Friday, October 31, 2014

It's Witch Week!

The event I have been waiting for is here!  It's Witch Week!  Hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review, this is a week dedicated to the works of Diana Wynne Jones, who invented Witch Week, the days between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day:
Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen...

Today is the first day, and we're going to have a readalong of (naturally) Witch Week, and there is a wonderful personal essay about Fire & Hemlock by Ana on Lory's blog today.  Go read it!  It really makes me wish I could remember my first reading of F&H, which I cannot.

Le Morte D'Arthur, Part II

How are you all doing with the readalong?  I'm finding the schedule to be a little more rigorous than I had meant it to be.  But I've finished Books VI through IX, and I thought I'd  better get going on X since it's soooo long.

I had not realized that Malory was so much rougher than many of the earlier stories that I'd read.  He is way more into the fighting and the smashing and the spearing and thunder, isn't he?  And nobody seems to be as pure and well-behaved as usual.  Gawaine is awful.  Arthur, the ideal king (except for that one problem), is fairly awful too.  I've heard that Malory was in prison for behaving like a ruffian, and it seems to have worked its way into his stories more than I had expected!

Interesting how, now that Arthur is settled into kingship and has conquered Europe, there is no more war--but everybody has to keep fighting, obviously, because if not there will be no point to their lives.  So they start hanging out at bridges or randomly challenging each other to joust.  You can't swing a cat in the forest without meeting a knight or three, or a damsel, or a castle.  Maybe a hermit.  No woodcutters or peasants, usually (although I suppose castles imply the existence of peasants, we just don't talk about them).

Interesting notes:

Book VI is the story of Launcelot, but this is Launcelot before he gets too involved with Guinevere, which I assume we shall hear more of anon.  In chapter 10, he even makes a speech, about how he is Guinevere's knight, and will never marry because then he would have to stop adventuring and battling, and he will never have a paramour, because then God would punish him and he would either be beaten in battle by a lesser knight, or kill a better knight accidentally and that would be terrible.  I guess he'll change his mind, but then he really does kill a bunch of his friends accidentally, warned.

For the moment, at least, Launcelot is a better man than, say, Gawaine.  Gareth actually stops talking to his big brother, because Gawaine "was vengeable, and where he hated he would be avenged with murder, and that hated Sir Gareth."

Tristram's birth in Book VIII is quite interesting--there's all this about how happy and loving his parents were, and then a lady who wants King Meliodas for herself kidnaps him!  And Tristram's mother, Elizabeth, runs around in the forest alone looking for him and has her baby out there, poor lady, and dies.  Meliodas doesn't die in this version, though; instead he re-marries after seven years and the new stepmother tries to murder little Tristram and gets her own child instead.

Apparently people will never learn not to promise boons without making some rules ahead of time.  King Mark promises a boon, and the knight who asks it decides he would like another knight's wife.  Well, there's nothing to be done, because Mark promised a boon!  I mean, other knights can go after him and fight to get her back, but nobody says "No, you can't just abduct a woman out of this room!"  And then she decides to stay with him anyway, because...I'm not sure.  She's mad at her husband and at Tristram, but why she therefore prefers her kidnapper is beyond me.

Sir Lamorak is supposed to be a really wonderful knight, but he sure does some strange things.  For example--Lamorak witnesses Gawaine abducting a lady whose knight is asleep.  Lamorak quite properly chases Gawaine down and proposes to fight with him.  Gawaine instead attacks the sleeping knight, who smites him down and gets his lady back.  Lamorak then decides that it's his duty to take revenge on Gawaine's behalf, and so the formerly-sleepy knight and he joust, and Lamorak kills him.  What?

Boy, this is a lot of jousting and fighting.  And I'm getting a little tired of ol' Sir Tristram.  Let's get some Grail questing going on here!

Our next installment will consist of Books X - XV, which mostly involves the vast Book X.  It's 87 chapters long.  If you want, you can shove Books XIV and XV to next time, but taken together they only come to 20 pages or so.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Supernatural Enhancements

Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

I can no longer remember who reviewed this a few weeks ago, and while I tried to look through my RSS feed to find out, I subscribe to too many book blogs for that to work.  If it was you, please tell me OK?  Like most people, I saw the cover and had to read it.  The trouble with that is that I was quite worried that the story would not live up to the cover!

In proper Gothic tradition, this novel purports to be a found collection of documents put into order for the reader.  The first page is missing.  We read a diary, letter, clues, and--since this is a modern novel, set in 1995--transcripts of recordings and videos.

A., the diarist, is a distant cousin of the recently deceased Ambrose Wells, and has just inherited his old Virginian manor house--complete with ghost and missing butler.  A. and his companion, teenaged Niamh, an Irish kid with acquired mutism, explore the clues and puzzles scattered through the house to figure out what secret society has been meeting there, what exactly the members are all on a quest for, and why Uncle Ambrose might have thrown himself out a window.  Someone else might be on the track too.

It's pretty fun, but also kind of on the dark side--doesn't seem so at first.  The ending is quite unexpected, the mystery pretty strange.  You're inclined to think that the two protagonists are going to be aggressively quirky with a capital Q, but they're pretty livable.  I'm not going to say it's the greatest novel I've read this year, but I enjoyed it (the end kind of turned me off though).  It is somewhat more cheerful and less objectifying than Carlos Ruiz Zafon is inclined to be (this kind of reminds me of that, only it's way more American in feel and not so broodingly Euro.)

I think this is my final RIP read--at least, until Witch Week!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 9

Tomorrow is the last day of the readathon!  Even though I haven't gotten to read as much as I wanted, I tried to make time even in very busy days for reading, and I'm happy about that.  Here's what I've done in the last couple of days:

Finished volume III in War and Peace; a little way into volume IV.

Some progress in Morte D'Arthur--hoping to finish Book IX tonight.

I read another novel by Emecheta, titled The Slave Girl--the life story of a favorite daughter who is sold into slavery by her own brother after their parents die.  It's set in early 1900s Nigeria, with the British becoming more powerful in their empire (that's in the background) and is very good.


Mysteries, by Knut Hamsum

A few weeks ago, Tom at Wuthering Expectations posted a casual invitation to join him and a few others in reading Mysteries with this:
All too soon Ricardo de la Caravana de recuerdos, and I hope many, many others, will join me in a reading of and conversation about Knut Hamsun’s 1892 novel Mysteries.  If it is like other Hamsun novels, some of that “conversation” will be closer to stunned silence and questions like “What is this?” 
Well, I could hardly refuse an opportunity to ask "What is this?" so I joined in.

Mysteries is an 1892 novel by the Norwegian Knut Hamsun (whose name confused me until the introduction explained that it was Hamsund, after the family's farm, but a printer's typo inspired him to drop the D permanently).  He was something of an iconoclast in Norwegian literature, determined to smash all orthodoxies and write "a new literary psychology" that was all about the stream of consciousness and its unpredictable nature.  In other words, he anticipated Virginia Woolf by a couple of decades, I guess?

It is certainly a weird novel.  The plot:

A stranger, one Johan Nilsen Nagel, arrives in a small coastal town and spends the summer for no apparent reason.  He is given to telling wild, contradictory stories about himself that always seem to end in some very disconcerting manner.  He helps people secretly, pretending that he is doing no such thing.  Nagel falls in love with the local beauty, who is engaged to a sailor, and he confuses her until she barely knows what is happening.  He pursues another woman, a very poor spinster much older than himself.  And he carries a vial of cyanide in his breast pocket.

The back of the Penguin edition calls Nagel (which means 'nail') a modern, almost parodied Christ figure, and the two women Mary and Martha.  I can't say I see it myself, but OK.

Nagel is a very strange guy.  He talks voluminously to anyone he can buttonhole, and he contradicts, makes wild assertions, and tells stories about himself which always seem to show him in a bad light (at best; they often end bizarrely).  Almost everything he does in public seems calculated to give a bad impression of himself.  In secret, he either carries out charities or, more often as the novel progresses, sits and thinks for long chapters in a stream of consciousness that is just as strange as the stories he tells.

Dagny is the local beauty, well-off and prominent in the town, with several suitors.  She has just become engaged to a sailor who is now at sea, and at first she enjoys hearing this unusual Nagel talk.  She is socially secure enough that she can take long walks at night with (single male) friends, and she goes on several with Nagel, but after a while his strange tales give way to pleas for her love.  She doesn't know what to do with the stream of contradictory talk and promises that Nagel pours on her. Is she attracted to him?  It seems more that she is fascinated by him because he is so strange.

Nagel also has an opposite number--the local wretch and butt of jokes, nicknamed Miniman.  Once a sailor, he has an injury which renders him only somewhat mobile; his uncle works him hard and he is tormented by many of the townsfolk.  Nagel seems to befriend him and secretly gives him better clothing, but their talks become more and more like rants and interrogations on Nagel's part.  Soon he is tormenting Miniman as much as anyone else does.

Throughout, Nagel keeps quoting a line which he attributes to Victor Hugo (but it isn't) that holds great meaning for him, but which is pretty strange to me.  "May your steel be as sharp as your final no."  There you go--a mystery all the way through.

Friday, October 24, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 8

We're getting toward the end of the readathon, and I don't feel like I've been able to read all that much for the last few days, but I have made efforts to make as much time as I could for it, so that alone makes it
worthwhile.  Today's progress:

I did, in fact, finish Supernatural Enhancements.  That was an unexpected ending for sure.  Tell you about it soon.

I'm close to finished with Book VIII (not IX, oops) of Morte D'Arthur.  I'll try to finish it tonight, but I'm also going to watch a movie for the Back to the Classics Challenge, so we shall see.

I forgot to mention yesterday that I had started Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington (of Magnificent Ambersons fame).  It's a quick read and pretty funny, so I took it to the girls' fencing class today and finished it.  That is my biggest thing today.

Little Brother

I love this cover.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

I picked this up because of Banned Books Week.  Little Brother was supposed to be the assigned book in a school-wide summer project, but it was pulled at the last minute.  (Read all about it!)  Doctorow, who runs the BoingBoing site, said that it seemed to have happened because of politics, so I was instantly intrigued.  Not because of sex?  Not because of any of the usuals?  This I have to see.  So here's the story (written, note, in 2006):

Marcus is a high school student in San Francisco, "one of the most surveilled people in the world."  In this not-too-distant-future scenario, schools give students notebook computers to do all their work (and keep tabs on them) and have cameras in the hallways.  Marcus, however, is a hacker kid who takes great joy in circumventing all this control.  He and three friends decide to ditch school for a couple of hours to hunt down a new clue in an international game...and are caught on the streets during a terrorist attack that kills thousands.  They are picked up by Homeland Security forces and interrogated for days.  One of them disappears.  The DHS uses the attacks to institute a sort of martial law and ever-increasing surveillance on the American populace, especially in the Bay Area.  As citizens are harassed daily and lose more rights all the time, Marcus and other young people start up a secret online community dedicated to fighting for their Constitutional rights.  If any of them are caught, they will be treated as terrorists....

This is an exciting story that is not quite as exaggerated as we would wish.  Surveillance and privacy are real concerns that we should be paying attention to--and keep in mind that this was written before Edward Snowden let us know that the most paranoid of us were not nearly paranoid enough when it comes to privacy.  Doctorow delivers the excitement and tries to educate.

The education comes at a little bit of a price, since the story often comes to a halt in order to execute an infodump about online security.  You will learn a lot about prime numbers, public and private keys, and other encryption issues.  Also some history about free speech issues, yay, and resistance to infringement of rights.  I frequently felt like I was reading something my husband wrote, since Internet privacy and security (and rights) are favorite topics of his.  I already knew about prime numbers and so on.  However, this was Doctorow's mission: to teach kids about these issues in a format that would be enjoyable and make the importance of it clear.

Doctorow wrote this in 2006, and it's pretty easy to see that he was not happy with the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, and the DHS.  Or Fox News, for that matter.  I don't really follow BoingBoing, but I'm thinking maybe I should start, because I would like to know how he feels after six years of a new administration.  Obama continued, and usually expanded, many of the programs that Doctorow so clearly disapproves of.  The NSA is barely mentioned in Little Brother, but I bet it would get some space now.

However, that is not what I would ask Doctorow if I could.  My question would have to do with a minor character who appears in the first part of the book.  When I read the description of her, I thought "gee, she sounds like Rat" (in Daniel Pinkwater's Snarkout Boys books).  At the end of the book, there's a bibliography of recommended reading, mostly about media and online issues, and Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars is recommended.  Doctorow is evidently a big Pinkwater fan--I found quite a few mentions on BoingBoing, such as this recent article calling him "Pynchon for Kids," which would explain a lot about why I like The Crying of Lot 49 so much-- and from there I discovered that Pinkwater has produced podcast read-alouds of his books!  Let joy reign unconfined!  (I have no time to listen to audio and so I really don't follow the podcast world.  Every time I try to listen to one, I get interrupted every 5 seconds, so it seems kind of pointless. The result is that I have to be told things like this.)  All that to say that my question is: does that character have a little bit of Rat in her?  Because if so, that is awesome.

Final conclusion: Little Brother is a book that most people should probably read.  For one thing, it's a good story.  Most teens will think it's great (my daughter officially endorses it), and adults will find it stuffed with things to think and talk about.  First Amendment, people! 

You can almost certainly find this book at your friendly neighborhood public library, as I did, but if not, or if you prefer e-books, Doctorow released it for free online.  Amazon is hoping you haven't noticed that, and will sell it to you on Kindle for about eight bucks.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 7

It's not too late to join me!
I got so little time to read yesterday that I didn't write a post to tell you so.  I did, however, do a whole lot of
librarianing, so that was nice--I purchased, I weeded, I referenced, I taught!   Today was not a whole lot better reading-wise, because I was hard at work creating a blue dalek costume for my 11-year-old for Halloween.  It's almost done now, and I think it will be pretty good.  So, over the last couple of days, I have read:

Some War and Peace--not a ton, but some.

About half of Book VIII of Morte D'Arthur.  We are well into Tristram and "La Beale Isoud" now.

Nearly all of the rest of Supernatural Enhancements--I'm hoping to finish it tonight.

I have just got to write you up a review of Little Brother soon.  I have a lot to say about it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 5

I ran around a bit today, didn't get all that much reading done, but here goes:

I finished Mysteries!  Yes indeed.  That is one weird novel.

The obligatory couple of chapters of Morte D'Arthur--I'd better tackle that more seriously tomorrow.

And I started Supernatural Enhancements, which I put on hold at the library because I saw the fantastic cover.  I am hoping the story will live up to the cover, but I'm not sure anything could.  I got about 70 pages in, but it's probably over 400.  It sticks to tradition--it's a found "collection of documents" in proper Gothic style.

The Time of the Ghost and Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

These two were both re-reads, but I specifically wanted to read them together and compare.  I had only read Ocean once, so it was really nice to go back and notice a lot of details that had become fuzzy or that I maybe hadn't noticed the first time around.  I know Time of the Ghost very well.  I have talked about both of them here before--here is my review of Ocean, and here is Time of the Ghost--so I don't want to re-state those thoughts.

When I first read Ocean, I thought it was probably Gaiman's sort-of tribute to DWJ, whom he famously thought a lot of.  Jenny thought so too, and then she actually met Gaiman and he SAID SO and that he thought it was most like Time of the Ghost.  I would like to know much more about his thoughts on that!  Thus this pairing of reading and this post.

I'm not a dedicated Gaiman fan--I always read his books, but I don't follow him online or anything, although I am always so impressed by his speeches on libraries and books and freedom that I really ought to because he says a lot that I think too, only he says it much better--(deep breath, that sentence kind of got away from me there) so maybe he has said something about his thoughts on this and I just don't know it.  (If you know of something, send me a link!)  Honestly if I met him IRL I would probably want to talk about DWJ and her amazingness, and ask him about that.  So.

Elements in Ocean that I see echoing Time of the Ghost include--well, most obviously, an old (ancient) female monster something from another...plane? that wants to suck the life out of people and anything else she can get.  This was a thing with DWJ, hungry mothers and variations thereupon, and I don't remember Gaiman doing it much before. He softens the idea with the Hempstocks, who are at least as ancient, but benevolent.  Also, a preoccupation with the local landscape and the particular homes of people, very detailed.  Anybody notice anything else?  Some images, I think--waving fabric, perhaps, and worms.

It's a good experience, reading them together, so I do recommend it as an interesting exercise.

One last thing--Gaiman opens Ocean with a quotation from a New Yorker article that was a conversation between Maurice Sendak and Art Spiegelman, published in 1993.  I remember that article!  A friend of mine was given it by his sister and I remember the dialog and the drawings on the page vividly. Here is a good copy of it.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by Marghanita Laski

This short novel sounded so interesting when someone else read it, and I finally ILLed it so I could read it too.  It is short; about 100 pages long or so and I suppose really a novella.

It's 1952, and Melanie is a pretty, rather fluffy young wife and mother under treatment for tuberculosis.  She spent nearly all of her pregnancy confined to bed, and now she is finally allowed downstairs, to lie on the large Victorian chaise-longue that was her last purchase before her diagnosis.  She happily falls asleep...and wakes up in 1864, in the body of another person.

It's an unusual and frightening story.  It reads like a domestic novel, not a time-travel fantasy or science fiction, but it's really scary as well.  It's very good.  I'm glad Persephone reprinted it so that I could get to hear of it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 4

Today I decided to take a little break from King Arthur, and focus on War and Peace and a fun book.

I read about 60 pages of War and Peace, and finished Book 2 of Volume III. 

A little bit of Mysteries and also a little of Morte D'Arthur, just not much.

But what I mostly did was start Little Brother...and read it all day, and finish before dinner.  It's a YA novel that mixes a bit of dystopia and a lot of hacker into a near-future possible scenario.  Great stuff, probably everyone should read it for the education it gives in online security issues (some of it is information disguised as fiction), plus Doctorow is clearly a Pinkwater fan like me and I would like to ask him about that.  More when I get to the blog post about it.

Really, I will write an actual post about a book soon.  I've got a pile here again...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 3

Whew!  I gave my talk today, and I survived, and I feel much better now.  I got to do quite a bit of reading in the afternoon, too.

I finished Book VII of Le Morte D'Arthur, which was the Tale of Sir Gareth, aka Beaumains.

Just one chapter of Mysteries, but quite a long one.

And over 60 pages of War and Peace (they are very large pages!), so I feel quite accomplished about that.  It's all preparations for Napoleon arriving near Moscow.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 2

Today was my super-busy day.  I meant to mostly write a talk I have to give tomorrow, but I also wound up going to the mall twice if you can believe it, and other things.  So not a lot of reading today.  But I did manage:

The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull, by John Bellairs -- an old favorite that I got in the mood to read.

18 chapters of Le Morte D'Arthur-- Book VII is the Tale of Sir Gareth, and it's longer.  I read half.

Tomorrow I'll get some book reviews done!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wonderfully Wicked Readathon, Day 1

Are you joining in the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon, hosted by My Shelf Confessions, or any other?  I think there's more than one right now.  Here is my end-of-the-day news:

I started reading Diana Wynne Jones' Time of the Ghost yesterday evening and finished it today.  What great characters inhabit that story--a set of sisters, who know each other inside and out, care for each other and fight all the time, and are very peculiar owing to the really terrible neglect of their parents.

A couple of chapters of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries--one heck of a weird book.

And Book VI of Le Morte D'Arthur: The Tale of Sir Launcelot of the Lake.

I currently have a truly ridiculous number of books checked out of the library, and little business reading any of them when I have a huge chunk of Le Morte D'Arthur and War and Peace to read!  Just 500 pages to go in that last one, woohoo!

Some of my ridiculous pile at the moment

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Uncle Silas

Not the cover, but could be!
Uncle Silas, by Sheridan Le Fanu

Uncle Silas was suggested to me for an October read, and it was a lot of fun.  It is a wonderful example of the English Gothic novel (OK, Le Fanu was Irish, but it's the genre): big old crumbling mansion, strange uncle, heiress all Catholics this time, this being solid England, but there are Swedenborgians!

Maud lives with her father and a few servants on their estate; their lives are incredibly sheltered and lonely.  Maud's father is old, self-absorbed, and distant, mostly interested in the beliefs of Swedenborg.  Maud hears a tiny bit about her Uncle Silas, a former rake who, rumor claims, murdered a creditor years ago.  Although Maud's father believes in his brother's innocence, few others do and Silas lives in utter seclusion, reportedly a fervently converted Christian repenting of his former ways.  There is also a scary, scheming, screeching old French governess who terrifies Maud.

The father dies and Maud is sent to live for the next few years with Uncle Silas, who will inherit her vast fortune if she dies before she reaches adulthood.  Here, she is even more isolated, though she does have her cousin Milly, but her circumstances get ever creepier and more unsettling...

This is a really good mid-Victorian Gothic thriller with bonus locked-room mystery.  Maud is pretty irritating at first; she is so completely sheltered that she is not much use to anyone or herself, but she learns to find some backbone.  The governess is really over the top, and Uncle Silas is creepy.

I'm looking forward to the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon, starting tomorrow and ending on the 27th.  I probably won't be able to post much at the beginning--I expect to spend the next couple of days in a frenzy of activity--but I'll get there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Le Morte D'Arthur, Part I

Here's the first check-in post--how are you all doing with the first chunk of Le Morte D'Arthur?  I found it to be pretty fun most of the time.  Malory is editing some very long French adventures down into what he must have felt to be more digestible chunks, and for medieval adventures they're not so long.  Parzival, for example, was much wordier.

There sure are some weird things in here though, aren't there?  Here are some incidents that caught my eye.

Book I, chapter 27:  Arthur learns from a prophecy that a child born on May Day will be his doom.  Like Herod, he stages a slaughter of the innocents by requiring all the children born on May Day to be sent to him, whereupon he puts them all in a ship and sends them off to die. !!!  I was really stunned by this story and would like to know just where Malory got it (besides the Bible, obviously, but I don't think Malory was the inventor here).  Inevitably, Mordred is the one baby who survives the shipwreck.  WHAT a bizarre story to put into an Arthurian tale.

Oddly, the story says that "some were four weeks old, and some less."  So they are all infants, but surely if they were all born on May Day they would be exactly the same age?

Book IV, the Tales of the Three Damosels:  Sir Gawain's part in this tale is really pretty strange, don't you think?  First he refuses his damosel's advice (rightly, as it turns out) and she just walks off.  He meets Sir Pelleas, who tells his tale of woe about the lady he loves who doesn't love him back* and Gawain promises on his honor to get her to love Pelleas.  Then he goes off and makes a stab at the job, but ends up seducing her himself!  In the ensuing mess, the lady is properly punished for not loving Pelleas, Pelleas gets a better lady, and no one seems to mind all that much about Gawaine's behavior.

*We could have a whole long post about consent issues in this book!  Suffice to say that Malory seems to feel that if a knight likes a single lady and he is a knight of prowess, the lady has no good reason not to give him her love and should be punished for her orneriness and being so rotten.  I'm sure it was a very common attitude.  Ick.

Book V: the Tale of Arthur's War With Rome: You have to kind of love this.  The Roman Empire demands tribute, and Arthur's reaction is not only that he will never pay tribute, but: "I have understood that Belinus and Brenius, kings of Britain, have had the empire in their hands many days, and also Constantine the son of Heleine, which is an open evidence that we owe no tribute to Rome, but of right we that be descended of them have right to claim the title of the empire."  And off they all go to conquer the entire Roman Empire.  Arthur is crowned Emperor and then trots back home to Britain, never to think of Europe again.

One notable thing about Malory's Arthur is that he isn't always what we would consider to be a paragon of knightly virtue.  He's only mostly a paragon.  I can't believe that anyone back then would have thought that slaughter of the innocents episode to be OK for a king.  And another thing Malory has Arthur doing is committing more outright adultery than usual.  Before he marries Guenevere, he sleeps with at least a couple other women, both of whom are married, and produces children both times.  Most writers, in my experience, try to avoid things like that, or smooth over them--they'll have Morgause hide her married status, or something.

Change of schedule:  I was going to have us read Books 6-10 in the next two weeks, but I've just realized that Book 10 is huge, and Books 11-15 are quite short.  My two-volume set has no table of contents, and I thought that Book 10 ended with volume I, which it does not.   So I am hereby officially changing the schedule: we will read Books 6-9 in the second half of October and 10-15 in the first half of November.  Or, feel free to break 10 up into two chunks to make it easier; whatever works for you is fine.  See you on Halloween for the discussion!

Well, I'm late with this post already and I'd better stop typing.  It turns out to be a truly crazy week for me and I didn't get to this as soon as I wanted to, but that's the beauty of book blogging--there are few rules and it's all voluntary, and so it doesn't matter all that much that I am 12 hours late.  Now tell me about your progress!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

As long as I'm doing the RIP event, I may as well tell you about the movie we just watched for the Peril On The Screen portion of the challenge.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, of course, one of the big classic alien invasion films!  I don't think I'd ever actually seen it before, even though I know all about pod people.  My daughter and I love Daniel Pinkwater, and he riffs on pod people in Lizard Music, so we both wanted to see it.

In the small town of Santa Mira, a doctor comes back from a conference to find that a) his old girlfriend is back in town and available, and b) several people seem to be hallucinating that their closest relatives are no longer themselves.  Soon, he and his true love are on the run from terrifying plant-based aliens who first grow into copies of people, and then take over their minds while they sleep.  Can they make it to the outside and warn the world before it's too late??

It's a pretty great movie, despite a little lack of coherence on the takeover process.  You'll see some familiar faces from the 50s.  Like so many SF stories of that time, it can be seen as a fantasy about the dangers of communism (or maybe brain-washing, or heck, conformity); the pod people lose all humanity, become completely alike, and work together in a hive-mind-esque way.  It was re-made in 1978, so I'd quite like to see that; I bet it's entertainingly bad.

Great classic movie.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Last year I read Code Name Verity, and it was amazing.  Rose Under Fire is the companion novel; you don't have to have read Verity, but Maggie is in both.

Rose is an American girl and she knows how to fly planes, so she has a job ferrying planes around for repair or transport or whatever.  She is nowhere near the front lines, and although she would love to get to Europe, the chances are slim.  It's mid-1944 and the Nazis are being beaten back, though, so when France is liberated, Rose gets a chance to ferry a plane from there.  Then she disappears. 

Rose has been captured by the Germans, who assumed they had a flying spy, not a girl gofer.  But they're not about to let her go, so they send her to Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp.  There, she tries to survive, trading bread and getting to know many different people, including the Rabbits--a group of women subjected to horrifying medical experiments.  

Just like Code Name Verity, this is a fantastic book.  The writing is great, the characters live, and the emotions are real.  I hope Wein will be writing books for a long time.  Check out her website for some great resources on the Rabbits and other events featured in the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Triple Package

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

This book got some notice when it came out because one of the authors is the Tiger Mother woman.  Turns out she's also a law professor and does a lot of this global analysis stuff too.  (I have not read the tiger mother books, so maybe she said that and I just didn't know.)

Chua and Rubenfeld sort of profile ethnic/cultural groups in America that have done unusually well: Jews, Nigerians, Cubans, Chinese, Mormons, and a few others.  They isolate three cultural traits: a superiority complex, impulse control, and feelings of inferiority.  Their claim is that these three traits, working together, in an open society, will produce a group that tends to be more materially successful than the average.  And then they delve into some detail.

I didn't feel like they did anywhere near as much analysis as would be useful.  They'll kind of jump around, spending a page or two on one group before moving on to another.  I really mostly picked the book up because the inclusion of Mormons caught my eye--that's the only group in the book that isn't ethnically based.  Anybody can be a Mormon.  But they restricted the working definition of 'Mormon' to mostly include people whose families have been LDS for more than a generation, even though some of the people they profile are converts.  Anyway, I felt like any analysis of Mormons was so shallow and short as to be nearly useless.  So I'm kind of thinking that if a Cuban or Nigerian read this book, they'd feel like the analysis of their cultures was useless too.

More usefully, the authors talk about why these three traits might produce a lot of driven, wealthy people.  I was happy to see that they talk about the (often severe) problems that can come along for the ride, and I was even happier that they spent quite a while talking about how "success" might not really be solely defined as "getting rich."  They also discuss how Triple Package traits can be crushed right out of a group or can be useless in an oppressive society; they work very hard to be fair.

Not a bad read, not earthshaking either.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Melmoth the Wanderer

Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

I've done it!  I read Eugene Onegin's favorite novel!  Melmoth the Wanderer was published in 1820 and is, in some ways, the culmination of the Gothic novel.  It uses every trope--in fact I'd say it over-uses most of them.  What could be more appropriate to RIP month?

The novel is a series of stories within more stories, and then more, until you wonder how you will ever climb out.  It is also, let me just warn you, the single most anti-Catholic novel I've ever read.  Hundreds of pages are devoted to the horrors of monastic life, the greed and cruelty of power-abusing monks, the Inquisition, and the power abuses of priests.  I am not even kidding.  Apparently Spain is populated entirely by power-hungry priests and their terrorized subjects.  Now, to be fair, there are a couple of good Catholic priests in the story, but on the whole it is just awful, the sort of tripe that was such common fare in 19th-century England.  Now, on to the story:

A young man, John Melmoth, is summoned to his dying uncle's bedside and left to deal with the estate and the legend of an ancestral uncle who (it is hinted) dealt with the devil.  He finds an old manuscript--even less legible than most old manuscripts in novels--and reads the story of one Stanton, who long ago searched for the legendary Melmoth but did not find him until he was imprisoned in a madhouse, where he is visited and offered escape, at a price.

Then there's a shipwreck near the estate, and the only survivor is a Spaniard, Alonzo Monçada, who tells his life story as he recovers.  This Spaniard is a former monk; he was brought up in a monastery and forced to take his vows, and just as he escaped he was turned over to the Inquisition.  Melmoth visits him and offers him escape, at a price.  Monçada instead escapes during a fire, and ends up sheltering with a Jew who lives underground in a secret chamber, and who gives him an old manuscript to read!

The manuscript tells the story of Immalee, a young girl shipwrecked alone on an island on the coast of India.  She grows up alone, with Nature for her parent and teacher, and the locals worship her as a goddess, the island having always been sacred to a goddess anyway.  (The description of India is hilariously naive and clumsy.  It's just so funny.  Hindu temples are described as pagodas, and so on.)  Melmoth visits her and tries to take away her innocence, but she falls in love with him instead.  Years later, restored to her Spanish family and now known as Isadora, she secretly marries him in a ceremony done by an undead hermit.  Meanwhile...

...her father, a traveling merchant, meets a stranger at an inn who tells him a long story about the family of Guzman and their travails in poverty--Melmoth offered to help them, at a price.  The father then runs into Melmoth, who tells him the story of an Englishwoman who is jilted at the altar.  Melmoth offered to help her, at a price.

After this we go back to Isadora, who is about to have Melmoth's baby even as her father is arranging her marriage....and at this point we start climbing the stairs back to the original tale.

Here we have six separate stories nested together, all of which combine their hints to make a picture of the life of Melmoth the Wanderer, who has lived for about 150 years after making a bargain with the devil.  He can go anywhere, enter any locked room, but he spends the time searching for someone who will take over the contract for him, but no one ever does, even though he chooses the most desperate and unhappy of people.
'No one has ever exchanged destinies with Melmoth the Wanderer. I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain that world, would lose his own soul!–Not Stanton in his cell–nor you, Monçada, in the prison of the Inquisition–nor Walberg, who saw his children perishing with want–nor–another'–
You can probably see why I say that this novel over-uses Gothic tropes.  It takes all of them and turns them up to eleven, with the result that I was constantly kind of annoyed, even as I was entertained by the sheer volume of melodrama.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

These guys are like John and John of They Might be Giants.  Except they have different spellings, which makes it more confusing.  Anyway, I read this a while ago, procrastinated the review, and am now just going to give you a short rundown.

I guess people kept mailing the Freakonomics guys with questions about how to solve giant, intractable problems--big things like world hunger or poverty.  Or about anything else anyone thought of, from breastfeeding to fracking to whether prayer works.  Since they can't actually solve world hunger, they thought they'd try writing a book that explains something about how they think about problems and how economics-type thinking might be a handy tool for some of us, too.  That way maybe people will stop bugging them.

It's a pretty fun book with anecdotes about soccer and lotteries, potty-training and charitable giving, and tips about how to think about problem-solving.  We often try to solve problems by incentivizing some particular behavior, for example, but that can easily backfire and will always lead to some folks gaming the system for quick profit.  So, they offer tips on incentive designing.  Stuff like that.

I don't know that it's a world-changing book, but it was fairly entertaining.  Especially the potty-training story.  I don't always buy Levitt and Dubner's sometimes-facile explanations for things, but they're fun to read.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

55 Questions About My Book Habits

Wow, that title sounds like way too much information.  But I had a lot of fun reading the questions and answers at Fariba's Exploring Classics blog.  It's from the Literary Lollipop.  So here goes.

1. Favourite childhood book:
Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry.  When I was a kid I read the Anastasia books over and over again, and they cracked me up every time.
2. What are you reading right now?
War and Peace, Melmoth the Wanderer, and Le Morte D'Arthur.
3. What books do you have on request at the library?
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, because I featured it for Banned Books Week and I've never read it; and Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero, because I saw the cover on one of my blogs and had to have it.
4. Bad book habit:
Leaving them all over the house, sometimes with random things shoved in as bookmarks.  I've stopped dogearing, I don't really write in them, and I have gotten better about the random bookmarks, but sometimes I still do it.  And I leave them in weird places.
5. What do you currently have checked out the library?
Er.  Rose Under Fire, Not I, The Slave Girl, a book about the Greek ideal of education, five plays by Ben Jonson, something about the history of spying in America, three things by Elizabeth Goudge because why not, The Tin Drum, a bunch of other stuff...I check things out in case I want to read them.
6. Do you have an e-reader?

Yes! I have an Android tablet with about six different reading apps on it.  I like the Kindle app best because it's easiest to read, but I also use Aldiko and Google Reader and I don't even know.
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
Two at once is the bare minimum.  Preferably four.
8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Yes. Because of all the challenges, I'm more mindful about what I choose.  This has worked really well for me, because left on my own I will subsist on a diet of fluffy mysteries and never get to the classics that I really do love when I read them.  I'm much happier with my reading now.
9. Least favourite book you read this year:
Probably People Tell Me Things, which was just utterly meh.  But I probably read something I really disliked, didn't bother to finish, and have now forgotten about.
10. Favourite book you read this year:
Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch
11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I try to fairly often, but I'm not so diligent that I read a lot of poetry or modern literary novels about miserable people.
12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Pop non-fiction, fluffy mysteries, good fantasy.
13. Can you read on the bus?
Sure.  I can read almost anyplace that will let me put a book in front of my eyes without actually becoming a danger to myself or others.
14. Favourite place to read:
The couch or my bed.
15. What’s your policy on book lending?
I don't mind, unless it's something that would be very difficult to replace.  I don't get the books back that often.
16. Do you dogear your books?
If it's an ancient paperback mystery nobody but me will read, yes.  Otherwise no.
17. Do you write notes in the margins of your books?
Nope.  Sometimes I mean to but forget.
18. Do you crack the spine of your books?
I try really hard not to, and am usually successful.  Many of my books are used, though, and come pre-cracked.
19. What is your favourite language to read?
English.  I'm not so good at languages that I can comfortably read others.
20. What makes you love a book?
Interesting ideas, real characters.
21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
Mostly interesting ideas or themes.
22. Favourite genre:
....fantasy?  Maybe?  Do I have a favorite genre anymore?
23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?
Poetry, I guess.  I always kind of wish I was the sort of person who liked poetry, and I'm not.  Everything else I do read.
24. Favourite biography:
 Ack!  So many fantastic biographies!  Let There Be Light, by Jacques Lusseyran, is my latest favorite.  Flying Solo by Roald Dahl is an all-time best book.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass...
25. Have you ever read a self-help book? (And was it actually helpful?)
Yes. I will read anything.  I don't remember using anything from any, though.
26. Favourite cookbook:
I mostly cook out of my head, though many of the recipes originally came from books.  Oh, the red check one!  BH&G Cookbook is the standby, and where my famous dessert everybody loves comes from.
27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction):
 Religiously speaking, Morton's In the Steps of the Master.  Secularly speaking, Kindly Inquisitors.
28. Favourite reading snack:
Chocolate and ice water.
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience:
Hum.  I don't know.  I do tend to avoid the books that are at the top of the list.  I never believe they can be as good as everyone says, so I'm pleasantly surprised when they are.
30. How often do you agree with the critics about a book?
Good question.  I guess I must not read reviews very much, because I don't know.  I didn't love Donna Tartt's Secret History, which I think was very popular with critics. 
31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I will absolutely give a bad review if I think the book deserves it and I actually finish the book.  An awful lot of the time I will just quit reading it.  I couldn't take Still Life this year, which I guess wasn't actually bad, just...I couldn't read it, so I didn't review it at all.  My all-time lowest review was for What the Tortoise Taught Us, and I encourage you to go read it now.
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?
Russian!  I would so love to read Tolstoy and Pushkin and all those guys in Russian, for reals.
33. Most intimidating book you have read:
War and Peace. Reading it right now.  I like it!
34. Most intimidating book you are too nervous to begin:
Les Misérables.  I might do it next year.  I meant to this year but Russian literature happened instead.  Oh, and Moby Dick.  I have a hard time believing I could ever enjoy that.  American literature is one of my worst weaknesses.
35. Favourite poet:
Did you see what I wrote up there about poetry?  I especially want to like Donne and the metaphysical poets.  Someday.
36. How many books do you usually have checked out from the library at any given time?
Maybe 15-20 for myself, at least 50 total.  Right now I have a lot for myself, at least 20.
37. How often do you return books to the library unread?
Quite often.  I check things out in case I want to read them.
38. Favourite fictional character:
Can I be really conventional and say Jane Eyre?  'Cause she is.
39. Favourite fictional villain:
Oh, definitely one of DWJ's hungry mothers.  I think Laurel.  She is really something.
40. Books you are most likely to bring on vacation:
I have to have at least three.  Something light, like a mystery or fun novel, something more literary, and something non-fiction.
41. The longest you have gone without reading:
6 hours?  If you don't count sleeping.  Probably when I was in labor...
42. Name a book you could/would not finish:
Still Life, by A. S. Byatt.  MEH.
43. What distracts you easily when you are reading?
The Internet.  What if something is happening?  Especially now that I have a tablet so I can attempt (and fail) to do both at once.
44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel:
The Secret of Roan Inish is my favorite movie, and it is based on The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, which I have only gotten to read once.  Someday I will get my own copy.  But it's a lovely movie--go watch it!

45. Most disappointing film adaptation:
The one that springs to mind is the old Narnia movie with a Lucy that doesn't look one bit like Lucy and cartoon animals.  It was terrible.  Another is the Mansfield Park starring Billie Piper, possibly the least Fanny-like actress in Britain.  The other one with the brunette Fanny was fine.
46. Most money you have ever spent in a bookstore at one time:
60 dollars, I think.  It felt hugely extravagant.  I am really, really cheap.
47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
I usually do not, because if I open a book at random I will just start reading it.  I have read quite a few non-fiction books that way--open, start reading, go back and read the first half if it turns out to be good.
48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?
If I don't like it.  I'm not a fan of lots of language, icky stuff, more than the tiniest bit of sex (you know how Bollywood movies used to not have kissing?  Those are awesome), or if I am just plain bored/not impressed.
49. Do you like to keep your books organised?
Yes.  I am a librarian, after all.  However, I am also quite a messy person, so there are piles, and every so often I clean them up.
50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once they have been read?
I keep books that I figure I will want to read again and will have a hard time getting.  Well, I go through cycles.  I'll get rid of a bunch, and then 6 months later I want that exact book that is now gone, and I am sad.  Since I buy relatively few books (compared to what I read), they tend to be the ones I want to keep.
51. Are there any books that you have been avoiding?
Tristram Shandy, but only because I want to finish War and Peace first.
52. Name a book that made you angry:
I read a lot of books that make me angry about the state of the world.  A book that made me angry about the actual book...What the Tortoise Taught Us, for sure.  I steamed about that.
53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did:
Phantom of the Opera!  Total surprise.
54. A book you expected to like but didn’t:
The Secret History.  August 1914 (lots of slogging there).
55. Favourite guilt-free guilty pleasure reading:
Diana Wynne Jones, who else?  She isn't guilt-inducingly fluffy, though.  For real fluff I read Patricia Wentworth's cozy mysteries.

Friday, October 3, 2014

TBR Checkpoint #3

It's time for another TBR check-in!  Bev has requirements: 

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. 

I've now read 21 out of my goal of 24 books, so I'm not doing too badly.

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
A. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
B. Pair up two of your reads using whatever connection you want to make. Written by the same author? Same genre? Same color cover? Both have a main character named Clarissa? Tell us the books and what makes them a pair.
C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?
D. Choose 1-4 titles from your stacks and using a word from the title, do an image search.  Post the first all-eyes-friendly picture associated with that word.

OK, I'm trying to come up with something, but this is the most ridiculously random collection of book titles ever assembled, I'm starting to think.  And at least half the books are non-fiction, without favorite characters.  

C. The book that has been on my pile the longest is, without doubt, Frankenstein, which I bought somewhere around 1993 or 1994, so a full 20 years.  I should have read it long ago!  It's ridiculous that it took me so long to read it, and it was really good too (except, as noted, Victor Frankenstein's being such a dummy).

D.  Frankenstein:


Arthur's Britain:     

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis

Cleo invited people to join her in a 3-month reading project of C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, and I happily signed up.  September was Out of the Silent Planet.

A linguistics professor, Ransom, is on a walking holiday when he runs into an old schoolmate, now working for an eminent scientist.  They promptly kidnap Ransom, put him in a homemade spaceship, and take him to the planet Malacandra, where they plan to give him over to the inhabitants as a sort of tribute.  Ransom escapes to the wilds of Malacandra, but how to survive in an alien environment?  He doesn't even know which planet he's on....

If you haven't read the Space Trilogy, I don't want to spoil it.  It's a strange set of books and Lewis plays around a lot with mixing science fiction (or, as he called it, scientifiction, which I don't even know how to pronounce) with his beloved subject matter of the medieval view of the universe.  I rather suspect that no one else has done that before or since!

I am too much of a Lewis fan to really be able to critique this properly.  I enjoyed it a lot and am looking forward to October's title, Perelandra.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Time to start reading!

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.

In other words, you have from today until the 15th to read Books I through V: “From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles,” and “The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome.”  In my edition, that's about the first 150 pages.  Let us off to the castle!*

*A virtual cookie to whoever knows that quotation. :)