Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery

Information

Goodreads: Rainbow Valley
Series: Anne of Green Gables #7
Source: Library
Published: 1919

Summary

A new minister and his family have moved into the manse.  The Meredith children, however, are motherless and their antics are scandalizing the neighborhood.  From playing in the Methodist graveyard to showing up to church without stockings, nothing seems beyond them.  The Blythe children, however, are always ready to play and Mrs. Dr. Blythe remains their staunch defender.

Review

Rainbow Valley is classic Montgomery and everything enchanting.  The focus moves from Anne and her family to the Meredith children who, like Anne herself, tend to act first and think later.  Their innocent revelries are the cause of much consternation in the congregation.  Poor Miss Cornelia is not sure she will ever be able to face the Methodists again!  The combination of childhood joys, heartbreaks, and fancies, along with the gossip of the locals provides a perceptive look at life in a small town where nothing is ever dull and the tragedies of old maids are as great as the tragedies of queens.

Readers who miss the Anne of Green Gables days will delight in Rainbow Valley.  The manse children, though well-meaning, get up to all kinds of humorous high jinks.  Their desire to do good always seems to go awry in a way that is very reminiscent of our favorite redhead.  However, they distinguish themselves from Anne because their mishaps are often intentional–they simply do not understand the social mores of Glen St. Mary.  They go at life with vim and are confused when the staid old maids gossip as a result.

The gossip is, as always, both riveting and the target of Montgomery’s wit.  Montgomery makes small town trials and tragedies come alive, showing that passion is not confined to only higher segments of society.  But the gossip often centers around trivial matters when little else is happening.  Thus, the ladies of Glen St. Mary unconsciously couple stories of jilted lovers and vengeful wives with shocked whispers about the doings of the manse children, as if a childhood prank exists on the level of seriousness.  The ladies become a little humorous themselves even as they tell the silly doings of the children.

Rainbow Valley is sure to please any fan of L. M. Montgomery.  However, it also has much to recommend it to any casual reader.  It enters sympathetically into the world of childhood and brings readers back to the innocence of imagination.  But it also contains a keen wit and perceptive characterization as it charts the deaths, births, marriages, and courtings of Glen St. Mary.  The characters seem real, so real that leaving them feels like leaving friends.

5 stars

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Peasant Life in Old German Epics Trans. by Clair Hayden Bell

peasant life in old german epicsInformation

Goodreads: Peasant Life in Old German Epics
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1931

Official Summary

The two epic poems in this volume are among the rare medieval writings which depict the life of ordinary people, and thus they offer significant perspective on daily life in feudal time.

Meier Helmbrecht, a didactic satire, is a vigorous portrayal of the social conditions of folk life; its theme is the decay of knighthood, and it tells the story of a young peasant boy who joins the retinue of a robber knight.  Der arme Heinrich is built on the theme of vicarious sacrifice, and paints a pictue of the relations between a noble landowner and his dependent peasantry.  The two poems, translated from the Middle High German of the thirteenth century, are the first unified, national stories, German in theme and in setting, developed in German literature.

Peasant Life in Old German Epics contains the full text of both poems in line-for-line translations; an introduction placing the poems in their historical and literary settings; and detailed notes and bibliography.  The book is illustrated with a map and six halftone plates.

Review

Overview

I picked up Peasant Life in Old German Epics because, it’s true, I don’t believe I have a read a medieval text that presents any peasants as serious characters.  Most texts, if they mention peasants at all, depict them as crude shepherds or other mockable characters, present only for a few lines or so as they do something like give the main character, generally a noble knight, directions or otherwise conveniently advance the plot for their social betters.  And of course peasants of the time did not produce literature and so never wrote about themselves.  So I was considerably interested to find this book in the library, containing two long narrative poems with actual peasant characters.

Meier Helmbrecht

Translator/editor Clair Hayden Bell suggests in the introduction that these poems are sympathetic to peasants…and perhaps that is comparatively so.  After all, she notes that in Meier Helmbrecht, the protagonist himself is a peasant, and though he’s a scoundrel, he’s given an unusual amount of what one might call interiority for literature of the thirteenth century.  Personally, I wouldn’t call this a positive representation of peasants, however.  As noted, our “hero” is a thief and a murderer, and the whole point of the story is how he gets his just punishment for daring to attempt to rise from the peasant class to earn a place at court (aka marauding with a local robber knight).  Bell notes that there was actually some social mobility between the peasant classes and lower knight class in Germany at this time (certainly not something one really sees in England or France in the Middle Ages), but the poem certainly frowns upon this attempt at mobility.

The “good” peasant of the story is Helmbrecht’s father, who spouts wise words about how necessary farmers are to society as a whole, and who argues that true nobility is related to one’s character, not one’s social class.  But he also knows his place and consistently argues that his son should not attempt to rise above his station and should be content being a peasant.

Plot-wise, I found the story quite interesting.  It’s sometimes heavy on the dialogue as people make lengthy speeches about their intentions, morals, etc., but this is hardly unusual for literature of the period and shouldn’t really put any reader off.

Der arme Heinrich

The second poem, Der arme Heinrich, features a knight who is struck by leprosy as the protagonists.  The peasants—a couple and their virtuous young daughter—are side characters but still quite central to the plot.  These are genuinely good characters, as they take in their sick and ostracized master when no one else will and care for him with true compassion.  Again, I don’t know that the poem is exactly a manifesto for the greatness of peasants, when the message seems to be that their goodness is equated to their loyalty to their noble master, but it certainly is much more sympathetic to peasants than most of medieval literature.

The poem also delves a bit into the realities of peasant lives, (though not nearly as much as Meier Helmbrecht does) as the characters come to realize that much of their good fortune is dependent on their master being a relatively generous one.  If he dies of his leprosy, they will lose much.

Final Thoughts

The translator does note at the beginning of the book that she is translating both poems more for content than for form, though she would like to stick to as close to a line-by-line translation as possible, so those readers who own an edition of the original Middle High German text can easily compare it with the English.  She does, more or less, retain the rhyming couplets that both poems were composed in, though frequently the lines do not scan and several of the “rhymes” do not rhyme at all.  It’s fine if one is reading for the plot; the translation is certainly not good poetry in its own right.

The explanatory notes at the back of the book are extremely useful, and the introduction also gives readers a nice overview of both poems, as well as what is known about their authors.  Though I studied medieval literature, much of my reading has been restricted to England and France, so this gave me some useful background into the German tradition.

I have a hard time in general persuading people that medieval literature is interesting and worth reading, but these two poems really do stand out from the crowd for their subject matter.  They should be appeal to people interested in the stories, the history of the period, or both.  If nothing else, they’re short, at under 2000 lines each, so they’re not much of a time commitment for the uncertain reader.

5 starsBriana

Anne of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery

Information

Goodreads: Anne of Ingleside
Series: Anne #6

Source: Library
Published: 1939

Summary

Now married with five (and soon to be six) children, Anne Blythe finds that life never has a dull moment. Nan and Di struggle to make friends in school, Jem desperately wants a dog who will love him, and Walter dreams and writes poetry.  And whenever they need advice?  It’s Mummy who understands best.  Anne may no longer live in her House of Dreams, but she’s more than contented where she is.

Review

Anne of Ingleside is a treat because, well, any book that brings us more of Anne, her family, and P.E.I. cannot help but be.  Still, even I, as an avid L. M. Montgomery fan, must admit that the book feels a little uneven.  It moves between focusing on Anne, her dreams, and her worries about her relationship with Gilbert to focusing the fancies and tragedies of her children.  Is it a book about a midlife crisis or a book about childhood?  It’s a little hard to tell.

If I am honest with myself, I did not fully enjoy the chapters focusing on Anne’s brood.  Rainbow Valley is the book for that.  The children’s struggles with making friends or keeping a pet alive felt out of place when juxtaposed with Anne’s struggle to remove Gilbert’s overbearing aunt from their household and her worries that her husband might not find her interesting or attractive anymore.  I wanted this to be Anne’s book.  I wanted to see how she would navigate middle-age.  If the chapters on her children had focused more on Anne’s response to them, I might have enjoyed them more and I might have felt the narrative less uneven.

Many reviewers have criticized the book for depicting Anne as a happy housewife. I have no problem with this.  To say that the book deserves a low rating because Anne only writes sometimes and prefers to take care of her family is to rate it 1) based on modern ideals of what a woman’s life “should” look like and 2) based on a personal feeling that having a career is more important than having a family.  To me, feminism means respecting the choices of women when they say they are doing what makes them happy and fulfilled.  If Anne is happy and fulfilled as a housewife, we should support her, not criticize her as not being feminist enough.  (And, if you want a Montgomery heroine who does put her writing career first, there is always the Emily of New Moon trilogy.)

Anne of Ingleside may, unfortunately, be the most lackluster of the Anne series.  It feels a little as if Montgomery’s heart were not in it.  Even a chapter in which the Ladies Aid gossips about the townsfolk feels somehow less ironic and witty than is Montgomery’s wont.  Still, any glimpse of Anne’s life is welcome to me.  I’m glad we get to see a little bit of it, even if the execution does not seem up to Montgomery’s usual standards.

Need more Montgomery?  Check out our infographic featuring some of her other books.


Today I’m joining in with the Anne of Green Gables series read-along hosted by Jane @ Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku.  You can find the details here if you would like to read along, catch up with reading along, or join in with some of the bonus posts!

4 stars

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None

Information

Goodreads: And Then There Were None
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1939

Official Summary

First, there were ten – a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they’re unwilling to reveal – and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.

Review

My primary criterion for determining whether a mystery is good is whether I had a difficult time solving the crime (within fair boundaries; the author has to provide enough clues that it would theoretically be possible for a careful reader to figure out what’s going on).  And Then There Were None is only the second Agatha Christie book I have read, but she delivers complex mysteries in a way I haven’t encountered from any other author.  (Though I suppose the disclaimer here is that I read only a modest amount of mysteries to begin with.)

A friend recommended this book to me, informing me that he had not cracked the case.  Apparently this is common, and Christie got some irate letters from fans during her lifetime, claiming that the whole thing was unfair and impossible to solve.  The truth is that Christie does provide enough clues for one to go on, but, wow, this book is tough.  I only pieced together a reasonable working theory based on some prodding and hints from my friend.  Left to my own devices, I might have sat around, delaying reading the end of the book until I came up with a satisfactory solution, for a good week or so.  As it was, I basically threw out a theory I thought was alright but probably wrong, then tossed up my hands and let Christie tell me how the whole thing had been done.  If I wanted to come up with a theory I was more certain of, I’d probably have had to reread the book.

So, yes, I was impressed.

Other than that, the book has a good cast of characters.  Christie (again, based on the whole two books of hers I have read) seems to have a penchant for throwing together a largish cast of dissimilar characters; minor characters often remark that the group is diverse, spanning different social classes and professions.  This adds some variety to the book, and often some clues, if having money or social connections might make a difference as to which characters would have the means to commit certain crimes.  Christie does seem to rely on character tropes sometimes, but this does not really bother me.  Again, I’m really reading for the mystery, not in-depth character studies.

I think I’m quickly becoming an Agatha Christie fan after reading And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, and I’m planning to pick up more of her books in the future.

5 stars Briana

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express

Information

Goodreads: Murder on the Orient Express
Series: Hercule Poirot #10
Source: Purchased
Published: 1934

Official Summary

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

Isolated by the storm and with a killer in their midst, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer amongst a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again…

Review

Murder on the Orient Express is my first Agatha Christie novel (which I read in anticipation of the movie release in November), and I enjoyed it immensely in spite of not being a particularly avid mystery reader.  (I do dabble in Sherlock Holmes, but Arthur Conan Doyle does have something of a pattern to the mysteries he presents.)

There is a fairly large cast of characters in this novel, in spite of the fact I momentarily worried that the action all taking place on a train, primarily in a single sleeping carriage, might make the book feel a bit claustrophobic.  On the contrary, Christie really utilizes the space and character pool, and she makes each character/suspect come alive for the reader.  Only a couple seemed to me to be missing much time on page, making it difficult for me to get a good handle on them.  The cast overall is varied and clearly presented to the reader for consideration.

I don’t want to say much about the mystery because it’s too easy to accidentally spoil the plot in these types of books.  However, I will say that it took me a long time and some hard thinking just to come up with what I thought was a reasonable solution to the crime.  The clues are so complex and well-laid that I was dissatisfied with several initial proposals I came up with and had to keep reading and reading to gain more information before I came with an explanation I was at least moderately happy with.  Mysteries that are too easily solved are disappointing to me, so I loved that in this book Christie really kept me guessing.  (No, I did not know the plot or ending of the book before I started reading, much to the surprise of some of my friends, who seem under the impression that the plot is basically as much a part of pop culture knowledge as Romeo and Juliet.)

I also found it really helpful that Christie includes, first, a diagram of the train carriage and where each guest is sleeping and, later, Poirot’s notes on what he has learned from each of the interviews he has conducted.  This is something a really dedicated reader and mystery fan might been inspired to jot down themselves in an effort to solve the crime, but personally I would not have been that invested myself and was pleased it had been done for me.

I enjoyed this book enough that I have put And Then There Were None on hold at the library, and I look forward to reading more of Christie’s work soon.

4 stars Briana

Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Sylvia’s Lovers
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 1863

SUMMARY

Life in Monkshaven is not particularly exciting, except when the impressment gangs come through.  Otherwise, Sylvia lives a calm life on her parents farm.  Her cousin Philip loves her dearly, but she gives her heart instead to the sailor Charlie Kinraid.  But Philip fears Charlie may be false.

Review

Sylvia’s Lovers is a quiet tale, a tragedy played out on a small scale.  Though it may not feature the noble characters that typically people tragedies, it contains all the drama and pathos that might conceivably fit into the life of a person, even the type of person history tends to forget.  From the families torn apart by the impressment gangs to the domestic strain of a married couple who realize their marriage may have been a mistake, Sylvia’s Lovers marches solemnly onward to a conclusion readers feel cannot possibly be pretty.

Sylvia herself is a somewhat petulant and flighty thing, a girl accustomed to following her own whims rather than thinking of the comfort of others (aside from her parents, whom she loves dearly).   She regularly overlooks the positive qualities of those whom she dislikes or finds dull and she tends to think primarily about her own feelings while remaining quite unconscious that others might have interior lives of their own.  Gaskell tells us that, even so, Sylvia exerts a charm and fascination over men.  One can only assume it is her beauty and her pretty little airs.  But, since readers do not get to see these, we are left only with her character, which is, sad to say, not particularly impressive.  It is therefore a marvel that Gaskell can convince readers to care about Sylvia’s story at all.

But care we do, for the inexorable pull of fate lays over the story and readers feel from the start that nothing good will come for Sylvia in the end.  Gaskell gives us a little moral here, for, it seems Syliva might have been happy had she learned to love and forgive others, had she appreciated the good in men and been able to recognize the bad.  But, alas, Sylvia thinks only in terms of her own passions and is at first reluctant to turn to God, then later discouraged from trying to turn to Him by those who claim to know His will.  Perhaps she’ll find Him eventually, but, of course, always too late, too late.  Sylvia’s tragedy may be reckoned as heartbreaking as those of kings.

4 stars

Emma by Jane Austen

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Emma
Series:  None
Source: Gift
Published: 1815

SUMMARY

Emma Woodhouse is determined never to marry.  That, however, does not prevent her from attempting to set up the men and women of her parish.  Then one day the charming Frank Churchill finally arrives for a visit.  Will there finally be a match for Emma?

Review

Emma may be my favorite Austen work.  It is a deliciously subtle book, one that delights in showing the irony of Emma’s own feelings about class and propriety while describing her censure of others for being proud and vain.  But though Emma’s desire to be cleverer than others often leads her astray, her open nature makes her lovable all the same.  I long for her to find her happy ending every time I return to her world.

Part of Austen’s charm is, I think, her assumption that readers are in on the joke while the characters remain oblivious.  To achieve this, some knowledge of the social customs of Austen’s day is needed, which makes a good edition with footnotes invaluable, though casual readers are likely to pick up many social cues even without annotations.  Hearing Mrs. Elton chatter on about the wealth of her relations, seeing that Emma refuses to associate with the newly wealthy Coles while the rest of her acquaintance have no such scruples, and listening to Emma chastise Mr. Knightley for not using his carriage more often as befits a gentleman are all amusing circumstances.  Intimate knowledge of various types of carriages and how much wealth is needed to keep one is not strictly necessary, though it can often be fun.

Rereads are also delightful as they allow readers a greater opportunity to be in on the intrigue.  Although an astute reader may pick up on the secrets the various characters hold, the certainty of knowing the outcome holds its own charm.  The silences, the looks of characters take on deeper meaning and readers can again feel satisfied and smug.  Emma, with all her cleverness, makes many mistakes.  But we the readers know better.

Something about reading Austen is always deeply satisfying.  It is an experience that enables the reader to feel as if they share Austen’s powers of wit and observation, while also enabling them to enjoy the feeling that they are moving in high circles.  Though many of her characters face financial uncertainty, a good number of them are also concerned with no more than which suitor they ought to choose.  Entering her world is both amusing and wish fulfilling.  After all, we also hold the certainty that the heroines will always end up with their perfect match.  And some income to boot.

5 stars