Monday, January 30, 2012

Greek Classics: January Wrap-Up

Have you been reading Euripedes or Sophocles? This is the place to be! Link up to your posts for the Greek Classics Challenge here, or comment and tell me about what you've been up to. I hope you've gotten off to a good start!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I got an award

I've never gotten an award before and I'm not quite sure what to do with it. Yay! Wait, I have to pick more?

JNCL over at The Beauty of Eclecticism was very kind and selected me to get this Versatile Blogger Award (which is my favorite color!) so thank you J! I have really enjoyed getting to read her blog since I joined her Medieval Lit Challenge this year. I particularly like the bit where she has a Master List you can read from, because last time I did a medieval challenge I had an awful time choosing books and this year it's going much better. (It's just like how in a library it's a good plan to have a trough of "good books" that you can point overwhelmed patrons to. It doesn't matter so much what's in the trough as long as it's a variety--the point is to give a limited range of choices.)

The rules of this award are as follows.

-In a post on your blog, present at least 5 fellow bloggers with the Versatile Blogger Award.
-In the same post, include the Versatile Blogger Award.
-In the same post, thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to his or her blog.
-In the same post, share 7 completely random pieces of information about yourself.
-In the same post, include these rules.
-Inform each new winner of their award by posting a comment on their blog.

OK, so I actually have a problem now and I'm not sure what to do about it. I'm not very comfortable picking 5 more people to give this to. It's too much like a chain letter. So...I'm not going to. Does that mean I lose the award? I don't know. I'm going to decide that this is all in good fun and it doesn't matter much.

Here are 7 random and fairly unimportant things about me:

  1. I love homeschooling but really don't want to do big crafty projects, unless they involve sewing. I do like science projects, especially if they aren't too hard to set up. I adore learning lots of history. And I really, truly think that classical education is the bees' knees. While I am all for individual choice in homeschooling, if it so happened that the Department of Education asked me to set the educational standard for American public schools, I would pick classical education as the best general preparation for the majority of children for life, informed citizenship, and any career path. And also Susan Wise Bauer and her mother, Jessie Wise, are my favorite homeschooling writers.
  2. I tend to use parentheses too much and always have to go back and edit them out (especially if I'm being talkative). I also use too many semi-colons. I'm not much good at expressing my thoughts, so this blog is as publicly articulate as I will ever get, and that's not much.
  3. I enjoy singing in a choir, but otherwise I am not terribly musical. I can't play an instrument or anything, though I took some years of piano and never got past the really really mediocre level. Nor can I claim to have an amazing voice--I wouldn't want to go solo or do a small group number. I do sing around the house a lot, so I wonder what my daughters will remember.
  4. My amazing special talent (if you don't already know me IRL) is that I make hand-dipped chocolates. Like See's, only better. 14 different kinds, even cherry cordials. My mom is better at it, but I'm pretty good. This is why it's a good idea to be my friend.
  5. Long ago, I spent my junior year of high school abroad--I lived in Denmark and joined a family and went to school. That was the factor that got me into Berkeley; my scores were barely adequate and I was surrounded by people who were far more intelligent and better prepared than I was. But I loved it and got a really super husband out of it, so on the whole I'm glad that I decided to be an exchange student when I was 12. It was a good idea (probably the only good idea I had when I was 12!).
  6. I like Diet Dr. Pepper way too much. On the other hand it is almost the only soda that I like at all. I still drink too much of it though. (Come on, a gal has to have some vices, right?)
  7. I love Oingo Boingo's music and will happily listen to nothing else for days at a time. It just makes me happy. That, and Bollywood movies.
Bonus thought: Go Bears!

Unnatural Selection

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl

For the past few years, we've been hearing about the imbalance of boys vs. girls in China--people want to have boys, and so you get orphanages full of girls and schools full of little boys who won't have anyone to marry when they grow up. We've been hearing about it happening in India too, though China usually seems to get what headlines are going. Hvistendahl has investigated this social trend and documents it thoroughly. The news is really bad: throughout Asia and now Eastern Europe, people frequently choose to abort baby girls in hopes of getting sons instead. The practice is far more pervasive than anyone realized (it persists in groups in the US too), it's growing in many areas, it's routinely ignored, and it results in millions of angry young men with no hopes of marriage but plenty of time for violence.

This is a really horrifying issue. The basic story is that in developing countries that are starting to become more prosperous, the one- or two-child family is often held up as an ideal. Decades of pressure to exert control over population growth has resulted in families that plan to have one or two children. But these would-be parents want sons more than they want daughters. If the first child is a daughter, they just plan to try again. But when second or third children show up on the ultrasound as female, they are very frequently terminated in hopes of trying again and getting boys. Many women have multiple abortions--and these happen after 20 weeks, fairly late--and the cumulative effect is that there are 163 million 'missing girls' in Asia.

The first section details the demographics of this trend. Korea has peaked and is now normalizing (though at an incredibly low rate of birth), India and China are peaking now, while Albania is very out of balance and the government denies any problem. Hvistendahl documents why parents do it, why doctors encourage it or go along, and there's some history about colonial India.

In the second section she delves deep into population-control history. In the 50's, 60's, and 70's, everyone was worrying about the "population bomb"--most especially in Asia and India. Paul Erlich might as well have outright said the words "Yellow Peril" in his book, but he was a minor player. The World Bank was right in there too, enforcing strict population-control measures. India cooperated and came up with awful ideas like forcibly sterilizing millions of poor men, and in Korea it was worse, with women forcibly put through abortions and then sterilized. China got enthusiastic too and enforced similar measures. For some reason, policy-makers seem to have thought that getting rid of unborn baby girls would be an especially great idea, delivering a double dose of population control, and they said so publicly.

Well, decades of pressure worked. The descendants of the innocent victims of population control learned their lesson, and they get rid of their girls voluntarily. In the last section, Hvistendahl looks at what a society without enough women looks like. Girls are valuable, but that doesn't make them powerful--it makes them vulnerable to trafficking, or to being sold to wealthier men. The poorest men then have no prospects for marriage, which must make life look pretty bleak. Angry young men with no girls around tend to be more violent and more criminal.

Feminist activists have labored to make abortion freely available and morally neutral. In much of Asia, that is the case, and I'm not sure I like the picture. Most women getting abortions are not young and desperate--they are married women who want sons. Feminists have not wanted to make even the tiniest move towards disapproving of abortion--even when girls are the primary victims--and they have tended to ignore sex selection entirely. The result is overall worse conditions for all women, at least the ones who made it to birth, and Hvistendahl (who is also reluctant to say that any limits on abortions would be a good idea) draws the lesson that ignoring problems will not make them go away.

An odd detail caught my eye. At the end of the final chapter, the author interviews a Korean woman who waited too long and was unable to have more than one child. She now advises her friends to have babies early. Hvistendahl comments that such concerns are becoming "less relevant as technology makes it possible for women to have children into their forties and fifties," citing IVF as the new thing in Seoul. But just three pages later, she points out that IVF is an arduous and expensive process with a pretty low success rate.

The conclusion looks at a fertility clinic in LA, where sex selection through IVF is becoming a trend. Americans tend to want girls, but the ethical questions remain the same. When it comes to having a baby, what is OK and what is not? Hvistendahl never covers the question of whether or not it's ethical to terminate a pregnancy when a genetic problem such as Downs is present, and I suppose that is outside the scope of the book, but it's certainly a related issue. In the US, about 90% of babies with Downs are aborted before birth, and that is not something that we discuss much, but I think that's pretty horrific too.

It's an incredibly sad book, detailing a level of wickedness I never imagined, even though I knew something about sex selection. Think twice before you read it, but then read it because it's an issue that will affect all of us.

I'm counting this title as my Social Sciences selection for the Mixing It Up Challenge. I also had a hard time figuring out where to put it on my reading map (that no one but me cares about), but the author lives in Beijing so I put my marker there.

The Haunted Dolls' House

The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Stories, by M. R. James

I've been saving this second volume of James stories for a treat. Though they are not as consistently good as the earlier stories, I enjoyed them quite a bit and there are some really good ones here. James was very subtle about his ghosts and ghouls, which make them really good to read about--they're just suggested.

The title story, "The Haunted Dolls' House," sounded awfully familiar to me although I knew I'd never read it before. My 11-year-old daughter took one look at it and knew--the plot was lifted for a children's book she read last year called The Dollhouse Murders. It's really similar.

There's an extra treat at the end of the book--a little collection of 12 medieval ghost stories written in Latin and translated by James. The Latin is included, so you can try your hand at it too! And there are a couple of short essays on ghost stories.

I'm counting this as my horror selection for the Mixing It Up Challenge. At first I was wondering if this would really count as horror--they're not actually very scary stories, just nicely creepy--but then the hostess, Ellie, outright mentioned James as a classic horror author. So yay, I win! This is also my 6th title from my TBR pile.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Nightmare Abbey

Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock

Thomas Love Peacock wrote short satirical novels at the beginning of the 19th century--about the same time as Jane Austen was writing. He would create eccentric characters--often caricatures of the literary lights of the day--set them down on a country estate, and make them talk. I started Nightmare Abbey several years ago and failed to get into it (I don't think I was in the right mood) so it's been sitting on my TBR shelf ever since. Now I've finished it and it was quite funny!

Nightmare Abbey, owned by the illustrious Glowry family, is an estate that stands between the sea and the Lincolnshire fens. The Glowrys are a gloomy family, and the young heir, Scythrop, is crossed in love. Some of the houseguests include Miss Marionetta, a coquette, Mr. Toobad, who loves to preach on the devil, Mr, Asterias on a quest to find a mermaid, and a mysterious lady hidden in a tower.

I couldn't help imagining the whole thing in Gorey illustrations. It was a really fun little satire on polite society with a semi-Gothic setting.

Here's an odd little fact: so far this year I have read 7 books set on the island of Great Britain. Five of them happen in Lincolnshire. Seems funny.

Hesiod's Theogony

I just learned that Hesiod's works are some of the earliest Greek poetry we have, which I had not realized at all. He and Homer were contemporaries and lived somewhere around 750 BC or so. Scholars think that Hesiod composed his Theogony (the story of the origin of the gods, and in this case the world too) for a contest at a funeral on the island of Euboia and won the prize--a tripod* that he dedicated to the Muses.

Hesiod was a Boeotian farmer, probably a fairly well-off one. He happened to compose his poem at just about the time that alphabetic writing was coming into use, and someone wrote it down. Because of that, the Theogony became the most popular standard version of the story of the gods; if there were other stories earlier on, they got lost. This is where we get much of the material we teach to our kids in books like D'Aulaires Greek Myths (which is a favorite of mine). My book says that it's "our best and earliest evidence for what the ancient Greeks believed about the beginning of the world and its divine governance" and that it is "possibly the oldest surviving example of Greek written literature."

The Theogony is about a thousand lines long and tells the genealogy of the gods and monsters from the beginning. Since genealogy is pretty boring stuff even when people are marrying their sisters and producing hideous creatures or beautiful nymphs, Hesiod livens it up with digressions on the natures of certain goddesses or the underworld and so on. The main story he tells is the generational conflict of the gods, as each father in turn tries to keep his sons from gaining power--and each mother helps her children win the battle.

Because the poem is so dense with names and it's not always easy to understand what Hesiod is talking about, it's a good idea to have a nicely annotated edition. Mine is a little old, since it's the one I used in college; it's by Richard S. Caldwell and has a straightforward translation with notes and a couple of explanatory essays that I found helpful. It's still in print, with a prettier cover.

Though it's pretty short, I found it difficult to concentrate on the text for long periods of time. Maybe because it was so dense and I had to keep stopping to read the footnotes--even if I already knew what was in them, because of course we can't just ignore footnotes!--or maybe because I read most of it while I was still pretty sick. It's a good poem to read, though, and I had a good time with it. I'm going to read Hesiod's Works and Days next and I have the Lattimore translation ready to go, fresh from where it's been mouldering on the college library shelves for the past 15 years or so.

*Haven't you always wondered what the heck those tripods were that people were always winning? I have. I went and looked it up, and here's a picture for you. A tripod was a bowl mounted on three legs, and you'd use it for religious sacrifices. The oracle at Delphi sat in one, which couldn't have been comfortable.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Well, who knew--there's a graphic novel biography of Richard Feynman! I found it at the library the other day, and since I'm a Feynman fan, I picked it right up. The storyline jumps around kind of a lot at first, but soon settles down into a fun rhythm.

If you're not familiar with the name, you should know that Richard Feynman was one of the eminent physicists of the 20th century. He got to be quite famous because he was kind of a big personality--he was outspoken, direct, had a bunch of unusual hobbies, and was all around an interesting guy. He wrote a couple of books of entertaining vignettes about his life and experiences that people who didn't understand physics (like me) could enjoy, and he also worked hard to make physics comprehensible to us ordinary folks.

The graphic novel covers a lot of material that I was already familiar with, and added more that I didn't know--it gives a better overall picture of Feynman's life than the vignette books do, so that was helpful. It's all narrated in first-person, with quite a bit of the text taken directly from things he wrote or said, so his voice comes through pretty strongly. You also get a nice sense of Feynman's personality, especially his constant desire to get rid of image and public-relations-type talk and get right to the point. (This was what made him so well-known in 1986, when he was on the panel that investigated the Challenger disaster, but you see it earlier too, especially at Los Alamos.)

Towards the end, the authors do their best to put a couple of Feynman's lectures on physics for regular people into graphic novel format. I must confess that I skimmed these bits. It was probably really well-done too, so now I feel guilty--maybe I'll go back and try to pay more attention.

If you already know something about Feynman's life, you'll probably enjoy this graphic novel. I would really recommend that you read his two books, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and What Do You Care What Other People Think? over this biography--because it's good, but those two are classics. Best of all, read all three!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare

My daughter's writing curriculum required us to read Julius Caesar--out loud, a scene at a time. First we read a synopsis of the story and watched the play with the book in hand, and we've been reading the play out loud for a few weeks now. Today Brutus finally ran himself through and we finished. Although Julius Caesar is perhaps not the most fun Shakespeare play (my daughter is not a fan of all the death), it is a fairly straightforward one and I think we understood it pretty well. I had fun translating the difficult bits into something she could understand.

She has set a goal for herself this year to read five Shakespeare plays, and we have some good movies to watch. The writing course now requires us to start studying The Merchant of Venice too (I suppose because of the quality of mercy speech--the authors like to provide moral examples along with great literature. Or else because some speech goes along with a skill they're trying to teach. Could be either one), so we are getting plenty of Shakespeare around here. Only the library's copy of the movie has apparently been stolen, so we don't have one to watch, unless I borrow it from the next town over--but that one isn't a BBC production or anything, it stars Al Pacino and is rated R. So I'm thinking not.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I ran into this yesterday at work and since it's so short, I just picked it up and read it in an afternoon for the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" challenge.

It's hard to know what there could be to say about such a famous story. Foolish Dr. Jekyll wants to indulge in his private vices without besmirching his reputation, and he comes up with a drug that allows him to bring the evil side of his nature to the fore, transforming him into Mr. Hyde. All too soon, Hyde gets too strong to be controlled.

Hey, look! A paperback cover! Sadly it is not as racy as a proper pulp cover should be, but I'll take it.

Before I Fall

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Samantha is one of the most popular girls in school, the girl everyone envies who can get away with anything. But then she gets killed in a car wreck--and wakes up on the morning of the same day. Sam keeps reliving her last day, until she can figure out what she needs to do.

The interesting thing about the story is that Samantha is really a pretty awful person--she's utterly thoughtless. As she starts to look around her for the first time, she realizes that she has never seen the people around her for who they are. She has never understood that she has choices, and that what she does every day has consequences. It's not that she's been intentionally evil, but she has never once stopped to think about anything. Watching her learn to make choices and care about people was the element I liked.

The story is a bit long but very readable. It's been making a big splash in the YA world, and you could give it to your teen (though I'd say 14+).

Friday, January 20, 2012

January Classics Discussion: Anthony Trollope

November's Autumn's Classics Challenge involves saying something about whatever classic you're reading at the moment. This month's focus is on the author. I started reading Doctor Thorne a little while ago, so this post is about Anthony Trollope. I'm not far enough into it to get to Level 3!

Level 1 Who is the author? What do they look like? When were they born? Where did they live? What does their handwriting look like? What are some of the other novels they've written? What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Anthony Trollope was born in 1815 in London. His parents were impoverished gentry, and Anthony suffered throughout his childhood from his father's ambition to live like a wealthy man when he had no money to do it with. The family spent time in Belgium to escape debt, but Anthony returned to London to take up a post in the Post Office. He wasn't very good at it. In trouble for debt himself, he took a post in Ireland, where things started looking up. Once he was getting established as an author he moved back to England so as to be near the publishing scene.

Trollope is most famous for his Chronicles of Barsetshire, which are the books I'm reading first. Then there are his Palliser novels and many others, for a grand total of 47. He was a very realistic writer and often humorous.

It's ridiculous, but the only sample of his handwriting that I can find is on this check!

Fun facts:

In 1868, Trollope stood for MP as a Liberal candidate for the borough of Beverley in Yorkshire. This was something of a setup; it was a corrupt borough known for vote-selling, and the real aim was to expose Conservative vote-buying. I'm not sure Trollope had this figured out and it seems that he was a pawn in the game.

After Trollope's death in 1882, his Autobiography was published. It contained the awful information that he wrote on a strict schedule, and that he wrote for money, which was hardly the proper attitude for a writer (writers should be inspired). His reputation suffered with the critics.

Level 2 What do you think of their writing style? What do you like about it? or what would have made you more inclined to like it? Is there are particular quote that has stood out to you?

I enjoy Trollope's writing quite a lot. His sentences are pretty straightforward for a Victorian, but he crams in a lot of background information and story. He likes to get confidential with little asides addressed directly to the reader. He is nicely humorous and seems to enjoy his story and to be fond of his characters--even the kind of awful people are human beings with reasons (if not very good ones) for what they do.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

I've seen this book all over the YA blogs, and eventually one of the descriptions caught my attention. It's a pretty enjoyable book, very current in the paranormal romance genre.

Karou is 17, an art student in Prague. But she grew up in a shop that is run by a chimaera who collects teeth. Her hair grows blue. She speaks 20 languages, and she doesn't know where she came from. Then an angel appears and tries to kill her. Since they are deadly enemies, it follows that they are meant to be together! Or, maybe not, considering what they each have to forgive.

I am not a 'paranormal teen romance' person, but I did quite enjoy the story and writing, and I'll be reading the rest of the trilogy. I'm counting this as the YA requirement for the Mixing It Up Challenge.

I just noticed that today is the 19th of January and so far I've averaged a book per day--partly because I've read 5 light books during 3 days of being sick. Well, next week I go back to work, so all that's about to be over. But it was nice to get to read so much for a while.

The Book of Beasts

The Book of Beasts: a translation of a 12th-century Latin bestiary, translated by T. H. White

My 11-year-old daughter read most of this bestiary last summer in preparation for her year of medieval history. I've had it on my shelf for a long time, but had never gotten around to reading it. Now, thanks to the Medieval Literature challenge, I've finally done it!

This is a translation of a catalog of animals from all over the world--it's an animal encyclopedia and a serious scientific treatise. Bestiaries were very popular, and this particular one was probably written at Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire, which at that time was a sparsely populated semi-wilderness (and remember that England had a long and devastating civil war around then). The book would have been dictated to several monks, each of whom produced a copy. Then the illustrator would do the pictures.

To modern eyes, the descriptions of animals are adorably credulous; the older the story, the more credible it is, so Aesop's word is taken as gospel. In this way, all sorts of odd factoids and legends were preserved, such as that monkeys are lively at the new moon but depressed at its full, that elephants have no knee joints and cannot get up if they fall, and that hyenas change sex at will.

These behaviors and traits are then turned into allegories that illustrate religious principles, which accords with the medieval view of the universe as a highly ordered creation that continuously points to God. For example if an elephant falls over, he calls out and summons a big elephant to help him. That elephant can't do the job, so 12 more come and try, but they also fail. Finally a little, insignificant elephant comes and raises up the helpless elephant. This is an illustration of the gospel, showing that the Law of Moses (big elephant) and the Old Testament prophets (12 elephants) could not help fallen man, but that Jesus, lowly though he appeared, came to save mankind.

As with modern animal encyclopedias, the pictures are an important part of the book. The artist, of course, had never seen most of the animals he drew, and any pictures he had seen were drawn by artists who had never seen them either. The result is that while horses and domestic birds are beautifully drawn, lions look an awful lot like dogs and elephants look like pigs with long noses, right down to the cloven hooves. Bats are interesting--and classified as very unusual birds)--and the camels don't have nearly enough hump.

I think we're inclined to dismiss all this as adorable medieval credulity, but luckily T. H. White wrote a wonderful appendix that makes the monks' world come alive for the modern reader. It's really helpful (and humbling!). So the appendix is very worth reading--don't skip it.

Mr. Dixon Disappears

Mr. Dixon Disappears, by Ian Sansom

I don't know why I didn't read this Mobile Library mystery before, except that maybe I like to have one in reserve so I don't get to the end of them? It's been on my shelf for a while, patiently waiting to be read, even though I've already read one or two sequels.

The Mobile Library series is about Israel Armstrong, the vegetarian English Jewish librarian posted to the outer edges of Northern Ireland. "Hapless" is not a strong enough term to describe just how hapless Israel is--I think I've described him before as a librarian Arthur Dent. In this adventure, he's setting up a historical display in a department store when the store's owner goes missing. Israel takes a look around and the police show up and arrest him, so he has to prove his innocence.

These stories are always funny and relaxing--just what I needed!

And There Was Light

And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran

I can't remember now who recommended this book on her blog, so if it was you, tell me so I can thank you!

Jacques Lusseyran lost his sight in an accident when he was about 8 years old, and the first half of the book is about his experiences coping with blindness. I don't know if I should say "coping" because that's not how he tells it at all; it's an amazing story, and I can't do it justice.

Then, when Lusseyran was a teenager, the Germans invaded France. He describes living in occupied Paris, and how he and his friends started a resistance organization. That's also an amazing story! Before too long they joined up with the rest of the French Resistance. They were nearly all still under 18, which gave them something of an advantage. Their unit was eventually betrayed and Lusseyran spent the remainder of the war in a concentration camp, but he spends very little time on that period.

This was a great book and I plan to make all my friends read it. I always have trouble properly describing the books I really like, so you'll have to take my word for it, but go read it!

I'm also counting it as a biography for the Mixing It Up Challenge, which I seem to be burning through. I guess I like a lot of different kinds of books.


I have been sick. So, so sick. Now I have a pile of books to write up, but they're mostly pretty light stuff because you can't read anything heavy when you're miserable. Anyway I'm grateful to have had Terry Pratchett's new book, because it got me through the worst bit.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

It is completely amazing to me that Terry Pratchett has written 39 Discworld novels, and they're still good. I cannot think of another fantasy author--or any author at all--that has done that (if you can, let me know). Piers Anthony has written 35 Xanth novels so far; they started off so-so and have been utterly abysmal for years. Whereas with Discworld, the first couple aren't so great, but they got better and better for a long time, and are still really enjoyable. Maybe it's because Pterry changed so much over time and kept doing things differently; if he'd stuck with the same light parody he started with, it would never have worked so well.

Snuff is another Sam Vimes book, and we can always use one of those. His wife, Lady Sybil, has finally succeeding in dragging him off on a vacation to the countryside, and he's not at all sure what to do. But crime is everywhere!

I liked it (especially the very complicated chickens) and it's a worthy addition to the Discworld list.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

I've had an old paperback library copy of this on my TBR pile for quite a long time. I don't know if anyone wrote any alternate-universe books about a different outcome to World War II before Dick did, but this is the most famous one. It's the late 60's, and the Axis won the war. Japan occupies the West Coast of the American continent and Germany owns the East Coast as well as all of Europe and Africa. Africa has been depopulated, black people are mostly enslaved, Jews live in hiding, and everything is very racialized. White people in California live in subservience to the Japanese (as do the Chinese). And Germans are sending rockets out to colonize the solar system, too. Although Japan and Germany are officially friendly, the cracks are starting to show.

The action mainly takes place in San Francisco or the Midwest (which is the only remnant of the USA and mostly ignored), and jumps between several main characters. An influential Japanese businessman, a Jewish craftsman passing as Aryan and his estranged wife, an antiques dealer, a German trying to warn Japan of imminent attack--all of them are trying to survive. Then there's a book circulating around about an alternate universe in which the Axis lost the war...but it's not our version of what happened.

Anyway, the ending is strange. Funny, but for an SF classic it's not exactly very heavy on the science fiction. It's worth reading, though, if you're interested in alternate histories or SF classics. I'm counting this as my SF requirement for Mixing It Up, too.

Hopjoy Was Here

Hopjoy Was Here, by Colin Watson

I thought maybe the Watson mysteries would improve, so I picked up the next one on the pile. It's called Hopjoy Was Here and I'm happy to report that it was indeed much better--more interesting and yes, kind of funny. It was really kind of an oddball mystery, but in an entertaining way. Now I will be happy to read more Watson in future.

My book cover is not nearly so nice as this picture from a new run of the series. It is quite a boring cover and has a photo on it of a British actor with a pipe and tweed hat, from the BBC series based on the books--it was called "Murder Most English." The show ran in the late 70's and featured the guy who played James Herriot in "All Creatures Great and Small" as the sargeant. Maybe I'll see if I can find it sometime, though really I don't like televised mysteries very much, just books.

I'm going to count this as the mystery selection in the Mixing It Up Challenge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Story of an African Farm

The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner

The story concerns three children growing up together. Em and Lyndall are orphaned cousins. Lyndall is intelligent, beautiful, and troubled, while Em is plain and ordinary, but very kind. They are cared for by Em's stepmother, a thoughtless Boer woman. Then there is Waldo, the son of a German herder who works on the farm. Waldo and his father are by far the nicest people (other than Em) in the book, and I think the father was my favorite. Waldo is something of an odd genius, very mechanical and a deep thinker--although inarticulate about it. All of them go through quite a lot of hardships of very different kinds.

Lyndall is ambitious and determined, and gets herself to school, but she is oppressed by society's limits on women (and she has a lot to say about that). Waldo loses his faith in God and searches for truth, and Em gets the short end of the stick every time. It's really a very sad novel.

There's plenty to discuss here. Schreiner argues against Christianity and for women's freedom, and always talks about the beauty of the South African land. She has often been criticized for worrying more about women's rights than about apartheid, but apparently she was also for the abolition of the color bar too, though it's not an issue that is covered in this novel. Anyway she seems to have thought that black women deserved rights too. My Dover copy calls this "the first great South African novel," and I'm not qualified to make a judgement on that point, but it was published in 1883 and was probably one of the first serious novels to be published about South Africa at all.

I'm counting this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge as "a classic set in a country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime." Since Schreiner lived in colonial South Africa, in the part that is now Lesotho, I think this counts. I'd love to go to Africa someday, but my chances of landing in Lesotho are pretty slim. It's also part of the Mount TBR Challenge--I bought this book years ago (and thought it was a memoir, not a novel) and never got around to reading it before.

The Graves of Academe

The Graves of Academe, by Richard Mitchell

Richard Mitchell was a professor at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and one of the earlier grumpy outspoken critics of the education system. He ran a self-published magazine, The Underground Grammarian, wrote four books about language and education, and always encouraged free distribution of his works, so you can find all of it online.

Back in 1918, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education wrote a pamphlet outlining the main goals for American education. Only one of these goals was academic, and it called for the 1918 version of Basic Minimum Competency. The pamphlet was called Cardinal Principles, and you can read it at the link or see the principles at the end of this post. Mitchell calls the authors "The Gang of Twenty-Seven" and figures that they assumed that most children were not capable of real academic achievement, much less serious thought, and that school is really an instrument for re-making society in the form that educators think is best. The Graves of Academe is his take on the principles and the state of modern education (well, as of about 1980), and he does not approve.

Here's the sort of thing that really made him foam at the mouth, a statement on school vouchers and parent choice (I didn't know that the argument about vouchers was going on 30 years ago):

If you think it too rash to charge our educationists even as unwitting agents of tyranny and thought control, consider these lines from a recent proclamation of the Association of California School Administrators:

"Parent choice" proceeds from the belief that the purpose of education is to provide individual students with an education. In fact, educating the individual is but a means to the true end of education, which is to create a viable social order to which individuals contribute and by which they are sustained. "Family choice" is, therefore, basically selfish and anti-social in that it focuses on the "wants" of a single family rather than the "needs" of society.

The book is definitely ranty, but very interesting and has plenty to think about. I always like to read Mitchell, but then I like grumps.

I've actually been reading this off and on for about 6 months; it was one of the first books I downloaded when I got an e-reader. It's a book best taken in small doses!

Cardinal Principles:

1. Health

A secondary school should encourage good health habits, give health instruction, and provide physical activities. Good health should be taken into account when schools and communities are planning activities for youth. The general public should be educated on the importance of good health. Teachers should be examples for good health and schools should furnish good equipment and safe buildings.

2. Command Of Fundamental Processes

Fundamental Processes are writing, reading, oral and written expression, and math. It was decided that these basics should be applied to newer material instead of using the older ways of doing things.

3. Worthy Home Membership

This principle "calls for the development of those qualities that make the individual a worthy member of a family, both contributing to and deriving benefit from that membership" (Raubinger, Rowe, Piper, West, 108). This principle should be taught through literature, music, social studies, and art. Co-ed schools should show good relationships between males and females. When trying to instill this principle in children the future as well as the present should be taken into account.

4. Vocation

The objective of this principle is that the student gets to know him or herself and a variety of careers so that the student can choose the most suitable career. The student should then develop an understanding of the relationship between the vocation and the community in which one lives and works. Those who are successful in a vocation should be the ones to teach the students in either the school or workplace.

5. Civic Education

The goal of civic education is to develop an awareness and concern for one's own community. A student should gain knowledge of social organizations and a commitment to civic morality. Diversity and cooperation should be paramount. Democratic organization of the school and classroom as well as group problem solving are the methods that this principle should be taught through.

6. Worthy Use Of Leisure

The idea behind this principle is that education should give the student the skills to enrich his/her body, mind, spirit and personality in his/her leisure. The school should also provide appropriate recreation. This principle should be taught in all subjects but primarily in music, art, literature, drama, social issues, and science.

7. Ethical Character

This principle involves instilling in the student the notion of personal responsibility and initiative. Appropriate teaching methods and school organization are the primary examples that should be used.

Naming these seven objectives does not "imply that the process of education can be divided into separated fields" (Raubinger, Rowe, Piper, West, 106). Therefore all of the seven principles are interrelated. In order for these principles to be successful the student must have a willingness to follow these and an ethical character that will allow this learning to take place.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Black Out

Black Out, by Lisa Unger

Robin of My Two Blessings recommended an Unger novel for her U week last year, and it looked interesting so I read that, and then that book included the first chapter from Black Out and it looked interesting so I got it. It's a thriller about secret identities buried in the past and all sorts of things--very exciting but pretty dark. It was fun though.

The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux

I did not know that this was even a book. When I was about 16, the Broadway musical was a big hit and most of my friends lived in the grip of Phantom-mania. I never saw the show or the movie, so I was pretty clueless about all of it.

But it turns out that originally, it was a mystery by one of the original detective-story geniuses! The Phantom of the Opera was published in 1910 (in French of course), and it wasn't very popular at all, but the film adaptations did much better.

The story is told by a detective who does relatively little detecting in the story; mostly he just narrates the information he has gathered. It is the story of the young Swedish singer, Christine Daae, the young and romantic aristocrat Raoul who loves her, and the "Opera Ghost" who is obsessed with her. He has a deformed face which makes him an outcast. He is also diabolically clever and entirely insane.

I enjoyed the story, which is more Gothic tale than detective novel. That was a pleasant surprise. I still don't plan on seeing the show, though.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius

I am quite proud of myself; I've always wanted to read Boethius and now I've done it. Of course, it turned out not to be nearly as difficult as I'd always thought it was going to be, so maybe it's not such an amazing accomplishment.

C. S. Lewis has a whole section on Boethius in The Discarded Image, and he says that it "was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin...Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been difficult to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages."

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (~480-525) lived in Rome just as the Western Roman Empire was crumbling into the last little bits. He belonged to an eminent family, served as consul, and worked for Theodoric the Ostrogoth. He wound up on the wrong side of a power struggle and Theodoric imprisoned and finally executed him. (This capital letter from a 14th-century manuscript shows him teaching students, but of course no one knows what he looked like.)

The Consolation of Philosophy was written while Boethius sat in prison. It starts with him feeling sorry for himself--his wealth is gone, he's worried about his family, his name is mud. (He doesn't seem to be terribly worried about execution, though, so maybe he wasn't expecting that.) A woman appears to him, introduces herself as Philosophia, and by using the tools of reason and philosophy, she proves that things are, in reality, very different than they seem. As he learns to see the world through philosophical eyes, he becomes calmer and better able to deal with his imprisonment.

Each section of the book delves deeper into why people experience bad and good fortune, why the wicked prosper while the virtuous are trampled, why there is evil in the world, and how free will can exist. Although Boethius is not talking religion, he uses the tools of philosophy to come to conclusions that sound pretty Christian. That seems to be the task he set himself.

I enjoyed this one a lot and am very pleased that I read it. Next up in medieval literature--The Book of Beasts! (I've owned it for years but have never read it properly, though my 6th-grader daughter did this year for her medieval history studies.)

The Oresteia

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus

I used George Thomson's 1932 translation, which is collected in the Viking Portable Library's Greek Reader edited by W. H. Auden. It's mostly done in blank verse--unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter--though the rhythm changes sometimes during songs. I liked the translation just fine, for the most part.

As background, we must know that ten years ago, when Agamemnon and his men started off to attack Troy, they were becalmed and could not launch the ships because they had somehow angered Artemis. The only way to appease the goddess was to sacrifice Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia. Torn between his duty to his men and his love for his daughter, Agamemnon chose war and killed Iphigenia. Clytemnestra, of course, could not forgive this sin. She took Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus as a lover and together they plotted revenge; Aegisthus' grievance is against Agamemnon's father Atreus, who killed his brother's children and fed them to him during a fight over the throne of Argos. Old sins have long shadows and this story is all about how sin leads to revenge and more sin--how can it be stopped?

Agamemnon starts with the news of victory at Troy arriving in Argos. A chorus of old men speaks with Clytemnestra, and she keeps up the appearance of loyalty and joy as King Agamemnon returns from the war. Agamemnon retains his wishy-washy character to the end and allows himself to be talked into a prideful display. He leaves his new captive and mistress, the prophetess Cassandra, outside and her song of lament for the past and the future is the climax of the play. As she goes in, she and Agamemnon are killed off-stage (the Greeks considered it inappropriate to show a death onstage). Clytemnestra justifies herself to the chorus, which blames her but has no solution about what she should have done about her daughter's sacrifice. Aegisthus shows up at the end, having been happy to let Clytemnestra do the dirty work, and they plan to rule Argos together.

In a society that considers blood revenge to be the only suitable response to a killing, how do you stop people from killing each other until no one is left? What do you do when one duty conflicts with another, and there is no way to avoid doing wrong? Aeschylus asks these questions over and over, and he doesn't really have an answer. There's a nice bit of foreshadowing at the beginning:

It is only deeds unholy
That increase, fruitful in offspring
Of the same breed as its fathers.
Where justice rules in the house,
Blest of God is the issue.

But ancient pride loves to put forth a fresh bloom of sin out of human evil...

Envy is another theme that runs through the whole play; the chorus brings up several times and warns against getting so famous or so prideful that one attracts the envy of others. That's just asking for trouble, either from your people or from the gods:

Mine be the life unenvied,
Neither to plunder cities
Nor myself a prisoner bow
Down to the will of others.

Which reminds me of that idea of the Greeks that you should never call anyone happy until they're safely dead. After all you never know--anything could happen, so it's not a good idea to call yourself happy.

On to The Libation Bearers (or Choephroe as my book has it)--Orestes has returned from his state of exile in order to avenge his father. Apollo himself has ordered him to kill his mother, so he feels completely justified. He finds his sister lamenting over Agamemnon's grave and longing for her brother, and they joyfully reunite and plan their revenge. Although they mention their lost sister, neither of them refer to the fact that she was killed by their father; I don't know if they consider that to have been wiped out by his death, or just not as important as his murder. The chorus this time is made up of slave-women, who alternately encourage the siblings and remember how terrible it is to be captured and made a slave. At length, Orestes and his friend (disguised as strangers) enter the palace and are welcomed as guests and messengers. Orestes tells Clytemnestra that her son is dead, and she doesn't seem too sorry, though his nurse grieves. Aegisthus arrives and is killed, and then Clytemnestra sees her son and pleads for her life. Her last act is to curse her son and call down the Furies upon him.

The action of The Eumenides moves to Delphi and Athens. The Furies have been chasing and tormenting Orestes and he has run to Delphi for help from Apollo. But the Furies are older than Apollo or any of the younger gods; they are Justice itself and Apollo has little power over them. All he can do is make them sleep for a while as he sends Orestes off to Athena, who can act as a judge in the case. Legend says that the scene where the Furies awaken and sniff around for Orestes' guilty, blood-ridden scent to follow was so frightening when it was first performed that people fainted or even died. Their justification for tormenting Orestes is that he is guilty of matricide, which is a worse sin than killing a spouse because it involves violating a blood tie. Thus Orestes is more guilty than his mother was.

It takes a whole year for Orestes to get to Athens and call upon Athena, and he is tormented the whole time. Athena calls some judges and hears the case, with Apollo defending Orestes. Orestes maintains that he is perfectly clean and has no guilt, and Apollo argues that the marriage tie is at least as sacred as blood, and anyway a mother only carries a child; she has no part in producing it. This is proven by the fact that Athena herself has no mother. The judges are tied in their verdict, and Athena breaks the tie and pronounces Orestes innocent. To soothe the enraged Furies, she convinces them to live in Athens and encourage the citizens to live in happy justice, doing good deeds to each other instead of killing:

Ne'er, I pray, ne'er may that Root of evil, civil strife, Rage within her boundaries; Ne'er may the earth's dust drink of the blood of her children, And wroth thereat thirst greedily after revenge, Blood in requital of blood; Rather in friendly communion Gladness be rendered for gladness, All at one in love and hate. Therein lies a cure for human ills.

So I suppose the only solution for the problem of blood feuds is not to start them in the first place.

The Greek Reader I'm using has a nice introduction by W. H. Auden that was fun to read too. He describes a little bit of what it was like to grow up back when British boys (the ones whose families could afford it) went to boarding school and mainly learned Latin and Greek, and not much else. Science was lower-class and offensively modern. Auden then talks a bit about the high-flown, roundabout language the ancient Greeks used in plays or poetry, which is fun.

I quite enjoyed reading the plays and will certainly plan to read more Aeschylus in future. I hope you're all enjoying your reading too!

Friday, January 6, 2012

January Classics Discussion

November's Autumn's Classics Challenge involves saying something about whatever classic you're reading at the moment. This month's focus is on the author, so every so often I'll post some information about whoever I'm reading. At the moment, my problem is that her questions kind of assume that you're reading a novel, and all I've got is a trilogy of Greek plays and an early medieval treatise on philosophy. But no matter, we'll do our best.

This post will be on Aeschylus!

Level 1 Who is the author? What do they look like? When were they born? Where did they live? What does their handwriting look like? What are some of the other novels they've written? What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Aeschylus lived from ~525-455 BC. He is supposed to have been a native of Eleusis, which isn't too far from Athens, and seems to have lived there much of the time. No one knows what his handwriting looked like, and most of his many (70-90) plays have been lost, but besides the Oresteia, we have The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, and the iffy Prometheus Bound (which may or may not be genuinely by Aeschylus).

Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Marathon and the Battle of Salamis. He is supposed to have begun his career as a playwright as a youth, when he fell asleep while working in a vineyard and had a vision of Dionysus, who ordered him to write tragedies. (The vineyard was of course the right place for such a vision, and the dramatic competitions the plays were for were in honor of Dionysus.) Much of the reason that we have lost so many of these Dionysian plays is that they were only intended to be performed once--there were new ones every year and it was only much later that the 'best of Greek drama' started to be put on in revivals. Kind of like the Eurovision competition!

Level 2
What do you think of their writing style? What do you like about it? or what would have made you more inclined to like it? Is there are particular quote that has stood out to you?

Aeschylus' style is very high-flown poetic rhetoric (as all Greek drama was in his day), and very heavy on compound epithets that are hard to translate. From what I hear his contemporaries didn't always get him either. To our ears it's very archaic and roundabout, taking forever to say any one thing. Here's a bit I liked from Agamemnon:

It is only deeds unholy
That increase, fruitful in offspring
Of the same breed as its fathers.
Where justice rules in the house,
Blest of God is the issue.

But ancient pride loves to put forth a fresh bloom of sin out of human evil...

Level 3
Why do you think they wrote this novel? How did their contemporaries view both the author and their novel?

The Oresteia was an entry in the annual competition at the Dionysian festival, and it is known to have won first place. Aeschylus' war record was considered to be more important than his literary talent, but he won first place quite often. He was also an innovator in the drama, so he must have been considered quite the rising star for a while. Apparently he was also accused of revealing some of the Eleusinian mysteries onstage, and he had to run away from an angry mob!

Theme Thursday

Theme Thursday, hosted by My Reader's Block:

*A theme will be posted each week on Thursday
*Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from your current book that features the theme
*Post it and don't forget to mention the author and title of the book
*Event is open for the whole week
*Link back to Reading Between the Pages

This week's theme is NEW (fresh, newest, latest, etc).

I'm reading The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, and this is the description of Christine Daae's first big performance:

She began by singing a few passages from Gounod's
Romeo et Juliette. This was the first time she had sung anything from that work....Yet that was nothing compared with the superhuman performance she gave in the prison scene and the final trio in Faust, which she sang in place of Carlotta, who was ill. No one had ever heard or seen anything like it. It was "the new Marguerite" that Christine had revealed, a Marguerite with a previously unsuspected splendor and radiance.

It's a very good book and I'm liking it. But I must confess that every mention of Marguerite in Faust makes me think of Bianca Castafiore in Tintin comics.

A favorite essay of mine

The other day I got down C. S. Lewis' book of essays, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, from my bookshelf. I wanted to see if there was anything in there about Boethius, since I'm reading the Consolation of Philosophy right now (I've finished Book IV! Yippee!). There wasn't, but there is a wonderful essay called "Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages" which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in medieval literature.

The essay is mostly a short description of medieval cosmology and where it came from, which is a topic that Lewis turned into a whole book called The Discarded Image. It's one of my all-time favorite books (because I'm a geek?). But this essay is worth reading even if you've already read The Discarded Image, I think. For one thing, Lewis takes a lot of time to describe how literate and, really, pedantic medieval scholars were, and how much they loved to categorize, describe, and organize everything in the universe--as in Boethius, Dante's Comedy, or bestiaries, or anything they could manage to insert a good long explanation into. Here is one of my favorite bits:

I described them as a literate people who had lost most of their books. And what survived was, to some extent a chance collection. It contained ancient Hebrew, classical Greek, classical Roman decadent Roman and early Christian elements. It had reached them by various routes. All Plato had disappeared except part of the Timaeus in a Latin version: one of the greatest, but also one of the least typical, of the dialogues. Aristotle’s logic was at first missing, but you had a Latin translation of a very late Greek introduction to it. Astronomy and medicine, and (later) Aristotle, came in Latin translations of Arabic translations of the Greek. That is the typical descent of learning: from Athens to Hellenistic Alexandria, from Alexandria to Baghdad, from Baghdad, via Sicily, to the university of Paris, and thence all over Europe…A scratch collection, a corpus that frequently contradicted itself. But here we touch on a real credulity in the medieval mind. Faced with this self-contradictory corpus, they hardly ever decided that one of the authorities was simply right and the others wrong; never that all were wrong. To be sure, in the last resort it was taken for granted that the Christian writers must be right as against the Pagans. But it was hardly ever allowed to come to the last resort. It was apparently difficult to believe that anything in the books – so costly, fetched from so far, so old, often so lovely to the eye and hand, was just plumb wrong. No; if Seneca and St. Paul disagreed with one another, and both with Cicero, and all these with Boethius, there must be some explanation which would harmonize them. What was not true literally might be true in some other sense…And so on, through every possible subtlety and ramification. It is out of this that the medieval picture of the universe is evolved: a chance collection of materials, an inability to say ‘Bosh’, a temper systematic to the point of morbidity, great mental powers, unwearied patience, and a robust delight in their work. All these factors led them to produce the greatest most complex, specimen of syncretism or harmonization which, perhaps, the world has ever known. They tidied up the universe. To that tidy universe, and above all to its effect on the imagination, I now turn.

So, if you're interested, run out and find this essay, and maybe The Discarded Image too, at your friendly neighborhood public library. They are just so enjoyable to read!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

King Solomon's Mines

King Solomon's Mines, by H. Rider Haggard

It's the first book for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge! I gather that Allan Quartermain, the narrator of this story, is the leader of the League. King Solomon's Mines was the first book about Allan Quartermain, but it was so popular that Haggard wrote another 15 or so stories about him. I've only ever read one Haggard book, and it wasn't a Quartermain story.

Quartermain is an expert hunter living in South Africa, and he's approached by a couple of men who want to search for a lost brother. It so happens that Quartermain knows that the brother went searching for King Solomon's Mines, and he is also the sole possessor of a 300-year-old map to the mines. So off they trek, across veldt and desert and mountain, until they end up finding a lost civilization. Their noble bearer Umbopa turns out to be the lost rightful king, so he gets the support of several generals and they all depose the evil usurper Twala, bringing justice to the people of Kukuana. And then the intrepid explorers find the mines, but the super-evil witch Gagool has plans for them!

It's all very exciting and rip-roaring, and not as entirely horrifically racist as it could be (which is not to say that you'll never be taken aback, but it could have been a whole lot worse), and the writing style is pretty good for an adventure novel that was dashed off in six weeks. Indiana Jones and other serial adventures owe much to Haggard, so it will be pretty familiar if you read it--just keep in mind that this is one of the originals that inspired all the imitations.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Coffin, Scarcely Used

Coffin, Scarcely Used, by Colin Watson

I was given a large box of old paperback mysteries, hooray! Lots of them are going straight to the library booksale, but I kept a pile, including several Colin Watson titles, which are supposed to be dryly witty. Well, my reaction to this first one is meh, but maybe they will get better when Miss Lucy Teatime shows up? If any of you would like to convince me that Watson was a genius of mystery-writing, now is your chance.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

It's hard to resist the creepy vintage photographs in this novel. I assumed at first that the photos were modern products of Photoshop, but they are old, and were found by people who like to look through piles of unknown old photographs. Riggs borrowed the pictures and built a story around them, which I think is really neat.

Jacob is an utterly ordinary teenager in an ordinary suburb, but when his grandfather dies mysteriously, he starts to have problems. Grandpa used to tell him stories about his amazing friends on a magic island, and how he fought monsters--was he lying to a little kid, or could he have been telling the truth? Jacob ends up looking for the real story on a tiny Welsh island, and gets more than he expected.

The writing was good, the story is engaging and creepy, and there's something original about the whole thing that is more satisfying than I would have expected from a well-used storyline. Riggs could easily set this up for a trilogy, but I got the feeling that he didn't intend to do that--though I wouldn't be too surprised to see it happen, given the book's enormous popularity. It's already being made into a movie.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is the first Adichie book I've heard of or read, and she is going on my list of authors I need to read more of. Her writing is beautiful. And tragic.

The story revolves around a small constellation of people in Nigeria and explores their personal relationships. All become involved in the Biafran independence movement of the late 1960s, and we see how war and hardship change them.

Some background information: Biafra was an attempt at secession from Nigeria in 1967, and it only lasted a couple of years; Nigeria declared war and few governments wanted to encourage post-colonial African independence movements, and the Biafrans were massacred or starved. The title refers to the Biafran flag.

This is yet another title recommended by Eva, so she gets the credit. And, I'm counting this as my modern fiction entry in the Mixing It Up Challenge.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Greek Classics: Here We Go!

Happy January 1st--are you ready to start reading the ancient Greeks?

I'm going to start with Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. These plays tell the awful story of Agamemnon's family after he returns from the Trojan War. Before setting out, he had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and in revenge (not to mention how Agamemnon took Cassandra as a mistress) his wife Clytemnestra murders him, and Cassandra too. Now it's up to their son Orestes to avenge his father, and he kills Clytemnestra and her lover. This makes Orestes guilty of matricide, so the Furies pursue and torment him, and he appeals to Apollo, who encouraged Orestes in the first place. Athena has to step in as arbiter, which leads to some discussion on reason and law. What happens when justice and duty are at cross-purposes?

Aeschylus' plays are the oldest we have, and only seven have survived; he wrote at least seventy. All the plays before Aeschylus have been lost, and apparently they were somewhat different, with fewer characters that could only speak with the chorus. Aeschylus developed conflict between characters and is often known as the Father of Tragedy. He wrote many trilogies, but all have been lost except for the Oresteia. From what I hear, his plays are written in difficult Greek that often puzzled his contemporaries and now gives translators fits.

He was born in Eleusis around 525 BC of a wealthy family, and was a member of the Eleusinian mysteries that were based in his home city. He served in the Persian wars and fought at the Battle of Marathon, as did his brother Cynegeirus, who was killed in action there and revered as a hero. Later, he fought at the Battle of Salamis as well. This war service was much more important to the Greeks than literary accomplishment, and so his epitaph reads:
Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

Aeschylus' death is the subject of a legendary (and probably apocryphal) story: he is supposed to have been killed around 455 BC when an eagle dropped a tortoise on him, mistaking his bald head for a rock.

Now that you know something about Aeschylus, what Greek literature are you planning to read?