Sunday, December 26, 2010

52 Books 2010 Wrap-up

Robin at the 52 books challenge posted these questions for a wrap-up:

Did you reach the goal of 52 books?
: Yes. I didn't blog about all of them, but I certainly read at least that many.

If you didn't, how many did you manage to read?: N/A

What was the last book you read?: The last book I finished was War in Heaven, by Charles Williams. I'm in the middle of 3 or 4 right now.

Did you read from a list and fly by the seat of your pants choosing a different book each week?: I had some books that I wanted to read, but mostly I picked up whatever looked good at the library. When it comes to books, I'm a butterfly. I flit.

Did you learn something new about yourself, an author, an topic?: I learned about a whole lot of things--North Korea, the Crusades, Malawi, and patriarchal Christianity were a few.

How many classics did you read?: I think about 15, but you have to count some kind of minor and odd things as classics. But hey, the canon is not closed, and if I can plausibly say it's a classic, it is!

Did you discover a new author or genre? Did you love them or hate them? This year I discovered Elizabeth Goudge and Kage Baker, and I love them both. And H. V. Morton too!

Name your bottom ten least favorite reads: The Swan Thieves (blech). I can't think of anything else that I really disliked, that I actually finished.

Name a book you simply could not finish: So far, Hayek's Constitution of Liberty. But I'm not beaten yet. (There are lots of books I just don't bother to finish because I don't think they're worth it. Most recently, Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas. I agreed with her premise but didn't think much of her book.)

Name a book you expected to like but didn't: The aforementioned Enlightened Sexism!

Name a book you expected to not like but did: Hm, I can't really think of one. Maybe I won't open books I don't expect to like?

Week 52: John Bidwell

I wasn't going to write more posts until the new year, but as long as I did last week's I might as well finish off the year with the best, most exciting book of 2010, a middle-grade biography-- John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer, by Nancy Leek.

Unless you live in Chico, you probably won't have heard of Bidwell, but he was one of the first Americans to get to California by crossing over the Sierra Nevadas in 1841. From then on, he was involved in everything interesting that happened in California; he worked and traveled for John Sutter, joined the California Rebellion, nearly started the gold rush a year or so early, took the news of gold to San Francisco, served in Congress, ran for California governor, and founded the city of Chico. He even ran for President on the Prohibition ticket in 1892 (the platform was temperance and women's suffrage--he never had a chance).

This biography is 10 chapters long and full of interesting and funny stories. Would you eat a coyote's windpipe if you were hungry enough? If you were a 17-year-old bride, could you carry your baby across the mountains, with no trail to follow and no shoes to wear? If you were a wealthy girl, would you be as brave as Annie and leave your home and family to get married and live in the wilderness of California? How would you tell the President's wife that she is supposed to share? And why did the lack of a batea keep the Gold Rush from starting for a couple of years?

This is a great book for anyone studying California or pioneer history. John Bidwell is available from Lyon Books, Bidwell Mansion, the ANCHR website, or me. Because Nancy Leek is my mom, and she wrote the book. Yay Mom!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Week 51: Growing Up Bin Laden

Growing Up bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, by Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson

I've read several of Jean Sasson's previous books about the lives of women in Saudi Arabia with great interest, and when I saw that this book was written by her, I knew it would be a worthwhile read. (When I first heard of the book I thought that it would be pretty sensationalistic.) Najwa bin Laden is Osama's first wife, who no longer lives with him, and Omar is his fourth son.

Najwa and Omar both tell their stories from their own perspectives. The text moves back and forth between the two, staying fairly chronological, so Najwa's life dominates the first half of the book, and Omar becomes more prominent in the second half as he grows up and starts to understand what his father is doing.

Najwa starts off with the story of her childhood, but she married her cousin Osama when they were both still teenagers. At the time, he seems to have been a normal Saudi guy--he was still in school, known for being serious, kind, and traditional, and all in all they were quite happy. Najwa lived in purdah from the time of her marriage, which means she almost never went out of her home and really only saw other female relatives most of the time (which eventually includes Osama's other wives). It's interesting, and tragic, to see how her life slowly changed as Osama became more radical and militaristic. She is clearly a very conservative and traditional woman, and at no time does she ever say anything bad about her husband, even as she narrates a life lived in close restriction and ever-worsening deprivation. She was kept very ignorant of her husband's activities and, even at the end, it's unclear how much she knows, as she stays in purdah.

The bin Ladens eventually left Saudi Arabia and lived in Sudan (near the end of their time there, it becomes clear that Najwa has never seen the city she lived next to for years). After that, they moved to Afghanistan, to the mountain of Tora Bora. There, Najwa was expected to care for her large family and even bear more children while living in a old shepherd's hut with no conveniences whatsoever.

Omar's part of the story gives a very different perspective on the same family life. He is the fourth son and appears to have a naturally peacemaking and compassionate personality. As a boy, he could leave the home and go to school, but as a bin Laden son his life was miserable from the start. He was wealthy, and others assumed that he was spoiled, but in fact his father was becoming more and more of an ascetic. The boys were given little attention from their father, but expected to act in unnatural ways (no smiling, no mischief, no fun), live in a nearly unfurnished house without air conditioning, and were frequently beaten. They all had asthma but were not supposed to have modern medicine. They were unmercifully bullied at school by both teachers and students. Omar did not attend school at all after about age 12, and while his peers were receiving world-class educations, he was left behind in ignorance. With his father mostly absent and neglectful, Omar took on much of the responsibility of looking after his mother and younger brothers and sisters. This upbringing warped all the sons, some of whom developed severe problems; Omar seems to have come out of it best.

As Omar got older, his father took him to Tora Bora, expecting to groom his responsible son as a successor. Omar was horrified by the conditions his mother and younger siblings would have to live in and by al-Qaeda's mission. Eventually he figured out how to get his mother and youngest siblings out--knowing that something was going to happen, they left in early September 2001--but most of his younger siblings were not allowed to leave. Their fates are unknown.

I sympathized with both, but Najwa's narrative appealed to me more than Omar's, probably because I am a wife and mother myself, and she really seems like a person I'd like. The social system they lived in trapped both of them for years, since their culture demands strict obedience and subservience to a husband or father. I was very impressed with how they have survived their difficulties. It's clear that both have been severely damaged by their years with Osama.

I would recommend this book if you're interested in issues of terrorism, the Middle East, and women's lives under radical Islam. Jean Sasson has been writing about women in the Middle East for years and has the background to handle this difficult material without making it sensational or inaccurate (as far as I can tell).

Sasson's other books include Princess, Princess Sultana's Daughters, and Princess Sultana's Circle. Those are the ones I've read, and they are semi-anonymous narratives by a princess of Saudi Arabia, describing what it is like to live in that extremely restrictive society. I would recommend them as well, (though I confess I'm sometimes annoyed by Sultana's extremely mercurial temperament!).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Year of Feminist Classics

OK, clearly my eyes are bigger than my stomach (brain?) when it comes to reading challenges. But this Feminist Classics Challenge is so cool! I have to do it too. This is another one that I can pick and choose from, but they all look interesting. At first I was happy because they had chosen The Feminine Mystique, which is one of those books I've always meant to read, but then they realized they needed more worldwide literature, which is also excellent. Anyway:

The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for the whole of 2011, we’ll be reading a book a month from this list of classic feminist fiction and non-fiction, and each of us will be in charge of the subsequent discussion for three months.

These discussions will be structured as follows: at the beginning of the month, the host in charge of that month will write an introductory post on this blog, reminding participants of what we’ll be reading and providing some historical context.

Then, later that month, she will post a series of discussion questions and invite readers to use them as points of departure for their own thoughts. You don’t necessarily need to answer these questions when sharing your impressions of the book; you may either integrate them in our post or use another approach altogether (and perhaps add to the discussion by bringing up points the host hasn’t thought of herself). Participants can either join the discussion on the comments section or post on their own blogs, which means you don’t necessarily need to be a book blogger yourself to join in.

Finally, at the end of the month, the host will post her thoughts on the book either here or on her own blog, as well as write a round-up post and collect the links of all the participants who decided to join in for that particular title.

Interested in joining us? Remember that you don’t have to commit for the whole twelve months – you’re more than free to pick only the books you’re interested in. Because we want to encourage interaction between participants, we’ve set up an In Linky where you can sign-up. However, you can join in at any time even if you haven’t signed up beforehand.

And here are the titles:

January: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollestonecraft AND So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba - Amy
February: The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill - Ana
March: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen - Emily
April: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - Iris
May: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf - Ana
June: God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi - Amy
July: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir - Iris
August: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston - Emily
September: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf - Amy
October: Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks AND Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology - Iris
November: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler - Ana
December: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde - Emily

Some of these won't be easy for me to get from the library, so I'll be depending on the magic of InterLibrary Loan.

The Take a Chance Challenge

Here's a funny one that appeals to the part of me that always chooses a mystery present instead of stealing a known one at a gift exchange, even though I lose out every time. The Take a Chance Challenge gives you 10 different ways to randomly choose a book to read:

  • The concept of the challenge is to take chances with your reading by finding books to read in unusual or random ways. I’ve listed 10 different ways to find books below. Feel free to complete at many as you want. However, anyone completing all 10 challenges by December 31, 2011 will be entered in a prize drawing to win a book of their choice from Amazon.
  • The challenge will run from January 1, 2011 until December 31, 2011.
  • Crossover books from other challenges is fine. You can read books in any format.
  • On January 1, 2011, I will post pages for each of the 10 challenges so you can link up your completed posts.

The 2011 Challenges

1: Staff Member’s Choice: Go to a bookstore or library that has a “Staff Picks” section. Read one of the picks from that section.

2: Loved One’s Choice: Ask a loved one to pick a book for you to read. (If you can convince them to buy it for you, that is even better!)

3: Blogger’s Choice: Find a “Best Books Read” post from a favorite blogger. Read a book from their list.

4: Critic’s Choice: Find a “Best of the Year” list from a magazine, newspaper or professional critic. Read a book from their Top 10 list.

5: Blurb Book: Find a book that has a blurb on it from another author. Read a book by the author that wrote the blurb.

6: Book Seer Pick: Go to The Book Seer and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

7: What Should I Read Next Pick : Go to What Should I Read Next and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

8: Which Book Pick: Go to Which Book and use the software to generate a list of books. Read a book from that list.

9: LibraryThing Pick: Go to LibraryThing’s Zeitgeist page. Look at the lists for 25 Most Reviewed Books or Top Books and pick a book you’ve never read. Read the book. (Yes … you can click on MORE if you have to.)

10: Pick A Method: Pick a method for finding a book from the choices listed below (used in previous versions of the challenge).

  • Random Book Selection. Go to the library. Position yourself in a section such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Children (whatever section you want). Then write down random directions for yourself (for example, third row, second shelf, fifth book from right). Follow your directions and see what book you find. Check that book out of the library, read it and then write about it. (If you prefer, you can do the same at a bookstore and buy the book!)
  • Public Spying. Find someone who is reading a book in public. Find out what book they are reading and then read the same book. Write about it.
  • Random Bestseller. Go to and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1950 for the min. and 2010 for the max. and then hit generate. Then go to this site and find the year that generated for you and click on it. Then find the bestseller list for the week that would contain your birthday for that year. Choose one of the bestsellers from the list that comes up, read it and write about it.

I don't know how many of these I'll complete--I suppose it depends on whether I get happy surprises or not.

Victorian Literature Challenge

The next challenge I've selected is the Victorian Literature Challenge. The rules:

This challenge will run from 01 Jan 2011 - 31 Dec 2011.
Participants can sign up at any time throughout the year.

Read your Victorian literature.
Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901. If your book wasn't published during those particular years, but is by an author considered 'Victorian' then go for it. We're here for reading, not historical facts! Also, this can include works by authors from other countries, so long as they are from this period.

Literature comes in many forms.
There are so many Victorian reads out there, including novels, short stories, and poetry. One poem doesn't count as a 'book': pick up an anthology instead!

Choose your books.
List your books before you begin, or pick up titles along the way. It's up to you! You can review them if you choose to, but it's not necessary. If you don't have a blog, that's fine! Link to a Facebook, or a page somewhere where you can list what you've been reading. If you can't link up, no problem - feel free to just comment and enjoy.

Spread the love.
Post the reading challenge on your blog - make your own post(s), or stick the button on the side of your page. The more the merrier, after all. Let's build a big community of Victorian literature lovers!

Choose from one of the four levels:

Sense and Sensibility: 1-4 books.
Great Expectations: 5-9 books.
Hard Times: 10-14 books.
Desperate Remedies: 15+ books.

I'm not going to go for a very high level, but I'd like to challenge myself to read a Dickens novel or two that I've never read before, and more poetry. I might get very ambitious and try to read Tennyson's Idylls of the King, in keeping with all the Grail-ness I seem to have been reading lately. But that's the sort of thing I try read and then completely wilt under.

52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2011 edition

Here's the information for the 52 Books challenge for next year. She has included a bunch of mini-challenges, but I don't know how many I'll pursue. The rules:

A new year, a fresh slate. Time to discover some new friends and rediscover some old friends. Make the challenge as easy and casual as you want or spice it up and challenge yourself. Explore a bit, but most of all have fun.

The rules are very simple and the goal is to read one book (at least) a week for 52 weeks.

  1. The challenge will run from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011.
  2. Our book weeks will begin on Sunday.
  3. Participants may join at any time.
  4. All forms of books are acceptable including e-books, audio books, etc.
  5. Re-reads are acceptable as long as they are read after January 1, 2011.
  6. Books may overlap other challenges.
  7. Create an entry post linking to this blog.
  8. Come back and sign up with Mr. Linky in the "I'm participating post" below this post.
  9. You don't have a blog to participate. Post your weekly book in the comments section.
  10. Mr. Linky will be added to the bottom of the weekly post for you to link to reviews of your most current reads.

The mini-challenges:

1) Mind Voyages is a science fiction / fantasy challenge to explore the hugo and nebula winners, take side trips through the different decades reading the nominees, check out Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. Also, Since I can't possibly imagine a reading challenge without exploring new releases that come out in 2011, we have the all inclusive Pluto challenge. Links to all the voyages are available on the Mind Voyages blog.

2) Read around the World: I probably did read around the world last year but didn't pay much attention. So this year I'm paying attention to setting. Keep track of where the story takes place and see how many places you end up.

3) Ireland Reading Challenge: or just stick with one country such as Ireland and read books set in Ireland, written by Irish Authors or with an Irish theme. Pick 2, 4, 6, or 12 books to read.

4) Jane Austen Mini Challenge: Read Jane Austen's books -Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. All can be found online here.

5) Well Educated Mind Mini Challenge: The Well Educated Mind written by Susan Wise Bauer is a guide to reading the great works. Read 3 books from each category: Fiction, autobiography, history, drama and poetry.

6) New Author Mini Challenge: Read at least one new to you author per month.

7) Try a new genre challenge: Read at least one book in a genre you've never tried before.

8) E-Book reading challenge: read at least 3, 6, 9, or 12 e-books this year.

9) Chunkster Challenge: Chunksters are considered books that are over 500 pages in length. Read one chunkster a month.

10) Read 12 classics in 12 months

If at first you don't succeed...

I'm going to try again. I've read lots of great books in the past couple of months, but I just ran completely out of blogging energy! I'm going to give it another go with a new group of reading challenges for 2011.

A few of the titles that I have completely failed to blog about are:

Growing up Bin Laden, by Omar bin Laden and Jean Sasson

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson

Death and Taxes, by Susan Dunlap

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

The Place of the Lion and War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

A bunch of C. S. Lewis

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson (it's an ongoing project, since it's 1000 pages long)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Week 42: Two Books With Long Titles

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Brian Mealer

This is the Book in Common for Chico colleges this year. It's the story of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian boy living in poverty. After a famine that hit the whole country very hard, his family cannot afford to send him to school, so he tried to keep up with his classmates by studying books from the tiny library stocked with donated books. Books on science and physics especially interested William, who had always been a tinkerer. When he came upon a book about energy that showed how windmills work, he realized that he could build his own windmill to bring electricity to his family.

The story of how William built his windmill out of scrap metal and old pipes, and what happened afterwards, is really interesting. There's also a lot of good stuff about life in Malawi. I'm glad I read the book.

In Search of England, by H. V. Morton

A few months ago, I read In Search of London and loved it. This book was written a good 25 years earlier, in the mid-1920's. It's not quite as good as the London one--perhaps because he was so much younger, maybe just because it's not as long and I wanted more. It's very enjoyable, though.
At points it becomes clear how very much has changed since the 20's. Early in the book, Morton talks about how important it is to preserve England's ancient heritage, in particular asserting that Hadrian's Wall should immediately be "preserved from further decay by a top-dressing of concrete." Eek!

Week 41: Stories from the Faerie Queene and Sam I Am

Stories from the Faerie Queene, by Mary MacLeod

I ordered this several weeks ago and am hoping that my kids will enjoy reading the stories in it. It's quite long--over 400 pages--and has a complete retelling of every story in the original Faerie Queene. It's quite Edwardian in tone, and a good way to become familiar with the stories without actually having to read the epic poem.

This book is available in full-text online.

Sam I Am, by Ilene Cooper

Sam, a 7th grader, is having trouble figuring out his family this Christmas. The dog destroyed the Hanukkah bush and that has uncovered a whole lot of family tension around the subject of religion. Sam's dad is Jewish, but not at all active or willing to talk about it. His mom is Christian and goes to church sometimes, but Sam feels guilty going with her, feeling that it might upset his dad. The grandmothers don't get along. For years, the parents have avoided talking with each other or their kids about religion, and that hasn't really been working; now Sam is ignorant about both sides of his heritage and torn between his parents, unsure about how to make them happy or about what he wants. Sam is also trying to figure out school (where they're studying the Holocaust), boy/girl parties, and his first girlfriend.

I thought this book was really well-written and enjoyed it quite a lot. I would highly recommend it for kids 11 and over. There are very few children's novels that address religion at all, and the ones that do tend to be about evil religious extremists, so it's a relief to see a great book like Sam I Am, which realistically treats both Judaism and Christianity as faiths which ordinary people live because they think it's right and that it helps them.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week 40: Red Odyssey and more dystopia

Red Odyssey, by Marat Akchurin

In 1990, the USSR was staring to fall apart. Perestroika wasn't going all that well. And there wasn't a lot of news coming out of Central Asian countries, so writer Marat Akchurin, a Tartar, decided to take a road trip to see how conditions were. He visited every Central Asian country--Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and so on--talking to friends and strangers in every place he went.

Like most Americans, I know next to nothing about the Central Asian republics, so I learned a lot from this book. I had no idea of the devastation and misery the Soviets brought to these countries--economic, environmental, and cultural. Though the book was by no means all depressing--there was lots of good stuff too, don't be turned off by that.
My online friend Amira, who is about to take her family to Uzbekistan to live, recommended Red Odyssey on her blog. Thanks Amira! I'm really glad I could read Akchurin.

Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher

Yes, it's more dystopian YA fiction! I may expire of a surfeit of the stuff. Incarceron's pretty good, though. It's practically science fiction, set in a far future, centuries after a devastating war. After the war, leaders put at least half the population--all the criminals and difficult people--into a closed prison system called Incarceron. The rest live in a mandated historical fiction world where modern technology, knowledge, and medicine is forbidden (though sometimes still used on the sly).

The story is told from two perspectives--Claudia, the Warden's daughter, lives in a luxurious prison outside Incarceron, where she is about to be forced into marriage with the Queen's son. Finn is an inmate who thinks he came from Outside--or maybe he just has epilepsy. Both need to escape from their lives.
This is a two-book story, and the next one comes out around Christmas.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Week 39: It's Dystopian YA Novel Week!

Everyone likes a good dystopian novel, right?

The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Thomas is dumped into the Maze with a wiped memory. He joins a crowd of boys who spend every day trying to find a way to escape their prison, which changes every night and has killer monsters as well. They've been trapped there for a couple of years, but just after Thomas' arrival, everything changes.

I really enjoyed this one, it was exciting and fast-moving, with a substantial plot. The sequel comes out in October!

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman

The Second Civil War was fought over the issue of abortion. In order to end the fighting, everyone compromises with the Bill of Life, which makes life inviolable from conception to age 13. However, from 13 to 18, a teenager may be sentenced to Unwinding--which isn't death, because every part of the body is preserved and transplanted. Connor's parents have signed the order to have him Unwound because he's always in trouble, Lev's parents raised him as a tithe--destined from birth for Unwinding--and Risa is a ward of the state, doomed by budget cuts. All 3 manage to escape and are living on the run, and their separate stories make up the plot.

It's an interesting premise (if totally farfetched, but dystopian plots have to be that!) and well-written. I liked it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Week 38: The Sari

The Sari, by Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller

I'm always interested in anything from India, and I've been wanting to read this study of the cultural meaning of the sari for quite some time. When I started working at Butte College, I was happy to find it in their collection. It's a great book, really interesting. It addresses the difficulties and pleasures of mastering the art of sari-wearing (and it really is not easy), the different ways it can be used, and the meaning of the sari as a somewhat political garment which has come to represent an ideal of Indian unity.

Wearing a sari well is difficult enough that being able to do it well lends you an image of dignity and power. So women in business wear what you could call 'power saris' which project their authority. At the same time, saris are standardized into uniforms all over the country; hostesses at hotels, policewomen, and even soldiers wear them. And again, most poor women wear saris to work as cleaners and fieldworkers and for all sorts of labor.

You will most likely change your sari a few times a day, even if you are not wealthy; a worker may have one to wear at work and one for home (rather in the way that many of us have outdoor shoes and house shoes that are 'clean'), or you might change after doing something dirty. Women also often sleep in comfortable cotton saris, which must be quite a feat.

Saris are also symbols of marriage and maturity. Girls don't wear them, and there is a whole section on the popularity of the salwar kameez for teen girls. Most Indians would say that a woman is most beautiful and elegant in a sari--it is the most dignified and most feminine garment there is, instantly conferring romance and mystery. (You may notice in some Indian movies that a girl might start off in athletic or skimpy clothes, maturing into a love interest when she puts on the sari that shows her in a new light--Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is an example.)

So there was quite a lot to learn and I really enjoyed it. :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Week 36: Cousin Kate and The Machine's Child

Cousin Kate, by Georgette Heyer

This is one of Heyer's famed Regency novels, and it's one I enjoyed. Kate is, of course, a poor and independent orphan of gentle birth. She is trying to earn her living as a governess, but her old nurse writes off to an estranged aunt, who sweeps Kate off to a country manor for a reluctant life of luxury. But the aunt has a sinister plan...

The Machine's Child, by Kage Baker

Another installment in the Company series, which is still going strong.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Catching up a bit...

Spenser's Images of Life, by C. S. Lewis and Alastair Fowler

Near the end of his life, C. S. Lewis moved to Cambridge University. There he planned to produce a book based on his lectures about Edmund Spenser, but it was never written. He left lecture notes, which Alastair Fowler turned into this book--you can tell that it wasn't really written by Lewis, but that the ideas and certain turns of phrase were his.

I always like to read Lewis' literary criticism, and while I don't know if this happens to everyone, he always makes me want to read the works he writes about. Every time I read Lewis on The Faerie Queene, I want to read it myself--and then I look at the actual poem and wilt. It's too hard! I can barely understand what Spenser is even saying, much less what message he's trying to convey! You want me to read how many cantos of this??

Anyway, even if I can't quite read Elizabethan epic poetry, I can enjoy this book that explains a lot about what Spenser was trying to do. And it inspired me to go looking--I've always thought it would be a great help if there was a lavishly illustrated edition of The Faerie Queene, preferably done in a Howard Pyle style. And there is one! Walter Crane did it in the late Victorian era, and you can get the illustrations in a Dover art book.* And there is even an old book of "Stories from the Faerie Queene" for children, like Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. I've ordered it; maybe that will help me, and the kids will enjoy it.

*You can also get the whole thing in a fancy edition from the Easton Press for $400, which makes me wonder who on earth would buy such a thing. Really, who?

I enjoyed the Spenser book so much that I decided to finally read this book, which I've had for years but have put off reading, because like most modern people--even literature majors--I don't like Paradise Lost and don't particularly want to. Because it's really hard to read and anyway Milton was an awful man, repressing his poor daughters all the time.

As you might expect, Lewis pokes through all that, shows that Paradise Lost is a badly-maligned, if flawed, work of genius, and manages to make you actually want to read, enjoy, and understand it. Even if you're not going to tackle the epic, I'd recommend anyone to read the chapter on Satan, which deflates all the conventional wisdom on Milton's depiction of the fallen angels.

And no, I'm not going to try to read Paradise Lost just now. But I'm more willing to give it a try someday, and I am at least convinced that I would be better off if I did.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Week 35: A Rulebook for Arguments and Five-Minute Marriage

A Rulebook for Arguments, by Anthony Weston

This little book is recommended for 9th-graders in The Well-Trained Mind. It's a useful collection of 45 specific rules for writing or arguing correctly. It's clear and interesting, with good examples of common mistakes or good strategies. I wish I'd read it when I was in high school!

Five-Minute Marriage, by Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken is on my Favorite Authors list, and she was one of the few writers who could produce a really good Regency novel (Georgette Heyer is the other one that I know of). This one features Delphie Carteret, an impoverished and independent young woman with a slightly dotty mother to support who is forced to apply to her mother's estranged family for help. She is promptly dropped into an adventure featuring villainous conspiracies, imposters, a counterfeit marraige that may not be so counterfeit, and a whole pack of aggravating relations.
Aiken wrote several Regency novels, including some Jane Austen spinoffs that are actually worth reading. She is most famous for her "Wolves Chronicles" series for children, which started with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and continues for quite a few wonderful volumes. And I can't miss mentioning the Mortimer books for children, featuring the young Arabel and her hideous, obnoxious raven Mortimer. We love those and if you have never read any Joan Aiken, I'm telling you that you should!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Week 34: Heat Wave and Children of the Company

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

Who could resist reading this piece of fluff? My husband and I are fans of Castle, so of course I had to read this tie-in. (If you aren't familiar with it, Castle is a show featuring a mystery novelist who tags along with a New York City detective, and they solve murder cases. The writer then starts a new book series inspired by the detective, and this is supposed to be the book.) It's not wonderfully written, but what did you expect?

Heat Wave is exactly like an episode of the show; all the characters are there, they just have new names. Castle is turned into Jamieson Rook (ha!), a magazine writer. And Kate Beckett's character, the detective Nikki Heat, is written the way Castle would like her to be in his imagination. The device was both amusing and irritating, since I kept thinking that a real mystery writer would never just copy over every single character like that. The story does actually take place during a New York heat wave (which sounds much worse than summer here--another reason to love my town).

Children of the Company, by Kage Baker

Another installment in my new favorite SF series. I'm still loving it, and drawing it out slowly so I can enjoy it longer.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Classics Interlude: Aristophanes!

I've never read any of Aristophanes' plays, not even one, not even when I was taking college courses in Classics. So I decided to fix that and read The Clouds, Aristophanes' satire of Socrates--and the rhetorical schools that Socrates did not actually belong to. This play shows Socrates as a loud atheist, denouncing Zeus and all other gods, and it was apparently influential in getting Socrates put on trial for atheism and corrupting the youth, which of course led to his execution.
The story involves a father whose son's extravagant spending is ruining his fortunes. He decides to send his son to the Thinkery (the Phrontisterion) so he can learn to talk his way out of the debt collectors' clutches. The son refuses, so Dad goes himself and meets Socrates and the other philosophers. He is too stupid, however, to learn and gets thrown out; his son then goes in. But the son learns his craft too well...

I also read Lysistrata, one of Aristophanes' most famous plays. Lysistrata is an intelligent woman who decides to rally all the Pelopennesian women to stop the idiotic war their husbands are embroiled in. They simply refuse to sleep with their husbands, and within a few days everyone (both women and men, but the women hold out) is so unhappy that they decide to end the war.

Week 33: The Little White Horse and The Core

The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge

We are on an Elizabeth Goudge kick around here! The Little White Horse is one of Goudge's children's books, and evidently it was one of her favorites. It is a lovely story, and what really stands out is the quality of the writing. It is just beautifully written, and makes most modern children's books look cardboardy and mass-produced by comparison.

The story itself is not unusual--a young orphan arrives at her ancestral home and finds that she has a mystery to unravel and a quest to solve. The difference is in the writing; it is done so well. I don't understand why this book isn't at the top of lists of children's classics. The sad thing about this particular edition is that it does not include the illustrations or cover art, which were done by C. Walter Hodges (an eminent writer and illustrator of children's books, especially historical fiction)--and the book is actually dedicated to him!

I will be searching out more of Goudge's children's books--at the moment I'm coveting Linnets and Valerians and I saw Three Ships. I see a purchase from abebooks in my future...

In the meantime, give this book to your daughter.

The Core: teaching your child the foundations of classical education, by Leigh Bortins

Bortins is the author of Classical Conversations, a homeschooling curriculum that I am not very familiar with. The Core focuses on classical homeschooling, especially the grammar stage (that is, the foundational knowledge for any discipline, not just English grammar). There is a lot of emphasis on memorization of basic facts and otherwise relaxing. It's a pretty good book worth reading, but for myself I really prefer the Well-Trained Mind approach.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Week 32: The Vicar of Wakefield

The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

I hadn't read this book since college, and I found a neat edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham for cheap! This antique book has the same cover illustration, but mine is a paperback.

This is a comedy of sorts, narrated by the good Vicar Primrose himself. He and his family are very nice people, and very silly, though they do not know it. They do absurd things, and the vicar preaches at everyone all the time--in a very well-meaning way--and their fortunes get lower and lower until you think it isn't a comedy at all. But it is, so hold out for the happy ending.

The Vicar of Wakefield 's popularity lasted for generations. It's one of the early novels of the 18th century, and it's not at all difficult to read, so if you're looking to get into those first classic novels but find them intimidating, this is an excellent place to start.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Medieval Madness!

I finally finished both the medieval literature books I've been working on.

The first is the Nibelungenlied, a long poem written at the very end of the 12th century. It's based on German and Scandinavian legend, and served as a source for Wagner's Ring cycle. The story is in two parts: the first half tells the story of Sifrid (Siegfried in Wagner), a great hero and dragon-slayer who owns a magic treasure. He helps his friend to win the maiden Brunnhilde, so that he can marry Kriemhilde. But after the two queens have an argument, Sifrid is betrayed and murdered. The second half of the story tells of Kriemhilde's grief and quest for vengeance, which destroys pretty well everyone. I think Hamlet had more survivors.

I also read The Book of Margery Kempe, a sort of autobiography by a 14th-century woman who had religious visions. After raising a large family, she dedicated herself to worship and went on some pilgrimages. She constantly wept and sobbed--for hours at a time--with religious fervor, and after a trip to Jerusalem, she started shrieking as well. This naturally tended to annoy the people around her, and much of her account revolves around her difficulties getting along with others. The book is her dictation to a priest, and it's fairly rambling; there isn't much in the way of chronology or order.

Some of the book is quite interesting, but it's also very repetitive. I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, but I'm happy to be done.
These two books put me into the Lord category at the Tournament of Reading. If I want to get any higher I'll have to read another historical fiction book.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Week 31: Composition in the Classical Tradition and Lilith

Composition in the Classical Tradition, by Frank J. D'Angelo

This is really a high-school level textbook on writing, but it's quite different from what you would find in most schools. D'Angelo follows the classical system called the progymnasmata, which is a systematic graded series of exercises in rhetoric, meant to develop one skill at a time. Those of us used to the modern way of teaching writing find the classical system to be rather strange; who knew that rhetorical techniques could be mapped out on a graph and strictly classified? But that is exactly what the progymnasmata do. I think that aspect of it would really appeal to more analytic types who find it difficult to wade through the frustratingly indefinite discipline of writing, so if your child is that sort, I recommend giving this system a try.

The exercises start with the simple fable, and work their way up to arguing cases of law. At all times, the exact use of each type of rhetoric is explained. This book can be used as a textbook for at least a year's worth of writing class, or you could use it as a supplement. It's not an inexpensive book, but I think I'll find it useful when my children are a little older.

Lilith, by George MacDonald

George MacDonald wrote many fairy tales and a few long imaginative novels for adults. You could call them 'fantasy' and certainly they have been very influential in that genre, but they are not much like any modern fantasy novel. Lilith was published in 1895 and labeled 'a romance.' The story features Mr. Vane, who has visionary travels to another world, where he encounters good and evil in strange guise.

It's a very weird book, but very good.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Week 30: An Alcatraz book and a Goudge title

I like Sanderson's writing, and this is his series for children, starring Alcatraz Smedly. The first book is Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians--it turns out that evil librarians run our world, denying us all truthful information. So obviously I like the premise. This series is also where Sanderson lets himself be as silly as he wants to be, which is very silly indeed. It can get a little grating at times, but mostly it's quite funny.

This third installment in the Alcatraz series is, I think, equal to the first two. For the first time, you see something of the other free countries of the world which are not under Librarian control and there's some good action.

Sanderson is one of the best and most original fantasy writers out there, so I recommend his books (here's a list!). He is always taking common tropes and playing with them--for example the most evil librarian of them all is called She Who Cannot Be Named--not because people are afraid of invoking her, but because no one can actually pronounce her real name.

Heart of the Family, by Elizabeth Goudge

This is the last book in the Eliot chronicles, and it takes place several years after Pilgrim's Inn. Much of the focus is switched to the younger generation, although David Eliot is still the main character. Each book in this trilogy has a thematic word that takes on great significance as the characters search for the quality described in that particular word. It's an interesting device that I enjoyed. (But I'm not going to tell you what the words are!)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Week 29: Nothing to Envy and Duplicate Death

Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

Demick profiles six people who lived under the North Korean regime in this description of ordinary life in the most closed society on earth. It covers a good bit of history before getting detailed during the famines of the 1990's. It's a good book worth reading, but not exactly cheerful--if you're looking for information about North Korea it's a good overview.

Duplicate Death, by Georgette Heyer

I always enjoy Heyer's historical fiction, and have been wanting to read some of her detective novels, so I was happy to run across this. It's very much in the mold of the Christie/Marsh/Sayers tradition. Heyer puts in lots of her trademark slangy dialogue and the story is reasonably well-written, but the plot has an unfortunate minor sideline about homosexuality that modern readers won't care for. So perhaps a different title would be a better choice if you're looking to read a Georgette Heyer mystery, but if you like this style of mystery story, she's worth picking up.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Week 28: The Bird in the Tree and Road to Serfdom

The Bird in the Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge

I discovered Elizabeth Goudge last year, and this is the 4th or 5th book of hers I have read. I really enjoy them, and if you like somewhat old-fashioned (30's-50's) books set in England which evince a deep faith, you will probably enjoy them as well. Many of her books are out of print, but they are worth hunting down, and she also wrote several well-regarded children's books that I wish I could find.

This book turned out to be the first in a family-saga type of trilogy (which I do not usually go for), and I had already read the second one without realizing there were others. In order, they are: The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim's Inn, and The Heart of the Family. The drama revolves around three generations of the Eliot family; the grandmother, Lucilla, establishes a home in the country that she intends as a haven of peace for all of her descendants.

The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek

This one took me quite a while; it's the kind of book you need to read in a quiet library with no distractions, and of course that isn't easy to come by. I kept trying to read it while the kids had kung fu.

The Road to Serfdom was written during World War II and is addressed to the British people. Hayek, an economist, was concerned at all the political talk in the UK (and the rest of Western Europe) about the need for planning and collectivism. He believed that socialism and economic planning would lead directly to totalitarianism, and in this book he explains exactly why. In his view only classical liberalism and individualism could lead to freedom, and all talk of better freedom under planning was an illusion.

It's a very interesting (and often prescient) book, and it's considered a classic in the field of economics, so I'm counting it as a classic. Hayek is certainly worth reading, but it's not easy going.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Week 27: In Search of London and a children's book

In Search of London, by H. V. Morton

I am so glad my mom found this book for me. H. V. Morton is the latest addition to my list of all-time favorite writers, and I must find more of what he wrote. Morton was a popular writer and broadcaster who won fame as a young man when he scooped the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922. He did quite a bit of travel writing, and I plan to read the rest of it.

In In Search of London, Morton simply wanders around the great sights of London narrating history and fascinating little tidbits of information. He ranges from the City to the West End to Hampton Court. He visits the Romans, the Cavaliers, and everyone else. There are stories about Nelson, scholars, pensioners, Madame Tussaud (who had a much more interesting life than most of the people she modelled), and Anne Boleyn. The book dates from 1951; Elizabeth is a princess and London is recovering from the war, with burned-out shells of buildings still standing and rationing yet in force.

If you are an Anglophile at all, this book is a must-read. It's wonderful for keeping at your bedside to dip into every evening, so you can prolong it as long as possible. The main trouble with it is that it makes you long to visit London--and, as my mom said, preferably the London of about 1930.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann, by Karen Cushman

Cushman's new historical novel is well worth reading. I always enjoy her books, though I usually don't much care for historical fiction; her characters are actual natives of their time, with realistic lives. Far too much historical fiction stars a spunky heroine with modern sensibilities, who finds her adventure by disguising herself as a boy and running off to play Shakespeare's Puck. Or something like that, anyway. Cushman writes about ordinary girls--often down on their luck--who overcome their problems with wit and tenacity, in a completely realistic way.

Oh yes, the plot. Meggy is a girl who is sent to London to live with her father, an alchemist whom she has never met. He wants an unpaid servant and is dismayed to find her female and crippled. She is left almost to herself to get around the city, make friends, and figure out how to work (and eat). Then she has to face a moral dilemma and build a life for herself.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Week 26: The Making of Americans and Unseen Academicals

The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, by E. D. Hirsch

Hirsch is a famous critic of American educational practices and promoter of common standards. I've already reviewed his older book The Schools We Need; this is a newer book with quite a lot of the same message, but shorter and much easier to get through. Here, Hirsch concentrates on the development of American citizens, and how a common curriculum would promote egalitarian schools and a stronger public culture. I agree with much of his message, so I haven't got a whole lot to argue with here.

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

This must be something like number 35 in the Discworld series, but Pterry is still going pretty strong. Discworld started off as funny fantasy, poking a bit of fun at the standard tropes, and has matured into social satire that is both entertaining and insightful. Here's hoping that Discworld will continue as long as possible.

And, this marks the halfway point in the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge! So far, I've put about 40 books up here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Week 25: Beautiful Girlhood and Mistakes Were Made...

Beautiful Girlhood, by Mabel Hale, revised by Karen Andreola

This rather romantic growing-up book for young teenage girls was first written in 1922. It is very much something you imagine Anne Shirley reading and taking to heart (it may have been old-fashioned even when it was new). Karen Andreola, who is best known as the major name in Charlotte Mason education, kept the flowery Victorian language but took out anything that had dated particularly badly and added a few updates. It was not usually easy for me to tell where she edited.

Much of the basic advice in the book is still quite applicable today, even if most modern girls would balk at the tone. Quite a lot of it is about honesty, consideration for others, popularity, getting along with your parents, and so on. If you take the spirit and not the letter of the advice, it's just fine.

I rather enjoyed reading it and gave it to my 9-year-old daughter to read as well, thinking she would like reading something Anne would have read, and she said she liked it.

Mistakes were made...but not by me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Tavris and Aronson come up with case study after case study to explain "why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts." It comes down to self-justification--the desire deep within each of us to avoid having to admit that we made a mistake or chose a wrong action. Why will people continue to give money to a con artist long after it's completely obvious they're being scammed? Why do we see and condemn hypocrisy in others but don't notice it in ourselves? Why do people do horrible things to one another without feeling bad about it? Because it's often really, really hard to admit--or sometimes even to notice--that we've been fooled or done wrong, and it's fatally easy to downplay our wrong actions and justify them to ourselves.

I found this book to be really interesting, and would recommend it to others. It can be so hard to understand why some people do such obviously awful things, and this book really helps to explain it. It also makes you take a good hard look at some of the things you've been up to yourself.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Week 24: Quiverfull and The Red Pyramid

Quiverfull, by Kathryn Joyce

I don't think that many people in my area of the world know very much about the Quiverfull movement. Lately I've been interested in understanding it, and the tragic Schatz case made me feel more strongly that this is something more of us should be aware of. Quiverfull is one term for a growing movement among very conservative Protestants, which emphasizes wifely submission, male headship, and "openness" to children, which can frequently translate to having as many as physically possible because it's a sign of righteousness. Adherents also homeschool, try to live as self-sufficiently as possible, and are usually quite isolationist. Women bear the heavy burdens that go with the lifestyle--but wives are also frequently the ones who are attracted to it in the first place and who pull their husbands in.

Joyce explains some of the history behind the movement and the major players. This was very helpful to me since, as a homeschooler, I have often heard some of the names mentioned before but was ignorant of exactly who they were. I've seen Vision Forum at conventions and seen their catalog (full of amazingly sexist toys for children), but I didn't know that the leader, Doug Phillips, preaches an extreme form of submission, advising girls to stay home and serve their fathers until marriage, and to submit not only to their fathers but also their brothers, regardless of age. Nor did I know that the woman who designs Sense and Sensibility patterns (which I have purchased in the past) also writes for Vision Forum! So the book really helped me to make sense of all the small glimpses I've had.

Joyce does not comment very much on the people she describes. She just quotes them and lets them explain themselves, without giving very much of her own opinion. This is just fine, and I think perhaps too much commentary would have been superfluous. She also interviews a couple of women who were prominent in the Quiverfull world but have since left. Leaving is quite a long and painful process for many women, who often find themselves penniless and without job skills, with many children to feed.

I appreciated this overview of the Quiverfull movement and would recommend it to those trying to understand patriarchalist fundamentalists.

The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan is kicking off a new mythology-based series, and our book club decided to read it for a fun summer book this month. It's the story of two siblings, raised separately, who find themselves forced to work together in the middle of a crisis of the Egyptian gods. Their father has been captured by Set, and they must try to restore ma'at (cosmic order) and stop Set from unleashing chaos across the world. I quite enjoyed it, although it seemed a bit over-long --over 500 pages.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Week 23: The Aeneid

The Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by Sarah Ruden

After reading Paul Among the People, I thought I'd see what Ms. Ruden's translations are like. It's a long time since I read the Aeneid, though. The story is only half-written; Virgil meant to write a 24-book epic, but only finished 12 before his death.

I felt that the translation was quite clear and readable, and I enjoyed going back to the story and refreshing my memory. I need to tackle some more ancient classics this summer, not to mention the medieval books that have been put on hold lately...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Week 22: Death from the Skies!

Death from the Skies!: the Science Behind the End of the World, by Phil Plait

Phil Plait has a really enjoyable writing style and is very good at explaining difficult scientific concepts clearly. In this book, he explores several different possible ways for the world to end, each less probable than the last (or at least, very very far in the future). It's a great book for anyone interested in astronomy; the explanations of the Sun and supernovae are the best I've read. I plan to require my kids to read it as part of logic-stage astronomy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Week 21: The Graveyard Game and Thomas Sowell

The Graveyard Game, by Kage Baker

I think this is book 4 of the Company series, and it's the first one that really concentrates on the central mystery of just what Dr. Zeus is up to--before this it's been part of the background. Joseph (formerly a resident of Lascaux, more recently a Roman centurion and Spanish Inquisitor) and Lewis, a literary document preserver, set out to find information on what happened to their friend Mendoza. And whatever happened to Budu, who hasn't been seen for about a thousand years?
I'm really getting onto this series and am looking forward to the next one. If you are the least bit interested in SF/history, you should read these books.

The Housing Boom and Bust, by Thomas Sowell

Sowell, an eminent conservative economist, came out with this short book pretty quickly after the housing market bust of 2009. It's his explanation of how we got into this mess and what we need to do to get out of it. It's an interesting--and depressing--read, which once again made me grateful for our relatively small mortgage (by California standards anyway).