Saturday, June 29, 2013

Prospero's Mirror

Prospero's Mirror, by A. N. Donaldson

Last year when I did Gothic October, I found a really neat podcast all about M. R. James stories.  I'm still listening to it, and a little while ago they did an interview with A. N. Donaldson, who has written a short novel featuring James as the protagonist (much like the mysteries starring Jane Austen, I guess).  It's a Kindle book, and only a buck, so I thought I'd try it out.  While the storyline is intriguing, I was disappointed in certain things Donaldson did with James' character and I don't recommend you spend a buck on it too.

The story is that an elderly James is called to visit Cambridge's "Old College" to help an old friend figure out what to do with an antique stone mirror they've found hidden away in a disused corner.  James examines the mirror and discovers papers about it relating to its use in the great plague of 1666.

It's a creepy story all right, and much of it is quite interesting, but for me Donaldson went too far with James' character.  It was just icky.  I was disappointed.

I do, however, really enjoy A Podcast for the Curious, in which two guys talk about James and his stories.  They are a lot of fun.  It was from them that I learned that there are a couple of people in Britain who do read-aloud performances of James stories in old houses every so often, and then I found out that they  happen at L. M. Boston's house, the model for Green Knowe!  I cannot think of a neater way to spend an evening.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Mount TBR Check-In

It's time for another check-in at Mount TBR, and I'm not doing so hot.  Bev says:

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. 

So far I've read 10 books, which puts me at less than halfway to my goal of 24.
  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
  7. Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper 
  8. Botchan, by Natsume Soseki 
  9. The Echoing Green, by Gillian Avery 
  10. Making Their Own Peace, by Ann N. Madsen 

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:

A. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.

Kitty from Anna Karenina, and Botchan too.  Kitty is pretty lovable, and Botchan is just fun.

B. What has been your most difficult read so far.  And why?  (Length?  Subject matter?  Difficult style?  Out of your comfort zone reading?)
Last of the Mohicans was a long slog.  It felt longer than Anna Karenina, and not nearly as pleasant.  Cooper's writing style is just awful.

C. 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?
 Last of the Mohicans should have been tossed off the edge!  Let's see, at least three of the titles have been on my pile for at least 10 years: Souls of Black Folk, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and Making Their Own Peace.  All were very good, and I should have read them years ago.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis

After this book came up in conversation a little while ago, I had to re-read it.  It is just such a great book.  If you're not familiar with C. S. Lewis, this is a pretty good introductory volume, though I suppose The Screwtape Letters is better for that purpose.  The Great Divorce is similar, though, in that it uses a fanciful trope to explore Christian theology in a way that gives the reader an interesting story to read.

The story here is given as a dream or vision, in which the narrator is wandering in a large and dreary city.  He finds a queue at a bus stop and joins the line, and finds himself on a field trip to the edge of Heaven itself.  Heaven is much more real than the passengers are, though; the grass hurts to walk on and the people look semi-transparent.  Everyone is greeted by someone they knew in life, who wants to take them up into Heaven and assures them that they will firm up along the way and be able to bear it--and the passengers are a bit reluctant for various reasons. 

Lewis was always so good at understanding what people are like.  Whenever I open this, or Screwtape, I am usually immediately given a little sketch of something that I do myself.  Here, as the Ghosts meet their escorts, we see all these little episodes of the interactions and recognize traits we may have ourselves.  There is a woman who spouts a constant stream of small complaints, a man with a habit of dramatic posturing, and so on.  Meanwhile, the narrator meets his escort, who does some explaining.

Of course, Lewis wasn't trying to describe Heaven or Hell, he was talking about people and how we cling to our petty faults or let them go--and beyond that, he was trying to show how we all choose our final destination ourselves.  And he does it with a sense of humor.  It's a very short little book that doesn't take long to read, but the people stick in your mind.  Great stuff.

I suppose I ought to get a new copy sometime; mine is a paperback from the 70s--with the requisite hideous cover--and is falling apart.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beauty for Truth's Sake

Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-Enchantment of Education, by Stratford Caldecott

A fellow classical homeschooler recommended this to me a little while ago.  It's a bit difficult to summarize, honestly, especially because I think I didn't really wrap my head around the first few chapters.  I'm going to have to go back and re-read at least the first half, or just the whole thing.   In essence, Caldecott is laying out his vision for what true education looks like and an argument for the liberal arts.  Caldecott is Catholic, and so this book is as well.

Caldecott gives a rundown of the seven liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, and chooses to focus most on the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.  Really, he is concentrating his attention on mathematics and its applications in cosmology.  Most of this book is about the truth and beauty of math, and the importance of math in theology:
Music, achitecture, astronomy, and physics--the physical arts and their applications--demonstrate the fundamental intuition bedind the Liberal Arts tradition of education, which is that the world is an ordered whole, a "cosmos," whose beauty becomes more apparent the more carefully and deeply we study it.  By preparing ourselves in this way to contemplate the higher mysteries of philosophy and theology, we become more alive, more fully human.  This beautiful order can be studied at every level and in every context, from the patterns made by cloud formation or river erosion to that of the leaves around the stem of the most obnoxious weed, from the shape of the human face as it catches the light, or the way keys are ordered in a concerto by Bach, to the collision of stellar nebulae and particles in an atomic furnace....cosmology leads only to the threshold of theology.  (p. 117, 119)

I'm planning to re-read this book and then to read Caldecott's followup, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education. 

I suppose this makes me a hopeless nerd, but I love books like this.  I'm hoping to read quite a bit this summer and get all inspired for the fall.  I'm also hoping to launch a small website about classical education along with several friends; it would be about how we do classical at the practical level.  I'm hoping it works out!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I actually cannot show you a picture of the little cross-stitch project I've been doing this week, which is nearly done, because it's a birthday present for my daughter and I don't want her to see it.  But I have produced several quilt squares recently:


I can give a hint, though, about the present--it has a blue box on it, and it's a bookmark.

The Chosen

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok

A newly-formed book club I'm joining picked The Chosen as one of the first books we'll read.  I was happy, because it's on my CC list even though I know just about nothing about Chaim Potok.  When I started it, and it spends 30 pages on a baseball game, I was pretty trepidatious about the whole thing, but my husband said he had really liked it in high school, so I kept reading and pretty soon I was hooked.  I really enjoyed this book a lot.

The story starts in 1944, just as D-Day and the invasion of Europe is starting.  It's narrated by Reuven, an Orthodox Jewish teenage boy--he meets up with Danny, who seems at first to be destined to be his arch-enemy.  Danny is Hasidic, and a baseball game between their two teams turns ugly.  Reuven winds up in the hospital, and that's where he and Danny begin a friendship that they both need--but Danny most of all.

The amount of studying these boys do is phenomenal.  They both work really hard all the time at their studies, and Danny is a true genius.  His future is completely mapped out for him; as the older son of his community's leader, he is expected to take his father's place.  Reuven, however, cannot understand Danny's relationship with his father at all.  Reuven and his own father are very close--they study and talk together all the time--and in some ways Reuven's father takes on that role with Danny, too.  Then, as news of the Holocaust begins to come out of Europe, and the Zionist movement gains momentum, things get more complicated.

This is a truly great novel about fathers and sons and love.  And, unlike much of the material I've been reading recently, it was not unremittingly tragic!  So that was nice for me.  I would really like to read more Potok now, and I'm happy to have found a new author to love.  Book club is tonight!

I have lots more books to tell you about, and I'm still enjoying In the First Circle too, so more posts soon.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Letters of EBB and RB

Jenny is having a readalong of the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (later Browning).   Mr. Browning wrote to Miss Barrett in January of 1845, expressing his admiration for her poetry.  Browning was pretty eminent at this point, so she was very happy about this, and they promptly struck up a very friendly correspondence.  Very friendly!

I read from January to May of 1845, as the two are just getting to know each other.  At first, Elizabeth is quite worried that she is taking up too much of Robert's time, and politely sprinkles her letters with apologies for writing so much and tiring him out with her letters.  It doesn't take him long to tell her to cut it out; he would rather read her letters than any others.  Soon they're promising perfect honesty in the spirit of friendship and poetry, and indulging in flights of Victorian fancy about literature.  And they haven't even met in person yet!

It was quite difficult to meet Elizabeth, actually.  Her father was a tyrant who didn't want any of his many children to marry, and he bullied them around.  Elizabeth had TB from the time she was 14 and had given up all hope of a normal life; at this point she hardly ever leaves her bedroom, and certainly not in winter.  Robert has to try several times to get in to meet her in person, and once he does, he writes a Letter--this is in May.  This letter evidently upset Elizabeth so much that she sent it back and asked him to burn it, which he did.  We don't know what was in it, but it sounds to me like he was declaring some Feelings, and she was by no means ready to hear it.  Some guys make up their minds fast!

I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.  Well, I know where it ends up--elopement and Italy.  But seeing how it gets there will be very fun.

Jenny came up with some questions for us.  I did the first part of my reading a little while ago and can't answer some of these, but I'll try to in future.  I did answer one or two below, though.

1. I'd love in each section of the readalong -- since Robert and Elizabeth are perpetually doing both of these two things -- to know what your favorite compliment and your favorite apology was.

2. What do you think they each imagined the correspondence would be or lead to when they wrote? Do you think Robert read her poems and was like, "Yeah, I'm going to definitely need to marry this woman" or do you think he decided that later?

It sounds to me like he was interested, but actually figuring on marrying her before he even wrote to her seems unlikely.  He says himself that a poet cannot be known only by reading the poetry.  (EBB says that she feels she knows him already, and he says no, there is so much that I want to say and can't yet!  Which sounds like a Hint when I put it like that, but in theory he was talking about poetry.)

3. A thing that is interesting about the Brownings is how long they knew each other by correspondence before they knew each other in real life. How do you think they present themselves to each other in their letters and do you think that changes noticeably over the first five months (like after they meet in real life)?

They drop the formality and get pretty personal surprisingly quickly.  I feel like there's a little bit extra formality at this particular point, where she's freezing him off a bit.

4. Do either of them say anything that makes you cross? Ever? Particularly, do you mind anything they say to each other after That One Letter?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Making Their Own Peace

Making Their Own Peace: Twelve Women of Jerusalem, by Ann N. Madsen

Ann Madsen spent many years traveling to Israel yearly, and then lived there for another five years.  There she made friends with a wide variety of people, and here she gives us sketches of twelve women she has known who created havens of peace in one of the most fought-over cities in the world.  It's a really lovely book.

Madsen arranges her sketches chronologically.  Her friends are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish; they are Israeli, Palestinian, and several other nationalities.  And they are all amazing women who work to create peace as far as they can.

I enjoyed it very much.  And I bought it when it came out in 2003, so I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Slouching Towards Adulthood

Different subtitle.  I am confused.
Slouching Towards Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up, by Sally Koslow

I can never resist "state of society" books like this.  Koslow is a mother of grown sons, and looking around, she noticed a whole lot of 20-something and even 30-something young adults sort of wandering around in an extended adolescence, doing lots of things but never quite getting around to the traditional milestones of adulthood like a steady job or career, marriage, children, or having a place of their own.   Here she analyzes societal trends, interviews lots of young adults and their parents, and spins some theories.  She calls this 'adultescence.'

First off, I have to point out that Koslow is mainly talking about what must be a fairly small slice of the young adult population--mostly upper-middle class, highly educated, and probably white, nearly always with parents who are well-off enough to give them some financial support.  I do not actually know anyone like this in real life myself.  I know a fair number of young adults, but none of them would be featured in this book.

I also find it a little odd that Koslow invariably refers to the parents of adultescents as Baby Boomers.  Is this correct?  I mean, my parents are Boomers, but here we're talking about people who are mostly 10-15 years younger than I am.  OK, granted, I actually have a sister who is nearly 15 years younger than I am, but I would have thought that most of her contemporaries have parents who are not quite Boomer age.

Anyway.  Koslow describes young adults who have a whole lot of prestigious education and probably carry a lot of student debt, but for various reasons have not translated that into a career.  One of the major reasons is the economic pit we are living in--it is incredibly hard to get a good job after graduating from college these days (just ask my sister)--but it isn't always that.  Koslow goes into all these different things, and it's pretty interesting.  She ends up with chapters on marriage and having children, and the unexpected pitfalls on the way.

She's not saying "Kids today, they're so rotten."  There is a lot of sympathy here for the difficulties of getting launched into life, and admiration too.  Also some exasperation, but she theorizes that the Boomer parents have a lot to do with it.*  As the subtitle suggests, she ends up advising parents to let go and let their kids make their own lives (on their own, without constantly running off to help pack for a move, and without financial support for fun stuff like a year in Thailand or the latest smartphone).

It was interesting.  But I think it mostly applies to a fairly small segment of the young adult population.

*Here we run into the generational thing again.  If it's Boomers' fault that young adults are butterflies, flitting and sipping in the garden of life, why didn't Gen X do it too?  Our parents were all Boomers.  Maybe we just couldn't afford all the international travel; we hankered after it enough, or at least I did.  And there were lots of complaints when I was in college about the Slacker Generation, but we seem to have gotten over that now; first we fueled the dot-com boom and then we, uh, got underwater on our mortgages.  Maybe this is just the current version of the complaints about Gen X.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley

I didn't read the first Flavia de Luce story, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, so I went into this one blind.  It's a mystery series, but 'modern' in its approach, I think.  It doesn't feel like your usual cozy British mystery, it's a different take.

Flavia is a precocious and unusual eleven-year-old living in a giant crumbling manor house outside her village.  She loves chemistry, and not much else; her family is a mess and the village residents dislike her.  Her sisters are cruel and her father absent through grief at the death of his wife nearly 10 years ago.  Flavia is fascinated by her mother and thwarted in any efforts to get to know about her.  Meanwhile, she likes to investigate the mysteries that come her way.

In this case, the mystery is who attacked an elderly and sick Gypsy woman camping near the river.  Flavia stubbornly investigates, even as the body count goes up and the police warn her off.

I was not all that taken with the story.  I didn't get pulled in, I wasn't wild about the inverted Capture the Castle setting--it just wasn't my thing.  It was kind of interesting, but not in a way that made me want to read more.  Bradley seems to be making a good thing out of the series, though; it looks like there are now five books total and he's producing two a year now.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On the Road

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

For Adam's Beats of Summer event, I wanted to do a re-read of On the Road.  I haven't read it in over 15 years, I kind of enjoyed it before, and I had already read Dharma Bums earlier this year. Adam just did a profile of Jack Kerouac, so go take a look!

Kerouac wrote several of these autobiographical novels in which he set down his impressions of various adventures--together he called them The Duluoz Legend.  He changed everyone's names, and I'm sure he also made changes for narrative purposes.  On the Road takes place in the late 1940s, and Kerouac kept notes for a long time and then wrote the book all at once in 1951.  It wasn't published until 6 years later.

In the story, Kerouac calls himself Sal Paradise.  The other main focus is Dean Moriarty, a charismatic and completely iconoclastic guy who likes to talk a lot.  Sal wants to head west, join Dean, and see the country.  He hitch-hikes and gets rides, and meets all kinds of people.  Over several years, Sal periodically takes off and finds his way across the US--he visits people in San Francisco, Denver, all over, and finally even goes down to Mexico.  Sometimes he travels with Dean, and sometimes not.

Much of the time, Sal acts as an almost neutral observer, especially around Dean.  He doesn't always say a lot about what he's doing himself unless he's really on his own, as when he lives in a tent with a girl and picks cotton for a living.  If there are other people around, he'll talk about what they're doing.  Dean takes over quite often; he's that kind of person.  He talks a lot, moves all the time, gets all excited about everything.  Sal describes him as a sort of amoral roadly saint, an innocent living on the edges of society who just does whatever he feels like doing--a "holy goof."  At the same time, nobody can put up with Dean for very long, even his various wives and girlfriends.  Even Sal gets mad at him.  Dean's talk is all wonder and sympathy for the people they meet, but his actions are completely self-centered. (I've known some holy goofs, but Dean takes the cake for impossibility to live with.)

I like reading Kerouac's writing when he's feeling good.  He just seems to find everyone interesting, and I like how he doesn't talk about himself all that much.  Later on, the novel gets darker and he's feeling a lot less hope and it's not so fun.  On the whole, I think I prefer Dharma Bums.

I wish he wouldn't call San Fransicso Frisco, but maybe it was cool then.

Poking around for an image of the book, I just found out that somebody made a MOVIE of On the Road last year.  That's kind of strange, isn't it?  Has anyone seen it?  What could a movie possibly look like?  Good golly, it had a fancy cast--Kirsten Dunst played Camille, and Kristen Stewart was Marylou, and Viggo Mortensen was in it!  Odd.

I still have a few weeks left of the event, so I want to take a look at a book I have about the women of the Beat movement.  That should be interesting.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Pamela, by Samuel Richardson

I have done it!  I have conquered Pamela!  And now I never have to do it again.

Pamela is a beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished young maidservant in Lady B.'s home.  Lady B. has trained her as a companion, meaning to marry her to a respectable man when the time comes, but when the lady dies, what is to become of Pamela?  Young Mr. B. has designs upon her person, but Pamela, being perfectly virtuous, is resolved to resist his blandishments--if necessary to the death.

I really got into the premise of the novel.  Richardson starts off by tackling a real and serious social problem of his day--servant girls' utter vulnerability to men of higher status--and he does it from the girls' perspective.  Pamela has a problem shared by thousands; she is a poor and defenseless girl and Mr. B. has all the power on his side.  She can't leave, she can't make him too angry, and she can't make him leave her alone.  Should she succumb, she will lose all and he will lose nothing; at best she will be a kept mistress, but it's more likely that she'll end up on the streets.  This is a great story!

However, this is also the 18th century and Richardson is writing a fairy tale.  So it doesn't go quite the way I would like.  Mr. B., maddened by Pamela's refusal to be his mistress and her fellow-servants' sympathy with her situation, has her abducted and taken to one of his other estates, where he pays a morally dissolute housekeeper to imprison and torment her.  Here, he does his best to persuade, seduce, and just plain rape Pamela.  Her main defense is fainting, but she does appeal to neighbors for help, try to run away, and even contemplate suicide.  Even as Pamela's virtue makes Mr. B. angry, it also inspires his admiration--and finally he decides to marry her.  Pamela, meanwhile, has been falling in love with her would-be rapist.  Sigh.  Of course she has.  After that I kind of lost steam, because argh.

Pamela and Mr. B. in the Summerhouse, by Highmore
And the awful part is that they get married about halfway through the first volume (there are two).  So I spent a lot of time wondering how on earth Richardson was going to spin the story out for another 700 pages or so.  Here is how:

The first 200 pages are quite exciting, as Pamela tries to resist young Mr. B.
It takes them 100 pages to get married.
Then for about 200 pages they have the first days of their marriage, and Mr. B.'s sister shows up in a rage, which is fun.
200 pages of incredibly dull rehashing of earlier events; neighbors all love Pamela and want to hear all about it, and Mr. B. tells his side of the story.
100 or so pages of Pamela's first lying-in and her misery at Mr. B.'s too-close friendship with a beautiful lady.  He repents and becomes a better husband than ever.  This bit is pretty interesting.
200 pages of Pamela writing a book of Hints to Young Mothers, then letters that are Hints to Young Ladies.  This takes years, so by the end she has several children and has spent a couple of years on the continent.

Mr. B., lauded throughout as an excellent husband, once he gets over his rapeyness anyway (and then there's his bit of backsliding) may well be a good husband by 18th century standards, which seem to have been extremely low.  Even the book says so.  By our standards he's a jerk who proves himself to be horrible over and over, and I expected that, but even so he was pretty hard to take.

The novel is written in Richardson's trademark epistolary style (in fact, his project began as a set of exemplary polite letters and then turned into a dramatic novel), so it's all letters back and forth, mostly from Pamela to others.  She writes a sort of journal in this way.  Even so, it gets improbable and humorous when you read extremely long and detailed conversations in letters that may run to over 50 pages long.  Pamela is said to have a simple, free, flowing style of writing that her contemporaries admire, and this is quite true by Georgian standards; the modern reader will probably find it florid, overblown, and often tedious. 

Pamela was a smash hit when it was published in 1740 and 1741.  Of course, many people also hated it and so people divided into Pamelists and Anti-Pamelists.  Pamelists felt that their heroine was as virtuous and lovely as she was presented; Anti-Pamelists argued that she was clearly a conniving gold-digger who used her virtue to get to her goal (I'm betting that there were references to Anne Boleyn's ambitions to become queen).  I'm not convinced by the Anti-Pamelist narrative myself.  A servant girl simply couldn't realistically imagine becoming a wealthy lady through marriage.  Anne Boleyn was, as far as status went, a semi-acceptable candidate for marriage to Henry VIII if you left out the part where he was already married.  But Pamela's social status is so far below Mr. B.'s that their marriage is unthinkable.  It's even more far-fetched than Mr. Darcy marrying Elizabeth.

I am, however, sympathetic to the parodists.  Henry Fielding wrote two Pamela satires, and I can hardly blame him.  I would like to read them, but right now I'm about Pamela'd out.

I've been glad to participate in o's 18th Century Celebration!  If I can get the time I'd quite like to tackle Tristram Shandy, which I think I would like better (although it would undoubtedly be baffling).  Pamela wasn't on my CC list, but it was a pretty fun read, and Tristram Shandy actually is on my list.  June is too short for all the reading I want to cram into this month.

The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy

I'd vaguely heard of the Old Man in the Corner as one of the early detective classics, but I hadn't realized that the stories were by Baroness Orczy!  So then of course I had to read some, which is easy now that you can download that sort of thing from Google Books or Amazon Kindle for free.  These stories, as with so many others, were originally published in magazines, so the repetition wasn't quite as obvious; it just re-established the characters in the readers' minds.

In each story, the young and modern Lady Journalist meets up with the Old Man as she's trying to eat her lunch in a restaurant.  He then lectures her on a current criminal mystery, and solves the whole thing while he sits there, fidgeting with a bit of string in which he ties complicated knots as he talks.  He also consumes milk and cheesecake.  (Oog.)  The lecture always falls into three parts: he summarizes the case and produces a photo or two of the people involved, he contradicts the young lady's interpretation and analyzes everything, and then finally he comes up with a miraculous answer while she stutters in shock.

Although the mysteries themselves are
interesting enough, the framework is pretty hopeless for a modern reader.  The Old Man is irritating and the action is distanced by the frame.  The Lady Journalist never gets to say anything; she's just a spectator.  If you're interested in the history of mystery stories, you should read it; otherwise; skip it without a qualm.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Darling Buds of May

The Darling Buds of May: the Pop Larkin Chronicles, by H. E. Bates

This is really a collection of three short novels: The Darling Buds of May, A Breath of French Air, and When the Green Woods Laugh.  I don't know if that makes up all the Pop Larkin books or not.  They're set in the English countryside, in the 1950's, and they're pretty much a celebration of all things English, country, and summer.

The Larkins are a large family on a farm, and they have a lot of fun. Upper-class inhibitions and hang-ups are unknown.  Food and drink flow continually.  Pop does deals and makes a lot of money one way and another, and in the first story a tax collector shows up to get him to fill out his tax forms, but the family simply absorbs him.  He stays forever and marries the oldest girl, Mariette.  Then they all spend the summer in France, and finally there is a summer involving a neighboring manor house, a new swimming pool, and a lawsuit.  Pop makes a stir wherever he goes, and Ma is always ready for it.

They're fun stories, and very different from most English literature I've read.  I did feel that the prose could get a bit repetitive (Ma is consistently described as jelly-like), so maybe it would have been better to read the books separately, but since I got it from a library in the next county over, I thought I'd better read it all while I could.

The BBC made a TV series from the books in the early 90's, and I sure would like to see some of the episodes.  Catherine Zeta-Jones played Mariette; it must have been one of her earliest roles.  She does indeed look exactly like Mariette does in my head.  I can't find any clips around the Internet, but I just did a quick little search, so maybe it's out there to be found.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Readathon Wrapup

I think today is really the last day.  I'm pretty sure.  Today I actually got to read quite a bit:

I finished A Red Herring Without Mustard.  Interesting.  Kind of weird.

I read a huge chunk of Pamela, over 75 pages.  I think we had two or three events today!  I am even more annoyed with Mr. B. than ever; besides the part where he was a kidnapper and would-be rapist for the first 200 pages, now that he's a doting husband he doesn't approve of Pamela nursing her own baby, and she has to give up the idea despite her conviction that it's the moral thing to do.  Lovely.  The baby isn't born yet, though, so maybe he'll change his mind.  Ha.

I officially hit the halfway point in In the First Circle.  You'll notice that I'm reading it much more slowly than Pamela, though they are about the same length.  Well, this one is better and deserves more attention.  Although Pamela does not quite allow for skimming, I'm reading a bit quickly.  Solzhenitsyn actually needs over 700 pages for his story, whereas Richardson crams maybe 400 pages of story into over 800.

I read a good chunk of On the Road, too, and am now in the home stretch.  Why anyone puts up with Dean for more than a day or two I do not understand.  I've had some holy goof friends myself, but they were at least pleasant to be around.

This was a fun readathon, I think.  It's a very relaxed one, which is the kind I need!  I did manage to focus more on reading and less on wasting time on the Internet, so that was good for me.  Thanks to Shelf Confessions for hosting!

The Amateur Cracksman

The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung

It's Raffles, the original gentleman thief!  He's witty, urbane, daring, the best cricket-player around, and a master of disguise.  He steals for a living and for fun, and the more challenging the job, the better he likes it.  This first Raffles book contains eight stories, narrated by the faithful sidekick, Bunny.

Hornung published the stories in 1899.  Fun fact: he was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law and the book is dedicated to him.  I'm going to presume that he picked up some ideas from the Sherlock Holmes stories, but these are really quite different--written in a simpler and more humorous style, and generally not as complex
.  Raffles is, in many ways, an inversion of Holmes, though: Raffles is personable and charismatic, for one thing.  He is also fairly rotten to Bunny much of the time; he's manipulative and secretive, and though Bunny complains (and Raffles repents, only to repeat himself), he puts up with quite a lot.

These are mystery stories told from the other side, and they are quite fun.  I don't like Raffles much, but he's entertaining to read about.  He must have been quite a hit; he starred in a film as early as 1905 and there were several movies made about him.  I suspect him of influencing the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Readathon, Day 7

I got much more read for this, the last day of the Wicked Wildfire Readathon hosted by Shelf Confessions (and is today the last day?  It says the 7th -14th, so I think there should be another day, right?):

More than 50 pages of Pamela--something new finally happened, instead of an endless rehash of past events!  And it looks like something else might happen tomorrow!

Quite a good bit of On the Road.  I'm well into the sad part now, as Dean Moriarty gradually disintegrates and Sal feels disillusioned with the world.  He even exhibits some sympathy for Dean's wife, although mostly the women are an alien tribe, united in hostility to the men.

And a large chunk of A Red Herring Without Mustard.  It's sort of interesting?  I don't think I'm going to read another one, but I do want to see how this turns out.

I'd like to spend the rest of the evening on In the First Circle.  When I started it a few weeks ago, I didn't realize that the plot arc about Soviet surveillance of all phone calls would turn out to be so immediately for that book, I'm going to pick a favorite Boris Grebenshikov song, Молодые Львы (or, the Young Lions).  I guess maybe Radio Silence would be more applicable but I really like this one!

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams

This was my Classics Club Spin title for this month.  I've never read any Tennessee Williams, but I've been wanting to for some time.  I got the Library of America volume of Williams plays, 1937-1955, and I figure I'll read The Glass Menagerie too.

Wow, what a play.  I hardly even know what to do with it; it's so different from what I'm used to.  I presume that everyone knows how it goes, but just in case, we have Blanche arriving at her sister Stella's apartment in a poor section of New Orleans.  Blanche works very hard at keeping up an image of a delicate and virtuous Southern lady, fallen on hard times, but it soon becomes obvious that she suffers from alcoholism and mental instability.  Stella has married--far out of her own background--Stanley, an earthy and violently dominating  man.  He is abusive, but their chemistry is the basis for their relationship.  Stella is going to have a baby as well.

Blanche and Stanley don't get along and the friction between them worsens as Stella's pregnancy progresses.  Blanche claims to just be having a little rest from her teaching job, but as Stanley finds out, she has in fact been fired for an affair with a student, and it sounds as though she's been turning tricks on the side.  She is now hoping to marry Stanley's friend Mitch, but Stanley puts a stop to that and tells her to get out.  Their final clash ends in Stella's complete breakdown, and Stanley commits her to a mental hospital as Stella walls off her thoughts in order to stay with Stanley.

It's tragic, and realistic; since most of my drama reading has been older material, I'm not sure I've ever read a tragedy that was something that could also really happen.  So, a whole new genre for me, and a great play. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Readathon, Day 6

Today I read a bit, cooked a lot, and took kids swimming.  The reading part:

I finished The Darling Buds of May, a short novel from the Pop Larkin series.  Post coming soon!

I read a little bit of Pamela, but not as much as I should have done.  I even took it to the pool.

Still reading A Red Herring Without Mustard.  Still iffy about it.

My song selection makes no sense at all.  The Pop Larkin books have lots of summer in them--English summer, with green fields and strawberries and such.  Never have you read of so much English summer.  I have no experience with the English summer; I'm an expert on the California summer, which is a completely different thing.  And when I think of songs that feel like summer, I get very different results than would fit with a Pop Larkin book.  However, I do rather think that Pop would get a kick out of the chaos and fun of the B-52's Rock Lobster, and so that is my song for today.


Time for a little sewing!  I've been continuing work on the project I started last week, and I now have one 18" block that will be the center of the quilt, a whole bunch of dinky little 3" blocks to go around that, and one 6" block for the outer area.  I'm having fun with the hideous colors, and working hard on getting the points just right.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Readathon, Day 5

I really thought today I'd have a bit more time for reading, but I was wrong!  I did get my daughter safely on her way to camp, though, so that was the big thing of the day.  And I picked a whole lot of fruit.  I've got nectarines coming out of my ears here.  I did get to read some:

Some of the third book in a collection of three Pop Larkin novellas called The Darling Buds of May.
I'd already read the other two and was taking a break.

A very few pages of Pamela, which I found again.  Now Mr. B. is telling his side of the events from Volume 1.  Nothing is ever going to happen again, apparently; they are just going to reminisce about the past.

A good bit of On the Road.  Therefore today's song selection is
Depeche Mode's cover of "Route 66," no surprise there.  I'm not actually a fan of this cover, which IMO lasts too long and doesn't have enough variation, but the song itself is good.  I have no idea why there is a neon ghost lady in the video, though.

A little bit more of A Red Herring Without Mustard.  Still not enough to really tell whether I want to keep reading.

It's a good thing I'm trying to read; I think otherwise nothing would get read at all, and that would be sad.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Readathon, Day 4

Today I have hardly gotten to do any reading AT ALL. My daughter is going to camp tomorrow, and so I spent the day doing sudden and unexpected errands. But I got to read:

A little teeny bit of In the First Circle.

A good bit of The Amateur Cracksman, the first book about Raffles, the gentleman thief.  I was about 70% of the way through and I finished it.  I'm sort of horrified by how he treats his sidekick--whose name is, of all things, Bunny.

I can't find Pamela.

A little bit of Slouching Towards Adulthood, a look at the problems of attaining independence in young adulthood in a time when unemployment and debt are both very high.

A few chapters of a Flavia de Luce mystery, Red Herring Without Mustard.  I'm not sure this is going to be my kind of book.

I have no idea what I could pick for a song today, so I didn't.  Tomorrow is another day!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Readathon, Day 3

Today I got to read quite a bit:

Pamela--my usual 50 or so pages.  I think this whole volume is going to be about Pamela settling into married life and getting used to being rich, plus a whole lot of reminders about the action of volume 1.  Practically nothing happens, but every once in a while something does.

In the First Circle, by Solzhenitsyn--I got to read, oh, 60 or 70 pages.  It's a truly great novel, but I'm having to take it slowly.  It is not to be rushed.

Another Nibley essay from Approaching Zion.

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh, by R. L. LaFevers--I read pretty much the whole thing (I started last night).  That was a fun break from all the serious reading I've been doing lately.  It's the 4th book in the series and takes the action to a new level; I thought it was well-done.  Today's music selection belongs to Theodosia, and of course it's the Bangles' Walk Like an Egyptian.  What else could it be if you grew up in the 80s?  Look out for Lady Di and Ghaddafi doing the Egyptian dance:

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Readathon, Day 2

I don't have much to report today; I went to an outdoor wedding in 110 degree weather, that's what I did.  I'm about recovered now.  :)  As for books, I read:

Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, by R. L. LaFevers: finished.  A fun read.

Pamela, by Richardson: finished vol. 1, about 30 pages into volume 2.  I have no idea how he is going to fill nearly 500 more pages. I am halfway through and the story appears to have been over for a while now.

Virgin on the Ridiculous, by Wallace Tripp

Prospero's Mirror, by A. N. Donaldson: just a few pages.

My song for the day is for Pamela: it's Bach's Minuet #2, something she could have played on her spinet.  It's also something my girls are learning to play on their violins.  Here's a link to a one-woman duet I found on YouTube; I don't feel right putting the video right here on my blog, since I didn't ask her permission.  I couldn't find a professional recording, because this is a standard Suzuki piece for beginners and YouTube is flooded with little kids playing it. 

The Prospero's Mirror title made me go looking for the Wallace Tripp illustration of Prospero casting his book into the sea (while a rabbit comments, "Hey Mister, I hope that's not a liberry book"), but I couldn't find it, either on my bookshelf* or online, so you get this.  Pamela doesn't so much verge on the ridiculous as dive right in, so it seems appropriate.

* I have A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, but it must be in Marguerite, Go Wash Your Feet, which belongs to my mom.  I can never remember what picture is in which book.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wildfire Readathon, Day 1

It seems that people post statistics about what they read.  I am not good at this, but I'll make a stab at it.  Usually it looks something like this:

Friday, June 7th
# of pages:  
Books read: 
Books finished:   
Total # of pages: 

I'm not sure how many pages I read or anything like that, though.

Mr. B finds Pamela Writing, by Joseph Highmore
I've assigned myself 50 pages a day, and today I managed about 65, so go me!  I'm almost done with the first volume, though I have no idea what else Richardson is planning to do with Pamela.  She's going to have to get kidnapped by pirates or something for anything exciting to happen.  He could have stopped here and had a fine novel that was only about twice as long as it needed to be. 

Prospero's Mirror, by A. N. Donaldson

A short novel featuring M. R. James as the narrator, I read about half today, but what that is in pages I could not say; it's a Kindle book.

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams 

 Today I read scenes 4-11 and finished the play.  About 80 pages I guess.  Wow, it was really something.  Stay tuned for a proper post on this, my Spin read and first Williams play. The Shelf Confessions people have challenged us to come up with one song for one book, every day.  So today I did this title and chose Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of "It's Only a Paper Moon."

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac 

I read about 50 pages or so, so far.  I'm now into Part 2, not halfway through yet.  Sal has been on one round trip around the US and is heading out on another one, this time with Dean Moriarty.

Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, by R. L. LaFevers

The third in a fun middle-grade series about Theodosia, who goes around combatting ancient Egyptian black magic in Victorian London.  I read about half.

And, finally, "Gifts," an essay by Hugh Nibley

I'm reading slowly through a book of essays called Approaching Zion.  This was one of them.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wicked Wildfire Readathon

I just heard about this readathon today from Emily at Classics and BeyondMy Shelf Confessions has a yearly readathon in summer.  It's a week long, starting tomorrow, and certainly I need some motivation to tackle my books a bit more!  I have a huge pile of books right now, but have not been reading enough (lots of great sewing though)--instead, there's been too much time spent online.  So, though I have quite a busy week coming up--who doesn't?--I'm going to make an effort to pick up a book rather than puttering around on the Internet.  It's going to be quite hot this weekend, so it would be a good time to sit by a fan and read! 

I've been working my way through Pamela, and aiming for about 50 pages a day.  This is not terribly fast, but I can only take so much of her.  It's very repetitive, every detail is described ad nauseam, and Pamela is so humble and grateful that she makes Esther Summerson from Bleak House look like a Mean Girl.  I am really wondering how Richardson is going to stretch this out for another 500 pages or so...meanwhile, I balance Pamela with On the Road, which I'm enjoying.  The thing that always surprises me (pleasantly) about Jack Kerouac is that he seems to like just about everybody.  Everything is interesting.  On the negative side of the scale, women exist mostly to look pretty and cook a bit.  Everybody complains about C. S. Lewis' sexism, and everybody loves Kerouac, but guess which one was the waaaay more sexist of the two?  I mean, fine, that's what the culture was, I can live with it, but let's not castigate some people and let others off for the same thing.

Ooh, speaking of which, I came across a blog post today.  Hm, I want to quote the entire last paragraph, but I haven't asked for permission (since I only just now thought of it).  So I will just give you the link and tell you to read the last paragraph even if you don't read the whole thing.  It's a pretty specific audience he's speaking to, but that last bit can be usefully read by any serious reader.  This is from George Handley's blog, Home Waters.  Which I have not read except for this one post, but I should; after all we had the same major.

Patterns of Thought

Patterns of Thought: the Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey, by Richard Foster

Story time!  Yesterday I mentioned that I was put into a complicated quilting mood by a quilting book.  It was a book called Bella Bella Quilts, and is all about translating Italian cosmati work into quilt form.  It is my ambition to someday make some of these quilts, but they are pretty high-level stuff.  For the moment I am daydreaming, but I'm going to do it.

Cosmati is a medieval Italian tiling technique that used complex geometric patterns set into white marble.   It's amazing stuff, and especially interesting to quilters.  This photo is taken from the explanation of cosmati at the Westminster Abbey page:

Back in the mid-thirteenth century, King Henry III commissioned a cosmati pavement for the high altar at Westminster Abbey.  He imported Italian workers, but not the white marble; instead, they used local Purbeck marble, which is a greyish limestone.  The Westminster pavement is one of the great medieval artworks of England, and I've had a thing for it ever since I first read about it.  Which is why, when I saw the Bella Bella quilts, I knew I wanted to make one someday.  Here is a photo of the floor:

This is the floor as it looks now, after a two-year conservation and restoration project that was just completed recently.  The book I read dates from 1991, just two years after the carpet that covered the floor was taken up for a few days for the public to view.  It had been invisible for many years, and remained covered even for weddings and coronations.  Until just recently, hardly anyone got a chance to see it.

My parents brought Patterns of Thought back from a trip to England at least 10 years ago.  I've read it three times now because I think the floor is just fascinating, and since I was thinking about quilts I had to read it again. 

Foster provides a detailed history of what is known about the floor--where the materials came from, all that sort of thing, and about restoration efforts in the past.  Once there was an inscription of brass letters inlaid into three of the edges, and that is extensively covered as well.  Finally, he talks about what I think is the most interesting part: the symbolic meaning of the patterns and what they most likely would have meant to the people who first saw them.  It's not just a decorative pavement; it's a picture of the universe, communicated in geometry.

It's a really neat book, and as far as I know is still the best book available on the history of the pavement.  I think it's just fascinating, so I encourage you to read up on it too.  However, it seems to be out of print and really only available easily in the UK.

Someone (but not Dan Brown) could write a whole mystery/thriller novel about secrets passed down through the ages and whatnot, centered on this pavement.  I'd read it, but I'd be pretty mad if it wasn't done really well.

When I first went looking for online resources about the pavement, I only found the general Westminster Abbey page, but just now I found an entire website dedicated to the pavement and its restoration.  So I know what I'll be looking at this evening.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


After my smocking frenzy a couple months ago I took some time off from sewing, but now that school's out, I'm back in a big way.  In the last week, I've finished a quilt top (it was strips before) and started a new project.

Finished quilt top

I've been in the mood to produce something really complicated, with lots of little pieces.  I haven't done much complex piecing in years, as I have spent a lot of time on heirloom smocking and sewing and less on quilting, and the quilts I have made have tended to be the easy-piecing, spectacular-fabric kind.  Now I suddenly have four complicated quilts in my head!  So I went through my stash and planned 3 of them, and picked a Lori Smith pattern to start with.  I've been saving up fabric for years to do an antique-style quilt with repro fabrics, and now I'm finally getting around to it.  It's a medallion pattern, and I've done the central 18" block (the scary part!) and now I'm working on a myriad of little 3" blocks in various patterns to go around it.

Center medallion

Tiny pieces
 This is very different than the kind of quilting I've done lately, and it's very interesting--I've got this pile of fabrics, many of which are quite hideous to my taste, but once you cut them up and put them together, they look neat.  Value is most important, color after that, and an ugly pattern just becomes interesting.  An awful color perks it up or melts into the background.  So this is a really nice exercise for me.

What really put me in the mood for complex piecing was a new quilting book I found last week on my trip, but I'm going to tell about that in my next booky post--tomorrow probably.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A reading update

I've been pretty quiet lately so I thought I'd just post a little update on what's been going on in the Howling Frogiverse.  I've been reading--but mostly really long books that are taking a while, so posts are few.

I took the kids on a trip this week to San Francisco to visit the Exploratorium at its new location on Pier 15, and I tell you what, it is fantastic.  We had a great time, and I was happy because we could take the BART train into the city and walk to the museum; the old location was a pain to get to and you had to drive, and I really hate driving in San Francisco.  I like to take BART and the kids think it's part of the adventure, so we all won there. 

At Pier 15, with the Bay Bridge.

All the traveling made it impossible to read any of the giant books I have going on, though. When I go on a trip, I always have to take a minimum of 3 paper books and a tablet stuffed with ebooks, even if it's just overnight, but the books invariably stay nearly untouched while I snaffle books from whoever I'm staying with.  My brain pretty much shut down this time and hasn't quite switched back on yet, with the result that I have read nothing but cozy British mysteries for nearly a week.

I'll jump back into serious reading this weekend, though, as we start a bunch of June events.  I have already started reading Pamela for o's 18th Century English Literature Event, and so far I'm into it.  Pamela, in it's florid 18th century way, is addressing a real and serious social problem, and though I'm pretty sure I'm going to hate Richardson's fairy-tale solution, I'm interested to see what happens.

I've checked two Beat-esque books out of the library for Adam's Beats of Summer event, I have Streetcar Named Desire for the Spin, and even one or two books that I just feel like reading.  I've been reading In the First Circle--slowly--for a little while now; I guess I'm about a third of the way through.

And I even have a book or two for the Summer Language Freak Challenge, but I'm completely intimidated by them.  For Russian, I can choose between an e-book version of an Alisa story, or a picture book about a crocodile.  Both are about the same level and meant for 6-year-olds, but very scary for me!  And I found a board book of Struwwelpeter in German, which is also too hard, but I might give it a try.  (Hey, does it count as a Narrative Poem??  Ooh, double challenge points!)