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.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Literature's Most Awkward Marriage Proposals

Here's an old blast from the past in honour of Valentine's Day.

I understand that guys may have an anxious time when planning how to pop such a vulnerable, potentially life-changing question. Most of these books were written by women who either wanted a bit of a laugh, or to prove that being put on the spot and having to come up with an answer isn't always easy either. So here are several cringe-worthy examples from the pages of great novels, ranging from the mildly awkward to the truly terrible.

1) The Indirect Approach - Almanzo Wilder to Laura Ingalls
Putting out feelers may be fine, but look out for quick witted girls.

Almanzo: I was wondering if you'd like an engagement ring.
Laura: That would depend on who gave it to me.
Almanzo: If I should?
Laura: Then it would depend on the ring.
(From 'These Happy Golden Years' by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My review is here.)

2) The Ultimatum - Maxim de Winter to his second wife
Such sternness isn't the traditional way to go, and may lead to confusion. Following up with an insult doesn't help either. 

Maxim: Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.
Young Heroine: Do you want a secretary or something?
Maxim: No, I am asking you to marry me, you little fool.
(From 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier. My review is here.)

3) The Proxy - Billy Andrews to Anne Shirley
Guys, however nervous you feel, please be man enough to at least ask her in person.

Jane: Anne, what do you think of my brother, Billy?
Anne: I don't understand. Why... I like him, of course.
Jane: Would you like him for a husband?
Anne: Whose husband?
Jane: Yours of course. Billy wants to marry you. He's always been crazy about you, and now father has given him the upper farm in his own name, and there's nothing to prevent him from getting married. But he's so shy, he couldn't ask you himself if you'd have him, so he got me to do it.
(From 'Anne of the Island' by L.M. Montgomery)

4) 'Just let me check' response - Jimmy Pendleton to Pollyanna
This was a delicate situation, and no fault of the hero. Pollyanna was in love with her childhood friend Jimmy, but suspected that his adopted father, John Pendleton, intended to propose to her himself. Since Pollyanna's mother had broken John's heart, she felt obligated not to repeat history. Poor Jimmy didn't know the craziness he was entering into. 

Jimmy: You mean you'd marry him, Pollyanna?
Pollyanna: No! I yes, I suppose so.
Jimmy: Pollyanna, you wouldn't, you couldn't. You're breaking my heart.
Pollyanna: I know it, I know it! I'm breaking mine too. But I'll have to do it. I'd break your heart, I'd break mine, but I'd never break his.
Jimmy: Alright little girl, it'll have to be as you say. But surely never before was a man kept waiting for his answer till the girl he loved, and who loved him, found out if the other man wanted her.
(From 'Pollyanna Grows Up' by Eleanor H Porter. My review is here.)

5) The Condescension Approach - Fitzwilliam Darcy to Elizabeth Bennett
Don't ever begin a marriage proposal by telling the lady that it was against your better judgment!

Darcy: In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how much I admire and love you.
(Then when she ticks you off as you deserve, don't stick your foot in it even more!)
Darcy: Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?
Elizabeth: You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner. You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.
(Bravo Elizabeth. He's lucky he got another chance.)
(From 'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen)

6) The Tactless Approach - Rhett Butler to Scarlett O'Hara
If you want to propose to a lady, don't go on the very day of her former husband's funeral! She'll consider it bad taste.

Rhett: My news is this. I still want you more than any woman I've ever seen, and now that Frank's gone, I thought you'd be interested to know it.
Scarlett: I... you are the most ill bred man in the world, coming here at this time of all times, with your filthy... and Frank hardly cold. If you had any decency... would you leave this...?'
Rhett: Hush, I am asking you to marry me. Would you be convinced if I knelt down?
(From 'Gone with the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell)

7) The Divine Edict Approach - St John Rivers to Jane Eyre
Claiming that you speak for God as well as yourself must be the ultimate pressure. This has got to be one of literature's most unromantic proposals. 

Rivers: Jane, come back with me to India. Come as my helpmeet and fellow labourer. God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal but mental endowments they have given you. You are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary's wife you must, shall be. You shall be mine. I claim you not for my pleasure but for my sovereign's service.
(From 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte. My review is here.)

8) The Role Reversal Approach -Valancy Stirling to Barney Snaith
It's a very brave move for a girl to propose to a guy. Expect him to be surprised, and it might help to have something up your sleeve.

Barney: Going home, Miss Stirling? 
Valancy: I don't know... yet.
Barney: I thought I'd run down and see if there was anything I could do for you.
Valancy: Yes, there is something you can do for me. Will you marry me?
Barney: Come now. I knew luck was just waiting around the corner for me. All the signs have been pointing that way today.
Valancy: Wait. I'm in earnest. Of course with all my bringing up I realise this is one of those things a lady shouldn't do.
Barney: But why... Why?
Valancy: For two reasons. The first is I'm crazy about you. The second is... this.  
(From 'The Blue Castle' by L.M. Montgomery. My review is here.) 

I hope you enjoyed this face palming post, brought to you from my memory and a quick bit of flipping back through books. Do you see any favourites there? 

Monday, February 11, 2019

'Walden' by Henry David Thoreau

Originally published in 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, is a vivid account of the time that Henry D. Thoreau lived alone in a secluded cabin at Walden Pond. It is one of the most influential and compelling books in American literature. This new paperback edition-introduced by noted American writer John Updike-celebrates the 150th anniversary of this classic work. Much of Walden's material is derived from Thoreau's journals and contains such engaging pieces as "Reading" and "The Pond in the Winter" Other famous sections involve Thoreau's visits with a Canadian woodcutter and with an Irish family, a trip to Concord, and a description of his bean field. This is the complete and authoritative text of Walden-as close to Thoreau's original intention as all available evidence allows. For the student and for the general reader, this is the ideal presentation of Thoreau's great document of social criticism and dissent.

Not many authors have more of a romantic vibe than this guy. Maybe a deep desire to simplify and slow down keeps tourists flocking to the replica of his little house at Walden Pond. Even though he's been dead for over a century, people still hope to catch some of Thoreau's inspiration from just sitting where he sat. He was living the self-sufficient, off-the-grid dream of many of us, which made me choose to read this book for the American classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Basically, Henry David Thoreau decided to escape from the hustle and bustle of normal life and be his own master. So he built a tiny house a mile from his home town, furnished it with basic essentials and figured out that he could live off 27 cents per week. He stretched six weeks of work a year to cover expenditure for the remaining 46, which he spent getting up at his leisure, enjoying nature and recording his thoughts. It sure does sound like an appealing lifestyle.

Walden is an eye-opener though, making me consider that Thoreau might have been an intimidating person to get to know. I was used to thinking of him as a hero who gives eloquent encouragement to jump off the treadmills of public opinion and modern living. But the Thoreau I find within the pages tends to be a hardcore fanatic whose views swing further than I thought in the other direction. I've no doubt that no matter how well we feel we've pared down our lives, the real Thoreau might still dismiss us as worldly conformers. Here are just a few things he has to say about various subjects.

Decorations and Ornaments
'I had three pieces of limestone on my desk but was terrified to find they needed dusting daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.'

'Remember their main objectives are to retain the vital heat and cover nakedness. When you do wear them to pieces, they meld to your character.'

Worldly Goods
'When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all, I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.'

The 7 Wonders of the World
'As for the pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some degraded booby, whom it would have been manlier and wiser to have drowned in the Nile and then given his body to the dogs.' (I guess that ties in with his opinion on working for bosses.)

Also, he maintains a sort of smug tone, that's a bit on the nose. Being confident in your own ethic while going against the norm is great, yet sometimes it's hard to turn a blind eye to Thoreau's show-offy, superior attitude. It's like sitting in on one man's long back-patting session. A prime example is the way he pays out John Field, a destitute Irish immigrant with a wife and several small children, for struggling not to starve. 'Poor John Field, thinking to live by some derivative old mode in this primitive new country. I trust he will not read this unless he can improve by it.' I wonder if any of Thoreau's friends ever reminded him of the following points, which indicate that his case was different from Field's in other ways too.

1) You're single, which means only one mouth to feed.
2) You don't even own the land you're living on. Ralph Waldo Emerson is letting you squat. Others aren't so lucky.
3) Being a local boy, you have frequent visitors from friends and family, who no doubt bring potluck dinners.
4) There's always the option of packing up and moving back to your parents' place in Concord. In fact, you only lasted two years anyway.

Image result for henry david thoreau
That last point was one of the biggest surprises for me, as I'd picked up the book imagining him settled on the banks of the pond for at least a decade. He only did it for two years! It sounds like such a short time for anyone not to lose a bit of face, but he explains it with his usual dash of pomposity. 'I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.' Yeah, okay Thoreau. 

Some of the people he stumbles across are the unsung heroes of the book, whether or not Thoreau intended them to be. I love the self-professed dumb guy, who said he'd always been intellectually deficient from childhood, but guessed that the Lord loved him just as much as the smart guys, since he made him that way. Maybe he's the smartest of all. Thoreau called him a 'metaphysical puzzle.' But he balances it by having digs at clever people too, who he calls, 'men of ideas instead of legs. A sort of intellectual centipede that made you crawl all over.' Nobody is spared from his sharp pen.

In spite of being disillusioned in the ways I've mentioned, his legend continues. He's still such an enigma, and so much irony surrounds him. 'I say let your affairs be two or three, not a hundred or a thousand.' Even though he was such a stickler for not taking on multi roles, so many people from different walks of life still want to claim him as their own, including philosophers, nature writers, poets, minimisers, self-help gurus, relaxation therapists, business men, environmentalists, and the list goes on. I'm glad I read it, although I feel inclined to give it two stars, since it was a bit of a slog and very hard to wallow through at times. Maybe I'm just one of those more intellectually dense people he discusses, who don't fall under its spell. But because I admire the dude for making himself a celebrity by doing nothing much at all for a period of time, I'll add an extra one.


Monday, February 4, 2019

'Little' by Edward Carey

In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and . . . at the wax museum, heads are what they do.

Oh wow, there are some rare books which you know will be a benchmark for the rest of the year, and this is one of them. Eccentricity and wisdom makes for a dynamite duo, and this novel has both in spades. Its weirdness is used to reveal subtleties about how our world chugs along, and Edward Carey keeps it coming through his main character, Marie.

It'd be fair to call it a faction (blend of fact and fiction) since it's based on the life story of Madame Tussaud, told from her own fictional perspective. About time it was done, because she lived an incredible life. Marie Grosholtz was orphaned very young, and became an apprentice to Philip Curtius, a skilled wax sculpture, with whom she moved to Paris and helped set up a house of exhibits. In young adulthood she spent a stint at Versailles as art tutor to Princess Elisabeth, the younger sister of King Louis XVI. She also witnessed Marie Antoinette giving birth. And later during the French Revolution, her services were in high demand, as former celebrities were being guillotined in droves, and she was given only their heads to work with.

It was all so long ago, Carey had the right to use some poetic license to fill gaps, but he's done heaps of research and I'm awed by his version of Marie, and the endearing voice he's given her. She starts off as a premature, undersized newborn who survived despite the odds. 'A pig-headed, pocket-sized thing', which sets her up as a stubborn survivor all through the story. There was so much against her, including self-professed terrible looks and no extended family to look out for her. (Believe me, her likeness shown here is far more attractive than her description in the novel.) Yet Marie is left standing, often to her own surprise, long after some of the more privileged and pampered characters have passed on.

Image result for marie tussaud
I believe her resilience is partly because of her unique way of taking life's twists and turns in her stride. Marie has the skill of noticing tiny details others overlook. She always describes her revelations in her own strange, slightly dark way, and accepts unfairness and injustice on the chin, because she latches onto the deeper reasons. About her nemesis, the Widow Picot, she says, 'Perhaps she needed someone beneath her to know for sure she wasn't on the bottom rung. Perhaps being cruel was proof of her success.'

I think there's a combination of true and made-up characters, and I won't forget Curtius' pushy, loud business partner, widow Charlotte Picot, and her pale, self-effacing son Edmond. Or Jacques Beauvisage, the street kid they hire who collects stories of murders. And they all live in a house which is believed to be haunted by the ghosts of former monkey occupants. I'll finish with a few examples of my favourite human nature lessons that emerge from Marie's experiences.

1) It dawns on the household that casting figures of murderers and villains is often an even greater draw card to the public than beloved heroes, because of human fascination with evil and depravity. This eye-opener prompts the widow to tell their good friend Mercier that his wax likeness will have to hit the trash, because, 'We accept only the very best and very worst heads. And yours, like the great multitudes', lies somewhere in between.' How true.

2) There's Marie's Eureka moment, when she twigs that her own creativity gives her an emotional tie to the work itself. 'There's the queen, but not only she, but Marie Grosholtz too, both alive in that head. The moment I realised that, I couldn't stop.'

3) But sadly, she discovers the tendency for people to want to believe they're greater than they really are. She knows that wax is a limited medium because it's too honest, while others, like portraiture, can get away with all sorts of flattering lies. She gets into hot water at the palace, when the royal family think she's judging them as pigs in a sty, while Marie didn't set out to do any such thing and knows her models are accurate.

There are great descriptions of pre-Revolutionary France, which I'm sure would've been authentic. 'Here, opposites mixed; flour-covered wig-makers' assistants beside coal carriers, thick with black dust.' I love the images such sentences create in our minds. And Edward Carey's art work and illustrations all through the book prove that there really is a place for pictures in adult novels. If I haven't convinced you all to read this book yet, it also has one of the best and most deserved punch in the face scenes. The entire story took Carey 15 years to write, and the quality shows.

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