Sunday, October 31, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010


It's been quite the week. Zombies and humans have had their final battle and many brains have been eaten. The entire marching band has played in the street outside my window. The combination of Halloween and two birthdays has resulted in the consumption of much sugar. Many papers have been written.

One of my roommates carved the pumpkin.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Ephemera #59

I'm continuing my tradition of posting the best pumpkins Google images has to offer for Halloween. Found here, here, and here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NYRB Reading Week

November 7-13 is NYRB Reading Week, hosted here by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons. I discovered NYRB a couple of years ago when my father bought me a couple of their books, and I've become quite a convert. I've read The Dud Avocado, The Slaves of Solitude, and The Post-Office Girl. All of them have been clever, unpredictable, and (in very different ways) lovely. I own several more and I've been meaning to read them, so this event is perfect.

The book I'm most eager to read is Indian Summer, by William Dean Howells. I don't know much about it, but I gather it's sort of a romance--possibly a little similar in tone to The Season of Second Chances. Hopefully I'll have time during that week to start it, at least.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: The Season of Second Chances

I first heard of Diane Meier's novel The Season of Second Chances at Cornflower Books. The premise sucked me in and induced me to order the book from the library even before it made it onto my to-read list. The book has proved to be not quite what I expected, but something very interesting all the same.

Joy Harkness, Columbia professor who specializes in Henry James and Edith Wharton, is invited to move to Amherst, Massachusetts to participate in an experimental liberal arts program. She has no attachment to Columbia--no close friends, no romantic entanglements, an inconvenient apartment--and Amherst is offering more money than she thinks she deserves. So she goes. Impulsively (an adverb completely out of character for her), she buys a falling down but potentially beautiful house. She hires Teddy Hennessey to fix it up for her--he's 35 but essentially just a big kid, still living with his mother--and he does. The college and the town welcome her in, involve her in their personal dramas, force her to be more connected to other people than she's ever been before. She keeps expecting it to be over, life to go back to "normal", but by the end her definition of normal has changed.

The book has an unusual style. Joy narrates, and much of the story is told sort of anecdotally, even conversations. On the one hand, this is the first time I've ever read a first-person novel that I thought sounded like someone would actually tell a story. I've never liked first-person stories; I always think they feel contrived, but this didn't. On the other hand, this very second-hand way of hearing about events and characters makes it hard to really understand those characters and their motivations. I sometimes felt like people's appearances were over-described--Joy doesn't care much about clothes, so it seems odd for her to describe them in so much detail. Food also felt a little over-described, and so did the details of Joy's house, sometimes, though that is much more integral to the story and makes more sense. Over all, the writing was intriguing, and my complaints are fairly superficial.

Joy reminds me of no one so much as Helene Hanff. I've read a lot of Helene Hanff this year, and certain details--Joy's clothes, her gripes about her apartment, her voice--all reminded me quite forcibly of Helene Hanff. As with all good books, though, the comparison wore off because I got too wrapped up in the story to notice it. And there are certain differences, too.

I have a feeling I won't remember this as a "college book", though that was what drew me to it originally. It's about the characters and their interaction with each other, not their interaction with university life. This is very much a coming of age, feel-good book--so much so that I'm putting off reading another book that I suspect will have a similar feel until I've read something in between. It's very believable, and quite satisfying, with a fairly unpredictable ending. So over all, really very good.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sad news

I've just heard Eva Ibbotson died last week. She's one of my favourite children's books writers, author of Which Witch?, The Secret of Platform 13, Island of the Aunts, and Journey to the River Sea. Her books are magical and hopeful and colourful. She was 85, died in Newcastle, England, born, I was surprised to discover, in Vienna, Austria.

I can think of no better obituary than to say I loved her books as a child, would doubtless love them just as much if I read them now, and am feeling compelled to read everything else she ever wrote. If you've never read any of these lovely books, you really should, no matter your age.

You can read more about her life on Wikipedia and in the Guardian.

Monday, October 25, 2010

NaNoWriMo--your one week warning!

In one week it will be November 1st, and you know what that means! National Novel Writing Month is upon us! For the unlikely people who have not heard of NaNoWriMo, the point is to write 50,000 words of a novel between 12:01 a.m. on November 1st and 11:59 p.m. on November 30th. The point is not to write the next great American (or English or French or Chinese or Finnish) novel--the point is to write the novel you've always said you'll write one day, and to give yourself a deadline to do it in. I know it is entirely possible. The first year I participated I wrote 60,000 words, and I wrote 50,000 in half a month in July one year.

I'm not doing NaNo this year, though I'd like to. I have two reading and writing intensive classes, a lot of German homework, and a job. I don't need to be more stressed, and I would like a tiny bit of a social life. This year is not the year. But please, don't let busyness deter you. Half the point is to be crazy and underslept along with a bunch of other crazy people.

Put your plotting hat on--or don't, and make it up as you go--and get ready to write.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Ephemera #58

Have a map. 1675, by a fellow named Jan Jansson, and I think it's of Norway. Found here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In pictures

I don't often post about books that you don't really sit down and read, e.g. coffee table books, but I've long had a fascination with the history of costume, and there are a lot of great books of fashion images. Some of them are just as informative as any less pictorial book, and with something as visual as fashion, a picture really is worth a thousand words. One of my favourites is the ridiculously enormous two volume book Fashion, from the Kyoto Costume Institute. I can't believe I own the thing--Amazon lists it at $168. But if somebody ever owes you a really nice birthday present or you can find it at the library, you should go for it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Whether or not you're already dressed, put on something purple today. In honor of all the people who have recently (or ever) committed suicide because of homophobia (whether or not they were in the news), all us cool kids are wearing purple. It may not have any concrete effect, but it's good to know that there's a bunch of other people out there wearing the same color for the same reason.

Have a look at some links:



Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Just the facts

I've been reading, for my linguistics/semantics class, about concepts that are ingrained in American (or English, Australian, Russian, Japanese...) culture, which we suppose are universal. Concepts like "freedom" are rooted in American culture and history, and though dictionaries may offer direct translations of the word, the chance that the words completely correspond is slim. American "freedom" implies non-interference, while Russian "svoboda" has a somewhat different emphasis--you cannot speak of svoboda from something, the way you can speak of, for example, "freedom from interruption." Svoboda has a spacial connotation, and it can be given, whereas you cannot give someone freedom. Clearly, translating these involves adding certain connotations and removing others. Understanding that these two words do not mean the same thing, even when they are translated into one another, is crucial to understanding what is meant. There are many similar examples, some of which affect communication between cultures in a way that leads to misunderstanding.

Applying this to literature (as you do), one wonders about reading books in translation. Something I read for class about diminutive name suffixes used several examples from Tolstoy. In Russian, there are lots and lots of possible diminutive forms of names, all with different connotations. In English, of course, diminutives are usually used mostly for children. Timmy eventually grows up and becomes Tim. Russian diminutives don't imply childishness. They are also generally untranslatable. So when we read War and Peace in English, we are missing the shades of meaning implied by diminutive names. There are no doubt many other nuances we miss, and many of our own cultural associations we add. I'd argue that a vast amount of what we love about books is the nuance.

Have you ever noticed some meaning missed when reading translations? I don't know that I've read enough translations, or any recently enough. And it's more in what we don't realize we're missing, I suppose. But what cultural assumptions do we bring to reading that make what we read seem more or less realistic?

If you want your illusions about universal truths completely blown to shreds, read something by Anna Wierzbicka. You know all those English expressions like "as a matter of fact", "hard facts", "just the facts," "in fact"...? We love facts. Yeah, all these expressions don't translate prettily. Nobody else talks about fact like we do.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Last year Dorothy Sayers was what got me back to reading after a dry spell, and this year she's simply been the continuation of the good reading habits I picked up over the summer. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is the fourth Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and in my opinion it is by far the best yet. I think this is the first time Lord Peter really becomes Lord Peter. He has gained a certain something--he's more buoyant, but he's also more serious. The book itself is funnier than I remember the previous books being. I have a (bad?) habit of reading all books with Sam Starbuck and his writing in the back of my head, picking out characters I know he'd like. I already know he actually does read and like Lord Peter, and this is the first book where it is vividly clear to me exactly why he likes Lord Peter, and further, where characters with certain Lord Peter inspirations have cropped up in his writing.

Dorothy Sayers has once again distinguished herself in writing a mystery that does not immediately look like a mystery. No formula here. General Fentiman is extremely elderly and not very well, so when he is found dead in his usual chair in the Bellona Club on Armistice Day, no one is surprised. But why wasn't there a red poppy in his lapel, and when did he die? When it becomes clear that the time of his death determines a half-million-pound inheritance, Lord Peter sets out to answer these questions.

This was very good fun, and Lord Peter was very charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I'm home for the weekend, and somehow it suddenly feels entirely like fall.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What I'm learning

This is definitely one of my more interesting quarters in terms of reading, though I have to admit the volume kind of detracts from the interest. I'm learning all about medieval science and religion, and the historiography thereof. I'm also learning how languages shape and reflect cultures, and about the difficulties of translation and definition and some fascinating language quirks.

I like my history reading best (which is probably good, given I'm contemplating declaring a major in history), and in fact I am procrastinating on this week's history paper writing this post. I'm supposed to be writing about medieval technology.

Your interesting fact for the day: there's an Australian aboriginal language which reckons location not in terms of right, left, in front of, behind, but in terms of cardinal direction. Therefore, if there is a bug next to your foot, someone might tell you, "look out for the bug to your east." If you turn around to look for the bug, it will still be to your east, because directions are completely objective and not egocentric. Someone who wants more room on a couch might say "move a little to the north." Consequently, speakers of this language have incredibly good sense of direction.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World

Sometimes the books you least expect to read are the most satisfying. I worked off my desire to read Jane Austen spin-offs this summer, and in any case Pride and Prejudice was not my main interest. I had a lot of reading to do for class, and I was in the middle of a Dorothy Sayers novel. But I was at home for the weekend, and my mother went to the library, and she brought it home, and it sounded like a nice change from the history of science or linguistics, and so here we are.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World, by Abigail Reynolds, is one of a series of Pride and Prejudice variations. Known usefully to the fanfiction world as AU, or alternate universe, these books choose a turning point in the story, a "What if?" scenario, and imagine how the book would run if one or two small things had happened differently. I have always loved contemplating What Ifs, and the most interesting ones are the smallest changes, which spread throughout the story and change everything.

This book's turning point is Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth. What if she had been forced by questions of reputation and propriety to marry him? I was very pleasantly surprised by how well this premise was executed. It was well-written, chose excellent moments to throw in hints of the original book, and explored how the change in circumstance would affect the characters in interesting ways. Though the alternate path of the story changed Elizabeth and Darcy very much, I never felt like they had ceased to be Elizabeth and Darcy. The book also added some new pieces of information about the characters, which was seamlessly worked in to what we already know.

This was an interesting "What if?", a satisfying Jane Austen spin-off and an interesting story of a marriage, and it successfully managed not to be absurd, overly angsty, or self-indulgent. I read it all in a day. I think this can safely be proclaimed a winner.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

For a walk

I took the super roundabout way to class yesterday, along the Burke-Gilman Trail. These are the resulting photos. Does anyone know what tree that is in the last picture? They're all over campus and I find them fascinating.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Novel: Live!

Starting today is The Novel: Live! Thirty-six authors are going to write one novel over the course of six days in order to raise money for literacy programs, and the process will be streamed live online. Visit the website starting at 10 a.m. today and you'll be able to see it.

I suspect this will be a rather awesome event. There's something particularly interesting about writing when it is treated as a process more than a means to an end. Who knows what kind of novel will come out of this, but the end result is barely relevant. This reminds me of NaNoWriMo--a similarly short period of time in which to write a novel. With NaNo, of course, the point is to just get a novel out like ripping off a band-aid, but there's definitely something special about the process, as well. The Novel: Live is even more about the process.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Vivian Maier. Chicago street photography. The information on the sidebar is really interesting; you should read it.

Starbucks in Washington, DC has gender-neutral restrooms. Go Starbucks!

Restless General Store on Etsy. I always feel weird linking any place that sells things, because I know the chances of me buying things from them are very very small, and I feel like an advertisement, which bothers me. So if I do link a shop, it's because I think it's got great photography, or interesting wares, or a good idea

European Beard and Moustache Championship.

You are what you speak. A super interesting article from the New York Times Magazine about whether language shapes how we think.

Johnny Depp Jack Sparrow visits London primary school to help kids mutiny.

A fabulous spin on post-it notes.

Microwave lime cheesecake. As, living in a dorm, all I have is a microwave, this is very tempting.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New books to read

I acquired two new books yesterday, one in the mail and one delivered by my mother, with whom I had lunch. I was not expecting The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, but it sounds like a lovely book-about-books. I read a review of The Season of Second Chances at Cornflower Books, and had to order it from the library immediately. It sounds perfect. I love literature about college--my obsession with Tam Lin might tip you off to that, and I also loved On Borrowed Wings, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and everything I've ever read about Oxford or Cambridge precisely for their views of university life. I'm tremendously excited to read this, and may have to start it even before I've finished other things.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday Ephemera #56

Actual ephemera, for a change. A screenshot of what's on hold for me at the library. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: Evelina

I've been hearing about Frances Burney in passing ever since I started reading Jane Austen criticism a year and a half ago. Though we think of Jane Austen as a 19th century writer, she spent her first 25 years in the 18th, and early versions of some of her novels were written before the turn of the century. Further, all the early formative reading she did was of 18th century authors like Frances Burney and Samuel Richardson. The association between Jane Austen and Frances Burney for me goes one step further--in George Knightley, Esquire, there is a cat named after a character from Evelina. So when I read someone's excellent review of Evelina, I rushed off to order it from the library.

It has, I believe, exceeded all my hopes. Evelina was written in the 1770s, and in the beginning I had to keep reminding myself of this, because all my Jane Austen associations were so overpowering. As I got further into the book, however, these associations receded--not because they ceased to be true, but because the book was so good I never thought of anything but the present story. 

The easy explanation of the plot is this: Evelina is the heroine, a naive but good and intelligent young girl, raised wholly in the country, who goes to London for the first time and embarrasses herself a lot. Because Evelina is so ignorant of town customs, she's the perfect person to point out their absurdities, and in this way the book is social commentary. There's also a question of her parentage, because her father is a cad who left her mother and claimed they weren't married, and the story surrounding this, when it is finally solved, sounds very much like something out of a play, full of misunderstandings. And of course, there is a love story.

I have never read anything written prior to Jane Austen, aside from poetry and Shakespeare, so I was not entirely sure what to expect from this. The novel is written in letters. I was surprised by how often the language sounded like Shakespeare, despite being written almost 200 years later. Certain phrases and modes of wit we associate with Shakespeare turned up here, none of which I've ever noticed in Jane Austen, 40 years later. Perhaps this is partly to do with Burney's writing style, or her choice of characters, or simply 40 years of language change. 

I found Evelina captivating, though I couldn't quite tell you why. It has a certain quality, in common with Elizabeth Gaskell novels despite myriad differences between the two writers, which makes it thoroughly satisfying. I loved it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song

I am already a confirmed lover of grammar. I have studied five languages besides my own and taken three linguistics classes, I've been writing for years, and I've edited many an essay. For the most part grammar comes instinctively to me. This book, therefore, is for me not so much a discovery as an affirmation.

Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song, by Erik Orsenna, translated from French by Moishe Black, is the story of two children shipwrecked on an island. Fourteen-year-old Thomas and ten-year-old Jeanne, the narrator, are on an ocean liner to New York to visit their father when a storm sinks their ship. The storm leaves them in shock, and when they wash up on the island they are unable to speak. They are taken in by an islander, who shows them the sights of the island--at the Word Market they look for rhymes to buy, at the town hall in Word City words are married. At the "most vital factory of them all," sentences are made. By visiting these sights and discovering the wonder of grammar, Jeanne and her brother regain their ability to speak.

The blurb on the back of the book compares it to The Little Prince, and it does have distinct similarities. Both books are about discovering the wonders of life. It also reminded me of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Aside from having that indescribable quality common to all the French literature I've read, Jeanne's voice reminded me a lot of Paloma's in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Two smart, matter-of-fact preteen girls.

I can see this being assigned in a French class, because it does a very good job of explaining basic French grammar. This is occasionally odd in translation, because the gender of words is part of the story and English words have no gender. The translation is never particularly jarring, though.

I loved this. It's short, sweet, French, grammatical, and wonderful. My favourite bit was the answer to the question, "What is a great writer?":

"Someone who, with no regard for trends and modes, constructs sentences solely to help him explore truth."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Book memory

Going through old posts to link them up to my Books Read lists, I'm completely shocked by how little I actually wrote about books. Only rarely in the first year and a half of this blog did I write an actual comprehensive review of a book, which seems bizarre now. So there was a lot less linking to be done than I expected.

I'm sorry I didn't write more. There are certain books I'd love to go back and read my first impressions of. I found I'd never written a whole post about The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, which is one of my favourites, and one I know I will feel differently about on any rereadings. In fact, I read a lot of wonderful books in 2008 that I never really wrote about.

I don't know what use it is being able to go back and reread my old thoughts on books, but it's always fascinating. Books have such an immediate, almost visceral effect on us, that it's impossible to remember how we felt about them without rereading them. Sometimes, rereading doesn't even work. Books are muscle memory--like all the things you can't remember or explain how to do until you do them. But unlike riding a bike or dancing a certain step, how we "do" books is affected by the passage of time. We change, and our "book muscles" change with us, so rereading a book doesn't always use the same muscles as it did the first time. I suppose that's why people envy new readers of good books, experiencing them for the first time.

All this to say: in future, I'm going to write a full post about every book I read that's worth remembering.

P.S.: Natalie Foy was also talking about book memory recently.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


New York City map quilt. Found via Say Yes to Hoboken.

The second draft of Charitable Getting, one of Sam Starbuck's extribulum novels, is now posted.

Eternal Earthbound Pets. I'm not even going to try to say anything about this one.

Pumpkin rice pudding recipe. I used to love rice pudding as a kid, and anything pumpkin flavoured tends to be a win. Somebody else linked this, but I can't remember who.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

New classes

I've now had at least one meeting of all of my classes for this quarter. I'm clearly going to be doing a lot of reading and writing.

German 201 is nothing unexpected, but I'm super excited to be learning more things and getting more fluent.

History of Science and Religion promises to be reasonably fascinating. The class is organized chronologically both around the period of scientific history in question and the 20th century study of that period. There's a certain amount of circularity in this, which I like. And I'll be writing a 5 page paper every single week until the end of the quarter, so by the end I really ought to be able to knock out an essay no problem.

"Ways of Meaning," my class about language and culture and other linguisticky goodness, looks thoroughly fabulous. It's exactly what I wanted Into to Linguistics to be. Less of the phonetics and morphology, more of the sociolinguistics and somewhat fuzzy semantics and pragmatics.

And my mythology and fairytales seminar looks to be pretty interesting as well. At the moment we're reading creation myths.

So out of four classes, not one is a dud, which is quite a success, especially since a lot of my friends seem to be having an off quarter in terms of interesting classes. And I'm going to be doing a lot of fascinating reading.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Ephemera #55

Ice skaters on Lake Union, date unknown. The idea of Lake Union freezing over is fairly mind-blowing to me, since any body of water freezing over in Seattle is remarkable, let alone one so large. Image thanks to the University of Washington.


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