Tuesday, September 23, 2014


You know I'll pick the pulp cover!
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Can you believe I've never read Frankenstein?  It's only been on my bookshelf for 20 years.  It was on the syllabus for a class I took, I diligently pre-bought all the books, and then it was removed for time when the class actually started.  I see that this book cost me $2.60 and had been owned by some guy named Jason at the University of Tennessee, so how it got to me at Berkeley is a bit of a mystery.  Who would bother transporting it?  Did they really truck piles of used Penguins and Oxfords around the country for impoverished lit majors?

Well, we all know the story.  Dr. Victor Frankenstein becomes fascinated with the origins of life and is finally able to create it himself!  He fashions a creature from bits and bobs, animates it, and is horrified by what he's done.  Repudiating his own creation, he leaves the poor creature to fend for itself, with terrible consequences.  Finally, the creature heads off to the Arctic, never to be seen by man again...

What I didn't realize before I read the novel for myself was what a doof Victor Frankenstein is.  Sure, he's a mad scientist, but who expected him to be such a dummy?  He creates this creature and is so horrified that he runs away immediately, and then spends months hoping that the creature will just disappear into the void and never bother him again.  When he does meet it again, he's shocked and offended that he's expected to do something about the situation he has created.

The creature, who has educated himself, wants to be a good person but is embittered by the treatment he inevitably receives from everyone who sees him.  He quite reasonably asks for a companion, a girl, so that they can go off and live on their own.  Frankenstein naturally doesn't want to, but promises to deliver, then changes his mind by reasoning that they might have children.  (This seems like a fairly simple thing to prevent, actually, if you're the one stitching the body together.  Just make sure she doesn't have the equipment.)  Anyway, the creature promises a very specific revenge, but Frankenstein assumes it will take one form and--incredibly dopily--is surprised when the obvious happens.

Aside from Frankenstein's constant self-delusions, it's a great read, full of interesting themes to think about.  Shelley was living right in the middle of an amazing time in science, and she was able to hear more about what was going on than many women would.  The questions of what constitutes life, how far can we or should we go in discovering new knowledge, and what the dangers of all this might be were current issues, constantly discussed in her circle, and she turned them into the novel that launched a thousand questions and a million science fiction movies.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, by Assia Djebar  (from the French L'amour, la fantasia)

In 1830, the French invaded Algeria, turning it into a colony.  Algerians have thus had a tricky dual heritage of Arabic culture and imposed French government and language, and Assia Djebar intertwines pieces of history with stories of the lives of women living within it.  This is a complex book that would keep a college literature class busy for weeks, so I can hardly do it justice here, but here are some themes:

A 'fantasia,' to Arabs, is indeed what I might call a cavalcade: a procession of riders on horseback, showing off their skills at a gallop, and incidentally firing rifles and yelling.  In the Romance languages, it means a free-form musical composition that wanders around.  Both of these meanings are put into use, and sections of the book are named after sections of a musical composition as Djebar demonstrates her skills as a storyteller.

Language, and cultural barriers to language, are extremely important to Djebar.  Even as she mourns the subjugation of her hereditary Arabic and fights to reclaim it, she resentfully loves the beauties of the subjugating French tongue that she studied in and its promise of liberation from the veil and seclusion:
For my part, even where I am composing the most commonplace of sentences, my writing is immediately caught in the snare of the old war between two peoples.  So I swing like a pendulum from images of war (war of conquest or of liberation, but always in the past) to the expression of a contradictory, ambiguous love. (p. 216)
Most particularly, she is concerned with the stories and conditions of women's lives, especially in regards to their languages or inability to communicate in words.  And all of it ties up with love, physical love, and marriage (thus the French title):

When I am growing up--shortly before my native land throws off the colonial yoke--while the man still has the right to four legitimate wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to express desire before all that is left for us is sights and moans.  French for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations toward God-the-Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber which takes us back to the pagan idols--mother-gods--of pre-Islamic Mecca.  The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male neighbours' and cousins' eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love. (p. 180)
That kind of sums it up, really.  The book consists of chapters that wander through history and different lives.  Sometimes we see a battle or a terrible slaughter; other times it's a personal story of a girl's youth.  Women living out in the mountains with soldiers fighting the French occupation, running houses that serve as safe waystations, growing up in the 1950s or going to a French school, living secluded behind walls or in Paris before a wedding...all sorts of Algerian lives in different times, nearly always in the first person.  Some few may be Djebar's own stories, but it's hard to know.  It's a fascinating book that would repay close study.

Fantasia is supposed to be the first of a quartet; the second is A Sister to Scheherazade, which I would also very much like to read.  I get the impression that all four books are rather different.


Oh my goodness, dear readers (if you are still there!), I have 8 books to review and so much to talk about, and yet I have not been here at all.  Life got really interesting over the past couple of weeks, especially with the prep for Banned Books Week.  I spent many hours collecting news stories for our displays, with the result that we have one featuring no less than SIX cases in K-12 schools just from the last 4 months, since the last school year ended.  (I did the information gathering, and my counterpart did the art/assembly.)

 Another display concentrates on free speech issues at college campuses, which goes right with BBW and brings the issues right into their reality.  I am very proud of this one, which covers all sorts of interesting cases from the last year.  I really had to pick and choose quite a bit.

I also had a serious car breakdown, at just the same time that I had to attend a school board meeting.  I'm on the parent board and I'm very committed to the meetings...but it's a 90 minute drive, and no one else from my city was going.  My mom was very nice and lent me her car.  I left at 4pm and got home at midnight.

So things have been a little more exciting than I would really like.  And it's almost time for the Morte D'Arthur Readalong!  I hope you're ready!

Perhaps we have a slightly inflated sense of our influence.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Newsy Post

I have various things to talk about, some upcoming events and whatnot...

I hope everybody is gearing up for Banned Books Week, which is coming up fast in the fourth week of this month: 21-27 September.  At least, that's how it feels to me!  For the past few years I've been kind of in charge of BBW at work, and now I've been voted official Queen of Banned Books Week.  So I'll be preparing like mad for the next little while.  I guess I don't usually talk about it here a whole lot, since I do it so much at work, but I did post the mug shot I took last year.

Guess what??  Lory at Emerald City Book Review is hosting a special Diana Wynne Jones event!  During Witch Week, there will be a readalong of Witch Week and discuss a new DWJ book daily. 

Here's the schedule:

Preview: October 30 - Master post with link-up and giveaway
Day 1, October 31 - Fire and Hemlock
Day 2, November 1 - Power of Three
Day 3, November 2 - Howl's Moving Castle
Day 4, November 3 - The Spellcoats
Day 5, November 4 - Deep Secret
Day 6, November 5 - Witch Week (Readalong)
Day 7, November 6 - Honorable mentions and wrap-up

I always love a good DWJ event and I think it's a fantastic idea to have it during Witch Week. :)  Can't wait!  I hope you'll join up too!

In other news, I've been reading Romantic fiction for the Classics Club September theme and incidentally for RIP IX.  I've finished Frankenstein and will post on that pretty soon. I'm also well into Melmoth the Wanderer, which is quite interesting and (bonus) Eugene Onegin's favorite book!  So far we have all the classic ingredients of a good Gothic tale: crumbling ancestral halls, an old sheaf of papers found in a drawer, nearly indecipherable, a survivor of a shipwreck with a fascinating tale to tell, and scary bad monks.  As a matter of fact, the monks have kind of taken over.  I'm about a third of the way through, and the shipwreck survivor is telling his tale of oppression at the hands of Spanish monks--and so far he's been talking for about half of the third I've read.  I'm wondering if he will ever escape, or if the book will ever get back to Melmoth.

And I'm reading War and Peace, a tale of Russia and the Napoleonic wars.  I think it's interesting that Tolstoy refused to call it a novel; he seems to have considered it to be something else, and indeed it is not  structured like most novels.  It does, however, remind me of some other giant books I've read, like In the First Circle or A Suitable Boy, where the author wants to give the reader an image of a whole society at a particular moment in time, so there are many, many characters in different walks of life.  War and Peace is not, so far, as all-encompassing as that, but it's kind of similar in feel.  My 1300-page paperback is so unwieldy that it's not easy to read as often as I usually would; this is one case where having it divided into two or three volumes would really help a lot, and would probably be worth the extra price.

Monday, September 1, 2014

God's Philosophers

Most awesome cover.
God's Philosophers, by James Hannam

I found this book through a really long, really great review: The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews God's Philosophers.  I really encourage you to go read that article--you can even skip mine if you do--because it's far better and more entertaining than I am.

God's Philosophers sets out to destroy the common myth that Christianity clamped a lid of oppression and censorship on Europe, ushering in the Dark Ages during which no one thought or invented anything until the Renaissance came along and rescued us by inventing science.   (Guess who invented this idea first?) 

Hannam therefore leads us through a series of short biographies of medieval thinkers: people who delved into mathematics, engineering, natural philosophy (what we would now call science, only it wasn't then), and even a bit of medicine--because they believed strongly that God was a rational being who created a rational universe that could and should be understood through study and--yes!--experimentation.  I can almost promise that you've never heard of most of them, yet they were doing some pretty impressive stuff, and for the most part they were doing it with the approval of the Church.

Medieval scholars made great progress in logic and mathematics most especially the marriage of mathematics and physics, but we don't hear much about them.  This is partly because Renaissance scholars really did render much of previous work obsolete, and partly because Renaissance people purposely got rid of a lot of medieval scholarship.  Most of us were taught in school that the Renaissance was partly due to the discovery of ancient Greek texts, which sparked an interest in learning.  This is true enough, but it also sparked a contempt for anything more recent than Aristotle.  Medieval scholars knew something about Aristotle and built on that foundation, finding out that Aristotle was not always right; Renaissance scholars trashed all that work, cleaning out their libraries and getting rid of most of it.  Happily, the printing press had already been invented and medieval scholarly works had been widely printed, so they couldn't be lost completely.

It seems to me that the Renaissance scholars did something we see often in history; they trashed their immediate forebears and convinced future generations of their own superiority, simply by saying loudly and often that those old guys were stupid and stodgy and ignorant, with no redeeming values at all.  The Tudors did it to the previous rulers of England, the Edwardians did it to the Victorians (who did it to the Georgians), and the Baby Boomers did it to their parents's generation (so to speak.  Not blaming you, Mom.)

Now, medicine was the trickiest area to progress in, because so much of the human body's functions take place on a level unseeable by the human eye.  Medieval Christians were the first people to do dissection on human bodies, because nearly all other societies put very strong taboos on messing with dead bodies.  Galen had to do his anatomy studies on animals and extrapolate from there, and it was known that he got a lot wrong.  Hannam thinks that studies of the human body probably started with autopsies to determine cause of death.  But even so, what they could discover about the body didn't lead much of anywhere because they couldn't find out enough to really fix anything much.  It's great to know that blood circulates, but attempted transfusions were impossible until we figured out blood types.

There is a whole lot about astronomy, of course.  We get detailed summations of the studies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo among others, and exactly what the scholars of the time thought about them.  Copernicus was a controversy, but apparently much of the objection was not so much theological as practical.  Many scholars thought heliocentric ideas theologically fine, but scientifically absurd.  The math didn't really work, and it took Kepler and his ellipses to solve the objection.  Kepler was an extremely religiously strict man, and studied the Bible carefully on this point.  He came to the conclusion that circular orbits were a Greek ideal; the Bible only required a reasonable universe and was OK with ellipses.

Hannam concludes, "...the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable.  They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense."

I really enjoyed this book of history and science, and I certainly learned a lot.  If you're fond of the Middle Ages, as I am, and kind of resent it when people talk about those times as an era completely dominated by oppression and superstition, this would be a great choice.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

R. I. P. IX

For a few years now I've seen bloggy friends participate in--and wax enthusiastic about--the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event, but I've never done it myself.  I think this is the year.  I love reading spooky books in the fall anyway.  So here are the rules:

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

As I do each and every year, there are multiple levels of participation (Perils) that allow you to be a part of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril without adding the burden of another commitment to your already busy lives. There is even a one book only option for those who feel that this sort of reading is not their cup of tea (or who have too many other commitments) but want to participate all the same.
R.I.P. IX officially runs from September 1st through October 31st. But lets go ahead and break the rules. Lets start today!!!

Multiple perils await you. You can participate in just one, or participate in them all.

I am going to sign up for the Peril the Second level, which is for two books.  I had already decided to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the Classics Club September theme, which is the Romantic movement.  And I have really been wanting to read Eugene Onegin's very favorite book: Melmoth the WandererMelmoth is pretty long so I can't guarantee that I'll finish it by Halloween, and it is probably not too clever to read it at the same time as I'm trying to read War and Peace (yes, I am, and I'm only on page 70 because it's so unwieldy!) but what the heck.   


Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Written in about 1200, Parzival expands and finishes Chretien de Troyes' unfinished tale of Parsifal.  I'm used to seeing this knight in a sort of mystical, perfect Christian knight way, because I'm most familiar with the Quest for the Holy Grail which is very mystical indeed, but Parzival is flatfootedly not one bit mystical and, while Christian, does not spend a lot of time on religion.  Parzival is a perfect knight--by the end--but he takes a while to get there and his virtues are largely expressed in chivalric battles that reveal his prowess.  His progress is revealed by how and why he fights.

Wolfram was something of an upstart in the world of German Arthurian storytelling, and he has to fight for his place a bit.  His story (he actually refuses to call it a book!) was written in episodes which were performed before he wrote the next part, and there are some references to his audience and to other, more established Arthurian poets.  He knows the French tales well and is really quite the all-around knowledgeable guy; we hear about all sorts of things and there is a lot of variety.

We start with a couple of chapters on Parzival's father, Gahmuret, a very skilled Angevin knight who sails to far-off lands for adventure.  He sails so far that he gets to a country where the people are dark-skinned non-Christians, though they have the same courtly society.  (Apparently they are meant to be Muslim Arabs, but Wolfram's information was so bad that it's impossible to tell; I got it from the notes.)  Gahmuret fights for the Queen of the country and marries her.  Again, however, Wolfram shows a stunning naivete; he had probably never seen any dark-skinned people in his life and was evidently not sure what would happen if two people of different races married.  So he makes their son parti-colored "like a magpie."  This son, Feirefiz, grows up to be a wonderful knight, and he eventually marries the Gral Maiden and fathers Prester John.

Gahmuret, however, does not stick around and heads off for more adventure, marrying another Queen, fathering Parzival, and then heading out to die in battle.  Parzival grows up isolated from all courtly society, so naive that he doesn't know a knight when he sees one, but he sure knows that he wants to be one!  He is so ignorant and gauche that he gets into trouble several times and even commits an awful sin that has to be expiated before he can reach his goal.  Soon, however, he learns and becomes a member of Arthur's court.  He wins and marries a queen who he loves deeply, but knightly adventure calls and they become separated by events.

It's at this point that Parzival miraculously gets to the Gral castle of Munschalvasese.  There he sees a fantastic Gral procession and a miserable Fisher King, but it's more magical in tone than religious.  Here, the Gral is a stone that prolongs everyone's life.  Of course Parzival fails to ask the Question he is supposed to ask, and weighed down by his failure, he wanders for a few years and falls further and further down from where he should be.  He fights unjustly, and eventually stops caring about God, but then he is called to repentance and taught what he should do.  It is when he learns to fight with a heart true to the right that his chance to make amends arrives.

The story takes a sudden turn and spends a whole lot of time following Gawan on his adventures, much of which involves getting his sister together with a king who loves her but also wants to kill Gawan.  I found this diversion kind of exasperating, but evidently Wolfram's audience were big Gawan fans and were in fact rooting for him to succeed in the Gral quest!  Eventually Wolfram wrestles the tale back to Parzival in time for him to fully mature, be reunited with his wife and sons, and travel to Munschalvaese to fulfil his quest, whereupon he takes his rightful place as Gral King.

The names in this story are something else.  By the time they've gone through English, French, and German, they are really interesting.  Utepandragun should look a bit familiar; he is Arthur's father.  Ginover is Arthur's queen, and most of the rest of the characters have names like Meljekanz and Condwiramurs.

A really fascinating Arthurian tale, with lots of detail and interesting material to delve into. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wonderfully Wicked Readathon

The ladies at My Shelf Confessions are hosting the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon in October!  They are so nice about any participation being OK with them, and I like that relaxed attitude.  I'll be joining up and reading what I can between October 17 and 27.

Here's the deal, in their words:
The  Wicked Wildfire Read-A-Thon is a time when we all get together to dedicate the days of October 17-27 to as much reading as possible. You read as much as you can in order to get yourself a little further through that huge to-read pile! We know real life gets in the way and even if you can’t participate more than one day, you’re welcome to join in on the fun!
In the meanwhile, we will be hosting book-related challenges where you can win some awesome prizes and have a Twitter party at the hashtag #WWReadathon! You can posts updates on your blog, Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook or even YouTube — as long as the profile is public and we all can enjoy your reading progress! Make sure to link to the site where you’ll be sharing your posts/updates with us. 
Sign up now!

I just love the mini-challenges.  Want to join me?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Small House at Allington

The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

This was my Spin title, and very glad I am that it was.  After reading Savage Continent, a nice story about nice civilized people doing ordinary things and having ordinary problems was just what I wanted!  It was lovely to sink into this novel.  It's the 5th Barsetshire novel, though it's actually set in the next county over; almost none of the action takes place in Barsetshire.

The Small House at Allington is sort of a little dower house attached to the much larger manor of Allington.  It is occupied by Mrs. Dale and her two daughters Bell and Lily, who live there because their uncle owns Allington.  He is fond of the girls and, under his patronage, they are able to have a bit more social life than their straitened circumstances would otherwise allow, but they do not expect to marry wealth or anything like that.  They are thoroughly nice middle-class girls.

Bell has no particular prospects of marriage--well, they thought the local doctor might like her a couple of years ago but nothing came of it.  Lily, meanwhile, has met a rather dashing friend of her cousin's, and has become engaged.  Mr. Crosbie is a high-class sort of secretary in London and very popular.  He loves Lily (and she loves him unabashedly), but he's rather like Mr. Willoughby, always sighing for what he hasn't got whether it's money or love.  Worried that he will be trapped by poverty if he marries a penniless girl and has to live on his 'paltry' 800 a year, he drops Lily in favor of an earl's equally penniless but socially-connected daughter.  He does this knowing that Lily is the better person and that he's making a bad bargain.

Lily has a strange reaction to this.  Yes, her heart is broken, and yes, she's trying to get over it; but otherwise she has some serious problems.  Meanwhile, there are lots of other people having interesting problems too.  Bell is being pressured to marry her cousin.  John Eames, a poor young clerk, might be up-and-coming but the one thing he truly wants is the one thing he can't have. 

Although this looks like a comedy novel which will land everyone in their proper places by the end, it really isn't.  Some of the story lines just stop short; Trollope says "I know you want a happy ending, but you're not going to get it!"  Others tie up satisfactorily.  It's a darker novel than you might expect.

I'm looking forward to reading The Last Chronicle of Barset!  I really like Trollope.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, by John Buchan

The Back to the Classics Challenge asks for "a classic mystery, suspense, or thriller."  It so happens that I picked up a collection of Richard Hannay thrillers some time back, and the first one, The 39 Steps, is certainly a classic thriller, so I picked that.  And then it so happens that I found a Franklin Library edition for almost nothing--I don't collect those (do any serious readers buy Franklins? To read? I want to know) but this one has illustrations by Edward Gorey.  They are not actually terribly interesting illustrations, with the exception of the cover image, which I share with you here.

It's summer 1914, and Richard Hannay is visiting England after a lifetime spent on the African veldts.  He is bored stiff and planning to leave, when his upstairs neighbor invites himself in and tells a fantastic tale.  The Black Stone gang are planning to assassinate the only man who can keep peace, and he's got the vital information to stop them.  All he needs is to lie low for a month...but it's only a couple of days until Hannay finds him murdered in his parlor.  Now it's up to Hannay to stay a few steps ahead of the Black Stone gang, decipher the code, and prevent a disaster.  He plans to use his knowledge of the veldt to hide in the wilds of Scotland, but the Black Stone is on to him...

It's a pretty good yarn, though surprisingly short.  The murdered spy fellow has a weird thing about "the Jew," so that's more than a little uncomfortable, but it is presented as his prejudice, not the actual villain of the story.  I'd be quite happy to read the other 3 Hannay stories sometime; I always love vintage British mysteries and thrillers.