Emily Climbs

One of my favorite lines in all of literature happens in Emily Climbs:

“Of course,” said Mrs. Ann Cyrilla, “I think a great many of Emily’s faults come from her intimacy with Ilse Burnley. She shouldn’t be allowed to run about with Ilse as she does. Why, they say Ilse is as much an infidel as her father….She swears like a trooper, I’m told. Mrs. Mark Burns was in [her father’s] office one day and heard Ilse in the parlor say distinctly ‘out, damned Spot!’ probably to the dog.”

Oh God. That’s as good as anything Valancy says in that dinner with her family in The Blue Castle. I never read Macbeth without thinking of Ilse Burnley.

You wouldn’t say that Emily Climbs was long on plot. She does things that shock people even though she is perfectly innocent and reasonable in the matter, and she tries to get things published, and her family is frustrating and supportive by turns, and she has a lovable cast of friends plus boring Teddy, and she likes pretty things. I can’t say what it is about this book that appeals to me so much. It’s just charming and friendly and amusing. It’s episodic but the episodes are interesting.

And, ugh, I don’t like it when Dean teases her about her writing. What a jerk! How mean he is! How could anyone do such a mean thing? That enormous prat! He may be more interesting than Teddy, but what a humongous selfish jerk telling her bad things about her stories when they are indeed very good! Whatever. I want to like Dean because he gives Emily new books to read, and I try to shut down those parts of my mind that are screaming “Humbert Humbert” and “that surely untrue but still creepy story about Alfred Douglas going to visit Oscar Wilde with Andre Gide and telling Gide that Oscar Wilde’s kid Cyril ‘will be for me’ (ew! ew! I know it’s apocryphal but ew, ew, ew, ew!)”; anyway I try to shut down those parts of my mind and focus on Tom Lynn and Polly or Jane and Mr. Rochester, who undoubtedly lived happily ever afterwards to the end of their days, but it’s impossible to be friends with Dean given his unconscionable behavior as regards Emily’s writing. And I shouldn’t even be getting all het up yet because he hasn’t done the really super duper unconscionable thing that he does in Emily’s Quest.

That bastard. I never forgave him for that.

I wish I had that old copy like I have of Emily of New Moon. The one with the cover where she is smelling a flower and it’s all greeny. That’s a better cover than the one I’ve got. On the one I’ve got Emily just looks really blah. But still, if you are ever near Emily Climbs, in any edition, read it. It’s friendly.

Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery

When my life gets stressful, I don’t read new books.  Hence I am rereading a bunch of old things.  The Color Purple and now all of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books.

I have to confess that I don’t understand the undying allure of Anne of Green Gables.  I don’t dislike those books or anything, but I can totally live without them – and God, how boring is Gilbert?  Is it just me?  Isn’t Gilbert dull?  Don’t we all sort of want to chuck Gilbert off a cliff?  When I was a little girl I read Anne of Green Gables and stopped and I nearly went off LM Montgomery for life.  Happily my mother said I should try reading Emily of New Moon, and I did, and it was brilliant.

It’s still brilliant.  I totally love it.  I like all the bits where people tell Emily she’s a good writer.  I know it’s silly, but I always read those bits several times when I’m reading these books, and they always make me smile.  I actually only just made that connection: I knew there were bits I reread a lot, but I just realized this minute that they were all the bits with people telling Emily she’s a good writer.  In my mind they were just the Father Cassidy bit and the Mr. Carpenter bit, but of course, that’s what’s going on there.  Huh.

Well, anyway, Emily of New Moon is one of my favorite books ever.  I will soon post happy posts about the two sequels and how much joy they give me.

While I’m on the subject, though, I have to say this: There are a whole bunch of books by L.M. Montgomery that are way better than those Anne Shirley books.  The three books about Emily Starr are better, and Jane of Lantern Hill is substantially better, and The Blue Castle is ten thousand bazillion times better and contains a scene that is one of the best scenes of all time and always makes me laugh no matter how often I read it.  So if you have only read the Anne books, you are missing out like whoa.  And even if you don’t think the other books are better, they are definitely worth reading – the aforementioned ones are all good, and A Tangled Web is very delightful and I have it in hardback.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

You know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand why The Color Purple is so ridiculously awesome, and why when there are all these really subpar books running around, why people don’t just go ahead and read The Color Purple all the time. Why don’t people just read The Color Purple all the time, and forget about that Atonement crap?

The Color Purple. Wow.

When I was young, my mother had told me once that The Color Purple was one of her favorite books of all time, and I remember her telling me her favorite line (“White folks is a miracle of affliction”), and in early middle school I asked her where her copy was because I wanted to read it. And that’s the only time in my entire life I can remember my mother telling me not to read a book. She said wait a few years and I’d like it better. When I finally did read it (and oh my God, it blew me away), I assumed that she had been trying to steer me clear of it because of the fairly extensive sexual and violent content, but I asked her and she said no, she just thought I’d like it better if I waited a few years. She said that giving it to an eleven-year-old to read would be like giving To Kill a Mockingbird to a precocious kid of eight – the kid might be able to read all the words, but s/he’d be missing out on all the richness that’s there. She said you only get to read a book for the first time once, and there are some books that you just really deserve to have the best first-reading experience possible.

I totally agree with that.  And this is a damn good book.  It’s one of those books that everyone should read.  Everyone in the whole world.  In fact I’m just off to ship a few hundred copies off to world leaders.  Do ’em good.

P.S. Although they are both Important Black American Women writers, I am forced to read Toni Morrison much more often than I am forced to read Alice Walker.  In fact I have never had to read Alice Walker, except for one short story once, whereas I have had to deal with Toni Morrison kind of a lot.  And you know what, you know what?  I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.  Beloved makes me feel queasy.  The Color Purple is a much better book and everyone should just, just, just revise their damn syllabuses.

Heck Superhero, by Martine Leavitt

Martine Leavitt is still my new BFF, and great respect to her for raising seven kids and still managing to write books, but I didn’t like Heck Superhero as much as The Dollmage and Keturah.  I think that writing in the present time may just not be her thing, and it may actually be necessary for her to set her stories in strange, alternate versions of England from back in the day.

Heck Superhero is about a kid whose mother goes MIA, and as a result of some pretty spectacular magic thinking (he’s only a kid, so this is permissible), he thinks that he has to be a superhero in order to find her, by doing enough really fantastic and amazing Good Deeds.

It was good.  Just not as good.  I wish I had Martine Leavitt’s other books instead of this one.  It was a teeny bit of a letdown.

The Dollmage, Martine Leavitt

My people, lay down your stones.

Before you stone this Annakey Rainsayer, you know it is the law and her right to have her story told. It is my duty as Dollmage to tell it. Each villager has the right to one stone, and no one will forbid you to throw it. But listen to me, and when I am done each of you will decide for yourselves if this Annakey is worthy of execution.

That is right. Lay the stones at your feet, keep them close by if it comforts you. So few of you? The stones will get heavy before the story is done.

Martine Leavitt! You are totally my new best friend! I’m so glad I decided it was worth it to stop at the library on the way to class and picked up the other two books of yours they have! Only I mustn’t get too excited because this is the way I felt about Salman Rushdie and then he went and let me down with Fury and Shame (that sentence is funny because – whatever, you know why that sentence is funny). Here is another bit of The Dollmage, which made me smile when I read it. I heart Martine Leavitt.

It comforted my heart to know that Annakey was afraid of something, and I said thank you to God. He seemed cold to me, as if I had not gotten the point.

The Dollmage was maybe even better than Keturah and Lord Death. I’m in the middle of Heck Superhero, which I think I am liking slightly less but I haven’t finished it so maybe I will turn out to be wrong. The Dollmage was so good that the thirty minutes of exercising I did while I was reading it flew by in a snap, which is not normal for me because exercising makes me tired and normally when things make me tired I quit doing them, except I know I can’t quit exercising because of Health Reasons, so I carry on even though I really, really, really want to stop, and every minute goes amazingly slowly.

The Dollmage is a bit like Keturah and Lord Death in that it has that same dreamy, haunting, fairy-tale sort of quality, but this one’s a little less light-hearted. (Hi, irony, I’m Jenny.) It’s about a small village that is protected and looked after by a person called the Dollmage, who makes dolls to sort everything out, but when she goes to choose her successor, there are two girls born at the right time with the appropriate powers – Renoa and Annakey. She chooses Renoa, but the book’s about Annakey. Annakey is a surprisingly sympathetic character given that she’s kinda flawless, and I really think it works so well because of the fairy-tale feel of the story. And this device, telling the story before the stoning, works absolutely beautifully. I loved this book ever so much. I just – mm, it was one of those books that reminds me why I write. (And read, also.)

And now a word about Martine Leavitt. I saw that she had seven kids, and I was like, And she wrote seven books? so I went to her website to check it out, and apparently there was a five-year period in which she was a single mother with six of those seven kids, going to university, and still publishing two books and working on a third one.

Wow, Martine Leavitt. Respect. You’re a better woman than I.

Keturah and Lord Death, Martine Leavitt

“Tell me what it is like to die,” I answered.

He dismounted from his horse, looking at me strangely the whole while.  “You experience something similar every day,” he said softly.  “It is as familiar to you as bread and butter.”

“Yes,” I said.  “It is like every night when I fall asleep.”

“No.  It is like every morning when you wake up.”

Recommended by: Brooklyn Arden

Oh how I liked this book.  It’s about a girl called Keturah who goes into the forest after a white hart and meets Lord Death.  She doesn’t want to die without having known love (it sounds a little hokey when I say it like that, but I swear it isn’t at all!), so she tells him part of a story, and he lets her live for another day, and if she can find her true love in that day, he’ll let her live entirely.

I was mighty impressed.  I will for sure be swinging by the library and picking up more of Martine Leavitt’s books.  My libraries only have two other ones, because Martine Leavitt is Canadian I suppose, but she has written like six more…  I am hoping this is one of those times where I am on the brink of having a new favorite author, rather than on the brink of being really disappointed by all the other crap I read by her.  Like that time I thought I was going to marry Salman Rushdie after I read Midnight’s Children and The Ground Beneath Her Feet and then I read Fury and Shame and now I’m totally scared to read Shalimar the Clown or The Satanic Verses or The Moor’s Last Sigh (which I’m saving, anyway, because it’s meant to be the best of those three).

Keturah and Lord Death was haunting – which is funny, because it was also light-hearted and cheerful.  It had the feel of a fairy tale, and furthermore it was a tidy-minded kind of book, which I am strongly in favor of.  I completely loved it how Keturah got back to the village and immediately started sorting things out and arranging things and making lemon pies.  Like Flora Post.  Loved it.  I even made a new “loved it” category, just for this book.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Seven.

You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die.  You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come.  You brought it into the room.  The table could smell it on your breath.  The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset.  He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven – the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you.  It lands.  It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

Just bad luck.

That’s what you say.

Of no consequence.

That’s what you make yourself believe – because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come.  You hide a Jew.  You pay.  Somehow or other, you must.

I saw The Book Thief first when I was in England, staying in London with my family over New Year’s, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted it or not (I wish I’d bought it then because it would have been more expensive BUT it had a nice cover and was hardback), so I picked it up and glanced at it, and something the sales person said led me to believe it was in translation.  So since I didn’t really have any spare money for a book that might not be good and was in translation anyway, and since I definitely didn’t have any spare space in my luggage, I didn’t get it.

What with one thing and another I checked it out of the library this past summer and read it almost all in one go, lying on my couch at home.  It made me cry.  So I didn’t read it again, and I didn’t buy it, and by the time I noticed that I was pining for it, it was too late and the Official Christmas Buying Embargo was on, and when I didn’t get it for Christmas (I got many other things though!), I went round to Bongs & Noodles and bought it with my Christmas gift card money.

(Yay!)

Seriously, honestly, this book is as good as you’ve heard.  It is one of the best books I have ever read.  Markus Zusak, yay for you.  It’s about a little German girl who steals books and has a foster family and hides a Jew in her basement.  And yes, okay, the book is narrated by Death, and I know that might not be a draw for some people, but this book is just gorgeously written, and it’s extremely moving, and I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

But sad.  So if you have serious objections to bits of story that involve dead children and mums crying about it, and if those objections are serious enough that you actually cannot see past them, then okay, this book might not be for you.  For everyone else in the whole world though.  Yup.  Damn good book.  It made me cry, and although I tear up extremely easily, it is a much better trick to make actual tears actually fall out of my eyes, which is what The Book Thief has done both times I’ve read it.

Although I ordinarily cannot deal with Holocaust books at all, which I know this officially isn’t one of, but it kind of is.  And still I liked The Book Thief a lot.

Forever Rose, Hilary McKay

They are turning into the sort of people I used to call Grown Up and I cannot stop them although I would if I could. I would slow them down anyway. Sometimes I want to shout “Wait for me! Wait for me!”

Like I did when I was little and they walked too fast.

They always turned back then, however much of a hurry they were in, but I do not think they can turn back now.

So I do understand.

Oh, excellent book! Even though it made me a little sad, because it is the last in the series, and because Rose is sad and lonely for a tremendous portion of Forever Rose, and probably because I am growing up much too fast myself and graduating frighteningly from college quite soon.

However.

It is my considered opinion that Hilary McKay should be much more popular in America than indeed she is, because her books are really charming and clever and funny and friendly. I stumbled on Saffy’s Angel while nosing around Amazon trying to find another smallish book to get my mother for Christmas, and I can really only shake my head in amazement at my good fortune, because the library had it (so I checked it out and screened it), and the bookshop had it (so I bought it and wrapped it and gave it to Mumsy), and then there were four more, eventually. Four. That’s lucky.

Forever Rose starts out sad. Everyone is gone. Caddy is gone and won’t say what happened to Michael, and Indigo has a job, and Saffron has lots of classes, and Tom is in New York and Eve is in her shed and Bill is in London and Michael is back in town and won’t look at Rose when he sees her in the street. That makes me sad just to contemplate. (Michael’s last name, incidentally, is Cadogen. Who knew?) Besides which her teacher is canceling Christmas and David is having a Crisis and her boring friend Molly has a mysterious idea she won’t tell anyone about.

But I liked it a lot, even if the ending was just the tiniest teeny bit too neat (ha, literally), because I like happy endings particularly when they are the endings of friendly books like these ones about the Cassons. And of course I will always read it again. Probably out loud to my future children.

I must also say that this book came to me via a very long and circuitous system of transport of my aunt and uncle’s friends. My aunt Gina, who is good at getting things, arranged for someone in England to buy Forever Rose (it not being out yet in America), and that person brought it to New York and handed it off to someone else and they handed it off to someone else and then to someone else and finally back to Gina. And then me. For Christmas. That’s a lot of labor, and I was much less inventive when helping my father buy it for my mother.

P.S. My mother says that if Forever Rose had not already been wrapped when it reached her, she would have read it. That made me feel much less guilty about reading the copy that I ordered for Daddy to give her, so I confessed all. I had been feeling quite guilty about it actually, but I had to, because it was right there, in my room, so eminently desirable, and I didn’t think I’d be getting it for Christmas myself! and normally I only read books I’m giving as gifts to Indie Sister or my very clever friend because I know they do the same with gifts to me and it’s fine, but I simply could not resist.

SPOILER

NO, REALLY

I knew she was preggers!

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

I have argued with myself long and hard before giving this a “favored authors” category, because actually I don’t like C.S. Lewis as a person. I do not favor him at all. I think he was a bit of a sexist jerk, and the reason I don’t read the Chronicles of Narnia more often is that I think C.S. Lewis is a jerk and I’m always saying to myself, Well why would I want to read the books of such a jerk? And then, of course, since I’ve been reading the Narnia books since I was three (I mean, I was read to at that point), I do fairly inevitably pick them up again, and then I’m reminded of how much I completely love those books.

I reread Dawn Treader on the way to Atlanta, mainly because I was trying to decide what bits would have to be cut for the film (the slave trade bits, I decided – it’s a good part of the book but you don’t absolutely need it, and it would take up lots of time), and I just loved it. It’s not my favorite (I like The Horse and His Boy), but it is a mighty good book. I have always felt a little sad about Eustace being really a metaphor for St. Paul (I cheer myself up by assuring myself that, redemption being a common theme in literature, Eustace is not so much a retelling of St. Paul so much as an archetype), but still, the book is wonderful. I love best the Dufflepuds and Reepicheep wanting to take on a dragon singlehanded and playing chess as if he were the chess pieces doing bold and valiant things, and the dark island is very cool and haunting.

I suppose if I wanted to be critical, I might say that the episodic nature of the book makes things a little jerky, and it does to some extent, but I don’t think it’s a big deal, and mostly everything works out beautifully. It’s episodic, but the episodes are excellent.

I also have to say here that I reread Matilda at my grandmother’s house, and you know, Matilda says that she loves C.S. Lewis “but he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books”, which Miss Honey agrees with. I mean – well, I can only conclude that Roald Dahl hadn’t read all of the Chronicles of Narnia, because he could never have said that if he had. Honestly, I don’t see how any living person could fail to think Lazaraleen, for instance, was funny (I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head reading Lazaraleen), and there’s just no way that the Dufflepuds aren’t funny. I was reading this book on the way back from my grandfather’s funeral, and I was so tired I was hardly functional and I kept forgetting words like “impressed”, and still the Dufflepuds made me laugh so hard I cried. Particularly this bit, which contains (I’ve helpfully bolded it) what may be my favorite line in all of literature:

“And we’re extremely regrettable,” said the Chief Monopod, “that we can’t give you the pleasure of seeing us as we were before we were uglified, for you wouldn’t believe the difference, and that’s the truth, for there’s no denying we’re mortal ugly now, so we won’t deceive you.”

“Eh, that we are, Chief, that we are,” echoed the others, bouncing like so many toy balloons. “You’ve said it, you’ve said it.”

“But I don’t think you are at all,” said Lucy, shouting to make herself heard. “I think you look very nice.”

“Hear her, hear her,” said the Monopods. “True for you, Missie. Very nice we look. Couldn’t find a handsomer lot.” They said this without any surprise and did not seem to notice that they had changed their minds.

“She’s a-saying,” remarked the Chief Monopod, “as how we looked very nice before we were uglified.”

“True for you, Chief, true for you,” chanted the others. “That’s what she says. We heard her ourselves.”

“I did not,” bawled Lucy. “I said you’re very nice now.”

“So she did, so she did,” said the Chief Monopod, “said we was very nice then.”

“Hear ’em both, hear ’em both,” said the Monopods. “There’s a pair for you. Always right. They couldn’t have put it better.”

“But we’re saying just the opposite,” said Lucy, stamping her foot with impatience.

“So you are, to be sure, so you are,” said the Monopods. “Nothing like an opposite. Keep it up, both of you.”

“You’re enough to drive anyone mad,” said Lucy, and gave it up.

Hahahahaha. That is comic genius. Matilda is absurd, and so is Miss Honey, even though she has my same name and actually I love her and Matilda both, so I’m going to go ahead and blame this on Roald Dahl instead.

C.S. Lewis and his lovely clear prose. I am appreciating it more and more as I get older and read people like Judith Butler (for God’s sake). Clear prose. That’s what we all need. Nice, clear prose. What are they teaching in these schools anyway?