Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Victorian Celebration

It's time for Allie's Victorian Celebration at A Literary Odyssey!  I've been looking forward to her event, but then I inspected my book pile and realized that there's not a whole lot of Victorian literature on it at the moment.  I've got medieval, I've got Greek, I've got American Gilded Age and 50's Russian, but not so much of the Victorian.  So I went to the library and checked out some books and here is my list of possibilities:

Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope.  The next Barsetshire novel (#4)
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.
The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper.  American.
Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz.  Polish.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, but I'm planning on doing a read-along with this one and am not sure when it starts.  Probably soon.  French.

I also have several sensation novels and some Hawthorne on my ereader, so we'll see how it goes.  I do not plan to actually read all of these titles over the next two months--it's just that I like to have lots of choices!

Not only that, but War Through the Generations is having a read-along of Hemingway's Farewell to Arms this month, and I had planned to join that too.  I've never read Hemingway at all, and this seemed like a good chance to try him out.  Between all this and Warbreaker, I guess I'll be sort of busy!

Greek Classics: May Wrapup

Welcome to summer, fellow Greek-readers!  I know May has been a crazy month for me, and I expect it has been for many of you too.  Still, I hope you got something read (Greek or not!).  I didn't get nearly as much of Herodotus read as I had hoped--I'm currently halfway through Book V and taking a break--but I've read two plays of Aristophanes and I have a pile of Euripides and poetry that I'm looking forward to reading this summer.  I think that puts me at nearly halfway through my goal for the year, so I'm pretty happy at the moment.

The Theater of Dionysus at Athens--but it was built of wood when Sophocles was writing plays

May your summer be full of fun, relaxation, and good books!  If you've got anything to link up to for this month, you know what to do.

The Birds

The Birds, by Aristophanes

The Birds is quite a long comedy, so it took me a few days to read.  It was written several years after The Peace; Athens has recovered nicely from the last episode of the Peloponnesian War and is now eagerly preparing for a new one--which is going to end in disaster for the Athenians, but let's not worry about that right now.  The Birds does not directly address the war, which is unusual for Aristophanes, but I certainly get the impression that he was responding to the general atmosphere with his story.

Pisthetaerus and his buddy are wandering around the countryside near Athens.  They're tired of life in the city, where people argue about law all the time and you have to pay your debts, so they're looking for Tereus (a king changed to a hoopoe) in hopes that he'll direct them to some city where life is good and the living is easy.  Once they find the kingdom of birds, Pisthetaerus has a bright idea; he convinces them all that they should take over the sky.  It's their natural domain, they pre-date the Olympian gods, and this way they can rule over men and starve out the Olympians (just as the Athenians had recently done to the island of Melos).

The birds love this idea.  A chorus forms of birds from all over the place, and everyone establishes the great bird city of Cloudcuckooland--so now you know where that term comes from!  Multitudes of characters show up to vex Pisthetaerus with Athenian habits and are thrown out.  Then the gods themselves arrive; first Iris, then Prometheus, who gives Pisthetaerus good advice on how to deal with Zeus, and finally an envoy to make terms of peace (that was quite a funny bit, since Hercules is once of the committee.  First he plans to beat everyone up, but the promise of a feast soon gets him on the birds' side).  Pisthetaerus ends up in charge of the whole place, with a nice goddess wife to boot.

Just as The Peace was something of a special-effects extravaganza with a flying dung beetle, The Birds must have been a costuming spectacle.  A very large cast half composed of varying birds, each with their own plumage, plus half a dozen gods, must have been some fun for the audience.  It's not exactly our taste in comedy, so I can't say that I find these plays very funny, but they are interesting for the understanding you get of Athenian society.

I suppose the plays also mark an important cultural development for democracy; I don't know of any other instances from this long ago of the idea that it could be OK to publicly criticize or make fun of your own society's rulers.  The things Aristophanes says about important Athenians--at a state religious ceremony!--would probably have gotten him killed in almost any other society at that time, but Athenians were supposed to grin and bear it.  That eventually grew into our own principle of free speech.

Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale

This one is a really fun light read.  I'm not a big fan of the Jane Austen spin-off industry, but I do love Shannon Hale and her Austenland books, which features a sort of theme park where you can go and live the Regency lifestyle for a couple of weeks.  Romance guaranteed!

This is the second book and is a takeoff on Northanger Abbey (a favorite of mine).  Charlotte, age about 39, was blindsided by her husband's infidelity and desertion.  She has spent the past year or so numbing herself with work.  Now she's spending two weeks at Pembroke Park, and they're playing a Gothic mystery game--but some of the clues might be real.  Charlotte spends her time wondering what is real and what is pretend.

The book is really very funny as well as a bit scary.  I love some of the lines:

His profile was significant, as if it belonged on legal tender.  His jaw was delightful to contemplate, and his long hair pulled back beneath that top hat was just so manly.

Really?  her Inner Thoughts said.  Are you sure ponytail plus top hat equals manly?

You tell me, Charlotte challenged.

Her Inner Thoughts shut up after that, probably too distracted by Mr. Mallery's manliness to taunt her anymore.

Plus, there is a bonus tell-off of the ex-husband at the end that will warm the heart of anyone who has ever been frustrated to watch an acquaintance neglect the kids after a divorce.

I do believe I can count this as my Mixing It Up romance!  That was the one I was really stumped about.  Yay!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Warbreaker Read-Along

I've read the first 12 chapters of Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker, and here are the discussion questions so far.  Don't bother with this post if you haven't read the book--skip right on to some other post, or meditate on the works of Plato, or something.

I'm enjoying the book quite a lot so far.  I just started it Saturday and read the whole assigned section that day.  I've had the paperback on my TBR pile for a long time--I think the goofy cover kind of put me off.  The concept of a magic system that works through color and sound is a little weird, but if anyone can pull it off Sanderson can.  It does make for a difficult cover art concept, though.

1. All right, let's start easy - how are you liking the book so far? We've been introduced to a lot of characters and started several stories now. Any in particular catch your attention? Anything intrigue you?

I want more Vasher as soon as possible.  I'm hoping Lightsong will do something!  Siri's story is the most interesting so far, but Vivienna is going to be exciting.

2. The Returned are all treated as Gods, but at least one of those Gods doesn't believe in his own divinity, despite seeing potential visions. Do you think the Returned will prove to be divine? How do you feel about the religion built up around them?

I think the religion is going to turn out to be very wrong in some ways, and right in some unexpected way that I don't know yet.  The Returned won't be divine, but they'll be something interesting!

3. The God King didn't turn out to be the way he's presented and thought of in this world. Any ideas on what his role will be in this story?

I bet the poor guy (if you can use that term for him) is miserable.  How evil is he, or is he just trapped?  How sane is he?  Knowing Sanderson, he'll be a bit of all of those.

4. The title - Warbreaker - what do you think it might refer to?

I really don't know!  Siri might break a war down, or Vasher might start one.  I'm interested in finding out, though.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Manning Up

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, by Kay Hymowitz

I really liked Kay Hymowitz's last book on marriage in America, so I grabbed this new book as soon as I saw it and read it right away.  Hymowitz correlates a lot of current statistics and societal trends for her thesis that men in modern America haven't got a clear life plan and aren't all that happy about it. 

Some of Hymowitz's data:  women are now a majority on college campuses worldwide (and would be more so, if the colleges weren't quietly letting male students in with lower scores because people don't want to attend colleges with a strong imbalance).  In cities, the younger women out-earn their brothers, even when they choose less remunerative types of jobs.  Popular culture portrays men as overgrown children, not too bright and mostly interested in beer, pizza, fart jokes, and hot women--and they're constantly told that they're not needed as husbands or fathers, since women can manage quite well on their own, thank you.  But this isn't necessarily resulting in better lives for men, or women, in the long run; while gender equality is great, it may not be mandatory to tell men that they're useless slobs in order to get there.

We've had a huge societal shift, so that it's common for people to take years and years to prepare for careers and adulthood, but we haven't adjusted yet.  When does adulthood really begin and what is the marker that defines it?  Hymowitz is sympathetic to men who are given confusing and contradictory messages about what adult life should look like and how men should act.  It's a pretty interesting analysis of current society, with some good insights.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Classics Club led me to this semi-autobiographical novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga.  Tambudzai tells the story of her early life in the later days of colonial Rhodesia, hooking you in with the rather shocking opening statement, "I was not sorry when my brother died."  The story of why this is so is the story of Tambu's childhood (try putting the book down after that opening!).  At 14, Tambu leaves her homestead out in the country and goes to live at the mission with her uncle so that she can go to school; her world is wider, but far more complex and difficult to understand.

On the surface, the story reads like a memoir, but themes recur and develop as Tambu observes the lives of her closest female relatives.  Dangarembga explores the far-reaching effects of colonialism and what it means to rebel against authority (familial and colonial).  Tambu's cousin Nyasha is the most vocally rebellious and the most sensitive victim of the forces around her, while Tambu herself is still trying to make sense of the world and figure out what she thinks.

It's a wonderful book and I wound up reading it much sooner than I had meant to.  Don't miss this one!  Dangarembga has actually worked much more in film than in literature; this was her first novel and it was quite some time before she wrote another, but a sequel in Tambudzai's story, The Book of Not, was published in 2004.  I would very much like to read it, but it's not as easy to find as Nervous Conditions, so I will have to wait a little while.

Here's the story of how I came across Nervous Conditions: when I started building my list for the Classics Club project, I wanted to find books from all over the world to read.  I wasn't sure where to go for African works, besides one or two of the best-known titles, but I found out that in 2002 a list of "Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century" was published as a group project by leading academics and publishers.  The list is not ranked, but the committee selected 12 'best books.'  I figure that's as good a place to start as any, so I put those 12 titles on my list.  I'll try to read at least 6 of them; that way if I can't find one or two it's not a problem.  Once I had my little list together I looked around to see if any titles were easily available to me, and I took 3 home from work for summer reading.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells

I've read most of Wells' short SF novels--even The Food of the Gods--but I missed The Invisible Man.  Griffin, a brilliant physicist and an albino (that's important), discovers a way to make himself completely invisible!  He thinks it's going to be great.  He'll be able to find out anything, take anything he likes.  The entire story is about how wrong he is; being invisible is terrible.  Griffin is an utter outcast from humanity.  His hold on sanity was probably not too strong in the first place, and invisibility makes him completely selfish and full of rage.  He is more of an angry ghost than anything else, and all he can do is terrify people.

This is the final title for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge!  I'm done!  It's been fun, and I never would have read and enjoyed The Phantom of the Opera without it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Peace

The Peace, by Aristophanes

It's time for some summer fun with Aristophanes!  I am reading three plays in a Loeb edition I found at my friendly neighborhood public library.  I have always wanted to own Loeb editions because they are so cool, even though I can't actually read Greek or Latin.

Almost nothing is really known about Aristophanes, so scholars have made a hobby out of extracting information from his plays.  This is a little tricky since it's hard to know what is a joke and what isn't, but they are pretty sure that he went bald early (the portrait is a total lie).  Aristophanes survived the Peloponnesian War and probably served once on the city council, and that's about all anyone can really figure out. 

The Peace is not one of the comedies that I had heard of before.  It was staged in 421 BC, just days before the Peace of Nicias, which was supposed to end the Peloponnesian War.  The play combines silly antics with a genuine longing for peace and recriminations against the Greek habit of war.

Trygaeus is an ordinary farmer with a plan--he has fetched a giant dung beetle from Mount Etna and is going to ride it up to heaven to beg the gods for peace!  (This must have been quite the stage spectacle, and of course the characters comment on the machinery and stage hands needed.)  But when he arrives, Trygaeus finds Hermes just locking the place up; everyone else is already gone.  The gods have given up trying to get the Greeks to do anything besides kill each other, so they're giving the place to War, who is moving in.  War has already buried Peace, but has gone out to look for a new set of Greek generals to fight with.

Trygaeus seizes his chance and calls citizens from every part of Greece to help him get Peace out.  Lots of them show up, but they aren't all very helpful.  They pull and tug and heave, and Peace is brought forth, along with her two maidens Harvest and Mayfair. Hermes explains why Peace had left Greece; first, greedy profiteers had driven her out, but then the Greeks had all voted against her:  "She came, unbidden, with a chest of treaties, And thrice you blackballed her in full assembly."  They apologize to Peace and leave for home, taking Harvest and Mayfair with them.  Trygaeus marries Harvest, gives Mayfair to the Athenian leaders, and sacrifices to Peace--while giving a beggar a good beating!

Next I'll be reading The Birds and The Frogs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens

I finally did it!  I've been reading this book for months, but my problem was that it was on my tablet and e-reading just wasn't doing it for me with this book.  I checked a paper copy (with illustrations by Phiz!) out of the library last week and finished the second half of the book in about 3 days.  It's much better on paper.

Here we have the saga of Little Nell and her dotty old grandfather, horrible Quilp with his confederates, and trusty Kit Nubbins with his good friends.   There are virtuous folks, who go through trials and are rewarded, and baddies who come to a sorry end.  And there are some funny ones with a story nearly all their own, who turn out good in the end--I liked them quite a lot. Quilp's manipulations made me think of him as a DM, running his own evil D&D game, which is not very classically-minded of me.

Really, I think I liked the Kit sections best.  Nell was angelic and all, and I did care what happened to her until she got settled, but the tear-jerking bits didn't do much for me.  I really disliked reading the Quilp sections, and I tried to always stop in the middle of a part I liked--if I stopped in a Quilp part it was hard to pick it back up.

Considering the title of the book, we spend very little time in the actual Old Curiosity Shop.  The first thing Nell and Grandfather do is leave it.  But I found lots of paintings and pictures of the shop, and few others, which I thought was interesting. 

George Gissing says in the essay after the story that "To the popular mind, The Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens' most attractive book."  What do you all think of that?  I certainly enjoyed it, but I can't say it's my favorite Dickens book ever.  It was a hit when it was published, though, with hype and anticipation like that we saw when the last volume of Harry Potter came out.

This title counts for my Mixing It Up Challenge, and now I just have three more to go.  I have a history book all picked out, but the romance challenge has got me stumped.  Maybe I could find a nice Elizabeth Goudge title?

Monday, May 21, 2012


Dracula, by Bram Stoker

When I put Dracula on my list of classics to read this year, I was kind of excited to finally get around to reading such a famous story.  I am clueless enough that I had no idea who Van Helsing was supposed to be, much less Mina Harker, who doesn't get a movie named after her.  After carefully examining the movie poster just now, I much prefer the literary Dr. Van Helsing.   I may have to watch the movie though, because it looks terrible, and I kind of like terrible movies.   (Although it makes me very sad that Kate Beckinsale, who started off adorable and fun to watch and a favorite of mine, has turned into a generic pseudo-Victoria Beckham.)

Anyway.  The novel.  It's all documentary!  The whole book is comprised of journal entries and letters, meant to give the story that authentically-reported atmosphere that was so popular in the Victorian era.  There is a sort of ensemble cast of men, plus two lovely, pure, and virtuous women--one traditional and one more a New-Woman type.

I had no idea what to expect from the story besides a vampire or so and some Transylvanian scenery.  A good half of the action takes place in London, though, because the whole plot is that Count Dracula is planning an invasion of England, it being full of nice juicy people to snarf on.   So we have a book full of contrasts: Eastern Europe (dark, foresty, sparsely populated with canny peasants who know better than to get vampire-snarfed) vs. England (sunny, open, full of innocent victims), primitive/modern, animal/technology, not to mention all the pale/ruddy comparisons. There is plenty of fodder for undergraduate English papers.

I really had fun with this story, much more than I expected to.  It's great Victorian adventure-Gothic stuff!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

V is for Vengeance

V is for Vengeance, by Sue Grafton

I always read the latest Kinsey Millhone book as soon as I can; I think it's a requirement for former Central Coast residents.  (Millhone mysteries are set in a pseudonymed Santa Barbara, so sometimes Kinsey visits my hometown of Santa Maria.  It's SB's much less posh neighbor.)

I almost didn't stay with this one, though.  The first chapter is all about a kid trying to win money at poker, and there is nothing more boring than a game of poker!  Luckily the kid gets thrown off a parking garage by page 20, so I kept going.  It's a complicated mystery, with mafia guys, rich lawyers, respectable-looking thieves, and all sorts of people.  Definitely worth the read.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Western Lit Survival Kit

The Western Lit Survival Kit: an Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner, by Sandra Newman

I'm a sucker for guides to great literature, and also Sandra Newman is hilarious.  I didn't quite mean to actually read this book instead of Dracula (which I am reading, and it's good, but less easy to carry around), but it's so funny that I zipped right through it.  Almost every page had something that gave me the giggles and made me look around for someone to collar and read a bit aloud to.

This guide to the Western Canon is what you should give to your friend who has to learn something about the classics and doesn't want to.  I would give it to my husband if he suddenly found himself in that situation.  Or you can give it to your literary friend with a sense of humor.  Newman is pretty caustic much of the time, and reverent never.  Like Western lit itself, things are not always squeaky-clean.

A sample bit, on Balzac: "As a writer, Balzac started as a hack, producing nine abysmal pulp novels under pseudonyms.  He also started various businesses, all of them failures, but never lost faith that he would someday be rich and famous.  Then, one day, he had an idea for a series of novels which would give an encyclopedic account of human society.  Thrilled, he ran to his sister's house to announce, "I'm about to become a genius!"  Some of our readers may have brothers like this and feel a little weary at hearing it again.  However, as never ever happens with your brother, Balzac was totally right."

I really am reading Dracula, though--I've been in the mood to work on my challenges some more after a month or so off.  I got a pile of Greek plays from the public library.  And, inspired by the Classics Club check-in post, I finally finished my list, which I don't think I can realistically plan on finishing but what the heck.  Today I picked out some books from it for summer reading, and I'm hoping to get a lot of good books in once school is over (next week, yay!).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Warbreaker Group Read

Amanda at Ramblings and Naithin at Once Upon a Time  are co-hosting a group read of Brandon Sanderson's fantasy novel Warbreaker.  I'm a Sanderson fan, but for some reason Warbreaker has been sitting on my TBR pile for over a year.  So here's my chance! 

It starts next week:

Section One: Prologue – Chapter 12.
Reading: Monday, May 21st; Questions Out: Saturday, May 26th; Posts: Tuesday May 29th

Section Two: Chapter 13 – Chapter 23.
Reading: Tuesday, May 29th; Questions Out: Saturday, June 2nd; Posts: Tuesday, June 5th

Section Three: Chapter 24 – Chapter 34.
Reading: Tuesday, June 5th; Questions Out: Saturday, June 9th; Posts: Tuesday, June 12th

Section Four: Chapter 35 – Chapter 49.
Reading: Tuesday, June 12th; Questions Out: Saturday, June 16th; Posts: Tuesday, June 19th 

Section Five: Chapter 50 – End.
Reading: Tuesday, June 19th; Questions Out: Saturday, June 23rd; Posts: Tuesday, June 26th

If you'd like to join in, sign up at Naithin's link.  There is a free .pdf of the book available from Sanderson, linked at the sign-up post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui

This has been on my wishlist for a couple of years now, but inexplicably, none of the local libraries bought a copy until recently.  I found it on the New Books shelf at work yesterday and promptly took it home.

Nujood Ali was an ordinary little girl living with her poverty-stricken Yemeni family until she became the victim of a common crime--her father sold her, at age 10, as a bride to an acquaintance in his 30s.  The next several months were a nightmare, but Nujood waited for her chance, gathered up her courage, and went to the city courthouse where she had heard someone could help her.  She told the judge she wanted a divorce, and so set off a media storm that helped other girls come forward to ask for divorces.

Child brides are not at all uncommon in Yemen. The age of consent was 15 until a couple of years ago, and even so, about half of Yemeni brides were underage.  No young girl had ever come forward and asked for a divorce before, and the legal system had pretty much ignored the whole thing. 

This is not an easy story to read, and although it's told by a young girl, it's not a children's book.  Go ahead and read it if at all possible!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Of This and Other Worlds

Of This and Other Worlds, by C. S. Lewis

Last week Scribacchina wrote about non-fiction about fairy tales, which prompted me to go through my mom's bookshelves to see what she had.  I snagged four or five books, because I really need more books on my pile, and of course the one I read right away was a book of essays on stories by C. S. Lewis.  I am pretty sure that will surprise no one.

It's just a collection of various pieces on one theme; some of them were never published or even finished.   A couple are only a page or so long and were written for book blurbs or similar.  I had fun reading them.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Jane-Emily, by Patricia Clapp

A homeschooling cyber-friend of mine recommended Jane-Emily to me a few weeks ago.  I missed out on this book as a kid, but I would have loved it!  OK, I did enjoy it as an old grownup too.  I gave it to my daughter and she thought it was great.

Louisa takes her young orphaned cousin Jane to spend the summer in the country at grandmother's house, but Jane becomes unnaturally preoccupied with Emily, a young girl who died years ago.  Emily was both frighteningly demanding and spoiled by her over-fond father, and she still wants what she wants.  It's a good spooky ghost story that is just the right level of scary.

One particular element of the story caught my attention; none of the characters really keep secrets from each other.  At no point does anyone think "I'm not going to tell the others about this because [insert silly reason here]."  Keeping secrets for no reason other than to keep the plot going is so endemic to thrillers that not doing it struck me as original and refreshing! 

The friend who recommended this book to me is a writer herself, and used to publish a wonderful magazine called Secular Homeschooling.  Her most famous piece is The Bitter Homeschooler's Wish List (warning: she may be a little bitter), and you should definitely read some of her things at the website!  You can do that by clicking individual issues--each one has a couple of free articles.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

From Newbury With Love

From Newbury With Love, edited by Anna Horsbrugh-Porter and Marina Aidova

It's about time I came up with a book that is a little more substantial than popular dystopias or mysteries.  So here is my new book that I love.  Petya at the Migrant Bookclub blog recommended it very highly, and then some wonderful mystery person from the WTM book club sent it to me as a present! Only I don't know who it was.

The book is a collection of letters (I love collections of letters) that starts in the early 1970's, between an elderly English bookseller and a young family in the Soviet Union, in what is now Moldova.  Harold, in England, wrote letters of friendship and encouragement to Marina, a little girl whose father had been sentenced to several years in a gulag.  The families corresponded for years, and although many of the letters are missing, you can see the friendships developing and Marina growing up.

The letters and photos, together with notes from Marina explaining circumstances when necessary, make a lovely narrative.  I really enjoyed reading this and am very glad to have had the opportunity.  Thanks, Petya and mystery person!

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Divergent, by Veronica Roth

I am really late to the party with this book--everyone else is already reading the sequel!  I put it on hold at the library a while back, and then when I got it I wasn't sure if I really wanted to read it.  It turned out to be pretty good though.

Probably everyone already knows the plot of this YA dystopian story.  Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, society is divided into 5 factions based on character traits, all that good stuff.  I didn't actually find the set-up to be terribly plausible, but that's OK.  I hardly put it down and I had fun reading it in one day.

If you're wondering whether you can give it to your kid, it's pretty violent and most of the people the protagonist cares about are killed before her eyes.  While there is a heartening lack of teenage sex, there's some mention of it.  I didn't give it to my own almost-teen.

I'm betting this will be the next movie deal, since it seems to be the next in popularity to Hunger Games (probably it's already in the works and I just don't know).

Friday, May 11, 2012

An Impartial Witness

An Impartial Witness, by Charles Todd

The second Bess Crawford mystery is very good!  It's the third one I've read, because I got them in the wrong order, but they're quite self-contained and it didn't matter at all.  Bess spends more time out at the front this time, which was nice, and the mystery is intriguing but very sad.  She is awfully brazen about butting into people's lives and introducing herself to useful folks, but I guess you have to do that if you're going to detect murders.

I didn't realize before that "Charles Todd" is a mother and son writing team--and they live in different states!  How on earth it is possible to write a mystery that way is beyond me, but they sure do a good job.  Now that I'm out of Bess Crawford stories, I'll have to give their Ian Rutledge series a try.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

I picked this one up for a re-read when I saw it at work, because it's one I haven't read for some time.  It's an early Wimsey mystery and not one of my favorites, but that still puts it very high on the list as far as mysteries in general go.  (I forget now what I was actually looking for on the PR 6000 neighborhood--it wasn't Sayers.)

In Clouds of Witness we meet most of Lord Peter's family: Gerald, Duke of Denver, who is accused of murder, the Dowager Duchess--one of the best characters in the Wimsey world!--and as a bonus sister Mary meets her future husband too.  There is fun with underground Socialists and one of the most horrible husbands around.

A very well-written mystery.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Foolish Gentlewoman

The Foolish Gentlewoman, by Margery Sharp

I think this must be one of my oldest TBR books.  I got it from my grandmother's bookshelves in, I think, 1996.  She gave me a whole lot of books right around then, some of them quite old and fun--titles like What Can A Woman Do? or Collier's Cyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information and instructional sewing books from the 1920's.  There were also several new books of history.  And this is the one I never got around to reading!

Margery Sharp lives in my head as the author of the Miss Bianca books about the mice of the Prisoners' Aid Society, which I read over and over as a kid (my favorite was the one in the salt mines).  But she was also a very popular novelist!  Cluny Brown must be the best-known title, and it was made into a movie. 

The Foolish Gentlewoman is set just after World War II in a large old house in a London suburb.  Isabel, the owner, is an affectionate and wooly-headed woman (I love her) who has gathered relatives and friends to live there.  The story is mainly told from the view of her grumpy brother-in-law.  All these people have their stories and everything is going just fine until Isabel decides that she must make up for an old wrong by inviting another person into her home.

I enjoyed the story and was really pretty surprised by the ending.  It was not the nice neat happy package that I was expecting Sharp to pull out of a hat somehow, in the way that light novels usually end. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Inventing the Victorians

Inventing the Victorians, by Matthew Sweet

This title has been sitting on my wishlist for a long time, so I made it my last ILL of the semester.  Even though I have piles of books to read, it just doesn't seem right to neglect the ILL privilege. 

As any dedicated reader of Victorian literature knows, the Victorians have been unfairly defamed for a good hundred years now.  Vilified as stodgy, prudish, conservative, and no fun whatsoever, they serve as a convenient foil to us, enlightened moderns that we are (but just wait--our turn is coming).

Anyway, Matthew Sweet set out to re-habilitate the Victorians' image.  He piles up the evidence that Victorians invented most of the fun stuff we enjoy, like movies and amusement parks and thrills and chills.  Oh, and feminism and DIY and the forerunners to email and spam (telegraphic junk mail!).

Sweet also points out that many of our most enduring ideas about Victorians are based on false images that we have misinterpreted.  Those piano legs swathed in chintz as a modesty measure were a joke that Britons told about those silly prudish Americans--and which some snickering American made up to pull a British writer's leg.  Those horrifying medical procedures we've heard about were often advertised in quack publications with little popularity in real life.  It's probable that there wouldn't have been so much discussion and propaganda about woman's place in the home if women all actually were in the home, which they frequently weren't.

The last couple of chapters are on the TMI side, and I kind of skimmed them, because they were a little more than I really wanted to know.  But they are certainly eyebrow-raising reading!

Sweet asks us to find out actual information about the Victorians rather than relying on easy stereotypes.  A very interesting read!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Herodotus' Histories: Book IV

I really finished the last 14 pages of this several days ago, but I've been lazy about blogging lately.  There is a pile of four other books here on my desk too.

Book IV is mostly about the Scythians, the semi-nomadic people (of Iranian descent apparently) living in what is now mostly Ukraine.  There is quite a lot of geography here--the land, the rivers, the various peoples and their customs are all described carefully.  Then there's a little digression on world geography, which is important because Herodotus passes on a story he does not really quite believe in himself, about some Phoenicians who traveled all the way around Africa (which is called Libya here):

The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year's harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right - to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered by sea.

Of course, the bit Herodotus doesn't buy is the very information that shows the story to be more reliable than he thinks; the sun would have been to the north just as the sailors said.

But back to the Scythians--Darius, as you might expect, planned to conquer them and make them part of the Persian Empire.  This story takes up most of the rest of the book, all about alliances (or refusals to become allies), strategies, and tricks used on both sides.  But Darius eventually won.

Then it's on to Libya (Africa), and the story of Greek colonies on the North African coast.  More geography and rivers and tribes!  Luckily my book has lots of very nice maps or it would all be so much muddle to get through.  Herodotus always throws in interesting tidbits and stories, so it's pretty fun.

I sure am going slowly, though.  I enjoy it--it's just that the book is enormous and not easy to understand, so it doesn't quite mesh with my busy-mommy lifestyle.  I think I will try to get something shorter in this month too.

Hey!  This is my 333rd post!  Is that a lucky number or anything?  It ought to be.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Tale of Time City

A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones

Last Saturday I went to the bookstore and found the new editions of Fire & Hemlock, Dosgbody, and Tale of Time City that have just come out.  My copies of those books are quite old and fragile, so I got new ones, yay!    Then, of course, I had to read at least one of them.

I do love this story.  It's a funny one, but serious too.  Vivian is living in 1939 and is evacuating to the country, when she is kidnapped by two boys in a case of mistaken identity.  She winds up in Time City, a separate tiny world that keeps tabs on history and makes sure it goes how it ought to, but the City itself is coming to the end of its lifetime, and nobody really knows what to do about that.

These new covers are very nice; this is by far the nicest cover Time City has ever had, though that's not saying much really.  Up to now the covers have always been terrible.

Now, if only I could get new copies of The Ogre Downstairs and Spellcoats--my copies of those are very elderly and absolutely falling apart.

Thank You, Jeeves

Thank You, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

I'd been wanting to read a Jeeves and Wooster story aloud to my kids for a while, but I had also lent several of my own copies to friends.  The one Jeeves book I had in the house is the one where Bertie spends the entire time in blackface.  So that gave us a lovely opportunity to discuss how times have changed and how some things that were once considered funny are no longer thought to be so.  In fact Jeeves stories are wonderful to read aloud to your kids, if you wish to teach some vocabulary and some history and some of everything else--they are so foreign to the experience of any average modern American kid that you might as well be reading science fiction.  And they're very funny too!

We had a great time reading this aloud.  P. G. Wodehouse was just a comic genius, that's all there is to it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis

I could hardly put this book down! In this collection of articles originally written for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis tackles certain aspects of the global financial meltdown, especially how it developed and played out in selected countries. It's a discouraging topic, but he's a witty writer and manages to make the enormous muddle somewhat clear as well. His focus is on how the sudden expansion in investment and credit affected certain countries: "Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers. The Greeks wanted to turn their country into a piñata stuffed with cash and allow as many citizens as possible to take a whack at it. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish." And Americans wanted to buy really big houses they couldn't actually afford!

Each section in a different country is just fascinating, with general commentary and specific stories. The cumulative effect is to make you wonder what on earth we were all thinking. What gave us the idea that everyone could be rich without doing anything for it except to buy a big house? Why did Icelandic young men think that they were natural banking geniuses? Why do the Greeks continually evade taxes and then riot when the country goes broke? Who thought that they could build zillions of expensive houses in Ireland when there was no one to live in them, and why did German bankers buy bad debt?

The final section concentrates on the most stubbornly overspending and delusional state in the USA--my very own California home, where we take enormous natural wealth and mismanage it into bankruptcy. A day with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger leads to a day in San Jose city government, where everyone is broke because most of the budget goes to pensions, and that leads to the spot where the bubble finally popped for good. The city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy and now has hardly any city workers at all. Vallejo's present could well be the future for many California cities, but no one wants to admit that, and the problems seem intractable.

Amazing stuff, and funny as well (thankfully, because if you really stop to think, the information is too depressing to read).  Lewis is not always kind, but it's a topic that needs blunt statements.  We all need to get way better at understanding numbers, and meanwhile we should stop buying stuff we can't afford to pay for.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Greek Classics: April Wrapup

I don't know about you lovely folks, but I have been slumping in the Greek department this month.  I have only managed to read Book III of the Histories, and I only have 14 more pages to go in Book IV but I haven't quite gotten to it!  I'm thinking maybe I should tuck a few Euripides plays in for variety--and ease, since my Histories book weighs about 20 pounds.  It's not very convenient for reading on the go.

On the whole, though, I'm not inclined to feel bad about my reading this month; as we wind down the school year, we are all feeling a little frazzled and wanting more brain candy than ancient Greek history.   Our local schools, for reasons no one seems to fathom, end in mid-May and begin in mid-August, so at work we're gearing up for finals, and at home I'm resolved to finish the 3rd-grader's math book even if it means an extra week of math lessons. 

I plan to do a lot more reading once summer gets going--and oh, how we are looking forward to it!  Of course, I'm also planning to study math and chemistry, spend a lot of time swimming or playing at the creek, and get some serious sewing in, so I don't know how realistic that is. 

Link up your April Greek experiences below!

China in Ten Words

China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua

I've really been looking forward to reading this one, and it did not disappoint.  Yu Hua grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, under Mao, and in ten chapters he tells about ten different ideas and what they have meant to him and to Chinese culture.  Each chapter's idea takes a logical step along a path, and also moves the story forward in time.

Some of Hua's stories are very funny; I could just see him and his friends as young boys getting up to mischief.  Others are really horrifying--sometimes for the same reason.  Altogether it's a great portrait of life in China, mostly during Mao's regime, but taking us right up to the present day.  I'd recommend this title highly.

I love the cover design, by the way.  The words look like rubber stamps, just a little off-kilter.

Lately I've been trying to get through my giant pile of library books, often by the simple expedient of skimming a book and deciding not to read it after all.  I still have quite a way to go, but the shelf is looking quite a big roomier now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Journey from the Land of No

Journey from the Land of No: a Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, by Roya Hakakian

This memoir of the Iranian revolution particularly caught my eye because the author is Jewish.  Roya Hakakian grew up as part of the ancient and closely-knit community of Persian Jews, which dated back over 2000 years.  Her whole book is filled with love for her homeland, now lost.

Like many Iranians, Roya was at first thrilled by the revolution in 1979, as life seemed to become freer, full of exciting possibilities.  Even though her older brothers had had to flee to America, her father could not imagine leaving.  But as the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime became more and more restrictive, Roya's life became more difficult, and before long she was seeing old friends crushed under the revolution they had longed for.

I found this to be a fascinating account of the Iranian revolution from a  different viewpoint than one normally gets.  Hakakian is an eloquent writer and writes vividly about experiences that are difficult for her to remember.