Tuesday, October 16, 2018

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

The Classics Club has challenged us all to tackle a classic book of our choice that scares us for this Halloween month of October. Here is their dare. It can be horror, mystery or Gothic, as long as it suits the theme. I chose Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this year marks the bicentenary of its original year of publication, 1818. Secondly, it's so impressive that the author of such a masterpiece was a 19-year-old girl. She lived a very sad life too, but left her stamp of genius on the world and no doubt influenced the history of the horror and sci-fi genre for years to come. Reading her book is as close as we can come to saying, 'You go, girl.' 

The background alone is interesting. This teenage author was having a getaway at the Lakes District with her fiance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their good friend Lord Byron. To pass time, Byron suggested the three of them should have a horror story writing contest, and this novel was Mary's contribution. Surely she must have been the winner, because I couldn't even find whatever the two fellows came up with. (If you know, please tell us.)

Anyway, here's how it goes down. Victor Frankenstein is a talented science student with a great ambition to create a superior life form all of his own. So he pulls lots of all-nighters because he's in the zone, letting his imagination run wild. He forgets to keep in touch with his loved ones at home, since he's so wrapped up in visions of personal glory. 'A new species would bless me as its creator, and many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.'

Victor really admires beauty, so he robs graves for the nicest parts he can find. My favourite character in this story is basically a composite of human flesh chunks which Victor dismembers, then gets his needle and sews together. But when he uses his secret method to breathe life into it, the result is a major stuff-up. Instead of a noble super-being, the person he's created looks repulsive and hideous. If we can imagine a revived piecemeal corpse that has recently been rotting underground, it's probably close. Aha, so maybe our boy has just proven why humans shouldn't play God. 'It was such a thing as even Dante couldn't have conceived.' Victor runs out and hopes the thing will just go away. But although he's relieved in the short term, his creation returns to haunt him down the track, of course.

We get the monster's personal story of what happens when he first wanders out to explore the world. He's in the weird position of being fully grown from the start, with no babyhood memories to draw from. But unlike the original Adam, Frankenstein's monster finds himself feared and rejected wherever he goes. Anyone who's ever felt lonely to their very bone and longed to be part of the in-crowd should spare a thought for this poor fellow. 'My heart yearned to be loved by these amiable creatures. To see their sweet looks turned toward me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.'

His plea to Victor seems reasonable at first to both of them. He basically says, 'You created me, which means you have a certain responsibility for my welfare. So create a female companion to ease my loneliness, and I promise I'll never bother you again. Or suffer the consequences.' Anyone who's ever procrastinated on a dreaded project should spare a thought for poor Victor too. He said, 'Every thought devoted to it was an extreme anguish, and every word that I spoke in allusion to it caused my lips to quiver and my heart to palpitate.' (Actually, that reminds me of past days when I used to defer work on exam revision, essays or writing synopses.)

Victor's conscience starts to bother him as he considers that he might end up as the curse of mankind, if he carries his promise through, and a spawn of repulsive and malevolent monster babies are unleashed. 'A race of devils would be propogated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.' Whoops, it'd be the opposite of the adulation he'd hoped for, so there's still a bit of self-interest there, but at least he's trying to be honourable.

There's something I overlooked, and Mary Shelley herself didn't even seem to consider. I thank my husband for mentioning this, while I was discussing the book with him. Wouldn't any kids of the monster and his missus end up being quite normal? After all, Victor made the monster by collecting deceased body parts and infusing them with life. So since the reproductive organs and their DNA presumably weren't hideous to start with, the offspring themselves could end up quite socially acceptable. They might either think, 'Mum and Dad sure are ugly,' or, 'If Mum and Dad are normal, then everyone else is really gorgeous.' How cool if the plot had gone that way, but Victor abandoned the female project part way through. That spelled the end of his peace of mind from then on.

One of the saddest themes is how quick human nature is to assign bad motives to someone just because he's ugly. Even moments when the monster is intent on preserving life, he's perceived as a threat and his intentions are misinterpreted. All because of first impressions. His tragic life shows how loneliness and bad treatment might drive a person to turn resentful and vengeful in return. The monster dares just one person to push beyond human shallowness, but nobody steps up. 'If any being felt benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred fold. For that one creature's sake, I would make peace with the whole kind.' It's a powerful line, because even though we don't get to meet Victor's monster in person, we can take his challenge on board and pass the test with other people or creatures society might shun in general.

Even though it's a fairly somber story, there's amazing beauty in Mary Shelley's writing, and many small glimpses of how easy it is to live a good and satisfying life. It all comes down to how we respond to the beauty around us in creation, and appreciate what we're part of. Victor's best buddy Henry Clerval is master of living in the moment. And Victor himself says, 'I was formed for peaceful happiness. If I was ever overcome by ennui, the sight of what is beautiful in nature, or the study of what is excellent and sublime in the productions of man could always interest my heart and communicate elasticity to my spirits.' So there's a direct prescription for those of us who haven't created a monster who's hell bent on destroying our life.

There are morals aplenty, and a range of characters to pick off from the whole Frankenstein family. The monster discovers that revenge isn't all its cracked up to be. 'While I destroyed his hopes, I didn't satisfy my own desires.' As for Victor himself, he was possibly the scarier of the two in several ways! What could be more terrifying than a self-absorbed, immature young student with tickets on himself who suddenly discovers that he can bring inanimate flesh to life? Maybe we could sum up what this poor kid learns in just one sentence. 'Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.'

🌟🌟🌟🌟 ½

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Stories with Graveyard Incidents

Here's a good list for October, which we all know is Halloween month. Each of these stories contains an incident that takes place in a graveyard. They range from sweet to the macabre, and in honour of the holiday season, I thought I'd count down to award the creepiest of all. I hope you enjoy this virtual trip through these graveyards and cemeteries.

We'll warm up with some nice, sentimental examples. These aren't at all in the running for creepiest, but are designed to make us sigh, 'Aww.' 

77392Anne of the Island
Our heroine fulfills a bittersweet dream when she visits Bolingbroke Cemetery, where her parents lie. Walter and Bertha Shirley died while Anne was still an infant, and were buried together in a single grave. Although they were practically destitute, the local school board erected a tombstone to honor him for his faithful service. Now twenty years later, their orphan daughter pays a visit to lie flowers on their grave, in a touching moment of the story.

Harry Potter (Saint Jerome's Graveyard, Godric Hollow)
This is the burial place of several illustrious witches and wizards. Harry and Hermione pay a visit one snowy Christmas Eve to seek the grave of his parents, and discover that the Dumbledore family and the Peverell brothers of Deathly Hallows fame also lie buried there. Harry weeps with emotion, while Hermione considerately conjures a bouquet to place on James and Lily's grave. And on another occasion, two more teenagers pass by, in a visit from the future. (Time gets very twisted here.) Scorpius Malfoy points it out to his best friend Albus Potter and tells him that in their own time, a memorial statue of baby Harry and his parents has been erected.

31175The Professor
The Protestant Cemetery outside the gates of Louvain is the scene of a happy reunion in this romance by Charlotte Bronte. William Crimsworth is a young English professor whose beloved girlfriend Frances has been banished by the jealous headmistress. He has no idea how to find her. William is taking a leisurely stroll among the tombstones one fine day when he spots Frances paying a visit to the fresh grave of her aunt. It's such a fantastic coincidence, since he'd resigned himself to never seeing her again.

Now the chilling factor starts to heat up a bit. (I know that sentence sounds contradictory.) Are you still holding on? Many of these involve wide-eyed little orphans or earnest young men. 

The Graveyard Book
2213661The cemetery is home sweet home for our young hero orphan. A baby boy toddles away from the scene of his family's gruesome murder. Now he's being brought up in the graveyard down the hill by Mr and Mrs Owens, a kindly couple of ghosts who live there. This story takes the typical changeling plot to a whole new level. Young Bod (short for Nobody) has many crazy adventures in both the natural and supernatural realms. He's just not supposed to ever leave the safety of his graveyard home.

Great Expectations
It's in the local graveyard where the poor little orphan Pip first meets the desperate fugitive Magwitch, who snatches hold of him right beside his parents' tombstone and demands food and a file. Or else his heart and liver will be eaten alive by a fierce young man. Remember Magwitch's obvious relief when he asks Pip where his parents are, and Pip points down at the grave? I don't blame Pip for being quick to comply with the convict's demand, but he has no idea of the ripple effect he sets into motion, which impacts his life long after he's grown up. (My review is here.)

The Woman in White
Walter Hartwright is anxious to talk to a deranged young woman who's been sending dire warnings to the girl he loves. He has good reason to believe that Anne Catherick, the woman in white, likes to spend her nights in the cemetery, near a specific grave. He sets up camp to wait for her, and sure enough, Anne shows up loaded with scrubbing gear. Her personal mission is to make sure her benefactress Mrs Fairlie's grave is always the sparkliest and cleanest in the graveyard. It's her devoted way of paying her respects.

That incident already sets the atmosphere, but way later on, a grieving Walter visits the grave of his beloved Laura, to find Laura herself creeping up behind him, alive and well. I'll bet he had goosebumps on his goosebumps! Can't you just imagine him looking down at the grave, then up to her face, then down to the tombstone again? (My review is here.)

Graveyards certainly aren't always the quiet places they seem. While a pair of gravediggers are preparing poor drowned Ophelia's grave, they unearth the skull of Yorick, an old jester from Hamlet's childhood. It inspires the young hero to start one of his long, philosophical rants about the nature of mortality, and we know it doesn't take much to set him off. While he's in full flow, Ophelia's brother Laertes arrives with her funeral procession. He sees red at the sight of Hamlet, who he blames for her suicide, and the two young men start a brawl right beside the newly dug grave.

In a dramatic moment, poor Victor Frankenstein, the hapless young creator, visits the cemetery where all his loved ones lie. Little brother William, playfellow Justine, best friend Henry, beloved Dad and sweetheart Elizabeth. The one thing they share in common is that they've all been murdered by the monster Victor created with his own hands. He kneels among the tombs and vows to bring that fiend down, if it's the last thing he ever does. A diabolical burst of laughter from somewhere nearby greets his outburst, as if to say, 'OK, game on!' (Review is here.)

The Bishop's Girl
This story's melancholy premise revolves around a graveyard in France. Bishop Anthony Shackleton died a hero's death there in 1917, and decades later his admirers are exhuming the grave to take his remains home to England. To their shock, another crudely wrapped skeleton, which proves to be a young woman, has been buried with him. All they can figure out is that she shares his DNA. Her identity becomes the business of Professor Waller and his archivist Jess Morris. (My review is here.)

Now I'll present my hardcore examples for most spine-chilling, hair-raising or outright weird. These are contenders for the winner. 

Wuthering Heights
6185Could the Gimmerton graveyard, out on the icy, bleak Yorkshire moor be the creepiest of all? Halfway through the story, Heathcliff, who's sick with love for Catherine, bribes the sexton to force open her coffin so he can stare at her face. He says it's still recognisable after twenty odd years. It seems that in their climate, she's frozen solid for a great part of every year. Heathcliff gives orders that he must be buried beside Catherine with the sides of their two coffins removed so they can disintegrate into dust together. Or else he'll prove that the human soul is not annihilated at death. Perhaps he proves it anyway, even though they carry out his wishes. Several traumatised villagers report sightings of Heathcliff and Catherine together above ground, doing whatever they used to when they were wild kids who imagined heaven wasn't good enough for them. It would surely be enough to terrify me, since they were both scary enough alive! (My review is here.)

For over a century, I'd say Emily Bronte held the title of the author who gave us the creepiest graveyard incident. But then in the early 21st century, J.K. Rowling popped up to dispute that.  

6Harry Potter (Little Hangleton Graveyard)
When Harry and Cedric both seize the tournament cup to tie for first place, it turns out to be a portkey drawing them to the Little Hangleton graveyard, where Voldemort gleefully awaits. After disposing of the 'spare' (poor Cedric) he orders Harry to be tied up and arranges a horrific potion which includes blood from his enemy Harry, a bone from his own father who's buried in a nearby grave, and the hand of his willing follower Peter Pettigrew. It's enough for the unthinkable to happen. A reasonably able body for Voldemort is produced. Harry's desperate escape back to Hogwarts involves a mad chase around the tombstones and a staggering collision of spells.

Wuthering Heights or The Goblet of Fire? The struggle was real. And because I couldn't choose between them, I decided to throw in a dark horse. My award for most unexpectedly disturbing graveyard incident comes from a reasonably wholesome coming-of-age classic, and wins for its sheer left-fieldedness and originality. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Somewhere in the block of tenement flats lives a person whose favourite game really freaks young Francie Nolan out. It's 'the boy who plays graveyard.' He puts live caterpillars into matchboxes, digs tiny graves and buries them. Next he makes little headstones by writing on pebbles. Then he holds mock funerals in which he beats his breast and sobs. Needless to say, this seriously disturbs her silent reading time. When he's taken to visit his aunt one day, Francie considers his absence as good as a holiday. I thought I'd give that young lad top honour in this blog post, since nobody else probably ever did! I wonder whatever became of him, although I shudder to think.

Did any of your favourites make it on my list? There must be plenty of gaps, especially since I overlook the whole horror genre, which isn't a favourite of mine so I don't know many. Please feel free to add more in the comments, or take my list as a morbid (or bittersweet) springboard for your own October reading.

And do have a look at last year's Halloween list, Famous Headless People, which includes some truly memorable characters who prove they don't even need heads.  You might also enjoy my wisdom from the graveyard school, who were a truly awesome group of men who pieced together a great philosophy just from hanging out in cemeteries writing poetry. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience. 

This book amazed me, at this stage of my life. There is so much to love and relate to, it's like 'me between pages', although set in a way different place and time. I kicked myself wondering how a lifelong bookworm like me could have overlooked this gem when I was the same age as the main character Francie. For all those years, when people have asked about my favourite books, I could've mentioned this one, but just didn't know! And now I want to make up for lost time.

Basically, it's all about the struggle young Francie Nolan and her family face to hold things together when times are really tough. But she eventually manages to enter college without High School, although everything seems stacked against her. Francie (or Frances) lives with her parents Katie and Johnny, and her brother Neeley (Cornelius), a year younger than she is. They are so vivid and vibrant, you can't help distributing a quarter of your heart to all four. The story starts when the kids are 11 and 10 years old, zooms back to the past when their parents first met, takes us through their birth and babyhood, then catches up again and brings them to the brink of adulthood at 17 and 16.

It's a coming of age story in the best sense of the phrase. Not a syrupy sweet kids' story but a life commentary full of cynical, sometimes seamy observations. Betty Smith directs well-aimed digs at bureaucratic people in high places, such as doctors and teachers, who live in a privileged world of their own with no empathy or compassion for the people they supposedly serve. And good for her! Revealing hidden attitudes that stink should be part of a novelist's job when necessary. (Although a certain English teacher of Francie's strongly disagreed.)

Now I'll try to describe how the family touched my heart. The best sorts of stories are those in which the parents take shape as unique individuals with their own depth, rather than just being disciplinary shades in the background.

Image result for a tree grows in brooklynOh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny! The young dad of the family is charming and loving, with a smooth singing voice, natty dress style and knack of making everyone happy. He's their own 'sweet singer of sweet songs.' But we're told his hankering after immortality makes him a useless dreamer, and his freelance singing waiter job is a totally unreliable source of a steady income. His big enemy, alcohol, gets the better of him. Grab your box of tissues before you start.

When I think of Katie I want to push back my chair and give her a standing ovation. She's a hero-mother, with a fierce desire to do anything to not only preserve but prosper her family. She's never afraid to roll up her sleeves and work really hard, and for most the book, puts in long hours as a cleaning lady and janitor. Katie brings dignity and finesse to her job, proving that we're not defined by our occupation, but in fact define it. She has no time for self-pity, which distracts her from what needs to be done and doubles the misery. I love how she chooses to ignore naysayers and focuses on what she knows to be the truth in her heart. 'When she spoke, it was truly, with the right, plain words. And her thoughts walked in a clear, uncompromising line.'

Katie's mother, Grandma Mary Rommely, is deeply pious but un-judgmental of others. Her advice to her daughter about raising children is the best. A steady diet of legends and fairy tales is as vital to their health as physical food. Because a person living in the hard, cold world must have a robust imagination to retreat into, or the world will prove to be too much for them. 'Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.' It makes sense to Katie, who gets hold of a Bible and volume of Shakespeare, and starts reading a page of each to her daughter and son every night, while they're still babies in their cot.

Francie takes it all on board to carry her through life. She figures out early on that books will always be there for her, filling lonely moments, and becoming the perfect substitute for close friends. One of her first jobs is at a 'clipping bureau', which turns out to be a fascinating relic of bygone days. Basically, these girls were engaged as Google search engines by wealthy clients. They sat perusing newspapers all day to cut out articles for their customers' files, relating to whatever they were looking for. Hey, I can imagine myself doing that, but the downside seemed to be eye-strain and brain-strain, since they were unable to work on auto-pilot but had to concentrate intently around the clock. For Francie, it's one of many stepping stones to where she wants to go.

Image result for a tree grows in brooklynBut family dynamics gets tense at times, as favouritism keeps rearing its head. Katie Nolan knows from the start that she'll prefer her cute and robust son over her more puny and dowdy daughter. She has dreams to make Neeley into a sort of new-and-improved Johnny (which amazingly seems to work). Rather than trying to change her own heart, Katie thinks, 'I'm going to love this boy more than the girl, but I  mustn't ever let her know. It is wrong to love one child more than the other, but this is something I can't help.' So with that attitude, how successful do you think she is at concealing it?

It got me hopping mad at first, but I came to see it's all part and parcel of the traits I admire about Katie. She's a lady in touch with her own emotions who can't be bothered trying to fool herself with denial. Plus she's an excellent mother to both. But Francie is sensitive enough to grasp the way things are, long before it bursts out into the open in a way that upsets both children. It's family tension at its best, but I'll say no more. Hats off to the children though, for not buying into competitiveness, jealousy and comparison.

The ending comes at an interesting point for Katie and her kids, and I keep wondering what would have happened next. Katie doesn't seem like the sort of person who could function as a lady of leisure. She'd surely crack at the seams. Francie has the romantic dilemma of not loving the guy who's interested in her as much as one who jilted her. Will the emotions gradually make her crack? And Neeley doesn't strike me as the academic type, so will he keep letting the ladies of the family decide his destiny? If he keeps going along with his mother's ambitions for him, will he crack too? Oh Betty Smith, you rounded it off at a nice place, but I still want more! But I guess that's what our imaginations are for.


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

'The First Four 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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is beginning life with her new husband, Almanzo, in their own little house. Laura is a young pioneer wife now, and must work hard with Almanzo, farming the land around their home on the South Dakota prairie. Soon their baby daughter, Rose, is born, and the young family must face the hardships and triumphs encountered by so many American pioneers. 
And so Laura Ingalls Wilder's adventure as a little pioneer girl ends, and her new life as a pioneer wife and mother begins. The nine Little House books have been cherished by generations of readers as both a unique glimpse into America's frontier past and a heartwarming, unforgettable story.

The manuscript of this story, more the size of a novella, was found in Laura's possessions after her death. It would have been a great discovery for readers who thought it all ended with These Happy Golden Years. 'But wait,' the publishers would say. 'There's more.' My little old Puffin has a terrible looking photoshop job on the cover, but I was still happy to pull it out and get stuck into it again.

The start takes us back to the end of the last novel, when Laura and Almanzo take a buggy ride to discuss their wedding. This time, there's an additional bit that didn't make it into that story. She's decided she doesn't want to marry a farmer after all. (Nice thing to tell a guy when you've been wearing his ring for weeks.) I can understand Laura's train of thought though. It's such a hard life for a woman, because she works so constantly, but is always broke. Meanwhile, the more chilled and relaxed people in town are happily earning money off her family. 'Can't you do something else?' she asks.

Almanzo's reply is along the same lines as his parents' reasoning in Farmer Boy. Farmers are independent, they answer to no man, and have the potential to earn far more than townies if they're willing to work hard. He suggests a three year probation period, and if she's still not happy at the end of it, he'll seek some other vocation. Later he convinces her to extend it to four years. So this little book is all about how it turns out for them.

I like the bold way they begin married life. Laura's courageous nature always impresses me. This five foot tall teenager is game for anything. She scolds a bunch of Indians for standing around in her barn, then hauls off and slaps one in the face. On another occasion she seizes a pitchfork with the intention to scare some howling wolves from their sheep. Luckily the pack has moved further on, but when Almanzo asks her what she would have done, she says, 'Driven them away, of course. That's what I took the pitchfork for.' I wouldn't ever mess with her.

Some more personal, potential personality clashes pop up occasionally, giving the impression that Laura was supporting her position through the pages. Like the time Pa called them crazy for taking newborn Rose out to visit in sub-zero temperature. Laura knows her baby was fine though, because she was well rugged up, and obviously made it unfrozen. She defends herself to generations of readers, whether or not she did to her father's face. At other times she thinks her husband's easy-going nature might be taken advantage of by such people as the neighbour who borrows and wrecks their tools, then fails to return them. More than once, she thinks, 'Oh well, that's Manly's business, and he's not worried.' I can imagine her saying it with an edge to her voice.

Most of all, so many of us relate to her love of books. A kind neighbour brings her a set of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels, which Laura credits with helping her through a hard pregnancy. 'She forgot to feel ill at the sight and smell of food, in her hurry to be done with the cooking and follow her thoughts back into the book. She brought some of their magic and music back into the little house with her.' Yes, don't all bookworms know that feeling.

But how about their deal? It seems the great blessing of their daughter Rose's birth is offset by several sudden disasters. A freak hailstorm can ruin a year's good growth of wheat in twenty minutes. When diptheria strikes the family, poor Almanzo exerts himself too soon during convalescence and suffers a stroke that paralyses his legs, so it takes months to regain sufficient flexibility for work. There's the tragic death of their infant son, and a house fire that burns everything to the ground. (Why did that boy die, when he started with such a healthy ten pound birth weight? It was so sad.) Then speeding winds flatten more crops. They've obviously had to fight tooth and claw for every inch they've gained, so how does it all stack up when they reassess at the end of the four year time period?

Somehow, he convinces her to keep going! You might ask how on earth did he do it? Reading between the lines, I think Laura might have caught some of Almanzo's gambling spirit, since their lifestyle is always a bit of a wager. They probably shared an unshakable feeling that giving up might be too soon, since one good year could turn everything right around. Since you never know when that good year might come, you might as well give it a little bit longer. I can see how that sort of gamble could become an addiction. And some people might say that describes all of life.

One thing would've been clear to them, it was nothing personal. Several bad strokes happened to neighbours and complete strangers too, from death to total financial loss, which we hear about in small anecdotes. Although Uncle Sam gave settlers the incentive to go out and tame the rocky, barren country, it was an impossible expectation in many ways. I'm glad I wasn't around to make the attempt in their time and place, but glad they did it, for the sake of reading these books and what we can take on board from them.

And this one sentence is enough to prove that many of the tough times were all worthwhile. 'It was a carefree, happy time, for two people in sympathy can do pretty much as they like.'

Next up will be On the Way Home.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Stories with Chocolate

Books and chocolate are one of those matches made in heaven, but not all the time. I couldn't eat chocolate whenever I read without busting both my budget and waistline. Every so often it's great for your soul to sample both together though, and here is a list of recommendations for those occasions, because many authors and storytellers seem to understand the tantalising pull of delicious chocolate. When I started trying to brainstorm, it occurred to me that stories with chocolate seem to fall into three categories.

Chocolate as Control. In this type of plot, we see the dark side of chocolate, and I'm not talking about dark chocolate! Something so delicious has the potential to be a real bone of contention. It's been used to twist people's arms, bribe them, and even cause occasional violence.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris
11459926There was almost too much chocolate for some of the characters to handle. A young gypsy woman named Vianne sets up a decadent chocolate shop opposite the church in a small French village. Since it's the beginning of Lent, Father Reynaud is trying to keep his flock practicing self-denial. Her arrival is a disaster, and it's clear all through the story that an eventual show-down is inevitable. It's a classic, 'This town ain't big enough for both of us,' scenario, and he was there first. Of course we're drawn to ponder the nature of institutional authority, and question the point behind certain restrictions. The irony is evident, seeing chocolate is now synonymous with Easter, which Lent is leading up to.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
This young adult novel draws us right into conflict with a capital C. An annual school chocolate fundraising sale becomes the scene of a power battle, and eventually outright war. A young student named Jerry Renault dares to stand up to the Vigils, a gang of thugs who try to dictate how many boxes he should sell, for their own agenda. When he refuses to be pushed around, they know their own credibility will be undermined unless they do something drastic and nasty. School politics becomes a mirror for life at large, and chocolate is just the trigger to set it all off.

My Fair Lady
One of the feel-good musicals of all time. When Professor Henry Higgins first accepts his friend's challenge to make a common flower-seller into a genteel lady, Eliza Doolittle refuses to go along with the plan. She's no fool, and realises that almost all of the hard work and frustration will be required from her. But Higgins uses some ingenious, foolproof coercion to make her re-consider. He simply offers her a chocolate. Eliza has tasted enough to have a weakness for this sweet treat, and decides if it's his normal bribe, it might just be worth the hassle of changing her whole persona.

Chocolate as Misunderstanding. I guess it stand to reason that mix-ups can occur in plots about chocolate, since chocolate boxes come mixed themselves.

The Chocolate Tin by Fiona McIntosh
30328638The story is set during World War One, and the Rowntree family have organised a shipment of their famous chocolate tins as morale boosters for the soldiers in the trenches. One day a volunteer packer named Alexandra makes an impulsive, random addition to one of the tins, which comes back to bite her a few years later. I loved the tasty premise, but this wasn't my favourite book. Review is here.

Harry Potter
Poor Ron Weasley has a really terrible 17th birthday. Never one to resist a treat, he gets stuck into a box of chocolates in the boys' dorm, but they've been laced with love potion for Harry by one Romilda Vane. And then the antidote itself turns out to have been poisoned, which sends him to the hospital wing lucky to have escaped with his life.

Hazel Green by Odo Hirsch
It's the start of one of my favourite ever kids' series. Hazel's good friend Mr Volio the baker has a top secret recipe he'd like her help to name. It has a shortbread base with toffee, strawberries and custard, all in a delicious layer of chocolate. But when the Chocolate Dipper is christened, he accuses Hazel of leaking his secret to a rival baker, Mr Murray. The evidence against her looks bad, and she must work hard to fix the misunderstanding. Here is my review.

Chocolate as Cure and Treat. This might be the best way to enjoy chocolate in both stories and real life. 

Harry Potter
After the chilly, soul-sucking dementors have swept aboard the Hogwarts Express at the start of Harry's third year, the new teacher Professor Lupin has the antidote to drive their awful influence away. Chewing a square of two of chocolate is an instant mood booster. Even muggles understand how dark chocolate contains good endorphins to help fight depression, which has a similar effect to dementors. Wizards and muggles alike are warned to make sure it's used just as a short-term pick-me-up though.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
I call this the most touching of all. The night after her beloved husband Johnny dies, Katie Nolan sends their two kids out in the winter night for some fresh air. They return to find she's improvised a hot chocolate treat for them out of practically nothing. It's cocoa and condensed milk made into a paste with boiling water added to it. The loving gesture does make Francie and Neeley feel better, especially when she adds a marshmallow to float in each one. (Review coming soon.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
This story must surely be the ultimate celebration of chocolate. The enigmatic Willy Wonka has decided to show five lucky golden ticket winners through his incredible chocolate factory. The tickets are floating around the country in random chocolate wrappers. After the first four are confirmed, Charlie Bucket gets lucky for once in his destitute little life. Later as his four bratty companions are picked off one by one, he and his Grandpa Joe are in for the ultimate chocolaty surprise.

Can you think of any more stories that feature chocolate? That loaded milkshake photo was a creation my daughter made one evening. She offered her brothers a homemade treat, and their eyes popped out of their heads when they saw what it was. Working on this list makes me want to drive to the shop for some right now, but I guess one more incident some of us may choose to forget is that Monty Python scene with the big guy at the restaurant, when they offer him one last after-dinner-mint. If you've seen it, you'll know just what I'm talking about.  

11186365Maybe I'll finish with just one more, which was one of my own pet projects. I clearly remember planning this section because I was thinking about chocolate scorched almonds in my car at the time I was working on it, and couldn't get them out of my mind. I decided to write a little bowl of scorched almonds into the plot, as one thing my hero with amnesia tried to jog his memory with. There was something crucial about an incident in which he was eating scorched almonds in the past. But it was too much for him, as he decides everyone loves scorched almonds, so it's not much of a clue as to his identity. As soon as I finished writing the rough draft of this bit, I went to Coles to buy some scorched almonds. (See here for more.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the St. Petersburg of the tsars, is determined to overreach his humanity and assert his untrammeled individual will. When he commits an act of murder and theft, he sets into motion a story that, for its excruciating suspense, its atmospheric vividness, and its depth of characterization and vision is almost unequaled in the literatures of the world. The best known of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces, Crime and Punishment can bear any amount of rereading without losing a drop of its power over our imaginations.

Dostoevsky’s drama of sin, guilt, and redemption transforms the sordid story of an old woman’s murder into the nineteenth century’s profoundest and most compelling philosophical novel.

This is my choice for the Crime Classic category of the 2018 Back to the Classics challenge, and what could be better? I enjoyed The Brothers Karamazov, and psyched myself up for more Dostoevsky.

The title sounds reminiscent of Jane Austen but with a grim twist. That matches the hero, who's a prototype emo kid from the nineteenth century. Rodian Romanovich Raskolnikov is an impoverished Uni drop-out living (or existing) in St Petersburg. He's stand-offish, proud and resists the sympathy of his family and best friend, who all keep loving him anyway. He's perfected his, 'Leave me alone, I'm tired,' line, and even in his good moods, he's like a tinder box everyone is nervous about sparking off. He even looks the part, with his pallid complexion, and dark hair and eyes. But we're told from the start that he's devastatingly handsome.

He has his creepy smile down pat too. It popped up so often, I started making a list. To mention just a few occasions, he gives a distorted smile, a poisonous smile, a thin, ironic smile, a cold and casual smile, an odd, self-disparaging smile, and a vacant smile. He also has a silent, caustic smile, a hate-filled, supercilious smile and a malevolent smile. To cap it all off is his lost and ugly smile. The only sort never forthcoming is a friendly and open smile. So that's our guy, now on with his story.

Related imageRaskolnikov's redeeming characteristic is his concern for underdogs who can't defend themselves. But he has too much time on his hands and over-thinks way too much. He devises a terrible plan, which he forces to fit his personal ideology. Not far from him lives a mean old female pawnbroker named Alyona Ivanovna, who Raskolnikov perceives as the embodiment of everything wrong with the world. She preys on the poor and beats her feeble-minded sister. Since she's a louse in his opinion, he decides to kill her, then use her money to help the poor. He hopes to become a folk-hero like Napoleon, a person who the normal restraints of the law no longer apply to. He reasons that he'll be doing the world a favour when he exterminates Alyona. We go along with him for the ride, as he commits the crime and deals with the aftermath, which begins immediately, when her sister unexpectedly walks in.

Raskolnikov takes an interest in a girl named Sonya Marmelodov, with clear, quiet eyes, because he sees in her a like mind. Sonya is willing to sacrifice her good name for the sake of others, by resorting to prostitution to help feed her starving family. In the same way, he reasons he's become a murderer to help release the world from tyranny. She's appalled like us when she hears his analogy, but by then she's fallen for that emo charm and handsome face. So there's a romantic thread running through the book too. Sonya has a heart of gold, and some readers might think she deserves better than Raskolnikov, but since he's what she really wants, I guess you can say she earns her reward, even though an axe-murderer wouldn't be every girl's dream man.

Dostoevsky might be hinting that we need a good, sound anchor for our thoughts, especially if they tend to veer on the intense side, and run all over the place. On the last few pages, Raskolnikov starts reading the New Testament, because he respects the kind and awesome person it helped shape Sonya into. So we would hope that it might help set some boundaries and parameters for his genuine, seeking heart. Yet it makes me sad to see that even well into his sentence in Siberia, he still doesn't repent of his crime, and defends his reasons for murdering Alyona. I wonder how often this story might have sparked anything dark in other readers, who took Raskolnikov's reasoning on board and said, 'Heck yeah, I can commit murder and justify it by becoming a philanthropist.' How many readers agree with him that some types of murder should be regarded as more acceptable than others? Or is assuming the right to decide whose life is worthwhile a heinous cheek, however you choose to look at it?

Image result for raskolnikovOne main theme might be not to get carried away thinking you're anything special, because when you imagine you're different from everyone else, you probably aren't. Raskolnikov learns this in retrospect. I doubt he's even an exceptional baddie, as many terrorists throughout the years have probably shared his train of thought. When we start regarding somebody as a symbol instead of a human being, we get into very murky waters and become dangerous. ('It wasn't a person, but a principle I killed.') Some might see him as a tragic hero, but I'll always think of him as the wiry 23-year-old male who murders a defenseless old lady in her own home. Since he's so passionate about being generous and defending the weak, there's a stinking irony there. If he really wanted to be a people's hero, why not choose a more threatening figure who might have a chance of fighting back?

Other characters give us occasional relief from Raskolnikov's head space. There's his doting mother and his sister Dunya, who seems to attract sleazy middle-aged suitors like moths to a flame. Most lovable and loyal of all is his best friend Razumikhin, who has no idea what Raskolnikov has been up to. Razumikhin is cheerful, kind and talkative with some great lines, such as, 'Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms. It's by talking nonsense one gets to the truth. Not one truth has been derived at without people first having talked a dozen reams of nonsense.' And after all his friend puts him through, his final verdict is, 'The fact is, that in spite of it all, you're really an excellent chap.'

I'm not sure I completely agree with Razumikhin, but the story kept me turning pages, and had me reflecting that it's all too easy for modern westerners to sit back and judge people who are physically, spiritually and emotionally destitute. Who can say what we'd be driven to do under similar circumstances to these characters? It's a stark, oppressive novel in many ways, yet offers glimpses of optimism. The head of investigation, Porfiry Petrovich (quite a cool character) tells Raskolnikov, 'I know you don't believe it, but I promise you, life will carry you through. You'll even get to like each other afterwards.' Maybe that's what we should all take on board. If there can be a future together for an axe-murderer and a prostitute, I guess there's hope for any of us to shed our perceived labels.


If you're interested in more, he's also on my list of characters who contemplate murder.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Modest Letter Q

Once I was sitting in my car, filling in time while my young son was at a birthday party by reading a book. I noticed that the letter Q was typed in a font I'm not familiar with. It had an odd tail squiggle that ended in a little flourish. Having noticed it once, these quirky Qs started leaping out at me from every second or third page. They were hidden in words such as equivalent, quiet, quilt, question, cheque, equal, quite, require, inadequacy, consequences, square and quality. As I had time on my hands, I grabbed my pen and note pad to jot down the words I caught them in.

It surprised me that day that Q is actually such a well-used letter. I would've assumed it was one of the rare, dispensable ones we don't need very often. We groan when we pick up Qs for our Scrabble palettes, because we fear we'll be stuck with them. But to my amusement, I saw that Q is far more versatile and necessary than I'd ever thought. Imagine if those who make the rules decided we need only 25 letters in our alphabet instead of 26, and we had to boot one out. The Q might have been a big contender in my opinion. But if we dispensed with it, thinking that M, T, S, N, C and all the vowels are more important, I could see that we'd soon miss it and regret our low opinion.

That started me relating to the letter Q in a more personal way. As someone who reads, writes and blogs, in moments of discouragement I'd think of myself as a more redundant person whose function isn't as important as those of others. I felt surrounded by the types of people who could be seen more like a D, T, S or N, P, M. Doctors, teachers, social workers, nurses, pastors and missionaries, you know, the vital difference makers. They add practical, positive input to people's lives. Somehow, I'd got the impression from people's luke-warm reactions as well as the solitude of my own craft that I was far more dispensable. But the letter Q shows me that's not true.

We Qs are quite unique. We might be writers, reviewers, artists, dancers, poets, thinkers, reflectors, and general noticers of what others might miss. Our role is more low key, but really vital. Some Qs are more arty and creative than others, but we all add spice to the world in our own ways. We might write material that works on people's heartstrings to amuse and inspire. We might draw deserved attention to what others have written or created. We might encourage people through the powerful medium of stories or images. We offer others valuable reasons to take a break from their everyday lives and bless them at the same time. We may provide the sort of uplift that could be over in a flash but adds flavor and optimism to someone's whole day. We are encouragers, story-tellers and purveyers of beauty. We don't necessarily earn congratulations or thumbs up, and people may gloss over what we do and move on. But if we stopped, I'm sure the world would notice and want us back, because we'd take lots of colour with us.

Our quirkiness and quixotic qualities gives the world a unique burst of fragrance. There are a few Qs in that sentence. Are you a Q too, or do you know somebody who is? We should remember to affirm them when we think about it. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy

Under the Greenwood Tree is the story of the romantic entanglement between church musician, Dick Dewey, and the attractive new school mistress, Fancy Day. A pleasant romantic tale set in the Victorian era, Under the Greenwood Tree is one of Thomas Hardy's most gentle and pastoral novels.

This is my choice for the 'Classic with a colour in the title' category of the Back to the Classics challenge 2018. My main experience with Thomas Hardy consists of Tess and Jude, which both made me so upset, you'll never find reviews of them on this blog, because I refuse to re-read them. However, Far From the Madding Crowd wasn't so bad, and I'd heard people call this one more of an optimistic read too. I thought it might be a gentle slide back into Hardy, but on the whole, I was glad it was fairly short, since it didn't impress me much.

It's a simple plot with a complex way of being told, and I think I prefer stories to be the other way around. But I've deplored Hardy so often for his tragic tales, it makes me feel a bit mean for criticising him when he writes a more optimistic one :) However, this tale is so non-eventful, I'd challenge anyone to make it to the end without saying, 'Yeah, well, so what?' at least once.

It's all about the impact the arrival of one young woman has on several men within a town. Fancy Day is very pretty, but the most she ever seems to have on her mind is clothes, flirting, and wondering how she appears to by-standers. We know this for a fact because Hardy sometimes lets us glimpse her mental chatter. She reminds me of Dora from Dickens' David Copperfield, yet she's the school teacher! Am I the only one who thinks that's a bit of a worry?

Anyway, three men fall in love with her. So it's not even a lover's triangle, but more of a weird sort of square. There's Mr Shiner, a farmer and church warden in his thirties and Mr Maybold, the new young vicar. And then there's Dick Dewy, the modest son of the local tranter (delivery man) who's in his early twenties. He's obviously the hero we're meant to barrack for.

At the same time, the story follows the course of the male string choir, a proud and passionate group of musicians who have been playing together for many years. When Fancy arrives, they're told their services are no longer needed, all in the name of progress. The vicar and his warden have decided they'd prefer Fancy to play the organ. The poor chaps are forced to accept this, and decide to go out with dignity. I wondered why they couldn't just alternate the style of music from week to week, but I guess when we compare it to current church music, their modern counterparts also choose to move on, rather than cling to outdated forms for sentimental reasons. It's just a pity to see these men sacked from what they love, while their replacement is indifferent to taking on the job. We ask, 'So, is Hardy going to do anything for them?' The answer turns to be nope, it's just a tough call. Bad luck, guys. And as I say ... why is this story material?

It's a tedious read and not an easy one. The book throws us in the deep end of arcane British country dialect. It's not just in speech, but peppered all through the story, as if the narrator assumes all readers will be locals like himself. We need to keep flicking to the glossary at the back, because so many words aren't intuitive. For instance, a 'drong' is an alley or narrow path between walls and hedges. And a 'dumbledore' is a bumble bee. I'm sure the very impressive J.K. Rowling must have known that one when she started planning Harry Potter, so I'm left with a renewed sense of awe for her extensive knowledge base, if nothing else.

It all seems so ancient to us, yet characters often discuss old-fashioned times, as if they're coming from a completely modern standpoint. It gives a strange sort of feeling that our twenty-first century generation is just scraping the surface of history. It also makes me wonder how precise modern authors of historical fiction ought to be. I'm sure many of us don't know a fraction of the words Hardy spouts in this story. You just had to have been there to pull it off. Yet on the other hand, if you nail it too accurately, nobody will understand you. So perhaps in modern historical novels, it's not authenticity we're after as much as a good story.

The descriptions, always Hardy's strong point, are lovely, with all the cloud, light and chimney smoke. He has some good, humorous dialogue too. But I've got to be honest, my final thought was, 'Tough luck, Dick. I get to escape from Fancy now, but you don't.'


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Characters who contemplate murder

The main thing these characters have in common is that they carefully contemplate committing murder, and plan how it'll take place. There's no flying off the handle and losing it in heated moments for these guys. Most of them carry it through to the letter, although a couple decide not to. But in each case we get insight into all their deliberation and forethought. We seem to lap up the opportunity as readers, because there's one more surprising fact about my selection. Even though these are murderers or wannabes, every guy on this list receives plenty of empathy, admiration and even outright love from fans. I'll rattle them off, and you can try to help me figure out why. 

I'll start with the Bible and Shakespeare.

King David
The ruler of Israel plans it all out to cover his own tracks. He'd slept with the wife of a loyal soldier and made her pregnant. The man, Uriah, won't succumb to the enticing offer of a night at home with his wife before a big campaign. So David feels he has no choice but to bump him off. He orders Uriah to be placed at the front of the army in battle, where he'll surely be killed. It was something only a king could arrange, but David's act isn't the discreet manoeuvre he intended. Ironically, what he planned to be secret is known by everyone familiar with the Bible.

The famous Thane of Cawdor can't forget a witches' prophecy that he'll be King of Scotland. He and his wife hatch up a sneaky plot to kill Duncan, the current king, while he visits their castle. Macbeth has many reservations, but caves in to her pressure. Instead of being a trustworthy host, he carries out the plan to intoxicate and frame the guards, and stab Duncan in his sleep. Macbeth learns the hard way that promoting yourself by evil and violence is no way to thrive.

The young prince of Denmark is out for revenge. He suspects that his uncle, King Claudius, murdered his father to become ruler. Hamlet has it straight from the mouth of a spooky figure who claims to be his father's ghost. He puts it to the test by staging a play in which a murder takes place just as the ghost describes, to observe Claudius' reaction. The result is a green light for Hamlet, but his own murder attempts turn pear shaped, starting from the moment he kills the wrong man behind the curtain. It's one of those snowball tragedies in which not many characters are left standing at the end.

The next pair may represent the shortest and longest examples of planning.

The first mate of the Pequod contemplates a moral murder in a flash, when he sees an opportunity set before him. It's common knowledge that Captain Ahab is a maniac who'll probably kill all his crew in a mad attempt to chase the whale Moby Dick. Starbuck notices his sleeping captain's weapon lying unattended, and knows it could be the perfect moment to finish him off and avert disaster. But a lot rolls through his head in those few seconds, including the ethical dilemma of murdering a superior officer, even to save others. Readers are no doubt torn over whether he decided right in the end. (Here's my review of Moby Dick)

This might be the most patient example of contemplating a murder. When Heathcliff was a boy, his (sort of) adopted brother Hindley treated him horribly. Young Heathcliff vows to get him one day. That day comes after they've both grown up. Driving a grieving widower to drink, then winning all his property in card games, then quietly doing him in, is proof that biding your time pays off. It takes a bit of reading between the lines in this example, but Emily Bronte gives her readers broad hints that this is exactly what happened. (Here's my review of Wuthering Heights)

The final trio are among my favourite examples.

Frankenstein's Monster
The lonesome beast is devastated that even his scientist creator rejects him. He relieves his grief by planning to murder everyone dear to Victor Frankenstein, including his brother and best friend. After Victor refuses to make him a female companion, he scares him with the threat, 'I'll be there on your wedding night.' So while Victor's busy arming himself with all sorts of weapons, the monster silently carries out his scheme, and murders Frankenstein's new wife, Elizabeth, with his favourite method, strangling. In a way, he's proven that he has a more crafty mind than the guy who created him.

Draco Malfoy
1The young Slytherin student has a nasty ultimatum from Lord Voldemort. Kill Albus Dumbledore or watch your family die. So Draco drives himself to the verge of illness figuring out how to do it. Voldy doesn't believe he'll succeed, and plans to use Draco's failure to crush the Malfoys. But we readers know not to underestimate Hogwarts school boys, especially desperate ones. After a few failed attempts with a charmed necklace and poisoned bottle, Draco opens a secret passage for the dark side and stands on the astronomy tower with the unarmed headmaster helpless before him. Only then does he realise what Dumbledore knew all along. He's not the sort of person who can commit cold-blooded murder. At the crucial moment, he doesn't have it in him. It's a heartless reader who doesn't feel sorry for Draco all through The Half Blood Prince.

7144Rodion Raskolnikov
This gloomy Russian Uni student believes he's concocted the perfect moral murder. Alyona, a mean old pawn broker, lives a worthless life in his opinion. If he kills her, then uses her wealth to help the poor, it should cancel out the crime, right? Hmm, the grey areas are pretty black, but we're stuck in Rodion's head while he figures out exactly how he'll do it, by distracting her with a false pledge and smashing her head in with an axe. At first he changes his mind a lot, opting out of the deed several times. But we know he'll go ahead with it eventually, and when he does, all we can do is tag along and witness the gruesome scene as we turn the pages. (My review of Crime and Punishment is here.)

So there we have them. It's a strange collection. (Who would expect to find King David and Frankenstein's monster on the same list?) Why do they get all the love, especially considering a huge chunk of their victims are decent and harmless people? I  personally love some from my list more than others, yet I can understand why each of them has earned himself a bit of a following. Maybe it speaks as much good about us readers as it does about these murderous men. On the whole, we must be a pretty understanding and forgiving bunch, especially when we get a glimpse into what makes a person tick. Perhaps it's to our credit, and the way we're designed for our hearts to reach out to others. (Or do you think it's because several of them are just so dashing or cute.)

Are any of your favourites on my list? Or are there others you might add?

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.