Monday, July 16, 2018

'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, July 9, 2018

Harsh Punishments

Fictional teachers have a knack for inventing some of the harshest punishments for their students' misbehaviour, to the extent that you can't help wondering if a sadistic imagination was a job requirement. Applying the metaphorical stick seemed to give this group a jolly good thrill of satisfaction. Or maybe it was partly a desperate ploy to maintain the upper hand, calling for increasingly more negative creativity. I thought I'd avoid incidents involving the cane, because it's just so crass and un-inventive. Even withhout a strike across the palm, literary school punishments can get pretty insane. Here's a countdown of some of the most memorable I can think of, starting with some lighter ones and culminating in the ultimate deed of depravity at the end of the list.
10) Amy March is punished for bringing pickled limes to school
Mr Davis has warned his class of schoolgirls that he won't tolerate the fad for this sour sweet, but rather than simply confiscating them until recess time, he orders Amy to pitch hers, one by one, out of the window. Apart from the waste of a good treat, the shame of being put on the spot is too much for Amy, and Marmee is incensed enough to withdraw her from school. The March family weren't fans of using humiliation to make a point. They sound naive about the public school system, and I was surprised Amy lasted as long as she did. In my opinion, Mr Davis' punishment was on the tamest end of the spectrum and deserves tenth spot. (Here is my review of Little Women.)

9) Anne is disgraced in front of the class.
It's her punishment for cracking her slate over Gilbert's head, so in all fairness, Mr Phillips has to do something. He chooses to make her stand by the blackboard and writes a line about her bad temper. To add insult to injury, he doesn't spell her name right. He leaves off that crucial letter 'e' when he writes, 'Ann Shirley has a very bad temper. Ann Shirley must learn to control her temper.' That upsets her just as much as all the rest of it. (See here for more about Anne of Green Gables.)

8) Bart Simpson gets never-ending lines.
The start of every episode has this boy copying something completely fresh, to the point where we viewers automatically check what he's been up to this time. The intended negative reinforcement never seems to stop his mischief. Or perhaps it does, since every occasion is new and different.

7) Miss Wilder orders Carrie to keep the desk thumping.
It's an unfortunate incident, since the poor girl had been so intent on her studies, she didn't realise her wonky desk was causing a disturbance. But her tetchy teacher forces her to crank up the noise louder, to the point where Carrie almost faints from the effort. Her indignant big sister Laura steps in to save the day, and eventually features her future sister-in-law Eliza-Jane in stories such as this for all the world to see, which is perhaps the biggest come-back. (Review of Little Town on the Prairie coming soon.)

6) Dame Slap gives her students impossible-to-answer questions.
She runs a sort of reformatory school for naughty fairies, pixies and elves. It's pretty clear that she loves her job, since she makes sure there are always unavoidable reasons for dealing out punishment. But Moonface and the gang call her bluff by coming up with answers she can't refute, since they're just as ridiculous as her bogus questions. Old Enid Blyton kids' classics are well worth a read.

OK, we've passed the halfway point. Now they start getting really intense.

72445) Reverend Nathan Price makes his daughters write 'The Verse'. 
The Prices are a missionary family living in the Congo, and this stern, autocratic dad takes on their education in his extreme way. He often makes the girls write 100 Bible verses in one sitting, ending with the crucial one relating to their misdemeanor, (such as 'honour your father and mother'). Although his skill at zipping back one hundred verses to set the start is impressive, the surprise element never makes the girls any fonder of the dreaded discipline. (Here is my review of The Poisonwood Bible)

4) Fake Mad-Eye Moody turns Draco into a ferret. 
Well, this one is technically a physical punishment, but it's compounded with humiliation when he bounces him up and down with his wand. It's such an unusual use of a teacher's power, on my list it goes. I'm sure poor Draco never forgets what happened. Professor McGonagall explains the ethical considerations of a such a deed, when she scolds her fellow teacher, 'We never use transfiguration as a punishment!'

3) Professor Bhaer turns corporal punishment back on Nat.
It's written in a way that we readers are meant to condone this incident, but it reeks a bit of emotional manipulation. Instead of following the expected protocol, the good professor hands the cane to the student and reverses it. He says in effect, 'If you persist in telling white lies, I must be a very poor teacher, so I want you to whip me until I shout out for mercy.' After a few half-hearted taps on the hand, the total unfairness of the turn-about makes poor Nat crack, so he promises to behave himself from that moment. As far as the author Alcott is concerned, the experiment worked. But I think it shows that sometimes students have more sense than crazy teachers. And it didn't go unnoticed by me that Prof Bhaer chose a thoughtful little chap with a strong conscience rather than a big rebel who might've taken full advantage of the opportunity. I know he meant well, but it's just a bit weird and twisted.

Now for the final two, which I was balancing back and forth for a while.

399882) Miss Trunchbull force feeds Bruce Bogtrotter a huge chocolate cake.
This head-mistress from Matilda is one of the worst teachers in literature. What sort of depravity  must it take to force a young boy to keep swallowing mouthfuls of a party-sized mud cake until he's sick to bursting point? It's got to be one of the worst punishments ever, but Matilda, Bruce and their fellow students manage to transform the cruel deed to a glorious victory, turning the tables back on Trunchbull. It made a big impact on my homeschooled kids but didn't stop us trying a recipe we came across for 'Bruce Bogtrotter's cake.' Delicious.

We are down to the nastiest punishment of all, and I think I've made the right choice.

1) Professor Umbridge makes Harry write lines with a quill that scorches the words into his hand.
2She pretends that her unjust punishment isn't going to involve excruciating bodily pain. He expects that he'll just have to knock off a few lines. 'You're going to use my special quill,' she gloats in her syrupy sweet voice. We must read, or re-read the incident to get the full impact of her simpering smile while he sits there, gritting his teeth, resolved to say nothing at all. For of course Harry is fortified by knowing full well that he's in the right. He wasn't telling lies at all by warning the world that Voldemort had returned, and we all trust that events will show up the true colours of both these characters.

Casting my eye down this list brings even more to light. Rarely did literary school punishments produce true remorse or anything but bitterness, resentment, scarred emotions and bruised spirits. In most of these incidents, the student was written as the focal character deserving of our sympathy. I do believe there's a place for punishment, but perhaps these authority figures used a bit too much relish. It strengthens my belief that as far as punishments go, the most effective ones involve sowing and reaping. An undesirable result simply follows inevitably from a student's action. It also helps convince me that the carrot is a preferable motivational tool to the stick whenever possible.

Can you think of any incidents I overlooked? Please mention any extras. Also would you change my rankings?

You might also enjoy this related list of best and worst teachers.
And here's an even more specific one, full of notable literary headmistresses. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

'The Napoleon of Notting Hill' by G.K. Chesterton

In a London of the future, the drudgery of capitalism and bureaucracy have worn the human spirit down to the point where it can barely stand. When a pint-sized clerk named Auberon Quinn is randomly selected as head of state, he decides to turn London into a medieval carnival for his own amusement. One man, Adam Wayne, takes the new order of things seriously, organizing a Notting Hill army to fight invaders from other neighborhoods. At first his project baffles everyone, but eventually his dedication proves infectious, with delightful results. First published in 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill was Chesterton's first novel. It has been called the best first novel by any author in the twentieth century.

This book caught my eye at the second-hand shop, and I thought it'd be a good choice for the 'Classic by a New-To-You author in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd heard of G.K. Chesterton, but knew next to nothing about him. If this first novel and his Wiki page is any indication, he was a pretty colourful character and man about town. The title alone should have given me some indication that this story would be a weird ride, but it still had me shaking my head several times. Not in a bad way though :)

Chesterton wrote it in the guise of a futuristic tale, but it's really more like an alternative history of his own turn-of-the-twentieth-century London. The hereditary monarchy of Britain has been abolished. Instead, successive kings are chosen haphazardly by lot. The characters are great at justifying the reasons behind this. (Is trusting the luck of the draw any less chancy than hoping the eldest son of an eldest son will turn out well? If he's a tyrant, he's still a check on hundreds of other tyrants. If he's a cynic, it's to his interest to govern well. And if he's a criminal, we've removed the need for crime by removing poverty and substituting power.)

One day the role falls to Auberon Quin, a little owl-like guy who likes nothing better than a good joke. He says, 'A sense of humour, weird and delicate, is the new religion of mankind. I made a kind of vow to myself that I would not talk seriously, which always means answering silly questions.' When he's crowned king, Auberon decides to turn the London suburbs into a copy of the old Medieval feudal system he loved reading about as a kid. Everyone is ordered to erect city gates and obtain banners and coats of arms, just so he can amuse himself by sitting back and seeing it all play out.

Of course the people hate it. (Londoners had no particular objection to the king making a fool of himself, but they were indignant when it became evident he wished to make fools of them.) But since lodging formal complaints involves putting themselves in the spotlight with trumpets and fanfare, they decide to let it roll and live their lives as normal as possible. Some businessmen wish to build a new highway which will involve demolishing a tiny, insignificant street in Notting Hill. The young ruler of that suburb refuses any money offers, and decides to declare war on them, with all the pomp and ceremony he can muster.

It turns out that even though the king considers his own reign a big joke, Adam Wayne takes it totally seriously. He idolises his birthplace, Notting Hill, with great fervour, and closest to his heart is the aptly named Pump Street, which is under threat. The style of the current monarchy makes it easy for him to defend it with all his passion. What follows is a total shemozzle, fought with all sorts of antique weapons such as halberts and swords.

Whoa, the first thing that jumps out at me is that guys with warped senses of humour and guys with no sense of humour are equally dangerous. Chesterton seems to be suggesting that a balance somewhere in the middle is needed. I'll bet he had great fun writing it, and the foreword in my copy says that one rejected title was, 'The Joker and the Fanatic.'

It's a fairly short and quick read, with the potential to spend just as long thinking about it and trying to thresh out meaning when you finish. Both main characters have some valid points. Auberon believes that humour is the greatest power in the world, and we'd definitely suffer to live without it (although Adam Wayne somehow managed!) But we can also take good on board from the way Adam appreciates simple truth and beauty that others take for granted. We may think he romanticises the commonplace to a ludicrous extent, but it makes him happy and there are big grains of truth in it.

One thing stays most in my mind. What Auberon intended as a meaningless joke without any real conviction becomes a great and wonderful cause for Adam to believe in. He doesn't let any man dictate what's meaningful and what's not, so perhaps Chesterton is challenging us to follow his example. We can use our own God-given heart and reason to choose what we deem meaningful, and we can do it in a more balanced way than these crazy, polarised protagonists.

Here is some of the sort of dialogue you can expect. This bit begins when the king feels the earnest young man growing on him.
Auberon (to Adam): Have you hypnotised me? Curse your uncanny blue eyes. Let me go. Give me back my sense of humour. Give it back I say.
Adam: I solemnly assure you that I haven't got it.
Auberon: No, I don't think you have. (Falls back with a roar of laughter.)

Some passages are surprisingly topical for our day and age. How about this one. 'Mr Mick not only became a vegetarian but at length declared vegetarianism doomed, shedding, as he called it finely, the green blood of the silent animals. He predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried) entitled "Why should Salt suffer?" and there was more trouble.' It impresses me to think that this was published back in 1904!

I'm glad I read this wacky little book, but won't add it to my favourites. It's too ridiculous for many stars, but too thought-provoking for few. It probably deserves a ranking somewhere in the middle, which may match where our senses of humour should be.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Help from fictional characters

For some time, I've seen these brilliant tags pop up on Instagram. Whether or not I'm tagged, I mull over many of them in my head. And I've decided they're just too good to keep there. So up they go on the blog, to see if I can get nods of agreement, and suggestions of more. 

The questions are simple. Which fictional characters would you ask for help in the following situations? If you're keen to delve into my choices, you can follow the links to see where they come from. This time round, I haven't elaborated on any of them, as I hope they should speak for themselves. Here goes. 

For help choosing an outfit 
Diana Barry or Scarlett O'Hara

Someone to cheer you up
Ron WeasleyPollyanna

You want to rob a bank
Count Fosco

Oops, you get caught. Who will help you out?
Atticus Finch

You need a book recommendation. Who will you ask?
Jo MarchMatilda

You need dating advice
Mr George Knightley (but definitely not Emma Woodhouse)

You need help with studies
Hermione Granger

You're super sick and need someone to take care of you
Dr Gilbert Blythe

Bad guys are after you. Who will help you get rid of them?
Samwise Gamgee, Sam WellerNeville Longbottom

You need a shoulder to cry on
Scorpius Malfoy, Alyosha KaramazovAgnes Wickfield

So those are mine, and the natural question to follow is who would yours be? Please feel free to share them in the comments, or if you do a blog post of your own, leave us the link, as I'd love to read them. Have fun thinking. 

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.

*    *    *

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.
*    *    *

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.