Reading Journal Entry: The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Scientists explore Amazon jungle to find dinosaurs and ape-men, which they then exterminate.

Another excellent Alien Voices production, but mildly disturbing.

Musings on Adonis

It's always difficult to know how well a translation evokes a work's essence when you don't speak the language.

I came across another translation of the poem by Adonis that struck me most strongly when I read the collection reviewed below.

The translation I read originally:

We sleep beneath a cloth
woven from the harvests
of the night.
O night of dust....
Cymbals and alleluias
chorus in our blood.

The second translation of the same lines:

We slept in a garment
woven out of the cherries of night.
The night was specks of dust,
and the bowels
the rejoicing of blood, the rhythm of castanets
and the rays of suns submerged under the water.

They're very different. It makes me wonder how well we really communicate through language. How much of what someone understands of another's utterance is self-created?

Reading Journal Entry: The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones

More light fantasy for kids. Escapist, fun, and much appreciated by me. It was interesting reading this after Charmed Life, which takes place about 25 years after but features many of the same characters.

Reading Journal Entry: Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne

Another excellent Alien Voices production. These are very well-done - the sound effects and music never annoy me or distract from the performance as I often find happens in other dramatized recordings. It's fun to try to identfy which Star Trek regulars are playing the supporting characters.

I actually read this book in high school at some point, but had forgotten the plot almost completely. Axel and his uncle, German scientists, find a document leading them on a voyage down an Icelandic volcano, and emerge in Sicily. I'm at a loss to explain how they deduced they had reach the exact center of the earth, but it was a fun trip.

Reading Journal Entry: Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones

While The Year of the Griffin was about a group of college students, this work (like most of DWJ's fantasy) is aimed at kids and the main character is a boy. Charmed Life is one of the Chrestomanci series - in a world with magic, the Chrestomanci is a public official charged with keeping witches and wizards in line and controlling travel between worlds. Par for the course - i.e. good.

The Blood of Adonis: Selected Poems of Adonis (Ali Hamed Said)

This is the first poetry from 'the list' that I've tried to tackle. I'm not usually very good with poetry. I asked Dan for advice and he told me I was over-thinking it, that I should just relax and try to enjoy. So I did.

Adonis is the pen name of a Syrian poet with political leanings. This collection contains several, mostly short, poems translated from Arabic. I don't know how well the language of the original was translated, but the imagery is powerful. Most of the poems deal with political themes, dwelling on the fate of his country, the inevitability of time, changes in nature.

A snippet I found evocative, from the only love poem, A Mirror for Khalida:

We sleep beneath a cloth
woven from the harvests
of the night.
O night of dust....
Cymbals and alleluias
chorus in our blood.

Reading Journal Entry: The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones

Year of the Griffin is the sequel to Wynne Jones' Dark Lord of Derkholm. I'm a big fan of her light fantasy and this isn't her best work (rather too many characters) but it was worth the 90 minutes it took to read it. Very amusing.

The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells

I listened to the Alien Voices dramatization of The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells. It's a well-imagined story. The Selenites as giant ants are charming and the idea of a moon with a breathable atmosphere covered in mushrooms is tempting. The physics are all wrong, of course, but that's forgiveable. Wells layers the adventure story with rather obvious political satire and ends with a great big cliff-hanger.

The production was very good - Nimoy and deLancie have a lot of fun and other former Star Trek cast members make appearances. Recommended.

I will probably read the Project Gutenberg version of the book as well sometime just to compare the dramatization to the original.

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

I read a children's edition of Robinson Crusoe many years ago, so I thought I knew what to expect. It must have been heavily edited to make it palatable for young readers.

Robinson Crusoe
was originally published in 1717, when the Americas were a wild continent. I'm not sure whether it's an adventure story disguised as a reformation tale or the other way around. Robinson Crusoe does get cast away on a desert island for 28 years, true. But the story starts when, as a rebellious youngster, he disobeys his father's orders not to go to sea, and all his subsequent misfortunes are cast in the light of this 'original sin'. He comes to believe that God is trying to guide his soul to righteousness by leaving him on his island, and that all the storms, kidnappings, etc. were warnings that he should return to the fold. I suspect that the heavy lacing of religiousity and the underlying message to obey one's parents are operative in moving this to the realm of classics considered appropriate for the young.

If the older Robinson Crusoe been more sympathetic than the younger I would have considered it a more successful effort! The young Crusoe is an imprudent scoundrel, but the older self is not any better. Young Crusoe is captured by Muslim pirates on his second sea voyage and kept as a slave. After 2 years of slavery, he escapes in a small boat and sails down the coast of Africa with a young boy, Xury, who was a fellow slave. Eventually they are rescued by a Portuguese ship. What does he do? He sells Xury to the captain of the boat. But only after the captain promises to set him free after ten years if he becomes Christian. That makes it OK.

He does regret this once - when he owns a plantation and could use some free labor.

Once stranded, Crusoe goes through various stages of frustration and remorse for his past behavior, eventually arriving at resignation to his fate and religious faith. He builds himself a kingdom, cultivates plants and breeds goats. He saves Friday from being eaten by cannibals from the mainland, gaining himself a servant, and eventually ends up rescuing some ship's officers from a mutineering crew and goes back to England on the recaptured vessel.

He leaves behind on the island 2 mutineers - and abandons on the mainland 16 spaniards whom he planned to escape back to civilization with. Later he helps them establish a permanent colony.

The plantation he left behind has become exceedingly successful - and he is very rich, dispenses largesse, and is generally a prosperous and responsible person. Defoe describes a battle against a horde of hungry wolves and further adventures are hinted at which appeared in two sequels.

I know this is a classic, and one of the first novels, and it's an excellent character and cultural portrait. But Crusoe made me so angry that I could barely enjoy the tale.

Twenty Years at Hull-House, by Jane Addams

Twenty Years at Hull-House is an autobiographical account of 20 years of outreach work, from 1889 to 1909, in Chicago's poorest areas. Jane Addams was from a well-to-do family and financially independent, but she chose to live in the slums of Chicago and dedicate her life to charitable works.

Oddly enough, she doesn't really seem to conceive of her efforts as charity. Hull House, the institution she founded, is part of the 'Settlement movement', in which college educated people moved into poor neighborhoods in an effort to encourage social intercourse between the classes. Nonetheless Hull-House was responsible for a great deal of improvement in the neighborhood, politically and in every other way.

There is vivid description here of the desperate poverty, filth, and disease that immigrants lived in. It was oddly cheering - though sometimes it feels like the US is going down the crapper today, really, things are much better now than they used to be. We have decent labor laws and public sanitation and public education and a high literacy rate and all sorts of good stuff.

Much of the book is dedicated to explaining the theory behind her work and to pathetic examples of suffering. I got the feeling that the among the greatest struggles she faced was that of convincing people that such work was actually necessary, and that poverty was not deserved for one reason or another.

I was quite surprised when I reached the part where, during a visit to Europe, she visits Tolstoy in Russia. Little did I know that the author of War and Peace was something of a revolutionary, with anarchistic and socialist ideas. Tolstoy, I have since discovered, was the direct inspiration for Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance. He worked alongside his workers in the fields, ate what they are, and asked some of his family members to do the same. His theory (as reported by Ms. Addams) was that if everyone would do the physical work which was required to sustain himself daily, the world's problems would be solved.

Jane Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize later in life for her anti-war efforts and from reading this slim and modest account of her works I think it was well deserved. There are really too many complex subjects covered for me to do them justice. Highly recommend.

Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Tarzan story has spawned so many spin-offs that it's not surprising the original story is on the list of great books. I was eager to read the original.

Burroughs does escapist literature well, and this is the best kind of escapism. Tarzan is the hunkiest of heroes, described over and over again as exceedingly handsome, muscular, a giant, and as having a perfect body - the ideal physical form. Burroughs' florid language recalls a romance novel at times (Tarzan 'smothered [Jane's] upturned, panting lips with kisses) and the physical conflicts are described in language equally as vivid.

The setting is the primoridal rain forest of the coast of Africa (populated with ecologically inaccurate wild beasts such as lions and elephants for Tarzan to do battle with) and Tarzan, a primeval Adam, masters them all. Tarzan's descent from 'good stock' - English noblemen - overcomes his upbringing by the wild 'anthropoids' to instill an innate nobility of spirit and chivalry and to give him the intelligence to construct tools to master his enemies. He becomes the king of his tribe of apes, killing his 'step-father' and the brutal Kerchak, befriends the elephant and blithely wrestles lions. The tools he uses in these fights are the gifts of his heritage - the knife his father used and he rediscovered, and a wrestling hold - the half-Nelson - that he rediscovers by accident.

When he meets men for the first time, they are black (and cannibals), and he preys on them rather than attempting to join them. Although they are human, he somehow recognizes that he is not of their kind and keeps to his solitary ways in the forest.

The plot strains credulity at times - no less than three mutineering crews and a buried treasure are involved, not to mention that one of the men stranded near Tarzan who lead to his introduction to civilization is his cousin and the bearer of the title that is rightfully his. And that leaves aside the technical inaccuracies and the rampant racism. Notwithstanding, it is a great read, and a great story. The ending actually managed to surprise me.


Reading Journal Entry: Sorcery & Cecilia, by Wrede and Stevermere

A cute fantasy set in an alternate Regency universe. Epistolary. Recommended for fantasy fans.

How To Read A Book, by Adler & Van Doren

This one's on the list (of lists) of Great Books, as well as being a source of one of those lists.

I probably should have started off with this one, eh?

Seriously, though. The subtitle is 'The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading'. It's not a primer; it's a guide to active reading, a guide to engaging worthwhile books and wrestling them to the ground.

Darn, I was going to be serious.

Adler and Van Doren make a convincing argument for active reading as a way of broadening the mind and enriching one's life. I'm not convinced by their method, which seems to require a lot of extraneous steps and moreover underestimate the readers' intelligence. For example, in their instructions about finding the key sentences and words in a work, they claim that these are going to be the sentences and words you have trouble understanding (and that you should underline them - BLASPHEMY! LIBRARY BOOKS WERE NOT MEANT TO BE WRITTEN IN!). As evidenced by the fact that a previous reader of the book chose to underline numerous words and sentences that they, apparently, didn't understand - but that were nonetheless not important at all - this is just not the case.

Their method of analytical reading requires multiple steps; first the book must be categorized, then it must be summarized, then it must be outlined, then the important terms must be defined, then it must be judged and evaluated. To give the authors some credit, they do boil this down into four basic questions: What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or part? And What of it?

The main focus of the book is expository reading - they do adapt their method to fiction and poetry, but clumsily. For example, they claim that to judge the 'truth' of a good story, you are judging its 'intrinsic probability or plausibility'. I'm not ready to dismiss speculative fiction so entirely, and I suspect that this is simply poor phrasing. They also neglect entirely the appreciation of the beauty of language - both for poetry and prose.

However, I am willing to give it the old college try. I started How because another book I checked out from the library at the same time, The Spell of the Sensuous, was giving me trouble. I will undertake to read The Spell of the Sensuous using the Adler/Van Doren method and report.

Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

I listened to an abridged version of Bastard out of Carolina, read by the author.

This is really a beautiful book, and a beautiful performance. It takes place in the south, in the fifties, and Dorothy Allison does a wonderful job with the dialogue and the voices. I became totally immersed. The language and the music of the accents is fascinating.

Bone is a child narrator, the illegitimate daughter of a young, poor mother. Her family is fascinating, a sprawling clan of larger-than-life characters. Bone struggles to avoid the predations of her stepfather and develop an identity. This is a vivid, unsentimental depiction of abuse, but it's also so much more than that. There's an appreciation of the joy of living underlying all the pain that Bone and the members of her family go through. Through the pain, the poverty, and the hunger, they keep on keeping on and refuse to bow their heads.

I highly recommend this, with the warning that it might too strong for some readers, and not appropriate for young readers.

Reading Journal Entry: Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

When I was little my parents owned a copy of The Last of the Mohicans bound in dull blue leather with a picture of a single Indian walking through the forest on the cover. I don't remember ever trying to read it - if I did, I'm not surprised I gave up. Cooper's language is nearly inpenetrably flowery. Conversely, the story is a rocketing action bonanza filled with scalpings, shoot-outs, pitched battles, a siege, a massacre, and extra doses of sappiness.

It was a lot of fun.

I listened to it on tape, which I highly recommend. Strangely, this classic isn't on 'The List' (see sidebar) although a later book in The Leatherstocking Tales, Deerkiller, is.

The story is fairly simple; two fair maidens, the sisters Cora and Alice, are lost in the woods with their protector, Major Hayward, and the comic relief (singing master David Gamut). Their Indian guide betrays them and leads them into an ambush. Luckily they stumble across Hawkeye (aka Le Longue Carabine, aka Nattie Bumppo) and his stalwart Indian companions, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, who are in the employ of the British and take them under their wing. The party is swiftly attacked by a party of 'Mingos' and the action begins.

It's clear that Cooper is actually trying to tackle some serious issues in this novel, but it's not clear at all that he succeeds. The Indians are either idealized as 'noble savages' or portrayed as just plain bloodthirsty savages, and I had to wince a number of times at his language. Chingachgook and Uncas as proud, honorable men simply can't outweigh the screaming hordes of 'redskins' that scalp and plunder through the pages (even at one point dashing a baby's head against a rock - I mean, come on!).

Race, in the end, is destiny. Hawkeye repeatedly emphasizes that he is white and 'a man without a cross', a phrase I actually had to look up (cross meaning cross of blood). Acts that are not permissable for a white man are excused by his companion's race. Of the two women, Alice, the younger (and the blonde), is loved by Duncan Hayward. Cora, the elder, is 1/4 black (and by far the more interesting character) and there is an implied love interest between her and Uncas that only is fully revealed after both of them are dead.

Uncas dies. His father is the last of the Mohicans. Cooper, writing in 1826, knew that this was the destiny of all the Native American communities on the East Coast to be pushed out by the white settlers. Is this a eulogy for those lost communities? Since the book ends with a funeral (following a battle resulting in 'the destruction of a whole community') it's easy to conclude that. But it's also a justification of that destruction.