Jeanette Winterson- Art Objects

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Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. – Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

I’ve been rereading the essays in this book slowly this time around, the last time being 3 years ago.  I’m thinking about my favourite essays in more details and meditating on the content. This review is on the titular essay, Art Objects, an essay which discusses what happens when one discovers art and allows it into their lives and hearts, and how one must look for a language in order to express one’s feelings.

I had fallen in love and I had no language.

Winterson likens looking at paintings to travelling to a foreign city, and for me that really illustrates the fact that we expect to understand certain  things quickly but art, like visiting a new place, takes time to reveal itself to us, and so patience, and a desire to learn, is crucial. The first time I read this essay 3 years ago I was actually struck by the fact that Winterson said she’s willing to spend an afternoon with her favourite painting. As much as I love art and certain artists, I can’t imagine looking at a painting for even 5 minutes, so I started wondering what it is I’m not getting about art. I think more than anything, it is that our society that doesn’t encourage slowness of living, and it is up to the individual to slow down and appreciate things slowly and on a deeper level.

Another thing that resonated with me was the importance of having someone to accompany you on a journey. It’s not always possible to have a physical person to do so, even if you are surrounded by people, because people are on their own journeys, so I did appreciate Winterson illuminating the fact that even dead writers can be a guide, or someone to engage with on a certain topic:

I knew my Dante, and I was looking for a guide, someone astute and erudite, with whom I had something in common, a way of thinking. A person dead or alive with whom I could talk things over. I needed someone I could trust, who would negotiate with me the sublimities and cesspits of regions hitherto closed. Someone fluent in this strange language and its dialects, who had spent many years in that foreign city and who might introduce me to the locals and their rather odd habits. Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, wither by taming it or baiting it, cannot success. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Having just visited a giftshop with my friend and seeing how famous art can be used to sell souvenirs (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on a thermos, Monet’s Water Lilies on a wallet), I really did get to thinking about how the ubiquity of famous art pieces everywhere causes us not to really see the art, or just assume we know the art because we see its image everywhere. Related, Winterson talks about how we see out through “the thick curtain of irrelevancies that screens the painting from the viewer.”

Canonising the pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out.

One of my favourite recent articles is “Take Your Time: The Seven Pillars of A Slow Thought Manifesto” by Vincenzo Di Nicola . In it Di Nicola says “Just as fast food works for some meals and not for others, we must remain open to things that take time, both for preserving what is of value from the past and taking the time to forge new approaches in the present.” I may not be able to spend an entire afternoon with a painting, but I will attempt to spend at least 5 minutes on one.

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Elf Stories in Iceland

June 24- “It’s kind of an elf date.They are playing and dancing and singing all night long.”- Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, in conversation with Marianne Bjornmyr

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Street art in downtown Reykjavik

If you grew up reading Andrew Lang books like I did, you’d understand my fascination with fairy tales. As a child with an over-active imagination I believed in fairies, elves, goblins, sprites, every fairy creature. It seemed so normal to me that they existed. If you’d seen me convincing my sisters to help me look for fairies you might have laughed, but I was earnest. I never did find any traces of fairy folk and I soon grew out of that belief. Hearing stories about the Icelandic belief in elves intrigued me, and it was one of the reasons Iceland had always appealed to me as a holiday destination. Apparently a considerable percentage of the population believed in Huldufólk , i.e. “hidden folk.” Judging from its landscape Iceland it does seem like the perfect place to have elves. Maybe the word ethereal is over-used but in the case of Iceland it’s very appropriate.

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Near the Skogafoss waterfall area

While visiting southern Iceland’s waterfalls and glaciers with my tour group  I had the following conversation with my tour guide:

Halla (tourguide): Where are you staying?
Me: Hafnarfjörður
Halla: Hafnarfjörður! There are lots of elves there!

Hafnarfjörður is a beautiful port town right next to Reykjavik that has an elf garden that I unfortunately did not visit. Most of the locals I chatted with in this town had a couple of elf stories to share with me, though I’m not sure whether it’s because they were just humouring me as I was a tourist.

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Hafnarfjörður

While on our way back to Reykjavik,  Halla directed our gaze to a large rock that was lying some metres from the highway. Soon I was to hear my first elf story:

The highway was supposed to have been built where that rock lay, Halla said. Do you know why it wasn’t built there? Elves!

We learned that the elves wreaked havoc on all construction attempts. Tractors broke down, people got injured. The rock couldn’t be budged or destroyed. Its reluctance to move defied science.There were so many coincidences, too many to believe that supernatural forces were not involved in making sure that highway would not be built at that very location. Finally, the government decided to invite an elf oracle to figure out what was going on.

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View from the highway

I ended up finding confirmation of Halla’s story in a photobook I read at Reykjavik’s Museum of Photography, entitled “In Shadows/Echoes”. The elf oracle Ragnhildur Jonsdottir recounted a conversation she had with the elves:

“Okay, this is our home, it’s a whole community where you are planning to build this road. But if you agree to move the road over there, in a totally different place, then you are not damaging our village, then we will take care and make sure, as well as we can, that no one gets hurt driving this road.”

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Jonsdottir says the elves are older than humans, and as they are always smiling they don’t have any worry lines. They have very little to worry about because they aren’t greedy like us humans, apparently. There are many different species of elves, and they are very similar to humans but smaller. They even have a royal family. Pulta, one of the oracle’s elf friends, is from that family.

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Another elf story I heard took place in Reykjavik where an elf oracle was consulted before a large rock was moved. It was discovered that the rock was indeed an elf stone. The elves were amiable and agreed to move on two conditions: 1- A week was given to them so they could pack their things, and 2- they were housed in a locale that had a good view of Reykjavik.

On my last full day in Iceland I spend the day in Reykjavik and went looking for that rock. It was hard to find and even the people working at the tourist office only had a vague idea of where it was. But finally I found it, on a hill, very close to the Canadian Embassy. It was in a little park and someone had planted flowers around it.

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Even if you don’t believe in supernatural forces, I believe one of the morals of the elf stories is to pay close attention to signs that the world might be giving you, and not assume you are above nature.  In all the elf stories I heard the elves were always willing to compromise; they only became angry (understandably) if  their communities were being destroyed. Being careful, observant, and learning to read what the signs are telling you seems to be important if we want to live safely and peacefully.

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The black sandy beaches of Vik

Fairytales for Lost Children- Diriye Osman

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I often dream of home. It is a place that exists only in my imagination: it is my Eden, my Janna. Sometimes I associate it with my father, my mother, my grandmother, my sister, all of whom have rejected me, all of whom I still love…Other times I regard Somalia, my birthplace, as home, as the land where my soul will eventually be laid to rest. Many times home is Kenya or London. But none of these places truly embody home for me. Home is in my hair, my lips, my arms, my thighs, my feet and hands. I am my own home.- Diriye Osman, Fairytales for Lost Children

2017 hasn’t been a great year for me writing review-wise. I’m embarrassed  to say that the last time I wrote a review on my blog was in December 2016. However, on that note, I’m happy to begin my reviewing of 2017 with a book that  encompasses so many of my interests, and also reminds me why we need diverse books, and why the representations of POC in the diaspora are going to have to be more complex.

In the short stories in Fairytales for Lost Children, Osman’ discusses the African (Somali) diaspora, sexuality, and tradition, among other themes ( at this point, if you haven’t already figured it out, it’s probably good to mention that these fairytales are not for children! There is plenty of sexual content in them). Other important themes include  love, breakup, tragedy, and family.

One of my favourite stories was the titular “Fairytales for Lost Children” which featured the kind of teacher I wish I’d had in primary school: Miss Mumbi:

 Even Story Time was political. Miss Mumbi infused each story with Kenyan flavour. She illustrated these remixes on the blackboard. ‘Rapunzel’ became ‘Rehema,’ a fly gabar imprisoned in Fort Jesus. Rehema had an Afro that grew and grew…Her Afro became so strong that it burst through the fort.

I really like reading about different diasporas, and this book gave me a lot of info about the Somali diaspora, particularly in Africa and the UK. A couple of the stories speak to living in limbo:

Every day I asked Hooyo, “When’re we heading home?”

“Soon,” she’d sigh, ‘Soon.”

The precariousness of life for groups in the diaspora was definitely very poignant, and it makes sense that the word “fairytale” is in the title, because fairytales can be an escape from the tough realities of life. One reality is not being wanted by the society one lives in:

My waalid may have reinvented themselves but to the booliis we were still refugee bastards who sucked on Nanny State’s iron teats until there was nothing left for her legitimate children.

Sexuality is definitely a huge theme, and all the protagonists in the story are gay. This allows Osman to explore their relationships with their more traditional and conservative environments.  There was one excerpt that talked about  how in Somalia being gay is likened to being possessed, mentally unstable, and there are stories were gay Somalis are disowned by their family. But the reality is there are gay Somalis, and those like Osman are working hard to share their stories and experiences:

The Prophet once said that dreams are a window into the unseen. I have been told many times by family, friends, colleagues and strangers that I, a black African Muslim lesbian, am not included in this vision; that my dreams are a reflection of my upbringing in a decadent, amoral Western society that has corrupted who I really am. But who am I, really? Am I allowed to speak for myself or must my desires form the battleground for causes I do not care about?

What I’ve found about being part of the African diaspora, and what Osman also managed to illustrate (focusing on queer characters) is how the diaspora is a tricky space to inhabit and navigate. There’s always the question of deciding how to create one’s identity when straddling two or more cultures. Definitely a great collection of short stories to give me a glimpse into how others in the diaspora live.

On a sidenote, I enjoyed looking at Osman’s artwork in his book; it’s wonderful:

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There is plenty of gorgeous photography on his website too:  http://www.diriyeosman.com/

My 2016 in Books 

I love books. I hope when I grow up to be able to have lots of them.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, aged 15

So the final figures for this year are 125 books read, considerably less than last year. I read 18 poetry collections, 30 non-fiction, and the rest were fiction.

This year was my year of reading Toni Morrison and I  read a Morrison every month in chronological order. I managed to keep up with writing a review a month until the autumn, but with my new job I’ve had less time and energy for reading. Next year I’ll write a more detailed post of my findings and experiences through this journey.

2016 was a tumultuous one for several reasons. It was hard to focus sometimes but poetry always comes through in hard times, and I read a lot of it. Some of my favourites were Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz’s New and Collected Poems,  Marge Piercy’s The Crooked Inheritance, and  Mahmoud Darwish’s Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? And for those who missed it, earlier on in the year I compiled a list of diverse poetry. You can find it here

I found some great diverse graphic novels, for example Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, the Aya series from Ivory Coast by Marguerite Abouet, and Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan series.

I usually read a lot of biographies , and although this year I only read a few, I managed to find some good ones. My favourites were both 5 star reads. Mohammed Ali’s The Soul of a Butterfly was a good one to read after his death and be reacquainted with his legacy. And Grace Jones’ I’ll Never Write my Memoirs  is one of the most fascinating reads I’ve ever come across.

Reading women’s literature is so essential and I’m glad I’ve made a conscious effort to read more of it over the past few years. Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Maryse Condé and Ntozake Shange are women I read a lot of this year and they gave me so much strength.

I also read some good Black satire from Nigeria: Igoni Barret’s Blackass and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; they are definitely worth reading.

I’m still finishing up a few reads that I’m really enjoying, for example, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor (RIP), So Long Been Dreaming (Eds. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan), Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K.  Le Guin.

Some of the great non-fiction I’ve read this year has included Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, The Media is the Message by Marshall McLuhan, and The Deep Zoo by Rikki Ducornet.

My ten favourite reads, in no particular order, are:

The Gathering of Waters– Bernice McFadden

The Sympathizer– Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Blue Castle– L. M. Montgomery

Dreams of Trespass– Fatima Mernissi

Beauty is a Wound– Eka Kurniawan

-The Big Sea- Langston Hughes

A Map to the Door of No Return– Dionne Brand

-A Small Place- Jamaica Kincaid

Sassafras, Cypress, & Indigo– Ntozake Shange

Woman at Point Zero– Nawal El Sadaawi

Next year I plan on continuing my theme of the last few years of reading more diversely and reading more women writers. I also plan on exploring  sci-fi more, and reading a lot of Lucy Maud Montgomery as I really enjoyed her this year. 

Thanks to everyone who reads my blog and engages with me on twitter and Goodreads, you are all very much appreciated<3 Wishing you all a great 2017. Happy reading!

The Sympathizer- Viet Thanh Nguyen

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I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

I attended a panel last year where Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Shilpi Somaya Gowda were discussing the theme of home in their writing. For immigrants home can be a touchy subject but clearly it can produce great literature.

And this one example: only a person who is from the culture, or who has a connection to the culture, could write something like this with such nuance and insight. I find it intriguing how satire and humour is used to tell tough stories and I am impressed by how well Nguyen does that in this book.We all know about the Vietnam war and have probably seen some horrific images from there, but Nguyen uses satire to tell us the story and it works really well in a way I can’t quite put into words right now. I laugh at Nguyen calling 1975 Vietnam a “jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States”, though I can see how awful that reality must have been.

Nguyen’s protagonist was interesting too, as a half-French half-Vietnamese communist agent, who was both an insider and an outsider. I appreciated the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite belong anywhere, who, because of his peripheral position in society, gives such insight to both Vietnamese and American culture.  It brought to mind the unique perspectives minority writers bring to their writing, the nuances they can pick up that others might not be able to:

“Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs! Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience, feeling the constant tug-of-war inside you and over you, between Orient and Occident. ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, as Kipling so accurately diagnosed”.

Nguyen picks out racial microaggressions and western hypocrisy without naming them as such, and then proceeds to show us how ridiculous they are. He makes observations that are incisive and hilarious:

When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job.

It’s really a fascinating novel that deserves all its accolades.

Something  I remember from the panel is that Nguyen was discussing censorship in Vietnam and how  a publisher in Vietnam wanted to translate the book into Vietnamese. As Nguyen said, “I’d be surprised to learn that I’d published a novella!” His great sense of humour was what led me to read this book and I’m so glad I did.

Tender is the Night- F. Scott Fitzgerald

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After lunch they were both overwhelmed by the sudden flatness that comes over American travellers in quiet foreign places. No stimuli worked upon them, no voices called them from without, no fragments of heir own thoughts came suddenly from the minds of others, and missing the clamour of Empire they felt that life was not continuing here.- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

Fitzgerald has an absolutely beautiful way with words. He uses very stylized language and writes down some profound thoughts. And that’s what tricked me at first into thinking this would be a profound story. Like in The Great Gatsby, his characters are not likeable and just seem so disconnected from the world. It’s quite interesting reading Fitzgerald writing about American life in France, including black riots, at the same time that I was reading Langston Hughes The Great Big Sea: the contrast between the lives of black and white Americans in France in this period is huge.

This is a story about rich Americans in the French Riviera. The story revolves in part around Dr. Dick Diver, charming man, the ultimate host and object of adoration of teenager Rosemary, an upcoming actress, who Fitzgerald describes thus: “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood–she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.” Attraction between the two is immediate, despite the fact that Dick is married.

I was raving about this book at first. Fitzgerald is an amazing writer and I think that his writing style initially blinded me to the flatness of the plot. The last thing I want to read is a book about privileged shallow and selfish rich people who are not introspective and just do whatever they please, but when Fitzgerald writes passages like the following, it makes it a bit easier to stomach, and fills you with hope that the characters in the book will say things you actually want to hear:

“Following a walk marked by an intangible mist of bloom that followed the white border stones she came to a space overlooking the sea where there were lanterns asleep in the fig trees and a big table and wicker chairs and a great market umbrella from Sienna, all gathered about an enormous pine, the biggest tree in the garden. She paused there a moment, looking absently at a growth of nasturtiums and iris tangled at its foot, as though sprung from a careless handful of seeds, listening to the plaints and accusations of some nursery squabble in the house. When this died away on the summer air, she walked on, between kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve-stemmed roses, transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window — until, as if the scherzo of color could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid-air, and moist steps went down to a level five feet below.”

But they didn’t. And after part 1 of the book, which I quite liked, which at least promised more, parts 2 and 3 fell extremely flat; I was completely let down.

Part 1 of the book was basically rich people in Paris and the French Riviera, having parties and going shopping. Everything seems perfect but on the surface you are aware that some things are waiting to reveal themselves.

In part 2 we find out what’s wrong and there is discussion of mental illness which I thought was quite candid and progressive for that time. Diver is a psychiatrist who is an admirer of Freud, so there is an interesting dialogue about psychology in this book. When we learn about how Diver met his wife, I was slightly disturbing, to be honest. Diver’s character was the most complex and I’m still  not sure how I feel about him. He has a predilection towards young women and patients and although I felt this book was quite progressive seeing as it discussed mental health in the 1920s, I just couldn’t, in the end, get past the superficial and superfluous characters.

The Blue Castle- L. M. Montgomery

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Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the sunset skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle. Jewels that queens might have worn; robes of moonlight and fire; couches of roses and gold; long flights of shallow marble steps, with great, white urns, and with slender, mist-clad maidens going up and down them; courts, marble-pillared, where shimmering fountains fell and nightingales sang among the myrtles; halls of mirrors that reflected only handsome knights and lovely women–herself the loveliest of all, for whose glance men died. All that supported her through the boredom of her days was the hope of going on a dream spree at night. Most, if not all, of the Stirlings would have died of horror if they had known half the things Valancy did in her Blue Castle.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle

This is the sort of book that makes me so glad to be a reader. Montgomery is an EXTREMELY talented and beautiful writer. Recently I’ve been finding myself wanting to read more of her work because it’s honestly like a balm. There’s  a feeling I would get very often as a child when I was discovering the world of literature and everything was fresh and new; it’s a feeling  that as an adult I rarely get close to reliving, but in this book I did see some glimmers of it.

I’d never read any Montgomery books outside of the Anne series and anyone who’s read those books knows how special they are. This story took me back to my preteens in Africa when I was first introduced to Anne by my aunt who then lived in the Maritimes (Nova Scotia). Now that Canada is my home, and because I’ve visited Prince Edward Island, Montgomery’s beloved home, I have to say I feel even more attached to Montgomery now, knowing first-hand where she got much of her inspiration from.

This is the story of 29-year-old spinster, Valancy Stirling, the old-fashioned and archaic word for single woman being used because those were conservative times where a woman who was single after a certain age was considered to be a loser. As the book said, “She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured–the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future.” Our heroine is single, miserable, and part of a large clan where she sees herself as invisible, has a lot of fear, has no friends, and has never really known happiness in her life. In her sad existence, all she has is her blue castle: her imagination. A pivotal experience in her life (no spoilers), however, changes her life forever.

I loved the new Valancy; I fully support women who have thrown off their shackles, decided enough is enough, and have decided to live authentically. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of feminist texts that have reminded me what this empowerment means and just how important it is. Rereading Audre Lorde and rediscovering her famous quote,  “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”, made me think of how apt it was in Valancy’s case, and how life-giving it is when we realize that we can totally be free:

“‘I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed,’ she said. ‘After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won’t do another thing that I don’t want to do. Mother can pout for weeks–I shan’t worry over it. ‘Despair is a free man–hope is a slave'”

The freedom and life that Valancy experiences after the big turning point in her life warmed my heart. And it made me laugh to read how Valancy’s relatives thought she had gone mad because of course free-thinking women have clearly lost it.

What I also adored about this book was Montgomery’s veneration of nature. Although the book is set near Muskoka, Ontario, Montgomery got her nature-writing muse from PEI which is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful places in Canada. Montgomery’s descriptions of nature makes you want to be in it:

“…the woods, when they give at all, give unstintedly, and hold nothing back from their true worshippers. We must go to them lovingly, humbly, patiently, watchfully, and we shall learn what poignant loveliness lurks in the wild places and silent intervales, lying under starshine and sunset, what cadences of unearthly music are harped on aged pine boughs or crooned in copses of fir, what delicate savours exhale from mosses and ferns in sunny corners or on damp brooklands, what dreams and myths and legends of an older time haunt them. Then the immortal heart of the woods will beat against ours and its subtle life will steal into our veins and make us its own forever, so that no matter where we go or how widely we wander we shall yet be drawn back to the forest to find our most enduring kinship.”

Highly recommended! One of my favourite reads of the year ❤