Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Rose Rent

The Rose Rent, by Ellis Peters

It's been a while since I read a Brother Cadfael mystery, and it was about time.  And I found one I'd never read before!  The Rose Rent is about a wealthy widow who has given her house to the abbey because she couldn't live where she had been so happy and lost her husband and child-to-be.  In a gesture worthy of a chivalric ballad, she requires that the abbey pay her a yearly rent of one perfect rose from the white rosebush in the garden.  But then a young monk is murdered beneath the rose-tree, now hacked and mutilated--and the widow herself is kidnapped.

A nice mystery, short, but as good as the other Cadfael mysteries.  Though I certainly got tired of hearing about the widow's "great sheaf of hair."  That image must have been repeated 10 times in a 200-page story.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ake: The Years of Childhood

Ake: The Years of Childhood, by Wole Soyinka

This was my Classics Club Spin title!  It was great and I'm very happy with my luck.  I actually had this out of the library over the summer, but the first couple of pages didn't hook me in and I didn't continue, though I meant to read it properly eventually.  I'm glad to have gotten the chance, and I'll be trying out more Soyinka at some point.

Wole Soyinka, born 1934, is a Yoruba Nigerian.  He has been a vocal critic of dictators for a long time--by now he is world-famous for his writing on "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it."  His writing is very eloquent and written at a high level, to the point that he is sometimes criticized for being too difficult and obscure.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African and the first black person to do so.  These days he is very elderly, but still going and currently focusing on religious tyranny, saying, "The blatant aggressiveness of theocracies I find distressing, because I grew up when Christians, Muslims and animists lived peacefully together."

This is the story of Soyinka's very early childhood.  He must have been something of a child prodigy--he writes about insisting on starting school with his sister before his third birthday, drove his family crazy with questions, and worked his way through grade levels at top speed, leaving home for an elite secondary school at 11 or so (where this memoir ends).

It's not very easy to get situated in the book; Soyinka drops the reader directly into his early memories with no explanation.  He calls his parents by fitting nicknames that he made up, so I didn't know who they were at first.  It's helpful to find a bit of introductory material.  Soyinka's memory-stories are wonderful and fascinating, so don't let the initial confusion stop you. 

In the latter part of the book, he is getting older and going to a more advanced school, preparing for leaving home.  There are some great stories about events at the school and around, but quite a bit of focus is actually on a women's group that got started to help with learning about child care, hygiene, literacy, etc. (it sounds exactly like my own RS group) but soon evolved into a group with political demands to improve the lives of women.

I don't suppose I've done a very good job of telling you about this memoir, but it is a really good read and I enjoyed it a lot.  It's certainly a classic of African literature; necessary if you enjoy memoirs of African life.  I got the title from a list I looked up--I think it was a list of 100 titles that were voted to be the best African works, and then there were 12 chosen as the tippy-top, and the books on my Classics Club list are from that--I have 10 listed and decided that I have to read at least 6 of them, in case I can't find a few or something.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois

 In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois published this collection of essays to portray the character of black people in America and the conditions they struggled against.  He says:
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.  This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

DuBois calls the color line "the Veil," meaning that the real lives of black people are lived behind a veil that ensures that white people will never see their true feelings.  Each chapter is headed by a verse from a white poet and a phrase of music from the oldest black songs, in order to show that the races have equal artistic genius.  DuBois has a lot to say about old songs, especially the ones he considers to be most authentic.

The early essays are set as responses to Booker T. Washington, and require a little more background knowledge than I had.  At this time Washington and DuBois had competing visions over the best course of action for the advancement of black people.  Washington advocated a compromise that accepted Jim Crow laws, advocated mechanical education and some opportunity for blacks, and trusted to time to lessen prejudice (though apparently he was also quietly funding civil rights cases).   DuBois thought this would simply ossify the situation and wanted more action, especially classical education for the most talented people; he called them the "talented tenth" and envisioned a class of elite black leaders who would raise their brethren up too.  Here he explains why and what he wants.

DuBois also spends a whole lot of time talking about how things got the way they were in 1903, and he does a really wonderful job at it.  His essay on Reconstruction and the Freedmen's Bureau is just excellent, and so is the essay on how sharecropping worked and how the system developed.  I thought those were fascinating, as were his thoughts on how religion has developed and affected people in the South.

These essays had quite an impact.  James Weldon Johnson (author of Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which I'm also reading) said that its importance was comparable to Uncle Tom's Cabin.  DuBois' more vocal position on civil rights (as opposed to Washington's) became more popular after violent racial incidents in 1906.

I was very impressed with DuBois.  I'll plan to have my kids read him in high school; I should think this is one of the more important books to read for American history.



I didn't know when I started this book that it would be important to know more about Booker T. Washington than I do.  I'll have to learn more about him and read Up From Slavery.  And I've been told that Langston Hughes' collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, is something of a response to DuBois' book, so I ought to read that too.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

Lately I've been wanting to re-read some old favorites, and I picked up The Eyre Affair.  I love the Thursday Next books but haven't re-read them at all, and I'd forgotten a lot!

Thursday is a Special Operations officer in the Literary Fraud division--she tracks down counterfeit Cardenios and the like.  In the alternate Britain she lives in, the Crimean War has been going on for over 100 years, genetic sequencing has allowed everyone to have dodos and thylacines for pets, and literature is a national obsession.  Radical Marlovians firebomb Baconian meetings, thousands of people have changed their names to Percy Shelley or John Milton, that sort of thing.

The super-criminal genius Acheron Hades has stolen both Thursday's Uncle Mycroft and the manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit.  With Mycroft's invention that allows entry into books, he plans to kill off beloved literary characters until the ransom is paid.  And Jane Eyre is his next victim!

The whole thing is just a barefoot romp through the meadows of literature, history, and general weirdness.  Bibliophiles can't not love it. 

My favorite joke is probably the one where a John Keats gets mugged by a Percy Shelley, who leaves a tract on atheism behind him.  What's yours?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

You Can Understand the Bible

You Can Understand the Bible: A Practical and Illuminating Guide to Each Book in the Bible, by Peter Kreeft

I've been going through this book slowly for some time, but it's not a difficult read at all.  Kreeft just gives a summary and discussion--from the Catholic POV plus of course his own thoughts--of each book in the Bible.  He wants to point out the main purpose and message of each book.  It's very interesting, full of good insights and things to think about.  Kreeft is clearly an intelligent guy (he seems to be a respected author in the Catholic world, but I've never read him before).  He uses an informal and often humorous style, and I often quoted pieces to my husband.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Job, Jonah, and the Psalms in the Old Testament section.  There is a section on the Deuterocanonical books and the Apocrypha, which was great since I don't know much about those.  And the New Testament section is very good, with descriptions of how each gospel account differs, and why Paul was writing each epistle.  All very clear and helpful.  Here's a bit about Luke:
Luke wrote for Gentile readers, especially Greeks.  He translates all Hebrew and Aramaic terms into Greek and explains Jewish laws, customs, and geography to his readers, assuming they are not familiar with these things.  He also possessed great skill in using the Greek language--so much so, in fact, that this book has been called the most beautifully written book in the world.  Greek was almost certainly his native tongue, which was not the case with Matthew, Mark, and John.
This book is aimed at people who aren't necessarily terribly familiar with the Bible--it's meant to be accessible to beginners.  However I do think that there is plenty to enjoy here for anyone, even if you're already quite conversant with the Bible.  I'm not Catholic myself so I don't always agree with Kreeft's analysis, but I got plenty out of his thoughts and liked the slightly different perspective (different than what I am used to, that is)--and I did enjoy his wit.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Laughter of Dead Kings

The Laughter of Dead Kings, by Elizabeth Peters

I found another Vicky Bliss novel!  It's a new one!  Oh wow!  If you're not familiar with the Bliss stories, there are only a few of them and they are older.  Vicky is a historian who gets caught up in international intrigue at the drop of a hat. And Elizabeth Peters wrote just one more!

This time, Vicky's boyfriend (reformed international art thief John) and good friend Faisal (Egyptian historian) arrive at her apartment at the same time.  Faisal needs help, because the single most famous mummy of all time has been stolen!  Off they go to figure out who has the mummy before the theft is discovered, and lots of adventure happens.

There are a few inside nods to Peters' other series and even an appearance by the author herself, so it's just a really fun read--a perfect Peters story.  If you're a fan of her stories, by the way, you'll want to visit Bookshelves of Doom the week of March 3, because she has declared it to be Petersweek at her blog.  I'm looking forward to that!


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller

This is an extremely complicated murder mystery set just after World War I.  Laurence Bartram, veteran and widower lacking in direction, is asked by his old friend's sister to shed a bit of light on why the friend might have committed suicide.  Captain John Emmett was living in a sanatorium for shell-shock victims, but seemed to be improving; why would he commit suicide?  The more Laurence looks into John Emmett's life, the more puzzling that question becomes, and soon Laurence is discovering how very much Emmett hid from his family.

I'm feeling kind of lukewarm about this novel.  It wants to be a more serious and literary mystery than your average cozy British mystery, and that's fine, but the result is more verbiage than I was really interested in.  The mystery is pretty difficult to follow, though it resolves well enough.  But I felt like my interest was smothered a bit by those elements.  Meh.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reading Process, Howling Frog Style

Howling Frog Style, that sounds pretty cool, like Gangnam Style only better.  Now I just need a surreal video and theme song!


The WEM group--Adriana at Classical Quest, the the WEM Ladies from A Classic Case of Madness, and Ruth from An Experiment with TWEM--is posting today about their reading and note-taking habits, and they were very kind and asked me to participate.  They say I can be an honorary WEMer, which is awfully nice of them I think.


I should explain that WEM is short for The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.  This is a book by my favorite homeschooler, Susan Wise Bauer, on reading to fill in the gaping chasms of ignorance many of us have.  It's divided into five genres: fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry, and gives lists of pivotal works in each genre.  The idea is that if you read the lists chronologically, you'll get a good idea of the development of each genre.  It's a great book and I do recommend it for reading fiends!

In accordance, the members of the WEM group read classic books, take notes, and then discuss in detail on their blogs.  (Right now it's Huck Finn, with bonus Pride and Prejudice for Valentine's Day.)  I have sometimes joined up, as with Portrait of a Lady, and I'll be reading along with Huck Finn too.

And now to the point of this post!  The only trouble with me writing a post about my reading and note-taking process is that I don't really have much of one.

I have a regrettable tendency to read while doing other things, in snatches: I stir soup and read a few paragraphs, and so on.  Of course I also sit down and read, but even when I mean to underline important bits and take notes, either the notes or the entire book tend to get forgotten.  Portrait of a Lady has underlines--in the first 100 pages.  I have a couple of notebooks by my bed with notes of, say, Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (which I need to take notes on in order to understand), but the book has been gathering dust for some time.  I'll have to read it eventually though; I put it on my Classics Club reading list.

Mostly I just read the books and then write up a post.  It's true that a lot gets lost this way.  I'll be reading along, full of thoughts, and then when it comes time to write something it's all gone.

I do have one good point in my favor.  My friends credit me with the super-power of being able to find any passage in a book in no time flat, which is mostly true.  It's not much of a super-power I guess, but I'll take what I can get.

I had a WEM-style reading journal a few years ago.  I was quite pleased with it actually; it had dividers for different genres and everything, and I really did take notes and write things in it.   It's still sitting in its place getting dusty, so maybe I should take it out and start again...



Monday, February 18, 2013

The Island of Dr. Moreau

I think this is the only famous H. G. Wells story that I have not read, so I thought I ought to fix that.  I didn't actually know the first thing about the story, except that there's an island, and I had a vague idea that an old Oingo Boingo song ("No Spill Blood") had something to do with it.   It's an early short novel--Wells' third--written after The Time Machine.  Wells famously called it 'a youthful piece of blasphemy.'

The story is told by Mr. Prendick, an accidental visitor to Dr. Moreau's island, and the the sole survivor.  He is something of an upper-class twit, but a traveling one, and he is forced to get off his ship at Dr. Moreau's island.  Prendick finds a nightmare society of animals turned into pseudo-men, ruled over by Moreau, a vivisectionist determined to create a human being of his own by means of surgery. 

It's all very Victorian and eugenics-y, with lots of meaning to discuss.  Wells wasn't kidding about the blasphemy, either.  It's quite effectively horrifying and I don't recommend it if you're an animal-lover type person.



I've never seen any of the movies made from this novel, though I love B-movies and have seen several knockoffs of the Dr. Moreau character.  He really became an archetype of B-movies and you'll find versions of him in awful films like The Killer Shrews.  

Penguin Classics has put an excellent introduction to this novel on their website.  It's by Margaret Atwood and seriously, you should read it.

The Classics Spin

Our lucky number is 14, so I'll be reading Wole Soyinka's Ake: The Years of Childhood, an autobiographical account of childhood in Nigeria.  Sounds good!


Friday, February 15, 2013

Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime

Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: the Ocean's Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, by Ellen Prager

Ellen Prager would like to introduce you to some interesting critters.  She will happily lead you on a trip through our oceans to meet copepods, hagfish, jawfish, cookie cutter sharks, and her favorite--the bone-eating zombie snot worm.  This is a great little book, but I'm warning you now: don't read it over lunch.  Unless maybe your lunch isn't very good anyway and you're OK with skipping it.  If you want to enjoy your lunch, pick a different book.

Each chapter focuses on a particular kind of sea-creature, starting with the teeny ones like diatoms and arrow worms, moving on up through snails and coral reefs, and ending with larger fish.  There are chapters specifically about extreme environments and what Prager calls "X-games" (a sort of Guinness book of skills).  Every section ends with a piece about current research into the animals and why we should pay attention to them.

Prager's favorite subjects are slime, sex, and drugs, in that order.  She gleefully informs us of the amazing multitude of ways that sea creatures produce and use slime, mucus, and goo.  Mating habits, the weirder the better, get lots of space.  And drugs--both the venomous and the medical--are of interest as well.  But mostly it's all about the goo.

Her tone is half lay-scientific and half casual, bouncing between detailed descriptions of tiny creatures and comments like "next time you happen upon a lovely sea star, looking down upon its brightly colored surface, you will actually be staring at its butt."  It would make an excellent supplementary book about ocean biology for a high-school student, but said student will probably refuse to eat lobster ever again--thus saving you money!

I liked the book fine, though I spent half the time fairly grossed out.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Two stories about Richard III

In honor of the very exciting confirmation that Richard III's remains have been found (and by the way I'd like to thank Livius Drusus at The History Blog for being so informative about it!), I though I'd revisit a couple of fun mysteries: the classic Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, and Elizabeth Peters' homage, The Murders of Richard III.

Grant's portrait of Richard III
In The Daughter of Time, Inspector Grant is laid up in hospital, unable to move and bored stiff.  A friend suggests he study a historical mystery and gives him a pile of portrait prints to keep him entertained--Grant has an interest in faces.  One face grabs his attention, and he wonders: how can a man who looks so careful and virtuous be one of the worst murderers of all time?  The portrait, of course, is Richard III and Grant spends his time going back to primary sources, reading up on history and realizing that there is no evidence to convict Richard III of murdering his nephews (Tey ignores a rebellion and didn't know some other things, so don't take this as gospel.  No one knows what happened to the princes in the Tower).  The whole book is filled with invective against what Grant calls "Tonypandy"--using legend and propaganda as history (as, for example, in the Boston Massacre).

It's a great book and very fun to read, but don't be too swayed by Tey's partisanship for Richard.  I'd like to note, by the way, that she falls for some Tonypandy at one point, referring to "the mad Juana of Spain" -- and as we now know, Juana wasn't mad at all, though I can't blame Tey for not knowing that!


The Murders of Richard III riffs on Tey's famous novel.  Jacqueline Kirby, Elizabeth Peters' wonderful librarian detective, ends up at a country house weekend with a pack of pro-Richard enthusiasts.  They repeat the same arguments that Tey used, and they have also taken on the parts of historical characters.  Someone starts attacking people (non-lethally), re-enacting the deaths of 500 years ago--so that for example the fellow playing the Duke of Clarence, who "drowned in a butt of malmsey," is knocked out and awakens upside-down in an empty wine barrel.  As panic sets in, Jacqueline is the only one to keep her cool and see through the pretense to the real danger!  Good stuff.

Also there's a nice line that I like very much:  
"I know a little bit, but not enough, about everything," said Jacqueline.  "I'm a librarian, remember?"
Which pretty much sums up why I'm a librarian--I like knowing a little bit about everything, but I haven't got the attention span to know everything about anything.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

February Salon

It's taken me forever to finish this month's post for Katherine's Turn of the Century Salon.  Sorry Katherine!  But here it is, and it's about Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, which squeaks in under the wire, having been written in 1880, but really--who is more turn of the century than James?



  • Do you like the author's writing style?
I don't mind Henry James' writing style, but I don't love it.  The man did like a good long sentence!   For the most part I enjoyed reading his prose medium-well.  I didn't hate it, I liked reading it, but I didn't love it either.

I often felt like even though I was getting a lot of words that described Isabel and her actions, I was not truly getting inside her.  I read this 800-page novel about her, but I didn't feel like I knew her well.  I don't know if that was on purpose; maybe James didn't mean for me to know her well?  Since it was a "portrait" perhaps it was supposed to be more external than internal.  Still, it was sometimes an awful lot of words to say relatively little.
  • What is their tone? Somber? Lighter and witty?
James is witty, but not light or amusing.  He is serious and detailed.
  • What are your impressions of the main character(s)?
I like Isabel, but I don't feel I know her all that well.  In fact I feel like I know all the other characters better!  I do not understand why she marries Osmond halfway through; perhaps she doesn't herself.

Ralph is awfully nice; I like him best, and Lord Warburton too.  Henrietta is irritating but a good friend to have around.  In fact most of the characters are likeable, decent people.

Madame Merle and Osmond, on the other hand...well.  I was hoping that Isabel would escape their clutches, right up until it was suddenly over.

And Pansy is a mystery to me.  I don't think James ever met a real teenage girl, or something.  She's a very strange character.  Although I can rather see her doing something like Megha in Mohabbatein did. *   (And wouldn't James be thrilled to be compared to a Bollywood movie?  I'm sure he would.)
  • Who is the main character struggling with? Themselves? Society? Another character?
Isabel isn't really struggling against society; as far as society is concerned, she is one of its more fortunate members and much more free than most women.  This, however, doesn't really work in her favor, because she has what amounts to a hidden enemy, who manipulates her because of her fortunate situation.  Isabel ends up struggling against the position she has chosen for herself without knowing the true consequences.
  • How is society looked upon in the novel? 
It's remarkably small.  Considering that everyone in the book is wealthy and moves in the higher circles of society, they hardly talk to anyone.  There is this tiny group of expatriate Americans, most of whom have not set foot in America for many years, and they only seem to talk with each other or their few European relatives.  Here you have this stage of great Italian cities, or London, or the entire English countryside...and this tight, closed little community.  It's very claustrophobic.

Virtually everyone in this society is highly conventional.  They nearly all place great value on acting correctly in public, but their private thoughts are mostly entirely different.  The few non-conformists are more honest, but not necessarily more virtuous; they may be wholly selfish.  Indeed that is why they do not conform.  Only Henrietta breaks out. 






*In Mohabbatein, Megha, the perfect daughter, confesses to her father that she loves a particular boy.  The father gets the boy thrown out of his school and orders Megha to forget him.  She puts on a convincing performance, right up until the minute she tells her father that she tried her best but couldn't do it and throws herself off the balcony.

It's Happy Fun Time


I found a new toy!  And you have to try it out!  At least, if you love old paperback art and B-movies like I do.


First, you find the "Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual" website, which features  interactive serial stories modeled on old pulp SF magazines--the current story is "The Toaster With Two Brains" and it's kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.  The Pulp-O-Mizer is this great toy on the website that lets you design covers like these.  You pick from a library of backgrounds, characters, and titles, and then add your own subtitles and comments.  It took me quite a while to figure out how to use it--it's a complicated little set-up that lets you do quite a lot of customizing. Also, you have to use it in Chrome so make sure to do that.


If you're stuck for ideas, there are some samples to show you how to get started and how to create certain effects, and there is a really fun extra help with titles: Cornelius Zappencackler's Derange-O-Lab's Pulp Sci-Fi Title-O-Tron.   There you will find titles like The Stalker of the Villainous Labyrinth, or The Aluminum Rockets.

Pretty fantastic, right?   AND you can get them printed up, should you be feeling wealthy, which I am not, but someday maybe!  He even has some cool library posters.  And excellent t-shirts!  Go take a look!













The Givenchy Code

The Givenchy Code, by Julie Kenner

Story first!  The other day I had to take my car to get smogged, and I took it to a place I hadn't used before.  I took a book with me of course, but to my delight, the waiting room was piled with books!  There were two or three skinny bookcases and a two-level coffee table, all covered with books and interesting magazines.  The owner told me that it had started when he had brought in some of his old history books from college (which explained the gigantic military history tomes--he was a history major), and his wife had thrown in some mysteries and other things, and then people kept bringing in more...in fact, he had 3 big boxes of books in the back so they could change things up every so often.  He said I could take whatever books I fancied with me and bring them back whenever I liked.  I snagged a fun Aunt Dimity mystery that I've read before, but the real prize was when I saw The Givenchy Code, the first in a trilogy of which I'd only read the second volume.

So if you live in Chico, the Firestone on Cohasset and East is the place to be.

Now about Julie Kenner.  She writes these clever, fluffy, fun books that I have enjoyed.  Mostly I've read her Kate Connor novels, which answer the obvious question of what happens when Buffy the Vampire Slayer grows up, gets married, and becomes a soccer mom.  (The first one is Carpe Demon, if you want to go looking for it.)  

The Givenchy Code kicks off a different trilogy.  Michelle lives in Manhattan and is a grad student in history and math, specializing in codes and cryptography.  She shares a passion for fashion with her roommate Jennifer, and has been known to play online video games, like the smash hit Play.Survive.Win: a game based in a virtual Manhattan, in which players are assigned as Targets, Assassins, or Bodyguards.  A series of clues leads the Target to the goal, but the Assassin might get to the Target first.  Somebody has decided that it would be fun to play PSW for real, and Michelle finds herself assigned as a Target: either she plays and solves the clues, or she dies at the hands of a psycho.  Together with her assigned bodyguard, Matthew Stryker, she is on the run--and the clues are frighteningly personal.

I had already read the second book, The Manolo Matrix, which features Jennifer (a singing waitress) as an assigned bodyguard to an ex-cop.  Now I have the final book, The Prada Paradox, on request through ILL so I can find out who is running the game.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Classics Club: February Meme

I should get around to these memes a little sooner!  February's Classics Club question is:

“What classic has most surprised you so far, and why?”

Surprise, I have two answers! 

On a general level, I have been surprised by how very much I have enjoyed a lot of the books on my list.  Yes, this is kind of dumb.  But like most people, I always put off reading Classics (which as we know are intimidating and difficult) in favor of lighter fare, especially whatever was closest to its library due date.  Even though I knew I ought to read, say, Madame Bovary, I didn't truly expect to love it.

Books from my list I have liked quite a lot more than I expected to:

The Age of Innocence
Bleak House, and also what I expected out of it
Bleak House
The Return of the Native
Dracula
Madame Bovary
Anna Karenina
Doctor Zhivago
Nervous Conditions
Labyrinths

For my second answer, I had no idea what the plot of Bleak House was, and had always assumed it would be much more depressing and like Hard Times than it turned out to be.  It has plenty of tragedy, yes, but there is a surprising amount of cheer in it too.

Classics Club: A Spin!

The Classics Club is throwing a spin!  What is that, you say?  Read on:

It’s easy. At your blog, by next Monday, Feb 18, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list – in a separate post.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books in February and March. (Details follow.) So, try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

Next Monday, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by April 1. We’ll have a check in or something in April, to see who made it the whole way and finished the spin book.

I think that's a fun idea--I like games like this.  So here is my list.  Some of them are so long there's no way I could read them in just 8 weeks, so I don't know what I'll do in that case. 

1-5 are books I've been putting off or that are kind of scary.
6-10 are books I really want to read! (Possibly scary also)
11-15 are books I don't actually even know anything about.  Goodness knows what will happen.
16-20 are books picked completely at random, by random.org.
  1. James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, The Last of the Mohicans.
  2. Chaim Potok, 1967, The Chosen.
  3. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, (1859)
  4. E. M. Forster, A Passage to India. 
  5. Murasaki Shikubu, Japan, ca. 990.The Tale of Genji
  6.  Solzhenitsyn, 1958, The First Circle. 
  7. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. 
  8. Nikolai Gogol, Russia, 1842. Dead Souls
  9. C. J. L. Almqvist, The Queen's Diadem.
  10. George Eliot, 1860, The Mill on the Floss. 
  11. “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder (1938).
  12. Junichio Tanizaki, Japan, 1943. The Makioka Sisters
  13. Kaestner, Three Men in the Snow 
  14. Wole Soyinka, Ake: The Years of Childhood
  15. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero (or another work by Llosa).
  16. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.
  17. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat.
  18. RK Narayan, India, 1935. The English Teacher
  19. 'Picnic At Hanging Rock', by Joan Lindsay, 
  20. William Faulkner, US, 1929. Light in August.
Wish me luck, and join in the game yourself!




Sister Queens

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, by Julia Fox

If, like me, your European history is a bit on the fuzzy side, you might be as surprised as I was to realize that Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first queen and unwilling catalyst of the Anglican Church, was sister to Juana the Mad, a famously mad Spanish queen who...had something to do with the Hapsburgs, right?  Not only that, they were both daughters of Isabella and Ferdinand, the uniters of Spain, kickers-out of Moors and Jews, and sponsors of Christopher Columbus.  Since I hadn't realized any of that, I figured I'd better read this book.

Julia Fox gives us a truly fascinating look at England and Spain during the Renaissance and digs deeply to get to know Katherine and Juana on a personal level.  History and legend have covered up their personalities to a large extent, especially Juana's.

Katherine emerges as a political personality in her own right, even something of a mentor to Henry in the early days of their reign, when he was 17 and she was in her 20's and already experienced in the ways of political maneuvering.*  She was her parents' daughter, devoted first to her God and her husband (and therefore England), but to Spain's interests too.

Juana, however, is the more misunderstood sister, because as it turns out, she wasn't mad at all.  She married Philip II, king of the Netherlands, and because of the unexpected deaths of her older siblings, she inherited her mother Isabella's realm of Castile.  Philip's opinion was that his wife's lands were his lands, not hers, and arranged with Ferdinand to keep her out of the deal.  Soon after, Philip too suddenly died.  Juana was determined--for political reasons--that he would be buried in Granada, but getting there turned out to be more difficult than you'd think.  And before she could get the job done, her father Ferdinand had her confined to a castle, declaring her tragically unstable and unfit to rule, which allowed him to rule Isabella's lands as well as his own.  He kept Juana there for years, until he died, and then her son Charles V (who owned something like 70% of Europe)  kept her there too.  Juana spent 46 years trapped in her castle, almost never allowed even to go outside her rooms--and all the evidence points to her mental competency and devotion to family interests.

Pretty wild stuff.  Both sisters started off with promising careers and looked forward to brilliant political matches and to ruling in Europe just like their parents.  Both ended their lives oppressed and imprisoned, betrayed by their own family members.

It's a great book if you're interested in Renaissance history or women's history.  Plus you'll learn a lot about the family trees of the crowned heads of Europe.




*One of my favorite lines in the book is about the newly crowned King Henry VIII: "...he wanted to fight because that was what kings did, and he wanted to fight France because that was what English kings did."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Upcoming Events: DWJ Month!

Did you know that March is Diana Wynne Jones month?  To her loyal fans it is, anyway.  Last year was the first DWJ March, to commemorate her passing in March of 2011.  I actually missed out and didn't find out about it until April, which was very disappointing.  But this year is my chance, and we are going to celebrate the second annual DWJ March here at Howling Frog.  The event is hosted by Kristen R. of We Be Reading.

Image by YellowCrayolaCrayon

There will be a readalong of a title not yet chosen (guess we'd better get on that), I will be writing a guest post on DWJ, which makes me very nervous, since the more I love a book the less coherent I am about it, and the amazingness of DWJ just reduces me to babbling idiocy.  On the bright side, it looks like I will even get to do a giveaway!  My very first giveaway!  And how fun is that, it will be with my very favorite author!

Have you ever read anything by Diana Wynne Jones?  If not, why not?  And if so, what's your favorite?

Upcoming Events: Modern March

I took a week or so off to recover from January's efforts; I was a little blogged out, and now I have a pile of things to write about.  First, there are lots of fun things coming up--


Allie at A Literary Odyssey is hosting a Classics Club event in March and it's all about the modern literature.  Not modern as in written in the last 20 years, but the Modernist movement.  Allie says:


it generally refers to literature written between the very late 19th century and the halfway point of the 20th century. In general, Modernist writers experimented with style, form, and theme. They broke away from the traditional viewpoints found in literature until that point and strove to focus on the darker and more unpleasant sides of life. This is also the time period where stream-of-consciousness made its roaring appearance.

Some of the big writers of the Modernist period were:

  • William Faulkner
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Ezra Pound
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Gertrude Stein
  • e e cummings
  • T.S.Eliot
  • James Joyce
There are more, of course, but those are the heavy hitters of the period and those most closely associated with the movement.

Allie says she's not all that comfortable with the moderns, and that makes me happy because neither am I.  Of these listed authors, I like Fitzgerald OK--well, The Great Gatsby--I haven't read anything else.   For the rest of them, I've mostly read one thing by each and not liked it much.  I have been known to enjoy Forster!   So I'm not going to get terribly ambitious here and sign up for 5 books, but I do know what I'm going to do: I'm going to try to read and study and maybe even grasp a little bit of "The Wasteland" by T. S. Eliot.  If that goes well, I'll move on to "The Hollow Men," and for dessert I might read Murder in the Cathedral.

Also, I have no idea why the text background is acting up, so please forgive.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ready Player One

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Forty years from now, as society slowly collapses, everyone spends all their time in the OASIS, an immersive online environment that has become the new Internet.  It's a giant MMORPG*, it's where everyone does business, and you can even go to school there.  The original designer, a video-game genius obsessed with the 1980's media he grew up with, died five years ago and left his entire fortune to whoever solves the riddles that lead to the biggest Easter egg in history.  Wade, like many others, spends just about all his time in the OASIS, studying everything about the 80s and hoping to solve the riddle.  Then one day he figures it out and suddenly there are an awful lot of bad guys after him.

This novel was all over the book blogs several months ago, but my library only just got it.  I remembered being intrigued by the descriptions I'd heard, but when I brought it home I wasn't at all sure I was going to read it.  The first few pages did not grab me--there is an avalanche of 80s references, and although Oingo Boingo is my favorite band and my kids love MacGyver and I have been known to win 80s trivia contests, it was too much even for me.  Honestly, the idea of a future society where a lot of people obsessively watch Silver Spoons and play Galaga is pretty horrifying--not that Cline doesn't know that; he does.

However, I did eventually get curious about where this crazy story was going to go, and by the end it was hard to put down--and the final challenge is perfection itself for anyone who was a nerd back in the day.  You have to have a really high tolerance for all of the geekier aspects of the 1980s though, and I do but it was still kind of too much.  Also, I am not quite sure why this is often billed as a YA novel.  It seems to me to be aimed squarely at people my age.  Who else is going to know what G-Force is?

I think I like the concept better than the execution, but I did have fun.

Cline actually hid an Easter egg in the book, too.  When the paperback came out, he announced that whoever solved the clues and won the contest would receive--naturally--a DeLorean car.  And indeed one Craig Queen won that car last August, by setting new world records in old Atari 2600 games.

I suppose we'll all be hearing a lot more about it, because it looks like there's going to be a movie.  Better brush up your memory of New Order songs...



*MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (World of Warcraft is one), is pronounced muh-MORP-uh-guh.  That's what Yahtzee says, anyway, and I believe him.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

I tackled this giant intimidating chunkster with the aid of the WEM ladies at Classical Quest and A Classical Case of Madness.  I really like Adriana's idea of a readalong on Facebook--she figured on reading 3 chapters a day and we would check in report progress.  It's fun and not too overwhelming to manage such a small amount--and since I was reading Anna Karenina at the same time I needed all the help I could get!

Isabel is a young American woman from Albany, and her crotchety aunt whisks her off to England to live and to see Europe.  Nothing much happens in the first 400 pages, except that every man she meets falls in love with her and asks her to marry him.  She successfully fends them off (if I were her, I'd want to be left alone to explore Europe without constant hounding from these guys!), until she meets Gilbert Osmond.  Although her other suitors are all good upstanding men, she of course has to marry the rotter.

Virtually every man she knows treats her more as an object to be owned than a real person; they are more interested in her graceful and attractive appearance than in her as a personality.  Osmond is the worst of these and literally wants her to be an unthinking thing of beauty for him to take over and possess.  When she resists this by having a few opinions, he grows to hate her--even though she always acts as a perfect wife.

I really don't understand the character of Pansy, Osmond's daughter.   If you've read this book, please tell me your opinion of her!  I think I understand partly what James wants us to think about her.  But really, I've never met a less realistic 15-year-old girl than Pansy when she is first introduced.  She comes off as about 8 years old, and I thought that either James didn't know any teenage girls (I figure that's the real case), or that she was secretly a conniving and manipulative little minx (this would be true if Pansy were a real person).

The last 200 pages are gripping (for James) and I hardly put the book down.  It was interesting to read Henry James--he is slow and wordy, and I don't know that I will read a whole lot more, but I'm glad I read this one.  And I feel pretty accomplished, too.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Middle Window

The Middle Window, by Elizabeth Goudge

Judy has talked her parents and fiancé into a holiday in Scotland.  Somehow she just knows she's supposed to go to Scotland, though she's never been there, and that her life is going to change completely.  But how is it that she knows exactly where to find the house they've rented?  Why is Judy suddenly assailed with someone else's memories, and why does the owner, Ian, seem so familiar?

I'm not even sure what to call this book.  It's a romance, but it's different--plus the lovers are hardly ever together.  It's part historical fiction, part ghost (?) story, and nearly all tragedy.  The first third is in 1934 and features Judy and Ian.  Most of the rest concerns Judith and Ranald as they are caught up in the 1745 Scottish Rebellion.*

It's a bit like those Gothic thriller romances by Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz), but better written and without a trace of Michaels' sardonic humor.  It is, in fact, unusually deep and well-written for a light romance novel--which is not a surprise for me, since it's Goudge, but it's interesting to see a book presented as a fluffy romance turn out to be more than that.

I have to say, this book would make a fantastic Bollywood movie if you translated the plot into Indian terms.  It's perfect.  Ten years ago it would have featured Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan, and for the historical part they would have looked pretty much like this.  Now I don't know who it would star, but it would be great!  (If any Indian film directors are reading this, I want credit for the idea and a modest fee.)

See what I mean?  Yep.  (This photo is actually from Jodhaa Ackbar.)





































*Bonnie Prince Charlie seems to plague me lately, but this is the first time he's shown up in my reading.  My girls are learning yet another song about him on their violins, older daughter is reading Kidnapped and needed to know all the background...Jacobites just keep popping up in different ways.



Friday, February 1, 2013

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy

I am so happy that I finally read Anna Karenina.  I had it on my must-read list for this year, and then I won a free movie tie-in copy from The Blue Bookcase!  (Plus a candle and soundtrack CD.)  I wasn't sure about reading a tie-in edition, since I was sure they would have picked just any old translation that was free of copyright, and really I would like to read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation that everybody raves about.  And indeed they picked a 1918 translation by the Maudes; a foreword notes that the Maudes were friends with Tolstoy, lived in Russia for a long time, and shared many of his ideas.  So that disposed me to like them more.  I did enjoy the writing just fine, though I would prefer the names to have been less Anglicized--but at least they didn't go as far as one translation I've heard of that calls Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky--informally Stiva--  "Steve."

 I loved this book.  It's just a gorgeous novel, and I don't quite know what else to say about it.  I had a wonderful time with it, and I even enjoyed the farming bits that everyone complains about--I didn't care much for the politics but that was near the end.  I loved the development of Kitty and Levin's relationship, and watched Anna and Vronsky's tragedy play out with sadness.  There are so many characters, and they are all well-developed people--I guess that's the advantage of giant novels, lots of room to develop everything fully.

I've had such a lovely time with Russian literature in the past year.  I cannot even tell you how great the Classics Club is for getting me to finally actually read these things, and I'm looking forward to more.  (I have Dead Souls and even the P/V War & Peace now!)

If you are intimidated by the idea of reading Anna Karenina, a Great Work of Literature that is 900 pages long and Russian to boot--well, it's not nearly as difficult as I had imagined that it would be.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, did not find it difficult at all, and had little trouble sticking with it for the whole length (and I have a pretty short attention span).   Gather up your courage and give it a try.

The Violinist's Thumb

The Violinist's Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, by Sam Kean

Aren't fashions in titles funny?  Title trends come and go, and right now very long subtitles seem to be the thing.  The shorter and/or more cryptic the main title is, the better, and then the subtitle should be long and elaborate, with a touch of humor.  It reminds me of A Little Pretty Pocketbook. 

This title has been on my library wishlist since it came out; I really enjoyed Kean's previous book about chemistry, The Disappearing Spoon, and I like lay books about science in general (especially chemistry!).  The Violinist's Thumb is a detailed look at DNA--the history around its discovery, how it works, what we know and do not yet understand about it.  It's got lots of interesting anecdotes, funny turns of phrase, and more than you ever needed to know about A, T, G and C.

But.

I was enjoying the book and zipping through it, when a footnote up and punched me in the eye.  This particular footnote was the first thing in the whole book that talked about something I actually know about.  It's a longish paragraph on some history and theology of the LDS Church.  It's just a side note; Kean didn't have to put it in at all, and he probably thought of it as a little interesting perk.  The trouble is, it gets most of the information wrong.  The number of errors in this one paragraph is just stunning.  You wouldn't think it was possible.  (I don't mean that he is being mocking and that I'm annoyed about it.  I mean that he gets easily-verifiable dates and facts wrong.)

I know it's a small point.  People routinely get this information wrong.  He wasn't thinking of it as important and didn't bother to check.  But I'm not sure how to trust the rest of the book to be accurate, either.  It really took away a lot of my enthusiasm for the book and I did not finish it. 

I did like the stories, especially the bit about Sister Miriam Michael Stimson.  And DNA is fascinating stuff.  I just wonder now whether the neat story about Sister Miriam Michael was accurate...