Friday, August 31, 2018

CC Spin: Constellation Myths

Constellation Myths, by Eratosthanes and Hyginus,  with Aratus' Phaenomena

When I was a kid, we had a copy of D'Aulaires Greek Myths that I read over and over.  It had beautiful illustrations, and if you've got kids, you need to give them this book.  Of course, I never thought about where the stories came from, or how they had been preserved and passed down.  Some of them come from Homer, Ovid, or Sophocles, but there are quite a few other tales as well -- and now I know where some of thems came from.

Eratosthenes is a well-known favorite ancient Greek (at least of mine, and he certainly ought to be of yours); he was the third librarian of Alexandria, and he figured out a way to estimate the circumference of the Earth -- he got it just about right, too.*   He also wrote down the enjoyable little stories people used to tell about the constellations and how they got that way, which are called catasterisms.   They're a little fuzzy; sometimes people said that Zeus or another god had set a person or creature in the stars, and sometimes only that he had set an image up there.  For the most part it was all seen as a fun game of appealing stories, and not as proper religious history.

Well, Eratosthenes' original Greek text was lost, despite its popularity, but this Latin fellow, Hyginus, had translated/rewritten the stories in Latin, adding his own commentary and turning it into a sort of textbooks, which was enormously popular and which we do still have.  Exactly how much is translation and how much is Hyginus is hard to know, since we can't compare.  But that's what we have here.

The book starts in the Arctic circle with the two Bears, and then follows the circles southward, saving a special section for the creatures of the zodiac.  And the stories are so old that not everything is quite as we now know it yet; the constellation we call Hercules is here known mostly as the Kneeler, with Hercules only one of several possible candidates.  Pegasus is a horse and doesn't yet have wings.  We imagine Sagittarius as a centaur archer, but here he is specifically a satyr (everyone knows that centaurs don't do archery).  And Scorpio, a giant constellation, is only just being divided into two -- Libra doesn't quite exist yet.

The list of constellations, each with its own story, is pretty exhaustive.  There are a lot that will be unfamiliar to most people, I think -- Corvus and Crater, things like that, which the Greeks saw as a whole scene.  There are several scenes in the sky -- the Andromeda/Perseus story, Orion and his dogs on the chase, and a centaur putting an animal on an altar for sacrifice.

It took me quite a while to read, even though it's not a long book at all; less than 200 pages.  But I found out that I could only do a few stories at a time.  Oh, it is so fun, though.  I'm really glad o read it so that I could find out this book exists!  It was neat to read Eratosthenes' stories about constellations that I mostly already knew, but only in a children's format.

From D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths
There is also a prose translation of Aratus' long poem, Phaenomena, included here.  It tells many of the same stories more quickly, but also adds a good deal of interesting material about seasons, weather signs, and so on.  The beginning of the poem reminds us (me, anyway) of how far we've moved away from paying much attention to natural signs and seasons (this translation is older and thus free on the web):
...always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly.

Just a really nice book to read.  Hooray for the Spin for giving me such a good title!
* Eratosthenes used stadia as his measurement, but unfortunately there were a couple of versions of the stadion and we don't know which he used.  He may have been as close as within 1%, or he may have gotten within 16%, which would still be pretty impressive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


It's time to dig out all the scary books and join up with RIP, Readers Imbibing Peril, for its 13th year!  Sounds lucky to me, I'd better do it.  Besides, you gotta love that image!  A bit of a departure from years past, and very nice.

I went and found some books I haven't read yet, plus of course I've got some fun things on my tablet.  Here's what I'll be choosing from, with no particular plan:

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi: I've been meaning to get to it for months.
The Aleph and Other Stories, by Borges: I don't know how creepy these are, but like I said, I want some mysterious labyrinths of stories!
The White Devil, by John Webster: I need to read this murderous play, which is on my CC list, for the Back to the Classics Challenge -- so why not now?
The Romance of the Forest, by Ann Radcliffe, is one of three popular 18th-century novels in that red book. 
Irish Ghost Stories: a collection featuring lots of Le Fanu and some Wilde.

On my tablet:
The Untouched Crime, by Zijin Chen: A Chinese murder mystery.
Jackaby, by William Ritte: I'm the last person who has not read Jackaby.
The Missing Queen, by Samhita Arni: Does this count?  A mystery based in a futuristic post-Ramayana setting.  Why did Sita disappear years ago?

I have not decided which Peril to go for.  I might decide on Peril the First -- four books.  But I never like to commit myself when it comes to RIP.

Looking forward to some spooky reading...

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Sister to Scheherazade -- WIT Month and Summer Book 20

A Sister to Scheherazade, by Assia Djebar

August is Women in Translation Month, the time of year when Meytal Radzinski at Bibliobio talks about books by women in translation -- mostly, but certainly not entirely, in the Anglosphere.  The fact is that despite plenty of interesting, intelligent literature written by women in every language, the stuff chosen for translation tends to be much more by men -- who, yes, also write interesting and intelligent literature, but the parity could easily be much better.  Radzinski has recommendations, statistics, and plenty of information available at Bibliobio, so go check it out!  I'm always interested to see what she has to say, and her recommendations are very helpful with my Reading All Around the World project (I have not really paid much attention to gender in choosing my books, but since my tastes do run more to women authors than men, I think I might start to some extent.  I'm finding that frequently, if I choose a book based only on its country of origin, I get a Guy novel that is not to my taste.)

But!  When I chose my 20 Books of Summer list, I didn't think about WIT Month at all -- plus I chose a lot of books I've been putting off.  And nothing on the original list fit the WIT requirements.  I would usually just choose an extra title, but I did so much travelling and not-reading that I wound up out of time and had to switch some books out.  So I poked around on my library and TBR shelves and found some candidates:

Two Russians, two medieval French, one Vietnamese and an Algerian.  I decided to go with Assia Djebar, whose first book in the quartet, Fantasia, I read a few years ago.  My goal is to track down the entire quartet, which has not been all that easy.  The third is So Vast the Prison, but I have not yet figured out which of Djebar's books is the fourth.  All seem to probably be novels that chronicle women's lives, but in a fragmentary style.

A Sister to Scheherazade is narrated by Isma, with alternating chapters in the first person, about herself, and the second person, about Hajila.  Isma is passionately married; Hajila is newly married to a man with two children, and she is frightened about the whole thing, but she's also secretly going out during the day and removing her haik, the all-enveloping white wool robe that Muslim women often wear in Algeria.  It takes some while for the reader to realize that Isma is the first wife, who has left, and Hajila is the second wife that Isma chose.  Isma also spends time remembering the women she knew in the past and telling their stories: a girl married off to an older, sickly man, who is ruined by malicious and ill-founded gossip, a talented embroideress who has prepared a lavish trousseau and then marries a man from a village where weddings (and wedding nights) must be incredibly ascetic.... all these women can meet at the hammam, the Turkish baths that are hugely significant to women who live in isolation from most of the world.

Djebar's writing is not always easy for me to understand, but it's well worth the work of slowing down and figuring it out.  She really draws the reader in to the situations and environment she's writing about; it's very immersive even if it isn't always easy.

This, by the way, is my 41st country for the Reading All Around the World project!  I started it at the very end of 2016, so it's a little over 18 months now.  I think that's not too bad.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Perilous Gard

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Have you ever read this wonderful 1974 YA novel?  It's just SO good.  And I say this as someone who does not care for historical fiction, which this is...mostly.  It's also a retelling of Tam Lin.  And I'm always up for a good Tam Lin story!

Kate (the awkward sister) and Alicia (the pretty, kittenish one) are ladies-in-waiting to the imprisoned Princess Elizabeth, but after Alicia angers Queen Mary, Kate is punished for it and sent to live at Elvenwood, where she must stay -- and although she is surrounded by castle folk and there's a village nearby, she is completely alone.  The villagers fear the castle and talk about the fairy folk who live under the hill, but Kate knows that's only superstition.  Except that here, children actually do disappear.  And Kate saw the Lady in the Green with her own eyes.  Who are the People of the Hill, then?

I just got my own copy of this novel recently, when it came across the donation table, and it's been sitting around waiting for me.  Then Chris at Calmgrove wrote a post about books with labyrinths, and I promptly needed to read The Perilous Gard right away!  Oh, it was lovely.  Now I'm want to read Borges, and this China Miéville novel I've never read, The City and the City, and while we're doing fictional cities, I want to read Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial too.  Well, I have some Borges around, at least.  But there are so many great books I want to read right now

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Letting Go -- Summer Book 19

The Letting Go, by Deborah Markus

Apparently I'm at the age where all my friends start writing books.  This is the fourth or fifth recent book by somebody I know -- even if I only know this author virtually.  I got to know of Deborah Markus when she was publishing a wonderful magazine, Secular Homeschooling, several years ago, and now we've been Facebook friends for some time.  I saw her research and write and pitch this YA novel, and as soon as it was published I put it on hold at the library and checked it out.  So I did not receive a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, but I'll give you an honest review anyway.

Emily lives at a boarding school, the open-structure kind for kids who want a lot of time and space for working on their own projects.  Despite living with twenty other girls 24/7, she is not friends with any of them.  Emily pushes everyone away and never forms relationships, because she knows that everyone who gets close to her will die, murdered by whoever it is that decided that she doesn't get to have a family or friends, or even a pet.  Instead, she is friends with Emily Dickinson, whose words seem to say the things that she can't communicate.  When a murdered man shows up on the school's doorstep, Emily knows that it has to be a sign for her, even though she never met the guy.  And then this new girl doesn't seem put off by Emily's deliberate rudeness.  Emily is certain that making a friend (or more?) will only get somebody killed, but how to stop this girl who is so stubborn?  Besides, she's so lonely.

The novel is written as Emily's diary, mostly in little shortish entries that begin with a line of poetry from Emily Dickinson.  It can get really broken up, especially as Emily gets more distressed, so it's important to pay attention, but it's always possible to figure things out, even if it takes a little while.  I was wondering how the mystery could possibly be resolved, and the suspense is pretty terrific, but it does become clear and has a satisfying conclusion.  I thought it all came together really well.  Markus is also just a good writer -- she's not clichéd or muddled or bland, but clear and thoughtful and just good to read, and the Emily Dickinson obsession is an integral part of the story, not tacked on.  YA fans should pay attention, and also Jenny at Reading the End would really like it, I think.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Glatstein Chronicles -- Summer Book 18

The Glatstein Chronicles, by Jacob Glatstein

This book took me so much of the summer to read!  I enjoyed it a lot, but it's a long and complex read.  Definitely worth it, though!

Jacob Glatstein was a Polish Jew who came to the US at twenty and made a career in journalism.  At forty, in 1934, he traveled back to Poland for the first time to see his dying mother.  The trip inspired two autobiographical stories written in Yiddish (he planned a third) and a determination to warn American Jews about the dangers Hitler posed in Europe.  He spent the next several years hammering away at his message in Jewish publications, frustrated by the lack of response.  The Chronicles contains both memoirs.

Volume I, "Homeward Bound," is entirely about the trip to Poland.  Glatstein spends much of the trip spotting fellow Jewish people and sounding them out about Hitler, but he has plenty of time to talk about everybody else, too.  Volume II, "Homecoming at Twilight," is about his stay in Poland after his mother's death.  He never speaks of her or of the rest of his family; that may have been the subject of the planned third book, but I'd bet it was going to be about the trip home.  These are described as autobiographical novellas, and I don't know how fictionalized they were, but Glatstein mostly leaves himself and his family out of them.

Instead of talking about himelf, what Glatstein does in both volumes is talk about the people he meets -- what they're like, what they say and eat and do, what they think.  They are comprehensive portraits of life aboard ship (or the train) and then of pre-war Jewish life in Poland.  As a result, the book is more like a series of vignettes and portraits than it is like a story, but the portraits are all detailed, vibrant, and individual, and they show a way of life that was wiped out only a few years later.

It's an excellent choice for anyone interested in Jewish history or Yiddish literature, but it's a fairly heavy-duty book, so plan accordingly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Halloween Tree -- Summer Book 17

The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury

Yeah, it's not Halloween or even fall.  I put this on hold at the library, and then I suspended the hold, planning to read it in October, but somehow the hold was activated and I got it in July instead.  That's okay, I'm quite ready for fall!  And, I've decided to switch out the last few picks in my 20 Books of Summer; there is no way I'm going to make it through a modernist Russian novel of over 400 pages, and I have some books that have to get read before being returned to the library.  Like this one!

On Halloween, the greatest night of the year, eight boys gather, each in their costumes.  But where is the ninth, Joe Pipkin?  He tells them to meet him at a haunted house on the edge of town, and when they do, they meet Mr. Moundshroud and see his Halloween tree -- and they see Pip seized by death.  Mr. Moundshroud leads them on a chase through time, stopping at festivals of the dead where Pipkin is imprisoned.  He's a mummy, a gargoyle, all sorts of things, and finally they all have to pass a test of bravery and friendship.

It's all written in Bradbury's trademark poetic prose and with his love of Halloween, spooks, and young-boyness.  A wonderful story, and I should think it would make a perfect read-aloud to your 8-12 year old kid.

This copy had great illustrations, too, and some time long ago I must have read the book and seen the same pictures.  The masks at the head of each chapter and the kite looked very familiar.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes -- Summer Book 16

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty

I have this kid, age 18, who plans on a career in the funereal field, and so we've had this book around the house for a couple of years now.  (A signed copy, even!)   I didn't really know anything about Doughty myself, though, until I got around to reading her book.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is half memoir, half ponderings on how Americans deal with death (spoiler: by pretending it doesn't exist).  Doughty was a medieval history major, but then got a job at an Oakland crematorium, where she could freely indulge her  fears and thoughts about death.

(Please note at this point in the proceedings that the funeral industry is not about Gothic fascination/romanticization of death.  Nope, should you have leanings that way, do not try to become a mortician, or if you do, it will be crushed right out of you right quick.  Nobody wants their funeral director mooning about death.)

Doughty's big idea is that we all need to engage with death a lot more and stop prettying it up or pretending it isn't there.  I actually already thought a lot of what she talks about, so I didn't find much to argue with except that she is really anti-embalming, and I think people should get be able to embalmed if they want to (which I don't).  She has an interesting little section on Jessica Mitford and her influence on the funeral industry, too.

You should probably not read this book over lunch if you have delicate sensibilities, but it's sure an interesting book, full of odd or affecting anecdotes, and with plenty to think about.  I didn't always love Doughty's sense of humor, but on the whole she is very funny and it's a book worth reading.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Twenty-Four Things About Me -- An Old Meme Resurrected

Adam at Roof Beam Reader brought back an old meme that used to circulate, and it looked fun, so...

4 Things In/On My Desk
  1. A measuring tape
  2. A goofy photo of me and my brother as toddlers, with humorous caption 
  3. A stuffed Discworld Librarian  (ook!)
  4. A neat rock from the Chico Formation
Bonus: a slightly macabre model of my kid's now-perfect post-braces teeth.  I paid for 'em, I'm going to admire 'em.
The Chico Formation!

4 Things I’ve Always Wanted To Do (but haven’t yet)
  1. Visit Russia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland.....
  2. Be an astronaut
  3. Read the Durants' Story of Civilization
  4. Make art out of books too decrepit to be usable (I have a collection! I'm ready!)
This is how long I've had the Durant books; this baby is now 15.

4 Favorite Things In My Room/Bedroom
  1. The color wheel quilt and pillow I made
  2. The cedar chest I put together from a kit when I was 16 (contains letters and so on)
  3. The broken piece of medieval pottery I got in London (lives with a flint from Old Sarum)
  4. The Toby Mouse from the Green Knowe manor

4 Things I Enjoy Very Much At The Moment
  1. Embroidery -- never enough time
  2. Laughing at my kids' very witty jokes
  3. Fresh air (oh how I miss it -- go away smoke)
  4. Hanging out with the husband

4 Songs I Can’t Get Out Of My Head
  1. Der Kommissar, by Falco
  2. Fortress Round Your Heart, by Sting
  3. The Little Old Lady From Pasadena, by the Beach Boys
  4. America, by Simon and Garfunkel 

It doesn't say favorite songs; I'm assuming these are earworm songs...

4 Things You Don’t Know About Me
  1. I am devastated that Dr. Pepper Ten has been pulled from local grocery stores and I've become a hoarder of the stuff.  I bought five cases in Utah to bring home (Portland didn't have any; I looked).  Can't I have just ONE vice??
  2. I just now came back from a potluck/square dancing night in which I was roped into learning how to do some basic square dancing.  I've also done contra, which I like better, but on the whole I'm too shy about the whole thing.
  3. My co-worker got me hooked on Wordtrip, this little anagram phone game, and now I'm on something like level 900 and have hooked the whole family on it.  (I just checked; it's level 919.)
  4. Speaking of video games, I love the Myst series and pretty much have played nothing else, except Portal, which I also like but haven't had time to play Portal II.  Which came out like 3 years ago?  And I own the 3 Myst novels too.

Now, you do it too!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Child of All Nations -- Summer Book 15

Child of All Nations, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Last summer I read the first book in Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru quartet, This Earth of Mankind.   I thought it was great, but it still took me a whole year to get to this second volume, which is also great.  I'm definitely planning on reading the next two as well -- do I keep them for summer roadtrips, thus continuing the trend but taking four years to read the quartet, or do I go a little faster than that?

At the end of the first book, Minke's wife Annelies is forced to travel to the Netherlands; the Dutch colonial court has ruled that she is the ward of her father's Dutch relatives, and they want control of the extensive properties that Annelies' mother, a Native and a concubine, controls.  Minke and Ma are left to mourn and wait for news from their employee who has secretly followed in order to encourage and watch over the despairing Annelies.

Annelies dies, ignored by her 'guardian,' and Minke is set upon a journey of enlightenment.  He is a product of a European education and has always avoided his countrymen, but finally he begins to see that if he is going to be a writer, he must get to know his own land and people.  Minke starts to realize just how the peasant farmers are exploited and how the colonial system works.  He sails to start medical school, but is taken back by yet another long lawsuit concerning Ma's business and family members.  In the end, the Dutch 'guardian' arrives, planning to dispossess Ma from all she has worked to build, and there is nothing they can do -- except to let him know just what they think of him.

A fascinating novel, and I thought probably better than the first.  I'm intrigued to see what happens in the second half of Minke's story.  This volume is pretty well entirely about coming to understand the workings of colonialism, but Minke seems to need even more knowledge before he can begin to act.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lectures on Russian Literature -- Summer Book 14

Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov

A few years ago, I read Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, which covers several English and French authors (Dickens, Proust, Austen...) and is a very enjoyable read, though Nabokov is weirdly anti-women authors and really doesn't like Jane Austen at all except for Mansfield Park, which he thinks is wonderful.  I also wanted to read this collection of lectures on Russian literature, but I felt like I ought to know more about Russian literature before I did.  Now that I've read a bit of all the authors he covers (though of course not as much as I would like), I felt like I could tackle this.

We start with Gogol, and I got a lot out of that chapter.  I would like to re-read Dead Souls now, armed with some of the insights I got.  The Turgenev chapter is similar and I want to read more Turgenev.  (Odd fact: Turgenev admired Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, and was bewildered by the general reception of his character.)

Then it's Dostoevsky.  Holy moley, Nabokov hates Dostoevsky.  I mean he really can't stand the guy and insists that Dostoevsky is sentimental, platitudinous, and generally mediocre and preachy.  I will admit that Dostoevsky is pretty sentimental, okay, but wow.  There is a very long section ripping Dostoevsky to shreds.

Tolstoy, though...the wonders of Tolstoy take up a very large chunk of the book.  Mostly it's focused on Anna Karenina, but just about everything gets a nod, and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is also covered in depth.  Nabokov cannot say enough about the genius of Tolstoy.

After that there is a very nice bit on the particular genius of Chekhov (I really must read more Chekhov) and a very short chapter on Gorky.

I took this book on the trip to Portland, and my sister-in-law, who is Russian and a literature major, spotted me with it.  She gleefully asked me if I'd gotten to the part about Dostoevsky and proclaimed her agreement with Nabokov.  She's a Tolstoyan too and I have sometimes commiserated with her on the awfulness of casting Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina.  Someday I'll catch up and be able to discuss Tolstoy properly (don't I wish, ha).

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Tram 83 -- Summer Book 13

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

If you're reading around the world, you should probably not expect sweetness and light from your Democratic Republic of the Congo pick, and indeed I did not.  Good thing too, because it was pretty relentlessly grim.  I can't say that I enjoyed it -- I don't think it was supposed to be enjoyed, it's not that kind of novel -- but there were one or two things I liked.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila is Congolese but now lives in Austria, teaching African literature.  Tram 83 was his first novel and got lots of attention and acclaim.

Tram 83 is not a bus, or a station.  It's a nightclub, the nightclub, in an unnamed African "City-State" where everything has long ago fallen apart, except for the mines and the crime.  Everyone congregates at Tram 83 -- the gangsters and prostitutes and the for-profit tourists.  Requiem is a gang leader, renowned and ambitious; his childhood friend, Lucien, has returned from abroad and is working on his writing.  (If he can just produce something, he'll be published abroad and will have it made.)  Nobody else has any time for this writing nonsense, and Lucien pays a heavy price for his eccentricity, while Requiem also has his setbacks, but has every intention of coming back stronger than before.

All the men, with the odd and despised exception of Lucien, are criminals.  All the women are prostitutes.  There is nothing else for any of them to live on, and no hope for anything different than a constant round of violence and crime.

Requiem's minions have some pretty good names, though:
Requiem was waiting for him, accompanied by eight men, all with evocative names: Dragon, Mortal Combat, Free Kick, Dysentery, Invincible Measles, and so on.* 
I would like everybody to call me Invincible Measles from now on, please. 

I'm not sure what to think of this novel.  I didn't much like it, but then Mujila probably didn't want people to like it.  The back blurbs say it's funny as well as serious, but I didn't find it so.  It is, to my mind, a very guy novel and makes me want to go looking for a novel written by a Congolese woman, which I think would probably interest me much more.

*Dysentery also gave me a laugh, since that was the name of my brothers' punk band back in the day.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Selected Stories of Lu Hsun -- Summer Book 12

Selected Stories of Lu Hsun

For quite some time I've been wanting to read Lu Hsun (or Lu Xun, as some of the older books in the library have it).  I know very little of Chinese literature, but I know that Lu Hsun is one of the most influential writers around.  He seems to have written mostly essays, believing that it was his responsibility to influence politics and advance the liberation of his people from feudalist tradition and capitalist oppression (he wasn't exactly a Communist, but he was sympathetic to them).  However, he was also interested in the literatures of oppressed nations and was an admirer of Adam Mickiewicz among others (I recently read Mikiewicz's epic, Pan Tadeusz).  Lu Hsun also wrote short stories, which are usually lauded as groundbreaking in Chinese literature and perfect specimens of their kind.  So I was pretty excited to read some.

These stories are of everyday life, often from the point of view of an impoverished scholar who can't find a job, or who just scrapes by.  They are set in rural villages and feature peasants and servants, and are very realistic for the most part (actually, the one I liked best was a reworking of an old myth).

I'm afraid the stories may be victims of translation, or else I just didn't get their genius.  They were fine, and I enjoyed some of them, but whatever wonderful quality it is that made them such landmarks in Chinese literature, I couldn't really grasp it.  I'm glad to have read them, and I will probably try to read an essay or so in the future, but I think a lot of their original art may have been lost in translation.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Three Thirkell Novels

Lovely new issues!
The Demon in the House
Growing Up
Pomfret Towers, by Angela Thirkell

At the beginning of the summer, I read Summer Half and just had so much fun with it; it was ages since I'd read any Thirkell, and lots of bloggers seemed to be reading her, which put me in the mood.  I told a friend about it and lent her Pomfret Towers, and then I checked a couple more out of the library -- two titles I've enjoyed but do not own.  On the trip to Utah, I found out that Thirkell was just right for fitting into the corners of the days, and since my friend (also my Utah hostess) was done with the one I'd lent her, I had two to read.  All of which is to say that I've had kind of a Thirkelly summer and it's been lovely.

The Demon in the House is a bit unusual, because it's about Tony Morland, who is a little boy of twelve.  He is the youngest son of Mrs. Morland, a popular recurring Barsetshire character and a novelist who writes spy thrillers set in a fashionable dressmakers' establishment.  Tony wreaks havoc wherever he goes, and he is a wonderful portrait of thoughtless, selfish, completely lovable boyness.

Growing Up is a favorite of mine, so I need a copy of my own!  It's set in 1942, and the Lydia who was an Amazon-esque teenager is now a young married woman, considerably more civilized but still the same Lydia.  She and her officer husband (whose romance is told in an earlier novel I cannot name) are boarding with Sir Harry and Lady Waring, who are living cosily in their old servants' quarters while most of the manor house is let to a government outfit.  They are also hosting their niece Leslie, who has overworked herself and then gotten torpedoed, and who needs some recovery time.  A really enjoyable novel.

What does this even mean??
Pomfret Towers is set much earlier, in about 1938.  Alice Barton, delicate and debilitatingly shy, is invited to a country house weekend with Lord and Lady Pomfret, and she would rather die than go, but go she must.  Luckily an older girl takes her under her wing, and Alice learns to deal with society and falls romantically in love with a brooding artist while everybody else has their adventures too.  This one is another favorite of mine, which is why I recommended it to my friend.  Despite the really astoundingly hideous cover on my 80s paperback.  Get the new edition, is my advice!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Howling Frog travels (and not much else)

I feel like I've done almost nothing for the past few weeks but travel, or pack for traveling, or recover from traveling.  I've hardly had time to read, much less to blog, but I've done a bit of reading and I've missed the blogging!  Here's a quick rundown:

Early in the summer my kids and I made a sort of bucket list of things we wanted to do.  I promised faithfully that this summer, I really and truly would take them to Six Flags, a realio, trulio amusement park.  My poor children are so deprived that they've never been to anything besides the county fair (and the terrifyingly rickety rides it has).  In mid-July I realized that if I didn't take them within a week, it wouldn't happen at I did it, in a super-human feat of driving endurance (three hours each way; I am a rotten long-distance driver, because I get sleepy).  We had a great time and I rode a roller coaster for the first time in years.

My brother got married!  We drove to Portland under a haze of wildfire smoke -- happily for me, my husband drove most of the way while I dozed a lot.  My entire extended family squished into a giant, but weirdly designed, AirBnB house.  The wedding was lovely and everything went great.  We also had a big picnic party to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary this year.  And Maphead, my fellow Eastern-European-history-reader, came over to say hi, which was great.

My folks, siblings, and assorted relations

Maphead and me at a Portland park

Got home and realized that I'd promised the older kid that we'd go down to Sacramento to take a look at kid's chosen college program, and if it didn't happen this week, it wouldn't happen.  So I spent four hours driving and one hour sitting in a nice air-conditioned college library while kid had a great time talking with students and instructors.  Otherwise the week is a haze of exhaustion and laundry.

Then I took the younger kid to Utah for a week!  Well, I was just a lucky passenger again; my sister-in-law always does the driving because she gets sick otherwise, and also she is a much better distance driver than I am anyway.  Our kids enjoyed a week living in a dorm and having Fun Teen Activities at a college, and I stayed with my close friend who moved away a year ago.  I can tell you from personal knowledge that the entire West is covered in smoke.  California, Nevada, Utah (and a good deal of Oregon): all suffocating under a thick blanket of smoke.  But I saw several good friends and I did some touristing and it was a great trip.

I'm partway through a lot of books...but I can't seem to finish...

I've been recovering since, and preparing for the school year.  The younger kid is at band camp every day; the older one is working and about to start college.  There is a ton to do, and then my fridge decided to start leaking water.  I think I'm looking forward to the start of work, so I can relax a bit...

The Sibyl -- Summer Book 10

The Sibyl, by Pär Lagerkvist

I actually read this short novel a few weeks ago, on the way to Portland, but life has moved so fast that I haven't gotten around to blogging it yet.  It was easy to forget about, since the book disappeared from our AirBnB house -- perhaps it was a lovely present for the next person to come along?  I didn't mind losing it; it was an ancient paperback that my brother had left behind, and I was going to put it into the Little Free Library anyway.

The one I lost.  Not very beautiful; I won't miss it.

This was a very strange novel, I thought.  Near the oracle at Delphi, presumably sometime before about 500 AD, an aged sibyl lives up on the mountain with her son.  A man comes to visit her, asking for a prophecy, and tells his story; fearing bad luck, he told a man condemned to crucifixion not to lean on his wall to rest.  The man cursed him with immortality -- we have here the Wandering Jew of legend,* who complains against the God willing to curse him.  The sibyl responds with her story: she was once the pythia of the oracle, but after an affair with a soldier made her pregnant (or maybe it was the god of the oracle), she was driven out and has lived up on the mountain ever since.  Her son is mentally incapable, but even as she complains of her fate at the hands of a capricious god, he disappears and seems to vanish into heaven.  Together the man and the sibyl ponder the question of what it means to be chosen, and what it means to love (or hate) God.

I didn't really like it very much.  Probably it's very profound and allegorical and I don't get it.  The Sibyl is one of a quartet of novels treating such philosophical and allegorical subjects, and they made
 Lagerkvist world famous and got him a Nobel Prize for Literature.


*Personally I think it's a pretty silly, not to mention anti-Semitic, legend.  I mean, Jesus is supposed to have forgiven his actual executors, saying they didn't know what they were doing. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Spin number is...

Oh, it's so lovely to be home!  I had a great trip, saw some friends and some neat things, visited two museums, read hardly a thing, and wished for clear skies (or better yet, rain) the entire time because as far as I can tell the West is just completely smothered in smoke from wildfires.  California: smoke.  Nevada: all smoke.  Utah: more smoke.  Here at home, we aren't supposed to go outside too much because of all the ash and awful air quality.  The terrible Carr fire is about an hour north, and the even worse Mendocino complex fires are to the southwest.

So I was gone for the day when the Spin number was revealed, but it was 9!

Which is a happy number for me, because it means I will read Constellation Myths, by Eratosthenes and Hyginus, and how fun is that?  Eratosthanes is one of my favorite librarians, after all.  Plus it's not too long, so I can realistically hope to finish it by the end of the month despite my late start and the massive number of Books of Summer I'm still only part way through.  After all, I can't go outside, so I might as well read, right?