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.