Friday, November 30, 2012


O's December Readathon is running this weekend!  In between sewing, decorating, taking family pictures, and I don't even know what, here is what I will try to read:

The Good Soldier Svejk: I'm about a third of the way through and having a lot of fun with Svejk.  Plus I'm trying to figure out how to pronounce Czech, which is quite a project.

Quo Vadis: Last week I didn't quite want to read a Christmas book yet, so I started a book about early Christians in Rome.  It's great!  But kind of bad timing on my part.  I guess I'll read it very slowly.

Return of the Native: I read the first 3 chapters today.  I'll do some more tomorrow.

Oh, and I should read a Christmas book!

Greek Classics: November Wrapup

Hello fellow Greeklings, it's getting down to the wire!  If you're going to read any more Greek literature this year, you'd better do it soon!  Did any of you read some Greek over Thanksgiving?  Post it here. 

Greek harvest festival of Karneia

My Mr. Linky subscription has expired, and I'm not sure it's worth re-subscribing, so just go ahead and put links in the comments.

I read The Republic and Book V of the Histories.

Return of the Native Readalong!

I had a great time reading Madame Bovary with Adriana from Classical Quest and Christina Joy at Classic Case of Madness.  They are reading their way through the Well-Educated Mind's booklist, which is an excellent project, and they just finished Anna Karenina (which I really wanted to do but it was right during Gothic October, so I'm planning for it in 2013).  Now they're starting Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native, and I'm joining in again, yay!

This book is divided into 6 sections, so I'll check in after every two.  I think that will work.

I've read hardly any Hardy, except his most cheerful book, Under the Greenwood Tree.  So this will be new territory for me.  (Edit: I just remembered, I've also read Tess.) Am I going to get my heart broken?


Ha'penny, by Jo Walton

I found out from Jordan that Jo Walton had written a trilogy.  I enjoyed Farthing a few years ago, but hadn't realized that there were two more books.  I thought Farthing was great, so that was good news.

The Small Change Trilogy is a cozy-mystery series set in an alternate-history Britain, one that made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941.  Eight years later, the Western world is falling into an abyss of fascism, and Britons are largely apathetic, willing to blame communists and Jews for everything.  People have heard stories about the camps, but mostly refuse to believe them  Germany is all-powerful in Europe and still at war with the USSR.

Carmichael is the link between the three stories.  He wants to be a decent man, but he's picking his way through a minefield of anti-Semitism, official fascism, and blackmail from his superiors, who know about Carmichael's own unapproved lifestyle.  He's losing himself.

The story is narrated from two alternating points of view--Carmichael's and Viola Lark's.  Viola is a London actress who is about to star in Hamlet, and one of 6 sisters who are clearly modeled on the Mitford sisters.  They don't do exactly the same things, but it's darn close. It's a fun device, but I did think that after a while it got to be a little too much.

I really enjoyed the cozy-mystery setting mixed with the truly frightening idea of a victorious Nazi Germany.

It's a great book and trilogy, and I'm looking forward to reading the final installment, Half a Crown.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by Jerome K. Jerome

Like every right-thinking literature devotee, I've read and enjoyed Three Men in a Boat.  I hadn't known that Jerome K. Jerome had written so many other things, but now I've downloaded several of them onto my tablet.  Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow has chapters that are short essays on this and that: "On the Weather," "On Cats and Dogs," On Memories," that sort of thing.  It's pretty good for bedside reading.

I expected the essays to be funny, and they very often are.  I did not expect to find out how sentimental Jerome could be!  This book consists of at least 60% slush.

Here is a bit I thought was pretty funny, from a chapter about the woes of shyness:
Conceit, indeed, is the quickest cure for it [shyness]. When it once begins to dawn upon you that you are a good deal cleverer than any one else in this world, bashfulness becomes shocked and leaves you. When you can look round a roomful of people and think that each one is a mere child in intellect compared with yourself you feel no more shy of them than you would of a select company of magpies or orang-outangs.
But really there was quite a bit more of this kind of thing.  Here Jerome is talking to his old embroidered firescreen:

Your brilliant colors are fast fading now, and the envious moths have gnawed your silken threads. You are withering away like the dead hands that wove you. Do you ever think of those dead hands? You seem so grave and thoughtful sometimes that I almost think you do. Come, you and I and the deep-glowing embers, let us talk together. Tell me in your silent language what you remember of those young days, when you lay on my little mother's lap and her girlish fingers played with your rainbow tresses. Was there never a lad near sometimes--never a lad who would seize one of those little hands to smother it with kisses, and who would persist in holding it, thereby sadly interfering with the progress of your making? Was not your frail existence often put in jeopardy by this same clumsy, headstrong lad, who would toss you disrespectfully aside that he--not satisfied with one--might hold both hands and gaze up into the loved eyes? I can see that lad now through the haze of the flickering twilight. He is an eager bright-eyed boy, with pinching, dandy shoes and tight-fitting smalls, snowy shirt frill and stock, and--oh! such curly hair.

So you see what I mean.  It can go on for pages!  Still, it was a nice read.

By the way, did you know that the K. stands for Klapka?  I was struck by the name and looked it up.  His middle name was originally Clapp, but it was changed to Klapka after the Hungarian general György Klapka, who fought for Hungarian independence.  I can't figure out if it was his father or Jerome himself who changed it, but his dad did have a penchant for changing names.  He was originally Jerome Clapp, but changed it to Jerome Clapp Jerome and named his son the same.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Herodotus Book V

Herodotus and I are back together again and I've read Book V of the Histories.  It was nice to get back into my giant book.

We start off with a description of the Thracian people, who are numerous enough to conquer everyone else if they would just get their act together (he says), but they are too divided up.  There's a really terrible story about the Paeonians and how they were conquered and dragged off to the Persian empire.  Then a couple of very famous stories: one about a Macedonian prince who kills all the Persian envoys (probably not true, since there were no reprisals) and about how the Greeks got their writing system from the Phoenicians, which is apparently quite accurate.

After that there is quite a lot about Sparta and its kings, and Athens and its tyrants, and both of their wars.  It was really quite confusing and I could have used a diagram.  I think Herodotus expects his readers to know a good deal about these people already, as of course they would have done back in his day.  And it's really pretty pathetic how often I managed to forget just who Kleisthenes was, so it's partly my own fault.

Hey!  Look, I found this awesome comic strip about Herodotus and Thucydides.  I love "Hark, a Vagrant!"  --it's hilarious and if you're a history/literature nerd you should go read it right now.  Warning: it will take up the rest of your day, and also there are some swear words.

Onward to Book VI!  Though really I'm not getting much read right now; I've been making candy.  I should go make a batch right now.  A giant rainstorm has arrived here though, so I might not be able to do much chocolate dipping for the next couple of days; wet weather makes it go wrong.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seven Gothic Tales

Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen

I know her real name was Karen Blixen, but I just always think of her as Isak Dinesen.  So that's what we're going with.

In college I read a whole lot of Dinesen--nearly everything, I think.  I still have all her books on my shelf.  I thought it would be neat to re-read some of them for the Classics Club, to see how I like them now.  Seven Gothic Tales was Dinesen's first published book, so I started with that.

Gothic in this case does not mean that there will be frowning Italian castles, dark passages, ominous priests, or ghosts.  (Well, there's one ghost.)  But here, Gothic means more elaborate, mysterious, Germanic-style-Romantic.  Considering that Dinesen was writing in the 1930s and 40s, she had a deliberately old-fashioned, baroque style to suit her stories that were set in the 19th century or before.  She actually wrote the stories in English and then translated them into her native Danish. 

The stories are layered, usually with several frames each.  Characters reminisce and tell stories inside their own story, so that each tale contains several small tales which may be mysteriously connected.  They are not very easy to describe!

Dinesen had an unusual outlook--at least, unusual to me.  She loved all this layered, mysterious atmosphere; nothing in her stories is quite straightforward and never unveiled, to be shown as it is.  She believed in veiling and masquerades.  Nor had she much use for equality or feminism or that sort of thing.  Aristocracy and pride of birth, the mysteries and power of womanhood, that was much more her style.  Here's a small sample, a speech from a character:

This world of ours is like the children's game of bread and cheese; there is always something underneath--truth, deceit; truth, deceit!  When the Caliph masqueraded as one of his own poor subjects, all his hidden splendor could not have saved the jest from being in pretty poor taste, had he not had beneath it a fraternal heart for his poor people.  Likewise, when our Lord id, for some thirty years, masquerade as a son of man, there would have been no really good sense in the thing had he not had, after all, a humane heart, and even, Madame, a sympathy with lovers of good wine.  The witty woman, Madame, chooses for her carnival costume one which ingeniously reveals something in her spirit or heart which the conventions of her everyday life conceal; and when she puts on the hideous long-nosed Venetian mask, she tells us, not only that she has a classic nose behind it, but that she has much more, and may well be adored for things other than her mere beauty.  So speaketh the Arbiter of the masquerade: 'By thy mask I shall know thee.'
They're great stories and very different from most 1930s literature, so give them a try sometime.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jane and the Canterbury Tale

Jane and the Canterbury Tale, by Stephanie Barron

I've read some of these Jane Austen mysteries before, and they're kind of fun.  This one has Miss Austen visiting her brother Edward.  They attend the wedding reception of a local couple, the bride being a very young widow.  But the next morning, her first husband shows up newly murdered and Jane has a complicated mystery on her hands.

This was an OK book, but to be honest I probably wouldn't have bothered to read the whole thing if I hadn't happened to have a terrible sneezy allergy attack for half of yesterday (poor me, I couldn't taste the pie properly!).  I couldn't breathe and my head was completely stuffed up, so a brain-candy mystery was about all that I could handle. 

The Regency slang and everyday detail is fun (very much like Georgette Heyer), and Barron makes strenuous efforts to fit the murder into the spaces between the lines of Jane Austen's documented life.  So it won't drive you to drink or anything, it just wasn't that wonderful a mystery.

I did learn about mameluke sleeves, though, and what a hideous fashion they were.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Top Ten Authors I'm Thankful For

The Broke and the Bookish has a Top Ten meme every week.  I meant to do this one days ago...actually you can probably guess most of them if you show up at Howling Frog very often.  But I have bread rising in the oven, and all the rest of my share of Thanksgiving cooking is done, so this seems like a good time.

(Now that I've written the list, I see that I've cheated a bit.  Oops.)

10.  Jasper Fforde, for inventing the Bookworld and Tuesday Next.  Plock.

9.  For humor, Gerald Durrell and P. G. Wodehouse and yes, Daniel Pinkwater--I couldn't get along without them.

8.  Eleanor Farjeon, Elizabeth Goudge and Susan Cooper come in just under #7.

7.   L. M. Boston and E. Nesbit are the first really wonderful authors I can remember reading and absorbing as a kid.

6.  I've read exactly one Elizabeth von Arnim book in my life--Enchanted April--but it came along just when I needed it.

5.  I don't really read Madeleine L'Engle much these days, but I sure did when I was younger.  I still have all of the books I collected.  The same goes for L. M. Montgomery.

4.  Jane Austen, of course.  What would life be without her?

3.  C. S. Lewis--not just for his fantasy/SF books, but also the lay theology, literary criticism, and anything else.

2.  Susan Wise Bauer--homeschooling guru, historian, and all-around inspiration.  Reading The Well-Trained Mind 10 years ago absolutely changed my life.

1.  Diana Wynne Jones, that goes without saying.  She can't be beat!

Wow, so many authors to be thankful for!  And a whole lot more I couldn't get on the list.


I like the UK cover better.
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, by Diana Wynne Jones

This collection of speeches, essays, and bits and bobs from Diana Wynne Jones is wonderful, and you simply must have it if you're a DWJ person.  It's arranged chronologically, so that the earliest piece (a reflection on the nature of childhood and imagination) is from 1981, and the last pieces are a final interview from a few weeks before her death in 2011 and posthumous thoughts from her sons.

Some of the essays and speeches have been easily available from the official Diana Wynne Jones website, so I was just happy to have them in a more easily readable format because I've already read them twice.  "Heroes" and "Inventing the Middle Ages" are both really interesting, for example.

The majority of the pieces, though, were not easy to get at all.  Many were new to me.  There are wonderful essays on narrative, literary fashions, childhood, and fantasy.  (I really appreciated her perspective on problem novels; when DWJ first started trying to get published, virtually every story had to be about a child with a Problem, and I remember those books very well.)  I was especially happy to see a long essay on the process of writing called "Some Truths About Writing."  That piece showed up on the Horn Book website soon after her death, and I thought it was great, but then it disappeared after a few months and I was very sorry I hadn't saved it.

I can't list everything I liked, that would be very boring, but I did especially like "Why Don't You Write Real Books?" and "The Halloween Worms" (which is a story about DWJ's well-known tendency to have her books come true at her).

It should be understood that since many of these pieces are speeches or essays that were given at various times, but were almost always about writing, there are some things that get repeated several times.  DWJ had a very strange childhood and certain things are mentioned fairly often.  My favorite parts are about how she and her sisters got yelled at by both Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter, who each disliked children (or at least that was the impression she got).

Good stuff.  Don't miss it!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Republic

Socrates and Plato: a medieval portrait
The Republic, by Plato

One of Plato's most famous works shows Socrates in an incredibly long dialogue with friends, the main one being Glaucon.  Together they discuss the nature of justice and plan out the ideal city-state, one ruled by philosopher-kings.  They also cover some other topics such as different forms of government, the theory of Forms, and the immortality of the soul.  "The Cave" is also part of the dialogue, as Socrates illustrates how men see the world and then how a philosopher sees truth.

This work has had an immense effect on Western civilization.  I find this rather worrying, since there was almost nothing in the whole book that I agreed with, not even the definition of what justice is.  I kept feeling like Kermit the Frog in The Great Muppet Caper"You know, that's amazing.  You are 100% wrong.  I mean, nothing you've said has been right."

After much discussion, Socrates and co. decide that justice consists of everyone doing what they are best suited to do, and minding their own business.  They then imagine an ideal city-state, and the cardinal rule is (essentially) that no one is going to be allowed to do anything wrong.  Of course they're the ones who decide what is wrong and right.  Philosophers will rule the state, since naturally they're the only people who can see truth.  Everyone else will be taught "noble lies" that will ensure compliance to the perfectly-ordered state.

In addition, it is clear to Socrates that "women and children will be held in common."  This seems to mean that marriages will be eugenically arranged by the government, not that promiscuity will reign.  The strongest men will deserve more wives, while unfit men may not marry.  Parents and children will not know each other; children will be raised in nurseries, and the mothers will nurse all of them in turn.  Thus everyone will treat each other like family and there won't be much strife.

After that we have a lot about types of government and Forms.  Meh.  And at the end there's a rather psychedelic description of eternity, and (as far as I could tell) a theory of reincarnation.

So: Socrates and Plato, you're 100% wrong.  I mean, nothing you've said has been right!

Wiser than Plato.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A December Weekend Readathon

O is celebrating the start of December with a nice weekend readathon on the 1st and 2nd.  I will certainly not be able to spend all of that weekend reading, but I can try to spend my free time reading instead of footling about on the Internet.  By then I'll be well into a candy-making marathon and will probably be sewing like mad between batches of fondant or truffles, so we'll see how it goes.  But look, a pretty picture!

I'll post pictures of Christmas candy too, in case anyone wants to see how it's done.

I have some really neat books on my pile and I'm feeling free to read them!  Plus I have 2 more books to read before I can finish off my challenges for the year--I'm almost done with Plato but after that I need to read more Herodotus and one more medieval book.  I'm having trouble picking which one (Eneas?  Marco Polo?  The one about Wales?  The Venerable Bede?) so I haven't started yet.

I just started a classic of Czech literature called The Good Soldier Švejk.  Apparently it's very well-known in Europe, but I only heard of it recently and promptly put it on my list, and then I got it for my birthday!  It's really long and I'm enjoying it quite a bit.  Also, a readalong of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native is coming up at A Classic Case of Madness, so I thought I'd join in instead of reading the Hardy book that is actually on my pile.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

Clearly I need to have a little fun and read something nice.  So I'm joining Michelle at her Spirit of Christmas blog for the annual Christmas reading challenge.  The rules:

  • challenge will run from Monday, November 19, 2012 through Sunday, January 6, 2013 (Twelfth Night or Epiphany).
  • cross over with other challenges is totally permitted AND encouraged!
  • These must be Christmas novels, books about Christmas lore, a book of Christmas short stories or poems, books about Christmas crafts, and for the first time...a children's Christmas books level!
  • visit this POST for a list of new Christmas books for 2012.  There are a lot of good ones coming out this year, including the new Richard Paul Evans novel, A Winter Dream (I just got it yesterday!).
  • Levels:
            --Candy Cane:  read 1 book
            --Mistletoe:  read 2-4 books
            --Christmas Tree:  read 5 or 6 books (this is the fanatic level...LOL!)
          Additional levels:
            --Fa La La La Films:  watch a bunch or a few Christmas's up to you!
            --Visions of Sugar Plums:  read books with your children this season and share what you read
          *the additional levels are optional, you still must complete one of the main reading levels above

  • the most important rule?  Have fun!!!
  • I will have a review linky posted as a page the day the challenge starts.  You will find it at the top of the left sidebar.
  • Sign up in the linky below (link to your post with your reading can change up your list during the challenge...I just want to be able to stop by to welcome you and see what you plan to read).
One final note:  I am going to do a giveaway of a mystery box of Christmas books to participants in the U.S. (At the moment, I'm not sure on an International prize because of finances, but if I find that I can afford it, I will pick an International winner and they can choose a Christmas book (under $10 or three bargain books for $10, if they're running the promo at the time) from Better World Books.  Giveaway will end at the end of the challenge.

I plan to join for the Mistletoe level of 2-4 books.  As it happens, I checked out a Christmas book by Elizabeth Goudge the day before I found this challenge, so that will be one (it's really partly a 'gobbets' book, but is supposed to be mostly not).  I don't know what the other title will be.  I'm also going to try to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas (that's why I picked the Jack button!)--my poor kids have never seen it.  I've been trying to borrow it from a friend for ages.

Are you planning any Christmas reading this year?


Night, by Elie Wiesel

In order to round out my week of memoirs about war and oppression and misery, I read Elie Wiesel's Night--probably the second most famous Holocaust memoir there is.  It's been on my TBR pile for years and I've always rather avoided it.

Wiesel was born in the Transylvania area of Romania.  I was quite surprised to find that his town was largely untouched by the war for years; it wasn't until 1944 that the Jewish population was evacuated by German soldiers.  It was at this point that Wiesel, who was 15, and the rest of his community was taken off to Auschwitz.  They had never heard of it.

Wiesel and his father were assigned to a work team at Buna camp, and they managed to stick together for a long time.  As Germany's defeat loomed, the camps were evacuated and inmates taken further into Germany, and the two ended in Buchenwald.  Wiesel's father died there, only a couple of months before the camp was liberated in April 1945.

I don't know that I have much original to say about it, so I'll stop there.  This image is the copy I read; there is now a newer edition with a new preface, translated by Wiesel's wife, but that is not the copy I have.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Enchanted, by Alethea Kontis

I haven't been reading much YA lately but I'm glad I picked this one up.  It's like a game of "how many fairy tales can we cram into this story?"  and it's a good read.

Sunday Woodcutter has a large and talented family.  They eke out an existence at the edge of the Wood, relying on their talents and lots of hard work to survive.  Sunday is a dreamer, and she would write stories, except that when she writes something down, it comes true--badly.  So she only writes down the past.  And then one day she meets a talking frog and falls in love with him.

Exciting, not too mushy, and a reasonable book to give to your younger teen while you try to stave off the Twilight phase.  Mind you it's not an amazingly original work that puts a new twist in the re-written fairy-tale genre, and of course it has a girl in a pretty ballgown on the cover (there are at least ballgowns in the story!)...but it's a perfectly good story that I enjoyed.

I would just like to note, though, that spindles aren't sharp.  Sunday learns to spin wool into gold on a "wickedly tipped spindle" and discusses the dangers with her brother.  But spindles aren't sharp.  In fact they must be perfectly smooth everywhere and rounded at the tip, so as not to catch the yarn.  That's why Sleeping Beauty's curse is so surprising; you can't prick your finger on a spindle.  It's impossible, like so many tasks in fairy tales.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Escape from Camp 14

Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-Hyuk is the only known person who was born in a North Korean prison camp and escaped.  Only a few people have escaped at all, but the rest have known something about the world outside the camps.  Shin knew virtually nothing, not even the usual North Korean propaganda, and he had never been outside his prison.

(I'm not sure why the author calls him Shin all the time, since that's his family name.)

North Korea, and its prison camps, are not something that we talk about much.  For one thing, we know very little, though that is now changing as the border with China has become more porous and there are people who go in and record news on tiny memory sticks.  Still, though, we don't know much, and we know less about prison camps.

We do know that the prison camp system is large, and in it people are fed a starvation diet and slowly worked to death.  Kim Il-Sung not only established gulags, he not only imprisoned entire families, he also established a doctrine that anyone who 'betrayed' North Korea (say, by joining the South during the war) had tainted blood which could not be purified until after the third generation.  Shin's oldest uncle had joined the South Korean army in the war, and for that all his siblings were imprisoned, and any children and grandchildren they had would live their lives in the camps, laboring to expiate the sins in their blood.

Harden chronicles Shin's memories of life in the camp, his eventual escape, and his efforts to adjust to life in the normal world, which is a very difficult process for North Koreans.  Shin differed from most others in that he didn't need to be 'de-programmed' from North Korean propaganda and pseudo-history, but he had even more paranoia and trauma to get over, and some really awful things to face.

Shin's emotional development is a strange and sad story.  He never knew anything about kindness or love--only hunger and competition for food.  What is surprising is that he manages to develop some feelings later on; they weren't totally obliterated by his brutal environment.  Still, his main ideas of happiness revolve around eating meat every day.

A very disturbing and upsetting book, because it's all perfectly true and ongoing.  But we should all know about this.

Goodbye to All That

Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves

The War Between the Generations WWI Challenge has put a lot of books on my wishlist this year, and here is one of them.  Robert Graves, a fairly well-known author and poet (I, Claudius, The Greek Myths, and The White Goddess are the most famous), served as an officer in World War I.  This is a memoir of his life from childhood until about age 30: " bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broken a good many conventions; quarrelled with, or been disowned by, most of my friends; been grilled by the police on a suspicion of attempted murder; and ceased to care what anyone thought of me."  This is partly a reference to the events and subsequent scandal that led to the breakup of his marriage.  He left England for Majorca and stayed there for most of the rest of his life. 

It turns out that the 1957 edition I read was an edited version, with all the scandal bits and a good deal of the venom taken out.  The 1929 edition was much more raw (but made more sense).   No one mentioned this until too late, but on the other hand I don't really want to know all the sordid details, so I guess I'll live.  But now you know better and can choose!  I've included the cover image of the new annotated edition, which has more explanation, so you know which one to look for if you want the whole thing.

Graves is indeed bitter, and has a lot to say about the institutions and society of England, starting with the public schools.  He hated his public school about as much as George Orwell hated his.  Graves was dreading Oxford, but World War I intervened and so instead he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers instead.  His war experience is the majority of the book, but there are several chapters at the end about his marriage, children, and attempts to acclimatize to English life and get a living through writing.  And there's a year in Egypt too.

One interesting element of the memoir is Graves' descriptions or friendships with other authors and poets.  Even as a small child he met several (you will not be surprised to find Swinburne described as "a public menace"), and during the war he knew most of the other war poets you've heard of.  There is a nice description of an afternoon with Thomas Hardy, who no longer wrote novels by then, and some about T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia."

I don't think he must have been a very easy person to live with.  The book is thickly scattered with mentions of the ends of various friendships, and he doesn't seem to have been a very forgiving or tolerant person.  Spending years in the trenches would embitter anyone, so I guess it's not surprising, but I kept being surprised that he was so angry and upset over how other people coped with life's difficulties. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Sciencia: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Astronomy For All, ed. John Martineau

Last year I reviewed Quadrivium, a collection of small books from Wooden Books about the four branches of knowledge belonging to the quadrivium.  This book is its twin: 6 books about the main branches of science.  The format is just the same, consisting of lovely little two-page spreads of illustrated text that take the reader through a condensed overview of the subject.  Again, the ink color changes from brown to green to purple, and it's nicely arranged so that the biology pages are greenish and the astronomy pages are navy and violet.  It's so pretty that to look at it is to desire it.

This makes a great bedside book.  I've had it there for months now and it's easy to pick it up and read a few pages whenever I feel like it, whereas it gets overwhelming to try to sit down and read it right through.  There is too much information for that.

The material is often so condensed that it's hard to understand if you don't already know a good bit about the subject.  I got my physics-loving husband to explain some, and some was just over my head.  Other sections I found to be excellent summaries that really helped me understand more than I had before--I especially enjoyed the bit on quarks and other sub-atomic particles, and the bit on the periodic table of elements.  (Note however that I already like the periodic table!)

The illustrations are finely done, with beautiful little diagrams, whimsical drawings, and pretty pictures.

Wooden Books, based in the UK (in Glastonbury, in fact) does seem to lean a little to the New Agey side of things.  There is definitely some of that in here, but it's mostly done nicely enough that it's pretty tolerable. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mrs. Ames

Mrs. Ames, by E. F. Benson

E. F. Benson is most famous for his Mapp & Lucia series, which I have not yet read.  But since I am always attracted by books in the Bloomsbury Group series, I went looking for Mrs. Ames, which is an earlier work from 1912--a satire of ultra-respectable English life from before anyone thought about a war.

Life in Riseborough village is very tightly constrained, and Mrs. Ames is the queen bee, "sceptre firmly grasped in her podgy little hand."  Nearly everyone is middle-aged and comfortably living in a rut of gossip, social engagements, clubs, and minor hobbies.  Mrs. Ames realizes that her husband's eye is straying just a little bit to her cousin Mrs. Evans, and she starts to make some changes.  Before long she is bursting out all over with changes.

I really enjoyed the book, and it has some great scenes and characters.  I particularly love Harry, Mrs. Ames son at Cambridge, who has a secret club (the Omar Khayyam), writes poetry, and is generally pretentious.  One of the great scenes of the book is a fancy-dress party given by Mrs. Evans, who is going to be Cleopatra and have a Mark Antony, but more than one Cleopatra shows up to the party.  And then there is the Suffragette protest!

I did, however, find both Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Evans to be improbably flat.  Mrs. Evans is described as always having been very placid and unemotional, to the point that she has never even felt particularly alive.  And Mrs. Ames is so bound around with convention and respectability that she has never really been a person.  Neither of them ever have much in the way of thoughts or ideas (to be fair, the men have even less).  I just find it hard to believe that any real person could be so un-alive, so lacking in personality, as that. 

Still, a fun read if you're looking for an English comedy of manners.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Merlin Conspiracy

The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones

It was time for some comfort reading, and The Merlin Conspiracy was very nice to have this week.  It's sort of a sequel to Deep Secret, in that it takes place in the same unimultiverse, but you don't actually have to have read Deep Secret to love The Merlin Conspiracy.

We have two narrators: Roddy, who lives on the Isles of Blest and travels with the King's Progress (and is a teenage girl), and Nick, who lives in our world's England and wants to learn magic.  Somehow he winds up on the dark paths between worlds.  His and Roddy's stories make a helix pattern, twining around each other ever more closely.

Blest is a fulcrum of magic for the multiverse, so it's very important that its King takes good care of the land and makes sure nothing goes wrong with the balance of magic.  His chief advisors and magicians, though, intend to make things go very wrong indeed, and Roddy, with her friend Grundo, are the only ones who realize.  Events really do rest on a fulcrum of one person, so that tiny actions have enormous consequences.

Like so many DWJ books, the plot is so complicated and well-done that it's very hard to summarize well.  It's just really good, so don't miss it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Warning to the West

Warning to the West, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I just recently got the Solzhenitsyn Reader, and I'd been hoping that these speeches were included in that book, but they weren't.  In fact it kind of cheats in my opinion, in that large swathes of the book are excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago and other gigantic works, and I'd been hoping for lots of essays and speeches collected in one place.  I should really know better than to get readers--my medieval literature professor used to dismiss them as collections of "gobbets" and I've never found her wrong about it.  Anyway I got Warning to the West through ILL, on the theory that I can't start the whole reader right now anyway.

This book consists of the text of 5 speeches given to the Americans and to the British in 1975 and 1976.  Solzhenitsyn tries (and tries, and tries) to warn his listeners that while the leadership of the USSR might be saying nice things about detente, in fact they are as violent and oppressive as ever, and happy to take advantage of naive and over-trusting Westerners who really don't want to know anyway.

He's got a lot to say, and much of it is not very comfortable reading.  It's insightful and depressingly relevant nearly 40 years later, though.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lectures on Literature

Lectures on Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov
In 1940, before launching on my academic career in America, I fortunately took the trouble of writing one hundred lectures--about 2,000 pages--on Russian literature, and later another hundred lectures on great novelists from Jane Austen to James Joyce.  This kept me happy at Wellesley and Cornell for twenty academic years.
And here they are!  I read the first volume, which is the one not about Russian literature; unfortunately my library doesn't have the second volume, so I will have to get it from somewhere or other.  These are lectures on Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Stevenson, Proust, Kafka, and Joyce.  Very often they've been sort of reconstituted from notes, and my volume includes reproductions of quite a few pages of those notes--drawings and diagrams as well as writing.  This is a nice addition, but it also makes the volume even heavier and more cumbersome than it already was, so I'm not sure how worthwhile it was.

This is great stuff.  I really enjoyed it a lot, even (mostly) the large section on Proust, which I haven't actually read.  He is assuming, of course, that his listeners have read the books, so it was quite lucky timing for me--I just read 3 of the featured books this year and know most of the others (OK, not Proust or Joyce).  If you're the sort who likes reading lectures about literature, this is a necessary volume. 

It is a bit stunning that Nabokov comes right out and says that he doesn't like women novelists: "I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are all in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice…".  The friend he was writing to recommended Mansfield Park, and apparently that was the only Austen book he could stand.

As far as Nabokov was concerned, there is only one reason to read literature:
I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations. I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art. I have tried to teach you to feel a shiver of artistic satisfaction, to share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author — the joys and difficulties of creation. We did not talk around books, about books; we went to the center of this or that masterpiece, to the live heart of the matter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac

I always think I won't like Jack Kerouac,* but then when I actually read one of his books, I do like it.  At least, that's what happened with On the Road and Dharma Bums.  Still, my ignorance on all things Kerouac is pretty comprehensive, and I had never heard of this book at all until very recently.  I was rather delighted by it, though, because (here I go again) there is a beatnik coffee shop in one of my favorite books called The Dharma Buns, and I had never gotten the joke before.

Dharma Bums is one of Kerouac's autobiographical "road novels" and comes from a time when he and his friends were very into Buddhism.  Kerouac's character, Ray Smith, hops freight trains and hitchhikes, traveling around or living with friends for a while.  He spends a lot of time with Japhy, based on Kerouac's friend Gary Snyder, and they are Dharma Bums together.  Their city life--consisting of wild parties with other poets and worrisome amounts of wine--contrasts with their time out in nature, hiking, mountain-climbing, and meditating.  Finally Ray spends a summer working as a lookout in the Cascades Mountains.  Throughout, Ray mediates, prays, and ponders Buddhism (though a somewhat garbled version) and some Catholicism as well.

I liked it more than I thought I would.  I'm not usually much on beatniks, but Jack Kerouac I can pretty much live with.  Of course, as you might expect, women only exist in the background, largely in order to be pretty or to cook something.  So that's irritating.  Funny, everyone screams about C. S. Lewis being horribly sexist and how awful that is, but almost no one hates Jack Kerouac on that account.  I guess he's too cool for that.

*Here's a list of things I mostly don't read: American literature.  Modern literature, especially modernist lit.  Hip things about cool people.  Since Kerouac is all of those, he's just not one of the authors I seek out.  I did like On the Road though--although probably not for the same reasons that everyone else in college liked it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Aristotle's Rhetoric

"Aristotle" by Francisco Hayez. 
Finally, I've actually completed a book from my own challenge!  It's taken me ridiculously long to finish this not-very-long book; I kind of got bogged down in the dull middle section.

Aristotle starts out defining different types of rhetoric and what they are for.  Those guys really liked to get everything categorized very carefully, and while I rather appreciate that, they take it awfully far!  For quite a while, he analyzes different feelings or actions--who feels them and why--such as happiness, pity, anger, enmity, and so on.  That got pretty old, but then he moved on to much more interesting material about how to argue a court case.  Nearly everything he said applied to judicial rhetoric, really, and he didn't say much about the other two categories.

I know this is the foundational rhetorical textbook, and that lots of people still recommend it.  I don't really think it's useful for moderns as a book to teach rhetoric, though.  Too much of it isn't applicable to us, and the parts that are still relevant are probably easier to learn from some other book.  As a primary source about Greek life, though, it's just fine.

So, hooray that I managed to read it, and now on to Plato's Republic.  (I should have read that today, since it's Election Day and all.  That would have been fitting.  But I didn't have time to read anything today, anyway.  I did get to the polling place, of course, and I hope you did too.)  Then I will work on finishing Herodotus and I think that will finish me off for the year. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

November Classics Discussion: Difficulties

Katherine at November's Autumn asks:
Of all the Classics you've read this year is there an author or movement that has become your new favorite? Which book did you enjoy the most? Or were baffled by? Who's the best character? The most exasperating? From reading other participants' posts which book do you plan to read and are most intrigued by?
Doctor Zhivago, Madame Bovary, and The Age of Innocence were all favorites this year, and all were new authors to me.  I will be reading more Edith Wharton for sure, and will re-read the other two, but I'm not sure that I will read Pere Goriot or much more Flaubert, but o at Delaisse wrote about The Dictionary of Received Ideas and that sounds like something I want to read.  I don't know what else by Pasternak to read--he wrote a lot of poetry, so maybe My Sister, Life, which is a major poetic classic in Russia? 

Labyrinths was pretty baffling, but I liked it too.  The Master and Margarita was even more baffling!  Farewell to Arms was kind of baffling too, but not in a good way.

Best character is an unexpectedly tough question, if it's asking who I liked best.  A lot of my favorite books this year were about awful people!   Mina Harker is about the only one I would want to be friends with, and Madame Olenska too.  The character who is drawn best is a different question and I think that is certainly Emma Bovary again.  She is all over this post.

Young Werther ties with Emma Bovary for most exasperating character.  Werther is whiny and self-pitying, and Emma is discontented because she thinks life ought to be a romance novel.

I really, really want to read Anna Karenina.  I've added an awful lot of books to my list this year after reading about them on various blogs, so it's completely out of control.  That's OK though.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Classics Club: November Meme

This month's discussion question at the Classics Club is:

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?)

I'm getting less intimidated all the time, and I'd say that's partly because of the Classics Club.  A lot of my reading this year (overall, not just CC reading) has made me get more selective and purposeful about what I read.   I've gotten to read some wonderful classic-type books that I once would have made less of a priority and then failed to actually read.

However, there are still plenty of classics to be scared of.  All of mine are long.  I like the instant gratification of books that are shorter than 500 pages long, and tend to get distracted over the long haul, and the next thing I know I've forgotten what's going on and I quit.  So:

Anna Karenina, which I really really want to read.  And then War and Peace
A Suitable Boy.
Anything by Henry James or Thomas Hardy.
Nearly anything by Solzhenitsyn.
Less intimidating but still a bit: The Good Soldier Svejk and Quo Vadis.

So scary I haven't even put them on my list:
The Count of Monte Cristo
Les Miserables
Remembrance of Things Past

Wait a minute, those are all French works.  Does that mean I'm more scared of French literature than of Russian literature??  That seems a little odd, but it's true that Madame Bovary is practically all the French literature I've read...that was written after 1500 anyway.  Surely if I can read The Romance of the Rose I can read The Count of Monte Cristo?

I may have to give myself a chunkster challenge next year specifically for these books!  I'm collecting quite a pile.  I do want to read them quite a bit, but the amount of reading time I have is far less than the amount I want to read.

A Homemade Life

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table, by Molly Wizenberg

I've finally managed to find a food book to finish off the Mixing It Up Challenge!  Maybe after I read all those gardening and food books last year, I was just done for a while.  Anyway, challenge complete.

Molly Wizenberg writes a food blog, and as is so often the case, a book resulted.  (The book is not, so far as I know, made up of blog posts.)  Each short chapter talks about a piece of Wizenberg's life and then provides an accompanying recipe.  It's mostly autobiographical; she talks about her childhood and her parents--especially her dad--college, relationships, time in Paris, and eventually meeting and marrying her husband (who she actually met through her blog).

There are some great recipes included, many of which are interesting or different, not just your usual thing.  I'm copying several.  There is not so much in the way of philosophizing about the joys of home cooking or home farming and so on, which is just fine with me, but it is obvious that she mostly thinks home cooking is a great and wonderful thing.

A pretty good book, especially if you like personal stories, or interesting recipes.