Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Mabinogi

The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, translated by Patrick K. Ford.

I read these years ago in college and thought I ought to read them again. The Mabinogi are the central stories in medieval Welsh literature--there are four branches, or tales. This book also includes three other tales and a little poetry, but it leaves out the Arthur stories and a couple of others that I think I'll try to find.

I'm always interested in myths and how they've changed over the years, so I enjoyed reading this again. A couple of years ago I read a children's book based on the tragedy in "Math son of Mathonwy," and I'd like to read that again to see what the author did.

Classics Catch-up

Since I need to keep a record for the classics challenge, this is a quick post to say that I have read Cranford and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch in the last week or so.

Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford is a mid-Victorian novel set in a small country village. The upper-class inhabitants are nearly all older spinsters, and Gaskell uses this tiny society to comment on men's and women's experiences. This is the second Gaskell novel I've read in the last few months, and I've really liked them, so I'll have to get Wives and Daughters or something next. I'm not sure I want to read her hagiography of Charlotte Brontë though.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is a detailed account of a day in the life of a gulag prisoner. Ivan Denisovitch is serving a ten-year sentence in Siberia on trumped-up charges, just like almost everyone else at the prison camp. I should have read it a long time ago. (Come to think of it, I took a course where we read a bunch of Stalin-era stuff, why wasn't this included? Maybe everyone else had already read it and I was too clueless to know.)


Now I get to decide what's next. I'm torn between The Woman in White, The Gallic Wars, or The Master and Margarita. Any votes?

Week 4: Airborn


Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel  

This was our January book club selection.  I'd never heard of it before, and it turned out to be an old-fashioned adventure novel like R. L. Stevenson or Jules Verne.  Lots of fun: an intrepid cabin boy, a reckless spoiled girl, airships, pirates, shipwrecks, tropical islands, exotic creatures never seen before by man, and lashings of hair-raising escapes.   Plus a new element!  

The story is set on our world, but a slightly alternate history, in which zeppelins are the standard mode of air travel and airplanes do not exist.  It's almost--but not really--steampunk, what with the Edwardian styles and the airships.   Oppel gets around the whole flaming vessel of death problem by having the airships use a non-flammable gas-the unobtainium of gasses, in fact.  A fun YA read.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Week 3: The Worm Ouroboros

Week 3:  The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison (1922)

This is a really strange book.  It's one of the very early British fantasy classics, and though most people have not read it, it has shaped everything that came afterwards and has many elements familiar to anyone who has ever read fantasy.  Tolkien liked this story a lot, and it's easy to see that it was a great influence on him.  Eddison had many of the same tastes as Tolkien--Greek epics, Norse sagas, medieval literature, etc. and the writing is like the Silmarillion on steroids.  Here's a sample:

In a while the King said: “I sent for thee because thou alone wast so hardy as to urge to the uttermost thy counsel upon the King that is now dead, Gorice XI. of memory ever glorious. And because thy counsel was good. Marvellst thou that I wist of thy counsel?”

Gro said, “O my Lord the King, I marvel not of this, for it is known to me that the soul endureth, albeit the body perish.” 


“Keep thou thy lips from overspeech,” said the King.

It's all like that, so it takes some time to read.

Eddison modelled his book on the heroic sagas, with lots of battles, enchantments, and adventuring across the world.  In theory it's set on Mercury, but that's only a way of saying "long ago and far away"--in fact the setting is the medieval Earth-like landscape which has become so familiar in fantasy stories since.  Likewise, the battling nations are called Demons, Witches, Imps, etc., but really they're all human beings after the pattern of King Arthur, Holger Danske, and so on.  And it starts with an odd, unfinished framing device; a man on Earth is transported in a dream to Mercury and invisibly observes the story--but he disappears after a couple of chapters and is never mentioned again.  All this seems to have been meant to make the book more accessible to readers.

The story concerns the wars between the nations of Mercury, especially Demonland and Witchland.  The Demons are noble heroes, and the Witches are treacherous villains who use black magic, though equally valorous in battle.  (The battle scenes are often reminiscent of the Iliad.) Among the various rulers of these countries moves Lord Gro, who is the most conflicted and interesting character; he constantly changes sides, advising whoever he feels is on the losing side.  Though he prefers deceit and secrecy to open battle, he also has moral standards of his own--he just can't bring himself to be on the winning side.  He is a devious Machiavelli among  straightforward Vikings.  The title figure of the Worm Ouroboros is symbolic of the story and characters, so I don't want to spoil it by saying more.

If you're interested in early British fantasy and enjoy reading, say, Howard Pyle's language, this is a book worth reading.  The Worm Ouroboros is completely unlike anything else, but at the same time its flavor is in every fantasy book you read.  It's not an easy book, though, and will take some time and effort.  I'm glad I read it.

(The quotation and some information is taken from the essay "Where Head and Tail Meet" by Ryan Harvey.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Week 2: All Quiet on the Western Front

All quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

(This is not the edition I read; it's just the paperback cover I wish I owned to add to my collection.)

This novel is one I avoided reading for a long time, but since we're currently studying World War I in school, I figured it was about time.  It is simply an account of life on the front for a young German soldier, and it is very, very sad.

I always hate reading about WWI because it seems to me to have been such a particularly pointless and horrible war.  As far as I can tell, this is a very honest portrayal of just what it was like in the trenches; nothing is glossed over or made polite.  It's a book everyone should read, but it isn't exactly fun.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Oh, gee. It's like being in a candy store...


I just found another online book club/challenge sort of thing.  It's the Classics Bookclub at 5 minutes a day.  I don't quite feel like I should sign up, since I already have two, but maybe?  Anyway I thought I'd alert all my many readers (come on, I know you're out there....right?) in case anyone else wants to join.  There are prizes! 

Ah, what the heck.  I'm gonna do it.  I have to read classics anyway to discuss with my little burgeoning logic-stage kid...

Oh, I'm supposed to post a couple of goals.  My current goal titles that I want to read soon are:

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque (I've never read this, and we're doing WWI this week)

Caesar's Gallic Wars, by Caesar (nor this one, but we're doing Ancient in the fall)

The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison (I'm actually halfway through this one and it's not easy.  If I'm not accountable, I won't get it done.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Week 1: Undress me in the temple of heaven


Undress me in the temple of heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman
It's 1986, and Susie has just graduated from an Ivy college.  She and her friend Claire decide to packpack around the world, and just to show how tough they are, they are going to start in China.  Communist China in 1986, which has been open to travelers for "all of about ten minutes."
As they hit the road, their utter naïveté is stunning.  But since at 21 I would have been just the same, I really got into the story.  After a few weeks of the usual rough living, and a lot of adventure, Claire starts to fall apart.  It takes Susie a while to realize that what she sees as weird bratty melodrama is quickly becoming paranoid delusion, and meanwhile they've traveled deep into rural southwest China.  It's a bad place to lose your mind; the chances are that they will end up arrested by the military.
I was both enthralled by the story and scared to keep going.  And I really identified with the author.  So I really enjoyed this one.  A good start to my weekly book list!