Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ferdinandus Taurus - Munro Leaf

"Olim in Hispania erat taurulus nomine Ferdinandus."

Well, right away I must confess that my Latin is not nearly good enough to read this book unaided.  I can read short paragraphs about Caesar fighting barbarians and Roman generals, but that's about it.  However, the dictionary at the back of this book came to my aid as did other resources.  Honestly, I confess though, it took me ages to read this.

Almost everyone, I think, knows the Story of Ferdinand, the young bull who lives in Spain and would like nothing better than to sit in his meadow and to smell the flowers.  Yet when a bumblebee inopportunely stings him, just as some matadors are checking out bulls to take to Madrid to the fights, things go terribly wrong.  Ferdinand is mistaken for a magnificent fighter and is dragged off to the bullfights.  But our intrepid hero will not give in, no matter how many banderillos or picadores or matadores taunt him to fight. No, Ferdinand stays true to his placid nature and simply sits and smells the flowers. Finally he is sent back to his meadow and he is free.

And since this book is set in Spain, what better tribute than to read it in Spanish?  So that's what I did after my foray into it in Latin.  "Había una vez en España un torito que se llamaba Ferdinando."

This book was published in 1936, nine months before the civil war broke out in Spain, and was seen as a promotion of pacifism.  Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator condemned it as propaganda, as did Hitler, who banned the book in Nazi Germany.  In contrast, the book was lauded by the political left; Gandhi claimed it was his favourite book, and it was the only non-communist book allowed in Poland by Joseph Stalin.

I did a comprehensive analysis of The Story of Ferdinand in English on my children's book blog.  The depth of this book is astounding.  You can find my review here.

Okay, I squeaked in one more book (well, actually two if you count both the languages) for my Language Freak Summer Challenge.  Yippee!

La Parure (The Necklace) par Guy de Maupassant

"C'etait une de ces jolies et charmantes filles, nées, comme par une erreur du destin, dans une famille d'employés."

Yes, she certainly was a pretty and charming girl who was born by a mistake of destiny into a family of office workers.  Mathilde would dream of riches and fame and jewels, covering her life of drudgery in a tapestry of fantasies and longings.  Finally, one day, her husband arrives with an invitation to a party.  Mathilde manipulates this honest, hard-working man into purchasing a new elegant dress for her, but when she complains of a lack of jewels, he has the answer: borrow some from her wealthy friend Madame Forestier!  A lovely diamond necklace of Madame's catches Mathilde's eye and she must have it.  Her friend, generous to the end, gladly loans it and the evening of her dreams begins.  She is admired, she is catered to, she is wrapped in a heavenly realm of blissful wealth and prestige.  Late do she and her husband return home, reluctant to leave the party until the end but, oh no!  The necklace has disappeared and she is sure that she left it in the taxi.  Days of searching yield nothing and finally there is only one thing to do.  Withdrawing their life savings and taking out a loan, they replace the necklace, hoping that Madame will not notice.  But this painful action causes them ten years of needless toil and suffering.  Why is it needless?  Well, you will have to read the tale to find out!

This short story was really a gem and, in spite of having an inkling of the final twist, it still held my attention to end.  In fact, I had expected to get fatigued by reading such a long (for me) story in French and I had planned to take a break, but instead, I was held rapt until the end.

I did wonder at the title of this story.  In the tale, the necklace is mostly referred to as "la rivière", yet the title is "la parure".  When I looked up "la rivière" in my French dictionary it says "river", and "la parure"means "finery" or "jewelry".  So then I looked up necklace and it had "le collier".  What?  Do any of you Francophiles understand the distinction between these terms? Help!

In any case, this story has definitely been a huge incentive to read more of Maupassant.  His short stories are very readable and a good way to keep improving my French.  I certainly struggled here and there in parts of it and learned a number of new words, yet I was also pleased with my progress.

This will probably be the last book for my Summer Freak Language Challenge, unless I can squeak in a short children's book before the end. Thanks Ekaterina, for holding this wonderful challenge.  It's given me a chance to practice languages that I wouldn't normally read in.  I'm already looking forward to next year's challenge!

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

"This book is an account of the virtuous asceticism and admirable way of life and also of the words of the holy and blessed fathers."

The Desert Fathers were a group of faithful monks and nuns who chose to settle mainly in Lower Egypt, mostly around the desert of Scetes. While some of them lived in groups and had at least some contact with the outside world, some were hermits who preferred to live in seclusion.  Asceticism was also practiced by many to purify their souls.  While Paul of Thebes was the first monk to retire to the desert, Saint Anthony the Great was the one to begin the exodus.  These Desert Fathers served as the early model for Christian monasticism.

As expected, there are many sayings that deal with religion:

Abba Epiphanius:
  • He also said, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss." 
  • Someone else asked him, "Is one righteous man enough to appease God?"  He replied, "Yes, for he himself has written: 'Find a man who lives according to righteousness, and I will pardon the whole people.' (Jer. 5:11)

We also find sayings from fathers instructing their disciples:

Abba Agathon:
  • The same Abba Agathon was walking with his disciples.  One of them, finding a small green pea on the road, said to the old man, "Father, may I take it?"  The old man, looking at him with astonishment, said, "Was it you who put it there?" "No," replied the brother.  "How then," continued the old man, "can you take up something which you did not put down?"

And fathers who seek harmony:

Abba Paul the Barber:
  • Abba Paul the Barber and his brother Timothy lived in Scetis. They often used to argue.  So Abba Paul said, "How long shall we go on like this?"  Abba Timothy said to him, "I suggest you take my side of the argument and in my turn I will take your side when you oppose me."  They spent the rest of their days in this practice.

Coptic icon of
St. Anthony the Great
source Wikipedia
Philosophical fathers:

Abba Anthony the Great:
  • He also said, "God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much."

Abba Poeman:
  • He also said, "Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it."

And somewhat grumpy fathers:

Abba Arsenius:
  • Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius.  He questioned the old man to hear a word from him.  After a short silence the old man answered him, "Will you put into practice what I say to you?"  They promised him this.  "If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there."
  • Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him.  Arsenius told him, "If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here."  Hearing that, the archbishop said, "If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go anymore."
    Saint Arsenius
    fresco at Mt. Athos, 14th century
    source Wikipedia

And lastly, not only sayings from the Desert Fathers, but saying from the "Desert Sisters," as well:

Amma Syncletica:
  • She also said, "It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says: "Let no the sun go down." (Eph. 4:25)  Will you wait till all your time is ended?  Why hate the man who has grieved you?  It is not he who has done the wrong, but the devil.  Hate sickness but not the sick person."
  • She also said, "Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honour and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit."

I was expecting to have to slog through this book, but what a delightful surprise.  While these Fathers obviously knew their Scriptures and spent time with God, their focus was on themselves: refining their souls and being a good example to those around them. The personalities of each of them shone through in their sayings and, in spite of many of the sayings being quite short and compact, they brought a window into their lives of asceticism, their values and struggles that was very compelling.  An enlightening read that gives not only a fascinating window into this era of history, but also imparts values that are as relevant today as they were in the 3rd and 4th century.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My Shakespeare Project

Inspired by Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings and also, embarrassed by my complete lack of progress for my 2014 Shakespeare Challenge, I have decided to launch a new project for myself!  As if, I needed another, right?

My Shakespeare Project is my attempt to read through all of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.  And I'm giving myself no time limit, so there will be no pressure …….. well, maybe just a little bit of pressure.  This project will also help me to check some books off my Classics Club list, which is always welcome.

I really like how Melissa has challenged herself to read a play, see a performance and watch a movie of the play.  It gives you a much richer experience, and I hope to do this as well.  You can check out my list here.

So wish me luck as I embark on an Elizabethan voyage with the Bard.  Bon voyage!


Here is a wonderful post from Sophia from Ravens and Writing Desks on Tips for Reading Shakespeare.  Check it out!

As Sophia mentions in her post, she likes the Folger editons, which I've realized that I like more than I had indicated in a below comment, but I still prefer the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) editions if you have some experience with Shakespeare.  For beginners I recommend the No Fear Shakespeare books.  These have a limited number of plays available, but they do contain Elizabethan English on one side and modern English on the other which is very helpful for beginners.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Bout of Books #11 - Update

And so my four weeks of read-a-thons comes to an end with Bout of Books read-a-thon #11.  And so does my vacation, and the reality of life sets in again.

I'm curious to see how many pages I read this week.  I felt I read more than each of the first three weeks, but then again, the one week I thought that I completely bombed, I actually read almost as much as the week before, so who knows?

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
~~  Chapter 5-15, p. 53-end (158 pgs)

Defence Speeches by Cicero
~~ p. 139-end (137 pgs)

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
~~  p. 77-end (193 pgs)

Russian Thinkgers by Isaiah Berlin
~~   p.1 - 7 (7 pgs)  

Summer by Edith Wharton
~~  Complete (127 pgs) 

Montaigne's Essays
      On Sadness
~~   approx (10 pgs) 

Planets in Peril by David C. Downing
~~ p. 31- 53 (23 pgs)

Books completed:

Defence Speeches
The Man Who Was Thursday
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Total pages read:  655 pages

Wow!  I'm really surprised that I didn't make at least 700+ pages this week. So let's calculate my overall vacation reading:

Total pages read:  2,673 pages

Total books finished:  13 books

Oooo, I like the "books finished" number, but I was really hoping to read more pages.  Oh well, between swimming and kayaking and badminton and biking and hiking and socializing, I probably did reasonably well.

How did your reading go this summer?  Do you feel that you've had more time to read?  Less?  Are you satisfied with your goals?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Le Morte d'Arthur Read-Along!

Jean from Howling Frog Books has decided to do a Le Morte d'Arthur Read-Along in honour of her 2014 Arthurian Challenge.  Bless her heart, because I have been trying to get through this book all year, and for some reason it has become a slog that is not moving along very quickly.  A read-along is just what I need.

Have you ever read Le Morte d'Arthur?  Would you like to join us?  If so, then skip on over to Jean's sign-up page and be part of the fun.  You'll meet King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table, and be part of battles, friendship, agony and betrayal.  What more excitement could you ask for?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Defence Speeches by Cicero

"I imagine you must be wondering, members of the jury, why it is that, when there are so many leading orators and men of the highest rank present here in court, I of all people should have stood up to address you; for neither in age, nor in ability, nor in authority do I bear comparison with these men who have remained seated."

So begins, Cicero's first speech, Pro Roscio Amerino, his first speech delivered in a criminal court when he was a young 26-year-old defence advocate.  While Defence Speeches contains five speeches that Cicero gave during the years 80 B.C. to 52 B.C., this speech is my favourite.  It shows Cicero as a fresh, young advocate, willing to take chances, yet also using his wiles to sway listeners to his point of view.  His rhetoric is at once firm and decisive, yet also almost self-effacing at times, but in an astute and cunning manner that only serves to increase his power.  His client, Sextus Roscius, was, in the end, acquitted of patricide, and this case helped begin Cicero's journey to rhetorical fame.

The defence speech, Pro Milone, is one of Cicero's most famous, as he defended Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murdering the tyrant, Publius Clodius Pulcher.  It was an unusual defeat for him, but it is one speech for which we have an independent account from a 1st century scholar, Quintus Asconius Pedianus.  Because of the secondary source, we can target possible inconsistencies in Cicero's presentation of the facts, which are backed by other evidence.  It is said that because the trial was so politically volatile and emotions so unstable, Cicero had to perform under unusual circumstances.  Ancient sources disagree as to the cause of Cicero's less than stellar performance (some say threats from Clodian supporters, some say the soldiers stationed around the forum made him uneasy) but the end result was a vote of 38 to 13 of "guilty" and Milo was sent into exile.

In spite of the defeat, Milo did not seem to hold a grudge.  When Cicero sent a copy of this defence speech, written at a later date, to Milo, Milo joking replied that it was fortunate that a speech in that form had never been heard in court because he would then not be enjoying the wonderful mullets in Massalia (Marseilles - his place of exile).

Cicero denounces Cataline (1882-88)
fresco by Caesare Maccari
source Wikipedia
If one is familiar with the history of Clodius, one can only conclude that Milo did the empire a favour by getting rid of him.  Suspected of committing incest with his sister, Clodius employed gangs to terrorize the citizens of Rome and the surrounding country, for his own political and monetary benefit.  In 63 B.C., he was able to exile Cicero for his involvement in the illegal execution of five Catlinarian conspirators, and while Cicero was away, proceeded to demolish his elegant house, attempting to have the ground consecrated to deny any further right to build upon the site.  Upon Cicero's return, Clodius' gangster tactics continued, as he regularly had his gangs harass Cicero's workmen as they attempted to re-build his home.

Also included in this book are the speeches, Pro Murena, Pro Archia, and Pro Caelio, where he defends against electoral malpractice, illegal exercise of citizen rights, and civil disturbance, respectively.

From some of these speeches, the reader is given a window into Rome during its more turbulent times, and one realizes, among the grandeur, learning and sophistication, there is continual political unrest and moral decay, boiling in a cesspool of men grasping wildly for prestige and power. It's a book that probably should be read in "doses", but the value of the historical import and the insight into human ambition cannot be underestimated.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy - Read With Me!

Did you know that besides the scholarly, theological and children's books that C.S. Lewis wrote, he also delved into fantasy?  Set on Mars, Venus and Earth, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are vastly different works that grasp the reader's imagination in a wholly unique way.

Beginning September 1st and reading one book per month, my Goodreads Group, The Dead Writer's Society will be delving into this trilogy, and I have volunteered to lead this intrepid group of readers.  Do you like adventure and surprise?  Have you ever wanted to travel to another planet?  Then come and join us!  Head over to The Dead Writer's Society and when you request membership, say that I sent you.  It should be a stimulating conversation!

Monday, 18 August 2014

2nd Annual Beat-the-Heat Read-a-thon Update

While this read-a-thon does run until September 1st, I'm cutting it short because I am going to join the Bout of Book read-a-thon from August 18 to 24th.  This will effectively take me to the end of my holidays.  Honestly I don't want to do any read-a-thons after that, because I know my reading time will seriously decrease and to keep track of it then, will depress me. :-D

This week was sort of a weird week.  I was fully planning to get tons of reading in but I had an unexpected holiday diversion.  I (by accident) swallowed a plum pit that got lodged in my throat.  Between an ambulance ride to a health centre, water ambulance off the island, another ambulance to the hospital and an emergency gastroscopy, my reading plans were obviously interrupted.

While finding this picture of a Canadian ambulance, I got a very interesting education on ambulances.  Why are so many of them yellow (Europe)?  It seems like an odd colour to choose other than that it would be easy to spot.  

So now that I've shared this completely embarrassing incident, let's get to checking how my reading did go:

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
~~  Chapter 1-4, p. 1-52 (52 pgs)

Defence Speeches by Cicero
~~ p. 107-138 (31 pgs)

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
~~  p. 68-76  (8 pgs)

The Way of King Arthur by Christopher Hibbert
~~   p. 1-end (144 pgs)  

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
~~  Chapter 3-4, p. 47-end (65 pgs) 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
~~  Chapter 8-21 p. 81-end (175 pgs) 

~~ p. 167-end  (137 pgs)

Planets in Peril by David C. Downing
~~ p. 1-30  (30 pgs)

Books completed:

Surprised by Joy (last week)
A Grief Observed
The Way of King Arthur
The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Total pages read:  642 pages

Wow!  I'm completely surprised that I was able to read that much!  I must keep plugging along though; I have a couple of "in-progress for a long time" books that I'd like to finish this week.  I know my two bombs for the summer are going to be Ovid's Metamorphoses and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, that I'd really hoped to finish, but time is running out and with it, any chance to squeeze out some time to read those books, I think.  In any case, it's probably better to focus on what I have accomplished instead of what I haven't.   Bout of Books, here I come!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

"In the latter days of July in the year 185--, a most important question was for ten days hourly asked in the cathedral city of Barchester, and answered every hour in various ways ---- Who was to be the new bishop?"

War has broken out in the city of Barchester.  The different factions are preparing by arming themselves with disingenuous weapons.  Tongues are being exercised, rapier wit is being sharpened, and soon a victor will be declared.

The new chaplain, Mr. Obadiah Slope has arrived in Barchester with the new bishop Proudie and his termagant wife .  Whilst Mr. Slope shows the high opinion he holds of himself, the clergy and certain townspeople take a strong dislike to his oily sycophancy and the fight is on.  Will Archdeacon Grantly be able to run Mr. Slope out of Barchester? Or will Mr. Slope become the new Dean?  Yet his marriage to the widow Eleanor Bold, Mr. Septimus Harding's daughter, is a certainty.  Or is it?  Bertie Stanhope, the indolent son of Dr. Vessey Stanhope, is a contender for her affections but, oops ….. into the picture strides Mr. Arabin, vicar of St. Ewold and Grantly's ally, to further muddy the marital waters.  And, as for the battle over the appointment of the new warden of Hiram's Hospital, will Mr. Harding recover this honoured position, or will Mr. Quiverful triumph over his competitor, effectively providing his wife and children with the support they had heretofore been lacking?

In a town amongst characters, where black can seem white, and up suddenly down, the romping hilarity of the story firmly keeps the reader engaged and attentive.   Trollope, himself had a personal love for his masterpiece:  "In the writing of Barchester Towers I took great delight.  The bishop and Mrs. Proudie were very real to me, as were also the troubles of the archdeacon and the loves of Mr. Slope."  Sadly his publishers were not initially in accord, claiming the novel to be full of "vulgarity and exaggeration."  How fortunate, in spite of this initial critique, that this novel has captured the imagination and humour of readers worldwide for nearly 160 years, and has given the people of Barchester an immorality that was originally in jeopardy.

The Barsetshire Chronicles

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes ….."

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon's invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia
And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy's highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia
I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev's house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle." He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

"It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia's position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ………."

Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy's "war" parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people's reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won't be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Monster Read-a-Thon - Update

My Monster Read-a-thon is now complete.  I knew that this week would be a little disjointed as I had a small diversion from my vacation to attend a softball tournament.  So let's see how I did compared to my personal read-a-thon of last week:

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
~~  p. 368-end (143 pgs)

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis
~~ p. 117-end (68 pgs.)

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
~~  p. 45-67  (22 pgs)

The Way of King Arthur by Christopher Hibbert
~~  Chapter 1, p. 1-27 (27 pgs)

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
~~  Chapter 1-2, p. 1-46 (46 pgs)

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
~~  Chapter 2 - 7  p. 21-80 (59 pgs)

Barchester Towers
~~ p. 292 - end  (126 pgs)

~~ p. 1-166  (166 pgs)

Books completed:

Barchester Towers
The Guns of August

Total pages read:  657 pages

The read-a-thon was a little under my page count compared to my first week's Personal Read-a-thon, but considering the distractions, it's not half bad.  We'll have guests for a couple of days this coming week, but I'm planning to ignore them to read  ………….. ha, ha, I'm kidding (I hope you all knew that!).  I'll have to really concentrate on my reading on the days that I'm free.  For the next read-a-thon, which is the 2nd Annual Beat-the-Heat Read-a-thon, I'm hoping to complete a few more pages and a few more books.  We'll see how it goes ………..

Classics Club Spin #7 …………. And The Winner Is ………..

The winning number for the Classics Club Spin #7 is number 17!  I'm completely happy with this choice because it means that I'll be able to read Oscar Wilde's, The Importance of Being Earnest!

It will be fun to read a comedic play and to experience some light-hearted humour after some of the more serious reads I have taken on lately.

A Burrowing Owl
source Wikimedia Commons

Now I'm off to see what books the rest of my blogger friends will be reading!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Book of Margery Kempe

"When this creature was twenty years of age, or somewhat more, she was married to a worshipful burgess [of Lynn] and was with child within a short time, as nature would have it."

The second book of my Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project took me to the turn of the fifteenth century when the Late Middle Ages was morphing into the Early Renaissance.  Margery Kempe, a married women with 14 children decides that her devotion to God eclipses everything else in her life, and embarks on a mystical journey to get as close as she can to His Love and Grace, and to conform her life to His will.  While the narrative is somewhat disjointed, springing back and forth between different episodes in Margery's life, the reader must decide:  does Margery have a special relationship with God and are her actions spiritually beneficial, or is she somewhat unbalanced emotionally and do her actions have a negative impact on those around her?

While Margery speaks of her devotion to God and of the special protection and attention he sends her way, a repeated theme runs through this book of her unusually shocking weeping and crying, and how her behaviour alienates the people around her.  In story after story, Margery weeps and wails in loud outbursts, a person or the people get irritated with her and, at the least, want her to stop and, at the most, want her imprisoned.  Margery does show a comprehension that her behaviour sows discord with those around her, and does try to moderate her reactions, but is unable to because of the force of feeling for God in her heart; she simply cannot control her response.

At first, like many people Margery met, her weeping and sobbing drove me crazy.  I think in this book she described every incident that she wailed and moaned, and I was soon in complete sympathy with the people who wanted her either run out of town or put in prison.  Yet about mid-way through the book I began to think ………..  How did Margery conduct herself as a person?  What were her traits and how did she interact with other people whom she met in life?  Yes, her life was completely given to God and he was her primary source of love and care and motivation, but the result of that love was her willingness to help and care for people, her desire to see people saved and experience God's grace like she had, and, surprisingly, her meek yet powerful words that she used against her accusers. Rarely did she respond in kind to their recriminations, intimidation or threats, but with an honest and sincere demeanour, that often would disarm them.  Did she ever hurt anyone with her behaviour?  No, she was simply annoying and, therefore, was it right to ostracize her, berate her and throw her in prison for being bothersome?

Ultimately I felt that this book said as much about the society around Margery, as Margery herself.  Their intolerance for anyone different than themselves, their impatience at her benign behaviour and their lust for vengeance was quite startling, yet when I compared it to our society today, how different was it really?  Don't we display the same intolerance, the same prejudice and the same narrow-mindedness as the people of Margery's time?   Are we exasperated or offended by people with different ideas or bothered when people behave differently than we expect?  I think, if we're honest, we'd be compelled to answer "yes".

The book also gives fascinating details of medieval life.  While we, as moderns, always tend to think women were oppressed and had no say in how they lived their lives, Margery chose to live apart from her husband, traveled around Europe often in the company of men, and quite forcefully made her own choices about the path her life would take.  Certainly she was occasionally reprimanded by priests or given advice by townspeople that she should behave like a "normal" woman, but the vast majority of people appeared to accept her lifestyle without comment and are much more concerned or annoyed with the quantity of her weeping and emotional distress.

Margery's amazing perseverance in her beliefs, and her ability to remaining faithful when she is imprisoned, ostracized, mocked and threatened, are what impacted me while reading this biography.  Her lack of anger and her tolerance towards her persecutors is truly heroic.  While I wouldn't want to be Margery Kempe, and I didn't agree with all her decisions, I can certainly see traits within her that would be beneficial in my own life, and for that, I have a reluctant admiration for her single-minded faithfulness and unquenchable spirit.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Classics Club Spin #7

It's time for another spin!  I still have my first spin book (from spin #4) to finish, Bleak House, but other than that I've completed spins for Oedipus at Colonus, The Seven Storey Mountain, and even someone else's spin book, The Odyssey.  So I'm not doing too badly.

The usual rules state:
  1. Go to your blog.
  2. Pick twenty books that you've got left to read from your Classics Club list.
  3. Post that list, numbered 1 - 20, on your blog by next Monday.
  4. Monday morning, we'll announce a number from 1 - 20.  Go to the list of twenty books you posted and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  5. The challenge is to read that book by October 6th.
I used the random list organizer here to choose the 20 books from my master list.  So my list ended up looking like this:

  1. O Pioneers! (1913) - Willa Cather
  2. The Rule of Saint Benedict (529)? - Saint Benedict
  3. Ethan Fromme (1911) - Edith Wharton
  4. She Stoops to Conquer (1773) - Oliver Goldsmith
  5. Animal Farm (1945) - George Orwell
  6. Atlas Shrugged (1957) - Ayn Rand
  7. Defense Speeches (80 - 63 B.C.) - Marcus Tullius Cicero
  8. We (1921) - Yevgeny Zamyatin
  9. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978) - Barbara Tuchman
  10. Erewhon (1872) - Samuel Butler
  11. 1984 (1949) - George Orwell
  12. Tartuffe (1669) - Molière
  13. Doctor Thorne (1858) - Anthony Trollope
  14. On the Social Contract (1762) - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  15. Hamlet (1603 - 1604) - William Shakespeare
  16. Swann's Way (1913) - Marcel Proust
  17. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) - Oscar Wilde
  18. The Prince (1513) - Niccolo Machiavelli
  19. The Stranger (1942) - Albert Camus
  20. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) - Mark Twain

Five Books I'm Hesitant to Read

1.  Swann's Way - Marcel Proust
2.  Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
3.  A Distant Mirror – Barbara Tuchman
4.  On the Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
5.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain

Five Books I Can't Wait to Read

1.  Defence Speeches - Cicero
2.  We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
3.  The Stranger – Albert Camus
4.  She Stoops to Conquer – Oliver Goldsmith
5.  Hamlet - William Shakespeare

With regard to Swann's Way, I'm only hesitant because of the length; I really have no desire to read Ayn Rand;  A Distant Mirror I'd love to read but I'm just finishing up her The Guns of August and I'd like a breather in between.

Cicero, of course, is awesome; We is supposed to be weird and I'd love a weird book to read; I am so excited to start reading some Camus ---- he sounds like an interesting fellow; and I loved Goldsmith's novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, so I'd like to read something else by him.

How did you spin list go?  Any thrills or any books that you're dreading?

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Personal Read-a-Thon - Update

Well, I've come to the end of my personal read-a-thon and the Monster Read-a-thon starts tomorrow, so it's time for an update of my accomplishments.

I've realized that in addition to the many other reasons why it's not good to have so many books in your currently-reading pile, the fact that I have read from many of them during this time, makes listing them and calculating the page count quite a time-consuming chore.  But here is what I've managed to read:

The Terror by Dan Simmons
~~  Chapter 3-21  p. 30-280 (250 pgs.)

The Book of Margery Kempe
~~  Chapter 52-end p. 161-332 (171 pgs.)

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
~~  p 1253 – 1392 [end] (139 pgs.)

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
~~  p. 277-367 (90 pgs)

The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer
~~ Chapter 47-48 p. 335-354 (19 pgs.)

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
~~  p. 31-44  (13 pgs)

The Essays of Montaigne
~~  Introduction and some letters
      reading an e-book Vol 1 & 2 so hard to say
      let’s log it in as (17 pgs)

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
~~  Introduction & Chapter 1  p. 1-20 (20 pgs)

Books completed:

The Book of Margery Kempe
War and Peace

Total pages read:  719 pages

I'm happy that I've completed two books, but I was hoping to get through more.  I'm going to have to be especially diligent this next week because I'll have an interruption in my vacation plans that will make it more difficult to read.  Yet after that, I'll be back on track and looking forward to picking up my reading pace.

Isle of Shoals
Childe Hassam
source Wikiart

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Essays of Montaigne - Introduction

My third book of my Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project is Essays by Michel de Montaigne.  He wrote these essays over the period of 1570 - 1592.  Why?  Well, the man himself tells us:  "I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen, so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours."  His writing is honest and unpretentious, as he only sought to dissect his mind for a greater understanding of human nature.

Born on the last day of February 1533 at the Chateau de Montaigne, his families' wealth did not breed arrogance or vanity; for the first three years of his life Montaigne was sent to live with a peasant family, in order to, as his father said, "draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help."  While his father ensured that he associated with people of lower social status, he also provided him a rigorous education for the purpose of cultivating his mind.  He studied all the classic languages and at fourteen, was destined for law school.  In 1554 he was appointed councillor in the Parliament of Bourdeaux and later married.  Yet in his thirty-eighth year, tired of court life he retired, intending to spend the remainder of his life in tranquil seclusion.  Sequestering himself in a tower on the grounds of Chateau de Montaigne, he began to write his Essays.

La tour de Montaigne
source Wikipedia

Interesting tidbits:

Upon his retirement he commissioned a medal that read, "Que scay-je?", which means "What do I know?", echoing Pliny's reminder that "In these matters, the only certainty is that nothing is certain."

The profundity of his thoughts introduces his readers to ideas, presented in a way that is unique and innovative. "He who had never actually seen a river, the first time he did, so took it for the ocean, since we think that the biggest things that we know represent the limits of what Nature can reproduce in that species."

His humility, charm, and uncomplicated spirit echoes through much of his writing:  "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?"

Notable Quotes:

  • “I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.”
  • “I am afraid that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and that we have more curiosity than understanding. We grasp at everything, but catch nothing except wind.”
  • “When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.”
  • “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”
  • “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”
  • “To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere." 
  • "To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

With regard to translations of this work, I came across this quote by William Hazlitt:

"The besetting sin of both Montaigne's translators seems to have been a propensity for reducing his language and phraseology to the language and phraseology of the age and country to which they belonged, and, moreover, inserting paragraphs and words, not her and there only, but constantly and habitually, from an evident desire and view to elucidate or strengthen their author's meaning.  The result has generally been unfortunate; and I have, in case of all these interpolations on Cotton's part, felt bound, where I did not cancel them, to throw them down into the notes, not thinking it right that Montaigne should be allowed any longer to stand sponsor for what he never wrote; and reluctant, on the other hand, to suppress the intruding matter entirely, where it appeared to possess a value of its own."

In any case, forward on to The Essays of Montaigne!

Further reading: