Monday, June 18, 2018

'The Long Winter' 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. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of June, which is winter for me in Australia, so I didn't mind rugging up warm to read this book.

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The town of De Smet is hit with terrible, howling blizzards and Laura and her family must ration their food and coal. When the supply train doesn't arrive, Almanzo Wilder and his brother realize something must be done. 

The title speaks volumes. At the start, Pa Ingalls thinks he's prepared for once in his life. He's had a history of being knocked down by sudden disasters such as prairie fires, grasshopper plagues and Indian rampages. This time he's decided to heed four warning signs that the coming winter will hit hard.

1) Muskrats are building the walls of their homes super thick.
2) Birds are flying south as fast as they can.
3) A couple of freak early blizzards have struck in October.
4) An elderly Indian man warns several fellows that a 'heap big snow' is in store for them.

Together, the four signs convince Pa to move his family from the new claim back to town, to weather the cold season. Living in a tight community with shops and a railway handy will guarantee a steady supply of provisions, right? Nope, not so simple, because the sheer magnitude of that harsh winter takes almost all the new settlers in town off guard. It turns out Pa's almost knocked out again, and Ma and the girls with him, as usual.

The blizzards are like vicious adversaries. They strike suddenly, last for days, obliterate everything in sight, and plunge temperatures far below zero degrees. They also occur back-to-back so often, there's barely time to draw a breath between them. Shops run out of groceries because trains can't make it through. No sooner is snow cleared from the tracks than there's a mountain of more. Several months straight of this push the Ingalls' and several others to the brink of starvation.

You can't help cheering them on when they improvise their own alternative sources of heat and light. There's no more coal, so Pa invents a method of twisting hay to use for fuel. The kerosene is through, so Ma makes a button lamp with the help of some axle grease and a strip of calico. Three cheers for team Ingalls, but unfortunately the blizzards have the upper hand when it comes to food, which is far harder to improvise.

Not everyone in town is equally disadvantaged. The Wilder brothers are confident their supplies will see them through, and hot pancakes with molasses and bacon become their staple. Sure, it might be a bit monotonous, but I can imagine my own boys being happy with delicious pancake stacks day after day, so I'm sure those two didn't mind at all. Almanzo even hides a stash of wheat which he intends to use for seed in the spring. But as winter wears on, he can't help sensing that some people won't make it unless someone does something drastic. There are rumours of a settler with an abundant wheat crop living miles out of town, so some daredevil will have to dash out between blizzards to find him and attempt to purchase some. Only then will it become life-saving wheat. Who better to take the risk than two fit young men like Almanzo and his friend, Cap Garland?

It's quite intriguing to see snippets of townsfolk who really lived. There's Mr Foster, who seems to bungle everything he touches, and the opportunist Mr Loftus, who intends to rip off starving people for all he can get. Then there's Mr Anderson, the settler who grew all that wheat. I hope he enjoyed his own company. And surely there were several people who weren't even mentioned. Cap Garland's family included his sister Florence, the school teacher, but did they have a mother? Did Mrs Garland attempt to stop Cap setting off on a rescue mission which might have cost him his life? Women like Ma wouldn't let their husbands go, so surely it'd hurt even more to let your teenage schoolboy son take the risk? I'm curious about this boy with the smile like the sun coming up at dawn, that changed everything. (Those are Laura's own words, which make it easy to wonder if she ever had a crush on him.)

The horses deserve a mention as some of the best characters too. Laura was good at writing animals, and they stand out with personalities of their own. First was Almanzo's fancy matched team. Prince went on the dangerous mission with him and Lady ran off with an antelope herd for a short time. She was adorable when she caught sight of Prince and Almanzo in the distance, and raced back to them. Then there was the Ingalls' horse, good old David, who Pa called more sensible than he believed a horse could possibly be. They all just happened to be caught in that terrible deadly winter, but did the best they could, and their humans would surely be nowhere without them. They deserve the mention as brave, unsung heroes. Of course there was also Sam the panicker, but hey, I can't blame him for freaking out. It takes all sorts.

There are always some cool lines in these stories, often from Pa, who is one of the best at one-liners. 'I beat the blizzard to the stable by the width of a gnat's eyebrow,' he says. And when Laura suggests he quit sugar to bring out the full flavor of his tea, he replies, 'A good, hot cup of tea brings out the flavor of the sugar, Half-Pint.' It made me laugh when he told Grace his nose was frozen, and Ma said, 'Stop worrying about your looks, Charles.'

The books in this series are all excellent, but this one has a sense of urgency and desperation all of its own. The stakes are so high, it reads like page-turning fiction, but all that happened was true. How amazing for 21st century readers like us to reflect that these people with no electricity in their homes sat through what was essentially a 7-month black-out in sub-freezing temperatures. Although there wasn't much natural light in the story, it throws heaps of light on the way some people were forced to live, and I love it. It's well worth a read, and as winter has set in here where I live, it was a good atmosphere to enjoy it.

Next up will be Little Town on the Prairie.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Guys with crazy, genetic diseases involving time

Time is perhaps the most fascinating and relentless force of all. It steadily changes each of us and eventually removes us from this earth's picture entirely. Nobody can speed it up or slow it down. The most we can do is create the illusion that we can, with expensive products, good food and strict exercise regimes. But we always succumb eventually, as it ticks steadily away, eroding us into faded, frail images of our former selves. Maybe that's why speculative stories about guys like these intrigue us, because they encourage us to ask, 'What if time behaved differently for us? What would be the ramifications of that?' It's interesting and fun that several authors have grappled with the same questions, and what they inflict on their poor heroes could be regarded as various medical conditions, enabling us to ponder some possible answers. Here goes. 

Tom Hazard (from How to Stop Time)
How to Stop TimeHe has a condition that causes him to age incredibly slowly, at the rate of one year for every 15. He's seen a lot of history in his life, meeting celebrities such as Shakespeare, Captain Cook and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This gives him plenty of insight for his current job as a High School History teacher, but Tom finds it hard to deal with the downside, which is outliving everyone he grows to care about. (My review is here.)

Benjamin Button (from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
I love the concept of poor Benjamin's tale. His life trajectory is the opposite to other people's. He's born as a haggard, grey-haired man and ages backward until his death from old age, as a new born baby. The image of how he and the love of his life face their final moments together is haunting; an elderly woman holding a helpless infant.

Henry de Tamble (from The Time Traveler's Wife)
The Time Traveler's WifeHis condition once saved his life as a 5-year-old, but he senses it will also be the death of him. Henry zips back and forth to different stages of his own future and past, with the inability to control when it will happen. His genetic clock randomly resets itself, often at extremely awkward moments. He always vanishes without a trace, leaving a pile of clothes behind on the floor, to appear entirely naked in another time frame. But he has the consolation of some interesting conversations with himself at different ages. To a certain extent, this gives him comforting insight into what lies ahead for him, but how terrifying for Henry when his future self no longer visits. (My review is here.)

Dorian Gray (from The Picture of Dorian Gray)
The Picture of Dorian GrayYou could say that his time condition didn't develop until his late teens or early twenties. This young man longed to trade places with his own portrait, because it would be so wonderful to stay gorgeous and young. Suddenly that's just what happens. The canvas bears the brunt of his hard living and bad choices, so Dorian hides it away in his attic. Meanwhile, everyone wonders how he manages to stay so ravishingly attractive. It's bound to catch up with him some time though, because that's the nature of time, and we know it'll hit hard when it does. (Here is my review.)

Tuck EverlastingJesse Tuck (from Tuck Everlasting) 
This teenager and his whole family could be said to have caught their time condition from contaminated water. There was evidently some sort of supernatural bug in the stream they drank from, which preserved them from the ravages of aging from then on. Further more, it fortified each of them so they were impossible to kill. So when Jesse visits the grave of his childhood sweetheart Winnie long after she's grown old and passed away, he's still the same handsome young man he was in the 1920's. Only his fashion sense has changed. His is perhaps the most tragic tale of all. For who would really want that sort of indestructible immortality?

What a wild ride it would be to get hold of all these stories and read them back to back. If you're like me, they might help make you content with your rapidly aging self. Perhaps ours is the best case scenario after all, because these guys' lives were fraught with too much difficulty and heartache by far. Would you trade places with any one of them? Perhaps I'll finish off with the legendary guy who represents what each of us have to put up with.

Father Time
Image result for father timeHe's not actually a mortal, but a personified picture of the passage of time in our lives. He's elderly and bearded because he's been around literally forever. His scythe and hour glass represent the one-way movement we all have to cope with. The young will grow old, but the old can't rejuvenate themselves and start over again. Presenting him in a human form like the rest of us is possibly apt, because it could be argued we all have a genetic condition regarding time, just like the guys on the list, which starts ticking away the moment we're born. We all know it's chronic and will turn out to be terminal, but compared to them, we wouldn't have it any other way.

You might enjoy my related list of Evergreen Children, those storybook kids who never grow up. It turns out there's a lot they can teach us.

There's also this reflection on the passage of time, featuring a wise and happy bunch named The Graveyard School.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The bad boys of David Copperfield

I've devoted this ramble to three villains of one particular book. While I was working on my review of David Copperfield, I realised that what I had to say about these guys would be enough to fill a blog post of its own. There was no way trying to squeeze them into the main review would do them justice. It makes sense that there's a trio of baddies, since the story is about one young man, and every person probably bumps into at least three antagonists during the course of his life. And since they each had their own unique agenda, I thought I'd set myself the challenge of ranking them from best to worst. Whether or not you agree with my order, here it is. 

James Steerforth
Oh, Steerforth, you were the total package. To know and love you was one and the same. We get lines like this. 'He went into Mr Barkis' room as if he were light and air, brightening and refreshing it as if he were healthy weather.' Steerforth, you had that effect everywhere, so why mess up your life with a horrible deed? I think we can work out a possible reason. He was the spoiled only child of a single mother who made it her sole purpose to smooth paths for her boy. She reminds me of that well-meaning person in the proverb, who carefully removes the cocoon to assist the emerging butterfly, stunting him in the process. Mrs Steerforth removed all need for ambition from James' life. He got preferential treatment wherever he went, for doing nothing.

We all benefit from the occasional struggle. A bit of resistance to stretch their wings against is good for young men's characters, but Steerforth grew up with none. Even his schoolmasters were given the rule to never rub him the wrong way. I believe seducing an engaged woman from a lower class was possibly the biggest challenge of his life. So if life keeps pouring you lemonade, you've got to look for your own lemons, just to break up the monotony. Perhaps being doted on actually brought out the badness in him. I actually felt sorry for him, especially when he was crying for help without knowing it. It happens every time he envies David's fresh naivety, and when he remarks, 'It would have been well for me to have a steadfast and judicious father.'

Steerforth appears far more gifted, worldly, admirable and superior to David on the surface, but a glimpse into their psyches shows that it's far better to be David, who was so easy to make happy, and full of gratitude to others. Steerforth says, 'I am heavy company for myself sometimes.' The dude who impresses and pleases everyone has no illusions about himself.

In our last glimpse of Steerforth, he pleads with David to remember him at his best. That comes easiest for me with this particular bad boy, who I consider as much victim as villain, although his harm was all so lovingly intended.

On to our second contender for worst villain in David Copperfield.

Uriah Heep    
Whoa, what a guy. Long before the extent of his sneaky, illegal machinations comes to light, we find Dickens using physical descriptions to set him up as an oily little creep. It was the mid-nineteenth century, and Uriah Heep comes across as snakier than Voldemort and froggier than Gollum, long before either of them were created. You can almost feel his clammy handshake. We can't hold all that against him, of course, but young Uriah turns out to be the king of all hypocrites. He's learned to put on a groveling, fawning, self-deprecating manner to people he resents, while the whole time he's plotting their downfall.

You can't help understanding his motivation when you consider his background. Uriah describes the shoddy treatment his family received from others just for being destitute. But his downfall is targeting people who never did him any personal harm, or wished ill for him at all. It's just because of their social positions and who they are. So if you compare him to Voldemort, his attitude was a bit like that of young Tom Riddle. Uriah was doing what many trouble-makers have done before and since; that is choosing to hate individuals not for who they are, but for what they represent in his own mind. Maybe he should've stepped back to consider, it was exactly what he was blaming them for doing with him.

If you know of the rock band 'Uriah Heep', it's cool to discover the inspiration for their name. Maybe not everyone knows this little bit of trivia. And I'm sure if he ever found out, our Uriah would say he feels honoured that they named themselves after him, since he's much too 'umble.

Now, the dubious drum roll for the worst character in David Copperfield.

Edward Murdstone

He didn't commit the classic crimes of the first two contenders, but in my books he's far nastier than the pair of them combined. At least they were aware of their own wrong-doing, but he has that lethal sort of piety that convinces him his cruelty is justified. He truly believes that bullying a young woman who adores him, and crushing the spirit of a little child is for their own good. The Murdstones of the world never seem to wake up to themselves. Even when Miss Betsey confronts him with his own depravity, it doesn't sink in. Years later, he's still justifying his actions and breaking the hearts of other innocent girls.

Perhaps many of the evil tyrants in history books and legend share Murdstone's qualities. It's his self-deluded zeal and hatred that makes him a dangerous man. He's never stopped from his destructive course, a chilling piece of realism I can't help taking to heart. While the Steerforths and Heeps of the world self-destruct, get caught or run out of steam, the Murdstones are still out there, twisting people's pliant natures, killing others by slow degrees, and doing untold harm while they believe they're doing good. Dickens could have written some just desserts for Murdstone, yet he didn't. I take that as a sober warning to be ever vigilant and on the lookout for his type.

So there you have them. Not only are they vastly dissimilar to each other, but they each present themselves to our hero David in a different guise. One comes across as a dear friend, one as a horrific bully and the third an enigma he finds hard to figure out for a very long time. If you've read David Copperfield, do you agree with the way I ranked this trio? Or have you any extra thoughts to add? After so long spent reading this book, I'm always up for a good discussion.   

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is the story of a young man’s adventures on his journey from an unhappy & impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr Murdstone; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora; & the magnificently impecunious Micawber, one of literature’s great comic creations.

In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his “favorite child”—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of his most exuberant & enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy & comedy in equal measure.
Originally published as a monthly serial, from 4/1849 to 11/1850.

This is my choice for the 19th Century Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018. Warning: There are mild spoilers, but old classics are fair game.

I've read a few other Dickens novels, but this mammoth always slid beneath my radar. I discovered that of all he'd ever written, Dickens called it his 'favourite child.' Whether he meant David Copperfield the book or David the character, I wanted to find out why. He seemed to be setting the challenge to see if we'd call it our favourite too. So I started without a clue of what to expect, except that David is one of Dickens' famous little orphan boys who had a very rough start. He grows up during the course of the story and becomes a celebrated fiction author, so I wonder if that autobiographical content gave it the soft spot in Dickens' heart. (Maybe their inverted initials, CD and DC are significant, and maybe not.)

It begins like a gender-reversed Cinderella story. Little Davy lives happily with his widowed mother, until she marries mean Mr Murdstone, who takes on the evil stepfather role. David's mother, Clara, is a weak-willed young girl who loves her son dearly, but lets him down. Not only does she fail to stick up for him, but even lets the bullies talk her around to their point of view.  ('They broke her like a poor caged bird, and wore her deluded life away in teaching her to sing their notes.') Eventually the poor young mother dies, and David is left at the mercy of Murdstone and his bitter, twisted sister; a terrible place for a sensitive child to be.

But David is no passive Cinderella. Rather than sitting around crying, to be later rescued by a fairy-godmother, he takes his destiny into his own hands. David has heard tales about his dead father's aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood. She was a man-hater (with good reason) who would have taken on his support if he'd been a girl, but she was present at his birth, and stalked off in disgust when he turned out to be a boy. He knows his only chance to escape a terrible fate is to set off on his own two feet to track her down, and do his best to convince her to give him another chance. It's a brave move indeed, since there's no guarantee Miss Betsey will even let him in her door.

I love how David draws on his dead father's stash of classic novels for courage and inspiration. They save his peace of mind, and by extension, his whole life. When David makes sound decisions, he feels he has the support of his favourite fictional heroes to back him up. I doubt he would have taken action without their influence. Even when David hadn't held a novel in his hands for a long time, he'd soaked up all the exploits enough to know what true heroes do. He says, 'I was as true to them as they were to me.' What an awesome example of the power of good fiction in action.

58701The rest of the book is about what happens to him later, as he goes to school, then starts a career. The impression that Dickens was doing some personal cathartic stuff through David makes it a fairly intense read. But although it's as thick as a brick, there are many cool breathing stops along the way. You can tell from its structure that he wrote it as a magazine serial. It's full of mini-cliffhanger moments, often at the ends of chapters. And characters we haven't seen for some time have a tendency to pop up again in the most surprising circumstances. Even though I wised up to this, it still took me by surprise several times.

I don't think it's the perfect book. I had problems with the way Dickens depicted some of the young women. They tend to be one-dimensional. Dora is the sort of beautiful blonde airhead nobody wants to be typecast as. Emily is the prototype girl prodigal, but her fall from grace didn't convince me to sympathise with her, since I was never convinced that she truly loved Steerforth, her seducer, although she said she did. My heart was more with her beloved family, Mr Peggotty and Ham, whose hearts she broke. And Agnes is such a saint and angel, I was almost blinded by beams of light from the page whenever she stepped into a scene. You almost need a warning to read her parts with sunglasses. Never once did she have a moment of human weakness, lose her cool, or do something regrettable. Dickens could craft well-rounded female characters, but I think he missed the boat with the David Copperfield girls!

In contrast, the bad boys are so complex and finely-layered, you could have a psychological field day with them. We may call them scoundrels and villains, but they are memorable ones who make the book the masterpiece it is. The more I think about them, the more they deserve to be probed individually, and even ranked, so I'll devote another whole ramble just to them. (Update, here it is; The Bad Boys of David Copperfield)

There are many supporting characters who have become legends over the years, such as the elastic Micawber family, always bouncing back from the brink of financial disaster, sometimes within a 24-hour period. There's David's good old nurse Peggotty, who was never in the position to do much for her boy, yet the tiny things make a huge difference and help shape his character. And simple-hearted Mr Dick, with his unique way of diffusing facts he doesn't need, by sending them up in the sky on the tail of a kite. Not to mention Miss Mowcher, the tiny hairdresser who teaches David not to take people on face value.

Whether or not it was planned specifically by Dickens, there are several single parent characters in this book, either natural or surrogate. We have the mothers, Mrs Copperfield, Mrs Steerforth, Mrs Heep and eventually Miss Betsey Trotwood. They tend to have boys. Then there's the fathers, Mr Wickfield, Mr Peggotty and Mr Spenlow, who interestingly seem to have girls. In each case, you can trace some direct influence from their input on the kids, for either good or bad. There is a lot of relationship material to tease out. That between David and Miss Betsey is the sweetest of all. She makes no attempt to hide the fact that she'd wished for a girl, and often refers to his 'sister Betsey Trotwood Copperfield' who never existed! You'd imagine that would be enough to give David a complex, yet it doesn't. I think it actually does the opposite, and shows him how much she comes to care for him, since it's enough to make her shove aside her strong prejudice and decide his gender doesn't matter. 

But the biggest takeaway is the strength of David's character, even from childhood. 'I wondered with a sudden fear whether it is likely our good clergyman could be wrong, and Mr and Miss Murdstone right, and that all the angels in heaven can be destroying angels.' Something as quiet and personal as deciding 'NO' to this question, makes David a hero. He goes out looking for Miss Betsey, and it changes the course of his life. ''There was no hope of escape from it unless the escape was my own act.' If he hadn't done that, she definitely wouldn't have come to seek him.

This story is a big commitment. It's taken me well over a month to read and process, yet I think it's well worth the effort.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Emma Woodhouse - Why do readers love such a snob?


This girl easily collects her share of critics down through the centuries because of her massive, inflated ego. And no wonder. For a bit of background, see my original review of Emma.

1) She's manipulative
Her matchmaking activity reminds me of a little girl playing with a dolls house, and saying, 'These ones can go here, and these can go over there.' On the surface, it may come across as a generous interest in others. That's Emma's intent, but it conceals her smug opinion that she knows enough to oranise not just herself but everyone else too. And as the story proves, her busybody activity simply causes hassles. If Emma's plans had worked out, she could have ruined people's lives.

2) She's a super snob
Giving good young farmer Robert Martin the thumbs down for her friend Harriet is just the start. Remember Emma's abysmal attitude toward the Cole family, who decided to hold a ball? She thought it would be audacious of them to invite such important people as her father and herself, and intended to coolly refuse, to keep them in their place. Only when the invitation was slow in coming did she realise it might be fun to attend after all.

She's like the popular head girl of an elite private school. It's easy to be amiable and pleasant when everyone pays you homage and wants to be like you. Big fish in small ponds keep getting their high opinions of themselves reinforced by general praise. Harriet boosts Emma's ego until she almost launches into space. It seems to be a sort of vicious circle of big-headedness. Everyone thinks you're wonderful because you seem to be good-tempered, so you continue to be good-tempered because everyone thinks you're wonderful. Negative qualities can remain dormant for a long time because nothing happens in your well-ordered little world to shake them out.

So who cares to read about a main character like that? Lots of people don't. On every Jane Austen forum or review of this book, you'll find readers who can't bear Emma for those very reasons. Yet her popularity seems to stay constant over the years. And if you were to ask me, I'd say that in spite of these qualities, she always grows on me. Here's why.

1) Her author knows she's a snob
You may ask who cares, since the author isn't part of the story? It makes a bigger difference than we might think. Perhaps the crucial difference between Emma Woodhouse and enormously snobby main characters from other books is that the author wrote her that way on purpose. Austen levels with us right from the start that Emma had 'too much of her own way and a disposition to think too well of herself.' Getting this straight from an omniscient narrator's mouth humanises Emma. We enter into her world hoping that her haughty edges may be smoothed by circumstances. The type of characters I really can't stand are those whose authors evidently don't realise they're stuck up! We're supposed to love them too, but just want to smack their faces. Emma isn't like that. Or at least we trust that the metaphorical smack in the face is coming. (A modern, animated male counterpart may be Emperor Kuzco from 'The Emperor's New Groove.' They're horrible snobs, but we know there's some heart buried there somewhere.)

2) She's relatable and real
Emma inner attitudes, which she won't ever to admit to others, may strike a chord with similar secret feelings we may have harboured ourselves. Take as an example her reasons for not liking Jane Fairfax. Emma knows that Jane is more accomplished than her in many ways, and feels shown up. Also, she senses that the reserved Jane may be holding part of herself back, and hates to think that anybody has private thoughts she's not privy to. Emma's feelings aren't honourable to reveal, so she keeps them to herself. And that appeals to parts of us we might have decided to keep hidden too, because they don't quite show us up in the light we'd choose. It gives us a sort of camaraderie with Emma, which we can acknowledge secretly to ourselves as we read.

3) She really is something special
That's partly why so many people admire her. It's not all about her wealth, although that holds huge sway with gold diggers like Mr Elton. But Emma is also beautiful, intelligent, and athletic too, for a girl of her era. Mrs Weston, her former governess and biggest fan takes every opportunity to rave about Emma's superiority. 'There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being the picture of health. Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown up health. She is loveliness itself Mr Knightley, is she not?' He has to agree it's all true, and the fact that Emma has a fussy, hypochondriac father probably makes the validity of all this even more admirable.

4) She speaks up when she's offended
You've to got cheer on someone who makes an excellent point! Emma learns that the good-looking Mr Frank Churchill had been using her as a foil, to hide his romantic interest in Jane Fairfax. She's understandably furious because he never stopped to consider that he was trifling with a lady's heart.

The phrase 'two timing jerk' hadn't been coined back then, but you've got to applaud Emma for her Regency era equivalent. 'What right had he to come among us with affection and faith engaged and manners so very disengaged?' Then she goes on to rage about his, 'hypocrisy and deceit, espionage and treachery,' which we can't help grinning at, under the circumstances. 'It is fit that the fortune is on his side, for the merit is all on hers!' Frank's loyal stepmum suggests that Emma might be going a bit far, but no, we readers don't mind her going on and on! Nothing like the satisfaction of someone voicing their indignation.

5) She has many resources 
I love it when Emma declares her intention to never seek a husband for herself, and Harriet asks, 'Well, how shall you employ yourself when you grow old?' Emma doesn't even need to think about it. 'Mine is an active, busy mind, and I don't see why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than at one and twenty. Woman's usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now, or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more. If I give up music, I shall take to carpet work. As for objects of interest for the affections, I shall be very well off with all the children of a sister I love so much to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life should need.' Bravo! Emma clearly wasn't a bad influence on Harriet in every respect.

6)  When the crunch comes, she has the grace to feel bad
We surely all remember that turning point. Emma's impromptu comment to Miss Bates at the picnic is pretty witty, but considering the social positions of both of them, is in poor taste. But when Mr Knightley tells Emma it was 'badly done', she suddenly has a long-overdue blast of empathy, and it breaks her heart. She cries all the way home in her carriage, and next day pays a call on the Bates', with a different motive than ever before. This time it's genuinely with a desire to give pleasure, rather than be a duty. The scales have been ripped from Emma's eyes at last, and the fact that she was so snobby to start with may make her even easier to like at this point. If there's hope for such a habitual snob as Emma Woodhouse, there might be hope for anyone.

So that Jane Austen's attempt at presenting readers with a main character who is so unlikable in one main point, but coerces us to like her anyway. If you've read Emma, did you like the main character or not? And if you haven't, how do you feel about the thought of reading a whole novel about a main character you're told straight off is an awful snob?  


Friday, May 18, 2018

The Royal Book Game

We're witnessing significant times for the British Royal Family, with the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, not to mention the recent birth of a new little prince for Will and Kate. So whether you're a staunch royalist, a republican or something in between, you can't miss what's been happening on the news. I saw this bookish tag game and decided to share it on my blog to mark the occasion, as my tribute to Harry and Meghan. Please play along. The rules are easy. Just match a book with the royal criteria.

QUEEN ELIZABETH (An old book you treasure)
There are several lovely antique books on my shelf that fit the bill, including an edition of L.M. Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush from the 1930s. Such a gem.

KING GEORGE (A popular book you don't want to read)
Which George are they talking about? Mad Farmer George from the era that was named after him, or our current queen's father in the early-twentieth century? Anyway, I'll go Fifty Shades of Grey. We found proof from a second hand shop to back up my decision not to bother reading it. My son, who was along with me that day, amused himself by setting all the copies on one shelf, and there were almost eighty altogether. Why do so many former owners of this book continue to toss it out?

PRINCE CHARLES (A book everyone loves but you)
Lol, it's got to be Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. So many readers adore that book, but it didn't work for me at all. Mostly because I didn't like the leading man, Maxim de Winter. He was cantankerous, patronising, not at all sexy, and a crook to boot. I don't know what the nameless heroine saw in him, let alone generations of female readers. (My review is here.)

PRINCESS DIANA (A book fellow bloggers made you buy)
Well, I actually borrowed it from the library, but it was An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alammedine. I'd never heard of it, but it was well worth tracking down. It's about a quiet lady who persists in her literary passion of translation, even though nobody has a clue what she's doing. (My review is here.)

PRINCE HARRY (A book that took you on a wild ride)
Whoa, let me choose two, because they spring to mind at the same time. One is Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. The villains sure knew how to put a helpless heroine through a torturous ordeal, almost sending her mad in the process. (My review is here.) The other is A Cast of Stones, by Patrick W Carr. It's a fantasy novel that dragged its naive young hero through all sorts of danger, while he wondered why he was the target of so many wannabe assassins, having no idea he was the chosen one. (My review is here.) I highly recommend both of them.

DUCHESS KATE (Your last book purchase)
Technically she's not really the latest member of the British Royal family any more, because she's added three little children to the mix and after this weekend, there'll be Meghan Markle too. But I'll choose David Copperfield. I had a very thick copy which my dad used to own, but it was making my hand sore, so I bought a smaller edition from Dymocks. It's still thick as a brick, because it is nudging 1000 pages, but is far more manageable to handle. (Review soon to come.)

So those are my choices. How about yours? I challenge you to do it for Harry and Meghan. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'By the Shores of Silver Lake' 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. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of May. And you can see by the state of my old book cover, that it was very well loved. There's not a single page still intact.
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The Ingalls family leaves Plum Creek.

Pa heads west to the unsettled wilderness of the Dakota Territory. When Ma, Laura, Mary, Carrie, and Grace join him, they become the first settlers in the town of DeSmet. And Pa begins work on the first building in what will soon be a brand-new town on the shores of Silver Lake.

The story picks up four or five years after the events of On the Banks of Plum Creek. New developments include the addition to the family of little Grace. But there's only been a couple of measly wheat crops since the grasshoppers decimated everything. And a bout of scarlet fever has swept through, making Mary blind. It's one of the saddest events of the series. As a kid I kept waiting for her sight to return, then realised it wasn't going to happen.

At the start, Pa's sister Docia arrives one evening and invites him to join her new family out west. She offers him the job of accountant and store keeper for a railroad camp. Best of all, the government is offering homesteads to settlers eager to travel, so he convinces Ma that it's their newest providential opportunity. The land is huge and wild, just the way Pa and Laura like it. So they're up and off again, and Ma and the girls get the chance to catch the train out there; an experience they find mildly terrifying.

I feel we get a bit of insight into why Laura was such a perceptive writer, with the skill to bring the most tiny, colourful nuances to life. It was surely because of her faithful promise to be eyes for Mary all those years ago. She was able to hone in on subtleties other authors might miss because she was used to it. Way back in her teens she'd trained herself to pay specific attention to detail until it became second nature, and put it to use again writing books. Wow, nothing is ever wasted. Pa meant it to be just for Mary, but Laura's talent blessed so many more. Mary said, 'You paint pictures when you talk, Laura.' She does when she writes too.

Those two sisters were always totally separate people who processed things differently, so there was bound to be communication misunderstandings. Mary was a realist who thought in terms of clear fact, while Laura had a more fanciful imagination and way of expressing herself. 'We should always say exactly what we mean,' says Mary. This frustrates Laura, who tries hard to put optical illusions and poetic insights into metaphors. To us, it all goes to show that there is more than one way of expressing truth.

Pa was a great dad who treated each of his four daughters differently, and I get the impression that Laura was closest to the son he didn't have. They shared the same restless streak, making them kindred spirits, always wanting to explore, keep moving, and just soak in the wonder of creation. It makes his bond with his daughter 'Half-Pint' or 'Flutterbudget' very special. Similarly, I sense that Ma and Mary were the ones on the same wavelenth. It happens in families.

8248What a contradiction Laura must have seemed to her mother and sisters, in what she chose to love and fear. She was bold when it came to nature and animals. She says she was so scared to ride the wild, bareback pony at the railroad camp that she 'just had to try it.' Yet a crowd of strangers was enough to suck away all her courage. (She did not feel alone and happy on the prairie now. She felt lonely and scared. The town's being there made all the difference.) To me, Laura has nailed the huge difference between being 'alone' and 'lonely.' It's the same solitude, but a person's preference and character makes it far more than just semantics. One is liberating and the other horrible. I can imagine how puzzled Ma and Mary must have been though. ('I declare Laura, sometimes I don't know what gets into you.')

The story drew me in just like the others, because it's like an invitation to visit simpler times. I love our internet era, but singing and dancing to Pa's fiddle sounds like an awesome substitute. And it's fun to imagine all the sewing, knitting and textile projects secreted away prior to Christmas. We're introduced to jolly Mr Boast and his young wife, who lends Ma and the girls a stack of serialised magazines, so now they can branch out from their one copy of Millbank. (See On the Banks of Plum Creek.)

Reverend Alden from Plum Creek shows up too, and offers the family another precious gift in the form of a new goal. He tells them about a college for the blind in Iowa, and everyone starts imagining how brilliant it would be for Mary to attend. It's obvious by now that the Ingalls' never have any spare cash, but one of their favourite sayings is, 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' If they manage to pull it off, it'll be another case of what Pa and Laura discuss the afternoon they watch the railroad being built. Before anything becomes real, it starts off as a desire in somebody's mind. He says, 'If enough people think of a thing and work at it, I guess it's pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting.' So if anyone can make Mary's new dream come true, her family can collectively. But it'll be a long, hard road.

Of course it wouldn't be a Little House book without the occasional dash of danger, which the Ingalls family just manage to slip out of. Pa's payroll job almost makes him the victim of a potential riot. And there's the time Laura and Carrie skate straight up to the front door of a wolf den at night, like a fast food delivery. I love Pa's characteristic reaction when they arrive home puffing. 'It's too late to be scared now.'

Toward the end we glimpse a couple of familiar faces from Farmer Boy, all grown up. It's the Wilder brothers, and Almanzo's dream of owning flash, pedigree horses has come true. Pa says they're the finest horses in the country, as they watch the boys ride past. At this stage, Laura is more interested in the beautiful matched horses than the cute guys in the wagon :) Suddenly, poor old Sam and David, their Christmas horses from Plum Creek, no longer seem to cut it for her.

I love her description of a town mushrooming up where there wasn't one before, transforming the whole character of the landscape and quality of the silence practically overnight. What a gem these books must be for the people who live in twenty-first century De Smet. What crazy times they were, when crowds of men turned up to take advantage of the land offer. And although it didn't wring a tear out of me when I was young, this time round I was crying about good old Jack's passing to the Happy Hunting Grounds, where Pa says all good dogs go. Their faithful old friend represents the steady passage of time, and it really touched my heart. 

Now I'm looking forward to getting stuck into next month's continuation, The Long Winter.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

'Emma' by Jane Austen

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.

This is a classic with a single word title, and my choice for that category in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.. Great classics don't always have a lighthearted nature, so it's a bonus when they do. This story is all about matchmaking. The title character thinks she has enough insight to decide who would be perfect together, and considers it an excellent personal hobby to promote their happiness. But from her lofty, know-it-all stance, Emma fails to take into account that they may be keeping their own agendas, blind spots and secret lives concealed from her. It makes for a comedy of awkward mix-ups, a bit like Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Jane Austen needed a range of complex characters to carry it off, all living deeper lives than Emma sees on the surface. The execution is great, because Austen was always master of the whole spectrum. The reader is hoodwinked too, although when all is revealed, we can turn back and see that she did leave a trail of clues. The characters were all brilliant creations so I'll focus on them, although I'll leave Emma herself for a separate discussion. There's just too much to say about this main character to squeeze in here. (Here is my update: Why do we love such a snob?)

I think this novel has some of Jane Austen's coolest men, who stand out for either their goodness or badness. There's Mr Weston, a male Pollyanna, always latching onto the brightest way of regarding setbacks. His antithesis is Emma's dour brother-in-law, John Knightley, who can be counted on to deliver some cynical comment. I really like John, which is a bit of a worry, since they say it takes one to know one. Worst of all is Mr Elton, the oily-tongued flatterer who carefully crafts his behaviour to look after himself. And then there's Mr Weston's tricky son, Frank Churchill, the hot young stud who may accidentally trample over a few ladies' hearts in his effort to keep his own secret. But the overall hero is the novel's voice of wisdom and integrity, Mr George Knightley, the only man who will ever admit to seeing faults in Emma. In fact, he's usually right about everything. While other characters are blinded by the fog of their mistaken hopes and assumptions, Mr Knightley sees so clearly, he's like the Sherlock Holmes of romance.

The females are great too and one who fascinated me is Harriet Smith, the sort of girl to be swayed by the first busy-body who claims to know what's best. She is always looking for cues from others as to how to think and behave. She's so indecisive, she can't even say which address to have her packet of ribbons delivered to. I got mad at one point, when Mr Knightley said that a blank slate like Harriet needed a good man like Robert Martin to shape her opinions. No, come on George, she needs encouragement to think for herself, not a boss to tell her what to do! It was a relief later on, when he decides he'd been too hasty to judge Harriet as totally devoid of character. Hopefully the end of her story, when she accepts something as huge as a marriage proposal off her own bat, is the beginning of a stronger, more confident young woman.

Even characters we rarely encounter on the page in person come across more 'real' than many characters from other authors who get heaps of exposure. I'm thinking of the modest and sensible Robert Martin, who does a great service for young farmers without having to say a word. Through him, Austen is telling her readers not to make snappy judgments about an entire class of people. I liked him so much, I wanted to see more of him on the pages. At the other end of the spectrum is the autocratic Mrs Churchill, who uses her position at the top of the social ladder to fill others' lives with misery. We never see either of them, but they're still large as life.

The thought of that lady begs the question, 'Who is the biggest tyrant?' Mrs Churchill or Mr Woodhouse? They are obviously opposite in personality. One is bossy and selfish while the other is caring and loving. But their impact is similar. Mrs Churchill keeps her 23-year-old nephew on a ridiculously short leash, but Mr Woodhouse does the same to virtually everyone he knows, although his intention is different. His misguided sense of fear and protection means that his guests have delicious food pulled from beneath their noses, people must give up pleasure trips to keep him company, and Mr Knightley feels forced to move out of his own magnificent house, because he knows there's no other way he'll be free to marry Emma while the inflexible old worrywort lives. That's one of Jane Austen's incidental lessons. Control freaks come in all shapes and sizes, and don't have to be malicious to fit the bill.

Another thing I love is the treasure trove of clever dialogue. There's nothing quite like the wit and excellent points made in fictional conversations, where the author has had time to sit down and fine tune them, to give the illusion they're completely spontaneous. Here are my favourite three.

1) Emma and Harriet discuss the possibilities open to an unmarried woman of means. (It was so convincing, it was almost a shame Emma did get married. What a powerful role model in busting stigma she could have been.)
2) Emma and Mr Knightley debate the character and duties of a true man.
3) Emma speculates with Frank Churchill over the anonymous giver of Jane Fairfax's piano. 

This time round, I love the frequent revelations that the small things in life are really the big things. Gifts to Mrs and Miss Bates of hog meat from Hartfield and apples from Donwell Abbey really help them to make ends meet. No wonder they are so greatly appreciated. These acts of kindness are not just the fiddly extras it may be tempting to read over, but the whole fabric of life. The reason why they get such prominence in the novel is because they deserve to. The ending delivers the perfect mix of working out exactly as many readers hope (it is a romance after all), and delivering some super surprises, which turn out to be true to character after all. Never assume you can predict the inner lives of anyone :)

Now, do stay tuned for my musings about Emma's character, coming soon.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Books for Star Wars Day

In case you didn't know, today's date is the unofficial, tongue-in-cheek Star Wars celebration day. If you wonder why, just say out loud, 'May the 4th be with you.' And now to celebrate, I'm about to give you this challenge. The rules are simple. Just choose a book to fit each of these categories, based on Star Wars characters. I once did it as an Instagram challenge, but would love to share it on the blog too to mark the occasion. Click on the links to see my write-ups and reviews. Here goes. 

LEIA: A book that splits your heart in two.

I choose The Light Between Oceans for that one. It made me 'ugly cry' so hard, I had tears pouring down my face. Although I love home-grown Australian stories, I refused to go to the movies to see the film, because I knew the same thing would surely happen in the cinema.

HAN SOLO: A book you didn't want to read but loved.

The Brothers Karamazov. I had to choose a Russian classic for last year's 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, but I'd never read any before and felt daunted. Well, it impressed me so much, I'm now on a quest to hunt down more Russian classics to read.

PADME: A book where the character fell in love with the wrong person.

Wives and Daughters, with which I kicked off this year. I'm thinking particularly of Roger Hamley and his love for Cynthia Fitzpatrick, who wasn't really on his wavelength at all. It would've been a terrible match, to the extent that I wished I could get involved and tell them both to wake up.

KYLO REN: A dramatic character we all love.

I'm going with Mark Watney from The Martian for this one. Everyone who reads or watches this resourceful castaway on Mars can't help cheering him on. Who else could keep himself alive by drawing on such flimsy threads, including his own self-made fertiliser and a huge roll of duct tape that seems to never run out? And he does it with such an attitude of generosity towards those who stuffed up, and sense of humour.

REY: A strong female character.

Well, I can never go past Hermione Granger when I face a question like this, but I'll also go for Mary Yellan from Jamaica Inn, who had a horrible, heartbreaking and scary year, facing what would make many 23-year-old girls in her position crumple. But she still held her head high and made sound decisions.

FINN: A couple you shipped but didn't happen.

Whoa, I have a whole list here. Why not have a look at them all? But to single out specifics for this, I'll say Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom. They were mutual outcasts, sympathetic to the same cause who could have been great together. And the thing is, we just don't know enough about each of their real future spouses to atone for our disappointment.

YODA: A book with a different chronological order.

That sounds tricky to pin down, but I'll choose Wuthering Heights. The story begins at a specific point in time, then delves back into the past, when the first narrator, Lockwood, asks Nelly Dean to relate Heathcliff's history. And also The Time Traveler's Wife, in which the hero Henry's whole life was one mixed-up, chronological disaster, the poor guy.

JAR JAR: A book you found boring and abandoned.

There have been a few but I'll choose On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It fit the bill so much that I don't even have a link to it. I gave it a good try, hoping for the philosophical masterpiece its reputation promised, but got lost somewhere in the sordid morass of people partying and getting drunk with not much else happening. I wanted out.

So those are my choices, and now I'm wondering what yours might be. If you agree with mine or have any alternative suggestions for one or all, please let us know in the comments. And also tell us if you celebrate Star Wars Day in any particular way. I have to say I normally don't, but couldn't resist this challenge.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

My super Russian hero

I get a kick out of creating lists about why my favourite heroes deserve our love, and this man became super special to me. It's Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin from 'Anna Karenina.' Perhaps it's because he does far more than just make us admire him, but provides hard-earned tools we can take on board for living a good, meaningful life. He's definitely my main reason for persevering with the book, and here are my reasons why. 

1) He tones down his idealistic tendency.
It's presented as one of Levin's major faults, if you can call building lofty standards in your mind a fault. Reality always falls short for Levin, as it does for many of us dreamers. He idealises his notion of the model family, his impression of Kitty Scherbatsky as the perfect woman, and his concept of the ultimate working environment for land-owners and peasants alike. Castles in the air tend to hurtle to the ground, but Levin handles disillusionments well. Instead of griping when things don't meet his expectations, he chooses to flow with what he gets. He decides in effect, 'I thought I'd prefer A, but B is turning out to be pretty good too.' Levin comes to see that the life he gets isn't necessarily inferior to the life he thought he wanted. It's just different. And it even contains its share of happy surprises that take him off guard. A good example is his reaction when Kitty cares so much about things which don't interest him in the least, such as home decor, and when she sees fit to argue with him about things he wouldn't normally waste his breath on. She's annoying, but also sort of charming. (See here for my article about Kitty and Dolly, and why they make the book so memorable too.)

2) He proves that a quiet life can be extremely full.
Whenever Tolstoy chooses to show the beauty of pastoral Russia, Konstantin Levin is bound to be in the scene. He brings the appeal of a quiet country life alive for us. After reading long sections about the two-faced, hedonistic, fashionable lifestyles of other characters, we need a frequent Levin break. His closeness to nature always comes as a breath of fresh air. Immersing himself in the great outdoors always makes him happy, and his dealings with the peasants often have a lyrical, 'Fiddler on the Roof' sort of feeling about them. It's a great balance for the rest of the book.

3) He doesn't let others stop him being happy in his own way.
 Levin loves the physical challenge of mowing his own property, although he knows he's being laughed at by all around him. The peasants sneer because other landowners never bother, and his own class sure aren't into getting up close and personal with the land. But our boy decides to ignore what both sides say, simply because he enjoys mowing. He doesn't have to do it but he really wants to. And having fun is a good enough reason to do something productive. Those who follow their own hearts don't have to waste energy keeping up an act. Even his condescending older brother Sergey can't help admiring Kostya for his action. 'He was disinclined to be parted from his brother, who seemed positively beaming out freshness and energy.' Yeah, we get it through the page, Sergey, and I hate to be parted from him too!

4) He's good with kids.
It's presented as the sign of a very decent bloke. Stiva and Dolly's children, who don't know Levin all that well at the start, respond to his lack of hypocrisy, which sets him apart from other adults in their estimation.

5) He gives us some of the best romantic moments in literature.
This is a big claim, because I've read my fair share of classics and other literature. Other readers of this book will remember Levin's cryptic second marriage proposal to Kitty, which she figures out with very sparse clues, but that's not all I'm thinking of. Before that, there's the moment when Levin is walking along in the dawn, set on the idea of living with the peasants, when he suddenly spots Kitty through a coach window. One glance at the girl who rejected him convinces him to drop the peasant notion, because 'there are no other eyes like those in the world.' I was jotting little hearts all over my notes <3

6) He has an unflagging craving to be a better man.
It's an extension of my first point. Nobody can be as idealistic as Kostya Levin without feeling that they personally don't measure up. It's obvious early on that self-esteem is not his strong point. He compares himself with the impressive achievements of his peers and rates himself 'a fellow with no ability, doing what according to the eyes of the world is done by people fit for nothing else.' When Kitty rejects his proposal he's not surprised, because all along he'd wondered what could possibly give him the nerve to think she'd ever accept him. I had a feeling he'd have to come to some sort of peace with the idea that he had nothing going for him, and kept looking forward to finding out how he'd come to it.

Furthermore, I started off with the mistaken notion that he's stodgy and plain, and imagined him that way, because it was how he chose to think of himself. Yet I stood corrected when I saw him through the eyes of other characters, such as Kitty and Dolly. To them, he's actually quite handsome, charming and attractive. OK, so now I'm with it.

7) His feelings about bureaucratic red tape ring true.
We are all forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops, but Levin's way of expressing the frustration makes me grin. He considers it, 'a feeling of misery akin to the helplessness one feels in dreams when one tries to use physical force.' Also, he can't figure out whose interest it is to keep stuffing him up and causing the roadblocks. If he could understand why they exist he'd find it easier to be patient, but nobody can even explain why the hitches were ever created. Yep, I've been there.

8) He's a true introvert.
This one may appeal mostly to those of us who can relate to him. I'm definitely on his page. Small talk drains him and intense social focus exerts a great weariness on his spirit. The challenge to take things in directly as they happen is taxing on his attention span, and he could really benefit from the chance to step back and process it all. But social events aren't designed to let us do that. The mental fatigue of trying to behave like the more extroverted personalities all day sometimes causes him to say inane things he later regrets. And at one point, he feels a flash of disappointment to see that the people he's socially obligated to call on are at home, as he'd hoped they'd be out. Now all he can do is try to figure out the social cues to disappear as soon as he can. Gotta love him.

9) His final epiphany gives us permission to be ourselves.
Konstantin realises he's been over-thinking far too much, for far too long. When he simply lives his life and immerses himself in his daily routine, he's happy enough. But he comes unstuck whenever he starts agonising over the meaning and value of his own life. His realisation at the end of the story stikes a double blow, at both his low self-esteem and the agnosticism he's been struggling with. He's been straining his brain to understand something which can really only be accepted by faith. God's got it all sorted and we haven't. There's a point where human struggles to delve into the deepest mysteries bring us up against a brick wall, because faith and reasoning are totally different from each other. Letting go of a need for a rational explanation for belief in God's presence and our own worth is a vast relief for him, freeing him up to enjoy his family, work on the land, and dealings with his workers, without the angst of feeling obliged to justify it all. I love how Kostya himself chooses to put it. 'I've been living right, but thinking wrong.' It's an excellent loophole for those of us who've been sucked into the trap of doing similar things.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Great Pair of Sisters

This Russian classic is one of those books you can easily keep mulling over long after you've finished. But since you've put in so many hours to read it in the first place, you owe it to yourself to prolong the experience anyway. In my original review of Anna Karenina, I promised to feature my favourite character, Konstantin Levin. (Update, you'll find that here) But I've also been thinking about all that we can take on board from the Shcherbatsky sisters. And since it's polite to put ladies before gentlemen, I'll have my ramble about them first. These girls lighten my heart a lot more than the title character, Anna Karenina. The more I think about it, the more sure I am that it's all about their attitudes. Taken together, what a great pair of sisters. It's a good challenge to pleasure to describe why.  

She's recuperating with her parents after a long illness, at a German Spa, and beginning to take an interest in the events around her. There's plenty of time for reflection, and more than anything, Kitty wants to live a worthy life. She befriends a girl named Varenka, who loves to help others and do as much good as she can. With such a great example, Kitty immediately sets out to do the same, assuming that if she copies Varenka's behaviour, she'll become a person with the same goodness and charm. Instead, she finds herself burnt out, and her awesome intentions stir up some awkward trouble.

I applaud Kitty for realising her mistake at a young age, since some people never do. Without giving away the catalyst, she comes to see that her show of mercy and goodness was 'all a sham.' She sincerely wanted it to be true, and hoodwinked herself as much as others, but deep down, her activity was all an effort to impress people, God, and even herself.

It sounds harsh to call her a phony since she was acting with the sincerest intentions she could muster in her heart, but it's just being honest. I know, because I performed some similar role-playing at a similar age, trying to convince myself it was really coming from my heart. I went around with a list of patients to visit at the city hospital, given to me by an Anglican chaplain. I wanted to make my life count for something, but it sort of ground to a stop when they wanted me to hop into the contagious ward :) Ah, no thanks, I'm actually pretty busy with Uni stuff.

Efforts which aren't a good fit sometimes come to light, even if it's just in the form of stress and deep fatigue. Yet sometimes they don't. This sort of self-deception can keep well-meaning performers exhausted in a lifelong effort to convince themselves that it's really their style. It seems tragic to me now, to think of productive people worn out because they're always living somebody else's best life without even knowing it.

So Kitty is a great example to be ever vigilant for self-deception in our lives. I'm sure we can unwittingly keep it up to our dying day, but it's much better for peace of mind to shrug it off so we can live our own best life. Kitty's not a good fit as a philanthropist, but eventually becomes a fulfilled and satisfied wife, mother and household manager. The narration puts it this way. 'She felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy on the pinnacle she wished to mount.' I'm glad Tolstoy created her, because if Kitty's plight strikes a chord with any of us readers, we should get off our own exhausting mountains we're trying to scramble up. It's much better to leave that to those with a genuine desire to ascend to the top.

So she's a great example for all of us accidental phonies and hypocrites with good intentions.

I felt deep empathy for this poor lady in the book's opening chapters, when she discovers that her husband, Stiva, is a hopeless womaniser who's been having multiple affairs. Devastated, Dolly (or Darya) dreams of leaving him, but knows she's trapped. Everyone loves her husband, because he's one of those smarmy Mr nice-guys who present a fantastic face but lives for his own pleasure. He's president of a Moscow government board purely because of his fortunate connections. Of course he's popular with all he comes in contact with. Dolly feels that moving back with her brood of children to her parents' house is impossible. All she can do is make threats she's in no position to carry out.

So she does what many feminists have probably deplored her for, and decides to major in what she can control, which is being a loving mother. She only dresses well for the sake of fitting in with her gorgeous children and not causing them shame. I suppose you could argue her identity is being swallowed up with her total consent. As you read, you can't help wondering if empty nest syndrome will some day hit Dolly hard. At one stage, she sits in a coach, seriously wondering if she's wasting her life.

Being a parent is an existence of anxiety, poverty, sacrifice and occasional heartache, all for the meager satisfaction of raising a few decent, well-functioning human beings. Dolly even wonders if the beautiful Anna Karenina, who has chosen life on her own terms, is not to be envied. But after a day in Anna's empty, hollow household, Dolly thinks differently.

All the aspects of motherhood she found frustrating now seem so appealing she can hardly wait to get back. 'The world of her own seemed to her now so sweet, so precious.' I guess she embodies a great lesson in perspective. You have to observe the inside scoop in someone else's life before you can deem it desirable. She decides that on no account would she spend an extra day outside of her own little world. And I love her for that conclusion, because it invites us to examine the benefits of our lives, regardless of our lifestyles and occupations. If a hard-working lady who knows her husband for a scoundrel can find joy, then maybe there's also some for us.

These lovely sisters become heroes of changing what they can. There's not a lot they're in a position to do, but they seem to stumble upon the key to a contented life. Thoughts may seem like small, intangible things on the surface, but they're really all we need to lift our lives. They seem to demonstrate that changing our thoughts, rather than being the cop-out move, is more powerful than changing our circumstances after all. Hurrah for Dolly and her little sister Kitty, and for more of these two, you only need to get stuck into Anna Karenina.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'On the Banks of Plum Creek' 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. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of April.
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Based on the real-life adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek is the Newbery Honor-winning fourth book in the Little House series, which has captivated generations of readers. This edition features the classic black-and-white artwork from Garth Williams.

The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as they leave their little house on the prairie and travel in their covered wagon to Minnesota. They settle into a house made of sod on the banks of beautiful Plum Creek. Soon Pa builds them a sturdier house, with real glass windows and a hinged door. Laura and Mary go to school, help with the chores around the house, and fish in the creek. Pa’s fiddle lulls them all to sleep at the end of the day. But then disaster strikes—on top of a terrible blizzard, a grasshopper infestation devours their wheat crop. Now the family must work harder than ever to overcome these challenges.
We catch up the with the Ingalls family for their very next move after leaving Indian Territory, where they might have just escaped with their lives. (See Little House on the Prairie.) Pa's newest big idea is to settle in Minnesota and harvest a fine crop of wheat, which he's certain will bring them unprecedented wealth. Their list of dreams keeps being added to. It includes a new buggy, fine horses, silk dresses and candy every day. Also salt pork, gravy and fresh beef for regular meals. It's great fun to have all this to look forward to from their temporary home, a dugout in the ground.

Pa gets so excited that he starts borrowing money before he even harvests the wheat, to have some luxuries early. They purchase Sam and David, their beautiful horses, along with lumber to build their best house yet. Pa really splashes out to add metal door hinges, shingles, glass windows, china door knobs, and the boss of all cook stoves to surprise Ma. He says, 'Don't worry about the expense. Just look through the glass at that wheat field.' And Laura thinks how brilliant it is that they have the wonderful house just because the wheat is growing.

The girls start school for the first time. I remember being aghast as a kid that 9-year-old Mary and 8-year-old Laura could hardly read at all. Literacy snuck up on me from a very early age, and the same thing happened with my kids, who we homeschooled. (In all honesty, I can't say I taught them much before they were off on their own.) This re-read of Plum Creek shows that it was less to do with any fault in Pa and Ma as role models, and more to do with complete lack of opportunities to read. They owned just a handful of adult books and lived in a world with no sign posts, newspapers, adverts or computers. When you're not inundated unconsciously with letters and words almost every waking moment, you don't read. This speaks as much about our era as theirs.

How sad to think that Ma had only one novel to tide her over through the years. I haven't read Millbank but hope it was good, because they had to get a lot of mileage out of it. They obviously did. It turns out Laura knew swaths off by heart, just from hearing Ma read it to Pa.

777072In spite of lack of the written word, there was plenty of opportunity to learn good life lessons. The creek in which Laura almost drowned taught her that some things just can't be controlled, and an old badger possibly saved her life. Because, 'once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens.'

Laura's descriptive writing skills bring the books alive. Nobody gives nature personality the way she does. For example, the storm 'seemed angry' that they'd managed to fetch two loads of wood behind its back. After a much needed rainfall, 'the air was cool and the earth was damp and grateful.' And in a terrible three-day blizzard, 'the voices in the storm howled and giggled and shrieked.' It's so subtle, but she makes features of the great outdoors seem like extra characters, without us even realising.

My very favourites are the bits that simply highlight the joy of being alive. The best happiness is in simple pleasures, after all.

We see it in insects. 'Bees and hornets stood thick along the cracks (in the plums) sucking up the juices with all their might. Their scaly tails wiggled with joy.'

And it's the same with dogs. 'Jack looked up at Laura and a waggle went from his neck to his stubby tail.' 

And with people. 'Pa was sitting on the wagon seat. His face was one big shining of joy.'

But life has its fair share of heartache too. The wheat field becomes a loss, when a plague of grasshoppers of biblical proportions show up. They really show the power in numbers, but you feel like wringing their millions of rotten little necks, one after the other. I was so sorry for Pa, to have to walk hundreds of miles in his shabby old boots to earn enough money to pay back what he owed. At this stage, readers might start thinking, 'I hope this poor man's hopes and dreams won't be crushed near the end of every book.' But he's a product of his times, and knows how to take the bad with the good. 'There's no use protesting. What must be done is best done cheerfully.' Another one of his ideas he couldn't quite pull off, just like the move to Indian territory.

There are great descriptions of the town, which seem like a pioneer village in action. I used to adore the chapter with the Christmas tree in the church. (More about that incident here.) And we're introduced to Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, one of the snobbiest, brattiest girls in literature. (See my list of famous mean girls.)

We get to take in our fill of lazy summer holiday incidents, with the swimming hole, the creek bank, the dusty tablelands and the ripe plums. Let's soak in the sunshine while we can, because The Long Winter isn't too far off. But just before that, and next up will be By the Shores of Silver Lake


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

Acclaimed by many as the world's greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature - with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author's own views and convictions.

Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, 'He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.

To start off with, this is my choice for the Book in Translation in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd never read any Russian literature before beginning these challenges, and I'm loving it.

It's taken me well over a month to read and process, but it's been worth every second, and I was sorry it wasn't even longer. It's sad that I let intimidation get the better of me for so many years, but I thought I had good reason. A massive epic about a tragic love affair that drags on for almost 1000 pages didn't sound like much fun. But references to it have popped up so often in other novels, from characters who have loved it. Name dropping and fandom within fiction is always very hard to resist. Then I found out that in 2007, Times magazine deemed it the greatest book ever written. Well, that was it, I felt motivated to at least give it a try.

The first thing you might notice, if you stop to tally them all, is that there's about 230 chapters. Don't let that put you off, because they're all fairly short and easy to power through. It might be a meaty book, but it's not heavy. The characters are all so relatable, and many-faceted, I could easily blow this review into several pages, but thought I'd better focus mostly on Anna this time round. Other characters will definitely get their turn down the track. (Especially Levin, my favourite.)

Anna starts off as the woman who has everything going for her. Great beauty, a friendly manner that bubbles over with merriment and life, a highly respected husband and a sweet 8-year-old son. She also has a knack with small talk that makes whoever she's talking to feel special. When her brother Stepan's marriage seems heading for the rocks, she's the person he calls on to smooth things over with his wife, Dolly.

Then happy Anna meets Count Alexey Vronsky during her visit, and suddenly all she has is no longer enough. Practically overnight, her husband becomes a repulsive bore, and her social life is tedious and false. All she can think about is this gorgeous man who pursues her and fascinates her. (Those people and things haven't really changed at all, of course. It's just her attitude about them.)

I think there are two main ways readers can approach this novel, depending on how the main character strikes them. 1) Anna is a woman of personal integrity who refuses to live a lie. She realises that life is too short not to make a desperate bid for personal fulfillment and joy. She has the guts to reject the falseness and artificiality pressing her in from all sides, and take a stand for true love, even though she gets shunned by society and branded an immoral woman for doing so. 2) Anna is a selfish rebel who brings trouble upon herself and grief on those closest to her, all because she turns her back on the good in her life, without seeing it as such. Basically, she ditches her husband because someone hotter comes along. She demands freedom and acceptance without considering the claims of those who are made miserable in the process.

Readers on those opposing sides might as well be reading a different novel from each other. Many of us understand both points of view and fall somewhere in the middle. I was interested to see where Tolstoy would take the consequences of Anna's decision to leave her husband and son. To me, his story shows that making an attempt to bulldoze every obstacle in the path of your desires creates its own problems. When trying to design your perfect life involves breaking established 'rules' and upsetting others, all sorts of unforeseen problems pop out.

Anna's admirers might explain her slide into paranoia by blaming society's treatment of her. She'd sacrificed her son and her good name. Vronsky was all she had left, so naturally she was desperate to cling to him. But her critics could argue there's more to it than this. I imagine a hidden fear of some sort of karma or retribution might haunt Anna. Deep down, she can't shake off the sense that she did the dirty on her husband and son, so feelings of guilt and shame keep her edgy and wear her down. Since she's deserted those she should hold most dear, she's more likely to be alert for signs of similar behaviour in others.

Especially Vronsky, who was her partner in crime, so to speak. He left Kitty, his former love, to chase Anna, so what's to stop him from a repeat performance? Anna knows he had no scruples in his pursuit of her, so therefore no matter how well he treats her, she can't shake her concept of him as a person she can't trust. It's easy to understand why his personal history is always at the front of Anna's mind.

There was all sorts of negative psychology going on. Both Anna and Vronsky walk around with the attitude, 'Look at all I've given up for you.' That exerts a sort of 'You owe me,' pressure which isn't the best glue for a relationship. I wasn't a Vronsky fan at the start, for breezing in to wreck a family, just because he fell for a married woman. He regards Karenin, her husband, as a pig or dog sullying up the waters he wanted to enjoy himself! Well, who'd have guessed that getting exactly what he wanted would turn back to bite him on the butt? By the end, I even felt sorry for him.

Anna's predicament makes her impossible to please, as her dealings with her husband proves. When Karenin lashes out at her, she loathes him. Yet when he has a change of heart and chooses forgiveness, she hates him still, for showing her up! The poor guy can't win. When he finally asks, 'Look, what do you want from me?' she finds it impossible to answer. She wants both Vronsky and her son, Seryozha, yet they're mutually exclusive, because for Seryozha to live with his mother and Vronsky would ruin his future social and career prospects. So no wonder Anna's frustration helps change her personality. But it's for the reader to decide to what extent she's responsible for it.

Although I've padded this review out with talk of Anna and Vronsky, their shenanigans alone wouldn't have held me for 900+ pages. Other characters are really the ones who kept me hooked, especially Levin, Kitty, and Dolly who I'll discuss in more detail in other blog posts. (See A Great Pair of Sisters featuring Dolly and Kitty.)

15823480But just as a teaser, Kitty is the girl who fancied herself in love with Vronsky, and refused a heartfelt marriage proposal from Levin. Then when Vronsky jilts her to chase Anna, Kitty realises that she loved Levin all along. She considers her life in ruins, because she'd told him, 'It can never be.' And he's a humble, self-effacing fellow who'd laid everything on the line to propose to her. Now he's retreated back to his home in the country, to handle his rejection with grace and peace. I kept turning the pages for more of the terrific chemistry from these two, whether they're together or apart. (See here for Levin, my super Russian hero)

Perhaps a good quote to end with is Vronsky's, 'I can give up anything for Anna, but not my manly independence.' Little does he know that Anna will demand this along with everything else. I see why this book is loved by many people, from highbrow, literary types all the way down to normal folk like me. There's lots of reflection about politics, economics and philosophy, and different readers may take it all on board differently, but there's more than enough for us all to mull over in our own particular way. 

On the whole, I get the strong impression that Leo Tolstoy really wasn't in favour of people leaving their spouse when someone hotter comes along. Yet at the same time, his sympathy for Anna and lack of condemnation shines through. I've heard several suggestions that Anna Karenina is the sort of novel that may help reveal the meaning of life. If that's true, I wouldn't be surprised if there are as many interpretations as there are readers. But I'm happy to go with Levin's conclusion, that overthinking it only brings misery, and we're probably wisest when we do our simple daily tasks with the knowledge that we'll never fathom the heart of God, who makes everything tick.