#AnneReadalong2017: Anne of Avonlea (Book 3 of #20BooksofSummer)

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

“Having adventures comes natural to some people,” said Anne serenely.  “You just have a gift for them or you haven’t.”

My reading of the second book in L.M. Montgomery’s classic series was a bit more of a chore than my experience of the first one, I have to admit.  I did enjoy it, but I found it all too easy to set the book aside when I’d finished a chapter.  It consisted of vignettes about people in Anne’s life and Anne herself, just like the first.  But I felt that there was less forward momentum in the narrative, almost as if each chapter was a short story rather than part of a novel.

9780770420208-us-300Anne is 16 now and a teacher of some of the very children who were recently her schoolmates.  She still lives with Marilla, who is still experiencing poor eyesight and can’t do any close up sewing or crafting or reading.  However, they are soon joined by twins Davy and Dora, six years old, distant relations who are orphaned and need a temporary place to stay. Davy is a deliberately mischievous “handful” and Dora is… well… boring. Dora might as well not exist, in my opinion.  She’s only referenced in contrast to Davy’s behavior, and Anne and Marilla both admit to liking Davy more.  Poor Dora!  I wondered why Montgomery even introduced her in the first place.  Why not just have little Davy come to stay at Green Gables?  But I’ve not read the rest of the series – perhaps Dora has a meatier role to play in the future?

In any case, Anne is busy with teaching and with the newly formed Avonlea Village Improvement Society, in addition to her adventures with the twins and assorted neighbors and friends.  My favorite part of the book came towards the end, when we meet the “old maid” (“forty-five and quite gray”) Miss Lavendar Lewis.  Miss Lavendar is as romantic and imaginative as Anne is, and they become fast friends.

“But what is the use of being an independent old maid if you can’t be silly when you want to, and when it doesn’t hurt anybody?”

I very much enjoyed the whimsical Miss Lavendar, and was quite moved by her affection for Anne’s favorite pupil, sweet, sensitive Paul Irving.  The plotline involving Lavendar and Paul’s father, Stephen, felt romantic and satisfying.  Anne herself has just a taste of romance, her first conscious thought of what may lie ahead with Gilbert, in the book’s last pages.

Favorite line:  “… Mrs. Lynde says that when a man has to eat sour bread two weeks out of three his theology is bound to get a kink in it somewhere.”

Rating:  Three stars.  We got to meet some fun characters, but overall it felt lacking compared to the richness of the first.  Davy was a big drag for me, quite frankly. However, the book had a sweet spirit and Anne still exhibited her trademark appreciation for nature and creative daydreaming, which I enjoyed.  I do look forward to reading more about Anne’s adventures as she heads to Redmond College.  I’m hoping the change of scenery will add more momentum to the story!

20-books(This was book 3 of my #20BooksofSummer list.  Combining reading challenges!  Yes!) 

 

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

I liked Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking:  A Writer in the Kitchen.  But I didn’t love it, and I know it says more about me than about the book.  I’m not much of a cook, frankly.  I make good scrambled eggs, can roast some vegetables, and can make a decent grilled cheese.  I pretty much leave the rest of the cooking to my husband, who really enjoys the task (see?  I call it a “task”) and take solace in the fact that I enjoy baking and am good at it.41NSwNv9PfL

So I think someone who is more comfortable in the kitchen and has a more adventurous culinary spirit would appreciate this collection of food essays more than I did.  Laurie Colwin was a writer who lived in New York City and not only wrote about cooking for Gourmet magazine in the 1980’s, but also wrote five novels and three collections of short stories.  Sadly, she passed away from a heart attack at the age of 48.  Her writing has experienced a renaissance of sorts, particularly her food writing. (You can read an interesting article about how her essays continue to influence foodies now here.  The comments are particularly moving since her daughter responds to many who expressed their admiration.)

What I liked about the essays was the tone – she’s quite funny, breezy, and opinionated. She admits no formal training but more of a “let’s just see what happens” attitude to cooking, which is something I admire in people.  My husband has that.  She also consistently writes about cooking as a way to get people together and apparently was a great fan of casual dinner parties.  She writes in a way that conveys her sense of cooking as an act of love and service to her friends and family.  And yet my favorite essay was the one called “Alone in the Kitchen With An Eggplant.”  This one details her former one room apartment in which she cooked and hosted friends with a two-burner stove; essentially a hot plate.

When I was alone, I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally.  I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold.  It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations.  If any was left over I ate it cold the next day on bread.  

Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures.  Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.  People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone.  A salad, they tell you.  But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.  

I looked forward to nights alone.  I would stop to buy my eggplant and some red peppers.  At home I would fling off my coat, switch on the burner under my teakettle, slice up the eggplant, and make myself a cup of coffee.  I could do all this without moving a step.  When the eggplant was getting crisp, I turned down the fire and added garlic, tamari sauce, lemon juice, and some shredded red peppers.  While this stewed I drank my coffee and watched the local news.  Then I uncovered the eggplant, cooked it down and ate it as my desk out of an old Meissen dish, with my feet up on my wicker footrest as I watched the national news.

She shares a recipe for bread that I intend to attempt as one of my 40 Challenges this year.  I’ve never made bread before but the notion is appealing and is pretty much like baking in my book.  Other than that, I wasn’t tempted to make any of her recipes, really.  For one thing, there’s a lot of beef, which I don’t eat.  She presented the recipes breezily but they seemed kind of complicated to me.  A lot of the things she liked to cook are not things I want to eat.  I grew a bit weary of her opinions as I read on, and I ended up skimming the last few essays.  I truly think that someone who enjoys cooking and feels intuitive in the kitchen would enjoy this collection, though.  Lots of five star reviews on Goodreads attest to that.  The rest of us would be satisfied with picking and choosing a few essays.

Have you read anything by Laurie Colwin?  Is there a food writer that you particularly like? How do you feel about cooking and/or baking?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life.  In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs.  There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Fairly recently I was reminded that I’d never read a Miss Marple mystery, despite having read and enjoyed many of Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot.  It’s one of those bookish oversights that I can’t logically explain.  My aunt was the first person to introduce me to Agatha Christie, when I was in high school.  She gave me a hardcover collection of five famous Poirot cases, and I was hooked.  This same aunt, however, prefers Miss Marple as a detective to Poirot, so why didn’t she give me Marple?  And why has it taken me 20+ years to get around to reading one with the clever spinster? Perhaps we’ll never know.

murder-at-the-vicarageIn any case, I’m glad I finally tried one.  This is the first featuring Marple, set in the fictional British village of St. Mary Mead.  I was surprised to find that Marple is almost a side character in the book, albeit a vital one.  The story is narrated by the Vicar himself, and the murder is one of those types where many in the village have a motive, and the victim is spectacularly unpopular. Colonel Protheroe is found shot to death sitting at the Vicar’s desk, and within hours we have two separate confessions from two probably suspects.

It felt very classically British and cozy, with all the gossipy spinsters contributing tidbits to the police investigation, as well as the Vicar himself dipping his toe into detective work.  I very much enjoyed the tone and humor of the book, finding it recalled my beloved Barbara Pym at times.  The Vicar’s wife, the much younger Griselda, is especially funny.  He asks her at the beginning of the book what she’s got scheduled that day, and she replies,

“My duty,” said Griselda.  “My duty as the Vicaress.  Tea and scandal at four-thirty.”

“Who is coming?”

Griselda ticked them off her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face.

“Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Weatherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.”

“I rather like Miss Marple,” I said.  “She has, at least, a sense of humor.”

“She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda.

My only complaint is that this was a very slow read for me.  It took me a week, and my paperback edition is only 230 pages long!  I voiced my issue with a regular library patron who enjoys Christie and she said that the Marple mysteries do unfold at a slower pace than the Poirots.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible.  Or perhaps it’s just this particular title.  Any of you Christie fans care to weigh in on that one?

Despite the glacial pace, I did enjoy it.  There’s some clever misdirection by the master mystery writer, and I (once again) did not guess the murderer.  The Vicar and Vicaress were charming, and I found that Miss Marple grew on me as the story progressed.  She is indeed a “shrewd” character, as the Vicar describes her.  As all great amateur detectives are, she’s a keen observer of human nature, yet I found her to be humble as well – something I don’t think I can say of Hercule Poirot.  I am most definitely going to try another one in the series and see how I like it.  There are still many other Christie mysteries I’ve not yet read.  I find myself reaching for these when I’m stressed or in a weird reading mood. They’re dependably entertaining and serve as palate-cleansers.  No matter who the detective is, there will always be a place for Agatha Christie in my reading life.

 

A Friend From England by Anita Brookner

After reading Colson Whitehead’s dazzling, sweeping novel The Underground Railroad, I was in the mood for something smaller and more intimate.  I have it in the back of my mind (but not on my stated reading goals for the year) to read some of the books I already own.  So I reached for Anita Brookner’s A Friend From England, which I purchased last year at a used bookstore for $.75.  (What a steal!)

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The most 80’s cover ever?

It was a good choice.  Anita Brookner (who passed away last year, sadly) is a British author I discovered about nine years ago at the recommendation of a friend.  I have read nine of her novels including this one, and I consider her to be among my favorite authors, but she’s definitely an acquired taste.  Her novels (the ones I’ve read anyway) often follow a pattern.  There’s the main character, often a single woman, who is independent, quiet, solitary.  She is thrust into contact with a person or group of people wholly unlike her – gregarious, loud, or with family entanglements, for instance – and the growing relationship forces her to reconsider her life.  It’s not always a happy comparison, and I’ve finished more than one of her novels kind of bummed out.  Yet I can’t stop reading her!

First of all, she’s just a phenomenal writer.  Her language is so precise, so thoughtfully rendered, it’s just a joy to read.  Second, she burrows so deep into the minds of her characters that it leaves me with a pleasurable claustrophobia that I sometimes crave in my reading.  I want to know the characters, I want to try to understand them even when they can’t seem to understand themselves.  I want to feel that their thoughts and motivations ring true, and Brookner knows how to convey that.  And third, these books are quiet books about ordinary people and the workings of modern relationships. They are not epic in scope save the scope of the human heart and its yearning for connection.

880698So I haven’t actually written anything about this particular book, have I?  Well, essentially the plot is this:  Rachel, a single 30-something London bookstore co-owner, orphaned at a young age, is swept into the fold of a wealthy family and asked to be their daughter’s mentor/friend.  Heather, the inscrutable spoiled only daughter, makes a disastrous marriage and complications ensue for the entire family.  See? Not much there plot-wise, really.  But Rachel’s ordered, quiet life is completely upset by Heather’s refusal to accept her advice on how to live as an independent woman.  Rachel is forced to look at her own life and question her choices.

“Some of us have to work,” I said.  “Stay buoyant.  Stay purposeful.  Stay smiling, and helpful, and solvent.  People like us are braver than people like you will ever be.  And, frankly, I think I am light years ahead of you.  I know what I need, to be all these things, and clear-headed, and useful.  Women don’t sit at home anymore, you know, dreaming of Prince Charming.  They don’t do it because they’ve found out that he doesn’t exist.  As you should have found out.  I live in the real world, the world of deceptions.  You live in the world of illusions.  That is one of the differences between us.  Another one is that I don’t choose to go public every five minutes.  What I do is my own affair and nobody else’s.  Of course it’s terrible,” I said with some passion. “But you see, I’ve found out that there are no easy options.”

This wasn’t my favorite of the Brookner novels I’ve read.  It was a bit too much of a slow burn, only truly coming alive in the last third.  And the reason that Heather’s marriage falls apart is weirdly jarring.  But I liked it, and it provided just the type of reading experience I wanted, a quiet, slightly melancholy character study.  If you’re curious about Ms. Brookner’s books and want to know where to begin, I’d start with either Look At Me, Hotel Du Lac (for which she won the Man-Booker Prize) or Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

Have you read anything by Anita Brookner before?  Do you enjoy quiet, character-driven novels or are you more of a plot-driven reader?  Do you read an author regularly who kinds of bums you out, but you can’t stop reading them?  (Okay, maybe that’s just me, ha ha!) Tell me in the comments.