Friday, November 24, 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask

Comes with secret extra chapters!
The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas

I'm always nervous about French literature, but I really liked The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago, and lots of people love The Man in the Iron Mask, right?  It can't be that difficult.  So this has been on my TBR pile for a while now, and I started it with high expectations for a lot of excitement and intrigue.

I was having a hard time, though; 50 pages in, and nothing much had happened except a lot of intriguing over money between incomprehensibly-named people.  I recognized Aramis, one of the three musketeers, and figured out that this story takes place years later, but otherwise I was a bit lost and concluded that I should take a look at a plot summary, maybe a character list, so I could figure out what was going on.  And I was immediately stumped.  Every plot summary I looked at said that the story starts with Aramis in a secret meeting with a prisoner (the titular Man) at the Bastille.

I looked at my copy again.  Aramis is definitely meeting with a conniving elderly duchess in a fancy house, not a young male prisoner in the Bastille.  I looked at the list of the first few chapters online; it failed to match my table of contents.  Stumped again.

It took me a little bit to solve the mystery, but I did figure out that my Oxford World's Classics edition simply starts the story some 28 chapters before, apparently, every other edition in the world.  This is possible because The Man in the Iron Mask is like Return of the King; it's really the third part of a very very long novel, which is itself the last volume in the D'Artagnan chronicles.  Oxford seems to have chosen a different method of dividing the book up, and completely neglects to mention anything about it.  I therefore felt free to skim a bit until I reached the usual opening at chapter 29.  However, the story got interesting and comprehensible a few chapters before that, and I settled in.

Aramis, now a bishop, has got a typically subtle and ingenious plan underway.  Few know that the young new king, Louis XIV, has a secret identical twin brother, who was spirited away at birth and raised in utter seclusion and ignorance before being installed, as a teenager, in the Bastille.  Aramis plans to switch the two men and rule from behind the throne, perhaps gaining a cardinal's hat or even....the papal throne itself?  He recruits Porthos as an accomplice, deluding him that Louis is the usurper.  Meanwhile, Athos worries about his son, who is doing his best to kill himself over his unrequited love, and D'Artagnan, as the captain of the musketeers, is absolutely loyal -- but his definition of loyalty includes a lot of blunt speech to the brash young King.

The Iron-Masked Man is surprisingly absent from a lot of the story; I expected him to be much more present.  It's an exciting story which I enjoyed, but it's also very long and wordy, and includes an incredible amount of subtle intriguing that was hard for me to follow.  I'm now thinking I need to re-read the Three Musketeers, which I've only read once, and didn't really like.  Maybe I would get it better a second time.  I also thought this would be a good time to pick up The Black Count, the popular biography of Dumas' father, so expect more Dumas goodness in the near future!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nonfiction November, Week 4

I've missed two weeks, but I'm back for the 4th week of Nonfiction November!  This week is hosted by Doing Dewey, and the question is:

Nonfiction Favorites: We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

I like a nonfiction book to be pretty serious, but not too serious.  It's helpful to have interesting anecdotes or witty comments!  I've read some books that were just heavy theory all the way through, and they're quite difficult to read without some leavening.  There is a line, though; if an author is spending too much time on frivolous asides, fluffy filler, or self-analysis, I'm out. 

The current style in non-fiction is to be pretty exhaustive.  Few respectable non-fiction books come in at under 400 pages, it seems, and there is always lots of background provided: history, biographical information, and so forth.  All well and good, but it all too often turns into unfocused filler.  I would really like to see more concision in non-fiction!

As for topics, I have many favorites!  History, textiles, social issues, women's history/issues, travel, biography/memoir, literary analysis, religion, science.... I love 'em all and will read anything that catches my eye. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Something on Sunday: 11/19

It's Something on Sunday, Jenny's weekly event wherein we share a few things that got us through the week.  And what a week it was, hm?  Mine was made even better by wrestling with medical insurance for a few days, but it seems to have ended up okay.  We hope.  I'm officially ready to move to Finland now.  Anyway, here we go:

Every year, our county's literacy service holds a trivia contest for its fundraiser.  Each team has three members, and there are three rounds of progressively more difficult questions.  I've been on a team for, I think, five years now, and Friday was the day.  The competition was tight, and came down to a difference of just one point for the first place winners; then there were two sudden death rounds for second and third.  We took third place and got bronze medals to put next to our two previous golds.  (Actually, it doesn't matter that much who long as it's not the DA!)  It's neat to see people get together to benefit the literacy program.

A little while ago I had so much fun with reading Christine de Pisan's Treasure of the City of Ladies that I decided I wanted a picture of her in my home.  We found a high-quality scan of this portrait of Christine writing in her study and got it printed.  At the same time, I refreshed a different literary portrait; years ago, when I read a biography of James A. H. Murray, first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, we scanned and printed a photo of him, and I framed it.  By today's standards, that picture was of pathetic quality, so we found the same photo and had that printed too.  It was all very cheap and now I have two nice little pictures on my wall.

Last night was my college's Big Game with its archrival.  I care less than nothing for football, but once upon a time, Cal had a moment of Big Game glory.  It was in 1982 and we've been living on it ever since.   The Play is dear to all Berkeley hearts, even ones that really kind of hate football, and somebody made a Lego version for us all to enjoy. 

Another video for you: way back in the early 90s, there was this local band/singer, Spencer the Gardener.  I think he's still around, and now sings mostly about organic food.  I can't explain quite why, but rainy weather (as we had one day this week) always puts me in the mood for Spencer, and I listened to him while I was driving around.  I pulled up this really very amateur video for a favorite song, and was amazed at how relaxed and groovy and happy this is.  Serious question: could anybody even produce something like this today?  Watch and tell me what you think!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Celtic, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon Embroidery

Celtic, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon Embroidery, by Jan Messent

This is such a great book, people.  If you are at all interested in textile arts, or the British Isles a thousand years ago, you've got to find a copy of this and sink into it.

Jan Messent has been doing various forms of textile arts, painting, and design for a long time, and if you look you can find a fairly long list of books to her name, most of which are about design or knitting.  She's also written a lot of historical romances under the name Juliet Landon.  In the 1990s, she produced an entire panel of Bayeux embroidery that was a theoretical fill-in for the missing final panel of the Bayeux tapestry (several people have done this).  And in about 2010, she was amusing herself by making mixed-media embroidered books and items in homage to Celtic, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon styles, which became this book.

Messent gives some nice history about the clothing and textile styles, and she explains what she was doing, but most of the book is large photos and close-ups of the books.  There is, for example, a book dedicated to playing with the Bayeux stitch, one about accessories, one about clothing.  One book features a modern rendition of a part of the Domesday Book.  Another has beautiful quilted Lewis chess knights.  And at the very back, there is the St. Cuthbert Project, a series of quilted pieces using motifs associated with St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne.  These are stunning pieces, which I only wish I could emulate.  (My daughter is hoping I will and then give them to her.  Ha.  Should I ever produce anything remotely that beautiful, I will keep them my own self!)

The work uses mixed-media, combining painting, cut-outs, threadwork, and all sorts of things, often in a sort of collage.  None of it is meant to be completely authentic (how would anyone do such a thing?); it's playing around with and paying homage to the works of the past.

A page of Bayeux stitch
There are very few images of this work online; Messent has a small website but does not have much time or interest in posting galleries on the internet.  So unless you get hold of the book, you're pretty well out of luck.  It's well worth an ILL; I found this book to be a wonderful collection of art and an inspiration.  I'm going to have to buy a copy to keep!

Something on Sunday: 11/12

Last Sunday, I woke up with a nasty tension headache and didn't write a post, but I had some neat stuff to share.  This week has been very long and busy, so maybe it's just as well; I can squeeze one post out of two weeks!

Last weekend was our local quilt show, and my first time exhibiting at said show.  I entered a quilt for judging, and guess what?  It won third place in its category!  (Which would be pieced quilts of medium size.)  I also got to have some fun setting up, taking down, and attending, and admiring  many impressive works of art.

Friday I went to a play with a friend.  The play wasn't much but the company was good.

I went to the symphony too!  Unbelievably, one of the pieces was the first performance of a symphony by a local musician, and it was commissioned.  So somebody out there still likes classical music.  Well, the whole place was full of people who like classical music, but most of them probably couldn't afford to commission a piece.  I do think it's sort of neat that things like that still happen.

Wow, between quilt art, theater, and symphony, this is a pretty artsy post.  Go out and make art, people!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Sixpence House

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins

Years ago -- probably over a decade -- a good friend of mine told me that I really ought to read this great book about a town of books.  I filed it away in my head, and I did kind of mean to read it, but also...books about the greatness of books aren't always my cup of tea, so I wasn't sure I wanted to read it.  Anyway, eventually a copy came into my hands through no effort of my own, and I figured I would read it.  But here's the funny part: if I'd realized that Sixpence House was written by the same guy who wrote Banvard's Folly, I would have gone right out and gotten it.  I loved Banvard's Folly, and if you haven't read it, you should!  So my skepticism just stopped me from enjoying a pretty good book for over 10 years.

This is a sort-of memoir of the months that Collins, his wife Jennifer, and their toddler son spent in Hay on Wye, the little town on the border of England and Wales that specializes in old books.  Hay has a whole lot of used bookstores, a festival, and just generally piles of old books everywhere.  Collins winds up sorting American literature for the self-appointed King of Hay, Richard Booth, whose idea it was in the first place to make used books the hallmark of Hay.  The little family would like to stay, but finding a house (such as Sixpence House, a former pub) is next to impossible.  Meanwhile, though, life in Hay is full of eccentric people, intriguing little incidents, and huge numbers of books, some of which are worth reading.

So I wound up having a lot of fun with this book.  Collins is witty in a way that I really like; he is fascinated by weird little corners of history, and, well, he's just lovely to read.  I was over ten years late in reading the book, but it was worth the wait.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The House on the Strand

My copy's goofy cover: pure 1970
The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier

I actually read this for RIP a few weeks back, but then I didn't get around to reviewing it in time.  (I had a very busy, but fun, Halloween.  How about you?)  This book has been on my TBR shelf for a little while and I'm no longer sure where I picked it up.  I knew it would be some sort of suspense/thriller/Gothic thing, but I didn't really know what it was about at all.  It turned out to be....well, kind of science fiction?  Maybe?

Dick is alone for a week at an old, small Cornish manor house, but pretty soon his wife and step-sons will arrive.  In the meantime, his friend Magnus wants him to experiment with a drug -- which takes his mind (but not his body) back 600 years into the past.  There, Dick follows Roger, a slightly schemy estate steward, through the complex relations of three local families and an abbey.  As Dick starts to lose his hold on reality, his family arrives and complicates matters, but that doesn't stop his determination to find out what happens, despite the obvious dangers.

It's an intriguing setup, and I got interested in the long-ago family drama just as Dick did.  A modern SF novel would be expected to provide a good deal more explanation of just how a drug could push a mind back in time, but du Maurier has her characters do some hand-waving about genetic memory and leaves it at that.  Nor is a rationale needed; all the suspense is provided.

I actually wound up with a better opinion of this story than I at first expected to have.  It was a neat story that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Classics Club Spin #16!

Hooray, it's my favorite thing, a Classics Club Spin!  I have plenty to choose from now, since I'm on my new list and I've barely made a dent in it.  I spent a good part of the year reading books for my Reading All Around the World project, for one thing.  Some of these titles work for both at once!  My problem is that there is just too darn much good stuff to read....anyway, here are my 20 Spin titles.  You probably know the rules, or you can visit the Spin page to learn them.  Join in!

  1. Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Tutuola
  2. Memoirs of the Crusades
  3. Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher 
  4.  Henry IV, Part I, by Shakespeare
  5.  Selections of Anglo-Saxon literature (aka The Age of Bede)
  6. The Faithful River, by Stefan Zeromski
  7. Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell 
  8. Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson
  9. Stories/essays of Lu Xun
  10. Lais of Marie de France
  11. Miss MacKenzie, by Anthony Trollope  
  12. First Love and Other Stories, by Turgenev  
  13. The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
  14. The Glatstein Chronicles
  15.  The Plague, by Albert Camus
  16.  Plum Bun, by Jessie Redmon Fauset
  17.  Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
  18. Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
  19.  Walpurgisnacht, by Gustav Meyrink
  20. The Well at the End of the World, by William Morris
 (I've been posting about everything *but* books I've read lately...and I have plenty to talk about!)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

#AusReadingMonth: Week II

November is here and that means Aussie literature!

Brona is doing a weekly challenge this year.  Last week, she started us off easy with an introduction question, which I didn't post at the time because I'd already done the Q&A:

Who are you? And where in the world are you?

I'm Jean and I'm coming up on 8 years of blogging here at Howling Frog.  I'm a librarian, mom of teens, and enthused quilter/sewist -- and this weekend is the first time I'm entering a quilt show, so wish me luck!  I live in rural-ish northern California, the part everyone forgets about.  There are a lot of almonds and walnuts.

What are your reading goals for this year's #AusReadingMonth?

I'm hoping to read two novels, Cloudstreet and A Descant for Gossips.

The rest of this post is the Aussie Q&A that I already posted!

The Week II challenge is: 

Post a photo (or ten) to show us where in the world you are reading your Australian books. Post on Insta, Litsy, twitter or your blog. Link back to the masterpost here.

Well, it's dark outside, so I can't take any pictures, but here are some photos of my town.  It may be spring in Australia, but it's fall here, so...

Our town boulevard; I drive my kid to school along here.
Just a pretty picture of the agricultural preserve.  The oldest kiwi in the US is here!

Our town founder's mansion.
Part of the city park, but the wild bit.  And in spring.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Witch Week: Arthurian literature

Witch Week this year is all about the Arthurian literature.  I hope you're following Lory at Emerald City Book Review to read the guest bloggers, enter the giveaway, and all that good stuff.  The readalong is of Kazuo Ishiguro's Buried Giant, which I read a couple of years ago.  So I decided not to read along, but I did really like the book, and if you wish to see my thoughts you can read my review.

I've read a bit of Arthurian literature during the life of Howling Frog, so I thought it might be useful to collect some of the links.  If you're interested in reading some of the older material, this might be helpful.  Some random links:

Yvain, by Chretien de Troyes
Poor Heinrich, by Hermann von Aue
The Fall of Arthur, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Ritual and Romance, by Jessie Weston (old folkloric speculation, now totally discredited, but fun to read)

In 2014, I ran a year-long Arthurian challenge and read some great stuff.  Here is what I said at the time:

The legends and stories of King Arthur and his knights have been popular for over a thousand years, and during that time the stories have changed and developed into a tangle of related tales with wild offshoots all over the place.    Arthur himself may or may not have really existed, but if he did, he wouldn't have been anything like the king in the stories we know now.  Instead, Arthur has served as a figure to which we can pin our ideas about loyalty, love, and duty; the total lack of historical fact lets us embroider as we please and remake him in whatever guise we prefer.
  1. Nennius' Historia Brittonum
  2. Erec et Enide, by Chretien de Troyes
  3. Cliges, by Chretien de Troyes
  4. Lancelot, by Chretien de Troyes
  5. Culhwch and Olwen
  6. The Romance of Tristan, by Beroul 
  7. The Quest of the Holy Grail
  8.  Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock (history)
  9. Arthuriad, by Charles Williams
  10. Tristran, by Thomas of Britain
  11. Tristan, by Gottfried von Strassburg
  12. Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach
  13. The Morte D'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
And still I have so much more I could read!  I hope readers will find this helpful.  And if you want to know my all-time favorite, it's The Quest of the Holy Grail.