Cherry Ames: Army Nurse by Helen Wells

Cherry Ames Army Nurse

Information

GoodreadsCherry Ames: Army Nurse
Series: Cherry Ames #3
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 1944

Summary

Having graduated from nursing school, Cherry decides to become an Army nurse and is now Lieutenant Ames. But, before she is sent to the front lines, she has pass basic training in Panama City. Along the way, she encounters a man with a mysterious disease. Could Dr. Joe’s new serum save him?

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Review

Well! Cherry has finally done it! She’s passed her three years of nursing school and, after two books full of her musing on the need for more girls to become Army nurses, she has decided to become one herself. This feels like it should be the climax of the series after all those calls to arms in the previous installments and yet–all Cherry does is go through basic training and then get mixed up in a possible malaria case. Book three is a bit of letdown after all the impassioned speeches. Still, readers who enjoy Cherry will find much of the same formula here, as well as possibly more excitement in book four, when she gets to go to the front.

Cherry Ames: Army Nurse was first published in 1944, so much of its interest lies in the way the book is basically used as wartime propaganda. In the last book, Cherry and her entire class all decided to answer the call for more Army nurses, so now they are in basic training. The book seems to depict the types of training fairly realistically, describing how the nurses have to drill like soldiers and pass obstacle courses by crawling through mud under barbed wire and climbing nets. That is in addition to their learning how to manage a ward full of patients while being understaffed (Remember, girls–you’re needed! Sign up for nursing school now!). But, despite all that, Cherry Ames: Army Nurse depicts Army life as fun. The nurses get the excitement of traveling to new places, glamorous new uniforms, and tons of attention from the men. The book really wants its readers to start training as nurses. As the characters keep telling each other, if you enter the Cadet Nurse Corps, you get free tuition, clothing, room and board–even an allowance!!

Patriotic speeches aside, the book shines mostly while depicting Cherry’s time in basic training. The rest of the story is comprised of a confusing plot line wherein she discovers a man suffering from a mysterious disease, and has to identify what it is, and where he contracted it–except some people are mad she found the man and that she broke Army protocol to do it. It seems sort of irrelevant and tacked on, but the books like to add a bit of “mystery” to each of the nursing stories.

Cherry Ames: Army Nurse is sort of a fun flashback to the 1940s, but for me its interest lies mainly in its historical aspects. I found the storyline a little weak, and do not currently feel inclined to keep reading the series.

3 Stars

Cherry Ames: Senior Nurse by Helen Wells

Cherry Ames Senior Nurse

Information

Goodreads: Cherry Ames: Senior Nurse
Series: Cherry Ames #2
Age Category: Children’s
Source: Library
Published: 1944

Summary

Now a senior nurse, Cherry has to focus on earning her black graduation bow. But she still has fun in the wards–like the time someone lets a rabbit loose in the children’s section! Plus, she has a new potential beau, a doctor known throughout the hospital as a cyclone. But then her attention is drawn to the mystery surrounding Dr. Joe’s new treatment, a penicillin that could help the war effort. No one is supposed know what he’s working on in his lab, but, soon, rumors spread throughout the hospital, and the penicillin formula could be in danger.

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Review

The Cherry Ames books are a classic example of a “girls series”–books featuring young women who taken on more independent roles as teenage sleuths or perhaps career women. Cherry Ames is a nurse and her series trumpets the nobility of nursing as a calling, to inspire readers to sign up to help the war effort. (This book was first published in 1944.) But the Cherry Ames books have a vivid, realistic feeling that make them still relevant today. Cherry is no Nancy Drew, static and perfect. Rather, she is a young woman who sometimes makes mistakes, but who tries hard and ultimately finds her way. Readers who love classic stories will find much to delight them in Cherry Ames.

Cherry Ames: Senior Nurse admittedly loses a bit of the charm from the first book, since Cherry is in her third year of school now and she feels much more assured in her career. Though she may look forward to graduating, and though she may be wavering between serving as an Army nurse or on the home front, she really has no fear that she will not graduate at all. Much of the drama, then, comes from interpersonal conflicts. She has “adopted” a probationary nurse who does not seem to want her mentorship, and she has a whirlwind flirtation with a a fiery-tempered doctor, who expresses his interest by ordering Cherry around: “I’m going to take you to the dance” and so forth. (Yeah, this romance is dated, to say the least.) The stakes are just so much lower.

Cherry’s story still has a human interest appeal, however, because Cherry herself feels so human. Even as a senior, she still likes a good practical joke, and she will bend the rules sometimes to have a little fun or to try to cheer up a patient. She also struggles with her own passionate temper, sometimes judging someone too hastily or flaring up at slight provocations. Though the book presents nursing as a higher calling, Cherry is no saint. And, in that, she is relatable.

Of course, since this book was originally published in the 1940s, some aspects of the book are dated. While Cherry’s job as a nurse seems to make her more sympathetic than other protagonists to people who are not white middle-class women, the book does show its biases in the way it depicts some of the patients Cherry encounters. While Cherry still gives them the best of care, the author does imply that some backgrounds will make a person less cleanly, agreeable, or socially acceptable than others. Readers should be aware going into the book that it does not live up to contemporary values, but, indeed, centers white middle-class women and their stories.

The Cherry Ames books can be approached a variety of ways by readers. They may appeal to readers who like old-fashioned stories that are focused on character development and “wholesome” fun like going to dances or going out for a soda. But they are also a fascinating glimpse into the concerns of the past–not only concerns about the ongoing war efforts, but also concerns about gender and professionalization.

4 stars

Cherry Ames: Student Nurse by Helen Wells (A Re-Read Review)

Information

Goodreads: Cherry Ames: Student Nurse
Series: Cherry Ames #1
Source: Library
Published: 1943

Summary

Eighteen-year-old Cherry Ames dreams of serving others as a nurse. She sets off to nursing school to begin her training, but fears she will never pass her probationary period as the strict Dr. Wylie always seems intent on criticizing her.

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Review

The Cherry Ames books are often recommended for fans of Nancy Drew. Although the series started in the 1940s, and also features an eighteen-year-old protagonist, the books arguably do not have much in common with Nancy Drew, other than a general feeling of old-timey wholesomeness. Cherry is a career woman, dedicated to becoming an efficient nurse so she can help with the war effort. Though her books include an element of mystery, she is a not a sleuth. Furthermore, Cherry is more fully realized character, one is who is able to make mistakes and who must then face the consequences. In short, Cherry Ames is her own character with her own unique books–but those books are worth reading! Dip into the Cherry Ames series to find stories of a strong young woman making her way in the world, overcoming mistakes in order to triumph.

Cherry Ames’ historical situation is admittedly one of the most appealing, and interesting, aspects of the books. First published in 1934, Cherry Ames: Student Nurse is deeply intent on depicting nursing as a noble–and patriotic–calling. Helen Wells liberally peppers her book with statements on the impact of nurses on patients’ lives–but prevents it from becoming too unrealistically sentimental by balancing the vocational awe with some insight on the practicalities of the profession, as well. Still, it seems clear that the book is a recruitment tool; the characters make sure to inform readers that nursing is a growing field and that they will still be needed even after the war ends.

This bit of historical interest aside, the books still translate well into the modern day. Cherry Ames feels relatable, even if she does refer to aspects of American life that have faded into the past. At heart, she is a young woman just setting out on her own into the world. She has to leave her supportive family behind in order to enter an intense period of training, and she worries she will not pass her probation. She also feels like a real person–one who sometimes melts under pressure or risks getting into trouble by indulging in relatively harmless pranks. Her sense of idealism, mixed with a bit of self-doubt, is something that young people pursuing new careers will likely recognize in themselves.

And this book, at least, notably deviates from the Nancy Drew books in that it is not quite so much a product of its time. While Cherry Ames is still a middle-class white girl with a privileged background, she does not rely on that privilege as much as Nancy. Nor does she look down on others who do not share her privileges. When a classmate is discovered to have come from an impoverished household with abusive and neglectful parents, the book celebrates the girl’s strength and acknowledges that she can change her future. In the Nancy Drew books, people from lower-income households are typically either the villains or objects of Nancy’s pity and financial charity.

The Cherry Ames books are a delightful look into the past, at a time when nursing as a profession was encouraged for young women to help the war effort. Cherry responds to the call, and proves herself a capable, efficient young woman who makes a difference in the life of others. The books never directly state that Cherry is strong, or that she is a role model, or that she could inspire other young women to pursue a career. But she is, and she does. And her books are a treasure.

I first reviewed Cherry Ames: Student Nurse in 2013!

4 stars

A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky (ARC Review)

A Bad Business book cover

Information

Goodreads: A Bad Business
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: March 29, 2022

Official Summary

This vivid collection of new translations by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater illuminates Dostoevsky’s dazzling versatility as a writer.

His remarkable short fiction swings from wickedly sharp humour to gripping psychological intensity, from cynical social mockery to moments of unexpected tenderness.

The stories in this collection range from impossible fantasy to scorching satire.

A civil servant finds a new passion for his work when he’s swallowed alive by a crocodile.

A struggling writer stumbles on a cemetery where the dead still talk to each other.

An arrogant but well-intentioned gentleman provokes an uproar at an aide’s wedding, and in the marital bed.

A young boy finds unexpected salvation on a cold and desolate Christmas Eve.

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Review

It sounds funny to say I’m writing a review for an ARC of a book by Dostoevsky, but this edition features new translations by Nicolas Pasternak and Maya Slater, and it has the added benefit that I don’t believe I’ve read any of these stories in any other translation before.

The collection as a whole was hit-or-miss for me: I only liked 3 out of the 6 stories. There’s also no introduction in the ARC to help contextualize any of the stories or explain why they’re grouped together, and I see no indication there will be one in the final print.

Here are my thoughts on each story:

1. A Bad Business

Things got off to an inauspicious start for me, as I did not particularly enjoy the first story (and these types of collections often feature the “best” or most well-known story as the opening). I believe it’s supposed to be humorous, featuring a general who has high reformation ideals about mingling with the lower classes and “elevating” them while also expressing he believes in everyone’s shared humanity; his ideals don’t play out as he imagines, however, as when he crashes his subordinate’s wedding, he generally makes a mess of things and costs the poor man money he can’t afford. I get the general message, but I don’t think it’s as hard-hitting in modern-day America as I must assume it was in Russia in Dostoevsky’s day. I didn’t laugh, and I didn’t feel as if it really offered me a keen and piercing insight into anything I wanted to ponder more.

2. Conversations in a Graveyard

The second story I found much more entertaining. I was a little wary of the initial paragraphs, as they feature a narrator discussing how awesome he is even though no one appreciates it and then explaining that he felt into pondering the nature of astonishment, and I felt that I was simply in for one of those classic stories that is simply the protagonist sharing their philosophical musings, without much of an actual plot. I was wrong! This story has a bit of the supernatural, features a range of wild and slightly shocking characters in a short pace, and even got me thinking about death and what I would do if I found out I had a little “more time” after death (or what anyone would do, or what they perhaps “should” do). Definitely a winner of a short story.

3. A Meek Creature

The third story is interesting, featuring a narrator who is relating the events of his life after he comes home to find she has killed herself. The reader gets inside his head and can see where he is kind of lying to himself and how he was abusive in ways he didn’t recognize or didn’t want to, but it’s not all black and white, and the ending can make the reader wonder whether things might have been on the verge of improving before the unfortunate suicide.

4. The Crocodile

A story about a guy who is swallowed whole by a crocodile on exhibit in a museum. It’s deliciously absurd because only the narrator acts as one would expect 99% of people to react to this event: with horror and great anxiety to find a way to free the unfortunate man. Everyone else reacts unexpectedly. I enjoyed it.

5. The Heavenly Christmas Tree

Incredibly short and really depressing story about a boy whose mother dies around Christmas and wanders about looking for a bit of Christmas magic. I didn’t really see the point of the story, to be honest. And the length of this story and the final one was off-putting to me; the stories seem like afterthoughts in this collection.

6. The Peasant Marey

This one is also short and unremarkable, the narrator remembering a semi-insignificant event from his childhood that somehow holds significance for him. I found it an anti-climatic conclusion to the collection.

Briana

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 31-40)

Reading Through Nancy Drew Books 31 to 40

I have loved Nancy Drew for years, but will rereading the original 56 yellow spine books* hold up to my memories? Join me as I find out! Read part one here, read part two here, and read part three here.

*I’m rereading the revised editions for this series, because they are more accessible and what most contemporary readers are familiar with, but you can check out my comparison reviews for The Secret of Shadow Ranch and The Mystery of the Ivory Charm if you are interested in reviews for the unrevised versions.

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Book 31: The Ringmaster’s Secret

The Ringmaster's Secret

Nancy receives a bracelet, once the possession of a famous aerialist, from her Aunt Eloise, leading her to go undercover in a traveling circus. There, she finds Lolita, the adopted daughter of the ringmaster–but Lolita’s mother, the previous owner of the bracelet, is rumored to still be alive. Although Nancy has solved a circus mystery before, she gets more involved in this one, actually joining as a trick rider. The plot is fast paced and exciting, and stood out to me mainly for its increased violence–Nancy is strangled with a whip, a man is beaten and left for dead, and Nancy narrowly avoids an acid attack. The solution to the mystery is obvious, but at least the book provides plenty of thrills along the way.

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Book 32: The Scarlet Slipper Mystery

The Scarlet Slipper Mystery

Well, I have never not understood a Nancy Drew book–but I certainly did not understand this one. Nancy meets a brother and sister who are running (they think) from the enemies of the Centrovian underground, of which their parents were a part. Their case is mixed up with that of another Centrovian man, who seems to suspect the Fontaines of being smugglers, as well as with the case of a group of actual jewel smugglers. Some of the bad guys may or may not be associated with Centrovia, or maybe they just see a chance to make money from the Centrovian occupiers, and a few of them may have been double crossing both sides. I don’t actually know. I was lost. Too many characters and too many crimes.

Ned Note: Ned pretends Nancy is his wife in order to trick a bad guy–and Nancy gets mad! Apparently there actually are limits to the lies one can tell in order to solve a case–and Ned just crossed one.

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Book 33: The Witch Tree Symbol

The Witch Tree Symbol

A stolen furniture case leads Nancy to Pennsylvania Amish country, where she is convinced an ex-convict is posing as Amish to hide his loot. Since Nancy knows the culprit from the start, there is not much mystery here, just a convoluted path to her locating the man before he can sell the furniture and get away. The book seems primarily interested in talking about Amish culture in a sort of superficial way–Nancy attends a dance and a quilting party, witnesses a barn raising, and eats an incredible amount of food. Mostly I was curious as to how a new Amish man could show up in town, and have no one know where he lives–not even a general direction. No one finds it odd that he does not attend any church services or go to market or speak to any of his neighbors? No, they are too busy being convinced that Nancy is a witch for…some reason. The story is not great, but the book could be part of an interesting scholarly project on Americans’ fascination with the Amish, and their depictions in literature.

Ned Note: Poor Ned. This is the third time that he’s indirectly suggested marriage to Nancy and had her pretend not to understand.

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Book 34: The Hidden Window

The Hidden Window Mystery

Wow! Where do I even start? This is one of the few volumes I do not remember reading as a child, and…there’s a lot. Nancy heads to Charlottesville, Virginia, in an attempt to find a missing stained glass window for an English nobleman. Her case gets tangled up with her new neighbor–a nasty woman who first accuses the postman and then Nancy of stealing made-up mail–as well as with the mystery of why a new homeowner who will not let people view his grounds during Garden Week (because this is a super pressing issue, obviously) and with the mystery of a semi-hysterical actress who believes her new house is haunted. While, we’re at it, someone steals the girls’ lingerie because one can never have too many crimes in a mystery novel, apparently. Nancy does a lot of sightseeing so readers can feel like they learned something about the Founding Fathers. The slave quarters on the place where Nancy is staying are treated as a historical curiosity. Shrieking peacocks terrorize the neighborhood. I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but it was a whirlwind.

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Book 35: The Haunted Showboat

The Haunted Showboat

It’s starting to feel a lot like ghostwriter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams really loved the Old South. This book has a somewhat uninteresting mystery featuring a showboat that Bess’s cousin wants to have towed up the bayou so it can be restored and the theatre used to put on a production for his daughter’s engagement announcement. However, the showboat is allegedly haunted and no one will go near it. Most of the action is incidental to this, though. And the racist stereotypes are so terrible it’s amazing that I’ve seen so few reviewers mention them.

Ned Note: Ned flies down on a whim to celebrate Mardi Gras with Nancy. Why not? I guess his family has endless cash, too.

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Book 36: The Secret of the Golden Pavilion

The Secret of the Golden Pavilion

Nancy Drew capitalizes on Hawaii’s admission as a state to the U.S. by setting the girl sleuth’s latest case there. The author loses no time in having Nancy tell Hannah (and, apparently, the readers) that she ought to take this opportunity to learn more about the newest state. Numerous descriptions are given of food, dance, costume, and folklore. Nancy travels around a few of the islands, visiting volcanoes, skin diving, and learning about the local wildlife. Also, there’s a mystery buried somewhere in the middle of this travel book. It’s not a very interesting one.

Ned Note: Because it has students from Emerson on it, Ned’s plane makes the news for experiencing some difficultly while conveniently on its way to Hawaii, where Nancy’s latest case is set. No one explains why what appears to be some easily fixed mechanical trouble gets picked up by the news and reported on relentlessly. Is Ned really that great at football? Is he national news? I’m so confused.

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Book 37: The Clue in the Old Stagecoach

The Clue in the Old Stagecoach

This is another one of those mysteries where Nancy knows the villains from the start, but spends most of her time attempting to follow them around and catch them in the act. Also, she’s on vacation with Bess and George, so they play an awful lot of tennis, and end up by auditioning for a water ballet (as one does while on vacation). The mystery is so weak that the writer desperately tries to keep reader interest with increasingly unbelievable scenarios, like having a loose circus bear threaten to attack Nancy and her friends while they are driving to a farm. The rest of the page length is created by dropping a lot of knowledge about old-timey stage coaches, evidently to educate the reader. This is decidedly not one of the strongest installments in the series.

Ned Note: Nancy dates another boy, Rick, while on vacation. Rick conveniently leaves before Ned arrives. No one tells Ned about Rick.

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Book 38: The Mystery of the Fire Dragon

The Mystery of the Fire Dragon

I don’t even know what to think about this book. Nancy’s Aunt Eloise calls her to New York City to solve the disappearance of her Chinese neighbor, Chi Che Soong. Nancy mentions that she always carries her birth certificate around because it’s good to be prepared. George dresses up as Chi Che in an effort to find her kidnappers. The group all travels to Hong Kong in the end, where Ned Nickerson conveniently happens to be attending college. Lots of firecrackers go off. And, as usual, Nancy and George keep teasing Bess for eating too much–even though Bess only ever seems to eat exactly what Nancy and George are also eating! (Sometimes she has a second piece of dessert, but who wouldn’t?) Did anything in this book make sense? Not really.

Ned Note: Is this the first time ever Ned has travelled somewhere without Burt and Dave?!

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Book 39: The Clue of the Dancing Puppet

The Clue of the Dancing Puppet

This is classic Nancy Drew! Nancy arrives at an old estate turned theatre to uncover the mystery of a dancing puppet that appears at night on the lawn. Along the way, she encounters an overly dramatic leading actress, a Shakespeare enthusiast who will not stop quoting the Bard, and an array of dastardly villains. She gets to explore dusty attics, search for secret passageways, and break out her magnifying glass–all while trying to save the production from disaster. This book is high point among these later installments–aside from the constant insistence that Bess can only appear in the play if she loses weight. I’m starting to think that maybe some of the earlier revised books may have taken out a lot of the fat shaming, since it seems to be increasing in the later books.

Ned Note: Ned takes a last minute flight to watch Nancy perform in a play. He flies back again, with Dave and Burt, on the same day. I often wonder how much his summer camp counselor job pays.

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Book 40: The Moonstone Castle Mystery

The Moonstone Castle Mystery

Nancy receives a moonstone in the mail from an unnamed individual–right before traveling to stay at a location that used to be known as Moonstone Valley! She starts work on a missing persons case, but soon finds herself entangled in the mystery of an abandoned castle, that just might be the meeting place for a gang of crooks. A creepy castle, a swim across a moat, another stolen car, and yet another boat crash make this one feel like classic Nancy Drew.

10 of the Most Romantic Books in Classic Literature

10 Romantic Classic Novels

Do you like classics? Are you looking for a classic book with a romance that will make you swoon? The prefect love story that has lasted generations that you should check out for Valentine’s Day (or any other day of the year?) Here are 10 of our suggestions! (No, Jane Eyre is not on this list; Rochester is a creep.)

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Pride and Prejudice book cover Penguin edition

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

No list of romantic classic novels would be complete without a mention of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have captivated readers for centuries, in the original novel as well as in various adaptations, sequels, and retellings.

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Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

In this sequel to Eight Cousins, Rose Campbell is all grown up and returning home after two years of travel–and the would-be suitors are lining up.  Will she choose someone suave and debonair or a steady bookish fellow?  Also check out Alcott’s other books if you want to see more of her characters fall in love.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë 

Young Caroline Helstone is in love with her cousin Robert Moore, but he is too busy attempting to publicly defend his decision to replace workers with more efficient machines in his Yorkshire mill to notice her affections. Caroline is sinking into depression when Shirley Keldar, a wealthy and independent landowner, returns to her estate and befriends Caroline.  But will Caroline lose Robert to her new friend?

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TROILUS AND CRISEYDE BY GEOFFREY CHAUCER

A classic love story that has been told and retold (Shakespeare wrote a play, too), featuring star-crossed lovers during the Siege of Troy. If you thought Chaucer only wrote The Canterbury Tales, you’ll be pleased and surprised by the nuance with which he tells the story of Troilus and Cressida and how they fall in love and experience tragedy.

camille

Camille by Alexandre Dumas

This is a very moving and beautiful love story between a pair of lovers who are perfect for each other but doomed by social expectations to be kept apart. When the story begins, their feelings seem as though they could be only infatuation. Armand is obsessed with Marguerite because he thinks she is beautiful. Marguerite tolerates Armand because he knows some of her friends, and then because he expresses pity for her in her sickness. Over time, however, the two develop a meaningful relationship and make sacrifices for each other’s happiness that express their love more strongly than words ever could.

BELINDA BY MARIA EDGEWORTH

Everyone knows about Jane Austen, but Maria Edgeworth was also quite popular during the Regency era! Her novel Belinda features a seventeen-year-old protagonist looking for marriage and was known by Jane Austen herself.

7
Anne of the Island

Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery

Readers familiar with Anne of Green Gables will be familiar with Anne’s contentious relationship with Gilbert Blythe, but it isn’t until the third book in the Anne series that their relationship really begins to bloom. Montgomery writes a romance both sweet and a little bitter as it seems Anne might lose her chance at happiness, due to her own stubbornness.

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THE BLUE CASTLE BY L. M. MONTGOMERY

L. M. Montgomery may be best known for writing Anne of Green Gables (and book three, Anne of the Island, is pretty romantic, as well, as mentioned above!), but The Blue Castle is a beautiful, rather overlooked novel that anyone who wants a light story about unexpected love will enjoy.

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North and South book cover

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

While this book is largely about the relationship between employers and employees and worker’s right, when it’s not focused on labor issues, it’s a nuanced exploration of the relationship between the protagonist and a mill owner.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Readers might best associate this book with adventure (or know it for being a musical and a movie!), as it is set during the French Revolution, and there’s action and intrigue. However, there’s also a lot of romance!

Briana

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Information

Goodreads: O Pioneers!
Series: Great Plains Trilogy #1
Source: Gift
Published: 1913

Official Summary

(From the Penguin Classics edition)

The first of her renowned prairie novels, O Pioneers! expresses Cather’s conviction that “the history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

When Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, takes over the family farm after her father’s death, she falls under the spell of the rich, forbidding Nebraska prairie. With strength and resoluteness, she turns the wild landscape into orderly fields. Born of Cather’s early ties to the prairie and to the immigrants who tamed the land, O Pioneers! established a new territory in American literature when it was first published in 1913. In her transformation of ordinary Americans into authentic literary characters, Cather discovered her own voice, exploring themes that would reverberate in her later works.

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Review

I wasn’t really sure what O Pioneers! was supposed to be about before I began, and now that I’ve finished, I’m tempted to say it’s not about much at all. Ostensibly it’s about protagonist Alexandra Bergson, but the story skips over the years of her life I personally would have found most interesting, the years where she turned a patch of land inherited from her father into a thriving and ever-expanding farm simply through her perseverance and intelligence, dragging her brothers along with her when they didn’t want to go. Since that’s all glossed over, however, I was left with a story where Alexandra seems unhappy in spite of all her accomplishments, and the whole thing was rather bland and depressing.

One could argue the main character is the land, an area where people initially struggled to get by and many gave up and returned to the cities, but which eventually grows into a profitable and enviable place to live. Alexandra seems to understand the land better than many, making her a sympathetic character one wants to see succeed. However, I personally can’t love a book simply by thinking the setting is interesting, almost a character unto itself. And the rest of the story is just lacking.

The characters I liked most fade in and out of the story, and terrible things seem to happen to them in spite of their best efforts, and overall I was just bored. Since this is a classic, I am sure some random commenter I’ve never seen on the blog before will pop out of nowhere to tell me I didn’t really understand the book because really it’s a gripping piece of genius, but I just didn’t find it interesting. I’m sure if I read it for school I could come up with something to write a paper about relating to the land or the lack of optimism where it appears optimism should be, but since I was just reading this for fun and didn’t really enjoy it, I will not be reading anything else by the author.

Briana

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Villette

Information

Goodreads: Villette
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: 1853

Summary

Finding herself alone in the world after a family misfortune, Lucy Snowe travels from England to the city of Villette to teach at a girls’ boarding school. There, she first falls in love with a handsome young doctor, and then an irritable professor.

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Review

Though considered by many Charlotte Brontë’s finest novel, Villette often goes unread by the general public. Perhaps it is the sheer length of the tome that deters readers. Or perhaps it is the style. Narrated by the protagonist, Lucy Snow, Villette is not a reliable novel. Lucy keeps her emotions in check almost all the time, lying apparently even to herself about her real motivations and desires. She goes through the world largely as an observer, only implicitly comparing herself first with the shallow flirt Ginevra Fanshawe and then with the beautiful and charming Paulina de Bassompierre. Readers get a sense that Lucy wishes she had something those other girls do–but to admit it out loud would be a weakness. Villette, then, is a sometimes confusing and contradictory novel, with Lucy subduing her passions in order to try to find contentment while alone and friendless, and destined to work her entire life. As a psychological study, it is a triumph–one well worth reading by those who love Brontë’s other works or those who enjoy Victorian literature.

Plot-driven Villette is not, and readers might rightly find it difficult even to summarize the story. It begins in Lucy’s childhood–one that seems happy enough at times, though it ends with an unspecified family tragedy. Left alone, Lucy has to find a way to support herself and eventually decides to travel to the French-speaking city of Villette (based on Brussels and Brontë’s own experiences there). Eventually, she becomes an English teacher at a girls’ boarding school. However, she has no friends there, rejecting the advances of the other teachers as unworthy, and finding almost all of the students immoral and stupid. Over the course of about 18 months, the novel follows Lucy simply as she meets people and observes them. All the while, however, her own extreme loneliness and despair haunt the book. Lucy may claim an even temperament, but at its heart, the book is about the fear of being alone, unloved, and single–as well as the despair of having to work for one’s daily bread an entire lifetime, while not really enjoying the work.

In a subtle way, then, Villette is a novel about the plight of the working woman, though perhaps in a more realistic way than Jane Eyre. Lucy Snowe has no pretensions to being clever or remarkable; she is not even pretty. All Lucy has are her principles, and the reader sometime gets the impression that she clings so fiercely to them because it is the only thing she can control. Others may mock, dismiss, or ignore her. Men may never even look at her because she is so homely. But at least she has morals. At least she can say she is honest. And that thought seems to get her through the day whenever she contemplates a lifetime of standing in front of a room full of bored, disrespectful girls. No handsome hero is going to save her, but she will die respectable and principled.

Despite her assertions to herself that principle is enough, however, Lucy implicitly compares herself with two other women throughout the course of the novel. In the first part, her double is Ginevra Fanshawe, a flirtatious, mercenary girl who values shallow, foppish men over men of value. Lucy repeatedly scolds Ginevra for being vain and faithless, but the reality is that Ginevra–young, beautiful, and wealthy–has the attention of men whereas Lucy–youngish, plain, and poor–has not. In fact, two-timing Ginevra has the heart of Dr. John, the very man Lucy has (silently) fallen in love with herself. Lucy never admits to being in love with Dr. John, but her jealousy is palpable. And it only turns to sadness later on when Dr. John moves on to another beautiful young woman–Paulina de Bassompierre. Lucy recognizes moral quality in Paulina, but she also recognizes that Dr. John would never bother to court Paulina, were the girl not an heiress. Repeatedly, then, Lucy faces the stark reality that a plain working woman of no means seems destined to live, and die, alone. She has many fine speeches about the value of friends, but those friends sometimes forget her; they are not the steady, stable rock of a lifelong partner.

The third part of the book, however, holds out new hope for Lucy in the person of M. Paul, an irritable professor who sometimes teaches at Lucy’s school. Readers may be cheering for Lucy and her potential new love interest here, but M. Paul does exhibit Brontë’s preference for domineering men in a way that can be uncomfortable. Certainly Brontë managed to make Rochester attractive to generations of readers, despite his love of dominating and lying to Jane, but it is questionable whether she achieves the same effect here. M. Paul initially is ascribed only negative qualities and Lucy gives the impression that he is not handsome, either. As time progresses, M. Paul seems to soften and readers learn of his kinder, more generous qualities–but it cannot be denied that Brontë really seems to have a thing for men who yell at and demean women. Readers may hope for a marriage, anyway, but it really does seem questionable if matrimony would be a happier ending for Lucy than achieving financial independence as a single woman.

Villette is a wonderfully complex book that explores one woman’s experiences teaching in a foreign country as she attempts to navigate existence as a single woman of limited financial means. It holds extra interest to many readers as being perhaps the most autobiographical of Brontë’s works; the book is based on her own feelings for a married professor she met in Belgium. However, it also works without the authorial subtext, creating an intense psychological portrait of a woman both daring enough to have passions in life, but also too scared to admit it.

5 stars

Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

Spoilers!

This year, I embarked on a quest to finally reread The Lord of the Rings. (I know: I talk about it enough on the blog that people probably assume I must reread it every year or something, but that’s not true. It’s been a while since I last read the story cover to cover.) In April, I posted some reflections on the geography of Middle-Earth after finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I realized the world is much more isolated than I tend to remember. Now, after finishing The Return of the King, I’ve realized the story is also darker than I often remember.

The Lord of the Rings is generally a story I associate with hope. Small, unimportant people do great deeds. Disparate people band together to fight an incredible threat. Frodo succeeds in his quest despite all odds. I’ve written before about how the ending is bittersweet, as some things blossom and come to fruition (the actual return of the king) but other things pass away (the Elves). However, I don’t generally think of the book as actually dark. That changed with this rereading.

This time around, I really felt the despair of the peoples of Gondor, and slightly less so Rohan, as they prepared to take on the forces of the Dark Lord in battle. I know, of course, that Lord Denethor despairs of victory, but I always have it in the back of my mind that, of course, he’s supposed to be wrong. Gandalf tells him off for his despair, and readers learn that he’s been tricked into by Sauron, who has selectively shown him things in the Seeing Stone that will make him think Gondor has no chance of winning the coming battle. Knowing that, I’ve come to have in the back of my mind the idea that the other characters must be a bit more optimistic about the situation, but upon rereading, I’ve realized that’s not true.

None of the characters really know what’s coming before the battle at Minas Tirith, but they are not hopeful about it. In general, they are convinced they are going to die. Pippin fears the battle and that he will never see his friends again. Gandalf thinks they have a slim hope of winning this battle, maybe, but of course the whole war rests on Frodo’s ability to destroy the Ring. The people of Rohan ride hard to Gondor’s aid but are half-convinced they won’t arrive in time to participate in the main battle but instead will simply have a chance to briefly harry the orcs and Men who have triumphed over Minas Tirith before succumbing to said orcs and Men themselves, with no one even left to sing songs about their deeds. There is truly a sense that all the characters are going to fail. Or, even if the main battle is won, a lot of these characters are going to be dead.

Things get even more dire after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn and the Captains of the West go to challenge Sauron at the Black Gate. They’re not even pretending there’s a chance they are going to come back alive at this point. It’s basically a suicide mission to buy Frodo a little more time and privacy to get to Mount Doom while Sauron is looking elsewhere. This is very depressing! And when a chapter ends with Pippin’s being attacked and subsequently closing his eyes and losing thought, well, it certainly seems as if he’s dead! I cannot remember what I thought the first time I read the book, and didn’t know the ending, but I assume I really thought Pippin was gone, and perhaps Aragorn and all the others were next.

Of course, the Eagles come, Frodo’s quest succeeds, and things generally become happy by the end. It’s the eucatastophe Tolkien wanted, but for many, many chapters in this book, it really feels as if hope is missing. One gets into the minds of the characters, who do not know where Frodo is or if he’s even still alive, who assume they have a part to play in fighting Sauron because, really, it’s the only option, but they’re not convinced it’s going to work or they’re gong to come out alive. In some places, this may in fact be the most hopeless book I’ve ever read! Or perhaps the most realistic about how people feel before a large battle in which they are outnumbered. Why should they expect to be lucky enough to survive?

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, still one of my favorite books. I simply did not remember the amount of darkness and despair Tolkien manages to convey in the first part of The Return of the King, especially since I now know how it all ends. It’s really a masterpiece of writing, and I think this bit of darkness is often overlooked.

Briana

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Information

Goodreads: Brideshead Revisited
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1945

Official Summary

(Back Bay Books edition)

The wellsprings of desire and the impediments to love come brilliantly into focus in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece — a novel that immerses us in the glittering and seductive world of English aristocracy in the waning days of the empire.

Through the story of Charles Ryder’s entanglement with the Flytes, a great Catholic family, Evelyn Waugh charts the passing of the privileged world he knew in his own youth and vividly recalls the sensuous pleasures denied him by wartime austerities.

At once romantic, sensuous, comic, and somber, Brideshead Revisited transcends Waugh’s early satiric explorations and reveals him to be an elegiac, lyrical novelist of the utmost feeling and lucidity.

Star Divider

Review

Brideshead Revisited is one of those books where the publisher’s summary has come to be about themes rather than plot. According to my copy, the book is about “the passing of the privileged world” before and during WWII. Personally, I find there IS a lot thematically to unpack. I can imagine writing several academic papers about it in a college class. As a casual read I intend to read just once and move on from, however, I was underwhelmed.

If there is a plot, it is how protagonist Charles Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte at Oxford and subsequently becomes entangled with the entire Flyte family, which is exactly what Sebastian had feared. Because the start of the book is so focused on Charles and Sebastian, I had thought it was going the route of A Separate Peace, exploring an obsessive male friendship with dark undertones, and I was somewhat disappointed to find that was not the case. The book eventually becomes focused on the character I would consider the least interesting of the Flyte family, which makes the book lose some of its momentum.

Besides the themes of decaying decadence, I did notice the book’s obsession with Catholicism, unusual for most of the English classics I have read. We see the religion largely through Charles’s eyes, who is agnostic but seems politely disinterested until he realizes religion might lead the Flytes to do things he doesn’t wish them to do. We also see ot through several of the Flytes’s eyes, whose opinions and devotion vary. Overall, I quite enjoyed the depiction of a family who is somewhat set apart for having the “wrong” religion for the elite but continue on anyway. even if others don’t understand.

I am happy I read the book, and I think it has it’s moments, but i wouldn’t call it gripping or even particularly insightful in many instances.

Briana
3 Stars