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Exploring great authors, writing, and ideas on a voyage through classic literature - spoiler free!








Top Ten Classic Friendships

Haven't participated in Top Ten Tuesday in a while, but I'm excited for this week's topic: top ten platonic relationships from books.  Families, friends, and mentors - classic literature is chock-full of great examples!

  1. Davey Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart from Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson) - I have to reread this book every so often.  I just love the complex dynamic between two friends who have such different backgrounds, views, and goals.
  2. Gandalf and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien) - Another duo who don't get along too well at the beginning - Gandalf, the no-nonsense wizard, and Pippin, who is just a bit clueless.  Nonetheless, when push comes to shove, they're on each other's side and find common understanding.
  3. Mudpuddle, Jill, and Eustace from The Silver Chair (C. S. Lewis) - Probably my favorite group of characters from the whole Narnia series!  I admir how they're all three loyal to each other and their quest.  Maybe less realistic than some of the other Narnia portrayals (e.g. Digory and Polly, whom I also love), but still great.
  4. Dorothy and Scarecrow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) - Childhood favorite.
  5. Holmes and Watson from the Sherlock Holmes series (A. C. Doyle) - One of the most unlikely friendships in literature, and also long-lasting!
  6. Onegin and Lensky from Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin) - There's a lot you can learn from the rise and fall of this friendship.  Even so, I don't think I'll ever fully understand what happened.
  7. Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy from Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - Enough said.  :) 
  8. Orual and Psyche from Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - Another great portrayal of sisters. 
  9. Jim Hawkins and Dr. Livesey from Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - More of a father-son relationship, this friendship is tested by events and other characters in a really interesting way.
  10. Pip and Joe from Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) - In some ways this is a father-son relationship "gone wrong," but at the same time, it's incredibly compelling and realistic.  Quite a tearjerker.
Well, that's my ten.  Who did I miss?!

Nature Walk + Thoughts for the Week

Well, it's finally come - the end of a long, much needed, and memorable weekend.

Today my family and I went for a walk at a local bird reserve.  We've been going here for over a decade; it's like visiting an old friend now.  Autumn is the best time to see it, though already a lot of the maples have lost their leaves.




After a short detour through the woods, the trail opens up to the tidal flats, home to plenty of sea gulls, mallards, and Canadian geese.  I've always thought this looks like something out of Middle Earth.




Though a cold day, it was a great way to unwind and mentally "reset" before the coming week.

Speaking of which, work has been pretty exhausting, and I'm trying very hard to stay positive.  Rapid changes and new responsibilities are the challenges right now.  I hope things will get easier by January.

To offset the stress, I've been alternating between several books:
  • The Concept of Anxiety - Kierkegaard, aforementioned
  • Open Letters - Václav Havel
  • Manalive - G. K. Chesterton.  (So far disappointing, to be honest.)
If you've never read Havel, I suggest dropping everything (as soon as is convenient) and reading "The Power of the Powerless" which you can find online.  Though a political piece, it can be read apolitically as well.  It is a call to "live within the truth" - as profound as it is simple, and as terrifying as it is essential.  I have started reading some of his other work in Open Letters and finding it just as excellent, so far.

Kierkegaard I shall soon finish; only about 26 pages to go.  It is tough to read, because in The Concept of Anxiety he is replying to a myriad of other philosophers (e.g. Hegel) and I am lost most of the time.  It seems like a book I'll want to reread in the future.

I have found one quote I like very much.  It's reminiscent of Myshkin's "even in prison" quote from The Idiot, although a little less fanciful:
But life is rich enough if one only knows how to see.  There is no need to travel to Paris and London - and it does not help if one cannot see.
It's something I believe in wholeheartedly. 

Reading, watching, and writing updates

Reading
Something not immediately evident from this blog is that I'm a recent "fan" (for lack of a more precise word) of Soren Kierkegaard's writings.  His book Works of Love changed my life in 2016, but being so profound in topic, it was not a book I felt comfortable writing a review on.  I did review Fear and Trembling, though once again, not delving too deeply as I felt myself inadequate of completely analyzing it. 

I approach philosophy as outsider, not from the "ground up," so many cross-references are a bit lost on me.  However, there's something addictive about Kierkegaard in particular that makes the struggle worthwhile.  It's like listening to the ramblings of a friend who would be incredibly obnoxious if he weren't so incredibly brilliant, even obviously to outsiders like me.   


The Concept of Anxiety has sat on my bookshelf for a while.  Right now I'm going through a great deal of anxiety (though not the worst I've ever experienced, by any means), and it just seemed like the time to read it. 

I can tell you right now I will not be reviewing this book, because once again, it is a bit over my head.  Actually, this is the toughest book of his I've read.  I don't know if it's the translator or the material itself, but it makes Works of Love and Fear and Trembling seem simplistic by comparison. 

Anyways, as far as I can discern, Kierkegaard's theme here is multi-layered, but one motif that stands out to me is the idea that anxiety preceded original sin. Maybe "uncertainty" would be a better word for this context.  Really what he's suggesting is that Adam experienced "the anxious possibility of being able [to sin]" (p. 54) before he ever actually committed sin.  This is equated to freedom or free will.

And that is the simplest takeaway I can offer from this book, thus far.  (I'm over halfway.)

Watching
The other day, I rewatched Horatio Hornblower: Duty (2003), finishing out my campaign to introduce the series to my brother. 


I'd remembered this as my least favorite episode of the eight-episode series, which follows the early career of a Royal Navy officer in the Napoleonic Wars.  Rewatching it much later, I realized it's not a weak film per se, simply misplaced as the final episode in the series (its being the final episode is clearly unplanned, if the screenplay is any indication). 

The trouble with Duty is that it shows all the faults of a protagonist we've come to admire, with minimal distraction to offset the painful human interactions.  Hornblower has never been particularly deft at "soft skills," but here he's rather abysmal for nearly the whole ninety minutes, whether he's (mis)communicating with Maria, his loyal wife, or managing his unwanted political passengers.

On the other hand, if this had merely been the middle episode of a longer series, I think its focus on Hornblower's faults would be seen as the middle of a character arc, as opposed to somewhat of a letdown.  In fact, trying to forget it was the ending to the series, I could actually appreciate the human drama. 

In other news - I'll be picking up the extended editions of The Hobbit from the library today.  Haven't seen them yet, so looking forward to binge-watching them over the weekend (or maybe next weekend).

Writing
By NaNoWriMo standards, I'm quite a bit behind, but my goal is not to reach 50k this year, just to finish my novel.


The trouble I'm having now is that I just finished a major scene but had forgotten I had an outline for it (sigh).  So I either need to rewrite/extend the scene or try to move on without those additional plot twists.

My gut feeling is to move on because I'm starting to get novel fatigue - I have been working on this for three years, so at this point it might be wise to get right to the ending and fill in details later.

Pe Ell's Polish Pioneers

Wigilia potrawy 554
Traditional setting of the Christmas Eve table in Poland
by Przykuta [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

What was life like for the Polish immigrants in Pe Ell, Washington, one hundred years ago? As told in the words of their descendants today, this book preserves their experiences; their joys, their sorrows, and their struggles to make a better life for themselves and their families as they assimilated into a new country and became Americans.

I stumbled across this book at the thrift store this past summer: Pe Ell's Polish Pioneers by Leo E. Kowalski.  It seemed really obscure but I decided to give it a try.  Lately I've been hankering to learn more about local history, beyond Lewis & Clark and Captain Cook (though their stories still excite me), and I've been interested in Polish history since encountering pieces of it in college courses.  The lesser known episodes of history are my favorite, so I thought I might like this one, which takes place in Pe Ell, WA, just two counties south of Seattle.

The story begins with an overview of Poland, ca. 1900.  The once-powerful Kingdom of Poland had, in the late 18th century, undergone partitioning by surrounding powers.  This resulted in a loss of sovereignty through the 19th century, with Russian, Austrian, and Prussian divisions left as the remainder.  Poland had once created a constitution - short-lived, but considered to be the first of its kind in Europe - so self-determination was already in the national consciousness even under the rule of Russia and Prussia.  While poverty was a factor in some of the Poles leaving in the 19th century, avoiding Russian or Prussian conscription was also a big motivator for single young men.

Kowalski is a genealogist, not a historian, and perhaps for this reason, the book is written in a very anecdotal and non-linear style, following families and themes more than a strict chronology.  Roughly speaking, it covers the arrival of Polish immigrants in the Pe Ell area in the mid-1870s up through the dwindling township of the post-WWII era.  Using anecdotes shared by other Polish-American descendants as well as his own family stories, Kowalski shows how the pioneers arrived at what was essentially a wilderness and transformed it into a community with a strong Polish character, infused with American culture and interactions with other immigrant groups.

It is hard to rate a book of this nature, so by comparison to similar books I've read, I gave it a 3.  Much of the book talks about logging, which was central to the Pe Ell economy and provided jobs to many of the men.  Perhaps this would be more interesting to non-Washingtonians, but for those of us who grow up with the knowledge in other books, it's not as engaging.  My favorite section was the chapter called "Life in Pe Ell" where we get a glimpse of everyday life for the non-loggers - mainly dawn-to-dusk farming and gardening, interspersed with festive weddings where alcohol, fiddling, and dancing covered multiple days of celebration.

The hard life these people led, quintessential to the pioneer narrative, was not lost on me, either.  What you have to surmise, reading between the lines, was that life in Poland must have been much worse, for these people to come here and embrace American life.  They were not always treated right by their non-Polish neighbors, and through the dangers of logging and farming, they experienced risk of death or injury on a daily basis.  At the same time, they took ownership of their citizenship, their land, and their town, helping each other and contributing to the community.  It's really motivating to read what they accomplished with so much less (at least, materially and technologically) than we have now.

This book was published in 2007 and makes reference to the Holy Cross Church, which had been built by members of Polish National Catholic Church.  It turns out that the church, like many others, was taken down in 2010 due to its age and apparently no funding to preserve it.  It's too bad... it was one of the last structures from this book left standing at the time.  I don't recall ever visiting Pe Ell and would have liked to have seen the church.

Lord of the Flies Revisited

William Golding 1983
William Golding - [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl],
via Wikimedia Commons
However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.
Earlier this year, I considered the question "What Is a Classic?", in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast.  With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as "the culture" in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.

If you're still with me... I didn't really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics.  If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my "axes" or favorites, though there'd likely be some overlap.  I guess that's because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones.  Anyways, more on that later.

I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think.  I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens.  That's not to say I wasn't disturbed by Lord of the Flies.  But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn't itching to pick it up again until very recently.

For those who don't know the premise: A massive war - either WWII or its successor - is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean.  It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world.  To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.

In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick "Piggy," and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys.  What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power.  At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy - known as the Beast - further divide the survivors.

Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from.  What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning.  Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you're not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.

In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit "off-screen" death of the pilot.  In chapter two, "Piggy" is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys - and the cause of their disappearance - is a tragedy just alluded to.  In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself.  This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.

Golding's style is masterful in both its approach and its execution.  The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph's perspective.  While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we're also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph's experience.  That is why we are never told Piggy's real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head.  The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis.  We are "stuck" with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.

While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it's clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys.  The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to.  The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.

Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic.  The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can.  Certainly, I'll be looking for other books by him in the near future.

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