Saturday, December 27, 2014

December reading: The Oxford book of Ghost Stories, Are Women Human? A Jane Austen Education, Aesop's Fables, Dear Donald, Dear Bennett, Arthur Rackham

It's the end of the year and I have six books to review.   I have to drive to Florida tomorrow and I want these books shelved.  So here's a synopsis of each one.

The first one is a biography of one of my favorite illustrators.  I have a collection of fairy tales, Aesops's Fables and also an edition of Dicken's A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Rackham.  I read in his biography that C.S. Lewis loved him so I splurged and bought this book because of all the large prints of his illustrations.  Rackham illustrated Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland plus numerous fairy tales and other stories of the fantastical.  He often caricatured himself as a goblin or other weird and wonderful character in the illustrations he painted.  This book gives the usual biographical information:  where he was born, grew up, got educated, who he married, what children he had and how his career developed. 

In Dear Donald, Dear Bennett we have the letters of the two men who founded the book publishing company, Random House.  Donald Klopfer joined the Air Force and served overseas.  Bennett Cerf stayed home and ran the business while maintaining a constant correspondence with his partner and friend throughout the war.  The letters take place during WWII and show the profound affection and friendship these two had for each other.  The homesickness and concern for safety is only glimpsed and immediately laughed off but show the real concern and love these men had for each other. Through all the joking, jibing and detailed accounts of how their books were selling we learn a lot of about shrewd business acumen and how professionals were able to maintain a life long friendship while building a publishing empire during dark years.

Aesop's Fables are famous and after rereading them I appreciate why.  These stories are mostly told through animals but the morals are perspicacious.  The brief stories use a couple of formulas.  An animal, often a predator like a wolf or fox, tries to trick a goose, sheep or other potential prey to come into reach so they can devour them.  Of course they don't admit that.  They coach it in terms that indicate they "care" about them and wish to help them.  Depending on the story, the animal doesn't buy it or is deceived.  Each way a moral is told at the end.  Another type of story is one where might makes right whether you like it or not.  This is often illustrated through a lion who demands his unfair share of the spoils, even if another animal has worked for it.  If the weaker animal protests, he's killed.  This isn't moral, just an observation of life.  Another type is an animal acting foolishly by thinking too highly of himself, only to be humbled.  This edition is beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

This is mostly a delightful book.  William Deresiewicz intertwines his own life story and how his view of life and relationships were altered by reading the novels of Jane Austin.  He left his angry, pretentious "I'm an angst filled college student who only reads Vonnegut, Mailer, and any other dark, modern realist type author" attitude and began to emulate the charm he saw in the characters of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northhanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.  He came to understand that true love isn't a feeling but an act of the will and the fruit of a committed relationship, that what really counts isn't the loud and bombastic but in the little details of the every day, that real friendship can't be qualified by a bank account, glamor, sophistication or living in a cosmopolitan city. He studies each character in the novels and shares his own insight, which I enjoyed reading.  My only complaint is that he doesn't understand the important role sex has as the final and ultimate act of intimacy that defines marriage.  He delegates it to something on the same level as table tennis and insists that if Austen were alive today she probably would too.  So as charming and witty as I found his writing I wonder if he truly got Austen after all.

  This is an old favorite that I've read countless times for the past twenty years.  It's been a cold, rainy December so what better than to curl up with a hot cup of tea or coffee and read?  This anthology spans about a hundred and sixty years.  Some stories are scarier than others but all are flavored with the English culture-whether Victorian, Edwardian, WWII, or more modern.  They offer a nice spooky experience -whether on the English countryside in a haunted house or in the city being stalked by a murdered victim the protagonist thought he had left behind in his past.  Authors included are Sir Walter Scott, J.S. Le Fanu, F. Marion Crawford, Bram Stoker, Henry James, H.G. Wells, W.W. Jacobs, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, W. Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, Edith Whaton, Walter de la Mare and an especially disturbing psychological one by Charles Willams.  These aren't the only authors but probably the best known if you're a ghost, vampire or horror story connoisseur. 

And finally, a short work by Dorothy Sayers. 
Sayers was the only woman admitted into the Inklings and was great friends with C.S. Lewis.  She is mostly known for her Lord Wimsy Detective Stories and her translation of Dante's Inferno

This was a great book which contains two essays that Sayers gave concerning how women are viewed by both men and women.  The biggest thing I got out of her commentary -which is filled with rapier wit I might add- is that both male chauvinism and militant feminism have got it wrong because they insist on classifying women as a gender rather than as individuals.  I love music, art, math, engineering etc..because I'm a person who does so, not because I'm a woman.  There's interests and abilities I share with women, but there's many things I also share with men. In some ways Sayers is obviously speaking from a bygone time viewpoint.  The modern man wouldn't dare speak outside the politically correct dictates that today's culture imposes on him.  And personally I'm sick of being viewed as disadvantaged or as a victim because I'm a woman.  I find that just as demeaning and limiting as old fashioned chauvinism.  Until our work is seen as good work and not women's work (i.e. women's literature, women's art, a woman doctor, a woman scientist) women haven't really overcome bias.  

 Sayers also pointed out something I had not previously considered.  That men have stolen much of women's work because a lot of what is in the context of professional business was originally organized in the home (think the Proverbs 31 woman).  Business transactions, organizing agriculture, managing households became paying jobs outside the home, leaving women little else but cooking and cleaning.  Those things can be dull, although the raising of children never can be if you put your heart in it.  But I'm with Dorothy Sayers, I celebrate my life-not as a women but as a child fearfully and wonderfully made by God. 

That's it for this year.  I'll see you all in the next.  Have a wonderful holiday and many blessings to you all for the upcoming year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner translated by Benjamin A. Smith

I'm noticing that a growing trend among Christians is to forgo the celebration of Christmas.  I once belonged to a church that gave the holiday barely a nod.  No carols, no advent, a scant Communion service on Christmas Eve.  More than one friend informed me that the holiday has become too secular, too materialistic and its practices are more pagan than Christian.

This was all surprising, even shocking, to me because I grew up in a family that attended a church where the entire church year was celebrated.  Advent started the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was the day we put up the Christmas Tree, Nativity set, and all our other decorations.  Each Sunday we lit the advent candles, read the scripture for that week and sang carols.  We weren't taught to believe in Santa Claus, but we didn't care because presents are presents and coming from our relatives rather than the Jolly Old Elf was just fine with us.

After I left my parents' home I came to realize that not everyone was raised as I was.  This caused me to reevaluate my own customs and traditions.  Why do I celebrate Christmas?  There's no mandate in the Bible for it.  The only occasion that is explicitly called on to be remembered is the Lord's Supper and Christ's death and resurrection.

So why do we celebrate Christmas?  Are most people actually celebrating the Mass of Christ?  Why put a tree in our house and cover it with ornaments?

Because of my questions I have been researching the origins of many church traditions.  During this Christmas season I read a book about the Christmas tree.

Bernd Brunner is a German freelance writer who, according to the dust cover inset, "explores the intersection of cultural history and the history of science."

In Inventing the Christmas Tree, Brunner traces all the threads back to the earliest records of people decorating trees and keeping them in their houses.  The earliest record is 1414 in Estonia where a tree was set up in front of the town hall for a dance.  Another is in 1419 where the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices saw a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit.

At first the Church prohibited the cutting of trees for Christmas, but eventually the nobility and bourgeoisie began the practice of putting trees up and decorating them with presents in the form of cookies, nuts and fruit.  Later, the poorer classes also began to put trees in their houses as well.

The Evergreen was chosen because of its perennial greenness.  Greenery was celebrated prior to the Christmas tree or even Christianity.  The ancient Romans also celebrated with greens.  Still the color represented a belief in the eternal.  Eternal life, the immortal soul.  Candles were added as "stars".  This symbolized the Holy Spirit or the light that came into the darkness (John 3:19).

What I didn't know was that for many years Christmas trees were considered Protestant (the Luther tree) and even into the late nineteenth century Catholic aversion to Christmas trees was so strong they called it the "Tannenbaum Religion".  In 1909 two Benedictine monks spoke of the "fraud of the Tannenbaum tradition" in their Lexicon for Preachers and Catechists.  Anti-tree sentiment eventually lessened and I daresay that today there are as many Catholic households that contain Christmas Trees as Protestants in the United States.  It is still uncommon in Catholic countries.  In these countries small Nativity sets predominate.

Tree decorations also changed through out the years.  At first they were adorned with candles and all sorts of edible goodies such as sweets and fruits.  Sugar cookies were shaped to look like knights, birds, hearts, flowers or pretzels.  By the nineteenth century decorations with Christian symbols became common.

Silver thread also adorned the trees, some say this was to represent snow, others say angel hair, still others as a reminder of summer or of the threads that were woven into church vestments in the Middle Ages.

The final section of the book describes different tree stands, the practice of putting presents under the trees and the different sort of trees people choose to best represent their families beliefs and needs.

The book is illustrated with Vintage post cards of the turn of the last century.  All in all a very charming book.

So should we celebrate Christmas?  Are we celebrating the pagan past?  Are we being greedy for presents (I plead guilty on that one), has it become too secular?

I can only answer for myself.  I am an old fashioned traditionalist.  No one has to celebrate Christmas if they don't want to, but as for me and my house we will remember the birth of Christ through our cultural heritage and traditions.  Merry Christmas and God bless you all!


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Seven Good Years and other stories of I.L. Peretz translated and adapted by Esther Hautzig


This book is a collection by one of the master Yiddish writers, I.L. Peretz.  I love folklore and don't have many of the Jewish culture.  This book was adapted for children but they bring to life the culture and the plight of the 19th century European Jew.  

Most of the stories deal with a man and wife with their family dealing with dire poverty in a European village.  Often a supernatural being, an angel, the prophet Elijah, a magic Rabbi or elderly, pious lady who is now dead comes to visit and rewards the family's piety with gold, money or prosperous circumstances.  

Sometimes they are tested as in The Seven Good Years.  A man, Tovye, is very poor but meets Elijah, who gives him seven years of plenty.  Tovye laments to his wife what does it matter to be prosperous for seven years when they will only return to poverty afterwards.  His wife, Sarah, insists that they be grateful for what they have now and not worry about what comes next.  At the end of the seven years, Tovye find that his wife has been a wise and good steward with their money and saved up so they still have good fortune.

The stories show the mettle and inner strength of these families as in Peace at Home.  Chaim is only a porter with no money but he and his wife, Hannah, still adore each other and don't consider their poverty.  When Chaim asks the Rabbi what he must do to enter into paradise, the Rabbi gives him several instructions:  Learn the Torah, read the Talmud, pray ardently- all of which Chaim insists he is unable to do.  The Rabbi says he must then serve water to the scholars.  Chaim is delighted!  This he can do.  The Rabbi says that he will then be able to enter paradise.

But what about Hannah? Chaim wants to know.  The Rabbi informs him that Chaim's wife will be his footstool in heaven.  Chaim returns home, throws his arms around his wife and insists that she will never be his footstool.  God will allow them to be equals in heaven.

I find this story interesting because I ask myself, is Peretz denying the authority of the Rabbi?  Or can Rabbi's teaching be questioned, unlike the Pope's who Official Catholic doctrine asserts is Christ's spokesman on earth? I'm not familiar enough with Jewish custom to know.  It would seem that Peretz certainly feels the injustice of so unfair a proclamation.  Of course, as a Christian (and a woman) I have Galatians 3:28 to fall back on (God is not a respecter of persons, all are one in Him.)

Every story seems to contain a test for the protagonists.  In their harsh circumstances will they fall  into temptation or rise above it and do the right thing?  The supernatural visitors are not known until afterwards, thus invoking the lesson that we do not know who is watching us so don't be good for the praise of others but because it is the right thing to do.

One story I found disturbing was The Poor Boy.  A beggar boy approaches a man at a soup kitchen for a little change in order to pay for a night's shelter.  The man harshly turns the boy away.  He hasn't hardly any money for himself.  Then he is plagued by guilt.  He searches for the boy but can't find him.  The man argues within himself.  He should have helped the boy. No! He shouldn't, the boy will never learn to help himself.  He hasn't any money, he should trust God's provision and give what he has.  He even begins to regard himself as the murderer of the boy because of his neglect.  Back and forth he debates.  Finally he returns to the soup kitchen where he is again approached by this poor child.  He gives the boy a ten cent piece.

The next day the boy asks again and this time he turns the boy away.  He leaves the soup kitchen ashamed of himself.  He remembers his late grandfather's words:  "He who is not pious lives with heartache and dies without consolation."

All of the stories end with some kind of moral.  Since none of the stories sugar coat the hardship the families endure, the message must be to find that inner strength that will see one through to be good and moral no matter what.

This differs somewhat from the Christian message which states "Through Christ I can do all things Who gives me strength (Phillipians 4:13)." These stories seem to indicate that the Lord rewards those who do right, but without an intimate relationship with Him. 

The stories are illustrated with the soft charcoal drawings of Deborah Kogan Ray which give them an added poignancy.  A very nice collection of interesting stories that provide an insight into traditional European Jewish culture.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Moritmer


Years ago I used to watch the BBC series Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS.  I think my favorite part was the theme music by John Horovitz.  Rumpole had his own charm, however.  He was the underdog in a system filled with twits and crooks.  Even though he usually comes out on top he goes through a lot of twists and turns to get there.  Of course, there'd be no story if he didn't.

And that is what holds the viewers' and readers' interest.  Not the plot, they're simple enough, but the sparring of wits between Rumpole and the other casts of characters, some who give as good as they get.  I find this far preferable to other British comedies, where, as funny as the heroes (Little Britain) and heroines (Catherin Tate) are, the objects of their wit are little more than cardboard stage props who stare blankly as they are used as a verbal punching bag.  This is true of the first couple of seasons of House.  Hugh Laurie's character got zinged as often as he zunged.  This is not true of later seasons, hence my loss of interest in the show.

But back to the topic at hand.  At one of the many book fairs I'm addicted to attending, I found a novel of Rumpole, so I dug deep into my pocket for a quarter, paid the grateful library staff member ("Our wing of President biographies is saved!") and took it home to read.

What I liked:  The writing.  John Mortimer is as fluid a writer as I've read.  Reading the book was like riding a inflated innertube down a semi-rapid river.  Funny?  Yes.   Satirical?  Very.  I have no idea whether Mortimer's parody of a judicial system run by power grabbing simpletons is accurate (he was a barrister for a while) but it certainly is scathing.

I also like Horace Rumpole.  He is not the all wise oracle who sets the rest straight.  He's really not all that scrupulous himself.  He prefers to make little money getting petty crooks, whom he knows are petty crooks, out of jail, to advancing to circuit judge or something his wife ("She who must be obeyed") and friends would like to see him do.  His reasons are apparently that the judicial system is a group of dishonest power mongers.  Him?  Why he'll just stick to rescuing guilty car thieves and house burglars because he has his self-respect to preserve, or whatever internal reason motivates him.

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror was  written recently after 9/11 and Mortimer no doubt wished his writing to be current and relevant so he decided to write a book about a Pakistani living in London who is accused of terrorism.  I suppose Mortimer's point is to calm everybody down,  to stop looking at our eastern brothers and sisters as dangerous world up-heavers.  The problem is he uses such annoying stick puppets to do it.

Everyone in the book knows this man is a terrorist.  Why?  Because he's from Pakistan, doggone it! From Rumpole's wife to the other lawyers, the judge... EVERYbody knows this man is dangerous because aren't all swarthy members of the human race dangerous? This is the pugnacious attitude everyone character in the book except Rumpole adheres to. The only clear head is Rumpole who chooses to defend the man.

The tale weaves in and out and takes the reader down a pretty good path of uncertainty.  Is the man a terrorist?  Isn't he?  You just don't know till the very end.  The plot development is very good and if the supporting cast could have been portrayed as rational human beings I could have enjoyed the story far more than I did.  As it is I was left with a fifty-fifty feeling that I'll pick up another Rumpole book.

There are hundreds of Rumpole books and Mortimer eventually earned himself a knight hood.  I'd like to read some of his earlier works and see if they contain the same politically correct slant or not.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Avianus tranlated by David R. Slavitt

We're all familiar with Aesop's fables but I had never heard of Avianus before so when I came across a copy I snatched it up and read it.

The Roman writer Avianus lived four centuries after Christ. By this time the Roman Empire had become the Holy Roman Empire, but Avianus was still a pagan and his fables reflect his personal beliefs.  His stories are a little longer than Aesop's but never more than a page long and are as often as not about people as animals and their dealings with each other as well as the usual interference-for good or bad- with the ancient Roman gods.  I did not realize how tenaciously some people still held on to those pagan beliefs, even centuries into the A.D. years.

The stories are pithy and can be extremely sarcastic at times.  They are not really moral lessons for children so much as social commentaries for adults.  They can also be witty and poignant.  One such fable is of a cute baby contest that Jupiter held on earth.  For a joke he chose the monkey's baby.  Everyone laughed at such an ugly little baby being chosen.  The mother monkey cherished her baby all the more, proclaiming Jupiter's judgement as affirmation of her own love for her child.  Everyone laughed even more but then fell silent "in awe of such blind passion."

Another fable goes as such:

Ooh la, la!  The leopard preens, 
glides along, sashays, parades
its grand rosettes. No jungle scene's
so grand as when a leopard's there,
with its gorgeous pelt and that debonaire
bon ton.  "The lion's beauty fades,

to a tawny insignificance
in comparison," the beast maintains,
so pleased with himself.  But then, by chance, 
a fox pops up to say, "Come, come, 
you're handsome enough.  But dumb, dumb, dumb!
What are good looks compared with brains?"

The Translator David R. Slavitt takes some license in translating the fables and putting them in poem form.  He also doesn't shy from using modern vernacular and idioms.  So unless we can read Latin we'll never know how accurate his translation is, however, I think the spirit of Avianus' work must come through.  At least someone's quick, penetrating spirit does.  We'll have to trust Slavitt that it is Avianus' wit and candour but perhaps colored by Slavitt's own.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times by George Sayer

Unlike the biography of Alistair McGrath, this biography was written by a former student and personal friend of Lewis.  No doubt because of that, the tone is much softer, less clinical, but fortunately not tainted with any subjective sentimentality.

Sayer studied under Lewis at Oxford where he also knew J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was a member of his inner circle and was his friend throughout his life.

While Sayer gives a lot of the same information as any other biographer as far as a chronology of his life goes, he also gives a much more personal touch to those facts.  His writing is much more like a story narrative so one feels as though they are reading a novel than nonfiction.

Sayers goes farther back into Lewis' ancestry.  He allows us to see what sort of families produced his parents, going back to the great grandfather and how they came to Ulster.

That is one thing this biography have shown me is that Lewis was an Irishman.  He seems so English and I suppose it is because he was a Protestant but also because at such a young age he moved to Oxford and lived there the rest of his life.  Unlike other Irish writers, such as Yeats, Joyce or Heaney, we get no Irish flavor in his writing.

Lewis' mother was kind and loving.  Lewis and his brother Warnie would refer to each other as "Archpigiebotham" (Warnie) or "APB" and "Smallpigiebotham" (Jack) or "SPB" because their mother would often warn them that if they didn't improve their behavior she would "spank them on their piggiebottoms." They used these nicknames for the rest of their lives.  Warren would refer to Jack as his "beloved SPB."  Both she and their father read voraciously to them.  Books spilled out of every nook and cranny.

A cute exchange with his father is recorded.  Jack sat down in front of his father in his study and informed him that he had a prejudice against the French.  When his father asked why, Jack crossed his legs put his fingertips together and said, "If I knew why, it would not be a prejudice."

When Lewis was ten his mother died of abdominal cancer.  His father, who had just lost his father and brother, had no emotional endurance for two young boys.  They were carted off to boarding school in England.  This tearing away from his family, while still in the throes of grief to go to another country far from home to a boarding school that proved to pattern itself after Oliver Twist, was instrumental in Lewis rejecting God.

Unlike McGrath, Sayers does not believe that Lewis was too shy or sensitive and needed to "buck up".  He sites sources that show the headmaster at this school was not only abusive, but insane.  This all played major roles in forming Lewis' beliefs.

Luckily he eventually wound up with a personal tutor, Kirkpatrick.  This was instrumental in developing Lewis' writing skills.  Eventually he wound up at Oxford but how he gained entrance is interesting.

In order to be admitted into Oxford, one has to pass not only the exams in subjects you excel at, such as languages, you had to pass all exams.  Lewis was hopeless as mathmatics and his scores prevented him entrance.  However, by serving in the military during WWI, he became exempt from passing the math tests and was admitted after all.  Can you imagine one of England's most profound writers and apologists almost not making it because he was no good at math?  It gives me encouragement since I am a math retard.

As with McGrath's biography, we learn of Lewis' relationship with Mrs. Moore, their residence at the Kilns, although Sayers plainly states that whether there was anything other than a mother- son relationship is a mystery.  He might have been covering up or he might be simply telling what he knows.

A couple of chapters are devoted to his war work, his radio broadcasts and also his writing of the Narnia Chronicles.

Sayers descriptions of Joy Davidman differ somewhat than McGrath's as well.  According to Sayers, Jack did develop love for Joy and he didn't marry her against his will, only to discover true love at the end.  They had a wonderful, loving relationship, even though she was a typical loud, brassy New Yorker.  Sayers goes into more detail of the development of that relationship and focuses a little more on Joy's desperate love for Jack.

We all know of Lewis' conversion which is faithfully recorded and the rest of his life.  What I enjoyed about this biography was the obvious warmth and, yes, joy that it exudes as it should when one is writing about a beloved friend.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Week Like Any Other Novellas and Stories by Natalya Baranskaya

Natalya Baranskaya is considered one of the Soviet Union's finest short story writers.  Most of her work was written in the 1960's but were eventually translated into English after the Soviet's fall.

A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories is a collection of short stories. They are mostly about women and their lives in Soviet Russia.  It's important to remember she wrote these stories and they were popular in the Soviet Union during her lifetime.  Therefore don't expect any commentary on the harshness of living under a totalitarian regime.

Nevertheless, she does manage to convey the challenges people had trying to combine the ingredients every human wants for a meaningful life:  work, family, friendships.  Her writing is fluid and funny at times but mostly poignant.  It occurred to me that these stories couldn't really be classified as propaganda pieces because they don't spout tired cliches about how blissfully utopian life is under Communist rule.  I wonder if because, living inside that world, Branskaya thought she was presenting an idealistic life without realizing how hard that life was compared to Western countries.

In the first story, the best one I think, A Week Like Any Other, the narrator, a young woman, describes each day and hour of her week.  The pressures of getting up, getting the kids ready for school, breakfast for everyone, rush to work, rush to lunch, rush home to make a late dinner, get kids to bed, start over.

Inside that framework we see the woman's relationship with her husband --strained-- her children--neglected, although no more than any child who spends most of his childhood in daycare--her co-workers, the pressures to succeed and not miss any work regardless of her health or children sick.  She stays late, perpetually trying to get on top of her work, never quite succeeding.  

The story sounds tedious, but it is really quite interesting.  You are the invisible party to her life.  Sympathizing with her kids as they cry for her, hoping she and her husband stick it out, hoping she gets her work done and not get fired.

The other stories are shorter and perhaps not as interesting other than they show life in the Soviet Union.  One of the stories is much like the first one except it is told from a man's perspective.  A man who is trying to get ahead at work but is having to kow tow to ambitious bosses, watch what he says or how he reacts so there isn't a government investigation, and finally having to hide in exile until different leaders come into power that make it safe for him to return to work. 

  The government inspectors are not presented as people to be feared but rather as father figures who "take care" of everyone to make things right.  Nevertheless, there is an element of fear in knowing that there is an umbrella of authority watching every trite thing you do.  

I'm surprised the author got away with exposing such obvious intrusive tactics at the hands of the government.  Maybe this kind of intrusion was so normal under Soviet policy that it occurred to neither her or government censors there was anything wrong or abnormal about it.

What disturbed me was noticing how not very different life in America has become with all our "accountability" to government regulations.  We're not too far behind totalitarian regimes.

The remaining stories are about young women in love, not always requited, a young girl who wants to live with her father instead of her mother until she realizes he has mistresses, and a girl with a bad reputation in her village and how she copes with it, also how she causes it.

Each story provides a colorful view of Russian/ Soviet culture.  I don't know if I would read anything else by the author but I did enjoy this collection. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories edited by Alan Ryan

As I said in the previous post, even though these book reviews are being published in November, these are the stories I read throughout the month of October.  Autumn is the perfect season for scary stories, although I suppose the dark wintry days and nights in January would also suffice.

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories is another anthology of stories dating from 1816 (The Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron) to 1984 (Bite Me Not by Tanith Lee).  If one starts reading at the beginning and works his way to the end, he can see a transformation of the idea of Vampirism and the stories change accordingly.

Lord Byron wrote his fragment as a part of the contest that also included Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.  Whether Byron's story would have ultimately beat Shelly's will never be known because he quickly lost interest in writing it and took off for Europe with his companion, John Polidori.  This friendship deteriorated as well and Polideri and Byron parted ways on such acrimonious terms that Polideri wrote a Vampire story to its completion and to anyone who has read it, it's obvious who the Vampire is.  Hint:  Mysterious aristocrat appears at all the wealthy parties, seduces woman, and destroys their lives.  Not because he's a playboy, but because he's a Vampire(!) and sucks their blood for a living.

This collection also includes Good Lady Ducayne, Carmella, For the Blood is the Life as well as M.R. James An Episode of Cathedral History.  All of which deservedly have their place in the Hall of Greatest Vampire Stories Ever Told and been reviewed in my previous post.  That is the difficulty with anthologies.  One tends to come across the same tight circle of stories by the same authors.

 M.R. James' in 1919.  After that there is a jump of some years to 1931 and the stories develop into Science Fiction.  No longer is the Vampire simply evil.  He now is a predator, perhaps from another planet or a spiritual predator.  This last type is in perfect keeping with the older ones that were allegories of good vs. evil or the Christian being attacked by Satan.

The best example of the latter is The Mindworm (1950) by C. M. Kornbluth.  His vampire feeds off people's thoughts but is waylaid by a surprisingly old fashioned method. An example of the former would be Shambleau.  It takes place on another planet where a spaceman Spiff type character meets a strange woman creature who turns out to have her roots in the legend of Medusa.

I must confess the last few stories didn't interest me at all.  They were written after 1950 and have a definite modernist viewpoint.  By that I mean that the vampire is no longer a bad person.  Oh, he or she still preys on people, sucks their blood and all that but now it is an expression of their love. Or simply their nature and since right and wrong doesn't exist anymore, who are we to judge? The straw characters who are set up to judge in these stories are very stupid, narrow minded people indeed.  At least that's how they're made to look in these stories.

  I think one of the best stories is Carl Jacobi's Revelations in Black.  A man finds an old book in a bookstore, brings it back to his apartment to read it but finds that by reading it, he has unbound the "people" that were imprisoned by it.  I like the gradual revelations the story produces and the imagery it provides.  The man's escape is very narrow and exciting for the reader.

The editor provides a brief biography of each author and other works they wrote.  As a result I've enlarged my library-especially my Kindle- with more collections by these same writers.  The good news is because of the age of these writers most of their works are in public domain.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard

It's that time of the year again when I looooove to read spooky stories.  Even though most of these stories will be posted after Halloween, I read them during the month of October.  Anyway, I think cold wintry months are the perfect time to read scary stories. 

The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories does not have a large selection but they were well chosen.  These stories are mostly of the traditional: vampires symbolize evil that attempts to seduce humans to damnation.  Each story is developed along the lines of a predator, the vampire, stalking their prey in order to maintain their own earthly existence while dooming others to the same fate.

The vampire myth provokes a lot of questions.  In the Bible Satan is described as a "raging lion seeking whom he may devour." (1 Peter 5:8)  His own eternal destruction is pending and he rages against it by attempting to turn as many people away from God before that time comes.  The epitome of railing against hopelessness and striving to destroy.

The legends of vampirism, however they originated, came to become metaphors of this spiritual battle.  That's one of the reasons why I enjoy them.  The other is because a well written spooky story is just plain exciting.

Authors include Sheridan Le Fanu.  His Carmella is here.  Carmella is probably one of the best written vampire stories ever.  It is not long but very creepy.  It is told in first person narration by a young, lonely girl who develops a friendship with another girl.  Le Fanu uses the writing strategy called first person narrator, audience omniscience.  This is where the narrator is unreliable but the reader can see what's going on.  You want to dive in the book and save the person from what you can see is about to destroy them.  

This is true for the narrator in Carmella.  She informs the reader of facts that allow them to form conclusions even though she seems unable to form those same conclusions.  I don't want to give the story away.  Just know it is a tale of high suspense.

Good Lady Ducayne is different from the others because it takes place in the 19th century in New England.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon writes using colloquial dialect, giving the story an "Americana" feel. It's hard to believe it is a vampire story.  In fact the word "vampire" is never used.  A woman, Lady Ducayne, lives in a house alone, does absolutely nothing for herself, yet manages to get men to marry her and women of the village to do all her cooking and cleaning.  Every last person who helps her gets sick and dies.  It takes way too many incidents of this type to happen before finally no one in the village will help her. 

Other stories are F. Marion Crawford's For the Blood is the Life.  It takes place in Italy and involves a poor gypsy girl who is murdered but comes back as a vampire.  She waits for a young man who passes by on a certain road each day.  He has just lost all his money and friends and must now work hard all day and return to his lonely house each night.  The young man knows this woman is evil but the temptation is too strong.  I think in this case the temptation is that he has been utterly rejected by everyone else and a person will accept evil love if wholesome love is not available.

A couple of the stories are very Victorian, in that they are more melodramatic than scary, but E.F. Benson's The Room in the Tower is one of my favorites.  The first person narrator, a man, has a recurring dream throughout his life that finally comes to terrifying fruition.

The only one I didn't really care for was Guy de Maupassant's story, The Horla.  The Horla was more in line with the science fiction approach to the supernatural.  Which is to say, they write stories explaining how what we take to be supernatural has a natural explanation: like, say, aliens.  (That was sarcasm, by the way.) The Horla is a superpowerful being that is higher up on the food chain than humans.  Therefore it is not immoral for them to prey on us.  Well, according to Maupassant.  If one believes humans are made in the image of God and therefore precious to him, it's called murder.

The final story is a narration about a supposedly authenticated vampire occurrence.  This I found not too interesting either.  While I enjoy the metaphor of good vs evil, I'm not going to lose sleep over the possibility that vampires exist.  

This is the first of several "spooky" books I am going to review.  I hope I entice you to read some of them.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

This is the first book I've read by Malcolm Gladwell but I have a couple more in cue.  I hope they are all as interesting as this one.

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker and is known for seeing common themes from a unique angle.  What the Dog Saw is a collection of essays about a variety of subjects.  Many of them informative about things I never really wondered about before but found interesting all the same.

Part one is about different people who became successful commercially by being the first to think of marketing something no one else considered.  The first essay is about Ron Popeil's development of a commercially available rotisserie machine.   The second is about the Heublein Company developing a variety of mustards when there was originally just the yellow option. Other essays include the lady who made bleaching hair acceptable to the common housewife and fascinating discoveries about birth control, pregnancy and breast cancer rates.  That last one was especially interesting.  Apparently the less periods you have, such as when you're pregnant, the lower risk you have for developing breast cancer.  The last is probably the most interesting.  It is about the "dog whisperer".  A man, Cesar Millan, who is called in to train spoiled, mean dogs.  I learned a lot about my own dog's behavior.  My husband, Josh, now uses the "nip" on my dog Odie, to correct his behavior.

The second part is about law breakers:  Enron, helping the homeless by providing them homes because it's cheaper than putting them in jail, how ineffective mammograms are and just when exactly is something plagiarism and is it always bad?  The most interesting of these essays for me was The Art of Failure, why some people choke and blow it, even when they are experts at their field.  The last chapter is also interesting because Gladwell shows how major mess ups like the Challenger Explosion cannot be traced to any one cause but a number of unrelated incidents that make it impossible to circumvent such accidents.

The last part is about intelligence and how people use it.  One interesting chapter was about so called "experts" who supposedly can predict finding criminals.  How do people hire the right person, how accurate is criminal profiling and "What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime."  Being a dog person, I especially liked that last one.

In all of these essays, Gladwell provides thought-provoking observations that cause the reader to rethink a variety of attitudes that he or she takes for granted as well as provide information for the origins of other things that I personally had never pondered but enjoyed learning about.

I look forward to reading my other Gladwell books.  He also has some interesting speeches on youtube.

Malcolm Gladwell's speech at Googles Zeitgeist

Monday, October 20, 2014

Log Cabin Deep in the Heart of Texas Honeymoon chapter One

After getting married June 28th Josh and I left Longview for Central Texas.  We drove down to about twenty miles south of Austin, off the beaten tracks onto a ranch where we spent a couple of days in a log cabin.  It was built in 1840.  The owner had found it abandoned on some property out in west Texas and brought it back.  He and his wife renovated it.  He added a iron wrought roof, put electricity and air conditioning in it but hid everything so the look is primitive but with all the comforts of our modern time.

His wife filled the house with period furniture and antiques.  All the lights were original oil lamps that were adapted for electricity.

I must admit that the nights were very dark and a little spooky.  We would sit out in a swing in the lawn and see wild hogs running around the house.  Luckily the cabin was surrounded by an old wooden fence.

It was peaceful sitting on the swing at night listening to the night sounds.

Strictly speaking, our log cabin was a bread and breakfast.  We arrived to see the table and refrigerator stocked with all sorts of treats like muffins, cereal, cookies and milk.  The refrigerator is hidden beneath the curtain dress around the sink, in the upper right hand corner of the above photo.

This is the staircase to the second floor.  The above photo shows the door to the stairwell.  Below you can see the stairs which are little more than a ladder nailed to the wall.

The first night we stayed in the upstairs bedroom but it was too inconvenient having to go up and down through the night (something I am prone to do, plus it was scary- was the ax murderer waiting below?)

The following photos are of the bedroom on the second floor.

Downstairs kitchen and living room.

The animals were used to people.  Once we brought oats for the donkeys but they became too aggressive.  It's not fun being chased down the road by donkeys, even if they were little.

In walking distance from the cabin was a river.

All in all.  The couple of days we stayed there were very peaceful.  Much needed after all the hectic preparations for a wedding.  The rest of our honeymoon was spent in Europe.  I'll show those photos in the future.