Friday, 29 June 2012

Learning from Anna's mistakes

Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete fulfilment of what he had so long desired, was not completely happy. ...It showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that 
happiness consists in the realization of their desires. - Anna Karenina, 1877

When I think about the benefits of reading fiction, I often think about my experience of reading Anna Karenina when I was in my late teens.

I was falling in love with paperback Penguin classics for the first time (though I refused to read the 'introductions', the aim of which seemed to be to spoil both independent discovery and simple enjoyment of the novel). 

I'd grown up with thousands - yes, thousands - of textured, earthy-toned, loamy-smelling books from the 1800s. But novelty is often given undue importance at age 17. In my case, a fresh, creamy-paged paperback with a venerable penguin on the spine was a strong incentive to read books I probably wouldn't have otherwise tried. 

Now, I have very little interest in or time for adultery narratives, which is what I think Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is filed under in a lot of minds. I cannot imagine ever reading Madame Bovary. Flaubert's work is less interesting to me than the stove manual my husband read to me two nights ago (and let me tell you, I don't do manuals - there's a reason he had to read it to me). Brideshead Revisited wouldn't have been on my horizon until a very trusted friend convinced me to read it (and she was right to do so...but more on that some other day).

But Anna Karenina took my breath away. I spent the next decade telling my mother she should read it, and I'm happy to say that just last year she did, and loved it.*

Now, the thing I want to say is not that Anna K is a great book/Great Book (Kitty! Levin! Karenin! Oh, there's so much to this book!), but that it served more than what one might call a purely 'literary' purpose in my moral formation, if you will.

When I opened the book I firmly believed that adultery was wrong, wrong, wrong. When I closed the book, I knew that it was also painful, boring, relationship-fracturing, parasitical, and engendering of endless and irremediable regrets. (As an aside, let me say that it is also totally unappealing from the standpoint of such conjugal bliss as I am now blessed to enjoy!!)

And this, I believe, is one of the best features of great literature - that through it, we can gain wisdom. We can learn from other people's mistakes. Even fictional people in 19th century Russia.

And let me tell you, this is a book in which the characters make a lot of mistakes. Some of the consequences you see coming - charging towards the characters like the novel's infamous steam train - some of them you don't. Some of the characters are redeemed when you have lost hope for them, others cling stubbornly to their foolish, pointless, uglifying choices just when you expect the reverse.

So this is just one reason why I won't be seeing the new film adaptation of Anna K coming out this year. This story should never shoe-horned into a stylised melodrama with doll-house sets. Anna should not be gilded over into Keira Knightley's passionate-but-doomed-by-society-proto-feminist in asymmetrical Klimt couture.

What are viewers of Joe Wright's film going to learn? All the things they already 'knew' about those judgemental people in the bad old days, I'm guessing -- nasty old biddies peering through their opera-glasses at poor Anna!

When we succumb unquestioningly to what C.S. Lewis called 'chronological snobbery', we lose so much of our heritage - both of wisdom and folly - as God's fallen image-bearers.

A Great Book can cry aloud to us on the street corner, in a faint echo of the Lady Wisdom in Solomon's Proverbs:

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you."

*My mother tells me that the unabridged audio-book read by David Horovitch at is
something really special.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Book Review — "The Road from Coorain" by Jill Ker Conway

A portrait of memoirist and academic Jill Ker Conway
by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson,
which hangs in Australia's National Portrait Gallery
Quite frankly, the only thing that induced me to open the covers of this book was the fact that I'd never heard of it. Neither had any other Australians I mentioned it to. Yet my husband remembered it as a highlight of his Uni World Lit class.

This gave me pause. Uni students in America were required to read a memoir of life in Australia by someone I'd never heard of? And my husband actually liked it?

I found this to be a riveting memoir. Jill Ker Conway (born in 1934) is the engaging kind of memoirist who makes her life really interesting to readers...without being the annoying kind of memoirist who comes across as being endlessly fascinating to herself (a feat, since a lot of us secretly find ourselves fascinating, don't you think?).

While the book jacket wants us to think that it is a portrait of Jill's bush childhood, it is, in essence, a memoir about the events which shaped Jill's decision to leave two great loves: her native country, and her mother.

I wonder if this lies at the heart of why the book has not taken off in Australia in the same way it has internationally. Australia can be ambivalent towards its distinguished ex-pats. We love that they have the goods to really make it out there in the world, but we tend to be suspicious of their authenticity as a result.

But don't let me turn you off reading the book. This is not a depressing or self-pitying memoir at all. This is the story of a young girl whose "feminist" mother tried to abort her (two planned sons were enough), but who became the life and hope of her family: the one who cared for the farm while also achieving the educational goals her parents had dreamed of for their sons - long after they had abandoned those dreams in the wake of devastating tragedies.

This is a girl who took up the notion of duty with teeth-grinding seriousness despite the imperfections of her family and who kept a sense of wonder and excitement in learning about the world despite the many disillusionments of academia.

A few themes which struck me, and made the book valuable for me to read:

  • Insights into education — Jill goes from doing her 'school' at home - which she completes in just one afternoon a week - on her parents' sheep station in remote NSW, to adjusting to an all-encompassing institutionalised schooling with its opaque priorities:
    "The routines governing time were also puzzling. One just began studying one subject after everyone had been induced to sit still and be quiet, and suddenly a bell rang, the teacher departed, and we rushed in the gymnasium for an activity called physical exercise. This I could not fathom. I knew how to do hard physical labor, but I was bored by the calisthenics and too clumsy to play the games. The purpose of all the activity was clear to everyone but me, and no explanations were ever given... Our parents had taught us to be the best at everything we did, but the things we were supposed to excel in had always before had some practical purpose."
    Her later discovery of how to make her university environment serve rather than squelch her love of knowledge is very interesting.
  • Interactions with Christianity — Learning about T.S. Eliot's conversion forces her to question her negative assumptions about Christian belief. Later, after seeing the famous cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Spain:
    "It was clear that I had to learn more about medieval Christianity because it had produced a world more beautiful than any I had ever seen."
  • Understanding the tragedy of her mother — Jill wants to find a way to understand her mother's "descent into hell" (my husband and I have used this phrase ever since reading Charles Williams' novel of the same name). She senses that something larger than just their individual family situation has worked towards the demise of her mother's character. To her credit, she refuses to jejunely throw the blame on Men, or a Repressive Society. Christians will find ample basis in our common fallen condition (based on a historic space-time Fall) for the kind of disintegration she describes.
  • Refusal to conform to the dominant cultural camps —
    "My schooling had been supposed to be training an elite for leadership, but it had really been training me to imitate the ways and manners of the English upper class. To talk of Australian elites was to realise that the people I and my brothers had known in school were working not on Australia's social and political problems, but on gaining recognition from an external British world. ... My friends on the left were no different. They were hostages to the worldview of the British working class... Australia was different."
    In the end, an unwillingness to fit into this dominant intellectual grid of 1950s Sydney - in which each camp romanticises/absolutises different aspects of British society - leads to Jill's decision to leave Australia to study History in America.
    "I realised that my plans to write a new kind of Australian history couldn't be fulfilled at the University of Sydney... I didn't want to join my radical friends in railing against a heedless society. I didn't want to write old-style institutional history of the British Empire and Commonwealth. ...the Harvard History Department...seemed to know how to explain the development of a new culture, and I was ready to learn from them."
I'd recommend this beautifully-written book for people who just really like memoirs, or those who are interested in reading the reflections of an intelligent woman who grapples with the questions of Australia's culture and history and doesn't settle for easy answers. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Big books

Dante Alighieri

I'm starting a list of "big" books. The books that I haven't read, but kind of bump into all the time in the books I have. Here's where I'm starting:

Aristotle's Poetics
Plato's Republic
Augustine's The City of God
Dante's Divine Comedy
Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion
Milton's Paradise Lost

My modest aim is to finish at least one this year.

Incidentally, I also imagine these popping up in our future learning together as a family (aka homeschooling), and I want to give myself a head start.

Any to add?

Translations to recommend?

Monday, 4 June 2012

What I read in 2011

Eve reads to Meg in 2011

I love reading lists.

Looking at a friend's yearly reading retrospective is a bit like that distracted sideways bend some of us do to scope out the bookshelves in other people's houses...but much less awkward.

I have a sanguine hope that there will be a forthcoming post about which books were the highlights of my year.

Miscellaneous non-fiction  —
  • Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain - Oliver Sacks
  • 5 Cities that Ruled the World - Douglas Wilson
  • Loving the Little Years – by Rachel Jankovic
  • Raising Babies - by Steve Biddulph
  • Parenting in the Pew - Robbie Castleman

Books about Christianity and the Christian worldview —

  • Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis A. Schaeffer - by Bryan Follis
  • Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth - by Douglas Wilson & Douglas Jones
  • Family Driven Faith - by Voddie Baucham
  • The Plain Man Looks at the Beatitudes - William Barcley
  • Escape from Reason - Francis Schaeffer
Biographies —
  • William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life - Brian Moynahan
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - by Eric Metaxas
  • Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life - Colin Duriez

  • Silas Marner - by George Eliot
  • The Children of Men - by P.D. James
  • The Foolish Immortals - by Paul Gallico
  • True Grit - by Charles Portis
  • Framed - by Frank Cotrell Boyce
  • The Daughter of Time - by Josephine Tey
  • Rendezvous with Rama - by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Refugees - by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Miranda Going Home - by Eleanor Spence
  • The Rider of the White Horse - by Rosemary Sutcliff
  • Mansfield Park - by Jane Austen (reread with Peirce) John Buchan:
  • The 39 Steps
  • Witchwood
  • Greenmantle P.G. Wodehouse:
  • Laughing Gas
  • Leave it to Psmith N.D. Wilson:
  • 100 Cupboards
  • Dandelion Fire
  • The Chestnut King
  • The Dragon’s Tooth Jill Paton Walsh:
  • The Wyndham Case
  • A Piece of Justice
...some “golden age” mysteries:
  • Mystery Mile - by Margery Allingham
  • The Man in the Brown Suit - by Agatha Christie
  • Lonesome Road - by Patricia Wentworth

Books I gave up on  —

  • What Maisie Knew - by Henry James

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Maybe just get the Ferrari?

My husband's favourite magazine is - wait for it - Popular Mechanics. Yes.*

Personally, it always looks profoundly dull to me, but he mines it for all these nuggets of fascinating information and then tells me about them. (This endearing habit of making previously boring things scintillatingly interesting is one of the many excellent reasons I had to marry him.)

I was struck by this article, written by a law professor at the University of Tennessee, on the impossibility of higher education fees continuing to rise as they are now (at four times the rate of inflation!!).

Here's a quotable bit:

Research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that people who major in computer science, business, or engineering get a big lifetime-earnings boost, while people who major in the humanities don’t do nearly as well. That’s not a reason to look down on the humanities, but with college growing ever more expensive, a degree that won’t add to your earnings potential isn’t an investment, but an expensive consumer item. It may be nice to have—but so is a Ferrari, another expensive consumer item. The difference is, nobody’s encouraging 18-year-olds to take on six-figure debt to buy a Ferrari. 

Read more: Can Technology Fix the College Debt Crisis? - Glenn Reynolds on the College Bubble - Popular Mechanics 

*If you know Peirce, you probably thought it was going to be an obscure historical or theological journal.

Friday, 1 June 2012

meet Frank Cotrell Boyce

Here's a fantastic interview with Catholic writer Frank Cotrell Boyce, who wrote one of my favourite recent fiction finds, Framed. Hopefully I'll get a chance to say something more about it one of these days.

Really impressed by lots of the Q&A, but especially this:

How does your faith affect your work?
In every single way, I think. I’ve got a very kind of specific faith idea when I’m writing my children’s books, which comes from St. Paul about thinking on the good things (“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” Philippians 4:8). Because so much of what’s aimed at our children is about how rubbish life is. They’re always being told that life is scary and life is dark. Saying “Life is amazing, and the world is a phenomenally wonderful place and full of grace” is my starting point.

It's unspeakably encouraging to me to know that a man with this ethos is writing for children today, and with some success.

Plus, he has seven children, which in my books makes him very cool.

Homeschool propaganda

Here is a fun image, helpfully compiling many of the amazing stats about home-education I've been telling people about for a while now.

I'm supposed to be able to embed it on this site. But that would be too much effort.