Monday 24 May 2021

Reading Europe: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden (1958)

According to the author, The Greengage Summer is true, or at least partly so. In 1923, when Rumer Godden was fifteen years old and her elder sister Jon nearly eighteen, their mother announced,

  “We are going to the Battlefields of France and when perhaps you see the rows and rows of crosses for those young men who gave their lives for you, it might make you stop and think of your selfishness.”

In the Author’s Preface to my copy of the book (a lovely Folio Edition that I picked up for $3 in a secondhand book shop 🙂) she gives a brief outline of her childhood experience that became the basis for The Greengage Summer. In the book the two girls were called Joss and Cecil and they were aged 16 and 13 years respectively. Godden had two younger sisters and the book replaced them with three young siblings, Hester, Willmouse and Vicky.

The Greengage Summer is narrated by Cecil and I nearly gave up on the book in the first chapter until I realised that the thirteen year old’s perspective was so well done that it coloured the whole narrative and seemed to jump around in the telling. I’m very glad I persevered as its quite an unusual story overall as well as a rather scary look at five children who were basically left to their own devices in a foreign country. With their mother very ill in hospital after an insect bite became infectious on the trip to France and their father somewhere unreachable in Tibet on a botanical expedition, Joss and Cecil are thrust into an adult world in post war France - living in a French hotel alongside some questionable characters, expected to pay their way, look after their younger siblings and get by with their limited experience of life - they were quickly initiated into the vagaries of human nature.

Joss’s beauty complicated matters. A jealous Mademoiselle, her enigmatic lover who becomes infatuated with Joss; a feral young waiter and then a murder, The Greengage Summer is a combination of mystery, deception and coming-of-age that depicts young people trying to navigate the world of adults before they're ready for it. Added to all this is a good smattering of French throughout the narrative.

A tense read at times but it resolves well, and I have to say I LOVED THE ENDING!

The Greengage Summer wasn’t published until 1958 and it would be ten years later that Rumer Godden officially converted to the Catholic Church. Several of her later novels dealt with women in religious orders, for example, In This House of Brede, which is a very different book to The Greengage Summer.

Linking to the 2021 European Reading Challenge: France

Thursday 20 May 2021

Charlotte Mason Highschool Update (May 2021)

 I tend to only do a year end exam but we're using this week as an exam week as we've finished Term 1 of Ambleside Online Year 11. Being Year 11 and covering the 20th century, there are a lot of things happening over short periods of time so having a break to reflect and look back over what we've covered so far seemed like a wise thing to do.

I've made a few changes to the AO schedule like I always do but we're following the general outline, adding in some Australian content, dropping some of the American focused titles, as well as using some books we already had in place of books that were scheduled and we didn't have. I generally post what we've used at the end of the year's work but I'll also highlight bits and pieces as the year progresses.

Nature and Science Notebooks

A simple experiment for illustrating osmosis that only uses a potato, salt and water.

Experiment with a homemade Calorimeter

We used the instructions here to make the calorimeter and do the experiment.


Enjoying the sunshine while drawing & listening to me read James Herriot and Charlotte Mason's 'Ourselves'

Current Events/Culture

I like to listen to John Anderson's Conversation Podcasts from time to time. This conversation with Matt Taibbi was very good so I played it on YouTube and we watched it today. I'd never heard of Taibbi before but he has a fascinating background - a journalist who has lived in Soviet Russia, played basketball in Mongolia and who is very articulate. I like John Anderson's style of interviewing - respectful and thoughtful. He interviews people with a wide range of views and is a good listener who asks intelligent questions. In this interview they discuss the state of journalism in the West & Taibbi gives some good advice to young people who want to pursue journalism. 

*Update: I shared this interview with one of my sons who's into politics etc. and he commented that Taibbi's had an odd journey to where he is now & he wouldn't exactly call him a role model. As I said I didn't know a thing about him and just took the interview at face value. I did a little searching and it looks like his former views have changed somewhat. Anyhow, I thought this interview was well done and very topical.

Some favourite free read books so far this year

Black Orchids by Rex Stout
The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout

The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters
The Holy Thief by Ellis Peters

Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge

Monday 17 May 2021

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum


So many crime novels of the Golden Age dealt with murders that involved poisons such as chloroform, arsenic and cyanide. It was the ‘weapon’ of choice in many cases back then because at that time (during the 1920’s and 1930’s) commercially made poisons were readily available and there were few tools available to detect those substances in a corpse. Solving a suspected murder was fraught with difficulties due to this inability to detect poison in the body and the lack of proper coronial procedures. Murderers often could not be convicted due to lack of substantial evidence.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum details the rise of forensic medicine in New York during the Jazz Age and concentrates on the work of two men: Charles Norris, a pathologist, and Alexander Gettler, a talented chemist. Both men were extremely driven and over a period of many years battled corrupt coroners, who often had no medical background, and a lax justice system. In the face of pathetic working conditions, lack of resources and meagre pay, Norris and Gettler pioneered forensic chemistry in the USA.

The author explores ten poisons, their use throughout history, and criminal cases in which they were used during the Jazz Age: 


Wood Alcohol




Carbon Monoxide

Methyl Alcohol


Ethyl Alcohol


'Carbon monoxide can be considered as a kind of chemical thug. It suffocates its victims simply by muscling oxygen out of the way…

The attraction between hemoglobin and carbon monoxide is some two hundred times stronger than that between hemoglobin and oxygen. No wonder that CO - as an invading gas - can cram into the blood cells, its tighter grip allowing it to displace the looser oxygen bonds…

In the alcohol-hazed 1920’s doctors tended to mistake CO poisoning for drunkenness, according to records kept by Norris’s office.'

The early twentieth century brought a flood of modern poisons into the USA. Morphine could be found in teething medicine, opium in sedatives, arsenic was included in pesticides and cosmetics, and many poisons were available to the general public in grocery stores.

January 20th, 1920 saw the official introduction of Prohibition in the USA. With legal drinking at an end, the availability of illicit alcohol grew and with it some deadly brews. In that same January, poisonous alcohol deaths increased and ‘speakeasies’ (unlawful places selling alcoholic drinks) became part of American life. This illicit alcohol could contain traces of other substances such as carbolic acid, Lysol or kerosene. The years after the introduction of Prohibition saw an increase in alcohol consumption and an associated recklessness. The Prohibition era was a great source of material for building an excellent science of alcohol intoxication if nothing else.

Forensic medicine in those years was quite gross. Gettler obtained organs from cadavers that were often months old and putrefying. He minced up these organs, boiled them, decanted, distilled, tested and retested them and came up with specific procedures for determining if poisonous substances were present. It was a growing technology that took years and a massive amount of effort to develop into a science that was finally recognised.

Norris and Gettler’s work not only helped to solve murders but also assisted in determining a person’s innocence. 

Indifference, greed and ignorance had allowed poisonous substances to become a part of everyday life in the USA. Doctors believed there were beneficial effects to smoking – it helped to control the appetite and therefore obesity and enabled people to cope with the stresses of living. Companies often mislabeled products and sometimes it took a major crisis for the government to take action. In 1938 Congress passed the Food, Drugs and Cosmetic act which gave the FDA the power to hold manufacturers legally responsible for harm caused by their products after a pharmaceutical company marketed a cough syrup that killed more than a hundred people, most of them children.

Thallium was put into depilatory creams and advertised in magazines like Vogue. Yes, thallium containing creams removed facial hair on women but it also made them bald. 

In 1928, Norris was approached by a colleague, a fellow graduate and crusader, Harrison Stanford Martland. Martland had some bones that belonged to a young dial painter who had died and he wanted to check them for radioactivity. Marie Curie’s ‘beautiful radium’ was the new miracle cure for all sorts of things, the ‘next best thing to drinking sunlight.’ It was anything but beautiful.

Martland discovered that radium has an affinity for bones. The dial painters, who practiced 'lip-pointing' their paint brushes covered in paint containing radium, became known as the ‘Radium Girls.’ They swallowed bits of the paint and absorbed radium into their bones. The radium blasted holes in their bones causing jaws to disintegrate and anaemias to develop in the bone marrow. As their bones decayed, they produced radon gas that the women exhaled while they were alive. Even five years after their death their bodies were found to be strongly radioactive. 

I enjoyed the medical and historical aspects of this book and Prohibition was an interesting thread running through it. The criminal cases were a bit too detailed for my tastes. Golden Age crime writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh tended to stay clear of the gory side of the crimes and concentrated on plot, character, motives and solving the crime. Most of the perpetrators in Blum’s book were just nasty and evil; others did not intend to kill but covered up their actions that caused harm – some companies, the U.S. Radium Corporation, for instance, who treated their staff abominably and used their legal team to wrangle themselves out of responsibility and deprive their staff of compensation.

It was the research publications of Martland and Gettler that enabled the women who were still alive to get a settlement in the case.

When Norris died at the age of sixty-seven, he left behind a carefully built team of forensic detectives who had a reputation for excellence.

Overall this was an interesting look at poisons and forensic detection. The author is a scientific journalist and the book reads like a journalist wrote it – a bit too much of a chatty sort of writing with too many diversions. She also concentrated on alcohol poisoning more than the other poisons.

A good read that was written in 2010 that would suit anyone interested in forensics, medical issues and the pharmaceutical industry. 

Friday 7 May 2021

84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a book I first heard book lovers rhapsodising over about twenty years ago but I’d never really been tempted to read it for a couple of reasons - I’d never seen it secondhand and I usually only buy new books after much thought over whether I’d be sure to read them; and the nature of Hanff’s writing - epistolatory - and I’ve never been a big fan of reading letters meant for other people. 

However, I saw a copy of the first book and on a whim decided to buy it. It wasn’t until I had a look at the back cover that I realised it included the second book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury; a nice bonus as it turned out because I thoroughly enjoyed the first!

84 Charing Cross Road 

In 1949 Miss Helene Hanff of New York was in search of quality literature and not finding what she wanted where she was she wrote down a list of her ‘most pressing problems’ and sent it to a seller of rare and secondhand books in London. 

Helene Hanff was a financially poor script-reader/writer with an antiquarian taste in books. When she was seventeen she tripped over the Cambridge professor, Quiller-Crouch (‘Q’) in a library and maintained that she owed her peculiar taste in books to that encounter.

For twenty years the brash and outspoken Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel requesting books and  trying to puncture his proper British reserve. In his reply to her first letter he addressed her as ‘Dear Madam.’ The letter she sent back said, ‘I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.’

'Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. Where is Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse?

I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia.'

She insisted on sending cash via mail to pay for her books, and didn’t hold back if she wasn’t impressed with the books she received. She was appalled by conditions in post war Britain and wrote to an American friend over there and asked her to take four pairs of nylons around to the bookshop. She also sent food packages and apologised that America was a faithless friend, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve!


Kindly inform the Church of England that they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They’ll burn for it, you mark my words.

It’s nothing to me, I’m Jewish myself

I couldn’t imagine a book lover not enjoying reading this correspondence. I loved her style - upfront, full of satire and downright insulting at times but Frank Doel remained unperturbed.


i could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read…what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?

Over the years of their correspondence Frank’s family and the staff at the bookshop became involved exchanging letters and gifts. One Christmas Helene received ‘The Book Lover’s Anthology’ - a beautiful gold-embossed leather book with gold-tipped pages, that she said she’d keep until the day she died -

‘…happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn.’

For years Helene had planned a pilgrimage to London but it always had to be cancelled, usually due to lack of finances. 84 Charing Cross Road was published in America first and later a London publisher bought it for publication in England and he wanted her over there to help publicise the book. By this stage she was getting fan mail, offers of walking tours and even a personal guide to see her through Customs and Immigration when she arrived in London. 

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street was written about this trip. She’d just had major surgery and could barely stand up at times but she went and had a wonderful time.

'I tell you it’s insidious being an ersatz Duchess, people rushing to give you what you want before you’ve had time to want it. If I kept this up for more than a month it would ruin my moral fiber.'

Both books are delightful reads for book lovers, letter writers and those who appreciate old classics. They are also a testament to friendship.

Apparently, after the war there were too many books and not enough bookshop space so all the dealers in London BURIED hundreds of old books in the open bomb craters of London streets! What a tragedy.

Linking up with the 2021 Nonfiction Challenge at Book’d Out.

7) Hobbies - reading and collecting books 🙂

Wednesday 5 May 2021

Charlotte Mason on Religious Education

I started blogging through Charlotte Mason’s School Education (Volume 3 of The Original Home Schooling series) in 2014 and got as far as Chapter XII. I’ve been reading it again this year with an online group and using this opportunity to start writing about it again.

So here are some thought on a few of the topics in Chapter XIII, 'Some Unconsidered Aspects of Religious Education.' 

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt, 1851

In this chapter Mason touches on a few of the more practical principles which seemed to her to be essential in order to bring children up in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord.’

She starts with the principle of authority and the fact that most of us who have authority over someone are aware that we, too, are acting under a higher authority. 

We can’t let ourselves off the hook with “Do as I say, not as I do.” It’s hypocritical to require our children to be under authority if we reject it in our own lives.

When Mason wrote this volume in the early 1900’s, the exercise of authority was believed to have a stifling effect on individual personality. In our age of individualism that belief is even more firmly entrenched. Anything that smacks of authority is seen as detrimental to the growth of personality.

If we take the example of good and just government, we see its role as defending liberty. Laws are in place to restrain or punish those who interfere with the rights of others and to endorse those who do what is right. 

Proper authority doesn’t oppose the development of an individual unless that person is on a morally wrong track. It’s wrong thinking to equate harshness, punishment and force with the idea of proper authority. This kind of authority doesn’t punish but prevents us from doing wrong. The penalties that follow us through life are the natural consequences of broken law. Proper authority is preventative and helps to keep us from severer penalties later on.

Mason next considers the laying down of habit in the religious life and her first concern is the thought life. 

‘...every act and attitude is begotten of a thought, however unaware we be of thinking.’

A child needs to be guided into true, happy thinking; that ‘God should be in all their thoughts.’

With little children, devotional living (using everyday circumstances to teach into their lives) is something we can do to help instill and reinforce these habits of the thought life. Nature gives us an ideal opportunity for this and we have many instances in the Gospels where Jesus himself used the natural world to illustrate and teach - ‘Look at the birds of the air...’ 

‘To keep a child in this habit of the thought of God - so that to lose it, for even a little while, is like coming home after an absence and finding his mother out - is a very delicate part of a parent’s work.’

Reverent Attitudes - Mason believed that ‘the form gives birth to the feeling’ and that our aversion to ‘mere forms’ and the feeling that it’s ‘best to leave the child to the natural expression of his own emotions’ may be wrong. That children should be taught how to be reverent - to show/feel deep and solemn respect - is something worthwhile to consider now when spiritual instruction has a tendency to be dumbed down. Children given twaddle and cartoon characters won’t develop habits of attention and real devotion. Turning everything into fun or entertainment won’t deliver inspiring ideas in spiritual things - and a single great idea can change the course of a life.

Regularity in Devotions - this was an opportunity for our reading group to share how we each went about laying down habits and it reinforced the fact that each family is different in how they go about this in their homes or even at different stages of family life.

Idealism can produce unrealistic expectations but family devotions doesn’t have to be complicated or look a certain way. It can be something simple such as praying together, reading the Bible aloud, some sort of devotional reading, listening to/singing a hymn together, or a child might ask a question and you take it from there; taking advantage of seasons such as Advent or Easter to introduce a time of devotions together.

Families are sometimes messy. Dads aren’t always around or some family members may be antagonistic to spiritual things but God will honour your efforts to pass on your faith to your children. We don’t have to wait for ideal circumstances - they may never come. As Deuteronomy 6 shows us, there are endless opportunities throughout the day and untold ways to impress these things of the heart upon our children:

‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.’ 

Which brings me to one of my favourite ideas from this chapter - 

* That we make sure to prevent the separation of things sacred and things (so called) secular in the child’s mind and that we recognise that the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind. Instilling an overall sense of the presence of God in our children's lives strengthens this aim. *

Our children ultimately need to establish their own religious habits and a big part of that is for them to see that it is something we do ourselves.

Young children have a keen sense of wrongdoing and will keep their feelings turned inward. They might sulk, get passionate or be just plain naughty and have no idea that ‘there is a Saviour of the world, who has for him instant forgiveness and waiting love.’ 

I’ve observed that children sending a child to a ‘naughty chair’ as a form of punishment may encourage this bottling up of emotions and wallowing in self-pity. I’ve seen the banished child stew and come out worse than they went in. I understand that sometimes a child needs to be taken out of a situation to calm them down but I think that’s different. I had to do this with one of my sons because he had a quick temper but he knew I wasn’t punishing him. It gave him space and a way out of the temptation to lash out in anger.

Some closing thoughts:

Life can throw some difficult things at us and it’s important that we keep close to the Lord ourselves. We teach what we know so we need to make time to feed our own spirits before we can pass anything on. We are ALL under God’s authority - our children need to see this in our lives. 

Although we can’t ‘make’ our children follow God we can make it attractive for them. We can be firm about our beliefs but do so in a way that our children can always approach us. Forcing our beliefs onto our children can backfire.

The good news is that we’re not on our own. If we don’t have the wisdom we need we can ask for it.

It’s important to remember that Christianity and religious education isn’t a legalistic process where we tick the boxes but it is about a Relationship.

‘The very essence of Christianity is passionate devotion to an altogether adorable Person.’