Thursday, November 26, 2015

Classics Club 20: To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is an unforgettable portrait of racial prejudice, which gets to the heart of the issue in a way that mere facts simply cannot.

The novel begins by showing us the seemingly idyllic, although by no means perfect, summer of Jem, Scout  and their friend Dill, and the fascination the three had with the reclusive Boo Radley. It then shifts gear and clouds of racism descend as Jem and Scout's father Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman. A climactic and deadly final scene forever links these two storylines.

Lee lovingly depicts life in  small town Southern America in the 1930s. The places and characters are memorably depicted - flaws and all. Even the minor characters are shown as  unique, rounded individuals through portrayals of their dialect, clothing, appearance and mannerisms.

The novel is narrated  by Scout, sometimes as a child and sometimes as an adult. Her precocious yet naive child's was especially poignant and haunting.

The imagery of the mockingbird was beautifully used to depict the  innocence of Tom Robinson, of Boo Radley and even of Mayella Ewell, Robinson's alleged victim.

Lee did such a fine job of integrating the reader into the children's world that we share their disbelief and outrage when the jury convicts Robinson, despite his obvious innocence. Even though the realistic, perhaps somewhat cynical, adult in us was never in any doubt as to what the outcome would be.

The themes of the novel leave the reader much to think about -  racism obviously but also sexism, class and social inequities,  and the way society does or does not protect it's more vulnerable members.

I also enjoyed ruminating on the role, value and use of the justice system, thoughts triggered by the novel. Tom Robinson is sent to trial and then convicted despite any convincing evidence. Yet the sheriff turns a blind eye to evidence linking Boo Radley to the death of Bob Ewell, preferring to believe Ewell fell on his own knife. Discretion was applied in the case of a white man and most readers would argue justice was served. No discretion was applied in the case of a black man and justice was obviously not served. Such issues are sadly, still all too relevant today

In brief To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautifully crafted novel that remains with the reader long after the final page has been turned.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Classics Club 19: The Book Thief

I have seen Markus Zusak's The Book Thief described as a 'Modern Classic'.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and am counting it towards my Classics Club challenge I am still undecided as to whether it actually qualifies as a classic. Since one of the definitions of a classic is a work that stands the test of time, I guess only time will tell!

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany and tells the story of Leisel Meminger, the daughter of Communist parents. When her father disappears her mother cannot care for her and puts her into foster care. She ends up with the Hubermanns - kind-hearted, easy-going Hans who has an inner strength not immediately obvious, and gruff, brusque Rosa who has a hidden heart of gold. 

I liked that this novel highlighted  life in Nazi Germany and the complexity of that life. Most of the novels set in this period that I have read focus on the experiences of Jews or various allies. Germans are portrayed  homogeneously as the enemy/the bad guy. Reality of course was far more complex and The Book Thief gives some insights into that. Not everybody there supported the Nazis or the policies they implemented. Hans Hubermann gives bread to a prisoner marching through town ( and is drafted into the army as a punishment) and the Hubermanns provide sanctuary to Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man. The mayor's wife maintains a large library despite the Nazi book burnings. Leisel has Communist parents, and their plight, although at the periphery of the novel,  is a good reminder that Nazi's persecuted other groups as well as Jews.

Another aspect I liked,  and which added depth and extra layers to the plot, was the emphasis on books and literacy. Initially Leisel can't read but one of her most treasured possessions is a book  - The Gravedigger's Handbook - that she picked up after it was dropped at her brother's burial. Hans helps her learn to read using that unlikely title and she continues to "steal" books, each of which has a special significance to her story and, by extension to this period in German history. Books and literacy also provide a link between Max and Leisel.

One of the most unique aspects of The Book Thief is that is narrated by Death.  I rather liked him as a character, especially his ironic flourishes. However, at times the use of such an unusual narrator felt a little gimmicky and intrusive. I suspect my ambivalence over Death as a narrator is at the heart of my ambivalence over whether or not The Book Thief merits the moniker 'classic".

Monday, November 16, 2015

Classics Club 18: Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a leader among the Umuofia clan of the Igbo, in what is now Nigeria. He is strong, unyielding and often unthinking, He rose to his position through his own hard work and in spite of less than auspicious beginnings - his own father was a drunk. In attempting not to be weak like he perceived his father to be Okonkwo often overcompensates, one of his main weaknesses.

The first part of the novel moves slowly but gives a good insight into the traditional way of life - some aspects of which seem almost idyllic (a communal agrarian society), some unusual (there are many superstitions which influence how people live) and some downright barbaric (the abandonment of twins and Okonkwo's treatment of Ikemefuna) - at least to my 21st century western sensibilities.

Things change for Okonkwo when he kills a clansman and, according to traditional justice, is exiled for seven years. While he is away European missionaries and administrators arrive and the traditional way of life starts to change. On his return he tries to resist incursions by the Europeans, but others in his clan are less resistant. In fact some - most notably those who were not as successful in traditional society - including Okonkwo's oldest son - are eager to adopt at least some of the European ways. Okonkwo ends up killing a European court messenger and, rather than submit to European justice, take his own life.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, was written in English and published in 1958, when the African independence movement was really gaining strength. It was one of the first  novels by an African author to gain worldwide attention. It does an excellent job of highlighting the rich and complex ways in which African societies functioned before the arrival of Europeans. It also avoids the potential trap of simply negatively stereotyping the European characters either. While the District Commander is ruthless and cruel, others are more kindly and benevolent. Some even seem willing to learn a little of the ways of the Umuofia clan.

Despite being simply written and a little flat and slow in places this novel is well worth reading because of the fascinating insight it provides into some aspects of life in pre-colonial Africa and the initial impact of colonialism on the native people.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Week Ending 15 November 2015

This week we had two main highlights. The first was a family trip to the A+P Show - similar to a county fair. Trying to find a day when the whole family could go was a challenge since all three of the kids have been working extra shifts recently. Both Miss 14 and Miss 20 managed to find people to cover one of their shifts so we were all able to go. It is so rare these days that we do things all together - a sign that the kids are growing up and building their own lives. Which is as it should be but it was nice to all go out together. Sadly the weather did not cooperate but by spending a lot of time undercover and venturing out in between the heavy showers we were able to enjoy a lot that the show had to offer.

The other main event for Miss 14 and me was taking part in an annual bird survey on a river to the north of here. Several of our most endangered birds breed on this river so the annual survey is an important way of monitoring the health of these species. Because it is a braided river which snakes its way across its bed, sometimes with multiple channels, sometimes with just one deeper and swifter stream, there were multiple river crossings to be made. Not my favourite activity but we didn't fall in - although it was a struggle to not get swept off our feet sometimes.

These streams were okay to cross. My camera was safely stowed by the time we came to the challenging ones. All the gravel looks barren and inhospitable but several rare bird species breed there. Can you spot the chick in the photo on the bottom right?

The rest of the week was fairly mundane. We did get to celebrate Basil's birthday which was a bonus
since we thought he would be back with his owners by now. Still don't have a firm date but it should be before Christmas. We also received the worrying news that my mum suffered a stroke. Thankfully it was minor and doctors expect she'll fully recover, but still something we could all do without.

Linking with the Weekly Wrap-Up at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Classics Club 17: A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun focuses on the Younger family  - Mama, her two adult children, a daughter-in-law and a grandson. The Youngers live in a two-bedroom apartment in a Chicago ghetto in the  post-world war II period. The patriarch of the family has recently died and  at the opening of the play, the family are awaiting a large insurance cheque which has the potential to improve their lives. Walter Lee is desperate to invest in a liquor store so he can both make money and be the boss. Beneatha is the first in the family to go to college. She wants to be a doctor and clearly some of the insurance money would help her achieve her dreams.  Meanwhile both Mama and Ruth want better and larger living quarters for the family. Arguing about the best use for the money plus other issues (Beneatha is currently seeing two very different men - one a black assimilist , another a Nigerian who promotes traditional values and beliefs to her; Ruth has just discovered she is pregnant and isn't convinced she should bring another baby into their world) threatens to tear the family apart.

Mama makes a decision and, unbeknown to the rest of the family, buys a house. Recognising Walter's desperate need for autonomy she gives him the remainder of the money with instructions to put some in an account for Beneatha's education before investing the rest as he sees fit. Things should be looking up for the family at this point but instead they get worse. The homeowners' association in the exclusively white area Mama has bought pay the family a visit and make it clear they do not want a black family moving in. They go so far as to try and buy the family out. And Walter's business partner absconds with all the money  - including Beneatha's share.

Initially Walter wants to accept the buyout offer but eventually changes his mind and stands up to the white homeowner's association. As the play ends the Youngers are preparing to move into their new home. Their short term future is bound to be full of struggles, both financial and social,  but there is a sense of optimism for the longer term.

In this short play about one black family Lorraine Hansberry touches on many issues - poverty, racism, racial identity, dissatisfaction, dreams, home and family, and individual autonomy among them. Although set in the 1950s the issues raised in this play still resonate today.

Classics Club 16: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited opens with Charles Ryder, a middle -aged officer in the British Army, establishing himself and his unit in a large country estate that has been requisitioned. for their use. As it turns out Ryder has quite a connection with this house and the majority of the novel recollects his experiences at the house and with the family that own it.

Following his memorable first encounter with flamboyant Sebastian Flyte at Oxford university Ryder is introduced to all the members of the dysfunctional Flyte family (family patriarch Lord Marchmain is separated from his wife and their aristocratic home of Brideshead. He lives overseas with his mistress; however his wife's Catholic beliefs mean a divorce is out of the question). Sebastian's  alcohol problems eventually cause him to drift away from his family and out of Ryder's life. Some 10 years later Ryder, unhappily married, meets up with Sebastian's sister Julia and the pair later become engaged.

I did enjoy certain  aspects of the novel. The writing contained some lovely lush and detailed descriptions, especially of  the  food and architecture. I also enjoyed the understated humour in many scenes such as when Ryder's father tried to convince him that he needed to live within his means. I appreciated the commentary on religion, especially the role that differences of opinion over the Roman Catholic faith played in the lives of the characters and how such differences led to several key events in the plot.Most notable was the debate over whether or not Lord Marchmain should see a priest in his last days and how this ultimately led to a turning point for Charles and Julia's relationship.

Overall, though I did not enjoy it., The major sticking point for me was the characters whom I found to be vapid, self-centered  and shallow with barely one redeeming feature between the lot of them. As a result I couldn't bring myself to care about them or their fate. While the novel was meant to be a nostalgic look at a lifestyle of days gone by I just wanted to shout "good riddance". If the Flytes were representative of that aristocratic lifestyle then British society is surely better for its demise.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fortnight Ending 8 November 2015

It's been a pretty hectic couple of weeks around here with several highlights.

* Mr 17 and Miss 20 survived their university final exams. He had his first ever the same week she had her final ever final - well unless she decides to return for a PhD and/or postgraduate diploma that is.

To celebrate her sister finishing her degree Miss 14 made an absolutely delicious chocolate tart.
The only person not pleased that university finals are over is Dh - he now has a pile of marking to keep him busy!

* Miss 14 and I had a weekend out of town with a few birding friends. One of them is involved in a conservation group that does a lot of predator control work in a mountainous patch of bush. They wanted to begin conducting bird surveys so they can see what impact their trapping work is having on the bird population. We were pleased to be invited to help out since we haven't been into the bush a lot this year at all and would be sure to see some new species. It was hard work at times - lots of steep areas to climb, frequently without trails which meant we did in fact get lost for a time. Luckily it wasn't for too long.

Can you spot the tree in the distance with the white ribbon? We were constantly searching for them as we attempted to navigate our way through the bush.

This was our "trail". Lots of "bushwhacking"to be done for sure.

The reward was picking up six new birds for the year - including one that I'd never seen in the wild before. Plus I just love getting away from the city - fresh bush air is so invigorating. On the downside there were a lot of sandflies and Miss 14 suffered terribly for several days from all the bites she received.

* There was plenty of other birding related activity over the past couple of weeks as well. Miss 14 put out the year's final edition of our birding group's newsletter and started work on the regional column that she writes for the national birding magazine. We attended an all day workshop on braided river birds - who they are, what threats they face and what can be done to help them. It was a little depressing at times since the amount of work required seemed fairly overwhelming. Plus, we attended a talk on new pest control techniques and how they are likely to improve bird numbers. And we had a couple of successful local birding trips, adding another two or three species to our list for the year. One of the species is proving very hard to definitively identify so we're hoping some more experienced birders can lend a hand. And Miss 14 is following up on a couple of opportunities that have come her way. One she is keen on but may not come to anything; the other she is not so sure about but is still considering.

*  Miss 14's other big interest is trampolining and she had the final competition of the year. She was performing a new routine and wasn't sure if she could pull it off since results in training had been a little variable. Thankfully for her the routine came good when it counted. She actually smiled when she finished which is rare. She's pretty hard on herself and usually finds something to criticise in her performance. All in all it has been a good season for her. Not that trampolining is over for the year. Training continues until just before Christmas. Then they get a couple of weeks off before resuming with a two-week long intensive training camp featuring  eight hour days.

Linking up with Kris's Weekly Wrap-Up.