Thursday, December 28, 2017

New Year's Reading Resolutions for 2018

Looking back upon my year of reading in 2017, I can’t help but feel as if I could have done better. Granted, there’s a point where reading A LOT can take over one’s motivations and it suddenly all becomes about page numbers and book totals and whether a novella is more of a short story (and therefore doesn’t count) or a true novel (which would totally count!). It’s not right to make reading all about the numbers. That would make reading more like math, and we certainly can’t have that.

Yet sometimes goals are good, because they force us to push our limits, shake us out of apathy, plunge us into deeper subjects than we’re used to swimming in, and generally make us leave our comfort zone. This is especially true in today’s society where reading is secondary to other forms of entertainment. In fact, that’s why I feel I could have done better; I feel my reliance on other media (TV, mostly) caused me to waste valuable free time that would have been more profitably spent reading.

I refuse to feel despondent about my self-supposed failure, though. Instead I choose to look toward 2018 with new resolve. Setting lofty goals may be setting myself up for failure…but what if I reached those goals? Often it’s more about proving yourself to yourself than to others.

As usual, my baseline goal next year was to read 100 books. Then I thought, “Why stop there? Why not up it to 125? To 150?”

Monday, December 18, 2017

Thoughts on Aristotle's "Poetics"

The way words can conjure a world and convey thoughts from one brain to another’s seems like true magic, yet a magic that has a science behind it nonetheless.

“Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and thought imitation learns his earliest lessons…. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, metres being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.”

One of the earliest books about the science of writing happens to be one of the best I’ve read thus far. Aristotle’s Poetics is not simply about poetry—genres of Ancient Greece were not divided in the same ways as they are in modern times—but also talks about storytelling, comedy, plot structure, character development, diction and word choice, evoking emotion in the reader, Style, logic, and verisimilitude. (Verisimilitude is one of my favorite words learned in college lit classes, referring to a story being “true to life” or realistic.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Reviewing Hans Brinker (or, The Silver Skates) by Mary Mapes Dodge

Winter Landscape with Skaters on a Frozen Lake by Dutch painter Anthonie Beerstraten
Mary Mapes Dodge’s classic, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates is one of the (many) books I remember my mom reading to my brother and I when she home-schooled us. From that original reading I remembered the main character, Hans Brinker, his sister, the skating race with a prize of the silver skates, that they lived in Holland, and that his father had been brain damaged from a fall off the dykes and was the only one who knew where their money had been hidden, thus causing them to live in abject poverty for a long time.

I remembered liking the book, and so decided to re-read it this winter, as the atmosphere is appropriately frigid for reading a story centered around an ice-skating contest.

Except, much to my surprise upon re-reading, the contest—and the silver skates themselves—figure very little into the plot.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My local library got new carpet...

...and it looks like Joanna Gaines got a hold of it.

Yep, definitely getting a

Not that that's a bad thing. Only I do suspect that children will be playing Hot Lava by jumping from brown tile to brown tile on it.  That's my prediction from past personal experience, anyway.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Reviewing "The Swoop!" by P.G. Wodehouse

“It will be news to the Man in the Street to learn that, with the possible exception of the Black Hand, the Scouts are perhaps the most carefully-organised secret society in the world.”

The Swoop is one of the few PG Wodehouse stories that does not involve:
     a) A love-stricken chap
     b) A beautiful girl
     c) An overbearing aunt
     d) Theft or attempted theft at a stereotypical country house

In fact, it is very unlike most PG Wodehouse books I’ve read, in that it doesn’t include a lot of the twists and turns and mistaken identities and broken engagements and other convoluted situations from which Jeeves is ever extricating Bertie Wooster.

Instead, this story is about Clarence Chugwater and his fellow Boy Scouts as they oust an invasion on England from…well, everyone. Despite being different from the other books I’ve read by Wodehouse, there are still the hijinks, the lightning-quick wordplay, and the over-the-top characters.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Reviewing "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It was one of the best authorial finds when I downloaded my first Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on Kindle. Frankly I did it for the reason of his novels being free rather than having heard anything good about them. But I was rewarded for my ignorant adventurousness with tons of action, adventure, strange characters and even stranger worlds. I sucked up the Barsoom series and The Land that Time Forgot and some of the Pellucidar books in a short period of time. Then, feeling I had found an author who could be consistently relied upon to turn out dime-novel adventure fare when I had the craving for it, I downloaded the Tarzan novels and saved them for just such an emergency.

I’ve never been a huge Tarzan fan from the movie adaptations I’ve seen (particularly the Disney animated one). But I figured I’d follow the standard rule of “Never judge a book by its movie,” and expected better things as I embarked on the first installment, Tarzan of the Apes.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A List of Recommended Winter Reads

In my previous post I explained the why Winter Reads are—or should be—different from the usual Summer Reading fare. Winter Reads should take advantage of the fact that (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere like me) you are cooped up inside during long nights and cold days, and finally turn to those books that require a bit more focus and patience to appreciate. In this post I’ll present some books I’ve read in winters past. Without further ado, and in no particular order, my recommended winter readings include:

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Recommended Winter Reading?

One of the articles I see all the time being posted online around May or June are the obligatory Suggested Summer Reading, Best Beach Reads, or something of the kind. Frankly my TBR pile is too big for me to take note of many of these recommendations, but they’re always worth a look for some lighter entertainment. Summer is so busy (with outdoor activities, family reunions, vacations, garage sales, local festivals, even outdoor movie showings) that it makes sense that summer reads would be shorter, “fun,” and almost fluffy in nature.

Which brings up the question: Is there such a thing as Recommended Winter Reading?

Well, if there wasn’t before, there is now! I shall make it so!

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 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:

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.

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.

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):

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.
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.
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!
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

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.

I've seen many of these in passing, usually when searching for more information on a particular book. I'm more likely to delve deeper into things like Facebook or YouTube if a book is particularly obscure and therefore hard to find sources of criticism or reviews on it. While I really would be interested in spending more time surfing literary-related interwebs, I've come to the sad conclusion that I simply don't have enough time. One could, I think, spend all of one's reading time on reading (or listening or watching material) about reading or about books instead of actually reading those books. And, since I've got my own blog, it's more of a priority to read published material. 

Unless I were to pioneer a new trail and become a blogger who blogs about other people's blogs and reviews their book reviews. 

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

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

This doesn't really fit my idea of The Companions themselves,
but it does remind me a bit of King Smoit and how I imagine his army "practiced" for battle.
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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

I've been listening to too much Dumas fangirling

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!

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.

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"?

“…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.”

Allan 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

Reviewing George Selden's "A Cricket in Times Square"

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. 

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?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Photo credit: moi
While  I have been on an involuntary sabbatical from my laptop and blogging, I have not been idle in the land of literature.  Here is a photo of my volunteer station at my local library, where as you can see I was putting protective laminate on extremely important classic tomes. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

American Lion: A Review of Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson

American Lion.

Old Hickory.

War hero.





Father figure.

Slave owner.

Devoted husband.

Defender of the people.

Breaker of the bank.


Face on the $20 bill.


Andrew Jackson.

In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Jon Meacham has the tall order of trying to present a president who, from what I can tell, was a conflicted and controversial figure in his own time. How does a historian reconcile the disparate accounts, first person and second person and third person records of an individual’s life, and then turn around and present the truth as far as they are able to a general readership? This is the problem of any historian. And Andrew Jackson certainly did not make it easy for his future biographers. 

Jackson’s personal history, orphaned at fourteen and victimized by the British troops during the American Revolution; his experience as a soldier; his scandalous romance with a married woman who was officially divorced after her marriage to Jackson; his improbable rise in politics and charismatic devotion to the American people…all make for a good foundation of a great president, right?