Monday 29 June 2020

A Foray into Some Modern Books

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (2014)

I’ve been interested in reading something by this author for some time but as I’m always cautious about more modern novels and am generally disappointed with them, I wasn’t prepared to buy a new copy. Fortunately, I found a copy of at a secondhand book sale and then I discovered that my local library has other books by Marilynne Robinson, which is wonderful as I enjoyed this book very much.
Lila was a neglected child who found her way into the heart of an itinerant worker. Doll was a single woman on the fringes of life who slept at Lila’s house most nights. One evening she came home and found the young child half asleep outside the house in the cold, after being kicked out because her family was sick of her crying. Doll picked her up, wrapped her in her shawl, went into the house where everyone was asleep, took her bundle of possessions and went out into the night.

‘Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.’

From then on Doll kept on the move with Lila, always with the fear that Lila would be taken from her. After a time they they joined up with a group of itinerant families and travelled with them. These were good years with enough food, a sense of security, and a year of school for Lila.
But the Great Depression drew near and the good years came to an end. The itinerant work dwindled and Doll and Lila, left to fend for themselves, were separated.
Lila had a life of misery and ended up in a whorehouse at one stage. After escaping from that place she wandered the countryside until one day she found herself in a small town called Gilead and took shelter from the rain inside a church.
Lila is a beautifully told story that goes back and forward in time revealing the details of Lila’s life as the story progresses. This type of writing doesn’t always work well but the author uses it to great advantage. The flashback technique was also good at showing the fracturing of families and society in the impoverished years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl times in the 1930’s. The storyline has an aura of mystery surrounding it and was a book I found difficult to set aside because it always had me guessing. Lila is someone you come to care about, especially as she comes to a watershed in her life where her choices will either make or destroy her. I kept hoping her fear wouldn’t keep her on the run.
A major theme in the book is trust and when Lila put aside the fear she had been brought up with and decided to walk into that church in Gilead she started on a pathway where she was to learn to trust.
Acceptance, love and an unusual romance were part of this.
Highly recommended and I am definitely going to read more of this author.

A Dangerous Language by Sulari Gentil (2017)

A Dangerous Language is the eighth book in Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair Mystery series. I’ve read all eight and each book in the series seems to get better than the last. This one took off from the start and was hard to put down so I read it very quickly.
As usual, the author weaves in Australian history, politics, culture, and news items from the 1930’s. Her writing is extremely well-researched and I really appreciate the Australian history I pick up effortlessly when I read her novels.
Rowland Sinclair and his three friends are embroiled yet again in the dangerous world of political intrigue; this time in Canberra, the nation’s newly developed capital, when a Communist agent is murdered on the steps of Parliament House. (‘Old Parliament House’ as it’s now known opened on 9 May 1927)
Rowland has volunteered to fly an international peace advocate from Fremantle to Melbourne where he is scheduled to speak but the right-wing militia responsible for the agent’s assassination are determined to stop him.
The predicaments and dangerous situations that Rowland and his three friends find themselves in this mystery series are definitely far-fetched but the writing is witty, fun and intelligent.
I’d recommend reading the books in order as many of the characters in previous books make a reappearance and they build on each other. The four main characters are also developed more fully as the series progresses and the longstanding interest that Rowland has for his friend, Edna, is a work in progress. I do wonder how long the author will string out this relationship! I think readers need some closure here and Edna & Rowland really have had plenty of time to get over their pasts and get their act together.
These books afford a unique presentation of our more local history and factional politics in a well done fictional setting.

Death in Holy Orders by P.D James (2001)

Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James is a sinister multiple murder mystery set in an Anglican Theological College on the East Anglican coast.
All through the book there is an underlying tension that keeps the reader in suspense as the murders seem unconnected and random. The author’s strength lies in her exploration of the psychological aspects of her characters and their inherent motives. These explorations open up a Pandora’s box and complicate the investigation process. Part of the enjoyment of James’ writing is the intellectual pursuit she engages the reader in, not to mention her excellent command of the written word.
In Death in Holy Orders, Commander Dalgleish returns to a place he frequented as a child (his father was a rector) and relives some of his boyhood experiences. We don’t often get personal insights into Dalgleish’s life and I always enjoy them when they are included. In this book Dalgleish also finds romance. His first wife had died in childbirth a number of years ago and he distanced himself emotionally.
The murders aren’t described in great detail but she always includes some (often bizarre) element of a s*xual nature. I don’t think these are necessarily gratuitous as James had seen the seamy side of life in her work in the forensic science department of the police force and later in the Criminal Policy Department. She also served as a magistrate in Middlesex and London and worked in the National Health Service and used her varied experience to help her write her books.

There are actually some likeable characters in this book. Sometimes James seems more than a little misanthropic but there was more nuance in the personalities here than in some of her other novels.
One scene was a lovely redemptive act that dealt with the acceptance of guilt in thought:

‘What was there about this place that forced him to confront the greater as well as the lesser lies? He had known she was in danger if death. He had hoped that she would die. He was in the eyes of his God...guilty of murder...How could he continue to minister to others, to preach the forgiveness of sins, when his own great sin was unacknowledged? How could he have stood up before that congregation tonight with this darkness in his soul?

He got out of bed and knelt, burying his head in his hands. It wasn’t necessary to search for the words; they came to him naturally, and with them came the promise of forgiveness and peace. ‘Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.’

Death in Holy Orders is well-written and engrossing crime mystery. It's of the best books I’ve read by this author and apart from the one or two scenes which may not sit well with some readers, I’d recommend it as a very interesting and complex murder mystery.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Character, Disposition & the Formation of Habits

Reading through Charlotte Mason’s second volume, Parents and Children, I was jolted by some ideas that weren’t new to me, but came as a bit of an epiphany this time around.
Even of you are only barely familiar with Charlotte Mason (CM) and her educational ideas, you probably know that habit formation is a cornerstone of her philosophy of education.
The ‘epiphany’ passages I read in Chapter 22 of Parents & Children (A Catechism of Educational Theory) look at how habits originate and how they may be corrected.

Some of the ideas discussed in this chapter are:

• That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.

• That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.

Character is the result of conduct.
We have ‘made’ ourselves by the thoughts we have allowed ourselves to think, by the words we have spoken, and by the things we have done.
How we behave (our conduct) has its origin in the way we habitually think. We are accustomed to think in a certain way and so we also act in a certain way.
The links between thought and conduct and the origin of these habits was where I sat up and took notice.

CM poses the question: What is the origin of these habits of thought and act? Her answer is that it is usually inherited disposition.

‘The man who is generous, obstinate, hot-tempered, devout, is so, on the whole, because that strain of character runs in the family.’

Inherited disposition becomes more obvious to us when we marry someone who has been brought up in a family that has a very different strain of character running through it than the one we have been brought up in.
An inherited disposition may not be apparent until circumstances force it to surface e.g. when faced with loss, success, or major change. This was something I experienced in my teen years when my parents’ marriage fell apart.
I became more inclined to be pessimistic in my thought life (this was something my Dad had difficulty with) so much so that a close friend told me at the time that my mind was ‘like a gloomy cave!’

When I read the above passages from ‘Parents & Children’ recently, it shone a light on the course my thoughts had been taking at the time. I had allowed some old patterns of thought to cloud my thinking and hijack my emotions. I was feeling that old pessimism again.
I’m always surprised at how slyly the wrong habits of thinking gain their power.
I’d been reading ‘Tapestry of Life: Devotions for the Unique Woman’ by Nancy Corbett Cole, a book my husband gave me in 1994 and which I’ve read quite a few times since. She talked about taking every thought captive and reminded me that, ‘Salvation is both instant and constant. We are instantly saved at the moment we believe, and continually saved as we let go of the old life, and live in the new.’

Oswald Chambers said that ‘Salvation is easy because it cost God so much, but the manifestation of it in my life is difficult.’ 

The habits of the old life need to be replaced by new habits. Thomas a Kempis said, 'One habit overcomes another one.' So we develop the opposite good habit to replace the one we want to get rid of.
Bad habits make us slaves but once we establish new habits they make mental tracks for us that support and enable us to go in the direction we really desire to follow.

Unhealthy habits and negative thinking also close our eyes to the love of God and create the perfect environment for disappointment & despair. Our minds become gloomy caves and we lose hope. We may think our circumstances will never change, second guess the decisions we’ve made in the past, or believe a whole lot of things conjured up by a faulty perspective.

Corrie ten Boom, a survivor of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in WWII, a woman who knew all about fear, pessimism and despair, gave this advice:

‘If we do not see as much as we need or want to see, then we must tell it to the Lord. He will heal our eyes so that we see that the love of God is far greater than anything else.’

Friday 12 June 2020

Ten Favourite Books of a 15 Year Old

I asked my 15 yr old daughter to write a few words about the books she's enjoyed - she reads A LOT, so the following are books she's read or re-read recently or those that first came to mind about an hour ago when I asked her.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons - Barbara Cohen & Bahija Lovejoy

I love this book! I love how independent and smart the main character is. Actually, as well as 'Moccasin Trail,' this is my other favourite book. Apparently my older brother really liked it as well. Surprise, Surprise. I wasn't really expecting that. I didn't think it was the sort of book boys like, partly because it's about a girl, but looks like I was wrong. Or maybe it's just him... Anyway, I don't think this is the sort of book I'll ever grow out of. There are some books that you never get tired of, and this is one of them. I've re-read it a million times and I still love it. When you can do that, you know you have a good book.
Ages 14/15+

Lord of the Rings - J.R.R Tolkien

In This House of Brede - Rumer Godden

This book is just beautiful. And that's really all I can say. Although it's not an 'adventure story,' which is the kind of book I prefer, this just grabbed me from the start. It is a very quotable book, which is great for getting my commonplace entries done and dusted! A very gentle sort of tale, but it's somehow raw at the same time.
Ages 15+

Moccasin Trail - Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Now this is probably my favourite book of all time. It just never gets old. It has plenty of adventure, and I just fell completely in love with it . I love the way McGraw shows the characters. You really get to see them. In a good way. When I first read it a few years ago, I wasn't expecting it to be any good, and I think I was still a little too young to appreciate it. I didn't really read it properly, just skimmed through, and I wasn't impressed. Then, about two years ago, I decided to re-read it. And I was hooked - line and sinker. I didn't see how I could have read it before and not loved it!
Ages 12+

The Walking Drum - Louis L'Amour

Mathurin Kerbouchard travels across Europe, seeking revenge, knowledge, and danger. The tale takes you across Europe, Russia and the Byzantine Empire, and is set in the twelfth century, a magnificent time of discovery, knowledge, wonders, and intrigue. Kerbouchard moves from place to place, ultimately with the view of completing his mission, and along the way he finds himself in the role of a slave, physician, scholar, and merchant, but always a warrior. This book sweeps you up in danger, excitement, adventure, and, always, a little love along the way. Although the character might be considered 'larger than life,' I think it's nice to have that occasionally. I mean, that's what fiction basically is, the product of the author's imagination. This has lots of excitement and fights, and it really is a 'page turner,' but another thing l love about it is the time frame. It's just such a fascinating period. There was so much going on, whether it was discoveries or kingdoms being forged, or whatever, and it's so colourful, and full of life. The author does a really good job of including history without making it boring and dry.
Ages 15+

The Man in the Brown Suit - Agatha Christie
Ages 14+

Gaudy Night - Dorothy Sayers
Ages 15+

Crocodile on the Sandbank - Elizabeth Peters

The whole time I was reading this I was emitting loud snorts. Everyone probably thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn't help it. It reminds me a little of 'The Man in the Brown Suit,' which is another of my favourite books. Most of the book is set in Egypt, in an archaeological area, and I loved that. It is very laugh-out-loud funny. That sounds like a movie review, but it's true. Definitely a favourite. As soon as I finished I started reading it again. I've never met anyone else who does that though, so maybe that's just a me thing. Anyway, it's good.
Ages 15+

Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham

This is a bit different from Margery Allingham's other mysteries, as the main character has lost his memory from a bonk on the head, and all he can recall is that he's supposed to be doing something very important. I really enjoyed it, and I liked the deviation from the norm of detective novels. What I like about Allingham's books is they aren't the typical who-dunnit. There is more going on than that. It doesn't sound particularly amazing, but it really is a good book.
Ages 15+

Artists in Crime - Ngaio Marsh

This is one of the first Inspector Alleyn books, and in my personal opinion, one of the best. I think I like Alleyn best out of all the 'Inspectorish' characters I've met in detective novels. And I really like how Ngaio Marsh doesn't write down to you. You have to read up to her, so to speak. It makes for a much more interesting, and in a way, challenging read. Which I much prefer to books that say nothing you didn't know already. It is probably my favourite book by her.
Ages 15+

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey (1946)

Miss Pym’s mission in life had been to teach schoolgirls to speak French, which she had done for four years until her remaining parent died and left her two hundred and fifty pounds a year. Lucy supplemented her living by giving French lessons from time to time and spent her spare hours reading books on psychology. After reading thirty-seven volumes on the subject, she wrote a rebuttal  of what she considered was idiotic nonsense.
By chance her writing came to the attention of a publisher at a time when the intellectual world had tired of Freud and his ilk and, recognising the appeal that Lucy’s fresh approach to the area of psychology would have, he had her writing published.
Lucy Pym became an overnight bestseller and found herself in demand as a speaker. Life was comfortable, cultured, and pleasant.
A few months after her new found fame as an author, she received a letter from an old school friend, Henrietta, asking her to come and address her students at the Physical College where she was headmistress.
Initially her stay was only an overnight one but the young women enjoyed her company and urged her to stay longer and she did.

'Young in years a few of her acquaintances might be, but they were already bowed down with the weight of the world’s wrongs and their own importance. It was nice to meet a morning-of-the-world youngness for a change.'

'Why should she go back to London yet? What was there to take her back? Nothing and nobody. For the first time that fine, independent, cushioned, celebrated life of hers looked just a little bleak. A little narrow and inhuman. Could it be? Was there, perhaps, a lack of warmth in that existence she had been so content with?'

The crime doesn’t occur until the latter part of Miss Pym Disposes so most of the narrative is taken up with the relationships between the students and the various staff members at the College, their  personalities, and Lucy's interaction with them personally.
I really liked this character assessment of a staff member who couldn’t get beyond her own background and past disappointments. She was unable to clearly see things because of this. Her view was distorted or blurred - she had mental astigmatism.

‘ can one reduce a mental astigmatism like that? She is quite honest about it, you see. She is one of the most honest persons I have ever met. She really ‘sees’ the thing like that...everything that is admirable and deserving, and thinks we are prejudiced and oppositious. How can one alter a thing like that?’

‘Up to a point she was shrewd and clear-minded, and beyond that she suffered from...’astigmatism’; and for mental astigmatism nothing could be done.’

There was a good bit of suspense throughout the book that has the reader waiting for some nasty crime to occur but it happens in a low key way so much of the 'action' is based on getting to know the various characters, and I enjoyed this aspect. Inspector Alan Grant isn’t a character in this story so it was up to Miss Pym to play amateur detective using her psychological insights to find a motive and a suspect.
Her investigations concluded, the crime atoned for, she is ready to return home when an surprise revelation reveals the true culprit.
As she gets in the taxi to return to London she makes a decision:

' London she would stay. In London was her own, safe, nice, calm, collected existence, and in future she would be content with it. She would even give up lecturing on psychology.
What did she know about psychology anyhow?
As a psychologist she was a first-rate teacher of French.'

Josephine Tey spent three years at a Physical Training College in Birmingham, England, herself, and one of the incidents from her life as a teacher is used in this novel. This was the only one of her crime novels that I hadn’t read so now I’m done (sniff!) I enjoyed this one; it is quite humorous in places but I did miss Inspector Grant.

Linking to Back to the Classics 2020: Classic With a Name in the Title

Monday 1 June 2020

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens: A Study of Selfishness

‘My main object in this story was, to exhibit in a variety of aspects the commonest of all the vices; to show how Selfishness propagates itself; and to what a grim giant it may grow, from small beginnings.’ 

This book isn’t one I’d planned to read & it’s not a Dickens’ title that had come to my attention at any time, but I saw it at a book sale and bought it because I hadn’t read anything by Dickens for a while.
It sat unread on my book shelves for some time until one night when I was considering which book I should start reading next but couldn’t make up my mind. I’d just finished The Lord of the Rings, which I’d put off for years (and found to my surprise that it was hard to put down) so when my eyes came upon Martin Chuzzlewit, I thought, ‘I’ll just read the first chapter and if I can’t get into it, I’ll choose something else.’
Well, I kept going and that was that. From memory, it usually takes me a few chapters to engage with Dickens so I was surprised at how quickly it happened with one of his books that doesn’t seem anywhere near as popular as many of his others.

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) first came out in monthly installments but unlike Dickens’ previous books, The Old Curiosity Shop, and even Barnaby Rudge, sales were low for various reasons: he had abstained from novel-writing for a time and this caused him to lose ground with the public; when he did return to publishing he released the chapters monthly as opposed to weekly, which was his previous practice; his reputation declined after the public’s disappointment with Barnaby Rudge.
After the poor reception of the first instalments of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens decided to change some aspects of the story and set parts of it in America where he had recently spent some time. (He wrote a record of that journey in American Notes.)

Dickens himself considered Martin Chuzzlewit his best work and when it was published in book-form it proved to be one of his greatest successes.
Not only is Martin Chuzzlewit a study in selfishness, it also concerns itself with how suffering shapes character. Oswald Chambers said that ‘Sorrow burns up a great deal of shallowness, but it does not always make a man better’ and Dickens’ demonstrates the effects the same circumstances may work for better or worse in different people. Chambers also observed that if you yield in childhood to selfishness, you will find it the most enchaining tyranny on earth. Some of the characters in Martin Chuzzlewit never broke free of those chains.

Dickens’ satire on the Chuzzlewit family portrays ‘the poison of selfishness as transmitted within a family,’ and the ‘false notions of family grandeur and the parasites which they breed.’
As usual, there is a large cast of characters in the story but I thought there were many more likeable persons here compared to some of his other books and more redemptive aspects in the characters’ lives.
I really enjoyed the developing friendships between some of the young men. The loyalty and unselfish regard they had toward one another stood out in comparison to the opportunistic relationships in the greater Chuzzlewit family.

Some Notable Characters:

Martin Chuzzlewit: the young protagonist of the story; he had fallen out with his Grandfather, of the same name, who had brought him up, and now struck him out of his will. Martin junior was frank and generous by nature but his upbringing had allowed him to grow selfish. Circumstances opened his eyes to see others he had taken for granted and used.

‘How was it that this man who had had so few advantages, was so much better than he who had had so many?’

'Martin - for once in his life, at all events - sacrificed his own will and pleasure to the wishes of another, and consented with a fair grace. So travelling had done him that much good, already.'

Mr Pecksniff: an absolute hypocrite and selfish to the core. 

'He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precepts than a copy-book. Some people likened him to a direction post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.
(His) detractors thought he bore a fanciful resemblance to his horse, not in his outward person but in his moral character - full of promise, but of no performance.
He was a kind of animal who infused into the breasts of strangers a lively sense of hope, and possessed all those who knew him better with a grim despair.’

His comment on seeing a beggar on the street: ‘If everyone were warm and well-fed, we should lose the satisfaction of admiring the fortitude with which certain conditions of men bear cold and hunger.'

Tom Pinch - unpretentious and noble-souled; his Grandmother had skimped and saved to allow him to enter Pecksniff’s service as a student of architecture after he had dazzled her with prospects of Tom’s happiness and advancement. ('Pecksniff’s genius lay in ensnaring parents and guardians, and pocketing premiums.') And poor Tom was completely take in by the man.

One of the characters who undergoes a transformation of character (but I won’t spoil the story by mentioning names):

‘I never thought at all; I had no thought, no heart, no care to find one; at that time. It has grown out of my trouble. I wouldn’t recall my trouble, such as it is and has been - and it is light in comparison with trials which hundreds of good people suffer every day, I know - I wouldn’t recall it tomorrow, if I could. It has been my friend, for without it no one could have changed me; nothing could have changed me.’

I agree with Dickens that Martin Chuzzlewit is one of his best stories and I highly recommend it.
Moozle, who is 15yrs of age and has never taken to Dickens (I think The Old Curiosity Shop turned her off!) was hunting for something to read and agreed to try MC after I said how I enjoyed it. I’m very happy to say that she actually liked it!!

Linking to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: 19th Century Classic