Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Faerie Queene: Book V, Part II

Still trucking along in the Faerie Queene....when last we left our hero Artegall, he was a captive of the Amazon Queen Radigund, who forced him to wear women's clothing and spin thread.  Britomart is on the way to save him!

Ahahaha, will I finish in a year?  I'm betting not...

Britomart arrives at the Temple of Isis (who is Equity); she enters, but Talus is not allowed in.  Isis wears silver and linen, and is shown standing over a crocodile.  Britomart prays to her, and sleeps in the temple.  She is protected and refreshed, but she also has a bizarre vision, in which she merges with Isis.  The crocodile threatens her, but must submit, and then he fathers a great lion upon her.  Waking, Britomart is very disturbed and asks the priest for an interpretation of this dream.  He tells her that Artegall is the crocodile, and also Osiris, and together they will produce the British kings.  Calmed, Britomart sets off for the Amazons' land, where she meets Radigund in battle.  Radigund is a tigress, but Britomart is a lioness and prevails, though she is wounded.  She is horrified by the captives' dress and frees them all, then finds Artegall and dresses him properly.  After a rest, Artegall leaves once more upon his great quest.

Artegall and Talus meet a damsel on a horse, fleeing two knights, with another knight in pursuit of them.  The strange knight gets one, Artegall takes the other, and then, oddly, they start to fight too, until the damsel stops them.  Once they pay attention, they recognize each other -- it's Arthur!  The girl is a maid to Queen Mercilla (Mercy, and also Elizabeth I), who lives nearby.  She is constantly oppressed by a villain, provoked by his wife Adicia (injustice and pride).  The girl is Samient, who brings them all together.  After the two knights sneak into the baddies' castle, they have a big battle, kill the evil Sultan, and subdue the vengeful Queen Adicia.  (This may be a version of the Spanish Armada, and certainly from here on everything gets very obviously political.)

Adicia is exiled, and the knights go after Malengin (Guile).  He lives in rocks, but has hooks and nets like a fisherman (or like the Irish, Spenser says).  He nets Samient, but the knights block his cave, and he flees over the rocks, just like a goat!  Talus pursues, but Malengin shifts into a fox, a bush, a bird, and finally a hedgehog too prickly to hold, and Talus beats him into a pulp.  On they go to Mercilla's castle.  Awe and Order are the keepers who bring the knights in (they pass a scurrilous poet, Malfont, with his tongue nailed to a post).  Mercilla, aka Elizabeth, is described surrounded by governmental virtues, a rusty sword, and a lion.  She is in the process of dealing justice to Duessa, who in this case is Mary, Queen of Scots.  Everybody sympathizes with the pitiful-looking Duessa, and she receives mercy, though she is undeserving.

Now the widow Belgae asks for help from the tyrant Geryones, Geryon's son (and also Philip II of Spain).  Arthur asks for the job of defeating Geryones, and he sets out without Artegall, who continues on his own quest.  Arthur takes Belgae to Antwerp and fights the invading Seneschal and three cowardly knights to get into the castle.

Geryones attacks Arthur right away, without greeting.  He has three bodies!  Geryones is furious but Arthur keeps cool and strikes all three bodies at once, killing his foe.  Belgae then offers Arthur sovereignty over her land but he graciously turns it down (unlike the real-life Leicester).  Arthur hears that in the church, Geryones' great Idol stands with a Monster underneath, so off he goes.  He strikes the Idol three times and the Monster appears -- a foul fiend!  It is Echidna's child, and much like the Sphinx.  Their battle reminded me a lot of Redcrosse fighting Errour.  Arthur kills the monster, sets all aright, hooray, and now we should check on Artegall.   He meets with the old faithful Sir Sergis, who informs him that Irene is imprisoned by Grantorto, who plans to kill her.  This is Artegall's real quest: to save Ireland from the influence of Catholic Spain.  On his way, Artegall meets Burbon (Lord of France), who is dishonored, having abandoned his shield (become a Catholic).  His lady, Fleurdelis, has left him.  Artegall scolds Burbon, but also helps, and persuades Fleurdelis to submit to him.  (This is all getting pretty weird.  Too much politics spoils the allegory!)

And now for the final battle!  Artegall crosses the sea and meets a host of soldiers, whom Talus beats.
  He then challenges Grantorto to single combat and refuses all courtly entertainment beforehand (it might corrupt him).  The next day is the day chosen for Irene's execution, but Artegall gives her hope.  Grantorto arrives late, dressed as an Irish foot soldier.  He hits Artegall's shield and gets stuck in it, so Artegall abandons it (as Burbon did?) and strikes with a special sword, killing his enemy.  Everybody's happy, and Irena is again Queen of her land.  Artgeall puts the country into order, but is recalled to the Faerie Queene's court (as in real life).  On the way he meets two hags, Envy and Detraction.  They have a monster -- the Blatant Beast!  It is scandal and cruel rumor.  Envy throws a shewed snake at Artegall and it bits him in the back.  He goes on to the court, but bears the scar of the bite.

Phew, only one more book and some cantos to go!  I can do this!  Hey, guess what, Spenser invented the word "blatant."  Go Spenser.  I am not a fan of all this obvious political allegory stuff.  It's not nearly as fun as the earlier books.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Last Things

Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love, by Marissa Moss

Marissa Moss is an author/artist, and you may have seen her Amelia's Notebook series or her excellent picture-book biographies (or, I reviewed The Pharaoh's Secret a few years ago).  These days she has a small publishing company, too.  Her husband, Harvey Stahl, was an art history professor at Berkeley, and this is the story of his diagnosis of ALS and the family's journey through his illness and death.

This is a really, really tough story, and Moss tells it with wrenching honesty.  Harvey's illness hit so hard and fast that there was no time to absorb and come to terms with it.  Instead, he was mostly angry and shut off, while Marissa tried to stretch herself far enough to care for him and their three boys without falling apart.  Harvey only seemed to find solace (if any) in working on the book he'd been writing; each son suffered in his own way; and Marissa struggled to hold her family together, mostly feeling like she was failing everyone.
Last things sneak up on you, slip away, unnoticed, unmarked...the last kiss, the last "I love you"...because we assume there will be others.  We share a lot of "lasts" and don't even know it.
If you're familiar with Moss' work, you'll recognize her style.  It's like her other graphic work, but entirely rendered in black and grays -- no color at all.  Harvey died in 2002, less than seven months after his diagnosis, and just about fifteen years ago.  I think it probably took her that long to be able to write this.  That does make it possible for her to include information on her sons' growing up and her life now, which is really nice to have.  She also finished Harvey's book (and it's coming for me on ILL).

An excellent and extremely painful memoir.  Read it, and have a box of tissues nearby.

Ooh, look, I found a book trailer:

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Circle

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Twenty minutes into the future, Mae is the newest hire at the hottest Internet company on Earth -- the Circle.  The Circle is like Google, Facebook, and all your business combined online; it makes everything super-easy, but you have to use your real identity.  No more passwords or 37 different accounts to remember, but also no online anonymity.  No more identity theft (this part is more than a little hand-wavy).  Mae is thrilled, and grateful to her best friend Annie, who is now at the top of the company and got her the job.

The Circle's leaders are very into transparency; everything should be open and seen.  Mae starts to move up in the company, and pretty soon she becomes famous worldwide when she goes 'clear,' wearing a broadcasting camera at all times.  She loves the fame and attention, and she gets sucked into the Circle's goal of seeing everything, all the time.  Even as she loses friends and family, she believes.

Mae is not much of a character.  She doesn't seem to have much (if any) personality; she is endlessly malleable to the Circle leaders' ideas.  Some of the things she accepts without question are just not believable.  She is a standup cardboard figure, built to carry out Eggers' message. 

I was kind of bugged by the way Mae just keeps adding more social media responsibilities.  She starts off with a job to do, and the Circle campus is jam-packed with events, parties, and workshops, so she is supposed to attend a lot of those.  Then she's supposed to spend hours a day on social media, participating and being visible.  Then they add a constant stream of survey questions into her headphones, and ever more.  I felt hemmed-in and suffocated once she got to the social media requirement, as I was supposed to do, but when they added the surveys I quit suspending my disbelief.  I don't think an actual human being would be able to sustain all that stuff, even for a day.  Eggers has her learning to find it soothing, but I think he piles it on too much.

I wasn't swept off my feet.  At first, I zipped along, but pretty soon I was reading about two pages a day because I just wasn't enjoying it.  Eggers has some good points, but he's also heavy-handed with them, and he ignores anything -- like hackers, HIPAA, and privacy/legality concerns -- that gets in the way of his dire warnings.  I guess there was a movie and it didn't do as well as people thought it would.  I'd skip it if I were you.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Brueghel Moon

The Brueghel Moon, by Tamaz Chiladze

After reading The Hand of a Great Master some time ago, I was interested in reading more Georgian literature.  The older stuff is not really available in English, but some newer things are; there's a publisher called Dalkey Archive that publishes a bunch of things in translation, and they have a Georgian series.  So I picked The Brueghel Moon without knowing anything much about any of them.  It's very modern.

Levan, a well-to-do psychologist, is taken aback by the abrupt departure of his wife, who tells him that their marriage was just a habit and she was more his patient than his wife.  Left behind, he wanders aimlessly through memories, incidents, and possibly unreal fantasies.  Disjointed chapters feature a woman convinced that she had an affair with an alien, the wife of an ambassador, and strange links between them all.

Interesting but strange and I won't claim to have understood it.   A good experience.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Histories

The Histories, by Herodotus

As part of Ruth's Reading the Histories project, I took over three months to read Herodotus' Histories.  I do enjoy Herodotus, but he's not exactly easy, and the fact that my copy is a huge book that can only be read while sitting down on the couch, when I remember to pick it up, made it a very long read.

Herodotus, first known person to systematically collect information and deliberately set it down as a history (rather than having a bunch of propaganda or myth mixed in), did his best to verify what he learned.  When he couldn't, or when he is skeptical, or found several versions of events, he tells you so.  The main subject of his treatise is the war between the Greeks and the Persians, but he really only gets to that near the end.  First, he talks about everybody and everything, describing Lydians, Persians, Cimmerians, and any interesting anecdotes or history.

Herodotus' magpie brain is what I love about him.  He is just brimming with neat little stories, and since I did a lot of my reading while my daughter worked on her schoolwork, I was forever interrupting her to read anecdotes aloud.

I must confess that I did not take notes or read systematically; I just read the book.  So if you want detailed synopses, I am not your gal, but I am here to tell you that Herodotus is on the entertaining side.  I also adore the Landmark editions and wish to collect them all!  They are so alluring, with lots of maps and notes and appendices.

Now that I've finished Herodotus, it's time to tackle Thucydides.  Oh dear, this is much more daunting.  I took a couple of college courses in Classics (a perk of being a comp lit major!) and had a week to read Thucydides.  I didn't understand a word.  He is not easy, and I do not love reading boring accounts of battles, but I have my Landmark edition and I'm on page....37.  Wish me luck -- I'll sure need it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Swan Riders

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was late to reading The Scorpion Rules, but I was less late to the sequel, The Swan Riders, and it was worth it; the story is imaginative and gripping.  

Greta, once a crown princess and a hostage to Talis, the artificial intelligence that runs the world, is now AI herself.  She, Talis, and two Swan Riders have to travel across the country (Saskatchewan, to be exact) before Greta falls apart.  Becoming an AI is extremely dangerous, and she could well die before she can receive good care. 

Her former subjects, however, are in revolt.  The Swan Riders themselves are plotting something.  And Elian, her friend, but headstrong and not given to analysis, is out there too.  Everything goes pear-shaped very quickly.

Erin Bow must be one of the best YA authors out there.  She is original and sharp, and Swan Riders gives readers plenty to think about as well as an exciting plot that keeps moving and layered characters with good depth.  Every person in this story is an individual with worth, and never a flat stock piece or part of a mass.  Good stuff.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Power of Glamour

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel

What exactly is glamour?  Is it personal style?  Charisma?  Envy?  Does it involve sparkles and lipstick?  Is it shallow and frivolous, or does it reveal deeper insights about human nature? Virginia Postrel embarks on a quest to define and chronicle glamour.  She calls it a moment of longing, in which we look at an image and project ourselves into a better life -- one that isn't messy and awkward, but instead clear and graceful.

Glamour comes in all sorts of flavors; the earliest may have been military glamour, and Postrel uses Achilles as a primary example.  But so many things have glamour: princesses, suntans, wind turbines, airplanes, horses, and the Mysterious East.  They are dissected and analyzed for what it is that makes them glamorous.  Some elements seem to be important; glamour tends to attach much more to static images than to things that move, for example, and it has to be a bit distant and unknown.

The book is filled with beautiful images and photographs, and usually, if Postrel describes something, there will be a picture of it nearby.  One of my favorite things was a chart showing the difference between glamour and charisma; first a set of characteristics, and then a set of people. Barack Obama, Che, Spock, and Joan of Arc dead are all glamorous, while Bill Clinton, Castro, Kirk, and Joan of Arc alive are charismatic.

An intriguing analysis, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit.  Readers of non-fiction and those interested in rhetoric, style, or psychology should add it to the list.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Two Books by Nick Bantock

No good image of this exists online
The Pharos Gate, by Nick Bantock
The Egyptian Jukebox, by Nick Bantock

A while ago I re-read the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, and  then I read the second trilogy, which had come out while I wasn't looking.  I found that second set to be a bit confusing.  Then, just recently, I discovered that a new book had come out upon Griffin and Sabine's 25th anniversary, and it purported to tell the outcome of the story.  I requested that and ILLed this other, intriguingly titled Bantock book at the same time.  So...

The Egyptian Jukebox is a puzzle book, published in 1993.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the I Spy books for kids that my daughter loved so much when she was younger; it's just much more elaborate.  There is this jukebox with ten drawers, each of which plays a recording of a story.  Your job is to read the story, study the matching drawer, and follow the clues.  Each drawer yields a letter; all the letters make the answer to the riddle of the jukebox.

I will admit that I had to do a little cheating to get started.  I couldn't understand how the clues worked at first and looked up a hint.  After that, I did OK and spent a couple of evenings (with the enthusiastic help of the I Spy-loving-daughter) figuring out the drawers.  I liked the puzzles; the drawers are fun to inspect and tricky to solve, but not impossible.  It's probably inevitable that the answer to the riddle is less fun than the puzzles are.  It's a fun book.

The Pharos Gate is the concluding volume to the story of Griffin and Sabine, and I found it pretty satisfying.  They arrange to meet at the Pharos Gate in Alexandria on a particular date, and each starts a long and winding journey.  Somehow they still manage to correspond, and a strange villain pursues each of them -- but why would anybody want to do that? 

I enjoyed this final volume a good deal.  It does furnish a pretty satisfying ending, which the second trilogy did not.  I may now revisit that second trilogy and see if it makes more sense now....

Also, I always want to make arty stationery like what Griffin and Sabine have, and I wouldn't know how to begin.  Sigh.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Classics Book Tag

The other day, Ruth at A Great Book Study posted this fun tag, which she got from Jillian at Dear Diary.  So I thought I would join the fun...everybody is doing this one right now!

1.   An over-hyped classic you never really liked:  OK, I'm a Philistine, or else I didn't read it at the right time, but Catcher in the Rye.  I read it at 14 because it seemed like a lot of people liked it (it's the book every teen celebrity recommends in order to sound good), and I didn't get it.  I found Holden annoying.  I read it again in my 30s to see if he was still annoying, and by then I was a mom -- so what I mostly noticed was that Holden spends two or three days with no sleep, consuming only alcohol.  That boy needs a glass of milk, a large sandwich, a quart of water, and a good night's sleep, and then he will feel much, much better.  A nice hot shower would help too.  After that he needs a summer job on a construction site and a grief counselor.

I realize that Holden is supposed to be a mess, for specific reasons, but mostly I just want to make him drink a lot of milk.

2.  Favorite time period to read about :  Oh, there are so many!  Probably the Middle Ages?  I love the High Medieval period, the Early Middle Ages...the Renaissance not so much maybe.  I'm also a sucker for WWII, Victorians, Edwardians, and many other times and places.

3.  Favorite fairytale : Patient Griselda!  OK, just kidding.  Nobody likes Patient Griselda.  Hm, it's a tough choice but I'm going to go for Tam Lin.

Never read this one.  Like the cover.

4.  What is the most embarrassing classic you have not read?  There's nothing I'm embarrassed about not having read.  By now I've read most of the more famous classics that I intend to read (Moby Dick is not included in this list), and there's lots of time to read more.  There's nothing embarrassing about not yet having gotten to a particular book, I don't think.  Well, it was probably a little embarrassing that at age 19 I had not yet read Little Women, but as a kid I was allergic to anything that said 'classic' on the cover.

5.  Top five classics you want to read :
  1. The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer
  2. The Treasure of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan
  3. The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
  4. A Town Called Malgudi, by N. K. Narayan
  5. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky
Two of these are actually re-reads, but they're still on my top five!

6.  Favorite modern book or series based on a classic : Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, and subsequent titles.  He pretty much just romps barefoot through the meadows of literature.  My favorite joke is when a Shelley impersonator mugs somebody, leaving a tract on atheism behind.

7.  Favorite movie version or TV series based on a classic :  Well, it must be confessed that I am really very bad at watching movies and TV.  I am years behind on seeing BBC adaptations; I haven't seen Lark Rise to Candleford or Bleak House or anything, it's pathetic.  I mean, I read and loved Lark Rise to Candleford in 1995 (before it was cool!), but I've failed to see the TV.  So I can only choose from a few things, but I did like the Northanger Abbey movie I saw several years ago (would love to see that again!), and of course, the A&E Pride and Prejudice.  Oh, and let's not forget the 1985 Anne of Green Gables, which is perfection itself (we shall not mention Anne III; it does not exist).

8.  Worst classic to movie adaptation :  The first thing that comes to mind is a really terrible Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that was on Wonderworks in the 80s.  Oh golly it was awful.  Casting Billie Piper as Fanny in Mansfield Park also seems like a mistake.

9.  Favorite editions you would like to collect more of : Well, if I could really have my way, I'd collect Anchor paperbacks with Gorey covers!  Somebody ought to reprint those; they'd make a mint.  If we're staying in the realm of the possible, I like the paperback Penguin English Literature series (not the hardback, which I don't like so much).  I would love to have Trollope's Barsetshire novels in those editions.

10. An under-hyped classicThe Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon, is a collection of her favorite stories.  I grew up reading it, but hardly anybody seems to know it.  And everybody should!

 I'm supposed to tag people to participate, so if you're reading this and want to do it, consider yourself tagged.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Spin Title: The Heart of Midlothian

The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott

It's my first Scott novel other than Ivanhoe!  I was expecting some sort of dashing Jacobite adventure, but in fact The Heart of Midlothian is mostly about country people and...a prison.

The story starts off agonizingly slowly, actually.  The first narrator meets a couple of Scottish lawyers, and then describes the Porteous riots of 1736 before mentioning a couple of tiny country houses and the family background there.  It is quite some time before we figure out that the main characters are two sisters, Jeanie and Effie Deans.  After that, though, it gets really good, so stick with it through the first 80 pages or so.

Effie is the pretty, light-hearted, headstrong younger sister in contrast to the responsible, serious Jeanie.  Their father is a respectable cowman, but nearly fanatical in his strict Presbyterian religion.  When Effie finds herself in trouble, she refuses to confide in Jeanie, and after disappearing for a couple of weeks, is arrested for child murder.  Effie is put into the Tolbooth, the cruel 'heart of Midlothian,' to await trial, and the justices plan to use her as an example to others.  She maintains her innocence, but cannot produce the baby.  Jeanie is pressured to save her sister's life by lying in court, and this she cannot do, but she can walk to London in search of a royal pardon!

Jeanie sets out, but things get more complicated than she anticipated.  Why is there a woman on her trail, determined to stop her?  Who is the father of Effie's child, and where is he?  What happened to the baby?   And will Jeanie's own true love misunderstand the things she has to do?  This story actually winds up covering years, so that some mysteries are not solved for a very long time, even until it's too late. 

Once I got into the novel, I enjoyed it a lot.  It's got lots of suspense and pathos, and moves along at a good clip.  You have to love Jeanie, who tries so hard to do what is right.  But wow, those first 80 pages are a bear to get through.  You have my permission to skim (though you'll probably want to go back later and read about the Porteous riots again, after learning who is who -- I did and it was a big help).

Effie Deans, by John Everett Millais

Scott's odd name for the Tolbooth prison has had quite a legacy.  In Edinburgh, the site is now paved over, and the spot where the gate was (and where executions took place) has a brick heart pattern design.  It is supposed to be traditional to stand on the heart and spit in token of scorn of the debtor's prison that once stood there.  The prison was torn down during Scott's lifetime, in 1817, and a friend of Scott's got him the door and gateway stones, which he put into his kitchen courtyard.  (Just meditate on that for a minute.  Are you kidding me, Walt.)  The "Hearts" are the oldest soccer team in Edinburgh, and their crest is based on the brick heart.

BBC Radio 4 recently did an audio interpretation of this novel, with David Tennant playing Sir Walter Scott.  You can listen to a clip here!  It says there will be three other episodes, and I suppose they'll all be different Scott novels.  It's called The Great Scott.  Of course it is.