Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy bloggiversary to me

I've never paid attention to my blog's birthday before, but today it's 5 years old, which seems to warrant a mention.  I passed 1000 posts earlier this year and failed to notice, and passed 150K views a little while ago.  It's not a large or fancy blog, but it's mine and I like it.  Happy birthday, Howling Frog Books.  May we long continue.  And happy 2015 to all the rest of you!

 Just for fun, here are a few of my favorite booky, or just fun, images from this year:


I'm pretty sure I need this book.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

The US cover without jacket, which is how I got it
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

I must confess that I have not had a ton of luck with Murakami in the past.  I liked After the Quake pretty well, but gave up on IQ84 after about 8 pages.  I wasn't too sure I wanted to read Colorless Tsukuru, but the cover is pretty hard to resist and I thought I'd give it a try and I could always quit if I didn't like it.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it quite a bit, and in fact I think I finished it in just one day.

Tsukuru Tazaki has never had a high opinion of himself.  He thinks of himself as lacking personality, "an empty vessel" with nothing much to offer.  In high school, he belonged to a close-knit group of 5 friends, and even then he wasn't sure he was worthy, but then they kicked him out of the group with no explanation; just "we never want to see you again."  At age 35, he looks reasonably successful but he's still drifting.  A new date encourages him to see if he can't heal his past wounds by finding out what happened.

I was really interested and enjoyed most of the book, though it got too graphic for me at times.  This being Murakami, we are left hanging a bit at the end, with less resolution than a more traditional novelist would give.  Good stuff, though.

Love's Labour's Lost

Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare

I wanted to hit 90/150 on my Classics Club list by the end of the year (I decided this right before Christmas) so I figured a Shakespeare play would be about right.  I wanted a comedy that I hadn't read before, so I chose Love's Labour's Lost (it was a competition between that and The Merry Wives of Windsor).  After all, I just read a fun mystery that featured a newly-discovered script of Love's Labour's Won (Love Lies Bleeding, by Edmund Crispin, in case you're dying to know).

The plot: Ferdinand, King of Navarre, talks his three best buddies into entering a three-year pact to study hard and practice virtue.  They will eat only plain food, fast once a week, sleep little, and...never talk to any women at all ever.  The impracticality of this silly plan is promptly revealed when the Princess of France shows up--with three of her best friends--to conduct some diplomatic business.  Naturally, each man falls in love with a lady and tries to conduct a love affair without letting his friends know about it.  The ladies are not going to put up with this.  And so on.  The play does not end with a wedding, though; the ladies head back to France on further business, instructing the gentlemen to come for them in a year to prove their fidelity.

The play has some basis in history, and the characters are based on real people.  Ferdinand is Henry of Navarre.  There is a whole lot of wordplay; much of the dialogue piles up the witty puns as high as they'll go (and this being Shakespeare, that is pretty high).  There are comic interludes in the comedy; this must have been a laugh riot in 1595.  I thought it was fun, but it was pretty light and didn't have the same feel as the more famous comedies.

2014 Challenges Overview

As usual, I took on a lot of challenges this year.  Let's see how I did.  I'm sure you're tired of these by now and I am too, so I hope this is the final one!

Arthurian Literature Challenge: My own baby challenge was quite fun.  I wanted to hit the Paladin level of 6 or more, and I read 12 works of literature and one history book for a total of 13.  So, not bad.

A Sail to the Past History Reading Challenge: Fanda had a good one this year!  I signed up for 7 history books, and I read 8 in all.  I would have liked to read more!  Challenge exceeded.

Back to the Classics Challenge: This year, Katherine gave us 6 required categories and 5 optional.  I did them all, but I completely forgot about the part where the books had to be 50+ years old and one of my optional titles doesn't actually count.  Still, I did the required part and I only didn't hit the optional because I didn't figure out the rule until mid-December.  I'm going to call it complete.

Chunkster Challenge: Vasilly didn't want to set levels, so I decided I would start with 6 and see what happened.  I wound up with 10 chunkster titles, all pretty gigantic.  Challenge complete!

European Reading Challenge: Rose City Reader's challenge is a lot of fun, and I signed up for the highest level, 5 books.  I actually hit 14 different countries.  This is a much lower number than last year; the Russian literature ate up a large chunk of my European-flavored reading and so I just didn't have the variety this time.  Still, I exceeded the official goal.

Harlem Renaissance Challenge: I signed up for level 1, which was 1-5 books, and I read two (plus one novel set at the time).  This was about what I wanted to do, but I still want to read more HR books; the two I read were excellent.  Complete.

Pre-Printing Press Challenge: The rule was to read books from before 1440.  I signed up for 10, and I did hit 10, mostly Arthurian titles.  I meant to read other medieval literature too but there's only so much I can do.  Complete.

Russian Literature Challenge: O's was a favorite this year. I signed up for level two, 4-6 titles, but always hoped to do more.  I ended up with 10 Russian novels plus a volume or two of history.  I didn't read all the Russian literature, history, and criticism that I want to read, but what would be the fun in that?  I think I did well.

TBR Challenges: I signed up for 24 unspecified titles with Bev, and 12 specified titles + two backups with Adam.  I hit the 24 by the skin of my teeth, and finished 13 of the 14 on the specific list.  I just could not read Still Life.  Still, I completed both.

In ongoing projects, I have now hit a total of 89/150 in my Classics Club list.  On the other hand, my Non-Fiction Adventure total is all of 12, which is kind of embarrassing.

See you in 2015!  Lots to look forward to.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

TBR Challenge Wrap-Up

It's just wrapup after wrapup around here, but feel free to skip if you're getting bored. :)  Adam asks how we did with the TBR Pile Challenge---
  1. Playing With Fire, by the Sangtin Writers -- good stuff.
  2. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot-- lovely.
  3. People Tell Me Things, by David Finklee--Meh.  One of the meh-est books of my year.
  4. Still Life, by A. S. Byatt--This was my FAIL title.  Did not finish.
  5. History in English Words, by Owen Barfield--Second time's the charm; I enjoyed this.
  6. Candide, by Voltaire--culturally educational.
  7. Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne --weird.
  8. Mirror of Flowers, by Dorothea Eastwood--fun!
  9. The Man Born to Be King, by Dorothy Sayers --really good, and not nearly as intimidating as I expected.
  10. Second Treatise on Government, by John Locke--I did it!
  11. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton--zowie, great stuff.
  12. The Green and Burning Tree, by Eleanor Cameron--pretty good.
And alternate titles:
  1. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding  --fun.
  2. Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhar and Notker the Stammerer--quite good.
So this time, I did fail to read one of them.  But at least I found out that it's an Unreadable Book and sent it off to donate to someone who might like it.

Christmas With the Savages

Christmas With the Savages, by Mary Clive

This was a Christmas present!  It's a novel presented as a childhood memoir, based on the author's life, of a Christmas spent at an Edwardian country house.  Young Evelyn is about 8 years old, and her parents are detained in Scotland, so she is sent to the home of a family friend for the holiday.  It's a gathering of a large extended family with three sets of children, with the largest and loudest set named Savage.

The great thing about this memoir is how completely honest and unsentimental it is about what she thought as a child.  Evelyn, and all the other children, are show-offy, quarrelsome, self-centered, and ignorant enough to sound snotty when they're trying to sound sophisticated and knowledgeable.  They are hilarious.  The whole thing is a laugh riot.

There are also some nice details about everyday life during the Edwardian period--clothes, domestic items, and so on.  In particular, it's amazing how off on their own the children are; the adults just don't pay very much attention to them.  The nurses are mostly busy caring for the tiny children, and although they certainly give admonitions and so on, the children are unsupervised and on their own a lot of the time.  It's a bit stunning if you're a modern parent, used to our current norm of knowing where your child is at all times.

Very fun.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2015 Books in Translation Challenge

Yes, I know, I'm cutting down on challenges this year.  And I am, really!  But I'd like to add this one: the Books in Translation Challenge at Introverted Reader.

I'm sure I'm behind as usual, but it's time for the 2015 Books in Translation Reading Challenge signup! The goal is obviously to read translations of books, from any language into the language(s) you're comfortable reading in; they don't have to be in English.
You can read any genre and any age range. Crossovers with other challenges are fine. Any format that you choose is also acceptable. The challenge will run from January 1 through December 31, 2014.

Looking for suggestions? I have a shelf on GoodReads you can check out. There's also a Listopia list on GoodReads. Linked reviews for the 2014, 2013, and 2012 challenges are a great resource.

I am not limiting the challenge to bloggers. You can also link to a review you wrote on another site, such as GoodReads or LibraryThing.

Beginner: Read 1-3 books in translation
Conversationalist: 4-6
Bilingual: 7-9
Linguist: 10-12

I have lots of translated books that I want to read, so I'm going to go for broke and sign up for the Linguist level of 10+.  Wish me luck!

A Year in First Lines, 2014

I did this meme once before and it was fun to look back and see how the year went.  Fanda started it again and I thought I'd try it.  Here goes--the first lines (or, in some cases, paragraphs so they would make sense) of each month at Howling Frog Books:

January:  Hello, fellow Arthurians!  I am so excited about this year's challenge.  We are going to
have a lot of fun!  Arthurian Challenge: Go!

February:  I got a huge kick out of this book, despite the fact that I am not in the intended audience at all.  Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

March: For the first day of DWJ March, Kristen wants us to show off our collections.  Mine is fairly extensive, but beat up.   DWJ March Kickoff: My Collection

April:  Way back in college I had to take a course on modern American literature, which I was quite annoyed about at the time, but turned out to be a good thing because I found out that there were lots of books I liked after all. Spin Title: Bless Me, Ultima

May: I am much better at reading about flowers than I am at growing them.  This is a really nice little book of essays about flowers, written in the late 1940s in Britain. Mirror of Flowers

June:  This month's discussion topic is:
Think of an example of a classic you’ve read that presents issues like racism/sexism as acceptable within society. Do you think the reception of this classic work would be the same if it were newly published today? What can we get out of this work despite its weaknesses? Or, why would you say this work is still respected/treasured/remembered in 2014?
 I'm not actually thinking of any one particular book right now; my thoughts are very general.  I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, but they aren't terribly new or original.  So, you can skip if you like. :)  Classics Club: June Meme

July:  Hey everyone, I have been in a bit of a blogging slump.  I went away for a week, which was a great but exhausting trip to Utah, and then I came back but I just didn't make it to the blog.  I need to do some thinking about how my blogging fits into everything else.  Anyway!--

It's the day for the Classics Spin Title!  I drew a couple of plays by Kit Marlowe; I'd planned to read Doctor Faustus and one other, and I chose the obvious one--Tamburlaine, the play that made Marlowe known while he was still alive.   Spin Title: Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine

August: I read Caldecott's Beauty for Truth's Sake a couple of years ago; it's about the Quadrivium, or the four branches of learning (mostly applications of mathematics) that come after the Trivium in classical education. Beauty in the Word

September: I found this book through a really long, really great review: The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews God's Philosophers.  I really encourage you to go read that article--you can even skip mine if you do--because it's far better and more entertaining than I am.  God's Philosophers

October:  Hail, gentle readers!  Be it known that the day has come wherein ye must fulfil your vows to read that most excellent tale, Le Morte D'Arthur.  May you all find joy in these pages.  Kickoff to Readalong

November: I found the Booth Tarkington section at the library, and I took out The Magnificent Ambersons and this Seventeen, which just looked fun.  Seventeen

December: I have finished Malory!  Wow, what a long read. Le Morte D'Arthur Readalong: Part IV

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edward FitzGerald

Those of us who grew up seeing a lot of musicals probably always have a hard time actually deciding to read this book of verses.  As a result, I didn't know much about it except that it made a little movie play in my head.  So here's the background: Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet and scholar who lived nearly 1000 years ago.  He wrote a whole lot of verses in a quatrain format (of two sets of two lines each).  Edward FitzGerald then took and "translated" some of them, starting in the 1850s and continuing through the next 30 years to edit and change.  By "translated," I mean that he really did translate some, and a lot he sort of loosely transposed, and others it looks like he probably wrote himself in the style he wanted.

They don't come off as all that Persian, really, and most of it isn't love poetry either.  The verses do not hang together in a coherent whole or tell a story, but there is a sort of progression; FitzGerald wanders from the praise of wine (there is a lot of that) to a sort of fatalistic philosophy and meditations on the evanescence of life, with some proverby-sounding material thrown in here and there.  Some of the verses sound surprisingly atheistic for what they are supposed to be.

The verses were a huge hit and very influential.  I recognized many of the lines simply because they've been quoted so often.  Here's one that will probably be familiar:
"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."
Frontispiece: a loaf of bread and a jug of wine
My copy is a 1942 deluxe edition from the library at work, and attracted my attention because it's illustrated by Willy Pogany, who was one of the great illustrators of the first half of the 20th century.  You'll see his work in many collections of myths and tales from around the world.  He seems to have done two different sets of illustrations for the Rubaiyat, in color and in black and white, and mine is only in black and white.  The images here are not noticeably Persian in flavor any more than the verses are--they start off sort of 'exotic' and then become progressively more figurative, in an 'archetype of humanity' kind of way.

 I can't say that I enjoyed FitzGerald's version of Persian poetry, exactly, but it was certainly educational.  It's a perfect example of English fascination with the Orient and how texts would get transformed into an exotically-flavored amalgamation that was more English than anybody realized at the time.  Like kedgeree.  Or, earlier, the poems of Ossian if you see what I mean.  So while I wasn't much on the poetry, the history is pretty fascinating stuff.

And now I'm going to have to listen to something really catchy all day in order to get Mrs. Shinn out of my head...

Friday, December 26, 2014

Sail to the Past Challenge Wrapup

Fanda at Classic Lit asked for a wrapup to her excellent Sail to the Past Challenge.  Let's see how I did.

I signed up to read 7 or more books, and I read 8.  I did not read 4 or 5 of the titles I originally picked, and some of those are on my TBR pile for 2015.
  1. The Endless Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicolson
  2. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman (for the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI)
  3. The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  4. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  5. Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock 
  6. Savage Continent, by Keith Lowe  
  7. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton
  8. Molotov's Magic Lantern, by Rachel Polonsky
There was lots of great history reading this year.  I only wish I could have fit more in. 

Mount TBR Challenge Complete

Bev always has a final checkpoint for her Mount TBR Challenge.  She wants to know:

1. Tell us how many miles you made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you've planted your flag on the peak, then tell us and celebrate (and wave!).  Even if you were especially athletic and have been sitting atop your mountain for months, please check back in and remind us how quickly you sprinted up that trail. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting book adventures you've had along the way.

I completed 24 books (just barely!), which was my goal.  Nearly all of them were very good--not always pleasant, fun-type books, but well-written and good to read.  People Tell Me Things wasn't much, but that was the only disappointment.

2. The Year in Review According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, please associate as many statements as you can with a book read on your journey up the Mountain.  I have given my titles as examples.

Describe yourself:
People Tell Me Things (I am a librarian, after all)
Describe where you currently live:
The Green and Burning Tree (it's not very comfy)

  If you could go anywhere where would you go?:Arthur's Britain
Every Monday morning I look/feel like: one of the
Dead Souls
The last time I went to the doctor/therapist was because: I'd taken an
Un-Rest Cure
The last meal I ate was: served on a
Mirror of Flowers
When a creepy guy/girl asks me for my phone number, I: know he'll be worse than
Ignorant politicians make me: think they're
Playing With Fire
Some people need to spend more time: learning
History in English Words
My memoir could be titled:
A Time of Gifts
If I could, I would tell my teenage self: don't worry too much about
The Custom of the Country
I've always wondered about
The Thing Around Your Neck 

Here are all my titles:
  1. History in English Words, by Owen Barfield
  2. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
  3.  Playing With Fire, by the Sangtin Writers
  4.  Candide, by Voltaire
  5.  The Green and Burning Tree, by Eleanor Cameron
  6. The Un-Rest Cure, by Saki 
  7. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor 
  8. Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock 
  9. Mirror of Flowers, by Dorothea Eastwood 
  10. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
  11. Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane 
  12. The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton
  13. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding  
  14. People Tell Me Things, by David Finkle
  15. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton 
  16. The Man Born to Be King, by Dorothy Sayers 
  17. Beauty in the Word, by Stratford Caldecott 
  18. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley 
  19. Second Treatise on Government, by John Locke 
  20. Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhar and Notker the Stammerer 
  21. The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
  22. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy 
  23. Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne 
  24. Molotov's Magic Lantern, by Rachel Polonsky 

Molotov's Magic Lantern

Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History, by Rachel Polonsky

Rachel Polonsky is English, but studies and writes on Russian history and literature, and has lived there quite a bit.  Here, she travels around certain Russian cities, writing about their histories, and she starts with a stint in Moscow.  Polonsky is staying in a borrowed apartment in what was once a building that housed eminent Russians: first high society types, and then the Soviet elite.  Upstairs is Molotov's old apartment.  Polonsky is granted access through the current resident and discovers that a good portion of Molotov's own possessions are still there--in particular, remnants of his large book collection, and his magic lantern (an early slide projector).  Although Molotov is not really a major figure in this book, Polonsky uses the books he once read as starting points for her thoughts on her visits to places in Russia.

Every city visited offers a mix of history--both pre- and post-Revolution--literature, and politics.  We read about Chekhov, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Decembrists, and prisoners, as well as anecdotes about Soviet writers whom Molotov read, worked with, and often sent to the gulag.  There is a bit about the Orthodox Church in Russia today.  She also gets in quite a few jabs at Putin.

This is not a highly focused book.  It's an interesting wander, very much like the Travels in Siberia book that I started this year with.  A good read, too.  It also won a prize for best travel book of 2010.

This is my final Mount TBR book, my final Sail to the Past book, and in general my last challenge-related book of 2014!  Woot!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Favorite Stuff of 2014

I started this post meaning to participate in Fanda's Kaleidoscope 2014 Event, but then I realized that I was terrible at figuring out what to say in the categories.  So this post is actually a random mishmash of 2014 favorites.

Looking over the past year, I had forgotten how many great fantastic lovely books I had read!  I can't really pick just five or ten.  So here are my favorites from this year.

A Time of Gifts   
--Who wouldn't want to walk across Europe?
The Quest of the Holy Grail  
--This was still my favorite Arthurian read.  I love its bizarre stories.
Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika  
--Great SF from behind the Iron Curtain, and pretty surreal stuff.
The Conjure-Man Dies  --The Harlem Renaissance challenge led me to this neat mystery.
Eugene Onegin (readalong with installments)  
--I loved this poem; having a different translation and a second reading helped a lot too.
The Magnificent Ambersons
--Just a great American novel, about fallible humans who we love anyway.
The Thing Around Your Neck
--Fantastic short stories.
God's Philosophers
--Fun and cathartic book about medieval history, science, and why medieval people weren't stupid.  Gratifying for us medieval fans.
The Small House at Allington
--A great Victorian novel; engrossing and yet refuses to give you the happy ending you wanted.
The Joys of Motherhood
--Wonderful African novel.  Love this writer.
In the Steps of the Master
--A tour of the Holy Land in the 1930s.  Wow. 
The Guns of August
--The start of WWI with some great insights.  Tuchman, how I adore thee.
Kindly Inquisitors
--Why free speech is more important than hurt feelings. If only everybody would read this book.
The Custom of the Country
--Undine Spragg, blind and greedy.  Wonderful and tragic novel.
If on a winter's night a traveler
--Jean gets to love post-modern literature.  Weird and fun.
The Haunted Looking-Glass
--Lovely spooky stories!
The King in Yellow
--Creepy and surreal short stories.
The Mill on the Floss
--Oh, George Eliot, you are a genius and I should not put off reading your novels for they are good.

And then there was the Great Chernyshevsky Readalong, (hosted by Tom of Wuthering Expectations)  which led to all sorts of interesting literary bunny trails.  I can't call What is to be Done? a favorite, because it's a really strange book that isn't terribly well-written, but I did have a ball reading it!  And then I got to follow along with the arguments Chernyshevsky was involved with, which included Turgenev and Dostoevsky and a lot of entertaining blog posts to read.  Yep, Tom's big Chernyshevsky project was a great part of the year.

The Islands of Chaldea was a bittersweet sort of read, what with DWJ being the best and this being her last novel and all.  What a treat to have one last story that I didn't expect.   I think I'll save it up for a re-read in March.

The best book of the year, hands down, goes to Jonathan Rauch's Kindly Inquisitors.  I've been talking about it ever since.  I featured it during Banned Books Week and quoted it a bunch and generally pushed it on anyone willing to listen. 

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller

Willy Loman is a traveling salesman, but he's getting older and more tired, and he's getting less stable--he keeps reliving memories instead of facing reality.  He's disappointed in his two sons, Biff and Happy, who were popular and successful in high school but have drifted ever since.  Willy expected them (and himself, too) to become successful businessmen, but that never materialized and he takes refuge in memories and lies about his life.  His wife loves him and is worried that he will commit suicide, but he tends to trample her.  During the play, we find out why Biff, the oldest son, went off the rails and just how far Willy will go to avoid reality.

I gather that the play is supposed to be about the failure of the American dream; at least, as Willy Loman sees it.  He wants to make deals and be loved, and for his sons to get rich.  He wants to believe that his sons are special--all-American athletes, popular, able to wheel and deal with the best and strike it rich without trouble.  The boys, more realistic, try to tell him that they are just ordinary men with ordinary lives.  That's not good enough for Willy, who can't face his own failures as a father (and husband), and whose dreamy expectations eventually kill him.

My Spin title was "The Crucible," and it came in a collection of five plays, so I read this one from my CC list as well.  It's yet another famous American piece that I'd never read before.  I had kind of a hard time with it, really.  Depressing mid-20th-century plays by Miller are not quite my thing, I guess. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Classics Club December Meme

I haven't gotten around to answering the monthly Classics Club meme question lately, so I thought I'd try to jump back in.  December's question:
Let’s talk about children’s classics! Did you read any classic works as a child? What were your favorites? If not, have you or will you try any classic children’s literature in the future? (We’re aware children often read at an adult level. Please feel free to share adult OR children’s classics that you treasured in childhood OR children’s works that you’ve recently fallen for.)
Did I read any classic works as a child?  Well, yes.  My mother is a children's librarian and storyteller.  Our house was stuffed and overflowing with children's literature--a large percentage of them were library discards, so they were often pretty beat-up even before we got to them.  I was fairly resistant to reading anything that said CLASSIC on it, but I was also unaware that most of the books in the house probably counted in that category. 

I had 3 or 4 different editions of Black Beauty, and every other horse novel I could get (except The Black Stallion; for some reason I didn't take to those).  We had really nice hardback copies of E. Nesbit's most famous books, and I think we might have been the only kids who did in 1981 Bakersfield; Nesbit was not at all well-known then in the US.  We had ugly paperbacks of the Narnia books that we read to pieces, Tintin and Asterix comics, Wyeth illustrated editions of books like The Boy's King Arthur and The Black Arrow, and all sorts of odd things.

What we didn't have at home we could get at the library: I remember reading all of Andrew Lang's colored Fairy Books there.  Summers were very hot and hardly anyone had air conditioning, so in the mornings we would go to swimming lessons and then walk across an empty lot to the new library, which was nice and cool.  We spent a lot of time there.

The summer I was eight, I decided to read Howard Pyle's Robin Hood, which was a big heavy green hardback tome.  I remember not understanding very much of it, but the illustrations were great.  It took the whole dang summer to read that book.

My mom read The Hobbit aloud to us, but I've always been impatient with read-alouds, so I just took it and read it myself.  (I believe very strongly in reading aloud to children for a long time!  But I didn't like it once I could read faster than a narrator could speak.  I still don't like audiobooks for that reason.)

One time the next-door neighbor came over on behalf of her sister, who had a report due on King Arthur.  I ran through the house and collected at least seven King Arthur storybooks of various kinds, and she was dismayed at the pile!  It turned out that the report was due the next day.  (In my head, it was obvious that you would need ALL the King Arthur books in order to write a report on him. I mean, you wouldn't want to miss anything!)

Even the pictures on the walls were from children's literature.  I had a map of Narnia in my room, and my mom had a framed picture of Alice and the Cheshire Cat above her desk.

When it comes to books, I was a pretty lucky kid.

Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

This is my final book for Adam's TBR Pile Challenge, woot!  I'd been looking forward to it for some time.  I've meant to read this since I read A Sentimental Journey in college, and the TA (who was a friend of mine too, and really cool) told us a bit about the bizarre book that is Tristram Shandy.  There's a black page, a marble page, a blank page.  There are doodles.  And there are diversions and digressions upon digressions, yea verily unto the nth degree.  What there isn't, is very much about the life of Tristram Shandy, gentleman.

We begin with his conception, and it takes fully half the book to get young master Tristram born.  Only four things, all unfortunate, happen to little Tristram and after that, never again does he appear in his own autobiography.  Too many interesting incidents, stories, interruptions, and histories get in the way!  There's always a new rabbit trail to follow.  Even the characters in the book can't tell a story straight; it takes them several tries to get started and we never do hear the promised tale, but something completely other.

The actual main people of the novel are Tristram Shandy's father, and the father's brother Toby who has lived with Mr. Shandy's family ever since he received his terrible wound--which is now probably long healed, but who can say.  The two brothers talk and argue and have lots of little domestic upsets.  Toby is obsessed with the science of fortification and spends all this time thinking about sieges, and there is a friendly widow, and naturally there are lots and lots of bawdy jokes and innuendoes.

It's a completely 18th century novel, and it's also very very modern.  If it weren't for the Georgian language, you'd think it was written in about 1962.

I knew that it was a digressive novel that never really gets anywhere, so I wasn't expecting it to have a plot as such.  That helped.  I quite enjoyed much of it.  But it's a good 600 pages long and about 150 before the end, I kind of ran out of steam.  It took me a while to get going again and mostly I just wanted to finish already.  But I feel very accomplished!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Morte D'Arthur Readalong, Final Wrapup

Hey, I do believe that my companions in Malory reading are about finished!  Comment on what you did and how you feel about it.  I sure appreciate a few people joining me on what turned out to be a fairly insane journey!

I got hold of a couple of short commentaries by C. S. Lewis about Malory, and I thought I'd quote a few things.  There is a very short piece in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a longer one in Image and Imagination.  Both comment on the Vinaver scholarship that was pretty big news back then--new material had been discovered!  The Malory I read is so old that it pre-dates that discovery, and I didn't find that out until afterwards.

I like this line:  "It must of course be admitted that there are in the text untransmuted lumps of barbarism, like Arthur's massacre of the children."  That's an understatement, hm?

Lewis looks at the historical Malory, who we know as a knight who spent time in prison, having been accused of all manner of awful things, and talks about them a little bit.  He points out that a lot of it can be explained as part of a local war or feud as described by an opposing lawyer; not that we would approve of any of it, but he may not have been as bad as the documents paint him--by the knightly standards of the time.   Lewis asks us to "imagine the life of Sir Tristram as it would be presented to us by King Mark's lawyer," which cracks me up, and is a really good point...but Tristram was the one I just couldn't stand, so it didn't actually help Malory's image much in my mind.

I did really appreciate this, on the question of whether the Morte can be described as a noble work:

It all depends on what is meant by nobility. The predominant ethical tone of Malory's work is certainly not the bourgeois, still less the proletarian, morality of our own day. And, on its own showing, it is not the Christian rule of life; all the chief characters end as penitents. It is aristocratic. It does not forbid homicide provided it is done in clean battle. It does not demand chastity, though it highly honours lifelong fidelity to the chosen mistress. Though it admires mercy it allows private war and the vendetta. And it has no respect at all for property or for laws as such..
 That is all so accurate, especially the last line there about property and law.  You'll never see a word about law in Malory, which surprised me given that medieval English people in general were quite legal-minded, from what I hear.  But in the story, Malory never reproaches a knight for simply grabbing whatever he wants, provided he can win the ensuing fight.  Perhaps it was this attitude that T. H. White spent half of The Once and Future King fulminating against--Malory is perfectly fine with "Might Makes Right" as long as the might comes with sufficient valor and nobility.  To continue the paragraph:
It is distinguished from heroic morality by its insistence on humility. It can be very accurately called nobility if the noble is defined as the opposite of the vulgar. It does not condemn all whom we would now call 'criminals'; its displeasure is primarily for the cad. It is magnificently summed up in Sir Ector's final lament, which, so far as we know, is Malory's own invention: 'Thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foe that ever put spere in the rest.' There is the real, and indispensable, contribution of chivalry to ethics.
So, tell me what you think and thank you so much for joining me!

Friday, December 12, 2014

O Pioneers! and My Antonia

O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

I read these for the Willa Cather Reading Week event, and they were so good!  It's been a very long time since I read Cather, and I had only ever read My Ántonia long ago, so this was a nice opportunity to get to know her books a little better.  (Oddly, both books had the same foreword by Doris Grumbach.  Isn't that kind of weird?)

O Pioneers! is about Alexandra Bergson, oldest daughter of a Norwegian immigrant family.  When Mr. Bergson dies, she becomes the head of the family, determined to make good on the Nebraska prairie.  She is an excellent and foresighted manager, and becomes prosperous despite some desperately difficult times.  Her intelligence mostly earns her the resentment of her two brothers, who both owe her their prosperity, and the suspicion of neighbors who resent her different way of thinking.  Alexandra is a lovely person, honest, kind, and close to nature, but she is lonely, with very few friends.

I love the way Cather describes this little Nebraska settlement, filled with immigrants from all over Europe.  There are Norwegians, Swedes, French, Russians, and many Bohemians.  They're all wonderfully described as people, building a new American place with some good and some bad.

My Ántonia tells her story from the perspective of Jim, a friend and neighbor a few years younger.  Jim and Ántonia's family arrive in the tiny Nebraska settlement on the same day, but Ántonia's family has bought their land from a man who has cheated them by charging too much for everything.  They struggle terribly with their farm and Jim watches Ántonia grow up.  It's a lovely novel about human beings and friendship and the prairie land they live on.

I enjoyed these so much, and I will probably put Song of the Lark on my mental TBR list for sometime.  Maybe Death Comes for the Archbishop too?

Thanks so much to Heavenali for hosting a reading week!  Great idea.  I love this reading week thing, where everyone can just read one author and talk about it.  Freer than a readalong, still very fun.

2015 TBR Pile Challenge

Adam at Roof Beam Reader is back with his traditional TBR Pile Challenge.  The short version of the rules (go to the post to read it all):

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 1/1/2014 or later (any book published in the year 2013 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....
[snip]*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 just said that I wasn't going to pick my books for challenges ahead of time, but that's the rule for this one, so it's my single exception.  I've picked out my 12 books (and two alternates) and here they are:
  1.  The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
  2. The Travels, by Marco Polo
  3. Roll, Jordan, Roll, by Eugene Genovese *
  4. Muhammad: Prophet of God, by Daniel Peterson (this is a secular biography)
  5. The Makioka Sisters, by Junichio Tanizaki *
  6. The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn *
  7. The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  8. Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens *
  9. The Secret History, by Procopius
  10. Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  12. Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  1. Crotchet Castle, by Thomas Love Peacock
  2. Fairy Tale as Myth, by Jack Zipes

Asterisks indicate Classics Club titles.  About time I got to those! 

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015

I'm signing up for Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge again!  Here are (some of) the rules, which I have edited for brevity--follow the link to read everything and sign up yourself.

It's back!!  Once again, I'm hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I'm hoping to encourage bloggers to read more classics.  By reading and posting about a minimum of six classic books, one lucky winner will receive a $30 gift from or The Book Depository!

This year I've made two changes to the format.  First of all, there are no required categories.  That's right!!  If there is a category you don't like (or more than one), you can just skip it, and still qualify for the drawing!

Secondly, I've increased the categories from eleven to twelve.  I had so much fun choosing categories, I couldn't decide, and so this year I've decided to make it an even dozen.  This results in a slight change to the way I'll calculate entries into the drawing.  Here's how it's going to work:
•    Complete six categories and you get one entry.
•    Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
•    Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!

So without further ado, here are the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015:

1.  A 19th Century Classic -- any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic -- any book published between 1900 and 1965.  Just like last year, all books must have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify as a classic. 

3.  A Classic by a Woman Author.

4.  A Classic in Translation.

5.  A Very Long Classic Novel -- a single work of 500 pages or longer.  

6.  A Classic Novella -- any work shorter than 250 pages.

7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title.  First name, last name, or both, it doesn't matter, but it must have the name of a character.  David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote -- something like that. It's amazing how many books are named after people!

8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic.

9.  A Forgotten Classic.  This could be a lesser-known work by a famous author, or a classic that nobody reads any more.

10.  A Nonfiction Classic.  A memoir, biography, essays, travel, this can be any nonfiction work that's considered a classic, or a nonfiction work by a classic author.

11.  A Classic Children's Book.

12.  A Classic Play. 

At this point, I have no inkling of a clue about what I will read for all of these categories.  Next year's reading is still very nebulous in my mind, except that I want to give myself a little bit more freedom to choose whatever I want, so I'm trying to cut back on challenges.  I think what I'm going to do is sign up for my favorite few, but mostly fit my reading into them instead of coming up with a list beforehand.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Riffle of Reviews

That's my new term of venery for several reviews at once.  The credit goes to my husband, but I think it's pretty good, yeah?  I have 9 books here in front of me and a couple more ebooks that I have read, and I will never catch up unless I just throw them all out at once, so here goes.

Two African Classics:  both of these are on my CC list and come from a list of the 12 best African books of the 20th century (as selected by a jury).

Sleepwalking Land, by Mia Couto -- As Mozambique is torn by civil war, a young boy and an old man take refuge in a burned-out bus.  They find a set of notebooks written by one of the passengers, and start reading them aloud.  For each chapter about the lost pair, there is a notebook, which narrates the surreal journey of a young man looking to become a naparama warrior.  I loved the set-up, but it got pretty crude at times and I wound up kind of disappointed.  I can think of several African novels I've read that I would put higher up a ranked list than this one.  (This novel is translated from Portuguese, and I learned that Mia Couto is not, as I had assumed, a black African woman, but a white Portuguese-African man.  So that was a surprise.)

The Collected Poetry, by Leopold Sedar Senghor -- Senghor was a Senegalese poet (and also president) who wrote in French, and this massive collection contains the original French and the English translations of a lifetime's output.  I have to admit that I did not read every single poem--poetry and I don't get along that well--but I gave it a darn good try and I read a good chunk out of every section.  I thought it was good poetry, too.  There are some amazing long, complex laments for various prominent figures, and all sorts.

Senghor was the first African to be elected to the French Academy, and he had a lot to say about the ability of French-speaking territories to add to and enrich the French language.  He liked to say "assimilate, but don't be assimilated" to express his belief that Europe and Africa could meet and enrich each other without loss of culture or identity.  It was interesting to read about him so soon after I read about Assia Djebar's ambivalent relationship with the French language.

Two Inklings:  friends who loved to read and critique each other, and sometimes to imitate.

Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams -- I am planning to read all of Williams' novels, just fairly slowly because they take some doing.  In Many Dimensions, an artifact comes to Britain.  It is said to be the crown of King Solomon (always referred to as Suleiman ben Daoud), containing a Stone with incredible powers--possibly the ultimate power of creation.  The Stone can make copies of itself, so it's not long before there are several.  It's a thriller, sort of, but in Williams' bizarre way where ultimate realities break through and make themselves known here at home, where we are ill-equipped to deal with them.  Great stuff.

That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis -- This third part of the Space Trilogy is the strangest yet, and in fact it's Lewis' experiment in writing like Williams.  A newly-married couple, Jane and Mark, are both scholars at Edgestow University, Mark being a member of the faculty at Bracton College.  There are plans for a new scientific facility at the College, and Mark gets mixed up with it. (Mark's problem is that he desperately wants to be in the inner circle of any group, and will put up with anything in order to get there.) The ironically-named NICE is everything that can go wrong with scientific endeavor; it combines a massive superiority complex with disdain for law and absence of morality.  Jane, meanwhile, starts having terrifying prophetic dreams and is, most unwillingly, drawn into the company of Ransom (now almost a new King Arthur) and the people he has collected in expectation of a battle that will even bring the Oyéresu down from heaven.

My Spin Title: a play I read all in one sitting.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller -- Miller depicts the Salem witch trials, desiring that we draw the parallel between the hysteria at Salem and the McCarthyite Red Scare.  (I don't think it's perfectly apt, since there were no witches at Salem and there were, in fact, Soviet-funded plants in the US.  However.)  It starts when some teenage girls get found out; they've been dancing in the forest and making a slave woman do folk-magic for them.  Since they live in an extremely strict and tiny society, they are in far more trouble than they want to be in, and they get out of it by pretending that they have been put under spells by witches.  They are taken so seriously that they can exert tremendous power, and before long people are being hanged.  John Proctor and his wife are the central characters, and I can't say I love how Miller draws them, but it's a riveting play.  Oddly, Miller keeps inserting short essays into the text, not only describing the characters but entering on philosophic flights right in the middle of the play's action.

I've got five of Miller's plays in one collection, so I plan to read Death of a Salesman too and knock two titles off my CC list.

Two Books I Can Put Together By Calling Them Both Faith-Based: a novel and a non-fiction book.

A City of Bells, by Elizabeth Goudge -- This was a re-read, but I realized that I'd forgotten nearly all of it.  Jocelyn Irvin, ex-soldier, comes to the cathedral town of Torminster to visit his grandparents.  He needs to find a new career, but he's at a loss to think of anything he wants to do.  Torminster is a lovely place, though, and it and the people there help him to heal and find his calling.  When he finds a half-finished manuscript poem left behind by a poet overcome with bitterness in life, he decides that it is his job to edit it for publication.  It's a lovely book and this time I'm going to ILL the sequel, as soon as I remember to look up its title.

The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith, by Terryl and Fiona Givens -- It's sort of a collection of essay chapters on the many ways we can have difficulties with faith.  The Givens range all over, quoting poetry, literature, and works of faith from many places (Julian of Norwich is a favorite).  It's an unusual book, and one that I am not sure will have wide appeal--I'm not even sure it's designed for someone in the middle of a crisis of faith, more for general reading--but I loved it.  I stuck so many bookmarks in!  I particularly loved a chapter on the pain of seeing all the suffering in the world and the way some of us have difficulty finding joy amid that.  The Givens do not offer much in the way of answers to the issues they raise; it's more like they say "Here are some others who have had the same experiences, and kept going.  You can too."

One British Cultural Critic:  Grumpy but smart.

Not With a Bang But a Whimper, by Theodore Dalrymple

Dalrymple draws on his long experience as a doctor and generally knowledgeable person to comment on Britain today.  He is not pleased.  Essays cover topics from crime and the police to bureaucracy to the coarsening of entertainment, and there are several literary essays at the end, which were interesting to read.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A quick update

Hello, I'm alive, I'm fact I now have such a large pile of books to tell you about that I had better start planning some mini-reviews.  I've been doing a lot of yard work, buying books at work, and having a cold instead of blogging.  We are supposed to have a massive storm coming in tonight! 

I'm not terribly ready for Christmas yet, and haven't sewn a stitch (I'm starting to ponder giving people promises instead of actual items), but I did buy a lot of great books for various nieces and such.  I should be doing chocolates too, but I decided to pull back a little on that this year; I'm only doing a couple of things instead of over a dozen.  It's been quite fortuitous, since damp and warm weather, and then getting sick have prevented me from doing much.

Booky news: it's Willa Cather week!  I'm reading O Pioneers! and My Antonia.  I love Cather's people, and how her best characters embody this sort of ideal.

Karen at Books and Chocolate has announced her second year of hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  It's looking great and I will be signing up for sure.

Besides Willa Cather, I'm reading a book of Russian history that I'm determined to finish before the end of the year, Tristram Shandy (likewise, but I'm bogged down 100 pages from the end--ran out of energy for the moment), and Gandhi's autobiography.