Thursday, March 31, 2016

Spenser's Images of Life

Spenser's Images of Life, by C. S. Lewis and Alastair Fowler

This is my final preparation for the Faerie Queene Readalong next month!  Once upon a time, C. S. Lewis left Magdalen College at Oxford and took a chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College at Cambridge, where he lectured in English literature for the last years of his life.  (He commuted by train and went back to the Kilns on weekends.)  Lewis had meant to make a book out of his Cambridge lectures on Spenser, but died before he could do so.  His colleague Alastair Fowler took on the job of creating a book out of the lecture notes, and he succeeded well enough that Lewis' own voice still shows throughout.  I first read this book several years ago, before Cambridge brought it back into print, and it made me want to read the Faerie Queene and enjoy it.  I promptly failed, but this time I'm going to do it!  (With the help of o and Cleo and a lot of footnotes.)

Lewis asserts that the Faerie Queene is very much like a pageant or masque: the kind of thing they used to put on at court, where you'd have a lot of fantastical figures dressed up, meant to present a scene to enjoy.  You'd have gods and goddesses, or the Graces, or something like that, and they'd maybe perform a dance and the whole thing would be to compliment the king or queen.  It's also very English; the opening scene (pictured on our readalong image) was apparently a standard one that people would immediately recognize and feel comfortable with, and Spenser is, throughout, a very English poet.

One pageant that Lewis describes particularly tickled me--it was put on at a tournament in 1511 and featured four knights: Ceure Loyall (Henry VIII), Joyous Panser, Bone Valoyr, and Valliaunt Desyre, all from the land of Noble Heart, on a sort of parade float with a mountain, trees, and deer.  On the front, between two pillars, stood a maiden "in blue and light tawny satin making a garland of rosemary."  The float was 'drawn' by a gold leopard and a silver antelope, which were led by two woodwoses!  So that's the sort of thing we should be keeping in mind; that and the vast heritage of iconography that Spenser and his contemporaries were so familiar with, that we mostly are not.

Anyway, the point is that the Faerie Queene is meant to be highly visual and to present the readers with scenes to interpret and enjoy.  And his thesis is life, love, righteousness, and plenty conquering death, sin, and decay.  Over and over again, Spenser glorifies married love and virtue over vice and the old ideas about chivalric love and romance, which is always and by definition adulterous and, to Spenser, sterile.  Each book presents us with a virtue to contemplate and scenes that should help us to understand that virtue leads to Life, while sin leads to Death.  Spenser takes this so far as to use the married couple as an image of God: "it is the married couple, united in the relation called one flesh, that is the imago Dei."

Lewis takes us through several pieces of the Faerie Queene, pointing out how, in every book, there are images of Life, or good, or plenty, placed in opposition to scenes of fakery, stagnation, death, and sin.  And we should always be careful to understand this poem for what it is--not an epic, or a novel--but:
...a pageant of the universe, or of Nature, as Spenser saw it.  The vision is a religious but not a mystical one.  For the poet's basic religion, the religion that underlies the forms of his imagination, is simply the worship of 'the glad Creator' is, as we say, a comment on life.  But it is still more a celebration of life: of order, fertility, spontaneity, and jocundity.  It is, if you like, Spenser's Hymn to Life.
So let's hope I'm ready to tackle the real thing now!  I've marshaled about as much help as it is possible to get.

My FQ pile!

A Blink of the Screen

A Blink of the Screen, by Terry Pratchett

As my final book for MarchMagics, I got this newish collection of Pratchett's short stuff.  I've never read any of it before, so it was a real treat!  I gather that it was originally published in hardback with a lot of fun Kirby illustrations, but I only have the paperback.  That's OK, because while I know Josh Kirby was a hugely popular Discworld illustrator, I don't personally care much about it one way or the other.

The first half of the book is non-Discworld stuff.  We get Pterry's very first published story--at 13!--which is far better than most stories by 13-year-olds would be.  There are a couple of fractured fairy tales, some spoofy news stories, that sort of thing, and then a really great SF short story about Earth in a multiverse that eventually turned into The Long Earth, which I think is the only Pterry novel I haven't read, and clearly that is going to need to change soon.  A few other short stories, one about living in a Christmas card (it's terrifying), and a couple of really creepy ones that I loved, especially the virtual reality one.  And a cute little story about a truckload of chickens living on the verge of a Hollywood freeway--since I am rather fond of a local tribe of freeway chickens, I got a kick out of that one.  Finally, a time travel/King Arthur story that goes wrong in consummate Pratchett fashion.

Then, the Discworld part: mostly enjoyable bits and bobs written for various events or magazines, plus one pretty great Granny Weatherwax story that is fairly long.

The perfect wrapup to my month of Pterry and DWJ reading.  Thanks to my husband for finding it, and to Kristen for hosting!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

MarchMagics: Reading Catch-Up

I guess I've slacked off a little bit on the MarchMagics posting, but that's because I really have no shipping ideas.  That's not really how my brain works. But!  Since I last posted about DWJ and Pterry, I've read a couple more things.

Obviously I had to follow Dark Lord of Derkholm with a re-read of Year of the Griffin.  That is such a fun book.  I love the portrayal of a group of college friends, and how each of them copes with their various problems.  I also really like how the world is a mess, and the university has become completely incompetent, and it all needs fixing up--which is exactly what would really happen, only unfortunately we don't have magic to fix our problems up with.

This is another really terrible cover.  It's a scene from the novel, but a very confusing one and the cover makes no sense at all.  Also, you can't see any human faces, and the whole thing comes off as badly drawn.  Elda is the only reasonable thing on this cover at all.

I also had a lot of fun re-reading Wyrd Sisters, which I haven't read for years.  I only remembered about half of it, and it was great to rediscover the other half.  Granny Weatherwax is much more herself now, Nanny Ogg is a constant entertainment, and Magrat is one of those perfect Pterry characters, funny and endearing and determined all at the same time.

Continuing the witches theme, I read the last Tiffany Aching book, I Shall Wear Midnight.  I re-read Wintersmith fairly recently and wanted to check in with Eskarina.  I tell you what, Midnight may be Pterry's crowning achievement.  Certainly the Tiffany stories are some of his best, and Midnight just blows me away.  It's got everything he did best.

Only one more day in March!  I'll have a wrap-up and another book tomorrow.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Broken Road

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The original cover (not my NYRB edition)

This is the concluding third volume in Patrick Leigh Fermor's wonderful travel memoir.  The first volumes are A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  I loved both of those, and the main reason that it has taken me nearly two years to read all three volumes is because I adore them so much that I spaced them out and read them slowly, so as not to finish them too soon.  This final volume is not quite complete; Fermor was working on it at his death, and he was an obsessive trimmer and re-writer, so this is longer than the other two--because he didn't get to trim it down as much--and also unfinished.  The tale never does quite make it over the final miles to Constantinople.  Instead, two of Fermor's close friends edited the material and added journal entries (very sparse ones) from time in Constantinople and a lovely long visit to Mount Athos in Greece.

The Broken Road is the longest volume, but it covers only two countries: Bulgaria and Romania.  It starts in the fall of 1934, about nine months into young Paddy's cross-European tour, and ends just about three months later (with the addition of next February on the mountain).  As in the previous books, Paddy is either staying with wealthy people (they pass him along with introductions from city to city) who are kind and hospitable and erudite, or with rough peasant folks who are kind and hospitable and talented.  He studies languages and history with incredible enthusiasm and makes innumerable friends--nearly all of whom are destined to disappear tragically over the next decade.

There are some strange adventures.  At only one point is Paddy's rucksack stolen, to his shock.  Once or twice he comes perilously close to dying of exposure.  And he meets a couple of fairly eminent writers too.

Paddy's final visit is to Mount Athos, Greece's holy mountain island.  It's covered in ancient monasteries, and only men are allowed on the island--to the point that all the sheep and cattle and dogs are male, and must be brought over from the mainland instead of bred.  The laypeople who live on the mountain usually move out as older, widowed, men, or go back and forth.  Paddy hikes from one monastery to another until it's hard to believe an island could hold so many. 

After this, Paddy stayed in Greece right up until war broke out four years later, and he fought in Greece for most of the war.  I'd quite like to read more of his writing, so I hope to find Mani next.

If you have the travel bug, I think these are must-read books.  They are just wonderful.  The problem with them is that they're guaranteed to make you long to hike across Europe yourself, or at the very least to visit many of the same places.  I am so glad that some blogger--I have no idea who--mentioned these long ago, so that I could read them!  These are some of my all-time favorite books found through blogging, and I will be reading them again and again.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Elizabeth Goudge Day

Hey, if you haven't heard about Lory's upcoming Elizabeth Goudge event, head on over to her blog and take a look.  Lory says:
I’m planning to celebrate Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday on April 24. That means that I’ll be reading and posting about one of her books, and I hope that you will consider doing the same.

There will be a giveaway!

I have two Goudge books on my TBR pile right now: Green Dolphin Street and Gentian Hill.  I think I'll read the first one for this event.  It seems to be the most famous of her titles, so I ought to get around to it.

Friday, March 25, 2016


I just now happened to look at my "total pageviews" widget, and it says 199,199 which is kind of a fun number.  Nice and symmetrical.

Here is the hexadecimal color #199199, a rather fetching teal: 

Googling images mostly gets you houses selling for almost $200,000, but you also get plenty of Beverly Hills 90210 because it ran 1991-99.  (Please note that I do not recommend actually watching this show, as your brain will melt.)

 I guess I had better think of something special for 200,000.  A party or something.  Any suggestions?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dark Lord of Derkholm: Readalong!

The cover of my paperback copy
Our MarchMagics DWJ readalong selection was Dark Lord of Derkholm, a send-up of all the tropes that got so worn out in sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels.  DWJ pokes merciless fun at the whole genre, but it's not all comedy; there's more than enough moral complexity and emotional weight to ground the novel and make it much more than a simple spoof.

Over forty years ago, the inhabitants of the world entered a contract to host tourist parties from another universe.  The tourists go on a quest to defeat the Dark Lord, led by a wizard tour guide, accompanied by a bard, and attacked by leathery-winged avians in the time-honored manner.  In the final battle, the heavily-outnumbered Forces of Good defeat the massed Forces of Evil, after which the tourists confront the Dark Lord in his lair and defeat him before heading home.

Well, the tours are wrecking the world and the situation is desperate.  In an attempt to escape from the demon-enforced contract, the head tourist committee assigns Wizard Derk to the job of being Dark Lord.  Derk has always stayed away from the tours and spends his time creating interesting new creatures.  His six children are five griffins and two humans, who all pitch in to help (with varying degrees of enthusiasm).  As the chaos piles up, Derk's family starts to figure out that there is even more at stake than they thought.

What do you think of the way DWJ skewers tropes? Is there one of these that is your favorite?

I am particularly fond of the animals.  There are winged horses!--who are a huge pain.  Pigs actually do fly--and get in everyone's way.

I also love how the bards are always striking poses and the wizard have to have long beards no matter how old (or young) they are.

Which of Derk's experimental animals would you like most to have one of?

Hm, I want either a winged talking horse or a griffin friend.  I don't need any extra-intelligent but mean geese, but I do love the carnivorous sheep.  They are my favorite.

One of the common complaints about DWJ stories is that the endings are a bit too fast and furious. Did you feel that way with this story? Did all of your questions get answered?

It takes forever for Kit to come back!  I get really impatient for that by the end.  I love the wrap-up, where the gods all appear.  My questions do not all get answered, but I happen to like that about DWJ's books.  And the sequel, The Year of the Griffin, helps a lot with that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

When the Strugatsky brothers got tired of having their science fiction books constantly pushed around and censored by the Soviet government, they decided to take a break and write a mystery novel for a change.

Inspector Peter Glebsky is on vacation, so he heads up to a remote ski chalet, intending to ski and drink a lot and generally lounge about in the peace and quiet.  At the chalet, he meets a bizarre conglomeration of people--a famous magician and his nephew (niece?), a physicist, a possible thug, a rich man and his socialite wife among them.  Plus maybe the ghost of the dead mountaineer, who steals things.  An avalanche cuts them all off and a Norwegian stranger is found dead, so Glebsky plans to figure this out--despite being the kind of police inspector who finds embezzlers, not murderers, and possibly not a policeman at all.  And the Strugatskys really can't resist throwing a little science-fiction weirdness in among all the strange antics they've already got going on.

As always with those two guys, it's a strange, surreal, and entertaining tale.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Faerie Queene Readalong!

Here it comes, the most challenging readalong of 2016: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene., published in 1590 and 1596, just exactly 420 years ago.

O at Behold the Stars is hosting; it was her idea, and several others quickly jumped on board. Cleo, Cirtnecce, RuthConsoled Reader and I will be joining in, and you are very welcome too.  Here's the (rather terrifying) schedule:

April 25 – May 1st  ~  Book I
May 2 – May 8th  ~  Book II
May 9 – May 15th  ~  Book III
May 16 – May 22nd  ~  Book IV
May 23 – May 29th  ~  Book V
May 30 – June 5th  ~  Book VI
June 6 – June 12th  ~  Mutability

A book a week, egads.  I guess we'll be posting weekly as well.  And for two of those weeks, I will be on my big trip to the UK, so I will either have to read ahead very strenuously or catch up afterwards....probably that second option!  But it doesn't matter, because it's going to be quite exciting either way.  I'm most of the way through Lewis' Images of Life, so I'm almost ready.  It feels like training for a marathon or something.  In fact, I've decided to call this reading project "X-treme Poetry!"  Because that's what it feels like to me!  And after all, I am something of a 90s girl.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke wrote one novel, and this is it.  At the time, he was living in Paris, having left his new wife and baby behind while he went in search of some income (and to get away from said baby, who was so inconsiderate as to cry and want to eat while he doing important stuff like being inspired and all; everyday life is too vulgar for a poet).  Notebooks was largely written out of his experiences in Paris.

Malte Laurids Brigge is a young Danish aristocrat of sorts--the poor sort--living in Paris.  His two notebooks/journals consist of his experiences, memories, and imaginings.  There isn't really a plot to speak of; the thread goes back and forth and it's just like a real notebook in a real young man's life--a life based very much on Rilke's own.  Sometimes he's looking at young women students copying the Cluny tapestries (see?? I told you they were everywhere), and sometimes he's thinking of his childhood in a large Danish manor house.  I liked the childhood parts best, actually.  He thinks about death a lot, of course; the deaths of his parents and death in general.  It's totally unclear how he got from a rather fancy childhood to being down and out in Paris.

I found it wandery and was mostly not enthralled, though sometimes I was.  Probably there are hidden depths that I didn't get, or maybe I'm just not a Rilke person.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

#MarchMagics 17: Bad Cover Art

Thursday, March 17 - Favorite Bad Covers
Fantasy book covers can sometimes be, well, interesting. Share your favorite bad DWJ or Pratchett covers!

Not at all bad, considering.
So very many bad covers!

I'm going to concentrate mostly on DWJ, because in my opinion Pterry had pretty good covers.  He had a few artists that habitually illustrated the Discworld books, and who were very popular.  His covers were practically iconic, and Americans tried to collect the more-popular British editions.  Even the original cover for The Colour of Magic is pretty decent!

DWJ, on the other hand.  Oh, the poor woman.  Her covers were consistently hideous for decades.  I think, for one, thing, the 1970s and 80s were particularly bad; fantasy cover art wasn't really in great shape anyway, and it doesn't seem like the publishers tried very hard.  Then, it's possible that her stories do not really lend themselves well to illustration.  They make wonderful images in your mind, but an awful lot of the time if you try to draw them, it doesn't come out too well.  It takes a talented artist to do her justice, and careful selection of what to illustrate.  Nan riding a broom in a pink blanket is practically never going to look good, and yet that's what everyone chooses to put on the cover of Witch Week.

Here are some of my favorite awful DWJ covers:

I have yet to see a decent Archer's Goon cover

What.  Poor Mordion is being defamed here.

Nope. Christopher looks 14 instead of 8, and it's just bad.

Cat and Gwendolyn meet V. C. Andrews

I avoided reading this one for a few years, it looked so dull

Good golly.

This is my copy, but mine is uglier, with a worse-looking title.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Lady and the Unicorn

The Lady and the Unicorn, by Rumer Godden

The Universe wants me to know all about the Cluny tapestries.  That is my conclusion, after several months in which I have met them at every turn.  It started with a miniature embroidery pattern that I happen to want and have not yet bought.  A friend of mine ordered me to read the Tracy Chevalier novel, which I haven't gotten to yet, because I ran into this Rumer Godden one as well, but it's on the shelf.  I read Rilke (post pending!) and he makes them a feature.  Their presence in the Harry Potter films came up. These tapestries are everywhere, I'm telling you.  Even in Calcutta, which is where Godden sets her novel--rather unexpectedly I must say.

Rosa and Belle are twins; their family occupies one part of a large tumbledown Calcutta mansion.  They are poor and their mixed race limits their social possibilities in this 1930s Raj setting.  Belle, ambitious and ruthless, sets herself to climb by becoming the mistress of a rich man.  Rosa, less worldly, falls in love with a young and newly-arrived Englishman.  While he loves her--in his fashion--tragedy is inevitable.  But first they discover a sundial, hidden under mounds of jasmine, in Rosa's garden.  Stephen realizes that the worn emblems carved on the house walls are the same as those in the Cluny tapestries: a flag with three crescents, a lady and a unicorn.  And Rosa has seen a lady in blue, who has a little fluffy dog named Echo.

It's mostly really sad.  Godden doesn't give us any fairy-tale ending.  Good novel, though.  It's one of her earlier works and apparently not easy to come by, but it so happened that my library had a copy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

#MarchMagics 15: Quotations!

Today's MarchMagics prompt is: Favorite Quotes -- This one might be tough to narrow down but also a lot of fun!

Oh, I have so many favorite quotations!  I can't even mention them all, but here are some favorites from DWJ books:

"All power corrupts, but we need electricity." -- Archer's Goon

"Why not do both?  Walk into the sunset screaming?"   -- Luke, Eight Days of Luke

"Because you're a person, of course!' Ann snapped at him. 'One person ought to treat another person properly even if the person's himself!" -- Hexwood

“Yes, you are nosy. You're a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You're victimizing us all.”  --  Howl, Howl's Moving Castle

“Being a hero means ignoring how silly you feel.”  -- Tom (and, later, Polly), Fire and Hemlock

"Sentimental drivel."  -- Tom, Fire and Hemlock

"But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get.”--Jamie, The Homeward Bounders

Monday, March 14, 2016

#MarchMagics Bonus: Recent Reads

Halfway through the month, and I've been able to spend some happy hours immersed in DWJ and Pterry books.

After I finished Equal Rites, I wanted to revisit Wyrd Sisters, the next witchy book and the first Discworld book I ever read.  Granny Weatherwax is starting to look more like her eventual self, Nanny Ogg is an enthusiastically earthy presence, and Magrat Garlick is into modern witching, with its innovative new colors and belief in fairies.  I'm well into it now and enjoying every minute.

Late last week, I read The Crown of Dalemark, and enjoyed its complicated story all over again.  One particularly fun detail of this story is the glossary, which collects terms and legendary characters from all four Dalemark books.  The tricky bit is that, as in the "scholar's explanation" in The Spellcoats, the glossary is written by a fictional Dalemark historian (Maewen's dad, maybe?), who knows many things, but does not know everything that is revealed in the books.  It will reward the careful reader.

My rather awful cover
Over the weekend, I went out of town and did a whole lot of driving in a whole lot of rain, but I also read Fire and Hemlock.  Every time I read it, I'm impressed again by DWJ's subtle and complex construction.  It's an amazing novel, with deep scholarly roots, yet readable for a teenager (if confusing in spots, as it is to everyone).  I'm going to go over the Thomas Rhymer and Tam Lin ballads again, and I think I'll try tackling Wasteland, since I'm supposed to be reading Eliot anyway.

I found myself thinking about how DWJ shows all the different kinds of manipulation people use.  The names are frequently clues in this book, and Ivy is like her name, clinging, demanding, and eventually sucking the life out of whoever she clings to.  She is a real-life counterpart to Laurel, who is much more manipulative and deadly, but both use sentiment as weapons; thus Tom's horror of it, which he transmits to Polly.  Tom deserves saving because, even though he has cultivated Polly in hopes of a rescue, he refuses to try to manipulate her the way Seb does, and he's fought so hard on his own behalf, unlike just about anyone else.  (Tom's cultivation of Polly as an apprentice-hero would never fly now, I must say.  He is really skating the edge of creepy.)

Cover of the first (library) copy I read
I've always liked the irony and foreshadowing here, when Polly reads "East of the Sun and West of the Moon:" 
The girl had only herself to blame for her troubles.  She was told not to do a thing and she did.  And she cried so much.  Polly despised her.

Are you reading anything fun for MarchMagics right now?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

MarchMagics 10: Equal Rites Readalong!

Today is the Equal Rites Readalong discussion!  Pop on over to We Be Reading to see what Kristen has to say.

Was this your first time reading Equal Rites? Did you like it?
I've read Equal Rites a few times before, but it's been years, so it was nice to read it again.  Although I read Wyrd Sisters first, after that I went back and read the books in order, so Equal Rites was one of my first.  I still remember certain descriptions as forming my opinion of Pterry's writing, like the eagle's mind being "small, sharp, and purple, like an arrowhead."

This time, I noticed more that Granny Weatherwax is being developed as a character.  She's more of an average formidable mountain witch, rather than the granite-with-a-heart, practically all-knowing Granny Weatherwax of later books.

Pterry also wraps up the storyline rather neatly, leaving Esk and Simon to their cooperative destiny, and they don't really show up again (until Esk makes an appearance in I Shall Wear Midnight).  Pretty soon, the Wizard storyline will have a large cast of continuing characters, but they are not in this story.  I would have liked to see more of Esk and Simon.

Who was your favorite character?
Granny Weatherwax!  Esk is still a kid and though I like her, I think she'll be more interesting in a few years.  I am quite fond of Simon. But Granny Weatherwax wins.
Would you rather be a witch or a wizard?
Oh, witch for sure.  Although I guess it's altogether messier than being a wizard.  Wizards get to live in a sort of magical Oxford University, which does sound pretty good, and then there's the Library--one of my all-time favorite Discworld locations, naturally.  But on the whole, witching sounds more human.  As long as I can have the books too.

The Allegory of Love

The Allegory of Love, by C. S. Lewis

I first read this, Lewis' first book of literary criticism, at least 10 years ago.  Last year after reading that book about the Inklings I thought I'd like to read it again, but when I took my copy (really my mother's, which I stole) down from the shelf, it seemed practically unreadable; it had tiny type in a 60s era paperback.  So I splurged a little and bought a new copy.  Then when Cleo mentioned it in connection with the Faerie Queene, I realized I really ought to read it before the readalong, not after, so I got going.  It was really nice to revisit, especially since I have now actually read the Romance of the Rose and understand a lot more of what he's talking about.

Lewis starts off by explaining that allegory was how early medieval people first started to express psychological ideas, especially conflict.  Much as a cartoon might show an inner moral conflict by means of an angel and a devil on each shoulder, they would express it with an argument between, say, Anger and Duty, or Mercy and Vengeance.  Western literature was getting into psychology for the first time, and allegory is how it was expressed.

The first examples were familiar to me, because I read them in college.  Prudentius wrote this massive story called the Psychomachia, rendered in my English reader as the Fight for Mansoul, in which the Virtues and the Vices have a battle.  Then we have Fulgentius and Bernardus Silvestris writing further.  It was at about this point that it occurred to me to wonder why on earth my medieval literature professor assigned these pieces to us.  They are weird and tricky and really, now that I know something more about medieval lit than I did at age 20, I'm wondering what she was thinking.  We were upperclassmen and literature majors, but we'd only done maybe Beowulf and Chaucer.  This material strikes me as more suitable to a grad student seminar.  Maybe my standards are just low?  Maybe it's because it was her first year teaching and she'd just arrived from Oxford?  I don't know, but I sure would like to know whether she is still assigning Bernardus Silvestris to college juniors and what she would say now.

Well, onward.  Lewis continues to trace the development of allegory into stories of romance, especially the Romance of the Rose.  He thinks the first part, by Guillame Lorris, is delicate and perfect, and a total mess in the second part by Jean de Meun ("this huge, dishevelled, violent poem of 1800 lines").  My buddy Chretien de Troyes makes an appearance.  Onward through Gower and Usk, whom I have never read and ought to, until we get to the place where allegory is the default literary mode and therefore frequently done badly and getting pretty worn out.

But the final chapter is all on the Faerie Queene, and the perfection thereof.  Lewis shows how Spenser is replacing courtly love--which is always adulterous and within a context of marriage as financial arrangement--with an ideal of married love, which is chaste, fertile, and on the side of Life.  All of Spenser's arrangements show sin as sterile, fake, and dead, while righteousness is full of life, joy, love, and fertility all around.

Not an easy read, but very fun for those interested in medieval literature.  I'm following up with Lewis' book of lectures that are entirely about the Faerie Queene.  I figure I have to be prepared or I'll never survive!

NB One note about this edition: it's pretty much a reprint of the book, with nothing added.  This is a real problem, because back in the 1930s, when Lewis wrote it, he threw in lots of Latin and Greek and French quotations, expecting that his classically-educated fellow academics could read it all.  That was just fine then, but this is now and hardly anyone will be able to read those passages.  Cambridge UP, however, utterly failed to do anything about this.  At every turn, you come to footnotes that say things like "See this very important marginal gloss:" and then a bunch of Latin.  It reaches its final absurdity in the first appendix, which consists entirely of Greek and Latin passages interspersed with Lewis saying that this should clear up the point nicely.  Cambridge UP, I expect better of you.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson's big breakout book was Notes from a Small Island, a funny book about living and traveling in the UK.  That was 20 years ago, so he thought he would do another one and see how things have changed.  For some reason, he drew a line from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath (the farthest you can go in a straight line while on land), and then of course didn't stick with that line at all, except insofar as he started in Bognor and moved kind of north and eventually got to Cape Wrath--although really, he spent almost no time in Scotland at all, which was pretty disappointing.

Much of the book is fun and enjoyable and lyrical about the beauties of the British countryside and the wonderfulness that is London.  I learned some good stuff for our upcoming trip, like that you can just walk into the West Kennet Long Barrow (this is completely stunning to me, but it turned out that my mom already knew) and that Stonehenge has recently been redone so that there's not so much road right there.  Also he got so excited about the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge that we are definitely going there (I'd already planned to go to Cambridge and wondered if we should go there).  About 65-70% of the book is this nice stuff.

But, then there's the other part.  Really, he complains kind of a lot.  In fact he gets downright tetchy in spots, and while tetchiness is part of life, I'm not sure that all of it had to be included.  And he uses a really surprising amount of profanity, considering that it's a humorous travel book for a general audience.  Those were noticeable problems that made the book less enjoyable than it could have been.

My final objection is more puzzling than anything else.  Bryson spends quite a lot of the book drinking in pubs, which is certainly ordinary enough, but he frequently has one (or three) too many and talks about heading tipsily off to bed.  Then he casually mentions that he suffers from gout.  Well, if you have gout, and you're always talking about how much you love taking long walks, why on earth would you spend nearly every evening sloshing down too much beer??  Honestly, there is a lot of beer drinking and it gets kind of old.

I liked it for the most part, and I picked up some good tips.  But I did think it could have been better written and less grumpy.  You're not that old, Bill, shape up some already.  (Plus your criticisms of H. V. Morton sound like sour grapes.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

MarchMagics 8: Favorite Series

It's a new week in MarchMagics, hosted by Kristen at We Be Reading, and a new day to talk about Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett!  The prompt for today is to write about our Favorite Series--(or story arc if it's part of Discworld because just to say Discworld would totally be cheating)

In DWJ, it's hard to choose.  I am probably in a minority when I pick Dalemark as one of the best.  I don't think it's hugely popular, but I love the green roads and all the mysterious twisty bits, and how the three earlier books, which aren't all that connected, are brought together in the fourth. 

Of course, though, I also adore the Chrestomanci books.  They're so funny and wonderful, and there's a lot of variety.  Chrestomanci is possibly DWJ's overall best series.

In Discworld, my favorite story arc has always been the witches.  They're my first and permanent love, and now that Tiffany Aching is part of it, well.  There is simply nothing more to say.  I think the Tiffany books are Pterry's greatest achievement, Discworldly speaking.  But Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg (and Greebo), and Magrat were wonderful even before Tiffany came along--especially Granny Weatherwax.

The first Pratchett book I ever read was a witchy one.  In my senior year of high school, I spent spring break visiting my cousin, and I picked up a book that was lying around the house.  It was funny, and kind of like Douglas Adams only with fantasy, and it was just all-around fantastic.  It turned out to belong to my younger cousin, who shrugged and said he'd won it at school and hadn't read it.  I ordered him to read it, went home, and forgot both the author and title of the book completely.  It was terrible.

Then, in my sophomore year of college, I visited a friend's house and somehow found the book again in his roommate's bookcase!  I was so excited!  It was Wyrd Sisters, and since the roommate was a big Pterry fan and had a lot of the books, I dove right in.  And that is how I got to know Discworld.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Cambodia's Curse

Cambodia's Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley

Ready for another fascinating, but grim, book about 20th century history and politics?  I hope so.

Joel Brinkley has been reporting on the Cambodia beat for decades; he won a Pulitzer for his coverage in 1979, at the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  For the past 20 years or so, we've mostly been ignoring Cambodia, and Brinkley figures it's time somebody paid a little attention.  Here, he offers a quick run-down of Khmer history, followed by a much more detailed analysis of the past 30 years or so.  It's not good.  Cambodia today is still stuck in a paralyzing mire of corruption, brutality, and ignorance, and Brinkley calls them "the most abused people in the world."  (And he's counting North Korea and Darfur.)

First we have the historical run-down, which starts over a thousand years ago with the glories of Angkor Wat.  All this glory was built upon the backs of ordinary Cambodians, who, as far as the rulers were concerned, existed to grow rice to build wealth for them.  The entire governmental system was geared towards moving wealth from the countryside to the capital.  As Angkor Wat declined and Khmer kings became vassals of other emperors, the same system held, but with the addition of funds from outside; all of which went to enrich elites.

And, Brinkley theorizes, ideas about how to govern pretty much stopped there.  Millions of Cambodians still grow rice (only one crop a year, as opposed to the possible two or three), live in huts, and 'live from nature.' 

At no time has Cambodia ever had anybody in the government who did anything but grab as much money as possible. That is pretty much the sole function of government up to the present day--to make officials rich. Nothing else. Not schools, not hospitals, not clean water or infrastructure.  What infrastructure and education was starting to be developed before the Khmer Rouge took power was destroyed, and has never really recovered.  All the massive world aid that has poured in for decades has gone straight to personal bank accounts.
The majority of Cambodian people are extremely poor, suffer from malnutrition and disease, and are barely literate (even teachers aren't very educated).  Domestic violence, child assault, and all sorts of violence and abuse are common.

The entire system runs on graft, so there is no justice--bribes are the only way to get anything. The court system is run by lawyers and judges who bribed their way through school and don't actually understand the concept of laws.  Cambodia once had dense forests of valuable trees, but they've nearly all been clear-cut and not replanted.  The only thing left is the land itself, which is now being sold out from under the legal owners.

Brinkley tries to end on a note of hope, citing young urban Cambodians with education and more will to change the status quo.  It's a pretty small hope right now, but it's something.

It's a really depressing book, because it's relentless.  Every chapter is a new sad thing.

And the Spin number is....


Which means I'll be poem.  "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufock," by T. S. Eliot.  Which is kind of funny, since most of the items on my list were long and heavy! 

Oops, Eliot spotted a misprint.

Also, happy 4th birthday to the Classics Club!  Which gives me exactly one year to finish my list off, so I'd better get moving.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Slade House

Slade House, by David Mitchell

This is a little short novel that is also a sort of minor spin-off of The Bone Clocks, which I read last year and half-liked.  Slade House I liked entirely; it was all the parts I liked about Bone Clocks, without all the boring parts or unpleasant people.  A few characters from Bone Clocks make an appearance, but I don't think it's really necessary to have read it to enjoy Slade House, which is almost entirely its own thing.

In a tiny, ignored London alley, once every nine years a little door appears.  Those lonely few who enter find an unexpected country manor house and a congenial companion...until they realize they can't leave.  Anyone who discovers what happens at Slade House never leaves to reveal it to anyone else.

It's a creepy haunted-house story, and I liked it.  Plus the inside cover is pretty cool too.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Metamorphoses, by Ovid

I've been doing a readalong of this, sort of, with Cleo at Classical Carousel and o at Behold the Stars, before a more ambitious readalong of The Faerie Queene, which is set to start in April.  They have been much better at it, though, with weekly update posts discussing each book, whereas I just read the thing and didn't do anything else.  So you should check out their posts, because this is going to be on the minimal side in comparison.

I actually wasn't at all sure if I had read all of the Metamorphoses before, because I know I read at least some in college, but how much?  Who knows by now (not me).  I got out my old copy--which is a Penguin prose edition old enough to be priced at seven shillings and sixpence!--and found a note used as a bookmark, scribbled with phone numbers and arcane things.

There are fifteen books, each a nice length to read on its own.  They are not terribly separate, really; in each book, Ovid goes through several stories, transitioning through means of a storyteller or some event (he's really pretty good at it; you're in a new story before you notice), and several times the action is continued across books that divide right in the middle of the story, so it's not too clear what determined the division.  Maybe just the length of the original scrolls!

Ovid's massive poetical work is about just what it says: changes.  It's a collection of Greek myths (Romans come in at the end), all of which involve somebody being changed into something else.  Often they are just-so stories that tell the origin of a particular tree, flower, bird, pool, or river.  Sometimes they're about the gods' punishment to one person, changed into a rock or even a member of the opposite sex.  Most of the stories were already familiar to me, because they made it into D'Aulaires' Greek Myths or Hamilton's collection, but some few were too obscure or too risqué to be included!

I suppose this must be where most of these tales were preserved, really.  I don't know that we have other sources for the story of Narcissus, or Arachne, or Niobe.  How lucky we are that Ovid collected them.
Echo pining after Narcissus
I learned some fun things that I hadn't known before!  My favorite was the Myrmidons.  I had always wondered about Achilles' followers, the Myrmidons, and whether they had some connection with ants that I just hadn't heard about.  (Because, in Danish, ant is myre.)  And ha, I am vindicated.  The Myrmidons were transformed from ants into people at the prayer of a king who needed to repopulate his lands.  (Probably everybody knew that but me.)

This is an excellent choice for someone looking to start in classical literature; it's easy to read and very fun.

NB: I'm going to count this title for the Back to the Classics reading challenge--the banned or censored requirement.  Augustus Caesar was the first to ban Ovid's works for being immoral, and he was certainly not the last!  The Metamorphoses has been banned or bowdlerized many times over the centuries, right up through the 20th, and in fact just recently a few Columbia students objected to its depictions of rape, spurring some to demand trigger warnings or even removal.  Rape is a big feature of this book, as it certainly was in ancient Greece and Rome, but I was pleasantly surprised by Ovid's occasional sympathy for the victims.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Classics Spin #12

Yippee, it's another Spin!  I get so ridiculously excited about these.  It's getting tricky now, because I'm getting down to about 30 books left on my Classics Club list.  I've only left out a few of the very scariest ones (like William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, what on EARTH was I thinking?), but some of these are still pretty terrifying.  Faulkner is impenetrable, the History of the Franks is over 600 pages of medieval history, I'm not at all sure I'm going to like The Tin Drum, and everything from Latin America is just difficult.  This time I just put everything down in the same order that it shows up on my CC list:

  1. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery. 
  2. William Faulkner, US, 1929. Light in August
  3. “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder (1938). 
  4.  The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams 
  5. Carl Sandburg, 1940, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years
  6. “Why We Can’t Wait,” Martin Luther King Jr.
  7. On the Origin of Species, Darwin
  8. T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock"
  9. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks 
  10. Pope St. Gregory I, Pastoral Care  
  11. Thomas Mann, Germany, 1924. The Magic Mountain.
  12.  Pensees, Pascal (1670)
  13.  Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
  14. Kalidasa, The Loom of Time.  
  15. Murasaki Shikubu, Japan, ca. 990.The Tale of Genji. (abridged) 
  16. The Conference of the Birds
  17. The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat. 
  18. Cesar Vallejo, Poemas Humanos. 
  19. Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme or another work.  
  20. Mario Benedetti, The Truce or another work.  
 I'm kind of hoping for Booker T. Washington or Sadegh Hedayat....what are you hoping for?

MarchMagics 3: Characters

Thursday, March 3 - Favorite Character
There are A LOT of characters to choose from but is there one that stands out as a favorite?

In Discworld -- Death and Susan, obviously.  They are wonderful.  As a teenager I had a fondness for
Rincewind but not so much now.  Sam Vimes for sure, especially in the more recent books.  Vimes and Susan are the ones I could actually live with.  And who doesn't want to have the Luggage around the house?

Susan, perfectly played by Michelle Dockery in Hogfather

I think my all-time favorite DWJ heroine is Tanaqui, from the Dalemark books.  I adore Tanaqui and her stubborn refusal to give in.  She is also a bit grumpy and sometimes needs to be jolted into a new way of thinking.  (And here's a question: why did DWJ always describe curly hair as "wriggly"?  I don't think she ever says the word curl.)

I also like Sophie a lot, with her purpose and energy, but I'm kind of dubious about Howl.  He's entertaining to read about, but you can easily overdose.  A little of Howl goes a long way!

However, I must admit I tend to be like Charmain, wanting only to be left alone to read books and eat yummy things.  I'd apply for the job of Royal Librarian too!

For great supporting characters, I think you can't beat the Archer's Goon siblings.  Every one of them is fabulously over the top.  They all have more personality than can actually fit inside one person, and I'm including Awful in this list.  Torquil and Awful are probably my favorites.  I also like Catriona and her devastating common-sense approach.  I want to be Catriona.

OK, I wrote all of this and then looked at the question again, and it says to pick ONE.  Oops.  In that case, I'm going with Tanaqui!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer

My mom gave this excellent book to one of my daughters for Christmas (which was pretty prescient of her, since we hadn't planned our UK trip yet), and I promptly stole it to read myself.  It was my lunchtime book for weeks!  This is such a fun and informative book; I loved it.

If you were going to time-travel to the Elizabethan era, there is a lot of everyday stuff that you would need to know.  Luckily, Ian Mortimer is here to help, with a handy guide!  Really, of course, it's just a fun way to describe a book about everyday English life in the late 1500s.

Mortimer gives excellent explanations of the people, landscape, religion, clothing, and everything else.  How to travel, where to stay, what to eat, it's all here and it's very well described.  He gives rundowns of the political climate and the pros and cons of various new laws.

I learned a lot!  I hadn't realized before that at the beginning of the Elizabethan era, the country had not really recovered from the Black Death and the wars and everything.  The long period of relative peace, and the lucky break from epidemics, meant that the population exploded over the years of Elizabeth's reign, and nobody was quite sure what to do about it.  Housing was extremely tight.  The result was far more homeless people on the roads, and no relief for them.  Eventually the Poor Law was established, which brought workhouses into existence, but that was actually a huge improvement.

Mortimer does a great job at showing us that our stereotypes about unwashed historical people are vastly overdone.  As far as I can tell, throughout history, people have tried to be as clean as they can, and usually wealth has a lot to do with it.  Country people could bathe in rivers, but the poor in cities usually had a hard time getting enough water to wash well; clean water was in short supply for everyone.  People were as clean as they could manage, but they didn't usually take baths; baths were medicinal.  Thus the famous line about the queen bathing "once a month whether she needs it or not" is a comment on the care she took for her health, not her hygienic habits.  She was a very fastidious person.

This is a really fun book of history, and good for either reading straight through or dipping into occasionally as the mood hits.  Lots of direct quotations and references to primary sources too!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

MarchMagics 1: The Shelfie

 It's March, and that means it's #MarchMagics time, hosted by Kristen at We Be Reading!  I have really been looking forward to this, and I simultaneously managed to forget that March was coming up really fast.  I was going to pre-write a bunch of articles and all, and the next thing I knew, it was actually March and I haven't been near the computer for a week.  (My kids have been using my computer a lot for schoolwork.  I haven't had a chance to write anything!  I'm writing this on my tablet while kids work, and while I love my new keyboard, Blogger doesn't always want to cooperate.)

Well, today's theme is: Share your books!
Show us your own DWJ/Pratchett books and/or the books that you are planning on reading this month.

Here's my DWJ shelf.  I have very nearly everything, though I don't think it's all present on this shelf.  I do not have Everard's Ride in its own volume, but I do own Yes, Dear, and Chanegover!  In fact, here it is:
 And here are my three favorite, at the moment, though all the books are my favorites.  I plan on reading Fire and Hemlock this month, and at least one other, but I haven't decided which yet.

My Pterry collection, on the other hand, is pretty partial.  I started collecting the Discworld books in cheap paperbacks some years ago, but I'm only maybe halfway along.  I don't own any of the Johnny books--we just check them out from the library over and over (and over).  I would love to collect all the Johnny and Discworld books!  I believe we have the Bromeliad Trilogy, in an ancient single volume, somewhere around the house, and of course I have Good Omens, which is a huge favorite of mine.  I may decide to re-read that this month, and I will certainly revisit my very first Pterry book, Wyrd Sisters.

Pratchett books, and some others

 Thanks to Kristen for hosting this great event; I can't wait to see what everyone is going to do!