Saturday, March 30, 2013

Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot

To wrap up Modern March, I saved the play "Murder in the Cathedral" for last.   Eliot first wrote it in 1935 for the Canterbury Festival, and subsequently lengthened and changed it a bit.  The edition I read was the 4th and final, from 1938 (I presume, since my paperback is from 1963).

This is a dramatization of the murder of Thomas a Becket in December of 1170, by knights of Henry II.  The form is much like a Greek play; most of the lines are in verse, and there is a chorus of poor women of Canterbury.  It's also, I think, like a medieval mystery play.  It is not divided into acts, but into two parts and an interlude.

First we see Thomas return from seven years' exile on the Continent.  After the women and the priests, he is assailed by three tempters who try to turn him from his path.  I thought the tempters were really interesting; each speaks in a different poetic style, and the second one talks in the alliterative Anglo-Saxon form you see in Beowulf.

The interlude consists of the Archbishop's Christmas sermon on the peace of Christ and martyrdom, foreshadowing his own fate.

In the second part, knights arrive with the intention of killing Thomas.  Each makes his case, and each is meant to mirror one of the tempters.  Despite the priests' pleading, Thomas is adamant that he will not resist his murder.  After the deed is done, the tone changes completely; each knight steps forward and addresses the audience in the style and tone of a modern politician/bureaucrat.  I thought that was just wonderful!  The play then goes back to the priests and chorus.

As ever, I don't understand Eliot much, but I did enjoy reading the play.  Someday I will tackle "Prufrock" and then, the summit of my ambition: the "Four Quartets."

From Ritual to Romance

From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie L. Weston

I blame T. S. Eliot for this.  References to "The Waste Land" constantly mentioned how the poem was partly inspired by Weston's landmark book about the legend of the Holy Grail, and put me in the mood to read it myself (and the same for Frazer's Golden Bough, which is now sitting by my bed).  I have an old paperback of this book, which I read partway through back in college when I was auditing a course on Arthurian literature because it was given by my favorite professor.  So when I opened the book again, I found a bookmark: a ticket to a 1995 performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I remember enjoying very much.  I must have seen it just before meeting my now-husband.

So.  In 1920, Jessie Weston published the result of her decades of study (she was 70 at the time): a sort of anthropological and folkloric study of the roots of the Grail legend, with special emphasis on the mysterious figure of the Fisher King.  I believe it was something of a hit at the time, and is still very influential, though I don't know how reliable she is considered these days.  Certainly she is engaging in some long stretches, but I'm not qualified to judge them.

Weston links up all kinds of disparate traditions: folkloric sword and Morris dances are connected with ancient Sanskrit mythology, the Fisher King is compared with Adonis and Tammuz and all the ancient beliefs in a young god who died and rose again, the Doctor in medieval mystery plays is linked to Sir Gawain.  And there are Tarot cards.  All of these strands are brought to the point:
I am firmly and entirely convinced that the root origin of the whole bewildering complex is to be found in the Vegetation Ritual, treated from the esoteric point of vies as a Life-Cult, and in that alone.  Christian Legend, and traditional Folk-Tale, have undoubtedly contributed to the perfected romantic corpus, but they are in truth subsidiary and secondary features...
Weston believes that the Fisher King is a central figure to the Grail legend, and a direct descendant of fertility gods like Adonis, Osiris, and Tammuz who died and were brought back to life, bringing the land itself with them.  (Looking this up on Wikipedia, it seems that folklorists have spent much of the past 100 years debating whether such a category of god even exists, and they think not, so this is pretty out of favor as a theory, I guess.)

It's quite an interesting book, although that might be because I like century-old folkloric speculation.  I had fun reading it, and I'm going to have to read some Frazer too.  (I really want to read Alfred Watkins--does anyone know of downloadable versions of his books?  I believe they are out of copyright by now.)

One thing that really struck me about this book was its length.  From Ritual to Romance is a masterpiece of brevity, cramming 30 years of obsessive research into about 200 pages of a pocket paperback.  I grant you that these pages are densely written and not all that easy to follow!  But I couldn't help thinking that if Weston was writing today, she would have to produce something about four times as long.  800 pages minimum, I'm figuring.  I'm always complaining that modern non-fiction is too padded out, and this just makes me think so more.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Hollow Men

"The Hollow Men," by T. S. Eliot

I wanted to read this poem in the same way that I read "The Waste Land."  I found an annotated version online, read it through once, then read it while checking every annotation, and finally read it once more while trying to keep all that in mind.

"The Hollow Men" draws from four different sources: Dante's Divine Comedy, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Julius Caesar, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  As in "The Waste Land" (and probably every other serious poem he produced),  Eliot writes in a densely allusive way that requires a lot of study to begin to grasp.

It seems to me to be a lament for the modern man--Eliot sees himself and others as lacking in substance, with no more depth or soul than a scarecrow stuffed with straw.  As they die, these men cross over to the next world, but are prevented from going anywhere much because they failed to make a choice; they lived as shadows and will continue to do so in Limbo, having rejected anything so decisive as salvation or damnation.

The Moving Toyshop

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

I don't know what blogger first mentioned Edmund Crispin, but I've been hoping to read something by him ever since.  Luckily for me, my mom found The Moving Toyshop.

The story belongs to Richard Cadogan, a respected but poverty-stricken poet who heads off to Oxford on a holiday.  He blunders into a murder scene in a toyshop, but when he leads police back to the shop, it's a grocery store and there's no body.  Enter Cadogan's old friend, Professor Gervase Fen, who solves mysteries in his spare time!

The mystery was quite good, in the cozy British tradition.  But it's the fun that really makes the story.  The characters are eccentric or engaging, and the detectives are forever coming up with oddball quotations, solving clues with Lear limericks, or--best of all--playing literary games like "Awful Lines from Shakespeare" or "Detestable Characters from Fiction."  For example:

“Let’s play ‘Unreadable Books.’”
 “All right. ‘Ulysses.’”
 “Yes. ‘Rabelais.’”
 “Yes. ‘Tristram Shandy.’”
“Yes. ‘The Golden Bowl.’” 

“Yes. ‘Rasselas.’”
 “No, I like that.”
 “Good God. ‘Clarissa,’ then.”

"Yes.  'Titus--"
"Shut up a minute.  I think I can hear someone coming."
Plenty of improbable and literary fun; I want to read more!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

DWJ Month wrapup

March isn't quite over yet and you still have time to read Archer's Goon or Hexwood.  I just thought I would wrap up now and direct you over to Neil Gaiman's tribute--written two years ago--and Kristen's final post.

This fantastic watercolor painting is by Goldeen Ogawa.  Check out her fun post on HMC!

I have been reading Howl's Moving Castle aloud to my kids, in particular the 9yo (who is almost 10, ack!).  My younger daughter is notoriously picky about what she reads and usually refuses to open any book she doesn't already know she will like.  The solution is to read her new books aloud, so she gets hooked on them without having to take the plunge herself.  Howl's Moving Castle makes a wonderful read-aloud--the humor comes through wonderfully and it's just really fun.

I hope you've had some fun with DWJ Month, and I'm looking forward to next year already.  Maybe by then I'll have something neat to show off.

The Pope Who Quit

The Pope Who Quit, by Jon M. Sweeney

This has been my gym book for a little while now and it turned out more timely than I expected!

A bit over 700 years ago, a Pope quit his job and walked away, after just 5 months.  His action sent shockwaves through the Christian world--could a Pope even do that?  But it was also a relief, because Celestine V was not suited to the position at all.  Sweeney documents the whole story, and then some.

Peter Morrone, the man who became Celestine V, was a dedicated ascetic monk.  Like Simon the Stylite and other hermits, he longed for a life of solitude and difficulty dedicated to prayer and contemplation.  In his middle years he founded a new religious order of hermits, but he always wanted to get further away and live even more ascetically.  By 1292, he was living in a cave at the top of a rugged mountain and always trying to get away from the monks who followed him up there. 

When cardinals failed for over two years to elect a new Pope, Peter wrote a letter castigating them for their politicking and stalling.  The letter triggered an "election by inspiration:" although Peter was not one of the candidates, he was suddenly nominated and elected Pope by acclimation.  At this point, Peter was over 80 years old and still living in a cave, so everyone rushed over to find him.  He wanted to run away, but was trapped.

Peter became Celestine V.  Unfortunately he was unprepared and unsuited to be a Pope; he was an extremely introverted (and fairly grumpy) man who had no idea how to engage in the politics and bureaucracy that surrounded the Papal throne.  He was under the sway of King Charles II of Naples, and he just wanted to live in a hut.  Within a few months, it was clear that this was not working.  Celestine was offered an out by Cardinal Gaetani; it would be legal for him to abdicate.  With relief, Peter walked away from the papacy...and guess who was elected Pope?  Gaetani took the name Boniface VIII, and as any sensible Renaissance politician would do, he promptly ordered Peter captured and imprisoned. Peter died about a year and a half later, still in prison.

It's a melancholy story.  I don't know if it's worth a whole book; I did feel that Sweeney padded a bit with explanation and background, but maybe others would be happy to have so much background.  Sweeney also speculates on the possibility of Pope Benedict XVI's abdication, and concludes that it's unlikely.  Heh.

I liked it fine, but thought it a tad over-long.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

WOYWW 1: A Creative Meme

Uniflame posted this morning about a new (to her) meme she came across called "What's on Your Workdesk Wednesday."  You post a picture of whatever you're working on at the moment and link back to the host at Stamping Ground.  I thought that was fun, so here is what I'm working on:

This is going to be a rather fancy wall quilt.

One smocked baby dress, now in construction, and one little-girl dress being smocked.

Mount TBR Check-in

Bev at My Reader's Block is having a check-in.  She has two requirements:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting adventures you've had along the way.

So far I have only read 6 TBR titles!  I am not doing so hot.
  1. Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy
  2. The Middle Window, by Elizabeth Goudge
  3. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James 
  4. The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois
  5.  The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
  6. The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
 A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.
 B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
 C. Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read ever? Etc.)
 D. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?
A.  None of the books had wonderful covers.  Meh.
B   Kitty!  I love Kitty.   I like Levin very much too.  (They are from Anna Karenina.)  
C   I didn't really expect to enjoy Anna Karenina as much as I did.  So far it's at the top spot for the year.
D.   The Souls of Black Folk has been on my pile the longest, and it was definitely worth the wait; it was excellent.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series continues on its path of quiet appreciation for life and small mysteries that are almost a sideline to the story.  This time, things are going badly wrong.  One of the mechanics has been arrested for a crime, and Mma Potokwane, the director of the orphanage, is being dismissed.  Mma Ramotswe must set things right, and she has an unexpected ally: Clovis Andersen himself has come to visit!  He has a secret of his own too.

I like these books. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Unlearning Liberty

Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, by Greg Lukianoff

I've been way behind on my posts lately, which is fine except that I want to tell you lots of stuff and this way, by the time I write the post I've forgotten too much.

Well, this book came out very recently and I happened to see a video interview with the author online.  I've followed some FIRE things before and I knew I needed the book immediately!  Luckily it had just been purchased at work and so I got it right away.

Lukianoff is a lawyer who has specialized in the First Amendment.  He is part of a small group called FIRE: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is active in helping students and faculty who have had their First Amendment rights infringed by their universities.   You can visit FIRE and see the sort of thing they do here.  It would be lovely if FIRE was not needed in the higher education world, but oh my it certainly is. 

In theory, public universities ought to be bulwarks of free speech in America, allowing students and faculty to discuss issues without fear of punishment, develop strong logic and debate skills, and generate new ideas that will benefit society.  In practice...well, it's not the free and open forum we might like.  On far too many campuses, speech codes restrict what people can say, speech is limited to small "free speech zones" that often have to be reserved in advance (!), students and faculty are censored or punished for what they say (especially for criticizing administration, because codes constitute an awful temptation), and an atmosphere of political correctness encourages students to self-censor for fear of retaliation.

Lukianoff documents all sorts of cases: a student expelled for protesting a parking garage building project on Facebook, students harassed by administration for passing out little flags, residence hall 'education' programs that attempt to enforce opinions and demand answers to intrusive personal questions, freedom of religion infringed, and issues with freedom of association in campus clubs.  It's really depressing, and particularly highlights how speech codes can be used to oppress people and to unfairly punish those who dare to disagree with administration.

Something that is really concerning about these trends on campus is how our younger generation is absorbing the lesson.  It turns out that if we teach kids that only some opinions are OK, or that they cannot speak freely, then they get the idea that censorship is fine.  In fact, it might actually be good and heroic to censor incorrect speech!   And so we get ever more enthusiasm for shutting down debate.  Students have been stealing campus newspapers for years when pieces appear that they don't like, and now it's gotten so common that people are doing it for any old reason. 

This book is fascinating.  I could hardly put it down.  In my opinion it's an important book and we should all be discussing these issues.

I was in college in the early 90s and I remember the early days of political correctness very well.  Conservative commentator David Horowitz came to campus to speak and was not allowed to address his audience when students shouted and screamed so that he could not be heard.  That was shameful behavior at a college that claims to be the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement--but the precedent has been zealously followed and happens all the time.  Such behavior has become unsurprising.  Some of the cases documented here, however, are completely shocking.  I have a hard time imagining us putting up with some of these abuses, even in the name of political correctness.  I think, though, that we allowed it to happen somewhat with us, and it's a slippery slope....

One conclusion that you can reach from Lukianoff's arguments is that an open society requires skills that we are not allowing ourselves to develop.  If we cannot handle listening to other opinions, develop solid reasoning for our own opinions, or allow others to say things that we don't like, then our public discourse is going to decline--and so will our society.  Disallowing free speech does not result in everyone having 'correct' and informed opinions; it means that many people in the majority cannot explain themselves and get angry when asked to do so, and people with minority opinions keep quiet out of fear of punishment.

These skills in open discourse take practice, which means we have to put up with listening to a lot of dopey and/or offensive nonsense on campus and in life.  College students aren't necessarily going to be good at debate and thinking and listening to others, but that's partly because we severely restrict speech all through K-12 education too.  Granted, free speech in high school means letting a whole lot of ill-informed kids spout a whole lot of nonsense in the school paper (oh, yay, yet another awful column on drug legalization/gun control/abortion), but I can't think of another way for them to learn other than practicing.

Free speech is hard, and Lukianoff is great at pointing that out.  It goes against human nature to allow others to have their own opinions.  The first thing we want to do when we hear something we don't like is to shut it down and make sure we never have to listen to it again.  It's also hard to put our opinion out there and be willing to take the criticism that will result; free speech requires a thick skin.   We have to constantly remind ourselves that the principle of free speech is more important than our feelings of offense, and more important than making everyone feel good about themselves.   Free speech is the mechanism by which we develop new ideas and figure out whether they are any good or not.  Open debate is how we try to find truth.  It is a tool to develop a better society for everyone.  But it's a very messy tool indeed.

So, do me a favor, and today, listen to an opinion you don't like.  Give it a fair hearing and refrain from name-calling, screaming, or taking offense.  Then go out and express your opinion.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Waste Land

"The Waste Land," by T. S. Eliot

For Modern March I promised myself that I would read T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land."  I actually read it way back at the beginning of the month, but like a good classical student I read it 3 times, which took a while. I used this annotated copy, which was very helpful.  First I read it straight through without much preparation, then I read it with all the notes, and then I read it through again, keeping the notes in mind.  It was hard work!  I'm not really a poetry person, and I'm especially not a modernist poetry person.

The poem is thickly allusive, so that every line refers to something else.  Lots of mythology, literature, songs, all sorts of things.  There is a lot about birds, and water.

Many different voices say things, and they mostly seem to be women.  Women keep showing up in similar circumstances; they are tired and used by men who have no interest in their welfare.  (Even Eliot's wife makes a small appearance, but I don't know that I should try to link those two elements.)

There are references to people walking through London, and I found out that you can actually map out a bit of a route, across London Bridge and around several streets.  London and the Thames are a major part of the poem.  Since it's also supposed to be about the Fisher King, a wounded king whose land was wasted until he was healed (and who was assimilated into the Arthurian legends), I would think that those elements go together a bit--London/Thames/Logres and so on.

I cannot pretend to have even begun to understand "The Waste Land," but it was good for me to work on it.  I do want to read "The Hollow Men" this month too, and eventually "The Four Quartets," but that last one is something of a future ambition.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Classics Club: March Meme

The Classics Club March Meme is:

Do you love Jane Austen or want to “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”? (Phrase borrowed from Mark Twain).
  1. Why? (for either answer)?
  2. Favorite and/or least favorite Austen novel?
I am a thorough Austen enthusiast.  I love her language, her delicate satire, her realistic (but humorous) portrayal of her society, and how she manages to protest against that society while simultaneously poking fun at it and remaining a practically-minded matter-of-fact Georgian---all at the same time.

I suspect that Miss Austen must have been one of the first novelists to have female heroines who were real people with faults and moral failings to overcome.  The predecessors of Emma Woodhouse and Lizzie Bennett were more like Clarissa Harlowe or Evelina Anville: angelically good and beautiful girls whose virtue lay in their passivity.  What a contrast!

I never know which book is my favorite, but Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion are certainly near the top.  I can't really choose though; they are all wonderful.  I even like Mansfield Park pretty well.

My husband disagrees with me, and is definitely in the shin-bone camp with Mark Twain.  He does, however, do a really great impression of Mrs. Bennett from the A&E production of Pride & Prejudice, and he even bought me the mini-series on DVD for my birthday years ago, so he gets a pass from me.  This video is his favorite Austen-themed video clip, from the classic great show Red Dwarf.  You can see the sort of thing he prefers. :)

India: A Sacred Geography

India: A Sacred Geography, by Diana L. Eck

I took a very long time with this book--I think I started it at the new year.  Eck tackles Hinduism: a fascinating religious system that is so vast, ancient, complex, and variable that it is impossible for any one person to even come close to fully understanding it.  Here, she focuses on the geographical nature of Hinduism, which is (as you would expect) deeply rooted in the landscape of India.  Every mountain, river, city and village has its special story, and pilgrimage--visiting spots connected with certain stories-- is an important part of Hinduism.  Pilgrimages may range from day-trips to local places to long journeys like walking the entire shoreline of a river, visiting linked places around the country, or even circling all of India on foot.

(I had not realized that pilgrimage was such an important aspect of Hinduism.  Right after I started this book and began to learn about Hindu pilgrimage, I watched a Bollywood historical movie in which the Moghul emperor, a Muslim, rescinds the pilgrimage tax for Hindus.  This results in an outpouring of joy that would not have made a ton of sense to me if I hadn't already started reading about it.)

Eck devotes each chapter to a different sort of place you can visit.  First, we see the Hindu vision of the universe and India's place in it.  Then we learn about:

Rivers--the Ganges (Ganga) and all other rivers too.  Some fascinating information about river pollution is here too.

Shiva and places of linga worship.  A linga is an image of a pillar of light from which Shiva emerges, and also something of a fertility symbol, but not quite like you would think.

Shakti--the female goddess that infuses the world with life and whose body is distributed around India

Vishnu--the lord of creation, who descends endlessly.

Krishna--his story is acted out on Indian geography.

The events of the Ramayana in India.

....and finally, a chapter on modern Indian pilgrimage. 

These chapters are fascinating but quite difficult to read; Eck is describing practices and beliefs that are not easy to understand for most Westerners.  I have a bit of a thing for India and a passing familiarity with Hinduism, but it was hard going.  There is a ton of difficult vocabulary and names that are hard to remember.  I really wished for more pictures; there are very few and Eck was constantly introducing some famous temple or destination or goddess with a description, and my first reaction was always that I wanted to see a picture.  So then I would have to Google it and dig through piles of images until I found what I was looking for.  The result was that I often couldn't read more than a page or two without stopping to spend 10 minutes on the computer.  Thank goodness I have a tablet so I could stay on the couch.  This is not a book to read in bed; you have to study it.

So, it's a great book.  Don't let me scare you off if you're interested.

Eck also spends some time on the modern Hindutva movement, which she is clearly very concerned about.  Hindutva is a fundamentalist, nationalist Hindu movement.  Adherents want a completely Hindu India, and they are often violent.  I think that's a valuable part of the book (though I am less impressed by Eck's leadership in the movement to oust Subramanian Swamy from his teaching position at Harvard because he wrote a piece for an Indian publication in which he espoused some Hindutva ideas.  Eck is quoted as saying, "There is a distinction between unpopular and unwelcome political views."  So much for free speech as far as Eck is concerned).

It's a valuable, difficult, and interesting book.  And it needs a whole lot of pictures--preferably in color.

Vishnu, as described in the chapter dedicated to his worship.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Naked Once More

Naked Once More, by Elizabeth Peters

Jacqueline Kirby is back, in her final adventure!  (Unless Elizabeth Peters decides to write one more?  Maybe?)  I don't think I have read this one before, except that the cover looks awfully familiar...but I remember reading all the other Jacqueline stories and not this one at all.

Jacqueline gave up being a librarian when she discovered how much more money she could make by writing best-selling historical romances, even if she poked some fun at them while writing.  Now she's on the short list to be chosen to write the sequel to the amazing best-seller Naked in the Ice--a cross between Clan of the Cave Bear and Kingdom of Thrones, it sounds like.  The author, Kathleen Darcy, disappeared seven years ago and has been presumed dead.

Jacqueline is trying to figure out just how to write the sequel to one of the greatest romances ever written, but Kathleen's mysterious fate keeps distracting her, and suspicious accidents are happening, just like they did before Kathleen disappeared.

Tons of fun, as you would expect from a Jacqueline Kirby story.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Death of a Harvard Freshman

Death of a Harvard Freshman, by Victoria Silver

I picked up this semi-trashy mystery in the student study center while waiting for a meeting to start.   It was on a bookshelf where you can leave or take a book, that sort of thing. 

Here we have Lauren, a freshman at Harvard who is taking a small seminar on the Russian Revolution.  She and her fellow students do not seem all that bright, nor do they spend a whole lot of time studying, so I don't know why Silver set it at Harvard except that she must have liked the scenery.  Instead they spend all their time scoping each other out, gossiping, or taking drugs.  Anyway, one day the seminar discusses the death of Rasputin, and that very night Lauren's favorite crush, Russell, is murdered in a suspiciously similar fashion.

Lauren is the only one who knows that the murderer must be one of the 9 remaining students in her seminar.  Who could it be?  And why was he killed?  She must investigate every single student to find out!

I was surprised to see that the story was published in 1984; I had guessed the late 70s.  Close enough, I guess.  It's not a bad mystery, but there is way more about various students' physical charms and about regional stereotypes than there needs to be.  (Yes, California people are all blond and tan and effortless, but utterly shallow and useless.  New England people are uptight WASPs, even when they're not WASPs.  And New Jersey---well, there's nothing good about New Jersey.)

A DWJ Month Giveaway

Just a quick note to tell you to take a peek at Kristen's blog--she is hosting a giveaway of some Howl's Moving Castle themed jewelry!

The Chemical History of a Candle

The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday

First I have to tell you about my copy of this book.  It's a discard from one of the local elementary school libraries and it's pretty old.  I must have gotten it from my mom, and who knows where she picked it up.  When I started reading it, there was a slip of paper pasted inside the cover that says, "This book purchased under the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Science Pilot Project for 1962-63 school year."  How cool is that?  Sputnik gave me a book!

Michael Faraday, the great scientist, lived and worked at the Royal Institution for most of his adult life.  In 1825 he started an annual Christmas tradition of giving a series of lectures for children.  This tradition continues today and you can even watch them online nowThe Chemical History of a Candle was one such series, and was transcribed and printed in 1861.

It's a neat little book to read.  Faraday was clearly both enthusiastic about and very good at explaining scientific concepts to children.  Here he starts with a candle and explains fire and other sorts of combustion, shows how water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, talks about the composition and weight of air and other gases, shows vacuums, air pressure, and carbon dioxide, and does all sorts of neat little experiments that illustrate the principles.  He's having a lot of fun doing it too.

It's a good time for me to be reading this book, since we are studying chemistry this year and have done quite a few of the experiments he does.  It wasn't hard to understand the lectures at all--I mean, I should hope not since it's for children, but he is after all explaining everything in Victorian terms and the few diagrams in the book are not sufficient to illustrate the experiments, not by modern standards anyway.

My copy is elderly, but of course now it's very easy to download the lectures for free.  Try them out!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Farmer Boy

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I bet I am not the only person who loved the stories about Laura and Mary, but always skipped Farmer Boy out of a conviction that it would be boring.  Well people I WAS WRONG.  Farmer Boy is fantastic.

This story tells about a year in Almanzo Wilder's life as a boy--from age 9 to 10.  His parents own a farm and are well-to-do; they are also careful, thrifty, and hard-working.  Almanzo is now old enough to go to school, but most of the time he would rather be working with his father, especially if it involves horses.  There are some great stories--how the mild-mannered schoolteacher deals with a pack of tough young men who pride themselves on breaking up the school every year, how Almanzo trains his team of young oxen, and what happens when the parents go on a ten-day visit and leave the children in charge of the farm.  Oh, and there's a great chapter about returning a lost wallet.

What really struck me about the book, though, was the differences in attitudes--and how much the author emphasized certain values.  This story has a message that is pounded home several times, about the value of independence, self-reliance, and solving your own problems (not to mention personal responsibility and hard work).  What kind of person did Almanzo and Laura Wilder consider to be the ideal American citizen?  It's all right here.

Near the beginning, Almanzo goes out to cut ice from the river with his father and the other men.  He is just watching the ice being cut, and walks up to the hole--and then he slips off the edge.  If not for a man who grabs him at the last second, he would have died.  His father runs up and:
Father stood over him, big and terrible.
"You ought to have the worst whipping of your life," Father said.
"Yes, Father," Almanzo whispered.  He knew it.  He knew he should have been more careful.  A boy nine years old is too big to do foolish things because he doesn't stop to think.
To me that is a startling attitude, that a nine-year-old would be expected to think before he does something dumb.  I would love to see it, but perhaps you have to be living in a more dangerous world than we do to have it. Time and again, Almanzo's father leaves him to solve his own problems and do large jobs of work on his own.

At the end, a wheelwright in town offers to take Almanzo on as an apprentice, which would give him a good trade and a comfortable life.  His mother is horrified; it's bad enough that her older son wants to be a storekeeper, and now Almanzo too?  His father says:
"Well, son, you think about it.  I want you should make up your own mind.  With Paddock, you'd have an easy life, in some ways.  You wouldn't be out in all kinds of weather.  Cold winter nights, you could lie snug, in bed and not worry about young stock freezing.  Rain or shine, wind or snow, you'd be under shelter.  You'll be shut up, inside walls.  Likely you'll always have plenty to eat and wear and money in the bank."
"James!" Mother said.
"That's the truth, and we must be fair about it," Father answered.  "But there's the other side, too, Almanzo.  You'd have to depend on other folks, son, in town.  Everything you got, you'll get from other folks."
"A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather.  If you're a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber.  You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.  You'll be free and independent, son, on a farm."
The Wilders wanted to leave readers in no doubt about what life was best.  An independent life, accountable to no one, was better than a life in trade, no matter how hard it was.  When you know what the Wilders went through in their own farming life, which was nowhere near as prosperous as the one described here, it is pretty mind-boggling.  Indeed I seem to recall that as a young woman Laura always swore never to marry a farmer because she didn't want to be poor all her life, and then she did anyway, and was in fact poor for much of the time.  And she put this in anyway.  Wow.

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson

 It's been a while since I read this novel, and now I don't have as much to say about it as I should.  This is an early African-American novel; it was first published anonymously in 1912 and didn't make much of a splash.  At that time, novels about black culture and experience did not sell as well as memoirs and autobiographies, which did very well indeed, and that may have been partly why it was written and titled as a memoir.  It was re-published in 1927 to much more acclaim, and by that time Johnson was quite well-known.

The story is written as if it were a memoir.  The protagonist does not name himself at all, telling his story from the first person and never revealing his name.  He writes his story simply.  As a young boy his mother raised him carefully and trained him in music, and he only saw his white father once or twice.  He plans to go to university, but ends up working instead.  He falls into low habits but then learns to play ragtime, and becomes a popular performer, even touring Europe with a patron.  He returns to America with musical ambitions, but gives them up in order to pass as white.

The dilemma of his life is that he has to choose between an easy but mediocre life as a white man, or a more difficult life as a black man with the ability to use his talents to the fullest.  By denying his true nature, he also denies his own best abilities; but there is no going back once he has made the choice.

I'm not doing the book justice, really,--for one thing I don't want to give away the whole story--but it's very good and I would recommend it.  I'm glad I got the chance to read it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Prince and Other Modern Fables

The Prince and Other Modern Fables, by Rabindranath Tagore

I've wanted to read Tagore for a long time, but am always very nervous about actually doing it.  After all, I'm not really very good at poetry--and Tagore writes poetry in Bengali, which brings it to a whole new level of difficulty, right?.   I ran into this little book of fables at work, and I thought it might work as a nice introduction to Tagore.  And so it did.  I am looking forward to trying more of his work.

This is a collection of little stories--not quite fairy tales, but fables in the sense that they are short imaginative stories, like folktales but written by an author.  They do not feature animals in peoples' places, like Aesop's fables.  You could read most of them to a child.  They are lovely little tales, and if you can find a copy, spend an hour or so reading them.

The stories were originally written as prose poems, and Tagore said that he didn't arrange them as poetry "most probably out of cowardice," but I think they're nice the way they are.  Each story was published in Bangla publications between 1917 and 1922.

Impossible Things

Impossible Things, by Connie Willis

I found myself on blog hiatus when life got super-busy and the kids got sick at pretty much the same time.  The kids are still sick--they are on the couch watching Tintin cartoons right now--but I think I can tell you a bit about the many books I've got lined up for posts!

Last week I was struck down with a cold and spent most of the day on the couch.  Kristen R. happened to post that morning about reading Impossible Things and mentioned a particular story, and I own Impossible Things, so I went to read the story, and the next thing I knew I'd read the whole collection.  A dose of Connie Willis was just what I needed to help the day go by.

This is a collection of some of Willis' best SF stories; a couple of them have won prizes.  They are a varied lot--there are some really funny ones, some tragic, and some just strange. "Ado" is a literary story a bit like "Harrison Bergeron."  "Time Out" has time travel, romance, and chicken pox.  "Spice Pogrom" is the kind of screwball SF that Willis specializes in.   I don't even understand "Jack."  And "Even the Queen" has a humorous take on the one thing that nobody ever writes stories about.

I always love Willis' oddball sense of humor.  She's a lot of fun.  This made me want to read To Say Nothing of the Dog yet again, but then I kind of want to read Doomsday Book before I do that, and it's so sad that I'm not sure I do want to read it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Woman Who Died a Lot

The Woman Who Died a Lot, by Jasper Fforde

Yay, the new Thursday Next book! 

Thursday's last set of adventures have rendered her unable to jump into the Bookworld, and the government has dissolved most of SpecOps, so she is looking for a new job.  She is appointed as Head of the Wessex Libraries, and you know in Thursday's world, libraries are very important.  They also have their own military arm, and a bunch of secret vaults, which is pretty much how the world should really work, right?

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has gone mad--well, madder than usual.  Goliath is up to something again, involving worthless medieval manuscripts and clones.  ChronoGuard has been dissolved and young Friday is suddenly out of a future.  Swindon is scheduled for a full-scale smiting from heaven in less than a week.  And Aornis Hades is on the loose again.

As usual, Thursday's new adventure is insane and wonderful and fun, with some really weird literary jokes.  I really like how Fforde is treating this older Thursday; she's in her 50's, physically she's a mess from years of injuries--she is essentially an action star who is getting too old for action.   We sometimes see stories about people in this kind of situation, but they are always men (and they are usually written as still in great condition, despite the improbability).  How often do you meet a woman character at retirement age who doesn't want to give up chasing the bad guys?

Extra fun fact: if you live near Swindon, you can attend the Fforde Ffiesta, an annual weekend of silly fun and Ffordiness.

What Makes DWJ Magical

Kristen at We Be Reading asked me to do a guest post for her on what is so great about DWJ.  This is my attempt to answer the question.  You can see it at Kristen's blog here.

I can remember the first DWJ book I read--in 6th grade--and even exactly where it lived on the shelf at my school's library.  It was Witch's Business, DWJ's first published children's book from 1973, and the school copy had a dusty purple cloth cover.  It's not one of her best books (though when I re-read it last year I was surprised to realize how good it actually is) but even so it must have made quite an impression on me.  I don't have that kind of memory for any other books from school.

In junior high the public library had a few more DWJ titles.  I remember reading Howl's Moving Castle, Witch Week, and The Magicians of Caprona (which had an amazingly ugly cover even for a DWJ book).  I must have continued to read whatever I could get my hands on, because by college I was a confirmed DWJ addict.  This was the early 1990s, so she was publishing pretty often, though she was not well-known.  Living in Berkeley was great--I found paperbacks of obscure older titles like Spellcoats at used bookstores, checked out Archer's Goon from the public library, and spent a lot of time at Dark Carnival (a SF/fantasy bookstore), waiting for new releases to come out in paperback so I could afford to buy them.

When my husband and I got married in 1996, we had the chance to take a trip to England.  On the day that we visited Oxford, I made sure to go into Blackwell's to check out their famous children's section, and I got to add to my collection with Time of the Ghost and my very own copies of a couple others.  Ever since then, I've bought every title as it has come out, and now we have everything but Changeover (DWJ's very first novel, not written for children, and not at all easy to get).

That might be a long and boring way of saying that I'm one of the people lucky enough to have grown up reading DWJ, and she has had a big influence on me.  Her words live in my head.

DWJ is great in a lot of ways, as we all know.  Her stories are original and never derivative, while at the same time she mines legend and literature to bring in layers of meaning, theme, and allusion.   I love what she said about how her mind worked:
  ...what I wanted to do was to write fantasy that might resonate on all levels, from the deep hidden ones, to the most mundane and everyday....get in touch with all the hidden, mythical, archetypal things that were lurking down there. Over the years I’ve grown to trust this primordial sludge at the bottom of my mind.
DWJ stories are tricky; you start off thinking this is going to be a children's fantasy story, not even a very difficult one, and then wham--it goes all complicated and she hits you with ideas about how the universe works and what people are like.  She manages to pack a lot of ideas and insights into stories meant to be read by 11-year-olds, and she does it with simple language and without making a big song and dance about it at all; instead she's just wryly humorous about it.  AND she does this with an intelligence that most of us don't have; she didn't show it off, but she was sharp.  Sometimes you hardly even notice what she's doing until the 3rd time around, because she never hangs a big flashy sign on it to say "Look what I'm pulling off here!  See how smart I am?"

I always enjoy how she makes you work, though.  DWJ doesn't lay the whole story out for you to read and then forget about; she leaves things confusing or unsaid.  Half of her endings are incomprehensible until you've read the book several times--and maybe not even then.

Her characters are people, too.  They are all definite personalities; indeed many of them have uncomfortable amounts of personality and would take up a lot of psychic space if you were in the same room with them.  They jump off the page. There is never any trouble about telling characters apart in a DWJ book.

I'm running out of space but I would like to burble a bit about which stories are my favorite.  Fire and Hemlock comes in first.  I know the Dalemark quartet isn't all that well-known, but it should be; she tells 3 different stories about a world and then braids them all together in the 4th, and it's amazing.  The Crown of Dalemark is right up there next to Fire and Hemlock for me.  Archer's Goon is so funny and fantastic that I must have read it 20 times by now.  And Hexwood is creepy and bizarre and incomprehensible so I love it.

I have two daughters now and the oldest one is 12.  She loves DWJ too and now we get to share in-jokes, which is super-awesome, because we can just quote a line or reference a character and each know what the other means.  She hasn't read all of them yet--I keep advising her to savor them one at a time, because there are a limited number of them--but she is well on her way.  My younger daughter is not quite 10 and picky about her reading; if she is not completely convinced that she will love a book--and it is not easy to convince her--she won't read it.  She has read Earwig and the Witch, and she loves the Howl's Moving Castle MOVIE, but otherwise she has not yet chosen to read much.  We're getting there.

I have never managed to properly say what DWJ books have been in my life.  I always wanted to write her a fan letter, but I could never think of the words.  When she was very ill indeed, Meredith who runs the website asked for letters, and I tried, but "it went small and boring and didn't lead anywhere."  I sent it off anyway of course, but I'm not a writer and what DWJ's books have meant to me will have to stay mostly in my head.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Homeward Bounders

The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones
"You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds as you please, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. To ensure you keep this rule, you will be transferred to another field of play every time a move ends in the field where you are.  The rules also state that you are allowed to return Home if you can.  If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner."
This is one of DWJ's older and lesser-known books, but I wish it would come back into print again; it's a great story.  Jamie is a tough Victorian city kid who likes to explore, and he pokes around a little too much.  He finds Them, who play his world as a game and impose rules on it, and They discard Jamie, telling him that he must wander the Bounds forever, unless he can find his way home.  He finds himself an exile, thrown from world to world.  He meets other wanderers--some of them legendary.  Jamie eventually teams up with Helen, who has been raised in the temple of Uquar in her particularly horrible world.  They meet Joris, a slave and a demon-hunter, and they start to realize that together they might be able to fight Them.
"There are no rules--only principles and natural laws." 
Because it is DWJ Month, I'll try to tell you why I think this book is so great, but I always find it hard to describe why DWJ is so cool.   First, the concept is a great idea, and it's developed in the signature DWJ style where she makes you work to understand what's going on.  Then she throws a bunch of different people into the mix; all the characters have very definite personalities (another trademark) and they come at the situation from--literally--different angles to solve it.  And the thing about DWJ is how she used straightforward, fairly simple language (I think I've seen it called deceptively simple) to evoke a lot of very different, very intense feelings and reactions.  There is always a surprising amount of insight packed into a small space, in a format you might not expect.

This image I've used for the cover is one of the better Homeward Bounders covers--it's the one I own, which I picked up in the UK in 1996.  Most of them are hideous.  DWJ did seem to suffer from rotten covers more than her fair share of the time--I suspect a mixture of the era (a lot of her books were published in the 1980s) and the inherent difficulty of producing a really good illustration of stories as unusual and weird as hers usually were.  The more recent covers are often much better, and that might be partly because they tend to be more decoratively abstract instead of trying to illustrate a scene.  We should have a post on covers!
"But you wouldn't believe how lonely you get."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Prada Paradox

The Prada Paradox, by Julie Kenner

I have a whole pile of books to tell you about!  I've been sick, so blogging has been neglected, but I've read a bunch of books--nothing too heavy, though, since my brain hasn't been working very well.

The Prada Paradox is the third in the trilogy that started with The Givenchy Code, in which a mysterious someone takes the hit video game Play.Survive.Win into the real world.  This time, things are a bit different; Devi is a movie star who has the lead role in the film version of Givenchy Code--a project that Melanie hopes will help other victims step forward and maybe solve the mystery of who's running this thing.  A few weeks into filming, Devi is drawn into the PSW game for real, and her designated assassin is a deranged fan who has terrorized her before.  The clues are, of course, movie-related and take Devi all over Los Angeles.

It's a fun and clever thriller that finishes off the trilogy nicely.

Friday, March 1, 2013

DWJ March Kickoff

My dad's photo of a tulip tree.
It's March!  I hope you are getting some spring where you are; here, it is my favorite time of year.  The first signs of spring here are daffodils and early-blooming trees--different varieties of early fruit trees, tulip trees, and most especially the almond orchards.  (Tulip trees are a kind of magnolia with pink or white flowers that bloom before the leaves show up; they are all over town and they're spectacular.)

And since it's March, it's DWJ month!  Kristen M at We Be Reading is hosting, and she'll have guest posts every Tuesday and Thursday.  Watch for mine on the 7th!  There will also be giveaways; I'll keep you posted on those.

Kristen is hosting TWO readalongs.   Howl's Moving Castle starts on the 15th and will feature a watchalong of the Miyazaki film on Twitter.  Check her post for details and keep in mind the tag #howlalong.  A Tale of Time City starts on the 29th so we can finish the month in style.

I'm all excited; I get to share some DWJ love and it's spring!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Huck Finn is the latest WEM book (you can follow along at Classic Case of Madness*).  I think I read it in 8th grade and didn't get the dialect or the jokes, so it was pretty much like reading it for the first time.  I enjoyed it so much!  A lot of it is just really fun.

The story is that Huck's dad, the town drunk, shows up again and makes Huck's life a misery, so Huck takes off on the river.  He meets up with Jim, a slave and a friend of his who is now a runaway.  Together they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft, having adventures and getting into scrapes and generally tearing up the the countryside.   Much of it is very funny, and some of it is tragic.

Alongside and underneath the fun is Huck's gradual realization that Jim--who Huck has always been strictly taught is beneath him in every way--is a real person.  It takes him the whole book, and you can see it happening.  By the end, they are true friends.  This stands in contrast to Tom Sawyer, who is  more educated and full of ideas, but he's also got a lot of pride (in the Biblical sense) and uses Huck and Jim more as playthings then as real people.

I had no idea when I started how much I would like this story.  Even though I read all the other Tom Sawyer books last year, Huck Finn has always stood a little apart in my mind as a more serious and difficult book, not to mention the language (which of course I still don't like).  After the careful structuring and super-civilized atmosphere of the last WEM book, Portrait of a Lady, it was a breath of fresh air.  I ripped through it in a couple of days, and I read some bits out loud to my daughter when they were too funny not to share.

If you've never read the story of Huck's adventures on the Mississippi, make sure to do it soon. 

*CCOM reveals that huckleberries are blueberries, which I did not know!  I had a vague idea they were like wild blackberries or something.  Christine tells us that "the word indicated something small and of little consequence," which is sad.  It does make a really good name though.  And I always like it when Tom calls him Hucky.