Thursday, July 21, 2016

Classics Club 29: The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki's slow-moving novel is set in Japan in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rather than highlighting  the political issues of the time it instead focuses on the lives of four sisters from a once affluent family whose fortunes are now somewhat in decline.

The main plot line focuses on efforts to find a husband for Yukiko, the second youngest sister but it also offers a broader insight into  the everyday lives of middle class Japanese women and their families of this time - everything from  firefly hunting expeditions, blossom viewing, dance recitals, letter writing  and household management. Through reading the novel I gained many insights into everyday Japanese life - the role of family in finding and vetting potential suitors, the fact that husbands might take their wives' surnames, family dynamics such as younger sisters not typically marrying until all their older sisters had husbands.

I found the youngest sister, Taeko, the most interesting - possibly because she was the most complex and also potentially the most flawed - certainly she suffers the most for her flaws in the novel. At the beginning I liked the way she seemed to seize control of her own life- developing a career and having relationships rather than just waiting until her sister married so a husband could then be found for her. As the novel progressed her decision making appeared less wise and her character less go-getting and more self-serving.

The Makioka Sisters has sometimes been referred to as Japan's version of Pride and Prejudice. While there are some superficial similarities (sisters seeking husbands) I feel the comparisons are overdone. There is no character akin to Mr Darcy and certainly no sparks between Yukiko and any of her potential suitors. Most of Taeko's relationships take place outside the pages of the novel so it is hard for the reader to judge them. Tanizaki matter-of-factly reveals many intimate details about the sisters - periods and detailed accounts of diarrhea during bouts of illness. Such details would never have featured in an Austen novel. Different time periods and different cultures.

The ending felt rather abrupt and unfinished.  While a husband does appear to have finally been found for Yukiko, the wedding has not yet occurred and she seems neither happy nor excited. In some ways this was unsatisfying but in other ways it fitted with the tone of the novel.

This novel is an addition to my original Classics Club list and is my pick for the "Classic by a Non-White Author" category in Books and Chocolate's Back to the Classics Challenge 2016. I confess to never having heard of the novel or the author before I went in search of something to read for this category. I'm so glad I discovered The Makioka Sisters though. Not only was it an enjoyable read but it introduced me to a culture I previously knew little about.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classics Club 28: Mrs Dalloway

In this novel by Virginia Wolf, we spend 24 hours with Clarissa Dalloway, a London lady, as she goes about her day, preparing for a dinner party.  At one level the novel reads like a series of somewhat connected, mainly everyday scenes and it can feel like there is too detailed a focus on relatively trivial things. Yet each  scene reveals more about the characters than is obvious on the surface.Rather than just focus on the externals - a trip to pick flowers - what was unusual about this novel was that most of it was based on  inner thoughts with plenty of flashbacks and was written in a stream of consciousness type style. This style highlights the difference between the inner and outer selves of the characters - and also of ourselves. On the outside Mrs Dalloway is serene and respectable, yet on the inside she is much more complex, battling mixed feelings about the return of an old beau, worried about aging, having difficulties with her daughter, feeling her identity has been subsumed by her husband and focusing on a kiss shared years earlier with a female friend  for whom she obviously still has more than platonic feelings.

While we focus mainly on Mrs Dalloway we also spend time with, and in the heads of, other characters, most memorably and shockingly Septimus Smith, a World War I soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mrs Dalloway was one of the first novels to highlight the difficulties faced by World War one veterans so is interesting to read for this reason alone.

Overall the novel is fairly bleak with its focus on lost potential whether that of Septimus, Peter Walsh (Mrs Dalloway's former beau who has not managed to achieve the great things he once dreamt of), or of course Mrs Dalloway herself . She used to be lively and vivacious but now seems somewhat dull and confined to mundane domestic matters. While it wasn't the most enjoyable read I am glad that I read Mrs Dalloway. It certainly gave me plenty to think about.

Mrs Dalloway was first published in 1925 and is my 20th century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Four Weeks Ending 17 July 2016

Long time, no blog - nearly an entire month in fact. Several reasons for this. The first is homeschooling teens just isn't as exciting and blog-worthy as homeschooling younger kids. Most weeks - at least around here - are much like the ones before. Also, blogs just don't seem to create a community the way they once did. It seems that all the action is now on Instagram. Since I'm not a photographer and more a words than pictures person, Instagram isn't such a good fit for me. So I'm debating (again) the issue of whether or not to keep this blog going. But until I reach a firm decision I'll try to do better about keeping this up-to-date.

The missing month has encompassed the last three weeks of the second (of four) term in our school year, plus the first week of our two week break. I'd like to say that the last three weeks of term were filled with lots of focus and academic business but that wouldn't really be true.There has been a lot of sickness doing the rounds and Miss 15 worked more hours than usual covering for other coaches who were sick, Then (of course!) she spent a few days sick herself.

Still she kept up with her maths and is exactly where we thought she'd be, working at the planned rate of four lessons per week. She continued investigating child labour in Victorian Britain for history, mainly using material found online since locating books has been harder than we'd anticipated. We also relearnt the lesson that while Miss 15 appreciates a lot of input into the topics she studies, she wants guidance into the actual what and how of that study. So, we made the decision to broaden her child labour studies, to find some organised printed material and for me to get more involved than I have been with this subject.
Opening the package with our new curriculum choice for history. Miss 15 will examine child labour in America during the Progressive era.

I know she also did some work for her writing course but I'm a little vague as to exactly what that involved - the perils of not blogging for so long I guess. I know  that she finished the first section of Bravewriter's Help for High School and we did an exercise or two learning about and practising the rhetorical techniques of logos, pathos and ethos.

At least I remember lots of good stuff that happened in ornithology though. She finished the Birds Without Borders curriculum, that was one of her main projects for the term. The final lesson involved creating a conservation plan for an individual species and presenting it using PowerPoint. We adapted the lesson somewhat since she decided to focus on a New Zealand bird (the curriculum is North American) and that necessitated a few tweaks.

One of her PowerPoint slides.

She also finished her field guide (another of the term's main projects) designed to help beginner birders identify any of the birds they are likely to see at one of our favourite birding sites.

An extract from Miss 15's filed guide.

Then we moved onto ethology/animal behaviour and learnt all about ethograms. How had I never heard of these before? We initially used a lot of material designed more for middle schoolers, especially The Ethogram and Animal Behavior Research and some information in a series of educators guides from Lincoln Park Zoo. I'm not worried about them being "too young" since they were a great introduction and we moved through them a lot faster than the suggested pace. We were meant to conclude with a field trip to one of our local wildlife parks where Miss 15 planned to complete many different types of ethogram as part of a research assignment, this one based on an assignment from a third year university course. However, sickness and bad weather put this on hold until after our break. But she did manage a few simple ethograms for practise, using waterfowl at a local park as her subjects. She also started a scientific writing assignment, a critique of a paper published in an ornithological journal. This was the other main thing I'd hoped would be finished by the end of term but wasn't. We fitted in a couple of  birding trips in a vain attempt to track down the most recent rarity spotted in our part of the world. The only consolation was the other birders we kept bumping into were no more successful that us! The bird is either hiding really well or has since moved on. We also attended a public lecture on Bar-Tailed Godwits and went to a talk on New Zealand Falcons and how they are being used to control pigeons on the university campus. That talk was at the monthly meeting of our local birding group and was a real highlight since the presenters brought their falcons with them! As well as all this Miss 15 gave herself a quick crash course in identifying some common Australian birds and created a Memrise course to help her.

A Memrise created exercise to help Miss 15 quickly identify any Australian birds she might see - in the few hours she isn't in the gym training!

The first week of the holidays started ridiculously early. Miss 15 and some of her trampoline clubmates were off to a training camp in Australia and needed to be at the airport just after 4am!  It's her first time overseas and she's paid for it all herself so a big achievement. After she boarded the flight I drove home (grateful for the fact that we live just a short drive from the airport) and returned to bed! I spent the rest of the week down at my parents' place. My Mum had back surgery a couple of weeks ago so it was a good chance to go and lend a hand. Slightly strange though since it was the first time ever that I've been away without at least one of my kids, and the oldest kid turns 24 next week.

Finally a quick update on the rest of the family - the ex-homeschoolers. Mr 18 passed his first semester of university with straight  As. It's always a relief to me as a homeschooling mum to know that my kids can cut it at the university level. (Only since - somewhat to my surprise in one case - my three oldest have all opted for university. If they chose some other path I'd be just as relieved and delighted to know they were well prepared for success in whatever that path was.) His second semester has just started and he'll be studying Accounting and Information Systems (both required for his degree) as well as Computer Science and Political Science. Miss 21 is still enjoying her time in England and has decided to stick with her job, despite its less than ideal aspects. Most recently she's made a two day trip to Cornwall.

Scenes from Penzance.

Mr 23 is enjoying his temporary research job, lining up interviews for a more permanent position, and preparing for the oral defence of his PhD which is scheduled for next month.

Linking with the Weekly Wrap-Up at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fortnight Ending 19 June 2016

An update from the last couple of weeks.

* Mr 23 finally submitted his PhD thesis and has now started a short term research position while he looks for a job that is more permanent and in a field he ideally wants to work in.

* Mr 21 made another trip to London and ventured across the channel to Paris. We've been delighted to virtually join her. She's currently battling work issues - a contract guaranteeing a certain number of hours work per week is not being honoured and fewer hours means less money which means less travel which means she is in the process of looking for a new job even though she is otherwise happy and settled where she is. Hopefully she finds something soon so it doesn't put too large a dampener on her big adventure.

London sightseeing this time included 221B Baker Street, Trafalgar Square, Madame Tussauds, Covent Garden Market, Oxford Street and Leicester Square among others.

Scenes from Paris

Some Parisian architecture.

* Mr 18 is in the middle of exams. His first semester as a full time university student is nearly complete which I find hard to believe. His approach to university is very different from mine and his older siblings but he seems to be doing fine so I bite my tongue as much as I can.

* Miss 15's homeschooling continues much as always. Now that her university ecology and conservation class is finished we're switching to a study on child labour. It's a little slow to get underway since neither of us seems clear as to exactly what she wants to do or should do with it but I think progress is beginning to be made. Right now she is focusing on the period of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. We managed a few birding trips - some more successful than others which is the way it goes. Last weekend was another trampoline competition. She volunteered as a recorder one day and competed the other, coming away with a first and second placing.

* I've been spending far too much time and money at the physiotherapists trying to deal with some annoying health issues. The physio is helping me with the symptoms (although I'm still far from where I would like to be) while I await some more tests to see if we can discover the underlying cause. Since I've been very limited in terms of what I can do (I've been on a sort of elimination diet but for activities rather than food) I've plowed through a pile of books. The Forgetting Time, East of Eden, Ordinary Grace and The Makioka Sisters have been the highlights. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James was probably the most memorable of my recent reads but it was graphic and confronting, and I'm still unsure whether or not I'm pleased I read it! Powerful but definitely not enjoyable.

Linking to Kris's Weekly Wrap-Up over at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

Classics Club 27: A Tale of Two Cities

One of the things that has always helped me "get into" the previous Dickens' novels that I have read is the strongly written, fully rounded and therefore relateable characters. Rooting for Pip, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist or even Scrooge himself  has helped me through the dense language that Dickens is somewhat infamous for.

A Tale of Two Cities is very different. It is much less character driven than many of his other novels  and the focus is more on plot and the broad sweep of history. Because this is one of just two historical novels that he wrote the focus on plot more than character should not have been a surprise. The fact that it impacted on my enjoyment of the novel was. Obviously much of my enjoyment of Dickens is based on the colourful characters he typically creates.

The other thing that made the novel difficult to get into at the beginning was the constantly changing location - London, then Paris then back again -and the shifting cast of characters. It was difficult to figure out what was going on and how people and events might relate . It wasn't until the two strands came together than the novel picked up - at least for me.

While the charcaters in A Tale of Two Cities are not as colourful and well drawn as in other novels they did evolve over time - or we at least saw a side of them that had previously been hidden. Initially Lucie appears a stereotypical female character - weak and morally too good to be true. Yet when the need arises she is shown to have an inner strength few would have suspected. Sydney Carton first seems a minor character, a flawed wastrel. Yet by the end his actions have turned him into the major player, a self-sacrificing hero. And Madam De Farge has changed from a revoluntionarty heroine to an unprincipled, revenge-seeking villain.

A Tale of Two Cities does an excellent job of highlighting the atrocities of the French Revolution - the power plays, the constantly changing rules, the lack of any semblance of justice, the barbarity. The personifcation of the guillotine is just one masterful way Dickens achieves this.  It  memorbaly illustrates the wrongness of judging and being judged based on class or societal position, rather than ipersonal behaviours.  It also has arguably the best opening ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...) and closing (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...) lines in the literary world.

All in all, A Tale of Two Cities is well worth persevering with, but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Dickens.

Although set in the French Revolution this novel was published in 1859. I'm counting it as my 19th century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 over at Books and Chocolate.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Week Ending 5 June 2016

A bit of a disrupted week this week, with lots of extra work hours for Miss 15 - she ended up working four times as many hours as usual, medical appointments for me, and sickness for most everybody - nothing serious but enough to have us struggling with energy and motivation.

In amongst this there were a couple of highlights though.

* Miss 15 and I attended a conference on braided rivers. It was full of short presentations by graduate students, government conservation staff and private ecologists. Some focused especially on birds, while others looked at other aspects of the braided river ecosystem. Some of the presentations were depressing - habitat degradation, declining populations etc - while others were more inspiring looks at research that might help to turn the depressing picture around, at least a little. It tied in beautifully with her ornithology course plus the ecology and conservation course she just completed.  Again I'm grateful that  I don't have to count hours and stress about whether I should credit this conference to Course A or Course B!

* We also enjoyed a virtual field trip to Cardiff, courtesy of Miss 21.

One of the highlights (for her and us) was the amazing art collection at the National Museum. Good to know that the art appreciation we did when she was homeschooling had an impact!

Linking up with the Weekly Wrap-Up over at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Week Ending 29 May 2016

A fairly uneventful week. Miss 15 just worked through her usual routine of homeschooling, coaching and trampoline training. She had the last class for her university ecology and conservation course. Now that it is over we'll have a lot more time in our days. Given the travel and the mid morning time slot each one hour lecture ended up swallowing an entire morning. Still it was worth it since she enjoyed it, learnt a lot and it possibly helped her decision making about what to do when she's finished homeschooling. I'm glad she pursued the opportunity.

The only real highlights of the week have come from our virtual field trip to England courtesy of Miss 21. This week we "visited" Oxford (including a side trip to Hogwarts) plus Guildford.

Views from Oxford - plus Hogwarts dining area!

More scenes from Oxford, including a helpful sign if you are trying to get to Wonderland

Oxford shops and other buildings.

We also had a bonus experience - sampling English snack food - thanks to a large parcel sent by Miss 21. We didn't eat it all at once!

Linking up with the Weekly Wrap-Up over at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers,