Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wonderfully Wicked Readathon

The ladies at My Shelf Confessions are hosting the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon in October!  They are so nice about any participation being OK with them, and I like that relaxed attitude.  I'll be joining up and reading what I can between October 17 and 27.

Here's the deal, in their words:
The  Wicked Wildfire Read-A-Thon is a time when we all get together to dedicate the days of October 17-27 to as much reading as possible. You read as much as you can in order to get yourself a little further through that huge to-read pile! We know real life gets in the way and even if you can’t participate more than one day, you’re welcome to join in on the fun!
In the meanwhile, we will be hosting book-related challenges where you can win some awesome prizes and have a Twitter party at the hashtag #WWReadathon! You can posts updates on your blog, Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook or even YouTube — as long as the profile is public and we all can enjoy your reading progress! Make sure to link to the site where you’ll be sharing your posts/updates with us. 
Sign up now!

I just love the mini-challenges.  Want to join me?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Small House at Allington

The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

This was my Spin title, and very glad I am that it was.  After reading Savage Continent, a nice story about nice civilized people doing ordinary things and having ordinary problems was just what I wanted!  It was lovely to sink into this novel.  It's the 5th Barsetshire novel, though it's actually set in the next county over; almost none of the action takes place in Barsetshire.

The Small House at Allington is sort of a little dower house attached to the much larger manor of Allington.  It is occupied by Mrs. Dale and her two daughters Bell and Lily, who live there because their uncle owns Allington.  He is fond of the girls and, under his patronage, they are able to have a bit more social life than their straitened circumstances would otherwise allow, but they do not expect to marry wealth or anything like that.  They are thoroughly nice middle-class girls.

Bell has no particular prospects of marriage--well, they thought the local doctor might like her a couple of years ago but nothing came of it.  Lily, meanwhile, has met a rather dashing friend of her cousin's, and has become engaged.  Mr. Crosbie is a high-class sort of secretary in London and very popular.  He loves Lily (and she loves him unabashedly), but he's rather like Mr. Willoughby, always sighing for what he hasn't got whether it's money or love.  Worried that he will be trapped by poverty if he marries a penniless girl and has to live on his 'paltry' 800 a year, he drops Lily in favor of an earl's equally penniless but socially-connected daughter.  He does this knowing that Lily is the better person and that he's making a bad bargain.

Lily has a strange reaction to this.  Yes, her heart is broken, and yes, she's trying to get over it; but otherwise she has some serious problems.  Meanwhile, there are lots of other people having interesting problems too.  Bell is being pressured to marry her cousin.  John Eames, a poor young clerk, might be up-and-coming but the one thing he truly wants is the one thing he can't have. 

Although this looks like a comedy novel which will land everyone in their proper places by the end, it really isn't.  Some of the story lines just stop short; Trollope says "I know you want a happy ending, but you're not going to get it!"  Others tie up satisfactorily.  It's a darker novel than you might expect.

I'm looking forward to reading The Last Chronicle of Barset!  I really like Trollope.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, by John Buchan

The Back to the Classics Challenge asks for "a classic mystery, suspense, or thriller."  It so happens that I picked up a collection of Richard Hannay thrillers some time back, and the first one, The 39 Steps, is certainly a classic thriller, so I picked that.  And then it so happens that I found a Franklin Library edition for almost nothing--I don't collect those (do any serious readers buy Franklins? To read? I want to know) but this one has illustrations by Edward Gorey.  They are not actually terribly interesting illustrations, with the exception of the cover image, which I share with you here.

It's summer 1914, and Richard Hannay is visiting England after a lifetime spent on the African veldts.  He is bored stiff and planning to leave, when his upstairs neighbor invites himself in and tells a fantastic tale.  The Black Stone gang are planning to assassinate the only man who can keep peace, and he's got the vital information to stop them.  All he needs is to lie low for a month...but it's only a couple of days until Hannay finds him murdered in his parlor.  Now it's up to Hannay to stay a few steps ahead of the Black Stone gang, decipher the code, and prevent a disaster.  He plans to use his knowledge of the veldt to hide in the wilds of Scotland, but the Black Stone is on to him...

It's a pretty good yarn, though surprisingly short.  The murdered spy fellow has a weird thing about "the Jew," so that's more than a little uncomfortable, but it is presented as his prejudice, not the actual villain of the story.  I'd be quite happy to read the other 3 Hannay stories sometime; I always love vintage British mysteries and thrillers.

Friday, August 22, 2014

It's the Morte D'Arthur Readalong!

To wrap up my year-long project, and to celebrate Arthurian literature generally, I'd like to host a readalong of Malory's Morte D'Arthur in the late fall.

Sir Thomas Malory was in prison in the 1450s, and he passed the time by compiling all the French romances and English stories he had into one big collection.  The job took him about 20 years!  We don't really have a certain identification for him--there are a few candidates for exactly which Thomas Malory he was--but the most probable is that he was the one from Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, a veteran of Calais.  He was in prison for rather a lot of distinctly non-chivalric behavior.  He also spent time in prison for conspiracy in the Wars of the Roses.

Le Morte D'Arthur is quite long, so I'm giving us a good chunk of time.  The scheduling turned out to be unexpectedly tricky; Caxton originally published the text in 21 books, each with a bunch of short chapters, and my edition uses that arrangement, so I just divided into four sections.  But!  It turns out that many more modern editions collect those 21 books into just eight, divided up by story, so that some books are very long and others very short.  If you have an edition that contains eight books, check the key (which I lifted from Wikipedia) below the schedule and do your best.

October 1-15: Books 1-5
October 16-31: Books 6-10
November 1-15: Books 11-15
November 16-30: Books 16-21
December 1-15: Catchup & Wrapup

List of Modern Divisions
Book I: “From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles” (Caxton I–IV)
Book II: “The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome” (Caxton V)
Book III: “The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac” (Caxton VI)
Book IV: “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” (Caxton VII)
Book V: “The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione” (Caxton VIII–XII)
Book VI: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” (Caxton XIII–XVII)
Book VII: “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere” (Caxton XVIII–XIX)
Book VIII: “The Death of Arthur” (Caxton XX–XXI)

Malory's original 1485 very early modern English is not really hard to read when compared with, say, Chaucer's Middle English from not that long before.  It's usually been modernized rather than translated; if you fix up the spelling and punctuation, the words themselves are not difficult.  There are many re-writings that put it entirely into current English, but I think those are usually for younger audiences.   So if you're feeling very ambitious, by all means read the original!   

I did read the original at one time, but for this event I want to read the two-volume Everyman edition I got as a library discard from UC Berkeley in April.  It makes me happy to have them, even if they were only in Moffitt library.  It's an 1897 translation by John Rhys, and my copy is from the 1930s.  I might dip into the original too, though...

Hey, if you don't have time to READ the entire Morte D'Arthur, you could listen to it!  Derek Jacobi recorded a wonderful unabridged version.   So I will probably listen to that too; I have it and I enjoyed it quite a bit last time I listened to it.

I hope you'll grab the button and join me for a fun readalong!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Joys of Motherhood

The Joys of Motherhood, by Buchi Emecheta

I've never read a Buchi Emecheta novel before.  It was recommended on Celestine's blog, Reading Pleasure, so I picked it up as part of my prospective summer reading.

A young mother, mad with grief, runs away from her home to kill herself by jumping off a bridge...

And then the story goes back 25 years to tell the story of Nnu Ego's life, starting with her mother's story.  Nnu Ego grows up as the favorite daughter of her eminent father, and he wants a good marriage for her, but she doesn't get pregnant and eventually her husband shoves her aside.  Nnu Ego is sent to the big city of Lagos to marry another man, who she desperately hopes will give her children. 

Emecheta writes ambiguously, both defending and critiquing traditional Ibo ways.  Nnu Ego lives by them strictly, but comes to question her life and wonder if she will ever be free.  Everywhere she turns, she is chained by obligation, rules of status, and by her own great and determined love for her children, but the rewards are meager at best.

As I read, I was struck several times by the similarity between the events of this novel and the actual events in the life of Mark Mathabane as he tells them in Kaffir Boy.  Very different countries, several decades apart, and a different level of violence, but similar themes of the slow collapse of African colonialism, older men lost in a fast-changing world, mothers determined to make their children's lives better, and the children who grow up to an utterly different life.

A really good novel.  I'll have to look for more Emecheta books.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Second Treatise on Government

In August, the Classics Club theme is the Enlightenment.  It so happens that Locke's Second Treatise on Government is on my CC list and my TBR challenge list for this year, so I figured this would be the perfect time to read it.

Locke is clearly a genius, but since he was writing over 300 years ago, he isn't all that easy to understand all the time.  He would certainly repay repeated readings.   As some background, he wrote the treatise anonymously, partly to support William III's ascension to the British throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and to discredit James II, and partly to rebut Hobbes' Leviathan treatise.  Hobbes said that since everyone was pretty rotten, people needed an authoritarian government--an absolute monarch--to keep control, while Locke argued that the only legitimate government was one derived from the consent of the people governed.  James II was in the absolutist tradition, and William was supposed to be a king subject to the law.

Locke argues from first principles, imagining people living in a state of nature, with no government--everyone is equal to each other and subject to none.  In such a state, when one person attacks another, that produces a state of war.  For protection and freedom of trade, people might group together, which puts them in a society, and then there have to be laws.  What constitutes property and how do we know when someone owns something?  What does a just society look like?  Who has the authority to administer the law?  What powers does a government justly have, and how can it wield them?  Under what circumstances it might be ethical to overthrow a government?

Locke leads the reader on from one conclusion to the next, building his model of civil society out of clear statements and logical arguments.  It's interesting to watch.  I would like every high school student to read it as part of their government studies, but the fact is that it's a very difficult essay to read now.  I'm sure there are paraphrased versions out there.  It would be interesting to know what modern 'translations' exist, and if any of them try to convey the sense exactly, or if some of them tend to throw in some biases one way or the other.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

History Reading Challenge Check-In

Fanda at ClassicLit is doing a check-in for her history challenge:

Time flies so really quickly, and here we are already on the eighth month of 2014, two third of our sail to the past with History Reading Challenge 2014. This is our second check in, to check how we have been progressing since our start. Let’s share in the comment below (or if you want to write it in a post, you could link up your post here),

  • How many books have you read so far?
  • Are you on schedule or left behind?
  • What is your most favorite so far?
  • Which history are you looking forward to read?

(You don’t have to answer all the questions; basically tell us what you think about this challenge so far).

And I would like to remind you, that in the end of this challenge there will be two giveaways, one of them for the Analysis posts. If you haven’t submitted your posts, there is still enough time to do so. 
I managed to miss the last check-in post, so I think this is actually my first.  Here are the titles I've read:
  1. The Perfect Summer, by Juliet Gillespie
  2. The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  3. Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock
  4. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
  5. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  6. Savage Continent, by Keith Lowe
  7. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton
I've therefore technically hit my goal of 7 or more books, but I have at least two more that I would really like to read by the end of the year: The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer, and Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets.  I feel that I'm right on schedule.

It's been kind of a blood-soaked year of history reading (I guess that's what history's like, but those WWII books were particularly brutal).  The Guns of August was excellent but not a lot of fun.  A Time of Gifts, though, was just a delight the whole way through, so that's certainly a favorite.  In the Steps of the Master was also wonderful and at the top of the list.  I'm looking forward to both of my next picks, though I don't expect them to be very fun either.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Two Lives of Charlemagne

Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer

Charlemagne, King of the Franks, lived from 742 to 814 and was practically a legend in his own time--which is illustrated by these two accounts of his life.

The first is by Einhard, who actually served under Charlemagne as a diplomat.  It's a straightforward, factual account, not very long, that still manages to get several major things a bit wrong.  Of course, Einhard also glides over some of the less heroic details of court life too; he is strongly biased.  The entire account is strictly realistic; for example, I noticed the incident that was later turned into the Song of Roland.  In the poem, written centuries later, Roland and his men fight off hordes of attacking Moors; Einhard's account shows it to have been a guerrilla-style attack on the rear baggage train by Basques.

Notker the Stammerer was a monk, writing his account for the benefit of Charlemagne's great-grandson, Charles the Fat.  It's a book that collects lots of short anecdotes together, always illustrating the king's character as shrewd, clever, fair, devout, and generous.  By this time, a couple of generations later, Charlemagne was well on his way to legendary status and stories collected around him.  (You can even see Notker doing it as he mixes up Charlemagne with his own grandfather, Charles the Hammer.)  These anecdotes are very entertaining and usually do stay in the realm of the possible, but the footnotes are constantly having to point out that the chronology is all wrong, this or that never happened, or that various people in the story were in fact quite dead by that time.

Einhard is quite interesting, and Notker is downright fun to read.  If you're looking for a fairly easy and short piece of medieval history to enjoy, this is a good possibility.  (Note by the way that I have the really old Penguin edition from 1969, translated by Lewis Thorpe.  The current edition has a new translator, and I'm sure all new footnotes and so on.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Savage Continent

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe

I've been slowly reading this book for at least half of the summer, and then suddenly someone put it on hold at the library, so I rushed through the last 100 pages in two days.  It is such an awful litany of terribleness that I could only read so much at a time.

Post-war Europe was a destroyed wasteland.  Entire cities had been burnt down.  Many villages were simply gone.  Farmland had been ravaged, and large populations shoved around and killed.  Institutions like schools, police, government, and everything else--were missing, or else staffed by thugs.  In this desolation, people starved, got sick, and perpetrated yet more violence and oppression upon each other.  The Nazis made actions like ethnic cleansing and making populations disappear into routines, and many others copied those atrocities on a smaller scale (especially upon German ethnic groups).  Mixed regions that had been rubbing along for centuries in relative peace discovered that they could get away with slaughtering each other instead.

Lowe chronicles all this with histories of events in areas across Europe, from France to Greece to the USSR.  By the end, everybody has some very serious wrongs to think about (even the usually-surprisingly-benign Danes, who made life miserable for thousands of half-German children).  Eastern European lands, as the triple victims of Soviets/Nazis/Soviets, suffered most as usual, and the results were hundreds of thousands more deaths, as populations were persecuted, deported, and slaughtered, and then turned to do the same back again.

Ethnic minority populations were moved and exchanged all over Europe; Poles shoved out of Ukraine into Poland and Ukrainians into Ukraine, and of course German minorities everywhere were expelled and forced into Germany, which was destroyed and unprepared for refugees.  This was regarded as "the least worst option," Lowe emphasizes, often even by those moved.  Germans, after all, had used their minority populations to start half the war and no one wanted to risk that again.  After World War I, they'd tried moving borders to fit populations and that had obviously failed, so they tried moving populations to fit borders instead.   This really puts the existence of Israel in a whole new light--establishing a country for Jews was only one of a couple of dozen similar actions.

If there's anything I took away from this, it's that revenge is a very natural desire, and that indulging it is a really bad idea.  Reading how all these people enacted revenges and brutalities upon each other in a never-ending spiral of violence was truly awful.  (Yes, OK, the spirals eventually ended, usually in a Stalinist purge of some kind.)  Another really bad idea is nursing communal grudges and victimizations over generations; today, 70 years later, we can observe obvious differences between populations that have moved on and built new communities, and those that have made it a point never to forget or forgive the wrongs done to their grandparents.

Yet another important piece of history we should pay attention to.  Just about all of this was new to me, and Lowe makes the point that we tell ourselves very particular stories about the war for psychological reasons, but the realities were often different, and we've purposely ignored some things.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Some Poetry by Yeats

Selections from The Wild Swans at Coole, and others, by William Butler Yeats

One of my Classics Club items is The Wild Swans at Coole, one of the books of Yeats' poetry.  I looked for it at the library, and what I really found was a Norton collection covering his entire career.  So I read the poems from Wild Swans, and then I read as many others as caught my eye.

The Wild Swans period was in the late 1910s, and Yeats was rounding 50.  The woman he'd loved for years had refused him.  (Soon she married another man, and then he tried to court her daughter (of all people!) who refused him too.)  He was thinking he would never be able to marry, and that he was entering the autumn of his life, and everything was winding down for him.  The poems all have an elegaic, autumnal feel--one really is an elegy, for a friend killed in action.  In fact, Yeats was on the brink of entering his 'great' period, and much of his best work was in the future.  He also married and had children.

I read quite a few other pieces too, including "Leda and the Swan" and "Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop."  Overall, I think I got a nice taste of Yeats to build on in the future.

Since it's August and we're all talking about World War I, here is a piece from that war, about Yeats' friend, Major Robert Gregory.  The third and fourth lines refer to Irish indifference to the "English" war--Gregory doesn't hate the Germans or love the English.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate  
Somewhere among the clouds above;  
Those that I fight I do not hate  
Those that I guard I do not love;  
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,  
No likely end could bring them loss  
Or leave them happier than before.  
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,  
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight  
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;  
I balanced all, brought all to mind,  
The years to come seemed waste of breath,  
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

PS This completes my summer goal of getting to 75/150 on my list!  Halfway there!