap that up…

I had to think quite a bit to find a common thread between the final three, and finally realized that the connection was Ozma—though not in quite the same way for each. (You would think Ozma of Oz would be part my Ozma Trilogy, but that’s really a Dorothy and the Nome King adventure.)  These three all have Ozma as a driving force of the story, in one way or another…

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The Lost Princess of Oz has one of the most effective plots for putting something genuine at stake. Ozma has been kidnapped, the same day that many of the most powerful magical objects in Oz have gone missing. Handicapped though they are by their lack of tools, the characters set out in search of their beloved princess. Meanwhile in a far-corner of Oz, Cayke the Cookie Cook has been robbed of her diamond-encrusted dishpan, and sets off with the Frogman in search of it. Naturally all the events eventually tie together…

I’m inclined to think that Baum noticed his characters were growing too powerful (see the conclusion of Rinkitink in Oz), and in this book he takes steps to give them genuine obstacles. As a result, we get a true crisis, with real danger and a villain who could inflict actual harm. It never gets very dark—this is Oz after all—but a plot is more exciting when the characters have something to lose.

The Frogman is also a particularly interesting new character. He’s been ruling the Yips, who believe him to be wonderfully wise. He realizes all the time, however, that his wisdom is just an act.  This becomes a problem for him when he accidentally swims in the Truth Pond, forcing him to always tell the truth in the future. Though it’s treated fairly lightly, it creates an unusually complex problem for the world of Oz.

Ozma’s search party encounters some marvelously whimsical cities along the way, and finally encounters a villain with some real menace to him. This book also features one of the largest roles for Toto, who is here worrying about his missing growl, and wondering if it was stolen with everything else.

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The Magic of Oz ostensibly centers on a search for birthday gifts for Ozma (earning it its spot in my Ozma Trilogy), but swiftly develops into more dramatic crises. Trot and Cap’n Bill’s search for a gift causes them to be trapped on a magic island, slowly shrinking away to nothing. Meanwhile the deposed Nome King is back to stir up trouble, joining forces with Kiki Aru, a Munchkin boy who stumbled on the ability to transform himself and others into creatures of his choice. They attempt to rally the animals to attack the Emerald City, and inflict transformations on many characters.

I enjoyed the return of an old villain with new power, and the Nome King’s attempt to conquer Oz this time is far more interesting than his previous one (where he pretty much gathered an army and marched). I always enjoy Trot and Cap’n Bill, and I think it may be because they actually worry. Dorothy is downright Pollyanna-like in her good cheer, while Trot gets into real danger at times and knows it, giving the reader a reason to care.

This installment also offers one of my favorite pieces of whimsical Baum magic, in the form of the magic flower, which is constantly in bloom in an ever-varying succession of different kinds of flowers.

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The final book in the series, Glinda of Oz, finally gives a starring role to a significant character usually on the sidelines. Not, as you might expect, Glinda—but rather, Ozma. She’s played an important role in other books, but this one gets her out of her palace and into the active role of heroine.

Ozma and Dorothy go to visit Glinda, and in her magical record book they read about a war happening in a far-off corner of Oz, between the Flatheads and the Skeezers.  As ruler of Oz, Ozma decides it is her duty to make sure all the people of Oz are happy, and therefore she must set off to stop this war. That’s all well and good, though I’m at a bit of a loss to understand why she has to go alone, with only Dorothy to accompany her! (Plot reasons, no doubt.)  The girls first visit the mountain of the Flatheads (who have flat heads, and carry their brains in jars—really!) and then go on to the island city of the Skeezers. When the city’s ruler submerges the island, Dorothy and Ozma are trapped within, and the rest of their friends, led by Glinda, must come to the rescue.

This book gives us more of Baum’s wild and whimsical cities. I suspect that Oz is sparsely populated in sections solely so that he could keep having the characters run across new, strange communities! Between the weirdness of the Flatheads and the fairy tale-like nature of three enchanted fish in the Skeezers’ lake, we get some of Baum’s magic at its most entertaining.

The book also succeeds where others have faltered (I don’t quite like to say “failed”) by giving the characters real dangers. Ozma and Dorothy aren’t likely to die, but they are very seriously inconvenienced by the submerged city, and there’s at least a hint of real danger from the Flatheads too.

If this book falters anywhere, it’s in Ozma herself. She’s so very well-meaning, but there’s still something problematic about her rulership of Oz. The Flatheads and the Skeezers have never heard of her, yet she insists on her right to rule them—insists it sweetly, of course. Baum has unfortunately set Ozma up as a hereditary dictator, as far as I can tell. Because she’s so kind and sweet and concerned for her people, it all works out…but I can’t help being bothered all the same!

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Sometimes when it’s been a very long time since I read something, I reach the point where I feel like I can’t really have an opinion on it anymore.  I don’t remember it well enough, or I don’t know how present-day-me’s opinion would compare with long-ago-me’s opinion. I had reached that point with Oz, so I’m glad to have gone through the entire series, so that I can comment on them again!

The 14 books unquestionably vary in quality, and even the best aren’t without flaws (which my younger self probably didn’t notice). But—with that said—these are still, by and large, delightfully whimsical classic fantasy. Baum’s strength is in weird and wonderful magical creatures, and some of his creations stayed with me through all those years I wasn’t reading the books.

Apart from the later books including characters introduced earlier, these books are largely self-contained. They’re fun to read in order, but once you’ve read the first three (which introduce most of the major characters) you could pretty easily get away with jumping around. Just in case you want my opinion on the matter, here’s my ranking of the books by quality… (with series order after the title)

  1. Ozma of Oz (3)
  2. Scarecrow of Oz (9)
  3. Rinkitink in Oz (10)
  4. The Land of Oz (2)
  5. The Magic of Oz (13)
  6. The Lost Princess of Oz (11)
  7. The Wizard of Oz (1)
  8. Tik-Tok of Oz (8)
  9. Patchwork Girl of Oz (7)
  10. Glinda of Oz (14)
  11. The Tin Woodman of Oz (12)
  12. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (4)
  13. The Road to Oz (5)
  14. The Emerald City of Oz (6)

This is, of course, highly subjective…so if you’ve read any of the series, I’d love to hear your favorites too!

The Hardest Books To Scale

I was musing on bookish topics to write about today, and decided to go see what other clever people have come up with!  By which I mean that I went to look at the list of past Top Ten Tuesday topics on The Broke and the Bookish.  Bringing me today’s topic…my personal list of most intimidating books!

I have already conquered…

1) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – In page count, this is the longest book I’ve ever read (though I would imagine that it runs neck-and-neck with Les Mis, depending on the edition).  I managed to read it when I was about twelve or so.  It was my second attempt on the book, and when I began again I thought I’d just try to read farther than I had before…and then, having already seen and loved the movie, I thought I’d just try to read to this plot point, or that plot point…and I got to the end that way!  Now I’ve been meaning to reread it for quite a while…

2) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Technically I skipped the parts that wandered off into historical background–but I read most of it.  It’s just that when Hugo is good, he’s very good–but then other times he wants to spend thirty pages on the history of Parisian sewers.

3) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien – I attempted Fellowship twice, never got farther than Tom Bombadil, and spent the following ten years convinced these were impossible to wade through.  I finally read them during my Chunkster Challenge last year, and found out they weren’t nearly as slow or dense as I feared.  Although I do think it helped watching Jackson’s trilogy, so at least I knew where we were going all the time.

4) Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – This was an assigned book the summer before I went into freshman year of high school.  They assigned the same summer books to all the grades, and because I was an incoming freshman I was both too young for the book, and unaware that it didn’t really matter if we read the assigned reading!  Unlike the previous three on the list, this one was not worth the effort…and among my high school friends, we still speak of it with dread!

I may read some day…

5) Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – This is probably just silly, because after all, it’s a fantasy and I have no reason to expect the writing to be especially difficult.  It’s just so thick though!  And I made the mistake of getting it from the library during a particularly intense semester at college, returned it unread, and that set up bad resonances around the title for me.

6) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon – A massive, multi-volume history text, this is far outside my normal reading.  But I do like Roman history quite a bit, and L. M. Montgomery read it twice and commented very favorably in her journal and…well, for me, that feels rather like having a very close, very well-read friend recommend something.

7) Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackeray – This is one of the Big Classics I don’t have a burning desire to read, but I would like to have read.  There are lots of Classics I’m comfortable not reading, but this particular one L. M. Montgomery especially liked, and…see above.

8) A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill – Another multi-volume history text…but I enjoy British history immensely, and there are few historical figures I like better than Winston Churchill.  And while I’ve never read any of his history writing, he wrote the loveliest letters to his wife!  I read a collection of their letters and…yeah, his history books are probably not remotely the same thing. 🙂

So much for my book confessions!  What intimidating books have you successfully overcome?  Do you have any you still may attempt one day?

Blog Hop: Classic Novels

book blogger hopThis week’s Book Blogger Hop question: What is your favorite classic novel?

There are some easy go-to’s here, considering three of my favorite authors would probably fall into the Classic category (L. M. Montgomery, J. M. Barrie and Edgar Rice Burroughs) but let’s face it, I talk about them a lot.  Branching farther afield… 

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain comes to mind.  Huck is such a wonderful character, and both the humor and the heart of the story are so excellently done.  And does it get better than Huck’s “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” scene?  Such a beautiful story about friendship and finding oneself in the face of a society that wants to shape you into something else.

It may surprise you that Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux is not a favorite.  The story is a bit of an obsession (a bit!) but the original, while deserving all recognition as the original, is not actually as compelling as some of the retellings.

Another favorite is Jane Eyre.  There’s something about Charlotte Bronte’s writing style that simply draws me in, and the whole last section, after Jane returns to Rochester, is just adorable–and gives me all the romantic dialogue Austen always skips!

So much for my favorites!  How about your favorite classic(s)?

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Parts IV and V

Les Mis (2)We’re coming down to the final stretch in Les Mis.  If you missed them, you can go back and read the first and second reviews.  Today, I’ll be looking at the last two volumes, when the barricade arises.

This section begins with romance and then moves to revolution.  Marius and Cosette’s relationship takes leaps forward compared to the previous section–by which I mean they actually start talking to each other!  After a blissful interlude, however, circumstances separate them, seemingly forever, and Marius decides that he has nothing to live for.  Conveniently for him, a very good opportunity to get himself killed comes swiftly along.

The revolutionaries finally come into their own in this part of the book.  Paris rises in rebellion and the book focuses in on Enjolras and his band, building and holding the barricade at the Rue Saint-Denis.  They rally around to fight the good fight, while Marius turns up mostly by accident and plunges in.  Inspector Javert is in the midst, revealed as a police spy, and before too long Jean Valjean joins in too…for reasons I felt were never adequately explained.

This is certainly the bloodiest part of the book, and probably the most exciting (although it gets stiff competition from an earlier sequence when Javert was stalking Valjean).  Hugo demonstrates his ability to make even inaction interesting, as they wait on the barricade for each next engagement–and the engagements come with all their drama too.

A few spoilers here, although nothing that the musical won’t tell you…  Gavroche’s death is almost identical in the book as in the musical, and is heartrending in both.  Eponine’s death in the book was more of a disappointment to me.  It’s quick, and it’s largely ignored by everyone, including Hugo.  At pretty much every point of Eponine’s arc, I prefer what the musical did.

But the rest of the barricade sequence is excellent, and I didn’t even mind that they retreated eventually into the cafe.  The movie made it look like a pell-mell retreat, but in the book they fight every inch.

After the barricade falls and a few more trials are gone through, there’s a brief interlude where we actually seem to be heading for a happy ending.  But I didn’t trust Hugo to take us there…and he didn’t.  I won’t get into the particulars but the last section is heartbreaking, and I think the blame falls largely on the heads of Valjean and Cosette.

I love Valjean–he’s a wonderful man–at least until the last hundred pages or so, and then I just don’t know whether I want to cry over him or shake him.  He has a very strong streak of self-sacrifice throughout the entire book, and most of the time it’s immensely admirable.  At the end, though, it begins to approach the point of masochism, self-denial for very little purpose.  There’s an argument for what he does, but it’s flimsy.

Valjean clearly grasped two thirds of the “greatest commandments.”  He has “Love thy God” and he constantly demonstrates “love thy neighbor,” but he never got the idea of that last phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The concept of self-forgiveness seems to have escaped him.  I still love him–but Hugo maybe takes it all just a little too far by the end.

As for Cosette–I don’t love Cosette.  She’s such a flighty, childish little nothing.  She has nothing to do in the musical, and scarcely anything more to do in the book, long as it is.  She’s sweet and she’s pretty and Hugo (and Marius) keeps referring to her as an angel, but she never does anything demonstrably angelic.  Cosette has all the refinement to present herself well, and appears perfectly demure and modest and all that, but that’s the extent of her talents.  I suppose if the ability to modestly lower one’s eyes makes one an angel, then by all means, call her that.  But by criteria of actively doing good for others…I find Gavroche far more angelic.

Heartbreaking (and somewhat frustrating!) as the end of the book is, this is still a wonderful read.  I spent longer on this book than I’ve spent on any one book in years, but it was absolutely worth it.  The characters and the world they inhabit are vivid and alive and drew me in completely.  Highly recommended–if you have some time! 🙂

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Volume III

Les Mis (2)This week I’m doing a multipart review of the excellent but very long Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  Read about Volumes I and II here.  Volume III focuses (though not immediately) on Marius, leaving Jean Valjean and Cosette out of the story for quite a while.  This is where I think it helped the most that I knew the musical, or I would have been feeling very adrift!

Marius was raised in wealth, but fell out with his grandfather over his estranged father’s politics.  Turning his back on his grandfather and his money, Marius lives in Paris in relative poverty, scraping along on some minimal scholarly work–but contented with that.  And then one day at the Luxembourg Gardens he sees a beautiful young woman out with her father and is hopelessly smitten.  They carry on a lengthy courtship of glances, until one day she ceases to come and Marius is plunged into the depths of despair.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Marius.  He’s such a nice young man.  I can’t dislike him–he’s so nice–but there’s not a whole lot I like about him either.  I both accept and respect his dedication to his principles (a dedication I don’t quite believe in the musical), but at the same time, he follows that dedication with such utter lack of common sense that I shake my head a bit too.  His most praiseworthy attribute in the musical is his revolutionary fervor, which just doesn’t exist in the book.  On the other hand, his most blameworthy attribute, his blindness regarding Eponine, doesn’t really exist in the book either.  But that brings me to two other plot threads…

Marius’ crowd of revolutionary friends do turn up in this book and I enjoyed getting more depth on them.  At the same time, I was surprised by how shallow Marius’ connection to them was.  He knows them, but he’s really not one of them.  It gets more complicated with the barricade, but that’s Part IV.  I was happy to see Enjolras, though, the leader of the group and one of my favorites from the musical.

Marius’ path also intersects with the Thenardiers, who have come to Paris and fallen on even worse times.  Take away the humor from the Thenardiers, and you have instead examples of just how low people can sink, both in poverty and in moral character.

Two members of the Thenardier family particularly fascinate me.  First, Eponine, the older daughter.  I actually found her a more interesting character in the musical.  There’s a spark of something in her, this sense that she could be so much more than her life has so far let her be.  Oddly enough, I get less of that feeling from the book.  I think it’s there, but she’s far more disreputable too.  There also seems to be less of a relationship between her and Marius than the musical suggested, to the point that I can’t blame him for not returning her unrequited crush.  It redeems him a bit, though I felt less for her.

I was just a little disappointed regarding Eponine, but I was thrilled with Gavroche.  I can see why the musical never got into the fact that he’s the Thenardiers’ son–he has only the most tenuous of relationships.  He emerges in the book just as I had hoped, a plucky, cheeky street urchin, keeping his head up and his confidence intact no matter what life hands him.  I love Gavroche’s spirit, and I also love that even in his own poverty, he’s still generous.  He gives to others even if it means he won’t eat that night himself, and he seems to do it instinctively.  Love, love Gavroche!

You may be wondering at this point what ever became of Valjean, and you’d be justified in that wondering!  I don’t think he’s mentioned by name in this entire Volume…although it doesn’t take much insight to match up Valjean and Cosette with another set of characters who do appear here…

I’m definitely not invested in Marius the way I was in Valjean, but that didn’t really interfere with my enjoyment of this section.  The story was engaging even if I had mixed feelings about the main character.

Come back tomorrow for a review of the last section…one day more ’til the barricades arise. 🙂