Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Three Short Books

In the spirit of the year's ending, I've been trying to finish as many books as possible, for various reasons. The last three books of the year (there's really no chance I'll finish another before the end of the day; I have a New Year's party to go to) are all quite short, but I enjoyed them all rather a lot.

We begin with King Lear, which I suppose doesn't really count as a book; it's a play, written by a nice fellow you may have heard of. I read it mostly because the third season of Slings and Arrows sees the New Burbage Festival putting it on, but also because I am on quite the Shakespeare kick. I watched the BBC's Derek Jacobi Hamlet yesterday, which was quite good (though ridiculously long, at three and a half hours). I had not been previously acquainted with the story of King Lear, apart from a vague recollection that oh, yeah, that's the one where they pull the guy's eyes out. Anyway, it was very enjoyable, and I was rather surprised to find several very familiar quotes in it ("O, reason not the need"). Apart from that, it got me thinking about how susceptible I am to dialect in books and films. I don't know if it's more than most people, but every time I watch Monarch of the Glen I start thinking in Scottish, I watch Torchwood I think in Welsh (not the language, obviously). Reading Storming Heaven, or The Beans of Egypt, Maine, I started thinking in those dialects to a rather alarming degree. I read Shakespeare or watch it, and for about twelve hours afterwards can't stop my syntax from going Shakespeare, or my word choice. Funnily enough, I watch a film with English dialects, I don't usually start thinking in English. I think it's because I watch so many English things (very nearly to the exclusion of all else) that it sounds almost completely normal to me.

Discussing the various essays I wrote for college applications with my Senior Lit teacher, she mentioned that the way I write is very distinctly influenced by Victorian literature. I know this is true, especially in writing a formal essay, and frankly I rather like it. It would be interesting, I think, to compare how much literature has influenced the way I write and speak with how it has influenced someone else.

Yesterday, I got The Tales of Beedle the Bard from the library, J.K. Rowling's new book. On one glance at the margins I said to my mother, "I'll have this finished in an hour," and I was almost exactly right. It was very short, but rather pleasing, and the stories all rang true as proper fairytales--it is possible to write a fairytale and have it come out sounding like something else.

I've been reading Five Children and It for months, on and off, ever since I brought it home from the free book table at school, and just today have I finished it. The funny thing about reading E. Nesbit is that I never read her as a child, but I did read Edward Eager, who is so alike E. Nesbit, but who came after her. In my mind Edward Eager came first, but I feel as though actually I did read E. Nesbit just because I might as well have. I have the same sentimental attachment to her writing as I do to books I read when I was young despite having never read her, because she's so like other books I did read, Edward Eager's and even to some extent Arthur Ransome's, which all epitomized what I always wanted my childhood to be like. I wanted to be an early 20th century English child, with about three siblings. I still want that. It's a lovely book, anyway, because it plays to everyone's childish wishes; even adults still subconsciously wish for all the sorts of things the children ask of the Psammead.

This was a very rambling post; I shall now end it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Here comes the Christmas post.

For Christmas, I got Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Original Girl's Handy Book by Lina Beard and Adelia Belle Beard. Villette I already have, but this is a considerable smaller copy which may aid in my actually getting around to reading it. Apparently I cannot go a year without getting something related to Tolkien for Christmas (I was once a rampant Tolkien fan, and still am when I think of it).

I've started reading Someone at a Distance, which is another of those published by Persephone Books. I had never heard of it before, but Ducky asked me what books I wanted for Christmas and for once I thought of an answer, so I told him Persephone figuring they'd all be good. It looks very likely to live up to my expectations. The back of the book calls Dorothy Whipple the "literary heir to Mrs. Gaskell" which is very interesting. I love Elizabeth Gaskell entirely, and I don't quite yet understand the comparison but can see how it could be true.

As for what I've been reading over Christmas--I've had an awful cold all week, and what with that and the snow I haven't been able to go anywhere, so I've been doing quite a bit of reading. I finished Emma, which I was surprised to find is now battling it out for my favourite Jane Austen novel (along with Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, which have all been battling for ages with no results). Emma is an extremely well-crafted novel, the characters all develop very naturally and very pleasingly. I expected to find Emma herself annoying, but she's so human and so well-intentioned that I never did. This book is somewhat more class-conscious than the others are, which is a little weird, but it's not too hard to look past that. It was an extremely satisfying novel, and I love it very much.

I also finished The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute, which is a Senior Lit book that has been getting pushed out of my view by Emma for ages. I read it in rather odd clumps, with a fair amount at once and then none of it for a week, although I don't think that hurt it particularly. The Beans are a family of the poorest class, not always with electricity, not always (or ever) what is usually called couth, but always rather interesting. It's a strange little book, but the writing is very interesting. I enjoyed it, even though I was never really into it because I always wanted to be reading something else.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

End of Year Meme

At some point I mean to write up a post about books I got for Christmas and books I read over Christmas, but for now I have an end of the year meme thieved from Stuck in a Book.

-How many books read in 2008?
63, so far.

-Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
7 Non-fiction, 56 fiction

-Male/Female authors?
31 male (some counted twice because I read more than one book by them), 35 female

-Favourite book read?
See this post.

-Least favourite?
Probably March by Geraldine Brooks. I couldn't stand the character; he never changed at all, and the writing felt very forced and falsely 19th century. I could mention American Orientalism, which was incredibly dull, but that was for a class (well, so was March, but a different kind of class).

-Oldest book read?
Lysistrata takes the cake, written by Aristophanes in 411 BCE. It just beats The Bacchae, which is from 405 BCE.

Endymion Spring was read in advance proof, but it was probably published by the time I read it. There might be one newer.

-Longest book title?
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Just as predicted.

-Shortest title?
Jane Austen's Emma.

-How many re-reads?
Just one--Tam Lin, which I read at least once every year.

-Most books read by one author this year?
I didn't read more than two by any one author, but I did two of Khaled Hosseini, Nancy Mitford, Connie Willis, C.S. Lewis, and Justin Richards.

-Any in translation?
3--The Summer Book, Lysistrata, and The Bacchae, so far as I am aware.

-And how many of this year's books were from the library?
17. Far less than usual, because of all the Senior Lit books got from school, and the fact that I've been reading a lot of things I already own.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My favourite books of 2008

The time has come, the walrus said, to choose my favourite books out of all that I read in 2008. Admittedly the year's not quite over and I may well read something to add to the list, but I'm making it now all the same. These are not necessarily the best written books, or the best constructed or the most interesting, but they are the ones that stand out when I go down the list of all I've read. They are those I enjoyed the most (with one or two exceptions, just to keep the list short). We have one nonfiction and five fiction.

Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern - I made mention of it here, but I guess I never got around to writing up anything definitive about my thoughts on finishing this book. Originally I had planned to choose the best book overall of the year, and this one did spring to mind, but then I decided there were too many good books to just pick one. I loved it, because it smelled of books and history and other lovely things, and I had to force myself to read it slowly.

Fiction (in backwards chronological order)
Grendel by John Gardner - This was read for my Senior Lit class, and I hear a lot of the people who read it for this class have hated it, but I loved it. It sounded of Beowulf, it rolled like Beowulf, it was cold and ugly and sometimes beautiful, and it made me think. At some point I'll write up a full post about it.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson - I know it's been said, but this book is lovely. I posted about it here.

Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina - This was also read for Senior Lit, and was one of those books that I never would have read otherwise. It's historical fiction, but not just in the sense that it's set in a historical time period--it is also based on very particular historical events. I loved it for the balance between the fictional characters' stories and the real events, and there is a post about it here.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - I suspect this is cropping up in lots of "Best of" lists, but at least it really is deserving. I made a not terribly coherent post about it here, but it combined many of my favourite things--letters, books, history, quirky goings-on, and romance--to be very nearly perfect.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice - I read this before I started blogging, so my initial thoughts about it are not preserved, but I loved it entirely. It looks from the cover rather unfortunately like chick lit, and in some ways it is, but I know there are men out there who would enjoy it. It is not, at least, as frilly as chick lit usually is. It is set in England in the 1950s, just as Elvis Presley is beginning to make his mark on the world, and includes the usual crumbling old mansion, all sorts of lovely characters, and a lot of other things. It does a fabulous job of capturing youth, and will probably become one I'll reread more than once.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Poetry worth quoting

I'm reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Here is Sonnet VI:

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore--
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

In other news, there is enough snow outside that the bottom step of the porch has disappeared.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In the absence of...

So, I got my snow day. I did not, however, get much reading done. I put this down to the fact that it never actually snowed. They closed schools for nothing. In fact, all the snow that was on the ground from last weekend melted. It's still supposed to snow three inches tonight, but it was supposed to snow two inches today so I'll just cross my fingers and hope it actually snows.

I didn't read, but I did watch a fabulous tv show and make a lot of paper chains. The tv show is Slings and Arrows, which is a Canadian series from a few years ago about a theatre company. It's very well acted, is often shot in an interesting manner, has loads of Shakespeare and theatre references that make my inner Shakespeare geek wriggle with glee, and is altogether a lot of fun. Plus, the first season is about the company putting on Hamlet. You know how I feel about Hamlet. Also, it has the best theme songs ever, which have been completely stuck in my head for the last two days. It's funny how I came to watch it--I was at my best friend's birthday party last weekend, where of the thirteen or so people only one of us was not a theatre geek, and we were all telling theatre stories and talking about how we really wanted to see this show. And then I came home and there it was sitting by the tv. It was quite a fabulous coincidence.

So now I'm looking up what plays are on at local theatres.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Things I love

I am constantly in awe of the enormous amount of love people have for the Nova Project. Nova is no mere school, and it's not the nostalgic kind of love, not a glossed over fondness for "the good old days" of high school, remembered with all its flaws and all its good points included. People love Nova more than it is possible to explain--you have to hear them speak when their school is threatened with something potentially harmful, it has to be shown, not told. Nova changes people's lives, and while the difference in my own personal experience between middle school and high school is not as extreme as some people's, I love it as much as anyone.

I love snow, too. In my entire life I've never seen the snow last so long; Seattle is never this cold for this long. And it's supposed to snow more tonight and tomorrow, too, and next weekend. I have to admit I'm kind of hoping tomorrow is a snow day, despite the fact that I just went on a spiel about who much I love school. I can't deny I'd like to spend the day lying around my house watching the snow, drinking tea, and reading. I've got Grendel to read, and The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and Emma. Plus all my DailyLit books, This Side of Paradise, The Awakening, and Sonnets from the Portuguese. Not to mention all the books floating around that I'm in the middle of--Five Children and It, Letters of Virginia Woolf, A Book of One's Own, Mansfield Park, and no doubt countless others. There should really be more hours in the day.

I am essentially finished applying to college, apart from the actually submitting (and paying fees) of the applications. That is rather excellent.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dear, silly Mr. Pim

I've been reading A.A. Milne's play "Mr. Pim Passes By" via DailyLit, and last night I finished it. DailyLit sends you a small quickly read section of a book every day (or some days, depending on how you set it up), so that you can do some reading just in the course of checking your email. I find it works very well, because it's on the computer so I still feel like I'm doing something useless and addictive, and once I get into a book I don't want to stop and I keep on clicking the "send the next installment immediately" link. I read the last fifteen parts (out of 34) last night.

I'm not entirely sure I've ever actually read Winnie the Pooh, but I may have to do so. I found "Mr. Pim" charming, clever, and socially interesting, despite the fact that I disagree with his excessive stage direction. I really can't tell you what it's about without giving the plot away, but I will say that there's a lot of very interesting stuff in here about marriage. The play was written in 1919, and there is a lot of discussion of what is morally the right thing in terms of love and marriage, and a discrepancy between the what the older generation and the younger believe is right. I found that particularly interesting. There are only a few characters: George, his wife Olivia, his Aunt Julia, his niece Dinah, her fiance Brian, Mr. Pim, and the maid. They are all sorts of fun. Also, Olivia is so delightfully scheming (only for nice things, I promise) that reading it made me feel rather gleeful. I'd love to see it produced (or do it myself); I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


It snowed like crazy here last night, and it's supposed to be below freezing and potentially snowy for the next several days. I am extremely happy, although there are some school things going on that really need to happen and that may not happen if they call a snow day. I love snow so much. Last night we all bundled up and went outside in the dark and made snowmen, threw snowballs, caught snowflakes on our tongues. I don't think I've ever actually seen snow on the freeway before. It was pretty nifty. I hear this winter's supposed to be colder than it's been in years.

Anyway, in recognition of the snow, I thought I'd go through the list of books I've read the past two years and pick out the ones I think are best read on a snowy day.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
I can't recall that there's much snow in this book. I feel like there is, but I may be wrong. Even if it doesn't have the snow, it does have a certain element of warm fireplaces and really solid, paper smelling bibliophilia. It is a rather dense sort of book, and I always feel like dense books warm you up, which makes them rather good for winter. It's like the fact that they have a lot of plot amounts to insulation.

The book tells the story of a writer, Vida Winter, who invites a young, rather obscure biographer named Margaret Lea to her house in Yorkshire to write her biography. Through the years, every time a journalist has ever asked for her life story, Vida Winter has told them something different, and now that she is dying she wants to tell the true story at last. The book flickers between the story of Vida Winter's childhood and Margaret Lea's discovery of it, and it never quite reveals the whole story at once until finally it all comes to you in a whoosh. There's a lot in this book about families, and especially about twins, and generally I think the fact that I read it over a year ago and the details are still almost entirely clear in my mind says something for it.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
Have I enthused about Tam Lin here before? It's my very favourite book, although not necessarily the very best that I have ever read. It's the sort of book that I want to foist upon everyone I meet, except that I couldn't stand it if they didn't like it so I have to pick and choose carefully who I foist it upon.

It is based, obviously, on the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, only it is set on a Minnesota liberal arts college campus in the early 1970s. Our heroine is Janet, who is rather frank and thoroughly bookish, and an English major. My favourite part about the book is the way the fantastical elements are so perfectly woven in with the scenes of ordinary college life. It's not just the story of Tam Lin, either; there are other bits of fabulousness thrown in there.

Really, it's my book of all seasons. It covers almost four years, so you get a little of everything, and I've read it four or five times in seasons as widely varying as November and June. It is an eminently rereadable book--there are so many well placed and often hard to pick out literary references, and every time I read the book I'm able to find and understand a few more of them. But I doubt I will every get them all. There is definitely snow here--what stands out to me is sledding down hills on cafeteria trays.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Need I explain this one? People call the film versions Christmas movies, even though they're not Christmas movies in the same sense as Rudolph or Frosty the Snowman. Warm fireplaces, mittens, and cold snow, plus one big generally happy family. It's a good snow book. I am making myself want to reread it.

Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton
This is one I read a little bit randomly last January, because my mother brought home an advance proof and it looked interesting. I have to confess my memory of it is slightly muddled, but I know I enjoyed it a great deal. It involves old books, Johann Gutenberg, a couple of modern kids, and Oxford. There's some switching around of time periods, jumping from the story of an apprentice of Gutenberg to the two modern kids discovering this story, getting into trouble, and trying to keep a certain very special book from getting into the wrong hands. The book definitely has fantastical elements, and I suppose it's technically a kid's book. But it's very good, often exciting, occasionally creepy, and throws in some nice historical tidbits. And I do recall some 16th century German snow.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Automatic autobiography

I've been thinking much more often lately about the authors of the books I read, and not just the books themselves. I suppose this started consciously with The Kite Runner, because I spent most of the book preoccupied with wondering how much of it was autobiographical. Khaled Hosseini is an excellent storyteller but not really, I think, a very good writer, so you aren't completely swept up in the story--you have time to wonder if it's true. Then, in Senior Lit, we were talking about how some people wondered all the way through Bastard Out of Carolina which bits were autobiographical, and having trouble differentiating Bone from Dorothy Allison. But I didn't think of that at all. It never occurred to me to wonder what was autobiographical, and I think it's because Dorothy Allison is a better writer. She's a good writer not just in making even the most unpleasant descriptions sound poetic, but also in simple shape--she's good at putting things together.

The Pursuit of Love also comes to mind--everyone knows it's pretty heavily based on the Mitford family. I'm looking forward to reading The Mitford Girls, to see how much they relate to each other.

And anyway, all fiction has hints of autobiography. There are people I won't show my writing to, not because the story is particularly autobiographical but because I feel like the story will say who I am--and if it didn't say something about me, it wouldn't be any good.

Any knitters out there?

I'm not--I just sew, and occasionally embroider and tat. My mother knits, though, which is how I come by things like my TARDIS sweater and my pretty mittens. It's also how I come across patterns like this one, which is really pretty fabulous.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mr et Mrst Dursley, qui habitaient au 4, Privet Drive...

I was sitting around at school today waiting for a teacher, and having nothing else to do I picked a book off a shelf. It was A Book of Surrealist Games. It was full of word games (things like Exquisite Corpse and Telephone, and variations on these plus a lot of others), drawing games, and various brain games. A lot of the word games were really interesting, and I kind of want to borrow the book and do a lot of them, but there was one in particular that I liked. Here's how it goes:

One person writes a short story (a paragraph or two), or finds one. They send it on to someone else, and this person translates it into another language. That person then sends their translation on to someone else, who translates it into another language and sends it on again. You keep sending it on and translating it into different languages, until eventually someone translates it back into English (or whatever the original language was), and you see how much it's changed.

I've done this sort of thing just using Google Translator and a random paragraph, but I think it would be more interesting if you're really translating it properly. The whole thing is especially interesting to me as I have vague career plans of becoming a translator, and translation in general is rather interesting. Word play doesn't translate, but maybe in translation new word play will appear. Cultural things don't translate well--like the Russian word for the main meal of the day, which would probably be translated as lunch but which is more important than lunch, or Finnish "sisu," or German "fremdsprachenfeinheitseifersucht" which as I understand it means basically "envy of a language that has a word as cool and completely nebulous as this word" (that last one totally convinced me I should learn German).

I've read three things in translation this year. The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson (of Moomin fame), translated from Finnish, and two Greek plays--Lysistrata and The Bacchae. I suppose technically I've also read part of another book in translation--Harry Potter, only in French. That was by far the most interesting experience with this. I know Philosopher's Stone pretty much back to front nearly by heart, to the point where I anticipate words really accurately, so despite the fact that my vocabulary in French is iffy I hardly ever had to stop and look things up. There were some interesting translations though. Snape is called Rogue, which struck me as rather too obvious, Draco Malfoy has become Drago Malefoy, Filch is Rusard and his cat Mrs. Norris is Miss Teigne (why did she stop being married, I wonder)--it's interesting how titles aren't always translated. Nearly-Headless-Nick is Nick-Quasi-Sans-Tete, which I like. The four Hogwarts (Poudlard) houses are Choixpeau (Ravenclaw), Gryffondor, Poufsouffle (Hufflepuff), and Serpentard.

I would love it if someone would tell me why French lemon drops are lemon Eskimos.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Miss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency...

I hereby join the ranks of Persephone Books fans. It is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day that's done it. There's something not quite modern about the numbered list of books in the back and the suggestion that you email, telephone, or write to them for a copy of their catalogue. And the London address. I'm a hopeless American, but I will always find London addresses unreasonably pleasing. It's as if the physical book itself is allowing me to step into the book I'm reading. Miss Pettigrew would have read a book that is put together such as this one. It doesn't hurt, either, that the outside of the book is very pretty.

I've already seen the film of Miss Pettigrew, for which I'm somewhat sorry. The mood of the film is quite the same as the book, but the progression of events is really rather different. I can't help thinking the movie is put together more roundly--Miss Pettigrew running into Michael, meeting Joe before she's been prettified, the entire running gag of her not quite getting anything to eat. I suppose, really, it's more theatrical. This definitely works for the movie, but I think the fact that the book isn't like this does more for the book. It enhances the feeling of the events hurtling onward--someone will ring the doorbell and a whole new adventure will step inside.

I love Miss Pettigrew. I think she's someone that absolutely everyone identifies with in some way, and we all want to be her without being really envious of her. She's the perfect main character, in that way. And she's so quietly gleeful.

The descriptions are not vivid in the way some books are, the clothes are described from Miss Pettigrew's view of not knowing one fashion designer from any other, and with the kind of frank prose that is used through the whole book. Still, it made me desperately want to be wearing some lovely '30s or '40s clothing and have my hair curled. That's probably why I went shopping, yesterday. Books are a dangerous thing!

Saturday, December 6, 2008


For the first time in months I have a weekend entirely free--no homework except studying for a math final, nowhere to go. I am rejoicing in it. Accordingly, I finally got around to the long necessary pants shopping trip. As it currently stands, all my jeans have holes in very unfortunate places. So to Value Village I went.

There is a reason I've been avoiding pants shopping. I found no jeans, but two pairs of other pants which was exactly what I was not looking for. I also found an utterly fabulous black velvet extremely Audrey Hepburn-ish hat, lovely shoes, a very nice blue wool coat, a teapot of utmost bizarrity, and a book. You know me. I can't not look in the book section.

The book was Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls. It's an enormous book, 600 some pages, but after all it does chronicle the lives of six women, so that's rather to be expected. I saw the BBC miniseries of Love in a Cold Climate ages ago, and then last summer read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, which I liked very much. I didn't go into those books knowing anything about the Mitford Family, and I think the books are probably the best introduction to them, since reading a biography out of the blue without knowing why the people are interesting tends not to work. I can't make any judgments yet about how the biography is, but I'm very much looking forward to reading it

I am rather curious why the book has two different titles. It's also called The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family. My first thought was that mine was the American edition (I hate how they always change titles), but that can't be the case as the price is written on the back in pounds. Oh well.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Handsome, clever, and rich

I've been reading Emma. I meant to read Mansfield Park, since I've already started it, but then I was going to Chandra's house and wanted something to read on the bus, and I couldn't for the life of me find Mansfield Park so I took Emma instead. I'm enjoying it immensely, which I didn't expect at all (I think the Gwyneth Paltrow film version ruined me a little--I loathe Gwyneth Paltrow for inexplicable reasons), but I'm actually more absorbed by it than any other Jane Austen I've read, to my recollection. It has more variety than I think Pride and Prejudice really does, and I think I've come to really appreciate Jane Austen's writing more than I used to. She really is terribly witty. She is also incredibly good at giving you little hints about who people are and what they feel, which if I didn't know the plot I would never catch. The progression of love in her books is extremely natural, which is a lot of what makes them so good. Anyway, I am reading it to the detriment of my Senior Lit book (The Beans of Egypt, Maine).

I am also reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which is entirely enjoyable.


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