Friday, June 20, 2014

Back to the Classics Checkin

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge this year, and it's time for a check-in post!  I have finished SIX of the ELEVEN categories, and I have the movie of Slaughterhouse-Five ready to watch soon.  I'm still not sure what classic thriller I'll read--I already read a lot of mysteries but I want something a bit special.  Anyway, here you go:

  1. A 20th Century Classic -- If on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino
  2. A 19th Century Classic -- Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot.
  3. A Classic by a Woman Author
  4. A Classic in Translation    Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol.
  5. A Wartime Classic  August 1914, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
Optional Categories:
  • An American Classic -- 
  • A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller -- 
  • A Historical Fiction Classic. 
  • A Classic That's Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series.   Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Extra Fun Category:  Write a Review of the Movie or TV Series adapted from Optional Category #4.  
I'm going to take a break for the next week or so while I'm doing summer stuff with the kids.  Back soon!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lost and Found in Russia

Lost and Found in Russia: Lives in a Post-Soviet Landscape, by Susan Richards

Susan Richards has been traveling regularly to Russia, writing about Russia, and trying to help people in Russia for quite a while now.  Here, she chronicles chapters from her visits over the past 20-odd years, ever since the fall of Communism.

Every section covers two or three years and begins with a short explanation of what was going on in Russia at the time.  (This is really helpful if you were in college in 1994 and missed much of Yeltsin's decline through lack of TV or news.)   It goes from 1992-2008, so there's a lot of stuff happening--the book is only about 300 pages long, but they are dense.  Richards visits several friends--often the same ones, so we can follow them over the years--and visits various spots to see what's going on.

Post-Soviet Russia, as described by Richards, is a difficult place to live.  Her friends cope in different ways; some are trying to run businesses while avoiding the thugs taking over everything, another joins an odd religious movement, and some try to actively fight the corruption, which is very dangerous indeed.  All the stories are gripping--and worrying.

This is one of those books I'm having a hard time describing, but it was really good.  If you're interested in Russia, read it.  Plus I learned some background for today's situation with Ukraine and the Crimea.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Some Poets of World War I

One of my Classics Club selections was poetry by Wilfrid Owen. I thought June's WWI event would be a good time to do that, but then I found that a copy of only his poems was not easy to come by.  What I could find was a very nice collection of modern poetry that contained quite a bit from several WWI poets, both famous and not.  So I decided to replace Wilfrid Owen with "Selections From WWI Poets."

I just went through and read everything by anyone who was a familiar WWI name or who had a poem that was clearly related.  This included Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfrid Owen, Robert Graves, and May Wedderburn Cannan.

I enjoyed my hour or so with the poets, but I'm not much good at talking about poetry.  Instead I'll give you "Rouen," by May Wedderburn Cannan, who must have been a nurse.

Early morning over Rouen, hopeful, high, courageous morning,
And the laughter of adventure and the steepness of the stair,
And the dawn across the river, and the wind across the bridges,
And the empty littered station, and the tired people there.

Can you recall those mornings and the hurry of awakening,
And the long-forgotten wonder if we should miss the way,
And the unfamiliar faces, and the coming of provisions,
And the freshness and the glory of the labour of the day.

Hot noontide over Rouen, and the sun upon the city,
Sun and dust unceasing, and the glare of cloudless skies,
And the voices of the Indians and the endless stream of soldiers,
And the clicking of the tatties, and the buzzing of the flies.

Can you recall those noontides and the reek of steam and coffee,
Heavy-laden nontides with the evening’s peace to win,
And the little piles of Woodbines, and the sticky soda bottles,
And the crushes in the “Parlour”, and the letters coming in?

Quiet night-time over Rouen, and the station full of soldiers,
All the youth and pride of England from the ends of all the earth;
And the rifles piled together, and the creaking of the sword-belts,
And the faces bent above them, and the gay, heart-breaking mirth.

Can I forget the passagefrom the cool white-bedded Aid Post
Pa\st the long sun-blistered coaches of the khaki Red Cross train
To the truck train full of wounded, and the weariness and laughter
And “Good-bye, and thank you, Sister”, and the empty yards again?

Can you recall the parcels that we made them for the railroad,
Crammed and bulging parcels held together by their string,
And the voices of the sargeants who called the Drafts together,
And the agony and splendour when they stood to save the King?

Can you forget their passing, the cheering and the waving,
The little group of people at the doorway of the shed,
The sudden awful silence when the last train swung to darkness,
And the lonely desolation, and the mocking stars o’erhead?

Can you recall the midnights, and the footsteps of night watchers,
Men who came from darkness and went back to dark again,
And the shadows on the rail-linesand the all inglorious labour,
And the promise of the daylight firing blue the window- pane?

Can you recall the passing through the kitchen door to morning,
Morning very still and solemn braeking slowly on the town,
And the early coastways engines that had met the ships at daybreak,
And the Drafts just out from England, and the day shift coming down?

Can you forget returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles,
And the white-decked Red Cross barges dropping seawards for the tide,
And the search for English papers, and the blessed cool, of water,
And the peace of half-closed shutters that shut out the world outside?

Can I forget the evenings and the sunsets on the island,
And the tall black ships at anchor far below our balcony,
And the distant call of bugles, and the white wine in the glasses,
And the long line of the street lamps, stretching Eastwards to the sea?

…When the world slips slow to darkness, when the office fire burns lower,
My heart goes out to Rouen, Rouen all the world away;
When other men remember I remember our Adventure
And the trains that go from Rouen at the ending of the day.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Haunted Looking-Glass

The Haunted Looking-Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey

This is an excellent selection of spooky--but not horrifying--ghost stories, not a one of which is titled "The Haunted Looking-Glass."  Gorey must have made that up himself, I guess.   Seriously, people there is fantastic stuff in here, and most of it is not so famous that you've already run into it 17 times in other collections ("The Monkey's Paw" is included, but it was worth reading again).  There are several famous names: M. R. James, Saki, Wilkie Collins, and so on, but several others were not familiar to me.  Each story gets a Gorey frontispiece.

Be sure to pick this one up!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Wicked Wildfire Readathon 2014

I don't join very many readathons, but I had a fun time last year doing the Wicked Wildfire Readathon, and I
thought I'd give it another try.  It starts on my daughter's birthday, so I might have a slow start...

Rules for Wicked Wildfire Readathon 2014:

The  Wicked Wildfire Read-A-Thon is a time when we all get together to dedicate the days of July 14-24 to as much reading as possible. You read as much as you can in order to get yourself a little further through that huge to-read pile! We know real life gets in the way and even if you can’t participate more than one day, you’re welcome to join in on the fun!

In the meanwhile, we will be hosting book-related challenges where you can win some awesome prizes and have a Twitter party at the hashtag #WWReadathon! You can posts updates on your blog, Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook or even YouTube — as long as the profile is public and we all can enjoy your reading progress! Make sure to link to the site where you’ll be sharing your posts/updates with us. 

  • When participating, you only have to readHowever, it’s always fun reading starting posts and updates on your progress throughout the event! Even settling with a wrap-up post only to show how the reading went when it’s over, is fine if you want to share with us.
  • The Read-A-Thon will officially start Monday, July 14th at 12:0oam EST and end Thursday, July 24th at 11:59 PM EST.
  • Find other participants’ updates through the linky below or at #WWReadathon on Twitter!

I had fun last year with the challenges, which I liked because they didn't take up TOO much time and they were actually related to my reading much of the time.  It was quite fun to choose a song for my reading every day!

How the Heather Looks

I love the fake vintage cover!
How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books, by Joan Bodger

In 1957, a little family came into some money, enough to spend a summer abroad.  Both husband and wife were half-English and had grown up on the British classics, and they wanted to introduce their young children to the real places that had inspired the literature.  So they spent a summer traveling around England, finding Caldecott's villages and farms, Christopher Robin's woods, Mrs. Tiggywinkle's farmhouse, Rat's house on the river, and King Arthur's castle.  Or as close as they could get, anyway.

Each chapter is dedicated to one author and a section of the trip.  Bodger casts these episodes as quests, while keeping the real-life frustrations that befell them.   She is a marvelous writer and manages to evoke the atmosphere of each classic story and each landscape.  She also packs a lot in; this is not a short book, and she lingers over each section, describing everything in wonderful detail.  Lovers of children's classic literature will be satisfied. 

How the Heather Looks was originally published in the 1960s, but happily there is now a reprint available.  It was one of those books that hardly anyone knew, but those who did guarded their copies jealously. 

The major drawback of reading this is that it makes you want to drop everything and head off to the UK so you, too, can boat on the Thames and play Poohsticks on the original bridge.  So, beware!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Death in Venice

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

I knew nothing whatsoever about this novella (short story?) when I put it on my Classics Club list, except that it is quite famous.  And I figured someone would probably die in Venice.

Aschenbach is an older gentleman who has spent his life writing, especially about the arts, but now he has writer's block.  He decides to go to Venice, but once there, becomes infatuated with a young boy of about 12-14 vacationing with his family.  Aschenbach watches this boy every day, and even follows him around, but rarely speaks to him; instead, he thinks about Platonic treatises on love and so on.  His obsession tears down his moral sense, until, when a cholera epidemic hits Venice, he fails to warn the family because he can't stand to think of them leaving.  He pays the price when, just as they are leaving anyway, he succumbs to the plague himself.


Friday, June 13, 2014

August 1914

August 1914, by Aleksandr Solzenitsyn

In January, I put this novel on my mental list for the year, thinking that it would be good for the 100th anniversary of WWI.  I hoped it would give me more insight into the Eastern front of the war, which I really know very little about.  August 1914 did do that, and although it's not my favorite Solzhenitsyn novel, it was very worth reading.

Like In the First Circle, this is a sketch of an entire society at a particular moment in time.  There is a vast cast of characters, all doing their own thing and sometimes intersecting with each other.  We do not only see the warfront; there are people on country estates, in the cities, in schools, and even chapters consisting entirely of snippets from newspapers.  But the vast majority of the novel does take place with the soldiers going to war.  We don't see nearly as much of all the other things.

Troop movements take up at least 2/3 of the book, and while I was interested, it was an awful lot.  Still, we get several perspectives: a general in charge of one wing of the attack, stymied by incompetent orders from above, peasants who have joined up, and a student who is desperate not to die in this stupid capitalist war when he could be dying for the cause of the revolution!

The entire novel showcases the dreadful, disastrous incompetence of the Russian government and military.  I'm actually reading up on the background to that now in Tuchman's Guns of August, so I'll know more soon, but it seems that the men in charge of the Russian army placed their confidence in sheer overwhelming numbers, plus the endurance and "guts" of the soldiers, plus the natural supremacy of the commanding aristocracy.  They saw no need to plan for supplies like food and ammunition (bayonets being superior anyway).  Technology that was primitive in other countries' forces was barely embryonic in the Russian military, so communications were impossible.  All they needed was faith in God and the Tsar, and victory would follow.  It's awful to read about the incredible mess that ensued.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Classics Club: June Meme

This month's discussion topic is:
Think of an example of a classic you’ve read that presents issues like racism/sexism as acceptable within society. Do you think the reception of this classic work would be the same if it were newly published today? What can we get out of this work despite its weaknesses? Or, why would you say this work is still respected/treasured/remembered in 2014?
 I'm not actually thinking of any one particular book right now; my thoughts are very general.  I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, but they aren't terribly new or original.  So, you can skip if you like. :)

Yep, older books are crammed full of racism and sexism and all sorts of things that we don't like.  That is perfectly true.  Some of the things we read in older books are quite disturbing.  Students routinely complain that there is offensive material in certain classics--Huck Finn, for example, contains language that most of us would never use.  Why should we subject ourselves and others to this offensive stuff?  A natural reaction is to get rid of the books, or perhaps edit them so that they aren't so awful.  Someone produced a version of Huck Finn a few years ago, changing the most offensive word to "slave"--and as one commenter said, "because then racism never happened and people never used that word and we all live happily ever after THE END."  The pitfall here is easy to see: when we pretty up literature, we pretty up history--and fail to learn from it.

Still, though, there's all this icky stuff.  Entire academic careers in literature are sometimes devoted to pointing out the icky stuff, dissecting it and explaining it, which is fine up to a point; the exercise can be valuable and interesting.  I'm not sure we need to do a whole lot of it, though.  Just a year ago, I read a post by an academic and blogger who said on this topic,  
"The real challenge is not to hear the man in the voice, but to hear transcendent truth expressed through a human medium."  
I think this is an important insight.  We all get things wrong; most of us probably get most things wrong, and a hundred years from now our descendants will be horrified by some normal thing we do unthinkingly, and they'll want to condemn us for it.  But pointing out others' flaws is like shooting fish in a barrel.  It's easy, and it doesn't even tell us very much except that human beings are really good at being wrong.  No, the really tricky bit is finding the good stuff and valuing it.  Literature that has lasted has often lasted for a good reason--because it contains some sort of truth.  Finding and cherishing that truth is important.

It is very easy to dismiss older books--history in general, in fact--because one really colossal error of our own age is that we tend to assume without ever thinking about it is that everyone before about 1960 was stupid, whereas we ourselves are obviously much more enlightened, rational, and intelligent than they were.  This is, itself, a patently stupid assumption to make, and to my mind is a pretty good indication that we ought to read old books, in order to cure ourselves of our assumptions about them.

C. S. Lewis, as usual, said a lot of this better than I can (despite his current status as a dead white male who said a bunch of sexist and racist things a long time ago; he has joined the ranks of old authors himself).  So here you go:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
To answer some of the original question--I should think that an enormous number of books published in the past would not be published as-is today.  (Not that our modern books lack sexism or racism, but we are a little blinder to the current forms.)  However, most of the books we call classics, that have endured for a long time, have got great truths in them as well--and often those truths take shapes that we would also never see published in modern books, just because modern people don't think in those ways.   We need those truths, and it's worth putting up with some ickiness to find them.