Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Listening Eye

The Listening Eye, by Patricia Wentworth

I often read Patricia Wentworth mysteries when things have gone wrong and I need something very fluffy and familiar. Wentworth wrote the coziest kind of British mystery novel, usually starring Miss Silver (a former governess turned detective), and always featuring young love and a wedding at the end. The writing style is instantly recognizable, the characters are on the stock side, and amnesia figures in Wentworth's plots far too often. They are great if you need a nice comforting read, and they've just been reissued in a new edition.

The Listening Eye does not feature amnesia, but a deaf landlady who is very good at lipreading. She accidentally observes two men plotting a crime, and visits Miss Silver for advice.

I'm reading quite a lot at the moment, but they are all long books that will take a while! So things have been pretty slow around here. However, I'd just like to remind you all that it's International Hug a Medievalist Day, so please hug your favorite medievalist before midnight tonight.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

This is the third Shakespeare play that my daughter and I have read aloud. She saw it performed last year at the high school and was eager to read it aloud. It was really fun watching her get the jokes--much of the time, she would read the rude mechanicals' dialogue and at first assume she was understanding it incorrectly. It would take her a minute to realize what was going on. She also did not think much of Helena's puppy-dog devotion.

For our next play, she has chosen The Tempest, which is great because that's my planned reading for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I guess she's enjoying this a lot; she's the one pushing to do daily readings!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Witch Week on the radio!

BBC Radio broadcast a dramatized version of Diana Wynne Jones' Witch Week the other day. I've listened to some of it, but it's always hard to find time to just listen to something, so I'm worried I won't get to hear the whole thing. I want to know what kind of voice Chrestomanci was given! So far it's taken some liberties with the original text, which is unfortunate but inevitable if you're trying to squish a novel into an hour of dialogue.

Listen and enjoy!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Book of the City of Ladies

The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan

I think The Book of the City of Ladies is one of the greatest medieval works I've ever read. I loved it, so I'm very grateful to JCNL and Eva for introducing me to this wonderful book.

The background information on Christine de Pizan is available at my post over on the Year of Feminist Classics blog. Since I read The Romance of the Rose last month, I could well understand her indignation at medieval writers' constant harping on how evil women were. It was certainly very convenient for them, and must have gotten very tiring for the women.

Christine builds her city in three sections. First, she and Reason lay the foundation for the city by clearing the ground--that is, by getting rid of some common ideas about women, most especially those espoused by writers. Romans like Ovid or Cato are contradicted or explained away, and more current writers are ridiculed. Reason uses Christianity to show that since women are a creation of God, and were formed from Adam's rib (that is, his side, showing equality), they are "equally good and noble." Biblical figures are used to show that God has given women special favors, and Reason points out that no one should despise feminine jobs like sewing, since without them we wouldn't be very happy.

Foundation stones are then laid for the city with great and noble queens from history and mythology. Several of these queens feature in Herodotus too, so I could sometimes find one person in two different stories (Christine was not using Herodotus, so the stories don't match). Christine asks Reason to give examples of women who were especially learned, and women who actually invented new things. This is quite an impressive list, since Christine turns mythological goddesses into historical inventors! Thus Ceres developed agriculture, Minerva invented armor, writing, and wool-spinning, Isis invented gardens, and Arachne came up with dyeing and the use of linen. Civilization would not exist without women, Christine assures us. A final list of women who were wise, virtuous, and brave finishes off the city foundations, proving that "God has never held... the feminine sex in reproach."

Now it is Rectitude's turn to build houses for the city and fill it with people. This is done with examples of women who showed some specific virtue that male writers have not credited: prophecy, filial piety, wifely love and support, discretion (Jean de Meun gets a special mention here), wisdom, and so on. Example after example proves that the books are wrong when they claim that marriage to a woman is nothing but trouble, as Rectitude tells stories about women who saved their husbands or their whole countries. Even more examples are given when we get to the common medieval accusation that women are incapable of chastity or fidelity in marriage; this is a special point of importance for Christine (and no wonder, as this reasoning was apparently routinely used to justify rape).

Finally, Justice arrives to put the crowning touches on the city. She is going to build golden roofs and towers, and choose a queen for the city. These highest spots go to female martyrs of Christianity, and the queen, of course, is the Virgin Mary. She closes with an exhortation to all women to prove slanderous lies wrong by living virtuously.

If you're still reading and haven't been bored to death by my summary, I had a great time reading this book. I love how Christine uses other writers' own weapons against them by pointing out the plain truth that history and Christianity are full of amazing women. Her facts, her logic and her rhetorical tools are perfectly sound by the standards of her day. I would love to get hold of more documents about the Quarrel of the Romance of the Rose, to see how other writers responded to Christine's arguments.

I'm no good at critiquing this work, because I just flat out loved it.

The Pilgrim's Regress

The Pilgrim's Regress, by C. S. Lewis

As long as I was reading medieval allegory (which I was--I just haven't posted about it yet), I thought I would re-read one of C. S. Lewis' first books, which was written as an allegory that deliberately mirrors Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Lewis didn't exactly write it as a spiritual autobiography--it doesn't map on to events in his own life--but it does chronicle a very similar path.

Since it's one of Lewis' earliest books, it's kind of obscure in content, plain weird in some spots, and definitely not the sort of thing that everyone is going to love. But I liked it, though the writing is less adept than it is in later works. Some bits were quite funny too.

Mount TBR Update

Bev at My Reader's Block is calling for a check-in post for her Mount TBR Challenge. I signed up for the lowest level of Pike's Peak, which requires 12 books. I have now read 11 titles from my TBR pile:
  1. The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner
  2. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
  3. The Book of Beasts, trans. T. H. White
  4. Mr. Dixon Disappears, by Ian Sansom
  5. Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock
  6. The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Stories, by M. R. James
  7. The New Road to Serfdom, by Daniel Hannan
  8. Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope
  9. Winking at the Brim, by Gladys Mitchell
  10. Lovely is the Lee, by Robert Gibbings
  11. A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
Since I'm close to completing this level, I'm going to officially upgrade to level 2, which is Mt. Vancouver, requiring 25 titles.

I think The Book of Beasts is the book that has been on my pile the longest. I'm pretty sure I picked it up used in Berkeley, and I haven't lived there since 1997. It's certainly not the only book I bought in Berkeley on the pile, and there may even be ones older than that.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Herodotus' Histories: Book II

I was going to spend a lot of time blogging today, but real life got in the way, so you just get the latest installment in the Herodotus saga. Book II is all about Egypt--its geography, wildlife, culture, and history. Herodotus puts in quite a bit about religion, though that's a subject he generally tries to avoid; since Egypt claimed to be the oldest civilization with the longest history, there is lots of investigating to do with the priests.

The funny thing about this book is that Herodotus got quite a lot of his material wrong. The entire chapter is liberally sprinkled with footnotes saying "Herodotus is wrong here" or "of course the Egyptians are quite wrong about the lake." After a while I felt like Kermit the Frog in The Great Muppet Caper, when he says "You know, it's amazing. You are 100 per cent wrong. I mean, nothing you've said has been right."

So while it's quite interesting to read all about Egypt, apparently we are supposed to take this book with a large grain of salt.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Essays by George Orwell

A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

George Orwell wrote a lot of essays, and here is an assorted collection: some autobiographical, others analyzing literature or popular culture, some plain political. The famous ones such as "Shooting an Elephant" or "Politics and the English Language" are included, and it seems to be a very good representative sample of Orwell's writing.

"Such, Such Were the Joys" is the first essay, about the prep school Orwell was sent to as a boy and how horrible it was. (You did not expect him to enjoy school, did you?) It does indeed sound horrible, and as a less-wealthy unathletic introvert of a boy, he fared badly. It's no wonder classical education died in England, if this was what it looked like--and of course it usually did. Orwell comments that "I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment," which is pretty discouraging to a (neo)classical homeschooler like me, but then I'm not actually trying to do the same thing. (I got an interesting contrast from a podcast I listened to last night all about C. S. Lewis and Latin. Lewis also hated his prep school, but loved his classics anyway, and escaped school by going to a tutor. He was a lifelong advocate of classical education, but not of prep schools.)

The thing that struck me most about the essays was how very different a world from ours Orwell lived in. I do not usually get that impression from pre-WWII books; sure, life was different and all, but Orwell makes me feel like I live on a different planet. The main thing is that he makes it absolutely clear that he thinks that capitalism is stone dead, and that totalitarianism of one form or another is going to take over everywhere. It's either going to be communism or fascism, and either way, everything is going to be thuggery and naked power for quite a long time. No more literary freedom or anything like that; there will be a new kind of literature, but not for a long time. As far as he was concerned, 1984 really was the future.

There are other things too, though, that caught me up and showed how very differently he thought. One essay on the social value of those vulgar postcards that used to be sold at the seaside has several instances, the most striking of which is about how much earlier people used to age. Orwell comments that in the working classes people look older than middle-class people of the same age--and it's no longer because their living conditions are so different, but because middle-class people have adopted a new practice of trying to look younger even after 30. He comments, "The impulse to cling to youth at all costs, to attempt to preserve your sexual attraction, to see even in middle age a future for yourself and not merely for your children, is a thing of recent growth and has only precariously established itself. It will probably disappear again when our standard of living drops and our birth-rate rises. " Oh George, if you could see us now...

Orwell himself was a democratic socialist (though then he says democracy and socialism don't go together), but he often says things that make it difficult to tell exactly what he thinks. Mostly he is very pessimistic about everything. But I am not sure, for example, if the British post-war transition to light socialism would have been what he was aiming for--certainly the general rise in standards of living was one of his main goals, but I'm not sure about anything else. And near the end of "England Your England," written in 1941, he says something I don't understand at all: "...the people picked a leader nearer to their mood, Churchill, who was at any rate able to grasp that wars are not won without fighting. Later, perhaps, they will pick another leader who can grasp that only socialist nations can fight effectively." I have no idea what that last sentence even means. Does it mean that a socialist nation would have better-nourished soldiers? That it could rally industry more effectively? What?

He's certainly not very interested in half of the human species. Remarkably few women are ever mentioned. Even when he's listing Bloomsbury writers, Virginia Woolf's name never appears.

I had a good time reading all the essays, and if you decide to pick this one up, be sure not to skip pieces just because they sound obscure and random. Orwell seems to specialize in starting off by analyzing some small part of popular culture, like boys' magazines or vulgar postcards, and then turning it into a an entire social commentary. It's quite interesting, so don't miss it.

(The copy I have of this book is not nearly as pretty as the photo here. Mine is about as ugly as possible--just some brown and orange paint strokes--but happily there is no image of that online.)


I didn't quite mean to take the week off blogging, but it was my spring break and I had lots of resting, reading, cleaning and sewing to do instead. I need another week! I got two dresses sewed, went on a daytrip to a local animal preserve and museum, stuff like that. Now I have a lot of books to get caught up on.

Crossed, by Ally Condie

I read Matched when it came out, and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to getting Crossed too. One thing I like about Ally Condie's dystopian fiction is that there's a good story without a ton of gory violence or sex. Condie's focus seems to be on how people make choices; her oppressive Society hardly allows any choices at all, and Cassia's development is all about the freedom to make decisions, allowing other people their freedom too, and taking the consequences.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Her Royal Spyness

Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen

Georgie is penniless nobility--sister to a duke, 34th in line to the throne, and without a bean to call her own. So she heads off to London to seek her fortune and try to get a job without attracting the notice of Her Majesty, who will either marry her off to a boring German prince or shove her into a job as lady-in-waiting to an elderly princess. Georgie starts a housekeeping business, but next thing she knows there's a dead body in her bathtub. Her brother is blamed for it and he's not clever enough to save himself, so it's up to Georgie to clear the family name and not get killed in the process.

This was a very funny mystery, and the 30's London setting, full of Bright Young Things (and a cameo appearance from Mrs. Simpson!), was fun too. I really enjoyed it. Not only that, the book was a present from a fellow reader, and it showed up right when I needed a fun, light read, so thank you Stacia! Georgie is joining the ranks of my favorite British sleuths.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Victorian Celebration

Allie over at A Literary Odyssey is hosting a Victorian literature celebration in June and July. There are prizes! Allie writes:

Some of my very favorite writers come from the era, and I still have many others to discover. During the months of June and July, I'm only going to be reading titles from this time period. I hope you'll decide to join me for a text or two.

The Victorian era in literature refers to the time that Queen Victoria was ruling in Britain (1837-1901). It was a time period of great peace and prosperity for Britain and allowed for a lot of artistic and literary expression. Generally speaking, Victorians are only the British authors who published during this time period. However, some like to group American writers and others into the mix since their work can be closely tied together.

To give you an idea of what writers I am talking about, some of the most well-known Victorian writers include: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and the Bronte sisters. Others include Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anna Sewell, and the Brownings. There are countless more, but these are the big hitters and those most commonly referred to as Victorians.

For this event, the goal is to read as many Victorian pieces as you wish during the months of June and July.

Well, that's as good a time as any for me to enjoy some Trollope and Dickens! I won't read Victorian literature exclusively, but I will certainly read a few books. Head on over to Allie's place and sign yourself up!

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov told a modern Faust story set in Soviet Moscow, in which he satirized the Soviet government, compliant writers, and everyone else too. He started the novel in 1928, burned the manuscript in fear of arrest, and continued working on successive drafts until his death in 1940. Bulgakov was nearly always repressed by the Soviet system, and The Master and Margarita remained unpublished until 1966, when a heavily censored edition came out. A fuller manuscript was circulated through the samizdat system until more complete editions were published in 1967 and 1973. But the current version was finally compiled even later, in 1989. (Are you tired yet?)

The novel starts with the devil's arrival in Moscow for a visit. It is 1920 and the Soviets are newly in power, enforcing atheism and correct opinions. Professor Woland (as he is called) and his retinue of demons proceed to wreak havoc in the city, especially upon the writers belonging to MASSOLIT, a club for government-approved literary endeavors. Others suffer too--the newly wealthy elite, theater people, in fact anyone who comes into contact with the devil. The local insane asylum fills up, but one inmate has been there for some time; he is only known as the master. His lover, Margarita, and his novel about Pontius Pilate are all he cares for. Margarita happily makes a deal with the devil to save her master, and I'll stop there.

It's an amazing and surreal book. I can't even start to do it justice, so just read it.

I found plenty of interesting artwork around the Internet!

This book is for the re-read selection for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I've been meaning to re-read it for years anyway!

March Classics Discussion: Dickens

Katharine over at November's Autumn is hosting a classics discussion every month:

Choose a setting within the novel that most intrigues you. Is it the house of the character? Maybe the place where the novel reaches its climax?

To clarify how this will work: I'll post various questions, don't feel obliged to answer all of them. Participants have the full month to post and share their answers.

The different levels are based on how far into the book you are.Feel free to skip around the levels if you see a question that catches your fancy.

Level 1
How has the author introduced the setting? What does it tell you about the character? about the time period? What is the mood of the setting?

I'm only about 10 chapters into Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, but I thought I'd do a post on it anyway. The wider setting is, of course, London, and we spend most of the time in the curiosity shop. It seems to be night most of the time! In fact, the daylight hours are not described much, so even when it is day you feel that it's dark or badly-lit (which I suppose Victorian London mostly was, with all that smoke and fog, especially in the poor areas where buildings were crowded together and didn't have too many windows).

The shop itself is dingy, dark, and crowded with antiques and junk, with some living space in the back. It sounds very unpleasant, and Nell's youthful, pretty looks are strongly contrasted with her background. Her grandfather is just like the shop too, but Nell stands out like a light in the dark, making the shop look worse in comparison. This tells us a lot about the story, I think; Nell is supposed to be a miraculous good in an awful place (like Oliver Twist, I suppose).

Level 2
How do you envision it? Find a few images or describe it. Do you feel the setting is right? or was it a weak point of the author?

The descriptions of the shop are fairly general so far. Individual items are not described, just a general murk. I'm not far enough into the story to be able to judge if the setting is right, but since Dickens' London is a major part of his stories, I feel pretty safe in assuming it to be a large part of this one. So far it's a strength, as it just about always is with Dickens.

Level 3
If this particular setting was changed how would it affect the course of the story?

Can you have a Nell and an old curiosity shop that isn't in Victorian London? Probably not.

By the way, I have no idea whether or not Nell dies, only that everyone worried about it. So don't tell me!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep, by S. J. Watson

Every day, Christine wakes up with no memory of the past 20 years or so--no memory of her husband, or her son, or anything else. She remembers events during the day, but they disappear as she sleeps. Over the past few weeks, though, she's been keeping a journal, recording her thoughts and any memories that pop up. As she writes, she realizes that her husband lies to her. Did she really lose her memory because of a car accident?

I thought this thriller was fine, but it's probably a little overhyped. Amnesia novels seem to be awfully common just now. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't hard to figure out where it was going. I think I like Lisa Unger better.

Lovely is the Lee

Lovely is the Lee, by Robert Gibbings

This is one of those nice, peaceful books where the author wanders around the countryside and writes about it. I liked it very much. Apparently it was quite a hit in the mid-40s when it was released; Gibbings had already written two books about the countryside and there was another after this one. Gibbings became quite well-known and appeared on the radio and even television. There is not one word about World War II in this book, which was probably part of its appeal, but at the same time, everyone knew that the things he wrote about were in danger of disappearing. I expect a lot of it has disappeared by now.

Gibbings starts in Galway and just sort of wanders around the Irish coast for several months. He visits tiny islands, goes out with fishermen, and meets interesting people. There is a lot about birds and fish, a good bit of history, and many anecdotes about fairies and weird happenings--I think I liked that best. Eventually Gibbings ends up in Cork, his own birthplace, and tells a little about his father, friends and boyhood escapades. (Cork is on the River Lee, which is where the title comes from.) Then he wanders some more.

There is not much structure to this book, and it's very relaxing to read. It's a bit deceptive when you pick it up; I thought it would be quite short and yet it goes on for chapter after chapter--maybe the pages are thin. It makes for good bedside reading, or for when you've only got a little time, since there's not much plot.

I didn't plan to finish the book just in time for St. Patrick's Day, but that's a nice coincidence. As long as we're here, I'll tell you that my all-time favorite movie is also about the west coast of Ireland--it's The Secret of Roan Inish, which would be the perfect movie to watch this weekend! If you're very lucky, you might be able to find a copy of the original story, The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry. I would love to own the book, but so far I've only gotten it through ILL.

Oh I forgot to say: This is from my TBR pile, and I'm counting it as a travel book for the Mixing It Up Challenge.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Magical 11 Blog Tag

Cassandra tagged me, so here we go!

The Rules:

  1. Post rules.
  2. Post 11 fun facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the questions from the person who tagged you.
  4. Make up 11 questions for the people you tag.
  5. Tag 11 people.
  6. Let them know about it.
So here are my fun facts, different from the 7 fun facts I wracked my brain to come up with last time:

  1. I am the oldest of 5 siblings, and have 3 brothers and a sister (in that order)
  2. Two of those brothers speak German, one speaks Korean, and my sister speaks some Japanese. Then there's my Danish. Add in our respective spouses, and we have quite a collection.
  3. Then my husband speaks Spanish--with a Chilean accent--and he doesn't like to hear me try to say anything in Spanish. Because it comes out with a Danish accent, and it is not good.
  4. I like reading books about housekeeping way more than I like actually doing any housekeeping. I watch reality shows about messy people just so I will get inspired to clean.
  5. We all have Google doppelgängers, but mine is truly my opposite number. He's a high-level government official in an African country.
  6. I have never been to Ikea. Not once. I'd like to go, though.
  7. What I'd really like to do is travel a lot. If I had my way, I'd visit India, the UK, Japan, or lots of other places. I would happily take my family and live for a year in London or India. Someday, maybe.
  8. I am very good at sewing. Not so much with the tailoring, but I can produce some very nice girls' dresses, costumes, doll clothes, or quilts. I'm especially addicted to heirloom sewing, which is impractical, expensive, and mostly for people who are slightly bonkers. But oh, so pretty!
  9. And I'm pretty good at some kinds of embroidery. I'm taking an online embroidery class now to learn some things, which is fun.
  10. I went to Berkeley for my undergrad, and I loved it. Now I have a "Berkeley Girl" bumper sticker on my car. My parents met at Cal, and so did my paternal grandparents. I would love to send my girls there, but it's awfully expensive and difficult to get into now. So we're encouraging them to go to BYU, but I'm a bit wistful about it.
  11. Pretty much the only song I can play on the piano is the Pink Panther theme.

Here are the 11 questions I have to answer:

  1. If you could live in any age (present day included), which would you choose? I used to think I would love to live in a different time. But now I'm pretty sure I'd be dead of some hideous bacterial infection before anything interesting could happen. And I'm really, really fond of hot showers, air conditioning, the Internet, the effects of dentistry, and not being treated like chattel. But there are all sorts of times and places I would love to visit if I wouldn't die! I'll pick the Renaissance, but that's almost a random choice.

  2. Is there a literary character you identify with? When I was a kid, it was Meg Murry (me and every other awkward girl out there). Now I don't really have one.

  3. The world is divided into two different kinds of people: those who plan their own funerals and those who don't. To which do you belong? I haven't planned it yet, but I will. I've already informed my husband how I would prefer to be buried. These things come up in conversation when I'm around.

  4. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be? As far as a permanent, forever location goes, I'd pick right here. We love it here and want to stay (although I would happily boot the city council to the next galaxy). But I would also love to live somewhere else for a year--preferably India or somewhere on the British Isles--as long as I could come back here afterwards.

  5. How do you manage the balance between reading and going out? Going...out? What is that? I read while at home and while I'm driving the kids around (I like Mondays, because it's riding lessons and I get to sit in the car and read for an hour while they trot around the ring). My husband and I like to go out on Saturdays, which is really nice, but otherwise I don't go out a whole lot anymore; I'm too busy!

  6. What is your favourite quote? I don't know if I have one favorite, but here's one I put on the fridge: "There is no situation so terrible that whining cannot make it worse." (Jeffrey R. Holland)

  7. The eternal question: Which is better, Oxford or Cambridge? Ooh, that's a toughie. I'm annoyed at Oxford for booting C. S. Lewis, and happy with Cambridge for welcoming him, but Oxford is the land of Tolkien and Diana Wynne Jones and all sorts of people! To be honest I don't even know all that much about Cambridge besides that it's more sciencey, so I'm not very qualified to answer.

  8. Is there a song which has a special meaning to you? Lots of them! I will pick...The Rock Lobster by the B52s, which has many happy memories of good times with friends.

  9. What is your favourite quote? This time I'm going to go with my favorite silly line from a song: "We could swoop low on trees, or sweep under carpets, we could dive into suns--though it's not recommended..." ("Heavenly Pop Hit," by The Chills)

  10. Romantic comedy or thriller? SF/Fantasy! Hm, I like thrillers as long as they're not too thrilling, and romantic comedies as long as they are Bollywood movies. So I guess thrillers win as far as the English language goes. I'm reading one now.

  11. Why do you read? For about the same reason that I breathe; I don't quite know how to get along without it. I have always read. I suppose I read to learn about the world and the people around me.

Here's the problem--I don't like tagging people because it's too much like a chain letter! So, here are my 11 questions, but you can answer them in the comments. I want to hear from all of you, and if you want to post on your blog, consider yourself TAGGED by me.

  1. Can you type properly, or are you a hunt-and-peck kind of person?
  2. Name your favorite hobby besides reading.
  3. Why are you named what you are named?
  4. What is your favorite breakfast?
  5. Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy?
  6. Are you more of a big-city or a rural sort of person?
  7. Are you going to celebrate Pi Day, and with what kind of pie?
  8. Would you rather have Indian or Mexican food for dinner?
  9. Who was your best friend when you were 10?
  10. As long as we're doing nostalgia, what was your favorite song when you were 14?
  11. What odd thing has happened to you lately?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Herodotus' Histories: Book I

I finished Book I of the Histories the other day--and then I went out of town and couldn't post right away. This is all about Persia: its history, peoples, and customs, and how the war between the Greeks and the Persians got started. There are some great stories! Herodotus starts off with the story of Croesus and his great wealth, and how he lost it all to Cyrus. Cyrus dominates the book, conquering all over the place, but there are lots of digressions into the histories and rulers of the places he conquers. If you're not paying attention, it can look like he is meandering all over the place, but he always comes back to where he left off--eventually. Sometimes there are digressions within digressions inside other digressions!

There are so many familiar stories in this book--I know them from other sources, but here is the original. There are even more stories that are new to me. As I'm also reading the Book of the City of Ladies, I'm meeting the same valiant queens in each book, which is fun.

I have to say that I think Herodotus is pretty fair to the Persians. I recently saw a little video for kids about historical bias that claimed that our idea that Greeks = good guys and Persians = baddies comes from Herodotus, but I'm not sure that was fair. (I'm also not sure the video-makers read the Histories.) I think Herodotus was trying to be pretty objective and accurate, but of course research wasn't easy back then! And after all he was about the first one to even try out such an idea.

I love my Landmark edition of this book. For one thing it's printed on nice paper, and pleasurable to hold, but there are lots of helpful maps (I finally found out where Colchis was) and notes and things, which really help a novice like me to understand what's going on. I've also read 3 of the appendices and they are helpful too. The only problem is that it's a huge, heavy book that is not easy to read in bed.

Now I'm reading about the geography of Egypt. So far so good.

A Duty to the Dead

A Duty to the Dead, by Charles Todd

Bess Crawford is a nurse, serving on the Britannic during World War I. Well, she gets torpedoed in the first five pages, and after that she's on leave getting better, so she doesn't actually spend much time in the war, but this is a historical mystery anyway. During her recovery, Bess seeks out a wealthy Kent family to deliver a final message from a dying soldier. She doesn't know what the message means, and she's unsatisfied with the reception it gets from the family. As she gets to know the family and other village residents, she starts to develop suspicions about the past, and in trying to fulfill her duty, she gradually uncovers an old story of malice and horror.

I quite enjoyed this mystery. There are a good many characters, but they're all individuals, and the mystery is sufficiently mysterious without being too complicated for credibility. I looked for this title because the story sounded interesting, and it delivered, so I'm going to count it toward my World War I Challenge (even though it's not very literary or anything). I'll be looking for more Bess Crawford mysteries.

Join up with the Classics Club!

Jillian at A Room of One's Own has started a classics club. It's not exactly a challenge, more of a long-term project. Jillian says:

At your own blog, list 50, 100, or 200 classics that most interest/scare/excite you, alongside your goal date for finishing this list. You can either make a straight list of titles (what I’ll be doing), or explain next to each title why you’ve chosen it. You could also explain a few of your chosen titles, but leave the others explanation-free. It’s up to you. Rereads are encouraged. When you link your list in the comments here, please pick one title from your list that you are most excited to read, so it can be included on the participant list. The goal? To read every classic on your list at your blog, and write about each one at your blog. Each time you write about a classic from your list, hyperlink the discussion post at the main classics list on your blog.

It's going to take me a very long time to compile a list of 100 books, so I will be adding to it over time--I would like more literature from certain places that I haven't figured out yet (Australia/NZ, Poland, various spots in Africa, etc., so give me some suggestions). This project has a five-year timeline! So I suppose my goal date is March of 2017. That's a very long time away, so I guarantee nothing, especially that I will even be blogging about books in five years, but what the heck.

My list is available at the project page here!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Marva Collins' Way

Marva Collins' Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin

Other classical homeschoolers I talk with online are always recommending Marva Collins' books. This was the only one that was locally available. I was unfamiliar with Collins' name, and it turns out that back in the late 70's and early 80's, Americans were getting very worried about the state of public education. Collins became known as a teacher who was doing things differently; in fact, she was giving inner-city children a classical education. Marva Collins' Way is a sort of history of how she became a teacher and started her own private school, and what her methods are.

Collins did not start out to become a teacher, but found that she enjoyed the work. For several years, she worked at an elementary school in Chicago and had great success teaching children to read and work, but when the administration changed, so did the atmosphere at the school. Collins became more and more unpopular--she has an uncompromising personality and wasn't doing things by the book--and eventually left the school. She decided to start a private school for inner-city children, with very low tuition and very high standards. She took in mostly children who had gotten into serious trouble at their old schools.

Collins' methods involve intensive phonics, first making sure that every student can read fluently. She brings in historical and literary information all the time; students read literature, not selections from readers, and they study a lot of vocabulary. She also pays attention to every single student, praising them for their efforts. She walks around the classroom all day long, never sitting at a desk.

I was very impressed with Collins' methods and success, and there are certainly a lot of ideas I can use myself. Others were impressed too, in the early 80s. I think most of us wish that our kids could have this kind of a teacher. But to be honest, Collins demonstrates a level of energy and commitment that few human beings can attain while simultaneously having a home and family. Reading her book reminded me quite strongly of a more recent famous teacher, Rafe Esquith, author of Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire (though I did feel like he gets more into his own hype than Collins did).

I would love to see more of Collins' style of teaching in schools, and I plan to use some of it myself. I think we should ask for that to happen. Perhaps if there was the institutional support for it, we wouldn't need such heroic efforts from those few teachers who do have that kind of energy. Because if we're going to sit around waiting for an army of Marvas to save us, we're in trouble. Besides, she'd expect us to save ourselves.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

It's been a very, very long time since I read about Tom Sawyer! I really had fun reading this book, and I'm sure I appreciated it much more this time around. It's very funny, and just such a great picture of a young boy. I wound up requesting the audio book for my younger daughter, who probably couldn't handle the reading quite yet but will love the story. I also checked the sequels out and will probably read them; they sound a bit more Jules Verne-y than this more realistic (if very improbable) story.

This was a selection for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge! That takes me to 6 out of 9. I checked 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea out of the library, so that's next.

Monday, March 5, 2012


Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, by Martin Lindstrom

I always like to read books on advertising, commercialism, and so on, so I had to pick this up when I saw it at work. It's really fascinating, because Lindstrom is a fairly eminent marketer and he explains a lot about how companies persuade us to buy stuff. Topics range over influencing unborn babies, selling fear, stealth advertising, nostalgia marketing, and why we (subconsciously) think that celebrities know what they're talking about.

I was most interested by his chapter on selling hope. Lindstrom describes in detail how marketers design bottles and labels and names to associate their product with your longings for a more peaceful or more competent or more beautiful life. Herbal supplements, health and energy drinks, and cosmetics do it all the time, and the explanations were great.

At the end, Lindstrom tackles the loss of privacy that is happening to all of us, as data miners develop profiles on us. Our cell phones, the coupons we print out from the Internet, our Facebook profiles, all sorts of things tell companies more than we ever expected. And finally, Lindstrom talks about the most powerful marketer of all--our very own selves. When our friends tell us what brands they like, we listen; but what if our friends are being paid to recommend brands?

There's some great information in this book, so I recommend it. It's kind of odd, though, because Lindstrom is himself a major marketer, so sometimes you kind of feel like he's spinning his own actions a bit.

Martin Lindstrom is Danish, which made me happy (because I lived there once), and as a kid he was obsessed with Legos. If you visit his website you can see a photo of him in his backyard, which he turned into a mini-Legoland. Pretty mind-blowing! I'm almost afraid to show my own little Lego-maniac the pictures.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Winking at the Brim

Winking at the Brim, by Gladys Mitchell

I picked this paperback mystery out of the pile I was given because I recognized Gladys Mitchell's name. She was quite well-known in her day, but her books have lost popularity. Her detective is a psychologist, which was exotic at the time, and she's a weird character, but in this book Dame Bradley is very toned-down and doesn't even come into the story much. The heroine is really her granddaughter Sally, who joins an expedition to a Scottish loch in order to search for an aquatic monster said to live there. The company is an ill-assorted bunch, and eventually one of them ends up dead.

The story was quite fun, but really the mystery part of it was the least interesting. It wasn't terrible though. The cover on this book is so ugly I hate to post it, but there you go.

The School of Freedom

The School of Freedom: A Liberal Education Reader from Plato to the Present Day, by Anthony O'Hear and Marc Sidwell

Just so you know, I thought this was a really great book. It took me forever to read, though; it consists of excerpts from writers throughout history and is fairly heavy going. Through these bits of writing, you gain a picture of what a "liberal education" has looked like at various times, and its development until today. A liberal education is defined as that befitting a free citizen, preparing the student to function in a free society, engage in open debate of ideas, and participate in government. A liberal education has no end and is on-going; it exposes the student to a wide range of ideas and (one hopes) teaches a thirst for knowledge. In America these days we often call it classical education since "liberal" has taken on a particular political meaning.

The book starts off with Greek and Roman writers, and then focuses in on the liberal education tradition in Britain. I enjoyed reading the words of medieval people like Alcuin and Alfred the Great! O'Hear and Sidwell chronicle liberal education through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, which was really nice.

I was particularly fascinated with the 19th-century sections, which talked a lot about working-class educational efforts like the University Extension Movement. It reminded me of a book I really enjoyed last year, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, by Jonathan Rose. And on the next page, that book was quoted extensively, so that made me happy.

The section on the 20th century was equally interesting, with several selections (sometimes just notations, really) and two full-length essays that were not easy reading, but were very rewarding. I was pleased to see a shout-out to classical homeschoolers in America, and less pleased to note that the authors mention Douglas Wilson and Oliver DeMille (two people I really disapprove of), but not Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, who to my mind are both more popular and more representative of the classical tradition.

I would love to own this book; I put so many bookmarks into my ILL'ed copy that I'm not sure I'll be able to note everything down before I have to give it back. I'm hoping to be able to purchase it someday, re-read the essays, and make lots of notes. It's not an easy book to find, and my borrowed copy came from two states away.

A similar book exists that may be easier for American readers to get hold of; it's called The Grand Tradition and is about three times as long. I need to pull it out again! (Also I love the cover image.)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Merchant of Venice

My daughter and I read The Merchant of Venice out loud for her schoolwork. I had never read this play before, so it was a good chance for me. Explaining the history of anti-Semitism to a modern kid is quite a job, I must say, and we had some good discussions. Shylock's complex character was difficult for her to comprehend (and me too); here you have a fairly traditional set of people except for Shylock, who has perhaps sparked more arguments than any other Shakespearean character besides Hamlet. He has good reason to hate Antonio, but his determination to exact revenge eventually destroys him, and his enemies learn nothing.

I'm going to count this as the drama selection for the Mixing It Up Challenge! 11 down, 5 to go! But the rest will take longer, since I've chosen a pretty long history book. I don't have a cooking or travel selection yet, so recommendations are welcome.

I've just gotten around to watching the final episode of the first season of Downton Abbey. (I don't get much time to watch TV on my own.) Don't read any further if you don't want spoilers--Shylock's fixation on revenge and subsequent downfall makes me think of Edith and Mary, who are apparently so focused on doing each other down that they fail to notice that it gets them nowhere. Edith has good reason to dislike Mary for the contemptuous way Mary treats her, but her revenge hasn't gotten her very far and now they've both ensured that they will have to live together for a good long time--exactly what they least want. Not very clever of them. There, how's that for a frivolous comparison?

I've hit the big time

That's right, I'm blogging a little bit over at A Year of Feminist Classics this year. I suggested Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies as a reading choice this year, it was selected as the book for March, and now it's my task to host the discussion. Let's hope I do a good job. Check out the introductory post!

(It's a little bit embarrassing really, because I had never even heard of the book until JNCL put it in her Medieval Challenge and Eva commented that it was a response to the Romance of the Rose.)