Friday, April 18, 2014

A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

In 1933, an 18-year-old Patrick was thrown out of school and decided that he might as well go on a walking tour of Europe.  He set off to walk to Constantinople.*  As a much older man, he sat down with his memories and diaries to write out the story in a three-part set.  This is the first volume; I have the second waiting; and the third was never finished but it was published posthumously so I will read it too.

Since I cannot think of anything much more wonderful than to walk across Europe (can you?), I was instantly hooked.  And truly, I enjoyed this so much!  Fermor throws the people he met, scenery, history, art, strange stories, and all sorts of things into his book--and in many cases he's talking about a world that is now gone.  Most of this volume is spent in Germany, and Nazism is just getting started.  It has little foothold as yet.  Fermor also spends a good deal of time in Vienna and Prague, and finishes off just as he is getting into Hungary.

Fermor meets a wider variety of people than would seem possible.  Thanks to his father's diplomatic connections, he's able to stay with upper-class people in castles every once in a while, and they write on to other friends to expect him.  Most of the time, though, he's drinking with sailors in pubs, sleeping in hostels with vagabonds down on their luck, making friends with students his own age, or even asking respectable housewives if they'd like their portrait drawn for a couple of shillings.  He has practically no money and will sleep anywhere.  

 Loved it.  Can't wait to continue the journey.

*Been a long time gone, Constantinople, but that's what he calls it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Green and Burning Tree

The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books, by Eleanor Cameron

Eleanor Cameron was the author of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and other Mr. Bass stories, as well as some other books too.  This is a collection of essays and speeches from the mid 1960s about children's literature--writing it, reading it, and enjoying it.  She talks about a lot of my favorites and mentions a few I think I would like to read. 

At time she gets a little too misty-eyed about myth and children and all, but mostly it's some quite good stuff if you're interested in children's literature.  I especially liked the last two essays, which were about Wanda Gag and Eleanor Farjeon.  They were fun.  But the whole thing was quite worth reading.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Quest of the Holy Grail

My ancient but well-loved copy
The Quest of the Holy Grail

The Quest is part of the giant set of stories known as the prose Lancelot, or Lancelot-Grail cycle.  It was written in Old French, and apparently--as far as anyone can figure out--the pieces were written by different people working together.  The Quest claims to be by one Walter Map, an archdeacon, but almost certainly is not.  It was probably written by a clerk--someone religiously trained but attached to a court.  It's a spiritual fable, really; as full of adventures and jousting as any Arthurian tale, but with a completely different focus.  The story of the Holy Grail takes the chivalric ideal and tears it to bits, showing it to be completely inadequate.  Every custom of the chivalric tale is turned on its head.

In this ultimate quest, all the knights set off separately to search for the Holy Grail; as in any knightly venture, they trust to chance to send them adventure.  We follow several characters: Gawain, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and of course Galahad wander around and meet with strange events. 

Well, not Gawain.  This knight, the perfect example of earthly chivalry and prowess, cannot seem to meet with any adventure at all, and neither can any other knights he runs into.  All that ever happens to him is to meet monks and hermits, all of whom tell him that he must confess and repent of his sins in order to truly join the Quest.  Alas, Gawain always makes excuses for why he can't be shriven just now,* and hurries off to find the adventures that never come.  He only ever manages to fight with other (unrecognized) knights and kill his own friends.  In Gawain we find that perfect earthly knighthood is not good enough.

Lancelot has his problems too.  He is so weighted down with sin--much more so than Gawain in fact--that he cannot join the Quest either.  Lancelot does want to repent, and he spends much of his time learning to shed his old ways and embrace new ones.  He is rewarded with marvelous visions and time with his son Galahad, and he is allowed to almost see the Grail.  Sadly, despite his good intentions, we all know that he's going to go back to court and fall into his old ways, so there is a shadow over his adventures.

Percival is very amusing to read about.  He is innocence personified, so much so that he falls for every obvious trap set for him, and is only rescued at the last second.  Percival wanders alone and has many adventures, but he never does learn to be wary.

Bors is more of a thinker.  He is careful, and he knows much more.  He is also given an awful trial; he has to make a choice between conflicting duties and though he wins through, he also pays a terrible price.

Galahad is the only character who begins the story already prepared for the Grail.  He wanders (much of which we do not see) and accomplishes much, but you do kind of get the feeling that he's waiting for everyone else to get ready to join him on the final piece of the Quest.  Still, he's not utterly boring and he does have some moments of difficulty.

I think here is where we see the Arthurian landscape at its most characteristic.  It's all wilderness, or castles, or hermits; there are no cities or ordinary people, only the characters who have some part to play.  (Although there is one lady hermit who has a fully staffed manor house!)

The landscape may be characteristic, but little else is.  Every knightly habit gets overthrown.  In any other adventure, a knight who finds a shield or sword or sign with some warning on it would promptly take his chance and have some sort of victory, but here, knightly pride inevitably leads to trouble.  Many behaviors that usually lead to glory fall flat in this story; only spiritual virtues will get these knights on the road to adventure.  Many of the adventures are allegorical in nature, and the author takes that characteristic medieval delight in expounding the meanings of images, events, and visions.

One of the most fun things about the Grail quest is the wonderful and somewhat deranged history and genealogy scattered throughout the story.  There is a magical ship, set off by King Solomon to wait for his last descendant to come and use it, with a fantastic sword and a doorway made of wood originally grown by Adam and Eve.  We learn some of the 'history' behind the legends of the Maimed King and the Fisher King and the Waste Land (the author must have gone through fantastic contortions to get it in the shape he wanted).  We learn Galahad's family history--he is a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea's brother-in-law Nascien--and there are all sorts of wonderful visions and explanations of all of it.  Fantastic stuff. **

I haven't even told you yet about Percival's sister, who is sort of a female version of Galahad.  She is mysterious; she travels with the three final companions in a sisterly fashion, makes prophecies, always knows what's going on (like Galahad), and eventually becomes a female type of Christ, giving up her life so that a sinful woman may literally wash in her blood and be saved along with all her people.  The author also sets up knightly couples to match Biblical couples, and Percival's sister even purifies the concept of courtly love.

I just love this story.  It is so weird and great.  Just wonderful. 

* I remember studying this in college, and an outspoken, confident classmate said she really liked Gawain here, since "he knows his limitations."  I'm not sure what she thought was going on. 

**Just as I was reading all this, an acquaintance posted on Facebook that he had found some genealogy for his family that showed he is a descendant of Lancelot's line.  He had a list that was quite similar to the one here.  I didn't quite have the heart to disillusion him.

Excellent Women

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym

Mildred Lathbury is 32 and unmarried, which appears to render her an elderly old maid in English society.  (She keeps sounding older than she actually is.)  Mildred likes her quiet life helping in the parish and taking tea with friends, and while she would like to marry, she doesn't want to marry any of the actual men of her acquaintance.  The quiet little neighborhood gets a bit shook up when a married couple move in and become Mildred's upstairs neighbors, and a pretty young widow takes lodgings in the rector's attic.  Everybody wants Mildred's advice or help or energy.  Why not move in with her or expect her to pack all the furniture?  Surely she has nothing better to do...

Amy at Book Musings said the other day that Barbara Pym novels have "some sly observational humor that's crushed under the weight of a little too much depressing postwar English ennui."  Which is the PERFECT thing to say about Barbara Pym.  I've now tried her twice and have come to the conclusion that, as much as I should theoretically like her, I just do not.  I heard that Excellent Women was an early novel and a very funny comedy.  It was OK, and I read the whole thing, but my final conclusion has to be...meh.

I liked Mildred and her stubborn refusal to live down to everyone's expectations that she pine after any single man around.  I liked that it was a novel that didn't have a romance as its focus.  But it didn't seem all that funny to me.  Witty and mildly amusing, yes, but not the "high comedy" it is billed to be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Language Freak Summer Challenge (Second Edition)

Ekaterina at In My Book hosted a language challenge last summer that I really enjoyed, so I'm joining up again.  Here is the second edition!

There are a whole lot of rules and arrangements, so go visit Ekaterina to check it out.  I'm going to commit to the Beginner level of just one book in a foreign language, and if it goes really well I might do another one.  Right now I am not sure what to do.  I have two possible titles--a YA book called Stjernen Uden Himmel (The Star Without a Sky), about WWII that I am pretty sure was translated from German.  It's probably not a very difficult book, but I have never read it before.  My other possibility is to read the classic Niels Lyhne, which is Serious Literature and more difficult, but I have read it fairly recently in English and I still have the English copy to help me along if I get stuck.

Ekaterina has some questions:
  • What languages do you know? Note: even if you are a beginner, it totally counts! And don't forget to mention what your mother-tongue is!  I'm a native English speaker and I once spoke Danish pretty fluently, but I'm rusty now.  I've also studied German and Russian a bit.
  • What is your history with these languages?  I lived in Denmark for a year or so and studied Scandinavian Lit in college, reading the texts in the original (and English too).  I took 2 semesters of German and 4 of Russian.
  • Do you use them or are you out of practice?  The German and Russian are nearly gone.  I'm out of practice with Danish but not that bad.
  • Have you read some books in these languages? Did you like it?  I've read books in Danish.  Not the others, not properly.  Reading in Danish is much harder work than in English, but it is also pretty fun.
  • What are your plans for the challenge?  1 or 2 books that will be pretty difficult for me.

Looking forward to it!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Romance of Tristan

The Romance of Tristan, by Beroul

Beroul's Romance of Tristan is a very early version composed around the middle of the 12th century in French verse.  We only have part of it; the extant fragment starts well into Tristan and Yseut's affair and breaks off just before the episode of their deaths.  My translation is in prose and includes summaries of the action before and after the fragment.

Everybody knows the story of Tristan and Yseut, right, so I'm just going to talk about what interested me about this version.  Beroul is very careful to note that the potion is to blame for their irresistible passion for one another.  This potion is efficacious for exactly 3 years to the minute, and as soon as it wears off, they end their affair.  The whole time it's going on, Yseut employs tricks to convince her husband that she is faithful to him--which she is not--and yet this is considered completely justified.  I can't quite tell if it's supposed to be justified because it's all the potion's fault and therefore not "real," or if Yseut is supposed to be really sort of married to Tristan, since he was her first love.  Maybe both.  Later on, they renew their affair and that too is considered justified, so I think it might be both.

Other versions are longer and more elaborate, and I will probably read one later in the year.  I have the prose Romance of Tristan and Gottfried von Strassburg's German Tristan, so there's plenty to chew on.  Right now I'm enjoying The Quest of the Holy Grail, which is fantastic, and after that I have the German Parzifal, which I'm quite excited about.  Oh!  And over the weekend, I picked up a library discard of the 2-volume Everyman edition of Malory to replace my awful old paperback with its small, blobby type.  The library binding is quite hideous but will last forever.  I got the York Cycle of Mystery Plays too!

Happy National Library Week!

On of the things I've been doing instead of blogging in the last week has been prep for National Library Week at work.  And I have some fun news for you folks-- Oxford University Press is making their Oxford Handbooks Online content free all this week!  Follow the link and see what you can find on your favorite topics.  There's a lot to read.

Another thing I did instead of blogging was a trip to the Berkeley campus for Cal Day, one of my favorite events of the year.  I drag my kids all over campus to libraries and science demonstrations.  Here is my younger daughter at the bottom of the 4-story staircase and light well in the Doe Library stacks.  I'll post a couple more pictures later--I haven't taken them off my camera yet.

We also went hiking at a local beauty spot.  It's always full of wildflowers at this time of year.  This is my mom and my kids.

Books have also been happening!  See you soon!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Un-Rest Cure

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, by Saki

I got this for Christmas!  It has illustrations by Edward Gorey!  I've always meant to read Saki and here was my chance.  Look at that beautiful cover.

The Unrest-Cure is a collection of short stories, most of which start off as ordinary events in upper-middle-class British lives but take a sharp turn toward the weird, the oddball, or the macabre.   Quite a few of them feature a young man named Clovis, who enjoys making a little trouble now and again..  They were great, and some of them were very funny, too.  (Or, on the other hand, horrifying; "Sredni Vashtar" is one of the selections, for example.)  There are one or two illustrations for each story and they fit perfectly.

A great book for a little relaxing dip into a weird story.  I will definitely be reading more Saki.

Candide Readalong: Wrapup

Although I haven't posted about it at the right times, I have been reading along in Candide and finished it on time.

In the later part of the book, Candide and his friends travel around the world.  They discover that South America is mostly just as cruel and awful as Europe, but there is one isolated and secret place--El Dorado, where everyone is happy and kind, and gold and jewels are just dust by the wayside.  Candide loves it there, but must continue to seek Cunegonde, so he takes lots of jewels with him and goes back to ordinary civilization.  He promptly loses most of the wealth, but he's still quite well-off.  Traveling back to Europe, he gains a new companion, Michael, who expects only suffering.  They meet many miserable people and dethroned kings.  They suddenly find all their old companions, even the dead ones, who aren't so dead after all.  Cunegonde has lost her beauty and Candide no longer loves her, but marries her anyway out of duty.  They all live miserably and bickeringly until they realize that happiness does not after all lie in enormous wealth and having lots of servants, but in laboring honestly and freely (in a garden!) to get their living.

Which I could have told them, actually.  Ha.

I'm very glad for the readalong that made me read Candide--I was much more scared of it than I needed to be!  (Lesson of the Classics Club: books are just not that scary. Probably even Ulysses isn't that scary.) Thanks to Fariba at Exploring Classics for hosting!  (Due to bizarro Internet problems in my local area, I can't actually see Fariba's blog at the moment, which is a bummer, so I hope she sees me! I'm surprised I can post; WordPress is impossible but Blogger works.  Weird.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The History of the Ancient World

The History of the Ancient World:  From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer

I read this when it was first published several years ago, and I decided to read it again this year because I wanted to see if it would work for my older daughter to use for history next year (and can I just say that high school is coming at me like a freight train, eek!).  Fair disclaimer: Susan Wise Bauer, the author, is my homeschooling guru and can (almost) do no wrong in my mind.  If I get around to writing one of those Top Ten Influential Books Of My Life lists people are doing right now, The Well-Trained Mind will have to be pretty near the top.  In fact you can see the story of that here. 

I had not remembered how enjoyable this book is.  I had a lot of fun with it, as well as the part where I re-learned lots of ancient history.  It took ages to get through, because it's 800 pages of dense non-fiction, but I was surprised at how easy it was to gulp down 50 pages at a sitting.

This is a survey of recorded human history from a birds'-eye view, from the earliest Sumerian records until Constantine's conversion to Christianity.  (Which is not the fall of Rome, as the title says, but she didn't pick the title--blame Norton.)  SWB works mostly chronologically, skipping around from Mesopotamia to China to Italy.  Very often you feel like she is starting new chapters with "Meanwhile, on the other side of the world..."  She mostly--not always--only puts in societies that are mentioned in texts; seeing archaeological evidence as archaeology and not so much history, she says little about groups until they show up in records with a story attached.  So new groups pop up all the time, as they run into record-keeping peoples or start writing themselves.

It's all very interesting, and she puts in lots of little stories to keep some personal perspective; it's not all grand movements of armies.  But this is big-picture history that works well as a background or primer for further reading.  SWB uses the myths and legends of each society to explain elements of their worries and hopes, which is neat.

I think it's a good history.  My daughter has been peeking at it and is now looking forward to using it as a spine for history next year.  There is a study guide; it's not exactly thrilling, but it's solid.  I will need to figure out a time to require a short research paper.  (The other day at work I tried to help a guy who has never written a research paper in his life.  He had tried to develop a thesis, but it was incomprehensible and he didn't really know what he meant by it.  I pointed him to excellent resources, including a step-by-step tutorial of how to write a paper and a whole slew of 'current topics' ideas; I sure hope it works.)  Oh.  Sorry.  Anyway, I enjoyed it and now I'm looking forward to reading her history of the "Renaissance World"...which is chock-full of death and disease.