Thursday, October 12, 2017

Picture Book Read-Along

My sister made an audiobook recording for a school project, and to my delight chose one of my favorite picture books, What Do You Do With a Kangaroo? by Mercer Mayer. She recruited friends, family, and classmates as voice-actors, incorporated sound effects, and the result (in my completely unbiased sisterly opinion) was pretty awesome.

What I didn't realize was that she posted this audiobook to her YouTube channel.* Had I but known, I would have shared it earlier. As it is, I know now, and so I'm sharing it:


This is one of those "listen and read-along" audiobooks, and thus doesn't include the illustrations in the video. To enjoy the full experience, you can purchase the picture book online, either on Amazon.com or AbeBooks


*Blatant nepotistic plug for my sister's YouTube channel. See, I did it again!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Mabinogion - The Fairest of Them All

If you thought it was fun counting how many injuries should have killed Sir Kai, you’re in for another counting treat: How many of the maidens in this book are the most beautiful in the land?

If you want to know the answer but don’t have time at the moment to read the entire Mabinogion, don’t worry. I did it for you:

1)     “And he saw a beauteous maiden leaning her head out of a window of the tent, and he had never seen a maiden more lovely than she.”

2)     “And certain were they all, that had her array been suitable to her beauty, they had never seen a maid fairer than she.”

3)     “And he thought had had never seen a maiden fairer or more comely than she.”

4)     “…with them came in likewise the Queen, who was the fairest women that he had ever beheld.”

5)     “Then he thought that the beauty of all the maidens, and all the ladies that he had ever seen, was as nothing compared to her beauty.”

6)     “Now she was one of the three chief ladies of this island, and she was the fairest damsel in the world.”

7)     “‘I believe that thou didst never hear a lady discourse better than she, and when she was in her prime none was ever fairer.”

8)     “…and she was the fairest maiden of her time who was known there.”

9)     “She was the fairest sight that man ever beheld.”

10)  “…and also a daughter named Creirwy, the fairest maiden in the world was she.”

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Mabinogion - The Immortal Sir Kai

I had mentioned before how The Mabinogion’s stories contained a lot of gruesomeness. What I did not have time or space to mention, however, was that as I was reading the book, the majority of that violence seemed to be aimed at one character: Sir Kai.

Now, Sir Kai (also spelled Kay, Cei, or Cay depending on translation and author’s spelling preference) is the foster-brother of King Arthur himself. Anyone who’s read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (or seen the Disney movie, which is fairly accurate despite lacking the thematic depth of White’s prose) may remember that Arthur, although heir to the crown of England, was raised by rather mediocre knight named Sir Ector and everyone was ignorant of Arthur’s true birthright until he pulled out the sword in the stone. Sir Ector’s own son, Kai, although generally characterized as a bully or boor, is made knight of the Round Table upon his foster-brother’s ascension to the throne.

His role in these stories is usually negative—he serves as the brutish muscle, the hotheaded person picking fights and challenging duels, or mocking the new Camelot arrivals even though they are really diamonds in the rough who will show him up with their superior deeds of valor and questing. However, I’ve always felt sorry for him, and feel he gets a bad rap.

Sir Kai can’t really be a villain. When his dorky adopted brother turned out to be king of all the land, he doesn’t seem to be jealous, but in fact is one of Arthur’s most loyal supporters. Arthur at least seems to trust him, making him not only a member of the elite Round Table, but also seneschal (steward) of Camelot and his second-in-command. On the rare times Arthur is away fighting, Sir Kai is the one in charge.

On top of that, even though Sir Kai may be temperamental and bullying, he certainly gets beaten up enough himself:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Mabinogion - An Easy Quest

Since Sir Owain tends to be a jerk going around in disguise and making all his relatives—including King Arthur himself—put out Missing Persons lists about him, portraits of him on whatever Camelot used for milk cartons, and generally assuming he was dead in the ditch somewhere, a fair amount of The Mabinogion’s Camelot segment is devoted to people going on quests looking for him.

One of my favorite exchanges is the result. King Arthur, now thinking that Owain is dead, has put out a call to his knights to go out into the land and find out Owain’s ultimate fate. Before anyone goes anywhere, though, he puts on a grand tournament…which of course Owain shows up to in disguise.

In a rare instance of poetic justice to Owain—the other one being where a dwarf gives him a good smack—his opponent is also in disguise. It’s Gawain (here called Gwalchmai), which, taking into account their uncle Arthur’s penchant for going incognito as the Black Knight, and also Arthur’s sisters Morgause and Morgan le Fay being enchantresses who regularly change their appearance, makes me think this whole disguise-y thing is a family trait.

But back to my favorite scene. Transcribed below, I’ve added a few footnotes for consideration:

“And the Knight [Owain] gave Gwalchmai a blow that turned his helmet form off his face, so that the Knight knew that it was Gwalchmai.
            “Then Owain said, ‘My lord Gwalchmai, I did not know thee for my cousin, owing to the robe of honour* that enveloped thee; take my sword and my arms.’
            “Said Gwalchmai, “Thou, Owain, art the victor; take thou my sword.”
            “And with that Arthur saw that they were conversing, and advanced towards them.
            “‘My lord Arthur,’ said Gwalchmai, ‘Here is Owain,** who has vanquished me, and will not take my arms.’”
            “‘My lord,’ said Owain, ‘it is he that has vanquished me, and he will not take my sword.’
            “‘Give me your swords,’ said Arthur, ‘and then neither of you has vanquished the other.’***”


*Read: You looked so good I didn’t recognize you. Yet another instance of Owain being a bit of a jerk.

**Wow, The Quest to Find Sir Owain was way easier than initially believed.

***Did King Arthur just break up a fight by saying “Stop fighting over who wins. I win”? Well, he does have both of their swords now, so…yes. Yes, I think it does.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not Everything Is Open To Interpretation

Reading Is Like a Puzzle
Language is a fun but convoluted thing. For example: emotions are real things that affect our lives, but when it comes to putting what one feels into words (even just words thought rather than spoken aloud or written out), it’s not always easy to thoroughly and accurately describe those feelings.

If we can’t even use words to explain these things to ourselves, it’s no wonder that we have difficulties communicating with each other! Luckily in most cases we can rely not just on words, but also on gesture, inflection, tone of voice, facial expression, to explain what our words mean.

What also helps is if we’re talking to a friend or family member or coworker who knows us, and therefore can fill in the gaps or “autocorrect” any mistakes in speech or writing that we might make. This is why, when at a loss for the right word, we can say to them, “Oh, you know what I mean!” and assume that yes, they do know, or at least can make an educated guess.

So reading, in addition to being symbols made of lines and dots on paper and screen to be deciphered into words, assigns the additional task to the reader of interpreting the words into actual meaning. It’s communication without the safety net of hearing the writer’s voice or seeing their face or gestures. Sometimes the reader has no knowledge of the writer at all, and so can’t interpret sincerity from irony with any real confidence.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Mabinogion - Sir Owain the Jerk Knight

If Sir Gawain is my favorite Knight of the Round Table, his cousin Owain is the opposite. It’s not just that, in later stories, Owain is portrayed as this easy-going nice-guy character who has to deal with his churlish cousin Gawain’s jealousy of his obvious superiority…although that has a lot to do with it, too.

It’s that, much as the storytellers seem to admire Owain, as I’m reading about him I can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a jerk. Especially to ladies.

Here’s a handy list to make my point:
1)  Falls in love and promises to marry lady. Goes off questing instead of marrying her.
2)  Stays at a place hanging out with friends for three years instead of three months. How can you even make that kind of mistake?
3)  After six years he finally gets around to marrying his lady.
4) Outlives his wife so he can conveniently be paired up with all the other maidens he encounters in his stories.
5)  This little line (which I admit is the fault of the author and not Owain, but still conveys the sort of attitude he seems to have):

“…And she was his wife as long as she lived.”

How lovely.

Owain isn’t just a jerk to ladies. He also is super arrogant and melodramatic when it comes to his fellow knights. Upon returning from a quest, he shows up in Camelot just in time for a tournament to determine the greatest knight in the realm.

(Just for the record, King Arthur himself is the greatest fighter among them, but as King he’s not allowed to enter tournaments and instead is relegated to judging them. However, if you’re reading Arthurian legends and a Black Knight shows up, most likely this is King Arthur in disguise.)

Instead of entering the tournament under his own name, Owain thinks it hilarious apparently to show up in strange armor and therefore unrecognizable even to his own relatives. This way he can defeat them, picking them off their horses with his lance one by one, without the risk of them not giving him birthday gifts or sending Christmas cards. It also has the deleterious effect of causing all the knights to hate him and conspire to kill him. It’s usually just by chance that his true identity is revealed before one of his own relatives slays him—Gawain, usually, in an attempt by the storyteller to make Gawain look like a villain for almost murdering poor wonderful Owain.

Although Owain is by no means the only knight to do this in various Arthurian legends, this is usually one of the hallmark scenes in any telling or retelling of his adventures. Hail the conquering hero, who returns incognito to beat up all his friends and relatives!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Mabinogion - Introduction

The Mabinogion is compilation of medieval British (specifically Welsh) stories of love, war, and magic. Although there are many references to Arthurian legends, this compilation includes a variety of other tales as well. Although probably not as well-known as Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, The Mabinogion nevertheless has had a lasting impact on literature. To reference some past blog posts where I discussed this influence, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is one example, and Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain another.

To the contemporary audiences of the 12-13th centuries or even before, this was their form of entertainment. Like television today, these oral recitations (or, once the stories were finally written down, read-alouds) had to serve in many roles: Romance, action, mystery, fantasy, philosophy, history, and perhaps even a little theology.

It takes a shift in values to understand how original audiences received these stories. To the modern reader, many of these heroes come across as meatheads and braggarts. Take Sir Kynon:

“I was the only son of my mother and father, and I was exceedingly aspiring and my daring was very great. I thought there was no enterprise in the world too mighty for me…”

Wow. Humble much?

Thursday, August 24, 2017

815...and counting...


There is a great upheaval happening in our family. My mother’s library, after many years of accumulation and stacking and double-shelving and stacking on top of the double-shelving, is being rearranged.

Like most people, normally I am not fond of change.

However, when it involves touching a great deal of books and reacquainting myself with long-lost or nigh-forgotten friends, that’s another story altogether.

You know you’re a bibliophile when, after all the heavy lifting of bookcases and sniffle-inducing work of dusting shelves is complete, you are excited to make every book at home in its new place on the shelf.*

Some people like to sort by size. Starting with the tallest and ending with the shortest covers, it gives a shelf a lovely crescendo look. 

Others shelve their books by color, not only for aesthetic reasons (the ombre look is so in) but also because they tend to remember a book’s color more than the author’s name or title. This has led to a fairly popular book display fad in libraries and bookstores, where they place a ton of random, unrelated books from various areas of their collection on a table together with a sign that says something along the lines of, “I don’t remember the title, but the cover was blue.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Emmuska Orczy's Lord Tony's Wife - A Parody - Part 2

Last week we left our heroes, Lord Tony (friend and sidekick to the Scarlet Pimpernel himself) and French aristocrat Yvonne de Kernogan in oblivious marital bliss. But Yvonne's British-hating father is intent on having the marriage declared null and void, and marry her off to the rich Frenchman Martin-Roget. Unbeknownst everyone, Martin-Roget is actually Pierre Adet, a Revolutionary who has sworn revenge against the de Kernogans because of the unjust death of his father....

Scene 6
DE KERNOGAN: Oh my daughter how I’ve missed you!
YVONNE: Dad? Are you feeling okay? You’re looking all sentimental and suspiciously not furious with me for marrying an Englishman against your will. Also, how can you have missed me? It’s only been like 16 hours since I eloped.
DE KERNOGAN: How can you say such hurtful things about your loving papa? You know I’ve always had your best interest at heart.
YVONNE: So what was all that “You’d better marry Martin-Roget or else!” stuff?
DE KERNOGAN: I only wanted you to marry Martin-Roget because he was rich and handsome and French and awesome (although those last two things are so alike it’s redundant). If I’d known you already had a boyfriend I would have supported your decision.
YVONNE: I told you I was in love with Lord Tony! And us getting married should be no surprise to you. After all, look at the title of this book! I’m Lord Tony’s Wife!
DE KERNOGAN: Still, there was no need to keep this a secret from your old man, to get married in the middle of the night rather than in pomp and circumstance! I didn’t even get to give you away at the altar!
YVONNE: Well Dad I guess I’ve completely misjudged you on account of you acting like a controlling jerk all my life. I’m so sorry! Here, stay with us for awhile and completely ruin our honeymoon.
TONY: I told you we should have gone to Niagara Falls.
DE KERNOGAN: Okay, you’ve talked me into it. But just so you know, *coughcough* I’m not feeling all that good. You know how frail and sickly your poor elderly father is, and how close to death…you know what I think I want to go home and die in my own bed.
YVONNE: Oh no!
DE KERNOGAN: Don’t you worry about me. *coughcough* Weak and helpless as I am, I can make it home on my own…probably.
YVONNE: Father you can’t go alone! Tony, is it okay if I escort my father home?
TONY: Sure! What can go wrong?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Emmuska Orczy's Lord Tony's Wife - A Parody - Part 1

As with the other Emmuska Orczy Scarlet Pimpernel books I’ve read thus far, Lord Tony’s Wife did not disappoint me in its entertainment value. This is a novel placed during the French Revolution and decidedly pro-aristocracy, but political leanings aside this novel—along with the others of its genre—is good, hyperdramatic, swashbuckling fun. And because of this, it's also extremely fun to summarize, hence the "sweded" drama below.

In this installment, one of our hero the Scarlet Pimpernel’s sidekicks, Sir Tony, takes center stage with his love, Yvonne. But, as with almost all Pimpernel novels, the cunning, daring, proto-Batman legend plays a pivotal role. Also back for more punishment is the Pimpernel’s sworn enemy is the dogged Chauvelin. As their cat-and-mouse game continues, poor Tony and (not really a spoiler alert) his wife end up as pawns while Chauvelin once again tries to trap his nemesis.

Our story begins with Pierre Adet, fiery revolutionary and son of the decent local miller, stirring up a mob to go after the local aristocrat, le duc de Kernogan. Just as the reader begins to hear the “Kill the Beast” song from Beauty and the Beast, along comes a carriage, driven by faithful servant Jean-Marie, and conveniently carrying the duc’s only child, the beautiful and headstrong Yvonne:

Scene 1
YVONNE: Jean-Marie! Why have we stopped here?
JEAN-MARIE: Because I just got a tipoff that there’s a mob at the crossroads.
YVONNE: So?
JEAN-MARIE: They have scythes and spades and axes.
YVONNE: What’s your point?
JEAN-MARIE: I think we should send a scout to see what’s going on.
YVONNE: So what you’re saying is you’re afraid of a few murderous bloodthirsty revolutionaries.
JEAN-MARIE: Yup.
YVONNE: Jean-Marie, that’s silly! I’m the proud and fearless daughter of the local aristocrat, and therefore have nothing to fear from such aristocrat-hating scum. Take me home, Jeeves!
JEAN-MARIE: But my lady…
YVONNE: If you don’t take me home you are disobeying my orders and therefore should just go join those rebels! Also I will fire you.
JEAN-MARIE: Fine. But don’t get mad when…
PIERRE: Oh ho ho, what do we have here?
JEAN-MARIE: Nothing. Just me and some random anonymous non-aristocrat person taking an evening cruise suspiciously in the direction of the de Kernogan estate.
MOB: It’s totally de Kernogan’s carriage! Let’s see who’s inside!
YVONNE: Hum, I’m starting to think that maybe my cowardly servant was right.
MOB: It’s de Kernogan’s daughter! Let’s throw her into the mud like her kind has done to our people all this time!
YVONNE: Yeahhhh definitely starting to regret my pride and fearlessness.
PIERRE *breaking into the carriage* I’ve got you, my pretty!
YVONNE: EEEK YOU’RE LIKE THE DEVIL HIMSELF *faints*
JEAN-MARIE: I’m getting outta here! *drives away* Hum that wasn’t as hard as I thought. I wonder why I didn’t just drive full speed through the mob to begin with? Oh well, I’m sure this little incident will have no long-lasting consequences….

Thursday, August 3, 2017

General Rules for Helpful Titles

Because it’s bad manners to point out flaws without having something positive to suggest as an alternative, as a continuation of the last post I present some rules and examples of books with titles that actually do tell us something about the plot contained within the covers.

Granted, most book titles are not extremely erudite. And the following is, as always, my opinion and therefore up to debate. But once some parameters are set (such as were set forth in the last post showing what might disqualify a title), it becomes a rather interesting game of comparison and analysis.

Conclusion #1: Including a Verb or Otherwise Indicating Action or Movement in the Title Is a Good Start:

Jules Verne is especially good at this:
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • From Earth to the Moon

So is Agatha Christie:
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Murder in Mesopotamia, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Murder at the Vicarage
  • Death on the Nile, Death in the Skies
  • What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!
  • The Moving Finger
  • Lord Edgeware Dies
  • A Murder is Announced

Saturday, July 29, 2017

General Rules for Unhelpful Titles

I’ve been doing a lot of research into marketing for work; how people get other people not only to know about a certain product or service, but also how they get those other people to actually desire that product or service. And, as I am wont to do, as I’ve been mulling it over I’ve been thinking about how that relates to books.

Although you really should not judge a book by its cover, the harsh reality is that we do anyway. Not just the cover art or the size or the choice of font. We judge according to the title. A good title—or at least a unique one—can make a reader pick up a book even if the actual content is subpar, whereas a poor, mundane title can bely a truly magnificent book.

That’s what the modern Publishing Industry and the strategies of marketing would have us think, anyway. But is that really the case? Do we really rely only on a title to tell us what we want about a book? Or, especially for modern readers, do we “do our research” a little deeper, taking recommendations from people we know or looking at star ratings on the internet or actually opening the book and reading not only the blurb but also maybe skim over a bit of the actual text?

I decided to look at my own bookcase to run this experiment: If I knew nothing about a book except the title, would it be enough to entice me to read it?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading and Other Media

Portraits of characters from The Chronicles of Prydain, by Justin Kunz. Information and image from Pinterest. 

Although again this version of Gurgi doesn't quite match my conception of him, 
this is a great deal better than many other interpretations where he's practically a monkey or a cat. 

Fflewddur Flam, however, is spot on. Isn't it weird when you see an actor or illustration and recognize the character as if they were an acquaintance of yours?  This is what I feel when I see this portrait.
And am I the only one who thinks this version of Gwydion looks a lot like Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan? You can't unsee it now, can you? 

Perhaps ironic for a book review blogger to admit, but I feel rather out of touch when it comes to feeding my love of books with technology and social media. One of my friends keeps urging me to get into BookTube, where she says YouTubers discuss or review books via video. There are also podcasts, websites (such as Sparknotes, Amazon, Google Books, and Goodreads), blogs like this one, forums, and of course the zeitgeist-obligatory Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Prydain is NOT Middle Earth

There are several similarities between Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

Ø  Epic fantasy story-line with a theme of Good vs. Evil and the fate of the world is at stake.
Ø  Villain is a largely unseen enemy working behind the scenes or from afar. Arawn and Sauron even sound somewhat alike. Mordor and Annuvin are also alike in being a sort of realm of Death.
Ø  Though not uncommon in all fantasy novels or even ancient mythology, both series have special enchanted objects. Some, like the Ring of Power and the Black Cauldron, serve as MacGuffins for the characters to pursue. Eilonwy’s magic bauble and the Palantir are seemingly-innocuous magical objects that turn out to be much more powerful than the characters believe at first. And then there are the special swords: Narsil in The Lord of the Rings, and Drnwyn in The Chronicles of Prydain, both of which are meant for specific people to wield and are used as symbols of the power to defeat evil.
Ø  Both books involve “fantasy” beings such as wizards, dwarves, and giant animals (although Llyan is way preferable to Shelob in my humble opinion!). There are also the Cauldron-born, Huntsmen, and the Horned King, which could easily be compared with orcs (specifically Uruk-hai, as both the Cauldron-born and Uruk-hai are “manufactured” warriors), ring-wraiths, the Wraith-king.
Ø  Like the stewards of Gondor, the Sons of Don have kept the evil at bay for a long time before the story begins.
Ø  Caer Dallben, a sort of farming sanctuary, seems to share the same timeless safety as the Shire, and the value of simple living and fruitful labor that Taran eventually learns is a lot like the Hobbit mindset.
Ø  Many characters bear similar characteristics or serve similar roles:
o   Aside from Arawn – Sauron, the best example of this is the commonalities between the warrior-prince Gwydion and Ranger/heir apparent Aragorn.*
o   Eilonwy – Eowyn
o   Gurgi – Gollum
o   Doli – Gimli
o   Dallben – Gandalf
o   Magg – Wormtongue
o   King Pryderi – Saruman
Ø  SPOILER ALERT BELOW


No seriously I'm about to spoil the ending


I'm warning you




If you haven't read the book this is your last chance to stop here and not find out the ending



Okayyyy here goes:


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: The Covers

Yes, I am still talking about Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. You're welcome.  

Today I want to show you all the pretty...or not-so-pretty...covers. Most of the problems with the not-so-pretty covers are related to the art being dated, as all five volumes were published in the sixties, and the sixties, seventies, and eighties have not necessarily aged well.  

This is a collection of all five novels, but the image itself is lifted from a climactic scene in 
The High King, which makes it spoilerific. 

 
I've never seen this cover in person, and the details of images online aren't extremely clear. What I like about it: the Horned King (a villain of The Book of Three rearing his black stallion ominously in the background, with Taran and Hen Wen in the foreground. What I don't like about it: all that shafts-of-sunlight-in-a-magical-waterfally-glen is giving me Disney's Bambi vibes for some reason. And it sort of derails the ominousness achieved by having the Horned King in the first place. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Whatever the Weather


It's a testament of its universal awesomeness that reading, as a past-time, is one that may be deemed appropriate no matter what the weather. From the blizzard conditions of winter when the only respectable place to be is in a comfortable fireside chair with a mug of some hot beverage in one hand and a tome with gilt pages in the other, to the beastly hot and humidity of summer when next to the A/C vent is the natural habitat of sane people.
When the weather continues charming, on the other hand, a nice "summer reading" is in order, preferably in a hammock outside under the shade of one's favorite tree, with the sun shining and a nice breeze that is just soft enough not to blow the pages of your book and lose your place.  (Unless of course you are reading on a tablet or other such electronic device, in which case the breeze can be as blustery as it likes.) 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: The Companions

One of the best things about The Chronicles of Prydain are the characters. Each is written with such care and obvious affection on the part of Lloyd Alexander, and each is very different from each other so that their interactions are dynamic and interesting no matter what the circumstance. There’s Gwydion, a warrior Prince of Don who is always compared to a shaggy gray wolf. There’s Achren, the beautiful but wicked and perhaps ancient enchantress and former queen of Prydain itself. There’s Dallben, an enchanter who is supposedly wise but spends most of his time either napping or cranky because someone woke him from a nap (although there is one extremely awesome chapter in The High King where he blew these preconceptions of mine out of the water). There’s Coll, a great warrior who just wants to get back to tending the turnips in his garden. There’s Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, three mysterious women who can appear as hags or beautiful women and perhaps represent the Fates, who are both horrifying and hilarious in their kindly attempts to turn the heroes into toads (or worse….Orgoch’s habit of licking her chops tips us off that she’s the grim reaper one).

Then there are characters like the good-natured but cotton-headed Prince Rhun, the philosopher-potter Annlaw Clay-Shaper, the resourceful family man Llonio, the pessimistic and hyperchondriac Marsh-wiggle watchman Gwystyl, the giant music-loving cat Llyan, the obnoxious former giant Glew, the very convincing villain Dorath, the sarcastic messenger-crow Kaw, Medwyn the animal-lover and possible Welsh interpretation of Noah, and the boisterous King Smoit. I haven’t even mentioned them all, but you get the idea of what a colorful cast of characters peoples the fair land of Prydain.  

But most importantly there are our heroes, the Companions:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: The Story

The Chronicles of Prydain is comprised of five books: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. There is also a collection of short stories, The Foundling, which delves into some of the backstories of various characters. From the Author’s Notes Lloyd Alexander included prefacing each novel (which by the way are delightful in their own right), I’m not sure whether he really intended to write a series from the beginning, or whether he got as attached to the characters as his readers did and was drawn into writing more of their adventures. While The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron could easily be read as one-offs separate from any of the other books, the remaining books build upon each other, culminating in a truly grand finale in The High King. Personally, having first read the books spread out over a period of time, and just recently re-reading them in a huge lump as if they were one novel, I can attest that reading them all together and treating them as one story really is a more satisfying experience.

These books are children’s novels, and they actually read as such. The plots are simple, the lessons well-defined, and the tone almost like a fable. This last aspect is appropriate since Alexander was influenced by the Welsh collection of legends, The Mabinogion. In comparison to more contemporary children’s novels which tend towards more graphic violence and a sense of humor that verges more on sarcasm, Prydain focuses less on the blood and guts in its battles than the emotional aftermath of how someone’s death leaves a void in the lives of those who survive him, and its sense of humor is soft, clean, and good-natured.

This doesn’t mean that Prydain glosses over the more serious realities, however. Its main theme is the fight against evil to protect the innocent. The first two books in particular are almost moral stories, where Taran starts out with one conception of how the world works and by the end of the story events have taught him to understand these concepts in very different perspectives.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: Introduction

This is the Bildungroman (coming-of-age) story of an orphan taken in by the enchanter Dallben and raised by the former soldier and current farmer Coll, apprenticed as an Assistant Pig-Keeper, but with aspirations of heroism. The name is Taran, and the setting is a place not unlike ancient Wales, a magical and mysterious land called Prydain.


This is no Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle-Earth, although there are strains of similarity between these series of fantasy novels. In my mind, almost all of Prydain has a foggy, gray quality once Taran (and by extension we the readers) steps foot outside the sunny and green sanctuary of Caer Dallben. The reason for this is that a shadow has indeed been spreading slowly across the landscape of this once prosperous and wealthy land, in the form of the Death-Lord, Arawn.


Before The Book of Three even begins, Arawn has already stolen most of the enchanted objects and secrets and powers from men and hoarded it away in his stronghold of Annuvin. Only the Sons of Don, a royal family of warriors from a distant land beyond the seas, have been able to fight against Arawn and keep his evil from overrunning the entire land. One of the most famous of these warriors, Prince Gwydion, is Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper’s hero and role-model. 

The Chronicles of Prydain are what the juvenile fiction/young adult author Lloyd Alexander is best known for, and for good reason. Prydain is a vivid landscape peopled with dynamic characters who both learn from their adventures and teach the readers through their example. Written in expressive, yet simple language, it's much more accessible for younger audiences than The Lord of the Rings, yet covers themes of good-vs-evil, loss of innocence or purity, and the passage of time just as well. I have so much to say about this series (after all, it is five books!) that I'll be covering more specific aspects of this series in the next few entries.

Friday, June 16, 2017


The subject of bereavement is one that has often been treated powerfully by poets, who have run the whole gamut of the emotions while laying bare for us the agony of those who have lost parents, wives, children, gazelles, money, fame, dogs, cats, doves, sweethearts, horses, and even collar studs.  But no poet has yet treated of the most poignant bereavement of all—that of the man halfway through a detective story who finds himself at bedtime without the book.

~  P.G. Wodehouse, Strychnine in the Soup

When I read "collar studs" I legitimately thought Wodehouse was making a reference to The Three Musketeers until I reminded myself that's a novel, not a poem. I guess I've been listening to my sister's Dumas fangirling too much!

Thursday, June 15, 2017


There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

- P.G. Wodehouse, Strychnine in the Soup

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Horror Worse than Heart of Darkness

I’ve been doing the majority of my lighter reading during snatched moments at work, during two fifteen-minute breaks and my half hour of lunch. By far the easiest way to read and eat at the same time, I must admit, is via e-reader.  Hence I’ve been thankful for my Kindle, which doesn’t fly shut on me or have a binding to break or paper pages to stain, and which I can flip through easily with my pinky finger without so much as putting down my fork.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I tend towards being a cheapskate with my Kindle, downloading free, public domain books. I’ve read a lot of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, and Emmuska Orczy on my Kindle. I was in the mood for one of these lighter “dime novel” adventures, and decided to shake things up a bit with some Arthur Conan Doyle. The Crime of the Congo sounded Haggard-ish, so I opened that book up and began to read it.
It is not, I repeat NOT, a fictional adventure book. It is rather a report on the atrocities committed in the Congo to the Africans by the Belgian colonists. Doyle’s research is thorough, and his description of the events and actions graphic and detailed. No one could read Heart of Darkness after this book and think of it as a sort of morality tale of the dangers of natural racism. To do so, in my mind at least, would almost cheapen the suffering of the Congo people who were enslaved to harvest rubber in their own country, starved and beaten and dismembered and killed, and purposely and intentionally tortured as if they were not human. Most people would be disgusted if an animal were treated with such viciousness, much less another human being.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Horror, the horror!

"The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there--there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you--you so remote from the night of first ages--could comprehend."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
It’s easier to tear down than to build up, and so it’s easier to criticize someone else’s writing than it is to actually write something better. There it is, in black and white, an author’s hours upon hours of work, sweat, and tears. It’s placing their heart and mind on a pedestal for others to swing a stick at for any minor malfeasance.
This is why I normally try to talk about books I recommend. I’ll point out flaws, but an honest review is better than hyping up something only to disappoint you when you read it. I read a vast amount of books I don’t end up reviewing at all because it would be merely me with a stick in my hand. Life is too short to waste it on reading books you don’t love, and my life is too short to waste it on blogging about those books.
This entry is an exception, because another thing I like to do is go over classic literature with new eyes. Classics are hard to do this with, because most of us—even those who haven’t read them—have an idea how we should feel about a book from what teachers or other sources have implied. One of the most “preconceived” pieces of literature I encountered in my education and critical readings was Heart of Darkness.
I was assigned this greatest work of Joseph Conrad in my British Literature II class, which I took before Brit Lit I, and was one of the first literature courses I took as a wide-eyed freshman. Unlike several of my classmates who had read Darkness in high school, I’d never even heard of Joseph Conrad. As people began discussing the story I felt as if I were jumping into the conversation mid-sentence, with no idea what had come before.
"...we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences."
The story begins as a narrative inside a narrative. The unnamed narrator, along with a Lawyer and Accountant, are listening to a story being told by the “protagonist” Marlow, of how he started out in his career. Desiring to travel and explore from childhood, Marlow insinuates himself into a riverboat captain’s position, which has recently been freed up by reason of the previous captain being murdered by natives for trying to beat their chieftain to death over some dispute about hens. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

My first excuse to use "tête-à-têtes" in a sentence in a very long time

You may be an introvert when you actually do research on how to talk to people. Such was my reason for borrowing Jeanne Martinet’s The Art of Mingling: Fun and Proven Techniques for Mastering Any Room. It gave me a few ideas on how to improve my confidence when approaching someone, as well as some pointers on how to make small talk.

A lot of what is discussed is the logical answer to the question, "How do I engage a stranger in conversation?" Watching body language, following etiquette (turn off the cell phone!), and finding a balance of participating in conversation without monopolizing it--or, on the other end of the spectrum, losing complete control of where the conversation is going.

I liked Martinet's idea of "assuming a character"--that is, if you're a shy, intimidated person, put yourself in the mindset of a character who is self-possessed, confident, and charismatic. Maybe part of my liking this part of the book was the author's heavy reliance on "classic" actors like Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart for examples. And it goes along with something I've long believed myself: that just as our self-esteem is affected by what other people say to us, we are also affected by what we say to ourselves, and thus can give a sort of pep-talk to ourselves when we feel overwhelmed or insufficient. 

While some things in this book--mostly little details or tips--were helpful and seemed to make sense as techniques one could successfully use to improve mingling, I must admit to being a bit scandalized at the treatment of deception in the book. Whether it was an opening line or an excuse to escape an uncomfortable conversation, the frequent answer in this book seems to be “make it up.” It seems that as long as one is charming or charismatic enough, they can get away with any sort of exaggeration, fib, or ignorance. 

I was also a bit disappointed in how the goal of mingling was treated. For me, mingling is dipping one’s toe into the waters of what one hopes to be a deeper friendship, a true “getting to know you” effort. Perhaps it’s because, like many introverts, I prefer small, intimate groups or tête-à-têtes that move decidedly from petty small talk to more engrossing and enlightening discussion. 

The goal of mingling according to this book, however, is to talk to as many people as possible in a large group of people. Thus this book’s audience is not so much geared toward the socially awkward or wallflowers as it is towards people who want to make social connections for other purposes, such as furthering careers or getting invited to even more large-group parties.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lions say "Woof"?

Source: www.funzoomiami.org
“…We had to undertake a journey of 300 miles through a desolate and almost uninhabited region. I can assure you that I have rarely been in a worse position, and I have been in some queer ones. However, these things are the natural incidence of a hunter’s life, and the only thing to do was to make the best of them.”

Alan Quatermain is at it again in this relatively short story relating yet another of his adventures in Africa. For a guy who claims to dislike attention or telling stories of his life, Quatermain sure finds himself wiling away many an evening by the fireside in the company of curious Europeans (usually a fair amount of them easily-impressed and shocked ladies), telling the account of some adventure of his in which he (and not one of his equally-intrepid companions) is always the center of action and heroism.

In this particular tale, Quatermain is sick and stranded in the middle of the African savannah with a native Zulu, Mashune, and a Hottentot alliteratively named Hans. With limited supplies and only four cartridges of ammunition between the three of them, they have forty miles to travel through dangerous wilderness before they can hope to reach safety. Between them and civilization stands not only Quatermain’s illness, their imminent starvation/dehydration/exposure, but also man-eating lions and a very violent eland.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

H. Rider Haggard's "The Mahatma and the Hare"

A Mahatma, as H. Rider Haggard explains in the first pages of this story, means “Great Souled,” and is a person with a sort of sixth sense or at least an ability to transcend the usual human’s sense of reality.

A hare, on the other hand, is a sort of rabbit.

The narrator starts by talking about Mahatmas and also some passing acquaintance known as Jorsen. The narrator then U-turns into another topic, of how his wife and daughter died and the shock and heartbreak drove him to drink himself into a stupor and contemplate jumping into the river.

Enter Jorsen, who appears at the narrator’s side and knows the entire tragic tale. Jorsen mentions in passing that he knew the narrator in a past life. The narrator’s friendship of Jorsen brings him back from the edge of despair, followed by his studying of a pseudo-Eastern mysticism and a bunch of talk about Pharoahs and kas. At last is introduced a sort of limbo-world called the Great White Road, upon which ghosts must travel on their way to the afterlife. In a dream or stupor or some deep meditation, the narrator accesses this Great White Road and sees his dead child. Attempts to repeat this meeting are in vain, although the narrator meets many other spirits in subsequent visits to the Road.


Monday, May 1, 2017

A Cricket in Times Square: A Review

One of the cool things about reading fiction in particular is the way it causes the reader to shed their own identity in order to relate to the characters.  It’s a way of learning to see life from different perspectives—even perspectives we may not agree with—and to reevaluate our own preconceptions even after we’ve shut the book and are going about the rest of our day.

I think children’s literature does this better than any other type of fiction.  I get particularly aggravated with the Adult Fiction section of my library because it seems like the inside blurbs are all variations on only a couple themes.  The thriller books with rough, practically unlikable protagonists, the “artsy” books with characters that seem permanently depressed, or historical fiction where the characters and plot are so bland it gives history itself a bad rap.

But here is an example of how a children’s story can make us relate to something or someone we normally wouldn’t even think about as having a perspective at all: A Cricket in Times Square.  Exactly.  A cricket.  Those annoying, icky, pests that keep you up at night or don’t know when to keep quiet during an awkward silence.  This is the protagonist of not one, but several books by George Selden.  Aided by Garth Williams’ illustrations, which somehow manage to make a cricket look cute, Selden begins this series of books with poor Chester Cricket, minding his own business by stealing some picnic food, being suddenly uprooted from his home in the Connecticut countryside and dumped in a subway in New York.*

Source:https://wspucla.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/the-cricket-in-times-square.jpeg
At first frightened, cold, starving, and lost, Chester is finally rescued by Mario, the son of the impoverished owner of a failing news stand.  Although Mario’s mother has the most realistic reaction of the book and wants to immediately get rid of Chester, Mario and his dad eventually convince her to keep Chester as a pet, as long as he’s kept in the newsstand and not at their home. 

Chester is next befriended by Tucker Mouse and Harry the Cat, fellow denizens of the subway.  Tucker is probably the most developed character in the book, a disgusting, hoarding, and arrogant rodent who somehow is still loveable.  Harry the Cat is more of a foil for Tucker, pointing out the flaws in the mouse’s grandiose schemes.  For some reason, Harry does not try to eat either Tucker or Chester…but soon that proved to be one of the less unbelievable things that must be set aside in the interests of this fantasy story.

Because the premise of this story, if set in an ostensibly realistic world, is that of fantasy.  Chester Cricket, it turns out, is a virtuoso violinist…albeit a violinist who plays with his legs against his wings instead of the actual instrument. His ability not only to reproduce any sort of human composition he hears, but also to arrange medleys and compose his own works, makes him famous, redeeming him in the eyes of Mario’s mother, impressing the local music aficionado, and eventually saving the newsstand with his newfound fame.

I remember really liking this book at eight years of age.  I remember rereading it, as if the book had sympathy for me, when I was ten and moving to a new neighborhood and felt as uprooted as Chester.  Reading it as an adult, I enjoyed many aspects of this story.  The two things I didn’t care for were a) it’s more glaringly obvious to me now that the only female character is the mother, who while she softens towards the end of the book is the villain for the beginning chapters of it; and b) somehow this simple fable gets a bit dark at the end, as Chester begins to deal with the negative, paparazzi-level of celebrity.  Not that this doesn’t add some much-needed drama to the tale, but somehow this time around it read sort of awkward, almost as if it didn’t fit in the sort of world where the entirety of New York City stops still to listen to a cricket’s song.

One other thing I noticed as an adult which I didn’t quite connect as a child, was the similarity of A Cricket in Times Square to Charlotte’s Web.  Granted, Charlotte would probably eat Chester if given half a chance.  But the two stories are about bugs with incredible talents that help others against incredible odds, as well as have sort of melancholy (if realistic) conclusions.
 
While I think this book's ending is a bit melancholy, I also must remind myself that this is only the first of what became a decent-sized series involving Chester, Tucker, Harry, and even more characters. I haven't read all of these books (yet), but if I'm hoping for a happy ending, maybe that's what I'll have to do.  It's a heavy task I'm placing on myself, but I'm willing to make this sacrifice.

 

*And not that kind of Subway, either.  Chester wouldn’t have minded being dropped off in a sub sandwich joint, though I doubt health inspectors would have approved, and that would have been a completely different story….

Monday, April 24, 2017

That Awkward Moment

When I'm on break at my new job and some coworkers start having a conversation across the room about Don Quixote and I REALLY REALLY want to join in. 

Until the one actually reading Don Quixote disses it as "too long" and "basically the same joke over and over."

Then I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to join in and correct him in the error of  his ways:

He's totally wrong about Don Quixote. Unfortunately he fell into the same mistake of many modern readers, and saw the musical first. Man of La Mancha is about Cervantes, not an actual adaptation of the book! Now, while I agree some parts of Don Quixote do take the "joke" so far it's like beating a dead Rosinante, who says this book is only supposed to be about "jokes"? Satire is more than for chuckles and lolz.  It's about making a point, making one think.  I for one was fascinated by it. Not only does it have the laugh-out-loud moments one expects, but it also brings up some tough questions. Is it better to be sane like the other characters in the book, but not have any principles or desire for some higher standard of life? Is Don Quixote a pathetic character, or is he perhaps like Plato's metaphor of the cave, where the person who has escaped the dismal reality of servitude and darkness comes back to tell his fellow captives of this new wide world outside, only to be ridiculed as insane?

But I'm afraid that freaking out in a room full of practical-strangers-but-I-have-to-cultivate-a-good-working-relationship-with-them-I-suppose-even-if-it-means-betraying-one-of-my-favorite-works-of-literature-by-not-adequately-defending-its-myriad-of-virtues will not be considered copacetic.

So instead you shout across the room "NEXT TIME TRY CANDIDE.  IT'S SHORTER!"

(I'm sure he'll take my suggestion.)


He'd better.


Maybe I'll just shove a copy in his employee mailbox.  That's professional, right?

Or at least it's anonymous.

As long as he doesn't see me do it.

Or remember me yelling at him.

It wasn't really "yelling," it's just he was across the room and I  had to raise my voice to be sure he heard my valuable if somewhat unsolicited input.


I think I just became the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of bibliophiles.

But I'm alright with that.