Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kick off James-A-Day with Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book

I'm so excited about sharing an M. R. James story with you every day!  This is going to be great.  Experts seem to call him MRJ all the time, so that's what we will do too, if only to save my fingers.  I'll try to post some tidbits about him throughout the month along with the stories.

One of the story's original illustrations
Our first tale is "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book."  It was James' first story, written sometime in 1892 or 1893, and is semi-autobiographical--Dennistoun is himself.  MRJ did cycle through the French countryside with two good friends looking for cathedrals and antiquities, and he did discover a book--though that was in Suffolk.  He must have had some fun spinning his own trip into a ghost story! 

James read this story out to his literary group, the Chitchat Society, on October 28, 1893.  This became quite a tradition, though it usually moved to Christmastime.  Ghost stories at Christmas is a venerable English tradition that we are (sadly) missing here in the US--maybe a couple of Brits will tell us whether it still happens?  I presume that's what the Doctor Who Christmas Special is for, but do people still read aloud too?  (OH!  That's why The Children of Green Knowe is a ghost story too, yes?)

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is quite a creepy story to my mind; what do you think of it?  MRJ seems to have had a bit of a thing for hair in his scary creatures--keep an eye out for it.

A later illustration--a little too much, do you think?

Reading Challenges Check-in Q3

It's time for the third quarter challenge checks.  I've finished a bunch of things, yippee!  And of course I'm not really satisfied with my progress on my very own Greek challenge, but overall I think I'm doing pretty well.

Greek Classics: I am no longer quite sure how to count them.  Not there yet, but doing OK.  I'll need to spend a lot of November reading Plato!

Medieval Literature: 10/12, yay!  I still need to read Piers Plowman and then choose one more.  Can we do this one again next year?

Back to the Classics 2012: 9/9.  Finished.  A really great challenge, and I'm pretty sure this is what got me started on the path that led to The Classics Club, so definitely one of the highlights of my reading year.

November's Autumn Classics Challenge: 7/7 discussions posted, so officially finished, but I'll keep participating.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 9/9 Finished.

Mixing It Up: 15/16.  Only the food book is left.  My Nemesis.

Mount TBR: 23/25. Almost done!  Though the pile seems as big as ever.

150+ Challenge: 150 Just finished!

World War I Challenge: 4/3.  Extra credit.

Griffin and Sabine

Griffin & Sabine trilogy, by Nick Bantock

Just the other day Amira posted about Griffin & Sabine.  I had completely forgotten about the existence of these books, and I was really happy to be reminded because they are really neat.  I liked them when they came out and spent a lot of time looking at my roommate's copies.  They especially appealed to me because I love stamps. (I have a stamp collection, even.  And in library school my reference work project was on stamps.  For reals.)  So I put the whole trilogy on hold at the library, and they showed up the same day!  I got to read them all at once.  It was fun, because I remembered all the artwork really well, but not until I actually saw it again.

Anyway.  Griffin is a London artist and lonelier than he realizes.  Sabine designs stamps for a tiny archipelago of Pacific islands, and--mysteriously--she can see Griffin's art.  They start a correspondence, but is Sabine real, or a fantasy Griffin has made up? Can they ever meet?

I discovered that there is a second trilogy of books I never even heard about, so now I have those on hold too.  Thanks, Amira!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Howling Frog has gone Facebook

I only just realized the other day that it might be sensible for me to give Howling Frog a little presence on Facebook.  Sure, other people do it all the time and I like seeing their blog posts, but it took me a little while to figure out that such an idea might apply to me too.  O at Délaissé and Adriana at Classical Quest gave me some encouragement, so here you go: Howling Frog on Facebook.

Just in time for October's Gothic celebration!  (That's why I put the Gorey illustration up for my picture.  It's thematic, see?)


Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges

Everyone always raves about Labyrinths, so of course I never read it, because I'm annoying like that.  But I put it on my Classics Club list, and then it came my way, so I tried it out.  And I thought it was pretty great.

The stories are not easy to read and I had to make sure that I could sit and concentrate on each one, and that I had time to read a whole story in one go.  They are not the kind of short stories that you can put down halfway through and easily come back to; you really have to focus.

These short stories are mysterious, strange, and erudite. The most famous story is the "Library of Babel," about an infinite and nightmarish library that everyone wants to visit anyway, but I also really liked "The Zahir," "The God's Script," "The Shape of the Sword," and several others.

There are also some short essays at the end (that went almost completely over my head) and some 'parables' that were like short stories, only even shorter.  Some of those were very interesting.

I will certainly be reading this book again sometime.  I liked it a lot.  Borges is an interesting guy and I will make sure to read more of his works.

And, this is my 150th book of the year, so I've finished the 150+ Challenge with 3 months to go!  Woot!  (Or maybe I read too much?...Nah.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Banned Books Week

Next week is officially Banned Books Week.  I don't usually post much about it here, because I already have plenty going on at work.  This year I somehow wound up sort of in charge of the event, which is kind of panic-inducing.  Luckily my full-time co-worker is doing the budgeting part and actually knows what she's doing.

I've spent the past few weeks trying to get the event together.  Today we did the decorating and strung yellow 'Caution' tape around the place until the word 'caution' became meaningless to me.  We scattered books wrapped in brown paper around the library--each has a label on it with a title and the reason the book has been challenged or banned.  Since I like history, I have some volumes that say things like "The Bible in English" and so on. 

What the books looked like last year

And our display tables went up with tri-fold boards explaining what the event is all about.  One of the other part-time librarians made a gorgeous board about book burnings.  It's a work of art.  I'll take pictures and post them later.

Last year's display table

I also tried to put together a 'virtual read-out' video with some students.  The video people on campus were very helpful and it's not done yet, but I hope it works....

I love the artwork the ALA put out this year, and we've got the bookmarks and posters, plus some pins we made ourselves.  We coveted the t-shirts, but alas, those were far above our budget.  (But wouldn't it have been cool to order a few for our student helpers to wear during their shifts?)  

All this leaves me little time for actually reading any banned books. Besides, they're all out on the display table, hopefully attracting students' attention.  I've got my eye on a few for afterwards. :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Angel's Game

The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

It's back to the world of tortured Barcelona and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  I like the Cemetery, but I'm not so keen on Barcelona.  This time, we follow David Martin, a young man with literary ambitions and lots of torment in the 1920s.  He is approached by a mysterious French publisher named Corelli, who draws him into a Faustian contract to write a book.  As David starts to realize that there is a web of old tragedy and secrecy around the house he lives in, he also begins to think that Corelli had a lot to do with that. 

The element that made me enjoy the first book was the weird Gothic humor, and that was missing this time.  There is, of course, a beautiful and unobtainable girl, though this book was thankfully much lighter on the adolescent boy stuff than The Shadow of the Wind.  On the other hand, pretty much everyone dies violently, and once again, Barcelona appears to be about the worst place in the world to live unless you enjoy living in torment and destroying the lives of those you love.  Don't move to Barcelona, is my advice.

I am not really a fan of these books, but I will probably read the third one anyway.

Monday, September 24, 2012

I'm Prepared to Go Gothic

 I've been getting ready!  I have 7 paper books and have downloaded 5 e-books from Google (I just love reading really old books on my tablet when I can't get them in real life.  And they're free!).  I can't possibly read them all, and if I did, I would probably end up like a proper Gothic heroine and die tragically after a severe attack of brain fever.  Here's what I've got, though:

The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Hieroglyphic Tales (1785), by Horace Walpole -- Otranto kicked off the Gothic craze.  I think someone ought to make a film of this story; if you filmed it perfectly straight, it would make a hysterical comedy.

The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786), by William Beckford -- Combine the craze for all things Oriental with the Gothic craze, and you get Vathek.  There does not appear to be a single evil Catholic priest in the whole story.  Instead, all the evil people are apostate Muslims who get into demonology.

Horrid Mysteries (1796), by Carl Grosse -- I LOVE the title, so Northanger Abbey--which is where it's mentioned as one of the 'horrid novels' Isabella recommends to Catherine.  Originally published in German as Der Genius, and I can't tell if I've got the whole story on my reader or not.  The title page says it's the 3rd of 4 volumes, but elsewhere the story is listed as 200 pages long, which is how long my ebook is.  Another mystery...

The Amber Witch
The Italian (1797), by Ann Radcliffe -- often considered Radcliffe's most sophisticated work, plus it's got the memorable Father Schedoni as villain.  Join us for a readalong!

Wieland, or the Transformation (1798), by Charles Brockham Brown -- The first American Gothic novel.  Also evil Catholic-free, it involves a man who has begun his own cult and has an American setting.  I guess we can credit him as a cornerstone of American Gothic literature, before Irving and Poe and everybody came along.

Crotchet Castle (1831), by Thomas Love Peacock -- a satirical novel that throws a bunch of single-minded obsessives together and watches the fun.  Earlier this year I read Nightmare Abbey, which was very fun, and I'm hoping this will be too.  (I just picked this up at the library booksale Saturday morning--that makes it fate, right?)

The Amber Witch (1839), by Wilhelm Meinhold -- both a Gothic novel and a literary hoax, it's about a witch trial.  Meinhold passed it off as a real historical document (found, of course, in his church) for a while in order to make fools of some academic types he disliked.

The Horla (1887), by Guy de Maupassant -- A French short story that is thought to have been an inspiration for Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories.

The Black Monk (1894), by Anton Pavlovich Chekov  -- a Russian short story about a scholar's tragic downfall.

The collected ghost stories of M. R. James in two volumes (published from 1904 to 1931).  We're reading a story a day, so stay tuned!

Seven Gothic Tales (1934), by Isak Dinesen -- This was Karen Blixen's first published work!

I think I'm in the mood to read The Cask of Amontillado too.  Just a little bit of Poe to round things off, maybe.

Wouldn't it be fun to read all of Isabella's horrid novels?  There are seven of them besides two by Radcliffe, and several are incredibly long, so I don't think I'll try this time--but what a great project for a year-long reading challenge, right?  I was amazed to read that the 'horrid novels,' which were quite popular in the early 1800s, were so lost in obscurity that for quite a while scholars thought that Jane Austen had made them up.  They have been rediscovered and--check this out--Valancourt Books is reprinting them all in a special series, which is about the best news I've seen this week.  Who wants to host a challenge?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gothic in October: Readalong Schedule

Are you getting prepared for going Gothic in October?  We are going to have a marvelously spooky time.  Also, if you're looking for inspiration on what to read, try taking a look at The Literary Gothic, a website entirely devoted to Gothic literature pre-1950.

Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”
I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”
--Northanger Abbey

The Italian Readalong

Now for our readalong schedule for Ann Radcliffe's The Italian.  This is your traditional triple-decker novel, and in my copy is about 415 pages long with very tiny print, so prepare to work at this!  I will put up a check-in post every Friday, so you'll have plenty of time on Saturday to comment and discuss.

Week 1 -- Oct 1-6: Volume I, Chapters 1-9

Week 2 -- Oct 7-13: Finish Vol. I, then Vol. II through Chapter 6

Week 3 -- Oct 14 - 20: Finish Volume II, then Vol. III through Chapter 3

Week 4 -- Oct 21 - 27: Vol. III, Chapters 4 - 10

Week 5 -- Oct 28 - 31: Finish the book and go trick-or-treating.  Extra points if you dress up as a character and send me a photo!

A James Story A Day

Every day from the 1st through the 31st, we will be reading a story by M. R. James.  I'll post the title for the next day every evening so nobody has to wait around.  While you wait for the 1st to get here, take a look at The Literary Gothic's bibliography on James!  You'll find links to biographical sketches, analytical essays, and online versions of the stories themselves.

  1. Canon Alberic's Scrap-book
  2. Lost Hearts
  3. The Mezzotint
  4. The Ash-Tree
  5. Number 13
  6. Count Magnus
  7. Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad
  8. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
  9. A School Story
  10. The Rose Garden
  11. The Tractate Middoth
  12. Casting the Runes
  13. The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
  14. Martin's Close
  15. Mr. Humphries and His Inheritance
  16. The Residence at Whitminster
  17. The Diary of Mr. Poynter
  18. An Episode of Cathedral History
  19. The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
  20. Two Doctors
  21. The Haunted Dolls' House
  22. The Uncommon Prayer-book
  23. A Neighbour's Landmark
  24. A View From a Hill
  25. A Warning to the Curious
  26. An Evening's Entertainment
  27. There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard
  28. After Dark in the Playing Fields
  29. Wailing Well
  30. The Malice of Inanimate Objects
  31. The Fenstanton Witch
And for extra credit:
  1. The Experiment
  2. A Vignette
  3. Rats  
  4. Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories

Days of Obligation

Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, by Richard Rodriguez

This title caught my eye at work when I was finding a different work by the same author for somebody.  I appear to be the first person to check it out since it was 1993.  It took me a while to figure out that it's actually a collection of essays (which is what I get for not reading the acknowledgements), so it's a bit choppy, but all the essays are centered on the differences and influences and questions of identity between Mexico and California.  I probably didn't understand half of it.

I gather that Rodriguez was kind of an unusual writer in the 90s and people weren't always happy with him.  He is an American born of Mexican parents and grew up in Sacramento (his descriptions of Sac sure sounded familiar).  There are a lot of musings on how California and Mexico bleed into each other, and the influence of Catholicism versus Protestantism: "...I have told my friends that I was writing a book about California and Mexico.  That was not saying enough.  I've been writing a book about comedy and tragedy.  In my mind, in my life, Mexico plays the tragic part; California plays the role of America's wild child.  Or was I writing a book about competing theologies?"

I coincidentally wound up reading 3 Spanish-themed books at once, which is really pretty odd for me.  Having grown up in Southern California, I tend to think of anything Spanish as boring next-door stuff--famous California authors too.  I could happily live the rest of my life without ever visiting another mission (naturally, my NorCal daughter thinks they're fascinating and begs to go, and I do enjoy them more as an adult.  Still, I maintain that one of the great joys of homeschooling is that I don't have to build a mission in 4th grade unless I actually want to).  I like to study far-away languages and literature, and often ignore the good things right here at home. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mount TBR Check-in

Bev at My Reader's Block says it's time for the quarterly check-in for the Mount TBR Challenge.  I'm pretty happy with my progress--two more books and I'll be done with the Mount Vancouver (25 titles) level.

Here's what I've got:

  1. The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner
  2. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
  3. The Book of Beasts, trans. T. H. White
  4. Mr. Dixon Disappears, by Ian Sansom
  5. Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock
  6. The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Stories, by M. R. James  
  7. The New Road to Serfdom, by Daniel Hannan 
  8.  Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope
  9. Winking at the Brim, by Gladys Mitchell 
  10. Lovely is the Lee, by Robert Gibbings 
  11. A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
  12.  Erewhon, by Samuel Butler
  13. Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson 
  14. Decameron, by Boccaccio
  15.  Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
  16. Twenty Years A-Growing, by Maurice O'Sullivan
  17. The Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels
  18.  The First World War, by John Keegan
  19. Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen
  20. The School for Scandal, by Sheridan
  21. The Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voraigne
  22. A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman 
  23. The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories 

Bev says I have to answer a question or two.

Looking ahead to next year's challenge: Is there a level that you'd like to see added (maybe a 30 or 35 level or some other number in between our current mountain peaks)?  

No, I think the levels are pretty good as they are. :)
Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read all year? Etc.)

I did not expect to love Madam Bovary as much as I did.  Nightmare Abbey was funnier than I expected, and the Keegan history on World War I was a tougher slog even though it was good.  And I thought The Story of an African Farm was a memoir when I started...

Friday, September 21, 2012

House of Many Ways

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones

You know I can't go for very long without reading a DWJ book.  Yesterday I needed to read one again, and picked House of Many Ways since I've only read it about 4 times so far.  This is the third book featuring the Wizard Howl, but it's sort of interesting how Howl doesn't have all that much space in the second and third books--he's there, but not as a major character, and he spends most of his time in disguise.

Charmain lives in the tiny kingdom of High Norland, and all she really wants to do is read all the time and munch while she reads.  (I sympathize!)  But now she has to go take care of her great-uncle William's house while he is off getting cured of his illness.  It's a magical house, which I would like to live in please, and she has no idea how to do even the most basic things.

Then an unlucky wizard's apprentice shows up.  So does the world's cutest dog.  Add a bunch of angry kobolds, a scary purple monster, and High Norland's royal family, and you have plenty of mayhem--but they've only just gotten started.

Howl is particularly hilarious in this story, as he shows up disguised as an improbably enchanting and beautiful little boy (with an infuriating lisp), claiming that his real childhood was very sad and he deserves another go-round.  Diana Wynne Jones said that she was always mystified at the number of girls who would write to her and declare their determination to marry Howl, and I must say I'm on her side.  Howl is a lot of fun to read about, but I'm glad I don't have to live with him!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Telling Tales

Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, by Melissa Katsoulis

I had fun reading this collection of literary fakes and hoaxes (and I love the clever cover!).  Katsoulis only covers more modern stories, from the 18th century on, and I was not familiar with most of them.  She describes all sorts: plain forgers preying on the gullible, sons looking for approval from distant fathers, zealots, jokesters, annoyed rivals, and impersonators. 

A whole chapter is dedicated to Australia, which apparently has more hoaxes per pound than most other countries do.  They're a Weird Mob is a funny, jokey semi-hoax, but some of them are pretty strange.  Of course, the worst one was pulled by a woman from the US--I'd heard of Mutant Message Down Under before, but was unaware of the details.  Wow.

The 'Native American' and 'Holocaust victim' hoaxes are often pretty disturbing, not to mention the really disturbing ones involving fake AIDS victims.  Besides them, you can find out who wrote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, who made up the Priory of Sion and inspired The Da Vinci Code, and who tried to hoax the whole world with the fake Hitler Diaries.

(The Protocols story reminded me of one of my oddest library requests ever.  A cheerful aging hippie dude once asked me to get that book for him on interlibrary loan.  He was the sort of guy who takes great delight in showing off his knowledge of sketchy literature--I would bet money that he keeps The Anarchist's Cookbook on his coffee table, just so visitors will see it.)

I didn't always love her tone, but oh well.  I did notice that in the beginning, describing what literary hoaxers tend to have in common, she notes that many have had an absent parent, and that "even if they have had a materially privileged start in life or are possessed of a sharp intelligence, at some point each hoaxer has been made to feel excluded from the world they would be part of."  It seems to me rather silly to put that in as a factor, since there is probably no human being who has ever lived who wasn't made to feel excluded sometime.  On the whole, I thought the psychology was a little too facile and PC.  But it's a small complaint.

If you want to read this very interesting collection of tidbits, and you live in the US, you'll have to either buy it or ILL it (as I did).  It seems to have been published only in the UK. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror

When you're feeling a bit tired and want a little fun reading, few things beat a nice Daniel Pinkwater book.  I was in a Pinkwater mood and read The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror, one of my all-time favorite books ever.

Every page has a new perfect funny sentence.  All the characters are completely crazy, each in their own special ways.  There are literary jokes I didn't get until fairly recently.  I wish I could eat at the restaurants, and most especially I would like to try a borgelnuskie, but sadly borgelnuskies don't seem to be real.  (You never know--quite often the things that sound made up in a Pinkwater book do turn out to be real.  In 1989 when I was 16 I was taken on a daytrip into Czechoslovakia, and was stunned to discover that Wartburg cars are real.)

Here is a bit.  This is Osgood Sigerson, the world's greatest detective, in discussion with the Honorable Lama Lumpo Smythe-Finkel:
"By Jove!  You're right, Lama!" the great detective shouts.  "How could I have been so blind!  It is not the Napoleon of Crime, meaning the pastry of crime--it is the Napoleon of Crime, meaning the world's nastiest and most brilliant criminal!  Wallace Nussbaum!"

Everyone should read at least a couple of Pinkwater books, ideally starting in childhood.  I'm pretty sure you can't have a well-adjusted adolescence without 'em.  If you have a kid who is about 10, start with Lizard Music.  If the kid is 12 or so, try Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars.  If you want to read about the Snarkout Boys (they are Walter Galt and Winston Bongo, plus their good friend Rat, and let's not forget her uncle, Flipping Hades Terwilliger), you should start with The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, but it's not strictly necessary.  Any of these would also be a great read-aloud.

Pinkwater has written neat books for younger kids too, so don't ignore those.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

It's the most famous African novel there is, and I read it so long ago that I could no longer remember much of it, so I put Things Fall Apart on my Classics Club list.  I probably understood it quite a bit better this time around!

The story of Okonkwo, a strong but unthinking man caught in the inevitabilities of change, is one that gives us plenty to think about.  He is watching his traditions change and erode as white colonialists slowly take over the country.  But you don't need a plot synopsis from me.  It's hard to know what to say about books like this.

Things Fall Apart is such an extremely important book, and one that is very readable to boot; I would recommend that everyone read it.

The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories

The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories

I guess I've been in a Russian mood lately, since I read this and K Blows Top at the same time.  I've had this book for years and never gotten to it, so thank you TBR challenge! 

This is a collection of 20 short stories by Russia's most famous authors from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn.  I finally read Gogol's Nose!  (It is weird and surreal.)  I loved Turgenev's Bezhin Lea and Garshin's The Scarlet Flower.  I did not really care for the Nabokov story even though I usually like Nabokov.  And I very much liked Nagibin's Winter Oak.

I took my time with this book and read it a little slowly so I could enjoy every story.  On the whole it was a lovely collection.  This particular collection is no longer in print and Penguin has replaced it with one that's about twice as large.  It's probably good too.  I couldn't find an image of my edition at all, but it has this portrait of Pushkin on the cover, though this is a detail image.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Some Mysteries

Lately I've been lucky and was able to re-join my gym.  I love going to the gym, but I need a book--and it can't be too hard to read.  So I like to read mysteries while I'm working out, and here are 4 mysteries I've read lately.

Rainbow's End, by Ellis Peters -- I've never read a Peters book in a modern setting.  I thought the victim's name was pretty improbable (Mr. Rainbow, really?), but the mystery was interesting and had nice medieval relics too.

The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey -- Tey mysteries are reliably good.  This one had some nice twists and turns and a manhunt in Scotland too.

The Pilgrim of Hate, by Ellis Peters -- This was a re-read but one nice thing about mysteries is that I nearly always forget who the murderer is.  Brother Cadfael has plenty to do in this story.

After the Armistice Ball, by Catriona McPherson -- The first volume in a new series set in the 1920s.  The detective is a nice, but not terribly exciting, wife and mother with a talent for saying what no one else will.  The mystery here is more realistic than Golden Age mysteries, and so more tragic.  Well-written and with lots of lines that made me laugh and read them out to my husband.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Toying With God

Toying With God: the World of Religious Games and Dolls, by Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris

Religious games and toys exist for every belief and taste.  Here, I mainly learned about board games and dolls.  By page 9, I had a whole new wishlist featuring a Karma Chakra (a board game about Buddhism), the Plush Plagues Bag (includes all 10 Plagues!), and a sweet stuffed Ganesh.  My daughter now thinks Fulla is cuter than Barbie--Fulla looks exactly like Barbie, being made out of the same mold in the same factory, but she is tan, has dark eyes and no makeup, has less in the chest area, and she wears a hijab. 

I really enjoyed the first couple of chapters, but after that it seemed like it had a lot of filler of the academic kind.  There was interesting analysis too, but not enough to balance out the filler.  So, that was kind of a disappointment.  At least I got a book off my library TBR list, which is gigantic.  I'm going to try to whittle it down by getting a lot of ILLs this year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

K Blows Top

K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist, by Peter Carlson

This is a pretty irresistible book.  In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower sort of accidentally invited Khrushchev to visit the United States for a couple of weeks.  The visit was a surreal media circus that defied belief!  It's amazing to read about.  All these unbelievable things happen and there's something new and strange every couple of pages.

Khrushchev was a dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands (at least).  He was also a shameless ham who knew how to work a crowd and get laughs.  And he had a really bad temper and could destroy the world if he felt like it.   It was an interesting combination for the nervous Americans taking him around the country.  Carlson comments:
[Khrushchev] recognized that his trip was not just a diplomatic journey; it was an opportunity to put on a TV show starring himself as the folksy, funny populist leader of the dynamic new Communist world.

Carlson documents the trip and the circumstances around it, beginning with VP Nixon's visit to the USSR and the preparation for Khrushchev's tour, all the way to the aftermath and the decline in relations that occurred a year or so later.  Khrushchev then came to the US again for a UN gathering, which is where he pulled the famous shoe-banging stunt.  It's all in there.

Funny and frightening all at once, this is a book that shines a really interesting light on an odd chapter in the Cold War.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by the Countess of Carnarvon

I've been seeing this history book all over the book blogs, and was happy to get a chance to read it.  This is the life story of Lady Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, and an exciting life it was.  The family, and the Carnarvon country seat of Highclere Castle, has been the inspiration for the hugely popular Downton Abbey TV series (which I have not yet seen the second season of, so no spoilers allowed!).  The current Countess took the opportunity to tell the real story of the Carnarvon family, which is much nicer and lacks backstabbing sisters or evil footmen.

Almina Wombwell started off as a very pretty debutante with a  dubious background.  She was the natural daughter of somebody (Alfred de Rothschild), which made her very wealthy indeed but an outsider in Victorian England. Even so, young lords needed rich heiresses to keep their estates going, and Almina snagged the Earl of Carnarvon--and luckily for her (unlike many other similar marriages), they were quite happy together.

Almina was good (if extravagant) at running a great house, and before World War I came along, Highclere was a model of its kind.  It all sounds much more pleasant than Downton Abbey, but I guess you can't build a soap opera on nice people.  The Earl was hugely interested in Egyptology and they traveled out to Egypt several times--yep, he was that Lord Carnarvon!--before the war, which of course changed everything.

Almina had realized that she was an excellent nurse, and she established a hospital for severely wounded officers.  At that time, the military had no infrastructure for treating the massive flood of ill and wounded soldiers, and wealthy women like Almina stepped into the breach to provide much-needed care.

After the war, it was back to Egyptology, and the last part of the book mainly covers the great discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb and Lord Carnarvon's sad death.  There is a little bit after that, but the book is really focused on Almina's life as the Countess of Carnarvon.   It's written by the current Countess (and I don't understand why her title is the author information like that, but it is).

I hope that this history will be reissued under a different title in a few years; it's a delightful story in its own right, and doesn't need to be linked with Downton Abbey forever.  When the soap opera is over, the history will still be interesting and real.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman

The 14th century was pretty bad, and Barbara Tuchman is here to tell you all about it.  Her central focus is on France, which was the cultural center of medieval Europe in many ways, and she picks Enguerrand Coucy VII as a organizing central figure to follow.  The Sire of Coucy was an important lord involved in nearly everything that went on, and there is plenty of documentation about him.  That said, I don't think that the majority of the book is directly about Coucy; there is lots of background information and other stuff going on.

Misery is piled upon misery in the 14th century; the Black Death, constant pointless warfare, brigandage that ruins towns, a papal schism, and a ruling class that requires ever more money and ostentation while impoverishing ordinary people and delivering nothing but bad government.  More than anything else, there is war--quite often war simply because the knights want to go have a war and win lots of glory and loot.  (Loot being more important than either glory or the supposed purpose of the war, knights would frequently leave without even trying to accomplish their objectives.  And the desire for glory led them to neglect tactics, common sense, and their own foot soldiers.)

Tuchman explains the decline of the Middle Ages and the chivalric ideals that were supposed to guide it; by the end, Europe's population has been cut nearly in half, people are impoverished, government is chaotic, and everyone is quite ready for a new outlook on life.  She is clear and insightful, but the book is not an easy read.  Some bits that struck me:

Ostentation and pageantry to raise the ruler’s image above his peers and excite the admiration and awe of the populace was traditionally the habit of princes. But now in the second half of the 14th century it went to extremes, as if to defy the increased uncertainty of life. Conspicuous consumption became a frenzied excess, a gilded shroud over the Black Death and lost battles, a desperate desire to show oneself fortunate in a time of advancing misfortune.

On hearing of Anjou’s death, a tailor of Orleans named Guillaume le Jupponnier, when “overcome with wine,” burst into a tirade in which can be heard the rarely recorded voice of his class. “What did he go there for, this Duke of Anjou, down there where he went? He has pillaged and robbed and carried off money to Italy in order to conquer another land. He is dead and damned, and the King St. Louis too, like the others. Filth, filth of a King and a King! We have no King but God. Do you think they got honestly what they have? They tax me and re-tax me and it hurts them that they can’t have everything we own. Why should they take from me what I earn with my needle? I would rather the King and all kings were dead than that my son should be hurt in his little finger.”

What knights lacked in the fading 14th century was innovation. Holding to traditional forms, they gave little thought or professional study to tactics. When everyone of noble estate was a fighter by function, professionalism was not greater but less.   Chivalry was not aware of its decadence, or if it was, clung ever more passionately to outward forms and brilliant rites to convince itself that the fiction was still the reality.Outside observers, however, had grown increasingly critical as the fiction grew increasingly implausible. It was now fifty years since the start of the war with England,and fifty years of damaging war could not fail to diminish the prestige of a warrior class that could neither win nor make peace but only pile further injury and misery upon the people.

It's an excellent work of history, and very well-written.

I'd been meaning to read this book for years, and tried a couple of times, but had a terrible time getting into it.  After a while I realized that part of my problem was that my copy was very old; it was yellowed, stiff, and cracking, and had once suffered from damp.  It's a book that is quite difficult enough to read if you have a beautiful copy.  My husband bought me a new paperback for an anniversary present, and I must say reading a nice pretty book with a flexible spine helped a lot. Thanks, honey!

The Convert

The Convert: a Tale of Exile and Extremism, by Deborah Baker

Deborah Baker found a box of letters and documents in a library archive and was drawn into the story of how Peggy Marcus, a Jewish girl from the suburbs, became Maryam Jameelah, a vocally conservative Muslim writer.  It was 1962 when Peggy changed to Maryam and left her New York hometown forever in order to live in Pakistan and help build an ideal Islamic society--which is pretty amazing when you consider that she didn't actually know any Muslims in her community.  The world she was born into could not have been further removed from what she wanted out of life.  The story is far more complex than it seems at first, though, and by the end I was left wondering about a lot of things.

Maryam Jameelah's life story is hard to put down.  Baker braids together the letters, her research, history, and eventually meetings with Jameelah herself in an effort to understand it.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what to say about this book.  But it was a great read and I'll be thinking about it for quite a while. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Classics Club Event in October: Gothic Literature

Where I live it doesn't yet feel like fall.  The heat has downgraded from really hot to pretty hot, and it gets dark earlier, but it's still summer.  However, my kids are planning Halloween costumes, the R. I. P. event is in full swing, and everyone is already announcing their October reading--so I'd better get on the ball and announce a Classics Club event.

In October we'll be celebrating Gothic literature with read-alongs, profiles of famous Gothic novels, and an M. R. James story for every single day of the month!  o at Délaissé is hosting a readalong of The Mysteries of Udolpho and will be doing lots of exciting things, so go check out what she's up to.  

Here at Howling Frog we will be doing the James-a-Day fun.  If you want to participate, run out and find a collection of his stories.  The complete stories are most easily found in a 2-volume Penguin edition, but there are several other editions, and smaller collections like Dover's reprint of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

For our readalong, we'll be featuring Ann Radcliffe's The Italian: or, the Confessional of the Black Penitents, a wonderful example of early Gothic romance featuring the sinister monk Schedoni.  Ellena Rosalba and Vincentio di Vivaldi are star-crossed lovers--the Marchese di Vivaldi and Father Schedoni are arrayed against them--Ellena disappears mysteriously, Vincentio searches for her, and then he falls into the hands of the Inquisition. 

Halloween is one of my very favorite holidays.  I love autumn and the relief of cooler weather.  I love costumes and trick-or-treating, especially little kids in adorable costumes coming to my door (luckily for me, I live in a good trick-or-treating neighborhood).  I love watching horrible old scary movies that aren't scary, especially when Vincent Price is the star.  My very favorite thing about Halloween is how neighborly it is; everyone is out and friendly and it's just so much fun.  This year will also mark my 39th birthday, so I'd better make it a good one--and I'm really looking forward to celebrating all month long with all of you by reading classic Gothic stories!

I'm going to try to read something from each of the last 3 centuries, so I'm signing up for o's challenge.  I suspect that I'm going to wind up reading a lot of 18th-century literature; some of those titles are very intriguing.

To sign up for The Italian or to read a James story a day, write up a post and link to it below.  Grab the image, available in two sizes for your convenience, and spread the word.  We are going to have lots of spooky fun!

September Classics Discussion: Music

Katherine at November's Autumn posts:

I love the have my radio tuned to King FM while I'm reading and sometimes the mood of the music perfectly suits what I'm reading.  This month's prompt is to select a piece of...


...that you feel reflects the book. Modern, classical, jazz, anything, it doesn't have to be from the period of the novel but share what it is about the piece that echoes the novel in some way.

I wasn't going to do this one quite yet, because I'm not currently reading a classic of literature.  But I am reading a classic of history!  That would be Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.  It's excellent, but long and dense and kind of depressing, since the 14th century was about as bad as it could have been.  The Black Death killed a third or more of the population, constant pointless warfare ruined the countryside and killed more people, bands of brigands roamed around pillaging towns and ruining yet more lives, the Catholic Church had a papal schism that led to more wars and chaos, and the list goes on. 

I was driving along in my car yesterday, and since I know little about medieval music, I was thinking about whether any current music would match the 14th-century warriors I'm reading about.  I bet they'd like heavy metal, or Nickelback or something--whatever drunken bros like.

Just then, the perfect song for the book as a whole played on my stereo!  It's Oingo Boingo's War Again, and it was written around the time of the first Gulf War in 1991.  I've always thought it really captured something about the mood in the US at that time.  I was a senior in high school, and my math teacher had CNN on in the classroom all day for weeks.  It was the first war that we could sort of watch on television like that, and I remember rockets arcing over Baghdad in green nightvision.  I think the words also describe something about these medieval warriors' attitude about war, so here it is:

My favorite Christine de Pisan is mentioned quite a bit in A Distant Mirror, too, primarily in connection with the debate over The Romance of the Rose.   I think Christine would like different music.  I would give her Sarah McLachlan but Sarah's usually a bit too pagan for Christine's taste.  Loreena McKennitt is only slightly less pagan, but I can see Christine listening to her while writing. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

I don't think I've read many books like this.  Katherine Boo spent years visiting a shantytown slum in Mumbai getting to know the residents very well indeed, and eventually wrote their story.  She writes as though she was not there.  We get to know several neighboring families in the slum: a family that sorts garbage for a living, the very angry disabled woman next door, a politically-ambitious woman who wants to become the slumlord, her daughter who attends college and teaches children.  They all live next to a lake of sewage behind the Mumbai airport, and their place is called Annawadi.

Boo's chronicle centers around an incident that causes huge trouble for Annawadi residents, stemming out of jealousy, anger, and ordinary neighborly bickering.  Everyone has their own story and hopes for a better life; it's amazing to read about how they mostly keep going, not just surviving but trying to live their ambitions, in the incredibly brutal place they live in.  In some ways I found the book difficult to grasp because even though I knew it was written about real people (names weren't changed or anything), I kept expecting it to act like a story.  I wanted Manju to graduate and get a job as a real teacher instead of getting caught in her mother's cons, but we never find out what happens to her.

India's endemic corruption is the overriding force in the lives of Annawadi people (and, I expect, in most of India's poorer population).  Everyone with any kind of power is corrupt: the slumlords fabricating fictional women's cooperatives, the doctors at the hospital, the social workers, the police, the politicians, even the nuns running the orphanage.  Money for microloans, schools, charities, and housing is available, and nearly all of it goes into somebody's pocket.  The people at the bottom work hard and save and hope, only to have it all taken away again and again by the very people who are, in theory, supposed to hold up the structure of society.

Boo comments, “It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be—all those invisible individuals who every day find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted, stone slab in hand, one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

I think it's an important book, and Boo is an excellent writer who manages to make herself disappear in the narrative.  That's an impressive thing when it seems like most of the non-fiction books we read are all about the writer.  It will hurt to read, but you should read it anyway.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, by David DiSalvo

Who could resist this title?  Not me.  David DiSalvo explains what makes for a 'happy' brain (that is, a brain that avoids risk or loss or harm and therefore doesn't get killed or have to work too hard) and why these energy-saving, protective tendencies are both helpful and harmful. 

When I first saw the title, I thought "Oh, it's a book about overcoming the natural man!"  (As in, Paul's 'natural man' image in the New Testament.)  Which it kind of is in some ways.

Brains like habits, default patterns, and the easier road every time (also addictions).  But if you always do what your brain wants you to do, you'll wind up kind of unhappy, not to mention a lazy slob.  So DiSalvo spends this book coming up with a list of about 50 (!) strategies and tips for motivating yourself, thinking productively, and generally taking advantage of how your brain works.

A striking example was about food.  If you imagine a yummy treat--say, M&Ms--you'll probably start to want some M&Ms, right?  If you then imagine yourself eating the M&Ms, that will actually satisfy your brain's craving somewhat.  So before you actually start snarfing candy, you should imagine eating some; the result will be fewer actual M&Ms consumed.

My favorite sentence was from the very beginning of the book: "...the business of science is not to provide us with settled answers that we can comfortably rest our heads upon at night."

I wasn't entirely satisfied with the book; it felt a little shorter and shallower than I was expecting.  But it was an enjoyable read and was understandable to the layperson, so maybe I'm just complaining.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Classics Club: September Meme

The Classics Club September Meme question asks:
Pick a classic someone else in the club has read from our big review list. Link to their review and offer a quote from their post describing their reaction to the book. What about their post makes you excited to read that classic in particular?

Confession: for years, I've been torn between wanting to read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and being far too intimidated by the size of the book.  It's something like 1500 pages long.  I even remember when it was first published; I was in college and saw it at the beautiful Morrison Library, where I used to go as often as I could (really, wouldn't you?).  But it was too long to read while I took heavy literature classes, and anyway I always sort of figured it was too much for me.  Recently I've seen it mentioned here and there, and Amy's post at Book Musings finally pushed me over the edge and put A Suitable Boy on my official Classics Club reading list.  Amy says:

This is a 1300-odd page novel with dozens of characters and a scope that is both grand and intimate, and yet it's so compulsively readable that I was interested in every character and every story line...

In addition to marriages, births, and deaths, subplots deal with land reform, caste discrimination, shoe manufacture, Hindu-Muslim relations, post-partition politics, university faculty politics, and more....Although even the political story lines were interesting, the great pleasure for me was the depictions of Indian family life...

Amy's description of family life and lots of India finally hooked me.  I don't know when I'll get to read it, but I'm definitely going to. 20 years is probably quite long enough to be nervous about a book, so maybe next year!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Golden Legend

The Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voraigne

I am quite proud of myself for reading this whole thing!  The Golden Legend is a giant collection of saints' legends and histories.  My copy is just a selection of only 71 stories, which was quite enough.   The stories are interesting, but gory.  And somewhat repetitive.  And often more vengeful than a modern Christian might prefer, but after all much of it is medieval embroidery.

For example, about St. Martin (My version is in modern English, thank goodness):
And as he went he saw in a water birds that plunged in the water, which awaited and espied fishes and ate them, and then he said: In this manner devils espy fools, they espy them that be not ware, they take them that know not, but be ignorant, and devour them that be taken, and they may not be fulfilled ne satiate with them that they devour. And then he commanded them to leave the water, and that they should go into desert countries, and they assembled them and went into the woods and mountains.

So, St. Martin didn't like ducks and told them to go live in the desert.  Hm. It's a great illustration of the medieval belief in everything being an allegory for a spiritual truth, but I hope it didn't really happen.

Anyway, here we have saints famous and unknown, historical and legendary.  The story of Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat is clearly the story of Prince Gautama Buddha transported over many lands (this is a link I found at Catholic Forum).   Most of the major saints are included in the collection, and the medieval people who founded monastic orders get good long biographies because much more was known about them.

I liked Perpetua's Passion better, because it's an actual first-person account from a Christian martyr, but it was a good book to read.