Friday, December 11, 2009

Elidith and the Empty Frame

Canadian writer Seraphic is on another fiction spree at her current blog, Seraphic Goes to Scotland. It's called "Elidith and the Empty Frame," and has a lovely tone inspired by, but not slavishly imitative of, P.G. Wodehouse. (Think Bertie & Jeeves, only female and in Scotland.)
The sunbeam, hitting me at that particular moment and at that particular angle, had all the force of an atomic bomb. With a shriek, I threw a pillow over my pulsating head. My first thought, of course, was that Edinburgh had been vapourised. But, since cogito ergo sum still seemed to apply, I attempted speech.


“Good morning, Lady Bramble.”

“Are we dead?”

“It would seem not, Lady Bramble.”

“That bright flash did not, in fact, betoken a catastrophic event?”

“Och no, Lady Bramble. It’s a bonny day, aye.”

I had a dekko around the pillow. The girl was clutching a velvet curtain in her hand and looking out upon Moray Place with a pleased expression not unlike that of old Angus Bàn, my grandpapa’s factor, when sitting down to a new-cooked trout.

“It’s bloody early for it to be day,” I said. “It strikes me as rather unfair.”

“But, Lady Bramble, it is nine o’clock.”

That put a different complexion on things. I removed the pillow.

“Good heavens,” I said. “Is it really? Whatever was I up to last night?”

To read all of the chapters, click on the Elidith label at the bottom of chapter 1. Then scroll down. Since they are on a blog, the chapters are in reverse order.

I am following it avidly though I fear that she will break off the narrative at some point -- either because she decides that it has no future, or because she suspects that it does and wants to make us wait until it's published.

BTW, Seraphic has a book coming out this spring from Novalis based on her original blog, Seraphic Single. It's called Seraphic Singles: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life. I plan to pre-order as soon as it shows up on Amazon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Little Off-Topic Nepotism

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging to bring you a spot of nepotism:

Every year I try to get a new Christmas CD, and this year's is The TJR Christmas Card featuring my brother TJR who plays and sings neo-classic rock. I'm a Medieval/Renaissance girl myself, but I confess to being impressed by the virtuoso fingering my brother displays in these instrumental interpretations of eight traditional Christmas carols. And I was particularly charmed by his original song, "Christmas in California." It's Southern California's reply to "White Christmas," and hearing it will stir feelings of nostalgia in any Californian transplanted to the frigid Midwest or East Coast. The CD is packaged in a cardboard case which doubles as a Christmas card. And if you buy five or more of them from his website they're only $5.00 apiece, making them a reasonably priced and easily mailed gift. Single copies of the disk will soon be available from CD Baby. For now you can download the complete album or individual songs. (By the way, that little snowman at the beginning of my post was done by my son Filius for the cover of the CD.)

We now return you to our regularly scheduled programing.

(Update: There is an expanded version of this post on my quilting blog, Quilting Bibliophagist in which I natter on about music I'll be playing while sewing my Christmas quilt.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Adopting Needy Books

Sometimes I buy books I already own simply because I feel sorry for them. Like stray kittens, they beg to be taken home.

Our library has a little used bookstore which is run by the Friends of the Library. Today I was browsing through their display of Christmas books and discovered a copy of The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was a paperback and quite new looking. I picked it up, fondly remembering how many times I've read this book, both to myself and to my children. Inside the front cover was an inscription which wrung my heart.

"To our sons and perhaps someday our grandchildren: This is a very precious book. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have. Love, Mom & Dad."

What happened? How did this book end up in the donation box at the library? It shows little sign of having been read. Did the sons not share their parents' taste? Did they become football jocks instead of bibliophibians? Did the boys leave the book behind when they left home? In that case, what happened to the parents? Were they eaten by a rampaging rhinoceros? Surely they would not have discarded this book had they been alive and well.

Moved by anxiety and pity, I paid for the book and took it home. I already have a hardcover copy, but perhaps I can find this paperback copy a good home.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Seven Quick Takes -- Sloooow Day Edition

Once again I'm joining Jennifer for 7 Quick Takes on Friday.

1. I am sick. Not the flu, thank goodness. But my sinuses are so painful that it hurts to read. Aaaaaargh! Which is worse -- not reading or reading with sore eyeballs? Either way, I guess I should offer it up for the Poor Souls in purgatory. (All Souls Day is just around the corner. Pray early and often!)

2. I love reading children's literature, but I'm not that keen on young adult fiction. I hear that many adults enjoy reading YA, but I don't. The teen years were not a happy period of my life, so I cannot fathom why any adult would want to relive them through fiction -- especially nowadays when most of the titles look so grim, dark, and gloomy. (Some YA fantasy is kind of fun such as Sorcery and Cecelia. But I never really consider books like that to be YA. Although they're marketed as young adult fiction, they aren't awash in adolescent angst.

3. Shelving in the YA section has its own special challenges since our library has set aside that area as a teen only zone with movable floor seating which sometimes makes reaching the shelves a job for a contortionist. And I overhear all kinds of things when I'm working there, everything from what kind of pornographic content is available on cable to whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is French, Australian, or a robot.

4. I guess I'm showing my age. When a patron says he can't find a certain book on the shelf, I always ask if he's already checked the card catalog to ascertain whether the book is in the library or currently checked out. Recently I realized that I'm probably the only aide who says card catalog. Because of course there aren't any cards. It's all on computer and has been in most libraries for quite some time. Old habits die hard.

5. One of the things that most surprised me when I first began to work in libraries is how filthy the books are. I am not, you understand, referring to their contents but to their covers. Like filthy lucre, books pass through many hands and pick up a good deal of grime. You don't notice it when handling a single book. But if you work as a library aide, two hours of shelving will leave your fingers black. I can't bring myself to eat my break-time snack until I've washed my hands at least twice. With everyone getting excited about the upcoming flu season, the city has installed hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance of the library and near the reference desk. But book don't get cleaned unless they're returned with seriously sticky, icky stuff on their mylar covers. So consider yourselves warned: When using library materials, don't touch your face.

6. Okay, so fiction books get shelved first by author, and then all of the books by a certain author are shelved alphabetically by title. Now I've always been taught that titles that begin with numerals, such as 92 Pacific Boulevard by Debbie Macomber, are shelved as if the numerals had been spelled out. (So this title would be shelved after Mrs. Miracle and before On a Snowy Night.)

When I started work at my current library I made it a point to ask my supervisor about this point just to make sure that this was the shelving protocol they were following. (It was.) But I notice that some of the aides are placing these titles at the beginning of an author's books, even before titles beginning with the letter "A." I think this must be the younger aides who have grown up with computers which always place numbers and symbols before letters in alphabetized listings.

7. For some reason being sick always inspires me to do long neglected household tasks. Yesterday, in between collapsing on my sickbed of pain, I slowly washed my way through a great stack of dirty dishes which had been piling up all week. And washed several loads of towels. Today I am slowly cleaning the stove top, including the burner grates. I don't know why I do this. Maybe my subconscious figures that if I'm feeling lousy anyway, I might as well do housework. After all, when I'm feeling fine there are so many other things I'd much rather do.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tim Powers & Pirates (& More)

I can't speak for the entire Catholic blogsphere, but everyone in my own little corner of it (do spheres have corners?) is all a-twitter at the recently confirmed report that Disney has optioned Tim Power's novel, On Stranger Tides, and will be using elements from it in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

I'm always delighted when an author I like encounters good fortune. Especially when it is likely to include tie-in editions of his novels (More people discovering his work -- yay!) and, hopefully, an incentive for his publishers to keep his other novels in print.

As an added bonus, while clicking around on related links, I discovered news of even more interest to a bibliophagist. Earlier this year PS Publishing released Powers: Secret Histories by John Berlyne. Described by the publisher as "a bibliographical cornucopia,"
. . . Secret Histories has been nearly ten years in the making and brings together an astonishing range of Powers ephemera - a huge treat and a remarkable resource for both fans and collectors alike.

As well as a complete, illustrated reference of every Tim Powers book published to date, . . . Secret Histories offers an extraordinary insight into the stories behind the stories, collecting together in a single volume Powers material previously seen only in private collections.

Here - in print for the very first time - you'll find poetry, drawings, research and plotting notes, novel outlines, early drafts, out-takes and an excerpt from the author's unpublished 1974 novel, To Serve in Hell.

Supporting these riches are story notes and commentary by Powers himself and you'll also find articles and essays from collaborators, friends and renowned Powers aficionados . . .

The book was published in three separate editions. The regular signed edition (limited to 1,000 copies) costs £40. The two volume slipcased edition (£195), which includes an unfinished novel which Powers wrote in the early '70s, The Waters Deep, Deep, Deep, has been illustrated by the author. The deluxe edition (£495) also includes a third volume: "a full colour facsimile edition of the original handwritten manuscript of The Anubis Gates, complete with doodles, crossings out, dog-eared corners and even coffee stains! Only twenty-six copies of this facsimile, signed by Powers and individually lettered, will be available . . ."

After adding postage and packing from the U.K., I doubt that even the least expensive of these in within my book budget. But it's nice to know they're out there.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Type Like a Pirate!

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, here's a picture of "the Corsair Ergonomic Keyboard, so useful for piratical bloggers" which was posted by Mark Lieberman on The Language Log in 2005. (Maybe everyone else on the Internet has already seen it, but it was new to me.)

There's also an amusing discussion of "pirate-speak." Did pirates really did go around saying, "Aaarrrh?" Apparently, Robert Newton's portrayal in the 1950's movie version of Treasure Island is one source of the popular perception that they did.

But in real life, both dialect from the southwest part of England, as well as Maritime Pidgin English, might have played a role in how how pirates spoke. For more details, click here.

(And a HT to Grammar Girl whose newsletter featured the link today.)

P.S. Talk Like a Pirate Day seemed like a good time to resume blogging since I was shanghaied a few months ago by life, the universe, and everything. (Well, mostly responsibilities.) I think I'm back now.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Library for Juana

A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Ines by Pat Mora. Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal.

I enjoy shelving in the children's section of the library even though the work itself is physically much harder than in the adult section. I smile when I see that titles which I loved as a child are still being checked out. And it's a pleasure to discover that some of my favorite childhood authors have written books that I've never had the opportunity to read.

I'm also fascinated by how the selection of nonfiction books has changed over the years. I suppose that's partly a reflection of what sort of reports are assigned by the local schools, which in turn are influenced by what topics our society currently deems important (or at least, fashionable).

The biography section seems to have a much wider selection than when I was young. Although I could wish that there were fewer books about media celebrities, I am pleased that the current emphasis on "diversity" has brought young readers biographies whose subjects lived in countries and time periods less commonly featured when I was young.

A Library for Juana is a biography in picture book format about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a literary nun who lived in 17th century Mexico. The book focuses on young Juana's love of books and study. She grew up in the home of her grandfather who had an extensive library, and she learned to read and write at the age of three, following her older sister to school despite having been told that she was too young to attend. She began to write poetry while still a little girl and hoped someday to study at the university in Mexico City because its library housed thousands of books. When told that only men could attend the university, she appeared at dinner the next day wearing boy's clothes. "I'm practicing so I can go to the university in Mexico City when I'm older. . . I want to study about music and plants and stars. I want to write poems."

Eventually, Juana was sent to Mexico City -- first to live with relatives who hired tutors for her, and later at the viceroy's palace as a lady-in-waiting where she continued to read, study, and write. Eventually she entered a convent where, in addition to serving as accountant and librarian, she produced a prodigious literary output in both poetry and prose. Her own personal library became one of the largest in the Americas.

What shines throughout this book is Juana's love of books, reading, and learning. How could I not love it? The illustrations, executed in watercolor and gouache, give the reader a vivid sense of the time and place in which she lived.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Winter Lights

Winter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines.

One of the the perks of my job as a library aide is discovering unusual picture books. This one caught my eye because the author-illustrator is a quilter.

Winter, and special lights and holidays which brighten the darkest days of the year, is the theme of this book of poems. The author's subjects range from Hanukkah to the Winter Solstice to the fireworks of the Chinese New Year to the farolitos which light the way for Mary and Joseph during Christmas celebrations in the Southwest.

I must admit that I preferred the illustrations to the text because my taste in poetry is rather hobbitish and traditional. But I love these quilts! They simply glow with light thanks to the author's judicious use dark fabrics, as in the Christmas tree quilt on the cover. (See above.)

And the piecing techniques which she has chosen for each quilt are also well suited to the subject of each poem. For example, the twisted log cabin blocks which Hines uses to illustrate "Fireplace" and "One Little Candle" bring unexpected movement to her representation of flickering, dancing flames. The aurora borealis is appropriately suggested by the bargello quilt illustrating "A Sight to See." And there is a happy marriage of both color and technique in the author's use of hand-dyes in her appliqued quilt, "Protest," which illustrates the glow of the setting sun in the winter sky and the soft snowy hills.

I would love to show you what I mean by by posting pictures of the quilts I've just referred to, but I am scrupulously respecting Hines's copyright. Fortunately, you can see what I mean by visiting her website, here. Click on the link, "For Quilters" and then scroll down and click on the third book, Winter Lights, to see how she designed and made each quilt. (Unfortunately, the design of the website prevents me from giving you a direct link to the quilts.) Now that I know that she has two other quilt illustrated books, I plan to look them up at my library.

By the way, one poem in particular resonated in my book lover's soul. It dealt with a furtive pleasure with which I am sure we can all sympathize.

Lights Out

I pull the covers
over my head
and let out a few snores
for good measure . . .
then snap on my flashlight
and open my book.
Now this is
reading for pleasure!

Be sure to look at the accompanying quilt on her website!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In Honor of Mother's Day

" How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness."

--G.K. Chesterton, speaking about motherhood in What's Wrong With the World?

Friday, February 20, 2009

7 Quick Takes - Misc. Edition

1) As I was shelving in nonfiction I noticed a title on the shelf which spoke volumes to me: Why Women Need Chocolate. I don't actually know anything about this book, but it seems to me that the title states an eternal truth. Women need chocolate. And I've discovered that the craving for it is distinct from the craving for sweets.

Because I'm prediabetic, I cut sweets from my diet about a year ago. And I found that the craving for sugar really does fade after a month or so. Not so with chocolate, not so! When life is stressful there's still nothing like it. But now I've discovered a way to eschew sweets yet still self-medicate: Trader Joe's Belgian Unsweetened Baking Chocolate. No sugar at all and a smooth chocolate taste! It's not at all bitter or harsh. Of course, it probably helps that I've always been a fan of bitter sweet chocolate. (Milk chocolate is for wimps!)

2)Darwin recently wrote about the toy appeal of Amazon's Kindle 2. Though I love the feel of a book in my hand, I have to admit that I have occasionally considered the advantages of a Kindle, most recently on my trip to Texas to visit Fillius Major and his family. I always try to travel light which is not easy to do if you're also worried about running out of reading material during the trip. Books are heavy, and I can't take just one thanks to the current security regulations which require arriving at the airport as much as two hours ahead of flight time -- because I can read through a lot in two hours! And then there's the flight time, and maybe a layover. And what if that doesn't leave me enough reading material for the trip home? Talk about midflight panic! It was this sort of fear that had me standing in an airport book stall, with my carry-on firmly clutched between my feet and my purse dangling from my arm, reading about Dewey (the only palatable selection in the whole store). A Kindle would be so much lighter to carry than a stack books, and I'd never have to worry about running out of something to read.

3) Dewey Decimal Conundrums: The Dangerous Book For Boys is at 031.02 which is right next to the Guinness Book of World's Records. Why is The Daring Book for Girls at 606.7008 right next to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?

4) Yesterday the unthinkable happened: I forgot to take a book with me on my trip to the doctor's office. I surveyed the magazine offerings in the waiting room. The inevitable Sports Illustrated (ugh!), various automobile magazines (zzzzzz), Parents (been there, done that), Golf (the most boring game on the planet), various financial magazines, and Arthritis (don't need that yet!). So that left JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. (I did read one interesting article there in which the author was reminiscing about the lone family doctor who served his tiny hometown and who sparked his desire to enter the medical profession.) But it would have been another good time to have had a Kindle. Except I probably would have forgotten to bring it with me.

5) I've just discovered that one can subscribe to a Spanish Word of the Day at

6) I bought a copy of MindFlights, Issue 4 in order to read "Dragonsaint" by D.G.D. Davidson, the proprietor of The Sci Fi Catholic. The author has described his novelette as featuring, "such things as ancient legends, dragons, coffee, attractive women with glasses, dragons, wildland firefighting, dragons, unrequited love, and dragons." I thought the story was a lot of fun and had some interesting world-building. And ya gotta love a dragon who wears a scapular. Why a Catholic dragon? Well, that would be the fault of St. Philomena, a spunky little girl who, after taming her dragon, insists that he be baptized. (After being catechised, of course.) But has the dragon really been converted? Or has he only restrained all these centuries by the power of St. Philomena's cord around his neck?

7) In a previous post, I spoke about mentally mispronouncing words I encountered in my reading which I'd never heard spoken aloud. But I forgot to confess that (despite the title of this blog) I've no idea how to pronounce "bibliophagist"!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jules Verne and Nellie Bly

Jules Verne was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid, and I was pleased that Fillius came to share my taste for 19th century authors in general and Jules Verne in particular. Lately he has been reading aloud Five Weeks in a Balloon to me while I wash the nightly dishes. I had never read it before because it was not readily available when I was young. (This was back in the Pleistocene, dear children, before one could read obscure works on Project Gutenberg or order them online from used booksellers.

Though his first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon already has the hallmarks of Verne's more well known works: a scientifically ingenious apparatus, stalwart comrades, personal bravery, a loyal servant (who also provides comic relief), exotic scenery, and exciting adventure. The story concerns Dr. Ferguson, an Englishman, his faithful servant Joe, and his Scottish friend Kennedy, who have set out in hot-air balloon to cross the continent of Africa. Dr. Ferguson has invented a new apparatus which eliminates the need to either release gas or to drop ballast in order to control the balloon's altitude thus allowing longer balloon voyages than have hitherto been possible. It's a jolly good adventure story.

At various points in their journey, our heroes rescue a Catholic missionary about to be killed by hostile natives, nearly die of thirst while becalmed in a desert, are attacked by condors, are mistaken for gods by credulous natives, and discover a gold deposit from which they are unable to profit since its untold wealth is much too heavy for them to cart away in their balloon. Not to mention the incendiary pigeons! And throughout the novel, the exotic flora and fauna of Africa are breathtakingly described. (Well, I suppose it was breathtaking to the Frenchmen reading the novel when it first came out.) Towards the end, the balloon begins to suffer technical difficulties and sinks lower and lower. Unless Dr. Ferguson can think of a remedy, our heroes will either be permanently stranded in the wilds of Africa, or will fall into the clutches of the fierce horsemen who are currently pursuing them. Whew!

(N.B. Modern readers may be surprised at Kennedy's enthusiasm for shooting big game as well as the author's depiction of non-Europeans as being fierce, primitive, and superstitious. I did not find this to be a problem because when I travel in time, I Expect Things To Be Different.)

As a follow-up to this novel, I am now reading Around the World in Seventy-two Days by Nellie Bly, an American journalist who set out to beat Phileas Fogg at his own game. (Fogg was the hero of Verne's novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.

When Bly originally proposed this stunt to her editor she was turned down.

"It is impossible for you to do it," was the terrible verdict. "In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. . . . so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this."

"Very well," I said angrily, "Start the man, and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him."

A year later her editor gave her the go-ahead -- but with only one day's notice! Despite his skepticism, she was she able to beat Fogg's travel record, and she was able to shop and pack for the trip in less than a day. This was quite a feat when you consider that when she began shopping for her traveling dress at 11:00 in the morning, it was still just a length of fabric. By 5:00, and two fittings later, it was complete. She confined her baggage to a single piece of hand luggage.

One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one's ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter.

. . . Over my arm I carried a silk waterproof, the only provision I made against rainy weather. After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage. At every port where I stopped at I could have bought anything from a ready-made dress down . . . .
Well, I found all of these details fascinating. It's the sort of thing a male writer wouldn't have mentioned. I was also interested in reading about the challenges she faced as a woman traveling alone. And I very much enjoyed reading about her brief visit with Jules Verne and his wife as she passed through France. Both of them were very gracious to her despite the language barrier.

Through her translator she asked how he came to write his novel.
"I got it from a newspaper," was his reply. "I took up a copy of Le Siécle one morning, and found in it a discussion and some calculations showing that the journey around the world might be done in eighty days. The idea pleased me, and while thinking it over it struck me that in their calculations they had not called into account the difference in the meridians and I thought what a denouement such a thing would make in a novel, so I went to work to write one. Had it not been for the denouement I don't think that I should ever have written the book."
I'm enjoying Nellie Bly's book, but I wish I had a real copy of it. Like Nellie Bly, I prefer to travel light.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Words, Words, Words

The biggest disappointment of my childhood was that no one would teach me to read until I went to school. And then, when I finally entered kindergarten, I discovered that I'd still have to wait another year. In those days, kindergarten confined itself to preschool activities such as smearing tempera paint onto newsprint with big clumsy brushes and learning to be away from one's mother for half a day. I felt rather superior to the other children because I knew how to write my name. I'd managed to wrangle that and the alphabet out of my mother. But she was afraid to teach me more for fear she'd do it wrong and ruin my academic career. (What can I say? It was an age of reverence for Experts.) I felt cheated all over again when I went to college and discovered that many of my friends had learned to read long before first grade! In fact, my husband-to-be couldn't even remember learning to read -- that's how young he'd been.

At any rate, I was finally initiated into the mysteries of written language and the monosyllabic world of Dick & Jane. "Look, Spot. Oh, look. Look and see." My parents have a home movie of my two younger brothers unhappily sitting beside me on the couch as I proudly read aloud them from my reader. Every so often they'd try to wriggle off , but I'd pull them back into position telling them, "Just wait -- the good part is coming."

I don't think they stuck around because I have no more memories of reading aloud to anyone except in school. Like most children who love to read and have access to a library, my reading level was soon far above my grade level though my everyday speech did not reflect my reading vocabulary. I had not yet read Anne of Green Gables, but like Anne, I already knew that children who used unusual words were either laughed at or thought uppity. Besides, I didn't even know how to pronounce many of the words I commonly read. After all, I'd never heard anyone say them! I'd been taught sight reading in first grade, so "sounding it out" was not my first response when meeting a new word. And though I later acquired phonics, I was reading too fast and furiously in those days to apply it or to look up the word in a dictionary. Besides, who can ever make heads or tails of those dictionary pronunciation keys?

Consequently, I mentally pronounced "melancholy" as meh-latch-o-lee for quite a long time. And the latter pronunciation still has a more poignant feel to me. And even when I got the vowels right in a new word, I'd usually misplace the accent.

Even now, I still discover long-held mispronunciations. I've always pronounced "victuals" as vik-tchuals. Thanks to's Word of the Day, I've just discovered that it's actually vit-ulz. How disappointing! I've seen "vittles" in print before which, as it turns out, is a variant spelling, but I'd thought it was a separate word. What a cheat! "Victuals" looks so Latinate, yet sounds so Appalachian. (Actually, it turns out that its original Anglo-French spelling vitaylle was changed by 1523 to conform to its Latin root, victualia. But the pronunciation remains vittle.)

Which is why I love online dictionaries! I click on the little speaker icon and it tells me how to say the word. Sometimes I sit there clicking it over and over, trying to overwrite a mispronunciation from my youth.

(I subscribe to two Word of the Day services,'s and's. Both include definitions, a little etymology, and examples of the featured word used in a sentence. provides more example sentences than Merriam-Webster, but both are good.)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Escape From Hell

Ooooo! Niven & Pournelle's Escape From Hell is coming out on February 17th. It's the sequel to their Inferno. I wonder if I should put it into my Amazon shopping cart.

I always thought that Niven & Pournelle wrote better novels together than either of them did on their own though I can't speak with any authority about their more recent work since I stopped reading them many years ago. And while I can still remember that I liked or disliked this or that title, I can't recall much about them any more. However, I've read Inferno many times, most recently about two years ago while I was also reading Dante. (That was fun!)

Of course, the novel doesn't buy into the whole Catholic concept of hell, sin, and purgatory, but it was a clever concept and a lot of fun. And I'm willing to suspend a fair amount of disbelief in exchange for a light and funny romp. Especially since the main character, Allen Carpenter, was forced by circumstance reexamine his basic assumptions about life, the universe, and everything.

Can Niven & Pournelle do it again? Would some of the aspects that intrigued me still be there? Do I want to spend $16.47 (preorder price) to find out?

Actually, it's not just a budgetary matter. Ever since becoming a widow, I've lost much of my book-buying enthusiasm. Part of the fun of building the library was being able to share it with someone. But now I'm alone.

As homeschooling parents we also used to tell ourselves that we were building the library not just for ourselves, but for our children -- so that they would have the joy of discovering strange and wonderful books in the family library as they grew up. But now they're grown, mostly gone, and not likely to come browsing round our shelves.

Eternity seems so close sometimes, and they say that you can't take it with you. As I look around at my wall-to-wall shelves, I begin to think that I probably won't even be able to read all the books I've already got. Is there any point to piling up more?

Friday, January 30, 2009

7 Quick Takes - Library Edition

Once again, I'm joining Jennifer for 7 Quick Takes on Friday:

1) There are some mysteries of human behavior that will probably never be solved. For example, judging by the number of times the topic crops up in the works of Miss Manners, scientists have yet to discover why a sizable number of people are afraid to use the fancy guest towels in their host's bathroom. Similarly, I've yet to figure out why so many patrons of the public library, people who probably leave their towels on the bathroom floor, feel such a compulsion to return books to the library shelves when they have no idea where they belong. These patron-shelved books are easy to spot because they've usually been placed on the shelf either upside down or backwards (i.e. with the pages facing out).

2) This problem is especially acute in the children's section, but I harbor no ill-will against the perpetrators because I'm so glad to see kids using and enjoying the books. However, this past week as I was sitting on the floor reordering a lower shelf that was hopelessly mixed up, a very small Asian boy toddled up to me with a picture book and asked "Where this go?"

"May I put it away for you?" I asked politely, curbing the urge to hug him in gratitude. His eyes widened and a delighted grin split his face as he handed me his book. A little while later he returned with a slightly larger boy in tow who also had a book needing to be shelved. I thanked them gravely.

Oh, mothers, unless your infant prodigy knows the Dewey Decimal system, please teach them that when they've finished looking at a book, they should simply leave it on one of the tables for us to reshelve. It's so much easier for us library aides to put books directly where they belong rather than to have to weed them out of the wrong places while we're trying to shelve other books.

3) One thing that's really struck me while working in the children's section is how much more fantasy there is now than when I was a kid. I seem to recall its being rather rare in those days, so my hunger for fantasy was usually fed with fairy tales, mythology and folk tales. But the shelves are awash with it now, much of it in trilogies or even longer series. Sometimes I have to restrain myself from acting the old curmudgeon, "Ah, you youngsters don't know how easy you have it nowadays . . .

(Historical note: I know that The Hobbit had already been published before I was born, but I don't think I ran into it until at least the 6th or 7th grade -- and that was only by round-about chance. I was reading an anthology of supposedly humorous stories, and the only good selection in it was the riddle chapter from The Hobbit. So naturally I had to track down the complete book. Interestingly, the anthology had the original version of "Riddles In the Dark." The copy of The Hobbit in our local public library had the revised chapter which Tolkien prepared after writing The Lord of the Rings. The Narnia books were also in our library during that period, but I never deigned to read them. Why? I thought the titles sounded stupid. Ah, youth!)

4) It's also interesting to see which authors which I read and enjoyed when I was a kid are still on the shelves. (I'm not talking about big names like Laura Ingalls Wilder or Beverly Cleary. Just favorite authors whose books happened to cross my path when I was young.) I'm pleased to see that Noel Streatfeild's "Shoe" books are still being read. I was not surprised to see at least some Carol Ryrie Brink since she won the Newberry for Caddie Woodlawn. However, they don't have Baby Island which I would dearly love to read again. (I haven't seen a copy in almost forty years!) I am delighted that Mara Daughter of the Nile is still on the shelves, but The Lost Queen of Egypt is not. In fact, getting a used copy online would run me at least a hundred dollars! Sigh.

5) The big excitement at our library lately was the recent discovery that someone was checking out our new books with a stolen library card and selling them on eBay. However, thanks to his invincible ignorance of how libraries work, he was tracked down and caught. The moral is: Don't mess around with librarians. They have powers far beyond those of mortal men! (Even if we don't wear capes and spandex.)

6) Some people might think that a four hour stretch of shelving books would be boring. But I love my job! It allows me to become more closely acquainted with the collection than I might otherwise be. Whenever I see a book that looks interesting, I sneak it onto the bottom shelf of my bookcart so that when I've gone off duty, I can examine it more closely and decide whether I want to check it out. (I am very scrupulous about not reading blurbs while I'm on the clock.) Consequently, my check-outs mirror whatever section I've been assigned that week. Here are a few of the library books I've recently borrowed:

Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel by Richard H. Minear.

Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey, interviews selected and edited by Karen Wilken. (The interviews are from various sources and date from 1973 to 1999. Includes illos from Gorey's books and copious notes.)

Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography by Stan & Jan Berenstain. (The creators of the popular Berenstain Bears books write alternating chapters describing their early lives and fine arts training. I hadn't realized they already had a flourishing career as cartoonists and authors long before they started writing their books about the Bear family. They also describe how, with the sometimes dubious help of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess), they got into the children's book business. )

7) One of the perks of working in the library: you get an advance peek at the donations that come in. Donated books are sold by the Friends of the Library. I bought a stack of nearly new children's books last week for about 25 cents each.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Food or Books?

Just now I am reading Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction by Peter Costello.

In 1848 the young Jules Verne and his friend Edouard Bonamy went to Paris. An impoverished student, Verne struggled to keep his expenses down to 40 sous per day, a budget recommended by his careful father. Between them, the two young men had only one evening suit and one pair of dress shoes. Consequently, they had to take turns going out in the evening to the elegant salons of Mme. de Jomini, Mme. de Mariani and Mme. de Barrere.

But for Verne the real hardship was not having enough money to buy books.

At the beginning of December Jules was telling his father about buying a complete Shakespeare and a set of Scott. He got nervous shudders when he stood outside a bookshop, so great was his desire for books of all kinds. He went through 'all the torture of unsatisfied passion' when he could not buy them. He had been unable to resist the well-bound edition of Shakespeare and had to live on dried prunes for three days. (p. 39)
My goodness -- what utter disregard for the digestive system!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Seraphic Single Rides Again

Seraphic Single is posting a new novella, The Swiss Guard on her current bog, Seraphic Meets Bridezilla. (Since it's a blog, you'll have to scroll all the way down to the bottom to get to the first chapter.) I don't know how long she'll be posting chapters. Two of her previous novellas were started on her blog; the finished versions were (and still are) only available through

The first one, The Tragical Tale of Alienus of England is "a tragicomic tale of a pious Catholic Englishman who flees academic Scotland with a witch at his heels." Romance, witchcraft, ancient battles, magic hedgehogs, and the traditional Latin Mass combine in an unlikely mixture that charms the reader.

It's sequel, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, is the story of "An opera singer. A musician. A cop. A composer. A mysterious young widow. They all come together under the roof of a sad blue house in the last remaining French possession in North America: Saint-Pierre et Miquelon." This one has a slower pace, and a mysterious tone. I like the musical imagery.

But what I'd really like to read is Seraphic's first novel which was set in Valhalla. The heroine is a female boxer who has just died. Another important character is Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. And I love the way she portrays the goddess Freya. (She's, like, your best girlfriend ever -- but very, very dangerous.) Alas, that novel has not yet found a publisher, so I haven't been able to read the ending. But I keep hoping, and I'm probably not the only one lighting votive candles.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Time Enough At Last

The other day I discovered that you can watch old Twilight Zone episodes online. I never saw the series when it was originally broadcast. I was just a kid then, and not only did I have an early bedtime, but I was frightened to death by the theme music and opening credits. (Seriously, I think Rod Serling could have had me cowering under the covers just by reading aloud a shopping list.) Eventually, when I was older and braver, I saw many of the episodes in syndication. Still later, after the invention of the VCR, I was able to catch a good number of the remaining ones thanks to several Twilight Zone marathons on a local channel.

There's one episode that every book lover remembers, "Time Enough At Last," about a hapless bookworm who, surrounded by unsympathetic nonreaders, has little time or opportunity to read the books he loves. Then a nuclear holocaust leaves him all alone with plenty of books and all the time in the world to read them -- or so you'd think. I had to play this for Fillius who had never seen it. I wonder what it's like to see a Twilight Zone episode and not know that there's usually a twist at the end.

By the way, the book cover above is from my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion which we bought in 1982. I never did see all the episodes, so I devoured this book which has a synopsis of every show along with notes on how each episode came to be written, details of the filming, etc. (For you youngsters who grew up in the DVD era, it was sort of like having a super deluxe edition with lots of Special Features.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Won't You Read?

My profile says, "I'll read the back of the cereal box if nothing else is handy," so you might wonder if there's anything I won't read.

In a physical sense, no. If my gaze falls upon a line of print, that baby's read even before I'm aware of having done so. It's that involuntary -- though once I'm aware of what's on the page, I can mentally cross my eyes and block out the rest of it.

But in a voluntary sense -- being a creature of free will and practicing good old fashioned custody of the eyes -- I can and do refrain from reading certain things. Sometimes, it's merely a matter of taste; other times it's a question of integrity. I don't read:

The Uninteresting -- because life is too short to read things that bore you. Like the sports page or auto repair manuals. But dull comic strips are perhaps the greatest offenders because by nature they are supposed to be funny. (I bet Thomas Aquinas has written something about this.) For me, the most boring comic strip in the world is Marmaduke. It has only one joke: The Dog Is Big. But Ziggy is a close second: it has no joke at all. Neither does Love is . . . , though it was never intended to be funny, I guess. (It is, however, very boring.)

Hate Literature -- especially the kind Jack Chick leaves tucked under your windshield wipers. (Okay, so I have read a couple. That's how I know they're hate literature. Though some are merely inept, another reason to give them a miss.)

The Inept -- again, life is too short. Unless the work in question is so bad as to make me giggle.

The Icky -- anything in the horror genre, erotica, pornography, or the depiction of torture . . . that kind of stuff. Also anything with "Precious Moments" illustrations!

What won't you read?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas

I took a walk through the neighborhood the day after Christmas and noticed a forlorn Christmas tree already lying in the gutter, awaiting the trash truck. It reminded me of an email I'd recently received from my daughter who now shares a house with three other girls in the Pacific Northwest. She said she was thankful that we'd brought up our kids with lots of Advent and Christmas traditions in contrast to one of her housemates who reported that all they did on Christmas was open their presents and then stare at each other and feel sort of depressed. In Biblioland we celebrate four weeks of Advent (including the special feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Nicholas) followed by twelve days of Christmas culminating in the feast of The Epiphany.

Naturally, food plays a big role in all these celebrations, as Darwin Catholic describes in A Taste of Christmas. And I'm with him on the tamales! But this year I have not done any Christmas baking or even any tamale making. (I've been diagnosed with prediabetes, and the only way to keep myself from eating as I oughtn't is just not to have the stuff in the house.)

However, I can still enjoy the other taste of Christmas which is traditional in our family -- reading aloud. Starting on Christmas Eve, Fillius and I have been reading Christmas stories or Christmas related selections from much-loved and familiar books. The list varies from year to year. Here is what we read during the twelve days of Christmas, 2008:

"Christmas" from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Little House books have many good Christmas chapters. This one is an an account of an iconic American Christmas. It's got all the elements: preparing handmade gifts, baking special treats for the big day, extended family coming to visit, playing in the snow with cousins, listening to the grownups talk after you've gone to bed, and the excitement of gifts in your stocking. Laura's ecstasy at receiving her special Christmas gift, a rag doll handmade by Ma, still moves me as much as it did when I first read it as a third-grader.

A Christmas Card for Mr. McFizz by Obren Bokich. Mr. McFizz, a fussy little ground squirrel is appalled when the Griswolds, a family of packrats, move into the hollow tree next to his tidy little burrow. He watches with increasing annoyance as the collection of clutter in their front yard grows larger and larger. Yet despite their messy ways, the Griswolds have many friends. Mr. McFizz, perhaps because he's always so busy cleaning, has none. Most of the time this doesn't bother him much. But as Christmas approaches he becomes melancholy because he never receives any Christmas cards. When the Griswolds' mailbox overflows with them, poor Mr. McFizz goes completely off his head and hatches a plot to squelch their simple happiness. How he has a change of heart and reconciles with his neighbors is one of the better examples of the "learning the true meaning of Chrismas" genre. (I especially liked that even after the reconcilation, Mr. McFizz still dislikes his neighbor's clutter. That seemed a realistic touch.)

"Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves" in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I love reading about shy Matthew's valiant attempts to buy a new dress for Anne who, because of Marilla's notions of squelching vanity in children, has never had a pretty, fashionable dress like the other girls -- one with puffed sleeves! (It's hard to believe that there are people who haven't read the Anne books before, but if you're among them, check out the Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge at Reading to Know.)

Spirit Child: A Story of the Nativity translated from the Aztec by John Bierhorst. This story was composed in the sixteenth century by Fray Bernardino Saghagún with the assistance of Aztec poets. The basic story comes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but it also combines elements from medieval legends and traditional Aztec lore. The style in which the story unfolds is very much in the Aztec tradition. Some portions, such as the angels' song to the shepherds even use Aztec figures of speech. This aspect of the book is reinforced by Barbara Cooney's beautiful illustrations. (I love her depiction of the archangel Gabriel with his green feathered wings and jaguar skin garment.) A beautiful and reverent retelling of the birth of Christ.

The Church Mice At Christmas by Graham Oakley. We're big fans of Oakley's Church Mice books. They take place in the English village of Wortlethorpe where all of the mice in the community have taken up residence in the local Anglican church where, in exchange for sundry chores such as polishing the brasses, the vicar gives them a safe haven in which to live and a weekly allowance of cheese. This book recounts their attempt to acquire the funds for "A real Christmas party with paper hats and crackers and games and things." The problem is that parties cost money, and they're all as poor as, well, church mice. When their attempt to raffle off Sampson (the church cat) is unsuccessful, they attempt to earn money by Christmas caroling, having "spent the whole morning practising their scales and the whole afternoon sorting out the pronunciation of Wenceslas." But their diminutive size is against them, and an inadvertent run-in with the local constabulary results in a mad chase through a toy store. Various other attempts to scrounge up the party fixings fail until Arthur and Humphry, the leaders of the church mice, inadvertently perform a public service which rewards the mice with the party of their dreams -- "In fact it [the party] was so good that they were all ill for three days after it . . . ." My kids always enjoyed poring over Oakley's illustrations which have a lot of humorous detail.

"Godmother's Magic" and "Dumpling Speaks Her Mind" in Family Sabatical by Carol Ryrie Brink. Though better known for her pioneer novels Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons, Brink wrote many other novels which were among my childhood favorites and which I read aloud to my own children when they were small. Family Sabatical is about a midwestern American family which spends six months in France while their father, a history professor, is researching a book. The children's discovery of French culture and their attempts to celebrate such American holidays as Halloween and Thanksgiving are very funny. In the first of these Christmas chapters, I loved the description of their visit to Notre Dame on Christmas Eve. This non-Catholic family had never been in such a large church before "nor one so sweetly mysterious. Very quietly they walked all around in it, feeling its strangeness, which was at the same time a kind of warm familiarity." Far back in the candlelit church they discover a life-sized creche. "The children stood and looked at it for a long time, and suddenly this was more like Christmas Eve than any Christmas Eve that they had ever known before." The second chapter is about the family's celebration of Christmas the next morning and about the healing one member of the family experiences when she discovers that home is not a place as such; it's wherever your family is.

"Welcome Yule" by Jan Mark in An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories edited by Dan Pepper. This collection, which I checked out of the library, was a real disappointment. Published in the 1980s, the stories in this collection are mostly grim and gritty, often having very little to do with Christmas. "Welcome Yule" was a delightful exception. The new vicar, who has the personality of an enthusiastic steam roller has organized carol singing on the evening of the feast of St. Thomas despite the strange reluctance of the villagers to go out singing on that date. Their objection? That's the night that the "Waits" always sing. And no one wants to offend them. Who are the Waits? No one in the parish wants to explain it to the Vicar. So no one shows up at the scheduled time except the family of the narrator whose father had been shanghaied into playing a portable harmonium for this gig. Everyone else is hiding behind closed doors. The Vicar, already annoyed, is especially exasperated when they glimpse another group singing curiously antique carols. When he stomps off to confront them, he gets rather more than he bargained for.

The Story of the Three Kings by John of Hildesheim, retold by Margaret B. Freeman. "Of the three worshipful Kings all the world is full of praise from the rising of the sun to its down-going, and what these three Kings did at the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ is written oft in many books and places but what they did after is peradventure to many men unknown." So begins this best seller of the Middle Ages. At the time this book was written, the Magi were among the best loved saints in Christendom. But the author, a Carmelite friar, was the first to gather together the many legends of Balthasar, Melchior and Jaspar into one book. Margaret Freeman based her retelling on a Middle English text of 1399 and managed to preserve the flavor of the original. What I love about this book is that everything is full of meaning. For example, part of the gold which Melchior offered to the Christ Child was thirty gilt pennies. And these same thirty pennies were owned by anyone who was anybody throughout history. They were made by Thara, the father of Abraham. Then Abraham used them to buy a burial ground for himself and his family. Joseph was sold into Egypt for these same gilt pennies; later they were used to buy spices in Saba for Jacob's burial. These self-same pennies were later brought to King Solomon by the Queen of Saba. And after Jerusalem was destroyed, they were brought to the land of Arabia of which Melchior was king. Our Lady lost the thirty pennies during the flight to Egypt. They were later found by a shepherd who had an incurable disease. The shepherd was cured by Christ who recognized the pennies and told the sheherd to offer them to the temple. And wouldn't you know, it was those same thirty pennies with which the temple priests paid Judas to betray Our Lord. Whew! I also love the charming and colorful detail of these stories. For instance, when the star first arose it had in it the form and likeness of a young child and a sign of the cross above him. Out of the star came a voice saying, "Unto us is born this day the King and Lord that folk have long sought. Go then and seek him and do him worship." Not historically accurate, but who cares? In a way, it's early fan fiction!