Saturday, March 30, 2013

Three Free Books

Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments by Edmund Gosse (1907)
This is one of the books Nick Hornby writes about in The Polysyllabic Spree. This book is the story of Gosse's relationship with his marine biologist father, who was also a member of the Plymouth Brethren. Hornby writes that his "fierce, joyless evangelism crippled his son's childhood." Why am I so interested? I read Claire Tomalin's lovely biography of Jane Austen on Hornby's recommendation, and I hope he won't steer me wrong this time!

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)
I read Gaskell in college, and recently watched a BBC adaptation that reminded me how romantic this book is. I recently did a booktalk on this novel, and the best way to describe Gaskell is this: she is Jane Austen with a social conscience, like Charles Dickens without the rambling. Plot: A genteel country woman is uprooted to a grimy industrial town, completely alien to everything she knows and loves. Her ideals of what it means to be a good neighbor clash with the ideals of a local factory owner, Mr. Thornton, a self-made man who is her equal intellectually but not socially. If you love Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens--or pretty much any great Victorian author--do yourself a favor and try Gaskell.

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella L. Bird (1879)
Isabella L. Bird was a well-known Victorian travel writer, and this book is probably the best-known of her works. I came across a description of this particular book in Barbara Hodgson's No Place for a Lady, a book about fearless female travelers. Bird was a woman who couldn't stay at home, and so of course I put this on my list!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Botanical Beasts

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical AtrocitiesWicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An alphabetical compendium of destructive, painful, irritating, offensive, illegal, intoxicating, dangerous, and deadly plants. They sting, poison, explode, and invade - and some of them are in your own home.

A fun read that gives me even more reasons (besides laziness) to never go outside or take up gardening. There are some great anecdotes here about ordeal poisons, suicide trees, trees that create zombie ants to spread their seeds, and of course the villain that took the life of Lincoln's mother - by poisoning the family's milk. Even a few friendlier plants can be toxic in the right circumstances - a few are phototoxic: "using sap that burns the skin when exposed to light" or making you more susceptible to sunburn after you eat them (limes! celery! mokihana, used to make leis!).

Read this all at once or a little bit at a time, if you're timid. My only complaint is the lack of an index, though there is an alphabetical table of contents, a good bibliography, and a list of poison gardens where you can visit to see many of the plants mentioned in the book.

Amy Stewart has also written Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Wicked Bugs, which sounds even more skin-crawly than this book!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fairy Dust

Fairy Dust and the Quest for the EggFairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg by Gail Carson Levine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Prilla arrives in Neverland, it is clear she is different from the other fairies - she doesn't know what her special talent is. But when a terrible storm injures Mother Dove and puts the ageless residents of Neverland in danger, Prilla is called upon to perform extraordinary acts of courage.

This adventure story, written by Gail Carson Levine, hits all the familiar Neverland beats - Tinker Bell, Peter Pan, Hook, and the mermaids - while adding a few others - a wicked dragon, Mother Dove and her one precious egg, and the idea that each fairy comes into the world with a special purpose that she loves to do above anything else (and yes, there are male fairies - but they are known as Sparrowmen).

Great for young children who love Disney's Tinker Bell movie and its sequels and want to hear more about Neverland's fairies.

Monday, March 25, 2013


Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dragons and humans have maintained a fragile peace for years, but the murder of a human prince and the arrival of a dragon ambassador threatens everything--and court musician Seraphina, desperate to protect her own secrets, is caught in the middle.

Hartman's vivid writing evokes the strange beauty of Seraphina's medieval world, where dragons take human shape and live among the fearful and distrusting human population.The characters (draconian and homo sapien) feel like real people, and Seraphina herself is every bit as smart and courageous as a heroine should be. I found the main love story aspect truly romantic because I admired both of the characters and liked their chemistry.

Hartman breathes new life into the medieval/dragon fantasy tales: this is not your typical dragon story. Language lovers should definitely read Seraphina, and might also try Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland series as well as Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels.

Friday, March 22, 2013

We Return to Fairyland

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland, #2)The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

September stumbles back into Fairyland again only to find that her own lost shadow, who is now Queen of the Underworld, is draining Fairyland of its magic.

September is a year older and wiser, but even her familiarity with the laws of Fairyland can't quite protect her in the Underworld full of runaway shadows. Her traveling companions this time around are at once familiar and untrustworthy, and the Queen's new servant the Alleyman has the Underworld's denizens shivering with fear. (Though personally I found the Onion Man more sinister.)

Valente plays with the traditional rules of magic (my favorite was her EKT field: Everyone Knows That), though some of the speeches when September visits a Questing Physickist might be above the heads of younger readers.

The Physickist tells September and her new friend the Night-Dodo: "A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world." All the intricate charm of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is back, making our second trip through this particular door as vivid and weird as the first.

Enter the Underworld

Spell Bound (Hex Hall, #3)Spell Bound by Rachel Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sophie is powerless, the people she loves most are missing - and at Hex Hall someone is raising a demon army that will destroy the world. To stop them, Sophie may have to enter Hell itself.

The thrilling finale to the Hex Hall series! I enjoyed this trilogy, which got darker and darker with each book. Sophie is a smart and capable heroine, quippy and loyal. The return of a character I wanted more of from Hex Hall was satisfying, and the ending is bittersweet but most of the plot threads are neatly resolved.

My only wish is that the island of Hex Hall was more appealing (though it is an unfair comparison, the gold standards of fantasy settings are Gormenghast and Hogwarts Castle). I wanted to see more of the world of the Prodigium, but the breakneck plot only allows for occasional glimpses into the concealed world of witches, shapeshifters, faeries, and vampires.

As an aside, while I love seeing Lord Byron resurrected as a vampire, I think that any vampire in his or her right mind would really have turned Oscar Wilde. We've seen vampire Elvis, natch (Bubba from Dead Until Dark). Why no Wilde? The man was known for wearing green velvet capes! "Creature of the night" would have been a perfect fit on him. (Also, why is there a black cat in every U.S. cover of this book? There isn't a single familiar - unless you count slobbery werewolves - in any of the three books. I suppose a black cat symbolizes witches, but still. It's a stretch.)

There is a spin-off series that starts with School Spirits and follows one of the Brannick monster-hunters (I suspect that the unresolved plot points from Spell Bound show up there). Other series with some of the boarding-school spirit and strong female characters are Mind Games by Kiersten White and Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

UPDATE: "A Boot Stamping on a Human Face"

Considering the disturbing threats coming out of North Korea lately, I though that this incredible TED Talk by North Korean refugee Hyeonseo Lee is especially timely and moving:

Her account accords perfectly with the story told in Demick's book, which I reviewed last month.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A journalist recounts the stories of defectors from North Korea in an attempt to understand what is happening in one of the most oppressive and regressive societies in the world.

The North Korean government stifles every aspect of its people's lives and the result is famine, death, and distrust between neighbors and family members. The Worker's Party rules over every human interaction with a brutal regime of brain-washing (I use the term intentionally), intimidation, and absurd demands that citizens demonstrate unconditional love for their dynasty of Dear Leaders and the communist ideals they claim to uphold. Going into North Korea is like traveling back in time, observers say.

In spite of this, people find a way to survive and connect with each other, and though it seems cliched the stories are a testament to the resilience of human beings. My favorite story--one with a bittersweet ending--is of two young lovers who secretly meet in nights made dark by constant power outages; who send letters through the tortuous mail system; who sneak train rides without travel permits to see each other for a few short hours.

Demick makes it clear that leaving North Korea is not necessarily the happy ending we might take it for. Defectors find that in spite of the wealth and plenty of South Korea, life is still a struggle as they learn to adapt and overcome the damage done to them by their totalitarian homeland. Many still have family members left behind in North Korea, and the grief of separation is difficult to imagine.

More than anything, Demick's final description of North Korea reminds me of the famous quote from 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever." How long will forever be, in this case? And if eventually the North Korea government does fall (as it has been predicted to for the past twenty years), how will a country as deeply impoverished as North Korea ever catch up to the rest of the world, even with the aid of their neighbors?

Demick leaves us with these questions, but I believe that the answers lie in the survival stories of the defectors she interviews: the strong family ties, willingness to work hard, and the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances will be the greatest assets North Koreans have once they are allowed to make their long march back into the present.


Demick's book ends before the death of Kim Jong Il and the rise of his son Kim Jong Un. Here is a recent article she wrote for the Los Angeles Times, detailing the continued insanity of this brutal dynasty.

Raising Demons

Demonglass (Hex Hall, #2)Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To convince Sophie against her decision to have her powers Removed, her absentee demon father shows up and whisks her off to the Council's headquarters in England. There are unnerving developments there - deadly encounters, an unexpected fiance, and the reappearance of her old crush, Archer, who is still working for the very people who want Sophie dead.

Sophie is still reeling from the events of Hex Hall, which have upset her deeply enough to throw off her ability to control her magic. This sequel takes us out of Hecate Hall and into a gigantic mansion in England. I appreciated the portrayal of the difficult relationship between Sophie and her father - though it is obvious that they love each other, they both must learn to trust each other's judgment and talents. The third vertex of the love triangle finally shows up, too! The triangle remains lopsided, possibly because of its late introduction: even though the warlock Archer has now been revealed to work for The Eye, the new potential flame felt like a weak third (and not a real threat to the main love story).

There is more action than ever, and Sophie gets a chance to stretch her powers and exercise her habitual snark, which is fun and lightens this much-darker book. The cliffhanger ending will have you reaching for the third in the series, Spell Bound, right away.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Boarding School Witches

Hex Hall (Hex Hall, #1)Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sophie was blending in with the human world until a disastrous spell gets her exiled to Hecate Hall, a detention center/boarding school for wayward Prodigium (witches, vampires, werewolves, and faeries). Among her own kind, Sophie finds that she needs to learn the rules of her birthright fast - or die young.

Sophie is a likable protagonist who struggles to fit into a world she was only vaguely aware of before she was sentenced to Hecate. The story is fast-paced and light in tone in spite of the dark happenings around Sophie (a girl was murdered at Hecate before Sophie's arrival), and the hints that the worst is yet to come.

Sure, there's a superficial cliched love story with the requisite unavailable hot guy, but did I enjoyed her friendship with her monster roommate. She also almost-befriends her sworn enemy, a beautiful coven leader named Elodie, in an unusual twist that I wish had more time to develop.

For anyone who loves boarding school books and stories about the paranormal (particularly witches).

There are hints of a dangerous and interesting world beyond the walls of Hecate, with three distinct groups of monster-hunters dedicated to murdering Prodigium - especially, as it so happens, Sophie. With two other books in the series (Demonglass and Spell Bound), I look forward to reading the rest!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Biting Off More Than I Can Chew

Reading post-quarter is amazing, except--well, I get overwhelmed. There are so many great books out there! Right at my fingertips! What is the right solution to this problem?
Dog's Tennis Ball Party
I don't know, either
So here's my current compulsive reading list of nine books (you can track my progress here):
The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of Journey to the West, translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu
A Few Good Books: Using Contemporary Readers' Advisory Strategies to Connect Readers With Books by Stephanie L. Maata
Demonglass (Hex Hall #2) by Rachel Hawkins
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne Valente
When I Was A Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart
The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris by Alicia Drake
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

And now I don't know which one to pick up first!

Such a good problem to have.

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy ShipmatesThe Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The unlikely account of a modern historian's love for the notoriously inflexible Puritans, highlighting the best and worst of America's New England forefathers.

Vowell has a great deal of sympathy and affection for the difficult-to-love Puritans, and she starts with the Arbella's sendoff across the Atlantic into the New World. She touches on the complex personalities of John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson: four passionate Puritans who sought to live by the essential principles of Christianity, as their consciences understood them.

Reading this made me want to veer into history books about the Boston Molasses Disaster, Dunkirk, the 30 Years' War, and the Pequot War, all of which are touched upon in the text. Vowell wrestles with the contradictory and all-to-human nature of this group of the Elect, who strove to be worthy of grace yet struggled to reconcile the sternness of their own natures with the virtues of Christian charity and mercy. At times these saints succeeded, at other times their lofty goals led to devastating failures that have repercussions to this day.

The sour note for me was an anti-Reagan screed - it felt out of place. Vowell resents Reagan's American exceptionalist use of John Winthrop's vision of "a city on  a hill" but recounts how she swells with pride when she hears Kennedy saying the same words, in virtually the same way. She's open-minded and forgiving when it comes to the quirks and shortcomings of the Puritans, but far less so for modern Republican presidents. If you are a Democrat or a liberal, you may not mind this (and may even agree with Vowell's assessment of the Reagan presidency), but for me it marred the book. (Personal preference: I avoid political books like the plague.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Three Free Books

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)
I came across the name of this comic novel in Connie Willis' fantastic time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog. The hero of that novel undergoes a Victorian trip up a river (with said dog), and is constantly reminded of Jerome K. Jerome's three men. I love British humor--and funny novels in general--so I've added it to my list for one of those days when I just need a boost.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)
John Carter is a Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is held captive by Green Men, meets a gorgeous alien princess, and fights a battle to save Barsoom. (Barsoom is the native name for Mars.) You may or may not remember the giant flop that was Disney's John Carter. Well, that was based on this series of eleven enormously popular science fantasy novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the man who brought us Tarzan of the Apes, also coincidentally a Disney film).

The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1842-?)
Journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce's acerbic wit is legendary, and you've probably heard many of the cynical definitions in his Dictionary without realizing where they came from--he's often quoted without proper attribution. The definitions were initially published a feature in a newspaper in 1881 and were later collected in a book. Here's a sampling:

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. [...] It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.

PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

I could continue, but you should really just get the book for free at Gutenberg. Just be warned: he wasn't called Bitter Bierce for nothing!

Books aside, Bierce himself is an interesting historical figure. For one thing, he looked like this around 1866:

(I'm digging the mustache.Short bio and bibliography here.)

For another, you might have noticed the question mark for his date of death. Some people put it around 1913 or 1914, when at the age of 71 he was in Mexico to observe the Mexican Revolution (led by Pancho Villa) and vanished without a trace.

So you have a cynical, acid-tongued journalist who at the age of 71, controversial in his day, who vanished under mysterious circumstances. Intriguing. His disappearance is one of the great unsolved historical mysteries, and we may never know what really happened to Bitter Bierce.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Babymouse, Queen of the World!

Queen of the World! (Babymouse, #1)Queen of the World! by Jennifer L. Holm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Introducing Babymouse, whose ambitions are modest (Queen! Of the World!), but whose current goal is to score an invitation to Felicia Furrypaws' slumber party.

This clever and charming graphic novel introduces Babymouse, who is sure to join Russell Hoben's Frances and Ian Falconer's piglet, Olivia, in the hearts of readers. Babymouse loves to read and indulges in flights of imagination which remind me of James Thurber's Walter Mitty, or Calvin's various daydreams (particularly his private eye Tracer Bullet). Plus, she's a bookworm! What could be better?

I'm recommending the Babymouse books to my niece at once!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Other People's Love Letters

Other People's Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to SeeOther People's Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See by Bill Shapiro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You won't find anything on par with John Keats' longing letters to Fanny Brawne here (or the Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett's lovely correspondence). Still, the handwritten letters here may make you smile, laugh, and feel sad at the disappointment of lost love and missed chances. (There's also the guilty thrill of getting a glimpse into ordinary people's most private moments.)

Once you've read this slim volume, may I recommend Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne next, with its introduction by director Jane Campion? Campion's film of the same name does not quite convey the loveliness and tragedy of my favorite true-life historical romance, but the costuming is a wonder (Oscar-nominated, and even more interesting because Fanny Brawne did make her own unusual clothing).

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shakespeare Wrote for Money

Shakespeare Wrote for MoneyShakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hornby is clearly running out of steam, but that doesn't prevent the last collection of his "Stuff I've Read" essays from being enjoyable. He discovers the joys of YA fiction (and reads a few of my favorites - Nick Hornby reading genre novels!), gets distracted by football, talks a little more about politics than I care for, and makes it all engaging enough to be worthwhile. As ever, he continues to add titles to my to-read list!

The "September 2006" essay was one I had read in another collection, and it was just as hilarious the second time around as Hornby skates around the fact that due to the World Cup he hadn't read any books that month. A quotation from that essay, absurd out of context but still funny: "And anyway, I was making an elementary error: I was trimming and lengthening the legs of the same ants - and this, I see now, was completely and utterly pointless: three hours of microsurgery on each ant and they all ended up the same height anyway." (Does he write or perform stand-up comedy? This essay seems like it would translate well into that medium, and the persona he builds in his "Stuff I've Read" columns is consistently likable and self-effacing.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fairyland Fiction

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1)The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being heartless, September does not hesitate to accept the Green Wind's offer to take her to Fairyland: once she gets there, she befriends strange creatures and is conscripted by Fairyland's ruler to complete a dangerous quest.

Terrible events befall our heroine, who may be heartless in leaving her home without a backward glance but who proves she is as loyal, compassionate, and tough as they come. Valente's book has all the strangeness and wonder required to narrate a story set in Fairyland. Her description of a fairy harvest feast is mouth-watering, and I loved the concept of Pandemonium, a city made of embroidered cloth. I especially appreciated the appearance of tsukumogami, which are natural denizens of Fairyland.

Bookish has two book trailers for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.

Readers who enjoy this may want to check out its sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, or Valente's upcoming collection of scifi/fantasy short stories set in Japan:  The Melancholoy of Mechagirl.

You might also try Kelly Barnhill's Iron-Hearted Violet, about another brave girl adventurer. Or go back to the book that started it all, and is the clearest ancestor of Valente's fairy tale: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

That Patrick Hamilton can write!

"Those entering the Saloon Bar of "The Midnight Bell" from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane, a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription "Saloon Bar and Lounge," and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful, careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing. Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it." - page 16, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1935)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Duffy

The Duff: Designated Ugly Fat FriendThe Duff: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When womanizing jerk Wesley Rush dubs Bianca Piper the "DUFF" of her friends (the Designated Ugly Fat Friend), it only cements her hatred for him. But then life at home falls apart, and in need of an easy distraction, she turns to the one guy she should hate forever....

This book drew me in, and I finished it quickly, but it has some major flaws that I can't overlook. I liked Bianca's voice, and I loved the way she relies on her girl friends (mostly). But I can't get over some of the messages in the book!


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

In the Realms of the Unreal

I've had a DVD from Netflix sitting on my bedroom floor for over a month now, and a few nights ago I finally got around to popping it into the player: I was glad I did! The film was the documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, directed by Jessica Yu.

In the Realms of the Unreal is a unique look at the life and work of Henry Darger (1892–1973), a man who worked as a janitor by day and by night was a prolific writer and painter, the hero of his own vast novels. His mother died when he was young, and his father died after Darger was institutionalized. He later escaped the institution and returned to Chicago. Though fully capable of caring for himself, Darger was certainly eccentric (and possibly autistic, but not mentally ill). He lived in almost complete isolation. The people at his church and in his apartment building were vaguely aware of his existence, but for the most part his relationship with the world was what Yu termed "mutual indifference."

When Darger was moved into a Catholic mission to be cared for at the end of his life, his landlords Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner came across his huge body of work: "four unpublished manuscripts comprising more than thirty thousand pages of text; more than three hundred watercolor paintings that are often longer than nine feet; and thousands of ephemera Darger collected and used in his artistic process" (The Henry Darger Study Center).

Nathan Lerner was a photographer, and immediately recognized the unusual beauty and worth of Darger's art. After Darger's death the Lerners remained in charge of the estate and advocated for it so well that Darger is now internationally known. His work is considered the most famous example of outsider art.

Pinned Image
"At Sunbeam Creek, are with little girl refugees again in peril from forest fires..." by Henry Darger

Darger's most famous book spans 15,145 pages and is titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is the story of a vast war between enslaved children and their oppressors, the evil Glandelinians.

Darger also wrote an autobiography/novel ("Thank God!" says Yu - we would know next to nothing about his life if not for that) called The History of My Life. Only about 206 pages deal with his life - the other 4,672 tell the story of the charmingly named twister "Sweetie Pie" (Wikipedia).

Never formally trained, Darger often traced his figures from magazine pictures which he clipped, repeating his favorite images throughout his works - you might even recognize the Coppertone Girl or Little Annie Rooney. His use of colors is extraordinary, and the paintings have a strange beauty to them. Part of their strangeness stems from the fact that he frequently depicted the Vivian Girls with penises. (It is unclear if he was even aware that girls are physically different from boys.)

Director Jessica Yu spent five years studying Darger and creating her documentary. The DVD has a fascinating interview with her where she talks about her storytelling choices and her own perception of Darger's life. She chose to tell the story almost entirely with pieces of Darger's autobiography, excerpts from The Realms, and his illustrations (which have been animated). Dakota Fanning narrates portions of the film with uncanny maturity. She is an appropriate choice given that she was about the same age as Darger's heroic Vivian Girls: when the film was released in 2004, she was only ten years old.

Much of Henry Darger's life and mind remains mysterious in spite of the volume of his work, and Yu does not attempt to resolve all the mysteries with easy answers. There are no art critics or psychologists interviewed in her documentary, just Darger's own naïve, passionate, unselfconscious voice interspersed with the narrative. There are moments of real darkness here - and real beauty, too. Yu's film is certainly not trying to be the definitive biography, but as an introduction to Darger's work it is excellent.

For a more thorough traditional biography, see John M. MacGregor's 2002 book Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal. For more about the art, see Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, edited by Michael Bonesteel. The American Folk Art Museum has a large collection in its Henry Darger Study Center. Today Darger's works sell for more than $80,000 - amazing when you consider that during his life he was unable to spend five dollars a month extra to own a dog, and that he died in the same poorhouse as his father.

Side note:
This documentary  reminded me of Séraphine (starring Yolande Moreau), a beautiful film about the life of a French painter Séraphine de Senlis (her gorgeous paintings are examples of "naïve art", but considering her later institutionalization you could probably consider her an outsider artist as well). Séraphine is available streaming on Netflix, but In the Realms of the Uncanny is only available on DVD.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Jeeves Again

The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves, #2)The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bertie Wooster's tranquil existence is continually disrupted by his lovelorn friend Bingo Little, the fearsome Aunt Agatha, or an engagement with a strong-willed woman - fortunately, Jeeves is always present to smooth over difficulties.

This is probably the best collection of Jeeves stories I've read so far. They are sequenced chronologically, though technically separate stories. I found myself laughing out loud in public (sorry if you came across me and were frightened) at Wooster's turns of phrase. Jeeves doesn't walk into a room; he 'shimmers in.' Grown men don't leave a club, they 'toddle.'  People don't scarf their food, they 'shove their heads down' and go for it. Wooster's narration is charming and silly, as Wooster himself is.

The dialogue is likewise brilliant: "'What ho! What ho! What ho!' I said, trying to strike the genial note, and then had a sudden feeling that that was just the sort of thing I had been warned not to say." Bertie is always overestimating his own ability to express himself, and is usually unintelligible to other characters because of his frequent use of slang. (And Wodehouse can get dialogue and narration to tell two different stories like no other writer.)

For reading when you're sad, or for reading when you're happy, or reading when you don't know what you feel, Wodehouse has no equal.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Homage to Hornby: Books Bought, Books Read

Lately I've been reading Nick Hornby's collected essays from his Believer column (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, The Polysyllabic Spree, and More Baths, Less Talking. The format goes like this: at the beginning of each essay, he lists the books he's purchased and the books he's read for that month. Like most bibliophiles, those two lists rarely match up.

While I'm still experimenting with the best way to structure this blog, I'm going to steal a page from Hornby's amusing and smart books and present you with my lists (the links will take you to the Goodreads profile or to my reviews):

Books bought in February:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (Nook)
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (Zones of Thought #2)
The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge (Zones of Thought #3)
The Fiction Writer's Handbook by Shelly Lowenkopf (Nook)
Zig Zag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits Of Double Agent Eddie Chapman by Nicholas Booth
Hunk for the Holidays by Katie Lane (Nook: don't judge - he has whiskey-colored eyes! I love whiskey!)
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer
Frederica by Georgette Heyer
The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer
A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer
Revenge: A Story of Hope by Laura Blumenfeld
Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan
I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford

I swear I don't normally buy so many books in a should see my library hold list for an indication of my more frugal self. This list is the result of some late-night buying at, where it's all so cheap, and shipping was only $4 for everything from Zippy down!

Books read in February:
Jane Austen: A Life by Clair Tomalin
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (Discworld series; re-read)
The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
Nonfiction Readers' Advisory ed. Robert Burgin
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (Zones of Thought #1)
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (audiobook)

In progress:
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente
A Few Good Books: Using Contemporary Readers' Advisory Strategies to Connect Readers With Books by Stephanie L. Maatta

The one wrinkle I'll add is that I downloaded a HUGE number of books from the fantastic Project Gutenberg this month--far too many to list in one entry, or even ten.

So instead I'll give you a teaser of the obscure (and not so obscure!) classics that I'm excited to read about, and the reasons for my enthusiasm (links will take you to free copies via Project Gutenberg):

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)
A swashbuckling adventure story along the lines of The Three Musketeers, this is the story of a Frenchwoman named Marguerite who marries a handsome fop, Sir Percy Blakeney, at the start of the French Revolution. Their love is meant to be, but a terrible misunderstanding estranges them as the Terror begins in France, where a mysterious hero who calls himself the Scarlet Pimpernel is smuggling French aristocrats out of the country.

For movie fans, the 1934 adaptation starring Leslie Howard will make you forget all about the limp Ashley Wilkes (Gone With the Wind). Not to get sidetracked or anything, but the actor Leslie Howard died in 1943 when his plane was shot down by Nazis. He may have been acting for British Intelligence at the time, though the official story is that he was doing anti-Nazi propaganda. So Howard was a bona fide spy, playing a fictional spy! He was a talented actor whose life was tragically cut short, and the rest of his filmography is worth checking out, too.

I'll stop here for now, but there are so many fantastic books available for FREE through Gutenberg that I'm sure you'll be hearing more from me on the subject in posts tagged Three Free Books.