End of 2014

Definitely that was too many challenges.   Spending the last quarter reading books that fit challenges, basing the choice on which fit the most challenges and later had the least number of pages — not a good way to choose what to read, I think.  I was short one chunkster and could have done it with more discipline, but never mind.  I managed most of them and read some interesting stuff.   The last two I finished yesterday:

History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth translated by Aaron Thompson with revisions by J.A. Giles.  Found it free, here: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/geoffrey_thompson.pdf    At first it wasn’t bad, livelier than I expected, but then it rather grinds on.   A is king and things are going along when B decides he should be king.   War.   One of them wins.  Then comes C.   And so on.   For centuries.   None of which was very memorable, except the part about Leir, or as we know him King Lear.  And Hengist and Horsa, because I’d heard of them, too.   And the bits on Arthur which, with the exception of the long tedious Merlin prophecy, lacked much of anything that couldn’t have happened.   In other words, except for his fighting giants, it was fairly realistic.   Also, his lance was named Ron.   Who knew?     It’s a short book, yet tedious.   It did make me want to know more about what really happened.   This book filled my second Arthurian book and my first (and only) pre-printing press book.

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Letters from Iceland: a book which has suffered from years of bad covers.   This is the only one of Auden’s photos reproduced in this edition.

Then there was Letters from Iceland by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice two poets who went to Iceland in 1936.  A very odd travel book, a sort of crazy quilt of bits and pieces:  a lot of poetry including a 5 part poem to Lord Byron about Auden and life and everything but Iceland; letters to friends written in sort of diary; quotes from other travelers’ writings about Iceland; a tongue-in-cheek last will and testament poem in which they leave all sorts of things to all sorts of people, and I didn’t get a single joke in it.    You would never guess after reading MacNeice’s letter titled Hetty to Nancy that he’s the straight one.  This diary-like letter in which he’s Hetty and Auden is called Maisie and Nancy is, of all people, Anthony Blunt – yes, the art historian and Soviet spy, last of the Cambridge four – to whom ‘Hetty’ writes “Now don’t you go and get political, because that would be the last straw.”   Sound advice.   A pity he didn’t take it.  Along with the fun, gossipy and yet quite good view of what it was like to go around the Langjokull by pony, other sections I liked included the letters of Auden to his wife (married to help her escape from the Nazis.)    The book is full of poetry, which is not my best thing, so I may not be the best critic to read this.   Overall, it is quite a unique travel guide, which I believe they were going for, highly idiosyncratic and reflective of their personalities, but also self-indulgent and obscure in parts, perhaps more so now than then, and surprising it was published at all.   I read this to fulfill the postal challenge and the travel goal of Lucky No 14, though I’m not entirely sure it meets the criteria.

And so endeth another year.   A year filled with odd, sometimes interesting books.   Thinking about a top ten, I just can’t do it at the moment.   As I read The Goldfinch, for example, I thought it was excellent.  But then All Quiet on the Western Front came along and sort of shamed everything that came before:  entertaining, but shallow, Supernatural Enhancements;  strange, trippy Moby-Dick; strange, trippy Hangsaman; chock-full of colorful characters Bleak House; virtually plotless, yet oddly stirring at times, House of Seven Gables; absurd, but entertaining, Seven Keys to Baldpate; the feather-light, but Byronic Eugene Onegin.   A truly odd assortment of books all quietly blown out of the water.

2014 was unique in that I didn’t read anything that I’d started in an earlier year.   In order to count for the various challenges, I only read books I’d started on or after 1/1/2014.   Now I will go back to my old ways and take up the laid aside books, at least those that haven’t been forgotten and I will count the darned things when their finished no matter how many years I’ve been reading them.   I will probably join a challenge or two, but certainly not 52 books in 52 weeks.   Not that it was so hard to do, but I was always aware of it and I think stayed away from longer novels and non-fiction, because of it.    It seems to me the important thing is to read what you really want to read, along with some classics which you might not want to, but will usually be worth it.  And now with a fresh, shiny new year free (or nearly free) of self-imposed challenges, what should I read first?   I will probably finish The Book Thief, which I started as my would-be sixth chunkster for the year, but then what?   I feel rather paralyzed by choice.   So many possibilities, how can I narrow it down to one?  Or even a few?   Still, not a bad problem to have.   Happy New Year, everyone!

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict

A prequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society books, this is the story of the Society’s founder Nicholas Benedict when he was a nine-year-old orphan dealing with bullies, narcolepsy, night terrors, oblivious grown-ups, and trying to find a treasure that will solve all his problems.   There are a few bright spots:  at his latest orphanage, he makes a friend and there’s a fabulous library, but he knows unless he finds this treasure, he’s facing years of misery.

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If you don’t mind reading books for kids, The Benedict Society books are a lot of fun.   Genius children facing extraordinary challenges, sometimes created by evil geniuses which must be fought, but in this one more about the challenges of life most of us face: school, friends, everyday problems that even with being a genius Nicholas doesn’t find easy to solve.

I read this for several reasons: 1) it’s a chunkster, 2) it’s a book I wish I could have read as a kid and 3) it’s been on my TBR shelf for a couple years now.

The Scarlet Pumpernickel, er, Pimpernel

So, for the last book of the Classics challenge I needed an historical mystery classic. That meant the author had to be writing about a time that was at least 50 years before his or her own and it had to be both historical fiction and a classic.    I had originally intended to read 20 Years After, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, but it’s really long and time ran short, so I switched to The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy.  I saw the movie years ago and the only thing I can remember is Leslie Howard doing his effete little rhyme:

They seek him here

They seek him there

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere

Is he in Heaven?

Is he in Hell?

That demmed elusive Pimpernel

That pretty much sums up the plot.   Some unknown, but brave and clever Englishman is rescuing aristocrats from being beheaded in the French Revolution which is generally agreed to have gotten out of hand.   The Revolutionaries are spittin’ mad mostly because they are being made fools of.   The Scarlet Pimpernel hasn’t really dampened the actual numbers of beheadings all that much, but he does it with a lot of style and generally making someone look like an ass.   So an evil Citizen named Chauvelin forces our young, beautiful heroine Marguerite St. Juste into finding out what she can.   The book is fun, full of lively writing and entertaining.

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Haven’t seen this version with Anthony Andrews.  But I would love to.

SPOILER:  I was big-time annoyed with Marguerite insisting she go to France herself to warn the Pimpernel they’re onto him.   Don’t be an idiot, woman, says I.   You don’t know anything about this sort of work, you’ll just be a bother and likely get yourself captured and then they’ll have to rescue you, too.  Just get word to his team, they’ll take care of it, but no.  Sometimes if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth getting an expert. /SPOILER

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It is a surprisingly light, fluffy, entertaining swashbuckler and I may read the rest of them at some point.   I don’t think this was useful for any other challenges, though I may just be forgetting.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV1M744Vfss

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

I bought this early in the year because it got a bunch of good reviews on various blogs and it was $2.   $2 is pretty much a deal maker for me if I have any interest in the book at all.   And this one sounded fun – epistolary format: email, snail mail, articles, various short format pieces from varying points of view assembled to tell the story of 15 year old Bee and her somewhat wacky mother, Bernadette.  I don’t want to say too much, because most of the fun is piecing together their stories and finding out how they got to this point.  It is also to a lesser extent the story of Bee’s father and Bernadette’s husband Elgie, a couple of mothers of children at Bee’s school, and unintended consequences when people get too focused on one thing.   It is a fun book, improbable, but entertaining.   If you enjoy eccentric characters in unlikely situations and the found-material format doesn’t bother you, this is a very good book.  Bee’s is a fresh, but clear-eyed view of her family, most of the characters’ viewpoints are understandable and the situations that arise are absurd, but almost believable.   A fun book, but not a deep book.   Definitely refreshing after Morte Darthur and All Quiet.

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Surprising when you do a search on the cover how many minor variations there are.

This is one of the books I need for the Postal challenge and for my bargain entry for lucky 14.  I don’t think I ever buy a book I know nothing about, so this is as close as it gets.

King Arthur – Freakin’ Moron, or Morte Darthur Readalong Part the Last

In the beginning I estimated 15 pages a day to finish Malory (or Maleore)’s Morte Darthur along with Jean and Cleo (http://howlingfrog.blogspot.com/2014/08/its-morte-darthur-readalong.html).   Fell a bit behind, and needed to read 20 pages a day, then 25, then 30.   It wasn’t looking good.   My fellow readalongers were full of encouragement and if not for them, I probably would have set the blasted thing aside long ago (saving dozens of hours, but I won’t think about that now, that way lies madness).   But then just when all was looking darker than dark…   a funny thing happened.   Either Malory learned to write or I lost my mind.  Not quite sure which, but once past book ten, he actually offered stories which held some interest and not just the same old fight between differently named knights I’d read a thousand times.

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First, we finally got to the tale of the Holy Grail or Sangreal as it was known.   While not the world’s most gripping story and Galahad is a bit of a stiff, but then so’s his old man, it was, finally, a story.   The fights still occur, but they’re in aid of something.   Sir Galahad, Sir Percivale, Sir Bors and Sir Lancelot (among lesser knights) all go off in search of the sangreal which is never quite explained.   It was brought into England or Logris by Joseph of Arimathea, just a few years back, and then for some reason, Solomon’s wife enters into it and makes a nice boat to transport them all.   Sir Galahad gets to know Sir Lancelot a bit, which is nice.  It’s a strange story.   Percivale’s sister joins them and then offers her blood to save some random woman who can only be saved from a dreaded curse by the blood of a young woman as pure and well-born as Percivale’s sister.   Why?   Who knows!   But we have a goal now and it’s not just a lot of knights accidentally killing their brothers because they never, not once, ask each other’s names before fighting.   The Sangreal seems to be the blood of Christ not the cup or whatever it’s in and it seems pretty clear that England has not lived up to its standards, so its going home.   Can’t blame it.   Only 3 1/2 pure knights in the whole place.   Pretty poor, really.

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But then there are still a couple hundred pages left, which surprised me.   And we learn more about Lancelot and Gwhenever.  She’s rather annoying.   He shows up disguised with another woman’s sleeve on his helmet and she’s all ‘you don’t love me any more!’   Don’t worry, Gwen, Lance is the Ice-Man.   Let’s the Lily Maid care for him as no woman has ever cared for man and then he offers her a pension.   Ouch.   Dude, she wasn’t looking for a job.   I realize he can’t love her, but it seems just cruel to let her nurse him for ages when he didn’t care two hoots for her.   But back to my earlier point, Malory is now telling stories and they’re pretty good.   And who ever guessed “The Lusty Month of May” is straight out of Malory?   But then, we get to Arthur again.   Arthur, who basically hasn’t been the center of attention for 800 pages is now back center stage.   Things are going pretty well.   Everyone’s back from the Sangreal quest who’s coming back.   He’s got the greatest bunch of knights ever.   They hangout and joust for fun.   Nothing says fun like getting knocked off your horse with a spear, apparently.   And then, trouble.   Snake in the garden Sir Agravaine and his brother Sir Mordred are thinking ‘The King should be told the Queen is sleeping with Lancelot.’   No no no, says everybody.   Things are going great.   Life is nicely balanced.   We’re all friends, let’s not rock the boat.    Not really clear what Agravaine is hoping to get out of this, but he’s set.   He’s rocking the boat.   So now Arthur’s in a bind.   They have to be caught in flagrante because essentially the law is – in cases of treason, each side calls a champion and winner is right.   A painfully stupid law, but there it is and Lancelot is top of the heap.   No one can beat him.   So, they have to be sneaky.   I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wades through the 900 or so pages to get there, so suffice it to say Arthur and Lancelot are now on opposite sides.   Neither really wants to be, which leads to some absurd moments war-wise, but Gawaine won’t let them make up.   And here’s the thing.   Gawaine’s not king.   Arthur is supposed to be king.   But does he make any decisions for himself?   Does he think of the good of the country and put it above Gawaine’s personal vendetta?  No, he does not.    Basically, when it comes to making a decision he does whatever Gawaine wants to do.   And when that includes leaving the country, he hands the reins over to…  Mordred!    Good choice!   How many people in the country?   You could not have chosen worse, Arthur.  You are a moron.   But that was the whole problem with inherited power wasn’t it?   Nobody had to be qualified.   They just assumed somehow God or DNA was going to solve everything.   You went with your son, even if he was totally evil. It’s a mess.

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But here’s the main point, which you probably guessed if you’ve read this far.   I finished!   w00t!    I did it!  It’s like the reading equivalent of an ultra-marathon.   1131 pages long.   Much of it extremely repetitive and yet, somehow it never stopped being compelling.   Or maybe that was not wanting to let down the other two people on the planet who’ve read the whole thing.   Really, folks, just pick up TH White.    If you do make your way through this behemoth, drop a comment.   It’s like a small, exclusive and yet pointless club we belong to.   This sucker qualified as a chunkster (should count as two chunksters!) and a Arthurian Lit challenge entry.   Sadly, it was written just a wee bit too late to be my Pre-Printing Press entry.   In fact, it was one of the first books printed in England.

All Quiet on the Western Front

I just opened this up to see how long it is and ended up reading the first chapter.   I figured from this I had a much better chance of finishing it by the end of the year than I did Guns of August, which is excellently written and all, but long.   All Quiet is all the things you probably expect it to be:  a grim story of all too brief lives in the trenches of World War I, the violence, the senselessness, the boredom, the horror, and moments of enjoyment seized when possible.   I’m not sure anything – short of sharing the experience – could paint it so vividly and while Erich Maria Remarque was writing about German soldiers, I’m sure many men on the opposite side had the same experience.   This was one of those that I’ve heard about forever and knew I should read, but really didn’t want to – and that was a mistake.   It is surprisingly engaging.  It is so easy to identify with Paul and his reactions.   Whether it’s the matter-of-factness of the style or some other factor, I don’t know, but it is clear how a generation of young men were destroyed whether or not they survived the war physically.

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These pictures are British, but otherwise, could be taken from the book.

So, I have Karen at Books and Chocolate to thank for me finally reading this and while I’m not sure that with a book like this ‘enjoy’ is the correct verb, I’m definitely glad I read it at last.   It is the second to last book for her Back to the Classics challenge and the last of the required books, so technically, I’ve completed this, but I still want to read the Historical Fiction Classic.

The Goldfinch

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Sorry for the long time between posts.   Blame it on King Arthur.   I’m quite sure it’s not MY fault.   Also my talking with my friend about the Goldfink over Thanksgiving sort of took the urge to blog out of finishing it.   What do I have to say about this?   Not much.   It’s excellent.   I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t bothered by 1) long books, 2) lots of detail and 3) drug use.   Theo’s mother’s a wonderful character.   So is Boris.  And Hobie.  Some of Theo’s choices are hard to understand, but then I’ve never been in his situation.   It seems highly realistic.   There are people out there like all these people, with the possible exception of Theo, whose character seems at times more chosen to illustrate a point than embodying a real person, but maybe that’s just me.   As one of those points is we don’t choose who we are, and I tend to believe that’s mostly true, I can’t really argue against the philosophy of the book.

At any rate, I found it highly readable.  Never got bored in nearly 800 pages, which is saying something.  I think I will seek out her earlier works.   This fullfilled the

5. (Not So) Fresh From the Oven: Do you remember you bought/got a new released book last year but never had a chance to read it? Dig it from your pile and bring back the 2013.

from the Lucky 14 challenge.   It’s also a chunkster, if there ever was one.