Wednesday, August 28, 2019

It's So Classic - Book Tag

It's So Classic Book Tag by Rebellious Writing

I was tagged for this fun blog post by two bloggers:
Joseph @ The Once Lost Wanderer
Ruth @ A Great Book Study

The Rules:
1) Link post back to the host.
2) Answer questions.
3) Tag five bloggers

One Classic that hasn't been made into a movie yet, but really needs to be.
I'm going with Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton. There is so much crucial timing, and many incidents where disaster is averted by a cat's whisker. I was on the edge of my seat even reading it as a Victorian novel. Seeing it on the big screen would be superb. Especially when you consider the crime, mystery, romance and social commentary aspects.

Close behind would be L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle. What a beautiful, sensual, evocative movie it would be, filmed completely on location in Canada, of course. It hasn't been done without my knowledge, has it?

What draws you to classics?
That's an excellent question, since I also love the idea of advocating hidden gems.
The thing with classics is that for some things, majority rules apply, and choosing reading material is a great example. Going with the crowd is a fair gauge when many, many people have agreed on a book's depth, beauty, truth and relevance for all time. We know we are more likely to get some potentially life-changing idea to ponder. The possibility applies to all books, but I guess with classics, the chances are higher.

What is an underrated classic?
The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. It evokes a poor family, trying to keep up appearances in the Edwardian Era so beautifully, I had my notepad out to scribble down wisdom quotes all the way through. The mother of the family, Clare Aubrey, also deserves a higher profile for holding things together so bravely, but she's overlooked because the classic she's in is so underrated.

What is one classic that you didn't expect to love, but ended up loving anyway?
Uncle Tom's Cabin. I resisted to start with, because I expected tragic propoganda. The high opinions of some other readers swayed me most, and I'm glad I listened. What I got was a touching tale with plenty of bravery, some happy endings for certain characters, plenty of adventure and lots of food for thought.

What are your most favourite and least favourite classics?
I might choose Our Mutual Friend for most favourite, even though I read it fairly recently. It was Charles Dickens' last completed novel, and all the good things he ever brought to his stories were in full play. Keep in mind, this might change down the track.

Now, I hope I don't get people booing me, because this is bound to be controversial, but for one least favourite, I feel inclined to pick Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. I just couldn't understand what the heroine saw in grumpy old Maxim deWinter, who strikes me as the complete antithesis of an appealing hero. The old grouch wasn't even nice to her until the very end. I could sympathise with Mrs Danvers and Rebecca's cousin Jack, who were correct in their suspicions about him the whole time. Yet they were supposed to be the baddies of the piece. Go figure!

Who is your favourite character from a classic?
Since it's impossible to narrow this question down to just one person, I'll rattle off a list of great characters whose heroic attitudes make a great impression on me. Konstantin Levin, Roger Hamley, Winnie the Pooh, Anne Shirley, Dorothea Brooke, Francie Nolan, and many others who don't instantly spring to mind.

I always have a soft spot for rebels and vulnerable rascals too, so although they're generally not considered super-hero material, and maybe even the opposite, I still consider them favourites. Holden Caulfield, Eugene Wrayburn, Draco Malfoy, Ivan Karamazov, Edmund Pevensie, to name a few. 

What's a popular classic that you felt wasn't that great?
The Phantom of the Opera. It was a bit of a train-wreck full of drama queens the whole way through, and I was face-palming with every page.

Who is your favourite classic author?
Those writing in the Victorian era are high on my list, including the Brontes, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Children's authors need to be up there too, since they give us our first brush with classics. L.M. Montgomery, A.A. Milne, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few.  And although I wasn't a kid when Harry Potter was first released, I'll add J.K. Rowling, because she's still alive, and doing great things for literature of the 21st century.

Relating to newer books, what attributes does a book need to have in order to be worthy of the title 'classic'? 
Pretty much the same attributes I rattled off for the earlier question about what draws me to classics. Depth, beauty, truth, and great characters - all of which provide a mirror for ourselves, and help us decide how to form our own personal characters, and what may need to change. Just because they've been published more recently, if they have all this, they deserve to be bumped up to classic status without the passage of decades of time.

As for tagging, I've never been great at passing on the baton, and time has almost ticked away! I'm sure they won't have time now, but I'll mention five bloggers whose opinions I'd be interested to see, even if it's just a few lines in the comments. 

Brian @ Babbling Books
Sheree @ Keeping up the with Penguins
Jane @ Reading, Writing, Working, Playing
The girls @ Pages Unbound
Becky @ Becky's Book Reviews 

Monday, August 26, 2019

'Uncle Tom's Cabin' by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The narrative drive of Stowe's classic novel is often overlooked in the heat of the controversies surrounding its anti-slavery sentiments. In fact, it is a compelling adventure story with richly drawn characters and has earned a place in both literary and American history. Stowe's puritanical religious beliefs show up in the novel's final, overarching theme—the exploration of the nature of Christianity and how Christian theology is fundamentally incompatible with slavery.

This is my choice in the Classic Tragedy section of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I left this category until almost last. To say I was reluctant coming into it would be an understatement. Cruelty and heartache remain on my mind for ages to the extent that it's easier to dodge their influence. When I saw the sub-title, 'Life Among the Lowly', I was even more reluctant to enter in. But I knew this challenge would be the best way to get myself reading a classic that helped shape history. To encourage myself even more, I purchased a beautiful Canterbury Cloud edition. And now that I've finished, in all honesty... it was brilliant!

It's packed full of triggers for the softest-hearted readers among us, so be prepared to get really angry and wish you could teleport back into the story to kick a few butts. Nothing presses my buttons quite like seeing such outrageous times as these, where some human beings were denied all rights and treated as commodities by others. It's full of slave owners, like Mr Shelby, who mess around splitting families without a qualm, to get themselves out of personal jams. And slave traders, like Mr Haley, in the profitable business of selling fellow humans to feather his own nest.

It begins when Mr Shelby, swamped with debt, decides to sell two valuable slaves to help make ends meet. One is a four-year-old boy named Harry, full of health and potential. The other is everyone's favourite pal, the pious and capable 'Uncle Tom' who basically keeps the plantation running. When word of the deal spreads, Harry's mother Eliza flees with her son under cover of night, and her husband George follows them. However, Tom decides to play by the corrupt rules and leave his fate in God's hands. The book switches between both plights, so we keep up with Eliza and her family, and also with Uncle Tom, who experiences both ends of the spectrum when it comes to future purchasers.

At first he strikes up a friendship with a beautiful little blonde girl named Eva, who he saves from drowning when she falls overboard from a paddle-steamer. It seems like a no-brainer for her grateful dad to purchase Tom, and things go well at this stage. But later, after a series of tragedies, the worm turns and Uncle Tom finds himself with the despicable Simon Legree.

My favourite character is Little Eva's attractive young father, Augustine St Clare. He's a firm believer in the evils of slavery, but is too passive for a long time to stand against the big-wigs. Augustine can't stomach the system, yet has a natural distaste for confrontation. He's convinced himself that treating his own slaves kindly is his contribution to humanity, but grapples with the suspicion that it still falls short of a true man's stand. Augustine's character is a real prod for any of us who ever choose to stay mute, out of conviction that nobody will listen anyway. He's got a great way with words, a sharp wit, and gives some of the best lines in the book.

Then there's Simon Legree. Whoa, I've got to say it, this guy is possibly the biggest son-of-a-bitch in literature. You'd have to search far to find his equal, for there could be no-one worse, and I've read a lot of books. Sling your best insults and they'd be sure to fit him. He could be called a waste of oxygen, a blight on whoever he crosses paths with, and proof that his parents should have used contraception. And his ramshackle plantation is like the house from hell, a match for his bullet-headed appearance and foul nature. Selfish and brutal to the core, he stands for all the men who were enabled to do whatever they liked in those evil times, because they were doing nothing illegal. Some of his own quotes speak for him. 'I used to doctor them when they was sick, but lost money on 'em, so use 'em up and buy more is my way. Don't go for saving n----rs. Frail ones last for two or three years, but I can get six or seven years out of strong ones.' And there's plenty more quotes where those came from.   

The only thing as sickening as Simon Legree is the attitude of some of the misguided Christians of the time, who preached that it's God way to keep some high and others low. At least there are plenty of good Christians, like those from the Quaker settlements who helped George and Eliza, to balance the corrupt influence throughout the book. And the good abolitionists who were willing to wake up any time of the night to do their bit for escapees.

I never thought I'd be the one to say this about such a sad story, but the content is horrific, confronting and disgusting enough for it to deserve a five star mark. I've noticed a recent trend in which offensive books from the past are being banned or softened to suit the politically correct sensibilities of modern readers. Some decision makers believe that since we're in a new era, we need to leave our sordid past behind. Well, Uncle Tom's Cabin is the sort of book that strengthens my opposite opinion. We need to let them stand as they are. How can future generations learn from history if it's erased behind them like a bad piece of homework? Removing all traces of what happened lets humanity off the hook too. 'We don't talk about that,' is never a responsible attitude, yet it's a stance taken too often by librarians, leaders, publishers and school boards who seem to have the klout to make decisions for us all. What a travesty to sweep past events and mindsets under the carpet, and to do so dishonors the memories of heroes like the brave Quakers in this novel, and authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who deserve to be heralded for all time for their courageous stands.
Image result for harriet beecher stowe
Talking about Beecher Stowe herself, a quick bit of research on her really wowed me. It seems she suffered Alzheimer's when she grew old, and spent the last few years of her life totally re-writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. In her own mind, she was writing it for the very first time, fueled by the same burning conviction that she had to stand up for those who had no voice of their own. And when people compared that version with the published one, they were remarkably similar all through. What perfect proof that she considered it her life's mission, and gave it her all.

I guess this review is way long enough, but there are other great characters too, such as little Topsy the slave girl, who stand out as awesome.

I am taking a half mark off purely for a personal reason. I don't take kindly to my favourite character being killed off for a plot device. Especially when he had so much left to give, and the author's purpose for his demise was clearly to make things worse for Tom. But the fact that it's merely half a star shows how much I value this book in spite of such a big drawback. It's so well worth a read.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Big Changes In Store

It's a big announcement time. For those who know me, I've been a homeschooling parent since the very early 2000's. The fun ride finally finished this year, when my youngest son turned 15 and moved on to 'proper' Year 10 study online, with Open Access College. So I've run out of young ones to keep under my wing. What's more, it's meant that I've had to stick my neck out and find some other way of employing my time that will satisfy Centrelink. I'm starting a Master of Divinity at Tabor College in Adelaide. It's going to be a fascinating ride, but also daunting, because I never expected to return to full-time study, yet here I am.

What will that mean for the future of this blog? I enjoy writing free-flowing reflections about books I've read, especially my return to the classics in recent years. It helps me feel as if I've digested them to the fullest extent, allowing any literary vitamins to nourish my spiritual cells. And I love the freedom to be my unapologetic self, to deliver what I consider to be original, honest opinion pieces with no frills. They're free from what I consider injections of hormones and preservatives; that is the addition of academic waffle from outside experts who seem to think in meandering text-book language. I've been poring over my course material, and words such as 'exegesis' and 'teleological' are already making my head spin. I don't want to give up the enjoyable chewing of my cud I've thrived on for years.

But the fact is, my reviews, book lists and blog posts take hours to prepare. And my new course workload is heavy enough that I'll have to ruthlessly pull back on blog time. I've never been much good at the sort of computer games which require a wide spread of attention. Do you know 'Whack the Squirrel'? You have to keep your eye on several different holes in the ground, and be the first player to hit any small, protruding head with your mallet. I'm always last. Or how about the classic challenge of keeping plates spinning? You have to be always keyed up enough to fix the ones that are slowing down. In no time at all I feel scattered, unfocused and anxious. I hate the impending disaster of smashing plates. I'll have to prioritise study, or I can predict I'll be a total mess. But I refuse to pull the plug on this blog, because I love it.

So here's what will happen in the next few months until November.
1) Gaps of a fortnight, (or maybe even three weeks under pressure) instead of weekly posts.
2) The occasional resurrection of blasts from the past which I intend to tweak like new. They might be posts that have received a bit of love, or others I feel haven't received the love they deserved, and need another chance.
3) A way slower output of new material, but not a total stop.
4) I also post book related content on Instagram, which doesn't make it on this blog, so feel free to follow my Bookstagram account.

One final bit of trivia
Just for curiosity, I took a look at the word count of several of my blog posts, and it turns out they average 1.5 to 2000 thousand words. That happens to be the typical length of a University assignment. So for the last several years, I've been giving myself a virtual tertiary education by studying classics, taking copious notes about them, and then writing reflection posts, reviews and extensive lists. The only difference is that I never ended up with a qualification, but if I could be paid, even just a little bit, for keeping up this blog, I'd happily devote all my time to it. I'll also take this moment as a shout-out to all the other hard-working book bloggers I follow who can surely say exactly the same thing.

If you enjoy following this blog, I sure hope you'll bear with me and stick around. And when our summer holidays arrive toward the end of the year, I'll be back on board to pump out fresh content, to take us into 2020.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Was Severus Snape a Good Person?

Warning: Plot spoilers for the Harry Potter series. 

Rarely do we come across a more polarising character than this guy! He's a bone of contention in my family to the point that I predict heated words whenever I hear the name 'Snape'. My daughter had an intense argument with her brother and cousin way into the early hours of the morning about this very question. Is Severus Snape a good guy or not? She said, 'I can't stand Professor Snape, because he's so nasty and horrible.' The boys replied, 'That's insane. Don't you know everything he did was for Harry?' They kept shouting their separate points of view, nobody gained any ground, and they ended up going to bed with the matter unresolved. But after pondering the argument while planning this blog post, I had an idea where they all came unstuck. Maybe the word 'good' is too ambiguous at times, which definitely includes occasions when the subject is Snape. I think it is possible to come to some sort of agreement about him, but we've got to be sure we're using the word 'good' in the same way before we begin a discussion.

If we take it to mean, 'Is he brave, smart and moral?' then the answer is YES.

Harry owes Snape big time. There's so much evidence to support this. Snape secretly protected Harry on numerous occasions. To mention just a few, he prevented him from being killed by Quirrell during his very first Quidditch match, he shielded the Golden Trio from Remus Lupin in his werewolf form, he alerted the Order when he knew Harry and Co were off on a wild goose chase to the Ministry basement, he lied to Dolores Umbridge about his store of Veritaserum, and of course, his doe patronus led Harry directly to the Sword of Gryffindor. For someone who had to do his good deeds away from the scrutiny of the Dark side, he did a pretty thorough job. 

Dumbledore owes Snape big time. Who else would be smart enough to pull off the dangerous double-agent act he'd been playing for years? Severus was walking a very fine line which ended up being the death of him. He had to be a brilliant actor during those years. Imagine anybody else managing not to turn a hair when the doomed Muggle studies teacher pleaded with him for her life. Or anyone else managing to withstand all Voldemort's attempts to use Legilimency on him, to uncover his true motives. The old headmaster had complete faith in his potions master, which turned out to be well-founded. Snape was the only one who could end the suffering old man's life in the way he desired.

Remus Lupin owes Snape big time. This one was done under sufferance, I grant you that. But still, Remus' old school companion was the only one qualified to concoct the Wolfsbane potion, enabling him to control his werewolf manifestions for as long as he wanted to continue teaching at Hogwarts. There's a lot of irony there. Don't you love it when Snape asks, 'Are you out for a little stroll in the moonlight, Remus?'

The Malfoy family owes Snape big time. He wasn't kidding when he made the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa, promising to protect her son Draco to the extent of fulfilling Voldemort's horrendous mission in his place. That's exactly what he did. And he hid the fact from Voldemort that Draco caved in and failed to carry out the evil task to the letter, enabling the boy to stay alive. I guess he repaid Lucius for taking him under his wing when he was a little first year student, sorted into Slytherin House.

Nobody can deny Severus Snape was a brave and intelligent man who played his hand successfully until the very end, to the benefit of many others. So he was a great person, but was he a good person?

If we take it to mean, 'Is he nice or kind?' then the answer is NO. 

Sure, he claims to have done everything out of love for Lily Potter, but that was strictly on his own terms. He had an opportunity to prove his undying love every day in a way she would have appreciated, but refused to take it. Lily would have wanted him to be kind, or at least not spiteful, to the son she died for. Instead, Snape treated Harry appallingly. He made no attempt to hide his genuine dislike, because of Harry's resemblance to his father. Severus seemed to prove over and over, by lashing out, that his hatred of James was stronger than his love for Lily. (My boys argue, 'But that was all part of the act, to throw the dark side off his scent.' I think that's only true up to a point, since Snape took such obvious pleasure in his vindictive treatment of Harry.)

He was the teacher from hell, treating several students (mostly Harry's friends) horribly. He punishes Hermione and calls her an insufferable know-it-all for no other reason than being adept in his subject and knowing the correct answers. He terrifies Neville until he's a bundle of nerves and can't think straight in his class. In the movies, he smashes Harry's and Ron's heads together a countless number of times. If your definition of being a good person means that lovely thoughts shine forth for everyone to see, then no way is Severus your man! His mind was a resentful, gloomy, bitter, angry, spiteful cesspool more stinking than anything brewing in his cauldrons. 

My son said, 'Just because he had a dour, sarcastic personality, should we hold that against him?' Well, in some ways it's hard not to. Remember when Hermione was jinxed with a spell that made her teeth grow as long as a beaver's? Snape sneered, 'I can't tell the difference.' Who needs such a teacher in a school?

Sure, he was a hero and a legend, and I love every scene he's in, yet it's hard to bring myself to call him a good person. I know I surely differ from many fans here.

I'll always believe that his great love for Lily was a bit questionable all along, since he didn't care whether her husband and son rotted in hell. I wasn't impressed by the scene where he cradles her corpse to his chest and ignores the traumatised baby in the cot behind him, who has just lost his parents and been blasted by the Dark Lord.

I'll always believe being poor little Neville's boggart was nothing to be proud of!

And a person who invented a vicious spell like Septumsempra certainly wasn't driven by feelings of peace and goodwill toward the human race. 

I'll never stop thinking that Harry and Ginny were being overly generous for choosing Severus as their son's middle name.

And I still believe that my son and nephew, as much as they choose to defend him, would have dreaded Potions lessons just as much as anyone else had they been Hogwarts students in any house other than Slytherin.   

But if you still can't get enough of this guy, Severus Snape is on my list of 
Bad Boys with Depth.
He's also on my list of 
Worst Teachers Ever.