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.

Monday, July 29, 2019

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' by Muriel Spark

At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me." And they do--but one of them will betray her.

This is my choice for the 20th century classic section of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. Miss Jean Brodie is a progressive, stylish teacher who works at a traditional girl's school in Edinburgh of the 1930's. She's suffered loss in her life, and decides to leave her stamp on the world by hand-picking a select group of girls to mould and shape in her own image. So Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Monica, Eunice and Mary become 'the Brodie set.' They're despised by others because of the blatant favouritism, yet envied because they seem to have a lot more fun.

Miss Brodie scorns conventional lessons and teaches her own romantic life anecdotes as if they're curriculum. She sets out to inspire the girls in elusive traits like panache and flair. One of her mottoes is, 'give me a girl at an impressionable age and she's mine for life.' The predatory sort of connotations from this line aren't far off the mark. She convinces her special six that they're fortunate to enjoy the benefit of her great wealth of worldly knowledge while she's in her prime. And she promises that if they take all her instructions on board, she'll make them into the 'creme de la creme.'

The parents are flattered that their daughters have caught the attention of such a confident and elegant woman, without being aware of a more fishy agenda. Miss Brodie herself is perhaps not fully aware of it. She comes across as a needy narcissist who feels she's missed the boat, and wishes to stamp her own image on each of the six students' special talents. There's a strong sense that her hidden agenda is to make them copies of herself. And as we find out when we're already well into the story, her manipulation arguably crosses into 'whacko' territory, involving a couple of the male teachers.

At times it seems Muriel Spark is inviting readers to weigh up whether Jean's influence is good or bad. Some of her ideas may put her ahead of her time. 'To me, education is a leading out of what is already in a pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay (the headmistress), it is a putting in of something which is not there. I call that intrusion.' But the scale crashes the other way when we consider her plans for a pair of her girls to embody her own fantasy. And also her critical dismissal of other former teacher's pets of hers, in favour of those she's decided can best serve her purpose.

Miss Brodie is certain none of her girls would ever betray her to Miss Mackay, and spends her twilight years trying to figure out which of them did. That girl has finally thought things through and decided she did nothing wrong, since 'betrayal involves the need for loyalty in the first place.'

At first I wondered why Jean Brodie so stubbornly resisted the idea of moving on to teach at a more innovative school, which might have embraced her teaching methods? Then it becomes clear, the 'crank schools' wouldn't have Mr Gordon Lowther and Mr Teddy Lloyd, who are vital players in her weird, kinky plans. It's interesting to see Miss Mackay dig around for solid evidence of malpractise before firing Brodie. Unfair dismissal claims might have been as much a factor in the thirties as now. It surprises me though, that she had to wait for one of the pampered students to rat on Brodie. It appears there was any number of hostile female teachers who might have been able to scrape up something reasonable sounding. Brodie didn't exactly keep her nose clean.

If this is Muriel Spark's most celebrated novel, as the cover says it is, I'm not sure I want to discover more. Her writing leaves a sort of sour aftertaste. I think it's partly because Spark so often pokes snide or cynical digs at her own characters, making me wonder that if even she doesn't really like them, then why should we? Although many characters are clever, none are really lovable. When she delves into their deepest thoughts, we find they're full of varying shades of self interest. And the plot's fascination seems to hinge on a sordid, tabloid gossip sort of factor.

So I'm glad to finish. It's a short novel, but by the end I was fed up with repetitious descriptions of the girls. There were so many statements about Mary's stupidity and awkwardness, Rose's famous reputation for 'sex', whatever that was meant to mean, and most of all, references to Sandy's little piggy eyes. I'm sure she mentioned that girl's squinty peepers every single time she was in a scene? We get it Muriel, okay!

I'd intended tracking down the 1969 movie with Dame Maggie Smith in the title role, since I love her as Professor McGonagall. (Speaking of Harry Potter, 'The Brodie Set' is reminiscent of 'The Slug Club', but probably the other way around for many readers, since Miss Brodie came first.) I was so underwhelmed by the story though, I don't think I'll bother. To sum up my overall impression, there's a great line in the story. 'There was a whiff of sulphur about the idea.' Maybe I'll borrow that descriptive phrase straight from Muriel Spark to apply to her whole book, because the more I think about it, the more everyone in it stinks, to varying degrees.


Monday, July 22, 2019

'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde's madcap farce about mistaken identities, secret engagements, and lovers entanglements still delights readers more than a century after its 1895 publication and premiere performance. The rapid-fire wit and eccentric characters of The Importance of Being Earnest have made it a mainstay of the high school curriculum for decades.

This is my Classic Play category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I remember thoroughly enjoying it as a High School Drama student who got to watch a movie version on TV during a lesson. It's great the second time around too. Fun to read, but a ridiculous load of nonsense. Here's basically how it goes down. Jack and Algernon are a pair of well-to-do young gentlemen in the Victorian era, both in the habit of telling lies to help them wriggle out of tiresome commitments. They've taken the concept of the pretend friend to an expert level, each using one to shirk their duties and help them look good at the same time.

Jack's ruse is a rebellious younger brother named Ernest, who needs frequent help out of jams. And Algy's is a perpetual invalid friend named Bunbury, with a knack of having relapses and needing support just when Algy is expected to attend something boring. But both Jack and Algy play the game so hard, it leads to hilarious clashes (such as Jack mourning his dead brother who Algy is pretending to be).  Eventually two young ladies named Gwendolen and Cecily each believe they're engaged to the same guy named Ernest, who doesn't really exist.

There's also a subplot of Jack's obscure origin. He was discovered at Victoria Street Station as a baby in a handbag, and the bossy autocrat Lady Augusta Bracknell won't let him court her daughter, Gwendolen, until his past is cleared up, which he doubts he can ever manage to do after 28 years. Naturally everything does come together very comically, and Wilde twists circumstances in such a way that all the lies Jack has been telling accidentally turn out to be the truth.

There has been lots of satire written about the Victorian era by modern authors who look back on its more negative aspects in retrospect, but Oscar Wilde was taking shots at it while he was actually living in it. He wasn't a rebel of the 'naughty nineties' for nothing. There are loads of sassy one-liners which keep being volleyed back and forth like a tennis match. And they're all delivered with perfectly straight faces, which probably makes Wilde one of the pioneers of the sort of witty British sitcom we all know and love.

It's such a shame Algernon's term of 'Bunburying' hasn't really taken off in our common lingo, because it deserves to. The truth is, I was brought up in a family of Bunburyists without even knowing it. Making up untrue clashes and prior engagements takes a bit of ingenuity, so they might as well be good ones, that paint us in the best possible light. I guess I've had a go myself over the years, but I've reformed and become more honest. As we get older, our memories aren't so good, so Bunburying isn't really worth the stress it might cause in the long run.

The sneaky duplicity of this sort of behaviour gives the play's title its irony. Both Gwendolen and Cecily have latched onto the idea of marrying men named Ernest, because it's such an honest, straightforward and direct sort of name. Yet we audience know that neither of these two guys are any such thing. They are duplicitous, deceitful fibbers, regardless of their good motives. Maybe it's Oscar Wilde's way of getting us to ponder whether anything is like it seems on the surface.

By the end, I can't help thinking it would be interesting to trace both young couples through married life. Jack and Gwendolen are both trying to play the game set by society. She's got the Victorian polish and sophistication down pat, making her a mini version of her scary mother. And he knows the right moves and the respectable, pompous things to say. But Algernon and Cecily might be another case altogether. He's so mischievous and bright, breezing through life taking nothing seriously, and treating everything like a big game, while she's an innocent and romantic young rustic girl who still chafes at restrictions and lets her imagination run wild. It'd be fun to see how these two egg each on through matrimony. I wonder if they're Oscar Wilde's idea of a new generation of thinkers.

Sadly, the public never really got to find out. He got in deep trouble within four days after this play's first performance on Valentine's Day 1895, when he was unmasked for being gay by his young lover's furious father. It was downhill for Oscar Wilde from then on, leading to his imprisonment, and premature death after hard labour. The fate of the talented playwright gives the comedy a touch of sadness, but keeping on enjoying it is the best tribute to his memory. After reading it, I watched the most recent movie with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, which brought the opulence of the Victorian era to life in a brilliant way, and I recommend that too.

You might also enjoy my review of Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Monday, July 1, 2019

Best Bromances in Literature

Every so often, I see a need to update old lists and reflections, so here goes.This blog post was first prompted because of the popularity of the drama 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,' especially when it was first released. A huge focus in this play is the heartwarming friendship between the sons of two traditional enemies, Harry Potter's son Albus, and Draco Malfoy's son Scorpius. At the time I noticed several fan groups across the internet theorise that the boys' friendship was rich with gay subtext. They expressed crushing disappointment that JKR and her fellow authors decided not to take Albus and Scorpius in that direction. A couple of crushes on females have clearly been written in for each of the boys, but several critics I've come across online call this a cop-out. Fan art and fiction to change this is no doubt still being produced as we speak. The friendship has advocates trying hard to claim it for the LGBTQ community while it claims to be no such thing itself.

I can't help wondering if this highlights a bit of a gap in our culture. Are so many people trying to read romance into Albus and Scorpius' friendship, just because of of its depth and sensitivity? Can't a pair of teenage boys enjoy a strong, affectionate friendship without being gay? Could it be because we see so few intense male friendships of this nature presented in literature and the media that so many people instantly read in what was never intended to be there? Even when I searched through images of friends for this blog post, I found an abundance of close girl friendships (hugging, arms around each other, foreheads together, smiling etc) but hardly any similar images for males. I'm thinking it must be high time to resurrect the 'bromance', which is defined as a close, non-sexual relationship between guys.

These thoughts prompted me to start searching through my mind for good examples of literary bromances. And although I initially felt as if I was scraping the barrel, I came up with quite a few, often in unexpected places. Friends, they are out there if we know where to look. Here is a bit of a springboard.


The hot-off-the-press bromance that started this train of thought will start my list too.

1) Albus and Scorpius
These two boys are a perfect friendship match on many different levels. First, they turn established patterns on their heads. A dark, resentful Potter hits it off with a cheerful, optimistic Malfoy. Their fathers' history of mutual antagonism means nothing to them, because they take people on face value. They discuss sensitive, emotional issues with honesty and are both willing to admit that their life at Hogwarts would be unbearable without each other. When forced apart they are entirely miserable, and aren't afraid to acknowledge that they intend to always be there for each other.

2) Harry and Ron
You can't start with Scorpius and Albus without mentioning the Hogwarts generation that came before. Although they were often part of a trio rather than a pair, Harry and Ron shared a close, best friend relationship. They had their ups and downs, but proved many times over that their manly affection for each other extended to death if necessary. There were moments of misunderstanding, but they were committed enough to their friendship to get through them stronger than ever.

These examples are not even human, but hey, they work, so who cares? 

3) R2D2 and C3PO
There's no reason why we can't look to droids to provide examples of decent bromances. These two are firm friends who travel together, look out for each other, translate for each other, understand each other and hate the thought of being separated.

4) Pooh Bear and Piglet
This is a reciprocal bromance in which each friend supplies input that strengthens the other. That's what makes a friendship rock solid. Piglet is an appreciative and willing listener who offers occasional constructive editing advice when Pooh recites his poetry. And in turn, our favourite bear helps his smaller friend shake off his many fears, and face the world with optimism instead of dread. Eventually, circumstances force them to become housemates, which suits our little pair just fine.

5) Timon and Pumbaa
Since bromances can come in many shapes and forms, why not a meerkat and warthog duo? Wily Timon hijacks his friend Pumbaa's bright ideas, but puts up with a lot of bluster and bad smells from his friend for the privilege. The 'Hakuna Matata' philosophy they cooked up together is one we could all adopt. They face the world together with a 'no worries' attitude.

6) Frodo and Sam
Hobbits get it right too. I wasn't sure whether to include this one, wondering if their relationship is on quite the right footing to be considered a bromance. There is always a bit of servitude in Sam's attitude toward his beloved Master Frodo, but hey, I wanted to grab something. And by the end of their adventures together, the bond between the pair of them gets steadily stronger. Especially when Sam saves Frodo's life on numerous occasions.

If we have to go back to Victorian England to find a good bromance, then that's what we'll do. Because Dickens nailed it! 

7) Pip and Herbert
The awesome mates from Great Expectations make me think Charles Dickens himself would have loved the term 'bromance'. These young men become best friends and housemates with reciprocal concern for each other. Herbert tactfully informs Pip when his etiquette needs a quick tweak. They look out for each others' interests, paint the town together, cook their Victorian dude food, and are totally trustworthy and comfortable together. And by the end, we have to give the nod of approval when they become business partners.

8) Mortimer and Eugene
You can't help loving these two lazy lawyer lads from Our Mutual Friend. They went through school together and eventually share an apartment on their meager finances, where they throw wise cracks, grumble about work, deal with unexpected callers, and always have each others' backs. I love Mortimer's way of telling Eugene he's so silly and ridiculous, when what he really means is, 'You're so cool.' A heavy dose of drama, and near death toward the end of the book helps them both realise even more what their friendship has always meant to each other. Awww!

Now we dig deeper into other works of literature.

9) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
I admit I've never read these American classics. Being an Aussie, they weren't set on our school curriculum. But from reports I've heard all my life, I assume these two lads are inseparable friends on the same wavelength. Should I read them? They are definitely on my radar, and I'd appreciate any recommendations or deterrents.

10) Holmes and Watson
They are both intelligent, professional gentlemen who at least give lip service to a relationship of equality. Watson is always keen to tag along on Holmes' detective escapades to see what his friend will come up with next, and so he can say, 'You're incredible, Holmes!' And he never seems to find that smug, 'Elementary, my dear Watson,' at all condescending. Maybe not a perfect bromance either, but once again, I grab them where I find them.

11) Darcy and Bingley
These two seemed to be unlikely friends because of their different temperaments, but I guess they tick the bromance boxes. They enjoy hanging out with each other, they travel together and make sure to synchronise the plans in their calendars. And they've been friends for long enough that they make allowances for each others' foibles in a good-natured, eye rolling sort of way.

12) Hamlet and Horatio
The moody Prince of Denmark always had his best buddy to try to make things easier for him. Sadly Horatio's best efforts didn't make a whole lot of difference in the end, but at least he was always there for his friend, and Hamlet appreciated him.

Okay, it's definitely no classic, but I'll drop it in.

13) Michael and Jerome
I'm referring to one of my own published novels here, A Design of Gold. I worked really hard on this bromance between two young men who had nothing in common on the surface, yet felt thrown together in several different ways, until they realised they were more alike than either of them would have imagined. And it takes a life or death sort of situation for them to come to this point. I didn't realise I was adding to the sparse bromance literature, but I'm glad to have worked it out.

I guess this Biblical example has a lot to live up to, when we consider all these guys went through out of loyalty to each other.

14) David and Jonathan
The ancient bromance sets the bar high for all future bromances. These two were devoted to each other to such an extent that David declared Jonathan's love superior to that of a woman, and King David was definitely a red-hot male who loved his women. Jonathan's actions proved that David's opinion was justified. He was the Crown Prince at the time of the friendship. Even though David's rising popularity jeopardised his own chances of someday becoming King of Israel, that didn't matter to Jonathan. He helped his best friend escape from his father, who was set on murdering him. He remained devoted to David and his cause all his life. And in turn, David was loyal to Jonathan's direct line of descent after his death in battle.

If you can think of any more good bromances, please let me know. It's high time boys were free to celebrate their BFFs, as girls do. My sons have a number of fairly close male friendships, so we all know they are out there in reality. We just need to see them reflected as often as possible in stories and art.

Monday, June 24, 2019

'The Complete Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' by A.A. Milne

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.

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

'The Black Tulip' by Alexandre Dumas

'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.

What a madcap tale of fanaticism, passion and jealousy this one turns out to be. Here's my most valuable tip straight off. Please don't let the somber nature of the first few chapters deter you from persevering, as I almost did more than once. It's a bit like shaking the plug of congealed tomato sauce from the neck of a bottle. Once you've passed that point, the entertainment flows perfectly. The purpose of the tough and sad beginning is to ground the story to a real, historical event, as you'll see. It's something Dumas liked to do. In this case, he retells a tragic event in which two noble statesmen are falsely accused of treason and savagely mauled to death by an angry mob while they attempt to flee for safety. Whew, once we get over that hurdle, the fun begins.

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