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Aug. 24th, 2016

books

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I already posted about Miss Pym Disposes, and that’s the only one.

What I’m Reading Now

I’ve started reading Eva Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan as my new bedtime book, and her work is so perfectly adapted for this purpose that I am almost sorry that I’ve already read almost all of her books. They’re comforting and homey and full of lovely food descriptions and lovable characters, but also plotty enough that I’m always excited to read the next couple of chapters each night.

I’m also reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Fair Barbarian, which is about an American girl who travels to visit her aunt in a poky English town (named Slowborough - I love these delightfully fitting names) and shakes the place up a bit. So far she has befriended the shy (but slyly humorous!) granddaughter of the cranky local dowager, inveigled the befuddled curate into a game of croquet, and stunned the whole town with her audacity in standing alone on a moonlit terrace with a man.

I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s free on Kindle if anyone wants to give it a whirl.

What I Plan to Read Next

I was going to read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for my reading challenge “a book I should have read in school”... only I started reading it and I got totally bored, so I’ve decided not to do that after all.

So! Now I need another book that I should have read in school. I was thinking briefly “Perhaps this is my opportunity to expand my grasp of French literature!”, but then I realized that there is no school in the US that would assign Zola’s Nana, so maybe not.

Aug. 23rd, 2016

books

Book Review: Miss Pym Disposes

I just finished Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, and it maaaaay have displaced Daughter of Time as my favorite Tey book, although it’s hard to displace that impassioned defense of Richard III. (And in fact even in Miss Pym Disposes Tey can’t resist a dig at Shakespeare’s Richard III: “A criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play,” one of the secondary characters fulminates.)

The book takes place in a women’s physical training college. I like books set in girls’ schools of all kinds - actually just books set in female spaces in general, although it’s somewhat rarer to find something that is set in say a nunnery - and Miss Pym Disposes does a charming job evoking it through Miss Pym’s outsider eyes.

Miss Pym comes to the school to give a talk on psychology, having become famous by writing a book on the topic, although the book never defines her precise psychological theories - aside from a firm belief in face-reading, which Miss Pym shares with Tey’s other great detective, Inspector Grant. I find it less disturbing in Miss Pym than Inspector Grant, because she’s not a police officer and therefore not empowered to hound anyone into prison on the strength that they have the eyebrows of a murderer.

In any case, Miss Pym meant to leave the day after her lecture, but she finds the energy and atmosphere of the school so charming, and the students so welcoming, that she ends up staying through the last couple of weeks of finals… Only of course to become embroiled in a murder.

I do feel that Tey lost her nerve a bit at the end, although oddly enough this doesn’t bother me; I read lots of mysteries and love mysteries and am yet weirdly indifferent to whodunnit. I realized this fact recently and am pondering what it means.

However, although it certainly doesn’t spoil the book, it is a bit painful because the book is almost excellent and morally complex and meaty for a bit there, and then Tey steps back from that and it’s a bit painful to see her walking back the excellence of her own work like that.

SpoilersCollapse )

Aug. 22nd, 2016

books

Caldecott Monday: The Big Snow

The 1949 Caldecott winner is Berta and Elmer Hader's The Big Snow, which I liked very much! It starts when the geese go honking south for the winter, which prompts all the other animals to ponder their own winter preparations, and culminates - of course - in the falling of the Big Snow. Lots of beautiful, peaceful nature illustrations; soft watercolors for the color pages and gentle stippled pencil sketches for the black and white ones.

I really like books about the changing seasons. This seems to be a genre that exists mostly for small children, presumably because it would be a bit difficult to hang an entire novel on the minutia of seasonal change, and it's very peaceful and comforting.

I think it would be interesting to read books in this genre that don't follow the spring-summer-fall-winter pattern, though. Something that follows the seasons in Florida or somewhere like that. Is that something that exists?

Aug. 18th, 2016

books

War and Peace Thursday: Done!

"So too in history what is known to us we call the laws of necessity; what is unknown we call free will. Free will is for history only the expression for the unknown remainder of what we know of the laws of human life."

Tolstoy comes to a perfectly good ending halfway through his epilogue (which is of course a hundred pages long), but he just can't help himself: he tacks another twelve chapters on just in case we haven't quite understood his theory of history yet, and indeed it does clarify things, because it is only in this last section that he comes right out and says that he thinks the whole idea of free will is bogus, an illusion that masks the fact that history works out according to the ineluctable workings of natural laws.

In a way I admire him for sticking to a theory that he knows is going to be dreadfully unpopular (he compares it to Copernicus's theory that the earth revolves around the sun), but at the same time I wish he would have done it elsewhere. A pamphlet perhaps. Or he could have started his own magazine to expound on his theory of history. He's a count, he has the funds.

...I was going to go on a bit more about the goofiness of Tolstoy's theory of history - he seems to be singularly naive about how power works, for instance - but then I decided that it had probably all been said before and I didn't care enough to reread any of it in order to refute it.

So let's talk about Tolstoy's characters! Princess Marya manages to marry Nikolai Rostov, yesssss! I'm not convinced it's the best match ever - I don't think Nikolai has it in him to understand her, although to be fair Nikolai knows this and admires her fine qualities the more for it - but Princess Marya always wanted to get married and have children and has at last been granted this earthly happiness and I am happy for her.

It occurs to me that both of the big matches at the end of the book involve one partner who is more spiritual and intellectual and one who admires that quality from afar while being too down to earth and focused on the here and now to really understand it. Princess Marya and Nikolai Rostov, Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostov.

In fact in a way both the Rostovs seem oddly diminished by their marriages; I noticed this more in the case of Natasha, because she goes all Happy Housewives in the epilogue (she doesn't sing anymore! Why doesn't she sing anymore?) but they both seem to have become more firmly staid and practical and, well, boring in their marriages than they ever were before.

Also I feel bad for poor Sonya, who is stuck living in her former betrothed's house as a sort of spinster aunt for his children, forced to watch Nikolai and Princess Marya be happy together and endure the fact that Princess Marya doesn't much like her. I don't even blame Princess Marya really - it's an impossible situation; of course there's friction - but still. Poor Sonya.

And she doesn't even have the solace of her best friend! Natasha has transferred her allegiance to Princess Marya, to whom she comments apropos Sonya, "She is a sterile flower, you know, like a strawberry blossom. Sometimes I feel so sorry for her, and at other times I think she doesn't feel as you or I would feel."

Well, that's a nice way to wash her hands of the matter. Poor Sonya; but then, she doesn't really feel anything, does she? At least it would be very convenient for everyone else if she didn't. Can't they at least try to marry her off to someone else?

Aug. 17th, 2016

books

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Who finished War and Peace? THAT’S RIGHT, IT’S ME.

I’ll post about it at greater length tomorrow, but for now I will leave you with this quote: “Pierre’s madness consisted in not waiting, as he had formerly done, to discover personal attributes that he called ‘good qualities’ in people before loving them: his heart overflowed with love, and by loving without cause he never failed to discover undeniable reasons for loving.”

I also read Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, which is classic Mary Stewart except with added telepathy. Unless she has a lot of books with telepathy and I’ve just missed them until now?

Anyway, I think I should take a break from Mary Stewart books from a bit. I love her formula - the stalwart young heroine who knows gobs about poetry and English wildflowers slowly discovers that she has a murderous nemesis and also falls in love - but it is a formula and I think it will feel fresher if I give it some time to rest.

What I’m Reading Now

Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, a book that - you can tell by the title - was clearly written with me personally in mind.

It does just what it says on the tin - with the addition of a few other dramatis personae not listed in the title, probably because Benfey figured Henry Ward Beecher would be too obscure for the modern reader, although if that were the criterion then I’m not sure why Martin Johnson Headley is in the title. (Headley was a painter of salt marshes and hummingbirds, and also surprisingly intertwined with the other leading personages in the book.)

In any case it’s kept my attention fairly well despite the fact that I feel as if I am losing my mind, which I feel is a pretty high recommendation of its quality.

What I Plan to Read Next

I have Diana Wynne Jones' Minor Arcana, and I'm looking forward to reading the novella "The True State of Affairs," about a girl who is imprisoned. ladyherenya posted an excerpt and it struck me there was something rather Code Name Verityish about it.

Aug. 15th, 2016

books

Caldecott Monday: White Snow, Bright Snow

What is it with the Caldecott Medal and books about snow? In 1948 and 1949, the winners were White Snow, Bright Snow and The Big Snow, respectively; and later on, there are Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, and most recently Snowflake Bentley, which is about the guy who figured out a way to photograph snowflakes and showed that each snowflake was unique. And Owl Moon may not be technically about snow, but it takes place in the snowy woods.

Snow is awfully picturesque, but six snow-themed books in an award that is only seventy-odd years old seems a trifle excessive.

On the other hand, I don't particularly like the illustrations in White Snow, Bright Snow - I don't think they capture the magic of snow at all - so it's nice to know that there are five other books on the list that might do it right.

Aug. 14th, 2016

snapshots

Bell tower

I took a long walk after dinner in the hope that it would help me sleep - we'll see - but either way, it netted me this beautiful photo of the bell tower at sunset, framed round in trees.

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Aug. 11th, 2016

friends, shoes

Mini roadtrip

I'm off to another wedding! It has turned into a mini roadtrip, so I won't be back until Sunday.
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Aug. 10th, 2016

books

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

My favorite of the books I read this week was Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan, another one of her charming theater mysteries. And! There is a guest appearance by Mike Lamprey, the eleven-year-old son of the family in Surfeit of Lampreys, who was an important witness in the case and liked it so much that he conceived a desire to join the police. Which he has now fulfilled! And thereby become the first Lamprey to engage in remunerative employment probably ever.

I suspect that at the yearly Lamprey Christmas gatherings the other Lampreys treat him like a war hero for his dash and bravery in getting gainful employment. Mike enjoys it but is also ever so slightly embarrassed.

I also finished up Robert A. Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World, which was interesting although not particularly enlivening. Gross is interested mainly in the men of the town, which is his prerogative of course, but I would have been more interested if there had been more about the women.

I was interested to learn that it was quite common for young women to be pregnant on their wedding day - for couples to in fact use pregnancies as a way to force their parents’ hands in allowing a marriage. This might be useful in a historical romance.

And lastly, I read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, the first book in the Melendy quartet. I found this book when I googled “books like Betsy-Tacy.” It’s cute enough, but it has not captured my heart like Betsy-Tacy, so I probably won’t read the others. Unless someone else has read it and believes fervently that the later books in the series are marvelous?

What I’m Reading Now

Still Sara Jeannette Duncan’s An American Girl in London, although I am creeping up on the end. Oh no! Whatever shall I read on my lunch breaks next?

Actually I have a bunch of other books on my Kindle, but I feel that none of them will quite live up to this in sprightliness and local color.

What I Plan to Read Next

I’m heading to Bloomington on a road trip, and in keeping with my usual practice I am taking along a Mary Stewart novel: Touch Not the Cat this time. It should be fun! Mary Stewart usually is.

Aug. 8th, 2016

books

Caldecott Monday: The Little Island

There was a little Island in the ocean.
Around it the winds blew
And the birds flew
And the tides rose and fell on the shore.


So begins Margaret Wise Brown's The Island. It's like a free verse poem: you can almost track the ebb and the fall of the waves in the length of the lines.

It strikes me that picture books are one of the last bastions of popular poetry that is widely read by ordinary people, rather than mostly by dedicated poetry-lovers. Poetry used to be widely loved and read and quoted and even written (although by people who were quick to declaim that they weren't true poets, true poets being rarified creatures who live on air), and then after World War I it all seemed to peter out until you end up with the situation today where so many people see poetry as impenetrably high brow with nothing to say to them.

I read a book, Gregory Orr's Poetry as Survival, about the ability of poetry to help people build bridges through suffering, a theme that both Eugenia Ginzburg and Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn elaborate in their gulag memoirs: they found reciting remembered poetry and writing poems of their own central to their survival, both in the purely physical sense but also as preserving their intellectual integrity (in the meaning of wholeness, although probably honesty also applies).

It is perhaps worrisome that the great mass of the American population is now armed with nothing but Dr. Seuss.

The other thing that strikes me about this book is the fickleness of fame. The Little Island won the Caldecott in 1947, but I had never heard of it; Margaret Wise Brown's reputation now rests on Good Night Moon. The award hit the right author but the wrong book.

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