Monday, June 24, 2019
I'd been thinking about re-reading these childhood classics for ages, and discovered a lovely hardback second hand copy, like brand new. It contains both 'Winnie the Pooh' and 'The House at Pooh Corner.' Returning to these little yarns, after however many years, is better than before. I seem to grow more, rather than less fond of the dear little gang from the Hundred Acre Wood. Perhaps it's partly because as adults, we've had more time to recognise spiritual counterparts of each character in ourselves, and our friends, relatives and acquaintances. We can respond to them as archetypes and weave them into our own philosophy.
On the surface, the characters are stuffed toys who belonged to a real little boy named Christopher Robin, whose father spun a magical world out of raw material from his son's playroom. My own dad did something similar with the toys in my bedroom when I was a kid, and I love the idea of the same thing happening in the Milne family way back in the 1920's. Stories help the world spin round, and what a lot of wisdom we can glean from reading about these guys, especially in dealing with different personalities types we all come across.
I'll start off with the characters I call the 'Brains Triumvirate'. Their influence is hard to resist, but not necessarily as positive as they think.
He's the pompous, academically focused guy who looks at the world down his beak and thinks he's above conversing about such things as little cakes with pink sugar icing. He's perfected a wise and thoughtful manner to match his reputation. And he'll always choose the complex and unclear way of getting his message across. Why say, 'It's been raining,' when you can say, 'The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately'? He's hardly ever spot-on with his accuracy, but it doesn't matter, since those around him believe he's always right whatever he says. He just has that sort of impressive vibe. But we can admire, without having to take on board every hoot he makes. There is such a thing as delusions of grandeur.
We all know that super busy-body who's forever trying to control and shape his own world, plus those of others. His whole life is made up of important things to do, and he always thinks others need to be changed and improved rather than accepted and left alone. He's the consummate fault-finder, but A. A. Milne has come up with some hilarious tales of Rabbit's plans backfiring, just so young readers can sense that the status quo was fine before he meddled. We can take the interference of organisers like Rabbit with a grain of salt, rather than being instantly swayed by their every gripe. But that includes accepting their choleric, crusader's energy too, since they have a right to stay true to themselves, same as we do. Just be especially aware of personal boundaries once control freaks start jumping in to fix our lives.
Our gloomy old friend is as cute as a button, but drives me up the wall more than any of the others. Sure he needs compassion, as he can't help having what looks a lot like clinical depression. Yet his many speeches show that his attitude is based on stinking thinking. He's such a self-pitying, sarcastic martyr, who thinks the world revolves around him, and resents it when others don't keep him in the centre of their radars. He's an expert guilt-tripper, with the potential to really cast a pall over a bright day. 'People come and go in this forest and say, "It's only Eeyore," so it doesn't count.' I love it when Rabbit tells him in effect, 'Instead of grumbling that we don't come to you, why don't you pop across to visit us?' Yeah, you tell him, Bunny-boy! Sometimes Rabbit nails it. (Eeyore is also on my list of Famous Comic Grouches.)
Now there are other friends, with their own styles, to accept and appreciate, but not necessarily take on board.
We all have that hyper-active, in-your-face friend who's so wired up, an afternoon with him exhausts us. Whether or not conditions such as ADHD are involved in their inability to sit still, it's truly insensitive on the part of anyone who tries to make them settle down. It takes all sorts of people to make a world, and these guys aren't designed to be sedentary, reflective people. Tiggers shouldn't be medicated, nagged or forced to change in any way, even when the Rabbits of the world try to deflate their energy, and the Eeyore's complain about being 'bounced'. Let's accept them in their exuberant glory without getting too caught up in their bluffing and bluster. They'll get the message that they're too much for some people soon enough, without us adding to it.
KANGA & ROO
Hmm, conflicting feelings here. On one hand, I love how Milne has liberated the noble role of motherhood through his only female character. It really is a big deal, that requires a multi-juggling act of sensitivity, practical wisdom, hard work and eyes at the back of your head. Kanga would never demur, 'I'm just a mum,' and I applaud that. But on the other hand, she's shown to have no outside interests beyond that all-consuming lifestyle. Kanga turns a deaf ear to Owl's academic lecturing and Pooh's artistic poetry reciting alike. She's not remotely interested, just because she has a little kid to raise. Come on A.A. Milne, that's not all motherhood is all about! We do have interests outside of our family roles, and crave mental stimulation beyond nappies and cleaning cloths. But I guess 1926 wasn't the era to show women as multi-faceted individuals, especially in children's books.
Has the question of why she was a single parent occurred to anyone else? Where was Mr Kangaroo? Roo's dad never gets a single mention. Was Kanga widowed, divorced? Did he just leave them, or was it she who decided she'd had enough? No doubt I'm way overthinking this, and the simple answer, of course, is that Christopher Robin only had the mother and joey toys in his playroom.
Now for the heart-warming best buddy duo.
This little chap keeps looking at the size and scope of the big wide world, getting overwhelmed because there is so much out there that might be a threat. 'It's hard to be brave when you're such a very small animal.' Yeah, I hear you, mate. Before we know it, those heffalumps and woozles we invent in our imaginations have taken over every waking moment, making us permanently edgy with terror. At this stage, we are beyond reasoning that they aren't necessarily even real. But one of the best things little Piglet has going for him is a best buddy who unconsciously encourages him to trust that at its core, the world is an interesting, friendly place.
Now, three cheers for our chubby hero! He's a cute and cuddly reminder to acknowledge and embrace our quirky strengths, instead of listening to the many voices that might interpret them as weaknesses instead.
He never lets simple moments of contentment slide past unnoticed. He'll always say yes to both honey and condensed milk, and the only time he's been known to go on a diet is when he needed to lose the weight to get unstuck from Rabbit's front door. Perhaps he's a bit of a glutton with no will-power to boast of, but he knows he has a stocky build anyway and doesn't get tied in knots about it. Besides, as J.K. Rowling has now famously said, there are worse things to be than fat.
Not only does he never waste a moment of genuine contentment, but he'll also perform a bit of Pooh Bear alchemy, and use his simple magic to spin potentially boring and unpleasant moments into even more contentment. Humming, composing poetry, and drifting into amusing reveries is a way of life for him. I used to be paid out by school teachers for daydreaming, so he's one of my favourite role models!
It would be easy for Pooh to let the Brains triumvirate make him feel inferior, and he even calls himself a Bear of Little Brain. Who really needs fanciful daydreams, and wordy creativity, in a world full of facts to be discovered and changes to implement? Isn't moseying along on leisurely strolls a waste of time, when others are busy making an impact in the world? Thankfully, he's taken time to step back and reflect that even though he'll never be a cutting edge, smart type of guy, it suits him more to pursue a simple minded sort of happiness than fill his life with complex, clever misery.
Not that the others are miserable (well, except for Eeyore), but their way different personality styles make them happy in other ways. And Pooh's style, lived largely in his own head, is a valid option. He won't ever get the broad scope of Owl's general knowledge, or Rabbit's particular satisfaction of being able to sit back and see the results of his labour. But what Pooh has is just as special. However inferior it may appear to those who profess to know better, it is a genuinely delightful trait which the likes of Owl and Rabbit miss out on without ever knowing.
So in honour of our hero, I'll encourage us all to hopefully drift into some comfortable dreams when we head off, for he tells us it's when we are humble and unpretentious that friendly hums can get hold of us. Pooh knows the creative life is often surprisingly different to what we think it'll be like, but still most satisfactory. Let's take his example to heart, and not care overly much what others may think of us, as long as we know we're harming nobody and having fun. 'When you're a Bear of very little brain, and you think of things, you find sometimes that a thing which seemed very thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out in the open and has other people looking at it.' Perhaps making peace with this fact is the secret of a satisfying, tranquil life.
Monday, June 17, 2019
'To have discovered the black tulip, to have seen it for a moment...then to lose it, to lose it forever!'
Cornelius von Baerle, a respectable tulip-grower, lives only to cultivate the elusive black tulip and win a magnificent prize for its creation. But after his powerful godfather is assassinated, the unwitting Cornelius becomes caught up in deadly political intrigue and is falsely accused of high treason by a bitter rival. Condemned to life imprisonment, his only comfort is Rosa, the jailer's beautiful daughter, and together they concoct a plan to grow the black tulip in secret. Dumas' last major historical novel is a tale of romantic love, jealousy and obsession, interweaving historical events surrounding the brutal murders of two Dutch statesman in 1672 with the phenomenon of tulipomania that gripped seventeenth-century Holland.
Cornelius Van Baerle is a good-natured young doctor who enjoys a bit of gardening in his spare time. He's introduced as a 'happy mortal' which extends to his tulips, since he has an incredible green thumb. A contest offering 100 000 florins for the creator of a perfect black tulip is announced, and he rises to the challenge, pouring his heart and soul into it. It's a very tough call from the Horticultural Society, who don't really expect anyone to pull it off. They are willing to offer such a huge prize because black tulips are rarer than hens' teeth. But our boy Cornelius is quietly confident.
Little does he know he has a mortal enemy in his next door neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, a fanatical gardener himself. Cornelius has made some home renovations which unintentionally messed up the direction of sunshine on Isaac's tulip garden. He also unknowingly knocked Isaac's name off an illustrious list of tulip growers from their town. Now Isaac is out to get him! He's so intent on keeping an eagle eye on whatever Cornelius is doing that his own tulip beds suffer from neglect. Obsessing over his young neighbour becomes Isaac's whole life. It's the classic jealous guy's mistake of forgetting what pursuing goals is really all about, but it doesn't matter to him. Because when he bumps off Cornelius, he'll steal any bulbs or black tulips he manages to leave behind.
Boxtel manages to pull some crooked strings to get Cornelius arrested on false charges of high treason, but his sentence is reduced from execution to life imprisonment. Cornelius now has one ace up his sleeve which neither man even realise the full value of at first. He's won the love of Rosa, the daughter of Gryphus the jail keeper. She thoroughly supports Cornelius' quest for the perfect black tulip and does her utmost to help him achieve his goal. Meanwhile Isaac sneaks around in the background, trying to thwart them. At this stage, pouring the same creative effort into growing his own tulips doesn't even enter his head.
'Tulip mania' was a real thing. Dumas simply used the historical time period, when the price of bulbs soared sky high, as a backdrop for his story. The fervour of these Dutch tulip growers gets me grinning every page. They hold fast to a creed of logic. 'To despise flowers is to offend God. The more beautiful the flower, the more God is offended by contempt of it. Now the tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers, therefore he who despises the tulip offends God exceedingly.' Proof that it's possible to fit anything into a logical framework if you feel passionately enough about it, hey?
The watery landscape features are interesting too. We are told you can't ever go as the crow flies in Holland, 'a country which is more cut up by rivers, streams, rivulets, canals and lakes than any other country in the world. I've never been there, but have been told by people who lived there that it's precisely what it's like. So I enjoyed my bit of armchair travel.
I imagine books playing out as movies on my mind's screen while I read, and this one is definitely an animation! Cornelius is a Prince Charming look-alike, while I picture Boxtel to be something like Aladdin's Jafar, with all the extreme, twisted facial expressions. But within all the exaggerated fun, good object lessons abound. Some researchers believe an individual's set point of happiness has a way of re-adjusting itself to circumstances. That definitely seems true of these two characters.
For the unlucky Cornelius, life soon becomes sweet and full of hope again. Even while he's being led to the scaffold, he consoles himself with the anticipation that in a matter of mere moments, he will get to witness all the beautiful tulips of the world from the height of heaven. 'One stroke of the sword and my beautiful dream will commence.' Saved on the spur of the moment, he's just as optimistic behind bars. But Isaac Boxtel, in his intense focus on what's slipping through his fingers, ignores every other good thing he has. It's easy to tell who is the real prisoner. The morals are in our faces, but still easy to take on board. Coupled with his bitter jealousy, Isaac is a man who's into name-dropping and hobnobbing with bignobs. 'He takes from everyone a little of his importance to add it to his own' just as he's not above stealing flowers. That sort of person doesn't always get what he deserves in real life, so it's satisfying when he does in a story.
Recommended for anyone who enjoys a zany bit of fun.
This counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge as a selection set in The Netherlands
Monday, June 10, 2019
A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, Our Mutual Friend revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’s most complex—and satisfying—novels.
Here's my choice in the Nineteenth Century Classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. By the finish, I was wondering why this particular novel slid under my radar for so long. It ticks all the boxes a brilliant Victorian novel should. After my experience with Dickens so far, I'd summed him up as a guy who never managed to get any real sexual chemistry happening between any of his couples. Whoa, I'll have to beg his pardon after this. The mutually repressed physical attraction of the secondary plot, with Lizzie and Eugene, is sizzling hot, especially in what isn't being said between the lines we read. They're my favourites. And the other romance, with Bella and John, is sort of sweet too. But first things first.
There are several plot threads that converge on each other, not to mention snobs, schemers and scoundrels hatching up blackmail attempts. Enough copies and variations of the same will to verge on comedy, and no less than four very awful villains we're induced to love in a literary sense for their sheer depravity. Plus many bodies recovered from the River Thames, either dead or alive. In fact, the great River flows through the whole story as a common thread.
It's a teeming story to attempt to summarise, proving there's never more than a few degrees of separation between Dickens characters, as the title suggests. The butterfly effect of seemingly unrelated incidents never ends. It all starts with the death of an old miser named Mr Harmon, who built his fortune in the rubbish dump business. His son John, who is set to inherit the empire, is found floating dead in the Thames. This has a life-changing impact on several others, including Bella Wilfer, the girl John was meant to marry, and Mr and Mrs Boffin, the kindly employees who inherit the estate in the absence of the heir. They also hire a mysterious but eager young man named John Rokesmith as secretary, to help them keep their floundering heads above water.
The ripples keep spreading. John Harmon's body was first discovered by a scruffy old no-hoper named Gaffer Hexam, who makes a sort of dubious living robbing drowned corpses. His gentle daughter Lizzie turns a blind eye to the family 'business' out of loyalty to her dad, although everyone trying to sort things out intuits what's going on. Mortimer Lightwood, the young lawyer who has been hired to take care of the Harmon affairs, is drawn in deeper than he expects. Especially when his best friend, the super bright but apathetic Eugene Wrayburn finds himself attracted to Lizzie before he knows what's hit him.
Although it kindled my imagination, I'm not claiming it's perfect. But since the flaws themselves are worthy of discussion, perhaps they add extra fuel, making it perfect in a different sense. For example, did the great Dickens have some timing lapses in his weaving between romance plots? The thread with Lizzie and Eugene is so urgent, intense and fast-paced in the final third, could Bella and John really have had time to conceive, incubate and deliver a baby in that same block of writing? For that matter, does the Bella and John plot leave you indignant on her behalf? It clearly wasn't meant to make us mad, but I can imagine different readers debating whether or not she was treated completely fairly by those she loved the most. They are the sort of technical and ethical questions I'd love to throw around with other readers. So yes, maybe the huge scope for further discussion does make the book ideal.
There are happily-ever-afters for those with the admirable character and good hearts to deserve them, which always gives me warm fuzzy feelings. It doesn't come across as an unrealistic, simplistic wrap-up though, because although the 'good' guys have happy endings, the more villainous characters wouldn't necessarily envy them or agree they are happy. In other words, the endings are only happy because of their innate integrity. Bella chooses John over the luxuries she thinks she needs for a happy life, and later gets a huge surprise. And Eugene chooses Lizzie, even though he knows it means becoming a social pariah, but he doesn't give a rat's behind. (Honestly, a posh gentleman's son with a law degree choosing to marry the daughter of a thieving, illiterate river scavenger would raise eyebrows even today, so no wonder it rocked the snooty socks off those snobby Victorians! You've got to step back to reflect how shockingly subversive Dickens was for even writing their story in such a way.) Happiness comes to those who are content with little, or who recognise that what seems worthless to others is really hugely valuable.
If I haven't convinced you to read it for the plot, read it for the following wonderful characters.
1) Eugene Wrayburn, who reminds me a little of my two sons. Funny, perceptive and original, but a 'that-don't-impress-me-much' sort of guy. Many readers may call him a lazy-bones, but I preferred to think of him as motivationally challenged.
2) Bradley Headstone, the dense but intense school teacher, who knows what he wants and loathes anyone who might stand in his way. Dickens describes Bradley as 'an ill-timed wild animal, white-lipped, wild-eyed, draggle-haired.' The sort of guy anyone but a consummate smart-aleck might fear to cross. (More about him here.)
3) Jenny Wren, an absolute delight. She's a lame teenager with a drunken dad, and manages to make ends meet by sewing dolls clothes for a living. 'A child in years, but a woman in self-reliance and trial.' She has the cool sort of eccentricity to rise above adverse circumstances, thanks to her imagination and optimism. And whenever she steps into a scene, you expect to end up smiling.
The first part is the slowest, as we need to make allowances for Dickens getting it all set up, but it's well worth it for the way he lets all hell break loose later on. I hope I've convinced you to get hold of a copy ASAP, and if you do, please feel free to discuss the finer points of the plot with me afterwards. I'll always have time for our mutual friends from Our Mutual Friend.
I'm also going to slide it into the European Reading Challenge 2019 as a selection from The United Kingdom.
Monday, June 3, 2019
What do we do with jealousy? It's one of those emotions we never intentionally cultivate, but surges up from seemingly nowhere. Parents express shock when we detect it for the first time in our darling children, yet reflection might tell us we shouldn't be surprised, for we had it in spades too.
There is actually a fine line of distinction between envy and jealousy. Envy occurs when we covet what belongs to others, while jealousy amounts to fear that what we possess will be taken away by them. I won't press the distinction too hard in this list. It's all about keeping a close watch on what others have compared to us, no matter what form it takes.
We ostensibly embrace this emotion, yet it's absolutely no fun. It's a torturous guide that robs our happiness, yet we struggle to figure out how to deal with it. We are never really taught coping skills, because few examples step forward to offer any. It's one of those tacitly unacceptable emotions we prefer never to acknowledge. The world could be full of secret jealousy eating the general public's peace of mind like corrosive acid, but it's the rare soul who'll admit it. So here I raise my hand to having experienced my fair share over the years. How about you?
This list may be a help. I wouldn't suggest it offers a cure, since I don't believe there is one, short of rooting it out like a weed. This is more of a balm to soothe the savage beast, and help it lie dormant. There's nothing like knowing we are in famous company to help quench the flame.
Keep in mind that owing to nature of these lists, there are a few plot spoilers.
I'll start with some Biblical examples to set the tone.
Adam and Eve's first son hated it that his younger brother got God's thumbs up for offering an acceptable sacrifice, while the motivation behind his own was frowned upon. Cain was a man of instinct. Instead of deciding to try better next time, or even talking it out, he opts for knocking that goody-goody right out of the picture, so he'll never make him lose face again.
2) King Saul
He was crowned Israel's very first king, but not even the highest of all honours is enough to shut out the green eyed monster.You know you're in a bad way when a guy you hire to calm you down with soothing music sends you into fits of envy and rage every time he steps in with his harp. Saul makes many attempts to end David's life long before he ever looks like becoming his successor. When crowds are heard chanting, 'Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands,' he can wave goodbye to any peace of mind he has left. Where's the glory in having killed thousands, as long as the one elusive brat who keeps showing you up remains alive?
Now we get to jealousy throughout the classics. I'll start with some of the milder cases, and finish up with prizes for the most insane and destructive.
3) Edward Casaubon
The middle-aged scholar had a beautiful young wife on good terms with a handsome, destitute relative of his, about her own age. Instead of giving their friendship the nod of approval, our man simmers with bitter jealousy that takes its toll on his dodgy heart. It comes to light during the reading of his will, in a very pointed codicil. Dorothea, his wife, will have her inheritance stripped from her if she ever marries Will Ladislaw. Come on man, was it necessary to mention him by name? And does it really matter what the pair of them get up to together, once you've passed on to a better world? I truly believe he might have actually put the idea in their heads. (My review of Middlemarch is here.)
4) Severus Snape
The grouchy exterior of Hogwarts' Potions master is largely formed by years of rampant jealousy. Lily Evans, the girl he always loved, married James Potter, the bully who picked on him. Severus could never let it go. His jealousy leads to reflexive actions that result in the unintended death of his beloved. Even then, he harbours a smouldering grudge against her innocent son, for no other reason than he resembles his dead father. Severus dude, you did keep your promise, but you could have done it with far more grace.
5) Antonio Salieri
Anyone who ever watched the movie 'Amadeus' will remember the playing out of what was represented as a true, historical grudge. Salieri is an accomplished Austrian composer who recognises unbridled genius in his young counterpart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri's choice of thoughts helps fan a flicker of jealousy into a raging inferno. He just can't move on from demanding, 'Why should God give this magnificent gift to a flippant, cheeky teenager instead of a devotee like me who adores music and works my butt off?' Don't ask impossible questions, Antonio. He ends up driving Mozart to death, and pushing himself to the brink of madness.
6) Uriah Heep
This slimy, smarmy young Dickens villain is driven by pure jealousy. His workhouse origins (or 'umble beginnings, he'd call them) keep him on the lookout for anybody he sees in more favourable circumstances. A steady flame of malice fuels his favourite hobby of slowly but surely ruining people, and taking them down. David Copperfield finds himself on Uriah's hit list. It's not a hobby to be proud of, yet Uriah devotes all his time to it. (My review is here.)
Okay, we've made our way to the big guns. The final pair are my favourite examples because of the sheer obsessive recklessness they employ in their attempts to destroy the objects of their envy.
7) Isaac Boxtel
He's mad about the gentle art of tulip growing, but his neighbour Cornelius grows better flowers and has a greater chance of winning a prestigious competition. It should be a clear sign that when you stop pursuing your enjoyable hobby to figure out how to knock out your rival, you've lost touch with what's really important. But Isaac is too far gone to reflect that tulip growing has progressed to attempted murder, continual surveillance, theft and simmering obsession. He really believes these are all just part and parcel of tulip growing. (My review of The Black Tulip is here.)
8) Bradley Headstone
This guy could be Charles Dickens' most intense villain, masked with the respectable title of school teacher. He's a cross between a stalker and a mountain troll, driven by jealous adrenaline. Bradley has set his hot-blooded desire on Lizzie Hexam, a young woman within his own humble sphere. But he suspects she yearns for the love of Eugene Wrayburn, a witty young lawyer from an illustrious family. Eugene can dismiss slow-witted Bradley with comedic insults, but underestimates the force of sheer animalistic loathing. Bradley has the grim patience to stalk him, waiting for an opportunity to strike. He's forever mopping passionate perspiration from his brow, and eventually even the thought of Eugene together with Lizzie causes spontaneous nosebleeds. I tell you, Bradley's obsession, and Eugene's careless obliviousness, keeps readers on the edge of our seats. (My review of Our Mutual Friend is here.)
It's such a destructive list. In almost every case, jealousy leads to either intended or actual murder. But each of these insanely jealous guys is destroying his own life most of all. I tend to think the main thing they teach us is to steer clear of following their paths, because from our vantage point, we can see they are heading up hopeless blind alleys. Accepting circumstances, even when they appear unbalanced or unfair, must surely be preferable to driving yourself nuts with paranoia and misery. If it's at all possible to shake off jealousy and wish our rivals well, or at least let them go their own way, let's do it for our own sake. Perhaps the only people we should be jealous of are those who genuinely never experience a jealous moment.
I know this list is by no means complete, so can you think of any others. Or are any of your favourite examples shown here?