Pollyanna

by Eleanor H. Porter

published 1913

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First off, if your only experience with Pollyanna is the Disney/Haley Mills version, I am so, so sorry.  Do yourself a favor and read the book – if you can possibly erase the movie from your mind!  For this review – a little chat about this book and why it is delightful, and then a bit of ranting about the Disney version.

If, by chance, you’ve never come across Pollyanna in any form – it is the story of a young girl who, orphaned, comes to live with her aunt.  A strict, no-nonsense spinster, Aunt Polly’s entire world is turned upside-down by the arrival of cheerful, enthusiastic, loving Pollyanna.  Pollyanna, who seeks to find the bright side of every situation, soon endears herself to the whole neighborhood.  In the process, she makes friends of all kinds and has little adventures.  When tragedy strikes Pollyanna’s own life, she has to learn to play her own game of being glad.

The “Glad Game” is the keystone of the Pollyanna story.  Pollyanna grew up very poor, the daughter of a “mission” minister “out west,” who subsisted on the charitable donations of churches “back east.”  Pollyanna explains to her friend Nancy, Aunt Polly’s maid, how the Glad Game came to be –

“Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”

Crutches!”

“Yes.  You see, I’d wanted a doll, and Father had written them so.  But when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t been any dolls come in, but the little crutches had.  So she sent ’em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime.  And that’s when we began it.”

“Well, I must say I can’t see any game about that, about that,” declared Nancy, almost irritably.

“Oh, yes; the game was to just find something about everything to be glad about – no matter what ’twas,” rejoined Pollyanna earnestly.  “And we began right then – on the crutches    ….    Why, just be glad because you don’t-need-’em!”

For Pollyanna, the habit of the Glad Game has become strong.  She dances about the neighborhood helping everyone find something to be glad about.

While Pollyanna has been mocked for her simplistic outlook on life (although, really, she’s eleven, so I feel like a child-like outlook on life is not unreasonable when found in, you know, a child), and “Pollyanna” is a term for anyone saccharinely sweet or naively optimistic, I don’t really find Pollyanna to be annoying.  And, truthfully, there isn’t really a downside to trying to find the silver lining out of hard circumstances.  I’m a bit of a Pollyanna myself, though, so that may have something to do with it.

I’m sure that Porter had no idea that her little book would completely take off.  Her writing makes it obvious that she was simply trying to share a message about the importance of being glad and kind, two lessons that I feel our modern society could also take to heart.  Pollyanna’s attitude also emphasizes the fact that people who try to be happy generally are – and, after a while of trying, often become people who are “naturally” happy.  I don’t think people are born happy or not – I am a strong believer that people develop either into people who are happy and a joy to be around, or who are negative and always grousing.

Pollyanna frowned; then she laughed.

“Why, Nancy, that’s so!  I was playing the game – but that’s one of the times I just did it without thinking, I reckon.  You see, you do, lots of times.  You get so used to it – looking for something to be glad about, you know.  And most generally there is something about everything you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.”

There honestly isn’t a great deal of a story, per se.  No driving plot, just quiet character development.  However, Porter wrote one sequel (Pollyanna Grows Up), and then the “Glad Books” were trademarked and several other people wrote various sequels.  Over the years, I’ve collected several of them, and I’m going to try to read the series straight through, or at least as many of them as I can get my hands on.  So we’ll see if Pollyanna matures throughout the books.

A brief word on the dreadful Disney version of this book – first, the movie Pollyanna is one of the rare ones that I saw many times before I ever read the book.  In a way, this ruined sections of the book for me.  In the movie, Aunt Polly is a selfish, money-hungry aristocrat who thinks herself too good to be a part of the town’s society (in fact, in the movie the town is named after Aunt Polly’s family; in the book, Beldingsville is just a little Vermont town like any other).  In the book, Aunt Polly is just a regular person, although well-off, who works and interacts with the people in the town quite normally.  In the movie, Jimmy Bean has a much larger role, and is played by young Kevin Corcoran, and I cannot get his fact out of my head when I’m reading these books.  It’s not so bad for this first book, but I’ve read Pollyanna Grows Up before and (spoiler) she married Jimmy, and really?  Haley Mills and Kevin Corcoran!?

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In the movie, Aunt Polly is a dastardly woman who wants to tear down the orphanage (or something like that; I can’t remember for sure) so the entire town has to band together and defy her by having a fund-raising festival.  Of course, evil Aunt Polly forbids Pollyanna’s attendance to such a dreadful event, but our intrepid heroine sneaks out of the house and goes anyway.

Which brings us to the most annoying difference between movie and book – Pollyanna’s very character.  Yes, movie Pollyanna is friendly and optimistic and frequently uses the world “glad,” but she is also sneaky, disobedient, defiant, and, frankly, annoying.  Book Pollyanna, while she gets into trouble at times, always does so innocently.  She is quick to apologize and willing to accept rebuke and correction.  She loves her aunt, and wishes to please her.

And that’s why I get genuinely angry when, in the movie, Pollyanna is injured when she falls out of a tree while trying to sneak back into the house.  Book Pollyanna would never have done such a thing (book Pollyanna is injured by a car).  It makes me so furious when movie Pollyanna is rewarded for her dreadful behavior – it is, of course, used as a catalyst to change Aunt Polly’s attitude and unite the whole town.  Gah.

Most book-people frequently shudder over movies-from-books, and many of the more famous ones garner a great deal of attention.  But it’s a lot of the old Disney movies that make me the most angry, because they basically steal the title of a book and then make up an entirely different story.  Why!?  And while many people grew up watching Disney classics like Pollyanna and 101 Dalmatians, they tragically never read the amazing books that are so much better.  So do it. Find a copy of Pollyanna, try to keep images of Haley Mills far, far away from your mind, and find out how much better the book is than the movie (again).

A Dangerous Silence

by Catherine Palmer

published 2001

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From the back cover:

Successful pediatrician Marah Morgan returns home to help run the family farm after her father suffers a disabling injury.  Marah finds herself reluctant to help a man who has not shown her the love she longs for and who holds the key to a tragedy from her childhood.

When government archaeologists arrive to excavate Indian burial grounds on the Morgan farm, Marah becomes suspicious.  Then a mysterious farmhand arrives, a man who both fascinates and frightens her.  As events build to a deadly climax, Marah must rely on her faith for the strength she needs in a desperate fight for survival.

So Catherine Palmer is a mixed bag for me.  I’ve definitely read some of her books that I really enjoyed (her “Town Called Hope” series was surprisingly pleasant), others are more in the “meh” category.  While A Dangerous Silence had a lot of potential, the ending seemed abrupt and weak, leaving me with a 3/5 vibe for the book as a whole.

Marah is an engaging lead character.  She is intelligent and independent, a successful pediatrician in Saint Louis.  Although she’s a Christian, Marah has one area of her life she’s never really turned over to God – her relationship with her father.  A hard, proud man, Marah has never understood him, or why he was unable to ever show her the affection and love she craved as a child.  More or less forced by circumstances to return to her father’s farm in Kansas to help him while he recovers from a bad fall, Marah is also forced to face emotions and events she has kept buried for years.

To keep the story interesting, the other plot line involves government agent Judd, who is assigned to work at the Morgan farm in order to keep an eye on a man posing as an archaeologist from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Milton Gregory.  Gregory, we learn towards the beginning of the story, is on the hunt for a disease that he will use to exact his revenge on the government (BWAHAHA).

The Marah/Marah’s dad storyline is strong.  Our characters are forced to learn the importance of truth and honesty, and they both learn how to view things from the other’s perspective, all done well, without being overly sweet or dramatic.  Marah’s developing relationship with Judd is also good.  A weak point in this story, however, is that we find that Marah has three sisters who have also left the farm and moved on to lives of their owns, apparently with the same negative feelings towards their father as Marah has at the beginning of the story – and there is never really any resolution there.  Marah finds healing, but there is never a feeling that the entire family has been bonded back together.  This feels especially counter-intuitive because we are never told why Marah is the daughter who has to come back – if she has three sisters, why are none of them helping?

While the whole evil-terrorist-archaeologist story had its moments, overall it felt quite forced, especially when we finally learn Gregory’s backstory/motivation.  That he was busted out for doing back-alley abortions feels really weird for a story written/theoretically set in 2001, when abortions have been legal since 1973.  Has Gregory really been plotting revenge for almost thirty years??  The grand climax with a hostage situation at the farm was exciting, but ended very suddenly with an epilogue that wrapped everything up with a tidy bow, sweeping the odds and ends that felt like they wouldn’t fit under the rug.

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it (when I was able to suspend logic for several chapters at a time), but it’s not one I particularly can recommend or would want to read again.  A solid 3/5.

4.50 from Paddington (aka What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw)

by Agatha Christie

published 1957

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In this Miss Marple mystery, our story starts, not with Miss Marple, but with another elderly lady, Mrs. McGillicuddy.  After doing some Christmas shopping in London, Mrs. McGillicuddy boards the 4.50 from Paddington, heading to the country to visit an old friend.  On the way, another train momentarily runs parallel to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s.  In that brief moment, the blind in the carriage of the other train flies up and Mrs. McGillicuddy sees a murder being committed.

Although she reports this when her train arrives at the station, no one really takes her seriously, especially since no body is discovered.  Luckily, the old friend Mrs. McGillicuddy is stopping to see happens to be none other than our intrepid Miss Marple, who takes her friend very seriously indeed.  Unable to do the legwork herself, Miss Marple calls upon a younger friend, Lucy.  Together, with Lucy finding the clues and Miss Marple piecing them together, both body and murderer are, of course, found.

While a good mystery, this one seemed to lack a lot of what one might call “Miss Marpleisms” – where she draws completely baffling parallels between players in the current story and people back in her home village.  While we do get a few of these conversations, the bulk of the action is taking place with Lucy and her conversations instead.  I missed the fluttery Miss Marple comparisons, and attempting to figure out what she’s saying (which is often more of a mystery than the mystery itself!).

Still, there were a few solid conversations with Miss Marple, and, as usual, a few of Christie’s personal beliefs did flow through well.  Two conversations in particular really struck me in this story.  In the first, Lucy is distressed because she and Miss Marple have discovered a potential motive for the murder:

“And yet – there was quite a lot of money, wasn’t there?  You’d think it would be enough shared out…”  She paused, the words tailing off.

“The trouble is,” said Miss Marple, “that people are greedy.  Some people.  That’s so often, you know, how things start.  You don’t start with murder, with wanting to do murder, or even thinking of it.  You just start by being greedy, by wanting more than you’re going to have.”

I appreciate the way that Christie doesn’t beat around the bush with her concept of what makes people do bad things.  In Christie’s narratives, people don’t do bad things because “society didn’t train them right” or because they “lacked a supportive family” or any of the other weak social excuses that seem to be handed to every criminal out there these days.  In Christie’s book, people do bad things because their own greedy desires lead them to do bad things, and they lack the moral character to stand against those selfish impulses.

This idea is illustrated by another conversation a few pages later, which Miss Marple is recounting the story of a woman who murdered two of her children and was planning to murder the third –

“[those murders weren’t committed] exactly for money.  She was jealous of them for being younger than she was and alive, and she was afraid – it’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true – they would enjoy themselves after she was gone.  She’d always kept a very tight hold on the purse strings.  Yes, of course she was a little peculiar, as they say, but I never see myself that that’s any real excuse.  I mean you can be a little peculiar in so many different ways.  Sometimes you just go about giving all your possessions away and writing cheques on bank accounts that don’t exist, just so as to benefit people.  It shows, you see, that behind being peculiar you have quite a nice disposition.  But of course if you’re peculiar and behind it you have a bad disposition – well, there you are.”

In Miss Marple’s book, and by everything I can read, in Christie’s as well, there is no room for the currently-favored “insanity” plea.  People who have done terrible things have done them whether they were crazy or not, and, as Christie frequently tells us, bad things cannot go unpunished.  And whether you agree or not with her conclusion, you must admit that it is one worth of contemplation.

Charity Girl

by Georgette Heyer

published 1970

3486146   Alrighty, first things first:  Is this cover creepy, or is this cover creepy?  I mean, seriously.  Everything about the girl in this picture is completely disturbing, and (surprise) not at all like what happened in the book.  (You know, it’s bad enough that movies destroy good books without the covers getting in on the game).

Anyway.  So life has been crazy per usual.  If you want to know what I’ve been doing with my life, feel free to check out the house blog…  my kitchen is currently very much under construction!

Today I’m off work.  A really bad head cold is giving me the excuse I need to hang out on my bed surrounded by my computer, books, and a cat.  I’m slowly getting caught up on emails and reading people’s blogs, and am already planning my post-lunch nap.  A head cold is really only a pain when you have to leave your house.

So – on to Charity Girl.  I’m slowly working my way through all of Heyer’s regency tales, and Charity Girl was a new read for me.  While it was a fine little story, it’s not my new favorite or anything.  A pretty solid 3/5.  The characters are likable but not memorable, and it lacks that witty dialogue that so often makes Heyer’s books delightful.

Lord Desford aka Ashley Carrington (probably aka something else…  I mean, really, why does everyone in the Regency period have to have fifteen names apiece?  I understand the technically why, but it certainly can make a story  hard to follow at times, sheesh) has a very good life.  Well off, good looking, kind, with loving parents, a nice home, a pleasant family, and, of course, the prospect of the earldom heading his way sometime in the future.  Although Desford’s parents hoped he would marry his friend and neighbor, Henrietta Silverdale, even that danger was navigated, leaving them both still single yet good friends, just the way they claim to like it.

Well, in our story (which picks up a few years after the avoided marriage), Desford heads off to visit an aunt.  While there, the family attends a party at a neighboring estate.  During the party, Desford happens to come across Cherry Steane.  Abandoned by her family, Cherry is living one step above a servant with her aunt and cousins.  Though a lovely young lady, she suffers the fate of most poor relations – love and money are showered on her cousins, but Cherry will never even get a Season.

Desford is sympathetic towards her plight, but knows of no real way to be of assistance.  (This conversation, by the way, takes place through the stair railings, hence the creepy cover picture.)  Next day, however, as he is driving back to London, whom does Des discover walking along the road??  Yep, Miss Cherry, who has run away from home.  By agreeing to give Cherry a lift to London to meet up with her grandpa (who, by all accounts, is a miserly rapscallion), Desford finds himself entangled in Cherry’s drama.  Her grandpa isn’t home, so Cherry ends up at Henrietta’s while Desford dashes about the countryside seeking Cherry’s missing grandpapa.

The story is, frankly, a bit slow.  It’s rather obvious that Desford and Henrietta are going to end up together, despite their earlier-aborted courtship, yet we don’t get much of an opportunity to see the development of that relationship, or the realization that they want to be more than friends after all.  Cherry is a bit too innocent to be interesting, and while there are a few funny scenes here and there, the whole story feels a bit impractical.

Also, while Heye’s use of Regency slang/terms is often what makes her stories enjoyable, she does sometimes go a bit over the top, and this book was stuffed with “cant” phrases –

“…if my lord ain’t cut his stick I’m a bag-pudding!  Which I ain’t!”

“You may not be a bag-pudding, but you’re one of the worst surly-boots it has ever been my ill-fortune to encounter!  …  I know very well what made you turn knaggy …”

Or –

“I am neither a noddicock nor a souse-crown, young man …  I perceived, in the twinkling of a bedpost, that he was under orders to fob me off! …  Do not be mislead into thinking that because I am not, thank God, a muckworm, I am lobcock!”

While entertaining read in short spurts, this book seemed to have more than its fair share of slang (maybe because the book focused more on a man than a woman?), which sometimes bogged me down a big.  Plus, reading any Heyer book makes me spout phrases like “I say, doing it a bit too brown!” in my general conversation, which can be awkward.

In the end, while I felt that Desford and Henrietta would, as they say, deal well together, I was disappointed in the overall lack of a love story, especially since the two main players had been separated throughout the majority of the book.  While the story was fun, it was a bit too fluffy, even for Heyer, to become a favorite.

Afterworlds

//  by Scott Westerfeld  //  published 2014  //

81qRWvx389LThis was a book that, when I was reading it, gave me a lot of feelings, both good and bad.  This novel is actually two stories.  In one, we have the story of Darcy Patel.  Darcy has written a novel and it is being published.  Just graduated from high school, Darcy leaps into adulthood by moving to New York City, getting an apartment, and making several new friends within the publishing community.

In between the chapters of Darcy’s new and exciting life, we have the chapters of her actual novel, Afterworlds.  In this story, Lizzie is at an airport during a terrorist attack.  This near-death experience brings her in contact with the world after ours.  She meets some dead people, and some almost-dead people, and finds herself caught up in a whirlwind of danger and intrigue.

Okay, so, some thoughts.  First off, while I frequently do enjoy books with dual storylines, this one just didn’t work for me.  I think the primary reason is that one of these stories was supposed to be fiction within a world that is already fiction.  I don’t really know how else to say it, but it made it hard for me to really get into both of these storylines since they weren’t both set in the same world.  It was too much like reading two entirely separate books, which, in a sense, I was.

However, I did enjoy the discussions that Darcy was having with her publishing friends about her struggles with rewriting the story, and a sort of commentary on different aspects of the story, usually right before or after I had read that chapter of Lizzie’s story.  For instance, in one of Darcy’s chapters, someone mentions how they love the word “bungalow.”  Darcy makes a mental note to look it up since she doesn’t know exactly what a bungalow is.  In the next chapter we read of Lizzie’s story, someone is living in a bungalow.  Little things like that made the parallel story fun.

A lot of the language is really quite lovely.

The real world worked differently than stories.  In a novel you always knew the moment when something Happened, when someone Changed.  But real life was full of gradual, piecemeal, continuous transformation.  It was full of accidents and undefinables, and things that just happened on their own.

Westerfield tackles some deeper topics through his story with Darcy, especially about the question of whether or not authors can write about things/religions/experiences that aren’t theirs firsthand.  Darcy is from a Hindi family, and one of the main characters in her novel is a god in Hindi writings.  As the story progresses, this is a concept with which Darcy wrestles, because she is not a practicing Hindu, and she’s changed the character and idea of the god she’s used in her story into someone quite different from the traditional writings.  There is a great scene where she is talking with a friend of hers, who is a practicing Hindu, and asking him whether or not he finds her use of this god to  be offensive.

He shrugged.  “It seemed weird at first, but then I figured that it wasn’t a problem, because there’s no Hinduism in your universe.”

Darcy blinked.  “What?”

“Well, you know when Lizzie’s trying to find a word that’s better than ‘psychopomp,’ and she googles all those death gods?  At first I didn’t get why she never ran into the concept of Yama.”

“Because that would be weird,” Darcy said.  “I mean, she’s been making out with him.  And he’s not a god in my world, he’s a person.”

“Exactly.  So I figured that the Angelina Jolie Paradox applies.   …   You know when you’re watching a movie starring Angelina Jolie?  And the character she’s playing looks just like Angelina Jolie, right?”

“Um, yes.  Because that’s who she is.”

“No, she’s a regular person in that world, not a movie star.  But the other characters never mention that she looks exactly like Angelina Jolie.  No one ever comes up to her in the street and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ …  So when you cast Angelina Jolie in a film, you’re creating an alternate universe in which actress Angelina Jolie does not exist.  Because otherwise people would be noticing the resemblance all the time.  This is what I call the Angelina Jolie Paradox.”

Pardon the long quote, but I just really enjoyed that entire passage, and it made me realize why sometimes having religion in books bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t.  Simple, but brilliant.

And really, the question about whether or not an author can write about experience he has not experienced first-hand is an engaging one.  The first reaction, that I hear frequently is “No, of course not!” but the truth is, all authors do (unless they’re writing an autobiography).  Someone who writes a murder mystery is not (usually) a murderer or a detective.  How is that different from having a man write a story about a woman?  Authors will always write about experiences that are not their own, which is why I don’t mind reading a book about a young lesbian Indian girl written by a middle-aged white man.

Did I mention the lesbian thing yet?  The truth is, I didn’t like it.  I don’t really enjoy stories where the main love-interest couple are the same sex.  And before you rant about me about my lack of sensitivity, allow me to state that, in real life, you can do as you please, and that I am sure there are certain types of lovey couples you don’t like to read about, either.  (A recent spirited discussion on whether or not the age difference between Emma and Knightley is relevant comes to mind, since the general consensus seemed to be gross.)  

Plus, it was just a little too insta-love for me.  Like not completely, but kind of.  It really felt like it came out of no where, just all of a sudden, “Oh wow you aren’t just my friend, I’m actually a lesbian and I love you and we should live together and our life is amazing.”  It wasn’t really the love-part that bothered me, I think, it was, once again, the complete devaluation of friendship.  Because obviously it wasn’t possible for two people to be really good friends, and to just hang out and learn and write together – they had to be in a relationship, because, apparently, anyone who is close friends with someone, no matter age or gender, is at least a little bit in love with that person.  I find that super annoying.  Friendship is so important, and every modern writer insists on making every relationship sexual.  So.  Aggravating.

Plus, I have zero interest in hearing about people discovering their sexuality, homo or heterosexual.  Seriously, can it get more boring?  “I have feelings!  Wait, do I have feelings?!  I think I have feelings!  No, no feelings.  Wait, yes, FEELINGS!  SO MANY FEELINGS!”  Gah.

While Darcy’s story was all about feelings, Lizzie’s story was a lot about revenge and power, and a lot of it was kind of dark.  Someone of it, actually, was very dark.  At one point, someone gets murdered, and it’s a little gruesome for my tastes.

Overall, I found Afterworlds to be an engaging read, but it definitely wasn’t a book I want to return to time and again.  I didn’t feel like Darcy’s and Lizzie’s stories flowed together as much as they could have (and, seriously?  Darcy and Lizzie?  And the only acknowledgement we get is like one throw-away line where someone is like “OMG you didn’t notice you named your main character Lizzie and your name is Darcy?!” and Darcy’s like, “No, but oh well her name is totally Lizzie now.”  ???  Why did Westerfeld do this??  Is there something subtle I have missed??) and there was just a bit too much angst in both stories for me to really enjoy them thoroughly.  Still, the writing was strong, and I appreciated Westerfeld’s willingness to talk about some engaging and challenging topics.  A high 3/5 for me – a very good one-time read, but not a classic I yearn to place on my shelves.

Final quote – because I liked it – but didn’t know where to put it in the review –

Maybe that was the point of truth – you could erase it all you wanted, and it was there to be discovered again.