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.   

Monday, April 1, 2019

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger's classic novel of teenage angst and rebellion was first published in 1951. The novel was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. It was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently challenged in the court for its liberal use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality and in the 1950's and 60's it was the novel that every teenage boy wants to read. 

This is a classic I've wanted to read for some time, and finally got a chance. I've also read Salinger's Franny and Zooey but prefer the Catcher by far.

Young Holden Caulfield has a problem. He detests phonies. Social climbers, fakes, name-droppers and try-hards of all kinds are everywhere, and he considers himself too honest to play the game. Since he hates the pretension of the school system, Holden won't put forth the effort to do any work. But his silent protest has caused his expulsion from three schools, and he's just been kicked out of a fourth. He knows it's all part of their showiness, since they won't tarnish their own image with under-achievers. But he hasn't quite figured out that playing the martyr role isn't hurting their reputation, but only harming his own future prospects.

The story takes place over three days, when Holden decides to walk out of Pencey Prep, his latest boarding school, half a week before his parents expect him home, and just hang out in New York City doing whatever takes his fancy. Holden makes a valiant effort to be a party boy, although he's a loner at his core. His first night is wild. The amount of activity he crams in between his last school dinner and waking up the following morning sounds physically impossible given the time frame. To sum up a little, he hits the town, writes an essay, tries to get some sleep, changes his mind and catches a train, dances in a ballroom, hangs out in another jazz club, walks 40 blocks back to his hotel, and and has a run-in with a couple of sleazy people, all under cover of the same never-ending darkness. But dawn eventually breaks, about ten hours after it should have, in my opinion. 

Although I'm not a big fan of some of the things he attempts to get up to, I greatly admire the boy himself. He's always polite to adults, easily imagines himself in other people's shoes, and never grumbles for nothing. There's always some well-formed reason to support his negative opinions, which he explains with a lot of original perception and humour. And surprisingly, there's hardly any profanity in my opinion, given what I'd been led to expect in the blurb. In fact, Holden goes out of his way to scrub rude graffiti off walls, so innocent kids don't have to see it.

To me, Holden's narrative proves the benefits of journal keeping. He takes a stream of consciousness approach, with one train of thought leading on to something quite different, including flashbacks and philosophical rants, that help reveal what's really ticking inside his troubled psyche. He notices some of those a-ha moments himself, but others are left hanging there for readers to latch onto if we're alert enough, which reveals details about us in turn. So it's the sort of novel where readers are invited to do some of the work, but we're rewarded for it, and may even come up with different, multi-layered themes.

Here's an example of one of mine. I believe Holden Caulfield shares with me an appreciation for sacredness and stability in a world of rapid change. We depend on some things remaining reliable, predictable, and certainly not phony. This drives his memories of good old school excursions to the museum, where all the exhibits are set up in a static, predictable pattern, even when the students themselves have undergone subtle changes between visits. We've learned by now that his younger brother died a few years earlier, which no doubt feeds Holden's phobia of change. The events of his life have been incorporated into the person he's become.

His story also tips us off to watch our own thoughts, because a plunge into deep depression can often be traced back to some simple germ in our mind that catches hold and shoots off. One of Holden's signature lines is, 'The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got,' about several simple catalysts. His thought life tugs poor Holden on a real downward spiral, which even begins to show up as physical symptoms. Dizzy spells, stomach aches, IBS and a lump in the throat which causes him to reflect, 'If you get very depressed about something, it's as hard as hell to swallow.' Considering that his story takes place in the 1950's, when not many people knew about such things as panic disorders, this book is a gem that's way ahead of its time.

Don't listen to voices out there urging us not to read it. It's been banned over the years, for 'glorifying a rebellious attitude', which sounds crazily shortsighted to me. It's a simplistic view that Holden himself would deplore. A delve beneath the surface reveals that his rebellion certainly isn't doing him any favours or giving him any fun, so there's not much 'glory' to attract other potential rebels. Taking it off the shelves just prevents others from taking the lessons Holden learns on board, who could really benefit from them.

Some of the more modern criticism leveled at poor Holden is to do with his identity and privileged position in society, which they believe makes him an ingrate for complaining. He's a young white male from a wealthy family (Dad a corporate lawyer) who do everything possible to give him a boost in life, including enrolling him at prestigious schools. These readers say, 'Suck it up, because there are people from minority groups everywhere with real problems who'd love to have yours, you entitled little git.'

Hmm, well since Holden Caulfield would be a very elderly granddad if he was still alive today, I'd like to have a try at addressing this sort of censure with his own teenage voice. I believe Holden might say something like, 'I get really irritated by people who get a kick out of guilt-tripping others who already feel bad. Why are minority groups the only people you'd readily excuse for feeling deeply blue about what they see in the world around them? Piling more shame on the shoulders of somebody who feels burdened is a pretty cruel move. You're using my gender, race, skin colour and economic status against me, in an attempt to put me down. Isn't that the same sort of discrimination you claim to hate? The more I think about that, the more depressed I feel.'

I'd urge anyone to give this book a read, and not write off this boy as the sort of person you couldn't learn anything good from. Besides, it ends on an uplifting note, as he experiences a sudden burst of happiness, during a moment spent with his kid sister. I get the strong impression that he's onto a breakthrough. Although those phonies and antagonists will never go away, we can dilute their influence by directing our own focus on the simple goodness out there. Even though Holden still has a long way to go, there are positive signs he'll make it through, a more peaceful and optimistic man. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and took a half mark off simply because of that impossibly long night. Maybe Holden should consider a career as a time management consultant, if he can stretch out the hours like that.



Monday, March 25, 2019

'Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine' by Gail Honeyman

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine. 

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. 

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

The title didn't grab me when I first saw it. I thought, 'Eleanor's obviously not fine at all,' and walked past. Since then, it's become a phenomenon, with must-read recommendations from all sorts of people. When I saw it at a bargain bookshop, I thought I'd take my chance. I had two false starts, finding it hard to muster the interest to get beyond a bikini wax appointment at the start. But even more readers kept the glowing reviews coming, and rumours of a movie are in the pipelines. So I pushed through and finished the book at last. It's all about lonely Eleanor with a horrific past she's trained herself never to think about, and Raymond, the friendly IT guy who takes a genuine interest in her, making him the very first.

Other workmates have largely ignored her because Eleanor's not easy to warm up to. She's been totally alienated for a good two thirds of her life, which hasn't been great for her social skills. She's sharp, observant and tends to make outrageously tactless statements, partly because solitude hasn't given her empathy muscle much room to develop, and partly because not having rubbed shoulders with others, she simply hasn't picked up socially acceptable responses.     

I share the love for the features other readers rave about. It's great that a doughy, paunchy, super-scruffy IT worker like Raymond is shown to be the hero his kind heart makes him. This guy deserves to wear a cape. I like the revelation that small, simple deeds we may not even bother offering could actually be what makes the world go round. I like Eleanor's growing appreciation for Raymond, who she dismisses as a bore and a slob at first. And what I love most is seeing how success and progress for Eleanor means returning bravely to the life she was already living. It's so true that often what's required isn't worldly accolades, material goods, or change of circumstances, but simply a fresh outlook. We don't need to make a splash or public stir of any kind to be worthwhile human beings.

With all these excellent qualities, I was still a bit ambivalent when I finished. I loved the end, but for the first two thirds, I wasn't driven to pick up the book. I think it's because of what I'd call a broken record quality. There's a predictable repetitiveness, when a basic episode keeps recurring in slightly different circumstances. A huge chunk of the book is full of incidents that fit into either of these two categories.

1) Eleanor goes for some beautifying, pampering or retail therapy. The stranger behind the counter reacts with the rolling of eyes, or some other sign to show that she comes across as an eccentric. Or 2) She is out at some lunch, party or social event, and makes a tactless comment that proves she's unaware of social conventions. Raymond almost chokes on whatever he's messily chewing, stunned yet again by her frankness or naivety, until he recollects himself and things start rolling again.

The story's bestseller momentum is speeding faster than its glacial plot. So many thousands of readers have taken lonely, weird Eleanor to their hearts, I wonder if that love is extending to the real-life oddballs in their own offices and schools. Or are these solitary bods still sidelined and overlooked while their acquaintances are standing around, raving on about their compassion for Eleanor Oliphant? If it truly does open people's eyes to the invisible mass of traumatised and depressed folk around us, and inspire us to take on Raymond's simple mission, it'll be worth every cent spent.

But maybe it's not entirely about others at all, but more about us. Maybe we warm so readily to Eleanor because she displays many of our own secret personal doubts. (Minus her lack of close family members and horrific background.) Do we relate to her impression of being a perpetual fifth wheel in the world, unnecessary and unappreciated? Or her floundering feeling of not quite grasping the social cues that link everyone else? Or her empty yearning when she scrolls down the social media of others? Or foolish, personal histories of getting carried away on waves of imaginary saviours and rosy futures? I can raise my hand to all of these, at different moments. If the story helps us be easier on ourselves, it's worth every cent spent too.

Some of the healing things that help Eleanor start to live again, when she's faced her traumatic past, include simple fixes that can do anyone good. 'Noticing detail, that was good. Tiny slivers of life added up, and helped you feel that you too could be a fragment. When you start to notice things around you, you feel lighter.' There's one for any of us who find ourselves in an intense fog of preoccupation.

Being a skillful helper like Eleanor's psychologist Maria Temple may be far from reality for many of us, but maybe we could at least aspire to be like Raymond (although he is amazing in pushing through with somebody whose manner isn't particularly warm.) Or we could be like his mother Betty, who Eleanor calls 'quite simply a nice lady who raised a family and now lives quietly with her cats and grows vegetables. That is both nothing and everything.' Or Sammy, the loving old dad whose friendliness extends to his rescuers.

I don't want to give the idea that nothing but random acts of kindness ever happen. There's a poignant subplot where Eleanor allows herself to form pipe dreams about a random, handsome face, and also a plot twist I'm not entirely convinced came off flawlessly. This is one of those times I wish I could discuss spoilers. Let's just say it puts Eleanor Oliphant up there with the biggest unreliable narrators of all time, but that's enough. Overall, I'd give the book four or five stars for the theme and the ending, but just one or two for the tortoise pacing throughout the start. It's one of those cases where I have to take the averages for my final ranking.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett

Be prepared to meet three unforgettable women:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. Minny, Aibileen’s is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.


I'm late on this book's bandwagon, but bought a copy from a second hand shop and finally got around to reading it. I get anxious about starting books with themes of racism. There's bound to be deep sadness, and in our current era of strict political correctness, do these stories even apply the balm of kindness we all need, or simply act as a match to a highly charged tinder box? There's no point trying to heal a deep wound by always picking at the scars. So I was nervous going in, but it turns out I needn't have been. There's a lot to love about this To Kill a Mockingbird/Upstairs Downstairs hybrid. It's all about being a good and decent person.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's, when racial discrimination was still as ugly as ever. It seemed the only real job prospect for a coloured woman was a maid and cleaner, and there were many white women demanding their service. 'The help' would basically bring up the children of their snooty employers, who then wondered why their kids preferred the hired people. Most folk accepted the status quo, until a trio of women rocked the boat with a top secret assignment, proving that the written word can pack a powerful punch.

White girl Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan is upset when her beloved family maid Constantine is fired while she's away at college. It prompts her to consider writing a book full of interviews with coloured maids, but it's hard to find any takers for such a subversive act. Especially because coloured people are automatically suspicious when white folk are nice to them, with good reason. But eventually she gets Aibileen and Minny on board, who have been pushed far enough to realise that the time is ripe for speaking up.

These three narrators switch frequently throughout the story, and it's done so well that that when each one ends, we shake our heads moving on to the next, but are soon hooked by that thread too. It's all about cleaning and childcare of course, but has suspense and mystery. Why must Minny hide her presence from her boss's husband? What was the big surprise Constantine had in store for Skeeter, which she never discovered? Will Aibileen ever be caught when she tries to build up the confidence of Mae Mobley, the little daughter of her employers? 

Skeeter becomes one of those self-sacrificial writers who are called to put everything on the line, although she never sets out to be. Her bright idea begins as nothing more than a brainwave to help further her own career prospects. Yet it soon becomes evident to her that pursuing it might mean losing everything else important to her. Such a lot is stripped away that her only reason to continue has to be belief in the cause itself. For her more than anyone else, it's very much a personal growth story.

Minny's part of the story is very cool. She's one of the most indignant and wronged people of all, but finds herself disarmed by her new employers, Celia and Johnny Foote, who don't fit into the pattern she's grown to expect from white people. 

The villain of the piece is Hilly Holbrook, a young trendsetter who many other white ladies look to for cues as to how to think and behave. She's trouble on two legs; in a perfect position to use her social power for kindness, but choosing prejudice and meanness instead. Minny says that Hilly is sent by the devil to ruin lives. She's the sort of nasty girl who seems sweet on the surface, but spells disaster for anyone who crosses her. It's fun for readers to hate Hilly, and speculate who she'll push too far.

My favourite character, who provides the overall tone of kindness and love, is Aibileen. I'd love to be on her prayer list! They have a proven track record. She always writes them instead of speaking them, because a teacher once challenged her to keep reading and writing every day. Her own faith surely adds to their power, since she considers them to be like electricity that keeps things going. That's why she carefully considers whether it's worth the risk of adding any new folk, like Miss Skeeter. And Minny adds, 'We all on a party line to God, but you sitting right in his ear.' What a wonderful inspiration for all of us readers to think of prayer the same way, and that might be one of the best takeaways from the whole book.


Friday, March 15, 2019

The World's Greatest Narcissists

Narcissism has always been a human problem throughout the ages, but it's easier than ever to indulge in the 21st century, because we have so many outlets to toot our own horns. Our potential audience is not just neighbours in our close vicinity but people from all around the globe. Arguably, the wonders of social media give our narcissism cultural validation. The 1970s was called the 'Me Decade', and now there are claims that we've simply moved a step further to the 'iEra'. Christopher Lasch, in 'The Culture of Narcissism' suggests that it's simply the characteristic pattern of our culture. Ouch, I don't want to be swept along by that tide, but in our day and age, it's all too easy.

Several people have suggested that we just stop. Not only because it's a bad habit, but it makes us so miserable. They advise us not to check our social media updates often, or spend obsessive time on impression management, and if we're feeling unduly depressed, we should examine our hearts to determine whether or not it's simply because our brilliant post hasn't received as many likes, hearts, or shares as we'd hoped for (ouch again).

I believe going cold turkey is easier said than done. But maybe this list of mine could be an added tool to scare us out of our narcissistic habits, for who wants to see ourselves mirrored in these dudes? I'm calling them the greatest narcissists, but hey, they would call themselves the greatest, full stop.

1) Narcissus

Since he provided the name, I'll kick off with this haughty and gorgeous young man from Greek mythology. He's lured to the side of a pool, where he beholds his own reflection and falls deeply in love with it. Not realising it's merely his own image, he's unwilling to leave, and eventually pines away, believing his love is not reciprocated. Hence, the term 'narcissism' was coined for people who have a fixation with themselves, their appearance and public perceptions.

2) Lucifer
He was hailed as the most beautiful angel of all, the bright morning star. But this wasn't enough for him. His enormous ego and thirst for adulation led him to challenge God's position. Whoa, that's some serious narcissism.

3) Dorian Grey
This young man is the (anti)hero of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece. His initial reaction when his portrait is unveiled is heartache because he won't stay so gorgeous. He vows to give his soul if only he can keep his wonderful beauty while the portrait grows old and faded instead. (My review is here.)

4) Gaston
Beauty and the BeastBelle's persistent suitor won't take no for an answer, because he truly believes he's too wonderful to resist for long. The hordes of village admirers do nothing to quench his vanity. In the movie, we see him saying, 'You are the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen,' and the scene pans out to show that rather than addressing Belle, he's standing before a mirror. He's prepared to take her by force toward the end, just because he can't stand the idea that she isn't head over heels in love with him, as every other girl seems to be. And whatever Gaston wants, Gaston gets, until now.

5) King Saul
A biblical narcissist, he was Israel's first king. Saul started off okay, but succumbed to a deep need for everyone to call him the best, before he could relax. He built monuments in his own honour, and when he heard snatches of song that David was admired even more than he for his war conquests, he couldn't stand it. He set out to murder the perceived threat to his position on several occasions.

Snow White6) Snow White's stepmother
In a way, she was the female counterpart to King Saul. She had to stand before her magic mirror to reinforce that she was the fairest in the land before she allowed herself to get on with her day. And it was all for her personal glory. One day when she learns that another person is fairer, she sets off in a rage to have her killed, because being the second fairest in the land would be a disaster. Although she's the only female on this list, I'm sure there are as many girl narcissists as boys out there for real.

7) Bree
The Horse and His Boy (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)There's no reason why they all have to be human, either. C.S. Lewis gave us a very narcissistic horse. Bree was always anxious to make sure everyone was aware that he was a noble, Narnian war stallion, and not a common stable hack. The thought that rolling on his back might be a vulgar Calormene habit he's picked up horrifies him. He's always clear that he's the boss of the mission, and the spurs and reins are just for show. Toward the end, he's humbled and chastised when circumstances prove that he's not the brave, perfect steed he thinks he is. And as Aslan says, it makes him a much nicer horse.

The Emperor's New Groove

8) Emperor Kuzco
Another animal, he's a llama throughout much of the story, although he starts off as a very spoiled, human brat. Even in his miserable transformed state, he keeps wanting to see the spotlight moved from the good-hearted Pacha back to himself, because he's the star! He's the teenage monarch who was prepared to demolish an entire peasant village to build himself a theme park in his own honour. Thankfully, he's young enough for some decent character development throughout the movie, where he learns empathy for others, in the nick of time.

9) Prince Hapi
While we're mentioning rulers, this one was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2004 movie version of Around the World in 80 Days. Clearly used to moving people as chess pieces, the prince demands that the trio of main characters come to his banquet, then insists on keeping the lovely Monique La Roche to join his harem. Their only way of enforcing her release is to threaten harm to the precious statue of himself, cast in the guise of the Thinker. It's well worth a watch.

10) Zap Brannigan 

Futurama AdventuresHe shows that narcissism will be alive and well in the future. The general public think he's a respected military hero, but his crew know him to be an arrogant and incompetent narcissist who will sacrifice them at the blink of an eye. He expends a lot of energy trying to foster his heroic illusion, and win the heart of Leela, whose one eye sees through him clearly enough.

11) Caul
Without giving away too much of his role in the Peculiar Children series, the considerable effort he expends to rise to the top is all for his own personal glory. He's easily seduced by imagining himself in history books of the future, and is known to stop what is happening, so he can make lofty quotes and speeches for that purpose. (My reviews of the series begins here.)

12) Napoleon
I'm including the version of the mighty French emperor portrayed by Count Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. It may be somewhat skewed, since Tolstoy was clearly on the Russian side of the war in his masterpiece. However, I'm sure he loved writing the narcissistic quirks of Bonaparte, including his passion for positive feedback and careful impression management for future history books. The fact that one man's drive to conquer Europe resulted in the deaths of millions is a dark side of narcissism that deserves to be highlighted. (My review of War and Peace is coming soon.)   

And my favourite Narcissist

13) Gilderoy Lockhart

He's the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, who we first meet on a book tour for his autobiography, Magical Me. At that stage he comes across as an insufferable celebrity who has let fame go to his head. When Harry is placed in detention, Gilderoy's punishment is to get him to write replies to his extensive fan mail. He soon reveals himself to be more incompetent than his heroic memoirs and text books would have people believe. And at last, he's unveiled as a crook who has destroyed the real heroes, just to claim their glory for himself. He's prepared to blast Harry's and Ron's memories, not because he has anything against the boys, but because they know his shameful secret. What a guy!

A funny, but sort of sobering list. They're famous alright, but I doubt any of them would have wanted to be famous for being narcissists. As always, I'd enjoy reading your thoughts, not to mention any extra narcissists I may have missed.       

Monday, March 11, 2019

'The Magic Pudding' by Norman Lindsay

The adventures of those splendid fellows Bunyip Bluegum, Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff, the penguin bold, and of course their amazing, everlasting and very cantankerous Puddin'.

This kids' classic is a bit like an Aussie version of The Wind in the Willows, and it's my choice for the Africa, Asia or Oceania section of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It was published in 1918, the year of my grandmother's birth. Bunyip Bluegum is a fashionable young koala who sets out to be a gentleman of leisure, until he gets too hungry. He befriends Barnacle Bill the sailor, and Sam Sawnoff the penguin, who own a magnificent pudding named Albert, with the ability to replenish himself so they need never go hungry again.

Albert is a 'cut and come again' pudding, who enjoys offering slices of himself to everyone. For a change of flavour, you whistle twice and turn his basin around. I read one reviewer's complaint that you only ever seem to get steak and kidney, jam roly-poly, apple dumpling or plum duff. My instant thought was, 'Heck, what does she expect from a pudding?' That lady strikes me as a reader with no sense of wonder. He sounds pretty super-duper and worth the fuss to me.

The nefarious pudding thieves, Possum and Wombat agree, and concoct all sorts of sneaky mischief to steal Albert. Then the trio has to be just as crafty in getting him back again. There's a lot of punching and name calling, which probably delighted the good little children of early last century.

Talking about the target audience, it has some very mature concepts and expressions for a kids' book. For example, the wordy Bunyip Bluegum defends the truthfulness of his poetry with this line. 'The exigencies of rhyme may stand excused from a too strict insistence on verisimilitude, so that the general gaiety is thereby promoted.' Wow, I think several adults would have trouble getting their heads around that one, let alone middle school students. I'd love to think 9 to 12 year-olds would be willing to nut it out with their dictionaries, but do you think it's likely from our 21st century bunch? Are books like The Magic Pudding handy tools to stretch our kids' minds, or just relics from the past still being foisted on a generation no longer in the same head space? We'd never find such tricky sentences in modern stories for the same age group, but I wish a few would slip through, just to see how it would go over.

I think some of the low-key attitude take-aways were the coolest feature of this story.

Bill is easily brought to the brink of despair several times, which makes it harder for his mind to latch onto problem solving solutions. But Bunyip's more optimistic nature makes him a more pro-active thinker, and he often saves the day. It's interesting to see an author from as far back as Norman Lindsay suggest to young readers that choosing our moods may help us switch on or off our creativity.

Albert is a cranky pudding with a sassy mouth, but the friends are willing to cop a bit of guff from him, considering the benefits he provides. He's my favourite character. I love his wise little wrinkled face. He strikes me as a chap who knows full well that people are just using him for what they can get. Even when the pudding owners consider that they've 'saved his life', it's all a matter of indifference to him. He seems just as content with Possum and Wombat, who are after all doing just what the trio of heroes do, which is eating him.

It's such a silly tale, but Norman Lindsay's illustrations, fantastic verse, and emphasis on the chilled, laid-back aspects of Australian life give it its special edge. There's plenty of relaxing over pudding slices and billy tea. 'If you don't sit by a campfire in the evening, you have to sit by nothing in the dark, which is a most unsociable way of spending your time.' Then morning turns out to have its own unique charm. 'It's the best part of the day, because the world has had his face washed, and the air smells like Pears soap.'

The little band's chosen lifestyle is wandering along roads, indulging in conversation, song and story. And their happy ending is removing to a secluded spot and settling down to a life of gaiety, dance and song. Sounds pretty good to me.

The ending is odd by today's standards. The cast give no indication all through the story that they know they are fictional characters, but then Norman Lindsay has his main duo finish this way. (Totally in character for both of them, I might add.)

Bill: Here we are close to the end of the book, and something will have to be done in a tremendous hurry or else we'll be cut off short by the cover.
Bunyip: The solution is perfectly simple. We have merely to stop wandering along the road, and the story will stop wandering through the book.

What do you think? Touch of brilliance or verging in the realm of too cute? Every reader will have to make up their own mind. I can honestly see both sides.

(The photo of me with the Magic Pudding gang was taken at the Story Book Trail at Aberfoyle Park, not far from home; a walk I recommend if you can.)


Monday, March 4, 2019

Characters who refuse to take responsibility

Okay, when you think of the stereotypical story, who is the hero's direct opposite? If you're like many including me, your reflexive answer may be, 'The villain.' It stands to reason that there's black and white, good and evil. That's why we have the likes of Voldemort, Emperor Palpatine, Captain Hook, Joker, the Wicked Witch of the West, and ultimately Satan, who is actually a character in Milton's Paradise Lost. 

But not all stories are written with such obvious play-offs between good and evil, or such desperate stakes. It seems when I think about it, that in other, more low key stories, the good protagonist has another direct opposite. He's not the bad guy, but simply the fellow who can't be bothered. In these stories, apathy is presented as the opposite to caring. The heroes are good-intentioned men who are pro-active in improving their worlds. But then there's the man who prefers to flee, shrink away, or hide his heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. He's most expert at shirking personal responsibility, and here is my count down of examples. 

Keep in mind, owing to the nature of these lists, there'll be a few plot spoilers.

482976Johnny Nolan
He's a good-natured singing waiter who loves his little drink, but taking care of his young family is something he just can't step up to do. His wife Katie is the family breadwinner. It dawns on her early on, with two helpless babies, that if they rely on Johnny they'll starve. Her cleaning jobs become their lifeline. (See my review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)

Fred Vincy
This young Victorian man has no idea what to turn his hand to. He'd prefer to keep sponging off his parents forever than choosing a profession. But some of his money-wasting, reckless pastimes cause heartache to the girl he loves. Fred's theme in Middlemarch is realising that he has to step up and just choose something. He's one of the rare success stories from my list. (See my review of Middlemarch)

54539Godfrey Cass
The squire's wishy-washy son once had an unfortunate fling with a poor village girl who died. When he discovers his anonymous baby daughter is destitute, he's not going to step forward and admit ownership. It'd ruin everything, especially his relationship with the elegant Nancy, who he hopes to marry. Staying silent while an old, eccentric weaver volunteers to bring up his daughter is by far the easiest action (or non). But circumstances make Godfrey regret it years down the track. (I love the line where his dad tells him, 'You hardly know your own mind well enough to make both your legs walk one way.') See my review of Silas Marner)

Stepan Oblonsky
Anna Karenina's smarmy brother has a plum government job and a disarming way of making everyone think he's a charming guy. He loves his affairs with multiple women, and always blocks out whatever he can't be bothered with, including his wife Dolly and their young children. But Stepan knows his good friend Levin is always around to pick up the slack and look out for their needs, which is just fine with him. (See my review of Anna Karenina)

Piers Aubrey
He's the unstable dad from Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. Piers keeps his family in a constant state of near starvation, because his entire focus is on the unpopular causes he chooses to support. He'll even take from the meager stores his family have, and gamble away furniture and other belongings. Eventually he walks out on them without warning. Luckily, his wife kept the value of a few heirlooms top secret, just because she knew him so well. (See my review of The Fountain Overflows)
James Mortmain
His first book was a brilliant hit, but he's suffered from writer's block and self-pity ever since, while his children have grown up cold and hungry. The kids figure out that fending for themselves is a wiser action than waiting for their father to come through with a new book. Until one day, Cassandra and Thomas decide to take matters in their own hands and force him to get words down on pages. (See my review of I Capture the Castle)

Philip Curtius
The talented, but undeniably wimpy wax sculptor takes the very young Madame Tussaud (Marie Grosholtz) under his wing. But he doesn't have the gumption to stick up for her when she's treated harshly by his business partner, the widow Picot. (See my review of Little)

Captain Ahab
The crusty old peg-legged sea captain of the Pequod is so intent on his revenge mission to destroy the whale Moby Dick that he'll jeopardise the safety of his whole crew to achieve it. Irresponsible and stark crazy make a bad combination, especially when you're the boss of the whole voyage. (See my review of Moby Dick)

35031085Victor Frankenstein   
This young science student turns his back on his own creation, who is helpless and clueless at that stage. And the only reason is because of how he looks. As soon as he sees his project animated, Victor panics and flees, hoping it'll just disappear. His refusal to take responsibility helps make him and the monster equal hero/villains, which is why I consider this the most interesting example. (See my review of Frankenstein)

Running my eyes down the list, the most disturbing trend is that the majority of these guys are fathers or in a fatherhood role. That includes Frankenstein as creator. It wasn't my intention when I started, but surprises me in retrospect. The fact that I've drawn this list from a wide range of sources and time periods speaks volumes, considering the emasculation of dads that frequently occurs in our modern media. It seems the sorry stereotype of the clueless, useless moron who sits around while his wife pulls everything together has generations of fuel from which to draw. Perhaps we should take it as a sign that the world has always cried out for solid, dependable, sturdy and reliable family men who'll take a stand and be rocks instead of jellyfish. Let's keep looking out for real life heroes and applauding them when they come. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy's most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense and generous hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante's inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists.

All reports that this is a fascinating book are quite true. I'd call it a psychological suburban novel. The prologue introduces us to the narrator Elena, a senior lady who's just found out her lifelong friend Lila has disappeared. But rather than being concerned, Elena suspects it's just something Lila imagined doing for a long time and finally pulled off.

So she gets out her pen to write about the history of their friendship, which comprises the rest of the book. It describes how Lila helped Elena through all sorts of challenges, including school assignments, which she never got the chance to study herself. And it draws in a whole lot of their friends and family, since everyone's story crosses those of others.

My first impression of Lila had a negative tinge, because I thought, 'Who does that?' Who's mean enough to pull a deliberate disappearing act, putting those close to them through hell? As the story heats up though, it's easier to absolve her, when we see how people have thwarted this girl's ambition and creativity for years. It begins when she's the smartest kid in her class, yet her controlling father decides she's had enough formal education. Whenever Lila tries to re-direct her flair and intellect into the narrow channels left, some other bozo pops up, with the power to stuff her up. She tries to design her own line of shoes in her father's shoemakers' shop, and you have to read it to see what happens. Whenever Lila's stifled, it's as if her brilliance tries to leak out of any crack it can find. But one by one, they're all patched up by clueless people.

So it's easy to understand why removing herself entirely might appeal to her. But is her best friend Elena's reaction passive-aggressive, rather than the loving act it may appear on the surface? Perhaps writing her memories of their past down in a book becomes the latest way of foiling Lila's intentions. Basically, she's saying, 'If she thinks she can erase herself, I'll leave a trace of her that she can't touch.'

The main story starts when they're small girls living in a poor, struggling suburb in 1950's Naples. Her relationship with Lila means the world to Elena, although it causes pain as much as happiness. Lila's life shows that being feisty can't get you everything,  but she still has something Elena can't stop envying - the knack of making everything she touches seem more desirable than anything else.

Elena has everything Lila ever seemed to want, but finds it hard to enjoy. 'What I did by myself couldn't excite me. Only what Lila touched became important.' Even though Elena is living what appears to be the life of both their dreams, she can't stop feeling second rate and hackneyed. And to add yet another layer, we wonder whether this inferiority is even based in reality, or just in Elena's own head.

It's all told from Elena's point of view, but we can't help wondering whether or not Lila is even aware of the power of fascination and originality she wields. Every so often, she lets something slip which suggests that she considers Elena the superior one, because of her tact and ability to get along with people. Lila wonders if she herself has a knack of bringing badness out of others. And there's an impossible to miss ironic moment when she calls Elena her brilliant friend. What a role reversal.

Here's a tribute from Elena to Lila. 'She took the facts and in a natural way, changed them with tension. She intensified reality as she reduced it to words. She injected it with energy.' That sort of subtle detail really gets to the crux of what makes Lila shine as special. But does Elena stand out herself, for having the perception to detect these details?

The school chapters remind me what a nightmare that phase of our lives can be. It's the time when pecking orders are set up, based on performance and one-upmanship. We're completely fixed on comparing our reputations and abilities to others, and although we're not one hundred percent sure they're playing the game as hard and sneakily as we are, we assume it's true. As time progresses in this story, everyone grows up and puts on their pleasant adult masks. But we readers are aware of the childhood issues of a whole range of characters, and a simmering impression that they've just been swept under the carpet.

The male characters are super touchy, which comes across as a learned, cultural behaviour, especially when something like a sister's honour is at stake. Aggression and a quick fuse is a sign of perfect masculinity in their time and place. If someone mentioned such things as staying aloof or taking the higher ground, I doubt these fellows would even understand what they were talking about.

In case you haven't guessed, there's not only the two main characters, but a whole cast of friends and siblings to keep track of. And that takes some effort at times, with all the similar sounding Italian names. Three of the boys are called Nino, Gino and Rino for a start. I have the feeling that when we move on with the rest of the Neapolitan series, this mob is going to keep giving us a real soap opera. Even minor characters are depicted with a similar depth as the main pair of girls. You could easily write a whole essay on every single one of them.

Apart from her body of work, there's the mysterious legend of author Elena Ferrante herself, who pulled a similar stunt to her character Lila, as far as the world of celebrity authors is concerned. Her name is a pseudonym and her identity remains unknown. She insists on staying anonymous, and makes a lot of sense when she says a novel being launched into the world doesn't really need its author. The characters and plot are surely all we really care about, so shouldn't their creator be allowed to enjoy peace and quiet if she wants to?

 Human nature being as it is, many people have chosen to take her stance as a challenge, rather than a preference. Even style experts have joined the quest, carefully comparing her prose to those of other established authors, hoping to strike a match. But all to no avail so far. I can't help hoping Ferrante always stays successful at keeping herself a secret, for as long as that's what she wants.

I won't give it full marks, because some of the characters and their poor choices caused me to groan and face-palm so much. Some might argue that's actually a good reason for giving it five stars, and although I'm inclined to agree, I'm going with four. Just for interest, has anyone read all four novels in the series?

This counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge as a selection set in Italy. 


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Great words about the Sea

This week marks our first anniversary in our new house. We moved from our town in the Adelaide Hills where we've lived for over twenty-five years to a seaside suburb. The need to move was fairly sudden, and I felt devastated at the time. But it didn't take long for the beauty of living so close to the beach to win me over. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd collect a list of quotes from authors who have agreed with me about the restorative power of the ocean, and put it in their own unique words. 

'The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach, waiting for a gift from the sea.'
Anne Morrow Lindbergh

'I had my first view of the Pacific Ocean. To say it is beautiful does not half express it. It is simply beyond words. The water is such a a deep, wonderful blue and the sound of the waves breaking on the beach and their whisper as they flow back is something to dream about.'
Laura Ingalls Wilder, (during a visit to San Francisco, in a letter home to her husband. Here's my review of West From Home.)

'The waves rolled in like metal tubes carrying an egg white of foam on their peaks that broke into a thousand glittering splinters'
Elena Ferrante, from My Brilliant Friend (Review coming soon.)

'There is nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it is sent away.'
Sarah Kay

'How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is clearly Ocean.'
Arthur C. Clarke

'You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the whole ocean does not become dirty.'
Mahatma Gandhi

'To me, the sea is a continual miracle. The fishes that swim, the rocks, the motion of the waves, the ships with men in them. What stranger miracles are there?'
Walt Whitman

'I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray.
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today.'
Anne Bronte

'When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.'
Rainer Maria Rilke 

There are many others, but those are some of my favourites. That's me wading in the photo above, taken by my daughter. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

A Patron Saint for Fangirls?

Disclaimer: Although I use the term 'fangirl' throughout this reflection to match my gender, it also applies to 'fanboys' and 'fanpeople' in general.

I am always on the lookout for role models from stories and history, to help direct the way I live and think. I used to fail dismally in living up to them, but figured out that was mostly because my choices were too different from me, and therefore set impossible standards. Now I'm making a point of choosing people whose traits match aspects of my own character, and this girl cries out to the strong reader, lover of stories and eager fangirl I've always been. If you relate to this reflection, you may well be the same. 

Do you enjoy a good story? You look forward to reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a podcast simply for curiosity. The fun of finding out a new fact, making an unprecedented connection or adding new favourite characters to your book lists is what drives you. The phrase, 'fascinating discovery' makes your ears twitch. Maybe you just want to know who's going to get married by the end of the novel, or who the bad guy is. And you've covered the backs and fronts of several pieces of paper with scribbled notes.

But an obvious drawback makes you sad. If someone asks the purpose for your reading and research, you'd be hard pressed to make a decent reply. You're not brilliant enough to add anything great to the world of science, engineering, politics or education. You can't point out a single soul who benefits directly from your love of listening and learning. It's nothing like the helping professions. (See The Modest Letter Q) You're merely very interested, but that's the limit. And however much you'd love to believe otherwise, something tells you being a fangirl isn't a skill, it's a luxury. Is it self-indulgent, though? Are you wasting your time, by taking in without the means of giving much out? Those are discouraging questions, and enough to make you wonder if you're pulling your weight on this planet.

Image result for mary and martha
That's why this Biblical girl is one of my favourite role models. Mary was sitting near Jesus with her eyes fixed on his face, captivated by every word he spoke. But Martha, her bossy older sister, poked out her head to pay her out for not helping in the kitchen. Martha put Mary in the embarrassing position of drawing their house guest into the tense family dynamics. 'Don't you think she should be helping me cook, serve and scrub up instead of sitting out here enjoying herself?' (In the same way, you've probably heard, 'Put down your book,' or 'Turn off the computer.' The ultimate message we get is, 'Do something that really helps and makes a difference.')

His reply probably shocked both of them. 'Martha, you're stressed out with many things on your plate, but Mary has chosen the best one of all, and who am I to deprive her of that?' Wow, he didn't say her choice was equally good, but even better. That's the statement that helps put our habit of idle curiosity into context. Could it be that being a fangirl is a gift after all?

One thing always surprised me about this story. We don't even get to know the subject of his discourse. What was he was even talking about to enthrall her so? Was it one of the stories or parables which are recorded elsewhere, or something entirely new? Was whatever it was worth risking a tongue lashing from Martha? Hey, if Mary was so spellbound, I'd like to get the inside scoop too. Why aren't we told, so we can share the benefit, or at least decide if we agree it was worth listening to?

But we don't get to find out, because it's beside the point. In this incident, the focus isn't on the master storyteller so much as his audience, and her reaction. Her attitude impresses him as totally commendable, to the point where he calls it a perfect use of her time. And she didn't even appear to do anything mindblowing with whatever she learned. There's no 'Book of Mary'. Her receptive, interested heart was enough. She enhanced her own life, which no doubt spilled over in quiet ways to those she brushed shoulders with. Maybe when a receptive, interested heart is the best we have to offer, it's enough from us too.

People often bring up counter points about this story. If you're thinking, 'Yeah, well somebody has to cook the meal and do the dishes,' I agree hard, tangible work is a great thing too. And sometimes people in Martha's position are quite right to speak up. But hard workers often get the pats on the back they deserve, because the results of their industry is pretty much in our faces. This little anecdote is highlighted for a different reason. Could it be that those with their heads in the clouds, being scoffed at as lazy slackers may deserve accolades too? What we take in through our reading, viewing and study does make a difference. It shapes us and what we have to offer in invisible but deep ways. You may hazard a guess that in this story, Jesus was talking about holy, spiritual things, but I'm writing this reflection with the understanding the many things under the sun are worth getting enthusiastic and excited about for the good they contain. And if somebody has to listen and take it in, let it be us.

So read on, my fellow nerds! Watch the documentary, learn how that game works, tell us your favourite novel from a particular series and why. When I'm feeling a bit fruitless, I sometimes think of Mary, who was never actually called the patron saint of fangirls (and guys) but might well have been.