summer reading

Back to The Classics: Two Years Before The Mast

My parents taught me well to check if a book was abridged before reading it and reading an abridged version of Two Years Before The Mast was one of the few mistakes I made in that department as a young reader.  Even in the ridiculously cut-to-size adaptation I fell for, the story entranced me, took me worlds away from my ordinary life and even my usual imaginary worlds.

That’s one thing this classic sea story is: a full immersion in a lost world, the world of sailing ships.  It is still far from my typical reading fare but so interesting that, once I started, I picked it up every chance I got.  It’s the first hand account by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. of two years he spent as a sailor, to save his scholar’s eyesight.

Those two years involved huge physical risks, narrow escapes, storms at sea.   They involved mundane chores: scrubbing decks, mending and sewing, laundry.  Dana saw the pre-Gold Rush coast of California, visited the missions, observed a wedding there, a funeral.  We see through his eyes sailors’ dances, we hear the sailors’ songs and drawn-out calling of the ropes.  Of particular interest to me was the prized place of letters and books in the lives of men at sea.  Letters and newspapers were read and re-read.  Ships traded books when they met each other.  Dana reads aloud to his fellow sailors and during a particularly tedious time of high vigilance in icy seas recites memorized facts, Scriptures, and poetry to combat the oppressive boredom.

I was struck too by the function of the Sabbath in the largely secular lives of the sailors.  Dana speaks of the powerful boost to morale and renewed hope he gained during his first on-shore day of liberty, how critical such days of rest are to men living with routine deprivations, steady hard work, and, in this case, bad feelings between officers and crew after a traumatic outburst of injustice from the captain.  We get to see as well the customs of Catholics, at sea and in California, from an outsider’s perspective. Catholic ships take liturgical days of rest more seriously.  They arrange their sails for mourning on Good Friday of Holy Week.

I saw analogies between the sailors’ life answering to bells, seeing only a limited group of people for months at a time, and working together without being allowed to speak, to the lives of prisoners, and especially to the monastic life.

Dana’s two years off from school became a defining event in his life.  It is for those two years that interrupted his projected career and the book he wrote about them that we remember him today.  His book preserves for our national memory scenes and people and an entire way of life that would otherwise be forgotten.  It is worthy of its classic status.

 

Mrs. Aldertree

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3. Woman Author: Rumer Godden’s Battle Villa Fiorita

Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden My first Rumer Godden. A revelation. This book is staggeringly beautiful and true-- in its joy and deep melancholy.

One of  Godden’s great strengths is she doesn’t get in the way of a good story. Whenever I read a book by her I feel thrown into another world from the first page. The Battle of Villa Fiorita was no exception; I was transported to Italy. Finding myself in the middle of high drama was confusing at first. It was difficult to keep track of the characters and what was happening, but by chapter three (or four) I was well acquainted with the characters and a lot of the backstory. The result of this immersion was a fascinating read, a plot that moved forward and an interesting development of characters.

Villa Fiorita is a story about marriage and children, and yet it begins with divorce. Fanny has left her husband and their three children to be with her lover, Rob. The couple have fled to the Villa to begin their new life together. The Novel begins with two of Fanny’s children: Hugh (14) and Caddie (12), describing the Villa Fiorita.  I always find Godden’s portrayal of children to be refreshing and surprising. Godden gives them a certain amount of autonomy without making them simply little adults. Hugh and Caddie have sold their possessions, plotted their escape and  traveled to Italy on their own to fetch their mother. They are waging war against the couple. Later on, Pia, Rob’s daughter from his late wife, joins the battle with a fierce child-like independence.

We keenly feel Hugh’s and Caddie’s intrusion as they observe and are shocked by the intimate details of  their mother’s and her lover’s daily living habits. Godden is able to focus on the small details to show the depth of the problem of infidelity: their mother’s scarf, his driving gloves, his cigarettes by their bedside. Pia (a Catholic) is also appalled by the adult’s behavior. Her arrival ushers in ancient codes and the tension between Protestantism and Catholicism. In the novel children are at once the blessing and the safeguard of marriage.

The story is also a coming of age story for Hugh, Caddie and Pia. They are all faced with a loss of innocence; they must confront their own desires, their own sexuality. Divorce has prematurely thrown them into the adult world.

Godden successfully shows the absurdity of divorce while remaining sympathetic to the entangled characters. Regardless of Fanny’s wishes for remarriage, the marriage bond cannot be broken by mere desires; she knows that she and Rob are play acting.

This is not simply a cautionary tale, it is more a study than a lesson. Much like Henry James’ The Bostionans, Godden’s The Battle of Villa Fiorita is exploring  the most salient and peculiar point in it’s society, in this case – divorce.

Towards the end of the novel we know that her marriage will never be the same, even if reconciliation takes place; so much harm has already been done and it is the children who suffer and who heal. As I read on and the pages diminished I began to think that reaching a satisfying ending would be impossible, but as one review stated so perfectly: “The ending is unimaginable until it arrives, and then appears inevitable. Splendid.”

Another Godden novel to treasure and share.

 

Motherhood: Books That Have Helped Me Along the Way.

 

The Birth Order Book

The Birth Order Book

The Birth Order Book is easy to read, it has helped me better understand myself and my children. It has also helped me see the difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. The later can be a stumble block to bettering oneself.

The temperament God Gave your Kids

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Another quick and easy read! This book helped me understand how to motivate my children and discipline them according to their different temperaments. I liked how practical it was! I could apply what I learned right away.

Kon Marie’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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We’ve written several book reviews on Kon Marie’s books already but I had to put it on this list because it has helped me create a more peaceful home without spending a dime on organizational tools or home decor, and when your home is more peaceful, so are you, and so are your children!

Little House on The Prairie Books

Vintage Little House Children's Books Complete Series 9 Book Boxed Set (Paperback) 1971 & 1970s (Little House In The Big Woods; Little House on the Prairie; On The Banks of Plum Creek; The First Four Years; Farmer Boy; The Happy Golden Years; Little Town on the Prairie; The Long Winter; By The Shores of Silver Lake)

The Little House on The Prairie Books have been so wonderful to read with my children. They reaffirm the importance of hierarchy, authority, and obedience  within the family- a truth which has become politically incorrect these days. They are also a fascinating account of frontier life.

 

What Books have helped you? I’d love to hear!

 

Summer Reading: Children’s Edition

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If you haven’t read The Little Prince by Antonie de Saint-Exupery to your children, now is the time. Originally written in French, it is now the most translated French book. It is both philosophical and poetic – a children’s Odyssey.  You will find yourself pulled into the Prince’s little world as Exupery softly unfolds the story. It is hard to grasp what makes this book, its elusive magic is so closely woven into its story line I am tempted to quote it in its entirety to convey its luster!

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This Summer memorize some poetry with your children. It really isn’t as arduous as it sounds. What joy it is to memorize your favorites, to have such treasures always with you!  Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is a Classic.  Children love their short, lyrical and literal quality. This book is filled with well composed, musical, accessible, romping and whimsical verses.

The Big Alfie And Annie Rose Storybook by Shirley Hughes. Paperback. 1994.

Shirley Hughes inspired by observing her own little family (she had three children) began writing and illustrating children’s books. She is well known for her endearing Alfie series. Hughes captures the adventures of everyday life and her illustrations reveal her deep knowledge of children and family life. In an interview she stated: “I want the children looking at my books to feel that they want to see round the corner; I want them to feel they are in the picture they are looking at…. I would like to think I draw with sentiment but never with sentimentality. Family life is a high drama, not a sweet idyll.” Anyone in the throes of raising children knows that childhood is dramatic with only occasional idyllic  reprieves. It is vindicating and encouraging to encounter this truth in children’s books.

My Wolfish Eyes Constantly Crave New Titles

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Narrow-Minded

My knowledge is limited, my mind puny. I tried hard, I studied, I read many books. And nothing. In my home books spill from the shelves, they lie in piles on furniture, on the floor, barring the passage from room to room. I cannot, of course, read them all, yet my wolfish eyes constantly crave new titles. In truth, my feeling of limitation is not permanent. Only from time to time an awareness flares of how narrow our imagination is, as if the bones of our skull were too thick and did not allow the mind to get hold of what should be its domain. I should know everything that’s happening at this moment, at every point on the earth. I should be able to penetrate the thoughts of my contemporaries and of people who lived a few generations ago, and two thousand and eight thousand years ago. I should, so what?

-Milosz