Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Scarlet Letter

It's always risky revisiting a book that one remembers from childhood or adolescence; it may live up to your memories, it may not, or you may realize that you completely missed the point as a young person.

Fortunately The Scarlet Letter and I both survived the test of the re-read. It's a wonderful book, and although I certainly didn't get the full depth of the book at 15 (or now, likely enough) neither was I entirely uncomprehending.

Interestingly, I think the version I read back then must have omitted the author's preface explaining his finding of the story-sparking manuscript, which is largely a personal polemic on the character-sapping influences of a safe government job. I found it pretty entertaining now, from the position of the envious but proud private sector.

Simultaneously, I was reading Games People Play, one of the iconic works popularizing psychology from the 1960s. There was certainly some overlap--you could certainly see Chillingsworth playing a game of Now I've Got You, You Son of a Bitch disguised as I'm Only Trying to Help You while Dimmesdale plays Kick Me. They both get what they want from the relationship. (Psychology from the 60s still sounds far more judgmental than modern works. It's fascinating to begin to feel the distance from an era that I am old enough to think of as not that long ago.)

Psychology is intriguing, but literature will always tell us more, because it shows people from the inside. Only through literature can we get to be Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth and maybe even little Pearl. On the whole, I liked Dimmesdale the least this time around, for his moral cowardice. But then, at least he turned it to kindness which is better than many in his situation do. It was really Pearl he wronged the most, and perhaps that is why Hawthorne shows her the most healed by his final confession.

Also reading: The Queen's Thief series, a re-read after I got Deux hooked on it. Just an absolutely fantastic series. And The Phoenix Guards, a fantasy swashbuckler. And The Genius of Birds, which is intriguing but will not tell me a question I have been wanting to know, whether anyone has found out if rabbits can do math. And I picked up Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope at the library booksale, and it promises very well indeed. Summer Reading Challenge at the library has started and I intend to at least get the 10-hour book bag, although the 100-hour t-shirt may be a bit ambitious for me.

Next on the classics challenge roll:  Crime and Punishment. Gulp. I'm almost as intimidated by that one as by the Aeneid, but here goes.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Laws and Customs

Washington, in the true populist tradition reflecting its heritage, has elected, non-partisan judges. At our recent Law Day celebration, the Supreme Court justice who spoke referred to it as a right we "would never surrender, and never exercise."

He was speaking more generally of the ignorance the voting public has of judicial candidates, but the quote was even truer than that, as is evidenced every time a judge retires. At least in our county, the judges never retire at a time that they could be replaced by an election. Thus, the governor must appoint a replacement.

There is an extensive vetting process through the governor's office, various attorney associations conduct panel discussions and make recommendations, and someone is chosen. None of the process is open to the public at large. At some point the new judge will have to run for re-election, but they will do so with the full weight of incumbency behind them. Since I have been practicing in the county, no one has upset a sitting judge or even run a serious campaign against one.

At the most recent judicial panel, someone raised the question of whether this practice was good or whether it thwarted the public participation that was intended to be part of the process. To my surprise, not a single candidate of four criticized it. They all spoke in favor of the current practices as weeding out unqualified candidates, as there is simply no way for the public to assess whether someone would be a good judge--the qualities that make for a good candidate are likely to be the opposite of those that would make for a good judge.

In the last round, the candidate that was chosen had already been serving as court commissioner for over a year. She'd been hired originally by the judges and the local bar had had ample chance to observe her in the courtroom and determine whether she reviewed her materials, kept up on the law, kept control of the courtroom, and rendered fair decisions. It was a good pick.

What is fascinating to me is how, in a time that is still strongly driven by the desire to rip out old inequities and replace customs with great systems of logic, yet customs grow up anyway. Logical systems are never quite enough to go on with.


The Fall of Arthur and other books

This was nice and short. I didn't realize that about two-thirds of the book was appendices and explanatory material which I do not feel obligated to read as they were not written in the twentieth century. I did enjoy the one explaining in a bit more detail the rules and history of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse that Tolkien employs. It's far more intricate than initially appears, and it creates a weighty style, all sharp edges and hard corners, that is excellent for epics and marvelously atmospheric.

Not on the list, but maybe I'll pretend it was if I don't get them all in, I read Phantastes by George MacDonald. I think I read it once as a teenager; it was well worth revisiting.

Completely not on the classics list, I'm reading The E*myth Enterprise in an effort to get my head around running the business side of the law practice, something that has become acutely necessary in the past few months. (I can make no sense of the title by the book, by the way, and it annoys me greatly and sounds very cheesy. Still, there are some good ideas in there.)

I'm thinking about ditching Swiss Family Robinson. We've completely gotten away from reading out loud, and I think the book is partly responsible. It's just too implausible and too preachy. Also, it's part of the literature assignments the kids either have or will get to at school, so I feel no urgency to read it. I'm not a quitter, but when a piece of the thing is blocking the whole thing from occurring, it's time to ditch the piece. I'm not sure what to choose next, though. Nothing has lived up to Lord of the Rings, unsurprisingly. I want to read The Sword in the Stone, but I'm thinking of doing a traditional Arthur telling first.

And for my next trick--I rolled a 9, so it will be The Scarlet Letter. I'm really looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Next Challenge

Time for a new book. I'm kind of behind if I'm going to finish all twelve this year, but my first two selections were long, so maybe I will pick up the pace.

And the next selection is:

2. The Fall of Arthur

Time for some more epic poetry. I think I'll find Tolkien more readable than Virgil, though.

In other undertakings, we are ssllllooowwwwllllyyyy reading through Swiss Family Robinson. The twins seem to be enjoying it, but even Dash asked, "Why does the father know how to do everything?" It seems to work best if we envision it as an RPG in which the players are all overpowered, the GM is far too indulgent, and everyone always rolls a 20.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter, Mistress of Husaby and The Cross

Alas, I finished it. Now I have to move back to reality. I didn't die of the black plague, though, so that's good.

And I find it impossible to sum up. So much life. 

The middle novel details the years of prosperity--Kristin, finding herself mistress of a large noble estate in near-ruins thanks to Erlend's ineptitude, rises to the occasion in between birthing seven sons. Erlend wanders in and out, making himself a decent name as a border governor. They fight and make up, have another baby, fight and make up again.

Undset is incredibly good at showing the tangle of feelings, of desire and resentment, of missed cues and muddled responsibilities of a struggling marriage. Kristin's steadiness that gives her the ability to rise to being mistress of a noble estate--CEO, doctor, brewer, farmer, head of charity and society woman all rolled into one--goes along with a steady resentment that Erlend cannot be more like her even steadier father (though of course she never could love the steady man her father picked out). Only by tossing aside reality can she enjoy a bit of peace with Erlend, and that never happens for long once she has the heritage of her sons to worry about.

After a particularly nasty argument, Erlend has a brief revenge affair, which ends even worse than expected--it turns out he's been leading a plan which, had it gone well, would have marked him down as a hero of his country, but thanks to his idiocy the plan is discovered and he is tried for treason. 

Always at their best in a crisis, Kristin and Erlend reconcile and thanks to the tireless labor of Simon, Kristin's former betrothed (and now brother-in-law), Erlend is freed, but at the cost of land and titles. The family retires to Kristin's childhood home, which is her own property.

In the final book is the fallout. The fragile reconciliation falls to pieces again. Life goes on until it doesn't any more.  At the end, one son takes over the farm, the others scatter to seek their fortune or the cloister, and the widowed Kristin enters a convent. 

I saw one review commenting on the centrality of motherhood to the book and that is a major theme--and as I first read the book over a decade ago, when I was still in the baby stage and now revisit it as my children are entering their teens, I feel it with her--the constant loss, the fears, the joys that are only remembered in retrospect and the pain that is better than joy--even more than the first time through. 

But another theme that comes through is the journey of the soul to God--that all the things of life, the worries, the triumphs, the joys and sorrows--are not the main thing that most people think, nor distractions as people trying to be devout think, but the way through which God himself shows himself to us. On her way to the convent, Kristin gets sidetracked by a crowd of little boys: "And when the moment came that she had longed for all through her journey, when she stood below the cross on Feginsbrekka and looked down on Nidaros, it came not so that she could collect her thoughts for prayer or meditation. All the bells of the town burst forth at that moment to ring to Vespers, and the boys all talked together, wanting to point out all that was before her--"

Or, to put my favorite song with my favorite book, 

"Every heart--every heart to love will come/But as a refugee."

Here is my review from 2006. I will read this book again. Maybe in 2030. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter, Book 1: The Bridal Wreath

I don't know if it's cheating or overachieving to smuggle in a trilogy as one selection in the Back to the Classics challenge, but I will do it for Kristin Lavransdatter. If I had a cabin and a pot of soup and Kristin Lavransdatter, then that would be the best vacation ever.

So it is hard with such a book to sum up or critique. I don't read Kristin Lavransdatter; I move temporarily to 14th-century Norway. All the people and the life are so real, shown without romanticism or grotesqueness. The people live in their own world, unastonished at their own life for all its strangeness to us, yet still as real and ordinary as anyone you might know.

The Bridal Wreath gives a bit of background on Kristin's family and then tells her growing up years, from early childhood to her wedding. Kristin's doting and devout father, Lavrans, is a well-respected knight and a skilled farm manager; her mother is dedicated but melancholy, weighed down by many infant losses and a dark secret. In due course Kristin's father arranges her a good marriage to Simon, a perfectly suitable but rather boring young man, but Kristin is not so sure. At Simon's suggestion, she spends a year at a convent school in the south to get a bit more worldliness. What she gets instead is an introduction to Erlend, a dashing, higher-ranking, and not all that young man who is, in more than just Lavrans' estimation, not good for much but seducing women.

Well, things go much as one would expect in any century. Or again, not, because no one here is a stock character. Even the minor characters, like the saintly Brother Edvin, or the enigmatic witch Lady Aashild, are very real. The actions of a 28 year old who seduces a naive 16-year-old girl out of a convent to a brothel are as despicable to the medieval Norwegians as they would be if it started in an online chat room today; yet Erlend does genuinely care for Kristin, after his own weak-willed fashion. And while Kristin learns to lie and sneak and is as utterly short-sighted in romance as a teenage girl can be, yet her devotion has its own greatness and beauty to it.

Two quotes from either end of the influences in Kristin's life:

Lady Aashild: "In this world they call him a fool who wastes his heritage that he may make merry in the days of his youth. As to that, each man may deem as he lists. But that man only do I call a fool and a very dolt who rues his bargain after it is made . . . "

Brother Edvin: "There is no man nor woman, Kristin, who does not love and fear God, but 'tis because our hearts are divided twixt love of God and fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in life and death. For if a man had not a yearning after God and God's being, he would thrive in hell, and 'twould be we alone who would not understand that there he had gotten what he desired."

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Next Selection

And now it's time for me to roll again, hoping for a selection a little easier to get through than the last . . .

First I rolled a 5. But that's Swiss Family Robinson, which is a family read aloud (and we've already started). At the rate we've been having read-alouds, it's going to take us all year to get through.

So a re-roll for a personal read, and it's a 4: Kristin Lavransdatter. Which may take me as long to get through as the Aeneid, but if memory serves me right it's a process I will enjoy far more.

The Aeneid

Well, I made it. And it took me the first two months of the year, but it was probably the toughest read for me. I'm not very quick with epic poetry. I keep getting lost and having to backtrack or give up on following entirely. Especially during the battle parts (which was basically the last six books) I was pretty much like Alice reading Jabberwocky, "Well, somebody killed something, that's certain."

I did get a bit of an aha about why ancient poetry is so dang tedious, though. Even though the Aeneid was written, it still takes its form from the oral tradition. And if you really wanted to remember an important war and all the important generals and battles, without writing it down, you'd want to turn it into poetry. Now that we have catalogs and history books we can skip all the lists and focus on the action, but if we didn't no doubt we'd still be recounting the Civil War in a similar fashion.

The parts with the gods and goddesses interfering were more interesting. Basically it all came down to a feud between Juno and Venus; Venus who apparently was Aeneas' mother by a mortal, and Juno who favored Carthage and thus had it in for the Romans before they could even become Romans. (In one scene Venus gets her immortal husband, Vulcan, to make Aeneas special armor. It never explains how Vulcan came to be so chill with the situation, but I suppose they'd had a few decades to work it out and maybe he figured that it was part of the price of being married to the goddess of love. On the other hand, you never see Juno acting so calmly about Jove's sidelines.)

Really the interference of the deities was depressing. If they decide you need to do something, or die conveniently, or turn on your nearest and dearest, then do it you will, whether they have to resort to persuasion, trickery, or brute force.

In other reading, I also re-read the entire Anne series while sick with the flu. It was strange to revisit after quite a while. I don't think I'd read it since the children were tiny. It was a little depressing to realize that after a lifetime of expecting I would grow up to be Anne as a mother with a house as well-ordered and supportive as Ingleside, the best I could hope to emulate was the Merediths, domestic chaos and nearly absent parents with the kids mysteriously turning out pretty OK anyway.

Read The Clockwork Boys (it's by Ursula Vernon, but her adult novel pen name which I can't remember off the top of my head) and was very annoyed to realize Bookworm had tricked me into reading the first book when the sequels weren't out read. Read The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and liked it once I got into it. Feel like I read some other fun fantasy, but can't remember what right now.

Oh, and I got a whole lot of graphic novels for the kids that were new to us, most of which I didn't read because I find graphic novels hard to follow, but I also realized that there are two sequels to Hereville out now, and was very very happy to read those.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

A Series of Unfortunate Events

We cleared the strep--actually Dash and I never got it, thanks be--just in time for a round of flu. This time I'm pretty sure Dash did get it, though he stoutly denied it. Still, when a 9 year old boy heads straight for the couch after school without even a sideways glance at Roblox, something is definitely up.

Deux had a really bad time of it and I didn't feel so well myself, especially since I had a contested hearing and a bar dinner the second day of it. (I did win, though. The flu seems to be lucky for me.) Then we had a much-needed weekend to be sick in, and the internet went out all weekend (for reasons entirely unrelated to the reason the internet had been going out at the office every day all month) and the washing machine broke and the dogs dug a new hole under the fence.

I never actually missed a day of work, but I was dragging pretty badly by the end of the week. So Friday morning DOB offered to get the kids to school--he had morning court--and let me sleep in a few hours. Sound in theory, but Duchess in a moment of exuberance knocked Dash's glasses and a lens fell out and then DOB, in an attempt to superglue it back in the frame, had superglued himself to the glasses. So I got up and got DOB unstuck so he could get to court. At this point the lens was in but so covered with superglue that it was useless for its intended purpose, so we took it out and I tried to put in the lens from his old, even more broken frames. I managed it without supergluing myself, but still got the lens hopelessly covered in glue.

After about an hour of applied nail polish remover, we finally had a functional if not very beautiful pair of glasses for Dash and I took him to school and gave up on the resting and went in to work.

We are mostly better now, although Dash is napping again. And a friend who came over to give an opinion on the dog fence issue has suggested an approach that will allow us to avoid buying more fencing and take advantage of something we do very well--grow eight-foot tall Himalayan blackberries with thorns like razors. If a few of these are relocated to the fence, it should be ample deterrent for digging and if a few of them take root (and they always take root) the solution should be self-perpetuating.

Sara Jones maintains that February is the evil month, but I am sincerely hoping that February can have a bit of mercy on us.