Monday, June 30, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Picnic with Ms. Palmer

Random Photo Monday has moved to my other blog, Joysweb. It would love to have some visitors - please take a look here.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Review: The Grey King

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1986, 165 pages

"You see," Will said, "it's the first quest, without help, for me – and the last, because this now is the raising of the last defence the Light can build, to be ready. There is a great battle ahead . . . not yet, but not far off. For the Dark is rising, to make its great attempt to take the world for itself until the end of time. When that happens, we must fight and we must win. But we can only win if we have the right weapons. That is what we have been doing, and are still, in such quests as this – gathering the weapons forged for us long, long ago. Six enchanted Signs of the Light, a golden grail, a wonderful harp, a crystal sword . . . They are all achieved now but the harp and the sword, and I do not know what will be the manner of the sword's finding. But the quest for the harp is mine. . . ."

The Grey King, Susan Cooper's fantasy novel for young people, is the fourth and next to last book in her five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence (also the title of the sequence's second book). It continues the story of Will Stanton and his struggle against the forces of evil – the Dark.

We first met Will (in The Dark Is Rising), as an eleven year old country boy – the youngest member of a large, happy family. In the course of that novel, Will learns he isn't just any ordinary eleven year old – he's also the last of the "Old Ones," immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the ravages of the Dark. In The Grey King, Will is continuing his quest for the "six enchanted Signs of the Light." His search for the "wonderful harp" is set in Wales, and Welsh folklore plays an important role in the book.

At the novel's opening, Will is recovering from hepatitis – he's been very ill, and that illness has caused him to forget much of the ancient knowledge he possessed as an Old One. To recuperate, he's sent to stay with his Auntie Jen and Uncle David Evans on their farm in Wales. There he meets the "raven boy," Bran Davies – a boy about his own age, with the white hair and pale skin of an albino, and strange golden eyes. Surprisingly, Bran seems to know all about Will and is ready to help him in his quest to find a golden harp that will produce music to "wake the Six Sleepers" and prepare for the final battle between good and evil:

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon's sword the Dark shall fall.

The two boys become friends, and as they set out on their adventure, Will gradually begins to recover his memory and the prophecy he once memorized:

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
. . . .
By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie . . .
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.

And as Will learns a bit of the Welsh language from Bran, and starts to compare the local place names and geographic features around his uncle's farm with the memorized lines of prophecy, the final battle comes closer and closer.

The Grey King was first published in 1975 and was the winner of the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children's literature in 1976. And though it's classified as a children's book, in many ways it's the most "adult" of the first four books in the sequence. (I haven't yet read the final novel in the sequence, Silver on the Tree.) There are more adult situations in this one, and more explicit violence. Also, the frequent use of the Welsh language does slow the action down at times – possibly a problem for some younger readers. Unless, of course, they speak Welsh.

The Dark Is Rising sequence is proving to be just as powerful and addictive as I always imagined it would be. My favorite book in the series is always the one I happen to be reading at the moment! But The Grey King is definitely one of the best. Although I missed the presence of Merriman Lyon a bit (he figures in this book, but only briefly), I enjoyed the Welsh setting and the introduction of a fascinating new character in Bran Davies. His story and the mystery of his birth and birthright seem to be at the heart of the entire saga.

Related posts:
Review of Over Sea, Under Stone (Book One in the sequence)
Review of The Dark Is Rising (Book Two in the sequence)
Review of Greenwitch (Book Three in the sequence)

This is one of the books I'm reading for the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Challenge.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Definition

This week's BTT topic:
What, in your opinion, is the definition of a “reader.” A person who indiscriminately reads everything in sight? A person who reads BOOKS? A person who reads, period, no matter what it is? … Or, more specific? Like the specific person who’s reading something you wrote?

Dear Reader,

Yes, you. You know who you are.

You're a person who thinks all is not right with the world if you don't have a book in your hands, or on your bedside table, or in your backpack or briefcase. You're never empty-handed on that long plane flight or that solitary lunch break. When you walk through the door of a library you feel right at home. You experience regret when you leave a bookstore without a new book in your possession.

You may not read the latest best-sellers. You might prefer the classics. You might read nothing but fiction, or you might choose material from the "real world." You might confine your reading to romance novels, or military history, or police procedurals, or science fiction adventures, or biographies of movie stars, or medical thrillers, or any other special genre or topic. You might read books selected for you by a book club. Or you might just read anything that comes your way.

You may read to further your education or explore a subject that interests you. Or you may read to keep abreast of world politics. Or to enhance your parenting skills and set an example for your children. Or you may read for the sheer pleasure of it.

I suppose I recognize that, strictly speaking, reading is reading. And any reading of the written word is valuable, whether it's books or magazines or articles on the internet. But while I know that the word "reader" can be defined in many ways in many different situations – I must confess that when I use the term, I'm almost always thinking of someone who reads books. Someone who loves books. Books in any form. Someone who understands how much a love of books and reading enriches our lives and makes us better human beings.

Someone, Dear Reader, just like you.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: My Fantoms

Written by Théophile Gautier
Translated by Richard Holmes
Published by New York Review Books, 2008, 194 pages

This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the book

In these seven examples of the short Gothic work by 19th Century French writer Théophile Gautier, tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life, and young men are seduced and ruined by other-worldly visitors – labeled "fantoms" by translator Richard Holmes.

In "The Adolescent," a young man has nightly encounters with a beautiful goddess woven into a tapestry in his uncle's summer-house. In "The Priest," an aging cleric looks back on his youthful infatuation with a lovely but just slightly undead courtesan who used his blood to keep herself young and beautiful. "The Painter" is the tale of an artist who may have been possessed by a demon, or possibly just "driven mad by cause or causes unknown." The narrator of "The Opium Smoker" describes his erotic hallucination involving a dead opera singer. The young performer in "The Actor" learns that no one can portray the Devil like the Devil himself. And in "The Tourist," a visitor to the ruins in Pompeii becomes obsessed with a "lump of molten lava" which has solidified around one of the victims of Vesuvius, and left a perfect impression of her body.

The last piece in the book, "The Poet," is actually a character sketch of Gautier's friend, Gérard de Nerval, who committed suicide in 1855 by hanging himself from a window grating. It was through Nerval that Gautier met Victor Hugo. And it was Hugo who inspired the young Gautier to abandon his aspirations to be a painter, and take up writing instead.

The stories, especially "The Adolescent," have a very Edgar Allan Poe feel about them, but are much more overtly erotic than Poe's work. As Holmes says in his Introduction, Gautier's fantoms "are all seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand year-old muses. What they have in common is that all of them come back from the dead, seeking human lovers."

Gautier's work also has a witty and, at times, almost whimsical quality that you would not expect to find in Poe's tales. This doesn't mean the stories aren't creepy – they most definitely are that. Holmes says that "catching the exact pitch and tone of Gautier's stories, with their high decorative finish, and their various deflections of wit and lubricity, was not easy." But he seems to have done a laudable job.

Holmes also provides quite a lot of background information on Gautier and his times, and the history of his own involvement with Gautier's works. I would definitely recommend reading all of this (especially his Postscript) before undertaking the stories themselves.

The Short Story Reading Challenge

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Most Unpopular

For this week's Tuesday Thingers topic, Marie at The Boston Bibliophile asks:

Last week I asked what was the most popular book in your library- this week I'm going to ask about the most unpopular books you own. Do you have any unique books in your library- books only you have on LT? How many? Did you find cataloging information on your unique books, or did you hand-enter them? Do they fall into a particular category or categories, or are they a mix of different things? Have you ever looked at the "You and none other" feature on your statistics page, which shows books owned by only you and one other user? Ever made an LT friend by seeing what you share with only one other user?

Well, it looks like I have 68 "unique" books in my library, but I think that number is probably distorted a bit by a number of things. Cataloguing quirks might have something to do with it, and possibly differences in editions. For instance, I'm pretty sure there must be at least a few other LTers who own the Great Books editions of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets – so I may have entered the data differently.

Also, a lot of the unique titles are my husband's literary criticism books. And some others date from the days when we used to edit a poetry journal. I'm sure we must have entered the data by hand, since most of these works are pretty obscure and some are too old to have ISBNs.

Surprisingly, I have looked at the "You and none other" feature before, but not recently. There are twelve titles listed there – again, mostly lit crit and poetry.

We still have a lot more books to catalogue, but that's the answer for now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Reading Extravaganza - Day 1: Beach Reads

The Friendly Book Nook is hosting a Summer Reading Extravaganza this week, and inviting everyone to write about summer reading. They even have prizes! So you might want to take a look at their web site for the guidelines.

Summer reading is something I can get very excited about (see Summer Reading Review, Part Two). Well, those lazy hazy days of summer are just the perfect time to let everything else slide and get lost in a good book, right?

Today's topic is beach reads: "what's your favorite beach read or what's in your beach bag?"

Well, I won't actually be heading to the beach until the end of August this year, and I hope to get a lot of summer reading done before then. Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate, and People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks are the books I'll be starting in the immediate future (this week, I hope).

I've also got the newest entry in Nancy Clark's saga of the Hill family (July and August) on order, and intend to plunge right into it as soon as it's in my eagerly waiting hands. I loved the first book, The Hills At Home (look for a review of that one as soon as I can make myself sit down and write it)– and I'm really hoping this new one is as good.

Last summer, my beach reads included The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt, and Neil Gaiman's Coraline. The first book is just what the subtitle says – the story of the summer home Colt's great-grandfather built on Cape Cod back at the beginning of the last century. And Coraline is the spooky story of what happens when a little girl steps through a door in her house and finds another house just like hers, but also disturbingly different. Very different books, but they were both perfect for vacation reading.

When I do eventually make it to the seaside this summer, I'll probably have a few whodunits stuffed in my beach bag. Probably at least one of the Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown (and her cat Sneaky Pie Brown). I'm reading Wish You Were Here at the moment, but there are over a dozen titles in the series, so I have plenty to choose from. Also on my list is one of the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters, The Curse of the Pharaohs. I haven't read any other books in the series – this will be my first. But I've heard lots of good things about them and I always thought I'd like to be an archaeologist (or a Pharaoh – either one).

So, there's my short list – I'm sure I'll be adding to it over the next few weeks. Now if you want to participate in Extravaganza week, just write up a post on your blog about your summer reading and then visit The Friendly Book Nook to let them know about it. And then start your reading!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Book Time

This week a lot of my "book time" was devoted to finishing all the reading and wrapping up for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge that ended on the 20th. The challenge is hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings (a great web site – you should take a look), and it was lots of fun. It gave me just the nudge I needed to launch into Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising novel sequence, and for that I'll be forever grateful. I read the first three books for the challenge, and I'm about halfway through the fourth book (The Grey King) now, and hope to get a review posted later this week. My wrap-up post for the challenge is here.

Another good thing about the Challenge was that it got me to re-read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in honor of the summer solstice. Can't remember the last time I read Shakespeare. Yes, I can – about twenty years ago I think, for a play-reading group I used to belong to. Wow, that's a long time between. Shame on me. And thank you, Carl.

Also this week I started reading My Fantoms, by Théophile Gautier (translated by Richard Holmes). It's the latest book I've received through the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing, and it seems to have taken forever to get here. So I'm trying to plow through it as rapidly as possible – which for me, slowpoke reader that I am, is not an easy task. But ghost stories are something I love to read, so it's going faster than I expected.

I have to confess that most of my reading time today (aside from browsing the Salon, of course) has been spent following all the controversy about the new home pages at LibraryThing. Some members are very firm in their opinions, both positive and negative. For my part, I don't really see the need of a "home page" since we already have "profile pages," and I doubt I'll ever use mine much. But I guess their tech people need something to keep them occupied, and that's OK. I know – if you're not a LibraryThing customer, you have no idea what I'm talking about – sorry.

Well, I guess that's about it for today. I believe I smell popcorn being popped in the kitchen. So I think now it's time to go settle down with a tall cool drink, grab the NY Times Book Review and see how many new books I can put on my wish list. Probably the nicest way to spend a lazy Sunday evening in June, don't you think?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Once Upon a Time II Challenge: The Wrap-Up

I had some real doubts about finishing the Once Upon a Time II Challenge – I've gone and let things come right down to the wire again. But around here, "down to the wire" is pretty normal.

In the beginning (or maybe I should say Once upon a time…) I just signed up for the Journey. Well, seeing as how I was involved in a dozen or so other challenges at the time, that seemed like the most I should take on. So I read Over Sea, Under Stone for my Journey, and it went so fast, I changed my mind and decided to try Quest the First (at least five books of any mix of all the genres). I mostly stuck to fantasy, with one book of fairy tales – although I suppose the Dark Is Rising sequence could be considered mythology, too.

And although I'm not going to do a separate post about it, I even re-read A Midsummer Night's Dream last night. It's always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I once played Hermia in a lab theater production, many long years ago (roughly, about the Middle Mesozoic era). And I was surprised at how many of the lines I still remember. It's a great, feisty role – I remember that I especially loved the "fight scene" between Hermia and Helena when Hermia says "I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes." Yeah! Cat fight! You can always get a laugh with that one.

Here are the books I read, with a few notes and links to reviews:

Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper. The first book in Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence of five novels. This one sets the mood and hints at the basic framework of the story, and introduces some of the major themes and characters. It's centered around the Drew children and their search for an ancient artifact important in the battle of good versus evil. I haven't finished the whole sequence yet, but so far, I think this is my favorite of the books I've read.

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. Second book in the sequence. This one introduces us to eleven-year-old Will Stanton and his quest for the six magical Signs of Light. Will is the last of the Old Ones – immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the evil domination of The Dark.

Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper. In this third book in the sequence, the Drew children are back. Together with their Great Uncle Merriman they return to the seaside village of Trewissick in order to track down the grail they discovered in the first book, after the priceless artifact has been stolen by forces of the Dark. They're aided in their search by a mysterious new boy who turns out to be Will Stanton, the Old One from book two.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling. I held out a really long time, but finally had to give in and read this one. And I was pleasantly surprised – it was a very enjoyable read. Even so, I'm still not sure exactly what all the uproar is about. Maybe I'm just a little too old. Or maybe I'm just a plain old Muggle.

Granny's Wonderful Chair, by Frances Browne. OK, this was really cheating a little because I had read this book when I was a child (or had it read to me). But that was a long time ago, so I'm going to count it as a new read. It's a very old-fashioned book of fairy tales, written in the 19th Century, with some extremely charming early 20th Century illustrations. Lots of traditional fairy tale stuff – giants and magic wells and mermaids and talking animals. And, of course, a chair that tells stories.

Finally, I want to say thanks to Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting the challenge, and also to all the other participants. I had a wonderful time reading the five books, and all the great reviews turned me on to many other books I want to sample in the future. And speaking of the future, Carl says he'll be hosting Once Upon a Time III next year – and I'm ready to sign up.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review: Greenwitch

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997, 147 pages

. . . As Jane looked at the huge image that they had made, out of leaves and branches . . . . she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. [p. 34]

Greenwitch is the third book in Susan Cooper's mythic five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence. In it, the reader once again meets up with the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, who were introduced in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone.

The tale begins with the Drews, along with their Great Uncle Merriman, returning to the Cornish seaside village of Trewissick, the setting of their earlier adventure. The ancient grail once discovered by the children has been stolen from its museum home by the forces of evil (the Dark), and a new search has to be mounted to find and recover it.

They're joined in their quest by a mysterious stranger – a young boy who is the nephew of a friend of Merriman's. The Drews are puzzled by the fact that while this newcomer is about the same age as young Barney, at times he acts much more like an adult. And their great uncle seems to treat him as an equal. The boy turns out to be Will Stanton, introduced in the sequence's second book, The Dark Is Rising. Of course, Great Uncle Merriman knows what the children don't: that Will is, in fact, the last of the Old Ones – immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the evil domination of The Dark.

The search for the missing grail once again involves the children in a series of exciting, and sometimes dangerous events. It also introduces them to the Greenwitch – a framework of leaves and branches made into the shape of a woman – that for centuries has been constructed by the women of the village and then thrown into the sea to bring good luck to the fishermen.

I really enjoyed Greenwitch. While it sometimes feels a bit like it was written solely as transition, it's also interesting and entertaining on its own. It ties strands of the various books together quite nicely, and brings all the major characters together for the first time. And it's also the shortest of the five books in the sequence – which helps make it a good, fast-paced read.

I also found it very appealing that the book gives Jane Drew a chance to take center stage away from all those males for a while. Only Jane is permitted to be present at the ceremony where the village women construct the Greenwitch, and she forms a kind of mystic bond with the creature – a bond that will become very important in the struggle to overcome the forces of darkness.

Once Upon a Time II Challenge

Booking Through Thursday: Flavor

This week's BTT topic:
Think about your favorite authors, your favorite books . . . what is it about them that makes you love them above all the other authors you’ve read? The stories? The characters? The way they appear to relish the taste of words on the tongue? The way they’re unafraid to show the nitty-gritty of life? How they sweep you off to a new, distant place? What is it about those books and authors that makes them resonate with you in ways that other, perfectly good books and authors do not?

This is a difficult question for me. For one thing, I don't really have a single author or book or genre or formula that I can point to and say "that's my favorite – that's what I'm looking for." In fact, if you look at my LibraryThing profile, you'll see that I've got more than a hundred authors listed as my "favorites," and I've probably left a few out. And they represent many different periods, and categories or styles of writing.

Think about your favorite authors, your favorite books . . . what is it about them that makes you love them above all the other authors you’ve read? The stories? The characters? The way they appear to relish the taste of words on the tongue? . . . . How they sweep you off to a new, distant place?

Well, yes, I love all those things and always hope to find that kind of satisfaction in every new book I pick up. Who doesn't? But I look for different things from different books or writers at different times. I don't expect every book I read to move me in exactly the same way. That's one of the main reasons why my list of "favorite books" is always so annoyingly long (see "My Top Ten List of 59 Favorite Books").

But books that are "unafraid to show the nitty-gritty of life"? I usually avoid those. My life has quite enough nitty-gritty all on its own.

I suppose I generally try not to think too deeply about what makes me enjoy a certain book or author. That seems a little too much like being in analysis. A bit like reading as therapy. And while I understand that reading can be very therapeutic, I prefer to think of it as pure pleasure.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bookworms Carnival, Edition 12

This month's Bookworms Carnival is up. It's Edition #12, with Fairy Tales as its theme. If you like fairy tales, the Carnival offers lots of great reading, and you could discover a new blog to fall in love with!

Many thanks to Nymeth for hosting, and for including one of my posts (Granny's Wonderful Fairy Tales).

Anyone interested in participating in an upcoming Carnival can find more information and guidelines by visiting Dewey's Information for Carnival Participants.

Tuesday Thingers: Popularity

This weeks topic for the Tuesday Thingers group:
What's the most popular book in your library? Have you read it? What did you think? How many users have it? What's the most popular book you don't have? How does a book's popularity figure into your decisions about what to read?

Well, to start, I hope I'm understanding the question – it's very late (or very early, depending on how you look at such things), and I may not be hitting on all cylinders right now.

But, statistically, it looks like the most popular book in my library, by far, is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. With 32,484 other LibraryThing members owning it, I guess if it's in your library, it's bound to be the most popular title. I have read it – in fact I just read it recently, for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge and I have a review of it on my blog. I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot, but I can't say I became a Harry Potter fan. I might read more of the series in the future, but don't have any plans to do it soon.

The most popular book that I don't have seems to be another Harry Potter (surprise!) – H.P. and the Half-Blood Prince is apparently the second most popular book with LT members (or at least, the second "most owned"): 29,939 of them to be exact. Well, can 29,939 book-obsessed cataloguers be wrong?

And finally, I honestly don't think statistical popularity has any influence at all in my decisions about what to read. That is, I'm not really swayed one way or another by numbers. I'm much more likely to be influenced by recommendations from reviewers and bloggers whose taste and judgment I trust.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Random Photo Monday: The Tonys and the Shrew

For today's Random Photo Monday offering, take a look at my other blog (Joysweb). And thanks for visiting!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Sunday Salon: This Week's Books

Today I've been thinking about my summer reading list, and also taking stock of what's come in during the last week. Even though I keep promising myself that I'm going to cut way back on book acquisitions, I'm a champion back-slider, so the promise keeps getting broken. Well, promises to oneself are made to be broken, don't you think?

My actual reading today has been really scattershot. I've dipped into several books without really settling down with any of them. There were the Sunday papers and book review supplements to be dealt with, and then shopping, and then the U.S. Open on TV, and then a bit of a Sunday snooze. And tonight we'll be watching the NBA finals again and the Tonys, too. So it looks like this isn't going to turn out to be one of those Sundays when I get a lot of reading done.

But about this week's haul. Three of the books were free books, so it's not quite as bad as it seems. I received ARCs of The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman; The Fires, a book of novellas by Alan Cheuse; and Howard S. Smith's reworking of I, robot. I've heard good things about The Aviary Gate, so I'm looking forward to reading that one – don't know much about the other two. But they'll all be in my summer line-up.

James Lasdun's The Horned Man is another book I'm planning to read this summer. It's actually a book I already owned, but had lost track of. I've been looking for it for months now, but somehow it got stuck on the wrong shelf, and I never would have found it if I hadn't been going through all our books as I list them on LibraryThing. So I guess all that cataloguing has been good for something besides feeding my neurosis.

Of the other books that made their way into my life this week, one is another Library of America book – Poems, Prose, and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop. Not on my immediate to-read list, but I do like her poetry (especially "One Art"). But Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer is just that – part of my summer reading stack. Well, with a title like that, how could it not be?

The two John Dunning books (The Bookman's Wake and The Bookman's Promise ), and Michael Crichton's Sphere are very nice, very reasonably priced first editions for my mystery and science fiction collections. And Graham Joyce's Requiem is a book I'm thinking of reading for the Suspense & Thriller Challenge that I'm participating in – it should be perfect for the Religious Thriller category.

So I guess that's about it (one of my mother's favorite phrases). But speaking of the S& T Challenge – I'm also looking for a "Locked Room" mystery to read. The only idea I've come up with so far is Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia which I think is a variation on that theme. But I believe I've actually read that one many years ago, and I'm really trying to read all new stuff for the challenge. So if anyone has any suggestions, I'd be grateful to hear about them.

And if anybody's interested, Playbill is once again blogging the Tonys here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Weekly Geeks #7: Photo Week

I'm a born collector. Actually, there are those who would say "pack rat" is a more descriptive term for my mania. But be that as it may, whenever I'm interested in something, I tend to accumulate enormous quantities of whatever it is.

So when Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf announced that this week's Weekly Geeks subject would be photos (preferably with a book connection), I thought it might be nice to let some of one of my collections browse part of another. So here are a few photos of some of my dolls with some of my books.

As you can see, the dolls do seem to like hanging around the bookshelves.

These Storybook Dolls felt right at home.

A few Ginnys and Jills were thrilled to find some books all about them! Jeff was just there for the dancin'.

There's nothing like relaxing under a tropical palm with a few good beach reads.

Hannah and Udo take a break from reading about Alice's adventures in Wonderland.

I suppose it's natural that a bookish person would collect bookish dolls – mine love to read.

Some other interesting Geeks to check out this week:

SmallWorld Reads has a really nice collage of photos – wonderful book-loving family.

Debra at Reading Animals has photos of three "themed" book stacks, adorned by cute critters.

Bride of the Book God and Book Club Care have photos of some really inviting places to sit with a book.

Booking Through Thursday: Clubbing

This week's BTT topic:
Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (or, if you haven't been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?
Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

The only book clubs I've ever been a member of are the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild. And I occasionally look at some of the Yahoo book groups – does that qualify? Never actually belonged to a book club that gets together in the flesh.

My husband used to teach English at a small college in the South, and he was once asked to lead the discussion at the faculty wives' book club. I went along to the meeting and that one experience sort of put me off the idea of book clubs forever after. Somehow I was expecting a little more discussion about the book and a lot less gossip. But hey, that's just me.

M. and I did once belong to a group that got together at irregular intervals to read plays. But it was usually just dinner and a play – not much discussion about the work being read. Whoever was hosting that evening's reading generally selected the play, and we tried to keep it to fairly light stuff – Noel Coward, Neil Simon, and the like. Although we did read some Shakespeare and a couple of Greek comedies. It was great fun – we found that there were some surprisingly good actors in the group; but eventually the logistics of getting everybody together killed our enthusiasm. When you live in the Washington DC area, and group members have to travel from the hinterlands of Maryland and Virginia, any kind of gathering has its problems.

But I don't have anything against the idea of book clubs in general. I think they could be very enjoyable, under the right circumstances. And I think if I were a member of a reading group, I might read a little more carefully. You never know – somebody might actually want to discuss the book.

Granny's Wonderful Fairy Tales

Lately I've been sifting through our book collections, trying to get them all catalogued at LibraryThing. One of the most enjoyable parts of the process has been getting reacquainted with all the children's books I've accumulated over the years. Most are books I've acquired as an adult, but a few are actual relics of my childhood (relics of a relic!) – and even, in some cases, my parents' childhoods. And one thing my home library tour has made me realize is just how much my youthful reading was dominated by fantasy and folk or fairy tales. Well, even as a grown-up I'm partial to fiction with a touch of magic in it, so I guess that shouldn't really come as a surprise. Especially for a girl who owned her very own elf outfit (see below)!

I suppose my earliest experiences with fantasy stories were the old German folk tales my old German Granny used to tell me. I don't really remember many specific details, but I do remember that an awful lot of them were blood-curdling tales of bad little children who had horrendously gruesome things happen to them when they disobeyed their elders. Undoubtedly, they were meant to inspire obedience and good manners, but I imagine they mostly resulted in nightmares and life-long neuroses.

Like most children of the 1950s, I grew up with Walt Disney, and I think a lot of my early introduction to fairy tales probably came in Disney cartoons and Disney comic books and Little Golden Books. I remember being taken to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" long before I went to school, and being frightened out of my wits by the image of the evil stepmother. And my own mother always told me that I cried so much over a turtle in one cartoon ("Cinderella" maybe?) that I had to be removed from the theater. I'm not sure what the turtle was doing or having done to it, but I know I still find turtles rather disturbing, all these years later.

Ah, the happy glow of childhood memories. Good times, good times.

All right, I should get to the point here. I've been thinking about fairy tales a lot lately because recently I came across one of my favorite childhood books which happens to be a book of fairy tales. It's called Granny's Wonderful Chair and it was written by Frances Browne and illustrated by Florence White Williams. The only copyright date in my edition is 1928, and that's for the illustrations. But I believe the original book actually appeared sometime during the 19th Century.

My copy of the book is pretty fragile – the pages are browning and brittle, and starting to separate from the spine. It was passed on to me sometime in the early 1950s by my older cousin Shirley Ann, who got it from (I believe) our even older cousin Alga Mae, who got it from her older sister Gladys Ann (this was Texas, you understand – so double-barreled names were the norm in our family). It's a fawn-colored book with an illustration of acorns on the cover, and as a child I absolutely adored it.

The main story in the book (the framework) is the tale of Snowflower, a little girl who lives with her grandmother, Dame Frostyface, "in an old time, long ago, when the fairies were in the world. . . .":

. . . they lived together in a little cottage built of peat, and thatched with reeds, on the edge of a great forest . . . and the only good piece of furniture in the cottage was a great arm-chair with wheels on its feet, a black velvet cushion, and many curious carvings of flowers and fawns on its dark oaken back.

Every evening, Snowflower's grandmother sits in her chair and tells the little girl a story. Snowflower wonders where her grandmother could get so many stories, but she soon finds out. One day Dame Frostyface has to go on a journey to visit an old aunt, and says she can't take Snowflower along, but

". . . the hens will lay eggs for you; there is barley-meal in the barrel; and, as you have been a good girl, I'll tell you what to do when you feel lonely. Lay your head gently down on the cushion of the arm-chair, and say 'Chair of my grandmother, tell me a story.' It was made by a cunning fairy. . . .and if there be any occasion to travel, you have only to seat yourself in it, and say, 'Chair of my grandmother, take me such a way.' It will carry you wherever you wish. . . . "

After that introductory chapter, the rest of the book is taken up with the story of Snowflower's adventures at the court of King Winwealth who is throwing a week-long celebration in honor of the birthday of his daughter Princess Greedalind. (Yes, you can tell a lot about the characters in the book from their names.) Once the king learns about the chair's wonderful story-telling properties, he asks for a story every night, and each tale is given a chapter in the book: "The Christmas Cuckoo," "Lady Greensleeves," "The Greedy Shepherd," "The Story of Fairyfoot," "The Story of Childe Charity," "Sour and Civil," and "The Story of Merrymind." Then in the final chapter, "Prince Wisewit's Return," Snowflower's grandmother and the king's long-lost brother both reappear and everybody lives happily ever after, just as they should.

Of all the stories in the book, my childhood favorite was "The Story of Fairyfoot." It's the tale of a young prince with feet as dainty and delicate as a fairy's (right, he's the one called Fairyfoot), which wouldn't seem like such a problem, except that all the people of Stumpinghame (Fairyfoot's home kingdom)

. . . had feet so large and heavy that it was by no means convenient to carry them far. Whether it was the nature of the place or the people, I cannot tell, but great feet had been the fashion there time immemorial, and the higher the family, the larger were they.

Fairyfoot's family is so ashamed of him and his tiny feet, that he's sent to live with a family of shepherds. One day he goes traveling and meets up with a fairy who takes him along to a gathering of the fairies, where there's talk of a beautiful princess from another kingdom who also has a foot problem. It seems she washed her feet in the magic "Growing Well," causing them to grow so large she can barely move. In the end, of course, it turns out there's another magic well (the "Fair Fountain") that makes feet grow small. So Prince Fairyfoot and Princess Maybloom are able to marry and spend their days traveling from kingdom to kingdom and magic well to magic well.

I re-read the book last night, and I have to confess I'm not exactly sure what it was that so intrigued me as a child, why I found the book so appealing. Possibly the illustrations, which really are a charming remnant of magical 1920s illustration art, a cross between Nouveau and Deco.

But the stories themselves are fairly standard stuff – and highly moralistic, as most fairy tales tend to be. And decidedly formulaic. Besides the "Chair of my grandmother, tell me a story" mantra, each tale ends with the king saying that except for last night's story, he's never heard such a wonderful tale, and then bestowing some piece of clothing or jewelry on little Snowflower until in the end she's dressed just as sumptuously as Princess Greedalind.

Come to think of it, maybe the formula was the appeal.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Playing Tag

Somehow I had a feeling this week's Tuesday Thingers question would be about tags. Marie, at Boston Bibliophile asks:

. . . do you tag? How do you tag? How do you feel about tagging- do you think it would be better to have standardized tags, like libraries have standardized subject headings, or do you like the individualized nature of tagging? What are your top 5 tags and what do they say about your collection or your reading habits?

I do tag my books as I enter them – or try to remember to tag them. I like the idea of being able to sort things by general categories. I wasn't really consistent about tagging when I first joined LT, but lately I've tried to mend my ways and become more regular.

At the moment, LT isn't allowing me to see all my tags ("rampaging elephant. . ." – don't you love their error messages?), but my most frequent seem to be fiction, American literature, British literature, Library of America, literary criticism, and Medieval literature. I tag mostly by genre, and I tend to use pretty broad, general categories; although I have a few more specific ones (for instance, anything having to do with Lewis Carroll's Alice books gets tagged "Alice").

I wouldn't be opposed to having regularized headings for the books, so long as I could add my own individual tags as well. I suppose regularized headings or tags would give everyone the advantage of being able to compare library lists a little more easily, but I do prefer the freedom of being able to come up with my own categories.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Summer and Hogarth

Random Photo Monday has moved to my other blog (Joy's Blog). To give it a look, go here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Hot Reads

Well, I'm sitting here trying to get in a Sunday Salon kinda mood. But all I can really think to say is "Why is it so HOT?!" Northern Virginia is not supposed to have triple-digit temperatures in early June, but that seems to be what we've had today. And coming right after a particularly long, cool spring, this heat seems even more unbearable. OK, I know all about the ozone layer – but whoever it was invented air conditioning should be declared a saint.

Today was even too hot for a visit to the pool, so I've been able to spend some time just sitting around with a good book. Actually, with several good books. Part of the day I spent sorting through the books I've got lined up for my summer reading list – a few books I'm reading for various challenges, and a few others I want to read just for pleasure. Not that challenges don't count as pleasure, of course; but I always think of them as a bit like reading assignments in English class. Gives me a little incentive to keep reading – working to achieve that hypothetical A+.

But mostly I've been reading Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two. That counts as pleasure and assignment, both: I've signed up for Becky's 42 Challenge, so lately I've been reading a little more sci-fi than usual. There was a time when I used to read science fiction almost exclusively. And I'd built up a huge library of sci-fi books and magazines. But then sometime back in the '80s I moved on to other subjects, and sold or gave away most of the collection. To quote the immortal Bugs Bunny, "What a maroon!"

This is an appropriate moment to be reading 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The original movie and book both appeared forty years ago, around the same time in 1968 – the film premiered in April, and the book was published in July. According to Clarke's "author's note," he and Stanley Kubrick were working on the film and screenplay and novel simultaneously, during the period from 1964 to 1968, so that each affected the other to some extent.

Clarke also says he believes the book stands up well in light of "recent" discoveries. But, of course, he was writing that author's note in 1982 when 2010 first appeared. I haven't gotten very far into the book yet, but it's going to be interesting to see how apt that observation will still be, twenty-six years later. Forty years beyond the original book and film.

But one thing he says definitely remains true:

"2001 was written in an age that now lies beyond one of the Great Divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot upon the Moon. July 20, 1969, was still half a decade in the future when Stanley Kubrick and I started thinking about the 'proverbial good science-fiction movie' . . . . Now history and fiction have become inextricably intertwined."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Weekly Geeks: Catching Up

Live long and prosper! (Sorry. Just couldn't resist saying that.)

OK. Onward.

I don't think I've participated in Weekly Geeks since the first week it started. But this week's theme caught my eye because it was supposed to be "Catch Up on Reviews Week." Now that's a great idea for me because even when I get a lot of reading done, I'm a terrible procrastinator when it comes to doing reviews. And I had the best intentions – I really did. But, as so often happens around here, real life kept interfering with blog life this week. So I never got those reviews written, darn it.

Well, I did get one written. I'm reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge, and I actually finished the second book a couple of weeks ago. But it took me till yesterday to get the review posted. I've finished reading the next book in the series, too (Greenwitch), and I'm going to try (really I am) to get a review of that one up in the next few days.

So, anyway, here's my list of books that I've finished reading and need to blog about.

The Bookman's Wake, by John Dunning
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett
Granny's Wonderful Chair, by Frances Browne (a re-read)
Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper
Mrs. Malory and the Delay of Execution, by Hazel Holt
Mrs. Malory and the Silent Killer, by Hazel Holt
Wish You Were Here, by Rita Mae Brown

Hmmmmm. Seems to be mostly mystery novels and children's books, doesn't it? Didn't realize I had gotten into such a rut. Have to work on doing some more "serious" reading in addition to writing reviews. Now if Weekly Geeks could just have "Catch Up on Reviews Week" every week, maybe that would be just the little kick in the pants I need!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Review: The Dark Is Rising

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Simon & Schuster, Aladdin Paperbacks; 244 pages

"The Walker is abroad," he said again. "And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

Much like Lucy walking through the wardrobe's magic doorway into Narnia, or Alice plunging down the rabbit hole – Will Stanton, in The Dark Is Rising, enters his magnificent adventure quite suddenly on a seemingly ordinary day.

Will went downstairs to pull on his boots, and the old sheepskin jacket that had belonged, before him, to two or three of his brothers in turn. Then he went out of the back door, closing it quietly behind him, and stood looking out through the quick white vapour of his breath.

The strange white world lay stroked by silence. No birds sang. The garden was no longer there, in this forested land. Nor were the outbuildings nor the old crumbling walls. . . . Will set out down the white tunnel of the path, slowly, stepping high to keep the snow out of his boots. As soon as he moved away from the house, he felt very much alone, and he made himself go on without looking back over his shoulder, because he knew that when he looked, he would find that the house was gone.

But it isn't really an ordinary day – it's Midwinter Day, and Will's eleventh birthday. And it's also the day on which Will learns that he isn't just the youngest child in the large Stanton brood. He's the last of the Old Ones, immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the forces of evil – the Dark. And, as the book's title tells us, the Dark is rising.

After Will steps out into this strange new world, he's introduced to another Old One, Merriman Lyon, the Merlin-like figure who will be his guide and teacher on the journey of discovery that will introduce Will to his new powers and responsibilities. And they will be allies in the battle against the Black Rider.

Steeped in Celtic mythology and revolving around the legends of King Arthur, The Dark Is Rising, which was a Newbery Honor Book for 1974, is the second work in Susan Cooper's five-book sequence of the same name. It follows 1965's Over Sea, Under Stone [see my review of that book], and is very different from that book although there are a few obvious tie-ins. Merriman Lyon appears in both books, although his identity as an Old One was more shadowy in the first. In general, magic and folklore play a much more open and prominent role in The Dark Is Rising than they did in the first book.

Both books involve a quest for ancient artifacts that are vital in the struggle to keep the forces of darkness from overwhelming the world. In The Dark Is Rising, Will learns that he is the Sign-Seeker whose quest is "to find and to guard the six great Signs of the Light, made over the centuries by the Old Ones." The Circle of Signs that Will seeks is one of the four Things of Power to be used in the final battle against the Dark, and is a set of six circular ornaments, each made of a different material – wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone. When the signs are brought together, the Dark is powerless against them.

Unlike the Drew children in Over Sea, Under Stone, Will and the other Old Ones are aided by their ability to communicate with each other using the "Old Speech," and by their power to move easily back and forth in time. As Merriman tells him:

"You will see, Will. . . we of the Circle are planted only loosely within Time. The doors are a way through it, in any direction we may choose. For all times co-exist, and the future can sometimes affect the past. . . ."

This series has been an exciting discovery for me. I've enjoyed all three of the books I've read so far (I'll be posting a review of the third book soon, I hope). Susan Cooper's ability to draw the reader into a world of myth and magic with a seemingly effortless blending of the real and the fantastic is very appealing. She has a wonderful way of showing us her story unfolding, rather than simply telling us about it. We get to know her characters through their interactions within the narrative, and I think that makes them feel more real. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the story of Will Stanton and his quest, in the last two books of the sequence.

This is one of the books I'm reading for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge.
Also qualifies for the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats (tl,dr) Challenge.

Booking Through Thursday: Trends

This week's BTT topic:
Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

My first reaction was to say yes, indeed – my taste in reading matter changes all the time. But on further reflection, I think that's not exactly the truth. I don't think my basic tastes have changed all that much. But my situation has.

I've always enjoyed reading across a wide variety of subjects and fields. But these days, since I don't have to read anything for a job or a class, I'm free to read exactly as I please. And when I was younger, I think I was more concerned with reading all those books that always wind up on everyone's list of "necessary" or "absolute must" reads. You know – Six Thousand and Forty-two Books You Should Read Before You Turn Ninety.

These days I'm less concerned with that sort of thing. I know there's plenty of wonderful literature out there that I'll never get around to reading. But that doesn't bother me as much as it once did. In fact, it doesn't really bother me at all. I make my own lists of must-reads.

Hmmmm. It seems like we've had the "do you read how-to books" question before. I'm not a person who would read "how-to" or instructional literature for the fun of it. But I do like looking at books on needlework – I suppose that would qualify.

And as for other subject matter – well, I think I've always read more fiction than nonfiction. Some dark, some lighter – I usually prefer a mix. I love books that have humor in them, but I don't shy away from more serious works, as long as they sound like something I'd enjoy. I love mysteries and thrillers, and usually have at least one who-dunnit going, in addition to whatever else I'm reading. I guess Nancy Drew got to me at an impressionable age.

At one time, I read a lot of science fiction; but haven't read quite so much in the last few years. But I still like sci-fi, and I've gotten back into it recently. And there was a time, back in the 1980s and 90s when I read a lot of poetry because I was editing a poetry journal. But since the journal folded, I really haven't read much poetry at all. Again, it's still something I enjoy; I've just been neglecting it for some reason.

I don't read much romance fiction these days – although as a teenager, I was addicted to Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. And I'm not a fan of what's now called "Chick Lit." Or at least, I don't think I am – I've never really read any because the descriptions and reviews never make it sound like anything I'd be interested in. Maybe I'm just too old for it, or maybe it's just too young for me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Why LT?

This week's question for the Tuesday Thingers group over at Boston Bibliophile is:

Why did you choose to open and maintain an LT account? Do you/did you use other online cataloging/social networking sites, like GoodReads or Shelfari? Do you use more than one? Are they different or do they serve different purposes?

I really don't remember exactly how I first heard about LibraryThing. And I have to confess that until very recently I didn't even know there was such a thing as online book cataloguing. I was looking for some sort of computer database program to keep track of our book collection, thinking I'd have to buy the software and install it (well, get the hubby to install it), or come up with my own spread-sheet type system.

But around that time, one of the people whose blog I read pretty regularly mentioned the fact that she had a Shelfari membership, so I checked it out and joined up. And I played around with it for a while, but never really did much with it. It felt a little too much like MySpace or Facebook – more of a social networking site than just a place to catalogue my books. Then a little while later, I heard about LibraryThing – probably from some other blogger – and it's been so easy to use, I've just stuck with it.

I believe I still have the account at Shelfari, but I don't think I ever really catalogued anything there. I think Marie's idea of using another site to track the books she's actually reading (and let people know about it) sounds like an interesting idea. I might try that myself.

By the way, I have to thank all those LTers who recommended the CueCat scanner. We finally got ours, and it makes cataloguing go incredibly fast. Of course, it only works on books with barcodes, so anything published before the mid-1980s still has to be keyed in, but I definitely think it was worth the fifteen bucks.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Summer Fun

Random Photo Monday has moved to my other blog, Joysweb. Hope you'll take a look!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book Binge is Over!

So it's June 1 and Book Binge is at an end. First of all, thanks to Mary P. for hosting. Book Binge is a great idea.

Well, I'm not sure you could call my reading achievements in May a "binge" exactly. That is, not unless you compare them to the reading I did in May of last year. In May 2007 I read exactly 0 books. That's zero, none, nada, nil, not a one.

Shameful, I know. But book blogging has saved me from a life of mental degeneration. This month I've read six books – ten, if you count re-reads and the books I've started but haven't finished yet. OK, let's count those, too.

I fully intended to get a couple more read in May, but real life intervened a bit, earlier in the month. It has a nasty little way of doing that from time to time.

Haven't had time yet to do reviews of all of them – I'm still working on that. I've put up reviews of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman [see review]; The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry [see review]; and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling [see review].

My review of Practical Magic was included in the 11th edition of the Bookworms Carnival. The Lace Reader was a book I received through the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing. And Harry Potter is one of the books I'm reading for the Once Upon a Time Challenge II which is being hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, and which has been a lot of fun.

Books I read in May, but haven't yet reviewed:

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. This is the second book in Cooper's five-volume sequence of the same name, and continues the tale of the fight between good and evil begun in the first book in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone [see review] – but is a very different sort of story. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 1974.

Mrs. Malory and the Delay of Execution, by Hazel Holt. One of Holt's cozy mysteries set in the fictional English village of Taviscombe, and featuring her fiftyish amateur sleuth, Sheila Malory.

The Bookman's Wake, by John Dunning. Another mystery, but definitely not a cozy. This is the second book in the Cliff Janeway series, about a former Denver cop turned rare book dealer. This one involves a search for a priceless limited edition of Poe's "The Raven."

Granny's Wonderful Chair, by Frances Browne (the re-read). One of my childhood favorites.

Books I started in May, but haven't finished:

Wish You Were Here, by Rita Mae Brown (57 pages read)
Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey (50 pages read)
Flowers for His Funeral, by Ann Granger (only two chapters read, 22 pages)

So, if I could read at least six books per month for the rest of the year, seven months, that would be forty-two more books. Ah, forty-two – the ultimate answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything. (Sorry – I was watching "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" last night.) Well, maybe not the ultimate answer, but at least it's better than zero.