Monday, June 17, 2019

'The Black Tulip' by Alexandre Dumas

'To have discovered the black tulip, to have seen it for a moment...then to lose it, to lose it forever!' 

Cornelius von Baerle, a respectable tulip-grower, lives only to cultivate the elusive black tulip and win a magnificent prize for its creation. But after his powerful godfather is assassinated, the unwitting Cornelius becomes caught up in deadly political intrigue and is falsely accused of high treason by a bitter rival. Condemned to life imprisonment, his only comfort is Rosa, the jailer's beautiful daughter, and together they concoct a plan to grow the black tulip in secret. Dumas' last major historical novel is a tale of romantic love, jealousy and obsession, interweaving historical events surrounding the brutal murders of two Dutch statesman in 1672 with the phenomenon of tulipomania that gripped seventeenth-century Holland.

What a madcap tale of fanaticism, passion and jealousy this one turns out to be. Here's my most valuable tip straight off. Please don't let the somber nature of the first few chapters deter you from persevering, as I almost did more than once. It's a bit like shaking the plug of congealed tomato sauce from the neck of a bottle. Once you've passed that point, the entertainment flows perfectly. The purpose of the tough and sad beginning is to ground the story to a real, historical event, as you'll see. It's something Dumas liked to do. In this case, he retells a tragic event in which two noble statesmen are falsely accused of treason and savagely mauled to death by an angry mob while they attempt to flee for safety. Whew, once we get over that hurdle, the fun begins.

Cornelius Van Baerle is a good-natured young doctor who enjoys a bit of gardening in his spare time. He's introduced as a 'happy mortal' which extends to his tulips, since he has an incredible green thumb. A contest offering 100 000 florins for the creator of a perfect black tulip is announced, and he rises to the challenge, pouring his heart and soul into it. It's a very tough call from the Horticultural Society, who don't really expect anyone to pull it off. They are willing to offer such a huge prize because black tulips are rarer than hens' teeth. But our boy Cornelius is quietly confident.

Little does he know he has a mortal enemy in his next door neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, a fanatical gardener himself. Cornelius has made some home renovations which unintentionally messed up the direction of sunshine on Isaac's tulip garden. He also unknowingly knocked Isaac's name off an illustrious list of tulip growers from their town. Now Isaac is out to get him! He's so intent on keeping an eagle eye on whatever Cornelius is doing that his own tulip beds suffer from neglect. Obsessing over his young neighbour becomes Isaac's whole life. It's the classic jealous guy's mistake of forgetting what pursuing goals is really all about, but it doesn't matter to him. Because when he bumps off Cornelius, he'll steal any bulbs or black tulips he manages to leave behind.

Boxtel manages to pull some crooked strings to get Cornelius arrested on false charges of high treason, but his sentence is reduced from execution to life imprisonment. Cornelius now has one ace up his sleeve which neither man even realise the full value of at first. He's won the love of Rosa, the daughter of Gryphus the jail keeper. She thoroughly supports Cornelius' quest for the perfect black tulip and does her utmost to help him achieve his goal. Meanwhile Isaac sneaks around in the background, trying to thwart them. At this stage, pouring the same creative effort into growing his own tulips doesn't even enter his head. 

'Tulip mania' was a real thing. Dumas simply used the historical time period, when the price of bulbs soared sky high, as a backdrop for his story. The fervour of these Dutch tulip growers gets me grinning every page. They hold fast to a creed of logic. 'To despise flowers is to offend God. The more beautiful the flower, the more God is offended by contempt of it. Now the tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers, therefore he who despises the tulip offends God exceedingly.' Proof that it's possible to fit anything into a logical framework if you feel passionately enough about it, hey?

The watery landscape features are interesting too. We are told you can't ever go as the crow flies in Holland, 'a country which is more cut up by rivers, streams, rivulets, canals and lakes than any other country in the world. I've never been there, but have been told by people who lived there that it's precisely what it's like. So I enjoyed my bit of armchair travel.

I imagine books playing out as movies on my mind's screen while I read, and this one is definitely an animation! Cornelius is a Prince Charming look-alike, while I picture Boxtel to be something like Aladdin's Jafar, with all the extreme, twisted facial expressions. But within all the exaggerated fun, good object lessons abound. Some researchers believe an individual's set point of happiness has a way of re-adjusting itself to circumstances. That definitely seems true of these two characters.

For the unlucky Cornelius, life soon becomes sweet and full of hope again. Even while he's being led to the scaffold, he consoles himself with the anticipation that in a matter of mere moments, he will get to witness all the beautiful tulips of the world from the height of heaven. 'One stroke of the sword and my beautiful dream will commence.' Saved on the spur of the moment, he's just as optimistic behind bars. But Isaac Boxtel, in his intense focus on what's slipping through his fingers, ignores every other good thing he has. It's easy to tell who is the real prisoner. The morals are in our faces, but still easy to take on board. Coupled with his bitter jealousy, Isaac is a man who's into name-dropping and hobnobbing with bignobs. 'He takes from everyone a little of his importance to add it to his own' just as he's not above stealing flowers. That sort of person doesn't always get what he deserves in real life, so it's satisfying when he does in a story.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys a zany bit of fun.

This counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge as a selection set in The Netherlands


Monday, June 10, 2019

'Our Mutual Friend' by Charles Dickens

A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, Our Mutual Friend revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’s most complex—and satisfying—novels.

Here's my choice in the Nineteenth Century Classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. By the finish, I was wondering why this particular novel slid under my radar for so long. It ticks all the boxes a brilliant Victorian novel should. After my experience with Dickens so far, I'd summed him up as a guy who never managed to get any real sexual chemistry happening between any of his couples. Whoa, I'll have to beg his pardon after this. The mutually repressed physical attraction of the secondary plot, with Lizzie and Eugene, is sizzling hot, especially in what isn't being said between the lines we read. They're my favourites. And the other romance, with Bella and John, is sort of sweet too. But first things first.

There are several plot threads that converge on each other, not to mention snobs, schemers and scoundrels hatching up blackmail attempts. Enough copies and variations of the same will to verge on comedy, and no less than four very awful villains we're induced to love in a literary sense for their sheer depravity. Plus many bodies recovered from the River Thames, either dead or alive. In fact, the great River flows through the whole story as a common thread.

It's a teeming story to attempt to summarise, proving there's never more than a few degrees of separation between Dickens characters, as the title suggests. The butterfly effect of seemingly unrelated incidents never ends. It all starts with the death of an old miser named Mr Harmon, who built his fortune in the rubbish dump business. His son John, who is set to inherit the empire, is found floating dead in the Thames. This has a life-changing impact on several others, including Bella Wilfer, the girl John was meant to marry, and Mr and Mrs Boffin, the kindly employees  who inherit the estate in the absence of the heir. They also hire a mysterious but eager young man named John Rokesmith as secretary, to help them keep their floundering heads above water.

The ripples keep spreading. John Harmon's body was first discovered by a scruffy old no-hoper named Gaffer Hexam, who makes a sort of dubious living robbing drowned corpses. His gentle daughter Lizzie turns a blind eye to the family 'business' out of loyalty to her dad, although everyone trying to sort things out intuits what's going on. Mortimer Lightwood, the young lawyer who has been hired to take care of the Harmon affairs, is drawn in deeper than he expects. Especially when his best friend, the super bright but apathetic Eugene Wrayburn finds himself attracted to Lizzie before he knows what's hit him.

Although it kindled my imagination, I'm not claiming it's perfect. But since the flaws themselves are worthy of discussion, perhaps they add extra fuel, making it perfect in a different sense. For example, did the great Dickens have some timing lapses in his weaving between romance plots? The thread with Lizzie and Eugene is so urgent, intense and fast-paced in the final third, could Bella and John really have had time to conceive, incubate and deliver a baby in that same block of writing? For that matter, does the Bella and John plot leave you indignant on her behalf? It clearly wasn't meant to make us mad, but I can imagine different readers debating whether or not she was treated completely fairly by those she loved the most. They are the sort of technical and ethical questions I'd love to throw around with other readers. So yes, maybe the huge scope for further discussion does make the book ideal.

There are happily-ever-afters for those with the admirable character and good hearts to deserve them, which always gives me warm fuzzy feelings. It doesn't come across as an unrealistic, simplistic wrap-up though, because although the 'good' guys have happy endings, the more villainous characters wouldn't necessarily envy them or agree they are happy. In other words, the endings are only happy because of their innate integrity. Bella chooses John over the luxuries she thinks she needs for a happy life, and later gets a huge surprise. And Eugene chooses Lizzie, even though he knows it means becoming a social pariah, but he doesn't give a rat's behind. (Honestly, a posh gentleman's son with a law degree choosing to marry the daughter of a thieving, illiterate river scavenger would raise eyebrows even today, so no wonder it rocked the snooty socks off those snobby Victorians! You've got to step back to reflect how shockingly subversive Dickens was for even writing their story in such a way.) Happiness comes to those who are content with little, or who recognise that what seems worthless to others is really hugely valuable.

If I haven't convinced you to read it for the plot, read it for the following wonderful characters.

1) Eugene Wrayburn, who reminds me a little of my two sons. Funny, perceptive and original, but a 'that-don't-impress-me-much' sort of guy. Many readers may call him a lazy-bones, but I preferred to think of him as motivationally challenged.

2) Bradley Headstone, the dense but intense school teacher, who knows what he wants and loathes anyone who might stand in his way. Dickens describes Bradley as 'an ill-timed wild animal, white-lipped, wild-eyed, draggle-haired.' The sort of guy anyone but a consummate smart-aleck might fear to cross. (More about him here.)

3) Jenny Wren, an absolute delight. She's a lame teenager with a drunken dad, and manages to make ends meet by sewing dolls clothes for a living. 'A child in years, but a woman in self-reliance and trial.' She has the cool sort of eccentricity to rise above adverse circumstances, thanks to her imagination and optimism. And whenever she steps into a scene, you expect to end up smiling.

The first part is the slowest, as we need to make allowances for Dickens getting it all set up, but it's well worth it for the way he lets all hell break loose later on. I hope I've convinced you to get hold of a copy ASAP, and if you do, please feel free to discuss the finer points of the plot with me afterwards. I'll always have time for our mutual friends from Our Mutual Friend.

I'm also going to slide it into the European Reading Challenge 2019 as a selection from The United Kingdom. 


Monday, June 3, 2019

Characters with Insane Jealousy

What do we do with jealousy? It's one of those emotions we never intentionally cultivate, but surges up from seemingly nowhere. Parents express shock when we detect it for the first time in our darling children, yet reflection might tell us we shouldn't be surprised, for we had it in spades too. 

There is actually a fine line of distinction between envy and jealousy. Envy occurs when we covet what belongs to others, while jealousy amounts to fear that what we possess will be taken away by them. I won't press the distinction too hard in this list. It's all about keeping  a close watch on what others have compared to us, no matter what form it takes. 

We ostensibly embrace this emotion, yet it's absolutely no fun. It's a torturous guide that robs our happiness, yet we struggle to figure out how to deal with it. We are never really taught coping skills, because few examples step forward to offer any. It's one of those tacitly unacceptable emotions we prefer never to acknowledge. The world could be full of secret jealousy eating the general public's peace of mind like corrosive acid, but it's the rare soul who'll admit it. So here I raise my hand to having experienced my fair share over the years. How about you?

This list may be a help. I wouldn't suggest it offers a cure, since I don't believe there is one, short of rooting it out like a weed. This is more of a balm to soothe the savage beast, and help it lie dormant. There's nothing like knowing we are in famous company to help quench the flame.

Keep in mind that owing to nature of these lists, there are a few plot spoilers.  

I'll start with some Biblical examples to set the tone.

1) Cain
Adam and Eve's first son hated it that his younger brother got God's thumbs up for offering an acceptable sacrifice, while the motivation behind his own was frowned upon. Cain was a man of instinct. Instead of deciding to try better next time, or even talking it out, he opts for knocking that goody-goody right out of the picture, so he'll never make him lose face again.

2) King Saul 
He was crowned Israel's very first king, but not even the highest of all honours is enough to shut out the green eyed monster.You know you're in a bad way when a guy you hire to calm you down with soothing music sends you into fits of envy and rage every time he steps in with his harp. Saul makes many attempts to end David's life long before he ever looks like becoming his successor. When crowds are heard chanting, 'Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands,' he can wave goodbye to any peace of mind he has left. Where's the glory in having killed thousands, as long as the one elusive brat who keeps showing you up remains alive?

Now we get to jealousy throughout the classics. I'll start with some of the milder cases, and finish up with prizes for the most insane and destructive. 

190893) Edward Casaubon
The middle-aged scholar had a beautiful young wife on good terms with a handsome, destitute relative of his, about her own age. Instead of giving their friendship the nod of approval, our man simmers with bitter jealousy that takes its toll on his dodgy heart. It comes to light during the reading of his will, in a very pointed codicil. Dorothea, his wife, will have her inheritance stripped from her if she ever marries Will Ladislaw. Come on man, was it necessary to mention him by name? And does it really matter what the pair of them get up to together, once you've passed on to a better world? I truly believe he might have actually put the idea in their heads. (My review of Middlemarch is here.)

4) Severus Snape
The grouchy exterior of Hogwarts' Potions master is largely formed by years of rampant jealousy. Lily Evans, the girl he always loved, married James Potter, the bully who picked on him. Severus could never let it go. His jealousy leads to reflexive actions that result in the unintended death of his beloved. Even then, he harbours a smouldering grudge against her innocent son, for no other reason than he resembles his dead father. Severus dude, you did keep your promise, but you could have done it with far more grace.

5) Antonio Salieri
Anyone who ever watched the movie 'Amadeus' will remember the playing out of what was represented as a true, historical grudge. Salieri is an accomplished Austrian composer who recognises unbridled genius in his young counterpart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri's choice of thoughts helps fan a flicker of jealousy into a raging inferno. He just can't move on from demanding, 'Why should God give this magnificent gift to a flippant, cheeky teenager instead of a devotee like me who adores music and works my butt off?' Don't ask impossible questions, Antonio. He ends up driving Mozart to death, and pushing himself to the brink of madness.

6) Uriah Heep
This slimy, smarmy young Dickens villain is driven by pure jealousy. His workhouse origins (or 'umble beginnings, he'd call them) keep him on the lookout for anybody he sees in more favourable circumstances. A steady flame of malice fuels his favourite hobby of slowly but surely ruining people, and taking them down. David Copperfield finds himself on Uriah's hit list. It's not a hobby to be proud of, yet Uriah devotes all his time to it. (My review is here.)

Okay, we've made our way to the big guns. The final pair are my favourite examples because of the sheer obsessive recklessness they employ in their attempts to destroy the objects of their envy.  
7) Isaac Boxtel 
He's mad about the gentle art of tulip growing, but his neighbour Cornelius grows better flowers and has a greater chance of winning a prestigious competition. It should be a clear sign that when you stop pursuing your enjoyable hobby to figure out how to knock out your rival, you've lost touch with what's really important. But Isaac is too far gone to reflect that tulip growing has progressed to attempted murder, continual surveillance, theft and simmering obsession. He really believes these are all just part and parcel of tulip growing. (My review of The Black Tulip is coming very soon.)

8) Bradley Headstone
31244This guy could be Charles Dickens' most intense villain, masked with the respectable title of school teacher. He's a cross between a stalker and a mountain troll, driven by jealous adrenaline. Bradley has set his hot-blooded desire on Lizzie Hexam, a young woman within his own humble sphere. But he suspects she yearns for the love of Eugene Wrayburn, a witty young lawyer from an illustrious family. Eugene can dismiss slow-witted Bradley with comedic insults, but underestimates the force of sheer animalistic loathing. Bradley has the grim patience to stalk him, waiting for an opportunity to strike. He's forever mopping passionate perspiration from his brow, and eventually even the thought of Eugene together with Lizzie causes spontaneous nosebleeds. I tell you, Bradley's obsession, and Eugene's careless obliviousness, keeps readers on the edge of our seats. (My review of Our Mutual Friend is here.)

It's such a destructive list. In almost every case, jealousy leads to either intended or actual murder. But each of these insanely jealous guys is destroying his own life most of all. I tend to think the main thing they teach us is to steer clear of following their paths, because from our vantage point, we can see they are heading up hopeless blind alleys. Accepting circumstances, even when they appear unbalanced or unfair, must surely be preferable to driving yourself nuts with paranoia and misery. If it's at all possible to shake off jealousy and wish our rivals well, or at least let them go their own way, let's do it for our own sake. Perhaps the only people we should be jealous of are those who genuinely never experience a jealous moment.   

I know this list is by no means complete, so can you think of any others. Or are any of your favourite examples shown here?       

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the original title of a novella written by the famous Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson that was first published in 1886. The work is commonly known today as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or simply Jekyll & Hyde. It is about a London lawyer named John Gabriel Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr Henry Jekyll, and the evil Edward Hyde.

This is my choice for the Novella Category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. Not only is it a very small book (less than 60 pages in my volume) but it's the small book that helped established Stevenson's reputation. That's impressive, considering there are virtually no female characters, and no males who can be considered especially endearing, except for a glimpse of one sweet old gentleman who becomes a victim of the plot.

Here's what happens. A lawyer named John Gabriel Utterson has had brushes with a ruthless crook named Edward Hyde, who roams the streets of London. Hyde's crimes include bashing innocent people for the pure love of violence. But Utterson's old school chum, Henry Jekyll, takes a special interest in the young man, and even makes him the sole beneficiary of his will. Utterson wonders if his good friend is somehow being blackmailed. The truth turns out to be far more bizarre. The very earliest Victorian readers were no doubt gobsmacked by the big revelation, although we of the twenty-first century know what to expect from page 1. Robert Louis Stevenson probably lived to discover one major drawback of being immortalised in the halls of fame. Everyone will always know big spoilers for your story.

Although we get what we expect pretty much, here are a few things I found interesting, which might negate some assumptions we make going in.

1) Henry Jekyll was no helpless victim swept along by the current, or at least not at the start. His skills as a chemist put him in the position of having a choice. You either take the potion at certain times to transform yourself into a heartless raving psychopath, or you don't. He caves in to temptation and chooses to let his Hyde persona have carte blanche ... as long as it's at specific times set aside for him. Maybe Jekyll is a handy representative for many men throughout history who have tried to assume a squeaky clean public face, and keep their more squalid characteristics under cover. The fact that we even hear about several cases to make the comparison indicates that they often don't end well.

2) We can't reasonably expect to keep our good and evil sides isolated from each other for long. The evil will gradually leach in to infect the good, since that's the way it usually works in stories rather than vice versa. Maybe it's the way it works in life too. Stevenson clearly believed we shouldn't even let our bad sides get a look in as far as we can help it, but snip those murky impulses in the bud as soon as our conscious minds detect them. Yet Henry Jekyll goes so far as to create a nice little apartment and stamping ground for his. I guess Stevenson's point might be that we are following Jekyll's example whenever we insist on entertaining certain types of thoughts and habits over and over again.

3) The danger of addiction is real. Jekyll assures Utterson, 'You do not understand my position. The moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr Hyde.' Ha, that's what you think, mate! Before he knows it, he's waking up in the form of Hyde instead of himself, even when he reasons that it shouldn't be happening. It reminds me of statements such as, 'I can stop drinking/smoking/shopping/watching internet memes whenever I choose.' Some may even suggest that our own Mr Hyde may appear as innocent as chocolate, sugar or social media.

4) The description of Hyde's physical appearance is thought-provoking from a symbolic perspective. He's younger, smaller and lighter on his feet than Jekyll, which adds to the pleasure Jekyll feels whenever he assumes his form. Towards the end, other characters speculate reasons for their stature differences. Maybe Hyde had formerly been restrained with not as much room to develop, yet rapidly became more robust as he was allowed lengthy stretches of free reign.

Also, Hyde has a repugnant effect on strangers from first glimpse. People, including Utterson, get the impression of some repulsive deformity without being able to pinpoint exactly what it is. Is Stevenson suggesting that Hyde's might be the face of pure evil made visible?

I wonder who could have predicted that such a short story was destined to become not only a classic but a cliche. Perhaps it pleased two quite different types of Victorian readers; those who liked to be thrilled by a bit of sensationalism, along with those who tended to stick to moralistic tales urging us to be good. In this manner, the story itself could be regarded as a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. Maybe that was Stevenson's card up his sleeve.

But from my 21st century vantage point, it didn't impress me overly much. There's just no way of saying how awesome the wow factor might have seemed had I been around to read it in 1886 when it was hot off the press. It's still worth a read for some of the brilliant descriptions of London life back then.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Gift of the Gab or Gift of the Pen?

In War and Peace, young Natasha Rostov chafes with frustration when circumstances separate her for a year from her fiance, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. She sends him letters, but written communication is an utter drag to her, because using a pen as the medium for her thoughts is foreign to Natasha's dynamic nature. It's clunky and tiresome for her. Here is what Tolstoy tells us about Natasha.

'She was no great writer, and found it impossible to set down adequately in a letter the thousandth part of what she was used to conveying by means of her voice, her smile and her eyes. She wrote him a series of dry, formal and identical missives to which she attached not the slightest importance, with spelling mistakes corrected by the countess (her mother) at the rough copy stage.' 

Does that make you nod with understanding and sympathy for her? I've met many people I'm sure would relate to Natasha. They are people whose spontaneous speech I envy. Thoughts seem to bubble instantly to the tips of their tongues, enabling them to express ideas fluently with conviction the moment they enter their heads. To put it another way, their mental conception and verbal expression appear simultaneous. This fortunate pairing often seems to go with extroverted personalities, and I can understand why. When your mind and tongue enjoy such reliable teamwork, it  strengthens your social confidence, as you're unlikely to humiliate yourself by stuttering and scrambling for words. This strikes me as a happy flow circle, as opposed to a vicious circle. And Tolstoy's Natasha belongs in this group. Vivid, colourful, talkative and alive.

I consider myself part of an opposite group who tend to get uneasy in social situations. I think 'mind paralysis' is a good term for the blank panic we experience, when some cruel thumb seems to press the 'Refresh' buttons of our minds just when we want to talk. Our thoughts seem to scoot far from us, and our speech lags even further behind. We are certain this makes us appear more dense and bereft than we really are. We are the folk who rely heavily on our pens and keyboards as the best tools to offer us a way out. After many years of trying to deal with this phenomenon, I've at least learned some info to help us understand why it happens.

Apparently this mind paralysis occurs mainly in introverts (no surprise there) and is because of the depth to which we have to dive for the words we need. Introverts tend to reach down into our long term memories for whatever we want to say, while extroverts have more of a rapport with their short term memories. That's why they often discover that smooth spiel at the tips of their tongues which makes me envious.

With me, and maybe you too, there is often a time lapse, and sometimes a long one. I may have a sketchy idea of something interesting or meaningful to say, but the words don't flow to my tongue on the spot. They can take several seconds. Often I need to mull my ideas over and think them through more carefully before I have anything cohesive to say. Meanwhile people are looking at me and waiting for pearls of wisdom which I fear they won't get. Ever since my childhood, I've practiced training myself out of this awkward reaction, which usually means resorting to second-rate words just to cut short that awkward pause. I'm aware that well-spoken answers will never be reflexive for me, no matter how hard I practice. I know in my heart that whatever I manage to come up with verbally falls far short of what I would write, had I the time.

I understand and sympathise with introverts who dread parties because they fear being put on the spot. Who wants to be that guest with the silly smile and blank mind? We crash when we get home, understandably. Winging it while our brains are telling us, 'I've got nothing,' is exhausting work. While our extrovert friends have been enjoying some pleasant paddling, we've done the equivalent of deep sea diving for several hours.

On top of this, we deal with stress hormones such as cortisol which flood our bodies while we anxiously stand there, unwilling to look like idiots. It's the ancient 'fight or flight' situation, but instead of saber-toothed tigers, we face smiling friends with finger food and cups of tea.

Susan Cain, the author of 'Quiet', tells us that when it comes to writing, the introvert's expression is quite different. Although we are still working with words, they are coming from different neural pathways than our spoken words. Easier pathways which enable the flow to kick in. That's why, unlike Natasha Rostov, my pens and computer keyboard are stimulants rather than handicaps. It's nice to know there's a valid reason why some of us might prefer to choose tapping away on Messenger over picking up the telephone (that tool of interruption!) And why making a blog article out of this feels far clearer than I might come across trying to explain the same thing across the table. Some of us belong to a far quieter group than the first, but writing is a gift that enables us to spend time with you in a more eloquent way than we otherwise might.

I do wish I'd understood all this several years ago, because if there's one thing worth taking away, it's this. We sufferers of mind paralysis may never find ourselves totally at ease in life, but at least we no longer need to mentally beat ourselves up. Since there's a scientific basis for our malady, it's absolutely not a character defect! We aren't dummies with nothing to offer. Nor are we cowards, incapable of overcoming fear. And if we hear that we've been called stand-offish, we can rest assured that it's a mistaken assumption on the part of others who don't understand. We are simply people with more meandering feedback loops, when it comes to communication. Nothing takes the pressure off more than grasping this.

So where do you stand on the spectrum? Are you more of a Natasha or a Paula?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

'Mary Barton' by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through
love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Wow, this has blown me away. I'ts my choice in the Classic by a Woman category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. After reading Wives and Daughters followed by this debut, Mrs Gaskell now sits at the very top of my Victorian authors ranking. I think she's become my favourite of all, and I've read widely, including Dickens, Collins, the Brontes, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy and Austen (who was a Regency author, but we love to group her with the Victorians). Maybe I love Gaskell because her maternal, caring heart stirs up my own love for my kids. None of those others were actually mothers. Do you think it takes one to know one?

I read way into the early morning hours to finish it, and then the plot still kept whirling around in my head. Few readers might associate the name of Elizabeth Gaskell with nail-biting crime thrillers, but that's just what this social commentary and romance morphs into. For several chapters, there is one 'just in the nick of time' moment after another, that left me breathless.

For a start, it's a murder case. We have a strong heroine on a vital mission to save the hero's life, while time ticks away. That's not something we often see, especially from the Victorian era. But Jem has been condemned to die. He's no weakling in distress, but quite the opposite. He's strong and loyal, willing to lay down his life to protect and save others, when it seems there's no other way out. Mary has the tricky task of preventing the man she loves from making himself a scapegoat, while keeping quiet about another awkward twist that cannot be revealed. What more can we ask for, hey?

 One of my favourite parts of the book is the romance between Mary Barton and Jem Wilson, no thanks to Mary and her vacillation. She and Jem have known each other forever, and she initially hardens herself against his familiar face to focus on Harry Carson, the son of a factory owner. In times of such horrific poverty, I can't fault Mary for wanting to secure her family's future with a rich boy, but she makes the classic mistake of realising the worth of who she's thrown aside too late. It's sort of an, 'Oh dammit,' moment at first, since he's not the one her head tells her is the wisest match. But no girl can keep lying to herself when the truth dawns on her. Especially after a proposal to melt the hardest heart.

Anyway, the instant she makes her mistake, it's all action from there. Since Mary realises she's deeply in love with Jem straight after rejecting his proposal, you might wonder why she doesn't simply tell him. The answer is all tied up with the social expectations of females in the Victorian era. It would have been far too brazen and un-ladylike, so she decides on letting time pass, and hoping he picks up on more subtle clues, such as fluttery eyelashes and sweet smiles. But it turns out that when you tell a guy, 'Once and for all, I'll never marry you,' he might take your statement on face value. If women have changed over the last century, men certainly haven't. I can't help thinking he would have been delighted if she'd told him she changed her mind, and it certainly would have saved him loads of trouble later on. But these characters didn't ask to be born in the Victorian era, and had to operate within the conventional constraints they were given.

This book's background is interesting in itself. Gaskell's husband suggested she try writing a novel to help distract her from grief following the death of their toddler son from scarlet fever. It's a wonderful result from such a sad loss, yet there are several heart-wrenching death scenes. A few times I wondered, 'How could this possibly cheer her up?' and got the feeling it must have been cathartic. Sharing Gaskell's emotional release is our gain, and in the process she shows how fiction can be a more powerful instrument to bring people's attention to social negligence than anything else.

She'd originally intended to call the book 'John Barton' after Mary's father, another crucial main character. Gaskell felt deep pity for the hopeless class of men he represents. But it was probably a wise move not to, since Mary's name embodies the optimistic future, while John's mires us in the hopeless torpor of his bleak present. Yet he's possibly the character who sticks in our minds long after the story is over.

Poor John Barton is a prime example of how a good person might become a criminal. The working class are suffering and starving, and he has the thwarted heart of a kind crusader. His total inability to do anything to relieve the plight of the people he cares for sinks him into the deepest depression. With the fervour of the Trade Union behind him, he decides to lash out at wealthy factory owners, the class that seems directly responsible for the horror that surrounds him. The story really shows how John progresses from harmless family man to dangerous vigilante.

There are several other lovable supporting characters too, including Mary's blind friend Margaret, with her angelic singing voice, and her naturalist grandfather Job Legh, who often steals the scene. Touching father/daughter moments are abundant between Mary and John, not to mention poignant mother/son moments between Jem and Jane Wilson. She's a crosspatch who really grows on us. (Having her live under their roof to share their happily-ever-after would surely be a stretch on their marriage, haha.) And there's Jem's faithful and calm Aunt Alice, who exerts her loving, peaceful influence over everyone else, even when she's out of her right mind. Early on she says, 'An anxious mind is never a holy mind.'

Characters often drop great lines about watching our attitudes, which we can grab hold of. Since their circumstances elicit them on the spot, it never comes across as preaching but clearly wise coping tools and part of the plot. There's such a powerful moral study in a dialogue between three guys towards the end, I'll be reading it over and over again.

I guess Elizabeth Gaskell mixed her genres in a way modern authors are warned not to, the reason being that we need to be clear about our target audiences. But after reading Mary Barton, I think it's a shame we don't blend them this way anymore, because her target audience is clearly anybody with a beating heart.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Five Fantastic Mothers

With Mother's Day almost upon us, I'm thinking about the impact we have on our children, lingering in the form of fond memories. I'm afraid that if my kids were asked, they'd remember an incident that happened when they were small. At the end of a long day, I pulled some taco shells from the oven where they were meant to be getting warm, only to find them burned black as cinders and have them slip onto the floor and make me slip over. It was the last straw. So I started stamping the fragments to splinters, hoping the destruction would ease my temper. Suddenly my two eldest kids were there, laughing until they were almost crying. Even now, they'll ask each other, 'Do you remember Mum's taco stomp?' or tell their youngest brother, 'You should have seen it!'  

These other ladies have more illustrious things to be remembered for. This Mother's Day, instead of honouring fictional mothers, I'll share some tales I've heard about real life mothers from history.  

1) Saint Monica
She was Saint Augustine's mother, and also a saint in her own right. I once owned a little old book of saints which told her story. For years, her son was a party-goer who loved getting wasted and never spared a thought for the people he might be hurting, or his own destiny. Monica never gave up praying for Augustine, even when such a lot of time passed that other mothers might have abandoned the effort as a lost cause. It seems praying for her son was her main claim to fame.

2) Susannah Wesley
This remarkable lady bore almost 20 children and raised them in a tiny house with an absentee husband (although he must have shown up often enough to have fathered 19 children). The story goes that whenever the children saw her sitting at the kitchen table with her apron raised over her head, they knew not to bother her. It was her quiet time in which she reflected and prayed. I've heard this anecdote told to convince us that it's never strictly true that we can't get a moment to ourselves. Just spare a thought for Susannah and plug on.

Wikipedia tells us that even though she never wrote a book, preached a sermon or founded a church, she's still known as the mother of Methodism. This is because two of her sons, John and Charles, became famous. One was a great evangelist and the other a renowned hymn writer. We all like to think our good influence rubs off on our kids.

3) Nancy Matthews Elliot
She was Thomas Edison's mother. You might have seen this gem floating around on social media. The story goes that young Tom brought home a sealed note from his teacher. When his mother read it, she shed some tears and told him they'd decided he was such a genius, they'd run out of resources to teach him. She taught him at home instead, and years after her death, the famous inventor found the note among her old papers. What it really said was that he was so addled in the head, they refused to let him attend school anymore.

There are claims that the truth was tampered with, and that Edison was well aware of their low opinion of him. His mother was still a champion on his behalf, making a beeline into school to claim that he was not a dunce. Rather than being expelled, she pulled him out of school, since she saw that he'd never thrive among their limited and judgmental attitudes. In my opinion, this makes her just as much of a hero as the first tale.

Edison always claimed that his mother was the making of him, and her steady confidence in him made him always want to live up to it. It's a terrific tribute from a son.

4) Henrietta Seuss Geisel
I read somewhere that this lovely lady used to hold down a part time job at a bakery when her children were small. She was expected to memorise all the specialty pies to rattle off to customers, and used to practise in front of young Theodor, making up wacky tunes that made him laugh. She also encouraged his juvenile artistic efforts, giving him permission to practice drawing animals on his bedroom walls. Of course, young Ted grew up to be the beloved Dr Seuss. If my kids would remember me for this sort of quirky help and encouragement, I'd be more than happy. Especially if my own weirdness helped them to tap into their own specific skills. 

5) Hannah
Her story is told in the Biblical book of 1Samuel. Struggling with infertility and being taunted by her husband's other wife, she promised God that if ever she bore a son by some miracle, she'd make sure he grew up to be a godly man, and what's more, she'd dedicate him for temple service as a babe. That's exactly what happened, and each year when she made the pilgrimage to the temple with her family, she'd bring Samuel a handmade robe, a size larger each visit. And her son grew to be one of the illustrious Old Testament prophets, instrumental in crowning Israel's first two kings. 

I wish all fellow mothers, potential mothers, mentors, and any lady who has ever cared deeply for children, a very happy Mother's Day on Sunday. It's not always an easy role, and our purpose may seem to be the butt of jokes as often as it is offering wisdom. I'd like a dollar for every time I've heard something like, 'Hey, guess what Mum just said. She's so out of touch.' But it's all part of the job description, and proves that we need a sense of humour. 

If you can think of any other historical mothers (or hysterical in my case) who deserve recognition, please let us know.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

How Great Stories go Viral

When it comes to keeping stories alive, nothing really beats word of mouth. 'The grapevine' gets a rough wrap sometimes, because things like secrets, slander and rumours tend to multiply to plague proportions. Scandals are like weeds. They begin in some small corner of the garden, but before long, they've choked the good plants and everyone knows all about it.

But I'm sure we've all heard the saying, 'Why should the devil have all the good music?' In a similar way, we could ask, 'Why should the gossipers monopolise the grapevine?' When we use our tongues and pens to share good stuff, it's like cultivating a vineyard. Encouragement, beauty and inspiration have a chance to grow. Maybe when we look at it this way, we could even think of it as a responsibility.

Here's how I've seen the grapevine work within fiction itself, from a few random examples.

157993The Little Prince
A beautiful desert fox tells the small title character a great secret with which to approach life. In turn, the Little Prince passes it on to the narrator of the story, who he befriends when the man's small plane crashes. And then the narrator writes it in his book, and therefore tells us all. (To know more about the secret, see my review of The Little Prince.)

Emily Climbs
During a walking trip, the young heroine stays overnight with some acquaintances, to dodge wet weather. An elderly relative of theirs tells a story from her long gone past, about a time she worked as a nanny in a palace, and smacked the six-year-old heir to the throne for being naughty. Emily asks permission to write it as a story for a magazine. Weeks later, a famous writer and journalist named Miss Royal reads the story, and contacts Emily to offer her a job. So the tale of 'The Woman who Spanked the King' travels further than the young palace employee ever imagined.

The poor, tragic monster has been sewn together from random body parts. He manages to track down his creator, young Victor Frankenstein, and insists on telling him the story of the horrible rejection he's experienced since Victor first breathed life into him. Although Victor wants nothing to do with him, he agrees that he owes the monster the courtesy of listening. Then way later, he repeats the story to his new friend, sea captain Robert Walton, on whose vessel he's been rescued. It's such an incredible story, Robert includes it in the letters he sends home to his beloved sister Margaret. She presumably tells her husband and children. The message that we should treat people with kindness regardless of their initial appearance stays alive each time it's passed along. (Here's my review of Frankenstein)
Wuthering Heights
Catherine Earnshaw confesses her love for Heathcliff to the housekeeper, Nelly Dean. More than eighteen years down the track, Nelly repeats it to the convalescing Mr Lockwood, while she entertains him with the tale of his gruff landlord's personal history. Lockwood writes it in his personal journal and voila, more of the cosmopolitan people he rubs shoulders with have the potential to hear this tale of great love, and the folly of denying your own heart for social and monetary gain. (See my review of Wuthering Heights)

*    *    *

Although none of the stuff I've written online has ever gone viral, I'm always aware that we never know the full extent of how our spoken or written words might impact others. Between 2000 and 2014, I wrote nine novels which sold thousands of copies that disappeared into the ether. Every so often, I receive sudden welcome messages, as if from nowhere, about how one of them has been greatly appreciated by someone. It's always great to get feedback about older novels which have been read and enjoyed recently. Books and stories really are timeless.

So I'd like to encourage us all that this might be one of the simplest way to help change the world. We could write reviews about great works others have written, which is what this blog is all about. I also enjoy visiting the blogs of several other book reviewers. We can easily share stories and incidents, that have come across our path from others and lifted our hearts. Maybe our favourite questions could be, 'Can I share that?' or 'Would you mind if I tell my small group of friends?' or 'Could I incorporate that into an article I'm writing, if I give you credit?'

Let's keep the good grapes growing. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy

Whoa, what an epic! It's my choice in the Very Long Classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge, and at over 1300 pages, I'm very proud of myself. Now I'm among those people who can tick reading this behemoth off my bucket list. It's the size of a brick, but well worth reading. The story is set during the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon was leading French forces to invade Russia, and focuses on the lives of a few aristocratic families; the Bolkonskys the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs.

Readers with time on their hands have tallied over 600 characters altogether, which I believe we can whittle down to five major ones, including two brother and sister duos. There's Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a disillusioned officer, and his pious sister Marya. And impulsive young Nikolai Rostov, off to war wet behind the ears, and his lively little sister Natasha. And then there's Pierre, the poor rich kid on the block.

It's a fair call to generalise that the two main families have opposite vibes happening. The Bolkonskys are cool, pragmatic, rational thinkers. Their crabby old dad, one of the most colourful characters, is a domineering former war hero who takes these cerebral traits to their unpleasantest extreme. On the other side, the Rostovs are reactive and passionate, driven by big emotions the second they feel them. Nikolai is a show-pony and tinder-box, ready to blast anyone who offends him. Natasha is unfocused, restless and falls for five guys within the course of the novel. Anyone in trousers, it sometimes seems. (In her defense, it is an extremely long novel.) The Rostovs are not lukewarm people but totally hot and cold, making some serious mistakes. It's a family trait, and their father is a great, pleasure-loving entertainer with the unfortunate fault of overdrawing on his estate, until he realises they're almost broke.

It's a really interesting read to see how two families poles apart in their thinking may influence each other, romantically and otherwise, and how the events of the plot stabilise and modify all of them.

I think my favourite main character is probably Pierre Bezukhov. He's a tubby and bespectacled young man who wants to understand all the ins and outs of life, but is swept around by every wind blowing. Even though he's shy and awkward, he still manages to make several social blunders, until he unexpectedly inherits his father's vast estate and becomes one of Russia's wealthiest men. Then people start overlooking his faux paus, to focus on his money.

I've never really pitied the recipient of an obscene windfall before, but Tolstoy really hones in on the dark side of Pierre's amazing luck. 'Coming as it did after a life of solitude and easy-going pleasure, now made him feel so hemmed in and preoccupied, the only time he could be alone with his thoughts was in bed.' This lovable nerd becomes the innocent target of wolves and sharks, and totally buys into all the scraping and fawning from people who never wanted to know him before. He tries hard not to be 'that guy' always on the verge of letting people down, and his guileless nature puts him in the position of a lamb on the chopping block. One of the things he's pushed into is marriage with Helene Kuragin, a ravishingly beautiful, but unscrupulous woman.

Part of what makes this saga special is the disillusionment and soul searching of our two main boys, Andrei and Pierre. Both are earnest seekers of something that seems elusive, no matter what they do and how hard they think (or overthink). Yet harsh circumstances brings each to his separate epiphany, which after a book so thick can be expressed in a sentence or two. Prince Andrei's is to do with the vital power of inclusive, divine love for everybody. And Pierre's is all about having the freedom to choose our attitude. The circumstances in which these two learn their lessons are epic.

Another really cool thing about the book is the inclusion of true, historical people as characters in the story. Tolstoy was one of the first authors to experiment with this, and I'll bet he thoroughly enjoyed writing Napoleon! He kept making the French invader come across like an absolute duffer. In real life, the poor guy's army was unexpectedly defeated by the Russians he invaded, and then later he was decimated by this Russian author's pen.

Whenever Napoleon stepped into a scene, I knew some unflattering portrait was coming. He was pompous, or arrogant, or having sneezing fits, or deserting his men, or getting his chest hair combed, or tweaking someone's ear, or singing his own praises, but often merely incompetent. Tolstoy slid in every dig he could, including the sort of play-on-words which likens his name to the state of his head (think 'Boney-Part'). I guess we have to take this with a grain of salt, considering Tolstoy clearly had an agenda. As my teenage son remarked, anybody in the position to have a shot at world domination must presumably have a few brains. But Tolstoy's Napoleon is very humorous to read.

One thing any reviewer is probably obligated to warn wannabe readers is that there is lots and lots of philosophical waffle, as Tolstoy airs his personal theories about the causes and nature of warfare, and the drawback of historians' way of making records. He does it over and over and over and over again. I don't object to the material itself so much as the fact that he deals it up within the pages of a novel. Seriously man, some people don't want their stories to keep being interrupted with major essays that would fit better in dry, historical journals. Maybe he thought it would be the only way some of us would get this sort of lesson (which is probably true). So although there are such very dry sections to drag our feet through, it's worth it for the good stuff.

The very last character to make an appearance is Prince Andrei's son Nikolai, who was born early on in the book, and has reached the age of 15 by the end. This teenager has just had a vivid dream, and lies excitedly in bed, thinking of all the ways he'll make his beloved Uncle Pierre proud, and become loved by everyone. I was actually sort of disappointed to have it end there, as if 1300 pages was not enough! I would have happily read on to see how he fared, and find out all about the next generation. That's proof that even though my hand was aching with the weight of holding it, Tolstoy did something right.

It's a five star read, without a doubt. In fact, when I turned the last page, I felt torn between wanting to keep a respectful, contemplative silence, or giving Tolstoy a standing ovation. I think I might even have some sort of 'Yay, I finished War and Peace' party for one.

It also counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge, as a selection from Russia. 
And you might also like to compare it to my thoughts on Anna Karenina, another Tolstoy masterpiece.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

This is my choice for the Classic in Translation category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's one of those stories where I feel we can't help revealing aspects of the plot when we discuss the themes, but I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. It's a great fable first published in 1943. The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot of small aircrafts who once found himself stranded in the Sahara just like the narrator of his story, but that's where the similarity ends. (Unless this really is his biography about a true encounter. Do we dare to believe it?) TIME magazine called Saint-Exupery 'the most metaphysical of aviators,' but tragically, he disappeared the very following year, on a wartime reconnaissance flight over Europe. His plane was discovered in the sea 60 years later, the only trace of the talented writer and illustrator, not counting this brilliant novella.

Here's how it all goes down. The narrator is a pilot whose small plane has engine trouble over the Sahara Desert, forcing him to land. While he's trying to fix his mechanical problems before dying of thirst, a small blonde boy approaches to engage him in conversation. He turns out to be an alien from outer space who has visited several other planets before arriving on earth. He's full of stories and puzzled questions about all that he's seen.

The Little Prince (who I'll call LP from now on) comes from a tiny asteroid known to earthlings as B-612, no bigger than the size of a house. It has three knee-high volcanoes and plenty of small baobab seedlings which he has to uproot before they grow big enough to cause major structural damage. There's also one strange and beautiful flower with four thorns and a wonderful fragrance, who believes she's unique in the universe. LP loves her, and works hard to help her flourish, but she's a vain and prickly attention seeker who annoys him sometimes, so he hitches a ride with a flock of birds to find out what else is out there.

It's one of those simple children's fairy tales on the surface with underlying parallels, making it the sort of allegory adults recognise themselves in and appreciate. The LP meets all sorts of archetypal and bewildering people who think they're carrying out roles of great consequence, although they strike him as ridiculous. They're too blinkered to look beyond their noses and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them, and dismiss his observations as frivolous chatter.

Among others, there's a pompous king with no real power, a tippler who drinks to forget he's ashamed of drinking, a businessman intent on tallying stars in his ledger, and a geographer who never visits the places he records, because that's the work of an explorer. There's also a conceited man who wants to be hailed as the best person ever. LP gives him the positive feedback he craves, then wonders why the guy thinks he's any better off than before. LP can't understand the point of praise as an end in itself.

But LP learns enough during his travels to develop his own crushing case of disillusionment. Especially when he comes across a garden full of thousands of roses, and knows his special friend would be devastated, because they both believed she was unique. He's crestfallen because he set off believing he was rich and blessed, and is brought to see that compared to those on earth, his modest volcanoes and common rose may make others say, 'Meh, so what?' What do you do when you find out that you're just an Average Joe?

It takes my favourite character, the beautiful fox, to help him straighten his thinking. The fox asks LP to please tame him, because then they'll be meaningful to each other. Taking time to establish ties with others, working on relationships, listening, nurturing and understanding, is well worth the effort. It's what makes run-of-the-mill chance encounters into something far more valuable. This reasoning strikes a chord with LP. I believe a major insight for him is not to take our cues from self-appointed voices of consequence, because what is meaningful to us is so often brushed past by them.

'He was only a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes, but I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.'

His new friendship puts him in the position to better grasp the significance of his old one.

'She alone is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses. It is she I have watered, she I've put under a glass globe, sheltered behind the screen, killed the caterpillars for and listened to when she grumbled or boasted. She is MY rose.'  

'The Little Prince' may bring different impressions to different people, because there's a lot crammed within its deceptively simple pages. For me it's a wake-up call to value those personal relationships in my life as the treasures they are. My husband, kids, extended family and friends are priceless just because they belong to me. As the LP and the narrator both agree, it should take only a little bit to satisfy us when we truly know what we are looking for. 'The men of the world can't find what they're looking for in a surplus of roses or huge bodies of water. And what they are searching for can be found in one single rose, or in a little water.'

I'm not always a big fan of parables and allegories, because their agenda sometimes seems shoved right in our faces, with highly predictable plots and cardboard characters. This is one of the best I've come across, because its weird, left-fieldedness really does make us use our own grey matter to ponder what Saint-Exupery might have been getting at. And without being over-sentimental itself, it has a way of drawing the best sort of sentimentality out of us.  So I'll finish off with a quote from the fox, who really is quite a guy.

'If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.'


Monday, April 15, 2019

Live Theatre - The Cursed Child Wrap-Up

I've just been to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with my daughter, at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. As soon as we found out early last year that a production was headed for Australia, we were super excited. I'd read and loved the play script, but seeing it performed on stage by talented actors was the cream on top, and we failed to figure out how some of the magical moves were done. There's nothing quite like a day of live theatre, and I was in my happy zone the whole time. 

As with many stories involving time travel, it's possible to discover plot holes. But I don't even care, because the charm to me is the characters, and the poignant depth of many things never actually said. It's full of fodder for the sort of psychological character study I enjoy. So I set myself the task of analysing each of the seven main characters, figuring I might as well get as much mileage as I can out of a flight to Victoria. 

So here goes. I've made a big effort to give no major spoilers, but rather delve into some of the mixed-up mindsets that makes a crazy, convoluted plot seem not only possible, but almost inevitable. Here's how we find the Golden Trio and Co in their early forties. 

Warning: Proceed with caution. Although spoilers regarding the play itself are minor and revealed early in the script, they do divulge crucial info about where key characters find themselves at the end of the 7-book series. 

He's now the Man who Lived, and the head of Magical Law Enforcement. But it's no happily-ever-after scenario for poor Harry. The poor guy has been carrying loads of baggage on his shoulders for years, including a major case of survivor's guilt. It's particularly heavy because he was the lynch pin at the centre of the most recent wizarding wars. Unkind jibes such as, 'Look how many people had to die to save the boy who lived,' cut straight to his aching heart.

He's too guilt-ridden to balance these accusations with the reply, 'Well, look how many people survived because of me.' Only Harry himself knows what a run-of-the-mill, essentially un-heroic person he feels like deep down. It makes it torturous to deal with the knowledge that many worthy people lost their lives to his cause. He's a perfect example of the truth that hero status may bring with it a misguided sense of responsibility. No doubt it's also the key to why he gets so defensive about his son's antagonism.

To Harry, young Albus skirts dangerously close to placing his finger on something he doesn't want to face. That is the fact that Harry cannot make things okay for everyone. His load also includes buried resentment against Albus Dumbledore, a wizard he idolised, who failed to come through for him in many ways since his babyhood. He dreads becoming the same sort of person. And he doesn't want to bring the hurt out into the open, but it's festering there, compounding his own fear that he's inadequate for others. Poor Harry, what a mess of unacknowledged pain you're in. (You may also like Is Harry Potter a Bad Dad?)

At first sight, she's just like a mini Molly Weasley. Equally as bossy as her mother, her heart's cry is always, 'When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.' Ginny's son Albus is hurting deep inside, and she's immensely frustrated that she can't fix it at the source, which appears to be her husband.

She does lots of shouting throughout the play, which strikes me as the sign of a thwarted control freak. When our anxious efforts fail to launch and remain unheeded, raising our voices seems to be the last ineffectual stand we can take. Ginny has a history of frustration to draw from. The youngest sibling of seven, the only girl in a family of flamboyant boys, a young woman whose object of affection barely noticed her for years. Her desire for control seems to shoot out in various ways, such as banning sugar consumption for her whole family. (She has more success there than I would ever wield with my mob!) I do understand her.

But like the other characters, Ginny is forced into a crisis where her only option is waiting to see how it will all work out. That's anathema to all control freaks, and is bound to crop up time and again until we learn the lesson. I wonder if Ginny gets it this time.   

It's satisfying to see somebody brilliant moving into a suitable outlet for her skill set. She's the Minister of Magic! Hermione was a fantastic all-rounder, with a clever brain capable of swelling, just like her awesome handbag, with an infinite amount of material. The right person got the job. Her hard work and curious, ambitious nature came through, earning her the ultimate spot at the top.

Yet there's there's a flip side to the glory. Hermione's role in The Cursed Child reveals the huge sacrifice involved in the victory. Basically, her life is no longer her own. She's on-call 24/7, required to drop everything when sudden events knock the wizarding world off kilter. She's always the one in the firing line to have blame slung at her, often for actions taken by others. Dealing with flak and reproach is a way of life for her, because the buck stops with the leader.

Hers is the role of placating, announcing bad news, and trying in vain to inspire others. (For example, Harry is irritated when she tries to make him sort through his paperwork.) One of her lines proves what a juggling act a key leadership role is. She remarks that Ron thinks she sees more of her secretary than she does of him and their children. Ouch, proof right there that influence and prestige come at a great cost. A powerful person has to focus on one aspect of her life at the expense of others. Even in her student days with a time turner, trying to do it all made her crack at the seams. There's no doubt that those who are most gifted, perhaps with a burden to shape history, are often required to make the biggest sacrifices.

No way would I be a Hermione, but I take my hat off to her.

He was born in the shadow of talented, high-achieving family members, and has struggled with the pain of feeling outclassed by those closest to him for as long as he can remember. What irony that a boy with such deep hang-ups marries a girl who's destined to become the Minister of Magic. Enough to make us wonder if grappling with this issue is simply his destiny. Does the repeating cycle give you the feeling that he's meant to just deal with it?

It would seem he's making progress in the right direction in middle age. Being Mr Mum to his kids and helping his brother George run the joke shop are seemingly humble roles, but they are good, valid life paths that need to be taken on by someone. So maybe that elevates them to greatness after all, because we all know there shouldn't be any lifework or calling hierarchy. For the most part, it seems Ron has accepted this in his forties, but those niggles of touchiness from the past still needle him on rare occasions. Our deepest gripes have a way of popping up when we least expect them. It's probably an unrealistic hope to shrug them off completely, but if we reach a stage where we recognise them quickly and deal with them on the spot, we're doing well.

This play's plot has chosen to emphasise one main aspect of his character, which is his humour. Ron is given an essentially comic role, which some fans hate about this play. They're disappointed that the brave and resourceful side of him is downplayed. But I say, hey, he's proven that he has loads of courage and resourcefulness when it's required, so why not just get off his back when it isn't? Life isn't about proving our worth each and every day of our lives. That's such a Ron Weasley theme, when you think about it. The man is a valuable contributor to society, just being there.

Since his late teens, his entire world concept has been turned topsy-turvy. In the intervening years, he's evidently been trying to find new, solid ground on which to stand, and doing a pretty decent job if the play is any measure.

All small children grow up thinking their parents are always right, so he naturally bought into the bigoted, cold-hearted, evil worldview of Lucius and Narcissa. Draco's goal was always to make them proud, but his dawning realisation that they were actually on the wrong side is fascinating to trace. Circumstances forced him to face up to the fact that pleasing them is impossible, and they aren't really worth impressing anyway. And he's had to build a whole new personal philosophy, even if the price he paid was deep loneliness and alienation from those he once called his own.

His theme in the play is a redemptive one, proving that it's never too late to start over. His life goal in middle age is no longer about hearing, 'Well done,' from his parents or the Dark Lord, but as he says, 'Choosing the man you decide to become,' and gauging his decisions on that choice. It's a daunting challenge to build a whole new identity from scratch, because you have to trust yourself, even when your track record isn't brilliant. He's managed it with a fair bit of Malfoy sass and flair. A pretty amazing achievement, for a guy who was brought up believing that bad was good and vice versa. Unfortunately, it's not an easy task to convince the world at large that you've changed. There'll always be haters even when you've kept your nose clean for 20+ years. His innocent son Scorpius is bearing the brunt, which is killing Draco. (You may also enjoy Bad Boys with Depth)

This brings us to two of the most interesting characters of all, the representatives from the next generation, who bear a legacy of weight from their parents on their young shoulders.

Albus Potter
Children who have to live under the shadow of famous parents often do it tough. They are forced to exist on a nightmarish carousel that won't stop. Any other Slytherin student of academic mediocrity might be left in peace, but Albus is singled out for teasing and criticism simply because his father is Harry Potter. And just to rub it in, he even carries the names of two hero wizards his father most admired. He didn't choose his heritage, and every part of it seems to emphasise how far short he falls. As far as he can see, his celebrated dad is incapable of grasping where he's coming from. Albus is too wrapped up in his own problems to sense that Harry is battling so hard with his own demons.

All the resentment, sarcasm, eye-rolling and belligerence shown throughout the play by Albus is easy to understand. He's built a protective wall of self-pity that's hard to penetrate. His parents have tried and failed to get through. It takes some vulnerable and heartfelt straight talk from his best friend to provide a possible way out. No way will I spoil the play by repeating the exact words, but it amounts to looking beyond his own plight to notice that others might be faring even worse, and hurting just as bad, in circumstances even more unfair. Empathy hasn't been a tool in Albus' arsenal, but there's a sense in this scene that it clicks in at last. And that brings us to arguably the best character in the play.

Scorpius Malfoy
At first sight, this awkward young geek isn't an integral part of the convoluted plot, but just along for the ride, to support his hurting friend. But he has to step up to help save the day on numerous occasions, and I'd go so far as to say that he becomes the glue that holds the play together.

I believe we warm to Scorpius partly because he's such a great example of how to face rejection. He's grown up as the butt of hateful rumours and target of bullies, simply because of the family he was born into, yet he doesn't grow bitter or respond with nastiness in return. Although he lacks the esteem he deserves from his peer group, he does have a warm heart, and a unique way of buoying himself up by reading books, seeking knowledge and using his imagination. Those are the peaceable weapons that carry him through. Choosing to focus on good things doesn't put us in a position of power over our haters, but it does make us happier people in our own heads. And since our heads are where we view the world from, that spells victory. In his nerdy, unassuming way, this delightful boy offers us the secret of living well. He's presented as the person whose circumstances we'd least like to swap with, yet as events unfold, it turns out that perhaps he's the most enviable of all.

Maybe Scorpius is the reason why I'm happy to accept this story as part of the Harry Potter canon. Who would ever have expected a son of Draco Malfoy to enter the scene with his fresh philosophy and generous nature to redeem others and point us on the right track to conducting ourselves in the world? Yet life is all about remaining open to wonderful surprises from unexpected people.

My recommendation is to definitely read it, and go and see it if you possibly can. The mix-ups and near disasters are great fun to watch. And the ultimate take-away, to approach life like Scorpius as much as possible, may be well worth the money I paid for flight, accommodation and theatre tickets.    

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The problem with Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroes

Warning: There are no plot spoilers as such, but you may like to take my opinion expressed here with a grain of salt.

This lady is high on many 'favourite author' lists, including mine. I collected all of her novels when I was a teenager, and they are still a highlight of my shelf. I love the entire Anne of Green Gables series, plus stories about Emily, Pat, Jane, Valancy, the Story Girl and others. Tapping into the wealth of all that L.M. Montgomery wrote is a real treat. She left an incredible legacy when she passed away.

Anybody would agree that girls are clearly the target audience. I've never known a boy who's read one yet. But they're happy to let their girlfriends, wives, sisters and other females in their lives retreat into the sweet stories, which seemingly do nobody any harm. Just a simple indulgence, right? A bit of romantic fun in which the main character always marries her perfect match? If they suspected the truth, our young men might be far more worried. But they are deterred by the feminine covers from opening the pages, so never find that L.M. Montgomery is undermining them.

The stark truth is that her heroes raise the bar far, far too high for our normal guys to live up to. With each chapter, her fictional heroes gain more and more ground in their readers' eyes, until they're not even fully aware of it. Her magic works like this. The heroes often begin as humble, unassuming boys, but here is a sample of the super achievers they become over time.

Gilbert Blythe - beloved family doctor.
Teddy Kent - famous artist.
Perry Miller - upper echelon politician.
Hilary Gordon - award winning architect.
Barney Snaith - celebrated nature writer.
Andrew Stuart - brilliant novelist and historian.

Do you sense a pattern? I want to suggest that her sort of guy is a rarity in real life, but Montgomery creates the illusion that super-romantic, highly intelligent, sensitive, manly geniuses are common enough to be always within a stone's throw. Maybe there really was a surplus on Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century, but I doubt it. She somehow manages to divvy out their brilliance so that everyone in their lives gets the best of them; employers, clients, the public and their lovers alike. The women in their lives rarely feel as if they're missing out on quality time. If this is the sort of guy our young women expect to come walking into their lives, the poor, true life young men around them don't stand a chance.

As we read the novels, we may come across occasional digs at other young men who didn't measure up on the awesome scale. They are often former suitors who ended up becoming nothing more than shop clerks or pen-pushers. And our heroines breathe sighs of relief because they dodged a bullet. They could've ended up - horror of horror - marrying men of mediocrity!

Let's not succumb to the outrageously high expectations she's set;  both for our own sake and those of the poor guys who try to please us. Some readers might choose to go completely cold turkey on L. M. Montgomery books, but I would never recommend that. They are wonderful mood-lifters, great examples of excellent literature, and plain good fun. Just take care, and I have a few tips to recommend how to wisely approach the novels and avoid their pitfalls.

1) Look out for her older heroes.
These more senior men seem to have escaped the need to be as ultra-successful in the world's eyes as her younger ones. They tend to be mature men with warm hearts, sound wisdom, but more modest occupations. Men such as Matthew Cuthbert (from Anne) and Cousin Jimmy (from Emily) are both humble farmers working on land which has been in their families for generations. They are true gentlemen beloved by generations, the salt-of-the-earth type who are content to slide beneath the radar. As you admire them, remember that there are young men like them in real life too. And look out for them, because they don't flaunt themselves.

2) Remember that Montgomery might have been caught in her own vicious net.
Her personal history is worth researching, and if her biographers are correct, it's sadder than any of her novels. She ditched a guy she was genuinely attracted to because his credentials weren't quite impressive enough to be considered husband material. But she still considered him the love of her life in years to come. And she ended up marrying a respectable pastor who turned out to be a depressed, high-maintenance, hyper-guilty, over-thinking, fanatical mess of a spouse who made life a misery for her and their sons. It's a sobering piece of true life. Don't be like Lucy. (This article may be a springboard if you're interested. And this one highlights even more how tragic it was for somebody who made us so happy to be so depressed herself.)

3) Enjoy your reading, but never forget that you're messing around with an addictive substance like shopping or sugar.
The wonderful heroes Montgomery invented are swoon-worthy heart-throbs. You can't look at a list like that above without curiosity to discover more. But as you do, remember that they don't necessarily reflect reality in every way. And we're living in the real world, not the idyllic Prince Edward Island of Lucy Maud's imagination. (Of course it's a real place, but I'm just suggesting her writing may colour it even more.) Treat the books like chocolate. They can be a pleasurable part of your reading diet, but don't binge on them, and when you finish one, make even more of an effort to appreciate all the honest, nice friends and brothers in your real, flesh and blood life. And don't use Gilbert, Teddy, Barney and all the others as measuring sticks, but as simple prompts to dig around for your fellows' excellent qualities and regard them in the best light.