Monday, August 31, 2009

There's many a man hath more hair than wit

And here's proof of what Tam Lin does to my reading--not just Euripides but Shakespeare, E.R. Eddison, and a smattering of poets. I finished Tam Lin, promptly got out the Norton Anthology and just as promptly gave this over for my Complete Works of Shakespeare, and read Comedy of Errors. I've never seen this play, and not read it before. Shakespeare in the park was doing it this summer, and I did very much mean to go see it but with one thing and another never did. It's a very interesting play though in some ways distinguishes itself from the others, and I begin to see how greatly varied Shakespeare's plays can be. There's less of romance than most of the comedies I'm familiar with. By the formula of those I've read before, the comedy and the errors should be in mistaken identity which turns out funny situations between lovers, but not one of these characters is really much of a lover. It's a very funny play. I noticed far more couplets than seems usual, and is it just me or is this rather a shorter play? But I liked it. It's more symmetrical and better tied off than Twelfth Night.

Having finished both Tam Lin and Comedy or Errors, I then got the great joy of choosing a new book off the stack. I'm still reading The Mother Tongue, mind you, but slowly, and I like to have a novel on the go at the same time. So I picked The Worm Ouroboros, which I've already started and put aside twice, and which is a Tam Lin-associated book so hopefully that particular wave of reading inspiration will last me the book, at least until it begins to carry its own weight.

This evening, the lasting effects of Tam Lin in combination with watching History Boys produced a desire for some poetry, so I hauled out another literature textbook I for unknown reasons possess, and read a bit. For some reason Keats' "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" is at present particularly in my mind (maybe because Homer is), despite a little whirlwind tour of modern poetry (which according to this book begins with Hardy). I still associate "silent, upon a peak in Darien." with Swallows and Amazons. The poem in general I associate with Tam Lin, but the bit about Darien is all Swallows and Amazons.

Had I read something out of the 18th century and something medieval, I'd have sort of done a stop on my tour in at least one bit of every age, and I did do drama, novel, and poetry, which is rather a lot for one day, really. I have to confess I have gotten pretty much nothing done but reading.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tam Lin

I've never done a proper post about Tam Lin, though I mention it all the time. I even promised one in my very first post here, the last time I reread it.

I've read every novel Pamela Dean has written, and am terribly excited about the new one she's writing, especially since she hasn't published one since 1998. Tam Lin is my favourite, though I have a certain fondness for The Secret Country trilogy.

You may or may not know the story of the ballad of Tam Lin--I didn't the first time I read the book, and I think my enjoyment of it benefited from this. I was so wrapped up in the story I didn't even realize who Tam Lin was. Though I was completely surprised by the story's outcome on my first reading, knowing the ending has done no harm to my rereadings.

Janet Carter, our heroine and the character through whom, despite the third person telling, we view the story, is a freshman at Blackstock College in 1971. She's an English major, and her father is an English professor at Blackstock, so she's been reading Shakespeare and Keats since she was small. She has two roommates, Molly and Tina, and sundry Classics major friends, notably Nick, Thomas, and Robin. The book plows through her freshman year, meals in various dining halls with unfortunate food, trips to see Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, walks around campus, and a good dose of suspicious, slightly supernatural events, then moves on to tell the rest of her time at Blackstock, ending fall of her senior year. There is much talk of college life, classes fascinating and dull alike, studying, love affairs, friendships and their problems. It is this couching of relative ordinariness that shows the extraordinary parts of the story so well, and that distracts us from putting together all the clues. We learn in the first few pages that Classics majors are a little weird--it's a campus joke even Janet's little brother finds funny. We soon learn that the whole Classics department is suspicious, and then of course Janet has to deal with the ghost that throws books out the window of her dorm room. And whether or not you know the story of Tam Lin and can predict how it will turn out for Janet, there are still mysteries left to solve.

Why do I love this book so very much? First of all, Pamela Dean is a lovely writer--dryly humorous, and so very good at the urban fantasy genre, giving us the bits of normal life as well as the fantasy, so that it all seems so much more believable. Secondly, the book is absolutely full of literary references; they're all quoting constantly and making parallels with bits of literature. On the one hand this is idealistically pleasing, since wouldn't it be lovely to be able to quote Shakespeare all the time and have people who could quote him back to you? I always thought it would, or maybe I just discovered Pamela Dean's novels and realized I would have loved to grow up reading Shakespeare. On the other hand, it's easy to make these references a game, seeing which ones you catch and then rereading the book again later and catching more of them, some maybe you hadn't first realized were references at all. And as I mentioned yesterday, Tam Lin always inspires me to more reading, which can't be anything but good. Third, for ages this has been my college book. I read it for a view of college and always envy Janet all she gets to learn. Blackstock is heavily based on Carleton College (minus the suspicious Classics department and the ghosts, of course), and this is pretty much the main reason I applied to Carleton. I didn't get in, but still Tam Lin had a definite effect on where I applied to college and perhaps also how I made my decision. It's a bit fitting that I read it a month before I start college, but it's just made me impatient. I want to start learning things now.

Tam Lin is both a comfort read and a book that inspires me to read a little outside my comfort-zone, and though perhaps it's not the best book ever written, I can pretty confidently call it my favourite.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Impulse and desire

I'm rereading Tam Lin, and I'd totally forgotten how much it makes me want to read the classics. The English sort and the Greek and Roman sort. I usually wind up digging out my Norton Anthology of English Literature. So I sat down with one of Euripides' plays out of one of my textbooks. I picked Helen, because it's not the play I know I'll have to read for class and I particularly like the bits of Greek myth related to the Trojan War.

I have a sort of funny relationship to Greek literature. For some unknown reason of unknown origins, I always really wanted a classical education, the sort of thing taught in British public schools a century ago. I wanted to be taught Greek and Latin, and maybe French and German too, and be made to read all the classics. I really have no idea where I got this particular desire, but it's stuck with me. Going to an (often not very rigorous) alternative school wasn't especially conducive to this kind of education, though I did wind up reading a couple of Greek plays and some (very minimal) Shakespeare. Otherwise most of the books I've read that are usually taught in school I read just because I wanted to. Fortunately the benefit of said alternative school was being encouraged to go in my own directions, and whatever reading I did outside of class being credited towards my graduation (it thus looks from my transcript like I took eight years of English classes in my four years of high school). Still, I don't feel like I've read all the things I should.

Every time I reread Tam Lin all this comes to mind. This book is absolutely full of literary allusions, and every time I read it I pick up on more of them. I always take the reading as an opportunity to read more of the books Janet mentions reading in her classes--my ultimate goal is to have read all of them. Every time I reread Tam Lin, I get a little closer, feel a little more well-read. I'm looking forward to college largely to have classes as an excuse to work my way towards this goal.

As for Helen--I rather enjoyed it, though I do think literature this old is the better for having a teacher to explain it. I should, I suppose, have read the introduction, but that felt like taking the momentum out of my impulse. I was rather surprised by my finishing the play itself. We'll see what else Tam Lin inspires me to impulse-read.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Ephemera #5

This was created by John Vanek, and I don't know where I came by it but it seems originally to have been part of this collection of some very interesting art. He calls it the "Typelighter" and I like the idea of there being an association between writing and light.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Resurrected Reviews: Carrie's War

Also read in April, 2007.

This morning I finished reading (after starting it rather late last night) Carrie's War, by Nina Bawden, which is really good. It's only 159 pages, and I suppose it's technically a kid's book, but it's not quite written like one. They made a Masterpiece Theatre out of it, which was very good, and very close to the book.

It's set during World War II, but the book really isn't that much influence
d by the war. Really the whole premise of it depends on the war, since the children are sent away from London to avoid the bombing, but otherwise you don't hear much about it. I suppose this makes sense as it's told by children, and children can get used to anything, and because it's set in a tiny town in Wales, where they're not likely to get all that much experience of the war like they would in London or another big city. Or at least, we don't hear much about it in the book.

It's an interesting assortment of characters. None of them are really the sort of stock characters you sometimes get that you see over and over again in different books. Carrie is particularly human. She tries to be good because she's that sort of person, but maybe she isn't always. And she's just growing up, and doesn't realize it. I suppose Albert realizes it. I like Albert. After the end, you can tell something's going to happen there. He's coming this weekend, and Carrie comes through the Grove, and of course they'll meet. But it ends before he comes, and it's left to the imagination. It's probably better that way, I suppose.

All the characters are very original, and this makes the book itself very original despite the countless books about children sent to the country during World War II that I'm sure exist. Mrs. Gotobed is especially interesting, though rather sad. I like that she wears all her pretty dresses, and she knows things, better than Mr. Evans. Mr. Johnny is an interesting addition, and I wonder if he's based on anybody.

It's not quite a happy story, but as it ends you can tell it's getting better.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to begin a novel in 100 easy lessons

I mentioned the first line of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall yesterday. Here you will find a list of the 100 Best First Lines of Novels, as decided upon by American Book Review. Some of them I disagree with as being frankly boring, some I totally agree with and am pleasantly surprised that they thought of them, and some of them I think are only on there because the book they came from is famous and not because they're actually very good lines. Some of them are just funny because they're so ridiculously long. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, sadly, is not present.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Resurrected Reviews: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The log of books I've read that I have saved on my computer has reviews in it of books I read over two years ago back before I started blogging, which are really fascinating to me to reread and recapture how I felt on reading the book. I thought I'd post some of them, since some of these are interesting books that I definitely think should be more widely read. I'm not going to post them unedited, but for the most part it'll be exactly as I thought back then.

The first one I'll post is for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, which I read in April of 2007.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is written from the point of view of Gilbert Markham, which I wasn't expecting. It's also written as a narrative to his friend whose name I can't remember who (I think) is his brother-in-law. He's a very likable fellow, although he can sometimes be annoyingly a man, if know what I mean. Occasionally a bit thick-headed. It tells the story of the coming of a reclusive sort of woman called Mrs. Graham and her son Arthur to a neighbourhood and Gilbert's rather foreseeable falling in love with her. There's a lot more of the story than that, of course. It's constantly enjoyable to read. It's not the kind of book that is read really fast because you want to know what happens, but it's the kind of book that you read steadily because you want to know what happens but you also want to take your time and understand everything and savour it. I love the first line:

"You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827."

Some books have great opening lines, the kind everyone knows even if they haven't read the book. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and so on. I know this isn't one of them, but it should be.

I am struck as I was with Jane Eyre by the very impropriety of the storyline. It's not quite what you expect of a 19th century novel, and somehow this makes the characters slightly more human, because it transcends your sort of stereotyping expectations. This book doesn't match Jane Eyre in story, but I think it does in writing style, and it is perfectly lovely writing. Very interesting characters, also. I watched the miniseries a while ago and decided I would most certainly have to read it, and I'm glad I did.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I read this book on the internet and now I really want the hard copy

After reading Farthing, I read the Wikipedia article about Jo Walton, curious both about her and about the other books she's written, and she's now doubly interesting to me because it seems she's an advocate for professional writers' work being available on the internet. In 2007 Howard V. Hendrix stated his opposition to professional writers posting their writing for free on the internet, his idea being that this makes them effectively strikebreakers. Jo Walton named April 23rd International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, when writers are meant to publish their writing freely online all at once. Not necessarily whole books, even, just a few chapters.

What do you think of books being available on the internet for free? To me, it seems that if people haven't stopped buying paper books just because they can pay to download lots of books to a Kindle or similar, they're not going to stop buying paper books just because they can have them on their computers for free. It's less convenient to have to sit in front of a computer to read a book than to have a more-or-less pocket-sized book you can carry anywhere, whether or not you have to pay for it. Anyway, I like it when authors put their work up on the internet because to me it says that they're willing to come into closer contact with their readers, which always seems like a good thing. I wouldn't be surprised if this Howard V. Hendrix fellow is the sort of author who's afraid of that. Also, I have personal proof that this sort of thing isn't going to stop sales--I read Nameless on the internet and now I really want to order the hard copy and am determined to do so at some point.

I think maybe I've been reading too much of Sam Starbuck's thoughts on internet-publishing--you can find most of this here, though you might have to dig a little for the really interesting stuff. (And I recommend his blog in general as both interesting and very funny--that link is just the publishing stuff, click on the recent entries link at the top of the page for the rest of it.) However you look at it, it's a fascinating and very immediate topic.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Small Change

Farthing is a perfect combination of things for me. By Jo Walton, It's alternate history, wherein Britain made peace with Hitler before the US entered the war, now moved on to 1949, and I've always loved alternate history. It's a murder mystery, which I've been meaning to read more of. The detective, Inspector Carmichael, is gay, which I always like encountering in books because it's interesting to see literature's treatment of it, especially in historical contexts. Plus, it's well written, alternating chapters between Lucy Kahn, who narrates her own story with a very distinct voice, and Inspector Carmichael, whose chapters are always in the third person. The inside of the book jacket makes it sound like the book is solely focused on Lucy and David, so I was pleasantly surprised that every other chapter belongs to Carmichael, since this makes a nice change. Lucy is the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley, members of the Farthing Set, the political group which negotiated the peace. She has married David Kahn, a Jew, despite her parents' protests, and when her mother insists they come down for the weekend and a murder happens, David becomes a prime suspect.

This is, to put it lightly, a terrifying book. Not terrifying in a suspense horror film way, terrifying in imagining what the world would be like now if history had happened like that. For the same reason it's so worth reading, both because it's a good book and because it's certainly enough to make you thankful.

All things considered it's a good ending, at least in that it's the proper wrap-up to the book and it's not hopeless, though one can't help but wish it ended better. Fortunately the book has two sequels, Ha'penny and Half a Crown, so in that way this is the perfect first book ending. Anyway, no matter how the book ends I liked it very much (and read most of it in one day, always a good sign), and am glad for the recommendation of it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A latter-day incunabula

Here's a book fascinating as much for the means of its creation as for its contents. Nameless, by Sam Starbuck, is a book that was meant for hardcopy publication but was originally published digitally, on the internet. The author has coined a word for such a book--extribulum. A completed draft of the book was posted chapter by chapter online, and the author's 2,500 readers posted their comments, suggesting edits, providing the reader's perspective on how best to get the book's meaning across. All the sorts of things we might say in a book review, but before the book reached its final published form. In short, the readers had the chance to make Nameless a better book and Sam Starbuck a better writer, before it was too late to make changes to a printed and bound book. Nameless is now self-published and can be ordered in paperback or downloaded as a .pdf here.

It is exactly the kind of book I write and will probably always write, so I have a special fondness for it. An ordinary location--in this case, a small town in Illinois called Low Ferry, ordinary people, and extraordinary events. Masks are crucial to the story, both the plaster Carnival sort and the sort that everyone has and puts on for different occasions. There's a sort of dichotomy, too, between Low Ferry and Chicago, the different speeds and personalities of small town vs. big city. Christopher Dusk is the narrator, a bookseller in Low Ferry who is friends with the whole town and is a profound skeptic. The story really begins when Lucas moves to town, extremely shy and uncomfortable with the nosy, caring Low Ferry inhabitants, and in many other ways the equal and opposite reaction to Christopher's reaction (actually, it's often Christopher who must react to Lucas). These two characters lead the story, though there are many others around the town and in Chicago who we meet and can't help but be fond of.

This is not a calm story, certainly not compared to some books I've read, or even entirely a quiet one, but it is very self-contained. It doesn't stray from its set purview, doesn't venture into the wider world, doesn't try to say too much. What it does say is fascinating and profound. What magic is and what belief means are questions that sometimes in a busy life one doesn't stop to think about, but reading Nameless slows you down long enough to think about them, and for that reason I'm quite thankful to have read this book. Plus, it's rather wonderful to have been part of the fledgeing phenomenon of the extribulum--we've already taken reviewing into our own hands on the internet, I wouldn't be surprised if publishing becomes the next step.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Ephemera #4

Autumn is frighteningly (perhaps wonderfully) near. Here's a view of it, to get you excited for your favourite season if that's the way you tend, or to show you that autumn is rather a beautiful season if you wish it'd just stay summer.This is a painting from 1882 by John Atkinson Grimshaw, called Stapleton Park near Pontefract.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Passing time

I went to the trouble of finding post-its for these, I liked them so much. From The Uncommon Reader, page 21:
"[She] wished that writers in particular had the courage to say what they later wrote down. What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do."
Page 29:
"'Pass the time?' said the Queen. 'Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.'"
That's a bit painfully true. There's so many things I've been wanting to work on lately, and books are definitely one of those things; in the same way I want to work on writing or sewing I want to work on reading. And none of those things are simply about passing time.

Back to Alan Bennett

Just as predicted, here I am reading The Uncommon Reader. I am still confirmed in loving Alan Bennett's writing, though I don't quite see why this particular example of it is so talked-of.

The story goes, as I'm sure you all know, that the Queen's corgis run off into a yard where a mobile library is parked, and so the Queen feels obliged to check out a book, and thus discovers reading and becomes a bit obsessed with it. It's rather nice having read two books that feature Queen Elizabeth as a character in such a short time, since she is such an interesting character. She's simply very likeable, without the quality of mildness which that particular adjective sometimes implies. I did quite often in my reading pause to wish that the Queen had encountered some friendly book bloggers, as I'm sure she would have liked to have a chat with them and enthuse about whatever she was reading.

I've yet to puzzle out quite what was intended by this book. It's very short, properly just a novella, but there's a lot to it and I'm not sure what it's all saying so I'm going to think about it a while. I think I would have liked it to be about the fascination of reading, but maybe with its main character being the Queen that would have been impossible. That isn't really how it turns out.

Soon to follow, I'm going to post a couple of lovely paragraphs from this book.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Ransomes and Miss Shepherd

The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van is really a sort of accidental read for me. I had plenty to read at home, but I got antsy and had to get out of the house and the library is a perfect distance away. So that was how the reading of On Borrowed Wings and this came about. I wanted to see if they had any Alan Bennett, hoping for The Uncommon Reader (which I ordered from the library and will probably read soon), and this is what they had. So this is what I read.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella about a middle-class, middle-aged, fairly boring couple who go to the opera one evening and come home to find someone has stolen the entire contents of their flat. Not just all the valuables, but the sofa, the light fixtures, the stove, the casserole in the stove, and the toilet paper rolls. Now what? It's an odd little story, but quite a good one.

The really remarkable half of this book, though, is The Lady in the Van. This story is true, and comprised largely of Alan Bennett's diary entries from 1969 until 1990. During this period of years, Miss Shepherd lived in a van full of clothing, dead batteries, sherbet lemons, serious rubbish, and talcum powder, in front of his house. She's a remarkable character, of the sort who could well have come out of a novel but is so much better because she didn't. It's quite a hilarious story, another of the sort that I couldn't help but read aloud. Some combination of Miss Shepherd's oddness and Alan Bennett's writing makes it so hilarious. It's paragraphs like these that I have to read aloud:
"May 1982. As I am leaving for Yorkshire, Miss S.'s hand comes out like the Ancient Mariner's: do I know if there are any steps in Leeds Station? 'Why?' I ask warily, thinking she may be having thoughts of camping on my other doorstep. It turns out she just wants somewhere to go for a ride, so I suggest Bristol. 'Yes, I've been to Bristol. On the way back I came through Bath. That looked nice. Some beautifully parked cars.'"
The two stories go together well, despite having relatively little in common apart from profusion and lack of worldly possessions. I loved the book, which even after only this and History Boys, I've come to expect of Alan Bennett.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Borrowed Wings

On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad, is a book whose plot is easily summarized. I should know, because I've told quite a few people about it, and said that it's about a girl, Adele, who dresses as her brother Charles and goes to Yale in 1936, 33 years before Yale admitted female undergraduates. The plot is simple, yes, but what it explores is not simple at all. I first heard about this book over at A Work in Progress, which was what inspired me to look for it on the library shelves.

Novels of female crossdressing are familiar--Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet (probably known to most people as "the Alanna books") stands out to me simply because it was the first one I ever read, long before I would have thought to question the implications of such a plot. And it's not just that I was too young when I read them, those novels simply don't go very deep into it. Twelfth Night, of course, is another example, and I'm sure there are other Shakespeare plays like this.
On Borrowed Wings is unique in what I've read in questioning what this story means in terms of gender. As a boy Adele can achieve more, have more opportunities, but to what degree must she really become a boy, how does this affect her as a girl? One forgets, almost, to think of her as a girl at all. Even when she reveals herself as female to another character, I had trouble thinking of her as a girl, couldn't tell if the other character changed how they interacted with her, wondered if she'd changed her voice in momentarily becoming, even partially, a girl. Adele wonders at one point in the book if she even still knows how she sounds as a girl. Only once after arriving at Yale does she put her girl's clothes on. Even without any clothes at all, her gender is still questionable. One wonders how much gender really matters at all. Amelia Earhart also appears in the book; Adele is not the only character who's changed something about what her gender means. And then, of course, Adele is heterosexual as a woman, but homosexual as a man, and what difference does this make?

Apart from the subject matter, it's a good book. The writing is, for the most part, unremarkable, and sometimes a little self-conscious, but it has certain moments of loveliness. I took note of one bit, early on in the novel: "All I carried with me on the train was the carpetbag and a woebegone suitcase. It surprised me that my world, swollen to the breaking point with fancies and fears, could be contained in these meager spaces." It was well-plotted and often a bit suspenseful; at least, I never quite knew how it was going to end.

The book leaves many paths open, a profusions of opportunity for speculation as to how Adele's future might go. It doesn't answer the questions it raises about who Adele is as a woman or a man, and it leaves open who she might finally become, if she becomes either definitely. And it's a very hopeful book. Knowing as we do what the future beyond 1936 looks like, we know that whatever Adele becomes she will have her chances.

And I have a feeling I'm going to be on the lookout for more books with characters of dubious gender.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Going back a couple thousand years...

Here are the books I bought for one of my classes, Gender and Sexuality in Greek and Roman Lit. I'm really very excited for this. In case you can't read the titles well, we have...

Metamorphoses by Ovid, Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, The Odyssey by Homer, Women on the Edge: four plays by Euripides, and Games of Venus compiled by Peter Bing.

I'm pretty excited for all of them. I've read a play by Euripides, but not one of the ones in this collection. I'm sorry I haven't read The Illiad before reading Odyssey. I started it but got distracted, though I was quite enjoying it. Games of Venus is an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic poetry, which will no doubt be fascinating (isn't this exactly the sort of thing one is supposed to read the first quarter of college?).

Notice the yellow "used" stickers. I got there early enough to get them used, but they were still somewhere around 80 dollars all together. That's only one class. Oh, textbooks, putting fear in the heart of my wallet.

I've always wanted to read some of the classics (meaning the classical classics, not the English classics), so I'm glad I'm finally getting to.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to Miss Austen

There's something special about having read an author's entire body of major works. Taking that class on Jane Austen last semester, I read all six major novels, Lady Susan, and Claire Tomalin's biography. Admittedly, I have not read Sanditon, The Watsons, any of the very early works, or most of her letters. Still, I feel I've acquired a pretty good understanding of Jane Austen, and can confidently compare her various books. I don't feel quite so well-read in any other author. I've read all the novels of Tamora Pierce and Pamela Dean, too, but I certainly haven't read a biography of either of them, which I think is rather crucial in understanding what's behind the writing.

I wrote a twelve-page paper about how I believe the sibling and sibling-like relationships in her novels were more important to her, despite the romances being the ostensible focus. In Sense and Sensibility, if not in the other novels, I think the need to wrap the book up with marriage actually detracts from the sibling relationships and thus from the book.

I read Pride and Prejudice first, and loved it, so then I went to read Sense and Sensibility. It's always been my least favourite novel, was always just a little bit unsatisfying. I think I'm not the only person who has found this (though of course there's some who like it best, which I still find a bit unthinkable), but I've finally figured out why. Most people do start with Pride and Prejudice--it's the most famous. Then they read Sense and Sensibility, because somehow this feels like the next logical step. They go into S&S expecting to find what they found in P&P, and it isn't there. The two books are really completely different. P&P is pretty much entirely structured as a romance. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are without doubt the main characters. But S&S isn't built that way. Its main characters are really Elinor and Marianne, and the story is built for them to play off each other; all their romances just highlight how they react and how they help each other. Everyone expects Sense and Sensibility to be a romance, but actually the romance is secondary to the sisters, and as such it is much less satisfying romance. If you read it to read about the sisters, you won't be so disappointed in your expectations and it will be a much more satisfying read.

I've come to learn that reading Jane Austen is all about your expectations.

My problem with the book, though, is that I'm not sure whether Jane Austen intended it to be about the sisters, or meant to write a romance that just didn't come out as she meant it. All the other books have much more well-put-together romances. And usually, that's what I choose Jane Austen for, even if I've learned to look more closely at the other relationships, too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"England's royals are given the sack and go on the dole..."

The Queen and I is one of those books that's so many things. By Sue Townsend, it's the story of what happens when Britain elects a new Prime Minister who promptly abolishes the monarchy, and the royal family are sent to live in council housing. This book is some bizarre combination of hilarious and mildly depressing. You get the most bizarre sentences in it, just all these normal things like trying to open a tin of corned beef or buy bread at a supermarket, except it's the Queen of England doing it and she's always called 'the Queen.' One comes out of it quite liking the royal family (except perhaps Prince Phillip and Princess Margaret), but the Queen is especially admirable. She adapts to her new life well, and she's rather, well, plucky. One feels a bit impolite calling Her Majesty 'plucky.' There's a sentence I like in the book, reprinted on the cover (mine isn't the one I have the picture of), which says, "How do you talk to someone whose head you are used to licking and sticking on an envelope?" The book is basically an exploration of this, and I love how used the neighbourhood gets to the royal family, and how they make friends with all these perfectly ordinary people. It's one of those books that just highlights the extremely singular way the English react to things.
I spent most of the book wondering how I wanted it to end, and never decided, so I don't know if I like how it did end but at least it wasn't a dissatisfying ending. I positively raced through the book, read in two days, which is always a sign I've enjoyed it. I wouldn't mind reading a biography of the Queen; there's probably a good one out there.

Wouldn't it be strange having novels written about you? I wonder if she reads them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Ephemera #3

I feel like I've been reading a lot of books about war lately. It's a fascinating subject. Just picking one war, say World War II, you can have so many different kinds of books about it. You might write about it from the perspective of those left behind, from those on the front lines, from a British perspective, American, Jewish, even German or Japanese, you might set it in England, France, Germany, Africa, Italy, and just the setting can change the whole tone of the book. You could set it during different times during the war, things seem to be going one way, a year later everything will be completely different. It could be hopeful or despairing, anti-war or not. There are so many components to a war.
This piece of war looks rather peaceful...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Libraries

I found an interesting Booking Through Thursday from last August, and thought I'd do it this Thursday.

Whether you usually read off of your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. (There’s no way my parents could otherwise have kept up with my book habit when I was 10.) So … What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?

There's a library about three blocks away from my parents house, and I went there almost daily as a child. Most of the librarians still recognize me and say hi. The library was remodeled when I was eleven or so (and boy was it a chore having to take the bus if I wanted to go to the library), so it doesn't look as it did when I was small. The children's book section was at the back of the library by the windows that look down the hill, and they always had the same stuffed animals. I have very specific memories of looking for a book on King Arthur, books on the planets, of refusing to check out Anne of Green Gables because I thought it was stupid (I've no idea where I got this notion, and I've since dispensed with it). I remember the old computers, green font on black before it was PCs, but I'm too young to have ever known card catalogs. It must have been after they remodeled that I graduated to looking in the teen section for reading material (and it was there that I first discovered Pamela Dean's Secret Country trilogy), and somewhere along the way I drifted out of that section and wandered into the general fiction.

The old library was red brick and very square, and downstairs they had a room where they did events like authors speaking, and I remember pretty vividly once for some reason they had a fellow who brought in pot-bellied pigs. Now the library's all modern, giant glass windows, light fixtures that look like chocolate fountains and fried eggs, but at least it's not a really annoying kind of modern. It's managed to stay cosy, especially in winter. I used to go after school (two blocks away) all the time with my mother, and on weekends with my father. I remember being very excited when I got old enough (or maybe it was just that I'd had the library card long enough) to check out as many books at a time as I wanted, instead of having a limit. It was also very exciting (many years later) when the library started being open on Sundays (which had always seemed like the best day to be there, except that it wasn't open). I always got annoyed at school when we went to the school library and they made us check things out, because I already had books from the "real" library and I didn't need more. I think I've been through two library cards, though I have a vague notion that I found the old card after I got the new one. Mine is still older than the current edition of cards, which are blue. Mine is red, but scuffed in places where it's gotten white.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Marking Time

Marking Time, the sequel to The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard, is rather an ideal sequel. It preserves many of the good qualities of the first book--the large cast of extremely well-drawn characters and the way they are woven into the historical fact of World War II--but takes these qualities and expands upon them, goes deeper into individual characters. The first book basically held little that I did not remember from the miniseries, but by the second book there is enough detail amassed about the characters that of necessity there are things the miniseries was not able to cover.

The children have grown up a little, most notably Neville and Lydia, who at the beginning of the series are 6 or so, and now as old as 9 or 10 have taken on much more of a role and more distinct personalities. Louise, Polly, and Clary have also grown up a little, and these three are especially focused on, with large chunks of the book devoted to their experiences. Louise is at her acting school, and really quite grown up, but also extremely detached from the war despite making the acquaintance of an interesting naval officer. Clary's father Rupert who has joined the navy is now missing in action, and Clary keeps a diary, which comprises most of her sections of the book. Polly, too, is older; she's outgrown much of her extreme fear of the war but now has other things even closer to home to worry about. The book is so titled especially for these three teenagers, who feel that they are just marking time before their lives really begin.

The rest of the sprawling Cazalet family is not left out either; nearly all are touched on, though I noticed Teddy and Simon don't turn up much. I especially like the somewhat-unfortunate Miss Milliment. Possibly my favourite sections of the book belonged to Louise, though these also, by virtue of her circumstances, were much less connected to the family at large. I don't especially like Louise herself, but I find her and her experiences very interesting.

Elizabeth Jane Howard continues in this second book to have that great skill in her writing of summing things up, of going through the characters and giving a small portrait of each of them. She knows her characters well, and that definitely improves the book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

So many books, so little space

I just got my dorm assignment for the fall, so now I'm really starting to think about what I'm bringing with me. I'm not going very far, so I'll be able to come home for anything I want, but sometimes you just want to have things there to hand exactly when the thought first occurs to you.

In terms of books... They tell you not to bring anything apart from a few favourites because you'll be too busy reading for classes, and looking at the stack of books I bought the other day for just one class I totally believe this.

I've come up with the brilliant plan that I will bring nothing that is in the public domain, since if it is it can be found in the Great Holy Place of Literature, Ridiculousness, and Geekery We Call the Internet. Plus in virtual form it will be easily searchable thanks to the wonders of Ctrl+f, and I doubt I'll be looking it up for anything but reference.

So I won't bring reference books. And let's face it, I'm sharing an 11' by 15' room with two other people, so unless I want to sleep with books in my bed like stuffed animals (which, er, isn't unheard of in my world) I won't have room for very many.

What books do I think I'll have a sudden desperate urge to read and not be able to wait the half-hour bus ride to get them from home? They'll be comfort books, ones I've already read countless times. Tam Lin, no doubt, will be a necessity. I suspect the His Dark Materials trilogy will make the trip. I might also consider Harry Potter, a couple of Tamora Pierce books, and maybe the most compact copies I have of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This is already taking up a lot of space. And I should probably bring that Barack Obama book I'd forgot about, which we're all supposed to have read. And maybe a couple of the books left on my to-read pile after the summer's over. And where am I going to put my shoes?

We'll see how this pans out. I'm already looking at that list and making cuts.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The "acoustical liberation" of books

I've been sick the last couple of days, and Saturday was pretty much unable to do anything but listening to the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone audio book and watch the Swallows and Amazons film.

Now I'm thinking about audio books. I still tend to call them books on tape, though you won't find any that actually are on a cassette tape these days. I always liked listening to these, but I always had difficulties finding a time for it. I don't drive, and I don't really like listening to them on the bus. I can't just sit and listen. The best thing really, is to listen to them while I have a sewing project going that requires a lot of hand-sewing, since then I feel like I'm accomplishing something useful while I listen. I don't often have such projects, though.

For some reason I have really vivid memories of listening to Faerie Wars, by Herbie Brennan, on tape. It was summer, and I spent most of the time sitting in the living room with my big purple radio/cd/tape player, listening to this book and doing puzzles. It had a very good reader, Gerard Doyle, and now listening to any audio book read by a male, English voice instantly makes me think of Faerie Wars. Any audio book makes me want to do puzzles. It's funny how strong this association is, and I can't say why that particular book stands out so much.

You've probably already heard of this, but LibriVox is a collection of public domain books read by volunteers. You can volunteer to read one, or just listen, and it's always good for a sick day when no one's around to read to you (which is what I always want when I'm sick) and you haven't got a book on cd handy. I listened to part of Anne of Green Gables in the car during our road trip last summer, and I got that off LibriVox and thought the reader was perfect. There's usually more than one version of the same book, read by different people, so you have some choice and you can download it all at once or bit by bit.

I think books read aloud take on something special, often, whether because it brings us back to being read to as children or for simple reasons of sound, rhythm, and what special powers voice can have.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

War poetry (which seems a little like a contradiction)

I like to read books of poetry via DailyLit, since often with novels in my email I wind up not reading them, and so I've been reading Poems by Wilfred Owen. He was a poet in World War I, writing about the war, and he died a week before the war ended, still pretty much entirely unknown. It was not till after the war that his poetry was published. None of it is the sort of grand poetry about heroic war, it's all mud and bombs and people who have lost limbs, all the horrible bits and no gloss. I rather wish I'd read this around the time I was reading Johnny Got His Gun; it would have been nice to have a book and poetry about the same thing at the same time. It's the sort of thing though, that it doesn't matter the timing as long as you read it at some point.

Apart from the content of his poetry, I quite like Owen's style, and he made me like partial rhyme which is always a bit of an accomplishment. This is from "A Terre":

A short life and a merry one, my brick!
We used to say we'd hate to live dead old, --
Yet now . . . I'd willingly be puffy, bald,
And patriotic. Buffers catch from boys
At least the jokes hurled at them. I suppose
Little I'd ever teach a son, but hitting,
Shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting.
Well, that's what I learnt, -- that, and making money.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

For we're under orders for to sail to old England...

Somewhere along the line, the 1984 film Coot Club was on the shelf at the library. Some member of my family brought it home, and I remember watching it, on what was probably a summer afternoon, my mother outside mowing the lawn. I don't remember how old I was, but I would have been in elementary school.

That was how I discovered Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome's series about children and boats and adventures. I wanted to be an English child in the 1930s so bad, and I wanted a little sailboat and some siblings to play in it with. I remember reading Eyewitness books (weren't those great?) about boats and sailing, and the little rowboat we had at my grandparents house was never quite good enough. There are a dozen of the books, with some that stand out most to me such as Winter Holiday, where they built a sort of ice and snow house, I think, or Pigeon Post, when they had homing pigeons and went mining for gold, and especially, We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea, when the four Swallows were asleep in a boat in a river that slipped its moorings and took them to Holland. I spent a lot of time making maps of islands and rivers and things, drawing fancy little compass roses and whatnot. These books were an enormous part of my childhood.

I reread the first two, Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale, a few years ago, and happily they very much bore up to my more critical eye to the writing. I'd love to reread the rest, and I'm tempted to ask for a box set for Christmas. Some I have only extremely vague memories of, and one or two I'm not at all positive I actually read. When I first read them I didn't know anyone else who had, but I've since acquired a couple of friends who did and loved them as much as I did, though wouldn't it have been lovely to have been children together and maybe had a better chance of enacting numerous plans for similar nautical adventures.

Some books I read as a child I love now just for sentimental reasons, such as Little House on the Prairie, which certainly played to my interests as a child but doesn't so much any more. Swallows and Amazons, though, I still love for its content, especially its very lovable characters and its setting. I never stopped wanting a little sailboat.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Ephemera #2

As much as it would horrify me to cut up a book like that, I have to confess I've always wanted something like this.Sorry, I don't know where I got this picture, either.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book Projects

In most of my high school literature classes, at some point we would be called on to do what was called a book project. This involved choosing one of the books we'd read during the class, or sometimes more than one book, and creating something that somehow was inspired by or embodied that book. A drawing, a painting, maybe a series of photographs, sculpture, food, something sewn, that sort of thing. It was a sort of antidote to the idea of writing book reports. The teacher (a generally fabulous person) had a story about her son, writing book reports in high school, where he'd told her that the key to writing one was to pass your hand across the cover, read the blurb on the back, and if it was for an honors class read the first page, and then write the report. Consequentially, I never had to write one.

To be honest, I can't actually think of many examples of book projects I did. I did a couple of drawings to go with Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone, and we once all brought in food to represent various Jane Austen characters, but that's all I can remember. Now, though, I'm contemplating taking up the practice of doing book projects. Probably not to be continued beyond this summer, and maybe not for every book, but it would be nice to do this to cement what I've read in my brain.

Most of the projects that suggest themselves to me for books I've read recently involve food. Diary of a Provincial Lady would get something weird and English. For Marking Time I'm contemplating making some kind of dessert, maybe a tart or something similar, the kind of thing they learn to make in cooking classes. I've been wanting to bake lately, anyway. Bloodhound could be represented by clothing, or perhaps jewellery, either way brightly coloured and with orange tones, as it's really a very vivid book.

Who knows if I actually go through with this plan, but it's definitely something I'll be thinking about.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Compulsive reading aloud

Started The Mother Tongue, and though not very far into it I can already tell I'm going to spend the book reading it aloud to whoever's handy. Sorry everybody, there's no way around this. For example, you know the much discussed fifty words the Eskimos have for snow? That's the least of it. Italian has 500 names for different kinds of noodles, in the Trobriand Islands they have a hundred words for yams, and Arabic supposedly has 6,000 words for camels and camel trappings. I can already tell this book is going to be full of fascinating information like this, and it's the kind of thing I can't help but tell people.

So now it's got me thinking about all the books like this, that I can't help but read aloud. I definitely read people bits out of The Mitford Girls and Reading the OED, I know. It's not just nonfiction, though. I read a lot to people out of Hunting Unicorns, by Bella Pollen, which I read quite a while ago and really enjoyed. It comes across a little like it was supposed to be a screenplay for a romantic comedy film but turned out as a book, though this doesn't harm it any. It's about the sons of an aristocratic family which hasn't got the money to keep up its big sprawling house any more, and an American girl who comes to England to do a TV special about the "obsolete aristocracy." All sorts of hilarious things happen, and it was the sort of book that one gets funny looks over on the bus because you're laughing out loud. The trouble, of course, about reading it on the bus, is that you don't really want to quote it at strangers but it's just so tempting.

I suspect I read out bits of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but finally made myself stop because my mother was going to read it and I didn't want to spoil it for her.

Does anyone else feel compelled to read books aloud to people?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Language about language

Somehow or other, I seem to have come by a small collection of books about language. All have been sitting on my shelves unread for quite some time, but I feel it's time for a bit of nonfiction and so I have decided to read one of them.

I love historical linguistics. I would be seriously considering studying linguistics in college, except that I hate the bits of it that sound like science. Mostly language interests me on a historical and societal level. Three of these books are about historical linguistics, though for the most part treated in a less academic-sounding way. Two are about English, one about French.

The Story of French, by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, I bought last year on sale in the bookstore of Reed College in Portland. I started reading it, though I didn't get very far and stopped, but it was certainly interesting. The authors are Canadian, one of them French Canadian and the other having learned French in college in Montreal. The book begins with the origins of French in Latin, and will no doubt be fascinating to me when I get around to it.

The next two books in this collection have amusingly similar titles, though from what I can tell, slightly different topics. They are Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman and The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. The first of these I have in uncorrected proof form, which suggests that my mother brought it home from work, but I have no idea where the other one came from. Righting the Mother Tongue seems to focus mostly on the various quirks of English spelling (which admittedly form rather a large topic, being very quirky). The Mother Tongue looks more comprehensive (and has frighteningly tiny print), but similarly fun.

The last book of this collection (though I have a suspicion I have more floating around which could be added) is The Ode Less Travelled, by, interestingly, Stephen Fry. This is a bit different from the other books, as it is not about linguistics, but poetry. It is a guide to understanding poetry and its various forms and terms, though given the author I suspect it's rather funny. I like poetry and read it somewhat regularly, but I do confess myself fairly unfamiliar with the names for things.

You are reading this, so evidently you like reading about reading, but do you read about language? I find it fascinating, and have read several books on the subject. Simon Winchester's Oxford English Dictionary-related books come to mind, and I once read a thick textbook-like thing all about historical linguistics. One often doesn't stop to thing of the individual parts of a word, or what it means more literally than its accepted meaning, so I like being reminded of this, and learning new facts about it. And I'd definitely be on the lookout for new books on linguistics, if anyone has any to recommend.

I need a new bus book (requirements: smallish paperback, need not keep itself open as the house book must to be read at meals), and one of these is destined to be it. I'm afraid The Story of French and The Ode Less Travelled are both ruled out as being too large and heavy, so it's between the mother tongue duo. I'm thinking it'll be Bill Bryson's take on the matter.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Diary of an Urban lady upon reading about a Provincial one

I have made another step towards catching up with what the rest of the book blogging world has already read, and finished Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E.M. Delafield. Very much liked it, though I am possibly not as enthusiastic about this as some.

It reminded me forcefully of Bridget Jones's Diary, and I am left with the impression that Helen Fielding had read this before writing that. They have very definite qualities in common, and are rather interesting in comparison. We get in these two books a picture of what it is like to be thirty-something in 1931, and what it is like to be thirty-something in the 1990s, and the difference in years produces rather a large difference in situations of the two characters. The narrators of these two diaries are very similar despite their situational differences, though, both with a certain inability to make things come out quite as hoped for. The style is also similar, that habit of abridging sentences to remove various pronouns and conjunctions which is extremely catching. One rather comes out of the book with a tendency to attempt wittier ways of speech, which is a bit funny as the Provincial Lady's witticisms always seem to fail (though possibly this is the fault of her listeners and not herself). One also comes out knowing her very well, though she is the only character in the book without a distinct portrait, and without even a name.

The illustrations by Arthur Watts are a nice addition to the book, especially with their prevailing and unnatural long-leggedness. I was rather amused, too, by the numerous mentions of food (Provincial Lady is always wishing her own house's food was like other people's), as it is all the sort of bizarre English food that one is a bit frightened of ever encountering and having to wonder what exactly it is. I like the way the Provincial Lady observes things and takes note of them, and then simply moves on to more practical things like the children and the servants. She never takes herself too seriously, and thus neither does the book, which is rather nice sometimes when one often reads things that do. I like all her parenthetical notes to self and queries and memorandums and whatnot, such as: "Query: Is not a common hate one of the strongest links in human nature? Answer, most regrettably, in the affirmative."

This was rather a speedy little read. It's 388 pages but the margins are absolutely enormous, and it's always rather nice to finish a book almost in two sittings. I'll probably be on the look-out to buy the book's various sequels if I see them in thrift-shops, though they're not going straight onto my reading list.

And can someone please tell me why I seem to have zero ability to type the world "provincial" correctly on the first try? It always comes out "provinical." (And of course the one time I purposely try to spell it wrong it comes out right.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Heat Wave

This has been the craziest year for weather ever. Oh, climate change. We had snow for a week in December, and now we've had a week of ridiculously hot weather. And by ridiculous, I mean record breaking. I live in Seattle. We are known for rain. We do not have extreme weather. And yet, it has been hovering around the 100 degrees mark. Wednesday, it got the hottest it ever has, at 103.

I've been swimming every day (sometimes twice), been to five different beaches, hung out in a friend's basement, eaten a lot of popsicles and ice cream, and in general managed to stay surprisingly cool. Still, one should not be able to walk around in shorts and t-shirt in the middle of the night.

What does one choose to read in weather this crazy? I've found watching TV makes it feel hotter, and I've no doubt some choice of books would have the same effect. Do you read books set in cold climates, or books set in the desert? Last summer I read The English Patient, and was glad I'd read it in summer, with its settings of Italy and North African desert. I'm inclined to think hot books are better for hot weather, especially if it's hotter there than it is here. Cold books just make you envious.

Of course, my current reading is England in fall and winter (Diary of a Provincial Lady and Marking Time), so I've not exactly chosen hot books. Diary of a Provincial Lady is at least rather short and sweet, which I am inclined to think is better for this weather. You don't really want page-long paragraphs, which leave you sweaty and gasping for breath at the end. Anything with short chapters, short diary entries, short sentences, seems preferable. Poetry, too, is good hot weather reading. I am inclined, again to turn to Michael Ondaatje, and read his poems. The Cinnamon Peeler is a book I've been halfway through for ages, and as it's poetry I could pick it up again at any time. The idea is very much starting to appeal.

Look at all the poor dead grass in my back yard. It's like straw on the ground, it's so flat. The grape vine, tomatoes, and flowers are all flourishing, though.


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