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Showing posts from April, 2014

Maidenhair

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Maidenhair , by Mikhail Shishkin This book has been a long-term project.  It's a Russian modernist novel that made a big splash a few years ago.  I've been reading it, slowly, since...January?  It's not that it was incredibly difficult; it's weird but if you let it wash over you it's not overwhelming.  But taking it slowly worked pretty well for me. There are several strands in the braid that make up Maidenhair : A translator at a Swiss border post interprets for Russian people seeking asylum.  They tell long, elaborate stories (often untrue) and Peter sometimes does too.  In fact, sometimes you wonder which is which. He writes letters to his son, "Nebuchadnezzarsaurus," about the boy's imaginary kingdom. There are sections of the diary of a Russian singer who was a young teen in 1914 and who lived to see the USSR crumble. The interpreter re-lives his affair with his son's mother (his wife?) and his obsession with her former lover, calling

Arthur's Britain

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Arthur's Britain , by Leslie Alcock I got this years ago and then couldn't get very far in it.  No wonder--the first 100 pages are interesting, the last 100 pages are interesting, but in the middle there are 150 pages or so that are incredibly dry.  Alcock wrote one of the really definitive books of "Who was the real Arthur?" back in 1971, and he was well qualified to do so after excavating Cadbury Castle.  It's now a Penguin "Classic History" title, but since it's also 40 years out of date, I wouldn't recommend it for up-to-the-minute accuracy.  Overall, though, it's probably reasonable enough.  It's a portrait of 5th-century Britain, focused on the archaeological and textual evidence--what there is of it. The first 100 pages delve into the historical texts that mention Arthur: Nennius, Gildas, all our old friends.  From these, Alcock concludes (after a lot of detail and argument) that Arthur would have been a famous warrior, but

News From NowHere

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I'm finding that I get overwhelmed with Life at the End of the Semester and stop posting for a week or so at a time.  So here's an update: I've been doing some great reading.  I'm nearly halfway through The Mill on the Floss , which is on my TBR list for this year, and I thought I'd read it for the Classics Club April theme.  I'm enjoying it a lot.   Pretty soon I shall start August 1914 too, for the May theme. My really big project now that I'm done with What is to be Done?* is that I ILLed Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry!  I'm working my way through it by reading the poems in the chronological order that C. S. Lewis recommended for beginners.  There is an accompanying Lewis essay, and I'm reading a section of essay, then the chunk of poems the essay covers.  This is a huge help, because Williams' poetry is far beyond me.  If I had time to do a second reading, I would then re-read them in the proper order Williams arranged them in,

We Learn Nothing

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We Learn Nothing: Essays by Tim Kreider I picked up this book of essays at work, and they were just kind of fun.  Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and essayist, and these were all about life and friends and hard times and so on, and they're very funny in a kind of rough-edged way.  Here's a sample that I really like: Years ago a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for

What is to be Done?

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What is to be Done?  by Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky I read this for Tom's April readalong , and I was quite excited about it because What is to be Done? was an important part of a literary debate in 19th century Russia about what Russian society should be.  Turgenev first asked the question in Fathers and Sons, and here Chernyshevsky tries to answer it.  He doesn't claim great literary talent; in fact, he says right out that he hasn't got much.  He wrote a novel--while in prison--because that was the way Russians got around the censors to write about revolutionary ideas.  Such ideas are very thinly veiled in this novel, which likens Russia to a bad wheatfield that is sorely in need of drainage and general reform. There is a plot, though.  Vera is a young woman who is desperate to escape her family, especially her mother, who is a crook and a cheat, and who wants to arrange an advantageous marriage for her daughter.  Vera is rescued by Lopukhov, a virtuous medic

A Time of Gifts

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A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube , by Patrick Leigh Fermor In 1933, an 18-year-old Patrick was thrown out of school and decided that he might as well go on a walking tour of Europe.  He set off to walk to Constantinople.*  As a much older man, he sat down with his memories and diaries to write out the story in a three-part set.  This is the first volume; I have the second waiting; and the third was never finished but it was published posthumously so I will read it too. Since I cannot think of anything much more wonderful than to walk across Europe (can you?), I was instantly hooked.  And truly, I enjoyed this so much!  Fermor throws the people he met, scenery, history, art, strange stories, and all sorts of things into his book--and in many cases he's talking about a world that is now gone.  Most of this volume is spent in Germany, and Nazism is just getting started.  It has little foothold as yet.  Fermor also spends a g

The Green and Burning Tree

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The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books , by Eleanor Cameron Eleanor Cameron was the author of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and other Mr. Bass stories, as well as some other books too.  This is a collection of essays and speeches from the mid 1960s about children's literature--writing it, reading it, and enjoying it.  She talks about a lot of my favorites and mentions a few I think I would like to read.  At time she gets a little too misty-eyed about myth and children and all, but mostly it's some quite good stuff if you're interested in children's literature.  I especially liked the last two essays, which were about Wanda Gag and Eleanor Farjeon.  They were fun.  But the whole thing was quite worth reading.

The Quest of the Holy Grail

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My ancient but well-loved copy The Quest of the Holy Grail The Quest is part of the giant set of stories known as the prose Lancelot, or Lancelot-Grail cycle.  It was written in Old French, and apparently--as far as anyone can figure out--the pieces were written by different people working together.  The Quest claims to be by one Walter Map, an archdeacon, but almost certainly is not.  It was probably written by a clerk--someone religiously trained but attached to a court.  It's a spiritual fable, really; as full of adventures and jousting as any Arthurian tale, but with a completely different focus.  The story of the Holy Grail takes the chivalric ideal and tears it to bits, showing it to be completely inadequate.  Every custom of the chivalric tale is turned on its head. In this ultimate quest, all the knights set off separately to search for the Holy Grail; as in any knightly venture, they trust to chance to send them adventure.  We follow several characters: Gawain, L

Excellent Women

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Excellent Women , by Barbara Pym Mildred Lathbury is 32 and unmarried, which appears to render her an elderly old maid in English society.  (She keeps sounding older than she actually is.)  Mildred likes her quiet life helping in the parish and taking tea with friends, and while she would like to marry, she doesn't want to marry any of the actual men of her acquaintance.  The quiet little neighborhood gets a bit shook up when a married couple move in and become Mildred's upstairs neighbors, and a pretty young widow takes lodgings in the rector's attic.  Everybody wants Mildred's advice or help or energy.  Why not move in with her or expect her to pack all the furniture?  Surely she has nothing better to do... Amy at Book Musings said the other day that Barbara Pym novels have "some sly observational humor that's crushed under the weight of a little too much depressing postwar English ennui."  Which is the PERFECT thing to say about Barbara Pym.  I

The Language Freak Summer Challenge (Second Edition)

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Ekaterina at In My Book hosted a language challenge last summer that I really enjoyed, so I'm joining up again.  Here is the second edition! There are a whole lot of rules and arrangements, so go visit Ekaterina to check it out.  I'm going to commit to the Beginner level of just one book in a foreign language, and if it goes really well I might do another one.  Right now I am not sure what to do.  I have two possible titles--a YA book called Stjernen Uden Himmel (The Star Without a Sky) , about WWII that I am pretty sure was translated from German.  It's probably not a very difficult book, but I have never read it before.  My other possibility is to read the classic Niels Lyhne , which is Serious Literature and more difficult, but I have read it fairly recently in English and I still have the English copy to help me along if I get stuck. Ekaterina has some questions: What languages do you know? Note: even if you are a beginner, it totally counts! And don't fo

The Romance of Tristan

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The Romance of Tristan , by Beroul Beroul's Romance of Tristan is a very early version composed around the middle of the 12th century in French verse.  We only have part of it; the extant fragment starts well into Tristan and Yseut's affair and breaks off just before the episode of their deaths.  My translation is in prose and includes summaries of the action before and after the fragment. Everybody knows the story of Tristan and Yseut, right, so I'm just going to talk about what interested me about this version.  Beroul is very careful to note that the potion is to blame for their irresistible passion for one another.  This potion is efficacious for exactly 3 years to the minute, and as soon as it wears off, they end their affair.  The whole time it's going on, Yseut employs tricks to convince her husband that she is faithful to him--which she is not--and yet this is considered completely justified.  I can't quite tell if it's supposed to be justified beca

Happy National Library Week!

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On of the things I've been doing instead of blogging in the last week has been prep for National Library Week at work.  And I have some fun news for you folks-- Oxford University Press is making their Oxford Handbooks Online content free all this week!   Follow the link and see what you can find on your favorite topics.  There's a lot to read. Another thing I did instead of blogging was a trip to the Berkeley campus for Cal Day, one of my favorite events of the year.  I drag my kids all over campus to libraries and science demonstrations.  Here is my younger daughter at the bottom of the 4-story staircase and light well in the Doe Library stacks.  I'll post a couple more pictures later--I haven't taken them off my camera yet. We also went hiking at a local beauty spot.  It's always full of wildflowers at this time of year.  This is my mom and my kids. Books have also been happening!  See you soon!

The Un-Rest Cure

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The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories , by Saki I got this for Christmas!  It has illustrations by Edward Gorey!  I've always meant to read Saki and here was my chance.  Look at that beautiful cover. The Unrest-Cure is a collection of short stories, most of which start off as ordinary events in upper-middle-class British lives but take a sharp turn toward the weird, the oddball, or the macabre.   Quite a few of them feature a young man named Clovis, who enjoys making a little trouble now and again..  They were great, and some of them were very funny, too.  (Or, on the other hand, horrifying; "Sredni Vashtar" is one of the selections, for example.)  There are one or two illustrations for each story and they fit perfectly. A great book for a little relaxing dip into a weird story.  I will definitely be reading more Saki.

Candide Readalong: Wrapup

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Although I haven't posted about it at the right times, I have been reading along in Candide and finished it on time. In the later part of the book, Candide and his friends travel around the world.  They discover that South America is mostly just as cruel and awful as Europe, but there is one isolated and secret place--El Dorado, where everyone is happy and kind, and gold and jewels are just dust by the wayside.  Candide loves it there, but must continue to seek Cunegonde, so he takes lots of jewels with him and goes back to ordinary civilization.  He promptly loses most of the wealth, but he's still quite well-off.  Traveling back to Europe, he gains a new companion, Michael, who expects only suffering.  They meet many miserable people and dethroned kings.  They suddenly find all their old companions, even the dead ones, who aren't so dead after all.  Cunegonde has lost her beauty and Candide no longer loves her, but marries her anyway out of duty.  They all live miserab

The History of the Ancient World

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The History of the Ancient World:  From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome , by Susan Wise Bauer I read this when it was first published several years ago, and I decided to read it again this year because I wanted to see if it would work for my older daughter to use for history next year (and can I just say that high school is coming at me like a freight train, eek!).  Fair disclaimer: Susan Wise Bauer, the author, is my homeschooling guru and can (almost) do no wrong in my mind.  If I get around to writing one of those Top Ten Influential Books Of My Life lists people are doing right now, The Well-Trained Mind will have to be pretty near the top.  In fact you can see the story of that here.  I had not remembered how enjoyable this book is.  I had a lot of fun with it, as well as the part where I re-learned lots of ancient history.  It took ages to get through, because it's 800 pages of dense non-fiction, but I was surprised at how easy it was to gulp down 50 pages at

Spin Title: Bless Me, Ultima

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Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya Way back in college I had to take a course on modern American literature, which I was quite annoyed about at the time, but turned out to be a good thing because I found out that there were lots of books I liked after all.  One of our titles was Bless Me, Ultima, and at that time I enjoyed it.  I decided to put it on my Classics Club list as a re-read to see if I would like it again.    Antonio is a small boy torn between loyalties.  His mother wants him to be a priest and like her family, the quiet, earth-connected Lunas; his father wants him to follow the independent and wild M รก rez ways.  He loves the church but is drawn to the hints of older animistic beliefs he sees around him and wonders if the golden carp in the river might be a better god to follow.  As Antonio starts to grow up and witness the tragedies that happen in his town, he depends on his special relationship with Ultima, the curandera , for stability and comfort. Ultima seems to