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

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Information

Goodreads: Beowulf: A New Translation
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2020

Official Summary

A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of The Mere Wife.

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements never before translated into English.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. These familiar components of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history. Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment — of powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child — but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation; her Beowulf is one for the twenty-first century.

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Review

This is a difficult review for me to write because, on one hand, I understand what Maria Dahvana Headley is doing with this translation. She’s making Beowulf more modern and accessible, and she’s using her translation to draw out a new interpretation of the story, one where Grendel’s mother is a grief-stricken mom before than a monster and where Beowulf and company are still impressive warriors but also kind of bragging dude bros who don’t know everything. I see her vision, and I get where she’s coming from. On the other hand: it just isn’t my thing.

I’ve read a number of translations of Beowulf (such as Heaney’s and Tolkien’s), and I’ve written a post for the blog about whether the story is one of adventure or one of loss. I LIKE the old feel of the story and I like the translator interpretation that Beowulf used antiquated language when it was written; it sounded old to its first Anglo-Saxon listeners. I like feeling that I’m in a far-off time and place where the things that mattered to people are sometimes strikingly familiar and sometimes completely foreign. I’m not really into a version of Beowulf where Beowulf calls everyone, including kings, “bro” and the narrator calls Beowulf Hrothgar’s “new best boy.”

I also didn’t think the combo old/new language meshed. Maria Dahvana Headley talks in the introduction about how she wants the story to be approachable and how she wants it to sound like someone telling a story, like something someone would say. Except, well, none of it sounds like something anyone would say. I cannot imagine someone standing somewhere and saying these lines:

I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth,
I can’t unpack any similar stories of
heroics from you. Let me say it straight:
You don’t rate and neither did Breca
when it came to battle. The gulf? You’re cattle,
and I’m a wolf . . . (581-586)

There’s something about the way that the translation sometimes uses the Anglo-Saxon language (ex. kennings like “whale-road”) and sometimes uses modern language (ex. “daddy” or “bullshit”) and fits into some poetic meter that isn’t quite Anglo-Saxon but clearly based around it that all comes across as awkward to me. And who would really brag to someone by saying, “The gulf?” and then calling the other person cattle? I get that all this is actually the appeal of this translation to many people, but I didn’t like it.

The one part I did like is that Grendel’s mother truly gets a better light here. She’s still metaphorically a monster and she still has to die, but Headley translates her as just a woman who is (reasonably) upset her son has been killed. Headley makes the point that the Old English wording doesn’t mean she actually has to be labelled a hag or monster or swamp thing or whatever else translators have come up with. She can just be a woman who lives in the mere, who has an impressive hoard of weapons and a lot of strength.

So, if you like Beowulf, this is definitely worth looking into just as a new perspective on the story. If you don’t like Beowulf or you’ve always been intimidated by old-timey language translations, this could also be of interest to you. Again, it’s just not for me. I’m glad I read it once, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for any reason.

Briana

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 11-20)

Reading Through Nancy Drew

I have loved Nancy Drew for years, but will rereading the entire series of the yellow spine books hold up to my memories? Join me as I find out! Read part one here.

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Book 11: The Clue of the Broken Locket

The Clue of the Broken Locket

The eleventh installment of the series contains all the elements that make a classic Nancy Drew read. Upon driving to Maryland to help one of her father’s clients, Nancy discovers a mystery involving a missing treasure, a phantom ship, and a possible kidnapping. While attempting to solve the case, Nancy inevitably finds herself in danger of being imprisoned, kidnapped, and murdered herself. Plenty of action combined with a spooky mystery and a search for secret passageways shows the Nancy Drew series at the height of its powers.

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Book 12: The Message in the Hollow Oak

Message in the Hollow Oak

Book twelve mixes things up a little as Nancy attempts to track down a legendary message said to have been hidden in a hollow oak in the eighteenth century. Along the way, she gets tangled up with a confidence man determined to find the hollow oak himself. Nancy’s presence at an archaeological dig adds a little more historical interest to the story, though the book could do more to interrogate the ethical implications of digging up a burial ground, aside from one character’s objections about the disrespect to the dead it implies. The concept of tracking down a centuries-old treasure makes this book unique in the series so far, but it is arguably not very interesting to watch Nancy and her friends merely look for unusual trees and then walk around in the woods for a bit. The Message in the Hollow Oak has a good premise, but it fails to deliver on it as much as it might have.

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Book 13: The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

This is one of the books where the rewrites meant to remove racism do not entirely succeed. Nancy and the other characters treat India as an exotic country full of many marvels, but also linger over details of the caste system, child marriage, and more that make the nation seem not entirely civilized. Many of the Indian characters in the book are very superstitious, which does not reflect well on them in a mystery where the protagonists are all about evidence and facts. The actual mystery is a rather convoluted one involving the kidnapping of a baby, theft of Indian treasures, blackmail, and more. The story is not as streamlined as many of the others, and it can feel a bit like a chore to get through.

Read my comparison review of the 1936 version versus the 1974 revised edition.

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Book 14: The Whispering Statue

The Whispering Statue

This adventure sees Nancy don a disguise in a fun attempt to solve two different mysteries while working undercover in a bookshop/art dealership. Her simultaneous stay at a yacht club adds some spice to the story, as she enters a sailing competition and Bess flirts with the handsome boat attendant. A break-in, kidnapping, sailing accident, near boat collision, and more lend extra excitement to a series that always tries to cram in as much drama as possible. The Whispering Statue has its odd moments (such as Nancy making sales off-the-clock for a business owner who seems to have skipped town), but its sense of narrative drama makes it an exemplar of why generations of children have been engrossed by the series.

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Book 15: The Haunted Bridge

The Haunted Bridge

Nancy’s stay at a resort with a gold club adds some interest to what is otherwise a bit of a lackluster mystery. Her father is on the trail of a ring of international jewel thieves, and Nancy manages to catch them almost entirely by accident when she stumbles upon a small chest belonging to a mysterious woman. The question of whether Nancy can win the amateur golf tournament somehow becomes more pressing than the question of whether she will crack the case.

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Book 16: The Clue of the Tapping Heels

Clue of the Tapping Heels

Nancy tries to solve a mystery where a woman is hearing ghostly tapping noises in her home, and her prize Persian cats are being stolen. Normally, I really love the stories where someone’s house is supposedly “haunted,” but for some reason this installment of the series feels a little lackluster. The big excitement is when Nancy, Bess, and George go to a cat show. And Nancy is targeted in a series of violent incidents that seem over-the-top for some guy just trying to steal some stuff out of a house. The book ends when all the culprits conveniently confess to everything. Definitely not one of my favorites.

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Book 17: The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk

Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trun k

Nancy Drew and her friends are aboard a ship sailing from the Netherlands back to New York City when they become involved in a mystery surrounding an international group of smugglers. The setting makes the story fun as the girls swim, play Ping-Pong, and flirt with cute boys, but it seems like the series is already running out of new catastrophes to strike. Nancy almost gets hit by a meteor in this book! Aside from the meteor, however, the story is pretty interesting, as Nancy must outwit a gang of thieves using sophisticated disguises.

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Book 18: The Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion

Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion

I thought maybe the Nancy Drew series had jumped the shark in the previous installment, when Nancy and her friends are almost hit by a meteor. Book 18, however, is even more ludicrous, so much so that I might have thought I was watching the 1960s Batman show instead of reading Nancy Drew. Steaming pools of water to cast hapless victims into? Exploding oranges meant to take down a rocket ship? It’s hard to take this story seriously.

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Book 19: The Quest of the Missing Map

Quest of the Missing Map

I cannot decide if having Nancy sail to an uncharted island for actual buried treasure is exciting or just really corny. The real problem, however, is that Nancy acquires clues in this mystery far too easily for it to feel rewarding when she finally outwits the bad guys. The main draw is that this book feels perfect for an adaptation into one of the Nancy Drew PC games, with its hidden passages and contraptions left by an eccentric inventor.

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Book 20: The Clue in the Jewel Box

The Clue in the Jewel Box

This is another Nancy Drew story that verges on the fantastic, as it seems based on the story of the missing Anastasia. Nancy meets an elderly woman who turns out to be a former queen, who has fled from her country after the late revolution, and who is now looking for her lost grandson. There are enough twists and turns, however, to keep things lively as Nancy deals with pickpockets and an imposter. The series is picking up again after a decided lull.

One Classic Book I Would Change the Ending To: Anne of Green Gables (Spoilers!)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

 If you could change the ending of one classic book, what would it be and why?

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Spoilers for the end of Anne of Green Gables!

Anne of Green Gables is one of my very, very favorite books, and I generally think it’s perfection. I’ve read it at least 20 times, and each time I think it was better than the last.

So why would I change something about the ending? If you’ve read the book, you’ve probably guess: I would stop Matthew from dying!

Matthew is really a shining star of a character. He’s quiet and incredibly awkward around women, but that makes his staunch support of Anne and her imagination and her talkative nature all the more heartwarming. I love seeing Marilla gently chide him for “encouraging” Anne by listening to her ridiculous stories. I love his faith in Anne, and how he knows she’s smart and an excellent student. I love when he gathers up his courage to finally get Anne a more stylish dress (and his painfully awkward scene at the store trying to order the materials, only to end up leaving with an absurd amount of brown sugar is one of my favorite in the book!).

Matthew, basically, is just what Anne needs. Or what she needs to balance out Marilla, who has stricter ideas about how to raise a child (and she’s right some of the time if not all of the time). You can tell how much Matthew loves Anne and how much she loves Matthew, so when he dies at the end of the book, it’s simply heartbreaking. I want to keep him around!

And L. M. Montgomery is on my side here. I think she and I both recognize that he had to die at some point. That just kind of feels right to the story, and the heartbreak is something that does add to the book, even while it saddens readers. But Montgomery implies she would have at least delayed his death (I believe if she’d known how well the book would sell and that she’d have the chance to write Anne a whole series):

“Many people have told me that they regretted Matthew’s death in Green Gables. I regret it myself,” wrote Lucy Maud Montgomery in her autobiography, The Alpine Path. “If I had the book to write over again, I would spare Matthew for several years. But when I wrote it, I thought he must die, that there might be a necessity for self-sacrifice on Anne’s part, so poor Matthew joined the long procession of ghosts that haunt my literary past.”

anneofgreengables.com

So, yes, I would love to seen an end of Anne of Green Gables where Matthew gets several more happy years to watch Anne grow up.

Briana

3 Classics I Always Recommend (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

What classic works do you always recommend?

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Classic Books I Always Recommend
Annotated Anne of Green Gables Cover Image

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables has long been one of my favorite books, since I first read it when I was 10. I must have read it at least 20 times, and every time I’m struck by just how good it is and how it holds up to each rereading.. Anne is always winningly vivacious and imaginative and sensitive, and the other characters are just as captivating. Montgomery is an expert writer at every step.

My Name Is Asher Lev

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I love this look at art and identity and the protagonist’s struggle to stay true to himself at the expense of disapproval from his family and community. A lot of Potok’s books touch on learning vs. community acceptance, but I like that this one is so prominently about the nature of art,

Excellent Women

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

This is a newer book on my rotation of “books I love to recommend” because I just read it myself last year in 2020. I loved that the book is focused on completely ordinary people – and often their thoughts about that! Pym’s novels have such great voice and some insightful commentary on human nature. I’ve only read two so far, but both were excellent.

Briana

A Classic Book I Love for The Prose: Anne of Green Gables (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE AUSTEN HEROINE? OR HERO?

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Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

L. M. Montgomery is one of my favorite authors for many reasons, from her vision to her characters to her keen social observations, but I have also always been in love with her prose. When readers complain about overblown descriptions in novels, I always think about Montgomery’s writing and how she can describe anything and catch my interest– and also convince me she’s seen exactly what it is is she’s describing.

If I were to describe a tree or a flower, for instance, I’d probably end up rather hand-wavy and say it was tall or vibrant and maybe bother to specifically say it was a poplar or a daffodil. It turns out I don’t really know all that much about trees or flowers besides I think they’re nice. L. M. Montgomery, however, makes me believe she knows all about nature and truly loves it, and she makes me wish I were the same.

Here, for instance, is the beginning of a simple description of a garden. The prose is beautiful — I have always loved the phrase “old-fashioned flowers ran riot” — and I come away thinking Montgomery has seen a garden like this and truly enjoys it, not that she’s writing some throwaway description of some plants because she feels she has to:

The Barry garden was a bowery wilderness of flowers which would have delighted Anne’s heart at any time less fraught with destiny. It was encircled by huge old willows and tall firs, beneath which flourished flowers that loved the shade. Prim, right-angled paths neatly bordered with clamshells, intersected it like moist red ribbons and in the beds between old-fashioned flowers ran riot.

And here is another example, where Montgomery beautifully describes Anne, nature, and the effect that nature has on Anne:

Its beauty seemed to strike the child dumb. She leaned back in the buggy, her thin hands clasped before her, her face lifted rapturously to the white splendor above. Even when they had passed out and were driving down the long slope to Newbridge she never moved or spoke. Still with rapt face she gazed afar into the sunset west, with eyes that saw visions trooping splendidly across that glowing background. Through Newbridge, a bustling little village where dogs barked at them and small boys hooted and curious faces peered from the windows, they drove, still in silence. When three more miles had dropped away behind them the child had not spoken. She could keep silence, it was evident, as energetically as she could talk.

However, Montgomery’s prose is not all flowers and beauty and making me want to fall in love with the world as she sees it. Montgomery also has a remarkable talent for capturing different voices for each of her characters. For instance, here is the no-nonsense Mrs. Rachel Lynde:

“Well, of all things that ever were or will be!” ejaculated Mrs. Rachel when she was safely out in the lane. “It does really seem as if I must be dreaming. Well, I’m sorry for that poor young one and no mistake. Matthew and Marilla don’t know anything about children and they’ll expect him to be wiser and steadier that his own grandfather, if so be’s he ever had a grandfather, which is doubtful. It seems uncanny to think of a child at Green Gables somehow; there’s never been one there, for Matthew and Marilla were grown up when the new house was built—if they ever were children, which is hard to believe when one looks at them. I wouldn’t be in that orphan’s shoes for anything. My, but I pity him, that’s what.”

Compared to Anne gushing over her new dress with puffed sleeves:

“I don’t see how I’m going to eat breakfast,” said Anne rapturously. “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment. I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress. I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable. It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them. I’d never have felt quite satisfied, you see. It was lovely of Mrs. Lynde to give me the ribbon too. I feel that I ought to be a very good girl indeed. It’s at times like this I’m sorry I’m not a model little girl; and I always resolve that I will be in future. But somehow it’s hard to carry out your resolutions when irresistible temptations come. Still, I really will make an extra effort after this.”

Montgomery’s writing is so versatile. Often flowing and gorgeous, but sharp and biting when it needs to be. I can only aspire to one day write like her!

Briana

The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage by Carolyn Keene

The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage

Information

Goodreads: The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage
Series: Dana Girls #2
Source: Library
Published: 1934

Summary

Louise and Jean Dana discover their English teacher’s car on the side of the road–Miss Tisdale has been abducted! Her mother does not want Mr. Tisdale to know, so she won’t contact the police. It’s up to the Dana girls to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

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Review

Published in the 1930s, the Dana Girls books were meant to capitalize on the success of serialized mysteries like Nancy Drew and, indeed, the same pseudonym was used for the series, though it has not managed to last through the decades. But the Dana Girls mysteries have their charms. They rely on the same, comforting formula as the Nancy Drew stories, while having the added interest of featuring two sisters solving cases while enrolled at a boarding school. The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage feels very much like stepping back in time to a wonderful moment where teens can take on adult responsibilities like detective work, while still enjoying the perks of school life. Anyone who loves Nancy Drew will want to check out the Dana Girls books.

Part of what makes this series so interesting is the fact that readers get two protagonists, as well as a boarding school setting for the series. Louise and Dana are one year apart, but they are nearly inseparable, which makes for a charming depiction of loving sisterhood, even as the two repeatedly rush headlong into danger. The series would admittedly be stronger, however, if it tried to differentiate the two girls a little more, aside from their hair color. They work, live, and study together to the point where they seem practically to be functioning as one person. While Louise seems to be a little more sensible than Jean, they work in tandem for the most part, taking turns discovering and solving clues and, in general, one girl could easily be replaced by the other and readers would probably barely notice. Hopefully, this weak characterization will be addressed as the series progresses.

Even so, the books are delightful and the boarding school setting adds to that. While Nancy Drew barely seems to have a home life, the Dana girls are firmly placed at Starrhurst Academy, and they must figure out how to balance their detective work with their studies–as well as with the rules of the school. Fortunately, for them, youth, good looks, money, and a pleasant disposition are usually enough for them to be able to bend the rules with only the occasional finger shaking from the headmistress, apparently so she can pretend she’s trying to be fair. More drama comes from the girls’ standing rivalry with mean girl Lettie Briggs, who enjoys playing mean pranks on them, just to liven up the plot between clues. This tactic of adding everyday drama is also a hallmark of the Nancy Drew stories, where every chapter must have some sort of dramatic incident, mystery-related or not, to keep readers engaged.

Overall, the Dana Girls books are pretty much what one would expect from a Nancy Drew story. Readers get rich, popular teen protagonists who like solving dangerous mysteries the officials cannot seem to crack, as well as the formulaic writing that makes the mystery easy to solve, but somehow still rewarding to read. Readers who enjoy Nancy Drew and are looking for something similar will find it in the Dana Girls books, which were written around the same time by the same syndicate. It’s hard to get closer to a new Nancy Drew than that!

4 stars

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 1-10)

Book One: The Secret of the Old Clock

It’s hard not to love the mystery that started it all. In The Secret of the Old Clock, readers are introduced to Nancy, an attractive, rich, and popular eighteen-year-old who enjoys helping her lawyer father with his cases. A chance encounter leads her to suspect that a rich bachelor left a second will to his fortune, and she begins tracking down his relatives to uncover more clues. This story establishes many of the later traits of the series, such as Nancy’s curiosity and resolve, her involvement with Carson Drew’s legal work, and her ability to ingratiate herself into the lives of random strangers so she can solve mysteries for them.

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Book Two: The Hidden Staircase

Who doesn’t love a classic haunted house mystery? In her second case, Nancy answers a friend’s plea to discover the truth behind the ghost frightening her relatives. At the same time, Nancy begins to investigate a railroad case her father is working on, and the threats he is receiving as a result. This is a fun mystery that includes all the staples such as hidden passages, disguises, and good old-fashioned sleuthing.

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Book Three: The Bungalow Mystery

Nancy’s third mystery gets a little wilder than the previous installments. This time, Nancy suspects that the guardians of a girl she met while on vacation are not what they seem. As usual, her mystery ends up being connected with a case her father is working on, though the odds of such a connection are slim indeed. Readers will need a healthy helping of credulity to enjoy this story, but that is true of most of Nancy’s mysteries.

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Book Four: The Mystery at Lilac Inn

This is arguably one of the weaker installments of the series. The motivations of the villain are a little unbelievable, as is her bizarre method of revenge. A series of coincidences ends up connecting two disparate cases Nancy is working on, and she ends up solving the mystery largely by stumbling into the villains instead of by actively sleuthing. The plot is also a bit redundant, recycling elements from previous books such as a capsized boat, a storm, and a haunted building.

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Book Five: The Secret of Shadow Ranch

Shadow Ranch is one of the most popular Nancy Drew books, and for good reason. This story takes Nancy out West, where the author delights in creating a deeply atmospheric setting full of old cave dwellings, square dancing, and horseback riding. The accuracy of this depiction may be suspect, but it is fun, and the setting is furthermore tied to a romantic story involving the doomed love between an outlaw and a sheriff’s daughter, which gives the story a sense of historical depth. This installment is also notable for introducing Nancy’s best friends George and Bess and for name dropping Ned, though Nancy will not actually meet him until book seven. All this, combined with a fast-paced plot and hint of romance with Dave the cowboy, makes Shadow Ranch one of the best Nancy Drew mysteries.

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Book Six: The Secret of Red Gate Farm

The Secret of Red Gate Farm throws a new, tantalizing mystery Nancy’s way as she tries to figure out why a mysterious saleswoman was so reluctant to sell Bess a bottle of perfume, as well as whether or not the “nature cult” on Red Gate Farm is truly what it seems. As usual, Nancy manages to solve the case when no one else can simply because she is incredibly lucky. The bottle of perfume, the man she meets on the train, the strange job advertisement her friend answers, and the cult–they all happen to be related! But, though the plot is unbelievable, it is still entertaining. I enjoyed something new since three of the last five books included haunted properties.

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Book Seven: The Clue in the Diary

Book seven is most notable for the introduction of Ned Nickerson, soon to be Nancy’s steady boyfriend (for the next few decades!). It is fun to see the usually composed Nancy start to blush and get nervous around Ned, who quickly proves himself a valuable asset to the sleuthing team. Nancy deserves someone who is interested in and supportive of her work, and she gets that in Ned, who gamely runs errands for Nancy and is always willing to lend a hand. There’s also a mystery involving two missing persons, a suspected arson, and mail theft, but, it is not one of the stronger plot lines in the series.

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Book Eight: Nancy’s Mysterious Letter

Book eight is not known for being one of the stronger installments of the series, but I admit I heartily enjoyed this mystery. Nancy mistakenly receives a letter addressed to another Nancy Drew, who has inherited a fortune in England. Now, Nancy must find the other woman before she is swindled out of her money. The story is essentially a comedy of errors, with Nancy tracking down two individuals, and always arriving at their former location just as they have left. There may be little mystery here, since Nancy knows exactly whom she seeks. But I enjoyed the chase nonetheless.

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Book Nine: The Sign of the Twisted Candles

Book nine is certainly one of the stronger mysteries of the series. Nancy arrives at an inn to investigate rumors that the old man who lives there is being kept as a prisoner in the tower by the innkeepers. In the process, she discovers an ancient feud that also threatens to estrange her from Bess and George. A gripping plot, combined with richly-drawn characters, secret compartments, and plenty of danger makes this a thrilling story.

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Book Ten: Password to Larkspur Lane

Password to Larkspur Lane continues a strong streak for the series. An injured messenger pigeon leads Nancy to two related mysteries, one involving a strange wheel of fire at her friend’s grandparents’ house and one involving a missing woman. Nancy does some solid sleuthing, piecing together some fairly tenuous clues to arrive at the truth, before attempting a daring rescue escape, complete with disguises, angry guard dogs, and airplanes. The series needs more stories like this!

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse book cover

Information

Goodreads: To the Lighthouse
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1927

Official Summary

The serene and maternal Mrs. Ramsay, the tragic yet absurd Mr. Ramsay, and their children and assorted guests are on holiday on the Isle of Skye. From the seemingly trivial postponement of a visit to a nearby lighthouse, Woolf constructs a remarkable, moving examination of the complex tensions and allegiances of family life and the conflict between men and women.

As time winds its way through their lives, the Ramsays face, alone and simultaneously, the greatest of human challenges and its greatest triumph—the human capacity for change.

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Review

You can read Krysta’s review of To the Lighthouse here.

To the Lighthouse is, on the surface, a book not about much: it shows scenes from the lives of the Ramsay family and the impressions of some of their friends who stay at the house, yet without a central plot. However skeptical I was of this at the beginning, I came to appreciate the stream of consciousness and Woolf’s occasional keen insights into human nature and the thoughts that crossed her characters’ minds.

As someone who has studiously avoided any stream of consciousness literature up to this point, I’ve never encountered a book before that represents thinking how it so frequently occurs– that is, people often are thinking about things that have nothing to do with the scene in front of them or the actions they are taking. One might be sitting at dinner but actually randomly remembering something that happened 10 years ago. One might be playing with a small child but actually planning out one’s novel. Woolf captures this excellently.

The thoughts of Woolf’s characters are, of course, not entirely random, and her ability to touch on things like emotional labor and the mental load and how women relate to men also is impressive. For instance, Mrs. Ramsay sporadically thinks about the cost of repairing the greenhouse and how she must remember to bring it up with her husband. This could seem like a boring thing for her to think and a weird detail for Woolf to include– and I probably would have thought this myself about this book if I’d read it at a younger age. Now, however, I can appreciate that randomly intruding thoughts about mundane things are common for people trying to run a household– Oh, we need more milk. Remember to buy milk, Put milk on the list…. Tellingly, these thoughts tend to occur to the female characters in To the Lighthouse. The men are all too busy thinking about their great works, whether poetry or academic, to be bothered with such things.

To be fair, I think one book of this type is enough for me. Since the appeal is really the structure of the book, how Woolf captures thought and sometimes interesting human relations, and not any real plot, I don’t think I’d get much out of reading a second book of this type unless it had a bit more action going on. But for one time I definitely found it interesting, and I’m a bit sorry I put off reading anything by Woolf for so long.

Briana
4 stars