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 SaghagĂșn 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!