Thursday, 20 April 2017

Potpourri: Reading, Commonplacing & Leisure


 The view at the end of an impromtu bush walk


Over the Easter period I've been soaking up all the loveliness I've found in this complilation of literature: 'Between Midnight and Dawn.' I love poetry and there are some poignant pieces in this book, old and new, and although I'm not usually drawn to contemporary poems but there were some that hit me hard. And this one - Oh my! This made me catch my breath! 'Preparing for Joy: Waiting to be Filled'

I've come to the end of The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, which I'll write about in more detail later. What an epic this is! All the way through I kept thinking of the biblical admonition, 'Vengeance is Mine!' says the Lord.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, as though a redhot iron were piercing his heart. During the last hour his own crime had alone been presented to his mind; now another object, not less terrible, suddenly presented itself. His wife! He had just acted the inexorable judge with her, he had condemned her to death, and she, crushed by remorse, struck with terror, covered with the shame inspired by the eloquence of his irreproachable virtue, -- she, a poor, weak woman, without help or the power of defending herself against his absolute and supreme will...
"Ah," he exclaimed, "that woman became criminal only from associating with me! I carried the infection of crime with me, and she has caught it as she would the typhus fever, the cholera, the plague! 

Wildflowers in bloom


I'm about half way through The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis, which is a compilation of essays on diverse topics. The quotations below are from the essay, 'Why I am not a Pacifist.'

How do we decide what is good or evil? The usual answer is that we decide by conscience...an autonomous faculty like a sense cannot be argued with; you cannot argue a man into seeing green if he sees blue. But the conscience can be altered by argument...Conscience, then, means the whole man engaged in a particular subject matter.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.





The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

I was looking forward to reading this book as part of my ongoing science education but I've been a little disappointed so far. I'd describe the author's writing as 'breezy' which annoys me, as well as his gossipy style and the inclusion of slang in places. Oliver Sacks and even James Watson were more literary in their style of writing, whilst still being humorous and entertaining. Kean's attempts at both feels forced  - but I should reserve my judgement until I've read more of the book, I suppose.
He does have some helpful suggestions such as looking at a blank periodic table without all the clutter before introducing it to students, and his comparison of the structure or 'geography' of the periodic table to a castle made of bricks - each brick being an element, which if taken out of its position would result in the castle tumbling down, was a helpful one.




Norms & Nobility by David Hicks

Continuing my SLOW read of this book. This book is expensive but you could spend years chewing on the ideas expressed by the author. I gave up trying to keep up with the AmblesideOnline Forum discussion on this book which started at the beginning of this year, but am progressing at a snail's pace on my own regardless. One idea that seems to be popping up in various places for me is that of utilitarianism. One of our boys is in the first year of a Liberal Arts degree and he is constantly asked, "What does that qualify you for?"
 Life??

Dr. Johnson recognized the temptation to make education a preparation for the practical life either by concentrating exclusively on science or by turning all studies into sciences. Predictably, as science took a technological turn and as education began preparing students for work rather than for leisure, for the factory rather than for the parlor, the school itself came to resemble the factory, losing its idiosyncratic, intimate, and moral character...
In its utilitarian haste, the state often peddles preparation for the practical life to our young as the glittering door to the life of pleasure; but by encouraging this selfish approach to learning, the state sows a bitter fruit against that day when the community depends on its younger members to perform charitable acts and to consider arguments above selfish interests. 
(Emphasis mine)






A Game of Risk








Linking up with Celeste at Keeping Company & Wednesday with Words



Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)


Something I don't often do these days is stay up late to finish a book, but the truth was, I couldn't put this one down. I fully intended to read just one more chapter, but I was hooked and had to finish it.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a Hercules Poirot novel. I wasn't all that enamoured with the two previous Poirot stories I read and so I've leaned towards Christie's Tommy & Tuppence series and others that don't include either Poirot (or Miss Marple for that matter.) However, this book changed my mind on Poirot. I loved it and was not surprised to read that Christie's career took a decided turn for the better after it was published.

 


Dr James Sheppard, a middle-aged bachelor lives with his older sister Caroline in a small English village and is the narrator of this story. He is a self-deprecating, logical sort of fellow, while Caroline is a self-appointed amateur sleuth and an inveterate gossip:

The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr Kipling tells us, is: 'Go and find out.' If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don't know how she manages it, but there it is. I suspect that the servants and the tradesmen constitute her Intelligence Corps. When she goes out, it is not to gather information, but to spread it. At that, too, she is amazingly expert.

Their interactions were some of my favourite parts of the book:

Caroline pushed her spectacles up and looked at me.
'You seem very grumpy, James. It must be your liver. A blue pill, I think, tonight.'
To see me in my own home, you would never imagine that I was a doctor of medicine. Caroline does the home prescribing both for herself and me.
 
Hercule Poirot, a private detective, had moved into the village about a year before, ostensibly to retire from active work. He is the Sheppard's neighbour, but they believed he was a hairdresser because of his two immense moustaches. His identity only became known to them when Flora Ackroyd, the dead man's niece, asks Poirot's assistance in solving her uncle's murder. Suspicion is upon everyone and Dr Sheppard finds himself closely involved in the investigation as Poirot's unofficial assistant: 'I played Watson to his Sherlock.'


 'Mark my words, James, you'll see that I'm right...Roger Ackroyd might easily have been poisoned in his food that night.'
I laughed out loud.
'Nonsense,' I cried. 'He was stabbed in the neck. You know that as well as I do.'
'After death, James,' said Caroline, 'to make a false clue.'
'My good woman,' I said, 'I examined the body, and I know what I'm talking about...'
Caroline merely continued to look omniscient, which so annoyed me that I went on:
'Perhaps you will tell me, if I have a medical degree or if I have not?'
'You have the medical degree, I dare say, James - at least, I mean I know you have. But you've no imagination whatever.'
'Having endowed you with a treble portion, there was none left over for me,' I said drily.

In an obtuse sort of way, this book reminded me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It's bears no resemblance really, but rather it was the narrative device that both Christie and du Maurier used that made me think of them having a similarity.

Warning! Don't read the link below until you've finished the book!

This article explains the source of the idea which Agatha Christie based this book upon.


'The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it...'

Hercule Poirot





Linking up with Back to the Classics 2017: A Classic by a Woman Author and The Classics Club






Monday, 3 April 2017

Classic Children's Literature Event 2017: My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara (1941)



My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara has sat unread on our bookshelf for nearly twelve years since I first found it in a secondhand book store and recognised the title as being a Children's Classic, but not knowing much else about it. I decided to read it for the Children's Classic Literature Event this year as my 12 year old daughter loves horses and I thought I'd see if it was suitable for her.
I wasn't a horse fanatic when I was a child, but there's enough to enjoy in this book regardless of whether you like horses or not. The main thread of the narrative is the love a boy has for a filly (Flicka) and how that love is returned, but it's also a tender portrayal of family relationships - a stern ex-army father, a sensitive mother, and their two sons, Howard and Ken - and this added theme broadens its appeal even more.
Ken is a dreamy, scatterbrained, and irresponsible ten year old and his father just doesn't understand him at all. Ken always manages to get on the wrong side of his father while his older brother, Howard, is more like his Dad and has an easier time relating to him.

Ken felt as if he had been put out of the ranch, out of all the concerns that Howard was in on. And out of his father's heart - that was the worst. What he was always hoping for was to be friends with his father, and now this...His despair made him feel weak.

Ken desperately wants his father's approval and friendship but everything he does seems to drive them further apart. When Ken fails to be promoted to the next grade by his teacher his father is furious, but the only thing that will motivate Ken is having a colt of his own. And this his mother understands.
The story takes place in Wyoming in the USA and the author's vivid writing creates such a tangible sense of the countryside that it's easy for someone like myself, in a completely different part of the world, to imagine the setting. She also succeeds in depicting the various characters in a convincing manner - the four members of the McLaughlin family, the ranch workers, the horses and their individual characteristics, the itinerant family trying to eek out an existence - each are realistic and are heart-renderingly fleshed out by her descriptive powers.
I'm surprised that this book doesn't seem to be that well-known (well, in Australia at least) except for those who read it as a child themselves. It was made into a movie but a female character was substituted in Ken's place and from what I've read it didn't do the book justice. It certainly deserves its place amongst children's classics for its beautifully crafted writing and for the way the author portrays conflict in family life.
I think this book would be best suited for an independent reader of about 13 or 14 years and up, even though the main protagonist is 10 years old. Rob McLaughlin is a just man but has a quick temper, a rough tongue, and a harsh manner. "Damn it !" and sometimes "God damn it!" are part of his regular vocabulary and there is some tension between himself and his wife, Nell, that would better suit an older child. However, I think it would work well as a read aloud with a younger child with a little editing in places as there are some great themes worth exploring.

Some favourite bits:

"The most affectionate animal in the world," said Rob. "You don't see the young ones leaving their mothers if they can help it. They stay in the family group. You'll often see a mare on the plains with a four-year-old colt, and a three-year-old, and a two, and a one, and a foal. All together. They don't break up unless something happens to make them. And they never forget."

"They learn from their mothers. They copy. They do everything their mothers do. That's why it's practically impossible to raise a good-tempered colt from a bad-tempered mate. That's why I never have any luck with the colts of the wild mares I get. The colts are corrupted from birth - just as wild as their mothers. You can't train it out of them."

McLaughlin never allowed anyone to show, or even to feel, any grief about the death of the animals. It was an unwritten law to take death as the animals take it, all in the day's work, something natural and not too important; forget it. Close as they were to the animals, making such friends of them, if they let themselves mourn them, there would be too much mourning. Death was all around them - they did not shed tears.

"...I maintain that it's not insane for a freedom-loving individual man or beast, to refuse to be subdued."


"My experience has been that the high-strung individual, the nervous, keyed-up type - is apt to be a fine performer. It's the solitary, or the queer fellow, that I'm afraid of. Show me a man who plays a lone hand - no natural gregariousness, you know - the lone wolf type - and I'll show you the one who's apt to be screwy." 

"Flicka has been frightened. Only one thing will ever thoroughly overcome that, and that is, if she comes to trust you. Even so, some bad reactions of the fear may remain. This does not mean that you must not master her. You must. She will have many impulses that must be denied because you forbid the actions that rise from them..."

Mary O'Hara continues her animal saga in the following two books:

Thunderhead
Green Grass of Wyoming 

Some information on the author is here.
 

Linking to Simpler Pastimes for this month's Classic Children's Literature Event. Check it out for some wonderful literature!