More Short Stories and Mid-year Roundup.

Where did the time go? It’s the first day of the third quarter of 2019. I have a birthday coming up very soon, even though it feels as if I just celebrated one. Preparation for the upcoming school year is well underway, and even though we’re still 16 months away from our country’s next major election, we received a political call at our a few nights ago. The mother’s encouragement trusim about long days and short years rings quite true today as I consider how quickly time  seems to be flying by.

Short stories worth a look:

In preparation for the new school year when our kids will be studying British literature (last year was American literature), I had the great pleasure of meeting with several women much smarter than me for a time of literature appreciation. We read short stories by British authors.

One of the best things about short stories (I’m certain I’m repeating something I’ve said before), is that they can be read quickly. Because of that, even those  who have limited amounts of time for leisure reading can read great literature which transmits time tested values of what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Others, such as the first one I will highlight, are just a light and fun good time, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that either.

  • Jeeves Takes Charge, by P.G. Wodehouse (read at link), is a story published in 1916 by the renowned British humorist. Wodehouse is one of my go-to writers when I want to read something that is not only funny, but intelligently so. This story is the one in which we meet the indomitable valet Jeeves for the first time. As the story suggests, he takes charge from the moment Bertie Wooster, the young heir, hires him into his employ.
  • The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read at link) first appeared in a magazine in 1891, and is one of many Sherlock Holmes short stories. A red-headed client appears with a fantastically bizarre and mysterious tale which has left him confused. Holmes, using his masterfully astute gift of deduction, figures out that what appears on the surface to be nothing more than a curious story is actually the beginnings of an elaborate criminal heist.
  • The Blue Cross, by G.K. Chesterton is the first of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Of the three stories I read this weekend, this was by far my favorite. Up until this point, I hadn’t read any of the Father Brown stories, but that is about to change. This story, filled with equal bits of mystery, humor, and profound -without being preachy- insights into the nature of man and nature itself, enveloped me from the first. I am very glad to be entering the world Chesterton’s fictional works, albeit a little late.

Mid-year roundup:

  • I took a minute to tally up the book reviews I’ve posted to date this year and I’ve written a grand total of 20. That isn’t many, especially when you consider that four of those were chapter installments of the Feminine Mystique throughout January.
  • In what counts as a pretty big departure from how I’ve handled this blog over the preceding three years, I’ve also written 21 discussion posts, covering everything from education to book trends,  genres and characters, and even a couple on current cultural trends. As I expected, when I began to add more of those kinds of posts, the conversations here were more animated and robust. I appreciated hearing all of your thoughts on the various topics. So thank you.

My favorite books of the year so far:

  • My favorite book that I’ve read so far this year is one that I haven’t reviewed here yet. I haven’t reviewed it for two reasons. The first is that I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that it took what seemed like forever to read it. I often needed to set it aside and let the ideas marinate for a few days. Now, I want to re-read it and I have a friend reading it along with me so I hope to have a review up in August. At that point, I’ll divulge the title. I do have other favorites which I’ll break down by fiction and nonfiction.
  • My favorite fiction book for the first half of this year was A Girl of the Liberlost. The beauty, language, and deep relational insights of this book have stayed with me.
  • My favorite nonfiction books of the year tied for first place. The first is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I find that I am still challenged by everything about this book. It is a magnum opus for the digital age. My second favorite nonfiction book to date at mid-year is Beauty Destroys the Beast, by my friend Amy Fleming. Yes, it’s a favorite because she’s my friend. More than that however, it’s a favorite because it speaks to a subject that I actually care about, and I agree with what she has to say about it.

Looking ahead to the second half of this year:

  • I am currently reading a few books, including a novel by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse whose short story I reviewed above. In addition, I have three non fiction books in queue. However:
  • School starts around the middle to end of August, and we still have a lot of prepping to do for that.  At that time, my entire reading queue may be overtaken by British literature, so don’t be surprised if all the book reviews here are books by British authors -except for books I’ve already read but not yet reviewed.
  • What we refer to as “birthday season” in our family has meant we’ve been partying like it’s 1999 since May, partying overtime in June, and won’t really let up until the beginning September when all the of seven birthdays in our immediate family are wrapped up. I’ve eaten too much cake. Speaking of which, here’s one I made for one of my girls upon special request:

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This dark chocolate cake, with peanut butter frosting, chocolate ganache drizzle and Reese’s peanut butter cups on top was very good! It was also so rich that no one (guests and family alike) could finish an entire slice. I think that’s the sign of a good dessert; you only need a little of it to be sated. We’re on a sugar moratorium around here to recover, making exceptions for, and only for, each of our respective birthdays.

Summer in Florida is oppressively hot, but we’re still managing to have great fun because, why not? I still can’t believe that we’re half way through 2019!

How’s your year been so far? Read any good books lately?

 

 

Russell Hoban’s Frances Series

bedtime for frances

Some stories never get old or go out of style. The children’s picture books featuring Frances the Badger by Russell Hoban is a series which fits this bill. My children have aged out the books, or at least I thought so, but we’ll get to that a little later.

For the past several months, a lovely young homeschooling mother who is a friend of mine has been teaching our daughter to play the piano. Despite numerous attempts to offer her remuneration for her time and talent, the only thing she requests of me is that I read to her youngest children in exchange for the lessons. Since her native language is Korean, she’s determined that the time I spend reading to her kids is a valuable exchange.

Our home library is constantly evolving, so I’ve exhausted all the books we have which might sustain the interest of a three and five-year-old (even accounting for repeating books!). So yesterday I went to the library in search of books to read to the children this week. After reading through several newer children’s books and finding only two of nine worth checking out, I searched my mental Rolodex for specific authors that might suit my needs and narrow my search.

I originally thought of Arnold Lobel, but there was nothing on the shelf at that branch which sparked my interest. Then I remembered Frances, and all the stories about her that are funny, well-written, and teach lessons in ways that are profound and true without being preachy. My children thoroughly enjoyed the books when they were younger. I found copies of several books in the Frances series:

While preparing breakfast this morning, I noticed our 12-year-old sitting at the table with the entire stack of books in front of her, saying to herself, “Ooh! I love these books!” She cracked open Bedtime for Frances, and got my attention as she read a funny exchange from the book out loud.

After several unsuccessful attempts to fall asleep, and several trips to her mother and father with various excuses and fears about things that go bump in the night, Frances’s father puts his foot down, exasperated with her constant interruptions which are disrupting his sleep:

Frances said, “There is something moving the curtains. May I sleep with you?”

Father said, “Listen Frances, do you want to know why the curtains are moving?’

“Why?” said Frances.

“That is the wind’s job,” said Father. “Every night the wind has to go around and blow all the curtains.”

“How can the wind have a job?” said Frances.

Everybody had a job,” said Father. “I have to go to my office every morning at nine o’clock. That is my job. You have to go to sleep so you can be wide awake for school tomorrow. That is your job.”

Frances said, “I know, but…”

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you don’t go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?”

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances.

“No,” said Father.

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances.

“Right!” said Father.

“Good night!” said Frances, and she went back to her room.

We had a good laugh, and I realized that we never really age out of a good story. Russell Hoban, using Frances the little badger, provided children with great stories.

If you have young ones and you’ve never read these, you should check them out.

No Time for Reading Books?

More inspiration from the excellent classical educators at Circe Institute.

John Ehrett describes a recent phenomena of high school education that wasn’t common back during the dark ages when I was a high school student. Namely, that literature and language arts teachers are increasingly refraining from assigning classic works of literature as part of their curriculum.

Why you ask? Because of a growing belief that in the absence of the necessary time required to read the books, students are SparkNoting their way through the related assignments. Using the magic of the Internet, it is entirely possible to produce papers and test results which seem to indicate a thorough understanding of the literature even when they haven’t read it:

In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.

When grades are the holy grail on which everything of importance rests, the means becomes irrelevant. The ends are all that matter, and the deeper understanding of humanity, life, and nature that one acquires through reading great books is lost. It is not unlike those who are excellent at proof-texting their way through sacred texts to achieve whatever moral or psychological end they brought to the book before they ever picked it up. Winning the argument, the grade, or whatever we need to succeed becomes the goal. Whether that be a good job or peace with ourselves, we’ve learned how to get there. And clearly, we’ve taught our young people how to get there as well. This is not without cost, however:

Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.

This is one of the reasons we have chosen a classical approach to homeschooling our children, although we do so with a veritable mountain of educational support. I could never do it on my own. There are things of far more value than ticking off of the appropriate boxes required to be an efficient cog in the economic wheel:

That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.

Click over and read the whole thing. It’s worth the 5 minutes, particularly if you are still educating children. As a slow reader with a very full schedule, I appreciate the pressures of life than encroach on one’s ability to find time to read, savor, and integrate the ideas of deeper works of literature. This pressure is even more pronounced among young people who are facing deadlines in various subjects to numerous teachers. But somehow, we have to find a way to strike a balance for the sake of the lives they have to live when schooling is done.

 

More big ideas in short stories

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Short stories, done well, are a literary treasures delivering a wealth of food for thought.

First inspired by Lindsay Brigham Knott’s piece at Circe Institute’s superb classical education blog, then further by Maeve at Wanna Be Martha, I spent a little time during a road trip this weekend reading short stories. The stories, which ran the gamut in terms of content and message, are all well done, literary treasures which delivered a wealth of food for thought. Each of these three linked stories are enjoyable, although in wholly different ways:

  • Thank You, Ma’am, by Langston Hughes: When a young purse snatcher picks the wrong mark on her way home from work one night, he gets far more than he bargained for, in the most unexpected ways.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor: There’s not a whole lot to love here besides O’Connor’s deft turn of phrase and the uncomfortable irony which rounds out this strange tale. This is classic Flannery O’Connor. You kind of either love her work or hate it.
  • Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien: This one is last on the list, but certainly not least, as it’s the story I gleaned the most insight from of the three. Niggle fights the battle I have not yet conquered. It’s one which Lindsay Brigham Knott beautifully dissects in her Circe piece; the battle of mastering our time in such a way that we fulfill the duties of our vocations, fulfill our soul’s longings through our avocations, and get proper rest, all without being overwhelmed. Niggle learns this lesson “too late”. I interpret that Tolkien’s way of demonstrating how tough the battle is, even when, like Niggle, our hearts are “in the right place”.

If you happen to take the time to read any of these (or have read any of them), take a minute to include your opinions of them. I’m dying to know!

Related:

A Girl of the Limberlost

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A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter, Kindle edition. Originally published in 1909. 306 print pages.

I was not very familiar with the work of Gene Stratton-Porter before reading this classic novel. She was just one name among many authors bibliophiles encounter along our trail of books. Some authors we read, others we tuck into our mental Rolodex for a later date. Stratton-Porter was one I’d tucked away for a later date.  I am grateful to say that I was induced to pull her from the recesses of my mind, out from among the heaps of jumbled authors and genres I hoped to some day read.

The Practical Conservative’s  posted review of her work was the impetus, and after some reconnaissance I learned that Stratton-Porter is one of my favorite kinds of writers: the regional sort, highlighting the beauty and culture of a particular time and place. In this case, the place and time are the swamps and forests of northeastern Indiana around the turn of the century. It is in this context that we are introduced to Elnora Comstock, the young heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost.

The Limberlost swamp  borders the land Elnora lives on with her widowed mother, Kate. As the story begins, she is a young teen who never knew the father who died while her mother was giving birth to her. Somehow, Elnora’s mother transferred all of her grief and bitterness over the death of her young husband onto the young girl. She was convinced that had she not been in labor with Elnora, she might have saved her husband from the tragic end which befell him when he sank into the quicksand of the Limberlost.

As we follow Elnora through her tumultuous terrain of life, her determination, kindness and virtue keeps readers at the edge of hope that the girl’s extraordinary character and work ethic will one day be fully rewarded:

It was a compound of self-reliance, hard knocks, heart hunger, unceasing work, and generosity. There was no form of suffering with which the girl could not sympathize, no work she was afraid to attempt, no subject she had investigated she did not understand. These things combined to produce a breadth and depth of character altogether unusual.

In the end, Elnora does reap the harvest she has so diligently worked for, yet without the fantastical sort of whirlwind that one often finds in these sorts of novels. One of the wonderful things about old stories is that they don’t often find the need to inject its hero or heroine with a fatal flaw. The postmodern tendency to denouce the notion of a character worth aspiring to gets tiring, which is I rarely read any modern fiction.

Stratton-Porter’s vivid portrayals of natural elements in the swamps along with the detailed descriptive categorizations of the moths and other creatures which Elnora was able to use to earn the money she needed to go to school were very beautifully executed. It was easy to imagine oneself standing at the edge of the Limberlost, taking in all the beauty, mystery, and danger one might find in a swamp.

I’ll end this review with one of my favorite lines from within it. Such wisdom could only have come from Elnora herself:

“I do not know why it is the fate of the world always to want something different from what life gives them.”

Heart wrenching and beautiful with a satisfying ending is my description of this classic book by Gene Stratton Porter. It would make an excellent summer read.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

Quotable Literary Quotes: Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Aurelius was Rome’s emperor from 161 to 180 AD, but my interest in him is largely confined to the superb number of quotable literary -and life- quotes found in his famous collection of meditations.  In an age where things often seem upside down, many of his thoughts are worthy of dissemination and contemplation.

On the choice to ignore the noise:

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

On the silliness of being obsessed with the impressions we make on others at the expense of personal integrity and character:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

But if you want to leave a good impression, here’s how:

If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.

A good rule of thumb in a world gone mad:

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

I hope you enjoyed these gems from the meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Anne of Green Gables: Reviews of two versions

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Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Originally published in 1908.

As I re-read this book along with the kids in my writing and literature class, I was almost instantly reminded, as I often am , of this saying from the late C. S. Lewis:

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Because Anne of Green Gables is such a widely read and well-known story, I’ll offer the Goodreads synopsis for the sake of time. There are several angles concerning the story and its recent modern adaptation that I wish to explore in this post. From Goodreads:

As soon as Anne Shirley arrives at the snug white farmhouse called Green Gables, she is sure she wants to stay forever . . . but will the Cuthberts send her back to to the orphanage? Anne knows she’s not what they expected—a skinny girl with fiery red hair and a temper to match. If only she can convince them to let her stay, she’ll try very hard not to keep rushing headlong into scrapes and blurting out the first thing that comes to her mind. Anne is not like anyone else, the Cuthberts agree; she is special—a girl with an enormous imagination. This orphan girl dreams of the day when she can call herself Anne of Green Gables.

The Cuthberts do keep Anne, of course, else this delightful story full of adventure and learning wouldn’t be the beloved story it has become for over 100 years.

One of the most wonderful, and for me equally taxing aspects of Anne’s character, is her persistent insistence that everything must be expressed or executed in the most romantic and poetical way possible. There are times when I find her expressions utterly delightful. I laughed out loud this:

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

And conversely rolled my eyes at this, despite my sympathy with Anne’s drab dress as insisted on by Marilla:

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

It was such fun to revisit the characters of Green Gables and Avonlea. As before, Matthew Cuthbert and Gilbert Blythe were my favorites (besides Anne of course). A good story, including those written for children, never goes out of style.

Book: 5 out of 5 stars

As it happens, I learned that there is a new adaptation of this beloved story recently released on Netflix. I made a point of refusing to watch or allowing my kids to watch it until we had finished reading the book in class. We are not quite finished as an entire class (this week we’ll wrap it up), but I and my daughter have finished reading it, so I decided we could safely take a peek at how these producers adapted the story.

The first season, despite artistic licenses and addition of melodrama for viewers, wasn’t horrible. Because I love the original story, I was a little perturbed at the ways they changed the story to create a more dramatic effect. I didn’t feel such changes were warranted.

I appreciated most of the castings, including the casting of Anne. The actress beautifully captures the spirit of the character as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her over 100 years ago. I felt a similar satisfaction with the casting of Marilla Cuthbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Gilbert Blythe.

They did a less than stellar job with Josie Pye. Further, I detested the fact that made Miss Josephine Barry a spinster due to the fact that she was a lesbian who lived for many years with her “partner” Gertrude, recently deceased.

They licenses they took with some story lines were understandable in some ways, and in other ways unnecessary.

Overall, I was so turned off by the development of Miss Barry’s character that I was thankful for having done the research ahead of time -actually my daughter did it- which clued me in on what to expect in the episodes. It spared me from being blindsided by the “inclusive” propaganda.

As it turns out, not having seen those episodes left a better impression of the show on me than would have remained otherwise. As it stands, I definitely won’t finish it, and the kids and I are looking forward to enjoying the PBS adaptation sometimes later in the spring, after the hustle and bustle of the second semester is over.

Netflix adaptation: 3 out of 5 stars