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The Witches
Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl
Invisible Cities
William Weaver, Italo Calvino
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock
Letters from a Lost Uncle
Mervyn Peake
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
Jeff VanderMeer, Jeremy Zerfoss, John Coulthart

Howl's Moving Castle (Howl's Moving Castle, #1)

Howl's Moving Castle (Howl's Moving Castle, #1) - Diana Wynne Jones DRAMATIS PERSONAEHowl, the shameless coward, full of vanity and secret cares.Sophie, the cranky old woman, unnaturally aged.Calcifer, the fire demon, at the heart of the castle.Michael, the ever faithful apprentice and friend.Witch of the Waste, wicked, heartless, and cruel. SETTINGCastle here.Castle there.Castle there, too.Castle ever moving and stationary.And, Wales.Miyazaki’s film diverges significantly from mid-story to the end, deflating the Witch into a doddering old fool. Miyazaki adds his magic touch—whimsical air machines, his wonderfully creepy blob monsters, and a fantastic walking steampunk castle. Diana Wynne Jones’ tale is more familiar and in some ways more satisfying. Both charm and delight.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths, The)

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths, The) - Margaret Atwood In The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood gives us a satirical view of the events of The Odyssey. Penelope and her twelve hanged maids speak to us from Hades in our own time, which allows the author to present her work with the convenience of modern perspectives on sex, class, and the gods. The tone remains light and unlabored throughout, even while implicating the patriarchal values of the Homeric world. Penelope speaks from her position as an elite woman, burdened beneath the role her society has forced upon her, while the hanged maids expose the raw inequality suffered by female servants. That Atwood is a gifted writer is obvious, however The Penelopiad seems a rather short and fast work on these themes. I could imagine them drawn out and explored in much greater detail, though perhaps not while maintaining the lightness of tone. The chorus sections, those of the hanged maids, provide a verse burlesque complimenting and contrasting against the prose of Penelope. These chapters provide a welcome counterpoint, and often heighten the impact of the satire. But the verses, themselves, sometimes seem unpolished and dashed off. The Penelopiad is a slight novel by a great writer, and perhaps re-reading will reveal the novel as something grander and richer than petite four that it appears to be.

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk - Neil Gaiman, Skottie Young On my own for the night with two of my daughters, we read this straight through in a single sitting at the dinner table while sipping chocolate and dipping biscotti. My kids (6 and 10) really enjoyed it, and didn't tire of listening. All told, it was a pleasant read. The illustrations are a lot of fun and definitely contribute to the pleasure of reading the book.

Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1)

Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) - Jeff VanderMeer Initiation, Integration, Immolation, Immersion, Dissolution: so go the stages of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. As much as these chapter titles appear to signify some type of desolation, they seem to represent something like the steps towards catharsis—and possibly derangement, death, or mutation—for the main character who we only know as “biologist.” It is the biologist’s story, one told with the images and language of nightmare. At times Annihilation succeeds in oozing an uncanny eeriness, while at others there is a sparseness of feeling and atmosphere. This sparseness is not necessarily a fault. It can be effective, like a minimalist staging of a tragic play. What is compelling, however, is always the biologist—her thoughts, her feelings, her state of mind, her experience of her environment. The literal events of the story can be read as a manifestation of her experience of herself, her failures, the result of her inability to navigate the demands of objectivity as a scientist and subjectivity as a human being. Her world is out of control, consuming her, like a will-o-the-wisp which once approached explodes with the energy of collapsing stars.

The Final Solution

The Final Solution - Michael Chabon, Jay Ryan The Final Solution is Michael Chabon’s homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a delightful short novel with a once-famous but never-named sleuth, now an elderly bee-keeper, drawn into a mystery involving a mute Jewish boy and his African Gray Parrot. In Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, almost the whole business is the powerful tidiness of rational deduction, as all the disparate pieces are put together with logic ribbon tied neatly in a bow. In Chabon’s take, the detective is old and diminished, and there is a touch of nostalgia to the story if not the person: Oh, she thought, what a fine old man this is! Over his bearing, his speech, the tweed suit and tatterdemalion Inverness there hung, like the odor of Turkish shag, all the vanished vigor and rectitude of the empire. Chabon has been criticized by reviewers for neglecting the tidy logical forms of the mystery, and he has been criticized for letting his prose run away with the story. It is clear, however, that this is a Chabon story and not a Doyle story. Chabon’s incredible talent is in his command of language, and the ineluctable rhythms of a long sentence. He gives us a Holmes finally aware of his limitations, and of the limitations of rationality and logic. He gives us a story with subtle allusions to heavier things yet unknown to England of the day. Only the boy and the bird knows, and it has turned the boy quiet. The bird sings of things it doesn’t understand. And so do we.

The Oversight

The Oversight - Charlie Fletcher I came to The Oversight during a forced holiday after a long dry spell absent of any fiction. It was just what I needed. This is a playful gothic fantasy that starts in the gas-lit, fog-drenched streets of Victorian-era London, and follows an ages old coterie, now deeply diminished, known officially as the “Free Company for the Regulation and Oversight of Recondite Exigency and Supranatural Lore.” What does this mean? It means magic, but more significantly, it means supernatural monsters, the Sluagh of Irish and Scottish folklore. The supernatural, forgive me, supranatural elements of the story are not overblown, but are rather understated and often lend a tasty eeriness to the story. This is a story with a strong sense of atmosphere and well-handled pacing and complexity, all tied together with capable and often elegant prose. The characters of The Oversight borrow from a broad range of literary archetypes. This is certainly a plot-driven story, but I find the characters interesting and compelling despite their lack of internal development. These are characters as we find in the best serials, be they comics, penny dreadfuls, or Dickensian tales. And they are bolstered with a sense of authenticity by the summoning of the likes of such real-history characters as John Dee, Rabbi Dr Hayyim Samuel Falk, and the 17th century encylopedist and esotericist Sir Thomas Browne. (The quotes from Browne are real, while Falk’s writings are fictional, and Dee makes a cameo appearance.) Fletcher even appropriates the historical dispute between two 19th century conjurors, Barnardo Eagle and John Henry Anderson. This blending of the real and the imaginative brings depth and life to the story. The Oversight is the first novel of the Oversight Trilogy, and the second installment, The Drowning Glass, is not due out until May 2015. I’m waiting impatiently.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales - Seymour Chwast As much as I enjoyed Seymour Chwast's treatment of Dante's Divine Comedy, his Canterbury Tales never comes to life. Perhaps the success of Chwast's Divine Comedy was due to the inherently graphic nature of much of the Commedia and the sparseness of the comic's text—Chwast's Divine Comedy is something like a collection of single page posters of the most memorable scenes with little need for narrative. Chaucer's second masterpiece is an entirely different matter. The brilliance of Chaucer is both in the melody of his verse and in his varied, but often lively narratives, and this is something Chwast's comics cannot possibly deliver. Chaucer gives us a ribald Miller's Tale full of dirty slapstick. The infamous kiss in the dark and the vengeful poker to the bum are brimming with vulgar hilarity. Chwast gives us a stilted narrative with a zephyric pen and ink fart followed by what might as well be a scrub-brush to the bum. It isn't funny to see it. If the verses bring back giggling memories of raunchy middle school body humor, the comic embarrasses, reminding us of just how juvenile we once were. Much of the book seems to focus on Chaucer's ribaldry, and without any of the puckish charm of the English verses. These comic tales just fall flat amidst a swamp of limp prose narrative and boringly salacious imagery.

The Rebel Angels

The Rebel Angels - Robertson Davies Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels is an engaging and energetic novel with a vigorous sense of humor. The novel reads quickly and never feels weighed down by ideas or seriousness. This is deceptive. Davies gives us a novel populated by Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Their intellectual landscape is thus not unnaturally populated by Paracelsus and Rabelais, two constant figures in the dialectic of the novel. Of the two, Rabelais seems the most significant. He is a figure frequently claimed by both sides of the numerous arguments in the novel. He provides a lens through which we see into the characters a bit more deeply than they might hope. Parlabane and McVarish make him a model of vulgarity and misogyny, or perhaps more accurately, misanthropy. To Hollier, he represents an object for his own academic ambition. For Maria and Darcourt—and Davies—he is a model of the best sort of scholar, as we hear from Maria: Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning’s best justification. Not the only one, but the best. It may be wrong to include Darcourt here—as a priest scholar, his greater reference is St. Augustine: Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros dulciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari. In Maria’s translation: Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions. This erudite amusement is a hallmark of everything I have yet read by Davies, and it is tempting to think that the best part of what Davies gives us in this novel is Davies, himself. Davies is more wise than a mere intellectual, and more alive than a modernist. He brings with him the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and with these life fuller than which we are accustomed today. What we get from Davies is not a hair shirted historicism, but a sense of wholeness for a consciousness which is fermented in the broadness of human experience. Maria says of Hollier that he studies the Middle Ages because they are truly middle—a vantage from which he can look backward to antiquity, and forward to our post-Renaissance present. This dynamic of looking backward and forward, contrasting each with the other, is at the very heart of The Rebel Angels, a book which makes attractive Paracelsus’ “second paradise.” The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.

The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus

The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus - Robertson Davies The Rebel Angels Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels is an engaging and energetic novel with a vigorous sense of humor. The novel reads quickly and never feels weighed down by ideas or seriousness. This is deceptive. Davies gives us a novel populated by Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Their intellectual landscape is thus not unnaturally populated by Paracelsus and Rabelais, two constant figures in the dialectic of the novel. Of the two, Rabelais seems the most significant. He is a figure frequently claimed by both sides of the numerous arguments in the novel. He provides a lens through which we see into the characters a bit more deeply than they might hope. Parlabane and McVarish make him a model of vulgarity and misogyny, or perhaps more accurately, misanthropy. To Hollier, he represents an object for his own academic ambition. For Maria and Darcourt—and Davies—he is a model of the best sort of scholar, as we hear from Maria: Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning’s best justification. Not the only one, but the best. It may be wrong to include Darcourt here—as a priest scholar, his greater reference is St. Augustine: Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros dulciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari. In Maria’s translation: Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions. This erudite amusement is a hallmark of everything I have yet read by Davies, and it is tempting to think that the best part of what Davies gives us in this novel is Davies, himself. Davies is more wise than a mere intellectual, and more alive than a modernist. He brings with him the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and with these life fuller than which we are accustomed today. What we get from Davies is not a hair shirted historicism, but a sense of wholeness for a consciousness which is fermented in the broadness of human experience. Maria says of Hollier that he studies the Middle Ages because they are truly middle—a vantage from which he can look backward to antiquity, and forward to our post-Renaissance present. This dynamic of looking backward and forward, contrasting each with the other, is at the very heart of The Rebel Angels, a book which makes attractive Paracelsus’ “second paradise.” The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world. What's Bred In The Bone to follow... The Lyre Of Orpheus to follow...

Gogol's Wife and Other Stories

Gogol's Wife and Other Stories - Tommaso Landolfi 1. Gogol’s Wife Tommaso Landolfi’s story is written as a chapter of a biography on the famous Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. In this chapter, the author explores the delicate matter of Gogol’s “wife.” It turns out that she is not a woman, but a balloon. A titilling conceit for horny teen-age boys of all ages, Landolfi develops the story into a humorous, but ultimately sad and disturbing fictionalization of Gogol’s self-destruction. The humorous satire is vibrant from beginning to end, while the sense of tragedy subtly builds beneath the surface. The ultimate effect is a potent sense of the pointlessness of Golgol’s demise. “Gogol’s Wife” is reminiscent of Gogol stories such as “The Overcoat” and, far more, “The Nose.” The story is humorously absurd, tragic, and strangely touching. It is both a tribute to Gogol the writer and a scathing satire of Gogol the man. 2. Pastoral 3. Dialogue on the Greater Harmonies 4. The Two Old Maids 5. Wedding Night 6. The Death of the King of France 7. Giovanni and His Wife 8. Sunstroke 9. A Romantic’s Letter on Gambling

Short Stories by Anton Chekhov 1

Short Stories by Anton Chekhov 1 - Anton Chekhov Anton Chekhov was a master of the short story. However, he gets poor treatment by the Interwar Period translations of Constance Garnett. I first came to dislike Garnett's Russian translations while discovering the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The great Russian writers all have very distinctive writing styles and Constance Garnett succeeded in making them sound like Victorian era British novelists. She is known for her very fast, "smoothed over" style of translation in which difficulties in the original are simply dropped from the work. This is simply not the way to get the flavor of the great Russian writers. I can only surmise that the decision to go with the Garnett translation of these stories rested upon the economics of public domain versus newer, licensed translations. My preference would be for one of the modern translations, and in particular the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations are wonderful. They are quite literal and maintain a strong sense of the "Russianness" of the works. They don't Westernize, they don't turn Russians into Latins, they don't turn a perhaps unfamiliar "liturgy" into a familiar "mass". Instead, they provide ample endnotes to ellucidate the aspects of Russian culture and history which are likely to be opaque to the Western reader. With a poor translation as the foundation for this audio book, I still held out hope for a powerful reading. Unfortunately, the problems were only compounded by poor production choices made by reader/producer Max Bollinger. As others have noted, the sound effects are disruptive and unnecessary. They fail to add ambience or a sense of place -- in the first track applause continues so long as to become a sort of static or perhaps the sound of waves breaking constantly against some monotonous shoreline. This disruptive aesthetic continues throughout the disc. The reading, itself, also fails to achieve its potential, feeling uninspired and flat -- or in the case of the voiced characters, comical and irritating. Given the mediocre reading, the last hope is for a voice that is at least not objectionable, but here again, Bollinger's English-Russian accent is somewhat peculiar and at times is simply difficult to comprehend. None of this makes for a pleasant, let alone meaningful reading of the book. Anton Chekhov deserves reading. He deserves listening, too, but not by means of this disc.

Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes

Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes - Jeffrey Hamelman This has become my primary reference for baking bread. I started with Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice and a few months later purchased Hamelman's Bread. While BBA goes into a fairly lengthy narrative describing Reinhart's flavor building techniques, Hamelman's Bread goes into greater detail on the actual handling and shaping of the dough, as well as providing detailed information on additives, ingredient temperatures, and other practical details. There is one caveat to my recommendation of this book: earlier versions of it were very poorly edited and in some of the recipes the ingredient amounts are badly off, especially for the home baker. Make sure you seek out the errata sheet for the book. With this in hand, Hamelman's Bread is a complete success. I haven't had any disappointing bakes using this book.

The Art of Fiction

The Art of Fiction - John Gardner I suspect those who accuse Gardner of being arrogant, egotistical, condescending, etc., ad nauseum are likely to be the sort who either have an ideological agenda of their own, or prefer their egalitarianism served with a thoroughgoing relativism. Gardner was never soft-spoken in stating his opinions, and he had the good sense not to qualify every opinion with "that's just my opinion," or "ymmv," or "but what do I know." I find Gardner's opinions welcome and often enlightening. His allusions to numberless works which I have yet to read -- and some I only learned about from him -- are an inspiring challenge to read more. The fact that he doesn't water down his message to spare the ego of his less experienced readers is a sign of respect for them -- they can take it, because the alternative is a vapid mediocrity. And if they can't take it, well, they're free to write scathing reviews castigating the hubris of a dead man. The theoretical and practical concepts and techniques discussed in the book are reasonably thorough and engaging. It is clear that his purpose is to challenge would-be writers to aim for the very best, while making clear -- for those actually paying attention -- that good-enough-for-publication writing is achievable by most anyone willing to put in the time. The implicit idea here is that if you want to be a writer, you will have to put in the time anyway, so why not aim to be a very good writer? I fail to see how this is anything but an inspiring affirmation to anyone who really wants to write.

How to Read and Why

How to Read and Why - Harold Bloom This book is not geared toward the academic, rather it is a popular book on reading quality literature. What this means is that Bloom does not spend time discussing the theory and techniques of literary scholarship and criticism, but instead models a very personal, pleasurable style of attentive reading. The length of the book precludes a thorough examination of any specific work. Instead it is a survey to whet the appetite, an aperitif. It is quite like an interesting few days spent with a lively and passionate professor who is able to draw out just enough of the subtleties of the works discussed to be an inspiration to the student. On this level, the book succeeds wonderfully, and will no doubt lead to more thorough works, such as Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation

Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation - Seymour Chwast Seymour Chwast's graphic novel is a thoroughly enjoyable companion piece to Dante's Comedìa. It's the literary geek's equivalent to action figures, only with delicious irony and style and demanding fewer explanations for one's spouse. Chwast has given us a Divine Comic. [Pre-recorded groans go here.]

The Tales of Belkin

The Tales of Belkin - Alexander Pushkin, Hugh Aplin, Adam Thirlwell First a caveat—this is more of a preliminary evaluation of the book than a proper review. I will eventually give it its proper due. Being a long-time reader of works in translation, I know how important it is to find a worthwhile translation before beginning the reading of any particular work. Poor, or merely dated, translation can render the life out of even the most vibrant and vital of works. My initial feeling is that Hugh Aplin has done a fine job in translating Pushkin here. I began simply by reading the introduction and a few of the stories, with attention to the notes. As for the introduction, it is helpful and interesting reading, placing this work of prose within the context of Pushkin's literary development, and of Russian literature in general. The stories are quite readable. They don't suffer from strangulated translation. They don't read like a 21st century writer wearing the affectation of 19th century "pantaloons, waistcoat, and frock,"—"these words are not of Russian stock..."—and therefore give relatively direct access to English readers of Pushkin's stories. Without making an exhaustive search for other translations of these stories, I did briefly compare them with the stories and notes as previously published in Norton's The Complete Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin (trans. Aitken, Gillon R., 1966) and found that Aplin's version comes out favorably. The Aitken version feels dated and rather wooden, where Aplin's dialog, for example, has a far more natural flow to it—at least to my modern ears. The notes, too, seem to be superior in the Hesperus publication, being more frequent, and somewhat more expansive. As I stated at the outset, this is merely an initial evaluation of the kind that I perform for myself every time I set out to read a work in translation. My opinion of the book may change as I read it closely and thoroughly, but there is every indication that this will be a successful and enjoyable read.