Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Classics Club 15: David Copperfield

David Copperfield is the lengthiest of the classics I've read so far. And that length - both in absolute terms and in the length of individual sentences - is a strength and a weakness. Certainly there are times where the words seem simply repetitive, where Dickens could justly be accused of circumlocution, where reading is unduly difficult, and where it is possible to believe that he really was paid by the word (in fact he was paid by the episode). But without the length David Copperfield would be so much weaker. One of its strengths is the way Dickens shows us, rather than tells us about his characters. He doesn't tell us Uriah Heep is a villain. He shows us by laying out in glorious detail all of Heep's actions, mannerisms, behaviours and speech.   The same with events. Dickens doesn't tell us that David Copperfield gets drunk with some friends and behaves badly . He shows us, in hilarious detail.
Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.

How much poorer  David Copperfield would be without such descriptive passages.

This novel, Dickens's eighth and favourite, follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood through to late adulthood. His childhood involves many tribulations and much suffering - his father dies before he is born, his step-father treats him and his mother badly, he is sent away to school with a cruel headmaster, then his mother and baby brother die and he is sent to work for a wine merchant. Eventually Copperfield runs away and presents himself to his eccentric great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood. She takes him under her wing, ensures he gets a good education and sponsors him in his first profession as a proctor.  Through his own perseverance and hard work (his efforts to learn shorthand spring to mind) he rises, overcomes obstacles like his aunt's financial setbacks, and eventually becomes a successful novelist.

What really sticks with me from this novel is the characters . While there are some that could be used as role models for how to live and behave (Agnes Wickfield and Mr Peggotty are the most obvious examples), it is the more flawed or eccentric characters that are the most memorable. Uriah Heep obviously (has there ever been a more odious villain?), the incredibly flawed but still lovable and ultimately heroic Mr Micawber, the self-centred, manipulative James Steerforth and the immature Dora Spenlow will stay in my memory long after David Copperfield  is returned to the shelf. Even more minor characters - Rosa Dartle and Miss Mowcher - are not easily forgotten.

The character of Copperfield himself is, somewhat surprisingly, not one of the novel's more memorable. However, I did like the fact that he was not impossibly and unbelievably perfect either. His ultimate success in life was due in many respects to his own hard work. However, Copperfield also had character flaws which negatively impacted him and others at times. Chief amongst these was his sometimes being a poor judge of character. This led to his friendship with James Steerforth, which in turn had large ramifications for the entire Peggotty family, and his ill-advised marriage to the petted, spoilt  Dora Spenlow.

Much more could be said about this classic novel - the themes, the power of the scene where Mr Micawber takes down Uriah Heep, the concept of the 'fallen' woman . Suffice to say that I really enjoyed it and considered the effort involved in reading it to be well rewarded. I can definitely envisage rereading David Copperfield in the future.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Week Ending 25 October 2015

Another week with very little worth noting. Our life just seems to flow uneventfully along - which I guess is a good thing. Although sometimes I would like a little positive excitement.

Miss 20 is feeling very much lighter since she has just submitted her year long research project. Now she is knee-deep in studying for finals. In a mere two weeks she will be finished, her degree complete. It seems like just yesterday (but was nearly four years ago), at the start of what was supposed to be her final year of homeschooling, that she announced she was sick of homeschooling, was through with it, and wouldn't do it any more. So in a two week period she applied to university, was accepted, and began her psychology studies.

Mr 17's cricket season has started. He was pleased with 2/3 of his first game (bowling and fielding) but not so pleased with the way his batting went - or more accurately didn't! Meanwhile I'm contemplating months of grass-stained whites in the laundry.

Miss 14 has been using her spare hours to spend plenty of time with Basil. His family's new home should be finished before Christmas, possibly as early as next month, and he'll be able to move back in with them. Good news for them; not so good for us.

As for me I've been busy with my Classics Club Challenge, especially catching up with writing reviews for books I finished earlier in the year. I also finished David Copperfield, a real marathon effort, but definitely worth it.

I also started a new MOOC - Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales. Mostly theory and background this week, but I think Miss 14 may join me when we begin looking in depth at specific tales. My Highbrow course on Impressionist artists finished. Not a lot of detail but a good way of sparking interest, sort of like strewing the beginning of a rabbit trail that can then be pursued or not as you wish. I've now signed up for Philosophical Ideas that Everyone Should Know. And I watched a few more of Julie Bogart's Periscopes. Her one (split into two parts due to the joys of modern technology) on Enchanted Education for Teens was especially worthwhile. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

I also continued my gentle purging. I can't bring myself to put in the effort for concentrated purging when I know in the next few months I'll have to pack up the whole house while we move out for earthquake repairs. That seems like perfect purging time for me. Right now I'm limiting myself to areas that are especially annoying me. This week I went through some more homeschooling shelves and made several piles to sell.

I also purged some recipe magazines, recipe books and loose recipes torm from newspapers . As a reward I bought myself ...a new recipe book. Not that I have an addiction or anything!

The highlight of the week was a birding trip Miss 14 and I made to a small park. Not long after we arrived she heard a Shining Cuckoo call. This time we actually managed to trace the call and spent a happy hour watching not one but two birds fly, sing, catch insects and otherwise go about their business. Miss 14 had had the merest glimpse of one before but I had never seen one at all so we were really pleased with the morning.

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Classics Club 14: Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie is apparently the best selling novelist of all time and the author of the third most widely published works of all time after the Bible and those of Shakespeare. Since I have never read anything by her, and since my daughter has a surprising liking for murder mysteries, it was a no-brainer to include something by her in my Classics Club Challenge.

Murder on the Orient Express features Hercules Poirot, one of Christie's mostly well-known detectives - the other being Miss Marple. In a straight forward plot Poirot is travelling from Istanbul on a train, the Orient Express. Mr Ratchett, a fellow passenger, fears his life is in danger and approaches Poirot to investigate. Poirot does not like Ratchett's manner so refuses. That night Poirot is woken several times by various disturbances. The following morning he learns that Ratchett has been stabbed to death in his locked compartment and is asked to investigate.

After a relatively brief scene examination Poirot begins interviewing the conductor and twelve of the passengers. Initially all seem to be strangers and all have alibis. Further investigation reveals that some of the clues (like an open window in Ratchett's compartment) are red herrings and others (a woman in a red kimono) are frustrating dead ends. Then Poirot discovers that Ratchett was in fact Casetti, the infamous mastermind behind the kidnapping and abduction of  the Daisy Armstrong, a crime for which he was never punished. The intrigue continues when it is revealed that each of the passengers has a connection to the Armstrong family and all suffered as a result of fallout from the case.

After pondering on all the evidence Poirot gathers the passengers together and outlines two possible scenarios. I won't reveal what they are, nor which is the correct scenario, nor how the case is eventually resolved. Suffice to say you'll need to read the book yourself.

Murder on the Orient Express was an easy read, although sifting through the evidence did give my brain a workout. At first glance it was an enjoyable read with well-drawn characters, yet one with no greater purpose. However, the ultimate resolution raises some interesting questions about justice and what lengths individuals are warranted in going to should justice be denied through official channels. For this reason I feel Murder on the Orient Express rises above the level of  mere entertainment.

Classics Club 13: The Whale Rider

I was familiar with the movie Whale Rider (well-known in New Zealand  since it's lead actress earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress at the age of  13, at the time the youngest ever nominee) but had never read the book until I assigned it to my daughter for a World Literature Course. As is often the case I was surprised at the many differences between novel and movie.

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera tells the story of  Kahu and her great grandfather  Koro, a local Maori chief. He is looking for a young successor he can train to help lead a renaissance of the local Maori people. He hopes his grandson's soon-to-be-born child will be that successor. However the baby is a girl, Kahu, and he believes tradition dictates that she is therefore not suitable as a leader. As she grows her abilities and leadership potential shine through. But he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge or develop these abilities, and in fact does his best to ignore her, often treating her with a degree of disdain or even cruelty.

Intertwined with the their story is that of a pod of whales with an ancestral connection to Koro and Kahu's people. At first I found the whale's story a little mystical and felt it interrupted the main narrative flow. Inevitably the two narratives came together in the novel's dramatic climax and Kahu's actions finally forced Koro to acknowledge her as the future leader of his people.

The novel was a short and relatively easy read, although the switching between two narratives made it a little hard to "get into" initially. I also felt that using Rawiri (Kahu's uncle) as a narrator took away some potential emotional impact since he was often removed from the main action. However, the novel offers some interesting insights into Maori culture facing a time of transition and many of it's themes - love, cultural identity, looking to the past vs. looking to the future - are universal, extending well beyond the time and place in which The Whale Rider is set. Definitely worth a read by people looking for less well-known classics, especially those from other cultures.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Week Ending 18 October 2015

It has been a very relaxed week around here. Funny how practically having finished formal academics for the year contributes to that!

We did get back to our current two MOOCS. The FutureLearn course on William Wordsworth finished this week with an intriguing look at the journals of his sister Dorothy and an exercise comparing her account of encountering some daffodils growing beside the lake to his in the 1807 and 1815 versions of his famous poem. We still have a few weeks remaining in our Classical Music course. We're currently deep in the Romantic period at the moment. Generally we are enjoying this era, but we're still not converted to the merits of opera.

We've been on three birding expeditions. The first trip was to my favourite estuary with a group of fellow birders. The highlight was probably a Grey-tailed Tattler. Not sure if it is the same one that was around earlier in the year or not. The following day we met a friend at an old quarry site and she showed us where a pair of kingfishers seem to be making a nest. We'll have to make the effort to go back and check on their progress. And the day after that Miss 14 was invited to take part in a publicity exercise, promoting the Wrybill in a Bird of the Year competition. Shots of her, a local mayor and an ex Member of Parliament should be gracing newspapers and other media outlets in the next week or so! I don't think the Wrybill is going to win the vote but it is more an advocacy and awareness raising exercise anyway.

A small flock of gulls and terns fishing at the estuary.

This over sized Wrybill was part of the promotional photoshoot.

A Pied Stilt feeding on a braided river.

In the rest of the time there has been lots of reading, game-playing and trampolining. Miss 14's really excited that some new skills seem to be coming together - and they are not as difficult as she'd feared. We also started watching the final series of Downton Abbey.

Bohnanaza is the current game of choice.

Mr 17 has had a busy week. He sat and passed the final stage of his drivers licence so can now drive without any restrictions (new drivers here aren't allowed to carry passengers or drive after 10pm until they've driven for at least a year and then passed the final test). The first thing he wanted to do was take a passenger somewhere so he treated Miss 14 to a frozen coke and fries from a local drive-thru as an incentive to go with him! He's spent all weekend working at JOTI, the annual international Scout Jamboree-on- the-Internet.

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Week Ending 11 October 2015

Now that we are very definitely in our low-tide/unschooly/interest-led part of the school year how exactly are Miss 14 and I spending our days?

She's back at the gym (of course) coaching and training. She's now announced her new goal in trampolining - making a national representative team, probably to compete in Australia. For her this will be a long term commitment, not likely to be achieved until 2017 at the earliest. I had wondered if achieving her goal of winning a medal at the National Championships would have slated the trampolining bug. Clearly not.

Getting ready to help a recreational athlete do a forward roll on the low beam.

We've gone on a couple of birding trips. One day just the two of us headed to a local lake to see if we could spot any interesting waders. The lake level was pretty low and there weren't many interesting birds to see. Over the weekend we joined some members of our local birding group for a field trip to some bush and forest areas. Loved walking through the bush, with the sound of bird calls all around.

We've also been doing plenty of reading. Miss 14 is on a Harry Potter kick, rereading the entire series. And we're reading The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate as a read-aloud, since we had so much fun reading the first one together. Callie Vee is one of our favourite characters.

A while ago I asked Miss 14 what her ideal homeschool would look like. Her response - "Birding, trampolining ...and I guess some reading as well". So she's had a great week!

There's also been a lot of downtime which I think she really needed this week. Last week's competition was obviously taxing - mentally as well as physically.

This week I discovered a fun new site  - Highbrow -  where you can sign up for short courses. Most I've browsed are slated to take 5 minutes per day and last for 10 days courses. They cover a range of interesting sounding, "highbrow" subjects -  A Brief History of Economic Thought, Philosophical Ideas That Everyone Should Know, and Beautiful Inspirational Poems which is the one I've currently signed up for.

I'm also keeping my brain ticking over with a course on Logical And Critical Thinking via FutureLearn. Miss 14 isn't interested but I want to do some logic with her at some stage. So I might save the course components and use them with her next year. Such a nuisance when great courses are on at times that aren't convenient or when we aren't interested - typically at this time of year when we are basically done but the North American school year is getting underway . One reason I'm pleased many of Coursera's offerings are now available on demand.

There has been one piece of big news around here. Mr 17 bought himself a car - researched, test-drove, sorted the paperwork and paid for it entirely by himself - and it's better than our car! He's the first of mine who has purchased a car. Another of those "my babies are growing up" moments.

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

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Week Ending 4 October 2015

The big focus of this week was the National GymSports Championships. Preparations didn't go smoothly -  a messed up leotard order left Miss 14 without a team leotard. Luckily she was able to share with someone who was competing on days she wasn't. Then there was the team bag. Miss 14's had only been used for two tournaments and there is no reason why one zip should have broken let alone three of them. Given the poor quality I refused to buy a replacement but Miss 14 wanted a bag like everyone else so I decided to try replacing the zips. Did I mention that I hate sewing and have never really learned how to sew? Did I mention one of the zips was nearly a metre long? Did I mention it is impossible to always manoeuvre a stiff sports bag through a sewing machine in the way that you need to? Anyway I succeeded so she was happy. Mother of the Year for me!

For the bulk of the week she was out of town competing.

There were a few interesting hiccups -  a mix-up with the mini buses which meant they missed the opening ceremony, and a leaking roof in the hotel which necessitated a change of room at midnight. But it was successful competition for her - a second placing in her individual event on the back of an especially good set routine. It was her first ever medal at the national level and I'm really pleased for her. Hopefully I'll get some video to share next week.  She also picked up a bronze in the synchronized event - mind you there were just three pairs!

While she was away I'd set myself a list of  jobs. One of these was supposed to be simple - update Mr 17's transcript so it is ready for him to apply to the university for formal admission. Except that I couldn't find the transcript I'd already drafted! Then I realized it was another victim of our switching computers. At the start of each year I write a record of our plans for that year so recreating his transcript shouldn't have been too difficult. Except the plans for 2012 and 2013 had also disappeared! Remembering what he'd done and thus creating the transcript became a major hassle. Before you do any major changes to your computer back up all you files, then check and back them up again! I finally got that sorted and also spent a fair bit of time planning an ornithology course for Miss 14 for next year. I've decided to go for a sort of buffet approach - gather lots of resources, project ideas, theory assignments etc - and let her pick and choose as she goes.

On Saturday a 130km walking trail encircling our city and designed to highlight its biodiversity was officially opened with a ceremony at a local wetland. Members of our ornithology group were asked to attend, share our scopes and talk about birds with members of the public. Since Miss 14 was away I went in her place.

Speaking of birds, one of Miss 14's favourites is the Kaka, a forest-dwelling parrot unique to New Zealand. Before she left we were delighted to discover this live nest cam  and spent some enjoyable time checking in on the nestlings as they slept and fed.

Linking up with the Weird Unsocialized Homeschooler's Weekly Wrap-Up.