Saturday, November 30, 2013

2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Adam at Roof Beam Reader is hosting his traditional TBR Pile Challenge again!  He has more stringent rules than the Mount TBR Challenge, so I like to do both because they are different.  Adam says:

The Goal: To finally read 12 books from your “to be read” pile (within 12 months).

1. Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2013 or later (any book published in the year 2012 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile – I WILL be checking publication dates). Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.
2. To be eligible, you must sign-up with Mr. Linky below – link to your list (so create it ahead of time!) and add updated links to each book’s review. Books must be read and must be reviewed (doesn’t have to be too fancy) in order to count as completed.
3. The link you post in the Mr. Linky below must be to your “master list” (see mine below). This is where you will keep track of your books completed, crossing them out and/or dating them as you go along, and updating the list with the links to each review (so there’s one easy, convenient way to find your list and all your reviews for the challenge). See THIS LINK for an idea of what I mean. Your complete and final list must be posted by January 15th, 2014.
4. Leave comments on this post as you go along, to update us on your status. Come back here if/when you complete this challenge and leave a comment indicating that you CONQUERED YOUR 2014 TBR LIST! Every person who successfully reads his/her 12 books and/or alternates (and who provides a working link to their list, which has links to the review locations) will be entered to win a $50 gift card from or The Book Depository!
5. Crossovers from other challenges are totally acceptable, as long as you have never read the book before and it was published before 2013!
*Note – You can read the books on your list in any order; they do not need to be read in the order you have them listed. As you complete a book – review it, and go back to your original list and turn that title into a link to the review - that will keep the comments section here from getting ridiculously cluttered. For an example of what I mean, Click Here.

Monthly Check-Ins: On the 15th of each month, I’m going to post a “TBR Pile Check-In.” This will allow participants to link-up their reviews from the past month and get some recognition for their progress. There will also be small mini-challenges and giveaways to go along with these posts (Such As: Read 6 books by the June Check-in and be entered to win a book of your choice!). I’m hoping this will help to keep us all on track and make the challenge a bit more engaging/interactive. I started these mini-challenges last year, and I think they were a great success, so I am continuing them this year!

I've picked out some books, and I hope it won't turn out that I've jumped into the deep end of the pool and picked a whole lot of difficult stuff.  Still, not many books could be more tedious than Last of the Mohicans, right? Here is my "complete and final" list for 2014:

  1. Playing With Fire, by the Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar -- I love reading about India, but for some reason I have not yet gotten around to reading this collection of women's stories.  Instead I check different ones out of the library.
  2. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot--I have a lovely Penguin English Classics paperback of this, I just need to open it up.
  3. People Tell Me Things, by David Finkle--I don't really know what this is about.
  4. Still Life, by A. S. Byatt--I bought a lot of Byatt and then failed to read them all.  This is even a signed copy--which I bought used, of course.  (Oh, goody--I just found an article about how much the writer hated Still Life.  Yay.)
  5. History in English Words, by Owen Barfield--I thought this would be a great read--history of English words, by an Inkling no less!--but promptly got bogged down.  I tried to read it as a sporadic bedside book, and that does not work.  So, second try.
  6. Candide, by Voltaire--great trepidation.
  7. Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne--this is the one I wish I'd picked for last summer's 18th century event.
  8. Mirror of Flowers, by Dorothea Eastwood--a British book from the 1950s about wildflowers--names, stories, history.  Why have I never read this?
  9. The Man Born to Be King, by Dorothy Sayers--a cycle of plays based on the New Testament, supposed to be fantastic.  I bet it is.  But there are 12 plays, which is kind of daunting.  One for each month of the year?
  10. Second Treatise on Government, by John Locke--yep, it's all about the political philosophy this year.
  11. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton--traveling around Palestine!
  12. The Green and Burning Tree, by Eleanor Cameron--about reading and writing children's literature.  I love the title, and I quite like Cameron, so I hope the book lives up to my imagination.
And alternate titles:
  1. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding--I hope to have recovered enough from Pamela to read the parody.
  2. Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhar and Notker the Stammerer--another book I've been meaning to read forever.

Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig

In 1913, a young Austrian officer visits a wealthy man's home.  During the evening's entertainment, he accidentally makes a faux pas by asking the host's pretty young daughter to dance, not realizing that she lost the use of her legs in an illness.  His efforts to make up for hurting her feelings draw him further into the family, but he is unequipped to cope with their desperation for healing and the emotional blackmail they exert upon him.  Although he loves them, he cannot fix them, but he also can't refrain from trying.

I really enjoyed this novel, which I took quite slowly--and that was a good thing.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Pink Sari Revolution

The Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India, by Amana Fontanella-Khan

Uttar Pradesh, in the north of India, has long been known as lawless and corrupt.  The thug-run goverment--called the Goonda Raj--operates protection rackets, victimizes ordinary citizens, and has the police in its pockets (which is usual; Indian police are paid almost nothing, and so the only people who enter law enforcement do so with the expectation of making a living from bribery, which as you can imagine efficiently undermines what police are supposed to do). In addition, endemic poverty and lack of education keep everyone down, most especially women.

Sampat Pal is a perfectly ordinary woman in Uttar Pradesh, except that she seems to have been born with an enormous amount of chutzpah.  She has been standing up for herself and others her whole life, and now she has a group of women called the Gulabi Gang--they wear bright pink saris and use group tactics to fight injustice and domestic violence.  If a woman's husband is beating her, he might get a visit from the Gang.  If an innocent person has been arrested because he ran afoul of some goonda, the Gang will show up outside the police station and, with a mixture of publicity and public shaming, get him released.

Amana Fontanella-Khan tells the story of the Gulabi Gang by weaving together Sampat Pal's personal story, the Gang's smaller exploits, and Sampat's investigation of a mystery that becomes an important political event.  A young woman named Sheelu has been arrested, allegedly for stealing thousands of dollars and a rifle from a local goonda's house.  But how could a girl do such a thing without being noticed?  What was she doing there in the first place?  Sheelu's story gets more complicated all the time, and although nothing about it is in any way unusual for Uttar Pradesh, the publicity that Sampat and others bring to it wind up turning it into a media circus that brings down a legislator (well, sort of).

It's a really interesting book.  Fontanella-Khan tries to portray Sampat Pal without writing a hagiography of her, and sheds light on several facets of Indian society.  A pretty good read.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Greatcoat

The cover was the best part.
The Greatcoat, by Helen Dunmore

I'd heard this was a great spooky ghost story, and I got it through ILL.  Although I enjoyed it, I'm not sure it was worth using an ILL on (I only get 12/year from the public library).  I hadn't realized that it is really a novella--it's very short indeed.  And somehow I hadn't realized what the main point of the story was.

Isabel and Philip are newlyweds in 1954, adjusting to married life in a new Yorkshire village.  Philip is working hard at his new position as the village doctor, and is rarely home, while Isabel is having great difficulty adjusting, and hates their tiny rented flat.  It's so cold at night that when she finds an old RAF greatcoat stuffed far back in a cupboard, she uses it as an extra blanket--and then the owner of the coat starts visiting her.  It's not long before she is re-enacting the events of 10 years before and forgetting her own life.

It was all right, but not my favorite ghost story.  I hadn't realized how much it would center on an affair, albeit one prompted by some sort of possession thing.  So: meh.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

I made my daughter read Kim as part of her history this year (which features a whole lot of British Empire material), and once she was done I read it too.  I avoided Kim when I was a teen myself, mostly because it had the world's most boring cover, all yellow and dusty-looking.  (If you come from Bakersfield, a drought-stricken landscape book cover does not look exotic or attractive.)  If I'd known it was about India and spying and lamas, I would have snapped it up--well, maybe, since I also had an aversion to historical fiction.

Kim's father was an Irish soldier, but both mother and father died soon after his birth, and so Kim has grown up on the streets of Lahore, ignorant of his parentage.  He becomes a sort of apprentice and caretaker of a wandering Buddhist monk, a very learned lama--and he also undertakes some secret message-passing on the road.  Once Kim is noticed by a British officer, he is brought into the "Great Game" of espionage and competition with the Russians, but his priority is his relationship with his beloved lama.

It's kind of an odd plot actually, but it works.  Kipling wants to show you what he loved--the land and people of India--so he puts Kim on the road to see as much as possible.  And yes, it's from the perspective of a guy who truly believed in the British Empire.  But most of it is about the wonders of India.

The Arthurian Literature Reading Challenge 2014

The legends and stories of King Arthur and his knights have been popular for over a thousand years, and during that time the stories have changed and developed into a tangle of related tales with wild offshoots all over the place.    Arthur himself may or may not have really existed, but if he did, he wouldn't have been anything like the king in the stories we know now.  Instead, Arthur has served as a figure to which we can pin our ideas about loyalty, love, and duty; the total lack of historical fact lets us embroider as we please and remake him in whatever guise we prefer.

I'd like to spend some time in 2014 reading the old Arthurian material and seeing how it developed over the years into different stories.  I need company, so I hope some of you will join me in an Arthurian reading challenge!

The rules:
  1. Challenge will run from January 1 -- December 31, 2014.
  2. Sign-ups are open until November 30, 2014. 
  3. To sign up, grab the button, write a post, and comment ON THE PAGE.  Include the link to your sign-up post for it to count.   Keep track of your reading and write a wrap-up post when you're done, which you will submit at the end of the year.  I'll follow your blog, and you follow mine, and we can discuss as we read!
  4. Books chosen for this challenge can overlap with other challenges.
  5. Books can be translated into the language of your choice, though if you are game for trying out some Middle English or Old French, go for it!
  6. Arthurian "cousins" count.  If you wish to read up on Tristan and Iseult or Parzival, or go haring off after the Fisher King, feel free. 
  7. It is OK to read something pretty tangential that still deals with the Arthurian tradition, such as Charles Williams' War in Heaven.  If you can make a reasonable case for it, go ahead.  Still, I'd like to keep the main focus on the medieval works.
  8. I have categorized works by date into Old (pre-1800),  Modern (1800-1950), and Recent (1950+).  If you wish to read Recent works, that's fine, but you must read more Old and Modern works than Recent.  No reading all of Mary Stewart (great as she is) and nothing else! Don't worry, quite a few works are short and/or not difficult to read.
  9. Levels will consist of:
Page:  read 2 works, one of which may be Recent.
Squire: read 3 - 4 works.  One may be Recent and one must be Old.
Knight: read 5 - 6 works.  Two may be Recent and one must be Old.
Paladin: read more than 6 works.  Two may be Recent and two must be Old, unless you include a non-fiction work (see Bonus).

Bonus achievement: read a non-fiction work analyzing Arthurian literature.

I cannot write an exhaustive list of Arthurian literature!  Pretty well anything on Wikipedia's list will do.  You will find that some works have rather technical titles to distinguish between the avalanche of near-identical titles (the alliterative Morte Arthure is different than the stanzaic Morte Arthur, and don't forget that extra E!).  Here are some great choices:

The Old category includes--

Culhwch and Olwen
The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth,    .
Roman de Brut, by Wace.  Mostly the same story as Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, but now in verse!
Tristan, by Beroul
Lais of Marie de France (Lanval and Chevrefoil)
Works of Chretien de Troyes -- in English, you can usually find these collected under the title Arthurian Romances
Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach
Brut, by Laȝamon.  Reworking of Geoffrey, but in English.
The Black Book of Carmarthen
Alliterative Morte Arthure 
The Quest for the Holy Grail or any other book in the Lancelot-Grail/Vulgate Cycle
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the Pearl poet (Tolkien did a wonderful translation of this poem)
Tales from the Mabinogion
Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (it's not too hard to read this in the original!)
The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser

In the Modern category, you might like--

Idylls of the King or "The Lady of Shallott" by Tennyson
The Boy's King Arthur by Sidney Lanier (illustrations by N. C. Wyeth!)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain
The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, by Howard Pyle, plus three other volumes
King Arthur, by Andrew Lang (author of the Blue Fairy Book, etc.)
War in Heaven or poetry by Charles Williams
The Once and Future King, by T. H. White (or just The Sword in the Stone)
The Fall of Arthur, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Recent works include--

Storybooks by Roger Lancelyn Green, John Steinbeck, and Rosemary Sutcliff
The Merlin series by Mary Stewart
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
...and uncounted numbers more!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Airbrushed Nation

I think it's supposed to be creepy?
Airbrushed Nation: the Lure and Loathing of Women's Magazines, by Jennifer Nelson

This has been my car book for a little while now--the book that lives in the car and keeps me occupied at odd moments of waiting for something.  It's perfect as a car book, because although it's supposed to be analytical, it's also written a whole lot like a magazine, with short sections and a whole lot of those annoying little pull-out boxes with quotations inside.

Jennifer Nelson has a lot of experience in the world of women's magazines, and here she takes them apart for us to inspect.  She has lots of very interesting information about issues like:
  • how the advertising is arranged, with a particular product placed right next to an article about the same thing
  • how every single image is heavily altered (images are "aspirational," not realistic)
  • why celebrities are now on every cover, every month, and how that's managed
  • how fashion is advertised
  • how a very narrow range of 'normal' is reinforced through every image, profile, and sort-of made-up quotation
  • how magazines play on your fears to sell more copies
...and all that sort of thing.  It's all very interesting, even though I don't actually read women's magazines, precisely because of some of the things she talks about.

Pretty much nothing in this book made me want to change my mind and start reading Redbook or Glamour. 

Long-Awaited Reads Month 2014

I missed this event last year, but I think I need to join up for January 2014!  Ana at Things Mean a Lot explains:

Some of you might remember that last January, Iris and I hosted a blogging event called Long-Awaited Reads Month. We originally came up with it as a plan to cope with the January blues, but because these things are more fun when shared, we decided to open it to the whole of the Internet. Long-Awaited Reads Month 2013 was a huge success — I spent it devouring Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series and finishing Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, and the result was the most satisfying reading month I’ve had all year — so we’re bringing it back in 2014.
As we explained last year, the rules are very simple and the event is meant to be completely relaxed. Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Read books you’ve been excited to read for a long time but never seem to get to in January. You can do this exclusively for the whole month (my approach), you can do it for just one week, or you can simply try to get to one or two of these books in January. Your level of commitment is entirely up to you!

  2. At the beginning of January, Iris and I will post something signalling the official start of Long-Awaited Reads month. If you’re taking part, you can come back to these posts and leave us a link to a LAR-related review; you’ll then be entered in a giveaway for a book you’ve always wanted to read that is up to $15/€11/£10 on BookDepository (open worldwide).

  3. If you want to talk about the event on Twitter, the hashtag is #LARMonth.

  4. Have fun!
Simple, right?

Yes, quite simple!  Posting a reading list is completely optional, but here are some books in my pile that I would like to get to:

Maidenhair, by Mikhail Shishkin -- A fairly recent Russian novel that has been making something of a splash.  Supposed to be on the complex side.

 The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- I read Half of a Yellow Sun a while back and thought it was great, and picked up this book of short stories sometime fairly recently (almost certainly during the drive to keep our used bookstore open).

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol -- It's been on the pile long enough that I'm starting to dread it just because I haven't read it yet.

In the Steps of the Master, by H. V. Morton -- I love his books, and this one is all about Palestine, which he explored in 1934.  Come to think of it, I ought to read it now as a follow-up to Bible and Sword...

The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer -- I got it right away when it was published but haven't read it yet, which makes me sad.

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2014

Joining Bev's Mount TBR Challenge is a tradition by now, so I'll be joining up again for next year.  Bev says:

Challenge Levels: 
Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.  All books counted for lower mountains may carry over towards the new peak.

*Challenge runs from January 1 to December 31, 2014.

*You may sign up anytime from now until November 30th, 2014.

*Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2014. No ARCs (none), no library books. No rereads. [To clarify--based on a question raised last year--the intention is to reduce the stack of books that you have bought for yourself or received as presents {birthday, Christmas, "just because," etc.}. Audiobooks and E-books may count if they are yours and they are one of your primary sources of backlogged books.]
*You may count any "currently reading" book that you begin prior to January 1--provided that you had 50% or more of the book left to finish in 2014.  I will trust you all on that.

*Books may be used to count for other challenges as well.

*Feel free to submit your list in advance (as incentive to really get those books taken care of) or to tally them as you climb.

*There will be quarterly check-ins and prize drawings! 

Well, my TBR mountain isn't quite as high as Bev's.  This year I chose to read 24 books and I think I'm just barely going to squeak through, but I think I'll go for the Mount Blanc level again and try to match myself with 24 books.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vintage Science Fiction Month

I found a new annual event to love!  Check out the annual Vintage Science Fiction Not-A-Challenge, hosted by Redhead at The Little Red Reviewer, which is a January event and also has an awesome fantastic button.  I'd be tempted to sign up just to get that badge!  Redhead says:

It’s almost December. you know what that means? that means it’s almost January.  And we all know what that means!  January means the return of Vintage Science Fiction month!

Shiny new stuff is well, shiny and new, and we all love it.   But what came before it?  Your favorite author happened to mention they were inspired by the writing of Jack Vance or H.P. Lovecraft or Andre Norton or James Blish? Aren’t you curious about how your favorite authors put their own spin on the dying earth and chthonic horrors?  To get a little philosophical, by knowing where I came from, I can better see where I stand, and better see where we’ve yet to go.  This January, let’s find out.

As in past years, I’ve arbitrarily decided 1979 is the magic year for determining if something is vintage or not, and as in past years I’ll ask that anyone participating link up their review in the Vintage Science Fiction tab at the top of the page.  This January, blog about a book or a comic book or a movie or a radio show or an author from before 1979 and let me know about it so I can come visit your blog. It’s that easy. Feel free to grab the red spaceship image above, and use it as a badge-y thing.

I'll be happy to read a little Simak or Bester or Philip K. Dick in January.  (I'm pretty sure I've got a Blish collection of Star Trek stories, even, remember those?) We've got quite a bit of good stuff around here.

The Pre-Printing Press Challenge

Elena Gwynne at All Booked Up has got a challenge for the likes of me!  She is hosting a Pre-Printing Press Challenge for 2014.  Elena says:

I've seen a lot of challenges for reading romances, fiction, award winning books and many more. Challenges on various themes (King Arthur etc.) and challenges to fit certain criteria, such as the What's In A Name Challenge.
What I haven't seen is a challenge for reading books that pre-date the Printing Press. There's so many good pieces of writing that fit in this category (and I'm not asking you to read them in the original language unless you want to). So, for my first reading challenge, the pre-printing press challenge, I'm asking people to give these ancient and medieval books a try.

I started running this challenge back in 2009 and ran it again in 2010. Since then, I haven't run it, but I'm going to give it another try this year.

The rules of the Pre-Printing Press Challenge:

  1. All books must have come out before 1440, when the printing press was first invented.
  2. Books chosen for this challenge can overlap with other challenges.
  3. Books can be translated into the language of your choice.
  4. All the books you've chosen must be read by December 31, 2014.
  5. You can read 1-3 books, 4-6 books, 7-9 books or 10 or more books if you're feeling particularly ambitious.
  6. The choice of books is up to you. There are no set reading lists, and you don't have to set one when you join.
  7. Post your blog address where you'll be posting your comments on your choice of books in the comments of this post when you join, and tell me how many books you've chosen. I'll set up a link to participating blogs from here.
  8. Above all, Have fun.
The challenge starts December 1st. 

Well this sounds like lots of fun!  I think I'll focus mostly on medieval texts, but I have a couple of ancient ones in mind too.  If I get really ambitious I'll try to read my beautiful, untouched Landmark Thucydides.  I had to read Thucydides once in college and probably didn't understand a word (reading the entire Peloponnesian War in a week is not conducive to understanding).  So I am signing up for 10 books.  I don't think I'll get started until the New Year.  Still, you never know.

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

I finished the readalong!  Wow, this was a much better book than I had expected.  I'm not that big a fan of the Three Musketeers, you see, and I really had very little idea of the plot.

So, as everyone else in the world besides me knows, Edmond Dantés is a young man with everything to look forward to.  He is an excellent sailor with a good career ahead of him and he's about to marry his true love.  But!  Edmond is betrayed and framed by three envious rivals.  Arrested at his own betrothal feast, he is thrown into the dreaded Chateau D'If without trial or sentence.  During his long years of imprisonment, he meets an old priest who teaches him and tells him about a fabulous treasure hidden on the uninhabited rocky island of Monte Cristo.  Edmond becomes determined to escape, find the treasure, and exact his revenge on the people who ruined his life.

Wow, this is an exciting book.  It's all over the place with plotting, secret identities, duels, revenge, true love...I sound like the grandfather in The Princess Bride, but you know what, I think Princess Bride lifted a few plot elements from Dumas.  Every so often something would happen and I'd hear a line of dialogue in my head.  I was going to quote one, but it was a spoiler, so never mind.

And wow, lots of plotting and scheming and secret planning.  

So this was a great adventure and suspense story!  It's pretty much completely insane, too.   The craziest things happen.   Great stuff, hard to put down.  I'm very glad I decided to participate in the readalong.  I wound up finishing it early, because while I meant to stick to my ration of daily chapters, it was just so easy to read a couple more...

Monday, November 18, 2013

And the Spin Number is...

10!  I will therefore be reading Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, which is a happy thing--it's been waiting for me for a while and I need a kick to start, but I actually do want to read it. 

If you've never given the Spin a try, I hope you will next time.  It's a fun way to pick your next book.

Piles of reading got you down?  Try the SPIN to wake you up!

Bible and Sword

Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, by Barbara Tuchman

I've been meaning to read this book for years.  I should have read it long ago; it's really good.  It's also not very easy to find in libraries and used bookstores in my experience, so good luck.  You can buy it new, though.

This is Barbara Tuchman's first published history book (I'm pretty sure), published in 1957--only about 10 years after Israel was established as a country, and she really doesn't try to go there.  She sticks to the Balfour declaration (the UK's 1917 statement of support for turning Palestine into a state for the Jewish people) and how it happened.  If you look at it without knowing any history, it seems a pretty stunning idea, so how on earth did that happen?

Tuchman's answer starts far back in time, with the Roman Empire and Joseph of Arimathea, and continues through the establishment of Christianity in Britain, the Crusades, and lots more empire-building and politicking and persecution of Jews.  There is some amazing (and, of course, horrifying) history here, and Tuchman provides great insights.  She is also good at wry and pointed commentary.

All in all, this is good stuff.  I recommend it.  Even the boring, complicated political sections are really pretty interesting.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Fall of Arthur

The Fall of Arthur, by J. R. R. Tolkien

(Question for you at the end, so be sure to read it!)

J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have had a penchant for unfinished projects, and this is one of them, newly edited and annotated by the untiring pen of Christopher Tolkien.  Looking at the number of amazing unfinished stories and poems he wrote, I think we should all be grateful to C. S. Lewis for pressuring him to finish the Lord of the Rings.

This  is an incredible thing--Tolkien was writing the story of King Arthur's doom, the final tale of Mordred's treachery and the battle at Camlann--and he was doing it in the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form that Beowulf was written in,, only of course in (somewhat) modern English.  I'm sure he could have written it IN Old English, but luckily he didn't go quite that far.  The whole thing  really does read (to my untrained eye) about as much like the real thing as modern English can be.  It's got all the atmosphere and flavor.  It's pretty stunning really.

There are five cantos.  In I,  Arthur and Gawain to go war in Europe, and then start home when they hear of Mordred's treachery.  The second canto has Mordred preparing for war and pressuring Guinever to marry him, but she escapes.   Canto III is rather long and tells Lancelot's story.  IV and V show Arthur's return and preparations for war.   Tolkien's choices of the details of the Arthur legend to use are very interesting--his portrayal of Guinever's character, for example, and other elements of the story.

Christopher Tolkien adds some essays to the poem: one about the story of Arthur and how various writers treated it, another about the many notes on the poem Tolkien left behind and how it connects to other poetry he wrote. I will confess to skimming these--the Arthurian information was familiar and I'm not enough of a Tolkien devotee to want to know every detail--but they are there for those who do want them.

If  you are a Tolkien fan, or have an interest in Arthurian legend, I think this is a must-read.  It's very short--disappointingly so--so it's not difficult, though close attention  is necessary.

Reading the poem made me want to re-read some of the other Arthurian material I have around the house, which is actually something I keep thinking about and yet not getting to.  In college, I audited a  medieval literature course that mostly focused on these stories  (it was taught by my favorite professor!), and I really enjoyed it.   Anyway, I was sort of thinking that maybe if I did a reading challenge, it would serve as motivation for me and maybe be fun for other people too.  So, I'm taking a poll: is anyone interested in an Arthurian literature reading challenge?  I would make it pretty small and laidback, but I would want the main focus to be on the old stories, Malory or Chretien de Troyes and so on.  I would allow for modern retellings, too, but they would be limited.  Please tell me what you think!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Rosemary Tree

The Rosemary Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge

I have all these books I want to post about, and really there are a couple of others that should come first, but I want to return Rosemary Tree to the library today, since it's an ILL.  So here we go.

Some time ago, some blogger (who it was I no longer know) put The Rosemary Tree on a list of her own personal life-changing books.  I really like Elizabeth Goudge a lot, and I had not heard of this title, so I put it on my wishlist and eventually got around to ILLing it.  It reminds me very much of the Eliot chronicles, being a story with a lot of different people, all connected.

We have John and Daphne, a married couple who need to connect better, their three daughters (each with her own story), the girls' school teachers, Daphne's former fiance (fresh out of prison), a great-aunt who lives on a small estate, and John's old nanny.  All of their stories intertwine to produce a really lovely novel about second chances that uplifts but is never sticky or saccharine.  I don't know that anyone could write novels like this anymore.

Someday when I'm rich, I will collect Elizabeth Goudge books.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

My mom gave this to me a while ago, I think.  It was very popular for a while a year or two ago but I haven't seen it mentioned lately.  As usual, I am far behind the times and only now catching up.

Major Pettigrew is the last of a dying breed--the old-fashioned English army man.  As a child, he lived in Lahore before Partition.  He is a great believer in duty, honor, and restraint, and his love for his small corner of the English countryside is unbounded (but quiet).  But now...his brother has died unexpectedly, his son is distressingly shallow and distant, and even his village is threatened with development.  Major Pettigrew's growing friendship with Mrs. Ali, the widow who runs the corner shop, is the focus and comfort of his life, but absolutely no one approves.

It's nice to see a novel that features a romance between older people (as happens in real life all the time, not so much in books).  Mrs. Ali is my favorite person in the book.  Major Pettigrew is interesting because he starts the story feeling completely justified in all of his opinions, but has to uncover flaws in himself that he didn't realize were there and learn empathy for other flawed people too.  The reader goes on this journey with him, so you don't see him all at once.

On the whole, a pretty good read.  Very English-countryside, but not cozy--more new-reality.

It did have some moments that set off one--well, two related ones--of my pet irritations.  First, naturally they all despise tourists and trippers as a matter of course.  Everyone knows that trippers are the bane of all the nice unspoiled corners of the world, right?  Here you want to enjoy the forest or the beach and it's full of other people who want to enjoy it too, how irritating.  And they have children, who are noisy.  Heaven forbid that people should want to visit places and enjoy some nature, maybe even have their children learn about nature so they can grow up and be marine biologists.  If no one visits and appreciates places like that, they won't care about preserving them, will they?  I really kind of resent it when people talk about tourists as if they were a curse upon the land.  I like to travel.  I want to see other places.  That pretty much makes me a (wishful at this time) tourist.  Why should anyone despise me because I want to see and appreciate other places?  Of course, only other people count as tourists--people who don't like tourists are some other sort of traveler.

Second, the development awfulness.  I do quite understand that people living in a lovely little village do not necessarily want tract homes and apartments going up and the place expanding.  I myself am not thrilled to see almond orchards cut down in favor of apartment buildings (and I do think that pretty backwards; we have some of the best soil in the world, so we build apartments on it, while the near-barren land a few miles south is empty.  I should think we would want to use the good soil to grow food on and the other to build on.).  However.  People do have to live somewhere.  If no houses are allowed to be built anywhere, where are they supposed to live?  An awful lot of the time this phenomenon seems to cover up a tremendous dislike of, and snobbery about, people who are not as well-off as the people already there, or who are more well-off, or in fact just people who don't already belong to the tribe.  (Major Pettigrew actually puts kind of a hilarious spin on the development issue, so don't take this as disliking the book--it just brings it up for me.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Another Classics Club Fun Thing

As long as we're talking about the Classics Club, check out their project for next year: Twelve Months of Classic Literature 2014.  Each month will have a theme, and members are encouraged to write articles as well as read books:  

This is a reading OR writing project. If you lack time to read about a topic for a month but would like to write about it (whether you’re an expert or not) that’s certainly encouraged. Research-based posts, free-writing, emotion-based “I love this topic” journal entries, lists – all are welcome and encouraged. Some of you may be experts (or experts in progress) on some of the selected topics. Your input is highly encouraged and appreciated! Others are new to literature. For you and the experts, exploration is encouraged.

  • January: William Shakespeare (or his contemporaries. Elizabethan England, etc)
  • February: Harlem Renaissance / African-American Literature.
  • MarchFeminist Literature / Persophone / Virago Literature 
  • April: Transcendentalist literature (or its inspirations/influence in literature)
  • May: Postcolonial Literature / World Literature.
  • JuneWorld War One and/or The Lost Generation. Modernist literature.
  • July: Post-Modernist literature.
  • AugustThe Enlightenment Thinkers 
  • September: Romantic Literature
  • October: LGBT literature
  • NovemberVictorian Literature
  • December: Freebie Month – Clearly we couldn’t cover everything in the prior eleven months. What wasn’t touched upon above that you want to explore/highlight/expand upon? Pick an author, movement or category within literature that means something to you and write or read about it to finish out the year.  

I don't see myself participating in every single month's theme, but I certainly hope to do as many as possible!  Doesn't it look fun?

Classics Club Spin #4

It's time for another Classics Club Spin!  The rules are just the same as the prior 3 times, so I won't repeat them again; if you're new to the Spin then you should go look and join the club.  (You will be assimilated.  Resistance to reading classic literature is useless.)

Five books that are really kind of scary to contemplate.

1  Confucius, China, 551-479 BCE. The Analects.
2  Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy.
3  Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
4  Thomas Mann, Germany, 1924. The Magic Mountain
5  Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Four that...(think up something random)....oh, start with a vowel.

6  Anton Chekhov, Russia, 1898. Uncle Vanya
7  VS Naipul, Trinidad, 1979. A Bend in the River
8  “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder
9  Carl Sandburg, 1940, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years 

Five books that I can't wait to read!

10  Thomas Hardy, England, Far From the Madding Crowd
11  Isak Dinesen, Winter's Tales. (appropriate to the season, right?)
12  Nikolai Gogol, Russia, 1842. Dead Souls
13  Junichio Tanizaki, Japan, 1943. The Makioka Sisters
14  Rudolofo Anaya, Bless Me Ultima  

Five, no six neutrals, because there were only four titles starting with vowels left. 

15  Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country.
16  Baldwin, James, 1953,  Go Tell It On the Mountain.
17  Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews.  
18  George Eliot, 1860, The Mill on the Floss. 
19  The Little Flowers of St. Francis
20  Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. 

 I hope I don't get anything TOO heavy this time; with chocolating time and Christmas looming, I'll be lucky to get much reading in--and my TBR pile is still not finished!  I also had to make a bit of an effort to put books on the list that (I hope) would not be too hard to get, since the imminence of Christmas break might make ILLs harder than they are during the semester.

Holy Disorders

Holy Disorders, by Edmund Crispin

This is the second Gervase Fen mystery, and it is really pretty good.  It is very funny, and also, at the same time, a solid mystery with some icky things going on.

Geoffrey Vintner, an organist and composer, is summoned (by Fen) to the tiny country village of Tolnbridge to substitute for the organist, who has been attacked.   He is warned to be careful, but who would try to assassinate a substitute church organist?  Several people, as it turns out, and Geoffrey is forced to realize that there must be a well-organized group of criminals after him.

At Tolnbridge, more than one person connected with the church has been murdered.  Black magic is in evidence, but so is espionage.  Geoffrey and Gervase Fen have a bewildering mystery to untangle--inbetween Fen's insect-collecting excursions.

A lot of the good stuff here is in the funny style.  For example, Geoffrey is attacked in a sporting goods shop and a melee ensues, featuring footballs and rollerskates:
This pink young man, recovering his balance, smote the Enemy with a cricket-stump.  The Enemy subsided, and the pink young man banged inexpertly at his head with a hockey-stick until he became silent.  Geoffrey at last succeeded in getting out his revolver, to the accompaniment of an ominous tearing of cloth, and waved it wildly about him.
Give it a try!

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Doll

The Doll, by Bolesław Prus

A few months ago I decided to make The Doll my main October read.  I've been looking forward to it for a while, and it did not disappoint.  Now that it's been nearly two weeks since I read it, I hope I can still say some good things!

Bolesław Prus (IRL Aleksander Głowacki) 1847-1912, was a Polish journalist and novelist.  From what I can tell, he is still one of the great 19th century Polish names, and The Doll is widely read.  There is actually very little about a doll in the novel; Prus would have liked to call it Three Generations to highlight the main theme.  Instead, this is a story of Polish society.  

Stuck between decadent, useless aristocrats who waste money, and a huge population of hard-working people who are live so close to the edge that minor disasters are enough to ruin lives, Poland cannot seem to progress.  The three men of the story (well two mainly, plus a minor one) are of three generations. All are idealists, but against the background of a degenerating society, nothing they do has any staying power.  Prus is not an optimist about the future of Poland.

The oldest, Rzecki, is a humble shop assistant and former soldier--an ardent Bonapartist who awaits the day when the young Napoleon IV will take control and fix everything.  He is such a nice person--and comic-- but nothing that he predicts ever comes to pass.   

Wolkulski is the main focus of the novel.  He is of common stock, but his romantic love of a young society beauty has spurred him to make an enormous fortune.  Now he is the pre-eminent business man of Warsaw, and the aristocrats invite him to dinner, but of course they do not accept him as one of themselves.  Wolkulski is a great believer in practical economic help for his country; he helps many poor people to get started in business or good jobs, but he is always looking for something different than what he has.  His adoration of Izabela changes him deeply.

Ochocki is the youngest, and doesn't appear as much.  He is semi-aristocratic, but has no interest in high society; he cares only for scientific progress.  He is certain that his inventions can change the world for the better.

The Doll has a large cast of people from all walks of life, and they're all interesting to read about, each with their own life story.  Some are awful; some serve as comic relief.  Others point out problems on the horizon; as the novel progresses, so does anti-Semitism in Polish society become more prominent and threatening.  I also thought it was really interesting to see a novel in which one main character is an elderly man, and the other is middle-aged.  I don't recall reading a lot of stories like that.

I really found this to be a fascinating novel.  Good stuff.  If you are looking for classic European literature, this should go on the list.  Prus' other most famous novel is called Pharaoh, and while it's a historical novel about ancient Egypt, it's also all about modern politics.  I would quite like to read it some day.

Dwight at A Common Reader read The Doll last year, and wrote a whole series of great posts on it.  Head over there for some nice analysis.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Classics Club November Meme

This month's Classics Club question says:
A meme rewind: Pick a classic someone else in the club has read from our big review list. Link to their review and offer a quote from their post describing their reaction to the book. What about their post makes you excited to read that classic in particular?
I went looking for reviews for books that I am kind of putting off reading.  You know how when something has been on your pile long enough, it starts to look unappealing just for having sat there too long.   I settled on Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, which I have successfully been avoiding for about 18 months now, and found that Helen of She Reads Novels has written up an excellent review (that avoids spoilers!).  Helen really did rekindle my interest in this book, and her last paragraph was even funny--quite a feat when discussing Hardy:
Of all the Hardy novels that I’ve read, with the possible exception of Under the Greenwood Tree, this is the most pastoral, with lots of beautiful descriptions of the countryside and lots of information on farming and agriculture. I should now be able to shear sheep, hive bees, forecast the weather by watching the movements of slugs and toads, and deal with a fire in a hayrick! (Well, maybe not.)
 Thank you, Helen!

PS: I have several good books waiting for me to write up posts for you.  Sorry about the radio silence when I've got great Polish literature to discuss, but my niece had a birthday party and all...

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Sail to the Past Reading Challenge

I am surveying the possible challenges for next year, and for the most part I am undecided so far, but when I saw Fanda's history challenge I knew I would have to join right away.  Also, I love the image!  And it even matches my blog design.  So here it is, my signup post.  Fanda says:

**What books to pick?**

1. Pick one or more History books written by historian(s)—must be pure non-fiction; historical fiction is not allowed.
2. It has to be a work through investigation and researches, and not only collecting and listing historical data.
3. Biography is permitted, but not Autobiography, as I think autobiography lacks the objectivity of a history.
4. I’m not an expert in this area (history), so you are more than welcome to correct or add something if I’m wrong.
5. Frankly speaking, I don’t read many histories yet (and that’s why I’m creating this challenge), so I might not be the right person to consult with, about whether this or that is a pure history or not. For reference, you can consult these lists:
100 Best History Books
Goodreads’ Best History Books

Note: The 100 Best History Books is more reliable than Goodreads list, as Goodreads created the list from people’s labels, and it is proved sometimes not accurate. So, be careful before picking a book, you better check the synopsis first or even better…google it! :)

**Challenge level**
I have set several levels to challenge ourselves along the year:

Student : read 1 to 3 books
Scholar : read 4 to 6 books
Historian : read 7 or more books

**How to join?**
1. To join in, you must have either blog/Facebook/Goodreads where you can post your thoughts.
2. Pick one of the level suits you, and post about this challenge in your blog, or just comment in this post. You can mention books you’d like to read too—but no obligation (I’m only curious!). Of course, you might change the level or the books later on along the event.
3. Register through the linky below (you might put the link to your challenge post or just your blog/FB/Goodreads URL).
4. Place the challenge banner somewhere on your blog, linking to this post, in case others want to participate too.

**Optional analysis – more challenge!**
After reading and reviewing, you might want to add more challenge to your history reading. As I am working on WEM project, I picked these analysis questions from the project that would be interesting to work on. Go to the analysis questions

Of course you can choose to work on all of it, or parts of it, or none at all. It’s optional, anyway. But….your efforts would well rewarded, as in the end of the challenge, every analysis post would be included in….


I will provide a master post with a linky, where you can put all your posts (review and/or analysis). At the end of the challenge I will pick randomly 2 (two) winners (one from review posts and one from analysis posts) to win: history book(s) of your choice max. $15 from The Book Depository.

Fanda has also included some great analysis questions, so head over there to check them out and sign up.

I have lots of great history books that I want to read, so I'm going to get ambitious and sign up for the Historian level of 7 or more books.  Here are my tentative picks (unless I read one of them before the new year starts, then I'll have to pick another!):

  1. The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer (brand new, looking forward to reading it!)
  2. Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese
  3. Revolutionary Mothers, by Carol Berkin
  4. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman (for the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI)
  5. Affairs of Honor, by Joanne Freeman
  6. Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets 
  7. The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer (this is a necessity, to prep for my 13yo's history course next year!)

 There are many others I would like to read, but these are my current picks.  I'm excited; thanks Fanda!

Thursday, November 7, 2013


The much nicer UK cover
Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell

I read a review of this by Hanna at Booking in Heels the other day and thought it sounded interesting, so I put it on hold at the library.  And I did enjoy it quite a bit--it's a fun, cute read (not too cute), and a romance, but not sloshy or overly steamy.  About the level of romance that I like, in fact.

The premise is a tricky one.  It's 1999, and Lincoln gets a job at a newspaper that is finally letting all employees have email and Internet access.  It's Lincoln's job to monitor the emails and enforce rules about off-color jokes, gambling, and too much personal email.  Meanwhile, the other half of the novel is epistolary;  Jennifer and Beth are employees who email each other a lot with everyday chat about their lives, and it gets flagged for checking.  As Lincoln reviews their correspondence, he develops a crush on one of the women.  He knows perfectly well that it is creepy to read the email of someone you have a crush on, but how to stop when it's kind of his job, and he doesn't want to?

The completely skeevy premise works!  For one thing, a novel is not real life (pro tip: don't do this IRL).  Even more, Rowell does a great job giving us a character who is a truly good person and conflicted about what he's doing.  You can't not love Lincoln, and the same goes for the girl he falls for before he ever sees her.

What Lincoln really reminds me of is that show that was on for a while--Chuck.  If you didn't see it, Chuck is this really nice, smart, good guy whose life was derailed in college, and it takes him years to really get himself back together, but you root for him the whole time because he's just such a good person. 

I really enjoyed it.  A sweet, not-too-fluffy novel that I couldn't put down, and a nice break.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon

I never would have thought of myself as someone who liked any modern literature at all, if not for the Modern American Novel class I took (under duress, because the class I wanted was full and I needed one of them to graduate) in my senior year in college.  And somewhat to my surprise, I really liked some of the books we read.  The Crying of Lot 49 was hands-down my favorite.  Recently on a Classics Club discussion, someone commented that they had read it and not liked it one bit, which made me want to read it again to see how I liked it this time.

Oedipa Maas is surprised to find that she has been named executor of the will of a former boyfriend.  Pierce Inveriarty was a real-estate gazillionaire, and he's left her in charge.  As Oedipa tries to make sense of Inveriarty's estate, she starts to notice hints and clues of a strange underground conspiracy, a shadow postal service that descends from a secret rival of the Thurn und Taxis postal monopoly of the Holy Roman Empire.  Its symbol, a muted post horn, starts showing up everywhere; stamps that are almost-but-not-quite perfect copies of regular US postal stamps turn up.  As Oedipa follows the clues Inveriarty may or may not have left for her, people disappear--yet, she wonders if she's just paranoid or making the whole thing up.  Or maybe Pierce made it up to torment her?

I still think this is a great short novel.  It's weird, it has strange layers, and it's funny.  Nearly everyone and everything have odd punning names that (sometimes) carry meaning.  Plus I like postage stamps a lot, and I love the idea of an underground secret postal system.  Even the mention of Thurn und Taxis makes me happy.  Lots of other people like it too, and you'll find names and symbols pop up every so often--Yoyodyne Industries, for example, has featured as a mega-corporation in media (in Buckaroo Banzai, for one), and the muted post horn shows up as graffiti.

I like this book so much that it makes me want to try other Pynchon titles, but I am hesitant: the other books all seem to be very long indeed, and Pynchon himself has apparently expressed some disdain for Lot 49, which makes me think his other books might be quite different and maybe not as much to my taste.  Is anyone out there a big Pynchon fan who can advise me on what to try and why I should?

Monday, November 4, 2013

In Genuine Cowgirl Fashion

In Genuine Cowgirl Fashion: The Life and Ride of "Two-Gun" Nan Aspinwall, by Mary Higginbotham

This must be one of my more obscure titles, and probably needs an explanation.  "Two-Gun Nan" was a cowgirl in Western-style shows from about 1905-1929--like Annie Oakley, but later on.  She would do fancy riding and lariat tricks, and of course lots of trick shooting.  My grandmother used to have a framed show poster hanging in her house, because Nan was a cousin of some kind to her stepfather.  Nan Aspinwall is practically unknown now, but she was quite a celebrity in her day, especially because of a publicity stunt--

In 1910, Nan rode by herself on horseback from San Francisco to New York City.  She was the first woman to make the trip on her own.  I have a copy of a newspaper story about it from a San Francisco paper somewhere around here, and I've been kind of interested in her for a long time.

I was quite surprised, though, when I came across this book on Amazon.  Nan does not appear in most histories of the West; she disappeared from public view and was forgotten, but somebody tracked her down and wrote up a biography for an MA thesis.  Thanks, Mary Higginbotham, wherever you are!

This very short biography (there isn't all that much information!) reads like the academic thesis that it is.  There are chapters about women in the West and how 'cowgirls' changed popular ideas about what women could do.  I was mostly interested in the biographical details, though.  Nan started off playing two roles in shows: "The Montana Girl," doing trick riding, and "Princess Omene," a family-friendly Oriental dancer.  There is a nice description of Nan's long ride, and a good deal about her career after that; she and her husband, Frank Gable, eventually owned their own traveling Western show.  And what happened to her after Frank's death?  She retired from show business and lived a long and quiet life, occasionally surfacing to talk about her experiences.

There was one problem, though; about a third of the footnotes got left out.  I went to go look up a source and it wasn't there!  

This biography is published as part of an equestrian travel series--if you want to read about long trips on horseback, these are your people!  There is a long list of titles in the back and several of them sound really interesting. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Books I Was Scared Of

One year ago, the Classics Club meme asked what books I was most scared of.  I posted this photo, and talked about how I am nervous of huge long books, especially French ones, and also Russian.  And Thomas Hardy.

To my surprise, when I saw this photo again the other day, I realized that I have read--or am reading, in the case of Monte Cristo--every book on that pile this year, except Far From the Madding Crowd (the shortest!)--I'll have to try to read that by Christmas so I can tell myself I accomplished something.

So I am feeling pretty good!