Sunday, October 19, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 3

Whew!  I gave my talk today, and I survived, and I feel much better now.  I got to do quite a bit of reading in the afternoon, too.

I finished Book VII of Le Morte D'Arthur, which was the Tale of Sir Gareth, aka Beaumains.

Just one chapter of Mysteries, but quite a long one.

And over 60 pages of War and Peace (they are very large pages!), so I feel quite accomplished about that.  It's all preparations for Napoleon arriving near Moscow.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 2

Today was my super-busy day.  I meant to mostly write a talk I have to give tomorrow, but I also wound up going to the mall twice if you can believe it, and other things.  So not a lot of reading today.  But I did manage:

The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull, by John Bellairs -- an old favorite that I got in the mood to read.

18 chapters of Le Morte D'Arthur-- Book VII is the Tale of Sir Gareth, and it's longer.  I read half.

Tomorrow I'll get some book reviews done!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wonderfully Wicked Readathon, Day 1

Are you joining in the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon, hosted by My Shelf Confessions, or any other?  I think there's more than one right now.  Here is my end-of-the-day news:

I started reading Diana Wynne Jones' Time of the Ghost yesterday evening and finished it today.  What great characters inhabit that story--a set of sisters, who know each other inside and out, care for each other and fight all the time, and are very peculiar owing to the really terrible neglect of their parents.

A couple of chapters of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries--one heck of a weird book.

And Book VI of Le Morte D'Arthur: The Tale of Sir Launcelot of the Lake.

I currently have a truly ridiculous number of books checked out of the library, and little business reading any of them when I have a huge chunk of Le Morte D'Arthur and War and Peace to read!  Just 500 pages to go in that last one, woohoo!

Some of my ridiculous pile at the moment

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Uncle Silas

Not the cover, but could be!
Uncle Silas, by Sheridan Le Fanu

Uncle Silas was suggested to me for an October read, and it was a lot of fun.  It is a wonderful example of the English Gothic novel (OK, Le Fanu was Irish, but it's the genre): big old crumbling mansion, strange uncle, heiress all Catholics this time, this being solid England, but there are Swedenborgians!

Maud lives with her father and a few servants on their estate; their lives are incredibly sheltered and lonely.  Maud's father is old, self-absorbed, and distant, mostly interested in the beliefs of Swedenborg.  Maud hears a tiny bit about her Uncle Silas, a former rake who, rumor claims, murdered a creditor years ago.  Although Maud's father believes in his brother's innocence, few others do and Silas lives in utter seclusion, reportedly a fervently converted Christian repenting of his former ways.  There is also a scary, scheming, screeching old French governess who terrifies Maud.

The father dies and Maud is sent to live for the next few years with Uncle Silas, who will inherit her vast fortune if she dies before she reaches adulthood.  Here, she is even more isolated, though she does have her cousin Milly, but her circumstances get ever creepier and more unsettling...

This is a really good mid-Victorian Gothic thriller with bonus locked-room mystery.  Maud is pretty irritating at first; she is so completely sheltered that she is not much use to anyone or herself, but she learns to find some backbone.  The governess is really over the top, and Uncle Silas is creepy.

I'm looking forward to the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon, starting tomorrow and ending on the 27th.  I probably won't be able to post much at the beginning--I expect to spend the next couple of days in a frenzy of activity--but I'll get there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Le Morte D'Arthur, Part I

Here's the first check-in post--how are you all doing with the first chunk of Le Morte D'Arthur?  I found it to be pretty fun most of the time.  Malory is editing some very long French adventures down into what he must have felt to be more digestible chunks, and for medieval adventures they're not so long.  Parzival, for example, was much wordier.

There sure are some weird things in here though, aren't there?  Here are some incidents that caught my eye.

Book I, chapter 27:  Arthur learns from a prophecy that a child born on May Day will be his doom.  Like Herod, he stages a slaughter of the innocents by requiring all the children born on May Day to be sent to him, whereupon he puts them all in a ship and sends them off to die. !!!  I was really stunned by this story and would like to know just where Malory got it (besides the Bible, obviously, but I don't think Malory was the inventor here).  Inevitably, Mordred is the one baby who survives the shipwreck.  WHAT a bizarre story to put into an Arthurian tale.

Oddly, the story says that "some were four weeks old, and some less."  So they are all infants, but surely if they were all born on May Day they would be exactly the same age?

Book IV, the Tales of the Three Damosels:  Sir Gawain's part in this tale is really pretty strange, don't you think?  First he refuses his damosel's advice (rightly, as it turns out) and she just walks off.  He meets Sir Pelleas, who tells his tale of woe about the lady he loves who doesn't love him back* and Gawain promises on his honor to get her to love Pelleas.  Then he goes off and makes a stab at the job, but ends up seducing her himself!  In the ensuing mess, the lady is properly punished for not loving Pelleas, Pelleas gets a better lady, and no one seems to mind all that much about Gawaine's behavior.

*We could have a whole long post about consent issues in this book!  Suffice to say that Malory seems to feel that if a knight likes a single lady and he is a knight of prowess, the lady has no good reason not to give him her love and should be punished for her orneriness and being so rotten.  I'm sure it was a very common attitude.  Ick.

Book V: the Tale of Arthur's War With Rome: You have to kind of love this.  The Roman Empire demands tribute, and Arthur's reaction is not only that he will never pay tribute, but: "I have understood that Belinus and Brenius, kings of Britain, have had the empire in their hands many days, and also Constantine the son of Heleine, which is an open evidence that we owe no tribute to Rome, but of right we that be descended of them have right to claim the title of the empire."  And off they all go to conquer the entire Roman Empire.  Arthur is crowned Emperor and then trots back home to Britain, never to think of Europe again.

One notable thing about Malory's Arthur is that he isn't always what we would consider to be a paragon of knightly virtue.  He's only mostly a paragon.  I can't believe that anyone back then would have thought that slaughter of the innocents episode to be OK for a king.  And another thing Malory has Arthur doing is committing more outright adultery than usual.  Before he marries Guenevere, he sleeps with at least a couple other women, both of whom are married, and produces children both times.  Most writers, in my experience, try to avoid things like that, or smooth over them--they'll have Morgause hide her married status, or something.

Change of schedule:  I was going to have us read Books 6-10 in the next two weeks, but I've just realized that Book 10 is huge, and Books 11-15 are quite short.  My two-volume set has no table of contents, and I thought that Book 10 ended with volume I, which it does not.   So I am hereby officially changing the schedule: we will read Books 6-9 in the second half of October and 10-15 in the first half of November.  Or, feel free to break 10 up into two chunks to make it easier; whatever works for you is fine.  See you on Halloween for the discussion!

Well, I'm late with this post already and I'd better stop typing.  It turns out to be a truly crazy week for me and I didn't get to this as soon as I wanted to, but that's the beauty of book blogging--there are few rules and it's all voluntary, and so it doesn't matter all that much that I am 12 hours late.  Now tell me about your progress!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

As long as I'm doing the RIP event, I may as well tell you about the movie we just watched for the Peril On The Screen portion of the challenge.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, of course, one of the big classic alien invasion films!  I don't think I'd ever actually seen it before, even though I know all about pod people.  My daughter and I love Daniel Pinkwater, and he riffs on pod people in Lizard Music, so we both wanted to see it.

In the small town of Santa Mira, a doctor comes back from a conference to find that a) his old girlfriend is back in town and available, and b) several people seem to be hallucinating that their closest relatives are no longer themselves.  Soon, he and his true love are on the run from terrifying plant-based aliens who first grow into copies of people, and then take over their minds while they sleep.  Can they make it to the outside and warn the world before it's too late??

It's a pretty great movie, despite a little lack of coherence on the takeover process.  You'll see some familiar faces from the 50s.  Like so many SF stories of that time, it can be seen as a fantasy about the dangers of communism (or maybe brain-washing, or heck, conformity); the pod people lose all humanity, become completely alike, and work together in a hive-mind-esque way.  It was re-made in 1978, so I'd quite like to see that; I bet it's entertainingly bad.

Great classic movie.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Last year I read Code Name Verity, and it was amazing.  Rose Under Fire is the companion novel; you don't have to have read Verity, but Maggie is in both.

Rose is an American girl and she knows how to fly planes, so she has a job ferrying planes around for repair or transport or whatever.  She is nowhere near the front lines, and although she would love to get to Europe, the chances are slim.  It's mid-1944 and the Nazis are being beaten back, though, so when France is liberated, Rose gets a chance to ferry a plane from there.  Then she disappears. 

Rose has been captured by the Germans, who assumed they had a flying spy, not a girl gofer.  But they're not about to let her go, so they send her to Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp.  There, she tries to survive, trading bread and getting to know many different people, including the Rabbits--a group of women subjected to horrifying medical experiments.  

Just like Code Name Verity, this is a fantastic book.  The writing is great, the characters live, and the emotions are real.  I hope Wein will be writing books for a long time.  Check out her website for some great resources on the Rabbits and other events featured in the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Triple Package

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

This book got some notice when it came out because one of the authors is the Tiger Mother woman.  Turns out she's also a law professor and does a lot of this global analysis stuff too.  (I have not read the tiger mother books, so maybe she said that and I just didn't know.)

Chua and Rubenfeld sort of profile ethnic/cultural groups in America that have done unusually well: Jews, Nigerians, Cubans, Chinese, Mormons, and a few others.  They isolate three cultural traits: a superiority complex, impulse control, and feelings of inferiority.  Their claim is that these three traits, working together, in an open society, will produce a group that tends to be more materially successful than the average.  And then they delve into some detail.

I didn't feel like they did anywhere near as much analysis as would be useful.  They'll kind of jump around, spending a page or two on one group before moving on to another.  I really mostly picked the book up because the inclusion of Mormons caught my eye--that's the only group in the book that isn't ethnically based.  Anybody can be a Mormon.  But they restricted the working definition of 'Mormon' to mostly include people whose families have been LDS for more than a generation, even though some of the people they profile are converts.  Anyway, I felt like any analysis of Mormons was so shallow and short as to be nearly useless.  So I'm kind of thinking that if a Cuban or Nigerian read this book, they'd feel like the analysis of their cultures was useless too.

More usefully, the authors talk about why these three traits might produce a lot of driven, wealthy people.  I was happy to see that they talk about the (often severe) problems that can come along for the ride, and I was even happier that they spent quite a while talking about how "success" might not really be solely defined as "getting rich."  They also discuss how Triple Package traits can be crushed right out of a group or can be useless in an oppressive society; they work very hard to be fair.

Not a bad read, not earthshaking either.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Melmoth the Wanderer

Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

I've done it!  I read Eugene Onegin's favorite novel!  Melmoth the Wanderer was published in 1820 and is, in some ways, the culmination of the Gothic novel.  It uses every trope--in fact I'd say it over-uses most of them.  What could be more appropriate to RIP month?

The novel is a series of stories within more stories, and then more, until you wonder how you will ever climb out.  It is also, let me just warn you, the single most anti-Catholic novel I've ever read.  Hundreds of pages are devoted to the horrors of monastic life, the greed and cruelty of power-abusing monks, the Inquisition, and the power abuses of priests.  I am not even kidding.  Apparently Spain is populated entirely by power-hungry priests and their terrorized subjects.  Now, to be fair, there are a couple of good Catholic priests in the story, but on the whole it is just awful, the sort of tripe that was such common fare in 19th-century England.  Now, on to the story:

A young man, John Melmoth, is summoned to his dying uncle's bedside and left to deal with the estate and the legend of an ancestral uncle who (it is hinted) dealt with the devil.  He finds an old manuscript--even less legible than most old manuscripts in novels--and reads the story of one Stanton, who long ago searched for the legendary Melmoth but did not find him until he was imprisoned in a madhouse, where he is visited and offered escape, at a price.

Then there's a shipwreck near the estate, and the only survivor is a Spaniard, Alonzo Monçada, who tells his life story as he recovers.  This Spaniard is a former monk; he was brought up in a monastery and forced to take his vows, and just as he escaped he was turned over to the Inquisition.  Melmoth visits him and offers him escape, at a price.  Monçada instead escapes during a fire, and ends up sheltering with a Jew who lives underground in a secret chamber, and who gives him an old manuscript to read!

The manuscript tells the story of Immalee, a young girl shipwrecked alone on an island on the coast of India.  She grows up alone, with Nature for her parent and teacher, and the locals worship her as a goddess, the island having always been sacred to a goddess anyway.  (The description of India is hilariously naive and clumsy.  It's just so funny.  Hindu temples are described as pagodas, and so on.)  Melmoth visits her and tries to take away her innocence, but she falls in love with him instead.  Years later, restored to her Spanish family and now known as Isadora, she secretly marries him in a ceremony done by an undead hermit.  Meanwhile...

...her father, a traveling merchant, meets a stranger at an inn who tells him a long story about the family of Guzman and their travails in poverty--Melmoth offered to help them, at a price.  The father then runs into Melmoth, who tells him the story of an Englishwoman who is jilted at the altar.  Melmoth offered to help her, at a price.

After this we go back to Isadora, who is about to have Melmoth's baby even as her father is arranging her marriage....and at this point we start climbing the stairs back to the original tale.

Here we have six separate stories nested together, all of which combine their hints to make a picture of the life of Melmoth the Wanderer, who has lived for about 150 years after making a bargain with the devil.  He can go anywhere, enter any locked room, but he spends the time searching for someone who will take over the contract for him, but no one ever does, even though he chooses the most desperate and unhappy of people.
'No one has ever exchanged destinies with Melmoth the Wanderer. I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain that world, would lose his own soul!–Not Stanton in his cell–nor you, Monçada, in the prison of the Inquisition–nor Walberg, who saw his children perishing with want–nor–another'–
You can probably see why I say that this novel over-uses Gothic tropes.  It takes all of them and turns them up to eleven, with the result that I was constantly kind of annoyed, even as I was entertained by the sheer volume of melodrama.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

These guys are like John and John of They Might be Giants.  Except they have different spellings, which makes it more confusing.  Anyway, I read this a while ago, procrastinated the review, and am now just going to give you a short rundown.

I guess people kept mailing the Freakonomics guys with questions about how to solve giant, intractable problems--big things like world hunger or poverty.  Or about anything else anyone thought of, from breastfeeding to fracking to whether prayer works.  Since they can't actually solve world hunger, they thought they'd try writing a book that explains something about how they think about problems and how economics-type thinking might be a handy tool for some of us, too.  That way maybe people will stop bugging them.

It's a pretty fun book with anecdotes about soccer and lotteries, potty-training and charitable giving, and tips about how to think about problem-solving.  We often try to solve problems by incentivizing some particular behavior, for example, but that can easily backfire and will always lead to some folks gaming the system for quick profit.  So, they offer tips on incentive designing.  Stuff like that.

I don't know that it's a world-changing book, but it was fairly entertaining.  Especially the potty-training story.  I don't always buy Levitt and Dubner's sometimes-facile explanations for things, but they're fun to read.