Friday, April 28, 2017
Stop Seeking Happiness; Just Get Out of Its Way!
Happiness is our natural state, for each of us and for humanity as a whole, argues John Izzo. But that happiness is being stolen by insidious mental patterns that he depicts as thieves: the thief of control, the thief of conceit, the thief of coveting, the thief of consumption, and the thief of comfort.
I enjoy the occasional books on happiness theory. They are quite often mood lifting, even if there aren't many fresh insights (because to be fair, if you've read a few, how much new material can there be?) This book stands up pretty well in the crowd, focusing on what I've come to know is probably the key factor, our thought life. Izzo's points even fitted perfectly with a random quote that popped up on Facebook, something like, 'Depression may be a sign that instead of controlling your thoughts, your thoughts are controlling you.'
He identifies five mindsets which he calls happiness thieves, and for memory convenience, he's made them all start with the letter C. Then he points out that they're shifty little sneaks, because they all disguise themselves to look like friends who are looking out for us, and want the best for us. Here they are. I think they overlap a bit, but it's good to have them all set out.
It occurs when we keep trying to force life to turn out the way we want it to, instead of accepting it as it comes. We're far more carefree when we give up caring so much about outcomes and results, before we allow ourselves to relax and enjoy peace of mind.
This is otherwise known as ego. We tend to overemphasise our own personal significance, and feel a great need to distinguish and set ourselves apart from others. It keeps us constantly measuring our rank, obsessing about where we fit in the world, checking our stats and wanting our personal footprints to be distinct. He challenges us instead to regard ourselves as small components of a significant whole. We've been brainwashed by a world which is all about 'finding ourselves'. Perhaps ancient tribal peoples who didn't place emphasis on self discovery for the individual were onto a better thing.
It's disguised as helpful ambition, and could even be called comparison or competition. We tend to convince ourselves that we live in a place of lack, and badly crave something someone else has got. That's a certain recipe for disappointment and envy. The great challenge is to develop our internal compass so we know what truly makes us content, instead of being dragged along by what matters to others. And we must remind ourselves frequently that life is a journey and not a contest.
This is not merely purchasing things but buying into the whole idea that happiness is to be found somewhere 'out there'. It's believing the insidious lie, 'I'll be happy when I have X.' He reminds us that the root of the word 'happiness' is misleading itself, since it's based on what's happening. If we forget all that and choose contentment, we'll be better off. This is purely a choice of our mind, and nothing to do with what's taking place.
He urges us to change our habits and reactions from time to time, rather than letting autopilot ones from our long-ago past cruise us through our lives.
So once we've trained ourselves to be on the lookout for each of these, the 3-step process he recommends is simply notice, stop and replace. It's all deceptively simple sounding, but I reckon if we follow his advice instead of just moving on to the next book on our list, it'll help us achieve what he promises. That's not necessarily our burning ambitions, but daily contentment. And I've been reflecting lately that life passes so quickly, that's what we're really looking for.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Reading books is like my bone marrow, something that runs deep in me which I'm pretty sure I'd be unable to live without. I've never tried stopping anyway. Perhaps I could pause for a fixed period of time, if someone offered me a huge sum of money, but I'd be counting down the days until I could start again. Lucky for me, reading is a good addiction to have. Whenever I hear people say they never read, I wonder what replacement could offer so much pleasure and so many benefits?
If they asked me in turn, 'What's the big deal about reading?' I have some answers prepared. In the past I might have replied, 'I dunno, I just love it.' But I get frustrated with that sort of answer. Although it's true that pure enjoyment is all the justification we need, it may come across as evasive, unhelpful and a bit lazy to people who may be really interested. My reasons below paint a more complete picture about the joy which comes from books.
1) Reading enables me to empathise with others who are nothing like me on the surface. It broadens my concept of our world, and helps me see that essentially we are all the same where it counts.
That sentence explains enough, but this blog post elaborates even more.
2) It gives me fuel for reflection and discussion. Without ideas from books to mull over, my tank would be empty.
I'm an introvert who frequently finds myself with a blank mind and tied tongue around others. For those moments when I'm able to engage in a fun conversation, I usually have some idea from a book to thank. Talking about something that grips my mind from stories is far easier than other small talk. I love debates and heated discussions when they're focused around fictional characters and their choices. If I didn't keep this tank topped up, I'd be very boring indeed, and wouldn't even be able to maintain this blog. (When my nephew was staying with us over the Christmas holidays, he said, 'I've never known anyone who could get so excited over fictional characters as you guys.' He meant it as a compliment and I took it as one.)
3) It provides fodder for my favourite happy pastime, daydreaming.
There are all sorts of seemingly pointless things which brighten our days. One of mine is daydreaming about fictional characters, imagining extra scenes for them, and holding further dialogues and interactions. I might be walking along, inventing many ways in which one of the characters perceives another, that might not have come out in the author's original story. People who write fan fiction do the exact same thing, but I've never been brave enough to actually put mine out into the world, and nor would I want to. My own private conjectures might not gel with others, least of all the original creator, but they amuse me no end. And they draw me out of my own head into those of others, so I feel like I'm getting a holiday from myself.
Once years ago, a friend of mine was describing how she felt challenged to give up anything related to her own fertile imagination, because she thought it was infiltrating the rest of her life like some pernicious creeper. She said, 'I make sure never to imagine anything anymore. I only live in the current moment, and focus on what's directly before me.' That astounded me. I sat there thinking, 'There's no way I could ever renounce my entire imagination.' I couldn't help thinking she was throwing the baby out with the bath water and closing up a God-given gift, but that's the subject of another reflection some other day.
4) Reading gives me flashes of truth. An author might express something in such a way that resonates with what I know in my own heart but haven't formed into an opinion yet.
Those moments are like mental High Fives with the author, who may even be long passed away. They're heady enough to make me grasp things like universal consciousness, great minds thinking alike and truth being self-evident. And without reading, I'd miss so many of these moments. Some of them are strong enough to make me say, 'Wow, yes!' out loud.
5) Reading stories is the closest thing to magic and alchemy we've got.
I wrote a blog post about that here, so won't elaborate any further in this post.
6) Reading enables us to multiply the pleasure we get from our own life's events.
Here's a specific example to show what I mean. When I was a little girl, I loved everything to do with the Christmas season. Making tinsel wreaths at school, riding on Nipper and Nimble in the John Martins' toy department, singing Christmas carols, going to the Adelaide Christmas Pageant and meditating on the original Christmas story. You might think that would be enough for any young child, right?
At the age of eight or nine, I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'By the Banks of Plum Creek' for the first time, and toward the end I reached a chapter where there was a surprise meeting one winter night in the church. Laura, Mary and Carrie had no idea what to expect, but Pa and Ma were smiling and winking, as were the other adults hitching up their horses and crunching over the snow. As I read, I found myself on the edge of my seat, just as anxious to find out what was going on as Laura. It turned out to be an extravagant event with a decorated Christmas tree, which the girls had never seen before. Each branch was covered with gifts for the town's children. I loved seeing it unfold, sharing the moment of pleasure that happened about 100 years earlier. It made me so cheerful, I might as well have been there.
So my point is this. Was my own Christmas good? The answer is yes, of course. Did reading about Laura and Mary's Christmas make it even better? Absolutely, because I got to rejoice over the stroke of joy that happened to them. I felt they really deserved it. In any lifetime, moments of personal joy are lovely, but limited. And since joy is such a nice thing to experience, we might as well take the chance to add somebody else's to ours. And the most reliable way of doing this at short notice is through a book. To me, it will always be one of the best ways to multiply and our joy and lift our moods.
So those are my reasons for the endless appeal of books, which I'll never grow tired of. If you're a fellow reader, do my reasons match yours? And what do you say if people ask you?
So those are my reasons for the endless appeal of books, which I'll never grow tired of. If you're a fellow reader, do my reasons match yours? And what do you say if people ask you?
Monday, April 24, 2017
Wilkie Collins’s spellbinding tale of romance, theft, and murder inspired a hugely popular genre–the detective mystery. Hinging on the theft of an enormous diamond originally stolen from an Indian shrine, this riveting novel features the innovative Sergeant Cuff, the hilarious house steward Gabriel Betteredge, a lovesick housemaid, and a mysterious band of Indian jugglers.
I choose this for my Gothic novel category in the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge. It's a super-duper page turner which has been said to be the first ever detective story. It's fast moving with changing narrators, and the spooky gem at the centre of the plot comes across creepier than any character could possibly be.
Rachel Verinder is given a priceless Indian diamond on her 18th birthday, but it vanishes from her cabinet overnight. Everyone assumes a trio of loitering Indians must have broken in, until police prove that the theft was surely an inside job. Yet the only people who spent the night under the roof, apart from Rachel, her mother and the servants, were two male cousins. And Rachel is acting very odd, as if something constrains her not to reveal as much about the loss as she knows.
The moonstone itself totally deserves its title honour. Inanimate objects that supposedly have the power to influence human affairs are such stuff as Gothic tales are made of. It's a lavish but very sinister stone which is rumoured to bring evil luck to its possessor. Some people believe the wicked old uncle had a shady ulterior motive in willing it to his niece. Neither the thief nor the reader knows what they're getting themselves in for. Wilkie Collins keeps us wondering whether the atmosphere of heaviness is caused by the gem itself, or by the depravity it draws out of characters' secret hearts.
The characters are all fascinating, multi-faceted, and not always what they seem. I really want to do them justice, yet not at the expense of giving too much away. I'll just give a brief overview, as everyone should be regarded as suspects at the outset (or not, as the case may be).
Rachel herself. Everyone who knows her best can vouch for her unimpeachable character and generosity. Yet they agree she's a girl who's secret, self-willed, odd and wild.
The Servants. To mention the longest and shortest serving, Gabriel Betteredge is the lovable old head of staff who has served the family for decades. He has a quirky habit of using the novel 'Robinson Crusoe' as if it's his Bible or oracle. And poor Rosanna Spearman is a hunchbacked former thief, who's been given the chance to start anew. It seems her past history makes her a prime suspect, but is that worry all she has on her mind?
The cousins. It's the era when cousins used to marry each other, and both young man have designs on Rachel. Godfrey Ablewhite is a beloved humanitarian who focuses on ladies' charities. He's a sweet-tempered, nice guy. Franklin Blake is more of a black sheep. He's been educated overseas and has a way of letting money trickle through his fingers. He's more the irresponsible, witty brand of nice guy who could never live up to Godfrey. Yet at least two women are madly in love with him.
The Professionals. There's Sergeant Cuff the renowned detective, who's looking forward to retirement so he can devote his time to growing roses. And Mr Candy, the tubby little doctor who loves jokes but tends to be a bit tactless. He has a mysterious assistant, Ezra Jennings, who turns people off by his odd appearance. And then there's Mr Bruff, the loyal and sensible family lawyer. He becomes a barometer for the story's dramatic quality. If Mr Bruff can be astounded and amazed, surely any reader can be.
The solution had me riveted, especially the painstaking and dramatic way it was proven. I have to hold my tongue here, but if you've read the book, I'd love to know what you thought of it. Seriously, you can send me a private message. I wouldn't have predicted the truth in my wildest dreams, yet the story has a thick trail of clues that all slot into place when we look back in hindsight. Absolutely mind blowing in my opinion.
I don't want to stop rambling on about this story yet, so I'll mention a few little observations about life in the Victorian era.
1) The dangers of smoking were not known. Rachel convinced her cousin Franklin to quit cigars cold turkey not because she was concerned for his health but because she was tired of the odour in his clothes. And smoking was such a popular social pastime that a good host would offer each of his guests a fresh pipe.
2) The addictive quality of common household medicine was unknown. Instead of popping a Paracetemol or Ibuprofen for a headache or cramp, they'd take a few drops of opium, with no idea they might become hooked.
3) Religious zealots were pretty much the same. Miss Clack, the fanatical evangelistic relative, was obviously meant to be a bit of a caricature, but I've come across some modern Miss Clacks. She keeps trying to palm off religious tracts with titles such as 'Satan in your hairbrush.' I've been at the end of similar fervour from well-meaning folk! Like the lady who got concerned at the sight of my kids' toys and tried to convince me to read a book called, 'Turmoil in the Toybox.' The type who hunt for demons and heresies behind every bush are still alive and well.
4) Although the English thought they ruled the roost, strict adherers to the Hindu faith and its superstitions are not to be trifled with. Those who tried regretted it. When you get to the end, you can take the example of the thief.
Because I still don't want to stop talking, I'll finish off with a few quotes.
Godfrey (on the subject of the diamond): Carbon, Betteredge. Mere carbon, my good friend, after all. (What a guy.)
Sergeant Cuff: I haven't much time to be fond of anything, but when I have a moment's fondness to bestow, the roses get it. (What a guy.)
Sergeant Cuff again (on the same subject): If you look about you, you will see that the nature of a man's taste is most times as opposite as possible to the nature of a man's business. (Hmm, maybe.)
Miss Clack: Let your faith be as your stockings and your stockings as your faith. Both ever spotless and ready to put on at a moment's notice. (Lol.)
Franklin: The exquisite freshness of the air made the mere act of living and breathing a luxury. (What a guy.)
Rosanna: Goodbye to the world which has grudged me the happiness it gave others. (You'll have to read it to see what becomes of her.)
Friday, April 21, 2017
For those of us who have reached adulthood, I'm sure we can remember moments when our childhood seemed to drag on forever. But then we get to a stage when we realise it flew by like the wind, and wish it hadn't been so fleeting. Those of us with kids of our own definitely have nostalgic moments of wishing they'd stayed little and cute for longer. In J.K. Rowling's novel 'The Casual Vacancy', the character Tessa reflects, 'How awful it was, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart. They could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.' Maybe you have to be a parent to get where she's coming from.
There seems to come a point when we realise that we'd taken all the good parts of childhood for granted. We blinked and missed the wonder and joy, while the restless discontent and urge to grow up filled our thoughts. I'm sure we share moments of longing to turn back the clock and have another crack at it, this time with the benefit of hindsight. I think these are all powerful reasons why several stories tend to introduce people I've called 'Evergreen Kids.' These are characters who never grow up. Readers can return to them time and again, knowing they'll be there for us. Just because time doesn't stand still for us, at least we can rely on some of our favourite characters remaining static.
I think there are two distinct categories of Evergreen Kids in our stories. I'll discuss them each in turn.
The evergreen kids who theoretically age at the same rate as the rest of us, but really don't.
These kids remain the same age for year after year, because we love them that way. Ash Ketchum has been a 10-year-old Pokemon trainer since the early 1990s. Bart Simpson is also perpetually 10 years old, making his same wise cracks and being a nuisance to the adults. And his sister Lisa will always be a child genius, because she'll never grow any older than 8.
My kids and I used to love watching the cartoon series 'Arthur' because the main family in it was a dead ringer for ours. But at this point in time Logan and Emma are 22 and 18, while Arthur and his little sister D.W. have remained 8 and 4.
The evergreen kid phenomenon is evident in mystery series too. In my early teens, I used to devour Trixie Belden novels. One day it dawned on me that for the girl detective to have solved that many mysteries at the age of 14, the year would have to contain far more than 52 weeks. Sometimes, I wish my time could expand like a sponge in a similar way.
Other kids in this category include such characters as Dennis the Menace, Ginger Meggs, Pippi Longstocking and Milly Molly Mandy. They need to stay the same age to please us readers and viewers, because if it's impossible for us to be immortal, at least someone can do it. There's no identity crises for these kids. They could truly make A.A. Milne's little poem their life motto.
When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six
now and forever.
But now I'll get on to the second category of ageless kids, who bring out the more sinister side.
The true evergreen kids who remain stuck at the same age, for whatever reason.
1) Miss Peregrine's Household
These lovable peculiar children have been living in a loop of the same day since the second world war. Although their ages evidently range between about 8 and 17, if you ask them, they may reply something like, 'I'm 86 and he's 92 and she's over 100.' They've lived the correct number of days to make them elderly, but since the current one is always September 3rd, 1940, they never age. If Miss Peregrine hadn't created the time loop, they would have been destroyed by a bomb that very night.
This makes them weird and wise in many ways. When their friend Jacob joins them from the 21st century, he's regarded as a bit of an oddity, because he's really 16.
2) Moaning Myrtle
This poor girl never grows older because she's a ghost. Myrtle was killed by accidentally coming face to face with a basilisk in 1943, and she's haunted that toilet block in Hogwarts ever since. She's perpetually crying, feeling sorry for herself, getting prickly when she hears her nickname, and checking out cute boys. Even as late as the events in The Cursed Child, she's willing to flirt with Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy because she was partial to their fathers. Then when the two dads rush in, she attempts to pick up where she left off with her former crushes too. No doubt she'll be doing the same for generations to come.
3) Jesse Tuck
This young man's situation really creeps me out. He and his family unintentionally attained immortality by drinking from a supernatural water stream. Now they never age, and cannot die. They make this discovery accidentally, when they survive several disasters which would have proven fatal under normal circumstances. But it proves to be a high price to pay, when Jesse's young girlfriend, Winnie, sensibly decides to refrain from drinking the water, opting to grow old and die instead. The final glimpse of Jesse in the story Tuck Everlasting is of a lonely teenager who forever outlives everyone he grows fond of, and is denied the final rest of death.
He's the cute little enchanted cup from Beauty and Beast, who goes along with his mother, Mrs Potts, the teapot. They, and several other castle staff, have been put under a spell by the same enchantress who turned the arrogant young prince into a monstrous beast. When the spell gets broken, he becomes a little boy again, and presumably grows up the same as any other child.
5) Peter Pan
The ultimate evergreen kid, he's the boy who never grows up. Along with his band of followers, or 'lost boys', they live in Neverland where children stay forever young. Wendy Darling and her brothers, John and Michael, can't resist his allure, especially when they learn to fly. Peter remains adamant that his carefree attitude trumps the care and responsibility that goes with adulthood. His biggest dread is that they'll 'catch him and make him become a man.' Haven't we all come across guys with Peter Pan syndrome? (Some might even call it a feature of the whole Millenial generation, lol.) Yet even though the Darling kids love his lifestyle at first, they come to miss their old lives with their family and understand that the adult lives which await them in the future may have benefits of their own. (Wendy wants to be a real mother, and John would like to work in his father's business.)
* * *
So although the characters in Group 1 may make us envy their perpetual youth, those in Group 2 show the down side. We can't avoid aging. That's the bottom line, and it has to be a good thing. Maybe the best thing we can do is maintain a youthful heart in our older bodies. I like to think I've achieved that to some extent, because I feel essentially the same in my 40s as I was in my 20s, and even my teens (add some kilograms). It never stops surprising me, especially when I remember how staid and plodding my friends' middle aged parents used to seem, not to mention my own. I've reached the age where I'm willing to concede that perhaps that was just on the outside.
Have you experienced something similar, no matter what age you are now? Do you have a favourite evergreen kid of your own, either from my list or someone I've forgotten?
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
We all know the premise. Alice nods off to sleep while her sister reads a tedious book, then in her dreams, she follows an uptight little rabbit, who lands her in a weird and wonderful world where she has no idea what's going to happen next.
If you google the book, you'll find many theories about deep and symbolic meanings, ranging from drug use and sexual hang-ups through to loss of identity and coping with adolescence. I baulked at the thought of trying to match any of those with ideas of my own, because I didn't have any. So much of the story just seems to be a load of far-fetched waffle. At times I didn't blame those who wondered what substance Lewis Carroll might have been on while he wrote it. Yet jumping to that conclusion doesn't sit easy with me either, because lots of the characters' dialogue is sharp as a knife, indicating that he had his wits about him, which leads you to wonder whether he did, indeed, have some moral in mind.
But when she finally does manage, Alice finds that garden is not all it's cracked up to be. For a start, there are gardeners busily painting white roses red, trying to avoid the wrath of an unhinged queen. Isn't the world of adults full of similar illusions, which we learn when we finally get there? (I can think of one.The magic slot in the wall of the bank appears to shoot out money whenever adults need it. But when we grow up, we quickly discover that it's limited, not to mention we have to put money in to draw from in the first place.) I remember wondering in my own childhood why grown-ups never seemed to be having as much fun as I anticipated when I got there. Well, we have to get there to find out, of course.
Surely whether or not we love or hate this story, we can recognise ourselves and some of our attitudes in the characters. I've had moments of being like the mock turtle, with his large, brimming eyes. When Alice asks what's upsetting him, the gryphon replies, 'It's all his fancy. He hasn't got no sorrow, you know.' I get him. Sometimes life is all a bit much, and we can't pinpoint why.
Perhaps our favourite characters may give clues to some of the attributes we feel deep down we should work on. To me, the most attractive character is the Cheshire Cat, who just grins on the outskirts of the action, declining to get involved. He's removed himself enough from all the bluster to figure out a bit of a secret. 'We're all mad here.' Only when you acknowledge that can you escape the feeling of chaos which overwhelms others at any time. Readers, represented by Alice, desire everything to make perfect sense. Maybe part of growing up is acknowledging that some things just don't make a lot of sense and never will. There's no point in trying to figure them out, because they elude explanation.
Do you think it's possible to simply enjoy our glimpse of the mad tea party without trying to theorise about it? Like most of us, Alice eventually gets tired of what seems to be pointless talk and storms off, but is it all as silly as it seems?
Hatter: Have some more tea.
Alice: I've had nothing yet, so I can't take more.
Hatter: You mean you can't take less. It's very easy to take more than nothing.
(Yet they call that guy raving mad, and we're supposed to be the sane ones.)
Is it possible that trying to force morals out of this crazy yarn makes us even more mad than the characters in it? It's not hard to imagine Lewis Carroll standing back like the Cheshire Cat, having a laugh at all the psychologists, professors, literary critics, students, reviewers and bloggers who have tried to wrap their heads around his story over the years. In his eyes, we might even be like the crazy duchess who tries to force a moral out of everything, because she just can't help it.
Duchess: Flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is... birds of a feather flock together.
Alice: But mustard isn't a bird.
(Could Carroll's moral simply be that not everything has a moral?)
I expected this to be quite a difficult review to write, especially on the tail of what other, more learned people have had to say throughout the years. But maybe it's the easiest one ever.
Alice: I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it.
King of Hearts: If there's no meaning, then that saves us a world of trouble, as we needn't try to find any.
Okay, do you think that might be a good spot to finish, then? One guy claimed, 'Few people are willing to treat this just like a piece of joyful nonsense.' Then maybe I'll take up the challenge and agree that's exactly what this is, and Lewis Carroll might have been proud, and said, 'Yes, you've got it!'
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
I'm sure we've all come across a couple. It's the type of romance that crops up in the plots of stories every so often, to the extent that it's become a bit of a trope of its own. A male hero eventually falls in love with the little sister of a friend or former girlfriend, who has always been right under his nose, but overlooked because.... well, she's someone's little sister. This causes him to wonder, 'Why was I so blind?' and, 'Wow, when did she grow up to be so beautiful?' Some readers think this development is deeply satisfying, and others think it's a bit corny verging on predictable at times.
I think it can work well, but for that to happen, it has to meet the criteria I'm about to list. I'm going to focus on two fairly well known situations. In my opinion, one gets the thumbs up, and the other gets the thumbs down.
The first is Harry and Ginny, in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
The second is Laurie and Amy, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women series.
For the sake of brevity, I'll be referring to the two authors as JKR and LMA. Now, here goes.
1) Undercurrents should be there from the outset
I can't bring myself to believe that LMA had this romance in mind during the first book. All through 'Little Women' my romantic chemistry feelers couldn't detect a spark coming from either side. Sure, Laurie paid obligatory visits to Amy while she was at Aunt March's house for quarantine during Beth's illness, but it was clearly as a favour to Jo and her family.
I read once that LMA grew fed up with fan mail demanding that she bring Jo and Laurie together. It's no secret that Louisa based Jo on herself, and Louisa always remained unmarried. To quote directly from her letters, 'I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone. Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that's the only aim and end of a woman's life.' I can't help suspecting that she devised the Laurie and Amy twist on the spur of the moment. What if it was all a grouchy, 'I'll shut 'em up once and for all,' type of decision? Same as marrying Jo off to a middle-aged, pragmatic Professor like Fritz Bhaer, who was nothing like Laurie. It'll never be proven for sure of course, it's fun to make conjectures.
We readers like to trace romantic development for the same reason we enjoy character development. The Laurie/Amy romance in 'Good Wives' is condensed into a short space. It does make sense in a real time sort of way. LMA summarises their growing affection for each other as they exchange letters over a period of months. But all we have is a slim couple of chapters, and for a good portion of them, Amy is telling Laurie off. This plucked from nowhere sort of feeling leaves us feeling a bit unsatisfied.
However, with Harry and Ginny, vibes were always there from the moment she sees him at the train station when they were kids. Harry wasn't remotely interested in Ginny at the age of 11 and 12, but even though we're experiencing his point of view, clues are swirling around his head for canny readers to latch onto, even if Harry himself doesn't twig.
Ginny's unrequited crush was woven through the crux of the plot. In 'The Chamber of Secrets' she was pouring out her feelings in the diary to the supposedly sympathetic Tom Riddle. And when Harry eventually looks her way, it unfolds in a natural, gradual way over several books. He appreciates her jokes, he's crestfallen because he forgets that she has friends of her own waiting on the train, and one of his favourite scents in the love potion happens to be her perfume.
What's more, we discover that there's even been subtext pointing in their direction. Hermione has advised Ginny to stop being so tongue-tied around him and to start seeing other people. JKR had them on her radar all along. It's easy to imagine her challenging the reader, 'It was all there before you. Did you get it?' (And yes, I did!)
2) It should clearly be an improvement on the boys' former relationships
However, it's no great leap to believe Jo and Laurie could've been amazing together! They understood each other without words and shared the same sense of humour. They loved having fun together, and sought each other out when they wanted companionship from a like-minded soul. In fact many readers surely expected Jo to fall in love with her best friend, which seemed the natural transition. It's easy to understand why we'd say, 'Laurie and Amy! What on earth was she thinking?'
3) Both boys saved the girl's life, but...
Harry's heroic deed was infused with significance while Laurie's was brushed aside.
When Harry discovers Ginny unconscious on the dungeon floor at Hogwarts, it's all tied messily in with her affection for him. Her relief is mixed with embarrassment and shame, and even in later stories, she makes the occasional regretful remark that even though others have forgotten Voldemort's opportunistic possession of her, she never will.
Laurie saves Amy when she plunges through the ice in the skating scene, but it's never mentioned that the March family even thank him! Once he performs his gallant deed, he disappears from the scene and goes home. As far as LMA is concerned at this stage, the true significance of the scene is between the two sisters. Laurie wasn't needed any further. Jo hadn't been talking to Amy, because Amy spitefully burned her little book of stories. She is now devastated because her resentment prompted her not to warn Amy about the thin ice. Rather than coming across as the young man saving the girl who'll later become his wife, Laurie is nothing more than a convenient plot device here.
4) You should get the feeling that they complement each other and truly belong together
There are many touching indications that Harry and Ginny were always on the same wavelength. They share a love of quidditch to the extent that she's the logical choice to take over his position as seeker when he's sidelined. They also exchange many secret grins at the antics of her brothers. In the play, 'The Cursed Child' their marriage comes across as strong after a couple of decades, because Ginny understands Harry and the depths of his personal history enough to give him the support he probably wouldn't have received from another woman.
With Laurie and Amy, you get the feeling that they're not really what the other needs for ultimate character development. He's been known to say he hates, 'fuss and feathers', while she loves them. Amy had a mercenary streak, prompting her to want to marry for money and position rather than love. It might have been nice to see her fall for somebody who caused her to renounce her former stance and make a loving sacrifice. But she goes and marries a rich boy anyway!
In 'Good Wives', Laurie makes statements which suggest that he's on the rebound. We're told, 'He consoled himself for the seeming disloyalty by the thought that Jo's sister was almost the same as Jo's self, and the conviction that it would have been impossible to love any other but Amy so soon and so well.' No Laurie, you're not thinking straight! Any woman would tell you it's not the same at all!
A few decades into their marriage, it still has that flinchy sort of feeling. In 'Little Men' and 'Jo's Boys', we see Laurie coming to share his feelings with Jo, because his wife doesn't quite understand him. Then Jo always sets him straight and sends him home smiling. Come on, that's not the way it should be. Does it come across a bit strange to anyone else that a man would think of his sister-in-law at these moments?
I think the theme of a hero falling for a friend's little sister can work well, with a couple of big BUTS. A romance without subtle signs and clues to trace along the way is as bad in its own way as a mystery novel without these things. We readers like to do a bit of work. Please give us the chance to be able to trace something back to its delicate, unfolding roots. Don't shove something entirely off the wall in our faces, and expect us to nod and take it as a surprise plot twist.
I can imagine JKR saying, 'It was always there. Did you get it?' (Same with Ron and Hermione, if it comes to that.) And I can also imagine LMA saying, 'Tada, you never saw that one coming, did you?' And I know which comes across most friendly and fair to me.
Monday, April 10, 2017
Late on a hot summer night in 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleep-out. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the regional mining town of Corrigan.
Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charlie. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie eagerly steals into the night by his side, terribly afraid but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him to his secret glade in the bush, and it's here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper's horrible discovery.
This is very much an Australian coming of age story focused on the secret life of boys. Charlie is woken up one night by Jasper, who has something important to show him. A fellow student, Laura Wishart is hanging dead from a tree in Jasper's secret glade. They are sure that if they go straight to the police, Jasper will be an instant suspect, as most people disapprove of him without even knowing him. They decide to hide her at the bottom of the billabong until they solve the crime for themselves. Jasper thinks the town recluse Jack Lionel was the murderer, and sets out to discover proof.
It's a shocking premise, and the way the story pans out would make a debater's dream, with black and white issues crossing over to several shades of grey. At the top of the list is the question of whether the two boys did the right thing. On the surface, Jasper may appear to be validating what the judgmental adults think of him, yet he's wise enough to see through their illusions of goodness and fairness, to predict that they'd never give him a chance.
Courage is a major theme, as is the tendency of people to tell white lies to enhance their image, so you don't know whether what you see is real or put on for show. I can see why it's compared with To Kill a Mockingbird, as several cowardly racists operate in a similar spirit to those in that book. Charlie even compares his peace loving father to Atticus Finch, thinking he has the smarts to be a lawyer, 'except then he'd have to stand for something.' We want to see what it will take, if anything, to make Dad take a stand. The fact that there's such a fine line between lack of courage and the wisdom to predict that your best efforts won't be of any use was interesting.
The central figure and narrator is Charlie, and his love for the written word helps make the fabric of his own identity. When bullies pick on him for his use of big words, he responds by collecting even more, as his way of punching back against them. It turns out this side of his personality drew Jasper to seek him for support in the first place. 'I hoped you might see things from my end. That's what you do, right? When you're reading. You're seeing what it's like for other people.'
Words don't even mean all they seem to on the surface. Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey Lu, share funny mutual insults, which are really screens for the fact that their friendship is the most valuable thing for both of them. Even though Jeffrey is never privy to the main plot point, he's one of the book's heroes. Always being knocked down and scrambling up again, the question of whether or not his cheerful optimism will ever waver drives us to read on.
There are several repeated motifs. Charlie often seems to be taking off his glasses to give them a wipe, to the point where I guessed it's probably meant to reinforce his vulnerability and bookish nature, just like his fear of insects. I started wondering why his glasses turn out to be such an indication of his character, since anyone could have his eye problems, including the mean thugs. Presumably, Charlie's love of reading made the problem easier to pick up. It might not come to light as quickly in those who shy away from reading.
I felt sometimes we were being prodded to share Charlie's opinions about everyone, and I did most of the time, but not always. Especially since he was willing to excuse one action (or non-action rather) of Jasper's, which I think did lead to a tragedy that should never have happened. Just because Charlie thought it was OK, I get the feeling the reader is supposed to nod along, and this reader didn't.
I'm not surprised to see that some younger reviewers have had to study this at school. Books with ambiguous, unanswerable questions with the potential to cause unending arguments are just the sort that often make it onto educational curricula. I think it should be read just to enjoy the tricky nature of some of Charlie and Jeffrey's conversations, such as the motives of the person who first discovered milk from a cow, or why the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged the way they are, and who made the decision. It's set in the mid sixties, and the boys were having watermelon pip spitting competitions. Since they're all seedless these days, we've lost an iconic Aussie childhood ritual there.
I'll finish with a quote from the book which sums up the Australian summer heat. 'Either the earth is being devoured by the sun, or it is hurtling towards us like an enormous meteor.' But Charlie and his friends braved it anyway, because in their days, they didn't have the range of digital media options keeping them indoors as modern teens.
Overall, a potential Aussie classic that's well worth a read.
4 stars (Had to take a star off for some plot points that disappointed me)
Friday, April 7, 2017
This has always been a human problem throughout the ages, but it's easier than ever to indulge in the 21st century, because we have so many outlets to toot our own horns. Our potential audience is not just neighbours in our close vicinity but people from all around the globe. Arguably, the wonders of social media give our narcissism cultural validation. The 1970s was called the 'Me Decade', and now there are claims that we've simply moved a step further to the 'iEra'. Christopher Lasch, in 'The Culture of Narcissism' suggests that it's simply the characteristic pattern of our culture. Ouch, I don't want to be swept along by that tide, but in our day and age, it's all too easy.
Several people have suggested that we just stop. Not only because it's a bad habit, but because it makes us miserable. They say don't check your social media updates as often, just be yourself without the obsessive time you spend on impression management, and if you're feeling unduly depressed, examine your heart to see whether or not it's simply because your brilliant post hasn't received as many likes, hearts, or shares as you'd hoped for (ouch again).
I think the advice to go cold turkey is easy to agree with, but harder to follow. Maybe this list of mine could be an added tool to scare us out of our narcissistic habits, for who wants to see ourselves mirrored in these dudes? I'm calling them the greatest narcissists, but hey, they would call themselves the greatest, full stop.
Since he provided the name, I'll kick off with this haughty and gorgeous young man from Greek mythology. He's lured to the side of a pool, where he beholds his own reflection and falls deeply in love with it. Not realising it's merely his own image, he's unwilling to leave, and eventually pines away, believing his love is not reciprocated. Hence, the term 'narcissism' was coined for people who have a fixation with themselves, their appearance and public perceptions. (See his image up above)
He was hailed as the most beautiful angel of all, the bright morning star. But this wasn't enough for him. His enormous ego and thirst for adulation led him to challenge God's position. Whoa, that's some serious narcissism.
3) Dorian Grey
This young man is the (anti)hero of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece. His initial reaction when his portrait is unveiled is heartache because he won't stay so gorgeous. He vows to give his soul if only he can keep his wonderful beauty while the portrait grows old and faded instead.
Belle's persistent suitor won't take no for an answer, because he truly believes he's too wonderful to resist for long. The hordes of village admirers do nothing to quench his vanity. In the movie, we see him saying, 'You are the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen,' and the scene pans out to show that rather than addressing Belle, he's standing before a mirror. He's prepared to take her by force toward the end, just because he can't stand the idea that she isn't head over heels in love with him, as every other girl seems to be. And whatever Gaston wants, Gaston gets, until now.
5) King Saul
A biblical narcissist, he was Israel's first king. Saul started off okay, but succumbed to a deep need for everyone to call him the best, before he could relax. He built monuments in his own honour, and when he heard snatches of song that David was admired even more than he for his war conquests, he couldn't stand it. He set out to murder the perceived threat to his position on several occasions.
6) Snow White's stepmother
In a way, she was the female counterpart to King Saul. She had to stand before her magic mirror to reinforce that she was the fairest in the land before she allowed herself to get on with her day. And it was all for her personal glory. One day when she learns that another person is fairer, she sets off in a rage to have her killed, because being the second fairest in the land would be a disaster. Although she's the only female on this list, I'm sure there are as many girl narcissists as boys out there for real.
There's no reason why they all have to be human, either. C.S. Lewis gave us a very narcissistic horse. Bree was always anxious to make sure everyone was aware that he was a noble, Narnian war stallion, and not a common stable hack. The thought that rolling on his back might be a vulgar Calormene habit he's picked up horrifies him. He's always clear that he's the boss of the mission, and the spurs and reins are just for show. Toward the end, he's humbled and chastised when circumstances prove that he's not the brave, perfect steed he thinks he is. And as Aslan says, it makes him a much nicer horse.
8) Emperor Kuzco
Another animal, he's a llama throughout much of the story, although he starts off as a very spoiled, human brat. Even in his miserable transformed state, he keeps wanting to see the spotlight moved from the good-hearted Pacha back to himself, because he's the star! He's the teenage monarch who was prepared to demolish an entire peasant village to build himself a theme park in his own honour. Thankfully, he's young enough for some decent character development throughout the movie, where he learns empathy for others, in the nick of time.
9) Prince Hapi
While we're mentioning rulers, this one was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2004 movie version of Around the World in 80 Days. Clearly used to moving people as chess pieces, the prince demands that the trio of main characters come to his banquet, then insists on keeping the lovely Monique La Roche to join his harem. Their only way of enforcing her release is to threaten harm to the precious statue of himself, cast in the guise of the Thinker. It's well worth a watch.
10) Zap Brannigan
He shows that narcissism will be alive and well in the future. The general public think he's a respected military hero, but his crew know him to be an arrogant and incompetent narcissist who will sacrifice them at the blink of an eye. He expends a lot of energy trying to foster his heroic illusion, and win the heart of Leela, whose one eye sees through him clearly enough.
Without giving away too much of his role in the Peculiar Children series, the considerable effort he expends to rise to the top is all for his own personal glory. He's easily seduced by imagining himself in history books of the future, and is known to stop what is happening, so he can make lofty quotes and speeches for that purpose.
And my favourite Narcissist
12) Gilderoy Lockhart
He's the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, who we first meet on a book tour for his autobiography, Magical Me. At that stage he comes across as an insufferable celebrity who has let fame go to his head. When Harry is placed in detention, Gilderoy's punishment is to get him to write replies to his extensive fan mail. He soon reveals himself to be more incompetent than his heroic memoirs and text books would have people believe. And at last, he's unveiled as a crook who has destroyed the real heroes, just to claim their glory for himself. He's prepared to blast Harry's and Ron's memories, not because he has anything against the boys, but because they know his shameful secret. What a guy!
A funny, but sort of sobering list. They're famous alright, but I doubt any of them would have wanted to be famous for being narcissists. As always, I'd enjoy reading your thoughts, not to mention any extra narcissists I may have missed.
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
The short story, Franny, takes place in an unnamed college town and tells the tale of an undergraduate who is becoming disenchanted with the selfishness and inauthenticity she perceives all around her.
The novella, Zooey, is named for Zooey Glass, the second-youngest member of the Glass family. As his younger sister, Franny, suffers a spiritual and existential breakdown in her parents' Manhattan living room -- leaving Bessie, her mother, deeply concerned -- Zooey comes to her aid, offering what he thinks is brotherly love, understanding, and words of sage advice.
I chose this book for my 2017 Back to the Classics challenge, for the category of a classic set in a place you'd like to visit. Franny and Zooey is set around New York, which I'd love to visit just once.
This classic is pretty well plot free. It's comprised of three conversations. Franny is at a restaurant with her boyfriend, Lane, trying to explain her disillusionment with their ego-driven society, which he doesn't understand. In the next scene, Zooey is having a bath when his mother Bessie bursts in, and tries to convince him to have a word with his troubled sister. Such a lot of the book takes place from behind the bath curtain, I'd recommend this as a tub read. Finally, he gets out, dries himself off and talks to Franny, where she lies on a couch in the living room. Couldn't get more basic, but the interesting nature of the dialogue kept me reading on.
Franny is a 20-year-old college student with an issue that's easy to understand. 'I'm sick of everyone's ego. Everyone wants to get somewhere, distinguish themselves and be interesting. Just because I'm so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else's values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me doesn't make it right... I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I'm sick of myself and everybody that wants to make some kind of a splash.'
She's attempting to resolve her crisis by reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me), which she's read about in a book entitled 'The Way of a Pilgrim.' But her mental turmoil continues, and I found myself looking forward to whatever pearls of wisdom her 25-year-old brother might drop to help her out (and us, by extension).
There were hurdles to get over on the way to finding out. First, Salinger way overdoes the italics! Man, oh man! They just get in the way and become so annoying, It got to the point I couldn't stand the sight of them. Salinger is not only dictating how he thinks the reader should hear the characters' voices, but he makes them sound like duffers in the process, because nobody really adds that much emphasis so consistently. Do you think I'm exaggerating? Just read the book.
He also overdoes all the smoking. The year was 1955, and I know health risks weren't so well known then, but this family could still keep a tobacco company in business all by themselves. Ash trays are everywhere, including the bathroom. What a stale odour their house must have, and I felt as if I was passive smoking through the pages by the time I'd finished.
Thirdly, this is just a funny thing that occurred to me, but I couldn't help wondering if Salinger considered himself smarter than the average bear. He's writing about the Glass family, who were all considered super-intelligent from the time they were infant prodigies, and obviously felt he had enough genius to pull it off. Indeed, Zooey does come across as a very astute young man, well worth heeding. After asking Franny to seriously consider her motivation for reciting the Jesus prayer, he makes some pointed observations, and here are some of my favourites.
a) 'If you're going to do it, at least pray to Jesus as he was, and not as you'd like him to be' (which he says is probably a combination of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, their older brother Seymour, and Heidi's grandfather).
b) 'Who else but Jesus in the New Testament really knew which end was up? He knew we're carrying the kingdom of God around with us inside, where we're all too goddamn stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look.'
c) 'If it's the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you're missing out on every single goddamn religious action that's going on around this house. You don't even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup... How in hell are you going to recognise a legitimate holy man when you see one, if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?'
d) He reminds her how Seymour used to tell them to shine their shoes for the Fat Lady, whose identity used to be unclear in their young minds. 'There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady.'
Overall, it left quite a positive impression. There's nobody quite like a brother for giving tough love. He knows her well enough to pinpoint the ways her mind was truly veering, perhaps better than she knew herself. And when it comes down to it, who else but a brother could be so blunt without her disowning him? As far as the ego question is concerned, he challenges her to focus on the good and sacred aspects of life, which are out there everywhere, and leave God to figure out what is or isn't ego driven. The pair of them remind me a bit of my two eldest kids, who have a similar age gap. It's a bit strange and short, with the feeling of a couple of random events pulled out of nowhere, and the descriptions come across like stage directions, but it's definitely engaging enough to finish.
If you're interested in pursuing the train of thought, some of Zooey's observations remind me of this book here, which was published recently.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world.
It’s where he was born. It’s where he and Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination-the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells; the coziness of Wardrobe beneath Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night, in case Old Nick comes.
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it’s the prison where she’s been held since she was nineteen-for seven long years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside her own desperation, and she knows that Room cannot contain either indefinitely . . .
Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience-and a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible.
Now for my 6 degrees of separation.
1) The Yellow Room by Jess Vallance
It's a chilling Australian domestic drama about Anna, a teenager who finds herself drawn to become friends with her father's ex-girlfriend, Edie. There is more to Edie than meets the eye, and her mental judgment snaps for a short period of time, in which she decides that keeping Anna prisoner in a tiny room, with all her favourite things, is the best course of action for both of them. My review is here.
2) The Yellow Envelope by Kim Dinan
Both have the word 'yellow' in their title. In this travel memoir, Kim and her husband Brian embark on a journey to travel around the world. They take with them a yellow envelope from a friend, full of money to distribute randomly to deserving people along the way, as they feel led. My review is here.
3) Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
In this classic Victorian novel by Jules Verne, Phileas Fogg and his loyal man servant, Passepartout, do a similar thing to Kim Dinan, and embark on a trip around the world, and they also distribute their fair share of money along the way, although their motivation is different. However, they too experience their fair share of adventures and misadventures. My review is here.
4) Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
At one stage, Fogg and Co. are forced to hire Kiouni, a female elephant, to help them traverse a certain length of their journey in India. They manage to make quite good friends with her. In this book, Jacob Jankowski forges a special bond with Rosie, another female elephant, when he's given the position of her trainer in a ramshackle circus during the Depression Era.
5) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This is another story in which the main protagonists discover that life in a travelling sideshow is not all its cracked up to be. The magical circus operates from sunset to sunrise, delighting the audience, A pair of rival magicians groom their young proteges, Celia and Marcus, up for an intense competition. Little do they know the young pair will fall in love.
6) The Hunger Games
Catniss and Peeta are another young pair who are also forced to be bitter rivals in a cutthroat competition, and also happen to fall in love.
Voila, with just 6 degrees of separation, I've started with characters who are confined to a very tiny space, and ended with characters who are dumped in a wide open space to battle for survival. I'm liking this meme and look forward to next month's.