Saturday, July 29, 2017

"A Little Princess"--self-discipline, kindness, and imagination...and a bit of moral luck

Even if you have already read the book A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it is well worth re-reading. I picked it up again this past week to check a quotation and kept finding more and more to like in it.

 For starters, the book is full of lively descriptions. Sara's wardrobe is enviable, with dancing frocks of rose gauze, petticoats with lace frills, and "velvet dresses trimmed with costly furs." (14) There are comfortable rooms, with pleasant fires in the grate and soft chairs in which to sit, furnished with books and pictures and "curious things from India". Later, we find ourselves in rooms in the bare and unwelcoming attic, with hard beds and whitewash flaking off the walls--but such a view of the sky and roofs! Sara herself provides lavishly imagined scenes through her story-telling--laughing merbabies with stars in their hair, fields full of fragrant lilies in heaven, and a sumptuous (though imaginary) feast.

But a story needs more than description, and A Little Princess has more. It has its heroine, Sara Crewe. When the story begins, Sara has just arrived in London from India, the only child of a doting and very rich father. But she is very far from the stereotype of a spoiled rich brat. She is well-mannered, kind-hearted, and very much in control of herself.

Frances Hodgson Burnett makes a particular point of the importance of self-control, and we see how Sara manages to restrain herself from unkind or ill-mannered responses, even when she has been much provoked. We admire her for it, and are delighted at how infuriated Lavinia or Miss Minchin is at being faced with such composure and steadfast good manners.

The restraint is not some magical innate goodness, but an effort that Sara makes--sometimes quite a difficult effort.

"Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment. The temptation to be unreasonable and snappish is one not easy to manage [...] It must be remembered that she had been very deeply absorbed in the book about the Bastille, and she had had to recall several things very rapidly when she realized that she must go and take care of her adopted child. She was not an angel, and she was not fond of Lavinia." (59-61)

Sara reminds herself that she is pretending to be a princess.

"If you were a princess, you did not fly into rages." (62) 

Her imagination helps her with the difficult work of self-control.

Sara's imagination makes her an appealing heroine because she uses it to tell stories to herself and to others. It draws the other children to her (in a world without videos or internet, a storyteller is much valued). Her imagination also helps her through hardships, as she can imagine more pleasant surroundings for herself--or if that is just too hard, she can pretend she is part of some dramatic and romantic story. Rather than living in a dreary attic, she is a prisoner in the Bastille, with Becky as the prisoner in the next cell.

Because Sara is so good at imagining how things might be different, she is also struck by the role of luck in her life. As she speaks with Becky the scullery-maid, she says,

"Why... we are just the same--I am only a little girl like you. It's just an accident that I am not you, and you are not me!" (53)

At another point, she tells her friend Ermengarde,

"Things happen to people by accident.[...] A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. it just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? [...] Perhaps I'm a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials." (36)

Of course, when her trials do come, she acquits herself admirably, but we can still puzzle over the role of luck (especially moral luck) in nature and in nurture, and wonder how one person comes to be so patient and determined, while another is self-centered and spiteful.

Sara's strength and imagination would not make her nearly so appealing if they were not accompanied by great kindness. Sara is kind to the younger children and sympathetic to anyone who is suffering, whether they are suffering from hunger or from humiliation. We want Sara to flourish and be happy--she so deserves it.

I have two last remarks about this book. First, the movie they made of it some while back (set in America) makes a complete mess of it. It mistakes the crucial point. It is not the case that "all little girls are princesses", as I believe Sara is made to say in the movie. It is true that being a princess is not a matter of wealth or birth or beauty, but Lavinia, for example, is clearly not a princess because she does not behave like a princess. She is neither kind nor well-mannered when things don't go her way.

The second remark is that this is an old book, and while Sara's kindness extends to all beings, the book still reflects to some extent some of the attitudes of its time and place. It is worth keeping in mind, but should not stop anyone from reading it.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Making the Mini-backpack--an adventure in sewing a small bag

It all started when I found a mini-backpack to use as my new purse. I liked the shiny gold studs on the outer pocket. But even more than that, I liked its size. I wanted to make myself more mini-backpacks. Maybe I could make something really nice (and also washable!)

Black mini-backpack
The new purse

So I drew up a pattern, with approximate measurements, and decided to go ahead and put one together using fabric from a second-hand tablecloth and a zipper from the plastic case that a sheet came in. It was about the right length, and I already had it.

The pattern pieces and resulting list of steps.

I did have a bit of a problem with regard to pressing the seams. After ironing the pieces, and getting the straps made and the zipper installed, I discovered that my right arm was starting to hurt again. My frozen right shoulder has gotten past the freezing stage (stage 1), and though the shoulder no longer hurts, I still have limited range of motion. Trying to handle a heavy iron on the (relatively) high surface of the ironing board was probably too much. So I didn't press the rest of the seams, except with my fingers.

I didn't include the seam allowance (1/4", which isn't much) in the pattern pieces, and the result of eyeballing it was that my pattern pieces didn't match precisely. Or even close to precisely. Clearly that is one of the areas for improvement.

The pieces after I stitched the zipper and straps.

Here is the resulting backpack. You can see that the backpack is floppy (no surprise) and can't stand up. That's another thing to fix.

Floppy mini-backpack

Then a photo of it stuffed with air pillows (the kind used in packaging).

Stuffed mini-backpack

Here is my daughter modeling the mini-backpack. Area for improvement #3--make the straps adjustable (and longer.)

Girl wearing home-sewn mini-backpack

One other thing I might change next time is the order in which I put the pieces together. Maybe I should try attaching the bottom to the sides, then the front and back, instead of starting by attaching the sides to the front and back, then adding the bottom. I'll have to think about it.

While I'm writing about sewing, I'd like to mention three of my favorite sewing tools. Everyone knows how useful a seam ripper can be, and I certainly use it a lot. I also have a magnetic pin case. It helps me scoop up a lot of loose pins at a time, and keeps them from spilling. Finally, I highly recommend quilting rulers if you need to cut squares and rectangles, or mark lines at right angles. It doesn't just help with sewing, either--it's good when you need to draw lines on paper. No more having to mark lengths on top and bottom, right and left side, before drawing the lines.

My favorite sewing tools

Back to the mini-backpack. Here's the list of improvements for next time:

1) Include seam allowance on pattern pieces and make sure they match up.

2) Find a way to stiffen the back piece.

3) Make straps longer and adjustable.

4) Try a different order of operations.

5) Finish seams and/or add a lining.

6) Extra pockets!! Outside or inside. Or both.

At this point, you might be wondering why I didn't just get a pattern for a mini-backpack off the internet. I know they are out there. All I can really say is--I wanted it to be a particular size, with a zipper top, and maybe I didn't want to search for a pattern that fit those criteria. Or maybe I just like constructing patterns. (I was going to say "reconstructing", but if you look closely you will notice I did not actually follow the pattern used for the original black bag.)

No idea when I'll make version 2. I still haven't gotten to the next version of the grocery bag.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Reflecting on "Howl's Moving Castle" (the book, not the movie)--cleaning, fictional characters, and scented steam

Yesterday my daughter was writing quotations from Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie) to post on the pantry quotation wall. She told me that thinking about Sophie, the main character, inspired her to clean her room. That, in turn, inspired me to think of many things: cleaning, the touches of everyday life in books, and the way fictional characters motivate us to imitate them.

Howl's Moving Castle paperback

Sophie Hatter certainly does do a lot of cleaning in this book. She cleans remorselessly. (I love that phrase.) The dirt and spiderwebs don’t stand a chance. Nor does Michael.

“I wish you’d stop,” said Michael, sitting on the stairs out of her way. (p.43)

She doesn’t necessarily do her cleaning in the right order, however.

[Calcifer] crackled with mean laughter when Sophie discovered that soot had got all over the room and she had to clean it all again. That was Sophie’s trouble. She was remorseless, but she lacked method. But there was this method to her remorselessness: she calculated that she could not clean this thoroughly without sooner or later coming across Howl’s hidden hoard… (p.44)

Cleaning is a way of poking around without being obvious about it. It’s also a good way to tell whether you’ve searched someplace already, as I’ve discovered in the Great C&C Easter Egg Hunt. Diana Wynne Jones’s books often have some wonderful detail that makes me think, “Yes, exactly!” and this is one of them.

The word “method” also reminds me of a story my mother tells, about my grandmere coming to visit us in Geneva when I was a toddler and being disturbed by my mother’s housekeeping. “You have no method!” she complained. Apparently I inherited this lack and so have something in common with Sophie.

There are other lovely details in the book, like the description of the bathroom before Sophie gets to cleaning.

Sophie winced from the toilet, flinched at the color of the bath, recoiled from green weed growing in the shower, and quite easily avoided looking at her shriveled shape in the mirrors because the glass was plastered with blobs and runnels of nameless substances. The nameless substances themselves were crowded onto a very large shelf over the bath. (p.33)                                                                                 

This is one of the few areas in which I must say the movie did a good job. They really made that bathroom look terrible. Some years ago I commented on Facebook that M had gotten face paints for her birthday, and our bathroom sink looked like it belonged in Howl's Moving Castle. I wish very much that I had taken a photo, but apparently I didn't.

The bathroom is important, given Howl’s vanity. Every time I pass our bathroom right after M takes a shower, I think of Howl emerging from the bathroom in a cloud of hyacinth-scented steam. Of course, in our house it’s more likely to be lavender, or frankincense-citrus, or some other really interesting Zum soap combination.

I said earlier that I was thinking about the way fictional characters inspire imitation. It’s obvious with kids and cartoon heroes, but does it stop there? When I was taking t’ai chi classes, I sometimes imagined myself as a movie ninja, to feel that state of relaxed alertness that movie ninjas display. I want to deduce like Sherlock Holmes, read tracks like Jim Chee, maybe even quote poetry like Inspector Gamache. I’d like to sing like Aza of Fairest, or recite epics like Meryl of The Two Princesses of Bamarre. And I mean not just that I’d like to be good at it, the way they are, but that when I read those books, singing with others and reciting poetry suddenly seem like appealing activities. Even if I’m not particularly good at them.

I can’t conclude a post about Howl’s Moving Castle without a word about the movie. The movie is totally unlike the book. It is visually amazing and having Sophie’s appearance continually change is clever, but the characters are very different and so is the plot. Whether you liked the movie or not, consider reading Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Just remember—the castle doesn’t look anything like the mechanical contrivance of the movie.

Side note: when did the English start saying “different to” instead of “different from”? I’m sure the British-authored books I read when I was young didn’t do this. I meant to look for an example in this book while I was re-reading it, but I got too caught up in the story.

Second side note: I have included quotations, which I think counts as Fair Use since this is sort of a review of the book and sort of educational (if you stretch the point a bit.) And everyone quotes little bits of this and that on the internet—not that that really proves anything.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Watching "The Sniffer" on Netflix--crime, odors, and subtitles on TV

Recently I have been watching a crime show on Netflix called “The Sniffer.” It is in Russian with English subtitles. After looking it up on Wikipedia just now, I find it is actually a Ukrainian show, though I was right in thinking the language was Russian. (My Russian goes no further than “nyet” for no.)

I started watching the show because of the premise—a detective who relies on his super-sophisticated sense of smell to solve crimes. Smell is an underrated sense and I wanted to see what they would do with it. 

I’m inclined to think they give smell way too much credit for dramatic purposes. Estimating the age of the person who handled a piece of paper? And surely all the surrounding smells must create a lot of interference—other people who may have handled the paper earlier, for instance, or the drawer that it was stored in…

At the same time, I have to remind myself that dogs do some impressive things with their sense of smell, so perhaps not all the detective’s conclusions are as exaggerated as I think. And he does do research when a smell puzzles him. Most recently he bought dozens of strawberry yogurt products in an effort to determine what brand had that particular scent, on the grounds that the perpetrator likely worked at a yogurt factory.

Another interesting thing is the way the show attempts to depict the smells, using misty outlines to suggest traces of people in the air and flashing images of the specifics (the strawberries, e.g.) so that we don’t just see the detective sniff the object and then say, “Ah, a forty-year old man, non-smoker, and some sort of strawberry aroma, perhaps yogurt.”

Naturally the show is not all about crime and smells. There are story arcs for the people themselves—the detective, his love interest, his estranged wife who pops tranquilizers, his troubled son, and his partner who eats a lot of hamburgers and hits on women. Does his wife really want him back? I can’t tell. She’s a sly one, and kind of a mess.

I also keep looking for clues that this story is taking place in Russia (though I guess it’s actually the Ukraine—why “the” Ukraine? Is that just how I learned to say its name?) The lettering on signs is an obvious clue, and the police department (if that’s what it is) certainly looks unusual, but otherwise it’s hard to tell where it is taking place. Maybe I don’t know what to look for. I do notice that all the women who aren’t either quite old or quite young seem to wear clothes that show a lot of cleavage. That might just reflect the TV producers chasing ratings, though.

Thinking about it, I wonder if the furnishings are different. Some are clearly ultra-modern, all glass and spare lines and probably quite expensive, while others seem somehow old-fashioned. Perhaps what’s missing is the recliners and contemporary furniture. I’ll have to pay more attention in future shows.

I’d like to give interesting examples of places where the subtitles appear to miss the mark, using some odd expression that probably should have been translated differently, but unfortunately I didn’t write any down and can’t remember them now. I do remember one scene where the detective’s wife Iulia comes to see him and mocks him via security camera about his elevator, saying something that sounds a lot like “super-duper lift.”

Anyway, I’m having fun, though I suspect I wouldn’t still be watching if it were just another American TV show. Then again, maybe in that case I would discover that it actually has ingeniously clever dialogue.