Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reading Log, January 2007

As I Iook at the piles of books around me, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that I didn't finish much of anything in January. Oh well. January is supposed to be all about new beginnings, right??

This marks the deadline of the end of the "From the Stacks" Challenge as well. Sadly, I have to report that I completed only three of the five books I listed for the challenge. I have no excuse for not having finished War and Peace by now, except that Henry Esmond has been taking its place in my reading plan. I wish I'd stuck with Tolstoy, but I don't think I even picked that book up in January. Also, I should never have placed my Polish book in that challenge to begin with, and as it is, I set W pustyni i w puszczy aside to work on another Polish book that turned out to be too hard.

But why dwell on what I didn't read? The point of this post is to list the books I actually did read during January.

The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray--The only reason I would want to finish this book is because it is a prequel to another famous work of Thackeray's about the colony of Virginia. But whether or not I actually make it to the end is a toss of the coin at this point.

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien--I'm rereading this series to superimpose Tolkien over Peter Jackson in my head. I'm about halfway through so far.

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg--I already wrote about this one, and I suspect I'll be offering it up on Bookmooch to any willing takers.

Sklepy Cynamonowe by Bruno Schulz--I tried. I really tried to read this book. But my Polish just isn't up to it. I could offer it on Bookmooch, too, but who would take it?

School Education by Charlotte Mason--This is another reread, which I have just restarted and am discussing with the CMSeries list.

From Dawn To Decadence by Jacques Barzun--This should appear on my list every month of the year, as the plan is to read it across the whole year. I'm already behind, though. I need to read 60-65 pages per month to stay on track, and I'm only on page 50. There is no way to read this book fast, in any case.

The Cat Who Came to Breakfast by Lilian Jackson Braun--Yet another reread (did I say something about new beginnings??? Who am I kidding?). This is the kind of book I keep on my desk and read a page or two when the internet is slow.

Dracula by Bram Stoker--I'm listening to this one at Librivox, while I work on my big crochet project. I've never read it before. I'm not a big fan of the horror genre in general, nor vampire stories in particular. But I am a student of the Victorian era, and the themes in this book interest me (good vs. evil; science vs. faith; materialism vs. supernaturalism). I will have more to say about it later, I'm sure.

Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat--I'm reading this one aloud to 9yo K. I never included the books I was reading aloud on my list last year, but I think I should, as I am actually reading them. I guess I won't include picture books, though, or I could mention Goodnight, Moon and A Million Chameleons. ( It probably doesn't count as reading if you recite from memory anyway.)

And that's all. I'll be finishing some of these quickly, while others will be ongoing projects. I don't think I'm going to join any more challenges, even though they seem fun at the time. I need to come up with my own plan, and Danielle at A Work in Progress put in the idea of planning my reading a month at a time into my head. I'm thinking it over and I may give a shot for February to see how it works. I surely need some kind of system if I'm ever going to read all the things I want to read!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Wherein I admit defeat

I have bitten off more than I can chew.

This could be be complicated, but I shall try to explain. Many of the litbloggers I read belong to "Slaves of Golconda," an online reading group. I found the name distasteful when I heard it, and was not inclined to become a slave of any kind (no man can serve two masters, and all that). However, the name of the group is taken from a quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

There are four kinds of readers. The first is like the hourglass; and their reading being as the sand, it runs in and runs out, and leaves not a vestige behind. A second is like the sponge, which imbibes everything, and returns it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtier. A third is like a jelly bag, allowing all that is pure to pass away, and retaining only the refuse and dregs. And the fourth is like the slaves in the diamond mines of Golconda, who, casting aside all that is worthless, retain only pure gems.

I understand now the reference of the group name and no longer find it off-putting. However, I have never managed to read the same book the group is reading at the same time they are reading it, so as to join the discussion. I have only read and observed. The current selection is a book called The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. When I learned that the book was originally written in Polish, I thought it might be fun to read the original version rather than a translation. At first, I couldn't figure out what the book was called in Polish, because none of the Bruno Schulz titles matched the English title. I finally discovered that the Polish title is Sklepy Cynamonowe or "Cinnamon Shops." Both titles are taken from short stories within the collection. Once I discovered the title, I had no trouble finding an inexpensive copy of the book.

I'm glad I didn't pay a lot for this book, because I cannot read it. Consider the difference between these two paragraphs:

Frank walked across the room and opened the door, peering outside to see if anyone was coming yet. The street was empty except for the the postman and a woman pushing a baby carriage listlessly back and forth. He glanced at his watch, wondering if it were too early to begin worrying about Marion's absence.


In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears

In the first paragraph, something is happening. Concrete people are performing recognizable activities. In the second, there is little action, lots of description, and abstract metaphors intended to convey a mood and create an atmosphere.

May I suggest, if you want to read in a foreign language, you choose books of the former type. I wrote the first paragraph to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. The second is the opening paragraph of The Street of the Crocodiles.

I made it through the rest of that first story, in Polish, and by the end had to admit defeat. The story was full of both Biblical and Pagan allusions--that much I did get. There was some kind of comparison between a misshapen flower and a mentally handicapped girl (woman?). Something unpleasant happened between the boy narrator of the story and a much older male cousin at the end of the story, and I'm not even sure I want to be enlightened about the exact nature of the incident. I really didn't even begin to follow the complex, evocative story because the language was too literary, too inexact, and just plain too hard for me.

I decided to skip most of the stories, and read the title stories, "Cinnamon Shops" and "The Street of the Crocodiles." So far, I'm halfway through the first one, and because there was a bit more action, I feel that I've understood the Polish better, but I know I am still missing the deeper and subtler meanings that the author included. (A boy goes to the theatre with his parents, and is sent back home through the winter night because his father has forgotten his wallet.)

I sort of hate to admit it, but I really cannot read this. I don't read with a dictionary, although I will occasionally look up a word. I just read. So, I will go back to W pustyni i w puszczy by Henryk Siekiewicz and find out what happens to the kidnapped children being carried across the desert on camels. There is plenty of concrete action there, and when the author wanders off into a description of, perhaps, a desert sunset, I can at least glean that he is describing a desert sunset, even if I'm not sure what he's saying about it. With Schulz, I am losing the entire point of the story.

Bruno Schulz was an artist as well as a writer (he was killed during WWII), and these stories have inspired a lot of Polish artists. The pictures here are all based upon these stories. The Slaves of Golconda will begin discussing this book on Wednesday, and I will, once again, just be listening in to the discussion rather than participating. It is a humbling experience, but I am consoled that not everything is this hard. Someone shared a Bible resource with me on Sunday, and as I read through the paragraphs, I realized that I understood every single word. If I ever want to read Bruno Schulz again, however, I will read him in translation.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

This might be "Dear John" for dear Henry

Long, long ago in a country far, far away, people actually enjoyed reading books like this. Not long ago, I commented that I would like to read Thackeray as I read Dickens--one new novel each year--but that it is more difficult to find copies of Thackeray's books.

Now I know why.

I've been working on The History of Henry Esmond for nearly three months. I'm over halfway through the book, and I'm still waiting for the story to grow interesting. Perhaps if the political background information, as well as the literary environment of Addison and Steele (who appear as characters in the book) were more familiar to me, I might appreciate it more. But not necessarily.

I can hardly believe the author of the riotous Vanity Fair, with its biting satire of Victorian mores and its irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone, is also the author of Henry Esmond. Was Thackeray having a bad year?

Or is it, as I suspect, that this novel falls into that category of "timely" rather than "timeless" literature. The foreward suggests that this book was Thackeray's best, but I can hardly believe it. It's only the third novel by Thackeray that I have read, but the others (Vanity Fair and Pendennis) were much better. I'm sure this book meant something to Thackeray's contemporary English readers. It was a work of historical fiction, and as the history was their history, they were probably more connected to it than I can be.

The question before me now is whether or not to finish this book. It has been renewed from the library twice, and the deadline for returning is looming near. I'm either going to finish it up in the next two weeks, or I'm going to abandon it. I can't make up my mind. I don't often leave books unfinished, and if I owned it, I might just put it aside planning to finish it later. But I am tired of renewing it, and tired of feeling obligated to read it before other things, and I am most definitely tired of Henry Esmond, who doesn't seem to do much of anything in spite of studying at Oxford, participating in a duel which lands him in jail for a year, and joining the army and going off to war.

If anyone is thinking of reading Thackeray, I would say, "Oh, do--definitely do." But pick up Vanity Fair and let Henry Esmond continue collecting dust while the bindings fall into disrepair and publishing houses pass it over in the search for interesting classics to reprint.

Friday, January 26, 2007

In which I show off my latest finished project

Sometimes it is very tempting to give up blogging about anything excepts books and reading, and just have a lit blog. I would enjoy that, but I'm unwilling to entirely give up other things I like to share, especially things related to living in Poland, the occasional post about my reluctant-to-be-blog-subjects children, or just whatever happens to be on my mind. So my blog will remain eclectic. I am NEVER tempted to turn my blog into a craft blog (there simply isn't enough material), but as long as I'm being eclectic, I can toss the occasional craft project in here, too.

This week, we had practically the only snow we've seen all winter, and we had it with a vengeance. We probably had 7-8 inches accumulation in the course of a day, and it looked so much like what Christmas should have looked like, it inspired me to finish this mat which I am giving as a very belated gift to a friend here in Poland. She is Ukrainian, married to an American, and we generally speak Polish, as her English is weak. We have a lot of the same tastes in decorating, and so I knew I could make anything for her that I would like myself. And I like this very much--it has an unusual shape and a contemporary approach to "lacy."

The pattern came from a Polish magazine. I have been buying them all year since we came back, and they are full of terrific and unusual patterns--good visual patterns, so there really isn't a language barrier even if you don't know Polish. I've picked up a bit of the vocabulary connected with crocheting from the magazines, but haven't had occasion to use it in conversation.

With that project finished, and a fairly large "spring" project underway, I don't think I'll be doing much else except buying more magazines in the immediate future.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A very large room

I've spent a lot of time on this blog writing about my own personal hobbies and interests. This has been a "fun" place for me, for the most part. Somehow, I've managed not to write very much about one of the things that is actually one of the most profound interests that I have--educational philosophy. I first read this book, School Education, as well as one or two others by Charlotte Mason in 1995. For those who aren't aware, Charlotte Mason was a 19th century British educator who devoted her life, from her teenage years until her death at age 83, to education.

She read widely in her subject, from ancient educational writings to everything that was contemporary. She taught children in the classroom, and later established a college for training teachers, where a practicing school was run for local children. She formulated a strong set of principles upon which to base educational practices, and she shared her ideas through lectures and articles. She developed a comprehensive curriculum which was used in her schools and by her graduates who taught as governesses. And she wrote out the essence of her experience and wisdom in six volumes on education, now called "The Original Homeschooling Series," although originally they were published as six different books.

As I said, I read this for the first time in 1995, and found much of it incomprehensible. I gleaned a great deal, of course, and have always implemented Charlotte Mason's methods in our homeschool. I read and reread her books over the years, and branched out in my reading to learn from some of the same people that she did. I also extended my reading to include material that gave me greater insight into the Victorian culture in which she lived.

I've just begun rereading this particular book with the CMSeries list. It is amazing to me that I can come back to this book and find new, fresh material and insights every single time. I once read an article in which it was suggested that it does not matter where you begin your educational journey. Each time you read a book, further reading is suggested. You may finish a book and be unsatisfied because you didn't know enough about one topic to grasp the material, so you branch out in that direction. Books on the new topic will shed light on the first topic, and lead into new avenues as well. When you read more material on your original subject, you will have a broader understanding, and may feel the need to pursue yet other sidelines, to advance your knowledge still further. And on and on it goes...all subjects intertwined and related in some way to your original starting point, and yet so much more than that.
Trying to find the start of a classical education is a little like trying to find where it would end. The worse thing to do is to set some outlandish goal for ourselves and then keep wallowing in guilt that we have not yet attained it. A classical education will probably be more surely acquired in spurts and starts than a well ordered plan. Because classical education fits the big picture together so nicely, it does not need to be begun in one place. Rather you will soon find that all roads seem to end up leading everywhere.*

Charotte Mason has been that starting point for me. In the dozen years that have elapsed since I read her books for the first time, I have read across centuries, discovered new people I never knew existed, and learned how people I did know about fit into the larger scheme of history and philosophy. I say my interest is educational philosophy, because that is where I started, but in reality, I am fascinated by philosophy in general now. I will never stop reading and learning. Charlotte Mason's writing dropped like a rock into my head, and the circles rippling out from that initial splash are still going strong.

It doesn't mean I worship her, or agree with her entirely on every point, by any means. My gratitude is the gratitude of a fortunate pupil toward an able teacher. A good teacher does not pretend to be the authority, but leads her students to seek out and learn for themselves--learn things that perhaps she does not even know herself.
Our aim in education is to give children vital interests in as many directions as possible--to set their feet in a large room--because the crying evil of the day is, it seems to me, intellectual inanation.

And from that I have been spared. How could I not be grateful?

*Post edited to add this quote. Read the article, which is actually an interview, here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bits and Pieces

Craft Projects: When I went shopping the other day, I picked up some really nice thread in spring-time colors. I've picked a project, graphed it out to see how the colors are going to work, and I hoping it will actually be done in time for...spring.

Books and Reading: I have been enthralled with From Dawn to Decadence this week. No one should be put off by the size or scope of this book. Jacques Barzun is extremely readable. I even typed out one of his jokes and sent it to my preacher-husband:
The minister and his lay visitor, both Protestants, had talked over amiably the differences between their creeds. It was a beautiful lesson in toleration, which the minister neatly summed up: "Yes, we both worship the same God, you in your way and I in His."

Homeschooling: Am I the only one who didn't have word problems when I took algebra some 25 years ago? I took both Algebra I and Algebra II at a private Christian school, using a curriculum I won't mention, and I never knew word problems could be part of algebra.
With both hot and cold water running, a bathtub can be filled in 8 minutes. The drain will empty the tub in 10 minutes. A child turns both faucets on and leaves the drain open. How long will it be before the bathtub starts to overflow?
I have no idea, but go ahead and ask me who will be mopping the floor and paying the water bill.

Playing Games: Someone popped in while I was playing my addictive word game and said, "Hi, Karen." That was nice, but it would have been even more fun if I'd known who you were! (Note to self: must use a secret identity over there so no one knows how much I might play.)

Polish and Ministry: My coworker usually teaches Sunday School to our small group of kids, but she was away this week and I taught the parable of the Good Samaritan in Polish. Pewien człowiek przeszedł z Jeruzolimie do Jerycha...

My personal project are piling up and it's time for a season of decluttering and organizing...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Don't bother circling the block--just head for the hills.

I know there are some cities in the US in which parking is a problem, and I know that some residents of those cities choose not to own or use a car. When the new mall opened, they proudly advertised 1400 parking spaces in their multi-level garage. I thought that was a lot of parking for downtown Krakow, but Krakovian has informed me that it is not enough. Oh.

I saw a pictorial ad (at a bus stop) today, which showed a picture of a tram, followed by an equals sign, followed by 25 or 30 cars. I guess the city is feeling the need to either encourage people to use public transportation instead of driving or perhaps not buy cars at all? I wonder if it has anything to do with the dreadful traffic jams, which have only increased since the city closed down a vital intersection in the heart of the city for a two-year (at least) renovation project?

The very center of Krakow was once a walled medieval city. No parking space was needed--the streets were designed for foot traffic or perhaps a few wagons or horses. Today, very little traffic is allowed in that part of the city. Taxis may drive on certain streets only, and delivery vehicles (for the many shops in that area) are restricted to very early morning hours. Police cars and ambulances are allowed, of course, as well as horse-drawn tourist buggies.

Just outside the medieval part of Krakow is the part that grew up during the partition era, when Poland wasn't Poland on the map, but part of Austria. Most of the buildings in that section are well over 100 years old, and so, again, the streets were not really designed with motor vehicle traffic in mind. A few large roads have been carved into the maze of little streets, and tram tracks criss-cross that part of the city, including running in a ring around the older part.

The rest of Krakow grew to nearly its present proportions under Soviet era communism. If you look at a neighborhood of towering "blocks" (apartment buildings), packed closely together, and compare that to the amount of parking provided for the neighborhood, you can easily estimate that the communists expected well under 10% of the population to own cars, and the streets and roads they built reflect their low expectations for individual traffic. Even now, when you travel by car in Poland, you don't expect to speed along on four-lane, limited-access highways.

The economy and expectations of Poland today are very different. Families who could never have afforded a car in the past are now able to do so. I've seen many older people--in their 40's and 50's--taking driver's courses because they never had a reason to learn before. When they were young, few people had private cars.

Where are all these people supposed to find parking places?

Perhaps this is the real reason suburbs grew up around the cities in America? So people would be able to find parking space for their cars?

Friday, January 19, 2007

And this is why I haven't finished War and Peace

Yesterday, I planned to go into the city to play around for a few hours. The sunny morning weather deteriorated to a drizzling rain by the time I actually left, so I ended up visiting that new mall. I was inexplicably drawn to "The American Bookstore" which sells all English books. I had a few authors and titles in mind, actually, that I hoped to find. They didn't have any of the books I wanted, but who walks out of a bookstore empty-handed?

I didn't need any books.

I have many unread books on my shelves.

I'm currently reading at least five books.

I repeat: I didn't need any books, and I don't have time to read another book right now.

So I can't explain why this happened, except that it did. I bought Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I have never heard of the author (this was her first novel), nor can I recall reading any recommendations for it. It just sounded compelling, so I bought it and started to read it while hanging out at the mall. I finished it before I went to bed. Yes, the whole thing. Yes, I read fast, although I confess to skimming some bits at the beginning.

And what was it all about? One of the most dysfunctional families you would want to meet. On the surface they look just a little unusual, because mom (Miriam) is a lawyer and dad (Saul) studies at home and cooks the meals. Son Aaron is the ideal Jewish son, who plays the guitar with his father and wants to be a rabbi when he grows up. Daughter Eliza is the misfit or black sheep. In a family of over-achievers, she is entirely ordinary, until she discovers an amazing talent for spelling that carries her all the way to the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.

Although they live under the same roof, none of the members of this family are really satisfied or happy with each other. They have no real connections, and so they go looking elsewhere. Saul has already tried drugs earlier in his life, and thinks he has found what he wants in his Jewish roots and his family--especially his son. Miriam has a vision of what life ought to be, that only she can see, and she secretly and obsessively tries to achieve it. Aaron is cast adrift when Saul begins focusing on Eliza's spelling talent. Missing his father's attention, he realizes he has bought Judaism without reading the label, and begins to look elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. A lonely, sensitive, seeking teenager is an easy target for a cult. After so many years of being a disappointment, Eliza doesn't really want anything except her father's approval. But what her father wants from her is much, much more than spelling bee trophies, and she too is swept into the mystical side of Judaism.

With everyone going in different directions, it is no surprise when the family crumbles. Miriam can no longer hide her mental illness; Aaron wants to leave home to live with cult members; Saul can't understand why his family isn't what he thought it was; and Eliza--whose spelling talent has been the catalyst that provoked the changes--feels responsible and pushes herself harder.

This is a sad, sad book. All four main characters are well-drawn, so that you hurt with them. But the saddest part is that they all want the same thing, and they are all looking in the wrong places. I think it's rare for a book to focus so much on the spiritual needs of people, but I'm afraid the author doesn't have any good answers to offer. For that, I suggest reading a different book. The final answer in this book seems to be that everyone has these needs, but it doesn't matter where you try to find the answers, because nothing is really satisfying. Or rather, you can be satisfied only if you choose to live in a fantasy world. The author also seems to make a special point of highlighting the similarities between the the cultic chants of Aaron and the Jewish chants Eliza learns to do, as if to imply that all religions are basically the same.

I enjoyed the book, but couldn't recommend it highly. There are a few graphic passages, so definitely don't hand this one to your children.

The saddest scene in the story takes place between Saul and Miriam. Miriam is in the mental hospital, and Saul, trying to understand what has happened, finds a shoebox under the bed containing a pink rubber ball. He bounces it a few times and decides to take it to his wife, as she has obviously saved it for some reason. When she sees the box, she is thrilled. The pink rubber ball, which she has had since childhood, represents the perfection for which she has always sought. She opens the box and takes out the ball, only to find that Saul has ruined it. Yes, it was still in pristine condition after all these years--all she ever did with it was keep it safe--and Saul's casual bounces have left scuffs that have spoiled it forever in her eyes.

The people we love may unintentionally hurt us in casual ways, but I think it behooves us all to be a lot more forgiving about it than Miriam was.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A modern twist on an ages-old tradition

E. has been studying the Middle Ages this year, and as part of her studies she has read some medieval literature and writings, such as excerpts from (the venerable) Bede and adaptations of Canterbury Tales. After my recent fun with Librivox (free audiobooks), I decided to have her listen to Beowulf.

Long ago, few people could read or write. Even those privileged to know how to read could rarely afford to own books, as they were painstakingly transcribed by hand and incredibly expensive. It was the age of the oral story, and traditional stories were past down through generations, told and retold around the fire. I believe Beowulf comes out of that tradition, and so I thought listening to it orally might enhance the medieval experience of the tale.

Of course, she downloads the audio to her computer and listens to a recording, but so far it's working well. She said that sometimes she doesn't understand a word that is used, but it doesn't affect her understanding of the story. It appears to be one of the highlights of her week. Too bad she listens upstairs and I don't get to hear it, too!

I really like audiobooks for long car trips, for the treadmill or long walks, and definitely for something to occupy my mind while I'm doing crafts or handwork. I think the folks at Librivox have come up with an uncommonly generous idea, so kudos to them, and thanks to all the readers who read for the stories we've enjoyed.

Friday, January 12, 2007

How do you eat an elephant?

Many moons ago, before I was was a stay-at-home mom, or had children, or even was married, I worked in a college office. There were tight schedules and deadlines for everything, and as my experience increased, so did my responsibilities. Sometimes the time pressure and the size of my workload would push me to the edge of frantic, futile panic. My supervisor, a wise, godly older woman, would ask me, "How do you eat an elephant?"

The answer, of course, is "one bite at a time." No matter how big the project is or how soon it must be finished, it must still be accomplished in single-step increments. A similar well-known aphorism is, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

It all sounds rather fine and grandiose, and I should be introducing some really fantastic project instead of the simple task of reading a book. But that's all I'm doing--reading Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. I think this is the kind of book that would put a lot of people off, even if they were mildly interested in reading it. It's so long--about 800 pages. Its scope is massive--500 years of history. Its title contains a shade of negativity--decadence? I don't think this book can be read like a novel, and so I'm giving myself the whole year to read it. I only need to cover 60-65 pages per month to finish in that time frame, and that breaks the elephant into small enough bites for me.

I started this week, and so far I've read the whole first chapter. Jacques Barzun got my attention from the very first page, because he is obviously unafraid to voice opinions, be they politically correct or not. He writes: "Europe is the peninsula that juts out from the great mass of Asia without a break and is ridiculously called a continent."

What??? And this is coming from someone born in France! I like him already. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admit he's got style and flair. I don't think this is going to be a boring book.

The first chapter begins with a focus on the Reformation. I was little surprised that a secular author would choose that first, over the Renaissance, but he does. He mentions a score of different individuals who were a part of the Reformation, but the spotlight is primarily on Martin Luther, with Erasmus as a foil, so that Luther may be contrasted with him. Luther's Reformation embodies what Barzun considers to be one of the primary ideas of our culture: primitivism, or "back to basics." The simple, the pure, the unadulterated is most highly prized.

I've only added one recommended book from the first chapter to my "to be read" list. I think that's pretty back to basic, don't you?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

It's funny, really, how a book that has been around since 1917 and has been reprinted over and over again can entirely escape one's notice for forty years. I never heard of this book until last year (2006) when I read about it on one or two book blogs. It sounded interesting enough to put on my to-be-read list, and then I was able to mooch a free copy from Bookmooch. The book arrived during my busy days before Christmas, and I set it aside to read when I had some free time.

Free time arrived on Christmas day, and I read the entire book Christmas evening. It's only about 150 pages long, and for the most part, it is a light, engaging story. I found the "voice" of the narrator, Helen McGill, very amusing. The romantic side of the story was a surprise, but the idea is intriguing. Imagine walking out your door one day, buying a bookstore-on-wheels, and setting off without a clue about where you were going or what was going to happen.

What I found most thought-provoking about the story was the change in society between the age of this book and our own. The simple country and small-town folks served by Parnassus, the bookstore-on-wheels, were so hungry for books. They were enchanted by stories and eagerly purchased and read books. They didn't have many, and you knew that they were going to read their books over and over--mental food for hungry minds and hearts.

Our society is so saturated with stories in different forms--television, DVDs, and theaters offer a pretty wide range of choice, and it would be rare to find anyone as hungry for stories and knowledge as Parnassus' customers. I think it would be more difficult today to convince the average person that he should read books. I am not, of course, referring to those of us who are already convinced. I suppose the percentage of books that are trashy and not worthwhile is higher, too, making the whole process even more difficult. However romantic the Parnassus wagon might have been in 1917, I would not want to undertake a similar profession today. I'd be afraid of starvation!

Of course, I wouldn't mind having all the book to read.

Both Parnassus On Wheels and its sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, are available at This is a good choice for booklovers who want a little light reading, and the many literary references to other books add to the fun.

How Krakovianka Wastes Time

I love word games. If any one asks me to play Scrabble, I will happily play.

No one ever asks me.

Even more than Scrabble, I like Boggle. I began playing that when I was a teenager, with my faithful sister who always played, no matter how many times she lost.

No one ever asks me to play Boggle.

But I recently found a Boggle-like game called Eight Letter in Search of Word which has used up a lot of my free time recently, and some that wasn't so free. In other words, it's addictive (if you like word games), so don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, January 08, 2007

What would Miss Manners say?

Every Monday, I take K. to an art class. We walk to the bus stop and catch a bus which drops us off practically at the door. This is a fairly crowded bus (we often have to stand) which goes right through the middle of the city in the middle of the day. It's a normal, expected kind of crowded. Sometimes we even get seats, and we usually have room to breathe.

I kill a couple of hours in town while she has her class (shopping at second hand shops, visiting the market, going to the library, reading in a coffee shop--it's not hard), and then I pick her up and we head home.

We take the same bus line home, but we are catching it just after 6:00pm. At that time of day, a lot of folks are finished with work, school, or whatever their daily business may be, and they are going home. With us. On the same bus. We are fortunate enough to board early in the route, and we usually manage to get seats, for which I am profoundly grateful.

As the bus runs back through the middle of town, heading towards home, more and more people get on. They are going home, too, not into town, so practically no one gets off. It's always packed, standing-room-only, and the few times I've been standing too it was quite a crush. Tonight was worse then usual. The bus was so full, and the people so crammed in, the doors weren't closing very well.

Sitting down for the ride is better than standing, but when the time comes to get off, it's a different story. Tonight there were masses of people standing between us and the door, and I realized that we were sitting in such a way that K. would have to get up and move in front of me toward the door. People packed into buses do not part like the Red Sea. It is quite frankly a matter of pushing your way off, and most definitely doing it before anyone starts to board, or it can be a lost cause. On more than one occasion, the bus driver has closed the doors before I made it to the exit during these busy evening rides.

As we neared our stop, I began explaining to K. that she was going to have to go first, and that she was going to have to PUSH and INSIST on being let through. You have to excuse yourself and tell people "I get off here," I explained. There was just no way I could get around her to go first, letting her hold on to me and follow from behind.

Well, we got to our stop, and we got off (barely) before new riders began boarding. K. immediately began to complain about this person with a bag and that person who wouldn't let her through (remember, though, that no one really has anyplace to go--there is no room to step aside). After she got it out of her system, I said, "There aren't many times or places where it is appropriate to push and shove people to get what you want, but getting out of a crowded bus is one of them."

Actually, with a little practice, I think she'll be an expert.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Chunkster Challenge

Even though I am still working on the last books for my "From the Stacks" challenge, I decided to join this challenge as well, because...well, because it's fun. The idea behind the Chunkster Challenge is to read long books, with lots of pages. Since we have six months in which to read, I decided to list 3 books that qualify. I was planning to read these books in 2007 anyway.

First on my list is North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, with 521 pages. I've had this on the shelf for a while, and it will be my first book by Mrs. Gaskell.

Next (although I don't know what order I might actually read these) is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, with 614 pages. Again, this will my first novel by Kingsolver.

And finally, The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, with 743 pages. This will not be my first go with Dickens, but this novel was his first published book. After I finish reading it, I plan to go back to the Pickwick chapter in Little Women and see if it makes more sense, or if knowing Dickens' book adds any kind of meaning to that section. I've read Little Women enough times to remember the literary allusion to Pickwick Papers, but I have not read this particular work by Dickens before, so I might have missed something.

I also have one nonfiction book on my list of reading plans for 2007: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. It is some 800 pages long, but I am planning to read it across the entire year, so it will not be finished by the June 30th deadline for this challenge.

I'm not really scared of big, chunky books. I've read plenty of them in my reading lifetime. These days, it's more an issue of time than anything else. Short stories, quick reads, and novellas just go a lot faster. As witnessed by my extremely slow progress in War and Peace. I won't even be starting any of these other chunky books until I finish that one. Right now I'm leaning toward North and South as the first one. I'm still a bit disgruntled by A Tale of Two Cities, and don't really want to read Dickens right now.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I don't understand Chesterton

I mentioned in my December reading post that I had listened to an audio version of The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton. The book is a series of short stories which revolve around Horn Fisher, who says about himself that he Knows Too Much.

Nearly every story involves a murder. And nearly every murderer gets away. Mr. "Knows Too Much" Fisher usually knows who committed the crime, but whether through lack of proof or some other reason, the murderer is not brought to justice in any traditional sense--such as being arrested and tried for the crimes committed. The usual explanation for nothing to be done about apprehending the criminal (because that's how I see them) is that they serve some greater purpose in the government, or the victim was a scoundrel, or...something. I think the one that bothered me the most was the policemen who was simply "retired" (with his pension!) after shooting two fellow-officers, both of whom died. Of course, he was shot, himself, but he recovered and lived and did not answer for his crime. The political reasons for that (having something to do with Ireland and England) weren't clear to me.

A few of the murderers end up dying one way or another, but none of them are apprehended or charged.

And I don't understand why. I don't understand what Chesterton is doing, or what this book is trying to say. It does not feel like any kind of ordinary crime or mystery novel to me.

I have been very slowly reading some of the Father Brown stories by Chesterton, and I am similarly at sea with them.

I have respected friends who love Chesterton, and he certainly engages my mind, but my heart is not with him. If anyone can shed some light on this, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Chesterton. What does he have against criminals, even if they happen to be important and influential people, paying for their crimes?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Books read in December

I have to wrap things up from 2006!

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry--I already wrote about this.

The Burden by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott--This is the third book I've read this year, of the six that fit into this category. These are Christie's explorations into the human psyche that go beyond the criminal mind. I found this one extremely improbable. ( What is it about authors from that era? Why do their characters always "know" things and make statements about their certain knowledge, when it cannot be more than speculation? Does anyone know what I'm talking about?)

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley--a quick, fun book that I read on Christmas evening in its entirety. I plan to write more about it soon.

Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh--I already wrote about this one, too. Looking forward to more mysteries from this author.

Northanger Abbey Jane Austen--Well, I didn't think I'd have time to reread the last of Jane Austen's six novels this year, but thanks to Librivox, I listened to it while I worked on Christmas presents. There were different readers for the different chapters, and I was amused at the various interpretations of "D---!" That is what Jane Austen discreetly wrote, and I'm convinced she meant it to be "d*mn," as it is explicitly called swearing. (John Thorpe is the only character character in the book who talks this way, I think.) Some readers read it as "darn" or "devil," but what really made me chuckle was the reader who read it, rather literally, as "Dash!"

The Man Who Knew Too Much by G.K. Chesterton--a collection of short stories about Horn (Horne?) Fisher, the Man Who Knew Too Much. Also an audio "book" from Librivox.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster--another audio book, and sort of a YA title. E. was so interested, she brought her work into the room to listen with me.

The History of Henry Esmond by William Thackeray--not quite finished.

I didn't even pick up War and Peace in December, but I hope to report it finished by the end of January.

Monday, January 01, 2007


Happy New Year to bloglines subscribers! I didn't know about you (Thanks, Mother Auma, for the tip!).

It was so warm, I stood outside without a coat last night for 30 minutes, watching my neighbors send a lot of money up in smoke, but it was a great show.

(Note: if you drive the shaft of a rocket too far into the ground, it will not have enough thrust to take off and will explode on the ground. Run for cover and use water-filled bottles to launch them in future. These things are not illegal in many US states just to spoil people's fun.)

My least favorite book from 2006 was not A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. It was Inkspell by Cornelia Funke.