Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading with my Kids: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Source of book: I own a lovely hardback edition of this book.


The Wind in the Willows has long been one of my favorite books. Not one of my favorite childrens’ book, but one of my favorite books, period. I must admit, I really relished reading this with my kids for this month’s book at the Reading to Know Book Club.


My wife read this with our older kids some years back, but they were pretty young, and didn’t remember it that well. The boys probably weren’t old enough back then, so it was very new to them.


Kenneth Grahame was a man trapped in a life that he hated. After his mother died, his father abandoned him to be raised by relatives - although he apparently did have a pleasant childhood. He was on track to attend the university, but finances were lacking, and the relatives that did have money refused to step in. He got a job working at a bank in London. His heart was far from the city, though. In many ways, Grahame reminds me of my father-in-law, who never did embrace the life of a city lawyer, and is happiest when out in the wilderness, far from civilization.


A shy and reserved man, Grahame found an outlet in writing. Some early essays and stories were published in the 1890s, and he eventually gained some success, although not enough to completely support himself.


At age 40, Grahame married an “elderly” spinster (she was 38), a marriage which was disappointing to both of them. They had one child, and both poured their attention into him. Grahame told little Alistair a series of stories, which eventually became The Wind in the Willows.


In many ways, the book is quite obviously Grahame’s own escapist fantasy. He was too moral of a man to abandon his family like his father did. (After the book sold well, he was able to retire from the bank, and move to the country, thankfully.) Each of the characters represents a facet of his personality in a way. The irresponsible and spontaneous Mr. Toad that he wishes he could be. Mole, full of wonder, emotion, and loyalty. The carefree yet competent Water Rat. Eternal bachelor Badger. The book also is dominated by the two contrasting ideas which warred within Grahame’s own self: The lure of the open road and adventure, and the security and comfort of a well-beloved home.


Perhaps this is why I identified with this book as a child, young adult, and even now in my middle age. I am a bit of a homebody, but I also love the wilderness, the open road, and adventures. As long as I can come back to my home and my roots. I would also say that I identify with all of the characters except for Toad - although I love him as a character. I can have Badger’s prickly introversion, and I feel that sometimes I am called upon to be the one reliably responsible person. I am generally practical like Ratty; if you want to plan an excursion, you definitely want me to pack your picnic basket. But at heart, I think I am much like Mole. I prefer to be the second banana. I feel affection for home, and for friends and family. I am a romantic at heart.


The Wind in the Willows is prose, but only barely. It is about as poetic as writing can be without being actually poetry. It is so easy and pleasant to be caught up in the flow of the words and in the worlds that Grahame creates. I like reading aloud, and I think I am pretty good at it, even though my tongue is not the most nimble when I get going fast. However, it is very rare for me to feel like the world has disappeared and that all that I can hear is the words and sounds as they rush past in a tumult of beauty. (At least while reading prose to my kids. Reading poetry aloud, even if I am the only one listening, is a transcendent experience more often than not. Much like music as I experience it.) I found myself forgetting that I had listeners while we read this book. Like other masterpieces for young readers, it improves as one gets older.


Fortunately, my kids loved this book as well. They got the humor, and quickly picked up the word “conceited,” which is the only way to refer to Toad.


One of the parts they liked the best was the description of the picnic basket.


`What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.


  `There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscress-
san dwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater -- -- '


  `O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: `This is too much!'


It was fun to run all the words together, but even better for my older three when they tried to read the long word themselves.


We also enjoyed the saga of the doormat. Mole and Rat have become lost in the Wild Wood during a snowstorm, and are trying to either find their way out, or find shelter. After discovering a door scraper, they poke around some more.


After some further toil his efforts were rewarded, and a very shabby door-mat lay exposed to view.


  `There, what did I tell you?' exclaimed the Rat in great triumph.


  `Absolutely nothing whatever,' replied the Mole, with perfect truthfulness. `Well now,' he went on, `you seem to have found another piece of domestic litter, done for and thrown away, and I suppose you're perfectly happy. Better go ahead and dance your jig round that if you've got to, and get it over, and then perhaps we can go on and not waste any more time over rubbish-heaps. Can we eat a doormat? or sleep under a door-mat? Or sit on a door-mat and sledge home over the snow on it, you exasperating rodent?'


  `Do -- you -- mean -- to -- say,' cried the excited Rat, `that this door-mat doesn't tell you anything?'


  `Really, Rat,' said the Mole, quite pettishly, `I think we'd had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a door-mat telling anyone anything? They simply don't do it. They are not that sort at all. Door-mats know their place.'


If you can read this without laughing, you have a hard, cold heart indeed.


I also should note (since I am, after all, a lawyer) the farcical courtroom scene.


`To my mind,' observed the Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates cheerfully, `the only difficulty that presents itself in this otherwise very clear case is, how we can possibly make it sufficiently hot for the incorrigible rogue and hardened ruffian whom we see cowering in the dock before us. Let me see: he has been found guilty, on the clearest evidence, first, of stealing a valuable motor-car; secondly, of driving to the public danger; and, thirdly, of gross impertinence to the rural police. Mr. Clerk, will you tell us, please, what is the very stiffest penalty we can impose for each of these offences? Without, of course, giving the prisoner the benefit of any doubt, because there isn't any.'
  The Clerk scratched his nose with his pen. `Some people would consider,' he observed, `that stealing the motor-car was the worst offence; and so it is. But cheeking the police undoubtedly carries the severest penalty; and so it ought. Supposing you were to say twelve months for the theft, which is mild; and three years for the furious driving, which is lenient; and fifteen years for the cheek, which was pretty bad sort of cheek, judging by what we've heard from the witness-box, even if you only believe one-tenth part of what you heard, and I never believe more myself -- those figures, if added together correctly, tot up to nineteen years -- -- '
  `First-rate!' said the Chairman.
  ` -- So you had better make it a round twenty years and be on the safe side,' concluded the Clerk.
  `An excellent suggestion!' said the Chairman approvingly. `Prisoner! Pull yourself together and try and stand up straight. It's going to be twenty years for you this time. And mind, if you appear before us again, upon any charge whatever, we shall have to deal with you very seriously!'


Anyone who has seriously contemplated the Federal sentencing guidelines (or just about any corresponding state guidelines) knows that sometimes the penalties seem as silly as the ones described here. And as calculated to punish non-cooperation with authority figures as to prevent actual crime.


However, in Grahame’s fantasy world, foibles are forgiven, and sentences are hardly carried out with severity. Toad gets his comeuppance, and may even reform by the end of the book, but he is still shown love. He is forced to make restitution, of course, but his life isn’t ended by his past mistakes. And we all suspect, deep in our heart of hearts, that Toad will be off on another ludicrous lark before too much longer.


Sadly, Grahame’s life would never experience that happy ending. Alistair was found dead on a train track in what was almost certainly a suicide, although the authorities ruled it an accident to avoid embarrassing the family. Sadly for us, The Wind in the Willows would prove to be Grahame’s last significant work. Thus, this sunny and idyllic work has a slightly bitter tinge in light of its history.


I should specifically mention a few chapters which made a huge impression on me when I was young. Chapter VII, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is one of those rare passages which capture the unworldly feeling one gets in nature sometimes. (I can think of a few: Standing in Richardson Grove in the California Redwoods as a child, with the sunbeams coming down through the lingering fog; watching an approaching thunderstorm in Arizona and then having the lightning all around; standing at the top of Yellowstone falls and feeling the roar in my very feet; viewing the high sierra peaks from the top of Half Dome; the murky half-darkness at 100 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, watching 600 pound sea bass swim by. I could go on.) Grahame captures this wonder, and when the demi-god Pan makes his appearance, it comes as no surprise to those of us who have experienced the feeling. The myth comes from the feeling and describes it.


Second, Chapter IX, “Wayfarers All,” is an amazing musing on the power of the escapist fantasy. Even Ratty, who is so sensible most of the time, is nearly carried away. I know the feeling, and yet am glad that I too have a Mole inside of me that brings me back to reality and that grounding that I know I need.


So really, if you have never read this book, you need to. If you haven’t read it since you were a child, I guarantee you missed some things. Go back and re-read!


Note on other media:  Most are probably familiar with this book through Disney’s old cartoon (which also included some of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.) That one that inspired Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. (One of my favorites as a kid. Even if Amanda and I did break down in hell when we went there while dating.) Disney took some pretty great liberties with the plot, and left out most of the great lines from the book. Not a bad movie, but don’t expect to know the book from the movie.


However, there was also another movie version, made by Cosgrove Hall in 1983, using stop motion. While slow paced and rather “British,” it is remarkably faithful to the book, and charming in its detail. You can also see it online:




Saturday, July 20, 2013

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This book is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in rural Worcestershire, England. It is the story of Jason Taylor, a thirteen-year-old, during that year of his life. Although it is a novel, each of the chapters could stand alone as a short story. They are related, and there is an arc to the narrative, but each individual event is separate, and the mood and vision of each chapter is different. Black Swan Green is the fictitious village Jason calls home. It does not have swans, one of several ironies in the title.


Jason is a kid who fits into the middle category. Not popular by a long shot, but not so low as to be picked on, he is terrified that his secret stutter will come out. It does, of course, and he undergoes some pretty awful bullying. It is easy to forget that in the early 1980s (the setting of this book), bullying wasn’t really on the radar, so to speak. It happened, but little to nothing was done to stop it. Eventually, Jason has enough and takes some dramatic action, both for good and ill, but the resolution is a bit ambiguous, and Jason himself is increasing ambivalent as he grows up, while his parents’ marriage crumbles.


It took a little while to acclimate myself to all of the slang. Not that I was good at interpreting the language of my peers at that time, but all the Britishisms were as unfamiliar as “fresh” is to my kids. Also interesting were the colloquialisms - the odd contractions of spoken language set down in letters. Not exactly a dialect, because the sounds were familiar, but the way they were emphasised was different.


One that stood out particularly were “bog,” meaning toilet. Thus, “bog paper” was mentioned, and so forth. The other was the mention of “squash,” not meaning the vegetable (that would be “vegetable marrow”) but a drink made with citrus and herbs and sparkling water. I’ve never had it, but it is apparently quite different from either soda or punch.


There are also numerous references from pop culture of the times, from clothing to politics. (Margaret Thatcher is ever present.) However, music is constantly mentioned. The kids get it right, but the adults? Not so much. There is a chapter devoted to an awkward visit from Jason’s uncle, aunt, and cousins that is painful, but marvelously written. (Anyone who has a slightly racist and sexist relative who says offensive stuff would recognize this visit.) During the course of a conversation between Jason’s mother and her sister, the following exchange occurs.


“She [Jason’s older sister Julia] can be rather...opinionated.”
“At least it’s CND and Amnesty International she’s opinionated about, Helena, and not Meaty Loaf or the Deaf Leopards.”


One of the best (and worst) things about this book is that it captures the schoolyard politics of middle school far too well. The constant, casual cruelty is pretty bad, and Jason is continually at risk for being called “gay” for being a little less hard and cruel than many others. (He wants to say something is beautiful, but that would be, well, “gay.” And even then, he tends to be afraid of hanging with his natural friends because they are lower on the social scale than he thinks he is.


He writes poetry, but under a pseudonym. In one chapter, his secret is discovered by this odd German lady, who attempts to broaden his horizons (including introducing him to modern classical music), before she is suddenly deported after her husband gets caught in financial shenanigans. He is both thrilled and terrified by her interest in his literary attempts.


If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”


This chapter is a bright spot in the book, one of the rare times that Jason is able to shake the fear and shame. He also has a loyal and admirable friend in Dean Moran (nicknamed “Moron,” for those of you who didn’t already see that one coming), who is better able than Jason to care less about the opinions of others, and yet stay out of trouble.


In that respect, this book is unvarnished. Mitchell refuses to soften or romanticise stuff. Bad things happen. Jason is as weak and terrified as most of us were at that age. The world is too big for him to take on, and he knows it. He aims to survive somehow, despite the lack of support or understanding from his parents, who are too preoccupied with their own problems.


At one point, Jason’s dad says, “Wish I could be thirteen again.”


Then, I thought, you’ve obviously forgotten what it’s like.”


I have thought many times that I might be bribed to repeat high school. It would take a lot of cash, but I would do it. I can’t think of a sum high enough to be worth repeating junior high. Nope, I don’t ever want to be thirteen again.


Jason isn’t imagining the cruelty, and he does become a particular target of the worst group in the bunch for a while. (One of the great lines: “Human beings need to watch out for reasonless niceness too. It’s never never reasonless, and its reason’s usually not nice.”)


Mitchell makes it easy to understand Jason’s frustration with life and with the ongoing family drama that makes him feel like even more of an outsider at home than at school. His parents can’t get their heads out of their own problems enough to notice Jason’s pain. His older sister will leave for college, and she has a boyfriend to distract her, but Jason has functioned as a buffer, and he isn’t good enough at it to save the damaged marriage. Indeed, at the end of the book, he is as far away from his parents emotionally as ever, but he is growing up, and learning to control what he can.


This book was a worthwhile read, but it is frank about many things, including language, death, and sex. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were plenty of “colorful metaphors,” to use Spock’s term. Nothing in this book is more shocking than what I personally heard, but it is there without any sugar coating. Likewise, a young man is killed in the Falklands incident, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend. All of this fits with the purpose of the book, and is more frank than gratuitous.


I would put this book in the category of books that I am glad I read, but would not devote precious shelf space in my own library.


One final quote, which I think is devastating in context (a fight between Jason’s parents, which leads to a mug thrown at a heron), but also broadly applicable:


Me, I wanted to kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right.


I’ve written before on this general theme, so I’ll just leave it at that.


Note on music:


I didn’t listen to much of anything from my own generation’s music when I was a kid. By choice, I listened to classical music - still one of my great loves. My parents got caught up in the trendy Evangelical horror of “rock” music. Thus, I really didn’t discover this era of music until my 30s. There was a brief period in the early 90s, however, when I heard a few memorable songs. In Black Swan Green, Duran Duran makes an appearance. I was too young to have heard “Planet Earth,” but I definitely remember “Ordinary World,” which I still thing is a beautiful song. (Also, the video was filmed at the Huntington Library and Gardens, which I mentioned in connection with railroad magnate Collis Huntington.)


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Source of book: I own the complete Shakespeare

What does it mean to be a true leader? How does one survive as a politician in turbulent times? Can’t we just hate the French and the Italians? Richard the Second manages to discover all of the wrong answers to these questions. Even the one about the French.

Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s histories, and part of a set of four which tell the tale of the English nation before the War of the Roses. Oddly, Richard II seems to be the forgotten member of the series, despite its many memorable lines and thoughtful political commentary. Richard’s throne is, of course, usurped by Henry of Bolingbroke, later known as Henry IV. Although the next play in the series is Henry IV, Part 1, it is really more the story of Prince Harry and Falstaff, that unforgettable duo. In fact, those two were so popular that Shakespeare wrote Part 2 as a thinly veiled ruse to milk some more box office out of his stars. Perhaps one of the very first sequels. The final installment was Henry V, which is rightfully popular. The dissolute Harry has grown up, and becomes the ideal warrior-king of mythology, dealing the hated Frenchmen a decisive defeat.

But what of the time before? Richard II was the grandson of Edward III, and the son of Edward the Black Prince. He came to the throne as a child, and had barely thrown off the domination of his uncles when the play opens. As usual for this period, there is political foment, and nobody’s head is truly safe. 

Richard II. Portrait c. 1390, in Westminster Abbey


Henry Bolingbroke (who is also Richard’s cousin) has picked a fight with Mobray over responsibility for the death of another of Richard’s uncles. Richard fails to take decisive action, allowing the two to set a date for a duel. Then, at the last minute, he calls it off in dramatic fashion, and exiles both of the contestants. Soon afterward, he decides to go to Ireland to try to subdue the rebels there. (I could spend days discussing the politics of all this. It really is fascinating.) He needs money - a problem that has plagued kings since the dawn of time. He sees an opportunity in the fact that his uncle John of Gaunt, also Bolingbroke’s father, has recently died. Gaunt is the wealthiest man in England, and Bolingbroke is exiled. Those estates are tempting to Richard, and he seizes them, despite a lack of a legal right to do so. This understandably irritates the other barons, as they can see targets on their own possessions now.

Bolingbroke returns to England while Richard is off in Ireland, and wins the loyalty of many of the aristocracy. Richard timidly delays his return to England, which leads to the disbursement of his army. He is forced to surrender to Bolingbroke, eventually abdicates the throne, and is whacked. So much for the plot. (Since the actual history occurred, it hardly seems like a spoiler to reveal the ending.)

As in the other histories, Shakespeare does alter the historical facts. In general, he compresses time, so that the events of a year or two occur in a short space, in order to make the events more dramatic. To this end, he also alters the relative ages of characters to suit the needs of the play. (For example, the queen in Richard II is understandably portrayed as a grown woman. In reality, she was a mere ten years old: she was married to Richard at the ripe age of seven.) These all make dramatic sense. His other alterations reflected political concerns. In general, he made the ancestors of the present rulers look better and their enemies look worse. Thus, Henry IV, the direct ancestor of Elizabeth I, must be made to look noble, while Richard must incite boos from the gallery.

Richard II contains some marvelously memorable lines. I think it is a shame that it seems to be infrequently performed.

The dispute which starts the whole thing off is, of course, political at its root. However, a strong factor is the concept of honor. A man in those days could not simply let an accusation roll off his back. He must defend that honor by bloodshed.

King Richard II. Rage must be withstood:
Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame.

Thomas Mowbray. Yea, but not change his spots: take but my shame.
And I resign my gage. My dear dear lord,
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation: that away,
Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.
A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest
Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.
Mine honour is my life; both grow in one:
Take honour from me, and my life is done:
Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try;
In that I live and for that will I die.

But, one must never forget the political considerations. This was not yet the days of Charles I and the “Divine Right of Kings.” A king must maintain a certain popularity with the nobility, lest they use their superior power to oppose him. He must not alienate the Church. And, since the nobles were largely on the other side, a king must maintain a combination of awe and love from the common people, who, after all, would be the actual foot soldiers in a war. Thus, as Bolingbroke plots his takeover, he must make enough friends in all of these classes to support his rule, or he will be likely to topple himself in turn.

King Richard II. He is our cousin, cousin; but 'tis doubt,
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With 'Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends;'
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope.

Shakespeare is playing to his audience, of course. A combination of the aristocracy and the commons attended his plays, and he, like a king, needed to satisfy everyone if he wanted to make a profit.

Another great speech is that of the dying John of Gaunt, as he hopes to persuade Richard to take a less imperious course.

John of Gaunt. Will the king come, that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?

Edmund of Langley. Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;
For all in vain comes counsel to his ear.

John of Gaunt. O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen'd more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
Though Richard my life's counsel would not hear,
My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.

Gaunt goes on to wax eloquent about England. This is probably the best known quote from the play, and it is a good one.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

[Ignore for the moment the bit of anti-Semitism and the usual belief of the old and dying that the young folks have destroyed the country. It’s still beautiful.]

Gaunt is not the only one to appeal to the idea of England. Richard too invokes the land itself as his ally in his fight for his throne.

King Richard II. Needs must I like it well: I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs:
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands.
Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense;
But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom,
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet
Which with usurping steps do trample thee:
Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies;
And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.
Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords:
This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms.

Ultimately, Richard is a tragic hero. His fatal flaw is his lack of true ability to lead. At first, he throws his authority around, heedless of the consequences, believing himself to be untouchable. Later, when he might still preserve his crown by decisive action, he delays, and feels sorry for himself. His moanings are delightfully poetic, but they are more suited to a powerless poet or prisoner, not the rightful king of England. The times call for him to rise above petty selfishness and become something greater than a mere self, and he is unable to do so. Thus, he fails, and England embarks on a journey that will ultimately lead to the assent of Parliament to the leadership of the nation. But not until centuries of bloodshed, infighting, and the religious and social upheaval of the Renaissance and the Reformation have changed the land forever.

One final note: There are many great resources that can aid in a deeper understanding of Shakespeare, and I have mentioned them before. Once again, I want to specifically mention Isaac Asimov’s brilliant Guide to Shakespeare. He clearly and wittily explains all of the historical and literary references, and ties things together wonderfully. I started with some traditional historical information sources, but ended up learning and understanding more from Asimov in the end. I highly recommend this book as a companion to the works of Shakespeare.