Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts, by Rhys Bowen

I've been on a fun-mystery binge lately.  I mean, massive hits of Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth!  Plus, I found a new Royal Spyness mystery, and realized I was completely behind with those, so I grabbed the two newest.  I had particular fun with Queen of Hearts, the 8th in the series (I missed a few in the middle, they don't seem to be at the library).

Georgie, penniless minor royal, is for once not worried about where her next meal is coming from.* Her usually-absent glamorous actress mother has swooped in and picked her up for a trip to America, where she will head to Reno for a quick divorce.  During the Atlantic crossing, Georgie starts a hunt for a clever jewel thief and meets lots of glamorous types, including Cy Goldman (William Randolph Hearst in disguise).  Goldman begs Georgie's mother to act in a Hollywood film while she waits, so it's off to Los Angeles...and Alhambra (aka Hearst Castle), where somebody promptly gets murdered.

This was a fun mystery and a nice change of scene for the series.  I have really gotten a kick out of the Royal Spyness books.

What really caught my interest, though, was the "Alhambra" part of the story.  I finally got the opportunity to visit Hearst Castle last summer--despite having grown up not very far from there, I'd managed to miss previous chances--and so I had a lot of fun playing spot-the-location.  Bowen did move the castle, to about 5 minutes outside of Los Angeles instead of the many miles it actually is.  She really got the feel of it right; the whole place is built of fabulously valuable antiques all shoved together in a crazy patchwork that's all about making a stunning effect.  It's a very Hollywood kind of place--if a piece was too small, for example, Hearst would just have it copied larger and installed.


The other fun Hearst element was that several times, Goldman mentions that he has just purchased most of a Spanish convent, which he's had boxed up and shipped.  He plans to turn it into a poolhouse to change clothes in.  This caught my attention, because Hearst really did buy something like that--he bought a semi-ruined Spanish abbey, the Cistercian abbey of Santa Maria de Oliva, in 1931, planning to incorporate it into a vacation castle near Mount Shasta in Northern California.  He shipped the whole thing over to San Francisco just as the Depression hit him hard, so he left everything in warehouses in Golden Gate Park....for years.  The strange and fascinating saga is too long to tell here, but you can read about it at Sacred Stones, the site run by the Cistercian abbey of New Clairvaux, which is practically up the street from my town.  They have been putting the chapter house together, and I visited it last year.  It's amazing!

Chapter house, with teenage daughter

I presume Bowen spun her story out of the real-life Spanish abbey incident.  I wonder if she came up here to visit the chapter house?

I really, really think you should visit the Sacred Stones site and read the history.  I promise it is worth your while.




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*Georgie's eternal pickle is that she has no income but isn't allowed to get most jobs, and anyway there are no jobs because there's a depression and plenty of other people even more desperate than she is.  Everyone else's solution to this problem is that she should marry a minor prince, but Georgie is not keen.

Monday, April 25, 2016

It's Extreme Poetry: the Faerie Queene Readalong!

The day has finally arrived!  O at Behold the Stars is hosting.  I, together with Cleo, Cirtnecce, Ruth, and Consoled Reader will be reading The Faerie Queene at the terrifying rate of a book per week.


I figure I'll post every Monday on my progress.  Who wants to join us in some EXTREME POETRY?  Book I can't be too hard--it's the bit everybody knows, with Una and the Redcrosse Knight.  Here we go!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Green Dolphin Street

Green Dolphin Street, by Elizabeth Goudge

It's Elizabeth Goudge Day, hosted by Lory at Emerald City Book Review.  Because April 24th is Elizabeth Goudge's birthday, you see.  So I read Green Dolphin Street, which was on my TBR shelf anyway.  I really had no idea what to expect, except that there was something about New Zealand.

In the mid-1800s on the tiny Island in the English Channel, there are two sisters--Marianne and Marguerite.  When William moves in next door, they both fall in love with him.  But once they're all grown, William joins the Navy and, on a long voyage to China, disappears.  Nearly ten years go by before he writes to say that he is established in New Zealand and asks for one of the sisters in marriage.  But the story follows all three throughout their lives, so there's much more after that.

It's a long, leisured novel--mine is 500 pages of small print--and it took me a while to get into the story, but I did and eventually spent an entire Sunday afternoon reading the second half.  It builds a bit slowly at first, but then moves along, and then there's a lot of frontier action too.

Goudge was really quite a genius at taking a hackneyed old plot like "two sisters in love with the same man" and turning it into something unexpected, fresh, and redemptive.  She did it pretty often.   Here, the three protagonists have long, troubled roads, and their lives turn out otherwise than expected, but they are also all engaged in a lifelong work of saving each other.  There is a lot about love, and what that really means.  Is it necessary to be married to your true love?  What if you are not?  What is marriage meant to do, and what work should it accomplish?  Are there other ways to love and do good?  How do we each find our life's work?  Goudge's answers to most of these questions are very, very different than you'd get from almost any other novelist.

There's also a remarkable amount of adventure.  Between sailing ships, unwelcoming Maoris, earthquakes and crashing tides, there's more action than I've ever seen in an Elizabeth Goudge novel, since they're usually very bucolic-England.  Green Dolphin Street is not one bit bucolic, but it's characteristic Goudge in other ways.

I think this is the most famous of her novels, because there was a movie made and it won an Oscar (for special effects!), but I get the impression that the movie isn't really much like the book.  I don't think it would be possible to cram much of this novel into a movie--even as a miniseries you'd need ten episodes.  It would be interesting to see if anyone would make it into a series, come to think of it, but I don't think Goudge and the BBC would get along too well.  TV writers would rip out all the bits Goudge would have thought most important, and would write them the opposite way.  So let's not try.

Now I'm a bit in the mood to re-read the Eliot Chronicles, but I don't own those...yet.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Just Call Me Fangirl

Guess how I just spent my evening?  I was at a reception for Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and she did a reading from her new book, Before We Visit the Goddess.  I've been a fan since I read Arranged Marriage about 20 years ago, and I've been super-excited for a couple of weeks, looking forward to this.  It was even better than I thought it would be!  We had a real conversation with her!  We sat in the front row!  We took photos!


I am pretty much flailing around with excitement here, so I thought I'd just tell you.  I'll write a proper post when I get the photo, which will be soon I hope (the pro ones should be hugely better than the one on my camera).  Meanwhile, if you live in California, she's got several events coming up right away, so go check her schedule.

Home Fires

Home Fires: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War, by Julie Summers

You know what?  I have been pretty lucky this month to have read several really great, inspiring books.  That has been really nice.  Here is one of them.

I was super-excited to get this book--it just has everything I like.  Women working together to solve problems!  History!  Yes!  OK, so first we have to find out what the Women's Institute is, which I was pretty fuzzy on.  I'd heard of it, but I didn't realize that it's an organization specifically for women living in rural areas.  Back at the beginning of the 20th century, a movement started (in Canada) to organize self-education groups for rural women, and it hit Wales and England around the time of the First World War (Scotland has a separate group).  The WI aimed to bring life back to declining rural areas and encourage women to work together for education, culture, and so on.

When war broke out in 1939, quite a few people debated closing WI chapters for the duration, but quickly realized that in fact there would be an incredible amount of work to do, and the WI was a great vehicle to get things done.  They immediately started working on increasing food production, by gleaning unused fruit crops and making jam (full of vitamins, doesn't spoil, ideal wartime food), and planting crops in bits of waste land and in gardens.  WI chapters even harvested country herbs for the production of medicines and encouraged members to plant foxgloves to make heart medications.

The numbers of people living in the country doubled (and then grew more) practically overnight, as children and mothers were evacuated, entire schools relocated, and government offices and even businesses moved out of London...oh, and soldiers were stationed all over the place.  The WI was instrumental in getting evacuees placed, ironing out the snags, and feeding everybody.  Think of all the strain on the infrastructure!

There was simply an incredible amount of work to do, and the WI coordinated or did a tremendous amount of it.  Myriad salvage operations, health-care jobs, knitting for refugees and troops, helping land girls, fundraising for everything from ambulances to POWs, even rabbit-fur production to keep Russians warm--they seem to have tackled anything and everything with unfailing energy and dedication.  (And keep in mind that a majority of rural women still didn't have indoor plumbing or electricity--even running water wasn't guaranteed.)  Government officials knew that they could call on the WI for help with almost anything and get a response; the smart ones also knew to treat members with a great deal of respect and stay on their right side.

I couldn't put the book down, and by the end I was in awe of everything WI members accomplished.  I now feel completely, utterly inadequate and inferior, but very inspired.  Maybe I can do better.  This is the kind of work that I truly respect; the everyday, unglamorous kind of work that may not earn laurels but is the stuff of life.  Summers comments:
The village of Milton in Cambridgeshire had a wartime motto which I think sums up the contribution made by the WI: 'Say little, serve all, pass on.  This the the true greatness -- to serve unnoticed and work unseen.'  Women did not trumpet their achievements and many of them were unquantifiable anyway since the aim was to keep going, and make life a little easier for others.



Julie Summers has written a couple of other history books that I will certainly have to read--one is about evacuee children, and another about the difficulties of adjusting to life in peacetime, when husbands came home.  I have got to read that!

ITV made a dramatic TV series based on this book (which was originally titled Jambusters in the UK; the title was changed in the US to match the TV show).  I haven't managed to watch more than about 1.5 episodes yet, so I haven't got a good idea of how I like it.  My daughter asked me why I thought I might like this, when I didn't like Downton Abbey.  (I thought Downton Abbey was too soapy, though the clothes were certainly wonderful.)  When I thought about it, I told her that I liked the Home Fires book because it's about real women and how they solved problems, and I was hoping the TV show would be like that--but so far I don't know.  I liked it OK, but it's kind of like a checklist (as I was discussing with my mom the other day).  You have to have a snotty queen bee, and an abused wife, and somebody who will have Forbidden Desire--preferably the rector's wife--and so on.  We shall see.

I do like the theme song!  Here it is for you.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bibliotech

Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, by John Palfrey

I'd heard great things about this book and I was excited to read it!  John Palfrey...is not a librarian, but he does a bunch of librarian-type things, including chairing the Digital Public Library of America.  And in this book, he lays out the case not only for keeping public libraries in a digital age, but expanding their funding so that libraries can continue and expand their mission of enabling access to information for everyone.

It is a good book, and I'd recommend that you read it if you're interested in libraries, the digital future, and such-like issues.  It's got solid ideas.  The only tricky bit for me is that as a librarian, these are not surprising or new ideas to me; they're what we mostly all think, and he's trying to share them with a wider audience.  I'm already in the choir, so to speak.

The point of public libraries has always been to offer equal access to information to all.  Today, you should be able to go to your friendly neighborhood public library and do research for school (or just on your own), look for a job, find out how to deal with your landlord, check out what your local government is up to, take your children to storytime and bring a pile of read-alouds home, and a zillion other things--including just spending time in a public space that is open to all.  Some people can afford to do these things by paying for them; many cannot.  Therefore, a library serves as a great equalizer, offering help, information, and a bit of guidance through the labyrinths of the Internet to all.  

Today, as information grows exponentially, so does the need for help with determining the accuracy and reliability of that information.  Think, for example, of how very difficult it can be to find reliable medical information online, as pseudo-science swamps the results of your simple Google search.  Charlatans find it easy to spread misinformation and shout down actual medical practitioners.  Judging reliability is one of the skills that I try to teach as a librarian, and it's not an easy one.  

I used to do field trips for schools visiting the library, and I would try to impress upon the kids two ideas:
1. Libraries are for everyone. It doesn't matter what kind of person you are; you ought to be able to find the information you need to know.
2. Libraries should be free (as much as possible*). No one should have to pay to find out the things they need to know.
I still think those are the two primary points about a public library, and they are, if anything, ever more important in a competitive world that believes in doing everything digitally.  Palfrey offers some good ideas about how to do that, and also makes the point that somebody needs to be paying attention to archiving all this digital stuff that is constantly going out of date.  He sums up with:
When it comes to the knowledge and information on which our system of democracy depends, we should not rely on the market exclusively to meet the needs of our communities.  The private sector has been wildly successful in digital innovation, and in some areas, such as the supply of corporate email systems, it has been just fine for the private sector to lead.  When it comes to the cultural, historical, political, and scientific record of a society, however, the public sector needs to play a leading role.  In the near term, that role involves providing unbiased, even-handed, universal access to the knowledge needed to be a good citizen and to thrive in an increasingly information-based economy.  In the long term, that role involves preserving the record against the inevitable ravages of time...
 I do have a problem with his casual statement that, pretty soon, "the public will have to accept slower delivery times for print-related materials to come back from efficient shared storage facilities."  That's fine for weird obscure books (it's called ILL, in fact!) but I can't see most library patrons agreeing to wait patiently to get most of the books they want Right Now.  That just strikes me as unrealistic.

Anyway, an interesting read, and probably more interesting if you're not already at work trying to actually do the things he's talking about.




*Yes, I know, taxes.  What I mean is, if you want to find out what your government is up to, there shouldn't be an entrance fee.

Edited because my husband made an excellent suggestion on one point.  Thanks!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Up From Slavery

Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington

A few years ago I read W. E. B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk  as part of my Classics Club list and realized that really, I should have read Up From Slavery first, since DuBois was responding to Washington in his book, although DuBois was writing analytical and historical essays on several topics, while Washington was mostly writing a memoir in which he also talked about his ideas.  But then I didn't get a copy for a long time, until a friend of mine traded my DuBois for his Washington.  Once I got started, I didn't put it down and devoured the whole thing as fast as I could.

Washington recounts his early life in slavery, and young manhood in freedom.  He wanted desperately to go to school, and mostly persevered despite the difficulties poverty threw in his way.  At last he conceived an ambition to attend a black technical school that he heard would allow students to work for their board.  His determination to get there brought him through every sort of difficulty, and he worked as a janitor to pay for his schooling.  He became a teacher and returned to his home town to start a school.

After some time teaching, he was recalled to the technical institute to run a night school for working people who could not attend full-time.  He made a success at it and was then asked to begin a whole new school at Tuskegee, run along the same lines--and so the rest of the book is dedicated to the establishment and philosophy of the school at Tuskegee, together with Washington's increasing speaking commitments and public work.

That's a very lifeless summary of an amazing and inspiring memoir.  Washington was a brilliant and wise man, and that wisdom shines on every page.  I can't possibly do justice to it, but we would all do well to read what he has to say and take his ideas into our own lives.  I didn't mark all my favorite bits--it is, after all, my friend's book, though I'll be buying my own copy--but I tagged a few.
The great and prevailing idea that seemed to take possession of every one was to prepare himself to lift up the people at his home.  No one seemed to think of himself.
Before the end of the year,  I think I began learning that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.
It means a great deal, I think, to start off on a foundation which one has made for one's self.  
...I learned the lesson that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred.  I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.
It is now long ago that I learned this lesson...and resolved that I would permit to man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.
This is officially a Book Everyone Should Read.


Monday, April 18, 2016

In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker

I had a lot of fun with the Company series by Kage Baker a couple of years ago, and when somebody mentioned it recently I decided to do a re-read.  This time I'm going to try to spot the giant, overarching plot elements when they appear early on, which of course I couldn't do last time--it's a perk of re-reading!

What happens if people in the future figure out time travel...but then it turns out you can't change history or visit a time after your own?  And those same people figure out immortality....but it only works on small children with suitable characteristics?   Well, they decide to go back in time and set up Doctor Zeus, Inc., which trains up immortal operatives who then collect samples and commission works which will just happen to pop up centuries in the future, bringing in wealth untold.  Obviously.

And so Mendoza, who begins life as a dirt-poor Spanish peasant in the 1540s, becomes an immortal Company operative, a botanist trained to collect plants that will go extinct so they can be rediscovered in 700 years or so.  Her favorite thing is breeding maize, but before she can be posted to the New World, Dr. Zeus sends her to England.  She can pretend to be part of Philip II's entourage. 

It's a fun, complex, and tragic series.  By the end it's so bizarre and complicated that it defies summation.  I'm looking forward to reading it again.   It's currently out of physical print, but has just been released on Kindle.


I don't think there are any decent covers of this book.  Each is worse than the last.  At no time does Mendoza pilot a space pod.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Off the Beaten Track in the Classics

Off the Beaten Track in the Classics, by Carl Kaeppel

A couple of years ago, Dwight the Common Reader did a series of posts on this little book, and it sounded so fun that I put it on my wishlist.  I finally got around to ILLing a copy for myself and it came from all the way across the country, and very glad I am too.  I wish I had my own copy of this fun little book!

Carl Kaeppel was a classical scholar from Melbourne who worked in the British Museum (does this therefore count as AusLiterature?), and the book was in fact printed in Australia in 1936, but in association with Oxford, so it happily received wider exposure.  It's a collection of short essays about slightly lesser-known classical works; in fact some of them are lost works that we only know through references and excerpts.  Nearly all of them are about travel or geography somehow.

The first essay is on the work of one Gaius Julius Solinus, otherwise known as Polyhistor, who collected wonder-tales.  They were very popular, and some endured for centuries, making it into Sir John Mandeville's works.  Dog-headed men, gryphons, lands full of gold, pygmies, it's all in there, and Kaeppel is not really a fan.  He really prefers factual travel records instead of the fantastic, and he's pretty down on the Dark Ages, saying "They did not desire knowledge."  Personally I disagree, but Kaeppel does come up with an observation we can all profit from: "Neither knowledge or civilization is stable or assured; they must be kept so by those to whom they are entrusted."

I was disappointed to find that nobody has bothered to translate Polyhistor into English, as far as I can tell, for over 400 years.  Arthur Golding's is "a quaint and charming work, though more a paraphrase than a translation" and it's not easy to find a copy, but I plan to give it a good try one of these days.

This map seems to think Hanno got farther than Kaeppel thinks.  Who knows.

Next up is the Periplus of Hanno, from about 500 BC.  This was really fascinating, and the actual text is so short that it's included in both the Greek and an English translation (thank goodness; Kaeppel is mostly one of those scholars who does not bother to give translations, since obviously his readers are fluent in Greek and Latin).  This Phoenician, Hanno, let a colonization convoy of ships through the Gibraltar straits and down the west coast of Africa, all the way to about modern Sierra Leone, before turning back home.  Wow!  Kaeppel spends a lot of time proving that the document really is that old, and that it is genuine, citing certain incidents that were once assumed to be made up as proof.

At last Hanno got to the "Island of Gorillas," where he saw creatures that were probably chimpanzees.  His guides called them gorillas, and in the 1840s, a Victorian biologist used the name for the large apes he was studying.  All this information made me inordinately happy, because to me, the name Hanno indicates gorillas.  In L. M. Boston's children's series about Green Knowe, there is a story about a gorilla named Hanno, after the Phoenician explorer.  I went and looked it up to check.

The rest of the essays are also fun, usually about travel and exploration.  There is even a Greek who sailed all around Britain!  And the final essay is about the legends of poison-damsels, where they came from and how they spread in Europe.

I really had fun with this.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Reynard the Fox

Reynard the Fox: a New Translation by James Simpson

 Reynard tales were really, really popular in medieval Europe; you can find many versions of the stories in various languages, and this is a modern translation of the 15th-century Caxton edition in English.  Reynard tales are satirical animal stories, very much like B'rer Rabbit stories, but starring a cunning fox who does awful things, mostly to nobles or priests, and then gets out of trouble with his quick wits and fast talking.

In the royal court of the king (a lion, of course), every animal has a place, except for Reynard, who has swindled or murdered so many people that he is universally hated.    In every adventure, though, he manages to come out on top...eventually.  Reynard is really good at using people's greed or anger against them.

It's really fun to find all the animal names and see how common they became.  "Reynard" came to be a synonym with fox, and in fact replaced the Old French word goupil.  Isengrim the wolf, Chaunticleer the rooster, Tybert the cat, and others might sound familiar, and of course the King is a lion.

As you should expect with medieval humor, it's really pretty violent, and gross or bawdy at times.  It's also very clever and satirical, and a lot of fun to read.