Tuesday, March 27, 2018

'Green Valley' by Meredith Resce


Emily Wallace has been given a choice. Either she obeys her father'swishes and marries the elderly widower, or she will be sent to live with her aunt in Australia. Even with the tales of wild animals and convicts, Emily chooses to sail to this unknown and untamed land. She simply cannot marry the cruel and arrogant Lord.Colin Shore has never met anyone so beautiful before. The moment he first saw Lady Emily Wallace at the dock he fell in love with her. But he would never presume that she would be part of his life. After all, she was a Lady and he was only a farmer.

It's the second in the Green Valley series, recently re-released for its twentieth anniversary. Readers of The Manse will remember Colin Shore as the teenager who had to assume full responsibility of his family's farm after his father's untimely death. Now he's all grown up, still working hard, and bickering with his sisters in his downtime. The tiny house is hardly large enough to hold them all, and he can't wait for them to leave home. He longs for the day when they're some other guys' responsibility, and wouldn't dream of courting a girl himself, and adding more drama to the already crammed household.

Meanwhile over in England, Lady Emily Wallace has been resisting the force of her father and brother to marry the foreboding Lord Derickson, who's 60 years old, while she's not yet 17. Her only way to escape their pressure is to cave in to their threats to send her to Australia to live with her aunt Vera, which they never expected she'd choose as the better option. Once there, it doesn't take Lady Emily long to single out the man of her dreams; no prize for guessing who. But she just won't accept it when her new neighbours try to explain that they are at opposite ends of the social spectrum, which makes a union impossible. In her eyes, Colin is a respectable man with land of his own.

There is always a good blend of comedy, adventure and social commentary in the Green Valley stories, which makes them an interesting read. One of my favourite aspects of this one is Emily's spirit. She's a strong, determined character in an era of strict social manners, yet never sacrifices her politeness. There's a great section where she sets out to prove her own worth, but it's the opposite to how many other stories are written. It reminds me of an inverted 'My Fair Lady', which could only work in the Aussie colonial era. Rather than attempting to raise her class, Emily aims to show that she can lower hers, to match the energy and courage of any hard-working farmer's wife.

The confusion of people's roles in this time and place comes through clear. Although British settlers attempt to cling to the social hierarchy which is all they've ever known, they are also coping with unprecedented changes, such as a labourer's freedom to earn enough to purchase land and be independent. In this transition sort of stage, settlers wanted to embrace change and stay put at the same time.

I like it when authors can wrap their minds around a characteristic way of thought from a bygone era, so that it is woven into the plot. With the steady action, combined with colourful descriptions of the Australian bush, it's easy to see why many readers have kept on with this series, wanting to see what'll happen to future generations. In Green Valley, seemingly hopeless situations are worked out quite credibly, to romance lovers' satisfaction.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

'All Passion Spent' by Vita Sackville-West

In 1860, as a young girl of 17, Lady Slane nurtures a secret, burning ambition—to become an artist. She becomes, instead, the wife of a great statesman and the mother of six children. Seventy years later, released by widowhood, and to the dismay of her pompous children, she abandons the family home for a tiny house in Hampstead. Here she recollects the dreams of youth, and revels in her newfound freedom with her odd assortment of companions: Genoux, her French maid; Mr. Bucktrout, her house agent; and a coffin maker who pictures people dead in order to reveal their true characters. And then there's Mr. FitzGeorge, an eccentric millionaire who met and loved her in India when she was young and very lovely. It is here in this world of her own that she finds a passion that comes only with the freedom to choose, and it is this, her greatest gift, that she passes on to the only one who can understand its value.

First published in 1931, Vita Sackville-West's masterpiece is the fictional companion to her great friend Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

This is a thought-provoking story for anyone who wants to give themselves permission to live a simple, humble, contemplative life. Platitudes such as 'step out of your comfort zone' are so prevalent, we tend to take them on board as dogma without ever thinking about them. This story is all about asking, 'Hey, why should I step out?' Lady Slane is one person who realises that since life is so short, her comfort zone is the most appealing place to live. Her given name is Deborah, but nobody has used it for years. After a lifetime of doing what society expects of her, she makes a decision to retire from the public eye and live in a small house, out of the spotlight.

At the start, her husband, Henry Lyulph Holland, the first earl of Slane, has just passed away, aged 94. He was a former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India with an illustrious list of achievements and excellent reputation. Now that he's gone, his older children, senior citizens and big advocates of productive lives, assume that their gentle and pliable mother will be passed around between their homes. But the 88-year-old has other ideas.

Lady Slane realises that in all the hustle and bustle of helping her family look good, she's sacrificed many parts of her own true nature, including time to contemplate. 'In contemplation she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children, who reckoned things by results and activities.' She and her maid,Genoux, realise their calm, new routine is more than enough, punctuated by small interests such as leisurely strolls and the arrival of tradesmen and parcels of books. 'Of such small things was her life now made.' It sounds pretty nice to me, and I kept scribbling down supportive quotes of her chosen lifestyle. 'She'd had enough in her life, of people whose worldly status was their passport to admission.'

I didn't give the nod to everything. Some of her musings made me a bit sad, such as thinking back on her husband and children as 'obstacles' that kept her from her true self. That's a hard word to use in this context, for innocent kids. She was the one who caved in to pressure to bring them up in a way the world would approve, but then decides she doesn't gel with the hoop-jumping people they grew into. Well, she helped shape them that way. I can't help feeling that when they grew up, she was treating them the same way they treated her, by thinking harsh things about them and not extending grace, since they were acting the best way they knew how, just like her. And sometimes when she made decisions just to annoy them, I wondered if she was such a nice, innocent little old lady after all.

Most readers would probably agree that the renewal of Lady Slane's friendship with Colonel FitzGeorge is one of the book's highlights, even though she barely remembered their mutual past to start with. Two people who briefly cross paths in their twenties now touch base almost sixty years later, and take up where they left off. I love how he reflects that the beauty in her face has changed, developing into something richer and deeper than youthful beauty.

In fact all the characters are elderly, with one notable exception towards the end. Some of Lady Slane's children are grandparents themselves, and Edith, the 'baby sister' is 60. She's an interesting character with an independent thought life I would have liked to see more of. Mr Bucktrout, Lady Slane's old landlord, is also quite a character on her own wavelength, and some of his quotes are the ones I liked most.

* Repose is one of the most important things, and yet how few people achieve it.
* My principle has always been that it's better to please one person a great deal than please a number of persons a little.
* I have given a great deal of offense in my life, but not one offensive instance do I repent.
* Although one cannot create an atmosphere, one can at least safeguard it against disturbances.

Maybe sticking to our decisions to live the gentle, quiet lives we dream of, instead of jumping through hoops, is really a bold leap out of the comfort zone of public approval. Insisting on your right to enjoy a passive, relaxed and unheralded life may take courage, in the face of criticism and rejection. What an irony that going with the flow, and taking the path of least resistance, may be the biggest energy sapper after all. I'm not going to wait until I'm old to heed Lady Slane's lesson.


Friday, March 16, 2018

'Farmer Boy' 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 March.

Growing up on his family's farm in New York, Almanzo Wilder wishes for just one thing--his very own horse. But Father doesn't yet trust him with such a big responsibility. Almanzo needs to prove himself--but how?

It's the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's husband Almanzo when he was a boy. To sum up my feelings in a sentence, nothing beats sitting down to relax with a good book and read about others' hard work. I'd guess it was originally written as a companion to Laura's first book, Little House in the Big Woods, because it covers a year in the life of a family, following the cycles of the four seasons. But unlike the restless, roving Pa Ingalls, the Wilders had a flourishing, commercial farm. They weren't moving anywhere, and wouldn't want to!

One thing that stands out about James Wilder's farm is the huge variety. No specialisation for this man, he had all sorts going. Horses, cattle, sheep, potatoes, other veggies, cereal crops, orchards, you name it. I'm sure farms like his are almost extinct now. In modern times, people are seduced by the greater efficiency of growing or raising just one thing, and the profits that follow. Indeed, smaller hobby farmers can't compete with the produce of mass producers on the market. But I wonder if there's a high cost of soil depletion and healthy nutrient loss from overdoing it with a single commodity. It's sad to think that we're being led by the almighty dollar to our detriment, and that farms like the Wilders' no longer operate.

What pros they were too. Everything from their farm was naturally the very best. Not just any old sheep, but prize merinos. Also high pedigree Morgan horses, top quality potatoes, and super creamy butter that speaks for itself. No wonder the Wilders were highly respected in their community, and naturally reserved the best stables at church.

Almanzo makes a likable little hero, and his love for horses and food cannot be beaten. The story shows this boy going crazy about either one or the other.

To me, the horses come across fairly edgy and keyed up. Father wouldn't let his nine-year-old son near them, for fear that he'd teach them undesirable habits unwittingly. He was always dropping remarks like, 'One little mistake will ruin a fine colt.' They sound a bit like children. They'll pick up bad habits in a flash from some ratbag who's just mucking around, while good traits from someone with their best interests at heart are harder to stick. But young Almanzo decides that these high-maintenance critters are his delight.

8252His other passion is food, and the amount he manages to stuff into his mouth during this story is astounding, but Mother keeps it coming. A typical winter breakfast, for example, seemed to be pancakes, sausage cakes, oatmeal, fried potato, buckwheat cakes, doughnuts, jellies and jam. They have my admiration for keeping up the pace day after day, when our morning ritual is pouring a bowl of cereal. Reading this book might even be a good strike in the war against junk food. If you start off feeling sorry for the Wilder kids for not having Mars Bars and McDonalds, you might well end up feeling jealous instead, because of the delicious turnovers and doughnuts we can read about but not taste.

It's a lovely picture of a boy with a healthy role model in his father, who he adores. James gives Almanzo a heavy dose of the Protestant Work Ethic, making sure his son knows that money = hard work. 'Any time you want to spend a nickel, stop and think how much work it takes to earn a dollar.' He also scoffs at time saving devices which may compromise quality, because 'all it saves is time. And what good is time with nothing to do?' It sinks in too. One the third day of the County Fair, the young boy decides with no prompting that he's had an overload of leisure and just wants to get back to work.

There are several interesting snippets. How about the Indian at the County Fair, who jumped onto the race track and kept up with the horses? The story tells us that he ran a two minute, forty second mile, and even Father was impressed. Well, I'd hope so, because if it's true, the guy smashed Sir Roger Bannister's four minute mile several decades before it was even set! Even in 1954, many people called a four minute mile a physically impossible feat. And today the current record stands at three minutes and 43 seconds.This shows that nameless wonders and unsung heroes pop up in every generation. Unless Almanzo remembered it with boyish exaggeration and told Laura, who took it on face value and wrote it down. But I prefer to believe the tale about that freakishly fast Indian runner. (Even though my family say it's absolutely impossible.)

Readers who work in the retail industry should get ready to be challenged. Almanzo's big brother Royal decides to be a store keeper, because he's over all the demands of farm work. It makes sense to me. He's a young man who's familiar with farming and knows what he's talking about, so it's not an uninformed whim on his part. Yet his parents think he's selling himself short, and their main reason for idolising their hard lifestyle comes back to their notion of freedom and independence.

They can't stand the thought of having to kowtow to customers and keep everyone happy, whether they like them or not. We're told, 'If Father goes out of his way to please anyone, it's only because he wants to.' He himself puts it this way. 'You work hard but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.' (Only the weather, the seasons, the hands of the clock and the demands of a crowd of animals are allowed to do that, but somehow James Wilder doesn't mind being pushed around by these things so much. But to me it shows that nobody is truly 'free', unless it's to choose who, or what will be our master.)

Mother knows exactly how to respond to Mr Paddock's generous offer to train Almanzo to be a wheelwright. 'Why would Almanzo want to live in town and cater to the whims of every Tom, Dick and Harry?' Poor Mr Paddock will have to look for another apprentice.

'Mother' is one of my favourite characters. The story doesn't even give her name, but a wiki search tells me it was Angeline. What a fantastic lady, proving that feminine skills are a super strength. She blitzes everything, from her wonderful cooking and awesome loom weaving to her way of speaking her mind and bartering with tradesmen. I love how she and her husband come across as partners, each upholding their own equally important end of home and farm. But most of all, I love how she liberates other females not to scoff at the domestic arts, as a life pursuit. Nobody could possibly look at Angeline Wilder and call her work drudgery. What a woman. 

Another theme that keeps popping up is the true value of anyone's work or decisions being revealed in time. When lazy farmers scatter seed haphazardly so they can call it a day, their sloppiness will be obvious to everyone a few months later. In one of my favourite chapters, Almanzo decides to sneak some homemade toffee to his pet piglet, Lucy, but everyone finds out when her teeth get stuck together, and they have to pin her down so Royal can dislodge it. Oh oh, even loyal sister Alice is shocked that Almanzo would waste their sweets on a pig.

On the whole, Father is very matter-of-fact about the test of time, even regarding those he's most proud of.
Liveryman: That's a smart boy of yours.
Father: Time will show. Many a good beginning makes a bad ending. It remains to be seen how he turns out in the long run.

History showed his son suffered many tough times and hard knocks in the years ahead of him, with moments of heartache that might have broken his father's heart to see. But Almanzo came through with his faith, and his good, gentle character intact, so I'm sure James would have been perfectly satisfied with the way he turned out.

Next up will be On the Banks of Plum Creek


Read more about Almanzo here on this post about book boyfriends

Monday, March 12, 2018

We don't have to tackle Mount Everest

I was studying this huge mountain with my younger son. It's so impressive, being the world's tallest, at 8848 metres high. Apparently it still grows by about 0.25 inches each year, even at 60 million years old. It was first identified by a British survey team lead by George Everest in 1841, but not until 1953 did anyone manage to reach the summit. It was achieved by Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, making them instantly famous.

I applaud Junko Tabei, the first female to reach the top, not to mention Miura Yiuchiro, the oldest person to reach the top, aged 80, in May 2013. South Australia's Flinders Ranges' Mount Remarkable was almost too much for me, at 960 metres, and I was a fraction of the age. Over time, thousands of people have tried to reach the top of Everest, and many nameless folk have died making the attempt, in the name of thrill seeking or notoriety. My nephew's karate sensei climbed part of it. Even though he has the fitness level of an Olympic athlete, he didn't even attempt to make it all the way up. He told stories about the thinness of the atmosphere, and the many stops they would make just to get their breath back and conquer altitude sickness. Something about a challenge of that magnitude appeals to the adventurous streak that lies buried in all of us, some deeper than others.

Yet it would seem that, from space, it's a different story. From a vantage point of such magnitude, Mount Everest is merely part and parcel of the crust of the earth. In fact, it was even surprisingly difficult to single out. Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, said, 'How many people dream of conquering Everest so they can look down from it, yet for us up above, it was difficult to locate.'

This God's eye perspective, so to speak, makes me feel peaceful, although I had to think about it to figure out why. It's to do with the fact that it is we humans who label things with significance and importance, by deeming them big or impressive from our vantage point. As it's not at all the same for God, we needn't worry about buying into all those competitions for status.

We make Everests out of so many things. Humans are those who spread the illusion that certain lines of work are far more illustrious than others, and that achieving celebrity-hood or stardom in some field is the pinnacle to strive for. I now like to think that from a lofty enough heavenly perspective, all the good we do just becomes part of the earth's fabric. That means we don't really have to bust our boilers, burst our blood vessels and strain our Type A personalities to impress people walking around down here, who share our limited focus.

Imagine some member of the angelic host whose vantage point is more like that of Lebedev and his fellow astronauts, saying, "Mother Teresa and Billy Graham have done wonderful things, but so have millions of others. It's just part of the total of what love-driven servants are doing everywhere. Look at Jane Doe, caring for her sick mother and working hard as a single parent to support her son through college. Or Joe Blogs the bus driver, sticking to road rules and greeting all his passengers cheerfully, day after day. It's all one and the same, and we love it."

If we've ever been afraid of never hearing, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' thinking our work is too little or measly to justify the space we take, it might be time to get over our Mount Everest syndrome. When I finish writing this blog post, I'm going to go and clean my kitchen, have a walk with my son, and help my daughter prepare some food for her youth group. Later I'll work on a couple of book reviews. I'll have to remind myself that even though these things aren't Mount Everest, they are all adding to crust of love-driven deeds that makes the earth a great place to live. If we tend to get discouraged because we think we're not making a ripple, then maybe it's a sign that we should stop thinking in terms of being considered remarkable or measuring up to some standard. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Several Super Scientists

I was thinking how scientist characters tend to draw us in through both books and screen. There's something appealing about their brilliant and inquiring minds. The stories in which they feature tend to have interesting subject matter, and maybe they make us feel a tad smarter ourselves by reading about them. Several of the examples that sprang to my mind are so personally appealing, I was on the verge of calling this list, 'sexy scientists'. Here they are.

I'll begin with the natural history dudes. These guys are really into flora and fauna.

The Blue CastleBarney Snaith
Arguably one of L.M. Montgomery's most successful and appealing heroes, he lives out in the forest and writes books about the great outdoors, using the pseudonym John Foster. Valancy Stirling has no idea that when she falls in love with Barney, she's also falling for her favourite author. He always makes an effort to throw her off the scent by criticising 'that writer' as a charlatan whenever he can. (My review is here.)

383206Roger Hamley 
This earthy young man delves into the world of nature to the extent that he knows it as well as his own face in the mirror. His family considers his passion a major time waster, until he gets sponsored to take a major expedition to Africa to study plants and critters. It's a huge deal in the Victorian era, when men like Charles Darwin are doing the same thing, and there's no guarantee that they'll return alive. (My review is here.)

Newt Scamander
The most famous naturalist of the magical world, he's also beloved by many muggles who think he's just gorgeous. He also wrote the  text book based on his fieldwork, Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is used by all Hogwarts students in their studies.

19089Reverend Camden Farebrother 
More of a wannabe scientist than a legitimate one, this poor old pastor crams his study with samples beneath microscopes, because they really turn him on. Since his widowed mother and spinster sisters depend on him, he can't afford to indulge his passion full time. (My review is here.)
John Gould
This novel is really about his wife, but the birdman himself has plenty of appeal in a driven, fanatical sort of way. Based on real personal history, he brought his wife around the globe to Australia to help him indulge his passion for birds. He adores them enough to kill and stuff them in a flash, whenever he gets the chance. (My review is here.)

Next are the biological dudes who major on the human body, which makes them deliciously creepy when the story requires. 

35031085Victor Frankenstein
This handsome young genius manages to fulfil his dream of playing God. He stitches together a brand new human-like being from bits and pieces he digs up in graveyards, and somehow breathes life into it. But his astounding feat returns to haunt him. Full of anguish at having ever been created, the hideous monster strikes out against what his creator loves most in the world.

Tertius Lydgate
A new doctor in Middlemarch, the good-looking and earnest young man dreams of making amazing medical breakthroughs to help mankind. As a boy, he looked into a book of anatomy, and discovered his purpose in a flash. Yet he doesn't reckon upon small town prejudice. The people who are grossed out by his habit of examining dead bodies are just the start of all he has to deal with. (See my link to Farebrother, since they come from the same book.)
I'm going to call this young boy a scientist, although his peculiarity is more along the lines of a freaky gift. He can rip hearts out of living beings to animate dead ones for the short term. And believe it or not, there are times when Enoch's skill comes in very handy. (My review is here.)

Then there's the inventor type, or gadget guys, who make all sorts of weird, mechanical contraptions, that cause serious trouble and mayhem. The majority of those I thought of tend to be in sitcoms and movies rather than books. Maybe this is because their particular branch of science has the potential to be a good spectacle. 

Professor Wayne Szalinksy
His shrinking machine was a fabulous achievement, but something so dangerous shouldn't have been left lying around for unsuspecting family members to blunder into. What a mess! Also, he's a lesson to us all to never give up and assume failure prematurely. His lack of self confidence caused major trouble in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Flint Lockwood
I love this geeky, awkward little dude from Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs. He lived a lonesome life, always at odds with his father and shunned by others. The machine he'd hoped would win him respect and fix all his social troubles ended up plunging him in boiling hot water.

The Professor
He can work wonders with a bit of primitive technology and whatever natural material is on hand, such as coconut shells. But it's never enough to get them all off the island! At least he was admired by lady viewers as the sexiest castaway, but didn't really have a lot of competition in Gilligan, the Skipper and Mr Howell.

The Time Traveller
A gentleman scientist from the Victorian era, he built the incredible machine which enabled him to visit many different time periods. Then he returns to his own era to wow gentry in their drawing rooms.
The Big Bang Theory
I'm drawing closer to my ultimate super scientist, but first I'll award the runners up. You've got to spare a thought for these wacky geeks; physicists Leonard and Sheldon, aerospace engineer Howard, and astrophysicist Raj. What they collectively lack in tact, social skills, and conventional coolness, they certainly make up for in brainy brilliance. (Incidentally, remember the episode where they get hold of the actual time machine, from the movie based on H.G. Wells' book?)

And now for the big drum roll for number One on my list...

Mark Watney
18007564I've got to make him tops because he's such an all-round legend. An astronaut botanist, he was abandoned on a mission to Mars by his fellow crew, who assumed he was dead. He manages to keep himself alive by drawing on all sorts of scientific disciplines which aren't even his specialties, such as Physics, Chemistry and Engineering. He's forced to snatch every bit of trivia floating through his head to become an instant expert, just to survive another day. And most amazing of all, he keeps his sense of humour intact throughout his whole ordeal. (My review is here.)

Did you notice the same concerning, in-your-face thing I did after my brainstorm? Without exception, all on my list are male. I guess that in the past, when several of the classics were written, science really was a male dominated field, but interestingly, the tradition has seemed to cling. Where are the Marie Curies, Rachel Carsons, Jane Goodalls and Dian Fosseys of fiction? I think I've set myself a really tricky challenge for a future post, and hope there are enough for a list. 

As usual, if you can think of any other examples you love, either male or female, please add them in the comments.