The Scarlet Pimpernel

scarlet pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emma Orczy.  Originally published in 1905. 304 pages.

You can read The Scarlet Pimpernel for free on Gutenberg.org.

Hurricane Dorian passed us by with a whimper, but we were still in stand still mode for the better part of three days, which gave me all the time I needed to power through this engaging page turner.

Set in 1792 during what is known as French reign of terror, The Scarlet Pimpernel weaves a story of a mysterious English hero who is rescuing the doomed aristocrats, who have survived to date, from the guillotine. This hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, is a master of strategy and disguise as he outwits the French guards and whisks as many of the titled class as he can out of Paris, across the channel, and into the safety of England. England, where loyalty to the monarchy is high, and the very idea of the wholesale murder of noblemen in the name of  “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is an anathema, welcomes the refugee aristocrats to the safety of their shores.

Baroness Orczy’s classic novel is equal courses of adventure, intrigue, and humor, with a side nibble of romance. Even though it was assigned to our kid as a part of her literature class this semester, I am certain that I enjoyed and appreciated the layers and nuances a lot  more than she did.

The political intrigue and the character’s commentaries reveal Orczy’s understanding of the English astonishment and abhorrence of the murderous reign of Maximillien Robespierre. Even among our French heroes and heroines in The Scarlet Pimpernel, those who were more Republican than monarchist, there is an acute sentiment that the current actions of French’s republican government has gone too far.

“It is only in our beautiful France that wholesale slaughter is done lawfully, in the name of liberty and of brotherly love”

 

It is with this backdrop that we first meet Marguerite St. Jus Blankeney, the beautiful and intelligent young actress who is the toast of Paris, and not just for her artistic talents. An outspoken republican, Marguerite had recently married the rich, handsome and tall dullard Sir Percy Blankeney. The union was far from idyllic. Somewhere along the way, Sir Percy had turned out to be a totally different man from the one she thought she’d married, and while he adored her as the book opens, she held him in contempt, and she was far from alone in her assessment:

“…and in repose one might have admired so fine a specimen of English manhood, until the foppish ways, the affected movements, the perpetual inane laugh, brought one’s admiration of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.”

 

Along the way, we learn that nothing is quite as it seems, and that Marguerite, for all her intelligence and beauty, has woefully underestimated and misjudged her husband, along with many other things.

“She looks very virtuous and very melancholy.”

“Virtue is like the precious odors, most fragrant when it is crushed.”

 

As the race ramps up for the Scarlet Pimpernel to save as many noblemen as he can, the political intrigue, adventurous shenanigans,  and masterful strategery of the elusive and anonymous hero kept me plugged in from beginning to end.

I do recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s a stellar novel.

Content advisory: Murder, mayhem and violence associated with the French revolution, largely contained to the beginning and end of the book.

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

The Old Man and the Sea

old man and the sea

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, published in 1952. 112 pages.

This weekend, I decided to read this short novel from Hemingway for a couple of reasons. The first is his poetic way of describing natural beauty, and the second is because this is a very short book, and I was guaranteed to finish it off in less than two days. It is a very satisfying man vs. nature novella.

Santiago is an old fisherman, once successful, who has experienced a long run of bad luck on the seas. For a time, the young boy Manolin was his apprentice fisherman, and caretaker on and off the boat. However, since Santiago has gone for so long without catching any fish, his parents forbid him from fishing with him any longer. They send him to apprentice with more successful fishermen.

Manolin obeys his parents, but his heart is still with old Santiago, and he checks in on the solitary fisherman every morning and every night. He makes sure that he eats, gets him his morning coffee, and they talk baseball. Both love Joe Dimaggio.

One morning Santiago heads out early, determined that it will be the day his luck turns around. He loads his skiff and sails out farther than he normally would, following the current and the birds overhead who seem to indicate a place where he’ll find a large school of fish.

The thing I love about this book, despite having zero experience with sailing, is the way the sea is almost a character all its own. This was something I noticed when reading The Lion’s Paw and Captains Courageous as well. Here, Hemingway contrasts the way older fishermen like Santiago and younger fishermen characterize the sea:

He [Santiago] always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things about of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar, which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought. p.29-30

Leaving aside the political correctness or lack thereof in Hemingway’s description, it’s a poetically beautiful description of the sea which gives the reader a vivid picture of how much the old man loves her.

On the day when he goes far out to sea, his luck does indeed turn. He hooks a gigantic marlin, so large that it pulls him farther and farther out to sea. He holds on to marlin, suffering intense pain, hunger, and discomfort for two days. In the end…

You’ll just have to read it, which you can do for free right here. It’s so short that the only thing left is the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for you!

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

Johnny Tremain

johnny tremain

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, originally published in 1943. 320 pages.

This is a historical novel set on the cusp of the American Revolution and is a good fit for middle grade readers, ages 10-13.

Johnny Tremain is a young and talented but arrogant orphan being apprenticed by a highly regarded but aging Boston silversmith. Mr. Lapham, Johnny’s master, has grown so frail and infirm that Johnny basically runs the silversmith shop. The Lapham women, comprised of Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law and her three daughters, feed Johnny’s vanity, treating him like a king because of his extraordinary talent and because he is set to inherit the silversmith business which they all depend on for their livelihood. Mr. Lapham makes every effort to counsel Johnny in the ways of piety and humility, often to no avail.

While violating his master’s rule regarding not working on Sundays, Johnny severely injures his hand trying to fill a rush order for a wealthy client. Just like that, his entire life is turned upside down. He is turned away from the Laphams and the silversmith shop. He is no longer the heir apparent. After many struggles, he finds a new path and a new purpose as the American colonists ramp up their rebellion against the British crown and the Revolution gets underway.

I enjoy well written historical fiction, but this was the first one I’d read in a long time directed toward children. Esther Forbes does a really great job illuminating the different arguments, factions, and issues surrounding the break of the American coloniies as well as the turmoil that it brought upon major port cities such as Boston.

One of the things I enjoyed about Johnny was his wit and his rugged ability to rise to the occasion and survive no matter how rough things got. His understanding of the grave turn life had taken in Boston is revealed in a dialogue he shares with a young woman who belongs to a family loyal to the crown:

“How old are you Johnny” she asked.
“Sixteen.”
“And what’s that-a boy or a man?”
He laughed. “A boy in time of peace and a man in time of war.”

I liked this book. Esther Forbes’ spin on the American Revolution with engaging characters and a story filled with action and intrigue offers a good opportunity to delve deeper into the American Revolution with young readers.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

A Girl of the Limberlost

girl of the limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter, Kindle edition. Originally published in 1909. 306 print pages.

I was not very familiar with the work of Gene Stratton-Porter before reading this classic novel. She was just one name among many authors bibliophiles encounter along our trail of books. Some authors we read, others we tuck into our mental Rolodex for a later date. Stratton-Porter was one I’d tucked away for a later date.  I am grateful to say that I was induced to pull her from the recesses of my mind, out from among the heaps of jumbled authors and genres I hoped to some day read.

The Practical Conservative’s  posted review of her work was the impetus, and after some reconnaissance I learned that Stratton-Porter is one of my favorite kinds of writers: the regional sort, highlighting the beauty and culture of a particular time and place. In this case, the place and time are the swamps and forests of northeastern Indiana around the turn of the century. It is in this context that we are introduced to Elnora Comstock, the young heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost.

The Limberlost swamp  borders the land Elnora lives on with her widowed mother, Kate. As the story begins, she is a young teen who never knew the father who died while her mother was giving birth to her. Somehow, Elnora’s mother transferred all of her grief and bitterness over the death of her young husband onto the young girl. She was convinced that had she not been in labor with Elnora, she might have saved her husband from the tragic end which befell him when he sank into the quicksand of the Limberlost.

As we follow Elnora through her tumultuous terrain of life, her determination, kindness and virtue keeps readers at the edge of hope that the girl’s extraordinary character and work ethic will one day be fully rewarded:

It was a compound of self-reliance, hard knocks, heart hunger, unceasing work, and generosity. There was no form of suffering with which the girl could not sympathize, no work she was afraid to attempt, no subject she had investigated she did not understand. These things combined to produce a breadth and depth of character altogether unusual.

In the end, Elnora does reap the harvest she has so diligently worked for, yet without the fantastical sort of whirlwind that one often finds in these sorts of novels. One of the wonderful things about old stories is that they don’t often find the need to inject its hero or heroine with a fatal flaw. The postmodern tendency to denouce the notion of a character worth aspiring to gets tiring, which is I rarely read any modern fiction.

Stratton-Porter’s vivid portrayals of natural elements in the swamps along with the detailed descriptive categorizations of the moths and other creatures which Elnora was able to use to earn the money she needed to go to school were very beautifully executed. It was easy to imagine oneself standing at the edge of the Limberlost, taking in all the beauty, mystery, and danger one might find in a swamp.

I’ll end this review with one of my favorite lines from within it. Such wisdom could only have come from Elnora herself:

“I do not know why it is the fate of the world always to want something different from what life gives them.”

Heart wrenching and beautiful with a satisfying ending is my description of this classic book by Gene Stratton Porter. It would make an excellent summer read.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

Anne of Green Gables: Reviews of two versions

anne of green gables

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Originally published in 1908.

As I re-read this book along with the kids in my writing and literature class, I was almost instantly reminded, as I often am , of this saying from the late C. S. Lewis:

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Because Anne of Green Gables is such a widely read and well-known story, I’ll offer the Goodreads synopsis for the sake of time. There are several angles concerning the story and its recent modern adaptation that I wish to explore in this post. From Goodreads:

As soon as Anne Shirley arrives at the snug white farmhouse called Green Gables, she is sure she wants to stay forever . . . but will the Cuthberts send her back to to the orphanage? Anne knows she’s not what they expected—a skinny girl with fiery red hair and a temper to match. If only she can convince them to let her stay, she’ll try very hard not to keep rushing headlong into scrapes and blurting out the first thing that comes to her mind. Anne is not like anyone else, the Cuthberts agree; she is special—a girl with an enormous imagination. This orphan girl dreams of the day when she can call herself Anne of Green Gables.

The Cuthberts do keep Anne, of course, else this delightful story full of adventure and learning wouldn’t be the beloved story it has become for over 100 years.

One of the most wonderful, and for me equally taxing aspects of Anne’s character, is her persistent insistence that everything must be expressed or executed in the most romantic and poetical way possible. There are times when I find her expressions utterly delightful. I laughed out loud this:

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

And conversely rolled my eyes at this, despite my sympathy with Anne’s drab dress as insisted on by Marilla:

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

It was such fun to revisit the characters of Green Gables and Avonlea. As before, Matthew Cuthbert and Gilbert Blythe were my favorites (besides Anne of course). A good story, including those written for children, never goes out of style.

Book: 5 out of 5 stars

As it happens, I learned that there is a new adaptation of this beloved story recently released on Netflix. I made a point of refusing to watch or allowing my kids to watch it until we had finished reading the book in class. We are not quite finished as an entire class (this week we’ll wrap it up), but I and my daughter have finished reading it, so I decided we could safely take a peek at how these producers adapted the story.

The first season, despite artistic licenses and addition of melodrama for viewers, wasn’t horrible. Because I love the original story, I was a little perturbed at the ways they changed the story to create a more dramatic effect. I didn’t feel such changes were warranted.

I appreciated most of the castings, including the casting of Anne. The actress beautifully captures the spirit of the character as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her over 100 years ago. I felt a similar satisfaction with the casting of Marilla Cuthbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Gilbert Blythe.

They did a less than stellar job with Josie Pye. Further, I detested the fact that made Miss Josephine Barry a spinster due to the fact that she was a lesbian who lived for many years with her “partner” Gertrude, recently deceased.

They licenses they took with some story lines were understandable in some ways, and in other ways unnecessary.

Overall, I was so turned off by the development of Miss Barry’s character that I was thankful for having done the research ahead of time -actually my daughter did it- which clued me in on what to expect in the episodes. It spared me from being blindsided by the “inclusive” propaganda.

As it turns out, not having seen those episodes left a better impression of the show on me than would have remained otherwise. As it stands, I definitely won’t finish it, and the kids and I are looking forward to enjoying the PBS adaptation sometimes later in the spring, after the hustle and bustle of the second semester is over.

Netflix adaptation: 3 out of 5 stars

 

The Sun also Rises

the sun also rises

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Originally published in 1926. 251 pages.

I don’t often re-read books, and the few that I have re-read are ones that have spiritual implications. C. S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and similar authors can draw me back in for a second read. I rarely give fiction books other than Jane Austen a second look.

Since beginning this book blogging experiment, I re-discovered something quite obvious: that reading a book during different seasons of life changes the way you react to that book. This is true for novels as much as any other books. It was true for Their Eyes Were Watching God, and If Beale Street Could Talk, so I have begun revisiting many of the novels that I would have listed as among my favorites a decade ago or more. One of those is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I read when I was much less wise, worldly, relationally, or spiritually, than I am now. I still appreciate Hemingway’s prowess with words, but the characters annoyed me this time in ways that they didn’t 20 years ago.

Jake Barnes is an injured war veteran whose injury left him impotent. The ultimate irony is when he falls in love with Brett, the nurse who cared for him as he recovered from his injuries. She is also a woman who very much in touch with her sensual nature. She loves him she declares, but not enough to resign herself to a sexless existence. The rest of the novel is a torturous journey with Jake through his adventures and friendships drinking and pining away after Brett throughout Spain.

Meanwhile, Brett drifts from lover to lover, breaking hearts and taking names then returning to Jake to pick up the pieces of the messes she leaves in her wake. At the end of the novel, her startling lack of self-awareness dawns on Jake:

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Brett, after all that they have experienced, seems to believe that but for Jake’s injury, they would have had a wonderful life together. It strikes Jake as absurd as any of the things that had happened to that point.

Reliving the narrative of strong, gallant male characters employing strength and competence in every arena from the battlefield to the bull-fighting ring only to be felled by one little woman was a different experience than years prior. I don’t know that my understanding or opinions of the characters is different, just better perceived than before.

This is still one of my favorite novels, precisely because of the raw honesty Hemingway displays with the faults and virtues, such as they were, in his characters.

 

4 out of 5 stars