Saturday, December 28, 2013

Cry, the Beloved Country: 29% Complete

Now that I have read almost a third of this book, I know what my mom meant when she said this was one of her "beautiful books."  The poetry and description in this book are gorgeous and very old in it's style.  It reminds me of parts of the Old Testament of the Bible in many ways.
I can think of no better way to demonstrate the lilting nature of this book than to give you part of the very first paragraph in it.
"There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into this hills.  These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.  The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa."
I love that phrase, "lovely beyond any singing of it."  Singing has such a way of evoking the emotional side of beauty, so for something to be lovely beyond any singing of it is beauty indeed.
I also ran into an interesting thing.  The quote from the book reads,
"I persuaded him to open a Post Office book, and he already has three or four pounds in it."
I would not have had any idea what a "Post Office book" was if I had not been recently watching the BBC television series "Lark Rise to Candleford" which takes place in the late 1800's in England and in which the Post Office plays an important role.  From watching that show, I knew that the Post Office often served as a sort of bank for rural customers who could not access an actual bank.  A little more research taught me that this system was implemented first in England in the 1860's to promote savings among the poor.  Deposits were limited to thirty pounds a year and a total balance of 150 pounds.  Systems like this still exist in Japan (where the post office was the world's largest savings bank in 2008), Germany, China, Brazil, India, South Africa (where Cry, the Beloved Country takes place, of course) and several other countries.  This information was obtained from, and more information can be found, here.
The vocabulary word for today is "kloof" which is actually an Africaans word (interesting side note: according to the Foreign Service Institute, which ranks difficulty of language learning for English-speakers, Africaans is the easiest language for English-speakers to learn).  Kloof means, "a steep-sided, wooded ravine or valley" (definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary).
And finally, many congratulations to Carrie, winner of our holiday giveaway!  Thank you to everyone who participated!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cry, the Beloved Country: Beginning

The next book I will be reading is Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.  This book tells the story of a black priest in South Africa who is searching for his son in Johannesburg.  The book was written and published just prior to the institutionalizing of apartheid in South Africa and it speaks out against the practices of segregation and discrimination.  Alan Paton grew up in South Africa and drew heavily upon his experiences to write this book.
When I told my mom that I was reading this book next, she said, "Oh! That's one of my beautiful books!"  The book describes South Africa in such a way that people have referred to the country as one of the characters in the book.
This book enjoyed immediate success following it's publication in 1948 and in South Africa it has sold more copies than any other book besides the Bible.  I thought it appropriate to read this one now after the recent passing of Nelson Mandela.
The copy I have for Kindle can be found here.  It has 320 pages.
Happy New Year! What are you hoping to read in 2014?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Phantom of the Opera: 100% Complete

Well I finished The Phantom of the Opera just in time for Christmas! I really enjoyed the last portion of the book; it was suspenseful and fascinating.  Since I haven't seen any of the movies in a very long time, I didn't actually remember what happened, so I was on the edge of my seat toward the end.
One of the things I especially enjoyed, was that at the end of the book there are three chapters which are supposed to be a written narrative of events written by the Persian about his encounters with the opera ghost.  Although Gaston Leroux wrote the whole story, he did a fantastic job of changing  his narrative style while writing as the Persian which is a difficult thing to do as a writer.  The Persian writes with a much less detached and more passionate style than the rest of the book.
To show this, here's a quote from the Persian's portion of the book:
"For we not only saw the water, but WE HEARD IT! ... We heard it flow, we heard it ripple! ... Do you understand that word 'ripple?' ... IT IS A SOUND WHICH YOU HEAR WITH YOUR TONGUE! ... You put your tongue out of your mouth to listen to it better!"
The vocabulary word for today is "mountebank" which is "a person who deceives others, esp. in order to trick them out of their money" (definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary).
Very happy holiday wishes to you and yours! Up next? Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Phantom of the Opera: 71% Complete

I'm almost to the three-fourths mark in The Phantom of the Opera and I'm still enjoying it. One thing I particularly like is how Leroux often breaks down the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience which adds to his attempt to present the story as an actual non-fiction history of what happened.  This is something that's rather rare in literature and I enjoy it.
All the way through this book there are references to the Labyrinthine underground levels of the Paris opera house. I love the idea of mostly forgotten people wandering around in the annals of the earth.  I don't know (perhaps some of you do!) how realistic this is, or if there actually are subterranean levels of the opera house, but I enjoy the descriptions.  Here is one paragraph that I particularly enjoyed with regards to the necessary but unglamorous jobs in the lower levels of the opera house:
"They were the door-shutters, the old, worn-out scene-shifters, on whom a charitable management had taken pity, giving them the job of shutting doors above and below the stage. They went about incessantly, from top to bottom of the building, shutting the doors; and they were also called 'the draft-expellers,' at least at that time, for I have little doubt that by now they are all dead.  Drafts are very bad for the voice, wherever they may come from."
At the end of the previous paragraph there is a footnote which reads, "M. Pedro Gailhard has himself told me that he created a few additional posts as door-shutters for old stage-carpenters whom he was unwilling to dismiss from the service of the Opera."
The word of the day is "astrakhan" which is "the dark curly fleece of a young karakul lambs from central Asia" (definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary).  In the book there is a Persian who wears a astrakhan hat.  At one point Leroux points out that, "It was an infringement of the rule which insists upon the tall hat behind the scenes; but in France foreigners are allowed every license: the Englishman his traveling-cap, the Persian his cap of astrakhan."
Less than a week left to enter my holiday giveaway for an illustrated copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Phantom of the Opera: 27% Complete

I got a lot of reading done yesterday so I'm now over a quarter of the way through The Phantom of the Opera.  I'm enjoying it a lot; it's funny in parts and sometimes a little creepy! I'm also glad I read Faust before this one because the operatic version of that work is the opera they are performing in this book (at least so far).  So when they make reference to it, I actually know what they're talking about!
I have a couple of funny quotes for you today.  First of all:
"None will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom or indifference over his inward joy."
"'Reputations are easily obtained,' replied Moncharmin. 'Haven't I reputation for knowing all about music? And I don't know one key from another.'
'Don't be afraid: you never had that reputation,' Richard declared.'"
The vocabulary word for today is "reticent" which means, "not revealing one's thoughts of feelings readily" (definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary).
Don't forget to enter my holiday giveaway!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Phantom of the Opera: Beginning

So after my poll ended in a three-way tie, I decided to read The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux next.  This book was originally published as a serial in 1909 and originally sold very poorly.  It tells the story of the famed "ghost" of the Paris Opera House and the ghost's relationship with the beautiful soprano Christine Daae.
There is a 1986 musical version of this book with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber which is the longest running show in the history of Broadway.  There is also a film version of this musical that was released in 2005 starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum which I have actually never seen (I'll have to watch it after I finish the book).  In addition there is a silent film version of the book from 1925 with Lon Chaney which I watched as a child and a 1943 film version with Claude Rains.
This book was originally written in French and the version I have, (which is free for Kindle here) appears to have been translated by Kate McMullan, Lowell Bair and Peter Neumeyer. On my Kindle the version has 500 pages and will probably take me longer to get through than the last book!
One last thing: you will notice on the right side of the page there is a HOLIDAY GIVEAWAY for an illustrated copy of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale: A Christmas Carol! This is very exciting and the first of what I hope will be many giveaways that I will be able to host.  There are multiple ways to enter and if you follow me on Twitter or are a fan on Facebook then you are already eligible for one or more entries! So throw your hat in the ring and good luck!

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Farewell to Arms: 100% Complete

I raced through A Farewell to Arms in about 36 hours.  I really enjoyed it, even though it has a sad ending (I'm actually kind of glad I knew the ending before I started it because I was prepared!).  Be warned, however, this blog post contains some spoilers, so if you haven't read it and spoilers bother you, don't read ahead!
About halfway through the book, Catherine becomes pregnant.  Then she proceeds to drink alcohol throughout the rest of the pregnancy.  Now I realize they didn't know as much about fetal alcohol syndrome and I also realize that in some parts of the world the admonition of women not to drink when pregnant is not so strictly maintained as it is in the US, but it still made me cringe every time.  Case in point:
"'Don't we have a fine time?' Catherine asked. 'Look. Let's go some place and have beer instead of tea. It's very good for young Catherine [the baby].  It keeps her small.'
'Young Catherine,' I said. 'That loafer.'
'She's been very good,' Catherine said. 'She makes very little trouble. The doctor said beer is good for her and keeps her small.'"
The nurse in me was thinking, "It keeps her small, alright.  They call that low birth weight and it's NOT a good thing!"
The vocabulary word for the day is "puttee" which means "a long strip of cloth wound spirally around the leg from ankle to knee for protection and support" (definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary).
So now I have to decide what book I want to read next.  For today, you can vote for the book you think I should read next on poll on the right hand side of the page.  I'll let you know how the poll turns out in a couple of days!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Farewell to Arms: 42% Complete

I'm really enjoying A Farewell to Arms so far.  Hemingway's writing is so raw and terse and real.  The fact that he was an ambulance driver himself during the first world war means that his descriptions of the front are realistic and detailed.  I'm racing through it and I expect to be done in the next day or two.  After Faust, it almost feels like reading children's literature.
I chose the quote for today because I think it is representative of Hemingway's writing; the way he chooses words and phrases that show how the characters feels.  In this piece, Lt. Henry is getting to know Catherine Barkley.
"I held her close against me and could feel her heart beating and her lips opened and her head went back against my hand and then she was crying on my shoulder. 
'Oh, darling,' she said. 'You will be good to me, won't you?'
What the hell, I thought.  I stroked her hair and patted her shoulder.  She was crying."
The way he says he thought "What the hell" and the way he says, twice, that she was crying, brings to mind that combination of frustration and confusion that many men feel when women display unexpected emotions.
Because this is so much easier to read than Faust, I know most of the vocabulary words, but there are a few words borrowed from Italian that I had to look up.  So today's word is "carabiniere" which means "a member of the Italian paramilitary police."
I expect that I will be finished with this very soon, so now I just have to decide what I want to read next.  Suggestions?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Farewell to Arms: Beginning

The next book I will be reading is A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.  This book was written in 1929 and was Hemingway's first best-seller.
It is a love story between Lt. Henry, an American ambulance driver serving in the Italian army during World War I and a British nurse: Catherine Barkley. 
An interesting fact: in the first editions of the work, certain swear words (I'm too much of a lady to name them here!) were replaced with dashes.  This book has been adapted for stage, screen and radio, including a 1932 screen adaptation which was nominated for an Academy Award.
I have read one piece of Hemingway's before: The Old Man and the Sea.  I was in high school and any ironic symbolism was completely lost on me and I hated it.  I thought it was the stupidest story and for a long time I used that and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as proof that most American literature was horrid.  However, having said that, I am much older (and I hope, wiser) now and with a little relevant life experience and appreciation for hidden messages in literature, I think I have a decent chance of enjoying this one.
I'm reading a hard-copy version of this, specifically the 2003 paperback version published by Scribner.  The copy is a little worn around the edges, but since I bought it for two dollars at a book sale, I don't really mind.  This merely allows me to feel more comfortable folding down page corners and leaving it splayed open on the coffee table while I get another cup of tea.  This copy has 332 pages, and because it's much easier to read than Faust, I'm anticipating that I'll get through it pretty quickly.
Happy reading!

Faust: 100% Complete

Well, I whizzed through the last bit of Faust and finished it up late night.  Overall, I'm glad I read it, although I won't say it was my favorite book on the list.  I did find the second half easier to read and understand than the first, although I'm still sure I missed a lot.  If I were going to read it again, I would try to find a version that had more footnotes (mine had a few here and there, but not much), because frequently there were references that I didn't understand.
The final quote for Faust is rather a long one, but I thought it was both funny and philosophical (if that is possible).  In this quote, Faust is speaking with Margaret, the innocent young girl he woos and whose life he basically destroys.  She has asked him if he believes in God, and he has hemmed and hawed around the question, and here he tries to explain that perhaps he believes in God but by other names.
"Faust: Then call it what thou wilt,
Joy! Heart! Love! God!
I have no name to give it!
All comes at last to feeling;
Name is but sound and smoke,
Beclouding Heaven's warm glow.
Margaret: That is all fine and good, I know,
And just as the priest has often spoke,
Only with somewhat different phrases."
Of course this question of whether the principle of a rose by any other name smelling as sweet applies to God, is a theological and philosophical question that goes far beyond the scope of this project, but I mostly found Margaret's response funny; that the priest says basically the same thing, but the phrases he uses are a little different.
Our final vocabulary word for Faust is "expiate" which means "to atone for (guilt or sin)." (definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary).
Up next I'm tackling: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Faust: 68% Complete

I had a chance to get a lot of reading done at work today, so I'm over two-thirds of the way through Faust.  I can't tell if the story is getting easier to understand or if I'm just getting better at reading it, but it seems like I'm getting more of the story now than I once was.  One of my clients at work (I'm a caregiver for elderly people) is very well-read and of German ancestry, so I mentioned to him today that I was reading Faust and he said, "Wow, I read that.  It's kind of hard to understand, though, isn't it?" so I felt a little better about my lack of comprehension!
I have two quotes for you today.  The first one is by Mephistopheles, in which he is upset about something and he says,
"Oh, to the devil I'd give myself instanter, if I were not already he!" 
In the second, Mephistopheles says,
"Such love-sick fools will puff away sun, moon and stars and all in the azure,
To please a maiden's whimsies, any day."
The vocabulary word of the day is "ennui" which means "a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement" (definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary).
Before I go, I had to tell you about a great bargain I got on books yesterday.  I work at a retirement home, and they had a book sale, so of course I couldn't resist going to check it out.  I ended up spending only six dollars and I got an anthology of humor pieces from The New Yorker, a copy of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (which is on the list!) and a copy of The Scarlet Letter with a copyright date of 1919!  All in all, a pretty successful book-shopping trip, I think!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Faust: 48% Complete

Now that Faust has sold his soul to the devil, he and Mephistopheles are cavorting around the countryside with Faust getting his wishes granted, more or less.
In this scene, Faust has asked to be younger (interesting to note that people's top wishes haven't changed a whole lot).  Mephistopheles tells Faust he has a way to do that, and his instructions are:
"Out to the fields without delay,
And take to hacking, digging, planting;
Run the same round from day to day,
A treadmill-life, contented, leading,
With simple fare both mind and body feeding,
Life with the beast as beast, nor count it robbery
Shouldst thou manure, thyself, the field thou reapest;
Follow this course and, trust to me,
For eighty years thy youth thou keepest!"
Of course Faust doesn't much like his suggestion, but Mephistophales's description of the "simple," idyllic life of a farmer reminded me of Leo Tolstoy's depiction of Konstantin Levin's life on the farm in Anna Karenina (I confess, after I read that book I wanted to move to a farm, even though I grew up on one).  It also points out the human desire to get things without working for them.
The word/phrase of the day is "as lief" which means "as happily or as gladly" (definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary).
Before I sign off for now, I want to suggest a holiday gift idea for new parents/grandparents or anyone who has care of small children.  I am convinced that my love for reading, and indeed the ease with which I communicate can be traced back to the fact that my parents faithfully read to me from the day I was born.  The Read-Aloud Handbook outlines research that demonstrates how beneficial reading to kids can be and is a wonderful gift for anyone who has influence over children!
Happy Holidays to one and all!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Faust: 41% Complete

First of all, I want to thank all of you for checking in on my blog! In November I had a six month high in terms of page views, so thank you!
I have finally reached the point in the play where Faust sells his soul to the devil.  I think this story is meant to parallel the story of The Fall from Genesis.  Faust's motivation to sell his soul is his own boredom with life and with his limited knowledge, coupled with his own pride.  At one point Mephistopheles is talking, under the guise of Faust, to a student scholar who comes seeking advice from Faust and he writes in his book: Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum.  Now I took Latin for a number of years in school but it's gotten pretty rusty, so I had to look this one up.  It seems this line is actually from Genesis 3:5 and means "You will be like God, knowing good and evil."
I have flagged so many good quotes, but I think I'm going to give you this one, which sums up the essence of Faust's deal with the devil.  Mephistopheles says,
"I to thy service here agree to bind me,
To run and never rest at call of thee;
When over yonder though shalt find me
Then thou shalt do as much for me."
I have also run into a large number of vocabulary words, including "ennui" which is "a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation of excitement" and "soporific" which is "tending to induce drowsiness or sleep" (definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary).