Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just Finished: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I chose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, for the Children's/YA category of the Mixing It Up challenge.  I don't read much children's literature (I know, I should turn in my homeschooling card), although I do love many of the classics:  Little Women, The Secret Garden, Heidi, Black Beauty, Treasure Island.  On the children's shelves in our house are also (unread by me) Pinocchio, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Swiss Family Robinson, and Oz.  I chose Oz from among these for no particular reason except that it was on hand, and that I've always loved the movie. 

Happily, the movie seems to have followed the book pretty closely.  (It always irritates me when movies deviate too much from the books on which they are based.)  All my beloved characters are there; their personalities and their adventures are pretty much the same, with a few adventures that didn't make it into the movie. 

Mr. Baum's prose is straightforward and economical; nothing wrong with it, gets the job done, and lacks the flowery language and rhetorical flourishes I would have expected from a writer of the late Victorian era.  (Yes, I've been reading Dickens lately.)

Where he really shines is in his theme.  Each character is searching for something that he or she already possesses.  Each is looking for someone else to give it to them.  We, the reader, see that each has their heart's desire within them already.  On the journey to the Emerald City, we see examples of the Scarecrow's intelligence, the Tin Man's emotion, and the Lion's courage, as they help each other along the yellow road.  (If we have seen the movie, we also know that Dorothy has the power to go home any time she wants, via the magic shoes.)  When they finally meet the Wizard, he is only a man, and can give them nothing that they don't already have. 

And Baum does not belabor his theme, thank goodness.  It's all there in the unfolding of the story and we are not beaten over the head with exhortations to follow our dreams or be true to ourselves as if it were a Disney movie.  It's not about "going after what you want;" rather, it's about using your finest qualities in service of others.

Wednesday Verse

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
by W. B. Yeats

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with gold and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teasers:

"Congratulate me.  I am going to Oz to get my brains at last.  When I return I shall be as other men are."

"I have always liked you as you were," said Dorothy simply.

(From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum)


Friday, February 24, 2012

Just Finished: Voices From the Other World

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has an online book club wherein they specify a book that ties in with various works in the museum's collection.  You read the book, then bring it along for a docent-guided tour of the exhibits.  Book geek that I am, I was thrilled to learn of this.  The current selection is Voices From the Other World by Naguib Mahfouz, a collection of five short stories that retell Egyptian myths and folktales in a modern voice. 

All of the stories have a light touch.  Some are ironic, as "Evil Abroad," in which a magistrate is faced with the fulfillment of his greatest ambition:  evil and corruption cease to exist in his city.  Everyone is happy, safe, and morally upright. But what to do now that his life's purpose is gone?  Others, such as "The Mummy Awakens," are farcical.  In the moving (but still light) "A Voice From the Other World," a man dies suddenly and narrates his journey from embalming, through a vision of his family's future, to his final, joyful "sinking into Eternity."

Naguib Mahfouz, born in Cairo in 1911, has written dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.  I'm sorry to say I've never heard of this author, but I'll certainly be looking for more of his work;  I enjoyed this one very much.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012 February: Two Down, Ten to Go

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012 has finished Much Ado About Nothing.  Meatier than last month's choice (A Midummer Night's Dream), although still a comedy, this play gave us more to discuss.  Much more serious issues were at stake:  Claudio's willingness to publicly humiliate the woman he supposedly loved based on a bit of hearsay, the nature of marriage in renaissance Italy vs. here and now, the true nature of Beatrice's and Benedick's feelings for each other.  We also got a lot of enjoyment from the ongoing exchange of insults between those two--nobody can write insults like Shakespeare!  On the agenda for March:  The Tempest.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wednesday Verse

by John Updike

I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
     of the pleasures of hoeing,
     there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.

The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
     moist-dark loam--
     the pea-root's home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing.

How neatly the green weeds go under!
     The blade chops the earth new.
     Ignorant the wise boy who
has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Just Finished: Great Expectations

I read Great Expectations both to fulfill the Classics category of the Mixing It Up challenge, and because a new BBC miniseries production of it will be airing where I live in April.  Very excited about that.  I first read this book in high school (we won't say how long ago), and remember almost nothing from that reading except that I liked it.  I liked it again--why not?  It has everything I enjoy about Dickens.

The sense of place is all I could hope for, from the bleak marshes, to the village blacksmith's bare, plain home, to the eerie decay of Miss Havisham's mansion, to the bustle and corruption of the London criminal courts.  This will, I think, be the chief pleasure of watching it on TV. 

There are of course, the incredibly vivid characters--dear Joe and deranged Miss Havisham stand out in my mind, but there is hardly a character in the book, however minor, who is one-dimensional, whose motivations we don't get at least a glimpse of.  Even "Trabb's boy," annoyer of Pip in the early days, reappears in a whole new light at the end, unexpected and yet exactly right. 

And the writing itself is pure pleasure.  A random selection:  "I looked as grateful as any boy possibly could, who was wholly uninformed why he ought to assume that expression."  "If he had shown indifference as a master, I have no doubt I should have returned the compliment as a pupil; he gave me no such excuse, and each of us did the other justice."  "The white vapor of the kiln was passing from us as we went by, and, as I had thought a prayer before, I thought a thanksgiving now."  It's hard to find a sentence that isn't graceful and packed with nuance.

Great, great fun.

Wednesday Verse

by Langston Hughes

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Kids' Picks February 14

On the second Tuesday of the month,  5 Minutes For Books invites readers to share what their children are reading.   Let's see what's new...

Elder daughter (17):  In the middle of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.

Younger daughter (14):  Ever eclectic, she has temporarily (I hope!) abandoned the classics for "tons of fan-fic."  Mostly Phantom of the Opera-related fan-fic.  (She's currently obsessed with the Phantom.)  She's also still working through The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Elder son (11):  He's almost finished with Wolf Brother, the first in a series of six called The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver.  I confess that I pushed this series on him after I read her wonderful ghost story, Dark Matter, but he's enjoying it.  

Younger son (8):  Surprisingly, he's voluntarily reading some fiction.  I assigned him the first story from The Best Children's Books in the World, and he's been reading the rest of them on his own.  Each story is from a different country, appears in both English and its original language, and is beautifully illustrated.  His own choices from the library:  Astronauts by Allison Lassieur and Satellites by David Baker and Heather Kissock.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Just Finished: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain was my pick for the Science and Natural History category of the Mixing It Up challenge.  As an introvert extroardinaire (I'm an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs personality scale), I'm always drawn to books and articles about my kind.  Our culture considers introversion virtually a character defect, and it's nice to be reminded from time to time that one's personality type is just that--a position on a spectrum rather than a pathology.  Moreover, that "our" end of the spectrum is just as important and valuable to society as the other.

From Amazon:  "Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects. She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Theme Thursday: Hear, Listen

Theme Thursdays is a fun weekly event hosted by Reading Between Pages that will be open from one thursday to the next. Anyone can participate in it. The rules are simple:
  • A theme will be posted each week (on Thursday’s)
  • Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from the current book you are reading
  • Mention the author and the title of the book along with your post
  • It is important that the theme is conveyed in the sentence (you don’t necessarily need to have the word)
    Ex: If the theme is KISS; your sentence can have “They kissed so gently” or “Their lips touched each other” or “The smooch was so passionate”
This will give us a wonderful opportunity to explore and understand different writing styles and descriptive approaches adopted by authors.

Today's theme is HEAR, LISTEN.

My snippets:  

"And in her bosom I'll unclasp my heart
And take her hearing prisoner with the force
And strong encounter of my amorous tale."

(from Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare)

"When I had rung the bell with an unsteady hand, I turned my back upon the gate, while I tried to get my breath and keep the beating of my heart moderately quiet.  I heard the side door open, and steps come across the courtyard; but I pretended not to hear, even when the gate swung on its rusty hinges."

(from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday Verse

The More Loving One
by W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell.
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am,
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say,
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Just Finished: Der Vorleser

Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink is, in English, The Reader.  It was made into a movie a few years ago starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.  I should emphasize that I am not fluent in German, although I studied it in school, mainly because I have forgotten so much vocabulary.  When I read a book in German, I do it slowly and with a dictionary at my elbow.  I also do better if I have previously read the book in English. 

Der Vorleser isn't the first book I've read in German, but it's been the most challenging so far.  I started with Agatha Christies, because I'm so familiar with them that I practically have them memorized.  So it's easy to figure out what unknown words mean based on the context.  But my goal is to improve my German, reading if not speaking, and I wanted to read original German literature.  I started with Die Physiker (The Physicists) by Friedrich Durrenmatt, which is a short play, and not too difficult. (Funny and thought-provoking, too.)

So, having both seen the movie and read the book in English, I decided to try Der Vorleser.  Well, thank goodness it has short chapters--I could do a chapter a day, but it took upwards of an hour when I started (considerably less by the time I got to the end).  I expected to miss nuances and subtleties, reading without fluency.  And I did, some.  But surprisingly, I discovered that it's also possible to gain in some ways by reading in a second language, probably because you are forced to pay extremely close attention to every word if you must decipher sentence by sentence.

For example, in the middle section of the book, the narrator describes a troubling numbness he felt toward everything in his life during a certain period of years.  The word betauben (to deaden or anesthetize) was used repeatedly in several chapters.  For some reason, this word just wasn't sticking in my head, and I found myself looking it up again and again.  This section of the book didn't make a particular impression on me when I read it in English, and I passed through it quickly.  But while reading in German, repeatedly looking up betauben and reflecting on how it was used, I got a strong sense of the narrator's ennui at this period in his life.  And that made the final chapters almost devastating, because those are the chapters in which he feels emotion that actually shakes him, apparently for the first time since his youth. 

This type of thing happened more than once, and so I experienced the book more fully in some ways, reading it in its original language. It really makes obvious the drawbacks of reading anything in translation--and the huge benefits of taking a foreign language study all the way to literacy in that language, rather than just to mastery of grammar.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Just Finished: Einstein--His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson was my pick for the Biography category of the Mixing It Up challenge. 

From the jacket:  "...this is the first full biography of Albert Einstein since all of his papers have become available.  How did his mind work?  What made him a genius?  Isaacson's biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality.  His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom."

I rarely read biographies, but chose this one mainly because I had heard good things about Walter Isaacson, the author.  I was not disappointed.  Isaacson tells the story of Einstein's life in an engaging, affectionate way, examining both his fine qualities and his flaws, showing how each played its part in the course of his life.

One of the first things we learn about Einstein is that he had a pronounced dislike of authority, nationalism, and any kind of pressure to conform.  As a young man, he renounced his German citizenship to become a Swiss because he hated the Prussian militaristic culture.  His approach to his science reflected this trait, too--he spent his life bucking whatever the current trend of scientific thinking was.  This resulted early on in his stunning relativity theory, but seems to have been a handicap later in life, as he spent the rest of his life struggling to find what other scientists did not think possible or even necessary:  a unified theory that would reconcile relativity with the new field of quantum theory.  He bucked social trends as an American citizen too, refusing to cooperate with the McCarthy witchhunts, disgusted with attempts to curtail freedom of thought.

The allergy to authority went hand in hand with a strong sense of social justice. He consistently spoke against class distinctions, disparities of wealth, and racism.  He admired the abolition of social classes in the Soviet Union even while deploring its repressive government.  He publicly supported racial tolerance in America, offering the contralto Marian Anderson a place to stay in his own home when the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused to admit her.  He even wrote on behalf of the Arabs who were being displaced by increasing immigration to Palestine and later Israel.

Greatly concerned with humanity on a mass scale, Einstein was fairly detached in his personal relationships.  He became close to his elder son only late in life, after they both had emigrated to America.  Married twice and something of a womanizer, he seems to have resisted emotional commitments as he resisted other types of ties.  He had a lifelong pattern of dealing with family tensions by escaping into his scientific work.

Isaacson's book does what, for me, a biography should:  it reveals his character, shows how his work was informed by his character, and how both his work and his character were shaped by the times and places in which he lived.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wednesday Verse

by Jorge Luis Borges

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone

Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.

If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.

There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.

There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.

There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.

You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.

And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.

At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away;
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.