Monday, February 26, 2024

The Great Brain

 So for February my revisitation of children's literature went to The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald. There are more in the series, but we seem to have the first two. (My library consists of a very random amalgamation of books--mostly American history--purchased by DOB in his youth; books of many varieties picked up by me at random library sales, books obtained for school for the kids in various years, and quite a number that were rescued from the farm. Also Bookworm's library is slowly migrating this way. And in the past couple of years I have finally started deliberately purchasing books I actually want to re-read. So I am often in ignorance of what exactly is in our library. Also DOB hired some housecleaners to come install additional bookshelves and bring order to the chaos upstairs a couple of years ago and while they did make everything much neater, they had not the slightest conception of how books should be organized so pretty much everything is just random. After the addition goes on and Bookworm moves in we shall have a grand book reorganizing.) 

*The Great Brain* is in the category of realistic kid adventures with a strong historical and geographical setting--in this case turn of the 20th century (we have to specify which one now) Utah. They are based on his own childhood and I have no idea how fictionalized they are (or what his older brother immortalized as the titular character, a money-loving eleven-year-old con artist, thought of the series.) 

On re-read, these are solid but not immortal books. The prose is a little clunkier than I remembered. There are many things that might grate on modern sensibilities, but on the whole the series is good-hearted and doesn't shy away from tough issues (immigration, disability, suicide, lack of community care for an outsider). Honestly I think most parents would definitely put it in the read-aloud-and-discuss category. It's certainly a very different world, one where a boy's status is entirely measured by physical violence and girls don't even exist, where weeks of the silent treatment is the enlightened parental alternative to the whippings routinely handed out, where dividing along cultural and religious lines is hardly even to be questioned. But I think it's good for kids to visit some different worlds, and even to realize that places not all that distant in time or space still had dramatically different outlooks and unquestioned values. 

Other books I have been reading:

I finished Byzantium and it held up well through the end. The Vikings remained a hilarious RPG party throughout; even being sent to the silver mines could not squelch them and they horded as much silver as they could until rescued. And yet it also felt real when the one Viking convert, despite his entire instruction being at the hands of his captive/slave/friend, a disillusioned and apostate Irish monk, spoke movingly of the day he nearly died of torture in the mines that he knew that Jesu would be there at the harbor to welcome him home, and would understand, as he had suffered in the same way.

This also got me interested in Eastern European medieval trade routes, which is being further whetted by a podcast on The Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors, about a journey from Germany through Russia and Persia in the 1600s, but I cannot find anything on it at all at the local library.  

On the monastery theme, I convinced my book club to read A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, and I am always happy to spend some time with Brother Cadfael. We'll see how people like it. 

On a bit of a mystery kick, then, I also reread Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers. It is wild to think that this book is nearly a century old; I wonder if it is one of the first examples of the modern workplace comedy with its banter that still feels familiar territory but surely did not exist much earlier, before, well, workplaces were co-ed. (One cannot imagine such a place in Dickens.) Granted it's still early days and there are no women in management but there is one actual female copywriter and a couple of typists whom Sayers, holding true to her principles, treats as humans. And though the language of the actual advertisements have all the absurdities of vintage advertisements, the general motive of advertising and its very mixed blessings have not changed all that much even if the media have changed dramatically. 

I've decided my next tough classic to tackle is The Brothers Karamzov. There's nothing like a little Russian literature to remind one that one's troubles are not really so bad. 

Monday, January 29, 2024

Pooh and Alice

 I started off the year with A. A. Milne. I'm sure the idea is not original with me that children's literature can have a much broader scope than adult literature because, with the attention-hogging topics of sex and death off the table, the writer must delve into the more nuanced joys and sorrows that actually make up the bulk of life. Probably no books exemplify this as well as the Winnie-the-Pooh books, which celebrate life's small joys like sitting in the sun with a friend and its small sorrows like discovering one already ate the snack one was saving for later. Although I think it is the poems that I find even more enlightening, as there are few days in which I do not feel like The Old Sailor My Grandfather Knew, not to mention those days of discovering another knight whose squeak has gone, or needing to enlist a suitable third party to suggest an answer I am not entirely sure of. We will never forget Pooh, even when we are 100. 

Then I went on to Lewis Carroll, which are an entirely different kind of fantasy, the kind where even the ordinary becomes strange. This puts some people off, but for those of us who are always finding ourselves at odds with the world, it is strangely comforting. (Pooh and Alice view from different angles the joy of reciting one's own poetry and the horror of having to listen to other people's. Such is human existence.) There is also a special place in my heart for *The Hunting of the Snark*, though it is much less well known:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   "They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
   But we've got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best—
   A perfect and absolute blank!"

Anyway, they were both a good way to spend January, including one particularly exciting Friday when the temperature dropped to 12 Fahrenheit, the pipes froze, the heaters stopped working, the dogs got out, and CPS dropped by (due to an offender in the neighborhood).  

Other things I am reading:

Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead. This is the first time I've actually read Lawhead, as far as I know, though I've tried several times but always been stymied by not having the right books in the right order. As far as I know, this one stands alone. So far it's been quite enjoyable (and a nice medieval follow-up to Doomsday Book, which I read over New Year's). It does feel a bit like a role-playing game somehow in the sequence of adventures, but I do not consider that a demerit. 

The Planets by Dava Sobel. I wanted a reliable science writer after starting on a book off the library new books rack that had a glorious title and promised to be about deep sea creatures but instead spent an awful lot of time on the author's Tinder dates, which were of no interest to me. This was not about deep sea creatures, but it was, as advertised, about the planets, both their attributes, exploration, and the history of human views and legends about them. The only thing I wished it had was an update for the most recent fly-bys. 

How to Read a Tree by Tristan Gooley. I haven't finished this yet, because it's best read in small doses so I can then look for things on my next walk, or as much as I can do while disentangling the dogs from the huckleberry bushes. This book focuses on general species that have common traits throughout the Northern Hemisphere and then on specific things to notice about the trees in front of you and how their growth and patterns have been influenced by their surroundings. 

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Book Goals 2024

 My personal reading goal for 2024 is to revisit my favorite childhood classics, which I have not revisited since the kids were small. I am shooting for one a month, but I consider a series one book for this purpose. My rules for this list are: It has to be one I enjoyed as a child (this eliminates ones I only encountered as an adult, such as The Prydain Chronicles); it has to be one my children enjoyed (this eliminates some obscure midcentury fiction or many that were not available on audiobook); it has to be one I haven't reread in a decade. (This eliminates The Hobbit and Anne of Green Gables, for instance.)

The World of Pooh

Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass

The Chronicles of Narnia

Wind in the Willows

The Jungle Book

The Phantom Tollbooth

Little House series

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

The Great Brain 


Misty of Chincoteague or Justin Morgan had a Horse or Brighty of the Grand Canyon, depends on which is easiest to find. 

Arabian Nights adaptation

Redwall (Not going to try the whole series here, one or two should do. Also not entirely sure I read this as a child, I might have been a teenager.)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

Tom Sawyer

OK this list is getting kind of long; it might be a two year challenge. Or I might get through them pretty quickly. As a pre-teen I typically polished off a book or two a day; I don't have that kind of time or focus any more but I don't think most of these will take me very long. 


 I revisited *Middlemarch* via Spotify this fall. I am not one of those virtuous people who listen to lots of audiobooks while they get chores done, that is too much going on for me. I like to listen to audiobooks and play videogames on the rare occasion when it is quiet enough around here for me to get away with it. (Sadly the Spotify one fell about five chapters short, but luckily I found them on Librivox, I just had to actually click through to the next chapter.)

Anyway, I love *Middlemarch* and was not at all disappointed by a revisit. The characters are vivid and even the more villainous ones are well-rounded. Even the arch-hypocrite Bulstrode has to wrestle with his conscience and we are not entirely unable to distance ourselves from his self-justifications. And the boring ordinary characters are deeply endearing--I honestly came a way with a lot of sympathy for Sir James and Cecy and for Mr. Brooke's colossal but warm-hearted bumbling.  

When reading 19th century literature I always like to envision what the women would do if they *could* do things and how much this would help their frustrations. Dorothea, after a brief stint as Casaubon's graduate student teaching assistant (a relationship that would have suited both of them much better than marriage) would have gone into social work and wound up founding a large non-profit. I may be biased, but I believe Mary Garth would have been a wonderful small-town attorney: she has a strong sense of ethics, an ability to be tactful without being cowed, a very quick wit and tongue, and a deep loyalty to people and place. And she actually knows Latin. Rosalyn, I fear, would be an influencer, the kind that always wants everyone to give them things for free for "exposure." She might at least get some help for her postpartum depression, but fear it is too late to change her fundamental character. 

Mostly 19th century novelists like to expose the follies and false limitations of society, but from the 21st century it is likely to induce a bit of nostalgia for having something resembling society at all--for actually knowing your neighbors and their forefathers and expecting to know their descendants. And of course, having to behave accordingly. Social constraints and the need to pay the bills are not all bad: They might have kept Lydgate and Dorothea from full self-actualization and the noble achievement of which they dreamed, but they also turned Ladislaw and Fred Garth into productive members of society instead of wastrels. 

It seems to be a popular opinion about the book that Dorothea is too good for Ladislaw, or that she and Lydgate should have ended up together or something like that. I think this is quite wrong. She would have been as miserable with Lydgate as with Casaubon, because the primary issue with Casaubon is that he viewed Dorothea as a decorative furnishing for his own life, not as her own person with her own views. And Lydgate, though young and handsome and with a perhaps more useful ambition, views women exactly the same way. The fact that Rosalyn's independent goals and wishes are shallow and pointless does not change this fact. Sooner or later Dorothea would have thought about things differently than he would have, and he would have been as incensed by it as if the table suddenly declined to hold supper, and Dorothea would have been hurt and incomprehending because despite her wholehearted embrasure of model wifely duties, she is incapable of *being* a piece of furniture. Whereas Ladislaw, for all his weaknesses, simply values Dorothea as a person, for herself. Which doesn't mean no conflict, but does mean a chance of resolving it as fellow humans instead of locking themselves away into marital roles. Sure, she will be the dominant personality in their marriage, but then, why shouldn't she be? They are both happy that way. 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Picture of Dorian Gray (and other books)

For the past few years I have tried to read one spookyish classic in the month of October; last year was Dracula (read on Spotify), which was delightful. Mina is my geek girl hero. And it was fun to see how much more recent productions draw on it (Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, I would estimate, 85-90% consistent with the Dracula universe.) I've also done The Turn of the Screw and Frankenstein in the past (though I don't think I quite finished Frankenstein, so I need to revisit it sometime.) 

This year I decided it was time to do *The Picture of Dorian Gray*. I've never read much Wilde besides the fairy tales. The book as a whole was hard to put down, once I got into it, and at the same time rather jarring. It reads like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by P. G. Wodehouse. 

I would concur with the writer of the preface (which I make a practice of never reading until after I've read the book) that Lord Henry is a more well-rounded and real character than Dorian Gray. But that did not make me like him any more. If he started expounding to me on the value of following every impulse and indulging in sensory delights, I would probably start with the delightful sensation of whacking him upside the head. He said many things that were memorable and some that might be clever, but there were too many and most of them rang false. It was as if he aspired only to be a quotation book. 

The book as a whole, whatever may have been titillating about its form in 1890, struck me as moralizing to outdo the Puritans. There is no redemption for Gray, not even a possibility of repentance, nor any moral ambiguity as to the plot itself. Gray chooses wrong, he does wrong, and he is punished. That is all. 

I did find it ironic that the quote of Wilde's that always gets bandied around for Banned Book week, "The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame," is in fact uttered by Lord Henry after Gray has tried, unsuccessfully, to confess to him and told him that the book Lord Henry loaned Gray when he was young had destroyed him. In context, it is a false statement by a man who cares more about whether he sounds clever than whether any real harm comes to anyone. Perhaps it could be retired along with that one people always quote out of context of Jane Austen's, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!” which is uttered by the odious Miss Bingley solely in an attempt to get Mr. Darcy's attention away from his book.   

After I read The Picture of Dorian Gray I wanted to revisit *Heretics* by G. K. Chesterton and contrary to my recollection, Wilde did not get his own chapter. But then, Wilde was not truly a heretic. He says many heretical things, but mostly for effect. Chesterton did write about him, just not in that book: "[I]t was the very multitude of his falsities that prevented him from being entirely false. Like a many-coloured humming top, he was at once a bewilderment and a balance. He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things – even God."

Some other books I have also read somewhat recently:
Nature Obscura by Kelly Brenner: Backyard naturalist is one of my favorite genres, and having one written so close to my actual backyard was a bonus. Now I must plan an exhibition to the massive crow rookeries near Seattle. 

The Innkeeper series by Ilona Andrews: This was pure fluff (Vampires and werewolves! In space!) but I wanted pure fluff and it was well-composed, fun to read fluff and the romantic subplots were not icky. I found the titles, all of which are a terrible pun on sweep, to be a little misleading as, though Innkeepers have a broom as their magic wand/badge of office, no actual sweeping seems to be done. Inns are magically self-maintaining, and I could really use a house like that. 

On Basilisk Station by David Weber: I have never tried the Honor Harrington books but as I love the War God series and enjoyed the first few of the Off Armageddon Reef series, I thought I should at least give it a try. It's more the kind of sci fi that I don't really enjoy, hardware and tactics heavy, like the things that finally put me off the rest of the Armageddon Reef series, but I did like the main character and the overall plot, I just zipped through a lot of the technical bits. 

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery: This went back to the library before I finished it but I thought it went nicely after our book club did Incredibly Bright Creatures and I enjoyed the visits with octopuses and speculations on their understanding. 

I'm completely out of sync with my book club, I either read the book and can't make the meeting or make the meeting but didn't read the book. 

I've started but not finished yet Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which is exactly the kind of sci fi I most enjoy--speculation on different forms intelligent life might take and how those might interact. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

Canterbury Tales

 I think it was sometime last spring when I started Canterbury Tales, because that was about when I assigned a sampler version (A Taste of Chaucer) to Dame. I finally finished it this month. I have no shame in taking a very long time to finish a book, and Canterbury Tales was definitely worth the time and no harm for meandering as each tale can stand up on its own. The translation I have, no doubt from some long-forgotten library sale, was by J. U. Nicholson, and it had illustrations of the different pilgrims, which were fun. 

I also don't generally read a lot of commentary which means what I think about things may be quite obvious or quite wrong as far as I know. It struck me that you could hardly imagine any book ever written since beginning with something like The Miller's Tale and ending with a sermon on all the vices and virtues that would have done Jonathan Edwards proud. Perhaps the enduring popularity of the medieval era as a land for the imagination is an era where we could be fully human, vulgar and divine, before we were enlightened into severing our souls from our bodies. 

For educational value, not only is it a quintessential work of English literature, it was also a great exercise in learning to differentiate between what the characters are saying and what the author is saying. Are we really meant to commend Griselda, or what is meant by putting her story in a clerk's mouth (who could hardly have had much experience with women)? And if not, then what might it be showing us about abusers and their methods and their apologists?

Chaucer's little asides and deeply snarky humor were a lot of fun. I was left wondering why poor Sir Topas, which was hilarious, got cut off before it got started, or why when we finally get a woman who's not hoodwinking her husband nor a patient martyr, but reasonable and intelligent, she must be so deadly dull as Prudence? 

My favorite tale of all, though, was the Franklin's Tale. After all the displays of human shortcomings and sufferings, I was honestly on tenterhooks to know whether it would come out all right. Would the couple actually talk to each other? Would Aurelius hold Dorigen to the bargain he had tricked her into? And in that suspense comes a burst of generosity and grace, like the sunlight after a storm. What if, we spoke honestly and trusted those closest to us? What if instead of each grasping for what we could get, we received and gave with generosity? 

Monday, September 04, 2023

A Biblical Mystery

DOB and I are taking our twenty-year-belated honeymoon this week, back to my favorite place in the world (which is luckily only a couple hours away) and more or less near the spot where we spent a very short weekend after the actual wedding. (Do not get any ideas, creepy internet lurkers, our house is still full of large, cranky teenagers, an alarming number of melee weapons, and very loud dogs.)  

It involved a ferry ride and on the ferry ride there was a vehicle with some kind of small boat tied to the top. (An outrigger?) There was a verse on the side, but because of the way the rope was tied, all I could read was "Zechariah ??:6"

Naturally once we arrived I had to do some research and figure out *which* Zechariah ??:6 was intended. The options are as follows:

1:6 But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not take hold of your fathers? and they returned and said, Like as the LORD of hosts thought to do unto us, according to our ways, and according to our doings, so hath he dealt with us. (Kind of clunky, not a good fit.)

2:6 Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the LORD: for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, saith the LORD. (This sounds exciting, but we were traveling east, not south. They might have had Alaska plates, though, I didn't know to check.)

3:6 And the angel of the LORD protested unto Joshua, saying, (Kind of abrupt, not getting much here.)

4:6 Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts. (OK, yes, I'm sure it was this one. Shush. We must check them all.)

5:6 And I said, What is it? And he said, This is an ephah that goeth forth. He said moreover, This is their resemblance through all the earth. (Well, I don't know what an ephah going forth is, but I also didn't know what the boat was called, so perhaps it is an ephah and that is their resemblance through all the earth.)

6:6 The black horses which are therein go forth into the north country; and the white go forth after them; and the grisled go forth toward the south country. (Not really seeing the connection here.)

7:6 And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? (This seems like it would work better on a yacht.)

8:6 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in these days, should it also be marvellous in mine eyes? saith the LORD of hosts. (It didn't seem like a particularly marvellous boat, but I don't know much about boats.)

9:6 And a bastard shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines. (Kind of earthy, I like it!)

10:6 And I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph, and I will bring them again to place them; for I have mercy upon them: and they shall be as though I had not cast them off: for I am the LORD their God, and will hear them. (A nice sentiment, and "cast off" is kind of nautical.)

11: 6 For I will no more pity the inhabitants of the land, saith the LORD: but, lo, I will deliver the men every one into his neighbour's hand, and into the hand of his king: and they shall smite the land, and out of their hand I will not deliver them. (If the land is getting smitten, it's better to be on a boat?)

12:6 In that day will I make the governors of Judah like an hearth of fire among the wood, and like a torch of fire in a sheaf; and they shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on the left: and Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place, even in Jerusalem. (Not very nautical, but pretty exciting)

Thursday, August 31, 2023

On the Plate

Dame was ranting a bit about parenting tactics she had observed with which she did not agree:

Dame: "How can people become parents without *any* of the necessary skills?"

Me: "Actually, it only takes one skill to become a parent, and you don't even need to be that good."

Dame: <eyeroll>

One of the great pleasures of parenting teenagers is being able to make obnoxious off-color remarks to a captive audience.

Anyway, one of the ones she was disagreeing with was requiring a child to either eat the meal served or go hungry. I understand the desire not to waste food or encourage pickiness, but we didn't wind up going that direction. And I had just been thinking today what a good thing that was. 

You see, it was Dash who had the most trouble eating what was served. It also turns out Dash has extensive allergies/food sensitivities which vary depending on exposure. Odds are most if not all of his emotional reactions to dinner were physical reactions he didn't know how to explain. 

Instead I tried to make sure something everybody could eat was available at each meal, treats were only present in small quantities, and if you really needed to, you could go fix something for yourself. Not that this made things easy, necessarily, when you have a small child with a tendency to anxiety and the metabolism of a hummingbird, who is already to the point of hysterics just making it from snack time to dinner time, and now has to think of something to eat that's not actually visible. (We never could figure out a reliable standby.) 

I am quite certain I was not always very patient or understanding through this process. But at least I didn't make things actively worse. And no one ended up unreasonably picky. It's been a good rule of thumb to assume that I don't know everything, and usually kids are acting they are for a reason, even if I can't figure it out right away.