Friday, 9 December 2016

The Confessions of Saint Augustine (354-430)

The Confessions of Saint Augustine is the final book I've read this year as part of the Back to the Classics 2016 challenge. It's taken me all this year to get through it, not because it is a difficult read, (except for Book Ten which made my head spin) but because it is meaty and needs time to be chewed.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Augustine's life, this book records the backward looking thoughts and musings of a gifted intellectual and sensual man who lived a dissolute life for many year before saw Christianity as a religion fit for a philosopher. He recalls his struggles with moral difficulties and inordinate desires, and the crucial events in his life leading up to his conversion to Christianity, all against the backdrop of the decaying Roman Empire.
The foreword to the above edition of the book says:

His stories serve as hooks on which he hangs his big ideas, so that his journey from first rejecting to eventually embracing the Christian faith acts as a structure for him to teach his readers what it means to remember, to be human, to fail, and eventually to make peace with themselves and with God.

Confessions is less autobiography, and more performed theology. It delivers weighty theology, but it refuses to separate dogmatics from devotion, and embodies within its firm the message it conveys - that Christianity is a matter of relationship, conviction and action, not merely of intellectual belief.

Confessions is made up of thirteen books but the edition I read only includes the first ten. Some editions end with Book Nine as that is where the narrative of Augustine's life ends. Book Ten is included in Blaiklock's edition as it highlights that Confessions was not merely intended as a story, but its purpose was to teach the Christian faith. Book Ten also recalls Augustine's comments on 'Remembering' in his opening chapters.

I won't attempt to 'review' this book but rather share some comments thoughts that stood out to me and to recommend this particular edition as very accessible and readable.
Each Book has a short introduction that gives us some background on the times, and the events of Augustine's life. 

Book One

...You made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.

The house of my soul is narrow for your entry. Let it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins. Rebuild it.

On the beginnings of sinfulness:

That I was innocent lay rather in the frailty of my limbs than in my mind's intent. I myself have watched a very small child manifesting jealousy. It could not speak but glared, pale and hostile, at its companion at the breast.

In my very childhood, however...I had no love for learning and hated to be driven to it. Yet I was driven, and it did me good...

You have decreed, and so it stands, that every man's undisciplined spirit is his own punishment.

...some man seeking a reputation  for eloquence before a human arbiter, with an audience of men around him and in the act of assailing his foe with hate, takes the utmost care not to commit a fault of speech, but no care at all lest, through the rage if his spirit, he should destroy a fellow-man...

Book Two

On his parent's ambitions for him and his father's pains to ensure his education:

Their sole care was that I should make the best possible speech and be a persuasive orator.
For who did not praise the man, my father, when beyond his family's means, he provided whatever was needed for a long journey for my studies' sake? For many citizens of far greater wealth took no such trouble for their children. Yet the same father took no thought of the kind of man I was becoming in your sight, or how chaste I was, provided I was cultivated in speech - though uncultivated in your field, God, you who are the only true, good husbandsman of that field which is our heart.

My sin oozed like a secretion out of fat.

Emulation contends for the top place, but what is higher than you?

Book Three

Augustine goes to Carthage at the age of seventeen where 'a whole frying-pan of wicked loves sputtered all around me.'
He lives with a girl who bears him a son, '...not yet in love, but I was in love with love.'
Verse and poetry I can change to real nourishment - this sentence jumped out to me. Poetry is a form of nourishment, at least I know it is for me & is something I expressed here.

Augustine writes about his mother Monica's prayers for him, especially when he became deceived with the Manichaean cult. When Monica went to a saintly bishop for counsel, he advised her to pray to the Lord for him. The bishop himself had been deluded by their teachings at one stage but she still pressed him, weeping, that he should speak to Augustine. His reply was, 'Leave me, and God go with you. It is not possible that the son of such tears should perish.'

Book Four

This book covers Augustine's life from the ages of nineteen to twenty-eight where he taught the art of rhetoric in Thagaste and Carthage. He tells of the 'disgusting an unruly lack of discipline' among his students, the illness of his close friend, his scorn of his friend's baptism and then his anguish as that friend had a sudden relapse and died.

For I felt his soul and my soul were one soul in two bodies. That is why life was a horror to me, because I did not wish to be only half alive.

Book Five

Augustine 'escaped' to Rome in 383, tricking his mother by going secretly by night so he could get away from her without her knowing. Later he became ill and almost died. He wrote of this episode:

If my mother's heart had been struck with such a wound, it would never have been healed. I cannot find words to express what her love for me was...I cannot then see how she would have been healed, if a death like that had struck through the heart of her love.

At this time too, Augustine became disillusioned by the Manichaeans when their great leader, Faustus, couldn't address Augustine's intellectual difficulties.
Augustine took up a position at Milan as a professor of Rhetoric where he met Bishop Ambrose, a man he admired and who was to greatly influence him.

Book Six

Monica arrives in Milan with Alypius, Augustine's former pupil, to find her son deeply influenced by Ambrose, who had been helping the young man address his moral difficulties. Monica also came under his influence and renounced her superstitious practices.
Alypius, although he had avoided such sports, was dragged along by some friends to a gladiator show. Augustine said that although Alypius forbade his mind to contemplate such things, it was his ears that he should have closed . As a result he becomes intoxicated with the gladiator shows and encouraged others to go as well.

The noise entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes...the sight of blood was like drinking barbarity. He did not turn away but fixed his eyes on it. Unknowingly he gulped down the Fiends of Hell.

Book Seven

Augustine is thirty-one and still wrestling. His is an inquisitive but undisciplined mind and I found it so interesting that he was influenced by Platonist writing to seek for 'incorporeal truth.'

With strongest hunger then I laid hands on the venerable writings of your Spirit, above all the apostle Paul...I began and found that whatever I had read in the Platonists was said in Paul's writing along with the praise of your grace...

He also takes pains to enumerate those things that the Platonists knew nothing of:

Those pages do not hold the face of holiness, the tears of confession, 'your sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart', the salvation of your people...No one sings in those books: 'Shall not my soul be subject to God? Of him comes my redemption, he is my God and my salvation...
In the Platonist writings no one hears him call:'Come to me all that labour.' They scorn to 'learn of him because he is gentle and quiet in heart.'

Book Eight

"Give me chastity and self-control but not yet."

Augustine's story comes to a climax as he hears the story of Victorinus, a former idol worshipper, who makes an open profession of faith in Rome. This inspired Augustine to want to do the same but the chains of his own making bound him.

...for I was afraid you might quickly hear me from afar, and swiftly heal me from the malady of lust, which I preferred to be sated rather have have extinguished.

Augustine is very honest and doesn't flinch in acknowledging his wilfulness and moral dilemma. This is so refreshing to read.
Augustine converts to Christianity and the rest is history, literally. Today he is regarded as one of the greatest fathers of the church and also one of the most important figures of Western Christianity.

Book Nine

There is an overview of Monica's life: her upbringing, marriage, conversations with her son and then her death.

Those who would find heir happiness outside themselves fade easily away and dissipate their persons on the ephemeral things before their eyes...If only they could see the eternity within their hearts.

Book Ten

My soul's Virtue, enter my soul, and shape it to yourself to have and to hold it without spot or wrinkle.

Men go to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the huge billows of the sea, the broad sweeps of the rivers, the curve of ocean and the circuits of the stars, and yet pass by themselves...

Augustine's thoughts on memory makes up the bulk of Book Ten. This was the most difficult part of the book for me and I had to continually go over what I'd read to make sense of it.

What shall I say when I am convinced that I remember forgetfulness? Shall I say that what I remember is in my memory? Shall I say that forgetfulness us in my memory fir this very purpose, so that I shall not forget?

Late I came to know you, Beauty ancient yet new.

Augustine returned to Africa in 387 A.D. and later became Bishop of Hippo. He died while the town was besieged by the Vandals in 430 A.D.

Blaiklock writes:

This us what fascinates the classical historian. Augustine's cameo pictures of Thagaste, Maduara, Carthage, Rome, and later of Hippo are of sombre interest...
How little does the present know of the future! No one knew, when Augustus was establishing the frontiers of an imperial world, frontiers which were to hold precariously through four vital centuries of history, that the pivot of the human story had been moved one night from the Palatine to Palestine. No one knew in Thagaste that the frightened schoolboy, who was bad-tempered Patricius' son, was to leave behind him writings six times as voluminous as the whole corpus of Cicero himself, established theology through a millennium and more of strife and strain, and form one of the bridges between a dying world and that world's rebirth.

The Vandals scattered and slew Augustine's parishioners. Two centuries later the Moslems came that way with the desert trailing behind them. Augustine's work did not perish. It was blowing in the air. It steadied Medieval Christendom in varied ways, shaping Gregory, Charlemagne and Aquinas, and gusting more widely to touch Calvin, Luther, Pascal...

This is my Classic in Translation entry for the Back to the Classics 2016 challenge. (Confessions was originally written in Latin)

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Back to the Classics: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956)

The Partition of India in 1947 is something I've been interested in for a long time but it wasn't until I read Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh that I had any idea of the scope of the tremendous upheaval, tragedy and heartache it caused. An arbitrary line drawn by an 'Empire on whom the sun was setting,' divided a nation and created the twins countries of India and Pakistan. Former neighbours and friends became deadly enemies, people lost their homes, and an estimated one to two million lost their lives.
The author chose a true-to-life work of fiction to tell his story. Every character in the story was modelled on a real person that passed through Khushwant Singh's own life. He was about 32 years of age at the time of Partition and witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, and records them without taking sides or showing favour. He and his family were forced to flee from Lahore in 1947, leaving behind his home, his belongings and his closest friends.

The Story

In 1947 the new state of Pakistan was formerly announced, setting in motion the mass exodus of ten million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Northern India was in chaos and only in the remote villages on the frontier was there any semblance of peace.
Mano Majra was one of these villages, known mostly because it boasted a train station. Not that many trains stopped there. In fact, it was only two slow passenger trains, one from Delhi to Lahore in the mornings and another from Lahore to Delhi in the evenings, that were scheduled to stop and then only for a few minutes. The express trains and the morning mail train rushed through without pausing. Goods trains shed and collected wagons on the sidings, and throughout the night the villagers could hear the whistling and puffing of engines and the clanging of metal couplings. The trains were the villagers' alarm clocks, signalling their mealtimes, their siestas and their prayer times. That is, up until the summer of 1947.

After Partition, the trains became less punctual, disturbing the rhythm of the village. A unit of Sikh soldiers arrived and machine guns were mounted at the railway station. Trains coming from Delhi stopped and changed their drivers and guards before continuing on to Pakistan. Trains from Pakistan heading to Delhi with their Hindu and Sikh refugees would run through without stopping.
But one morning, the train from Pakistan stopped at Mano Majra and the only person to emerge alive out of the fifteen hundred on board was a guard from the tail end of the carriages.

It was a botched up surgical operation. India's arms were chopped off without any anaesthetic, and streams of blood swamped the land of the five rivers known as the Punjab.

An order came to evacuate all the Muslims in Mano Majra to a refugee camp and from there, be placed on a train to Pakistan. Sikh agitators arrived in the village after the Muslims had left and drummed up support for a revenge attack on the next train to Pakistan. For hundreds of years the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had lived together as neighbours in this village and now those former neighbours and friends who had just left were to be murdered.

Iqbal, born a Sikh and educated in England, came to Mano Majra with his head full of theory to spread his message of communist reform. Learning that the train to Pakistan was to be sabotaged, he found he had nothing to say to the people of Mano Majra:

Should he go out, face the mob and tell them in clear ringing tones that this was wrong - immoral? Walk right up to them with his eyes fixing the armed crowd in a frame - without flinching, without turning...
Then with dignity fall under a volley of blows, or preferably a volley of rifle shots. A cold thrill went down Iqbal's spine.
There would be no one to see this supreme act of sacrifice...It would be an utter waste of life! And what would it gain? A few subhuman species were going to slaughter some of their own kind - a mild setback to the annual increase of four million...
In a state of chaos self-preservation is the supreme duty.

If you really believe that things are so rotten that your first duty is to destroy- to wipe the slate clean - then you should not turn green at small acts of destruction. Your duty is to connive with those who make the conflagration, not to turn a moral hosepipe on them - to create such a mighty chaos that all that is rotten like selfishness, intolerance, greed, falsehood, sycophancy, is drowned. In blood, if necessary.

It was left to another, a most unlikely character, the local 'budmash' or worthless thug, to put his life on the line for the sake of someone he cared about. 

Final thoughts

This was a brutal, gross, and at times crude novel. It's not the sort of book you'd leave sitting on your coffee table and I don't recommend it unconditionally, but it was a heartfelt, candid and literary account written by an excellent author. I learnt more from this one book of fiction than I would have gleaned from a shelf-full of political or historical titles. It was a powerful and awful account. Although there wasn't a political theme to the book, I couldn't help imbibing the political atmosphere of those days. Mano Majra was a miniature India that mirrored the whole nation. It also mirrored humanity in its portrayal of the fluidity of human reasoning - we can justify anything we decide to do. We are so readily manipulated by the opinions of others and the voices of those who stir and agitate.

The photography in this edition of the book is the work of Margaret Bourke-White who lived and travelled in India during 1946 and 1947. She was sent by Life magazine to cover the emerging nations of India and Pakistan after spending four years in Europe during World War II where she witnessed the Nazi concentration camps. According to one of the articles below, some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse.
The copy I have above is out of print but available secondhand or there is this edition here which doesn't include the images by Margaret Bourke-White. The images are online here.

Further reading:

The Great Divide: The violent legacy of Indian Partition

Khushwant Singh (1915-2014) - Obituary

BBC article - The Hidden Story of Partition and its Legacies

Train to Pakistan is my pick for the Back to the Classics 2016 category for a Classic by a Non-White Author.

Friday, 2 December 2016

'You see but you do not observe.'

My 11 year old daughter is full of Sherlock Holmes' quotes this week and included this one in her nature journal after quoting it at every opportunity:

You see, but you do not observe.

Flannel flowers in bloom - so named because they have a lovely soft, flannel-like feel to their petals.

Not a great photo but I was excited to find this and identify it when we got home: Lambertia formosa commonly known as Mountain Devil or Honey Flower. It was quite striking and the first time I've come across it. It belongs to the Grevillea family.

New growth after controlled backburning in the bush

Australian Magpie - there is a website to track aggressive magpies. We've never had a problem with them, thankfully!

One of our regular visitors, the laughing kookaburra

Oops...I forgot to add, 'Tis the season of the shedding of bark for the Angophora costata, or Smooth-barked Apple...'
It's an Australian native, doesn't produce apples and is notorious for dropping its branches and making an awful mess at this time of year.

Linking up with Celeste at Keeping Company

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Little Brother by Allan Baillie

Allan Baillie's book Little Brother was published in 1985 and tells the gripping story of two brothers, Vithy and Mang, aged about eleven and eighteen years respectively, who were the only members of their family left alive after the communist Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975.
Renaming the country Kampuchea, the Communist Party set out to establish a rural based utopia and systematically annihilated anyone thought to be intellectual or educated, the wealthy and the religious leaders. The cities were emptied and people were placed into labour camps out in the country or executed if they were not able to work.

Little Brother begins with Vithy and Mang running through the forest after their captors were attacked by Vietnamese soldiers. They were pursued and forced to separate when Vithy fell and hurt his foot. Mang hid him in the undergrowth and then ran off to divert the soldiers - but Mang didn't return and Vithy was left on his own to follow his brother's last words - 'Follow the lines out of the war...go to the border.'

Finding books that deal with situations such as those experienced by children in Cambodia that are suitable for younger children, allowing them to get a sense of what happened without traumatising them in the process, is quite difficult. Allan Baillie has managed to do this so well with this book. He tells the story through Vithy's eyes and employs a sort of flashback technique where Vithy recalls conversations with his brother or memories of certain events that fills in the details for the reader, without imparting the real horror that occurred. The character Vithy is based on a boy the author met at a refugee camp in Cambodia.

Mang had told him, many months ago, that the only way to survive in the Big Paddy was to be careful and dumb. Work hard, never let them know that you can read and write and handle arithmetic. Always rememeber your kid sister, Sorei. And above all, never think. But now he had to.

Vithy eventually finds his way to a Red Cross camp on the Thai border and wins his way into the heart of a crusty Australian doctor. I won't tell you any more but the book has a very satisfying ending...

Allan Baillie was born in Scotland and came to Australia when he was seven years of age. He has a background in journalism, has travelled to various parts of the world and many of his stories were inspired by his travels and experiences in foreign countries.

Recommended for Years 5 or 6. I use it as an Ambleside Online Year 6 free read.

Linking up with Brona's Books for AusReading Month 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone...

Our Advent Reading

'...But his friends looked on with strange and alien eyes. A veil of doubt and mistrust came over their faces, like a fog creeping up from the marshes to hide the hills. They glanced at each other with looks of wonder and pity, as those who have listened to incredible sayings, the story of a wild vision, or the proposal of an impossible enterprise.

At last Tigranes said: "Artaban, this is a vain dream. It comes from too much looking upon the stars and the cherishing of lofty thoughts..."

But Abgarus, the oldest and the one who loved Artaban the best, lingered after the others had gone, and said, gravely: "My son, it may be that the light of truth is in this sign that has appeared in the skies, and then it will surely lead to the Prince and the mighty brightness. Or it may be that it is only a shadow of the light, as Tigranes has said, and then he who follows it will have only a long pilgrimage and an empty search. But it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst. And those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone. I am too old for this journey, but my heart shall be a companion of the pilgrimage day and night, and I shall know the end of thy quest. Go in peace."'

We started this story this morning and later in the day Moozle was finishing up the last couple of chapters from her AO Year 6 free read 'The Story of the Trapp Family Singers' by Maria Augusta Trapp. She suddenly called out to me, "Come quick, and see this Mum!" I thought perhaps she'd seen a wallaby or a bird outside but when I went to where she was, she held up her book opened at the last page to show me these words:

Whatever faults may be committed, big or small, whatever clouds may pile up on the horizon, dark and threatening, love will overcome all.

"Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are." *

* From the Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke.

I love it when this sort of thing happens!

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

AusReading Month: Silvertail: The Story of a Lyrebird by Ina Watson; illustrations by Walter Cunningham (1946)

Silvertail is a lyrebird. As everything has a beginning, I am going to start by telling you where Silvertail lived, and about his people, for of course he had a family just as you have.

Silvertail, a superb lyrebird, was born in a forest deep in the hills of Southern Victoria. Suberb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) are ground dwelling birds that have an amazing ability to mimic other birds - the calls of scrub wrens, parrots, kookaburras, cockatoos and whip-birds, are to be found in their repertoire. Although they can fly, their wings are rounded and not suited to any great distance. They build their nests in old tree stumps and roost in trees at night.

Silvertails's father and mother had a real name - one belonging to their family. They were called Mr. and Mrs. Menura...
They were a handsome couple...But the pride of the family was father's tail. It was very long and consisted of sixteen feathers...two broad, outside ones...twelve, very fluffy filmy feathers, and two lone, wire-like centre ones. On top they were the same colour as the rest of the bird, but underneath they were a beautiful silvery white.

The story of Silvertail began with nest prepartions mostly carried out by Mrs Menura while Mr Menura spent his time building his dancing mounds. A few weeks after the nest had been completed,  a solitary egg was laid in the nest and about six weeks afterwards Silvertail hatched out of his shell.
He spent about five weeks in his nest and then it was time for him to leave his cozy, safe home and begin the most dangerous part of his life. His mother taught him to find his own food and began to acquaint him with some of the other animals and birds that lived nearby and to avoid others such as the wily fox.


Mr Menura didn't spend too much time with his offspring at first, although he kept an eye out nearby for both the youngster and his mother; but as Silvertail grew, his father began to take more of an interest in him and to teach him how to sing. He also taught Silvertail how to use his tail in the dance but it would be a little while yet before he could boast a tail like his father's.
The seasons came and went, Silvertail grew and then one day, Silvertail found a mate...

Through all his own calls and the many others that he could now mimic perfectly, he pleaded his cause...

Silvertail is a delightful story written in such a way that a five or six year old would enjoy. There is just enough detail, depth and factual information embedded in the lively narrative for that age group and Walter Cunningham's illustrations enhance it even more.
In the foreword to the book, Australian naturalist, Crosbie Morrison writes:

Miss Ina not just a casual caller on the Lyrebirds of Sherbrooks; over the years she has become a friend of the family. She knows them so intimately that they no longer whip off their aprons and stuff them behind a chair and show her into the front room when she calls - they let her come into the kitchen, as it were, and help with the washing up. It is not until you know people - or birds - like that that you can write of them easily, and naturally, and entrancingly, and truthfully, as Miss Watson has done.

The book is out of print but available secondhand (eBay & AbeBooks)

Some links of interest:

Lyrebirds Mimicking Chainsaws?

Lyrebird Facts

The Royal Australian Mint - the suberb lyrebird is featured on our Australian ten cent coin.

Winter Call of the Lyrebirds

Linking up at Brona's Books for the AusReading Month 2016. Come and have a look if you're looking for some great Australian titles to read.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Weekly Review

We've just finished an exam week but as our scanner is defunct I'm not able to post any examples at present.
Instead, here are some places of interest and other links I hope you will find useful.

The High Quality Global University which costs next to nothing. Very interesting...our eldest daughter is nearly 28 years old and has just finished paying off her HECs debt from her degree. When my husband went through university in the 1980's, the universities in Australia had no tuition costs. It's a very different situation for our children now so we were very interested to read this article.

Their website is here.

Enjoying this audio:

David Clarke also narrates some other great books. See his page at Librivox.
There are some books that really need a British narrator (or someone who can make themselves sound British) - Sherlock Holmes is one of these, of course.
Ruth Golding is another British narrator and she has a list of other Librivox narrators she recommends on her blog.

I enjoyed listening to this Podcast during the week. Folksongs have always been a part of my life, growing up and afterwards. Some good thoughts here:

Moozle has been paper crafting and making Christmas presents (and much mess...)
This is a video she's used, one of the 'Sweet Bio Design' series on YouTube that she enjoys. It's in Italian but has English subtitles:

This is another she used for ideas...mostly for the actual box and then added her own decorations.

I've started putting together a page with all of the Australian/Asia Pacific living books we've used. It will take a little while but it's here in its beginning stages: Towards an Australian Charlotte Mason Curriculum.

Linking up at Weekly Wrap-up