31 October 2010

Ghost story for Halloween

Here is a little extra folk-tale for you to enjoy on Halloween. It is the most famous Icelandic ghost story there is, and almost every Icelander knows it. A modern version, filmed for television, had the deacon riding a motorbike.

In Icelandic folklore, ghosts are supposed to be unable to say the name of God and will change names which incorporate God’s name into something else. The woman in the following story is named Guðrún, which means “God’s Rune”, but the ghost shortens it to “Garún”, which I spell as “Garoon” in the story to approximate how the ghost would have said it. The name of the church-farm the deacon came from translates as ”Dark River”. I have used the translated name of the farm and left out all other place-names to make it easier to read the story aloud. Another thing you need to know is that in many of the old-style churches in Iceland, the church bell was not located in a belfry, but at the top of the gate that led into the church-yard. This type of gate was called a “soul gate”.

The Deacon of Dark River
In the olden days, in the time before electrical lighting, when there were no bridges on the rivers and they had to be forded, there was a deacon (an assistant priest) at the church farm of Dark River in northern Iceland. His name has not come down to us. He was courting a woman named Gudrun, who lived on the other side of two rivers, one of them difficult to cross even at the best of times. The deacon had a horse named Faxi that he loved very much.

One December, shortly before Christmas, the deacon rode across the rivers to see Gudrun and invite her to a Christmas party at Dark River, promising to come at a certain time on Christmas Eve to take her there. In the days before he made this journey it had snowed heavily and the rivers were iced over, but on the day of his trip a sudden thaw came that broke up the ice on the rivers. In the afternoon, while the deacon tarried with Gudrun, the larger river had become unpassable with floating ice and high, turbulent water. When he left to return home he did not attend to what had been happening and thought the river would still be iced over. He made it across the smaller river on an ice-bridge, but when he got to the bigger river the ice that had covered it that morning had broken up into small pieces. He rode down the river bank to look for a way across, and finally came to an ice-bridge and rode out on it, but when he was half-way across the bridge broke, plunging man and horse into the river.

The next morning the farmer on the nearest farm across the river spotted a horse on the river bank and thought he recognised the deacon’s horse. This startled him, as he has seen the deacon cross the river the previous morning but not noticed him return, and he suspected that something terrible must have happened. He approached the horse and as he got closer he saw that the animal was soaking wet and bedraggled and the saddle was still on it. He feared the worst and continued walking until the reached the river and then followed the river until he found the deacon’s body on a sand bar further downstream, with the back of his head badly damaged from the ice. The farmer immediately went to Dark River to tell the news.  They brought him home and buried him in there in the week before Christmas.

Between the time the deacon left Dark River to visit Gudrun and until Christmas Eve no news passed between the two farms due to the thaw and high waters. But on Christmas Eve the weather had improved and the river had subsided, and Gudrun was looking forward to the Christmas party. Around twilight she began to dress for the party and was nearly finished when there was a knock at the door. Another woman went to answer it, but could see no-one outside, which was perfectly natural, as it was neither light nor dark and the clouds kept drifting and covering and uncovering the moon by turns.

When the other woman came back in and said she had not seen anyone outside Gudrun said: “It must be for me. I will go out now.” She was fully dressed then, except she had not put on her coat. As she walked down the hall-way, she grabbed her coat and put one arm in one of the sleeves, but draped the other sleeve over her shoulder and held it with her hand. When she came outside, Faxi was standing there and a man by him that she took for the deacon. There is no mention that either said anything to the other at this point.

The man lifted Gudrun onto the horse and then mounted in front of her. The rode in silence for a while, until they came to the large river. There were high piles of ice on either side of the river, but the deacon ride straight up on the ice and plunged the horse down the other side, but as the horse took the plunge, the deacon’s hat was lifted up in the back. At that moment the clouds parted and the moonlight shone down and Gudrun could see that the back of his head was scraped bare to the bone. He said to her:

Moon is gliding,
Death is riding,
Can you see a white spot
On the back of my head,
My Garoon, Garoon?

She was startled but answered: “I see it.” Nothing more is known of their journey until they arrived at Dark River and dismounted in front of the churchyard gate. The deacon then said to her:

Wait for me, my Garoon, Garoon,
While I take my Faxi, Faxi,
Up into the pasture, pasture.

He left with the horse but Gudrun looked into the graveyard and saw an open grave. This terrified her, but she still had the presence of mind to take hold of the bell-rope. As she did this she was grabbed from behind, but as luck would have it she had never had the chance to put her other arm into her coat, but the ghost pulled so hard that the coat was torn apart at the seam of the sleeve Gudrun was wearing. The last she saw of the deacon was when he plunged into the open grave, taking the torn coat with him, and the earth was swept over the grave from both sides.

Gudrun rang the church bell with all her might until the people of Dark River came out and found her and took her back to the house. She was out of her wits with fright, having realised that her travel companion that night had been the ghost of the deacon, although she had not known he was dead. The people of the farm confirmed this, and she told them her story. That night, when everyone had gone to bed, the deacon came back to the farm and haunted Gudrun so hard that none could sleep that night, and for a fortnight afterwards she could never be alone and someone had to stay up and guard her every night. Some say it got so bad that the minster himself had to sit by her bedside and read aloud from the prayer-book.

Finally they sent for a sorcerer from the next fjord. When he arrived, he had them dig up a huge rock from the mountain-side above the farm and roll it down to the back of the house. As twilight descended that evening, the deacon came and tried to enter the house, but the sorcerer stood in his way and drove him around the house and towards the stone, using a great number of spells and incantations, and finally sank him into the ground and rolled the rock on top of him, and there the deacon has been trapped to this day. This ended the haunting at Dark River and Gudrun’s health began to improve. Shortly after she returned home, but people say that she was never the same after this.

30 October 2010

A baker's dozen of short stories for Halloween

Halloween is tomorrow, and since most of my readers are located in the USA, where it is celebrated in a big way, I decided to recommend some spooky short stories to get into the Halloween mood. They are all fairly short and would, I think, be perfect for reading aloud to a group on Halloween. Much as I would have liked to include The Willows or The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood, they are simply too long to be read aloud in one session.

I basically made a random choice of stories by Poe, James and King, because they have all written some really scary stuff.

I have tried to include some variety, so you will find a mixture of horror, suspense, scary and creepy stories, some paranormal or supernatural, some psychological, others fantastical. I make no claims as to their being the best of anything, merely that they would make good Halloween reading.

  1. “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M. R. James. Ghost story.
  2. The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs. Magic. A hoary old classic of the unexplained that still has the power to frighten.
  3. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Another classic, this one about the evil that lurks in the hearts and minds of man.
  4. Sometimes they come back by Stephen King. Ghosts/demons. Not the scariest of King’s stories, but scary enough.
  5. A Return to the Sabbath by Robert Bloch. I couldn't pass an opportunity to include one zombie story.
  6. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A terrifying account of a woman’s descent into madness.
  7. The Man and the Snake by Ambrose Bierce. A psychological suspense story.
  8. Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe. Horror. While not one of his best, I have always found this story very creepy.
  9. Being by Richard Matheson. Aliens. Evil ones.
  10. The Tall Woman by Pedro Antonio De Alarcón. Supernatural, ghost, demon or omen.
  11. Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker. Paranormal, spooky, werewolf. 
  12. One Happy Family by John S. McFarland. Monsters. While this story is a prime example of prejudice against "hillbillies", it is also very creepy indeed.
  13. The Deacon of Dark River – Icelandic folk tale. Ghost story. I will be posting this one here at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

29 October 2010

Friday night folklore: The Farmer and the Mystery Man’s Bargain

Readers will no doubt recognise elements from the story of Rumpelstiltskin in this Icelandic folk tale. The story is supposed to have taken place in A.D. 995-996 and is told with such detail that it becomes quite  realistic.

Late in the reign of Haakon II Sigurdsson, ruler of Norway, a young Icelandic farmer of Reyn (short for Reynisstaður) wanted to build a gathering hall on this farm and needed to get wood for the building. Late one summer he set out to Norway and arrived shortly after Haakon died and Olaf Tryggvason became king. 

Upon hearing the news, the young farmer decided to go before the king and ask to stay the winter and serve him until he could sail home the next spring*. The king granted him this boon and he stayed the winter, embracing Christianity and being baptised while he was there. In the spring the king gave him all the wood needed to build the gathering hall and a church and asked him to have the church built that same summer. 

When he arrived home he immediately hired carpenters to build the gathering hall and when this was finished he wanted to build the church, but when the carpenters learned that he was going to build a church they refused to do it and went home. He tried to find other carpenters, but all of them were worshippers of the Æsir (the old Nordic gods) and would not participate in the building of a church.

He heard that a Norwegian carpenter, a man loyal to King Olaf, was in Iceland, but the man had left before he could find him. The farmer was unhappy with the situation, but there wasn’t much he could do. This bothered him so much that he could neither eat nor drink and he took to wandering about and brooding over this apparently unlucky religion that he had accepted for his own and even considered going back to worshipping the Æsir.

As he was thinking this a man came walking towards him, a bearded stranger who greeted him. The farmer hardly answered him and the other man asked why he was so downcast and the farmer told him the whole story. 

“Shall I not build this church for you?” asked the stranger. The farmer said he would gladly accept this offer.

Now, this farmer had a three-year old son. The stranger said he had a two-year old son who was bored and needed a playmate. “My payment for this church-building task will be that you will give me your son for fostering in return for the favour.” But the farmer was unwilling to accept this deal.

"I will allow him to visit you when he wants to,” said the stranger, but the father was still unwilling.

The stranger said: “I will make you another offer. I will build the church, but you will have to guess my name before I am done, and then I will not take your boy.”

The farmer said this would be impossible, “for you probably have a very rare and unusual name.”

"No,” said the other, “I bear a common Icelandic name.” 

“Then I accept the deal,” said the farmer and they shook hands on it.

The stranger promised to begin right the next day and they parted, the farmer calm and happy. The next morning the stranger came back and began working on the church. Meanwhile the farmer sat down and wrote down every male name he could think of and read them out to the carpenter that night.

“None of these names is mine,” he said. 

By that time he had built the wall supports and raised the rafters and built the walls of he church. The next day the farmer visited all of his neighbours and asked them to write down all the names they could think of. This they did and that night the farmer came back with a long list of names that he read to the carpenter.

“None of these names is mine,” he said. 

“Then you have lied to me,” said the farmer. “Your name is not Icelandic, then.” But the other said that he had told him nothing but the truth.

The farmer now saw that he was in worse trouble than ever and the next day he wandered out into the wilderness, deep in thought and wowing that if the stranger took his son he would abandon Christianity and burn the church.

He did not notice where he went, but found himself on top of a rocky hillock and from inside the hillock came the sound of a human voice. He looked around him and saw that there was a window in the hillock and when he peeped inside he saw a woman sitting inside, holding a young boy in her arms. She was singing to the boy:

“Quiet, oh, quiet, my little baby boy,
Soon your father Finn will come home from Reyn,
With your little playmate.”

The farmer memorised the name and walked back to where the church was almost finished. The stranger was just hammering in the last nail in the carved altarpiece that he had made for the church when the farmer walked in and said: “Good work, my man Finn.”

The stranger looked around, threw down the hammer and disappeared and never came back for the boy, but the farmer kept his faith and thus the story ends.

*Going to Norway to serve the king for a winter or two is a common theme in the Icelandic Sagas.

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.

28 October 2010

Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

I really should have posted this before my list of scary books for Halloween, but with one thing and another I wasn’t able to.

Genre: Thriller/horror, ghost story
Year of publication: 1984
Setting & time: England, at a guess some time between 1920 and 1950

The story begins with a happy family group at Christmas. They start  telling ghost stories, but when asked to contribute a story of his own, the father rushes from the room, being overcome with memories of his own terrifying encounter with a ghost. He then decides to tell his story in writing, and takes the reader back to his youth. As a young solicitor he had been sent to a lonely coastal village to attend the funeral of a customer of the law firm he worked for and go over her papers. She had lived on an island that was only accessible at low tide and on his first visit to the island he became aware that it was haunted, but found it hard to get any of the villagers to tell him about the haunting. His arrival agitates the ghost and his decision to stay in the house while he is finishing up his business there is going to cost him dearly.

This is a fairly straightforward ghost story and the ghostly activity is pretty standard and even predictable, but I didn’t choose it as a top spooky tale for that, but for the eerie atmosphere and the tension and sense of expectation that Hill manages to create in it. The ghost’s back story is heart-rending and terrible and up to the last chapter some readers may even feel sympathy for her, but the last chapter (the twist in the tale) is likely to remove that. For added effect, I recommend choosing a stormy night or a dark, cold, foggy day to read it. 4+ stars.

27 October 2010

Chunkster (and TBR) challenge review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Genre: Fantasy, alternative reality
Year of publication: 2004
Setting & time: England (mostly), Spain, Italy; Early 19th century

Mr. Norrell, a gentleman magician - the first to do genuine magic is several centuries - proves that magic has not disappeared from England and offers his assistance to the government in the fight against Napoleon. He is a very selfish man and in order to make sure no-one else can compete with him, he buys all the books on magic he can find and collects them in his well-guarded library, and prevents others from trying to do or learn magic. When another gentleman magician, Jonathan Strange, appears on the scene, Norrell is at first hostile, but eventually he accepts the young man as his apprentice. But that is only the beginning …

At a whopping 845 pages, this is the longest book I have read in quite a while, but unlike some other long books I have read (e.g. The Historian) it would have been very difficult to prune anything from it. The narrative is rich and imaginative and the story rolls on at a fairly even pace, but it is so well written and rich in detail that the pacing doesn't matter. This is not the kind of book one absolutely has to read and read and read until one drops, but rather one you can read a couple of chapters in, lay it aside for a day or two, and then continue, and the break isn’t going to affect your immersion in the story one little bit.

This is a cosy read, the kind of book one curls up with, anticipating something wonderful, which it delivers in spades. The well-defined characters become like one’s old friends, and like old friends, one gets impatient with them when they are being stupid or stubborn, but in the end they are forgiven because of the pleasure they have given.

Neither of the titular characters are completely likeable, although one tends to side with Strange, because of his openness and willingness to share information and train more magicians, which stands in clear contrast to the mistrustful selfishness of Mr. Norrell, who seems to want most of all to be the only magician in England. But while he is cast as a sometime antagonist to Strange, he isn’t the true villain of the book – that is left to a whimsical and malevolent being that likes to play with humans like they are toys but who doesn’t fully understand them.

This is an enchanting tale of magic, a a magical narrative about enchantment and illusion, and eventually a tale of heroism and sacrifice. The frequent footnotes provide interesting diversions and make the story a bit like a biography or an academic text – although in the best way possible. The world-building is flawless – based on historical Europe in the main points, in Clarke’s hands it becomes something and once exotic and familiar, strange and yet comfortable.

Highly recommended, a keeper. 5 stars.

Apparently there is a film in the making. I hope it will do the book justice.

26 October 2010

Meme: Top Ten Books for Halloween

The Top Ten Tuesday meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I expect a wide variety of titles from the participants this time around, since different things scare different people, but I predict that Frankenstein, Dracula, The Shining, The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw will be mentioned on several lists.

I have tried to list only scary and spooky books, and not ones that are disturbing/creepy or disgusting without being scary, although on some levels the disturbing books are truly more horrifying than the merely scary ones. For example, I found The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks deeply disturbing, but it didn’t scare me one bit. This leads me to think I will have to list my top 10 most disturbing books at some later date.

Since I am already working on a list of short stories to recommend for Halloween reading, I decided not to feature short stories or story collections here, although it was tempting to put Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories on the list. You will, however, find three novellas on the list, all of which are sometimes featured in short story collections.

For the disgusting and visceral to be scary to me it also needs a psychological element, and while there are some pretty horrible scenes in some of the books below, I chose them for the psychological factors, the authors’ ability to awaken the creeping expectation that something horrible is about to happen and the ability to keep the readers on their toes, not only until the horror happens, but even beyond that.

In approximately the order I first read them:

  1. Psycho by Robert Bloch. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological – murder and madness. In retrospect it probably isn’t all that bad, but I was about 12 when I read it and suffering from very bad nyctophbia and nightmares, and this one caused me several sleepless nights, especially since I knew it to be based on a real murderer.
  2. The Omen by David Seltzer. Type of scary/spooky: Religious – the Anti-Christ.Wonderfully chilling and spooky atmosphere.
  3. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Type of scary/spooky: Religious – demonic possession. This is the last book that ever gave me nightmares. I was 17 when I read it, and although I was rid of the nyctophobia by then, it still made me afraid to fall asleep.
  4. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological – serial killers. I found it scary in a way that I didn’t feel about The Silence of the Lambs. The atmosphere it captures is so very tense and oppressive and the crimes truly horrific.
  5. The Shining by Stephen King. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological and/or ghosts. Cabin fever in an isolated, creepy, big building during the winter.
  6. The Wendigo by Algernon Blacwood. Type of scary/spooky: Folk tale monster. Suffused with a deep sense of menace.
  7. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Type of scary/spooky: Supernatural/monsters. It’s like a childhood nightmare come true – the one where something horrible is chasing you.
  8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological and/or ghosts. Scary and disturbing, and you can never be sure whether it’s a matter of ghosts or madness (or both).
  9. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood. Type of scary/spooky: Threatening supernatural forces/malevolent natural forces. Truly, deeply scary. Nature has never seemed so threatening.
  10. The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill. Type of scary/spooky: Ghosts. About a malevolent and vengeful ghost.

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

My thoughts about this book are rather scattered and what I have written below might sound more like notes for an essay, but I want to say something about it, so please excuse the rambling.

Genre: Psychological/gothic horror
Year of publication: 1962
Setting & time: New England, USA, mid-20th century

While I have labelled this a psychological/gothic horror novel, it is not entirely true, but this is a book that is hard to label. It is psychological and it is gothic, but a psychological and gothic What? It’s hardly a thriller because most of the action is internal (although there are some thrilling moments, especially during the climax), and it’s hardly a horror, although after a certain point in the story one is constantly expecting something of the kind, and it isn’t melodramatic enough to be called a sensational novel, although it draws on all of those genres. It is, in a way, a crime novel, and in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to put it on a list of some of the best of that kind I have read, but the crime is incidental to the main story – the main focus is on the interplay of personalities and human relationships. I suppose it could be called psycho-gothic suspense.

There is sense of deep unease and occasional creepiness underlying the narrative right from the beginning, and one wonders where it is all heading and what sort of climax it is leading up to.

What this story reminded me of most of all was The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks, possibly because the organic magic practised by the narrators of both is so similar and the same kind of unease suffuses both stories. But while I would unhesitatingly classify The Wasp Factory as horror, the horrors – if you can call them that – of We Have Always Lived in the Castle are internal rather than external and are mostly created by the interplay of what is written between the lines and the reader’s brain, rather than by what is actually printed on the page.

While some pretty horrible events do happen in the story, they are not of the kind that causes the pulse to race and they don’t affect the gag reflex or make one shudder, but rather play on other feelings, being able to cause anger and arouse frustrated sympathy, and also awakening profound unease and a sense of horrified wonder at the imagination that could create such a story.

The narrator is an 18 year old girl who lives in an isolated house with her half-demented uncle and her sister. We know from the start that there is something strange going on. While the narrator is an unreliable one and clearly disturbed in her mind, she seems incapable of telling a lie or even drawing conclusions – those are left to the reader, and they can get rather disturbing – and what she tells of is clearly a very dysfunctional family who are hated and feared by their neighbours. This seems to be a matter of class and money – the Blackwood family are rich and upper-class, while the villagers are poor (or at least not rich), and belong to the lower classes.

But there is more than that – the plight of the Blackwoods, their social isolation and fear of the villagers seems to be partially self-induced, and it hasn’t helped that a tragedy took place in the house several years before the story starts, which has caused open hatred and fear between the remaining three Blackwoods and the villagers. They nevertheless exist in a kind of sinister status quo that allows the narrator, Mary Katherine, to buy groceries and pick up library books in the village while most of the villagers hold their collective breaths and hope nothing bad will happen, or perhaps they are waiting for an excuse so they can finally get a proper outlet for their hatred.

As the beginning chapter that describes her last trip down to the village clearly shows, very little is needed to tip the precarious balance that both parties respect. When this finally happens, it is not because of something either the Blackwoods or the villagers do, but rather because of an outsider who arrives and belongs to neither camp, and the results are both disastrous and spectacular. Without saying too much, I think I can safely reveal that once the outsider is removed, a new and different balance is gained, but if you want to know how, you need to read the book.

The whole story is told by what is possibly the most brilliantly rendered unreliable narrator I have come across, in sharp, clear, and most of all very readable prose that lays the story down before the reader’s eyes and challenges her to interpret it and draw her own conclusions, because the narrator adamantly avoids doing so.

Rating: A delicately wrought, disturbing and absorbing book that may give you some very strange dreams. 5 stars.

25 October 2010

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From fox hunting to whist – the facts of daily life in 19th century England

Originally published in November 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 38 in my first 52 books challenge

Author: Daniel Pool
Year published: 1993
Pages: 416
Genre: Social history, reference
Where got: Amazon.co.uk

I’ve read quite a number of novels set in 19th century England, and have often asked myself certain questions about the stories. One of those questions was “why did Mr. Darcy hand-deliver his letter to Elizabeth - surely he could have sent a servant with it?”(Pride and Prejudice) and another formulation of the same question was “why did Elinor think Marianne and Mr. Willoughby were engaged just because Marianne sent him letters?”(Sense and Sensibility). I had also wondered about certain social rules, like the order of precedence, which titles belonged to the nobility and which to the gentry, what was the definition of a gentleman, and when was the “season” and the “little season”. In all of these cases I could make educated guesses, based on the text and other books I had read, but I didn’t get my guesses confirmed until I read it in this book. It is an overview of 19th century English society, it’s social rules and costumes, the social and seasonal calendar, money matters, the judicial system, games, government, travel, servants, food, clothing, etc.

Apart from the cheesy title this is a good reference book. It covers 19th century English society in several well-laid out chapters. From page 255 onwards there is a glossary of terms people are likely to find in books from or about that century in England, and at the end there is a bibliography for those who want to do more reading on the subject. I am told by connoisseurs of English 19th century literature that they found the book lacking in some areas, but for most readers this is a good guide to English 19th century society as seen in literature.

Rating: A guide to all the things that might puzzle readers when reading about 19th century England. 4 stars.

To answer the questions posed at the beginning of the review: It was considered improper for unrelated, unmarried men and women to exchange letters unless they were engaged, and if respectable young people openly exchanged letters, it was considered proof of an engagement.

24 October 2010

List love 3.4: BBC’s Big Read list, books 151-200

The previous 3 parts can be found here (no. 1), here (no. 2) and here (no. 3).

Green means I have read it.
Blue means I plan to read it.
The others I am either not interested in or simply don’t know enough about them to decide if I am interested in reading them.

Status abbreviations:
PC = it’s in my Permanent Collection
WL = it’s on my Wish List

  1. Soul Music: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  2. Thief Of Time: by Terry Pratchett. Status:
  3. The Fifth Elephant: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  4. Atonement: by Ian McEwan
  5. Secrets: by Jacqueline Wilson
  6. The Silver Sword: by Ian Serraillier
  7. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: by Ken Kesey. Status: Owned
  8. Heart Of Darkness: by Joseph Conrad
  9. Kim: by Rudyard Kipling
  10. Cross Stitch: by Diana Gabaldon
  11. Moby Dick: by Herman Melville
  12. River God: by Wilbur Smith. Status: Owned
  13. Sunset Song: by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
  14. The Shipping News: by Annie Proulx.
  15. The World According To Garp: by John Irving.
  16. Lorna Doone: by R.D. Blackmore.
  17. Girls Out Late: by Jacqueline Wilson.
  18. The Far Pavilions: by M.M. Kaye.
  19. The Witches: by Roald Dahl.
  20. Charlotte's Web: by E.B. White.
  21. Frankenstein: by Mary Shelley. Status: PC
  22. They Used To Play On Grass: by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams.
  23. The Old Man And The Sea: by Ernest Hemingway.
  24. The Name Of The Rose: by Umberto Eco. Status: PC
  25. Sophie's World: by Jostein Gaarder.
  26. Dustbin Baby: by Jacqueline Wilson.
  27. Fantastic Mr Fox: by Roald Dahl.
  28. Lolita: by Vladimir Nabokov.
  29. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull: by Richard Bach.
  30. The Little Prince: by Antoine De Saint-Exupery.
  31. The Suitcase Kid: by Jacqueline Wilson.
  32. Oliver Twist: by Charles Dickens.
  33. The Power Of One: by Bryce Courtenay.
  34. Silas Marner: by George Eliot.
  35. American Psycho: by Bret Easton Ellis.
  36. The Diary Of A Nobody: by George and Weedon Grossmith. Status: Owned
  37. Trainspotting: by Irvine Welsh.
  38. Goosebumps: by R.L. Stine.
  39. Heidi: by Johanna Spyri.
  40. Sons And Lovers: by D.H. Lawrence.
  41. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: by Milan Kundera.
  42. Man And Boy: by Tony Parsons.
  43. The Truth: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  44. The War Of The Worlds: by H.G. Wells.
  45. The Horse Whisperer: by Nicholas Evans.
  46. A Fine Balance: by Rohinton Mistry.
  47. Witches Abroad: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  48. The Once And Future King: by T.H. White. Status: PC - have read the first two books.
  49. The Very Hungry Caterpillar: by Eric Carle.
  50. Flowers In The Attic: by Virginia Andrews.

That makes 20 out of books no. 151-200 that I have read, and 8 more I plan to read.

I would be interested to hear what you think of this list and how many of the books you have read or want to read. If you want to, you can also leave a comment telling me why I should consider reading the rest.

Taken all together, I have read 93 books on the Big Read list, or 46,5 % of the books. I have plans to read a further 31 books, or 15,5 %.

 I decided to take a closer look at the list, to see which authors had the most books on it and if any conclusions could be drawn from it.
It is clear that a large percentage of the voters must have been children and teenagers, at least judging from the number of children’s and YA books on the list. 

In the author popularity stakes, Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson came out as the winners, and the only authors with more than 10 books each. Third place goes to Roald Dahl. The most popular classic author is Charles Dickens.

23 October 2010

List love 3.3: BBC’s Big Read list, books 101-150 (updated 23 April 2013)

The previous 2 parts can be found here (no. 1) and here (no. 2).

Green means I have read it.
Blue means I plan to read it.
The others I am either not interested in or simply don’t know enough about them to decide if I am interested in reading them.

Status abbreviations:
PC = it’s in my Permanent Collection
WL = it’s on my Wish List

  1. Three Men In A Boat: by Jerome K. Jerome. Status: PC
  2. Small Gods: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  3. The Beach: by Alex Garland. 
  4. Dracula: by Bram Stoker. Status: PC
  5. Point Blanc: by Anthony Horowitz. 
  6. The Pickwick Papers: by Charles Dickens. 
  7. Stormbreaker: by Anthony Horowitz. 
  8. The Wasp Factory: by Iain Banks. 
  9. The Day Of The Jackal: by Frederick Forsyth. Status: Owned
  10. The Illustrated Mum: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  11. Jude The Obscure: by Thomas Hardy. 
  12. The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾: by Sue Townsend. Status: PC
  13. The Cruel Sea: by Nicholas Monsarrat. 
  14. Les Misérables: by Victor Hugo. 
  15. The Mayor Of Casterbridge: by Thomas Hardy. 
  16. The Dare Game: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  17. Bad Girls: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  18. The Picture Of Dorian Gray: by Oscar Wilde. Status: PC
  19. Shogun: by James Clavell. 
  20. The Day Of The Triffids: by John Wyndham. Status:
  21. Lola Rose: by Jacqueline Wilson. Status:
  22. Vanity Fair: by William Makepeace Thackeray. 
  23. The Forsyte Saga: by John Galsworthy. 
  24. House Of Leaves: by Mark Z. Danielewski. 
  25. The Poisonwood Bible: by Barbara Kingsolver. 
  26. Reaper Man: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  27. Angus, Thongs And Full-Frontal Snogging: by Louise Rennison. 
  28. The Hound Of The Baskervilles: by Arthur Conan Doyle. Status: PC
  29. Possession: by A.S. Byatt. 
  30. The Master And Margarita: by Mikhail Bulgakov. 
  31. The Handmaid's Tale: by Margaret Atwood. 
  32. Danny The Champion Of The World: by Roald Dahl. 
  33. East Of Eden: by John Steinbeck. Status: Owned
  34. George's Marvellous Medicine: by Roald Dahl. 
  35. Wyrd Sisters: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  36. The Color Purple: by Alice Walker. 
  37. Hogfather: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  38. The Thirty-Nine Steps: by John Buchan. 
  39. Girls In Tears: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  40. Sleepovers: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  41. All Quiet On The Western Front: by Erich Maria Remarque. 
  42. Behind The Scenes At The Museum: by Kate Atkinson. 
  43. High Fidelity: by Nick Hornby. 
  44. It: by Stephen King. 
  45. James And The Giant Peach: by Roald Dahl. 
  46. The Green Mile: by Stephen King. 
  47. Papillon: by Henri Charriere. 
  48. Men At Arms: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  49. Master And Commander: by Patrick O'Brian. 
  50. Skeleton Key: by Anthony Horowitz. 
That makes 19 out of books no. 101-150 that I have read, and 9 I plan to read.

As with the previous parts of the list, I would be interested to hear what you think of this list and how many of the books you have read or want to read. If you want to, you can also leave a comment telling me why I should consider reading the rest.

22 October 2010

Friday night folklore: Tricking a ghost

Once upon a time there were two brothers in eastern Iceland named Jón and Sigurður. For some reason they swore an oath other than neither should marry without the other’s knowledge. But then a theology student from the east needed to travel to the bishop’s seat in Hólar so the bishop could ordain him, and asked Sigurður to accompany him.

While Sigurður and the young priest-to-be were in Hólar Sigurður met a girl and they became engaged. She asked him not to return to the east, but to stay with her in the north, but the told her about the oath he and his brother had taken and hinted that his brother was wise in old lore, but she said it did not signify. After this they were wed and set up house on a farm.
Sigurður knew that it would not be long until he would receive a sending from his brother, and in this he was right: one day he became so sleepy and nauseous that he took to his bed, but his wife sat by the bedside all day and until night-fall.

When dark had fallen, there was a knock on the door and the woman sent one of the farm-hands to answer the door, but he saw no-one. She then told everyone to go to sleep, but lit a lamp, saying that she would stay awake. After a short time she heard the door bang, and then a horrible ghost climbed up into the loft where they slept and stopped in front of her. She looked at it and said: “What is your business and why do you come here without greeting anyone?”
It replied: “I am only sent to your husband and i want you to stand up so I can get to him.”

“You can’t be in that much of a hurry,” said the woman. “First you must show me some tricks.”
The she proceeded to ask the ghost to take on the form of all kinds of creatures, which it did, and she praised it and then asked: “But how small can you become?”

“Like a midge,” it replied.

She then pulled a small bottle from her pocket and asked it to turn into a midge and go into the bottle, but the ghost was reluctant, saying she would trick it, but she promised not to do so. This the ghost accepted and flew into the bottle, but the woman immediately put a cork in the bottle and tied a piece of parchment over it and put it in her pocket.

Then she woke up her husband and showed him the ghost in the bottle, saying that he was a coward to fear such a small thing. She then stored the bottle away for three years before sending the ghost back to Jón, whom it immediately killed.

After this the ghost never dared to visit Sigurður or his wife, because it was afraid of the woman and her little bottle.

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.

Useful website of the week - and a new reading challenge

I just came back from an information lecture on Iceland's role as guest of honour at the 2011 book-fair in Frankfurt, where I became aware of a fabulous new website about Icelandic literature, art and culture. It will play an active role in promoting Iceland and especially Icelandic literature in the months leading up to the fair.

The website is in three languages: Icelandic, German and English, and they are adding new material all the time. There is a newsletter you can subscribe to for free, and each month they introduce a new Icelandic author, a reader of the month, and a video. Do visit this gorgeous and very informative website (the biggest website about Icelandic literature on the web). The link will take you to the English version of the website.

In connection with this event, I am planning to read and review at least one Icelandic book every month until the fair, choosing books that have been translated into English and German, starting in November. I am calling this the "Buchmesse Frankfurt 2011 Challenge", and I even made a logo for it:

The image shows some of the books I am considering reading for the challenge, plus some more Icelandic books from my library.

List love 3.2: BBC’s Big Read list, books No. 51-100

Continuing from where I left off last time around.

Green means I have read it and so does a link to a review.
Blue means I plan to read it.
The others I am either not interested in or simply don’t know enough about them to decide if I am interested in reading them.

Status abbreviations:
PC = it’s in my Permanent Collection
WL = it’s on my Wish List

  1. The Secret Garden: by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Status: WL
  2. Of Mice And Men: by John Steinbeck. 
  3. The Stand: by Stephen King. 
  4. Anna Karenina: by Leo Tolstoy. 
  5. A Suitable Boy: by Vikram Seth. 
  6. The BFG: by Roald Dahl. 
  7. Swallows And Amazons: by Arthur Ransome. 
  8. Black Beauty: by Anna Sewell. Status: PC
  9. Artemis Fowl: by Eoin Colfer. 
  10. Crime And Punishment: by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 
  11. Noughts And Crosses: by Malorie Blackman. 
  12. Memoirs Of A Geisha: by Arthur Golden. 
  13. A Tale Of Two Cities: by Charles Dickens. 
  14. The Thorn Birds: by Colleen McCollough. Stus:
  15. Mort: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  16. The Magic Faraway Tree: by Enid Blyton. 
  17. The Magus: by John Fowles. 
  18. Good Omens: by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Status: PC
  19. Guards! Guards!: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  20. Lord Of The Flies: by William Golding. 
  21. Perfume: by Patrick Süskind. Status: PC
  22. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: by Robert Tressell. 
  23. Night Watch: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  24. Matilda: by Roald Dahl. 
  25. Bridget Jones's Diary: by Helen Fielding. 
  26. The Secret History: by Donna Tartt. 
  27. The Woman In White: by Wilkie Collins. Status: Owned
  28. Ulysses: by James Joyce. Status: Owned
  29. Bleak House: by Charles Dickens. 
  30. Double Act: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  31. The Twits: by Roald Dahl. 
  32. I Capture The Castle: by Dodie Smith. Status: PC
  33. Holes: by Louis Sachar. 
  34. Gormenghast: by Mervyn Peake. Status: PC
  35. The God Of Small Things: by Arundhati Roy. 
  36. Vicky Angel: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  37. Brave New World: by Aldous Huxley. 
  38. Cold Comfort Farm: by Stella Gibbons. Status: PC
  39. Magician: by Raymond E Feist. 
  40. On The Road: by Jack Kerouac. 
  41. The Godfather: by Mario Puzo. 
  42. The Clan Of The Cave Bear: by Jean M Auel. 
  43. The Colour Of Magic: by Terry Pratchett. Status: PC
  44. The Alchemist: by Paulo Coelho. 
  45. Katherine: by Anya Seton. 
  46. Kane And Abel: by Jeffrey Archer. 
  47. Love In The Time Of Cholera: by Gabriel García Márquez. 
  48. Girls In Love: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  49. The Princess Diaries: by Meg Cabot. 
  50. Midnight's Children: by Salman Rushdie.  

This makes 26 in the top 51-100 I have read, or just over half this half of the list. 9 are on my TBR list.

As with the first part of the list, I would be interested to hear what you think and how many of the books you have read or want to read. If you want to, you can also leave a comment telling me why I should consider reading the rest.

21 October 2010

List love 3.1: BBC’s Big Read list, books 1-50 (Updated 23 April 2013)

In 2003, the BBC held a public voting to determine which were Britain’s best loved books. The result was a list of 200 books: a mixture of enduring old classics, modern books - some on their way to becoming classics - and some recent bestsellers that may or may not endure. If and when they do this again, it will be interesting to compare the lists and see which books enjoyed continuing popularity through the intervening years.

As might be expected, I, as an average reader who is not involved in the book trade, not a librarian, a professional reviewer or teacher of literature, and not particularly highbrow in my reading choices, found I had read a considerable number of these books.

I am breaking this down into 4 parts to make the posts shorter, and I am posting the books in order of popularity.

Green means I have read it.
Blue means I plan to read it.
The others I am either not interested in or simply don’t know enough about them to decide if I am interested in reading them.

Status abbreviations:
PC = it’s in my Permanent Collection
WL = it’s on my Wish List
  1. The Lord of the Rings: by JRR Tolkien. Status: PC
  2. Pride and Prejudice: by Jane Austen. Status: PC
  3. His Dark Materials: by Philip Pullman. Status: PC
  4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: by Douglas Adams. Status: PC
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: by JK Rowling. Status: WL
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird: by Harper Lee. Status: PC
  7. Winnie the Pooh: by A.A. Milne. Status: I read it so long ago that I remember next to nothing about it (and that gets mixed up in my head with the disneyfied version), so I am counting it as unread.
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four: by George Orwell. 
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: by CS Lewis. Status: PC
  10. Jane Eyre: by Charlotte Brontë. Status: PC; it has been ages since I read it, I am planning to reread it one of these days.
  11. Catch-22: by Joseph Heller. 
  12. Wuthering Heights: by Emily Brontë. 
  13. Birdsong: by Sebastian Faulks. 
  14. Rebecca: by Daphne du Maurier. Status: Owned
  15. The Catcher in the Rye: by JD Salinger. Status: I listened to most of it when it was read on the radio when I was a teenager. Even then I thought Holden was a whiny little prick.
  16. The Wind in the Willows: by Kenneth Grahame. Status: WL
  17. Great Expectations: by Charles Dickens. 
  18. Little Women: by Louisa May Alcott. Status: I am reading this
  19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin: by Louis de Bernieres. 
  20. War and Peace: by Leo Tolstoy. Status: This is on my "when I am old and gray" list.
  21. Gone with the Wind: by Margaret Mitchell. Status: I read it such a long time ago that I really should count it as unread.
  22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone: by JK Rowling. Status: WL (I think my brother is planning to get rid of his, in which case I get them all)
  23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets: by JK Rowling. Status: WL
  24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban: by JK Rowling. Status: WL
  25. The Hobbit: by JRR Tolkien. Status: PC
  26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles: by Thomas Hardy. 
  27. Middlemarch: by George Eliot. 
  28. A Prayer For Owen Meany: by John Irving. 
  29. The Grapes Of Wrath: by John Steinbeck. Status: Owned
  30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland: by Lewis Carroll. Status: PC
  31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker: by Jacqueline Wilson. 
  32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude: by Gabriel García Márquez. 
  33. The Pillars Of The Earth: by Ken Follett. 
  34. David Copperfield: by Charles Dickens. 
  35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory: by Roald Dahl. 
  36. Treasure Island: by Robert Louis Stevenson. Status: I know the story, but have never actually read the book. I plan to remedy this.
  37. A Town Like Alice: by Nevil Shute. 
  38. Persuasion: by Jane Austen. Status: PC
  39. Dune: by Frank Herbert. Status: I may read this, but then again I may not.
  40. Emma: by Jane Austen. Status: PC
  41. Anne Of Green Gables: by LM Montgomery. Status: PC
  42. Watership Down: by Richard Adams. 
  43. The Great Gatsby: by F Scott Fitzgerald. 
  44. The Count Of Monte Cristo: by Alexandre Dumas. Status: Owned, need to re-read to see if I want to keep it
  45. Brideshead Revisited: by Evelyn Waugh. 
  46. Animal Farm: by George Orwell. 
  47. A Christmas Carol: by Charles Dickens. Status: PC
  48. Far From The Madding Crowd: by Thomas Hardy. 
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom: by Michelle Magorian. 
  50. The Shell Seekers: by Rosamunde Pilcher. 

That makes 30 out of the first 50 that I have read, and 3 more I plan to read.

I would be interested to hear what you think of this list and how many of the books you have read or want to read. If you want to, you can also leave a comment telling me why I should consider reading the rest.

20 October 2010

A good beginning

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck al all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
From We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

A very promising first sentence, don't you think?

19 October 2010

Meme: Top Ten Tuesday

The Top Ten Tuesday meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. If you like my list, visit the main site and click on to some of the other lists.

First I have some predictions: I predict that Fitzwilliam Darcy will appear on at least three lists and Rhett Butler on at least two. Lord Peter Wimsey and Mr. Rochester may appear as well, but I hope not Heathcliff. However, you will not find any of these well-loved gentlemen on my list ;-)

Here are 10 literary crushes of mine, past and present, platonic and romantic, in no particular order – except the first one, who can always make my knees tremble.

  • Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, from These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. I love to read about bad boy heroes, and this is the archetypal reformed rake.
  • William of Baskerville. This may seem like an unusual choice, but I was very taken with this character when I first read The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), because of his honesty and fairness and sharp intelligence. Any relationship would have to be a platonic one, as he is a monk. Disclaimer: This choice was not influenced by Sean Connery hotness.
  • Davy Dempsey. Another bad boy. I found him scary-sexy in Welcome to Temptation, but he had mellowed out and become rather attractive once he got his own book (Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie).
  • Sir Kenneth from The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott. A very old crush of mine – I think I was about 14 when I first read the book. It has a very romantic and highly implausible adventure plot, but oh boy, Sir Kenneth is the epitome of the chivalrous lover.
  • If I had to name one Austen hero I have had a crush on, it would be Mr. George Knightley from Emma. For his sense of humour, practicality and patience.
  • Roderick Alleyn, from the Ngaio March series, especially as he is in the early books before he meets Agatha Troy.
  • Commissaire Adamsberg from the books by Fred Vargas. He is often morose and depressed, but at his best he is funny and very, very sexy. Definitely influenced by Jean-Hugues Anglade hotness.
  • Inspector Montalbano from the books by Andrea Camilleri. I love a man who loves good food.
  • Roarke, from the In Death books by J.D. Robb. Yet another bad boy and an archetypal romance hero: sexy, rich and very intelligent.
  • Hugo Darracott, from The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer. For his naughty sense of humour.

18 October 2010

A Tourist in Africa

Originally published in October and November 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 37 in my first 52 books challenge. (I reworked no. 36 and posted it here).

Author: Evelyn Waugh
Year published: 1960
Pages: 160
Genre: Travel, non-fiction
Where got: National library

This is the second time I cheat and read an author I’ve read before. Early on in the challenge I reviewed a novel by Waugh, and now I’m reading one of his non-fiction books.

I had decided to read Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush as the travel book of the challenge, but then I came across this one. Because I have read very few travel books about Africa, I decided it would be in better keeping with my mission statement.

The Story:
This is Waugh’s journal of his two month’s stay in Africa in 1959. He escaped the English winter, feeling rather decrepit, and returned feeling much better after a sojourn under the African sun. Hating air travel, he took the long route, first by train to Italy and then by ship to Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania), stopping in Egypt, Kenya and Zanzibar on the way. The land journey took him around Tanganyika and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and he returned by ship from South-Africa.

This is of course, a travel diary, but it is edited and Waugh has clearly added things afterwards. Like most diaries that are written for others to see, it is impersonal, but Waugh’s sense of humour shines through. On the cover is a Waugh quotation: “As happier men watch birds, I watch men”, and he has, indeed, a good eye for human folly and idiosyncrasies.

His take on African history is interesting – he is obviously saddened by the treatment of the natives by outsiders but still manages to see the humour in some situations, like when discussing the theories about the origins of the Great Zimbabwe. At the time, many thought that the natives were simply too primitive to have been able to build such a structure, and Waugh subtly pokes fun at the theories. Although Waugh sometimes makes subtle fun of the people he meets, there is never any meanness in it, and his wit sometimes had me chuckling.

Rating: An interesting view of British Africa with some information on interesting places to visit. 3 stars.

16 October 2010

Top mysteries challenge review: Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Year of publication: 1926
Series and no.: Lord Peter Wimsey, # 4
Genre: Mystery, cosy
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Semi-pro
Setting & time: Rural England and London; contemporary

Lord Peter Wimsey returns home after a prolonged stay abroad to find that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested on suspicion of having murdered the fiancé of his sister, Lady Mary, at a hunting lodge in Yorkshire. Both Mary and the Duke show suspicious behaviour and clearly have something to hide, even from their clever brother, who has to find out what they were really up to on the night of the murder before he can find out what really happened.

This story has one of those wonderfully intricate puzzle-plots that I enjoy so much, besides featuring adventure, romance and humour and Sayers’ trademark high-quality writing style, not to mention great characters that seem to jump off the pages. This is a pre-Harriet story, and Peter is here still prone to play the upper-class fop and sometimes comes off as quite arrogant and even bitter. This really makes me wish that I had attempted to read the books in some semblance of the right order, because I think it would be quite fun to read the books to see how Peter develops and grows as a person through the books. But that may come later.

I found the descriptions of the House of Lords trial of the Duke quite fascinating, but seeing what a grand production such a trial seems to have been it is no wonder that the right of peers to be tried by the House has been abolished.

I am giving the book 4+ stars, for the combination of great plot, great writing and great characters. It only just misses getting 5 stars because I didn’t like it quite as well as Gaudy Night.

Books left in challenge: 74 (if that looks wrong and you think it should be 75: I miscounted)

Place on the list(s): MWA # 77
Awards and nominations: None I am aware of

15 October 2010

Friday night folklore: On the origin of Mermaids and Mermen

On the origins of the race of mermaids and mermen Icelandic folklore has is this story:

Once upon a time there was a king and his queen who had one daughter, an only child. When she was born the witches and sorceresses of the land gave her many good blessings, including beauty, riches and the promise of a good husband. But one of the witches was annoyed and jealous because of all the gifts heaped upon the child and cursed her, saying that she would turn into a sea-monster every ninth night after her marriage and she should live like this for three years so that none but her husband could find out and if he did find out, her freedom from the curse would depend upon him not revealing it to anyone, not being angered by it or stop loving her. But if one or more of these stipulations was not fulfilled, she must forever live in the sea and never be freed. But as some consolation she would have a such beautiful singing voice that all creatures who heard it would be soothed into sleep by it.

The princess grew up in her father’s palace, beautiful and happy and beloved by all, and when she was grown she was given in marriage to a fine prince, and then the curse struck. For two years she was able to sneak undetected from their bed every ninth night, but during the third year the prince noticed her frequent disappearances and started keeping a closer eye on her.

One night he followed her down to the sea and into a cave. When he came to the cave he saw her swimming in the water down below, with the tail of a fish from the legs down but completely human above. He then returned to the palace and went back to bed, but when she returned and tried to get into bed with him, he angrily called her a “disgusting worm” and ordered her to leave and never come back. So she returned to the sea, crying and sad and never stepped back on land. But she was pregnant when she left and gave birth to her babies in the sea, and from them all the merpeople are descended.

She is sometimes mentioned in old stories and is said to like putting men to sleep with her singing, and that she can sing any song except the Te Deum. Once she is said to have swum behind a ship, singing so beautifully that all the crew fell asleep, except one man who was an exceptional singer himself and sang all the songs with her. Finally he sang the opening of the Te Deum, but she could not sing it so she dived down and swam away.

14 October 2010

List love 2: Books people lie about having read

It is beyond my understanding why anyone would lie about having read a particular book when they haven’t, but clearly some people think that claiming to have read, say, Ulysses, is going to make others think they are intelligent, cool, sexy, or whatever.

While I can, up to a point, understand that people may be reluctant to admit that they haven’t read some of the classics, what I absolutely don’t get is people pretending to have read recent books that have not and may not become an accepted part of the literary canon.So what if you haven't read The Da Vinci Code? Believe me: The literary police are not going to swoop in and arrest you.

The danger in pretending to have read a book is of course that the person you are talking to just might have read the book and want to discuss it in depth. Even if you have read and taken to heart How to Talk about Books that You Haven't Read or memorised the Cliffs Notes, you may be found out sooner or later. Isn’t it just better to admit you haven’t read the book, even if it makes the other person think less of you? You could always just ask them to tell you why they think you should read it, and gain their respect by showing interest.

Anyway - thanks to a blogger on Open Salon I came across this list of books people pretend to have read, and found my hackles rising at the silly title of the piece, so I decided to prove the author wrong. Not only have I read three of them and parts of two and plan to read four more, but by publishing this I am proving that I do not pretend to have read the rest.

13 Books Nobody's Read But Says They Have:
  • The Canterbury tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. This I have read parts of and I am, by fits and starts, making my way through the rest.
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Haven’t read and am not interested in reading.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce. I own a copy and it’s on my TBR list. Some time or other I plan to make a challenge of reading it. The scary thing is that I have a book of annotations for it as well, and it’s bigger than the novel itself...
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I first read this (in translation) as a teenager, and now read it every other Christmas.
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. I have ambivalent feelings about this one. I may read it, but then again I may not.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I read (and enjoyed) this as part of a course on American literature, but I wouldn’t read it again.
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Have not read and don’t plan to read.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Never heard of it until I read the list.
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. This I have read, and plan to read again some time or other.
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I have read about half of the first volume, but gave up because I found the Icelandic translation unappealing. I plan to try the English translation next.
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. I own a copy and definitely plan to read it.
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. I don’t really know if I want to read this.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. One for the “when I am old and gray” list, or I might conceivably turn reading it into a challenge.

Just for fun:
A 2009 British poll of the top 10 books people lie about having read has War and Peace, Ulysses, A Brief History of Time and In Search of Lost Time in common with the above list. The others were:

  • 1984 by George Orwell, which I read of my own free will.
  • The Bible, which I have read in its entirety in two languages.
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. I suppose I should read it, but I have no plans to do so in the immediate future.
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. This is one I would like to read, but not before I have found and read a good history of the background events in the story.
  • Dreams from my Father Barack Obama. No plans to read this one.
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawking. Never heard of it until now.

Another British survey (from 2007) has War and Peace and 1984 in common with the above lists, but adds the following to the ranks:

  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkies. This I have read twice and listened to several times.
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I though just about everyone had to read this in English literature class. I did, and while I recognise its importance, I did not enjoy the experience.
  • Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. Have read, found it a total waste of time.
  • Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by J.K Rowling. This I have read.
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Have not read, may read, but then again I may not.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I thought those who did not have to read Wuthering Heights had to read this instead? I have read it (ages ago), and plan on re-reading it soon.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Hello! Why would anyone be ashamed of admitting they have not read this? I’m not. (I gave up, as a matter of fact).
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank. Read this ages ago.

13 October 2010

Does reading do this for you?

 've traveled the world twice over,
Met the famous; saints and sinners,
Poets and artists, kings and queens,
Old stars and hopeful beginners,
I've been where no-one's been before,
Learned secrets from writers and cooks
All with one library ticket
To the wonderful world of books.
Author unknown

12 October 2010

Now reading Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers had a way with words. Here is a sentence that says a lot:

"Lord Peter was awake, and looked rather fagged, as though he had been sleuthing in his sleep."

Here is an interesting piece of etymology: Did you know that the word "sleuth" comes from the Old Norse root "slóð", which meant "trail" or "spoor" and still has that meaning in modern Icelandic?

Meme: Top Ten Books I'll NEVER Read

This is another Top Ten Tuesday meme from The Broke and the Bookish.

My attitude to books may be generally described as “never say never”, so filling this list was a real challenge. The list actually covers more than 10 books, because rather than individual books, I mostly have genres and authors I don’t like reading. I tried to stay with books that are either considered to have literary merit or are bestsellers or considered "must reads". Starting with actual books, in no particular order:

1. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. One of the longest novels written in the English language, about a young woman whose virtue is under siege. It isn’t that its length is overly intimidating, but it seems to me that its fame these days is mostly due to its length.
2. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Experimental novels are fine, but I think reading Ulysses will be quite enough experimental Joyce for me.
3. Angelina: An unauthorised biography by Andrew Morton, and, for that matter, any modern celebrity biography or autobiography (ghost-written or not, with the possible exception of Stephen Fry). The latter generally glorify the subject, while the former often dish out so much dirt that one needs a shower after reading them. Besides, modern celebrities are so predictable.
4. Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. The mini-series was enough.
5. Hollywood Babylon II by Kenneth Anger. Read my review of the first volume to see why.
6. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. Hateful book, written by a hateful man, about a hateful subject.
7. Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews. The incest theme gives me the creeps.
8. Skýrsla Rannsóknarnefndar Alþingis um aðdraganda og orsök falls íslensku bankanna árið 2008 (The Report by the Special Investigation Commission of the Icelandic Parliament on the Prelude and Causes of the Collapse of the Icelandic Banks). At 2000 pages (and 9 volumes) it isn’t that long, but the chapters I sacrificed a weekend to translate into English (when I could have been having fun) were enough for me.
9. Anything by Danielle Steel. Ages ago, when I was quite young, I read and liked one of her books, The Promise, but several subsequent attempts to read more of her books showed that this book must have been a fluke. One of my worst reading nightmares is to be stuck in an airport lounge somewhere with nothing to read but Steele.
10. Any more Laurell K. Hamilton. The Anita Blake books jumped the shark in a big way for me when Anita started having sex with the monsters. It isn’t so much the monster sex iself that keeps me away, but rather than Hamilton did not give Anita a sufficiently good reason to go against her strongly stated principles.

Short stories 261-270

“The Patriarch by Colette. A story about a country doctor and his experiences that seems to be part of a longer story.

“Noah’s Ark”, by Jules Supervielle. PFS. An imaginative rendering of the story of Noah‘s ark. Recommended.

Fanny and Annie” by D.H. Lawrence. A story about choice and the lack of it.

The Voyage” by Katherine Mansfield. About a girl who has recently lost her mother.

“The Breakout” by Joyce Cary. About a man who has a breakdown. Or does he? Recommended.

“The Gioconda Smile” by Aldous Huxley. About love and infidelity.

“The Fly in the Ointment” by V.S. Pritchett. About the changelessness of human nature.

“Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” by Evelyn Waugh. A nasty little story about mistaken kindness. Recommended.

“Across the bridge” by Graham Greene. About the sad fate of an elderly criminal.

“Raspberry Jam” by Angus Wilson. About the cruelties of childhood.Recommended.

11 October 2010

Synir Duftsins

Originally published in October 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 35 in my first 52 books challenge.

As you can see below, this review was written before Arnaldur won the Gold Dagger award and the movie was made. This book - the first in the Erlendur series - has still not been translated into English, and probably never will. In the book, the cops are named Erlendur and Sigurður Óli, but they are really just stereotypes of the older, experienced cop and the by-the-book rookie, and have not been fleshed out like they are in the other books. In addition, the story has a strong science fiction element that was very relevant to a discussion of ethics in science that was going on in Icelandic society at the time, and would pretty much go over the heads of foreign readers unfamiliar with the situation.

English title (my translation): Sons of the Dust
Author: Arnaldur Indriðason
Year published: 1997
Genre: Crime
Sub-genre(s): Mystery
Where got: National Library

Before Arnaldur Indriðason wrote this book, original crime novels written in Icelandic were few and far between. It seemed as if the genre had no place in Icelandic reality, as big crimes here tend to be open and shut cases and murders are few. The feeling was that Icelanders simply couldn’t imagine Agatha Christie-style mysteries or Hammett-type hard-boiled crime taking place on their peaceful island. Then Arnaldur and another author, Stella Blómkvist (pseudonym), both published quite good crime novels in the same year, and the genre has been blossoming ever since.
Arnaldur’s books have been translated into several languages and he has twice won the Glass Key, the Crime Writers of Scandinavia Award for the best Nordic crime novel.

As far as I know, Synir Duftsins has not been translated into English, but his most popular book to date, Mýrin, is available from Amazon.com under the title Jar City.

The Story:
Two seemingly unrelated deaths occur in the same day: a psychiatric patient kills himself and an old man is found burned to death, apparently murdered. The suicide’s brother is struck by something he said just before he died, and starts investigating, and two detectives try to solve the murder case. The two cases soon turn out to be related: the younger man was a former student of the older, and the only (known) one of his male classmates still alive, the others having died young from mysterious heart attacks, drug overdoses and suicide. The deaths seem related to suspicious “nutritional” pills given to the classmates by the teacher one winter, and both the brother and the detectives want to find out what was really in those pills. When the brother receives an envelope with cassettes containing conversations between the two men from just before they died, the case breaks open and the investigation becomes centered on a pharmaceutical company. What they learn is beyond anything they could have imagined…

Technique and plot:
This is an obvious first novel. I would guess that 70% of it is dialogue, but even so it is quite good. The dialogue serves to carry on the story, much of which happens in the past. Rather than tell the past in flashbacks (there are some, but not many) Arnaldur has people tell about it in their own words. The language is somewhat over-literary, even for the elderly people who tell much of the backstory.

The two detectives are well-known prototypes: the tired and grumpy older man who gets by on experience and knowledge of human nature and doesn’t always follow procedure, and the ambitious young rookie who does everything by the book but isn’t so good with people, i.e. the typical pair of detectives that make a great team because they are so different from each other.

The story takes place in modern Icelandic society, which presents certain problems: everybody knows everybody and a certain type of reader will always try to guess who this or that person is based on. Arnaldur is dealing with some pretty big issues that have been discussed a lot in Icelandic society in recent years, like cloning and genetic research. He manages pretty well to create all new characters, institutions and companies, instead of falling into the trap of making them too similar to the real-life counterparts that they are inspired by, making this a kind of alternate reality that nevertheless is very realistic, at least in its descriptions of Icelandic society. The conspiracy plot is totally over the top and somewhat out of synch with the realistic tone of the rest of the book, but since this is a crime thriller and not a documentary, it is forgiveable.

A good beginning to a crime-writer’s career, and they keep getting better. 3 stars.

P.S. I read Mýrin (Jar City) yesterday, and it’s a definite 5 star read. The characters of the two detectives and the people surrounding them have developed and become more rounded and real, and there is no big conspiracy in this book like the previous two, rather it is a pure, tragic crime story.