Monday, August 14, 2017

Classics Club 50: Dracula

Bram Stoker's Dracula, first published in 1897, was my 50th and final read for my Classics Club challenge, which I began in November 2014. This title wasn't even on my original list, a fact which doesn't surprise me. I predicted I'd make many changes as I went along. It's also my choice in the Gothic or horror category in the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge.

I knew the vaguest outline of the plot - Count Dracula travels from Transylvania to England, in search of unsuspecting new blood to feed upon, but is ultimately thwarted and killed - before I started reading,  but much of the book was a surprise. I wasn't even aware that it was an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters, diary and journal entries as well as the occasional newspaper article and entry from a ship's log.

The novel opens with young English solicitor Jonathan Harker  being sent to Transylvania to assist Count Dracula purchase property in England, Despite a promising start the visit soon turns sinister and Harker realizes he is the Count' s prisoner. I enjoyed this section of the book. The plot moved quickly and soon had me engrossed. Plus the descriptive writing was especially evocative, with  wolves, the dark isolation of the castle and the mysterious flickering lights.

Abruptly everything changed and we are reading a series of letters between Lucy, who is juggling three admirers, and her friend Mina, who happens to be the fiancee of Jonathan Harker. This switch is quite disconcerting and I was somewhat frustrated - what was happening to Jonathan? -  waiting for the two seemingly distinct strands to come together again. And eventually they do. A mysterious boat arrives in England without any crew left alive but reports indicate a large black dog was seen leaving the ship after it landed. Lucy becomes sicker and progressively weaker and despite the efforts of her three admirers (one of whom is now her fiancee), Mina and Professor van Helsing she eventually dies. Meanwhile Harker returns and recovers from his traumatic experience and joins the others in the fight against what they now realize is a vampire. Much drama ensues - the undead Lucy has to be killed (staked through the heart, beheaded and her mouth filled with garlic), Mina is partly taken over by Dracula, and the vampire fighters pursue Dracula back to Transylvania where he is ultimately destroyed in battle.

I loved Mina as a character. In many ways she reminded me of Marian in A Woman in White. She is so capable and resourceful, even when Dracula attempts to take her over. She is the one who makes many important connections and works out what Dracula might be doing at various points. Frustratingly, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the men believe she needs protecting and act paternalistically keeping some important but frightening information from her. This proves to be a costly mistake.

Despite the character of Mina, Stoker's Dracula is not always an easy read for someone of a feminist persuasion. Lucy is the stereotypical beautiful damsel in distress and all the men practically fall over themselves trying to save her. While nowhere near as passive as Laura from A Woman in White, Lucy irked me as being a similar type of character. And as for the remark from one of the males that "brave man's blood is the best thing on earth when a woman is in trouble" the less said about that the better!

Another factor that impacted my enjoyment of the novel was the many long winded tedious sections. Professor van Helsing was the cause of many of those, and I recognized the importance of some of them in setting the background and accurately providing all the information in much the same way that prosecutors build and present evidence in a court case. But still I found myself sighing after reading the fourth detailed account of a blood transfusion. After one detailed account surely a briefer mention would have sufficed? Likewise, knowing that a wolf had escaped form the zoo was important but the verbatim report of a conversation with the zookeeper seemed to slow down the action and decrease, rather than increase, the sense of rising tension - at least for me.

Overall I'm glad I read this novel. I'm not a fan of vampire fiction but in light of its present day popularity its good to have read one of the earliest examples of the genre. It was a simple, uncomplicated read not nearly as gruesome or frightening as I feared it might have been.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Week Ending 6 August 2017

Another smooth uneventful week, homeschooling wise. Confidence intervals for statistics, World War II  for history, more on predator behaviour for animal behaviour, finishing off Pudd'nhead Wilson for literature, not to mention German expressionism and Soviet montage for film history. Plus we read and worked through some of the section on global warming for our climate change review.

Graphing carbon dioxide concentrations.

This kept us occupied on Friday afternoon.

We managed to fit in a fair bit if bird related stuff as well. Our  monthly bird meeting featured  a very experienced bird bander who has just moved to this area. He seems willing to help set up bander training plus help establish a banding project. The prospect of this has Miss 16 very excited. She also received news of a special weekend banding camp for teens later in the year so got herself signed up for that very promptly! She also received the draft of her short paper for a scientific journal back from a friend who had agreed to look over it for us. So she made some changes he'd suggested and then submitted it. Fingers crossed! It was also publishing week for our quarterly newsletter so she was busy drafting copy, chasing up copy from others, editing, formatting and the like. But it's out now. Just got to get the hard copies in the post. After all that work we decided to take advantage of a fine morning over the weekend and actually go birding. We drove north to one of our favourite spots and spent a very pleasant hour enjoying the kingfisher, spoonbills, herons, oystercatchers and especially all the black-fronted terns.

The white blob is actually a Royal Spoonbill - one of the birds we saw at the estuary.

Linking to Homeschool Highlights . (No Weekly Wrap-Up this week).

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Week Ending 30 July 2017

The first week of the final academic term of our homeschooling year is in the bag and went without a hitch. Statistics involved a unit on control charts. If something is going to throw us during the week it is most likely to be statistics, but thankfully Miss 16 found this unit as straightforward as I thought she would. Anti-predator behaviour was the focus for animal behaviour, while history was concerned with issues of conformity and non-conformity in the inter-war years. Miss 16 finally started her new vocabulary book, after it mistakenly got packed in storage rather than taken with us to our temporary accommodation. She's going to do double lessons for a few weeks so she can get it wrapped up by the end of term. Since she finished her grammar earlier than planned, courtesy of doing double grammar while she was vocabulary-free, she has plenty of time to devote to it. She's started reading Puddin'head Wilson for literature, using this free sample as our guide. The course as a whole wouldn't be a good fit for us but it has a couple of aspects I wanted to expose Miss 16 to so I'm happy to adapt the free sample lesson. It'll  be interesting to compare this lesser known work of Mark Twain's  to Huckleberry Finn which she read earlier in the year. She finished the Movies as Literature course at the end of last term, but we've decided to add in some film history and rename the course Film Studies. We've started the film history component with Crash Course.

It seems that every year, often around this time, we add something unexpected and previously unplanned into the mix, and this year is no different. Recently I was given the opportunity to review Blair Lee's course on climate change. Although Miss 16 is older than the target audience, climate change is an important issue for everyone to fully understand, especially those who are considering studying environmental science or ecology and conservation at university! Plus I have a great deal of respect for the thoroughness of Blair's science and the accessible and engaging way in which she writes. This week we read the first section - The Greenhouse Effect. As expected the tone was clear and conversational, the diagrams were also clear and complemented the text, while the activities were quick and easy to complete but definitely designed to emphasize the lessons contained in the text. They weren't just time fillers. Blair is a strong advocate of the importance of integrating mathematics with science where relevant and this section included activities involving scientific notation and graphing. At this stage our plan is just to cover one section per week. Look for a full review once we've finished the course.

Also adding a little fun and variety to our week was the temporary presence of our favorite dog. His family sadly had to attend an out-of-town funeral so he spent a few nights back at our place. Everyone (except our cat) was delighted to have the chance to spend some time with him again.

He's so innocent - at least when he's asleep!

The other thing that was different - very different -  this week was that Miss 16 began a break from trampoline training. She's been considering retiring for quite a few weeks now and still hasn't fully decided. It's a tough call, given it has been a big part of her life for so long. As an interim measure she's taking the term off, before making her final decision. She's still coaching for six hours per week but is home every evening which makes a real change.

At the end of June I was planning to check in with all of my reading challenges and see how I was going. However, the end of June was a little crazy what with all the moving and uncertainty over moving. So I left my check-in until the end of July instead. Turns out I've read 114 books so far this year. I've finished both the challenges from Modern Mrs Darcy and I've also finished the reading for my 50 book Classic Club Challenge. But I've still got to post reviews for a couple of them. I'm 3/4 of the way through the Back to the Classics Challenge, but have some heavy duty reads ahead including Crime and Punishment. I've also completed 47 of 52 categories from the Pop Sugar Ultimate Reading Challenge.  I'm part way through a book for one category and have a couple of options lined up for another. But  'a book written by someone you admire', 'a book recommended by an author you love' and 'a book you bought on a trip' are proving a struggle. I may have to apply some artistic license and make a special trip to a bookshop for that last one since the only trips I'm planning for the remainder of the year are for birding, and the locations aren't really awash with any shops, let alone book stores! I'm also considering a couple of multicultural or read your way around the world type challenges if I get into a reading slump for the remainder of the year.

Classics Club 49: The Odyssey

The Odyssey is one of those classics with which I was already familair, despite never having read it before. But as the archetypal hero's journey tale it is not surprising that many aspects of the story have seeped into popular culture. Despite this there was plenty to surprise and interest me. The Odyssey does recount the adventures, or perhaps more accurately the  misadventures, of Odysseus as he attempts to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The fact that it took him  ten years, as long the war itself, tells you it wasn't a simple journey. Complications, which include a fight with a cyclops, travelling to the Land of the Dead, narrowly escaping the call of the  sirens and a sea monster plus being trapped on the island of Calypso, abound and help to make The Odyssey a rollicking adventure story. Yet there is much more to the plot than this. The Odyssey is also the story Odysseus's wife Penelope and her efforts to remain faithful to him and especially to avoid marrying the many suitors who, convinced that Odysseus is dead, seek her hand in marriage. And it is also the story of Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, who tries to protect his mother from the unwanted suitors and who sets out on a journey of his own, seeking news of his father. And much of The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus's actions once he has actually arrived back home in Ithaca.

The themes of The Odyssey resonated and gave me much to think about, despite it being set thousands of years ago, in a culture very different from my own. Admittedly the relationship between gods and  mortals isn't something I'm currently concerned about, but the importance of family relationships, the validity of disguise and deception even to attain a worthwhile goal,  the role of hospitality (generosity) and what, if any limits should be placed on it, the effect of temptation, the extent to which loyalty and perseverance are important and, perhaps most overarchingly,  the extent to which individuals are responsible for their own actions, are all relevant in today's society.

My biggest struggle with this classic, and the thing that prevented me enjoying it, was the character of Odysseus himself and the perception of him as a hero. I struggle to accept him as a hero at all, even a flawed one. Odysseus's flaws are many - arrogance, hubris, pride, an obsession with revenge rather than justice, and blood thirstiness - are just some of them. These character flaws are at the root of many of the misfortunes that he faces. The whole reason his journey back to Ithaca takes so long is that he has foolishly angered Poseidon, god of the sea, who then conspires to put many obstacles in Odysseus's way While he did exhibit admirable traits such as cleverness and foresight on occassion e.g. hiding his men underneath sheep to escape from Polyphemus's cave, and plugging his ears with wax and forcing his men to tie him to the ship mast before encountering the sirens, Odysseus was generally the master of his own misfortunes. And those misfortunes cost many innocent victims. Telemachus grew up without a father, Penelope had to fend for herself in a society where women had little power, and none of the men under Odysseus's  command made it home with him. To say nothing of the loss of life that occurred on Ithaca after his return. For me this was one of the most horrific aspects in The Odyssey.

All in all I'm glad I read The Odyssey, and not only because it is such an important and foundational work in western literature. Much of the writing was lovely and poetic, although this does vary between translations.  I used two - one by E V Rieu; the other by Robert Fagles. The non-linear plot device (beginning with Telemachus and Penelope,  switching to Odysseus, then travelling further back in time as Odysseus recounts his journey since leaving Troy, and finally merging the two strands Ithaca) arouses interest without being  confusingly complicated. I was interested by several of the minor characters, especially Penelope (I enjoyed Margaret Atwood's take on her which I read once I finished this.) However, the character of Odysseus disturbed me intensely, particularly his horrific revenge-fuelled actions once he returned to Ithaca. Even if they were justified by the standards of the time, I cannot in any way conceive of them as heroic. Rather than see The Odyssey as a heroic epic, I couldn't help but read it as a cautionary tale about the negative effects of one man's ill-conceived actions.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Week Ending 23 July 2017

This has been a wonderfully relaxed week  with nothing pressing to do. Since I've finished unpacking (the garage still has to be done but that is Dh's domain, and Mr 19's approach is to leave his things in boxes until he needs them - luckily I don't have to go into his room very often) there has been plenty of time to catch up on reading (The Dry, Behold the Dreamers and The Hate U Give - all fantastic in my opinion), get caught up on errands, and plan out the next term's worth of homeschooling, which may or may not be Miss 16's last. Gulp! Not that there is much planning to do any more - mainly just pre-read a few statistics lessons so I'm prepared, select what to read next for literature, order the book from the library, and decide what if anything to do with it beyond reading. It's also been a great week for getting back into routine. Now that we're back home I can easily cook the way I like, clean according to a schedule that (mostly) works for me, resume regular yoga practice (not enough space to practice properly in our temporary accommodation or at home until many boxes had been unpacked) and otherwise feel that I'm living my life again. The past few weeks have felt like I've been in a holding pattern, waiting to get back to real life.

Miss 16 has also been pretty relaxed this week - lots of reading and computer time - but she did start work on the next birding newsletter and wrote her short article for the Young Birders magazine. She was made aware of an exciting opportunity so has also been fine tuning her CV so she can apply. The opportunity is a long shot but if she doesn't apply she'll never know. Fingers crossed.

Miss 16 reading some fun political satire.

The rest of the family had busier or more eventful weeks. The second semester of university has started so Mr 19 is back to lectures and assignments, and Dh is really busy with teaching since his entire teaching load falls in this semester. Two of Mr 19's classes this semester are taught by Dh, which adds an interesting dynamic. With homeschooling they are used to teaching/learning together but the classroom environment makes it different. Miss 22 received good news in the form of a scholarship this week - full fees plus a good stipend. It'll ease her financial pressures and give her more options which is great. My oldest celebrated a birthday - this week his quarter-century! It just seems like yesterday that I was his age and pregnant with him!

Linking to the Weekly Wrap-Up and Homeschool Highlights.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fortnight Ending 16 July 2017

When I last posted our move back home had been delayed for the third time. Originally we were meant to be moving back on Friday 2 July but that was then put back until Monday 5. We'd just arranged to stay in our temporary accommodation for the extra time and rescheduled the movers when we heard back from the contractors to say there had been a mistake and we now couldn't get back until the Wednesday. So more phone calls and rescheduling were required. Monday 5 arrived and I'd just begun to plan the packing when Dh messaged me with news of yet another delay - to Friday this time. Then we discovered the movers couldn't come until the following Monday and since all our furniture and most of our possessions were in storage that meant we couldn't really move back until Monday 12. (As it turned put the contractors delayed again  - luckily only until Monday 12). Despite various claims and appeals the powers that be refused to cover the extra accommodation costs and a few calculations showed paying to remain in our temporary accommodation wasn't financially viable for us. So late Tuesday saw us madly packing and cleaning so we could move out the following day. Most of us moved in with my mother-in-law (crowded doesn't begin to describe it; poor Mr 19 got stuck on the couch - luckily his exams were over - while Miss 22 ended up staying with friends) for five days. It was a pretty frustrating week.Monday and Tuesday were spent in limbo wondering whether we'd have to move out of our temporary accommodation. Wednesday we were busy packing up and splitting the stuff we had with us between my mother-in-law's and brother-in-law's but the rest of the time was basically just waiting. It turned out my mother-in-law had surgery scheduled while we were there which made it easy to take her to and from the hospital plus help her out for a day or two.

Miss 16, Mr 19 and I amused ourselves with a newly found app while killing time before we could move back into our house.
This week has been all about unpacking. Dh has had to work, Miss 22 is still with friends and Mr 19 has picked up extra work shifts so the unpacking has largely fallen on me and Miss 16. So it's been a lot slower than I would have liked, and so many things have gone wrong which has slowed the job down even more. The contractors flooded the kitchen and some cupboards are still damp and mouldy so can't be used, the movers damaged several bookshelves so we've had to repair some and throw out others, they didn't remove the curtains and rails properly so rehanging them was a lengthy nightmare (they are up but not properly - we had snow so needed them up quickly, more than we needed them up prettily), the extractor fan in the kitchen no longer works so cooking results in steam - not ideal when you are trying to dry out the kitchen cupboards, the washing machine refused to operate so I thought it may have been reconnected improperly but it later started working so I think the problem was just air in the pipes after the water had been turned off....the list goes on. But the end is nearly in sight. At least I can actually see our nice new flooring now - it's no longer totally covered by boxes that need to be unpacked!
I'll be glad to see the back of boxes and packing paper!

As I've unpacked I've also been purging and so far have more than a dozen boxes of homeschooling supplies to sell. We've also been moving plenty of kids books into storage in our garage. We don't want to ditch them but we don't need them taking up shelf space - especially now we have fewer shelves than we used to! It's been a slow process as we debate whether we really need to keep each book - plus we've had to pause and reread some old favourites!

We didn't get very much snow on the ground so Mr 19 drove inland to find some more.

Another thing that slowed the unpacking down was stopping to read various gems the kids had written when they were younger. One child (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) had been asked to write about an experience they'd had that related to a story's theme. The theme was self-control. My child wrote "R was pestering. She kept at it, and despite what I did, it annoyed me. I got thoroughly fed up so I hit her on the nose - and it bled." I'm sure nobody enjoyed the incident at the time but reading about it many years later  sure gave us a good laugh. Then there was a letter to Santa telling him to help himself - there were buckets in the shed which he could fill with water from the outside tap  - and apologizing for not having put everything out for him "but I haven't had time what with the earthquakes and all". Yes, we had experienced a couple of large shakes the day before Christmas Eve which had everyone on edge, since we were thinking/hoping that the aftershock sequence was tapering off. However, I'm pretty sure the letter writer was onto the truth about Santa - not quite ready to give it up, but clearly not willing to put much energy into the rituals either!

I love this winter scene Mr 19 captured.

In between the never-ending unpacking Miss 16 and I attended open days at both the local university and the closest out-of-town university.  Unfortunately, I think it made her decision more complicated. The local university has just started offering an environmental studies major which could be perfect for her (the local university is very welcoming to homeschoolers and we would be free to homeschool how we want in our final year, plus she could live at home making it the most affordable option for her) but their presentation was neither informative nor inspiring. She initially wasn't keen on the out-of-town university but their presentations convinced her to add it to her list of possibilities. It's just a short commute away so she could continue to live at home  and just travel there and back daily. So I need to investigate their enrollment requirements and see if or how we can meet them. I think I might also get her to plan out a full course of study at all three universities she's considering. I know their offerings might change as may her plans but it will hopefully give her something else concrete to base her decision on. No sense going to one if you have to take too many papers you will endure rather than enjoy. Neither Mr 24, Miss 22 nor Mr 19 considered anything other than the local university (it was as good as any other for their respective majors, being able to live at home made it affordable, and since Mr 24 started young we wouldn't have considered sending him away anyway) so helping guide her to make this decision is a new and challenging experience. Not to mention frustrating - I wish we could rustle up the money to pay for her accommodation at what I think is her first choice university but we can't, and she, sensibly and understandably, isn't keen to take on extra debt.

University Open Days sadly didn't help Miss 16's decision making  as I'd hoped they might.
Of course the rest of life carried on around all the unpacking. Mr 19 received his first semester exam results and he did great - as well as he expected in his strongest subjects and better than expected in the others. He was really pleased to be accepted into an internship for the second semester. The practical/applied nature of it should play to his strengths. And he won an award which allows him to take an extra paper outside of his degree requirements free of charge. If you told me that one of my kids would take an extra paper at the university level he would have been the last one I would have picked. I'm equal parts pleased and relieved that the kid who would not apply himself at home, could and did when he he had to. I was pretty sure he could and would but sometimes I wondered if I was just deluding myself. Reassured to know I wasn't! And Miss 22 landed a new job -  one that ties in with her eventual career goals rather than just being a source of income. It's good news for her but she'll be busy for the next week or two as she starts her new job while working out her notice period at her current job while continuing to work on her PhD.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Week Ending 2 July 2017

So much of this week has revolved around one of Miss 16's main passions - birding. On Monday night it was the evening meeting of our birding group. The speaker did a great job presenting the results of long term research into Black Petrels, a seabird species that breeds only on a couple of our offshore islands. She also mentioned that they often have opportunities for volunteer field research assistants. Needless to say Miss 16 was very interested and will definitely be following this opportunity up!

Tuesday saw us making a journey across town to the sewage ponds. Unfortunately, the bird we were hoping to spot wasn't to be found. Not to be deterred we made a return trip on Saturday and were rewarded by good views of the bird - a White-winged black tern - hawking for insects over one of the oxidation ponds.

Wednesday's mail saw the arrival of the national birding magazine and journal, so lots of time was spent on bird-related reading.

Miss 16 has three pieces in this edition of the magazine and is busy drafting an article for publication in the journal.
On Thursday we attended a full day workshop on braided rivers. Lots of great bird related presentations, since many of our most endangered species only breed in braided river habitat. But also lots of work focusing on other creatures that live in braided rivers - fish, grasshoppers -  as well as papers focusing on the ecosystem as a whole. Given that Miss 16 is inching closer to needing to make some decisions about her future, it's interesting to see what areas especially grab her attention. Hopefully a clue that will help make it easier to decide what and where to study at the university level.

The goal of the workshop was to share knowledge which will help increase the survival of species like this Kaki, which rely on the braided river habitat.

We realized that time was running out to participate in this year's garden bird survey, on Friday. Our temporary accommodation basically lacks a garden,  and therefore there aren't a lot of birds to be seen, unless we lean out a window and peer over a neighbours' fence. Instead we took the opportunity to walk to a homestead and public gardens just a few blocks away, where we found a sheltered spot and counted birds for an hour. Far more species than we see at home, but we did miss being able to count from the warmth of indoors! 

Part of the garden where we sat for an hour doing our bird survey. It also featured a lovely little gazebo with stained glass windows. We thought we might have had to take shelter in it if the wind increased or it started to rain. Thankfully shelter wasn't required.

I allowed Miss 16 to take a break from most of her normally scheduled schoolwork this week, so that she could focus on one particular project. She has been asked to submit a short paper on the Cox's Sandpiper to Notornis, the national ornithological journal. That bird was first seen in New Zealand late last year and Miss 16 played a role in it being officially recognized, which is I think why she was asked to write this paper. That, and right now people are conscious about fostering and encouraging young birders. But writing for a national, peer-reviewed scientific journal is a little intimidating and requires significant effort. So rather than try and squeeze it in between regular homeschooling and trampoline coaching and training (and trust me many days don't have any time left between those two things) I offered to clear her schedule so she'd have big chunks of time to work on the first draft.

The week wasn't totally bird focused though. Miss 16 continued with Animal Behaviour, since that is her longest course - the one that won't be finished when the rest of her planned work is scheduled to be complete. She also did a little grammar most days and we watched a movie since Dh somehow managed to find The Journey of August King for us. That was the one I thought we'd have to miss from her Movies as Literature course because I couldn't find it anywhere. And there was also trampolining, her regular coaching and training plus she volunteered to assess recreational athletes who were trying to earn incentive badges.

By rights I should be busy unpacking now, instead of writing a blog post. Sadly, our move back home has been delayed. It's only by a few days, but the delay is frustrating, not to mention financially costly to us. Despite some advantages to our temporary accommodation I'm definitely looking forward to getting back into our own place. Hopefully this week. The movers are booked so it had better happen! Just to add to the fun we had a call from the contractors to tell us they had damaged the carpet in our living room and it would need to be replaced. Of course that won't be done by the time we move back so we'll have to put up with concrete floors in the living room for a week or so, not to mention the hassle of moving the furniture back into the room, only to have to move it all back out again. Sigh...

Linking to the Weekly Wrap-Up and to Homeschool Highlights