Monday, August 20, 2018

'These Happy Golden Years' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined.

Fifteen-year-old Laura lives apart from her family for the first time, teaching school in a claim shanty twelve miles from home. She is very homesick, but keeps at it so that she can help pay for her sister Mary's tuition at the college for the blind. During school vacations Laura has fun with her singing lessons, going on sleigh rides, and best of all, helping Almanzo Wilder drive his new buggy. Friendship soon turns to love for Laura and Almanzo in the romantic conclusion of this Little House book.

There's a sense that Laura intended this to be the last in her classic kids' series about her youth. It begins as she's off to fulfill her first teaching contract, boarding with strangers far from home, and ends on the evening of her wedding day. Of course there's plenty in between.

But it starts with the dysfunctional family she stays with. Ah, poor Mrs Brewster. As a kid I considered her the villain of the book, and agreed with Laura's verdict that she was 'just a selfish, mean woman.' But this time around, I felt like I was reading between lines Laura might have been unaware she was writing. Mrs B seems to show classic symptoms of deep clinical depression, but it was unidentified as a medical condition back then, so she had no outlet or source of support. What a miserable life she led.

In our times, her antisocial behaviour might be recognised as clues of what it really was. Apathy with her demanding toddler, a tendency to let the housework lapse, and sitting and brooding with unkempt hair, because she simply couldn't muster enough energy or enthusiasm to care anymore. She knew that the next day would be just the same as the last. Being polite to a house guest she didn't even invite was too big a stretch. And at the end of her tether, she couldn't hold back violent outbursts of sadness and resentment. Maybe she even suffered from post natal depression, intensified by being stuck out in a bleak, inhospitable place with no form of entertainment. Sometimes a disagreeable exterior covers lots going on beneath. Mrs Brewster had good memories of her past back in the east, but no relief from her new life whatsoever.

I can't help feeling really sorry for her. Laura was deeply homesick beneath their roof, but it only lasted for eight weeks until her teaching contract was finished. But Mrs Brewster's homesickness presumably dragged on indefinitely, even after her threat to do something desperate, which I see as a cry for help. She had good memories of her past back in the east, but no relief from the monotony of her new life whatsoever. Instead of a villain, she's now a victim in my way of thinking. I wonder whatever became of her.

Another person whose life I'd love to trace was Clarence Brewster, that smart-alec stirrer who could've caused serious trouble in Laura's little school, but decided not to. His character appealed to me, the way it was written. Wouldn't any teenage boy hate submitting to a 5-foot tall girl younger than himself? He seemed to show a good heart in restraining himself and deciding to jump through the hoops after all, especially when he apologised to Laura on the last day. I would've liked to think he ended up doing something great with his life, but a search through Google and other biographies seems to indicate that he was convicted of murder charges later in life. How sad! Another casualty of the harsh lifestyle perhaps, because Clarence never struck me as murderer material, but a young man with great potential.

These new faces are all tied up with Laura's stint at teaching. It's so amazing to modern readers that kids as young as 15 can be sent out as qualified teachers, but we get it when we read the book. The job of teaching seemed far more straightforward than now, in many ways. There were standard text books set by whoever was head of education, full of successive lessons, and that was it. There seemed no need for much creative input from teachers. No curriculum planning, no craft or drama, no marking of long essays or assigning individual projects, no challenge to use their own imaginations. They come across more like glorified baby-sitters, there just to keep discipline and offer a helping hand if anyone couldn't understand the concepts in the books.

It appears the face of education really has changed a lot in the last 150 years or so, even when we think the basic model has stayed the same. Current teachers feel compelled to make lessons fun for their students, but it wasn't the emphasis in the nineteenth century. Students were expected to do the work. They weren't expected to enjoy it. It was simply a bonus when bright sparks like Laura enjoyed it anyway.

The story of Laura's budding relationship with Almanzo is beautiful, from the moment he surprises her by picking her up from the Brewsters' at the end of her first week there. This is among my favourite romances, even though it isn't labelled as one. It's a novel for kids, and Laura comes across too restrained to use the word anyway. The closest she comes to admitting she's fallen in love with him is when she tells Mary, 'We just seem to belong together.' The pair of them seem perfectly suited in many ways, including their affection for horses and dare-devil streaks. Almanzo was a bit of a multi-tasker, who'd combine breaking in frisky horses with seeing his girlfriend. But she was up for it, and it makes a fun read. (This pair is on my list of awkward literary marriage proposals) Laura was quite witty in her reply to his round-about way of popping the question.

Through it all, she shows the same traits we always love about her. Mary pays her sister a beautiful compliment when she says, 'I never see things so well with anyone else.'

But I think the bit of dialogue, to best sum up the series, is when Laura and Almanzo are planning their future, and the home he's building. He says, 'It'll have to be a little house. Do you mind?' And she replies, 'I have always lived in little houses. I like them.' I think she meant this to be the end, but we know it's not quite.


Next up will be The First Four Years. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville

"It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author's lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

This is my selection for the Classic that Scares You category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, the reason being it's so dense and the thought of  spending 700+ pages with the crew of a whaling boat left me a bit cold. My potential boredom antennae were twitching, but since it's said by many to be the greatest American classic of all time, I thought this challenge was a good enough reason to dive in.

The main narrator famously invites us to call him Ishmael. Then we are off on his adventure. He's a young school teacher whose remedy for jadedness is to run off to sea. He prefers to go as a sailor rather than a passenger, so that instead of having to pay he will be paid instead. Ishmael hooks up with Queequeg, a south sea Islander who's great with the harpoon. Together they decide to apply for jobs on a whaling ship, and randomly select the Pequod.

The ship is out at sea for a few weeks before the man in charge, the mysterious Captain Ahab, decides to show his face. He turns out to be a scary looking old fanatic with a wooden leg, intent on hunting one whale in particular; the formidable Moby Dick. He's the beast who bit off Ahab's leg, so it's a pure revenge mission. Ahab fires up his crew by promising a huge reward to anyone who manages to kill the legendary brute. Moby Dick has a sinister reputation for bringing disaster on anyone who pursues him, but Ahab will not be deterred.

He blames Moby Dick for all his grief, including the fact that he's too keyed up to relax and enjoy a beautiful sunset.  We are told, 'He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race, from Adam down.' To anyone who reasons that it was nothing personal on the part of the dumb brute, Ahab has an answer. He will wreak his vengeance whether or not Moby Dick is the principle cause of his mutilation or the mask of the divine.

It's a monster of a book! I've read several thicker, but this one seems to have a way of getting no closer to the end no matter how many pages you turn. If you decide to tackle it, get ready to learn far more about whales than you probably bargained for. You're in for massive chunks of history, folklore, biology, chemistry, export industries, hunting methods, tool structure, blubber aroma and anything else you can imagine. There's even a whole chapter about why Moby Dick's shade of white is such a menacing colour. If you falter, the book will defeat you. It's the Moby Dick of books, and I was often on the verge of giving up. But it got to a point where I was so far in, I decided to muster some of Captain Ahab's own grim determination and vow it wouldn't defeat me! So was it worth it? Rather than admitting I wasted hours of my time (especially given the abrupt ending) I'll think of some reasons to say yes.

There's Ishmael himself. I started off grumbling that he's so long-winded, then gradually realised that he has a real enviable frame of mind. Ishmael's the type of person who can entertain himself no matter what life delivers. Throw him any fact and he'll come up with some beautiful and apt analogy. For example, a whale's layer of blubber protects it from icy Arctic conditions and equatorial heat alike. Ishmael instantly reflects how man should learn from the whale and aim to maintain his own stable temperature no matter what's going on around him. Well, if anyone has mastered that knack, Ishmael has. Stick him up a pole or set him squeezing lumps out of a vat of whale slime and he's supremely happy. By the end, I knew his philosophical remarks were what I'd miss most about the book.

I was thinking of adding Ishmael and Queequeg to my list of best literary bromances, but I'm not convinced this pair didn't take it to the next level and knock off the letter b. You'll soon see what I mean if you do get stuck into it, but their relationship is just a side issue to the main story.

There's Starbuck, the devoutly superstitious first mate, who directs his men in intense whispers. Starbuck's big moment on stage comes when he has a split second to decide which would be most moral. Defying the leader to save everyone else, or submitting to authority, even when it's clearly insane? I would have preferred more about Starbuck's ethical dilemma, and less about the physical features of whales. Even though he thinks his final decision was really the only option, I'm not convinced it wasn't gross negligence. How far should a first mate's obedience to the captain extend, when there are 30 valuable lives under their care? Anyway, the famous coffee chain is named after this guy. That's not just a coincidence, as I'd thought, but a fact you'll find on their website. They really liked his name, and it's probably the sort of trivia that'll stick in my head most. I think Starbuck would have been flattered, but a bit bemused.

What a multi-cultural floating tub the Pequod turns out to be. The three harpooners alone give us some indication. Queequeg is an ex-cannibal south sea Islander, Tashtego a stately Native American Indian, and Daggoo a full-blood Negro picked up from the coast of Africa. And then there's all the others. It makes me wonder if Melville purposely chose the crew's diversity to make the Pequod a symbol of the whole world. (And if so, what hope for all of us?)

We get some wry comedy every so often, just to reward our senses of humour for persevering. Captain Ahab and his first, second and third mates have a strict pecking order when dinner time comes. It's protocol gone crazy. Then there's the time second mate Stubbs orders the cook, Fleece, to tell the sharks to keep quiet. And a ship stinking to high heaven with whale carcasses floats past, bearing the ironic name, 'The Rose Bud.' And I like how the gruff ship owners respond at the start when Ishmael says he wants to see the world. It's something like, 'Look overboard then. That's the only sight of the world you'll see for the next three years.'

Here's one more bit of trivia I picked up. Ambergris is an expensive substance highly valued by the elite, and it's produced solely in the bodies of sick whales. It's used for perfumes, candles, hair powder and pomatum, and Ishmael reflects, 'Who would think such ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale?' Maybe it's a more obscure example of the oyster and pearl principle, proving there's more to the world than we might imagine, and the value of suffering.

So overall, it was every bit as scary as I'd feared, stretching my attention level to its limit so often I lost count. Ranking it is a challenge, because there's so much that cancels other stuff out. It strictly deserves two stars based on my ranking criteria, because I really did want to give up several times, but I wanted to add another one for the sake of Ishmael, who's a legend, although a bit of a bore. Hey, I'm not saying it isn't brilliant, and if I'd wanted an encyclopedia about whales, I might've given it five stars. There are descriptions of great beauty on the one hand, but on the other is its slowness. There's great characterisation and humour, but also an abrupt ending, as if Melville just decided enough's enough. Any way I look at it, I think three stars is fair. And at least now I can add my opinion to any conversation about Moby Dick that might crop up, although I admit I've never been in that position before.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Famous Comic Grouches

This post is dedicated to a handful of thorough grouches and pessimists. The company of human grouches wears thin pretty quickly if we're around them for too long, but have you noticed the abundance of lovable grouches in fiction? Curiously, they tend to be quite endearing as often as not. And even more curiously, so many of them aren't even human. Let's take a look at some. 

24532261) Oscar the Grouch
He can go first on the list, since he's probably the first of the bunch we ever meet as tiny kids. This green furry individual lives in a trash can on Sesame Street. His treasures consist of all sorts of stinky rubbish which gets tossed there. (Much like the stinky, rubbishy attitudes of his grumpy human counterparts perhaps.) Although 'grouch' describes his cynical and misanthropic attitude, it's also the name of his species. Oscar always looks forward to his annual Grouch Convention, which sounds like a grumble fest worth missing. His and his girlfriend Grundgetta have a rocky relationship, but no doubt they like it that way.

2) Grumpy
Like the other six dwarfs, his name sums up his character. I guess he was born with a pessimistic bent, further fueled by his lifestyle. If you're a bit dour to start with, it doesn't help when you have to put up with the same companions 24/7. Especially when they include a dope, a perpetual sneezer, a narcoleptic who keeps falling asleep on the job, and a shy dude who'll never speak up. But I suspect the friend who might have got on Grumpy's nerves the most was the ever-optimistic Happy. 

3) Eeyore
I hold with the theory that 100 Acre Wood residents represent different human medical and psychological conditions. Eeyore possibly suffers from clinical depression. At any rate, he feels overlooked, mopey, sad and sorry for himself. But Pooh, Piglet and Tigger learn an interesting lesson when they set out to cheer him up. The gloomy little donkey thanks them kindly but actually prefers his melancholy outlook. Their good intentions simply make him feel worse. He's a good indication that sometimes pessisism can be its own form of contentment. (I've written more here about the satisfying side of melancholia)

63240904) The Mock Turtle
He's a pitiful character with large, perpetually brimming eyes. When Alice asks what's the matter, the gryphon tells her, 'Nothing, it's all in his fancy. He hasn't got no sorrows, you know.' But when we dig deeper, we discover he's depressed because he's not a real turtle. That's when we realise we can't possibly take this guy seriously. Mock Turtle soup was a popular dish in Victorian times, made from the meat of other animals believed to taste like turtle. But in Wonderland, apparently there is an actual creature called a Mock Turtle! Wouldn't you be depressed, if you knew you existed just to be made into soup?

5) Kreacher
He's a dour and miserable old house elf who formerly worked for the infamous Black family. Kreacher's bitterness is compounded by having to serve Sirius, who's at the end of the family line and never makes life easy for him. Kreacher complains all day and lets the house deteriorate, just like his unkempt self. Eventually Sirius' gruff treatment, coupled with his own deep resentment, leads to tragedy. But later, when Harry Potter and his friends treat Kreacher kindly, he begins to warm to them. We last see him as a well-groomed, silky little house elf busy making them a steak and kidney pie. So there we have it, even grouchy pessimists with huge grudges may end up being nice to those who treat them decently.

And perhaps my favourite pessimist of all...

407548156) Puddleglum
The lanky, pasty-featured marshwiggles from Narnia are renowned for being a gloomy, pessimistic species, but still Eustace and Jill can hardly believe it when he tells them he's a relatively cheerful one. Especially since he always throws a damper on every optimistic word they say. Even his attempts at looking on the bright side fall far short. 'There's one good thing about being trapped down here. It'll save funeral expenses.' But Puddleglum turns out to be a true hero and legend. His general gloominess makes it all the more impacting when he's the one who refutes the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle in a famous speech of faith. (It goes along the lines of 'I'm all for Aslan, whether he exists or not, because he's better than anything you have to offer.')

Do you feel like shaking them, or more like hugging them? I think that part of their charm is that they appeal to the grouches buried deep inside each of us. Being always grouchy is no good for our health, and nor does it make us popular or socially acceptable. But sometimes it can help us defuse a bit, which is where these little guys come into the picture. Whether they're donkeys, turtles, house-elves, dwarfs, marshwiggles or even pure 'grouches', they strike the shadowy chords we don't want to admit. By sympathising, and even having a good laugh at them, we can shake off our own blues and get on with our day. While we may make an effort to keep a lid on it at all times, these characters don't have to. We're fond of them because they give us the subtle, comforting message that it really is a bit of a screwed up old world out there sometimes, but we're not alone. Is your favourite on this list?

Monday, August 6, 2018

'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum

This is my choice in the Classic Travel or Journey category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. Most of the adventure takes place on the road, including fierce wolf-cats, gaping chasms, a deadly poppy field and tiny brittle folk made of china. The photos are from a sand sculpture exhibition we visited this year. (You might like to compare it to last year's, on Alice in Wonderland.)

Anyway, this plot is a legend of course. Dorothy and her dog Toto are alone in the house when it's sucked up by a cyclone, and after several hours, it touches down in a land which is cut off from the rest of the world. Dorothy sets off following the Yellow Brick Road to consult the Great Wizard, who appears to be her only chance to return to Kansas. She picks up a group of new friends along the way with needs of their own. The Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Woodman longs for a heart, and the Lion would give anything for a dash of courage. It's clear that it isn't really physical organs they're after, but the traits they represent.

 Maybe it seems like an unfair demand on the Wizard, to expect him to supply what ought to come from within, but this actually makes it easy for him to fudge his 'answers' later. We've all probably heard the theory that belief in ourselves has to come first, before results can be set in motion. No story exemplifies that more than The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy is one of the luckiest characters you could come across. It's the flukey sort of luck similar to beginner card players. She is the source of two wicked witch deaths, both total accidents. She acquires a pair of golden slippers and a magical cap without having a clue of their immense power. And she gets a protective kiss from a person whose lips carry klout. Her three travel friends believe they owe their own good fortune to their chance encounters with her, which is probably true, because she's a luck charm on legs. But when you look at Dorothy's character, you can't begrudge her good fortune. She has no personal ambition whatsoever, but is famous for wanting her simple life to carry on just as it was. That's refreshing when so many people, including book characters, are after something. Could that be the spirit we all need to activate 'luck'? All she wants is to get home.

Baum's description does no favours for the Kansas tourism industry though. It's a flat, dry dust bowl that gradually infuses its colour (or lack of) through everything living in it, including Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. They are grey, sober people who match their environment. No wonder the old Judy Garland movie made the most of this, keeping those moments black and white and saving their full colour spectrum for Oz. I understand why other characters tell Dorothy in effect, 'We don't get why you'd want to go back, but we respect that you do.'

It's great fun to see her three travel companions each use the attributes they think they lack. The Scarecrow is the greatest problem solver, wriggling them out of sticky situations many times. The tin man is a big softie, who sobs even when he accidentally steps on ants. The Lion is always the front man in moments of danger, putting his life on the line. So it's clear this isn't a story about character development, but more about tapping into what we've had all along.

For that matter, I never remembered the Scarecrow and Tin Man being so kick-ass. Between them, they made short work of all the wicked witch's evil minions. The Tin Man massacres her savage wolf pack with his ax, and then the Scarecrow wrings the necks of a fierce murder of crows. I'll bet the farmer who originally stuck him on a pole hated to see the back of him. Finally, the Tin Man bears the brunt of a swarm of bees. Dorothy might have been their good luck charm, but meeting them was certainly in keeping with her trademark luck too! All this happened while she was sound asleep. That girl certainly knew how to chill out.

The mystique surrounding the great wizard sucks us in. But he turns out to be a fraud, or 'humbug' as they tell him. He's just a little bald-headed, wrinkled guy from South Dakota, who's mastered the art of smoke and mirrors, not to mention the placebo effect. Some readers might think that does qualify him to be ruler. His successful misrepresentation proves that he's even smarter than the Scarecrow, which is saying a lot.

But notice how much of the hearsay about him has connotations of deity. Here are just a few.

'He rules over the city wisely and well, but to those who are not honest, or approach him with curiosity, he is most terrible.'
'Few have ever dared ask to see his face.'
'If they don't wear the spectacles, the brightness and glory of the Emerald City will blind them' (which is a load of hogwash, by the way.)
And then there's his own line, 'I am everywhere, but to the eyes of common mortals, I am invisible.'

I think the extent to which he pushes his own deception crosses a line into very dodgy territory. This might be a light-hearted story for kids, but any guy who lets his subjects believe he's a god is going too far, and when it's happened in history, it's never ended well. He may call himself Oz the Great and Terrible, but I think Dorothy the Small and Meek is a far more noble and honest character. I'd go so far as to question the final consensus that he's a good man but a terrible wizard. We seem to be expected to swallow his goodness without a thought, but I'm not a big fan of his.

Perhaps people love him by default, just because his alternative, the Wicked Witch of the West, is worse. At least he's content to live and let live, but she's a public menace. She enslaves the poor Winkies and sends vicious attacks as soon as her one powerful eye detects strangers in her land. In all fairness, they are on their way to attempt to kill her, but they have good reason. Not only is she a cruel tyrant who pushes her subjects around like pawns, but she doesn't even bleed when she's bitten by Toto. We're told she's so wicked, the blood in her had dried up many years before. Whoa, that's one mean dame. Her final demise, with a bucket of water must be one of the more unusual deaths in literature, but we are in Oz and she is super nasty.

Overall, it's great vintage magical fantasy with its share of Steampunk vibes, shown in details like the hot air balloon. It's incredibly corny in spots. How about the spell that must be used to summon the winged monkeys? 'Ep-pe, Pep-pe, Kak-ke, Hil-lo, Hol-lo, Hel-lo.' Whoa, Harry Potter, eat your heart out! But I think the story's timeless reputation endures because it's so easy to put in an inspirational frame. Take for example the witch's, 'I can make her my slave because she doesn't understand her true power.' I can fit that into my Christian world view whenever I feel battered around by circumstances. As a little kid, I read the book on face value for the thrill of the story. As an adult, I found myself reading it more as one of those self-help fables that form a genre of their own. It's a pretty good, and fairly quick read, however you approach it.

I once saw a great bit of dialogue on social media, which I wish had made it into the real story. It went something like this.

Dorothy: You say you have no brains, yet you can talk.
Scarecrow: Oh, people with no brains talk all the time.


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Would You Rather - Book Lover's Version

This is a rather fun version of the game 'Would you Rather?' I saw this at the blog of The Once Lost Wanderer and decided to take on the challenge. Please feel free to do the same.  Here goes. 

Would you rather have a friend who loses your books or one who dog-ears them?
Ideally neither, but I guess I'd go for the dog-ears, as I hate to lose a good book. But don't let that cheeky dog-earer think I'll ever lend them another one!

Would you rather secretly love a book everyone hates, or secretly hate a book everyone loves?
Definitely the first. It's fun to daydream about an unpopular story to myself, whereas listening to other people rave about boring books gets old very quickly.

Would you rather be stuck on a very long plane or train ride without a book?
The train, because when I travel by land, I can zone out and watch scenery pass by. In a plane, there's only a certain amount of cloudscape I can handle before wanting the diversion of a good book.

Would you rather have dinner with your favourite author or your favourite character?
Well, dinner with your favourite author means you can attempt to influence the way the story pans out, if they haven't finished writing their series. But I'd rather have dinner with my favourite character. It's the characters of a story who capture my imagination and fill my dreams, not the author, who is really just a gracious conduit. So sorry J.K. Rowling, dinner in the Great Hall of Hogwarts with the cast would trump a meal with you. I'm sure she wouldn't be devastated to hear it.

Would you rather date a character you have a crush on, or your crush in real life?
I've had crushes on many, many fictional characters over the years, and since they generally all end up married to Ms Right in their own worlds, I'd better say my crush in real life, who turned out to be my husband. He thinks all the book characters I've had crushes on remind me of him anyway. Is that a safe answer?

Would you rather have your favourite book turned into a movie, or your favourite movie turned into a book?
Both options make my heart skitter a bit, but I'll say movie to book. There's always a chance that I'll hate the casting the other way around, and book to movie is far more common anyway. In fact, I'd like a try at writing a good novel based on an excellent, obscure film myself.

Would you rather read a book with an annoying cliffhanger, or one where your favourite character is killed off?
Definitely the cliffhanger! Having the best character die has left permanent scars on my emotions. It's so heartbreaking, I've even been known to sneak a peep at the last couple of pages, just to be forewarned before I commit myself. With an annoying cliffhanger, I can imagine eventual scenarios myself anyway, which I consider one of my specialties.

Would you rather lose the ability to read any new books, or the ability to re-read books you've already read?
That's a tricky question, since I love doing both. Maybe I'll choose the ability to re-read, since there is a larger range to keep reading if I have all new books to choose from. It'd still hurt though, because I love re-reading favourite sections of a story, and experiencing emotional highs all over again. Often I've found that I notice different things when I re-read, and sometimes even change my opinion in retrospect. So a good re-read informs readers about our own changing mindsets and priorities throughout life. In fact, I think I've just talked myself into changing my mind now. This is one of the hardest questions of all. Can I pass?

Would you rather live in a library or a bookstore?
The library! There will always be far more choice, because bookstores are very limited in what they choose to display on their shelves. Mostly it's best-sellers, or highly promoted books published within the last six months, apart from those well-known titles which are always there. The library has far more obscure surprises waiting to be discovered. A limitless selection drawing from way back in the past trumps a short shelf life of current popular choices any day.

Would you rather lose your place or get a paper cut every time you read a book?
I don't like physical pain, and it'd mean a lot of paper cuts for a bookworm, so I'll choose losing my place. My mind isn't such a bad bookmark anyway, and I can use it as a chance to cheat and fit in a bit of re-reading from the question before last.

Would you rather always have to read in the dark, or always read books with tiny text?
Both sound annoying, but the tiny text, I suppose. I hope my good reading glasses would be up for it, but I know they wouldn't be any use in dimness or pitch black.

Would you rather read by a fireplace or on the beach?
The cosy fireplace sounds ideal. I love the beach too, but not for reading. I'm not a sun-baker. Harmful UV rays, breezes that flap pages around or gritty sand that gets stuck in your kindle aren't ideal. Whenever I've tried reading outdoors away from my own hammock, I haven't really enjoyed it much, although the concept sounds romantic.

So if you'd like to have a go too, what are you waiting for? Let me know if you do, so I can see your answers. Or leave them in the comments. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

'Little Town on the Prairie' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined.

The long winter is finally over, and with spring comes a new job for Laura, town parties, and more time to spend with Almanzo Wilder. Laura also tries to help Pa and Ma save money for Mary to go to college.

It doesn't take long to find out why this title is so apt. There's far more of a social, community focus than all that's come before. Previously through the series, the Ingalls' were often living in isolation for various reasons. Now they're in the heart of lively De Smet, with opportunities to enjoy all sorts of activities including socials, a literary society, special holiday events and parties. It must have been a nice environment, back in the days when a whole town's population would show up to support the local teacher as he showcases his students' achievements in an exhibition. Would that ever happen in the closest knit town of our modern era, with so many competing calls from the internet and other forms of digital entertainment?

It's a story that highlights duty over pleasure, something that might have lost a bit of popularity in recent years. In our era, young adults are inspired to be ambitious and dream big for self-actualisation. It's all about finding our passion and doing what makes us happy. But all through this story we see poor Laura working hard to achieve a goal she's dreading, which is teaching school. She's experienced more about self-denial and a servant's heart than many current teens, although you can't blame them, because entitlement is wound so tightly in our modern western system of values, we get infected without even realising. A story like this pulls the blinkers away from our eyes for a moment, which surely must do us good.

 Laura's motivation for slogging on with something that doesn't light her spark is one of the very best. I wonder, when it comes to altruism and kindness, if our generation is primed to think more lavishly and globally than our ancestors. Maybe it's because we have more resources at our fingertips to affect large or faraway groups of needy people. For Laura and her family, all the hard work and sacrifice is concentrated on just one single person. They want to enroll and keep Mary in the College for the blind in Iowa. Sometimes in our century, with so many celebrities getting loud public accolades, it's easy to forget that making a difference in the life of somebody close to home is equally noble. The love and sacrifice the Ingalls family show for their beloved eldest girl is one of the most stirring parts of the story for me. There must be similar examples of quiet, humble heroism in every modern family too, yet they're drowned out by the in-your-face clamour of the media.

Talking about the media, although they didn't have the monster we know, they still had a subtle version of their own. Even without on-line pressure to conform to certain standards, the girls of De Smet still had their fingers on the pulse of what's 'in' as opposed to what's dated and pathetic. The autograph albums, name cards and hoop skirts are all prime examples. And every generation has its girls like Nellie Oleson, ready to rub people's noses in the slightest fashion faux pas. That girl is an expert at sour grapes. She's very quick to stick up her nose and scorn something she secretly wants but can't have. And even though specific examples change, each generation has its own ridiculous fashion fads. Yesterday's hoop skirts are today's ripped jeans.

There's a cute sort of Cinderella sub-plot happening. Nellie is the disdainful princess who is scheming to get to know the charming guy. Almanzo has a horse called 'Prince' and the girls all seem to regard his horses as extensions of him anyway. Of course it's modest Laura, who's convinced herself that she's as round and dumpy as a little French horse, who is invited for a ride.
The Ingalls family were all products of their time, and as such, I think they each have some attributes we'd do well to take on board (like the self-sacrifice), and others we can be more than happy to drop.

Mary goes off to college with a new attitude that suits her. She admits that her perfect childhood behaviour was really an ongoing effort to perform for pats on the back, but the smug, goody-Two-Shoes stuff is all behind her now. She's decided that instead of getting hung up about our own merit, we should just trust the goodness of God. Bravo Mary. Still, one thing that never changes is her total pragmatism. Laura says, 'This sheep sorrel smells like springtime,' and Mary replies, 'It really smells like lemon flavouring.' Gotta love her.

Good old Ma is always using her domestic imagination to make life more comfortable. Some of her advice is excellent, and other bits not so great. There's the time she says, 'This earthly life is a battle. If it isn't one thing to contend with, it's another. It has always has been so and always will be. The sooner you make your mind up to that, the better off you are, and the more thankful for your pleasures.' That comes from the same lady who says just a few pages on, 'You should always wear your corsets to bed. What your figure will be, goodness knows.' Lol, let's be selective in sifting through what Ma says, because her best lines are spot-on.

I'm glad the whole 'teacher knows best' attitude is a relic from the past. I wish Pa and Ma had gone in like a shot to complain to Miss Wilder about the incident with Carrie and the rocking desk, as I would have done. But no, it's, 'Miss Wilder might have been wrong, but she is the teacher.' Giving unfair people complete carte blanche because of their position was not the best of the era. Bad school punishments are just the start. I wish we could've seen what the big boys made of Miss Wilder, but the staff turnover was quicker than a Hogwarts DADA teacher. Contracts were term by term, and many people clearly used teaching as stepping stone and stop-gap, rather than a career as we know it.
Laura's the heroine, and extremely likable and easy to relate to, but does she have any blind spots of her own? Well yeah, I actually think she takes way too much responsibility on her own shoulders, which sets her up for nasty hang-ups like perfectionism and an over-active guilt complex. As an example, surely those young boys would have kept their mischief  in school going without her two grins of approval, yet she seems to blame herself entirely for the ruckus that follows. Later she kicks herself when she gets the occasional 92 grade, instead of straight 100's. And by the night of the school exhibition, she notices that Carrie has done her buttons up inside out, and immediately starts her inner bully scolding again! ('Laura should have thought to button her up, but no, she had left poor little Carrie to do the best she could alone.') Come on Laura, you were preoccupied with your own jittery nerves! And why couldn't Ma have done it anyway? By then I'd had enough of Laura's finely-tuned conscience. An Atlas complex is not only heavy to deal with, but sort of smacks of self-importance too. So this book is a bit of a worry in a way. I honestly wouldn't want my own kids to take her attitude on board to the same extent, yet it's so easy to pick up subtle cues from a main character you love. 

I intended to take a half star off because Laura wouldn't give herself a break, but couldn't bring myself to do it. It's still a beautiful book, and maybe Pa boosts it up again. He comes across so cool in this book, with his humorous comments, enjoyment of life, and some of the funny things that happen to him, such as having a hunk of his hair chewed off by a mouse in the night. He doesn't have any sons to help him out, like many others who keep their older boys out of school during busy farming seasons, but still keeps plodding along by himself. And I love a comment of Laura's which sums up the tone of their lives at this stage, and might do us good too if we can take it on board. That is, 'Perhaps the best was knowing that tomorrow would be like today, the same and yet a little different from all other days, as this day had been.' Maybe life hasn't changed much in that respect.

Next up will be These Happy Golden Years.


Monday, July 16, 2018

'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it -- from garden seeds to Scripture -- is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. 

Barbara Kingsolver made me read this book. I heard her speak at the Adelaide Writers Festival and she was mesmerising. Her session was so packed that I sat jammed in a crowd perched on a steep bank behind the stage, and had to dig my heels into the grass to stop slipping. It wasn't the ideal spot but she held my attention for the whole hour, with her fascinating topics and friendly approach. I knew I'd have to track down her books, starting with this epic modern classic, and wow, does it pack a punch!

This book brings us into the heart of the deepest, darkest African jungle. The Reverend Nathan Price is the text book evangelist.... on how not to do things! Whatever he does, do the opposite. He makes no effort to understand the background and habits of the native Congolese he goes to live among, because he scorns it as not worth his time. He expects them to embrace his western habits and rigid brand of Christianity because they are clearly 'right'. Nathan doesn't tolerate discussion. He never considers that an insight into their superstitions and folklore might help with his game plan. He has plenty of bluster and perseverance, but no speck of genuine grace or love. And he drags his wife and daughters along to see him make a total hash of things.

Yet we do get hints of a chink in Nathan's armour, helping explain what shaped him into the man he became. An experience during World War Two in which he escaped from his regiment left him last man standing, with a massive case of survivor's guilt. He's promised his notion of God that he'll do his utmost to atone for the cowardice that saved his life. Nathan's a pain in the neck, but there's still something dramatically Shakespearean about him. In his fanatical effort to make his life count, perhaps he's tragically wasted time through sheer cluelessness.

The Price family suffer repeatedly for not having done their homework. The Betty Crocker instant cake mixes intended for birthday cakes turn rancid in the tropical climate, and American vegetable seeds won't flourish for lack of proper insects to pollinate them. The African bugs simply won't recognise them as plants. Nathan wonders why people are so averse to Baptism, until he learns the river's infested with crocodiles. And he uses what he thinks is their word for 'wonderful' to describe Jesus, but it's closer to the term for 'poisonwood', a plant that leaves a nasty, stinging rash. Nathan is preaching a 'poisonwood Bible' without even knowing it.

The story is told by the female Prices, each with her own unique take on things.

Rachel is the eldest daughter; a shallow, platinum blonde who grieves the loss of her mod-cons and beauty aids. She's the unintentional master of malapropisms, mixing up enough words to make her parts a good laugh, but it bothers me to write Rachel off as nothing more than a selfish fashion plate, and bit of comic relief. Either she is responsible for her own personality or she isn't. If she can't help her shallowness, then it's unkind to criticise her for something fundamental. But if she is capable of changing her stripes, then it makes sense to encourage her to think harder about topical issues rather than just slinging mud at her. However you look at it, Rachel was forced to abandon all that she valued for a lifestyle totally alien to her. Love them or hate them, they were her values, and she'd be a saint not to feel some resentment.

Next in order of age are the twins. Leah begins their Congo experience anxious for her father's approval, but she's more humble than he is. Experience and a growing regard for their new neighbours opens her eyes to a world of striking differences, highlighting the over-simplicity of expecting everyone to think the same. She realises that African foreign ways are not necessarily incompatible with the gospel preached by Jesus. It is Leah who falls deeply in love with the land, and also with her father's young translator, Anatole. She gets angry at economic and political injustice and chooses to throw her lot in with the people, whether or not it helps in the long run.

Adah is lame by birth and mute by choice, a consequence of being born the weaker twin. But she's extremely intelligent with a quick and cynical mind that hones mercilessly into the nature of people and cultures alike. Adah's sections are a fascinating challenge to think outside of the square. A whiz at both Maths and English, she loves playing around with language and poetry, even inventing her own brilliant palindromes, including words, phrases and whole sentences that can be read the same way both forward and backward. Dubbing her father the 'amen enema' is a great example.

The youngest is Ruth May, a stubborn 5-year-old who chooses to do her own thing, such as hiding her malaria pills because they taste bitter. Her sections are full of attempts to re-phrase her father's fire-and-brimstone in terms she can wrap her head around. Overlooking all is their tired and long-suffering mother Orleanna, just dragging herself through the motions of supporting her husband's cause.

The first few hundred pages are riveting, but I think the book is way too drawn out in later sections, in which the girls grow to middle-age and go their separate ways, each processing their African experiences differently. It covers a far longer period of time in a shorter block, and lost a fair bit of momentum for me. It felt as if Barbara Kingsolver dropped in as the author to make sure we didn't miss her political and social agendas, which was a shame. Maybe it simply suffers in comparison with the colour and intense mystery of the earlier story. I just wanted back in the frangipanis and bouganvillea of Kilanga Village. Overall, her story and way of telling it are equally stunning.

I want to mention some religious stumbling blocks people have raised though, as it would be shortsighted indeed for readers to reject Christianity, thinking they now know all they need to from Nathan Price's example. But equally shortsighted are some Christian articles I've read, disparaging the book on the grounds that Kingsolver makes Christians come across like Nathan Price. (I didn't get the impression that undermining the faith was her intention. How about the generosity of Brother Fowles? She gives credit where it's due.) It seems a knee-jerk reaction from prickly folk who sweep aside her powerful action of giving voiceless people a voice, because they're busy defending themselves. It reminds me of Nathan's own defensiveness when Anatole kindly tries to wise him up about the villagers' mindsets. Instead of taking it as the favour it was intended, Nathan instinctively reacts as if he and Christianity are both under attack. So if you're indignant that Kingsolver is painting you as Nathan Price, maybe you should take a step back to consider whether or not you are Nathan Price.

I'd urge fellow Christians to behave unlike Nathan, and take the story as a call for action. To me, Barbara Kingsolver is putting herself in Anatole's position and informing us how the Christian faith may occasionally come across to observers. If there are cold, judgmental, graceless, rules-oriented Christians like Nathan still out there colouring what people see, it makes no sense to join them by writing harsh things about Barbara Kingsolver for writing this book. Isn't it a better idea to take this book as a tip-off that we should give gifted authors like Kingsolver something good to write about Christians?