31 August 2010

Meme: Top Ten Favorite Heroines

Yay! I have finally managed to post a Top Ten Tuesday meme on time...

This was a tough one, but here goes, in no particular order:

My top ten favourite literary heroines:

  • Anne Eliot from Persuasion by Jane Austen. She’s a quiet, uncomplaining and unappreciated but incredibly kind-hearted, patient and loving woman who finally learns that sometimes we need to trust our own feelings and not listen to others. Of all Austen’s heroines she is the one I like the best.
  • Minerva Dobbs from Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. A woman who doesn’t hesitate to say what she thinks.
  • Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery. I was a bit like her as a girl, which is why I think I like her so much. I don’t like her so much after she marries, which is why I specify in which books I like her best.
  • Miss Marple, from the books by Agatha Christie. She’s a sharp and inquisitive old bat who knows human nature in and out and uses that knowledge for good.
  • Celie from The Color Purple. An incredibly strong and resilient but also human and fallible heroine who survived terrible treatment and came out even stronger in the end.
  • Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg from the Discworld books (Witches sub-series) by Terry Pratchett. I put them in as a unit because they are a team and wouldn’t be much fun without each other’s tempering influences. Granny would never describe herself as a heroine, whereas Nanny would proudly do so but only if it got her a free drink.
  • Susan Sto Helit from the Discworld books (Death sub-series) by Terry Pratchett. Sharply intelligent and brave, resilient and determined to make it on her own merit. Perhaps a little too obsessed with being normal when she clearly isn’t and never will be.
  • Flore Poste from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Determined, self-assured and accomplished, I would love to have her on my side in any situation, even if she is a bit managing at times.
  • Sophia Stanton-Lacy from The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. An accomploshed and clever heroine who has a solution for everything.
  • Léonie de Saint-Vire from These old Shades by Georgette Heyer. A lovely, loyal, kick-ass spitfire I would love to have for a friend. Married to my favourite bad-boy hero.

30 August 2010

The Resurrection Club

Originally published in August 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 29 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Christopher Wallace
Year published: 1999
Pages: 231
Genre: Horror
Where got: Public library

Picked this book up at the library because I liked the title.

The Story:
Public relations man Charles Kidd is hired by sleasy Peter Dexter to promote a mysterious art exhibition. Also involved are a young IP lawyer, Claire, who works for an Edinburgh law firm, and Daniel Lowes, a man who participates in a happening organized by Dexter. The story of a Dr. Brodie, a 19th century Edinburgh doctor who has invented a device designed to store the human soul, is also told. The character’s paths all cross before the end, except Dr. Brodie who only meets two of the law firm’s representatives, who also turn up at the happening.

The story is told in many voices: that of Charles Kidd telling his story, of a third person narrator telling Dr. Brodie’s story, someone at Claire’s law firm typing a report on events, and Daniel Lowes being interviewed about the art happening.

My feelings about this book:
I’m trying hard to be objective, but I can’t. This book sucks big time. It begins to annoy almost right away, and around the halfway point it starts to grate in its contrivance. By the end you begin to wonder if it’s the same book that critics describe as ‘gripping’. There wasn’t anything in it that gripped me (griped is more like it), except a slight curiosity about how it would all end, what momentous event all the crap was leading up to, but even that was anticlimactic.

A genuine wall-banger of a book. 1 star.

Note: Hmmm. I think I might have to read this again, just to see if time has softened my opinion of it. However, I am not a masochist, so maybe I will just leave it alone.

29 August 2010

Dear Reader: Do you find this image offensive?

Anhadazi-merciful women

Do you think it is pornographic or just suggestive?

Photobucket refuses to host this photo, presumably because its photo recognition software registers it as a nude man with an erection and a tremendous amount of pubic hair, instead of as a marble statue buggering a bat - wait, that must be the reason! It thinks this is an image showing zoophilia.

I still can't decide if this is bad design, or if it is deliberately cheesy, but it certainly is eye-catching.

28 August 2010

Short stories 221-230

From Norway:

The Blacksmith Who Could Not Get Into Hell”. Collected by Asbjörnsen and Moe. An amusing folk tale about beating the Devil. Recommended. (A different translation from the one I read.

“The Father” by Björnstene Björnsson. About a proud father and a parish priest.

“Skobelef” by Johan Bojer. A humorous tale about a horse that has a tremendous influence on a small rural community. Beautifully translated. Recommended.

From Sweden:

Love and Bread” by August Strindberg. A rather cynical tale about a man who discovers that one cannot live by love alone. Recommended. (This is such a very different translation that it makes me want to read the original to see which is truer).

“The Eclipse” by Selma Lagerlöf. A heart-warming tale about an old peasant woman who needs an excuse to invite the neighbours over for coffee. Recommended.

“The Falcon” by Per Hallström. A haunting tale about a peasant boy who rescues a hunting falcon. Beautifully translated. Recommended.

Now we turn to the Belgian tales:

“The Mysterious Picture” by Charles de Coster. Originally from The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel. A trickster tale about human vanity.

The Massacre of the Innocents” by Maurice Maeterlinck. About a more modern version of the Biblical massacre of the same name, presumably as a way of showing how really horrible it was, or perhaps as anti-Spanish propaganda? (A different translation).

“The Soul of Veere” by Camille Lemonnier. A description of a melancholy village awakened for a moment by a mad young musician. Very atmospheric. Recommended.

“One Night” by Emile Verhaeren. A spot-on description of the irrational fear that can sometimes grip people. Recommended.

27 August 2010

Friday Night Folklore: The Eight Gentleman’s Daughters

Gandreið (gand-ride) is a common occurrence in Icelandic fairy tales about magic. See the story for one definition of the phenomenon.

This tale is clearly related to the German fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, but with important and dark differences.

There was once upon a time a gentleman who had eight daughters. He also had eight men in service. They often discussed between themselves how tired and depressed they always felt when going about their daily chores.

One of them had a good friend at a farm near the gentleman’s estate. Once, when visiting his friend he told him how tired he always felt and that he had to force himself to do his work every day, and that all of his fellow servants were the same, being hardly able to move for fatigue. He found it really strange because the work was not that hard.
“Well, if you can’t guess why, then I’m sure I don’t,” said his friend, “unless someone is using you for gand-riding while you sleep so that you don’t get any rest at night.”
“Gand-riding?” said the other. “What is that?”
“That” said his friend, “is when someone flays a bridle from a dead man’s skin and any thing, living or dead, that it fits and it is put on becomes a mount, not matter if it’s just a horse’s head or a leg-bone or something else. It can be ridden like a horse once the bridle is on it and can go anywhere. If it is used on a sleeping man, he can be ridden without knowing it because he is unable to wake up while the bridle is on him. A waking man can also be ridden in this way, but he can easily take the bridle off himself when he so pleases.”

The man thought this was a very interesting story. His friend suggested that he should tell no-one about this, but stay awake some night and see what would happen. He took the advice and stayed awake the very next night.
All the male servants slept in the same room. In the evening when they were all fast asleep, except our friend, he saw the gentleman’s daughters creep into the room, each of them holding a bridle made of human skin. They each chose a bed and gently slipped the bridles on the sleeping men. He pretended to be asleep and didn’t resist when one of the girls put a bridle on him.
Each girl now mounted her man’s back and then they rode like the wind for a while until they came to another grand estate. There they dismounted at a fine big doorway and left their steeds there with the bridles on and entered the house. Our friend slipped off the bridle and crept after the girls. He saw them enter a large, well-furnished room. In the room were eight beds and a man in each bed and the girls and men greeted each other in a friendly and familiar manner. Each of the girls slipped into bed with a man of her choice.

Our friend now went back to his mates and removed the bridles from all of them and woke them up and told them everything that had happened. They were all greatly surprised and thanked him for freeing them. He told them that it was time for payback and that they should go into the house and put the bridles on the girls when they were asleep. They agreed that this was an excellent plan and that the girls deserved it. When all the people inside were asleep the eight men crept into the bed-chamber and put the bridles on the girls, led them out and mounted them like horses. On the way home they took a little detour to the nearest farm, where they woke up the farmer and asked him to sell them special horse-shoes meant for riding on ice to shoe their nags, because they had a long way to go.

The farmer immediately found them some horseshoes and they quickly shoed the ‘horses’ and then slowly rode to the farm where our friend’s friend lived. He told his friend all that had happened and as he was beginning to be a little worried, he asked if he thought that they would be punished for the way they had treated the girls, but he thought not, because of the shameful way the girls had previously treated the men, but advised him to tell their master everything truthfully. Our friend replied that he’d had no intention of keeping quiet about the girls’ behaviour.

They now rode home and took the girls and put them back in their beds and removed the bridles before going to their own beds. In the morning the story flew from servant to servant that all the gentleman’s daughters had been shoed with horseshoes, but no-one knew how it had happened.
The gentleman called in his male servants and asked them if they knew aught of this matter. They replied that it was their doing and told him the whole story.

The gentleman was mightily surprised to hear this story, but was inclined to think they were lying, so he went to his daughters and told them what the servants had told him and asked them if it was true. The girls replied that it was all a damned lie, but as he saw that they were uneasy he questioned them further until they broke down and confessed everything. This so angered their father that he drove them all from the house and considered it a suitable punishment for their whorish behaviour and witchcraft. But after this the servants did their work without feeling tired.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

26 August 2010

Meme: Top Ten Books I Can't Believe I've Never Read – TBR bookshelf edition

As my regular visitors will have noticed, I’m going a bit nuts with memes. This one was thought up by Julia of The Broke and the Bookish and properly belongs to Top Ten Tuesday postings, but as I came to it late I am posting it today.

There were so many books to choose from that I decided to only include books that I actually own (and have in some cases owned for several years).

  • Brennu-Njáls Saga (The Saga of Burnt Njal) – This is one of the longer Sagas and by all accounts a juicy one, full of heroism, betrayals, passion, revenge, conspiracies and blood-feuds, but I have never got round to reading it. Shame on me, as this is one of the fundamental works of Icelandic literature.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes – I actually bought a copy a couple of years ago, but I have never felt in the mood to read it.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I have started reading this something like five times, and never been able to bring myself to read farther than about 50 pages. However, I know this is a book I could like.
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – Same story as with Jonathan Strange, except only three tries.
  • After Babel by George Steiner – I have an M.A. degree in translation and this is a seminal book in that field, so I really should have read it, but I haven’t.
  • The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas – I have read a couple of edited versions and one comic book and have seen several movies based on it, but I have never read the whole thing.
  • The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer (shorter version) – As someone who is deeply interested in folktales, mythology and anthropology, I feel I should have read this, even if some of the theories are now considered a bit dodgy.
  • Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco – After reading what Eco said about it in Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, I decided I wanted to read it, but it has been in my TBR bookcase for 5 years and still remains unread.
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White – I have actually finished the first book, The Sword in the Stone, and started the second, The Queen of Air and Darkness, but I never got any further, yet I loved it. Still can’t quite understand why I didn’t go on with it.
  • The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin – My regular readers will know that I actually started reading this one a couple of months ago and then put it on hold, but it fits the meme because I have owned this book for over 4 years without reading it, and yet I love travelogues.

Honourable mention that I don’t own but feel a bit guilty for not having read:
Sjálfstætt Fólk (Independent People) by Halldór Laxness – This is supposed to be THE Icelandic literary masterpiece, but I have never been able to bring myself to read it because I hate the way Laxness has written just about all the female main characters in those of his books I have read.

25 August 2010

Meme: My life as a book

I learned about this funny meme from Dorte, but it was originally posted on the Pop Culture Nerd blog. The rules are simple: answer the question using only titles of books you have read this year. This was quite a challenge, but I finally did it. The links will take you to my reviews/discussions of the books. By the way, this very nearly became "My life as a Book: Edward Gorey Edition", but a couple of the questions posed insurmountable difficulties.

  • In high school I was: Devil's Cub (Georgette Heyer)
  • People might be surprised I’m: My Lady Notorious (Jo Beverley)
  • I will never be: Welcome to Temptation (Jennifer Crusie)
  • My fantasy job is: Making Money (Terry Pratchett)
  • At the end of a long day I need: A Rare Benedictine (Ellis Peters) (the liqueur. I can do without monks, thank you very much!)
  • I hate it when: Death takes up a Collection (Sister Carol Anne O‘Marie)
  • Wish I had: The Curious Sofa (Edward Gorey)
  • My family reunions are: Wild (Lori Foster)
  • At a party you’d find me with: The Loathsome Couple (Edward Gorey)
  • I’ve never been to: The White Castle (Orhan Pamuk)
  • A happy day includes: Cider with Rosie (Laurie Lee)
  • Motto I live by: Trust Me (Jayne Ann Krentz)
  • On my bucket list: Finding the Dream (Nora Roberts)
  • In my next life, I want to be: Faro's Daughter (Georgette Heyer)

24 August 2010

Short stories 211-220

Next come the Polish stories:

The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall” by Henryk Sienkiewicz . A wonderfully lyric tale of a happy interlude in a long life full of misfortune. Recommended. (this appears to be the same translation as I read)

“Forebodings, a sketch” by Stefan Zeromski. There were actually two sketches, but one was too short to include here. About finding peace in adversity.

And now the Yiddish authors:

“A Woman’s Wrath” by Isaac Loeb Peretz. A rather harrowing tale of n incident between a woman and her good-for-nothing husband. Recommended.

“The Passover Guest” by Sholom Aleichem. A wryly humorous tale about the power of good storytelling and a Jewish family who entertain an exotic foreign guest during Passover. Heartily recommended.

“A Picnic” by Z. Libin. A humorous tale about a family picnic gone wrong. Recommended.

“The Kaddish” by Abraham Raisin. About a man obsessed with having a son.

“Abandoned” by Sholom Asch. Both sad and humorous, about a criminal left alone with a baby. Recommended.

“In the Storm” by David Pinski. A dramatic tale about a woman’s fury. Recommended.

Next are the Nordic tales. I will not include the Icelandic tales, one of which I have read, preferring to read the other in the original language (although, come to think of it, it would be interesting to do a side-by side reading of the translation and the original...). I am also skipping a Danish tale by Hans Christian Andersen, which I have read both in Danish and Icelandic (another possible comparative translation project).

From Denmark:
“Henrik and Rosalie” by Meyer Aron Goldschmidt. A sweet romantic tale.

“Two Worlds” by Jens Peter Jacobsen. A very atmospheric tale about, well, two different worlds. Recommended.

I may be biased, but it's positively shocking that there is no Icelandic short story in this book written after the end of the 13th century.

23 August 2010

The Last Unicorn

Originally published in August 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 28 in my first 52 books challenge. Edited out some information that had nothing to do with the book.

Author: Peter S. Beagle
Illustrator: Mel Grant
Year published: 1968
Pages: 212
Genre: Fantasy
Where got: Public library

I first read this book a long time ago, before I became really proficient in English, and when I came across this special illustrated anniversary edition, I decided it was about time I read it again.

Being older, having read a lot in the interim and understanding the language better, all effect how re-reading books affects a person. When I first read The Last Unicorn I was about 20, was just about to start university and although I could keep up a fairly fluid conversation in English, I didn’t have the feeling for the nuances of the language I do now. Back then, I found the book beautifully written but felt something was missing, namely the spark that separates a good book from a great book. It will be interesting to see what I think of it now.

One day a solitary unicorn discovers she is the last of her kind and sets out to find out what happened to the others. On the way she picks up two companions: the inept magician Schmendrick who can not age until he fulfils his potential for great magic, and Molly Grue, former outlaw’s companion who prefers to join the unicorn rather than stay any longer with the outlaws in the woods. They discover that the Red Bull, some kind of mythical creature, herded all the unicorns away to the land of King Haggard. The travellers head towards that bleak and inhospitable land and its cruel king, towards a reckoning that will change their lives forever.

The writing is lyrical and flowing and the language simple, straightforward and charming. The story is solid and touches upon several myths and legends from different sources, and the characters are beautifully created and rounded. There is an underlying sadness that permeates the story, for things past and wonders that have gone the way of our belief in unicorns.

A beautiful story about a unicorn who briefly finds out what it is like to be mortal. 4+ stars.

22 August 2010

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: The Classic Era of Crime Fiction by Peter Haining

This is the 12th and final book I read as part of the Bibliophilic Books Challenge.

Year published: 2002
Genre: Literary history; non-fiction

Despite the unfortunate error I mentioned in an earlier post, this book gives a great overview of the roots and development of the crime genre. Haining clearly loved the subject and unfolds it in 8 chapters, each of which covers a particular sub-genre and era of crime literature and the authors who developed these genres into what they are today. He begins with the penny bloods, which gave readers in the 19th century cheap chills and thrills, goes on to discuss the stories of crime-fighters and early detective stories which gave rise to Sherlock Holmes and his rivals, which led to the development of the tough Private Eye stories that led to hard-boiled crime stories and the crime noir novels, and ends with spy novels.

The book is written in a matter-of-fact informative style without being dry, covers a large number of authors and books and contains a wealth of cover images and illustrations from crime novels and magazines that enliven and enrich the text. This is a lovely coffee-table book for any lover of crime literature and while it is not encyclopaedic, it will do as a thorough introduction to the genres discussed therein and enable all but the most widely-read crime fiction fan to discover new authors and books. 4 stars.

21 August 2010

Global Reading Challenge Review: The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

This ended up being my South-American book in the Global Reading Challenge – I seem to have gone off Captain Pantoja for the time being.

Certain parts of the review may contain SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned.

Genre: Literary novel
Year of publication: 1948
Setting & time: Buenos Aires, Argentina; contemporary

This book is set up as the first-person confession of a criminal, or perhaps rather a description of the events that led up to the narrator’s murder of his lover. Celebrated painter Juan Pablo Castel spots a woman at an exhibition of his paintings, and it seems to him that by focusing on a minor detail in one of the paintings she has shown herself to understand him in a way that no-one else does. He becomes obsessed with finding her and getting to know her, and when he finally does, they enter into a stormy, obsessive and abusive relationship that ends in murder.

The narrator, Castel, gives an account of his development from being a rather lonely misanthropist who grows gradually more and more disturbed, until he murders the only person he believes is capable of understanding him. He goes through stages of longing for and stalking the woman he has decided will make him happy, to wanting to possess her so completely that she will tell him everything and be everything he wants her to be, to realising that this is impossible, which leads him to kill her.

His actions seem to spring less from deep emotions than from a combination of psychological problems and an overly logical mind that instead of allowing him to let go and just feel, must instead overanalyse everything, draw conclusions, reject them and return to them, over and over until he is so wound up that he finally feels something, but unfortunately that emotion is raging anger. Even his murder of Maria seems to be less about jealousy than the fact that she has proved to be imperfect and must therefore be destroyed like a flawed painting.

Castel is writing all of this from his prison cell after he has been tried and sentenced, and he gives a remarkably lucid and clear-headed account of the events that led up to the murder. Sabato has been careful not to have Castel analyse his actions, leaving this up to the reader, who must decide whether she is reading the perfectly truthful account — to the extent that a fictional account can be truthful — of events, or if Castel is an unreliable narrator angling for sympathy by leaving out crucial information. Whichever it is, this is a perfect description of a man in deep existential crisis, who seems to be writing this during a period of relative sanity, but knowing that he is about to descend into the darkness once a again. I am giving this harrowing book a 5 star rating, but even though I think it is a very good read that has given me much to think about, I don’t think I will ever re-read it.

20 August 2010

Friday night folklore: Kindness repaid

There was once upon a time a farmer and his wife in Eyjafjörður. They were rich and wanted for nothing. The pantry of their house was built in such a way that a large rock that had been impossible to move when the pantry was built had become part of the wall and jutted into the room.

One evening in early winter the woman was doling out food for the household and noticed a large, unfamiliar askur* sitting on the rock. She asked the maid if she knew to whom the askur belonged, but she had never seen it before. She decided to put some fresh milk in the askur, and then they left and locked the room.
In the morning when she came into the pantry the askur was there, but empty. The woman put milk in the askur every day throughout the winter, reasoning that she had milk to spare and someone clearly needed it. The askur would be empty after every meal.

This continued until spring. On the first night of summer the woman dreamt that a strange woman came to her and said
“You have been very kind to give me milk all through the winter although I have not paid you back. Please accept my thanks and keep what you find in the cowshed when you wake in the morning.”

The she was gone. In the morning the farmer’s wife came into the cowshed there was a beautiful grey heifer there among the farm cows, that was assumed to be the elf woman’s payment for the milk. The heifer grew into a good milking cow and served her owners well.

*An askur is a wooden container with a lid, often ornamentally carved. In the old days, people ate their food from an askur, and each person had their own.

Stories of elves repaying favours are very common in Icelandic folklore, as are tales of what evils can befall those who do not treat them with respect or honour their requests. They would often appear to people in their dreams.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

19 August 2010

Short stories 201-210

'Oh, whistle, and I'll come to you, my lad' by M.R. James. Originally from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. An almost perfect little ghost story. Recommended. This one is not from Great Short Stories of the World - it was mentioned in a book I was reading (Maps & Legends) and I read it to be able to better understand the discussion of it in that book. I then decided it was perfect for the challenge.

St. John’s Eve” by Nikolai Gogol. A story written in the form of an oral tale – rambling and very well rendered. Recommended.

The District Doctor” by Ivan Turgenev. Another story in the oral form, even more confusing that the last one. (different translation)

The Christmas Tree and the Wedding” by Feodor Dostoievsky. A well-told story about status and money and how they affect people. Recommended. (appears to be the same translation)

The Long Exile” by Leo Tolstoy. This is what the editors of GSS call this story, but the original title is “God sees the Truth, but Waits”. A sad tale about an innocent man wrongly condemned to a life in a Siberian labour camp. A bit too sugary for my taste, but well-written. (same translation)

“The Old Bell-Ringer” by Vladimir Korolenko. A bitter-sweet story about the last hours in an old man’s life.

The Signal” by Vsevolod Garshin. A story about service, gratitude and doing one’s duty. Also something of a thriller. (same translation)

The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. A tense psychological tale. Recommended. (same translation)

One Autumn Night” by Maxim Gorky. A tale about an unlikely angel of salvation. Recommended. (same translation)

“Silence” by Leonid Andreyev. A fine story about guilt and what it can do to a man. Recommended.

Salinger's Toilet , OR, The lengths to which some people will go to make money

I couldn't help but laugh out loud when I read that an old toilet from a house that belonged to author J.D. Salinger was up for auction on Ebay. I laughed even louder when I read that the asking price was 1 million US Dollars. The thought that anyone would actually buy something like this strikes me as very funny, but in today's celebrity culture it wouldn't surprise me if someone actually bought it. I also couldn't help thinking that "Salinger's Toilet" would make a fine title for a surrealistic short story or a novel.

18 August 2010

Top mysteries challenge: The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald

There is no going past that point. All the roads are barricaded and all the bridges are blown. The fields are mined and the artillery has every sector zeroed in.

This is a good extended metaphor and an eloquent way of belabouring the point, which is then spoiled by a truce shortly afterwards. Can you guess what the metaphor refers to?

Year of publication: 1974
Series and no.: Travis McGee # 16
Genre: Mystery/thriller
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, crime magnet
Setting & time: Florida, USA, contemporary

Travis McGee gets a visit from Carrie, an old friend, who asks him to store nearly 100 thousand dollars (in cash) for her or, if she doesn’t return within a given time, get the money to her younger sister. Carrie is killed, seemingly in a traffic accident, but McGee senses foul play and he decides he owes it to her to investigate her death. This leads him and his friend Meyer into the company of all kinds of people, some suspicious and some not, and before long the body count begins to rise.

John D. MacDonald had a wonderful way with words. He was a funny and erudite writer with a distinct style, but was perhaps a little too fond of challenging the reader by using words that even a native speaker of English would need a dictionary to understand.

This book sparkles with interesting turns of phrase and a masterful use of language, and is also laugh-out loud funny at times (for an example, see the quote I posted earlier). The plotting is tight and the story has several interesting twists and turns, although there is a bit too much theorising going on that is based purely on how McGee and Meyer would like things to have happened. And of course they always turn out to be right or partially right, without much to go on. This detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the story.

When I reviewed One Fearful Yellow Eye I mentioned McGee’s paternalistic attutude towards women. There isn’t so much of it here as there was in that book – here it comes more across as a deep and almost profound respect for women – but as per both anonymous comments on that book, there was indeed a woman who needed a touch of sexual healing in this book as well. I can well imagine that this would begin to grate if one were to read too many of the books within too short a span of time...

Rating: 4 stars
Books left in challenge: 81
Place on the list(s): CWA # 87
Awards and nominations: None I am aware of

17 August 2010

Georgette Heyer fans, take note!

Georgette Heyer
I have only just discovered, to my delight, that Austenprose, a blog dedicated to celebrating all things Jane Austen is celebrating Georgette Heyer's birthday (August 16th) by having a Georgette Heyer marathon that began on August 1st and will end on the 31st. Being late to the party, I have a fair bit of reading to do to catch up, but I'm not complaining.

Austenprose is a blog I visit occasionally - something like every couple of months, just to see what's new, but now I have added it to my feed so I will not miss anything.

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson

"Explaining the moment of connection between a reader and a book to someone who‘s never experienced it is like trying to explain sex to a virgin."
Sara Nelson on the phenomenon when a reader gets sucked into the book.

Bibliophilic book number 11. Only one to go. Not that I‘m counting ;-)

Year published:2003
Genre: Memoir

At the end of 2001, Sara Nelson decided to set herself a reading challenge, a simple book-a-week affair for one year, and keep a diary about it. The result was this book, which most readers should be able to, on some level, to enjoy. Although she is a seasoned, professional writer of book reviews, this is not a collection of reviews or even of literary theory or analysis, but more of a meditation on and a revelling in different aspects of reading, interspersed with snippets of information about whichever book she was reading at the time each essay was written.

She covers issues most readers will be familiar with, like trying to turn a non-reader into a reader, trying to raise a reader, the dangers of reading books recommended by friends and reviewing books by relatives, reading multiple books at a time, falling in love with an author, lending books, not wanting to follow the herd where best-sellers are concerned, and more.

This is not a flawless book, but enjoyable nonetheless. One of its faults is snobbery. It’s not widespread, but it’s there, for an example in the way romances published by a certain publishing giant are summarily dismissed as the lowest of the low, but weighing up against it is her frank admission that she simply doesn’t like some of the most critically well-received novels of the years before writing the book. I would have accepted her dismissal of romance novels as a simple matter of taste if she had rationalised it as eloquently as she did her dislike of the aforementioned critical successes, but she didn’t.

Another fault - more a sin, if you want my opinion - is that on a couple of occasions Nelson gives away the ending of books without indicating she is about to do so. Clearly someone forgot to hand her the memo about giving fair warning before giving away the ending if you want to stay in your readers' good books. Fortunately neither is a book I particularly want to read, but I have been enraged when I have come across and accidentally read such spoilers for books on my TBR list, so this big no-no still counts as a minus point.

As you may have noticed, this is an eminently quotable book – I have already given one quotation in a separate post, one in a reply to a comment and one at the beginning of his review, and I think I will end with one as well. But first the rating: A highly enjoyable book about the joys and pitfalls of reading. 4 stars.

"We’re a funny, cliquish group, we book people, and sometimes we resist liking—or even resist opening—the very thing everybody tells us we’re supposed to like."
Sara Nelson on her and some other readers' relationship with best-sellers and other "oh-my-God-you-must-read-this" books.

Congratulations, Yrsa!

She has good reason to smile!
 Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has been nominated for the Shamus Award in the category Best P.I. Novel, for My Soul to Take, the only translated novel to be nominated this year, so her translator should be congratulated as well.

Congratulations and good luck, Yrsa! 
 Read some reviews of the book:

Euro Crime 
The Independent  
Iceland Review
Reviewing the Evidence

The Guardian

And here is a Youtube video where Yrsa discusses the book

16 August 2010

The Crying of Lot 49

Originally published in July and August 2004, in 2 parts
Book 27 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Thomas Pynchon
Year published: 1966
Pages: 183
Genre: Literature
Where got: Public library

This book was recommended to me by Oedipa. I had never heard of it, but it is apparently a classic of 20th century American literature. After a bit of web browsing for information, I decided it would be worthwhile reading.

This review contains possible SPOILERS

The story:
Oedipa Maas is unexpectedly made the executor of the estate of her former boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity. Before long, she is immersed in the investigation of a secret, underground postal service that appears to have its roots way back in history. Along the way, she meets with all sorts of people, some crazier than others, and the book ends as she sits down to attend the auction of Inverarity’s stamp collection, which contains some stamps that may or may not have been made by the people who run the mysterious underground mail system. Or maybe it’s all a conspiracy by Pierce to confound and confuse her? That is left up to the reader to decide.

Pynchon has a way with words. What else can I say? Actually, the writing is sometimes convoluted and confusing, like a train that has run off the rails, each sentence apparently loaded with meaning, or perhaps just a jumble of empty words, a stream of consciousness rendered into structured sentences. Somewhere inside this jumble of words is a rather interesting conspiracy plot that is carried along by wordplay and philosophical wondering. The narrative is sometimes funny and always slightly surreal. The story is nearly timeless, only a few hints point to its happening in the 1960’s, which I guess is part of what makes it appeal to people.
Perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I read it, but I didn’t much like this book. I had the slight feeling that the author was getting away with a joke that was just out of my grasp, that he was sitting somewhere out of reach and chuckling at me for being too clueless to see it, just like Oedipa near the end of the book.

Rating: Confusing and interesting, slightly surreal and ultimately inconclusive. 2+ stars.

15 August 2010


I am now reading The Classic Era of Crime Fiction by Peter Haining, and wow!, is there ever an error on page 114, in the discussion on the "Big Four" female detective writers of the Golden Era. He discusses Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and then turns his attention to Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, saying about Marsh:

"...and Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) whose 1940 book, Surfeit of Lampreys, featuring aristocratic investigator Lord Charles Lamprey..."

This begs the question: How many errors have I not spotted?

Top mysteries challenge review: Time and Again by Jack Finney

Year of publication: 1970
Genre: Speculative fiction, sci-fi, thriller
Type of investigator: Amateur, time traveller
Setting & time: New York, USA; 1882 and 1969

Illustrator Simon Morley is recruited to take part in a top-secret project to travel back in time. Once he is back in the 19th century, he is only supposed to observe and not meddle in anything, but when he discovers that a young woman he meets in the past and cares for has become entangled with a dangerous man, he knows he has to do something. That something leads them to become involved in a horrific event that puts them both in mortal danger.

I suppose that technically Time and Again is science fiction, although giving it that classification might give readers the idea that it’s full of science, aliens and strange technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is, for example, no time machine, the time travel being achieved by self-hypnosis, although only after extensive training that includes acquiring intimate knowledge of New York in the 1880’s and learning to evade questions that might reveal that he is not of the time he is visiting.

This is a very detailed, well told and lovingly written story about the possibility of time travel, and the effect it might have on both the past and the future, as well as on the time traveller. It is enriched by photographs and drawings from the era Morley travels back to, presented as if they were Morley’s work, and making the story more realistic. The characters are entirely believable, the detail stunning, the historical detail rich and Morley’s reactions to the past are entirely believable. The descriptions of New York, both in 1969 and in 1882, are beautifully written, so as to make the reader feel she is really there, and the description of the disaster that takes place in the last third of the story is terrifyingly realistic.

All of the detail might seem superfluous to the central story, but in reality it is not. It serves a very definite purpose, which is to make the story seem more real than if it had been written as a straight thriller with less detail, to make it sound like the account of real events (as indeed the disaster is), and transport the reader back to 1882 with the narrator. It does mean that readers looking to find a fast-moving narrative with chills and thrills will probably give up after a couple of chapters, disgusted with all the detail, but readers who enjoy slow reads and who love to read themselves into books will be amply rewarded for opening this one.

Having said all this, I must also add that the story is not without flaws. The romance is not very convincing, and for much of the story it seems as if Morley is not really in love but only trying to prevent the match between the girl and the villain because he dislikes the villain. He is also not a very likeable character himself, being arrogant, reckless and rather immoral. The story is also a bit too pat at times, with things falling too easily into place. I am therefore only giving it 3+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 80

Place on the list(s): MWA #99
Awards and nominations: None I know of

14 August 2010

Review: Private Demon by Lynn Viehl

From the book:
He found the fact that she hid the candy and the books in her desk rather endearing. He had even read one of the books—Pride and Prejudice—although he had thought many of the heroine’s problems could have been solved if someone had simply strangled her mother.

Genre: Urban fantasy/paranormal romance
Year of publication: 2005
No. in series: 2
Setting & time: Chicago, USA; contemporary

Darkyn (i.e. vampire) Thierry Durand, cured in body but not in mind after the horrific events described in If Angels Burn, has escaped from captivity and arrives in Chicago, full of angst and knowing that he cannot be sure of being able to control himself from going totally berserk when met with difficult situations. He feels like he needs to redeem himself for past events and plans to start by exacting revenge on a group of men who mutilated a young protégé of the doctor who healed him.

In Chicago, heiress Jema Shaw is trying to live a normal life in the shadow of type 1 diabetes and under the heel of her domineering and manipulative mother. She was a friend of the injured girl and Thierry suspects that she knows something about the attack, but he can’t ask her directly, so he uses his psychic talent (every Darkyn has a different one) to enter her dreams and try to pry it out of her. The two begin to fall in love, but complications ensue, involving the Brethren, a plot to harm Jema, a group of skinheads, and another Darkyn who also loves her.

This book picks up some days or weeks after If Angels Burn ends and besides being the story of Thierry and Jema it continues a story arc that began in that book and will presumably continue in the following books. Thierry is a typical angsty hero with bigger problems than most. Driven to madness by torture, both physical and psychological, he has recovered somewhat by being freed from the excruciating pain that plagued him, but he has no mental brakes and is a danger to all he meets. Being sane enough to realise this, he avoids people as much as possible and only communicates with Jema through dream telepathy, which is described in detail in some very realistic dream sequences that cleverly show the development of their relationship – much better, I think, than a series of sex scenes ever could have.

Out of the dream-world Jema is a somewhat pathetic creature, right until the climax, when you finally begin to understand why she is so weak. I look forward to hopefully seeing her blossom in the following books.

The focus in this book is about equally on both lovers, which is an improvement over If Angels Burn where the focus was much more on Alexandra than on Michael. There is never a dull moment, the pacing is fast and sometimes furious, and the characters come alive on the page. I’m giving this one 3+ stars for its nice balance between humour and seriousness, fantasy and stark reality, thrills and romance.

Let’s end this review like it began, with a teaser, this one from one of the dream scenes:

The place wasn’t just plain disgusting, Jema decided. It was fancy disgusting. It was disgusting with a wine waiter and no prices on the menu.

13 August 2010

Friday night folklore: A Drunkard in Hell

This short tale is an example of the kind of humorous tales told by Icelanders in the olden days.

One day there were two men working in a farm smithy. Late in the afternoon a man arrived at the farm, so drunk that he passed out and rolled off his horse into the mud in front of the farmhouse.

The two smiths took him and carried him into the smithy and laid him on a pile of wood coal, where he slept until it was dark outside. When he began to wake up, the smiths were just finishing their work for the day but had not yet put out the fire in the forge.

They decided to observe the drunkard when he woke up, to see if anything funny would happen, and hid in a corner. The drunkard woke up and felt all around him. Realising that that he was lying on a heap of coal and seeing the fire he came to the conclusion that he must have died and gone to Hell.

He rose up and listened for a while, but when he heard nothing he began to be bored and called out: “Can none of all the demons gathered here give me a little something to drink?”

The two smiths jumped up laughing, and thus ends the story.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

Now reading: So Many Books, So Little Time: A year of passionate reading by Sara Nelson

Woody Allen once said that the advantage of bisexuality is that it doubles your chances of finding a date on a Saturday night. Having a bifurcated reading brain—one part that likes „junk“ and one that reveres „literature“—is the same kind of satisfying. You don‘t have to be any one thing and you don‘t have to think any one way. And should you happen upon different kinds of people in different situations, your pool of conversation topics is twice as deep.
From the chapter „Double-booked“

12 August 2010

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley

This makes 10 books in the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, which means I have only 2 to go.

Year published: 2002
Genre: Biography, non-fiction

Charles Dickens isn’t so much a biography as an attempt by one author to understand and interpret another. Dickens’s adult life is painted in the broadest of strokes, with plenty of speculation about the effects of his public and personal life on his work, extrapolated from known facts, with some excursions into psychoanalysis and literary theory.

This is a nice introduction to Dickens as a person, giving just enough information about him to either satisfy a reader’s curiosity to know a little bit about the man behind the novels, or to serve as an amuse-bouche - a little something to awaken and prepare the taste buds for further reading. It is well-written and short enough to make for light reading, but it’s really neither one thing or another, being unable to decide between being a portrait, a biography, or an analysis. 2+ stars.

11 August 2010

Meme: I just don't like them!

I am breaking my rule of not posting twice in one day to post this excellent meme.

Tahleen of The Broke and the Bookish came up with this meme to name one’s top 10 most dislikeable characters in literature, and boy, did I have fun deciding!

I haven’t numbered them because I really can’t decide which ones I like the least.

  • Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. She is a cruel, sadistic, bigoted, bureaucratic toady who will use any means to achieve her goals – even ones she would be shocked to see others use. She is unable to accept facts that are under her nose and she shows not regret over her actions, in fact it never even occurs to her that she is anything but one of the good guys. Caveat: I just finished re-reading the book, so this was the very first character that sprung to mind. On a different day I might not even have remembered her, but re-reading the book brought back to me why I found it so uncomfortable to read (Harry’s stupidity throughout the story was another - I constantly wanted to yell at him to grow a brain)
  • Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment by Dostojevski. The book is brilliant and the story about Raskolnikov’s breakdown utterly believable, but he is still loathsome and unsympathetic in the extreme, which just goes to show how well he is written.
  • Fanny Price from Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. She’s just so hopelessly wet.
  • Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. She’s a proud, bratty, selfish bitch...
  • ...which brings me to Heathcliff from the same book. He is vindictive, cruel and a sore loser who can’t stand anyone around him being happy. I will never, ever understand how anyone could think him romantic.
  • Angel Clare from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I hate double standards, especially when those double standards cause preventable tragedies. Alec d’Urverville may be a villain, but Angel is a monster.
  • Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. See the description for Catherine Earnshaw.
  • Rose Mortmain from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Shallow, avaricious and stupid and may have destroyed Cassandra’s chance of happiness with her behaviour.
  • Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. She manages to make him sympathetic but that doesn’t change the fact that he is a psychopath par excellence, devoid of conscience and unlikely ever to change. He is so evil, in fact, that you end up hating yourself for liking him.
  • The last is a tie between Mary Sues and Gary Stus of all kind.
Interestingly, only one of these characters (Umbridge) seems to have been written expressly to be disliked/hated by readers. The hero-villains Raskolnikov and Ripley and victim-villain Heathcliff are written in such a way as to make them somewhat sympathetic, and the others were not written as villains.

Note: This list is subject to change.

Now reading: The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald

Meyer to McGee, when urged by the latter to take a run along the beach for exercise:

"Would that I could. When the beach people see you running, they know at a glance that it is exercise. There you are, all sinew and brown hide, and you wear that earnest, dumb, strained expression of the old jock keeping in shape. You have the style. Knees high, arms swinging just right, head up. But suppose I cam running down this beach? They would look at me, and then look again. I look so little like a runner or a jock that the only possible guess as to what would make me run is terror. So they look way down the beach to see what is chasing me. They can't see anything, but to be on the safe side, they start walking swiftly in the same direction I'm running. First just a few, then a dozen, then a score. All going faster and faster. Looking back. Breaking into a run. And soon you would have two or three thousand people thundering along the beach, eyes popping out of the sockets, cords in their necks standing out. A huge stampede, stomping everything and everybody in their path into the sand.You wouldn't want me to cause a catastrophe like that, would you?"

10 August 2010

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a book addict by John Baxter

My 9th book in the Bibliophilic Book Challenge, and one that doesn’t need any justification as to why it’s bibliophilic.

Genre: Memoir
Year of publication: 2002

I didn’t know who John Baxter was when I picked up this book in the bibliobooks section of the Icelandic national library and I would never even have noticed the book, let alone given it a second glance, had it been filed in the biographies. But someone was inspired enough to put it in the section reserved for books about books, which is usually the first shelf I gravitate towards when I visit that particular library.

After reading it I still don’t know much about John Baxter, except that he is an Australian-born dedicated bibliophile and book collector who has, through his career as an entertainment journalist, film critic, biographer and fiction writer, been lucky enough to meet and in some instances befriend a number of book people, literary figures and authors, sometimes while in hot pursuit of their signature for one of his collectible books.

The book focuses on his loving relationship with books and makes an interesting read for bibliophiles. It is peppered with anecdotes and turns of phrase that more than once had me laughing out loud, leading to being asked by my mother to read out the funny parts to her. Other reviewers have complained that it isn’t book-oriented enough, that Baxter’s life intrudes too much on the stories about reading, books and book people, but I find it to be nicely balanced between the two. Despite the passages on his life that are not book-related the narrative never quite loses sight of the bibliophilic central theme and these passages usually lead to some anecdote or remembrance about books.

Unfortunately I was not within reach of my computer (I was on a camping holiday away from home when I read it) and forgot to mark any of the funny passages/lines, so you’ll just have to read it yourself to find them.
4 stars.

09 August 2010

Cold Comfort Farm

Originally published in July 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 26 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Stella Gibbons
Year published: 1932
Pages: 240
Genre: Parody
Where got: Public library

This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time, but it always seemed to be checked out of the library even though the database system said it was available. I was beginning to think it had been stolen from the library and I would have to buy a copy when I finally found it where someone, probably a browsing library patron, had put it on the wrong shelf.

The Story:
When Flora Poste is orphaned at age 19 and left with only 100 pounds per annum to support herself and objecting to have to work for a living, she decides to go and live with family and sponge off them. Arriving at miserable and gloomy Cold Comfort Farm, the abode of her relatives, the Starkadders, she sees that much needs to be done. The family are living under the autocratic rule of Aunt Ada Doom, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed and has never been the same since. The family are so afraid of upsetting her that they do whatever she tells them. There is Reuben who wants to take over the farm from his father Amos, who preaches Hell and damnation once a week to a small congregation, the oversexed younger brother, Seth, who loves movies, their sister Elfine, who swans around the moors all day like a lost character from Wuthering Heights, Judith, whose life revolves around Seth, and a bunch of cousins and farm workers, all of them more or less damaged and gloomy personalities. With ingenuity and kindness, Flora soon alters their lives for the better, and finally there is only one challenge left: Aunt Ada Doom.

Technique and plot:
This is a brilliant parody of the rural or rustic novels so popular in the first decades of the 20th century. Those novels tended to show cities as evil places and the countryside as some kind of idyllic paradise, and city people as immoral while the rustics were shown as moral and good (and often lusty and passionate). These novels often tended toward overwrought, purple prose. I haven’t read many of these kinds of novels in English, but I am quite familiar with the genre, which retained its popularity in Iceland much longer than it did in Britain. In sending up the genre, Gibbons makes city-dweller Flora the good, moral person, and shows her rustic cousins as the ones in need of her help, rather than the other way around. She writes brilliant prose, and even takes care to mark the purple passages with stars, ranging from * to ***, depending on how purple. This is of course deliberate. Gibbons wants to be sure to extract the maximum amount of humour out of these passages, and by marking them is able to draw attention to how ridiculous the passages are in all their purple glory. The characters are mostly three-dimensional and well rounded, and each is controlled by some specific passion, be it holy fervour, obsession or something else. The biggest butt of the humour is Flora herself. She is ridiculously perfect, but still so determined and matter-of-fact about everything that you can’t help liking her.

A brilliant send-up of the rural novel, which can easily stand on its own as a genuinely funny story. 5 stars.

Note: I went out and bought myself a copy the first chance I got and have re-read it a couple of times since.

08 August 2010

Now reading: Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley

...when the novel is first published, it may seem to be a true and faithful rendering of the life of the time it is looking back to, but almost every historical novel dates very quickly and soon comes to epitomize its own period more than the period in which it is set.
On A Tale of Two Cities

This makes me wonder what the bodice-rippers that were so popular back in the 1970's and 80's will tell the readers of the future about that era?

Smiley continues a little later:

For all the research that goes into it, and for all the weight it seems to have, the historical novel is one of the most ephemeral genres and reveals most clearly an author's intellectual and imaginative limitations.
On A Tale of Two Cities

This book is more of a portrait than a biography of Dickens and only traces his life in broad sketches, instead trying to show this complex man to the modern reader, trace how his work developed and perhaps increase our understanding of what made him such a great writer.

07 August 2010

Short stories 191-200

“The Pier” by Mori Ogwai. An elegant story about the sorrow of parting from a loved one and not being able to express one’s feelings. Recommended.

A Domestic Animal” by Shimazaki Toson. A heart-warming tale about how one’s appearance can affect people’s attitudes. Recommended. (The link will take you to a page from which you can jump to the book containing the translations of this story and the previous one, in various different formats, including pdf and Kindle).

Here end the Japanese tales, and we jump back to Europe, to The Netherlands.

The Story of Saïdjah” by Eduard Douwes Dekker. Originally from the novel Max Havelaar. What at first seems to be a simple story about young lovers turns out to be scathing criticism of the behaviour of the Dutch colonialists in Java. Recommended. (The same translation, only the version I read was edited to make it shorter).

Grandfather’s Birthday Present” by Herman Heijermans. Originally from Sketches. A lovely, funny story about a surprise birthday present. Recommended. (This appears to be the same translation).

Next stop: Hungary.

The Invisible Wound” by Karoly Kisfaludi. A chilling tale of jealousy and its consequences. Recommended. This appears to be the same translation).

Familiar” by Lynn Viehl. Free short story, published online by the author. An interesting take on the Dr. Dolittle theme. I read this at work one lunch hour and decided to include it in the short story challenge.

“A Ball” by Maurus Jokai. A funny little letter written as if by a frivolous young lady (one related in spirit to Lydia Bennet).

“The Green Fly” by Kalman Mikszath. A funny story about reverse psychology in action. Recommended.

“The Silver Hilt” by Ferenc Molnar. A humorous tale about a clever swindler. Recommended.

Now to the Russians:

The Snow Storm” by Alexander Pushkin. An unlikely but well told little drama that would suit very well as a source for a short play or TV film. (same translation)

06 August 2010

Friday night folklore: Dumb and dumber

One upon a time two women were arguing as to which one had the dumber husband. Finally they decided to test the men to see if they were really as stupid as they seemed.

One, when her husband came home from his work in the fields, sat down with her wool combs and her spinning wheel and began to go through he motions of combing wool and spinning it into thread, but neither her husband not any other person could see any wool in her hands.

When her husband saw this he asked her if she had gone mad, to be scraping together the combs and turning the spinning wheel without any wool, and demanded to know what she was up to. She answered that it was no wonder that he couldn‘t see what she was spinning, as it was very fine linen that she meant to use to make clothes for him. He accepted this and began to express his wonder at his wife‘s talents, saying that he was very much looking forward to wearing these very fine and beautiful clothes.

Once the woman pretended to have spun enough thread, she went and set up her weaving loom and went through the motions of weaving. Her husband kept checking on her and admiring her talents. She was greatly amused and kept up the pretense until enough time had elapsed for her to have woven enough fabric to make clothes. Next she pretended to take down the fabric from the loom, wash it and felt it, and finally she began to cut and sew the pretend fabric.

Once she had done all this, she asked her husband to come and put on the clothes, but said she didn‘t dare let him put them on by himself and insisted on helping him. She then pretended to help him on with the clothes, and when she was done the poor man happily believed himself to be wearing very fine clothes, although he was in fact stark naked. 

As to the other woman, when her husband came home, she asked him why he was up and about. He thought the question odd and asked why.

She proceeded to tell him that he was very ill indeed and he would be best off in bed. He believed every word and hurried to get into bed. 

After some time she came and told him that it was time to dress him in his shroud. He asked why and to please not do that, but she said he had died that morning and they were getting the coffin ready for him. 

The poor man believed this and lay still in his bed until the coffining. The woman then decided on a burial day and found six coffin-bearers and asked the other couple to accompany her to the burial. 

The 'widow' had had a window made in one side of the coffin so her husband could see what was happening outside. When it was time to carry the coffin out of the house the naked man arrived, believing everyone would admire his fine new clothes. 

But although the coffin-bearers had serious business on their minds they could not help laughing when they saw him, and when the man in the coffin saw him he called out loudly: 

"Now I would laugh if I weren‘t dead!"

The burial was then cancelled and the man was released from the coffin. This was how the women's‘ tricks were discovered, and they were both brought to justice and caned at the next general assembly.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

05 August 2010

Review: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Genre: Memoir
Year of publication: 1959
No. in series: 1 of 3
Setting & time: The Cotsworlds, England, 1910’s and 20’s

In this book, Lee lovingly describes his early life in the small village of Slad, in thematic chapters that cover different aspects of his childhood and upbringing.

This memoir had been languishing in one of my TBR bookcases for much too long when I finally decided to read it. It had been repeatedly recommended to me by people who knew I liked to read biographies, and I would like to thank them for it, because in it I have found a new addition to my “perennial reads” list.

This is a wonderful and often funny account of a somewhat unconventional upbringing in a small village that in many ways seems to have been like a close-knit family. It is beautifully written and often poetic, but still always remains down to earth. It’s sweetly nostalgic and can with some justification be called a prose-poem in remembrance of a simpler time gone by.

It was fortunately written too long ago to have any of the mis-lit flavour that seems to be so popular in modern biographies, even though had he been so inclined, Lee could have found plenty of material for such a memoir.
5+ stars. A keeper.

04 August 2010

Tentative reading plan for August and July progress

I didn't manage to finish Time and Again as I had planned, mostly because I don‘t want it to end, but I will have to finish it this month because I can‘t keep it much longer and must return it to the library soon. I did finish Between the Woods and the Water and am now hoping against hope that Fermor will publish the third and final part of this travelogue before he succumbs to old age. I also finished rereading the second Harry Potter book as planned, and three non-fiction books, which was fewer than I wanted to but more than I expected. Finally, I made no headway at all with the Top Mysteries Challenge. Hopefully my little break from reading mysteries will give me a renewed interest and a boost for August.

As to what I would like to accomplish this month: I visited a public library branch I don‘t often go to and came home with a stack of interesting travelogues. I would like to finish at least three of them in August. Let's call it a mini-challenge to read more non-fiction.

I have a biography of Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley lined up for the Bibliophilic Book Challenge, and plan to reread the fourth Harry Potter book (having already finished the third on August 1st). On my next library visit I will hopefully be able to check out a copy of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service so I can continue reading it, but it will have to be the Icelandic translation instead of the English one, because apparently there is only one library copy available of the English translation, and that‘s the one that started shedding pages when I began to read it.

As to the TBR challenge, I would like to finish at least 5 books in that, 2 of which will hopefully also be Top Mystery Challenge books.

03 August 2010

Reading report for July 2010

Depending on how you look at it - i.e. I read yet another Edward Gorey anthology - I read either 17 or 32 books in July. Counting the Gorey books was tougher than usual, because this one contained both previously published and unpublished material, some of it single drawings rather than books. I finally decided to count the 15 previously published pieces as separate books and the unpublished stuff as one book.

I didn‘t read a single straight mystery this month, which is very unusual for me, although one of the romances and one of the paranormal novellas did have mystery elements. I read a number of paranormal romantic thrillers, some romances and three memoirs. Of the books I read, 2 were Bibliophilic Book Challenge books and 5 were TBR challenge books. One was a reread (the Harry Potter book) and 3 volumes (including all the Gorey books) were un-justified non-challenge books. One was an online graphic novel.

The rest were gloms (for an explanation of this term, please see the Terminology glossary). I finally got round to checking out the collection of short stories and novellas author Lynn Viehl has published for free on the Web as supplements to her published books. I stuck to the two series I have been reading, the Darkyn and Kyndred books, plus I read one unrelated short story that I decided to include in the short story challenge.

The Books:
John Baxter: A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (review upcoming)
Jenny Carroll (Meg Cabot):Shadowland
Michael Chabon:Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands
Rene Engström: Anders Loves Maria
Jane Feather:The Hostage Bride and The Accidental Bride (will add a review of the whole trilogy when I finish The Least Likey Bride)
Patrick Leigh Fermor:Between the Woods and the Water
Edward Gorey: Amphigorey Again (15 previously published short books plus 13 previously unpublished material in one volume)
Jayne Ann Krentz:Trust Me
Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie (review upcoming)
J.K. Rowling:Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Lynn Viehl: Dreamveil, If Angels Burn, Private Demon, Rain Lashed, Worthy, Willing and Wanted (three short stories forming one novella) and Incarnatio

02 August 2010

Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula

Originally published in July 2004, in 2 parts
Book 25 in my first 52 books challenge.
I have edited this review slightly for the sake of clarity. I think it's fitting to post this now, since I am again taking an interest in paranormal literature.

Author: Christopher Frayling (author & editor), et al.
Year published: 1991
Pages: 429
Genre: Literary theory, literature
Sub-genre(s): Vampire stories
Where got: Public library

I had considerable interest in vampire stories when I was studying English literature at university, and even wrote a final essay on Dracula for an interesting course I took on horror literature. I used this book as one of my sources, but never read it all the way through, only concentrating on the first part, which traces the history of vampires in literature.

The contents of the book:
The first part of the book is Frayling’s dissertation on the vampire in literature. Although vampire stories owe much to folk-tales they made the jump into literature when authors started playing with the idea of a human (or human-looking) parasite that preyed on humans and got the brilliant idea to make that person a gentleman, someone who has much more access to society than, say, a peasant. By making the vampire a gentleman (and later on a lady), the creature was made exciting and dangerous. Frayling mentions four main vampire types that appeared in 19th century literature, and gives examples of each in long excerpts and short stories that take up a good 2/3 of the book. These types are the Satanic Lord, the Fatal Woman, the Unseen Force, and the Folkloric Vampire.

The stories are chosen for how well they represent a particular vampire subgenre, rather than for any literary consideration. Yet some are quite good, for example “A Kiss of Judas” by X.L. and “The Family of the Vourdalak” by Alexis Tolstoy. The most famous stories in this book are John Polidori’s The Vampyre (in its entirety), James Malcolm Rhymer’s Varney the Vampyre (excerpts) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (excerpts). A couple of interesting if rather academic parts of the book contain excerpts from Stoker’s plans and research papers for Dracula, and some attempts at psychological analyses of what Frayling has chosen to call ‘haemosexuality’, the sexual desire for blood.

This is not a book for casual readers. Those merely looking for scary stories will end up reading less than a third of the book. The approach to the subject is academic, and the reader needs to be interested in the subject on an academic level in order to appreciate Frayling’s essay on the literary vampire, and some of the excerpts and short stories. It is a good introduction to the vampire genre, and will make good research material for students of horror literature. I am rather put out by the fact that Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous vampire story Carmilla (which happens to be a favourite of mine) was left out of the book, seeing that Frayling mentions it on several occasions, but it is perhaps because he thought the stories of female vampires that he did include were more representative of the genre.

An interesting in-depth look into the genesis and evolution of the vampire in literature. 4 stars.

01 August 2010

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: Maps & Legends: Reading and writing along the borderlands by Michael Chabon

I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.
From the essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the modern short story”

Year published: 2008
Genre: Literary essays

This is a collection of 16 interconnected essays (and a 17th supplementary essay) on literature, reading, writing and the genesis of three of Chabon’s novels. It starts with a proposition to expand the definition of entertainment (see the beginning paragraphs of the opening essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”, that I already posted) and goes on to explore aspects of popular culture like short story writing, genre fiction and comic books, and their influence on Chabon and other authors.

He is unapologetic, albeit sometimes a bit defensive, about his enjoyment of genre literature, and makes the same argument as I have sometimes tried to make about genre fiction being unfairly reviled, only he does it much more elegantly than I ever could. The essays can be read separately or together, in or out of order, and can give anyone with an interest in the way in which an author gets ideas a lot of information, as well as provide the simple sensuous enjoyment of reading a well crafted text.

Chabon is an excellent essayist. These pieces sparkle with erudition and ideas, his arguments are well-supported and while the essays were originally published in different publications, they more or less echo and play off each other so that the book as a whole feels like it was purpose-written instead of gathered together. 4 stars.

I’ll end this review as I started it, with a quotation, this one from “Imaginary Homelands”, an essay about an essay the publication of which greatly upset the members of an Internet listserv dedicated to the Yiddish language and culture. He ends it with these words:

If I could outrage a few people with one little essay—how many could I piss off with an entire novel?