Thursday, October 31, 2013

All Hallows' Eve

Cover from 1980 edition
All Hallows' Eve, by Charles Williams

These days, Charles Williams is not terribly well-known, but he was really kind of famous as a writer and unusual historian in his day.  He was an editor at Oxford University Press and an Inkling, and C. S. Lewis was one of his greatest admirers.  Williams wrote several novels that are just about unlike anything else I've ever read; T. S. Eliot called them supernatural thrillers, but they are not at all what you and I would expect to find if we went looking for supernatural thrillers.  Williams' novels feature spiritual elements made manifest in the contemporary world, and concern the misuse of power and the state of the soul.  They are intensely Christian, though they rarely mention that word and are, again, nothing like what you would expect from a Christian novel.  If you've ever read Lewis' Space Trilogy and were completely baffled by That Hideous Strength, that's the book that Lewis is supposed to have tried to write in a Williams style.  I really like it, but I may be one of the oddball few.

All Hallows' Eve starts with Lester, who is dead.  She and her best friend have been killed by an accident, just at the end of the war too. Lester finds herself in London, but a different London--the City that is not quite the same as the one she knew.  Meanwhile, her husband Richard and his friend Jonathan are meeting a man hailed as a great spiritual leader, the only man to heal the world: Simon the Clerk.  Simon is in fact a black magician--a sort of anti-Christ, though that word never appears--and he is trying to take over the world by using both the physical and spiritual realms.  On All Hallows' Eve, the characters (dead and alive)
must act together to try to stop him.

This is Williams' last novel, written in 1945, and may be a pretty good entry point to his books.  It is not as densely and weirdly symbolic as the others I've read (but I've only read two!) and is probably easier to understand.  As with all Williams novels, it is quite short.

I would very much like to read all of the novels and then go on to some history and other writing.  He considered his best work to be his complex poetic works about Arthur, which would probably break my brain just like Eliot does, but I plan to try one of these days.

If you're interested, all of Charles Williams' novels are now available on Kindle for $2.99 each, and I snapped up several.  They are not easy to get in print, after all.  However, there is something wrong with the files--the last couple of letters of every line disappear into the margin.  This is true no matter how you have the type size or margins or orientation set.  You can see it in the samples.  I did a customer service chat about it and managed to stump 3 tech support people in a row!  They say it should get fixed sometime (I'm presuming it's some problem with the files' margin settings), so if you want to read them, either check in every so often to see if it's fixed, or resign yourself to an annoying-but-not-fatal impediment to your reading enjoyment.  I found that if I set it to pretty small type, so as to get as much text as possible into each line, it wasn't too bad.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Count of Monte Cristo Check-In

I am really glad some of you talked me into doing the readalong of The Count of Monte Cristo.  It is such a fun book!  I've not had much trouble keeping up with the pace and am now on chapter 70.  This is about halfway by chapters, but more than halfway by page numbers.

I really did not know anything much about the plot before I started; it was mixed up in my head with the Man in the Iron Mask.  I've never seen the movie either.  All of you probably already know that this is the story of young Edmond Dantes, a carefree young sailor with wonderful career prospects ahead of him and a true love he is about to marry--until he is thrown into the Chateau d'If and left to rot, all for the sake of a bureaucrat's ambition.  In prison, he hears about a legendary treasure buried on the island of Monte Cristo, and vows to escape, find the treasure, and get his life back.

It's very exciting, filled with plots, piracy, duels, bandits, and all sorts of wonderful stuff.  Lots of fun.  And Jenny was right--the awesome stuff they make in prison is the best part!

PS: Ooh, I just saw my pageviews count.  I just hit 100,000!  Yay!

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

It's hard to say much about this book besides wow. It's no wonder that this story made the shortlist for the 2013 Carnegie Medal (Britain's medal for the best children's book, as with America's Newbery, though this is not a child's book).  Lots of people around the blog world are raving about Code Name Verity, and the hype is deserved.

1942:  "Verity" is an Allied spy, set down in France on her first mission--and promptly caught by the Nazis.  She has broken down under torture and is writing an account of her activities in exchange for favors such as clothing or another few days of life.  But what she writes is not so much straight information as the story--from her best friend's perspective--of how she ended up as a spy in France.  Only much later do we even find out her name. And then the novel grabs you and does not let go.

The prisoner and Maddie are great characters, and it's fascinating getting to know them as the story unfolds.  The reader must keep in mind that the first half of the book is, first of all, a document written for a torturer to read, and second, pretending to a point of view that the writer doesn't actually have.  Don't think it's always reliable.  It takes a while to figure the people out.

Wein put a whole lot of effort and research into her story; everything is something that could happen, and that somebody did do.  There some nice notes at the end about her research and writing process.  My favorite part of the historical detail was catching the use of an early ballpoint pen!

I am telling you: read this book!   It is really great.

This is a YA novel; I wouldn't give it to a kid under 12.  It's not horribly graphic--this is not a Hunger Games level of violence--but it is, on the other hand, a realistic story with events that actually happened in the world not too long ago. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In Search of Ancient Ireland

In Search of Ancient Ireland, by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

A couple of years ago I read a book by Carmel McCaffrey called In Search of Ireland's Heroes.  It covers Irish history after the Norman invasion of 1167, and I saw that there was a previous book about Irish history before that.  It turned out to be kind of hard to find, to my surprise, but what I hadn't realized was that the book was written as a companion to a PBS program.   (Not the one about the Celts that had lots of Enya music--a different one. Same title as the book.) 

McCaffrey and Eaton start with archaeological evidence about Neolithic societies, which is very interesting.  They have some good information about the development of early Irish culture, how their origin myths developed, and how very different those myths are from what we can tell about history.

The section on the conversion to Christianity is very interesting; unlike many countries, Ireland did not experience a conversion by the sword.  The authors cover what we really know about St. Patrick and the other major Irish missionaries and saints.  There are some very nice bits on Irish literacy and art.

After that it gets more into politics and rivalries between various ...clans?  tribes?  What word do I want?  McCaffrey uses tribes.  This is not quite so exciting, as there is a lot of politicking and not so much adventure.  This goes on until the Norman invasion, and the story continues for a bit after that.

One problem is that this book is supposed to be about Ireland's history before "the coming of the English" (in 1167), but right in the beginning of the book, McCaffrey states that Irish culture was oral until the English arrived, bringing writing with them.  What she really means there is that Irish culture was oral until the arrival of Christianity, which is quite different and happened hundreds of years earlier than the Norman invasion.  So that is quite confusing, and I wish she had been more exact about "the English."  First she talks about 'ancient' Ireland being the time before people were writing things down, and then she spends most of the book talking about a literate, medieval society.   I was also a bit disappointed by her references to the Dark Ages in Europe; her meaning was that Irish literacy and education was thriving in the early medieval era when most of Europe was dealing with the fall of the Roman Empire and lots of pushing from the East, but I really do not like the term "Dark Ages" applied to it.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, but I think there are probably better histories of Ireland.  I would have liked more information about ancient Ireland, as in Neolithic society; in fact I would have preferred two separate (but consecutive) books, one about ancient history and one about the transition to Christianity, going up to the Normans.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Three Poems

Tighe haunts Hairy-Faced Dick
Three, yes three narrative poems!  I finished my poetry challenge!

I have been fretting about my narrative poetry challenge.  Plus it's almost Halloween.  I put the two together and found the perfect solution--The Ingoldsby Legends!

The Ingoldsby Legends is a sort of miscellaneous collection of poetry, myth, ghost story, and legend, most of it told in a humorous style.  They were written by "Thomas Ingoldsby" (really a Victorian clergyman named Barham) and published in magazines, and were so popular that they were collected and published.  It's the sort of book that was hugely popular and well-known a century ago, but no one reads it now unless they are a little weird like me.  When I was a kid, I used to see it mentioned in books by E. Nesbit and wonder what it was, so I bought an old copy when I got the chance.

The stories and poetry are funny, but of course very, very Victorian.  I got tired of the poems pretty quickly when I first read it.  But there are lots of good legends and stuff about Hands of Glory and whatnot.

So, to combine my challenge with some spooky Halloween reading, I chose three poems.

The Legend of Hamilton Tighe was a good one.  In a shipboard battle, Hairy-Faced Dick kills young Hamilton Tighe, who then proceeds to haunt him and anyone else who profited from the death. 

I expected The Witches' Frolic to be fun, but instead it was rather tedious.  It is really very long--a good 13 pages--and describes a witches' party, but not very amusingly.

The Jackdaw of Rheims involved a jackdaw who stole the ring of a great Lord Cardinal of the Church.  The Cardinal curses the unknown thief, and soon the poor beleaguered jackdaw shows up, repenting of his crime.  Ever after he is the most reverent of birds.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Golem

The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink

I'm not sure what to call this novel, besides really strange and bizarre.  I mean, this is easily one of the weirdest books I've ever read.  "Hallucinatory" is the best descriptor I can come up with.  And it's often described as Meyrink's easiest work to read....

Gustav Meyrink (born Meyer) was the illegitimate son of a wealthy German baron and an actress.  He did quite a bit of writing, was enormously interested in unusual religions and the occult, worked as a banker, and went to jail for fraud (it's not clear that he was guilty).  Der Golem, Meyrink's first novel, was published serially in 1913-14 in a German magazine, and made him famous.  After that he translated Dickens into German and wrote much more. 

An unnamed narrator dreams that he is Athanasius Pernath, a jeweler living in the Prague ghetto.  As he meets his neighbors, he hears about the legend of the Golem, a clay man brought to life by kabbalistic magic. Every 33 years, people see the Golem walking through the ghetto.  Strange and mystical events follow Pernath, and he has dreams and visions--he may be the Golem.  He realizes that he has no memory of his youth, and finds out that something terrible happened to him, so that doctors hypnotized him into forgetting.  Pernath becomes obsessed with a wealthy and beautiful young woman, Angelina, who is married but carrying on an affair with a local doctor.  He is then imprisoned on a false charge, and when he is released, the ghetto is being razed and he cannot find anyone, especially not the neighbor girl he truly loves.  The narrator awakes to find that Pernath may be a real person, and goes to hunt for him.

It's disjointed, obscure, and strange.  Layers upon layers of visions and dreams make it very difficult to figure out what's happening, and reality is impossible to find.  But it's very interesting. October is probably the right time to read this story, though it is not in any way your usual scary story.  It reminds me much more of the mystical works of people like Charles Williams or George MacDonald.  There are as many frames as a tale by Isak Dinesen.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Stranger

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I've been struggling to write this post for days--that's the trouble with classics, what is there to say that people don't already know?  This strange novel was the next on the WEM List, and I read it along with the WEM Ladies and Ruth.   I've never read any Camus before, though I've certainly meant to, so I thought this was a good opportunity.  I can't say I loved it, though.

The story is famous; Mersault, a French Algerian, shoots and kills a random Arab on the beach, though he doesn't seem to care about it much.  In fact, Mersault has a hard time caring about anything much.  He is detached from the rest of the world.

So we wonder: why is Mersault so detached?  He doesn't seem to have any desires or emotions, really.  He has physical, bodily desires--food, sex, drink--but nothing emotionally.  He is content to go along with whatever happens.  His mother dies, but he doesn't mind; they didn't have much to talk about anyway.  His girlfriend wants to get married, and he figures it doesn't matter, but he's willing to go along.  He is put on trial, but, you know, whatever.

Is it that the inhuman modern world has detached him from other human beings?  That seems to have been a popular interpretation at one time, but now people wonder whether Mersault has a mental illness or perhaps some form of autism.  I think it's interesting how our interpretations of Mersault depend so much on our own times.  Which is, I suppose, true of all literature, but it struck me here.

I used to own this copy but never read it.

Why did Mersault kill the Arab?  He doesn't know why himself.  Perhaps just because it was so hot and he wanted it to stop.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough

Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: the Medical Lives of Great Writers, by John J. Ross, MD

My mom handed me this book, knowing I would enjoy it.  Ross talks about great writers' medical conditions!  Why did Milton go blind?  Is there something behind Shakespeare's constant mentions of 'the pox'?  Let's talk about the Brontës' tuberculosis and Joyce's eye problems!

In each chapter, Ross gives a short biography of a great writer and then goes into detail about what we know about the medical history.  Ross is a good storyteller, not too wordy, and he's very good about not speculating too far.  Often he points out far-fetched theories and punctures them, reminding readers that, for example, plain old TB was more than enough to kill all the Brontës without resorting to fanciful diagnoses.  He is careful not to get too confident or too fancy, which I appreciated.

This would be a good bedside book if you're not easily grossed out; it's easy to read a little bit at a time, but there is a lot of gory detail about the progression of various diseases and the horrifying treatments for them that people used to use.  It will certainly make you feel astonished at the way people used to consider lead,  antimony, mercury, and arsenic to be excellent cure-alls, but Ross also points out the ways that those treatments did actually work sometimes, sort of, thus giving people confidence in them.

I learned a whole lot of really uncomfortable facts about STDs.  I found out that Milton probably went blind from detached retinas, something I expect to have happen to me someday.  (Yay laser surgery!)  Joyce had glaucoma, which I also expect to get, but the treatment then consisted of snipping out bits of the iris to relieve the pressure. (Yay eyedrops!)  And here's an odd coincidence: I read about that glaucoma treatment twice in the same day, in two different books.  Weird, right?

One topic that is not extensively covered here at all is drug use and the resulting medical problems.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his opium habit, and his resulting stomach troubles are not here, nor is anyone's awful drinking problem or anything like that.  Ross sticks mostly with bacteria, germs, and traditional treatments, which is fine with me.

I am so grateful for modern medicine!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of the Romans from 161-189 AD.  He doesn't seem to have been all that cut out to be emperor, because he was mostly a very nice guy, and so I was surprised to find that he had a pretty successful reign and didn't get poisoned or anything..  These meditations are really his personal writings to himself; they were not meant for publication.  They were private.

The twelve books of reflections, written on campaign, contain a lot of advice on how to live a good life.  Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, but a slightly unusual one.  He is humble and talks about God, or the gods, quite a bit.  All of the advice is about doing what is right regardless of others' opinions, doing good to others, putting duty over personal desire, and so on.  Here are a few snippets:

Keep yourself then simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts.  Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make you.  Revere the gods, and help men.  Life is short.  There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts.

This is the chief thing: Do not be perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the universal, and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere, like Hadrian and Augustus.

Suppose any man shall despise me.  Let him look to that himself.  But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.  Shall any man hate me?  That will be his affair.  But I will be mild and benevolent toward every man...."

It sounds like a combination of Zen Buddhism and Christianity, and is attractive enough to have become a classic, despite the existence of plenty of other books about Stoicism.  It's actually pretty hard to tell that the guy writing these thoughts down was the single most powerful man in the world, who ruled over huge swathes of Europe.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Bat--the movie!

DVD cover with mysterious photos
A while back I read Mary Rinehart Roberts' novel of The Bat, which was a hugely successful play in the 1920s.  I ran into a film version of The Bat at the library, so we took it home to watch; I was hoping it would be the play, in movie form.  It turned out to be the 1959 version, starring Vincent Price, and the screenplay must have been extensively rewritten--the basics were there, but quite changed, and with several character changes.

Still, we had fun watching the film.  Who does not adore Vincent Price?  My 13-year-old daughter has not yet had the fun of watching lots of old scary movies, so I'm going to try to educate her a bit as long as it's October.  I just love watching goofy old movies around Halloween, and this one was pretty good, though it lacked the incredible cheesiness of the novel.

So who are these people on the cover of the DVD?  They are not in the movie!  At least, they don't look like that--they are Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price, but as of about 1925 I should think--at least 25 years before this movie was filmed.  Whoever designed the DVD image just slapped some old photos on a background of a random castle and went home for the weekend, I guess.

Now this is more like it!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Let's Kill Uncle

Let's Kill Uncle, by Rohan O'Grady

I heard of this title through the Bloomsbury editions--those lovely candy-colored books that are so tempting.  This one was a bit of a surprise, though; so far all the Bloomsbury books I've read have been humorous or satirical books by British women, and Let's Kill Uncle is by a Canadian.  It's funny, but the humor has a darker tone.  The copy I got through ILL has a nice Gorey cover, and Gorey is perfectly suited to this story.

There are no children on the small island off the Canadian coast, until Barnaby and Christie, both age 12, come to spend the summer.  Christie's overworked mother has scrimped to give her this chance at an outdoor summer, and Barnaby is in the care of his guardian uncle.  Barnaby is the heir to millions, and his uncle is of the opinion that he should have the fortune.  Barnaby knows this perfectly well, and he also knows that no grownup will believe him, so he and Christie decide that this is a problem they must solve on their own, by killing Uncle first.  And there's a self-pitying cougar!  And an archaeology-minded Mountie!

It's a terrific read, both funny and scary.  Uncle really is a serial killer, but he isn't often seen by others and he's good at passing for a caring guy.  The other adults--good people all--aren't all that equipped to understand what's going on, and Barnaby is both inarticulate and already convinced that there is no help.

A very nice read.  Good for October!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Book of Not

The Book of Not, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

A year or two ago I read Nervous Conditions, and have been wanting for some time to read this sequel, The Book of Not.  It was written quite a few years later and I think these are Dangarembga's only two novels; she has also written films and short pieces.

Tambudzai is now attending the pre-eminent girls' boarding school in Rhodesia.  Great things are expected of her, and she badly wants to be an excellent scholar and win at least one prize.  But as hard as she works, life is often too much for her.  The school is almost entirely populated with wealthy white girls, and segregation is in force, so that daily life is filled with difficult social dilemmas of the kind guaranteed to make a teenage girl freeze with anxiety.  She has a hard time getting along with the African girls she shares a room with; in fact, she has a hard time getting along with anyone.  Outside the school, a guerrilla war for Zimbabwean independence rages and makes everyone afraid, and Tambu is alone as she tries to process the trauma of seeing her own sister lose a leg to a land mine.

Tambu's story continues after graduation as she continues to have a difficult time figuring out how to get along with other people.  She works in a few different jobs as Rhodesia becomes independent Zimbabwe, but some things don't change. The novel ends on a difficult and unresolved note, making readers wish for a further book.

I guess you could call it a bildungsroman about the development of a teenage girl, complicated by colonialism and her own prickly personality.  Tambu struggles so much, and there is no final victory such as a simpler story would provide.  Life is just difficult.

Dangarembga is a good writer and I thought it was a great sequel to a book that's been called one of the best novels of African literature.  Nervous Conditions was more about childhood and family, and here Tambu is maturing and facing a hard world.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Dilemma

Oh dear.  I have been looking at all my lovely piles of books and deciding what I want to read next, and there are lots of wonderful things to read.  I've been pottering my way through M. R. James because it's October--and the stories are very well worth re-reading, I'm noticing a lot of good stuff I didn't necessarily get before--and I just started Gustav Meyrink's seriously bizarre novel The Golem, and I'm dedicating October to reading Boleslaw Prus' novel, The Doll, which is supposed to be one of the great Polish novels and indeed so far it is good.

I've got rather a lot of history to get through if I want to finish all my challenges properly--I have several books to go for the TBR challenges and the majority of them are weighty or dense.  And I've got a bunch of great books checked out of the library, like Code Name Verity and Napoleon's Buttons.  Plus I just got Susan Wise Bauer's new history book, The History of the Renaissance World, which I've been looking forward to enormously.  You have to love a book about the Renaissance that has a 'Dance of Death' painting on the cover.

So of course a really tempting readalong has shown up to throw all my plans out of whack!  Tomorrow, Elyssa at Unscripted is kicking off a two-month readalong of The Count of Monte Cristo.  I was kind of thinking I would dedicate 2014 to giant French novels--I'm hoping to find a readalong of Les Miserables and I was going to do Monte Cristo too.  But what a fun chance!  What do I do??  It only comes out to 2.5 chapters a day--I can squeeze that in, right?  (Realistically, no, I can't.  As it is I'm having a hard time finding time to read.)

Update: well, I read the first 3 chapters of the story, and as the comments said, it's both easy and exciting.  I'll give it a go.  So this is now my sign-up post.

The Global Public Square

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity, by Os Guinness

I've heard of Os Guinness before as a co-author of a reference book on literature for young students.  I had not realized that his main thing in life is writing books of social criticism and advocating in social policy.  Although he currently lives in the US, he spent much of his life working in Europe.  He seems to be British or  Irish by birth, having been born in China and gotten his PhD from Oxford, but that's a guess based on two minutes of poking around the Web.  Certainly his biographical sketch is worth reading; he's had an exciting life!

Guinness' major concern--here and in other books--is the preservation of the basic human rights of freedom of conscience and speech as an essential element of a free society.  Everyone, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, ought to be able to exercise their beliefs.  He calls this soul freedom, after Roger Williams' ideal of soul liberty.

Here, Guinness makes his case for the need for a civil public square: one in which all viewpoints are accepted and respected.  This, as opposed to a "sacred" public square, in which one official religion holds power or a "naked" public square in which no religious point of view is respected.  In order to live together with all our differences, none must have more power than others and a civil discourse is necessary:
True human flourishing requires a form of harmony that blends diversity with genuine liberty.  Diversity without liberty is routine for authoritarian regimes, but humans are not slaves to governments or ideologies...the challenge of our time is to blend diversity with liberty and still create harmony.
While it is fairly easy to see that Guinness is coming from a somewhat conservative and religious standpoint, he makes great efforts to acknowledge weaknesses and strengths on all sides, which I appreciated. 

I think Guinness is correct in his insistence on the primacy of these particular rights of conscience and expression.  Absolutely.  While I didn't always agree with his logic about certain details or events, and I'm not coming from the same religious tradition as he does (actually I don't know what his may be but it is obviously not mine), I agree with his thesis.

The execution may have left something to be desired, though.  I wish the book had either been more compact, or more fleshed out with examples from history.  It's a highly theoretical book and sometimes got a bit repetitive.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mount TBR: Check-in #3

Bev at My Reader's Block is hosting the Mount TBR Challenge, and it's time for a third-quarter check-in!  Bev says I need to do two things:

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

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
A. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
B. What has been your most difficult read so far.  And why?  (Length?  Subject matter?  Difficult style?  Out of your comfort zone reading?)
C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?
D. Choose 3-5 titles from your stacks and using a word from the title, do an image search.  Post the first all-eyes-friendly picture associated with that word.

My goal is Mont Blanc, 25 books high.  So far I have read 17, so I need to get 8 more books read in the next 3 months!  Uh-oh.  Maybe I should pick some of the shorter books, since I've been choosing gigantic tomes.  (I just went and looked at my pile.  They are all long books!  Eek.)

I think The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man has probably been on my pile the longest.  I'm sure I bought that in Berkeley, probably around 1995.  It was a good book, so I'm glad I finally got to it.  I could have read it years ago, but it didn't change my life or anything so I'm not sure it matters.

  1. Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy
  2. The Middle Window, by Elizabeth Goudge
  3. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James 
  4. The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois
  5.  The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
  6. The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday
  7. Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper 
  8. Botchan, by Natsume Soseki 
  9. The Echoing Green, by Gillian Avery 
  10. Making Their Own Peace, by Ann N. Madsen 
  11. In the First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 
  12. Black Sheep, by Georgette Heyer 
  13. The 13th Element, by John Emsley
  14. The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes 
  15. St. Thomas Aquinas/St. Francis of Assisi (biography by G. K. Chesterton) 
  16. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth 
  17. When Ladies Go A-Thieving, by Elaine Abelson 


Friday, October 4, 2013

The Agency: A Spy in the House

The Agency: A Spy in the House, by Y. S. Lee

I don't remember what blogger pointed me to the Agency series by Y. S. Lee; it's been on my wishlist for a long time, and I finally got around to ILLing the book.

Mary Lang was a 12-year-old London street urchin when her life took an unexpected turn and she went to live at a school dedicated to preparing girls to earn their livings.  At 17, even more unexpectedly, the headmistresses of the school reveal that some pupils go on to work as undercover agents for the Agency.  After all, who is less noticeable than a servant girl?  No one expects her to be doing detective work.  And so Mary joins up and heads off to her very first assignment, as paid companion to a spoilt teenage girl whose father might be cooking his books.

It took me a little while to get into this story and at first I didn't think I would continue.  It was when Mary started her assignment that I got interested.  After that, I liked the book a lot.  The historical setting is excellent; Lee is a scholar of the Victorian era, and it shows.  (Plus she has a taste for the grimy, which is great.)  The mystery is solid and Mary is a great character--not only is she a street urchin turned respectable woman, she has her own secret that no one in her life knows about.

Part of what I enjoyed in this story was its relative plausibility.  Mary really is working within the constraints of Victorian society, and if no one was smart enough to employ girl servants as spies, they certainly should have thought of it.  It's a historical adventure, but it's not as extravagantly implausible as so many are, and Mary, while a feminist, is not so much of a "21st-century heroine plopped down on a 19th-century stage to rescue everyone with her superior morals" kind of girl.

I would quite like to read more of Mary's adventures, but I'm not sure I want to bother with ILLing them.  I'll give it to my 13yo daughter, though, and see what she says.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder

 I've been working on this one for a while. It is just about the most unremittingly grim and tragic book I've ever read.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't read it, because YOU SHOULD.  But it won't be fun.

Timothy Snyder illuminates a whole lot of history that we in the West haven't really been very aware of until recently.  Since the fall of the Communist bloc, a lot has come to light about World War II in Eastern Europe that we didn't easily see before.  By "bloodlands," Snyder means the part of Eastern Europe that suffered most in the first half of the 20th century--first from Stalin, then from Hitler, and then from Stalin again.  This area, which is now mostly contained in the countries of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltics, suffered three invasions, all of which involved deliberate mass murder.  In total, the Nazi and Soviet regimes put about 14 million people to death.

Snyder carefully documents all of it, from about 1920 to the early 1950s, and makes a lot of distinctions and comparisons between the two.  First he covers the Soviet famines in Ukraine--famines that were deliberately induced.  Then the Soviet takeover in Poland and the Baltics, which liquidated the educated classes.  He chronicles the alliance between Hitler and Stalin, and then Hitler's invasion of the USSR. 

Most of the second half of the book is devoted to the Holocaust and German operations in Eastern Europe.  Snyder really wants readers to understand that while we in the West have focused a lot on particular concentration camps as the ultimate in Nazi evil, there was much more that American troops never saw.  Death camps, which did nothing but murder Jews, left almost no survivors to tell their stories and were all contained in areas that ended up behind the Iron Curtain. 

After the war, Stalin controlled even more of Eastern Europe than before and committed more atrocities, decreeing that each country should be ethnically homogenous.  The Soviets also had particular historical narratives that they wanted to push, so the Holocaust was subsumed into a narrative that pitted victorious Communists against reactionaries.

This is an important book of history for Westerners to read, because it contains a lot of information that simply wasn't very clear before.  We tell ourselves only part of the story.  This part of the story is grim and hard to grasp, but we should try.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Unnatural Creatures

Unnatural Creatures: Stories selected by Neil Gaiman

This was an excellent spooky read for fall!  If you're doing RIP, be sure to grab this new collection of stories chosen by Neil Gaiman.  They are all stories about creatures.  And it's brand-spanking-new--for once I got in early!

There is a great variety--some stories are old, some are contemporary.  They are funny or creepy--or both.  I particularly liked the first selection (which does not have a pronounceable title), "The Compleat Werewolf," and "Come, Lady Death."  Gaiman's own contribution is "Sunbird," which I have read somewhere before but is well worth a re-read, and of course he had to include a Diana Wynne Jones selection, which is "The Sage of Theare."  (I don't know why that one; I can think of a few others that are more in line with the creature theme, but hey, I like the story just fine.)

Pick this up if you like creepy, or fantasy, or Halloween reads.