Tuesday, January 30, 2018

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.

English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

People say that every new author needs a fresh voice. Clarke surely has one, but part of her uniqueness comes from closely copying long gone masters of the Victorian genre, as contradictory as that sounds. She has Jane Austen's witty conversations and wise social satire down pat. And she's also nailed Charles Dickens' enormous community scope and wide range of characters. It's a bit like reading either one of those two, but on top of that, there's amazing fantasy!

Clarke presents England in the Napoleonic Wars just as it was, with appearances from the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron and mad King George III. But history gets an alternative twist with the addition of two magicians who are highly valued contributors to the war effort. They are both trying hard to raise the public profile of magic so it's on a par with the army, church or politics as a potential occupation.

Mr Gilbert Norrell is a pedantic old scholar who's addicted to hoarding knowledge, because he can't trust others to wield such a powerful tool. In reality he's a control freak with a compulsion to stay on top of what's going on. For years his main hobby has been buying valuable, out-of-print books of magic to hide in his own personal library so nobody else can read them.

Jonathan Strange is a capricious and impulsive young man who's always found it hard to settle down to anything, but discovers a sudden genius for magic which impresses Norrell as the real deal. Norrell offers to be his tutor so he can control Strange's talent and direct it to suitable channels.

Their utterly different learning styles really appealed to my homeschooling heart. Norrell considers a decade of study to be merely scratching the surface, while Strange whips off articles the night before they're due. Norrell wants to wrap his intellect around the ins and outs of everything, while Strange isn't afraid to follow his instincts and see what happens. Norrell is careful to handle with kid gloves things he only partially understands, while Strange longs to dive right in for the same reason. The discord makes an excellent read, especially since Strange knows very well that there are thousands of books Norrell is withholding from him, choosing to keep a tight rein over the nuggets of knowledge he chooses to dispense.

There are strong dangers of dabbling around in the murky supernatural. Even though Strange and Norrell are devoted fanatics, they unleash perils of which they are both oblivious and almost destroy the lives of certain other characters. This is particularly true when it comes to enlisting the help of the fairy kingdom.

People are fascinated with elusive fairies and the possibility of winning their favour or servitude. Yet fairies prove to be a malicious and loathsome race, devoid of human empathy. Especially one manipulative character who is mostly referred to as 'the gentleman with the thistledown hair.' Totally self-interested and calculating, he reminds me of folklore villains like Rumplestiltskin, with his, 'What's in it for me?' attitude. We have to find out whether Strange and Norrell can eventually foil him, since they've no idea what's going on beneath their own noses. He's so much more cluey than either of them in many ways, it would seem that if they do, it'd have to be by accident. I found this guy really nasty, but also sort of cool.

Anyone who attempts to read the book will quickly discover its main quirk, which is all the footnotes! They basically tell the history of English magic from the world Susanna Clarke has made up especially for this novel. Sure, they distract from the flow of the story, but you can't possibly skip them without sacrificing what's so precious to Strange and Norrell, including the hazy, centuries old legends about John Uskglass, an ancient magician and monarch known as The Raven King. Some of them are weird and whacky enough to make novels of their own. So much ingenuity has gone into them, if you love the book you've got to love the footnotes. (Although I admit my heart sometimes failed me when I turned a page and saw the size of one to come.)

My final verdict is that it's dense, brain-bending and long enough, at almost 900 pages, to feel we've been sucked into Faerie ourselves, and wonder when we'll emerge. There are dazzling enchantments and many episodes as circuitous as the passages to Norrell's library which turn out to be mainly scene setters, or to keep the tantalising real action at bay. But all this makes it the sort of book we can be proud of ourselves for finishing. On the whole it's rewarding enough to make up for its brick-like quality, since there are at least a couple of things to grin at on every page. When you add them all together, that's a lot of smiles :)

And I'll finish off with some quotes from my new favourite, Jonathan Strange.

Lord Wellington: Can a magician kill a man by magic?
Strange: I suppose a magician might. But a gentleman could not.

Jonathan Strange (to the king): Though Great Britain may desert us, we have no right to desert Great Britain. She may have need of us yet.

Also, see this reflection about Enchantments and Depression.


Friday, January 26, 2018

The Stories make the Aussie

It's Australia Day, and I've been reflecting about those brave and daring ancestors who first settled our country. Several years ago, my father was researching his genealogy and writing it out by hand. He managed to delve back a long way and there were hundreds of pages, which he asked me to type for him and maybe give a bit of polish as I went. It turned out to be a really interesting experience. For example, one of his British grandfathers in the late 1700s (I forget how many 'greats') always wrote down his profession as 'auctioneer' and it turned out the commodity he dealt in was slaves.

I must be a thorough Aussie girl because ancestors from both sides of my family seemed to be arriving thick and fast as far back as the 1830s and 1840s, when South Australia was first settled. There were devout German Christians on my mother's side, who needed to escape religious persecution in their homeland. They were among the first to settle in the Adelaide Hills. And on my Dad's side were all sorts of respectable tradespeople from Britain who were finding it impossible to make ends meet in the old country and were lured by the stunning advertisements about the Great Southland which sounded too good to be true. Okay, there may have also been a few dodgier characters too, like that 'auctioneer' I mentioned.

Once I took my younger children to look through Adelaide's Migration Museum, which turned out to be a fascinating experience. On the wall was an old poster singing the praises of South Australia's open countryside and warm climate. Even then, it proudly advertised the place as the only convict-free state. I stood reading it, knowing that many of my direct ancestors had been desperate enough to accept the challenge.

One of the ancestors Dad had plenty of info about was a nineteen-year-old named George Peter Hammond, who'd read those adverts and decided he fitted the bill they were looking for; young, fit, able-bodied and willing to work. He booked himself passage and said goodbye to his parents and younger siblings, intending to write and let them know if the place looked any good, so they could consider coming too. Dad ended up with many details about his ship journey down south to the other side of the world, including the sharks the crew caught for everyone on board to eat.

As I typed it out for him, I had this thought occur to me. That young man probably considered that he was acting independently, doing something off his own bat that affected just himself. Yet I wonder if he had the foresight to realise that his personal decision would end up shaping and molding the lives of literally hundreds of people still to come. I am one of them. So is my husband. So are my children and their future spouses. If that young adventurer hadn't decided to book himself passage to check out the new land, I wouldn't be an Aussie girl at all. As it turned out, the rest of his family did decide to join him down the track. And the rest of their story, for me, is now history.

When I was 20, I took a break from Uni and traveled with my parents for a driving tour around Britain. I felt a link and affinity with it, considering it our Motherland even after the passing of more than a century. It was wonderful to travel around, seeing landmarks where historical events had taken place, visiting the homes of great writers such as my beloved Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, and finding where our own ancestors had lived. But by the time our months there were over, I was happy to return to Heathrow Airport to head for home again. Because of the God-guided decisions of many people before me, something out of my control had been set in motion for me long before I was born. It is that in spite of all that ancient Prussian and Anglo Saxon blood flowing in my veins, I am an Aussie.

I wish every Aussie a great Australia Day, as you may even take the opportunity to stop and reflect on the events that led to you being an Aussie too. Remember that the settlers who came were bold and resilient, so we have that in our DNA. And if you are an international reader, spare us a thought on January 26th and consider reading some of the Australian books I've either written, helped write, or recommended on this blog over the years.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

'Wives and Daughters' by Elizabeth Gaskell

Set in English society before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters centres on the story of youthful Molly Gibson, brought up from childhood by her father. When he remarries, a new step-sister enters Molly's quiet life – lovable, but worldly and troubling, Cynthia. The narrative traces the development of the two girls into womanhood within the gossiping and watchful society of Hollingford.

Wives and Daughters is far more than a nostalgic evocation of village life; it offers an ironic critique of mid-Victorian society. 'No nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection than this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority', writes Pam Morris in her introduction to this new edition, in which she explores the novel's main themes – the role of women, Darwinism and the concept of Englishness – and its literary and social context.

This is my choice for the 'Classic by a Woman' category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Wow, the events in the village of Hollingford have gripped my attention for the past few weeks, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It's essentially just the story of a blended family from the Victorian era. But what makes this one so special is that Elizabeth Gaskell gets us to spread our love evenly between so many different characters.

Molly Gibson is a sweet 17-year-old whose beloved father, the village doctor, has announced his shock engagement to a former governess with a daughter of her own. These four completely different people are forced to get to know each other by living under the same roof from the outset. Although Molly's world has been turned upside down, she resolves to curb her childhood temper and make no ripples.

But her stepmother, Hyacinth Clare Fitzpatrick Gibson, is all about impression management. Not only does she always get her own way, but she's creative and crafty enough to put the best spin on how she sets about it, aiming to be admired even more when she gets what she wants. Everything around her is calculated to show her off in the best light, including her family members. There's nothing in her life that's not done for show. How she would have enjoyed social media, had she lived in our era. Mrs Gibson is like a Facebook pro long before there ever was such a thing. She's really hilarious.

So we have a gorgeous young heroine who genuinely longs to put others' needs first, stuck with a micro-managing new authority figure, who only wants to put herself first. How will it all work out, without Molly either snapping or becoming a doormat? That's what we read to find out, because it would seem something has to give. Our girl really does have a mind of her own, and a lot to put up with. And if there's one thing she's inherited from her matter-of-fact father, it's her blunt honesty.

The plot thickens even more when Molly's step-sister Cynthia arrives. Cynthia has charisma! She knows how to use her beauty and communication skills to turn men's heads, but has the sort of character to make her abuse her power. After a sad and neglected childhood, she values being loved by others above loving people herself. In fact, Cynthia isn't even sure she knows how to love, calling herself a 'moral kangaroo.' Her convincing shows of esteem are really just attempts to win hearts for herself, and there's always a string of guys in her wake, thinking they're the only ones. So even though she sees through her mother's artifice, Cynthia is just as much of an actor in her own way.

Dr Gibson, the father, is a great character for displaying the wisdom of his times. During Molly's childhood, he never wanted her to be 'over-educated' because he didn't believe it was beneficial for a girl to know too much. It's written with the sense that he thinks she'll be spoiled with education, like over-whipped cream. An unflappable sort of guy himself, his occupation has helped him believe that excessive displays of emotion are detrimental to people's health. Since the most significant deaths in the novel happen to be highly-strung, finely-tuned sort of people, his observation seemed to be correct, at least in Gaskell's opinion :)

The Gibson family alone are complex enough to keep us reading, but nearby lives the Hamley family, another awesome foursome who all turn out to be heart-stealers too. There's the outspoken and bluff old squire, his refined invalid wife, and their two grown-up sons. Osborne is attractive, artistic and the pride of his parents, while his younger brother Roger comes across more stodgy, plodding, and often overlooked. While Osborne is into classical literature and poetry, Roger has a knack for science, maths and the world around him. If the term 'geek' had been coined then, that's what he would have been called.

The main romance is written with a light touch, and easy to get caught up in. The bird's-eye readers' view allows us to poke into everyone's secret thoughts, and reveals from the start that Molly and Roger are perfect for each other. They're still so very young, but both humble, principled, sensitive and kind. But that same vantage point shows that they don't consider the other to be their type.

Before she even meets the boys, Molly's all primed to fall for his handsome and brilliant older brother Osborne because of his sentimental poetry and his reputation. She is initially repelled by Roger's plain appearance and apparent awkwardness. Her gradual falling for him is all to do with his adorable character, but meanwhile is he immune from the charms of the fatal Cynthia? 

383206There's also a host of great minor characters, although the aristocratic Cumnor family would hate to hear themselves called 'minor.' They move around with all the pomp they think is entitled to them. And in the village live the two spinster Browning sisters, who are always up with any gossip and drop lots of cool lines, such as Miss Phoebe telling her sister, 'Oh, don't call them lies, it's such a strong, ugly word. Please call them tallydiddles.'

Finally, it'd be unfair not to mention the abrupt ending. Elizabeth Gaskell died of a heart-attack with just one chapter left to write, which would have been the romantic culmination we'd all been waiting for! Although I'd been warned, my reaction when I got there was still, 'Nooooo!' Time is a strange thing when a sad event from 1866 becomes a fresh tragedy to me in 2018. But we've got to pick ourselves up and carry on :) Her editor wrapped up the book with some broad hints of where Gaskell had intended to take that final chapter. And since I love to imagine future scenes whenever I finish a book, I just get a chance to do it earlier than usual this time.

Since it's still January, this will be a good benchmark for the year. It's a perfect example of the sort of domestic Victorian drama I love. Elizabeth Gaskell balanced her pathos with some terrific humour. I've also watched the BBC TV series on Netflix, which I highly recommend for readers of the novel. It has really wonderful casting and authenticity, and sticks close to the book. (I have more about Wives and Daughters coming, so stay tuned.) After learning the sudden fate of the poor author, a quote from Molly sits strongly in my mind. 'Life is too short to be troubled much about anything.'


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mood Lifting Books

I enjoy receiving the occasional request for list topics. This week's is from Rosie, a blog reader who said she'd appreciate recommendations of simple, wholesome reads to make us feel happy. What a great question. Don't we all need that sort of reading therapy from time to time? When I started brainstorming, I decided to fit them into two criteria.

* They should be written in an easy-flowing style. Books that require deeper concentration are exempt from this feel-good list, simply because they demand more from the reader than pure relaxation.
* The story matter must contain something encouraging that sticks with us. Ideally, the characters themselves are seen as instrumental in boosting their own low moods and raising their spirits. In this way, the books become gentle tutorials, as well as lovely stories.

So without further ado, here are my picks.
1) Little Women
The March sisters are all so sweet and earnest in the way they take corrective feedback on board, and it is all to do with thinking right rather than just acting right. The whole story reads a bit like a primer on pulling yourself out of a bad mood, starting from the first chapter, when Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy sit grumbling together one Christmas Eve while their father is off as a chaplain in the Civil War. (See here for a review.)
2) The Blue Castle
This is one of L.M. Montgomery's few novels for adults. If your bad mood is tied in with the complications of people pleasing, the heroine Valancy Stirling is a great example to follow. It takes a strong catalyst to help her see that being a 'yes-woman' is slowly choking her. To quote from my review, 'She knows better than to attempt what many of us think is logical, to fix things by changing people's opinions. She makes a wiser move and decides to shrug them off and live a life more true to her inner values.' (For the whole reviews, see here.)

3) The Little House series
77767These books chronicle Laura's own life. They are powerful mood busters because the Ingalls family were content with so little, and help restore our thankfulness for small blessings we may have taken for granted. You'd have to be pretty hard-hearted to read their joy over a tasty meal, rosy sunset or crackling fire without taking it on board. (I'm hosting an informal Little House-athon this year, if you'd like to take part or just drop in from time to time. See here to find out more.)

7635884) Anne of Green Gables
The story of how red-haired orphan Anne Shirley came to live with the Cuthberts and brightened their lives has made generations of hearts happy. Poor Anne was already an expert at boosting her own mood before she ever came, or she might not have survived her early years with cruel families. She relied heavily on private retreats into her own wonderful imagination. A girl who says, 'For the first time, I don't need to imagine things are different,' is worth listening to. (Here is an article I wrote on the awesomeness of Anne's imagination.)

5) I Capture the Castle
It's the diary of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, whose fresh and merry attitude contrasts with the grumbles of her older sister Rose, even though the girls have to put up with the same dismal poverty. But Cassandra has more resources up her sleeve, including wisdom and a sense of humour. (Review is here.)

6) Harry Potter
You can't visit Hogwarts without having its magic work on your mood. Harry himself is always so much happier at school than with his aunt and uncle Dursley. But most importantly, we get so deeply sucked into the tension, mysteries and adventure of the plot, we don't have time to think about our Muggle hassles. (You don't have to search far to find ravings about Harry Potter in these blog lists and articles.)

7) Pollyanna
This girl is the expert at repelling bad moods to the extent that her name is synonymous with optimism. You must read the books to really catch her heart. Pollyanna isn't one of those pains in the neck who refuses to acknowledge reality. Nor is she an ostrich who buries her head in the sand. She clearly sees the negative things going on around her, but chooses to accentuate the positive by focusing on it. The story of how her father taught her to play the 'Glad Game' is a good introduction to a simple tool. (My review is here.)

8) Daddy Longlegs
1499952In this epistolary story, young Jerusha Abbott writes her anonymous benefactor lots of descriptive letters about her experience studying English literature at college. Since her light-hearted, unique take on things causes him to fall in love with her, it can't help growing on the reader too. There's nothing quite like having a bright and hopeful outlook described in first person to give us a jump start.

9) The Ivy Hill series
These are new novels by Julie Klassen, one of my favourite current authors. She love village chronicles so much she took on the challenge to write her own. The lives and trials of the characters who live in Ivy Hill are very immersive, and keep us turning pages. There are so many different dilemmas between them all, it's not hard to come upon one that will probably reflect your own, and be handled very well. (Reviews are here and here.)

10) Flash
I'm going to finish with a true story rather than fiction. Rachel Anne Ridge tells how she discovered a stray donkey wandering around on her property. Since it was more difficult than they anticipated to discover where he came from, they decided to keep him, and Flash revealed many different aspects of living a good life for humans to adopt too. Anyone who equates donkeys with foolishness should think again. I loved this book! (I've reviewed it here.)

So there, if I was asked to take on the role of book apothecary, those might be my prescriptions. Casting my eye over them, I'm aware that with the exception of Harry Potter, they may come across as fairly feminine. If you're a male reader who's read this list, what additions would you recommend? In fact I invite anyone to add to it in the comments. What are your favourite mood-boosting books? I'll follow them up, because we all need as much encouragement as we can get. 

You might also enjoy this post about the flip side of this subject, the power of melancholy books.
Or this one about reading with depression.

Monday, January 15, 2018

'Little House in the Big Woods' 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.

*    *    *  

An autobiographical children's novel written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and published by Harper in 1932. It was Wilder's first book published and it inaugurated her Little House series. It is based on memories of her early childhood in the Big Woods near Pepin, Wisconsin, in the early 1870s. 

The novel describes the homesteading skills Laura observed and began to practice during her fifth year. Hard work is the rule, though fun is often made in the midst of it. Laura gathers wood chips, and helps Ma and Pa when they butcher animals. She also helps Ma preserve the meat. This is all in preparation for the upcoming winter. Fall is a very busy time, because the harvest from the garden and fields must be brought in as well.

Laura and her sister Mary had lots in common with Little Red Riding Hood. They lived with their family in the middle of the dense woods with wolves as their neighbours, not to mention bears and panthers. It's the first in Laura's series of novels about her life, and kicks off when she's almost five years old. On the surface, it's a simple, heartwarming story about reminiscences of days long ago, but what a lot we can take on board from the pioneering spirit displayed in these stories!

I'll start with Ma's great example of making an effort, right down to finishing touches. She wanted everything to be pretty, to the extent of using grated carrot to dye her churned cream, and snips of red flannel to cast lovely kerosene light patterns. Since there was normally nobody but her husband and small children around to notice, she might have been forgiven for not bothering. You might well ask, 'Why make even more work for yourself?' But Caroline understood the power of small embellishments to boost her sense of well-being. She obviously did nothing just for show. What would be the point? It was self-care, because she knew the mood-boosting impact of small details. Caroline was a truly classy lady whose motto might as well have been, 'We're worth it.' Even on the dreariest winter day, she'd never dream of just letting things go.

Next there's Pa's example of the power of stories and music. If all his daughters ever learned from him was their potential to make life richer and happier, he was a successful Dad. He kept drawing on his good memory, sense of humour and fiddle to keep things bright around the house, and work their magic on everyone else too. What a guy, to take responsibility for the fun times, as well as keeping everyone safe and alive. Laura and Mary saw him go off to work each day, but of course it wasn't the common office job many modern fathers have. Risking his life out hunting was all in a day's work for Charles.

I also love his matter-of-fact attitude about strict time management. I went into this re-read assuming they were free of the deadlines and pressure of our era. But that's not true, they were just different. For example, Pa and Uncle Henry were desperate to get Henry's oats shocked before the pending rain, or it would all be for nought. And when they finished, Charles couldn't hang around and relax with his brother, because he had to make it home to milk his cows on time, or their output would be skimpy. These days we may roll our eyes when we hear some old-timer say that waste is a sin. But in their time and place, it was an indisputable fact. The book starts off with the butchering of a pig. I wouldn't be surprised if the only bits of him left over by the time Pa and Ma finished with him were his teeth :)

There are several examples of fantastic creations that can come out of humble circumstances. The delicious food produced from their own little grey log house wouldn't be out of place in a gourmet deli, including cheese, salted fish and hickory smoked venison. There are really interesting details of the steps involved in each process. (A little calf paid a high price for the rennet needed in cheese making.) It's soon clear that one of Laura's trademarks is describing food so our mouths water, even when it's just simple fare. Grandma's 'hasty pudding' is basically just boiled polenta, and 'Johnny Cake' is humble corn bread. But it's written in such a way that I'm sure they'd be tastier than any 21st century attempts.

However, it's not all charming nostalgia. Even a five-year-old girl can't escape tense undercurrents. The story moves along merrily for about 100 pages, then a sentence hits us from seemingly nowhere.  'Mary's hair was beautifully golden, but Laura's was only a dirt-coloured brown.' That observation is like a plug releasing similar gripes, to the point where Laura loses her temper and slaps Mary. Oh oh, sibling rivalry rears its head, and I can't help thinking of the elderly Laura, dredging into her buried past to write about the 60-year-old friction. It turns out to be not just Mary's hair but her whole attitude, behaviour and position as eldest child that got under Laura's skin.

Envy can be an irrational emotion, because deep down, I'm sure Laura wouldn't even want to be like Mary, whose idea of fun seemed to be stitching samplers and stirring pots. Mary comes across as a bit of a princess in this book; a prim, girly girl with just a hint of superiority. Perhaps she found obedience came easy because she wouldn't dream of all the adventurous, quirky and mischievous things that filled Laura's head. Yet we get the impression Laura might have happily given up her own uniqueness, for the chance to be more like her sister. Maybe readers should take it as a hint to carefully consider what we envy. Would it even be worth it?

Laura wasn't too crazy about Sundays either, and I can sort of understand why. These devout 19th century Christians seemed to make hard work out of their 'no work' rule. The girls didn't have much to fall back on, so no wonder the day dragged. I would've considered making clothes for their paper dolls to be more leisure than work, but nope! It was a punishable offense on that day. Am I the only one who thinks the Ingalls family seemed to err on the side of the Pharisees in this respect? I suppose that since life was one long round of house and maintenance work for Charles and Caroline, making a particular effort to keep the Sabbath Day holy had to take top priority, or it would easily slide into the same old grind as the rest of the week.

You can't read this story without a healthy respect for the Big Woods. The Ingalls family could only tame it to a certain extent, but mostly had to adjust to it. They needed to be familiar with its cycles and patterns to eke out a living. Pa even says, 'A man just has to keep everlasting at it, or the woods'll take back the place.' It's easy to imagine that when they left, that's just what must have happened.

Laura turns out to be an early (and very young) believer in the benefit of mindfulness. Little House in the Big Woods finishes off with one of those epiphanies that the present moment is all we really have. She's lying in her bed while Pa plays the fiddle and Ma sews, and the wise five-year-old thinks, 'This is now. It can never be a long time ago.' But of course it is, and I've clocked up many similar moments in my own life, which I'm sure we all have. What a nice reminder to value the little moments before they slip away.

The quote of the book might be Pa's enthusiasm for modern times. ' Other folks can stick to old fashioned ways if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in.' I'd love to know what he and Laura would make of our digital era.

Overall, I loved the re-read, including cameo appearances of long-gone relatives such as 'wild' Uncle George who came back from the army with his bugle, and naughty cousin Charley who had his own 'boy who cried wolf' story. Now bring on the next story in the sequence, Little House on the Prairie.


Friday, January 12, 2018

'Free of Me' by Sharon Hodde Miller


We live in a culture that's all about self, becoming the best "me" I can be instead of becoming like Jesus. This me-centered message affects every area of our lives--our friendships, our marriages, even our faith--and it breaks each one in different ways. The self-focused life robs our joy, shrinks our souls, and is the reason we never quite break free of insecurity. 
In this book, Sharon Hodde Miller invites us into a bigger, Jesus-centered vision--one that restores our freedom and inspires us to live for more. She helps readers 
- identify the secret source of insecurity 
- understand how self-focus sabotages seven areas of our lives
- learn four practical steps for focusing on God and others
- experience freedom from the burden of self-focus 
Anyone yearning for a purpose bigger than "project me" will cherish this paradigm-shifting message of true fulfillment.

What a great and timely message to begin a new year! I love to challenge myself with thought-provoking non-fiction books between my beloved fictions, and this one is a real gem.

The author bravely lays bare her own struggle with self-absorption, which she didn't even register until the pain and misery of following the siren call overwhelmed her. Indeed, it's an unusual subject to highlight because rather than being urged to renounce it, our society coerces us to fall into its trap, thinking we're doing ourselves a favour. Miller trusts that we can all relate to some extent, and explains how self-focus is our default setting, and therefore a tough pattern to shake.

She reveals a sneaky variety which appears to be completely unselfish and others-directed. However, when a reputation for kindness, charity or altruism suits the image we wish to project, then it can be really still about us! I wonder how many people can say, 'Ouch.'

But identifying the problem is only half the solution. Next, she describes how many of society's attempted 'cures' are in fact leading us further along the insidious spiral. It's easy to mistake the restlessness and dissatisfaction of self-absorption with low self-esteem. Then we try to fix it up by giving ourselves pats on the back and self-affirmations. We might turn to social media and see these boosting attempts going on everywhere. But Miller argues that they are all counter-productive, and what we really need is self-forgetfulness.

She points out how easy it is to make specific facets of our lives all about us, including our families, possessions, appearances, friendships, reputations, callings, and even God himself. It's sobering to read how something as wholesome as parenthood, or a ministry or calling can become all about the individual, to the extent that they keep craving affirmation to keep their egos from crumbling. As Sharon Hodde Miller puts it, 'Calling can become about you, and when it does, it will shrivel your soul like a flower scorched by the sun.' It's hard to deny that we live in an era when people don't even realise that they're trying to build their platforms more than their character.

The best part is that she doesn't just lay out the problem, but offers sound and workable solutions. I think the nitty-gritty of this book is the last part, which encourages us in the crusade to keep our focus off ourselves and our life impact. She recommends four different ways to nip it in the bud, which are Praise, People, Purpose and Passion. Now, although I sometimes find using alliteration to make points comes across a bit forced and strained, not in this case :) Miller is certain that remembering and practising them helped her enormously, and they're convincing enough for me too. Because I'm sure so many of those gloomy moments are tied up with all this sort of tricky business.

As I say, a good book to start the year with.

Thanks to Baker Books and NetGalley for my review copy


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Heartthrobs from 19th century Russia

I'm working hard to increase my list of obscure heartthrobs, and thought I'd begin 2018 by searching through some of my excellent reads of last year. Since this was my first Russian classic, it deserves to be highlighted. 

A natural question that seems to follow on for readers of The Brothers Karamazov is 'Which brother is your favourite?' As I mentioned in my review, they each represent one main aspect of humankind; the physical, intellectual and spiritual. If there are equal takers for Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, may it be because readers prefer the one they feel they can relate to most? Do you think it's that simple?

Although, 'I love them all,' is a valid option, I think my choice must be Alyosha, or Alexey, the youngest Karamazov, even though he has less to do with the main murder story line than the others. It's clear that this young man is squeaky clean from the get-go (and that's no plot spoiler), which may make some readers consider him a bit boring. Could it be simply because I relate to him most that makes him my favourite? I was the youngest sibling too. I like to prioritise my spiritual nature, and want my family to be happy. And what's more, I'm nothing like party boy Mitya or genius Ivan.

I also love Alyosha simply because I think the book would be a flop without him. That's why he deserves being highlighted as a fairly obscure heartthrob from nineteenth century fiction. Here are my reasons. 

1) It's refreshing to have a person we can trust as a main point of view character. In the centre of all the drama and chaos, his was a clear, calm head in which to find ourselves. Alyosha has no ulterior motives, unlike some of the other characters. He simply wants to be the best version of himself he can. You can't get a more reliable narrator than that. Dmitri and Ivan were both pretty high maintenance in their own ways, but Alyosha never asked anybody for anything, or expected favours or even understanding.

2) He's genuinely fond of each member of his family, and wants the very best for them. Once again, you certainly can't say the same for all the others.

3) He's perceptive and wise. He quietly sees what others miss, and so do we, through his eyes.

4) In several other classics, we tend to find main characters on downward spirals. The author leaves them to their animal lust, jealousy, murderous passion, or whatever other vice sweeps them away. For such a thick classic, it makes a refreshing change to spend a lot of time in the head space of someone who is kind and cares about others. He made me retain my interest in the story, because without him, I wouldn't have cared as much about the others. To be honest, Dmitri and Ivan seemed like gits at times, but not when seen through Alyosha's eyes.

5) Even people who can't stand him end up liking him. This young man brings out the good in everyone. He behaves as if he did a Dale Carnegie course years before it even existed. Thoughtfulness is just natural for him. The district boys, and Captain Snegiryov had good reasons to distrust anyone with the surname Karamazov, and Alexey was the only one who could have smoothed their feathers and stopped them getting their backs up, even though they didn't want to like him.

6) Father Zossima's last words to him, which he intended as a prophecy for the rest of Alyosha's life, becomes a challenge for us readers too. He said that Alexey will 'bless life and make others bless it too, for that is his character.' It's true that while reading from his point of view, you can't help regarding the world in a happy and favourable light, that you want to retain once you finish reading the book.

7) He pulls the threads of the story together. For chunks of the book, we travel around with Alyosha as he walks through town, visiting others who badly want to see him and vent their thoughts about what's going on in their lives. And there's a lot of different drama happening! The story's flow would get disjointed pretty quickly if we weren't able to simply stick with Alyosha for the day. He's the glue that holds the plot together, helping to smooth transitions. It's interesting that his function as a character in the plot matches his personality in life.

8) He challenges the more sceptical characters about their lack of faith in God. Or more to the point, he challenges us readers to question their scepticism. While characters such as Ivan, Rakitin and Smerdyakov are busy convincing themselves about the non-existence of God, Alyosha doesn't bother buying into all their arguments and discussions. He simply chooses by faith to be a man of God. And if the others stopped to think, it might occur to them that denying the existence of God doesn't make a lot of sense, as long as people like Alyosha are going around, proving that since they're displaying his spirit, then something of God exists in the world.

9) Some of the stories he's involved in stick in my head.  ie Grushenka and the onion. I'll leave that as a hook. You'll have to read it to find out what I'm talking about. But it's all about kindness and getting to heaven.

10) Dmitri is a hot-head, but sometimes drops a very apt quote. Perhaps this one sums up his youngest brother. 'Though I say that Ivan is superior to us, you are my angel. Perhaps it's you that is superior and not Ivan.'

That's why I'm putting this boy on my list of unforgettables. Of course, you may find the other brothers heartthrobs too, which opinion was certainly shared by several women in the book. I highly recommend getting stuck into this Russian classic, to fill your charismatic character tank for some time to come.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

'My Name is Asher Lev' by Chaim Potok

Asher Lev is a Ladover Hasid who keeps kosher, prays three times a day and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olom, the Master of the Universe. Asher Lev is an artist who is compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy. In this stirring and often visionary novel, Chaim Potok traces Asher’s passage between these two identities, the one consecrated to God, the other subject only to the imagination.

Asher Lev grows up in a cloistered Hasidic community in postwar Brooklyn, a world suffused by ritual and revolving around a charismatic Rebbe. But in time his gift threatens to estrange him from that world and the parents he adores. As it follows his struggle, My Name Is Asher Lev becomes a luminous portrait of the artist, by turns heartbreaking and exultant, a modern classic.

Asher is one of those kids who was clearly born with a wonderful gift. From the time he was old enough to hold a pencil, he's been drawing, sketching and painting, because artistry is part of his make-up. But to his parents, who are strict Orthodox Jews, he's a puzzle, an embarrassment, and at times a threat. They simply can't understand what drives him, and even wonder whether Asher's genius has a dark source.

Aryeh Lev, the dad, is loved by his people for his tireless humanitarian work overseas, building yeshivas and assisting fellow Jews to safe spots. Aryeh can't see the point of art, which has no practical purpose in his world view. To him, Asher's passion is 'at best a frivolity, at worst a desecration.' His demands for Asher to stop the foolishness is like trying to prevent a bird from flying. Aryeh keeps trying to clip his son's wings, under the illusion that he's doing good.

Rivkeh Lev, the mum, is more sympathetic, forever trying to be the bridge between her husband and son. But even she doesn't really get Asher's drive. Rivkeh thinks he should use his talent to make the world 'sweet and pretty' because surely the purpose of art must be to bring people pleasure. However, Asher is the sort of artist who's into representing the world as he sees it, even if it's confronting to his folks. (And believe me, it is!)

He's an easy main character to admire, just because of the strength of conviction it takes to figure out his own philosophy and stay true to it, in the face of such opposition. He goes from pleading with God to take away his passion for art, to sneaking around painting nudes and Crucifixes behind his parents' backs, to politely telling his father, 'I respect you, but not your aesthetic blindness.' The turning point is when it clicks in his own heart that his gift is no less important than his father's.

11507It's not an easy book to read, even though we all love heroes like Asher, who refuse to be stifled. (I don't think he could have been, anyway. He would have simply sketched and painted out of shame and guilt instead of enthusiasm and conviction.) After Part 1, I was tempted not to continue, because the tale of his childhood was so melancholic, every turn of the page seemed to thicken the impression of darkness. I persevered just because I'd come so far, and suddenly Part 2 introduces us to the beach and plenty of light, where Asher is staying with his mentor, Jacob Kahn. It was such a contrast, I wonder if Potok wrote it that way on purpose.

The story starts flowing much easier when Asher reaches adolescence, and then young adulthood. As a kid, his way of zoning out when his parents or teachers are talking to him gets annoying very quickly. I preferred him when he gained the confidence to have a ready reply. Overall, Chaim Potok makes it clear that the purpose of art is not to be enjoyable, so I guess that's also the case with his book. It's not the sort of light read you pick up to have fun and wind down, but well worth finishing just the same.

Having said that, Asher's wry observations are fun at times. He reflects how he must appear to others, a boy with long side curls and a skull cap standing in the museum, sketching a picture of Jesus on the Cross. And I had to chuckle when he hoped God would take his own prayers more seriously than his father's. For Asher knew very well that Aryeh had been fervently praying that he'd lose his passion for art. So much for that one :) Father and son seem poles apart, but they're alike in that they give every ounce of strength to their occupations. The message that makes this a valuable read is not to deny our true essence, no matter what conflicting opinions we get from others.

Ranking this novel is a challenge, because lots of it went over my head. I know it's a modern classic, but Chaim Potok obviously wasn't writing with readers like me in mind. People of the Jewish faith and those who understand art jargon might well give it five stars. Potok himself was an artist and Rabbi, so I'm not really on his wavelength. In fact, when Asher's parents explain why they don't want him to paint 'That Man' (Jesus), it's a real blood-chilling glimpse into where they're coming from. And the question of how far others should use artists in their own lines of work kept occurring to me too, especially when Anna the art dealer kept brushing off Asher's natural angst about how his family might react to any given piece of art. It was clearly nothing to her, as long as she could exploit his talent to fill her own purse. All this is a bit disturbing.

It's a novel with no easy answers. I wouldn't be surprised if a number of readers agree with Asher's parents, that he did go too far at the end. I honestly can't make up my mind. One thing's for sure, if you sometimes wish you'd been endowed with special gifts or genius, this might help you feel glad to be an average Joe, as poor Asher kept paying such a high price for his gift. He certainly makes me thankful for the chance to be a more chilled sort of person.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Stories to read in the loo

I'm taking on a challenge I received after compiling a former list, Books to read in the bath tub. They all contained at least one anecdote about characters having a soak in the tub. My friend Nola dared me to come up with something similar about characters in the loo. If you take a look at the comments on that post, you'll see. I wasn't confident that I could brainstorm enough of them, but decided I'm not one to shy away when someone's thrown down the guantlet :)  

What makes it so tricky is that fictional people rarely seem to need the toilet. Most authors always try to stick to incidents which are vital in carrying on their story, and natural functions fall into the category of TMI (too much information). When we look at maps of literary houses or villages, they often omit these rooms or blocks completely. So I knew that if I did happen to find any, the trip to the loo would have to be integral to the plot. Here's what I came up with.

First I tried to think of awkward moments. They were surprisingly less than I'd expected.

1) Choking on a Camel by Michal Ann McArthur
17817948It's a boarding college story about a 'good girl' Alexandra, who finds herself grappling with temptation, not to mention deep questioning of the institution's tenets. Anxiety always grips her stomach and makes her dash straight to the loo, so it's a trigger that she needs to look after some mental or emotional problem. Probably not so different for many of us in real life, I'd wager. (My review is here.)

2) Along Came Polly
OK, it's a movie, but a great example. I loved Ben Stiller as the angsty Reuben who suffers a bout of IBS after sampling some spicy food from the relaxed Polly (Jennifer Aniston). So he blocks up her loo, then accidentally tries to fix it with a prized antique doily. Surely it doesn't get any worse than that.

3) The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen
This one's a fun story in which the main character assumes a disguise, to wriggle out of an unwanted engagement. The toffee-nosed, aristocratic Lady Margaret is desperate enough to apply for a job as a housemaid, but her new duties include emptying the family's chamber pots each morning. They are people she used to hang out with on formal occasions, and needless to say, it's not her favourite job.

4) The Simpsons
Do you remember an episode when Homer has lots to drink, then urgently needs to relieve himself, but the only toilet is on the top of a high-rise building? I like it when stories mimic reality. Something similar once happened to my Dad, after drinking coffee on a winter walk in England. All the toilet blocks along the Brighton foreshore were locked up with signs informing us they're, 'Closed until Summer.' We Aussies weren't impressed.

5) The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
20697435Peter is the first missionary to ever visit Mars, but he has some awkward communication gaps with the natives to start off. On his first morning among the Martians, he tells a chieftain that he'd like to 'pass water,' and the little fellow obligingly leads him past a big pond. You can imagine him thinking to himself, 'Whatever.'

Next are toilet stories involving life or death issues. Some people meet their gruesome end on the loo, or manage to narrowly escape the fate. It turns out to be an easy place to be attacked or assassinated. 

6) Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Tyrion Lannister corners his father Tywin while he's sitting on a castle privy, and shoots him with a crossbow. Good riddance, many fans say. The Lannisters are not the nicest lot.

7) The Bible
Yes, this example is straight from history. King Saul was relieving himself in a cave when the mighty David decided to spare his life. He chose to sneak up behind him and snip Saul's robe instead. Not only was it unsporting to take advantage of an enemy in such a vulnerable position, but David was very honourable about sparing the Lord's anointed ruler. Still, I can understand why many of his loyal troops considered it a perfect opportunity gone begging.

8) The Redback on the Toilet Seat
This Aussie folk song expresses the dangers of not checking where you intend to relieve yourself. The singer, 'didn't see him in the dark, but boy I felt his bite.' What a potentially dangerous place.

78801429) Quenarden
Allow me to add a little fantasy trilogy I wrote myself, several years ago. In one incident, the heroine Amber grudgingly allows the hero Pedor to go free, while she yearns to catch him by surprise, just because he's relieving himself in a vulnerable position. Needless to say, these two grow much fonder of each other as the story progresses.

Other significant occasions concerning loos

10) Ulysses by James Joyce
This is just one example of why I found this Irish classic incredibly hard to plow through. Every minute in one particular day has to be accounted for, including the hero Leopold Bloom's morning toilet ritual. It seems to drag on for about 100 pages, with every spin of the toilet paper roll. Not riveting reading, believe me!

11) Harry Potter
3Now, this is more like it. At least we know where the toilets are at Hogwarts because things actually happen there. Poor Hermione is trying to hide in the girls' toilets when Harry and Ron charge in to save her from the Mountain Troll. And years earlier, the unfortunate Moaning Myrtle is crying in a cubicle when she comes face to face with a basilisk that kills her. Now she simply uses that toilet block as a base from which to chat up boys (who seem to have plenty of reasons to enter).

And at the Ministry of Magic, the employees flush themselves down each morning, because it's their secret entrance, unknown to Muggles. Toilets are so important to their smooth running, it's no wonder Arthur Weasley has to check many faulty ones in his line of work for the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office.

12) Ramona the Pest
78039This astute little girl asks the teacher an honest question while they're listening to her read Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. 'If Mike Mulligan digs down a hole all day, how does he go to the bathroom?' The hopeless Miss Binney gets flustered and tries to fob it off as not important to the story, but none of the kids buy that. They know, as we do, that it's a vital part of life. I reckon Miss Binney could've made something up, if she'd been wiser. 'He took a bottle to hide under his seat.' Or, 'He was careful to go beforehand and had to keep his legs crossed until the end of the day.'

So there you go, I made it to a dozen, even though I admittedly padded the list with a few non-book examples, such a film, TV series and songs. If you can suggest any others, please let us know in the comments, to add to the list. And in case you wondered, the photo above is our loo. My daughter ordered the decal sticker, and now that we're soon to move, we'll have to peel it off :( But when we get to the new house, I'm sure we'll get another one.