A Tangled Web

As you know, if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, I am a big L.M. Montgomery fan. Maud is my girl; she gave me Anne Shirley for which I will always be grateful. As I grew up, I also found all her short stories and the few standalone novels she wrote. Not only did she give me Anne Shirley (who, let’s face it, is the original manic pixie girl to some extent) but she gave me Jane Stuart who is my spirit animal if there ever was one. Jane is a practical little soul who gets excited about organizing her house, keeping to her schedule and cooking for her dad. She also at one point ends up leading an escaped circus lion around. Jane is unflappable and I still aspire to be like her.

The Tangled Web (Goodreads)

The Tangled Web (Goodreads)

There are few of Maud’s books I haven’t gotten to (although notably, I haven’t read the Emily books. I find people often read either the Anne books or the Emily books…why is this?) so when I received The Tangled Web at Christmas, one of her few adult audience books, I was excited! But things happened and it’s only now I got around to reading it when my to read pile expanded beyond one drawer of my night stand.

The Tangled Web shows Maud at her best and worst as a storyteller. At her best, no one writes crazy, kooky and yet lovable families like Montgomery. The Darks and Penhallows of The Tangled Web are a cantankerous, loyal, slightly certifiable bunch who dance to the tune of Aunt Becky, the family matriarch and holder of Rebecca Dark’s jug, an ugly family heirloom that everyone wants but cannot really say why other than they don’t want their other relatives to have it. Aunt Becky holds a get together, proceeds to remind everyone about years’ worth of family scandals while bequeathing her many belongings to the family member that least wants it and then, at the end, announces that only a year after she has died will it be announced who gets the jug. So starts a year of chaos as the family fights, engagements are broken, old romances rekindled and dreams lost and found before the final twist of the book.

In many ways, The Tangled Web is simply a group of short stories all linked together by a common family and the jug. Read enough of Maud’s short story collections and you’ll find she is not above re-using storylines, names and places from her short stories in her novels and vice versa so I recognized a lot of the characters and where the stories were going pretty early on. The difference comes in the characters themselves. Margaret Penhallow’s story, for example, is a bunch of common Montgomery tropes. A women who wants her own home and someone to love but is taken advantage of by her relatives because of her unmarried state and never expected to amount to much. It is Margaret, a spinster who writes poetry and daydreams, that makes her storyline lovely and different from the other Montgomery stories that follow that base plot line. I knew Margaret would get her happy ending (Montgomery never lets a character like this down) but it was still fun to get to watch how she got there.

At her worst though, Maud is a product of her time and her background, which was a predominantly white, rather narrow, by the book outlook. Though I would never call her close-minded per say, she can write characters that make you wish she has just stopped a little sooner. Her characters of Big and Little Sam in The Tangled Web are unnecessary; their storyline rarely cross with the rest of the stories. You could easily remove them and not harm the rest of the narrative. And yet, these are the characters Montgomery chooses to end The Tangled Web with and on an especially horrible final note. I literally shuttered on the last sentence because it was unnecessary and pointless and left me with a sour taste in my mouth. No, her language choice was not uncommon at the time; in fact, it was accepted but you wish your heroines to be above the prejudices of their time and it’s never pleasant to see them fall short of your expectations.

That said, I still very much enjoyed The Tangled Web and Maud remains a favorite whom I always recommend no matter someone’s age. Now excuse me while I go daydream about getting a surprise windfall and being able to purchase a dream home and adopt a neglected relative (totally happens in this book).

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A pilgrimage to Green Gables

This summer has been the summer of travel. Ironically because back in January, it was supposed to be a quiet travel year. And then weddings and work travel filled my calendar. I’m not complaining; I do adore traveling particularly when work is covering a part of the tab. Luckily enough, one work trip this summer happened to be to a conference held at the University of Prince Edward Island, a place that has been on my bucket list for a very long time.

Green Gables

Green Gables on a perfect summer day

I don’t remember how I found Anne. I imagine it was a gift from some aunt or another. I do remember ploughing through the series in 6th grade, begging Mom to run me back out to the mall and the book store for the next book in the series. L.M. Montgomery remains one of my favorite authors; her adult novels and short stories are just as lovely as the children’s series she is best known for. That said, re-reading Anne of Green Gables is like re-visiting an old childhood friend and never gets old.

I adored PEI. The only reason I left without begging the university to hire me was the recent 20 foot snowfall the island enjoyed over the winter. I am a very proud central New York native, growing up outside of the usual home of the Golden Snowball Award but even that number gave me pause. That and the strong breeze coming off the Gulf of the St. Lawrence while I was there. In the winter, I imagine that wind would just cut through you. That said, PEI in August was glorious and a fantastic place to visit for this current Floridian for a break from the awfulness that is the summer here.

I was here for work and I really did enjoy the conference. That said, the last day on the Island was the best because I got to go to Green Gables. The house is part of the Prince Edward Island National Park on the central north shore of the island. It is kept exactly as LMM described the house in the original story, right down to Anne’s room with the puffed sleeve dress hanging on the closet door. LMM never actually lived at Green Gables; the house and its farm were owned by distant cousins. You can also walk and visit the location of the home LMM lived in with her grandparents though only the foundation of that home still exists today.

One of the many gardens around Green Gables.

One of the many gardens around Green Gables.

The gardens were truly fantastic at both Green Gables and the LMM homestead. So was walking the Haunted Wood and Lover’s Lane; truly a moment when this book nerd tried to be cool and not completely geek out in front of her colleagues. However, It is one of those moments when you feel like you’re visiting a place you’ve been before as a child and it’s still as wonderful when you’re older, maybe ever better. I don’t know that I would have appreciated it as much when I was a kid. It made me appreciate LMM’s writing more and also to understand it again. As a kid, reading the books, the emphasis on the gardens and flowers and trees seemed effusive but having visited the island now, it makes perfect sense. The island was a riot of flowers and trees; everything in bloom and well groomed. Well-tended gardens are everywhere, in every yard and public space they can fit a garden. Someone I was traveling with noted that as a place that has bleak winters, having flowers everywhere when they can is probably important to them.

Not only did I explore Green Gables while I was there, but also drove through more of the PEI National Park outside of Green Gables (where we also randomly ran into a bagpiper on the side of one of the cliffs), had delicious seafood every time I ate it while there, explored a lot of Charlottetown on foot and in general was outside as much as possible because I could be. I would go back in a heartbeat. Not only a literary bucket list item crossed off but also a genuinely awesome place to visit that I hope to get back to some day.

Influential Books

Not sure how I started thinking about this but I suspect it came from reading Lies My Teachers Told Me. It looks at textbooks used in high school history classes and all the ways they are inadequate to the task of teaching students history in the correct way. It made me reflect on my high school experience (and perhaps the fact this year is my 10 year reunion has me thinking about it too) and that moved me more towards the books I read in English class (overall, I don’t remember my history texts being the end all be all of my history classes). However, I soon realized limiting myself to books I read in class would leave out perhaps some of the most important. Books I stumbled into on library shelves, books given to me by relatives and friends and books that I, truth, can’t remember how I found them anymore. All I know is these books have permanent spots on my bookshelf where real estate is at a premium and I revisit them often. They have influenced me in some fashion – be it they introduced me to a genre of books that greatly influence me or the book itself I met at just the right point in my life. So, here in no particular order:

Anthem, Ayn Rand

Of all my classes over the years, 9th grade English stands on its own. It was a unique group of people with a teacher who pushed us further than anyone had up to that point. He expected more from us and while we moaned and groaned over it, I remember “By The Waters of Babylon” being particularly painful, we enjoyed it. It’s a class we still reference to this day and was the place I was first introduces to Anthem. This was, upon reflection, both a good and bad thing. Good because Anthem was pretty defining at the time. Think about, a bunch of freshman reading a book that is about creating individual identity, forging one’s way outside of the safety of one’s family and community, discovering how you are going to define yourself? It was also good because it introduced me to the dystopian genre, a genre I went on to devour over the following summer. This was before Hunger Games, Matched, Divergent. I had only the classics of the genre: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. It’s a genre I still love today and kind of love that it’s mainstream now. Bad? Well, Ayn Rand comes with her own set of problems. Anthem is a novella and about as likable as Rand gets. It’s because of Anthem I worked to read Atlas Shrugged so hard. I succeeded but I definitely did not like Rand as much when I was finished. What had been such a celebration of individuality and exploration in Anthem just became the story of selfish, insufferable, unlikable people in Atlas Shrugged. But, I still take a summer afternoon and read Anthem, if only to remember my 15 year old self.

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

I sadly have no idea how I found Anne. Was it a gift? Did I buy it myself? Did I, horrors!, watch the movie and Road to Avonlea long before I read the first book? Anything is possible. I just remember begging my mother to drive me out to Waldenbooks in 6th grade because I HAD TO HAVE THE NEXT BOOK. I even recall buying the last three books at the same time as I just knew I was going to read them in record time. What would my life had been like if no precocious redhead hadn’t assured me there were no mistakes in tomorrow yet? Anne was the first fictional best friend I wanted, Gilbert definitely my first fictional boyfriend and Marilla the best aunt a girl could ask for. I wanted to live in these books so bad it wasn’t even funny. And hey, they were educational as well. Thank you Walter for where you fought in WWI as I distinctly remember it helping me on a test in school. Anne also introduced me to more of L.M. Montgomery’s books and short stories which I still pull out for comfort reads whenever I have the chance.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

My aunt gave me this book in 4th grade. I have no idea why to be honest. Maybe she’d liked it as a kid and wanted to share it with me, her bookworm niece? For whatever reason, I am forever grateful. I didn’t get this book at first. WWII was just a vague concept in my head, the Holocaust a word that I knew was bad but didn’t really get why. Anne explained that to me. She also though was infallibly honest. I think we heroize her a bit too much. She was a teenager; she fought with her mother and her sister, she had a crush on the only boy she could, she was a brat at times, a saint at others. Her flaws were amplified by the situation she found herself in, as were her great moments. I appreciated her more when I was older and I marvel now. This girl, in hiding for persecution based only on her beliefs, wrote that, in spite of everything, she still believed that people were good at heart. One of my favorite moments of my semester abroad was visiting the Secret Annex and paying my respects to the dreamer who hid there. It brought into my world something I had only imagined in a book.

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

I came very late to Austen. Shocking I know and one of my best friend was the one who properly introduced me to her finally in high school. Once I’d had my first introductions, there was no going back. Austen’s brand of romance, humor and tone hits such a perfect cord with me, I read a lot of literature simply because it is marketed as “Austenesque.” I even read all the continuations, moderizations; I watch all the movies, no matter that I’ve seen five other versions. Hell, I own three versions of Pride & Prejudice on DVD. Well this isn’t my favorite of Austen’s work (Persuasion holds that honor), it was the first I read and therefore the one I owe for making me a Janeite.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire

I think I found this wandering the aisles of Borders. I had read Wicked and enjoyed it though it was a dense read and Confessions sounded as if it were along the same lines. Not so. Confessions was a much more approachable book, a book with a much clearer plot and the lines of the story, while still grey, a bit easier to follow. It was not the first time I had read a revisionist novel (clearly since I had read Wicked), but it was the first time I grasped how cool the concept could be. Iris was my kind of girl; a brilliant, plain Jane, someone who is just trying to do the right thing and who, in a moment of weakness, thinks about doing the selfish thing. Many years later, Confessions would inspire my senior thesis ensuring that fairy tale retellings will always fascinate me and also remind me that nothing is as black and white as we would like.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think perhaps I saved the best for last. The Little Prince is a book you have to grow into. I had a copy on my shelves from an early age though I’ve no idea where it came from. I had read it, enjoyed it and then forgotten about it. Then it was handed to me in 11th grade French class and suddenly it was a book of wisdom, of life lessons, a book I could always turn to for comfort, for hope, for a touch of whimsy when I needed it. It teaches you that there is always more than one way to look at something, that you must always tend your baobabs, and that sometimes, those things staring you in the face are the very things you were looking for in the first place. It is a story of trying to find one’s way home and the things you discover along the way. While high school French class touched me in many ways, The Little Prince is the gift I treasure most and I’ll pull out my copies (one in English and in black and white, one in French with the color illustrations) and remind myself of its lessons whenever I have a bad day.