Friday, October 18, 2019

'The Other Alcott' by Elise Hooper



Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.


MY THOUGHTS:
This is an excellent story based on the true life of Abigail May Alcott (May), the youngest sister of Louisa May Alcott. You might know her better as Amy March, the character she inspired. But the real May Alcott was a hard-working, talented artist with a fascinating life of her own, even though she's long been overshadowed by her more famous sister. I'm glad that Elise Hooper, who lives near their town of Concord and did heaps of research, has lifted the veil on May, as it deserves to be.


Related image
Okay, whenever I discuss Little Women with others, many friends brush Amy off as a spoiled, shallow, vain princess, and even claim to hate her. It makes me sad, because 'hate' is such a strong word, and there are far worse characters out there than Amy March, who actually makes several efforts to be a good person. Perhaps I relate to her as a fellow 'little sister' who understands the frustration of being left out of fun activities, and the humiliation of being teased for making faux pas, while trying to impress the older kids. I never burned my big sister's journal, but I can understand the sentiment behind it. And as for vanity, modern girls Amy's age are also trying to enhance their good looks. We don't have to search far for examples on social media. Come on girls, don't go for your facials, eyebrow sculpture or nail touch-ups, and then come home to criticise Amy for putting a peg on her nose.

I've often wondered whether Louisa May Alcott, the great Jo March herself, did her sister a rotten turn by depicting her in such a way that generations of readers would dislike her for decades, even centuries to come. In this novel, Louisa reasons that she was using Amy as a foil for Jo, and didn't think May would mind. Louisa comes across as a bit of a grouch, slightly resentful that she paid a high price for financial stability for her whole family. She never really wanted to write the moralistic, sentimental tales that took off so successfully, instead of the edgier crime thrillers she preferred. I'll always imagine Louisa the workaholic, gritting her teeth and writing to please others over herself. She was cynical and brusque, but I couldn't help liking her.

The two sisters had a loving relationship, but very strained at times. Louisa controlled the family purse strings, which was fair enough since she earned the money. So she financed some international painting tuition for May, but in return expected to call all the shots, such as deciding when May should drop everything and come home. She'd write, 'I've had my fill of looking after the old folk now, so I'm passing the baton on to you. Leave straight away.' When Louisa said 'Jump', May was forced to ask, 'How high?' It makes for some interesting Jo and Amy style home truths flying in letters across the ocean. ('You support me only so you may control me.') And we readers are detached enough to see both sides, and cheer when May does begin to earn her own money.

So now for May herself, the hero of the book. She's a fresh and delightful character full of enthusiasm to give her own passion a good shot. Several misgivings come to the surface of her mind, which she works through. She wonders if she really has enough of the family's obsessive streak to consider herself legitimate. (If you're a hardcore Alcott fan, you'll remember that their dad, Bronson, was intense and fanatical too. See my review of March.) Or whether she needs some sort of deep meaningful political cause to prop up her art, rather than letting her plain and simple love of beauty be the driving force. Listening to her dad, big sis and lots of other critical voices out there gave May a lofty standard and heavy burden she later wondered if she really needed to take on board.

But May befriends some notable people from history, such as Mary Cassatt, a disgruntled artist who took a huge risk by joining the Impressionists. Mary wanted the freedom to experiment with the new style she enjoyed, rather than adapting her work to suit the rigid rules of the establishment of the day. Her rebel outlook, so to speak, gives May a lot to think about.

Image result for may alcott artThe glimpse we get of May Alcott as a cougar is very cool. At the ripe old age of 38, she falls for Ernest Nieriker, a lad of 22, and they get married. Her sister Louisa suspects the young man's motives and writes, 'I must inform you the inevitable interruptions that beset the life of a wife interfere with her art.' But May goes for it anyway, in a very satisfying part of the story. Her most well-known painting, of the young girl with the orange head scarf and white dress, was painted around this time.

It's a haunting book that sticks in my mind, just for knowing the characters were real, and the end leaves us wondering about the nature of true success. The prickly Louisa was the focused story-machine we all remember, who brought us such beloved characters as Jo March. But I can't help feeling that May might have embodied more the idea of success I'm coming to appreciate the older I get. She hurt nobody, and made her gentle mark on the world in a way that satisfied her soul. She didn't live a long life, but gave it all the energy and enthusiasm she could muster, without focusing on her work at the expense of everything else that could make for a satisfying life. Right up until her untimely death, she was doing all the things she loved most. A real reminder for us to do the same.

You may like my reviews of Little Women and Good Wives I've also reviewed March by Geraldine Brooks, who anyone who may be interested in a fairly frank and brutal Civil War faction about the girls' father Mr March (or Bronson Alcott in actual fact). And I've tackled the question of falling for a best friend's little sister if you're interested in the Amy/Laurie romance plot of the series. I wasn't a big fan myself.

🌟🌟🌟🌟

Monday, October 14, 2019

'The Prince and the Pauper' by Mark Twain



This treasured historical satire, played out in two very different socioeconomic worlds of 16th-century England, centers around the lives of two boys born in London on the same day: Edward, Prince of Wales and Tom Canty, a street beggar. During a chance encounter, the two realize they are identical and, as a lark, decide to exchange clothes and roles--a situation that briefly, but drastically, alters the lives of both youngsters. The Prince, dressed in rags, wanders about the city's boisterous neighborhoods among the lower classes and endures a series of hardships; meanwhile, poor Tom, now living with the royals, is constantly filled with the dread of being discovered for who and what he really is.

MY THOUGHTS:
Two babies are born on the same day in Medieval London. One isn't wanted at all, since he's an extra mouth to feed. The other is longed for with bated breath by the whole country. The first is a little beggar named Tom Canty who lives in a slum on Offal Lane. The second is Edward Tudor, son of Henry VIII. And not only do the two boys share the same birthday, but grow up to be doppelgangers.

Mark Twain has written a cute regal fan fiction, in which two ten-year-olds meet unexpectedly and decide to switch places for a short time. They each want a quick taste of how the other side lives, since neither are happy with the restrictions they are forced to endure. So they swap clothes and go off on their merry ways, but the stunt backfires badly on both of them.

It comes as a total shock when they want to stop playing, but nobody will believe them and take them home. It reminds me of long ago days when I used to pretend to be somebody else, but my parents never bought it either. In the case of these boys, those closest to them assume they've gone bonkers, when they keep being so earnest. Sudden madness is a far-fetched affliction that doesn't happen often, right? But it turns out to be far more credible than a pact with a person at the other end of the social pecking order. So both boys seem to be stuck in a new lifestyle neither of them really want, and it looks like it's going to be permanent. Ooops!

Then King Henry dies, while the new little king is out copping abuse from the rough end of his kingdom, and still nobody twigs. All the while some little gutter snipe is getting prepared for his coronation.

The plot switches back and forth between them, focusing slightly more on Edward's adventures out in the great wide world, than Tom's experience in the Castle. Tom strikes me as the wiser of the pair. He figures out pretty quickly that he'd better learn to impersonate the prince if he wants an easy time. But Edward keeps getting clobbered because he won't stop insisting that he's the king of England, and expects to be treated accordingly by thugs, thieves and desperadoes. There's a very fine, almost transparent line, between bold honesty and a serious lack of judgement. Come on mate, it should be clear that nobody is going to buy the truth, so you'd better pretend to be Tom, at least for a time!

The guy I consider the hero of the whole tale is neither of the little whipper-snappers, but Miles Hendon, a down-on-his-luck young noble man who's been totally screwed over by his own family. He stumbles across young Edward, pities him and decides to become the poor little waif's self-appointed elder brother. It's the best thing that could happen, and saves Edward's life on several occasions. Miles is ultra-sympathetic, super-cheerful, patient and smart to boot. He's always saving the day, but sheepishly and comically enough not to come across as one of those Mr Perfects. (Which maybe does make him perfect.) Curiosity about how his personal predicament will work itself out saves the book from the straight predictability of the two boys. What a legend he is.

I like to read a few other reviews after forming the gist of mine. This little novel has loads of people complaining about the difficult dialogue, since Mark Twain wrote it to match the speech patterns of the time it was set. Nobody said this directly, but in effect, these reviewers are demanding, 'Please dumb it down for us.' Come on, fellow readers, let's man up! It's honestly not that hard. Twain hasn't used Tudor English to the letter, or it would be incomprehensible. Just enough to give his story a beautiful touch of authenticity. If we're willing to enter into the spirit of the Middle Ages, let's do it as wholeheartedly as they would, and stop demanding to be coddled with contemporary English. If we read it aloud with our kids, it's the perfect opportunity to show them that the English language is a rich, evolving entity, and not static and stale. For example, I wish 'mooncalf' was an insult that lasted the distance to the twenty-first century. It's such a descriptive word.

 So it's a simple story, but with a fairly provocative theme of how allegiance can be given based on a person's pedigree rather than his good character. Even though we live in more of a meritocracy now (which has its own problems) there's still plenty of name dropping and social climbing in our era. Word-of-mouth commendations based on who we know still give people extra boosts and lucky breaks that others inevitably miss. Yet after a few hiccups, Tom ended up pulling off Edward's role flawlessly enough to be widely believed. Maybe it's Twain's reminder that even nobodies may really step up if we're given the opportunity.

Even though I expected a little fairy-tale about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, there's a bit more to it, and it's quite a cool little read.

🌟🌟🌟½

Monday, October 7, 2019

Famous Headless Characters


October is Halloween month, perfect for lists with a macabre twist. Headless characters fits the bill. For the sake of staying reasonably upbeat, I decided not to include historical figures, such as John the Baptist, Goliath and Anne Boleyn. I'm confining it to people whose headless state doesn't prevent them going about their normal business.

When I use the word 'headless' that also extends to 'bodyless' for there are two categories of people in this list. a) Walking torsos without their heads, and b) Dismembered heads without their torsos and limbs.


1) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
It's an American classic. The little town is said to be haunted by the ghost of a horseman whose head had been blown off by a cannon during the Revolutionary War. He kept hold of it though, to make a formidable weapon. One dark night, school master Ichabod Crane is returning home from a party, when he's confronted by the ghost, which removes its head from the saddle in front of him, and hurls it straight into Ichabod's face. Poor Ichabod is never seen again.



2) Nearly Headless Nick

Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is the good-natured Hogwarts ghost of Gryffindor House. His execution had been botched up, leaving his head still attached to his neck by a thin thread of sinew. This frustrates Nick no end when his application to join the Headless Hunt is denied by Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore, who will only accept contenders whose heads have been completely severed. Nicholas' 'death day' happens to be October 31st, and he invites Harry, Ron and Hermione to a sombre sort of party to celebrate it.

3) Harry Potter
There's another accidental incident, when Harry's supposedly floating head is spotted at Hogsmeade by Draco Malfoy. It gives Draco a tremendous scare, since he doesn't realise Harry is wearing his invisibility cloak. Harry's head just happens to poke out at one point during a tussle with him, Crabbe and Goyle. Harry gets in trouble with Professor Snape, but the chance to freak out Malfoy and his Slytherin cronies is almost worth it. (See here for more about these sworn enemies.)

4) Library of Souls
In this third volume of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, there's a row of severed heads on pikes guarding the bridge to the evil wights' headquarters. Although they appear very menacing and fierce, their limitations are clear when Jacob, Emma and Addison are brave enough to attempt to cross the bridge. The heads realise they're in no position to do anything but yell down empty threats. Nobody has ever put them to the test before. My review is here.

5) Engelbert
Talking about Ransom Riggs' quirky characters, this young man from Tales of the Peculiar has the ability to disattach his head from his neck and screw it on again whenever he pleases. He lived long ago in a band comprised of some of the very first Peculiars in history. Engelbert is so used to his special knack that he's pretty casual about it, and tends to forget that it frightens people. He has to do a lot of apologising. (See here for more about these quirky tales.)


6) The Cheshire Cat

He's a very cool character from Wonderland who can fade away gradually until only his head remains, and eventually nothing more than his cheesy grin. He's a puzzle to the aggressive Queen of Hearts, who orders heads to be chopped off whenever she loses her cool. The executioners try to reason that since they can't see the body the cat's head is attached to, her demand to chop it off will be hard to carry out. (See here for my review)

7) The Young Ones
Here's a blast from the past for eighties kids who used to watch this program. Remember when punky Vyvyan had his head knocked off from a train window? His body goes blindly lumbering out to search for it along the track, and when he finally stumbles across it, it berates him for taking his time. That was just the sort of crazy scenario you could expect from The Young Ones. And fans kept tuning in for more. (Also see Famous Stories with Trains and Railways.)

8) Futurama
Spare for a thought for the preserved heads of famous celebrities and US Presidents in jars which belong in the Head Museum. Philip J Fry feeds them as part of his night job. On one occasion, he and the gang become drunk and accidentally ingest the heads' pickling fluid, which sends them back to the time periods in which the heads belonged. (For more about the antics on Futurama, see here.)

9) The Wizard of Oz
He was doing it with smoke and mirrors, but one form the great ruler of the land of Oz liked to assume for direct interviews with Dorothy and her friends was a great head, just looming there in front of them. No doubt he thought it would make a huge impact. And he was surely correct. (See my review.)

10) The Enchanted Head
This one is the hero of an unusual romance found in Andrew Lang's Brown Fairy Book. A beautiful sultan's daughter falls in love with a head on a platter, but he's a very handsome head with all his wits about him, and he can jump, roll and dance like a pro. They are both very happy together, especially when he reveals to his bride that each night, he's allowed to get his body back. It's their special secret.

11) The Blemmyes
These tribal people kept popping up in legends over the centuries. They were (or are) a strange race of headless folk with eyes in their shoulders and mouths in their chest, also known as the Ewaipanoma. Some pretty illustrious people, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, were certain they existed, and a chieftain's son during the Elizabethan era claimed to have been captured by the Blemmyes and managed to escape. Apparently their lack of heads made no difference to their amazing skill with bows and clubs.

12) William Laud
He was a rather harsh Archbishop of Canterbury from the mid 1600s, who made dangerous enemies of prominent Puritans. Laud was eventually beheaded for treason, but is rumoured to haunt the library of St John's College at Oxford to this day. He supposedly appears with a candle in his hand, kicking his own head along the floor. If I happened to be a student and heard a bowling ball sound, I wouldn't hang around to investigate! In fact, I think I'd pack up my books long before dark.

Please let us know if you're fond of any of these headless folk, or their tales. And of course, tell us if there any others I've missed which might be added to the list.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

'Sun on the Stubble' by Colin Thiele



Bruno Gunther lives on a farm in South Australia, where adventures spring up like wheat shoots.

He has to cope with his stern Dad, his Mother and family - and trickiest of all is the new teacher in town, who is too alert for comfort. Then there are the local arguments, that all seem to flare up around complicated bits of machinery, like water pumps and cars.

All they really need is a little help from Bruno to sort everything out...


MY THOUGHTS:
This is my pick for the Classic From a Place you've Lived category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It was challenging indeed, as there really aren't many choices. I've only ever lived in South Australia, which is a beautiful corner of the world, but hasn't an abundance of well known stories associated with it. I fell back on the great Colin Thiele, whose kids' and Y.A. novels have pleased generations of readers.

I chose this novel because of nostalgia. My Year 7 teacher, Mr Schwidder, read it to the class, and we used to all almost roll around on the floor laughing. With a German heritage himself, he would put on comic accents to suit the characters, especially 'Dad.' They were descendants of nineteenth century Germans who fled their homeland to escape religious persecution and have a fresh start in the new colony of South Australia. Several of my ancestors shared the same background, so the story was meaningful even back then.

Also, my older brother highly recommended it at the time, and he was no reader. He claimed it was the only novel that ever held his attention through to the finish, (and I'd be willing to bet that's still the case). That held great weight with me as a twelve-year-old.

So the story was published in 1961, but set in the 1930's or 40's. Bruno Gunther is the youngest son; a twelve-year-old who lives with his hard-working family on a farm in a fictional place called 'Nagapalee' which could be any small South Aussie bush town. Each chapter focuses on an episode around work, school, sport and social times. It starts off when Bruno brings a possum into the house to show off, and his prowess backfires on him when it panics and trashes the kitchen. But later, he's instrumental in helping catch a couple of dangerous crooks who have been stealing sheep and wood. There was no electricity in their house, although some city relatives had it. Bruno and his brother Victor shared a bedroom, and loved listening to their primitive old wireless with headphones. Adelaide is the nearest big city, and at the end, poor Bruno is on his way to attend boarding school there.

In some ways, its structure reminds me of an Aussie version of another classic I re-read not so long ago; Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. There are some huge differences though, the main one being the characterisation of the two respective fathers. Almanzo's father, James Wilder, is one of those super-dads whose every word is taken by his respectful kids as an oracle. He was depicted as the true head of the family. But here we have Marcus Gunther, who is more of a Basil Fawlty clone, fiery, overbearing and totally reactive. The undignified and embarrassing things that happen to him is one of the book's biggest sources of mirth and delight. It would seem good old Tall Poppy syndrome has been a big feature of rural Australia for a long time.

Bruno himself is a very likable young hero, who loves to spend his spare time climbing trees after birds nests, hawk's nests and possum hollows. He also traps rabbits for a bit of pocket money. Well, my sons enjoyed similar quests at his age, but theirs were virtual reality, done in front of computer screens in their bedrooms. I know that's sort of sad, but there's no stopping progress, and each era has its own positive characteristics. I've no doubt Bruno and his brothers would have been sucked right into the online era, had they lived in the 21st century. Back then, it was surely, 'Come inside and do some work,' while now it's more like, 'Go outside and get some fresh air.' As a modern parent, I can't deny it, although I'd hate to come across as one of those pests who enjoy paying the younger generation out, because I'm really not that person. (Besides, they're referred to as 'Boomers', and I'm too young. I'm Gen X, thanks very much.) I can relate a bit to Emma Gunther, the mother in this novel, with her big heart and fearful imagination, always latching on to worst case scenarios. So one thing that never changes is the heart of a mother.

It was nice to return to this story for the first time since my tweenie years, because it reminded me how times have changed, and helped reacquaint me with the upper Primary kid that used to be me.

(Now that I'm on the topic of my deep South Aussie roots, you might enjoy this reflection featuring the beautiful place, called Let's Bloom where we're Planted.)

🌟🌟🌟½ (probably 5 from my 12-yo self)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

'Watership Down' by Richard Adams



Set in England's Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

MY THOUGHTS:
My family can't always understand my reading choices. When he saw my current read, my oldest son said, 'Isn't that a bloodbath about rabbits killing each other?' I guess he's partly right, but that sentence falls far short of the epic this is. It's one of my favourite reads this year, and I'll never look at wild bunnies in quite the same way again. I love and appreciate each of the main characters like family members. It's easy to get totally sucked in to their journey, and even now, I'm humming Art Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes', which was written as a sound track for this story.

Here's how it all goes down. Little Fiver was the runt of his litter, and holds no sway with the others at all, but he does have a rare gift of prophecy that enables him to foresee big trouble heading for his warren. (Readers are told upfront that residential developers have claimed the area for housing.) Fiver's older brother Hazel is the only one who'll listen, since he's seen Fiver's gift in action before. When the big chief brushes off their warning, they muster a small group of a dozen who dash for freedom in the nick of time. The rest of the novel recounts their adventures and perils.

While enjoying the hospitality of an aristocratic, super-sleek dude named Cowslip, they learn a shocking secret about his burrow. Later, they make the valuable friendship of Kehaar, a very cool black-headed seagull. Then later again, they come across Efrafa, the totalitarian regime of a controlling fuhrer rabbit named General Woundwort. All through the story, young Hazel, though not the smartest or strongest, proves himself to be a generous, big-hearted and able leader of their own little group.

I actually think it should be a compulsory read for wannabe chiefs rather than dry old text books. Anyone aspiring for a leadership role should study Hazel's successful approach. It's not just that he's level-headed, tactful, decisive and humble, although he's certainly all that. Hazel's biggest strength is recognising the unique strengths of his team members, and acknowledging ways in which they're superior to him. It's the very best skill to have. They all know that his directions are based on his interest in them as people, and respect him for it, grudgingly or otherwise.

And what a team it is! Fiver is the runt, but they'd be nowhere without his gift of second sight. Blackberry's innovative mind squeezes them out of many scary jams, and Dandelion, their storyteller, understands the importance of a strong tradition of myths and legends to keep a group's morale high. Even Bluebell, with his sassy one-liners, provides the quick wit that can boost the spirits, or at least the retaliative energy, of the whole company. Perhaps most of all, I love the gutsy Bigwig, who has more courage in his furry body than dozens of other literary heroes have all together! Seriously, what a guy! Together, under Hazel's wise and caring leadership, they each pool their individual resources to make one super rabbit body.

Richard Adams declares in his intro that he never intended the novel to be some sort of allegory or parable, but simply a tale about rabbits that he made up to amuse his daughters in the car. Well, sorry Richard! Sometimes readers must override an author's opinion and hijack a story for ourselves. This book is teeming with parallels and allegories for those of us who enjoy spotting them.

There's the Old Testament Exodus sentiment from the very start, when two brothers (Hazel and Fiver in this case) approach a mighty leader to appeal for the people's release, only to be mocked and refused. Then there's the Pilgrim's Progress momentum in the journey itself, which keeps us sticking with our small group, knowing that when they find what they're looking for, we'll sense the rightness in our own hearts too.

And there are several political and social analogies we can't help snapping up as mirrors of human nature. The rabbit 'owslas' or police forces are pecking orders of henchmen surrounding a chief. We can tell that each rabbit in the owsla appreciates his position of privilege, and secretly laps up the prestige directed his way. But the great warrens of Efrafa have turned sour under the leadership of General Woundwort, a dictator in the truest sense of the word. He clearly needs to be taken down, but genuinely believes that he's doing all the rabbits under his dominion a favour, by keeping them safe from harm. Instead, his radical restrictions are actually curtailing their fulness of life and causing them harm instead.

Overall, I think the biggest appeal for me is the dignity and relatability of the characters. In the grand scheme of things, aren't we humans a lot like Hazel's gang? We're edgy, vulnerable and a tad jumpy in our big wide world of threats and insecurity. We fear our own brand of 'elil' or enemies that lurk in shadows and may try to cut us down at any moment. But day after day, we rise up to keep going, clinging to friends who have proven true, and boldly trying to take a stand for what we deem important.

I have to call it one of those rare books I'd recommend to anybody. You must add it to your reading lists, it's so fresh and inspiring.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 or more like 🐰🐰🐰🐰🐰

Monday, September 16, 2019

Totally Different, But Exactly the Same



I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, which reminded me strongly of another novel I read earlier in the year. After some head scratching, I realised it was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. At first I wondered how I could have missed it, the parallels are so striking. Both stories are set in the same decade, the 1950's, and the chief plot take place in under a week. In both cases, the main character sets off on a short journey. Holden Caulfield decides to skip school, so he can hang out in the city before going home to his family. And Stevens the butler has been given generous leave from his employer to take a driving holiday, and decides to visit an old friend. But most of all, both main characters narrate their stories in a similar manner as they travel. They each deliver streams of consciousness, in which sudden memories pop into their heads, and tug the stories into all sorts of meandering and revealing deviations, and dense backstory.

So overall, the biggest factor in common seems to be the resemblance of the two main characters. But hold on a minute! The more I think about that, the more totally crazy it seems. Nobody could possibly be more dissimilar than these two guys. Surely they are poles apart. The evidence of this is overwhelming.   

1) Stevens is a senior gentleman, and Holden is a 16-year-old.
2) Stevens takes every implicit social rule totally seriously, while Holden finds holes in everything, and takes no establishment seriously at all.
3) Stevens is fully committed to his post, and Holden is a free spirit, committed to nothing.
4) The decorous Stevens would never do anything that would raise an eyebrow, but sassy Holden has just been expelled from school.
5) Holden is attracted to girls, and attends a dance, hoping to strike it lucky with a one-night-stand. Stevens considers himself way removed from thoughts of romance at all, since it would take the focus off his all-important job.
6) Stevens doubts he'll ever pick up the knack of banter to suit his new employer, while Holden's smart-alec comments have long been his facade.
7) Stevens takes every opportunity to shovel pomp and ceremony on for appearance sake. Holden detests anything that remotely reeks of phoniness.
8) Stevens is the ultimate conformer, and Holden is the ultimate rebel.
9) Stevens is the sort of guy Holden would roll his eyes at, and maybe even despise for adding to all the pretension and snobbery at large in the world. And Holden would be way below Stevens' notice.

So why do these two main characters, polar opposites in almost every way, remind me of each other? I think it's because their minds keep skittering back to their deepest regrets, which sets them off trying to justify the inevitable self-recrimination that floods in. Then they each think out long and convincing rationales and justifications to help them hold their emotional pain at arm's length. These male protagonists stand for totally different values, yet in their innermost hearts, they're pretty identical. It makes me wonder whether we'd find this touching vulnerability true of most people, if only we'd give them a chance.

There are such big implications for us readers, who follow the circuitous reasoning and storytelling of both Stevens and Holden with sympathy and liking. Even though their personal ethics and priorities are each the inverse of the other, we are willing to spend the hours with them that it takes to read the books. If we can like two polar opposites, maybe we can like anybody, if we catch the fleeting common denominator that often remains hidden. I believe I've struck one of the benefits of reading novels. I'm beginning to think that anyone who claims to be a serious fiction reader surely can't hold grudges, form prejudice, or make snap judgments as easily as those who aren't. It must to occur to us some time that those we find most annoying or hard to understand, are possibly just the same as us where it counts.

Has this struck you the same way, along your reading journey?

Friday, September 6, 2019

'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro



In the summer of 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. 

MY THOUGHTS:
I'd never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro before, so picked it up when I saw it at the library. It's a stream of consciousness narrative by Stevens, the butler. His employer, Mr Farraday, has offered him a chance to take a driving break for a week. He decides to spend it by visiting Miss Kenton, a former head of household staff. Stevens wants to see if she'd consider coming back to resume her old post, since she's indicated her marriage may be shaky. On the way, he records some events that happen to him along the road, and also reminisces lots about days gone by. So the story lapses into frequent flashbacks.

Stevens turns out to be one of those super-polished butlers who live out their role 24/7. He refuses to let his personal life spill into his job, and slams so many doors, there's really no personal life left to seep in anyway. Brilliant British butlers were all about never being shaken out of their professional roles. He believes that a butler of any calibre must be seen to inhabit his post, and not take it on and off like a pantomime costume, and that only the British have the correct dignity and restraint to make the job an art form. Those of other nations were really only second-rate manservants, but the Brits were butlers to the core. So he reaches a point where he's stiff and starched even in his down-hours, which to Stevens, is a mark of total success.

Butlers also took great pride in accepting posts only from masters whose work they could totally respect and support, and Stevens has devoted most of his life to his former employer, Lord Darlington, who passed away three years previously. The poshest butlers are really serious about reflecting the glory of the great men they serve. In such a way, they consider themselves contributing their own input to world affairs. The bulk of Stevens' memories take place between the two World Wars, when Lord Darlington was sympathising with the Germans, who had such a huge financial and economic burden to carry because of the rough terms of the Versailles treaty. Nobody had a clue that certain unscrupulous Nazi's would take advantage of this simple man's generosity and manipulate it for their own purposes.

So what happens when the cause to which you've devoted your life turns out to have a shaky foundation? As the plot unfolds through flashbacks, we see how Lord Darlington, used as tool by the wrong hands, lived to be discredited and taken-down. His memory is an embarrassment to those who knew him, so should that reflect on Stevens too? He wonders if Lord Darlington's fall from grace means that he's wasted his own life.

Kazuo Ishiguro does a great job of getting Stevens to ponder these questions in such a subconscious way that he hardly realises he's even thinking along these lines. The occasions when he flatly denies ever having even worked for Lord Darlington are quickly explained away with some conscious rationale. And Stevens questions may apply to us readers, or at least get us thinking. Does misplaced zeal for anything mean that we've wasted heaps of time, or even squandered our lives?

Another regret Stevens skirts around is having wasted every opportunity for a deeper relationship with Miss Kenton. The memories he digs up shows that there was definitely a mutual attraction, but both were unwilling to take the plunge over the lines of respectability of their professional roles. Twenty years further on, it's a case of accepting the choices they believed were best at the time, and the lives they led to. They each shape their philosophy to equip them to handle the rest of their days with optimism.

Miss Kenton says, 'One cannot be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realise one has as good a life as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.'

As for Stevens, he finally shapes his vague misgiving into words. 'I'll try to make the best of what remains of my day. What can we ever gain by looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives haven't turned out quite as we might have wished?' He decides that big sacrifices must be made wholeheartedly, and should be a cause for pride and contentment regardless of results.

It's a nostalgic but melancholic sort of novel that sets us pondering where our own priorities should lie. For me, they've never been about work first, and never will be. I prefer Pip's old chum Mr Wemmick from Great Expectations as a role model for a good work/leisure balance, and definitely not poor old Stevens. I haven't seen the movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, but since it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, I'm wondering if I should.

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