Monday, March 31, 2014

More mini-reviews!

My desk is inundated with books from 3 different libraries and my own shelves.  I'm going to have to continue with the mini-reviews!

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev -- I enjoyed this so much, but I finished it right when I lost energy to blog.  Now all the impressions are dim.  But here we have two young men, Arkady and his good friend Bazarov.  Bazarov has been a controversial figure since the day he stepped on to the page; he's a Nihilist who claims to believe in nothing.  He wants to smash all of society, clear the ground so that a new and better world can be built from scratch, but he has little to say about what that world should look like.  Sort of proto-communist and scientific--Bazarov likes science, though not very much.  Then he falls in love, which he can't deal with at all.   Turgenev is showing us the generation gap he experienced.  I loved it, but I can't tell you too much about it in a mini-review.

Shadow on the Mountain, by Margi Preus -- This excellent YA historical fiction is based on the real experiences of a young man during World War II.  Espen is 14 when the Germans invade Norway, and he is eager to help the Resistance in any way he can.  Soon he is deeply involved, but he's not so happy when his younger sister starts some secret activities of her own.  And his best friend, Kjell, seems to be sympathetic to the Nazis.  A very good novel for 12+.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson -- did you know that this year is Tove Jansson's 100th birthday?  We ought to have a celebration.  I didn't know until recently that she had also written a few novels for adults.  The Summer Book is about a family who spends their summers on a little island off the coast of Finland.  Olivia is a little girl, and she has a grandmother.  Her father is in and out; her mother is dead.  There are all these tiny chapters with little vignettes about island life.  It's very Jansson, with all the important feelings tucked down under the words.  Excellent stuff.

Stitches, by David Small -- an English teacher at work told me that her class has been reading Stitches in a voice that assumed I must know what it was, so when I saw it on a book truck I nobbled it.  Small is a well-known illustrator of picture books, but this memoir is a whole different thing.  In it, he chronicles his difficult family and the cancer that took his voice when he was a teenager.  It was quite good, and dang depressing too.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

DWJ: Wrapup Post and Changeover

Well, fooey.  I love DWJ Month but I run out of energy right at the same time.  I feel sad that I didn't participate as much as I wanted to, and yet I couldn't seem to just do it.   So once again I'm going to post several things in order to catch up a bit:

The Dalemark Quartet:  Oh, how I love Dalemark.  It is just about my favorite place, especially in Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark.  I love the green roads and the strange Undying who aren't gods unless they are bound.

The Homeward Bounders: I think this might be the single saddest DWJ book.  I reviewed it a year or so ago.  Go ahead and take a look.

Black Maria: This is a fantastic one.  I love it.  I love the punning title too.  (In the US it's Aunt Maria, which isn't nearly so good.)  Aunt Maria is one of the scariest villains in DWJ, I think.  Like Tanaqui in Spellcoats, Mig only starts to understand what is happening when she writes it all down and then reads it over again.

The Game: It's only a novella but there's a lot crammed in there.  Hailey's grandmother keeps her penned in until she does something so awful (says Grandmother) that she is sent away to live with relatives.  Here, her life suddenly opens up and Hailey finds that nothing is as she thought.  DWJ has herself a ball playing with mythology, and it really is wonderful fun.

And now, Changeover.  I did my best to read it really slowly and draw it out.  Changeover is DWJ's first published novel, from 1970, and it is not a fantasy or a children's book; it's a comedy for adults.  The African nation of Nkwami is changing from a British colony to an independent country, and suddenly everyone is worried about the anarchist/communist terrorist Mark Changeover, who is planning to disrupt the ceremonies with a bomb. Everything gets more and more confused and complicated (American soldiers intent on the Cold War!  Bored young socialites!  A cobbler, discontented students, and a nightclub!)  until a crisis point is hit.   DWJ pokes fun at bureaucracy, politics, the military, and everyone else in her send-up of a colonial transfer.  No one could call this politically correct in the modern sense, but it sure is a lot of fun.

It's interesting to read a book by DWJ written before she developed what I think of as trademark DWJ characteristics.  Some of them are there, and every so often you catch a glimpse of a familiar voice, but a lot of it doesn't 'feel' like DWJ.

I do so love DWJ Month.  Thanks to everyone who posted so much more often than I did; it was fun to read!  And thanks most of all to Kristen, who hosts.   I hope we can do it again next year.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


My mojo is still lost, but I really miss my blogging.  I think it's just tiredness; homeschoolers mostly get really tired around about February, and I've been pulling back on online/bloggy stuff to conserve energy, I guess.  Anyway, I'm going to borrow a strategy from Ekaterina and throw out some mini-reviews, or I will never get out from under the pile of books I have!  Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I have forgotten some by now.  I gave one to my daughter to read and now I don't know what it was.

Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes -- I started this near the end of February, actually.  It's a great novel about a boy growing up in Kansas, and all his family members.  I enjoyed it very much and still want to read more Harlem Renaissance books, but I had to return the volumes to the library.  (That has been happening to a lot of my library books lately.)

Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth -- The BBC series was based on the memoir, which is wonderful to read.  The author was a nurse and midwife in the East End in the 1950s, and her descriptions of life there are fascinating (and often tragic, but not as often as you'd think).  I do think this book would appeal mainly to grown women or else nurses; there is so much about the details of childbirth, or about other medical-type things, that it might be hard for people who don't particularly want to read about childbirth.  I read the first book in the trilogy, and kind of balked at the second, which is mainly about the horrors of the workhouse and is really very grim indeed.

Full Tilt, by Dervla Murphy -- I've been wanting to get my hands on this book for at least a year, but it was misplaced at the library (in another town).  They recently replaced their carpet and so packed all the books away and reshelved them, and it popped up after that.  Anyway, it's 1963 and Dervla Murphy has been planning to ride her bicycle from Ireland to India ever since she was a child.  She skips almost entirely over the European portion of the trip, which was undertaken during the hardest winter in years, and starts in Yugoslavia, where she promptly is nearly killed by frostbite and hungry wolves.  She takes care of all of that in the introduction and opens chapter 1 in Teheran.  The entire book is her diary of the trip through Persia (as she calls it) under the Shah, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a little bit in India.  She loves Afghanistan.  She is almost never in danger from people, but the landscape is perilous, between the snow and the intense heat and the Himalayas and the rivers with washed-out bridges.  I think the trip would be completely impossible today, which is sad. 

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh -- It's my second Classics Club Dare title!  I've never read Evelyn Waugh before.  This is the story of an Oxford student's friendship with another student, told as a memory from over 10 years' distance.  Sebastian Flyte is an Eccentric Young Man who affects adventure and a teddy bear, and of course lots of drink.  Charles is more ordinary and follows along, meeting the whole Flyte family eventually, but Sebastian starts to disintegrate.  It was a good novel, but very melancholy.  Everyone is pretty miserable; in fact I can only think of one character who isn't.  I would quite like to read Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, but after that I might not want to read more Waugh.  I like some hope in my novels.

In other news, the group blog about classical homeschooling I am part of is doing very well!  Please go take a look at Sandbox to Socrates if you're interested.  We had a big science week early in March, and all sorts of exciting stuff is going on.  I have business cards now!

Friday, March 21, 2014

DWJ: Catchup!

I don't quite want to skip over all those prompts from the last week because some of them are my favorite books.  So:

Wizard Derk:  Two very different books!  Dark Lord of Derkholm is a hilarious sendup of traditional sword-and-sorcery quest-type fantasy books, a genre full of Tolkien imitations.  I think it reached its peak in the 70s and early 80s, and now things are really kind of different, but if you've ever read Terry Brooks or other innumerable fantasies, Dark Lord is hysterical.  It also has a real story going on amid the scramble to put on a show, and some things cannot be fixed by a magic wand at the end of the story.  Then, The Year of the Griffin is a whole different kind of story; Elda, one of the younger griffin siblings from Dark Lord, goes off to university.  It's a wonderful take on college life--the way you find a group of friends and then help each other muddle through.  Elda's friends are from all over the world and each of them has a different serious problem; and together they can solve a lot, though not the barstool problem.  I think at this point I've re-read Griffin more often than Dark Lord.

The edition I read first
Archer's Goon is one of my very very favorites.  So many perfect sentences!  I've read it a zillion times and recently read it aloud to my kids.  That 10yo of mine loved it.  It's so funny, and at bottom it's also about freedom and power.  So many people trying to control each other, not always consciously.  What do you do with a tyrant?  How do you make sure not to turn into a tyrant yourself?
All power corrupts, but we need electricity.

And finally, Fire and Hemlock.  My all-time favorite DWJ book, but you have to work up to it.  Never hand this to a DWJ beginner!  The story is so complex and contains not only clear references to old legends but more subtle allusions to a whole lot of poetry, literature, and myth.  The ending won't make sense to you for years, though I think I got more of it last time I read it.  Again, there is a lot here about how people try to exert control over each other--sometimes by magic in the story but just as often by manipulation or threat--and the importance of being free and allowing others their freedom.  Possibly to DWJ the most important part of personal freedom is in not trying to control others with it?   

Another edition I first read
Liberty, especially from tyrannical people near you, is a theme that shows up in...well, nearly all of the books really, but very much so in
Fire and Hemlock and Archer's Goon.  Year of the Griffin as well, so this is quite a themed day here.  Dark Lord is in fact about a whole world in slavery, that cannot get free until enough people actually want to.

Jenny at Sentimental Drivel (most awesome title ever!) said today that her "favorite thing about Diana’s writing is that there is not a word she writes that doesn’t have purpose." Which expresses it perfectly.  A sentence might not look like much at first, but it will turn out to have 2 or 3 layers that you don't discover until later.

My blogging mojo went on vacation

...and I miss it.  I have lots of books to tell you about and DWJ fangirling to do, but I have just not been getting to it.  It's beautiful spring weather, though.  I'm going to try to do some writing today; I'm missing all my very favorite DWJ books!


Friday, March 14, 2014

DWJ: Fan Art Friday

I don't know a ton about DWJ fan art on the web, although I've really enjoyed some of it.  But!  I do have a little artist right here in my home, and after she read The Lives of Christopher Chant a couple of weeks ago, she drew this picture for me.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Candide Readalong: I-VIII

The Candide Readalong has begun, and I'm already kind of behind schedule.  I tried to get hold of a copy that would have more helpful notes and whatnot, but my attempt failed, so I'm reading my little Dover Thrift Edition, which to my surprise actually does have some footnotes, but not many.  There are maybe 15.  Anyway, I read chapters I-VIII last night (except I'm posting this two days later)
.  They are very short, but you have to pay close attention or you'll miss something.

Candide was written as a vicious satire of the brand of philosophy that insisted that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that everything happens for a really good reason and it couldn't be better.  So we are about to read a story in which Candide, an innocent young man, and his teacher Pangloss, the tutor who preaches this philosophy and insists that there is no free will but everyone makes choices, are about to spend the next 100 pages seeing horrible disasters, suffering needless torments, and generally having an awful time of it.  Everyone else will suffer even more, all to prove that this world is not the best of all possible worlds.  Since practically no one says that any more, it's no longer the dramatic social satire it once was, but let's read it anyway.

I don't think I will summarize the story for you, but it's only chapter 8 and Candide has been through a lot.  Pangloss just got hanged, and Candide is thrilled to meet the girl he loves, who he thought was dead.  Cunegonde has been having an awful time and now rejects Pangloss' philosophy.

Fariba asks some questions:

1)      Do you think Pangloss is a predatory figure or merely naive like Candide? In other words, is Pangloss deliberately trying to lead others astray or does he actually believe in the philosophy of optimism?

Oh, he's a believer, I think.  He's really convinced of his own philosophy, but he's also kind of an idiot.  He has a great opinion of his own intelligence, and he's convinced the people around him of it (I imagine them as people who want to be more sophisticated than they are, and believe that Pangloss is this great intellectual who will teach them how to be that), but Pangloss is all about the argument and has no common sense or regard for reality.  He will suffer for his philosophy, but he can't be convinced he's wrong.

2)      How do you feel about Voltaire’s writing style? Do you find this book funny or disturbing?

So far more disturbing than funny.  I'm not wild about scenes of mass rape and carnage (even after the action is over).

3)      Who is your favorite character thus far?

The Anabaptist fellow is the only one with any sense at all, so far.  And he's dead.  I liked him best.  Cunegonde may turn out to be a reasonable person; we don't know yet.

As a minor note, just as I was preparing to read this book, my daughter's math book had a problem that began "Candide and Pangloss walked to the scene of the disaster..."  and cracked me up.  Then I had to explain to the 13yo.  Her math book frequently drops in weird little references or jokes like that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

DWJ: Dogsbody

I'm skipping yesterday's topic of favorite supporting character because it's impossible and anyway I'm behind.  Right then, on to Dogsbody!

Sirius (yes, the star) has been exiled for a crime he didn't commit, sentenced to live on Earth in a mortal creature's body.  If he can find the thing he lost, he can go free, but otherwise he will die like any other mortal creature.  Naturally, he is born as a dog!  Sirius bonds with his owner Kathleen, lives a dog's life (in both senses), and looks for the Zoi, but it's starting to look like he's been set up.

This is such a funky and pun-filled premise, and DWJ pulls it off beautifully.  It all links up.  I really like recommending this book to DWJ newbies; earlier this year I read it aloud to my semi-reluctant-reader daughter, age 10, and she loved it.  I gave it to a friend looking for read-alouds for his class, and they loved it.  Success!

It's a dog story and not a dog story, which is fun.  I don't particularly care for dogs myself, and I really don't care for dog stories, but this is certainly an exception.  And I am pretty tickled by the fact that at the end, the dog dies...but he doesn't die at all.  I think DWJ was doing a bit of poking at traditional dog stories, don't you?  (Maybe not though.  The dog story where the dog dies at the end does seem to be a particularly American phenomenon.)

In other news, have you all heard about the DWJ conference that will happen in Newcastle in September?  Any British readers should go and report back to those of us who can't pop over for the weekend.

Also, I'm now reading Changeover and it's pretty fun.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Shada: the Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams (Doctor Who), by Gareth Roberts

Is that a confusing enough title for you?  Here is the story: Douglas Adams wrote a 6-part script for Doctor Who (the Tom Baker incarnation) that he really was not very happy about, because he wanted to write a different script entirely but they wouldn't let him, so he wrote this instead but under too much deadline, and he was quite relieved when there was a strike and filming stopped halfway through and it was never finished.  Somebody released what material there was on video, but it's kind of a mess.  Years later, this Gareth Roberts fellow (also a script-writer for Doctor Who) got asked to write up the script as a novel, and he spent months on it, figuring out what Adams really meant to do and all that.  Here is the result.

Chris Parsons, a nice but clueless physics student at Cambridge, borrows some high-level books from doddery old Professor Chronotis because he wants to impress his fellow-student Clare.  Professor Chronotis, however, is a retired Time Lord in disguise (Cambridge being a perfect setting, since nobody has noticed that he has been a doddery old don for about 300 years now) and Chris accidentally borrows The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, one of the most powerful Artefacts of the old Time Lords.  At the same time, Skagra is planning to steal the book in order to take over the universe, which is right about when the Doctor and Romana show up.

OK, so on the whole this is a great Doctor Who adventure novel.  The plot works really well, the whole thing is very funny, and you can really hear Douglas Adams' voice through much of it.  Any Adams fan would recognize this as one of his.  Roberts supports the Adams voice and, I think, tries not to interrupt that with his own stuff; he put in a lot, of course, but it doesn't clash.  The story is also very visual; it's really easy to see the manic grin and flying stripey scarf in your mind.

I really had fun with this book.  I think any Adams fan would want to read it.  I presume nearly all Douglas Adams fans are also fans of old-school Doctor Who--if you drew a Venn diagram they would almost overlap, right?  My 13-yo daughter liked it a lot, and I'm betting my husband will too.

As long as we're on the subject, let's note that today is Douglas Adams' birthday!  Hug your towel and raise a glass in celebration.

Monday, March 10, 2014

DWJ: The Ogre Downstairs

My favorite part of The Ogre Downstairs is that when the dragons' teeth are sown in the parking lot, the resulting tough guys speak "Greek."  Really, it's English rendered phonetically into Greek letters, so you can decode it.  That and the last bit where they have a contest to find the most hideous possible thing in the house.  It always gave me really strange ideas about what Britons must have hiding away in their cupboards.

Ogre Downstairs is another very early novel, early enough that DWJ was still having to put a gloss of Issue Novel on the story.  (For those younger than I am, back in the 70s it was well-nigh impossible to get a children's or YA novel published if it didn't deal with an Issue like divorce or teen pregnancy or drug use.  Thus Witch's Business and Ogre Downstairs have something of that flavor to them, partly out of sheer necessity.)  It's all about a new step-family learning to live with each other, with the dubious help of a mischief-making magic chemistry set.  There is a lot of very funny stuff in this story, though some of the jokes are either so British or so 70s that they are a little hard to get.

I just picked up a new-to-me copy with this cover on it to supplement my ancient copy that is falling apart.  Pretty good cover, I think.

DWJ: The Howl Books

This is yesterday's post, published today!  I've been working on a big event at Sandbox to Socrates, our classical education group blog.  All this week we are publishing a ton of stuff about science (go check it out!  I put a lot of work into that!).  I spent most of the weekend getting everything prepared for it, and I think my brain started to trickle out my ears by the end, so I haven't been able to do as much DWJ obsessing as I wanted.  So: on to the Howl books.

Wizard Howl, easily the most popular DWJ character ever.  Vain, charming, cowardly, an incurable slitherer-outer, and a pretty lovable guy anyway, he does show up when needed.  DWJ always said that there were legions of young women wanting to marry him, which she could not understand and neither can I, but he sure is a lot of fun to read about.

Howl's Moving Castle is the most famous of the three, and was made into a movie, but the other two are really great too.  Howl is in them, but each time he's in disguise and the focus is really on other people.  In Castle in the Air, Abdullah (a humble carpet-seller) discovers to his horror that his daydreams are coming true at him.  Now he has to rescue his true love, Flower-in-the-Night, who isn't anything like he dreamed of--she's way better.  Then there is House of Many Ways, which I really love because Charmaine is so oblivious and so awesome once she gets going.  Her dream is to be the king's librarian, but that turns out to be a much different prospect too.

Guess what--Calcifer's saucepan song is a real song!  I love that.  Here you go:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

DWJ: The Time of the Ghost

My copy from the UK.
The Time of the Ghost was a book I missed for years until my husband and I took a sort of newly-wed trip to the UK in 1996 and I raided the children's section of Blackwell's in Oxford for all the DWJ titles I didn't own.  I even had a special commission from a fellow DWJ fan back home to find Wild RobertTime of the Ghost (and, I think, Black Maria) were the only titles that I had not read at all; I'd never heard of them.

To me, this is easily the scariest DWJ book there is.  It's practically a children's horror story, it's so creepy.  I think it's great.  Four neglected and oddball sisters set up a game of worshiping an old rag doll they call Monigan, and accidentally wake up a real and ancient presence.  Time of the Ghost is also where DWJ put the most direct descriptions of her own family, though she said that she toned them down for believability.  

The sisters are trapped in two ways, by Monigan and by their own parents.  There is no help for them except what they can do for themselves to break free of both prisons.  It's interesting to me that the sisters have to fight both a mythic and a real danger--and they act in similar ways, though the parents are kept at a distance--in one story, since more often in a fantasy story, the protagonist's fight against a mythic evil is a symbolic stand-in for our more prosaic struggles.   Here is where we see most clearly DWJ's preoccupation with a devouring maternal figure as Monigan prepares to consume the girls, while the mother does pretty well the same thing at a remove, through neglect and manipulation.

In our house we are particularly fond of Fenella and her bell.  We have been known to go around intoning "Unclean!  Unclean!"

Friday, March 7, 2014

Power of Three

A more recent cover than mine.
I'm a day or so late with this one, but I didn't want to skip it because I really like this book.

Power of Three is fairly high on my list of favorite DWJ titles.  It has always appealed to me a lot.  It tells the story of three civilizations who know little about each other and are afraid--but they also unknowingly each have something the other needs to survive.  And it starts with a dying curse.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Gair and his brother and sister.  Gair lives in a mound on a moor, and his life is made difficult when everyone from a neighboring mound--worst of all Gair's cousin Ondo--are attacked and move in.  Everyone is afraid of the Dorig, who live underwater and attack people whenever they can.  Gair then meets a couple of Giants (everyone avoids Giants as much as possible) and finds out that certain other Giants are planning to flood the entire moor, which would destroy Gair's people.  Two Dorig children appear too, and they all decide to try to talk and try to solve their problems together.  Mutual suspicion, however, makes this a very iffy prospect indeed, and there may not be much hope for any of them.

That's a terrible summary.  Sorry.  

My daughters went to see Frozen recently, and when I heard the plot I promptly thought of Gair and his brother trying to deal with something very similar.  Elsa's parents could have taken a hint from Diana Wynne Jones, was my opinion, though then there wouldn't have been a plot. :)  

Wouldn't you love a torque of green gold with owls' heads on the knobs? 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Oh, wow.

Fellow Diana Wynne Jones lovers, this is a great day for me.  My husband just gave me a copy of Changeover!   I never expected to be able to read it,  I'm pretty speechless.  Is this a guy to hang on to, or what?? 

Thanks, honey! :)

I'll post a picture tomorrow if I can get a good one.  Best DWJ March ever!!

I wrote most of a Power of Three post earlier and then totally failed to finish it.  Maybe tomorrow.  I'm going to go to bed and look at my new book now.  Of course I will just admire it for a couple of days.  I have to find a good chunk of time to be able to sit down and read it in peace.  My usual method of wandering around the house reading a paragraph at a time is not worthy of this great event.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

DWJ: Favorite Cover

Another tricky question.  For years, as we all know quite well, DWJ covers were mostly terrible.  Finding ones I like has been difficult.  These days the covers are far better, though.

I love the two different sets of covers that the Dalemark Quartet has had in the last several years.  The cover of Crown of Dalemark is awfully pink but otherwise they are great.  In the second set, I love how different pieces of the map are used as background with a sort of emblem superimposed on top.  Very nice.

My copy of Power of Three is from the UK, and I've always really liked the cover, but it was hard to find an image.  This one is tiny.  

I have to say this cover of Time of the Ghost is quite effective.  I don't have it but I would like to.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

DWJ: Eight Days of Luke

Eight Days of Luke is quite an early book, published in 1975.  I think that we'll be going through the stand-alone books in a rough chronological order, so expect a lot of 70s titles for the next week.

David spends as much time as possible at boarding schools or camps, which suits his horrible and dreary relatives who don't want to deal with him and David as well, since he can't stand his relatives.  But this summer no one has remembered to arrange anything, and David is stuck with them.  Angry and hopeless, he decides to relieve his feelings by yelling a 'curse' of made-up words--and Luke appears, thanking David for his rescue and saying something about prison and venom.  David assumes that Luke is a kid from the neighborhood, but soon notices that Luke has some unusual talents with fire.  And mysterious people keep showing up, trying to trap Luke.  David makes a deal: if he can keep Luke free for a week, his new friend won't have to go back to prison.  It's harder than it sounds.

It's a nice premise, having the Norse gods show up on their own personal days of the week.  DWJ improves on it in her own style of making it hard to tell just what is going on.  Several of the mythic elements (such as the rainbow bridge) are so subtle that I missed them for years.   I think this and The Game are the only books where she plays around with mythology so directly.

Monday, March 3, 2014

DWJ: Favorite Main Character

Today we are asked to talk about our favorite main character.  This is something of an impossible question!  I will tell you a few of my favorites and see what happens.

Tanaqui from the Dalemark quartet is a long-time favorite of mine.  She is stubborn and impatient, but insightful too.  I love how she tells her story.

Christopher Chant, especially as a kid, is one I love.  Yes, he's kind of obnoxious at times, but what neglected nine-lifed boy wouldn't be?  I like his ideas.

Of course, Polly from Fire and Hemlock, and Tom as well.  Tom is excellent.  I like their partnership, how they write stories together.

Tale of the Troika

Tale of the Troika, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

I just finished the second novel in my double volume; the first one was Roadside Picnic, which I read in January.  This novel is shorter and weirder.  It is surreal and absurdist, satirizing bureaucracy and government in a story that would remind you of Kafka if it wasn't so funny.

Far in the future, the world is divided into floors accessible only by elevator, but the elevator doesn't work too well and won't go above the 13th floor.  The unnamed narrator and Eddie are scientists from the Institute of Magic and  Wizardry, and they are going to be the first people in generations to go past that; they are venturing to the 76th floor, the Colony of Unexplained Phenomena, with requisition forms.  They hope to obtain two items: an Ideal Black Box and a legendary Talking Bedbug.  No one knows what they will find, but Eddie has a humanizing machine with which he theorizes that any creature with a little reason can be changed into a decent being.

On the 76th floor, the two men turn in their forms to the governing troika, a body of four men who spend all their time arguing obscure points of paperwork and "rationalizing" reality.  Reality is pretty weird too, as the men meet Commissar Zubo, the Abominable Snowman, and a pterodactyl.  Dreams of obtaining the items they came for seem more futile all the time, as the narrator is given an old typewriter instead of an Ideal Black Box (it's black, it's a box, what does he want?) and the Talking Bedbug talks about revolution.  The troika are impervious to Eddie's humanizing invention, and the two are near despair.

So many questions about this story!  Is the world a gigantic thousand-story building?  In that case why can they see the sky and go outside?  Many more, too.

I would love to read this again someday; it is so weird.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Classics Club: March Meme

Every month, the Classics Club likes to ask us a question for discussion.  This time, the question is:
What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?
Wow, that is a really tricky question for me to answer.   I like all sorts of things.  I was thinking about this earlier this morning, and remembered that in college, I always had a hard time concentrating on one thing to the exclusion of other things.  I was a literature major, but whatever courses I took, by the end of the semester I was completely sick of whatever it was we were studying.  From Shakespeare to European literature in the 1930s, it was all interesting for about 14 weeks and then I got tired.  All my friends and professors wanted to specialize in something: Gothic literature, Milton, Russian literature of the 19th century, whatever, but I could never settle on a specialty.  I would happily study nearly any subject or time period, though, as long as I didn't have to do it exclusively.

Everything is better in the stacks.

 I am a butterfly: I flit and sip.*  I am really good at knowing something about a whole lot of things, but I'm not much good at knowing everything about any one thing.  Which pretty much explains why I am a librarian.  Well, that and the part where I like going on treasure hunts to find things out.

This turns out to be how I approach classical homeschooling, too.  Lots of classical educators raise the cry of multum non multa--that is, much, not many.  One should read a few things deeply rather than a lot of things not so deeply.  The things one should read deeply are usually Plato and Thomas Aquinas and so on, preferably in the original.  I have never managed to find this appealing.  I like Susan Wise Bauer's broad approach much better.  Because I am a flitting sipper.

*Stolen from P. G. Wodehouse's Joy in the Morning.

The Chrestomanci Chronicles

Today Kristen wants to know what we think about the Chrestomanci Chronicles.  These are, in order of publication:
  • Charmed Life (1977)
  • The Magicians of Caprona (1980)
  • "The Sage of Theare" (1982 short story)
  • Witch Week (1982)
  • "Warlock at the Wheel" (1984 short story)
  • The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988, a prequel)
  • "Stealer of Souls" (2000 novella)
  • "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" (1986 short story)
  • Conrad's Fate (2005, a sequel to the prequel)
  • The Pinhoe Egg (2006)
Witch Week is the first of these that I read, and I think it must be one of the first DWJ books that I read at all; it would have been pretty new then.   I read the three other main titles in the mid-to-late 80s, and it took me years to get something resembling a timeline sorted out.  The last two were a happy surprise.  I am really glad DWJ went back to the Chrestomanci universe for a couple more books.

For non-fans, the books are set in a multiverse of twelve Related Worlds, with nearly all the 'worlds' containing a series of nine closely-related worlds.  The Chrestomanci's job is to make sure that magic is not misused on his world (12A), but he is a general straightener-outer of magical trouble and there is a lot of world-traveling in the stories.

Chrestomanci is a fantastic character.  Aloof, suave, terrifyingly well-dressed and sarcastic, he seems barely human until you get to know him, but he is also imaginative, bumptious, and always on the side of good.  His penchant for wearing flamboyant dressing-gowns has my older daughter wishing for one too.

DWJ's humor comes out wonderfully in these books.  They are so very funny!  The most absurd things happen, and they are wonderfully described.  A Chrestomanci book is guaranteed to have you in stitches.  At the same time, DWJ throws in sly, quiet little insights that stay with you.

I've just gotten my 10-year-old daughter to start reading the Chrestomanci books.  She is a little reluctant to read anything that she doesn't already know she will like, so even though she likes DWJ, even though I told her these are very funny, she had to be nudged a bit.  I actually assigned her to read the first few chapters of Witch Week for school--I knew she would love it if she could just get past the first few setting-up chapters, and indeed it was a huge success.  She loved it.  Then I did the same thing with The Lives of Christopher Chant, but I read quite a bit aloud to her too.  She likes having me read, and I tell you what--reading DWJ aloud is so enjoyable.  It forces me to slow down, so I catch more details, and her writing is just a joy to read out loud.  I really get to savor those perfect sentences and watch my daughter's delighted reactions too.

Chrestomanci seems to be a favorite of the fan-art crowd (a close second to Howl), so if you google it there is some quite good stuff out there.  Some of it even looks something like Chrestomanci does in my head, which is quite tricky to do.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Happy St. David's Day

To all my Welsh readers. :) (Fun fact: Diana Wynne Jones was partly Welsh.)

DWJ March Kickoff: My Collection

For the first day of DWJ March, Kristen wants us to show off our collections.  Mine is fairly extensive, but beat up.  All of them have been read many times.  They mostly live in my 13-year-old daughter's room now.  She got the whole collection on to one shelf for you to see, so ignore the shelf above that.

I have duplicates of a few titles.  And I have just about everything, except Changeover and Islands of Chaldea (coming soon!).  I even have a copy of Yes, Dear, a picture book about a little girl who finds a magic leaf, but I'm not sure where it is right now.  I thought I knew, but it wasn't there.

Some of my copies are really ancient and I would like to get new ones before they fall completely apart.  Check out my copy of The Ogre Downstairs: hideous cover from 1977, former library copy, and a paperback.  The Spellcoats isn't doing much better; I picked it up used and it's from 1979.  Though I actually quite like the cover!  And Archer's Goon, also bought used--in the 1980s--and starting to disintegrate. 

As you can see there is not much in the way of matching sets.  I absolutely loved the Dalemark covers that came out some years ago, but I only have Drowned Ammett; I wish I had the others too.  DWJ mostly suffered from horrible cover art, but those Dalemark covers were lovely, and quite a bit of the newer stuff is great.  I don't have any of those nice UK covers you see now, but they are pretty good.

So there you have it--my DWJ shelf.