Category Archives: Reviews

Spinsterly Reads: Anne of the Island & Anne of Windy Poplars

The American Spinster Review of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island & Anne of Windy Poplars

(Though I normally try to avoid spoilers, I should warn you that if you’re unfamiliar with the Anne series, I’ll be giving away the ending of Anne of the Island.)

L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is well-known, even if the sequels are not frequently read or remembered. Anne of The Island and Anne of Windy Poplars are the 3rd and 4th books, respectively, and take place after Anne has moved away from home but before she gets married.
The American Spinster: Anne of the IslandIn Anne of The Island, Anne Shirley moves away from her beloved home at Green Gables to study at Redmond College. While women regularly attended colleges in Canada at that time (the late 19th to early 20th centuries), there were still many people who saw it as a waste of time and money to give a woman a higher education, since she would simply marry a few years later. Anne herself is accused of going just to “catch a man.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Anne spends a fair amount of her time refusing proposals and avoiding her friend Gilbert Blythe’s advances.

Although romance takes up a good portion of The Island, the story is, as ever, about Anne and her remarkable outlook on life. She’s homesick initially, but soon meets up with friends from her hometown and makes new friends at Redmond. One of my favorite moments is when Anne and several friends rent a house together. When the former tenants leave, the women move in and put their personal touches on the place.

“How those young women enjoyed putting their nest together. As [Phillipa] said, it was almost as good as getting married. You had the fun of homemaking without the bother of a husband.”

Throughout the novel, Anne receives several marriage proposals that range from the ridiculous to the insulting, and it’s both sad and humorous to see the way her girlhood ideas about that romantic moment buckle under the weight of reality. Anne manages to take it all in stride and keep a cheerful outlook, at least until Gilbert proposes. Although everyone around her can see that she loves him, Anne is devastated, and refuses him outright, saying he’s ruined everything.

It’s only after the tall, dark, and handsome man of Anne’s dreams makes his proposal that she realizes following the notions of her youth might not be the best way to live one’s adult life. In the end, Anne accepts Gilbert’s proposal, and agrees to wait for him while he completes his education to become a doctor.

It’s a beautifully-written story of a young woman spreading her wings and ultimately enjoying her first taste of independence. Anne is the epitome of what many girls aspire to become: independent, intelligent, strong-willed, and loving.
The American Spinster: Anne of Windy PoplarsAnne of Windy Poplars is the chronological continuation of the previous novel. While her fiancee Gilbert is in college, Anne takes a job in Summerside as a school teacher. Much of the novel is told through Anne’s letters to Gilbert, in which she describes her life as a boarder at Windy Poplars.

I like this story, because we’re introduced to two resolute spinsters with very different backgrounds and personalities. The first is Rebecca Dew, the long-time servant at Windy Poplars, who has a deep love-hate relationship with the household cat. The second, far more interesting character is Katherine Brooke, Anne’s fellow teacher.

Katherine is a sour person, who seems to go out of her way to annoy Anne and make her unhappy. Anne, however, refuses to let anyone make her bitter, and resolves to win Katherine over. As the book continues, it looks like Anne might really have met her match, and may need to learn to accept the possibility that there are incurably miserable people in her world.

In her final effort, Anne invites Katherine to come home with her to Green Gables over the winter holiday. I won’t give away the details, because it’s a great moment to read, but suffice to say Anne manages to earn Katherine’s friendship, and helps her move into a happier lifestyle.

At the end of the book, Anne heads back to Avonlea to marry Gilbert, saying goodbye to her life as a single woman.

The novel was published after the chronological completion of the Anne series, which ended with Rilla of Ingleside, the story of Anne’s daughter. The addition of this book into the cannon probably came as a result of the high demand for more stories about Anne. Whatever the reason, I’m glad Montgomery revisited this time in Anne’s life, and gave us the details of the time she spent as a working woman. It’s one of my favorite books of the series.

Buy Anne of the Island or Anne of Windy Poplars online, or check them out from your local library. You can even read it for free online, as it’s in the public domain.

Spinsterly Reads: Maxine Hong Kingston

The American Spinster Review of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

“Perhaps women were once so dangerous they had to have their feet bound.”

The American Spinster Review: Maxine Hong KingstonThe Woman Warrior is a spellbinding mixture of autobiography, family history, and girlhood fantasies. From the opening section, “No Name Woman,” the story of Kingston’s disowned aunt, to tales of her mother’s time as a village doctor in “Shaman,” Kingston’s book reads like a whispered confession.

As a daughter in a family of Chinese immigrants, Kingston struggles with the conflicting messages her mother gives. Daughters are worthless, slaves, maggots. And yet, her mother also told Kingston and her sisters stories of warrior women, like Fa Mulan. Stories of courageous women who avenged their families and fought better than men.

As a child caught between two cultures, Kingston struggles with her inability to speak for herself and her deep desire to be seen and understood. She knows that, although supposedly considered a worthless girl, she is also supposed to be a warrior and save her people. Who who people are, however, was a mystery to her.

Why It’s a Spinsterly Read

Kingston writes that she and her sisters made up their minds to learn science and mathematics, to never marry or be dependent on a husband, who might someday abandon them. Having grown up with stories of how hopeless their lives would be as girls if the family moved back to China, as well as stories of their mother’s independence as a doctor before she immigrated, they learn that they have to be able to care for themselves if they want to survive.

To avoid the arranged marriage her parents try to set up, she cooks poorly and breaks dishes to prove that she’s not good wife material.

“Even now, unless I’m happy, I burn the food when I cook. I do not feed people. I let the dirty dishes rot. I eat at other people’s tables but won’t invite them to mine, where the dishes are rotting.”

Even when the possibility of marrying is acceptable, she still determines that she won’t let herself be a burden or an excuse.

“No husband of mine will say, ‘I could have been a drummer, but I had to think about the wife and kids. You know how it is.’ Nobody supports me at the expense of his own adventure.”

Kingston’s Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is an engaging, if unusual, read. Many women will be able to relate to it, regardless of their racial or socioeconomic upbringing. It taps into something fundamentally American, fundamentally female.

Find Woman Warrior on IndieBound

Spinsterly Reads: Lyddie

The American Spinster Review of Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie

Growing up, one of my favorite fiction writers was Katherine Paterson. She’s the children’s lit writer who created the Newberry Honor-winning The Great Gilly Hopkins, and the Newberry Medal-winning Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved. The less recognized novel that I’m thinking of today, however, is called Lyddie. It’s short; just over 180 pages, but the main character has stuck with me more than Gilly or Jess, or even Louise, to whom I so easily related as a child.

The Story

Lyddie Worthen starts out as a poor farm girl. Her father disappears after heading West, and her mother leaves their home to live with relatives a few years after. Lyddie stays with her brother to work the land, until their mother hires her out to work at a tavern.

Lyddie learns then what it’s like to live like “a black slave.” Her time is not her own, as she works long hours for no wages (all of her pay is sent to her mother). She gains nothing but meager food and board for her work, at least until the proprietress fires her for visiting her brother. Although Lyddie knows she doesn’t need to leave (the proprietress will forget in a day or two), she takes this as her freedom. Lyddie has heard that girls can earn a living working in the fabric factories of Lowell. Once freed, Lyddie heads south to find a job.

The American Spinster: Lyddie

After she’s hired at a textile mill, Lyddie works harder than ever. She’s seen by the other workers as a miser, since she carefully saves every spare cent she earns, intending to pay off the debt on her family’s farm and eventually move back home.

While the other girls in the factory talk about petitioning for a shorter, ten-hour work day, Lyddie is afraid of the idea of earning less money. She sees her roommates’ health deteriorate due to the terrible conditions in the mill, and she herself is being worked to utter exhaustion. But her determination doesn’t alter; she must earn as much as she possibly can to reclaim her family’s home.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, except to say that it surprised me by not being the traditional, happy ending you’d expect.

Why It’s a Spinsterly Read

Although it’s written by a modern author, the heroine isn’t an anachronism. Many women found independence as factory hands during the industrial revolution.  But Lyddie’s story, fairly typical of working girl, isn’t the inspiring success story you’d find on Oprah. Conditions in the mills are horrendous compared to today’s standards. Workers could expect 14 hour workdays, no safety regulations, and had no recourse for sexual harassment or abuse. Lyddie and her friends all sacrifice important elements of themselves for the freedom to earn a living. And, quite un-heroically, Lyddie refuses to protest for better working conditions for herself and her ailing friends, for fear of losing her position.

But Lyddie’s determination to be free and make her own way in the world is admirable. She’s a fiercely independent young woman, who scorns a marriage proposal, infuriated by what she sees as a request for ownership of her body and soul. Even after losing everything she worked for, she continues to carry on, in search of true freedom – not an easy goal for a poor woman in 19th century.

Find Lyddie on Indiebound

Spinsterly Reads: Amanda Palmer

The American Spinster Review of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.

The American Spinster Review: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
“Take the f*cking flower!”

I should confess, I have been a devoted fan of Amanda Palmer for years. Since 2004 when I first heard of the bizarre and yet inexplicably familiar sound of her band The Dresden Dolls, I’ve been in love. Fan-love, that is, not creepy-stalker-fan-love. Just unadulterated adoration of an artist and her art.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the line between safe fan-love and creepy-stalker-fan-love when looking at The Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer fan base. From the outside, it’s all pretty unusual. Palmer couchsurfs and hitchhikes with her fans via Twitter, encourages them to ask her personal questions, and even allows them to draw with Sharpies on her naked body. This has led to a bond between artist and fans that outside observers often have a hard time understanding.

Fans who followed her long battle with her record label know how she tried to explain her brand of ‘marketing’ to them, and how the label just didn’t understand (actually connecting with fans on a personal level? Madness! This cannot lead to record sales). Palmer has been raked across the coals of social opinion for daring to have a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, and even occasionally criticized for marrying celebrity author Neil Gaiman. Yet her 2013 TED Talk was so popular, it lead to a book deal.

In The Art Of Asking, Palmer demonstrates that asking for things isn’t the same as begging, and receiving isn’t the same as scamming. She explains that trust and asking are intimately, inseparably connected. Asking makes you vulnerable. You just have to trust.

The American Spinster Review: The Art of Asking by Amanda PalmerWhy is this of spinsterly interest? Because tied up with album costs and fan interaction is the issue of independence. Palmer talks about her marriage to Gaiman (whose proposals she refused for years before finally accepting), the public perception of it, and about the difficulty that she, Queen of Asking, had in asking her husband for help.

The book is intensely personal and open, much like Palmer’s direct interaction with her fans. It can be an emotionally challenging read at times (and this coming from someone who followed her intimate, emotion-laden blog for years). But when I turned the last page, I found it well worth the personal investment.

Many proudly independent women will be able to relate to Palmer’s journey and growth. In fact, many people in general will be able to relate. That’s because it’s fundamentally a book examining the trust and intimate exchanges involved in the often difficult task of Asking. If nothing else, it’s a rarely seen view on the matter, and worth a read for anyone.

See The Art of Asking at amandapalmer.net

Spinsterly Reads: Ann Pachett

The American Spinster Review of Ann Pachett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

I first heard of this book sitting in my car listening to NPR. I was on my lunch break from the grocery store, where I worked with some of the best co-workers I’d ever had. All but one were married women, and even the unmarried one planned to have a husband and children one day. Any spinster-by-choice knows what it’s like to be friends with moms-by-choice. There’s a gap of understanding that, no matter how fond you are of each other, will never really close.

So, that day, waiting for my 30 minute break to be up, I turned on the car radio. The NPR program had only just started. Though I’d never heard of Ann Patchett before then, after listening for just a few minutes I knew I had to read this book.

Review
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of non-fiction essays, articles, and speeches written by novelist Ann Patchett. Don’t let the title fool you; Patchett may include the story of a happy marriage, but the book is also largely about being a happy, unmarried, independent woman. From a young age, Patchett saw most marriage around her ending in divorce. Throughout the articles, she describes her family history of divorce (her parents were each divorced at least once, her grandparents, and even great-grandparents had been divorced), the divorces of her friends’ parents, and her own divorce (her first marriage lasted a very difficult 14 months). Ultimately, she realized the only way to “beat the system” was to never marry.

In the titular story, Patchett recounts the 11-year courtship that ultimately led to her second marriage. It may be the story of a happy marriage, but it’s also, in some ways, a blueprint to having a happy relationship. “[N]ot being married had saved us. Had I said yes to Karl’s initial proposal… I don’t think we would have made it. By not living together, we could fight and then step away to cool off. I would think at least we’re not married, which is so much better than thinking, I can’t stay married to you.”

Despite the fact that her boyfriend Karl had wanted to marry her from the outset, she remained firm. “[H]ow could I, who carried divorce in my veins all the way back to Denmark, be absolutely positive that it wouldn’t happen this time? … no matter how much I loved Karl, I wasn’t naive. And I wasn’t getting married.”

Of course, they do get married, after 11 years. They marry because they learn that he has a terminal heart condition. As a spouse, Patchett would be able to care for him and make decisions that she couldn’t make as a girlfriend. She sells her house, they marry, and she laments not marrying long ago, before the love of her life was dying. It was Karl who assures her that it was “exactly the right time.”

Other stories in the book speak to the childfree woman. Patchett writes about her dog, Rose, and how she doted on her. She kept pictures of Rose in her wallet, stayed home with her all day, left her with a baby sitter when she needed to run errands. Patchett writes,

“Look at that,” people said, looking at me but not Rose. “Look how badly she wants a baby.”

A baby? I held up my dog for them to see, my bright, beautiful dog. “A dog,” I said. “I’ve always wanted a dog.” The truth is, I have no memory of ever wanting a baby. I have never peered longingly into someone else’s stroller. I have, on occasions too numerous to list, bent down on the sidewalks to rub the ears of strange dogs, to whisper to them about their limpid eyes.

Others insisted that she really wanted a baby, sometimes going so far as to suggest she simply didn’t realize that’s what she was really yearning for. In the NPR program, Patchett uses the analogy of missing keys.

It would be like if somebody said, “Your car keys are in the drawer.” And you go and you open the drawer, and not only are your car keys not in the drawer, there’s nothing in the drawer. The drawer is empty. And you come back and you say, “The keys aren’t in the drawer.” And they say, “no go back and look again. They are in the drawer.” And you go back and you open the drawer and it is empty. And that’s how I always felt. Like people were always saying to me, “Go back and look again. Examine the inner contents of your heart, you will find it.” And I never did.

For the happily unmarried, happily childfree woman, reading Patchett’s collection is like finding a kindred spirit. At last, someone who understands! Someone who realizes that I’m not in denial, I’m not afraid. I just don’t want what I’m supposed to want.

Summary
Although the book at times seems like an unusual combination of autobiography and instructional essays, it’s a captivating look at the author’s life. Perhaps its fitting that the topics vary so widely, since in Patchett’s life, business and home life, personal journeys and public publications, are so closely entwined. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage will be a welcomed read for anyone who is happily unmarried, or happily childfree, but is also a wonderful introduction to the spinster lifestyle for those who are uninitiated. I recommend reading it, and I recommend giving it to friends and family who don’t yet believe that anyone can be truly happy in this lifestyle. Ann Patchett makes our case well.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage at IndieBound