Monday, April 27, 2020

'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they've become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers' imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. 

Here is my choice for the Title which includes Nature category of the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge. Hibernation time is over and young Mole pops out of his burrow, fresh for adventure. He bumps into his friend Water Rat, aka Ratty, who invites him to be a permanent guest and enjoy life on the great wide river. They make successful friendship overtures to the wise but elusive Mr Badger, who hates society as a rule but has a soft spot for his little friends. And together the trio tries to curb the dangerous behaviour of Mr Toad, who has a serious addiction to fast vehicles, even though he's a terrible driver. Their attempts to stop him by sheer force are all to no avail, and he finds himself saddled with a hefty jail sentence, forcing him to shift his thirst for adventure into a crafty break-out.

Clearly many readers have a soft spot for reckless Toad, who shows us how to follow our passions wholeheartedly. We'd all like to live with a similar twinkle in our eye, knowing that we've milked life for all it's worth. He says, 'I'm not sorry. And it wasn't folly at all. It was simply glorious!' I've got to say, so is that line, Toad.  (More about Toad and his attitude here.)

But the dude has a fully developed case of FOMO syndrome. That's fear of missing out. For a short time he pours his heart and soul into the vehicle of the moment, then as soon as he sees anyone enjoying the next best thing, he abandons whatever he's doing to jump straight on board. And each time he declares that it's so amazing and great, he's going to devote the rest of his life to it. Toad is a prime example that FOMO is a self-defeating attitude. Because when we move on too quickly to master anything, or give it a fair chance, of course we cut short the pleasure of all it has to offer. If only he'd stuck to any one conveyance for longer, he might have developed more skill and not been such a menace to himself and others.

As a contrast we have Ratty, who was born with no curiosity or desire to explore the wider world at all, so satisfied is he in the knowledge that he's living his best possible life beside the lapping banks of his beloved river. He does succumb to a restless curiosity to discover what all the fuss is about when others get itchy feet, and lets the chatter of a couple of migratory birds get to him. But he soon comes to his senses, realising that what's right for others isn't necessarily a good fit for him. A basic theme of this book seems to be, 'To thine own self be true.'

There are plenty of beautiful, descriptive passages to contemplate, such as Mole's impression of the winter landscape. 'He was glad he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine, strong and simple.' And just to prove he's no respecter of seasons, we have this nice line about summer. 'A hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings.'

It's not really what modern kids read, but that's not to say it shouldn't be. Perhaps early 20th century authors like Grahame gave children what they thought could benefit them, including slow, insightful reflections about nature. In the 21st century, in the true spirit of consumer culture, authors and publishers may kowtow to their audience, giving kids the upper hand and providing what they think they want; fast action and sparse description to suit their impatient, restless, ADHD little hearts. Or perhaps I'm just beginning to sound like the oldie I keep claiming not to be :)

There are sudden moments of strangeness that make us step back and say, 'Hey, come again?' I'm thinking of the chapter entitled, 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' in which Rat, Mole and Otter's baby son come face to face with the Greek god Pan. The writing is saturated in reverential awe, and it's difficult to figure out whether Kenneth Grahame was promoting pagan pantheism to his young readers. The thing is, this story's heroes are anthropomorphic little critters and Pan has been depicted as the protector of animals, so perhaps Grahame is inviting humans to substitute the deities of our choice. His theme here seems to be that we generally perceive no more of the supernatural world beyond our senses because we couldn't handle it if we did. Our minds would be completely blown. It's such an interesting chapter I'd like to return to.

I have to say at times I found my credulity stretched to snapping point. We're expected to believe that Toad can break out of jail and head straight home to Toad Hall without having the law straight on his webbed heels! But then I remember we're talking about a book full of inconsistencies, in which certain animals walk around in waistcoats and slippers, yet still eat others. So why not?

Toad meets a travelling gypsy along the road, and gobbles up loads of his succulent stew. 'It was indeed the most beautiful stew in the world, being made of partridges, and pheasants, and chickens, and hares, and rabbits, and pea-hens, and guinea fowls, and one or two other things.' What a tempting description for the meat lovers in our lives, but comes as a bit of a shock since Toad's friend Mole was talking to a couple of rabbits as fellow compatriots earlier in the book.

Overall, it's a great little book that gives us quite a cool taste of the early 1900s, including Toad's driving costume, with goggles, cap, garters, gloves and the whole works. Not my favourite kids' classic ever, but it's clear that Grahame wrote it with love in his heart. It's brimming over with home comforts, rustic beauty and simple joys that aren't too hard to find, and probably form the backbone of a life well lived.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Excavating Passions

In her book The Art of Extreme Self Care, Cheryl Richardson tells the story of how she uncovered a long-buried passion in a department store. She admired a smartly tailored hat but decided it was far too expensive to buy. Yet for weeks after that, she kept thinking about it. One day she went to have another look and discovered the price had been reduced.

So she stared at her new hat, which was nice but not amazing, and wondered why it had been so compelling. Then it hit her with force that it was stirring a buried passion from her teens, when she was crazy about creating lovely outfits with smart matching apparel. She challenged us readers to resurrect some passion we'd discarded over time, in the interest of growing up and moving on.

Well, I'd recently given mine a new lease of life, and didn't have to ponder at all. It's reading and discussing classics and famous books. Once long ago I'd dreamed of devoting my life to them, and maybe even becoming an English professor or some such smart person. Alas, four years of studying an English major at Uni cut me down to size. I realised the folk at the top were in a way different league to me when it came to reading. The depth of analysis we were expected to engage in, discussing the ins and outs of feminism, racism and many other isms were poles apart from my desire to simply dream up new scenarios for my favourite characters. All the long words with which we were expected to deconstruct themes and deduce possible unconscious author intentions seemed to wring every bit of magic and happiness out of it for me.

I finished the course, but went in hyped up and confident after doing very well at High School, and came out feeling like the runtiest ant in the mound. I remember deciding I'd been deluded, and only imagined I ever wanted to study books, because I obviously couldn't give them the polished focus they evidently deserved. I simply wasn't cut from the right cloth. I wasn't smart enough.

Well, fast forward a few decades. I'd been homeschooling my kids, writing some novels of my own and reading plenty of others. Then one day I pulled a couple of classics off my shelves and found I had a lot of feeling for the characters within the pages. It renewed a love of visiting second-hand bookshops for that cool adrenaline rush when I get my hands on famous and celebrated books from long-ago. But I'd turned a corner. At this stage they were no longer part of any lofty ambition. I just want to read and discuss them because they're so much fun.

In early 2017 my dad died. I've been thinking a lot about how fast his few decades of retirement flew, and how he spent time doing plenty of what he loved, including gardening, hiking and watching TV. I've reached an age where I'm fully aware that the years ahead are limited for all of us. So putting aside time for reading is vital not because I'm significant enough to make a major contribution, but because it's an excellent treat I look forward to. I'm sure that great books also provide us with lofty company and tools to put our own lives into perspective in the light of well-known characters, but those are just bonuses after the tremendous enjoyment. 

This blog is here to honour that enthusiastic part of myself, as Cheryl Richardson suggested. Up above is a photo of me aged 20, visiting Highgate Cemetery in England. Many famous folk are buried there, but I was hunting specifically for the tombstone of one of my favourite authors, George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans. She wrote some of my favourite classics, including Middlemarch.

 I was stoked to find the grave, especially when I remembered the famous final paragraph of her masterpiece. Discussing her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot wrote, 'Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'

Well, George Eliot's own tomb isn't unvisited, but I certainly had it all to myself that morning, as a kid pilgrim all the way from Australia. And the memorial from my past reinforces how deep and long my passion flows. (I'm even wearing my Adelaide Uni windcheater, as I'd taken a semester long break from those interesting but disillusioning days I mentioned.) All these years later I'm taking it as a sign that I was on the right track, and that life is more to do with paying homage to the brilliant than aspiring to be anything out of the box myself. 

I guess anyone who enjoys visiting my blog might have a similar passion for reading, but is there anything else that does it for you, or had to be excavated?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

'Vanity Fair' by William Makepeace Thackeray

A novel that chronicles the lives of two women who could not be more different: Becky Sharp, an orphan whose only resources are her vast ambitions, her native wit, and her loose morals; and her schoolmate Amelia Sedley, a typically naive Victorian heroine, the pampered daughter of a wealthy family.

Here's my choice for the Classic Adaptation in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. We are to choose any novel that's been adapted as a film or TV series, so I thought I'd take the chance to read Vanity Fair and also watch the highly acclaimed BBC series from 2018. I was soon engrossed in this family drama set between 1815 and 1830, but published as a serial throughout 1847. I can quite understand why Thackeray's readers would have been panting for the next installment. It drops us right into scandal and intrigue and even whisks us off for a while to the Battle of Waterloo.

It all starts when two young friends graduate from finishing school and head off in a carriage together. Even though they seem fond of each other, it's soon clear to the reader that they have nothing remotely in common beyond heading for a week to the same destination.

Amelia Sedley is the soft-hearted daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. She's returning to her family home and looks forward to marrying her sweetheart George Osborne; a match preordained by both families from their babyhood. Amelia is the type of girl others automatically take care of and make decisions for. Conveniently for her she's madly in love with the boy they've chosen, because Amelia sets her tender heart devotedly on those she loves, blinding herself to their faults. When things go pear shaped, as they tend to do in the dog-eat-dog Regency era, she's the sort of victim who's always first to crumple. Amelia is a real canary in the coalmine type of character. Thackeray calls her a 'harmless lost wanderer in the great, struggling crowds of Vanity Fair.'

Her friend Rebecca Sharp on the other hand, is an orphan who relies on her street smarts and social awareness, since she has no relatives to look out for her. Becky has set her scheming heart on ascending to the top of the social ladder, which means she has no room for useless emotions like love to make her vulnerable. She's great at faking niceness to the right people, playing on their blind spots and giving them what will most flatter their vanity. But our admiration for an underdog who knows how to play the game changes to horror at her monstrous methods of getting what she wants. That makes this such a fun book. Our own sense of justice is kindled, and discussing the story with others becomes an exercise of comparing the moment we first saw her true colours as an unscrupulous con artist.

There's always an interesting contrast between Becky's callous lack of love for anyone, and Amelia's smothering excess of that same emotion, poured out on undeserving targets.

Becky intends to spend a week with Amelia's family before moving on to a post as family governess to a baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. Unwilling to let any opportunity slip, she first attempts to seduce Amelia's brother Joseph, then tries her chances with the Crawley family. Sir Pitt's second son Rawdon is a simple, sporty, macho-man and gambler who expects to inherit lots of money from his wealthy aunt, with whom he's a favourite. So he becomes Becky's next target. Although he never dreams he's just a stepping stone in her selfish machinations, we know that's just what he is. And he's caught up in the mess when Becky's carefully crafted plans backfire on her.

Although Becky's clearly a gold digger, innocent Amelia sets us groaning for other reasons. She has so many good qualities. She's self-sacrificing, long-suffering, a model daughter and sister. Yet there's a strong sense that Thackeray doesn't intend us to approve of the way she wraps her whole being around the people she loves, which is a strain for anyone, let alone a selfish brat like George Osborne, or a spoiled, breezy kid like their son. She has all the feels, but lacks discrimination of worthy objects. When the good Captain Dobbin finally wins her hand after years of pining for her love, even he's come to understand that she's clueless, and not really that great a catch. The text puts it like this. 'Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling.'

All through the story, Thackeray keeps showing us that money is a personality changer. It's a society in which anyone with decent dough suspects they can't trust claims of devotion from friends and family members. The section in which relatives visit grouchy Aunt Matilda Crawley are hilarious, especially since she sees straight through their ruse. Miss Crawley knows full well that she's a cantankerous grouch who's not at all lovable. Perhaps it's sadness over her family's hypocrisy which keeps her cross, so it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The story keeps us psyched up waiting to discover who she finally decides to leave her moolah to.

Becky drops a famous line when she says, 'I could be a good woman on $5000 a year.' She sets us wondering whether raw need makes crooks, or at least unpleasant companions, out of otherwise harmless people. Thackeray's narrator helps us ponder the question with terrific observations such as, 'An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carriage to steal a leg of mutton, but put him to starve and see if he will not purloin a loaf.' (I remember having very similar thoughts while reading Dickens' Pickwick Papers, if you'd care to compare.)

Anyway, I love this book mostly for the subtle nuances of its secondary characters. Between the shifting pendulums of our two flawed heroines we have very cool character development of others whose lives are tangled in theirs. We see matrimony and fatherhood have a positive effect on Rawdon, because unlike Becky, he's essentially a decent, normal person. We see their son figure out with childlike accuracy the truth about his mother, which takes adults years to comprehend. We have the unassuming Captain Dobbin, who fills Thackeray's every criteria of the perfect gentleman, including 'an equal, manly sympathy for the great and the small.' And we have Becky's sister-in-law, the awesome Lady Jane Crawley, who knows when enough is enough, because she's been considering Becky's outrageous behaviour, just as we have. These are all favourites of mine, making it a book I'll return to down the track.

This category of Back to the Classics challenges us to also watch and assess the film or series the book is based on, so I'll do that as a separate post I'll link to this. Look out for it soon.


Monday, April 6, 2020

'The Enchanted April' by Elizabeth von Arnim

A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed.

The women at the center of The Enchanted April are alike only in their dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. They find each other—and the castle of their dreams—through a classified ad in a London newspaper one rainy February afternoon. The ladies expect a pleasant holiday, but they don’t anticipate that the month they spend in Portofino will reintroduce them to their true natures and reacquaint them with joy. Now, if the same transformation can be worked on their husbands and lovers, the enchantment will be complete.

The Enchanted April was a best-seller in both England and the United States, where it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and set off a craze for tourism to Portofino. More recently, the novel has been the inspiration for a major film and a Broadway play.

Here's a runaway bestseller from 1922 to highlight in the month of April, for obvious reasons. It'll also do nicely for my Classic by a Woman category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's a pretty good choice for this crazy year of strict Covid-19 measures, since these four ladies have chosen to do a bit of self-isolation together. But whew, what a story. Love is so thick in the air, it's almost suffocating.

Four ladies who are virtual strangers decide to each chip in part of their savings to rent San Salvatore, a medieval villa in Italy, for the month of April. All four are suffering from burn-out, adrenal exhaustion and disillusionment with their ho-hum lives in London.

Lotty Wilkins is a mousy little tryhard who suspects she keeps disappointing her solicitor hubby Mellersh. During the story, she taps into a dormant prophetic power that transforms her. Pious Rose Arbuthnot is ashamed that her husband Frederick, a raunchy memoirist, is earning money on sin and sensationism. She aims to acquire happiness through good works and self-denial, but it's exhausting her!

Mrs Fisher is a gruff and overbearing elderly widow living in the grand old past. Her father was a great host, and she's forever name-dropping dead celebs from her childhood into conversations. And Lady Caroline Dester is a stunning beauty who suffers the misfortune of being overly admired wherever she goes. She's all peopled out and just wants to recharge in peace and quiet without empty small talk and silly jokes.

The setting, which sounds like a Mediterranean version of a Thomas Kinkade painting, turns out to be quietly restorative, sanding down their rough edges and coaxing out their inner goodness. It even acts as a magnet for males, including the two irritating husbands along with the young man who owns the villa. And what do you know, it has a similar remedial effect on the dudes. Who woulda thought?

Is it way too cute? You bet! Lady Caroline's situation annoyed the heck out of me at first. We're supposed to believe her attempts to be rude and stand-offish keep failing because her face is such a beautiful filter. My word, was Elizabeth Von Arnim serious? Mean girls with snarky intentions can always get their messages across, no matter what they look like! But when you look at all the five star reviews, it seems this book somehow gets away with heavy-handedness that might destroy any other story. Or who knows, maybe the atmosphere starts working its way with us through the pages. I went from groaning to grinning, yet the kitsch writing quality surely never changed.

It's quite cool when the owner, Thomas Briggs, tells Rose that he's an orphan. 'Oh, are you,' she said, with proper sympathy. 'I hope you've not been one for very long. No, I mean I hope you've been one very long. No, I don't know what I mean, except I'm sorry.' At least Von Arnim has nailed the awkward response.

I kept thinking I should DNF it and move on, but continued turning the pages for the following reasons.

1) I like seeing how people who have just met each other manage to work through personality clashes and find common ground. It's the same reason I occasionally persevere with reality TV series.
2) The concept of healing environments intrigues me, because I do believe place contains power.
3) I appreciate epiphanies. It's easier for readers to take characters' lessons on board, especially when we have no means of getting to breathtaking Italian villas ourselves.
4) The inclusion of the blokes shows good sportsmanship. This story isn't just feminist propaganda about how women may be better off without them, but stays well balanced, showing that there are two sides to communication glitches.
5) I like garden settings. Anyone who liked The Secret Garden may enjoy hanging out with four grown-up versions of Mary in a similar environment.

I guess Von Arnim's two main themes are as solid and sound as they ever were. Firstly, whenever we start treating others with kindness and respect, they may surprise us by acting nicer toward us in return. And secondly, our environments truly do make a difference to our satisfaction levels, and perhaps even altar our characters for the better. So it's in our own best interest to choose good ones whenever we can. This book is a lovely destination overall, but prepare yourself for quite a cheesy, twee road to get there.