Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion and My Fair Lady (Signet Classics)Until a few days ago, it had been years since I watched My Fair Lady, but some of the songs from that musical are so memorable that they still popped in my head every so often. So I thought it would be interesting to read Pygmalion, the play upon which the musical is based, before watching the movie, and I'm so glad I did.

The play is slightly different than the musical/movie. For one, Eliza's tutoring is covered in just a page or two and there is no mention of "the rain in Spain" or "hurricanes hardly ever happen." There is no day at the races - Henry Higgins simply takes Eliza to his mother's house for tea. The ending is quite different, too: a bit more realistic and less romantic, but I won't give it away. Of course, the musical has it's own charm, and it is certainly easier to hear the Cockney accent than to read its transliteration.

I think the play conveys the social criticism that Shaw intended better than the musical, but perhaps that is simply because it is so easy to be carried away with the music and the romance of My Fair Lady instead of analyzing the message it's presenting. In an introduction, Richard H. Goldstone comments that "Shaw observes in Pygmalion that the right accent (together with the right clothes) could carry the day. His position in relation to class was not that society should eliminate the concept of ladies and gentlemen but that the status of lady or gentleman might be attained by anyone with intelligence and character who aspired to the part" (ix). Eliza Doolittle echoes these sentiments when she asks Colonel Pickering, "But do you know what began my real education?...Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimple Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me. (She resumes her stitching.) And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors...You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will" (93-94).

Now that it has been nearly one hundred years since Shaw published in 1913, these ideas can be applied in a different, though no less necessary context. We need to regain the concept of ladies and gentlemen, in the truest since of the words - men should not disdain chivalry and good manners or be afraid to offer it, and women should stop trying to prove our equality and graciously accept being cared for. I know it is hard to wait for someone to open a door, but that's what ladies should do, and gentlemen should be glad for the opportunity! I'm sure it would do much for improving our attitudes toward biblical manhood and womanhood if these simple actions were more a part of our daily routines.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter

Laddie: A True Blue Story (Library of Indiana Classics)I finished this well over a month ago, but finally decided to play catch up on blogging instead of giving up just yet... It seems like this might be the year of Gene Stratton-Porter for me, since this is the third novel by her that I have read in 2010. While her works might not be as well-known or as memorable as L. M. Montgomery (there will never be another Anne!), I find them very refreshing, for they take me to a simpler time and place, a time when many of the foundational beliefs and values I hold dear were understood and simply assumed by the general population. It reminds me that it is not so much that I am out of touch with reality, as that the reality of life in the twenty-first century has lost sight of what is of true value. And I need that reminder, since it is all to easy to be caught up in all the stuff - from billboards to google ads to simply walking through the abundance of a grocery store - that we are bombarded with every day. So while some might find Laddie: A True Blue Story overly idealistic, I would maintain that it is an ideal worth imitating or at least moving closer to.

Laddie is considered the most autobiographical of Gene Stratton-Porter's novels, though she is certainly reflected as the "Bird Woman" in Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. She was the youngest of twelve children, just like Little Sister, who here narrates her own story and that of her family, especially her older brother Laddie. Faith and family values are at the heart of this story, and I love the fact that it is not particularly a "Christian" book, but biblical truths are woven all through it.

“All these outward things are not essential; they are pleasing, I grant, but they have nothing to do with the one big, elemental fact that a Godless life is not even half a life...I know God is big enough and merciful enough to accept even death-bed repentance, but what is that to compare with laying out your course and running it a lifetime without swerving?” (115)

“I knew it was a good time, and I could ask anything I chose, so I sat on his knee and said: 'Father, when you pray for anything that it's all perfectly right for you to have, does God come down from heaven and do it Himself, or does He send a man like Laddie to do it for him?'
Father hugged me tight, smiling the happiest.
'Why, you have the whole thing right there in a nutshell, Little Sister,' he said. 'You see it's like this: the Book tells us most distinctly that “God is love.” Now it was love that sent Laddie to bind himself for a long, tedious job, to give Leon his horse, wasn't it?'
'Of course! I said. 'He wouldn't have been likely to do it if he hated him. It was love, of course!'
'Then it was God,' said father, 'because “God is love.” They are one and the same thing.'” (345-346)

“I guess the biggest thing the matter with Pryors was that they didn't know how to go about loving each other right; maybe it was because they didn't love God, so they couldn't know exactly what proper love was; because God is love, like father said.” (394)

Little Sister is a part of a close-knit family even though many of her siblings are already grown and married. I especially appreciated the value of motherhood that was clearly presented in passages such as these:

“'Yet they tell me that you are the mother of twelve children,' he said, as if he marvelled at something.
'Yes!' cried mother, and the word broke right through a bubbling laugh. 'Am I not fortunate above most women? We had the grief to lose two little daughters at the ages of eight and nine, all the others I have, and I rejoice in them.'” (282)

“'Had I life to live over, I see now where I could do more; but neighbor, believe me, my highest aspiration is to be a clean, thrifty housekeeper, a bountiful cook, a faithful wife, a sympathetic mother. That is life work for any woman, and to be a good woman is the greatest thing on earth.'” (289)

The author's love of nature is evident the Limberlost books, but the roots of it are especially clear in passages such as these:

“It would take a whole book to describe the butterflies[Gene Stratton-Porter did write a book on moths: Moths of the Limberlost]; once in a while you scared up a big, wonderful moth, large as a sparrow; and the orchard was alive with doves, thrushes, catbirds, bluebirds, vireos, and orioles. When you climbed the fence, or a tree, and kept quiet, and heard the music and studied the pictures, it made you feel as if you had to put it into words.” (61)

“I was just wishing it was summer so I could steal out to the cemetery, and have a good visit with the butterflies and always swarmed around Georgiana Jane Witcomb's grave at the corner of the church. I never knew Georgiana Jane, but her people must have been very fond of her, for her grave was scarlet with geraniums, and pink with roses from earliest spring until frost, and the bright colours attracted swarms of butterflies. I had learned that if I stuck a few blossoms in my hair, rubbed some sweet smelling ones over my hands, and knelt and kept so quiet that I fitted into the landscape, the butterflies would think me a flower too, and alight on my hair, dress, and my hands, even. God never made anything more beautiful than those butterflies, with their wings of brightly painted velvet down, their bright eyes, their curious antennae, and their queer tickly feet.” (229)

This love of nature contributes to her reluctance to go to school, so the young philosopher offers some suggestions for improvement:
“Schoolhouses are made wrong. If they must be, they should be built in a woods pasture beside a stream, where you could wade, swim, and be comfortable in summer, and slide and skate in winter. The windows should be cut to the floor, and stand wide open, so the birds and butterflies could pass through. You ought to learn your geography by climbing a hill, walking through a valley, wading creeks, making islands in them, and promontories, capes, and peninsulas along the bank. You should do your arithmetic sitting under trees adding hickorynuts, subtracting walnuts, multiplying butternuts, and dividing hazelnuts. You could use apples for fractions, and tin cups for liquid measure. You could spell everything in sight and this would teach you the words that are really used in the world.” (267)

I see shades of Charlotte Mason in that last quotation, though I don't know if Gene Stratton-Porter ever read Charlotte Mason. This is one ideal that I'm afraid I can't fully embrace - between allergies, bugs (ticks, ewww!), and heat our outdoor educational experiences are somewhat stifled. But I do hope to do a few more outside activities and take advantage of the trails at some of the great nature preserves in our area.

Idealism aside, however, Laddie is simply a great example of historical fiction from the early 20th century! It has mystery, romance, wisdom, engaging characters, and even a few bad guys. I heartily recommend it for your next historical fiction selection.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)Short and (bitter)sweet - that was one impression that The Old Man And The Sea left with me. It was a simple and poignant story of an old Cuban fisherman's determination to outsmart a massive marlin after eighty-four days with no catch. As he rows far out to sea and waits for something to take his line, waits for the great fish to tire and come to the surface, makes the kill and heads for home only to have his catch eaten by sharks, the reader realizes that the life and thoughts of the old fisherman are as profound as they are simple.

I do not remember reading Hemingway before, although I'm sure I must have read excerpts in literature courses. Some have said that his stories are rather dark, but this one wasn't, really. From one perspective it could be viewed as a hopeless, fatalistic tale - an old man almost kills himself to catch a fish that he never brings to shore - but on the other hand, it is a story of perseverance, of doing one's work well in spite of the difficulties and impossibilities of the task. It is also a story of loyalty, for the young boy who used to work with the old man loves and cares for him still. So while the circumstances are sad, they are not hopeless, as you can read in the excerpts below: 

"'Thank you,' the old man said. He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride." (13-14)

"He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. The spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought." (29-30)

"He had no mysticism about turtles although he had gone in turtle boats for many years. He was sorry for them all, even the great trunk backs that were as long as the skiff and weighed a ton. Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feat and hands are like theirs." (37)

"When once, through my treachery, it had been necessary to [the marlin] to make a choice, the old man thought. His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us." (50)

"...he thought much and he kept on thinking about sin. You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love hi, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?
'You think too much, old man,' he said aloud.
But you enjoyed killing the dentuso [a shark who had attacked the dead marlin strapped to the boat], he thought. He lives on the live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything.
'I killed him in self-defense,' the old man said aloud. 'And I killed him well.'
Besides, he thought, everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive. The boy keeps me alive, he thought. I must not deceive myself too much." (105-106)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Read Aloud Thursday: A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the WordOccasionally, Amazon makes an interesting "you might also like" suggestion and I find a good book that I might have otherwise overlooked. Such is the case with A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home, a recently published children's book that is richly illustrated and a good choice for a read-aloud with a creative twist on history.
A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home
Let me elaborate on the richly illustrated part... The illustrations are all black and white pencil drawings, but there is hardly a page without a picture, and there are many full, two-page illustrations without text, too. This obviously helps to keep the little ones engaged and interested in the story, and it also makes the chapters read quickly, too. The illustrations are lifelike, but just whimsical enough for a talking animal story. Here are a couple of examples:

We thought he story itself to be a little slow-moving to begin with - my children did not start begging me to read just one more chapter until we were about halfway through. But once the characters and the plot are established it moves along well. Celeste is a field mouse who has taken up residence under the floorboards of a Southern plantation. She has the unusual skill of weaving baskets from dried grasses, and she uses her baskets to gather crumbs and other tidbits from the dining room. After a dangerous encounter with the cat, Celeste clambers upstairs and takes refuge in a boot. That boot belongs to Joseph, a boy who is assisting John James Audubon in painting the birds of Louisiana during the summer and fall of 1821. A frightened Celeste is eventually won over by Joseph's kindness (and peanuts) and becomes his little friend. She in turn befriends several birds who are captured as specimens for Audubon's drawings. Celeste learns that friendship has its risks - both in acts of kindness and in saying goodbye - but its value is priceless.

An epilogue explains the historical events and persons who form the framework for the story, and I was pleased with the historical accuracy of the people and places. Of course, history from a mouse's perspective always has a bit of poetic license, but if mice and birds could communicate with each other and deliberately plan their lives, this is likely how it could have happened.

Some of the descriptions of hunting and Audubon's typical practice of killing, posing, and mounting the birds that he paints (a fate from which Celeste saves her bird friends) could be a little traumatic for young children, so parents might want to read ahead to see if some sections should be paraphrased for sensitive ears. I was also a little disappointed that there wasn't more interplay between Celeste's basket weaving and the artistic endeavors of Audubon and Joseph, but the author seems to have chosen a more realistic portrayal of the human interactions with animals, while only the animals do unusual things like talking to one another and reasoning. Overall, however, it was a creative story with a little bit of history and adventure and a satisfying, if slightly bittersweet ending. At any rate, it earned the approval of my daughter, age 6, who saw the image as I was writing this post and exclaimed, "Can we order it again? I love it!"