Monday, 12 August 2019

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1943 - 1948)

Set in Japan on the eve of World War II, The Makioka Sisters has been described as the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century. Not having read many Japanese novels I’m not in a position to agree or disagree with that observation, but it is certainly a compelling and poignant picture of an upper-class Japanese society in decline.

The four Makioka sisters belong to an aristocratic family whose parents are no longer alive. The two eldest, Tsuruko and Sachicko are married and Tsuruko’s husband, Tatsuo, has taken on the Makioka family name and with that responsibility for the unmarried sisters.
Yukiko and Taeko prefer living with Sachicko and her husband in Osaka while the eldest sister and her family make their home in the ‘main house’ in Tokyo, which causes tension at times.

Yukiko, the third daughter, has turned down numerous marriage proposals over the years and the family has acquired a reputation for being too haughty. With the family fortunes in decline and Yukiko now in her early thirties, their expectations are beginning to be more realistic.

‘It was strange that whenever talk came up of a husband for Yukiko, some really insurmountable difficulty always presented itself. Yukiko seemed to be unmarriageable, and Tsuruko found it hard to shrug off as only a superstition the belief that women born in the Year of the Ram had trouble finding husbands.’

The youngest sister, Taeko, is rebellious and modern in her views but has to wait until Yukiko is married before she can entertain the idea of marriage herself. Meanwhile, she doesn’t let that stop her from throwing herself into scandalous situations.
Up until the end of World War II, Japanese men and women were introduced to each via a matchmaker. This could be a relative or a another third party who arranged a ‘miai’ where the two potential spouses met over a formal meal in the company of some family members and the matchmaker. They were also given the opportunity to spend some time conversing on their own.
The two parties investigated each other’s backgrounds using a detective agency to check there were no skeletons in the closets or problems such as insanity or hereditary issues in the family, so the Makioka’s were always afraid that Taeko’s indiscretions might surface and put an end to negotiations.

This book is a quiet and delicate immersion in Japanese culture, from cherry blossom festivals and kabuki theatre, to family traditions and cultural beliefs.

Kabuki Theatre
Embed from Getty Images

The author started writing the story as a series during World War II and the events of The Makioka Sisters take place between 1936 and 1941 as Japan was building up its military presence in the area.
The Makioka family seem to live in a bubble while their culture is disintegrating around them but from time to time hints about what was going on in the outside world break into the story: ‘the national crisis,’ ‘the China Incident,' and ‘National Spiritual Mobilization,' for example.

The Osaka sisters became quite close to the Stolz family, a German couple and their three children living next door to them, and when the family returned to Germany, letters were exchanged. They reveal some of what was taking place over there in 1941, the attitude of the people to the war, and the false security they felt about the outcome.

‘As you know, there is a shortage of manpower in Germany, and it is very difficult to find a maid...Once I had time to write letters in the evening. Now I must get out a basket of stockings, all with big and little holes in them. In the old days I would have thrown away worn-out stockings, but now we must economise. We must work together to win through, and each of us must do his part, however small it may be. I understand that life is harder in Japan too...
But we must bear the burden. We are both young nations fighting our way up, and it is not easy to win a place in the sun. And yet I do believe that we will win in the end...When we win our victory and everything is normal again, you can visit Germany.'

This is an unusual and very interesting perspective.
The Makioka Sisters is beautifully written and has stood up well in translation into English while retaining an authentic Japanese flavour.
530 pages; would suit an upper high school student studying Modern History, or Ambleside Online Year 11 if you wanted to include a literary book from an Asian perspective in an Australian curriculum.

Linking to 2019 Back to the Classics: A Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Written Narrations

Churchill's The Age of Revolution is one of our history spines for Year 9. It's scheduled in Ambleside Online for that year but we used it in the past for different years of high school depending on what areas we were studying. (High school in Australia includes Years 7 to 12)
This is an unedited written narration which was done this morning after Moozle read the chapter with the same title.

The War of Independence

All my children have had their distinctive ways of writing. Some just stuck to the facts, some  embellished them. Moozle tends to write how she would speak so we get some opinionated comments and words like, 'stupidest,' which I thought she'd made up but it's actually the superlative form of 'stupid.' If I asked her to edit this narration, I'd suggest using a different word but we ran out of time today.

Men, Microscopes, & Living Things was our Biology study for the first half of this year along with  the Sabbath Mood Homeschool Guide. This narration is from the last chapter:

Thursday, 1 August 2019

A 14 Year Old's Commonplace Book

It is very helpful to read with a commonplace book or reading-diary, in which to put down any striking thought in your author, or your own impression of the work, or of any part of it; but not summaries of facts. Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer; besides, we never forget the book that we have made extracts from, and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review.

Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason 

I've written about my son's commonplace book (aka 'Reading Diary' or quotations book) here which he started when he was about 15 years of age. Moozle started keeping hers about 18 months ago when she was about 12 and a half.  As I wrote in the post just linked, I wanted these records of their reading to be something they would initiate, but as with many things, I started the ball rolling so to speak and encouraged them to continue.. I listed it as part of their weekly schedule but I basically left it up to them to choose what they wanted to record.
Often they'd read something out to me that they found interesting or amusing and I'd sometimes suggest it would be a good thing to record it. This helped them begin a habit of keeping a diary of favourite passages.
Moozle also keeps a record of scriptures and hymn lyrics in a separate notebook but that's just something she keeps as a sort of devotional diary and isn't a part of her regular lesson work.

Some quotations that have found their way into my 14 year old girl’s Common Place Book lately:

‘Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.’

‘It is a very silly idea that We has in reading a book you must never ‘skip.’ All sensible people skip freely when they come to a chapter which they find is going to be no use to them.’
(Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis)

She liked this one, being a very fast reader! C.S. Lewis features regularly in her commonplace book. Mere Christianity is scheduled in Ambleside Online year 8 but we used another book for that year so we've added it to Year 9.

‘Lady Penelope looked at Lady Binks with as much regard as Balaam may have cast upon his ass when he discovered its capacity for holding an argument with him.’
(St. Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott)

Moozle has read a number of Sir Walter Scott's books this past year. She has a love/hate relationship with his books but didn't mind this one. Redgauntlet was the best in her opinion.

‘What is worth beginning is worth finishing and what is worth doing is worth doing well.’
(Ourselves by Charlotte Mason)

I'm still reading Ourselves aloud to her. it's been a good book for discussion but I wouldn't say she particularly enjoyed it. She doesn't enjoy green vegetables either but they're a part of her 'eating schedule,' regardless.

‘One of the things I learned during my tenure at Washington is that the civics book picture of government in action is totally inaccurate. The idea that our elected officials take part in a careful decision-making process - monitoring events, reviewing options, responsibly selecting policies - has almost no connection with reality. A more accurate image would be that of a runaway train with the throttle stuck wide open - while the passengers and crew are living it up in the dining car.’
( - William Simon, former U.S. secretary, treasury)

The above quotation is from Uncle Eric Talks About Personal, Career, and Financial Security by Richard J. Maybury. I've scheduled this in place of the Richard Maybury book listed in AO Year 9 for Government & Economics because we already had this book & not the other. It's been a good fit for her this year.

‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.'

(From ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost, 1874-1963)

We've enjoyed the poetry selections in The Art of Poetry curriculum from Classical Academic Press, as well as the lessons. I reviewed it here.

‘...the painters always followed the full dinner pail. As soon as they got their chance, the musicians did likewise. They tucked their unpolished cantatas and sonatas under their arms. They left their unpaid bills behind them. They took the road that led to the north. For that was where the pot of gold awaited them at the end of the rainbow of their high C’s and their unlimited hope and ambitions. ‘ (The Arts by Hendrick Willem Van Loon)

Mr. Van Loon can be quite sarcastic at times...

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)

Have His Carcase is the second book by D. L. Sayers to feature Harriet Vane who was first introduced in Strong Poison (1930) when Lord Peter Wimsey decides she is not guilty of a murder charge and sets out to prove it.
I’ve been filling in the gaps of my Sayers’ reading lately and Have His Carcase was one of the books I decided to read. It’s been quite a few years since I read Strong Poison and I don’t remember a great deal of it so I probably should have read that again before this one. I do remember quite a bit of Gaudy Night which comes after Have His Carcase, though.

Harriet Vane, the detective novelist, has just been acquitted of murder and embarks on a walking tour along the south-west coast of England.

'The best remedy for a bruised heart is not as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest hard work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.'

While on a deserted beach she discovers the body of a young man whose throat had been slashed and after some sleuthing she heads to the next town to report her findings. During this time the tide comes in and the corpse disappears. Once again Harriet Vane is drawn into the investigation of a murder where she is a possible suspect.

Lord Peter Wimsey gets wind of the situation and turns up at the hotel where she is lodged. Wimsey is still pursuing Harriet and much of the banter between them is just delicious. Harriet is having breakfast when he arrives on the scene:

‘Good morning, Sherlock. Where is the dressing gown? How many pipes of shag have you consumed? The hypodermic is on the dressing-room table.’

‘How in the world,’ demanded Harriet, ‘did you get here?’

‘Car,’ said Lord Peter, briefly. ‘Have they produced the body?’

‘Who told you about the body?’

‘I nosed it from afar. Where the Carcase is, there shall be eagles gathered together. May I join you over the bacon-and-eggs?’

‘By all means,’ said Harriet. ‘Where did you come from?’

‘From London - like a bird that hears the call of its mate.’

‘I didn’t -‘ began Harriet.

‘I didn’t mean you. I meant the corpse. But still, talking of mates, will you marry me?’

Harriet is attracted to Wimsey but complicating their relationship is the offence she feels at Wimsey’s patronage towards her. She resents the gratitude she owes him for getting her out of a death sentence. His influence protects her from the hostility of men like Inspector Umpelty and the sensationalist reporter of the Morning Star, Salcolme Hardy, and she is bitterly distressed about this.

Wimsey had been building cautiously building a ‘delicate structure of confidence’ between this ‘scathed and embittered woman and himself’ but this new situation threatened to annihilate what he had built.

'You think you can sit up there all day like King Cophetua being noble and generous and expecting people to be brought to your feet...You think if you go on long enough I ought to be touched and softened...I suppose every man thinks he’s only got to go on being superior and any woman will come tumbling into his arms.'

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Wimsey’s reply to this outburst reveals his heart and his often comic behaviour when he’s around her. According to him he’d have a better chance if he was, ‘deaf, blind, maimed, starving, drunken or dissolute,’ so that she could have the fun of being magnanimous!
He treats his deepest feelings in a comic way to save himself the pain of her being disgusted by them. Poor Peter.

This tussle between Harriet and Wimsey is cleverly portrayed. Amusing but at the same time poignant. As usual, Sayers' plot is clever and inventive; full of connections and rabbit trails. A chapter is basically devoted to the pair working on a cipher that the deceased had used in some letters he wrote, but it went over my head. Puzzles are not my strong point.
I was a little disappointed with the ending to this book. The crime was solved but the evidence was such that a jury would likely reject it so it was left hanging, so to speak. Apart from that, this was an enjoyable and intelligent read.

Moozle has just started reading some of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books and read this after me. (I think some of her books are more suitable for older readers but this one was O.K.) She really enjoys them and said that she ‘gets’ many of the literature allusions & ramblings because of all the literature she’s read over the years such as mythology & Shakespeare, plus bits of Latin and French, both of which she’s been studying. I have to credit Ambleside Online for introducing us to a lot of that goodness.

These are the Sayers’ books I’ve read & written about:

Whose Body?
Clouds of Witness
Unnatural Death
The Five Red Herrings

Regarding King Cohetua, see here & also this blog.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Nature Notebook: Fungi Study

We've had ideal conditions for a study of fungi in the past month and we found some interesting specimens. The green and the black fungi were new to us but we see bracket fungi all the time in our area and the coral fungi pops up now and again.
This is Moozle's nature notebook entry for this past week.

We made some spore prints: turn the cap upside down so its gills sit on top of some white paper; cover with a glass jar or dish to keep out any draught and leave for about 24 hours.
We were able to confirm the name of one specimen we were unsure of by observing the colour of its imprint.

If you wanted to keep these imprints, the paper should be covered very thinly with egg white or an adhesive gum to hold the spores fast. Moozle just observed and drew them this time.

The new discovery...a friend (thanks Anna M!) suggested this might be Dermocybe austroveneta.


Handbook of Nature Study, First Studies in Plant Life in Australasia, a guide to our local area's flora & fauna and for young children, Mushrooms & Molds by Robert Froman (out of print) is a good 'Let's Read and Find Out Science Book,' with some hands on activities. There's a preview of it here. 
The Wonderland of Nature by Nuri Mass has a good, basic section with some simple pen & ink drawings.

Online resources:

Fungimap & lichenised fungi

Australasian Mycological Society

Australian Fungi - Australian National Herbarium

An Australian Fungi Blog!


If you'd like a crime mystery with your fungi study, The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers centres around a fungi expert whose death was caused when he ingested a bowl of deadly mushrooms! This is the only mystery novel that I've read by Sayers where Lord Peter Wimsey is absent entirely. It's been a while since I've read it but it's probably best for around age 16 years and older.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie (1945)

I've been on a crime spree lately: Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and now Agatha Christie.
This is one of Agatha Christie’s books where Poirot and Miss Marple aren’t involved and I’ve tended to enjoy these books more. (See The Man in the Brown Suit, for example.)

A year after Rosemary Barton’s death at an evening party at a high class London restaurant, the six people who were present on the night of her death are gathered together again at the request of her husband, George.
The cause of her death had been put down to suicide but George had reason to believe that this was not the case. On the first anniversary of her death he sets up a similar scenario hoping to bring the cause of her death to light. However, things go horribly awry and another death occurs. Is this a suicide or is there a murderer among them?

Colonel Race, a canny former associate of George’s, becomes involved in the unfolding events and the subsequent investigation, but the actual solution to the mystery is brought about by a most unlikely character.

Sparkling Cyanide shows off Christie’s mastery of misdirection. I really enjoyed this book and was kept in suspense right up to the last few pages. A very satisfying mystery made all the more enjoyable because unlike the last Christie I read, (And Then There Were None) there were a number of very likeable characters in this story that I hoped weren’t murderers!

‘He looked at her with eyes from which the last traces of scales had fallen. A lovely creature with the brains of a hen! He’d been mad - utterly and completely mad. But he was sane again now. And he’d got to get out of this fix. Unless he was careful she’d ruin his whole life.’

‘A wasp was buzzing close at hand. He stared abstractedly. It had got inside a cut glass jampot and as trying to get out.
Like me, he thought, entrapped by sweetness and now - he can’t get out, poor devil.'

I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about the development of the moral imagination so this jumped out at me as I read it:

‘...(She) has the calm practical efficiency that can contemplate and carry out murder, and that perhaps lacks that quality of pity which is essentially a product of imagination.’

I’d never heard of this title, but I have been a late comer to Agatha Christie’s books, so I was pleased that it was an enjoyable read and I’d happily recommend it as a good one to try if you haven’t already read it.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Home Ed Highlights From the Month of June

'I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.'

- Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder, 1956

In a similar vein, Charlotte Mason wrote in her book, Home Education, that it's possible to undervalue a child's ability to get knowledge using his senses. Her context was the Kindergarten as a place of education and her concern was that it was an artificially limited environment.
While a kindergarten can provide some exact ideas such as the difference between a rhomboid and a pentagon, or a primary and secondary colour, this is at the expense of much of the real knowledge of the outside world.
Although this sort of training provided by the Kindergarten/Preschool may be valuable, it shouldn't take the place of the wider training of the senses. This is something we can provide as we walk along the way, through our everyday lives.

Every Tuesday I go and pick up my granddaughter and take her to the park for an hour or so then bring her home to our place for the day. It had been raining when I picked her up the other week so we came straight home, but later in the day the weather cleared so Moozle and I took her on a nature walk with us for the first time. I thought she embodied the idea that Rachel Carson expressed above:

 ' is not half so important to know as to feel.' 

We spent a bit of time listening to the creek as it ran over some rocks, which she found quite fascinating; touching wet leaves, and walking along the track obscured at times by overhanging branches weighed down by the recent rain. 

A rare sighting! We'd been hearing unusual bird sounds and then we found out what was making them. If you don't already know, lyrebirds are incredible mimics and imitate other birds as well as trains, chainsaws, and all sorts of other noises. This is the second time we've seen one on our property but we didn't get a great view of it the first time. This time I actually got quite close to it so I could get a decent photo with my phone. It's a very attractive, elegant bird.

Superb Lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae

One day this month Benj had the morning off so we went for a bush bash. We went along our usual fire-trail walk but then detoured into some more rugged bush that had no track. Just as well he was with us as Moozle and I have no sense of direction and could have ended up anywhere. It was also helpful to have him give us shorter folk a hand up to the higher rocks. 

These two were leading the way and I heard them reciting 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' as they bashed their way through the bush. 'We can't go under it, we can't go over it. Oh, no! We've got to go through it!'

Hubby, Moozle & I had a road trip over the June long weekend up to Toowoomba in Queensland to see my husband's parents. This photo was looking from the top of The Great Dividing Range, also known as The Eastern Highland or The Eastern Cordillera, Australia's most extensive mountain range and the third longest land-based range in the world. It stretches more than 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) from north east Queensland, down the length of the eastern coastline through New South Wales and into Victoria.

Nature Studies in Australia by William Gillies & Robert Hall is a book I've scheduled in Year 9. Moozle generally reads a chapter per week and either narrates after reading or writes a notebook entry. We have a few books by Gillies and they're all very good. This one is a little like an Anna Comstock Handbook of Nature Study for Australians but written more to the student as opposed to the parent.

'Browning would sit quite still in a wood for an hour, and the birds would hop about his feet. Tennyson would spend an afternoon in watching how the lark rose into the air and dropped to the ground. Dr Fabre would sit on a sandy slope for a whole day to watch the ways of the solitary wasps. Nature will not give up her secrets to the man in a hurry.'

The Art of Poetry introduced us to this poem. Some poetry just reaches out and grabs at your heart and this was one that did that to me. It's melancholy and thoughtful and expresses well those things that one can so often take for granted. ''s austere and lonely offices'! What an exquisite way to express this.

Watercolour & pencil by Moozle

Rural New South Wales

'These are a few of my favourite things...' watercolour and ink. Moozle did this for me & it does capture some of my most favourite things. She knows me well.

On Tuesdays we also have the pleasure of the company of this little fellow, my grandson, for a few hours. My daughter-in-law brings him over around midday and today he listened in as I read aloud to Moozle. I think he was trying to work out how to get the book off me and he ended up with it in his hot little hands. As one of his uncles remarked, 'A gentleman and a scholar.'

A highlight and privilege for me at the beginning of June was being one of the speakers at a Home Education seminar hosted by Michelle Morrow from Homeschooling Downunder. A common thread running through each of our talks was the idea of giving our children a broad and generous education; setting their feet in a large room, as Charlotte Mason so aptly put it and as Michelle said, not just giving them 'meat & potatoes.' There are videos of the talks available here.
It was so good to be a part of this and to meet such a wide variety of mothers, the common denominator being a love for their children and a desire to teach them well. A very enjoyable and fun day! I think Michelle is planning another one for next year so look out for it.

And now for something completely different...just joking, of course. We have a family WhatsApp account and this is the type of thing besides photos and smart comments that get posted there.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh (1943)

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) is a WWII crime mystery set in a fictional spot on the North Island of New Zealand similar to the geothermal area of Rotorua with its distinctive sulphurous odour.
Colonel Edward Claire, his wife, and their two adult children, are incompetently running the mud bath resort. Mrs Claire’s brother, James Ackrington, a crusty and disagreeable physician, joins them upon his retirement. Suspicious about the behaviour of one of the resort’s residents in relation to the torpedoing of the S.S Hippolyte off the New Zealand coast, Ackrington writes to Chief Inspector Roderick Allen who had been sent to NZ to investigate the incident.

Into this situation comes Mr Gaunt, a celebrated Shakespearian actor looking for some relief from his bodily ills, accompanied by his secretary, Dikon Bell and Cockney servant, Alfred Colly.
However, everyone comes under suspicion when a man who is making himself unpleasant generally goes missing.
Did he fall accidentally into the geothermal mud pool? Was he an enemy spy? Who would want to kill him?

‘“This War is changing the values of my generation. There are all sorts of things that we have thought funny that we shall never think funny again.” For perhaps the first time he contemplated coldly and deliberately a possible invasion of New Zealand.’

The backdrop of the lush Northland vegetation and the bubbling thermal pools is an unusual setting especially for a book set during WWII. The interaction between the various characters and the local Maoris, their beliefs and veneration of certain artefacts, is what you’d expect it to be considering the time period.

'The Maori people are a kindly and easy-going race. In temperament they are so vivid a mixture of Scottish Highlander and Irishman that to many observers the resemblance seems more than fortuitous.'

Dr Ackrington's opinion:

'The natives of this country have been ruined by their own inertia and the criminal imbecility of the white population. We sent missionaries to stop them eating each other and bribed them with bad whisky to give us their land. We cured them of their own perfectly good communistic system, and taught them how to loaf on government support. We took away their chiefs and gave them trade-union secretaries. And for mating customs that agreed very well with them, we substituted, wth a sanctimonious grimace, disease and holy matrimony."'

This was a light read with quite a bit of family altercations, banter and humour scattered around. I thought Ngaio Marsh had a clever resolution of the mystery. I certainly didn’t expect it!
There was also a nicely handled romance between Dikon Bell and Barbara, Colonel Claire’s daughter.

'Unable to compete with the few neighbouring families whom her parents considered “suitable,” and prevented by a hundred reservations and prejudices from forming friendships with the “unsuitable,” (Barbara) had ended by forming no friendships at all. Occasionally she would be asked to some local festivity, but her clothes were all wrong, her face unpainted, and her manner nervous and uneven. She alarmed the young men with her gusts of frightened laughter and her too eager attentiveness. If her shyness had taken any other form she might have found someone to befriend her, but as it was she hovered on the outside of every group, making her hostess uneasy or irritable, refusing to recognize the rising misery of her own loneliness. She was happier when she was no longer invited and settled down to her course of emotional starvation...'

Something I learned from this book...habeas corpus is Latin for ‘you must have the body.’
I thought this meant the victim’s body but it refers to the body of the accused: 'a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.'

'Police not a matter of equally balanced motives, tortuous elaborations, and a final revelation in the course of which the investigator’s threat hangs like an ignis fatuous over first one and then another of the artificially assembled suspects. It is rather the slow amassment of facts sufficient to justify the arrest of someone who has been more or less suspect from the moment the crime was discovered.'

Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander and one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ alongside Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Her lifelong love of theatre and the arts is reflected in her novels - the characters and dialogue in this novel had a  theatrical feel at times and were a bit over the top. However, there's no mistaking her skill in crafting words. I thought her description of Barbara above was deftly done and showed a deep sensitivity to a young person trying to find her footing in the world.

Suitable for about ages 14/15 years and up. The only reference to anything objectionable is Dr Ackrington's remarks which I quoted above.

Linking to 2019 Back to the Classics: Classic From a Place You've Lived
Photographs were taken at the Waimangu Volcanic Valley in the North Island of New Zealand.

Friday, 28 June 2019

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

P.D. James is a mixed bag for me. I love her intelligent literary style of writing and her cool, cerebral, yet sensitive detective, Superintendent Adam Dalgleish. Her plots are intricate, her characters complex, and her depiction of surroundings are extremely detailed. Her books are definitely not cozy mysteries.
What I personally find difficult at times is the disturbing nature of some of her material. There was one book I ditched after a couple of chapters because of this, but I like her writing enough that I’m willing to take her book by book.
She tends to have a rather jaundiced view of just about everybody in her books, except for Dalgleish and his side step, Martin, as she explores the human heart and its motives.
There is no one without sin. Murder is murder and the person who commits this particular sin gets to feel the full force of justice regardless of motive or extenuating circumstances. The victim may have been the nastiest person on the face of the earth but nevertheless his life was sacred.
Apart from Sulari Gentill, P.D. James is the only modern crime writer I read. She writes up to her readers and doesn’t inflict offensive language upon them.
She saw the detective story as ‘a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.’

A Mind to Murder is set in a psychiatric clinic where psychiatrists struggle to manage their own personal relationships while counselling their clients about theirs. The murder victim was unpopular with everyone in the clinic and hence everyone there is a suspect. There are some rare moments of humour in this story, as well as some sympathetic insights into the background of her aloof detective; i.e. Dalgleish is a published poet and his wife died in childbirth some years previously.

'Mr Burge enlarged on the immaturity, coolness and insensitivity of his wives in a querulous falsetto. Dr Steiner’s clinical judgement, not uninfluenced by the late effects of a large lunch and the unwise choice of a cream donut with his afternoon tea, told him that the time was not yet ripe to point out that the one defect shared by the three mesdames Burge had been a singular lack of judgement in their choice of husband.'

'Dr Steiner doodled on his notepad, regarded his doodle with interest and concern, looked at it again with the pad held upside down and became for a moment more preoccupied with his own subconscious than with that of his patient.'

'There had...been no demur over providing Baguley with a new and highly expensive contraption for shocking his patients out of the few wits they still possessed.'

She has much to say about death and the ‘personal residue of a finished life.’

'During his career (Dalgliesh) had examined with interest and with pity so many petty leavings. The soiled underclothes pushes hurriedly into drawers, personal letters which prudence would have destroyed, half-eaten meals, unpaid bills, old photographs, pictures and books which the dead would not have chosen to represent their taste to a curious or vulgar world, family secrets, stale make-up in greasy jars, the muddle fill-disciplined or unhappy lives. It was no longer the fashion to dread an unshriven end but most people, if they thought at all, hoped for time to clear away their debris.'

P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of ninety-four. This article was written four years before she died:

'"I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos." In fact, as with the later work of her hero Dorothy L Sayers, a great deal of the fascination of James's detective fiction lies in the way chaos flourishes in the midst of the novels' rigid structure – the internal psychological mess that brings about murder. "I think there's been a huge change since the novels of the Golden Age," she suggests. "What was popular then was the puzzle: such qualities as psychological truth or even atmospheric location were secondary to it. For me, characterisation is at the heart of my books. From the start, I felt that what I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation for murder. And such an investigation tears down all the walls of privacy that we build round ourselves and reveals us for who we are. It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."'

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Back to the Classics: Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute (1955)

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Nevil Shute and this book reminded me how much I enjoy his writing. I thought I’d already read the best of his novels but Requiem for a Wren certainly deserves to be placed on a par with works such as Pied Piper, A Town Like Alice, and Trustee From the Toolroom.
Set partly in the time of WW2 and the years following, it is filled with Shute’s trademark aviation knowledge, which surprisingly doesn’t hinder this non-tech reader’s enjoyment of his writing.
I’ve previously mentioned the author’s ability to get into the skin of his characters who are never ‘standard heroes’ but just very ordinary people whose courage is called upon by unlooked for dilemmas and circumstances; common, quiet folk who rise for a short time, do what needs to be done and go back to their quiet lives. This book is no exception.
From the very first page there is a sense that this story is going to be tragic. There is an inexorable pull in that direction as Alan, the narrator, tells the story of his brother, Bill, and Janet, the young woman he would have married had he survived the war.
All three had met just before the invasion of Normandy but were never to meet again.
The brothers were Australian and the story takes place in Britain and Australia.
After the war Alan sets out on a quest to find Janet, a search that takes him back to England, across to America and then back to Victoria in Australia. What he finds out in his search poignantly reveals Janet’s character and background. Alan is determined to find her and to offer her a home with his parents on their rural property which would have been her lot if circumstances hadn’t intervened to prevent her marriage to Bill.
Unfortunately, Alan always found himself on the back foot in his search. Between Janet’s many moves, the post war confusion, his hospitalisation and rehabilitation after being seriously injured in an air battle, he would arrive somewhere expecting to find her only to discover she had moved on.

'Like some infernal monster, still venomous in death, a war can go on killing people for a long time after its all over.'

This is a sad book with a mix of mystery and WW2 events. Somehow Shute imbues his tragedies with a not altogether bleak outlook. There is some hope within the pathos.
An achingly beautiful read. Highly recommended!

For my thoughts on other books by Nevil Shute see here and here.

Linking up to the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Tragic Novel

Monday, 17 June 2019

Back to the Classics: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a unique book; intelligent, thoughtful, and beautifully written. The author is probably better known for her children’s book, Understood Betsy (1916), a story that demonstrates her knowledge and understanding of children, so it’s not surprising that The Home-Maker also explores this aspect, delving even more deeply into the needs of children and the importance of the home atmosphere.

It has been described as a feminist novel as the mother gets the chance to follow a career rather than be confined at home doing work that frustrates her no end, but the author told her publisher that the book ‘should be taken as a whoop not for “women’s rights” but for “children’s rights.”’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher examines the roles of mothers and fathers in a small American town setting with a great deal of sympathy. Eva, the mother in the story, is a vigorous and highly capable woman, a perfectionist, who feels thwarted by the never ending duties of her household. She loves her children but is so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life that she has no time to enjoy or understand them. Lester, her husband, is a poet and a thinker whose workplace is a misery to him. He has no time for the thought life he needs and hates the materialistic focus of his work. They are both frustrated by his inability to advance and bring home a decent wage.

The real strength of this book comes from the author’s perception of the inner worlds of the couple’s three children, Helen, Henry, and Stephen. I think a book from a purely feminist point of view would have made Eva’s predicament the primary focus but everything that happens in the story is filtered through the children and their needs. Even the father and mother grapple with what is best not just for themselves but for their children.

Lester felt that his employer was exploiting the home-maker by hammering the idea that it was all about good furniture, fine table linen, expensive rugs and well-made clothes. This conspiracy to force women into the  slavery of possessions sickened him:

' about keeping alive some intellectual or spiritual passion in the home? How about the children? Did anybody suggest to women that they give to understanding their children a tenth part of the time and real intelligence and real purposefulness they put into getting the right clothes for them?'

When Lester has an accident that almost kills him and is left crippled and confined to a wheelchair, Eva goes out to work while he stays home and they both find great satisfaction and purpose in their new roles.
After a period of time Lester begins to have signs that signal his recovery. He keeps this to himself and considers the future, feeling that Tradition was against him. The Tradition that said:

' are in the world to get possessions, to create material things, to sell them, to buy them, to transport them, above all to stimulate to fever-heat the desire for them. It decreed that men are of worth in so far as they achieve that sort of material success, and worthless if they do not.’

He wonders how they could work around this problem:

'Would it be possible for both of them to work, he and Eva? Other parents did sometimes. The idea was that with the extra money you made you hired somebody to take care of the children. If before us accident anyone had dreamed of Eva’s natural gift for business, he would have thought the plan an excellent one. But it was only since his accident that he had had the faintest conception of what ‘caring for the children’ might mean. Now, that he had lived with the children, now that he had seen how it took all of his attention to make even a beginning of understanding them, how it took all of his intelligence and love to try to give them what they needed spiritually and!

You could perhaps, if you were very lucky - though it was unlikely in the extreme - it was conceivable that by paying a high cash price you might be able to hire a little intelligence, enough intelligence to give them good material care. But you could never hire intelligence sharpened by love. In other words you could not hire a parent. And children without parents were orphans.

'...You can’t ‘hire’ somebody to be a parent for your children!’ he thought again, passionately. They are born into the world asking you for bread. If you give them a stone, it we’re better for you that that stone were hanged about your neck and cast into the sea.'

The more he was immersed in the care of his children and the running of the home, the more aware he became of society’s lack of respect for that unpaid work.

'Why, the frantic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home. The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships, and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects.'

The Home-Maker is a timeless gem of a book. The issues the author tackled in 1924 are still relevant. We hear so often that we can ‘have it all’ in the context of career and children but this story questions that notion. Rush and hurry, timetables and rigid schedules, can be obstacles to communication and understanding, as is so poignantly shown when Lester discovers the reason for his youngest son’s savage behaviour.

How’s this for a description of the angry little boy?

‘He...sat...dry-eyed, scowling, a magnificent sulphurous conflagration of Prometheus flames blazing in his little heart.’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote from her own experience in this area. Her husband, John Fisher, volunteered in the Ambulance Service in Paris during the First World and afterwards was physically immobilised for some time, losing status and opportunities for advancement. At the same time Dorothy’s writing gained a large audience and invitations to speak around the country. John supported her role as the celebrity and breadwinner while finding ways to express his own interests and skills.
Dorothy believed that whatever the convictions or fashions of society, if a man and woman are able to construct with their children a life in common which keeps them reasonably happy, healthy, good and strong, with a permanent affection for each other, then they have made a successful marriage, no matter what pattern it might take.

Persephone Books is one of my favourite publishers. I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover and the Persephone covers are definitely attractive!

The Home-Maker is my choice of a book in the Classic From the Americas or Carribean category for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge @ Books&Chocolate.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child by Anthony Esolen (2015)

‘How do you raise a child who can sit with a good book and read? Who is moved by beauty? Who doesn’t have to buy the latest this or that vanity? Who is not bound to the instant urge, wherever it may be found?’

Life Under Compulsion is a follow on from Anthony Esolen’s previous title, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, which I read a few years ago.
When one of my sons saw these two books in the bookcase he said: “Mum, you read some weird books! What are you trying to do to us?”
My youngest's reaction was, "No wonder some people think homeschooling's a bad idea...trying to destroy our imagination?!"
If you don’t already know, Dr. Esolen played the devil’s advocate with Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, which is a little reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, minus the humour.
Life Under Compulsion continues the combatative tone of his previous book but focuses on the ideas of freedom versus compulsion.
Freedom is a buzzword of our times but it is a word that has been mis-used.
Dr Esolen argues that our children are anything but free - they are slaves to compulsions that come either from outside of themselves (e.g. government mandates that control what children are taught in schools) or within (the itches that must be scratched, the passions that master them).
He examines modern culture, explains how our idea of freedom is warped and dangerous, and draws on the great thinkers of the past to help us understand what freedom truly means:

‘To be “free” is not to do as you please but rather to realise the fulfilment of your natural created being, without impediments.’

Thomas Aquinas

Esolen is scathing about the education system and their ‘courses in compulsion.’ When he was Professor of English at a Catholic University he wrote an article for Crisis Magazine on the university’s ‘diversity’ stance:

…a vision that pretends to be “multicultural,” but that is actually anti-cultural, and is characterized by all the totalitarian impulses to use the massive power of government to bring to heel those who decline to go along...

His incisive comments and criticism of the politically correct practices of  radical university professors resulted in student protests and faculty members calling for his dismissal in 2016. No wonder he sounds grumpy when he writes.

In Life Under Compulsion, the author examines the school system and its courses in compulsion where children must be segregated by age and must move to the next classroom at the ringing of the bell. Education is based on a utilitarian foundation and is reduced to a tool; students have to adapt themselves to the 'factory' or Teaching Machine, which is not for teaching children but for ‘socialising them.’ It doesn’t impart virtue because virtues set a people free but the system wants a ‘managed’ people.

Freedom is the movement of the heart to embrace what is good, or beautiful, or noble. 
A man who cannot admire is a slave.

Dr Esolen refers to a wide variety of literature in both books I’ve read which I really appreciate: works by Sigrid Undset, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Pieper, Bradbury, Kipling, Dickens, Hugo, Orwell, and Chesterton, for example, but he doesn’t always provide references so if you don’t recognize the characters he’s referring to you’ll have to do some Google Searching.

Systems of Compulsion breed the unnatural, just as the unnatural requires systems of compulsion to confirm it. Consider communism, a system so insane that it could survive only by compulsion - through show trials and executions and the Gulag.

We must not think that these acts of compulsion were merely imposed upon a defenceless people, from without. They also rose from within.

Here he references Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (which I’m in the very slow process of re-reading) where the author cites the Soviet criminal code that dealt with any failure to make a denunciation of certain actions. The powers that be demanded enthusiasm for their revolution and not just a passive acceptance.

Life Under Compulsion is an important book for parents, anyone who is involved in education, those concerned about the outrage trend in society or the attempt to subject curriculum to the demands of a current political aim.
Considering the reaction to Dr. Esolen’s 2016 article, the book is even more relevant now than when it was when it was first published.

‘How do you get people en masse to submit to madness? By compulsion.’

This is a book I've chosen for the Christian Greats 2019 Challenge: No. 5)  A Philosophical Book by a Christian Author