Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi

The Republic of Imagination
Azar Nafisi
Published 2014

After reading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I Have Been Silent About, I became a fan of both books and the author, an Iranian immigrant to America who appreciates liberty (and loves books). 

Azar Nafisi on freedom, individualism, literature, and women's rights in the West:



Definitely, I wanted to read her next book, The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books, which could be described as her search for what it means to become an American citizen. Here is a portion of what the back cover says:
The best novels, Azar reminds us, can transport us across time and space, picking us up and plunking us down in a radically unfamiliar world. But they are not just a means of escape. Through books, we learn to step into other people's shoes and to imagine ourselves confronting difficult choices. Azar challenges us to find in fiction the inspiration and the courage - to lead a more meaningful life.
It truly appealed to me.

Unfortunately, the book did not live up to my bookish expectations, and Nafisi and I had a lot of political disagreements. Since following her on social media, I know she holds conflicting ideas about America, freedom, and politics that I do not understand, coming from a woman who experienced a loss of freedoms, privacy, individualism, and independence. Why does she support political and social policies in America that threaten those very ideals? 

Anyway, I read on. 

The book is divided into three parts, about three novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I would have liked very much to emphasize the premise of each part; unfortunately, all I found was a collection of ideas that do not flow together. Instead, I did my best to present what I believe to be her arguments, without much personal opinion from me about how I disagree. It is too complicated.

HUCK

For example, in her quest to find what it means to be an American, she mocked the idea of INDIVIDUALISM, which she referred to as a "myth" and anyone who defended it as "noxious."

She tied it into Huck's idea of individualism, not based on greed, hypocritical Christianity, or society's system of right and wrong. It is his own moral compass -- "his inner authority." Nafisi declared: "This is the kind of individualism that shapes my idea of America...choices to be true to, that inner self, the rebellious heart that beats to its own rhythm." 

Her point was that to be an American, one should follow his own moral compass, reject conformity, and question society or authority's idea of morality. 

BABBITT

The next American nuisance Nafisi tackled was the love of money, materialism, and mobility, as if those were only unique to Americans. 
Babbitt does not merely condemn this consumerism; it lays open the paradox at the heart of American society: the urge (perhaps "addiction" is a better word) for novelty, for movement, for constant change that creates "Pep" and motivates "invention:" while at the same time being an impediment to imagination and reflection.
For some reason, she used this chapter to attack Common Core, our federal government's special educational formula to produce useful and successful citizens. I cannot say I disagree with her, but more so because the federal government should not be in the business of education. She also lamented the loss of liberal arts in public education, in order to spend more time "teaching to the test."

She used this section to complain about the Republican Party cuts to Obama's funding for education of minorities and the poor (which is what I thought was the purpose of public school) and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts. All this shows is that Nafisi misunderstands the function and purpose of a federal government under a constitutional republic. 

By the end of chapter 8 of "Babbitt," I think she was zeroing in on IMAGINATION. She stated,
What every reader has in common with Babbitt is that...we are faced with choices. Freedom of choice lies at the heart of every...society. Against the onslaught of consumerism...our only weapon is to exercise our right to choose. And to make the right choices, we need to be able to think, to reflect, to pause, to imagine...
She declared that few American novels have happy endings, and possibly that is because the "Declaration of Independence provides its citizens not with the right to happiness but the right to its pursuit." Americans are spending so much of their time continuously in pursuit of something. And they are not happy. (I added that last part.)

To sum it up, she demonstrated that Americans are becoming mind-numb in their pursuit of wealth, comfort, and personal freedom, unable to make better choices, to be educated, to think, and to serve others. They have lost their imaginations, in the process.

CARSON

This final part dealt with settings, which focused on isolation and moral loneliness. In the story The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, all of the characters suffer from a form of LONELINESS. 

Nafisi makes several arguments: people are alone even when they are together, and people are so isolated from the world that they are not aware of their surroundings. In the novel, the characters are blinded by their self-obsessions, distracted, and unable to "express themselves or communicate with others." People really want to belong and connect to others, but they forgot how.

The author uses this part to discuss how violence is a "contribution of American fiction...the isolation of individuals, leading to a sort of emotional and social autism." Then she asked, 
Is this the unforeseeable flip side of the American dream? Is this what happens if you are allowed to imagine a future so remote from your existence when...your dream cannot be realized?
In the end, Nafisi echoed McCullers that "America has been caught in a protracted adolescence, searching for an identity and wanting desperately to belong." She argued that "loneliness...is not a positive attribute." 
What if that prized individualism, the one that was worth risking life and property to secure, that found its apotheosis in a kind of universal empathy, is being transformed into a narcissistic self-indulgence or greedy selfishness? 
And that is how she ended the book. I did not read the epilogue, and I almost did not finish what I started; however, I admit I found the two novels I have not read, Babbitt and Heart is a Lonely Hunter, quite intriguing. So if I got anything out of the book, I can add two new titles to my TBR. 

AMERICA IS NOT A DEMOCRACY

In final words, Nafisi continued to refer to America as a democracy. America is NOT a democracy. Democracies permit at least 51% of all the people to demand what they want at the expense of the individual or minority. (Ironically, the author titled her book The REPUBLIC of Imagination for a reason.)

Let's say America is a democracy: then we would not have legalized gay marriage. 

In my very own liberal state of California, the voters overwhelmingly, in 2008, supported the protection of marriage between a man and a woman. The minority of gay marriage activists went to the court to appeal the election, and the court overturned it. That is because America is a constitutional republic, and we are under the law. The law permitted the minority to use the courts to get what they wanted. It is the popular way for the minority to get what it wants these days, but under a true democracy, they would have never won because the majority of the voters were against homosexual unions and wanted to protect and preserve traditional marriage only.

Visiting Sacramento

When I visited my state capitol earlier this year, I was surprised to see how much minority representation there was, which would be us little peon Republicans, or conservatives. The minority party still has opportunity to sit on committees, and the majority must meet higher percentages of support to pass bills, meaning they cannot usually pass most bills without some support of the minority. 

Even when voting for President of the United States, we vote for electors in our state, who then vote for the presidential candidate. But we really add up the electors of each state, and the winner is the one who reaches 270. Twice in my lifetime, the candidate who won the most electors did not win the majority individual vote.

California homeschoolers line up to appeal to lawmakers, 
in opposition to a proposed bill

Americans vote for representatives who in turn make our laws. We can appeal to our representatives to vote how we like, but he or she may not. This year, we appealed to a state committee to oppose a bill that would have affected homeschoolers, in California, and almost 2000 people showed up to voice their opposition. The committee, in turn, did not even vote on the proposed bill, and instead let it die. However, we understand that legislators are waiting for another opportunity to introduce the bill again, or sneak it in somewhere. I guess if it does happen to become law, we always have the courts to appeal, thanks to our Constitutional Republic. 

IS THIS BOOK FOR YOU?

I do not know how to recommend this book. (Maybe I am conflicted because I received the typical negative view of Americans, as if we are all carbon copies of each other. Instead, she could have used different books to demonstrate the positive of America, if she sees any at all. It also could have been written more cohesively; I struggled to understand a concrete idea, but I got whiplash. Also her unnecessarily patronizing jabs at Republicans, Fox News, and Mitt Romney (which I think had nothing to do with her book) were tiresome and made me see how unenlightened she is to the duplicity all politics. The whole book had a condescending experience.)  

Aside from my opinion, I suppose if you are a fan of Huck Finn, Babbitt, or Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and you are a Democrat, but NOT a public school teacher, you may find this book acceptably appealing. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1941

"Sheep sorrel tastes like springtime," Laura said. 
"It really tastes a little like lemon flavoring, Laura," Mary gently corrected her. 

Heart Convictions

Now that the Long Winter was over, the Ingalls family returned to their claim. Little Town on the Prairie opens with Mary and Laura going for a walk, having a profound conversation about convictions of the heart.

Laura explained that she always saw Mary as very good and wanted to be like her; and Mary revealed that she was not good at all:
I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn't want to be like me. 
I know why you wanted to slap me. It was because I was showing off. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it. 
Laura could not believe it, but Mary continued:
We are all desperately wicked and inclined to do evil as the sparks fly upwards. But that doesn't matter. I mean I don't believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good. I don't know how to say what I mean very well. But -- it isn't so much thinking, as -- as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.
Laura thought about the goodness of God, and she realized that "Mary must be sure of it in some special way." Then Mary recited Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd..."

I am glad that Laura included this message in her story, whether it took place or not, or in that way. In fact, throughout her stories, she talks about her own heart convictions, and they are very honest; every child and adult, if he or she is honest with him or herself, will identify with these revelations.

Laura's Burden; Mary's Blindness

Laura was burdened about becoming a schoolteacher to help pay for Mary's college; she did not want to teach school, but she did want Mary to be able to go to college for the blind. When she pondered her burden and Mary's blindness, she resigned herself to teach school. At least, she still had her eyesight.
[Laura] saw the hoe, and the colors of the earth, and all the leafy little lights and shadows of the pea vines. She had only to glance up, and she saw miles of blowing grasses, the far blue skyline, the birds flying, Ellen and the calves on the green slope, and the different blues of the sky, the snowy piles of huge summer clouds. She had so much, and Mary saw only darkness.
Being Free and Independent

This is my absolute favorite part. (I listened to Cherry Jones' narration on audio, and she does a superb job reading this.) Pa took Laura and Carrie into town to celebrate the Fourth of July. A man led a rousing and patriotic speech to the crowd, including the reading of the Declaration of Independence -- the entire thing -- including all the offenses of the king. That is how essential it was to the folks of 1882. Being FREE AND INDEPENDENT, which is repeated again and again throughout the Little House books, is magnificently recognized, thoroughly encouraged, and carefully treasured. It is a major responsibility to keep and protect forever. It is nothing to be ashamed of.

Laura the Troublemaker

Mary finally went off to college, in Iowa, which was a sad time for them all; but they did not and would not dwell on their emotions. Laura and Carrie went to school, as well, and so began the adventures with Miss Wilder, Laura's future sister-in-law. (I always wonder how that turned out later, if they had to face each other. Awkward.)

Laura, the author, reintroduced her rival, Nellie Olsen, into the story. Nellie attended the same school as Laura, who was still holding a grudge against Nellie for calling Mary and her country girls back on Plum Creek. This came back to sting Laura when Nellie developed a superficial relationship with Miss Wilder.

Miss Wilder unfairly treated Laura and Carrie, and Laura defiantly protected Carrie, causing them to be sent home from school. Pa and Ma expected it to "blow over," and it did, although the chaos at school increased. Even Nellie encouraged the continued disrespect of Miss Wilder.

Eventually, the school board visited the school, and Miss Wilder blamed all of the disruptions on Laura. Back at home, Pa and Ma helped Laura evaluate what really happened. Apparently, when Laura, in her attempt to seek revenge on Nellie, referred to her family as "country folks," this made Nellie angry; and Laura admitted she desired to make her mad. But Ma asked Laura how she could be "so unforgiving." Pa explained that Nellie "twisted what Laura said and told it to Miss Wilder, and that's made all this trouble."

Gosh darn, Laura! You are such a troublemaker.

The whole time Laura was focused on her public appearance, not her wicked heart. She behaved and was careful to be good and obedient; however, inside she hated Miss Wilder (and Nellie), and she wanted to seek revenge.
Outside, she was shinning clean with good behavior, but she made not the least effort to be truly good inside.
It was only later that she thought of the Bible verses that speak about "the cup and platter that were clean only on the outside."

That's when Ma asked to write in Laura's new autograph book:

If wisdom's ways you wisely seek, 
Five things observe with care, 
To whom you speak, 
Of whom you speak, 
And how, and when, and where. 

The Budding Town

The budding town was growing and there was a need for social events. There were literaries, which were weekly gatherings for fun and entertainment -- kind of like watching America's Got Talent once a week. They included a spelling bee, charades, music and singing, a wax works display, and finally (what would be deemed utterly racist today), men in black face. There was also a delicious New England Supper. And of course there was always church.

Pa and Ma did not care for Rev. Brown., and neither did Laura. She did not care for his fire-and-brimstone, pulpit-pounding sermons, and she said she "amused herself...by changing his sentences in her mind, to improve their grammar." Once there was a revival meeting, and listening to Rev. Brown, 
for one horrible instant Laura imagined that [he] was the Devil.
The revival meeting description reminds me of the salvation/baptism scene in There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis. Imagine Rev. Brown here:




Laura Proves Herself 

Finally, the students had their own public exhibition, demonstrating their scholarly knowledge. Laura had one of the heaviest roles, reciting pages and pages of history. Because of her superb presentation, Mr. Brewster, homesteader from a neighboring area and school board member, approached her. He was looking for a teacher, and when he heard Laura at the exhibition, he knew she was the schoolteacher his school needed. 

And so, Laura's burden of becoming a schoolteacher had arrived. 

Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

August Reading Stack


It is August 2.

Just returned from a too-short summer vacation to San Diego. : (

Trying to read at the beach was difficult because I could not relax while my kids were in the waves. I did more reading on the road until I became carsick.

Now that we have returned home, I am ready to read as much as I can before the end of our summer.

Gratefully, I was able to finish my July Little House read, Little Town on the Prairie, within the month of July. Now I have moved on to These Happy Golden Years, in which Laura teaches her first school, and Almanzo Wilder begins to court her, though she has not figured that out, yet.

I also completed my Well-Educated Mind read: The True End to Civil Government, by John Locke, which was better than Utopia, but I am certainly ready to move on to something less dry. The next book on the list is The History of England, Vol V, by David Hume, and this I am looking forward to. I had not received my copy when I took the above image of my stack; so here it is by itself:


In addition, I am slowing rereading through Pride and Prejudice and still reading City of God. 

And speaking of rereading, I have decided to pick up Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. I read this for the first time, as a freshman in high school, and reread it as an adult many years ago. Now I want to reread it again, without my pen, just to relive it. It is really nice to read a book without a pen - to listen to what the author is saying as opposed to seeking what is most important about what the author just said.

I am very behind in my reviews for July. Besides Little Town and End of Civil Government, I have to write a review for The Republic of Imagination, by Azar Nafisi. There is much to say about that last one.

Hope to squeeze all of August into three weeks, when school begins and summer is GONE!

Beach Reading (or Beach Reading Prospects)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Woman's Education by Jill Ker Conway

A Woman's Education 
The Road from Coorain Leads to Smith College
Jill Ker Conway
Published 2001

After reading The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway, I was interested to know what happened to her after she moved to the United States from Australia. Her story was intriguing and somewhat tragic, but she was such a courageous person to leave her home and make a new start on another continent. 

Unlike The Road from Coorain, this short story reads very quickly, and covers Jill's ten years as Smith College's first woman president, beginning in 1975. Smith College is a private women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Jill was attracted to the unique history of Smith College, founded by Sophia Smith ("spinster inheritor of a railroad fortune") who decided to spend her wealth on a "college for women that would be national in scope and would rival elite male colleges." The school balanced its two ideals: one in voluntarism, preserving the natural environment and caring for the needs of children and the elderly; and the other in women working in the professional fields, such as law and medicine. 

JILL'S VISION

Jill had a vision for women's education in America and she was ready to serve and lead Smith College to "academic excellence." One of her goals was to expand admission to older women, who thought they were past their opportunities to further their education or pursue a career, 
a first step along the way to creating an institution that concerned itself with educating all women, not just eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds.
But one issue she had to debate was the concern of coeducation, which was becoming the norm for many male-only colleges. Should Smith admit men? In addition, her goal was to "help build an educational system that made intellectual maturity possible for all women." 

Jill Ker Conway with student

Jill thought it important to preserve the classical Western tradition, and not completely throw out philosophers because they were men; but she wanted to include women.
I revered the tradition of Western scholarship...but I also believed passionately that that tradition needed modifying by equally rigorous scholarship about women. Not scholarship of the ladylike"petit point" kind, but rigorous, unsentimental, root-and-branch scrutiny and questioning of the categories and assumptions that shaped our understanding of the past.
I did not know this was a thing in the seventies, but the idea of "enforced, conformity to heterosexuality" had its roots even back then. Yikes! 
A lifetime of studying gender systems...had convinced me that one of societies' major oppressions lay in the effort to coerce sexual behavior. We need a framework of law to manage the institutions that care for the rising generation, but that framework isn't dependent on enforced conformity to heterosexuality.
Apparently, Jill believed this, but also recognized that "a women's institution resting on voluntary support couldn't move too far ahead of the informed opinion in the larger society." She also thought that "America's idiosyncratic attitudes on homosexuality" came from "Puritan fear of sexuality." Huh?

Speaking of the issue of raising money, which was a major responsibility as president: Jill would not completely admit that she agreed with the ideals of capitalism, but she did appreciate it when it came time to "raise capital, invest it well, and generate a surplus to be invested in continuously improving a Smith education." Yay, capitalism! She also permitted student's "poorly planned or sloppily executed" projects to fail instead of acting like Big Daddy Government who rescued them financially.

GENDER ISSUE, MALE POWER STUFF

As you can guess, Jill was a feminist, and she was "intent on making a Smith education one that gave women the tools to think critically about their own experience (which makes sense to me), and to deconstruct patriarchal intellectual authority wherever necessary."
A lifelong feminist, I'd been in the business of deconstructing male power since girlhood.
Basically, she said she needed to "fight the entrenched male power within a women's college..." asking for "funding to support research and teaching about women's experience across the humanities and social sciences." So I understood the goal and purpose and dilemma, but I do not agree with taking down the male side of history. Why not insert and assert the female portion? Can we not do that instead of declaring war on men? Can we just rise above it?

I thought it was rather silly when Jill wrote "her or his" as opposed to the common order "his or her" because it is just unnecessarily petty and we should be able to move beyond such little nuances. Today she would be accused of being gender insensitive by writing either one! How's that for foolishness? But I digress.

Jill, who was married but unable to have any children, recognized that women wanted to find ways to achieve serious work and creativity in their own lives, and still combine marriage and family. She also sought to find ways to encourage women into higher wage-earning careers to close the pay-gap, and personally "called CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to ask them to consider recruiting women from Smith's campus."

By the early eighties, new disciplines needed to be introduced to Smith College in order to keep up with the "culture wars." Jill regretted missing those cues, which signaled an end to Western Civilization curricula. She said it would have been a benefit to include non-Western ideas and customs.

Jill received National Humanities medal in 2013

STEPPING DOWN AND FUTURE GOALS

But by now she was already considering stepping down in order to spend more time caring for her aging and ailing husband. She also felt satisfied in what she had accomplished, and now it was someone else's time to do a better job.

She considered what she had learned in her ten years, like how women were accused of being aggressive if they tried to do what men did; how women who could not break into men's fields or were overlooked for higher positions often founded their own organizations and businesses to do as they pleased. Now Jill wanted to know how to change those situations, specifically in the business world; hence, she "decided to give time to corporate governance."

Being environmentally minded, she also wanted to educate herself on ecofeminism and its critics (whatever that was). She was also convinced that Western Civ. vs. non-Western ideals was a battle worth taking up.
This was the political battle of ideas that inspired the new right and gave birth to the leftish postmodern view of cultural politics. Its resonance at Smith was complicated by the gender composition of the faculty, because deconstructing the narrative of European superiority also undermined the concept of the [evil] Western male hero. 
I inserted the [evil] for her.

Jill said that in 1975, a Smith student might have read works by great male authors, but by 1985, she would choose between "dead white males" or a female author. It was a costly curriculum change, but she thought it necessary that students be exposed to the "[white European] male bias in the canon."

Finally, she presented her plan for the remainder of her life: to spend part of her time becoming a writer, creating a record of feminist ideas she thought incorrect. She wanted to write about what women were not supposed to desire: ambition, adventure, intellectual power, physical courage and endurance, risk taking, poor mother-daughter relationships (obviously). Then she'd spend another part of her life educating herself on environmental issues, especially damage caused by [destructive] male aggressiveness. Thirdly, she would spend time helping to govern institutions of business, higher education, and social causes she cared about. And finally, she looked forward to reading aloud in the evenings with her husband (which I think is a pretty cool idea for husbands and wives to do together -- even if I do not have one of these myself).

Regardless of her opposing liberal ideas, I like Jill. She seemed to be fair and just. On some issues she was a bridge between the old and the new. She could compromise intelligently and reasonably. She was probably, to the generation she served, a breath of fresh air, a leader, and a confidant. She appeared to be extremely likable and sounded approachable, even if she disagreed with one's ideas.

I like this quote most of all. Jill celebrated what Smith College has achieved, and she
often wondered what Virginia Woolf would have made of it. This was not just a room of one's own but an entire institution that its graduates owned, beholden to no one but their female predecessors. It gave women, however briefly, a sense of owning their place in life, a place never thereafter easily surrendered.



Jill Ker Conway (1934-2018)

IS THIS BOOK FOR YOU?

Yes, if you are open-minded about early liberal, feminist ideals, or you like biographies, in general. Again, it is a quick read about an intelligent female leader who took her work very seriously.   

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1940

This was my fourth or fifth read of The Long Winter, of which I have written about a few times, in different ways, including during the longest heatwave summer I have ever experienced in California.
The Long Winter, during the longest heat wave in California. This time, I found myself experiencing this read quite differently than I had in the past.

But first let me recap before I become opinionated.

At the start of the story, the Ingalls family was settled on their own claim when winter crept in; Pa immediately recognized the signs of nature that caused him to suspect a hard winter. But when an elderly Indian man warned the town that seven months of blizzards were coming, the men moved their families to the town buildings, closer to supplies and one another. The Ingalls moved into Pa's store building, which was a better shelter than the claim shanty.

Unfortunately, the blizzards were more than they expected: school was closed, trains could no longer run, and supplies were unable to be delivered for several months. They were buried in their homes, unable to make contact with neighbors. They ran out of common supplies for food, heat, and light, and resorted to unconventional alternatives to survive. Even Laura asked, "Will we starve?" 

In my own petty personal miseries, I was bothered that Pa did not kill his livestock to feed his family, though I understand why: Pa, in his compassion for his family (especially for Laura's big heart), held out as long as he could because it did not get to that point; they always had wheat to grind to make bread; and so long as they had bread, they had food. 

In addition, Ma's optimism was grating on my patience. Maybe because I already knew those supply trains were not coming; but, come on, Ma! The trains were not coming. 
Likely the train will get through in time.
I suppose prices depend on when they can get the train through?
Of course, Pa did not help either, always mentioning that darn train coming through. But finally, he had to tell his family: 
They can't get the trains through. And at Tracy the superintendent ran out of patience.
And Ma lost it.
Patience? Patience! What's his patience got to do with it I'd like to know! He knows we are out here without supplies. How does he think we are going to live till spring? It isn't his business to be patient. It's his business to run the trains.
To calm Ma down, Pa reminded her that they had been getting along all right for more than a month; they can make it another three months. Then he proceeded to tell them a funny story about how the superintendent came to that final dreadful conclusion, to give up trying to get the trains through; and it made them think about the issues of pride, patience, and perseverance. At that moment, Laura understood that she was old enough to stand by her family in hard times. "She must not worry; she must be cheerful and help to keep up all their spirits."

LESSON IN CAPITALISM AND THE FREE MARKET

Toward the end of the winter, Almanzo and Cap risked their lives to find a stranger who supposedly had wheat, which the town hoped he would be willing to sell to them. Their risk paid off, and after the boys brought back the wheat, the storeowner, Loftus, who purchased it, wanted to resell it to the townspeople at a much higher price; but Pa gave him a lesson in capitalism and the free market system. Loftus said,
That wheat's mine and I've got a right to charge any price I want to for it.
That's so, Loftus, you have, Mr. Ingalls agreed. This is a free country and every man's got a right to do as he pleases with his own property. Don't forget every one of us is free and Independent, Loftus. The winter won't last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it's over.
Threatening me, are you?
We don't need to, Mr. Ingalls replied. It's a plain fact. If you've got a right to do as you please, we've got a right to do as we please. It works both ways . . . you're business depends on our good will. You maybe don't notice that now, but along next summer you'll likely notice it. 
That's so, Loftus, Gerald Fuller said. You got to treat folks right or you don't last long in business, not in this country. 
We don't object to your making a fair profit, Loftus, Mr. Ingalls said, but Loftus shook his head.
No, I'll let it go for what it cost me.  
MARY, MARY

Oh, let us talk about Mary for a while. She was a show off (and she does admit this in the next book). Laura was understandably burned by Mary's little remarks. Given the difficulty of darkness during the long winter storms, Laura complained because she could not see while tediously making lace. And Mary added,
The dark doesn't bother me. I can see with my fingers.
Well, no one asked you, Mary.

And later, when Ma suggested that they save their "reading" for Christmas Day, Mary shared,
I think it is a good idea. It will help us to learn self-denial.
Laura argued that she did not want to, and Mary reminded her that, "Nobody does, but it [was] good for them." Mary was such a killjoy. (And Laura knew she was always right and wise.)

All sarcasm aside, The Long Winter is abundant in values and life lessons: patience, perseverance, resourcefulness, joyfulness, and trust. In the end, the storms ceased, spring arrived, the trains came through, and they had Christmas dinner in May. Everything worked out in the end.

LITTLE HOUSE WORDS OF WISDOM

Via the Ingalls:
Needs must, when the devil drives.
Work comes before pleasure.
Nothing keeps you from learning.
I hope you don't expect to depend on anybody else . . . a body can't do that. 
Via the Wilder boys:
Be sure you're right, then go ahead.
Better be safe than sorry.
A farmer takes chances. He has to.
WARNING: OFFENSIVE HISTORY

Last month, Laura Ingalls Wilder - unbeknownst to her - was surreptitiously branded a racist, and her ALSC self-named honor was stripped of her name. See my complaint HERE. Our culture is so enlightened that we punish authors who wrote history from the perspective of their own time and culture. So I cannot help myself but point out the obvious offense(s).

CASE IN POINT: Almanzo was arguing with his older brother about taking that risk in between blizzards, to find an unknown individual who lived at an unknown location, to buy seed wheat in order to save the people starving in town. His brother did not want him to do it, but Almanzo declared,
I'm free, white, and twenty-one . . . or as good as. Anyway, this is a free country and I'm free and independent. I do as I please.
So there you have it.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth
Vera Brittain
Published 1933
It was a read-along, started on Twitter, by Jillian.

SUMMARY

A young woman's coming of age experience is shattered and transfigured over night by World War I. This is the passionate, true story of Vera Brittain, who fought to further her education at Oxford, only to postpone her attendance to serve as a volunteer nurse during the Great War. In only a few short years, she had experienced traumatic suffering, sacrifice, and loss, which altered her life mission forever. She wrote in order to share her story and the story of her generation.


Vera Brittain

DETAILS (POSSIBLE SPOILERS)

This story is well-written, though at times slightly wordy; nonetheless, Brittain tells a captivating story, 600+ pages long. The reader will sense her bitterness towards the stifling expectations of her time, especially the traditions of her parents and their generation. Brittain was never meant to fit or follow those customs. She was born before her time and blazing her own trail.

It may seem obviously outlandish to 21st-century readers, but for Brittain's generation, and more specifically for provincial young ladies, such as herself, marriage and motherhood were supposed to be her only options for the future. But she fought the status quo and won her chance to enter Oxford, though many doubted her success.

Then WWI began. Brittain referenced her journal to retell the events of the War as they occurred in her time. Her brother and his friends, including one young man whom she developed a romantic relationship, patriotically went off to fight for England. Determined to sacrifice herself for her country, Brittain also left Oxford and volunteered as a nurse.

She was stationed in England, Malta, and France (even close to the front line - as per her request), and experienced the ravages of war. She lost her fiancé, two other male friends, and finally, her brother. It devastated her conscience and transformed her life course.

After the War, Brittain was understandably discouraged and bitter about life and the world. She reluctantly completed her education at Oxford, focusing on history, and soon after, worked as a journalist and became a speaker for the newly formed League of Nations. She also struggled as a frustrated novelist. She secured a best friend, who lovingly reminded her of her brother and fiancé; and she also gained a romantic admirer, attracted to her intellect, whom she committed herself to marriage.

For the remainder of the story (which ends in 1925), Brittain wrote about her fervent development of socialist ideals and the ambitious quest to end war for good and maintain peace in the world.

The men Vera loved (L to R: her brother, fiancé, and friend)

OF A PERSONAL NOTE

Brittain's story resonated with me because I like to know people on a personal level where I can better understand why they think the way that they do, whether I agree with them or not.

Her story reminded me of my mother's story (who was a young girl during World War II). She, too, desired to attend college; yet even in 1960s America, her parents never heard of such an idea. Instead, she was sent to work . . . to help pay for her brother's college tuition. This unjust decision burns my mother even today.

It was not until her marriage that she put herself through community college, to at least obtain an associate's degree. And my grandparents still thought her behavior outrageous, especially as a wife and young mother. But they were of a different time, and lived with different life experiences, just as Brittain's parents and their peers did. Future generations often look back on previous generations as primitive and benighted.

One looming question Brittain often asked was this (in my words): How are women to find satisfaction in education and fulfilling careers, yet, still make room for marriage and motherhood? In her words:
Could marriage and motherhood be combined with real success in an art or profession? If it couldn't, which was to suffer -- the profession or the human race?
This is an essential question for women even today because, yes, finding time for a successful career is time-consuming. But more women are doing this today, completing college and developing a career; yet, the truth is, adding a husband and children complicates everything. Or dare I say . . . pursing education and a career complicate marriage and family? I guess it depends on your priorities.

Not all women want to pursue education or career, as some are just as desirous to focus solely on family; hence, the human race will go on regardless; but, in truth, I think more are doing it all, though something is suffering -- if not the career, then the family, and if not those, then the woman is burdening herself beyond her control, which is the frustrating struggle of a woman's life, as Brittain identified.

Brittain also understood that marriage was an emotional risk, something she was not willing to experience, given the pain she had endured during the years of the War. She admitted that women do desire male companionship, including intellectual and romantic, but marriage is certainly a risk. I cannot repeat that enough. Even Scripture says (again, my words): singleness is good, but if you cannot remain single, get married (though this is in reference to spreading the gospel).

Now, other hot topics included nationalism, patriotism, heroism, and pacifism. Brittain believed that a world organization of leaders would solve the war problem by reigning in man's desire for control, conquest, and possession. That is why she adopted the socialist ideology because they claimed to have the answer to ending war, poverty, and inequality -- issues closest to her heart.

But she soon learned that the League of Nations was full of hot air. Sadly, I am not sure (yet) she discovered that Socialists have their own desires for control and power because, in all of human history, small groups of men always gain power over and control the masses. It does not matter what label is given their ideology; they always make similar promises, and the end result is always misery for everyone else. She quotes Ecclesiastes:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. 
Furthermore, I disagree that patriotism is what causes war, although Brittain may have switched patriotism and nationalism. She may have clarified that patriotism was used to fuel men to rise up and fight for their country. Patriotism -- a love of one's own country -- is good and healthy for citizens; but nationalism, in which greedy, power-hungry men, who seek to dominate because they have a higher view of their place in the world over others, is dangerous and does cause war. I believe Brittain did discuss that her generation was duped into patriotism when it had nothing to do with the War.

As for heroism, Brittain found it unnecessary and reckless; but I disagree. Heroes conquer fear and confront evil; heroes stand for righteousness. Heroes risk their lives for the weak. And this is even more prevalent in men because they are designed by God to be protectors of their homes and families.

However, the fact that saddened me the most is the author's spiritual hopelessness in the future. Unfortunately, Brittain's parents did not train up Vera and her brother in the knowledge of Christ. She had zero hope in the resurrection and everlasting life. She did not know the Lord.
And then I remembered, with a startling sense of relief, that there was no resurrection to complicate the changing relationships forced upon men and women by the sheer passage of earthly time. There was only a brief interval between darkness and darkness in which to fulfill obligations, both to individuals and society, which could not be postponed to the comfortable futurity of a compensating heaven. 
Why do I bring this up? Because she talked about this a lot. It was a source of bitterness for her, as if she knew there was a God, but she was really angry with Him. Everyone suffers to some degree in this life because there is a purpose and point to suffering. Brittain begrudged her parents generation because they enjoyed a seemingly peaceful world; but her own coming of age was shattered with war and political upheaval.
The middle-aged and the old had known their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled.
No, it was not fair; but if she had any understanding of the way of the world, she may have better understood that it really was not about her or her generation, that much of it was out of her control, and that war was and is always to be because of sin and wickedness that abounds on earth, which began at the very beginning of time, in the Garden.
. . . but at least I can begin by trying to understand where humanity failed and civilisation went wrong.
Her hope was in man-made solutions, which also makes me sad because man is utterly corruptible. Man will never have peace on this earth, so long as he is at war with God in his heart.
We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence; our lives, and our children's lives, will be rational, balanced, well-proportioned, to exactly the extent that we recognise this fundamental truth. 
So when you combine a group of godless men and call them the League of Nations, or the U.N., or have leaders sign peace treaties, they are only temporary fixes to the world's problems. But Brittain could not known this because her hope was solely in man.

By the way, while I hate war, I also strongly believe that God does permit men to go to war, especially to restrain evil, even if it means a loss of life. Hence, I am curious what Brittain's opinion was of World War II and if she ever wrote about it.



There is much more to this story, so many struggles and conflicts on this personal journey. Brittain is very raw and truthful about her youthful ignorance and emotional disappointments. I know I had a lot of disagreements with the author, but I absolutely appreciated this momentous work of insight and discovery. No one can discount her experiences; this is her unique story.
The demonstration would not . . . be easy; for me and my contemporaries our old enemies -- the Victorian tradition of womanhood, a carefully trained conscience, a sheltered youth, an imperfect education, loss of time, blasted years -- were still there and always would be; we seemed to be forever slaying them, and they to be forever rising again.
IS THIS BOOK FOR YOU?

If you enjoy biographies, stories about World War I, especially in a woman's voice, and particularly prefer works on early feminism and pacifism, this is an essential story for you. There is also an intellectual feel about the work, and a sweet romance that blossoms in the early part of the story. But beware because it is heart-wrenchingly devastating, though there is a sense of recuperation at its end.
In one sense, I was my war, my war was I; without it I should do nothing and be nothing. If marriage made the whole fight harder, so much the better; it would become part of my war and as this I would face it, and show that, however stubborn any domestic problem, a lasting solution could be found if only men and women would seek it together. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Utopia, by Sir Thomas More

Utopia
Sir Thomas More
Published 1516

I did look forward to reading this book, but I ended up disliking it, as it bored me terribly. I admit: I also found the writing tricky. But overall, the historical story - about More - behind the fictional one was more interesting to me.

Utopia is a conversation involving several fictitious characters, including: More, himself, who works for King Henry VIII (which he did in reality); his friend, Giles; and another man, Hythloday, who traveled, with Amerigo Vespucci, to the New World and came to the island of Utopia. Hythloday spends an evening describing Utopia to More and Giles, and they discuss its ideals, comparing them to 16th century Europe.

In short, Hythloday says that the Utopians lived in perfect harmony because there was no poverty, no greed, no love of wealth, no class structure, no private property, very little crime or moral corruption, and no war (except in self-defense or to help neighbors). Everyone was educated and worked joyfully and willingly hard. And there was also religious tolerance for all religions (except for those who rejected God altogether). Utopia was a society based wholly on reasonable thought or common sense. The End.

I would like to know where Utopia found its inhabitants because they do not sound human. More and Giles are skeptical, too; but mostly they are reluctant to agree on certain notions, like community property and war, because they know those principles would never be implemented in Europe. This was probably true, too.

I was more curious about why More wrote on this topic at all, given that he worked for King Henry VIII. More wrote Utopia on the Eve of the Protestant Reformation. He was an ardent defender of the Catholic Church throughout the Counter Reformation. And when he would not support the King's break from the Church, to divorce his first wife, More was imprisoned as a traitor of the King, and later beheaded.

It is challenging to pin point why More wrote Utopia. Was it to provoke thought, which he knew would be impossible to reach about the perfect human society? Was it to promote his own humanistic thought, as a humanist Catholic, in which one uses Christian principles and rational thought, as opposed to traditional dogma? Or did he only want to critique what he thought was incorrect about 16th century Europe, the feudal system, and the unfair English justice system? Maybe it was a little of all three.

Whatever the answer, I found the idea of Utopia totally dull, and I would never want to live there because no one was different; everyone was equal --- equally boring. Even their clothing was very similar. It was totally unrealistic. 

IS THIS BOOK FOR YOU?

Again, if you like old texts, classics, and the like, this is one you should read. At least once. But if you are looking for a riveting story about people in the perfect society (*yawn*), you may want to find different "utopian" literature. Personally, I found Gulliver's Travels much more intriguing than this. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

July Reading Stack


There were six books in my reading stack for June, and three were not completed. City of God, by Augustine, will not be done until the end of the year, and  I only started The Long Winter a few days ago, which should be done in a few more days. The one book I did not start at all was Beak House, by Dickens. It just did not happen.

Of the books I completed: Utopia was dull, Tess of D'Urbervilles was haunting; but my most engrossing read, which took up most of my reading time, was Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain.

Now it is July, and here is the plan:

Continue reading City of God. This is amazing ancient literature.

"The True End of Civil Government," by John Locke, for TWEM Histories project.

A Woman's Educationby Jill Ker Conway. This is the continuation of the author's life, after she left Australia and came to America. *NOTE: I totally messed up my book stack image. Swap out The Road From Coorain, by the same author, for this book. I truly am so tired from lack of sleep in the month of June; therefore, I am not surprised I did this. 

The Republic of Imagination, by Azar Nafisi. Also a continuation of the author's life, in America, after leaving Iran. It's bookish-related, too.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It is time to begin reading Austen all over again.

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the next book in the Little House-athon read-along.

I should finish most of these books, particularly because my schedule is freed up for July. I also need to learn how to read in the middle of the night when my brain refuses to sleep. I have not been myself the entire month of June, but instead of taking advantage of sleepless nights, I tried to fight it -- and lost every time (meaning, I tossed and turned and woke up late and exhausted every morning).

So maybe July will be better, I hope. At least, I am definitely excited to get started on several of these.

Monday, June 25, 2018

My Literary-related Response Rant to the ALSC Removing Laura Ingalls Wilder's Name From Award

This morning I learned of the Association for Library Service to Children's decision to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from an award for writers and illustrators of children's books.

Here is their response to that decision:
ALA, ALSC respond to Wilder Medal name change

I get it. I really do.

The past is shocking to twenty-first century minds, and if we as a society are determined to wipe out every evidence of racism, prejudices, hatred, intolerance, sexism, and the billions of other defects of intolerable human conflicts throughout history, then we have much work to do. It will be a tireless work because there is no end to the offenses or offenders of the past.

Again, this situation does not involve censorship of actual literature, for now; it is only the removal of a writer's name whose works portray unacceptable attitudes, by today's standards.

SIDEBAR: The culture that has given us TWITTER, a forum where everyone is unaccountably nasty and horrid to one another, is the same culture in which Laura Ingalls Wilder is not worthy to have an award named after her.

I still say it is a form of censorship.

Believe me! I do not have a problem with censorship . . . as long as it is SELF-imposed. We all should have the distinct personal capacity to judge what is valuable and what is crap. What is good literature, and what is a waste of my time? What is beautiful art, and what is insultingly called art? What is delightful music, and what is offensive noise? On and on. 

So when I read that the ALSC claims to be an inclusive organization, then I understood why they made the decision: because Wilder writes about history, and history is never inclusive. 

By the way, I notice that the more we move away from people and events in history, the more angry, offended, intolerant, and destructive we become about the past. (See Christopher Columbus.) In this case, Wilder is being punished for telling her story about her life in 1800 America, even if her own attitudes were reflective of those conditions, which is only natural. Nonetheless, I think this decision says a lot more about "us" than it does about the past.

Fortunately, Wilder's stories are insight into the past. They expose the plight of the Native American people. When 21st century readers read Little House on the Prairie, they get two views: they experience the terror of living isolated in the middle of Indian Territory; and at the same time they experience the misery of hundreds of Native Americans forced from their homes. 

Her stories provide a sample of contributions of pioneer women. Caroline Ingalls was a pillar of endurance, physical strength, wisdom, and courage, as well as a godly mother and wife. She and Charles demonstrated sacrifice, balance, and support in marriage and parenting. Caroline demanded her girls get an education, and encouraged Laura to teach school.

They also give a picture of life, progress, and attitudes, extremely different than our own, including very difficult truths. These are topics of discussion, which help us gain better understanding of other people who came before us. We discover why people thought what they did, and we learn from them.

The important thing to remember is that it is not our story! We must not always force everything through our personal filters of expectations and try to make those attitudes fit into ours. We should taste what others have lived through and use comprehension and empathy to understand why they lived the way they did. It makes us better people, well-rounded, more compassionate, calmer, and tolerant. 

Overall, the ALSC Board overlooked Wilder's contributions to the world of American literature, especially by important female writers, and succumbed to the pathetic pressure from groups pushing today's narrow-minded, selfish, faint-hearted, standards for all of the rest of us.

So they removed Wilder's name. But then what? Should we advocate the removal of her memorials and museums? What about her books? If she is not worthy to hold honor because of her books, then why preserve them?

People who are perpetually offended will never be satisfied. They make it so difficult for themselves, so that they will never be able to keep up with the demands or live up to the standards of cleaning up the injustices of the broken human condition.

What is to be done? I do not know anymore. I only know the ALSC did a petty thing, and they were all so very proud of themselves. A sad day for progress.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Tess of D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of The D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
Published 1891
The Classics Club II

I am still shaking from this tragic story. My reading experience was a cross between Doctor Zhivago and Grapes of Wrath

But unlike Grapes of Wrath, I did not hate it.  Instead, I was emotionally invested. (Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath angrily provoked me.) But I think I know why people dislike Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Now, I am going to share the plot, including some spoilers, but not the ending. 

BEGIN SPOILERS: 

Tess is a beautiful, poetic young lady, unlucky to be the poor daughter of a drunk, unemployed father and an anxious mother. When her parents learned that they were descendants of an honorable ancestor of a similar name, whose well-off relations lived some miles from them, her mother sent Tess to make an introduction, in hopes of getting a job -- or a husband, which ever was more convenient.

Instead, Tess met an arrogant male relative, Alec, who gave her a lowly job on the farm, and then took advantage of her innocence. He certainly was attracted to her beautiful physical image, but her feelings for him were never mutual. 

By the next chapter, Tess had returned home with her new baby and was an embarrassment to the community. Unfortunately, her baby died. In shame, she decided to leave home again, to make a fresh start where no one knew her story. 

She found enjoyable work as a dairymaid and made companions. But a new man, Angel, a well-to-do son of an uppity preacher, moved to the farm. He wanted to take up farming, as opposed to college or seminary. He fell for Tess's credible pure and modest image and aggressively pursued her until she could not reject his advances. He proposed.

She expected to expose her past before they married, but each opportunity failed; even the letter she wrote explaining the truth, which contradicted her image, did not reach him in time before the wedding. 

She wanted to tell him on the day of the wedding, but he prevented her. 

Then on the night of their honeymoon, they revealed their secret sins, and Tess finally was able to tell Angel that she was not as pure as he believed. (Neither was he, but his hypocrisy was not as blinding as her impurity.) His image of her was shattered. Basically, he decided he must leave for a while. Being distraught, he left the continent! 

For at least a year he was absent from his wife, while she lived in abandonment and shame for what someone else had done to her life; she bore this heavy burden, as if it was entirely her own. 

During that long separation, she reconnected with friends and found farm work elsewhere, hiding the truth as much as she could, hating and blaming herself for her cowardly husband's behavior.

One day the farm workers were listening to a new "preacher." It was Alec, her relative, preaching repentance and obedience. He recognized Tess and was suddenly bewitched.

For several pages he begged Tess to give him a chance. He never asked forgiveness; but he wanted to make "reparations," marry her, and take care of her and her family. He never knew about the pregnancy and he expressed regret for having ruined her. Nonetheless, she rejected him and never believed his conversion. (Even I believed his conversion and thought she was being too pride-filled.)

After a few more pages, Alec revealed his true self. He was wicked, and the reader could see what Tess already knew. He was a fraud. He admitted that his religion was only a phase, and since he found Tess again, his religion was over. He resorted to stalking her.

Tess wrote a desperate letter to Angel, begging him to come home and save her from the evil that was going to ruin her (again). The letter awaited his return. And unbeknownst to Tess, Angel finally admitted he should have never left his wife. Duh.

Then, Tess's father died. Tess's mother and her siblings were forced to leave their home, and Tess with them. They tried to find a new place, but it was complicated. Really complicated.

Meanwhile, Alec relentlessly made all attempts to rescue Tess and her family; with his money and connections, his proposals to make life easier for them all were very attractive and generous. 

Because of her desperate situation - somewhere between a rock and a hard place - Tess rebelled and wrote a scathing note to Angel telling him she was done with him. Aside from the time she rightly rejected Alec's conversion as truth, this is the only other time I remember her showing any sign of strength and conviction. It almost seemed out of character. She promised to never forgive him.

Again, the note was waiting for his arrival at his parent's home.

Angel did eventually return home and immediately went on a quest to find his wife.

The reader was left to believe that Tess took Alec up on his offer to comfortably house her mother and siblings. Angel found them, but Tess did not live there with them, and Tess's mother did not tell Angel where she presently lived, but only told him not to search for her.

Nonetheless, he continued looking, and when he found her, "It was too late."

END of SPOILERS




It gets worse, but I cannot finish revealing the spoilers. I personally concluded that Thomas Hardy, while alive, had zero hope in humanity. He only understood torture of the heart and soul and mind. He absolutely detested religion, twisting Scripture and mocking Christianity. He saw life as utterly hopeless.

Sharon @ Gently Mad wrote several reviews of biographies on Thomas Hardy, and they helped me understand the madness behind the tragedies. At least with Return of the Native and Far From the Madding Crowd there were somewhat happy endings after the tragic story smacked you across the face. But this one must have been written during an exceptionally bad week for Hardy. He chose not to give anyone a chance.

So am I complaining about Tess or not? No. There is deep symbolism throughout, which is always intriguing to discover and decode its meanings. Hardy likes to use natural symbols to express his ideas about human nature. In addition, it is not very difficult to draw conclusions, and I found myself writing down the next thing that would happen before I read it because it is so easily drawn out.

I also enjoyed the reading experience.  The journey is absolutely worthwhile because of Hardy's talent. Nonetheless, this ending was dreadfully insane, and the characters were dubious, hypocritical, and false -- obviously, not very likable. But I still cannot forget the reading journey, and so I will always remember this story.

Is this book for you?

Are you already a Hardy fan because you have read his other works? Then I would encourage you to read this, too, just to have the experience and knowledge of having read it. You may not like the story overall, and that is ok; but you may get something better out of it anyway.

I would not recommend this one as my first Hardy, or you may never read another. He is full of shocking revelations, and if you are unfamiliar with his ways, you may not appreciate those unhappy surprises.

Also, Hardy loves to use unique vocabulary, and that may be too cumbersome for those still becoming acclimated to his style. Some people call it "flowery" language, though it is beautiful and interesting. It only adds to the complication, though, when the author is at the same time smacking you in the face with insulting and offensive character traits and dreadful plot twists.

So tread carefully with this one.

Tess flung herself down upon the undergrowth of rustling speargrass as upon a bed. 1891