Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Beautiful Blue Death

A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch

Charles Lenox, gentleman and amateur detective, is asked by a friend to investigate the mysterious death of a servant girl.  It looks like suicide, except for the part where she left a note even though she was illiterate, and died from an incredibly rare, expensive, and fictional poison called bella indigo.  With the help of a tipsy doctor friend, a handy brother in Parliament, and an informer or so, Lenox investigates the girl's death in spite of Scotland Yard and finds a whole lot of secrets.

I felt like this was a meh mystery.  The setting, the characters, the plot--all were OK but lacking real spark or interest to me.  Also I got really tired of the words bella indigo.

There is one scene that was sort of odd.  A wealthy man holds a ball in his lavish London townhouse.  The ballroom is on the first floor, and it's 300 feet across--the size of a football field, with no supporting columns.  There are at least 3 floors above this room, which includes a greenhouse (the servants seem to sleep on the ground floor; I thought they usually had the attics?) and, for the mystery, several tons of gold.  Architecturally speaking, this is quite a house.  And, even odder, the ceiling of the ballroom is "painted with the transit of Venus."


The transit of Venus?  Like so?

Maybe he means that the ballroom ceiling is painted with the 1769 observation of the transit of Venus in Tahiti?

Seems unlikely.  I suspect that Finch probably thought it was a fancy way of saying the birth of Venus.

All that aside, I didn't find this mystery terribly compelling or interesting.  I'll read the next one and see if the series improves.  It's in Oxford next time, and I like Oxford...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Decline and Fall

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

The only book I've read by Evelyn Waugh is Brideshead Revisited, which is mostly on the melancholy side, so I thought I would try a funny one.  Decline and Fall is Waugh's first novel.

Paul Pennyfeather is a divinity student at Oxford, the most innocent fellow around, but through an unfortunate mishap he is sent down (expelled) for indecent behavior.  He is fit for nothing but to become a minor schoolmaster at a not-very-good school, so off he goes to Wales to meet a cast of oddballs.  Fate tosses him hither and thither, between wealthy socialites and, well, prison.  Most of it is funny, some of it is pretty strange in that 1920s way, and a few bits defy the comedy and go melancholy again.

I enjoyed it, but not like I enjoy a Wodehouse novel, which is more straightforward fun.  Waugh seems to have a layer of gray under his humor, like he's showing us that things might be funny on the surface, but watch out for those depths.  There's quite a bit of anger in there too, and he really sticks his knife into British institutions. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Are there rules in reading?

Few booky bloggery types have missed the recent rash of articles about reading; each one gets a response and some discussion.  Most of the pieces seem to be about how readers are just doing it wrong.  Everyone has a different complaint, but the main point is that you are all reading wrongly and you should stop it.  A few examples:

Charlemagne is skeptical of these arguments.
If you're an adult, you should be embarrassed if you read YA books, because YA books are fundamentally not deep, gritty, or ambiguous enough for adults.  They are too pleasant and tidy.  (On this theory, Nicholas Sparks is deep, because his novels are for adults.)

On the other hand, YA books are probably too violent for actual teens and may encourage them to be violent.  (From which it follows that the 70s and 80s must have seen a huge rise in teen incest and axe murder--after all, every kid I knew read almost nothing but VCA and/or Stephen King.)

Science fiction has way too much gender binaryism, which needs to be stamped out.  "SF that presents a rigid, unquestioned gender binary is false and absurd"--which assumes some things that I don't think are actually true, and ignores the plain fact that SF has always played with every cultural rule and permutations of gender--more than any other genre.  If you wish to encourage more, fine, but there's no need to scold everyone who doesn't happen to be doing that in every story.

Rick Riordan is probably feeding kids intellectual pap that will keep them from ever reading anything more complex.  You'd better start requiring them to read books they don't like so they can read Henry James later on.  (Oddly, this was a response to a Neil Gaiman talk about letting children read what they want.)

At the very least, if you start a book, you had jolly well better finish it, or else.  Not finishing books is not allowed; you should develop character and show respect for the author by finishing the book you start, even if you hate it.

There are more, usually articles lamenting that people read for entertainment and that they don't read enough Henry James.  I don't know why Henry James gets cited so often, but he does.  We could have a whole discussion about each of these, but I'm going to go all meta on you.  It seems to me that the overarching theme here is that some people seem to think that reading has rules.  Or it should have rules.  This is sometimes called the "literature as broccoli" approach: reading is good for you and you should read it so you will be healthy, whether you like it or not.  It treats leisure reading like assigned reading for school.

Now, it is certainly my belief that some books are of a better quality than others.  I am not post-modern enough to argue that a werewolf romance is, aesthetically and morally speaking, just as good as King Lear.  Some books are more challenging, more morally interesting, or more beautifully written than others. 

But reading is one of the most individual and deeply personal activities we can engage in, and everyone is going to experience a book a little differently.  Once I open a book, it's just me and the author.  The author lays some ideas out, and I think about them.  It's likely that 95% of my reaction will never be recorded anywhere but in my own mind, and some of it might not go into words.  I don't think we can make rules about something that individual. 

Reading cannot be planned and evaluated according to a nutritional pyramid chart for the mind.  Are we talking about reading and loving literature and expanding our horizons and exploring strange new worlds, or are we talking about a forced march to attain an arbitrary standard of mental virtue and fortitude set by someone else?  What gives 'someone else' that power?

Doesn't work for books.  (Doesn't *entirely* work for food.)

I love to see people reading interesting and challenging books, but nobody can dictate which books qualify for that or what people should read.  There just should not be rules about reading.  We all get to choose for ourselves, whether we want to relax at the end of a difficult day, learn something new, or explore complex ideas.  I decide what challenges I want to set for myself; that's what makes it fun. 

Reading these articles makes me wonder why they get written so often.  Have we gotten so used to following rules, taking tests, and checking off lists of achievements that it seems like a good idea to have standardized standards for leisure reading too?  Is this what you get if people think programs like Accelerated Reader are a good idea?  Does somebody out there want to certify and quantify and make a graph to file away in a government report?  I suppose it's really that people like to tell other people what to do and show off their smart-person credentials, but I do not approve.

The Classics Club has a tagline for the Spin.  The Spin is a game we play with ourselves and each other, and the admins always finish with "as always, the prize is the reading experience."  That sums it up for me.  When we read, our reward is the reading.  There is no certificate, no outside standard to reach, no finish line.  There is just the freedom to read what we like, and have thoughts about it.   No rules needed.

Classics Club Survey

You have to be a little mad to participate in this survey.
The Classics Club has posted a survey of 50 questions.  It's huge!  I've enjoyed reading everyone's answers, but I quite understand if you get bored and move on.  Also, I can't get the formatting to behave very well, so it's often all a giant block of text--sorry about that.

Fun fact: images and numbered lists fight with each other.  I was going to throw a bunch of nice pictures in, but that turned out to be a bad idea.

50 Club Questions:

  1. Share a link to your club list.  Here you go.
  2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? (We are SO CHECKING UP ON YOU! Nah. We’re just asking.) :)  I was in on it from the beginning, which I think was March 2012, so I ought to be at least halfway through by now, right?  I'm at 82 out of 150.

  3. What are you currently reading?  The long-awaited Tristram Shandy!  And poetry by a Senegalese poet, Senghor.
  4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it?  I just finished War and Peace, which took 3 months but was totally worth it.  I liked it very much, though the long historical lectures were a bit difficult to get into.  I will say I prefer Anna Karenina.
  5. What are you reading next? Why? The Crucible for my Spin list, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the Willa Cather Reading Week in early December.
  6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why?  Oh dear.  Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, and A Suitable Boy, I think, are my top three.  I don't know which to pick.  Maybe Suitable Boy on the strength of not being primarily about adultery?  Anna Karenina might just have to win on sheer beauty though.

  7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?  A Suitable Boy for sure, and the Anthony Trollope books.  I think Trollope most.
  8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why?  Ha, lots of them.  Roll, Jordan, Roll is terrifying because it's like 900 pages of dense history, and Henry James' Wings of the Dove is just dense.  Almost anything American, especially modern plays. I've been putting off the plays for sure, which is why I put The Crucible on my Spin list.  And that's just the first section!  Then there are the giant medieval historical chronicles...
  9. First classic you ever read?  Gee, I'm not sure.  I unknowingly read many children's classics growing up--our house was full of Lewis and Nesbit and Tintin and Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn--but I had quite the allergy to anything with the label "classic" on it for years, even well into college (where I was a literature major...) Possibly the first "classic" with that label on it that I read on my own would be Little Women.  For the Classics Club project, I think it would be Eugene Onegin.
  10. Toughest classic you ever read?  Hm, War and Peace was pretty tricky just now, just because of all the history and war.  I still haven't finished Herotodus, so maybe that should count.
  11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry?  I shall talk about the angry ones.  Pamela made me angry.  Because he started off with a perfectly good premise and then ruined it with horrible Pamela falling in love with Mr. B.  The Decameron didn't exactly make me angry most of the time, but I was pretty annoyed with the unending stream of bawdy stories, and "Patient Griselda" would make any modern person mad.  Oh!  And the Communist Manifesto makes me angry for being so preposterous and leading to probably more suffering than any other idea ever.

  12. Longest classic you’ve read? Longest classic left on your club list?  I think Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy, at nearly 1500 pages, is the longest so far.  I'm not quite sure what the longest one left is; Roll, Jordan, Roll is a good 900 pages, but a couple of the older Asian works on my list are turning out to be frighteningly long.
  13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list?  Gilgamesh, I suppose?  Of the titles on my CC list, Confucius is the oldest.  When the CC started in 2012, I was running a Greek classics challenge, and I felt like it would be cheating, so I didn't put ANY Greek literature on the list.  Which in retrospect, wasn't that bright of a move.

  14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — or, the biography on a classic author you most want to read, if any?  I guess I haven't read a lot of biographies of classic authors.  I've read a lot of biographies of children's classic authors though--Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.  Roald Dahl's Going Solo is one of my very favorite books so I'll choose that.
  15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? Why?  I'll go with To Kill a Mockingbird, which is both a fantastic read and a very important book.  Huck Finn would also qualify. Odd that I'm picking American titles when I mostly do not prefer American literature, but there you go.
  16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any?  Oooh, that's a toughie.  I don't buy that many books, and a lot of the books I have bought are beat-up old ones--which I like, but they aren't exactly fancy stuff.  I am very fond of my edition of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, because it is so pretty.
  17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic?  Oh, I have pedestrian tastes--or maybe I just don't watch many movies.  I love the A&E mini-series of Pride and Prejudice and the film of To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. I still haven't even seen Lark Rise to Candleford, I'm that behind in the film world.
  18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.  Are there any left?  Certainly no British ones.  Well, maybe one or two of Trollope's novels, since there were so many.  I'd watch Barchester Towers, but I bet it's been done and I just don't know it.
  19. Least favorite classic? Why?  Anything by Hemingway.  I tried, I really did, but I just can't love Hemingway.
  20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read.  Well, they're not all on my CC list.  I've been exploring a lot of world literature for work, and I've ordered some books (again, for work) that I'm quite excited about reading myself.   Of course I can't get away with ordering all the books that I'd like to read--I order for the collection and some of them happen to be books I want to read too.  I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't order some books I think I would dislike a lot.  It's also hard to think of authors who I've never read who I can't wait to read, because usually if I haven't read anything by someone, I also don't know anything about them.  I've read something by most of the big names, and if I haven't it's because I'm scared of them.  Like Victor Hugo.  So I'll just put down people I'm hoping to read soon, even if I'm not actually super-excited about them.

    Berthold Brecht--I want to read The Threepenny Opera pretty soon.
    Bruno Schulz' The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories.
    Victor Hugo--why not?  Les Miserables, someday anyway.
    Mia Couto--Sleepwalking Land
    VS Naipul--I have the Ramayana on my shelf.
  21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why? The Street of Crocodiles, I'm quite looking forward to that.  It's supposed to be great stuff.
  22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? (This could be with the club or before it.)  You know, I don't think I have.  I should try that sometime, pick a book I really disliked and try it again.  Usually if I disliked something I don't go back to it.
  23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head?  Hm, there are a lot of people in my head, but most of them are from books I read when I was younger.  I can't think of anybody in particular right now, sorry.
  24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?  This is not something I tend to do, compare fictional characters with real people, unless it's really obvious--especially myself, probably.  I did once say that somebody I know is just like Mr. Micawber!  But who is like me?  I do not know.
  25. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like?  When I was younger I wanted to be like Anne Shirley, of course.  I wouldn't mind being as wise and loving as Marmee, which I certainly am not (though I can think of a real person who resembles a thoroughly modern Marmee).  And I'd like to be as strong and certain as Jane Eyre.
  26. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend?  There, again, I've never thought about it.  My best friend is maybe not the sort of person who would end up in a novel?  She is very straightforward.  I'm not thinking of a comparison here, I'm stuck.
  27. If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why?  As long as it's by the original author, I would probably want to read it (unless it was the second half of Pamela...).    I'd be happiest to have 500 more pages of a favorite children's author, like Nesbit or Lewis or even DWJ, who ought to have classic status.
  28. Favorite children’s classic?  Nobody can possibly expect me to choose just one.  I'm the person who did a whole series on this topic, remember?  Just follow the link and you'll see a few.
  29. Who recommended your first classic?  If we're going with Little Women, it was given to me by a friend.  She was a teacher in a church class when I was a teen and when she found out I had never read it, she was scandalized (the more so because she knew I was a reader!).  I was about 19 at that point.  It's not that I'd never seen Little Women before--my mom had a copy--but I wouldn't touch it because I had this silly prejudice about books that said 'classic' on them (if they didn't say the word, I didn't know, and read them).
  30. Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature. (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.)  First, my mom; we're practically literary clones anyway and we borrow from each other a lot.  Otherwise, Amy at Book Musings (come back, Amy!) always had really good ideas, Tom at Wuthering Expectations is forever coming up with--to use his word--preposterous titles that work out perfectly, and too many other people to list, like Cleo and Jenny at Reading the End and so on...
  31. Favorite memory with a classic?  Well, I don't know about favorite, but how about this one?  In college, my roommate and I both had to read Clarissa at about the same time.  Probably partly because of the fact that we each had to read it in about 10 days, we both got completely subsumed in the world of the story.  Clarissa's fate seemed completely natural and obvious to us; clearly that was the only thing she could do.  It took us at least a week to recover enough for the lightbulb to go on and our modern sensibilities to come back so that we thought what rubbish it all was.  (Of course I mean we did that only with the novel itself, not the rest of our lives!)  It's such a goofy story that remembering it always makes me laugh.
  32. Classic author you’ve read the most works by?  Probably Shakespeare, just because there are so many plays!
  33. Classic author who has the most works on your club list?  Shakespeare.  I usually tried to select one or two representative titles for a really wide spread, but Shakespeare got 5 or so.  Because Shakespeare.  Edith Wharton got 3 because I'd never read any Wharton before.
  34. Classic author you own the most books by?  C. S. Lewis, almost certainly.  I usually only own one or two by the more famous authors; I try to "collect" the ones I can't easily get at the library or just have to have around all the time.  I have collected a lot of Lewis, including literary criticism.

    *two hours later*  No, wait.  I own an entire Yale Shakespeare, a good 30 volumes.  That would be it.
  35. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? (Or, since many people edit their lists as they go, which titles have you added since initially posting your club list?)  I kept adding for months until I realized I would have to stop.  I added the Scandinavian titles and the German titles suggested by my brother last, I think.  I can think of lots of others to add, but I think I'll have to pull an o and come up with a second list after I finish this one.
  36. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Obviously this should be an author you haven’t yet read, since you can’t do this experiment on an author you’re already familiar with. :) Or, which author’s work you are familiar with might it have been fun to approach this wayHm, that's what I'm trying to do with Thomas Pynchon!  I'm going to try to read those in order.  So I guess him, though it's not totally pure since I'd already read his second book twice.  If I was going to pick someone completely unread, that's really tough.  Some of the bloggers I see do it with Zola, but I'm not sure I want to read that much Zola....

  37. How many rereads are on your club list? If none, why? If some, which are you most looking forward to, or did you most enjoy?  Eighteen, which counts 5 Shakespeare plays and a review of a bunch of Scandinavian classics I read in college.   I looked forward to those Scandinavian books and so far they have repaid very well.  Anaya's Bless Me Ultima I liked better the first time.  I'm very much looking forward to re-reading Gandhi's autobiography, which I first read in my freshman year of college and loved. 
  38. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish?  Lory just reminded me that I didn't make it through Midnight's Children, but that was quite a few years ago now.  I'm worried enough about The Cairo Trilogy that I'm thinking of swapping it out.
  39. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving?  Madame Bovary!  The Count of Monte Cristo!  (I'm always nervous of French lit.)
  40. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature? 
    I want to do some Germans,
    and finish the Barsetshire books,
    and read some medieval literature that is not about King Arthur,
    and read more Asian works,
    and concentrate a lot on my CC list generally.
  41. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year? Hoping for Roll, Jordan, Roll and Gravity's Rainbow.
  42. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year? The Dream of the Red Chamber. Do you know it's 5 volumes long??  No wonder nobody owns it. It seemed like a good idea at the time.  That one might have to go in favor of something else, maybe this one popular Korean classic my brother told me about.

  43. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club?  So many people to trade encouragement and stories with, and the Spin!
  44. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs? I read a lot of blogs!  These are some but I probably read 30+.  (Are these people all in the club?  I don't even know.)

    Cleo at Classical Carousel has become a good blogging friend; we have a lot of tastes in common.  Plus she's funnier than I am.
    Ekaterina at In My Book is really fun to read and has good recommendations, and I am jealous of where she lives, in Prague.
    Tom at Wuthering Expectations comes up with insane book proposals and then writes about them very thoroughly. And he's funny about it.
    Emily at Classics and Beyond
    is always thoughtful and brings up interesting points (like her recent post about finishing books!)
    O at Behold the Stars reads super-fast and can write long analytic posts like I can't.
  45. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber?  You have got to be kidding.  I don't know, how could I know that?  I know, I will tell you my favorite post of the last week.  It is Emily's post on finishing books, and it reflects on an article from the Atlantic that made some ripples recently.  I may post on it soon myself, because I have THOUGHTS.  And OPINIONS.
  46. If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience? If you’ve participated in more than one, what’s the very best experience? the best title you’ve completed? a fond memory? a good friend made?  I've done a few now, but my first one is a great memory.  I did Madame Bovary with the WTM Ladies and had a wonderful experience.  Everyone was so nice, and I was so intimidated by the book and wound up loving it.
  47. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why?  Les Miserables, because I don't think it will happen unless there is a readalong at just the right time (like summer).
  48. How long have you been reading classic literature?  With intent, about 4 years.  In a desultory sort of way, forever.
  49. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc.

    Kindly Inquisitors tells you something about my pet issues.
    For angry posting, you can read my post on Pamela.
    My thoughts on The Quest of the Holy Grail, one of my favorites from this year's Arthurian Challenge.
    A book by one of my all-time favorite history people: Dancing Goddesses.
    What Makes DWJ Magical, for DWJ March 2013.
  50. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!)  I am surveyed out.  *faint*

Hermione knows what she's talking about.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


First edition cover
Perelandra, by C. S. Lewis

I am so ridiculously late with this post.  I read this book somewhere in the beginning of October for a Goodreads readalong, but I've been chronically behind with book posts since then and poor Perelandra keeps getting left on the bottom of the pile.

Ransom, who journeyed to Malacandra, is now "called" on a journey to Perelandra--Venus.  He will be transported there, and he'll have a job to do, though what the job will be is a mystery.  Once he gets there, he discovers that Perelandra is a new, young world--an ocean world with floating islands--and that it is an Eden, populated only with the first two people who will live there.  Once again, Weston has traveled to this new world with plans to exploit it somehow, but soon he is taken over by another intelligence whose goal is to turn Perelandra into another silent planet.  Ransom sets himself the task of stopping him.

This is a stranger story than Out of the Silent Planet, to my mind.  Lewis sets up a second Eden and it's Ransom's job to stop a second Fall.  It's got a lot more overt theology in it--that characteristic style, only in novel form.

I like this book, but it's quite difficult to talk about it without either giving everything away or sounding weird, probably both.

This is my copy of Perelandra.

Vintage Science Fiction!

People are already putting up their challenges for next year, which is very exciting but also makes me feel like I do when I realize that Christmas is looming at me and I haven't actually done anything about it yet.  It's too soon!  I can't think about that yet!  But I am going to try to start posting on things for next year, if only so that I feel organized and accomplished.

Late last year I discovered the Vintage SciFi Not-A-Challenge and was enchanted.  I read a bunch of PKD and Bester, and a Clarke.  Now I'm going to do it again!  The Little Red Reviewer says:
The What:
Anything or anyone who created science fiction, or something speculative fiction-ish that was published (or recorded, or put on TV or the silver screen) before 1979.  It can be hard scifi, or not. Have aliens, or not.  Fantasy is OK too....

The Why:
Why? because everything came from somewhere. Your favorite spec fic author was influenced by someone, who was influenced by someone, who was influenced by someone, and so on.   Movements and changes in what’s popular, what we wish was popular, or what we’re sick of is a reaction to what came before.  
This January, I'm going to have two goals: to read some Heinlein for the first time in my life, and to read some iron-curtain SF.  I have a Strugatsky book and some Lem in mind.  I so look forward to this as a fun way to kick off the year!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

War and Peace

War and Peace, by Lev Tolstoy,  translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky

It took me 3 months, but it was completely worth it.  I'm not sure else what to say about the mother of all chunkster classics, but I'll give it a go:

We've got a cast of characters in Russia during the Napoleonic Era.  It takes a while to get to know them all!  There are three or four main families and their paths touch here and there over the course of the novel, eventually cohering into one.  The story takes years, and some of the characters change very much.  We get to know the main players so well that we sympathize with them and want them to be happy even when they're not choosing very well.

There is a lot about the war, first in Prussia, then in Russia itself.  Napoleon himself is a character, and Tolstoy has some very pointed things to say about "great men."  By the end, he is expounding on power, freedom, and war--the epilogue, which you hope will have more story in it, has essay, story, and lots more essay.  But the story part does end on a satisfactory note.

Tolstoy refused to call this work a novel.  I'm not sure what he did call it, though.  Apparently, he read Tristram Shandy (and Sterne in general) and admired it, and the footnotes say that it's "seen as a formal precursor to War and Peace."  I found this out after deciding to put Tristram off until I was done with Tolstoy, so then I felt silly.

This was not an easy novel for me to read, and I didn't love it as much as I did Anna Karenina, but I did enjoy it.  I got to love the characters, I was interested in what they did, and most of the historical war parts were quite interesting--it's just that it is not an easy or fast read.  You've got to commit.  I'm sure not everyone would think the commitment worth it, but I did.  I will certainly re-read it one day, and I hope that will be soon enough that I won't forget who is who!  I would like to be able to remember everyone's fates from the beginning next time.

I would have had an easier time if my giant, floppy paperback had been in two volumes; that would have helped a lot, because I could really only read it in two places--I had to either be sitting on the couch with plenty of time, or else in bed and therefore already tired.  Since my normal MO involves carrying a book around with me and reading on the go, I couldn't make fast progress.

An amazing, sprawling, masterwork of a novel. 

There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.

Le Morte D'Arthur Readalong, Part III

I'm a little late with this post, mostly for good reasons.  I planned to write it up yesterday, but instead I spent the whole day with the jitters because I was due to spend the evening competing in a trivia contest.  The event was the annual fundraiser for our county's literacy program, and this was my second year on the team.  Last year we came really close to winning, but the final round killed us, and I was really hoping to do better this year.  There were 21 teams and the questions are pretty hard!  I'm pleased to report that our team took first place!!  yay!!  and so it was a great success.  But for all of yesterday, about all I could accomplish was to potter nervously or read As You Wish, Cary Elwes' new book chronicling the making of The Princess Bride. 

So, on with King Arthur....

I read Books X through XV, and X was really something of a slog, honestly.  It is huge, and mostly consists of endless jousting, spear-brasting, blood brasting out of noses and ears, and swords and more blood and horses getting killed too, poor things.  It was a relief to get done with Sir Tristram and on to more interesting things!

On the whole, though, this is really turning into quite a soap opera, as the knights collect grievances against one another and intrigue to take revenge.  Lamorak sleeps with Queen Morgause, whose head is promptly swopped off by her own son, because he's horrified that his mother would sleep with the son of the man who killed her husband.  Lamorak protests that his father didn't kill King Lot, Balin did!  And on and on it goes, with murderous factions developing all over the court.  (I bet Malory had plenty of first-hand experience of court intrigue!)

 Some incidents I thought worth noting:

Book X, chapter 32: Saracens show up in Cornwall (!), largely to illustrate the utter perfidy and terribleness of King Mark.  Because goodness knows we can't have Tristram looking bad for having an affair with Mark's wife.  In other chapters, Mark is proven to be incredibly cowardly and also devious--in chapter 51 he forges letters from the Pope and puts Tristram in prison.

Chapter 38: Sir Alisander is taken prisoner by Morgan le Fay, and when he hears that she wants him to be her leman, announces "I had lever cut away my hangers than I would do her such pleasure."  Yep, that means just what you think.

Chapter 63: Whoa, we get the news that Lamorak has been murdered by Gawaine and his three brothers (not Gareth).  I don't know why this episode is told as an off-stage incident, but I don't recall its existence in other Arthurian tales either.  Anyone else?

Tristram and Palomides finally have their final, really final confrontation.  They can't quite decide whether they are friends or enemies, and it's pretty funny.  In the end, they decide to be friends, and Tristram stands Palomides' godfather at his christening.

FINALLY we get to the more interesting story about Lancelot siring Galahad in the most bizarre way possible (the world's purest knight is begotten by deception and enchantments, OK....).  Poor Lancelot goes mad for a couple of years and other things happen.  Then Galahad shows up to sit in the Siege Perilous (I just love that name) and Malory informs us that this is all occurring in the year 454 AD, over a thousand years ago for him, nearly twice as far away from his time than he is from us!  I suppose that makes it historical fiction, of a sort....?

Book XIII, chapter 11: We learn the story of Galahad's shield, which is of course pure white with a red cross.  (It would be quite interesting to study the complete history of that emblem, what with the Crusades and St. George and Galahad and the English flag...)  The white shield belonged to King Evelake, and--get this--Joseph of Arimathea had a massive nosebleed and made the red cross with his own blood.

Malory really seems much more interested in head-swopping and spear-brasting than all this mystical questy stuff that I think is much more fun.  I think he's zipping through it as fast as he can manage without just leaving it out altogether, which is kind of a bummer.

As always, Arthur's court exists in fairy-tale time.  Lancelot is by now well over 40, but he's still Lancelot; he'll never get old.

OK, so now I'm on the last stretch!  Books XVI - XXI, due December 1st.  How are you all doing?  Is anybody sticking with me on this insane quest? 

Our trivia bee team: Phil, me, and Nancy (aka my mom, the trivia wizard)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Classics Club Spin Result

The number, as they say, is unlucky 13, but it works for me.  I'll be reading Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible.  I've been meaning to get to it for some time but I keep putting it off, so this will be good for me.

Adrift on the Nile

Adrift on the Nile, by Naguib Mahfouz

Storytime: one of the titles on my Classics Club list is The Cairo Trilogy, by this Mahfouz guy.  It's huge (being 3 novels in one volume), so I thought I would try one or two of his shorter novels first, to see what I thought before committing myself to 1000 pages.  I checked out this novel and one titled Arabian Days and Nights, both quite short.  This book is billed as "an exciting and dramatic change of pace" from the Cairo Trilogy.  "Exciting and dramatic" is exactly what the story is not, so I sure hope the blurb meant that the style is different, not that the Cairo Trilogy is a slower read than this.  On to Adrift on the Nile...

Anis Zaki is a mid-level government office worker during the mid-1960s--the Nasser years.  He lives on a houseboat on the Nile, and every evening his friends visit; they are all educated, fairly well-off writers or filmmakers or artists left behind by the changing times.  Every night they smoke a lot of opium and talk a lot, arguing about art and love, and they leave the rest of the world strictly alone to take care of itself.  A couple of minor things happen, but mostly nothing until right at the last part of the book, when they decide to take a joyride.

So, pretty much this story is a bunch of people sitting around and getting high all the time.  It proves that stoned people are only interesting to other stoned people.  Anis can't do without his drug at all, and is high 24/7, which is a bit hard on his job performance.  And then they take the joyride and the result is what you might expect from a bunch of stoned people driving too fast.

It seems to me that the novel's theme is captured right on page 4, in the opening scene when Anis gets in trouble at work.  He is supposed to have written out a document, but he has failed to notice that his pen ran out of ink on the first line.  He wrote the whole thing, but the pages are empty.  Likewise, Anis and his friends think they are creating meaning and friendship during their talkative evenings on the houseboat, but in fact they are creating nothing but emptiness and meaninglessness.  Just as the title says, they are adrift.  But this novel about people adrift is not actually very interesting to read.

I'm not a Mahfouz fan so far.  I'll give the other one a try, but if that's not to my taste then I'll have to trade the Cairo Trilogy off my list for something else!