Friday, January 20, 2017

'The Pickwick Papers' by Charles Dickens

Few first novels have created as much popular excitement as The Pickwick Papers–-a comic masterpiece that catapulted its 24-year-old author to immediate fame. Readers were captivated by the adventures of the poet Snodgrass, the lover Tupman, the sportsman Winkle &, above all, by that quintessentially English Quixote, Mr Pickwick, & his cockney Sancho Panza, Sam Weller. From the hallowed turf of Dingley Dell Cricket Club to the unholy fracas of the Eatanswill election, via the Fleet debtor’s prison, characters & incidents sprang to life from Dickens’s pen, to form an enduringly popular work of ebullient humour & literary invention. 

Since this book was just shy of 900 pages, there's so much to say, which I'll try to condense. Here's a quick summary. Mr Pickwick is the kindly, middle-aged leader of a gentlemen's club that bears his name. He and three followers decide to journey to remote towns from London to record their observations. There's Mr Tracy Tupman, a chubby, middle-aged man who loves pretty ladies; Augustus Snodgrass, who fancies himself a poet, although we never see any of his poetry; and Nathaniel Winkle, a young man who wants to give the impression that he's a terrific sportsman, although his bluffing often endangers lives. They're joined by Samuel Weller, a sharp-witted and cheery young Cockney who becomes Mr Pickwick's man servant.

I chose this book for my nineteenth century classic because the March sisters in 'Little Women' valued it highly, as did Anne of Green Gables and her friends. It turns out to be the very best of Victorian fun. There's lots of energy, partying and travel, and not so much of the simmering anger about social injustices that fuel Dickens' later works (although there is still some). I was well into it before I googled the background, and discovered that it was his very first work, at the tender age of 24. So the author wasn't yet the scholarly, bearded Charles Dickens we often see in photos, but more of a young lad named Charlie. I'd been getting the feeling that it was written by a younger person, so that made a whole lot of sense.
The story was serialised in a newspaper throughout 1836 and 1837. It would have been their version of our long running TV series, and explains the episodic sort of structure, especially toward the start. But there are a couple of major themes running through the book.

1) Pickwick and Co attempt to expose a con man named Alfred Jingle and his equally shifty servant, Job Trotter. Jingle preys on single ladies who have a bit of money, anxious to get his hands on it. He enchants them into thinking he's some sort of VIP, instead of an itinerant actor.
2) Pickwick's landlady, Mrs Bardell, jumps to the conclusion that he's proposing to her, while he's really talking about hiring a servant. She sues him for breach of promise and drags him through court. He's determined to face debtor's prison on principle, rather than pay the costs for damages which he so rightfully shouldn't.
3)Pickwick's followers, especially the younger ones, wish to make marriages of love rather than necessity, and are sometimes forced to go about it in desperate ways.

In L.M. Montgomery's 'Anne of the Island' there's a scene where Anne tells her friend Philippa Gordon that she's reading Pickwick, to which Phil replies that Pickwick always makes her hungry, because they often seem to be nibbling nice things. I think there is a still life painting sort of quality about the food the characters eat. Normal fare includes broiled fowl, pigeon pie, veal, ham, lobsters, anchovy sandwiches, saveloys and devilled kidneys. At one point, a couple of characters observed that 'poverty goes along with oysters and pickled salmon'. What would they think if they knew that in the future, that food would be indulged in mostly by the wealthy?

What stood out most to me though, was the dominance of meat in their diet. Even breakfast was likely to be something like 'a cold round of beef.' Sam Weller tells a terrible tale about a cat owner who substituted kitten meat for veal in his famous pies. But honestly, those Victorians seemed to love a variety of meat so much, half of them probably wouldn't even mind if they thought it tasted good! And sure enough, non-meat eaters turned out to be a source of mirth. At one point, the text refers to 'an elderly, pimply-faced, vegetable diet sort of man.'

But what I noticed even more than the food was all the drinking! I'm amazed that the March (and Alcott) families, who never let a drop pass their lips, loved this book so much. Fairly early on, I thought, 'I'll bet the scenes where someone has a drink are more than the scenes without.' A little further, I changed my mind again, to, 'Is there ever a scene where nobody has a drink?' Even though the book was 900 pages long, I doubt it. Getting tipsy or downright drunk seemed to be all in a day's work. The characters in favour of moderation or abstinence were gently poked fun at, or exposed as hypocrites like Mr Stibbins, the 'false shepherd' who loved his pineapple rum.

Mr Perker, the lawyer, asks his clerk, Mr Lowten, 'Will you take a glass of wine?'
'No thank you, sir.'
'You mean yes, I think,' said the little man, turning for a decanter and glasses.
Since it's The Pickwick Papers, of course Lowten did mean yes.

Even though it's a fun story, the harsh realities of the Victorian era can't be denied. Back then, if you didn't find some way of looking out for yourself and planning for your future, you starved. People made such a big deal out of money because it was a big deal. There was no such thing as welfare payments or government support. Poorhouses and debtor's prisons were places of nightmares. It's easy enough for us to sit back and judge Jingle and Job as villains, but when you look at where they find themselves throughout the course of the story, you can see why they'd do the deeds they did. I'm sure it was the same need that drove lots of boys to become bushrangers in colonial Australia. It's easy to choose to be honest when you don't face a slow, agonising death.

It strengthens my opinion that you can't ever really get a feel for times portrayed in novels without reading one by an author who actually lived in them. There's all sorts of slang, trivia, and lost details which are explained in the notes at the back of the book. For example, at one stage it says, 'the windows were looked out of often enough to justify the imposition of an additional duty.' I flip to the back where I find out that there was actually a window tax in Victorian England. Well, whoever would've thought? My advice is to read a paperback copy with three bookmarks, as I did. One for the character list at the front, one to mark where you're up to in the story, and one for those interesting, educational footnotes at the back. It comes across as a daunting prospect at the start, but so worth it, just for the experience of Mr Pickwick, who's such a genuine jolly fellow, and Sam, who's brilliant enough to deserve a blog post of his own. (Keep a look out, because it'll be coming up very soon. I invested too many hours in this book to brush off with just a one-post review.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

'The Chocolate Tin' by Fiona McIntosh

30328638The highly anticipated, sensuous new blockbuster by the beloved, bestselling author of The Perfumer's Secret.

Alexandra Frobisher is a modern-thinking woman with hopes of a career in England's famous chocolate-making town of York. She has received several proposals of marriage, although none of them promises that elusive extra – love.

Matthew Britten-Jones is a man of charm and strong social standing. He impresses Alex and her parents with his wit and intelligence, but would an amicable union be enough for a fulfilling life together?

At the end of the war, Captain Harry Blakeney discovers a dead soldier in a trench in France. In the man's possession is a secret love note, tucked inside a tin of chocolate that had been sent to the soldiers as a gift from the people back home.

In pursuit of the author of this mysterious message, Harry travels to Rowntree's chocolate factory in England's north, where his life becomes inextricably bound with Alexandra and Matthew's. Only together will they be able to unlock secrets of the past and offer each other the greatest gift for the future.

From the battlefields of northern France to the medieval city of York, this is a heartbreaking tale about a triangle of love in all its forms and a story about the bittersweet taste of life . . . and of chocolate.

I went to hear the author, Fiona MacIntosh talk about the writing of this novel at our local library just before Christmas, and bought a copy. I couldn't wait to get stuck into it. Sadly, I struggled to keep my interest level up enough to finish it, and I'll try to explain why.

In Britain, the Rowntree family organised a shipment of King's Chocolate tins as Christmas gifts for soldiers in the trenches to keep up their morale. Alexandra Frobisher and Matthew Britten-Jones have agreed on a marriage of convenience to get their nagging parents off their backs, and she volunteers as a tour guide and packer at the Rowntree factory in her spare time. One day, Alex makes an impulsive, random addition to one of the tins, which comes back to bite her a few years later.

I really wanted to enjoy this, but the whole romantic element moved way too fast for my sympathy and interest level to keep up with. Harry and Alex seemed to be devoted to each other within a twenty-four hour period. No, actually it was within the one hour period in which she guided him through the factory. That kept the whole thing a bit shallow. I think was meant to come across as intense and romantic, but the whizzing time frame just made them seem reckless and impulsive.

As for the main men themselves - I dunno. Harry made a great initial impression on me, being so thoughtful of others, but then undid it by flirting so blatantly with a married woman the day he met her. That's not even good taste in our time, let alone the prim and proper World War One era. And Matthew seemed to pop in and out of the story like a ghost. Now you see him, now you don't. Sadly, I found the man with the most potential was Tom, who was killed after just a couple of pages.

It is an easy, flowing read, the sort of book where you can get through 100 pages in half an hour, then look at the chunk and wonder, 'What actually happened?' There's a fair bit of sparkling small talk and waffling descriptions about history.

What I did find quite interesting is the description of the Rowntree factory. Any chocolate making I do in my kitchen involves melting down a packet of Nestle or Cadbury buttons, so it was enjoyable to read about the whole process starting with the cocoa beans. I think it would have been nice to have a photo of the actual tin somewhere on the cover, since it was the crux of the whole story. There are still some around, since McIntosh saw one as her inspiration.

Altogether, although this story did make me feel like chocolate, it was disappointingly not my cup of tea, even though I enjoyed Fiona McIntosh's presentation immensely.

Monday, January 16, 2017

'Good Wives' by Louisa May Alcott


NOTE: Little Women is sometimes published in two volumes, entitled Little Women and Good Wives.

Amy looked relieved, but naughty Jo took her at her word, for during the first call she sat with every limb gracefully composed, every fold correctly draped, calm as a summer sea, cool as a snowbank, and as silent as the sphinx. In vain Mrs. Chester alluded to her 'charming novel', and the Misses Chester introduced parties, picnics, the opera, and the fashions. Each and all were answered by a smile, a bow, and a demure "Yes" or "No" with the chill on.


First, you might like to check out my review of Little Women

Okay, now for Good Wives. To start with, I could hardly figure out whether I should write a review or a blog post about author intrusion. Alcott lapses so easily into her own personal musings about her characters' strengths and weaknesses, sometimes taking up pages of text. These days, publishers and editors warn authors to cut out their subjective opinions and let readers make up their own minds. Lucky for Louisa she lived in the nineteenth century then. If she wasn't allowed to tell us how to direct our thoughts, the book would be a whole lot thinner. I honestly wonder whether she would have managed, because adding her own reflective little homilies seemed to be as natural as breathing to her. How times, and literary standards, change.

In this story, the four sisters grow up and branch out of the house, living their separate lives. Meg gets married, Amy is lucky enough to travel the continent, Jo goes to work in New York, and poor Beth faces her journey to the next world. She never recovered sufficiently from her bout of scarlet fever to regain her strength.

This is the story where those who had high hopes for a romance between Jo and Laurie get them dashed to pieces. The signs are there early on, when Mrs March says she doesn't think they are suited to each other. If any other character had said it, we might have still held hope, but we know by now that 'Marmee' is always right.  Sure enough, Jo turns out to have no romantic feelings for him, even though she compares other young men to Laurie to their detriment. Go figure. 'I couldn't fall in love with the dear old fellow merely out of gratitude, could I?' I can hear echoes of young girls throughout the centuries saying, 'Yes!'

 (I won't deny that he comes across as a bit of a spoilt brat at times though. Don't you love the cure his grandfather attempts for Laurie's lovesickness? A trip to Europe. You'd think that just might work, if anything would. But like other children of wealth and privilege we come across in stories, Laurie just seems to take it in his stride with a, 'Humph, I doubt anything will help, but if you insist, I'll go to humour you,' type of attitude.)

I think the Jo/Prof Bhaer pairing does work, although he's quite a bit older and comes across as a second father at times. He's such an absent-minded, kid-loving, academic sweetheart, it's hard to hate him for not being Laurie. And it can be argued that everything works out for good. Jo is devastated at not being offered the European trip instead of Amy, but if she had, she wouldn't have met the love of her life. And he shows her that 'character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect or beauty.' You can't argue with that.

I'm not convinced the Amy/Laurie pairing works as well. I like it in concept, but find it hard to swallow that they're as well suited as Jo thinks. Does Amy ever get to renounce her mercenary spirit, since she ends up marrying a rich boy anyway? And be honest, do you remember Laurie as the guy who marries a beautiful, artistic woman, or the guy who suffered from unrequited love? Even when he and Jo catch up with each other toward the end of the book, there are still flirty vibes flowing between them.

I've heard people pick Meg's part of this story to pieces, because she settled for being a 'frumpy housewife' and all those other things feminists say. But apart from the incident where she burns her jam, she's happy in that role, so I'd say why not live and let live? One of my favourite lines in the book happens on the heels of that disaster. 'John Brooke laughed then as he never dared laugh afterwards.' Marriage was a learning curve for both of them.

Some bits about the value of writing and stories stand out. Jo prefers her imaginary heroes to real men, because 'you can shut them in the kitchen tin till called for, while the latter are less manageable.' I wonder if that was Louisa's own opinion about males.

Finally, when Professor Bhaer gives Jo a book of Shakespeare's works, he says something rather great. 'You say often you wish a library. Here I gif you one, for between these lids (covers) is many books in one. Read him well and he will help you much, for the study of character in this book will help you to read it in the world and paint it with your pen.' That's the same reason why we read many good books. I guess my final opinion of the book echoes Professor Bhaer. 'Das ist gute.'

4 stars

Friday, January 13, 2017

What's your book of Shame?

I'm sure we've all had one or two of these over time. They're the sort of book you'd rather not admit to reading.You dip into it furtively with one eye on the story and the other toward the door, scanning for interruptions. You're prepared to slam it shut or hide it, because you imagine that if anyone finds out, the embarrassment would be too acute to bear.

Well, when it comes to books of shame, we're in good company. Here are a few others who have either been revealed or come clean.

1) In her book, Child of the Covenant, Michele Guinness tells a fascinating story of hiding the Bible from her Orthodox Jewish parents when she was a teenager. She only read it late at night and kept it stowed between her mattress and bed springs, knowing that the repercussions of discovery would be huge. Yet she couldn't bring herself to stop reading it. The New Testament rang true to Guinness, and eventually changed her life. She became a Christian, or Messianic Jew.

2) In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the concierge Renee was always anxious to conceal her highbrow reading material from the people in the building where she worked, for fear they would think she had ideas above her station. One day, the new tenant spotted a copy of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina poking out of her bag, and instantly pegged her as a potential friend despite her misgivings. My review is here.

3) Many of us will remember an episode of the sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S when Rachel attempts to hide the novel she's reading because it's a bit risque, but Joey discovers it and won't let the matter rest. She finds herself in the position of having to defend her book.

4) Book snobbery has always been alive and well. In the Australian colonial novel Clara Morison, the title character is not impressed when she discovers a cheap penny novel in the possession of her crush, Charles Reginald. She thinks, 'I don't know why I was so interested in him if he reads trash like this.' Little does she know, the novel was pushed upon him as a loan by another young lady, Minnie Hodges. My review of the book is here.

5) Other episodes of book shame pop up all through years of literature. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe generally kept their love of sensational novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho to themselves, knowing their elders and the gentlemen wouldn't necessarily share their passion. Then in Good Wives, we have Jo March scanning periodicals and magazines for stories which sell like hotcakes so she can emulate them. She keeps her reading and writing habits strictly under wraps, but her wise father eventually finds out, and gently tells her that she could aim higher. I imagine these stories to be a nineteenth century form of 50 Shades of Grey.

Anyway, why do we get embarrassed about our books? I think it's because whether we acknowledge it or not, we take on what we read so that it becomes part of us. It's similar to our choice of food, but designed for the mind and spirit instead of the body. The saying goes, 'You are what you eat.' It naturally follows, you are what you read. You might prefer not to be seen binging on chocolate and fizzy drinks. In the same way, you won't want to be seen reading..... well, you fill in the blank. People might judge you, and that would be humiliating.

I had so many books of shame in my childhood and youth that my hand was always poised to cover them up. In retrospect, many were great books too. I didn't want kids at school to see me reading classics like Anne of Green Gables, because they'd tease me for being uncool. I didn't want my mum to see me reading them either, because she'd initially recommended them and I resisted. I didn't want to prove her right and hear, 'I told you so.' For some time, anything with the distinctive Enid Blyton signature had to be sneaked around like contraband and hidden from my big brother. He didn't understand that her mysteries and school stories were much cooler than her kiddie stories like Noddy, and I didn't want to put myself in the position of trying to explain.

Some titles have become books of shame only after a period of time. I loved the characters and plot so much that I devoured the stories three or four times straight, and didn't want to hear friends and family say, 'Are you reading that again?' It was too awkward to justify, and not very pleasant to hear, 'You're such a weirdo.' Not to mention, I wanted to keep my variety of book crushes to myself.

My husband remembers reading a book with a girl protagonist which his sisters had left lying around the house. He said it was an interesting, page-turner, but he didn't want to be discovered and teased, so guarded it carefully. I'm only just revealing his secret now, although he didn't divulge the title of this fascinating story. He says he forgets, which I'll have to accept as the truth, since it was so long ago. And I remember an occasion some time ago when we were expecting the pastor and his family to come for tea, and our eldest son raced around trying to drape handkerchiefs over the spines of our Harry Potter collection, just in case our visitors were the types who disapproved of magic in story books. People used to get a bit hot under the collar back then. 'I don't want them to think bad of us,' he said.

That was about the time I decided all books of shame had to stop. I didn't mean that we should stop reading them, but that if we genuinely thought them great and not trashy, then we had to stop treating them like books of shame. Starting this book blog probably set me on the road to recovery. Not only are we making unnecessary tension for ourselves, but we're also letting down our favourite authors when we keep our admiration of their work hushed up. If we really love their books, we should be prepared to shout it from the rooftops. And if someone does question our taste, we should either have a ready answer on the tips of our tongues or be prepared to shrug it off, counting ourselves to fortunate for enjoying a treat they've obviously missed. Also, they'd be pretty rude to mention it too.

So let's give a shout out to all those books which have succeeded in holding our attention and keeping us spellbound, no matter what anybody else may say. Now I'll invite comments the same as usual. I've dropped lots of names of books of shame either from myself or others, so I'm sure you'll guess the question that's coming. What is yours? Are you game to share? 

For more about the close connection between food and books, click here. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

'The Silent Songbird' by Melanie Dickerson

29492072Evangeline longs to be free, to live in the world outside the castle walls. But freedom comes at a cost.

Evangeline is the ward and cousin of King Richard II, and yet she dreams of a life outside of Berkhamsted Castle, where she might be free to marry for love and not politics. But the young king betroths her to his closest advisor, Lord Shiveley, a man twice as old as Evangeline. Desperate to escape a life married to a man she finds revolting, Evangeline runs away from the king and joins a small band of servants on their way back to their home village.

To keep her identity a secret, Evangeline pretends to be mute. Evangeline soon regrets the charade as she gets to know Westley, the handsome young leader of the servants, whom she later discovers is the son of a wealthy lord. But she cannot reveal her true identity for fear she will be forced to return to King Richard and her arranged marriage.

Westley le Wyse is intrigued by the beautiful new servant girl. When he learns that she lost her voice from a beating by a cruel former master, he is outraged. But his anger is soon redirected when he learns she has been lying to him. Not only is she not mute, but she isn't even a servant.

Weighed down by remorse for deceiving Westley, Evangeline fears no one will ever love her. But her future is not the only thing at stake, as she finds herself embroiled in a tangled web that threatens England's monarchy. Should she give herself up to save the only person who cares about her? If she does, who will save the king from a plot to steal his throne?

The story begins at Berkhamsted Castle in the year 1384. Evangeline is the ward of the young King Richard, and he's just arranged for her to marry a close adviser of his, the middle-aged and odious Lord Shiveley. Although her companion Muriel advises her to make the best of it, Evangeline decides to make a run for it instead. Posing as a peasant and seeking hard manual labour seems a far better fate, and on the spur of the moment, Muriel decides to go along for the ride. As part of her disguise, Evangeline pretends to have lost her voice.

Lord Westley leWyse is the young nobleman whose family they end up working for. Although he ponders the identity of a girl with a beautiful singing voice he once caught sight of at the castle, he also finds himself intrigued by the mysterious, mute 'Eva'. Little does he know they are one and the same person.

Melanie Dickerson writes fairy tale adaptations, and this one is based on The Little Mermaid. Evangeline has Ariel's bright red hair, and I guess her uncommon tallness somehow stands in for a tail. Luckily for Dickerson's readers who love happy endings, she follows the Disney adaptation rather than Hans Christian Andersen's original, in which the little mermaid's fate was far bleaker :)

This tale reminds me of the Barbie princess movies my daughter used to own, since Evangeline and Westley have a real Barbie and Ken quality. He's handsome and just while she's kind and sweet (and tall and willowy to boot). The setting is all pastoral and lovely. She messes up every chore she attempts to undertake since she's never been taught how to do these things, but she isn't dismissed from service because she's so cute and willing. And when she really puts her mind to learning something, she's brilliant.

I found suspension of disbelief is called for a bit too often. Evangeline's ruse of being unable to speak didn't seem strictly necessary from the start. There was no real reason why she couldn't have posed as a peasant if she could talk. She didn't have to sing, after all. And Muriel carried it off OK. All Evangeline seemed to achieve was to make it annoying for herself to remember to keep up the pointless pretense. It was necessary for one reason alone, which was to jam this story into the Little Mermaid mould, and I think it showed.

And however much of a heartthrob Westley is reported to be, he comes across a bit slow on the uptake. The king's guards are searching specifically for a tall redhead, Eva turns pale and stoops on the spot, yet he still chooses to believe the lie he was told about her origins. Still, I guess he's no thicker than the guards who glance at her, shrug their shoulders when they fail to catch her eye and walk straight past. This story doesn't speak much for the common sense of men in the 1300's.

Since I'm getting to parts where plot spoilers might be an issue, I'll stop. Overall, if you're looking for a feel-good, romantic, historical HEA, this fits the bill, although I've got to warn you I did a fair bit of eye rolling.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

2.5 stars


Monday, January 9, 2017

Several Story Book Dogs

Now that I've written a list about story book cats, followed by another one about even bigger cats, I've felt for some time that I really should write one about dogs too. They aren't called 'man's best friend' for nothing. Because there are so many literary dogs who seem to be jumping up in my mind and wagging their tails for a mention, I've condensed some of them into four specific categories, and finished off with my hall of fame. Here goes.   

Dumb Dogs
These are just jumpy, slobbering, reactive lumps with nothing between their ears. There's Odie, who lived in the same household as the smart cat Garfield. And Hagrid's wolfhound Fang, who's similar to his master, huge and exuberant, but not the sharpest tool in the shed. And years ago, Beverly Cleary wrote a kids' series about a boy named Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy, who was surely one of the silliest dogs to be found, whether or not she intended him to come across as such. He got his young master in all sorts of scrapes, validating why Henry's parents didn't want a dog in the first place, in my opinion.

Hero Dogs
Lassie springs to mind here. It's not hard to form a mental picture of the intrepid collie dog who saves the day on numerous occasions. And remember the brave and resourceful Pongo and Perdita, the loving parents from 101 Dalmatians who save their litter of pups from the despicable Cruella DeVille, who intends to skin them for fur coats. The title characters of Lady and the Tramp become romantic heroes of their own story. But one of the most heroic I can think of is a farmer's dog named King, from I am David, by Anne Holm. He sacrifices his life by distracting prison guards so that the young concentration camp escapee can scramble over the border into Denmark. I read the book for English in High School, and feel a lump in my throat after all these years just thinking about it. And there's Old Yeller, who earns the love of a farm boy named Travis by faithfully protecting his family, although he dies from the bite of a rabid wolf in the line of duty.

Companion Dogs
These are most famous for going along for the ride. Some are just considered additional members of groups, such as Toto from The Wizard of Oz and Timmy, from Enid Blyton's Famous Five adventures. And there's the delightful Dug, from the movie 'Up' who accompanies Carl, Russell and Kevin on their quest. Others are the loyal sidekicks of famous humans, such as Jon Snow and his white dog Ghost, from Game of Thrones, Tin Tin and his dog Snowy, or Peabody and Sherman. And I suppose the Wiggles' friend Wags the Dog fits into this category too, as he travels with the entourage doing his tricks on stage.

Australasian Dogs
I'll get patriotic here. Australia and New Zealand boast some pretty cool story dogs. There's the faithful and loving Red Dog, who spends years trying to trace his dead master all across the country, and finally passes away in front of his grave. And I love Dog, the border collie hero from the Footrot Flats comic strips by Murray Ball. He embodies the prototype of the Australian male, wanting to come across as tough and independent, but hiding a soft and sensitive interior, just as he conceals his real name. I don't think it's ever actually revealed, although the character Aunt Dolly thinks it so 'refined and aristocratic.'  Dogs in our part of the world are called just what they are.

But some dogs deserve accolades all of their own. I'll give them a specific mention.

Tricki-Wu - Most Pampered
This fluffy little Peke belonged to the wealthy widow Mrs Pumphrey, from the All Creatures Great and Small series written by Yorkshire vet James Herriot. This dog lived a far more lavish lifestyle than many of the humans James came into contact with, yet Mrs Pumphrey didn't realise she was killing him with kindness. Tricki fared much better on the one occasion when he was allowed to mingle with other dogs, behind his mistress' back.

Snoopy - Most Ambitious
Generations of people love Charlie Brown's beagle. He's found sympathy with many aspiring writers because of his literary aspirations. When I think of Snoopy, as often as not he's sitting on the top of his kennel with his type-writer, making cynical observations about the meaning of life, and wondering why publishers aren't fighting each other to get hold of his treasures.

Scooby Doo - Most Brave
OK, we know he's a trembling coward, but he's most brave in a 'feel the fear and do it anyway' sort of way. He doesn't risk his life through mystery after mystery just for the promise of a Scooby snack. He's committed to his friends too, which is what I really believe keeps him going. I can hear him with my mind's ear, calling, 'Shaggy, heeeelp!'

Dog Monday - Most Loyal (although Old Yeller and Red Dog could dispute his title)
This plain little 'bitza' dog belonged to Anne of Green Gables' son Jem. He features in the final novel about the Blythe family, Rilla of Ingleside. When his beloved master goes off to fight in the war, Dog Monday takes it into his scruffy head to wait there at the train station for his return. That's exactly what he does, for four long years. I'd challenge anyone not to choke up when they read the scene of Jem's return. Awww, tissue box, please.

Addison McHenry - Most Weird
What a character! He's in the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series, outstanding because he's a peculiar dog who can talk, and has a super nose for sniffing out lost peculiar kids. He's a pipe smoking British boxer who wears spectacles. 'Until they start manufacturing canine contact lenses, I'm stuck with these.' In spite of his gruff, straightforward manner, and refined British ways, he occasionally exhibits traits of a normal dog, such as lickings and tail-wagging. Not to mention he pulls off some pretty heroic stunts. That's why you've got to love him.

My conclusion
What's the thing that put me off delving deeply into dog stories for so long? Some stir my emotions way too much. My eyelids have been prickling even writing this blog post, let alone re-reading and watching all the stories. You just know that if someone advertises a story about an intelligent or heroic dog, there's a good chance he'll a goner!

The good news is that we don't see many fierce and obnoxious characters in dog stories. But the bad news is that our loyal, faithful friends are so often sacrificed for the sake of a good tear-jerker.

I feel as if I've mentioned so many dogs we've all loved over the years, but there's bound to be more. Please mention any I may have overlooked. And if you want to say a few warm words about your favourites from this list (or about dogs in general), please go ahead and do so. I'd love to know if these characters have stirred up other people's emotions as much as mine.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Which Classic should be Required School Reading?

This year I'll participate in Classic Remarks from time to time, a weekly meme hosted by the ladies at Pages Unbound. 
I like it when others come up with good questions I can sink my teeth into, and this is the first of the year.

A couple of weeks ago I'd never even heard of this story, but it was one of the books being launched at an event I attended just before Christmas. The version I bought is the re-telling of an old fantasy classic, Phantastes, by George MacDonald. I wasn't necessarily going to buy this book, but the things said about it during the presentation sparked my curiosity. It's about the quest of a young man named Anodos to track down the Faerie Queen, since he's transported to her realm after opening an antique desk bequeathed to him on his 21st birthday. I thought, 'Why not give it a try?'  Now having read it, here's why I think it fits the bill for this topic.

1) The original publication had a huge influence on many beloved 20th century authors, including C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Madeleine L'Engle, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and Ursula LeGuin. Wow, that's a pretty impressive list to be singing the praises of one book. Over the years, they each mentioned how they drew from elements of Phantastes for their own famous works of literature. Lewis in particular, turns out to have been a real MacDonald fanboy. Trying to figure out why their opinions about the quality of this story are so unanimous makes a good study, especially for students who are familiar with their writing.

2) Published in 1858, Phantastes is now viewed by many as the first genuine fantasy novel, in the way we now define the genre. It's an interesting read from the perspective of knowing that it was the pioneer in a field many of us enjoy. Worthy of study for that reason alone.

3) Getting stuck into the book got me thinking about different layers within a story. You could simply take the narrative on face value as a whole lot of weird things that happen to the hero, Anodos, as he makes his way through the strange new world of Faerie. Or you could regard him as the guy who represents each one of us. The physical features of the land and episodes that take place represent what's going on deep within his psyche as he lives his life. Vivid events, such as acquiring a dark shadow, or being imprisoned in the high tower of his pride symbolise similar experiences we all go through. Or you could delve still deeper, and search for traditional spiritual themes, including the Christian drama of sacrifice and redemption which was so close to Reverend MacDonald's heart. With such different ways of looking at one story, you'd never run out of possible essay or discussion topics.

4) We probably won't plumb the depths in a first reading (if ever). I couldn't help feeling there was lots going on over my head, despite the straightforward presentation of events. For example, the characteristics displayed by the different types of trees might have more significance to somebody who knows more about horticulture than I do. (It definitely contains lot of tree characters.) Comparing notes would make it possible to learn from others, and everyone's interpretation may be original and different from others.

5) Since a translation/retelling like this one has been made available, we might as well make the most of it. I like how Dr Mark Worthing writes in the foreword that almost all his students who begin the original on his recommendation end up admitting defeat. If a wordy, arcane, ponderous old classic has been made more accessible, it makes sense to give it a try. Comparing a fresh translation to an old original is always an interesting exercise for students.

Overall, I wouldn't have minded having this book on my curriculum back when I was a student, or at least this version. Anodos seems to fail many tests, get easily distracted from his main goal, and barge into places without checking if it's wise, but hey, he represents us, and don't we all do that at times? It's an interesting read which I'm glad I decided to purchase. The words of a noble knight within the story stick in my head. 

'It is something to be wondered at, despite all the beauty of Faerie, that there is also much in it that is amiss. Great splendors but corresponding horrors. Heights but also depths. Beautiful women but also evil enchantresses. Seems to me all a person can do is make things better whenever possible, in one hundred little ways, and to show courage and strength in whatever situation is encountered. In this way good will be accomplished, and we will all fare better for it in the end.'