Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'On the Banks of Plum Creek' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of April.
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Based on the real-life adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek is the Newbery Honor-winning fourth book in the Little House series, which has captivated generations of readers. This edition features the classic black-and-white artwork from Garth Williams.

The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as they leave their little house on the prairie and travel in their covered wagon to Minnesota. They settle into a house made of sod on the banks of beautiful Plum Creek. Soon Pa builds them a sturdier house, with real glass windows and a hinged door. Laura and Mary go to school, help with the chores around the house, and fish in the creek. Pa’s fiddle lulls them all to sleep at the end of the day. But then disaster strikes—on top of a terrible blizzard, a grasshopper infestation devours their wheat crop. Now the family must work harder than ever to overcome these challenges.
We catch up the with the Ingalls family for their very next move after leaving Indian Territory, where they might have just escaped with their lives. (See Little House on the Prairie.) Pa's newest big idea is to settle in Minnesota and harvest a fine crop of wheat, which he's certain will bring them unprecedented wealth. Their list of dreams keeps being added to. It includes a new buggy, fine horses, silk dresses and candy every day. Also salt pork, gravy and fresh beef for regular meals. It's great fun to have all this to look forward to from their temporary home, a dugout in the ground.

Pa gets so excited that he starts borrowing money before he even harvests the wheat, to have some luxuries early. They purchase Sam and David, their beautiful horses, along with lumber to build their best house yet. Pa really splashes out to add metal door hinges, shingles, glass windows, china door knobs, and the boss of all cook stoves to surprise Ma. He says, 'Don't worry about the expense. Just look through the glass at that wheat field.' And Laura thinks how brilliant it is that they have the wonderful house just because the wheat is growing.

The girls start school for the first time. I remember being aghast as a kid that 9-year-old Mary and 8-year-old Laura could hardly read at all. Literacy snuck up on me from a very early age, and the same thing happened with my kids, who we homeschooled. (In all honesty, I can't say I taught them much before they were off on their own.) This re-read of Plum Creek shows that it was less to do with any fault in Pa and Ma as role models, and more to do with complete lack of opportunities to read. They owned just a handful of adult books and lived in a world with no sign posts, newspapers, adverts or computers. When you're not inundated unconsciously with letters and words almost every waking moment, you don't read. This speaks as much about our era as theirs.

How sad to think that Ma had only one novel to tide her over through the years. I haven't read Millbank but hope it was good, because they had to get a lot of mileage out of it. They obviously did. It turns out Laura knew swaths off by heart, just from hearing Ma read it to Pa.

777072In spite of lack of the written word, there was plenty of opportunity to learn good life lessons. The creek in which Laura almost drowned taught her that some things just can't be controlled, and an old badger possibly saved her life. Because, 'once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens.'

Laura's descriptive writing skills bring the books alive. Nobody gives nature personality the way she does. For example, the storm 'seemed angry' that they'd managed to fetch two loads of wood behind its back. After a much needed rainfall, 'the air was cool and the earth was damp and grateful.' And in a terrible three-day blizzard, 'the voices in the storm howled and giggled and shrieked.' It's so subtle, but she makes features of the great outdoors seem like extra characters, without us even realising.

My very favourites are the bits that simply highlight the joy of being alive. The best happiness is in simple pleasures, after all.

We see it in insects. 'Bees and hornets stood thick along the cracks (in the plums) sucking up the juices with all their might. Their scaly tails wiggled with joy.'

And it's the same with dogs. 'Jack looked up at Laura and a waggle went from his neck to his stubby tail.' 

And with people. 'Pa was sitting on the wagon seat. His face was one big shining of joy.'

But life has its fair share of heartache too. The wheat field becomes a loss, when a plague of grasshoppers of biblical proportions show up. They really show the power in numbers, but you feel like wringing their millions of rotten little necks, one after the other. I was so sorry for Pa, to have to walk hundreds of miles in his shabby old boots to earn enough money to pay back what he owed. At this stage, readers might start thinking, 'I hope this poor man's hopes and dreams won't be crushed near the end of every book.' But he's a product of his times, and knows how to take the bad with the good. 'There's no use protesting. What must be done is best done cheerfully.' Another one of his ideas he couldn't quite pull off, just like the move to Indian territory.

There are great descriptions of the town, which seem like a pioneer village in action. I used to adore the chapter with the Christmas tree in the church. (More about that incident here.) And we're introduced to Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, one of the snobbiest, brattiest girls in literature. (See my list of famous mean girls.)

We get to take in our fill of lazy summer holiday incidents, with the swimming hole, the creek bank, the dusty tablelands and the ripe plums. Let's soak in the sunshine while we can, because The Long Winter isn't too far off. But just before that, and next up will be By the Shores of Silver Lake.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

Acclaimed by many as the world's greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature - with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author's own views and convictions.

Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, 'He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.

To start off with, this is my choice for the Book in Translation in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd never read any Russian literature before beginning these challenges, and I'm loving it.

It's taken me well over a month to read and process, but it's been worth every second, and I was sorry it wasn't even longer. It's sad that I let intimidation get the better of me for so many years, but I thought I had good reason. A massive epic about a tragic love affair that drags on for almost 1000 pages didn't sound like much fun. But references to it have popped up so often in other novels, from characters who have loved it. Name dropping and fandom within fiction is always very hard to resist. Then I found out that in 2007, Times magazine deemed it the greatest book ever written. Well, that was it, I felt motivated to at least give it a try.

The first thing you might notice, if you stop to tally them all, is that there's about 230 chapters. Don't let that put you off, because they're all fairly short and easy to power through. It might be a meaty book, but it's not heavy. The characters are all so relatable, and many-faceted, I could easily blow this review into several pages, but thought I'd better focus mostly on Anna this time round. Other characters will definitely get their turn down the track. (Especially Levin, my favourite.)

Anna starts off as the woman who has everything going for her. Great beauty, a friendly manner that bubbles over with merriment and life, a highly respected husband and a sweet 8-year-old son. She also has a knack with small talk that makes whoever she's talking to feel special. When her brother Stepan's marriage seems heading for the rocks, she's the person he calls on to smooth things over with his wife, Dolly.

Then happy Anna meets Count Alexey Vronsky during her visit, and suddenly all she has is no longer enough. Practically overnight, her husband becomes a repulsive bore, and her social life is tedious and false. All she can think about is this gorgeous man who pursues her and fascinates her. (Those people and things haven't really changed at all, of course. It's just her attitude about them.)

I think there are two main ways readers can approach this novel, depending on how the main character strikes them. 1) Anna is a woman of personal integrity who refuses to live a lie. She realises that life is too short not to make a desperate bid for personal fulfillment and joy. She has the guts to reject the falseness and artificiality pressing her in from all sides, and take a stand for true love, even though she gets shunned by society and branded an immoral woman for doing so. 2) Anna is a selfish rebel who brings trouble upon herself and grief on those closest to her, all because she turns her back on the good in her life, without seeing it as such. Basically, she ditches her husband because someone hotter comes along. She demands freedom and acceptance without considering the claims of those who are made miserable in the process.

Readers on those opposing sides might as well be reading a different novel from each other. Many of us understand both points of view and fall somewhere in the middle. I was interested to see where Tolstoy would take the consequences of Anna's decision to leave her husband and son. To me, his story shows that making an attempt to bulldoze every obstacle in the path of your desires creates its own problems. When trying to design your perfect life involves breaking established 'rules' and upsetting others, all sorts of unforeseen problems pop out.

Anna's admirers might explain her slide into paranoia by blaming society's treatment of her. She'd sacrificed her son and her good name. Vronsky was all she had left, so naturally she was desperate to cling to him. But her critics could argue there's more to it than this. I imagine a hidden fear of some sort of karma or retribution might haunt Anna. Deep down, she can't shake off the sense that she did the dirty on her husband and son, so feelings of guilt and shame keep her edgy and wear her down. Since she's deserted those she should hold most dear, she's more likely to be alert for signs of similar behaviour in others.

Especially Vronsky, who was her partner in crime, so to speak. He left Kitty, his former love, to chase Anna, so what's to stop him from a repeat performance? Anna knows he had no scruples in his pursuit of her, so therefore no matter how well he treats her, she can't shake her concept of him as a person she can't trust. It's easy to understand why his personal history is always at the front of Anna's mind.

There was all sorts of negative psychology going on. Both Anna and Vronsky walk around with the attitude, 'Look at all I've given up for you.' That exerts a sort of 'You owe me,' pressure which isn't the best glue for a relationship. I wasn't a Vronsky fan at the start, for breezing in to wreck a family, just because he fell for a married woman. He regards Karenin, her husband, as a pig or dog sullying up the waters he wanted to enjoy himself! Well, who'd have guessed that getting exactly what he wanted would turn back to bite him on the butt? By the end, I even felt sorry for him.

Anna's predicament makes her impossible to please, as her dealings with her husband proves. When Karenin lashes out at her, she loathes him. Yet when he has a change of heart and chooses forgiveness, she hates him still, for showing her up! The poor guy can't win. When he finally asks, 'Look, what do you want from me?' she finds it impossible to answer. She wants both Vronsky and her son, Seryozha, yet they're mutually exclusive, because for Seryozha to live with his mother and Vronsky would ruin his future social and career prospects. So no wonder Anna's frustration helps change her personality. But it's for the reader to decide to what extent she's responsible for it.

Although I've padded this review out with talk of Anna and Vronsky, their shenanigans alone wouldn't have held me for 900+ pages. Other characters are really the ones who kept me hooked, especially Levin, Kitty, and Dolly who I'll discuss in more detail in other blog posts.

15823480But just as a teaser, Kitty is the girl who fancied herself in love with Vronsky, and refused a heartfelt marriage proposal from Levin. Then when Vronsky jilts her to chase Anna, Kitty realises that she loved Levin all along. She considers her life in ruins, because she'd told him, 'It can never be.' And he's a humble, self-effacing fellow who'd laid everything on the line to propose to her. Now he's retreated back to his home in the country, to handle his rejection with grace and peace. I kept turning the pages for more of the terrific chemistry from these two, whether they're together or apart.

Perhaps a good quote to end with is Vronsky's, 'I can give up anything for Anna, but not my manly independence.' Little does he know that Anna will demand this along with everything else. I see why this book is loved by many people, from highbrow, literary types all the way down to normal folk like me. There's lots of reflection about politics, economics and philosophy, and different readers may take it all on board differently, but there's more than enough for us all to mull over in our own particular way. 

On the whole, I get the strong impression that Leo Tolstoy really wasn't in favour of people leaving their spouse when someone hotter comes along. Yet at the same time, his sympathy for Anna and lack of condemnation shines through. I've heard several suggestions that Anna Karenina is the sort of novel that may help reveal the meaning of life. If that's true, I wouldn't be surprised if there are as many interpretations as there are readers. But I'm happy to go with Levin's conclusion, that overthinking it only brings misery, and we're probably wisest when we do our simple daily tasks with the knowledge that we'll never fathom the heart of God, who makes everything tick.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enchantments and Depression

One of the best things about reading novels is occasional sudden insights into issues that might crop up in our own lives. While non-fiction delivers straight talk about how we should tweak our thoughts and behaviour, fiction has a more indirect way of inviting us to make the connections ourselves. Not only is it potentially easier to swallow, but might even stick with us for longer.

For example, fantasy stories often present magical enchantments, and one day it dawned on me how very similar they may be to normal human depression and anxiety. Both grip our minds with half-truths and distortions, and send us spiraling into morbid ruts.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the entire household staff of politician Sir Walter Pole was under a fairy enchantment, and nobody had a clue. There were elusive strains of music and occasional peals of faraway bells. Some of the servants tried to describe their feelings to Stephen Black, the butler, and here's what he managed to piece together. 'The effect of the fairy bells was to bring vividly to mind everyone they'd ever known who had died, all the good things they'd ever lost, and every bad thing which had ever happened to them. Consequently they had become dejected and low, and their lives were not worth living.'

We readers nod along and think, 'It's no wonder they're feeling blue, when their minds are being manipulated like this.' We know just what's going on later, when hero magician Jonathan Strange has a close call himself, almost falling victim to the weird but compelling fairy music. It almost defeated him at the level of his thoughts. Here's how the book expresses it.

'He heard music that described his whole life, and realised for the first time how full of sadness his existence was. He knew now that every angry thought he had ever had was justified, and that every generous thought was misplaced.' Wow, I've had similar moods to that, haven't you?

Luckily, poor Jonathan twigged what was happening in some lucid edge of his mind, and managed to claw himself back to straight thinking in the nick of time. On the spot, he disputed the intrusive thoughts and acknowledged that while they were attacking his mind, he didn't have to own them. Next he replaced them with more wholesome thoughts of his choice, which strengthened with focus. He remembered his wife, Arabella, and her excellent mental qualities that attracted him to her. He loved her ability to find charm and wit in the most commonplace situations, and this sort of healthy thinking turned out to be an effective antidote against the bad fairy charm.

One author who knows all about depression is J.K. Rowling, who has explained how she drew upon her own horrific experience to create the menacing dementors, whose effect on everyone is to create a sick chill and suck every trace of happiness from any by-stander, to the extent of sucking their souls outright with the 'dementor's kiss.'

Harry Potter fans will surely also remember poor Ron's plight in The Deathly Hallows, when he takes his turn to wear the dreadful horcrux locket around his neck. He seems to be particularly susceptible to its influence of despair and hopelessness, to the extent that he bails out of their mission, tells Harry and Hermione where to go and storms off! Of course he comes to his senses the moment he's away from it and manages to return to his friends. But the horcrux fights dirty to the bitter end, taunting Ron with terrible twisted images about his own worth and everyone else's rock bottom opinions of him. It's all noxious garbage, but the scary thing is that Ron knows he was harboring germs of those sad reflections, and the enchantment in the horcrux managed to hone into them and exaggerate them into something malicious and potentially soul-crushing. His simple impulse is to stand around listening, but he must heed Harry's shout to, 'Kill it! Kill it!' These supreme moments are the way a great story can help us slay our own monsters too.

Our books offer hope that we can deal with our personal monsters in the way these great characters deal with their enchantments. Imagine if we could just slay the crazy 'all or nothing' thinking that makes us consider ourselves losers, and the fearful catastrophising, second-guessing, and misfortune telling. What if we could crush those erroneous conclusions that would have us assume that everything we don't like is a personal affront against us, and the distorted negatives which seem to make it all but impossible to acknowledge positives in our lives. I've harboured all of these at different times. It's wonderful to think that good fiction, as well as merely entertaining us, offers a possible way out of bad thinking traps. It challenges us to replace bad thoughts with better ones, and dispute them as if they're just the sort of pesky fairy enchantments that fictional characters must face.

It's not easy, but our beloved stories give us no illusions that it will be. The only effective way to repel dementors and cast a protective Patronus charm is to instantly summon your happiest memories, when you felt on top of the world. Even though you're quaking with terror as the horrible creatures are swooping down on you, and upbeat thoughts seem light years away, if you do manage they'll surely be forced to flee. I love the challenge.

You might also enjoy, Reading with Depression and Melancholia, the happy side of sadness.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

'Green Valley' by Meredith Resce


Emily Wallace has been given a choice. Either she obeys her father'swishes and marries the elderly widower, or she will be sent to live with her aunt in Australia. Even with the tales of wild animals and convicts, Emily chooses to sail to this unknown and untamed land. She simply cannot marry the cruel and arrogant Lord.Colin Shore has never met anyone so beautiful before. The moment he first saw Lady Emily Wallace at the dock he fell in love with her. But he would never presume that she would be part of his life. After all, she was a Lady and he was only a farmer.

It's the second in the Green Valley series, recently re-released for its twentieth anniversary. Readers of The Manse will remember Colin Shore as the teenager who had to assume full responsibility of his family's farm after his father's untimely death. Now he's all grown up, still working hard, and bickering with his sisters in his downtime. The tiny house is hardly large enough to hold them all, and he can't wait for them to leave home. He longs for the day when they're some other guys' responsibility, and wouldn't dream of courting a girl himself, and adding more drama to the already crammed household.

Meanwhile over in England, Lady Emily Wallace has been resisting the force of her father and brother to marry the foreboding Lord Derickson, who's 60 years old, while she's not yet 17. Her only way to escape their pressure is to cave in to their threats to send her to Australia to live with her aunt Vera, which they never expected she'd choose as the better option. Once there, it doesn't take Lady Emily long to single out the man of her dreams; no prize for guessing who. But she just won't accept it when her new neighbours try to explain that they are at opposite ends of the social spectrum, which makes a union impossible. In her eyes, Colin is a respectable man with land of his own.

There is always a good blend of comedy, adventure and social commentary in the Green Valley stories, which makes them an interesting read. One of my favourite aspects of this one is Emily's spirit. She's a strong, determined character in an era of strict social manners, yet never sacrifices her politeness. There's a great section where she sets out to prove her own worth, but it's the opposite to how many other stories are written. It reminds me of an inverted 'My Fair Lady', which could only work in the Aussie colonial era. Rather than attempting to raise her class, Emily aims to show that she can lower hers, to match the energy and courage of any hard-working farmer's wife.

The confusion of people's roles in this time and place comes through clear. Although British settlers attempt to cling to the social hierarchy which is all they've ever known, they are also coping with unprecedented changes, such as a labourer's freedom to earn enough to purchase land and be independent. In this transition sort of stage, settlers wanted to embrace change and stay put at the same time.

I like it when authors can wrap their minds around a characteristic way of thought from a bygone era, so that it is woven into the plot. With the steady action, combined with colourful descriptions of the Australian bush, it's easy to see why many readers have kept on with this series, wanting to see what'll happen to future generations. In Green Valley, seemingly hopeless situations are worked out quite credibly, to romance lovers' satisfaction.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

'All Passion Spent' by Vita Sackville-West

In 1860, as a young girl of 17, Lady Slane nurtures a secret, burning ambition—to become an artist. She becomes, instead, the wife of a great statesman and the mother of six children. Seventy years later, released by widowhood, and to the dismay of her pompous children, she abandons the family home for a tiny house in Hampstead. Here she recollects the dreams of youth, and revels in her newfound freedom with her odd assortment of companions: Genoux, her French maid; Mr. Bucktrout, her house agent; and a coffin maker who pictures people dead in order to reveal their true characters. And then there's Mr. FitzGeorge, an eccentric millionaire who met and loved her in India when she was young and very lovely. It is here in this world of her own that she finds a passion that comes only with the freedom to choose, and it is this, her greatest gift, that she passes on to the only one who can understand its value.

First published in 1931, Vita Sackville-West's masterpiece is the fictional companion to her great friend Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

This is a thought-provoking story for anyone who wants to give themselves permission to live a simple, humble, contemplative life. Platitudes such as 'step out of your comfort zone' are so prevalent, we tend to take them on board as dogma without ever thinking about them. This story is all about asking, 'Hey, why should I step out?' Lady Slane is one person who realises that since life is so short, her comfort zone is the most appealing place to live. Her given name is Deborah, but nobody has used it for years. After a lifetime of doing what society expects of her, she makes a decision to retire from the public eye and live in a small house, out of the spotlight.

At the start, her husband, Henry Lyulph Holland, the first earl of Slane, has just passed away, aged 94. He was a former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India with an illustrious list of achievements and excellent reputation. Now that he's gone, his older children, senior citizens and big advocates of productive lives, assume that their gentle and pliable mother will be passed around between their homes. But the 88-year-old has other ideas.

Lady Slane realises that in all the hustle and bustle of helping her family look good, she's sacrificed many parts of her own true nature, including time to contemplate. 'In contemplation she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children, who reckoned things by results and activities.' She and her maid,Genoux, realise their calm, new routine is more than enough, punctuated by small interests such as leisurely strolls and the arrival of tradesmen and parcels of books. 'Of such small things was her life now made.' It sounds pretty nice to me, and I kept scribbling down supportive quotes of her chosen lifestyle. 'She'd had enough in her life, of people whose worldly status was their passport to admission.'

I didn't give the nod to everything. Some of her musings made me a bit sad, such as thinking back on her husband and children as 'obstacles' that kept her from her true self. That's a hard word to use in this context, for innocent kids. She was the one who caved in to pressure to bring them up in a way the world would approve, but then decides she doesn't gel with the hoop-jumping people they grew into. Well, she helped shape them that way. I can't help feeling that when they grew up, she was treating them the same way they treated her, by thinking harsh things about them and not extending grace, since they were acting the best way they knew how, just like her. And sometimes when she made decisions just to annoy them, I wondered if she was such a nice, innocent little old lady after all.

Most readers would probably agree that the renewal of Lady Slane's friendship with Colonel FitzGeorge is one of the book's highlights, even though she barely remembered their mutual past to start with. Two people who briefly cross paths in their twenties now touch base almost sixty years later, and take up where they left off. I love how he reflects that the beauty in her face has changed, developing into something richer and deeper than youthful beauty.

In fact all the characters are elderly, with one notable exception towards the end. Some of Lady Slane's children are grandparents themselves, and Edith, the 'baby sister' is 60. She's an interesting character with an independent thought life I would have liked to see more of. Mr Bucktrout, Lady Slane's old landlord, is also quite a character on her own wavelength, and some of his quotes are the ones I liked most.

* Repose is one of the most important things, and yet how few people achieve it.
* My principle has always been that it's better to please one person a great deal than please a number of persons a little.
* I have given a great deal of offense in my life, but not one offensive instance do I repent.
* Although one cannot create an atmosphere, one can at least safeguard it against disturbances.

Maybe sticking to our decisions to live the gentle, quiet lives we dream of, instead of jumping through hoops, is really a bold leap out of the comfort zone of public approval. Insisting on your right to enjoy a passive, relaxed and unheralded life may take courage, in the face of criticism and rejection. What an irony that going with the flow, and taking the path of least resistance, may be the biggest energy sapper after all. I'm not going to wait until I'm old to heed Lady Slane's lesson.


Friday, March 16, 2018

'Farmer Boy' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of March.

Growing up on his family's farm in New York, Almanzo Wilder wishes for just one thing--his very own horse. But Father doesn't yet trust him with such a big responsibility. Almanzo needs to prove himself--but how?

It's the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's husband Almanzo when he was a boy. To sum up my feelings in a sentence, nothing beats sitting down to relax with a good book and read about others' hard work. I'd guess it was originally written as a companion to Laura's first book, Little House in the Big Woods, because it covers a year in the life of a family, following the cycles of the four seasons. But unlike the restless, roving Pa Ingalls, the Wilders had a flourishing, commercial farm. They weren't moving anywhere, and wouldn't want to!

One thing that stands out about James Wilder's farm is the huge variety. No specialisation for this man, he had all sorts going. Horses, cattle, sheep, potatoes, other veggies, cereal crops, orchards, you name it. I'm sure farms like his are almost extinct now. In modern times, people are seduced by the greater efficiency of growing or raising just one thing, and the profits that follow. Indeed, smaller hobby farmers can't compete with the produce of mass producers on the market. But I wonder if there's a high cost of soil depletion and healthy nutrient loss from overdoing it with a single commodity. It's sad to think that we're being led by the almighty dollar to our detriment, and that farms like the Wilders' no longer operate.

What pros they were too. Everything from their farm was naturally the very best. Not just any old sheep, but prize merinos. Also high pedigree Morgan horses, top quality potatoes, and super creamy butter that speaks for itself. No wonder the Wilders were highly respected in their community, and naturally reserved the best stables at church.

Almanzo makes a likable little hero, and his love for horses and food cannot be beaten. The story shows this boy going crazy about either one or the other.

To me, the horses come across fairly edgy and keyed up. Father wouldn't let his nine-year-old son near them, for fear that he'd teach them undesirable habits unwittingly. He was always dropping remarks like, 'One little mistake will ruin a fine colt.' They sound a bit like children. They'll pick up bad habits in a flash from some ratbag who's just mucking around, while good traits from someone with their best interests at heart are harder to stick. But young Almanzo decides that these high-maintenance critters are his delight.

8252His other passion is food, and the amount he manages to stuff into his mouth during this story is astounding, but Mother keeps it coming. A typical winter breakfast, for example, seemed to be pancakes, sausage cakes, oatmeal, fried potato, buckwheat cakes, doughnuts, jellies and jam. They have my admiration for keeping up the pace day after day, when our morning ritual is pouring a bowl of cereal. Reading this book might even be a good strike in the war against junk food. If you start off feeling sorry for the Wilder kids for not having Mars Bars and McDonalds, you might well end up feeling jealous instead, because of the delicious turnovers and doughnuts we can read about but not taste.

It's a lovely picture of a boy with a healthy role model in his father, who he adores. James gives Almanzo a heavy dose of the Protestant Work Ethic, making sure his son knows that money = hard work. 'Any time you want to spend a nickel, stop and think how much work it takes to earn a dollar.' He also scoffs at time saving devices which may compromise quality, because 'all it saves is time. And what good is time with nothing to do?' It sinks in too. One the third day of the County Fair, the young boy decides with no prompting that he's had an overload of leisure and just wants to get back to work.

There are several interesting snippets. How about the Indian at the County Fair, who jumped onto the race track and kept up with the horses? The story tells us that he ran a two minute, forty second mile, and even Father was impressed. Well, I'd hope so, because if it's true, the guy smashed Sir Roger Bannister's four minute mile several decades before it was even set! Even in 1954, many people called a four minute mile a physically impossible feat. And today the current record stands at three minutes and 43 seconds.This shows that nameless wonders and unsung heroes pop up in every generation. Unless Almanzo remembered it with boyish exaggeration and told Laura, who took it on face value and wrote it down. But I prefer to believe the tale about that freakishly fast Indian runner. (Even though my family say it's absolutely impossible.)

Readers who work in the retail industry should get ready to be challenged. Almanzo's big brother Royal decides to be a store keeper, because he's over all the demands of farm work. It makes sense to me. He's a young man who's familiar with farming and knows what he's talking about, so it's not an uninformed whim on his part. Yet his parents think he's selling himself short, and their main reason for idolising their hard lifestyle comes back to their notion of freedom and independence.

They can't stand the thought of having to kowtow to customers and keep everyone happy, whether they like them or not. We're told, 'If Father goes out of his way to please anyone, it's only because he wants to.' He himself puts it this way. 'You work hard but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.' (Only the weather, the seasons, the hands of the clock and the demands of a crowd of animals are allowed to do that, but somehow James Wilder doesn't mind being pushed around by these things so much. But to me it shows that nobody is truly 'free', unless it's to choose who, or what will be our master.)

Mother knows exactly how to respond to Mr Paddock's generous offer to train Almanzo to be a wheelwright. 'Why would Almanzo want to live in town and cater to the whims of every Tom, Dick and Harry?' Poor Mr Paddock will have to look for another apprentice.

'Mother' is one of my favourite characters. The story doesn't even give her name, but a wiki search tells me it was Angeline. What a fantastic lady, proving that feminine skills are a super strength. She blitzes everything, from her wonderful cooking and awesome loom weaving to her way of speaking her mind and bartering with tradesmen. I love how she and her husband come across as partners, each upholding their own equally important end of home and farm. But most of all, I love how she liberates other females not to scoff at the domestic arts, as a life pursuit. Nobody could possibly look at Angeline Wilder and call her work drudgery. What a woman. 

Another theme that keeps popping up is the true value of anyone's work or decisions being revealed in time. When lazy farmers scatter seed haphazardly so they can call it a day, their sloppiness will be obvious to everyone a few months later. In one of my favourite chapters, Almanzo decides to sneak some homemade toffee to his pet piglet, Lucy, but everyone finds out when her teeth get stuck together, and they have to pin her down so Royal can dislodge it. Oh oh, even loyal sister Alice is shocked that Almanzo would waste their sweets on a pig.

On the whole, Father is very matter-of-fact about the test of time, even regarding those he's most proud of.
Liveryman: That's a smart boy of yours.
Father: Time will show. Many a good beginning makes a bad ending. It remains to be seen how he turns out in the long run.

History showed his son suffered many tough times and hard knocks in the years ahead of him, with moments of heartache that might have broken his father's heart to see. But Almanzo came through with his faith, and his good, gentle character intact, so I'm sure James would have been perfectly satisfied with the way he turned out.

Next up will be On the Banks of Plum Creek


Read more about Almanzo here on this post about book boyfriends

Monday, March 12, 2018

We don't have to tackle Mount Everest

I was studying this huge mountain with my younger son. It's so impressive, being the world's tallest, at 8848 metres high. Apparently it still grows by about 0.25 inches each year, even at 60 million years old. It was first identified by a British survey team lead by George Everest in 1841, but not until 1953 did anyone manage to reach the summit. It was achieved by Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, making them instantly famous.

I applaud Junko Tabei, the first female to reach the top, not to mention Miura Yiuchiro, the oldest person to reach the top, aged 80, in May 2013. South Australia's Flinders Ranges' Mount Remarkable was almost too much for me, at 960 metres, and I was a fraction of the age. Over time, thousands of people have tried to reach the top of Everest, and many nameless folk have died making the attempt, in the name of thrill seeking or notoriety. My nephew's karate sensei climbed part of it. Even though he has the fitness level of an Olympic athlete, he didn't even attempt to make it all the way up. He told stories about the thinness of the atmosphere, and the many stops they would make just to get their breath back and conquer altitude sickness. Something about a challenge of that magnitude appeals to the adventurous streak that lies buried in all of us, some deeper than others.

Yet it would seem that, from space, it's a different story. From a vantage point of such magnitude, Mount Everest is merely part and parcel of the crust of the earth. In fact, it was even surprisingly difficult to single out. Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, said, 'How many people dream of conquering Everest so they can look down from it, yet for us up above, it was difficult to locate.'

This God's eye perspective, so to speak, makes me feel peaceful, although I had to think about it to figure out why. It's to do with the fact that it is we humans who label things with significance and importance, by deeming them big or impressive from our vantage point. As it's not at all the same for God, we needn't worry about buying into all those competitions for status.

We make Everests out of so many things. Humans are those who spread the illusion that certain lines of work are far more illustrious than others, and that achieving celebrity-hood or stardom in some field is the pinnacle to strive for. I now like to think that from a lofty enough heavenly perspective, all the good we do just becomes part of the earth's fabric. That means we don't really have to bust our boilers, burst our blood vessels and strain our Type A personalities to impress people walking around down here, who share our limited focus.

Imagine some member of the angelic host whose vantage point is more like that of Lebedev and his fellow astronauts, saying, "Mother Teresa and Billy Graham have done wonderful things, but so have millions of others. It's just part of the total of what love-driven servants are doing everywhere. Look at Jane Doe, caring for her sick mother and working hard as a single parent to support her son through college. Or Joe Blogs the bus driver, sticking to road rules and greeting all his passengers cheerfully, day after day. It's all one and the same, and we love it."

If we've ever been afraid of never hearing, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' thinking our work is too little or measly to justify the space we take, it might be time to get over our Mount Everest syndrome. When I finish writing this blog post, I'm going to go and clean my kitchen, have a walk with my son, and help my daughter prepare some food for her youth group. Later I'll work on a couple of book reviews. I'll have to remind myself that even though these things aren't Mount Everest, they are all adding to crust of love-driven deeds that makes the earth a great place to live. If we tend to get discouraged because we think we're not making a ripple, then maybe it's a sign that we should stop thinking in terms of being considered remarkable or measuring up to some standard. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Several Super Scientists

I was thinking how scientist characters tend to draw us in through both books and screen. There's something appealing about their brilliant and inquiring minds. The stories in which they feature tend to have interesting subject matter, and maybe they make us feel a tad smarter ourselves by reading about them. Several of the examples that sprang to my mind are so personally appealing, I was on the verge of calling this list, 'sexy scientists'. Here they are.

I'll begin with the natural history dudes. These guys are really into flora and fauna.

The Blue CastleBarney Snaith
Arguably one of L.M. Montgomery's most successful and appealing heroes, he lives out in the forest and writes books about the great outdoors, using the pseudonym John Foster. Valancy Stirling has no idea that when she falls in love with Barney, she's also falling for her favourite author. He always makes an effort to throw her off the scent by criticising 'that writer' as a charlatan whenever he can. (My review is here.)

383206Roger Hamley 
This earthy young man delves into the world of nature to the extent that he knows it as well as his own face in the mirror. His family considers his passion a major time waster, until he gets sponsored to take a major expedition to Africa to study plants and critters. It's a huge deal in the Victorian era, when men like Charles Darwin are doing the same thing, and there's no guarantee that they'll return alive. (My review is here.)

Newt Scamander
The most famous naturalist of the magical world, he's also beloved by many muggles who think he's just gorgeous. He also wrote the  text book based on his fieldwork, Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is used by all Hogwarts students in their studies.

19089Reverend Camden Farebrother 
More of a wannabe scientist than a legitimate one, this poor old pastor crams his study with samples beneath microscopes, because they really turn him on. Since his widowed mother and spinster sisters depend on him, he can't afford to indulge his passion full time. (My review is here.)
John Gould
This novel is really about his wife, but the birdman himself has plenty of appeal in a driven, fanatical sort of way. Based on real personal history, he brought his wife around the globe to Australia to help him indulge his passion for birds. He adores them enough to kill and stuff them in a flash, whenever he gets the chance. (My review is here.)

Next are the biological dudes who major on the human body, which makes them deliciously creepy when the story requires. 

35031085Victor Frankenstein
This handsome young genius manages to fulfil his dream of playing God. He stitches together a brand new human-like being from bits and pieces he digs up in graveyards, and somehow breathes life into it. But his astounding feat returns to haunt him. Full of anguish at having ever been created, the hideous monster strikes out against what his creator loves most in the world.

Tertius Lydgate
A new doctor in Middlemarch, the good-looking and earnest young man dreams of making amazing medical breakthroughs to help mankind. As a boy, he looked into a book of anatomy, and discovered his purpose in a flash. Yet he doesn't reckon upon small town prejudice. The people who are grossed out by his habit of examining dead bodies are just the start of all he has to deal with. (See my link to Farebrother, since they come from the same book.)
I'm going to call this young boy a scientist, although his peculiarity is more along the lines of a freaky gift. He can rip hearts out of living beings to animate dead ones for the short term. And believe it or not, there are times when Enoch's skill comes in very handy. (My review is here.)

Then there's the inventor type, or gadget guys, who make all sorts of weird, mechanical contraptions, that cause serious trouble and mayhem. The majority of those I thought of tend to be in sitcoms and movies rather than books. Maybe this is because their particular branch of science has the potential to be a good spectacle. 

Professor Wayne Szalinksy
His shrinking machine was a fabulous achievement, but something so dangerous shouldn't have been left lying around for unsuspecting family members to blunder into. What a mess! Also, he's a lesson to us all to never give up and assume failure prematurely. His lack of self confidence caused major trouble in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Flint Lockwood
I love this geeky, awkward little dude from Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs. He lived a lonesome life, always at odds with his father and shunned by others. The machine he'd hoped would win him respect and fix all his social troubles ended up plunging him in boiling hot water.

The Professor
He can work wonders with a bit of primitive technology and whatever natural material is on hand, such as coconut shells. But it's never enough to get them all off the island! At least he was admired by lady viewers as the sexiest castaway, but didn't really have a lot of competition in Gilligan, the Skipper and Mr Howell.

The Time Traveller
A gentleman scientist from the Victorian era, he built the incredible machine which enabled him to visit many different time periods. Then he returns to his own era to wow gentry in their drawing rooms.
The Big Bang Theory
I'm drawing closer to my ultimate super scientist, but first I'll award the runners up. You've got to spare a thought for these wacky geeks; physicists Leonard and Sheldon, aerospace engineer Howard, and astrophysicist Raj. What they collectively lack in tact, social skills, and conventional coolness, they certainly make up for in brainy brilliance. (Incidentally, remember the episode where they get hold of the actual time machine, from the movie based on H.G. Wells' book?)

And now for the big drum roll for number One on my list...

Mark Watney
18007564I've got to make him tops because he's such an all-round legend. An astronaut botanist, he was abandoned on a mission to Mars by his fellow crew, who assumed he was dead. He manages to keep himself alive by drawing on all sorts of scientific disciplines which aren't even his specialties, such as Physics, Chemistry and Engineering. He's forced to snatch every bit of trivia floating through his head to become an instant expert, just to survive another day. And most amazing of all, he keeps his sense of humour intact throughout his whole ordeal. (My review is here.)

Did you notice the same concerning, in-your-face thing I did after my brainstorm? Without exception, all on my list are male. I guess that in the past, when several of the classics were written, science really was a male dominated field, but interestingly, the tradition has seemed to cling. Where are the Marie Curies, Rachel Carsons, Jane Goodalls and Dian Fosseys of fiction? I think I've set myself a really tricky challenge for a future post, and hope there are enough for a list. 

As usual, if you can think of any other examples you love, either male or female, please add them in the comments. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote

In this seductive, wistful masterpiece, Truman Capote created a woman whose name has entered the American idiom and whose style is a part of the literary landscape. Holly Golightly knows that nothing bad can ever happen to you at Tiffany's; her poignancy, wit, and naΓ―vetΓ© continue to charm.

This is my choice for the 20th century classic category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

It's set in a New York apartment block during the second World War. A young aspiring writer finds himself falling for a mystery girl who lives on the floor above his. But the charismatic Holly Golightly has secrets, two of which are brought to light during the course of the novel. And they are clearly intended to make the reader say, 'Whoa!'

Holly is THE character around which the book revolves. Others love or hate her, but nobody is indifferent. She's the sort of person who will impose on somebody, then get prickly when he shows a subsequent interest in her background. Others may resent that, but our smitten young narrator simply takes it as a challenge. To me,Truman Capote's writing style seems more noteworthy than the story itself. His sparing prose has plenty of clever imagery, and a skillful way of making us sense things that aren't stated outright.

For example, Holly is all about colour and movement. We deduce this from the way she dresses, her apartment's 'fly-by-night' look, and simply what she's written on her card, 'Holiday Golightly, travelling.' It all gives the impression that she's not static, but fluid verging on restless. And it's reinforced by a number of casual references all through, such as her avoidance of the zoo because she hates to see creatures caged. Capote pulls this off with a minimum of words, because the whole story is over in just 100 pages.

Some of the minor characters are summed up in one or two revealing sentences, or even just a phrase. Rusty Trawler, her paunchy, wealthy middle-aged admirer, is a 'preserved infant.' The Brazilian Jose seems as out of place in their company as 'a violin in a jazz band.' And Mag Wildwood is a 'triumph over ugliness' since she accentuates her supposed defects rather than hiding them. It's easy to admire the way Capote saves space on descriptions, yet still makes his point.

The title may be a bit misleading. I think there's something alluring about the mention of food on a cover. Maybe it gives the impression there'll be some homely warmth. Yet nobody in the novel has a meal at Tiffany's Department Store. Holly simply mentions it in passing as one of her aspirations.

But even that turns out to be one of Capote's quick, subtle hints about the flip sides of her character, especially when snippets of her background are revealed. Holly is a girl who has the drive to leave an undesirable situation in search of something better, and the simple opulence of a department store during the war, with luxuries she can't afford, is enough to be her guiding star. I think we're meant to think that she has plenty of drive and gumption, but also naive idealism.

It's one of those stories where the movie possibly surpasses the fame of the book, because the lead role is well cast. I've never even seen it, but it's hard not to picture Audrey Hepburn's pixie face and little black dress as I read, just through taking on the hype over the years. It sounds like Hepburn must have nailed the dual sides of Holly's character; coming across both determined and delicate just by being herself. Holly Golightly could be a hardened criminal, yet she might simply be an innocent girl, dragged into something over her head. I'm sure Hepburn's is the name that springs instantly to most people's minds when someone says, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' even more than the author's. I put it to the test, and my family had never heard of Truman Capote.

Overall, I wasn't crazy about the plot. My favourite stories are usually longer, not so up-in-the-air, and not focused on just one character. 'Fred' reveals nothing about himself at all. Although he keeps repeating that it's not really about him, it might have been nice to at least know his name. As for Holly, well meh, I didn't get fond enough of the mystery girl to care much what happened to her when she made her secret disappearance. She's always condescending to the narrator, which grated on me. I wonder if I'm in the minority when I say I found the book pretty forgettable on the whole. The shortness is all that saved it from two stars, since it was too short to put aside. Sure, Capote's clever writing was good, but since he didn't intrigue me with his characters, then so what? If you want to give it a try, at least it'll be over quickly if you don't like it. I think the best character is the orange cat.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Taking a short break for moving

I'll be back blogging as soon as I can. Meanwhile, here's what we'll be occupied with for the next week or so. This is hard to believe, surrounded by boxes in our old home with cupboards empty, but next time you hear from me, we should be settled into our brand new home.

Looking forward to seeing you on the other side of the chaos here!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

'Little House on the Prairie' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of February.

*    *    *  

The adventures continue for Laura Ingalls and her family as they leave their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and set out for the big skies of the Kansas Territory. They travel for many days in their covered wagon until they find the best spot to build their house. Soon they are planting and plowing, hunting wild ducks and turkeys, and gathering grass for their cows. Just when they begin to feel settled, they are caught in the middle of a dangerous conflict.

It's Laura's second book, in which she writes about another year in the life of her family. They are off in their covered wagon to settle in Indian Country, because the Big Woods are now too crowded for Pa. He's lured by the promise of a treeless, level country with thick wildlife, and she describes the fertile openness and solitude of the wide prairie beautifully. Their small family unit gets along well together, savouring the little things. When Ma presses each loaf of cornbread flat for the coals, Pa says he wants no other seasoning than her hand print :) And in return, she calls the comfort of the bed and rocking chair he makes her, 'almost sinful.' Getting squares of glass for their windows is cause for a family celebration, and the girls' joy knows no bounds when they get tin cups, candy canes, little cakes and coins for Christmas.

However, Laura continues her own private quest to match the perfection of Mary. When she feels shown-up, her natural instinct is still to lash out with a slap, but she's learned that's strictly forbidden. (See Little House in the Big Woods.) She decides to muster her willpower to compete instead, but it's a losing battle, because Mary has set the bar so high. For all her good intentions, poor Laura crashes and burns at times, such as the moment she yearns for Pa to bring her a little, black-eyed papoose.

But chinks in Mary's exemplary exterior show through in this book, proving that she's only human like the rest of us. A great example is her tendency to freeze up and become helpless whenever she's scared. Poor Mary.

77767 Heroes show up in the unlikeliest, most remote spots, including men who saved their lives outright. There's Dr Tan, the negro doctor who cured them from malaria, and Soldat du Chene, the tall, French-speaking Indian from the Osage tribe who talked thousands of others out of murdering the settlers. Pa himself always rises to the occasion, such as dragging unconscious Mr Scott from the bottom of the partially completed well. (Perhaps sinking to the occasion is more accurate in that example.) And one of my favourite heroes is Mr Edwards, the bachelor and legend who cared so much about making Christmas special for two little girls that he risked his life to swim across a raging creek to bring them presents from Santa.

But although it's another beautiful family tale, modern readers can't ignore the elephant in the room. The Ingalls family was involved in something pretty dodgy. The government had promised to clear the Indians out of their ancestral land to open it up for settlers, and Pa put up his hand to say, 'Yes please!' Arguably what he should have said was, 'No thanks, being part of something so unethical would hang heavily on my conscience for the rest of my life.'

He does come across as respectful of their culture and optimistic that they could all get along. He probably reasoned that they were all human, but that's like goldfish setting their aquarium among sharks because they're all fish, or canaries nesting among eagles because they're all birds. To imagine that two distinct communities with alien values and poles-apart cognitive habits can suddenly live side by side is a recipe for disaster. Even though Pa is careful to treat them courteously, there's always a sense that he's just waiting to be rid of them. 'Indians are always moved on,' he says. Or, 'They should have the sense to know when they're licked.'

I wonder if he ever considered how he'd feel if the Indians were given a mandate to lob in the middle of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and start pushing his extended family back. But failure to consider somebody else's former claim was characteristic of many nineteenth century settlers.

The voice of westernisation may be best expressed by their neighbour Mrs Scott. 'They won't do anything with the country themselves but roam around in it. It belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice.' Even her assumption that farming is better for land over time than leaving it in its lush natural state is pure colonialism. It's easy to see why the Native Americans were incensed by this form of 'justice.'

So there's an ominous thread running through the whole story, all because the white settlers didn't 'Do unto others', although it never occurred to them that they should. The Ingalls' are living in the land of their fondest dreams, but have to put up with an Indian path running close by their house. Poor Jack the bulldog has to be permanently chained to the house, and Ma must get used to interlopers casually wandering into her home to steal whatever they please. Keeping important supplies in a padlocked cupboard is just a band-aid solution for the deeper, more sinister problem. There's always a sense that the uneasy truce won't last forever.

How frightening it was when the Indians' antagonism reached boiling point. The vulnerable Ingalls family sat in their tiny house surrounded by savage war cries, knowing full well how defenseless they'd be against a crowd of warriors bent on massacre. Six-year-old Laura remembered it like this. 'A nightmare is not so terrible as that night was. A nightmare is only a dream, and when it is worst you wake up. But this was real and Laura could not wake up.' She, Mary and Carrie would have been the most innocent victims had the worst occurred, as they were brought unwittingly to live there by the parents they trusted.

My heart ached for the terrible blow inflicted on Pa and Ma, when they were compelled to leave their nice little home with its freshly planted garden behind. For a man whose mottoes included, 'Better to be safe than sorry,' perhaps moving there in the first place wasn't one of Pa's finest ideas. But I'm sure they were well aware how lucky they were to have escaped with their lives. And their natural optimism is still shown to be firmly intact at the end.

Ma: A whole year gone, Charles.
Pa: What's a year amount to? We have all the time there is.

Next up will be Farmer Boy. 


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

'Children of the New Forest' by Captain Frederick Marryat

In The Children of the New Forest, Marryat describes the trials and triumphs of the four Beverley children, orphaned during the English Civil War and forced to take refuge with a poor woodsman in the New Forest. This is the first annotated edition of a great children's classic, which has retained its popularity since 1847.

I chose this title to fit into the category called a re-read of your favourite classic, for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I adored this book when I was in Year 9 at High School. I read it through several times, daydreamed about it, recommended it to others, and even tried to draw pictures of the main characters. But I never read it to my own kids since they strongly objected to the title and cover design. (More about their assumptions here. Throughout this review, I'll share several alternative covers I found, but I'm sure none of them would have impressed my fussy mob any more.) So this was my first read since childhood. It made me a bit nervous, as it's a sad let-down when things don't live up to our rosy memories. But I was relieved. Whew!

8134754It begins with a huge event that draws us right in. The time period is the English Civil War, and the king's troops, known as the Cavaliers are fighting against Parliament and the supporters of Oliver Cromwell who want to overthrow the monarchy. An old park ranger named Jacob Armitage overhears a plot to burn down a gracious old mansion named Arnwood, where the fugitive King Charles is suspected to be hiding. It was the home of a deceased war hero named Colonel Beverley, whose young children will surely burn to death if nobody intervenes. Jacob sneaks them out that very night, with a plan to bring them up as his own grandchildren. So Edward, Humphrey, Alice and Edith must learn to live a rustic lifestyle and fend for themselves in the New Forest, since Jacob believes it's far too dangerous to reveal their true identities.

The bulk of the book is all about how they manage to get along after Jacob's death. It includes defending themselves against scoundrels and cutthroats, and concealing their identities when Parliament hijacks the running of the forest, which hurts their royalist hearts. The oldest boy Edward chafes against the lie he's compelled to live, and longs to strike a few blows for the king on his own behalf. It's easy to feel his frustration as he and the others grow into their latter teens.

7746113My biggest turn-about is the brother I most admired. When I was a teenager, the restless and adventurous Edward stole my heart. But this time round, I noticed how he seems to walk around with his head in the clouds, dreaming of being a hero, while Humphrey is busy making practical improvements in the short term to keep them all alive. The younger bro seems by far the more intelligent, humble and creative of the pair. He gets ideas from books and improvises with whatever's on hand. In fact, lack of resources is just a fun challenge for him. He revolutionises the cottage, figuring things out from personal observation, trial and error. And above all, he's content to be overshadowed by his brother, and not the sort to be seduced by promises of glory. Humphrey, I've got to say, you're the man!

I was still fond of Edward though, because in all his crusader's zeal and getting people's backs up, he's so human. A couple of other reviewers commented that he's a bit of an idiot at times, which is fair enough, since even his best friends agreed. They expressed it a bit less bluntly though.

'You have been more bold than prudent, Edward.'
Or, 'For these times, you are much too frank and impetuous. This is not the time for people to give vent to their feelings and opinions.'
Or, 'Do you not see you do your cause more harm than good?'
Or, 'Be no longer rash and careless in avowing your opinion.'

In Edward's defense though, he isn't arrogant, and is quick to recognise wise advice and take it on board, even when it comes from younger siblings or men supposedly on the other side of the political spectrum. It's written so that even if you think he's an idiot, he grows on you, and you still want the best for him. (And you can't go past the girl he falls in love with for foolishness, notably in a decision she makes towards the end. I felt like shaking her. But she's a product of her time.)

A couple of other characters they met along the way were among my favourites. The kids accidentally trap a gypsy boy named Pablo, who proves to be a staunch friend and honorary family member, and adds comic relief with his matter-of-fact comments and occasional efforts to shirk intense labour. But one of the best characters by far is Mr Heatherstone, the Parliamentarian who's been appointed superintendant of the forest. Edward and the others must learn to trust him as a friend, even though he presents as an enemy. But Heatherstone is playing a most daring and clever double agent game. It's worthy of Severus Snape, and he grows really fond of Edward as a bonus :)

18875909I noticed that some of the most critical reviewers dissed this book based on 21st century ethics, which we could hardly expect an author from Captain Marryat's era to share. Sure, the girls tend to be sidelined by the boys, and there seems to be a fixed mindset that the quality of a person corresponds with the class into which he's born. ('Edward appeared as he was, a gentleman born, and that could not be concealed under a forester's garb.') Yet I believe it's unfair to label the author as a chauvinist or social snob, when he was probably one of the most open-hearted, generous and liberal thinkers of his time. I think the best way to get the most out of this book is to suspend our modern scruples and approach it as an eye-opening step back in time when people thought differently. Then there's all sorts of treasures to pick up. 

The courteousness of everyday speech is a highlight for me. I love it that these teenagers throw around such cool words in normal conversation as importunity, assiduity and inimical, and it flows so naturally without seeming at all forced. Even when they're insulting their enemies or teasing each other, the language is just beautiful. It made me a bit sad for the woeful deterioration of young people's vocabularies. Maybe it takes reading a book like this to show how low it's sunk.

I love the simple faith of their time and place. There was evidently no church service, but Jacob's first thought was, 'I can't teach them much, but I can teach them how to fear God. We must get on how we can, and put our trust in Him who is father to the fatherless.' And the Beverley kids keep up their private devotions after his death, remaining devout in their youthful way, without being overly pious.

1730414The parts about the four of them adapting to their rural lifestyle are fun, interesting, and arguably the best thing that could have happened to them. Learning to be self-sufficient rather than waited on by servants for all things is a great advantage. For Humphrey and Alice in particular, being self-taught opens up a whole range of fantastic talents they might never have tapped into in their old lives. The lifestyle is described in one place as 'Arcadian.' In our fast-paced digital age, reading about four teens who live a hidden, quiet life, mainly concerned with subsisting adds a perspective that's probably good for us.

There's a bit too much about acquiring venison for my personal taste. I'd obviously forgotten how many times deer and other animals were simply wounded rather than killed outright :( But overall, I couldn't put the book down when it came to the last few chapters, which is the sign of a great storyteller in any era. If a conventional handsome, strong, ambitious and plain-spoken main character like Edward isn't enough to tempt you, I'd encourage you to read it for the sake of the hidden heroes, Humphrey, Pablo and Heatherstone.


Now, I can't resist adding a few good quotes.

Edward: You certainly were not born to be secluded in this forest.
Humphrey: I rather think I have found that I was born for it.

In attempting to free ourselves from what we considered despotism, we have created for ourselves a worse despotism, and one that is less endurable. It is to be hoped that what has passed will make not only kings but subjects wiser than they have been.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Stories with Libraries and Librarians

Libraries are among my favourite places to visit. They may be quiet and leisurely on the surface, but what can be more exciting to a bookworm than thousands of tantalising spines on shelves, whose titles all seem to cry, 'Choose me'? And what could hold more compressed fun and wisdom from generations of thinkers? In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagines them as places where the anxious ghosts of dead authors hover to see if people are still reading their books. I wouldn't be at all surprised. Anyway, I believe a library probably has more potential to change an individual's life than a therapist's office.  

Here are some of the best libraries I've come across in the pages of books. The sample I've chosen is very appealing (except for the scary ones!) and will hopefully bust the stereotype of librarians as cross little old ladies with tight buns who always say, 'Shush.'    

I'll start my list with a few impressive, historical and literary libraries.

1) The Great Library of Alexandria
Julius Caesar was the bad guy in this true story. This wonderful centre of knowledge stood in Egypt in the 3rd century BC. It was one of the most significant libraries in the world, dedicated to the Muses and full of papyrus scrolls. Perhaps that's why it caught fire so easily, when the Roman army set their torches to it. Even though it hasn't existed for centuries, this library is one of the most famous symbols of the pointless destruction of culture, making future generations of readers and scholars groan.

2) The Name of the Rose
Any reader of this medieval whodunit would fancy a jaunt through this library. It sits in a fortified tower of the Abbey in the form of an impossible labyrinth which only the librarian and his assistant may enter. Other monks must send requests for the books they wish to read, which are only granted if the librarian thinks they're justified. Needless to say, he wields quite a bit of klout.

But libraries from fantasy stories may be some of the most appealing to our curiosity and wonder.

3) Phantastes
This library in George MacDonald's wordy classic is one I'd love to visit if I could be sure to get hold of the right books. The hero, Anados, discovers that they draw you into their pages so that all of your five senses feel as if they're experiencing exactly what you're reading about. That takes interactive books to whole new level. (Click for more about this classic)

4) The Hogwarts Library
15881It's located off a corridor on the first floor, and contains thousands of shelves of magic books for students to borrow, under the watchful eyes of Madam Pince. Only the Restricted Section is off bounds, especially to younger students, with the rare and dangerous secret knowledge it holds. It's the only spot in school which ever tempts Hermione Granger to break the rules, which she does whenever something really important needs to be researched. Anyone sneaking around in there without permission needs to handle the books very carefully, since some of them are jinxed with spells that might make them snap or scream.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
5) Mr Norrell's Library
The wily old owner of this library has made sure it's one of a kind. Determined to be Britain's only magician, Mr Norrell has taken pains to acquire all the out-of-print old books of magic he can get his greedy hands on. There are thousands of rare gems, and nobody else can even find their way to his library, let alone read anything, since he's jinxed the route with several false passages. Norrell's frustrated former student Jonathan Strange gets his own back in a fit of temper by re-arranging the passages so that for one terrifying hour, Norrell can't find his way to his own library. (Here is my review.)

6) The Library at Mount Char
It's a sinister tale in which a ragtag group of vulnerable orphans are adopted by a formidable being known to them as 'The Father.' His library holds the secret to his power, and he forces the children to become specialist librarians, each mastering one particular area of knowledge.

7) Library of Souls
24120519It's not books stored in this creepy subterranean library but human souls in jars, for other Peculiars to borrow in their time of need. The evil megalomaniac Caul wants nothing more than to get his hands on them all for himself, and forces our hero Jacob Portman into the library with him, since Jacob's special gift means he's the only one able to see the jars. (My review is here.)

8) The Librarian
Perpetual student Flynn Carsen has no idea what he's in for when he applies for a job at the Metropolitan Public Library. He's hired to protect several magical and historical artifacts such as Pandora's Box and Excalibur. It's perhaps your ultimate responsible job. A serious theft has left Flynn dashing desperately across the world, relying on his extensive book knowledge to save the day.

9) The Time-Traveler's Wife
Henry deTamble is a librarian who has a genetic condition which forces him to travel to different stages of his own life, leaving just a pile of the clothes he was wearing behind him. Luckily for him it never seemed to happen in the library while he was making a presentation to special interest groups. (Here is my review.)

Here's a couple of appealing stories that feature quite normal libraries, and the impact they have on the characters. Some of them are more obscure stories which I've enjoyed.

2250448110) Beyond all Dreams
This is a sensitive story about a research librarian named Anna, who archives maps. She notices some inconsistencies in a document about a shipwreck on which her father supposedly drowned. Making a report turns out to open a tinder box of nasty facts which people in high places would have preferred to keep hushed up. Anna's experience proves that on rare occasions, a librarian may actually be a hazardous occupation. (I've reviewed it here)

11) Wonderland Creek
10329441Another heroine who made a similar discovery was Alice, a timid bookworm who hated taking risks. But when her library job forces her to deliver some boxes of donated books to a tiny hillbilly community, she's roped into being a mobile librarian who must visit potentially cutthroat and dangerous places on her rounds.

12) Pollyanna's Western Adventure
It's one of the charming adventures of glad girl Pollyanna which has sadly gone out of print, but there are probably still a few old volumes floating around. One is in my bookshelf, since my mother owned it as a girl. Pollyanna's little family is forced to go and live out in the sticks for her husband Jimmy's job as an engineer. She gets the opportunity to set up a lending library from the books she brings from home. The locals are always glad to see her coming, and no wonder. A smiling, friendly face combined with a load of books would have to be a winning combination.

13) The Ladies of Ivy Hill
In this village chronicle, a small lending library is set up by Miss Rachel Ashcroft. She's never been a reader, but all her father has left her in his will is his huge collection of books, so she feels forced to make the best of an undesirable situation. Of course we book lovers know that having lots of books around isn't a bad thing at all, and wait for her to find out too. (See here for here.)

14) All of a Kind Family
This vintage kids' series is about five young sisters ranging in age from 4 to 12. When Sarah, the middle girl, loses a library book, she and her sisters go cringing to the librarian, expecting her to be a dragon who will severely punish them. Instead, they're relieved by her kindness and come out with a renewed zeal to borrow books.

29748925I've saved one of my favourites until last, because it pulls together such a lot of elements that make library stories so great. It's a fantasy novel which makes the benefits of a good library clear for anyone who has the curiosity and nous to use it well. 

15) Strange the Dreamer
The hero is surely one of the cutest young librarians to be found in any story. Lazlo Strange was a 13-year-old war orphan apprenticed to work at the Great Library in the Kingdom of Zosma, which is described as a haven for poets, astronomers and every shade of thinker between. The wise senior librarian Master Hyrrokkin said, 'The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy we let it keep him.' A few years later when he's grown up, the sweet little bookworm must convince a mighty warrior that his own nerdy, bookish knowledge will come in handy for a great expedition. (And here is my review.)

I know my list of literary libraries is probably just scratching the surface, so if I've overlooked any good ones you can think of, please add them in the comments.