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 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?"

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:

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!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Education - an Act of Faith

'Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen...' so Charlotte Mason said.
Educating my own children has been an act of faith in many ways. Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for the fruit of what you're doing to show itself. Education requires discipline, time, energy and perseverance. It's not an overnight venture. Sometimes I need to remind myself to:

 '...stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.'

1 Corinthians 15:58

With the above in mind, here are some of the areas I've been seeing fruit in and where education is something my daughter is pursuing of her own accord: 

The Discipline of Regular Drawing Practice

Nature notebook - this is now a regular & self-initiated habit after many years of having it as part of our weekly schedule:

Our current read-aloud (some editing required) - Natural History from the point of view of a ten year old boy living on the island of Corfu just prior to the second world war and a peek into a living education - we're enjoying this so much!

'With the summer came Peter to tutor me, a tall, handsome young man fresh from Oxford, with decided ideas on education which I found rather trying to begin with. But gradually the atmosphere of the island worked its way insidiously under his skin, and he relaxed and became quite human. At first the lessons were painful to an extreme: interminable wrestling with fractions and percentages, geological strata and warm currents, nouns, verbs, and adverbs. But, as the sunshine worked its magic on Peter, the fractions and percentages no longer seemed to him an overwhelmingly important part of life and they were gradually pushed more and more into the background; he discovered that the intricacies of geological strata and the effects of warm currents could be explained much more easily while swimming along the coast, while the simplest way of teaching me English was to allow me to write something each day that he would correct...'

Gerald Durrell

Last week we had exams for Year 6, Term 2. I asked Moozle to write a poetic narration about 
Antony & Cleopatra:

On a roll with her drawing of roses

 Weather report, with some artistic license

Handiwork - scrapbooking has been all the rage. This is something all my girls have enjoyed but I prefer working with fabric and haven't shared their activities in this area. Fortunately, they have an Aunty who enjoys scrapbooking and when Moozle started showing a interest in scrapbooking as her older sisters had done, Her Aunty started paying her in scrapbooking paper to wash her car.
This week Moozle had her first 'consignment.' A lady at church asked her to make up an assortment of gift cards, which she paid for and then said that she would act as her 'agent' and drum up some business. Moozle is excited because now she can go out and buy more supplies!

A couple of tags she whipped up this afternoon

"I'd like to add some beauty to life," said Anne dreamily. "I don't exactly want to make people know more...though I know that is the noblest ambition...but I'd love to make them have a pleasanter time because of have some little joy or happy thought that would never had existed if I hadn't been born."

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Listening to this when we're driving

Moozle's free reading

 The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie - this is the first book in the Tommy and Tuppence series, which I let my children read when they are about 12 years of age. (Free online here) I leave Christie's other books for a later stage but this series is fun and a good introduction to the crime novel. Partners in Crime is another in the series she's been reading.

*  Children learn from real things in the real world

*  We train a child to have good habits and self-control

*  The mind needs ideas of all kinds, so the child's curriculum should be varied and generous with    
    many subjects included.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Classic Children's Literature Event

This event is in its fifth year and this is the third year I've participated in it. It's only a month long and there is also an optional read along - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. See Simpler Pastimes for more information.
This year I'm planning to read these books:

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara (1941)
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden (1961)

And if time permits, maybe one or two others.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin - 'a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.'

Dystopian or anti-Utopian literature is a genre that has always interested me. I can't really describe this type of reading as enjoyable but I'm attracted by the ideas and thoughts suggested by these types of books and the implications there might be for today's society.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin was completed in 1920-21 before Stalin's rise to power so it was quite prophetic for the time but it also feels prophetic nearly a hundred years later with its themes of a technological and utilitarian world.
We is written in a first person narrative and is fragmented and oblique in places because of this. It wasn't until I was about three quarters of the way into the book that I really began to connect with the story and I think that was largely due to this intentional device the author used. It suited the overall theme of the story but it wasn't an easy read.

I'm not going to attempt to 'review' this book as I don't think I'd do it justice, but I'd like to focus on some of Zamyatin's ideas that stood out to me as relevant to our present culture.

A quick, very basic outline of the story:

It is the twenty-sixth century A.D. Many years ago, there was a two-hundred year war between the City and the Country and only a fraction of the world's population was left alive. Since the war, OneState, ruled by the Benefactor, and overseen by the Guardians, has vanquished Hunger and Love, the previous rulers of the world, and established a regimentation of mankind where everything is mathematically precise, each citizen functioning like a machine.

D-503 is the narrator of We. He is a mathematician and the builder of the INTEGRAL, a technologically advanced space ship that OneState is going to use to spawn the perfect society through the rest of the solar system.
Through D-503 we are introduced to the citizens of OneState (identified only by Numbers) and their collective society as he documents his thoughts in a diary. D-503 becomes infatuated by I-330, a leader of the Mephi, an underground group of revolutionaries. This messes with his rational, precise mind and he becomes sick. In fact, according to the doctor, he seems to be developing a soul:

"You're in bad shape. It looks like you're developing a soul."

A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word. 

We sometimes used expressions like "soul-mate," "body and soul," "soul-destroying," and so on, but soul...

"That's...very dangerous," I murmured.

The Mephi have plans to get control of the INTEGRAL. A revolution is brewing and D-503 is instrumental in allowing them to achieve their aim.

Some ideas expressed in the book:

A rigidly controlled society
Conformity - the victory of all over one, of the whole over the part
The individual personality is subjugated to the collective
The mathematical precision of life in a controlled environment
The regimentation of mankind

 ...the Table of Hours - it turns each one if us right there in broad daylight into a steel six-wheeled epic hero. Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the very same hour and the very same minute, we get up, millions of us, as though we were one. At the very same hour, millions of us as one, we start work. Later, millions as one, we stop. And then, like one body with a million hands, at one and the same second according to the Table, we lift the spoon to our lips...

Scientific utopia
The Benefactor is all powerful, a god-like being who desires sacrifice
The State was above everything - loved ones, friends, the individual
The total surrender to Technology and Utilitarianism

The mechanism has no imagination.
When you were at work did you ever happen to see a distant, idiotic, dreamy smile spread across the physiognomy of a cylindrical pump? At night, during the hours designated for rest, did you ever happen to hear the cranes toss restlessly and heave sighs?
...But you are not to blame. You are sick. The name of your illness is:

Controlled & selective reproduction
The idea that the natural world is ugly and the technological society is pure

Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built the first Wall. Man ceased to be a wild man only when we built the Green Wall, only when by means of that Wall, we isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, ugly world of trees, birds, and animals...

A belief that everything in the past was primitive and absurd
Happiness and freedom are incompatible
Freedom is regarded as 'disorganised wildness'

At the same time as I was reading this book, I'd started reading through Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education by David V. Hicks. He observes that:

'The ancients, unlike us, expected science to enhance the their understanding of the material world without particularly helping them to transform it. Their real interest was man, and wherever possible, they tried to turn Science away from matter to man...
Because the ancients regarded man as free...and not as determined by a material universe, there was little reason to turn science and mathematics into tools with which to mold nonliving matter and man's future...
But modern science...would change the world and, if we accept the dominant ideological creeds of the nineteenth century, it would change man...
A fundamentally political ideology dedicated to the reform or the anticipated progress of material conditions uprooted the ancient insistence upon a personal ideal.'

Hicks goes on to say that the modern world has rules of analysis that 'increasingly govern our understanding and appreciation of art, poetry, history, and even religion.'

It is not concerned with what ought to be done, but what can be done.

Taken to its extreme, the end result of this way of thinking is the starting point for D-503's world.

'There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The difference lies only in the fact that one stick of dynamite explodes once, but one book explodes thousands of times.'
Yevgeny Zamyatin

Further reading

George Orwell's review of We

Short biography of Zamyatin - interesting that he was a naval engineer and had a technical  background.

Linking to Russian Literature Challenge, Back to the Classics: Russian Classic and The Classics Club.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Giveaway Winner! plus Ideas, free resources & books for a Christ-Centred Easter

Congratulations to Natilla L. who is the winner of a copy of Make Room: A Child's Guide to Lent and Easter, courtesy of Paraclete Press.

It's not easy to find quality Easter focussed books for children but Make Room is one I can recommend. Another is The Tale of the Three Trees by Angela Elwell Hunt; Illustrated by Tim Jonke. A lovely story for children of all ages. There's a narration of the book on YouTube.

Some Family Devotional Reading:

Ann Voscamp has two free devotionals for Lent and Easter available for download when you subscribe to her email.
Trail to the Tree is seventeen day Easter devotional with Bible readings and beautiful art selections to encourage listening, lingering, praying and contemplating. Adaptable to all ages. There is also a printable 'Forgiveness: fresh start' that ties in well with the Lenten period and gives a hands-on, practical application to the act of forgiveness.
'A Lent to Repent and Refresh' is a download of 40 mini cards or 'sticky notes for your soul.' Each card focusses on a Scripture and a prayer and includes a small colour print of devotional art. I love the aspect of 'fasting' from attitudes such as indifference and negative words. This is a simple way to prepare our hearts for Easter and could be used as a family devotional with older children or to glean ideas to use with younger ones.

Scroll down to the section 'Free Tools' to download the pdf's.

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown (1852–6)

Treasuring God in Our Traditions by Noel Piper is a valuable book that helps us to discover the value of God-centred traditions and to establish them in our lives. The author points out that these traditions are important to us all - singles, children, couples, families. Her thoughts on this reminded me of an article on 'Continuity' I read many years ago by Edith Schaeffer, but haven't read since. (I'd really appreciate if  someone reading this could shed some light on where this article can be found as I read it when I was single and it made a big impression on me.)
Treasuring God in Our Traditions is free to download here.

Other Books:

Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Lent, Holy week and Eastertide - compiled by Sarah Arthur.
I'm reading through this lovely compilation in the lead up to Easter and wrote about it here.
A rich resource that would work well with highschool age children. There are also some classic poems and extracts from works of fiction that would also be appropriate to share with children a little younger.

Vinegar Boy by Alberta Hawse (1970)

This is an intensely moving story of a young disfigured boy who, eleven years before the story begins, had been abandoned by his parents. Roman soldiers had found him discarded in the hills and carried him back to the garrison for a joke as one side of his face was fair and the other a hideous purple red. After the novelty of the birthmark had ceased to amuse the men, the boy was left with Nicolaus, the steward, who had kept him and grew to love him. The boy became known as 'Vinegar Boy' and now, eleven years after he first came to the garrison, he began to hear of the miracles performed by Jesus of Nazareth. A determination grew within him to go to Jesus, believing that he would be healed - and after he was healed he would choose a new name. The time came when he was to have a whole day to himself, and he planned to seek Jesus out. However, at the last minute he was required to take vinegar to the hill where there was to be a crucifixion...

And Jesus, the only Man in the whole world who could help him, was hanging unconscious on a cross - dying.

I read this aloud quite a few years ago and it was a powerful story. It is intense in places so would probably be best for ages 10 years and up.

Hymns & Songs

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece by Van Eyck (15th C)

And one of my all-time favourite poems:

The Donkey
When fishes flew and forests walked
   And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet. 
by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)