‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame

Since my last blog post explored the idea of books as gateways to other worlds, I thought it would be lovely to transport myself to a beloved children’s classic. First published in 1908, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows tells the story of four anthropomorphised animals living in a pastoral countryside similar to Edwardian England. Over the years, there have been a few adaptations, the most popular being Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Thus, I have selected this book for my “Adapted Classic” entry in the Back to the Classics Challenge because of my fond memories of this book. Re-reading The Wind in the Willows was such a wonderful experience that felt like enjoying a relaxing picnic with some old friends.

The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

My edition of this book is The Classic Edition which includes the original illustrations by E. H. Shephard. The artwork is so beautiful and perfectly captures the spirit of the writing. If you plan on reading this book, make sure it includes the Shephard illustrations as they bring these fun characters to life. I also love how my copy is slightly larger than your standard hardcover book. As you can see from the eye-catching cover, it certainly will brighten any bookshelf. Each chapter is a short adventure within itself while still coming together to tell a larger story.

Kenneth Grahame once said that “for every honest reader, there exists some half-dozen honest books, which he re-reads at regular intervals of six months of thereabouts.” While it probably will not be that often, I know I will turn to this book time and time again throughout my life. I’ve always believed that the sign of an endearing children’s story is that you can still find enjoyment in it as an adult. As I was reading, I found myself completely enthralled in the adventures of the four main characters. We are first introduced to Mole who proves himself to be intelligent, loyal, and full of the spirit of adventure. After becoming fed up with his secluded existence, he bravely ventures out into the bigger world where he encounters Rat. Enjoying a life of leisure on the river, Rat has a romantic spirit which he channels into his poetry. Wise old Badger chooses to live life as a hermit in the Wild Wood, but he will still come to the aid of his friends when necessary. Finally, we have Mr. Toad. Larger than life and perhaps a little misguided at times, Toad prefers to be the center at any gathering (similarities to myself did not go unnoticed, thank you very much). His “enthusiasm” for motor cars tend to land him in trouble, as anyone who has ridden the Disney ride knows. In the end, Toad proves himself quite resourceful. I thought the personalities of the four main characters complimented each other perfectly.

Another quality that separates The Wind in the Willows from your average children’s book is that it becomes quite philosophical at times. While several parts of the book move at a fast pace, there are just as many sections where the action slows down, which is perfect considering the setting. Kenneth Grahame was known to prefer places over people, and this book is so elegant in its descriptions of setting. Here’s one small snippet: “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” Beautifully written right? There are so many beautiful paragraphs of description that requires you to slow down and just drink it in. Part of the fun of this book is to overlook the discrepancies with the characters’ sizes as animals. In some situations, they come across as equal to humans, while others have them the size of their real-life counterparts. My advice is to just overlook and enjoy the story for the fun and elegant storytelling.

I enjoyed learning more about the history of this book and its author from a great introduction by Brian Sibley. Many of the stories were written to entertain Grahame’s son Alastair (nicknamed “Mouse”), who sadly, took his own life years later while attending college. The wondrous adventures of Mr. Toad and friends often served as an escape from the harsher aspects of Grahame’s life. While none of his other work will ever reach the popularity of The Wind in the Willows, it can be guaranteed that Grahame achieved immortality through these extraordinary adventures. This book proves that timeless wisdom can still be found in children’s literature.

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

This book counts as my “Adapted Classic” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January’ by Alix E. Harrow

If there’s one defining characteristic to the year 2020, I would say it is the need for escape. And is there any better escape than with a book? In fact, a common trope within the fantasy genre is the idea of portals to other fantastic worlds. As children, didn’t we all hope that maybe the wardrobe really did open into a place like Narnia? Maybe there’s a doorway that could transport us to Mid-World to fight alongside Roland Deschain. Somewhere out there, Lyra Belacqua might be travelling to another universe. One of my favorite books from this year is Erin Morgenstern’s magical The Starless Sea as I loved the concept of books as actual gateways to other worlds. The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow’s stunning debut, shares this theme of books as portals in a beautifully written adventure with plenty of suspense, romance, and action.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019) by Alix E. Harrow, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The protagonist of this story is January Scaller, a young girl who is ward to the wealthy businessman Cornelius Locke. Her father is employed by the enigmatic Mr. Locke as a sort of archaeologist, traversing the world in search of rare and valuable treasures. January often feels like just another item in Mr. Locke’s collection until one day she comes across a doorway that leads into another world. Discounted by Mr. Locke as nothing more than wild imaginings, January finds her life even more under his control. One day, she stumbles across a journal entitled “The Ten Thousand Doors.” Assuming it as a gift from Mr. Locke, January begins to read. Soon, she discovers that doorways to other worlds may be real and that she possesses a rather special gift.

“I happen to believe every story is a love story if you catch it at the right moment.”

This novel employs the classic story within a story. January’s mysterious new book introduces compelling new protagonist Adelaide Lee Larson, who lived a few decades before January was born. Adelaide’s story is a sad one, involving doorways to other worlds, a doomed love affair, and an evil plot to end magic forever. January slowly becomes aware that her story and that of Adelaide are more intertwined than she could ever imagine. While reading, I often found myself more interested in Adelaide’s story than the main one for January. I attribute that to a comparison of the two characters. Adelaide proved herself to be a strong and courageous woman, while January would often alternate between brave heroine and complaining teenager. Thus, I found that Adelaide was able to carry more of the emotional weight of the story.

It’s hard to talk about this book without mentioning the prose, which is so deftly constructed: “It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.” Harrow is able to describe the experience of reading as an escape. She perfectly captures the days of childhood when we truly believed that stories could transport us to other worlds. While reading this book, I had a moment of that childhood wonder which made this the perfect reading experience.

Time for me to move on to the next, as there are other worlds than these. If you love works from the likes of Erin Morgenstern and Neil Gaiman, then add Alix Harrow’s debut to your library. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a brilliant book, a true love letter to the power that stories have to unlock other worlds.

“I hope you will find the cracks in the world and wedge them wider, so the light of other suns shines through; I hope you will keep the world unruly, messy, full of strange magics; I hope you will run through every open Door and tell stories when you return.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

CC Spin#25 (Updated with Result)

I’m so ready for the next Classics Club Spin! The idea is to select 20 random books from your Classics Club List and post them before Sunday, November 22. Then, a number will be chosen which reveals the title that must be read by the end of January. For this spin, I tried to mix it up to include some of the longer books I’ve been putting off. Here are my choices:

  1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
  2. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  4. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  5. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  7. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  8. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  10. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  11. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  12. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  13. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  14. The Shining by Stephen King
  15. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  16. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  17. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  18. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  19. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  20. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
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As always, I will update this post once the number is revealed! I’M SO EXCITED!!! Good luck to all my fellow clubbers!

Update:

Lucky Spin #14!!!!! That means I’m heading to The Overlook to revisit Stephen King’s The Shining. Not only have I been wanting to reread this one, but I’ve had the sequel on my bookshelf for quite some time.

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A caffeine-deprived Joel is a scary Joel!!!!

A Mini-Review Medley

It has been a couple of weeks since my last review, which means time to play catch-up. The following mini-reviews cover my reading material for the latter half of October.

These lovely books were read in the following order: First Love (1860) by Ivan Turgenev, Gwendy’s Button Box (2017) by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, Scratchman (2019) by Tom Baker and James Goss, Hallowe’en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie, and The Shuttered Room and Other Tales of Horror (1974) by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth; Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

I have been wanting to peruse more Russian classics, so I thought starting with this novella would be a nice way to ease into it. This one begins as a frame story, reminding me of Conrad’s Marlow stories. Three men are spinning yarns around the fireplace when they are asked to tell the story of their first loves. After two of the men talk about how they met their wives, the third man, Vladimir Petrovich (not a wizard), requests time to go home and write out his story. The next day, he reads to this friends the story of how he met a beautiful young woman named Zinaida when he was sixteen. Vladimir is so enamored by her that he fails to notice just how cruel she can be, such as her enjoyment of entertaining multiple suitors at once. Suffice to say, this love story does not end well. There are a couple of twists at the end that will have you in tears.

If you want a taste of romantic Russian literature, but lack the time for blockbusters such as Doctor Zhivago or Anna Karenina, then Turgenev’s novella would be an excellent choice. Not only is the prose beautiful and vivid, the characters are well drawn out which is an impressive feat for a shorter work. A lot of emotional depth is contained in so few pages, and I think that many readers can relate to Vladimir’s heartbreak. The use of frame narration is brilliant as it allows the main character to look back on the events of his youth with the eyes of maturity. Turgenev claimed that this was his favorite of his own work because “it is life itself, it was not made up.”

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)

Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella written by Stephen King and Rich Chizmar, is set in familiar King territory. I love King’s Castle Rock stories but would definitely never want to move there! This short work is a fun take on the Pandora myth with a young girl receiving a strange box from a mysterious man in a bowler hat. While certain buttons on the box result in pleasant rewards, others can cause irreparable damage. As the story follows Gwendy into adulthood, she is faced with one moral dilemma after another.

Although this book feels completely Stephen King to me, it is hard to separate his contributions from those of Chizmar. This is one of those works you can complete in one sitting. Although I felt like I was told a complete story, it really was over so quickly. Recently, I saw that a sequel had been published, this time completely penned by Chizmar. It definitely has been added to my list of future reads.

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Scratchman by Tom Baker and James Goss

As a child, I fell in love with the science fiction program Doctor Who. I have several fond memories of sitting in front of the black and white television in my brother’s room, staying up way past my bedtime. Tom Baker, the fourth actor to play the Doctor, epitomized my childhood. In fact, I blame my love of long scarves and jelly babies on him! Over the years, several novelizations and original novels have been written. Scratchman is an interesting addition, as the story is from the actor himself and is based on an abandoned idea Baker had in the 70’s for a film where the Doctor meets the devil. James Goss, a well-known writer of Doctor Who fiction helped put Baker’s ideas to paper.

The result is a two-part story where the halves are very different. Part One is classic Whovian storytelling, where the Doctor and his companions arrive on a mysterious island where the villagers are being plagued by living scarecrows who are capturing them in order to make more scarecrows. It feels like very typical “base under siege” storytelling. The story goes completely bonkers in the second half. The Doctor has to journey into Hell (another dimension) to rescue his friends from Scatchman (an interdimensional being). Some of the craziness includes a journey through Hell in a taxi cab, a battle inside a giant pinball machine, an interrogation from a torturer who falls asleep. While I laughed out loud several times, I felt this detracted from the overall story about the concept of fear. Overall, this is a fun ride but more for the true fans.

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Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

Thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds is one of many people attending a Halloween party. Preparations before said party see a group drawn together and Joyce, attention seeking and known for her dishonesty, boasts that she once witnessed a murder, only she didn’t realize until some time afterwards that it was in fact a murder. Later that evening, Joyce is found dead, drowned in an apple-bobbing tub. The great Hercule Poirot is called in to solve the murder.

Outside of the scene of the murder, there is not a lot of Halloween happening here, so don’t expect any frightening ghosts or anything of that sort. Poirot is of course his usual dependable self, going about asking seemingly unrelated questions to a variety of people in order to discover the truth behind the alleged murder Joyce may have witnessed. As with most of Poirot’s cases, there is quite a lot to unravel with a big cast of characters. Keeping a pen and paper nearby to take notes is recommended. If you can manage to avoid the red herrings, you may be able to solve this one. Overall, another fun and delightful Poirot mystery.

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The Shuttered Room and Other Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

I have mixed feelings about reading H.P. Lovecraft. While I love his work, particularly his tales set in the Cthulhu mythos, the author’s fame is overshadowed by his xenophobia and bigotry. However, I decided to attempt to separate art from artist and read a sample of his work. The six tales in this collection are actually fragments from Lovecraft that were completed by his contemporary August Derleth. Rather than feel like isolated stories, the same setting allows this book to feel like a disjointed novel. Characters and names from earlier stories creep back in to later ones. The majority were similar in plot: man inherits house from his grandfather, great-uncle, or such and discovers a terrible monster that had been brought forth from the Satanic rituals of said grandfather, great-uncle etc.

Despite similar-sounding stories, I love the creepy atmosphere with the chills that something might be up in the attic. My favorite story in this book had to be “The Dark Brotherhood” which features several clones of Edgar Allan Poe. Finishing this one left me intrigued enough to read more Lovecraft as well as further explore August Derleth.

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“I burnt as in a fire in her presence … but what did I care to know what the fire was in which I burned and melted–it was enough that it was sweet to burn and melt.”-Ivan Turgenev, First Love

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier

I had been wanting to read another novel from the incomparable Daphne du Maurier for quite some time. It had been years since I read Rebecca, arguably her most famous work. While I had also enjoyed several of her short stories, I really wanted to get back to one of her novels. Fortunately, I can say that My Cousin Rachel lives up to its reputation as a successor to Rebecca. In many ways, I think it succeeds it.

My Cousin Rachel (1951) by Daphne du Maurier, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Philip Ashley has been raised by his cousin Ambrose since becoming orphaned at a young age. Growing up as heir to an estate in Cornwall, Philip learns of the benefits of the bachelor lifestyle from the man he considers a father. For health reasons, Ambrose has to travel abroad during the colder months. During one of these seasons away, the now grown Philip receives a letter from Ambrose reporting that he is now a married man to their distant cousin. Rachel, a widow in her 30’s with a love of gardening, has appeared to mesmerize Ambrose. Philip becomes concerned when additional letters from Ambrose report to his failing health as well as alluding to the fact that Rachel may not necessarily be trusted. Philip travels to Italy, only too late as dear Ambrose has passed away from a deadly fever and Cousin Rachel long gone. The grieving Philip returns home to his estate not knowing the guest that will soon arrive.

While initially possessing nothing but hate for the widow, it does not take long (not many pages anyway) for Philip to fall in love with Rachel. While going through Ambrose’s possessions, Philip discovers fragments of unsent letters once again alluding that the illness that killed him may have been Rachel’s fault. Also, Ambrose never signed his will which basically left Rachel penniless. Philip finds himself torn as he continues to fall deeper in love with her.

“Something was happening to the eyes that looked at me. The face was very white and still; that did not change. Had I ground the face to powder with my heel, the eyes would have remained, with the tears that never ran down the cheeks, and never fell.”

I found myself going through such a range of emotions, initially believing Rachel to be the murderous gold digger who is only out for herself. However, there lies the beauty of the story du Maurier has crafted. As the entire story is told from Philip’s point-of-view, it is very possible that he is an unreliable narrator. While subtle hints are planted that Rachel is up to no good the entire time, nothing conclusive is ever discovered. When one looks back on her interactions with Philip, we can say that the only thing she is guilty of is being charming to him. Also, there is a lot of miscommunication between the two characters which could be the cause of so many misunderstandings. 

This is a psychological thriller cleverly disguised as a romance. Du Maurier is masterful at creating atmosphere, as throughout the novel, there is this growing feeling of unease. This uncomfortable feeling grows as both Philip and Rachel gradually change throughout the book. By the end of the story, neither character resembles their personalities in the beginning. While Rachel appears as strong and confident, Philip becomes unhinged and, at times, downright abusive. At the end, we never discover the full truth. Years ago, this would have infuriated me, but this reading experience demonstrated my growth as a reader. Sometimes, a more rewarding experience occurs when it is left to the readers to form their own conclusions. Also, I loved how the first and final lines are the same, as this brings the entire story together. 

It is difficult for me to say whether or not My Cousin Rachel is better than Rebecca, as I have not read the latter in several years. A reread is definitely needed. However, a strong case can be made that this is the superior work, given that the writer puts the effort of drawing conclusions onto the shoulders of the readers. 

“I wondered how it could be that two people who had loved could yet have such a misconception of each other and, with a common grief, grow far apart. There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion.”

 

This book counts as my “Classic by a Woman” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.