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(The formatting of the blog is temporarily out of sorts, I’m trying to fix it, hopefully it will go back to it’s usual self soon.) 

You guys, shame on you! What conspiracy is this? How come I’m only finding out about Shel Silverstein now? Everyone on the internet seems to have a memory associated with his poems and stories and I only heard of him because of Amy’s comment on my previous post (I’m not American, so I guess that might have something to do with it).

After Amy’s recommendation I got curious and the samples I found online hooked me so much that I immediately ordered his three poetry books: Falling Up, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.

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All three are wonderful and perfectly capture what I remember about being a kid: the slightly gross and wacky humor, the rebellion combined with pure tenderness, the uncontrolled imagination. They are the perfect read-aloud material, not only for the poems but also for Silverstein’s own illustrations, which often add something to the meaning of the text. I’m only sorry his play on words must be really hard to translate, which limit his audience.

My favorites poems are the “no-nonesense funny” ones, like EARLY BIRD

Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you’re a bird, be an early early bird-
But if you’re a worm, sleep late.

But I also love the ones about exploring the world and its endless possibilities, like LISTEN TO THE MUSNT’TS

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’Ts
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

Don’t you just get a little knot in your throat reading this? I can’t wait for David to be big enough for me to read it to him. Some poems have subtle lessons that will also be fun to explore with little D. What will he make of this (and the one with the masks below)?

FISH?

The little fish eats the tiny fish,
The big fish eats the little fish-
So only the biggest fish gets fat.
Do you know any folks like that?

I don’t usually go for surreal poetry or literature (really didn’t get into Alice in Wonderland, for instance), but there was something about Silverstein’s writing that hit a cord. He created characters who eat the universe, who write poetry from inside a lion, who invent a light that plugs the sun and a boy who watched so much TV he turned into one. The kind of stuff a child would actually come up with, so t’s a real gift for an adult to pull that off.

Shel Silverstein’s books are often challenged and banned exactly because of this tongue-in-cheek humor. There is also an undeniable leftish, anti-system, free-thinking, rebellious vibe to his work. One poem instructs kids to kill themselves so that parents will feel guilty about not doing what they want, another called “MA AND GOD” ends with “Either Ma’s wrong or else God is”. It does teach defiance and questioning dogmas, but I suspect the parents who get offended may have forgotten what it’s like being a kid.

Thanks once again Amy for the tip. I’m sure these books will become a family tradition.

she-had-blue-skin-and-so-did-he-shel-silverstein

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ImageI’ve been increasingly enjoying each book in the series, except for #7, which went to my “I quit” list when I was already half-way through: too many train schedules, too little Harriet. So it was with fingers crossed that I picked up Have His Carcase.

I actually think this book is a milestone for Sayers’ writing. I guess that by making it a Harriet-centered book, she put as much energy (or more) in the character/relationship development as in the crime-solving part.

Every interaction between Harriet and Peter is exquisite and full of subtext. I’ve come to realize I’m a huge fan of subtext and really admire authors to use it well – thank you Dorothy Dunnett!

In the end I kept reading mostly for the sake of those sips of dialogue and interaction, which made me even more impatience to reach the renowned Gaudy Night.

One thing I appreciated in Have His Carcase is the fact that, although there’s angst, it doesn’t feel out of character, it’s not just there to force drama (looking at you Veronica Roth!) and it doesn’t make me resent one of the parties for lack of honest or fairness. Harriet is great in this respect because while her past justifies her reticence, her personality validates her progressive understanding and acceptance of her feelings.

It’s maybe strange for a crime novel, especially one from the Golden Age, but the actually detective-ing parts became very secondary. The plot even felt a bit convulsed and the resolution forced. Also, Sayers has my admiration from creating a complex code that works, but reading the pages-long detail on how to decode it was beyond me.

I’m sure that if I looked hard enough I’d discover some wholes in the plot, but I was too busy reading things like this:

Peter! Were you looking for a horse-shoe?”

“No; I was expecting the horse, but the shoe is a piece of pure, gorgeous luck.”

“And observation. I found it.”

“You did. And I could kiss you for it. You need not shrink and tremble. I am not going to do it. When I kiss you, it will be an important event — one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted li-chee. It will not be an unimportant sideshow attached to a detective investigation.”

“I think you are a little intoxicated by the excitement of the discovery,’ said Harriet, coldly. ‘You say you came here looking for a horse?”

***

Other thoughts: Jenny’s Books, things mean a lot, Ela’s Book Blog, Notes from the North, Stella Matutina (yours?)

So I read War and Peace. It really felt like an accomplishment.

I think I’ve read more complex books and if not longer, not much shorter, but there seems to be a whole rite of passage associated with W&P. You feel you must prepare for it like you prepare a camping trip in the wilderness: you decide to do it and carefully plan a route and what to pack.

So from the height of my experience, let me give you some advice for a successful W&P reading:

1) Go to Wikipedia and read a bit on the Napoleonic Wars and the invasion of Russia.

2) Make it a read-along. At first my friend and I decided to make it a year-long project and read only 200 pages a month, but we were so surprised by how easily we were getting along that we sped it up to 400 pages/month. It was really good to have someone to discuss the book with every 15 days or so: it motivated me in the slow bits, made me notice things I’d missed and helped clear most doubts.

3) Read it in a digital format, not only because of the weight, it also helps if you’re able to quickly look-up names and places mentioned on page 43 and that you’ve forgotten by page 967.

W&P‘s story follows the events just before, during and just after the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. We get to know them during the peaceful times and once war strikes the narrative splits into following the men at the front and the lives of those left behind.

For lack of better words: I really liked it. It surprised me how much, really, but I do admit to a prejudice against The Russians. In fact, if it wasn’t for that last third it could have been one of the best of year. Taken by themselves, those last chapters should have been called “Setting the Record Straight” or “How Historians Got it Wrong”.

It might have been Tolstoy’s agenda from the start, but at the end of W&P it became much more obvious that he wanted to myth-bust some of the accepted truths about the Napoleonic invasion. And he has no qualms blaming historians for the misconceptions:

“C’est grand!” say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil but only “grand” and “not grand.”

History (or what is called by that name) (…)

All that strange contradiction now difficult to understand between the facts and the historical accounts only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events.

Yet Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army, took none of these steps.

Tolstoy’s biggest qualm with the established History as it teaches us that all major changes happen because of  the will of great men like Napoleon of Czar Alexander II. He was a firm believer that at  what really mattered was the movement of the masses.

To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.

It’s a great argument, and he presented powerful arguments, but by the end of the book his wish to bring this point home (often in a repetitive way) is done at the cost of the characters he made us care about. At some point the parts about the families become very rare and most pages were filled with long essays on What Really Happened.

Credits: Theresa McCracken, CartoonStock

This being said, it was a great ride to accompany the fortunes and misfortunes of these characters. The balls, the intrigues, the romance, the innocent and the cunning, the hangers-on and the intellectual wanna-bes. It was very easy to imagine the St Petersburg’s salons illuminated by hundreds of candles, or the patriotic fever that possesses the young gentlemen at the front, still romanticizing the idea of fighting for their country and soon to have the reality-check of their lives.

As Claire (The Captive Reader) very well put it,

In Anna Reid’s history of the siege of Leningrad, she mentions that War and Peace was a popular reading choice during the first deadly winter of the siege, when half a million civilians died. I can completely understand why Leningraders, starving, freezing, and watching civilisation disintegrate around them, sought to escape their surroundings with this massive, enthralling novel.

I can also easily understand. There is some extraordinarily compelling about these characters and their lives. Every one of them is so layered that you can never easily tag him or her as the villain of the good guy. What you can’t help is immediately chose a favorite.

In my case (as it happens with almost everyone), Natasha got me at hello. She’s full of life and really stands out among the other, less spontaneous, characters. Natasha seems to live without great concern for what society might think so this is why,

*spoiler*

I felt a bit cheated about how we see her at the end, tamed by marriage. Her personality is diluted and she thinks and acts only as she thinks Pierre would wish her to. Am I being too harsh or did I miss Tolstoy’s real intention with this Married Natasha?

* end spoiler*

Another character that fascinated me (and this will probably only make sense to those who read the book) was Helene.

Do you believe there are characters that escape their creators? That become more than what the authors meant for them to be? I always did and Helene is a great example. Tolstoy keeps telling us how stupid she is, but look at her actions: she quickly becomes the leader of one of Moscow’s leading intellectual salons and it’s hard to believe that she did it being as dumb as Tolstoy wants us to believe. To me she’s a very smart social strategist, ambitious and cunning. A great example is,

*spoiler*

how she ensured that society would go along with her idea of divorce. She started carefully spreading the idea here and there and then planted it in the mind of her confessor. Brilliant!

* end spoiler*

My friend and I spent a long time discussing the book (and made a bet about who would marry Natasha… I now owe her a package of good tea) so I know there’s a LOT more that could be said, but I’ll stop here. I’m glad I read it and finally understand the fascination of generations with War & Peace. If any book has the right to be called an epic, this is it.

By the way, I read Project Gutenberg‘s edition and was really surprised at the quality of the translation. Highly recommended.

Act I of The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde Read-Along, organize by Wallace.

It’s not often that my underlining pen is used this often. From the first few moments this play has been a delight and on every other sentence I’m stumbling into one of Wilde’s immortal maxims – “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

I suspect that for the single purpose of showing off his wit, Wilde creates a completely unrealistic plot and characters that talk like no normal person would, but contrary to what would usually happen, I’m ok with his smart-assery. He’s very clever, he’s funny, he’s cheeky, he wants to entertain me, and I’m more than willing to be thus entertained.

Although I loved the mischievous Algernon (this is only the second time in my life I’ve seen the name used, the first being in Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon), I’m not so sure about Jack. While Algernon’s Mr. Bunbury sounds like a bit of naughty fun, Jack’s secret is more sinister. He’s creating an imaginary brother to be able to be morally lax in town while being the epitaph of rectitude in the country. It’s a bit creepy, if you really think about it. At least Algernon is openly mischievous!

My favorite part in the Act was how cleverly Algernon trapped Jack into disclosing the truth behind the cigarette case. Slowly and surely. Poor Jack never had a chance. Did you notice that by reading the play you get a bit of spoilers because although Jack is introduced as Ernest, the text still says “Jack:“?

Favorite quotes:

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” – Wilde making a bit of fun of himself and his ludicrous plot.

The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”

My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces false impression.


It’s my birthday today and I just wanted to share with you the PERFECT gift I received from a group of friends. Through their donation I have adopted a book at the British Library. It’s a 1895 illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice with a lovely red cover. I’m not only contributing to its conservation “for future generations”, but I’ll also get an invitation to an annual “Meet Your Book” event and a tour of the British Library.

I got all teary :,) Thank you guys…

Look at me, being all good about my New Year Literary Resolutions! We’re only half-way through the year and I’ve already re-read more books than in 2011. I decided to try The Mists of Avalon in audiobook format because it’s narrated by the divine Davina Porter, who in my humble opinion can do no wrong.

I won’t do a full review of the book, but will just record for posterity the major differences between my two reading experiences. I think they says a lot about my 17- and 32-year-old selves.

The biggest change was how I felt towards Morgaine. She’s still awesome, a perfectly fleshed-out character that you really get to know and admire for her courage and self-reliance. But while at 17 I completely identified with her – I wanted to be her – now I often wished she would just lighten up a bit.

Look, I get it, she’s in love with someone who’ll never love her back, and her way of life is dying before her helpless eyes, I see how that makes a person cranky. But at the same time I wish she would, just once in while, let go of the aura of pathos she carries around all the time and laugh like she means it. I think my reaction to Morgaine is part of my growing intolerance of depressing books and movies I mentioned here before.

On the other hand, my feelings towards Guinevere haven’t changed. She’s the same little angry ball of resentment and unhappiness. But despite this, Marion Zimmer Bradley still made me understand her motivations, even when I resisted it and was determined to completely hate the annoying hypocrite.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, July 2011. In The Mists of Avalon, this is where Morgaine is born.

Arthur jumped out of the pages this time. We only follow the story thought the eyes of the female characters, but still get more insight into the mind of Lancelot or Uther than that of Arthur, who’s the story’s whole reason of existence. Still, what we do get to know about him is surprising.

In a book famous for having no black or white characters, Arthur is, amazingly, a Good Man. He’s honorable, faithful, fair, he understands the complex world he lives in and the impossibility to please all, but he still tries. He always seems to see the glass half-full, unlike most of the other characters in the book. But despite all this and the freaky “love-square” with Guinevere, Lancelot and Morgaine, there’s never one person who thinks of him as The One, and that’s terribly sad.

Other things I noticed now and I didn’t before: the patterns, balance and irony. For instance, Morgause and Vivienne want daughters and only have sons, Guinevere longs in vain for an heir to Camelot, Morgaine doesn’t want a child and has one. Guinevere, the greatest catholic Queen, is in love with a pagan. In her later days she envies Morgaine’s knowledge and freedom but is on a quest to destroy the traditions that allow them. The search for the Holy Grail is what speeds the fall of Camelot and its (Christian) ideals. It was Avalon’s tolerance of the early Priests that kick-started their towards the Mists. Everyone loves Arthur, but no one is ever truly in love with him.

This time around I could also appreciate much more the religious discussions. Before I just though of how cool Wicca must be, now I look at the story as a cycle. Just as Avalon supplanted the Old Ones, so did Christianity supplant Avalon and so will something else supplant Christianity.

The general feeling I’ll take from this re-reading is of a story about the rise and fall of Camelot. The Utopian Kingdom is destroyed by intolerance, giving way to the Dark Ages and its impact on knowledge, equality (especially gender equality) and freedom. It’s a much more melancholic story than I remembered. 

Still, I look forward to a re-read in another 15 years – who knows what I’ll discover then?

***

Other thoughts: Speculative Book Review, Books for Breakfast Drinks for Dinner, My Two Blessings, Reading with Tequila, Age 30+… A Lifetime of BooksBogormen, Bonnie’s Books (yours?)

I was in lovely Verona last week for work, but still had the time to visit some of the city’s literary locations.

Juliet’s Balcony:

Piazza Dante

Shakespeare’s statue on Verona’s Wall, put there the Juliet’s Club, the association who answers all letters to Juliet. The inscription quotes Romeo and Juliet:

“There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death.”

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

How exactly do you “review” Macbeth? Especially if it’s only the second Shakespeare play you’ve ever read? Surely every original thought about it must have already been published, built-upon, attacked and defended.

Now that I’ve read it, I can finally understand the fuss. If you just want a good story you’ll take great pleasure in the spooky atmosphere and the bloody scenes, if you’re a philosopher you can revel in the Grand Issues like free will, ambition and leadership and if you’re a language buff  there’s lots of passages to underline.

Just like with A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I took great pleasure in the words, even though they were more archaic and harder to follow (it’s after all a historical play, set in the 11th century). Here are some great examples, the kind you want to memorize and use to impress people at parties:

Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold

I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full of growing

Start, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires

Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets

Macbeth is the story of a great and respected warrior that once upon a time comes across three witches that give him a vision of the future: he will be King! Macbeth believes them and starts making sure that history bends to this prophecy. Thus begins a bloody chain of events, which starts with regicide, but certainly doesn’t end there.

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

It’s so spooky that it became a sort of theater-Voldemort: in the acting business it’s only referred to as “the Scottish play”, never by its name, which is said to be CURSED *cue high-pitched violins*.

The play also has the potential to sparkle great conversations, the type I remember having with friends after watching Donny Darko: would have Macbeth been King, if he didn’t take matters in his own hands? Why didn’t he just sit and wait for the crown to fall on his lap? Was the prophecy just an excuse to bring out everything that was mad and evil in him? What about the Lady Macbeth, another Eve figure, that tempts her man into sin?

Lady Macbeth is an interesting one. She’d also like to be Queen, but knows she doesn’t have the cold blood that’s needed to kill those in her path. And she’s right, because shortly after helping to cover Macbeth’s crime, she rapidly descends into madness and commits suicide. Still, she has the best speeches, my favorite being the creepy scene where she asks the spirits to maker stronger, colder… and less womanly:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

As Macbeth himself becomes insane and more brutal, his speeches also become more frantic, and even more spectacular:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek

There weren’t as many insults as in Midsummer’s Night Dream (only “rump-fed ronyon”, “shag-haar’d villain” and “lily-liver’d boy”), but there were many little expressions that I immediately recognize. It was such a great experience to think “So that’s where it comes from!” Examples:

that shalt be king hereafter

King Hereafter” is the name of a novel by Dorothy Dunnett, about the life of the Scottish King that lightly influenced Macbeth’s story.

To wear a heart so white

A Heart so White”, is a novel by Javier Marias, which my bookclub read a few years ago.

The weird sisters, hand in hand

The Weird Sisters”, recent and very popular novel by Eleanor Brown

Something wicked this way comes

Same title as a Ray Bradbury novel.

One last thought (and a question): I thought it was very cleaver the way Shakespeare made the prophecy make sense. It’s certainly the same level as most Hollywood twists. Was he the first one to use a “literary quibble“?

This play, as well as all others by Shakespeare are available for free on Project Gutenberg and on LibriVox and Wired for Books (both in audio). This post will also be published at the Project Gutenberg Project.
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I’ve read Macbeth for Risa’s A Play a Month Project. Next month: Henry V.

***

Other thoughts: Joy’s Book Blog, Becky’s Book Reviews, Rebecca Reads, A Literary Odyssey, A Room of One’s Own (yours?)

Is it just me or lately all good ideas seem to start with a Twitter chat?

In one of those chats Tasha pointed out that, although sites like Project Gutenberg and Librivox offer a universe of free books (and audiobooks), it’s hard to use them to make new discoveries.

With this in mind, the Project Gutenberg Project was launched yesterday (it’s all about spreading the love!): a cooperative book blog that aims to share and help readers find classic books that are available for free in the public domain.

Currently, those books are organized very loosely by author or by broad subject, making it difficult to browse and find what’s right for you. As Tasha said on the opening post:

At PGP, we want to help readers find public domain books they might be interested in, discuss what did and didn’t work for us, discover (or rediscover) classics, and celebrate our favorite books in the process.

Apart from Tasha and myself there are six other bloggers involved:

Aarti from BookLust
Chris from Book-a-Rama
Iris from Iris On Books
Lu from Regular Rumination
Meghan from Medieval Bookworm
Nymeth from Things Mean a Lot

If you’ve read a book available in the public domain that you’d like to tell others about, feel free to contact us.

So please visit the this new addition to the book blogosphere, say hi, don’t forget to add it to your feed, and join us in discovering the literary treasure-trove that’s Project Gutenberg.

I’ve had the honor of kicking-off the reviews with a post about “Ruth” by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Some time ago I admitted on twitter my sudden craving for a novel involving a love affair with a pirate (yeah, I know, just bear with me). I wanted to avoid the bodice-ripping thing, so after a bit of a search, lo and behold, I discovered that Daphne du Maurier had written one! What I felt about Frenchman’s Creek is best said quoting Carol in As Good As it Gets: “What I needed, he gave me great.”

I’ll give you a taste of the plot, although I should have had you at “Daphne du Maurier” and “pirate”.

The story is set in 17th century Cornwall, where Lady Dona St. Columb seeks refuge from London’s shallow high society. She takes her two children with her and leaves her meek husband behind. The plan is to lead the simple life, but everything changes when she realizes that the Manor, which should have been inhabited for many years, had recently (and secretly) housed a special guest.

This guest turns out to be a notorious pirate who has terrorized the Cornish coast. What Dona discovers not long after is that the pirate is not the roguish, evil-doer that everyone imagines, but an art-loving, cultured Frenchman, with his own particular kind of honor.

(He’s a pirate AND he’s French AND he quotes poetry AND he draws seagulls and stuff!)

The prose is beautiful and du Maurier is perfect at mixing the swashbuckling plot, the inner turmoil that Dona goes through and her growing connection with the Frenchman. Frenchman’s Creek was written while du Maurier was away from her husband during his military service in WW2. It makes perfect sense: it’s an author’s romantic fantasy, but the author is Daphne du Maurier, so the result is deep and well crafted. The ending is also different from what you’d expect from the books with a half-naked seafarer in the cover, but it was perfect for Frenchman’s Creek and no less swoon-inducing.

I’d also like to recommend the audio version masterfully read by John Castle.

***

Other thoughts: Giraffe Days, A Striped Armchair,  Devourer of Books, A lovely shore breeze…, Literate Housewife, Book Reviews by Bobbie, Bibliophile by the Sea,  The Tome Traveller’s Weblog, The Book Nest, Books Ahoy!

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