Monday, January 28, 2019

The Cannonball Effect

Once I was browsing through a library book, "A Complaint Free World" by Will Bowen. One anecdote stands out in my mind, perhaps because we are at the start of another new year. It's about a house painter named Mike who had an idea to dip a standard baseball in leftover paint at the end of each day in his garage, just out of idle curiosity to see how big it would get. The result was astounding.

Will Bowen and his daughter were invited to come and see it after Mike had been doing the daily dip for several years. They found a massive thing, the size of a cannon ball hanging from steel girders. He asked them if they'd like to apply that day's coat of paint, and it took them 15 minutes to get it evenly covered. What amazed them all was the fact that each individual coat of paint was about the width of a hair. Visible proof that lots of small actions, if persisted in, result in something formidably huge.

Bowen took it as an analogy for his complaint free world. Each individual decision to stay cheerful and not make an issue of annoyances may result in a transformed personality which automatically leans toward the optimistic option. I started to reflect that the principle applies to absolutely anything we can think of.

We all know that individually, one delicious chocolate truffle or Cadbury Freddo frog doesn't contain enough calories to put on much weight. If you indulge in them a lot, though, they become like those coats of paint, and your waistline ends up much thicker. One jog up a steep mountain path may result in no difference on the scales, which contestants on "The Biggest Loser" have discovered many times, but making a habit of it can get that flab moving. Brain science has shown that one thought, repeated over again several times, results in an entrenched attitude that wears a pathway, similar to the ones we used to see worn across the paddock near our house, by lots of pedestrians taking short cuts to the wetlands.

Each late December I hear plenty of negative comments about making new year's resolutions.  "We might as well not even bother. By February, we're back to our old habits, or April at the latest." But that's a gloomy attitude masquerading as realistic. By February, the baseball hasn't grown very big at all, and it's easy to look at the thinness of each individual coat of paint. It's right about then that we could benefit from reminding ourselves about the huge, impressive cannonball we could create, if only we persevere. I like new year's resolutions and usually begin a couple every January. I'd encourage everyone to do the same, if there's something in your life you wouldn't mind reversing or changing.

Even if you decide, "I need to accept myself more, and not get into the self-help trap of thinking there's always something wrong with me that I need to change," that's still a resolution. In fact, that may well be one of mine.

Mother Teresa vividly showed this principle with the poor in Calcutta, that thousands of small gestures, repeated over and over, may produce a wonderfully productive and difference-making life. It doesn't have to be that grandiose or self-sacrificing. I'd extend the analogy to smiling at strangers, cooking nutritious meals, reading more books, writing a book, or keeping up a blog like this one. Or maybe we could get into the habit of giving others the benefit of the doubt, choosing to not take offence, or just making an effort to purposefully look out for lovely, mood-brightening things each day.

I wish everyone who may read this a hopeful, healthy and productive 2019.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella Gibbons

Winner of the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, COLD COMFORT FARM is a wickedly funny portrait of British rural life in the 1930s. Flora Poste, a recently orphaned socialite, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and becomes enmeshed in a web of violent emotions, despair, and scheming, until Flora manages to set things right.

Oh man, what a ridiculous book! It's my choice for the comedy classic in the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd never heard of either book or author before, but it was published way back in September 1932, when my Dad was a two-month-old baby. That sparked my interest to find out what readers were laughing at back then, but it's the sort of book to have you shaking your head asking, 'What the heck just happened?'

It's instantly clear that author Stella Gibbons was doing a very clever parody, and the books she was targeting were pastoral dramas full of acute Victorian emotions, which were apparently all the rage at the time. An obscure author named Mary Webb is said to be Gibbons' specific target. But her take-offs could even apply to several classic authors still popular to this day, such as Thomas Hardy, D.H Lawrence, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. Writing a full novel is a pretty elaborate way of bringing attention to the limitations of a whole genre, but Gibbons did it.

Flora Poste is a smart and tidy girl who is orphaned at the age of 19. She writes to a distant branch of her family, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, asking for assistance. And because they grievously wronged her father once, in some mysterious way, they offer her hospitality to make up for it. There's rumour of a curse hanging over the farm, since nothing ever flourishes there, so Flora's older cousin Judith Starkadder wants to do what she can to alleviate their guilt.

Flora shows up, and the Starkadder clan turns out to be a mob of primitive and intense weirdos, each living their own brand of a rich and emotional inner life. Cousin Amos is a fire-and-brimstone preacher with a huge following, although he always screams at his audience that they're headed for hell. His wife Judith battles with depression and anxiety, and smashes several ornaments with her dramatic gestures. They have two grown sons. Reuben is hanging out to inherit the farm and resents anyone he imagines might pose a threat, including Flora. And Seth has the sort of earthy, animal magnetism that turns heads and makes girls swoon. Their teenage sister Elfine is a beautiful, tousled wild child, who runs around the country writing deep and meaningful poetry, and is not good for much else.

Even the farm animals are named to suit the grim tone of the place. There are the horses, Arsenic, Viper and Travail. And the beloved cows, Feckless, Graceless, Pointless and Aimless.

But the mastermind who controls everything from upstairs in her bed is the ancient matriarch Aunt Ada Doom. She uses supposed post-traumatic stress disorder to her own advantage. Aunt Ada 'saw something nasty in the woodshed' as a child, and never recovered, but whatever it was made her marriage a prolonged nightmare. For over sixty years, family members have tiptoed around trying to keep her happy, and she insists that nobody ever leaves the family nest, because 'there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.'

Flora, the natural busy-body, decides to straighten everything up with her common sense. Her motto is, 'Unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life.' Meanwhile she has to contend with the attention of her admirer, Mr Mybug, who's staying down in the village. He's a brilliant author who's busy writing a shock expose which attempts to prove that Branwell Bronte wrote all the famous novels attributed to his three sisters.

Members of the family end up with great marriages, career opportunities, new outlooks and changes of scene, all thanks to Flora's meddling. One of the happiest recipients of her reforms is the bull, Big Business. The Starkadders had kept him cooped up in the shed, and she simply lets him out to enjoy the pasture.

If the point of parodies was just to poke fun at other authors they'd be funny enough, but this one has occasional pearls of wisdom too. For example, when Seth is taken away to become a film star, the narrator remarks, 'He would never have a chance now, of becoming a nice, normal young man. He would become a world famous, swollen mask.' And this was written in the early 1930's!

Keeping up such a flowery flow of nonsense, and overstretched similes and metaphors on purpose for a whole book must be even tougher work than weeding them out when they creep in accidentally. This could be used as one of those text book examples of how not to write a novel. Gibbons was doing a similar thing to what Jane Austen did with the Gothic genre in Northanger Abbey, but even more so. And fans loved it. Not her fellow authors though. Virginia Woolf wrote that she was miffed when Gibbons won the prestigious Femina Heureuse prize with her silly story.

However, the cheeky brilliance she used in Cold Comfort Farm may have backfired on Stella Gibbons. The book was such a success, it seems she wrote herself into a corner and got herself neatly typecast as an author of satire. She went on to write over 20 more books, some of which had more sober themes, but readers wouldn't look past her name on the front cover and take them seriously. To this day, Cold Comfort Farm is her only work that didn't sink into partial obscurity. The book's introduction, plus a google search, reveals that she considered it a liability in her later years. She wouldn't even mention it by name, but referred to it as, 'Hmm, Hmm-hmm, Hmm.' I can just imagine some of her targets and their offspring saying, 'Serves her right, for not being nice.'

Overall, Cold Comfort Farm was a funny, if disturbing place to visit, but I think I'll be glad to get stuck back into books with proper character development, rather than stock, cardboard cutouts and ludicrous situations. But no doubt I'll remember Cold Comfort Farm whenever other classics verge into melodrama. Which is just what Stella Gibbons must have intended.


Monday, January 14, 2019

'Bridge of Clay' by Markus Zusak

The breathtaking story of five brothers who bring each other up in a world run by their own rules. As the Dunbar boys love and fight and learn to reckon with the adult world, they discover the moving secret behind their father’s disappearance.

At the center of the Dunbar family is Clay, a boy who will build a bridge—for his family, for his past, for greatness, for his sins, for a miracle.

The question is, how far is Clay willing to go? And how much can he overcome?

Whew, how do I tackle this mammoth that was so long in the pipelines? It's like a celebration of testosterone.

I was privileged to attend a book talk with Markus Zusak, and have my copy signed. He discussed his 13-year-long writer's block, from the time he finished The Book Thief (see my review) until now. The dry period turned out to be longer than his two kids have been alive, and they never believed their Dad would write a new novel ever. But now that he's finished, he says Bridge of Clay is like his heart and soul poured out onto the paper. With such a perfectly honest admission about an author's vulnerability from his own mouth, I was keen to get started.

The most likely reason it took so long struck me from the start. It probably had to! Zusak is not any common author, but a finely-tuned wordsmith whose storytelling sweeps into poetic imagery on almost every single page. I get the strong impression that no word is there by accident. They were all considered with meticulous care, and only got to stay if they made the grade. Since his fictional Dunbar boys have inherited a deep regard for Homer's classical poetry from their mother, it's probably intentional that their own story should read like an epic too.

But there's nothing complex about the plot, and on the surface, no reason for such sweeping language. Maybe it's to show that all of our common, everyday stories can be painted with beauty and depth. The five young Dunbar brothers have lived alone since their mother passed away and their grief-stricken father suddenly left home. Or as the book puts it, 'Their mother was dead and their father had fled.' One day after an absence of several years, their father Michael returns out of the blue, and asks the boys to consider helping him build a bridge on his rural property. Four of them refuse in no uncertain terms, hurt by his desertion and indignant at his nerve. But the fourth brother, 16-year-old Clayton, re-considers and decides to take up the challenge.

In a way, he agrees to work on more than one bridge. The physical one that spans the river, and an invisible, spiritual bridge that helps the family bond together again.

The best part by far is the rough interaction between the five brothers, and the gruff, insulting Aussie male way they relate to each other, which really masks deep affection. I have sons and nephews, and the Dunbar boys ring true for me. Even while they communicate with verbal put-downs and sarcasm, not to mention rough and tumble physical knocks, they all understand the underlying message that they can trust and depend on each other. Even when Clay seems like a traitor for taking up their father's offer, they know he really isn't.

All five are different, but make one very cool whole. There's Rory the tough guy, and friendly, talkative Henry with a knack for earning money. Then there's vulnerable little Tommy, the youngest, with his trail of pets. But quiet, restless, deep-thinking Clay is presented as the book's real hero. I think my favourite is actually Matthew, the modest narrator, who's always careful to keep himself in the background of his brother's story. To me, he's obviously the family backbone and glue, partly because his position as eldest forces him to take on the role of family breadwinner and caregiver. It's a pretty heroic responsibility for an 18-year-old, but he blunders along instinctively, doing it well. And of course he's the one with Markus Zusak's impressive way with words, since Zusak gives it to him.

There's lots of weaving between different time periods, which stops being confusing when you get into it. There's the present when the story starts, the not-so-distant past, while the boys were all shacking up together, and the more long-ago times when their parents were young. We get a feel for when each chapter happened. I like the apparently haphazard approach, because it highlights that random events may be more than mere coincidences. All sorts of seemingly casual brushes with others can really be destiny calling.

There's an abundance of great pets in the Dunbar household. Animals always make a story come alive, so it's great when authors use them. My favourites are Hector the cat and Achilles the mule. Their comic presence is a great relief from more tragic parts of the book. (Sob, Markus Zusak, what did the main female characters ever do to you?)

I'm glad he set this book in Australia, since our beautiful country deserves such excellent, descriptive lines as, 'Cars were stubbed out rather than parked, and the powerlines drooped from the weight of mute, hot and bothered pigeons.' But it was definitely a relief to finish, and left me wondering if there's such a thing as an overdose of wonderfully written prose. Aussies like me sometimes tell stories about being wowed by the majesty of ancient cathedrals and castles in Europe and England, but eventually reaching saturation point. Maybe after almost 600 pages, I was almost saturated with Zusak's brilliant, descriptive storytelling methods, so it's good that he stopped when he did.

I definitely give it a high recommendation.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Celebration of Homesickness

In the year that's just ended, I've moved from the Adelaide Hills, where I've lived since I was 18, to a suburb down near the coast. I went house-hunting with a heavy heart, expecting to be terribly homesick. But the new place has surprised me by being excellent. When I grieved about the idea of moving down to the 'burbs', I didn't anticipate a better local shopping centre, handier distance to other central spots, and the beach a quick drive around the corner. My husband and kids are happy. We are lucky enough to find ourselves on a quiet little street in a roomy house with lovely floorboards, and a beautiful view from the deck. In 2018 we simply exchanged one great location for another, proving that adapting to sea changes is possible.

But it's given me a fresh empathy for homesick people, because I understand the emotional upheaval involved. In its most acute form, it's a condition that can't be easily cured. Unlike simply stepping off whatever is giving you motion sickness and waiting for it to pass, there's always a deep sting for as long as you're away from that specific place. I've put together this literary list of people who grew famous for being homesick. If you can relate to them, it'll at least encourage you that you're not alone.

Queen Amytis
According to one legend, this lovely lady was the bride of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. She was forced to leave the fertile green mountains and valleys of her homeland Media to live in more of a dust bowl. It was no secret that she deeply grieved her loss. Being a powerful ruler, her loving husband arranged for a stunning feat of architecture and engineering to help her feel better. The wonderful gardens built in a mountain of ascending tiers was intended to remind her of home. It's lovely to think that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, was originally a cheer-up present. If the story has a grain of truth, I hope it worked.

This one is more of a local tale about one of the rural towns in the Adelaide hills near where I used to live. A wife of one of the earliest settlers in the mid nineteenth century used to walk along the hot, dusty tracks with their unusual trees, longing for her bustling, cosmopolitan home in London. She used to say, 'I'm going for a walk in Piccadilly,' with more than a touch of ironic bitterness. But the name has endured to this day.

Emily Bronte
Of all the Bronte sisters, she is the one who would begin to wilt, body, soul and spirit, if anybody tried to transplant her from her beloved Yorkshire moors. It became clear that sending Emily to study in Brussels, or attempt a stint as a governess anywhere, wouldn't work if they wanted her to live. It might've been okay for Charlotte and Anne, but Emily needed to stick close to her roots to flourish. Her main female character Catherine Earnshaw felt similar, declaring once that even heaven wouldn't feel like home. (See here for my review of Wuthering Heights)

These Happy Golden Years (Little House, #8)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
In These Happy Golden Years, Laura describes her daunting experience teaching school as a young teenager. She had to board with the sloppy Brewster family, where the lady of the house seemed to hate her. Poor Laura missed her own parents and sisters like crazy, but a young man named Almanzo Wilder would drive her home for weekends, rain or shine, even when he knew she wasn't interested in pursuing a relationship with him at that stage. His kind gesture probably won her heart even more than an earlier heroic act of risking his life to fetch wheat for the starving town. (Homesickness can be infectious, as it seems Mrs Brewster was probably so antagonistic because she suffered from the very same thing.)

Who remembers the sweet extra terrestrial from the epic movie in the early 1980's? He had the warmest heart of anyone in the decade. My Dad took me to see it just before I started High School. The wise and affectionate little alien grows very fond of the family who adopted him as their own, especially his young friend Eliot. But he longs for the faraway planet where he came from. There was no choice for those who loved him but to figure out how to return him. One of the catch lines of the era was, 'E.T. phone home.'

3580Pat Gardiner
She's one of Lucy Maud Montgomery's charming heroines. Pat loves her family home, Silver Bush, to the point of dreading any small, permanent change to it. Staying away for even a night or two becomes a huge ordeal for her. Some critics have called her dopey, because she seems to suffer from permanent homesickness even while she's actually living there. But when you dig deeper, it turns out that L.M. Montgomery wrote Pat's stories later in life, while she was living far from Prince Edward Island herself. It would seem writing about Pat might have been an attempt to cheer herself up. I guess you might call it transferred homesickness. (See my review of Pat of Silver Bush.)

Now for two of the most famous sufferers of all. I could hardly decide which way around to put them, but think I got it right.

This awesome little Swiss girl couldn't dream of anything better than living with her beloved, gruff grandfather on the Alps. She's quite content helping around the house and hanging out with Peter, the young goat herd. So when she's forced to go live with a family of strangers in the city, to be a companion for their disabled daughter, Heidi's health suffers terribly. I felt so sad and homesick on her behalf, and delighted when author Johanna Spyri returned Heidi to the mountains where she belonged, even though I'd never been there.

Now for number one, drum roll ....

236093Dorothy Gale
We surely all know how this girl was swept away from grey, dusty Kansas to the colourful, brilliant and fruitful land of Oz. Even when the folk there offered to honour her permanently, she refused to consider it simply because there was no place like home. All her brave adventures were simply part of a quest to get the great wizard to help her return to the modest little farmhouse with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. And what joy we share when she finally makes it. (See my review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)

Can you think of any sufferers of homesickness I've missed? Go ahead and add them in the comments. Also feel free to share any homesickness tales of your own, whether it involves stories of people who managed to get back to their favourite places, or people who eventually learned to adapt to somewhere new.

I'll leave you with some nice, fuzzy quotes about home from all over the internet.

Home is not a place, it's a feeling.

Home is where the heart is.

The thrill of coming home has never changed.

 And to finish off with a goody from our modern era.

 Home is the place where your wifi connects automatically.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

'Prairie Fires' by Caroline Fraser

The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books

One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year

Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls—the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series—masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder's tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.

Wow, I was quite blown away! This book truly deserves its Pulitzer prize for biography this year. Caroline Fraser has pieced together such a thorough picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life from start to finish, drawing on documents, photos, memories and artifacts she must have sourced from far and wide. It's such an involved and in depth read I could easily keep going back over it finding new discoveries each time. But for now my head is still full of what I took on board this first time.

I think we've probably all heard that Laura's life was harsher and rougher than her books depict, but I was pleased to see that the parts she chose to include are accurate on the whole. She just focused on them and dispensed with other, sadder and more squalid times she didn't think young readers needed to hear about. Some might consider it airbrushing or misrepresenting through omission, but to me it sounds like a pretty good way of looking back over your life. Isn't it the same thing we all do on our social media profiles anyway? The characters of all the family members we came to love were spot-on anyway, which is one of the main things.

The whole debate over objective versus subjective truth is addressed fairly thoroughly. Laura's brand of truth draws more on her personal memories, feelings and convictions, rather than dry facts and chronological events. Even her research consisted more of recalling what particular flowers smelled like rather than verifying specific dates. Fraser says, 'The freedom she took with the facts was the creative act of a novelist.' Laura and her daughter Rose agreed to regard truth as the meaning underlying a story, and included the parts they felt illustrated that most. I'm fine with that. It seems Rose Wilder Lane crossed a line at times though, when she wrote some unauthorised biographies of famous people with dodgy accuracy issues. But that's different from her mother's biographical fiction, which is based strongly on fact and pretended to be different.

We are given a whole new way of perceiving Rose. Whoa, what a piece of work she appears to have been! Perhaps Caroline Fraser just wasn't a fan, yet since she draws from all sorts of written correspondence to paint Rose's picture, I think there must be some truth in it. It seems she was headstrong and snobby from a young age, showing insubordination to teachers and other authority figures. In her letters, Rose comes across as a person who wanted, consciously or not, to undermine and patronise her mother. She was adept at dealing out both compliments and criticism in the same sentence. She seemed to snatch every chance to remind Laura that she was the expert in the industry, and should call the shots. Rose was extremely focused and ambitious, working brutally long hours and making heaps of illustrious contacts. She was also volatile and moody, insisting on doing her own thing.

How a placid, tranquil guy like Almanzo could have had such an overbearing, high-maintenance, control freak for a daughter might turn out to be one of life's big mysteries. If Rose was a Hogwarts student, I'm pretty sure she'd be sorted into Slytherin House, but I'm not saying that meanly. Like all of us, she must have had a mixture of dark and light, negative balanced with positive. Her correspondence indicates that she was both bossy and needy at the same time, with generous moments and highly resentful ones all tied up together. And I'm sure she'd defend herself by saying that she always meant well. Perhaps she did draw on the type of tenacity her dad used years earlier when he went off between blizzards to get that wheat.

People have wondered about the professional relationship between the mother and daughter team, with theories floating about that Rose even ghost wrote all her mother's books! The actual preserved letters puts it all to rest. Laura was the author of the Little House series and Rose was the editor. I haven't read 'Let the Hurricane Roar' or any other fiction by Rose, but the general consensus seems to be that she was not the gifted storyteller her mother was. She was definitely a sharp and professional editor though, with contacts in high places. The text points out that their different styles were unmistakable. Laura wrote the 'plain, unadorned, fact based' tales we all love, while Rose's writing was more polished, dramatic and stylised. They managed to bring their strengths together, and it's clear we'd never have had the beautiful Little House series with just one and not the other. Although they had their share of personality clashes, they ended up creating something to be very proud of.

Laura's life with her Pa, Charles Ingalls, fascinated me, since I loved him in her books. Fraser says, 'He never seemed to realise that his ambition for a profitable farm was irreconcilable with a love of untrammeled and unpopulated wilderness.' But his love for his family and his deep and profound contentment covers up those disastrous decisions and mistakes he made. 'By standards of material success, he was an abject failure, but an outstanding man measured by his family's love for him.' In my opinion, that puts Charles way ahead of many men we hear about who have these things the opposite way around.

Laura had her fair share of histrionics and temper tantrums it's revealed, which doesn't surprise me much, given her stubborn and determined nature in the books. It seems Almanzo sometimes felt the need to retreat to his stubble field for peace from the women in his life. He reportedly said to a visitor, 'I knew when I married her she had a temper. You just get used to these things.'

We're told Rose had trouble teaching her dad to drive a car, since he was so used to his beloved horses. He jammed his foot on the brake, tugged hard on the steering wheel and called, 'Whoa!' causing her to fly through the windscreen. The book is full of such anecdotes, which makes me want to read it over again already. The deep love and affection between Laura and Almanzo, over their marriage of 64 years, sticks with me. Some people reported that she would shout at him and worry him with all sorts of things that came into her head, but they were so committed to each other, their different personality styles didn't matter, and I'll always think of them of one of my favourite romances from literature.

Caroline Fraser ended her book with a fantastic tribute to Laura and her books that I'll write out in full. 'If Wilder's life was triumphant, it was a different kind of triumph than we are accustomed to recognising. She wrote no laws, led no-one into battle, waged no campaigns. If we listen to her, we can hear what she was telling us. Life in frontier times was a perpetual hard winter. There was joy - riding ponies, singing hymns, eating Christmas candy - but it was fleeting. There was heroism, but it was the heroism of daily perseverance, the unprized tenacity of unending labour. It was the heroism of chores, repetitive tasks defined by drudgery. Cooking and eating the same fried potatoes, day in day out. Washing dishes in dirty water. Twisting hay with hands so cracked they bled. Writing with a blunt pencil on a cheap tablet.'