Friday, October 31, 2014

It's Witch Week!

The event I have been waiting for is here!  It's Witch Week!  Hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review, this is a week dedicated to the works of Diana Wynne Jones, who invented Witch Week, the days between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day:
Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen...

Today is the first day, and we're going to have a readalong of (naturally) Witch Week, and there is a wonderful personal essay about Fire & Hemlock by Ana on Lory's blog today.  Go read it!  It really makes me wish I could remember my first reading of F&H, which I cannot.

Le Morte D'Arthur, Part II

How are you all doing with the readalong?  I'm finding the schedule to be a little more rigorous than I had meant it to be.  But I've finished Books VI through IX, and I thought I'd  better get going on X since it's soooo long.

I had not realized that Malory was so much rougher than many of the earlier stories that I'd read.  He is way more into the fighting and the smashing and the spearing and thunder, isn't he?  And nobody seems to be as pure and well-behaved as usual.  Gawaine is awful.  Arthur, the ideal king (except for that one problem), is fairly awful too.  I've heard that Malory was in prison for behaving like a ruffian, and it seems to have worked its way into his stories more than I had expected!

Interesting how, now that Arthur is settled into kingship and has conquered Europe, there is no more war--but everybody has to keep fighting, obviously, because if not there will be no point to their lives.  So they start hanging out at bridges or randomly challenging each other to joust.  You can't swing a cat in the forest without meeting a knight or three, or a damsel, or a castle.  Maybe a hermit.  No woodcutters or peasants, usually (although I suppose castles imply the existence of peasants, we just don't talk about them).

Interesting notes:

Book VI is the story of Launcelot, but this is Launcelot before he gets too involved with Guinevere, which I assume we shall hear more of anon.  In chapter 10, he even makes a speech, about how he is Guinevere's knight, and will never marry because then he would have to stop adventuring and battling, and he will never have a paramour, because then God would punish him and he would either be beaten in battle by a lesser knight, or kill a better knight accidentally and that would be terrible.  I guess he'll change his mind, but then he really does kill a bunch of his friends accidentally, so...be warned.

For the moment, at least, Launcelot is a better man than, say, Gawaine.  Gareth actually stops talking to his big brother, because Gawaine "was vengeable, and where he hated he would be avenged with murder, and that hated Sir Gareth."

Tristram's birth in Book VIII is quite interesting--there's all this about how happy and loving his parents were, and then a lady who wants King Meliodas for herself kidnaps him!  And Tristram's mother, Elizabeth, runs around in the forest alone looking for him and has her baby out there, poor lady, and dies.  Meliodas doesn't die in this version, though; instead he re-marries after seven years and the new stepmother tries to murder little Tristram and gets her own child instead.

Apparently people will never learn not to promise boons without making some rules ahead of time.  King Mark promises a boon, and the knight who asks it decides he would like another knight's wife.  Well, there's nothing to be done, because Mark promised a boon!  I mean, other knights can go after him and fight to get her back, but nobody says "No, you can't just abduct a woman out of this room!"  And then she decides to stay with him anyway, because...I'm not sure.  She's mad at her husband and at Tristram, but why she therefore prefers her kidnapper is beyond me.

Sir Lamorak is supposed to be a really wonderful knight, but he sure does some strange things.  For example--Lamorak witnesses Gawaine abducting a lady whose knight is asleep.  Lamorak quite properly chases Gawaine down and proposes to fight with him.  Gawaine instead attacks the sleeping knight, who smites him down and gets his lady back.  Lamorak then decides that it's his duty to take revenge on Gawaine's behalf, and so the formerly-sleepy knight and he joust, and Lamorak kills him.  What?

Boy, this is a lot of jousting and fighting.  And I'm getting a little tired of ol' Sir Tristram.  Let's get some Grail questing going on here!

Our next installment will consist of Books X - XV, which mostly involves the vast Book X.  It's 87 chapters long.  If you want, you can shove Books XIV and XV to next time, but taken together they only come to 20 pages or so.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Supernatural Enhancements

Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

I can no longer remember who reviewed this a few weeks ago, and while I tried to look through my RSS feed to find out, I subscribe to too many book blogs for that to work.  If it was you, please tell me OK?  Like most people, I saw the cover and had to read it.  The trouble with that is that I was quite worried that the story would not live up to the cover!

In proper Gothic tradition, this novel purports to be a found collection of documents put into order for the reader.  The first page is missing.  We read a diary, letter, clues, and--since this is a modern novel, set in 1995--transcripts of recordings and videos.

A., the diarist, is a distant cousin of the recently deceased Ambrose Wells, and has just inherited his old Virginian manor house--complete with ghost and missing butler.  A. and his companion, teenaged Niamh, an Irish kid with acquired mutism, explore the clues and puzzles scattered through the house to figure out what secret society has been meeting there, what exactly the members are all on a quest for, and why Uncle Ambrose might have thrown himself out a window.  Someone else might be on the track too.

It's pretty fun, but also kind of on the dark side--doesn't seem so at first.  The ending is quite unexpected, the mystery pretty strange.  You're inclined to think that the two protagonists are going to be aggressively quirky with a capital Q, but they're pretty livable.  I'm not going to say it's the greatest novel I've read this year, but I enjoyed it (the end kind of turned me off though).  It is somewhat more cheerful and less objectifying than Carlos Ruiz Zafon is inclined to be (this kind of reminds me of that, only it's way more American in feel and not so broodingly Euro.)

I think this is my final RIP read--at least, until Witch Week!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 9

Tomorrow is the last day of the readathon!  Even though I haven't gotten to read as much as I wanted, I tried to make time even in very busy days for reading, and I'm happy about that.  Here's what I've done in the last couple of days:

Finished volume III in War and Peace; a little way into volume IV.

Some progress in Morte D'Arthur--hoping to finish Book IX tonight.

I read another novel by Emecheta, titled The Slave Girl--the life story of a favorite daughter who is sold into slavery by her own brother after their parents die.  It's set in early 1900s Nigeria, with the British becoming more powerful in their empire (that's in the background) and is very good.

Mysteries

Mysteries, by Knut Hamsum

A few weeks ago, Tom at Wuthering Expectations posted a casual invitation to join him and a few others in reading Mysteries with this:
All too soon Ricardo de la Caravana de recuerdos, and I hope many, many others, will join me in a reading of and conversation about Knut Hamsun’s 1892 novel Mysteries.  If it is like other Hamsun novels, some of that “conversation” will be closer to stunned silence and questions like “What is this?” 
Well, I could hardly refuse an opportunity to ask "What is this?" so I joined in.

Mysteries is an 1892 novel by the Norwegian Knut Hamsun (whose name confused me until the introduction explained that it was Hamsund, after the family's farm, but a printer's typo inspired him to drop the D permanently).  He was something of an iconoclast in Norwegian literature, determined to smash all orthodoxies and write "a new literary psychology" that was all about the stream of consciousness and its unpredictable nature.  In other words, he anticipated Virginia Woolf by a couple of decades, I guess?

It is certainly a weird novel.  The plot:

A stranger, one Johan Nilsen Nagel, arrives in a small coastal town and spends the summer for no apparent reason.  He is given to telling wild, contradictory stories about himself that always seem to end in some very disconcerting manner.  He helps people secretly, pretending that he is doing no such thing.  Nagel falls in love with the local beauty, who is engaged to a sailor, and he confuses her until she barely knows what is happening.  He pursues another woman, a very poor spinster much older than himself.  And he carries a vial of cyanide in his breast pocket.

The back of the Penguin edition calls Nagel (which means 'nail') a modern, almost parodied Christ figure, and the two women Mary and Martha.  I can't say I see it myself, but OK.

Nagel is a very strange guy.  He talks voluminously to anyone he can buttonhole, and he contradicts, makes wild assertions, and tells stories about himself which always seem to show him in a bad light (at best; they often end bizarrely).  Almost everything he does in public seems calculated to give a bad impression of himself.  In secret, he either carries out charities or, more often as the novel progresses, sits and thinks for long chapters in a stream of consciousness that is just as strange as the stories he tells.

Dagny is the local beauty, well-off and prominent in the town, with several suitors.  She has just become engaged to a sailor who is now at sea, and at first she enjoys hearing this unusual Nagel talk.  She is socially secure enough that she can take long walks at night with (single male) friends, and she goes on several with Nagel, but after a while his strange tales give way to pleas for her love.  She doesn't know what to do with the stream of contradictory talk and promises that Nagel pours on her. Is she attracted to him?  It seems more that she is fascinated by him because he is so strange.

Nagel also has an opposite number--the local wretch and butt of jokes, nicknamed Miniman.  Once a sailor, he has an injury which renders him only somewhat mobile; his uncle works him hard and he is tormented by many of the townsfolk.  Nagel seems to befriend him and secretly gives him better clothing, but their talks become more and more like rants and interrogations on Nagel's part.  Soon he is tormenting Miniman as much as anyone else does.

Throughout, Nagel keeps quoting a line which he attributes to Victor Hugo (but it isn't) that holds great meaning for him, but which is pretty strange to me.  "May your steel be as sharp as your final no."  There you go--a mystery all the way through.



Friday, October 24, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 8

We're getting toward the end of the readathon, and I don't feel like I've been able to read all that much for the last few days, but I have made efforts to make as much time as I could for it, so that alone makes it
worthwhile.  Today's progress:

I did, in fact, finish Supernatural Enhancements.  That was an unexpected ending for sure.  Tell you about it soon.

I'm close to finished with Book VIII (not IX, oops) of Morte D'Arthur.  I'll try to finish it tonight, but I'm also going to watch a movie for the Back to the Classics Challenge, so we shall see.

I forgot to mention yesterday that I had started Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington (of Magnificent Ambersons fame).  It's a quick read and pretty funny, so I took it to the girls' fencing class today and finished it.  That is my biggest thing today.

Little Brother

I love this cover.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

I picked this up because of Banned Books Week.  Little Brother was supposed to be the assigned book in a school-wide summer project, but it was pulled at the last minute.  (Read all about it!)  Doctorow, who runs the BoingBoing site, said that it seemed to have happened because of politics, so I was instantly intrigued.  Not because of sex?  Not because of any of the usuals?  This I have to see.  So here's the story (written, note, in 2006):

Marcus is a high school student in San Francisco, "one of the most surveilled people in the world."  In this not-too-distant-future scenario, schools give students notebook computers to do all their work (and keep tabs on them) and have cameras in the hallways.  Marcus, however, is a hacker kid who takes great joy in circumventing all this control.  He and three friends decide to ditch school for a couple of hours to hunt down a new clue in an international game...and are caught on the streets during a terrorist attack that kills thousands.  They are picked up by Homeland Security forces and interrogated for days.  One of them disappears.  The DHS uses the attacks to institute a sort of martial law and ever-increasing surveillance on the American populace, especially in the Bay Area.  As citizens are harassed daily and lose more rights all the time, Marcus and other young people start up a secret online community dedicated to fighting for their Constitutional rights.  If any of them are caught, they will be treated as terrorists....

This is an exciting story that is not quite as exaggerated as we would wish.  Surveillance and privacy are real concerns that we should be paying attention to--and keep in mind that this was written before Edward Snowden let us know that the most paranoid of us were not nearly paranoid enough when it comes to privacy.  Doctorow delivers the excitement and tries to educate.

The education comes at a little bit of a price, since the story often comes to a halt in order to execute an infodump about online security.  You will learn a lot about prime numbers, public and private keys, and other encryption issues.  Also some history about free speech issues, yay, and resistance to infringement of rights.  I frequently felt like I was reading something my husband wrote, since Internet privacy and security (and rights) are favorite topics of his.  I already knew about prime numbers and so on.  However, this was Doctorow's mission: to teach kids about these issues in a format that would be enjoyable and make the importance of it clear. 

Doctorow wrote this in 2006, and it's pretty easy to see that he was not happy with the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, and the DHS.  Or Fox News, for that matter.  I don't really follow BoingBoing, but I'm thinking maybe I should start, because I would like to know how he feels after six years of a new administration.  Obama continued, and usually expanded, many of the programs that Doctorow so clearly disapproves of.  The NSA is barely mentioned in Little Brother, but I bet it would get some space now.

However, that is not what I would ask Doctorow if I could.  My question would have to do with a minor character who appears in the first part of the book.  When I read the description of her, I thought "gee, she sounds like Rat" (in Daniel Pinkwater's Snarkout Boys books).  At the end of the book, there's a bibliography of recommended reading, mostly about media and online issues, and Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars is recommended.  Doctorow is evidently a big Pinkwater fan--I found quite a few mentions on BoingBoing, such as this recent article calling him "Pynchon for Kids," which would explain a lot about why I like The Crying of Lot 49 so much-- and from there I discovered that Pinkwater has produced podcast read-alouds of his books!  Let joy reign unconfined!  (I have no time to listen to audio and so I really don't follow the podcast world.  Every time I try to listen to one, I get interrupted every 5 seconds, so it seems kind of pointless. The result is that I have to be told things like this.)  All that to say that my question is: does that character have a little bit of Rat in her?  Because if so, that is awesome.

Final conclusion: Little Brother is a book that most people should probably read.  For one thing, it's a good story.  Most teens will think it's great (my daughter officially endorses it), and adults will find it stuffed with things to think and talk about.  First Amendment, people! 

You can almost certainly find this book at your friendly neighborhood public library, as I did, but if not, or if you prefer e-books, Doctorow released it for free online.  Amazon is hoping you haven't noticed that, and will sell it to you on Kindle for about eight bucks.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 7

It's not too late to join me!
I got so little time to read yesterday that I didn't write a post to tell you so.  I did, however, do a whole lot of
librarianing, so that was nice--I purchased, I weeded, I referenced, I taught!   Today was not a whole lot better reading-wise, because I was hard at work creating a blue dalek costume for my 11-year-old for Halloween.  It's almost done now, and I think it will be pretty good.  So, over the last couple of days, I have read:

Some War and Peace--not a ton, but some.

About half of Book VIII of Morte D'Arthur.  We are well into Tristram and "La Beale Isoud" now.

Nearly all of the rest of Supernatural Enhancements--I'm hoping to finish it tonight.

I have just got to write you up a review of Little Brother soon.  I have a lot to say about it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WWReadathon, Day 5

I ran around a bit today, didn't get all that much reading done, but here goes:

I finished Mysteries!  Yes indeed.  That is one weird novel.

The obligatory couple of chapters of Morte D'Arthur--I'd better tackle that more seriously tomorrow.

And I started Supernatural Enhancements, which I put on hold at the library because I saw the fantastic cover.  I am hoping the story will live up to the cover, but I'm not sure anything could.  I got about 70 pages in, but it's probably over 400.  It sticks to tradition--it's a found "collection of documents" in proper Gothic style.

The Time of the Ghost and Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

These two were both re-reads, but I specifically wanted to read them together and compare.  I had only read Ocean once, so it was really nice to go back and notice a lot of details that had become fuzzy or that I maybe hadn't noticed the first time around.  I know Time of the Ghost very well.  I have talked about both of them here before--here is my review of Ocean, and here is Time of the Ghost--so I don't want to re-state those thoughts.

When I first read Ocean, I thought it was probably Gaiman's sort-of tribute to DWJ, whom he famously thought a lot of.  Jenny thought so too, and then she actually met Gaiman and he SAID SO and that he thought it was most like Time of the Ghost.  I would like to know much more about his thoughts on that!  Thus this pairing of reading and this post.

I'm not a dedicated Gaiman fan--I always read his books, but I don't follow him online or anything, although I am always so impressed by his speeches on libraries and books and freedom that I really ought to because he says a lot that I think too, only he says it much better--(deep breath, that sentence kind of got away from me there) so maybe he has said something about his thoughts on this and I just don't know it.  (If you know of something, send me a link!)  Honestly if I met him IRL I would probably want to talk about DWJ and her amazingness, and ask him about that.  So.

Elements in Ocean that I see echoing Time of the Ghost include--well, most obviously, an old (ancient) female monster something from another...plane? that wants to suck the life out of people and anything else she can get.  This was a thing with DWJ, hungry mothers and variations thereupon, and I don't remember Gaiman doing it much before. He softens the idea with the Hempstocks, who are at least as ancient, but benevolent.  Also, a preoccupation with the local landscape and the particular homes of people, very detailed.  Anybody notice anything else?  Some images, I think--waving fabric, perhaps, and worms.

It's a good experience, reading them together, so I do recommend it as an interesting exercise.



One last thing--Gaiman opens Ocean with a quotation from a New Yorker article that was a conversation between Maurice Sendak and Art Spiegelman, published in 1993.  I remember that article!  A friend of mine was given it by his sister and I remember the dialog and the drawings on the page vividly. Here is a good copy of it.