Sunday, April 30, 2017

Classics Club 47: Nicholas Nickleby

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby opens when Nicholas, his sister and mother are left destitute following the death of his father. The novel follows Nicholas as he attempts to provide some measure of security for his family. His subsequent life and adventures include travelling to London to appeal to a wealthy uncle - only to have that uncle take an immediate dislike to him, working for a villainous schoolmaster, attacking the schoolmaster and escaping with one of the abused schoolboys, working as an actor for a theatre company, meeting, falling in love with and later rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress, and finally obtaining a good position with a wealthy and benevolent employer. There are also many interesting subplots including the harassment of his sister Kate, a duel between two noblemen, a suicide, the downfall of a gigolo, business blackmail and much more. In the end though everyone (at least all the good and worthy characters) get to live satisfyingly happily ever after.

In Nicholas Dickens's created a worthy young hero whom the reader could root for and be happy to see prosper through a combination of his own hard work and the well-deserved kindness of others.Nicholas does have some flaws though, especially his quick temper, and these ensure that he is not so unbelievably perfect that the reader can't relate to him. In typical Dickens fashion there is a large cast of supporting characters, many of whom are both well-rounded and memorable. However, if you are looking for a strong, courageous female lead this is not the book for you. Kate tries, she certainly isn't afraid of hard work and attempts to fend off the unwelcome advances that come her way. But she has no success by herself and has to rely on Nicholas for protection. The most memorable female character is probably Mrs Nickleby. Her self centerdness and lack of self-awareness is delightfully horrible, amusing to read but definitely not the stuff of literary role models. One aspect of many of the characters I especially appreciated was their revealing names. You don't even need to have cracked open the novel to know who, out of Wackford Squeers, Mr Cheeryble and Sir Mulberry Hawk, is the generous and benevolent employer, who is the evil schoolmaster with a fondness for using his cane, and who preys on young girls.

Dickens is well-known for using his writing to highlight some of the social problems of his day. The harassment of Kate and the attempted forced marriage of Madeline Bray to ensure her father' s debts are paid off, shines light on some of the difficulties faced by women in nineteenth-century England, while the actions of Mr Squeers and his running of his "school" at Dothebys Hall was a clear indictment of unregulated boarding schools and the lack of care given to orphans.

If you enjoy Dickens but have not yet read Nicholas Nickleby then you should. However, if Dickens is not to your liking I doubt this novel will change your opinion.

Since I've long wanted to visit England, especially London, I'm using this as the "classic set in a place you'd like to visit" for the Back to the Classics Challenge. It would be interesting to visit Dickens's London but I wouldn't want to live there!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Week Ending 30 April 2017

This week was supposed to be all about trampoline training with two sessions every day, including 7:30am starts. However, Miss 16's coach ended up taking a couple of days off in order to move house. So instead of being all about trampoline the week was only mostly about trampoline.

The time off was very welcome since, as fate would have it, this turned out to be publishing deadline week in our birding world. As a result Miss 16 had a newsletter to publish,  an article to write for one magazine and a column to write for another. When she wasn't at the gym she was chained to the computer. If I had to worry about counting hours for credit we'd have PE and language arts nailed this week!

Editing copy for the newsletter.

Wednesday was a crazy day for me. I got Miss 16 to the gym by 7:30, was home for 20 minutes then had to drive Dh to the out of town university. Headed back in to town, parked at the gym and squeezed in a quick walk in before Miss 16's first session finished. Dropped her home then drove back to the out of town university to collect Dh.  Home for 20 minutes then it was time to return Miss 16 to the gym.On the way there I got a call from Mr 19 to say the plumber was early and would be arriving soon.  He pulled up just before me and while he got on with replacing our hot water cylinder I managed to  bake bread rolls for dinner. Plans to make some important phone calls got put on hold though. Replacing a hot water cylinder turns out to be a noisy business. After a couple of hours it was time to collect Miss 16 from the gym. Thirty minutes after we got home it was time to take Dh back to the out of town university since his class had a two hour test that evening. I couldn't facing making an extra round trip so I tossed a book into the car and did some reading while I waited for him. I'm just glad all our days aren't so crazy. Just to add to the fun the electrician wasn't able to come when we wanted, meaning we had 24 hours without hot water.

There were only two other events of note this week. Our monthly birding meeting, my first in charge, thankfully ran smoothly. There was an interesting talk from a guy who did his PhD in Peru. Looking at the size of the spiders there I don't think Miss 16 will be too keen on doing field work in that part of the world. We had Miss 22's boyfriend around for dinner one evening. We've all met him in passing before, but this was the first proper meeting. Yet another reminder of the new parenting stage I'm increasingly finding myself in. 

A trip to a cafe for a belated Easter shake was a fun way to mark the end of the holiday training programme.

I'm somewhat surprised to have completed thirteen books this month. I thought tackling Nicholas Nickleby would have slowed me down a little. The fact that there was no formal homeschooling for two weeks, plus the fact that I picked a couple of short, quick reads after Dickens probably compensated. Among my favourite reads were The Wish Child, A Hundred Summers and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, plus Nicholas Nickleby of course. I'm exactly half way through the Back to the Classics Challenge, and have just two more books to read before I complete Modern Mrs Darcy's twin challenges. What I will have to do is put some planning time into researching books that fit the remaining 17 categories of the Pop Sugar challenge. I've penciled in some titles, but I've got no idea for other categories.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Week Ending 23 April 2017

This week was all about the annual teen birders camp. Miss 16 left on her flight up North early on Monday, got back late on Friday and in between had a great time. She knew almost everybody already, either from last year's camp or from the young birders group. It's not surprising that this was the best camp socially and in terms of pure fun. There was a lot of driving between locations so lots of opportunity for singing and other hilarity.

At one stop they discovered over 400 Royal Spoonbills roosting in the trees.

At another stop Miss 16 was happy to spot this New Zealand Dabchick since we don't get them down our way.. 
Among the activities were a day trip to a nearby island where they practiced 5 minute bird counts in the bush, and a beach patrol, searching for dead or dying birds that have washed ashore. It's one of those activities where you are never sure whether you actually want to find a lot or not! Since the weather had been calm for a few days preceding their patrol they didn't find much. There was also a kiwi survey at night. Since kiwi are known to be shy the teens were not really surprised, but still a little disappointed, to only hear but not see them.

A great place to look for bush birds.
The camp's big activity was a 5 hour pelagic - bird watching from sea. Miss 16 was not at all sure about this since her last time on a boat had been pretty miserable. But she knew she couldn't live with herself if she didn't give it a try. So we got her some seasickness medication and hoped for the best. Apparently she didn't feel great, but she was better than last time and so long as she stayed seated in one position the seasickness wasn't unbearable. Luckily she managed to see all the birds from her chosen seat.

A Campell Island Mollymawk and a Flesh-footed Shearwater were two of the birds she saw on the pelagic.

Of all four birding camps and field courses she's gone on in the past three years this the most productive in terms of new birds. She managed 32 new species for the year, twelve of which she had never seen before. Her favorite was the Barn Owl, a species which has only recently established in this country. There is a very small localized population that happens to be close to where the camp was held. Apparently organizers hadn't planned to visit, but Miss 16 and a couple of others begged so much that they relented. Another favorite was the New Zealand Storm Petrel which was thought to be extinct, until being rediscovered early this century. Their breeding site was discovered just three years ago. Another favorite was the Grey Noddy, a bird that wasn't even on her radar. But on the boat they found a small group resting on a rocky island and were able to circumnavigate the island a couple of times, ensuring everyone got good views.
Miss 16's three favourite birds. Photos from NZ Birds Online

On her return Miss 16 was right back into trampoline training with a session on Saturday morning. In the afternoon we went birding, since you can never have too much birding, at least in our house. The rest of the weekend was spent relaxing - reading, chatting online with friends from camp and watching Moana.

Linking to the Weekly Wrap-Up and Homeschool Highlights

Friday, April 14, 2017

Week Ending 16 April 2017

This was the week I celebrated a birthday. A reasonably significant one - my half century. And to celebrate I chaired my first meeting as head of the local birding group:-( Sadly it was the only day that worked for everybody else. It was also the day I opened the door of our linen cupboard and discovered water - rather a lot of water. So I spent a fun hour or so mopping up water and throwing out things that were ruined. Our linen cupboard houses our hot water cylinder and it seems to have sprung a leak. Luckily the leak is small (it must have been leaking for a while before we noticed) but a new hot water cylinder definitely needs to be installed sooner rather than later. Sigh.

This was also the week we should have been celebrating Mr 24's graduation, but instead of walking across the stage he had his first day at his new job. All went well and he reports his immediate boss seems like a nice guy which is always a good thing. Actually Mr 24 is keeping up the family tradition of not graduating in person with his PhD. I missed mine (my degree is from a New Zealand university but we were in Canada with a young baby come graduation time) and Dh missed his (his is from a Canadian university and we were back in New Zealand before graduation time). It'll be up to Miss 22 to break the pattern - assuming the university ever gets around to officially enrolling her in the doctorate programme that is. She filed the paperwork weeks ago and keeps getting emails saying her application is still being processed. At least her department has assigned her office space so she's able to start work already. I guess the longer they take to process her paperwork the less her fees will be.

All my library reserves arrived at once. Just as well we've got a two week break so I can start to work through them all.

Homeschooling wise this was the last week of the school term, prior to a two week break. And since Miss 16 has a calendar full of other exciting things we'll take a two week break from academics as well. Statistics was very short and simple this week, and I wasn't able to find much supplementary material for history so she just read from the book and took notes. That freed up time to undertake the write-up for an ethology project she did way back in February as part of her animal behavior course. We also tackled a couple of short stories for literature, including The Dolls House which is one of my personal favorites,  The Lottery which I feel has a very important message and John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemum. I pulled from a few free online resources to beef up our study of these stories including this and this and some from here  to supplement our regular book. We finished the term in a relaxed fashion, by watching E.T. The Extraterrestrial for her movie course. The study guide  highlighted parallels with both Peter Pan and the story of Jesus's resurrection, which was serendipitous since we watched it the day before Good Friday, and I hadn't preread the guide so didn't know what the focus for the movie would be.

There was also a driving lesson for Miss 16 with the instructor we used for my older three. As expected she liked him, and he agrees with me that she is ready to sit and pass the test. Now we just have to wait until she's had her current licence for six months, then we can book her test for the next stage.

We also went on a mid week ramble with our birding group while Miss 16 and I hope to fit in a short trip ourselves this weekend.

7:45am on Good Friday and the first batch of Hot Cross Buns was ready to go.

Apart from too many hot cross buns and too much chocolate the weekend will also feature a photo shoot for Miss 16. I suspect that sounds more glamorous than it will be in reality. A group of young birders is being featured in an upcoming book and the photos are for that. I don't think she's looking forward to it since she doesn't like having her photo taken.

Linking to the Weekly Wrap-Up .

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Classics Club 46: O Pioneers!

The last two classics that I've reviewed - The Dollmaker and The Good Earth - have both featured the relationship between the main character and the earth as a key theme. Willa Cather's O Pioneers! continues this trend. It is the story of one family's survival on the Nebraska prairies.  The Bergsons are Swedish migrants trying to make a go of it in the harsh environment. After years of hard work the family is debt free but barely surviving and many of their neighbours are giving up and leaving for the city. Then John, the father dies, and leaves his daughter not his wife or one of his sons in charge. 

Alexandra is determined to remain on the land.She notices that the big investors are not selling up, but rather buying more land. She convinces her family to do the same and expand their property.  She's not afraid of being unconventional in other ways, investigating and replicating where it seems sensible farming methods used in more prosperous areas.

Sixteen years pass and the family is prospering. Alexandra's brothers farm land of their own but continue to resent her success and remain suspicious of her new ideas. She sends Emil, the youngest brother, to college since she recognizes that farming is hard work and is trying to ensure a better and easier future for him. For all her success Alexandra remains lonely. A doomed attraction between Emil and her neighbour Marie costs Alexandra both of them, and her love Carl cannot find success on the prairie and leaves. While he later returns and she agrees to marry him and go with him to Alaska, it is clear her heart is with the land and she imagines returning in a year. Whether she will be able to retain her links to the land and her love with Carl remains unanswered.

While I was able to appreciate both the plot and the writing style, for some reason this novel didn't touch me, resonate with me or remain with me the way some of the other classics have. I certainly didn't dislike it, but I'm unlikely to reread it or recommend it to others. But don't let me out you off. My reaction probably says more about me that it does about the book. O Pioneers! is a relatively, short and easy read, so if the plot synopsis appeals to you it would be worth reading and forming your own judgment.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Week Ending 9 April 2017

Just a few highlights and points of interest this week.

* Mr 24 departed for his new job overseas. It'll be a big change for him (his new city has a population roughly the same as our entire country) and us (although he hasn't lived at home for a few years he's lived close by so we've still seen him a fair bit.) His move has an unexpected upside for Miss 22. Since he isn't sure how long he'll be away he opted not to sell his car and has temporarily gifted it to her.

Miss 22 and Mr 24 checking out his new neighbourhood thanks to the wonders of Google Maps.

* Miss 16 and I went birding at the same lake we visited last week. It's like a completely different place. We've had a large amount of rainfall early in the week so the lake edge was greening up and full of pools and ponds.  Last week it was all mud and really dry except right at the waters edge. Lots of birds but no Arctic waders. We're guessing they've left on the long flight north.  Or else they've moved to a different part of the lake.

There were lots of new pools at the lake that we needed to wade through. Not a great way to  discover that our boots had developed holes!

* I somehow managed to finish Nicholas Nickleby in a week. I read whenever I got the chance and increased my available book time by listening to an audio version when I was cooking dinner, doing other quiet chores or simply needed to give my eyes a rest from the small print.

* Our birding group was involved in a Bioblitz - a mostly educational event to see how many species could be identified in a smallish reserve in a 24 hour period. Lots of talks and hands-on activities - a good community event.

* Homeschooling continued as normal with just two exceptions.  Miss 16 finished Carry On Mr Bowditch and has begun a focus on short stories. First up was Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party. A few weeks ago Miss 16 finished an essay and although it wasn't bad I wasn't really satisfied with it, yet struggled to convey to her what I thought the issues were and how it could be improved. After mulling it over (and making a few frustrating false starts) I finally found success this week by reversing our roles! I made a copy of her essay and then rewrote it myself, mostly just reorganizing a few things and changing a word here and there . I was trying to make it an improved version of her essay rather than my essay.Then I had her read both my version and hers to identify three to five changes that I'd made and to say why she thought I'd made them. It seemed to work well.

* Miss 16 spend a day judging at a trampoline competition. She's aiming to resume competion herself next month.  Apparently a whole days judging is really tiring (normally she can only judge for half a day because she then has to compete herself) but she's now completed all her required judging hours for this level and can enroll in the next level course when it's held later in the year.

Miss 16 on a judging panel.

* Miss 16 is rethinking her university choices, partly because of the extra costs involved in living away from home, and also because she's not sure she could survive a year eating cafeteria food at the student accommodation! Food was the one negative of her brief university experience in January. We'll investigate some other options. Our last year of homeschooling will have to look very different depending on which university she plans to attend so I hope she can make a decision. Such a shame the local university isn't as good as any other for her purposes, the way it was for her siblings.

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Classics Club 45: The Dollmaker

This is a little known gem  by Harriette Arnow which in my opinion should be heralded as a modern American classic. It was included in The Classic Club's The Big Book List yet currently there is no members review of it. Mine will be the first. And that is a pity because this novel really deserves to be widely known.

We first meet Gertie Nevels in an arresting first scene. She sits astride a mule in the middle of a highway, forcing a car to stop. Her baby requires urgent medical attention and she has no way of quickly getting to a doctor. Her strength of personality and dogged persistence convinces the reluctant driver - a military official no less - to take her. But not before she herself performs an emergency tracheotomy on her son to save his life.

Life for Gertie, her husband Clovis and their five children is not easy in rural Kentucky. Everyone is poor. But Gertie is strong, capable and respected , and she has plans for buying their own land which will allow the family to improve their lot. Just when she thinks she has achieved this dream it is snatched away from her as she and the children are forced to join Clovis in Detroit, where he has taken a factory job supporting the war effort.

Life in Detroit is harsh and brutal in many ways. Factory work is hard and often dangerous.The family rents a cheap, poorly constructed house in an overcrowded estate. Wages never go far enough and life in the city requires more expenditure - such as the fridge which doesn't seem to work as it should. The family is forced to buy things on credit and is often is debt. Neighbours and workmates are often in conflict. Religion (Catholic versus anti-Catholic feeling is highlighted) and ethnicity or place of origin (Gertie's family are disparagingly called hillbillies) are just some causes for discord. There is also police corruption and the power of the union to contend with, not to mention the demands of the bosses. People's individuality and humanity must play second fiddle to the needs of the industrial workforce and the consumer based society.

Gertie struggles in this alien environment. She misses the land, doesn't understand how this new urban environment works and isn't sure how she is supposed to behave. She is rendered powerless and not worthy of respect. Slowly she loses everything she values. First Reuben, then Cassie and finally, most poignantly of all, her art. For Gertie is a talented whittler. Yet this is a society that doesn't really have a place for individual, hand crafted items. In an effort to be helpful and ensure his family's survival Clovis forces her to mechanize and standardize, effectively creating a production line in the family home. All joy and satisfaction from the process of whittling is lost to Gertie. She eventually sacrifices a special piece of wood that she has been slowly creating a masterful sculpture from, chopping it up so she can use the wood to mass produced dolls.What happens to Gertie's whittling reflects and mirrors what is happening in the wider society. 

The Dollmaker is not an easy read. The rural Kentucky dialect can be tricky to decipher, many scenes are confronting and the Detroit setting is unrelenringly grim. Yet the effort is worth it. Joyce Carol Oates summed it up well , calling it a "brutal, brillant novel" that "has a permanent effect upon the reader". If you haven't already read it you should. 

Week Ending 2 April 2017

I can't believe it's April already and that the year is already 1/4 over. April looks like being a busy month for us but there were only a few noteworthy events this week.

* We finally received word that our accommodation costs will be covered when we have to move out of our home while the inadequate earthquake repairs are fixed. The application went in in November and the repairs were supposed to have been completed by now but the decision regarding accommodation was a long time coming. Now we just have to find somewhere suitable in the budget that's stipulated, and hopefully this long running saga (the first of the large quakes was September 2010) will be over - for us at least.

* Miss 16 and I made two very productive birding trips to a local lake. We weren't expecting much but were surprised to discover some migratory waders that had not yet left on their journey back to the Northern Hemisphere. We saw one bird, a sandpiper, that we struggled to identify. Some research at home had us pretty certain but Miss 16 wanted to try and find it again just to be sure - hence the return trip. No luck relocating our mystery sandpiper but we did spot several others birds of note, including another sandpiper species. That let us confirm our identification of our first bird since it clearly wasn't the same species as this one. We were especially delighted to find a small group of Pacific Golden Plovers moulting into their breeding plumage. Spotting them was one of our birding goals for the year. They look like a totally different species from the birds we saw early in the summer in their dull non-breeding plumage.

Pacific Golden Plover. Left is as they looked in November. Right is as they look now.

Apart from Pacific Golden Plover the other two best birds were Lesser Knots (we hadn't seen any so far this season) and Curlew Sandpipers (our mystery bird)
Miss 16 hard at work. Without her scope the birds would just look like dots in the distance. The white dots are actually a flock of about 240 Wrybill. They are an endemic with a distinctive bill that bends to the right. They breed only in the South Island but most spend winter in the North Island. These ones are gathering at the lake prior to travelling.
Pied Stilts were the most common wader. This is a juvenile on the left and an adult on the right.

* Speaking of birding, we attended the monthly meeting of our local birding group. It was the AGM and I somehow found myself elected to the main leadership position. Actually I knew the nomination was coming but was hoping I could find a way out since I'm not sure I've got the right skill set for the role. Now that I've been elected I guess I'll find out! After the AGM there was an interesting talk about birds, wildlife and evolution on the Galapagos Islands plus an update on one of our endangered bird species. Not good news unfortunately.

* Miss 16 has been extra busy at the gym this week since she agreed to cover classes for a couple of coaches who were snowed under with exams and assignments for university. She also had a health and safety meeting to attend. The good news is she'll be less busy gymwise for the next few weeks since the recreation programme is on a break until May.

*Another week, another tradesman needed. A light bulb blew in one room. No big deal. But then we discovered the lights were out in more than half the house. A check of the fuse box didn't reveal any quick fix so luckily an electrician was able to visit later in the day. A faulty light fitting and a wiring problem were to blame. So we need to decide what sort of new light fitting to get. We've never liked the faulty one anyway and will probably replace the other two of that type at the same time.

* Nothing significant homeschooling wise. We moved on to Stewart English for grammar but everything else is just continuing smoothly and steadily. Not a bad state of affairs at all.

* I continued to make good progress with my various reading challenges during March. I completed a total of twelve books. One counted for the Back to the Classics Challenge, five for the Modern Mrs Darcy challenges, and five for Pop Sugar's Ultimate Reading Challenge. I'm not expecting to finish as many books in April since I've just started The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby - all 828 pages worth!

Linking to Kris's Weekly Wrap-Up and Kim's Homeschool Highlights.