Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Needle's Excellency

The needles excellency -- a new booke wherin are diuers admirable workes wrought with the needle ; newly inuented and cut in copper for the pleasure and profit of the industrious, by John Taylor

My ambition!

One of my other interests (besides books) is embroidery.  I like a lot of different kinds of embroidery and lately I've been getting into some historical forms.  I've been learning some crewel work and my next ambition is to learn stumpwork--a hideous name for a lovely kind of embroidery with three-dimensional elements.  I made my family get me some pretty stumpwork books for Christmas, and I'm even taking a gorgeous online course about embroidered caskets.

Naturally, therefore, I also like reading about historical embroidery.  It's fascinating, people.  In Europe a few hundred years ago, embroidery was not only an important part of a girl's education and abilities, it was considered to be a virtuous pastime that encouraged moral thought.  Women used their skills to depict scriptural stories (the ones starring women, mostly) and moral symbols.  They also sometimes asserted themselves politically and justified their actions through these same skills.   I just discovered the existence of a scholarly kind of book from the 80s about all this, so I'm excited to get that on ILL any day now.

Meanwhile, I had some fun reading Jacobean poetry in praise of sewing and embroidery.  This is not at all artistic, great poetry; this is witty verse for the masses with a little morality thrown in.  "In Praise of the Needle" is a long poem full of the kinds of wordplay and conceits people had so much fun with back then:

The Needles sharpenesse, profit yeelds, and pleasure,
But sharpenesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.
A Needle (though it be but small and slender)
Yet is it both a maker and a mender;
A graue Reformer of old Rents decayde,
Stops holes and seames, and desperate cuts displayde.
Thus is a Needle prou'd an Instrument
Of profit, pleasure, and of ornament:
Which mighty Queenes haue grac'd in hand to take,
And high-borne Ladies such esteeme did make,
That as their Daughters Daughters vp did grow,
The Needles Art, they to their children show.
And as 'twas then an exercise of praise,
So what deserues more honour in these daies,
Then this? which daily doth it selfe expresse,
A mortall enemy to idlenesse.
This long poem is followed by sonnets praising ladies and queens, including Katherine of Aragon, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.  The book was printed in 1631, after Elizabeth's death; I really kind of think that had she still been living, Taylor would not have put those first two names in.

Katharine first married to Arthur Prince of Wales, and afterward to Henry the 8. King of England.

I Read that in the seauenth King Henries Raigne,
Faire Katherine, Daughter to the Castile King,
Came into England with a pompous traine
Of Spanish Ladies, which she thence did bring.
She to the eight King Henry married was,
And afterwards diuorc'd, where vertuously
(Although a Queene) yet shee her dayes did pas
In working with the Needle curiously,
As in the Tower, and places more beside,
Her excellent memorials may be seene:
Whereby the Needles praise is dignifide
By her faire Ladyes, and her selfe, a Queene.
Thus for her paynes, here her reward is iust,
Her workes proclaime her praise, though she be dust.

A 1671 casket at the V&A depicting the seven virtues and Harmony

 The author, John Taylor, called himself "The Water-Poet" because he mostly made his living as a waterman on the Thames.  He also produced rough and witty books and verse -- quite a lot of it.  He courted fame by taking stunt journeys like a rowing trip in a paper boat, or walking to Scotland without any money, and then writing about it.  (It's a traditional hobby, I guess!)  Since he wrote a lot about everyday life and things, historians love him.  Take a look at John Taylor sometime.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay

Summer in 1900 -- Valentine's Day, in fact -- and the students at Appleyard College for Young Ladies are going on a picnic.  Hanging Rock is a lovely setting for a day out.  Four girls--three confident and pretty seniors, and one 14-year-old hanger-on--decide to climb up a little way into the wilderness.  When only one returns, hysterical, and a math teacher is also found to be missing, a search is started, but there is no sign of any of them.  Days later, a young man bent on one last search finds one of the girls, but no one else is ever seen again.

This is a mysterious story that describes the ever-widening ripples of events caused by the girls' disappearance.

For the most part, I liked Picnic at Hanging Rock quite a bit.  It's a good novel, written in the late 1960s and also made into a film in the 70s, apparently a fairly well-known one.  (In fact, the back-cover blurbs highlight the film, quoting Lena Dunham of all people.  Odd.)  It's a modern classic of Australian literature.

I was a bit exasperated by one element of the novel.  No one who climbs up to the Rock can remember a thing about what happened to them.  The young girl, the older girl, the young man--they all suffer from amnesia about whatever they went through.  I thought that was asking a bit much of my suspension of disbelief.  There's another spot where the author deliberately draws attention to a detail, announces that it is very important, and then never resolves it; I suppose because the mystery is never resolved, but then why do that?

A good choice if you like slightly spooky tales, unsolved mysteries, or are looking to read something Australian.

Friday, February 19, 2016

BBAW Day 5: Burnout?

It's the last day of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, hosted by the Estella Society.  Final question: One of the unfortunate side effects of reading and blogging like rockstars seems to be a tendency toward burnout. How do you keep things fresh on your blog and in your reading?

Yeah, I have to take a week or two off sometime, and I'm not even one of those rockstar bloggers!  It's not easy to come up with posts all the time.

Generally a new event or fun little activity will get me back on the bicycle.  March Magics is guaranteed to get me writing, or one of those goofy little questionnaires that go around.  The new year is always invigorating too.

It's pretty rare for me to hit a reading slump, where I'm not reading something.  If I do it's generally a sign that I've picked two or three long, difficult books and have forgotten to put in anything lighter and more fun.  Bringing in a book that really grabs me will fix that.


Thanks to the Estella Society for hosting a fun week!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Kaleidoscope, by Eleanor Farjeon

I just love Eleanor Farjeon.  She mostly wrote short fairy-tale-like tales for children, and novels and tales for adults as well, and quite a lot of poetry too.  She also produced a children's version of the Canterbury Tales.  But I love her stories.  They are light and rather sweet and have insights anyway.  And they are nearly always illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, who I also love.

Kaleidoscope is a book of vignettes about a little boy's childhood--little pieces of life that mix and are held like a kaleidoscope.  Anthony lives next to a lovely old mill-pond, and Farjeon tells of his childhood experiences and then touches them with magic.  It is all extremely English countryside and a literary vacation.

Anthony was a real person, though that was not his name.  In the book, Farjeon simply calls him by his childhood nickname of Pod and doesn't identify him, but elsewhere I found out that Anthony was George Earle, an English teacher.  He and Farjeon were close friends for thirty years, and he told her the stories that she turned into the book.

My copy of this book is very cool.  It's an ex-library edition that once resided in the county library of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

If you've never read Farjeon and you're interested, the easiest book to get is The Little Bookroom, a collection of her best stories.

BBAW Day 3: Inspiration!

Welcome to Day 3 of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, hosted by the Estella Society.  Today's question: What have you read and loved because of a fellow blogger?

Well, quite a lot of things really, which I'm sure is the answer for most of us.  And very often I forget who blogged about a book--I put it on my list and read it months later, and by then I don't know any more.  But here are some:

Kristen at We Be Reading hosts the annual DWJ fest, now to be March Magics (so as to include our beloved Pterry as well).  I guess she's sort of the head of the DWJ fanclub--you can recognize us by the fact that we all seem to have put Fire and Hemlock on our lists of five books.  As such she has come up with other things I wanted to read too.

Tom at Wuthering Expectations does truly scary levels of literary erudition, and he came up with the most preposterous readalong in blog history--What is to be Done?

Brona is my go-to for Australian literature.  I wanted to put some Oz titles on my Classics Club list, and she helped out with My Brilliant Career and Picnic at Hanging Rock (which I just finished but haven't written up yet).

Cleopatra at Classical Carousel talked me into the FQ readalong, and she's the one who got me to do Beowulf last year.  I borrow from her a lot.

o at Behold the Stars goes through amazing amounts of English and classical literature, and I often get ideas from her.  I read Daphnis and Chloe after she blogged about it, and in the near future we're doing a readalong of the Faerie Queene with Cleopatra, because we are insane. I would not have thought of doing that if not for those two.

Maphead is excellent at non-fiction, and we frequently trade titles back and forth.  I know he recommended Iron Curtain to me, and many of the books he's read end up on my wishlist.

Jenny at Reading the End is also good at non-fiction that I want to read too.  She told me about The Bright Continent, I know, and possibly We Believe the Children?

I know there are many more!  What have you loved on somebody's recommendation?

Monday, February 15, 2016

BBAW Day 2: Interviews!

Day 2 of BBAW is interview day!  I was partnered with Darren from Bart's Bookshelf. Together, we came up with a list of questions; here are his answers, and you'll have to head over to his blog to see mine. 

BBS: How did you get into book blogging? How long have you been doing it?
Bart’s Bookshelf, started when my original but just about defunct personal blog was in it’s last gasps of life. After a few years of really not reading as much as I would have liked, I decided it was time to do something about it and force myself to get back in to the habit of reading, and I was going to do this by setting myself some targets and reviewing what I read.
I also enjoyed (and still do) the work of tweaking and maintaining a blog, so this was a way of doing that.

BBS: Tell me a little bit about the name of your blog and how it came to be.
Longer ago than I care to admit, when I was still a teenager, I had a hairstyle that my friends decided looked like Bart Simpson’s (at least apart from the colour!) The nickname stuck the hair unfortunately did not!

BBS: What has been your favourite blogging moment?
I think it was when a bunch of us were reading The Chaos Walking books by Patrick Ness. At slightly different times, so for watching each other’s on reactions Twitter as we reached certain points (that part in book one for instance) in the stories was a lot of fun.

BBS: What is your favourite book shop in your area? What do you like about it?
I know I should pick an independent but I’m lucky enough to live in a town with some beautiful buildings and my local Waterstones (UK chain) is in one of the best.

BBS: If you could switch places for 24hrs with one character, who would you choose?
The toughest question on here,  and it's one of mine! What was I thinking? My immediate thoughts was someone in the Harry Potter series, but I wanted to picks someone a bit different... So then I though about Richard from Neverwhere, but really I think I'd do even worse than he does.
So in the end, I've picked Arthur Dent from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe, bit of space travel and a drink or three with Ford, sounds like a fun way to spend 24 hours.  (Jean says: Excellent choice.)

HF: Do we have any favorite books, or books read, in common?  (Looks like you might be a Gaiman fan, and have read Garner, for example, which I have too.  I read the Northern Lights by Pullman before I started the blog, but I have OPINIONS if anyone asks me)

After a quick glance down your review index, these are some of the ones that leapt to mind: Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, The Merlin Conspiracy by Dianna Wynne Jones, The Eyre Affair by Japser Fforde (love Thursday Next!), & The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson.

HF: Do you have a library around that you use?  What do you like about it?  What are your feelings about bookshops vs. libraries?
I do have a library, and I use it periodically, I don’t always read books straight away, so feel bad about keeping books checked out for a long time. And well the main library I used to use, always felt a little ‘cold’ I preferred spending time in bookshops.
It’s recently moved buildings though, and it’s a much more welcoming place.

HF: What are you preferred genres?  What kind of books do you read?
I’m much more a ‘character’ person than a ‘plot’ one so books that are strong on that, tend to make my favourites list. So, contemporary, fantasy, and YA books more that ‘literary’ masterpieces.

HF: Do you have a favorite author (or, presuming that that is too much like picking a favorite child, pick a favorite within a genre)?
Favourite author? That’s actually quite easy! Terry Pratchett. A constant presence on my bookshelves since I was a teenager. Don’t ask me to rank positions 2 to 10 though…

HF: Tell me a little bit about yourself, whatever you're willing to share online. 
Lets see. As well as having shelves bursting with books, I've also started building back up my vinyl collection (I go to a monthly record club). I'm also a terrible beer snob! ;)

HF: What book(s) are you reading now that you're looking forward to blogging about?
Well I’m not blogging about them in the traditional sense, but I am spending the month reading comics and graphic novels with some blogging friends and I’m really enjoying posting on my Instagram about them.

HF: I'm curious to know where you live, if you're willing to share.  We are currently planning a trip to the UK--my mom and I are taking my two kids.  In fact my mom ought to be here any moment, we have to plan out an itinerary.  So far it's "Stay in London a week and then rent a car for a week."
London is great, I love spending time down there when I can, but like most capital cities, it can be an expensive place. I live further north in the wonderful county of Yorkshire, you should definitely head up towards this end of the country if you can, and visit some of the villages in the Yorkshire Dales.


I'm just posting to's spring!  The almonds and the tulip trees are in bloom!  It's so nice outside right now.  Everybody hopes for more rain soon, but meanwhile this is pretty darn great.

Almond orchard!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

BBAW Day 1: Five Books

Hey everybody, it's Book Blogger Appreciation Week, hosted by the Estella Society!  For the first day, I'm supposed to introduce myself by telling about five books that represent me as a person or my interests/lifestyle.  So here we go:

  1.  Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology and the Origins of European Dance, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  I love reading history, I love reading about textiles and women's history, I have kind of a thing for Russia (and India, and the British Isles), and I love Barber's work.  This is a fabulous book that I'm planning to re-read this year.
  2.  Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones. Regular Howling Frog readers are well aware that DWJ is my all-time favorite ever.  And Fire and Hemlock is her strangest, most complex, novel.  I'll let this post cover my love of embroidery too, because I actually have a DWJ sampler in progress...that I haven't touched in a while, actually, but I'm looking forward to working on it more.  I'm making it up as I go, and hope to include something from almost every book.
  3.  The Queen's Diadem, by C. J. L. Almqvist.  In my misspent youth, I was a comparative literature major, specializing in English and Scandinavian.  This was possibly even less useful than it sounds, but I had a good time and luckily, had the sense to become a librarian in grad school, so now I can indulge my love of world literature by purchasing books for my library.   This post thus covers my interest in odd corners of classic literature and my bit of Scandinavian scholarship.
  4. Kindly Inquisitors: the New Attacks on Free Speech, by Jonathan Rauch.   As a librarian, I'm a tad preoccupied with free speech issues and I read all the books I find.  My all-time favorite, the best one, and my pick for best book read in 2014, is Kindly Inquisitors, which lays out in beautiful detail the system of liberal science: how and why free speech is the best and possibly only way to an open, diverse society that is fair to all.
  5. Patterns of Thought: the Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey, by Richard Foster.  This post not only tells you about my obsession with the pavement, it talks about my quilting mania as well.  I've now actually started a cosmati quilt!  AND---drumroll, please--my mom and I are planning a trip to the UK with my kids in a few months, so I will actually get to SEE the pavement.  For reals, live and in person.  Just thinking about it makes me giddy.  So this post also covers my love of travel and desire to see places all over the world.

 Are you participating in BBAW this week?  Throw a link into the comments and let me know!

The Lost Art of Dress

The Lost Art of Dress: the Women Who Once Made America Stylish, by Linda Przybyszewski

This is a fabulous book and will definitely be on my top ten list for 2016.  I loved reading it and did very little else for a few days.  I read a lot of bits out loud to family members who wished I wouldn't.  But it hit all of my buttons: history, fabric, sewing, woman stuff, did I mention fabric?  I even got some family history in there.

 Przybyszewski writes about the women she calls "the Dress Doctors:" professional women who mostly worked as academic home economists from 1900 to 1960 and made it their mission to teach American girls and women to dress according to principles of beauty, dignity, practicality, thrift, and egalitarianism.  All you need are a few excellent outfits, suited to your life and put together according to "the art principles," and you will be free to do your work with confidence and poise.  The Dress Doctors are why Agatha Christie novels mention American girls as always looking like they've stepped out of a band-box no matter how little income they have.

(The problem I'm having with this book is that there is so much to say about it that I'm not sure how to condense it into a reasonable blog post.  I loved so much of this.  So bear with me.)

First we hear about the early 1900s, how the Dress Doctors got started and what their artistic principles were.  Women were starting to move into the professions, and often needed practical styles that hadn't quite been invented yet; meanwhile, high fashion was restrictive, expensive, and frequently ridiculous.  Realism, and beauty in real life, became the Dress Doctors' aim.

They weren't terribly worried about women's looks, or weight, or age, all factors that we now consider paramount.   Their idea was for women to dress well for their circumstances and then stop worrying about it.  Youth called for bright colors and loose clothing for activity (American girls should be athletic!), while sophisticated dress and colors were for the experienced woman over 30, and older women had another set of dress ideals.

Thrift was extremely important.  Dress Doctors were all about "much for little" -- putting together a wardrobe that was affordable and would last.  They wrote about re-making old garments into new ones, encouraged girls and women to save money by sewing, and even engaged in projects like figuring out a possible wardrobe for girls living in such poverty that they stopped going to school because they only had rags.  Nationwide classes through organizations like 4-H were then organized to reach teens and women.  What they weren't terribly good at, at all, was widening their focus beyond the white population, and Przybyszewski spends some time on that.

I was particularly interested in the thrifty parts of the book, and then Przybyszewski came up with an extra fun bit for me.  She started talking about the Woman's Institute (of Scranton, PA), which gave correspondence courses in sewing and dress.  By taking the lessons, anyone could learn to sew anything, including tailoring and children's clothing.  Their aim was to help women be independent and learn skills they could use to earn an income.  (They seem to have been partners with a more general outfit, the International Textbook Company, which gave courses in business and basic education, but I'm not sure how they were related.)

It so happens that I have a whole shelf of books from the Woman's Institute; my great-grandmother took their courses in the 20s and 30s.  She always wanted a good education, but was unable to go to college, so she took correspondence courses all the time.  She eventually did achieve a college education--she must have been one of the first little old ladies to start college coursework, because she did it in the 60s.  Apparently the college didn't quite know what to make of her, but she earned a BA in accounting and then worked as a bookkeeper.  In her 70s.

My shelf of Woman's Institute books

The Dress Doctors got into something of a dilemma, though.  In the early part of the 20th century, home economics was just about the only academic discipline available to an ambitious, intellectual sort of woman.  Other disciplines actively disdained women, and so the women went to home ec and widened it into a subject that contained many; students learned chemistry, mechanics, medicine, and all sorts of things.  But home economics was never well-respected, was full of women.  Then the new feminists came along and vocally castigated home economics as oppressive.  Universities closed home ec departments as fast as they could.  And still today, we think of home ec as pathetic and oppressive and anti-feminist--despite the work home economists did to truly improve the lives of women and families, and which we could probably use more of today.

I enjoyed this book so much.  Now, understand that while Przybyszewski is an academic historian, this isn't really an academic history.  It's full of footnotes, yes, but it's also full of very vocal opinions!  Przybyszewski loves the Dress Doctors (and 1930s styles) and wants you to know it.  It's also written at a popular, not an academic, level, which makes it more fun.  If you're at all interested in clothing or fashion or women's history, I think it's a must-read!

Some bits I liked:
If you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet. (p 21)
[On fashion illustration] Professor Hope explained in 1919 how they mess with our heads by offering us impossibly tall creatures not only 8 heads high, but even 12 heads high....Any fashion illustration had to be reimagined on "the human figure" in all its stubby splendor. (p 68)
The task the home economists faced--defending both women who wanted to work only in the home and women who wanted to work outside it--was impossible, because women on each side felt insulted by the choices made by women on the other side.  "If we could get women to accept the fact that some women can and want to have dual roles," lamented one committee member, "just as other women prefer only the domestic role."  We are still getting women to accept that fact. (p 194)
[On wearing pants] It helped that, one morning in January 1968, the fashion stars and the weather aligned.  The temperature...stood at a mere 3 degrees as children headed back to school...More than five hundred parents sent their daughters out in pants, only to have school principals send them right back home again for not being properly dressed...the superintendent of schools issued a letter saying that principals did not have the power to ban girls who wore pants.  A school dress code could not require frostbite.  (p 201)
...women welcomed pants in the late 1960s in part because they were desperate for a fashionable alternative to the miniskirt.  An executive at the Chicago Tribune noticed in 1969 that the office women were "much more at ease" when wearing pants than they were in miniskirts.  Who could blame them?  Miniskirts made crossing one's knees "an ordeal."  Pants solved the problem. (p 208)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Blogger Appreciation Week, coming up!

I signed up for this!  Look out, because I even signed up to interview another book blogger.  I've never done BBAW before, and this year it's being hosted by The Estella Society.  

The topics:

Day 1 Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle.
Day 2 Interview Day! If you choose to be part of the interviews (in the form down below), you’ll be assigned a fellow blogger to chat with and post about! Sign-ups for interviews close on Wednesday, February 10! 
Day 3 What have you read and loved because of a fellow blogger?
Day 4 How do you stay connected to the community? Examples: social media, regular commenting, participation in blog events, etc. Tell us your faves!
Day 5 One of the unfortunate side effects of reading and blogging like rockstars seems to be a tendency toward burnout. How do you keep things fresh on your blog and in your reading?

Watch for BBAW articles all over the place!

Poor Heinrich

Poor Heinrich, by Hartmann von Aue

I have missed being here!  It's not that I ran out of books, or had a reading slump, or even a blogging slump.  I just couldn't seem to grab some time to blog in.  So I have some fun things to tell you about, and the first is going to be Der armer Heinrich, by this Hartmann guy.

Hartmann von Aue himself!
If you were here for my Arthurian literature project of 2014, you know that the mania for knightly romances and Arthurian tales spread through Western Europe in the 1100s.  I read French and German tales as well as English ones.  There were three great German poets of the courtly romance: Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote Parzival, and Gottfried von Strassburg wrote Tristan, but before them came Hartmann von Aue, who introduced the idea into Germany in the first place in the 1190s.  He has not become nearly as well-known in English as the two later poets, and in fact I had an interesting time finding a copy.  I only heard about Hartmann at all through my brother, who is a German professor specializing in the literature of Middle High German.  He assigns Heinrich in class.

Hartmann wrote four narratives: Erec and Iwein, based on Chretien de Troyes' Erec and Yvain, Gregorius, based on a French tale and enduringly popular (eventually showing up as The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann), and Der armer Heinrich, which to my surprise turned out to be very short indeed, only about 20 pages.

Heinrich is a very fortunate knight; he is young, handsome, skilled, rich, and popular at court.  But he is proud and arrogant, and God sends him a plague of leprosy in order to humble him.  Poor Heinrich consults the best doctors, but the only cure is to find a pure young girl willing to give her life for him.  Her heart's blood would cure him.  Heinrich figures that will never happen and resigns himself to the life of a leper.  He gives away all his lands and money, keeping only a farm run by a kind peasant who takes him in and lets him live with his family.  The farmer's little girl (age 8) becomes very fond of Heinrich, and when she overhears his story about the impossible cure, she resolves to save him.  She gives a long, theologically dubious speech that persuades her parents to let her die, but Heinrich remains reluctant.  Finally they set off for Salerno and the doctor prepares to sacrifice her, but Heinrich decides once and for all that he cannot allow it, though the girl begs and pleads.  On the way home, Heinrich's humility is rewarded by a miraculous cure from his leprosy, so he marries the girl instead and everybody is happy.

Kind of a strange story, but very interesting and hey, he doesn't let the little girl die!  Good job, Heinrich.

Wikipedia says that this story attracted Longfellow and Rossetti, so I looked that up.  Rossetti translated the story in 1846 as Henry the Leper: a Swabian Miracle-Rhyme, and Longfellow's 1851 narrative poem The Golden Legend uses the story and calls him Prince Henry.  So I'll have to look those up.

I'd quite like to read the other three Hartmann tales too, but the book I got isn't all that great for prolonged reading.  Hartmann has only been translated into English a few times, most recently in 2001 in what looks like a very nice edition of his tales, but nobody wanted to lend their nice copies to me through ILL.  Instead, I got an edition from 1983 with practically no notes--just a little preface about the translation.  And it seems to have been done on a typewriter!  I think Fisher, the translator, just typed the whole book, and the publisher took a photostat, reduced it to 50%, and printed it.  The result is quite difficult for my eyes to focus on for long, and the book is fragile enough that I'm not sure I want to try to read it all.  I have to give it back in a couple of days, so the other tales will just have to wait.

I love this portrait of Hartmann.  Evidently the eagle must have been his badge, but it looks more like a nervous or grumpy parrot.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Spin Title: The Adventurous Simplicissimus

The Adventurous Simplicissimus: Being the description of the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim, by H. J. C. von Grimmelshausen

Full disclosure: I had already started this book before I put it on my Spin list, but I felt it was pretty fair because it's not an easy read at all, and I could use the help! 

 This is a very early German novel, from 1668.  Like Don Quixote, it's a picaresque novel, consisting of one adventure after another and not too linear in plot.  It is set during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), and the beginning, at least, is a fairly savage satire on war and soldiers, but then it moves into the picaresque adventures.

The narrator is born a German peasant, but his home is plundered and ruined by soldiers looking for food, women, and loot.  Believing his whole family dead, he wanders in the forest and ends up living with a hermit, who teaches him religion and names him Simplicius Simplicissimus, because he is too simple to know his own right name.  After the hermit's death, Simplicissimus meets up with soldiers; the leader turns him into a jester, since he has no idea how to function in the world.  Simplicissimus goes through a huge variety of jobs: soldier, highwayman, painter, thief, snake oil doctor....anything you can mention, all against a backdrop of horrible war, plunder, and destitution.  Near the end he meets his own father and finds out who he is, travels to Russia, and even visits the land of the mermen underwater.  It gets really strange, and then he decides to become a hermit again and renounce the sinful world.

From the beginning, when Simplicissimus begins his tale:
...'tis not untrue that I have often fancied I must have drawn my birth from some great lord or knight at least, as being by nature disposed to follow the nobleman's trade had I but the means and the tools for it.  'Tis true, moreover, without jesting, that my birth and upbringing can be well compared to that of a prince if we overlook the one great difference in degree...
It's an important book in the development of German literature, and it was a huge hit, which encouraged von Grimmelshausen to write more--most of which wasn't really very good.  Modern readers probably won't love it unless they're really interested.