Sunday, November 22, 2009

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

From the favourer: "The Anne novels cheer me up when I'm feeling generally depressed about life. Nothing bizarre happens in Anne's life: she grows up, marries a doctor, has SEVEN children, she grows old, she has a garden bed, and a home she loves. All her happiness comes from inside her. I think maybe it reminds me that ordinary life is full of adventures and things to be happy about."

I think I first read the Anne books at around the same time as the favourer, as I recall much discussion of Daisy and Dora (from the later books). Were we about 12? Something like that. We then sallied forth to hunt down every book by Lucy Montgomery that the Corangamite Regional Library Service could provide. What a joyous few months! We must have come out the other end having experienced the word 'purple' far more often than your average reader.

But I'm pretty sure I hadn't read it again since then, though I've re-read the Emily books many times. I think with Montgomery's novels you end up being an Anne Person or an Emily Person (it's possible there's a Pat of Silver Bush Person out there, but they'd be a rarity). It's a bit like being a Dog Person or a Cat Person. So I'd quite forgotten a lot of the detail of Anne of Green Gables. But I can honestly say I re-read it with unabashed, whole-hearted, unembarrassed delight.

While it's probably unnecessary, I should give a bit of a synopsis. I suppose there may be 1 person left in the world who hasn't either read the book, seen a movie adaptation, or had someone tell them what the book is about. But I suspect most people are born knowing the basic plot - the knowledge passes from mother to child with the amniotic fluid.

Siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to adopt an orphan child - a boy - to help with the farm work at Green Gables. Their neighbour, Mrs Rachel Lynde (who knows everybody's business and is happy to give advice about it), cautions against it:

"'Only don't say I didn't warn you if he burns Green Gables down or puts strychnine in the well -I heard of a case over in New Brunswick where an orphan asylum child did that, and the whole family died in fearful agonies. Only, it was a girl in that instance.'
'Well, we're not getting a girl,' said Marilla, as if poisoning wells were a purely feminine accomplishment and not to be dreaded in the case of a boy."

But when Matthew goes to collect their orphan boy, he discovers that they have been sent a very talkative, very red-headed, very female girl:

"A child of about eleven, garbed in a very short, very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish white wincey. She wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled; her mouth was large and so were her eyes, that looked green in some lights and moods and grey in others. So far, the ordinary observer; an extraordinary observer might have seen that the chin was very pointed and pronounced; that the big eyes were full of spirit and vivacity; that the mouth was sweet-lipped and expressive; that the forehead was broad and full; in short, our discerning extraordinary observer might have concluded that no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child..."

He can't exactly leave her there at the train station, so Matthew takes her home to Green Gables. Marilla is horrified, and resolves to rectify the situation as soon as possible. But on learning of Anne's probable fate she has a change of heart, and the girl is allowed to stay at Green Gables.

Marilla intends to bring her up properly, but Anne is not like any other child she's met before: Anne has an imagination. She talks a mile a minute, uses big words, and forgets to do her chores because she was making friends with the fir trees. Marilla can't understand her, and Anne is equally bamboozled by Marilla's attitude to life:

"'Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?' asked Anne wide-eyed.
'Oh!' Anne drew a long breath. 'Oh, Miss - Marilla, how much you miss!'"

What follows is Anne's youth at Green Gables - mostly full of scrapes: accidentally dying her hair green, flavouring a cake for the new minister with liniment, and the notorious breaking of a slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe (it's at about the 1min40sec mark for the watchers). But it's also full of joys: finding 'scope for the imagination' in the small town of Avonlea, and 'bosom friends'. Anne and her friends even have their own version of NaNoWriMo called "The Story Club", where each member has to produce one story a week. They are thrilling tales, of course, with lots of murders and romance: "Aunt Josephine wrote back that we were to send her some of our stories. So we copied out four of our very best and sent them. Aunt Josephine wrote back that she had never read anything so amusing in her life. That kind of puzzled us because the stories were all very pathetic and nearly everybody died."

It's funny, touching, beautiful and just a delightful read - Montgomery's descriptive prose is quite purple (often literally so - sometimes even 'empurpled'), but it's in the spirit of how the romantic Anne sees the world. Reading this book also seems to have had an effect on my dress sense - I've found myself wearing many more frilly things than usual. And don't talk to me about puffed sleeves.

I think you can learn a lot from Anne. When forced to do something humiliating (such as apologise to Mrs Lynde as punishment for a justifiably angry outburst), Anne turns the humiliation into something pleasurable by performing the most dramatic, sincere and flowery apology she can muster. The "Good Mrs Lynde, not being overburdened with perception", is quite touched and accepts her apology immediately, but Marilla is left with the faint sense that Anne hasn't been punished at all. Moral of the story: If you can't avoid having to do something unpleasant (or 'tragical', as Anne would say), you can at least enjoy the very drama of the unpleasantness. Mrs Lynde would whole-heartedly disapprove of this 'lesson', which makes it all the more appealing.

But despite her swings between delight and despair, Anne has a general talent for happiness. It comes, as the favourer notes, from inside her. She takes enormous joy in small moments (flowers, weather, gifts), and is full to the brim with dreams and ideas. She's irrepressible, and her joy rubs off on others. She's no Pollyanna though: "There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting." Indeed. I can think of nothing more boring than a perfect Anne.

I finished reading Anne of Green Gables while Luka slept and the long, hot week of 30+ degree November days broke into a drench of steady rain. I sat on the shared balcony above our flat with a mug of tea and watched the lovely downpour cool the trees, while Anne watched the sun set in Avonlea:

" 'Dear old world,' she murmured, 'you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.' "

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Laydeeeees and Gentlemen! The Port Fairy Hospital Fundraiser

Our family friend and artist Jenny McCarthy runs a fundraiser every 2 years for the Port Fairy Hospital. In case you think that Port Fairy is merely the home of the Folkie (or Port Fairy Folk Festival to the uninitiated), let me enlighten you. Port Fairy is actually excellent all year round. Not only does it have beaches, lovely places to eat (some of them get hats), shops where you can happily spend much more than you meant to, it also has (wait for it) a community.

And Jenny is up there in it. The idea of the fundraiser is for friends, family and willing aquaintances to produce a painting to auction, and this year a teapot to go with it:

Some of the people who provided art are actually proper-like artists. Some of them are not. I'm certainly not. Not only did I have to buy some paint to make my canvas, I had to buy a brush too. Still, this was my effort (called "Artistree", painted on curtain fabric):

I was, however, especially proud of my teapot (I called it "Treepot"):

Took me back to my high school days of gluing stuff together with superglue (mostly my fingers).

The canvases and accompanying teapots are auctioned in ye olde Dutch style (ie. there's a bit of paper and a pencil hanging from each painting, and you write down your bid, then someone might outbid you, so you have to come back in between glasses of fizzpop to check you haven't been outbid, and if you have, you bid again with your pencil. It's like eBay, but with more walking).

I left the boy at home with his dad and enough milk in the fridge to sustain twins for a week, and we wimmin toddled off to Port Fairy. Here are the Punch girls with our art (my mum Jude, me, and my aunt Margy):

We arrived pretty early at the hall, but people swished in fast. Everyone had dressed up, and swilled about looking at the paintings on offer:

Jenny, in her awesome lilac ball gown, announced that there would be lucky door prizes:

I was especially hoping to get my hands on the National Bank bag, but had no joy. There's a lucky person out there. You know who you are.

We all kept running back to our paintings to see if we'd had any bids (especially exciting when someone you DIDN'T KNOW bid on your painting!). But at some point, this teapot arrived on the scene:

It's a squid, obviously. It's just a very *ahem* well-endowed squid.

After the crowd was well lubricated (and it WAS a crowd, by this point, there was the occasional CRASH as someone's painting was elbowed off an easel and onto the floor), the auction began. Several works by the proper-like artists were to be auctioned off in the round by Mr 'sales' Simon Bones, an auctioneer at the local sale yards. This ain't your mother's Sotherbys.

It's much more exciting. Actually, it was REALLY exciting. The crowd got noisier with every auction, and despite the $5 in my pocket I nearly bid on something after the $900 mark. Can you bottle that sort of atmosphere? Perhaps not. But if you can make it through 4 minutes of the following video, you'll see what I mean:

The kids sat on the floor (and nicked the occasional glass of wine), the crowd gathered round and round and between auctions we ran back to our favourite paintings to see if we'd been outbid.

Those of us who had provided paintings ran back to our own work to see if we'd been bid any higher.

One of the most delightful things about the evening was seeing the love that the Port Fairy community has for Jenny. I eavesdrop a LOT, and if the Port Fairy Hospital got a dollar for every lovely thing that was said about her that night, well, they wouldn't have need of a fundraiser at all. It's not hard to understand: she's ace.

But obviously, you're wondering about how much the Punch Family Art raised for the hospital. Here are our bidding cards for your perusal:

My aunt Margy won out with $175, my mum Jude came in next with $120 (and of course we have no acquaintance with Ashley, though he's got a fine eye for an artwork), and yours truly brought up the rear with $52.

And it wasn't even my mum who bought my painting.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Free book, anyone?

I've got a couple of books to give away, ones I've blogged about one here. I like to spread the love.

Would you like a free (secondhand, in a couple of cases third/fourth-hand) copy of:

Dragons of Autumn Twilight - Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

I've got 1 copy of each to give away. I've registered them on Bookcrossing to track their travel.

Email me which one you'd like at, or DM me on Twitter, or tell my mum you'd like it, and I'll send it to you.

The early bird catches the book. If they're not claimed in a week, I'm releasing them into the wild!


* Update - D.A.A.S Book has been claimed! Get in quick for the other two, people.
** Update - Dragons of Autumn Twilight has been claimed! One book left...
***Update - A Suitable Boy has been claimed! Enjoy your books :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

From the favourer: "37 years of primary school teaching inevitably led me to reading an enormous number of novels as serials to my classes. 'Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH' stood out as my own personal favourite, as well as being the favourite of many of the listeners. It's funny how a kid's book can end up as an adult's favourite...perhaps this is a statement on the teacher concerned?"

Given the amount of children's books that have turned up on this list of favourites, it's not uncommon for an adult's favourite book to be a book written for children. And given the amount of beautifully crafted nothings that circulate on the adult literary circuit, I think it makes sense for everyone's favourite book to be a children's book. Sorry, ranting. I'll stop now.

Mrs Frisby, a recently widowed mouse, lives during winter with her four children in a cement block buried in a wheat field. Each year when the thaw comes, the family move to their summer house away from the field, to avoid being chopped up by the farmer's plough. But this year, something is different. Little Timothy has had a close brush with pneumonia, and any exposure to cool air, even as the days temper towards spring, will be the death of him. When by chance Mrs Frisby saves the life of a crow, he offers to repay the favour by flying her to meet the wise old owl. The owl is initially unable to offer any advice about Mrs Frisby's situation, but when he learns that she is the widow of Jonathan Frisby, his manner changes. He suggests that she goes to see the rats that live in the rosebush. Mrs Frisby is puzzled - how could the rats help, and what do they have to do with her husband?

But these are no ordinary rats. Ordinary rats don't move in formation, work with electrics, and they certainly don't read. And their secret is bound up with Mrs Frisby and her family.

I first read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in grade 3, and remember being fascinated by the story of the rats, and wondering vaguely why Mrs Frisby was in it at all. Later I saw the animated film, which was great, but completely shifted the focus from the rats to Mrs Frisby's story. Which probably made for a good film, but it was really the rats that intrigued me, and probably many other readers.

Robert C. O'Brien intended to become a professional pianist (don't we all), but after working at a boys' summer camp as a student he learned about stories, and storytelling. He 'found that in the dark you don't read stories, you tell them, and this is the best training of all for learning what kinds of stories children like'. Later he worked as a newspaper reporter. When you read his fiction, you can see the influences of these two experiences on his writing - he writes a damn good story, and he writes it economically.

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is only 197 pages long, and there is not a single word wasted. It's pared-back, story-driven writing where every word works carefully to build tension, character and plot. There's no fluff. No wonder it worked well as a classroom serial. It's a killer story, and every time my baby woke up from a nap and I had to stop reading, I did the thing where I walked down the hall s-l-o-w-l-y to the nursery, still reading, to get a few more lines into those 10 steps. It's also a very serious book. There's the odd moment of dry humour:

' "When we don't know what to do, we ask [the owl]. Sometimes he answers our questions, sometimes he doesn't. It depends on how he feels. Or as my father used to say - what kind of humour he's in."
Or possibly, thought Mrs Frisby, on whether or not he knows the answer.'

If you've seen the movie, there's quite a bit of hilarity injected into the story, mostly via the crow Jeremy (who is an absolute riot in the movie, by the way. "OOH, A STHPARKLEEEEE"). In the book he's a minor character, almost a plot device, barely curling out a couple of chapters. He's certainly not the comedic foil of the movie:

But draw of the story is really created by the rats - their capture, the experiments performed on them at NIMH, and how this lead to their new life (and their aspirations for a rat utopia). I think it's why O'Brien won the Newbery Medal for this book in 1972 (won this year by Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book). The science in the novel is vague enough not to date, but specific enough to be believable, and the way O'Brien builds the tension of their story is perfect. Even if you've never felt sympathy for a lab rat running a maze, you will after reading this book:

'I never got used to that feeling - no one ever does - but I did experience it many times, and eventually learned what it was: electric shock. It is not exactly a pain, but it is unbearable...You might ask: Why would I bother to run through it at all, if I knew it was only a trick? The answer is I couldn't help it. When you've lived in a cage, you can't bear not to run, even if what you're running towards is an illusion.'

A part of this book I really hadn't remembered is the emphasis on reading and the impact that being able to read and write has on a person (or rat). Reading can be a way of growing, escaping, but the knowledge it provides imposes new limits on the reading animal. The rats experience this in a fundamental way: 'By teaching us to read, they had taught us how to get away.' This sentence is embedded in the story, but it resonates above the literal sense it has here. The rats are liberated by their ability to read, but it also puts them in danger. They are different, and they need to adapt to manage their difference in the world. They also need to manage the heightened moral awareness that their knowledge provides.

That's a lot for a nine-year-old reader to take in. And I didn't, then. But it says a lot that this slim volume can provoke those sort of thoughts for me, 20 years after I first read it.

And also, it's such a damn cracker of a read.