Monday, October 31, 2011

This is Halloween...

Happy Halloween to tender lumplings everywhere! These are a few of my favorite things:

Edward Gorey, of course. Who else would come up with the title "The Helpless Doorknob"? He wore fur coats and Converse sneakers! Gorey said, "My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like." If you're lucky, you can find a number of his collected works most easily in the three Amphigorey books.

M. R. James was a late Victorian/early Edwardian scholar who wrote lovely creepy stories for fun. I've recently been lucky enough to get his collected stories in two volumes, so I'll review those soon. They are great stuff.

James and Gorey were both inspirations for John Bellairs, who I've reviewed before here. Spooky, scholarly kids' stories that are a bit heavy on the repetition inherent in series, but much better-written and more interesting than most kids' horror. (Do not even say the name R. L. Stine in the same paragraph! Ptui on R. L. Stine!)

I'm not a big Lovecraft fan, but I do enjoy some of his stories, especially "The Colour Out of Space" (which by the way was lifted by Bellairs for one of his later novels).

The best Halloween event is the Annual Pumpkin Drop at Chico State, where the physics department gets Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton to use pumpkins to test competing theories of gravity. Einstein is the MC² and sees fair play done. The grand finale features pumpkins dropped to the 1812 Overture! If you want to skip to the good part, go to 1:20.

No rock band does (well, did) Halloween like Oingo Boingo! Sadly their videos are difficult to find online, but here's Dead Man's Party. Nice footage of the band, interspersed with dopey footage from a lame movie the song was featured in. My true favorite is Elevator Man, but I haven't ever found a video for that, and anyway this is the Halloweeniest.

And finally, a great Halloween movie!

My very favorite thing about Halloween, though, is how neighborly it is. Everyone is out in their costumes, having fun and seeing their friends and neighbors, and it's all so friendly and fun. It's the only time of year when we all go out and talk with everybody we see. Creative costumes, decorations, and plenty of candy are great too!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Week 44: The Color of Water

The Color of Water, by James McBride

James McBride's book honoring his mother tells her unusual story. The chapters alternate between her own words explaining her life, and McBride's chapters telling about their family life as he grew up.

McBride's mother never talked about her past and he spent years trying to get her to talk about it. She was white and Jewish, and married a black man in 1942. She became a Christian and together they started a church in the New York housing project where they lived. She had eight children before her husband suddenly died, and after a while she remarried and had four more before she was widowed for a second time. Her entire adult life was spent as the only white woman living in an entirely black area, trying to raise 12 children in poverty, and living out her determination to get all of them to college. She always said that money wasn't important; only education was important.

It's a wonderful book and an amazing story.

Week 44: One of Our Thursdays is Missing

One of Our Thursdays is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

If you love books, but have never read Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, you have missed a wonderful treat. This is the sixth book, and is actually told from the point of view of the written Thursday Next, who stars in her own series of books. Written Thursday is a citizen of the BookWorld, and she's hunting for the real Thursday, who is missing. She's doing her best to do what the real Thursday would do, and wild adventure follows.

Quite a lot of this story is given over to world-building. Fforde must have had a whole lot of fun fleshing out the BookWorld, and he spends time showing it off. I know that's something of a no-no for fantasy writers, but it's so great that I think you should read the book just to enjoy all the amazing ideas he came up with. I had to stop about every other page and read a bit aloud to my husband, and I laughed a lot. Yay Thursday Next!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Week 43: Aftermath

Aftermath: the Remnants of War, by Donovan Webster

I found this book to be absolutely fascinating, and zoomed through it without putting it down much. Cheerful it is not, but it's very valuable reading. Webster tours several different battlefields of the 20th century, looking at what war has done to the landscape and the people.

The first stop is France. It turns out that France is absolutely stuffed with unexploded ordnance from World War I (as are other spots). Trench warfare meant that armies stayed put for long periods of time, lobbying enormous amounts of ammunition at each other. It was fairly new technology, so a good 25% of the shells were duds. And they just stayed where they fell. Large areas of France are still cordoned off because they're full of the stuff--and dud shells can easily explode. Demining teams collect and destroy hundreds of tons every year, but it will take decades or longer to finish the job. I found an online article about it with some good pictures.

Then Webster goes to the steppes of Russia, outside Volgograd. Volgograd was once Stalingrad, and at the Battle of Stalingrad, an enormous chunk of the German Wehrmacht was wiped out (partly through lack of supplies). Afterwards, no one came to clean it up. Hardly anyone outside of the area even knew it was there until the 90's. That was a fascinating chapter.

After that, it's off to the deserts of Nevada to look at the consequences of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. The Army was doing a lot of nuclear bomb testing, but they weren't too worried about the side effects, like fallout from test shots or nuclear waste. Now people are trying to figure out what to do with the stuff.

Vietnam is the next stop, especially Hanoi. Webster finds that the Vietnamese people rebuilt quickly--they can't afford to leave land alone--but that there are still plenty of live mines in some areas and that the most devastating effects may be from Agent Orange.

The final chapter is about mine clearance in Kuwait. Like many other theaters of war in recent decades, various forces covered large swathes of Kuwait in land mines. The Kuwaiti government can afford to hire companies to clean things up, and Webster accompanies a team to learn about it. This book was written in 1996, so Desert Storm was still a recent memory.

Webster gives you a lot to think about. It's a book well worth reading, and I can think of several friends who would enjoy it.

Week 43: How to Write a Sentence

How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

The sentence is the building block of writing, and Stanley Fish devotes his book to playing with, admiring, analyzing, and imitating the best sentences he knows. What makes a truly great sentence?

Wait, before we get to that, what is a sentence? Fish gives his own definition of what a sentence really is, and in passing he dismisses traditional grammatical teaching--both the usual definitions of a sentence and all the rest of it as well. This is the one part of the book that I take exception to; he repeats the claims (noted in my review of The War on Grammar) that teaching grammar does nothing to improve writing and provides a sophisticated definition of a sentence. The only trouble with his definition is that it's one for adults, not one a child can understand at all. The traditional definition, "A sentence is a group of words that forms a complete thought," is not easily understandable to a young child either, but it can at least be explained and grasped over time. I'd vote for sticking with it until students are older and can start to wrap their minds around "A sentence is a) an organization of items in the world, and b) a structure of logical relationships." That definition then takes several pages of explanation.

Once Fish has defined the essence of sentences to his satisfaction, he continues on to describe and analyze some of the myriad ways to write a good one. There is a lot of very valuable analysis here, for readers (like me) and especially for developing writers. An adult or older high-school student who wants to write can find plenty to learn and practice on in this book, so I would recommend it to anyone with literary ambitions, or for English majors--or, in fact, for those taking college English courses under duress. Impress your instructor with your insight and understanding!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know

50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know, by Kay West, John Bridges, and Bryan Curtis

The young lady's etiquette manual has been updated for modern life in this little book. It's not too short and not too long, very readable, and full of good information for a younger teenage girl. I'd say that this is one step up in maturity from the excellent American Girl books on how to behave, and aimed at girls 11-15. My own 11-year-old daughter is reading and enjoying it. I think she'll be glad to have it to refer to now that she's a little older.

West divides her material into tiny little chapters, one to each topic. Each section gives basic directions, a list of do's and don'ts with reasons, and then two or three rules to sum up. Topics include everything from making introductions and dealing with fancy table settings to cell phone etiquette and rules for Facebook. Those features of modern life are discussed in detail and the rules given are quite good, so I'd recommend it for that alone. I was also pleased to see entries on how to accept a compliment or an apology, the pitfalls of gossip, and how to explain your food allergies to your host. The book covers the basics of dating, but does not address the topic indepth.

A companion book for boys is also available; in fact these are part of the "GentleManners" series by John Bridges on how to behave correctly in every possible situation (mostly for gentlemen; I'm hoping to see more volumes for ladies in the future). The GentleManners series is published by Thomas Nelson, which is a very old Protestant Christian publishing house, but 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know is addressed to a general audience, so there's no need to worry if you're not Protestant.

I thought this was a very nice manual on behavior for a young teenage girl. If you have one of those, I think it's worth getting. Most girls want to know how to behave and make a good impression, and this covers all the bases.

I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Feminist Classics: The Beauty Myth

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, by Naomi Wolf

When Naomi Wolf published her diatribe against ridiculously unrealistic standards of beauty in 1991, doing such a thing was kind of new (at least, after the 80's). The Beauty Myth has had a lot of influence over the past 20 years.

Thanks partly to Wolf, books denouncing the objectification and commercialization of women are now pretty common. Many more people are aware that our ideals of beauty are unrealistic and unattainable, and our ideas about beauty have expanded a bit to include some variation. At the same time, the standards have only gotten less realistic; Photoshop means that every image in every publication is fixed up to reflect something that no one could attain, and there is no such thing as being too gaunt. Look back at some 80's models and marvel at their curves!

So this was an important book. But I didn't enjoy reading it, and I didn't finish it. Wolf makes some really great points--and she also makes a lot of assertions that I thought were way over the top. I wanted to argue with her on every page, even though I think her main thesis is valid.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week 42: Henrietta's War

Henrietta's War: News from the home front, 1939-1942, by Joyce Dennys

Isn't that front cover lovely? The whole Bloomsbury series makes me want to take them home. They're like candy. Sadly my library doesn't have them and I had to get an older edition of this book that isn't nearly so pretty, so I still haven't seen one in real life.

Anyway, during World War II Joyce Dennys had a humor column in a weekly magazine that consisted of fictional letters from a housewife on the Devon coast to her old friend on the French front. This is the first half of the collection. They are just a lot of fun to read; Henrietta writes about her friends Faith (the village flirt), Lady B (who writes a letter to Hitler every night telling him just exactly what she thinks of him), and everyone else in her village. It's all ordinary life, muddling through wartime difficulties, but made very funny. I peeked into it at work when it arrived, but had to stop because it was making me laugh too much.

I hope to get a chance to read Henrietta's further adventures sometime soon--and some of the rest of those yummy Bloomsbury books.

Week 42: Naked Heat

Naked Heat, by Richard Castle

It's the second installment in the storybook version of the Castle series on TV! I think this one was better written. Again, it's just like an episode of the TV show, with all the names changed and Nikki Heat written as Castle's fantasy version of Kate Beckett. The mystery is pretty decent--lots of fictional celebrities are involved this time. There are quite a few fun and clever tidbits, and some good digs at the Rook character (he has a secret life!).

Fun candy for the mind, though almost useless to non-fans of the show. I think you used to be able to read Murder She Wrote novels without watching the show; that's not true of this series, which depends heavily on familiarity with the TV characters and the small contrasts between them and the book people.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Victorian Literature: Tales of Mystery and Detection

Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection, selected by Michael Cox

For my October reading, I thought it would be fun to read this Oxford collection of Victorian mystery stories that my mother-in-law gave me several years ago. The stories were all published in magazines and few of them are known now, although there are many famous names included. Besides the expected Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, the table of contents lists Le Fanu, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Baroness Orzcy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Mrs. Henry Wood. And, of course, quite a few people I've never heard of.

It's a nice collection, and good reading. This picture is of the original dust cover, which I don't have--the book is 20 years old and there aren't many images of it available.

I just realized that I've read more Victorian literature than I thought (thanks to the Feminist Classics challenge). This is my 12th book, which puts me past the "Great Expectations" level and well into "Hard Times." Goodness, maybe I should aim for the final level of "Desperate Remedies," which calls for 15 or more!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Week 41: Albion

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd

The best word I can think of to describe this book is discursive. Ackroyd is known for his long, rambling books about history and literature, and this one is a lot of fun to read, though it ranges all over the place almost at random. It's a bit like listening to a learned professor-type ramble on at a party with a glass of wine in his hand. You can read it in chunks without losing anything much because it's pretty disconnected.

Ackroyd starts right back at the beginning of English literature, with the Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf and the Venerable Bede, and tries to identify typically English themes and preferences, taking due note of imported ideas. He dwells particularly on a love of surface decoration, the fashion for melancholy--still with us in the form of Goth teens!--a preference for variety (Shakespeare's mixing of comic scenes with tragedy is a case in point), and, sometimes, a near-obsession with scatalogical humor. One chapter will focus on the popularity of translations from other languages; the next will talk about miniature paintings; then it's on to the deep historical roots of cross-dressing in theater. Sometimes his analysis seems like a stretch, but on the whole it's interesting.

It's a really fun book to read, awfully long, and, except for an attempt to keep things in somewhat chronological order, almost entirely random. He doesn't manage to get past the mid- 19th century, so don't expect too much on modern literature. Those who already love English literature will enjoy it and probably glean some new knowledge; others will almost certainly lose patience.

Week 41: The Con

Everybody should read this book! The Con is a primer on scams and the people who run them. There are great descriptions of the many ways that people will try to steal from you, from the old pigeon drop to Nigerian fraud to fake fund-raising and the worst of them all, identity theft. Learn how to avoid scams, and what to do if you are fooled or if your Social Security number is stolen. I had a hard time putting it down.

Stories of people who have gotten scammed keep the book interesting and sympathetic. It moves fast and is a quick read, easy for anyone to get through.

What I mainly learned is that it really is necessary to be careful. I don't have to be paranoid, but I do need to be prepared to respond to con artists, because they are all over the place. We've all been asked for "gas money" in a parking lot, but there are scams to fit every profile and no matter how smart you are, you can still get conned when someone figures out your weakness. And sometimes even our closest friends or our relatives are the ones taking advantage.

This is a 'necessary life skills' kind of book and I'd want any teenager to read it. My daughter is reading it (by her own request) and I think I'll have my husband look at it too.

And I got a little laugh out of it when I was about halfway through the book and got a phone call that was a type of scam I've never gotten before! A guy tried to tell me that I'd won a prize and that 'they' wanted to deliver it to me. It was a pretty sad attempt, really, but "You've won!" is a common hook.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (Christian Encounters Series), by Peter Leithart

This book puzzled me a bit at first. It's a sort of slightly fictionalized light biography of Dostoevsky, told in vignettes. Leithart's narrative frame has the novelist sitting with an old friend, arguing about the Russian soul and reminiscing over old times. Each chapter starts that way and then leads into flashbacks to important times in Dostoevsky's life. The flashbacks happen in approximately chronological order, but it's not always entirely clear where or when you are; it ends up a bit jumpy.

There is plenty of conversation in these vignettes, which are descriptive and short. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Dostoevsky's own words, and I did feel that I was hearing his voice. The author knows his material very well and tries to evoke 19th-century Russia and its issues without getting too heavy or difficult, but those might be conflicting goals and I thought there was not enough depth. One way Leithart simplifies matters is by leaving out any use of the traditional patronymic name. I found it odd to see Dostoevsky portrayed as speaking to his secretary (and future wife) as Anna instead of Anna Grigorevna, and so on.

The focus here is on getting to know Dostoevsky as a person and especially as a Christian man. His thoughts about how to solve Russia's problems (through Christ and reform) are often touched on. His temperament and health problems are also thoroughly described. Leithart does not shy away from problems in the writer's life by smoothing over his adultery and troubles with gambling. The final chapter was the part I enjoyed most; it's about Dostoevsky's famous speech on Pushkin as a universal poet and contains a good portion of the piece.

Overall it's a fairly enjoyable book and a nice introduction to Dostoevsky; it's just very light. Sort of a biography-for-beginners. I felt that there was never enough depth. I also found that some expressions really jarred me, as when Dostoevsky is described fussing around a friend "like a Jewish mother." So my feelings about the book are ambivalent.

This volume is one in a series of similar books titled "Christian Encounters," which profiles historical figures as various as Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet, and Winston Churchill. I'm rather curious to see how some of them are handled and would read other books from the series.

I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Victorian Literature: Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray subtitled his novel "a novel without a hero," and that's almost true. There are few decent people in his story of scheming and social climbing. It's really a dual novel, recording the mirrored careers of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. They start the story together, just having left school, but Becky is a poor governess and Amelia is a fairly wealthy young lady. Amelia doesn't get quite as much story space as Becky does--she's one of the few virtuous characters, but she isn't very active and Becky's constant ambition is the focus of the story. Amelia comes into her own later on, though.

Becky Sharp is a sociopath, albeit a charming and amusing one. Thackeray hints at dark events in her childhood which she does not dare to remember. Perhaps as a result, she has virtually no conscience and sets out into the world to get as much as she can with her brains and her charm to assist her. She works constantly to gain a place in high society, which she finances with lots of debt and lies. Thackeray sets her in company with leering old men and jealous women, most of whom are in nearly as much debt as she is. The ton of England is satirized as Vanity Fair, a constant tussle of people who care for nothing but money and appearances, trying to cheat anyone they can.

Amelia, Becky's foil, is a good and unselfish woman, lost in this world. She is good at loving, but not at going out and fighting for a living. The hardened folks of Vanity Fair simply despise her, but the one really virtuous man in the novel sees her true worth. He is the real hero of the story.

Thackeray has quite a bit to say on the lot of women in his society, and exhorts his readers to consider how few rights they have and how much most of them have to put up with. Of course he also constantly points out the evils of debt, gambling, cheating, and general inconsideration of others.

I liked Vanity Fair much more than I thought I would! It's a memorable story and enjoyable satire.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Week 40: The Scorch Trials

The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner

This sequel to the dystopian YA novel The Maze Runner ups the ante quite a bit. The Gladers are saved from the Maze, only to be dumped into the real world, which they don't remember, and which is much more dangerous. Violent sun flares have scorched a large part of the Earth--everyone who can lives in what used to be arctic zones--and humanity is slowly succumbing to the pandemic Flare disease, which (of course) essentially turns people into insane zombies before they die. The characters find bits and pieces of information about the organization behind all this and why it is putting them through all this trauma, but by the end there's still a lot we don't know.

The story is well-written and fast-moving, and the characters have personality. I'm looking forward to the third book, The Death Cure, which will be released in about a month.

Week 40: Persepolis

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (complete edition)

Satrapi's two-volume graphic novel is a personal memoir. Satrapi is Iranian and was a young girl when the 1979 revolution changed everything. Her relatives and family friends were in constant danger and sometimes killed. Then came the Iran-Iraq war, and life became so dangerous that her parents sent her to Vienna for high school. To her parents, nothing was more important than their daughter's education, which they believed would open her opportunities like nothing else. Unfortunately, Satrapi had quite a difficult time in Vienna and came home to recuperate. Her college years and marriage are also chronicled.

I'm not much of a graphic novel person, but this is an excellent example of a graphic novel with wide appeal, that many people would enjoy reading. It's certainly and interesting and absorbing story, with lots to think about. Of course, since it's got war and fascism and oppression in it, there's some difficult material. This may look like a comic book, but it's not for children. It would be excellent for a teen wanting to understand something about Iran.