From the Library: Anne Shirley, Mary Poppins, and a very smart mouse

The first two of these books are Atlantic Canadian, written by women in the last couple of years, and reminded me of two of my favourite childhood characters. The third is American, written by a man over 60 years ago, and reminds me of nothing I’ve read before.

New Girl in Little Cove by Damhnait Monaghan

I don’t mean to suggest that this book is Anne of Green Gables retold. And, if you’ve never read Anne of Green Gables, you probably wouldn’t see it, even with the references to it at the beginning of the book. Rachel’s father has just died and her mother has temporarily moved to Australia, so she feels like an orphan. She’s left her life (and her best friend) in Toronto and moved to a very small community in Newfoundland to teach French. As she crests the hill that overlooks the town, she pulls over for the view, meets a man on his bicycle who seems to know everyone and everything and who offers to take her the rest of the way. “Although Phonse was passenger to my driver, I found myself thinking of Matthew Cuthbert driving Anne Shirley through Avonlea en route to Green Gables.”

Phonse delivers her to her boarding house, owned by a woman named Marilla Lucille. When she starts teaching and becoming known around town, some people are more welcoming than others. She wants to do a good job and she wants to be liked, but she has to work hard to win over certain townspeople. There’s a young male teacher at the school named Gilbert Doug, and they become friends. Doug already has a girlfriend… her name is Christine Geri. Rachel is described as “sparky,” and has an Anne-like talent for getting herself into “scrapes.”

The best part about this book, though, is not the Anne-parallels (you don’t need to know anything about Anne to enjoy this book), but the small community feel of it. Everyone knows each other – they know each other’s pasts and all the family secrets. There’s a group of middle-aged women who call themselves the Holy Dusters, because they dust the church every Sunday, but they have other charms and skills that come in very handy.

(I would also like to note that the year is 1985, and Rachel is reading The Handmaid’s Tale.)

For the most part, this book is a light, fun read. But it also deals with a couple of heavy topics: religion and abortion in the 80s being the most obvious. The other topic touched on that I thought was well-done was the idea of a city person coming to a small, rural area and making misguided assumptions about the way things are said and done. (Mostly, in this case, the way things are said.)

Words to live by: “People does stupid things every day of their lives. I guess at some point we needs to forgive them.”

The Spoon Stealer by Lesley Crewe

Reading The Spoon Stealer was a big deal for me. Lesley Crewe has written so many books at this point, and I had still only read two of them: her first book–Relative Happiness–years ago, and Are You Serious?!, her first nonfiction book. Both of which I really enjoyed. It should also be emphasized how much Lesley Crewe is adored here in the Maritimes. Her books fly off the library shelves, and The Spoon Stealer was our most borrowed book this year.

If New Girl in Little Cove reminded me of Anne of Green Gables, The Spoon Stealer made me think of Mary Poppins. (Both books also feature rug-hooking.) Emmeline’s friends feel as though she is like Maria from “The Sound of Music,” but I got more of a Mary Poppins vibe. Perhaps a mixture of both – in Emmeline’s memoir she’s unselfish like Maria; in the second half of the novel she’s a (well-liked) know-it-all like Mary Poppins.

It’s 1968 in Leigh-on-Sea and Emmeline has decided to sign up for a memoir-writing course where she meets a few other women who become her friends. Each week, she reads aloud the manuscript of her life and the women are spell-bound. The memoir fills us in on Emmeline’s life thus far – she grows up on a farm in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, then travels to England during the First World War. The last time she was home, she left on bad terms with her family and it still haunts her.

When Emmeline’s brother dies and leaves her the farm, she takes the chance to go back to see it one more time, and hopes she’ll find some family members to re-connect with. This is where things get Mary Poppins-y… It turns out she is just the person everyone was waiting for–and needed–to help them work out all their own issues. This could rub some readers the wrong way, but if you take it the way it’s meant–all in good fun–then you will enjoy it. I mean, she has a talking dog, after all…

There are some tear-jerker moments (it does span the length of two world wars), and it also explores family relationships (particularly, mothers and daughters), shame and guilt, fulfilling expectations versus living your own life.

A lot of tea is consumed over the course of the book: tea with friends, tea with enemies, tea at the doctor’s office, tea at the library, tea with your fish & chips, tea with cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches.

At last, they were ready, all of them with their tea in a variety of cups and mugs, the type that tend to gather together after sixty years of random gatherings. Joyce had naturally grabbed the favourite–as with most things in life, there was one cup that was clearly better than the rest. Emmeline purposely avoided it. To build character.

Emmeline’s thoughts on marriage: “It’s a constant battle between remembering what you like about someone and trying to forget what you hate about them.”

I haven’t even mentioned the spoon-stealing…

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959)

Why, at this point in my reading life, did I decide to pick up Flowers for Algernon? Because a friend of mine recently told me it was his favourite book, and I was so impressed that he had a favourite book that I told him I would read it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could ever nail down one book and say it was my favourite – there are too many factors to consider.

There are three things that made this book such a good read for me: the premise, the structure, and the characterization. Charlie is an intellectually disabled 32-year-old man who has been chosen as the subject for an experimental surgery aimed at making him more intelligent. This procedure has already been performed on a mouse named Algernon, and was highly successful. The story is told through a series of journal entries that track Charlie’s intellectual changes over time. For example, the first few chapters are hard to read because of all the spelling mistakes, but these gradually begin to disappear.

Plot-wise, the big question is: Will the procedure be successful? But really the story is asking questions like: How does quick intellectual growth affect a person – what does it look like? What responsibilities come with increased intelligence? Does an intelligent person have more value or worth than someone who is intellectually disabled?

At times, I didn’t know whether to feel devastated for Charlie or happy for him. I don’t think he knew, either.

Do you have a favourite book?

What have you been reading from the library lately? I just finished reading another book that mentions Julie Andrews. How about you?

23 thoughts on “From the Library: Anne Shirley, Mary Poppins, and a very smart mouse

  1. wadholloway says:

    If I was on a date and the woman said to me, you know, ice-breaker, what’s your favourite book, I’d probably stay silent so long, trying to choose one, that she’d think I was an idiot. Or unread. Or both.
    Let me settle on two. My favourite recent novel is Normal People. My favourite older novel is (an obscure Australian) The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley. Ok, she’s got me talking now, perhaps the date can be resuscitated after all.

    I’m not a fan of re-writes or riffs on. Melanie at Grab the Lapels had an Anne of GG year, a few years ago now. I got to know Montgomery and listened to a couple of the novels and reading a rip-off wouldn’t turn me on at all.

    • Naomi says:

      I love the title “The Pea Pickers” and I feel like it would be much more interesting to read that one, but “Normal People” is much easier to get my hands on. So I will try to read your most recent favourite book, Bill! Fun!

      I can never answer the question – I have to just say I don’t have a favourite. That’s why I’m so impressed when someone actually does. So, after that long pause on your date, I imagine you made up for it when you finally gave your answer. I’m sure she would be very impressed!

      I didn’t mean to give the impression that New Girl in Little Cove is a retelling. Unless you’re a big Anne fan, you might not even notice the similarities I highlighted. It would be interesting to get someone else’s opinion on that, though!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Not an easy question but Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved remains at the top of my list probably because I’ve now read it three times and it still impresses me. I’d heard of Flowers for Algeron but never read it. Seems to have stood the test of time, and what a relief when you love a friend’s favourite!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! I was so happy that I liked it!
      And now I will make an extra effort to read What I Loved. It’s been on my list a long time now, anyway – it’s nice to have a reason to prioritize it!

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    Did you feel like New Girl in Little Cove was a children’s or YA book? I love small town stories, and would probably enjoy finding the little links to the Anne books (which I still mean to reread as an adult).

    That is so neat to hear what your library’s most borrowed book is! I occasionally look at my library system’s top 10 list, but it’s always boring and conventional: popular thrillers and chick lit.

    I haven’t read Flowers for Algernon, but I did read Bewilderment by Richard Powers, which was inspired by it. So in a way I feel like I know what to expect of the plot. Nevertheless, I have a copy and might squeeze it into my 20 Books of Summer since I’ve planned a flora theme.

    I used to say that my favourite book was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I discovered it at age 14 and have read it a few times now, which is rare for me, but these days I struggle so much with long books. I haven’t succeeded in reading anything by Dickens in many a year. Maybe I’d choose a nonfiction favourite instead, like Sixpence House by Paul Collins (about Hay-on-Wye).

    • Naomi says:

      I think New Girl in Little Cove is meant for adults, but there’s no reason teens couldn’t read it. too.

      Yes! Most borrowed books are usually kind of boring and expected. That’s why I think it says a lot that The Spoon Stealer is right up there!

      Oh, I didn’t know Bewilderment was inspired by Flowers for Algernon! That has me intrigued…

      Oooo… Sixpence House has gone on my list! 🙂

  4. Karissa says:

    I still remember reading Flowers for Algernon in high school and all of the class being so upset by the ending and debating over Charlie’s happiness and thoughts. Usually, if someone asks me my favourite book I say Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. But if you asked me my top ten, then I would really struggle!

  5. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I’ve never read Flowers for Algernon but it sounds like it’s kinda sad so I’ll probably live in ignorant bliss (anything with animal characters is super iffy for me.) But that’s awesome that you read it just because your friend said it was her favorite book. I’ve done that a few times in the past and it’s a real toss-up whether or not you like the same books!

    Favorite book? My stock answer is kinda boring – Pride and Prejudice. But it’s really good! And I’ve read it multiple times! But ask me on a different day and I’ll probably tell you something different. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I’d say Pride & Prejudice is a great favourite book! It would be a contender for me, too, I think. But I can’t let myself think about it too much or my head might explode. Lol

      Reading friends’ favourite books can be a tricky business – but happily it worked out for me this time!

  6. annelogan17 says:

    I’ve heard of Flowers for Algernon but I had no idea what it was about, so I’m so glad you read it! I can’t think of a favourite book either. I have a favourite author – David Sedaris – but I don’t think I have a favourite book, probably because I never re-read a book. So, if I ever discover a book I love so much that I read it twice, you’ll know it’s a favourite!

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t know anything about Algernon either until I read it, which made it really fun.

      I can think of a few books that would be contenders for a favourite, but I don’t think I could ever narrow it down to one.
      I’ve only read one Sedaris – Me Talk Pretty One Day. Is there one you would recommend to me in particular? I sometimes think about reading another one, but there are quite a few to choose from.

  7. madamebibilophile says:

    Such enjoyable reviews Naomi! I’ve not read any of these but they sound so interesting in different ways. I’m like Karissa, I can name my favourite book (Middlemarch) but if I had to do a Top 10 I would be pondering forever!

  8. Marcie McCauley says:

    Ever since you mentioned Lesley Crewe, I feel like I’ve seen her name around in different places. I’m sure I would enjoy her stories. An interesting parallel for Flowers for Algernon is Elizabeth Moon’s The Power of Dark, which is also a fascinating read because she was inspired to write it by her relationship with her son. But I don’t think I can say anything else without giving things away. I started reading it one morning on the way to work and I was sooo resentful that whole morning after I got there because all I could think about was wanting to get back to my book!

    • Naomi says:

      Don’t you hate it when real life gets in the way of a good book?!
      It looks like I’ve already got it on my to-read list – I wonder if you recommended it to me another time? But it also looks like we don’t have it at our library. 😦
      Ever since reading The Spoon Stealer, Mary Poppins keeps showing up! Not that I mind… I love MP.

      • Marcie McCauley says:

        A few years ago there was a fascinating biography about PL Travers published. I still haven’t read it, but still want to! (Read an excerpt or maybe it was the article that led to the book being written…either way, I was amazed.) Hmmm, I might have mentioned it in this kind of context before, but I don’t actually remember doing so. I think it won both the Hugo and the Nebula so it’s pretty well known, in an Algernon kinda way, but I suppose by now it’s older, too, so perhaps getting harder to find, although thematically it should be more popular now than it was when it was published (neurodivergence).

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