Saturday, 24 February 2018

Reading, Thinking, Domesticity #3

When I started this Reading, Thinking, Domesticity series in January, I mentioned that one of the definitions of the word 'domesticate' means to tame. We're taming and reclaiming the lives of those in our home but more importantly, our own life.
Dr Harold C. Mason said that:

"Man was made to dwell in a garden but through sin he has been forced to dwell in a field which he has wrested from his enemies by sweat and tears, and which he preserves only at the price of constant watchfulness and endless toil. Let him but relax his efforts for a few years and the wilderness will claim his field again."

A.W. Tozer echoed this observation in his own words:

"The bias of nature is toward the wilderness, never toward the fruitful field," and he defined temptation as "the effort of the wilderness to encroach upon our newly-cleared field."
This 'law of the wilderness' operates universally and any part of our lives that are neglected will become overrun and any previous gains lost.

I was thinking of  the words above in the context of 3 John vs 2:
“Friends, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” 

To prosper means to make good way and is linked to walking, so going back to the wilderness analogy, prospering requires a steady, consistent effort toward something. To stop walking is to wither.
Have you heard of the spinning plates analogy? It's difficult to keep all our plates spinning and they sometimes/often end up falling as we fail to keep them spinning on their sticks. Sometimes we just have too many plates. This verse in 3 John highlights the internal life, the soul/spirit, as the most important plate to keep spinning but obviously we have a responsibility to look after our physical health also.
This is possibly the last item on the agenda in many a busy home educator’s life but the older you get, the more you realise how important it actually is, and the harder it is to establish good habits!


These are some ways I'm addressing these areas; keeping the plates spinning and looking after Spirit, Soul & Body:

‘For the Love of God’ by D.A. Carson is a daily companion that has a systematic 365 day reading plan that takes you through the New Testament and Psalms twice, and the Old Testament once. It’s based on the M’Cheyne Bible reading schedule & includes a daily commentary that focuses on one of the chapters you’ve read that day.

I’ve been enjoying this free Bible app ( I don’t use it for every reading but it helps me fit in a lot more Bible as I can listen while I walk or when I’m in the car. It’s been helpful when I’m tired and I lose track of what I’d just read!! or when my mind wanders.
I've always found C.S. Lewis to be very accessible and read many of his books when I was a new  Christian. I somehow missed The Screwtape Letters although my older children have read it. It is fun while being instructive.

'The Rosemary Tree’ by Elizabeth Goudge is such a wonderful story - quality nutrition for the soul. Just lovely! I've nearly finished it and have so many passages underlined ready to be put into my commonplace book.
‘Strength Training for Woman’ by Joan Pagano is an excellent, well-illustrated book and contains exercises that may be done at home or the gym. I discovered that my bone density was low which surprised me as I eat a lot of dairy products so I've been making an effort in the past year to be more consistent with weight bearing exercises. I joined the gym with my husband about two years ago but I was only averaging one session a week. I've upped that to two to three sessions a week and incorporated some of the exercises in this book. My gym-going 21 year old plumber son who is built like a tank told me I now have biceps - not very noticeable, but they're there.

When Screwtape was instructing his nephew in how to destroy a young man’s faith he said:

‘ must always remember that they are animals and whatever their bodies do affects their souls.’

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Newbery Honor Book: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1987)

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is a gripping short story about a thirteen-year-old city boy who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness after the pilot suffers a massive heart attack mid-flight.
Brian Robeson is flying from New York to Canada on a small Cessna plane to stay with his father for the summer. He is the only passenger and it is the first time he’d ever been on a plane.
Brian survives the crash of the plane into a lake, escaping with only the clothes he is wearing and the hatchet his mother gave him strapped to his belt.
He realizes very quickly that he needs shelter and food and begins his education in survival skills. He finds berries, learns how to spear fish and birds with his homemade spear, and with the aid of his hatchet, discovers how to start a fire.
He survives an attack by a moose, an encounter with a bear, a tornado, the torturous afflictions of mosquitoes and in the process gains some inner resolve and strength that he didn’t have before.

If the story was confined to the plane crash, the boy’s attempts to keep alive, and his growth during the ordeal, it would probably be an excellent read for a child around the age of twelve, but there are a few themes that might cause concern for parents, and I'd recommend a pre-read before handing it to your child (it's only about 180 pages).
The reason Brian is travelling to Canada to spend the summer with his dad is because his parents recently divorced and he is on his first visit to his father’s new home.
Bit by bit Paulsen reveals Brian’s secret: he had seen his mother in the company of another man in her car and had seen them kiss. This knowledge burned inside him and during the flight his mind flashes back to the scene; to his strained relationship with his mother who was unaware that Brian knew about her infidelity; to the secret his father was unaware of.

It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling...the breaking and shattering of all the solid things...
The Secret.
The big split. Brian’s father did not understand as Brian did, knew only that Brian’s mother wanted to break the marriage apart. The split had come and then the divorce, all so fast, and the court had left him with his mother except for the summers and what the judge called ‘visitation rights.’ So formal. Brian hated judges as he hated lawyers. Judges who leaned over the bench and asked Brian if he understood where he was to live and why. Judges who did not know what really happened. Judges with the caring look that meant nothing as lawyers said legal phrases that meant nothing.

Sitting in the cockpit with a dead pilot, the plane knocked off its course when the man smashes into the controls with the violence of his chest pain; trying to send an SOS when he has no idea of how to contact anyone; when in fact, he’d never even seen the inside of a plane except in movies - this is pretty intense stuff.

I thought Paulsen’s depiction of the inner turmoil of a young boy’s struggle with parental breakdown was very perceptive and real. He also conveyed the terrible shock, fear and loneliness of the boy's predicament before and after the crash with skill. The writing style is more likely to be appreciated by children around the age of the protagonist or even younger but I’d think hard before giving the book to anyone under the age of fourteen or fifteen.
There is an incident that occurrs when he’d been on his own for forty-two days. He hears a plane and runs with a burning piece of wood to try to signal to the aircraft but he fails to attract any attention. Up until this point he had just been waiting to be rescued but he realizes that the doomed plane had veered way off its course and no one would be expecting him to be where he was. All his hope dissipates and he tries to commit suicide by cutting himself with his hatchet.

Madness. A hissing madness that took his brain. There had been nothing for him then and he tried to become nothing but the cutting had been hard to do, impossible to do, and he had at last fallen to his side, wishing for death, wishing for an end...
Still there on his side and the sun came up and when he opened his eyes he saw the cuts on his arm, the dry blood turning black; he saw the blood and hated the blood, hated what he had done to himself when he was the old Brian and was weak, and the two things came into his mind - two true things.
He was not the same. The plane passing changed him, the disappointment cut him down and made him new. He was not the same and would never be again like he had been. That was one of the true things, the new things. And the other one was that he would not die, he would not let death in again.
He was new.

Another incident that might be too much for younger readers occurred after a tornado tore through the area. Afterwards, when Brian went to the lake, the tail of the plane was now visible. He remembered that a survival pack had been stored near the tail somewhere and he decided to try to get out to the plane and recover the pack.
Once he got to the plane, he had to dive down to loosen the pack as it was jammed in by one of the seats. As he grabbed the pack, he saw the pilot’s head, or what remained of it, and he realized that the fish he had been eating since he’d been stranded had been nibbling on the pilot all that time and the skull was almost picked clean. A bit gross, and needless to say, Brian was sick.
The ending was a little ironic. Brian finds all sorts of goodies in the survival pack, including an Emergency Transmitter that he fiddles with but it appears to be broken. He cooks himself a slap up meal using some of the treasures that come in the pack, and as he sits savouring the smell of his cooking, a plane with floats suddenly roars overhead and lands on the lake fifty-four days after the crash.
Dumfounded, Brain stares at the pilot as he gets out of the plane:

'I heard your emegency transmitter - then I saw the plane when I came over...' He trailed off, cocked his head, studying Brian. 'Damn. You're him, aren't you? You're that kid. they quit looking, a month, no, almost two months ago. You're him, aren't you?
You're that kid...'
Brian was standing now, but still silent...He looked at the pilot, and the plane, and down at himself - dirty and ragged, burned and lean and tough - and he coughed to clear his throat.
'My name is Brian Robeson,' he said. Then he saw that his stew was done, the peach whip almost done, and he waved to it with his hand. 'Would you like something to eat?'

Overall, Hatchet is an absorbing and quick read. An interesting aspect for me is Brian’s character development during the course of the story. From a slightly tubby adolescent who had no idea of how to look after himself, reeling from the trauma of his parent’s divorce and the secret he carries, he develops into a young man who learns to overcome his emotions, to think through his decisions before he acts on them, and to learn through his mistakes.
I think in the right circumstances and at the right time this book would be a good choice, especially for a boy. I’ve read that Hatchet has been assigned in some schools for 4th grade students but I think that’s too young.

The author has written a couple of sequels that I haven’t read. Brian's Winter (published previously as ’Hatchet: Winter’) continues the story by looking at what would have happened had Brain not been rescued and had to survive the winter.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Australian Historical Fiction: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans is M. L. Stedman’s 2012 award-winning debut novel. It is set in Western Australia where the author was born and raised, and is a well-written and heart-wrenching story.
Without giving away too much of the plot...the story takes place in the years after The Great War and centres around Tom Sherbourne, a young man who becomes a lighthouse keeper upon his return from active service. Memories of the war haunt him and he struggles with the fact that so many others did not return, or did so maimed and psychologically ruined. In many respects he is able to pick up his life again but his choice to be a lighthouse keeper is influenced by his desire for a solitary life, a direct result of both his unsettled upbringing and the trauma of war.
Then he meets Isabel, a young woman ten years younger than himself, and she has made up her mind that she wants to marry him.
Well, they do marry and go to live at Janus Rock, a fictitious, remote island off the coast of south-west Western Australia where their only contact with the outside world is the supply boat that visits the island four times a year from Point Partageuse (a fictitious town).

Lighthouse keepers were required to keep meticulous records in a logbook - visitors to the island, wreckage from the sea, every significant event at or near the lighthouse, whether it was a passing ship or a problem with the lighthouse’s apparatus - it was a legal requirement to document those events straight away.
One day in 1926, something occurs that doesn’t get documented. Tom is an honourable man but out of concern for Isabel’s fragile emotional state, he makes a decision that leads to longterm tragic consequences.
The Light Between Oceans is a sensitive story that explores moral choices and the deceitfulness of the human heart. It shows that our decisions do not only impact our own lives but have repercussions for those around us; that our emotions are not always reliable and that we can reason away just about anything if we lean on them alone.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by this author and I was impressed by her style of writing and descriptive ability. The historical and technical details about lighthouses and the work of lighthouse keepers were quite fascinating, even for this very non-technically minded woman, and the portrayal of the problems encountered by returned servicemen and their families was handled brilliantly.
The only negative for me was the profanity which became more frequent towards the latter part of the book, although it’s not out of character for the times, or for some people going through the type of circumstances and pressures described.
A very worthwhile book and one of the best written modern books I’ve read in a long time.

Tom's comment about his war service:

‘Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.’

The impact of the war:

Throughout its infancy, the unspoken belief in Partageuse was that real hints happened elsewhere...
Other towns in the West had known things different, of course: Kalgoorlie, for example, hundreds of miles inland, had underground rivers of gold crusted by desert...
The world wanted what Kalgoorlie had.

...Then in 1914 things changed. Partageuse found that it too had something the world wanted. Men. Young men. Fit men. Men who spent their lives swinging an axe or holding a plough and living it hard. Men who were the prime cut to be sacrificed on tactical altars a hemisphere away.

The author has a nice way with similes and other figures of speech:

And Janus Rock, linked only by the store boat four times a year, dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.

‘Tom Sherbourne. Pleased to meet you,’ Tom replied, putting out his hand.
The older man looked at it absently for a moment before remembering what the gesture meant, and gave it a peremptory tug, as if testing whether the arm might come off.

Post-traumatic trauma:

Something solid. He must turn to something solid, because if he didn’t, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast. That was the only thing that got him through four years of blood and madness: know exactly where your gun is when you doze for ten minutes in your dugout; always check your gas mask; see that your men have understood their orders to the letter. You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is speculation.

Tom's character:

Regulations require that each Sunday he hoist the ensign and he does, first thing. He raises it too when any ‘man o’ war’, as the rules put it, passs the island. He knows keepers who swear under their breath at the obligation, but Tom takes comfort from the orderliness of it. It is a luxury to do something that serves no practical purpose: the luxury of civilisation.

Other blokes might take advantage, but to Tom, the idea of honour was a kind of antidote to some of the things he lived through.

Thanks to Sherry at Semicolon Blog for mentioning this book. I'd heard of the title but I don't often read modern fiction and probably wouldn't have if Sherry hadn't said how much she enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Mr. Standfast - How do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways...

This is the third time I’ve read Mr. Standfast by John Buchan. It’s one of my favourite books by this author and the third time around hasn’t diminished my ardour.
Mr. Standfast is the third book of five in Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels that began with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and was followed by Greenmantle. The book was published in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution and as World War I was coming to a close. Buchan’s story opens in 1917 when Hannay was serving as a Brigadier in France. He is recalled by British Intelligence to pose as a pacifist in order to infiltrate a spy ring that threatens to bring about an Allied defeat on the Western Front.
Hannay, an upfront man of action, is disgusted with the idea of being a fake pacifist, but he sees his duty, does what is required of him, and by the second half of the book he’s well and truly in on all the action, and nearly gets annihilated a couple of times.
There is a romantic element in this story as Hannay falls in love with the charming Mary Lamington, who is also working for British Intelligence. There are some tense moments for him when the sinister Graft von Schwabing, the German master of disguise, succeeds in tricking Mary. She walks into his trap and finds herself on the 'Underground Railway' heading into Germany with him.

What I loved About Mr. Standfast

•    Buchan uses the theme of Pilgrim’s Progress throughout the book. When Hannay is given his assignment via Mary, she tells him to buy a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and ‘get it by heart.’ When he receives letters and messages about his assignment, they are written in a style reminiscent of John Bunyan. Some of the chapter headings are taken directly from Pilgrim’s Progress: The Village Named Morality; The Valley of Humiliation; The Summons Comes for Mr. Standfast.

•    Buchan has a very literary style and perceptive insights into human nature. Add those qualities to his grasp of the historical setting and his ability to tell a thrilling political/spy adventure story and the result is a winner.

•    Buchan was a fellow Scot and I love his descriptions of the Scottish Highlands and its people. He also had a very full and interesting life, living in South Africa and later in Canada where he held the position of Governor General. This wide experience of life is reflected in his writing.

•    Buchan’s characters: Mr. Blenkiron, who starred in Greenmantle makes his appearance again in Mr. Standfast, this time as a healthy man cured of his chronic dyspepsia; Sir Archie Roylance, the light-hearted youth who previously served with Hannay and now is in the flying Corps, and Mary Lamington, the courageous and patriotic eighteen year old girl who wins Hannay‘s heart.

•    My favourite character in this book would have to be the wiry and wise, Peter Pienaar, an old associate of Hannay’s from South Africa who participated in some previous adventures. He had found his niche in the Flying Corps and gained a reputation for skill amongst his fellow flyers, but also from Lensch, the German aviation hero. Peter had been downed by Lensch in a air fight and at the beginning of this story he is a crippled prisoner of war. The Pilgrim’s Progress was his constant companion and he had singled out Mr. Standfast as his counterpart because he did not think he could emulate Mr. Valiant-for-Truth. How wrong he was!

Among the unopened letters was one from Peter, a very bulky one which I sat down to read at leisure. It was a curious epistle, far the longest he had ever written me, and its size made me understand his loneliness. He was still at his German prison-camp, but expecting every day to go to Switzerland...
Peter's letter was made up chiefly of reflection. He had always been a bit of a philosopher, and now, in his isolation, he had taken to thinking hard, and poured out the results to me on pages of thin paper in his clumsy handwriting. I could read between the lines that he was having a stiff fight with himself. He was trying to keep his courage going in face of the bitterest trial he could be called on to face - a crippled old age. He had always known a good deal about the Bible, and that and the Pilgrim's Progress were his chief aids in reflection. Both he took quite literally, as if they were newspaper reports of actual recent events.
Peter preferred Valiant-for-Truth to Mr Greatheart, I think, because of his superior truculence, for, being very gentle himself, he loved a bold speaker...He thought that he might with luck resemble Mr Standfast, for like him he had not much trouble in keeping wakeful, and was also as 'poor as a howler', and didn't care for women. He only hoped that he could imitate him in making a good end.

But the big courage is the cold-blooded kind, the kind that never lets go even when you're feeling empty inside, and your blood's thin, and there's no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble's not over in an hour or two but lasts for months and years. One of the men here was speaking about that kind, and he called it 'Fortitude'. I reckon fortitude's the biggest thing a man can have—just to go on enduring when there's no guts or heart left in you.

Peter was writing for his own comfort, for fortitude was all that was left to him now. But his words came pretty straight to me, and I read them again and again, for I needed the lesson. Here was I losing heart just because I had failed in the first round and my pride had taken a knock. I felt honestly ashamed of myself, and that made me a far happier man.

Mr. Standfast by John Buchan is my choice for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Re-read a favorite classic

John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels are scheduled as free reads in the AmblesideOnline Year 11 curriculum, but they are also great reading for around age 12 to 13 years and up. My kids loved them.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Mother Culture: Interior Riches

Interior Riches
I happened upon this fetching little phrase in the second chapter of Elizabeth Goudge’s book, The Rosemary Tree, and immediately thought how well it matched the idea of Mother Culture. (If you are unfamiliar with the idea of Mother Culture, the concept is explained in this article at AmblesideOnline's Parent's Review Archives.)

'...out of chance phrases and flashes of beauty (Michael) had always in old days been able to build for himself his country of escape. “Rest and ease, a convenient place, pleasant fields and groves, murmuring springs, and a sweet repose of mind.” Cervantes had known the same country, and had doubtless retained the power to create it even in the midst of misery, so great were his own interior riches.
But Michael’s imagination had always been dependent upon exterior bounty, and cut off from that he had been cut off from his country too.'

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

Goudge’s character, Michael Stone, has an aura of mystery about him as well as a great affection for Don Quixote.
It’s been said that the inspiration for Miguel Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, came to him while he was in prison and Michael believed that thinking of the great Cervantes and his suffering helped to keep him sane at times.
Cervantes had a great store of interior riches that he drew upon during his miserable and inhumane imprisonment by Ottoman pirates, whereas Michael was reliant upon external sources, and once they were removed, his imagination was unable to give him a place of rest; to take him to his country of escape. He did not have to power to create a sweet repose of mind, a pleasant place, because he had never made the effort to store up interior riches.

Last year I lost myself in one of the most inspirational autobiographies I’ve ever read: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, a woman, who in her early fifties, who was locked up in solitary confinement for six and a half years during the Cultural Revolution. During those years she drew upon her interior riches: Poetry and Psalms she had memorised; the intellectual culture of thinking and remembering she had practised throughout her life while she was still free; not to mention the physical disciplines she made herself undergo to keep her body from total deterioration while enduring the effects of starvation in prison.

Interior riches. We never know when we may be left without external resources to sustain our souls but what we have made a part of us can’t be taken away.

•    Scripture memory
•    Beautiful art work stored in the mind
•    Intellectual & aesthetic culture
•    The discipline of reading, thinking, & remembering
•    Inspiring music
•    History
•    Nature appreciation

Mother Culture: filling my soul with Interior Riches for the present, and to draw upon in the future.