Wednesday, October 16, 2019


Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren

Back in 2016 I enjoyed Dorren's Lingo a lot, so when I saw he'd written another book about the intricacies and quirks of world languages, I jumped on it.

If you take the 20 most-spoken languages in the world (by mother tongue), you cover just about half of the world's population.  If you learned all of them, you could communicate with most of the world, since lots of these are spoken as second/third/etc. languages.  So why not take a look at the top 20 and see which ones are what ones and what ones are who?

As in Lingo, each chapter covers one language -- he gives some basic statistics at the start, and then dives into whatever aspect of each language tickles his fancy.   He starts with #20, the smallest of the top, and the chapters are therefore numbered 20 - 1 instead of 1 - 20.  #20 is Vietnamese, which is a fiendishly difficult language if you are not Vietnamese, and Dorren knows this for sure because he studied it seriously for a good long time.

I found out a thing I didn't know, which is that Korean and Japanese are both linguistic orphans, with not much in the way of living language cousins.   I did know that Tamil is a language that's been tightly intertwined with nationalism, but I didn't know just how tightly. 

The chapter on Turkish was fascinating for its discourse on the history of Turkish language reform.  Ataturk, you see, wanted to make Turkish more purely Turkish, but the effacement of loan-words from Arabic and Persian, replaced with ancient Turkish root words dug up for new usage, went so far that 'reformed' Turkish was practically incomprehensible.  It was a relief when somebody went so far as to announce that Turkish was the human ur-language that all other languages were based on -- this allowed everybody to go back to the loan words they were used to and not worry about language purity.  It also illuminated for me a bit in a book I read some months ago, The Possessed, in which the Turkish author is bemused by her elderly relatives who insist that all other languages are related to Turkish.  Now I know why!

French, on the other hand, has insisted on language purity for a few hundred years.  Just what is linguistic purity anyway, and is there a point to it?  The more I read this book, the more pointless it seemed, and it's not like I was a fan before.

Meditations on language and power criss-cross the chapters.  Javanese is not popular, because it has all these variations depending on your social status (which I had to look up when I first tackled Indonesian literature).  Malay, however, has become a lingua franca over a large area precisely because it lacks those variations, and because it has successfully stayed out of nationalism.

Is Hindi/Urdu one language written two ways, or two different languages?  Depends who you ask.

There is a lot about Mandarin, of course, and a special bonus chapter on the Japanese writing system and its relation to the Chinese writing system.

Yep, I had a lot of fun with this one.  If I had the time and ability, I'd learn lots of languages myself!  I wish I could speak and read Russian and Hindi, in particular.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, by Will Hunt

This was one of those books that just called my name when it showed up at work.  I like reading about under-cities...

Will Hunt's house happened to have an abandoned tunnel running under it, and exploring that tunnel sparked a life-long desire to explore the underworld.  Upon moving to New York City, Hunt joined the many people who explore subway tunnels...and eventually he talked a publisher into paying him to write a book about underground explorations.

Each chapter addresses a different part of the world and aspect of underground living.  There are the catacombs of Paris!  Scientific investigations into bacteria that live deep underground!  Hunt is privileged to visit ancient cave temples in Xibalba, a really ancient Aboriginal red ochre mine, and  even more ancient cave art in France.  He spends 24 hours alone in complete darkness in West Virginia.  He tells fascinating histories and tracks down subway graffiti artists.

I zoomed through this book and enjoyed every bit.  Hunt is not too self-conscious or overly poetic (like some exploration writers I could mention).  I don't dare give this book to my oldest kid, because said kid would promptly form ambitions to explore the New York subways and, as cool as that sounds, it also makes me very very nervous.  Highly recommended, as long as it's not my responsibility to keep you alive on this earth.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Busman's Honeymoon

Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

I'd been meaning to read Have His Carcase, the Harriet-goes-hiking one, but I don't have it, so I read a different Sayers mystery that I haven't read for a long time.

Harriet and Lord Peter have finally gotten married -- in their own interesting way, which involves circumventing sister-in-law Helen's plans for a proper society wedding and a Paris honeymoon.  No, the newlyweds have decided to sneak off and spend their honeymoon week at their new country house, Talboys, which they've only just purchased.  The former owner promised to have everything ready for them to move right in.

Instead they arrive to a locked house; nobody is expecting them, Mr. Noakes has been gone for a week on business, and certainly nothing is ready at all.  There are even dirty dishes on the table.  Everything gets more and more fussed and ridiculous, as neighbors come clamoring in and chimneys fail to draw.  There is a lot of domestic comedy mixed with Harriet's musings on the new lights shed on Peter's character.  And then...Mr. Noakes is found dead in the cellar, having had his head bashed in.  Who could have done it, and why?

I had a lot of fun reading this; it had been a long time and so I had forgotten most of it.  A good addition to my RIP reading!  I still need a copy of Have His Carcase though...

My copy is a battered paperback from 1986 with a not-very-exciting cover, so you get this neat old-fashioned one.  My copy also has an ad in the back stating ominously that "By the year 2000, 2 out of 3 Americans could be illiterate."  So volunteer for literacy!  I'm glad that the literacy level of Americans doesn't seem to be quite that dismal, even nearly 20 years after the year 2000.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I saw this reviewed fairly recently as an uplifting kind of a book that makes the reader happy, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Professor Chandra is the world's foremost economist, and yet here he is, not winning the Nobel Prize.  Again.  Also, his wife left him years ago, only one of his three mostly-grown children want to talk with him at all, and he just got run over by a bicycle.  Forced into a leave of absence from Cambridge, Professor Chandra has to find something to do with himself.

He starts with a four-day retreat in California, and then spends some time as a 'visiting scholar' in San Diego, learning how to do something besides work himself to death.  He gradually starts to try to mend fences with his children (letting them make their own choices is a help) and even his ex-wife, and finally starts to figure out that maybe work isn't the only thing out there.  He has always loved his family deeply, but almost the only way he knew of to show it was to work all the time and try to make his kids get into Ivy League colleges.  Maybe they could just...enjoy being together?

This was not as light or fun as I thought it would be!  It was all pretty depressing at first and I wondered how this could be a very uplifting, feel-good kind of novel.  But I did get drawn in to his worries and travails, trying to figure out what life is about and how to be...this thing people call happy.  And it is funny.  So while I didn't find it to be this wonderful, life-affirming story, I did enjoy it.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Book of Ballads and Sagas

Book of Ballads and Sagas, by Charles Vess (and Co.)

Back in the 1990s, Charles Vess did a series of comics/graphic novels in which he collaborated with various writers to produce versions of old ballads (plus one Norse myth story, thus the 'sagas').   Featured authors included Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, and Neil Gaiman -- your standard 90s list of up-and-coming fantasy writers, in fact!   Now, those comics have been collected and reissued in a nice hardback edition, and if you were bookish in the 90s, this is guaranteed to give you some flashbacks.

So here we have (quick count) 13 ballads, surely a lucky number.  Most of them are reasonably well-known to anybody with a passing knowledge of ballads; there is Thomas the Rhymer, Barbara Allen, The Demon Lover, The Twa Corbies, and Tam Lin.  They're frequently given extra detail -- I was rather tickled to see that in "The Demon Lover," the girl runs off with James Harris -- or considerably more backstory.   and sometimes the stories are transposed to a different setting.  In "The Twa Corbies," a modern young woman in a big city observes as the corbies speak with the ghost of a dead homeless man.  "The Black Fox" features an Edwardian foxhunt.

"Barbara Allen" is enlarged to include a story explaining Barbara's coldheartedness, which is in fact to save her lover.  I don't know if the ballad usually ends with a rose growing from her grave and a briar from his -- as far as I can tell, it's an ending that has shown up in more than one song.  Reading that ending, however, rang a distant bell in my mind and I had to do some serious digging into my memory; once upon a time when I did a lot of camping with the Girl Scouts, a story about a rose and a briar was a favorite fireside song.  It took me quite a while to dig it up, because I was remembering the end, which doesn't match the rest of the song at all.  It's actually a parody of the ballad, sung in a weird pseudo-hillbilly style (!), but the way we sang it, it resolved into a plaintive last note.  It's barely visible on the wider internet -- I looked.  (Conclusion: the camp songs I learned were a strange mish-mash of all sorts of things saved almost at random, passed down through generations of girls who didn't know what they were singing.  I've also found out that one was a minstrel song, a couple were from obscure musicals, and one or two others were gospel songs.)

Other extras are included too, such as unfinished work that didn't get published, random cover art, and a very nice discography that lists many recordings of the ballads.  I spent a happy hour or so looking them up.  Evidently I should be somewhat embarrassed that I was unfamiliar with Steeleye Span, but if you aren't either, they're easy to find, and you can enjoy them too.

I enjoyed this book very much.  I'm always planning to learn more about old ballads, and I have both a compact Child and an Oxford Book of Ballads that I would like to read.  My trouble is mainly the same problem I have with poetry; you have to read just a few at a time, and I am bad at remembering to pick up the book for just a little while, but consistently.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Ali and Nino

Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said

I am now so, so far behind in my posts, but I really want to talk about these books...

Ali and Nino is widely considered to be the Azerbaijani novel; it's a movie and everything.  And indeed, it was a fascinating read and a good novel!  It was originally written in German and published in Vienna in 1937.  Sheer luck brought it back into prominence (instead of complete oblivion) after World War II.  But...who was Kurban Said?  It's a mystery!  At least, it was a mystery for a long time.  My edition says that Kurban Said was probably a writing team comprised of an Austrian baroness, Elfriede Ehrehfels, and Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish man born in Baku who converted to Islam and had to flee to Europe during the Russian Revolution.   After Hitler took power, he moved from Germany to Austria, where he became an intimate of the baroness' circle.  Wikipedia has a very different opinion and says that at least half of this is nonsense.  It appears to be a real mess, complete with accusations of plagiarism, and I guess it's all still quite a mystery. 

Just before World War I, in a Baku dominated by Russia, Ali is a wealthy, well-educated young Muslim.  Nino is a Georgian Christian girl from a prominent family.  And Ali has been in love with Nino since they were children.  Once he graduates, at about age 18, he wishes to marry Nino, but there are a few complications.  Nino doesn't want to be forced to wear a veil or be part of a harem.  Ali's father is indulgent, but wishes to postpone the marriage for a while.  Nino's parents are similarly hesitant (Nino is 17!).  Ali uses an Armenian friend as a go-between, but when he kidnaps Nino in order to marry her himself, things turn ugly.  Ali kills him, but spares Nino (to his friends' consternation); he goes into hiding in Daghestan.

Nino eventually tracks Ali down, and they marry immediately, living in young married blissful poverty.  Only the Russian Revolution takes Ali away; he feels it his duty to serve his country in the turmoil between the Bolsheviks and the Ottomans.  (There is a lot about exactly what a Muslim man's duty might be in the context of WWI.)  Soon the young couple have to flee to Persia, where Nino has to live in an empty harem; she is miserable.  Happily Azerbaijan declares independence, Baku is peaceful for a time, and they become prominent citizens, acting as cultural ambassadors between East and West.  But when the Bolsheviks reappear, Nino has to leave with their child, and Ali has to fight a hopeless battle.

There is a lot about East and West, Islam and Christianity, male and female, desert and farmland.  Ali feels himself to be fundamentally Eastern, a man of the desert and of Islam, but in his love for Nino, a Christian and European who looks to the west, he is able to build bridges with her.  Together they construct a life that exemplifies an equal partnership and love between the two; their values are always in some tension, but also always considerate of the other's claims.  The tragedy of the novel is that the rest of the world won't let such a thing exist for very long.

A great novel, and one I enjoyed a lot.  Recommended for those interested in Caucasian literature or cross-cultural romances.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Frontier Magic trilogy

Thirteenth Child
Across the Great Barrier
The Far West, by Patricia C. Wrede

This middle grade/YA trilogy is now several years old, but I completely missed it.  I like Patricia C. Wrede, who wrote the Dealing With Dragons books and generally seems to have a lively imagination. 

The story stars Eff, and tells the story of her life from birth all the way through her mid-20s.  It's an alternate history world in which magic is real and the world abounds with magical critters, many of which are highly dangerous -- especially on the Columbian continents, which are crammed so full of lethal animals that exploration and expansion are extremely difficult.  In a frontier Columbia where history is very different from ours, Eff tries to figure out where she belongs.

Thirteenth Child starts with Eff as a tiny little girl; her twin brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son, which makes him a powerful magician, but she is kid #13, and some of her relatives are convinced that she is naturally evil.  The situation is bad enough that her parents move out to the western frontier, and Eff grows up with secret fears that she really will turn out evil, which tends to short out her magic abilities. 

In Across the Great Barrier, Eff is starting to come into her own, and develops an interest in working with animals.  She joins an expedition to the West, encountering a Rationalist settlement, a plague of mirror bugs that eat everything in their path, and finally, a terrifying new species of lizard that may threaten everyone.

The Far West features Eff as a young woman, now working full-time in animal research.  The new species of lizard is so dangerous that Cathay has sent a delegation of magicians to investigate, and encourages a large expedition to push further west than anyone has before.  (In this world, Lewis and Clark didn't get far and never came back.)  Eff discovers more about herself, and about magic, than she dreamed.

Wrede really let herself go with the critters!  Columbia does not only have swarming weasels and mirror bugs; there are mammoths and saber cats, steam dragons and invisible foxes.  Some are magic, some not.  It's a lot of fun.  The history is so different that there isn't a lot of comparison to our world.  It's a neat trilogy and I enjoyed reading it.  And I must say, it was extremely perilous!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Every Secret Thing

Every Secret Thing, by Patricia Hearst and Alvin Moscow

Well this one was a little out of character for me, but after reading the description on another blog I was intrigued.  I knew some, but not a lot, about the SLA and the Patty Hearst kidnapping.  This is her version of the story, published in 1982.  As I understand it, there are some different versions, and some documentaries and whatnot.  I read some of a piece from the late 70s that definitely cast her as a willing member of the SLA.  But back to this story...

Hearst starts with a short sketch of her early life as one of four Hearst daughters, wealthy and privileged but not famous.  At 18 she moved out to live with her boyfriend, a teacher at her former school (you can tell it was the early 70s because nobody seems to have had him arrested; she states definitively that she pursued him, but that's no excuse).  They moved to Berkeley, where he was doing grad work and she enrolled as an undergrad.  And then one day these random people showed up and kidnapped her.

The Symbionese Liberation Army was one of the small, very radical groups that kind of littered the ground in the late 60s and early 70s.  They despised the Weathermen as being too weak with their symbolic bombings that weren't supposed to injure people, and had assassinated Marcus Foster, the superintendent of Oakland schools.  After that they had to go underground, which meant hiding out in a small apartment with no outside contact.  Their intent was to kidnap the child of a very wealthy and influential person, and use her as a hostage to trade for their two impassioned members.

They kept Patty Hearst tied up and blindfolded in a closet.  The bindings lasted some weeks; the blindfold for two months.  When the governor said that there was absolutely no way that any prisoner exchanges were going to happen (think of the ensuing deluge of kidnappings there would have been!), the SLA didn't know what to do.  Should they kill her?  Make different demands?  While they thought about it, they figured they should educate her properly, so they took turns telling her about SLA beliefs for hours; the rest of the time they kept a radio playing loudly in the closet so she wouldn't be able to hear their discussions.  With not much food (and that of almost no value; the SLA seems to have lived largely on starches) and no exercise or sun, she was malnourished and weak.  She figured she ought to play along and agree with whatever they said, since she didn't want to be killed.

After a couple of months of that, they offered Hearst a choice: she could join the SLA or leave.  This didn't seem like a real choice; she assumed that it was a test and they would kill her if she wanted to leave.  She'd been trying to convince them that she believed in their cause and that she no longer wanted to be a member of the bourgeoisie.  So she became a junior, untrusted member of the SLA.  By this time they had her convinced that if they didn't kill her, the FBI would.

This is what people argue over a lot; did Patty Hearst want to be an SLA terrorist, or was she brain-washed, or what?  I found that the story reminded me forcibly of Elizabeth Smart's story; here we have a victim who is kept imprisoned, without opportunity to communicate, and constantly harangued with a particular version of the world.  After a while, you lose your mind and fall victim to coercive persuasion, otherwise known as brain-washing.  Hearst did not try to escape her captors even when she had the opportunity; she says it never occurred to her, since as far as she knew, the only possible result would be her death.  Even the comments people made in the press about Hearst reminded me of things I saw said about Elizabeth Smart -- conjectures that she had voluntarily run away in order to live on the edge, things like that.  So I'm inclined to believe Hearst's version of the story, since it fits what I've seen elsewhere.

One thing this book makes really clear: if you take a very small group of people and cut them off from the rest of the world, they lose their minds.  The members of the SLA, who lived in a small enclosed place with each other 24/7, with terrible food, not a lot of sleep, and practically no fresh air, were losing their holds on reality.

It's a fascinating book and I'm inclined to search out the CNN documentary, which somebody told me had interviews with surviving SLA members (who?  a bunch of them died) for a different angle.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Four Stories (from Norway)

Sigrid Undset
Four Stories by Sigrid Undset

Long, long ago I read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter books and liked them fine, and I wanted to try something else she'd written, so I picked up this volume of four short stories.   The cover was not very promising as it said "Four touching, evocative, compassionate stories of 'little people' in modern Norway."  By modern they mean in the 20th century; the stories have no specific chronological settings, but they seem to me to be set before 1930, with at least one before World War I.   The book was published in 1959.

"Selma Brøter" is about a single lady office worker -- a spinster -- who observes and becomes involved in her younger co-workers' romance.

"Simonsen" is about an aging workman whose son finds him embarrassing.

"Thjodolf" concerns a sailor's wife whose only baby died at birth.  She fosters a little boy and becomes deeply attached to him, but then his mother appears again, and that sets off a whole chain of events.

"Miss Smith-Tellefsen" is the housekeeper to a motherless family in the isolated countryside.  She is fussy and the older children rather despise her.

They're realistic stories, and they're all tragic in their realism and their description of circumscribed, difficult lives.  They are well-crafted and beautifully written, but cheerful they are not.  I think I would have liked more...something.  Or less tragedy.

The 'other publications' page lists a book titled True and Untrue and Other Norse Tales, for younger readers.  That sounds intriguing!  I'd like to read that.

Fun fact though: Undset was born in Kalundborg, in Denmark.  That's just across the belt, as the crow flies, from where I lived on Fyn, but I've never been there.  It's just that the name 'Kalundborg' invariably sets off a song in my head.  When I got to Denmark, my host sister had just bought the new album by the band TV-2 and she played it every day for a month solid.  I know those songs very very well, and one of them is about...well, it's about the Kalundborg ferry:

I quite like TV-2, but this is a weird song.  I like it anyway, but probably my favorite off that album is Nærmest Lykkelig -- 'almost happy.'  TV-2 is not a very cheery band.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Three scary stories by William Sleator

The Boy Who Couldn't Die
Strange Attractors
The Green Futures of Tycho

We love William Sleator in our house.  My husband and I both grew up reading Sleator, and now we try to collect the books.  (Cheap on Abebooks!)  William Sleator specialized in YA/children's SF and horror, and boy he was good.   His most famous titles are Interstellar Pig (funny) and House of Stairs (Kafkaesque).

The Boy Who Couldn't Die -- Ken's best friend is killed in an accident, and Ken resolves that he will not die.  His search for a solution leads him to a woman who says she'll make him invulnerable for the low, low price of fifty bucks.  And it works; Ken can't be beaten up, or burned, so he decides to go for the thrills and spend his spring break diving with sharks in the Caribbean.  But at night, he's having awful, horrifying dreams of doing things he doesn't want to do.  What will be the price of immortality? 

Strange Attractors -- Max is excited to visit Mercury Labs for a tour, but finds that he went on the visit yesterday, and he has no memory of it.  Then the famous and charismatic scientist Sylvan and his daughter Eve invite Max over and ask for his help.  But there are two Eves, two Sylvans...who should Max help?  The imposters are altering the past with a time-travel device, and shoving the world towards chaos.  They're also manipulative and charming, and devastatingly attractive -- why?

The Green Futures of Tycho is another time travel story, and it's also one of the most effective horror stories around.  Sleator manages to pack an incredible amount of freakiness into about 130 pages.  Tycho is the somewhat bullied youngest of four siblings, and when he digs up a shiny thing, they all want to look.  It turns out to be a device that allows Tycho to travel into the future...but every time he does, things are worse.  And the device is doing some pretty weird things.  Is it even possible to save the future now?

Three solid SF/horror titles.  If you've never read the underappreciated Sleator, give him a try!  He's not too easy to find in the library any more, but he's well worth a bit of effort.

Monday, September 23, 2019

My Lucky Spin Number!

The Spin number was announced this morning, and it is....number 5!*

My #5 book is The Bride Price, by Buchi Emecheta.  Yay!!  I love Emecheta, and I am excited to read this novel.  Here is the synopsis: 

The Bride Price is the poignant love story of Aku-nna, a young Igbo woman, and her teacher, Chike, the son of a prosperous former slave. As their tribe begins to welcome western education and culture, these two are drawn together despite the traditions that forbid them to marry. Aku-nna flees an unwanted and forced marriage to join Chike, only to have her uncle refuse the required bride price from her lover's family. Frustrated and abandoned by their people, Aku-naa and Chike escape to a modern world unlike any they've ever experienced. Despite their joy, Aku-nna is plagued by the fear the she will die in childbirth--the fate, according to tribal lore, awaiting every young mother whose bride price is left unpaid.

*I had a hard time picking a 5 for this post.  There was a mystic 5 with a dodecahedron behind it (?? not 5-based, but pretty), a Spidey 5, so many good 5s.  I picked this painting, "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold," by Charles Demuth; it is a portrait of William Carlos Williams, based on a poem of his.

Love Your Enemies

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt, by Arthur C. Brooks

It is now too long since I read this (very fascinating) treatise for me to be able to write a good post about it.  So I hope that even a fairly mediocre post will convince you that this is a good title to go out and read as soon as possible.  Also, it's not a very long book, only a couple of hundred pages, so there's no reason to put it off.

Brooks asks: are you sick of fighting yet?  Of screaming at people who don't listen and only scream right back?  Maybe it's time we tried something a little different.  He figures the only way to get anything done -- to improve civic life, bring people together, look for some unity even when we disagree -- is to "practice warm-heartedness."  (He asked the Dalai Lama.)  Listen to others with an open heart, engage with love, will the good of others, and disagree with respect.

...there is a practical, albeit self-interested, reason to avoid contempt, even for those with whom you disagree most strongly.  It's horrible for you...contempt makes you unhappy, unhealthy, and unattractive even to those who agree with you.  Hating others is associated with depression.  Contempt will wreck your relationships and harm your health.  It is a dangerous vice...
My point is simple: love and warm-heartedness might not change every heard and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make you better off.  They should be your (and my) default position.
So Brooks (who is by the way no relation to that other columnist fellow Brooks) goes on to pile on the evidence -- psychological, social, historical, philosophical -- that we are currently stuck on a destructive method of engagement that mainly profits a few folks and results in a divided and unhappy society.  He sets out four rules for changing that, one person at a time:

1. Focus on other people's distress, and focus on it empathetically.
2. Use the 5-to-1 rule: five positive comments for one criticism.
3. No contempt is ever justified, even if you think someone deserves it.  It is unjustified more often than you know, it is always bad for you, and it will never convince anyone that they are wrong.
4. Go where people disagree with you and learn from them.  That means making new friends and seeking out opinions you know you don't agree with.

Expanding on those takes up most of the book, and then he ends with five slightly different suggestions, the first of which is "Stand up to the Man," so I like it.

I got a lot out of this book, I thought it had some important ideas in it, and I enjoyed it too.  I hereby classify this book as a Book Everyone Should Read.  That's a tag here at Howling Frog, and not a lot of books have it.

The last quotation I'm sharing is especially for my mom and other librarians:
I always suspected that Margaret Wise Brown was secretly moonlighting as a beat poet.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Three spooky stories by John Bellairs

The Chessmen of Doom
The Secret of the Underground Room
The Lamp From the Warlock's Tomb

I have spoken many times of my adoration of the king of children's Gothic/horror, John Bellairs.  Despite the hot weather making it hard to get into RIP quite yet, I was really in the mood to enjoy some nice Bellairs reading, and I grabbed these three books while I still could, before I put so much stuff in front of that particular bookshelf that I could no longer reach anything on it.  (I know you will be happy to hear that the carpet is now finished, and it looks great, and we now face untold amounts of work hauling everything back into place.)

The Chessmen of Doom is a particular favorite of mine because the chessmen in question are the Lewis chessmen.*  Professor Childermass' eccentric brother, Peregrine,** has died and asked his brother to spend the summer cleaning up his country estate in Maine.  Johnny and Fergie are keen to go along and have some fun camping, but of course, once they get up there, suspicious things start happening, starting with Perry's own ghost arriving to dispense warnings.  Perry liked to dabble in magic, and the partner he'd found to carry out his fairly harmless plan has something a good deal worse in mind.

Bonus: all-time great illustration.

The Secret of the Underground Room is the next book in the series.  The local priest, Father Higgins, has been transferred to a tiny village several miles away and that church is haunted.  Higgy finds a magical artifact, and then he disappears.  Professor Childermass thinks he must have gone to England, so he and the boys go on an 'educational trip' and hope to track down their missing friend.  They end up on the isle of Lundy, trying to defeat an insane undead medieval knight!

 The Lamp From the Warlock's Tomb is part of a different set of stories starring Anthony Monday and the eccentric but brave librarian, Miss Eells.  (In my head it's pronounced Ells, but I have no idea what it should actually be.  Anyone?)  I couldn't remember what this story was, and I was hoping it's the one where Miss Eells solves a puzzle by knowing a particular Catholic litany, but it was not.  I think that's probably The Dark Secret of Weatherend.

Anyway, Miss Eells purchases a pretty lamp from an antique store, but Anthony suspects that lighting the lamp is causing real problems.  Is the lamp haunted?  Where did it come from, and why was the crabby antique-shop lady so nice about selling it?  Trouble is afoot, and it's going to take a helicopter ride in a snowstorm to set it right.

Yep, I could just read these stories all week.  I'll have to find The Dark Secret of Weatherend when I can get to that shelf again, and read it too.  Nothing beats a nice run of Bellairs stories!

*and someday I'm going to embroider/quilt at least one of them.
** "The professor's father had taught literature at Princeton, and he had named his sons for characters in the novels of Tobias Smollett.  There was Roderick Random, and Peregrine Pickle, and Humphrey Clinker, and even Ferdinand Count Fathom, who usually signed his name F. C. F. Childermass.  All the Childermass boys had turned out to be pretty strange -- except, of course, for the professor himself.  he was perfectly normal -- at least, he said so."

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Green Face

The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink

Getting back into the swing of things -- I hope -- I'll start with a book I actually finished a while ago.  (As I type, the carpet guy is stretching the carpet, which seems to mean getting the edges in place.  Everything in the house is now so chaotic that there is very little for me to actually do except sit at the computer!  I already did the dishes.)

I've been meaning to read this novel for so long, but I only had it on Kindle, and I'm not very good at reading books on my phone.  This book turned out to be quite hard to get into; it starts off with a man going into a shop with a strange sign that is nearly unreadable on a phone.  But, as I mentioned a month or so ago, I found a paper copy at the giant research library I visited in July, and I read the first few chapters there, which helped me get into it.  Then I read a lot on the plane home, which got me about halfway through.  Progress was quite slow after that but I did it!  (Am I pleased that I did?  Read on.)

Gustav Meyrink was of German extraction but lived in Prague, which he hated, in the first part of the 20th century.  He failed at banking, tried translation, and also wrote a lot of weird stories.  The most famous (and so far, the best one I've read) is The Golem, published in 1915.  He followed it up with this novel in 1916, and then with Walpurgisnacht, which I read a while back without realizing that I should have read Green Face first.  Green Face is Meyrink's most mystical work, which makes it very mystical indeed; large chunks are given over to philosophical theory-spinning.

The story is set in Amsterdam, but I'm not at all sure that Meyrink ever visited the place.  I get the feeling he wanted a port city for his story, and called it Amsterdam while really writing about Prague, as usual.

So this guy Hauberisser goes into a magic/curiosity shop and has encounters with some strange customers, and also a terrifying old man with a greenish face and a black band around his head.   Then he finds some old documents hidden in his apartment, and meets a group of somewhat occult worshipers who are looking for enlightenment, or change, or eternal life, which is usually marked by an encounter with an old man with a greenish face.  He's probably Chidher Green, and it's implied that he's also the Wandering Jew.  Hauberisser spends most of the rest of the novel on a sort of quest to find Green again.  He also falls in love with Eva, one of the occult group members, and she loves him too but either ascends to another plane or dies, possibly both.  Then the world falls apart in an apocalypse.

It's a weird novel, not terribly comprehensible, and I wouldn't consider it Meyrink's best work by a long shot even without its worst flaw: the inclusion of a "Zulu" character who is portrayed in terms about as horrifying as they could possibly be. I thought he was a minor side character until about 70% of the way through, and then he wasn't.  I usually try to read books of the past without reacting too much to elements we now consider objectionable, but this was just super-duper-bad, folks, and I cannot recommend that anyone but a Meyrink completist (as I appear to be?) read it.

But you can have a few quotations:
Spectres, monstrous yet without form and only discernible through the devastation they wrought, had been called up by faceless and power-hungry bureaucrats in their secret seances and had devoured millions of innocent victims before returning to the sleep from which they had been roused.  But   there was another phantom, still more horrible, that had long since caught the foul stench of a decaying civilisation in its gaping nostrils and now raised its snake-wreathed countenance from the abyss where it had lain, to mock humanity with the realisation that the juggernaut they had driven for the last four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time.  [Meyrink's description of WWI and its aftermath]

 For a few centuries a diseased organism, so huge it eventually came to resemble a temple soaring up into the heavens, had been taken for culture; now it had collapsed, laying bare the decay within. Was not the bursting of an ulcer much less terrible than its constant growth?  [His opinion of Western civilization]

"Listen.  If one man has an idea, that just means that many others will have the same idea at the same time. Anyone who doesn't see that doesn't know what an idea is. Thoughts are contagious, even if they are not expressed; perhaps most contagious when they are not expressed."  [Meyrink invents memes?]

"From this example you can see that if he should appear to you as a man with a green face, his true countenance has still not been made manifest. But if you should see him in his true form, as a geometrical sign, as a seal in the sky which only you and no other can see, then know: you have been called to work miracles."

"The rationalists, who want to turn the people away from religion, do not know what they are doing. Truth is only for the few and should be kept secret from the masses; anyone who has only half understood it will find himself in a paradise devoid of colour when he dies."

Monday, September 16, 2019

It's the 21st Classics Club Spin!

Hooray, it's time for another Classics Club Spin!  Head over there to check out the rules, but they are very simple.  Choosing some titles, though, was a bit tricky for me.  A lot of my books are currently inaccessible, so I've had to be careful not to pick something that is not where I can get at it.  That said, here's my list:

  1. Sky Loom/Native American myth
  2. It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
  3. Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo 
  4. The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale
  5. The Bride-Price, by Buchi Emecheta
  6. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens 
  7. Amerika, by Kafka
  8. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
  9. The Leopard, by di Lampedusa 
  10. The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott
  11. Subtly Worded, by Teffi
  12. The Red Cavalry Cycle, by Isaac Babel 
  13. Conjure Tales, by Charles Chesnutt
  14. Tales of the Narts (Ossetian myths) 
  15. Amrita, Banana Yoshimoto
  16. Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  17. The Gray Earth, by Galsan Tshinag
  18. Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih 
  19. For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian
  20. First Love and Other Stories, by Turgenev 
One I should read anyway for Back to the Classics, and two are on my TBR Challenge list.  Probably I will not get those at all....

Are you going to Spin?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Back to Blogging...Maybe?

Howdy folks!  It's been a busy couple of weeks and I have this ridiculous stack of books next to me on my desk, waiting for me to post about them.  I will try to this week, but there is still some busyness to go, so we'll see.  Every day just seems to be packed with stuff I have to do!  This is not a real book post, this is a 'what I've been up to' post.

I've mentioned before that I'm a member of the local quilt guild, and last weekend we put up a mini quilt show at Bidwell Mansion.  The Mansion was the home of our town's founder, John Bidwell.  It was built in 1868, and this year is his 200th birthday, so there have been some celebrations, and since my mom is involved with the people who care for the Mansion, I knew something about it and I don't quite remember what happened, but it was partly my idea to get the quilt guild to do something at the Mansion this year, and it was decided to do a mini show of antique and reproduction quilts.  I wasn't in charge of it at all, but the woman who was had a change of plans that involved her being gone for a month before the show, so I said I would take over.  It turns out to be quite tricky to take over a project halfway through, but we muddled through and had a very successful weekend that made everybody happy.  Perhaps we'll do it again in future!

So here are some photos of quilts, which we scattered hither and yon around the Mansion.  These just belong to various guild members who kindly lent them for the occasion.  Another local historical place lent us their antique crazy quilt, which has a visible backing showing Bidwell Mills flour sacks, so that was a neat addition.  Our guild, by the way, is named after Annie Bidwell, John's wife, who was deeply involved in the temperance and suffrage movements.  John Bidwell actually ran for president on a platform of women's suffrage and temperance, which pretty much guaranteed his loss.

So last weekend I nearly lived at the Mansion.  We tore down on Tuesday and then I made sure everybody got their quilts back.  It is a bit nervewracking being in charge of twenty valuable quilts.

We've also spent the last few weeks preparing to get new carpet in two bedrooms and the hall.  Our carpet is long past its expiration date!  I have never in my life gotten new carpet before.  So we've been cleaning out and shoving everything easy into the third bedroom (currently unoccupied by my oldest, who moved out for college).  Once that was full, it was time to move the important furniture like dressers and headboards into the living room.  The night before Carpet Day, we moved furniture like mad, leaving only the beds.  And then our carpet guy let us know that his dad had passed away that day, and he had to go take care of business for a good four days.

So we're still not quite sure when the carpet will be installed -- I hope soon! -- but as long as we had an empty bedroom and at least three days for it to be empty in, we figured we should paint.  The room badly needed painting, but we hadn't figured on having the time or even energy.  So yesterday we painted all day long, and now the room looks fantastic as long as you don't look at the floor.  I'm calling it a blessing in disguise, and I sure hope that carpet shows up soon.  Right now you can barely get around the furniture and stuff in the living areas of the house!  It will be quite a job to put it all back again.

Oh, and Banned Books Week is coming up!  Less than 10 days to get ready in!  Oh dear there is so much to get done at work before that.  I am making ART!  Well, a collage.  Is that art?

Have you got reading plans for Banned Books Week?

Friday, September 6, 2019

My Quilty Weekend

There's been no time to post, because I'm helping to organize a mini quilt show of antique, vintage, and reproduction quilts at our town's most historic location.  I'll tell you all about it afterwards, but here's a photo of a lovely hexagon quilt made sometime before 1900.  I'll be back when I can think of something besides keeping this event on the rails!

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths

The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths (3 vols.), by Brian Froud, et al.

A couple of years ago, we bought these graphic novels for our oldest.  With the release of Netflix' and Jim Henson Studios' new Dark Crystal series imminent, I decided I'd better get with the program and read them.  I'm glad I did that before we started watching the series (we've finished episode 2; we are no good at binge-watching anything and like to digest in between episodes).

We got these in separate volumes; they were out of print at the time, but now everything is being re-published and you can get them in a collected volume as well.  So that's what I've linked to.

A mysterious storyteller narrates the beginning of Thra and its peoples.  We see the origin of Aughra,  the arrival of the urSkeks from another planet, and their eventual division.  Gelfling folktales are sprinkled throughout, such as 'How the Gelfling Maiden Got Her Wings' or tales of an adventurous sailor looking for the perfect song.

The major character here is Raunip, who is Aughra's son and kind of a patchwork creature with differing eyes.  He is nearly as intelligent and curious as his mother (and just where did the other half of him come from?), but he's also something of a rabble-rouser and very suspicious of the urSkeks, whom he sees as outsiders who should leave Thra.  What business do they have, building a castle around Thra's crystal?

By the end, the Mystics and Skeksis have divided and are just beginning to settle into their respective places

The art concepts, like all of the Dark Crystal world, is clearly the work of Brian Froud, whose imagination and love of grotesquerie is unbounded.  The origin stories are neat to read, and I like the folktales.  It should be noted that the new series does not exactly chime with these tales, and I kind of wish they did, but hey.  I can roll with it.

If you're a Dark Crystal fan, you'll want to read these.  Indeed, I expect I'm the last to the party and everyone else already has.  I include the trailer for the new series in case you live under a rock and haven't seen it yet, but really so I can tell you how much I want that book at 0:44.  I might have to make one.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Witch Week 2019 is coming

Witch Week is coming up!  As we know, the days between October 31 and November 5 are Witch Week, when magic is abroad in the world.  To celebrate, Chris at Calmgrove and Lizzie Ross  will host the sixth year of Witch Week, and the theme this year is.....VILLAINS.

 They'll be featuring posts about:  Shakespeare!  DWJ!  Joan Aiken!  Narnia!  and the readalong will be Cart & Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones.  Oooo, I'm getting excited just thinking about it.  Hooray for Witch Week!

R. I. P. XIV

RIP completely snuck up on me, as I suppose is appropriate.  But if 20 Books of Summer is still going on, and it's 95 degrees out, how can it be RIP already?  Well, luckily for us, it just can.  September 1st happens no matter what the weather.  And so here we are, for the 14th year of Readers Imbibing Peril.  The rules are easy and general:
The purpose of the R.I.P. Challenge is to enjoy books that could be classified as:
Dark Fantasy.
The emphasis is never on the word challenge, instead it is about coming together as a community and embracing the autumnal mood, whether the weather is cooperative where you live or not.
The goals are simple. 
1. Have fun reading.
2. Share that fun with others.
As we do each and every year, there are multiple levels of participation (Perils)...
Ooo, new color scheme!  Nice!
 Head on over there to check out the Perils and decide what you want to do!

I walked around the house and gathered a few titles (a difficult task; we're prepping to put new carpet in two bedrooms and the books are double-stacked and all over the place where the carpet will not be).  I'm not sure yet what I'm going to read, but I'm finding myself in a mood to read some old kids' favorites, like William Sleator and John Bellairs.  I also have a few things on my TBR pile that seem appropriate, and though I read mysteries like candy all year long, I did grab a couple.  Recently a large box completely filled with my favorite kinds of mysteries was donated, and most of them were not in good enough shape to sell, so I got some Georgette Heyers I'd never read, and a few Sayers I didn't have.  I've been wanting to re-read Busman's Honeymoon for quite some time.  I also had a lucky strike recently to find some of the lesser-known Elizabeth Peters mysteries -- I'm reasonably fond of the Peabodys, but what I really like are the one-off Gothics and the Jacqueline Kirbys. 

So my collection of RIP reads is not exactly planned and coordinated, but it does look like fun!  Will you be joining RIP?


Friday, August 30, 2019

Sixpence in Her Shoe

Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley

I don't actually know that much about the mid-century American poet Phyllis McGinley, except that she won a Pulitzer Prize.  And she wrote this book, which is about "the world's oldest profession," housewifery, specifically as practiced in modern America.  Three sections on Wife, House, and Family organize a selection of chapters/essays, many of which ran in the Ladies' Home Journal or other magazines in the 1950s, and were then collected and edited into a book in 1960.

McGinley's thesis here is that the domestic calling is an honorable one, not to be despised -- not even by intelligent and educated women -- which can be blended, or not, with a profession, as the individual woman prefers.  Every so often she is clearly rebutting Betty Friedan.

It's a fun and refreshing read.  McGinley is a witty, humorous writer, and I love reading books about housekeeping.  (I'm not quite so good at the actual housekeeping, but I'm improving!)  Essays discuss topics such as:
  • the aggravating habit some folks have of assuming that a college education is wasted on a woman who chooses to stay home and raise a family (which still crops up today!)
  • the pleasures of thrift, as opposed to cheeseparing
  • what kind of cookbook she would write
  • the fun of slow house decoration
  • why you should be a casual mother
  • manners are morals!
and many more.  The section on children was fascinating to read, because here she is in the 1950s complaining about exactly the same things that people are worried about today:  over-protected, over-scheduled children with too many toys and academic pressure put on children far too young.  My goodness, just think what she'd say now! 

Phyllis McGinley clearly liked cooking a lot more than I do.  I got a little tired in the many chapters about the fun and creative art of cooking.

I enjoyed this book, and I think I'll read more about housekeeping soon.  I've been meaning to re-read the introduction to Home Comforts, which is one of the most inspiring housekeeping pieces I've ever read.  (My time is currently curtailed by rather a lot of actual house projects; we painted the hall and bathroom, got a bad piece of ceiling and a broken pocket door fixed, and there's one more project on the way.  That pocket door fix -- between the kitchen and the laundry room -- is very exciting; it broke years ago, the track was no longer available, this is the third or fourth guy to look at it, and he actually managed to fix it!  Yippee!  Finally, I don't have to listen to my washing machine any more!)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Summerbook #20: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola

Woohoo, I have done it!  I honestly did not think I would be able to finish 20 of the books on my list.  I added some extras, especially when I went off to Illinois and suddenly had access to new stuff, but I was hoping to get 20 from my actual list.  I finished on August 27, so about 6 days before the deadline.  Woot!  Well, on to our novel...

Amos Tutuola was born in 1920 in Nigeria; according to his account, he was a good student and had a great interest in his Yoruban culture's folktales.  He became a good storyteller in school, and so years later when he saw magazine ads for books of African tales, he realized he could do that too.  He wrote his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town, in a short span of time in 1946, but then wasn't sure what to do with it.  After seeing a magazine ad for a publisher that solicited manuscripts, he sent it off to them, and they (being a religious publishing house) passed it on to a more general outfit.  It was published in 1952 and quickly gained fame in the West, and mixed reviews at home.  Some thought the writing (which was in English) was embarrassingly ungrammatical and would reinforce stereotypes of primitive Africans --and some American reviews bore this out, although the first review, by Dylan Thomas, was enthusiastic and did much to promote it.  Others defended the language, pointing out that great writers mess with grammar and write in unusual styles all the time.

Amos Tutuola
The story is that the narrator, right from a young age, loves to do nothing but drink palm wine.  His father gives him a palm farm and finds him a tapster, an expert who can produce lots of palm wine.  Everything is fine until the tapster dies, and the narrator can't find another one.  He goes looking.  Soon he meets a lovely girl who has seen a 'complete gentleman' in town and followed him to see where he lived -- despite his warning.  The gentleman returns all the body parts he borrowed until he is just a Skull, and keeps the girl in his house.  Together, the drinkard and the girl escape, marry, and set out on a long journey through the bush to find the town of Deads, to try to convince the dead tapster to work for the drinkard again.  They go through incredible adventures and ordeals on the way, meeting monsters and creatures of many kinds.

Tutuola then wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which I think is supposed to feature the same narrator, maybe.  Oddly, The Palm-Wine Drinkard refers to incidents in this story, even though it was written a few years later.  He must have already had this novel in his mind.  The narrator tells of his life as a little boy; his village is attacked by soldiers, and he and his brother run away.  They get separated, and he wanders off into the bush.  He then spends years meeting various kinds of ghosts, getting turned into different shapes (such as a cow, or a monster), and always trying to find his way back home.  My favorite were the smelling-ghosts, which smell horrible.

The novels are built on the basis of Yoruban cosmology, with many elements of tradition and folktale, but they are not collections of folktales retold.  They feel nightmarish and dreamlike, with odd transitions and strange events.   The language is unusual to Western ears, being like the idiomatic English spoken by young people in Nigeria in the 50s, and it's also wonderful to read, full of wit and interesting expressions. 
...I was looking for a safe place to sleep. After a few minutes I saw a large tree which was near that place and there was a huge hole in its body which could contain a person. Not knowing that this hole was the home of an armless ghost who had been expelled from his town which belonged only to all the armless ghosts. When I entered this hole I travelled to a part of it which contained me, but it still went further, so I laid down and fell asleep at the same time, because I had no chance to sleep or rest once for all the time that I spent inside that pitcher. But when it was about twelve o’clock in the midnight this armless ghost who was the owner of the hole wanted to go out, of course, I did not know that somebody was living there before I entered. 
I enjoyed reading both these novels, which are both quest stories, but based in a different kind of cosmology than I am used to.  The results are just really neat and intriguing.  The Palm-Wine Drinkard is also, of course, a landmark in African literature.

A funny note: just as I was nearly finished reading this book, I came upon a reference in an article to a 1981 album by Brian Eno and David Byrne titled "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts."  Although I like the Talking Heads, I wasn't familiar with this album.  I learned that it was innovative for featuring a lot of sampling, especially of African and Middle Eastern sounds, and I was disappointed to find that neither Eno or Byrne had actually read the novel; they just thought the title sounded great for their album.  Come on guys, you can do better than that!  I mean, really, don't you think that if you're going to name your album after a book, you ought to read the book?

Speaking of David Byrne, hearing his name always reminds me of this song, though this isn't my favorite recording of said song.  It is, however, the one available on the internet, and there isn't that much.  Check out "Northdakota Chrome" on the same album...

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Summerbook #19: Purge

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This was a pretty harrowing novel, folks.  It was interesting, and well-written, but I don't think I'll be revisiting it and it should maybe come with a warning on the cover.

Aliide Truu, an old woman, lives in her farmhouse on the edge of the Estonian forest.  It's 1992, and an unknown young woman shows up in front of her house.   Zara is running from the terrifying men who captured and trafficked her, but she also has a reason for searching out this particular house.

Neither of the women want to tell their stories, but they each need to find out who the other is.  The reader, meanwhile, is given access to chapters of their histories; Aliide remembers successive waves of German and Soviet occupation, her sister's marriage to the man Aliide loved, and just what she did to survive, and to get what she wanted.  Zara grew up in Vladivostok, surrounded by her mother's and grandmother's memories and fears.  When she wanted to earn money in the West for medical school, she fell into a trap, as did countless young women like her.  What are these two going to do in order to escape their pasts?

As I said, this is a difficult novel to read.  Oksanen is not pulling her punches and there are descriptions of what Zara is put through.  It's also, however, a story about some pieces of history that aren't very distant from us, but that are not well remembered.  So you might want to try it, but know what you're getting into.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Summerbook #18: Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France

I didn't know anything about Marie de France, and I wanted to find out, so here we go.  Marie is the earliest French woman poet we know of, and she was writing in the late 1100s.  It seems that she was born in France and then moved to England, and we do not know her real name.  She just said (in Old French) "My name is Marie, and I am from France," and that's what we've got.  Scholars have looked at several Maries of the day, but there is no certain identification.   She was almost certainly known at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her poems were popular in  aristocratic social circles.

Marie wrote "lays," that is, narrative poems of a few hundred lines each, and they were based on Breton tales.  We have twelve of these stories.  The majority of them are about knights who fall in love with ladies, or vice-versa, and how they evade one or more spouses in order to carry on affairs.  One lay tells an episode in the story of Tristram and Iseut, and two others place their knights in the court of Arthur.

There is the story of the nightingale, in which a lady spends every night at her window so she can see her lover at his window.  She tells her husband that she loves the song of the nightingale so much that she wants to listen to it all the time.  He traps and kills the nightingale.

In Milun, a knight loves a maiden, which causes a different problem; the resulting baby has to be sent to an aunt in Northumbria to be raised secretly.  Years later, Milun and his unknown son nearly kill each other in single combat before discovering their relationship and finding Mom, whose husband has just conveniently died, so they all live happily ever after.

My very favorite story, however, is a little different.  In Bisclavret, the knight becomes a wolf for a few days a week, and when his wife learns his secret, she betrays him by getting another knight to hide his clothes.  Without his clothes, poor Bisclavret is unable to change back, and his wife marries the other knight.  The wolf meets the king out hunting, and is so polite and intelligent that he becomes a beloved pet.  A few years later, the king visits the knight and his wife, and Bisclavret leaps at her and bites off her nose.  She confesses her crime, and the clothes are brought to the wolf, but he does nothing until the chamberlain points out that he must be embarrassed and they should let him transform in privacy.  Bisclavret becomes a man again, and the traitorous couple settle far away, where many of their descendants "were born without noses and lived noseless."

Here's an odd bit out of Guigemar:
The lord who ruled over the city was a very old man whose wife was a lady of high birth.  She was noble, courtly, beautiful and wise, and he was exceedingly jealous, as befitted his nature, for all old men are jealous and hate to be cuckolded.  Such is the perversity of age. 
Yes, so odd of him not to like being cheated on.  These are the problems you get when marriages are arranged without reference to the people involved...

I'm glad to have finally gotten around to reading these famous little stories.  They're not difficult or long, so they're a good introduction to medieval courtly literature.  I know romantic adultery was all the rage back in 1180, and since aristocrats didn't generally get to choose their spouses, love was not part of the deal.  But it's still not very fun to read about.  I liked the werewolf story, though.